Yeah, I’m calling people names again. Don’t blame me, Simon Singh started it. The big eejit.
There’s been a bit of discussion on Twitter today about the use of the word “skeptic”, particularly as it applies to things that most of the skeptical community wouldn’t want to be associated with.
People who go against the body of scientific evidence supporting the fact of anthropogenic climate change, for instance, are sometimes labelled “global warming skeptics”. Other people who believe some very strange things about the HIV virus are “AIDS skeptics”. There’s even “9/11 skeptics” (though less common than “truthers”) for people who believe that a massive aeroplane is entirely incapable of doing significant damage to a building and the structural integrity of steel couldn’t possibly be compromised by prolonged intense heat.
Clearly not everyone’s using the word “skeptic” the way some of us would hope. It’s being used to just mean someone who disbelieves something, but I hope anyone who identifies as a skeptic in general will appreciate that there’s a bit more to it than that.
Skepticism is an approach to assessing reality, which places importance on the concepts of testing ideas and maintaining caution against cognitive biases and other such logical windfalls which often lead us to believe things that aren’t true.
It’s not just about saying “Nah, I don’t buy it” to any claim anyone ever makes. Rejecting the scientific consensus in an area that’s not your speciality, or foregoing a simple explanation in favour of a vast and unsupported conspiracy, do not constitute skeptical behaviour.
So maybe we should call it something else.
There’s been some controversy before about the usefulness of applying the term “denialist” to some of these non-skeptics, and whether reflexively branding thusly anyone who disagrees with you is a constructive way of doing science. But denialism is a real thing, with specific parameters and symptoms, so it can be a meaningful descriptor if judiciously applied.
I like this. There’s something soft, harmless, almost good-naturedly charming about the word. It’s not like calling someone a fuckwit, which has a much more intrinsically hostile feel. “Numpty” is something you’d call your boyfriend after he dropped a plate. It’s something you’d say whilst affectionately tousling someone’s hair.
Of course, let’s not start throwing it around too liberally. Not everyone who doesn’t fully buy into the currently accepted scientific line on climate change is a numpty. Many of them are no doubt well intentioned but misinformed – and maybe some of them even know something the rest of us don’t. It’s always worth checking.
But some people are persisting in their delusion, repeating the same canards, cherry-picking the same data, and avoiding the intellectually honest conclusions that they should be reaching after a full assessment of the facts. James Delingpole, for instance, is a worthy wearer of the numpty crown.
Hat-tip to Kash Farooq for raising a topic I actually managed to have an opinion on.