What is a skeptic?

Steven Novella, whose Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast is one I never miss (also check the brief companion 5x5 podcast), is trying out a new definition for a perfectly good word that others (for some reason) don't seem too keen on, namely "skeptic":

A skeptic is one who prefers beliefs and conclusions that are reliable and valid to ones that are comforting or convenient, and therefore rigorously and openly applies the methods of science and reason to all empirical claims, especially their own. A skeptic provisionally proportions acceptance of any claim to valid logic and a fair and thorough assessment of available evidence, and studies the pitfalls of human reason and the mechanisms of deception so as to avoid being deceived by others or themselves. Skepticism values method over any particular conclusion.

I jotted some notes that I reckoned others might find interesting or informative and thought it best to reprint my comment here:

As a classicist I can tell you that the original meaning (Gk. skeptikos) was simply 'thoughtful, reflective.' It comes from a verb that describes a careful kind of looking. The idea of doubt came from a term also used to describe a certain kind of thinker: aporetikos. It isn't difficult to see how giving careful attention to philosophical questions (which in the ancient world also meant scientific questions) would lead one to be a doubter, in the same way that careful (i.e., critical) thought among modern skeptics leads us to doubt traditional explanations.

This same type of thinker could also be called ephektikos, which is something like the modern coinage agnostic. This referred to someone as suspending judgment. What it really means is that you hold yourself back and look at things impartially. This is something else that we do, and it allows us to criticize the emotional responses of others.

The three terms are closely associated, but one gave its name to a school. And as with many schools of thought through the ages, its opponents (like modern theists in the face of a resurgent atheism) took great pains to tar its practitioners.

Far from being sub-optimal, I think skeptic is about as good a word as we're likely to find, and together with its companion adjectives (which have colored its reception) covers just about everything in your definition.

posted by Dennis on 11.17.08 at 07:52 PM


"like modern theists in the face of a resurgent atheism"

Who, what, where, when?

dre   ·  November 17, 2008 8:27 PM

That's not a definition.

It's a windy mission statement that's exemplary of a tendency among people who call themselves skeptics that makes more aporetic types un-keen on the word.

"We" is not reflective...though you might die of thirst admiring it.

guy on internet   ·  November 18, 2008 12:19 AM

That's a good summation and ideal. Skepticism, I think, does have the positive connotation of refusing to accept on faith alone. Skeptic, not so much. It gives the impression of someone who doubts too much, who questions more than a reasonable person would.

It's a fine line knowing when to say "enough, this is as sure as I can fairly ask to be".

tim maguire   ·  November 18, 2008 10:23 AM

Being a skeptic is good. Types like Michael Shermer, on the other hand, go beyond skepticism into anti-mysticism, and tend to refer to them as Skeptians, because it is a religion to them.

To me, the dividing line is if they use the phrase, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof." To me, that is an anti-scientific statement, as proof is. It is either proof or it isn't, and if it is, then there is nothing extraordinary about it.

Phelps   ·  November 18, 2008 1:04 PM

Anti-mysticism is a bad thing? That sounds like a synonym for skeptic. A skeptic is interested in looking carefully at things and removing mystery. Mysticism is nothing more than fetishizing the unknown.

As for the statement about extraordinary claims, here's the original, by the inimitable Carl Sagan (he begins by talking about CSICOP, which now goes by the silly name CSI):

"An interesting debate has gone on within the committee between those who think that all doctrines that smell of pseudoscience should be combated and those who think that each issue should be judged on its own merits, but that the burden of proof should fall squarely on those who make the proposals. I find myself very much in the latter camp. I believe that the extraordinary should certainly be pursued. But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Scientists are, of course, human. When their passions are excited they may abandon temporarily the ideals of their discipline. But these ideals, the scientific method, have proved enormously effective. Finding out the way the world really works requires a mix of hunches, intuition and brilliant creativity; it also requires skeptical scrutiny of every step. It is the tension between creativity and skepticism that has produced the stunning and unexpected findings of science."

Carl Sagan, Broca’s Brain, p. 73 ( “Night Walkers and Mystery Mongers: Sense and Nonsense at the Edge of Science”, originally published in Skeptical Inquirer 10, 1986.)

As Michael Shermer mentioned in Why Darwin Matters, Evolution was an extraordinary claim when Darwin made it, and he necessarily offered extraordinary evidence. Irrefutable, too, unless you're the sort of mentally deficient chimpanzee who still clings to mysticism.

Dennis   ·  November 18, 2008 10:20 PM

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