Feb 15 2013

Scientific Skepticism, Rationalism, and Secularism

Conflict and crisis, while uncomfortable and even painful, can be a good thing if responded to constructively. The skeptical movement is having a bit of an identity crisis, which is an excellent opportunity to closely examine what and who we are, our goals, and our differences.

This post is a continuation of my prior two recent posts on this topic. Each post led to hundreds of comments and a very active discussion of all of the issues. To spare those who are interested from having to wade through hundreds of comments, I will try to summarize where I think we are with the discussion. I do think it has resulted in a better understanding on my part of the relevant issues and opinions.

The heart of the controversy is over the scope of activist skepticism. What topics should we address, how is “skepticism” defined, and what approach should we use. The main problem is that there are as many answers to this question as there are activist skeptics. Our movement, such as it is, has mostly been a bottom-up grassroots type movement, with individuals and organizations spreading all over the map in terms of every important aspect of the identity question. This has led many to compare “organized skepticism” to herding cats.

This has caused serious conflicts within the movement for as long as I have been involved. But while they are nothing new, they do seem to have come to a boil in the last few years. This is a problem for a number of reasons. First, while insiders might see the complex landscape of the broader movement, to the outside world we are one (maybe two) entities – skepticism and atheism (some people think they are the same thing). Like it or not, we all affect how we are collectively perceived.

Second, it is soaking up a great deal of resources of time and attention that could be expended in promoting our goals. We definitely need to spend time and attention on internal issues and maintenance, like any group, but the balance seems to have shifted far from optimum. I am not saying these issues are not important, and obviously I think they are important enough to dedicate several blog posts to them in a short period of time, but perhaps we don’t want them to suck all the oxygen out of the room.

Defining Terms

Part of the problem with the conversation is that we do not have a universal nomenclature with which to address these issues, and so it seems that there is much misunderstanding on this account. For example – what is meant by “skepticism?” Does this refer to a broad skeptical philosophy, scientific skepticism, or skeptical activism? For the purpose of clarity within this post, therefore, let me define several terms.

Scientific skepticism – the application of skeptical philosophy, critical thinking skills, and knowledge of science and its methods to empirical claims, while remaining agnostic or neutral to non-empirical claims (except those that directly impact the practice of science)

Secularism – Atheism, agnosticism, and humanism – promoting a secular society and taking a critical view of faith and religion.

Rationalism – Essentially a combination of the above two – promoting reason and critical thinking in all spheres without focus or specialization.

I won’t define the word “skeptic” or “skepticism” up front, since that is a matter of contention. I will make a case for a specific definition below.

The Landscape

Regardless of what anyone might prefer, the historical fact is that the broader rationalist movement spontaneously developed with groups falling generally into one of the three categories above – scientific skepticism, secularism, or rationalism. There are many variations on those general themes, but the themes are there.

These seems to reflect personal belief and personal background and interest. Scientific skeptics generally are passionate about promoting science and opposing pseudoscience. Secularists are passionate about opposing the excesses and irrationalities of faith and religion. While rationalists care roughly equally about both.

While there is a large overlap in these groups, the overlap is not 100%. While most atheists are also scientific skeptics, not all of them are, and not all scientific skeptics are atheists.

This is all important to recognize, in my opinion, because of the bigger question of identity – what is the movement, what should it be, and how should it be organized? In my opinion, our goals would be best served if we follow the pattern that has emerged spontaneously. People have sorted themselves into various groups, why oppose that?

This is not an artificial construct imposed from above. These divisions follow the passions and interests of the people who make up the movement. It is therefore probably more practical to focus on how we can live and work together, by focusing on the areas of overlap and our common ground, rather than squabbling over our differences.

Branding and Specialization

I am making a specific argument for being comfortable with the division of labor within the rationalist movement. These divisions arose spontaneously as a result of different interests. Further, I would argue that they are very practical from the point of view of branding and specialization.

