The skeptical movement (also spelled sceptical) is a modern social movement based on the idea of scientific skepticism (also called rational skepticism). The process is sometimes referred to as skeptical inquiry. Earlier roots of the movement and international network can be found in the 19th century and the raise of questions about spiritism, superstitions and pseudoscience, or, like the Dutch Vereniging tegen de Kwakzalverij (1881), against quackery.
The Belgian Comité Para (1949) has been deemed the oldest "broad mandate" skeptical organisation. In 1976, Paul Kurtz and Marcello Truzzi founded the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry in Amherst, New York on its example. The North American skeptical organization, which provides journals and publications, inspired similar associations worldwide. The movement and network is aiming to clarify whether certain claims are supported by empirical research and have reproducibility, as part of a methodological norm pursuing "the extension of certified knowledge".
- 1 Scientific skepticism
- 2 Overview
- 3 Debunking and rational inquiry
- 4 History
- 5 Notable skeptical media
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 Further reading
- 9 External links
Scientific skepticism is different from philosophical skepticism, which questions our ability to claim any knowledge about the nature of the world and how we perceive it. Methodological skepticism, a systematic process of being skeptical about (or doubting) the truth of one's beliefs, is similar but distinct. The New Skepticism described by Paul Kurtz is scientific skepticism. For example, Robert K. Merton asserts that all ideas must be tested and are subject to rigorous, structured community scrutiny (as described in Mertonian norms).
An important difference to classical scepticism is, according Olav Hammer, that it is not directly alined with classical pyrrhonian scepticism, which would question all sort of orthododox wisdom, as well the one established by modern science. According Hammer, "the intellectual forebears of the modern sceptical movement are rather to be found among the many writers throughout history who have argued against beliefs they did not share."
The following definitions related to scientific skepticism:
“Scientific skepticism” (is) the practice or project of studying paranormal and pseudoscientific claims through the lens of science and critical scholarship, and then sharing the results with the public.
"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."
"Skepticism is a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas—no sacred cows allowed. In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position."
With regard to the sceptical social movement, Loxton refers to other movements already promoting "humanism, atheism, rationalism, science education and even critical thinking" before. He saw the demand for the new movement—a movement of people called “skeptics” — being based on a lack of interest by the scientific community to adress paranormal and fringe science claims. In line with Kendrick Frazier, he describes the movement as a surrogate in that area for institutional science. The movement in so far set up a distinct field of study and provided an organizational structure, while long-standing genre of individual skeptical activities lacked such a community and background.
Scientific skeptics maintain that empirical investigation of reality leads to the truth, and that the scientific method is best suited to this purpose. Scientific skeptics attempt to evaluate claims based on verifiability and falsifiability and discourage accepting claims on faith or anecdotal evidence. Skeptics often focus their criticism on claims they consider to be implausible, dubious or clearly contradictory to generally accepted science. Scientific skeptics do not assert that unusual claims should be automatically rejected out of hand on a priori grounds—rather they argue that claims of paranormal or anomalous phenomena should be critically examined and that extraordinary claims would require extraordinary evidence in their favor before they could be accepted as having validity. From a scientific point of view, theories are judged on many criteria, such as falsifiability, Occam's Razor, Morgan's Canon and explanatory power, as well as the degree to which their predictions match experimental results. Skepticism is part of the scientific method; for instance an experimental result is not regarded as established until it can be shown to be repeatable independently.
The membership of the movement is predominantly male and often has a background in the natural sciences and engineering. There is a significant lower ratio of female members and as well the humanities and social sciences have a lower place. An important difference is the one between wet and dry sceptic, the latter prefering to debunk paranormal claims, the former interested in actual examination of such phenomena. The early controversy between Kurtz and Truzzi in the USA (in Germany, a similar conflict arised around GWUP founding member Edgar Wunder) resulted in a dominance of the dry sceptics.
Debunking and rational inquiry
Debunking (from a poorly received speech for Buncombe County, North Carolina" in the 16th United States Congress (1819–1821) is used in a general sense at attempts to discredit any opposing point of view, such as that of a political opponent. Debunking as being used by modern scepticals as well about exposing or discrediting claims believed to be false, exaggerated, or pretentious. It is closely associated with skeptical investigation or rational inquiry of controversial topics (compare list of topics characterized as pseudoscience) such as U.F.O.s, claimed paranormal phenomena, cryptids, conspiracy theories, alternative medicine, religion, or exploratory or fringe areas of scientific or pseudoscientific research.
