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Skeptic on Skeptic

by Steven Novella, Oct 05 2009

Last week Brian Dunning wrote a thoughful piece about the proper way to give constructive feedback to other skeptics when you disagree with them. His post resulted in a hot debate in the comments section – a discussion I thought deserved a longer response than I could cram into a comment, so I am responding here.

What I found most interesting reading through the comments was that most people had legitimate points to make, even when they disagreed. In my opinion this is because we are dealing with a situation in which there are cross purposes or competing, although legitimate, interests.

Specifically, Brian was making the point that as a movement with common goals (promoting science education, counteracting misinformation from ideologues and charlatans, for example) it is in our best interest to be constructive and discrete in our internal criticism, rather than showboating for apparent attention.

On the other hand, science and intellectual honesty are among our core values, and these require transparent and open criticism. Open self-criticism strengthens the movement, it does not weaken it.

I find myself simultaneously agreeing with both points of view, not because I am wishy-washy and don’t like taking firm positions (I hope my reputation has established that much) but because both points of view are valid. It seems the only option is to seek a thoughtful and nuanced compromise – which is difficult to do, and harder to communicate.

Herding Cats

There is no wonder that Michael Shermer has characterized organizing skeptics as akin to “herding cats.” We as a group are like Groucho Marx who quipped that he would not join any group that would have him as a member. The skeptical movement, as we loosely call it, is made of people who generally don’t like belonging to groups or being tagged with labels, and certainly don’t like being told what to think, say, or write. We are rugged individualists of intellectualism, and proud of it. (In fact, some skeptics have even objected to calling what we do a “movement” or who bristle at any suggestion of organization.)

In fact, I sometimes get a bit nervous when I find myself in the majority of public opinion on any issue (not scientific or expert consensus, but mass opinion). This makes me wonder if I am adequately informed and have thought through my opinions, or just absorbed them from the culture. I’m not saying the public is always wrong, but rather admitting the tendency to take pride in having a minority opinion that was earned through careful study and consideration.

Before anyone bothers to accuse me of it – yes, this is intellectual elitism, but in a good way – valuing intellect and hard work. This is no different than valuing athletic or artistic achievements earned through skill and hard work.

The point of this is to paint the context of the debate prompted by Brian’s post – skeptics value their intellectual independence. We also recognize that constructive criticism is vital to science and any open intellectual pursuit.

All Together Now

But at the same time we are not just sitting around in our virtual drawing rooms contemplating abstract concepts. We are trying to change the world, to make it a better place, to raise the level of scientific understanding and appreciation among the public, and to counter anti-scientific agendas from ideologues and the purveyors of pseudoscience. We are trying to do stuff, together.

In my opinion this makes us colleagues. Obviously this is a continuum, and not everyone who reads a skeptical blog is engaged in the skeptical movement. But, if you have a skeptical blog, a podcast, run local meetings, post you-tube videos, or whatever – to some extent, you are a colleague in the skeptical movement.

In my opinion, it is appropriate for colleagues to extend to each other a certain amount of courtesy. It is certainly not “required” (whatever that could mean in this context) but does reflect a certain amount of savvy and maturity.

I will tell you specifically how I typically extend courtesy to my skeptical colleagues. When the Bill Maher-AAI controversy reared its ugly head, I did not immediately fire off a scathing criticism of the AAI (who I actually consider a tangential colleague, as they are an atheist and not strictly skeptical group, but in any case). I had a discussion with some other colleagues about how to respond. And prior to any public response we wrote to Richard Dawkins and the AAI to get their side of the story and give them a chance to respond.

I then publicly come out against the AAI for giving Maher a “science” award only after they had a chance to respond to our privately expressed concerns.

As a general rule I will always try to give constructive feedback to my fellow skeptics before going public with criticism. Venue also plays a role – if we are having a public conversation (on a forum, in blog comments) I won’t censor the dynamic back and forth.

Another aspect of courtesy is to give each other a little benefit of the doubt. I won’t immediately assume the worst about a colleague simply because they get something wrong and start accusing them of not being skeptical. I admit, I find those accusations the most counterproductive. I will simply assume that they are reasonable and open, and present them with evidence or arguments of which they might not be aware. I treat them as I would want to be treated – not publicly swat them down the moment they step over some imaginary line.

Others have extended this courtesy to me also – and it can be public, as long as it’s polite and not an attack. I frequently make factual errors in my blog, and have had colleagues point out these errors in the comments section – to which I respond – thanks, I have made the appropriate fixes. It’s all good.

