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A young scientist in Australia asks, “Does Skepticism have an image problem?”

Yes, I do think you have an image problem, and that it’s been much longer in the making than these recent appropriations of the term “skeptic” by ideologically motivated science deniers.

Explaining science is not easy. Just parsing the term “theory” — which means something quite different in scientific vs. casual popular use — can be an obstacle. I think many people think of Science as a category like Government or the Catholic Church: a towering, institutionalized, essentially monolithic thing from which now and then ominous pronouncements emerge.

So this is hard. And perhaps that’s why, for most of its history, the skeptical community has been frustrated in its efforts, such as they’ve been, to clarify the nature of the scientific enterprise — and why it’s turned instead, again and again, to simple attack mode.

There are few things less attractive than a snarling skeptic. Yet the one thing that has struck me since the early days of CSICOP — besides the word “cop” revealingly tucked in there — has been this relentless, often mean-spirited desire to shame, blame and ridicule a growing list of perceived enemies. I think of Randi and his obsession with the likes of Yuri Geller. I think of the current piece in Aeon magazine, gleefully blasted to all Twitterdom, “debunking” various tropes from the Bible.

I also think of the frothing response of the community to a heretic within the ranks of science itself, e.g. Rupert Sheldrake. You can’t have heretics unless you’ve got a prescribed orthodoxy. Yet rigid, inerrant dogma is not really what science is about, no matter how logically unassailable that dogma seems to be.

What I take from this sort of thing is the impression that the skeptical community — and here, I know, I over-generalize — is less interested in raising public understanding of science than in picking targets and shooting at them.

And what targets! From Aeon we learn that the odds that someone actually walked on water, or turned it into wine, or parted it with a staff, are vanishingly small. And thus, by extension, that Christianity is bunk, by further extension that all religion is bunk, and by ultimate extension that people who disagree with us must be total idiots. I mean, pardon the expression, Jesus Christ: Has it never occurred to a single practicing Christian in 2000 years that these stories might not be literally true? Has it never occurred to a single professing skeptic in the past half-century that religion does not equal unquestioning, literal credence in a particular archaic text?

One thing that might help the skeptical community, vis-a-vis public perception, is a visible show of tolerance for (at the least) some modest range of alternative viewpoints. I sometimes feel that many skeptics are trapped in a Newtonian thought-world of hard matter and reductionist mechanics. Intellectually of course they’re aware that the universe has shown itself to be ineluctably stranger than that; yet instinctually or constitutionally they are unable to tolerate any non-mechanistic notion about any natural phenomenon. Like all good cops they feel duty-bound to enforce The Law — even when the law is incompletely written, to say the least, and may not even in principle be finally knowable.

In this regard skeptics are in good company. Occam himself got scraped by his own razor: he was willing to grant a special exemption for well-formulated and accepted tenets of theology. He was, in this regard, a creature of history, a full citizen of his sovereign Weltanschauung. And so are we, skeptics included. Le t’s all try to remember that.

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