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.