What Skeptical Movement?

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.

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  1. I’ll offer my tongue-in-cheek observation that much of the fighting over what the “skepticism movement” should and shouldn’t mean resembles the disputes between different Christian denominations over their distinct beliefs and practices. I like your “fighting as the five lions” approach much better.

  2. I thought the ‘movement’ was all about like minded people getting together to test and create fabulous new drink recipes. Color me confused.

  3. Hear hear, Carr2d2–especially the Voltron comparison.

    I think any “movement” is largely due to the banding together of like minds and an emergent property of all using similar tactics toward similar goals. I think talk of the “right way” or a single “cause” which can be “hurt” by doing things differently, is mistaken on most fronts.

  4. Yep, balls to labels, balls to ‘one true skeptic’ fallacy, balls to infighting. If there is a movement, infighting is what will damage it.

    Divide and conquer. Maybe the Pope is behind this.

  5. I agree, I find it funny when people I know tell me that they aren’t a skeptic because they aren’t atheists. It’d be like saying you aren’t a problem solver because you don’t do math.

  6. Depends on the results you want.
    If you want a specific result, then focus and unite is the best option.
    If you’re surrounded on all sides looking for multiple small victories, maybe a little diversification is better.
    Both methods can work.
    On the other hand, as much as I respect James Randi, I’m not about to join a cult dedicated to him, either.

  7. I think there definitely is a movement, but it’s a grassroots movement, meaning bottom-up and not top-down. I don’t think we have any actual leaders, but we have a bunch of different people we admire and listen to. One skeptic might spend more time reading the work of Richard Dawkins, another might prefer Michael Shermer, or James Randi, or the Skepchicks, etc, and none of those people necessarily totally agree on what it means to be a skeptic.

    I know I’m happy to meet other skeptics, and I think of them as being a part of something that I’m a part of, but it’s definitely not the same as being a registered Democrat/Republican/Libertarian/Green/Whatever, where you have an official party platform and well-defined leadership. You can say when Michael Steele does X, he is hurting the Republican Party, and so should not be allowed to do X or should be removed from leadership. You can’t say the same thing about a skeptic, because who gets to decide what’s good or bad for the skeptical movement?

  8. Although I agree that we all have slightly different goals, and it’s good to foster those differences, isn’t it still convenient to call it a movement? Even if we aren’t top-down or cohesive, when you tell a friend that you are doing something for skepticism (i.e. going to a con or writing for a blog) they may look at you funny. When you explain that skepticism is a movement of people who promote critical thinking and science, then you do a better job of explaining what you are working on. So yeah, in that sense, there is a movement, whether we are taking orders from on high (clearly we’re not and shouldn’t) or are semi-cohesively moving in the same direction.

    But, I get your point about “true skepticism” being a bit of a fallacy. But that semi-cohesiveness means that there will be clashes. When we’re all using the same label, it is inevitable that there will disagreements on how its used. Like with atheism.

  9. Well said. Doctrinal purity is a waste of time, it creates an us vs. them mentality instead of a good ideas vs. bad ideas mentality.

    @greenishblu: Thank goodness, I was worried that I might have to return the decoder ring.

  10. I prefer The Constructicons, but I like the Voltron reference.

    The bickering and fighting hurts the hard work and effort put forth by everyone.

    My brain is way too fried from the advertising world to say much else, but this was a nice break from it for a few minutes while I had some downtime.

    Thanks Carr!

  11. MarianLibrarian # 10 … 100% spot on … it is indeed bottom up, not top down.

    Where on earth did anybody ever get the idea that we all have to hold hands and sing the same song :-)

    I have views … and have been known to express them strongly … I’ve also been (rightly) challenged at times by other skeptics … I expect that … and while at such times we might disagree, we are still buddies and happy to end the evening with a beer … I don’t expect or look for a consensus or a party line.

  12. I don’t even think I’m ready to be part of a “movement.” I’m still figuring so much stuff out. I don’t know what’s good for skepticism and what’s bad (well, I can assume that Steven Novella coming out in favor of homeopathy would be bad!), since I’m still working out where my own positions are concerning skepticism and atheism and what kinds of discussions I want to be part of.

    I hope no one minds if I share a short musing about my feelings on skepticism I coincidentally posted today as well. I guess these discussions are good if it gets us all thinking and writing about this stuff, although Carr’s post is far more eloquent than mine.

