Posted by: Ticktock | April 26, 2010

The Rebranding of Skepticism

There are many ways to interpret the term “skeptic”. The most common interpretation is that of a cynic or doubter. Let’s face it. Most people have never heard of the skeptic sub-genre – they don’t even know that there’s a community of reality-based scientifically minded activists! They don’t care about whether we call ourselves a “movement”. They could give a crap about whether earthquakes are caused by accommodationists with big boobs. And yet, skeptics are extremely concerned about how we appear to others.

Let me answer that question. We don’t appear to others. The general public usually don’t notice us until they either need us or want to challenge us. The ones who need us are folks who are googling about debunking 9/11 conspiracies or something, and they probably don’t notice or care that we call ourselves skeptics. The ones who challenge us are in their own little niches:  ghost hunting aficionados, new age hippies, conspiracy theorists (and people of that nature). They’re the ones who see us as close-minded jerks. It’s to this second group that I would like to focus my attention.

I’d say most everyone, if pushed, has a sacred cow (belief that defies empirical logic). Even rationally-minded skeptics aren’t immune to some form of personal sanctity, even if it’s feeling frightened in a dark basement or feeling special because we met Richard Dawkins. If we combine all the pseudoscience fans, alternative medicine customers, spiritual believers, conspiracy theorists, people fooled by urban legends, political propaganda zombies, and casual paranormal enthusiasts, we are left with a large pool of denialists who oppose science and reason in some form or another.

The ironic truth about science-based skeptics is that our default positions are usually mainstream. The fringe have attacked skeptics for our perceived cynicism when they are actually the one’s who are cynical. Truthers are so cynical that they believe the government would attack it’s own defense headquarters with cruise missiles and then drop plane debris to hide their treasonous act of terror. Climate deniers are so cynical that they believe the majority of climatologists are manufacturing data for political purposes. Vaccine haters are so cynical that they believe pharmaceutical companies are adding poisons to vaccines to create more health problems.

Skeptics aren’t the cynics. The denialists and the fringe activists are the cynics. That’s why the “skeptic movement” should continue to find ways to rebrand ourselves. Obviously, the title of this blog is an homage to Science-Based Medicine, the medical professionals who inspire amateurs like us. There have been other ways that people have rebranded the term “skeptic”: mythbusters, rationalists, science advocates, mystery investigators,  freethinkers. All are good ways to promote the movement, and advocate for the principles in which we do believe, and not the ones we don’t.

So, if I’m admitting that skeptics are a very small army of truth-seekers (who can barely organize themselves to have drinks and discussions at bars), and that most people have never heard of our efforts and interests, then why do I keep blogging? What does it matter?

Because I care about objective truth, because I know someone out there is looking for relatively objective answers, and because I enjoy learning new facts and useful information that I can share with others.

The principles I hold dear are not cynicism and arrogance. I cherish critical thinking, science advocacy, and the search for objective truths. Mainstream rationalists and science advocates should leave the word “skepticism” to the true cynics of the world, fringe denialists. We don’t need the baggage.



  1. “I’d say most everyone, if pushed, has a sacred cow (belief that defies empirical logic). Even rationally-minded skeptics aren’t immune to some form of personal sanctity, even if it’s feeling frightened in a dark basement or feeling special because we met Richard Dawkins.”

    Colin, these aren’t examples of sacred cows. Feeling frightened in a dark basement is not a belief that defies empirical logic. Believing that there are ghosts in your basement is. There’s a difference.

    This belief you have, “that everyone, if pushed, has a sacred cow” is a dogmatic assertion. It isn’t actually true of most skeptics. For example, what is you belief about the real world that is immune from reason or evidence? Do you think you should have one?

  2. It may be beneficial for survival that I’m scared when the lights go out in the basement, but that doesn’t mean it’s a rational fear. There’s no objective logical reason that I should feel vulnerable in a dark basement, beyond the fear that I will trip.

