Skeptically-minded folks are abuzz regarding Steven Novella’s “Bigfoot Skeptics, New Atheists, Politics and Religion,” initially posted at Novella’s Neurologica blog and subsequently reposted on the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Swift blog. In it, Steve responds to a brief PZ Myers statement about the venerable skepticism-vs.-atheism question (itself occasioned by an earlier Grime and Reason piece). Steve’s entry is detailed and thoughtful, definitely worth a careful read, and outlines what he sees as eight core “facets” of the “common ground” shared by most self-identified skeptics: “Respect for knowledge and truth,” “Methodological Naturalism,” “Promotion of Science,” “Promotion of Reason and Critical Thinking,” “Science vs Pseudoscience,” “Ideological Freedom/Free Inquiry,” “Neuropsychological Humility,” and “Consumer Protection.” It’s a list with which I can find no fault, a worthy mini-manifesto for skeptical work.
In identifying and explaining these and addressing the thrust of the underlying question — “What are the limits, if any, of skeptical analysis?” — Steve more than once invokes “scientific skepticism” and observes that faith claims that have been positioned outside the scope of scientific investigation necessarily do not fall under its purview. Fair enough, but my own lack of clarity regarding exactly what is meant by the term prompted me to follow up more specifically:
Are we referring to skepticism applied to matters of science, or the type of skepticism based on the scientific method? The former implies that you’ve simply chosen science as the subject matter for your skeptical approach, and leaves room for others to apply skepticism to areas like politics, history, and ethics; the latter implies that yours is the rational and evidence-based kind of skepticism, presumably in contrast with other kinds not really deserving of the name.
I later expanded on this:
Steve, I notice you include conspiracy theories and scams in your list of issues that skeptics address. While I can think of obvious cases where the subject of such skepticism is related to science (the claim that the WTC towers must have been detonated or that a miracle cure does such-and-such, for example), what about instances like a claimed government coverup, a phishing email, or an apocryphal statement attributed to a political figure? Are people who are rooting out the truth in these instances “skeptics,” and if so are they doing “scientific skepticism” or some other type — perhaps “evidence-based skepticism”?
I hope this doesn’t sound like a purely semantic question, because I don’t think it is. Totally aside from the “faith claims can’t be tested” debate, there is the ongoing discussion about whether evidence-based investigation in areas other than the sciences is a valid part of the movement, and whether it constitutes “skepticism” at all. (To oversimplify slightly, I’ve been told that “It’s only ‘skepticism’ if it addresses a science claim; what you’re doing is just critical thinking.”)
So if someone is using the critical-thinking tools of baloney detection — questioning premises, evaluating sources, seeking both confirming and disconfirming evidence, parsing logical argumentation, formulating and testing hypotheses — in order to judge the validity of a claim about, say, whether the Royal Family ordered Princess Diana’s assassination, or some other not-explicitly-about-science situation, is what that person is doing:
(a) scientific skepticism because it’s based on real-world evidence,
(b) skepticism, but not scientific skepticism because science isn’t involved,
(c) a worthy endeavor but not “skepticism” as that enterprise is currently defined, or
(d) some other way of looking at this that hasn’t occurred to me?
Here’s Steve’s reply:
Marc – I think it’s “a”, which is why I included the list of core skeptical principles that I did. Scientific skepticism is about applying the methods of science and critical thinking. It is not restricted to any narrow definition of what constitutes “science.” I include history and sociology as sciences (and criminal, forensic – anything where empirical claims are involved) – to the extent that they follow scientific methods.
I am trying to make this as clear as possible – critical thinking and skepticism should apply to all empirical claims (even those under the heading of politics and religion). The only distinctions that need to be made are:
- don’t confuse value judgments for empirical claims
- Understand the boundaries of science (methodological naturalism)
- Understand the relative roles of philosophy and science within skepticism and critical thinking
I think that’s it. Much of what I disagree with in PZ’s post is not hat his position is wrong, it’s just that he has erected a straw man about what the “skeptical old guard” is really saying.
The rest has to do with forcing non-science issues into the category of science. This is a philosophical disagreement, and I have laid out my position pretty clearly.
This was an extremely useful clarification for me, as I think not everyone is defining “skepticism” and “scientific skepticism” in the same ways. Both language and activist movements are fluid, certainly, but it seems to me that when we have these conversations we’d better be sure we’re accurately understanding and communicating our respective intents. (For what it’s worth, I also agree wholeheartedly both with Steve’s original post and his clarification — and I’m totally stealing “Neuropsychological Humility.”)
Update: In a followup to my followup, Steve explains: “The term scientific skepticism is not meant to limit skepticism to science, but to distinguish it from philosophical skepticism, which is a bit nihilistic toward knowledge, and other uses of the term ‘skeptic’ (like global warming skeptic).” Sounds legit.