Skeptic – what's in a name?

By Keir Liddle

The history of “Skepticism” in the UK has been relatively brief but it has recently become quite eventful. With an explosion in local Skeptic groups, societies and a renewed vigour in campaigning on issues of medical regulation, legislative reform and the promotion of critical thinking and evidence based practices. Though now some are questioning whether we should keep the word Skeptic or ditch it.

Skepticism, with a K, came to the UK when in 1987 when New Yorker Wendy Grossman founded the Skeptic magazine keeping the US spelling not adapting to the British spelling. This Skepticism with a K was reinforced when an Australian, Scott Campbell,  founded the UKs first SitP in London inviting Grossman to speak at the first event. These two, possibly random, events cemented the use of Skeptics with a K in the UK, the US and Australia and perhaps present the first time that the US and the UK were two nations united by a C as opposed to divided by a common language (oh and an ocean).

The term “Skeptic”, capitalised with good reason, is a political and personal label thought to have originated in the writings of Carl Sagan and meant to indicate that someone is a Scientific Skeptic. Or someone who doubts outlandish and extraordinary claims and believes that the best way to resolve them is by using the scientific method. Sagan was by no means the first “Skeptic” but it was Sagan and Paul Kurtz who put a name to what the likes of Benjamin Franklin and Martin Gardner had done before them. To critically assess evidence to determine the veracity of claims.

A scientific Skeptic  is one who questions beliefs on the basis of scientific understanding. Most scientists, being scientific skeptics, test the reliability of certain kinds of claims by subjecting them to a systematic investigation using some form of the scientific method.

In the UK the term seems to be applied, in terms of general usage, to mean more than this: Added to the definition are mentions of  reason, rationality and critical or free thinking (depending on personal flavour).  Rationality and reason are the enlightenment values on which mitigated scepticism is based and from which scientific skepticism arose. Critical thinking is key to Skepticism, as claims must be addressed critically using evidence, Free thinking (as in free from religion) is not. Which is one of the reasons I fought not to have Edinburgh Skeptics described as a group of “Rationalists, atheists and critical thinkers” on the grounds there is nothing that says someone who is a scientific Skeptic cannot have faith.

Skepticism in the UK remains predominantly grounded in Scientific Skepticism though there are exceptions to this general rule (notably Westminster Skeptics with it’s focus on the media and on policy) most of the meetings held under the banner of Skeptics in the Pub deal with addressing claims using the Scientific method (be those the claims of alternative medicine or pseudo-science).

In my opinion we may have accidentally come to call ourselves Skeptics with a K in the UK but that by doing so we have tapped into the rich history and meaning of the word as well as aligning ourselves with a nascent global community. A community not without it’s problems, here are my thoughts on one possible issue and on another, but I don’t think changing the name is something that will help you can feel free to read this rant here if you want my opinion on not calling yourself a Skeptic because of them.

If you did read my previous rant it should probably be noted that it was motivated by good people abandoning Skepticism because of how they thought people viewed skeptics. I wrote it because I worried that if one by one we abandon the term “Skeptic” than we effectively abandon it to those who shout the loudest, are the most objectionable and that to my mind that ultimately sets the cause of “Skepticism” back. As it essentially it would allow Skepticism as a movement or community to devolve (entirely) into the negative stereotype that snake oil salesfolk and psychic cons are so beloved of portraying. It would put off the middle ground and any attempts at Skeptical public engagement or activism would be lost as “Skeptics” engaged only in shouting at “Woos” in order to feel warm and fuzzy about being right.

I don’t think anyone who has ever identified as a Skeptic wants that to happen. Though there are perhaps those who think it has already happened or is happening and the whole business is beyond saving. I however am not one of them.

I don’t think the name “Skeptic” is perfect. It does have baggage. But that’s because of what Skepticism does it challenges, it debunks and it submits to scrutiny the dearly held beliefs of others. Which is something that is never going to be viewed entirely pleasantly. The problems with the word “Skeptic” arise because of this and can be exacerbated by those who engage in more forthright “debate” with our natural adversaries, snake oil salesmen and their ilk, and also by those Skeptics who are less subscribed to a Skeptical viewpoint and to more of a scientism one.

Three years ago I founded Skeptics on the Fringe and originally it was meant to be called “the Fringe of Reason” but there was a miscommunication. I panicked when this occurred as I really didn’t want the huge personal and financial investment I had in the events being scuppered because our audience read “Skeptic” and was put off.

Every one of the last three years has debunked this fear. If anything no one notices the word “Skeptic” on our flyers and they don’t run in fear when it’s mentioned in the introductions. What the last three years have told me is that the topic is key. Talks critical of alternative medicine and the paranormal will bring in a more traditionally skeptical crowd but talks on sex, porn, transgender issues, science fiction, video games and Nessie bring in all manner of people who wouldn’t call themselves Skeptics.

Simply because the night looks interesting.

I am reticent to drop the Skeptic label because I would prefer to rehabilitate it and retain it’s use but can understand why some might want to. But I don’t think it will address the perceived problems or result in a large increase in audience.  Though I really liked the suggestion elsewhere of “Critical Drinkers”.

My suggestion? Run a small scale RCT… Randomise what the event is called and see what numbers you get in. Test the Hypothesis that the very mention of the word “Skeptic” sends people running to the hills.

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