Further topics that scientifically skeptical literature questions include health claims surrounding certain foods, procedures, and alternative medicines; the plausibility and existence of supernatural abilities (e.g. tarot reading) or entities (e.g. poltergeists, angels, gods—including Zeus); the monsters of cryptozoology (e.g. the Loch Ness monster); as well as creationism/intelligent design, dowsing, conspiracy theories, and other claims the skeptic sees as unlikely to be true on scientific grounds.
Skeptics such as James Randi have become famous for debunking claims related to some of these. Paranormal investigator Joe Nickell cautions, however, that "debunkers" must be careful to engage paranormal claims seriously and without bias. He explains that open minded investigation is more likely to teach and change minds than debunking.
However, a striking characteristic of the sceptical movement is the fact, that while most of the phenomena covered, e.g. astrology or homeopathy have been debunked again and again, they stay popular. The lack of effectiveness of the sceptical discourse is not being addressed - a large amount of sceptics describes their opponents more than a sign of a moral crisis than an actual problem.
The scientific skepticism community traditionally is focused on 'what' people believe and not 'why' they believe, there might be psychological, cognitive or instinctive reasons for belief when there is little evidence. According Hammer, the bulk of the sceptical movement literature, works on an implicite model, that believe in the irrational is being based on scientific illiteracy or cognitive illusions. He points out e.g. to the sceptical discussion about astrology: The sceptical notion of astrology as a "failed hypothesis" fails to address basic anthropological assumptions about astrology as a form of ritualized divination. While the anthropological approach allows to explain the actual activities of astrologers and their clients, the sceptical movement's interest in the cultural aspects of such practices is muted.
According David J. Hess, the skeptical discourse tends to set science (and the skeptical project) apart from the social and the economic. From this perspective, skepticism takes on some aspects of a sacred discourse, as in Emile Durkheim's Elementary Forms of the Religious Life: Pure science (the sacred) is set apart from popular dealings with the paranormal (the profane). Hess states as well a strong tendency in othering: Both New Age communities and skeptics see their contraparts as being driven by materialistic philosophy and material gain and assume to have purer motives personally.
Perceived dangers of pseudoscience
While scepticals perceive most topics as being fringe and less of an an actual problem, some aspects and topics are being perceived as a possible danger. As well, the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato believed that to release others from ignorance despite their initial resistance is a great and noble thing as such. Modern skeptical writers address this question in a variety of ways. Bertrand Russell argued that individual actions are based upon the beliefs of the person acting, and if the beliefs are unsupported by evidence, then such beliefs can lead to destructive actions. James Randi also often writes on the issue of fraud by psychics and faith healers. Critics of alternative medicine often point to bad advice given by unqualified practitioners, leading to serious injury or death. Richard Dawkins points to religion as a source of violence (notably in The God Delusion), and considers creationism a threat to biology. Some skeptics, such as the members of The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast, oppose certain new religious movements because of their cult-like behaviours.
Leo Igwe, Junior Fellow at the Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies and Research Fellow of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), wrote A Manifesto for a Skeptical Africa, which received endorsements from multiple public activists in Africa, as well as skeptical endorsers around the world. He is an Nigerian human rights advocate and campaigner against the impacts of child witchcraft accusations, Igwe came into into conflict with high-profile witchcraft believers, leading to attacks on himself and his family.
Richard Cameron Wilson, in an article in New Statesman, wrote that "the bogus sceptic is, in reality, a disguised dogmatist, made all the more dangerous for his success in appropriating the mantle of the unbiased and open-minded inquirer". Some advocates of discredited intellectual positions (such as AIDS denial, Holocaust denial and Climate change denial) engage in pseudoskeptical behavior when they characterize themselves as "skeptics". This is despite their cherry picking of evidence that conforms to a pre-existing belief. According to Wilson, who highlights the phenomenon in his book Don't Get Fooled Again (2008), the characteristic feature of false skepticism is that it "centres not on an impartial search for the truth, but on the defence of a preconceived ideological position".
