The Scope of Skeptical Activism: A Personal Story   Part 2 of 2

April 2, 2013

I've been working at the Center for Inquiry's Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (formerly CSICOP) for fifteen years. I'm best known for my skeptical investigations and research into paranormal subjects such as ghosts, lake monsters, chupacabras, near-death experiences, crop circles, psychics, and all that. It's not surprising that people tend to focus on that, since those are weird, sensational claims, but that's only a small part of my work. Recently there has been renewed discussion about the role and nature of skepticism. Daniel Loxton, Steven Novella, and Sharon Hill-among many others-have written blogs and full-length articles examining the scope and meaning of skepticism.

In Part 1, which appeared a few weeks ago, I discussed my body of work in terms of larger themes and personal motivations and values. In this second half I'll touch on what I see as the practical limits of organized skepticism and skeptical inquiry.

As I previously noted, there are countless causes I support, including environmentalism, feminism, animal protection, social justice, exposing hypocrisy, science communication, media literacy, and others. But I rarely tackle these issues under the banner of skepticism, instead I bring them up in the context of other subjects. In other words, I usually don't set out to write an article or blog or column on these subjects but instead address them through news stories that have a skeptical education and/or social justice angle to them.

As Daniel Loxton wrote, "I'm a skeptic, and also a humanist, and also an atheist, and also other things besides. In acknowledging my multiple distinct affiliations, I follow a respectable and old tradition in scientific skepticism. As National Center for Science Education Executive Director and Bay Area Skeptics Chair Eugenie Scott explains, ‘Most people have more than one identity: I'll wear my humanist hat in some circles, but not at the bee-keeper's meeting.' Your own priorities may call you to many actions in many movements. Want to oppose religion, fight for church-state separation, or fix government? Those have never been goals for scientific skepticism, but they are the explicit unifying goals for other movements that would deeply appreciate your help. So help them! Be a skeptic-and be other things besides."

My Skepticism

I've always felt that that skepticism is a big tent, and there's room for contributions from a wide variety of people, often with different styles. For example, Penn and Teller's brand of brash skepticism is not my style, but they are very good at what they do. This is how I view skepticism and its role.

Skepticism, like science, is a way of finding out about the world. It is (or, I would argue, should be) more or less value-neutral. Skepticism does not tell us that you should not believe in ghosts, it tells us how to find out whether or not ghosts exist, which is more valuable. We make important choices in our lives based upon what we believe is true, and not just about paranormal issues but important social and political issues as well. If we believe that power lines near our home cause cancer, we may move our family out of an otherwise safe neighborhood. If we believe that the chemical Alar (at one time sprayed on apples) is endangering our children, we may keep them from eating needed fruits. If we believe that vaccinating our children against diseases may give them autism, we may endanger their lives. If we believe that we are likely to be killed in random violence or terrorism, we may worry needlessly and spend precious funds to avoid minuscule threats.

Nobody has all the answers; all we can do is to try and weed out the false beliefs to the best of our ability. Every single one of us holds beliefs that are false or only partially true. Perhaps the most important process in human thinking and knowledge is the recognition and awareness that we may be wrong-and the commitment to correct our mistakes.

Skeptical Mission Creep

One issue that often arises when discussing the scope of skepticism is mission creep: What are the proper goals of skepticism, and how do we know when we have stepped outside those goals? I visited a Canadian skeptics group a few years ago during a book and speaking tour, and one of the leaders mentioned that they had recently participated in a gay rights parade. This struck me as odd. Not because I'm against gay rights or gay marriage-in fact I strongly support both-but because I don't see gay rights as a skeptical issue. In fact it didn't even seem to be an issue of evidence-based public policy.

Mission creep, in which the purpose of an organization expands incrementally beyond its original goals, is a common issue in activist organizations. It can be good or bad, depending on your point of view. Some see the broadening of original goals to include related purposes to be a good thing, while others see it as watering down the organization and squandering resources on worthy-but-irrelevant causes. One of the consequences of mission creep is that it inevitably disenfranchises some of its members. There are countless causes that I feel strongly about and contribute to that have nothing to do with skepticism, and so I don't support them in the name (or under the banner) of skepticism.

I see little benefit (and indeed the potential for considerable damage) when organized skepticism (if there be such a beast) gets into political and social activism. Most skeptics I know tend to be politically liberal, though many are not. Many skeptics I know tend to be humanists and atheists, though many are not (including the great polymath and CSICOP co-founder Martin Gardner). Implicitly or explicitly suggesting that skepticism (or, by extension, good critical thinking) presupposes a given political or social agenda is not only incorrect but unnecessarily divisive.

