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Steven Novella Takes On Some of the Oldest Clichés About Scientific Skepticism—Again

by Daniel Loxton, Jan 29 2013

Skepticblog’s Steven Novella has an interesting post up at Neurologica this morning, in which he addresses some issues of conflation between scientific skepticism and other movements or interests. Specifically, Novella discusses the very old (and demonstrably false) complaint that scientific skepticism refuses to “take on” religious claims, and the similarly perennial complaint that skeptics ought to get into the business of political claims.

On religion, he emphasizes once again the same point he has made throughout his career (a point on which I precisely agree, and which has for decades been the practical, time-tested, virtually universal position of scientific skepticism as a movement):

This one will simply not go away. No matter how many times I clarify and re-clarify my position on religion and skepticism the framing of the issue by those who think skepticism should address matters of faith does not change, which implies to me that they are not really listening. I know PZ is not specifically addressing me here, and there are true accommodationists out there (those who think religious thinking and scientific thinking are compatible and should be integrated), but since he is talking about prominent skeptics he should at least address what every prominent skeptic I know (Eugenie Scott, Massimo Pigliucci, Michael Shermer, Joe Nickell, and others) who shares my position has to say on this matter.

Here it is (again) – The issue is not with religion or religious-based claims. We address them all the time (creationism, miracles, faith healing, separation of church and state, secular moral philosophy, etc.) Really – we are right there shoulder to shoulder with organized atheists taking on every such issue. It is NOT that religious claims are untestable (some are, some aren’t), it is only that when claims (religious or otherwise) are framed as untestable then they are matters of faith and not science.


On politics, Steve likewise echoes my own feeling:

Issues of freedom vs security, individualism vs collectivism, meritocracy vs egalitarianism are all value judgments. It is not just counterproductive, it is simply wrong to frame these issues as empirical questions objectively resolvable with skeptical analysis.

This is what we mean when we say we don’t deal with purely political issues. We will deal with the empirical aspects of these issues, and try very hard to distinguish them from the inherent value judgments, while trying to avoid blurring the lines between science and personal choice.

By doing this we can have a broad skeptical movement with an important world view that we share as common ground. At the same time we can recognize that skeptics also have differing political views and cultural backgrounds, but we can all exist within the same activist movement. For me our common ground is more important than our differences. I also think our differences strengthen us because they help keep us honest – if we confuse our ideology with skepticism there are other skeptics with a different ideology who are likely to point it out.

This kind of intellectual diversity is not only practical—that’s how coalitions are built for common cause—but in itself valuable. It should be celebrated.

The Legacy of Scientific Skepticism

Steve always takes studious care to avoid speaking in a prescriptive voice, and that laissez-faire approach is emphasized here once again: “I have never endeavored to tell other people what to do with their own activism. … My view–let a thousand lights shine.” By contrast, I realize I’m one of the more prescriptive voices working in skepticism, with my manifesto this and manifesto that. Yet I’m not at all surprised to find substantial similarity between my positions and Steve’s in regard to the issue of diversity of portfolios.

Here’s the deal, seriously: neither I nor Steve nor anyone has any ability whatsoever to take the word “skeptic” away even from outright pseudoscientists and historical revisionists, let alone from the philosophical skeptics who made the word their own millennia before the modern niche movement of scientific skepticism was ever conceived. No one can be denied the right to use the word “skeptic” to describe their attitude of doubt or even mere personal incredulity, about politics or religion or anything else. Nor should anyone feel remotely afraid or inhibited from organizing around any set of values or portfolio of interests that suit them. Anything. Skepticism and faith. Skepticism and anti-theism. Skepticism and silly walks. Fill your boots!

And yet, the tradition Steve and I work in—scientific skepticism—is a thing. A precious, small, useful thing. Steve and I didn’t invent it. Over decades and even centuries, whole careers have been spent developing scientific skepticism, defining its scope, discovering its weaknesses and vulnerabilities and strengths. My own career is no exception, but just another lap with the baton. But this specific race is the thing that I love. This small niche—this small, useful niche of critical science-informed examination of paranormal and fringe science claims—is something worth doing. It helps people! It is worth clarity. It is worth focus. It’s something worth preserving, worth defending.

