The Antiskeptics

Skeptics fight an up hill battle. This battle consists of deploying critical thinking across a range of cultural landscapes, implementing scientific thinking to solve problems, and the thoughtful evaluation of knowledge, while 90 percent of the world is out to stop you, or at least make it hard. Or so it seems. To be honest, I can’t back up that 90 percent figure with any hard facts. Sorry.

But the Skeptic faces more than just uncritical thinking, incorrect facts, or poor scientific judgment. The Skeptic must also wrestle with … The Anti Skeptic.

Of which there are several kinds.

Of late we’ve seen an epidemic of Antiskeptic activity occur within the skeptical movement itself, with people who call themselves skeptics because they find the movement interesting, who came to this party because they head there were girls here or because they thought it was a good way to look smart, or in some cases, because they encountered some annoying belief system (bigfoot or ancient aliens or something) and thought this was a good way to purge their experience of it. But they are not willing to be skeptical, or even thoughtful, about other things in their life. They want the thrills but don’t want to invest in too much of their own critical thinking. They don’t understand that skepticism does, really, have a political edge to it, not because skepticism in inherently political, but because so many political views don’t stand up to critical analysis, and because so many skeptical or scientific perspectives have been taken up by various parties and made political. When these Antiskeptics discover that their dearly held Libertarian or “Independent” (have you ever noticed that almost all “independents” have almost identical views on most issues?) perspectives are intellectually bankrupt they quickly erect the “skepticism is not political” smokescreen and try to hide there. Doesn’t work, but that’s what they do.

But I don’t want to talk about those annoying people here. Nor do I want to talk about the professional Antisketpics … the denialists such as those in the Anti-Global Warming game, who often use the word “skeptic” to label themselves although they are almost all crazy people with a chip on their shoulder and easily led by a charlatan such as Lord Monkington or Andrew Watts.

(Threats of law suits for saying something mean in 3 … 2 … 1 …)

No, I don’t want to talk about those annoying people either.

The Antiskeptics I want to talk about are the people who don’t even know that they are Antiskeptics, and they probably don’t even know what a “Skeptic” is. They lead their lives with a mixture of critical and uncritical understanding, a lot of received knowledge, often (but not always) woo-ish beliefs. Most importantly, though, they have a vague understanding that there is a “truth” out there that is more correct than the truths they live with, but that it is too much work, and often, against their own personal self interests, to embrace it. And, even though such folks may be unaware of a “Skeptics movement” they are at least vaguely aware that you are up to something…that you are a bit more prone to correct some belief they have, or to introduce critically evaluated knowledge into the conversation, or to mention some dumb-ass thing someone is doing with the particular disdain that comes from knowing how wrong it is. Even if done politely.

This Antiskeptic is your brother or sister or mother or child or cousin or neighbor or teacher or student or coworker. Over time, they see you coming. Subconsciously or not, they are pretty good at deflecting knowledge. In some cases, that may be why they are an Antiskeptic (rather than the other way around). They may just be good at avoiding learning something new.

And there are techniques. There’s a dance, a game, a modus operendus. I think you know what I’m talking about because you’ve seen it all before.

Here is a formulaic (literally) example of one possible interaction with an Antiskeptic. Your intent is to say something quite straight forward, like “2 + 2 = 4″

So, you say “Hey, 2 + 2 =…” and just then the Antiskeptic interrupts you and says, “I know! 2+ 2 = 3!” and then they move on to the next topic quickly. In order for you to get your “2 + 2 = 4″ into the conversation you have to stop and reverse and change course and do all kinds of fixing up of stuff and that rarely goes well. This is known as the Interrupting Antiskeptic.

Then, less interesting but more common, is the Evasive Antiskeptic. Simply put, this is the person who hears what you say but then dismisses it without much fanfare, obviously uninterested in engaging in an argument.

“Hey, 2 + 2 = 4,” you say.

“Yeah, whatever. How ’bout them Red Socks,” is the reply.

