What Makes a True Skeptic?
Ask someone who makes a claim, "What would it take for you to change your mind?"
Posted September 27, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
Imagine that you've spent a good part of your life vigorously defending a certain idea, only to hear that idea being invoked to justify something you find abhorrent. Perhaps you're a strong supporter of academic freedom and a believer in considering multiple points of view—and then you discover that evolution deniers are using those exact phrases to demand that creationism be taught in science classes. Or maybe, after rhapsodizing for years about the importance of cooperation and harmony, you notice corporations using those very words to justify preventing workers from joining a union, which would be, in their words, "divisive."1 And you're left stammering, along with J. Alfred Prufrock, "That is not what I meant at all."
Feel free to supply your own examples. Here's mine: I've long been a champion of critical thinking, a bit suspicious of the establishment, and wary of conformity. I've emphasized the importance of helping children to become "reflective rebels" and I've proposed practical strategies to that end for teachers as well as parents.2 But these days "the term 'skeptic,' and in fact the format of skeptical analysis and debunking, has been hijacked by science deniers pretending to be skeptics, tarnishing the brand and sowing confusion."3
"Don't believe everything you're told! Do your research!" is the self-satisfied challenge often issued, disconcertingly, by anti-vaxxers, by those who reject climate change science, and by purveyors of nonsensical and dangerous claims about the 2020 election. When others shake their heads in horrified incredulity at discredited assertions plucked from the darkest recesses of the web, they are often dismissed as naive "sheeple" who don't dare to question the "official story." Debunkers of the QAnon cult—a nightmarish blend of religious zealotry, fascism, and psychopathology—are said to be duped and in thrall to the conventional wisdom, whereas the peddlers of its intricate lunacies portray themselves as the true questioners and skeptics.
In short, the language of skepticism has been co-opted in order to lend credence to pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. It is a diabolical strategy even though most of those who have adopted it really do appear to regard themselves as brave truth-tellers. And it leaves long-time defenders of skepticism struggling to rescue the concept and make sense of what's going on.
In search of answers, I dug into two recent books: Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World by biologists Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. West (Random House, 2020), and The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe by neurologist Steven Novella (Grand Central, 2018). Ironically, one can easily imagine either of those titles being used by the very people whose claims the books offer strategies for debunking—perhaps a Facebook page or YouTube video entitled "Calling Bullshit on Biden's Victory" (or "...on the Effectiveness of Vaccines" or "...on Climate Change Alarmism").
Both books provide useful criteria for distinguishing between specific assertions that are credible—or studies that are well-constructed—and those that aren't. But it's more challenging to specify when skepticism itself has been twisted into something terrible. How do we distinguish authentic or constructive skepticism from the faux kind?
It won't do to say, "Real skeptics question x, not y" or "... the claims of these people rather than those people." Progressives may be inclined to equate authentic skepticism with folks who share their political perspective, but bizarre conspiracy theories—to say nothing of dubious claims about vaccines and New Age magical phenomena—are by no means confined to those on the right. So, too, for the targets of skepticism: Opposition to Big Tech or disdain for the mainstream media or those who direct (or profit from) the global economy is found at both ends of the political spectrum. While a careful analysis might reveal important differences between critiques from the left and the right, the key point is that relying on one's politics as a guide begs the question of why certain beliefs deserve to be regarded as trustworthy while others don't.
Might it be more promising, then, to focus on what leads someone to be skeptical in general? The goal should be to get at the truth, but some people seem to respond critically to whatever they hear more because it makes them feel superior (since negativity is thought to signal intelligence) or bravely independent (even though some self-professed skeptics merely run with a different herd or uncritically accept the pronouncements of a different leader).
A certain calcified version of skepticism about what is generally accepted can shade into conspiracy theorizing—in which the favored theory, no matter how convoluted, is conveniently exempted from critical analysis. (In fact, any evidence that contradicts the theory is usually just regarded as further support for the conspiracy and proof of how widely it has spread.)
Given what researchers have discovered about the psychological profiles of people attracted to conspiracy theories,4 it's not unreasonable to think that the motives for an individual's skepticism might help us to determine how defensible it is, the ideal version being animated by a simple desire to know (and help others understand) what's true. "Calling bullsh*t is not about making yourself look or feel smarter ... [but] about making others smarter."5The practical problem with this criterion, however, is that almost everyone claims to be motivated by a quest for the truth.
What Is Genuine Skepticism?
Rather than looking to characteristics of the skeptic or the targets of his or her skepticism, perhaps we need to dig deeper into the nature of skepticism itself. A defining feature of genuine skepticism is that it isn't employed to reach a foregone conclusion or to discredit a conclusion that one just doesn't like. A true skeptic is "critical" in both senses of that word—willing to challenge what is widely believed rather than taking it on faith,6 but also committed to relying on careful analysis. Skepticism and criticism come from Greek words meaning, respectively, to examine or investigate, and to judge or discern.
