Afternoon Inquisition

AI: What Kind of Skeptic are You?

Wednesday’s Afternoon Inquisition comes to you courtesy of the previous week’s Comment o’ the Week winner! Here goes DaveW:

Recently I’ve becoming more aware of the difference between having a skeptical philosophy and committing deliberate acts of skepticism. Both are important. A skeptical philosophy is a great way to parse new information and an critical part of a finely tuned bullshit detector. An active skeptic on the other hand might eat nothing but beans for two days to find out if they do indeed cause flatulence and perhaps very the type of bean to assess each type’s effect on volume and aroma. I read something recently and decided to try rinsing my hair thoroughly with water instead of shampooing to see if this might prevent my hair and nails from being so dry and brittle.

Do you consider yourself to be more of a philosophical skeptic, an active skeptic, or both? What acts of skepticism have you perpetrated recently?

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

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

Related Articles


  1. I’m not an active skeptic. I attend no events, I don’t go to skeptics in the pub, I’ve never been to TAM. This is because I am the only one I know and all my friends did lame things like English Literature at college so they hate science. However I did go into a homeopathist whose shop window said it could cure my diabetes and asked her again and again how her ‘cure’ worked before telling her that she’s doing more harm than good.

    Does that make me active or a participant or some other ting?


  2. I tend to be more of a philosophical skeptic, I guess, because there isn’t really a whole lot of active skepticism I can do in Arizona (plus…I don’t have the time!). However, I do a lot of LGBT-related activism, and I do think that some of that aligns with the skeptical movement (especially in regards to religion).

  3. @dacy_ebd:

    This is because I am the only one I know and all my friends did lame things like English Literature at college so they hate science.

    Hey! Lame, you say? Lame? Why, I oughta . . . .

    I was an English lit. major in college, and I love science. I love science so much, I want to read it poetry at sunset. I want to rub scented oils on it and call it “Baby”. Your friends could learn a few things from me.

  4. If I don’t know personally any other skeptics and don’t do events but I do lots of “experiments” at home (splenda isn’t good food for yeast) and shake my head at my aunt when she talks about airborn and tell her about placebos enough that she goes “Oh yeah I was feeling crappy so I took some placebos today”, but I don’t always speak up when I hear someone go on and on about bullshit woo…well I don’t know. I’m just me I’m sure I’m not a great skeptic but I like to think I’m suspicious and I like to do science experiments in my own home and hope that’s enough.

  5. I’m sort of an in-between skeptic.

    Mostly, I’m a philosophical skeptic in that my love of critical thinking and hatred of being deceived have led me to adopt a skeptical world view. It’s not like I’m doing science, or actively researching or debunking claims, after all.

    However, I do organize and set up events with my friends in the Boston Skeptics, and (occasionally) write things for our blog, so in some ways I am an active skeptic. But my role there is more of a logistical one… perhaps I’m a bureaucratic skeptic? :-P

    @dacy_ebd: As someone who went to school for “lame things” like English Lit and Film Studies, I’d say major isn’t NECESSARILY a foolproof way to predict whether someone is skeptical or not. ;) In fact, my experiences dealing with the pseudopsychophilosophical wanking of liberal arts academia helped push me into this movement :-P

  6. My wife and I read about self cleaning hair. No shampoo, just washing it with water every day. She wears her hair shorter than you do, and you can see mine. But, it is not greasy or nasty at all. She never has a bad hair day any more. Ever.

    We read that if you work around grease, say, as a cook, you’ll need to remove that oil with shampoo from time to time. Neither of us do, though.

    It really does work. Good experiment.

  7. @Sam Ogden: sorry dude, didn’t mean it in such a serious way! It was meant in jest. If you could listen to the arguments I have with my friends you’d understand why I said it like that. I get called a geek or a nerd and I call them lame.

    But……..they all hate it when I go on about all the sceptical stuff I’m interested in. My flatmate Tony thinks that Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong are wholly uninspiring and that they should make more poet astronauts…………………wrong!

    Sorry guys, just forgot I was in a web forum and not my local

  8. Last week I ripped a plumber a new one for trying to use dowsing to find my sewer line. They finally broke down and went to the city hall to look at the map. They still needed my help to use the map and find it.
    This week I took a much less confrontational route. I had a religious roommate in the hospital. One night the chaplain came in, sat down with him, and started singing a song about how much he loved Jeee-zusss. Rather than start something that might lead to the death of my roommate, I decided to just wander past them to the bathroom. I did give an appropriately timed flush when he had finished singing.
    I’m sure next week I’ll be deflecting prayers from co-workers and students. So I’d say that I try to be an activist skeptic, but I have to choose my battles a little more carefully than many others.

