There have been a couple of announcements recently: people declaring that they no longer wanted to be associated with the skeptical community.
At Westminster Skeptics In The Pub, Frank Swann (@SciencePunk) said that he no longer labels himself a skeptic. Then more recently, Hayley Stevens made a similar statement: she no longer wishes to identify herself as part of the “skeptical community”.
Both Frank and Hayley made these announcements because they do not agree with the behaviour or actions of certain members of the skeptical movement. Both these posts are well worth reading. Note that Hayley quickly posted a follow-up: “Maybe I was overreacting…”
Let’s start with a definition. What is skepticism? I like John Jackson’s:
“Skepticism is an honest search for knowledge. It is an approach to claims akin to the scientific method. It is a powerful and positive methodology (a collection of methods of inquiry) that is used to evaluate claims and make decisions.”
So, if skepticism is a methodology, then the skeptical movement or community is just a group of people who use that methodology. That’s all. There are no rules in place to dictate behaviour, or what you can and can’t do, or what you can and can’t say. As long as you are basing decisions on science and evidence, you are doing skepticism.
As both Hayley and Frank point out, along with Phil Plait, there are “dicks” in the group of people that follow this methodology, and this has given a bad name to the skeptical community.
However, will a homeopath, a UFO-ologist or a ghost hunter ever have anything positive to say about “the skeptic community”? The skeptic community are fundamentally disagreeing with, and attempting to disprove, their beliefs. Even if every member of the skeptic community did everything diplomatically without any bad behaviour, I’m sure a homeopath would not describe the skeptic community as “a group of people that have well-reasoned, evidence-based arguments”. You could argue that this is just human nature. Any two groups of people with the exact opposite views aren’t likely to have anything complimentary to say about each other.
I’m in no way condoning bad behaviour. If someone behaves like a dick, I wholeheartedly support telling that person that they are behaving inappropriately.
I’d argue that any “open membership” community will have undesirable members. I’m sure the same percentage of “dicks” exist in, say, an anti-fascism, animal welfare or environmental movement. They have become part of a community because they have the same underlying viewpoints. That does not necessarily mean they will all behave identically, or indeed, have similar personalities.
If you asked football fans from, say, Belgium to describe England fans, I wouldn’t be surprised if they used the word “hooligan”. A handful of members of this “community” have given a bad name to the whole group.
That’s just how it is.
So, what can you do if you no longer want to be associated with the skeptical community, but want to continue using the methodology? Well, you could use a new phrase. You could say you are a “critical thinker.” Pretty soon other people will start doing the same. Then you’ll end up with a “Critical Thinker Community”. How long would it be before someone in this community posts a comment or tweet that disappoints other members? I’d speculate that it would not take that long for that to happen.
Perhaps we just need to get a new meme going: “he/she is a good skeptic” and “he/she is a dickhead skeptic”.
Essentially, though, once a skeptic, always a skeptic.