Scientific skepticism is itself sometimes criticized on this ground. The term pseudoskepticism has found occasional use in controversial fields where opposition from scientific skeptics is strong. For example, in 1994, Susan Blackmore, a parapsychologist who became more skeptical and eventually became a Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) fellow in 1991, described what she termed the "worst kind of pseudoskepticism":
"There are some members of the skeptics' groups who clearly believe they know the right answer prior to inquiry. They appear not to be interested in weighing alternatives, investigating strange claims, or trying out psychic experiences or altered states for themselves (heaven forbid!), but only in promoting their own particular belief structure and cohesion ..."
Commenting on the labels "dogmatic" and "pathological" that the "Association for Skeptical Investigation" puts on critics of paranormal investigations, Robert Todd Carroll of the Skeptic's Dictionary argues that that association "is a group of pseudo-skeptical paranormal investigators and supporters who do not appreciate criticism of paranormal studies by truly genuine skeptics and critical thinkers. The only skepticism this group promotes is skepticism of critics and [their] criticisms of paranormal studies."
According to skeptic author Daniel Loxton, "skepticism is a story without a beginning or an end." His article Why Is There a Skeptical Movement claims a history of two millennia of paranormal skepticism. He is of opinion, that the practice, problems, and central concepts extend all the way to antiquity and refers to e.g. a debunking tale in told in some versions of the Old Testament, where the Prophet Daniel exposes a tale of a “living” statue as a scam. According him, throughout history, there are further examples of individuals practising critical inquiry and writing books or performing publicly against particular frauds and popular superstitions, including people like Lucian of Samosata (2nd century), Michel de Montaigne (16th century), Thomas Ady and Thomas Browne (17th century), Antoine Lavoisier and Benjamin Franklin (18th century), many different philosophers, scientists and magicians throughout the 19th and early 20th century up until and after Harry Houdini. However, skeptics banding together in societies that research the paranormal and fringe science is a modern phenomenon.
First modern sceptical organizations
Loxton mentions the Belgian Comité Para (1949) as the oldest "broad mandate" skeptical organisation. Although it was preceded by the Dutch Vereniging tegen de Kwakzalverij (1881), which is therefore considered the oldest skeptical organisation by others, the VtdK only focuses on fighting quackery, and thus has a 'narrow mandate'. The Comité Para was partly formed as a response to a predatory industry of bogus psychics who were exploiting the grieving relatives of people who had gone missing during the Second World War. In contrast, Michael Shermer traces the origins of the modern scientific skeptical movement to Martin Gardner's 1952 book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science.
In 1968, the French Association for Scientific Information (AFIS) was founded. AFIS strives to promote science against those who deny its cultural value, abuse it for criminal purposes or as a cover for quackery. According to AFIS, science itself cannot solve humanity's problems, nor can one solve them without using the scientific method. Citizens should be informed about scientific and technical advancements and the problems it helps to solve. Its magazine, Science et pseudo-sciences attempts as well to distribute scientific information in a language that everyone can understand. It is insofar closer to classical associations for the popularization of science. E.g. the German Franck-Kosmos in Stuttgart was founded 1904 as Society of the friends of nature. The name refers as well to Alexander von Humboldts Kosmos and his popular lectures for the general public. The influential Berlin (1904) and Eastern German (1954) and Austrian Urania society started both as a public astronomic observatory and information hubs spreading scientific knowledge. Astronomers later often stood at the cradle of skeptical organisations,
CSICOP and contemporary scepticism
Although most skeptics in the English-speaking world see the 1976 formation of CSICOP in the United States as the "birth of modern skepticism", founder Paul Kurtz actually modelled it after the Comité Para, including its name. Kurtz' motive was being 'dismayed ... by the rising tide of belief in the paranormal and the lack of adequate scientiﬁc examinations of these claims.' Kurtz himself was an atheist and had founded e.g. a separate Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion. While he saw both aspects as being covered in the sceptical movement, he had recommanded CSICOP to focus on paranormal and pseudoscientific claims and to leave religious aspects to others. Despite not being the oldest, CSICOP was 'the ﬁrst successful, broad-mandate North American skeptical organization of the contemporary period', popularised the usage of the terms 'skeptic', 'skeptical' and 'skepticism' by its magazine, Skeptical Inquirer, and directly inspired the foundation of many other skeptical organisations throughout the world, especially in Europe.