But I would have been pissed if they instead wrote an attacking blog accusing me of deliberately omitting information in order to promote my ideology, or of generally being a bad skeptic. That has happened to me also, but not by anyone I respect. That is what the jerks over at the Discovery Institute or Age of Autism do – not us.

Further I try to have the humility to consider that maybe I am wrong. And so my initial contact with my skeptical colleague is more to ask questions and gather information, to discuss the question with them to see what is correct, not just assume I am right and they are wrong.

I am also not pretending to be perfect in this regard. I am sure I stepped on some toes over the years – I produce so much unscripted content that it’s bound to happen. But these are the ideals of courtesy I strive for.

Some of the commenters to Brian’s blog pointed out that they don’t feel like colleagues – like those of us who are more prominent in the skeptical movement are inaccessible. I can understand why someone might assume this perspective. It is a natural default perspective to take. I certainly don’t feel as if I can shoot off an e-mail to Bill Maher and expect that he will read it and respond.

But I will say that the skeptical movement is small and intimate as movements go. I know we all try to be as accessible as possible. I read every e-mail I get and make a priority of responding to polite constructive criticism.

So partly my answer is – you are a colleague if you act and behave like one, and we are likely to treat you accordingly. Yes, I am overloaded with e-mails and comments to monitor, so don’t take it personally if I don’t immediately respond to an e-mail. Have some patience. But generally the skeptics I know are engaged in activist skepticism because they like communicating, and they genuinely want to be open and accessible.

But on the other hand

But while we are being polite to each other, we should also be uncompromising when it comes to factual accuracy. No one is suggesting otherwise, and Brian was explicit on this point. Open discussion, even conflict and disagreement, is a good thing. It is part of science and skepticism, and it makes our movement intellectually healthy.

I also think it is OK to show this to the public, and perhaps I differ a bit from Brian here. I don’t think a united front is as important as a collegial front. It might even be to our advantage to show that we happily and openly disagree and correct each other.

Rather, I think colleagues should not attack each other in public without fair warning. There may be a fuzzy line there, but one worth contemplating.


This is a complex issue and I welcome the discussion that Brian’s post has prompted. It reflects the mixed feedback I have received over the years. To summarize what I think are the main points:

  • Scientific skeptics are an intellectually diverse group. This diversity is welcome and a sign of the intellectual health and openness of skepticism as a philosophy.
  • Generally we welcome open self-criticism in the spirit of scientific methodology, honesty, transparency, and valuing truth over conformity.
  • Individual skeptics have a variety of relationships and attitudes toward organized skepticism.
  • Like it or not, there is a skeptical movement. Humans are political and social animals and we instinctively organize ourselves as a way to pursue common goals and promote (or at least defend) a common world view.
  • If you want to function as a member of the skeptical movement, your colleagues will likely expect a certain amount of common courtesy (just like in any social construct).  This means exercising some maturity and humility and keeping criticism constructive. It does not mean censoring legitimate criticism or alternate or even minority viewpoints.

Of course, this is just my opinion.

44 Responses to “Skeptic on Skeptic”

  1. Max says:

    Dr. Novella, do you agree with Michael Shermer that “second hand smoke has not been proven to cause serious lung illnesses”?

    • Max, one must also take a skeptic’s, or claimed skeptic’s background into mind. Given that years ago, already, Shermer repeated part of an urban legend about QWERTY vs. DVORAK keyboards and speed, in one of his earlier books, and given that now, in his defenses of economic libertarianism, he seems to deliberately ignore behavioral economics and psychology, why are you, in essence, citing him as a source?

  2. Chad says:

    Max, I don’t usually bother commenting on blog posts, but I just had to ask: What, exactly, does your comment have to do with the price of eggs in China?

  3. Max – that’s a complex question, but I don’t think I would have summarized the data that way. What does “not been proven” mean? First, you have to break this down by illness. If you take lung cancer, then reviews state that there is weak and disputable evidence for a link (and probably that is what Michael was referring to). But other data shows that SHC increases the risk of many problems, like asthma attacks and heart attacks, and that banning public smoking has statistical health benefits.

    Assuming your context – I had not read that post previously. That is the kind of factual point that I think there is no problem having public disagreements about. Also – it was an offhand comment, not the focus of the post, so I assume Michael did not take great care in crafting an optimal summary of this complex set of data.

