My Misgivings with Skepticism

I want to talk briefly about what I think it means to be a skeptic, and why the term is useful and yet problematic.

Skepticism can be variously defined, but it generally relates to the idea that information needs to be well supported by evidence to be believed. It seems characterised by an attitude that questions sources, checks facts, analyses data, and fields a healthy amount of incredulity with regards to nonsense.
In short, I think a skeptic is generally someone who comes to beliefs about reality through a process of rational inquiry into source material, and compares what he finds to reasonable standards of evidence.

The interesting thing is that, really, everyone thinks of themselves as somewhat of a skeptic. What exactly is the alternative? Few people would happily describe themselves as unskeptical or uncritical or easily impressed. So what might seperate a “real” skeptic from everyone else? Basically I see two elements:
(1) applying your skepticism to most if not all areas in your life, rather than just the things you don’t agree with
(2) going through the time of setting out reasonable standards of evidence

It’s hard to overstate the importance of these two criteria.
Criteria 1 is the reason why -despite many semantic discussions in the past- most skeptics don’t believe religious people can really be skeptics. It’s true that they can be skeptical about many phenomena, but the idea is that being a skeptic entails taking the axe of reason to your core beliefs as well; and many religious people don’t do this and find all kinds of excuses to exempt it.

However I want to focus on criteria 2, because it defines the line beween skepticism and what I call hyper-skepticism. As I’ve pointed out before, if you want to see ostensible skepticism at work, try to talk to a creationist about the evidence for human evolution.Anyone who’s ever tried will know that it will involve every single step of reasoning being subjected to a ludicrous standard of ideologically driven hyper-skepticism. After listening to some of the more classic cases of creationist logic -“You weren’t there at the beginning of the universe, so how do you know what happened?!”- it’s not uncommon to hear creationists literally bending the laws of nature (like the decay rate of various radio-active compounds) to weasel their way out of an argument.

The thing is, creationists in particular have an unrealistic image of what evolutionairy theory is, and so the requirements they set for evolution to prove itself are unrealistic as well; it’s gotten so bad that many of the supposed “proofs of evolution” they are asking us to provide, would in fact disprove evolution.

Real skepticism sets reasonable standards.

While it’s somewhat common for all of us to blunder into a domain of knowledge we don’t yetunderstand and set uninformed standards for a claim, skeptics prove themselves by analysing the available theories and try to honestly think what evidence they could expect if said theory were true… and then they go out and see what is there. This process of setting reasonable standards can be reiterated several times and is absolutely critical.

It is ultimately the pitfall of every conspiracy theorist that they set gigantic standards of evidence for one set of theories, whilst setting ludicrously low standards for their own standards.
Here’s some examples:

  • Check out the 9/11 Truth movement that demands a comprehensive and detailed catalogue of every act of the terrorists on US soil, of every second of the WTC building’s collapse, of every single substance present in the towers and the eventual temperature of the fire they would unleash, as well as every single instance of bad phrasing or misquoting of relevant politicians,… but doesn’t need to explain how explosives let alone how they managed to get it into all these buildings).
  • The same goes for Holocaust Deniers, who believe that quibbling about what colour the smoke of cremated gassed Jews should look like, will ultimately stack up as convincing evidence against the fact that no Nazi ever denied the Holocaust took place.
  • Creationists who don’t believe in abiogenesis unless every single step is repeatedly demonstrated in a lab, but think magic can somehow do anything.
  • Turin Shroud believers who demand a full replica of the Turin Shroud using Medieval tools, as if that will momentarily distract from the consecutive C14-datings and contemporary documents proving the artifact a fake.

The pattern is as predictable as it is systemic.

There seems to be a reflexive inability among non-skeptics to put your ego aside, take a step back at the contrived arguments you’re forced to make and say “Is this really what the defense of a tightly argued for, evidence-based case looks like?”


Sadly, few are immune to the knife of hyper-skepticism.
The skeptic community has been plagued for years by various debates about who is a “real” skeptic and who is not. A famous instance of this was in 2009 when Bill Maher -an American comedian- was invited to a skeptic’s conference and a huge debate erupted over whether he could truly be a skeptic in view of his strange views on vaccination and medicine.

At a smaller scale, I can’t help but feel amused by how many who proclaim themselves skeptics due to their views on religion, turn out be highly unreasonable on many other topics. This is one of the reason why I’m looking forward to the History for Atheists blog: many skeptics turn out to be highly unskeptical about questions of history that they have biases against -almost comically so.
Perhaps they weren’t true skeptics after all?

And his leads me to the problem I have with calling oneself a skeptic. It’s not that the term itself is bad. Skepticism and hyper-skepticism are definitely very real things. And yes, it’s very much worth trying to be a proper skeptic and to apply the methods correctly. But calling yourself a skeptic seems to always be subject to requirements: you’re claiming that you set reasonable standards of evidence when you chose what to believe –and you judge this about yourself, using your own standards of what it means to be reasonable.

When applied to oneself, the label of skeptic seems premature and arrogant.
And when applied to others, it is bound to run into the ‘No True Scotsman Fallacy’. (Oh, Bill Maher doesn’t believe in vaccination? I suppose he wasn’t a real skeptic.)

If there’s ever going to be a label that’s immune to semantic nitpicking on blogs, it surely isn’t skepticism!


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