By Ken Perrott 30/11/2017


Being a sceptic has its problems. On the one hand, a sceptical approach to information has never been more necessary. On the other hand labelling oneself a Sceptic (or Skeptic) can have negative results – encouraging arrogance and inability to accept criticism.

I have been thinking about this a lot lately and have again and again found myself encouraging a sceptical approach to everything we read – from whatever source. But I also found myself largely agreeing with a recent article in Patheos critical of sceptics by Matthew Facciani – Why Identifying As A Skeptic Can Be Problematic Then I attended (partially) the NZ Skeptics conference in Wellington last weekend – a great conference with some excellent presentations.

But something that struck me during the conference is that the scepticism was really limited to what Wikipedia defines as scientific  or empirical scepticism which questions “beliefs on the basis of scientific understanding:”

“Scientific skepticism may discard beliefs pertaining to purported phenomena not subject to reliable observation and thus not systematic or testable empirically. Most scientists, being scientific skeptics, test the reliability of certain kinds of claims by subjecting them to a systematic investigation using some type of the scientific method. As a result, a number of claims are considered as “pseudoscience“, if they are found to improperly apply or ignore the fundamental aspects of the scientific method.”

I think this is far too limiting. Societies are faced with many issues – only some of them come under the scientific or empirical classification.

Scepticism needs to be applied more widely

I sometimes think our modern society has quite a good handle on scientific and empirical issues. Sure, we could improve the understanding of what science is and there are far too many people around who are imbued with anti-science or pseudoscience ideas.  But look at the political sphere – aren’t dogmatic and irrational ideas there more common than pseudoscientific ones? Don’t we suffer more from political “woo” than we do from “woo” in the scientific or health areas?

The general definition of scepticism given by Wikipedia in the same article is:

Skepticism (American English) or scepticism (British Englishsee spelling differences) is generally any questioning attitude or doubt towards one or more items of putative knowledge or belief.”

So here is my point – why do “Sceptics,” in practice, limit themselves in this way? Perhaps many “Sceptics” would deny they do – but time and again I come across people who adhere, or attempt to adhere, to a rational and evidence-based approach in matters of health and science (things like creationism, flat earth fanatics, acupuncturists, anti-fluoridationists and homoeopaths) yet will accept, even pontificate on, biased and tribal political arguments without any respect for evidence. Or will seek “evidence” for their political beliefs in a very partisan way. Quite different to their more objective approach on scientific and empirical issues.

My personal feeling is that this problem is inevitable. We are not a rational species, more a rationalising one. Humans definitely have the ability to pursue logical and rational thought but emotions still linger under the surface. Probably a good thing as this makes us human and not robots.

So “scientific or empirical sceptics” are able to follow the evidence and logic to a rational conclusion. Partly because they have not started with any emotional or values-based commitment to the final conclusions. Although a non-Sceptic speaker at the Wellington conference did make the valid point that even sceptics will react emotionally when their rational conclusions are challenged by non-sceptics. That is because they inevitably do, in the end, feel an identity with those conclusions. They do so not because they fell an ideological committment to the conclusions – the commitment is to the method used to reach the conclusions.

We are all influenced by emotions and values

Even the most rational thinkers are influenced by emotions and values. These may exert a bigger role when the sceptic has to deal with a subject outside their area of knowledge and they are therefore less secure in their understanding.  Or, perhaps more strongly, in areas like politics and religion where values and identity attachments are much stronger.

Perhaps this is why a Skeptics conference will deal only with the scientific or empirical subjects and not treat the political ones in the same manner. These may be avoided in fear they will lead to conflict. Or worse, they are avoided because of a prevailing political consensus. A consensus which may have no evidential or rational basis.

I really don’t like the way groups assume a consensus in this way. It is this assumption which has probably annoyed me most about the partisan-driven political hysteria in the US at the moment and the way this has been uncritically accepted here by people who, on the basis of their sceptical or rational approach on scientific issues, should know better.

