I’ve never really bought into skepticism, and since most rationalists profess to be skeptics as well, I suppose I should provide a good explanation for my indifference. It will not exactly be a popular position, but I have to tell the truth about it.
The fact is that most of what skeptics oppose is fairly trivial. I do agree that it’s terrible that “psychic mediums” exploit tragedies for their own gain, and that quack medicine draws in billions of dollars in revenues around the world (but while skeptics rail against quack medicine, they do not rail against the medical establishment that, in the United States at least, prices medical treatment outside of many people’s ability to pay, and pushes them towards quack medicine). But arguing against things like belief in ghosts, angels, New Age pap, or secretive monsters, things that don’t really hurt anyone, only makes skeptics look like Grinches.
Skeptics are notoriously reluctant to address religious issues, even though they are most rich in nonsense. When they do, it’s mostly to address extremely peripheral issues such as Virgin Mary apparitions or the eucharist. Really, who cares?
The triviality is not my only problem with skepticism. My other problem is that they hold a pretense of rationality by debunking weak variants of things that actually have a great hold on our culture in stronger variants.
Nowadays skeptics laugh at the fetish religions of Western Africa. Of course we should be dubious of the claim that an inanimate object could command respect and maintain order in a marketplace or city. And yet we attribute similar powers to the US Constitution or bodies of laws. They are only pieces of paper, but we routinely hear claims that “the US Constitution guarantees human rights” and things of that nature. Of course they are entirely powerless without guns, but we revere the papers themselves as necessary for order.
Skeptics rightly see inter-subjective agreement on religious matters as irrelevant and silly, that claims must be evaluated on their own merits. But what is money? Money is just a piece of paper which we inter-subjectively agree represents value (not any fixed amount of value, just some random amount of value). On its face, money is worthless and any pretense of it being valuable is as ridiculous as the belief that a eucharist turns into Jesus’ epidermis. And yet we are not “skeptical” of this.
Skeptics are very critical when contra-causal claims are made, except when that contra-causal claim is free will.
Skeptics are also skeptical of magical words. And yet they hold to the taboo of profanity (I actually got banned from the James Randi Educational Foundation board for profanity), a belief which attributes magical power to words, that if people (especially children) read these taboo words, they will go apeshit and revel in criminal behavior. Skeptics may not believe in that, but they do believe in the existence of taboo words.
Skeptics do not believe that wearing anything (such as a special bracelet or a special shirt) can have any direct effect on the person (except if you do something stupid like wearing something you’re allergic to). And yet we also believe that a person shooting another is murder without a uniform, and that when this person wears a uniform, the shooting is not only not murder but relatively acceptable. This is a paranormal claim far more puzzling than any Q-Ray bracelet.
Skeptics are doubtful of religious claims made on the basis of myths, regardless of the religion to which those myths belong. And yet no skeptic I know of challenges modern myths. In the case of Americans, we’d be talking about myths regarding the foundation and history of the United States, of which there are legion. I have seen activists and historians challenge these myths, but not skeptics.
I once had a skeptic tell me straight-faced and point blank that the police exists to protect people. This delusional myth completely ruins the lives of millions of people. How many people’s lives have been completely ruined by believing in leprechauns or Bigfoot?
I expect that the reaction of skeptics to my points is that none of them are “paranormal.” Skeptics circumscribe the paranormal in terms of being an extraordinary claim or going against scientific understanding (or fundamental scientific understanding). Yet all the claims I have presented are extraordinary and either go against fundamental scientific understanding or are beyond the province of science. I don’t care what rationalizations skeptics use to limit their methods, because these claims are as testable as other claims they refute.
One may also argue that my claim relative to murder is untestable, since it concerns an ethical issue. But skeptics investigate claims that include murder as a concept and seem to have no problem using an operational or intuitive definition of murder (e.g. psychics who “divine” information about murders, or the belief that ghosts are the spirits of murder victims, or when they compare the Biblical rules against murder with actual incidences of murder in the Bible). They obviously think murder can be discerned through objective facts in some way.
Finally, one may reply that skepticism cannot criticize such things because it would mean taking a political position, and that this would be divisive (same as they argue against criticizing religious claims). But this is merely proof that skeptics are more concerned with being a movement than about the truth. So why should we trust such people?
This is not a facetious question, but a serious question. If the goal of skeptics is to maintain a coherent movement, to the point that they refute to address religious and political issues, then how can we trust that their skepticism is not motivated by these same motives? I won’t name any specific person or issue (*ahem* Climategate *ahem*), because skeptics can always then object that “this is not what all skeptics think,” which would be a fair point.
My main point, however, remains that skepticism draws an unnecessary and arbitrary distinction between two kinds of extraordinary claims, some that are very controversial and some that are less controversial, and only claims the latter as its domain. Skeptics then use this arbitrary distinction to defend the status quo and its extraordinary claims.
So they end up being just another group of status quo defenders, another bunch of mostly liberals and a few libertarians and conservatives who get uppity if you try to argue there’s anything fundamentally wrong about the societies we live in. In fact, skepticism is explicitly for the status quo:
To be skeptical means to reserve judgement on the veracity of a new claim that is different from what has been previously established. The established idea is effectively the null hypothesis — the idea that will stand if the new one is shown to not have enough supporting evidence.
The trouble is that this only works if you look at the natural sciences, where every law and theory is painstakingly criticized before being eventually accepted. It does not apply to any other area of human knowledge. So being skeptical is an extremely incomplete epistemology.