What is a skeptic, anyway?

Guy P. Harrison has this to say about skepticism in the introduction to his new book 50 Popular Beliefs That People Think are True,

“Some people think of skeptics as cynical, negative people with closed minds.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Skepticism is really nothing more than a fancy name for trying to think clearly and thoroughly before making a decision about believing, buying, or joining something.  It’s about sorting out reality from lies and misperceptions.”

I just started reading this book, and I am impressed so far.  It covers a lot of ground in brief, accessible chapters perfect for when you only have a few minutes to read something interesting.   If you are an advocate for science literacy, a fan of Mythbusters, or otherwise interested in debunking paranormal stuff like psychics, near-death experiences, UFOs, etc. this book is for you.

Harrison believes, and I agree, that skepticism is essential for progress.  That might seem like a bold statement, and certainly some will take issue with it.  But what if we substitute “critical thinking” for “skepticism”?  Perhaps it has less negative connotation to some, but the definitions are awfully similar.  They’re both, basically, thinking about thinking.  Double checking our process to make sure we haven’t made any mistakes.  Looking for perspective.  These aren’t cynical things–they’re necessary.

Mind in the Making by Ellen Galinsky includes critical thinking as one of seven essential life skills that parents should instill in their children, and she ties it in with problem solving.  I know I’ve recommended this book before, but I can’t resist recommending it again to parents or teachers who want practical, science-based advice for helping kids develop the skills they need to succeed, including evaluating information, making decisions, and determining goals–all of which are related to critical thinking.

Actually, it’s a good time to pick up Mind in the Making because one of my favorite parenting blogs, Not Just Cute, just started blogging the book chapter-by-chapter.  Start here with Chapter One, and read along!

Speaking of “problem solving,” I happened to catch Neil deGrasse Tyson, whose new book Space Chronicles is out now, on The Daily Circuit earlier this week, and he said scientists and engineers are “problem solvers.”  Listening to Tyson talk, I’d say skeptics are idea people.  Skeptics are hopeful and engaged.  Skepticism, science, critical thinking, problem solving… It all sounds so exciting when he’s talking about it.

Skepticism isn’t inherently negative.  Skeptics aren’t trying to be mean when they ask for evidence.  We’re just curious.


Disclosure: Amazon.com links are affiliate links.  A portion of purchases made via these links earns a commission for this blog.  Thanks for your support!

For more about science & skepticism, see my Secular Thursday page.

Author: Mindy R

I'm a librarian, writer, book reviewer, etc.

4 thoughts on “What is a skeptic, anyway?”

  1. I read Harrison’s “50 Reasons People Give For Believing in God.” There was some overlap – the book would’ve been sharper with only 40 reasons – but it was still a great read. Thanks for mentioning this book; Prometheus used to send me a review copy of their latest book every month, but ever since I wrote a disparaging review, they haven’t sent me any…so, I didn’t even know this new Harrison book existed. I just put it on hold at the library.

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