SkepticblogSkepticblog logo banner

top navigation:

Skeptic – The Name Thing Again

by Steven Novella, Nov 17 2008

OK – we all know that the name “skeptic” is sub-optimal. Probably, if someone paid a great deal of money to a top-notch marketing team they would come up with something better. But we don’t always get to choose such things. Names take root and have cultural inertia. Attempts at imposing a new name on the modern skeptical movement have failed (cough…”brights”…cough!).

Rather than fight history, inertia, and etymology most of us have just decided to embrace it and make the best out of it. Michael took the plunge with the Skeptic Society, I signed on with the New England Skeptical Society, then the Skeptics’ Guide. Brian came to acceptance with Skeptoid. (Of course, the Skeptical Inquirer blazed the trail for all of us.)

And then, of course, Ryan and Brian chose the name The Skeptologists for the first skeptical reality TV show (hopefully).

Rather than deny our inner skeptics, we decided to alter the public perception of “skeptics.” I think, to a limited degree, we have seen some success with this strategy. For now, I think it is the best approach. Although we aren’t putting all our eggs in the skeptical basket either. Phil (the Bad Astronomer) has built the “bad” brand very well, and has been copied by Bad Science and others. I guess “bad” can be good. Others focus on “science” or “education”.  But nothing really captures everything we do and promote in a single word like “skeptic.” So I predict that we are stuck with it, at least for now.

I am often asked, therefore, what the definition of “skeptic” is in the context of the modern skeptical movement. Before I attempt a concise definition, indulge me in a bit of background.

The word skeptic derives from Greek. Its original meaning was inquiry and doubt – which is actually a good first approximation of a definition. Later, philosophers used the word to mean philosophical doubt – the notion that all pretense to knowledge is mere hubris. In other words, we know nothing and can know nothing.

In contemporary vernacular, skeptic generally means someone who questions conventional wisdom, or someone who habitually or excessively doubts. It is often used as a pejorative to mean closed-minded. This is the baggage that the modern term “skeptic” must deal with, and it is about as far away as you can get from skepticism as defined by those who actually call themselves skeptics.

The modern skeptical movement has used the self-label of “skeptic” for decades to refer to what Carl Sagan called “scientific skepticism,” to distinguish it from philosophical skepticism or mere cynicism.

So here is my attempt at a reasonably concise definition of skeptic and skepticism – the brand of scientific skepticism we advocate as activist skeptics.

A skeptic is one who prefers beliefs and conclusions that are reliable and valid to ones that are comforting or convenient, and therefore rigorously and openly applies the methods of science and reason to all empirical claims, especially their own. A skeptic provisionally proportions acceptance of any claim to valid logic and a fair and thorough assessment of available evidence, and studies the pitfalls of human reason and the mechanisms of deception so as to avoid being deceived by others or themselves. Skepticism values method over any particular conclusion.

Not bad for a single paragraph definition. Of course books have, will, and should be written plumbing the depths of skepticism and what it means to be a skeptic – but any well-formed idea should be able to be expressed briefly.

I would also like to see skepticism develop more fully into a full-fledged legitimate intellectual discipline. I think it already is, it just has not reached mainstream institutionalization yet. As a discipline, skepticism includes knowledge of science, scientific methodology, the philosophy of science or epistemology, and the demarcation between science and pseudoscience. In addition it includes knowledge of neuroscience and psychology as it applies to belief, memory, perception, self-deception, and other-deception. This last bit also overlaps with mentalism and other forms of magic and illusion. Skepticism incorporates logic and knowledge of logical fallacies, heuristics, and all pitfalls of reason. And finally it puts this knowledge to work in order to improve the public understanding of science and general critical thinking, which involves being a watchdog on the mass media and its treatment of scientific, paranormal, and fringe claims.

When you think about it, being a well-rounded skeptic is quite a task. It is the modern version of being a renaissance man or woman

In short skepticism is an intellectual specialty that is grounded in science and the humanities and includes any knowledge that deals with the nature of knowledge and belief, critical thinking, the foibles of the human intellect, and deception.  My hope is for skepticism to evolve into a legitimate academic discipline.

