Aug 10 2015

Rethinking the Skeptical Movement

This week on the SGU we interviewed Jamy Ian Swiss about the scope and nature of the skeptical movement (a longer version of the interview is also available to SGU premium members). From time to time I like to step back and take a serious look at skeptical activism, to see how we are doing and what we can do better or differently.

It seems to me that the skeptical movement has had a lot of growing pains in the last decade, which is good because it means we are growing and evolving. However, the growth of the movement has been entirely from the bottom up, without any actual plan, coordination, and without much discussion. There are strengths and weaknesses to this kind of growth.

We also have to recognize the role of social media, which has transformed the movement (as it has transformed massive social interaction in general). Where does all this leave us?

Jamy and my SGU co-hosts and I explored two issues: the scope of the skeptical movement and quality control within the movement. I have already written extensively about the scope of scientific skepticism and the various related movements and how they differ. Please read these links for a full discussion, but here is a quick overview.

The Scope of Scientific Skepticism

First it is important to realize I am not telling anyone else how to focus their activism. Everyone is free to focus on whatever they want, and combine any concerns that are important to them. This is merely how I define my own skeptical activism and the organizations that I control. I do think, however, that terms are only useful if they mean something. I use the term “scientific skepticism” (which I believe was coined by Sagan, but may be older) to refer to this position, and this is part of the conversation among skeptics. Here is my list of what I think skeptics do well.

Respect for knowledge and truth – Skeptics value reality and what is true. We therefore endeavor to be as reality-based as possible in our beliefs and opinions. This means subjecting all claims to a valid process of evaluation.

Methodological Naturalism – Skeptics believe that the world is knowable because it follows certain rules, or laws of nature. The only legitimate methods for knowing anything empirical about the universe follows this naturalistic assumption. In other words – within the realm of the empirical, you don’t get to invoke magic or the supernatural.

Promotion of Science – Science is the only set of methods for investigating and understanding the natural world. Science is therefore a powerful tool, and one of the best developments of human civilization.  We therefore endeavor to promote the role of science in our society, public understanding of the findings and methods of science, and high quality science education. This includes protecting the integrity of science and education from ideological intrusion or anti-scientific attacks. This also includes promoting high quality science, which requires examining the process, culture, and institutions of science for flaws, biases, weaknesses, and fraud.

Promotion of Reason and Critical Thinking – Science works hand-in-hand with logic and philosophy, and therefore skeptics also promote understanding of these fields and the promotion of critical thinking skills.

Science vs Pseudoscience – Skeptics seek to identify and elucidate the borders between legitimate science and pseudoscience, to expose pseudoscience for what it is, and to promote knowledge of how to tell the difference. We also claim expertise in specific pseudosciences.

Ideological Freedom/Free Inquiry – Science and reason can only flourish in a secular society in which no ideology (religious or otherwise) is imposed upon individuals or the process of science or free inquiry.

Neuropsychological Humility – Being a functional skeptic requires knowledge of all the various ways in which we deceive ourselves, the limits and flaws in human perception and memory, the inherent biases and fallacies in cognition, and the methods that can help mitigate all these flaws and biases.

Consumer Protection – Skeptics endeavor to protect themselves and others from fraud and deception by exposing fraud and educating the public and policy-makers to recognize deceptive or misleading claims or practices.

That is a fairly broad list, and quite a task for any movement to tackle. The controversy, to address it head on, is to what extent should skeptics (as part of an organized movement, not individually) address purely religious, social, or political topics? This is a frustrating topic, because there seems to be two entrenched camps here and I have not found a way to explain my position that does not still result in rejection through misunderstanding.

Inevitably there are those who interpret my definition of the scope of skepticism as giving a free pass to religion. This is absolutely not the case. Ironically, in the post I just linked to that objects to my definition the author begins: “Skepticism is the questioning of what is stated as fact.” Exactly – what is stated “as fact.” He hit the nail on the head, then proceeded to completely miss that very point.

Whenever an empirical claim is made, whether it is religious, spiritual, medical, social, political, historical, or whatever, there is a role for scientific skepticism. However, when someone is stating their own personal faith, and not making a claim, you have to take a different approach. The atheism movement is better suited to such issues.

Further, if someone is taking a political or social position based on their personal values, then I think the humanism movement is best suited for such issues. Scientific skepticism can address any facts that inform such issues, but should not take a hard position on specific values that are incidental to science and skepticism.

