The Future of Skepticism

I was listening to an old podcast - Episode 231 - of the SGU yesterday, and a listener asked a question about the future of skepticism.

So first, have we gotten more skeptical?

Jay thinks we have, overall. Our science has progressed a great deal. And our ability to get information with the internet is so much more profound now. But the number of people who believe in woo hasn't gone down.

Rebecca is very optimistic. It's not necessarily about the number of people who believe in weird things, but that we are neutering superstitions and myths and turning them from something dangerous into something that is just a pastime for the wealthy.

There's still a tremendous amount of work to go when it comes to dangerous pseudoscience and superstition, but in general we're doing OK. Our scientific knowledge is growing, and will continue to grow into the forseeable future.

Bob can see it going either way. Skepticism has grown by leaps and bounds in the last 20 years or so, but irrational beliefs have also grown. We'll never get rid of superstitious belief, but in the future it could be marginalized to a degree we haven't seen. But it could also totally go nuts, totally descending into superstition. As science gets more and more complicated and technological, I could see people just giving up on it, and treating it like a religion, that it's so complicated that you have your "techno-priests" that nobody can understand. Who knows if they're telling the truth.

Steve sees that there are all kinds of trends overlapping. If you take a long view, there seems to be a general trend towards less superstition and more rationality in human civilization. Let's hope that longterm trend holds up. There is also a shorter term cyclical trend where pseudosciences come and go, not only individually but just in general. There's always going to be a battle to fight, we may marginalize one pseudoscience and two others will take it's place, and we'll have to deal with them as well. Human nature and the need for a sense of transcendence, the need to believe in something, all the pitfalls we all talk about, those are not changing, at least not quickly. At least for the forseeable future, people are people and we're going to have to deal with the inherent irrationality of our species.

Also, if you look at it from another point of view, if you look at the different cultures around the world, some cultures are much more rational than others. Some cultures are so thoroughly steeped in pseudoscience or superstition. What that says is the potential is there for that to happen in just about any culture. They they could descend and really get overwhelmed with superstition.

So while the longterm trends are hopeful, the shorter term trends are always going to come back. Without a group promoting science and trying to keep science connected to the public and to pop culture in general, that there is the risk of what Bob says that science becomes completely detached from popular culture and becomes almost the equivalent of a priesthood. And we could even end up with an incredibly regressive superstitious population.


I think I'm with Steve and Bob, that it really could go either way. I can see the longterm trend for more rationality over human history, but it seems we are currently regressing, at least in America.

It seems to me that there are bastions of rationality in certain cultures right now, but then you have other cultures where pseudoscience and/or superstition are rampant and always have been.

I was thinking that each culture seems to be maturing at their own pace, but that they are all progressing forward, toward more rationality. But that's not really the whole picture, is it? Cultures can certainly regress. Look at America now. I have been reading about the Founding Fathers in Moral Minority by Brooke Allen, and it seems that we had a period of influence of the Enlightenment, but even during that time, priests and pastors tried to foist their particular religion onto society, and to enact laws to further their agenda.

Since then, we've gone through cycles of increasing religiosity. Right now it seems that we are under the thrall of religion and woo in all stripes and colors. Just look at what is popular in the media.

I think we'll get a good look at how the country as a whole is feeling about religion in the upcoming presidential election. The Republicans are hyper-religious at the moment and we'll see if people vote to move us closer to a blatant theocratic police state or not. Hopefully they are marginalizing themselves by their choices in extremist candidates.

I don't think I'm as optimistic as Rebecca, and I don't think woo has been relegated to pastimes for the wealthy. I think it's rampant in our society. In fact, research has been done to show that there is a correlation between lack of control and increased superstition, which is why it seems that people who worry about their next paycheck, the future of their government, if they will be able to afford their medical bills, etc, tend to be more superstitious.

I do want to hope for the best, even though I feel it can go either way. I think the internet is the best tool we have to disseminate skepticism around the globe. Yes, I know it is also used to promote woo and superstition, but it still at least gives everyone the opportunity to get access to science and skepticism, something that hasn't always been the case.

What do you think? What is the future of skepticism in the world?


  1. @Neece: I had 3rd party cookies turned off, and this was blocking my posts. Thanks for your help!

    >> As science gets more and more complicated and technological, I could see people just giving up on it, and treating it like a religion...

    We are already there. There is a certain group of people persuaded that science in general, and evolutionary theory in particular, is itself a religious belief. Sadly these folks don't seem to understand what science really is - a systematic process of rational discovery - and I seriously doubt that most of them truly understand the meaning of their own beliefs.

    That said, science, reason, and skepticism are winning. Maybe winning is too strong - it's an argument that's going on for over 500 years, and shows no sign of slowing down. Science moves us forward, and religion adapts (it evolves!).

    As for the future, I'd like to see a world where everyone is capable of critical thinking. I don't expect religion to go away, but I'd like to think people are capable of distinguishing between the concepts of faith and reason.

    1. Thanks for letting me know what the trouble was, Tomato!

      Yes, I've heard people say they hate science. It seems like a foreign thing that they can't relate to, and it seems to scare them.

      Yes, they have no grasp of what science really is, that they use a rudimentary version of it when they test out hypotheses in their daily lives, and they also benefit from it in every area of their lives!

      I agree that science moves us forward and religion has to kick and scream and finally adapt.

      I think it's a wonderful idea that everyone will think critically in the future. I'd love it! But somehow I don't see us heading in that direction. Hell, we don't even teach kids to think critically in 12 years of schooling! (we also don't teach them basic finance, but I digress).

      If we really want to get people to think more critically, we have to make a lot of changes to education, and probably entertainment as well.

      First step, make geeks and scientists the heroes! Make the skeptic the one who saves everyone through rational thinking! Alas, this almost never happens. :(

      I don't know if most average people really can distinguish between faith and reason. They seem to find reason unpleasant and faith seems to come easy to them. You're talking about different parts of the brain being used. Reason is a skill, and it can be hard work. Faith is easy and lazy, which is appealing to many people.

  2. Well yes, that what I'd *like* to see, not what most likely. I think people often see the results of science and tacitly agree with it, even if the still give lip service to religion.

    There has been some movement in entertainment towards "smart" heroes. The TV show "Numbers" was a good step, and even the plethora of CSI shows promote using the strength of evidence of solve problems. However, none of these shows are very good about showing the enormous amount of hard work that goes into research and investigative efforts.
    To be really geeky, there is a Marvel comic hero who get along by being super smart. Can't think of the name just now though.

    1. Yeah, there is House and Bones, neither of which I watch, but I hear they can be more skeptical. I agree, in all the shows on TV they never ever show the hard work. I understand why, it's not that exciting, but it seems like it's always made out to be a maverick who has "ah-ha" moments of brilliance, not just sheer hard work that solves the mystery.

      I don't know about people just giving lip service to religion while tacitly agreeing with science. I would like to think that's the case, but I think there are a lot of people who really think they hate science, even though they benefit from it probably every second of their lives. Which is serious cognitive dissonance if you ask me, a very common occurrence.
      May I ask what part of the country you're in Tomato? Maybe it's regional. I'm in West Virginia, which is the upper buckle of the bible belt.

  3. There's definitely a cognitive dissonance going around. Strangely enough I think that might actually be a good thing, because at some level people are needing to compartmentalize their beliefs. Now if they would only start to examine how and why they think like they do - most won't, but some will.

    I live in Wisconsin, near Milwaukee, which is definitely not the bible belt, but we do have our share of conservatives and conservative churches. Wisconsin is generally fairly liberal, I just happen to live in the middle of Conservative-Central.