Afternoon InquisitionSkepticism

AI: The New and Improved Ass Kicking Thursday Afternoon Afternoon Inquisition.5

I received another suggestion for the “The New and Improved Ass Kicking Thursday Afternoon Afternoon Inquisition”. As you may recall, these are questions you all send in when you have something important you’d like the readers to discuss, or when you can tell that I’m totally out of good ideas. (Use the comments or contact page to suggest more.)

Today’s topic comes from Skepchick reader, thewiremonkey, who says:

The New York Times is once again referring to a climate change denier as a skeptic. This really bugs the heck out of me because when I tell people I’m a skeptic, they often ask, “Oh, so you don’t believe in climate change?”.

Aside from promoting Skepchick ( which everyone does, right?), how can we get the use of “big S” Skeptic in broader use, as a specific philosophy of critical thinking and not just “someone who doubts”? Any ideas?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 3pm ET. And the New and Improved Ass Kicking Thursday Afternoon Afternoon Inquisition is something Sam made up. Look for it to appear when Sam is out of ideas, sick, or just too drunk to even blink.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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20 Comments

  1. Speak softly but carry a big skepstick?

    Seriously, though, I think the skeptic movement is a relatively new thing, and until it becomes more mainstream, we’ll always be getting people who confuse the movement of skepticism with the noun (or adjective depending on what form of the word you use for those grammarians out there). I guess the best way to educate people is with thoughtful, respectful conversation…

    and maybe we could offer them 20 bucks…

  2. I think this is rather quixotic. Getting people to put a new name on an old thing is easier — for example prolife versus antiabortion. It is nearly impossible to correct common usage. Ask any English teacher.

    Generally it takes a stunt to grab sufficient media attention to make a dent in the popular consciousness. Maybe we could take up a collection and convince Ogden, Utah to change their name to Skeptic, Utah for a year. (The only reason I know about Ogden is because it is a IRS processing center. If you detect a certain amount of antipathy when you introduce yourself this might explain it.)

  3. I like Denialist over Denier for someone who ignores overwhelming facts or evidence. Climate Denialist, Holocaust Denialist etc. . And the “ist” ending gives it a nice bite when saying it out loud. Kinda like calling someone a fascist when you hammer that “t”, everyone knows it was a swear word.

  4. This is a tricky one. for example, a science journalist named Peter Hadfield has done some great YouTube videos about climate change under the screen name potholer54. In a recent interview he stated that some of the comment-ers on his videos have reported to him that they progressed from “skeptics” to accepting the truth of human-caused global warming on the strength of his work. What’s interesting for the AI question comes from Hadfield’s comment that he takes care not to call those who challenge his work “deniers” as this only antagonizes the true skeptics who actually check the articles and information he cites in his exchanges with them.

    In other words, not all those who call themselves “climate change skeptics” are lying. Some will come around after examining evidence and having the mis-information from the likes of Roy Spencer, John Christy, Lord Mockton (I can’t believe that’s his real name) or Pat Michaels clearly debunked.

    When I used to do lectures on critical thinking I described what I called “the naming game.” I would call myself “Brad Pitt” going around the classroom shaking the students’ hands and asking them if they wanted my autograph. Then I asked them what they thought would happen if I turned up in Angelina Jolie’s bedroom and made the same claim. That got the point across (and sometimes even a laugh). Calling something by a given name has no magical ability to make something true, just in the naming. Dishonest people will continue to call themselves “skeptics” in order to make their irrational denial of reality look reasonable. That will not work for long.

    To answer the question thewiremonkey poses, I would respond: a skeptic believes that human-caused climatic change has happened because of the huge amount of evidence that we have. That’s what a real skeptic does: believes based on evidence.

  5. While looking up “stochastic” in my dictionary to make sure I was using it correctly, I came across “skeptic”, and none of the definitions fit the way most modern skeptics would define themselves. Most of the definitions were variants of what we would call “deniers”. The closest was a person who believes or practices philosophical skepticism, which in turn was defined as “the philosophical doctrine that the truth of all knowledge must always be in question and that inquiry must be a process of doubting”, which I guess is true as far as it goes, but it leaves out the extremely important bit that knowledge should be accepted as long as there is a sufficient preponderance of evidence in support of it. This is the distinction between deniers (or cynics) and skeptics, at least in the modern sense, but I think most non-skeptics don’t understand or know about that part of the meaning of the word.