    Things that I do that defy empirical logic:
    – Attach significance to meeting indie rock stars
    – Emotionally invest myself in the fate of fictional characters
    – Keep items from my childhood for nostalgic purposes.
    – Feel awkward showering at the YMCA
    – Refuse to knowingly eat entrails or bugs

    None of those sacred cows are technically beliefs, just irrational personal preferences. I don’t know whether it makes a semantic difference, but they’re all sacred cows based on how I intended to define the term in the article. I realize now that I did write the word “belief”, which is probably not what I meant.

    • “I don’t know whether it makes a semantic difference, but they’re all sacred cows based on how I intended to define the term in the article.”

      It’s not a semantic difference, Colin. It’s substantive. The fact that human being are not emotionless robots is not the same as saying that all human beings have “Sacred Cows”. If you meant “emotions” you should have said “emotions”. An emotion is not a sacred cow. It’s a physical response to stimuli. An emotional attachment is a function of being a human being. It is not a sacred cow. A sacred cow is a belief. Feeling scared in a dark basement doesn’t “defy empirical reason”, and it isn’t a belief. It’s just a feeling, which you have, empirically, because you’re a mammal with a endocrine system. It’s empirically justified and makes sense both objectively and logically. If you are convinced, rationally, that every time you felt frightened, there was an actual threat, than that would be a sacred cow and there would be no logical reason for you to have it.

      Attaching significance to meeting indie rock stars does not defy empirical reason. You’re a human being, they are alpha human beings–in your particular in-group– so you attach significance to their attention. It isn’t purely logical for you to feel this way, true. But it is objectively logical that you do. It would be denying empirical reason to expect you or any other primate to act and respond like a snake or some other non-social animal.

      I think we need to be careful where and how we spread the meme that “everyone has faith in something” for two reasons. One, it isn’t true, and two, it cuts the knees out from under skepticism.

      • I think you make a good point, but my problem within the text of the article, I feel, is still one of semantics. I think I should have been more careful about my word-choice because what I’m saying is that everyone is capable of having irrational instincts and/or illogical emotions; and yes, I think these instincts and emotions are a perfectly acceptable form of human behavior that requires no apology or explanation.

        What I’m trying to say is that when it comes down to it, the general population, on average, would likely agree with skeptics on most things because we are circumstantially mainstream on many things, but they would disagree with skeptics on one or two items that they’ve accepted as truth, whether it be aliens, ghosts, angels, or whatever. On those points of disagreement, it’s the believer who is the cynic, not the skeptic. You get the idea.

      • I get that, but what I don’t understand is what place the point has in your post. It’s like your saying “Hey, even Skeptics have emotions”, and I just don’t see why you would bother saying that.

      • Well, I think I was going for a sense of humility, to say that we’re neither an image of logical perfection nor fringe oddballs with whacky ideas. It was late when I wrote this – probably should have connected my ideas better.

      • I think this goes to another core and very pernicious meme: that skepticism is some kind of wacky hyper-logical philosophy, or that a ‘perfect’ skeptic would be free of emotion. We need to be clear that this is a misperception of skepticism, both as a philosophical position and a practice. Skeptics don’t strive to be robots, and skepticism isn’t about becoming a robot.

  3. You make some breathtaking observations that are hard to swallow. Check out this post: You might have to return to a philosophy 102 class to understand it but give it a try anyway.

    Here is a taste:
    There are many things that I call myself. The one that I think is the most accurate and the most important has always been “skeptic,” but I’ve rarely used it. I rarely use it because of what most other self-identified skeptics have made of it: when most people here of skeptics, they think of people who are deeply dismissive of the existence of Bigfoot (and isn’t that a courageous stance), but who are entirely credulous towards the power of human cognition. You might think of Penn Jillette, the living smirk, who has a massive and showy disdain for people who believe anything that fails to meet his evaluative criteria, and yet seems to apply his own ability to accurately understand the universe around him to no such scrutiny. This is the kind of skeptic that Sam Harris is: he is skeptical of competing claims of truth and accuracy, but not of his own capacity to judge, nor of the human capacity to create intellectual structures that make that judging correct. Certainly, this is what the edifice of modern skepticism represents: a skepticism that first flatters the intellect of the skeptic in question, and the human mind in general.

