What is skepticism? Well I have many answers for that. What is the Skeptical Movement? Other than something really immature about bowels, far less obvious answers come to mind. But I’m going to tackle both.
I think that a lot of people can agree that, on the whole and regardless of semantics, the core of skepticism as a concept is that there is no dogmatic belief in any idea. In effect, “belief” or acceptance of an idea is based on the amount and quality of evidence supporting the idea. In effect, a skeptic’s idea about something would change if there was new compelling evidence demonstrating that old ideas were incorrect.
To explain, it might help to discuss what skepticism is not. Skepticism, to many, is not a denial of every idea. There are philosophical principles, that I won’t elaborate on, that we can’t truly know anything. As there is nothing to be learned from such views, I don’t agree with including them within skepticism. To deny truth in everything negates the consideration of individual ideas based on their merits. In short, skepticism is not a dogmatic unbelief.
Usually people are skeptical about a lot of things but they don’t consider themselves “a skeptic” because they don’t think of it that way. For example, people become skeptical of the Easter Bunny as children, but many don’t stop to consider the lines of evidence that led them to come to the conclusion that (sorry, kids) the Easter Bunny isn’t real and don’t come to think of their conclusion as a skeptical idea.
Some people are skeptical about many more things. This can often come with the label of “cynic”. But is it cynical to stop believing in the Easter Bunny, or was there just a point when it became so silly to believe in such a thing, despite all evidence to the contrary, that we simply could no longer justify the belief? So are skeptics cynical? I don’t think so, IMHO. I think where that label often gets thrown around is when skepticism is applied to people’s most cherished adult beliefs. Its all well and good to be skeptical of the Easter Bunny, but the exact same skepticism is all of a sudden not okay when it is applied to gods, homeopathy, acupuncture, superfruit juices, angels, etc. Skepticism isn’t cynicism.
The Skeptical Movement
The above example is one of the areas where I think the so-called Skeptical Movement begins to apply. People, sick to death of being called “cynical” and politely enduring personal testimonials from friends and family members, find others with like attitudes about the world to discuss new (and old) ideas. That’s a pretty natural, human thing to do. Find a group of people who like the things you like. We do it all the time. It’s called making friends.
Some skepticism has grown into a form of consumer activism – people who are already inclined to do so take the time to investigate claims for other people who don’t have the time. This might require (or benefit from) the collaboration of several individuals. But is this a “movement”? What is meant by “movement” in this context?
One common misunderstanding of skeptics as a group – and I don’t think this is a matter of opinion, this is a misunderstanding of epic proportions – is that we are sort of like a religion. Well, it’s hard to see how that is the case given that the basis of skepticism is that facts are paramount, no matter what. It doesn’t matter who says something, how many times it is said, how old the idea is, how popular it is, etc. Right is right, wrong is wrong, and “I don’t know” is perfectly acceptable in the absence of evidence either way. Usually religions, on the other hand, do not have such freedoms. There are ancient texts, prophets, gods, and so on that must be interpreted and adhered to with faith – sometimes in contrary to available evidence. Some people may find that appealing, but skeptics for the most part don’t.
In an argument of opinion people can be as dogmatic as they want, but in an argument of facts there is no such leeway. The facts are the facts and individuals, as hard as that can be sometimes (for everyone), must be willing to recognize that they can be wrong. In an argument of facts, when one side has them and the other doesn’t (or does, but with a lack of understanding), it can seem like the pro-fact side is being dogmatic. This is an illusion. They may be passionate, but as soon as evidence is shown to the contrary, being a skeptic as it is corely defined, they should change their minds. That is not dogma and accusations otherwise are not well-met, particularly as they are often rooted in anti-intellectualism.
Another common misunderstanding is that we have leaders and an organized system for this “movement”. Although I fail to see how such an observation is a criticism, I will address it because I feel it is an inaccurate characterization either way. However popular Dawkins, Hitchens, Shermer, Skepchicks, Meyers, Novella, Plait, etc become, is that the same as them being leaders of a movement? Is this the same as me following a particular person and paying dues to their church or other organized/tiered group in order to be a member? No. This is where I think the “accusation” of leadership might be from. But I don’t worship these people. In fact I sometimes disagree with them vehemently. And doing so doesn’t preclude me from membership or put me in a different “sect” of membership. These people are popular, yes, and have many resources but that is not the same as being a revered leader and they are not protected from criticism.
So is the skeptical movement a religious movement? I don’t think that it is. The core principles of a religion simply do not mesh with the core principles of skepticism (as a concept). There may be similarities in the two groups, but I think those are largely due to the commonalities of human behaviour as a whole. People are inclined to group with like people. People are inclined to support causes they think are important. People are inclined to speak out about topics that are important to them. There is one major dissimilarity that makes the two groups incompatible: Skeptics do not have unwavering faith in things that are not supported by evidence. So in terms of human behaviour, sure there are lots of similarities, but in terms of core concepts…skepticism is not a religion.
But is skepticism a “movement“? I suppose in a sense it could be. Movements tend to have goals. I think a “goal” that many skeptics would agree on would be to introduce critical thinking at a young age and teach people, in general, how to think rather than what to think. Also, to prevent naive, desperate, ignorant, or otherwise ordinary but taken-in people from being conned out of too much money. But many skeptics have many different goals and achieve them individually. Are they part of the “Skeptical Movement”? If a skeptic does something unskeptical are they kicked out of “The Movement” for their transgression?
At this point, I think we’re just a bunch of people who are alike who share a hobby. Maybe we could be a movement one day, but I don’t think we are right now. We’re simply not doing enough to be considered a movement. We’re spreading information, sure, but as much as we bitch about school boards, are we on any? As many societies that we have to support ourselves and each other are we, as a group, charitable? As much as we disapprove of things that the government does do we, as a group, act? I’m sure some people do all of those things, but I don’t think enough of us are doing these things on large enough a scale (or in an organized way) to be considered a “movement” proper. We have a ways to go.