Respectful Skepticism

Craig A. Foster

Being respectful isn’t just a nice thing to do. Skeptics are more likely to succeed if they defend science and reason in a consistently respectful manner.

The 2018 Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) CSICon conference is in the books. After checking in at Las Vegas’s McCarran International Airport and consuming a mediocre breakfast burrito, I found myself next to Burger King with enough solitude and caffeine-based stimulation to process everything I learned. I have been to three consecutive CSICons; this one placed a stronger emphasis on treating others with respect.

I was part of it. In my talk, I discouraged stereotyping pseudoscience supporters as being unintelligent or mentally unwell. The speakers who preceded me discussed leading with caring and having sympathy toward those who insert Goop into their … lives. Massimo Pigliucci discussed the limits of science (Boudry and Pigliucci 2017). Paul Offit shared a longstanding wish that he could relive a previous event and express more caring. The amazing James Randi himself continued the theme. SI Editor Kendrick Frazier recalled a person who asked Randi about helping loved ones who believe in flim-flam. Randi’s advice was to be kind to them, because they have trouble understanding how they have been misled.

Unfortunately, people simply do not recognize the importance of behaving respectfully and then change their modus operandi for interacting with others. The challenges associated with creating more respectful behavior are evident at my institution, the United States Air Force Academy. Some might think it odd that an institution would care about respect when its graduates might be asked to kill people. On the contrary, the U.S. Air Force Academy cares a great deal about respect, recognizing that it can reduce unnecessary harm, facilitate a positive workplace climate, and contribute to more effective leadership. I am pleased to say that my department, the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership, has played an influential role in this process, allowing me to learn from discussions surrounding this issue. Treating people with respect is also a thread that perceptibly and imperceptibly weaves through the behavioral science courses we teach.

I would therefore like to take this opportunity to describe why the skeptical community might benefit from behaving more respectfully and to offer some principles that might encourage this type of behavior. Psychologist Ray Hyman, an original member of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry’s Executive Council, similarly encouraged skeptics to behave respectfully in his insightful guide about effective forms of criticism, “Proper Criticism” (Hyman 2001). CSI and the Skeptical Inquirer have been guided by it for decades, since well before they published it. In particular, Hyman argued that more charitable behavior on behalf of skeptics could advance skepticism generally. Building off his work, I will dive more deeply into the concept of interpersonal respect. I use the term respectful skepticism so skeptics can consider it as a distinct concept worthy of consideration.

Respectful Skepticism

Simply telling people to be more respectful is unlikely to create any profound changes in behavior. Humans typically believe that they behave respectfully enough. They might believe that the people they disrespect deserve it. They might also misperceive their disrespectful behavior as “tough love” or “setting high standards.” These issues are admittedly tricky, but the fuzzy nature of a term such as respect should serve as a warning. It would be easy for any community to congratulate itself for caring about respect without really making any improvements. To get beyond superficial considerations, I start with a definition: Respectful skepticism is arguing on behalf of skepticism in a constructive and mature manner that appreciates the value of others and avoids unnecessary harm.

Skeptics should consider developing a more respectful approach, not just because it might feel good but also because it will help skeptics create a less unreasonable world. Behaving more respectfully should make skeptics appear more likable and credible, both of which are crucial when attempting to influence others (Cialdini 2001; Hyman 2001). Humans are motivated toward cognitive consistency (Gawronski and Strack 2012), so it is easy for people to listen to likeable skeptics and disregard unlikable ones. Furthermore, it is understandably difficult for people to come around to agreeing with a community that has already chided them. Disrespectful behavior can also contribute to a negative stereotype about skeptics, regardless of whether that perception is fair (Hilton and von Hippel 1996; Hyman 2001). Thus, skeptics who behave disrespectfully can undermine skepticism broadly, particularly when they are communicating in a context that associates their behavior with the skeptical community.

Describing any behavior as universally respectful or disrespectful is probably an impossible task. Thus, respectful skepticism is best considered as a goal—an intention to treat others, even skepticism’s adversaries, with decency. To help skeptics (myself included) better achieve this goal, I offer five principles that skeptics might consider and practice.

1. Free Will and Determinism

Recognize that individuals have rich personal histories that shape how they think, feel, and behave. Philosophers have debated for millennia about whether humans exert any type of free will (Dennett 2013). I do not think it is useful to get caught up in the minutiae of this interesting debate, but suffice it to say that if humans have free will, it appears to be limited. Social science research demonstrates that humans do not independently choose their respective beliefs; beliefs are shaped by biological, cognitive, and sociocultural factors. Genetics predict beliefs. Obviously individuals do not possess specific “belief genes,” but heredity causes general characteristics that make people more likely to believe one claim over another (e.g., Loehlin 1993). Environmental forces are also influential. Cultural and sociological factors (e.g., religious or nonreligious affiliations) shape belief development (Bauer et al. 2012). More specific relationships, such as those formed with parents and peer networks, are similarly influential (Glass et al. 1986; Visser and Mirabile 2004).

