I am a skeptic.
I’m also an atheist, feminist, progressive, absurdist artist. I have prejudices and blind spots and unquestioned notions. And I have friends whom I love dearly who are arguing (in a way I find incredibly painful to watch) over the purity of the mission of the skeptical movement–again. Unsurprisingly, I agree with most of them, even though they don’t agree with each other. Only, I don’t think I’m doing it just because they’re friends.
I agree quite strongly with Barbara Drescher, and others who have chimed in before, including Daniel Loxton, on the definition of scientific skepticism.
Notice that all of these definitions describe a process, not a conclusion. They describe a search for truth, not a search for values. In fact, there is a clear and very scientific statement that values are irrelevant: “A skeptic is someone who applies vigorous and systematic research to any claim, regardless of its political, religious, or social implications.”
At the same time, I have to agree with Rebecca Watson that any movement that can be damaged by those who are associated with it following their values, even if values are not specifically what the movement is about, is not a movement I need to be associated with. I don’t give up all those other things I am to be a skeptic, and I won’t.
That doesn’t mean I don’t value the people who do largely set those things aside to focus on skepticism. We need people who can do that. I may not say often enough how much I appreciate them (some of whom may be you), but I do. It just means I can’t operate that way myself. And I think they need me too.
They need me in part because for all we like to talk about the objectivity of science, perspectives and values matter. If we don’t have enough of them, we’re not even asking all the right questions, much less figuring out all the angles from which we need to approach them.
But they also need me because I don’t fit tidily into their movement, because I travel to strange places and meet people they wouldn’t, because I don’t entirely compartmentalize. They ground the movement, keep its core from wandering too far and communicate to the pilgrims who come to them. I carry their message–and their values–to those who wouldn’t seek it out on their own.
When I travel, labeled as a skeptic, among those with whom I share other values, I have an opportunity to spread skepticism to a sympathetic audience. People who already agree with me are much more likely to also agree when I say it is important that we don’t fool ourselves, that we lean on something more reliable than the faulty cognition that can allow both our ideas and our opponents’ to exist simultaneously. They are more likely to trust a scientific method that tells them what they already think they know.
No, this is not an ideal state for anyone to end in, and yes, some of these people will now think they are skeptics without truly understand what skepticism is. Some of these people will fail utterly at skepticism, and if this is where we leave things, the skeptical movement has, as Barbara said, failed.
But what if we don’t leave things there? I don’t. I don’t know anyone involved in any part of this monstrous argument who does. If we continue to nudge these people toward a greater reliance on strong evidence instead of their kind feelings about us, if we continue to slowly sow seeds of doubt and encourage them to sprout, if we push them in the direction of that core of skepticism, have we failed just because that first step was insufficient? I don’t think we have. I think we’ve made progress.
There are (at least) two ways to look at the question of whether some of us should wear our skeptical hats and our values at the same time. We can insist that any values but those of skepticism itself taint the process and must be left outside. That may well be a reasonable approach for skeptical organizations with limited resources. Focus is a pragmatic value in activism, and these sorts of fights have been known to tear plenty of organizations apart.
On the other hand, we can look at this as carrying our skeptical values and processes with us into the wider world. Then it becomes a question of us tainting them, rather than the other way around. And frankly, that’s a plan I can get behind. One of those non-skeptical bits of me is an unholy love of subversion, and to be a movement, we need to move.
But honestly, I don’t understand why this is being presented as a choice. We need people to do both these things. We need a core full of idealists (and yes, I understand the irony of skeptical idealism, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist), and we need those who carry the methods and the message far and wide.
The more I look around at the conversations going on, the more I think we’re all reacting to the things we hear, colored by our preconceptions, filtered through our biases, than to what we’re each saying. I’m terribly afraid that if we keep doing that, then skepticism really has failed. And so have all of us.