(I nearly titled this “Who skeptics the skepmen?” before opting instead for something fractionally less silly.)
There’s been a lot of talk lately about this article here, in which Frank Swain, aka SciencePunk, discusses what he sees as the main problems in the skeptical movement. I hadn’t paid it much attention until I was linked to Skepticat’s response.
As it turns out, this response sums up a lot of my problems with SciencePunk’s original speech, the transcription of which on his blog made me grind my teeth somewhat.
The infuriating thing is, he has some valid concerns and at times comes dangerously close to expressing them usefully. But he never quite seems to make a worthwhile point, and rather undermines his own ideas with his self-flagellatory tone. And while Skepticat’s criticism may go a little far at times, not giving SciencePunk credit where it’s occasionally due, her complaints certainly resonate with me a lot more than his do.
I’ve been puzzled for a while at the way some people involved in the skeptical movement are passionately against taking an aggressive, hectoring tone against believers whose minds we’re hoping to change – but don’t hesitate to adopt that exact same hostility against the skeptical movement itself, when trying to persuade us that their way of doing things is better than the way we’ve been doing things.
In urging that we approach discussion with compassionate, delicacy, courtesy, and sensitivity to the views of others, they often take on a lecturing, patronising tone, which (speaking personally) is much more likely to engender defensive snippiness in its listeners and readers, than any real appreciation for the arguments being made.
It’s not that the things SciencePunk is concerned about don’t matter, or that the skeptical movement couldn’t improve its effectiveness in some ways if the people identifying as part of it changed their behaviours. But the way he describes how he thinks this should happen entirely fails to bring me around to his side.
He claims, belatedly, to have meant his speech as a “cry for help”, rather than an “attack”, but this doesn’t come across in his tone. In his discussion of how exclusive the skeptical movement apparently is, he complains about “the venues we choose for discussion, whether they be online forums or pubs, that can be unwelcoming or inaccessible to a huge number of people”. Nothing constructive is offered about how this might be improved, perhaps to make things more accessible for more people. It’s just a moan.
And it’s not even a very good moan. Personally, I’m not a big fan of pubs. I don’t drink, and I’d find it hard to get comfortable in a crowded room full of people I don’t know. But I do spend a lot of time online, and so I read other people’s blogs, I write my own blog, I listen to podcasts, I chat with and follow people on Twitter, and that’s how I make myself feel like a part of this community. Other people no doubt feel very differently: they might not have an internet connection, but anyone’s their mate when they’re sharing a pint.
Now, of course these two preferences won’t cover everyone. But what are skeptics supposed to do? Stop holding any Skeptics in the Pub meet-ups, where many hundreds of active community members regularly galvanise the interests and passions they share, and enjoy each other’s company on a good night out? How is that going to help? What chance do we have of moving forward if we’re so scared of leaving somebody out that we never actually do anything?
It’s certainly not a bad idea to consider what demographics predominate in the skeptical movement, and whether privileged assumption is leading some to be systematically excluded and not given a chance to get involved. The role of women in the skeptical movement, for instance, is worth giving some consideration to. But that’s not the same as deciding that these positive, constructive fora for engagement are somehow a bad thing just because they’re not as all-encompassing as you’d like.
Another thing Skepticat made a big deal of, and which struck me about SciencePunk’s speech, was his stance against “arguing from facts”. I still can’t decide whether he’s talking complete nonsense, or just expressing himself really badly.
Evidence, data, and empirical facts are the backbone of the scientific approach to reality, which is necessarily critical to anyone who wants to call themselves a skeptic. But SciencePunk sees this focus as a “fetishisation”, and claims that to come factually prepared to an argument is to display an unforgivable arrogance which will inevitably put people off. He talks about “laying out the battleground” and arguing “with a resolute mind”.
He also discusses the many reasons why people make decisions, and the things which can sway them other than cold hard facts – and he uses this point to claim that people who focus on the facts “embrace a binary method of thinking where everyone is either right or wrong”.
