• I Still Don’t Understand What Skepticism Is


    I was recently prompted to think again about the meaning of ‘scientific’ skepticism after reading Daniel Loxton’s recent article about skepticism and atheism (also see fellow SINner Russell Blackford’s discussion). I have a slight confession to make – although I’ve been a fan of the work of skeptics, and have read books and articles on the subject, I still don’t really understand exactly what we’re talking about when we talk about ‘skepticism’.

    It should be noted that I’m not talking about the ‘skepticism’ spoken about by philosophers – the view that knowledge of the world (or of anything at all) is impossible. I’m talking about the skepticism of James Randi and Carl Sagan. There’s a crucial difference between these concepts: classical skepticism concerns ourselves – we lack the capacity to (truly) perceive the outside world or to acquire real knowledge of things; scientific skepticism concerns the objects of our knowledge – e.g. it is the nature of claims about ESP and the lack of any scientific evidence for those claims that is the reason for the fact that we don’t believe them.

    Shouldn’t that definition suffice? ‘Skepticism is that whatever isn’t supported by science shouldn’t be believed.’ No, since there are non-scientific beliefs that we hold rationally, such as moral ones. How about ‘Whatever should produce scientific evidence if it was true, but doesn’t, shouldn’t be believed’? That seems to be closer to what scientific skeptics talk about. But isn’t that just science? It seems to me that a definition of ‘skepticism’ mustn’t be a synonym for science, as the term would be redundant. Furthermore, intuitively, the set of all ‘skeptics’ seems to be different to the set of all scientists.

    This is important for a discussion about the relationship between skepticism and atheism. If the skeptic says that their atheism isn’t related to their skepticism, then presumably the reason for this is that questions about the existence of gods are not scientifically testable. But nor is the existence of ghosts! On this point the skeptic usually says something like “I’m not saying that ghosts don’t exist. Show me the evidence!”, and they’d probably say the same about Thor. That’s fair enough.

    So if skepticism doesn’t tell us which entities don’t exist, what is it, then? It isn’t the process by which we investigate the claims, since that’s just the scientific process. My failure to understand is rooted in the question about what skepticism adds to science to make it scientific skepticism rather than just scientific inquiry. For the record, these are not rhetorical questions. I’m sure there is an answer – skepticism really is something and that something seems distinct from science itself. Perhaps the answer involves magic, since magic is central to a lot of skeptical ‘inquiry’. Perhaps it is to do with the object of the inquiry – skeptics go after cold-readers while scientists don’t. Perhaps it is a moral position – we ought not promote claims for which there is no scientific evidence – going so far as actively protesting their promotion.

    I’d love someone to set me straight in the comments. Once I agree on a definition, I can then judge whether atheism is outside the scope of skepticism or not. Until then, I reserve judgement!


    Category: Skepticism

    Article by: Notung

    I started as a music student, studying at university and music college, and playing trombone for various orchestras. While at music college, I became interested in philosophy, and eventually went on to complete an MA in Philosophy in 2012. An atheist for as long as I could think for myself, a skeptic, and a political lefty, my main philosophical interests include epistemology, ethics, logic and the philosophy of religion. The purpose of Notung (named after the name of the sword in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen) is to concentrate on these issues, examining them as critically as possible.
    • SmilodonsRetreat

      For me skepticism boils done to “never assume”.

      I don’t assume that evolution has a lot of support, I’ve done the research. I’ve read the books and papers and found a core of people whose opinions I think I can trust on that subject. Likewise, I don’t assume that Intelligent Design is true or false. I’ve done the research, read the books and papers,etc, etc.

      I don’t assume that my kid loves me. This has been shown to me in a million ways. I don’t assume that I prefer Blue Bell Dutch Chocolate ice cream. I’ve done the experiments to show that I prefer something else.

      Skepticism isn’t about atheism or magic or science or anything else. It’s just looking at the world, at ourselves, and asking “Is this true?”

      I think that, like “theory”, skepticism has taken on a casual usage that is somewhat different from its intended usage. When you hear someone casually say, “I’m skeptical”, they generally mean “I don’t believe you.”

      That’s not skepticism, that’s assuming that the person talking to you is wrong. Real skepticism is not assuming that the person you are talking with is wrong. It’s finding out if they are wrong or not.

