Because the universe is beautiful enough without having to lie about it

Skeptical Heresies #1

February 9th, 2011 Posted in General

I’ve been working on the Creationism videos quite a lot lately, but thought I’d take a break to talk about something a bit different. I want to introduce my top ten Skeptical Heresies. OK, so the concept of heresy in skepticism is ridiculous, but what I wanted to do was to highlight that there are a number of topics that people don’t really tend to talk about in skepticism – and that’s probably not a healthy thing. In fact, some of these topics are not only ignored, but actually cause substantial friction whenever they’re brought up.

Today, we’re starting with the most obvious, elephant-in-the-room-esque heresy of all:

1. Let’s drop the term “skeptic”

“Skeptic” is a really bad label.

Firstly, it really doesn’t mean what most people think it means – it gets confused with the word “cynic” far too much and it generally has negative connotations. You might counter by saying that the word is defined well enough, but dictionary definitions are way less important than actual public comprehension and the uses that a word has in the wild. A great example of this is the word “gay” – many people continued to use it to mean “happy” or “merry” long after it had ceased to mean that to all but the oldest generations. People who continued to insist that it meant those things and only those things, instead of its new usage as a label for homosexuality, generally looked out-of-date and humourless. The same is happening to skeptics.

Secondly, it’s been co-opted by people such as “climate skeptics” or “holocaust skeptics” to actually cover people who doubt things that are way beyond the stage where a sane human being could or should doubt them. I.e. it’s being used by conspiracy theorists and cynics to describe themselves. After all, nobody wants to refer to their group or activity as “climate change denialists” or “anti-holocaust delusionals”.

Thirdly, let’s face it, it’s a horrible word. It sounds like a cross between “septic” (as in ‘-wound’ or ‘-tank’) and Skeksis – those evil, shrivelled half-avian creatures in the film “Dark Crystal”. That is not a good image. And image matters.

So what else could we go for? The obvious question is : do we actually need a term to describe us? The answer is probably “yes”, but I’m open to debate. We need a term that means “someone who examines claims using the scientific method”, and “open-minded towards any claim to the extent that the evidence supports it”. But skeptics are usually activists too, or at least, “people who are interested in propagating the truth to the public”, and “those interested in preventing organisations and individuals from making misleading and/or fallacious claims.”

Is there actually a word for this? Maybe we need a new one? There’s always “rationalists”, but that doesn’t convey the activism, and comes across a bit dry. “Humanist” doesn’t necessarily convey the skepticism or the scientific foundations, but it might be fairly close. I personally quite like “scientific humanism”, though again it misses the whole activism role.

Surely other people have come up with better ideas than these?

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