  13. I don’t think my original post made much sense, now that I look back at it. What I meant to say is that I like calling it a movement. A lot of us do. Most people who call themselves (capital S)keptics are working towards a shared goal, even if it is a loosely-defined goal, and like to feel like we are part of something.

    Some skeptics don’t agree they are part of a movement, and that’s fine. Ideological purity is the opposite of skepticism.

  14. Still with you 100% MarianLibrarian # 18 …

    Hey greenishblu …#17 … you have no decoder ring!!! … but we all got one as we came in the door!!!

    Hey ZenMonkey #16 … nice sonnet

  15. Also, I think “movement” doesn’t necessarily have to mean a cohesive group.

    I think the biggest goal for most skeptics — and correct me if I’m wrong — is to help educate people on critical thinking and thinking skeptically. I think, if nothing else, EVERY skeptic should be able to agree with that. I think being a Skeptic — capital S — is about representing and promoting Skeptical/critical thinking. Even if we don’t necessarily all agree on our conclusions.

    Otherwise, why would we be here discussing Skepticism every day? And I seem to remember several semi-recent posts, and at least one AI, on the subject of what we do, as Skeptics, to help quell the power of Woo, whether it’s educating your co-worker on why being anti-vaxx is dangerous, or having a blog that discredits quacks.

  16. But wait – if there isn’t One True Way Of Skepticismâ„¢ then how will I justify telling other skeptics what they should say and do?


    (Note for those without a sense of humor: I’m joking, and agree with Elyse that the many-pronged approach is best)

  17. @marilove:

    That just means that you are a lot. You think a lot, therefore you are a lot. Ba dum tshh. Thank you, I’ll be here all week.

    Also, no one would have noticed if you hadn’t pointed it out. That’s another thing I do all the time.

  18. @Daniel Schealler:

    How did you know what I was going to say?! PSYCHIC! I’m a pro-psychic skeptic!

    We are a movement. We are also individuals within the movement. We each have different goals. Mine is to save the fucking world… because I like to start small. But for others it’s just a matter of encouraging others to use more science.

    If the entire movement was nothing but us sitting around thinking about thinking and talking about thinking, I’d go back to watching Oprah.

    I don’t understand why you’d become a skeptical activist if you’re not really trying to make a difference by helping people using skepticism, giving people the gift of a skeptical toolbox, and changing lives with skepticism. And anyway, I’m not declaring my activist intentions on behalf of a movement whenever I’m doing something on behalf of the better good.

    But your approach might be just as valid… maybe even less naive. If the day ends with more critical thinkers, we did our job as a movement.

  19. Great post Carr!

    Skepticism is a method that can help us all understand the world a little better.
    Skepticism doesn’t belong to anyone.
    It isn’t a political party or a club.
    No one has proprietary rights.

    Skepticism as a movement exists because there is a desire for quality of information and understanding and a desire to share that information with others in order to make the world a better place. To try to place rules and regulations on the movement or to try to stifle or redefine the definition of what a skeptic is to make yourself feel better or to keep things the way they were or in some sense pure will only slow down the progress we are making towards a new enlightenment era.

    In other words, lighten up people cuz change is gonna come. It always does.

  20. From a purely selfish perspective, I learn the most when other skeptics disagree with me. Disagreeing, and being able to support that disagreement with evidence and rational argument is what moves us forward.

    Agreement is for cults.

  21. As one of those individuals who’s been tagged with the “New” Atheist and “Outspoken” Skeptic labels I hear the argument that my kind discourage dialogue quite a bit… usually from strangers. Strangers that wouldn’t be reading my posts, or making comments, or generally having a hissy if I hadn’t been obnoxious enough to catch their attention and goad them into dialogue. Insensitive loudmouths are valuable – and so are those prone to polite and rational discourse.

    Rationalists, of all people, ought to be able to sort out that different individuals are suited to different tasks. Some build momentum, some build bridges – there’s absolutely no reason to try and force independent thinkers into a herd mentality. It’s insulting to our intelligence.

    Personally, I consider skepticism an umbrella movement – there are a myriad of subcultures, projects, organizations, and campaigns beneath it; each with their own targets and concerns. No mold required – especially as many of us resist such things naturally.

  22. @jeffreyellis: Lets see, we have the Randiists, the Tellerites, the Novellarinsians, the Shermerists, the Dawkinsians……..Am I leaving anyone out? The Peoples Front of Judea? “Splitters!”