  4. DocB says:

    A nice and thoughtful post. To add my two cents worth: I think that conflicts like the one that made Brian Dunning write his piece are a direct consequence of the fact that the skeptical movement (no quotation marks, that is what I see it as) is growing. It is getting harder to talk to the prominent people in person, and that in turn makes it easier to attack them from afar.

    Since our movement seems to recruit its members mostly from a subgroup of the population generally known as “geeks”, social graces are not always a given. And that may be where our celebrities’ responsibility lies: You cannot answer every fanboys/girls e-mails or tweets, and you cannot discuss every nuance of every blog post with every commenter. But you set the tone. And as long as that tone is as thoughtful and friendly as that of most of the prominent skeptics, we can easily ignore the occasional person who tries to replace arguments by volume.

  5. stargazer9915 says:

    If only everyone would take this view on discourse, the world would be a less violent place. Unfortunately, not even the closest of friends and collegues can can take this point of view 100% of the time. It is, however, nice to see a level head out there defending science with a reasonable and rationale approach.

  6. Steven, I’m pleased to see you address this important issue. I think you’re right: it does deserve more than a comment lost in a sea of comments. My own thoughts on this issue are similar to yours: both things are true.

    Because skepticism is an endeavor that requires scientific respectability, it is necessary for us to maintain a high level of accuracy — and a very low level of pseudoscientific kookieness. For that we need all available mechanisms: open criticism, collegial feedback, and a culture that encourages skeptics to be slow and cautious in the first place (especially outside our own areas of domain expertise).

    At the same time, as you say: a skeptical movement exists, like it or not. (I happen to like it.) Moreover, it is a practical movement, an attempt to do stuff. That subset of the skeptical project is not a purely academic exercise, but an advocacy effort. For this, as for any advocacy effort, communication matters — which means presentation matters.

    You’ve put it very optimistically here, which I’m pleased to see. (I’d characterized it as “damned if we do, damned if we don’t.”) It is a tough nut to crack. To do our job we must defer to the science and stay focussed on our core issues. If our colleagues make scientific misstatements, we must disagree. At the same time, in working to maintain that focus and scientific responsibility, it matters how we go about disagreeing.

    We alienate supporters and the public whenever we are sloppy on the science — and alienate them just as much we are seen not to be able to get our act together.

    • Max says:

      What’s your area of domain expertise, and do you often go outside it?
      What domains cover paranormal topics, UFOs, or conspiracy theories?

      • Max asks:

        What’s your area of domain expertise, and do you often go outside it?

        I try not to venture beyond my areas of expertise, at least from my skeptical platforms. (I of course have personal opinions about many things, including ethics and politics.)

        I have three areas of domain expertise, developed through either formal study or professional experience. Of these, two (sheep herding and visual art) are not relevant here.

        The third is “pseudoscience and the paranormal.” Although this draws on the expertise of many many domains, this is also a specialized area of study with a specialized literature — and much basic research left undone.

        Can anyone declare themselves an expert on these topics? Sure — many people do, most of them paranormal proponents. And, there is no specific accreditation available to separate enthusiasts from professional scholars. However, there is serious scholarship done in this field. Unknown historical documents are discovered and described, hypotheses are tested, and so on, in an effort to get to the bottom of these claims.

        It’s an area studied by very few critical researchers. If it were a better established field, other scholars would no doubt have much greater expertise. As it stands, so many basic questions remain unanswered that my own modest contributions are of some value. If I’m writing about evolution, I can (and must) consult experts. If I’m writing about the Thetis Lake Monster, pyramid power, or Cadborosaurus, I must often break new ground.

        On topics outside of the Wild West of paranormal claims, I defer to the actual scientific experts. Does HIV cause AIDS, or second-hand smoke cause disease? Is human activity the leading cause of climate change? On questions of this type, my personal opinions are utterly irrelevant. The science is what it is. The most I as a skeptic can do is report the state of qualified expert opinion on the science.

      • Adam_Y says:

        “What domains cover paranormal topics, UFOs, or conspiracy theories?”
        That is a loaded question. Almost every single science can fall under those three topics.

  7. Cthandhs says:

    Nice follow-up post. You described precisely what I was attempting to say in my comment on Mr. Dunning’s post. We need to treat each other as colleagues so we can build a trust relationship between people who consider ourselves part of the Skeptical Movement. I always attempt (though not always successfully) to keep my mode of communication professional. No one wants to be treated badly by their colleagues, volunteer or otherwise.