Once beliefs are formed, humans are slow to change them. They tend to interpret incoming information in a confirmatory manner (Nickerson 1998). They are more likely to communicate with people who have similar beliefs, and they usually overestimate the number of other people who support their views (Goel et al. 2010). It is also difficult for individuals to recognize when their beliefs are “paranormal” or “pseudoscientific” because there is no clear silver bullet that identifies the presence of such beliefs (Boudry et al. 2015). Plus, individuals who wish to maintain scientifically unreasonable beliefs have several ways of doing so. They can reinforce their beliefs with questionable tactics such as relying on questionable authorites, pointing to nonrepresentative examples, creating nonfalsifiable theories, and so forth (Hansson 2013). They can also develop conspiracies to help justify the seemingly unjustifiable (Foster and Clarke 2015).

In sum, humans are animals with remarkable, but limited, cognitive capabilities. They are commonly misled into implausible beliefs and remain resistant to belief revision. Thus, becoming frustrated with woo promoters (or with skeptics) is understandable but perhaps not rational. Being frustrated with people for their stubbornness is akin to being frustrated with sophisticated robots for not recognizing the need to update their programming.

2. Unconditional Positive Regard

Extend unconditional positive regard more broadly. Individuals characteristically set limits on who deserves positive regard and under what conditions. This natural human tendency creates confusion around behaving respectfully because it enables the justification of disrespectful behavior. Carl Rogers, one of psychology’s major figures, championed the importance of unconditional positive regard (Rogers 1961); it is difficult to define precisely, but it generally means something like accepting and supporting others in their current state of development without contingency. Some scholars have suggested that unconditional positive regard is better described as nonpossessive warmth (Farber and Doolin 2011), a term that seems to more strongly emphasize others as separate beings who control their own lives. Existing evidence suggests that unconditional positive regard is an important predictor of therapeutic success (Farber and Doolin 2011). Of course, skeptics are not conducting therapy when they debate skepticism-related topics, but Rogers did not limit unconditional positive regard in this way. He argued that it is essential for any helping relationship (Rogers 1961).

Unconditional positive regard is great in theory but tough in practice. When I discuss the concept with students, they typically offer test cases, such as questioning whether unconditional positive regard should be extended to people who engage in various forms of truly horrible behavior. This type of consideration is challenging, but it can help clarify the concept. Regarding others positively and without condition does not require one to approve of or excuse others’ misconduct. Obviously, no sensible therapist or person is going to approve of sexual assault, for example. Instead, unconditional positive regard means enhancing trust by putting aside personal judgment to consider others as autonomous beings who have the capacity and desire to grow in positive ways.

I like to use the concept of unconditional positive regard to explain how individuals can address behavior without inserting negative personal judgment that disrupts the helping relationship. Imagine, for example, discussing climate change with a staunch climate change denier. An advocate for addressing climate change might dislike the climate change denier at a personal level for stubbornly holding onto a belief that is collectively harmful. This disapproval might be understandable psychologically, but the climate change denier is likely to sense the development of personal antagonism and disengage from the discussion. Climate change advocates who maintain greater understanding about climate science denial might avoid the personal resentment that inhibits persuasion. A less judgmental approach might cause advocates to express concerns about climate change denial (e.g., “Can you understand why people don’t believe there is such a conspiracy?”) in a more evidence-focused manner that keeps the climate change denier engaged and openminded to consider what you’re saying. Hyman (2001) did not use the term positive regard, but he argued similarly that skeptics should be charitable and fact-focused, both of which avoid personal forms of attack.

Consistently offering truly unconditional positive regard is almost impossible. Rogers (1951) himself recognized that therapists were unlikely to extend unconditional positive regard invariably. Nevertheless, the challenge of complete success should not dissuade people from striving for gradual improvements. Skeptics who heighten their levels of positive regard and offer it to a wider circle of people might be more successful in leading people away from woo. Personally, I have never been able to embrace unconditional positive regard fully, but I can still employ it to a degree. A hot-button skepticism issue for me is faith healing. By attempting to put my personal judgment aside, I can better appreciate the events that cause individuals—correctly or incorrectly—to believe that faith will solicit God’s benevolent influence. I can also try to appreciate that most or all people who replace traditional medicine with faith healing believe that they are making good decisions. These considerations don’t reduce my conviction against faith healing, but they grant me the patience to discuss faith healing in a more understanding and effective manner.

3. Perspective Taking

Practice perspective taking. Perspective taking is “a cognitive capacity to consider the world from other viewpoints” (Galinsky et al. 2008, 378). Skeptics should consider deliberate perspective taking to better understand communities that promote unreasonable claims. Doing so can inhibit the temptation to dismiss such communities without really considering what they have to say. Taking a different community’s perspective also inhibits the tendency to apply stereotypes, decreases the perceived differences between self and members of that community, and reduces in-group favoritism (Galinsky and Moskowitz 2000). In the context of skepticism, perspective taking might cause skeptics to view people who promote unreason as being more diverse and collectively more similar to skeptics than expected.

