Monday, 1 September 2008

So what is it?*

A looming dissertation deadline means that updates here are likely to be weekly at best over the course of September. Also, for the week or two after that I may be too drunk to write coherently. Anyway, on with today's entry...

Oddly enough, one of the most discussed topics among sceptics is the definition of scepticism itself. All seem to agree that it involves doubt in some way, but many also argue that this is not the most important defining feature; indeed, some argue that the perception of a sceptic as "one who doubts" is one which gives a false impression of the endeavour of modern scepticism.

So what is this endeavour? There must be some core principle that unites sceptics, or some certain resemblances between them - or the label of "sceptic" itself has nothing upon which to attach and is thus essentially meaningless. I would submit that rather than characterising it as a disposition to doubt, it should be regarded at its most basic level as a firm belief in the necessary freedom of enquiry. This seems to me to be a fairly solid definition of that elusive core principle that unites all sceptics.

Of course, diversity abounds when we move past that point and build further ideas into the framework - the addition of (still seemingly fundamental) ideals can and does alienate a certain minority of people who nonetheless consider themselves sceptics and promoters above all else of the absolute freedom of enquiry. There are those among the remaining majority, however, who claim that those in the minority are simply misapplying the central idea of scepticism.

For instance, what does freedom of enquiry entail? Presumably that there is no subject off-limits, no taboo and no reason to resist rational discussion of any topic. But does that go to say that equal time should be given over to each discussion? Should the ongoing controversy of string theory be given less attention so as to make way for UFOlogists, conspiracy theorists and psychics? I, and most of my fellow sceptics, would answer "no". Yet there are those who disagree.

Is a sceptic one who agrees with mantras such as "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence"? I'm tempted to say yes. Perhaps it is more clearly expressed, however, by saying that a sceptic is one who changes her mind when presented with sufficient evidence. Obviously a lot of diversity among sceptics occurs because of their varying definitions of where the line of sufficiency lies.

There is too much material out there defining sceptics in negative terms (by this I don't mean derogatory terms, simply that the definitions are negative ones) such as "sceptics don't believe in psychic powers" or "sceptics don't believe in alien abduction". Well, a significant part of the agenda for those making scepticism more visible has to be presenting it in terms of what a sceptic is, and does believe, rather than what he does not. Of course, it is also important that this does not consume the entire agenda; it's all very well promoting freedom of enquiry - but one ought to leave time to carry some out as well.

* 14 Geek Points for whichever smegheads get this reference.

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