Afternoon InquisitionSkepticism

AI: Skeptic vs. skeptic? The “little s” skeptic all around us

I’m dropping in today during Elyse’s AI to ask y’all your experience with “little s” skeptics in your lives. I’m a Skeptic. Big S. I think it’s an important and interesting part of living a rational life. Most of my very close friends are either also “Big S” skeptics, or understand the part it plays in my life.

And maybe not so surprisingly, a very large percentage of the people I admire, even if I do not know them well (or at all) are at the least “little s” skeptics. Some are easy to spot: Louis CK is a great example. Doesn’t identify as a skeptic, but walks the walk. I am not surprised to find that I find these qualities admirable wherever they are. I am curious how the label itself changes me, or them, or not.

What about in your life?


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.


A B Kovacs is the Director of Døøm at Empty Set Entertainment, a publishing company she co-founded with critical thinker and fiction author Scott Sigler. She considers herself a “Creative Adjacent” — helping creative people be more productive and prolific by managing the logistics of Making for the masses. She's a science nerd, a rabid movie geek, and an unrepentantly voracious reader. She doesn't like chocolate all that much.

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  1. A couple of my daughters are little ‘s’ skeptic and I find they give themselves license to fall off the Skeptical wagon on some things. For example: skeptical of most alt-med but go to chiropractors for back pain.

    I just remain the calm voice of reason – as much as a cringing dad can be :)

  2. Eh, little S I guess. Not because I’m not skeptic, but more because I don’t wear it as a badge or title.

    I don’t usually challenge other people’s fallacious beliefs unless it’s hurting them or others and even sometimes go to (buhhdist/hindu) religious meditation services for peace of mind occasionally.

    Except for the cases where untrue beliefs cause harm (to individuals or politically), I’m okay with people believing in fake things because I really don’t care what other people do/think.

  3. I think everyone employs skeptical thinking at some level. For instance, who believes Iran’s claim that their nuclear program is for scientific research only? Or that the video of the “mammoth” in Russia is real?

    But being a Skeptic is a mindset that most people do not employ nor do they wish to. Most people believe in the supernatural and/or the paranormal. Almost everyone I know accepts chiropractors as being real medical doctors. It’s never occurred to most people to even question it.

    For me, I find being a Skeptic to be somewhat isolating because so many people are dumbfounded to learn you question the things they take as the bedrock of their worldview, but there is no other way I could live my life.

  4. I guess I’m a “little s,” though until I read this post I hadn’t even thought about a separation. So, wait, let me go do just that.

    Okay, then, that’s done. So, if I were just a person on the street who lived a wholly unexamined life (read: the opposite of me), seeing the word “Skeptic” with a “big S” would create in my mind the image of some kind of exclusive organization with lots of rules and a worldview held by members to be largely impregnable. Just what I’d think if I saw the word “Christian” or “Muslim.”

    To my thinking, being skeptical is more a mindset, a distinct pattern of thought processes, than it is a club. It sounds silly, to me, to say something like, “I’m a Skeptic because I’m skeptical.” No. I’m just skeptical–about most everything–label not required.

    To go on (if you’ll humor me), the club-likeness of Skepticism smacks of “otherness,” in the sense that there’s some extra burden to carry along with the “big S.” Maybe this just comes from my personal experience, but coming into skepticism from the irrationality of religious belief was like an unburdening, a final setting-down of a lot of unnecessary bunk. I like to think of the skeptical life as just that–free of ridiculous clutter, “capital letters” included.

      1. Of course not. I’m not against community, and I suppose I sounded like a right curmudgeon in my earlier post (I was grading freshman essays, after all) and didn’t make myself clear enough.

        What I’m more or less against is the division itself–“little s” and “big S”–and that thinking of skeptical persons as divided in that way creates a false sense of cliquishness that gets in the way of better community.

  5. I wouldn’t use big-S Skeptic to describe myself as it suggests to me adherence to some greater ideology or worldview that directs one’s life. That’s a little close to religion for me to be comfortable with. I’m an atheist, a humanist, a rationalist and a sceptic (British spelling), but I wouldn’t capitalise any of them because I don’t let any of them define my life.

    1. This is how the question came up for me. Is defining it as a Thing (captial T) make more of it than is reasonable in a rational life?

      That said, there is that idea that it’s only like religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby, or like “off” is a tv channel.

  6. I don’t like to label people, or myself, that way. I like Robofish’s response. That is pretty close to how I feel as well.

  7. I would describe myself as a Skeptic. Thinking skeptically directs my life and it gives me comfort to know that there are others like me that also identify themselves as Skeptics. It can get pretty lonely out there. Commenting on Skepchick, listening to skeptical podcasts and reading skeptical/sciencey books enrich my life. Most of the time, I am disappointed by the lazy thinking of the general public and celebrities, but once in a while I am surprised by someone like Ricky Gervais.

  8. I guess it depends on what company I’m keeping. Around most of my friends, I’m a Skeptic. Around family, I’m a skeptic. They’re highly religious, and I’d rather avoid confrontation at the moment.

  9. The distinction is anthropologically interesting. What are the qualifications for big S, and who gets to decide? How much social status does big S confer? If I happen to qualify for the big S, do I get to feel superior to the unwashed smalls out there?

    The problem with labeling people as Other is that marginalization often follows. I guess I thought the discussions about sexism were about avoiding that kind of thing.

    1. Spoken like a true anthropologist–and I completely agree. =)

      I find this distinction to be unnecessary. S/skepticism to me is a method, not an ideological position. S/skepticism seems to be thrown around more and more as some sort of coup de grâce in arguments, like some No True Skeptic fallacy–people disagree and all of the sudden it’s “You’re not a S/skeptic!”