Being sceptical of sceptics

sceptic emoji

In his Patheos article Matthew Facciani gives a general definition – “a skeptic is someone who tries to be objective and questions the validity of many things.”

I am certainly with him there as I really cannot understand why anyone should limit their sceptical approach to only an approved field. Matthew then goes on to say:

“I used to think of myself as a skeptic. It seems like a identifying with skepticism is a good trait to have. However, I’ve grown to really dislike the word over time and now feel rather skeptical of those who identify as skeptics!

I’ve run into far too many skeptics who turn off their skepticism when it’s convenient for them. You’ll see them apply great skepticism to some areas (like religion), but then become much less critical of ideas that are consistent with their own ideologies (like maintaining the status quo).”

I wonder if many New Zealand Sceptics (or Skeptics) have had the same experience? I certainly have and it is one reason why I would never join the NZ Skeptics Society. (To be accurate, that general reason is probably why I never join any societies – I really can’t adhere to a “Party line”).

Identity problems

Matthew explains this problem partly by identity theory:

“people are going to be motivated to ignore information that conflicts with their identity. So this becomes a problem when a conservative rejects evidence for climate change for example. Their deeply held beliefs are threatened with evidence that climate change is caused by human activity, so they are extra motivated to ignore it.
So if you are a skeptic, a person who thinks as themselves as particularly objective and rational, wouldn’t it be threatening to be told you are being irrational? As someone who used to identify as a skeptic, I would say this was the case for me. The stronger the identity is held, the more vulnerable a person is to being biased. So if someone strongly thinks of themselves as an amazing skeptic, it may be very identity-threatening to be exposed to information that proves them wrong. Especially if that information threatens another identity they have!’

All very human of course. But it is a worry when someone who may have a well-founded objectivity and rationality about a scientific subject automatically transfers the resulting confidence to another area like politics where it simply works to support their biases and values and not facts.

The bias blind spot

Another issue he raises is the bias blind spot:

“this bias blind spot “arises when people report that thinking biases are more prevalent in others than in themselves.” So people often think others are more biased than themselves! That makes sense as humans tend to enjoy thinking of ourselves as better than we really are for self-protective purposes.”

Worryingly, researchers report:

“that higher cognitive ability does not prevent people from experience this bias blind spot. In fact, those with high intelligence can even be better at rationalizing away their biases!”

As I keep saying, we are not a rational species – more a rationalising one. Perhaps higher cognitive ability just makes it easier to rationalise.

Matthew’s view is:

“much of these bias blind spots occur from the certainty and dogmatism that occurs from having too much confidence in holding certain positions.” A “strong skeptic identity” may also make you less receptive to feedback that challenges your worldview.”

Intellectual humility

So perhaps this explains the annoying confidence, even arrogance, that many people see in Sceptics (or Skeptics). Matthew’s solution, and it is worth considering, is intellectual humility:

“I would urge all of us to work on our “intellectual humility.” Intellectual humility is the psychological construct that can generally be defined as “understanding the limits of one’s knowledge.” Those with higher intellectual humility are more likely to be open to opposing viewpoints.  Additionally, research by Samuelson and colleagues (2015) found that “an intellectually arrogant person uses education in a prideful way to confer social status, while an intellectually humble person pursues education out of curiosity and love of learning.” Seems like too many skeptics may be intellectually arrogant instead of intellectually humble.

As I noted above, it’s often self-protective to believe we are correct and objective people. It’s certainly an unpleasant feeling to be proven wrong. However, working on our intellectual humility will make us more open to feedback. Yes, it may sting in the short term, but if we value truth, that’s a small price to pay.”

I think Matthew resorts to a bit of intellectual arrogance himself in this article as it has its own polemics. However, I fully agree with him about the desirability of intellectual humility.

Worth thinking about.

Featured image: Some readers may be aware I am being purposely provocative with this logo as it identifies the problem of extending the sceptical approach into the political sphere – emotions of identity and values. Image credit: RT America YouTube.