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Posts Tagged ‘skeptics’

Will Storr wrote a book really worth reading called The Heretics. It’s about people with beliefs on the fringes of mainstream or accepted scientific thought, and it’s about the skeptical movement that challenges and calls them out. In particular, it’s about how the author has failed to find a comfortable place for himself within the latter, despite sharing so many of their ideals and principles.

I read this book last year and scribbled lots of notes about it, and am only now getting around to putting those notes together into a coherent article. Knowing me, “coherent” will probably be aiming too high and this will likely end up rather scattershot and disordered. [Update from the future: Yep.]

At times the book feels a little uncharitable in its depictions of the characters involved, and a little unfair in its conclusions. But although it felt that way for me to read it, I know a lot of that feeling comes from defensiveness about a perceived attack on my own tribe, who I’m reluctant to allow to be criticised on any point that feels like it touches something personal. That doesn’t explain all that I wasn’t comfortable with – I think there are times when he does miss the mark in his final judgments – but nailing down which of my objections are reasonable and which are more emotionally driven is really difficult.

This difficulty is, in fact, a large part of his point in writing the book.

A lot of what he’s talking about is what he sees as a kind of skeptical tribalism, especially at certain gatherings like QED or Skeptics in the Pub. Many of the folk at these events have a very firm idea of what specific club they’ve joined, and exactly who the out-group are. They know very well what sort of person someone must be if they’re found in the pigeonhole labelled “homeopaths”. Not that it should be a surprise, but many self-identifying skeptics’ own beliefs and positions rely to a large extent on tribal in-group coherence, rather than the purely rational objective evaluation of data which they at least have the good sense to value and espouse.

The refrain that “There’s no evidence for homeopathy”, for instance, is a common one, even though for any reasonable interpretation of “evidence” it’s clearly untrue. Scientific research and evidence is what we fall back on as justifying our position, but several skeptics Will talked to couldn’t name or usefully cite a single study or meta-analysis that supported their position on homeopathy, and bristled when the question was asked.

Off the top of my head, I can’t accurately cite in detail the research which supports my ideas on homeopathy either. Clearly that doesn’t stop me from thinking that there are good reasons to think the things I think, all the same. But if my justifications for my beliefs aren’t truly what I think they are, that’s something worth identifying.

There are ways that general expert opinion can be judged by the layman, tools one can aquire to assess the proponderance of evidence usefully (if not impeccably) which doesn’t require us to each pick through hundreds of complicated technical papers before reaching a conclusion. This kind of direct observation isn’t the only way to learn things, and there can be sound reasons to believe things that appear to be based more on hearsay and second-hand reporting. For instance, if the average punter were tasked with writing a medium-length blog post on why they believe that the world is round – and that anyone who believe it’s flat is drastically, bewilderingly wrong – they could probably come up with something reasonable, despite not having been to space to admire the curvature of the earth directly, or personally circumnavigated it just to check.

But we don’t always think naturally in these terms, and so we often don’t summarise our positions on skeptical issues this way either. A more natural inclincation, if you’re a fairly representative skeptical blogger, might be to say “homeopathy doesn’t work, there’s no evidence for it”, and to get twitchy with anyone who starts asking you to cite papers from memory, because you’ve met people who ask questions like that before, and you think know where this is going. Your tribal integrity is under threat from someone suspected of being from the out-group.

It’s an entirely natural human tendency, when faced with such opposition, to assume the worst, close ranks, and awkwardly throw up defenses around one’s cherished beliefs to protect our ego from the perceived threat. The question worth asking for me is: are skeptics actually any better than anyone else at recognising this tendency in ourselves and working around it?

It’s not that it’s wrong to bristle at the question. It’s that it’s really important, for skeptics especially, to recognise both why it’s not a wholly rational response to bristle, and also why it’s utterly human, and completely understandable – and something we have in common with just about every “true believer” we’ve ever had a heated/feisty/empassioned conversation with. Because if we’re not better than average at recognising that kind of faulty thinking and deploying techniques to avoid it, then being right about the things we’re right about is only going to be of partial help.

I imagine it’s deeply unoriginal and quite tiresome for all involved to draw comparisons between The Heretics and any of Jon Ronson’s books, but that’s not going to stop me. One thing I remember about Jon’s approach to visiting the depths of close-knit tribal alien gatherings and reporting on them as an outsider, is that I don’t recall ever simply disliking anyone he wrote about. Which sounds bizarre, given the amount of time he’s spent with neo-Nazis and profoundly hateful religious fanatics. But either there was something affable in their quirkiness and perhaps Jon’s own affection seeped through, or there was something humanising he’d found about them, which went some way toward hinting at an underlying explanation for what was otherwise unappealing about them, in a way that caught the interest just enough that we weren’t leaving with the idea that they’re simply the antagonist to this piece and we’re supposed to take against them.