But everything turns on the quality of that investigation. Finding a claim on Facebook is not the same thing as finding a claim that has been tested in a study published in a refereed journal. And even in the latter case, it makes sense to look at how the study was conducted, how large the effect size was, and whether it's been replicated. (It's cheating to cherry-pick an anomalous result that confirms what one already believes, ignoring a larger body of contrary evidence.)
When the difference in status between astronomy and astrology is erased, when claims about vaccines causing autism are treated as seriously as the solid science that has decisively refuted those claims, when anyone whose favored candidate loses an election can declare that the vote was rigged, then we have entered the poisonous realm of epistemic relativism: You have your truth and I have mine, and there's no way to tell who's right.
Genuine skepticism is constructed on a repudiation of such relativism, while faux skepticism thrives on it—and authoritarianism actively cultivates it.7 A genuine skeptic says, "I'm not sure whether to believe this," which implies that belief is possible but hinges on the presentation of convincing evidence. A faux skeptic says, "You can't believe anything people tell you" or—what paradoxically amounts to the same thing—"You can believe anything you want."
Real skeptics aren't just defined negatively by the absence of relativism, but positively by an openness to evidence. Specifically, I think of Karl Popper's test of falsifiability: We should be prepared to say that something is true only if we can specify what would disprove it (and if we know that it hasn't in fact been disproved). I would suggest adapting that theoretical test into this practical challenge for anyone who makes a claim: What would it take for you to change your mind? A skeptic would say, "Well, if it turned out that such-and-such was true, then I'd have to rethink my position." A denialist or conspiracy theorist who is merely posing as a skeptic would likely come up with a reason to dismiss any disconfirming argument or evidence. (If you have a Facebook or Twitter account, you can watch that unfolding in real-time.)
Examining Our Own Skepticism
Of course, we must be prepared to turn this challenge on ourselves, too, which means that skepticism is defined not only by falsifiability but also by humility. Beware of skepticism employed in a way that's a little too convenient in that it just supports what you already believe. We're all vulnerable to motivated reasoning and confirmation bias: We disproportionately notice and remember information that supports what we assume is true, and we construct justifications for arriving at the conclusions we prefer while finding reasons to ignore or dismiss anything that challenges those beliefs.
To be sure, no one has the time or intellectual bandwidth to question everything. We can't live without assumptions that are taken to be true, at least provisionally. We rely on shortcuts, turning to certain thought leaders and reference groups we've already deemed trustworthy, in deciding which claims to accept. But a true skeptic has given careful thought to the criteria that make those people trustworthy.
The educator Debbie Meier has suggested that for a school or classroom to be democratic doesn't mean that every issue has to be discussed, only that every issue has to be discussable. Similarly, skepticism doesn't require that all claims must be questioned but that all claims must be open to question. (And, as Carl Sagan reminded us, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.)
Anyone can profess to be a skeptic on the basis of doubting that astronauts really went to the moon, or that Biden was fairly elected in 2020, or that global warming is potentially catastrophic and largely caused by humans. But not all expressions of doubt—or belief—are equivalent; everything turns on whether and how a proposition is justified and what evidence would be sufficient to point us to a different conclusion.
1. Revealing to students the foundational role played by slavery and racism in U.S. history has also been opposed by some in the name of avoiding divisiveness.
2. For teachers: "Challenging Students...And How to Have More of Them" (Phi Delta Kappan, November 2004). For parents: "Raising Rebels" (chapter 8 in The Myth of the Spoiled Child [Perseus, 2014]).
3. Steven Novella, The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe (Grand Central, 2018), p. 376.
4. Conspiracy theories seem to help people cope with the threat of isolation and helplessness; they promise a way to resolve confusion, feel in control, and make sense of everything that all those unenlightened people have yet to understand. Of course, a desire for control or meaning in one's life is hardly atypical or pathological, so the question is whether those who fall prey to conspiracy theories are just unusually susceptible to this extreme coping mechanism, or whether they experience the world as more confusing, isolating, and out of control than the rest of us do—perhaps partly because of an anxious style of attachment.
5. Calling Bullshit, op. cit., p. 286.
6. Faith means belief in the absence of evidence, so we might say that the opposite of a "person of faith" is a person of reason. Many religious people, however, tend to be extreme skeptics about the claims of every religion except their own.
7. This is done by deliberately releasing disinformation that will be rapidly disseminated on social media, but also through systematic attempts to undermine professional journalism—for example, by referring to anything that challenges one's own beliefs as "fake news." The practitioners of this are sometimes quite candid about their goals. Steve Bannon, for example, has said that the primary purpose of right-wing propaganda is not to support a given position but to "flood the zone with shit"—in other words, to disorient people, sideline the media, and replace skepticism (that could ultimately produce a verifiable conclusion) with cynicism (where no claim is more credible than any other).