  8. Chris says:

    Steven, good article. I would like to know if you consider global warming denial to be a legitimate matter of debate for skeptics, given your comment on public opinion versus scientific consensus.


  9. Brian M says:

    We can take a play from the apologetics books, and not show a “unified front”. That is, whenever you argue with a fundie about something, you must first get their opinion. They all have a different opinion, so if you try to call them out on the standard apologetics, you get “I don’t believe that”, and you look like a fool… We can do the same if we are diverse enough. Not that its a great tactic, but is a nice way to diffuse them when they rail against us.

    I most definitely don’t like when there is a heated argument that amounts to a good article being responded to with “YOU LIE!”. Just like youtube comments. Half of them are “Great”, and half of them are “You suck, go die”. Few are actually constructive (probably because their comments section is so short). I guess they are trying to get the discussions into videos, which are youtube’s bread and butter.

    Besides, in an open discussion, you can get the reasoning and line of thinking of both sides, and make up your own mind. If someone goes from “XYZ is correct”, then suddenly “XYZ is not correct”, without the material in between, you have no reason to agree with their new assertion unless it is spelled out. An open discussion implicitly provides this, without having to explain the new reasoning.

    So, constructive and open good. Destructive and open bad. Anything in a closed discussion, be it constructive or destructive, is bad.

  10. JonA says:

    Keep in mind, before you publicly rake a fellow skeptic over the coals for getting something wrong, keep in mind that most of us are doing this for free. Few people earn money being a skeptic. If people start to get nasty with each other, then we’ll have fewer active participants. We need all the help we can get!

    I speak from personal experience. A member of my group wrote a great article for our site, then some atheist blogger goes and writes an article (trying) to tear the article apart. He never contacted us for clarification, or to inform us of any perceived error. It took a long time before we got another article from the original writer. Why bother to take the time to write about these issues if people will just crap on it?

    • I think that is a very important point. We need all the help we can get — and nobody wants to work (especially for free!) in sub-culture that feels toxic.

  11. Jim Lippard says:

    Part of what I think this illustrates is that the more weight you carry in skepticism by being a leader or widely read public figure, the more careful you need to be about your criticism (as well as your skeptical work!). The effect of a strong criticism from, say, P.Z. Myers, is going to not only be more potent in its own right since it will be widely read, but have powerful side-effects from the wave of commenters that are likely to be unleashed as a result.

  12. MadScientist says:

    I’m still wondering what blog Brian was referring to and why he wouldn’t point out which blog. People can look and decide for themselves; no need to hide all that stuff from us old kiddies.

  13. Brian says:

    I don’t think a united front is as important as a collegial front. It might even be to our advantage to show that we happily and openly disagree and correct each other.


  14. From JonA, post #10: “Keep in mind, before you publicly rake a fellow skeptic over the coals for getting something wrong, keep in mind that most of us are doing this for free. Few people earn money being a skeptic. If people start to get nasty with each other, then we’ll have fewer active participants. We need all the help we can get!”

    Not necessarily so.

    The skeptical movement when I enlisted in the late 1960s consisted primarily of a few obscure print magazines and obligatory interviews as ‘the sober view’ after putative paranormal or ufological news events. In 2009, the movement endeavors, as it should, to take advantage of every media vehicle available: televison shows, books, magazines, websites, blogs, newsletters, podcasts, etc., and large, well-attended skeptical conferences abound. The primary method for the Unknown Skeptic to go public is with a website or blog, usually in hopes of entering the pantheon of ‘name’ blogs, with a goal of becoming a ‘name’ skeptic. While selfless desires to provide quality skeptical material provide motivation to differing degrees, few would deny desires for the heady prospects of personal fame or fortune. It is human nature, no matter the field.

    Much, perhaps most, of the skeptical media presence is in the west, primarily in the US. The US protects free speech. Those who know media and public relations well will acknowledge the value of controversy as among the quickest pathways towards self-promotion. Best advice for a flagging TV or movie career? Go get arrested for something, then hit the talk shows. The small-time skeptical blog with big-time aspirations will not increase readership with quiet affirmations of the work of ‘bigger’ skeptics. Where ambitions overrule collegial norms among skeptical bloggers, we will continue to see ambush critical pieces. They cannot be regulated or otherwise controlled. They will not be deterred by peer castigations over issues of etiquette; they proceed will full awareness, choosing guerilla methods to gain attention.

