Is This the Week that Organized Skepticism Imploded?

Skepticism - You've Been Doing It Wrong

For many years on this site I've critiqued the demagogic tendencies of a number of the 'leaders' of the modern skeptical movement (see the bottom of this post for some links). I've often faced resistance (and sometimes hostility) from card-carrying skeptics for pointing out the foibles of these so-called champions of science, and the dangers of having such people as figureheads of a movement dedicated to truth and reason - but I had no inkling that in the space of just a few short years the reputations of a number of them would begin coming undone at their own hands.

The first tremors began, perhaps, two years ago with the 'Elevatorgate' scandal within skepticism, in which Richard Dawkins outed his 'drunk uncle' persona to those within skepticism by entering a controversial argument he didn't need to engage in, and making comments that were always going to set off a firestorm.

Just a few months later, the previously Teflon-coated James 'The Amazing' Randi was caught at the center of his own scandal when his partner of more than two decades, Jose Alvarez, was caught and pleaded guilty to identity theft, after overstaying his visa in the 1980s. Though many felt sympathy for both Randi and his partner's dilemma, there were also questions over how much Randi knew or was involved in the crime - a not-particularly-good look for the much celebrated champion of truth and honesty.

Randi's credibility devolved further earlier this year when Will Storr's book The Heretics brought Randi's Social Darwinist-like philosophies into the spotlight, as well as Randi's own confession that he sometimes lies to win his arguments.

A few months later, prominent skeptical voice Brian Dunning (of the popular Skeptoid podcast) pleaded guilty to one charge of wire fraud for his part in a scheme to 'hack' eBay's affiliate marketing porgram which netted millions of dollars for the group.

This week, Richard Dawkins once again put his foot it with a provocative tweet about the lack of Nobel Prizes in the Islamic world (if you want to understand why it was a stupid tweet, swap 'Islam' for 'women' in the tweet and his later 'reflections' on the matter). This time, it seems that Dawkins may have put the final straw on the camel's back: Owen Jones wrote that Dawkins could no longer "be left to represent atheists"; Martin Robbins wrote that atheism "will leave Dawkins behind"; Tom Chivers asked him "to please be quiet"; and Nesrine Malik said Dawkins himself was as irrational "as an Islamic extremist".

There's a fair feeling of chickens coming home to roost in these incidents, but this week flocks of previously hidden fowl seem to have emerged from every dark shadow in the world of skepticism. Some two years on from the 'Elevatorgate' incident, skeptical speaker and writer Karen Stollznow used her blog at Scientific American to note that she herself was a victim of sexual harassment by "a predator" within the skeptical movement. This individual, a well-known media commentator and editor of one of skepticism's flagship publications was subsequently named by P.Z. Myers on his blog (after what Myers said was a flood of corroborating emails).

(Update 25/3/2014: Ben Radford has posted an alleged retraction by Karen Stollznow of the sexual assault charges. Which Stollznow has promptly denied.)

A former JREF employee then spoke out about continuous unethical behaviour at Randi's foundation. Then another blogger named yet another high-end skeptic/atheist and well-credentialed scientist of acting improperly, before withdrawing his name (though again that hasn't stopped P.Z. Myers). And if all that wasn't enough, at the end of the week P.Z. Myers followed up with testimony from someone he knows regarding what the victim describes as her 'rape' by one of the most prominent of all skeptics during a skeptical conference (a blog post that has generated some 2000 3000 comments now).

Whether each of the accusations is valid or not, and whether the naming of certain individuals is proper, is not part of my argument here. But what has become clear is that the former figureheads of the skeptical movement finally now have a (long-awaited) skepticism being applied to their own actions and pronouncements, and a number of them are being revealed for the pretenders they are. I'd like to think that this is the end of skeptical demagoguery, and the beginning of a new, more intelligent, self-critiquing skeptical movement - though perhaps it's more just a fragmentation, as Myers and Randi and others now just seem to have their own righteous armies fighting somewhat of an internal civil war in skepticism. I'm still hoping for the former though, as intelligent skepticism is a much-needed element of modern discourse, but something that has been very rare indeed to this point.

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Barry Desborough's picture
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11 August 2013
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36 weeks 2 days

"If you want to understand why it was a stupid tweet, swap 'Islam' for 'women' in the tweet "

Works for me.

Moslems don't get so many Nobel prizes. Maybe there is something wrong here.
Women don't get so many Nobel prizes. Maybe there is something wrong here.

pov's picture
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16 July 2013
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1 week 22 hours
emlong's picture
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5 hours 7 min

I still maintain that people like Randi, Schermer, and Penn and Teller are agents for a group of people intent on quashing the human potential movement because potentized humans can see through and stand up to the various games being played to reduce most of humanity to chattel.

Martin J. Clemens's picture
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One sure fire way to become the enemy of the cause you wish to represent, is to allow yourself to become a demi-god in its grace. Dawkins and Randi, while both have had good ideas and valid, well reasoned arguments for their cause, cannot stand up to the scrutiny of the internet age, and I challenge you to find any spokesman, secular, skeptical or otherwise, who is truly above reproach.

