Codification of Skeptics

There is a lot of talk in the skeptical community about “the big tent”, which translates roughly into “we accept anyone who is willing to play by the rules of logic and evidence”.  And yes, there are all kinds of us. How does one go about defining the myriad ways in which we manifest? I find myself wanting to chart it, but the number of possible distinct parameters that one can use to define the aspects of different skeptics would require extra-dimensional space to graph. Indeed it is very complex.

So in lieu of that, perhaps it’s worth pondering various ways by which we are divided.

Possibly the most obvious division is marked by the single issues which individuals focus on. Generally speaking most of us don’t limit ourselves to single issues. At the very least people tend to concern themselves with a batch of related issues and there are a great many of us who are practically speaking “holistic” skeptics with interest in virtually anything that falls under the ‘big tent.’ But there must be a number of categories that collectively cover most of what we concern ourselves with which could usefully narrow the arenas of skepticism. The problem here is where to draw the line? On one hand, huge swaths of skeptical thought can be covered with broad categories like “Atheism”, “Conspiracies” and “Medical Issues” to name a few of the widest options. But other wide categories like “paranormal” are potentially so broad as to risk being a catch-all “miscellany” category. Indeed one could list enough possibilities for this parameter to fill an entire post. Similarly, an argument could be made that cryptozoology, alien abduction, and even ghosts and demon-possession could be fairly lumped together as they all involve life beyond scientific understanding. But is that fair? Alien visitors and ghosts aren’t really that similar apart from being unlikely beyond all sane expectation. One could argue that aliens alone deserve candidacy for a category encompassing the likes of abductions, UFOs, crop-circles and Area 51. This leads cleanly into the other issue with this system of categorization — overlap. Area 51 — is it aliens? Conspiracy? Pseudo-science? All of those and possibly others? I begin to suspect that pursuing this option for codification is rife with problems. Perhaps it is better to think of skeptics as simply ‘holistic’ (oh how I do love stealing their words) or ‘focussed (to a greater or lesser degree)’ — ultimately not terribly helpful.

I spend an awful lot of time thinking about my favourite delineation — the divide between those who believe we must play nice, and those who think that so long as we adhere to the facts there is nothing wrong with playing the same games that the worst of the opponents of skepticism play. The mere title of my own skeptical blog, Confessions of an Asshole Skeptic gives away what side of that divide I am on. This is far from the only way in which one can go about codifying skeptics, indeed it is my favourite because it is one of the least explored, but I won’t spend much time on it here — there’s entire posts full of it (complete with naughty words) over at my blog. The shortest form is that there are what I call the Olive Branch skeptics who attract more flies with honey than vinegar; and there are Asshole Skeptics who may not be who is going to win our team any debates, but are going to draw the most eyes in our direction; there is a continuum of rationally spoken folk in between who variously do not suffer fools gladly.

Politically speaking alone there are at least two axes to consider — the standard left/right, as well as the authoritarian/libertarian spectrum. Michael Shermer did a straw-poll at TAM7 that revealed that roughly 55% of skeptics identify as Left of centre, 55% identify as Libertarian [Note: See comments below - my limited perspective of the room is laid bare.] and 0.4% identify as Right of centre. Yes, you did the math right – 110.4%. There were a notable number of people who raised their hands for both Libertarian and Liberal. I suppose for simplicity we could create a skeptic — specific axis that ran from Left to Libertarian and consider the conservative minority as just noise. But there is another political axis. There are a number of skeptics who insist that skepticism can be applied to political subjects, and those who insist that politics is not the domain of skepticism. This distinction may simply be a matter of semantics though. Much of politics is a matter of opinion; either being based on too many chaotically inter-related factors to be matters of clear fact, or a matter of personal choice and/or moral outlook. This is not to say that politics cannot hinge upon facts, which themselves are arguable with logic and evidence.
We can also be divided by vocation. It seems the largest groups of us are either medical professionals or scientists of some stripe — either of which can be sub-divided further. There are also a great number of computer professionals. But beyond that the field opens up so wide that again a miscellany category undermines the effort. It’s notable that a disproportionately large number of us are magicians, but the actual number is relatively small — that segment happens to be abnormally visible due to the public nature of their profession, and the widely ballyhooed nature of their skills at understanding how people are deceived is utterly indispensible in our community.

What about how we came to skepticism? With all apologies to Randi, who ranks among those who claim to always being a skeptic, I defy the claim of those who similarly do. Myself, I grew up in an atheist family and was raised fed upon an endless string of good questions which resulted in my skepticism coming very naturally to me. The instinct to say I was “born a skeptic” is there, but frankly anyone who makes that claim deserves to have their bullshit called. Raised to be a skeptic, certainly. Born — no. Many become skeptics by education — most often it seems as a course of post-secondary science training. Another large piece of the pie comes as a result of breaking away from a religion. Indeed, such a large portion fall into these two categories that if you were cold-reading someone you knew to be a skeptic (for entertainment purposes only) you could say “You became a skeptic in university when your science classes led you to realize that there is no God as you were raised to believe.” You’d be likely to get some kind of hit in there… not enough to fool a skeptic though.

A more recent division between types of skeptics is evident in the expansion of the skeptical community over the past several years: Skeptics who cut their teeth in the movement before the advent of blogging and podcasting; and those who made the oft heard discovery that “there are other people in the world who think this way” because of new media. Call them 20thC. Skeptics and 2.0 skeptics respectively. This may not seem like a useful division on the surface, but at least for the time being it has some value. As a generalization the former type is better read and practiced, while the latter tends to have suffered a lot less skeptical burn-out and as a result is more vivacious about their skepticism, then more towards activism, but also tend to be a bit more reckless. But I am severely generalizing… projecting even.

Other factors separate skeptics into categories that are not mutually exclusive from one another. Some skeptics are academics first and foremost, compiling information, studying the bleeding edges, considering it and presenting it. Others are activists, writing letters and provocative web-sites, making a stand, rallying the troupes. Some are both. Still more are investigators, getting out and getting their hands dirty and others are commentators over viewing the spectrum of skeptical inquiry and presenting their own thoughts in new ways. Some of the best are all of the above.

It remains to be said that there is a lot of overlap in these categories. For example, scientists are often the academics and the olive branch skeptics amongst our numbers. There is a similar correlation between commentators and 2.0 skeptics due to the fact that web 2.0 applications are the simplest and most widespread option for said commentary. Other connections abound, I’m not intent upon ferreting out every imaginable one here.

This is far from definitive. On the contrary this is merely preliminary if it’s useful at all. I have undoubtedly missed potentially valuable parameters and failed to identify significant options in the parameters I have singled out. Consider this all food for thought.

Which leads, in closing, to the inevitable question: “What type of skeptic are you?”

My self-assessment makes me a: Holistic, 2.0, Left-wing with Libertarian tendencies, raised sceptically, commentating, activist, entertainment industry, asshole skeptic. Though I probably won’t add that to my business card.

- Kennedy

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  • Kennedy Goodkey

    Kennedy is a film-maker and skeptic. As a skeptic his primary interests are in the communication and advocacy of skeptical and science issues, specifically calling attention to the idea that the standard practice of “playing nice with others” is not always the best approach, and definitely must be explored and refined as a tactic to be leveraged to best effect.