We live in a complex world. A world of nature, and a world of human affairs. Most of us would like to understand the world, perhaps out of curiosity, or to make our lives better. Traditionally, the people that “studied the world” were known as philosophers. Philosophy was differentiated from other ways of learning or knowing about our world, such as mysticism, by the use of evidence, logic and critical thinking. These philosophers studied all areas that critical thinking and logic could be applied. Practically any philosopher worth his salt would be just as capable with math as he was with the movement of the stars or the latest political discourse of the day. Think of the greats like Plato and Aristotle. But over the years, the accumulated knowledge of humanity grew too large. It became too difficult for a philosopher to get up to speed equally in all areas, let alone advance any of them. The solution was for philosophy to become specialized. These specialties are the foundation of nearly every area of modern human investigation including mathematics, economics, politics, metaphysics, and science. This is why we bestow our “wisest specialists” the title of PhD (doctor/teacher of philosophy).
The area of knowledge that we as skeptics are most concerned with is science. Science was known until the last couple hundred years as ‘natural philosophy’. Loosely speaking, science is the endeavour to learn about the natural world by means of evidence, logic, and critical thinking. Many people who are involved with the skeptical movement are fans of science and enjoy promoting it but wonder why it is the movement shies away from other areas that involve critical thinking, logic, and evidence such as economics, politics,and metaphysics. People see all the great work we do in promoting science by debunking frauds and hoaxes using science, and wonder why we can’t do the same with other equally important areas of human existence. Why shouldn’t skeptics debunk/promote Karl Marx or Ayn Rand? Why not find out which political party is the best for Canada? Why not spread Secular Humanism? Are these areas not important too? I’ve been called a coward for choosing to keep the Ottawa Skeptics out of these debates.
Whenever I ask prominent skeptics this question I invariably receive the answer that we only deal with testable claims, because that is what we do. But don’t other areas of human research, such as economics, rely on evidence, and have testable claims? Isn’t the study of politics called “political science”? The best answer I can give boils down to ‘values’.
Members of the skeptical community all agree on a couple things: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It’s the primary idea that unites us, it’s our shared value. There are other people with a different outlook on the world. Some people think that anecdotes and rumour is sufficient evidence to believe in the extraordinary. This is what separates “us” from “them”. When passionate people share a value, they get together and promote it, we’re no different.
There are other values that skeptics have, but don’t necessarily share. Let’s use politics and economics as an example (grossly simplified): Some people want fewer taxes (i.e. increased personal freedom), while others prefer more social services (i.e. increased social equality). It’s no coincidence that political parties seem to fall along this spectrum. People’s tendency to fall into one or the other camp is so common place that scientists are actively studying possible causes. Is it coincidence, genetic, environmental, or a combination of possible influences? Whatever the reason, once a skeptic organization picks a side in this particular arena, it’s bound to alienate a large chunk of its supporters.
If a person cherishes these political values, they can use science and critical thinking to refine it and promote it. They can get involved with a political party that most closely represents their values, and use skepticism to filter out ideas that won’t help inform and achieve those values. All of society would greatly benefit if every “value based” organization would use more logic and critical thinking to form and promote their ideas. By “value based” I mean non-profit groups such as activist organizations or political parties. It may be easier for a group to forgo logic and critical thinking, but society at large would be poorer for it.
As skeptics, I see our role in society as the promoters of evidence, logic, and critical thinking. The area for which these three things are all that theoretically matter is science. By sticking to science we keep our appeal as broad as possible. By avoiding the promotion of any particular political value, we won’t end up alienating people that could benefit from our message. Science is an area that everyone should be able to agree.
There are some exceptions though. Some non-scientific values can theoretically help the cause of skepticism. Skeptics advocate for freedom of speech and inquiry, without which skepticism would be impossible. Skeptics tend to argue in favour of legislation that attempts to protect consumers from scams. Skeptics will conversely often argue against legislation that makes it easier to scam consumers. Even here though, there can be some dissent. Some skeptics think that the government should get tougher on the sale of questionable medicine like homeopathy while other would prefer if the government didn’t regulate medicine at all. But all skeptics will tend to agree that there shouldn’t be a double standard placed on mainstream medicine and alternative medicine, they should both be judged for efficacy and safety by using science.
So in conclusion, let’s stick to doing what we do best, questioning pseudoscience and the paranormal. Let’s teach critical thinking to the public in the hope that people will apply it to areas outside of science. And if we have other personal values, let’s promote them with other groups of people that share the same goals, but teach them how to think skeptically too.