Skepticism and Pseudoskepticism

Wednesday, May 5, 2010 at 1:14 AM Bookmark and Share
I spent part of my afternoon today discussing science, skepticism and rational inquiry with a few like-minded individuals, and one of the topics we touched on was the problematic association of skepticism with what I would call denialism (though I'm not sure it's the right term).  I decided to take a small break from thesis writing this evening to offer a small suggestion towards resolving this problem: call it pseudoskepticism.

Before defining the term, you might first ask what is skepticism? Most people can't precisely answer that question, so if you're like most in this regard let me offer up a few definitions.
Skepticism \ˈskep-tə-ˌsi-zəm\
  • A methodology that starts from a neutral standpoint and aims to acquire certainty though scientific or logical observation. [Wikipedia]
  • 1 : an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object
    2a: the doctrine that true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain  b: the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism characteristic of skeptics
    3: doubt concerning basic religious principles (as immortality, providence, and revelation)
    [Merriam-Webster's Online]
  • skeptic - someone who habitually doubts accepted beliefs [
Skepticism is basically a process by which one can decide whether to adopt, reject or remain neutral on a potential belief.  To give term some context, I like this line from the brief introduction to skepticism from The Skeptical Society:
The key to skepticism is to continuously and vigorously apply the methods of science to navigate the treacherous straits between “know nothing” skepticism and “anything goes” credulity.
So what is pseudoskepticism? Consider, for example, you're favorite conspiracy theorist and ask "Are they thinking skeptically?"  Based on the above definitions, it's clear the answer to that question is No".  They aren't following the evidence. Instead, I'd say such individuals are - at best - pseudoskeptics.  Without finding any dictionary definitions of the term, here's my attempt at a definition (based on one definition of the word pseudoscience):
Pseudoskepticism \ˌsü-dō-ˈskep-tə-ˌsi-zəm\
  • a methodology, belief, or practice that is claimed to be skeptical, or that is made to appear to be skeptical, but which does not adhere to appropriate principles of rational or scientific inquiry.
Much as scientists freely caution against pseudoscience, true skeptics should use the term pseudoskeptic more vociferously to describe those who seem to be confused about what it means to be a skeptic, yet still claim to be on. While it certainly won't solve the problem completely, it's at least a step in the right direction.

Related Links on Skepticism

  1. On Pseudo-Skepticism, by Marcello Truzzi
  2. Pseudoskepticism, RationalWiki
  3. A Skeptical Manifesto, by Michael Shermer (an excerpt from this book) 
  4. Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science, by Robert L. Park


Posted by: Anonymous | 5/05/2010 12:28 PM

New to your blog, great post. I like pseudoskeptic as a term, I may start using that. I tend to use denier. Steve Novella wrote a great piece about the differences between a skeptic and denier.

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