But I fail to see, as has been suggested, how these actions and behaviours has any impact on the validity of their arguments (in most cases).

Having said that, I will point out that I am no fan of James Randi. His pro-eugenics viewpoint is too much for me. But he has done much to reveal the chicanery of some mystical and neo-occultist groups and personalities.

These men have transcended their own ideas, the very ideas that made them famous. But it is their rabid fans who have done the most damage to their reputations. Their pedestals are just too high.

red pill junkie's picture
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But I fail to see, as has been suggested, how these actions and behaviours has any impact on the validity of their arguments (in most cases).

How about this: both gentlemen, lauded by some as champions of Reason in a world filled with irrationality, support notions & ideas that are completely unscientific --Social Darwinism with Randi, Islamophobia with Dawkins.

Thus, if the drive of their passion stems from irrationality, what is the point of the Sketptic/Rationalist movement?

It's not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me...
It's all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

Red Pill Junkie
_______________
@red_pill_junkie

frankmat's picture
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I've been saying this for years now.

What do most of these high profile rabid "skeptics" have in common? They all suffer from symptoms you would associate with Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

These latest allegations come as no surprise given the type of people they are and their NPD.

SecretSun's picture
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I'll remind folks that Randi got his lover off that identity theft rap by the skin of his teeth for reasons not yet fully explained. I'll also remind folks that Randi isn't going to live forever and that there's a lot- and I mean a LOT- of skeletons still to come a-poppin' out of his closet. The fun hasn't even started yet.

The man's made a lot of enemies and there's a lot of people who've made their careers by kissing his ring. All of this mess will be put in a whole new context once the whole truth comes out.

Luckily for the skeptics they have the mainstream media to lie, cajole, bully, distort and cover up for them at every single, solitary turn. Because they both serve the same corporate masters. But be that as it may we'll be able to shove all of the filth, scuzz and ooze that has come to light and is yet to come to light in the Skeptics' faces when they come around to hassle us.

Gwedd's picture
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She is a beyatch.

These skeptics declared God (or the Gods) dead, and then happily stepped into the void thus left, and assumed the Mantle of Deity for themselves.

Such people always lose, and often lose big.

Karma loves them. :)

Respects,
Gwedd

ddrasin's picture
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You all may enjoy these two items that put the cult of skepticism in its place:

This short, animated video dramatizes why a scientist can be skeptical, but a "skeptic" cannot be scientific:
"I'm a Skeptic" [tinyurl.com/imaskeptYouTube]

This essay lays bare all the tricks on techniques of the pathological skeptic:
"Zen... and the Art of Debunkery" [tinyurl.com/zendebunk]

emlong's picture
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18 September 2007
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5 hours 7 min

"I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research." - Albert Einstein

wellerpond's picture
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15 August 2013
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This whole thing is just bizarre. I am sickened by how despicable people have been to Rebecca Watson and the rest of the Skepchick crew. How do these people live with themselves? Do they have sisters or mothers?

And the accusations about Michele Shermer and the disturbing sexual assaults at conferences, I don’t even know how to process that. Is it really so pervasive? Because I feel like we know these people – these intellectual leader in a movement I am passionate about– and either respect their ideas, or at least the concept of having alternate ideas, this feels like a deep, personal betrayal.

PZ is saying you need to pick a camp or you are passively allow things to continue. I don’t like any of the camps; it’s absurd to compartmentalize objective reality and critical thinking. It is only the human ego, ancient tribalism, and real or perceived inequality that makes us do so. The fact that our unity is crumbling is evidence of this self-destructive path.

Over the years I have championed critical thinking and the people that inspire me. Now, I am left with disgust and disappointment. I have to believe there is nothing inherent in the critical thinking movement that encourages this kind of behavior. People are postulating that, like any large group, we just have a representative group of the general population. I still have faith in the scientific process, but I have lost faith in humanity’s ability to think maturely and be kind to one another.

wellerpond

red pill junkie's picture
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PZ is saying you need to pick a camp or you are passively allow things to continue. I don’t like any of the camps; it’s absurd to compartmentalize objective reality and critical thinking. It is only the human ego, ancient tribalism, and real or perceived inequality that makes us do so. The fact that our unity is crumbling is evidence of this self-destructive path.

That's why here at TDG we advocate for the excluded middle ;)

Perhaps these developments show that corruption & rottenness is the inevitable conclusion for all human endeavors that grow too big & too powerful. Something 'rationalists' should keep in mind next time they aim their barbs to the church.

BTW welcome to the Grail :)

It's not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me...
It's all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

Red Pill Junkie
_______________
@red_pill_junkie

emlong's picture
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Well, I will just reiterate my suspicions about Randi and Company - they have more than a whiff of the Bohemian Grove perversion thing, and since they so assiduously attack anything and everything pointing towards NWO manipulations like 911, the military/industrial complex, the medical/industrial complex, etc. I cannot help but think they are funded or encouraged by these forces to be gatekeepers for the worst of the globalist fantasies of absolute control of the "weak masses." Ingo Swann had much the same take on why these people so viciously attacked the remote viewing idea - it was because that was a cat they didn't want to let get too far out of the bag and into the public domain. People empowered with abilities like remote viewing make it harder for self proclaimed pharaohs to keep secrets.

