I self-identify as a skeptic, but am not an active member of any organized skeptics’ groups. I don’t currently see myself as part of any monolithic movement of skeptics, either…I’m a loner, though skepticism is still important to me.
I’ve noticed a few things about the general public’s view of skeptics, and that we are not well-liked for the most part, especially given a public influenced by media promotion of paranormal, pseudoscientific and supernatural claims that infuse the global culture in this age of science and technology.
To many, the label “skeptic” is a byword for cynicism, knee-jerk debunking, dehumanizing materialistic scientism, absolute reductionism, cold logic, and humorless negativity.
Skeptics really get the short end of the stick when it comes to supernatural television programs and movies, often being the outright villains, diabolically determined to hide or destroy the evidence of the truth of the paranormal at any cost, even theft or murder.
Skeptics are seen as heavy-handed, stubbornly unimaginative, unwilling to look at the evidence that’s right before them, fervently dogmatic in disbelief, and absolutely incapable of considering the possibility of being wrong on any matter, particularly those that most concern the interests of believers.
Skeptics are thought of as irrational, delusional denialists and myopic naysayers who reject the obvious conclusion that the world is magical (Well, it IS, but not in the way that believers think!) and who can’t see the forest for all the trees getting in the way…
I used to believe all of that myself before seeing the world through a skeptic’s eyes.
I’ve over time come to trust most other skeptics, more than some other segments of the population, first with a bit of reluctance as a proto-skeptic, now, less so.
But let us not be credulous — sometimes one must be skeptical even of skeptics, not uncritically, not from mere base suspicion — even the most trustworthy sources can be wrong, though it’s important that other equally qualified sources show them to be wrong, not just assert that without fulfilling the burden of proof.
Even though I view some prominent skeptics as teachers, I must still be willing to question what they say — not to disrespect them, but to fully understand the lessons they impart — if you can’t, or worse, won’t inquire skeptically, then you are a poor learner indeed.
To learn to think with clarity, you must learn to think for yourself, and that means sometimes asking tough questions with no easy answers, and learning to be comfortable with what answers you get even if you don’t like them.
It also means learning to see what is actually there, not what you wish to when it isn’t, and having valid reasons for asking, not just being a contrarian suspicious of an authority because it’s an authority.
Be prepared to accept it when anyone in the role of a teacher says “I don’t know,” or “I was wrong,” or even “It’s up to you to find the answer on your own.”
Be prepared when people you trust make mistakes, though the best capitalize on these errors as opportunities for insight and understanding, for it is often by error that we learn, rather than by success — these are things I’ve learned not just from skeptics, but from my own experience with people in general.
The world is a wondrous and scary place, full of life and beauty, death and horror, of events and natural forces, and cynically manipulative people ready to pounce on the unwary at a moment’s notice.
Skepticism makes you more wary of your human limits on reasoning and objectivity, and offers ways to work around them.
Credulity just makes you a mark, a sucker, a victim, not virtuous or saintly as some might imagine.
With my…psychology…experience has taught me that it’s not to my advantage to think less clearly, to blur the line between what I want to be real and what I believe to be…but a really BAD idea.
From other skeptics I’ve learned that anyone can err, but that for error to exist, so must what we can really call knowledge. The notion of error entails the possibility of getting some things right, not the complete inability to know anything.
Being wrong sometimes is human, and admitting when it happens is a virtue and a show of strength of character, not a sign of weakness.
When doubts of objectivity are warranted, the red flags of doom are raised and the need for independent fact-checking becomes ever more the object of due care, even if the one whose facts are being checked is a skeptic or scientific research worker.
If I wanted intuitive, easy answers, timeless truths to the mysteries of the universe, I wouldn’t seek them from skepticism, or science… I could just believe, and I probably wouldn’t even care whether something was true or not, as long as I believed it was and it was meaningful to me.
But playing fast and loose with the truth, whatever facts bear it out, doesn’t sit well with me. There are those of us who care.
Thanks to the influence of Postmodernism, and dogmatic religion, people nowadays understandably get a bit antsy hearing anyone use the word truth, as if by the mere fact of its use there were at play some pretense on the speaker’s part of metaphysical certitude, a certitude of fact outside pure mathematics and formal logic.
But true, false, and probable truth or falsity are values that we really can assign to claims and statements of contingent facts, those facts supporting the more or less likely truth of the claims that concern them.
Just a note, and this is important, so I’ll be posting this to this site’s “About” page: I never use the term, “truth” with a capital “T” unless being snarky and/or mocking an absolutist position that I’m discussing, and if I’m being really snarky, I’ll even spell it with a “™” symbol at the end.
Also, I never use it in a manner suggesting that either I or anyone else, especially skeptics, has any sort of exclusive monopoly on it, or, for that matter, rationality.
There are three things that make a source of information more credible to me.
- Background and training: From this derives the competence to discuss matters in any given technical field, such as professional conjuring, any of the sciences or engineering, and many skeptics have a good grasp of science literacy, more prominent and professional skeptics, especially actual scientists, even more so. From this also derives the basis of legitimately make statements of fact or opinion in the field this background and training concerns.
- Direct observation: From this derives first-hand skeptical investigation, like that of many organized skeptical groups in the field, or the work of such notable full-time paranormal investigators like Joe Nickell. Skeptics who have actually gone on location and looked into a matter personally, doing the work to find out the explanation for a case have earned a great deal of credibility.
- A good track record: This is never perfect, and can’t be — infallibility is humanly impossible — though I trust those sources more reliable than less, in their area of expertise, for therein do they tend to be more trustworthy, and like no. 1. have a better basis from which to make their statements.
I have few problems with a trusted source’s statements and claims when strong passions and personal biases don’t play a major role. Though skepticism demands that I be willing, and able, to question the mainstream when bias is likely to play a part, since as Carl Sagan noted, in science, “arguments from authority… are of little worth.”
Sure, there’s evidence out there to be found, cherry-picked, misrepresented, or fabricated, for any claim you may want to prove if you look hard enough — confirmation bias bites big time, even if you know it’s there.
But the thing I love about science is that ultimately, data trumps bias or personal prestige, and it works no matter what you believe, as long as it is not subverted by antiscience ideologies.
With science, the better and more frequently an idea is tested, the stronger the claim made for its probable accuracy, as with any vetted idea that successfully withstands the onslaught of facts and reality.
Sacred truths do not exist in science, just those ideas tested and confirmed beyond a reasonable doubt, as to come very close to certainty without being inappropriately obligated to actually reach it, so I’ve no faith at all in science or skepticism, since neither needs it. Rather, I have sound confidence in both.
That applies to skepticism and my fellow skeptics as well, hands down. Those skeptics, and former skeptics (this means you, Chris…) who have my trust have earned it, and that’s not something I give out lightly.