Thursday, January 29, 2009

What is a Skeptic?

There's been some discussion on the email list about the name of our group, and I'd like to throw in my two cents here.

To say that someone is a skeptic does not say much about that person's religious beliefs, or lack thereof. In fact, it may be that religion is the farthest thing from that person's mind. As an atheist, I lack belief in a god or gods. But that can be a pretty boring topic of conversation time and time again. Morally, I align myself with much of secular humanism, but I'd rather do good things than talk about what is good. No, I was never so great at philosophy.

Skepticism, for me, is a whole other ball game. To be a skeptic is to challenge and question everything, whether it be belief in a god, talking to ghosts, alternative medicine, or a new product that is being sold on a television commercial. Every person uses a bit of skepticism when making every day decisions, and everyone can stand to use a bit more. For this reason, I think that to be a skeptic is the most practical way to be, and that skepticism is actually the most inclusive term. Anyone can apply observation and critical thinking skills to a problem, even if it does take time to hone those skills. A person armed with a "baloney detection kit" at all times is acting as a skeptic. Most of us will have our skeptical alarm bells set off if a stranger in a parking lot offers to hold our purse while we load groceries into our car. My skeptical alarm will surely sound whenever I hear a claim for diet pills or magnetic therapy. Most people will balk if you tell them that the Virgin Mary appeared on your grilled cheese sandwich. Skeptics are the ones with the answer when someone asks, "What's the harm in believing?"

Skeptics aren't just curmudgeonly naysayers, either. Most that I've met have a deep appreciation for science, and the wonderful ways in which our universe works. For them, reality is enough to explore. There is no need for the "supernatural." Look at all the fabulous things we can learn through evidence and reason! For example, every atom in your body, that is not hydrogen or helium, was formed in the core of a massive star many billions of years ago, or in the explosive aftermath that marked its death, called a supernova. In the words of one of the greatest skeptics of the modern age, and one of my personal heroes, Carl Sagan, "The Earth and every living thing are made of star stuff." I highly recommend Sagan's Demon Haunted World to anyone for an introduction into Sagan's thought processes, and I have a copy that is available to borrow!

So, I guess that's why I'm happy with the name Skeptics' Group, or Skeptics' Society, or CVille Skeptics, or Skeptical Badasses, whatever sounds coolest. It's a positive way of saying, "we're a thinking bunch of people, and nothing is safe from our rational approach to life!"

I'd also encourage you to check out a longer article, "What is Skepticism?" by Sam Ogden over at Skepchick. It talks abut skepticism as a handy-dandy toolkit for investigating claims, whether it be everyday or not-so-ordinary, and how it is like "science express."


  1. Those of you with kids might find this book useful: "Maybe Yes, Maybe No: A Guide for Young Skeptics." It is a gentle introduction to the scientific method.

  2. Great blog, Nicole, many thanks for setting this up. And to Amanda for the newsletter and all her other recruiting work. You guys are blowing me away with your energy -- I couldn't be more thrilled that this is happening!

    I agree with your recommendation for Demon-Haunted World -- it's often the first book I recommend to encourage people toward skepticism, and then, hopefully, humanism results. He moves from areas that we all can chuckle at, like alien abductions, then seduces you into questioning your most basic assumptions. Next thing you know you've fallen in love with science!

    I hope we go with the group name of Charlottesville Skeptics Society. It sounds more dignified as we aspire to take over the intellectual world (maybe we can fool folks).

    I view skepticism as employing the scientific method in one's everyday life, and a prerequisite for humanism. So skepticism, to me, is a tool to gather truth, and humanism is what you do with that truth to give meaning to your life and make the world a better place. All based on truth. Or else it's all meaningless.

  3. "Maybe yes, maybe no." Wow that's a great motto for skeptics.

    Another thing about "Demon-Haunted World" that I liked, is I learned that I wasn't the only one who thought UFOs were cool when I was younger! I wondered why more astronomers didn't look into them, until I realized there was little evidence to investigate...

    Skepticism is how you think, and humanism is what you do about it... I like that a lot.