You May Be Forgiven For Thinking That Some Skeptics Are Taking A Firm Stance, But…

…well, maybe some skeptics are. About bloody time.

Check out the two-post volley (is that how I should see it?) that has popped into my feedreader over the past 12 hours.

To begin win (and yes, that was a spelling error, but I think I’ll leave it…) – as Daniel Loxton puts it himself, “Skepticblog’s Steven Novella has an interesting post up at Neurologica this morning, in which he addresses some issues of conflation between scientific skepticism and other movements or interests.” It is a direct response to a recent post by PZ Myers, which I’ve noticed has got the usual (often unquestioning) support from a number of people, so I’m glad that there’s time being taken to unpack PZ’s claims:

What is the skeptical community all about? What are the limits, if any, of skeptical analysis? What should be our goals, and our main focus of attention? There is also an even deeper question – are we, in fact, a movement at all?

(Nothing new there – “do you think there’s a skeptical movement?” is a question I’ve popped to a number of interviewees over the years, mostly with a fairly positive reaction, although I’ve noticed a tendency towards an attitude that Daniel Loxton expressed in 2009: “Personally, I don’t believe that unification was ever particularly desirable, but in any event, that ship has sailed. Or, rather, ships: the reality we are faced with is a flotilla of national, regional, and local skeptical organizations (plus all manner of humanist, atheist, and rationalist groups) moving independently and chaotically yet roughly in parallel.”)

Novella continues:

I am happy to find common cause with anyone who also wishes to promote scientific skepticism. I honestly don’t care if they also choose to promote skepticism plus some other agenda (as long as that agenda is not inherently anathema to skepticism). I understand that some skeptics wish to also promote atheism or feminism, or to argue for the virtues of their political ideology. Hey – I am an atheist and a feminist, and I support their promotion. I even see the need to promote feminism within the skeptical movement, if we wish to maximize our reach.  I just don’t want them to be conflated with or confused for scientific skepticism.

I do object to others telling me what I should care about and promote. I am not telling anyone else what to do, and they have no right to tell me what to do. I am only defining how I spend my own efforts.

I will object if someone makes an illogical argument about what skepticism is, or blurs the lines between scientific skepticism and some other issue. These kinds of discussion are worth having – philosophical and logical arguments about the nature of science and knowledge, and how that informs our movement.

This is also where it gets rather difficult, as there’s been a number of times that I (and others) told that we don’t know what skepticism is and that it’s in fact equal to atheism – the “if you’re not atheist you’re not &$*#&# skeptical enough” abusive false dichotomy fallacy comes to mind (as someone in the comments of the blog-post that Daniel Loxton wrote, Maybe we just need to carve out a niche, wherein every time I call myself a skeptic, I have to call myself a ‘scientific skeptic’ just to make it clear.”

I’ve even had a number of people via social media networks refuse to even glance at the transcript of Dr Novella’s talk to the New York Skeptics on Skeptical Activism (featured on the New York City Skeptics website from 2007), because they are so convinced that they have nothing to learn other than atheism = skepticism:

It doesn’t really necessarily mean that we believe that natural is naturalistic or materialistic, that we have to believe that there isn’t anything supernatural or beyond the physical or causative world. It just means that we are following a methodology that acts within that paradigm. That’s critical I think to understanding what skepticism is about – because skepticism is about not what we believe but what we can know and what we can know is tied to methodological naturalism.

There was a recent, just playing off of this a little bit, there was a recent editorial in the New York Times by Davies, Paul Davies, who concluded that science is dependent upon faith. I wrote in my Neurologica blog about that: it’s not actually true because science is not dependent upon faith in a naturalistic world. It just follows the methods as if it is naturalistic.

[My emphasis]

But then, Dr Novella has tackled this often before now, and returns to the issue of understanding what skepticism means once again in 2013:

Here it is (again) – The issue is not with religion or religious-based claims. We address them all the time (creationism, miracles, faith healing, separation of church and state, secular moral philosophy, etc.) Really – we are right there shoulder to shoulder with organized atheists taking on every such issue. It is NOT that religious claims are untestable (some are, some aren’t), it is only that when claims (religious or otherwise) are framed as untestable then they are matters of faith and not science.

…it’s reiterated by Loxton

On religion, he emphasizes once agin the same point he has made throughout his career (a point on which I precisely agree, and which has for decades been the practical, time-tested, virtually universal position of scientific skepticism as a movement):

…and I’m reminded of a 2010 post authored by D.J Grothe over on the Swift Blog: Is There New Atheism at the JREF?

To me, being atheist is not enough. I suggested in the Dawkins discussion that being a mere atheist is less a worthwhile goal than being a skeptic more broadly. In no sense was I trying to argue that if you are a skeptic you will necessarily be an atheist, although I do personally favor a consistently applied sort of skepticism where no questions or claims, not even personal religious ones, are protected from scrutiny.

(I spoke about why atheism may result from skepticism but that it is not a sufficient condition for skepticism, and therefore why a more broadly applied skepticism is more important to me than mere atheism, in my keynote address at NECSS earlier this year.)

