The development of the skeptic movement – part 1


Claire Klingenberg
Claire Klingenberg is the Chair of the European Council of Skeptical Organisations and co-organizer of the Czech Paranormal Challenge. Since 2013, she has spoken at multiple science and skepticism conferences, and has consulted on a range of projects where pseudoscientific belief meets science.

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Whenever we try to write about the beginning of a movement, we must pinpoint a moment in history from which we want to start. Of course, if we were digging more, we could find another, older, root, or another influencing factor, previously unmentioned. There have been several articles written about the history of the skeptical movement, and they do overlap on some milestones while differing on others.

In this article, I will add to the tapestry of skeptic history. Though I will be sticking to the history of the movement within Europe and the Anglosphere, it is in no way to diminish the contributions of skepticism in the world outside of this designated realm, but because that area is best left to those who can inform us about it more completely and in greater context – skeptics, who are active there today. 

This article will divide skeptic history into eras, focusing more on its history than its current state. But before we get into that, let’s do a quick overview of what skepticism and the skeptical movement is.


Simply put, skepticism is systematic doubt. There are three main types of skepticism.

The first and oldest is philosophical, represented by the Sicilian philosopher Gorgias. His ideas are represented by a paraphrased quote of his:

Nothing exists; even if something exists, nothing can be known about it; and even if something can be known about it, knowledge about it can’t be communicated to others.”

In my humble opinion, this type of skepticism might be too skeptical even for diehard skeptics.

The second is religious skepticism, which started as a way to label questioning religious dogmas by religious scholars within the Roman Catholic Church. Later, the meaning was broadened to include any questioning of religious beliefs and claims.

The third one, the one which is “ours,” is scientific skepticism. It is questioning beliefs and claims using scientific findings. 

When comparing questioning religious claims from the point of the modern understanding of religious skepticism and from the point of scientific skepticism, we can imagine the difference like this: 

Religious skepticism: We have one God, who is three, who are actually one, who is actually three, and sometimes the two of the three are on Earth, while all three being in Heaven. That sounds strange and inconsistent. Let’s think about it more.

Scientific skepticism: Looking at a religious claim which intersects with the material world and examining its feasibility, such as miracle healing, the magical liquifying and solidifying of the blood of St. Januarius, self-lighting Holy Fire candle, by way of example, not limitation.

The Skeptical Movement

The skeptical movement is a social movement based around the idea of scientific skepticism. It promotes the avoidance of making conclusions without a thorough investigation, applying the scientific method and scientific findings to empirical claims across the board, and, most difficult of all, keeping a neutral stance towards unempirical claims and beliefs unless they are in direct conflict of the development of the scientific knowledge base.

So how did it all get started?

The First Era

The first era of skepticism is depicted on a timeline beginning in 1881 with the founding of the VtdK, followed by the publication of the first Sherlock Holmes story in 1887. In 1910 John Dewey defined critical thinking in his work "How to Think" and in 1923 Scientific American and Houdini announced the $5000 prize.

The Starting Point

I do believe I am doing the modern skeptic movement justice when I place it’s founding in the year 1881. The year in which Dutch general practitioners founded the Association against Quackery (Vereniging tegen de Kwakzalverij – VtdK) in the Netherlands. I will use the VtdK as our starting point. 

The founding of the VtdK was in consequence of a pamphlet created by the Dutch Society for the Advancement of Medicine, in which the points of how to identify a quack were detailed, subsequently giving the world the word quack as a way to label a medical practitioner who did not concern themselves much with science or evidence. The VtdK started publishing their findings in their own magazine, the Magazine Against Quackery (Tijdschrift tegen Kwakzalverij), which is currently the longest-running skeptic magazine in the world. Also, thanks to the work of VtdK, the Netherlands was the third country in the world to adopt comprehensive drug regulation legislation. 

One could argue that the VtdK, concerning the topics it covered at its founding, can not be considered a full-fledged skeptic group. I would argue that the attention given to various topics within the skeptic movement has fluctuated organically over the years, and the VtdK, especially considering its accomplishments, has been given its rightful place.

Now that we have our starting point established, let’s look at how analytical thinking was popularized among the public.

The Art of Nitpicking

In 1887, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published his first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet. Doyle’s extremely rational character was in many ways an opposite to Doyle himself, who fell for the doctored photo of Cottingley Fairies and was an ardent spiritualist.

Though we can find inspiration for this character both in the real world, such as  Doyle’s professor from the University of Edinburgh Joseph Bell, and in the world of fiction, such as E. A. Poe’s Auguste Dupin, it is the character of Sherlock which became a household name, a monicker, and the key component of the phrase “No sh*t, Sherlock.” 

All joking aside, or not, the popularity of Sherlock stories brought the hobby of systematic nosiness and art of nitpicking into the mainstream and gave the people who had such a hobby and practiced such art both the hope that they are not alone and the impulse to find others like them. The growth of the skeptical movement is not only related to things happening within, but to the influences forming it from the outside.

By the way, though Doyle made the phrase “art of deduction” popular, Sherlock was actually doing inductive reasoning. I would be remiss not to point out the difference.

  • Deduction: Theory → Creating a hypothesis based on known theory → Observing → Confirming.
  • Induction: Observing → Noticing a pattern → Creating a hypothesis → Confirming → Theory.

Defining Critical Thinking

The next important milestone is the definition of critical thinking published by philosopher and pedagogue John Dewey in his book How We Think published in 1910. If you don’t feel like reading the whole thing, a good summary of the book was published on Brain Pickings.

Dewey defines critical thinking as a reflection of thought, emphasizing the following:

  • Pausing decision making – We think better when we think slower, meaning we are more rational decision-makers when we pause to think. This is pretty much the summary of Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow.
  • Healthy skepticism – ‘Nuff said
  • Open Mind – Meaning not rejecting things outright

Dewey’s definition of critical thinking pretty much sums up scientific skepticism and Dewey’s influence brought these ideas to the forefront. 

Dewey’s definition of critical thinking pretty much sums up scientific skepticism and Dewey’s influence brought these ideas to the forefront. 

Houdini vs. Mina

Houdini’s contributions to the skeptical movement have been highlighted numerous times, so I will only summarize. After the death of his mother in 1913, Houdini -who used to pretend to be a medium communicating with the dead -started to look for “real” mediums to reconnect him with his mother. Though he searched thoroughly, visited all the big names of his time, he realized his suspicions that all mediums are just for show, were correct. He started to challenge mediums and spiritualists and in 1923 was invited to become part of Scientific American Investigation Panel, which offered $5000 (about $76000 today) to whomever could, without question, connect with the other side. 

One of the mediums, and the most worthy adversary, was a friend of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, just as Houdini was, Mina Crandon. Their incredible battle of the wills and abilities is written about in detail (and in English) by the founder of the Italian Skeptics, CICAP, Massimo Polidoro.

Houdini’s work was, thanks to his popularity, a great way to promote critical thinking and the skeptical approach.

An End of an Era

We can consider Houdini’s death as the end of the first era of the skeptical movement. This era enriched the skeptical movement with two crucial topics, fighting against quackery and testing woo. It also gave the outline of skeptical thinking, as well the ideas to organize and promote skeptical thinking in ways which are interesting to the public.

In my next article, we will examine how the skeptical baton was picked up after Houdini, and how the movement developed into the international community we see today.

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