Yeah, I think that critical thinking *has* to be the first step. Skepticism is not and just plain cannot be about how Bigfoot isn't real or UFOs are just swamp gas or whatever. For one thing, there's always the possibility that we could be wrong on a lot of those things. That to me is not the interesting argument to make there because in many cases the chances are vanishingly small that we're wrong, but I do feel like the proper science-oriented perspective is to always be aware of even the smallest piece of doubt when it exists.
The bigger issue is that, yeah, skepticism absolutely fails as a persuasive tool when you start with the idea to debunk first and critical thinking second. One of the things that I do like about the Reverend Doctor Emeritus Novella is that he usually tries to err on the side of critical thinking. When he speaks to someone about a potentially wacky belief, he asks them what their proof is and gets them to explain themselves before he goes about talking about how their beliefs don't match up with current science. Or even when he reads a paper or a news article he does at least try to present the other side before quashing it. A *lot* of people in the skeptical movement just plain do not do that.
I think that for me the other issue is that debunking is results-oriented. We shouldn't be results-oriented. We should be process-oriented. This may sound like I'm just repeating myself when I said that critical thinking was the #1 priority but the process is also about more than critical thinking. It's also about empathy and compassion - it's not enough to just hear the words that are coming out of the other side's mouth and formulate the proper response, it's about really and truly understanding not just *what* the "other side" believes, but *why*.
The thing that comes to the forefront for me right now is religion. The choir that I'm singing in right now is technically secular and open to the public but it's very religious in that particular non-denominational Christian way that public choirs can get (and that's fine by me; I enjoy a lot of choral music and let's just say that if you decided not to sing sacred classical choral music, your available repertoire would be greatly reduced). On the other hand, yes, I get that a lot of people in the skeptics' movement feel that the contradictions inherent in most religions but Christianity in particular are such that skepticism is fundamentally incompatible with Christianity. Okay, but here's the thing that I see: the people in this group, they may be Christians and they may very well believe a lot of the stuff that we feel that they shouldn't believe, but I'm pretty positive that the #1 reason why a lot of these people are Christians has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not they think those beliefs are logically sound. A lot of these people are Christians because their community nearly demands it. Church means a lot more to some folks than just a place to hear about God. It's *the* place where you interact with your local community. It means an easy venue to reach out and help others if you feel the urge to volunteer and change the world. It means an easy excuse to talk with your cousin with whom you have little to nothing else in common with and, absent church, you'd probably talk to at reunions and little else, but are nonetheless still fond of. It means a place that you can turn to when you need help.
Given all of that, can't we as skeptics (or atheists for that matter - I know I conflate the two a *lot* but I do see this kind of negative activism by atheist skeptics when I see it) see that, for example, standing outside of church and offering to debate churchgoers does absolutely nothing for our cause? Maybe we should be thinking harder about how to foster that sense of community within our own movement, but whether we do so or not we at the *very least* need to understand that this stuff means more to people than facts and evidence, and that in turn a fact and evidence based argument is not going to flip them. My opinion is that in the case of a lot of these folks we punt on the issue of religion and try to engage them skeptically in other ways (and FWIW I find a lot of Christians to be just as open to the ideas of skepticism as anyone in the movement is once you make that tacit agreement).
That's maybe the biggest example of skeptics behaving badly that I can think of but it's far from the only one. I do wonder, too, how much we're actually "helping" our cause by indulging schizophrenics who pop in on this board from time to time by arguing with them. Yes, very good. Their worldview is incomplete. They're mentally ill; that is a thing that happens. And I wonder... well, I wonder a lot of things. The bottom line is, like 60% of the issues I see with what we do, easily, have to do with being pre-occupied with results-based skepticism.