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On “Becoming” A Skeptic – Must I Lose My Empathy?

When I was asked to contribute to Woo Fighters, I accepted with enthusiasm but was also quite nervous about what such a position exactly entailed. As a budding clinical psychologist I have studied the importance of empathy and genuineness in establishing a growth-promoting, therapeutic relationship with others. I have honed these skills through my daily interactions and found that discussing perspectives openly (no matter how irrational they appear to be) is generally beneficial to my understanding of others and facilitative to communication and understanding. My layman, stereotyping understanding of skeptics – as those who staunchly refute all claims without a clear scientific grounding, closed-minded to ways of knowing outside their scientism – proved to be a source of anxiety in the days following my agreement to be a Woo Fighters contributor. I felt that becoming a skeptic could threaten my genuine self: the ability to participate as a promoter of critical thinking and reasoning appealed to me, but I didn’t want to become a pessimistic, oft-to-criticize, belief-bashing tyrant in order to take part.

In hopes to slow the descent of my slippery-slope reasoning, I sought information from skeptic community advocates about what being a skeptic meant. As anticipated, I found a number of different definitions (see Barbara Drescher’s recent post for more), two of which struck a chord with me:

The true meaning of the word skepticism has nothing to do with doubt, disbelief, or negativity. Skepticism is the process of applying reason and critical thinking to determine validity. It’s the process of finding a supported conclusion, not the justification of a preconceived conclusion. (Brian Dunning, Skeptoid)

Skepticism is an honest search for knowledge. It is an approach to claims akin to the scientific method. It is a powerful and positive methodology (a collection of methods of inquiry) that is used to evaluate claims and make decisions. It is used to search for the (provisional) truth in matters and to make decisions that are based on sound reasoning, logic, and evidence. Skepticism is based on a simple method: doubt and inquiry. The idea is to neither initially accept claims nor dismiss them; it’s about questioning them and testing them for validity. Only after inquiry does a skeptic take a stance on an issue. (John Jackson, UK Skeptics)

To my relief, I found the contemporary definitions of skepticism are much in line with the empathetic, open perspectives I hold in high regard. More astoundingly, I found skepticism was very complimentary to my preexisting methodology of evaluating claims in academia, daily life, and other avenues. I realized that my genuineness is not threatened by being skeptical; on the contrary, the usage of critical thinking and reason that I have utilized most of my life is skepticism – I was just unaware of it by this name.

An integral aspect of skepticism is doubting or withholding judgment, which should not be done negatively (or positively for that matter) since such a stance would bias the pursuit of truth. The fact is that one can be skeptical while simultaneously being open to the views of others. In fact, in order to arrive at objective truth one must evaluate all angles of a concept without filtering arguments based on preexisting beliefs, underlying motives, and defensive self biases. I believe the most effective way to gain this position is through empathy, striving to understand the perspective of another to comprehend their supporting evidence for their beliefs. If one can accurately view an issue from the opposition’s side along with their own on a level field, then the grounding for evaluation of claims is better informed and the skeptic can more efficiently pursue truth.

It is unfortunate that skeptics are generalized as being harsh, cold dissenters in the way I categorized them before doing some research on the topic. As in other fields no single member is representative of the whole and this is obvious through a shallow search into the internet skeptic community. My experience of “becoming” a skeptic exemplifies why skepticism is a vital process for those who seek truth in actuality – only through gathering evidence about skepticism and its community did I realize how wrong my preconceptions were, which motivated me to change my perspective. Those who are apprehensive of adopting skepticism for fear of losing their empathy and openness are most likely misinformed about the foundations and focus of the process, which can easily be alleviated through a little research from an open and empathetic viewpoint.

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3 Responses to “On “Becoming” A Skeptic – Must I Lose My Empathy?”

  • I thought your article was excellent. You have hit the nail on the head in regards to what being skeptical really means.

    I especially like your conclusion that you don’t have to lose your empathy to be a skeptic. I just posted blog post to that effect on my website. I insist that empathy must be a central part of the skeptical thought process to be both valid and effective, especially when trying to get others with different points of views to look at their world view skeptically.

  • Lawrence Patihis:

    Dylan, thanks for your post.

    I think being a scientific critical thinker who is empathetic is a great way to go. In particular, it is of great value I think to have empathy for those who believe in a pseudoscience: because it will lead to a non-condescending central-issues discussion about the evidence. Presenting the evidence in a conciliatory way I think can save people a lot of time and money.

    There are many pseudoscience practitioners that believe in there theories, and a empathetic presentation of the evidence could help them move on. Personal attacks can often only solidify their beliefs, and polarize both the skeptics and the true believers.

    On the other hand, being overly open-minded can result in some pseudosciences thriving “just under the radar.” In other words they can exploit the uncertainty. Perhaps in some cases giving a clear message to young people that a pseudoscientific claim is actually not science, and is a waste of money and time is warranted. That might help people more than saying “we don’t know, it could be true.”

  • On the subject of emapthy check out this post from Podblack referencing a previous woo meister turned skeptic