I doubt that perspective taking will make skeptics more susceptible to adopting the central claims offered by anti-skeptical communities. Understanding another’s perspective is not tantamount to adopting it, and skeptics are generally well versed in identifying legitimate and illegitimate arguments in ongoing skepticism-based debates. Furthermore, evidence suggests that perspective taking would make skeptics more effective in promoting science and reason. Research indicates that individuals who take others’ perspectives are more likely to find common ground leading to personally beneficial solutions (Galinsky et al. 2008). Research also indicates that individuals are more willing to like and help others when they believe those others have considered their perspective (Goldstein et al. 2014).

4. Aggressive Behavior

Avoid aggressive behavior. People might think of aggression as hurting another person. This type of colloquial definition is often operative, but it overlooks situations in which individuals hurt other people even when it isn’t their intent to do so. Dentists, for example, hurt patients when they pull teeth, but it seems misguided to call their behavior “aggressive,” because they are not trying to cause harm (dentists depicted in Little Shop of Horrors notwithstanding). Accordingly, psychologists generally define aggression around the intent to cause physical or emotional harm (Anderson and Bushman 2002).

Skeptics can argue on behalf of skepticism in ways that are not intended to cause harm. Granted, discussions surrounding skepticism can be emotionally hurtful. Humans are generally averse to being wrong or acknowledging wrongdoing, especially when it involves topics that are important to the self-concept (e.g., identifying as being anti-GMO) or when it suggests a disappointing reality (e.g., God will not cure my child just because I pray for it). Nevertheless, when skeptics engage in skepticism-based debates, neither side is necessarily acting aggressively as long as their goal is to promote a greater principle, such as promoting truth and resolving social problems.

However, skeptics and non-skeptics can lose sight of their intent to create positive forms of persuasion and shift toward behaving aggressively (Hyman 2001). Usually, this aggression involves verbal and nonverbal behavior that is at some level intended to hurt another person emotionally. Skeptics might transition from constructive dialogue to aggressive dialogue for a variety of reasons, such as frustration in the apparent unwillingness of the other person to listen, comments made by the opposition that are hurtful, or a desire to create justice for the other person’s harmful behavior (Bushman and Anderson 2001). While these instigations to aggression are psychologically explicable, they are unlikely to be constructive. Skeptics should remember that their purpose in promoting skepticism is to minimize bunk and to encourage a skeptical way of thinking. Remaining cognizant of these goals might help skeptics decrease the likelihood of engaging in ineffective aggressive behavior that reflects poorly on the broader community.

5. The Theory-Practice Gap

Recognize that being a respectful skeptic is difficult and failures are inevitable. The difference between understanding a principle at the conceptual level and behaving consistently with that principle is sometimes called the “theory-practice gap.” Even if people agree with the principle of behaving respectfully, they can still behave in disrespectful ways (Druckman 2014). This occurs because individuals commonly struggle to regulate behavior to satisfy long-term goals (Mischel et al. 2014). People might know that they should eat fewer doughnuts, but they give into immediate temptation anyway. Likewise, skeptics might know that treating others respectfully is better for everybody involved but give into old impulses, possibly engaging in ad hominem attacks of their own.

I know I sometimes fail to cross the theory-practice gap. Anybody who witnesses such failings might accuse me of being hypocritical—promoting one thing but doing another. If so, I would respectfully disagree. My future failures do not mean that I disagree with the goal of being respectful. Rather, they merely indicate that I am fallibly human in my inability to consistently maintain my composure. Skeptics who wish to behave more respectfully should likewise recognize that the path to respectful skepticism includes pitfalls. They might consider failures as lessons that can help them learn to behave more respectfully—and more effectively—over time.


One final concern involves the evaluation of whether particular behaviors are “disrespectful.” Some behaviors are clearly disrespectful, such as publicly belittling others for personal satisfaction. Other behaviors are less clear. Consider, for example, Michael Mann writing that based on evidence provided by DARA (2012), one could argue that the campaign to deny human-caused climate change “constitutes an even greater crime against humanity than the tobacco industry’s campaign to deny the health effects of tobacco” (Mann and Toles 2016, 40). Climate change deniers might argue that Mann’s claim is disrespectful because it is biased and disparaging. Advocates for addressing climate change might argue that the statement is not disrespectful because it is based on a transparent and realistic summary of the existing science. Nitpicking about whether certain behaviors are disrespectful can be distracting and counterproductive. My intent is instead to describe how skeptics might avoid the more obvious forms of disrespect that inhibit constructive dialogue and contribute to negative perceptions of the skeptical community.

Finally, I very much doubt that this first preparation of respectful skepticism represents the best possible dish. I would encourage potential critics to suggest how this recipe might be improved. I only ask one thing: Please make any criticisms hurt as little as possible.


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