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A Brief Introduction to Youth Perception of the Skeptic Community: Something’s not quite right.

What does science mean to skepticism? A large portion of the individuals involved in spreading information and awareness about skepticism come from academia and possess advanced degrees. Even our organization, The Woo Fighters, defines its members as “defenders of science”. The terms “scientist” and “skeptic” can be used almost interchangeably, with scientists seeking to make conclusions based on evidence as freely as possible from human biases, and skeptics seeking to emulate that same thought process.

The advent of the popularity of online blogging has given skeptic organizations a large amount of flexibility when it comes to teaching the fundamentals of skepticism. From these articles, some individuals from the growing audience of readers are recruited to the scientific school of thought. But what are they really being recruited to, what do they believe they’re a part of, and how does this affect the public’s overall perception of skepticism?

As affirmed by several reputable sources, skepticism is a methodology for gaining knowledge through critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning. And that’s it. The definition of this word can never go beyond that point, and if you try to add any qualifiers you’ve already gone against what you hold most dear. Even if languages are living, breathing things, the process of skepticism is in the method, not the word. If this is supposed to be what skepticism means, what are new skeptics being exposed to?

One important thing to note is that online skeptic communities draw a younger crowd than they did before the popularity of the internet. The Woo Fighters are currently a group of twenty-something students, and I wasn’t even alive before the fall of the Berlin Wall. We’re talking young, young people who may not even be aware of Carl Sagan’s first use of the term “scientific skepticism”, or early groups such as the James Randi Educational Foundation. What we start with is what we believe science to be, and what we learn about skepticism is what we find available on the internet.

So what is the information we start with? Pop science! 3-2-1 Contact was a bit before my time, but Bill Nye the Science Guy was just perfect. It even has “science” in its title, so you know it must be legit. Stephen Hawking and his Brief History of Time is practically the face of what it means to be a brilliant thinker in the eyes of the public (although there are of course others who are idolized in rather amazing ways). As I alluded to before, promoters of skeptic thought tend to be people who highly value the pursuit of knowledge. And this is where we’re coming from as children. A new, younger generation, who may or may not try to define skepticism in the image of what they believe it to be.

And what are we finding? If you type “Science Blogs” into Google, your first hit is going to be P.Z. Myers’ Pharyngula, and while it’s only a personal blog, it’s still one of most admired and linked to blogs by many skeptics. If you search for “Skeptic Blogs”, you’ll find yourself at Skepticblog, a collaboration of many different authors such as Brian Dunning, Phil Plait, Daniel Loxton, and countless others. There are even skeptical blogs written almost entirely by women, such as SheThought and Skepchick. These blogs are all directly related to one another in the material and events they choose to cover. There are of course hundreds of more blogs relating to skepticism not mentioned here. I need only to focus on a small number involved in skeptical “current events” to illustrate my point:

The definition of skepticism is elegantly simple, yet there are so many organizations in conflict. Why are some skeptics angry about P.Z. Myers’ recent leaps of logic? Why does the previous blog even exist? Why did the Skepchick community recently fragment, aren’t they all fighting to promote the same skepticism? Not all, but many skeptic organizations have become exclusive communities, all fighting for their very own version of critical thought, their own version of the singular definition of skepticism.

The young, burgeoning skeptic grew up with an idea of what it meant to be a scientist, learns what it means to be a skeptic, and finds that something isn’t quite right. The skeptic community is in conflict with itself, completely obscuring even the most basic idea of why many came together in the first place. Separate skeptic organizations exist not as mutually beneficial groups (as they should), but as factions. And this is what we see, and this is what we’re taught skepticism to be, and this is what we become. Everyone can’t be right, so who is?

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11 Responses to “A Brief Introduction to Youth Perception of the Skeptic Community: Something’s not quite right.”

  • Oh, that’s easy. I am. I am always right. Remember that.

    :D

    LOVE the post. Should provoke a good deal of discussion.

  • “The skeptic community is in conflict with itself, completely obscuring even the most basic idea of why many came together in the first place. Separate skeptic organizations exist not as mutually beneficial groups (as they should), but as factions. And this is what we see, and this is what we’re taught skepticism to be, and this is what we become. Everyone can’t be right, so who is?”

    Interesting – did you know of the earlier history and division between CSICOP and JREF? That’s an interesting tale that you can find out about online. However, they have recently ‘rejoined forces’, which was announced at a TAM conference, a few years back.

    Factions, possibly. I ended up talking to my friend Michael McRae for a podcast ep, that will be out tomorrow, I hope! :)

  • [...] their latest post on skeptic “rifts.” Despite being a young group of whippersnappers, the post takes up [...]

  • Agreed with Podblack that those divisions go way back. These days, however, it’s appears to be both accelerated and amplified by social media like blogs and Twitter.

    For the newbie who is here specifically for the science and critical thinking, I’d imagine she would be put off by the infighting and sniping, especially when displayed by our more visible members. It can easily lead her to cynicism and an early departure before she can “learn what it means to be a skeptic.”

    Cumulatively, this is a formula for marginalization and non-growth, and that’s a shame.

    Figuring out how to move the community forward in constructive ways is a complex problem, but worth a shot IMO.

  • TribalScientist:

    Excellent article, Matthew. Gives me hope for upcoming generations. ;)

    The primary confusion often lies in the difference between ‘blogs representing a person’ and ‘blogs representing a philosophy’. As people, they will promote more than just skepticism. They will have a personal opinion about whether the Pope should be arrested, whether breasts should be weapons of protest, or whether it takes fifty or sixty licks to get to the centre of a tootsie-pop. These values will shine through because, well, it’s their soapbox. Oh, and they’re also skeptics, and serve as role models for other skeptics.

