I mean, you might be, but I’m certainly not going to take your word for it….
I have an email from a blogeague (that’s a colleague in the blogosphere) asking for clarification on the use of the word Skeptic in relation to climate change. This is a person very much involved in ocean conservation who had understood the word “skeptic” to mean a person who “does not believe in” anthropogenic global warming, but I had used the term in a blog post to describe a person who is not an AGW denialist. We have a commenter on this site who seems to have been pretending to have just woken up one recent morning and realized that the argument for anthropogenic global warming was flawed and thus decided to be “skeptical” about it. That person looks a lot more like a “denialist” than what I would call a “skeptic.” In other contexts, I’ve had to stop and explain to people what is meant by the term “skeptic.” Isn’t a creationist an evolution skeptic? Can a skeptic ever believe it was Oswald acting alone? Well, no, and no. I mean yes.
It’s all very confusing.
This confusion may be novel for you if you are true skeptics and have been using the word for a while, and are surrounded mainly by skeptics. Or maybe you just haven’t been paying sufficient attention. In my world I am constantly encountering confusion over the use of the term. And when I say “constantly” I mean something like a few times a month. And I exaggerate only slightly.
Fine. So I could say that people have different opinions about the meaning of the word “skeptic,” or more dogmatically, that some people don’t understand the meaning of the term. And I will get to that. But I also want to point out that there is another problem with the term “skeptic” which is a bit more vague and not everyone will agree on. The word “skeptic” also means holding a certain particular set of beliefs. A skeptic believes that AGW is real, and that evolution is a good theory and that Apollo astronauts actually went to the moon. In other words, there is a “skeptic’s” agenda and a “skeptic” is a person who toes the line. This is a problem.
I will produce evidence that this is probably true, but first let me throw on the table a working definition of “skeptic” for use in the present context. A skeptic is a person who strongly prefers to accept as fact only that for which there is verifiable and reasoned evidence, and who is prepared to put aside that fact should the evidence suggest this be done. That is a simplified definition and begs several questions such as “what is a fact?” and “what about things that are not exactly facts?” and so on. It also does not address the circumstance when things are unclear. But you get the idea.
So, a skeptic today probably would agree that anthropogenic global warming is “real” and that it is mostly or entirely caused by human activities, mainly the release of fossil carbon into the atmosphere. But, that same skeptic could easily change to thinking that Global Warming is not real if the evidence shifted, or could easily decide that human involvement is not important if some major other causal factor unrelated to humans was suddenly discovered.
In other words, with respect to global warming, a skeptic does not have a predetermined view. This is in contrast to a “denialist” who by definition does not evaluate the evidence, but rather, denies the paradigm. As James Hrynyshyn recently noted, scientists and skeptics who criticize denialists should avoid the use of the word “doubter” to describe said denialists. A skeptic is a doubter by definition. A denialist has no doubt, and thus, is not engaged in a thought process.
(As an aside: If you are interested in creating Artificial Intelligence, it might be easier to start with the Denalist then work your way up to the more difficult and complex Skeptic. I’m just sayin’ …)
For me, this consideration of the question … of what is a skeptic, and of the point about skepticism that I haven’t quite made yet … began last Fourth of July weekend when I was attending and variously participating in panels in the SkepchickCon in Minneapolis. During one of the panels, in which I was an audience member, there was quite a bit of discussion about science education. Among other things, the following statements were made by various individuals (mainly members of the audience):
- The problem with science education is that it is all about teaching facts.
- In science teaching, no one teaches process.
- Science teachers do not know how to teach. They only know how to babysit.
- The problem with science teaching is that the students are not involved in learning, they are just taught.
- All these bad things are caused by standards that require them (teaching facts, not process, etc.)
- Teachers are teaching to the tests.
(I’ve paraphrased but you get the gist.)
The room was full of skeptics. Every person who made these statements would easily characterize him- or herself as a skeptic. All the people who nodded in assent when the statements were being made would count themselves as skeptics. You couldn’t really swing a Halloween cat without hitting a skeptic in that room.
But it was unskeptical skepticism, as it turns out.
Each of these items regarding science education has an element based on known problems with the system of education and science education in particular. Ask any teacher. But by and large each of these statements is incorrect. The actual situation varies by state, and has changed over time, but there has been for a few years now a set of trends that obviate these statements either a little or a lot, depending. Standards are being re-written to focus more on process. Teaching techniques such as inquiry based learning are considered state of the art, even if it is often hard (due to class size and other mainly budget related limitations) to implement. Teachers generally do teach to a test, but the complaint here is that teachers are being forced to teach to THE test, to some standard state wide test. But most science teachers I know appreciate the existence of the standards based tests to which they teach, because that significantly reduces the problem of having a creationist science teacher in the next room teaching to what they feel is a higher authority.
We could argue about these points of education forever. Suffice it to say that if you ran this list of “facts” by any currently active science teacher who is not working in some backwater (i.e. Texas) they would likely tell you ways in which these statements are oversimplifications, out of date, or just plain wrong.
So why are skeptics repeating falsehoods or oversimplifications in a discussion about education? At a skeptics meeting? And using these factoids as the building blocks of arguments about important things? Why were they not being more critical in their thinking about teaching?
I suggest that there were at least two reasons. 1) Many skeptics are not really skeptics, but rather, members of the skeptics camp, who embrace the skeptics platform, and toe the skeptics line. And bless their pointy little heads for doing that because, verily, they swell our ranks and make us significant when the pollsters inquire or petitions must be signed. But we should demand better of ourselves, we should be skeptical about our skepticism; or 2) The old saws, the aphorisms, such as “science education is all about The Factoidz and not about Teh Prozess!!11!!” are convenient tools in a conversation in which one might be trying to advance a certain agenda. The fact that uncritical balderdash is incidentally being promoted be damned. But that is not good either.
