Sunday, August 7, 2011

Skepticism and Values

I've been meaning to write something in response to Daniel Loxton's Skepticblog post on the scope of the skeptical movement for some time now, but having been otherwise distracted with work and the seemingly endless Elevatorgate feuding, PZ Myers has beaten me to the punch.  And while I sympathize, to an extent, with Loxton's desire to put clear boundaries around skepticism, I also agree with some of the points Myers makes in his post.

These arguments are nothing new; they've been a  staple of debate among skeptics for a long time. See the links below for fairly recent discussions in which the different views are articulated (some better than others, of course).  The arguing will likely continue, because, in my opinion, they're about what we value, individually and collectively, as skeptics.

Let's start with what skepticism is.  In ordinary usage, skepticism is more or less equivalent to simple doubt, but as self-identified skeptics, it means much more.  I've seen many definitions around, but they basically share the same core principles:

  • Skepticism is a process or methodology to acquire knowledge.
  • Skepticism relies upon the tools of science -- reason, logic, critical thinking, and evidence -- to evaluate claims about the world.

Now, there are certain beliefs inherent in these principles:

  1. Acquisition of knowledge is a worthy pursuit. I don't see this stated often, probably because it's just taken for granted.
  2. The tools of science are the most reliable way to apply the process. This belief is easily supported by evidence; the sciences have a proven track record in establishing reliable working knowledge of the world around us.   Implicit in this statement, though, is the corollary that when we venture into areas where these tools cannot be applied (or only applied to a limited extent), the reliability of the process is weakened.
  3. The process is more important than any individual conclusion reached by applying it. This is a recognition that science, and therefore skepticism, is an ongoing, collective effort that builds on prior work to achieve an ever-closer approximation to the truth.  That's why scientists and skeptics talk about provisional conclusions and being open to changing our conclusions in light of new evidence or research.

There may be others, but the above should be sufficient for my point: there is a belief system underlying skepticism.  The beliefs may well be supportable by evidence and reason, but they do reflect values that we hold.  Our more educated skeptics probably consider this obvious and inconsequential, and it probably is, but I want to make it clear that skepticism is not completely value-neutral.  And it's these values that are, in my opinion, at the core of the disagreement in the "scope" debates.

So I understand Loxton's anxiety when he said:

Now, “tackle wider topics” is a red flag for me. I’ve spent 20 years of my life in love with scientific skepticism—a distinct and distinguished public service tradition which is worth preserving. In that time, I’ve become rather cynical about scope discussions between skeptics and atheists. Too often, the argument seems to be that the very definition of my field should be scrapped and replaced by a wider rationalism.

And yet, Myers has a point when he says:

Furthermore, this skeptical narrowness intentionally marginalizes the movement and reduces it to irrelevance.

If promoting skepticism among the general public is one of our goals, the topics that we cover should be relevant to that public.  And actually, I think that skeptics have done that, at least within the context of science-related controversies that have arisen over the years.  While the old chestnuts like Bigfoot and UFOs still crop up, issues like vaccination, smart meters, electromagnetic radiation scares, organic farming, and others have also been addressed.

But I think there is room for taking on additional topics, even if we cannot use all the tools of science to address them.  Educating people on how to think critically about anything, even mundane, everyday topics, is at least a step in the right direction. Whether it's reading the newspaper, watching television, or just dealing with friends and colleagues, the ability to evaluate the quality of the arguments and evidence we see and hear every day (including our own, when we're the ones making claims) is a useful tool. Even if it's not full-blown science, it's still skepticism.

Of course, Myers is referring specifically to atheism, as that happens to be his area of interest.  But atheism is not skepticism, despite Myers's assertion:

And ultimately, atheism is not an excluded part of skepticism. Atheism is a subset of skepticism, that part of it that has evaluated the claims of religion and found them deficient. Any skeptical movement that tries to exclude atheism and religion from its domain is diminishing itself in arbitrary and self-defeating ways.

Skepticism of religion and/or religious claims  may lead individuals to atheism as a conclusion (at least a provisional one).  But skepticism is the process, not the conclusion.  And if we have a movement to promote skepticism, it's promoting that process.  That's hardly arbitrary -- it's a fundamental principle.  And violating that principle would be self-defeating.

Now, you may well value the spread of atheism, or some social or political cause, more than you value skepticism.  If so, that's fine.  That doesn't mean you can't also be part of the skeptical community, or that anyone is trying to shut you up about what your particular cause might be.   And no one should be excluded from the "big tent" of  skepticism -- not atheists, not theists, not even cryptozoologists -- if they're interested in learning how to think critically.  But at the same time, you can't just say that because you happen to call yourself a skeptic, that the skeptical movement's goals are, or should be, the same as yours.


  1. The Surprising Twists of TAM9’s Diversity Panel, Daniel Loxton, Skepticblog
  2. Atheism is an essential part of skepticism, PZ Myers, Pharyngula
  3. The Conflation Of Skepticism And Atheism – Fact Or Fiction?, Kylie Sturgess, PodBlack Cat
  4. Skepticism and Religion – Again, Steven Novella, Neurologica
  5. What to think vs. how to think, Jim Lippard
  6. Skepticon wrap-up: angry but joking atheists for the win, Amanda Marcotte, Pandagon
  7. Two more cents on skepticism and atheism, Jen McCreight, Blag Hag
  8. Are Atheists Delusional? Thoughts on Skepticon3, Jeff Wagg, Indie Skeptics
  9. A response to Jeff Wagg, JT Eberhard, Atheism Resource
  10. I had no idea I was stepping into a controversy, PZ Myers, Pharyngula
  11. Scientific Skepticism: A Tutorial, Barbara Drescher, ICBS Everywhere
  12. Critical thinking, Wikipedia
  13. Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
  14. The Skeptical Canon, Austin Dacey, CSI web site


  1. Very well said, Matt. Phil Plait said once that Science (and thus skepticism) need only assume one thing: that the universe can be known. And we do have values. I believe the values of skepticism are curiosity and humility; two things I've found sadly lacking of late.

  2. Thanks, Jeff. I think skeptics get too hung up on modeling skepticism after science, so we downplay the fact that there is a value system at work.

  3. Anyone interested in this topic should also check out Barbara Drescher's latest series of posts on her blog, starting with this one.

  4. Nicely put, Matt.

    There is no reason to exempt religion from scrutiny, but scrutiny grants no license to dispense with common courtesy.

    Most skeptics I know acknowledge as much. As for the handful of bad skeptical apples with no compunctions about verbal assaults, perhaps they would be persuaded by knowing that frontal attacks tend to be counterproductive. Assuming, that is, that the goal is to persuade, as opposed to, say, outsmart or beat down an opponent.

    Tempting as it is to imitate our heroes, we need to take into account the setting. It’s one thing when a celebrity skeptic like a Randi addresses a crowd of people who have shown up to hear Randi be Randi. It’s another thing when you or I sit face-to-face with friends and associates. There, it’s personal. Long after they forget what we said, our friends will recall how we made them feel. It is an opportunity not to be wasted filling our debate-lust.


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