While Novella says “I have never endeavored to tell other people what to do with their own activism“, he does provide ideas in the New York talk from 2007 – and I’m wondering what he’s going to talk about at the next NECSS workshop he’s running if NOT a little evidence-based telling on what works (as it says in the description)?

Workshop 2 – How to Use Podcasting for Social Activism

The workshop will cover the opportunities, strategies, and technical aspects of creating a successful podcast in order to promote a cause or support activism. We will cover the various supportive social media that provide opportunities for marketing and outreach.

But then, I see Dr Novella as informing people about the broad scope of skepticism as it exists (with evidence – so much for the 2 posts  out of 1,284 on Bigfoot…) and that skeptics “…deal with the empirical aspects of these issues, and try very hard to distinguish them from the inherent value judgments, while trying to avoid blurring the lines between science and personal choice”, rather than telling them “this is the only way to see it”, which is definitely how I interpret PZ’s blogpost.

I do think that there should be people who can provide practical, sensible and evidence-based advice on what constitutes Top 20 Skeptical Books Kylie Sturgessgood and effective activism, and they should be encouraged to speak out and be supported when it comes to analysing the effectiveness of campaigns.

I also think that effective activism on the part of scientific skepticism should feature a shared understanding of the underlying values and goals that Dr Novella has mentioned in his blogpost (and in a number of other posts, not just the NYC talk where he is explicit on the topic of methodological naturalism, as I’ve shown).

You can always (as Loxton says himself) be an activist for other causes for other reasons and values. I’m certainly not stopping you, nor are the “Old Guard” (what are their names, by the way)?

On a slightly different (but related) topic, I’ve been doing a lot of work recently grading papers, and the one common factor that I’ve found with students (no matter from what time or what age they are, over many years) is the difference between a response that indicates that they’ve done the required reading, let alone taken time to do some research and just plain read widely in order to express an informed understanding. I was particularly dismayed to see a call-out to crowd-source what constituted a untestable claim rather than do the research themselves, from the wide range of texts that have been available for quite some time.

If we start slipping into anti-intellectual attitudes like “we have nothing to learn from the past” and “the Old Guard” strawmen fallacies? As far as I’m concerned, we might as well stop going to ANY conferences, not support any skeptical-based activism, quit buying books related to skepticism and unsubscribe from ALL of those popular and much vaunted podcasts (that worryingly enough, I’ve seen some claim is their only source of education when it comes to skepticism) that have pretty much ALL featured over past few months the arguably “Old Guard” of Randi, Plait, Novella, Gay, Piggliuci, Pollidoro, Radford, Stollznow, Banachek, Wiseman and so on.

After all, we wouldn’t want to support any nasty Old Guard gatekeepers to skepticism, right? It’s well overdue the time to get into doing your own reading and thinking rather than outsourcing your brain.

And yet, the tradition Steve and I work in—scientific skepticism—is a thing. A precious, small, useful thing. Steve and I didn’t invent it. Over decades and even centuries, whole careers have been spent developing scientific skepticism, defining its scope, discovering its weaknesses and vulnerabilities and strengths…

We owe it to generations of those who came before us in this field to treat their legacy with respect. No one reading this has to share the values of those older skeptics. No one is obligated to carry on their work of scientific skepticism. There are a thousand movements out there, working in service of all manner of values and beliefs. There are million opportunities to invent brave new movements that might speak to each one of us in all of our personal complexity.

There’s a book list in the picture featured and you can check out discussions about those books in the podcast.


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About Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is a Philosophy teacher, media and psychology student, blogger at Patheos and podcaster at Token Skeptic. She has conducted over a hundred interviews including artists, scientists, politicians and activists, worldwide.
She’s the author of the ‘Curiouser and Curiouser‘ column at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website and travels internationally lecturing on feminism, skepticism, and science.

  • michaeld

    I’ve been thinking about this on and off but I think Steve’s first facet/aspect has always been the core of skepticism for me.

    “Respect for knowledge and truth – Skeptics value reality and what is true. We therefore endeavor to be as reality-based as possible in our beliefs and opinions. This means subjecting all claims to a valid process of evaluation.”

    To me that’s where skepticism begins. I’ve never really agree with the idea that we have to stop skepticism where the science stops because we can use the tools of philosophy and epistemology to continue to evaluate a claim beyond that point. To me this kind of critical thinking of evaluating and criticizing everything with every tool available was always more important to my view of skepticism then a strict adherence to the limits of science.

  • Kylie Sturgess

    Here’s some help!

    Possible Imposter

    You are attempting to post a comment with information (i.e. email address or login ID) belonging to a registered user. If you have an account on this site, please login to make your comment. Otherwise, please try again with different information. Copy and paste the comment below into another document before returning to the previous page or you may lose the comment.

