A Brief History of Skepticism
by Arlo Eisenberg
I crave attention. Not all of the time and not all kinds of attention, but as a general rule I prefer being noticed to not. I’ve shaved devil horns into my hair and bleached a halo into it. I went through a prolonged phase where I dressed, basically, like a teenaged girl and now I blog about my tattoos and post topless pics on the internet. Getting attention may not have ever been my sole motivation, but it has always been a welcomed perk.
I enjoy the creative process and finishing a new piece of work is often its own reward, but I also want validation. When I create a new painting I want people to see it. When I write a new blog post I want people to read it. Often, in my haste for feedback I will enlist my mother, at any time, day or night (because she can’t say no and because she is obligated – and genetically predisposed – to shower me with praise).
Whenever I finish an article or an essay I immediately send it to my mother for her review (and approval). Almost as immediately, I place a follow-up phone call, ostensibly to make sure she receives the article, but really just as a ploy to get instant feedback (my “follow-up” phone call usually reaches my mother before the email with the article does).
Emboldened by my mother’s affection and unconditional support and unencumbered by any sense of shame or self-awareness I sometimes linger on the phone and listen while my mother reads the entire article to herself (even if she doesn’t read it out loud) and I wait breathlessly for the inevitable affirmation and boost to my ego that is sure to follow. My mother always delivers!
“Did you see what Aunt Karen wrote?” I asked my mother recently on a phone call, referring to a comment my aunt had left on Facebook regarding one of my Skeptic Tattoos posts. Aunt Karen wrote, “I read it all and even went back and read some old ones. But even so, I'm still a little unclear what it's all about. You do write beautifully.”
I was a little tickled by my Aunt Karen’s response. “A little unclear??” Haha, could it have been any more clear? Skeptic Tattoos was my manifesto! My words were carefully parsed and my syntax was meticulously measured for optimal comprehension. I’d spent countless evening and weekend hours, in my underwear, at my computer obsessing over my essays precisely so that the meaning would NOT be misunderstood. How could anyone not get it?
I was ready to share a little snicker with my mother, a nod of understanding. “Isn’t it funny,” I imagined we would be thinking, “that Aunt Karen doesn’t get this thing that we get. Aren’t people who don’t comprehend what we comprehend kind of funny?”
There was a brief silence before my mother’s reply came over the phone, “I don’t really get it either,” she confessed.
“I mean, I get the tattoos part,” she continued, “I understand that people get tattoos, I’ve just never understood why skeptic tattoos? I mean, what is skepticism anyway? It sounds like it is a kind of religion.”
If I’d failed to make an impression on my mother – my own mother! – the one person in the world whom I was sure had actually read every single article that I’d ever posted (and who’d pretended to like them all), then what hope was there of reaching anyone?
“So, what is it?” she continued, “What is skepticism?”
This was a moment that I should have been prepared for, certainly after fifteen years as a practicing Skeptic. I’ve been to Skeptic meet-ups and to Skeptic conventions. I’ve read countless Skeptical books and magazines. I listen to Skeptical podcasts and I’ve contributed to Skeptical forums. I have my own flipping Skeptical website for Carl Sagan’s sake!! Surely I was up to the task.
“Well, Skepticism provides the tools for discriminating between competing ideas,” I began. “It is a worldview that demands evidence for all claims. All knowledge is provisional and subject to review and revision and the methods of science provide the most reliable tools for making observations and evaluating evidence…”
I rambled on like this for a while longer, just stringing together different Skeptical words and concepts, seemingly at random. At the end of my jumbled, Skeptical improvisation I was embarrassed for myself and felt completely deflated and was sure that I had not helped my mother in the slightest. I meekly excused myself from the conversation and wondered how this could have happened.
If I am going to carry on like this, I thought, putting myself out there as an advocate for Skepticism, then I had darn well better be prepared with a concise – and accessible – definition of what Skepticism is.
I needed an elevator pitch.
There are a lot of descriptions of Skepticism already out there and even a lot of concise, pithy definitions from people that I really admire. In drafting my own elevator pitch for Skepticism I intended to reference as many definitions and resources as I could and to borrow from them freely, but I also wanted something that would be in my own voice and that would match my personal conception of what Skepticism is. And let’s not forget that I also needed something that would resonate with my mother.
Before whittling down to my final elevator pitch I would to like start with a broad view of Skepticism and then narrow the focus in from there. Familiarity with the history of Skepticism won’t be necessary for grasping the final condensed pitch, but a little bit of background will provide some helpful context and will no doubt expand the breadth of understanding. Before I surrender to the constraints of the hypothetical elevator ride and the correspondingly brief pitch, I may as well take advantage of the long format available here.
