Scientific Skepticism: A Tutorial

This post may sound condescending and perhaps it is. Self-righteousness is not my intention, but I am well aware that some may see it differently. The alternative is to keep my mouth shut and pretend that all is well.

All is not well.

I have been very disturbed by something that I have seen far too much of in the community recently. It is not new, but it was very salient right now and it broke my heart.

I feel that I must also acknowledge the fact that behavior in some arenas has left me angry, outraged, and even queasy. But this post is about skeptics and skepticism.

You see, it is obvious that an uncomfortably large portion of people calling themselves skeptics and skepticism activists and advocates are under the impression that the definition of “skepticism” is one or more of the following:

  • liberalism
  • humanism
  • secularism
  • atheism
  • negotiable
  • a refuge for people who felt like outcasts in high school

Following are some quotes which led me to this conclusion. I will not provide the names (I’m sure Google will help you with that if you must know) because none of them are unique. Each has been stated by at least one other person, although perhaps not in the same words. And some of these go back a few months.

I was under the impression that Skepticism was about questioning norms and creating change.

It’s [skepticism] not an either/or scenario (social justice movement OR tool), it’s whatever you want it to be.

Skepticism means something different to all of us.

Then you are using Skepticism as a social movement.

I will say this again because it is important enough to repeat: this is heartbreaking.

This is heartbreaking because it means that the movement has succeeded in attracting people who are willing to identify themselves as skeptics, but it has failed miserably in its cause: promoting skepticism. A friend whose interaction with the community is minimal summed it up nicely: The price of widespread acceptance is widespread ignorance.

The scope of skepticism and the line between atheism and skepticism have been discussed at length by many people who clearly understand the issues. There are philosophical and historical arguments which, settled or not, tend to be central in rational discussions of the topic.

It is not these arguments that prompted me to write this entry. It is not the people making these arguments who worry me.

It is the people who have either forgotten or never knew that skepticism is about epistemology; it is about how we know. I would like to think that people devoting their time and energy to a cause want to understand what it is they are working toward.

First, let’s establish that I didn’t make this up.

UK Skeptics:

Skepticism is an honest search for knowledge. It is an approach to claims akin to the scientific method. It is a powerful and positive methodology (a collection of methods of inquiry) that is used to evaluate claims and make decisions. It is used to search for the (provisional) truth in matters and to make decisions that are based on sound reasoning, logic, and evidence.

Suite 101

Skepticism, a form of evidence-based reasoning, is a way of knowing that weighs evidence and prior plausibility in determining if a claim is true… Skepticism is not a religion or life philosophy. It tells a person not what to think, but how to know. Skepticism provides time-tested tools used long in science and academia that give the best possibility of finding the truth.

Radio Freethinker

Skepticism is about the search for knowledge. Its foundations are the scientific method and relying on empirical evidence. Skepticism is the process of applying critical thinking, reason, and reality to a given matter. A skeptic is someone who applies vigorous and systematic research to any claim, regardless of its political, religious, or social implications…
Skepticism is not a belief system. Skepticism is a methodology.

Drinking Skeptically

Skepticism is a method of examining claims about the world. The skeptical “toolbox” includes a reliance upon reason, critical thinking, and a desire for verifiable, testable evidence about particular claims (especially extraordinary ones). Usually, the “skeptical way of thinking” is embodied in the scientific method.

You may redefine the word if you like, but then you are just making stuff up.

Notice that all of these definitions describe a process, not a conclusion. They describe a search for truth, not a search for values. In fact, there is a clear and very scientific statement that values are irrelevant: “A skeptic is someone who applies vigorous and systematic research to any claim, regardless of its political, religious, or social implications.”

While it is certainly the case that a large portion of the community supports socially liberal ideals, the promotion of those values is not skepticism.

What’s more, the promotion of values cannot be included in this pursuit.

Why are values and morals outside the scope of skepticism or science? Because they make us biased.

The most influential factor in evaluating arguments is something called the belief bias. Look it up.

Bias is not always a bad thing when we are making decisions about actions to take, such as whether we should donate to a cause or take in an animal that needs a home, but bias is our worst enemy when we are looking for truth. Biases lead us to misinterpret, misattribute, and misunderstand. They lead to mistakes. They are the reason we need science in the first place.

So, let me summarize this:

Skeptics assert that the scientific method is the best means for both acquiring knowledge and for testing claims. By definition, the scientific method is one in which we minimize human error by removing human biases from the process. This drastically reduces the probability that we will draw the wrong conclusion.

The skepticism movement is an organized effort to apply scientific skepticism to claims, thereby reducing the harm that belief in those claims causes. We apply skepticism to determine what is true. We use that information to reduce the dissemination of untruths.

Truth is not value and facts are not morals.

Furthermore, if you refuse to set aside your values and morals when considering whether something is true, by definition, you are not rational.