It could be that my hazy memory is giving Jon a little too much credit. I may be unfairly searching for an unfavourable comparison by which to downplay Will’s attacks on my tribe. But it feels like he doesn’t always acknowledge that same level of individual humanisation, while recounting certain remarks by certain skeptics in a way that insinuates a disapproving tone over the whole enterprise.

Is that reasonable? Am I being unjustifiably tribalistic, to expect him to tilt the balance even further toward acquiescence to my team? Or is it fair to suggest that his own personal biases might have led his own narrative into the kind of judgmentally prejudiced thinking he’s identifying in so many others?

Either way, it’d be petty to reject or condemn the whole book based on differences like this, however strongly I might feel about them. I’ve read and enjoyed numerous well-argued atheistic and skeptical tomes and essays which would no doubt be at least as grating to anyone not already on my side of the aisle who was trying to engage with it. (Most of the history of this blog is probably included in that as well.)

Actually, that paranthetical deserves more of a digression than that, as I felt particularly strongly in the chapter on James Randi. Various defences and objections to Will’s assessment formed in my head as I read, most of which he recapped and considered fairly a few paragraphs later. And a lot of my protests about his overly harsh insinuations would apply equally well to many other out-group people I’ve been critical of in the past, and of whom I’ve read far more damning accounts. If I want critics to go easy on someone I admire, I do not have a great track record of extending the same courtesy.

But it’s hard, because the things that feel like they’re of basic fundamental importance to us, like that homeopathy is bunk, are things that skeptics are generally right about. It’s important not to let that get lost in the fair and even-handed discussion of how both sides have things to learn and both sides are often swayed by irrational tribal urges and both sides have tendencies to make assumptions that unfairly privilege their own team and both sides etc etc. There is also often a crucial matter on which one side is also completely wrong. Will’s not denying that last point, and he’s got a lot to say about the earlier ones which isn’t easily dismissed with phrases like “tone policing”.

He looks into issues such as false memories, audio hallucinations, and Morgellons syndrome, and determines that the people involved with these issues generally aren’t “crazy”, and deserve to be granted a sympathetic ear – but this isn’t the direct counterpoint to the skeptical position that he seems to think. Most of what I know about the fragility of human memory, the fallibility of perception, and the need for compassion and understanding toward anyone who’s fallen prey to some of the myriad cognitive errors that afflict every one of us, I learned from the skeptical movement.

The section on David Irving was particularly good. It really got into the man’s head, explored and humanised him and all his irrationality, found a deep understanding and compassion for this person, without ever risking letting you think that he might be onto something with any of his utterly false notions.

In the end, even if there are potential complaints with the representation of cherished movements, and if the ratio of interesting questions raised to insightful answers proposed is sometimes higher than I’d like, there’s a lot in The Heretics that’s enjoyable to read, and which provides some level of intellectual challenge to anyone with any kind of investment on either side of any sort of discussion about “belief”.

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The short answer, I think, is “yes, but”.

Actually no, that’s too short. Even the short answer’s fairly long, by normal short-answer standards.

Let’s just dive right into the long answer, then.

Hayley Stevens wrote something recently, in which she takes serious umbrage with some of the mockery directed by many skeptics toward those who believe in irrational things.

Despite a stereotypical affiliation with old white men – and perhaps a preponderance filling that demographic which justifies the stereotype somewhat – the skeptical movement is a pretty diverse thing, with people from various different backgrounds and walks of life. Hayley has spent more time firmly embedded in “woo” than many, having started involving herself with research into the paranormal as a believer in various weird things. She spent a significant part of her life on that side of matters, and has lingering sympathies to people who still feel as she once did.

As a result, it’s clearer to her than most that – although she doesn’t phrase it as such – being skeptically active sometimes looks a lot like being a dick.

Before it sounds like I’m doing that obnoxiously smug thing of claiming some sort of moral high ground, over all those other nasty skeptics out there who just aren’t as sensitive and caring as me (or that I’m asserting that Hayley is doing any such thing either), it’s worth remembering the status that skeptics tend to hold in discussions with the rest of the world. They’re used to being decidedly in the minority. Everyone has some kind of critical thinking skills, and employs some level of skepticism in their day-to-day lives, but the basic things the skeptical movement focuses on – logical fallacies and so forth – don’t have much of a place in mainstream discussion. And some of the results of people’s skepticism – such as atheism – are deeply unpopular in many parts of the world.