Meanwhile we’ll continue to work to develop this discipline and to improve the public perception of it. We may be at a tipping point where skepticism is poised for broader public awareness, but it is honestly hard to tell. We’ll see.

The fate of The Skeptologists may very well be a bellwether.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 5.0/5 (4 votes cast)
Skeptic - The Name Thing Again, 5.0 out of 5 based on 4 ratings

Recommended Reading

52 Responses to “Skeptic – The Name Thing Again”

  1. Sergio says:

    I hope we may be at that tipping point.

    Great post, Steven.

  2. I Doubt It says:

    Would we be, then, “neoskeptics”? I don’t know in what context that term is currently used? (I’m at work and am blocked from searching the web for examples but can Google and see there is already a term in use.)

  3. Philip says:

    I am a transplanted skeptic lost in a sea of true believers in the US bible belt. I sometimes feel like I’m in constant hiding. Most people here know of my scientific background and they know of my “questions” about religion. But thus far I haven’t been ousted as a witch or a devil worshiper. I think this is largely due to the fact that I haven’t labeled myself as a skeptic, but as a critical thinker. Since the term skeptic is often equated to cynic, I wanted to find a more politically correct term. As with most politically correct terms, it’s best to add syllables and words to help obfuscate the term. It could also be that people have more respect for the concept of thinking over the perceived terminology of a skeptic being a doubter.

  4. Skeptics need to do what most ethnic and other “more traditional” minorities have and are still struggling to do: just deal with it. Defining, or redefining, who you are as a movement and individually has to be in your hands and not in those of the majority, like the Civil Rights movement. This means turning derogative terms into your favor, like how homosexuals have embraced the term fagot/fag. Skeptics also needs to stop worrying about what the rest of the world thinks and push for what it believes to be best for itself and others based on the foundation of its ideology, like Woman’s Suffrage.

    While a good P.R. strategy would certainly help, defining who we are in words is rather pointless to the rest of the world, though it can serve a role helping those within the movement gain proper perspective and accountability. We must act, and let those action define us. The cynical stereotype, for example, like all stereotypes, persists because enough people embody it in some recognizable form. Perhaps a little arrogance would do good to keep the movement off the defensive (it seems) so much of the time; so long as it is kept in check.

    If you really want a new term to describe or embody the modern Skeptical movement, first the movement must redefine itself as something new and thus worthy of a new term. Just like calling the most most popular cult a religion, it does change the core of what a cult is or the sigma surrounding it by outsiders. Skeptics must first prove they are something more than those than came before them before a new incarnation of self can emerge. Then again, perhaps we should stop worrying about names and definitions and get back to the work at hand. If actions truly speak louder than words, then our actions will produce this new term and definition by outside sources.

    It would be this that makes the best and most lasting impression.

  5. Scott C. says:

    What an elegant definition. I plan to adopt this as a mission statement. I’m gonna write it on a notecard so I can hop on my portable, collapsible soapbox and deliver it on the spot at a moment’s notice.

    Keep up the good work, Skeptics.

  6. Cambias says:

    How on Earth can anyone who values honesty, truth, and facts be talking about coming up with a new weasel-word to “re-brand” their “movement” in public perception? That’s the mindset of someone who wants to tell people what to think, not someone who wants to help them think for themselves.

    I’m glad to hear the Skepticbloggers decided to nail their true colors to the mast. Skeptics we are and so Skeptics let us be.

  7. Ian says:

    I’m not sure that “skepticism” is ever going to be an academic discipline. I can see it permeate science and the humanities in general, as academics learn how to improve upon their methods (I recently attended a physics colloquium on bias in physics).

    I’m skeptical whether we’ll ever see a PhD or even BSc in Skepticism.

  8. Mike says:

    I would add a word to your first sentence Steven …..that are reliable and valid to ones that are (merely) comforting or convenient.

    I like your appeal to reason as I often think that it is sceptics (with a c please!) who are the true descendants of the Age of Enlightenment which had at its core a critical questioning of traditional beliefs,institutions and moral values. Unfortunately I can’t think of a pithy term based on Enlightenment to describe modern scepticism (‘Enlightened Ones?’ = Whoops! – a bit new age I think. Critical thinker probably is the best so far.

