The skeptical spectrum: people, pathology and perspectives

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By sheer coincidence, I read two articles consecutively (stored in my queue of “things to read”) that were a definite contrast to each other in their examination of the “skeptical community”. Both were a bit old, from 2000 and 2002.

Because I was actively seeking a pattern in the framework of defining the “skeptical community” and the people in it, I fit these pieces right in to that framework of perspective.

L.D. Leiter wrote a piece for the Journal of Scientific Exploration (V. 16 No. 1 pp 125-128) in 2002 called “The Pathology of Organized Skepticism” (download PDF). So, I gave the premise of this one away with the title. It’s a poorly-reasoned piece with no sound evidence to support his generalization that skeptics are “rigidly out of balance, in the direction of disbelief” and “far more comfortable on the trailing edge of scientific progress”. He cites that his chosen group of belonging, the Society for Scientific Exploration, is “the middle ground [between skepticism and gullibility] where true science thrives.” I can’t tell what scientific training Mr. Leiter has but since organized skepticism is one of the core values of the scientific process (Robert Merton), I’m not buying that he has a solid understanding of how science works. But, we aren’t really talking about that here. Mr. Leiter focused his piece on his experiences with the people of one skeptic group.

Leiter speculated that “very often” skeptics had “unfortunate experience[s] with a faith-based philosophy”. He suspects this is what drove them so vehemently towards the least faith-based alternative – science. This is opinion and simply not a valid conclusion based on credible evidence. Leiter commits so many logical fallacies in this piece; the most egregious is making a straw man out of skeptics.

This piece is clearly criticism of the skeptic community. As with any critique, it’s important to see if there are actual grains of truth within it that should be considered. He notes that the newsletter produced by this skeptic group contained what he perceived as ridicule. They refused to allow his response to be published (though there could be MANY reasons for that) and he categorizes them as self-proclaimed protectors of the rational and scientific. There is no doubt that when like-minded skeptics get together, we commiserate about the nonsense in the world. It’s good to know others feel as strongly about these issues as you do. I wonder if the readers of the JSE shared that same feeling as they read Leiter’s piece. It was addressed to that sort of audience. A common complaint IS that we sound too self-righteous and closed-minded. Some of us are such, at various times. But so is nearly everyone else when it comes to things they hold dear to explain their worldview. We all do it. Leiter does it too.

Based on his observations during engagement with the members of this one group (he does not say how many people nor provide any data), he calls out skeptics as pathological in their disbelief. An unfair, unsupported conclusion.

Contrast this characterization of skeptics with that of Stephanie Hall in a paper published two years prior called “Folklore and the Rise of Moderation Among Organized Skeptics” (New Directions in Folklore 4.1: March, 2000).

Stephanie participated in events with a local skeptic group, too (different group than Mr. Leiter) and also read publications and email discussions. But she didn’t only rely on her subjective observations alone. She used a questionnaire to two groups to determine the ethnographic distribution. As Leiter also noted, skeptics tended to skew white and well-educated (and male). Hall’s review showed there were active women in the groups and the age range was broad. From personal knowledge and interaction I had with one of Hall’s groups and Leiter’s group, Hall’s one group IS far more diverse than that one observed by Leiter. So, Leiter’s population of one was not representative of the wider skeptic span of participants. It’s a serious flaw to generalize from such a small group. Hall notes that at least she looked beyond these two groups to the online community at the time. (It’s VERY different now, 10 years later.)

Hall’s description of what being skeptical is all about is far different than Leiter’s. She characterizes skeptics as curious, with diverse interests, rather positive and with a sense of humor. She notes that there is variation among skeptical approaches from a hard stance to an agnostic view. She mentions the efforts to get more women involved and the controversial discussion over the expanding scope of claims that skeptics have their eye on – such as feminism. And she clarifies the schism between those that chose to take religion head-on and those groups who put religion aside for the “big tent” feel.