So many skeptics are kinda accustomed to being a fringe group, and they do many of the things fringe groups do, to try and maintain group solidarity and security. This can include banding together, tending to be wary of outsiders, and using satire, mockery, and ridicule against those they deem to be an oppressive majority, whose acceptance they never feel they’ve had, and have now decided they neither need nor want.

I don’t say any of this to criticise; I’ve been an active part of everything I’ve just described for years. Elements such as mockery and acerbic humour make total sense, and in many cases are justified and necessary parts of pushing a reason-based agenda.

Around half of people in the USA are young-earth creationists, including the last President and many major public figures and commentators. This religiously inspired fiction is a big, bold, mainstream view with widespread support and respect and long-established kudos. And whatever it’s based on, it sure as hell ain’t reason or science or things that make a lick of sense.

Beliefs like this, and the misunderstanding and contempt of science that they both depend on and exacerbate, are worth opposing, and sometimes ridicule and mockery is justified. In many hard-fought battles, skeptics have been the little guy punching up rather than down. Making powerful, establishment ideas look silly is a useful tool for undermining their authority, and for spreading the idea that they don’t need to be taken so seriously after all.

But it gets tricky. Rational assessment of the evidence leads us to conclude that the Earth is rather older than a few thousand years; it also brings us to many other conclusions that, while not 100% guaranteed, are pretty solidly reliable – for instance, that the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist.

Unfortunately, with this same flavour of rational assessment, you also often get the same flavour of mockery and disdain for people who get it wrong.

In many cases, we’re not punching up any more. We’re not taking a brave stand against a wide-reaching and dangerously misguided establishment that can take a few hits. The targets of our piss-taking end up being huge crowds of regular people who, with the best will in the world and no hate in their hearts at all, just don’t think the way we do about something.

That’s not great, you guys.

I’m not going to go trawling the history of this very blog, to look for examples of when I’ve done exactly this. I know there are a bunch of things back there that I wouldn’t say now, now that I’ve studied a little more rationality and cognitive bias, grown up a little more, and essentially tried to become more patient and compassionate (as often happens when you grow up and start understanding more things).

Already, as I mentioned the other day, my rationality has bolstered my compassion. Meanwhile, on the other loop of the virtuous circle, adopting a position of compassion and understanding helps my rationality along too. To see how that works, it’s worth briefly analysing my immediate reaction on reading Hayley’s post – in what direction my lizard hindbrain flinched, before any actual thinking started going on.

Remember a while ago, I talked about noticing myself get a bit huffy over an entirely un-huff-worthy remark by Jon Ronson on Twitter? Some irrational, reactive part of me took his comment as an assault on reason, which was then interpreted as a personal attack on me. I started automatically running through all sorts of defensive arguments, for a belief that hadn’t actually been argued against in the slightest. And something similar happened in an unhelpful corner of my head on reading Hayley’s dismay at some skeptical mockery.

I don’t think the problem was that I’ve mocked believers in the past, and I was resisting being told that I was personally wrong or mean-spirited to do that. I think that I was leaping to defend the notion of ridicule as a legitimate tactic, and to fight the idea that any instance of careless or disrespectful language is a sign of a cruel and unsympathetic character (which, like in Jon’s case, isn’t at all what Hayley said).

So I started rehearsing my cached thoughts about comedy being an important part of a robust discussion, the history of satire’s influence on dangerously wrong-headed thinking… All the things which require taking the least charitable interpretation of Hayley’s words possible, and the grandest sense of personal righteousness, for them to make any sense at all.

Whereas, if I actually think about it, and grant her any reasonable benefit of the doubt, it’s not hard to see that her intentions are surely far more benevolent than my involuntary, instinctive, superficial judgment of them. I can stop to examine what arguments she’s actually making, and what ideas and feelings are at their source. And it becomes quite clear that she has a point.

While mockery may be an important and useful part of the broader public debate – used in carefully chosen moments, directed more at the ideas themselves than the people espousing them – it’s an extremely rare case when it’s actually employed with such precision tactics. Much more often, it’s just because it feels good to vent some of that frustration at those other people who are just such idiots you guys, like, ugh.

And we can do better than that. It’s not the worst thing in the world, and I’m not decrying some terrible rift in the skeptical movement because of how mean some people are. But we all spend a lot of time believing irrational things, and skeptics are the one group who should’ve studied enough psychology to know that there is literally not a single exception to that generalisation, in the entire global set of “people who are awake”. There are people like us, who are mistaken, and we can do better than to punch down at them.

Hayley explains the way she feels some of this ridicule personally:

If you laugh at people because they believe in stupid things you’re laughing at me six years ago…

When skeptics mock believers, they’re mocking my people.

