Friday, May 29, 2009

WTF is a Skeptic? (or for those with an aversion to profanity: WTH is a Skeptic?)

A skeptic or being skeptical or having skepticism holds different meanings for different people. I most often hear those words used as a negative. "Oh, you are just being skeptical." or "Don't be such a skeptic." I'd find that amusing if I didn't find it ignorant and insulting especially coming from people who know me. I think part of this reaction comes from the sometimes poor way in which I express myself but another part of that might be that some people just don't want their illusions dispelled.

I'm not sure if skepticism is technically or philosophically different or the same as critical thinking. Perhaps another post is in order on that topic. Feel free to go here and discuss it (you may have to become a fan of Mully410 to get into the discussion board). I think the general perception is that being a skeptic is negative and critical thinking either is not negative or isn't as negative...but I digress. defines Skeptic:


1. a person who questions the validity or authenticity of something purporting to be factual.

2. a person who maintains a doubting attitude, as toward values, plans, statements, or the character of others.

Merriam-Webster provides an etymology: "Latin or Greek; Latin scepticus, from Greek skeptikos, from skeptikos thoughtful, from skeptesthai to look, consider"

And a definition of Skepticism from M-W:

1: an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object

2 a: the doctrine that true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain b: the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism characteristic of skeptics

Dr. Novella's definition is more technical and complete. This one might not fly well at every dinner party because of it's length:

"A skeptic is one who prefers beliefs and conclusions that are reliable and valid to ones that are comforting or convenient, and therefore rigorously and openly applies the methods of science and reason to all empirical claims, especially their own. A skeptic provisionally proportions acceptance of any claim to valid logic and a fair and thorough assessment of available evidence, and studies the pitfalls of human reason and the mechanisms of deception so as to avoid being deceived by others or themselves. Skepticism values method over any particular conclusion." -Steven Novella - MD

I fail to see how anyone can have a valid logical reason for the belief that being a skeptic, being skeptical or having skepticism is negative. In fact, I'm very confident that EVERYONE is a skeptic. Don't believe the tooth fairy left you 50 cents for your lost tooth...skeptic. Don't believe the herbal supplement on the TV commercial will cure your baldness...skeptic. Don't believe the skeptic who says your god/God/gods probably aren't real...skeptic.

I think the best definition of skeptic comes from Michael Shermer at Skeptic Magazine:

Skepticism is a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas — no sacred cows allowed. In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position. Ideally, skeptics do not go into an investigation closed to the possibility that a phenomenon might be real or that a claim might be true. When we say we are “skeptical,” we mean that we must see compelling evidence before we believe.

That is how I view the world. I take a provisional/tentative approach to claims. I'm ok with saying "I don't know." You make a claim, let's talk about the facts and the evidence. I may not even have a position on the story your heard from some guy who you met who knows some guy who saw such and such. I want you to think.

I strongly encourage all of my readers to read the brief introduction and a skeptical manifesto at Skeptic Magazine. This means all of you. If you don't consider yourself a skeptic, you will learn something. If you already consider yourself a skeptic, you may learn better ways to education your friends, colleagues and acquaintances.

Sum Ergo Cogito —
I Am Therefore I Think


  1. I think skepticism and critical thinking are two related/overlapping but different things. (Shameless plug alert!) See this post about skepticism vs. critical thinking on my blog, The Thinker.

  2. @Jeffrey: Thanks for the comment and thanks for the shameless plug. You wrote and excellent post. I try to be more of this kind of skeptic:

    "Skeptics could, if they chose, be evangelists for critical thinking in general rather than just their historically more narrow focus."

    I also like the Miller quote. I'm going to have to spend some more time on your post. Lots of good links and info. It will make me smarter and I like that.

  3. Hi Mully
    This is a good post. I think that definition (esp. the 2nd part) explains the negative connotations attached to the word. I find it ironic that you use the quote about evangelists - who doesn't want to be persuasive? who doesn't want to have a strong following, etc. Certainly Christian preachers do. Good luck if yo uever decide to form your own congregation

  4. @Ray: Thanks for the kind words and for reading my blog. I took the context of Jeffery's use of "evangelical" as more of marketing or advertising, not your stereotypical evangelical christian.


Be critical. Be nice.

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