As I mentioned in my bloggiversary post, good skeptical content creation is hard. In order to debunk something, and do a good job of it, you have to do research. You have to do a lot of research, even if it’s something ridiculous, like 9/11 conspiracies or bigfoot. Talking about a conspiracy theory is an invitation for conspiracy theorists to start arguing with you, and they tend to be pretty familiar with the topic, because it’s their topic. In contrast, the skeptic needs to spread themself thin, because there’s just so much bunk in the world.
That was fine decades ago, when “skepticism” basically referred to a committee of experts who dedicated their time to it. It doesn’t work so well today, when most content creators are hobbyists, or at least start out as hobbyists. My experience as a new blogger was that research was sometimes fun, but it got tiring really fast, and I didn’t have the readership to justify putting a lot of work into it. And rigorous research doesn’t get rewarded, because it’s not necessarily entertaining. Furthermore, “research” would mostly consist of me repeating things I had learned from basic resources, and what’s the point of that?
There are ways around this problem, but I don’t think they were very healthy for the movement. One method is to gloss over the lack of rigor with humor and mockery. Another method is to get by with a few general principles of reasoning, the stuff we call “critical thinking”. I took the latter approach, so I will talk about that.
The trouble with fallacies
Critical thinking in the skeptical movement was an odd beast. What exactly is it? How do you practice it? Can you name any principles of critical thinking?
Some of the most recognizable principles are the logical fallacies. You know, ad hominem, begging the question, argument from authority, etc. Many people such as myself gravitated towards logical fallacies, because it’s fun to learn about all of them and read silly examples of them. I liked to write about them too.
But logical fallacies are only toys. They don’t actually help you in a real world argument. Frequently your opponent has already heard of logical fallacies, and obviously wasn’t convinced by knowledge of them. So in practice, pointing out logical fallacies is pretentious, condescending, and not the least bit helpful. To make things worse, logical fallacies are usually learned in a very simplistic and pedagogical way, which is an active source of problems when fallacies are used as a shortcut to thinking. I’m betting most readers have seen at least one argument where people disagree over what precisely counts as ad hominem.
What does real critical thinking look like? I’ve talked about this sort of thing in my post How to Argue and won’t recap here. But basically, a lot of it involves understanding the social aspects of arguing. It involves stuff that I’ve never seen the skeptical community talk about explicitly, for all the value they supposedly place on critical thinking.
I do think that critical thinking was more seriously addressed by an adjacent community, the Rationalist community. That’s Rationalist with a capital R, specifically referring to the community that grew around LessWrong–but which has since dispersed to other websites and communities. They came up with their own cute language to refer to an endless list of cognitive biases and critical thinking topics. In comparison, a lot of critical thinking in skepticism seems laughably superficial. But also, the Rationalist community has its own independent set of pathologies that I won’t get into.
This makes me think that not only was the skeptical movement bad at teaching critical thinking, being good at critical thinking would not have solved their problems.
Skepticism in the atheist era
The thing is, being good at critical thinking isn’t enough. We still need to know facts. We still need to do research, and research is still hard. What can I talk about that doesn’t require so much research?
Religion! Religion is one big low-hanging fruit, because a lot of it is exceedingly ridiculous. Even basic critical thinking is enough to get by. As if that weren’t enough, many of us grew up with a religion, and already know a lot of facts about it. Last but not least, talking about religion draws audiences, which is great for new content creators.
The relationship between skepticism and atheism has always been a contentious issue. There have been the people who want to talk about skepticism independently of atheism, and people who think that atheism is the most important part of skepticism. I’m not conveying the nuances of this topic, so interested readers can take a look at some old arguments from 2013.
But regardless of what any skeptical leaders wanted, it was basically inevitable that skepticism would get swept up by new atheism. We’re in the age of social media. Atheism is an easy and much-loved topic, something many people have personal experience with.
Now that new atheism has basically broken up, I suspect that the skeptical movement will finally get to reassert its independent identity. Most skeptics will continue to be atheists, but won’t feel the need to center it as a skeptical topic. Good for them, I guess?
But then, what low hanging fruit do skeptical content creators pick next? It seems to be feminism and anti-feminism. Skepticism is living in hell.