Which is simply what empathy is.

Hayley’s experiences have broadened her innate conception of how her “in-group” is defined. But we can broaden it even further, and do even better.

If you laugh at someone for the human failing of believing something unreasonable, you demean what it is to be human. When people are cruel to people, they’re being cruel to my people, because all the people are my people.

That’s the stance I’m aiming for. I’m not there yet, by a long way, but it’s worth the effort.

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My head has really not been in a writing place lately. I’m trying to write my way back into one today.

A new site’s been getting a lot of attention in the skeptical community, called Your Logical Fallacy Is. It’s a compilation of common logical fallacies – ways in which an argument can fail to logically support the claim in whose favour it’s cited – which you’re encouraged to link somebody to if they make any of these errors in the course of a discussion you’re having with them.

For instance, if someone demands your evidence that the Christian God doesn’t exist, and accuses you of being a godless fundamentalist with no empirical support for your position, you can point them to yourlogicalfallacyis.com/burden-of-proof, which will point out that it’s up to them to make a case for God if they’re making a claim about his existence.

Not everyone’s keen on the principle behind the site. Is it just another way for skeptics to be smug?

I’ve learned by now that any question about skeptics that includes the word “smug” is bound to make me bristle, regardless of its potential validity, and I need to give myself a quiet talking to before I respond in a way that makes me sound an arse. Part of the problem is that, while smugness is often an annoying quality in others, decrying it is something that it’s very easy to do smugly. Of course, by pointing out how smugly some people are objecting to others’ smugness, I’m unavoidably going to make things even worse and smugger than ever before.

Smug smug smug. The word’s doing that thing now. Is that really how it’s spelt? Smug. Hmm.

Anyway, Tannice’s objection in that link up there isn’t a ridiculous one. It can be satisfying to spot a hole in an adversary’s argument which completely undermines their conclusion, and depending on the attitude you’re bringing to the discussion, it might seem tempting to treat that accomplishment as some sort of conclusion, a victory, a zenith beyond which you need not progress any further. Obviously, this approach is indicative of being more interested in scoring points than learning anything new or getting closer to the truth, which may be an integral part of that detested smugness.

But I think it’s a little unfair to assume that this will be most skeptics’ prime use of a site that handily points out logical fallacies like this. It has the potential to be a useful tool for stimulating more rational debate, not just “an easy way to be a skeptical c*** online”.

Maybe there does need to be more focus among skeptics on what to do with a logical fallacy once you’ve spotted one, and how to best use an understanding of these common pitfalls to make our discussions more productive, and educate those who haven’t encountered them before and might think they’re all fine ways to make your point. But even if that side of things is being neglected, that doesn’t mean the addition of the Your Logical Fallacy Is site is a bad thing. It’s one more instrument in the arsenal, whether or not it’s used well by everyone.

I don’t think there’s a particular problem with skeptics being too smug. People can be smug – among many other, often far more undesirable traits – for all sorts of reasons. It’s not obvious to me that skepticism exacerbates it more than any other mindset.

Perhaps it’s especially grating in our case, because it’s thought that skeptics, of all people, really ought to be better at avoiding traps like smugness, rational self-examiners that we supposedly are. It’s worth noting that one of the fallacies listed on the site is “The fallacy fallacy“: the mistaken idea that, as soon as you’ve pointed out a mistake in someone’s argument, you’ve necessarily proven them wrong.

Hat-tip to Hayley Stevens for making me think about this, and for having sensible things to say.

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If you’re someone who engages in the skeptical movement, what are the goals you hope to achieve in doing so?

I’ve been slack with my blogging lately, and I’ve had this post by Daniel Loxton bookmarked for so long that I’ve forgotten most of what I wanted to say about it. But I know I wanted to bring up the idea of being goal-oriented in one’s approach to skeptical issues.

This has been a common theme with Daniel Loxton’s posts to Skepticblog. He often urges skeptics to consider what effect the way we communicate our ideas will have on our potential audience, particularly those who don’t agree with us. He advises against using sweeping terms like “woo” to dismiss popular ideas that have no basis in reality.

The idea is that, while someone who thinks homeopathy looks like a useful treatment option might be open to learning about how ineffective it actually is, they’re less likely to listen to you if it sounds like your opening gambit is “that’s a load of horseshit and you’re an idiot for buying into it”. And, importantly, we should consider how our language might sound to someone on the other side of the issue, even if we don’t mean to insult them by curtly implying that homeopathy’s a load of horseshit.