    The skeptical movement began as a collective of outsiders seeking to remediate the poorly informed status quo among the assorted topics with presentation of quality science, a respect for evidences, and the power of critical thinking. Now, so many decades later, the skeptical movement has grown sufficiently to stand as its own establishment, with its own ‘stars’, and the outsiders who would shake its battlements come from within, considered outsiders by many due only to their lack of fame. But almost the entire construct – the skeptical movement, its media stars, its vectors for public connection, etc. – exists within that huge conglomeration called ‘media’. Media means publicity. Media means hits. Media means ratings. Media means money. By needs, this is the arena within which the skeptical movement must operate, and therein lies the greatest risk facing the skeptical movement today – the corruptive and pollutive power of The Media and all its trappings, every aspect of which holds equal power to either illuminate and empower or to corrupt and render foul.

    Ambush skeptical criticism will not go away. It is made permanent by human nature and the nature of media. The movement needs to learn to live with it on page one, not relegated, for it cannot and will not be relegated.

    The powers that be within The Skeptical Movement would do well to scrutinize less these ‘outsider’ guerilla bloggers, and more its own primary media stars, because without due diligence, the corruptive powers of media enmeshment will one day bite us all on our collective ass. A good place to start would be for each of the ‘name’ skeptics to privately consider whether they attained their fame by public acclaim due to great works – or by dint of media promotion.

    We have met the enemy and…….

    • kabol says:

      The skeptical movement when I enlisted in the late 1960s…

      and here i had you pegged as a witty young whippersnapper.

  15. I’ve noticed a pattern in recent posts and replies and, being new to this blog, I’m curious to know if it a pattern consciously promulgated. To wit, it seems to be assumed through all this that any disagreement or discussion among skeptics concerns only matters of “fact”, while disagreement or discussion with or among non-skeptics concerns mainly matters of “opinion”. So the question, when one skeptic thinks another has “erred”, concerns the means by which one skeptic should “correct” another.

    I think this makes things entirely too easy.

    What if self-identified skeptics disagree not on some matter of fact but on a matter of principle, including the meaning of ‘skepticism’ itself? Such things are not matters of fact, nor are they mere differences of opinion about which there can be no debate . . . or so I would contend.

    Is there room in the “skeptical movement” for such questions? If not, how is skepticism to avoid becoming just one more form of unthinking dogma?

    The main article of faith, as I see it, is that the natural sciences are the only legitimate form of critical, intersubjective inquiry.

    I respectfully disagree, though I think other forms of inquiry – such as ethical inquiry – must be rigorous and critical in their own particular ways. Note well: This is not a disagreement that can be “corrected” by appeal to “facts”

    • Chris says:

      Well, I think you’re right here about morals and ethics. People can be perfectly rational and still be murderous. Right and wrong aren’t about facts.

      I wouldn’t bring faith into it though. People believe in science because it has been shown to work, time and time again. Now, the application of science is a different story, obviously. Any tool, from a knife, to a gun, to a nuclear device, can be used for evil. That doesn’t make science evil, though.

      • Okay, I was being facetious in calling it an “article of faith”. Still, the underlying assumption, tacit or explicit, on the part of many mainstream skeptics seems to be that the natural sciences constitute the only legitimate form of critical inquiry.

        This is a bold philosophical doctrine. Even allowing that it is unproblematically true that the natural sciences are a very useful and very powerful form of critical inquiry, it does not follow that they stand alone as such.

        But all of this is beside the point of this discussion. What I’d really like to know is, 1) whether there can be dissent within the “skeptical movement” even on basic philosophical questions about the meaning and scope of skepticism, and 2) whether it is not appropriate to raise such questions openly.

        I would contend that such questions can only be asked openly. If two avowed skeptics disagree on a matter of fact, the quiet, back-channel discussion may resolve the issue. But if two avowed skeptics disagree on a matter of principle, is there any other way to address that disagreement than in the open forum?

        And here’s the deeper question: Need we resolve such disagreements at all? Just how big is the skeptics’ tent?

      • Robert Kirkman says:

        What I’d really like to know is, 1) whether there can be dissent within the “skeptical movement” even on basic philosophical questions about the meaning and scope of skepticism…

        There is broad consensus among skeptics that science trumps other methods of inquiry into verifiable fact claims. Honestly, I’d be a little impatient with arguments to the contrary. (I’m reminded of the old line, “Even postmodernists look both ways before crossing the street.”)

