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Posted by on Aug 19, 2012 in Skepticism | 15 comments

So what is a skeptic, anyway?

Before I get into the substance of this post, I have to admit, I hate it when people apply self-congratulatory labels to themselves, and “skeptic” often seems to be such a label.  It becomes even more ridiculous when the person doing so isn’t the least bit skeptical and completely unaware of the various biases he or she possesses.  Given all this, I have to say that I am definitely not a skeptic in any formal sense, but I do think critically about many issues, I question authority, I evaluate the credibility of the experts I rely on for information, and I try to avoid groupthink. As to whether I’m successful in all these endeavors; well, I’m skeptical.

In truth, I stumbled on skepticism by accident. I was looking for something akin to a booze cruise, and the one I took happened to have a “skeptical” theme. But that didn’t bother me, since I’ve never believed in gods, psychics, conspiracy theories, dowsing, or homeopathy; and the booze served on the cruise was mighty fine, even if it was skeptically-flavored. I enjoyed the people I met, made many friends, and was eventually interviewed on a few skeptical podcasts exposing some lies told, surprisingly, not by, but about, the Discovery Institute.

Getting to the point, what is skepticism? At its root, skepticism means applying the scientific method to claims of the supernatural, conspiracy theories, alternative medicine, political assertions, and any other falsifiable propositions. It means being aware of your own biases, thinking and arguing logically, remaining open to the possibility that you’ve reached the wrong conclusions, and revising your views when the evidence demands. But most importantly it means being skeptical of your own skepticism and of those whose intelligence you admire, because that’s when you’re most likely to be led astray.

So everyone is a skeptic to some degree. There’s nothing special about those of us claiming to be such. At the end of the day, skepticism is just a reminder to think critically, reach decisions based on the evidence, and recognize our own fallibility.

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  • anon

    Synchronicity. I was abusing myself last night by surfing through various perspectives of the FTB/skepchick self-immolation of the past year, and due to life experiences (in family court) more than a bit skeptical these days of Capital F Feminism, I woke up this morning wondering does FTB et. al., have some well defined meaning of “skeptical”? Can one be a skeptic at FTB and be skeptical of feminism?

    Anyway, you have my absolute best wishes towards enjoyment on your next booze cruise — sounds like fun.

  • anon

    Okay, I have to be honest. Being drunk at sea in rough weather sounds truly horrible to me, just kill me now kind of thing.

  • Ha. It wasn’t actually that bad until after I got off the ship.

  • Evan Gelist

    Classical skepticism (pyrrhonism) claimed that “Nothing can be known, not even this.” Of course this was before the scientific method was much advanced.
    .
    Modern, or scientific skepticism allots belief in proportion to the evidence.
    .
    Watch out for the statement “I’m skeptical of the skeptics.” This is a pretty reliable clue that you’re dealing with an irrational person.

    • As advanced as it is, science can still be wrong, although I believe that some things are known to the extent that anything can be known. As for being skeptical of human beings? That’s always wise, because whether we call ourselves skeptics or something else, we’re still subject to a host of biases that we aren’t aware of. When it comes to the scientific method, because it’s performed by humans, the possibility of bias and error remains. It’s the best way of acquiring knowledge that we currently have, but that doesn’t mean that it’s perfect.

      • Evan Gelist

        With whom are you arguing? The position with which you disagree does not resemble anything I wrote.

        • I am saying that there are times when we need to be “skeptical of the skeptics,” because they’re human beings, and human beings make errors in judgment. Otherwise, I agree with your post.

  • Randy

    I think skepticism takes a lot of time.

    So, I’m more of a follower of skeptics. I think I can distinguish a denier or nut from a skeptic fairly well. As long as there are other people demonstrating skepticism, I don’t have to do the skepticism work myself, freeing me up to do other things.

  • David McKean

    Wait, “At its root, skepticism means applying the scientific method to claims” and ” It means being aware of your own biases, thinking and arguing logically, remaining open to the possibility that you’ve reached the wrong conclusions”

    By this definition Skepticism is not a banner that I can fly my personally cherished ideologies under and expect not to be questioned.

    This is a practical and valuable approach!

  • Edward Clint

    I would not describe skepticism as applying the scientific method to outlandish-sounding claims because the scientific method includes things like experimental design, statistical analysis and peer review. These are not things any one individual can apply in their life or world-view. Instead, skepticism is more like the application of the principles and ideals of science; the endeavor to compensate for your own personal frailties, to expect them in yourself and in others as a matter of course (which you also articulate in the last paragraph).

    • Great response, as always. I agree except to say that skepticism embraces the scientific method and often relies on scientific studies performed by others (which can be erroneous).

  • Egbert

    I would say a sceptic is someone who uses the label ‘sceptic’ to describe their general rejection of conventional ideas, unable to fully understand exactly what their identity is.

    Ancient scepticism was a method to find happiness through using counter arguments, but modern scepticism seems to be about criticism from the critical thinking tradition, and is really an attempt to educate people into being philosophical or scientific, that would otherwise have trouble thinking logically.

    So it’s really an identity thing, like “I’m not dogmatic”.

  • Great point at the end of the post Maria. Each of us needs to be continually skeptical of ourselves, less we fall into dogma/hypocrisy. The minute we think we have everything figured out, that we have all the answers, we are surely missing something.

  • Jonathan MS Pearce

    So what is a skeptic?

    I abstain from judgement on the matter.

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