These included Australian Skeptics (1980), Vetenskap och Folkbildning (Sweden, 1982), New Zealand Skeptics (1986), GWUP (Austria, Germany and Switzerland, 1987), Skepsis r.y. (Finland, 1987), Stichting Skepsis (Netherlands, 1987), CICAP (Italy, 1989) and SKEPP (Dutch-speaking Belgium, 1990). Besides scientists, e.g. Astronomers, stage magicians like James Randi, who formed his own James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) in 1996, were important in exposing charlatans, popularising their trickery. Randy invited anyone to demonstrate their claims were real with the One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge. Other influential second-generation American organisations were The Skeptics Society (founded in 1992 by Michael Shermer), the New England Skeptical Society (originating in 1996) and the Independent Investigations Group (formed in 2000 by James Underdown).
After the Revolutions of 1989, Eastern Europe saw a surge in quackery and paranormal beliefs that were no longer restrained by the generally secular Communist regimes or the Iron curtain and its information barriers. The foundation of many new skeptical organisations was as well intending to protect consumers. These included the Czech Skeptics' Club Sisyfos (1995), the Hungarian Skeptic Society (2006), the Polish Sceptics Club (2010) and the Russian-speaking Skeptic Society (2013). The Austrian sceptical society in Vienna (founded in 2002) deals e.g. with Johann Granders vitalized water or the use of dowsing at the Austrian Parliament.
The European Skeptics Congress (ESC) has been held throughout Europe since 1989, from 1994 onwards co-ordinated by the European Council of Skeptical Organisations. In the United States, The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM) hosted by the JREF in Las Vegas has been the most important skeptical conference since 2003, with two spin-off conferences in London, UK (2009 and 2010) and one in Sydney, Australia (2010). Since 2010, the Merseyside Skeptics Society and Greater Manchester Skeptics jointly organise Question, Explore, Discover (QED) in Manchester, UK. Six World Skeptics Congresses have been held so far, namely in Buffalo, New York (1996), Heidelberg, Germany (1998), Sydney, Australia (2000), Burbank, California (2002), Abano Terme, Italy (2004) and Berlin, Germany (2012).
In 1991, the Center for Inquiry, a US think-tank, brought the CSICOP and the Council for Secular Humanism (CSH) under one umbrella. In June 2009, Kurtz, which sees himself as founder and driver of the modern sceptical movement was voted out as chairman after being at odds with the course (a more aggressive atheism along Kurtz) of its CEO Ronald Lindsay. In January 2016, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science announced its merger with the Center for Inquiry.
Notable skeptical media
Main article: List of skeptical magazines
Main article: List of skeptical podcasts
- Academic skepticism
- Australian Skeptics
- Brights movement
- Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (formerly CSICOP)
- Critical thinking
- Criticism of science
- Lists about skepticism
- Logical positivism
- Naturalism (philosophy)
- Philosophic burden of proof
- Philosophical skepticism
- Religious skepticism
- Replication of results
- Scientific reductionism
- Secular humanism
- Skepticism#Scientific skepticism
- The Skeptic's Dictionary
- Skeptic's Library
- Theory of justification
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|Wikiquote has quotations related to: Scientific skepticism|
- The Skeptic's Dictionary - Carroll, Robert Todd, contains many articles on science, alternative medicine, pseudoscience, etc.
- A skeptical manifesto, Shermer, Michael, A philosophical analysis of scientific skepticism
- Proper Criticism. (csicop.org) - Hyman, Ray, Suggestions to upgrade the quality of Scientific skepticism
- Strategies for dissenting scientists. Martin, Brian, Society for Scientific Exploration. Journal of Scientific Exploration, Volume 12 No 4. 1998. (PDF), Strategies available for dissenting scientists.[dead link]
- Carl Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit. Operation Clambake. 1998. Based on the book "The Demon Haunted World: Science as a candle in the dark". (ISBN 0-345-40946-9)
- New England Skeptical Society Newsletter Articles - Includes articles on such topics as Homeopathy, Intelligent Design, and other pseudoscientific topics[dead link]
- sci.skeptic FAQ
- Why Is There A Skeptical Movement? - Loxton, Daniel, Contains an overview of the history (and pre-history) of the skeptical movement as well as the principles underlying scientific skepticism.