Briefly stated, a skeptic is one who is willing to question any claim to truth, asking for clarity in definition, consistency in logic, and adequacy of evidence. The use of skepticism is thus an essential part of objective scientific inquiry and the search for reliable knowledge. — Paul Kurtz in The New Skepticism, 1992, p. 9.
Scepticism, or skepticism, is neither denialism nor a movement. Based on the Greek skeptomai, which means to think or consider, it usually means doubt or incredulity about particular ideas, or a wider view about the impossibility of having certain knowledge. This uncertainty is a philosophical position, and philosophical scepticism includes attempts to deal with it, through systematic doubt and testing of ideas. — “Skeptics and scepticism” – Rebekah Higgitt, The H Word, The Guardian, 2012.
There’s a formal, popular definition which many of you might have come across: sceptic, meaning cynic or doubter. It’s often used in cases where people discuss climate change. That even in the face of evidence, a sceptic will still dismiss a claim. Skeptic is the preferred spelling in American and Canadian English, and sceptic is more often used in other countries… and it seems that they both mean the same thing.
It’s unfortunately one of the issues that come with the term, but it’s very unlikely that it’ll ever change to something else — so the best way to deal with it is to demonstrate how scientific skepticism works (as something different to ‘being a sceptic’ – note the spelling emphasis!) and what skepticism is about. Scientific skepticism involves an approach to knowledge using science and scientific methodology, and understanding how we come to understand things about our world. The emphasis on the “skeptic with a k” developed since the 1970s, a distinction that Daniel Loxton addresses at length in “Why is there a Skeptical Movement”, stemming from a long history of efforts and concerns.
Skepticism also involves investigating paranormal, pseudoscientific beliefs and science denialism, conspiracy theory beliefs and the like. Skepticism is about investigating evidence and sorting the results, finding out what is good, bad or even has no measurable evidence, and what may be done next in regards to further analysis to see if results change.
Skepticism as a part of scientific methodology – without science and the scientific method, there is no skepticism. Skeptics take the approach of methodological naturalism, the investigation of nature as if it is naturalistic and following a methodology that acts within that paradigm – not that there definitely isn’t anything supernatural or beyond the physical or causative world, but instead focusing on ‘How do we know what we know’? What matters is ‘what is the evidence’?
Skepticism is also a method of inquiry, not a set of conclusions or beliefs or faith. This frees you up from tying your reputation or ego to any conclusion: ‘anything I have to say is subject to revision’. After all, we can only know what is the best answer evidence can tell us at the current time, which is always subject to future revision. If there is anything that is termed a ‘belief’ in skepticism, it is that science works – that the last 1000 to 500 years of the
meta-experiment of science, of methodological naturalism has worked well. It is preferable to revealed or authority-from-history; as Carl Sagan put it:
“Science may be hard to understand. It may challenge cherished beliefs. When its products are placed at the disposal of politicians or industrialists, it may lead to weapons of mass destruction and grave threats to the environment. But one thing you have to say about it: it delivers the goods.” – Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World, page 30.
All claims to knowledge should be critically analysed – skeptics should only believe in proportion to the evidence and if someone is making a claim, it is their job to prove that claim and justify it with logic and evidence: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and not all evidence is equal. If you’re making a claim that goes against the established knowledge or wisdom, then you have to at least equal it with the burden of proof – not all propositions are equal. After all, it’s fine to say “I don’t know!”
I have a useful list of reading if you’re interested in more books or research that promotes a skeptical viewpoint; I’m sure as I continue to research, I will find more. Feel free to email me suggestions.