The basic principle of basing your actions around the outcomes they’ll produce is a hard one to argue with. But sometimes the outcomes need to be considered more broadly. There was quite a backlash against the Don’t Be A Dick philosophy first described by Phil Plait last year, as many people irately defended their right to mock and satirise ideas that are unworthy of our respect.

Phil’s main argument concerned the outcomes of our actions; he asked his audience to consider how often they’d been persuaded to change their minds “because somebody got in your face, screaming, and called you an idiot”. But outcomes were also a prime consideration of those who opposed him. If we feel obliged to pussyfoot around believers’ delicate sensibilities, they said, and are never allowed to use anything as blunt as sarcasm, and have to live in fear of hurting anyone’s feelings even the slightest, then we’ll never get anything done.

The kind of confrontation Phil describes is obviously not constructive. We should certainly all aim to be more goal-oriented than to shout abuse in anyone’s face, for any reason. I know I’ve been guilty in the past of making comments with no other outcome in mind than to make myself feel better by retaliating against a perceived slight; it’s always worth looking further forward than this, or you’re in danger of simply ego-stroking with no regard for others’ perceptions of you.

But another goal worth striving for, when considering the skeptical movement more broadly, is to make sure that those skeptics who are trying to form a constructive part of a community – possibly atheists who’ve lived a sheltered religious life and are only now discovering a group of people who think like them – still feel like autonomous people, with a place to express themselves freely among like-minded folk, even in moments of frustration and anger, and who don’t feel obligated to act guardedly even among their allies for fear of being lectured about the importance of cultivating an amiable public image and being sufficiently goal-oriented.

In other words, shouting other skeptics down if they don’t constantly present a perfectly acceptable and approachable front to believers is another great way of not getting anything done.

I should clarify that that’s not how I’m characterising any of Daniel Loxton’s articles, and I’m not convinced that there’s any such pall of fear at causing offense hovering over the skeptical blogosphere as a whole. But it’s a danger that’s evident when some people are too keen that nobody should ever Be A Dick.

And in the other direction, there are some people who, if you even raise the question of how people not in agreement might respond to something, and suggest that the tone of an argument is worth considering, will damn you for making concessions to the woo-mongering idiots, and accuse you of being that most hideous of ghouls, an accommodationist. Which isn’t necessarily the case either.

Of course our actions should, ideally, only be taken with a view to the effects they will have. But I think some sort of balance between the specific details and the big picture needs to be found.

How close do you reckon I am?

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If the skeptics community is going to thrive and grow, it’s essential that no one feel unwelcome or excluded due to race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation.

This line caused a bit of a stir lately after it appeared in an article written by Brian Thompson on the James Randi Educational Foundation website, a major interweb hub (interwub?) of skeptical activity. Ophelia Benson was one of several to find the inclusion of “religion” on a list of valued points of diversity among skeptics to be a tad incongruous.

It’s not like any skeptics are proposing that all religious people be banned from skeptical events like The Amaz!ng Meeting, and the JREF has made a point of not being an explicitly atheist organisation. But religious claims often come within its purview of critical thinking and science education, and you can understand why a skeptical crowd might see more relevance to a personal faith position than, say, a personal gender identity.

Personally, I think Brian may or may not be making a good and important point, depending on quite what’s meant by somebody feeling “unwelcome or excluded”, and quite how we should react against such a thing.

Will people inevitably feel unwelcome as a result of being a minority, amongst a crowd full of people who they know disagree with them? Active skepticism does tend to lead people to reject religious claims, and so any gathering of skeptics is likely to contain a large proportion of non-believers. Many empirical claims are regularly made by religious people with real influence in the world, and it’s important that these are on the table as topics for discussion in skeptical events.

In short, skeptics are going to bash religion a lot, for the same reasons they’re going to bash homeopathy and psychic powers. If any of these are beliefs close to your heart which it would hurt you to hear criticised, then a skeptical gathering might just not be the place for you.

But if the kind of unwelcomeness and exclusion that Brian’s talking about is to do with unfriendliness, unkindness, incivility, hostility, cruelty, and deliberate castigation by a crowd motivated to malice by their objection to your differing beliefs – then I wouldn’t want anyone to feel unwelcome at TAM, or at Skeptics in the Pub, or anywhere that the people I consider “my crowd” congregate. By this metric, I would want the most ardent Muslim chiropractor or astrally projecting UFO abductee to feel welcome anywhere they care to go, for at least as long as they’re not initiating any kind of incivility themselves.

Diversity among people is great, but holding diversity among ideas as a virtue in itself leads to the familiar problem of false balance. I’d want all people to feel comfortable at a skeptical event, but I wouldn’t hold back from criticism of unsound ideas to achieve it.

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I should warn you up front that if you don’t agree with everything I’m about to say then I’m going to call you a racist.