    • Suggesting that I need a philosophy 102 class to understand an article and then glibly calling someone a “living smirk” smacks of psychological projection. But, what do I know?

      I think you accurately describe yourself as a skeptic under the terms in which you defined it. Go ahead and embrace your identity. Your description of a skeptic seems to suit you well.

  4. Read the article. Let’s discuss it using our big brains and rational thinking. Ad hominem attack don’t furthur the discourse. Does thin skin count as a sacred cow or can science explain it for us?

    • Once again, I see more psychological projecting with your accusation of ad hominem. Maybe you are able to project so well because of all the monastic ninja prayers that are centering you.

  5. Really, read the article and let’s discuss it.

    • OK. I read the article. I disagree that the ultimate realization of skepticism will lead to fascism. I also disagree with the idea that skeptics are intellectually arrogant. Again, it’s not the skeptics who are arrogant. It’s the person who says that, despite the lack of evidence, their personal belief is absolutely true and all others are wrong.

      Skeptics, following the model of science, reject ideas that lack evidence, modify the list of those ideas over time when new evidence arrives, and admit when the evidence is so sparse that we can’t answer the question. That’s the opposite of arrogance.

      I don’t know what you’re trying to say in your comment. You say that my statements are hard to swallow, then you post to another writer’s blog article that has little to do with the content of my own article, and then request that I read the other article and discuss it in the comments section of my own. I guess I’m asking you to declare a point of your own, so that I can know your agenda.

      What are your motives for commenting? What do you disagree with in my post, or about skepticism in general? I should start there in this conversation you’re requesting because I’m not sure with whom I should be discussing these points – you or the blog author at lHote.

    • Skepticism will lead to fascism?

      Look, dude, I’m in sympathy with your philosophical viewpoint of skepticism in the sense that I’m an academic skeptic in the ancient greek sense. But the idea that Harris’ Ted talk was about some sort of “greater” truth, or that fascism would be the outcome, is completely and totally wrong.

      For one thing, Harris points out that there may be many ways for people to be happy, not one. He points out that our ideas would be likely to change over time. So that, right there, nullifies your point. He doesn’t propose anything that would be timeless or non-contingent, but rather an idea that is utterly contextual, changing, and organic.

      I’m sorry that you didn’t understand Harris’ talk, but there’s no reason to insult Colin because you can’t understand something that Colin didn’t even say.

  6. phoilodad,
    Don’t know who colin is but I’m sorry I’ve insulted him. The entire complex article was dismantled by you in two sentences, I bow to your superior intellect.


    Your list of ‘deniers’ makes up the vast majority of humanity. Placing yourself in a position where you ‘get it’ while the rest of us deny ‘reality’ isn’t even a little bit simplistic or problematic for you?

    • You should count again, I used 4 sentences. I’m not claiming superior intellect, either, I’m just saying that you clearly read things into Harris’ talk that simply weren’t there.

      TickTock (Colin), didn’t say that the anyone denies reality. Some people quite clearly do, but that group doesn’t encompass everyone. Based on the claims you made in your article about your own personal leanings and my personal knowledge about TickTock, I would say that you are actually more intellectually snobbish than he is. After all, don’t you say that many people, including very smart people with good ideas, don’t “get it”.

      Personally, I don’t see a problem with saying that the vast majority of people who believe in ghosts, the afterlife, contrail conspiracies, 911 conspiracies, mind-body dualism, the fluffy spiritualism of Deepak Chopra, or whatever else are probably not applying skepticism to their own beliefs. They almost certainly have no good reasons for believing these things, no evidence to support their assertions.

      And I try to limit my truth claims to things which I believe the evidence supports.

      Now, some people can be shown evidence that a claim they have is not supportable, and they will choose to ignore that evidence. I’m thinking of moon hoaxers, 911 truthers, and AIDS deniers that I’ve personally interacted with. These people very clearly are denying reality and I’ve seen them do it. So what’s problematic about calling them on that?

