What is Skepticism?  Series of 4 articles clarify misconceptions about the skeptical enterprise

November 2, 2010

"What is Skepticism?" series coordinator, Canadian skeptic leader Michael Kruse

What is Skepticism?   Convinced that this very basic question was poorly understood by the public and plagued by countless misunderstandings and confusions, CFI Canada's Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism (CASS) undertook to clarify four key issues as part of "What is Skepticism?", a series of articles authored by various CASS spokespeople and published on the website of our friends at Skeptic North .  Here we provide some excerpts. For the full pieces, please follow the links.

1.  Are Skeptics Cynics?   Week 1: Curmudgeon. Cynic. Skeptic. (also available for commentary on reddit )  Some would immediately ignore comments of self-professed skeptics, contending that skeptics are by definition dismissive of any new ideas.  This is to confuse skepticism with cynicism or perhaps curmudgeonism.  In fact, skeptics have accepted some rather extraordinary claims - the big bang, evolution, nuclear synthesis, and plate tectonics, for example.  The debate is addressed by Michael Kruse, who says:

Bertrand Russell, the noted 20th century philosopher, described the ancient philosophical skeptics as espousing the theory that “nobody knows, and nobody ever can know.” (Russell, p224) This extreme and dogmatic approach to knowing the world is not embraced by the modern skeptical movement, and we should more aptly describe it, as Michael Shermer the founder of the Skeptics Society does, as rational skepticism.

He then goes on to explain what our rational skepticism entails:

Contrary to the idea that skeptics don’t believe in anything, or are close-minded, rational skepticism describes a process of questioning and inquiry that is at the root of our understanding of the material world.


2.  Moving on, in Week 2: Science vs. Scientism we argued against the common approach taken by those who wish to immunize their unique perspective from scientific inquiry, that of insisting that scientists or skeptics are engaging in the religion of scientism.  Though science might be useful in many other areas, claim such critics, yet in my field of specialty, science (or critical thinking) ought to be off limits.  But, argue Iain Martel and Viktorya Baydina, unless you demonstrate why science, so useful everywhere else, ought not be brought to bear in your special area, this claim is insubstantial.

Science, then, has its limits, but when dealing with claims that are testable within the methods of science, such as medical claims, to demand scientific evidence is simply to hold everyone to the same standards as the scientific community holds itself to. To cry scientism in this case shows disregard for the scientific method.

3.  Doesn't everyone seem to be a skeptic these days?  As Ryan Gray and Iain Martel report in Week 3: Skepticism vs. Denial (also available on reddit ),

Everyone is a skeptic nowadays, or so it seems. From climate change to evolution to vaccination, large proportions of the population claim to be skeptical about many of the claims of mainstream science. So why are we, member of the skeptical community, not rejoicing? Why do we not join the mass of public opinion in skeptically rejecting claims of man-made climate change, or of the miracle of vaccination? The answer is simple: such “skeptics” are not true skeptics; mere denial is not skepticism.


Let us turn to the climate change “skeptics”. Are they just being more demanding than us in their skepticism? After all, nothing in science is ever certain; some room for doubt always exists. For that doubt to warrant disbelief in the face of all the positive evidence, however, skeptics would require significant contrary evidence, or a plausible alternative theory which fit the data. But climate change deniers have not provided any such evidence or theory... In fact, in denying climate change, these “skeptics” find themselves committed to claims no less extraordinary than the ones they deny, yet with far less evidence

4.  Finally, we explore why skeptics are increasingly prioritizing the issue of alternative medicine, in our last entry on Week 4: A Skeptic’s View of Alt-Med , authored by Dr.Claire Trottier  and Dr. Behzad Elahi

While we further the boundaries of skeptical inquiry, it's important to ensure the basic definitions are well understood by the public, and that potential pitfalls in the form of accidental or purposeful misunderstandings that may hamper our ability to be taken seriously are effectively neutralized.