Regular readers will know that I criticize organized skepticism here fairly often, and with good reason. But that is not to say that I am anti-skepticism (or anti-science, as some would have it). Critical thinking skills are absolutely required if you’re going to navigate Fortean pathways, as they dip off into some pretty dark and overgrown parts of the forest on occasion.
Similarly, I have on occasion criticized some things that The Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait, has said. And again, with good reason (along with some more casual ribbing). However, on the whole I think Phil is a great communicator with an infectious passion for science and the cosmos, even if he does think I’m a goofy, antiscience guy.
In July, Phil spoke at The Amazing Meeting (TAM8) in Las Vegas, the biggest skeptical group gathering of the year, and instead of rallying the troops for battle, he took a different approach: he implored them ‘not to be dicks’:
There’s been some alarming developments in the way skepticism is being done… [I]n some specific places, the tone of what we’re doing is decaying. Instead of relying on the merits of the arguments…it seems that vitriol and venom are on the rise – I’m not happy about that.
…How many of you no longer believe in those things and you became a skeptic because somebody got in your face, screaming, and calling you brain-damaged and a retard?
Now it’s clear that I welcome this development, and so I gladly and genuinely want to say ‘well done!’ to the Bad Astronomer. But I also wanted to respond to a few of the other points he made as well – which I’ll do right after you watch this video of his whole talk:
Now, my first reaction to this talk was “finally, they’re getting it!” After seeing the talk being hailed on skeptical blogs as a watershed moment, my second reaction was more cynical; basically being along the lines of “if the breakthrough moment in your community is the revelation that you should not act like dicks, then your community does not have a great history to it.”
And I think that latter reaction is a fair one – it’s why I criticize organized skepticism so regularly, because it has some serious problems that need to be dealt with. One of those is that – despite the BA’s framing of his talk in terms of a recent decay in civility – the pioneering ‘skeptics’ of the movement such as Gardner, Randi, Klass etc *were* dicks. Huge, honking dicks. To me, there has been no ‘recent decaying’ – it’s just been a continuum of dickish behaviour.
A second, major problem is the fact that organized skepticism has become a belief system in itself (I noted with a grin that Phil himself mentions that “studies have shown that people who lose their faith tend to replace it with something else, with a different type of belief”). It was therefore refreshing-as-all-hell to see Phil note that himself in his talk:
Right now in this movement of ours…there’s entrenched belief masking itself, i think, as rational thought. People strongly believe in skepticism so much they’re not willing to question it themselves, not willing to question their own stance. And i could give you specific examples of myself as well…hubris is running rampant, and egos are just out of check, and sometimes logic in those situations is left by the wayside.
Phil notes one of the difficult aspects of being a skeptic is that it is “in many ways, a self-annihilating message – how do you convince someone they’re not thinking clearly, when *they’re not thinking clearly*!” Ironically, this applies in reverse on occasions when I’ve talked to skeptics – how you convince someone they’re not thinking clearly, when they define themselves as being a clear-thinker.
Here’s an example, pulled from Phil’s talk:
The message we’re trying to convey is hard all by its lonesome, and it’s even worse when we’re trying peddle this idea, when you think about what we’re actually saying, of no magic, no afterlife, no higher moral authoritative father figure, no security, no happy ever after…this is a tough sell.
Yes, skepticism is a tough sell – it’s basically about doubting yourself, your beliefs and assumptions 24/7. However, skepticism should *not* be about conveying the message that there is “no afterlife, no higher moral authoritative father figure” etc. There may be doubt about these things – but in the end, they are unfalsifiable, and so no true skeptic should be arguing that they don’t exist as part of their central message. One of the core failings of the modern skeptical movement – and it goes back to its origins in the likes of Martin Gardner and CSICOP – is the belief that skeptics’ raison d’être is to fight off ‘irrational’, supernatural beliefs. It has become so entrenched in the skeptical system that I’d imagine only theistic skeptics would have noticed this statement during the talk.
This mistaken acceptance of atheism and materialist belief as ‘skepticism’ leads me to another point: the big elephant standing in the corner wondering why Phil didn’t mention his name. Despite passionately calling for an end to dickish behaviour, the Bad Astronomer avoided calling anyone in particular out, even though I’m sure we all know who the biggest ‘skeptical’ front appendage out there is. And though he embraced Phil’s non-naming to exonerate himself, P.Z. Myers is wrong. He is a dick. Pharyngula, via both its blogger and a sizeable portion of the commenters, have lowered the tone of skeptical debate to new lows, and – given that Pharyngula is (allegedly) the premiere science blog on the planet – dragged the good name of science down with them.
But P.Z. isn’t the only one (as I said, most of the pioneering skeptics have/had the dickish attitude). The point to make from Phil’s ‘non-naming’ is that there is a severe lack of self-criticism within skeptical organizations – not only on attitude, but in fact-checking (seriously, if skeptics fact-checked some of Randi’s pronouncements they would be shocked). Very few skeptics are willing to take to Pharyngula with the same enthusiasm that they bring to fighting woo – and yet the former action may, in the end, be more important to the future of the skeptical movement. I think Phil’s talk goes a long way towards taking a first step in that direction.
Phil also mentions at one point that “the odds are against us..there are more of them than there are of us.” It’s an insular thing to say, and I think comes from a false dichotomy of ‘skeptics’ vs ‘irrational public’. It may be a necessary idea for skeptics to hold – in terms of consolidating a community – but in my opinion it is wrong. I would quite genuinely say that I am more skeptical than, at the very least, 50% of self-described skeptics. So are some of the top researchers in ufology, near-death experiences, and other areas – and they regularly get labeled as ‘woo-woos’ by ‘skeptics’ that are not deserving of the title. Skeptics would do well to realise that the title does not get bestowed simply because you don’t believe in God/magic/religion – it comes from doubting things and using critical thinking (if applicable) to come to your conclusions. By insulating themselves, skeptical ‘evangelists’ make it more difficult to engage with people, as they have already built a wall between them.
In my opinion, skeptical organisations need to rethink their identity – their goal should be to spread critical thinking skills, not to spread a certain belief system. Phil said it best in his talk:
I’m also of the “teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime” sort of thought…my goal is not to get rid of antiscience per se, it’s to help people walk away from it themselves, to teach them how to think and to give them the ability to use reason when thinking something through.
I don’t think we need to remove irrationality from the world. In fact, I would argue that in some cases, irrationality may be a psychological requirement to deal with some of the uglier aspects of this world, and beyond that is a part of human experience which has contributed wonderful ideas and art. What we do need to do is minimise harm from irrational behaviour, and *act* reasonably, and this was the key point of Phil’s talk. As such, it’s a message worth discussing and sharing.