Then there is the Watch the Monkey Antiskeptic. This is more of a technique than a type of Antiskeptic. You are making an argument and the counter argument consists of something totally unrelated but that seem really important.

“Hey, 2 + 2 = 4,” you say

“Numbers are the hobgoblin of the Patriarchy!” is the reply. Which, of course, is true, but not really the point.

Then there is the Mine the Harbor Antisketpic. This is usually a friend you see only now and then, or a co-worker you only meet every few weeks, but they are totally on to you. With this person, almost all conversations start like this:

“I know you are going to tell me that 2 + 2 equals something other than 4, but I just think it is important to know that everybody is entitled to their own opinion.”

And thus, your critical thinking is bound to bump into that little socioculture land mine, fair or not, like it or not.

There is one other kind of Antiskpetic I’d like to mention. This is rare, and it usually requires two people who have been doing this together for a long time. Often, a married. A few years back I encountered such a couple who were ani-Vaxers, but there are other couples where this routine applies to many other aspects of life. This is where the mention of, say, two and two equaling four and stuff leads immediately to an argument between the two members of the couple, which takes off so far into the stratosphere, and does so much damage to reality, that you realize that your humble efforts to assert arithmetic have created a black hole of numerical stupidity involving calculus, trigonometry and analytical geometry (to stretch the analogy to the limit).

You say to Mary and Bob, “Hey, 2 + 2 = 4″

Mary: “Bob is so bad at math we bought a couch last month and it was two feet too long”

Bob: “I thought you told me that the couch was two feet to short! I re-ordered a shorter couch, two feet shorter than the first one”

Mary: “If it is two feet shorter than the one that is too long, then it’s going to be twice as too short!”

Bob: “No, that’s not how it works at all. Just trust me.”

Mary: “Last time I trusted you we ended up with a window air conditioner that fell out of the window after you installed it”

Bob: “That was not me, that was your brother. You’re thinking of the time I hitched up the trailer to the wrong car and we drove all the way to North Dakota without the trailer”

Mary: “No, that was the time we drove all the way to North Dakota without the kids, not the trailer. The trailer was a totally different time you screwed up”

And so on and so forth.

What is your favorite kind of Antisketpic?

Photo of bigfoot attacking biker by ( kurtz )


  1. #1 hengist
    June 10, 2012

    What has this got to do with the price of fish?

  2. #2 Jim Thomerson
    June 10, 2012

    On the other side of the fence is the dogmatic skeptic who will not accept anything but Absolute Truth; no 95% probablity of true, or contigent truth. Many evolution and global warming critics to fall into this category.

  3. #3 jj
    Somewhere else
    June 10, 2012

    Can you say “morons”?

  4. #4 Captain Pithart
    June 11, 2012

    did you mean “modus operandi”? :)

  5. #5 Ian Kemmish
    June 11, 2012

    The toddler’s “Why?” can surely reduce any sceptic to a reliance on axioms in a matter of minutes.

  6. #6 Marnie
    United States
    June 11, 2012

    My favorite anti-skeptic is the one who starts off by telling you their skeptic credentials. You know the type: “I started reading Martin Gardner when when I was in my mother’s womb, I have an IQ of 923, I am the best skeptic in this conversation, so I am qualified to say that 2+2=3″

    This can all be translated to “please stop thinking, I have already taken care of it and I don’t like being told I’m wrong.”

  7. #7 daedalus2u
    June 11, 2012

    My favorite anti-skeptic (but I tend to call them pseudoskeptics) is the person who says “I know of no facts that contradict or are inconsistent with your position, but because you have mentioned an anecdote that supports your position, I am certain that you must be wrong”.

    This is a variant of the anti-skeptic that Marnie mentioned.

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    June 11, 2012

    YES! Both of you are discussing a special kind of Antiskeptic that I didn’t cover here because it is too subtle and complex, but it is very important.

    It is based partly on the use of clues to make a guess at the veracity of a claim. If I see a claim about a dietary supplement being made on TV and I’ve never heard of it before, I’ll take a guess that if there is any effect at all, it is very small, and the number or other measure they provide in the commercial is a maximum value from some study and nothing like whatever happens. This is because it is almost always the case. But that is not a skeptical argument, it’s just a guess, based on experience and very likely right, but still just a guess.

