WHY I AM NO LONGER A SKEPTIC


No, not me – this is my brief response to a post by Stephen Bond.

There are some valid points in his article for the sceptical skeptic, but as is often the case with polemic writing there is a lot of cherry-picking, generalisation and reliance on ecological fallacy.

He makes the point that most Muslim women don’t wear burkhas, but he then misses the point that any community is shaped by all of its members, not just a handful of highly visible (or visibly invisible) individuals. This applies to skeptics as well – the famous, loud and/or obnoxious are more visible, but they do not represent the whole.

I did toy with the idea of dissociating myself with skepticism a year or so ago, for several of the reasons stated by Stephen. Fortunately I discussed this with my friend and colleague James and we decided to do something a bit more positive, which led to us setting up PubSci and later Hackney Skeptics with Alice. These events are more focussed on science and socialising than bashing people we don’t agree with.

I think it’s a shame that Stephen has embraced the typical polemic style adopted by skeptics for his piece, as I think that style is one of the most damaging tools used in modern skepticism. It lacks nuance and is fundamentally unhelpful when trying to encourage consideration of a different perspective and it can alienate those with more moderate views.

In my opinion, polemic needs to be dropped if skepticism is to avoid becoming an echo chamber populated by a smug and mouthy minority.

12 thoughts on “WHY I AM NO LONGER A SKEPTIC

  1. To me, skepticism was always about the rational and scientific analysis of falsifiable claims. The Skeptical community, however, have dragged in their own causes and views to a point where most arguments barely touch on science.

    While people are obsessed with personalities, and their legions of followers, this won’t change, but maybe those people weren’t really interested in science anyway.

    • This is exactly what I was thinking – many of the notable skeptics have no scientific expertise in the field they comment on, they’re just voicing opinion, relying on ridicule and their sense of superiority more than any real research.

      However, there are still plenty of skeptics who aren’t obsessed with personalities and are interested in the science – it’s just that they don’t draw attention to themselves, so they are less visible.

  2. Thanks for your response to my article, Paolo.

    I confess I’m rather fond of a polemical tone: it tends to feature in the kind of thing I like reading, and also the kind of thing I like writing. It would be nice to have a calm, measured, balanced article analysing the best and worst of skepticism, but I’m not the one to write it — and I’m not necessarily the one to read it, either. Much as intemperate language alienates moderates, moderate language can alienate the intemperate among us. I believe there’s room for both approaches. Certainly, my polemic about skepticism has received quite a bit of exposure, and, judging by some of the responses I’ve read, it has got some people to look at their beliefs and consider what it means for them to be a skeptic — which is about as much as I could have asked for.

    Internet discourse leans towards hyperbolic rants, and I concede that a polemical voice in this context can get wearying at times. But even when it comes to the most tiresome rants by the most tiresome loudmouths in the skeptic community, it’s not their tone I object to, but their content. The problem is in what they say, not how they say it. Their ignorance and bigotry and right-wing politics and sense of entitlement exist quite apart from whatever tone they choose to express them in. It’s possible to be polite and measured and thoroughly vile; equally, it’s possible to be polemical without being a scumbag.

    It’s also possible to write a polemic without cherry-picking, generalising, or committing the ecological fallacy, and I’m not convinced I’m guilty of any of the above. I acknowledge throughout my article, for example, that bigotry is not universal among skeptics and that many people become skeptics for the best of intentions. It’s true that in places I’m being deliberately provocative — in saying “skepticism is neoliberalism”, for example, I’m trying to confront left-wing skeptics with the notion that their skeptical identity entails some political views they might find repulsive — and I hope it’s clear in context when I’m trying to provoke and when I’m trying to be more reasonable. (One area I went too far is in the paragraph about linguistics, which was born out of years of frustration with Chomsky grammars, Montague semantics and Gricean platitudes. I hoped it would come across as a self-consciously OTT rant, a moment of levity after all that earnest political stuff, and would not be taken too literally. But now I regret putting it in the article, since it has proven such an easy stick to beat me with.)

    I should also say, and I didn’t make this clear in the article, that my polemic is entirely directed against skepticism the Internet phenomenon — the skeptic identity as it manifests itself on certain blogs, forums, podcasts, etc., and the various conferences that grew from them (like TAM) — and not social skeptic groups such as the ones you co-founded.

    • Hi Stephen – thanks for taking the time to write this response – it is appreciated.

      I must admit that I have an issue with polemics in skepticism and I think that your article coincided with me thinking about commenting on it more generally anyway, so I apologise for making you the focus.

