Afternoon Inquisition

AI: And you are a skeptic! And YOU are a skeptic! EVERYBODY IS A SKEPTIC!

Skeptics, Skepchicks included, are human and make mistakes. Sometimes we even believe weird things… or wrong things. I’ve had conversations with other skeptics where I was surprised to find out that they had no idea what they were saying was false. And I’ve been embarrassed to discover that something I’d always believed was absolutely untrue.

It happens. I don’t judge other skeptics for “knowing” certain facts to be facts.

I’m careful to put a definition on the word “skeptic” that involves what skeptics do or don’t believe. But I wonder where that line is. If someone is popping homeopathic pills while on a ghost hunt and trying to hide from government mind-control aliens, I’d probably put them in the “dude, drink your crazy juice somewhere else” category. But if that person’s best friend attended a Drinking Skepchickally and cornered me to talk about how she was freaked out by Splenda, I wouldn’t necessarily discount her right away… but I don’t think I’d let her give an artificial sweetener talk at Skepchicamp.

Can someone be accepted as a “skeptic” if they believe X but not Y? Is there a line? Is it the quality or quantity of disqualifying beliefs?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.


Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

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  1. I would say that the answer is “yes, absolutely.”

    All of us believe something that is not true, in fact all of us believe a lot of things that are not true. Even if you are thorough in your attempts to sort out what beliefs are based on evidence and which are not, you will probably only be able to examine a portion of your beliefs.

    Moreover, you usually have to base your assesment of evidence on information from sources other than your own direct experience (which is flawed by your perception anyway), so you’ll still get bad information no matter how hard you try to avoid it.

    So, being a skeptic is more about looking for evidence and having the humility to accept that you may be wrong.

  2. A skeptic might be defined as someone who requires objective evidence for their beliefs. How strong that evidence must be might depend on a number of factors, e.g., how plausible the claim is, how important it is to determine the correct answer, etc.

    So I guess as long as you make an effort to sort things out you qualify as a skeptic. It’s just that if you end up believing a lot of weird stuff, you’re not a very good skeptic. Sort of like I’m a great musician in theory, but in practice…not so much.

  3. A little skepticism is better than none. It’s better to be skeptical about one thing than none. And so on.

    So yeah – I have a bunch of friends who are religious skeptics. I don’t think they’re consistent, but I like them as people and enjoy talking skeptic stuff for the bits they agree with me on. I also enjoy talking religion with them.

    I’m not going to judge who is a ‘proper’ skeptic and that sort of bullshit, ivory tower, black and white thinking. Skepticism is a methodology, you can apply it to what the hell you want.

    If organised skepticism is a club where you already have to have decided your position on everything in order to join, then I don’t want in. Some individuals are like that, but not most.

    Take what you want and leave the rest. That’s the benefit of being a rational adult, we’re not subscribing to a doctrine.

  4. I think a willingness to listen and consider evidence is really what it takes. What someone has chosen to investigate is up to them, and their preparedness. For example: I received acupuncture in South Korea that was very effective in clearing up my back issues, or so I thought for years. It wasn’t until listening to SGU and the case against acupuncture, that I started to re-examine what other factors might have led to my back feeling better, and coming to the conclusion that it was the constant mountain-climbing and hiking I did while there that probably had more of an effect. Still though, I was very slow to admit that to myself.

  5. @anthroslug: So, being a skeptic is more about looking for evidence and having the humility to accept that you may be wrong.

    I agree with this. Skepticism is more about how we go about acquiring and correcting information than any particular facts we think we may know. Believing in something on faith or by gut feel is anti-skeptic as is a refusal to listen to new evidence.

  6. This brings to mind the whole… unfortunate… thing with Randi and AGW.

    While I personally think Randi is incorrect about that issue, and agree that maybe he should have done more research before randomly firing off his thoughts, it didn’t really bother me too much that he had this incorrect opinion. We’ve all got them.

    What bugged me most (and @Teek touched on it when she said “If organised skepticism is a club where you already have to have decided your position on everything in order to join, then I don’t want in”) was how quick some people were to trash the guy over this one misconception.