    These were probably the standard definitions of “skeptic” and “skepticism” when my dictionary, the “Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language”, 2nd College Edition, was published in 1970, but words change meanings.

    I think we either have to invent a new word (I know of no good candidates), or work on getting people to understand and accept the new definition.

    I would go with @sadunlap‘s “a real skeptic … believes based on evidence”, except for the somewhat problematic word “believes.”

  6. @James K: Agreed. It might be emotionally satisfying to label a doubter as a denier instead of as a skeptic, but it is just ad hominem abuse. It is only when they have presented evidence that they are ignoring contrary arguments or data that we are justified in determining that they are in fact a denier, and mockery and ridicule becomes appropriate as well as fun.

  7. I think the problem is that we have no public entity to act on behalf of skeptics and draw the official line.

    Personally I’m not certain I’m a skeptic. If it were up to me skepticism would mean disillusioning people from logical fallacies and unsubstantiated claims: not challenging beliefs that others take as axioms because axioms by definition can not be supported logically. (The one caveat of course being that a skeptic would resolve logical contradictions in their axioms)

    I would have thought a skeptic was someone who accepts evidence is never perfect and guards against overstatement by checking that both evidence and the resulting conclusions are valid. I would not exclude someone from skepticism over a difference of opinion if it was due to a basic value judgement.

    In short I’m saying a skeptic is someone who endeavours to make their beliefs logically consistent. I suppose the next step would be to identify what -if any- axioms would be required for someone to be a skeptic. Is there s skeptical stance on realism vs instrumentalism or coherence (as it pertains to accepting hypotheses). Someone has to decide!

  8. I think “skeptics” is too negative a word for the movement. It has more to do with rational, evidence based thinking. With such thinking you will be skeptic about some things and affirmative to other things.

    In reality it’s more about the scientific way of thinking. So how about calling us “Scientifics”?

  9. I tend to agree with davew, if only because I fight this battle regularly over business “buzzwords” and other abuses of the English language in my job as a technical writer.

    Changing the language is terribly difficult. Hell, it’s hard to get some people to even use correct grammar.

  10. I don’t think it’s possible. Technical words meaning specific things have been coopted into the vernacular so much, when you use the technical term, many people think you mean the vernacular. Some examples include:

    Skeptic – a philosophy of questioning v. doubting

    Theory – A concise explanational of a phenomenon v. a really good guess

    Argument – A set of evidence and logic used to prove a point v. an extreme disagreement.

  11. @infinitemonkey: No it’s not!

    (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

    I was just listening to an old SGU podcast yesterday where they were discussing an LA city councilor getting into trouble for using the term “black hole” to describe a dysfunctional city agency. Another councilor obviously had never heard the astronomical term and thought it was racist.

    As always, education is the key. If we invent a new word, we need to make sure everyone knows what it means. I think the best way to do this is to create some sort of meme that enters the popular consciousness (not just the nerd/geek consciousness) and implicitly defines the new skeptic-word the way we do. I don’t know that there exists any way to make this happen, though. On the same SGU podcast, someone said they wanted something to go viral and someone else (Rebecca?) pointed out that wanting something to go viral has no effect on whether it does or not.

  12. @Buzz Parsec: The whole “black hole” thing struck me as a possible urban legend, and really should be researched before being cited…

    I mis-remembered. The 2008 incident was in Dallas, not in LA. It does seem to have really happened, but the links on Google mostly come from Fox News and Michele Malkin, two sources not noted for their reliability. But the Dallas News tells pretty much the same story. It does sound like there is some history and the guy who used the “black hole” line likes to push peoples buttons, so who knows? Maybe someone familiar with local Dallas politics knows more.

  13. Sam said: how can we get the use of “big S” Skeptic in broader use, as a specific philosophy of critical thinking and not just “someone who doubts”?

    The answer, I think, is in your question. Big S.

    It’s about taking ownership of Skeptic as a proper noun. That’s how I think of myself – as a Skeptic, as having a philosophy, and not just being skeptical of any specific topic.

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