So, if you will, a brief history of modern Skepticism…
Skepticism has been around for as long as humans have had ideas. But, the movement of modern Skepticism as we know it today (also known as Scientific Skepticism or Skeptical Inquiry) really began around the middle of the twentieth century. It should be noted that the oldest Skeptical organization, Vereniging tegen de Kwakzalverij, a group devoted to debunking medical quackery was founded in the Netherlands all the way back in 1881 (they are still in operation today!!). But it was a succession of events in the twentieth century that really spearheaded the modern global movement.
The Comité Para was a Skeptical organization founded in Belgium in 1949. The committee was formed largely in response to the rash of psychics and mediums that were springing up all over Europe after the Second World War. Predatory clairvoyants, astrologers and dowsers were exploiting the widespread grief of families desperate to reconnect with their lost loved ones. The Comité Para rose up to combat the charlatans.
Just a few years later in 1952 Martin Gardner’s book, Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science, was published and laid the groundwork for the modern Skeptical movement. By taking on a wide swath of extraordinary claims from ESP and UFOs to medical quacks and Young Earth Creationists, Gardner demonstrated that science could be universally applied to the examination of all extraordinary claims. Michael Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic magazine referred to Fads & Fallacies when he said, "Modern skepticism has developed into a science-based movement, beginning with Martin Gardner's 1952 classic".
In 1976, inspired in no small part by the Belgian Comité Para, Paul Kurtz, a secular humanist philosopher and professor, gathered as many skeptical researchers as he could find, including Martin Gardner, James Randi, Ray Hyman, Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov – many of whom were already involved with a fledgling investigative committee at the time called RSEP (Resources for the Scientific Evaluation of the Paranormal) – and together they formed a new organization called the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal or CSICOP, which would be supported by a new magazine, Skeptical Inquirer.
For many, the founding of CSICOP in 1976 marked the beginning of the modern Skeptical movement. After CSICOP many other Skeptical organizations started forming all over the world and largely through the influence of the magazine, Skeptical Inquirer, terms such as ‘skeptic’ and ‘skepticism’ started to be widely adopted by and associated with the movement (In 2006 the group’s own official name was changed to include the word “Skeptical,” and it was shortened from CSICOP to CSI for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.)
Since CSI marked the beginning of the modern Skeptical movement, it will also mark a good place to begin the search for content and inspiration for my elevator pitch.
CSI’s mission statement says that they promote “science and scientific inquiry, critical thinking, science education, and the use of reason in examining important issues,” and they encourage “the critical investigation of controversial or extraordinary claims from a responsible, scientific point of view.”
I particularly like the line about promoting, “the use of reason in examining important issues.” For my elevator pitch I would like to keep the language as casual and comfortable as possible; same goes for the ideas. Using reason to examine important issues sounds pretty straightforward and not very controversial. It is an accessible idea delivered in conversational, easy to understand language.
When addressing other Skeptics there is a tendency to expect that an overly technical or precise explanation will be appreciated. Skeptics recognize that the use of casual or imprecise language (so easily obfuscated by weasel words and fuzzy definitions) can mislead or leave too much room for interpretation (what does “energy” really mean, for instance, when used colloquially), which can lead to misunderstanding. The problem is that when technical precision comes at the expense of broad accessibility the message for the non-Skeptic can easily become lost.
Dr. Steven Novella is a giant among Skeptics; a Skeptical rockstar if ever there was one (granted the image of a “Skeptical rockstar” does not come to mind very naturally, or at least not very gracefully). He is the host of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast, a contributor to countless blogs (including NeuroLogica and Science-Based Medicine), a practicing Neurologist and he is the most thoughtful, intelligent, engaging and articulate ambassador of Skepticism there is (yes, I’m a fan). But, listen to what happens when Steven Novella attempts to define Skepticism.
He is right, of course, and it is a great definition, but it requires a very careful reading and I could just see my mother’s eyes glossing over if I ever tried it on her.
Michael Shermer, the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, said in his Ted Talk about Skepticism:
There is no doubt that the inclusion of science (which is itself just the systematic application of reason) must be central to any description of Skepticism. James Randi, the eponymous founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) and the world’s largest Skeptical conference, The Amazing Meeting said, “Science gives you a standard to work against.” And in a perfectly succinct and conversational summation Randi concluded:
On the Skeptoid website Brian Dunning writes:
Not surprisingly, reason, critical thinking and science are all themes that keep coming up over and over again, especially as they relate to the testing of claims. Honestly, consider the following statement:
This is basically just a synthesized version of what Shermer, Dunning, Novella, et al. have already said and it is about as succinct and accurate a description of Skepticism as I could ever hope to get. I could just run with it and call it a day, and in fact, I will use it as my “Twitter Pitch” (at 140 characters or less), but for my elevator pitch, for my mother, there are still some things that need to be fleshed out. I would like for the scope of the elevator pitch to be a little broader.