There already exist well-run, effective organizations for just about any social or political cause. If you want to support wolf conservation, breast cancer research, reproductive rights, animal rights, alternative energy sources, social justice, independent news media, feminism, freedom for Tibet, gay rights, the prevention of overfishing, Democrats, Republicans, libertarians, transgender librarians, or any other of countless causes, there are plenty of opportunities to do so. Furthermore, those organizations already have the infrastructure to make things happen; that's why in many cases it's better to support a large, existing organization than to start fresh or duplicate another organization's goals or purpose. There's no need for skeptics to reinvent the wheel, and there's also no need to brand skeptics groups as an umbrella organization for any of those causes just because some individual skeptics within those groups support them.

Daniel Loxton has discussed this several times, including in a recent blog:

Greta Christina and Jamila Bey raised a very interesting objection to this notion of traditional subject matter: "If you always talk about the same things, you'll go on having the community you've always had"-to wit, college-educated, nerdy, and widely bearded. If we truly do want to increase diversity, they argued, skepticism should tackle wider topics that wider audiences care about: women's issues, social justice, progressive political causes, and so on. Now, "tackle wider topics" is a red flag for me. I've spent 20 years of my life in love with scientific skepticism-a distinct and distinguished public service tradition which is worth preserving. In that time, I've become rather cynical about scope discussions between skeptics and atheists. Too often, the argument seems to be that the very definition of my field should be scrapped and replaced by a wider rationalism.

Greta Christina... argued, there are testable, empirical, pseudoscientific claims embedded within the arenas of social values, political discourse, and yes, religion as well. The forest may be out of scope, but some of the trees are not. ...Skeptics can tackle those strictly empirical questions without a centimeter of mission drift, and without losing any of our traditional scientific focus...Of course, skeptics always have tackled testable claims that happen to have important implications for religion, politics, or human nature, but Greta Christina's point nonetheless bears repeating: traditional skepticism can do its traditional work within its traditional scope, and still contribute useful assistance to our friends in other movements. If we look for places to do that, we're bound to find new opportunities and new allies.

Mixed Messages

Aside from the issue of mission creep, there's the problem of mixed messages when skepticism is mixed with other forms of social activism. If I'm being interviewed by USA Today or ABC News, I am being consulted as an expert in my field-not something outside my field, even if I feel strongly about it. For example if I'm trying to reassure the public that childhood vaccines are safe (despite anti-vaccination propaganda), I need to stay on topic and not try to find a way to work a comment about my support for gay marriage or President Obama.

Not only would it muddle the message, but I'd lose whatever credibility I had. My goal is to convince all Americans-regardless of whether or not they agree with me about supporting gay marriage or Obama-that vaccinating children is important and safe. Anyone who disagrees with me on gay marriage or Obama will likely, either consciously or unconsciously, dismiss my comments about vaccination as well because it's a clear injection of personal opinion and social agenda into a presumably fact-based discussion. In fact doing so may even make such people more likely to do the opposite of what I'm suggesting.

The same thing can happen on a larger scale when skeptical groups take official (or quasi-official) positions on a wide variety of social and political agendas. We skeptics need all the help we can get, and alienating those who need to hear skeptical information is counter-productive. Each position that an organization takes on some social agenda cleaves off some members who may disagree with that position (or may in fact agree with the position but simply believe that the organization as a whole should not be adopting specific positions).

This is not to say that organizations should have no agendas; indeed many have very clear social and political agendas: Planned Parenthood, the National Rifle Association, Morality in Media, and countless other groups have strong positions. But skepticism is different; it advocates for a way of finding out about the world, and different people who apply skepticism may find themselves on different sides of important social and political debates.

The analogy I use is a class in schools that focuses on critical thinking. A teacher creates a curriculum that teaches logic, skepticism, and critical thinking. The school principal and other teachers may think that a critical thinking class is a waste of time-after all, don't students learn critical thinking in the mainstream courses like history, geography, algebra, social studies, and so on? The answer is emphatically no: critical thinking and skepticism provide students with the cognitive tools they need to help understand the world (including history, geography, algebra, social studies, and so on); it is a methodology, not a particular cause or specific agenda.

Though a critical thinking teacher will almost certainly use examples from other areas of interest or concern (history, geography, algebra, social studies, etc.) in the process of teaching the students how to think, the specific topic is far less important than the goal. In the same way, though I would hope and expect that the skepticism I and others teach would lead to social activism or the promotion of sociopolitical agendas, it should not be mixed nor mistaken for them.

I'll close with one more quote from Daniel Loxton: "Whatever it is that you value, please do your own good work-the work that moves and inspires you, the work that makes the world better according to the priorities of your conscience-whatever that work is, and wherever you feel called to contribute."


Thanks to Dorion Cable and Nat Glick for their assistance in this piece.