Defining the scope of Skepticism

Barbara Drescher, a cognitive psychologist and also a JREF board member, has a fabulous posting over on her blog entitled, “On Skepticism: Its Definitions and Scope“. In it she outlines some spot on definitions and has also listed after it a vast wealth of material.

I struggled with this one a bit, normally when I find a blog posting that I like, I would list a few key phrases. expand upon them with my own thoughts, then link back for readers to find the rest. However, since she has done such a fine job, far better than anything I could have written, I asked for her permission to simply cut and paste it here instead, so here it is …

A summary of my position and opinions on the issues:

  • Skepticism, secularism, humanism, and atheism (as an issue for activism, not a conclusion) are distinct ideologies with differing central values. These distinctions are important for several reasons, including organizational focus, communication, and personal objectivity. Those are covered in more detail in the materials linked.
  • Many people have adopted more than one of these ideologies (I, for example, have adopted all of them to some degree), creating a “greater” community we tend to refer to as the “rationalist” community. Not all community members have adopted all ideologies.
  • Activism is about goals, and organizations form around specific goals to promote specific ideologies. Although the “greater rationalist community” shares a few core values, most importantly a naturalistic world view, each organization uses its resources in different ways, supporting different priorities.
  • Central to one of these ideologies, atheism, is the conclusion that there is no higher power (god). The ideological part is the value that belief in a higher power is harmful. There is more to atheism than that and I will not outline how it differs from secularism, etc., but these points are important because conflation of the conclusion with the value is one source of conflict.
  • At the core of scientific skepticism is the view that evidence-based reasoning is the best way to decide what is and is not true.  Furthermore, the only legitimate way to acquire evidence is through the scientific method, which is basically a combination of systematic observation (empiricism) and reason. Therefore, scientific skepticism involves using the scientific method to test claims.
  • The major Skeptic organizations have expressed missions to promote scientific skepticism. They do so for a number of reasons, both epistemic and pragmatic, most of which have been discussed at length in past days, weeks, months, years, and decades (and so on).
    • From a “best practices” standpoint, skepticism reaches more people by focusing its efforts on testable claims because it can include those people who have not adopted one or more of the other ideologies I mentioned (e.g., atheism).
    • From a philosophical standpoint, science is a method for acquiring knowledge, all of which is tentative. Because nobody knows with absolute certainty what is true, the method is much more important than personal conclusions. The method is how we can convince other people that our conclusions are accurate.
    • Also from a best practices standpoint, promoting methods (which includes sharing evidence and information such as alternative explanations for events) provides people with the tools to evaluate other claims more effectively.
    • From both a philosophical and best practices standpoint, promoting personal conclusions rather than method is a violation of basic scientific tenets and logic. Likewise, when we judge a person’s ability to use methods based solely on their beliefs (e.g., statements such as “Christians are not good skeptics”), we are judging an argument by its conclusion and not the merits of the argument itself. This is not scientific at all. Ironically, it’s bad skepticism.
  • Skepticism activists do promote some conclusions, such as the conclusion that vaccines are relatively safe and effective, however, we do so with great care. Where scientific consensus is weak or lacking, expertise and personal responsibility is vital.
  • Objectivity is a central feature of scientific thinking and, therefore, of scientific skepticism. Although no human being is purely objective (arguable, but I think most of us agree), one of the main purposes of the scientific method is to remove subjectivity from the inquiry process. In practice, it’s imperfect, but if we throw our hands up on this issue because scientists are not unbiased, we must reject science altogether. It’s that central.
  • Because objectivity is central to skepticism and values such as political ideologies should not drive the practice of skepticism or science, but should be informed by the findings of science and skeptical inquiry (e.g, science cannot tell us if gun control is good, but it can tell us if a specific regulation is likely to reduce the number of deaths by gun). In other words, economy, religion, and feminism are not “off-limits”. They should be and are subjected to the same treatment that all other topics are subjected to. They appear to receive different treatment merely because the claims made in these areas tend to be more complex and more difficult to test (if they are testable at all). Furthermore, these topics tend to be attached to strongly-held values and, because human beings are notoriously tenacious in their beliefs, more controversial.
  • The difficulties with discussions of complex topics makes internal agreement less common and without internal agreement, good outreach efforts are not possible because no coherent, unified message is possible. The goal of most activist organizations is outreach more than community and they are trying to maximize success, not put up roadblocks to it. Therefore, they tend to focus on claims which provide a more predictable and clear outcome.