  9. Since I’m new-ish to skepticism, I tend to get all worked up and overzealous. Though I haven’t yelled at anyone yet. I want to try my hand at some skeptical activism, but knowing where to start can be difficult, as my rhetorical skills aren’t to great, yet (hence, the overzealousness and getting worked up). I’m may want to try my hand at forming some type of science-y art group. I have a few ideas. Any advice would be welcomed.

  10. I don’t know about being an “active skeptic” but I try to walk the walk as much as possible. As I get older, I find it harder and harder to keep my mouth shut anyway. I imagine it will get me into trouble one day, but so far so good.

  11. Dunno. I wouldn’t say “active” per se but not exactly inactive either. I’m trying to get involved with the local skeptics meetup group and I’ve “attended” a couple Virtual Drinking Skeptically events.

  12. I consider myself a semi-active skeptic and a philosphical one. I apply critical thinking as much as I possibly can outside work (I work for the government, your logic does not work here) often to the extent of annoying my wife. I also post semi-regularly on my blog about skeptic related items and participate in online forums.

    I wouldn’t say I proselytize amongst friends and family, but when someone makes a truth claim not based in fact or reality I politely question them.

  13. I’m mostly philosophical, listening to several podcasts, reading blogs like SBM, Bad Astronomy and this one, and being a general consumer of information of science and pseudoscience.

    I will happily respond to friends and family when they give me false information about stories. I will always respond with stating that they should research it first before sending it to everyone in their address book and then send them a link to (Thank you, Snopes!)

    I actually confronted the owner of my company who wanted to put up on the bulletin board about how not to get the H1N1 virus. These had included tips like taking vitamin C, echinacea, gargling salt water and even taking Zicam (zinc nasal spray). Thankfully, the human resources person stepped in and a simple notice to consult you doctor was put in it’s place. The owner took it well and thankfully, I still have my job.

  14. I’m more skeptical than skeptic, and no kind of scientist at all. Although, I did give the no shampoo thing a go a while back. Sadly, it doesn’t work for everybody.

  15. Activity level varies. I’m involved in the Boston Skeptics Society and I argue a lot on blogs. I try to promote skeptical thinking among friends but I’m not sure how successful I am in that regard. So I guess that makes me active.

  16. @Danarra: The no shampoo thing doesn’t work for me either, but I have a LOT of thick hair, and I live in the city, AND I live in the desert. I could probably get away with it more in the winter, but when it’s 110+ out? Ewww, lol.

    Sometimes I’ll skip a shampoo, sometimes I won’t. It depends on how dirty I am/how late in the day I shampooed the day before/whatever. But my hair would look awful if I stopped shampooing completely.

    I have super healthy hair, so It hink I’m doin’ ok!

  17. @James Fox: Oh yeah. Eye-rolling. I’ve got a PhD in that. ;-)

    I have to admit, living in the suburbs and not getting into NYC much, I am not as active as I could be. I’m pretty much a big ol’ introvert so striking out on my own is not my style. But I do try to poke at it thru my friends and relatives, some of whom burn thru the woo like it’s kindling.

    I’m also a psychologist (experimental, not clinical), so I tread a fine line with my therapist colleagues, as well. The woo runs thick in that bunch. ;-)

  18. The Girl and I nearly attended a Skeptics-In-The-Pub meeting, but it was sadly one of those days that included exhaustion, and we decided to stay in at the last minute. We’ll go next time, promise!

    Evangelizing to my friends has been very, very mild. I’ve simply known them too long and like them too much to tread on their beliefs, but luckily I’ve always come off as a know-it-all so when I expound on something by saying “Actually, blah blah blah” so it’s not unexpected.

    So I guess I’m more philosophical.

  19. Reminds me of an exchange a friend and I had a while back:

    “Why does the waitress only come when my mouth is full?”

    “Because when we’re not eating we’re talking, and she doesn’t want to disturb our conversation. Or it could just be confirmation bias.”

    “So we should record all the times she comes and whether or not my mouth is full, and then make a graph.”


    “Let’s not, though.”


  20. @The Skepdick: But, it is not greasy or nasty at all. She never has a bad hair day any more. Ever.

    I might have even gotten the idea from one of your comments here. I know I stole it from somebody.

