Skepticism is a cultural phenomenon

Skepticism is a cultural phenomenon. I know that many self-declared skeptics prefer to … ah … believe otherwise, or as they would perhaps say, they have deduced from pure principles using sound logic that Skepticism is rational behavior and there is nothing cultural about it. But they are wrong, and that is trivially easy to prove.

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Sarah Moglia is the event specialist for the Secular Student Alliance1 and has written an interesting piece on “Why [she doesn’t call her]self a Skeptic” in which she asserts that there are people who call themselves “Skeptic” who are not, at least sometimes, and there are those who are rather “skeptical” (as we like to define it) most of the time but don’t bother with the label. She does not name names; I’ve made the same observation and I’m not going to name names either either. But we both have had plenty of opportunity to observe, and even a practicing Skeptic would not toss aside our unattributed observations.

Unless, of course, said practicing Skeptic simply does not want to accept our shared conclusion and wishes to use the lack of naming names in favor of their argument. It’s a matter of choice, really: Believe Sarah and Greg, and maybe make a few of your own observations, or insist on clearly enumerated cases as evidence within the same blog post that makes the assertion. You can call it either way. Demand the highest level of proof or assume that well meaning observers who prefer not to name names but may have made valid observations. It’s your choice, as a skeptic, to pick one way or another.

And the fact that it is a choice is evidence that skepticism has a cultural aspect.

It, Skepticism, also has a political aspect. I don’t think it is a coincidence that I find myself in a state of mutual understanding about skeptical matters with people with whom I also mostly share a political point of view (though such things as political points of view are big and messy, so we can’t expect perfect alignment). Like Sarah. The main political feature of Skepticism is the division between those that a) believe that a purely skeptical life is the apolitical life; b) believe that one can be political and skeptical but while a person may partake in both the two must generally be practiced separately; and c) those who believe that skeptical thinking and a particular range of political views go hand in hand. Group “c” is of course correct, members of group “a” are deluded and usually think this sort of thing because it is convenient for them to do so. Members of group “b” are probably just trying to keep everyone happy but secretly agree with me (oh, I’m in group “c”) … as all people who on the surface disagree with me surely must, at some deep level or another.

But seriously, yes, Skepticism is never apolitical. And it is never acultural. Having said that, it is a mechanism for thinking about the world more clearly than you get with other methods, within the unavoidably cultural and political world in which we live.

Sarah hits on a point that is absolutely correct and if you don’t know this you need to. “Skepticism” is not a thing, but rather, it is a process. Once you understand the processual nature of Skepticism, you will be a better skeptic. Until then, you’re just a dood with a T-shirt. Sarah notes:

To me, skepticism isn’t something you are. It’s something you do. While yes, we do have words that classify people by things they do (for example, a vegetarian or a hockey player), I don’t think skepticism is the same. … I think people should be able to tell that I’m a skeptic by how I behave (do I ask questions? Do I make decisions based on sound evidence?), not by what I call myself.

Please read Sarah’s post!

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1I’ve probably got that slightly wrong. I don’t know the structure of the SSA well enough to be sure. Feel free to correct in the comments.

Comments

  1. #1 Sarah
    April 25, 2012

    You’ve got my title correct! Event Specialist for the SSA. :) Thanks so much for writing this! I really appreciate it. :)

  2. #2 Dale
    April 26, 2012

    Good posts, Greg and Sarah.

    Playing with the concept of skepticism as doing, or process, one of the things that I realize is that it is not always easy to communicate the practice of skeptical reasoning. With nods to George Lakoff, I propose the word, “scepticize.”

    A short research into the word suggests it is almost never used, and every dictionary appears to use the same Shaftesbury quotation and a simple one-line definition, including “appear to doubt”, which is vague at best. This leaves the word open to evolution and a slight change to
    “the use of skeptical and scientific processes in thinking about an issue,” and see if this has any more traction in my circles.

  3. #3 David O.
    April 26, 2012

    Actually, I think skepticism may be largely genetically based…

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    April 26, 2012

    David, the problem with saying that “It is largely genetically based” is that there are no human behaviors that are generally observed for which we can say that without it being mostly speculation. Even if there is good evidence for inheritance of a behavior, most behavioral variability is of features that emerge during childhood. It is very hard to find non-trivial examples (which in turn may be mostly file-drawer effects) of behavoirs that perist from one generation to another via a strong cultural filter such as being adopted into another country.

    Which leads me to be …

    … skeptical ….

    of your claim.

  5. #5 Iain
    April 26, 2012

    I see skepticism as two different but related things.

    A “skeptic” (with a small “s”) is someone with a particular kind of intellectual disposition – someone who is generally inclined to doubt claims made without evidence. As a disposition, it need not express itself in every circumstance, or be perfectly consistent – just as an introvert is disposed to avoid certain kinds of social interactions but may have a secret karaoke addiction. But we can certainly identify people around us as having a more or less skeptical personality.

