We’re at it again. Skeptics fighting each other over whether or not a particular issue falls within the jurisdiction of skeptical inquiry, and precisely what it means to be a Skeptic, and whether others’ definitions of skepticism and actions based on those definitions “hurt the movement”.
Rather than go into all of the various factions in this battle, and continue to rehash the argument, I’d like to challenge the fundamental assumption behind all this bickering: The idea that a single Skeptical Movement actually exists.
It seems to me that what we have here, currently, is a worldwide community of self-identified skeptics, out of which movements of different sorts can crystalize and spread. Certain factions within the community seem to think that the next logical step is to create a single, unified Skepticism, encapsulating everyone who identifies as a skeptic, and expecting to be able to limit the scope of skeptical inquiry to what they deem appropriate.
This is inherently problematic, for several reasons; the most daunting of which is the fact that, by definition, skeptics tend to eschew authority. We like to figure things out for ourselves. Because of this, we are never going to come to the same conclusions about everything, especially matters like religion that can be fraught with personal experience and cultural baggage. Also, because of those different personal experiences, we all come to the table with different priorities and ideas on how to create the change we’d like to see in the world.
Another problem lies in controlling how the word “skeptic” itself is used. I posit that such control is impossible, given the fact that it is currently used by science advocates and woo peddlers alike. Even if one assumes there is such a thing as a monolithic Skeptical Movement, we still don’t own the trademark on the word, and the general public isn’t ever going to necessarily identify the word “skeptic” with our particular brand of scientific advocacy and anti woo activism.
These problems solve themselves when we stop trying to be something we’re not. Skepticism means something different to all of us. I think we need to stop being so hung up on labels and definitions and focus on what we’d like to accomplish. Multiple tactics are capable of accomplishing each goal. We may not always agree on how to achieve these things, but I think it’s unhelpful to bandy about the “so and so is hurting the movement” card.
I personally don’t agree with a lot of what comes out of the so-called “New Atheist” sphere. I prefer a much more polite and rational discourse. But, I will be the first to say that I think what they are doing serves a purpose. I joined this community because of Richard Dawkins and Penn Jillette. Not necessarily because I agreed with what they were saying, but because they were loud enough and controversial enough that they got my attention. There is great strength in our diversity. Different voices serve different purposes, and speak to different audiences. To spend valuable time and resources decrying the work of others as “harmful to the movement” is kind of ridiculous.
Having said that, I think this discussion over the meaning of skepticism is an important one. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have spent time writing this post. But to go into it expecting that your particular definition will triumph as The Real Skepticism is folly. There is no “The Real Skepticism”; there is only the continually evolving idea in each of our minds about who we are and what we’d like to accomplish. Talking about it in good faith can help us each to continue that process within ourselves, but we will never fully agree; nor should we.
Look, I understand the desire some feel to take the large number of self-identified skeptics and create a huge, single-minded, skeptical Voltron and fight fiercely against pseudoscience with a Blazing Sword. That seems like it would be awesome. But once you start to dig into what that would actually mean, you might come to the conclusion I have, that maybe we’re better off fighting as the five lions; fighting for different, yet related priorities, and coming together as one when necessary. One thing’s for certain; we’re not going to get anywhere if our lions continue to fight each other.