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.
In other developments, some two years on from the ‘Elevatorgate’ incident, skeptical speaker and writer Karen Stollznow used her blog at Scientific American to allege 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 11/8/2015: A joint statement signed by both parties has now been released stating that all issues between them have now been resolved, and that “it would be wrong for anyone to believe” that the accused “stalked, sexually harassed, or physically or sexually assaulted Karen Stollznow”.)
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.