Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Why I am ambivalent about skepticism

You know, I don't read any specifically skeptical blogs anymore?  I can't remember when I dropped the last one, but I dropped Skepticblog because I found I wasn't actually reading through anything there.  In general, my reading list has shrunk over the years, and I now track about 10 blogs in the broader atheist/rationalist/reality-based/science community.

There are many ways to define modern skepticism.  It's a philosophy, a community, and a set of institutions.  But I find that I am becoming disconnected from each of these definitions, one by one.  I don't work for, or give money to any skeptical institutions.  And my interests have shifted such that I no longer read any specifically skeptical material.  That just leaves the philosophy.

The thing about skeptical philosophy is that skepticism does not have a monopoly on critical thinking.  One can be a perfectly adequate critical thinker with or without skepticism.  However, I think my outlook is part of a distinctively skeptical tradition.  It's valuing criticism, arguments, and evidence, even over short-term happiness or political gain.  It's that peculiar combination of enjoying intellectual discussions for their own sake, while also listening to the voice of pragmatism.  It's suspicion of all narratives, especially one's own narratives.  It's giving a shit about what other people believe and why they believe it.

But how much does that count for?  And I haven't been paying attention lately, so for all I know the skeptical movement has shifted when I wasn't looking.

I mean, it wouldn't be so extraordinary in these times, for skepticism to redefine itself in light of the growing atheist/rationalist/reality-based communities.

What I find really distasteful is the particular ways in which popular skepticism has begun to distinguish itself from the rest of the rationalist community.  As I've described before, skeptical leaders have made some major mistakes which sided themselves antifeminist factions in the atheist community.  There were some ridiculous issues with harassment policies at conferences, and the revelations that certain skeptical leaders participate in harassment.  This is terrible, because now the kind of people who are likely to defend that sort of behavior are more likely to identify as skeptics, and people who find it disgraceful are less likely to identify.

But whatever, I can be a skeptic and still be a feminist.  Nobody ever said that skeptics can't be critical of one another, and in fact it's practically a requirement.

Another way skepticism has been redefining itself is in its scope.  Almost a year ago, there was a little scuffle between Skeptic magazine writer Daniel Loxton, who argued that skepticism should be modest in scope, and atheists who thought it should be broader.  I thought Loxton made a compelling case.*  Daniel Loxton works with investigative skepticism, and it is reasonable to limit investigative skepticism to claims that can, as a practical matter, be investigated by skeptics.  But where does that leave us lay skeptics?  I asked him, and he said,
People should of course arrange and prioritize their personal lives in whatever way seems best. For myself, I am not especially interested in building a subculture of self-indentifying skeptics, but in skepticism as a field of research and activity pursued by professional, semi-professional, and expert-amatuer practitioners (and by serious volunteers and learners at other stages of development of their practice).
*I thought that people on the other side also made a compelling case.  I don't agree with myself.

Loxton is not personally interested in building popular skepticism, which is well and good since he is not the only one running the movement.  But since then I've been wondering, is anyone really interested in building popular skepticism anymore?  Is it just me, or has popular skepticism shrunk, and been displaced by a broader atheist/rationalist/reality-based/science community?

I don't know, it could just look that way because my own interest has shrunk.  I wanted to test my hypothesis by looking up Skeptic magazine subscription numbers over time, but I couldn't find the numbers (and anyway it's confounded by the overall decline of print media).

In summary:
  • I'm losing interest in reading skeptical material.
  • I think my philosophical outlook is distinctively skeptical, but I'm not sure this counts for much.
  • The skeptical community is starting to differentiate itself from other rationalist communities by being particularly unfeminist.
  • Popular skepticism appears to be shrinking.
This leaves me rather ambivalent.  I still think of myself as a skeptic, or skeptical, but I probably wouldn't put it in a blog title if I started a new blog.   I'm a little sad about this, but I should not be sad.  Hobbies are mortal, and when they die they just get replaced with more hobbies.