      I think that you make some good points in your article and where I say that you commit logical fallacies it probably isn’t entirely fair, since you are not trying to make a argument for why skepticism doesn’t work, but for why you personally no longer want to be associated with skepticism. Still, I think that it is very difficult to write a polemic piece without focussing on extreme examples that reinforce the point of the piece, while ignoring other examples that exist which detract from those points. This necessitates cherry-picking of examples. My point about generalisation and ecological fallacy rests on the fact that you build your case using the worst examples of skeptic behaviour to inform your argument. Perhaps I should drop the generalisation criticism, since you do equivocate to some extent, but since your conclusion is clearly based on the examples of worst behaviour I think it may still be fair to say that you assumed that individual skeptics will have the same characteristics as the vocal portion of the group that you are using as your sample, which is effectively why you don’t want to be counted amongst them.

      To be entirely honest I also think that your post struck a chord with me, since I came very close to making the same decision myself. Now I am glad that I didn’t, since the events that James and I have been running have been enjoyable and friendly affairs that have largely managed to escape or effectively manage the more negative connotations that have become associated with some skeptics. I think there is a need for moderate and sensible skeptics to highlight the problems within the skeptical community, simply because no-one else is able to do it. So to my mind it is a shame when a decent person drops out because they’re fed up with all the crap a very vocal minority come out with. So there’s the rub – I find myself disagreeing with you, but in conclusion rather than content. Thus I picked on the most disagreeable aspect of your article, which to me is the polemic tone, which I now associate mainly with the worst offenders amongst the skeptical community.

  3. Sceptic, skeptic, Skeptic – useful nuances. The first tends to be used about specific topics, the second is a worldview, the third is – well I’m not altogether sure. To be honest, the little I see of it on the Internet (and I appreciate Stephen’s clarification) the less I want of it.

    In my view to be a skeptic is to have a worldview that is rational, logical and questioning. Movement away from that would be difficult, much as it would be difficult to become de-educated. For some, becoming skeptical is a matter of being taught and learning, how to think critically. Others are born with it – for example a not-yet-three-year-old who had to be taken home from playgroup because the other children were upset by his exposition on the impossibility of Santa’s existence.

    As for Skeptics: who has the right to the name? Has someone taken out a trademark on it? If not, well if you don’t like the company you’re in, find better company. I go regularly to three Skeptics and one Science in the Pub. There is a fair bit of overlap in attendees, but by no means total. Some people come along because they’re interested in the topic, not because they see themselves as Skeptics nor even skeptics. I listen to the Pod Delusion but hardly ever read Skeptical blogs or forums. I do talk to fellow Skeptics on Facebook and the discussions are open to all our friends. And some of those friends are definitely not skeptical.

    Arguing online with other Skeptics seems to me an exercise in debating how many angels can dance on the point of a pin. By taking part you are accepting their definition of what itw means to be a Skeptic. But there is plenty of room for the Skeptic who enjoys meeting people in person, or just engaging with other people.

    • sorry about the typos, also the non sequitur. I was on the phone: difficult to scroll back and forth. Just as there are many denominations within a religion, there can be various different types of Skepticism. If you don’t like the group you’re in, form your own. As you did, Paolo.

  4. Hello Paolo. I find the urbane cordiality with which you discuss Mr Bond’s handiwork charming and agreeable, but I don’t think he deserves such gentle treatment. I want to say that I think his ‘why I am no longer a sceptic’ post was lamentable. I couldn’t finish reading it, and nor did I have any appetite for his attempts to justify what he did as ‘polemics.’ I don’t think it’s eccentric of me to hold ‘polemics’ to be a term of abuse, the cognitive equivalent of disinformation — or, alternatively, lying. It doesn’t improve my opinion of this character one whit that I happen to agree with many of the ideas about contemporary skepticism and sceptics. Just the opposite. It’s partly because of my misgivings about these frequently fairly shifty characters ( Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens etc ) and the variable quality of their arguments, and the questionable nature of their motivations that I have never counted myself as a skeptic in their sense, despite my loathing of the major religions. But Bond deluges us with a noxious flow of unworthwhile, insincere and, to be frank, pretentious argument and invective, and a genuine effort has to be made to discern the real offensive behaviour of Dawkins et al in the outpouring. When you are dealing with people who can emit out gratuitously silly and offensive material with the drive and flair of some of these authors, to lose their misdemeanours in the current of your own psuedo-outrage is no small achievement.. But the fact is that these people transmit dangerous and reprehensible ideas, . It’s necessary to focus in on these issues — of which these infamous writers generate more than their share — not lose them in a torrent of blather. ( For one example Sam Harris’s attempt in The End Of Faith to justify the use of torture by the US administration. For another, Richard Dawkins’ grotesque insult to the victims of sexual abuse by the Catholic clergy in The God Delusion, where he claims, with no evidence presented whatsoever, that most such allegations are false and the majority of such people are gold-diggers or the tools of gold-digging lawyers.)
    When presented with such material as these authors proffer, ranting in the grand manner is not only highly apposite, but a potential delight and satisfaction for right-thinking writers and readers alike — without inscribing a word of what Mr Bond refers to as polemic. But I wonder if Mr, Bond has the moral courage to excoriate something real, rather than wave whatever banner he hopes will get him noticed.
    Sincerely, ( in contrast to these individuals )
    David Chapman

