It’s the season for the word “skeptic” to be overly used and abused

Oh, dear. Every Halloween-themed story out this week about ghosts and monsters and the people who seek them will invariably have the term “skeptic” in it. This person is the group’s “skeptic” or this person “was a skeptic until…” Most egregious are those who are completely gullible and pooh-pooh the skeptical process as being “closed-minded” or grumpy. Well, we’re here to set the journalists straight if not the ghost hunters who revel in the attention this time of year.

Freely available to distribute is The Media Guide to Skepticism.

  • What is ‘skepticism’?
  • What does it mean to be a ‘skeptic’?
  • What skepticism isn’t
  • What do skeptics do?

Skepticism is application of critical thinking. Those who say they are seeking evidence of ghosts and monsters aren’t applying any critical thinking whatsoever or they would not be using this particular approach. Yet, today I’m deluged with fluff pieces promoting the local groups desiring paranormal publicity.

Here’s what you can do:

Go to public presentations by amateur paranormal investigators. Ask what they mean if they say they are “scientific” or “skeptical”. How do they apply critical thinking? (They rule out non-paranormal sources? Oh? They have exhausted all plausible options?) Ask them if they have done peer-reviewed research, published their results, or have any degrees in scientific fields. Are they vetting their findings through an actual scientist? What use are their results? It’s easy as pie to get them scrambling.

Pass on the Media Guide link in the comments of any article that throws the word “skeptic” around too loosely. Send the link to the journalist. Be polite but firm. Too many are cheapening the learned skill of critical thinking just to make themselves seem more credible. It’s a ruse, don’t be fooled.


  7 comments for “It’s the season for the word “skeptic” to be overly used and abused

  1. Marsha Woerner
    October 28, 2016 at 9:04 AM

    You almost make it sound as if one needs to have a degree in science in order to be skeptical (or a skeptic). I think that’s unfair! I do have a degree in science, but is computer science which I know is not accepted as science by many “hard” scientists, and it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with the scientific method. Furthermore, my husband’s degree is in mathematics, not even a little “science”. But both he and I are quite skeptical, and we don’t accept pseudoscience. Despite the fact that neither of us has a scientific degree, the scientific method and EVIDENCE are still required! My husband’s dad was a chemistry PhD, and mine is a physics PhD, and we both grew up with the ideas of science and logic, but we don’t either of us have science degrees. And I do have peer-reviewed scientific paper from when I was working in cell biology (biochemistry) before graduate school, but that’s totally unrelated to my skepticism or being a skeptic!
    I guess I’m just saying that you are listed evidence of a true skeptic is not really either necessary or sufficient!

  2. October 28, 2016 at 9:19 AM

    You do not have to have a degree in science at all! In fact I know very many English and History majors who are great skeptical thinkers! Lawyers also!

    But it takes an appreciation of how to get reliable information and to consider what might make inputted information UNreliable and to weight it accordingly. Typically, the science fields will be heavier on that. Most people have little to no training in a general course of schooling on how to do this. Journalists, in particular, have been taught more about balance in a story, that simply does not work when comparing scientifically-derived evidence versus anecdotes or strong opinions. Thus, the Media Guide is aimed at Journalists.

    In general, America could desperately use critical thinking emphasis from Grade 1. We aren’t getting it hardly at all.

  3. Marsha Woerner
    October 28, 2016 at 9:55 AM

    Well, I do agree on that! The other thing about having a father like mine was that he constantly emphasized for logic and evidence! And he complained about goals not teaching logic; and that was 45 years ago. It’s gotten much worse since then!
    And I agree with your comment on journalism – journalists now are not taught anything like true journalism!

  4. Jani Lassila
    October 29, 2016 at 11:37 AM

    I would ask a couple additional questions related to your Media Guide to Skepticism.

    Do you think that every individual who applies skepticism in their life, can be considered as a skeptic, even if they don’t identify themselves as such? This questions seems relevant, since no one is perfect – with or without academic degree. Your text implies that individuals who have identified themselves as skeptics, are almost like under constant surveillance whether they are doing it correctly and thus have still right to call themselves as a skeptic. Let’s just say that there is reason to doubt that individuals who don’t identify themselves or who are not identified this way in the public, might not be under such performance pressures if they happen to slip from the principles of skepticism (if one is even aware of it) in the future.

    Could there be a better word than skeptic to refer to an individual who applies critical thinking this way? The term might be an issue for a simple reason. It doesn’t quite fit the description on the approach to defining your epistemological position by weighting the every piece of evidence, in the light of scientific method. Problem lies in the “defining your position” part in the process, because it is always possible to come into conclusion that any particular claim is in fact true, thus you don’t have reason to doubt it. And the title “skeptic” on the other hand, implies doubt, which sounds a little silly after you come into conclusion which basically throws away reasonable doubt above the particular claim (or even misleading if his/her position is not mentioned properly).

  5. October 29, 2016 at 12:03 PM

    This situation you describe is real life; you probably can’t be and might not want to be a “Skeptic” all the time. The skepticism described in the Media Guide is a deliberate approach to questionable claims, so you can choose to apply that or not. In most cases, you’ll probably be better off by thinking through a claim skeptically before accepting or rejecting it.

    The reason I wrote the guide was because there was a common mischaracterization of modern skepticism (a movement to advocate for critical thinking and science-based evaluation of claims) such as calling those who reject the reality of climate change “skeptics”. Skepticism was seen as not only doubt but out of hand dismissal. That’s a common usage of the term but not applicable to scientific skepticism. The wikipedia entry may help with this:

    I, too, wish there was a better word than “skeptic”. Many of us have for years contemplated or tried to use another term but there isn’t one that sounds acceptable. Maybe someday a new word will grow organically because I don’t think you can create one that will stick.

    My personal goal is to inculcate some critical thinking skills and science appreciation across the board. I’d like it to start very young but, to be honest, elementary school curriculum does not do a decent job of this. I started a site called practical skepticism ( that I hoped people would contribute to but there was no support from the few skeptical organizations for this kind of outreach (the larger ones are too interested in anti-religious themes and straight science which is different than skepticism, not conducive to broad public support). It’s a complicated approach because of the cultural issues such as religiosity, poor science literacy, income disparities, and media portrayals. However, I think the current political cycle and internet circus of fake news has shined a light on the importance of fact checking and critical evaluation. I hope valuing empirical truth is a tendency that increases.

  6. November 1, 2016 at 3:11 PM

    You may want to update the information in the Media Guide to Skepticism with regard to the JREF and the Million Dollar Challenge. As I’m sure you are aware:

    “Effective 9/1/2015 the JREF has made made major changes including converting to a grant making foundation and no longer accepting applications for the Million Dollar Prize from the general public.”

  7. Grimbeard
    November 7, 2016 at 8:39 PM

    You’re quite right about the misuse of the term by “climate change skeptics” – it’s as bad as “9/11 truthers”. The former aren’t skeptics, the latter aren’t interested in the truth. When I’m not teaching, my preferred term is “reality deniers”, but what would be the opposite of that as a term for (real) skeptics? Reality accepters is rather clumsy!

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