There are many levels of specialization within the movement, and subgroups have and will form along these lines. This is also natural and a sign of a vibrant intellectual community. We can look at this as the “taxonomy” of rationalism. At the top level, I would argue, is the division between scientific skepticism and secularism. Each of these “phyla,” however, also have many subgroups. Scientific skepticism, for example, includes paranormal claims, promoting science education, science-based medicine, and the philosophy of science just to name a few. There are groups and subgroups dedicated to all these specialties.

For branding and marketing purposes I also think it is helpful for certain groups to maintain a specific focus. For example, at science-based medicine we have a clear focus and agenda. We want to root pseudoscience out of the medical profession, and advocate for high standards of science in regulation and practice. While all of us involved are also scientific skeptics in all areas, we don’t focus on such issues in our SBM venues. We also take a more professional tone than perhaps we would when dealing with crop circles, for example. This is because we have a specific target audience and wish to gain access to specific venues with our message.

The same is true of scientific skepticism. We want to promote science, and we want scientific skepticism to be a pillar of science outreach and the public understanding of science. To give one example, last year the SGU was featured each week on the National Science Foundation streaming radio channel, Science 360. This year, however, they dropped us from the lineup because we are “too political.” (This is ironic considering that we are sometimes criticized for not being political enough.)

As another example, scientific skeptical conferences sometimes have difficulty attracting big-name scientists as guests because they don’t want to be associated with a “skeptical” conference, in my experience usually over confusion as to the branding and focus of the conference, but the problem exists.

In other words – it is difficult for one organization or outlet to be maximally effective at a broad range of goals simultaneously. Some goals come at the expense of others. Therefore it is to our mutual benefit to have multiple outlets that specialize and focus in certain areas.

We also need outlets that are generalists, that don’t specialize, and that try to focus on the underlying principles of rationalism. Such groups can be useful in changing society so that such specializations are less important over time.

Tolerance of Diversity

I don’t think it is practical or even possible, at least for the foreseeable future, to have one seamless rationalist movement that is all things to all people. The scope of rationalist activism is simply too huge, and the demands of marketing and branding are too complex.

It is for this reason that I have chosen to take the approach of tolerance for the diversity of focus, strategy, and even tone that has emerged within the broader movement. Let each individual and group decide where their sweet spot is and where the boundaries of their scope lie.

From reading the comments, and PZ’s responses and comments there, it seems that most people agree that everyone should be free to pursue their own interests. Most people also seem to believe that they are not trying to dictate scope to anyone else, but that others are trying to dictate their scope. Of course – everyone can’t be right in this. Someone has to be doing the dictating, or be wrong about that claim that others are.

I think this stems from a few sources. One is likely good’ol confirmation bias. We all see when we believe others are trying to dictate to us, but perhaps don’t see how our statements can be interpreted as dictating to others. This leads to dueling anecdotes without hope of objective resolution.

Another source seems to be over the definition of “skepticism,” which I will now finally get to. In the comments to my previous posts this seemed to cause some confusion. It seems that some in the activist atheist camp believe that skepticism is the top level descriptor that I defined here as rationalism, while scientific skeptics think that skepticism is short-hand for scientific skepticism. Many commenters expressed the opinion that atheism is a subset of skepticism – a subset just like science-based medicine is a subset, and it should not be discriminated against.

This is semantic confusion that can be resolved, at least when communicating to each other. The thornier issue is how we should brand “skepticism” in general. I would argue that for the purposes of clarity and simplicity it makes the most sense to use the brand “skepticism” to refer to scientific skepticism specifically. I think that would clear up a lot of misunderstanding.

In Defense of Scientific Skepticism

A core area of disagreement is over whether or not scientific skepticism, as I have defined it, is a legitimate focus of activism. PZ Myers and others have challenged this focus as “narrow,” “tiny,” “bigfoot skepticism.” I think I have definitely demonstrated that this is unfair – the scope of scientific skepticism is huge. In all the responses to my original post in this thread no one has countered my argument. So let us dispense with this criticism and the term “bigfoot skeptic.”

