Thursday, 24 June 2010

Personal Skeptical Mission Statement

Or a skeptical statement about a personal mission. Or the personal statement of a skeptical missionary. Or... er. That's it. Basically, before I make further attempts to go through some of the stickier issues arising from the last two posts - and from related chats I've had with people over the past couple of weeks - I thought I'd better set down some of my own goals, principles and doubts as a skeptic.

Admirable goals of 'skepticism' as a movement:
  • Promote critical thinking and freedom of speech and information, especially concerning access to reliable information on scientific (and other fields of) research.
  • Work with the media to improve the quality of reporting, and exposing mistakes, misinterpretations and downright fabrications where necessary.
  • Expose the techniques used to part the uninformed from their money.
  • Campaign against the introduction of policies which are based on bogus reasoning or misinformation.
  • Provide a welcoming environment and accessible platforms for the discussion of issues related to all of the above.
In this way, we can hopefully change the way in which science, the scientific method, the notion of 'evidence', and the importance of critical thinking are viewed by the general public, and by key decision-makers. The main aim as I see it is to put evidence at the heart of all areas of policy-making, and to help people to apply the same principle to decisions they make in their own lives.

What 'skepticism' should not do:
  • Form a closed community of like-minded people, in a way that appears intimidating to outsiders, either by automatically assuming that everyone present will agree with your position, or by assuming too much prior knowledge in your audience (not a problem I've noticed so far, but something we should always be on guard against).
  • Indulge in blanket attacks on a whole aspect of society simply because it is not based in rationality. Better to target individual instances of bad reasoning or potentially damaging policies. For example, there's no point decrying the fact that the Catholic Church's policies on contraception are based on rules whose origin cannot be conclusively traced back to a supreme being. Nobody needs to be told that. There are other, evidence-based ways of proving that such policies are damaging to society.
  • Give in to the temptation to insult or make fun of people and groups purely to ease our own frustration. Humour is useful if it helps an audience to see a situation in a different light, and to attract people to what could otherwise be a fairly dry and sombre field. On the other hand, it also serves to polarise the debate and to ostracise portions of the target audience.
Essentially, I worry sometimes that there's too strong a temptation within the movement to achieve a sense of release and self-gratification by shouting at stupid people. It's immensely satisfying to tell someone plainly that you're right and they're wrong, and it's also reassuring to surround yourself with people who agree. Viewed from the inside, skepticism is a friendly, welcoming, egalitarian movement in which everyone's contributions, however small, are passed around via blogs, podcasts, tweets etc and thus appreciated. Viewed from the outside, it can often look like a self-referential, self-important circle-jerk of... jerks.

As I said, this is a very personal mission statement, and I'm not going to hassle people into conforming to it. One of the best things about the movement is that there is no prescriptive set of rules, or a PR push to present a united front on all issues. Debate and diversity of opinion are what drive us on, and if you'll allow me to rip off Groucho Marx slightly: I don't care to belong to a club that only accepts people exactly like me as members.


  1. You're getting quite a few comments via Facebook on this post! :) Well done. :)

  2. Everyone should do this. Great post. Well done!

    - Mike (@factually)

  3. Thanks guys! Felt it would help to slap some basics down, as this blog hasn't previously been geared towards skeptical matters, and will probably continue to be quite unfocused.