Why yes, it is quite unusual to have planned in advance to deflect any criticism against me by ignoring the facts and bringing up irrelevancies in the hope of turning the mood of the debate against you. But apparently that’s just how some people roll.

In particular, homeopaths.

The original link to where this all kicked off is broken, as the post itself has apparently been deleted, but it’s been saved for posterity in various places. On May 12th, someone called Sue Trotter posted on a homeopathy message board, outlining a cunning strategy.

We can play the race discrimination card if we get this right. Please bear with me whilst I explain.

If we can find some British Indians/ Pakistanis or Bangladeshi’s they can complain to the ASA explaining that homeopathy is a prefered system of medicine in their countries of origin, used to treat a wide range of illnesses. The current wave of complaints against homeopaths would therefore seem to be an attack on their culture and beliefs and therefore discriminatory.

Wow. Let’s see if I can translate the subtext here:

These skeptics keep demanding evidence that we can’t provide, and complaining to the Advertising Standards Authority when we make unsubstantiated medical claims. But dodging the facts is getting tiring, so let’s find some brown people to throw at them and call them racist if they dare to keep criticising us.

I think I captured the essence of it there.

I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but this strikes me as being perhaps most offensive to the Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis themselves. The most useful thing Sue Trotter seems to think they can contribute to the discussion is simply whatever controversy can be manufactured from their skin colour and ethnic background.

And QueenGoriana said to me on Twitter: “I’m sure my scientist Indian cousins missed the memo which told them evidence-free magic is a defining part of their culture.”.

Sue admits that her plan isn’t necessarily foolproof, and that they “would need to get a smart lawyer to draft the letter”, tacitly confessing that the whole point is to be sneaky and manipulative, and to discourage any sort of honest discussion of the evidence.

It’s not an unprecedented tactic, either. British MP David Tredinnick has previously complained that scientists who criticised healthcare systems that use astrology or phases of the moon were “racially prejudiced“.

Because if you ever say that something lots of Chinese people believe is incorrect, you must hate foreigners.

Read more on this from le canard noir, Sceptical Letter Writer, Brian Hughes’s Storify, Skepticat, and Skepchick.

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Different people want different things from their medicines.

There are numerous ways to be treated medically for some ailment. Tablets and tinctures, drugs and drips, surgery and suppositories. Each has its own place and its own value, depending on the situation.

But for some people, the thing that matters most to them – the one, vitally important factor on which they base their decisions about what medicines to take – is whether or not you can safely ignore the recommended dosage limits and neck a gallon of the stuff.

Meet Mike Adams.

Although the painful degree of his misunderstanding is evident even from the headline, it takes him nearly a paragraph to get to the first significant misrepresentation in his latest article.

The 10:23 campaign recently organised its second mass “overdose” of homeopathic remedies, in which crowds of skeptics simultaneously consumed much more than the recommended amount of homeopathic sugar pills, which contain no active medical ingredients but claim to be an effective treatment for a variety of conditions.

It’s an unashamed publicity stunt, and an effective one. But despite Mike Adams’s confusion, nobody’s claiming that because you can overdose on homeopathy and not die, therefore it doesn’t “work”.

We already know it doesn’t work, because people have studied it and acquired a great deal of evidence, and the 10:23 site explains this point very clearly, for the benefit of anyone who’s noticed the pill-poppers’ gimmick and is curious as to what their point is.

But the confusion of Mike Adams runs deep. He seems to count it as the worst hypocrisy that these skeptics “wouldn’t dare” to take the same blas√© approach to chugging back litres of their own “allopathic”, “scientific”, “evidenced”, “reality-based” medicines.

And when he tries to unravel the skeptics’ motivations, I haven’t seen such bizarrely tangled logic since… well, since I last noticed Mike Adams.

First, let’s get to the understanding of why the idea that you could “overdose” on homeopathic remedies is ridiculous to begin with…

These skeptics, you see, approach homeopathy as if it were a drug (because that’s all they really know). And in their world, all drugs are dangerous if you overdose on them.

Dude.

We know the idea of overdosing on homeopathy is ridiculous.

If we thought you could dangerously overdose on homeopathy by consuming a lot of it at once then we wouldn’t have had a big party where hundreds of us deliberately overdosed on homeopathy.

The reason we do this with homeopathy and not actual medicine is that actual medicine fucking does something. It has demonstrable physical effects on the body, which often aren’t desirable if you’re perfectly healthy.

His obsession with remedies so ineffective that they can never possibly do anybody any harm is quite inexplicable. Especially since his particular curative fetish drowns hundreds of people all over the world every year.