    Many of my friends often call me cynical when I tell them I am a sceptic – in their minds it seems that this equates to cynicism and doubting everything so there is clearly a PR job that needs to be done but I agree with the earlier commentator in that we can take back the word and define what we want it to mean by persevering with our message. We just need to keep pushing – the alternative is ignorance and chaos.

  9. “OK – we all know that the name “skeptic” is sub-optimal. Probably, if someone paid a great deal of money to a top-notch marketing team they would come up with something better.”

    I wouldn’t bet on that. After all, skepticism has had 30 years to improve on this, and no small amount of energy has been expended on it. Further, advertising professionals have weighed in on this issue — there are plenty of marketing pros in the skeptics movement — and yet we always come back to “skeptic.” Sure, inertia is part of that, and a good argument for us to stop worrying about this label issue — “skeptic” has roots now, roots we might as well embrace. But the main reason to embrace “skeptic” is that it’s a actually a pretty good choice, in marketing terms. It’s a short, punchy, two-syllable word. It’s easily understood. The general public even has some idea what it means.

    “My hope is for skepticism to evolve into a legitimate academic discipline.”

    I’m with you on this one, Steven. I conduct serious, focussed study in this area every day, and have for years, but I despair at ever having the depth of knowledge I really need to consider myself fully qualified on all the subjects skeptics must master. If that isn’t an academic discipline, I don’t know what is — and it would sure be nice if the academic world agreed! It would be nice to be recognized for the intense effort we make to systematically wade through such enormous mountains of baloney.

  10. Andy says:

    @Cambias

    Skeptics don’t tell people what to think. Skeptics teach people *how* to think critically. If that means people are sometimes critical of skeptics, then that’s a good thing.

    Also, it’s not about coming up with a way to hoodwink people, but rather a way to throw off old stigmas which actually bear no relevance to what skeptics are all about. What Steven’s actually doing, is trying to give us a name that isn’t tainted with existing prejudice.

  11. fluffy says:

    I like the term “realist,” personally.

  12. I like the definition that you have created, and personally I don’t find a problem with being called a skeptic. I am proud to call myself a skeptic and I always will be, because skepticism gives me the ability to question things that are illogical and claims that are not supported by any evidence.

  13. oldebabe says:

    A discipline called ‘skepticism’? No. There’s already a solid scientific method available and in use. Critical thinker or skeptic? What’s in a name? :-) For myself, ‘critical inquirer’ would probably be more accurate, i.e., when confronted with outlandish, curious, or new ideas, I question and/or ascertain the proof, then can accept or reject. One way to transmit this seemingly obvious method of thinking to non-receptive or oblivious people, may be simply the good old fashioned way of ‘by example’ and by ‘repetition’. In this way I think an ordinary person can (an anecdote: I have) also bring (or at least provide a glimmer of) the apparently elusive common sense to the skeptically (with or without the ‘k’) barren backroads without having to push, or define, or describe oneself. Too simple?

  14. oldebabe – As I described above, skepticism involves much more than just understanding scientific methods. There is currently no one discipline that brings everything together and into practice the way skepticism does.

    Skepticism is also a movement and a community – and therefore goes beyond merely what one chooses to call oneself.

  15. I actually muse about this academic discipline notion quite often. In researching for Junior Skeptic, it’s not that uncommon for me to uncover historical facts or documents that are either poorly known or totally unknown to the literature. This is so because there are areas of history that no one digs into except for skeptical researchers — that is, except for those pursuing the academic discipline of skepticism.

    And, those areas need not be historical backwaters. To study the history of AIDS denial, for example, is to study the evolution of ideas that cost hundreds of thousands (probably millions) of human lives. Or, think of the amount of ink, intellectual effort, airtime, and dollars our culture has devoted to Intelligent Design over the past few years. There are researchers whose task it is to track the development of ID and place it into its historical context (as rebranded creationism). That research is a specialty with both academic rigor and clear social utility.

    If we can have Art History, History of Science, or even History of Sport as recognized disciplines, why not some sort of “history of baloney”? After all, this would simply recognize some of the academic work that skeptics in fact already do.

  16. Jeff says:

    Terms are useful and can be quite helpful. I’ve appreciated the term used on the SGU lately “Evidence based medicine”.

