Don’t call me skeptic! Should we embrace the label, or focus on the work of being skeptical? Jack Lawrence The Skeptic

The Twitter bio of the late anthropologist David Graeber long included a request not to call him “the anarchist anthropologist.” His reasoning for this was simple “I see anarchism as something you do not an identity.”

I think skeptics can learn a lot from this simple line. After all, much like anarchism, skepticism is also something you do, and “skeptic” an identity many claim. But is our use of the term really right? Does engaging in skeptical thinking or activism really entitle us to call ourselves skeptics? And perhaps more importantly, should it?

Definitions of “skeptic” abound. The American magazine Skeptical Inquirer posits that “skeptics are those who have devoted much of their careers to practicing and promoting scientific skepticism.” This definition seems fair, but tends to preclude those in the skeptical community who might actively take part in skeptical thinking and activism, but dedicate the majority of their careers to other areas. It’s certainly along the right lines, though.

While searching for other definitions, I realised that skeptics have a tendency to define themselves in the negative – in opposition to something else, such as poor reasoning, conspiracism, religion, or denialism. Most definitions are also at pains to stress that skepticism isn’t about engaging in some radical process of doubt, but a systemic approach towards certain knowledge and belief claims.

Many skeptics also harbour a well-intentioned desire not to cede the term to those ‘skeptical’ of climate change, or to conspiracists writ large. I think this position is fair, and that the label of “denialist” (as opposed to “skeptic”) is a better fit for those caught up in prolonged bouts of illogical or poorly evidenced thinking. Nonetheless, I think the battle for the term skeptic is one long lost. How often have you said, “Oh I’m a skeptic, but not one of those skeptics”?

In the 2010s, Youtube was teeming with channels debunking and mocking the claims of (largely) the American religious right. Their hosts – such as Carl Benjamin, now best known as a scandal-ridden failed UKIP candidateclaimed the mantle of “skeptic” and initially focused their ire on the religious. Soon, though, their focus shifted towards criticising “feminazis” or the “excesses” of the left, laying the groundwork for the rise of the anti-woke movement.

Most in the skeptic community rightly viewed the latter parts of this content as deeply unskeptical, and yet it served as an introduction to “skepticism” for many – particularly the generation coming of age in the era of Youtube. So why had these Youtubers so readily chosen the label skeptic? I think the biologist PZ Myers put it best when he said that it was because it offered them “a shortcut to the claim of critical thinking that didn’t require actually, you know, thinking.”

So how can we avoid the duelling risks of defining the term so specifically or vaguely that it becomes meaningless, and either excludes too many or includes too few? One approach is just not to use the term at all. The journalist and cohost of the Oh No Ross and Carrie podcast Carrie Poppy is someone often referred to as a skeptic. However she has publicly stated she dislikes the term and does not identify with it. “It’s either cynical or self congratulatory. I don’t know why anyone likes it!” she explained in one 2020 tweet adding, “it should reflect a (for-now) position someone has come to about one thing, not some fundamental idea about their personality/thinking.” While I initially struggled with this view, it is one I have latterly come to adopt myself.

When questioned on the topic of his disavowal of the term ‘anarchist’ by the New Internationalist magazine Graber (remember him from the start?) had the following to say:

“I’m not saying it’s totally meaningless to say you’re an anarchist if it’s not in any way reflected in your practice; you can look forward to a world without states and capitalism in the abstract, believe it would be better and possible, but not do anything about it. But it doesn’t really mean much. On the other hand, it’s possible to act like an anarchist – to behave in ways that would work without bureaucratic structures of coercion to enforce them – without calling yourself an anarchist, or anything else. In fact most of us act like anarchists – even communists – a lot of the time. To be an anarchist, for me, is to do that self-consciously, as a way of gradually bringing a world entirely based on those principles into being.”

Similar, to Graeber’s position I do not think it’s entirely meaningless to say you’re a skeptic – it can be a useful shorthand and community identifier. And is there not an irony in the fact that I am writing this article for a magazine called The Skeptic? If we just treat skepticism as something we do, not something one can be, do we run the risk of weakening the skeptical movement? I think it is fair to say we might.

The term skeptic clearly serves a useful purpose in community building and resource location. These benefits must not be dismissed, indeed realising that others share my outlook on issues of pseudoscience, conspiracism, and approach towards evaluating knowledge claims has been very important in my own life and intellectual development.

As such, my argument is not one for abandoning the term completely but more a reminder that we must never let a label excuse us from the hard work of living up to it. We should view our identification with skepticism not as something to be smug about but as an exhortation to constantly question our beliefs and assumptions – including those we make of ourselves.

The labels we give ourselves should motivate us to better ourselves and the societies we find ourselves in, rather than act as empty signifiers that help us sleep better at night. If we are to call ourselves skeptics, or feminists, or anti-racists, or supporters of trans people we cannot stop there. We actually need to be skeptical, to engage in feminism, to tackle racism wherever we find it, and to work to ensure transgender people can feel safe and supported to live and thrive in our society.

So, by all means, call yourself a skeptic if you wish, but don’t for one second allow it to get in the way of actually being skeptical.

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While the term ‘skeptic’ has its uses in building communities, it’s important that we don’t let the label excuse us from the hard work of living up to it
The post Don’t call me skeptic! Should we embrace the label, or focus on the work of being skeptical? appeared first on The Skeptic.