Humanities in the Skeptic Community?

My education is in the humanities, and when I started to really dig my toes into the skeptic community, I learned that I was very much in the minority. Why is that?

One of the dominant perspectives in the skeptic community is regarding the question of expertise. There is the notion that we should leave expertise to the experts…in other words: if you’re not a biologist, don’t argue with PZ about evolution; if not a neurologist, don’t argue with Steve Novella about neurological disorders. This is not to suggest that non-scientists blindly accept the authority of the scientists, nor is it a matter of sitting back and let the big-names do their thing because they can paddle harder.

It is, at the very least, a provisional approach to skepticism (which is itself, a provisional approach to knowledge). It’s true that there are many autodidacts in our community, and as a rule, there is no reason that a non-scientist couldn’t go toe-to-toe with the likes of Richard Dawkins or Joseph Albeitz, but unless those of us with no science education can produce some significant scientific studies of our own, it might be a good idea to dial back angry arguing. Maybe ‘argument’ is a bad word….perhaps ‘rage-ument’ might be more accurate.

It’s not a matter of sitting down, shutting up, knowing our place and blindly trusting the experts. It’s more like a tactical decision. These people have PhDs and MDs (et all) for a very good reason.

But this then necessarily leads me to criticize some of my skeptic peers and betters when I hear non-humanities people arguing for or against a particular humanities point. Is it really wise for a biologist to angrily criticize an accomplished philosopher about philosophy and ethics? Can a psychologist argue a political point by using not socially-defined points, but scientifically-defined ones?

Obviously, we all have the right to our opinions and the right to express/argue as we see fit, but when it comes to the social sciences (political science, sociology, history, literary criticism, philosophy etc…), I think it’s reasonable to assume that the physical sciences may not provide all the necessary intellectual tools to deal with certain issues.

But why are there so few humanities experts in the skeptic community in the first place? Is it something intrinsic to skepticism as a provisional approach? Is it something about the humanities that discourages such definitive absolutes?

Michael Shermer: What say you?

Well, I think at least from Dr. Shermer’s perspective, we can gleam two points: 1) I bring up a really good point, and 2) Who knows?

The skeptic community would do well to learn some lessons of the humanities: as Shermer pointed out, holocaust denial is the territory of historians. I submit that there are many more humanities-cross overs:

The 9/11 ‘truther’ movement and the ‘birther’ movement are the territory, at least in part, of political scientists. While a political scientist can’t necessarily talk to the structural integrity of the Twin Towers, they would be very well equipped to explain the nature of government conspiracies and the political/economic/cultural costs of such a conspiracy. The JFK assassination also fits into this category, with plenty of cross-over into historian territory.

The ‘complimentary and alternative medicine’ (CAM) movement draws on much more than shoddy science and financial greed: a political scientist would be very able to analyze the political manipulations of that industry, and how to counter their motions. Also, there is a tremendous cultural/sociological component to acupuncture, homeopathy and naturopathy….it’s a lot more complicated than “Prince Charles uses homeopathy, so the English will do whatever he does”. Ethno-pharmacology is certainly a legitimate physical science, but a large part of that equation is anthropology. Perhaps a philosopher could reveal the post-modern nature of the CAM industry, as it intrinsically places value on how the individual feels over what the science knows.


The team we have put together so far here at Skeptic North has a decent humanities cross section: Mitchel comes from a philosophy background, and Ethan with a history education, as well as my own academic background in political science (Desiree also has a similar background). But we are just 4 skeptics, surrounded by writers/skeptics from neuroscience, pharmacology, computer science, physics, chemical engineering and others.

Those of us in the humanities are embarassingly under-represented.

I remember reading a skeptic blog over the summer (I honestly forget which one, but even if I could remember it, I doubt I’d name it here anyway) where the author talked about being ‘forced’ to take ‘social science’ in high school. The attitude of derision bothered me with its wording, “Social science? SOCIAL science? WTF is that???”.

Maybe one reason there are so few humanities people in the skeptic community is because comments like that make us feel unwelcome. This is fairly ironic, because the people who most vociferously deride the humanities are often the ones who could learn the most from taking a course in “social science”.

Maybe another reason there are so few humanities people in the skeptic community is that we see how quickly those in the physical sciences are willing to make claims that would be best left to the social sciences. Theology is a much more complicated academic discipline than apologetics, encompassing sophisticated discussions of ethics, law, civil rights, and social organization….yet it gets likened to ‘fairyology’ by someone in the physical sciences.

So if we are expected to leave the science to the scientists, maybe it’s best that we leave the humanities to the….umm…humans…(?) Whatever. You get the point I’m making here.

Shermer pointed out in the video above that we need as big a tent as possible, and I can think of few other intellectual communities that could benefit from an infusion of humanities as much as organized skepticism.

I’ve been thinking about this issue for a few years, and I’m afraid that I’m no closer to figuring it out then when I was in university. So I put it to you:

Why are there so few humanities people in the Skeptic community?

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  • Steve Thoms

    Steve is a professional music teacher living in Kitchener, Ontario. He studied recorded music production at Fanshawe College, and Political Studies/History at Trent University, where he specialized in political economy and global politics. He is an amateur astronomer, and an award-winning astro-photographer. Steve also runs the blog, Oot and Aboot with Some Canadian Skeptic." can can be followed on Twitter, @SomeCndnSkeptic.