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Skepticism, at Heart, Is Not Partisan

Commentary

Craig A. Foster

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 41.1, January/February 2017

The United States has just completed the most contentious presidential election in recent memory. The concept of President Trump is obviously distressing to many members of the skeptical community. It might be particularly tempting at times like this to associate skepticism formally or informally with being a political movement. I think it is important for skepticism to avoid making this mistake.

Skepticism, as it is used in the skeptical movement today, is not necessarily easy to define. Suffice it to say that modern-day skeptics promote the logical and reasonable interpretation of existing evidence. They question claims that lack legitimate supporting evidence and embrace claims that are supported by such evidence. In so doing, skeptics promote good science, criticize bad science, and question no science. Skepticism is needed because people frequently fail to interpret evidence in a sensible manner due to humans’ limited cognitive capacity, memory distortions, and a variety of well-known cognitive errors and biases.

Skepticism can be conceptualized as a nerdy superhero. Until nobody believes the scientifically unreasonable, skepticism is there! Skeptics’ powers are an odd sort. They constitute little in the way of physical force. Skeptics do not overpower villains with superhuman strength or with Amazonian combat skills. Rather, skeptics possess a heightened ability to detect flim-flam, a willingness to educate about corresponding issues, and a propensity to ask a series of annoying questions possibly ending with a lecture about non-falsifiable claims. Skeptics use these tools to promote a particular kind of truth—a truth based on science and reason.

Skepticism has one other inconspicuous but incredibly important superpower. Skeptics should be particularly adept at changing their beliefs to keep them consistent with the existing evidence. Consequently, skeptics, by definition, typically have the evidence on their side. If, for instance, somebody provides reliable evidence for Bigfoot, good skeptics will eventually adapt to the new evidence and move on. Thus, skepticism is an approach to the world, not an obstinate set of beliefs.

Skepticism is enhanced by the number of people who embrace it. There are well-known skeptics who famously and fabulously promote science and reason, but skepticism is also promoted importantly by every member of the skeptical movement. This occurs when members support each other. This occurs when members support groups such as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. This occurs, perhaps most importantly of all, when skeptics have those innumerable unplanned conversations with others about vaccinations, ancient aliens, creationism, faith healing, psychics, and so forth. In sum, the skeptical movement needs members. The more people embracing science and reason, the better.

Politics is potential kryptonite for the skeptical movement. Skepticism, in its focus on the evidence, does not seem to require a particular political affiliation. In the United States, a true skeptic could be conservative or liberal. Many debates between liberals and conservatives carry a considerable degree of conjecture and invoke different ethical perspectives and corresponding solutions. In this respect, aspects of broad political debate are often outside the scope of modern-day skepticism. Science and reason do not clearly debunk many political claims, and they do not debunk the entirety of a political candidate or party, with perhaps some isolated exceptions. Skepticism is applied most sensibly to political claims that are inconsistent with existing science or are illogical in some other way. These political claims could come from any political party or broad political view.

If the skeptical movement allows its focus on science and reason to become transmuted into broad political affiliation, I think the consequences for skepticism would be dire. First, this would undermine the identity of the skeptical movement. Skepticism would be in danger of searching for evidence to support political causes rather than searching for evidence to support truth. Second, an inappropriately partisan skeptical movement would alienate potential members. People who are ready to embrace skepticism more formally might not do so due to political disagreements rather than concerns with skepticism per se.

To illustrate, I return to the 2016 presidential election. It is clearly appropriate for the skeptical community to criticize sternly some of President-elect Trump’s apparent platforms. Mr. Trump appears to be dangerously disdainful of the evidence supporting anthropogenic climate change. He has encouraged unsubstantiated stereotypes by characterizing Muslim and Mexican immigrants in negative ways. One could argue that he has promoted beliefs about gun control that are inconsistent with the existing evidence. These issues, among others, make it alluring for the skeptical movement to fashion itself as Anti-Trump or even Anti-Republican.

It is nonetheless important for all of us who love skepticism to separate the broad political considerations from skepticism. Skeptics cannot support political claims that are simply at odds with reasonable interpretations of the existing evidence. However, they should, when speaking as skeptics, stop short of denigrating an entire political viewpoint. It is understandably enticing for many skeptics to do so by embracing skepticism today as a battle between science-denying Republicans and logical pro-science Democrats, but this would be harmful to skepticism more broadly. It would embrace stereotyping at the political party level; obviously some Republicans are for science and reason and some Democrats are not. Ironically, this broad level of generalization would contradict the thoughtful approach that skeptics generally try to embrace. To this point, it is important to remember that liberally minded people are also capable of generating woo. Proponents of the anti-vaccination movement are more likely to come from the political left than the political right.

More importantly, I think it is imperative to consider the nature of an ideal skeptical movement. Skepticism will be most effective, and possibly most enjoyable, when its members come from all parts of the political spectrum. This might feel counterintuitive at present. However, if skepticism stays true to its principles, a conservative presence would not represent failure. It would represent success. Scientific skepticism will always promote science and reason. A conservative or Republican presence in this movement would not signify a diminishing of those goals. Rather, it would demonstrate that the promotion of science and reason is taking place across the political spectrum. It would indicate that the ensuing political debates are more likely to be grounded in scientific reality. If we could create that world, I would be a happy, happy skeptic. I suspect that most skeptics feel the same way.

So, even at a time like this, we should proceed carefully and openly. Based on my experiences in the skeptical community, I believe that most of its U.S. members are left of center politically. This is understandable. The skeptical community does not need to match the U.S. liberal-conservative political spectrum, and it seems intuitive that contemporary politics makes it easier to be a liberal skeptic than a conservative one. Nevertheless, I believe that the skeptical community should keep open chairs at the dinner table for conservatives who also embrace science and reason. To illustrate, perhaps the most pressing skepticism issue of our time is climate change. On this issue, the skeptical movement does not need more liberals. It needs more conservatives. Liberals are already far more likely to support initiatives aimed at mitigating anthropogenic climate change. Helping conservatives understand the skeptical perspective is more likely to create sensible evidence-based solutions.

How do we do this successfully? To begin, skepticism must stay true to its principles. Skeptics must continue to voice their disapproval for claims that appear to be implausible or impossible based on a logical interpretation of the evidence. Skepticism should continue to engage in this manner regardless of whether claims are associated with liberal or conservative viewpoints. However, skeptics should also take care to criticize the claim not the player. Skeptics, when communicating as skeptics, should be careful to constrain their concerns to inconsistencies between claims and evidence and avoid generalizing skepticism to concerns with broader political affiliations. Skeptics should also take care to constrain the disdain. It is easy to understand why skeptics become so frustrated, but suggestions that opponents are stupid or ignorant will not win them to our side. The goals of the skeptical movement are most likely to be achieved when skeptics communicate in a respectful, transparent, and constructive manner.

Mahatma Gandhi used the Sanskrit word Satyagraha to describe the soul of his political opposition. The word is difficult to translate, but in being so, it might describe Gandhi’s morally enlightening perspective better than any English term. Satyagraha means something like politely and insistently holding on to the truth. Satyagraha is the best course of action for the skeptical community. The skeptical community is founded on the pursuit of truth, a truth that changes as the evidence dictates. In this emotionally charged political zeitgeist, the skeptical community needs to remember its goal of promoting science and reason across all parts of the political spectrum. The skeptical community will achieve that goal most effectively not with brazen, negative characterizations of those who disagree but rather with polite insistence.

Craig A. Foster

Craig A. Foster is a professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He teaches statistics and methods and conducts research in scientific reasoning and pseudoscience. He may be reached at craig.foster@usafa.edu.