    A “Skeptic” (with a capital “S”) is someone who self-identifies as skeptical, and views skepticism normatively as the correct intellectual attitude to take. Such Skeptics are part of a movement that is at once cultural and political. But not all skeptics are Skeptics. (More controversial: not all Skeptics are skeptics.)

  6. #6 barfy
    April 26, 2012

    Good post.
    What political views are consistent with a skeptical worldview?
    I think there are many, but I would like to see how you and others frame them.
    One of my skeptical concerns about the title “Freethought Blogs” is that it does not make a concerted effort to allow for freethought. My evidence is in the nature of the allowed blogs, their content and comments. There is a definite bias towards the progressive mindset. I find this as troubling as the misnomered “Patriot Act” and its implied assumptions that to be ‘for’ it is to be patriotic.
    Is ‘freethought’ a misnomer for ‘atheist progressive?’
    In this nexus of blogs, I think that may be an accurate claim.
    To be fair, there may not be any blogs that are skeptical and other than progressive – I sure don’t know of any – but does that obviate the need to be careful to differentiate political viewpoints that haven’t been vetted by skepticism?
    There is far too much killfiling and namecalling and ‘us vs them’ mentality in many of these blogs to have earned the moniker ‘freethought.’
    Whereas, I don’t feel freethought means free-for-all, I do feel that an even greater consideration, in every meaning of that word, has to be given to political viewpoints that stray from the hegemonic and privileged progressive worldview that permeates this set of blogs – if only to demonstrate an acknowledgment that freethought and skepticism MUST allow for challenge.
    The progressive worldview holds many ‘beliefs’ – that is, opinion without evidence – that a skeptical worldview would not accept – not the least of which is that progressive beliefs are better than others.
    In simpler terms, do these set of blogs live by a “skeptic first” or “progressive first” mentality?
    I would argue the latter.

  7. #7 Phil Giordana FCD
    April 26, 2012

    ” Group “c” is of course correct”

    WTF? Evidence please?

    “members of group “a” are deluded and usually think this sort of thing because it is convenient for them to do so”

    WTF? Evidence please?

    “Members of group “b” are probably just trying to keep everyone happy but secretly agree with me (oh, I’m in group “c”) … as all people who on the surface disagree with me surely must, at some deep level or another.”

    WTF? Evidence please?

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    April 26, 2012

    Phil: Hahahahaha. Nice.

  9. #9 Phil Giordana FCD
    April 26, 2012

    Greg: I’m the lulzy type.

    But seriously, do you really think skepticism is intrinsically linked to politics, or was this whole post tongue in cheek? As a non native-english speaker, I may have been lost on some comedy here…

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    April 26, 2012

    I think skepticism has all sorts of links to politics. But that paragraph, about how everyone else but me is wrong, is tongue in cheek.

    I’ll give you two quick links.

    First, to the extent that skepticism mostly = atheism (so non atheist skeptics are in transition), skepticism is generally opposed by right wing politics, and thus, skepticism is dragged into those politics, and skepticism has to be linked somehow to church-state separation.

    Second, science based policy needs to be based on science. Like it or not, various positions on various policy issues which are political and can not be removed from politics, have science-based policies that are correct or more correct than the other view.

    This does not mean that a skeptical perspective (as a cultural entity that tries to be smart) will have a single unified view of everything, but certainly for some things it will.

  11. #11 Phil Giordana FCD
    April 26, 2012

    “I think skepticism has all sorts of links to politics. But that paragraph, about how everyone else but me is wrong, is tongue in cheek”

    Ok, that at least lowered my blood pressure. :)

    “First, to the extent that skepticism mostly = atheism (so non atheist skeptics are in transition), skepticism is generally opposed by right wing politics, and thus, skepticism is dragged into those politics, and skepticism has to be linked somehow to church-state separation.”

    This particular paragraph makes me feel uncomfortable somehow. Not that I don’t agree with your premices that skepticism eventually CAN lead to atheism, but “skepticism is generally opposed by right wing politics” is quite untrue. there are a lot of rightwingers that are very skeptical indeed. Skeptical of global warming, for exemple. Or the Moon Landing. I think in this case, “skepticism” needs to be defined more clearly.

    “Second, science based policy needs to be based on science.”

    Noooo!!!! Duh? (sorry, but this statement is so obvious I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter)

    Ok, scratch it, that whole second paragraph is total non sequitur.

    Agreed with the last paragraph, but again, that’s pretty obvious.

  12. #12 Greg Laden
    April 26, 2012

    ” there are a lot of rightwingers that are very skeptical indeed. Skeptical of global warming, for exemple. Or the Moon Landing. I think in this case, “skepticism” needs to be defined more clearly.”

    No, it does not have to be defined more clearly at all. We all know what we are talking about here, and we are not talking about science denialism.

    And science policy does need to be based on …

    Hey, wait a minuted, you’re joking too! Very funny, had me going for a second there.

  13. #13 Phil Giordana FCD
    April 27, 2012

    No, wait: “(as a cultural entity that tries to be smart)”

    You really do have a problem. Or you’re a Poe, or a troll. Try to be smart all you want. Don’t lump other people with you…

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