There was something else interesting worth considering in the second half of Dunning’s quote where he wrote, “It's the process of finding a supported conclusion, not the justification of a preconceived conclusion.” He is describing not just what Skepticism is, but also what it is not, “it is not the justification of a preconceived conclusion.”
Steven Novella writes:
Again, the definition is augmented by the inclusion of what Skepticism is not, Skeptics prefer beliefs that are reliable “to ones that are comforting or convenient.”
Including some discussion or reference to what Skepticism is not is important because Skepticism is so easily misunderstood. In many cases the misunderstanding is not just trivial it is profound; the confusion is often so severe that people end up with an idea of Skepticism that is actually the exact opposite of what it really is, as when my mother thought that Skepticism was like a religion or when people wonder if I am skeptical about climate change or the lunar landing – I am not and I am not (the overwhelming scientific consensus is that the Earth’s climate is warming and that humans are causing it and I have not seen any good evidence that the Apollo moon landings were hoaxed, but plenty of good evidence that they weren’t).
I got my mother on the phone. It was late in the evening on a Saturday night. I’d been writing all day. I was excited and nervous to finally try my elevator pitch on her. She insisted on using FaceTime, which compounded my insecurities. Instead of just reading the pitch over the phone as I had intended, I would now also have to watch in real time as my mother listened. I would have to agonize over every facial tick and try to decipher every expression, watching for any hint of bemusement or worse…indifference!
To make matters worse, I could also see myself on the screen, which further amplified my own self-consciousness. Normally I would be excited to share with my mother, but this felt different. I felt like the lame kid at school who got cut-down with an insult and then showed up several days later, after coming up with the perfect comeback at home, only to shout back, “Oh yeah, well, well...why don’t YOU shut up!” I’d already crashed and burned once why was I coming back for more? It was not like my mother had requested it. She wasn’t waiting for me to come back with the perfect explanation of Skepticism. She couldn’t have cared less.
I began directing my mother, I was trying to recreate our original exchange, “Could you ask me again, say, ‘So, what is Skepticism?’”
Whatever I was trying to accomplish – I think I may have been stalling a bit, trying to delay reading the elevator pitch for fear of failing again – I certainly wasn’t doing anything to alleviate the painfulness or awkwardness of the situation.
“So what is Skepticism?” my mother asked dutifully.
I stammered a bit and then read from the monitor, finally, my elevator pitch:
Nervously I turned my gaze away from the monitor and set my eyes back on my mother who’d been sitting by expressionless on FaceTime. I’d invested so much: all of the research, all of the late nights, all of the pants-less weekends and skipped showers. I’d done all I could, probably a lot more than I should have.
I was satisfied with what I’d come up with. The elevator pitch included all of the essential points that I’d wanted to hit from my research:
1. Keep it conversational. Don’t get overly wordy or technical.
2. Feature science prominently.
3. Allude to reason, critical thinking and the testing of claims.
4. Include the “Twitter Pitch” as a Key Sentence.
5. Include some description of what Skepticism is not.
6. Make some reference to the history of Skepticism. (This one was a bonus.)
My mother sat silent for a while. It was really excruciating. I wanted to say something, out of nervousness. I could feel the sense of embarrassment rising in me all over again. Finally, my mother, staring at me pensively from the screen of my smart phone broke the silence and said, “I really like you with a beard. It looks really good on you.”
I'm not sure how I was supposed to take that, but It certainly didn’t feel like a victory. Unlike the first time, however, when I left the exchange feeling dejected, like I’d failed in some way, this time I was at peace. My ego was probably a little bruised, but I was happy with my preparation and how I’d represented Skepticism.
The truth is, the exercise was never really about my mother. I thought that I had something to prove to her, something to resolve, but the real issue was really always with me. She wasn't left lying awake at night after my first bumbling attempt, she wasn't obsessing over it. I was. I wanted to be a better representative for Skepticism, even if only within my small social network. I felt like I’d squandered an opportunity to score a positive impression for Skepticism and I never wanted to feel like that again.
Being a Skeptic is not a passive endeavor. Skepticism is a tool that requires constant sharpening. I may not have gotten the reaction that I wanted from my mother, but I got the peace of mind that comes with hard work and preparation.
Who knows, maybe I'll get a better reaction from my Aunt Karen.
For further reading:
I would like to give a special acknowledgement to Eric Tergerson, the host of Portland's PDX Skeptics in the Pub. Eric put together a great PowerPoint presentation on the origins of Scientific Skepticism that I referenced for my own article and which inspired me to significantly expand its scope.