Skepticism is Not a Four Letter Word

keep-calm-and-question-everything-3“All a skeptic is, is someone who hasn’t had an experience yet.”—Jason Hawes

I don’t know where or when he said it, but I have no doubt that he did.  It was either some quip of wisdom from his TV show, ‘Ghost Hunters’, or a darling from one of the eight books attributed to him (and other authors).

Hawes is a loud voice on the side of the “believer”, as opposed to the “skeptic”.  He has much influence over the opinions of a great many people, people who in many cases are my peers.  His characterisation of the skeptic as one who is simply mistaken or whom has just not had their eyes opened is offensive to me.

Hawes and his colleagues, as well as their throngs of fans, really only highlight the issue, an issue that doesn’t begin with them, but rather is just furthered by them.  It would be easy to just call it credulity, which in some cases might not be far off the mark, but it’s really not about that.  It’s about a tendency to label certain groups, stereotyping and maligning people who display certain characteristics, characteristics that don’t conform to the values of the person or group doing the labelling.

We all do it, even the best of us, but few among us are willing to put it in writing for all to see (and to copy relentlessly across website after website), such as Hawes has done.  It’s the basis of racism, ageism, and well, pretty much any -ism you can think of, and this example is no different.  It is, undeniably, Hawes expressing his dislike of skepticism (perhaps an –ism that doesn’t qualify as above).  He, along with many in the ghost hunting community, as well as the general paranormal or Fortean communities, take exception to anyone using the title skeptic, or using the obvious methods of skepticism in their approach to the subjects held therein.

There’s another side to this coin though, one populated with pseudo-celebrities and rock-star scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson or Richard Dawkins.  This is the other extreme – beyond a mere lack of belief – denial becomes the order of the day.  On its face it’s the promotion of science, reason and critical thinking, but in many cases it amounts to little more than denial and harsh criticism of people who don’t belong to this group.

These labels though, are not accurate and are very unhelpful, if not harmful.

I’m a skeptic, through and through.  I find no value in believing a thing without evidence in support of it and I fully agree with the statement “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.  I also identify as an atheist, which has a very specific meaning, though many would like it to mean something completely different than it does.

As I’ve mentioned recently, I dislike the way the word skeptic is used these days, and that dislike is embodied in both Jason Hawes remark above and in the labels we all assign to groups of people who don’t necessarily represent the true meaning of the word.

On one side of this particular coin are people like Hawes, who see skepticism as a dirty word, as an enemy, as a thing to guard against.  The other side uses the word as a weapon against incredulity and hoax.  Both, however, seem to get it wrong (at least on the surface).

Sharon Hill, over at Doubtful News, recently published an excellent article laying out exactly what being skeptical means, and doesn’t mean.  I’ll not reproduce her efforts here, but suffice it to say, she hit the nail on the head, and drove it home.  Skepticism is a way of doing things, it’s not club to which one might belong, declaring one’s loyalty to the narrow views of some elite cabal of intellectuals.  It’s also not an enemy to the field of paranormal research.  It is, in fact, the only way progress will ever be made in our collective research efforts.

My dislike of the way in which this word is used these days is rooted in the call, it seems, that everyone and anyone whose ideas aren’t readily accepted screams into the internet, claiming that the skeptics aren’t giving them their due.  The situation with Melba Ketchum comes to mind, though it’s a common thing in our world.

The thing is though, skepticism is something we all practise, it’s something we all must use in our struggle to survive this world, and it most definitely is something we all should be applying to our interests, whether they be Fortean or scientific (or both).  There are certain elements though, certain characters on both sides of the line, who use the term skeptic as a way of defining the worth of individuals, and this is an egregious error.

I, too, have been maligned by people on both sides, one because I approach things skeptically, the other because I identify with a community that is unfairly characterised by blind faith to unproven ideas.  Believe it or not, but in my case this is actually by design, partly at least.

