I suppose I knew in some way that there were people whose primary self-identification was “skeptic”, and even that there were people who saw themselves as part of the “skeptic community”. But it’s been interesting to encounter the kinds of conversations that self-identified members of the skeptic community have been having with one another, and especially the self-congratulatory chortling of some such over something like the lame “hoax” of gender studies.
Skepticism is really just a broad property of many forms of intellectual inquiry and a generalized way to be in the world. Most scholars are in some respect or another skeptics, or they employ skepticism as a rhetorical mode and as a motivation for their research. Lots of writers, public figures, and so on at least partake of skepticism in some fashion. I’m a bit depressed that people who identify so thoroughly with skepticism that they see that as their primary community and regard the word as a personal identifier don’t seem to be very good at being skeptical.
So a bit of advice for anyone who aspires to not just use skepticism as a tool but to be a skeptic through-and-through.
1) Read Montaigne. Be Montaigne. He’s the role model for skepticism. And take note of his defining statement: What do I know? If you haven’t read Montaigne, you’re missing out.
2) Regard everything you think you know as provisional. Be sure of nothing. When you wake up in the morning, decide to argue that what you were sure of yesterday must be wrong. Just to see what shakes loose when you do it.
3) Never, ever, think your shit doesn’t stink. If you’re spending most of your time attacking others, regarding other people as untrue or unscientific or unrational who need to have your withering skeptical gaze upon them, you’re not a skeptic. Skepticism is first and last introspective. You are the best focus of your own skepticism. Skepticism that is relentlessly other-directed is just assholery with a self-flattering label. Skepticism requires humility.
4) Always doubt your first impulses. Always regard your initial feelings as suspect.
5) Always read past the headline. Always read the fine print. Always read the details. Never be easy to manipulate.
6) Never subcontract your skepticism. “Skeptical community” is in that sense already a mistake. No one else’s skepticism can substitute for your own. Yes, no person is an island, and yes, you too stand on the shoulders of giants. But when it comes to thinking a problem through from as many perspectives as possible, when it comes to asking the unasked questions, every skeptic has to stand on their own two feet.
7) Never give yourself excuses. If you don’t have the time to think something through, to explore it, to look at all the perspectives possible, to ask the counter-intuitive questions, then fine: you don’t have the time. Don’t decide that you already know all the answers without having to do any of the work. Don’t start flapping your gums about the results of your skepticism if you never did the work of thinking skeptically about something.
8) Never be obsessive in your interest in a single domain or argument. If you have something that is so precious to you that you can’t afford to subject it to skepticism, if you have an idee fixe, if you’re on a crusade, you’re not a skeptic.
9) Never resist changing sides. Always be willing to walk a mile in other shoes. Skepticism should be mobile. If you have a white whale you’re chasing, you’re not a good skeptic. A good skeptic should be chasing Ahab as often as the other way round–and sometimes should just be carving scrimshaw and watching while the whale and the captain chase each other.
10) Be curious. A skeptic is a wanderer. If you’re using skepticism as a reason not to read something, not to think about something, not to learn something new, you’re not a good skeptic.