In my opinion, if you do not understand the fundamental concept that personal values and opinions may be informed by scientific inquiry, but cannot be considered in the methods that are science and skepticism, then you are not a skeptic.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

6 comments to Scientific Skepticism: A Tutorial

  • Seantheblogonaut

    Is the issue here that some of us identify too strongly with a label? Or alternatively others identify us with it too strongly?

    As a skeptic I really have nothing to say about the Catholic church and it’s treatment of abusers, the abused and the mass cover ups. As an atheist, a secularist a believer in the rule of law I have many things to say about it and often do.

    The same could I think be said about my Antivaxx campaigning. The skeptical process allows me to determine that Meryl Dorey is spouting horse shit but skepticism does not motivate me to act.

    Thought provoking post.

    • In answer to your question, neither. I think my point was simpler than that; it was that some of us don’t really understand what the label means.

      The rest of your comment sums up the perspective of a rational skeptic, IMO.

  • masalaskeptic

    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 claim that the pope issue does not fall into the realm of skepticism. It does. Child abuse IN GENERAL does not fall into the realm of skepticism because child abuse can be done by anyone. HOWEVER, in the case where child abuse is covered up by a curtain of pseudoscience or excused because of bad critical thinking, it falls squarely in the realm of skepticism. As skeptics, we should fight against those who don’t vaccinate their children because they believe in the pseudoscience of anti-vaxxers. In the same way, as skeptics, we must fight against an organization that uses religion to provide a pass and power to people who abuse children. Catholics trust their clergy and are being mistreated because of this trust. Because the Pope has a special sanction from God, a special pass that says he can literally do no wrong. That is pseudoscience at its worst and as skeptics, we should fight it. In the same way, we should fight for equal treatment of religious and non-religious people. If you don’t treat your child for their illness because of your religious beliefs, you should be prosecuted under the law in the same way as anyone else who doesn’t treat their sick child because of negligence. The issue is NOT about abuse. It’s about fairness.

    2. The idea that the promotion of values cannot be included in the pursuit of skepticism makes NO sense to me. 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.

    3. There’s also an idea out there (not something you discussed in detail in this post but worth discussion, I think) 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…

    I am also posting a similar version of this comment on Carrie’s post about this topic on Skepchick. I think it’s makes some excellent points in a much less long-winded way :)

  • Maria, I read your comment on Skepchick. It is clear and concise. I hope that it gets a lot of attention there.

    There are some things in your comment here, though, that I’d like to discuss.

    As skeptics, we should fight against those who don’t vaccinate their children because they believe in the pseudoscience of anti-vaxxers.

    Perhaps this is partly semantics, but I don’t see it this way. We should fight against those who tell parents that vaccines are harmful. We should educate parents who don’t vaccinate their kids. This is promoting skepticism because scientific skepticism should be used to evaluate claims made by antivaxxers and antivaxxers are revealed through the process as frauds.

    Even though these issues surfaced during the Pope incident, taking legal action against the Pope is not something I care to argue about, so I’ll leave that for someone else to comment on.

    We build our values based on skeptical findings.

    EXACTLY. But our findings are not built on our values. You have a clear grasp on the scientific method and the objectivity that is required for good reasoning. You are clearly not one of the people about whom I am worried.

    You are also not an asshole ;).

    In that paragraph, take what you said about separating beliefs from process and turn it back onto the first sentence and I think you will understand why I disagree. The pursuit isn’t of skepticism, but of truth.

    An easier example is one of politics/economics. We could discuss whether free markets feed more people than socialism, for example. But what we can’t do is discuss which is more fair.

    I completely agree with you that all testable claims are subject to skepticism (although I respect and understand the requests of those like Daniel Loxton to focus on specific areas), however, this post is not really addressing that question. What I found disturbing was the lack of fundamental understanding of what this whole thing is about among people claiming to be part of a movement.

  • Seantheblogonaut


    I think it pays to be really explicit about what we might mean when we say “The Pope issue”. The storm in a teacup is I believe about the whole Hitchens and Dawkins support of the plan to arrest the pope, based on the fact that he has aided and abetted the abuse of children and subsequently participated in mass cover ups of such.

    Is this an issue for Skepticism as a tool, as a movement? Is it an issue for skeptics? Are they one and the same?

    To my mind the recent situation is straight forward, the pope has been shown to be involved quite closely with cover up its a legal matter.

    On the Catholics condom message in Africa I think that Skeptics have cause to attack it because its not borne out by the evidence.
    I think if we want to promote skepticism tied in with criticism of the church we have to be very specific about what we are criticizing.

    I guess what I am trying to articulate is that if we are flying the flag for skepticism then we criticise anyone any institution when they are advocating baloney, when it comes to criticizing the church for say being undemocratic or interfering in the democratic politics of soveriegn nations its possibly best to wear another hat.

    The only possible harm I can see to skepticism is broadening it’s scope ordefinition to the point that it loses its value.

    That being said I encourage Skeptics to rage against the injustices of the church, as I do but don’t see broad based rage as a skeptical issue.

  • […] about what being a skeptic meant. As anticipated, I found a number of different definitions (see Barbara Drescher’s recent post for more), two of which struck a chord with […]