My first question is: what exactly is wrong with going into an argument knowing that you’re right? If I were to get into a debate with someone claiming that vaccines cause autism, I would know that they are wrong about that. But why is this equated with my being smug and smarmy and arrogant and disrespectful and intolerable and unpersuasive? Why should holding the actual facts of the case to be paramount – which they fucking are – imply a complete ignorance of how to effectively interact with other humans?
If I were going to act like an obnoxious cock just because I happen to know that vaccines don’t cause autism, or that homeopathy doesn’t work, and I thought that anyone who can’t see that is evil or stupid or a terrible person deserving of scorn, then he’d have a point. If I were talking with anything less than the utmost tact and care to the mother of a child with autism who’s terrified that she did this to her baby by having him vaccinated, then I’d be a serious problem in the skeptical movement. But I’m not doing that. Even though I know such people are wrong.
Knowing that you’re right, and having the facts to back it up, isn’t the problem here. (And please let’s not have to retread the open-mindedness debate again.)
SciencePunk makes the valid reminder that many people are led down the dangerous path of pseudo-science and nonsense through no fault of their own, and deserve the chance to be led gently back toward the light of rationality before they’re shouted at for being idiots.
Well, yes. But what the hell kind of skeptics has this guy been hanging out with, if he’s got the idea that most of us, firm in our conviction that facts are the only thing that matters, are entirely callous and unconcerned with other people’s problems?
This bears no resemblance whatever to the skeptical movement I’ve been increasingly involving myself with for the past few years.
And I have to note: given that the entire point of SciencePunk’s speech is skeptics’ failure to reach out to people who aren’t on board with our message, and to speak sensitively and engagingly in a way that people will find accessible, it seems an odd choice to spend so much time haranguing the people he’s arguing with as being “arrogant”, “aggressive”, or “ineffective and cowardly”, among other epithets. He might have been trying to say things I agree with, but he seems so intent on sweepingly disparaging a movement that I feel a part of, that I’m hardly inclined to pick through his vitriol to see if I can find anything there worth hearing.
Which is exactly the impression he’s saying we should strive to avoid giving off.
This was supposed to be just a brief remark on Skepticat’s comments, which are still well worth reading, by the way. One more observation though, about the whole “arrogance” thing which is heard so often from people being told they’re incorrect:
[N]o-one is allowed to criticise… anything that someone like Ben Goldacre or Simon Singh or Evan Harris says is beyond question. There’s this prevailing attitude that you don’t speak out against these top people.
Again, I am baffled as to what skeptical movement this guy’s been hanging out in. In my experience, this just isn’t true. Obviously the big-name skeptics say a lot of things the rest of us agree with; there’s a common thread holding the community together, after all, and if I wasn’t generally on board with the kind of science-based musings Ben Goldacre comes out with, why would I be following him?
But it’s also often claimed within the skeptical movement that nobody is immune to errors in judgment, and that argument from authority alone is not rational. It would be dismally hypocritical if they were also cagey and defensive of the status quo while singing the praises of open inquiry. But they’re really not. There’s plenty of disagreement among the ranks.
Listen to some back episodes of the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, where Jay gets the piss taken out of him for his ideas about cryonics. Read up on the way James Randi was jumped on for a poor interpretation of the scientific consensus. Find any of the reams of criticism against Dawkins’s strident approach, often levelled at him by other atheists and skeptics, including fellow science educators in the highest tiers of awesome.
My perception is that there’s plenty of healthy debate going on in the skeptical movement, with the tone and mood shifting over time as preponderances of evidence change. Yes, it’s important not to get carried away, and to be careful not to assume we know all the facts and are interpreting them in the only correct way from the beginning. But the best way to address this attitude, if you think it’s becoming a problem, is not to announce your departure from the entire movement with what almost amounts to a flounce.
A lot of skeptics and atheists could do with giving themselves a break. Pissing a few people off isn’t the end of the world. There’s room in this community for niceness, and snark, and compassion, and bitching, and debate about what form the movement should be taking.
I’m still a skeptic, whatever some people think of us. How about you?
(I’m a feminist, too. But don’t get me started on that.)
[Edit 18/08/10: There are some more thoughts on this here, as well as a bunch of links to the discussions that have been going on elsewhere.]