But homeopathy is safe to take even in large doses, because it has no pharmacological effects on the human body. At all. It’s just water on a sugar pill. We know you can’t overdose on it. The strap-line for the entire campaign is “THERE’S NOTHING IN IT”.

(Adams also contradicts his previous demented tirade, when he attributed to skeptics the notion that “you can take unlimited pharmaceuticals… with absolutely no health effects whatsoever!” Well, which is it – do we think that all drugs are totally harmless or that all drugs will kill you?”)

It gets possibly even weirder later on where he explains “Why I’m challenging skeptics to drink a gallon of chemotherapy”, and gleefully calls for the deaths of thousands. I have literally no idea what Mike Adams thinks “a gallon of chemotherapy” is.

And right now, I have no interest in trying to find out. I’ve got a couple of ounces of toothache, and I’m going to go and treat it with a few yards of chiropractic. I’ll be back in a volt and a half. Seeya.

Update: Steven Novella’s taken his turn at this as well. And my toothache is hours better, thankyou.

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It’s time for an Ultimate Showdown.

In July 2010, Phil Plait gave a speech espousing a hippie philosophy of universal love and harmony, in which he called for an end to any expressions of anger and aggression, and declared that the one true path allows only peace and tolerance for all our fellow men, no matter what they believe.

Since then, the skeptical community has been riven between two factions: Phil’s followers of the Light, and the dark and menacing hordes of PZ Myers, whose shrill screams of abuse and condemnation against the wacky and deluded echo around the blogosphere.

Allegiances have been made and broken, and now these two armies prepare to determine once and for all which single immutable philosophy shall dominate all skeptics’ interactions with believers and the public in the future.

LET BATTLE COMMENCE!!

…Okay, no.

There is a debate going on here, but it’s nothing like as silly and dramatic as it’s often made out to be. It’s not even especially divisive. Most infuriatingly, it’s not an argument with two clearly divided opposing sides. It’s not about Phil vs. PZ, arguing over some contentious philosophical point on which they utterly and irreconcilably disagree.

From what I’ve managed to untangle of the often garbled debate, almost everyone agrees on almost everything. And everyone’s been banging on about it far more than necessary.

I am now going to bang on about it far more than necessary.

 

Setting the scene

The title of Phil’s talk, and the theme which has carried the ongoing discussion since then, was “Don’t Be A Dick”. Phil has observed that “vitriol and venom are on the rise”, and this has prompted him to ask a certain question of his fellow skeptics. This question generally either resonates profoundly with people, or makes them grit their teeth with frustration at the implicit over-simplification.

A show of hands in the room reveals that many of the audience used to believe in something which they don’t any more – “flying saucers, psychic powers, religion, anything like that”. Then he asks this:

How many of you no longer believe in those things, and you became a skeptic, because somebody got in your face, screaming, and called you an idiot, brain-damaged, and a retard?

A few hands are raised again, but not many.

It was somewhat rhetorical, so let’s spell out the points that I think Phil wanted people to take away from that particular question:

  1. Most people aren’t persuaded to change their minds by being screamed at and called idiots.
  2. Therefore, if skeptics want to change anyone’s minds, they should not scream at people and call them idiots.

To the nearest approximation, I completely agree with both of these points, and I think most people would.

But these are not the only things being argued.

 

Only human

Let’s put the skeptical outreach issue aside for a moment here. Is screaming insults directly into somebody’s face ever actually acceptable? Is it ever recommended, a good idea, a productive and worthwhile means of achieving your goals, or even permitted by the rules of basic human decency?

I think there’s a strong case to be made for “No”. The kind of hostility Phil’s talking about is a clear sign of irrational, out-of-control anger. Insofar as he’s simply advising us not to be this unrestrainedly furious, he’s not said anything remotely controversial.

This doesn’t relate to skepticism as much as it does to the kinds of acceptable human interaction that most people should have learned by the age of five.

By extension, this kind of dickishness is not a problem with skepticism, it’s a problem with people. It’s characteristic of our entire species, so anyone who feels compelled to abandon the skeptical movement because some people in it haven’t got the hang of not being an obnoxious ass might as well recuse themselves from the entire human race while they’re at it.

But most humans, and most skeptics, are better than this. We don’t need to be reminded that yelling so much abuse that people are getting hosed down in spittle is bad form. So let’s look at the more subtle points that people have taken from Phil’s talk.

 

Who listens to dicks anyway

The point about screaming in people’s faces seems trivial. But there are other, less comically extreme ways to violate Wheaton’s Law.

The question becomes: When have you ever changed your mind because someone was rude and unkind to you?

