Friday, March 19, 2010

I want my damned word back, you bastards!

One of the more troubling things about being a skeptic is the word itself.


I don't really even use it that much apart from the blog title and colloquially when amongst my own kind (Sounds like a coven of vampires or something, doesn't it?) say at Skeptics in the Pub.  Under these circumstances it is both the accepted shorthand term, and on that turf it's not a loaded term.

But out in the real world it means something else, doesn't it?

For starters there are the general negative implications that gets associated with the word.  "You don't believe anything, do you?"  "Skepticism?  That's just gussied up cynicism."  "There's no real difference between skeptics and nay-sayers." and "Skeptics?  They just want an excuse for acting like assholes."  If you self-identify as a skeptic, you've probably heard variations on all of these.  While I am up to challenging any of them face to face, there are far more people who I will never have the chance to change the minds of about the implications of the word.
As a result I generally try to use the terms "rationalism", "critical thinking" and their various derivatives.

One could argue that that represents my own baggage as much as anything - so be it.  But there is another semantic clusterfuck that really gets my goat, and I don't think it's a measure of my insecurity.  Those who know the difference refer to the transgressors as "pseudo-skeptics" - those self-identified skeptics who don't really understand the distinction between the wanton questioning of anything and everything that rubs them wrong, and the questioning of everything based on logic and evidence.
To be as fair as I can be, in most cases pseudo-skeptics think they are following the rules of logic and reason, but their notion of evidence and fallacy is broken.

Among the most notorious pseudoskeptical sub-sets are: those who are "skeptical" of big-pharma and the established scientific health industry; 9/11 truthers who are "skeptical" of the standard explanation of the attacks; moon-landing "skeptics"; and of course the dreaded "Global Warming Skeptics."

There are some very common errors made by the folk who wear these stripes.  One of the most regular is a complete misunderstanding of the principle of Occam's Razor.  They never quite grasp the key notion of "simplest explanation."  In their minds "it was an inside job" is simpler than "a militant group of extremists exploited the weaknesses in airline security and through a combination of cunning and un-foreseen cirumstances on the part of their targets perpetrated the most viscerally stunning attack imaginable on key targets in the United States."  It may be simpler to say the former, but more unsubstantiated assumptions need to be made in order for it to be the correct answer.  Pseudo-skeptics also seem to have an infinite ability for not recognizing their own straw-men.  To be fair, there are circumstances where it can be a very confusing fallacy to wrap your head around - it can seductively draw many a discussion off the straight and narrow.  There is also often a strong reliance on proving negatives and it's bed-buddy the argument from ignorance.

Much of the motivation of pseudo-skeptics seems to stem from a brand of fear, and a desire for control - or the illusion thereof - of ones' circumstances.  Look at the three sub-demographics I mentioned above and you'll notice that all of them have an element of historical distrust of authority.  I don't claim that this is the only road in, but from where I stand it appears to be the predominant one.

In any case, these people call themselves "skeptics."  I can't imagine that they'd ever embrace the term "pseudo-skeptics" - as if "skeptic" itself didn't bear enough negative connotations.  And by taking the term "skeptic" they undermine the standing of those of us who bear it in a scientific, logic, reason and evidence based light.  And if you haven't guessed, it pisses the hell out of me.  But in this I am consigned to failure.  They aren't the only people out there besmirching our good name, they are simply the ones who give me the best argument for avoiding using the word "skeptic" when identifying my world-view in front of the un-washed.

The erroding of the foundation of our terminology a step further are those who mistakenly identify scientific skeptics as pseudo-skeptics.  I don't know if this is deliberate - as they, like me, think that adding "pseudo" to the beginning belittles the term further - or if it is out of abject ignorance.  A quick trip through the google-sphere seems to show that the majority of these sorts are advocates of religion, the afterlife, and NDEs.  Based on a propensity for ad hominem attacks (We are all sheeple, you do know that, right?), I'm going to go with a combination of ignorance and malice.

This is really just funny by right of accident and irony.

The link above to NDE's gives this definition of "skeptic": A true skeptic, as defined by the philosophers of ancient Greece, is a nonbeliever - a person who does not make conclusions based on evidence that is inconclusive. Errr... no.  A not very complex search for the definition will quickly lead you to the original source of the Greek philosophy of skepticism - originally called pyrrhonism - which "disputed the possibility of attaining truth by sensory apprehension, reason, or the two combined, and thence inferred the need for total suspension of judgment (epoché) on things.  [NOTE: Seriously.  What is it with people's extreme laziness to do even a modicum of research?  I was lazy and it took me about 2 minutes to find and add those 2 links.  Admittedly I knew what I was looking for, so calling it "research" is a bit of a stretch.]

In actual fact the definition provided by the NDE website is actually closer to modern scientific skepticism than the original Greek definition.  But there is one key error - refering to us as "non-believers."  I think technically, we all have to believe in something, but that's really not my point.  We DO believe in something - that truth can best be determined by following logic and evidence.  Pseudo-skeptics, on the other hand, have a surface understanding of the tools of skepticism and inadequately leverage them to support their own pre-determined beliefs.  I'm not pretending that that isn't an easy trap to fall into on occassion, and that IS why one should be skeptical even of their own skepticism on occassion (I emphasize "on occassion" - to go back to the beginning repeatedly can only serve to paralyse one's self intellectually.)
I think that one can make the argumment that to practice skepticism properly, one is by definition passively being skeptical about the skepticism on an on-going basis.  By heading down new paths of skepticism and following new lines of inquiry you open up the doors to proving your past determinations to be false - or at least contradictory to new information.  And this requires one to systematically return to the beginning of both the old and the new and try to determine a point of reconciliation.  This is not the process of the pseudo-skeptic.  The starting point is always the conclusion.

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