Doug Skinner's picture
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I have to admit I've been dismayed by the championing of religion over science I often see here. Charles Fort was as agnostic as they come, and specified that his criticism of science didn't mean an endorsement of religion. The early forteans were mostly agnostics and atheists -- Thayer, Dreiser, Darrow, et al. In fact, they extended anti-clericalism to the scientific priesthood. Sounds good to me.

Here's a nice juicy quote from fortean John Cowper Powys, rejecting both idealism and materialism: “But what I would like to indicate just here, is that a certain tentative, irrational, timid, hesitant scepticism has the power sometimes of calling up, out of deep mysterious places, a vision of the universe that commits us neither to an all-seeing God nor to an all-knowing Science, a vision that is confused and infinitely perplexing, but touched all the same by the beauty that no idealism can reach or materialism destroy, the beauty that belongs to that ambiguous look — unspeakable, unutterable — which crosses sometimes the countenance of Nature itself!”

Hear, hear!

Gwedd's picture
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I have commented here with this view many times, I believe, but I'll do it again.

The Gods created all things seen and unseen. It is Science that seeks to discover how these Gods did that.

Nothing more, nothing less. You exclude Deity from Science at your great peril, and vice versa. They are, quite effectively, the true yin & yang of our experience(s).

Respects,
Gwedd

Greg's picture
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30 April 2004
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Doug Skinner wrote:

I have to admit I've been dismayed by the championing of religion over science I often see here. Charles Fort was as agnostic as they come, and specified that his criticism of science didn't mean an endorsement of religion. The early forteans were mostly agnostics and atheists -- Thayer, Dreiser, Darrow, et al. In fact, they extended anti-clericalism to the scientific priesthood. Sounds good to me.

Here's a nice juicy quote from fortean John Cowper Powys, rejecting both idealism and materialism: “But what I would like to indicate just here, is that a certain tentative, irrational, timid, hesitant scepticism has the power sometimes of calling up, out of deep mysterious places, a vision of the universe that commits us neither to an all-seeing God nor to an all-knowing Science, a vision that is confused and infinitely perplexing, but touched all the same by the beauty that no idealism can reach or materialism destroy, the beauty that belongs to that ambiguous look — unspeakable, unutterable — which crosses sometimes the countenance of Nature itself!”

Hear, hear!

Not sure if I'm the one implicated in the "championing of religion over science" (I would find that bizarre as I enjoy science far more than religion; I do though attack scientism and argue for the rights of those who want to engage in religion). But damn I love that quote, thanks for sharing Doug!

Kind regards,
Greg
-------------------------------------------
You monkeys only think you're running things
@DailyGrail

Doug Skinner's picture
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Well, no, I wasn't implicating anyone; I haven't kept a scorecard. I just noticed a trend in the chitchat, and thought I'd put in a plug for some old-school fortean agnosticism, particularly since I found that quote.

I've seen no evidence of gods; and precious little evidence that human senses and intellect are particularly reliable. Those who have, should, of course, proceed accordingly.

Gwedd's picture
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I will happily mock the lesser intelligence types who believe in all things NWO/Illuminati/Masonic/HAARP/Chemtrails, etc... but especially the tinfoil hat types who believe that 9/11 was anything BUT a savage attack by 7th century barbarians against Western Civilization. Something they've been doing for some 14 centuries now.

But do go on with your little conspiracy theories, as they are always great fun to listen to and mock.

Yeah, I went there. Ignorance may be excused, but willful blindness must not.

Respects,
Gwedd

emlong's picture
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"Fun" about sums up the seriousness of your inquiry into these things.

SecretSun's picture
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If you want to know what's really going on with this movement go to a skeptic convention and look at the ethnic makeup of the crowd and then go look at the ethnic makeup of the people visiting your local storefront psychic or Charismatic church. Some bigotries can no longer be spoken aloud.

jackinthegreen's picture
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It speaks volumes for the cross section of followers TDG has that there are such divergent opinions coming through here - but of course it all remains very civilised.

As is often attested, there are many who affiliate to the so-called skeptic movement who seem to have a limited (at best) understanding of what skepticism is. There are also many who hold 'alternative' views who can seem blindly ignorant.

Here at TDG one tends to see largely well reasoned and presented ideas - not all of which anyone is going to agree with. That's what I like about it.

I have to say, though, I've not noticed a particularly pro-religious leaning in discussions - but I've not been as frequent a visitor in recent months for a variety of reasons.

emlong's picture
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"Religious" is one of those terms that means almost nothing by virtue of the fact that it is used so diversely. The most irritating usage of it implies that anything to do with other dimensions must be "religious."

kateads's picture
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18 August 2013
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Yeah, protip: it's never really appropriate to put quotes around the word rape. Women's reports of sexual assault don't need any extra shade cast on them.

Roger Knights's picture
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Those weren't sneer-quotes. They were used to indicate that that was the word used by the accuser herself (as one can see from visiting PZ Myers' site), not the commenter's interpretation of her account (protip).