    • My list of deniers are a pool of many people who may only believe one or two odd unprovable claims. These people all contradict each other without feeling problematic about it. You rarely find someone who believes in everything: Jesus, bigfoot, aliens, anti-vaccine, homeopathy, psychics, reiki, etc. Even within one of those can be many ideas of what’s right or wrong.

      Take vaccines, for instance. Several people believe that vaccines cause autism from MMR creating gut issues. Several other people believe that vaccines cause autism from mercury in thimerosal. Others are just concerned about generic toxins.

      Look at religion, some people believe that Jesus came to America with a tribe of racists, some people believed that Jesus was incarnated as David Koresh, other people believe that Jesus died on a cross.

      You believe in prayer and meditation (or whatever). I’m not entirely sure because you haven’t clearly stated here what belief you’re trying to defend, but there are plenty of people who believe differently. Muslims believe that you have to pray five times a day toward Mecca. Buddhists believe that chanting mantras will help. Christians believe that their prayers reach the ears of God. How can you prove one of these beliefs over the other? What method do you use to determine what is true? How can you be sure?

      The method I use is skepticism. I have a naturalistic view of the world. I believe in anything that is observable, measurable, testable, and verifiable. If it can’t stand up to the scrutiny of science, or at least critical thought, then I am going to say that it’s not true. I think most people would say the same thing. How else do we know what’s true or not?

      I’m not here to tell people what to think or how to think. I’m here to share the science-based approach. I’m not always perfect, but I will admit when I’m proven wrong by testable research. You have to ask yourself if you’d be willing to do the same thing. If not, then you need to find some way to answer this question: how can you have faith in your particular sacred cow, but you can’t have faith in another person’s? Do you not see the paradox that this creates for yourself?

      I see nothing problematic with a naturalistic self-correcting science-based view of the world.

  7. how can you prove that there are universal human rights? Or that racism is wrong? Are these things empirically verifiable on the basis of naturalism? How do you know for certain that your ethical view of the world is the true one? (I am assuming you have ethical commitments). Are you willing to say that Shakespeare’s writing is more impressive artistically than Dan Brown’s. Or that Van Gogh’s art is more impressive and sophisticated artistically than my son’s art?

    The problem with this perspective is that it is relativistic about questions of values, morality, aesthetics, etc. You might be able to tell me why an earthquake happened in Haiti, but you must remain silent about our ethical responsibility for those people if you stick to your naturalistic assumptions which MIGHT disclose an “is” but fails with respect to an “ought.” Religion is similar to ethics, aesthetics, and so on and is most centrally concerned with how we live in the world not what we say theoretically about the causal relationship phenomena. So to claim belief in God is untrue is to miss the point.

    I’ll leave you with a challenge. Prove to me with empirical evidence that you love your wife or children or phoilodad.

    • Logically, without certain human rights based on “do no harm”, we would live in a society that would spiral toward depravity. Now, how people want to define those basic human rights are generally up to the society and not the individual, in most cases.

      Ending racism is an empirically verifiable stance because genetic analysis shows us that the human genome does not vary in the slightest between races. Even if the genome did vary, racism would violate my humanist principle of “do no harm to others”.

      I’m not saying that my ethical view is the true one. Not everything can be processed into scientific analysis. But, we can look at certain customs to see whether humanity is doing harm or helping the common good. I advocate science, but I’m also a humanist. Those are my personal choices, and I share those choices with others. I do not insist the world blindly follow my path. Everyone is welcome to believe what they want.

      I’m willing to say that my personal opinion doesn’t matter when it comes to Van Gogh and Shakespeare. They’ve made a historical difference in the world of art and literature and nothing will change that. I don’t believe personal preference or artistic expression can be explained empirically. If that’s your argument, then we agree.

