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About Skepticism
what is a skeptic, about skepticism,fence sitting
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Fence-Sitting

By Dave W.
Posted on: 6/8/2004

Should we try to convince the fence-sitters instead of the believers? You bet, but there are good and bad ways to go about it, and the fence may not sit where you think it does.


I’ve come to a realization. Allow me to share it with you:

It dawned on me, several weeks ago, that when the de facto “leaders” of the skeptical “movement” (if it can be called such) say things along the lines of “we’re not trying to convert the True Believers, we’re just trying to reach the people sitting on the fence,” they are, in fact, doing themselves (and the rest of us who consider ourselves skeptics) a disservice. Such statements are not only overly simplified, but needlessly polarizing.

You see, acceptance of any particular position with regard to any particular subject is not, in reality, a binary — yes or no — choice. There is an entire continuum of levels of acceptance, everything from “I believe that [some particular position] without question” through “I don’t know” all the way to “what a load of crappola.” The implication within statements about “True Believers” is that they are undenying yes-men, the people who “don’t know” are on the metaphorical fence, and the skeptics are nothing but nay-sayers.

Such an implication is damaging to the skeptical “cause” because it is unnecessarily polarizing and antagonistic. The simple fact is that skeptics are not simply “nay-sayers.” In fact, there are many people who would agree with a skeptical position, but without really understanding why it is “correct.” Perhaps they simply believe what they were taught in high school, and never had the chance or motivation to learn more about it. Maintaining such a position, however, requires no critical thought, and in fact it requires no more thought than has been suggested is used by the “True Believers.”

As far as I can tell, each extreme end on the continuum of acceptance is as “bad” as the other, from a critical-thinking point-of-view. The example statement I used above suggests to those who believe is that those who have not accepted that position have not done any more thinking than they, but have simply “hopped the fence,” sort of like the old joke about how a Republican is a Democrat who’s been mugged.

Let’s look at an example of all this. In eSkeptic #19 (May 10, 2004), Michael Shermer — an undeniable “star” of the skeptic scene — had this to say:
As a general rule that applies to most paranormal and supernatural claims, at the Skeptics Society we like to divide the world into three types of people: True Believers, Fence Sitters, and Skeptics. True Believers will never change their minds no matter what evidence is presented to them, and Skeptics already agree with us. The battleground is for the Fence Sitters — those who have heard something about the claim under question, wondered what the explanation for it might be, and perhaps speculated on their own or considered what other explanations have been proffered…

So, one reason for participating in such questionable debates is not to convert True Believers (since their positions are, by definition, non-negotiable), but to show the Fence Sitters that there is, in fact, a perfectly reasonable natural explanation for the apparently supernatural phenomenon under question.
Shermer here is discussing a recent debate about creationism he had with Kent Hovind, and why he participated in such a debate even though he knew there was no way he was going to change Hovind’s mind (or the minds of many in the audience). Unfortunately, he’s expressed this reason in such a way that creationists such as Hovind will continue to perceive evolution as diametrically opposed to their ideas, and thus must be just another form of “faith.”

But again: skepticism — and especially critical thought — is most-assuredly not the simple acceptance (or denial) of an idea. There are millions of people who “believe in” evolution simply because that’s what their biology teachers taught them. Such people are not skeptics anymore than the “True Believers” in Biblical creationism are, and equating the former group with skeptics (as they “already agree with us”) does damage to the public image of skepticism and critical thought, because it portrays us as a bunch of people who agree with the scientific “establishment” for no good reason at all.

In reality, there are two fences: the one which lies between the skeptics and the “True Believers,” and the one which lies between the skeptics and the “yea-sayers” (to perhaps coin a term to describe those who agree with scientists because they are scientists, period). Yes: in reality, it is the skeptics who are the true fence-sitters, neither accepting nor denying any position without reason, and willing to change our position(s) based upon new evidence. This is not to say that we are smack in the middle of the acceptance continuum (among those who have no idea what to think), only that we will never be found on one end or the other, neither blindly accepting nor denying anything.

And projecting the image that we are at one extreme, as Shermer did, seriously curtails our potential effectiveness as agents of social change. For a real critical thought “movement” to work, we must address — and seek to “recruit” — both of the large groups of fence-sitters. They all need to be shown the reasons for accepting a scientific position (or rejecting nonsense), and to be shown why they should accept the reasons themselves. Anything less amounts to a dereliction of our self-imposed “duty” to advance critical thought in the world.

In other words, it is not good enough that there are lots of people who unquestioningly accept evolution as a fact. It is not good enough that there are lots of people who dismiss ghost stories out of hand. It is not good enough that there are lots of people who laugh at the idea of alien abductions. It is not good enough that there are lots of people who would avoid an “alternative health practitioner” like the plague.

Instead, what we need are many, many more real fence-sitters, who question both the nay-sayers and the yea-sayers before arriving at a tentative conclusion, and keep asking more questions afterwards. A big bunch of folks whose rallying cry is “show me the evidence,” both for and against a proposition. That’s skepticism, and we need more of it.



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