Many skeptics I’ve spoken to, read, or seen seem to be under the impression that skepticism is a set of statements about whether or not certain things are true. It’s a common practice to associate skepticism with not believing in God, or Bigfoot, or homeopathy, and with believing in evolution, climate change, and vaccines. Many people take as a given that anyone who calls themselves a skeptic must believe or not believe these things accordingly, and that anyone who doesn’t can’t be a True Skeptic.
This sentiment is extremely commonplace in skeptic circles, with people often making jokes and declarations that rely on the premise that everyone in the group believes and disbelieves in the same things they do. At its worst, it becomes a subtle form of gatekeeping that ensures that anyone who does not believe the Right Things is excluded from the group.
And frankly, I find that far too many people are okay with this. Instead of a set of cognitive tools useful for making rational decisions, they view skepticism as simply a list of beliefs and disbeliefs. If that’s the case, why not go all the way and have a literal gatekeeper, whose job is to make sure everyone’s beliefs line up? Of course, that would turn the skeptic movement into an echo chamber, but what does it matter as long as we get to feel superior to the masses?
Instead, I reject that hypothesis. I fully believe that it’s completely possible for someone to be a skeptic and yet believe in God, homeopathy, or various and sundry conspiracy theories. I also believe that it is possible to be a skeptic and not believe in evolution, climate change, or the moon landing.
Being a skeptic is about much more than belief. For me, it’s a way of thinking, it’s letting evidence guide my decision-making process, and only believing things when I have evidence for them. It’s also recognizing that just because I’m a skeptic, that doesn’t mean I’m always right. In fact, it means that I’m probably wrong about a great many things. I certainly don’t have the time or the ability to examine all of my unconscious biases, so I doubt there will ever be a time in my life where everything I believe is true.
We all believe things that are false. Most of the time, we’re not aware of them, but I guarantee that every single person on the planet believes things that aren’t true. Even the most skeptical among us can’t protect themselves from false beliefs, and a lifetime spent examining everything won’t eradicate them all.
So why, then, if we accept that skeptics can believe things that aren’t true, do we maintain a list of things about which it is unacceptable for skeptics to be wrong? What is so different about, say, homeopathy, that makes its disbelief non-negotiable? Why is it that someone who believes in homeopathy can’t be a skeptic, while someone who believes in something that’s not “traditionally skeptic” can?
Skepticism is a process. Everyone has their blind spots, and nobody should be expected to get every question correct. What matters is the ability to challenge common assumptions and follow the evidence. No matter how many beliefs a person gets “correct,” if they don’t apply skepticism as a process they’re not really a skeptic.
And this is important, because skepticism is changing. The new, younger people entering the skeptical movement, the “second wave,” if you will, are focusing less on traditional subjects like ghosts and alternative medicine, and focusing their skepticism on everything, including subjects like gender, class, and race. And there’s currently a divide in the movement between the new wave and the old guard who are wondering what feminism and critical race theory are doing alongside discussions about Bigfoot and aliens.
The answer, of course, is that skepticism isn’t a narrow list of Things We Should Not Believe In, but rather a much broader process that can be applied to literally every facet of our lives, including the social and political issues that past skeptics shied away from. And in these cases, our unconscious biases and assumptions take the form of privilege, and challenging those assumptions leads to feminism, race theory, LGBT activism, and a whole host of discussions on other social topics that our movement is having and absolutely needs to have.
This new direction for organized skepticism is predicated on understanding skepticism as a process, rather than a litany of trues and falses. It’s time the movement distances itself from its accumulated dogma and starts exploring new ways to apply the principles of skepticism.