Wednesday, March 25, 2009

What makes someone a skeptic? What makes someone a denialist?

I've previously tried to answer the question, "What is Skepticism?" I'll try not too cover too much of that same information here, but what makes someone a skeptic? What sets a skeptic apart from the general populace?

"What are you skeptical about?"
Probably the most common question asked at the Salt City Skeptics events by those not familiar with skeptical movement is, "So, what are you skeptical about?"

Now, I won't deny that many skeptics have pet issues, such as the evolution/creationism debate or psychics or alternative medicine. But every time I'm asked this question, it throws me off a little. I should be prepared for it by now, but I'm always caught off-guard. I've answered "well... everything!" before. But this is not a satisfactory answer, as it implies that skeptics are jerky curmudgeons who go around saying "I don't believe that" to everything they hear. To say one is skeptical of "everything" doesn't adequately communicate the process of skepticism. Skepticism is a filter; a toolkit: the pocket-version of the scientific method.

Due to a large overlap between the skeptical community and the atheist/agnostic/nonreligious community (to me, for instance, skepticism is a big part of, perhaps even synonymous with, "freethinking"), I've heard other people respond to this question with answers like "religion." While it's true that to most skeptics, religious beliefs are not immune to their skeptical eye, and indeed for many (such as myself) it's one of those pet areas that gets a lot of attention, But to me, setting oneself up as a "[insert topic here] skeptic" implies that some ideas, those that are not x, may be immune from skeptical inquiry.

Denialism is not skepticism
There's another issue at play here, though. My BIGGEST pet peeve is the self-application of the label "skeptic" by people who reject scientific inquiry or evidence that contradicts their viewpoint. This is the very antithesis of skepticism.

Be wary whenever you see someone call themself an "x-skeptic." This person is almost certainly an x-denialist instead. I've heard creationists call themselves "evolution skeptics." Another I've heard is "9-11 skeptics," which certainly sounds a lot friendlier than "paranoid antisemitic conspiracy theorist." It's pretty safe to just say you're "skeptical of the evidence," and using the term adds an air of reason to an unreasoned proposition. The problem is that the evidence is not on the side of these "skeptics." They deny the mountains of evidence in opposition to their claim. This makes them denialists.

Fun (and depressing) Experiment!
One group of denialists has been particularly successful at usurping the term "skeptic" for their antiscience agenda.

Let do an experiment: Open a new browser tab and perform a Google search on the term "skeptics." What do you find? For the lazy, the top ten results include Skeptic magazine, Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, the Skeptic's Annotated Bible (which is, by the way, rad... Yes, I just said "rad"), and other links very much in line with the skeptical movement; viz. science, rationalism and critical thinking.

Now, go to a daily newspaper's website and search for "skeptics." What do you find? You'll find that the term is used by the media in a very different way. I chose the New York Times. The top 10 results are nearly all about climate change.

"Climate Change Skeptics"
Far and away the most prevalent group of these "x-skeptic" denialsts are global warming or climate change "skeptics." Indeed so successful has this group of faux skeptics been at usurping the term that most of the headlines in the NYT search above do not even reference climate change, but simply use the term "skeptic" on its own. (For instance, the article "Lessons from the Skeptics' Conference" is not about The Amaz!ng Meeting, but rather a climate change denial conference).

Here are the first two paragraphs from an article entitled "Skeptics Dispute Climate Worries and Each Other":
More than 600 self-professed climate skeptics are meeting in a Times Square hotel this week to challenge what has become a broad scientific and political consensus: that without big changes in energy choices, humans will dangerously heat up the planet.

The three-day International Conference on Climate Change — organized by the Heartland Institute, a nonprofit group seeking deregulation and unfettered markets — brings together political figures, conservative campaigners, scientists, an Apollo astronaut and the president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus.
Sigh... First, I'd like to point out that a group committed to deregulation and "unfettered markets" can hardly be said to be objective on a topic with severe market policy implications. One's associations don't automatically invalidate one's evidence, of course, but it's of note how often groups with a financial stake in climate policy come out swinging on the "global warming is a hoax" team.

The article is quite right when it says that there is a "broad scientific and political consensus" about anthropogenic climate change and the need to curb it. That broad consensus is why most skeptics accept global warming. Because it's about evidence. On this issue, the evidence is in. And it keeps getting stronger. Each successive report from the IPCC, (the Nobel Prize-winning international team of climate experts most comprehensive studying global warming) is more conclusive, leaving less and less uncertainty for the denialsts to hide.

And oh how denialists love to hide in uncertainty. But this comes from a fundamental misunderstanding, whether by choice or by ignorance, of the very way science works. Science is ALWAYS uncertain. ALWAYS tentative. ALWAYS open to new evidence that will tweak or revolutionize our understanding on a given topic. That is how science WORKS. Hiding in a sliver of uncertainty is precisely the opposite of skepticism.

This is unfortunate. I worry sometimes that when I call myself a skeptic people assume that I'm an anti-science global warming denialist. I mean, I run a group with "Skeptics" in the name, and even I nearly cringe whenever I mention the term to someone, in part because of the word's associate with climate change denial. Luckily, I try to use this as an opportunity to show that skepticism -- real, solid, honest skepticism -- is awesome.

UPDATED 3/26, 01:20: Run a damn spell check BEFORE you post next time, stupid.


  1. Very well put! Thank you for the article! I always get weird and different looks when I use the term "Skeptic". Eyes start glazing over when I try to tell them about using the scientific method to analyze things we encounter. Great resources here for those who ask in sincere curiosity.

  2. Hello, very useful to me all the information that is on this page, especially the one related to this information What makes someone a skeptic? What makes someone a denialist?