The real issue is over the focus of scientific skeptical activism – are the boundaries legitimate, or an artifact of the “old guard?” I have essentially mounted two types of arguments for why the category is legitimate. The first, as above, is practical. The focus of scientific skepticism arose naturally out of the passions and expertise of activists. It also is a useful brand and marketing strategy. Even if all other arguments are rejected, I feel this is sufficient to justify scientific skepticism as a focus for specific conferences and organizations who choose to have such a focus.

The second justification is philosophical. Previously I have focused on the philosophical arguments as key but I have become discouraged by my inability to make any headway with this approach. Discussions on this topic feel like a bunch of non-philosophers (I include myself in this category) using cherry-picked philosophical arguments to justify the position they already have. Since this argument seems to have no resolution I shifted focus to the marketing, specialization, and passion argument.

But to recap my philosophical position, which I still feel is legitimate – activist scientific skepticism chooses to limit its focus to methodological naturalism (just as with science in general). This means that scientific methods follow natural laws and cause and effect reasoning, and you cannot invoke magic, miracles, or acausal factors within the realm of science. Untestable claims or those that invoke magic are “not even wrong” in that they are outside the realm of science and empirical knowledge.

Secularists generally (but not universally – I know some who endorse Eastern mysticism, for example) accept this but extend their activism to philosophical naturalism. The difference, therefore, is that – in our activism – scientific skeptics promote methodological naturalism and are agnostic toward claims outside this realm, while secularists promote philosophical naturalism and non-belief toward untestable claims.

Yes – this is a subtle philosophical difference, but it is legitimate and worth making because it defines the chosen scope of our activism.

When I made this point in a previous post PZ and others misinterpreted this as me saying that atheists come to their atheism by assuming a-priori philosophical naturalism, but I never said this. I accept that most atheists come by their atheism through a process of critical thinking and skepticism. Most scientific skeptics have also – so of course, we get it. I am simply referring to our respective chosen areas of activism.

Challenges to this sometimes include the claim that the distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism is not valid. This is the discussion that often goes nowhere. I maintain that it is valid, and further that this is the consensus of opinion among actual philosophers. I cite Massimo Pigliucci as one source, the only working philosopher within the skeptical movement as far as I know, but I have also discussed this with other philosophers of science, just to check my own understanding.

Others challenge the distinction by saying that while, yes, it is technically correct it is irrelevant, for few if any believers hold their beliefs on pure faith. They make empirical claims.

This entirely misses the point, however. Scientific skeptics will take on all the empirical claims, no matter the source. So the extent to which this is true should be reassuring, not bothersome, to activist secularists. It also gets to the heart of the marketing of scientific skepticism. We say that we promote science and critical thinking, and respect personal freedom of religion. So – you can believe whatever you want, but when you make an empirical claim the rules of science apply, and here is what the science has to say.

We will argue the science, and defend the purview of science all day long. The believer has no choice but to argue with us on the science (an arena in which we bring a great deal of expertise to bear) or retreat to a haven of pure faith and untestable claims (at least for the sake of the current argument, if not in their hearts). Then we spring the trap – fine, if that is your personal faith you have that freedom, but it is now personal faith and not appropriate for the science classroom, the operating room, insurance coverage, the science journals, or whatever.

I have been using this strategy for decades, and I have found it to be very effective. It is effective marketing, and it is philosophically valid. It also enables us to say that we are pro-science, not anti-faith (although we do want to keep faith from intruding into realms in which it does not belong), and this helps us penetrate scientific venues.

Further – the philosophical distinction is with faith – not religion. Sometimes ESP or bigfoot believers retreat to an untestable position, and we spring the same trap. When religions make empirical claims, we address them with scientific skepticism. The same is true of politics.

