Rejecting the Skeptic Identity

Do you identify yourself as a skeptic? Sarah Moglia, event specialist for the SSA and blogger at RantaSarah Rex prefers to describe herself as an atheist rather than a skeptic. Her explanation for why she chooses to avoid the skeptic label is as follows:

To me, skepticism isn’t something you are. It’s something you do. While yes, we do have words that classify people by things they do (for example, a vegetarian or a hockey player), I don’t think skepticism is the same. Well, maybe it is, I guess I just don’t like using that as a term of self-identification. I think people should be able to tell that I’m a skeptic by how I behave (do I ask questions? Do I make decisions based on sound evidence?), not by what I call myself.

It’s been a week since Sarah posted her explanation and the blogosphere has had a minor eruption of identity discourse. Greg Laden argues that skepticism is “never apolitical. And it is never acultural,” but it is nonetheless a “mechanism for thinking about the world more clearly than you get with other methods.” In the comments Laden elaborates, noting that atheism, science advocacy, and secularism, place skepticism at odds with right-wing political positions.

Daniel Estrada also waded into the discussion, recognizing the importance of the skeptic identity and framing his point with a description of his experiences as a faculty adviser for his university’s first secular student club:

It was very typical to hear students discuss their ‘coming out’ experiences, and club sessions often involved personal confessions from students describing harsh or unfair treatment from their peers, their employers, and their families because of their skeptical views. Students talked a lot about how glad they were to find a club like this on campus, and to find a network of peers with similar beliefs with which they could associate, and where they didn’t have to feel ashamed of their views.

Adam Lee takes a different approach, responding with his own articulation of why he personally chooses to adopt skeptic as an aspirational identity, making an interesting comparison with democracy:

There are many countries in the world that claim to be democracies, but in reality, have only blatantly rigged or inconsequential elections. We could demand that these countries be consistent and stop calling themselves democracies, but I think a better tactic is to shame them, to point out that their rulers are betraying their own stated ideal. In just the same way, even in the worst case when people misrepresent the term ‘skepticism’ or use it badly, it can still provide a potential toehold for new evidence and new ideas to get into their belief system.

I wonder how similar the skeptic identity is to the atheist identity, which I described in a previous post as an achieved identity. Perhaps skeptic is better viewed as a preferred self-concept that is never completely achieved.

Skeptic can be seen as a desired identity that is taken on by individuals who want to pursue behaviours associated with that identity, such as critical thinking, science advocacy, debunking, and disputation.

Some skeptics are skeptical of collective identity especially when it comes to the skeptic movement. They see things they don’t like in the movement like contempt, bullying, sexism, elitism, group-think, and perhaps worst of all, denialism. Faced with contradictions and disagreements arising from the fundamental problem of polysemousness, some skeptics turn away from identifying with the movement.

Neil deGrasse Tyson says that the only “ist” he is, is a scientist, and that he doesn’t associate with movements:

Tyson claims to think for himself, arguing that identifying with a movement allows people to assign all the baggage that goes along with a movement or philosophy to him. This is an incoherent position because self-concept is not the only marker of identity. Identities are socially negotiated, which means that they can be ascribed by others. I am for example comfortable labeling Tyson a pro-science advocate, which is not just an intellectual position. Being a pro-science advocate sets Tyson against other collectives such as anti-science advocates.

I’m also comfortable labelling Tyson an atheist, even though he claims to be an agnostic. He doesn’t like being claimed as an atheist because the people he knows who self-ascribe as atheists are “active atheists,” meaning that they want to change policies and engage in debate. He doesn’t have the time, interest, or inclination to engage in those activities, so why adopt the label? The word atheist is also a puzzle for Tyson, who wonders aloud if non-Golfers gather to discuss the fact that they don’t golf.

Maybe if golf was a dominant ideology with a long history of coercively reinforcing social norms, waging war against other sports like skiing, and marginalizing non-golfers, non-golfers might indeed form groups to discuss the fact that they don’t golf.

I think these discussions are important even if they’re never settled to anyone’s satisfaction. I am however concerned about the sort of individual reductionism that ignores social context and dismisses group identity. Then again, I also appreciate wanting to set oneself apart, but I’m not sure abstinence in this sense is a meaningful category.

If you share a number of positions and behaviours with an already existing group, people will draw conclusions. Shermer addresses this in his short response to Tyson:

I’ve largely given up the anti-label struggle and just call myself by these labels. In effect, what I once thought of as intellectual laziness on the part of my interlocutors who did not seem to want to bother to actually read my clarifications and what, exactly, I do believe about this or that issue, I now see as the normal process of cognitive shortcutting.

Identity plays an important social role, whether its self-ascribed or ascribed by others, but adopting an identity need not commit one to accepting everything associated with a movement. Other people might put you in a box if you use a certain label, possibly hindering conversation, but there’s a good chance that’s going to happen anyway.