What is ‘skepticism’?

Posted on September 5, 2011


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The following explanation of skepticism is adapted from Hughes, B. M. (2011). Conceptual and Historical Issues in Psychology. Harlow: Prentice Hall.

In science, skepticism is the view that it is reasonable to question and/or investigate any assertion purporting to describe factual information. In this context, skeptics do not accept claims to knowledge on the basis of tradition, authority, or the reputation of the claimant. Instead, knowledge is considered valid and reliable only when supported by verifiable evidence. Skepticism was central to the emergence of modern science because it emphasized the importance of doubting traditional (religious) explanations of nature. Today, skepticism is just as important to the critical evaluation of controversial claims.

Despite its importance, the term ‘skepticism’ is often misunderstood (and misused) in two ways. Firstly, the term is sometimes taken to refer to any position that casts doubt on a common understanding, even when those understandings are very much based on empirical evidence. For example, commentators who dispute the fact that the Holocaust occurred during the Second World War describe themselves as ‘skeptics’, even though the volume of verifiable evidence for the Holocaust is overwhelming. In this case, people misuse the term ‘skeptic’ in order to attach unwarranted credibility to their controversial views.

The second misuse of the term ‘skepticism’ occurs when it is treated as a synonym for ‘cynicism’. A cynic is someone who takes a pessimistic or hopeless view of humanity. Despite the fact that such a view is completely unrelated to skepticism, some critics of science seek to imply that skepticism and cynicism are the same thing and that science necessitates a miserable view of the world. In this case, people misuse the term ‘skeptic’ in order to cast unwarranted aspersions on science and scientists.