    Anyway two weeks into the experiment and it’s working for me. My hair is a little softer than it was before, dandruff is better, and my hat-hair is about the same. Best of all my shower is about 30-seconds shorter. The real test will come when I get my hair cut next time. Any loud screeches might send me back to the detergent. At least occasionally.

  21. I’m a fairly active skeptic in that my job requires me to be one pretty much non stop (I’m a statistician.) I’m constantly questioning assumptions, and nothing makes me angrier than a badly designed experiment. (NB, asking a woman if she things she has a G spot, not a valid way to determine if she has one or not. No really, it isn’t.)

    But then I do tend to take a lot of other crap at face value as long as it doesn’t have a big affect on my life. I will admit that I eat those Halls vitamin C defense drops like they are candy when I am sick. (I don’t care if it is just placebo effect, I feel better!)

  22. @ marilove – we have the desert in common, although my area is mountainous and rural. Ended up compromising by cutting my hair really short. Still have to shampoo it, but it takes just the smallest amount of soap. It’s the best I’m gonna do for now.

  23. Kinda confused by this whole no shampooing thing. Did I miss something? Was it a daily Quickie that I didn’t see? (sounds kinda gross. sorry)

    I just got active on Facebook. People are discussing where the Holocaust Museum shooter is now that he died. I said he was “DEAD. That’s all, folks!”


  24. I kinda feel like an armchair skeptic. I can root and holler for the home team, and cuss out the quarterback when they foul up, but I feel if I went out there and played the game, I’d get my @$$ handed to me like a christmas present. I can almost handle my own with my friends, but they aren’t as well versed as others are. The one question I can never answer is:

    How does that person saying that effect YOU.

    Like the pope and condoms, or Jenny and vaccines.

    Is being a cheerleader for science ok?

  25. @Garrison22: Speaking of experimental psychologists I have lunch with Robert Thorndike every Friday. Now Bob’s a great guy and a friend of many years, but he’s sold on intelligent design, orthodox Christianity and some occasional alternative medicine…; I try to keep my eye rolling to a minimum. I also know a number of therapists who can indeed be thick with the woo, but I just had to let you know about the wooish academic non clinical psychologist I know! ;-)

    Shampoo. wasted on me.

  26. I’m the best kind of skeptic: an awesome one.

    Also I’ve stopped calling people douches when they believe something ridiculous. This makes me a better person. I now call them dickbags or just the classic “asshole”.

  27. I’m an armchair skeptic. I listen to the podcast, browse the blogs, and try and keep up on a little science news, but I don’t contribute much. I do try and advocate for science, though. If I catch a twinkling of curiosity in someone’s eye, I’m quick to point them to something they might enjoy, like the SGU. I do feel sharper for the education in skepticism and science I’ve gotten, though. I evaluate and question what I read much more sharply than before. A skeptical approach to history is especially helpful, as so much of it is anecdote after anecdote.

  28. Whenever the opportunity to call bullshit on someone’s half-assed belief arises, I feel its my duty to do so. That may just be the “Asshole” in me though. As far as being a productive member of the skeptic community, I went to a skepdrunk once.

  29. I follow the skeptical blogs and podcasts and try to catch up on some of the top books.

    My most active role is organizing our Skeptics in the Pub every month and letting people know about other sciencey events going on. I’m also planning our third Skepticamp.

    Specific act I’ve perpetrated recently? When someone posted a pamphlet and business card for an acupuncturist on my office lunch room’s bulletin board I printed out a copy of Barry Beyerstein’s “Why Bogus Therapies Often Seem to Work” and posted it right beside them.

  30. I follow the main skeptical blogs and podcasts and try to catch up on some of the top books.

    My most active role is organizing our Skeptics in the Pub every month and letting people know about other sciencey events going on. I’m also planning our third Skepticamp.

    Specific act I’ve perpetrated recently? When someone posted a pamphlet and business card for an acupuncturist on my office lunch room’s bulletin board I printed out a copy of Barry Beyerstein’s “Why Bogus Therapies Often Seem to Work” and posted it right beside them.

  31. Hi there!

    As a librarian, I’m always seeking INFORMATION. I think this is why I’m a skeptic. Whenever I hear a new fact, figure, or statistic, I want to research it thoroughly and find out everything I can about it.

    I guess that makes me a philosophical skeptic. I never do my OWN experimentation, but I know enough about the evaluation and assessment of scholarly information that I always know where to find the most reliable information. (Yes, Snopes is awesome, too) :)

    I’ve never been a real scientist, simply because I honestly don’t speak Mathematics, and many of the sciences require it. Lately I’ve been getting into Astronomy, mostly on account of: a) I’ve always been a mythology geek, and the stars have a fully developed mythological history. b) OMG! Hot Astronomy chicks! Dr. Pamela Gay, Amy Mainzer, Lisa Kaltenegger, what IS it about this branch of science!?!

