Sunday, May 2, 2010

Science is not Skepticism

Science is not Skepticism, and yet some people seem to be determined to treat skepticism as though it is nothing more than an aspect of science - and THAT is killing skepticism.

If skepticism was analagous to science then we'd call it science and quit the seemingly endless quest for a good elevator pitch as to what skepticism is.

Skepticism cannot be given the blanket definition of being 'science' anymore than it can be defined as being 'understanding the art of illusion.'  Likewise, it is not 'atheism', 'psychology' or (the simple definition I am most guilty of using) 'critical thinking.'  It encompasses all of these and more, but it is not any single one of them.

Recently I have been frustrated.  This has come out in my blogging.  "What blogging?" you ask, "you haven't blogged in weeks!"  That is pretty much true.  I have sat down and begun writing several times and the results haven't been anything I cared to publish.  In some cases they've run out of gas before I'm satisfied with the content - often because I've been feeling a bit of skeptical burnout lately.  (Case in point: Sonya MacLeod had an outrageous post a few weeks ago.  I started in on it, but just didn't have the juice to fight that fight again - just read the post.  Any half-armed skeptic can dissect it easily enough.)  In other cases the result was - ready for this? - TOO vitriolic for me to post.
In one specific case I had been to Skeptics in the Pub and someone asked me the wrong question.  The rant-engine was fired up and I continued until I realized I needed to get out of the public space I was in.  I came home and wrote.  I even hit 'publish' and the post appeared on my Facebook page long enough for networked blogs to pick it up... but I removed it almost as fast.  It was not something I was ready to talk about.

This past week we had the post-mortem on Vancouver SkeptiCamp III.  Late in the meeting it happened again.  I'm not quite sure what was said, but the can of worms was opened and Kennedy was off and running again.  Glad to say that there were a number of people in the room who whole heartedly agreed with me, and that in itself calmed me down.

Where is this going?  Well, for a few nights now I've pondered it as I lay in bed falling asleep and it has finally landed... or begun to, and somewhat reassuringly it relates back to the entire reason I began this blog.  Scientists are ruining skepticism.

Yeah, that's a big statement, and far from true on all counts, but there is something important at the core of it.  It is notable to me that in weeks of paralysing frustration that in the end I've come to see that what has me riled up to the point of uselessness has been one of my main premises from the start.

Science is important to skepticism.  It is one of the most important pillars upon which skepticism is built.  But it is not in and of itself all that skepticism is yet, that seems to be a default position - an unconscious one I suspect - that far too many skeptics fall into. 

If you were to ask me, skepticism's core role (not to be confused with what it is) is about advocating science. 

For simplicity I'll look at my main outlet - writing - in isolation.

If you look at the act of advocacy through writing alone, this is not the same as writing scientific papers.  The very specific technical and precise language used in scientific papers has a purpose - to communicate the idea in as complete and as unambiguous a fashion as possible.  Who reads scientific papers?  Scientists.  And not even all scientists - scientists in the related field(s) as the paper.  These papers are dense, difficult to understand (if you don't have the foundational knowledge), and dull as hell.  They are not for casual consumption.

A step up from this, you get science-specific magazines - the Scientific American ilk - which distill those papers and their ideas and mix them with some personal discussion to make the ideas as presentable as possible to the science-minded amateur and to scientists in un-related disciplines.  Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer (more the latter than the former) often have articles which would be right at home in this level of journalism.  Much more readable, but still not pitched for the average reader.

There seems to be a single pair of interrelated variables.  The more accurate and precise an article is, the less entertaining it will be to read for the common reader, and conversely the more easily consumed the article is, the less it is capable of elucidating the finer points of the scientific matter at hand.  The inverse correlation is not structly fixed.  It is not as though something that is readable by anyone is doomed to be complete bullshit, but the simplification process has inevitable benefit and costs associated with it.

We need to have a spectrum of communication.  We need both the journal articles and abstracts as well as the dumbed down pop-science, and everything in between.  We need it all. 

The simplistic articles are bait to draw people in both generally towards scientific understanding and curiosity, and specifically on whatever subject piques their fancy.  The in depth articles are the detail for those who need to know more - those whose fancy has been piqued.

Yet there are those who not only pitch all their communcation at the level of scientific paper (as is their perogative) but who also take issue with anyone else trying to communicate science on a more generally accessible level.  We CAN NOT afford to do that.  If we don't try to share knowledge in every voice we can muster then we are guilty of keeping it to ourselves.  Not consciously, but that IS what is happening.  And that is how we end up in a culture of anti-intellectualism where scientists are either looked at as modern wizards, keeping arcana to themselves.

Science is so very very important to skepticism, but it is not skepticism in itself.  We should not allow ourselves to look at skepticism as though it is science.  Science needs the ally of skepticism - a separate entity that can do an end-run around the foolishness in the world.  If skepticism is nothing but science, then it is incapable of helping science in any new way, because it has no unique tools of it's own.  But skepticism DOES have unique tools of it's own.  And amongst those tools are the spectrum of voices that speak out in favour of skeptical subjects and reach a wide range of demographics simply becasue they are speaking to people in ways that they are interested in listening to.


  1. Interesting post. I agree - skepticism isn't science, skeptics advocate _for_ science.

    I see skepticism as a vehicle to translate and contextualize science in ways that are meaningful to different audiences. It's not something we can expect science-generators to do. And it's something that scientists, in general, do poorly.

    In my area, health, skepticism has the potential to be powerful vehicle for evidence-based health advocacy and consumer protection.

  2. Thanks Scott.

    Consumer protection - thats a huge aspect of skepticism. As I've been mulling over the details fo this in the past few days that was one element that made my short list (science, critical thinking, psychology etc.) and the only reason I left it out was forgetfulness this morning when I finally got down to writing.

  3. Agreement all over the place. As a popularizer of science with a pretty decent-sized audience, I get plenty of hate mail and the number one argument I get in my hate mail is, “You’re not even a scientist.”

    Eeek! Alert the authorities! Someone is reporting on science WITHOUT BEING A SCIENTIST!

    It is an extremely common assumption that you have to BE a scientist to appreciate, analyze or report on science. Not true, and it’s as stupid as saying that you have to be an author to analyze literature. Like science journalism, skepticism is based on a different skill set, but has a crucial role to play.

  4. "yet some people seem to be determined to treat skepticism as though it is nothing more than an aspect of science - and THAT is killing skepticism."

    Could have sworn you were reading my mind on that one.