If you’re relatively new to the skeptic movement, you may be confused by the various ways in which the word skeptic is used. If you’re a veteran of movement skepticism (Armchair and Ardent, I’m looking at you guys) then you may be frustrated to the point of distraction by the various ways in which the word skeptic is used. I cannot hope to help those in the latter category, but for those in the former, I’d like to offer a few thoughts on what I would consider the three most helpful usages of the term.
The Dictionary Skeptic
By “dictionary skeptic” I mean whatever concept native speakers of English intend to convey most of the time they invoke the word “skeptic” in everyday speech.
This meaning has evolved significantly over time, as you can see by comparing Webster’s reportive definitions from 1828, 1913, and today. These days the term has drifted away from its roots in religion and philosophy to denote any person who questions or doubts any particular idea. One may be a skeptic of perfectly well-grounded ideas such as the efficacy of vaccination, the reality of climate change, and the role of HIV in causing AIDS. I know this hurts the ears of many self-identified skeptical activists to hear the word used in this way, but we are not nearly so numerous as to simply change English usage in our favor. I remain fairly skeptical as to whether that sort of linguistic prescriptivism would even be a good idea in general, though I personally prefer to call someone a science denialist whenever they refuse to accept that which has been strongly and repeatedly validated.
The Scientific Skeptic
Ever since the rise of organized skepticism around the mid-70’s, we’ve had a relatively narrowly focused idea of what it means to do scientific skepticism. Typically, the idea is to focus on empirically testable claims, especially the sort of extraordinary claims put forward by hucksters with something to sell, as well as spiritual- and conspiracy-minded folk who believe they are in on some great secret about how the world really works. Anti-vax activists, breatharians, cryptozoologists, dowsers, essential oils, faith healers, ghost hunters, and homeopaths all make testable claims about phenomena which we ought to be able to observe and measure in the real world. The role of the scientific skeptic is to rigorously test these claims and report to the public about what (not) to believe, based on the outcome of this testing.
The above image was originally created by Tim Farley for a blog post entitled My Skeptic Elevator Pitch,which has everything to do with what we know as organized skepticism, and nothing to do with asking anyone out for coffee. It is not intended to be “a full and accurate description” of all that scientific skeptics strive to do, but rather a quick and dirty visualization of our core mission. Arguably, the focus on citizens as consumers is overly narrow, since we want to protect people from anti-scientific ideas and methodologies even in the rare case that they are being given away for free. Then again, there are always opportunity costs to be considered. Foregoing science-based methods in favor of faith-based woo can impose costs up to and including a reduced lifespan. Bearing this in mind, I would slightly tweak Farley’s pitch when making my own: “Skeptics help people learn from science how to avoid spending time and effort on products, services, and ideas which do not work.”
The Thoroughgoing Skeptic
Whereas the Dictionary Skeptic may doubt anything whatsoever and the Scientific Skeptic confines her skeptical inquiry to claims which can be empirically tested, the Thoroughgoing Skeptic avoids both the willy-nilliness of the former approach and the strict empiricism of the latter. Her skepticism is not focused on well-established claims (the potential downfall of the Dictionary Skeptic) nor is it limited to the sort of claims which may be tested under controlled conditions (as with Scientific Skeptic). Instead, the Thoroughgoing Skeptic strives to apportion each and every belief to the relevant available evidence, even when that evidence is not the sort of evidence that would appear in scientific journals. If you ask a Thoroughgoing Skeptic whether any immaterial minds (gods, souls, spirits, ancestors) exist, she will be able to tell you why she is skeptical, even though it is a not a question into which scientific inquiry has seriously delved. If you ask a Thoroughgoing Skeptic whether Jesus of Nazareth actually existed, she would be able to say which parts of the Christian mythology are historically plausible, even though there is no way to reliably replicate the conditions of first century Roman Judæa. If you ask a Thoroughgoing Skeptic whether Reformed Epistemology or the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism is a good way to approach reality, she will try to give a well-reasoned answer even though there is probably no way to set up a Million Dollar Challenge to test it out.
I would argue (without consulting the advisory board on this) that the term “Skeptic” in “Skeptic Ink” probably invokes this last usage, since the network as a whole often takes on issues outside the remit of traditional scientific skepticism in at least two or three of our five canonical categories, which are skepticism, science, philosophy, atheism, and secularism. I would also argue that this approach is probably for the best, but you are welcome to doubt this conclusion, my skeptical friend.