Lest you think that it is only Con-goers who sometimes play fast and loose with their skepticism, I have three other examples, two from fellow bloggers (and their commenters) who wrote about very current topics, and one from yours truly.
The first is the Twilight maneno. Twilight is seen by many people as a bad phenomenon. The books and the movies promote negative, potentially misogynistic or even damaging attitudes among teenagers. I’ve never read the books, but I’ve seen the two movies that have come out so far, and I basically agree that this is a problem, even if I think much of the energy being spent on hating Twilight could be better directed.
Within this dialog of criticism, I noticed a few things things. First, most people with an opinion either love Twilight or hate Twilight. Second, among those who hate it, there are strong opinions expressed by those who have never read one of the books or seen the movie, and among those, there are many who are willing to base their understanding of the books and/or movies on the detailed statements of others who, in some cases, also have never read the books or seen the movies!
Third, many of these opinions are based on facts that are simply incorrect. One commenter noted that the boy vampire Edward loves girl mortal Bella only because she is hot (referring here to the movies). But there is considerable time spent on the big screen, including a major dream sequence and a conversation between Edward and Bella, making clear that this is not the case. But the “love her only because she is hot” idea fits so well with the Bad Role Model paradigm that someone actually saw the movies, thought they saw this, made this statement, and as everyone else fell into line beating up the movies, no one seemed to notice that this basic fact was simply not true. (I have verified indirectly that this is the case as well with the books. Bella is “plain” and Edward is not interested in her because of her looks. He’s much more interested in her smell. For what that’s worth…) Putting it more plainly and at the risk of being offensive, if you are a feminist, you’d better not like Twilight, and there are bullet points you need to know. Don’t argue. Which is fine. But I’ve mainly read skeptical blogs and skeptical commenters and I’m a little embarrassed. Sure, don’t like Twilight … but please do your not liking with reference to actual, rather than made up or erroneously attributed facts.
One expects incorrect statements to emerge by accident when a bunch of people are discussing something like this, but if the discussants are all skeptics, one would also expect corrections to be made. What is happening instead is that efforts to make corrections are typically seen as efforts to minimize the potential damage of a set of books and movies like this, or to “Defend Twilight.” In other words, if you don’t toe the line, shut up.
The second is the recent criticism of the numerically poor representation of women in the recently published science anthology edited by Richard Dawkins. The criticism here is that there are not enough women represented. I agree with that criticism and wrote my own post on that, showing as evidence a roughly similar volume that had a much higher percentage of women represented in it. But, among the extensive discussion we see many people making mistakes about what the anthology is about … the initial criticisms tended to characterized the volume as representing living, modern, science writers (like science journalists) and notes that there are plenty of females in this category. But the book does not represent writers … or living or current people. It represents scientists of the 20th (mostly) century. In that category, there are fewer women. So, while the book should have, and could have, included more women, the various critiques of the book were in many cases off base. Somewhere, in some comment or another, I likened this to sending someone to jail for a crime you KNOW they did not commit, but comfortable in that miscarriage of justice because you also KNOW they must have committed some other crimes.
Have those who incorrectly characterized Dawkins’ book (but still came up with a conclusion that is more or less correct) corrected their original statements? Have others graciously made those corrections, and a positive dialog ensued? So far I don’t think so. But it’s not over yet. Follow the links and report back!
For my own part, I made what is either an egregious miscarriage of blogospheric justice, or an insightful save, on my blog just the other day. A commenter named timo started to bring up questions about anthropogenic global warming. He sounded a lot like a typical AGW denier, but he denied that he was. He made the claim that he is a liberal, atheistic, democratic, pro environment guy who just does not buy climate modeling.
But I used camp membership to categorize timo as a fake. His adherence to skeptical and progressive views in some areas but a standard run of the mill AGW denialist presentation led me to guess that timo himself is an elaborate deception. And I told him so and I have not backed down from that assertion. My assumption, after hearing his position on global warming, was that this was virtually impossible, and that he had to be some sort of plant.
Using the camp membership paradigm, I was not able to accept that timo could just be a free thinking skeptical kind of guy who happens to have not drunk what he sees as the uncritical Kool Aid of climate change. That is not very skeptical of me. Maybe.
It is not good enough to accept, believe in, promote, go along with, or pass along a position generally found in the skeptical community, such as accepting the reality of global warming or the validity of evolutionary theory. It is not good enough to jump on the anti-sexism bandwagon to trounce Dawkins the Biologist or Edward the Vampire. You need to have a handle on the underlying facts and their relationship to methods and theories, or social or creative processes, as needed. Note also that the skeptical community is not monolithic. There are skeptical Atheists and there are skeptical Catholics, and so on. But I am weary and wary of people who claim to be “skeptics” because they are “Darwinists” but who aggressively fight against rational thinking when it comes to the climate. False skepticism is a way station en route to Palinesque Orwellian antifactualism. Real skeptics need not toe a particular line with respect to facts or conclusions, but real skeptics are skeptical … meaning rational and thoughtful and fact-oriented … in all areas.
In a month or so several of us will be meeting up in The Triangle for a meeting on science communication, and bringing skeptical thinking to our readers and listeners (as bloggers or podcasters) will be one of the topics. It is possible that we will, as a group, buy the party line and assume that there is only one way to think about each of the important topics of the day. But I’m skeptical. We’ll more likely be thinking that it is good to be rational and inquisitive, and to investigate and learn. But in the end, we are likely be thinking pretty similar things, at the broad brush level, about many of these key issues. We won’t be toeing the line. But we will hoe the row, as needed.