In fact I argue that there is extreme value to having an organization that operates as a objective and honest broker of scientific and critical analysis, bridging that gap between science and those social and political issues that need to be informed by science. If we try to simultaneously take a political value-based position (even a good one), we sacrifice our scientific objectivity.

Where there is some persistent confusion, however, is that simply because we may try to maintain our objectivity with regard to certain social issues, that does not mean that we do not operate as an individual, organization, or movement according to good social principles and practices. The issue where this most often comes up is feminism and bigotry.

We can say as an organization or even as a broader movement, we respect the principles of feminism, we endeavor to operate by best practices, to create a welcoming and safe environment for women, and all the things that any company or organization should do. This does not mean, however, that we have to promote feminism in our activism. This way, when a question comes up, like whether or not women are paid equal to men in our society, we can look objectively at the science without being dismissed as a feminist ideological group.

Quality Control

The far more difficult issue to discuss, and an issue that has not received nearly as much attention, is quality control within skepticism. The greatest difficulty in addressing this issue is the almost certain knee-jerk reaction by many that any such discussion is elitist (I have already received such feedback following the SGU show that came out two days ago).

I find this ironic. Skeptics promote quality control within science. We talk about the importance of genuine expertise, peer review, engaging with the appropriate community of experts, respecting journals and professional organizations that provide standards and quality control, and the need for professionalism. We recognize that not everyone should be able to call themselves a doctor, hang out the proverbial shingle, and start practicing medicine.

And yet within our own movement we bristle at the suggestion that some of those same mechanisms of quality control may be appropriate.

I understand the social and historical reasons for this disconnect. We are a movement of intellectually rugged individuals who value free and open inquiry above all. Let the free market of ideas work out all the kinks, and allow the cream to float to the top. I get this, and agree with it, as far as it goes.

This, however, is where the growing pains come in. As we have exploded as a movement, and migrated largely onto social media, the identity of movement skepticism has become diluted. This is partly because we have no real organization from the top down, or even any formal horizontal integration.

Some people go as far as to say that there is therefore no actual skeptical movement, just individuals who are skeptical. I disagree with that – we have journals, and meetings, and organizations, and a common set of ideals and goals. We are a movement. We are just not a very organized movement.

There are pockets of organization within the movement, and they do have the ability to engage in quality control. I pointed out that the National Center for Science Education, which tackles the issues of evolution and global climate change, are a highly organized group with a structure, and identity, a way to interface with the media, and also mechanisms to maintain high quality within their group.

The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) is one of the oldest standing skeptical organizations and they have editors, fellows, and advisory committee (of which I am a member) and therefore have the ability to maintain high levels of quality within their own sphere.

I have used a similar model with Science-Based Medicine to maintain quality control. We have editors, carefully vetted contributors, and carefully review outside submissions for quality. We are a group of professionals and actual experts in our fields, and we defer to the best expert in our group on specific issues.

Groups like these get to define their scope, their mission, and have mechanisms for quality control. The movement as a whole, however, has no mechanism for any of these things. This can be a problem when a member of the press wants to contact a “skeptic,” where do they go? They may stumble on one such group (and often do), but they may also stumble on a self-identified skeptic who has a blog or other outlet but is not even a real skeptic. Denialist groups call themselves “skeptics.”

Even genuine skeptics may be talking outside their area of expertise, and may not be reflecting the consensus of opinion among real experts.

There is currently one mechanism of quality control, and that is education. Skeptics are happy to engage with other skeptics, to educate each other, and to improve quality through education. This is great, and I completely endorse and engage in skeptical education. The question is – is it enough?

I can certainly understand the position that education is enough, but I think we can do better. I think we have grown large enough that it would be reasonable to explore mechanisms for improved quality control within the brand of scientific skepticism. I don’t have any strong recommendations, I just think the conversation is worth having.

And again – this is not in any way to be elitist or exclusive. This is also not at all about individuals participating in the skeptical movement, identifying as a skeptic, and engaging as a skeptic. At our heart we are a vibrant and open intellectual community, and I would do nothing to blunt that. But let’s face it, we have lost control of our brand (if we ever had it).

It would be good if at least we had something to point to, so that there was some way to recognize individuals and institutions that fairly represent the best of what scientific skepticism has to offer.

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