Siouxland Freethinkers is a group of “atheists, agnostics, humanists and skeptics.” Each of those words, however, has multiple meanings that create lots of confusion, even amongst people who use those labels themselves. People seem to bandy about skeptic especially, sowing confusion when they mean different but related things. As the group’s current VP for Scientific Skeptic Programs, I wanted to take one of my first blog posts to explain what Siouxland Freethinkers specifically mean by skeptic.
Skepticism, in the context of freethought, usually means scientific skepticism. In scientific skepticism, one follows a principle in thinking: one doubts a claim unless good reasons justify it. In particular, we need evidence to accept claims about the natural world. And not just any evidence: the less the evidence points to alternative explanations, the better. Science provides us with the highest-quality evidence.
So, the “skeptics” of Siouxland Freethinkers demand evidence before accepting any claim. Most people mean something different when they say they are skeptics, however.
Doesn’t skeptic simply mean someone who doubts?
When we say “I’m skeptical” in everyday conversation we simply mean we have trouble believing some claim. Science deniers, such as climate change deniers or anti-vaccination agitators, use skeptic in this sense: they simply do not accept the scientific evidence. Sometimes, though, we also use the word “skeptic” to mean “cynic”: a person who by default views people as motivated by the worst of intentions, such as base greed, lust, desire for power, etc. In contrast, while scientific skeptics start with doubt (and perhaps a dash of cynicism), they will change their minds if good evidence comes in.
To illustrate these different uses, take for example the recent (June, 2014) embarrassment of Mehmet Oz MD in the U.S. Senate (see for example, this L.A. Times article). Sen. McCaskill publicly criticized the TV entertainer for promoting, in hyperbolic language, “nutritional supplements” to treat specific physical issues, such as green coffee extract for weight loss. In the usual sense of “skeptical” as “doubtful,” one could say “I’m skeptical that green coffee extract helps with weight loss.” Using “skeptical” to mean “cynical,” we might hear “Skeptics think that Dr. Oz knowingly shills ineffective treatments to boost his TV ratings and advertising dollars.” While both of these statements may capture our belief, in the scientific skeptical sense one would better say “Dr. Oz’s statement about green coffee extract is an unlikely empirical claim that should be tested, with controls to rule out the possibility that any weight loss seen may be due to other factors.” And then we demand good evidence (not anecdotes and testimonials). And if the well-done scientific studies keep coming up against his claim, then we can say he’s full of it (as he himself so much as admitted).
So, Siouxland Freethinkers is a group of atheists, agnostics, humanists, and skeptics. But that doesn’t mean we simply doubt. It means we weigh claims and evidence. That is, we think.