Helpful Hints for Skeptics

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.

This entry was posted in Academia, Generalist's Work, Oath for Experts. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Helpful Hints for Skeptics

  1. David Cavanagh says:

    All the points are well taken, particularly to start with Montaigne. However, the phrase “… and especially the self-congratulatory chortling of some such over something like the lame “hoax” of gender studies ….” may be off-putting for someone who has developed some skepticism about various aspects of this highly politicized subject. A more “skeptically” oriented phrasing might have been, “… and especially the self-congratulatory chortling of some such over something like the lame “hoax” of some particular ideology, widely accepted belief, field of study, or scientific conclusion ….”. To suggest de nihilo that some individuals’ beliefs about some particular issue are ill considered or suspect is not truly operating with a skeptical spirit.

    And just to be clear, I have no intention of entering into a discussion regarding the validity or lack thereof of any aspect of “gender studies”.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I think it is more the spirit of my fourth (sorry, third) point, which is that no one who aspires to skepticism should ever sound too self-satisfied or certain about their point of view, and that anyone who does is in some sense questionably entitled to self-label as a skeptic.

    Which doesn’t mean they’re wrong. E.g., one does not have to BE a skeptic. A dedicated evangelical Christian cannot be faulted, for example, for a failure to be a skeptic, because they very likely profess no aspiration to be one. It is not obvious or apparent that one ought to be a skeptic. A skeptic in this sense might themselves be skeptical about the value of skepticism. It can be emotionally burdensome, it may be impossible to actually do with any consistency or commitment, it presumes a somewhat Cartesian view of consciousness and mind, and so on. But I think it ill-behooves anyone who finds the idea of skepticism appealing to be too highly self-regarding, too other-directed in their critical evaluations, etc., both rhetorically and substantively. “What do I know?” is a challenge to oneself, and in speaking to others, a challenge to demonstrate a strong basis for strongly held views or assessments. An aspiring skeptic who drastically misjudges their entitlement to certainty based on weak knowledge or casual reliance on ‘common sense’ and overheard speech is also not doing a great job of meeting that aspiration.

  3. CarlD says:

    Nice. I have a pet theory that people’s ‘real’ religion is whatever we don’t have a sense of humor about. But whatever we can’t be skeptical about works too. Either way, the most disappointing answer is ourselves.

  4. Ambros Burgos says:

    Very well crafted. But, I’m skeptical of your point of view.

  5. W.P. McNeill says:

    11) Tearing down is always easier than building. Sometimes criticism and skepticism is necessary, but if you don’t also stick your neck out and take positions that other self-proclaimed skeptics can scoff at you’re slacking off.

Comments are closed.