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I’m Keeping My Skeptic’s Card!

The Well-Known Skeptic

Rob Palmer

September 14, 2018

Okay, so picture this predicament: I am an active member of a skeptical activist organization, the Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia team (GSoW), doing public presentations on behalf of the organization. I was just hired by the Center for Inquiry (CFI) to write a (facetiously titled) column, “The Well-Known Skeptic.” I had just created a Gmail account and a Facebook page, also both using “The Well-Known Skeptic.” To top it all off, I had just ordered my first set of business cards with “The Well-Known Skeptic” boldly emblazoned on them.

Then, on July 11, I opened Facebook to discover that Sharon Hill, an actual well-known skeptic, had written an article on her blog titled “Please don’t call me a Skeptic” (read it here). In the article she lambasted the current state of the movement, and eschewed the “skeptic” label itself, by metaphorically turning in her “Skeptic’s card.” (The article includes a photo of a business card printed in all caps with: HANDING IN MY SKEPTIC’S CARD.)

Ouch. What was “The Well-Known Skeptic” supposed to do? Well, write an article on this subject for CFI’s website, of course!

On the odd chance that a reader does not know of Sharon, I suggest perusing her in-depth Wikipedia bio (which GSoW had a hand in writing). A short summary is that she is a geologist and science writer with a focus on the paranormal, pseudoscience, and anomalous natural phenomena. She ran the Doubtful News site (recently terminated), the Spooky Geology website, and is the producer and cohost of the 15 Credibility Street podcast. Sharon has written for The Huffington Post, and also wrote the Sounds Sciencey column for the CSI website, where her bio identifies her as “a scientific and technical consultant for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.” She also has presented at numerous conferences, including TAM, NECSS, and Dragon Con. Sharon recently had her first book published, Scientifical Americans: The Culture of Amateur Paranormal Researchers.

So, now let’s discuss “Please don’t call me a Skeptic.” Sharon’s blog post began:

Several people have asked me to explain why I now reject “Skeptic” to describe myself. In short, the label is limiting and is overwrought with mistaken assumptions of being elitist, arrogant, and closed-minded. Unfortunately, being labeled a Skeptic sends a signal to some to tune out what I might say by default because of the association with having a dismissive, know-it-all attitude, defeating any efforts at meaningful exchange over questionable claims.

And it ended:

My ideas and goals were no longer in line with the majority. The idea of being a “Skeptic” has become distasteful…

I hope I see the day when skepticism gets a reboot and catches on with a public tired of lies, scams, and nonsense. Until then, I continue to be skeptical as warranted, but please don’t call me a Skeptic.

In reply to some of the comments left on her blog regarding abandoning the “Skeptic” label, Sharon doubled down on this point: 

I don’t think we need a term. The term lately refers to the something other than the process of skepticism. Like I said, I still practice the method because it works but I don’t need a label to define my views. Labels and categories are artificial and often get corrupted. Let your words and behaviors define you instead… But be assured, as I said, I will continue to do what I have been doing, just without a tag that I and others perceive as a pejorative label.

Importantly, Sharon wasn’t saying that the skeptical approach to determining truth was no longer appropriate. She just doesn’t feel comfortable any longer using the word that is universally used to describe the approach. She doesn’t like labels. In fact, as neither her long running websites nor her podcast use the word “skeptic,” I started to be doubtful that Sharon has felt comfortable identifying as a skeptic for a long time. Digging a bit into this, I discovered a 2013 article from Sharon’s column Sounds Sciencey where she foreshadowed her current announcement. That article began:

Does “skeptic” equal nasty, obnoxious and shouty? No? Then why do we get automatically tagged with those characteristics even when we are not? The word carries some connotations…

…This whole piece revolves around mistaken assumptions that observers make. One problem with much of the discussion between skeptics and believers has to do with semantics. Just using the terms “skeptics” and “believers” is limiting and mistaken in many ways. But, I feel I have no choice to use these terms to make this piece reasonably understandable. I am completely aware that this is problematic and I ask that you see this as a panorama, not as sticking people in labeled boxes.

