One of the arguments that I often hear from skeptics and the skeptical community is that while skepticism is a powerful tool for analyzing truth claims or the efficacy of medical modalities, it is poorly suited to examining issues of social policy or politics. Examining claims about the efficacy of homeopathy is relatively easy (it doesn’t work) but, the argument goes, it is far more difficult for skeptics to draw any conclusions about specific policy goals or initiatives. How ought skeptics to examine abortion? What about capital punishment? Should skeptics have anything to say about political platforms?
This argument isn’t unique to skepticism either. As Jen McCreight and others have pointed out, the same sorts of assertions are often made by so-called ‘dictionary atheists’ who argue that atheism is only ever about not believing in god, and that topics like feminism or social justice lie far outside atheism’s bailiwick. Why should atheists or skeptics concern themselves with the issues of feminism; why should skeptics look at economics or jurisprudence? Why shouldn’t skeptics stay holed up in the ‘hard’ sciences and leave issues of social policy and social justice to the sociologists, anthropologists, and other social scientists?
Because those issues matter; that’s why those of us who call ourselves skeptics ought to become involved. Well, that and the fact that many of us in the skeptical movement are anthropologists, sociologists, economists, or political scientists. Is homeopathy harmful? Obviously; it encourages people to abandon tested and proven medical treatments in favour of eating candy. But you know what else is harmful? How about lopsided justice systems that impose harsher penalties on some segments of the population based on their skin colour or heritage. How about political campaigns that aim to strip women of the right to seek abortions – even in cases of rape or incest? How about relying on economic models that benefit the ultra-wealthy at the expense of the poorest members of society – or models that reject empirical research or statistical modelling?
Sure, my questions are built on fundamental social biases – I believe that women ought to be able to control their own bodies and their own destinies; I believe that even the poorest members of our society deserve to be treated fairly and ought to be able to obtain help from those of us with the means to do so (yes, I like the idea of taxation to pay for social safety nets). I believe that people ought to be protected from predatory business practices that prey on the uninformed and ignorant. We all have these sorts of underlying biases, and we should be debating them too – that’s sort of the whole point of skepticism, isn’t it?
Skeptical inquiry alone may not be able to tell us if, for example, capital punishment for violent crimes is a good thing (‘good’ in the moral sense – should we put people to death for killing other people?), but it can allow us to examine the claims that it is a successful deterrent (it isn’t). Similarly, skeptical inquiry can help us determine the extent to which comprehensive sex education has helped to lower teen pregnancy rates in Canada (it has). Once we know the answer to these questions, we have gone a long way towards answering the follow-up question: what steps should we take now? If the stated aim of the ‘War on Drugs’ was to reduce the consumption of illegal substances and therefore dry up the market for them, then we can demonstrate, empirically, that it was a failure. Is it reasonable to continue funding a failed policy? No? Then is the United States still doing it? Skeptical inquiry gives us the tools required to tug at the threads of social policy, and by doing so, we can follow those threads all through the social fabric in order to see what other policies and initiatives they are bound to.
I think that at least part of the reason why there are relatively few prominent social scientist skeptics is perhaps because of the worn out cliché that the social sciences are ‘subjective’ or that “there really isn’t a right or wrong way of looking at ‘X’”. A large part of the reason for the existence of this cliché probably has something to do with how the social sciences and traditional sciences have interacted over the last few decades. There was a lot of fallout from the ‘science wars’ of the 1990s; the ‘Sokal Affair’ and similar conflicts certainly helped to foster the growing rift between the sciences and the social sciences. In some universities, it isn’t uncommon for the social sciences and the traditional sciences to not talk to each other. Some of this is certainly related to funding; money is a finite resource, and there are often strong disagreements over where it should be spent. But there is also the problem of language; in a very real sense, these disciplines all speak different languages and sometimes words mean different things to different people. It takes time and effort sometimes for each party to understand the other, and in academia, time is often in very short supply.
Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that for the most part the luminaries of the skeptical movement remain firmly ensconced in the sciences, while other fields of inquiry remain overlooked. And they shouldn’t be. Homeopathy is harmful, sure. But so was the repeal of Glass-Steagall. So is institutionalized racism, or discrimination against members of the LGBT communities. So is the perpetuation of toxic patterns of masculinity.
The social sciences are every bit as important as the traditional sciences for skeptical inquiry, and social justice is just as important a topic as medical claims or creationism. As skeptics, we need to realize this and begin turning our attention to these often-overlooked areas.* Just as the atheist movement has begun to talk about issues of social justice, the skeptical movement needs to loudly begin doing the same – skepticism+**, if you will. Why not? We’re a big movement now, and we should be able to tackle many different topics at once. Surely we can walk and chew bubble-gum at the same time?
PS: I feel that it’s necessary to point out that I could be entirely wrong about there being a lack of focus on social justice in the skeptical movement. I just haven’t really seen it outside of some blogs and a podcast or two. I’d love to see it at TAM; I’d love to see it at NECSS CON. I’d love to hear more about it on the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe.
* This is not to minimize or ignore the fantastic work done by people like the Skepchicks. They’ve been leading the charge against sexism and harassment within the movement. I’m saying that they need backup and support; they cannot do it alone, and they shouldn’t have to.
** While I understand that many people within atheist communities are also skeptics, the two terms are not synonymous, nor are the communities the same. I’m sure that most of you reading this already know this, but I’m pedantic and I feel the need to point it out anyway.