I could get into more detail, but that isn’t my goal with this post. So, I will stop here. Following is a list of excellent materials which discuss, in one form or another, the scope of skeptic activism, its purposes, and its value.

Free Publications (these three should be required reading):

  • Where Do We Go From Here? by Daniel Loxton – The most to-the-point discussion of why we do what we do, sometimes referred to as a skeptical manifesto
  • What Do I Do Next? edited by Daniel Loxton – a collection of discussion about skeptical activism by leading skeptics
  • Why Is There A Skeptical Movement? by Daniel Loxton – A two-part essay with highlights from the history of the movement and a practical discussion of scope

Blog Posts/Web Publications:


Posts on this blog:

  • Take Back Skepticism Part I: The Elephant in the Room – The first in a three-part series about the scope of skepticism, tone, and arguments about both
  • Take Back Skepticism, Part II: The Overkill Window – the second in a three-part series which focuses on the propogation of hate and irrational arguments about tone and scope
  • Take Back Skepticism, Part III: The Dunning-Kruger Effect – the third in a three-part series which focuses on overconfidence and anti-intellectualism displayed during arguments about scope
  • Paved With Good Intentions – about the dangers of allowing values to drive the process and interfere with objectivity
  • Why the “Critical” in Critical Thinking – covers the basic falsification approach in science and critical thinking to explain the purpose of critique
  • You Can’t Judge an Argument by Its Conclusion – describes the Belief Bias (a form of Confirmation Bias) and explains why judging a person’s ability to reason based on their beliefs is fallacious (ironically)
  • Mission Drift, Conflation, and Food For Thought – discusses some of the dangers of “mission drift” and attempting to add values such as political ideologies to organizational missions
  • What Matters – a response to the misguided view that skeptical activism does not focus on things that matter
  • Scientific Skepticism: A Tutorial – about definitions and scope

To watch/listen

  • Overlapping Magisteria, TAM2012 – Jamy Ian Swiss talks about the importance of mission focus, the value of the work that skeptics do, and the reason we value methods more than conclusions
  • Skepticism is a Humanism, NECSS 2010 – D.J. Grothe’s keynote, which discusses the scope of skeptical activism, noting that, although it is methods-based we are motivated to activism by humanist values
  • On the Ledge, Skeptrack at Dragon*Con 2011 – A panel discussion with Eugenie Scott, Margaret Downey, D.J. Grothe, and me, moderated by Derek Colanduno about the overlap of atheism and skepticism, its challenges, advantages, and pitfalls. Ideology is discussed about half way through
  • What Is Skepticism, Anyway? by Michael Shermer – also includes a blog post, so it’s listed twice here

How To Be A Bad Skeptic, Q.E.D. – D.J. Grothe’s rundown on some of the dos and don’ts of skepticism. You’ll have to guess which parts are facetious and which are serious. By this point, you should be able to do this.

She plans to add to her list as others notify her of more materials, so if you are reading this months after I posted this, you might want to pop on over to see what is new there.

It all very much resounds and strikes a chord within my mind for me. If you read my blog you will know that I’m not a believer because I often bang on about weird religious beliefs, however, if asked to apply a label to myself, “Atheist” is not the first one that I’d reach out for, instead I’d primarily use the term “skeptic”. This is because, as Barbara puts it, “At the core of scientific skepticism is the view that evidence-based reasoning is the best way to decide what is and is not true.“. Indeed yes, I was in fact a skeptic before I was ever an atheist, so my own personal  road to reaching the atheist conclusion involved the application of evidence-based reasoning to religious claims, in other words, it was skepticism that proved itself to be truly effective.

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