      You are arguing as if my naturalist views negate my humanism. Having a belief that one community should help another in times of crisis does not defy the laws of physics. Being a skeptic and being a humanist are not mutually exclusive. Where I have a problem with certain religions is when they make numerous factual claims, such as people being eaten by fish or a man putting two of every species on a boat, that are either impossible or illogical.

      You’re trapping me with your last challenge. I believe it can be proven that I love my family, beyond a reasonable doubt, but the challenge is an impossibility over the internet. And besides, it misses your point that emotions are not something easily tested. What I will say is that there isn’t any evidence that I don’t love my kids, such as a history of physical, emotional, or verbal abuse. And there is evidence in the form of witnesses of me providing for them, teaching them, and nurturing them with affection.

      I’m sure philosodad will have more to say on this. This is the type of discussion in which he enjoys debating.

    • “how can you prove that there are universal human rights? Or that racism is wrong? Are these things empirically verifiable on the basis of naturalism? How do you know for certain that your ethical view of the world is the true one?”

      Well, first we define universal human rights, or human rights at all. Once that is done, we prove that they exist. Do you have something in mind as a definition of universal human rights?

      We can prove that racism is wrong because there are no biological races, as TickTock points out. If there are no races, there is no empirical basis for racism, therefore it is wrong.

      My ethical view of the world is fairly complex. It is not “True” in some larger sense, but it is “true” in terms of its goals. My basic goal is to promote the continuation of Life–that is, biological life–and in particular, the human ape and our descendants. My secondary goal is the promotion of human happiness, because I think that if more people are leading more fulfilling lives, we stand a better chance of surviving and reducing our impact on the rest of the biosphere.

      Biologically, there are certain ethical principles like fairness and justice that we share with many other primates. There are other basic behaviors like group agression that we share with only a few. A realistic view of ethical behavior must take this into account. Therefore I promote the idea of humanism as well. Primates tend to use group agression (a behavior which endagers the principles above) in an in-group/out-group setting. Humanism is based on the idea that all humans are members of the same in group. As a philosophy, it promotes my values.

      You may or may not agree with these ideas, and you may have a very different standard of ethics. Most people do. None of them are “true” but they all have different goals and outcomes. As long as people state specifically what their goals are and we are clear on the outcomes, we’re all working empirically.

      I haven’t seen your son’s art, so I really can’t comment on it.

      I suppose that if we wanted to empirically verify that Shakespeare was a better writer than Dan Brown we would need some standard. I have no such standard available to me at the moment, and I have no study to show that either is superior according to any standard. I prefer Shakespeare, but that is a simple preference, not a statement of superiority.

      The problem that you are seeing with our perspective, or mine, or naturalism in general, is a problem that I simply do not see. From my perspective, I can comment at any length about the need to help people in Haiti (this is empirical) and about the value of helping them (also empirical) and about the desirability of doing so (also empirical) without invoking God, spiritualism, magic, or anything else.

  8. I doubt I would add much other than to say that you consistently interpret religion at its most naive and fundamentalist. Is there the possibility of the type of religion that would share structural similarities with your humanism? That is, as a form of religious commitment sensitive to cultural and religious pluralism which commits itself to a genuine humanism? Is seems to me there is and to reduce religion to fundamentalism is analogous to reducing science to scientism. It is simply unfair.

    I would also suggest that your humanism is a commitment that goes beyond the scientific method as you seem to acknowledge. It is a commitment that can be influenced by scientific data, but it is a commitment that strictly speaking exceeds the bounds of procedural, scientific rationality. “Do no harm” is a humanist principle which entails a series of ethical commitments which transcend the neutrality of scientific rationality. This is why we have the burgeoning field of bioethics, because science really doesn’t make claims about morality but rather cause and effect.

    So the question becomes why is Buddhism so offensive to you when humanism and its non-scientific commitments are not?

  9. Fundamentalism based on ignorance offends me, such as creationism. As far as buddhism and christianity, I disagree with certain claims from their followers but don’t oppose them, generally speaking. Sam Harris, incidentally, believes that meditation can have a profound impact on an individual and has been criticized for it. I’m not one of those critics.

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