Thursday, June 24, 2010

Is Skepticism Too Loaded a Term?

As much as I enjoy listening to the movers and shakers in the skeptic movement I admit this issue challenges me.  Is skepticism the same thing as critical thinking?  Is it the same as the scientific method?  Must skeptics be atheists, or a members of the new breed of angry antitheists?  Must skeptics extirpate falsehood at every turn?  When does preventing real harm peter off into simply being a know-it-all buzz kill?

images from wikimedia commons

Daniel Loxton is examining some of these issues in the context of his review of Benjamin Radford’s book Scientific Paranormal Investigation at Skepticblog.  Just as there is no alternative medicine only medicine, much as there is no pseudoscience only science, perhaps there should be no skepticism only critical thinking and the scientific method.

If conversations around my dinner table are any indication, to the casual, uninvested observer a lot of the current skepticism appears to be simple debunking reflexively applied by know-it-all buzz kills (the character Cliff Clavin comes to mind). Are there any ethical considerations when we encourage or demand critical thinking, skeptical inquiry, and application of the scientific method? Is it ever inappropriate to disabuse persons of an emotional commitment to magical thinking? Is helping a person become "disillusioned" ever a bad thing? I'm pretty sure there isn't.

However, framing the argument as the "Skeptical Community" versus the paranormal, SCAM, UFO, cryptozoology, new age, or religious communities may reinforce this perception, not only among those prone to magical thinking (and inclined to defend it), but also among the great majority of people who are merely disinterested.  So, does the term "skeptic" repel some folks who would benefit from a greater understanding of critical thinking or the scientific method?  I'm not sure.

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