Tuesday 23 September 2008

I Skeptic

As much as I enjoyed the “God Delusion” and found its arguments incontrovertible, it’s not my favourite of Dawkins’ books. I’m not a scientist, (well I’m a computer scientist, but that doesn’t count as I don’t get to wear a white coat). I do however have an interest in championing logic, critical thinking and reason over superstition , pseudo science and general woo woo which I suspect stems from my emergent curiosity in real science. Hence my preference for Dawkins books like “The Selfish Gene” and the “Blind Watchmaker” that provide a logical and scientific explanation for the world around us. In addition to giving me a logical perspective on the ludicrousness of religion, reading science books has additionally promoted my interest in the absurdity of other popular beliefs that fly in the face of science and reason.

I suspect that these beliefs and myths are promoted by media keen to serve a public who view science as boring and elitist. However in a year when the Phoenix Lander has successfully touched down on the surface of an alien planet and we have built a gigantic Hadron Collider that will be capable of simulating the conditions moments after the big bang, incredulously most people still find Victoria Beckham's new hair do more news worthy. Anyway my thirst for the latest scientific news as opposed to celebrity hair fashions led me into the world of Skepticism were are a number of jolly useful resources like the SGU, Skepticality, Point of Enquiry, Skeptoid and JREF podcasts have helped to keep me informed. Not to mention the monthly speakers at the Skeptics in the Pub (London is my nearest).

In my previous post I argued in favour of boldly and publicly declaring myself as an Atheist. In this post I wanted to explore the pros and cons associated with declaring myself as a Skeptic. (NB I have deliberately used the American spelling as I believe it is more representative of the Skeptic movement than the English word sceptic.) Logically I should apply the same arguments to the word “Skeptic” as I did to the word “Atheist” and therefore reach the same logical conclusion that I should wear my Skeptic badge with pride. But I have two issues with the identifier “Skeptic”.

Firstly, although the term is widely understood within the Skeptical community, I fear that the word is more ambiguous in the community at large due to the literal definition of the word. As an example, a visitor recently spotted a copy of Michael Shermer’s Skeptic magazine in my lounge and asked if I had made a ‘U’ turn on my Darwinist views. On further questioning, it turns out that she equated the word Skeptic with the things she was personally sceptical of, which in her case, sadly, included the theory of evolution. I found this rather worrying, because to me the whole point of Skeptisim from my perspective is to support and promote those theories with overwhelming scientific evidence and investigate logical and reasonable explanations for phenomenon that are attributed to the supernatural. Therefore, do other people confuse the meaning of the Skeptic movement based on their personal beliefs, for example do they consider themselves as Skeptics of modern medicine and prefer to entrust their health to mumbo jumbo or treatments with the magical word “natural” in the title. If so this is a complete reversal to the Skeptical movement’s viewpoint on this topic.

Secondly, I’ve also received comments that as a Skeptic I must be very “closed minded”. Again this is in my opinion a complete reversal of the truth. Although I don’t believe that little green men are buzzing the planet and sticking their shiny probe up the unsuspecting hairy arse of a farmer in Ohio, if sound scientific evidence where produced to confirm the existence of extra terrestrial life, that would be the most exciting news story I’ve every heard, and most welcomed. Compare this with the stance of the blind faith believers when asked how they would respond to irrefutable evidence that disproved their faith, and in every example I’ve heard they would not be prepared to concede their previous stance and cling on to their delusions regardless of evidence to the contrary. And apparently I'm the closed minded one!

I’m not proposing a name change, just voicing some issues I have encountered with the term Skeptic, and was wondering if others have experienced the same problem. I’ll continue to take advantage of the great Skeptic resources available, but I may have to be careful to qualify my stance when using the label outside of the Skeptic Village. Perhaps the growth of the Skeptical community will help it grow into a synonym for critical thinking,, reason and scientific advancement rather than just a bunch of miserable doubters and debunkers.

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