We owe it to generations of those who came before us in this field to treat their legacy with respect. No one reading this has to share the values of those older skeptics. No one is obligated to carry on their work of scientific skepticism. There are a thousand movements out there, working in service of all manner of values and beliefs. There are million opportunities to invent brave new movements that might speak to each one of us in all of our personal complexity.

But I, personally, make the choice to carry the legacy of scientific skepticism forward. I am literally a “Bigfoot skeptic.” (Cryptids like Bigfoot are the topic of Abominable Science, my upcoming book with Donald Prothero for Columbia University Press.) I’m not ashamed of that. I’m proud of it. I’m honored to play my small part in carrying forward the baton a few more laps. And I can hope that others will carry it forward after us, when our race is done.

I recommend Novella’s post thoroughly.

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19 Responses to “Steven Novella Takes On Some of the Oldest Clichés About Scientific Skepticism—Again”

  1. badrescher says:

    “No one can be denied the right to use the word “skeptic” to describe their attitude of doubt or even mere personal incredulity, about politics or religion or anything else. Nor should anyone feel remotely afraid or inhibited from organizing around any set of values or portfolio of interests that suit them. Anything. Skepticism and faith. Skepticism and anti-theism. Skepticism and silly walks. Fill your boots!”

    Agreed, but with the understanding that nobody has the right to do so without criticism. None of us can dictate the work of other skeptics, and when that straw man is presented, I am always baffled by it. But we are all affected by what people do in the name of “skepticism”. We all have the right, maybe even obligation, to voice our opinions and assessments of public actions.

    • Yes. Additionally, there are good reasons for people to elect to use other, clearer descriptions for their portfolios of interest—and it is fair for scientific skeptics to encourage such disambiguation.

  2. DrJen says:

    Well…I’ll take issue with this particular line: “We owe it to generations of those who came before us in this field to treat their legacy with respect” before folks just blindly attack it (probably on other forums) as an argument from authority or an argumentium from ancientiummess. I’m fond of scientific skepticism because it most closely fits with what I think I can understand and defend based on evidence, without being intellectually dishonest in saying I can dismiss other ideas that I don’t really have evidence for or against. Maybe we just need to carve out a niche, wherein every time I call myself a skeptic, I have to call myself a ‘scientific skeptic’.

  3. Somite says:

    “This small niche—this small, useful niche of critical science-informed examination of paranormal and fringe science claims—is something worth doing.”

    Yes. But this is by no means historically what skeptics or secular humanists have done. Look at Asimov, Clarke and Randi and you will see they would apply skepticism to everything including religion and the paranormal.

    To each their own but demarcation is not representative of the history of skepticism or secular humanism.

    • No—demarcation is exactly what the history shows. It’s just that many skeptics (including myself) have also supported additional movements—faith groups, humanist organizations, or whatever else happened to float their boat.

  4. Adrian Morgan says:

    It’s becoming ever clearer that the term “accommodationism” means such disparate things to different people that it tends to hinder the discussion and perhaps should be avoided.

    To me, accommodationism is an attitude that says, “We might disagree on some things, but where it really counts, we’re basically on the same side”. It’s an attitude of optimism that religious and non-religious groups can work together on a common goal — not as a unity but as an alliance — without in any sense compromising their principles.

    I do think it’s a mistake to think of accommodationism in terms of one particular issue (typically creationism). Everyone has viewpoints they are willing to accommodate (i.e. ally themselves with people who hold them) and circumstances in which they are willing to do so, and it makes no sense to focus on one specific issue and label people based on that.

    If asked to name the individual I think of when I think of accommodationism — an accommodationist prototype as it were — I would name, without hesitation, Eugenie Scott.

  5. Tom Maydon says:

    I find it difficult to disagree with Daniel or Steve’s position – as I take more-or-less a similar stance. I, however, feel that there are those who are obsessed with a consistent and united front amongst skeptics. Why? Why can’t we bring skepticism into politics, economics, business, religion, feminism and moral philosophy if that’s what we feel?