    [composes self]

    ANYWAY … I’ve managed to talk Santa Claus into getting me a telescope, so I have a nifty new Galileoscope that I’m waiting to use once the weather co-operates.

    As far as activism, I made a blog at, but I never seem to update it. :( I really need to get on that. I had all the ambition of starting a New Jersey skeptic society, but somehow it never took off. :(

  32. I am a skeptic-in-training. I blog about skepticism and science, but am still very much in the learning phase rather than going out and changing the world. I’m attending my first ever Skeptics in the Pub tonight which is challenging for an introvert, but I am determined to get out and actually meet other skeptics rather than just interact with them online.

  33. @James Fox:

    The age-old astronaut v. astronomer question, eh?
    Well both. I’m a reporter and (former) home schooler, and both are chances to experiment with life and ask all the questions I want.

  34. @shinobi42:
    I’m an econometrican who works as a policy analyst, so I’m in a similar boat. The relationship between policy and evidence is pretty bloody thin, so I do what I can to bring rigorous monitoring and evaluation to policy.

    As for shampoo, I need to wash my hair daily or it all coagulates into a solid mass. Mind you, I do have very oily skin. Lucky for me I like my hair short.

  35. I’m a skeptical skeptic. I find myself praying to Roman deities for parking spaces, but have a kneejerk skepticism to pretty much every religious or magical claim… but consider Rupert Giles to be a personal hero.

  36. I am simply a philosophical skeptic in my everyday life outside of work, but I am an active skeptic at work, mostly debunking anti vax propaganda and alternative medicine especially when it is directly interfering with what I am trying to accomplish as a primary care doc.

  37. As a teacher, I worked critical thinking into all my curricula. This partly had to do with teaching in the deaf community; Deaf culture being a collectivist one, there is sometimes too much of a tendency to rely on information from personally trusted, rather than objectively reliable, sources.

    Now that I can’t work anymore, I have the opportunity to learn as much as I can every day about skepticism. I regularly write blog posts about skepticism (especially related to chronic illness communities), and I’m going to be working on Grassroots Skeptics as its editorial manager.

    I think I’d be going to every CFI-LA event and skeptical meetup I could if I were still capable of doing that, but I’ll be hitting up at least a few, especially since my husband is interested in all this as well and doesn’t mind driving all over. :-D

  38. @IanJN: This is a beautiful microcosm of the scientific process:

    “Why does the waitress only come when my mouth is full?”

    Start with a question…

    “Because when we’re not eating we’re talking, and she doesn’t want to disturb our conversation. Or it could just be confirmation bias.”

    …develop a hypothesis…

    “So we should record all the times she comes and whether or not my mouth is full, and then make a graph.”


    …establish testing protocols…

    “Let’s not, though.”


    …and have your grant denied.

  39. Yeah, philosophical skeptic. Rooting for team Science, cussing out the (journalist) referee when he’s favoring team woo, etc…

    Not very active, apart from attending various skeptical events.

  40. Definately a philosophical skeptic.

    Of course, I could do a better job at that, such as actually reading an article, rather than making an assumption that later makes me look like an ass!

    Oh for fun……

  41. @w_nightshade: …and have your grant denied.
    Too true.

    @James Fox: I’m assuming you mean Robert M. Thorndike, the psychometrician at WWU, not Robert L. Thorndike of “Thorndikes Law of Effect”, who’s been dead lo these 20 years. If so, that’s really sad, and somewaht surprising given the rigorous scientific method he has to practice.

    Read somewhere he was a big supporter of the race and intelligence findings in “The Bell Curve.” I find them dubious.

  42. I am an active skeptic. I have spent a lot of “free” time over the past three months building an “as yet to be unveiled” (vaporware) Drupal based web site that will hold a number of databases regarding human rights and people with disabilities. When we kick off we will have one bullshit detector database that will provide users with a place to search for bogus claims of cures for disorders that have none.

    Roughly 30 years ago, I still had some vision but it was degrading rapidly. I got hoodwinked by a bunch of alternative medicine programs that swore up and down that their was a cure for retinitis pigmantosa (RP) the disease to which I was losing my vision. I spent about $200K chasing magic potions and procedures ranging from enemas to acupuncture and, of course, none of it worked.