    In discussing homeopathy, natural or herbal medicine, Chinese traditional medicine and other alternatives, the “Alopathic” term never sounded right. Mostly the idea discussed was “Western Medicine” is about drugs and treating symptoms. This seemed like a straw-man but I couldn’t clarify.

    Having the phrase “Evidence based medicine” shows that what Western Medicine provides isn’t an overarching philosophy of health, but just a focus on improving problems. There’s no story of Chi or other vitalism, no harmonics, no homunculous, no scheme for idealized “health of the body system”. Just, what’s wrong? Can we do anything about it? What WORKS

  17. Jim says:

    Semantics.

  18. Phronk says:

    If skepticism were to become an academic discipline, I wonder what department it would fall under. Science? Social science? Philosophy? Maybe an interdisciplinary sort of thing?

    I often wonder what the difference is, if any, between skepticism and well-done science. I think it’s largely a matter of emphasis. Skepticism focuses on the scientific assessment of “comforting and convenient” beliefs, and the reasoning pitfalls that can lead to them, while science is more broadly focused. It’s subtle distinction, worth having a separate term for, but a whole other discipline? I dunno about that.

  19. Max says:

    Like ethics, skepticism could officially fall under Philosophy, but it could also be taught by other departments.

    If someone sees a UFO, what scientist should he go to? An astronomer? A meteorologist? A psychologist? A historian? What he really needs is a professional skeptic.

  20. I like ‘Skepticist’ (sounds like scientist ;-) -> in practical terms though, I add my weight to the “stick with what works now” camp and we should place our energies into advancing the cause further.

    We should remember the rich heritage of the philosophical term that Skeptic (“Skeptikoi”) originates from – it dates to the 300′s *B*C. (emphasis on the B)and continues to the present day – cool, no?

    _BTW great job SGU!!!

  21. Max says:

    Skeptology is to skeptics as physiology is to physics? ;-)

  22. mat says:

    …and scientology is to science…? No hold on, that doesn’t work…

  23. cheezfri says:

    Great wonderful post. I am still fighting the term skeptic with every breath. When I use that word to explain myself, I get rewarded with “oh, lighten up” or “don’t you believe in anything?” or “why are you so closed minded?” or “so what if I believe in something you don’t?” or “why do you have to be so negative?”. I’m sure you have heard it all. Any attempt on my part to explain the word skeptic results in immediate narcolepsy on their part! I also don’t like being lumped in with Global Warming Skeptics, or any other type of “skeptic” that doesn’t meet your/our generally accepted definition. Unfortunately, I also find myself shying away from the word TRUTH. Because we have certain folks out there who want us to know the “real truth” behind 9/11, or the “real truth” about ghosts, or whatever. I’ve heard the term “truthers” used somewhat pejoratively, so that’s out. I avoid the word “logic” because then I’m pegged as a Spock-worshipping geek. What’s left? Occasionally I say I’m a rationalist. Bright sounds somehow egotistical. Yes, it’s all semantics, but unfortunately it’s pretty much all we have. People are not psychic (yes I know, what a shock) and can’t see our intentions or the subtle meanings behind our words.

  24. Dennis says:

    As a classicist I can tell you that the original meaning (Gk. skeptikos) was simply ‘thoughtful, reflective.’ It comes from a verb that describes a careful kind of looking. The idea of doubt came from a term also used to describe a certain kind of thinker: aporetikos. It isn’t difficult to see how giving careful attention to philosophical questions (which in the ancient world also meant scientific questions) would lead one to be a doubter, in the same way that careful (i.e., critical) thought among modern skeptics leads us to doubt traditional explanations.

    This same type of thinker could also be called ephektikos, which is something like the modern coinage agnostic. This referred to someone as suspending judgment. What it really means is that you hold yourself back and look at things impartially. This is something else that we do, and it allows us to criticize the emotional responses of others.

    The three terms are closely associated, but one gave its name to a school. And as with many schools of thought through the ages, its opponents (like modern theists in the face of a resurgent atheism) took great pains to tar its practitioners.

    Far from being sub-optimal, I think skeptic is about as good a phrase as we’re likely to find, and together with its companion adjectives (which have colored its reception) covers just about in your definition.

