Posted by: Kash Farooq | August 30, 2010

Once a skeptic, always a skeptic

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.



  1. “Essentially, though, once a skeptic, always a skeptic.”

    Unless they disappear into the dark side…

  2. I fully get what you are saying about how ghost hunters, psychics, homeopaths etc. will view skeptics as bad guys but I don’t think this makes it ok to behave in certain ways, and I don’t fully agree.

    I can only speak from my own p.o.v, but as a ghost researcher myself I have friends who are also researchers but have beliefs in things that I know have no evidence.

    They don’t view me as the bad guy, we accept our differences and I accept the fact that I’m not going to change the way they think, or what they believe. It’s a gradual process they have to begin themselves.

    I suppose it all boils down to what a persons aims are as a skeptic and how one goes about reaching those goals.

    Trying to debunk peoples beliefs will make you seem like a dick. Simply just offering an alternative view, however, wont.

    Some skeptics probably think I’m a stupid do-gooder who thinks she is better than everyone else – all I know is that I can talk to people who have opposing beliefs than mine about our difference of opinion without being called the bad guy.

    • Thanks for the comment.

      I completely agree that just because we are seen as the bad guys in the pseudoscientific world, it doesn’t mean it is OK to behave badly.

      I’m just arguing that there will always be people in any “open membership” community that behave badly. I dare say we could just as easily find a UFO-ologist shouting at a skeptic for being an idiot for being close-minded and ignoring the evidence.

      This sort of behaviour is not unique to skepticism.

  3. “However, will a homeopath, a UFO-ologist or a ghost hunter ever have anything positive to say about “the skeptic community”? ”

    That’s true, but I think you could go further with it. We have to look at the perception of normal people, the people we would like to recruit into Skepticism. Those who are die-hards of irrationality are lost, why bother caring what they think.

    Skepticism may be a way of looking at the world, but just like Stoicism, the proponents of that worldview are lumped together, like it or not. Just as other Stoics were judged by the actions of Marcus Aurelius, when people look and evaluate Skepticism as a world view and a methodology the actions of the people who are of a Skeptical mindset will jump out at them. Stoics were no more an organised “community” than Skeptics are, they were just people to believed in looking at the world throught the Stoic philosophy.

    So then, opting out of the Skeptic community. I don’t think it is nessecarily harmful to say, I am a “critical thinker” if that label has not been tarnished. The advantage of starting afresh is that you can add a certain level of regulation and create new norms. There are a lot of bad norms that exist within the Skeptic community that go unpunished. Rudeness and a certain bloody mindedness towards others are two i could name.

    If opting out of “skepticism” and extablishing “critical thinking” allows you to create a set of norms where such behaviour is actively frowned upon and the person marginalised, then i don’t see how that is a bad thing, no matter how semantic the change of name.

    just my 2c

    • Thanks for your comment.

      I fail to see how “you can add a certain level of regulation and create new norms” to a new label such as “critical thinker”. Unless there was an organisation right from the start, with membership, code of conduct, and the ability to expel people who go against that code. By the very nature of how a community develops, I can’t see that happening.

      • I think communities have norms. The people we RT, the people we look up to, these are all defined by the norms that each community has. If instead of RTing something that insults Gillian McKeith and instead said “look while we agree with your point, we don’t operate that way” the norm would not be the type of aggresive attacks on people we see today, but a milder more reasonable approach. The Skeptic community as it is is too large to have this type of change in social mores, but if a new label was to be created with a cohesive founding membership it could easily be acheived.

        “with membership, code of conduct, and the ability to expel people who go against that code. By the very nature of how a community develops, I can’t see that happening.”

        I don’t think it has to be as formal as that, i think that people put a lot of stock in what their peers think, and in any community there has to be a sense of belonging. normal socialisation techniques of reward, acknowledgement and praise would be enough. And of course shunning and marginalisation of those who break the community norms.

  4. I don’t self-identify as a skeptic but plenty of others would stick that label on me. So, which is more valid – the label that I might choose as a single individual or the label that a larger group chooses?

  5. From my perspective any community relies on a degree of self governance and peer review. Once skeptics start functioning as a community it falls to the members of that community to tell other members when they are being a dick.

    I see the current trend for skeptics being skeptical about the skeptic movement as simply being part of the maturation of the skeptical community. There will be a bit of squabbling – a few people will be told they’re dicks and there will be a few people telling everyone else to avoid becoming a dick. Once skeptics get used to the process and are familiarised with the self-critique and internal review there will be fewer skeptics making noise about being unhappy with the skeptical community.

    It’s still early days and as technology changes the dynamic of the community changes. Roll with it and we should end up with a more robust skeptical community for the future.

  6. In the US we all ran from “liberal” when it was tarred and feathered by the right and moved to “progressive” (though they’re technically different things). I’m not going to run from “skeptic” because of a few dicks. I’m tired of being defined by the opposition.

    I’m a skeptic and a liberal (and a progressive). Also a parent, a botanist, a loudmouth, a woman and an American. I will continue to wear those labels and defy the stereotypes that come with them, because nothing can combat those stereotypes more than proving them wrong.

  7. Most communities end up in some sort of schism eventually; little disagreements tend to evolve into separations over time and that’s okay, although it could be looked at as being a little petty. Overall there will be very little difference, just a different name I guess.

    People should be able to accept that there are bad apples in any movement however, in fact I don’t think I’ve come across any group; social, ideological, intellectual or otherwise that doesn’t have good or bad sides; and as a movement grows it’s bound to attract more of the wrong crowd as well as the right, just a product of growth, one that is essentially healthy.

    All in all I agree with all your points, and believe that people shouldn’t be dodging an umbrella term because there are a few holes letting the rain in.


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