To paraphrase the eternally witty Groucho Marx: “I choose not to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”  Or perhaps the wisdom of my namesake better fits the situation:

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect.” – Mark Twain

I choose not to buy into the argument from either side, and I resent the idea that my view on certain subjects is invalid because of the misuse of a simple word.

I am skeptical, but I am not a skeptic.  I believe, but I am not a believer.

The quote that opened this piece is in error.  Were I to have an experience, as though it’s a foregone conclusion that I haven’t already, it would not change the nature of my approach to the subjects that hold my interest.  I will still review evidence with an eye toward mistakes and bias.  I will still value that which can be quantified over that which cannot.  I will still measure the credibility of a source before I accept it as true.

I will still be skeptical, but I will not be a skeptic.

As mentioned above, I identify as an atheist, and as is well laid out in the Doubtful News article linked above, skepticism is not equal to atheism, and vice versa.  The one may be the result of the other, or they may not be related in any way, but one who calls themselves either, cannot automatically be labelled the other by association.

I foresee a good deal of discussion sparked by my words on this topic, and I really don’t know if this piece has a purpose, beyond an aimless rant delivered from my soap box (as it’s been called in the past), but I leave you with the following in the hope that it tempers your responses:

Disagreement doesn’t equal disrespect. Saying ‘no’ is not rude. Thinking for yourself is not blasphemy.

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Martin J. Clemens

Writer, Canadian, Fortean Addict...and lover of science and history. "As for me...I know only, that I know nothing..." I also blog at www.dailygrail.com and mysteriousuniverse.org
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  • idoubtit

    I don’t mind being called a “skeptic”, I think it’s part of who I am and we need to reclaim the term as the rational members of the discussion, not the dismissive ones. I’m dismissive of stupid stuff – Ghost Hunters and Finding Bigfoot, for example. They are insulting to intelligent people, skeptical or not.

    Ultimately, skepticism is applied to get to the MOST ACCURATE, most REASONABLE answer. Hawes has zero interest in doing that. He just wants to keep his TV show and career interesting which means to squash down anyone critical of his ridiculous premises.

  • http://twitter.com/billy_mavreas billy_mavreas (@billy_mavreas)

    thank you for this post

    i don’t watch any of the tv shows surrounding paranormal topics
    but i do peruse and comment on paranormal blogs. i limit my involvement to those blogs that are reasonable in tone but considerably more on the proponent side of the room than the capitol S skeptic side of the room.

    of course, there is much discussion centered around those shout-y types that are more debunker than skeptic but who use that word as if it meant something particular , as if it meant having zero tolerance for certain considerations.

    i have started taking slight offence to any kind of us and them discourse. the type that says ‘all skeptics are ….’ or ‘all believers are….’. very counter productive.

    i know the best scientists studying psi, for example are skeptics. they have to be. it’s their job.
    i also know the most vocal ‘skeptics’ have their minds made up and are not too keen to question, wonder, etc.

    it’s now time to find a place where reasonable people can discuss topics that interest them, whether they agree or not is of little issue.

    blog posts like this are suggestions of that place and i applaud it.

  • Doomshroom

    Excellent writing Martin!

    I do call mysel a skeptic, though I don’t really buy the stuff some of the most notable mediaskeptics think and write about. I like to think myself.
    I myself do watch the paranoral shows on television, but to me they are only entertainment, never really seen them as anything else. Ghost Adventures f.ex. is pure comedy gold ;)

  • http://www.dailygrail.com Red Pill Junkie

    Well put, Martin.

    I’ve observed as the years progress, that my somewhat iconoclastic nature draws me to take the minority side of a given argument. When I’m commenting on sites that are of a more skeptic nature, I defend the Fortean argument. But on sites like The Daily Grail, I often play the role of skeptic against the members who are all-too-ready to accept information unquestioningly.

  • http://mospiritseekers.wordpress.com Patrick Keller

    I read and commented on Sharon’s article and have developed an appreciation for her thoughts and the thoughts of both “skeptics” and “skeptics”. :-) We just need to learn to be nicer and more accepting of others. Great post!

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  • http://baldscientist.wordpress.com Baldscientist

    (:-)