Anyone can claim to be a skeptic. But there are two kinds of skeptics that I have so far in my experiences on the internet.
The first is what I consider a genuine skeptic. This is someone who questions everything. But when presented with sufficient evidence, they are convinced and that’s the end of the story. They learn about the subject and determine who are authorities to listen to and who are not.
The second is what I call a pseudo-skeptic. This is someone who says that they are skeptical. But what’s really going on is that they don’t like the thing that they’ve just heard because it offends their belief. These people are not skeptical of everything, just the things that they don’t agree with.
Creationists are a fantastic example of the latter group. They are skeptical. They say ‘teach the controversy’. They are skeptical of every science report on evolution. But they are not equally skeptical of their own beliefs.
These pseudo-skeptics have higher standards for things that they don’t agree with. Indeed, some of the standards are so high, it is literally impossible for them to be met. This makes the pseudo-skeptic happy. His beliefs are no longer questioned (at least in his mind).
I use creationists here, because that’s the area I’ve studied the most. But it can be applied to any number of other groups. Almost every member of every religion is a pseduo-skeptic. They skeptically analyze other religions and find them lacking, but they don’t do the same for their own religion.
It can be difficult to figure out if someone is a pseudo-skeptic are not, but here’s a few clues.
The first is that they really don’t understand what they are arguing about. This is very common when dealing with creationism and cosmology ‘skeptics’. The extensive use of argument by analogy (false analogy) is a dead give away. They may have read a few popular science books on the subject, but they were probably looking for statements to quotemine. But they really don’t understand what’s going on.
A real skeptic will spend inordinate amounts of energy learning about a subject. Examining and analyzing data is something that they just do. It’s almost second nature. And they won’t state an opinion until they really understand it. When asked why, the real skeptic can provide links to resources, data, and explain themselves.
A pseudo-skeptic will often not answer questions. They will waffle and try to do anything to not answer a question that they don’t understand. This is especially true in the sciences. It can be very entertaining to watch someone try to explain something that they don’t have a clue about. Then they start arguing by quote. They will find someone that believes the same as they do who has written on the subject and they will quote them. They will quote(-mine) scientists and anyone else. They will try to change the subject (“But science can’t explain it either!”).
Very often these pseduo-skeptics will say anything to try to win the argument. It gets interesting, because they don’t think about what they are saying. They don’t take the next logical step. And that next logical step shows them to be not even wrong.
A great example of this are Bible apologists. Noah’s flood happened, they say. The water came from the vapor canopy. Of course, they want to argue about Bible myths in a scientific way and don’t realize that, to match Biblical claims, it would have to rain at something like 3 meters an hour for 40 days (when 3 inches an hour is about the largest amount of rainfall recorded). It’s not so much rain as someone dropping a multi-trillion gallon aquarium on the planet.
Finally, the pseudo-skeptic has already made up their mind. They are just trying to find someone to agree with them or some way to justify their decision. There’s a post here on skeptic ink about a filed lawsuit. You can see in the comments who are skeptics and who have already made up their minds.
A skeptic will not make a decision until the facts are in… or at least there are some facts to talk about.
It is skeptical to question authority. It is not skeptical to make up one’s mind and not consider any evidence.
You can accept the authority of experts and still be skeptical. But you should be skeptical of which authorities you listen to. Only listening to the ones you want to hear is a great way to get into trouble fast.
You should also keep questioning them. Don’t just say, “OK, they are my authority. I listen to them.” That’s not skepticism. People say lots of things. Your authority may be an expert on prebiotic chemistry, but he may or may not know anything about cosmology or theology. And he still may say something about prebiotic chemsitry that is wrong… or, at least, unsupported.
There is no skeptic that is the authority. There is no scientist that is so perfect he or she shouldn’t be questioned. That’s what science is, that’s what skepticism is.
The pseudo-skeptic isn’t even really interested in evidence, the data. They claim to be a skeptic because that’s the ‘in thing’ or they are in a forum where there are a lot of skeptics. They are really there to convince people that they are right and others are wrong.
It’s kind of like someone claiming to be the greatest at something. People can say anything they want, but actions speak louder than words. And how people act skeptically is a great indication on whether they are a real-skeptic or a pseudo-skeptic.