What Exactly Does “Skeptic” Mean Anymore?

Last night, Mark Oppenheimer, the same journalist who wrote the New York Times piece about EXMNA that featured Sadaf and myself, posted a piece about Michael Shermer. It includes the names of three of those speaking out against Shermer’s treatment of them, one of whom is Ashley Miller, my fellow FTBer and my friend, of whom I am so proud for speaking out.

Stephanie has posited some important questions that we should be asking ourselves in the wake of this. My question is sparked by how this news comes on the heels of another unfavorable tidbit about Shermer: that he came out quite warmly in defense of none other than noted right-wing quack Dinesh D’Souza. “High in regard”, “forthright”, “honest”, “unfailingly fair”, “genuine”… you’d almost think they were friends. And as it turns out, Shermer thinks so.

Add to that the fact that many self-identified skeptics, especially those in my local skeptic community, have vehemently defended convicted fraudster Brian Dunning, and I wonder what the point of the “skeptic” movement is anymore.

Though the Oppenheimer piece is titled “Will Misogyny Bring Down the Atheist Movement?”, Shermer is much better-known by the term “skeptic” than as an atheist. The type of skeptic that Shermer leads, represents, and simply is influenced my perceptions of skepticism as a whole, since he is the biggest name in my local skeptical circle in Southern California. Brian Dunning is the arguable second.

I’ve met Shermer and spoken to him a few times. He never did anything personally untoward against me, but his libertarian, sometimes anti-liberal brand of skepticism is with what I have had to contend over the years. It’s quite difficult to argue for economic equality in an atmosphere rife with the bootstrap mentality from the top-down.

I’m far more acquainted with Brian Dunning; one of my first posts on Skepchick was in response to him asking me about how to increase female attendance at his Skeptics in the Pub-style meetings. My experiences with sexist incidents, along with some members’ odd veneration of the “niceness” of Banana Man Ray Comfort, had already made me wary of the local scene, but the response — and lack of response — to Brian’s conviction was stunning to me. People are so invested in how awesome and nice they think Brian is that they seem unable to see the problem with a celebrated skeptic being convicted of fraud — of all things, fraud. I had to stop engaging with some people so that Brian Dunning wouldn’t cause even more harm in the world by ending friendships and causing rifts.

Due to the nature of my local scene, as well as my activist priorities, I’ve always identified more as an atheist, feminist, and ex-Muslim than as a skeptic, per se. Despite that, I have acknowledged that there is  some validity to the skeptic movement in that they expose frauds and work against quacks. Now, between Shermer saying things about D’Souza I’d be flattered to hear from even my best friends and skeptics closing ranks around Dunning, I wonder what being a skeptic is about. What is the point of skepticism? What does it mean to be a skeptic?

I’d suggest that the newly-reconfigured JREF might guide the way, but as James Randi went on record with Oppenheimer saying that he knew at least something of Shermer’s behavior, I can’t make that endorsement in good faith.

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What Exactly Does “Skeptic” Mean Anymore?
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4 thoughts on “What Exactly Does “Skeptic” Mean Anymore?

  1. 1

    I largely figured out my beliefs (and lack thereof) with very little support or input from others. I own the ground I stand on when I talk about them. I’m also a very loyal person and I may like and/or love friends and family a great deal and stand by them through pretty rough times.

    But when they’re deliberately, knowingly stupid they own that and it’s not up to me to take it away from them. I’m willing to defend them when they’re ignorant (with the explicit caveat that they will learn better) but that’s the only legit excuse I can think of off the top of my head.

  2. 2

    Buuuuuuuuurn! WOOO! I shouldn’t be posting comments over dinner with my brainz half on the floor from eating too much sugar today, but I’m loving the recent posts here & elsewhere on FtB. Keep kicking the appropriate asses. I will eat popcorns.

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