Taking Back Skepticism

Skepticism educator James Randi at a ...
Skepticism educator James Randi at a lecture at Rockefeller University, on October 10, 2008. In the above photo he is holding an $800 device advertised as a dowsing instrument. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Conservative Skeptic wrote a thought provoking post, Let's Take Back Skepticism (update: link no longer active), that is sure to divide readers. He raises some interesting questions. For example, can someone buy into a particular ideology so completely that one ceases to be critical of this ideology and still be a skeptic? He says no, and I am inclined to agree. Political orientation is one of the first things that comes to mind. I suspect we all know people who are thoroughly un-skeptical when it comes to the conservative political views or their liberal political views. Such individuals may be skeptical in other areas of their lives, but they are certainly not being skeptical when it comes to their political views.

The most intriguing question was what, if anything, those of us who are committed to skepticism should do about "the pseudo-intellectuals that constantly convey nonsense to the world." I assume he's talking about the drama bloggers who use skepticism when advantageous but refuse to apply it to their ideology. They cloak themselves in the mantle of skepticism and then disseminate information that is thoroughly un-skeptical to an audience who may then form erroneous impressions of skepticism. At the worst, one could imagine how this might come to tarnish public impressions of skepticism.

The question about how (or if) to respond to this sort of thing when it comes from people within our community sounds eerily familiar, doesn't it? I have been conflicted on this question for some time. I think the most accurate way to describe my current approach is that I try to ignore what I feel I can afford to ignore and speak out when I feel I must. How's that for vague and noncommittal? Another way to put it might be to say that I'm on the "ignore them" side until I see something I consider to be harmful or potentially harmful. That would be the point where I might speak up.

Conservative Skeptic appears to be squarely on the side of wanting more skeptics to speak out against the bad ideas being disseminated by these individuals.

What I am asking is that when you see something that you disagree with, no matter where it comes from, speak up. The more voices in this schism the better. Don’t allow anyone to intimidate you into silence. When you see someone attacking an individual or group and disagree, then remain silent, that’s tacit agreement.
I have three concerns here. First, I constantly see things with which I disagree. If I spoke up each and every time, this is all I would be able to do. I'd be one of those assholes you see on Twitter criticizing nearly everything anybody said. I'd leave comments on countless blogs arguing with the author and annoying the readers. Many of the things I see with which I disagree are so incredibly trivial that I would have a difficult time justifying the time I'd need to devote to them. For me to be motivated to speak up, the misinformation generally needs to be potentially harmful.

Second, as a skeptic, I realize that I am going to make mistakes and be wrong some of the time. If I am going to weigh in against the bad ideas coming from within the skeptic community, I need some reason to believe that mine are really an improvement. I'm not sure that merely throwing my opinion into the mix is worth much unless it is an opinion based on fact. That is, I'd need to exercise some due diligence in researching the issue before I'd try to correct someone else. This is time consuming and probably not feasible in every case.

Third, I'm not sure I agree that refraining from speaking out is necessarily "tacit agreement." There are times when I resist the impulse to weigh in because I really hope the person spewing misinformation or bad ideas will see that nobody is buying it and go away. Trolls thrive on argument, and refusing to give it to them often sends them elsewhere. I'm certainly not suggesting that this is always the best approach; some bad ideas probably do demand a response. I am merely suggesting that I'm not sure it is fair to frame all instances of remaining silent as tacit agreement.

Does it make sense for skeptics to speak out in order to correct potentially harmful misinformation coming from within the skeptical community? Yes, I think it probably does. But some selectivity is probably advisable. If the disagreement is trivial, it probably isn't worth the effort. If it is potentially harmful and we can base our criticism on something other than mere opinion, it probably does make sense to weigh in.