      I am reminded of the S/science distinction, where science refers to the empirical methods and processes of generating knowledge based on the scientific method and Science refers to the the political, social, cultural, authoritative, monolithic institution of science. Is this really what we want to do to s/Skepticism, divide it into method and ideology? And like my fellow anthropologist rightly asks, what then is the criteria? Based on whose definitions? And how do you suggest we avoid marginalization and Othering?

  10. I’ve been told, in no uncertain terms, that being a big S skeptic and a big A atheist is making me a huge A asshole. But if that’s what it takes to live a life that is truthful then that it what I will continue to be no matter the consequences.

  11. I don’t know.

    My critical thinking skills are sub-standard, at best, and if asked for an opinion on some topic or another, I will likely regurgitate someone else’s.

    If I have to be completely honest about it, I’m a Skeptic in the same way a Christian is a Christian.

    Because someone told me it was the best way.

    1. Oh dear me. That’s troublesome.

      Andrew, you seem to have somehow become a Skeptic without actually being a skeptic. I rather hope you’re kidding.

      The fact that you’re here, though, gives me hope. Read, learn, think.

      Don’t, however, think for an instant that what we say is any kind of absolute truth or is at all “best”.

      1. Maybe see if a local community college has a class on critical thinking or something similar? They do exist :)

        1. I might just look into that, marilove. Thanks :)

          I do read, I do learn. I’ve been a lurker here for a long time. That outline of a fly over there is from when they spray-painted the walls here about a year or so ago.

          It just seems to me that when some prominent Skeptic (such as Rebecca, Elyse, Steve Novella, whoever) have an opinion on a particular topic, I tend to believe them without question. Is that really any different than religion?

          1. Anthony, I am the same, and sometimes it bothers me too.

            For instance I rely heavily on Phil Plait at the BA Blog when it comes to climate change.

            I believe that the prominent Skeptic scientists are honest and capable and well intentioned.

            But there is the possibility that with such a small selection of sources that one will end up with a distorted or biased view.

            There is a great deal more to Science than the gospel according to Plait or Novella (and I say this with huge respect).

            I think the solution is to read widely and consult primary references wherever possible.

            Problem is, so many of the best sources are behind paywalls.

    2. Anthony, you sound like a skeptic to me. :) You look at your skepticism in a skeptical way…possibly a skeptic if you will :) You are questioning, even here, how you form opinions. You used the example of people from scientific based podcasts and how you trust what they say. I think that we can agree that the group of folks that you mentioned are relaying information in good faith. Weather you decide to agree with their world view is up to you. It is easy for some people to think all their ideas are original. That is delusion. We all had to learn from somewhere and the process of taking on new information is fraught with stereotypes, generalizations and misinterpretations. It is the skeptic that one days says, hey I wonder do I agree with that, is that right or did I ‘regurgitate someone else’s’ thoughts/opinions/information and does it work?

  12. So. Um. Jeez. I feel like I’m poking the beehive with a stick here…

    I’m a feminist and huge science nerd. I regularly lurk here and at MAL and have been steadily listening to the back catalog of The Skeptics Guide. Anti-science in medicine in particular has long been a pet peeve of mine. But I still would call myself a small s skeptic.

    Why? Because I’m not an atheist and I get tired of being treated like I’m mentally deficient because of it. I love everything you do here, but Skepticism doesn’t feel like a welcoming place for me as a non-atheist. (Well, and a woman to boot.)

    1. Aw, Im sorry to hear that, but I can see how you could feel that way. The religious aspect of skepticism seems to come up more for US based skeptic groups since there are often political policies that are harmful that have come from extremely religious people. In NZ I dont find religion comes up quite as much. I don’t think people should negatively judge people for being religious, unless they are against human rights-(gay & women’s rights included) or violently trying to change science (global warming/evolution) etc. I see big S Skeptic being someone that actively engages in trying to make a difference, like; asking why a pharmacy stocks ear candles, signing a vaccination petition, posting on skeptical blogs to engage in a discussion etc. =) you dont have to subscribe to everything, – Like Pamela (Christian), thats on SGU from time to time.

      1. Don’t get me wrong. I support secularism, and as a feminist I am ardently against people using religion or any other agenda to infringe on people’s human rights. (The pope can take a flying leap as far as I’m concerned, and Rick Santorum and his ilk can jump with him.) And Skepticism is needed and important! And I’m not trying to hate on Atheism or Atheist activists, because people think some fucked up things about atheism for real.

        But there’s a tendency within Skepticism to talk about all religious people as though they have a hole in the head, and that’s incredibly alienating for a non-atheist like myself. When prominent Skeptics talk about all Christians (or whatever) having TEH DUMB, it makes me want to not even bother to try and assert myself as a capitol S Skeptic, because I beat my head against the wall enough with my feminism, thanks. And that makes me sad, because everything about my life outside of my non-atheism makes me want to identify as a Skeptic.

        1. Like Pamela (Christian), thats on SGU from time to time.

          And hosts Astronomy Cast all the time. Dr. Gay is probably my favorite science communicator, she is a brilliant astronomer who has a unique (in my experience) way of making even the toughest cosmological concepts easy to understand. One episode, she broke down the Mayan calendar, and explained why Dec. 21 is significant, and at the same time why it doesn’t mean anything.

          And even though she’s a Christian, I would have words with anyone who accuses her of having “teh dumb.”

          (I tried a half-dozen times to spell “teh” just now, and it kept coming out “the” each and every time. ;) )

        2. Yep, I’m with you. I’m not interested in putting myself in a position to be ridiculed and looked down on. Also not going to turn my faith into an intellectual exercise for the amusement of others.

          1. That reply was @wundergeek, on not being an atheist, therefore not welcome in Skepticism.

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