    The value of cranberry juice in reducing the occurrence of bladder infections in women prone to them is an example from a while back. There is good reason to believe that it can work, though the necessary pattern of consumption (amount, timing), information about whom it might best work for, etc. etc. is simply unknown. The data are suggestive, non conclusive. But one can’t say what I just said to these Antisketpics because it involves a plant. Therefore it must be woo.

    Which, of course, is usually true, but it is not a skeptical argument or a scientific argument.

    A variant off this which I experienced the other day (I’ll use the numerical analogy and not mention the actual topics to avoid distraction).

    I said “2 + 2 = 4″

    Someone said “That form of the equation is not the one I prefer. I prefer ‘add(2,2)’”

    I say “It’s been shown in studies that people prefer 2+2 style notation”

    “What studies”

    “Studies referred to by experts in this topic at a recent conference. I’ve not seen the studies but their argument was convincing to me at the time”

    “You can not produce citations for the studies you mention therefore your argument that 2+2= 4 is foundation-less and thus wrong”

    That may have been a combination of several different kinds of anti-skepticism.

  9. #9 Chris Winter
    June 11, 2012

    Hengist wrote: “What has this got to do with the price of fish?”

    “The winter waves beat heavily on the western strand.”

  10. #10 Chris Winter
    June 11, 2012

    My “favorite’ kind of antiskeptic is the one you touched on in your comment. I assert something I know to be a fact, like “Ocean temperatures have continued to rise.”

    The antiskeptic asks for a citation. I look up a Web site (probably NOAA) and come back to post the URL.

    The response is something to the effect that all NOAA data is bogus.

  11. #11 Jim Thomerson
    June 11, 2012

    When I see ads about the health virtue of Hoodia cactus, i am a little skeptical because I know Hoodia is a genus of milkweeds, not cactus.

  12. #12 daedalus2u
    June 11, 2012

    The problem that these anti-skeptics have is that they are fundamentally not skeptics. A skeptic has to default to “I don’t know”, and not “you are wrong because you have not met the burden of proof that I require”.

    I get this all the time when I talk about nitric oxide. Because I write with authority on how NO is involved in this or that disorder, some pseudoskeptics assert that I must be wrong because I am too sure of myself. Then they do a quick stint at Google U, find a paper that has NO in the title that seems to contradict what I have said, and which confirms their bias. They are then unable to hear or understand when I point out the flaws in that paper.

    In effect they are tone trolls, deciding the merits of something by the tone with which it is asserted.

    I post comments a lot on SBM, and get this all the time from the other commenters (not from the bloggers, they know the limits of their knowledge pretty well and have no problem defaulting to “I don’t know”, or to silence). What is funny is that sometimes actual skeptical commenters will say that “maybe his NO stuff is crazy, but none of the other stuff he says is”.

  13. #13 Bob Calder
    United States
    June 12, 2012

    Greg, How about doing this sort of treatment on k-12 education reform? It has been ten years or so and only in the first three was there deviation from the baseline trend of gradual improvement. Yet today, among other things, we have value added measurement of teachers with no assurance that the metrics are in fact something a teacher affects.

  14. #14 Greg Laden
    June 12, 2012

    Good point, I’ve done that to some extent and would like to do more.

  15. #15 Alan
    June 13, 2012

    Here, let me over simplify the opposition…. ;)

    “Anti-skeptic” – One who believes blind faith is a virtue. These people are trusting, genuine, and misguided.

    “Psuedo-skeptic” – One who is willing to practice skepticisim on everything except their own ideas. These people are distrusting, genuine, and misguided.

    “Denier” – One who diliberately misleads the above groups with the aim of orchestrating what Stalin(?) called ‘an army of useful idiots’. These sociopaths beavering away in their no-think tanks are surprisingly cheap and effective global propogandists. Seriously, $50M to delay action on AGW for 20yrs is an unbeliveable bargain for the likes of Peabody and Exxon. Coca-Cola spends the same amount every quarter on their advertising.