    To even a moderately skeptical person, this snake oil seems like a good thing to try when the alternative is do nothing and go blind (or degenerate in other ways into disability). The choice: go blind with science based medicine or bet on a real long shot cure?

    I understood the scientific method but not the scientific process. Many of these claims of cures showed “data” that supported their claims and I swallowed the hook, line and sinker. Then, back in the mid-80s, a friend turned me onto CSICOP and Rocky Mountain Skeptics and, at the same time, I learned about the publication and review process that allows claims to be challenged. I’ve been a skeptic since.

    I want to provide a resource for others to be able to visit that debunks bogus claims of cures for blindness but also includes research projects around the world who are making amazing progress with a number of different vision disorders and stem cells. So, if you search on a group that suggests that eating acorns and flapping your arms will cure you, we’ll have a debunking; if, however, you search on the amazing work going on at many top medical institutes world wide, we’ll give you links to their projects and progress.

    Also: My screen name, “BlindChristian” results from my actually being blind and that my parents chose to name me Christian. I became Blind CHristian when singing and playing harmonica in an acoustic blues duo called Blind Christian and Chunder which we thought was a cool name.

  43. @davew: For the dandruff, try mixing 1 part apple cider vinegar with 1 part water to rinse your hair when the problem flares. The smell doesn’t linger after rinsing. Works for me and my hair is a lot softer after.

    I lean more toward the active skeptic. I can remember all my life wanting tangible proof; even when I was into religion. I always doubted because I could never find any real, physical or scientific proof of anything. I could always explain things away as psychological or some other phenomenon.

    Growing up all I ever really wanted was a microscope and chemistry set, but my parents didn’t think those were appropriate for girls. I’d still love to have those now.

  44. @Garrison22: Yep, Robert M. (Robert L. is his father). We’ve talked at length about the IQ race issue and he did sign the letter in support of the ‘Bell Curve’ findings which he, as well as over 50 of the top psychometrics PhD’s, made their support public in an open letter. He also said that the issue was not about race but the accuracy and reliability of the research and testing. If you’re on FaceBook feel free to send me an e-mail at vohj300 at hot mail for an exchange of real names.

  45. It’s weird, as the years go by as a really commited skeptic, I’m becoming more and more an activist. I dont’ confront people one on one too much. That was the one part of my fundie friends I really hated, they all became “born again” in high school and had to TALK TALK TALK TALK, and confront people. I didn’t see that it worked well, so I avoid that. People don’t need that in their daily life. (Example, my hairdresser said that she didn’t get the flu shot as she hears it can give you the flu. I said “you know, you should as the pharmacist about that, because I’m sure that’s not the case. But your pharmacist would be the best one to ask.” Frankly, I just wanted a hair cut and she is a nice person.

    Tim Farley inspired me to start a narrow interest web site where I can help people that REALLY need information and help. I get to do it my style. being nice, trying to get to know the people, letting them share their stories so that the skeptics get educated about what their lives are like, and honestly, changing more than a few minds.

    That’s the nice side. And then there is the ugh oh “Kitty was born in the ’60s” side. I get a ton of negative feedback on my more radical do something skepticism. Putting notes in all the library books about woo and really interesting notes in Sylvia Brownes books. (links to good web sites). Attending UFO meetings “undercover” (wear a costume, they think you are one of them) and best of all the time I ‘Desecrated a GRAVE!”. Oh yeah, what can I say? I grew up influenced by a very proactive radical age. I’m not going to blow up Scientology HQ, yet. But it’s funny how I feel a direct influence for what I call “performance art” and others call “you SEE, this is why people HATE skeptics… this kind of behavior”.

    oh stuff it, people hate skeptics because we are telling them “what you claim to believe in is untrue”. little radical performance art gets people talking. It’s the fence sitters I often target more than the hard core believers also. sometimes the fence sitters don’t even know they are sitting on the fence, and we need to remind them.

  46. I’m 100% philosophic skeptic. I’m relatively new to acknowledging my skepticism [sounds like I”m coming out of the closet, no?] My comfort level is still a wee slim at this stage in the game.

    I’m quite private with my skepticism because I live in a hotbed of Christianity. That’s not to say, I don’t enjoy poking a creationist with a stick from time to time.

  47. @w_nightshade:

    The deaf community is also the frequent victim of snake oil sales people who offer lots of false hope to people who actual solution to a degenerative disorder. Deafness is much harder than blindness as isolation can be horrible when no one around “speaks” ASL. Hence, they are easy targets for abuse of all kinds, including bogus cures for their affliction.

    Glad to see you are involved.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button
%d bloggers like this: