Why activists need skepticism

I went to a college with a very large activist population. Yet free thinking and skepticism were not very popular. I usually got one of a few different reactions when I tried to explain skepticism and its importance.

“Wait, so this movement has to do with aliens, psychics, and ghosts? What’s the harm in believing some silly story?” I had plenty of answers to this question.

Then they would respond, “Okay, fine. But no reasonable human being–especially not on this campus–would believe so strongly in some paranormal story that has no evidence to back its claims. Why spend all your time debunking this? Aren’t there more important issues to deal with? What about women’s rights, poverty, the destruction of the environment, the persistence of racism, and everything else? Who has time to care about this instead?”

This was a difficult question for me to answer. I tried to answer this question by pointing out the importance of environmental science and climatology research to environmentalist causes. I would point to global warming denialism. But the more complicated the issue becomes, the harder it is for the activist to imagine understanding the facts. They insist that although research is important, it is not central to their main beliefs, which instead are ethical standpoints about how we should treat human beings and the world around us. “Research is for scientists,” they would say. “We’re just getting the information out there.”

They are right to some extent. Activism is largely about ethical beliefs–but its manifestation is necessarily steeped in reality. If you’re trying to convince people that they are unknowingly perpetuating rape culture, they might respond that you are blowing the issue out of proportion because rape doesn’t happen that often. If you come prepared to this discussion, you might throw out one of the oft-cited figures that 1 out of every 6 women is a victim of rape or attempted rape at some point in their lives. But most young activists, I have found, know nothing more about this statistic when they are inevitably questioned. They feel it is somewhat irrelevant to the discussion–the real topic at hand is how perpetuating rape culture is heinous and perpetuates the crime of sexual assault itself!

This is an ethical stance. It is an appeal to pathos. But for the people that activists are often trying to convince, an appeal to pathos is not enough. You cannot tell a global warming denialist that they ought to drive fewer cars because they ought to love the Earth. Inevitably the discussion turns to the facts: is that 1 in 6 statistic really true? Where’d it come from*, Ms. Magazine? I heard that it includes women who had sex while drunk. That’s not really rape! Doesn’t the Earth fluctuate in temperature anyway? What about all those Ice Ages? How do you know we’re causing global warming with our cars and our coal and our oil?

When activists continue to appeal to pathos, they appear to be total ideologues–even if the facts are truly on their side. This is when skepticism can become a tool for their use. Maybe climate science is far too complicated and the global warming denialist keeps looking for more minutiae to pick apart. This is when the activist can give references to real discussions that scientists and researchers are having about the data. And when the activists starts investigating these resources and references, her arsenal of facts grows in size, strength, and credibility.

Many ideologues are passionate about their causes because they are representative of some ethical principle that seems to be undeniable. Of course to convince others of the same, it is necessary to remind them of what actual injustice or misdeed is being perpetuated–with facts and reliable references.

To some people it seems like a simple and obvious point to make. But take note next time you witness a clash between someone passionately fighting for their cause and some shmuck who is apathetic, ignorant, or downright hostile to their claims and their beliefs. How often does a real and careful examination of facts and evidence play a role in the argument–in an informative way, rather than a pedantic sidestep? Or do discussions of the facts devolve into frustration, name-calling, and the strange feeling that both sides don’t really want to know what the facts are at all? If devoted skepticism is so obvious and easy, you would never witness this scene at all.

And to the activists: take note next time someone asks you a question about the facts–how do you know what you know? If you laid this out to your audience, would it make your conversation or argument easier?

My preliminary experiences with this method: yes, it might make things go smoothly! Of course, there are always ideologues opposing you that are unwilling to listen to logos, pathos, or ethos


* It actually came from the U.S. Department of Justice. Here’s the full report.

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Vy is a recent graduate working in a neuroscience lab with children and monkeys. She likes sewing, knitting, lifting weights, and reading in her free time. Especially reading about science!


  1. October 12, 2011 at 11:03 am —

    YES! I would just add that skepticism should be had when looking for solutions. It sucks to waste your time on a solution that doesn’t work.

    Did I just state the obvious? Par for the course, I guess.

  2. October 17, 2011 at 8:16 pm —

    You’re right, it is absolutely crucial that activists know and understand the research in their areas of concern, and that they be skeptical of talking points on their own side as much as the opposing one. A failure to do this due diligence can lead activists to unwittingly damage their own credibility by repeating facts or statistics out of the context of the original research.

    A good example of this is the 1-in-6 statistic you cite in the article. In my (albeit anecdotal) experience, I have almost never seen activist groups (such as on college campuses) use this figure. It’s unfortunate they don’t, as it corresponds most closely to what the general public considers to be “rape”. The CDC has reported a 1-in-5 rate, based on a smaller survey of college women, but this is also rare to see.

    The figure that comes up most commonly is 1-in-4, which comes from the Koss survey. Koss’s survey includes a wider spectrum of behaviours than the above, and the 1-in-4 statistic includes all sexual victimization, including events related to alcohol or substance use or other unwanted sexual contact that did not include the threat of violence. Koss’s statistic for rape as defined in the above surveys (which more closely fits the mainstream cultural definition) was 1-in-8.

    An activist who is careless with definitions might be tempted to cite the higher figure to gain attention for their cause, even though it is misleading to those who are not already familiar with activism and varying definitions for rape and sexual assault. Based purely on the premise that rape is under-reported, an activist group where I went to school once put up a flyer that claimed 1 in 3 women are raped, with no substantiating data or explanation for their use of the term.

    Once they open themselves up to criticism for things like this, it is very hard for activists to maintain enough credibility to actually confront the problem and do some good. Aren’t the facts bad enough?

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