Yes, very good; now back to work, Skeptics

The most recent eSkeptic is a pat on the back for Skeptics everywhere in regard to their continued scepticism in re 9/11 Conspiracy Theories. I read it and I have to say that I thought ‘What the?’ for two biggish reasons.

1). The article assumes sceptics are skeptics.

Now, I tend to use ‘Skeptic’ to refer to the American variety, usually affiliated with Dr. Michael Shermer and (my sponsor) ‘The Amazing’ James Randi. There are other varieties, but usually, if I write ‘sceptic’ then I’m just talking about people with sceptical positions, some of which will be full-blown philosophical sceptics and others sceptical in one area, credulous in another, et al. The problem with the article, as I see it, is that it assumes people sceptical of 9/11 Conspiracy Theories are Skeptics.

This might be unfair, on my part; the article does focus a lot of attention on the Popular Mechanics article-turned-book and talks Shermer has given, and these are very definitely skeptical outcomes, but the other strand of argumentation, that skeptics everywhere have pounced upon 9/11 deniers’ websites and winnowed them down to nothing, seems to rely merely on the ambiguity between ‘skeptic’ and ‘sceptic.’ Not every sceptic is a skeptic; for instance, I’m a sceptic who is sceptical of beliefs held by skeptics…

(For a more nuanced look at the role of scepticism, in re 9/11 denial, I’d recommend taking a look at Steve Clarke’s ‘Conspiracy Theories and the Internet: Controlled Demolition and Arrested Development’ from the ‘Episteme’ special issue on Conspiracy Theories. My summary of it is here. Basically, people are sceptical of wacky claims on the internet and sometimes not for principled reasons whatsoever…)

2). It’s all very well being skeptical of 9/11 Conspiracy Theories but really, get with the programme. If this is your great success story, your ‘pat on the back’ moment,’ then it’s also a tacit admission that the Skeptics have, by and large, failed in their ability to pull it together in regard to applying their skepticism towards Climate Change Denial Conspiracy Theories. The Skeptics (well, some of their leading figures) have come late to the realisation that anthropogenic climate change is a reality and there is still some infighting in their ranks about the issue. If they really want to have a good reason to get together and hug each other, then this is the one to look towards.


douglas clark says:

I am a bit confused here. It might have been the glass of wine.. However, why are you using the words sceptic and skeptic as having seperate and distinct meanings? Even if they have, they are surely too closely linked to allow outsiders – me for instance – to comprehend the difference. Are we not safer sticking with, on the one hand sceptics, meaning folk that debunk junk ideas, and conspiracy theorists, who may, or may not, be right once in while?

I could handle an arguement between the sceptics and conspiracy theorists. It would be hard to know which side to be on in an arguement between sceptics and skeptics, I think.

Is this an American thing? Well understood and stuff?

admin says:

Like many things, the Americans have kept with the more traditional (olde worlde) spelling of Sceptic, ‘Skeptic.’ That’s really by-the-by, however; I’m following in the footsteps of an article from the Fortean Times (which is not to hand as it’s in my office whilst I am not) which argues that skepticism (epitomised by the American ‘Skeptics Society’) is a more dogmatic version of scepticism and thus deserves to be speciated out.

I’m not sure how well known the distinction is, truth be told; amongst some of my academic colleagues it seems to be accepted that sceptic with a ‘k’ often reflects a different view to sceptic with a ‘c’ but, in Philosophy at least, sceptic with a ‘c’ has other meanings (we don’t tend to equate sceptics or skeptics, on an everyday basis, with people who think the outside world might not exist, et cetera).

douglas clark says:

Cheers, it is always good to come across another reader of the inestimable Fortean Times. Whose editorial policy also seems to skip from sceptic to skeptic on a regular basis. Just my opinion, right enough.

admin says:

You’re right. It’s one of the things I like about the Fortean Times, that sensation that you don’t know how the article will conclude. One of the things I don’t like about the ‘Skeptical Inquirer’ or ‘The Skeptic’ is just how much they read like parish newsletters.