    And yeah, while it sucked to have one of our big names being quoted on denialist websites, that didn’t hurt me all that much. Happens all the time when it comes to quotemining, etc. What hurt me was the impression the community as a whole gave of being ready to turn on anyone who disagrees with us. That can’t have made the skeptical movement look too jolly to people legitimately on the fence who may have stumbled into the middle of that crossfire.

    So yeah… it’s OK to accept someone as a skeptic (whatever that even means) despite a few dissenting beliefs. What matters most is how willing they are to say “I don’t know” or “I may be wrong” about any of their beliefs, and how willing they are to put in the work to at least see why the “skeptical canon” is fixed against a given belief.

  7. I can see the argument either way, but to me this is when you start delineating between “skepticism” and “Skepticism.” One is a general way of looking at the world and the other is more like a religion, which a set of hard-and-fast rituals and beliefs.
    Personally, I’m just here for the beer and nekkid chicks.

  8. @Expatria & @Tracy King:

    I agree. Having a set of rules seems a bit… unskeptical and dogmatic… I think the word I’m looking for is “Catholic”.

    But if Randi chose to defend faith healers, homeopathy or a palm reading, I think we’d all be taking a few steps back and reassessing who we think James Randi really is. And we’d probably decide he no longer represents the skeptical community.

  9. @Elyse:

    Agreed. I just don’t think there’s an absolute number or kind of unbelievable things in which you can believe before you’re not considered a “skeptic” anymore.

  10. @Elyse: This is true, but that’s because he makes a living as a professional skeptic and has set himself up as a figurehead for the skeptical movement, including his own foundation for the promotion of reason, which doesn’t have any caveats (Education About Everything Except Dowsing). So in that regard he’s set up his reputation so that he can’t easily suddenly decide to be not skeptical about something which merits skepticism. That’s the burden of being a public figure and the most famous skeptic in the world.

    Special pleading, sort of, but that is the world we live in. Our figureheads do have a different standard, because they demand a different standard of others. Randi doesn’t compromise, so if he suddenly decided to, it wouldn’t ring true. He’d be entitled to as a human being, but as the ‘grandfather’ of the skeptic movement he’d have to expect the donations to stop and to receive a lot of criticism.

    I ain’t famous so I can believe what I want. Pyramids were built by aliens!

  11. Note to the above: in the same way, Jenny McCarthy would look like a massive massive idiot if she changed her mind about vaccines, because she’s gone so far and is so famous and has had the ears of the USA on the subject. If I changed my mind about something, no-one would notice or care. Different standards.

  12. As noted by others, no one is a perfectly tuned skeptical machine, the key is being willing to update your understanding of the world based on new evidence. I like the way Matt Dillahunty phrases it “I want to believe as many true things as possible and as few false things as possible.”

  13. My opinion is that it is important to consider when presented with evidence. But mostly it is important to have a basic understanding of some things…like my mom’s sister’s uncle’s third cousin’s ex once saw a ghost is not evidence that ghosts exist. A grasp of how the scientific process works. Those things. And then if you show me evidence that I’m wrong? I at least hear you out and see if it the evidence does qualify as …evidence.

  14. You know, I think I’ll channel George Hrab on this. He’s said something along the lines”

    Skepticism is a process. Atheism is a result.”

    To me, that says while your conclusions may be wrong, if you go about thinking in the right way, you’re a skeptic. Just like we wouldn’t say someone isn’t a mathematician because he got a few answers wrong. He followed the process, but forgot to carry a 1, or something.

  15. For skeptics to adhere to any dogma is unskeptical, and belief is overrated. We all like to have our comfort zones, but most real growth takes place well outside.

    The closest things I have to belief are well verified working assumptions, or what I would call operational beliefs – I act as if I believe them.

    I do however, have some weird sneaking suspicions of real anomalies that I think most Organized Skeptics would not share. Nothing for which there is persuasive evidence, mind you, just lots of noise in which there may be a signal (or may not).

    Considering that I used to believe that the only escape from eternal torment was to believe in redemption by blood sacrifice, I’ve come a long way.