    • Patrick

      My view is that scientific skepticism is, as you note, synonymous with scientific inquiry as applied to a certain class (or classes) of claims. Whether or not theism is within the remit of scientific skepticism therefore becomes an issue of what that class of claims includes.

      So what characteristics are shared by homeopathy, ESP, bigfoot, faith healing, and other traditional topics of interest to skeptics? I suggest that the core differentiators between these topics and, for example, string theory are that the former claims contradict well established scientific consensus, have no objective, empirical support, and are very difficult to falsify, often deliberately. I would argue that religion clearly belongs in that class.

    • Scientific inquiry is something that (for the most part) professionals do in order to expand the scope of our collective human knowledge in new directions or in greater depth.

      Scientific scepticism is something that anyone can do to help educate laypersons on selected popular ideas the validity of which is usually long-settled within the scientific enterprise. It borrows from the scientific toolbox, but the focus is usually on education rather than discovery.

    • Well I wonder if skepticism is an attitude – one of doubt. You doubt the claim and so you subject it to scientific rigour. But it seems to mean critical thinking too (i.e. not just empirical testing etc.) – and if we allow this then perhaps it can ‘apply’ to things ‘outside of science’. It’s certainly an interesting question, and I think it matters to the question of ‘atheism vs skepticism’, if I can put it like that!

    • So what characteristics are shared by homeopathy, ESP, bigfoot, faith healing, and other traditional topics of interest to skeptics?

      That’s a very important point. However (and apologies if I mess this up – I’m no physicist!) wouldn’t string theory also be considered to have no evidential support? Either way, I like your definition, and can’t find a lot wrong with it. Skepticism is the process of applying the scientific method to a certain class of things. I was thinking about ‘what’s in and what’s out’ but I suppose it’s one of those things that has no definite boundaries.

    • Yes – certainly ‘movement’ skepticism is concerned with education. There’s no evidence for the efficacy of homeopathic remedies, so we should get that message out there! Isn’t this fairly similar to popular science though? Like Dawkins’ books on evolution – he’s educating the layperson (like me).

      I think the truth lies somewhere between yours, Patrick’s, and SmilodonsRetreat’s comments. Those are all the comments so far – but I promise I’m not just trying to be nice to everyone! So good work commenters!

    • SmilodonsRetreat

      I think that’s probably it.

      It’s just not reasonable to doubt every single thing in the known universe. You have to build up a core of people who’s thoughts you trust. For example, I generally trust scientists, my family, my friends, etc. But you also have to give them an ‘area of expertise’.

      If my mom says that it’s raining outside, given that we’re at home, I would have reason to doubt her. However, if she says that there’s a new diet supplement that will help me feel better, then I will have room for doubt. She’s not the most scientific person on the planet.

      As to atheism, if you apply skepticism to religion and investigate the claims, texts, etc. Then there’s very little room for anything but atheism. I suppose that one could be a deist who thinks that a god of some kind created the universe, then walked away. In practical application though, that’s little different than atheism. Skepticism is the process… atheism is the result.

      I think you’re right about skepticism and science. In my mind, science is a way for the skeptic to determine what to be skeptical about. Years of experience has told me that my mom is pretty accurate when it comes to rain. Oh, it might be a drizzle instead, but that’s semantically close enough. If it’s a supplement though, my experience is that most of them have grand claims and little evidence, so I would investigate (if I cared) or just reject it outright (if I didn’t want to be bothered with the significant amount of research that might be involved).

      Likewise with religion. I generally just reject claims now. I’ve investigated a significant number of claims of religions and found them all to be baseless. It’s gone beyond skepticism to dismissal.

      Now, if we’re talking about something outside of science… I’m not sure that concept even exists really. If something can affect the physical universe, then it would leave traces. Those traces would be subject to scientific examination. If a small church in rural Alabama prays for healing and the person that they pray for is healed, every time, from any problem. Then there would seem to be something to it. We couldn’t categorically say it was ‘god’. It might actually be advanced alien biologists, but there’s something going on that can be investigated.

    • Daniel Loxton

      For more on the topic of the of the scope and foundational principles of scientific skepticism, I might mention my recent two-chapter essay “Why Is There a Skeptical Movement?” which we recently released at the Skeptics Society as a free PDF. It covers much of the background you may be looking for.

