What is Skepticism? That’s a big question with a complicated answer – as anyone who has tried to explain the concept to someone unfamiliar with the term can attest – and arguably beyond the scope of a short blog post.
Ask ten different people and you’ll likely get ten different answers. One reason for this is that while Skepticism seems like it should have a hard definition, it actually has several depending on the context. When I refer to Skepticism I’m thinking of Scientific Skepticism or Skeptical Inquiry, however that may not be the case for everyone.
I liken the word ‘skeptical’ to the word ‘theory’, in that while ‘theory’ has a defined scientific meaning, it is used by the proverbial man-on-the-street to mean something else; something less concrete. Evolution is “just a theory!” Creationists often cry. “So is Gravity” we reply, our tongues in our cheeks and our feet on the ground. Likewise ‘being skeptical’, in my mind, means using critical thinking and evidence to evaluate claims, whereas to that same man, it is often equated with cynicism and nay-saying. Or worse, with Climate “Sceptics” and conspiracy nuts.
The Skeptic here is at a disadvantage as there is no agreed ‘scientific’ meaning for the term. In fact if you go hunting for one, you’ll often find it can mean the opposite to what you were expecting. Philosophical Skepticism for example, in a nutshell, is the belief that certainty of knowledge is impossible. This is at odds with the idea that you can obtain empirical knowledge through observation and experiment; the scientific method.
For better or for worse, we shan’t see a change anytime soon. It is up to each self-identifying Skeptic to determine which definition suits them, and the word ‘Skeptic’ will continue to have as many meanings as there are Skeptics; if only because ‘Empiricists in the Pub’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.