  16. For me skepticism is like science. It is a process or set of rules that help me understand the world and reality. Because of such I must be willing to modify what I believe or think is true when better evidence is brought forward. As long as you are willing to change your mind when you learn the best evidence then you are a skeptic no matter what you once believed. If you aren’t then you are probably a creationist.

    @Tracy King:
    You are too famous. I’ve seen you on television.

  17. @Elyse: Hardly a reliable source.

    @Gabrielbrawley: This is very much what I was trying to say only much clearer :) Only I’d say better evidence. Or maybe best at the time. Something better could always come along later. That’s my favorite part of science.

  18. I liked the math analogy. It’s about knowing how to do the math right, even though sometimes there are errors. And sometimes you just put the wrong numbers through the right formula. At what point are you no longer a mathematician? I think you’re ok so long as the results come from the equation and not the equation from the results.

  19. I agree with many of the commenters that yes, you can be a skeptic while still holding irrational beliefs. The important thing to me is that the person realizes that those beliefs are irrational. I once had someone tell me “Yeah, homeopathy is a crock…except it works well for warts and the flu.” That is cognitive dissonance. On the other hand, I fully realize just how ridiculous is my superstitious refusal to put keys on a table.

    We are human and so we have emotional and visceral reactions to things that bypass the brain. As long as the brain is clued in to what’s going on there, then I’m okay with that.

  20. @Tracy King: While I agree with most of what’s been posted here (basically, being a skeptic is more a question of how you believe than what you believe, if it is based on evidence, logic, and re-evaluating in light of new evidence, then it’s skepticism). However, I disagree about Jenny McCarthy. I would think her much less a tool if she were to come out and say, “I’ve read some reports on recent studies and they convince me that I may have been wrong about vaccines being harmful…”

  21. @davew:

    @anthroslug: So, being a skeptic is more about looking for evidence and having the humility to accept that you may be wrong.

    I agree with this. Skepticism is more about how we go about acquiring and correcting information than any particular facts we think we may know. Believing in something on faith or by gut feel is anti-skeptic as is a refusal to listen to new evidence.

    I also think it’s about making those skeptical decisions a priority in life. I know plenty of naturally rational, skeptical folks whom I wouldn’t consider skeptics because they don’t care if something is right or not, especially in the area of religion.

  22. It’s the process that is important, i.e., understanding the logical fallacies that betray us all and working through life under the guidance of the scientific method; furthermore, just like science itself, we, as individuals, must have the capacity and the desire to self correct when confronted with contrary evidence; evidence that contradicts our present beliefs.

    But having the capacity to do so doesn’t make it an easy task. Cognitive dissonance often runs downstream to our upstream attempt at change.

    I think most of us who hold onto beliefs based on anectode or emotion just haven’t been exposed to or haven’t processed enough evidence. Sometimes we choose not to confront the evidence. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Changing a belief system ain’t any easier than building that city. From time to time … there’s a little Rome in all of us.

  23. First, for me the whole point is spreading the use of skepticism as a process, a way of thinking that gets us closer to the truth. It’s not a set of beliefs that must be complete before you get “let into the club”.

    The important point to keep in mind is that people are not machines, and you can’t simply demand that they rewrite their software or be declared unskeptical and unacceptable. You will almost always have to settle for “more correct” or “fewer nutty beliefs”even when you’d like utter rationality.

    Only a very small minority of people are so coldly rational as to be able to simply “switch off” a belief when confronted by evidence against it. (I think a lot of those people are prominent in the movement….and tend to be the most Puritan about attacking any weaknesses in logic in others. They had a quick and efficient conversion and assume everyone must as well.)

    Neuroscience/psychology has told us that most people seldom change their minds through being confronted by their illogical ideas, even if it might seem “the most direct” or the most emotionally satisfying way to go.

    Everyone has some sacred cows that they are resistant to being argued out of…but many people WILL change their minds on their own once they learn some skeptical tools and begin to apply them. I’ve seen it happen and done it myself. I was certain about a couple of kooky beliefs until I read Demon-haunted world and slowly realized that I was indeed being loony on this point. But until then, someone trying to argue me out of it would have been wasting their time. My particularly lazy monkey brain needed time to work though the issue and apply real logic to it.

