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.