  • Kilian Hekhuis

    I’ve found the atheism = scepticism most prevelant with American atheists, which I think results from the religiosity of the US society. Almost all “how I became an atheist” stories featured on PZ’s blog start from a religiously indoctrinated childhood, and throwing off the shackles after discovering science, reason and critical thinking in general. However, in many other parts of the Western world, being religious is not the default, and atheists are just as prone to uncritical, unskeptical thinking (leading to, say atheist sexists, racists, bigots, mysoginists, MRAs, …) since they never started from religion, and had never to free themselves from it. I’ve been meaning to write a blogpost about it, but haven’t got around to it for dearth of time.

  • Sharon Hill

    I have learned an IMMENSE amount from the old guard including my heros, Carol Tavris and Elizabeth Loftus. I am very glad to see this discussion go round about what skepticism SHOULD be. My respect increases exponentially for those who have examined and researched their interests and find out both sides. Even for the religious, if you have examined your beliefs and life, I respect that. Every day we learn more. I have no tolerance for the shallow minded snarky know-it-alls. But, I can listen to Steve Novella all day.

    • Kylie Sturgess

      WAAHHH I found your comment, it was stuck in spam!! Sorry again about that and thank you for commenting!

  • Steve B

    Hi Kylie,
    I always appreciate what you do in the skeptic community. It is difficult for many skeptics (or people in general) to understand others points of view in the community and how they want to express them. I find your criticisms valid as well as your praise. Thank you for being a light in the dogmatic darkness!

    • Kylie Sturgess

      Thank you!

  • Kylie Sturgess

    I don’t have time (up at 5am right now just to get into another busy day) to discuss it on blog anymore, but I did notice that Dr Novella responded, which is great:
    I don’t agree with everything Dr Novella says – for example:
    “Talking about strategy is always thorny, and it could be the focus of a separate post. Let me just say that I don’t think there is any definitive data out there to indicate which strategies are the best, so we are all going on style, anecdotes, and rationalization. There are some psychological studies we can cite for support, but these do not really settle opinions about which strategies should be preferred.” – I just think of the Australian Science Communicators who have recently released a document on seeking better strategies for outreach and maybe “opinions” can’t be settled but at least some evidence-based pointers can be found that would give better guidance.

    And again, sorry if your comments can’t get through – Justin at LousyCanuck may be of some help as I can’t figure it out and it’s apparently a whole network thing. Log in via Facebook appears to be one solution?

  • Andy


    Just testing your comment form as I might have forced it to work despite its opposition to regular input.

    • Kylie Sturgess

      Hello! It worked! It’s been a disaster – I know I have a comment policy and I really am wary about comments… but having nothing at all is very unusual and I’ve been digging through the spam to find a few. I know I don’t write much that would warrant many comments, but I don’t like people being discouraged from the network altogether.

      • Andy

        Yay! Happy new year!

        The problem I had was that it didn’t seem to want to let me type anything in the comment box. But now it just works – although it’s not obvious until you start typing because the “enter comment here” text stays there and the cursor is invisible. (But the white text on grey for the notify buttons below the form is near-impossible to see). Anyway, works for me now – so that’s all that really matters hey?

        • Kylie Sturgess

          Hello! Thank you! I don’t know how to change the colours, I might go see if I can do something about that later?

  • Andy

    While the difference in style is more than obvious, I’m at a loss to see the practical difference in what Novella appears to advocate and what Myers claims to want.

    Novella says skepticism can address the testable claims of religion. Myers says religion makes a mountain of testable claims. Someone else, in the Novella comments, says that no religious person really cares much about the airy-fairy non-testable claims and Novella agrees. But somewhere, among all this, religion is somehow out of bounds for skepticism and now, were not to mention “accommodationism” either.

    I understand that Myers has, in recent years, become apparently resistant to opposition to his position on “political” issues (and feminism is probably the shining example here) to the point of adopting a “with us or against us” mentality on those issues and openly eviscerating anyone who doesn’t toe his party line. Dare to cast a word of doubt on the evil that was “elevatorgate”, and “you’re out!” – even if you’re a woman (or Richard Dawkins), it seems.

    But I’m not entirely sure where he’s wrong on the issue of the seemingly obvious crossover of skepticism and atheism.

    I need practical examples of where either of the two is “wrong” or at least, precisely where they differ.

    For example, the Ottawa Cancer Foundation has invited anti-vaxxer Jenny McCarthy to headline their next fundraiser. This has, naturally, caused uproar in the skeptical community. But, if she’s employed as a fitness instructor, and not to speak about medicine, should the skeptical community leave it be – because her views on other issues, wrong or not, aren’t relevant here?

    Or, and I think I’ve asked this before… should skeptics leave reiki and homeopathy alone since they are, for all intents and purposes, religious practices?

    • Mike Kelly

      Hi Andy

      I believe you’re misinterpreting SN’s statement: When someone retreats to a faith alone position (eg I know this because I had a vision) then there’s no point in further discussion. However both Reiki and homeopathy make testable claims of treating disease (that have been repeatedly tested and shown to be false) and while they may be defined as religious, they are not out of bounds as far as those claims go. If a reiki practitioner makes a claim for “spiritual health” that can’t be detected by physical investigation then they are off the map and no longer to be credited with an argument.