She does a decent job of showing the gamut of skeptical people and issues. It’s pretty complicated. We know of late, as the community has grown, that these complications can get us into serious disputes. Hall noted that the community is “going through changes” and that self-analysis is a good thing.

In stark contrast to Mr. Leiter, Ms. Hall seems to have enjoyed her time observing skeptics.

So what is the true scope of skepticism – people-wise, method-wise and topic-wise?

There is no doubt the personalities within our network of those actively practicing critical thinkers run the spectrum from naughty to nice. Some rub others the wrong way. Some of us are loyal friends to each other. The wide range of personalities each bring something different to the discussion. As individuals,  our unique paths of experience brought us to the present and compel us to do the activism we do.

Some of us are scientists and bring the wonder of nature to the public. Some of us are fascinated with belief and perception and why people believe weird things. Some fearlessly debunk frauds. Some step up to defend the front lines of freedom from religion. Some set religion entirely aside and teach people how to be better consumers or just to enjoy the universe. We have academics, dedicated amateurs, artists and entertainers. We each have our ways to express ourselves and our message.

Want to see the rainbow of different people, ideas and approaches in skepticism today? I strongly suggest you pick up Kylie Sturgess’ compilation of interviews she completed as part of her Token Skeptic podcast. (Get Kylie’s book here.) You can hear the variety of skeptical perspectives straight from the people involved. As Mike McRae notes in the foreword, there aren’t just two sides to a story. Appreciating that is a key to understanding and acceptance, so there can be progress.

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3 thoughts on “The skeptical spectrum: people, pathology and perspectives

  1. Merton’s “organized skepticism” does not refer to the skeptical movement, but to an “institutional imperative” within professionalized science to subject claims to critical scrutiny. The skeptical movement (also occasionally referred to as “organized skepticism” as Hall does) operates largely outside of scientific institutions, addressing a popular audience. It appears to me that Leiter’s referring only to the latter, not the former, in his title. Also, any talk of Merton’s norms of science (1940s sociology of science) should be at least qualified with reference to Mitroff’s counter-norms of science (1970s sociology of science), where the counter-norm to organized skepticism is “organized dogmatism.” See, for example, Janet Stemwedel’s discussion of Mitroff’s counter-norms: http://scientopia.org/blogs/ethicsandscience/2008/02/25/basic-concepts-scientific-anti-norms-part-2/

    It’s also worth noting that sociology of science has not remained static since the 1970s, let alone the 1940s. I would love to see skeptics engage more with contemporary interdisciplinary science studies and history and philosophy of science. Theory and practice are often quite different from each other, and the ways philosophers of science have thought scientists *should* behave, when examined by historians and social scientists, have often been found to be quite different from how they actually *do* behave, and this in turn has caused revision of the ideal picture in philosophy of science.

  2. So I happen also to be a graduate of the UB Science and the Public program, like Sharon. And I agree with Jim’s comment above, that the ‘skeptics’ community, who have always puzzled me over the obsession with the paranormal, should really engage much more with the growing interdisciplinary fields in science, technology, society, history, and philosophy of science, e.g., STS (science technology and society), and HPS (history, and philosophy of science). Steve Fuller is a leading figure in these areas, and a master dialectician of the contradictions besetting science in relation to the public today. These schools of thought are just as ‘skeptical’ and secular as anyone, but they offer a more constructive social perspective. Perhaps the key really is “social epistemology”. Fuller in particular argues that the social nature of knowledge has not been adequately investigated in the Anglo-American intellectual world of the 20th century and he diagnoses this as leading to the greater conflict between science and the public in America versus Europe, for example. Where in Europe they possess a much richer philosophical and intellectual tradition, which better grasps the socially constructed character of by far most, if not all, of the knowledge we depend on in our everyday lives. This leads to a better understanding of the nature of social relations, and the ability to get over a certain ‘skeptical’ stage of knowledge. By the latter, I mean, what the philosopher Hegel called the ‘negation of negation': when you have passed through absolute skepticism and are no longer troubled by any beliefs that you have not destroyed and reconstructed to your own satisfaction.

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