Depending on who you talk to, the term “skepticism” can be used positively or negatively. Like most words, what you mean when you use the word “skepticism” is highly context dependent. It can mean different things in different situations. But in general, is skepticism good or bad? Well, both.
What we mean when we say “skepticism”
In the skeptic community, “skepticism” means a very specific thing. It doesn’t mean that someone is being a buzzkill or a cynic to rain on everyone’s parade (although that can sometimes be an unfortunate side effect). Rather, it means that they are applying a set of thought processes to a subject and probably asking lots of questions about it.
Let’s do a thought experiment: When you were a kid, did you get frustrated by your parents answering your questions with phrases like “That’s just the way things are,” or “Because I said so”? Do you remember that rising hotness in your chest as you realized you weren’t going to get an answer that made sense, and instead you were expected to blindly obey? Yeah, that’s what skepticism feels like.
When skepticism can be good
There are lots of times when skepticism is a good thing. Without being too hyperbolic, I’d be comfortable saying that skepticism is responsible for every technological advancement in the world. Someone said: “I wonder why that is?” and didn’t accept the traditional answer. They went to find out for themselves. That’s skepticism at work.
Skepticism can also help you if you’re dealing with someone who wants to take advantage of you: whether that’s a con artist, an evangelist, or an MLM. Asking tough questions and picking apart claims that sound too good to be true can highlight where people might either be misinformed or actively trying to deceive you.
Finally, skepticism makes for great conversation! People who respectfully banter and argue come up with the best solutions to difficult situations or unique responses to problems. The focus that positively applied skepticism has on collaboration, inquisitiveness, and a high standard of evidence make it a valuable tool for bonding and problem solving.
When skepticism can be bad
No tool is perfect, and skepticism can be misused or overapplied in some contexts. Often, conspiracy theorists will use the term “skepticism” to avoid critique or to draw more unsuspecting people into their outlandish claims.
The values of skepticism–asking questions, not taking answers at face value, doing your research, and debating new ideas–are twisted in these contexts.
Sometimes it is intentional: people will “just ask questions” that have a goal that is not getting to the truth, but rather pushing forward a political or social agenda that would not be acceptable otherwise.
One example of this is the “gender critical” activists that push radical anti-trans viewpoints under the label of just being “skeptical.” When you dig beyond the initial talking points, you see there is not much more there than vitriol and a desperate attempt to rationalize hate and fear. When you present valid scientific evidence that disproves their points, they reject it or mock it. That is not how you use skepticism.
Sometimes it isn’t intentional, but rather a simple and unfortunate misapplication. Often people do not have all the information, and so they are forced to come to conclusions that seem to fit within a larger narrative. This isn’t helped when authority figures, media outlets, or government bodies distort or obfuscate facts that feed into this attempt to rationalize and categorize sans sufficient evidence.
One good example of this is the numerous COVID deniers who rose to the surface of our Facebook and YouTube feeds over the course of 2020. Many of these people don’t understand epidemiology to begin with, and sensationalized media headlines and government spokespeople giving conflicting or unclear information has only helped to spur the conspiracy that COVID doesn’t really exist… to the detriment of us all.
Six signs you are using bad skepticism
Here are a six telltale signs that you or someone you know might be engaging in bad skepticism:
- They don’t have clearly laid out or defined reasons for questioning a thing, and cannot walk you through their thought process
- They do not cite reputable or valid sources when discussing their own research
- They respond negatively to the idea of talking to an expert on the subject or reading counter opinions
- They reject any evidence brought to them that answers their question in a way they don’t like, or in a way that would require a shift in worldview
- Their reasoning–when you dig down to the core–ends up being based in emotion rather than fact
- They demonize or mock those who don’t think the same way they do, instead of realizing that they just might not have all the information
Ultimately, conspiracy theorists lay claim to some of the components of skepticism, such as asking questions and not taking answers at face value, but don’t actually use skepticism to reach their own conclusions.
So is skepticism good or bad?
When used correctly, skepticism can cure disease, invent life-changing technology, solve interpersonal problems, and protect you from dangerous individuals and organizations that would benefit from the wool being pulled over your eyes. That’s good skepticism.
When twisted intentionally or used incorrectly, skepticism can cause death, divide communities, isolate people from each other, and perpetuate systems of harm in the name of “just asking questions.” That is bad skepticism.
What kind of skepticism do you practice?
Do you agree? Disagree? If you’re interested in talking more about this, we would love to talk to you! Call 585-LA-MURPH or visit tiny.cc/callSG on Sunday mornings at 11:30am CT to talk with us on air.