        From there it gets much more complicated. Skeptics argue fiercely about what subjects constitute “verifiable fact claims,” whether skepticism as an endeavor should focus on certain types of fact claims and not others, and so on.

        The most divisive disagreements are, as you’d expect, over subjective value issues — politics and ethics. Although everyone agrees that science (or at least reasoned argument) can inform politics and ethics, there is zero consensus on what emerges from that process.

        Does “true skepticism” lead inexorably to certain ethical or political views? Some succumb to the temptation to say, “Yes, it leads to my own belief X.” Others argue that science supports belief Y. Still others contend that either such arguments are off-topic for skepticism, or that it is inappropriate to claim a scientific endorsement to personal values, or both.

      • The question for me is not whether “scientific skepticism” leads to particular ethical and political views. Rather, the question is whether there is a broader skepticism of which “scientific skepticism” is just one part.

        I consider myself a skeptic in an especially broad sense of the term. My skepticism begins, really, in the domain of ethical and political inquiry. These are not the province of mere “opinion”, but the province of considered judgment, nuanced interpretation, and careful weighing of argument.

        There’s also an awful lot of dogmatic hooey in ethical discourse. I see a fair bit of it in my own field of study, environmental ethics, and only some of it can be traced to “junk science”. Some of it is more “junk ethics.” I’ve been trying to spur my colleagues to do better than this, to always ask the next, deeper, more critical question, to “continue the inquiry” (as Sextus put it).

        As I now see it, one of the most fruitful areas of debate among those who consider themselves skeptics concerns the interaction of these modes of inquiry – roughly the “two cultures” of C.P. Snow.

        From a philosophical point of view, for example, I have serious concerns about the easy distinction between “fact” and “opinion” on which so many mainstream skeptic draw. I think we need to ask the next, more critical question . . . which is why I have been responding to these blog entries.

        Are we allowed to ask such questions?

      • Robert,

        Actually, the skeptical movement, for as long as I have been involved, has had a continuous internal debate about the scope of skepticism. One of the national groups, CSI (the center for skeptical inquiry) is pretty much dedicated to the notion that skeptical inquiry should be applied to all areas of life and intellectual pursuit.

        I find skeptics all across the spectrum on this point, and while we continue to debate about it, many of us have just taken the “agree to disagree” approach – I pursue skepticism in my own way, but it is not objectively “correct” and so I am very tolerant of others who wish to pursue it in a different way.

        So, in short, I think your premise is simply wrong.

      • Steven,

        By “my premise”, I take it you mean my contention that “mainstream” skeptics take the natural sciences to be the only legitimate form of critical inquiry.

        Fair enough. It was really more of a question: Do mainstream skeptics believe this?

        Your answer is “no”, and that’s encouraging. Two quick observations, though:

        1. Much of what a read from mainstream skeptics, in this blog and elsewhere, is shot through with language that strongly implies an exclusive focus on the natural sciences, starting with the cringe-inducing language of “fact” and “opinion”.

        2. To come back to the point of this entire thread of discussion: If we all just agree to disagree, does that mean we can get along only by cutting off entire areas of really interesting inquiry and debate? And why do that? To provide the illusion of a unified front?

        (This last point reminds me a little too much of my family, which got along as well as it did, in part, because my atheist-socialist maternal grandfather and my conservative-Christian father had an unspoken agreement never to discuss politics, religion, or any other matter of real intellectual interest ever under any circumstances.)

  16. I agree with every word of Steve’s post. He made the point I tried to make, and made it much better than I did.

  17. Rob Miles says:

    You’re wrong, Mr. Dunning; Mr. Novella did NOT make the point better than you! I can’t believe how wrong you are! Did you not do ANY research?! You put the whole skeptical movement in a bad light with ridiculous accusations (against yourself) like this!

    Heh heh. Sorry.

  18. Robert – Point #2 in your latest reply was already addressed in my previous response. I think you will see that if you read it again.

    In my main post I specifically advocated a “collegial” front, rather than a united front. So I am explicitly not recommending a united front.

    In my latest reply I specifically said that we continue to debate the scope of the skeptical movement, while tolerating a broad range of opinions on that question (which by necessity means we tolerate a broad scope).

    I suspect there is just sampling bias, and perhaps confirmation bias, in your observation. Michael ventures into politics. Penn & Teller venture into politics and religion. PZ Myers ventures into religion. Massimo Pigliucci is a philosopher. Orac frequently deals with historical topics. CSI explicitly endorses the application of skeptical inquiry into all areas.

