In current public discourse, we encounter so-called “skeptics” rejecting the scientific consensus on a variety of prominent issues: evolution, climate change, vaccines, etc. But these “skeptics” do not represent legitimate skepticism. Rather, they have developed a counterfeit form, one that relies on a passive, unproductive and intellectually dishonest refusal to acknowledge evidence.
Seeking to sponge off of the longstanding respect earned by skeptics, the counterfeiters exploit the colloquial usage of the label by liberally applying it to their pet ideological sticking points. In terms of attention and prevalence, it works disturbingly well.
Belief in pseudoscience is widely professed by laypeople, even while vanishingly rare among experts in relevant fields. And while counterfeit skeptics enjoy the boost in perceived credibility, they erode that of skepticism as a rigorous and reliable epistemological approach.
Calling yourself a skeptic with regard to a particular idea indicates only your reluctance to believe that idea. It is not to be confused with calling yourself a skeptical person. Indeed, professing skepticism of something for which there is incontrovertible evidence indicates that you are not a much of a skeptic in the general sense of the word. Conveniently for the modern counterfeit skeptics, that distinction is easy to gloss over.
In recognition that “skeptic” has become a flattering euphemism for “denier of reality,” some have taken to calling the popular counterfeit skepticism “denialism.” This move has been criticized as overly presumptive slander designed to stymie debate.
Under normal academic circumstances, it is true that skeptical inquiry requires fair consideration of viewpoints for the sake of productive dialogue. But denialism does not occur under normal academic circumstances. It survives by subverting the rules of debate, and we therefore have no obligation to grant it the courtesies it refuses to recognize and extend to others.
Furthermore, denialism is not solely defined by the denier’s opinion, but also by the manner in which they form and defend it. Even if a current consensus widely met with denialism was later found to be incorrect, that would not vindicate the methods of the deniers.
Although deniers can be most readily identified by their claims, those do not constitute the essential features of denialism, which are rather to be observed in the midst of debate. The façade of counterfeit skepticism is used by deniers to conceal the process of ideological preferences assigning factual beliefs — an inversion of the genuine skeptic’s methodology.
That is the reason why skeptics are neither obligated nor inclined to share their label with deniers. I would furthermore argue that insofar as practitioners of scientific skepticism are concerned about the societal hazards of willful ignorance, they ought to loudly and frequently draw attention to the distinguishing features of denialism.
The danger in quietly tolerating deniers is that it creates the appearance of meaningful debate where there is none, and threatens to reverse the advancement of popular wisdom.
We have already begun to see ideology and ill-founded hysteria driving people to reject the benefits of science and deliberately regress. The whole society pays the price in the form of renewed pandemics, destabilized ecosystems, energy shortages and other avoidable ills.
We are reaching the point at which the primary limiting factors of our achievement and well-being are no longer logistical challenges, but our own dragging feet and brazenly irrational attitudes.
With this threat looming, scientific skepticism cannot afford to squander its credibility by entertaining the rantings of deniers who cannot recognize their own ignorance. It’s about time we explicitly state that if you are not going to play by logical rules, you do not get to identify yourselves as logical people.