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Thoughts on Skepticism

September 15, 2010

Skepticism is defined as having a questioning attitude and is a very important part of modern life. I would go so far as to say that everything should be questioned. Everyone who has a belief should actively question that belief. Its only by questioning that we learn. Nothing should be immune from the skeptical process. Facts which are accepted without question are effectively an unfounded belief, its only by honestly and constantly questioning that we can say we truly know something.

The Skeptical Movement

The skeptical movement has become very popular in recent years; helped along by a growing number of excellent podcasts and blogs. I follow a few of them and largely they are great resources for critically analysing current events and popular beliefs.

Examples of where they help to sift through the fog of inaccurate reporting include the vaccine issues and climate change. Having knowledgeable people talk about items of interest, analyse the story, give some background and explain where there is wrong information and why is extremely useful. Television news simply does not give the time to most stories to give a critical view. They simply tell the story and move on, often leaving the viewer without enough information to make an informed decision. Newspapers have more space to dedicate to critical analysis, but often its not done, either due to the bias of the editor or the knowledge of the reporter.


Now there’s a thing. How do we know the skeptics debunking the latest media misinformation are not biased, or blinkered or just plain wrong? Good question, the short answer is we don’t. The shows I listen to and the blogs I read do tend to go to lengths to explain the facts and why person X is wrong about such and such.

Before accusing them of bias just because they are criticising your viewpoint its best to listen to what they say and their explanations and see if there really is a motive other than ‘to critically analyse and correct’. Are they selective about who they criticise? Are they regurgitating the lines of someone else? Are they willing and able to admit mistakes and issue corrections, giving credit to the corrector? This last point is very important, people who have an agenda and an axe to grind tend not to admit or acknowledge mistakes.

I can confidently say that I have asked these questions about the podcasts and blogs that I follow and I am convinced that they are more interested in the public having the correct information than they are in following a set agenda. I will go so far as to say that they have helped me to correct ideas and opinions I held that were wrong. For that I am thankful. It wasn’t an easy and painless process; at times I was downright offended. When you have held a certain belief for a long period of time, its hard to let it go.


There is of course a risk and a downside to following any skeptical podcast or blog. That’s having deeply held beliefs getting squashed, dismissed and debunked. There is nothing good about it, not matter how nicely it is put. It hurts, it upsets, it angers and it feels like the whole world is out to bully you, simply because they can. It feels like suddenly there is a new sport in town and you are the ball.

It gets a whole lot worse when those in question are being actively dismissive of the subject matter and even joking at the expense of anyone who would be so daft as to believe such nonsense.

Of course, I too am guilty of such crimes, as too I suspect pretty much everyone is. Laughing at the perceived stupidity of others is a basic human sport. It not nice, its disrespectful and it reveals an ugly side of character, but we all still do it to varying degrees.

Respect the Person not the Nonsense

Much easier said than done, but sparing a thought for the person is usually worth the effort when dismantling a false belief that they hold dear.

When people’s feelings are on the line, they will entrench in their wrong ideas and be less open to conceding that you have a point. This entrenchment only gets stronger the more they feel under attack. There was a study done a few years ago that showed this, but I can’t find it, otherwise I’d have linked to it. On a personal level, I can certainly attest to entrenching while under verbal attack for what I believed. At that point, there was nothing that could have been said that would have made me listen, instead I shut off the subject and refused to discuss it; a loss for those who would have loved to convince me of the truth.

Skeptics would do well to bear this in mind, calm explanation does much to gain respect. The teacher who mocks a student looses the respect and credibility of the whole of the class.

Don’t be a Dick

This subject was brought up at the recent TAM meeting and seems to have stirred up a hornets nest as a result.

I respect Phil Plait hugely for tackling this thorny subject and the backlash was probably predictable and in a way, proves his point; that there are many in the skeptical community who couldn’t give two hoots about who they may upset in their drive to eliminate everything that can’t be proven.

Phil has been asked to name names and provide examples; neither of which he did. Good for him I say. Specifics allow people to sit back and say, “well that was so and so, it was nothing to do with me” and so they rest on their laurels knowing that they are not guilty of the accusation and carry on as before. Better to leave out the specifics and remind everyone that believers in nonsense are still people with feelings.

The cult of sketicism.

Some of the fallout from Phil’s DBAD speech is accusations of “accommodationism”, as the accuser has the right to decide who is worthy of the label ‘skeptic’. There is much finger pointing at others who are active in the skeptical yet have their own unprovable beliefs. Its as though in order to be a skeptic you must be utterly incapable of accepting anything without analysing it to death, so that you can be certain that it is scientifically provable and all evidence irrefutable.

So what! I mean seriously folks, is it such a crime for skeptics to communicate with or front a show with those who don’t quite make the grade, as it were? Is it really so hard to accept someone who shares a skeptical interest even though they may hold an unprovable belief themselves? Is the born again skeptic really so full of snobbishness and pride that they are incapable of rational communication with anyone who does not take skepticism to its most extreme and fundamental end?

Those making these claims have not only taken it upon themselves to define anyone who holds any form of belief as incapable of skepticism (which is false); but have gone a step further and said effectively said that any skeptic who dares to be nice to a non-skeptic is a lesser form of skeptic. One comment I read said that the poster would stop listening to a certain podcast because apparently he’d learnt that one of the presenters was a Christian. It was as though everything that person had said had suddenly become irrelevant, the poster was also ignoring the atheist presence on that podcast. Maybe the atheists’ comments also became irrelevant because they had dared to accommodate a Christian.

This sort of selective exclusion will cause more people to turn away from skeptical thought because they be left with the impression that skectics are just another form of extremist who believes that everyone else is inferior to them.

Skeptical Fundamentalism

If skepticism is going to be anything other than a passing fad of the early 21st century, then its going to need to make itself accessible to those its talking about. The insular thinking of some skeptic blog commentators invokes thoughts of monks locked away in mountain hideaways only ever communicating with each other and never getting a perspective on the wider world. They will be doomed to preaching to a converted audience and never reaching the fringe people who need a dose of common sense before they get caught up in more nonsense and get lost forever.

Churches that close their doors to anyone who is not already a member of that sect or faith fail to be effective in any way. Churches grow by getting involved in the community and welcoming everyone, no matter their need and no matter their belief. It’s the only way they can possibly convert others to their religion.

This form of skeptical fundamentalism will only cause damage to the movement and cost it the credibility of those who might otherwise be saved from a life of ignorant belief. Failure to engage those who are the subject of critical analysis do more to convince them of their erroneous beliefs than if they did nothing at all. Ostracising those who are ‘accomodationist’ will equally be destructive.


Sadly, humans being what they are, I predict that the fundamentalist skeptics will continue to pour scorn of everyone who isn’t a like minded fundie and we will be left with more than one group of skeptic. This will hinder the growth of common sense and scientific reasoning.


From → comment

  1. Excellent post!

  2. limey permalink

    Thank you.

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