    PS I cannot post this without mentioning that Karl Popper, in contrast to Mr Bond’s rather tenuous grasp of his thought, was a brilliant and highly original critic of the inadequacy of positivism, and an advocate of the importance of metaphysical thought throughout his career,

    • Interesting that you mention not wanting to count yourself a skeptic despite loathing of major religions. I mentioned religions as an example of “if you don’t like the one you’re in, start your own”, rather than as an alternative to Skepticism. I see religion and skepticism as being along different dimensions rather than in opposition to each other, and I rather take exception when a SiTP speaker clearly assumes the  audience is 100% atheist. Although I am atheist myself, I have good friends who are scientists and have a faith.

      (By the way, that last sentence raises two points to me: strictly I am agnostic in Huxley’s original definition, of believing it is impossible to know, but all too often agnostic is taken to mean sitting on the fence but I know what I (don’t) believe in; and secondly does being scientific necessarily make one a skeptic? A rousing discussion for a SiTP there perhaps.)

      Anyway, I suggest David that you are a sceptic about Skepticism. I agree, and the reason the people you mention need to be taken seriously is because of the influence they wield. But that won’t change by real skeptics walking away – and as soon as anyone adopts an entrenched position about what Skepticism is, surely they cease to be skeptics and therefore have no authority as Skeptics? The way forward, surely?, is to offer an alternative form of Skepticism? To become so vibrant the skeptical Skeptic is seen as the norm and the dogmatic Skeptics sidelined, or indeed recognised as never having been skeptics in the first place.

      If you are so very sure of your own position you write polemics, then surely you are not a skeptic? And surely one of the prime requirements of a Skeptic is that they are a skeptic?

      In short, let’s reclaim the term Skeptic and recognise that anyone so comfortable in their own position they write polemics defending it, isn’t a skeptic therefore can’t be a Skeptic.

      • Hello Kate. ( Does the akam stand for something? Also Known As Me, maybe?} I’m sorry but I have to say I don’t think the scheme you present here is the way to go; it leaves me fairly bewildered as to your distinctions between sceptics and Skeptics and sckeptics. I think that the ideas and questions that are the real meat of these debates are quite confusing enough — or at any rate people find them confusing, probably because they’re so fundamental — without us generating another layer of stuff to argue about, namely the delineations and intersections between different forms of sckeptic. It just generates unnecessary confusion, which in a different way is one of my main objections to polemics. And like that dark art, this approach also lures us into the mistake of focussing in on human beings rather on the problems we face. I do that too, I admit, and I think it’s perfectly legit and desirable to point out that ( for example ), that science on the Dawkins model is insufficiently skeptical of its own motivations and assumptions. A similarly important attack should be made against the followers of these guys, especially Christopher Hitchens’ acolytes, on the grounds of the spectacularly, even contemptuously sloppy claims and arguments he put forward in his sceptical non-masterpiece, ‘God Is Not Great.’ It’s the taxonomy, distinctions and gradations that you’re suggesting that I can’t feel confident about. ( And you’re not even a biologist!) All this would be difficult enough to follow, and on top of which your reader cannot be sure which bits are nice distinctions you want to make between grades of skeptic, and which are typos! More broadly: Human beings have an innate compulsion to talk about human beings and, while here as in many another context this is impossible to avoid, we must be wary of just doing that and forgetting what we were originally interested in, the nature, or maybe meaning of the Universe. We might decide to find the meaning or whatever of the Universe, or some important facet of same, within other people. Fine, but let’s explore that concept explicitly; I doubt if we’ll get anywhere by slagging off each others polemic, nor by sieving each other into different categories. And indeed, another of the virulent things about polemic is that it drags our attention away from these vital questions and onto the less cutting-edge issue of how to juggle with each others’ verbiage and half-truths. I’m not accusing you of wanting to introduce verbiage, let it be said. Whereas I find Stephen Bond’s efforts annoying and offensive, I merely disagree with your approach.
        And I shouldn’t have written, in my previous post, about why I ‘don’t count myself as a skeptic’. That was sloppy writing. I don’t count myself as a skeptic because (a) I don’t particularly want to be an anything, and (b), I’m skeptical about somethings, and non-skeptical about ( as in, convinced by the evidence for ) others — including some fairly wacky stuff. Although you mention this approach in your Sep. 3rd post, you don’t say what you think of it. I think THAT’S the way forward: to apply critical thought to each question individually, and to have no default position. But yes, we could do with much better, REALER skepticism than these characters often produce. Yet this is just another illustration of the disadvantages of categorization. For I don’t doubt that they’re genuinely skeptical about the things they slag off, but — — this lot use ‘skepticism’ as a fig-leaf for their own biases and bigotries, manoeuvres and manipulations just like the various churches use the noxious doctrine of Christian ‘love’ for theirs.