    I focus my attention on the sciences only because that is my area of interest and expertise. But I will occasionally venture into ethics, economics, history, philosophy, and legal issues. The probability of me being corrected by experts increases, however, as I venture further beyond my comfort zone.

    There is probably an overrepresentation of natural scientists among currently active skeptics – but that should not be interpreted as a deliberate statement or limitation of scope.

    • Steven Novella says:

      There is probably an overrepresentation of natural scientists among currently active skeptics – but that should not be interpreted as a deliberate statement or limitation of scope.

      This may be an example of the ongoing debate about scope: while many skeptics broadly agree that non-testable claims are outside of our scope, there is vigorous disagreement about how much in “ethics, economics, history, philosophy, and legal issues” can be considered testable — and to what degree skepticism is equipped to investigate these areas.

      I agree with Steven that the likelihood of error rises as we drift further from our areas of core expertise. I’d add that the further skeptics drift from investigation (science, history, investigative journalism) toward punditry, the greater the odds that we’ll catch ourselves promoting unfounded opinion from skeptical platforms. (I hasten to note that Steven is known to be quite cautious in this respect.)

      • We’re still dancing around the issue I’m trying to raise here. Let me try to get at it this way.

        I’m not asking whether “scientific skeptics” every try to use natural-scientific modes of “testing” in other domains. I’m asking whether critical thinking in those domains *using other modes of critical intersubjective inquiry* fits within the scope of skepticism as defined on this site and elsewhere.

        A few questions of ethics may be amenable to natural-scientific, empirical testing, certainly. I don’t think all of them are. However, I would contend that there are still standards of reasoning that apply, so that some answers to key questions can be established as better than others.

        In short, ethics deals neither in “facts” in the narrow sense often employed by skeptics nor in “opinions” in the sense of beliefs about which there can be no reasoned argument.

      • Skepticism and the movement built on it are not well-equipped to address untestable questions. Yes, some ethical arguments are better than others, but skepticism does not seek to establish “better” — only to discover whether claimed natural phenomena actually occur. I think you’re trying to sew with a hammer.

      • A suitably dismissive answer.

        I am trying to ask about the scope of the meaning of the term “skepticism”, and you reply by brushing my question aside with the assertion of a very narrow understanding of what skepticism can be.

        How am I supposed to reply?

      • Loxton says:

        Robert Kirkman says:

        I am trying to ask about the scope of the meaning of the term “skepticism”, and you reply by brushing my question aside with the assertion of a very narrow understanding of what skepticism can be.

        I don’t wish to sound dismissive. It just happens that I actually advocate a very narrow understanding of what skepticism should be.

        There are many schools of thought on this topic. I am one of those who favor a very focussed, traditional view: the skeptics movement as an organized attempt to A) promote science literacy, and B) pursue consumer protection in regards to paranormal and pseudoscientific claims (investigation of claims, publication of results, consumer advocacy and lobbying based on that literature). You can read an essay in which I make my pitch for that limited scope for skepticism. But in any event we’re getting very far off topic from Steven’s post. Perhaps another venue at another time?

      • Daniel Loxton wrote: “But in any event we’re getting very far off topic from Steven’s post. Perhaps another venue at another time?”

        I think my questions germane, in that I was trying to find the limit cases of skeptics criticizing other skeptics, in public or in private.

        But I’ll stop now.

      • tmac57 says:

        Robert, rather that ask such a general question that is open to misinterpretation, could you give a specific example of what you are getting at? How would you describe: *using other modes of critical intersubjective inquiry* ?

      • Well, what are we doing here? We’re trying to work out the scope and meaning of an abstract concept. More deeply, we’re trying to answer questions about what’s real and about whether and how we can get access to what’s real.

        These are not scientific questions, and we cannot answer them by an appeal to empirical fact. We have to think, and discuss; offer arguments and replies, attempt to reframe the problem as possible; eventually, we may seek some common ground.

        That discourse can be skeptical, I would say, as long a we unwilling to settle for obvious answers, as long as we are willing to ask the next, more difficult question, as long as we demand clear thinking and cogent argument.

        (This is how I approach my own field of study, environmental ethics, much to the annoyance of my colleagues. I won’t let the simply posit, for example, that anthropocentrism is bad.)

        I am also unwilling to accept dogmatic empiricism or positivism in approach to questions about the scope and limits of human understanding.

