I recently posted a story about “The Psychology of the Skeptic“, which linked to reports from the Society for Psychical Research’s recent study day ‘Spotlight on the Skeptics’. Matt Colborn’s excellent summary of the conference (which I posted as a multi-link to the Cosmic Citizen blog) is now available on the one page at the Skeptical Investigations website. Also now available is audio of Rupert Sheldrake’s insightful lecture, which gave a full run-down on some of his own encounters with fundamentalist skeptics, as well as Rupert’s own thoughts about the label.
Speaking of the skeptical label, at SkepticBlog Dr Steven Novella (well-known as a key member of the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast) has posted an entry which contemplates that very thing – he notes the negative connotation of the word, and goes so far as to make explicit that modern skeptics are *nothing of the kind*:
OK – we all know that the name “skeptic” is sub-optimal. Probably, if someone paid a great deal of money to a top-notch marketing team they would come up with something better. But we don’t always get to choose such things. Names take root and have cultural inertia. Attempts at imposing a new name on the modern skeptical movement have failed (cough…”brights”…cough!)… Rather than fight history, inertia, and etymology most of us have just decided to embrace it and make the best out of it.
… The modern skeptical movement has used the self-label of “skeptic” for decades to refer to what Carl Sagan called “scientific skepticism,” to distinguish it from philosophical skepticism or mere cynicism.
So here is my attempt at a reasonably concise definition of skeptic and skepticism – the brand of scientific skepticism we advocate as activist skeptics.
A skeptic is one who prefers beliefs and conclusions that are reliable and valid to ones that are comforting or convenient, and therefore rigorously and openly applies the methods of science and reason to all empirical claims, especially their own. A skeptic provisionally proportions acceptance of any claim to valid logic and a fair and thorough assessment of available evidence, and studies the pitfalls of human reason and the mechanisms of deception so as to avoid being deceived by others or themselves. Skepticism values method over any particular conclusion.
An interesting moment of redefinition by one of the leading skeptics – although I’ve no doubt there are areas of Novella’s definition which could use a little work. (Personally, I don’t find the idea that aliens are abducting people and putting probes up their butts too “comforting or convenient”, but hey…maybe I’m too much of a small town boy).
There is no doubt in my mind (heh, see what I did there…) that the skeptical movement is gaining serious traction online, despite their protestations that the world is being swallowed by the irrationality monster – witness the growing audiences of the Skeptics Guide podcast, Bad Astronomy, Pharyngula etc. Mind you, there’s very good reasons to be a skeptic (in the true sense of the word) – there’s no shortage of stupidity and fraud out there – but I think the reason why so many *pseudo-skeptics* are being embraced (e.g. Randi) is because they trade on intellectual superiority (“hey, if you’re interested in that you must be a goofy anti-science guy”) – and there’s plenty of fragile egos out there wanting to join the ‘smart club’. Me, I’ll just continue to be unfashionable and look into strange and weird things, though with plenty of caution.