Monday, April 28, 2008

On the skeptical identity

I was reading Skepchick, and writerdd wrote this little essay on why she does not consider herself a skeptic. Unfortunately, I've failed several times to register to comment on that site, so I have to do it here.

So Donna (aka writerdd) doesn't consider herself a skeptic? Heresy! Shun the believer! Wait, no, that reaction makes no sense.

The skeptical movement is and isn't about "evangelization". It promotes critical thinking and science literacy, but it doesn't really care about maximizing its numbers. Skepticism is not an identity movement, but rather, a certain flavor of science popularization advocacy. By contrast, the atheist movement is out there to encourage people to call themselves atheists. This is because there is a lot of social prejudice going on; people fear the word, and anyone who could possibly be described by it. However, no such thing is going on with skepticism, so why should we care?

There are a variety of definitions of "skeptical" ranging from the colloquial to the philosophical to the ones used by the skeptical movement. It's perfectly understandable that anyone would want to avoid a word with so many connotations. For example, I do not consider myself a "humanist" despite the fact that I fit under most definitions. I happen to like the word "skeptic" enough to put it in the title of my blog, but that's just me.

But I've got to nitpick with Donna's reasoning here:
While I do agree with this basic definition, it’s the nit-picky attitude of many skeptics, the tendency to turn every discussion into a debate, and the way many skeptics have to be “right” that makes me uncomfortable attaching myself to the name or the subculture. I am more interested in exploring how to think than I am in being told what to think — even about religion, homeopathy, psychics, and other topics that seem to enthrall many skeptics.
Me? Nitpick? I want a point by point defense of this allegation! What's next, skeptics are too heavy-handed with their self-referential irony?

Hey, but I'm also much more interested in "exploring how to think". I can't actually make much comment on homeopathy, psychics, cryptozoology and all the other canonical skeptical topics. Then I'd have to do research. Research is hard! When I research, I feel like I might as well simply link to my source--but that would be boring. I'd much rather consider general critical thinking skills. And I make it no secret that I occasionally disagree with the popular skeptical view on said critical thinking skills.

However, I am guilty as charged of seeing everything as a debate in which claims are put forth and defended. I'm probably also guilty of viewing everything with cold emotionless eyes. Look upon the lifeless black dots of this smiley... :-) ... That's me.

But there's no reason you have to be exactly like me in order to think critically. Have I ever mentioned how little is required to think critically? You don't need to agree with me or my approach. You don't need to be a freethinker. You don't need to call yourself a skeptic. You just need a brain. So easy, yet so important--and so fun!


writerdd said...


Sorry you haven't been able to comment on Skepchick. Are you the one who sent in a note about that? I'll double check with Rebecca to see if she can help you get that fixed.

I don't really give a crap about the skeptical topics you listed, such as cryptozoology, homeopathy, psychics, and so forth -- which is a primary reason that I don't consider myself a skeptic. I do, however, think most of those things are bunk and I do care about science literacy, which is what attracted me to the Skepchick site in the first place.

What I really am concerned about is religious extemists oppressing people and trying to tear down the separation of church and state in the US. I also don't believe in God or in the supernatural at all, which is why I call myself an atheist or a bright.

That post was just me trying to be honest about who I am. So I'm not sure what your beef is with me, unless you don't think I should be writing on Skepchick.

And yes, my favorite part of not being a born-again Christian any more is that it's OK for me to disagree with people! I can still talk to them and be friends with them, without having to try to convince them of anything. Maybe that part of my background is what turns me off to all the debate-and-convince-skeptics who feel like they always have to be right. I don't. I say what I think, and I'm content even if other people disagree with me.

Anyway, the whole "what is a skeptic" topic is interesting to me.

miller said...

My whole point was that I don't have a beef with you at all! And then I used that as a jumping-off point to do more rambling about skepticism and critical thinking.

miller said...

As for comment registration, I never got the e-mail with the password, and I don't think I even have a spam filter. So I gave up. But I should probably try again--I'll contact Rebecca myself.

writerdd said...

Thanks for the clarification. I wasn't sure! I forwarded your comment to Rebecca to see if she can help you with the registration. I think she's the only one with that power. :-)

Thanks for the link. I love to see who links back to skepchick because I always find a bunch of cool new blogs to read. Soon I will have to quit life so I can just keep up with my RSS feeds!

Anyway, I don't think it matters what we call ourselves. All of those of us who are concerned about critical thinking and evidence-based decision making should unite!

writerdd said...

BTW, in my first comment, I didn't mean that homeopathy, psychics and other things are not important. I just meant that they're not the topics that I am passionate about.

miller said...

I sympathize. Those things are important, but I don't usually enjoy writing about them. I mean, I could be talking about real science instead!