The 2013 article concentrates on the disadvantage that being identified as a skeptic has in dialogs with believers. This perception problem is also mentioned in Sharon’s current blog article as a big reason to abandon the term, but her blog post goes further in that it details numerous other perceived problems with the movement as reasons to abandon the label and the skeptic movement altogether. But I am not going to comment here on all the problems Sharon outlined, because I haven't been involved long enough to know the history. Sharon is a veteran, and she may be correct about some of the flaws she perceives. However, I see the subject of chucking the label as a separate issue, which is fair-game for my newbie two cents. So here goes:

As soon as I read what Sharon wrote, it struck me as the wrong thing to do. I re-read the article several times to consider if perhaps motivated reasoning (concerning my recent branding, plus the $35.27 spent for my skeptic cards!) was the only reason I did not initially agree with her stance. I concede that, as Sharon stated, some people do react badly to the word skeptic. It does have some negative connotations, and I’ve experienced this myself. But is dropping the label useful, or even a remote real-world possibility? I believe that if skeptic were abandoned, the tendency would be for people to look for another label to replace it. But how would such a transformation be accomplished with such a ubiquitous word? The very concept of scientific skepticism includes a form of the word. Without thinking hard, I can come up with many other examples using the word: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, The Skeptic Zone, The Skeptic’s Dictionary, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, Skeptical Inquirer, Skeptic magazine, The Data Skeptic podcast, and even Squaring the Strange’s skepticrate, and the use of “Skeptrack” at conferences … . The list is almost endless. Do we begin an international rebranding project? Should we transition to the term doubter? What would be accomplished? I believe that whatever word took the place of skeptic would eventually acquire the same connotations, and by Sharon’s logic, also would then need to be abandoned. Maybe realizing this dilemma is why Sharon followed up, in the comments to her article, with this significant statement:

“I don’t think we need a term.”

But I do think we need a term … a label. The fact is that things, and groups of people, get labeled and categorized because that is the way humans think and process the world around them. Labels are necessary as shortcuts to avoid giving lengthy explanations whenever something is mentioned or discussed.

What about discarding a label with the goal of using an alternative, because the original has acquired negative connotations? This has historically proven to be problematic (think Brights as a replacement for Atheists). On the other side of the coin, gay folks proudly and successfully fought to reclaim a former term of disparagement, queer. Perhaps atheists as well as some skeptics need to take a lesson from that. Alright, the bottom line is that I respectfully disagree with Sharon on this point. I believe dropping the label “skeptic” is not a workable path forward.

But, being a skeptical movement newbie, whose opinion will matter very little on this subject, I was determined to ask some skeptical veterans for their take on this subject. As it turns out, I had it on my near-term schedule to interview two other skeptical podcasters: Celestia Ward, cohost of Squaring the Strange, and Jay Novella of The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

During my interview with Celestia (the entirety of which will be published soon), we were discussing the lack of female hosts on skeptically oriented podcasts, and she brought up the subject of Sharon’s blog post unprompted. Listing such podcasts, Celestia mentioned 15 Credibility Street and then said: “Oh … Sharon doesn’t really want to be known as a ‘Skeptic’ anymore, so I don’t even know if I should [list] her as having a skeptical podcast, but it’s a critical thinking podcast!” Then she continued: “Various people have some bones to pick with the movement, and while I fully admit that they have some points, I’m not ready to just throw away the baby with the bathwater.”

In the August 31 episode of Squaring the Strange, “Skeptical Burnout,” Celestia and her two cohosts, Ben Radford and Pascual Romero, discussed these very same topics at length and even mentioned a prior “appearance” of Sharon on Squaring talking about this subject. (This segment was actually recorded prior to Sharon’s July 10blog post, so it was not mentioned.) The “Burnout” episode is available here, and the relevant discussion starts at 40:45.

Celestia’s confusion about not knowing how she should refer to 15 Credibility Street in the wake of Sharon’s announcement actually touches on a big problem. How does Sharon’s request affect Wikipedia? As a member of GSoW, I have a fundamental interest in properly documenting our skeptical spokespeople in the online encyclopedia. So, doing my due diligence, as soon as I read Sharon’s blog post, I reviewed her Wikipedia biography. Another GSoW editor, David Powell, had already updated the article, including remove the statement: “Hill considers herself to be a skeptic.” I further updated the revised material, and when the changes were complete the entry read:

In 2018, Hill publicly eschewed the "skeptic" label due to perceived negative connotations of the term and issues she has with organized skepticism, however she maintains her support for the philosophy and process of scientific skepticism.

Sharon actually messaged me a thank you for this edit. This apprised me that she is (understandably) concerned with how Wikipedia covers her. But to fully honor Sharon’s “Don’t call me a Skeptic” request, much more would have to be done on Wikipedia. Like the rest of the world at large, Wikipedia categorizes things. It labels them. This enables the collection of similar things into lists to allow users to more easily find them. So, for example, Sharon is categorized as an American skeptic in the Categories section of her Wikipedia article:

This entry at the very bottom of her bio article causes Sharon to be listed on the category collection page for American skeptics under “H.” Her name appears on that page with a diverse set of folks whose only commonalities are that they are (or were) Americans and share (or shared) a skeptical viewpoint. These people include: Harry Houdini, Ray Hyman, Sam Harris, Harriet Hall, Britt Hermes, and George Hrab.

