Several people have asked me to explain why I now reject “Skeptic” to describe myself. In short, the label is limiting and is overwrought with mistaken assumptions of being elitist, arrogant, and closed-minded. Unfortunately, being labeled a Skeptic sends a signal to some to tune out what I might say by default because of the association with having a dismissive, know-it-all attitude, defeating any efforts at meaningful exchange over questionable claims.
The philosophy and process of scientific skepticism should be the unifying connection for the network of people who label themselves “Skeptics” and who participate in the associated activities and behaviors. I can’t see a clear mission or positive coherent message that unites Skeptics. This ongoing problem worsened in the past 10 years, reaching its low about 5 years ago with scandal, factions, and boycotts in what appeared to me to be a failure in leadership.
In 2000, when I first participated in this circle, the skeptical community was almost entirely older white men and professorial figures. Effective lessons on the value of critical thinking were missing from school curricula and the internet. There was scant worthwhile content for communicating critical thinking to kids. There still isn’t much. Material for children, parents and teachers is crucial and must be a primary aim for effective skeptical advocacy. Instead, the topics of CFI/CSI and Skeptic Society are still geared toward an older, educated, elite audience as they were back then. The media content of skepticism still does not include much in the way of women’s interests, does not appeal to minority populations, and the writers and commenters on skeptical media are still overwhelmingly male.
The rise of Skepchick in 2005 was promising and signaled a shift in participation in the skeptical movement of younger, more diverse people. Finally, a rational, science- and logic-based forum existed for women’s issues. But the Skepchicks – experienced in marketing, not science or reasoning – set themselves up as an exclusive club who aimed to be popular and get paid for it. The Skepchickal wave came with gossip, slanderous jabs, overly simplistic science-themed content, and click-bait drama used to get website hits and media attention. This exasperated many who gave up reading about the enemy of the week and trying to follow the hypocritical arguments. The trendy topics were no longer about questionable claims but about social justice and feminism signaling a major mission shift .
Certain spokespeople were not doing the community any favors with their behavior and comments. Big names in science and skepticism blundered into scandals both big and small. That didn’t mean their past work was suddenly nullified yet they were socially punished in social media campaigns from foul-mouthed “science” bloggers and Team Skepchick.
A distinct attitude of scientism exists in skeptical circles. Science was used interchangeably with skepticism and as a weapon. One mantra of skepticism was “Science. It works, bitches” – another example of the tone-deafness of the movement. People who called themselves Skeptics were more prone to state that science can fix any problem regardless of the complexities of social, cultural, and economic disparities.
Added to that was the ever-present derision towards the “woo” believers. People who subscribed to religion or who bought into pseudoscience of all kinds were called “stupid,” “morons,” or “idiots”. The ugliest sentiments were revealed in comments about those who were killed or injured due to lapses in critical judgment – that these people deserved their fate.
When half the American population (with similar numbers in other English-speaking countries) subscribe to at least one paranormal belief, it seems foolish to mock or ignore these topics. I saw little in the way of empathy in trying to understand other belief systems and few attempts to find novel but moderate approaches to relate to them. The disagreeableness of “Skeptics” was displayed all over various media.
Meanwhile, the primary skeptical media was stagnant and old-fashioned. Magazines and newsletters were still primary vehicles for skeptical content . I found (the U.S.) Skeptic Magazine unreadable . Lately, Skeptical Inquirer also fails to interest me. The organizations invested sparingly in technology, modern web design, video, and public relations. Now, most conference talks don’t even make it to YouTube – the popular way for people under 35 to get video content! A few vibrant voices that could be fine spokespeople are subordinated behind celebrity scientists on the Skeptical marquee. The media and public craved a skeptical voice on topics ranging from the paranormal to political platforms , yet there wasn’t a framework in place to provide those voices. You will find several vulgar, unfamiliar voices touting a very different version of the “Skeptic movement” on YouTube and social media. Highly motivated for ad revenue and focused entirely on socio-political issues, this version of “Skeptic” is yet another reason for me to eschew the label.
Atheism adherence and advocacy, a separate and narrower niche, continues to be conflated with skepticism, which holds back the expansion of useful science- and reason-based ideas to broad audiences. CFI merged with the Richard Dawkins Foundation in 2016 which I saw as another sign of the solidification of an atheist agenda. CFI already was heavily emphasizing humanism (and atheism) in their content even though there were other societies that promoted these issues. What was needed was an organization exclusive to advocating for critical thinking in society focusing on topical subjects for a wide spectrum of people. The merge with Dawkins signaled an appeal to the atheistic, University-educated base, which moved Skepticism, as a brand, more towards the negative stereotype of scientistic, elitist anti-religionists.
Conferences were the main event for the year. These huge investments of time and money delivered the same messages again and again, praising science and skeptical ideals. Soon after the JREF folded, CFI took over the Las Vegas “Amazing Meeting” (TAM) format . How unoriginal. Year after year, skeptical events across the world featured many of the same speakers and science evangelism for the niche audience. I lost interest in them.
By 2016, I no longer had any confidence in the organizations representing skepticism. I also felt let down by many in the community who were not the thoughtful people I first assumed they were. While it is unreasonable to impose rules on a loose social set, expecting certain norms to be followed (such as respect, cooperation, and reasonable discourse) is not too much to ask. Drama that transpired at events, online, in the press, and behind closed doors led to many people becoming disgusted with the skeptical circle. Including me. The community did, as some said, “eat its own”.
My ideas and goals were no longer in line with the majority. The idea of being a “Skeptic” has become distasteful . It wasn’t my tribe anymore – I can’t relate to it. And, the trend in social justice, ultra-liberal topics is overtaking the foundational ideas of scientific skepticism in popularity. It may soon overtake it online leaving the organizations left behind to dry up and die unless they adapt to 21st-century media and concerns.
The Skeptic community needs a reset. The current lackluster state of scientific skepticism cannot be mitigated until new leaders of the community define and embrace a solid mission to reach a broad spectrum of society. The old ways don’t work – we have to seek common understanding in order to get anywhere. Efforts that reinforce “otherness,” ignore common ground, and attempt to abolish ideas we think are “dumb” are irrational.
I hope I see the day when skepticism gets a reboot and catches on with a public tired of lies, scams, and nonsense. Until then, I continue to be skeptical as warranted, but please don’t call me a Skeptic.
1. This was no fluke. Go on YouTube and see what the “Skeptic Community” means there. It’s completely different than the community I’m talking about here, consisting of young, diverse men and women posting regular stream-of-consciousness opinion pieces with hundreds of thousands of views.
2. Skeptical Briefs is no longer published.
3. The only good thing in Skeptic Magazine was Junior Skeptic which was stuck in the back of each issue where it got far less attention than it deserved.
4. It can’t just be Bill Nye and Neil Tyson!
5. The JREF was an educational foundation so TAM was scheduled in July to appeal to teachers. CFI moved it to October to coincide with Halloween.
6. In decades past, there was always animosity and upset in skeptical groups. I wonder if there is something inherently unstable about an association of smart, opinionated, and critical people that results in periodic explosions. It seems difficult to get us all on the same wagon and going in the same direction.
7. I will always attempt to adhere to and advocate for the process of skepticism in assessing questionable claims. I still want to know the best answer. I’m not leaning toward the “dark” side (as some have supposed) but we should recognize the value in listening to and respecting what non-skeptics have to tell us about the human experience.
Thanks to Howard Lewis for guidance on the outline for this piece.