  25. Another fine post by Dr. Novella, and those who are unaware of it are encouraged to visit his other venues, most notably (imho), his Neurologica blog ( http://www.theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php )

    Re: the ‘skeptic’ as a collective name for, um, us, it was handwringing over this very issue a few years ago (‘brights’) that caused me to drop my subscription to the Skeptical Inquirer. Well, in part. In the same issue I saw an article defining skeptics as well-educated people with PhDs working in the various scientific fields – which totally excluded me and a boatload of other fine skeptics (I have the degree, just not in a scientific field). Skepticism, of course, does not belong to the educated, nor to Science for that matter. It doesn’t even belong to skeptics, just as justice doesn’t belong to court judges. But that issue of SI had an article by an author just wringing his hands over the negative connotations attributed to the term “skeptic” by the woo-woos, the media, and the public in general. All I could think of is: ‘a rose by any other name smells just as sweet’.. or just as sour, depending on the smeller. I could not believe this author, the Skeptical Inquirer editors, and the many supporters of this call for a new name for skeptics could not understand that no matter what name we give ourselves, those who would assign negative connotations to ‘skeptic’ would simply do the exact same thing to ‘bright’ or any other name one might come up with. They’d just transfer it over. What a waste of time by a group who ought to know better.

    Be patient. Dr. Novella correctly alluded to social inertia in these matters, and as time goes by more and more people will grasp the profound difference between a skeptic and a cynic, and will understand what is meant by skeptical thinking. I joined both CSICOP and the JREF when they first began and remember very well how few our numbers were then, at least the numbers of ‘official’ skeptics as we now understand the term. Huge leaps forward have been made and I really think capital ‘s’ Skepticism ought to recognize its successes and not dwell so much on perceived failures. We must acknowledge what work remains to be done about educating the public, but folks, a LOT has been achieved over the last 40 years.

  26. I can appreciate the sentiment that there are more important things to focus on, but I can’t help but wonder what better term could be used to identify the skeptical movement. The thing is, words are important – these amalgams of sounds and shapes represent everything in our world. They are how we communicate every single thought, feeling, understanding. So when the word chosen to represent an entire set of values has such a negative connotation among people who don’t subscribe to the same values (or even people who do), then the movement to share ideas must first overcome the need to remove the wall erected at the mention of the movement’s name. This is not to suggest that there won’t be other walls, other obstacles.

    Roget’s Thesaurus has these synonyms for “skeptic:” agnostic, apostate, atheist, cynic, disbeliever*, dissenter, doubter, doubting Thomas, freethinker*, heathen, heretic, infidel, materialist*, misanthrope, misbeliever, nihilist, pagan, pessimist, profaner, questioner*, rationalist*, scoffer, unbeliever*

    I’ve starred those that I personally think actually describe qualities within the skeptical movement’s umbrella. Others might share qualities (i.e. agnostic, atheist), but don’t necessarily follow skepticism. The rest are unflattering at best.

    I know, I know… just because Roget says it, doesn’t mean that’s what we are. But Roget says it because etymologists, who make a career of studying language in culture, understand that this is how our culture defines/understands skepticism.

    I don’t think this is a topic that can be dismissed by calling “semantics,” mostly because the matter of semantics doesn’t render it unimportant. I understand the concept of continuing as we are, and letting the true nature of skepticism eventually percolate into the mindset of the general culture. But isn’t the need for critical thinking and evidence-based judgment more urgent? In general, cultural and linguistic changes, while fluid, are more like molasses or syrup than like rivers. Doesn’t the current state of education and decision-making call for more immediate results? Whatever we can do to drive that is worth analyzing and discussing.

    Okay, stepping down and folding up the portable soapbox now… but for what it’s worth, I do believe that a new term like “bright” is condescending, which is just as negative and off-putting as “skeptic” has the potential to be. What about something that is still identifiable, yet perhaps our own word… like “evidentialist.” All that word suggests is that its user is someone who seeks and employs evidence in his or her thinking. It doesn’t indict non-evidentialists as less than intelligent, it just implies a different philosophy, the same way non-existentialists don’t deny existence.

