Thursday, 18 April 2013

There IS a "skeptical community" and you're (probably) in it

Is there a "Skeptical Community"? Quite a few people have claimed there's no such thing over the years, with recent furores on the internet seemingly making it crop up more often. It seems blindingly obvious to me that there is a skeptical community, and that I'm an active participant in it. It's hard for me to grasp why some people deny that there is, so I set about examining the arguments made on t'internet and those that people have used in conversations I've had recently. So it's time to indulge in a bit of skeptical omphaloskepsis.

OK, so community can mean many things, what are we talking about here? The dictionary contains many definitions of the word and we can play equivocation games if you like - skeptics clearly aren't a monastic order for instance no matter how lonely some of the boys might feel    - but there is a frequent usage of the word "community" that that fits nicely, and I think is what most people intend when they use the term.

Community, n.
I. A body of people or things viewed collectively.
5.b. A group of people who share the same interests, pursuits, or occupation, esp. when distinct from those of the society in which they live.

Source OED on-line. Link behind paywall, but you can get free access with most UK library card numbers. What do you mean you haven't got a library card? ;D 

In the same way that people might refer to the "political community", "literary Community", or "scientific community" when they mean "the body of people who share an interest in or the practice of [thing X]." Surely everyone can agree that there is a skeptical community by this definition? A group of people who share a bunch of common interests and pursuits related to the practice of skepticism? That's all that's meant when the term is used, not some over-egged suggestion of centralised organisation or implied uniformity.

It's important not to get hung up the "esp. when distinct from..." clause in the definition; that's just dictionary-speak for "most often used for..." and nothing should be inferred about a necessary physical or virtual isolation from society at large; it just means "I'm talking about these people, not those people."

The term "skeptical community" refers to the aggregate of the people who run or attend SitP, Skeptics in the Curry House, Skeptical book-clubs and coffee meetings, Skeptical Pub-Quizzes, or those who go to TAM or QED, or write a blog on skepticism, or comment on those blogs, or tweet about it, post or read on skeptical forums, read skeptical books and magazines, join skeptical societies, clubs or otherwise interact with other skeptics, and probably also those who practice what one might call "solitary skepticism" or who endeavour to do so. I don't think anyone could deny that these things exist, or realistically deny that referring to the sum of these people collectively as a "community" is a perfectly reasonable usage of the word. These people are in a "community"; a mass of people who share some commonality, who are linked by a set of practices, pastimes, and a network of acquaintances who meet in real-life and on teh interwebs, to share their thoughts and feelings on matters of interest to skeptics, how best to practise skepticism, and talk on wide-ranging topics relating to that practice. 

In a slightly more formal sense, there are a number of things that people may mean, whether knowingly or otherwise, when they use the term:

Community of Practice
A CoP, as they are commonly known, is a group of practitioners who come together to hone their skills, share experiences and learn from each other. This could easily apply to SitP, conferences, on-line forums, and even networks of Twitter, Facebook or other social media contacts and the aggregation of these. 

Community of Interest
A Community of Interest is a group of people who share common interests. We can clearly say this about skeptics. Of course no everyone likes exactly the same stuff, but it's an overlapping set of interests including the paranormal, UFOs, cryptozoology, alt-med, anomalous psychology, science in general, specific religious claims, logic, reason, rationality etc. or even just the topic of the practice of skepticism itself.

Community of Purpose
A community of purpose is a little like a goal-oriented Community of Interest, i.e. people of a common interest who gather together, whether self-organising or otherwise, to achieve some goal. Now whether you agree with the term "Skeptical Movement" or not - which is a whole other discussion - there clearly are a large group of people who are trying to promote skepticism, critical thinking and science education to achieve some social good. There are plenty who are trying to effect political change, or influence public understanding to change things for the better. 

Community of Inquiry
This is perhaps stretching a concept a little, but a Community of Inquiry, roughly speaking, is a group of people who each collectively apply their individual expertise into solving thorny problems that none could solve alone. This is closely allied to the scientific method and, I think, what many people are trying to achieve with their skepticism. 

I think when most people use say "skeptical community" that they are generally using the term to mean one or the other or some agglomeration of several of the above specific terms, but perhaps in a broader sense then usually intended. Most of the these specific types types of community are small affairs, but the internet has changed what we can mean when we say "community"; people can interact continuously on a global scale. The skeptical community can easily be seen as any or all of the above.

Having established that there (almost) certainly is a thing, if not several things, that one can realistically call a "Skeptical Community", let's have a look at some of the common objections to the term.

"For Christ's sake Jim, it's method not a..."

