In comments on PZ’s “divorce” post, Antiochus Epiphanes sez:
Skepticism™ the movement and skepticism, the practice of thinking critically, shouldn’t be conflated. The latter is no great intellectual achievement and should be in the skill set of grade schoolers. That it isn’t may be the motivation of the former, but we shouldn’t expect any intellectual advances to emerge from the movement, because what it’s doing is necessarily remedial.
I wholeheartedly agree with the above, and a couple years ago it struck me that skepticism (small-’s') is essentially a form of basic intellectual hygiene, something that everyone is capable of to varying degrees and something that everyone should do.
“Kind of like brushing your teeth,” it occurred to me back then, and ever since I’ve quietly replaced references to Skepticism Writ Large with “Tooth Brushing” in my mind.
Though it might seem to trivialize skepticism to compare it to brushing your teeth, that’s not at all what I intend. Brushing your teeth is incredibly important. Most people don’t do it diligently enough, and when they do many of them get it wrong. Failing to engage in proper dental hygiene can shorten your life significantly — not only can bad teeth consign you to somewhat less healthy diets, but gum disease and heart disease have been
conclusively linked. And not brushing your teeth has certain social ramifications too, not to mention a likely legacy of personal discomfort.
So dental hygiene is crucial for proper health, and while we can rely on experts for some advanced treatment the responsibility is on each and every one of us to take responsibility for our own teeth.
Skepticism is to the intellect as brushing is to teeth. Sometimes we need expert assistance, but the only way it really does us any long term good is if we engage in the practice of mental hygiene as a habit, preferably after each bout of consuming something that might cause problems down the road, whether it’s a bag of chips or an article in the New York Toast.
As A.E. says in the above-blockquoted blockquote, that’s pretty basic stuff. We really ought to learn the basics of each at around the same time in our lives. Basic doesn’t mean unimportant, as I’ve said, and there’s nothing at all wrong with devoting a substantial portion of your life campaigning to educate people who aren’t quite where they should be in their hygienic practice. People concerned with better tooth-brushing have associations and conventions. They devote a lot of time to the topic, some of it paid (and likely quite well, depending on location) but some of it on a volunteer basis spurred by their personal commitment. Again, much like skepticism.
But I’m not aware of too many people who describe themselves as “toothbrushers.” Dental hygiene seems to be something that even its most fervent advocates do, not something that they are. There seem to be no videos on YouTube by users with names like W0ndert00th decrying other Toothbrushers for getting Toothbrushing wrong, diluting Pure Toothbrushing, or threatening to destroy the Toothbrushing Movement.
It’s a trivial exercise coming up with ways in which the practice of skepticism is important in daily life. People who work in the sciences constitute one large, obvious example. As someone who writes about environmental issues and is beset by not only the whole chemtrail and HAARP crowd but also non-comprehension of basic math and science, skepticism is something I find opportunities to use every hour of my life. The same was true when I worked as a landscaper and as an (accidental) IT person. Directed at my own feelings and motivations, it’s helpful in getting through troubles in interpersonal relationships. It helps keep me from buying sugar pills when I have a cold. It’s crucial practice.
But I have to confess that for the last couple of years, every time I hear someone announce that they’re A Skeptic™ as though no further explication is necessary, this is how my brain parses that. Tell me what you actually do with your skepticism, and I may well be really interested. But claiming that the practice itself is enough to define you? Call me skeptical.