  23. Here’s the thing – there is no “one way” to do anything – including being a skeptic. In this case, we are making the same mistakes that our zealot, close-minded, true believers are making – thinking that there is one true path to anything.

    Though skepticism is a beautiful thing, I do not suffer the delusion that, if only the world was filled with more skeptics, it would be a better place – it would be saved. It wouldn’t.

    This is like saying that the world would be a better place if only there were more Christians, or more fundamentalists, or more whatever.

    This is what I call bucket 3 thinking: if only people X, then the world would be Y. We are mythically minded mammals who believe in a lot of crap.

    The reality is, our brains are still evolving. We are a work in progress… and so much of what we believe in – one way or another – has to do with the limitations of the brain. If it’s important to us, we believe it’s important for the world. If we feel it strongly out it emotionally, then it must be true. This is the plight of the true believer.

    Let’s be skeptical of our own BS (belief systems) as well… there is no one true path, even for skeptics.

  24. The comments in this thread have made me think of (in order) Arlo Guthrie, Monty Python’s Argument Clinic Sketch, Invader Zim, and for some reason I see @weofui: say something being an umbrella movement and I am thinking of Resident Evil.

    But to the topic at hand, there does certainly seem to be a movement of some kind, and as @MarianLibrarian: stated in her recanted then reinstated first comment, it is definite the grassroots sort. Yeah, there were some organizations early on that sought to be an, er, organizing principle in the early stages of the modern skeptical movement (CSICOP, anyone?) but the movement has moved beyond that, and I am going to stop now because my post is starting to sound redundantly redundant to me.

  25. I must admit to being somewhat confounded by the latest kerfuffle in the community. I’m on vacation so I am probably missing out on some components to this and if that’s the case, I apologize.

    I agree that Skepticism is not atheism or liberalism or humanism or any of the things you said. I agree that Skepticism is a tool, a structure for coming to conclusions based on evidence.

    I am confused by a few things:

    1. The idea that the promotion of values cannot be included in the pursuit of skepticism makes NO sense to me. (I’ve heard this from a couple of places, including Barb Drescher’s site, where I just posted a similar comment). We build our values based on skeptical findings. So: vaccinating your children is GOOD. Promoting an alt-med cancer cure in lieu of medical treatment is BAD. These are evidence-based ethics and it is logical that we promote these. The KEY here, is that we cannot simply blindly follow what the ‘crowd’ says. In skepticism, and in life, we need to understand that if alternate evidence comes to light, we must change our minds. The difficulty is that once we take an ethical or moral stance, it becomes very difficult to change that. To me, that’s the fundamental component to being a skeptic: revising your opinion based on new evidence.

    2. There’s also an idea out there that there is some ‘guidebook’ for what skeptics should and should not cover. Some topics appear to be taboo or ‘too big’ or ‘too ingrained’ to fall into the realm of skepticism. I have a huge issue with this. Skepticism for everyone and everything. If someone is making a claim that is false and we can test it, we can and should. Skepticism *does* fall into the realm of religion, politics and law, because skepticism is a way of looking into reality. If someone in the skeptical community wants to speak up against pseudoscience or a lack of critical thinking in one of these areas, our job in the skeptical community is certainly to question what they are doing, evaluate the evidence and ensure that they are being evidence-based in their arguments. But it is NOT to determine whether that topic ‘falls into the realm’ of skepticism based on something that CSICOP or some other skeptical organization has published as the areas we “should” be discussing. If someone wants to take on the pope and their arguments are strong, cogent and logical and they display good skepticism and critical thinking, I simply don’t understand why anyone would stand in their way because of ‘how it makes us look’. I say, screw how it makes us look. The world will see us as it sees us and there isn’t much we can do to stop it.

    I think some people are under the impression that skepticism is a standardized movemrnt that will bw defined and scoped out. That, to me, is akin to saying the purpose of the internet is standardized and scoped. The reality is that skepticism is a tool and different people will use it in different ways.

    In the same way that people may say that the internet is only about porn and spam, people could say that skepticism is only about anti-religious commentary. That doesn’t mean that skepticism won’t continue! And even if we did all agree on scope, the movement is too grassroots to control that way. Different people will use skepticism to look at different things. That’s a GOOD thing, as far as I can see…

  26. So three songs and a sermon?
    My movement is usually in the morning, but I wouldn’t make it a commandment.
    I get just as pissed at some of those apparently on OUR side — especially TV folks.
    I have thought that the greatest ‘thing’ we have going in the skeptical world is the lack of a ‘movement’! We need to discuss, argue, cuss, gnash teeth, and evolve to a different place. We do not need to jabber in tongues, and sing spirituals, or join anything.