    I see skepticism as a tool or behaviour and not a movement (analogous to hygiene, perhaps).

    Let’s encourage debate and free thinking. Let’s support and accommodate others whose focus may be in fringe-skepticism. Lets not come across as ideologues. If you can look past the irony of this post(!), I believe that many of those identifying as skeptics are becoming increasingly defensive of the “movement” a they see it and this is not healthy either.

  6. Max King says:

    “scientific skepticism—is a thing” – I can’t say that I have ever experienced its thinginess. But I have long been obsessed with “why is it so?” and I discovered (thankfully) at an early age that the rigorous methods of science could lead us to answers – and more questions. Myths, fables, fairy tales were disregarded as childish amusements – religion made no sense. I became imbued with a curiosity, passion for knowledge and understanding that demanded “prove it !”.

    At no stage have I found it necessary to attach a label to my intellectual and emotional needs for “why is it so – prove it”. OK – I’m a sceptic (Australian). It is not a religion; it is not an intellectual badge; it is not rebelliousness; it is me. I do enjoy discovering the ideas and experiences of persons of the same ilk (sceptics). I believe what i believe – but i may be wrong – so i am always seeking to fine-tuning my beliefs .

    The pseudo-scientists, the quacks, the charlatans, the religious cultists, the mystics, the irrationalists, the creationists etc can do as they please. Long ago i learnt never to argue with drunks or fools even though I may find them offensive,obscene, perverse in their ignorance and dogma.

  7. Trimegistus says:

    I don’t actually think there’s a problem with applying a skeptical eye to political and economic issues. What I do mind is when it’s done selectively, with an axe to grind and an agenda to advance. Once skepticism becomes just another part of one party’s machinery, it will have destroyed the only things that gives it authority: honesty and objectivity.

    There’s a quote from some God-botherer screed about “selling your birthright for a mess of pottage” but what do those idiots know about anything?

    • I don’t actually think there’s a problem with applying a skeptical eye to political and economic issues. What I do mind is when it’s done selectively, with an axe to grind and an agenda to advance.

      A good sign that skeptics are not, as a group, able to contribute much to empirical or objective consideration of politics or the functioning of societies is how rarely calls to “tackle politics” are coupled with any reference whatsoever to the peer-reviewed, formal, academic literature of sociology or political science. In my opinion, such calls are instead generally driven by the personal political values of the individual making that call, and by the hope that movement skepticism might embrace and promote those same values.

      • tmac57 says:

        I think the best we can do is to point out or investigate errors of fact,such as: Is the Obama government creating FEMA prisons or planning a secret take-over of all guns and civil rights,or did the Bush government fake the 9/11 terrorist attacks.Those are some dramatic examples,but there are myriad others that are more mundane claims that form people’s opinions of their leaders,that when wrong,also make their opinions based on lies or misinformation.
        If you are going to dislike or like a political party or specific politician,it is better to know if the reasons that you do are in fact based on reality,and not some lie or rhetorical trick that frames them in a negative or positive light.

      • Straightforward, empirical, factual questions have always been considered in scope for scientific skepticism, regardless of any political (or religious!) implications those questions may hold. The JFK assassination, alien crash coverups, Holocaust denial, and climate change “skepticism” are examples that come to mind. This suggests that there’s often legitimately shared ground available between skeptics and various stripes of political activists, for those who wish to find it.

      • Steven Melendez says:

        I recently made a statement on my Facebook wall I posted about Partisan nonsense when it comes to posting about, for example, the recent increase in taxes. Not only was the response from an acquaintance completely uninformed and actually proved the point of the woo some people like to throw out there (“SS taxes are all Obama’s fault… yada yada yada”), it actually added some people to the fold of the same belief in nonsense without research. I also noticed when I back my statements up with researched evidence, it gets thrown out as me just being against a side or whatever the case is… It almost seems like there is no point in attempting to drop a little knowledge on people :-/

      • tmac57 says:

        I hear you Steven. After using Snopes to debunk about the 20th right wing anti-Obama email screed that a friend likes to send,she finally replied that she decided that she will no longer trust Snopes because she heard that they are extremely left wing(notice she couldn’t counter their facts or sources). I get the same blow back when debunking AGW deniers.No matter how reliable the source,if someone is motivated enough by their beliefs,they will find a reason to discount it.