      I might also mention that the label “scientific skepticism” has only been widely adopted very recently, as a newly necessary disambiguation term to distinguish the four decade (and older) continuing project of critical, science-informed investigation of paranormal and fringe science claims from other parallel rationalist movements and from conspiracy theorists (such as 9/11 Truthers and climate change deniers) who have recently adopted the term “skeptic.” Before about 2005, scientific skeptics referred to ourselves as “skeptics.” With apologies to the ancient tradition of philosophical skepticism, as far as modern popular movements go, scientific skepticism was for decades the only game in town.

      I long resisted the term scientific skepticism because it can be very misleading. Whether at the “professional” or grassroots levels, most practicing skeptics are not scientists. Most of our activities are better described as “science-based” or “science-informed,” rather than “scientific”—let alone literally as “science.” The skeptical movement combines a distinct subject matter (empirical paranormal and fringe science claims, especially where neglected by other scholarship) with a working framework rooted in methodological naturalism (we deal with claims amenable to investigation through any empirical means) with a cross-disciplinary set of methodological tools (adopted from science, investigative journalism, law enforcement, stage magic, history, and other academic scholarship) with a body of relevant literature (decades of periodical publication plus centuries of books) with the minimal shared values that allow our research discipline to exist (essentially, that it is good to investigate mysteries and inform the public about what we learn).

      Is that helpful?

    • Patrick

      I’m not a physicist either, but my understanding is that string theory is mathematically consistent, albeit currently untestable. Whether or not it is inherently untestable is, I believe, a topic of debate among the six or seven people qualified to have an opinion.

    • Patrick

      I have been self-identifying as a skeptic for 20 years or more and picked up the “scientific skeptic” phrase fairly recently as a way of distinguishing my views from the way “skeptic” is used in normal conversation. Thanks for the brief history of the term.

      Your summary that “we deal with claims amenable to investigation through any empirical means” is a nicely concise summary. Given that many religious claims are amenable to such investigation, it is my view that such claims are well within the scope of the skeptical movement. Do you agree?

    • Daniel Loxton

      Yes, I definitely agree, and that has been the traditional understanding within the skeptical movement. Skeptics have never been shy about answering answerable questions, notwithstanding any religious implications those answers might have. For more on that, see the “’Testable Claims’ is Not a ‘Religious Exemption’” subsection of my recent PDF essay on the scope of skepticism (pages 36–41).

    • qbsmd

      Most people seem to trust their intuition, even on subjects they know little about, and many people seem unable to differentiate between things that they want to be true and things that are likely to be true.

      Skepticism is a rejection of this, instead requiring everyday beliefs to be doubted and analyzed scientifically before being accepted. It requires understanding enough philosophy of science to understand why science is useful: It’s possible for scientists not to be skeptics if they were trained to use the scientific method in certain situations but haven’t internalized it and don’t use it more generally.

      A difficulty arises because this definition is entirely epistemological: it talks about the method used for acquiring knowledge, but the practical way to judge whether someone is a skeptic is based on what they believe. It’s easier to ask someone if they believe in ghosts, alien spaceships, cryptids, conspiracy theories, medical quackery, or religious ideas than to ask whether they’ve internalized skeptical methods for looking at the world.

      As a result, it’s likely that some people who call themselves skeptics or associate with the skeptics’ movement have chosen the right side on the majority of issues by chance or by having an ideology that biases toward picking the right side of those issues (atheism is such an ideology because ghosts require the existence of a soul, quackery usually involves religious or spiritual claims, and cryptids are somewhat associated with creationists).

      The relationship between atheism and skepticism is then straightforward: people who internalize skepticism are likely to reject religious claims and become atheists, and people who become atheists for other reasons may become skeptics or may sound similar to skeptics without being skeptics.

    • I certainly do believe that creationism is one of the forms of woo which ought to be addressed by scientific skepticism as a popularising movement. Towards the top of the list, IMO.

    • Thanks Daniel – I will get round to reading your essay I promise!

      But the part about ‘science-informed’ etc. is crucial in my view and does draw out a meaningful difference between skepticism and science. So I think I understand the distinction a lot more now than I did before.

    • Another excellent comment, thanks.