    Now, skepticisim is a learned behaviour*, so I’m sure even the most level headed of us here have fallen into one or both of the first two categories at sometime during our lives. The denier category is much more exclusive and is reserved for industrial strength propogandists like Moncton and Irving.

    * – It’s true I became interested in the art of skepticisim because I was angry I had been tricked by the likes of Uri Geller in the late 70′s. I have James Randi’s thin book on Geller to thank for that initial push in the right direction over 30yrs ago.

    I picked the book out of a bargain bin because I thought I knew enough ‘sciency stuff’ to debunk a mere magician. How wrong I was, and how disappointed the importance and mechanics of this art had not been hammered into me at school.

    Trivia: Randi himself became a skeptic very early in life because his father died a premature death as a direct result of being conned by a sharlaton offering a miracle cure.

  16. #16 Wow
    June 13, 2012

    “did you mean “modus operandi”?”

    How about “morons operandi”?

  17. #17 Daniel J. Andrews
    June 15, 2012

    A while ago I was invited to a sermon where the pastor was going to talk about evolution, under the title, Lies the World Has Told Me. Not knowing this pastor I held out a slight hope he was going to actually get something right, but before he even completed his first sentence and before he had even said anything wrong, I knew he was about to blunder and inadvertently lie. “I’ve been studying evolution for a few years and….” (I’ve yet to hear that sentence be completed and not have something wrong) “…I can tell you evolutionists are abandoning their theory in droves”. (my head thumping the back of the pew in front of me was rather audible in his dramatic pause which followed that sentence).

    I went down to talk to him afterwards, he smiled, nodded, smiled some more. I suggested he read The Language of God by Collins or Only a Theory by Ken Miller, both believers that he’d probably feel more comfortable reading. I made a few other points, and he just smiled and nodded (maybe he was too distracted by the big red mark on my forehead from smacking the pew in front of me too many times).

    And that was it. He didn’t acknowledge he said anything wrong, he didn’t acknowledge his logic was several flawed, he didn’t acknowledge that I had said anything that would make him reconsider even his simple obvious wrong statements (“if you believe in evolution, then you believe in ” [insert stupid black-and-white mischaracterization here]). Somehow in his case he tied believing in evolution into being in strip clubs where people are depressed and unhappy and he knows this because he used to be a police officer and had to go into strip clubs many times and all the patrons didn’t look at all like they were having a good time.

    So 2+2 = 4, and the only response is a lot of smiling and nodding and what most reasonable people would assume was agreement. Not sure what kind of antiskeptic that is.

  18. #18 Wow
    June 18, 2012

    “Lies the World Has Told Me”

    See, here’s what I don’t get.

    Lets say for sake of the argument made that the earth REALLY IS 6000 years old and created by a God.

    That God made the universe and the earth in a way that is COMPLETELY DIFFERENT in evidence.

    God did that.

    Obviously, God must be trying to tell you something by making it look like the universe is 14 billion years old and the earth about 4 billion.

    Surely you should be investigating the universe AS IT APPEARS to see what He is trying to tell you by that billions of years evidence. Not denying it.

  19. #19 @blamer
    June 18, 2012

    ty Alan, nice comment.

    Greg, the OP suggests we can play spot “the other” because individuals tend to have a favourite logical fallacy (interrupting, evading, monkey-watching, harbour-mining, etc). As per commenter daedalus2u, human psychology ensures self-described Skeptics are also guilty of using their gut instead of wikipedia.

    What is OUR favourite? I’d like to nominate the Argument From Fallacy,

  20. #20 Greg Laden
    June 19, 2012

    Argument from fallacy may well be the best candidate for that. Or, it could be a fallacy. Better check on that.

    Argument from incredulity is still good.

  21. #21 Pierce R. Butler
    June 20, 2012

    When you fall for that 2+2=4 routine, They have succeeded in distracting you from the reasons for the collapse of Building 7!