    The thing is, there is no disclaimer for personal blogs stating which of their values are distinct from the ones that are common to skepticism. They’ll defend their right to blur the lines, as it’s their soapbox. That is of course their right, yet given we as humans love a good role model, it creates confusion on how we might define skepticism for others. It is easily mixed in with ideals of feminism, libertarianism and atheism, purely because of the sub-cultures who tend to serve as the face of the skeptical movement.

    How does one get past this? I’m not sure, however there is a distinct sub-culture within skepticism that does seem to appreciate these differences in values and do well to promote skepticism as it is, going to some length to distinguish their other, non-skeptical values from their promotion of skeptical ones. Daniel Loxton is the first who comes to mind in successfully managing this, although he’ll be the first to tell you the cost of this approach.

    In the end I think it amounts to one thing – even skeptics have a hard time getting around the fact that the human brain is a powerful social machine. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality is so hardwired in, we just have to learn to deal with the fact it’s impossible to avoid.

  • Art:

    Excellent article, kiddo. (Ok, Ok, I know, but I call everyone under the age of 50 “kiddo” ;-) As an OFS “Old Fart Skeptic” (I wear that moniker proudly, thank you) your points about division are well taken. Logic isn’t a philosophy, nor is skepticism and neither should be confused with particular philosophies. Us oldsters need to take a good hard look at the basic definition of skepticism and go beyond our various divisions. Keep to that definition, spread the word, and all sorts of us, regardless of background, are united.

  • latsot:

    Why is it so often assumed – seemingly without question – that division is necessarily a bad thing? There is also value in a range of skeptical views from a strategic point of view (perhaps you can reach a more diverse set of people that way) and from a philosophical one (is there really such a thing as a united view on how to be skeptical? Would that be a good thing?)

    My opinion is that arguments within the community are generally a good thing. They remind us that we need to make up our own minds rather than rely on prominent figures or those we happen to respect. I think it’s a more mature response and actually indicates a strong community, rather than a breaking one. Ideas can always be criticised. Opinions and strategies can always differ. If we want to reach people, perhaps it’s better to do it in our own ways without toeing a party line.

  • Latsot,

    I tend to agree with you with one exception.

    While activists may have different approaches to reaching an audience, educating that audience, and discrediting pseudoscience, I don’t believe that those are the things that Matt is questioning here. It seems to me that his question is a deeper one: how does the community define skepticism?

    And this is where I disagree, at least with your wording. “How to be skeptical” is not questionable, in my opinion.

    While there are at least three philosophical views of “skepticism” (philosophical, religious, and scientific), those are not questions of “how to be skeptical”, but rather “what are the limits of skepticism”?

    Perhaps the arguments over whether skepticism & atheism differ is what prompted this post, but I don’t think so. Matt is smart enough to know why that issue is argued.

    The anonymous website he mentioned is devoted to discussions of meta-skepticism which tend to focus on the selectively rational practice of name-calling and other ad hominem attacks. While I do not always agree with the site’s authors and I agree wholeheartedly with you that discussions and disagreements are good for the community, I also believe that rational discussion sticks to the arguments themselves and does not include phrases like “how utterly full of crap you are” and “go fuck yourself”.

    In addition, there have been signs in recent years that new “skeptics” have mistaken this movement as one to promote a liberal agenda or other value systems. This is somewhat understandable since nearly all skeptics are at least socially liberal and a majority are also fiscally liberal. However, a misunderstanding of this sort does not speak well for our ability to communicate the fundamentals of skeptical thought.

    The bottom line, I think, is that promoting skepticism does not require us to agree on all issues, but it does require us to support our conclusions with evidence and logic rather than values, wishes, and emotions. It also requires us to know what “skepticism” is, even if we do not agree on the finer philosophical and strategical issues such as scope.

    • latsot:

      Hi Barbara,

      Nicely put. My intention wasn’t to question Matt’s article: I think I understood his intention. I was making a related point about my frustration with the contingent of skeptics who like to tell us how to behave. I didn’t think for a moment that Matt was one of those; I took his questions as a launch pad for my own concerns. This is the Internet, afterall :)

      My term “how to be skeptical” was intended to mean “how one chooses to express skepticality” rather than my trying to define what’s skeptical and what isn’t. I’m happy to concede it was a poor choice of words in this context.

      “The bottom line, I think, is that promoting skepticism does not require us to agree on all issues, but it does require us to support our conclusions with evidence and logic rather than values, wishes, and emotions.”

      Agreed. Although I’ll continue to have values, wishes and emotions as well.

      > It also requires us to know what “skepticism” is, even if we do not agree on the
      > finer philosophical and strategical issues such as scope.

      What does this mean? We could be skeptical in our own ways without adhering to what you personally claim is a requirement.

      • Well, jeez, since that was pretty much the point of my reply, it appears that I was totally unclear. We’re again back to this:

        “be skeptical in our own ways”

        What does that mean?

        The definition of “skeptical” is not “what we do to promote skepticism” and it’s not arguable with the exceptions I noted before. How we approach activism may differ, but “how we are skeptical” does not. I discussed it in a post on my blog last month.

  • Crikey I feel old, I remember my science teacher showing us a piece of the wall he’d brought back from Germany.