What is a Skeptic, and am I one? Part 1: Defining Skepticism

I have been wondering of late if I am merely sceptical – demanding to see evidence – or whether I should in fact identify as a member of the Skeptical community. This was triggered by a couple of people – with entirely complimentary intent – suggesting that I am a Skeptic, and because it’s an area of interest for me academically I thought it would be appropriate to reflect on the question and thus clarify my own position in relation to my research.

I shall start by saying that I have never attended a Skeptical event, although I have met people who self-describe as Skeptics at other events and regularly speak to people online, and I do regularly listen to a couple of Skeptical podcasts. The limit of my contribution to the Skeptical community so far has been my blog post on my research into the 10:23 campaign, which has been picked up by a couple of Skeptical outlets.

My intention is to explore Skepticism in a variety of different ways over a number of blog posts. I’m going to start with self-definition and self-description, but I’m also going to look at negative definitions (what Skeptics aren’t), the epistemology of the Skeptic (what methods of assessing claims do Skeptics use?), some sociology of the Skepticism (is it a movement? a community?), some history (where did Skepticism come from?) and possibly even some social psychology.

Given that I have also been accused of being a constructivist, I find it natural to start by looking at how people define the terms. Those of you who are particularly awake will notice that I have differentiated scepticism and Skepticism; this is because I think it’s possible to be sceptical without being Skeptical, and because the latter is effective a proper noun as opposed to adjective or verb. The term has American origins (hence the ‘k’), and I’m capitalising to make it clear I’m talking about a specific group of people. I’ve done a brief assessment of definitions of Skepticism by the simple expedient of typing “what is a skeptic” into google and surveying the first few matches.

Brian Dunning (host of Skeptoid, a Skeptical podcast and website) defines Skepticism as “the process of applying reason and critical thinking to determine validity. It’s the process of finding a supported conclusion, not the justification of a preconceived conclusion.” He also uses the term “critical thinker” as a synonym for the term.

Skeptic.com describe Skepticism:

“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.” (Skeptic.com)

Young Australia Skeptics describe a Skeptic as “… an individual who approaches every claim with a degree of scepticism proportional to its plausibility”. They then go on to quote Dr Stephen Novella of the New England Skeptical Society:

“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.”

Oxford Skeptics in the Pub summarise Stephen Novella’s definition as “an intellectual specialty that is grounded in science and the humanities and includes any knowledge that deals with the nature of knowledge and belief, critical thinking, the foibles of the human intellect, and deception”.

UK Skeptics explore what they mean by Skepticism very carefully, focussing on “doubt and inquiry” as the core of the method, which they define as akin to the scientific method. Milton Keynes Skeptics in the Pub define it as “the place where science education intersects consumer protection. There are other definitions which use words like rationalism and critical thinking. It is, essentially, a position in which claims (particularly extraordinary ones) are not accepted unless they can be verified, or falsified, though use of the scientific method”.

So although there are lots of differences between the wordings used, I think the definitions have some common features, and I think it can be reduced to the following:

Skepticism is a provisional method, process or approach that values critical thinking, rationalism and the scientific method above comfort, convenience, belief and preconception when assessing claims about the nature of reality, and which demands evidence or support proportional to the magnitude of the claim being made before it is accepted.

A Skeptic, therefore, by this definition, is someone who subscribes to that method and those values, applies them in their life and (optionally) promotes such approaches to those around them.

I think I can subscribe to the definition I’ve outlined above, in which case, in the answer to “am I a Skeptic?” is Yes, by that definition I would self-identify as a Skeptic. However, I think there is more to Skepticism than a mere self-description, not least because, surely, there cannot be many people who would not subscribe to that definition.

So, when is a Skeptic really a Skeptic? Next time, I shall look at negative definitions: defining the Skeptic identity by reference to what a Skeptic isn’t.

I welcome critical feedback on what I write, so please feel free to comment on my definition and help me to further improve it!


About David Waldock

Open University graduate, health and life science at undergraduate level, science and society at post-graduate. Interested in how the Internet is transforming the ways in which the public(s) engage with science(s). Also interested in "the skeptical movement" as a form of science activism and it's effectiveness in achieving its goals. Interested in the representation of LGB types in science and in the periscience communities. Work for a well known and loved public institution. Views are mine and not necessarily my employers.

2 responses to “What is a Skeptic, and am I one? Part 1: Defining Skepticism”

  1. cpezaro says :

    Dammit, you’ve written the post I wanted to write, which will be part of the intro to my PhD! Well spoken. I too define “scepticism” and “Skepticism” in those ways. I look forward to reading the next few posts in the series. I hope you won’t mind when I write something similar in my own blog!

    • davidwaldock says :

      Not in the slightest. I started writing it then got very discouraged but might start again.

      I look forward to reading your blog post and your PhD thesis 😉

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