Quite often when I see denial of the skeptical community, it is just bare assertion*, but some people have given reasons why they believe this to be the case:

Skepticism is a method, not a community.
Yes, this is true... but it's also irrelevant. When we say "Skeptical Community" we are referring to "A community of Skeptics" in the same way as when we say "Scientific Community" we are referring to "A community of scientists". We aren't equating the existence of the community with the practice of those within it. This objection is a non-sequitur. Of course what mean when we say "A community of skeptics" rather depends on what we mean by "Skeptic" in this context, but without getting into a deeper debate let's assume it means "Person who sees the value of, and endeavours to routinely apply, skepticism in all matters."

We aren't all the same/we don't hold the same opinions about everything/I'm not interested in the same things as everyone else. 
This is the most frequent category of objection I think. I see/hear it so often that I've taken to calling it "The appeal to lack of homogeneity", a species of red-herring. Uniformity is not a requirement of "community"; if you think it is, think of something you think could realistically be described as a community (and not in the biological sense, let's not start equivocating again), and try to think if those people all share exactly the same set of interests and practices relating to the topic. You think the "scientific community" are all the same? Would a chemist say "I'm not part of some 'Scientific community'. I'm not interested in physics or biology; those people are weird."? What about "Christian community"? You think all those people have exactly the same beliefs and practices and express them in the same way? Of course they don't. What makes these things a "community" is a set of beliefs, practices and interests from which each takes those parts that are appropriate or interesting to them. No homogeneity required. So, person X is interested in alt-med and creationism, while person Y is interested psychics and ghosts, it doesn't matter; they're both interested in the practice of skepticism as it relates to these topics. 

I don't want to be associated with opinion/person X!
While I appreciate the sentiment, you're just gonna have to suck it up. You can't opt out just by saying so; you'll have to actually withdraw from interaction with the rest of us and not just say "I don't like this; I'm not playing any more" but carry on regardless. Even if you did become some kind of skeptical hermit, you would probably still fall under the broader category of "those who endeavour to practise skepticism.", but I appreciate that this isn't the interpretation that most people intend when they use the term.

There isn't any governing body or central organisation
This is true, but also trivially so. Central administration is not a requirement of community in this sense. You may be thinking of a society perhaps? But even then...

Because I, or prominent person X, say so
Saying don't make it so. People rarely make this type of objection explicit, but I've seen a few people just saying "there's no such thing as skeptical community" without supporting evidence, and then other people saying "look person X says there isn't.".
Bare assertions and appeals to authoritative bare assertions do not make a solid case.

Just being a skeptic, or self-identifying as one doesn't make me part of some "community".
In the narrow sense of a network of interacting skeptics I might agree, as long as you're not interacting with them that is, but in the broader sense of a body of people with shared interests, I still think it does. Unless you are literally just calling yourself a skeptic and not actually practicing skepticism, in which case you are probably not in the community, but you're probably not actually a skeptic either.

I don't like its implications
Again, sorry, tough. Argument from consequences much? The fact that you don't like the implications of the term, or what the ill-informed may infer from its use, has no bearing on whether it is a valid term or a real extant phenomenon.

The "Skeptical Community" is just part of a wider community of the Society at large/UK/Europe/The World.
Again this is trivially true. All communities are part of a larger community in some regards. The "scientific community" are not isolated from the population at large, and neither are the "medical community" to name but two, and neither of these examples are invalid usage.

There are probably others, but these seem to be the main objections around at the moment.

Argumentum ad consequentiam?

With all that said, it's worth discussing why people object to the term. I think the real problem is one of generalisation. You tend to hear phrases like "The skeptical community thinks...", "The skeptical community's position is..." or "The problem with the skeptical community is..." and as with all generalisations, they are unfair to those within the population spoken of who do not share the quality under discussion. Those people will quite rightly feel misrepresented. Plus there's a more implicit problem of generalisation. Those "on the outside" do tend to view us as one mass, and anything said by one of us, or a large number of us, does reflect on the rest of us. I sometimes wish it didn't, and I wish that some people would think a little harder about this before they press the "Post" button on their blogs, but there it is. I, and everyone else, just have to suck it up.

It seems pretty clear to me that there is a Skeptical Community, but I'd be interested to hear if anyone has any arguments against that stand up to scrutiny. It's fine for people to say they don't like the term because of its implications, but people who deny the existence of the community or the validity of the concept on those grounds aren't thinking hard enough.

So the bottom-line is this:

There is a "Skeptical Community" and, if you're reading this, you're (probably) in it whether you like it or not.

* Although I do quite like an "Ipse Dixit"; it has quite a jolly ring to it, like an old-English folk-dancing step ;D

Originally posted on Skepticism-uk Aug. 2012