By Keir Liddle
“British Skeptics eh! What an odd bunch don’t they know it’s spelt with a C!” is a statement about as meaningful as “Greens don’t they know it’s a colour!” or “Labour don’t they know that just means work!”
It is unsurprising that Rebekah Higgitt would believe that the selection of the K is simply an affectation that UK Skeptics choose to identify with, particularly given many UK Skeptics themselves are unfamiliar with the genesis of the word and it’s meaning. Indeed to dismiss that there is a difference between “Skeptic/Sceptic” is actually fairly erroneous as there is a lot more to this than from which side of the Atlantic someone get’s their dictionary.
Yes UK skeptics likely adopted the American spelling by accident, after the establishment of the UK Skeptic Magazine by an American Wendy M. Grossman in 1987, and the spelling was likely further reinforced by the founding of London SitP by Australian Dr. Scott Campbell in 1999. But the word itself, capitalised, relates to more than one letter and more than simply identifying yourself as “one who doubts”.
The use of the K, over the C, relates Skepticicism and Skeptics to a broader philosophical position. One developed and defined by the late great Philosopher Paul Kurtz who sadly passed away just last month. Should we be so quick to dismiss his legacy over a simple matter of spelling?
So what lies behind Skeptics with a K? Put simply Scientific scepticism (also known as rational skepticism, and it is sometimes referred to as skeptical inquiry).
Scepticism, as a philosophical position, encompasses more than the narrow field that Higgitt ascribes it in her article. It includes the mitigated scepticism of Hume which is in itself the foundation of Scientific Skepticism.
Scientific skeptics believe 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 favour before they could be accepted as having validity.
Calling oneself a Skeptic not only serves as a means to identify with a particular strand of philosophical thought but also to identify with part of a wider global community. Which is something Higgitt herself admits:
It is true that the capital “S” Skeptic movement uses the US spelling even in the UK, but that is an extremely circumscribed use of the word. It is one that is not widely known or understood outside particular communities.
Hence the opening paragraph: Would she have poured the same scorn on the Green Movement at it’s inception or indeed the Labour movement? It seems unlikely. However it is worth noting that in these two brief sentences Higgitt undermines her entire line of argument and for bonus points does it using a formal logical fallacy: argumentum ad populum. In fairness though this could be symptomatic of using etymology as the basis for her line of thought as etymology is always at least one step behind the reality of what a word means.
I do wonder how much of these calls to dismiss the importance of the “K” over the “C” stems from some sort of peculiarly British mentality about defending the English language from those dastardly Americanisms. I say this only because I have yet to see someone complain about Cafe Scientifique not calling itself Science Cafe. As @penguingalaxy pointed out on twitter: maybe this is more a case of septicism?