        David.
        PS Huxley’s original definition of agnosticism wasn’t that it was impossible to know about God’s existence. It was that he didn’t know.

        • Hi David, briefly, because I am preparing my teaching materials to try to persuade new undergraduates to think critically, but to restate my argument:

          Skeptic with a capital S, skeptic and sceptic were not typos. I think I would have noticed something that fundamental: the typos were extra characters. Sceptic and skeptic are really different spellings of the same word – respectively UK and US – but as we have them both available to us, we might as well use them. And in practice they do tend to be used in that slightly different way: sceptic about a specific topic (Climate change sceptic) v. a mindset that is questioning and rational, at least in the UK. There has been discussion about that on forums (fora?) but unfortunately I don’t have time to search for it.

          What interests me is the way that people who are genuinely skeptical have allowed others who really aren’t skeptics at all to take over the word. If someone takes up an extreme position which they defend by polemic, then I question whether they are skeptics at all. I suggest people who are real skeptics simply ignore them and start their own Skeptics group. The second has happened, of course, but unfortunately people allow the polemicists to retain control of the word Skeptic.

          The church analogy was simply to give an example that there doesn’t need to be one Skeptical group any more than there is one Christian church. There is no need for people to eschew Skepticism or cease to call themselves Skeptics because they don’t like what is said by those who style themselves Skeptics: we need to reclaim the word and offer an alternative forum for those who are skeptical. Indeed, the various Skeptics groups I attend have different approaches. That’s OK, because the point is to discuss and learn and maybe inform.

          However, my particular objection to the polemical Skeptics is so many seem to use the word as a synonym for Atheist. It isn’t. It is entirely possible to be both religious and skeptical. We all resolve issues of belief to our personal satisfaction: some have the good sense to recognise the difference between the spiritual and physical domains and not blur the distinction between the two. This applies to both ‘sides’: I think it is important for Skeptics not to assume their fellows are atheists and for religious people not to assume they have to be atheist to be skeptical.

          Not as brief as I’d hoped!
          ———————–

          Agnostic: A – without and Gnostic – knowledge. T.H. Huxley gave a lot of thought to his own position but was pleased his neolexia gained wider approval: “I … invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of “agnostic.” It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the “gnostic” of Church history, ….. To my great satisfaction the term took.” (Wikipedia)

          ———————–
          akam is an in-joke with Zygoma. The name comes up automatically on the iPhone and the ‘not a biologist’ bit is to explain the often-naive comments I post on the FMOs. But sometimes I get them right, or in the right ballpark, by sheer logic. And I always learn something from the answers.

  5. I consider myself to be a skeptic and really enjoy reading/listening to skeptical material. The ones I follow are heavily science based. I follow Steve Novella’s Neurologica blog, I also read a lot of Donald Prothero’s articles. I listen to the Rationally Speaking podcast on iTunes regularly. These sources have provided me with some very entertaining new ideas.

    Humans are a diverse bunch of people. Just as with any group of people, there will be some you don’t like and some you do. I don’t see a reason to discard the skeptic philosophy of critical thinking because some of its proponents are unpleasant. I think it is a better alternative to seek out the pleasant ones who provide interesting, high quality information.

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