    Some would have banished me to the outer darkness for that belief, and discounted the fact that I was pointing out to friends how cold-reading worked and how they were being fooled by psychics. (For the record, my sacred cow, now long-since cooked and eaten, was “evidence” of the Face on Mars, and Graham Hancock’s alternative history of earth.)

  24. @Expatria:

    This brings to mind the whole… unfortunate… thing with Randi and AGW.

    This is an especially big problem when considering politically charged topics like AGW. Politics is the mind-killer and discussing it makes people more confrontational than they otherwise would be.

    On a similar note I see plenty of people take accusation of denialism too far in AGW, accusing pretty much anyone who doesn’t agree with a specific policy proposal of being a denialist even though policy arguments are always much more complicated than scientific ones.

  25. @Finn McR: Of course you would, but that’s because you disagree with her already. I’m talking about how it looks from her perspective, based on the amount of support and fans she has.

  26. The fairly new Norwegian skeptics forum had a high volume discussion on just this recently, which mainly proved the old saying about there being as many opinions as skeptics, and that any discussion of that sort will have to many annoying contrarians posting their gospel truth for me to post more than once.

    What was the question again? Oh, right, as long as you’re willing to examine and reexamine your beliefs in a rational manner, and your rationale doesn’t contain arguments such as “goddidit”, I’m happy to call you a fellow skeptic, even if I don’t agree with your conclusion.

  27. Excellent bunch of comments to which I have nothing to add; except to note that many very bright and reasonable people will hold on to an otherwise irrational belief because of the overwhelming number of human needs that are met within that belief system. In other words many religious folk are otherwise skeptical about most things except that they are not willing or able to ask the skeptical evidence demanding questions of their religious beliefs. I am however convinced that when someone does have strong religious beliefs they are more susceptible to any and all other forms of woo.

  28. I suppose by the definitions here I’m a skeptic – even though I’m terribly superstitious, not overly bright, and not terrificly well-informed. Still, I have the desire to self-correct, and I keep my (known) irrational beliefs below 7 at all times.

    I will hold onto that small s, though. Got to hold onto some kind of outsider status or I’ll start to melt.

  29. I am SO relieved to see the answers in this discussion. This topic came up not long ago on my own blog I had been cruising the net when I stumbled across a video by the Non Prophets ( where they voiced the opinion that in order to call ones self a skeptic, one had to have completely given up ALL “irrational” viewpoints or you couldn’t call yourself a skeptic. I’m SO relieved to see that they appear to be an exception rather than a rule.

  30. “I had been cruising the net when I stumbled across a video by the Non Prophets ( where they voiced the opinion that in order to call ones self a skeptic, one had to have completely given up ALL “irrational” viewpoints or you couldn’t call yourself a skeptic. ”

    and what are their other six?

  31. @FledgelingSkeptic:

    Well, if I may say so, that’s just stupid. How the hell are you supposed to let go of things that you don’t know are irrational? There isn’t a skeptic finish line somewhere that you cross where you get your badge and learn the handshake.

    I’ve had conversations with people that are most certainly skeptics who just assume things are true because they learned them, they seemed true enough, and never had a reason to question them. The world is full of muddy and confusing information. You can’t know everything and you can’t know what may or may not be a “rational” belief.

  32. @Elyse: Getting a date or having sex, aside from a brokered cash transaction, is an unattainable irrational fantasy for many folk. Guess hoping to get lucky would preclude many from the skeptical ranks using that logic.

  33. Being a skeptic is compatible with being wrong about something – the two states of being are not mutually exclusive.

    So I think that justifying the label of ‘skeptic’ has more to do with how someone thinks about the world than it does with what they believe.

    Skepticism gives you a method of interrogating reality. It is the interrogation that gives you answers – not skepticism itself.

    I’d go so far as to say that I consider skepticism to be devoid of factual content.

  34. I’ve come up with the following saying regarding skepticism.

    “If you practice skepticism and never find yourself to be mistaken you’re doing it wrong.”

    Kind of sums it up to me.

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