  8. Dave Rockwell says:

    Someday there will be (I devoutly hope) a general, worldwide agreement on standards for establishing objective knowledge – what Karl Popper called the logic of scientific discovery. If that occurs, the various distinctions of skepticism become unnecessary, and our species will be able to actually advance our well-being and stability in more than just a material and technological way. In the meantime, clear thought and dispassionate criticism (and the promotion of same) is the duty of all those capable of it.

    • Steven Melendez says:

      Agreed. I could only hope that one day, maybe even in my life, I can see what would happen if people just worked together to increase scientific knowledge.

    • un tacon says:

      Dave, even standards need to be open to revision when understanding grows out of them. Otherwise think of the misuse to which such standards could be put in invalidating and silencing potential breakthroughs. We’re not omniscient so what we hold, we should hold tentatively (except that we’re not omniscient.) At the same time we should also be able to float rawer hypotheses for correction without having them summarily rejected by means of the application narrow criteria that will likely become outdated in the future.

  9. David Dittemore says:

    Amen Steven.As an ex christian I non-the less love many of the writtings and admonitions fron the christian book, one of my favorits being,”come and let us reason togeather” If we enter into a discussion with the assumtion that we already know the truth,we are unable to learn anything. It is written that Socrates always claimed that he knew nothing?????

  10. GaryC says:

    I guess I disagree with what seems to be an implied premise in your (and Steven’s) argument about the limits of skepticism: the idea that there is a clear and unambiguous concept of testability.
    Further, I disagree that the concept of skepticism should be limited and defined by this concept. I would suggest as an alternative that skepticism is a mechanism for weighing probabilities with as open a mind as possible – weighing facts and using judgement (yes judgement) to come up with a view on how likely it is for something to be true.

    “It is NOT that religious claims are untestable (some are, some aren’t), it is only that when claims (religious or otherwise) are framed as untestable then they are matters of faith and not science.”

    The reality is that ANYTHING can be rendered “untestable” if you make the right assumptions to start with. Example – the Bigfoot species is an inter-dimensional creature that largely lives in another dimension and when he/she dies returns to that dimension. Is that “testable”? Well, yes I guess, if you have access to a Bigfoot. Without such access though, it’s not really testable and so this area of skepticism seems to fall outside what you consider to be your purview (and I agree is a legitimate subject for skepticism).

    Religion is in EXACTLY the same class. Can you *disprove* it? No. Can you look at all the surrounding facts, including such things as the stitching together of all sorts of pre-christian stories to cobble together a book that has then been rewritten and translated manually into many different versions, each with a massive number of internal inconsistencies, and with a decidedly horoscope-esque tendendecy toward individual interpretation, and determine that it is extremely unlikley that the bible is the word of God? Yes. Can you look around and ask the question – if there were a God (at least in the theist sense), wouldn’t there be likley to be some kind of more visible pattern of His existence? Does the concept of “we can’t understand God’s will” really make sense or does it smack of an attempt to silence real inquiry?
    Shying away from this legitimate questioning and weighing of probabilities does a great disservice to humanity and perpetuates the often subtle but usually important negative effect religion has on so many aspects of our lives.

    Ultimately the (in my opinion) concept of “skepticism” must include the concept of probability or likelihood based on well informed subjective opinion. Even if impossible to prove something, it is usually possible to feel your way towards a more reasoned and probable scenario if you do your best to keep an open mind and look at facts as dispassionately as possible. While we all know that we carry different biased and lenses that distort perception, being aware of this fact and embracing the opportunity to identify and discard these biases in light of a fair weighing of the most objective facts available is what really defines a true skeptic, rather than a narrow definition couched as pseudo-objectivity.