In terms of the balance of our attention and focus, however, we do tend to focus on scientific topics, because that is often our background and area of interest. When you look at the topics covered by the prominent skeptical conferences they are heavily weighted toward traditional scientific areas, the paranormal, and popular pseudoscience (much of which, by the way, is religious based, like creationism). We do also cover some sociological, economic, and political issues, but not as much, simply because this is not our expertise, nor is it our marketing niche.

I do think we are slowly expanding into more of these other areas, however, as the movement grows and as we increase our range of potential speakers, including our ability to identify and connect with reliable experts. We run an increasing risk of coming down on the “wrong” side of a controversy or picking the wrong expert to discuss a topic with which we are less familiar.

For example, if I want to find someone to talk about the latest asteroid that will not strike the earth, or the latest creationist incursion into the public schools, I have a number of excellent sources in my address book – a click away. If I want to find an expert to discuss the empirical evidence for and against the effectiveness of various gun control measures (someone without a significant political bias), I have to start from scratch, find potential experts, vet them and try to assess their quality and bias.

Feminism and Racism

The issue of whether or not activist skeptics should take on issues of feminism or racism recently comes up quite frequently in this discussion. There is the implication that scientific skeptics want to avoid these issues, do not see them as part of skeptical activism, and even want to give a “pass” to sexists or racists – charges that I do not think are fair or accurate.

First, as I wrote in a previous post, any movement or organisation needs to care about sexism and racism within their ranks, no matter what their focus. Sexism and racism are demonstrably morally wrong and should not be tolerated, period. Further, it is in the best interest of both moral justice and our movement to take specific steps to eliminate sexism or racism in our movement and at our venues.

Further, we should be specifically reaching out to women and minorities and trying to identify and eliminate barriers to their participation in the movement. We can discuss the relative merits of specific strategies, but there is general agreement on these principles.

Recently efforts to make organized secularism and skepticism more friendly to women have been hampered by what appears to be a cyberattack by sexists and misogynists against prominent feminists within the movement. This is a complex issue, which is difficult for me to summarize here, but I will give it a try.

First, I have to say (and I find general agreement on this point) that the misogynist attacks are completely unacceptable. They are poison, they make rational discussion about how best to promote feminism within our movement difficult, and they tend to radicalize all sides.

One example of how they poison discussion is this – whenever someone condemns this misogyny there are those who claim that legitimate criticisms of the claims and strategies of specific feminists are immediately dismissed as misogyny, and there are those who will probably try to do that to me here. This is a strawman, however.

What I am condemning as misogyny are e-mails and online posts that refer to feminists being raped, desires that they suffer from violence, attacking their physical attributes, and crude derogatory sexist language. As a community we absolutely need to be united in our condemnation of this behavior.

If we can get past the childish trolling, we can then move on to a mature discussion of the role of feminism within our movement, various types and strategies of feminism, and the relevant empirical evidence. The role of scientific skepticism is in addressing the empirical evidence. I will leave it to the humanists and feminists to discuss philosophy and strategies of modern feminism. As a movement, however (again, regardless of what our activism is) we need to pay attention to these issues.


I have endeavored over these three posts to explore the nature of the modern skeptical and secularist movements. My goal has been only to explain my personal approach to my own activism, which I define as scientific skepticism, and to defend the right of any individual or organization to define the parameters of their own mission and activity.

I hope that this has contributed to a greater mutual understand among skeptics, secularists, and rationalists. While we have real and meaningful differences in terms of our passions and backgrounds, and we take different approaches to our activism, there is far more that unites us intellectually than separates us.

It is common wisdom that those who are closest make the most bitter enemies, and this has depressingly seemed to be the case here. I hope we can move forward to understand, recognize, and respect the diversity within the broader rationalist movement. It will not serve our cause well to fracture according to political differences that are tangential to our common goals – to promote critical thinking and a rational world view.

Internal criticism and meaningful debate is healthy, and I am not discouraging it. But let’s dispense with dismissive and derogatory terms, focus on our common ground, and be tolerant of our diverse approaches to trying to achieve our common goals.


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