Also, there is a separately maintained alphabetical List of scientific skeptics with Wikipedia articles—Wikipedia just loves lists—which is unrelated to the above-mentioned category list:

Sharon appears in this list along with such skeptical luminaries as Isaac Asimov, Robert Todd Carroll, Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, and James Randi.

And what about Sharon’s work? If she is personally eschewing the skeptic label, does that apply to whatever she creates with skeptical content? Wikipedia has a List of Skeptical Podcasts. And guess what is listed there right at the top, in the company of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, Skeptoid, and The Skeptic Zone: Sharon’s podcast 15 Credibility Street.

If I removed her podcast from this list, where else could it be listed? Nowhere. There is no Wikipedia article called “List of Skeptical Podcasts Hosted by People Who Don’t Want to Be Called Skeptics.” The only mention of this podcast within the encyclopedia would be in Sharon’s own article, making it much harder for someone to stumble across while looking for a new skeptical podcast to check-out. That seems like a bad thing ... for both Wikipedia and Sharon.

Now, I could make edits to modify all of these things and more, but frankly I don’t think I could justify this action to other Wikipedia editors. Everything on Wikipedia is done by consensus, and follows strict rules. With over 6,200 Wikipedia edits thus far, and thus being classified as an “Experienced Editor” (a label!), I have a realistic understanding of what should or should not be changed according to the standards of the encyclopedia. I believe I have already gone as far as I could to honor Sharon’s “Don’t call me a Skeptic” request, without having to face valid pushback from the other editors.

As mentioned, I was interested in other skeptics’ opinions on this subject, so during my interview with Jay Novella of The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe (to be published shortly), I asked if Sharon’s announcement had been a topic of discussion at NECCS (the conference had begun just two days after Sharon’s blog post). It turns out that the younger Novella brother had quite a bit to say on the subject, and so I decided to summarize it here. Jay said:

It's complicated, because any word that we call ourselves is going to be bastardized. And coming up with a new word ... well, some Skeptics that I respect tried to do that and they did a miserable job. Remember the Brights? … I think Sharon made a decision that I find largely unnecessary. She is a Skeptic; that's what critical thinkers call themselves. That's the way we identify ourselves. What are you going to do, create a new word? Skepticism is a thing. It's a word that's in the vernacular. It's our community. So, I just don't know what the point is …

Regarding some of her other points: the Skeptical community is much more diverse now than it’s ever been. At NECSS 2018 we had more than 50% female speakers, and our MC is a woman (Leighann Lord). Our community may have been started by white men but it’s grown past that. The Skeptical community is similar to other communities … . There are misogynists in every community. You get enough people together, and a percentage of them are going to [misbehave]. But there's nothing particular about the Skeptical movement or the science movement that makes us different from any other community.

When [Sharon] says “I'm moving on. I'm backing away out of the Skeptical community …”, I interpret that as her saying “I'm turning my back on people who I share a world view with.” I look at it like this: this is my community for good or bad, and I'm trying to make it better. I am doing everything I can to educate people and make them better Skeptics so we collectively can change the world. I think her heart is in the right place. But I think the body is doing the wrong thing. I wouldn't recommend anyone abandon the word “Skeptic” because you will end up being branded with a new word that you didn't choose, or you will be referred to as a skeptic anyway. If a person or a group were able to re-brand the movement, the reality is that whatever word was picked, it would end up with the same baggage, and have the same feel, as the word “Skeptic” does today.

I am going to leave it at that. After many years of experience in the movement, Sharon has thought this through, come to her own conclusions, and made a public proclamation. She feels she is right and can obviously do whatever she wants regarding this subject. But I believe that if you discard a label there are only two paths forward: you try to not be associated with one at all or you attempt to adopt a new one. I have expressed my belief that neither strategy will work. So, for me, until a clearly better and workable option comes along, I’m keeping my skeptic’s card.

Acknowledgements: For significant input with the details of this article, I am very grateful to Paula Serrano and Diane Palmer.

Rob Palmer

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Rob Palmer is a former mechanical aerospace engineer (spacecraft designer), turned software engineer (programmer), turned software systems engineer (too complex to explain here). Nearing retirement, he has finally found his true calling as a skeptical activist with the Guerrilla Skeptics team.

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