Defending the skeptics…

First things first, I’m a Brit and I’ve spelt skeptic with a K like a yank, deal with it. Now back to the point at issue. I am seeing more and more people attacking those who are skeptical of anothers views or opinions. I’m seeing more and more skeptics being accused of negativity, arrogance, even trying to be trendy. Well as a proud, self proclaimed, and highly vocal skeptic I feel an urge to defend the skeptical, and explain why skepticism is a vital and essential trait that we ALL need, as well as try and explain what being a good skeptic is, and what it is not.
The novelist Jospeh Conrad famously said that…

Skepticism is the tonic of minds, the tonic of life, the agent of truth…

In this post truth era it is essential that we are always skeptical about another’s knowledge on anything, and that we accept there will always be uncertainty and other possibile explanations. Truth could in fact be seen as a fallacy as what is true now may not be later, and what is true for one person may not be for another. Even science recognisies this, science doesnt find the truth, science looks to falsify, as one of my favourite scientists Richard Feynman famously once said…

Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts

Now you’re probably thinking that this a little heavy and philosophical for me, and you’re right it is. And you’re probably thinking that if I am arguing for us all to be skeptical of everyone and everything, then why should you believe what I have to say now. Well simply put, you don’t dumbass, you remain skeptical.
So if being skeptical of skeptics is good then why am I trying to defend them. Well it seems the skeptics of skepticism are out in force lately and are confusing and bastardising what skepicism is and falling foul of logical fallacies attacking skeptics directly and personally rather than their thoughts and ideas. The classical ad hom fallacy.
Many are quick to accuse a true skeptic with various traits, one of the most common accusations I see lately is that skeptics are only being skeptical as it better serves their own purposes. That by being skeptical and critical of another’s thoughts, ideas and opinions it somehow allows the skeptic to take the higher ground in a discussion, placing them in a stronger position to put forth and present their own thoughts and ideas as the ‘truth’.
What utter crap. Being a true skeptic isn’t about the need to give any alternative view or opinion or idea. Being a true skeptic is simply being prepared to say…

“I / we / you don’t know”

Being a true skeptic means you don’t jump to conclusions or make rash decisions in either accepting or denying others ideas or opinions. Being a true skeptic means you are cautious with certainty in any direction. Being a true skeptic means you deal with probability. Being a true skeptic means you weigh up levels of uncertainty and make cautious yet informed decisions about how best to proceed or not.

Being a true skeptic is not about being right, it’s about being less wrong!

The next accusation I hear used against skeptics is that it is an easy and cowardly path to take. That doubting or questioning others views and opinions is both disrespectful and gutless. This is a truely tiresome and tedious diversionary tactic used by those who dont like to be questioned or are quick to take offence at being challenged. They will often attempt to draw the attention of the discussion away from the skeptics argument and direct it badk towards them. They attack the skeptic directly rather than their argument.

And if you think being a skeptic is easy or gutless, you’re clearly an idiot, and clearly haven’t tried it!

If you think it’s a walk in the park to question and challenge dogma and doctrine, you haven’t had weeks of rage and personal attacks hurled at you. If you think its gutless and cowardly to be critical of those in authority and in positions of power, you obviously haven’t had to suffer the vitriol, venom and repercussions from them.
Of course it can be considered brave to put your thoughts and ideas out there for all to see and hear, and I encourage more to do so. But to do this you must realise that they are free to be questioned, challenged and of course critiqued. However it must also be recognised that it is just as brave, if not more so, to stand up and say to someone, “I don’t agree” and if you think someone is being skeptical just to be ‘trendy’ with all the arse ache and issues it can bring, then you’re an idiot.
Now many will also say it is how the skeptics challenge and question that is the issue, arguing that tone, language, or lack of respect causes offence and for discussions and debates to break down. This can occasionally be true, but this excuse is again more often than not another attempt to divert a debate when it is going against an individual. Remember offence is taken not given, and I have discussed this topic before here.
Some also accuse skeptics of preventing progress and add little to advancing knowledge or ideas. This is just ridiculous. If it wasn’t for skeptics doubting and challenging beliefs we would still think the world is flat, that the universe revolves around us (some still do) and that homeopathy cures everything (some still do).
Skeptical Fry
Finally some also argue that being skeptical and constantly questioning and doubting is some how unhealthy or less human. I couldn’t disagree more. I think skepticism is fundamentally human, and extremely healthy. Skepticism is always present in our lives, even if you don’t recognise it, and it can be very, very positive. For example skepticism is a basic evolutionary survival mechanisim, such as doubting if that if that rope bridge is going to hold you as you cross a chasm, or if that dog with a funny look in its eye is going to attack you, to a more mundane level like wondering if eating that yogurt left in the fridge from last week is really a good idea. There is a well known saying; To err is human. Well to doubt is also human. So keep doubting, stay skeptical, and challenging and questioning more.
As always thanks for reading.
PS: Hat tip to Neil Maltby and Scot Morrison discussion for the inspiration for this blog, two smart guys, go follow them.
PPS: if you want to read some more on skepticism then I would recommend this paper by Unger (1971) and the first chapter of his book Ignorance available for preview on google books here



  1. A well written piece. Much of which I agree with. Although I’m highly sceptical of the reasons a Brit chooses to spell scepticism/sceptical with a ‘k’.

  2. Good place to start, Adam. Healthy skepticism often goes unrequited in lieu of vitriolic attacks on . Attempts for valid discussion are lost. I appreciate this article. Regarding the terms sceptic vs skeptic, this movement to define meaning behind the customary choice in consonants is previously unheard. Interesting read.

  3. Adam, this is a clear, concise summary. Thank you for writing. I think these constructs are vital to education, research, and clinical practice. It’s important to address some of the responses and thoughts regarding skepticism in order to provide a better idea of what it really is and what it ideally should be.
    I’ve written some on disagreement, debate, and dissent.

  4. Hello Adam,
    Good read as always. True scepticism is a positive trait; especially in a profession where we actually know three fifths of nothing in some ways regarding actual fact.
    I think people confuse scepticism with nihilism. Two different things.
    Thanks for the read.

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