  27. Many other movements struggle with similar issues and the solution seems to be in building small coalitions that band together temporarily to achieve certain specific goals. For example, I am part of the animal welfare movement (my preferred terminology, though others prefer to say “animal rights”– we can’t even agree on that!) And even though my organization is in direct competition with HSUS, PETA, Best Friends Animal Society, and a million local animal shelters for Grandma’s 20 bucks, we work together to lobby for laws or to provide disaster relief like we did during Hurricane Katrina. So while we may work with PETA to pass a law for stronger penalties for animal abuse, we are not going to throw paint on Miss America contestants to protest fur, because that’s not how we roll. And that’s ok. All but the hardliners understand that our organizational goals intersect, but are not identical. At the same time, we are a lot more powerful as a coalition than we would be working alone.

  28. I think the five lions is very apt because getting us to work together is cat herding. The weird thing is that it is probably easier to get us to WORK together towards a goal than to get us to AGREE THAT WE ARE WORKING TOGETHER towards a goal.

    Many will disagree.

    Speaking of disagree, it’s probably a good idea not to call the other lions idiots if they don’t like the plan. There are only five of us and we need to stick together.

  29. I’d like to think that collectively, we are some kind of skeptical voltron, the problem is, not all the pieces fit perfectly. We are all working to a common goal, but we do it in our very different ways.

    BTW: @Tim3P0: There was no pink lion. There was a blue lion who was operated by a girl in pink. But her element was water. That’s why she was blue.

  30. Please don’t take this the wrong way, everyone, but at times, particularly when one of us lowbies criticizes someone important in the skeptical movement, it can often be perceived as a “the skeptic movement should” strawman. Not everyone is trying to define a movement with every criticism — critique and not taking things at face value is part of what makes us skeptics. Some of us are more polite about it than others, but either way criticism doesn’t mean the critic is telling other skeptics their business.

  31. It is so surprising how people who encourage critical thought and free inquiry can get our collective feathers so easily ruffled when we disagree.

    Great piece Carr, good to be reminded of the need to see things in their proper perspective.

  32. My own personal background is that I used to be an outspoken New Atheist (not my term). I have a degree in Anthropology, and used to have no patience for idiots. This hasn’t changed, but I seem to have evolved (heh) into lazy, lurker skeptic, as opposed to a loud outspoken Atheist.

    RE: the topic, at its base, skepticism is (to me) the practice of critical & logical thinking. It’s a broad enough definition that means that there doesn’t have to be ONE flavour of skepticism. That doesn’t necessarily preclude a skeptic movement though. I think we can all agitate around promoting logical, critical thinking.

  33. I’m in the eye of the Little Anthropologists’ hurricane, so sorry if this is fragmentary.

    Individuals evolve. IMO, as people evolve into skepticism, they become very excited to find out that there are other skeptics scattered about in the vast Wilderness of Credulity. Of course they want to belong to a unified movement.

    Although I understand the urge to form some sort of hive overmind, I agree with Masala Skeptic. And also with whoever said we should be able to give and receive criticism with an open mind, altering our paradigms as evidence warrants. Stasis and homogeneity are incompatible with critical thinking.

    In my experience, my very humble blog and personal conversations have a surprisingly tangible impact. I am a small fish in a very tiny pond; however, when I have contacted prominent skeptics for clarification or information to use in my blog (or for my son’s kindergarten solar system research project), they have all graciously taken the time to respond. That is exactly the kind of supportive attitude that will lift us all.

  34. @Kimbo Jones: This is definitely true, but in watching this kind of thing unfold over the last few weeks/months, it seems to be less us lowbies criticizing the “big shots” and more certain “big shots” explicitly stating that they think other skeptics should behave in a certain way. Cf. almost everything Daniel Loxton ever says.

    When us lowbies toss our criticisms back, its often simply in defense of our own abilities and desires to do things our way and not have some self-appointed authority telling us our business, and, as such, you’re definitely right: it’s not meant to tell others what to do. I tend to think of it this way: I never go around telling people to be more forceful with their opinions; why are people telling me to be “nicer?”

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