        So, what dogmas are you (all) harboring?

      • Max says:

        Robert, the “freethinking” community may be a better fit for you.

        The skeptic movement, I hope, promotes scientific skepticism, not philosophical skepticism.
        “Empirical or scientific skeptics do not profess philosophical skepticism. Whereas a philosophical skeptic may deny the very existence of knowledge, an empirical skeptic merely seeks likely proof before accepting that knowledge.”

      • Max,

        In other words, I should go away and leave you alone?

        The thing is, I’m generally supportive of the aims of the (narrow) “skeptical movement”, even if I’m . . .um . . . skeptical of some of the dogmatic epistemological and, yes, metaphysical commitments of many of its most prominent adherents. (Scientific naturalism is a metaphysical doctrine, dress it up as you will.)

        My question, stemming from this post and its predecessor, was only whether it’s okay for self-described scientific skeptics and their fellow travelers to bring up this sort of thing in public, to question or criticize one another on these grounds.

        From the replies I’ve received, I’d have to say the answer is “no”.

      • tmac57 says:

        Robert, for my part, I would just say “come on in the waters fine!” , just don’t expect to go unchallenged. The main thing that I expect from participants is civility and intellectual honesty, not necessarily agreement.

  19. If we numbered 100, all in agreement, 99 would be unnecessary.

  20. Vie says:

    What is it with guys and always being concerned about the size of their paddles?
    No one owns critical thinking. It isn’t a political party or a religion. From my experience, when people attempt to create a false sense of unity among disparate individuals it’s usually because they wish to distract those individuals from the real issue.
    My reason for being a skeptic has nothing to do with belonging to a club or subculture. I resent organizations and individuals who attempt to distort or invent “facts” to try to sell me on their cause. I dislike flaky New Agers who bilk innocent, vulnerable people out of money through dubious spiritual practices and alternative medicines. I can’t stand befuddled, soggy-minded pseudo-intellectuals who circulate garbage science because it provides an excuse for their failures. I challenge Pollyannas who perpetuate fuzzy daydreams because they represent a world they personally want to believe in. In my opinion, everyone (particularly authorities), are beholden to facts. I believe people who misrepresent facts need to be challenged.
    I have disputed some of Shermer’s posts because there were elements of his theories that didn’t make sense or contradicted known facts. Occasionally, the information Shermer presented was simply incomplete, such as the information concerning Chagnon’s ethnography. The result of incomplete information is that it can be misleading. Whether this is intentional or not- I can’t say.
    It certainly has nothing to do with whether or not I like Shermer or his politics. In fact, Shermer was one of my heroes- but heroes can still be wrong.
    I resent your attempt to dissuade criticisms by lumping us into a group with some hazy, barely articulated group agenda. We’re all in a canoe that’s headed presumably in the same direction? I thought that the goal was to cut through nonsense and reach facts. To use your analogy, objective factual reality would be our shore.
    We may all be in the same canoe, and some parties may be paddling like heck, but in my opinion they’re paddling in the opposite direction when they post garbage science. Paddling like heck BACKWARDS isn’t helpful to anyone’s cause.
    What are our goals as a group, if not to question and challenge?
    As to your argument about bringing an issue to the offending party privately, rather than publicly, I say this: If they were saying it privately, I would be more than happy to address it privately. If the information has already been disseminated to the public in whatever form, then I am no longer addressing the offending party- I’m addressing the public reading the information.
    In my opinion, the scientists who post on this blog (and others)already had ample time to get their facts straight and review their post. If they failed to do so then that’s unfortunate, but their readers shouldn’t have to pay the difference.

  21. Kitapsiz says:

    Quoted from, Promoting Science and Critical Thinking. (Copyright © 1992–2009).
    Retrieved October 13, 2009, from Skeptic: Official Web site:

    “Modern skepticism is embodied in the scientific method, which involves gathering data to formulate and test naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena. A claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement. But all facts in science are provisional and subject to challenge, and therefore skepticism is a method leading to provisional conclusions.”

    As such, this does not leave completely outside the realm, the area of ethics. Especially with due consideration of the philosophical root of critical thinking in the arts of logic, reasoning, and inference for claims or statements.

    As long as a domain is handled with proper professional discipline, and considering that “skepticism” itself is an offshoot of Socratic inquiry methodologies …

    How much claim does one have to being a skeptic, if they ignore the foundation of the discipline itself?