  27. I think that the word skeptic is very usefull in trying to keep the debate in down to earth themes. What i mean is that if you used the “atheist” term, the kind of rejection that you could get from fanatics would cloud the debate and prevent the message from getting through. To me the non-existence of god is kind of a small theme in brodaer skepticism for one reason, the existence (or non-existence) of god has a very small influence in our daily lives. On the other hand, topics like alternative medicine, financial fraud, creationism, pseudo science and others alike do have big impacts on people lives and those are the most urgent to be addressed.

  28. Something to point out, in a recent poll in Colombia, my home country, the people who define themselves as atheists is up to 3.3% (lol). The incredible thing is that it was 0.4% a few years ago. The same poll asked people if they would vote for an atheist candedate to presidency, only 29% would.

  29. re. Skeptic = Atheist & criticisms by ‘others’

    This seems to be a common misconception in society ;-(. It also seems to cloud the issues and dilute the impact that critical thinkers can have on others.

    The point was made in one of the SGU podcasts (don’t ask me which!!) that one does not automatically equal the other (example of logical fallacy IMHO ; i.e. correlation is not causation).

    The discussion was in relation to a biologist who was a ‘deist’ yet recognised I.D. as non-science and evolution as science.

    I accept that God is not a testable hypothesis. (I like to think of it as General Order Dynamic – see ‘Bucky’ Fuller for inspiration) but that doesn’t affect my critical thinking skills – so let’s leave that for another discussion.

    Criticise me for that but it’s not on topic. We’re talking about what to call the skeptical activist movement.

    I’m joining the movement, call it what you want. I did my part yesterday. In the newsagent, I hid the copies of ‘New Dawn’ behind ‘New Scientist’ ;-] look out world.

    Nothing wrong with the label skeptic. It’s actually everyone ELSE who has the problem!! [damn believers] ;-)

    The way to go is to look waaay cool and have a great time!! (Bond, Skeptic Bond). Well, a guy can dream!

    - just sayin’

  30. Skeptics are comfortable with the term ‘skeptic’ for our own purposes. The suggestion we need to come up with a new name is directed at how non-skeptics view us and the modern skeptical movement. I don’t think there is a chance in hell we can control what others call us or how they (mis)perceive skepticism simply by changing names.

  31. Daphne says:

    “My hope is for skepticism to evolve into a legitimate academic discipline.”

    I think that before skepticism can evolve into a legitimate academic discipline that we will need to teach critical thinking to children as a basic skill on par with reading, writing and mathematics.

    If we had a base that was capable of understanding Dr. Novella’s brilliant one paragraph definition of what it means to be a Skeptic, we wouldn’t actually need the one paragraph description.

    Imagine what a world it would be if when you said: “I’m a skeptic” you didn’t have to spend 15 minutes explaining why skeptic is not synonymous with cynic, or where you didn’t have to explain why the “Theory of Evolution” is not the intellectual equal of the “Theory of Atlantis”

    Most of the things that we blog about, argue about, and read about all stem from a basic lack of critical thinking skills and until we are dealing with a population that understands what it is that we do – I think that what we call ourselves and how we are perceived is the least of our worries.

  32. Max says:

    “Critical thinker” sounds less pompous than “freethinker”, that’s for sure.

  33. ateistas says:

    I’ve been trying to translate your definition of skepticism into Lithuanian. It’s really tough.

  34. John Draeger says:

    An eloquent and inspirational post. It will take time and publicity to change the common “excessively doubts” usage. Success of the Skeptologists show would be great for publicity. Then maybe funding by the NSF and other foundations might lead to a spot on PBS like Nova in the U.S.

    About the only term I can think of that doesn’t have some negativity associated with it is “scientist.” But then people like Ben Stein have attempted to make even that into an evil word. My computer dictionary has this for the definition of scientist: “a person who is studying or has expert knowledge of one or more of the natural or physical sciences. ” We should all be studying science indefinitely regardless of whether or not we have multiple degrees after our name.

