We recently received the following e-mail:
After listening to this podcast and to the 100 or so that I’ve listened to over the past two years I offer all of us a caveat ( ok, more of a reminder than a caveat ) regarding skepticism in general. We all must embrace variability within skeptics. Without individualism ( not all must be atheists or agnostics, not all must be liberal, not all must be of a certain age, etc etc etc ) we become a cult. I do not want to become a cult, blindly following dogma, even if that dogma is the scientific method. There are no absolutes; there may be absolutes as we presently know the world; Plato begat Gallileo begat Newton begat Einstein begat the next heroic world view – paradigm shifter ( I’ve never written a sentence with 4 begats before – woo hoo! ). We should constantly be open minded to all possibilities at all times as long as we are guided by evidence, and molded by replication. But we can’t be stifled by the evidence. Einstein changed the world by thinking outside of the box. Thus we should always be ready to engage in discussion all comers. All of us bring biases into our world view. As skeptics , our world view is guided by the scientific method – other’s bring wu or religion or Oprahism. But one never knows where an inspired idea may come from; even if an apple didn’t fall on Newton’s head, it IS a cool tale. And he was a religious zealot! There’s hope for all of us. Communication and empiricism is the key. As you say, concentrate on the evidence and the ideas, not the person who you are debating; we should also concentrate on the motive of those involved.
Hal has hit upon the ultimate irony of the skeptical movement – it is a movement of individualists, of people who don’t want to belong to anything that smacks of group-think. I have heard others refer to organizing skeptics as akin to herding cats.
We have had the challenge of providing information which is authoritative – but not based upon authority. We tell our listeners not to trust us or believe us without question. Sometimes listeners even revel in the opportunity to correct us or take a contrary opinion. I personally love this. There is nothing I like more than a good debate – or just discussing a topic with someone who completely disagrees with me (as long as they are not just being a mindless insulting jerk).
While I share Hal’s basic vision of what skepticism should be, I do not share his apparent concern that skepticism is significantly deviating from this. In my experience most skeptics are open minded, do not accept claims on authority, and the risk of skepticism developing into anything like a cult is insignificant.
Skepticism and Politics
For one thing – I find that skeptics range the political spectrum. On topics that are strongly informed by science, there is general agreement. However, on topics that primarily involve political value judgments there is great disparity among skeptics. Skeptics are general either liberal or libertarian – and I have personally met skeptics that run the full spectrum, from literally communist to full-on Libertarian with a capital “L”.
This is, in fact, the most common source of friction among skeptics, in my experience. Liberal-libertarian debates flare up on the boards, occasionally. There are some topics that tend to divide along these lines – like global warming, recycling, and organic farming.
As skeptics I think it is important to recognize when we are venturing beyond pure science to issues that involve our political values. What I see sometimes is skeptics portraying their political position as “the skeptical” position. Our goal at the SGU is to discuss the science of such issues but not express our personal political opinions (although I admit sometimes they are evident).
Skepticism and Religion
it is certainly true that most self-described “skeptics” are either atheists or agnostics (the figure I have heard is 70%, but I could not find a reference). It seems obvious that this reflects overall skeptical philosophy – it’s like saying most skeptics are skeptical.
But I agree with Hal that we need to tolerate personal religious faith within the skeptical movement. As long as faith is kept personal, separate from science, and not based upon empirical claims – it can coexist with a skeptical philosophy. In fact another Hal – Hal Bidlack – the MC of TAM6, was very open about the fact that he is a deist. He is a solid skeptic, but for personal reasons holds out belief in a deity. Martin Gardner is similarly a deist.
Also, far from there being group-think on this topic, this is a hotly debated notion within the skeptical movement. There are those who think that skepticism equates to strong atheism – that the existence of god is just another empirical claim about reality and should be subject to the rules of science. Others believe that faith, by definition, lies outside the arena of science – it is not a statement about reality so much as an expression of personal belief that is not empirically based. (For a deeper discussion of this topic you can search the SGU forums. I bring it up here to point out that this is a raging debate among skeptics. )
I think the best way to sum up this topic is to say that skepticism is a method and not a set of beliefs. It is the continuous open-minded application of skeptical inquiry. It is, and should be, tolerant of diversity with respect to anything outside the realm of empirical scientific claims.
There is, however, a broader rationalist movement of which “scientific skepticism” is merely one part. This is another debate that is raging within skepticism: must it be synonymous with rationalism – the application of skeptical philosophy to faith, politics, ethics, and values?
I don’t have a definitive answer to this question. I can only say that I have chosen to confine my public battles to the cause of scientific skepticism. While I personally support and profess broader rationalism, and I am glad there are groups who do promote this approach – it is simply not where my talents and proclivities lie. I find it difficult to care what people believe – but care deeply how people think; is it logically valid and evidence-based?
But at the same time I am tolerant of the diversity of approaches that activist skeptics have taken – each true to their own selves, their nature and concerns. I do not see it as my purview to tell others how to promote science and reason. I only wish to do it in my own way.