    We’re not going to be able to prevent people from having delusions and illogical thoughts, but as long as there’s open review of experimental evidence the baloney will be detected.
    The more difficult task is convincing people that the scientific method is the only method for ascertaining what’s real and true (vs. divine revelation and subjective experience). I think critical thinking skills must be taught to young children before their brain wiring has been set up to perceive things through the lenses of their parents’ religion and political leanings. After maybe the age of 20, most people will not even entertain the idea they might be wrong about their fundamental beliefs. Ego defense sets in, and then reason and evidence are not persuasive–they will not listen or look at it.

  35. Evil Eye says:

    Great blog Dr. Novella. It shold also be pointed out that Skeptics, in the way we “should” use it, is not the same as “debunkers”; in that we must be careful not to immediately seek to destroy, but rather simply require the claimant to provide factual evidence. When you go into a subject with a presupposed notion, you risk defeating yourself.

  36. Nomad says:

    Yeah, critical thinker is the term I prefer. It gets rid of that horrible closed mindedness baggage that wrongly clings to skepticism.

    Whenever a friend of mine is asked what religion he is, he always says critical thinker. He reasons his atheism comes from the fact that he is a critical thinker, and that he will only believe things that have evidence. I can definitely get behind that.

  37. There is nothing negative about the term ‘debunker’ either – it’s one application of skepticism. Debunking’s goal is not to destroy, it’s to remove the bunk from a given topic or claim. Being destroyed is one possible result of that application, but it ain’t a negative. Like skeptic or skepticism, ‘debunking’ or ‘debunker’ are also terms redefined into self-serving negative connotations by the woo-sters.

  38. Marc V says:

    This may be too far down on the comment list for anyone to read, but I just saw Dr. Novella’s proposed definition of Skeptic and I feel compelled to comment anyway. I think it’s a good start, but I was dismayed to see the word “belief” in the first sentence. My own experiences – those that helped to usher me toward critical thinking and skepticism – have instilled an aversion to my perceived overuse of the word “belief.” If the skepticism movement accomplishes one thing, please let it be the tightening of that word’s definition.

    In the introduction to “Demon Haunted World,” Carl Sagan recounts a conversation he had with a taxi driver about extraterrestrial life. The taxi driver, realizing who Sagan was, asked him if he believed in aliens. Sagan remarked to the reader that he is always dismayed by that question. His opinions about the potential for extraterrestrial life have nothing at all to do with belief. Similarly, I am (as are all of you on this blog, I’m sure) habitually asked if I believe in evolution. Again, this is the wrong question. In fact, the most correct answer to that question is “No.” Because we do not believe in any scientific theories. Belief is not appropriate.

    Belief, to me, is almost synonymous to faith. Many logical and analytical thinkers say “I believe” when they mean “I have concluded” or “I trust, because the established experts in the field have earned that trust” or “to the best of my knowledge, the evidence supports” or even “I am aware and understand the observed fact of”. And because the alternatives are often too wordy, “I believe” is convenient shorthand. But, particularly when speaking to someone with little experience in critical thinking and skepticism (faith-based thinkers), I think the use of the phrase “I believe” reinforces bad habits. It does not sufficiently convey the more powerful alternative to the way they currently attempt to understand their world.

    Belief is not something that occurs after careful observance of the evidence, review of expert research and opinion, and applied logic and reasoning. So the question is, when can a skeptic use the word “belief?” Does a critical thinker “believe” in anything?

    Absolutely, and we should relish the opportunity to answer this question and put “belief” in its proper place. Belief is what motivates us to do all of the above. We believe there is a truth worth pursuing. And I don’t just mean that as an inspirational aphorism. I mean that, just by the fact that we are so motivated to understand the truth of the world and universe we inhabit (through natural, not supernatural means), and to encourage others to do the same, we have proven to ourselves that we believe we live in a universe where objective truth exists. We believe pure relativism is incorrect. As an extension of this, I think most of us believe in justice. Because if something is objectively true, it should be upheld.

    In my opinion and experience, after all the pseudoscience and misplaced religious faith is stripped away, that small kernel of belief that remains can provide more comfort and motivation than anything else. To misuse the word “belief” by grouping in mental processes that are better explained in another way is to obscure the more pure, and powerful use.

  39. Patience St. James says:

    I consider myself a skeptic both as described and as applied to other areas of academic and intellectual thought. By education, I am a student of international politics with an extremely skeptical bent. I personally fall into the school of constructivism in politics, which at its most basic states that all actions in the international arena influence the players, and the choices that are made in response limit the choices available (so basically, it’s really, really difficult to change the fact that there’s a lot of war in the world, because by having wars and responding to them they way we do, we continue the cycle). As you might guess, there’s a lot of political woo coming out of the same arguments. I see my place in academia as one to help combat the woo, and explain why this is a valid philisophical theory of politics without falling prey to The Secret-like ideas that if we just wished hard enough, everything would work out. States have to actually change their behaviours and responses before the systme can change. Wishing doesn’t count.

    I would love for skepticism as an academic movement to progress to the point that it would be acceptable for political students to access it–I think it would help them all immensely.

  40. Your definition of skepticism is almost identical to that of critical thinking. The only difference is that skepticism is a movement whereas critical thinking per se is not.

  41. Heh. Just for grins I described myself as a ‘bright’ (a term I dislike) to a work associate who had noticed my JREF coffee cup on my desk. My standard explanation of a ‘bright’ included the term ‘skeptic’ of course. Next question: what’s a skeptic? Seems the road is circular and we may as well stick with ‘skeptic’.

  42. Max says:

    The other problem with the term “skeptic” is that it’s used by conspiracy theorists and fringe groups like “AIDS skeptics”, “tax skeptics”, and “global warming skeptics”.

    The Wikipedia entry on Skepticism lists several different types, of which only “scientific skepticism” really involves critical thinking. Some schools already offer an elective class in “critical thinking”, not in “skepticism”.

  43. [...] http://skepticblog.org/2008/11/17/skeptic-the-name-thing-again/ Filed under: Skepticism | Tags: denier, disbeliever, pseudoskeptic, skeptics Tags: denier, disbeliever, pseudoskeptic, skepticsx November 19th, 2008 18:40:34x $(“#tags-246″).click(function(){$(“.date-alert,.tags-alert”).hide(“slow”);$(“.tags-alert#a246″).fadeIn(“slow”);}); $(“#close-tags-246″).click(function(){$(“.tags-alert#a246″).fadeOut(“slow”);}); $(“#date-246″).click(function(){$(“.date-alert,.tags-alert”).hide(“slow”);$(“.date-alert#b246″).fadeIn(“slow”);}); $(“#close-date-246″).click(function(){$(“.date-alert#b246″).fadeOut(“slow”);}); no comments Leave a Reply [...]

  44. [...] what it means in the modern sense is explored intelligently at places like the Skeptics Society and here. No doubt there are many more, but those give you a [...]

  45. Hi Steven,

    This is one of the best explanations I’ve read. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve used it on the Leicester Skeptics in the Pub site here:

    http://leicester.skepticsinthepub.org/Default.aspx/1/Whats-a-Sceptic

    You have of course been credited.

    Keep up the good work.

    Simon.

  46. Literature says:

    Great quality stuff.

  47. George says:

    Great ideas, is there a place to elaborate on this all?

  48. Porcupine says:

    Well, Skepticism is great. It’s everyone’s ideal, isn’t it? To be intelligent and not believe in crap? But it so often spills over into pseudoskepticism that skeptics have a rather bad name among most of the public. Pseudoskeptics

    http://wikisynergy.com/~wikisyne/w/index.php?title=Pseudoskepticism

    Are losing the fight

    http://wikisynergy.com/~wikisyne/w/index.php?title=Why_skeptics_lose

    For the real skeptics.

  49. Shot_info says:

    Actually skeptics don’t have a bad name amongst the public. Again, this is an attempt by those who would rather _believe_ to redefine skepticism as “pseudoskepticism”.

  50. [...] been repeatedly made that skepticism is an rational, intellectual mode of enquiry (eg see here and here) whereas climate Deniers are endlessly gullible and seemingly willing to believe the most [...]

  51. Yoga online says:

    Skeptic is one who instinctively or habitually doubts, questions, or disagrees with assertions or generally accepted conclusions.

  52. Diell says:

    A skeptic is one who doesn’t know the answers and admits he doesn’t know, then proceeds by asking question that raise doubts and stirs up critical thinking, especially in those who have accepted certain ideas on faith alone.