The implied follow-up is: By comparison, when have you ever changed your mind because someone was polite and gentle to you?

And the implicit assertion behind it all is: People will be more likely to change their minds if you are polite and gentle than if you are rude and unkind. Therefore, we should be polite and gentle, and we should not be rude or unkind.

The first sentence may well be true. I know that I find myself far less inclined to listen and take on board somebody else’s points in a one-on-one debate if they’re being deliberately obnoxious and cruel. And I’m not alone in this; people do tend to be reinforced in their opinions, rather than receptive to counter-arguments, when coming up against someone who disagrees with them in a combative and hostile way.

Civil discourse seems like a much better way to bypass prejudices and biases and exchange some information, which is surely a necessary thing for any rational person to change their mind. There’s a great deal to be said, when talking about their beliefs to someone who you think is wrong, for not being outright abusive and unkind to them.

But there’s actually a much better reason than this to moderate your dickish abusiveness.

 

The bigger picture

Whoever you’re arguing with, whatever the circumstances, and however reasonable and approachable you’re being, they’re almost certainly not going to have a sudden complete turn-around right in the middle of this one conversation, as a direct and instantaneous result of what you’ve said.

This is actually quite sensible. If they’ve spent a long time believing what they do, and it’s seemed like a viable worldview all this time, then anything new they learn which might shift their position deserves some thinking time. You might have made a lot of sense, and maybe they had to admit to themselves that their arguments didn’t hold up. But at the very least, they should probably sleep on it before entirely reversing a long-held position, and see whether you still seem right in the morning.

It’s futile to engage in personal discussion if you’re going to count any result other than instant capitulation as a complete failure. The effect you have on your opponent might take a long time to materialise.

But, crucially, they’re not the only ones being affected.

If your debate is happening in a public auditorium, or in a series of blog posts and comment threads, or anywhere else that other people can observe it, then other people will observe it. And this is a vital part of the discourse. In many cases, the effect on the spectators will be greater than that on your opponent.

Look at Sylvia Browne. (Not for too long, or your will to live may start to dissolve, possibly along with your eyes.) Robert Lancaster’s site about her is brilliant, thorough, extremely critical, ruthlessly polite, and is in no way a form of direct argument with Sylvia Browne herself. I don’t know of anyone in the skeptical community who would consider such an argument remotely worthwhile. Nobody is trying to change Sylvia Browne’s mind about anything.

Instead, the site exists for the benefit of the people who might needlessly throw away huge sums of money or be severely traumatised as a direct result of what Sylvia Browne does. Trying to persuade her to abandon the industry that’s made her millions and formed the basis of her life’s work for decades is futile – but people who aren’t entrenched in any real delusions, and have just been a bit impressed by what they’ve seen her do, will often be open to reasonable explanations. And there are a lot more of them than there are of her.

Everyone who’s arguing with Sylvia Browne is (or should be) doing so for the benefit of the mass of onlookers.

And something that might benefit said mass is for you not to be a total dick.

Now, there are always going to be people who leap to accusations that you’re being rude and unfair, no matter how carefully you tread. Sylvia certainly has her zealous supporters who seem to take any kind of skepticism as a direct and unprovoked attack, however delicately and reasonably it’s phrased.

My advice on that score is: try to have a better sense of what constitutes needlessly dickish behaviour than Sylvia Browne’s most rabid fans. If you find this difficult, you may be beyond my help.

Some of her followers will be open to changing their minds, but it probably won’t happen overnight. Someone’s opinion of any particular fake psychic tomorrow will be largely dependent on what their opinion was today. But over time, with enough exposure, the message will get through to the world as a whole: this point of view also exists, and isn’t going away, and might just have something to it that’s worth listening to.

 

Mock mock

So we can agree that not coming across as vindictive, petty, abusive, and prone to temper tantrums when anyone disagrees with you is a good way to influence people outside the argument, as well as to make sure you seem more rational and approachable to your debate opponent zemself.

But civility isn’t the only thing that spectators appreciate. They’re a complex and diverse lot, that “third party” you keep hearing about. They’re often put off when you scream in other people’s faces, true, but sometimes they like things that push the boundaries of impeccable politeness. Sometimes they like satire, or mockery, or a good blunt smackdown of some bullshit.

Phil Plait might also have asked: When have you ever changed your mind because somebody screamed abuse at somebody else?

And if you extend this beyond the trivial bounds of cartoonish douchebaggery – replace “screamed abuse at” with “said something curt or abrasive to”, and “changed your mind” with “learned something about some issue which has clarified your position” – then I suspect this becomes a common occurrence.

Certain well-placed sniping, bitchery, sarcasm, and other forms of dialogue with a bit more substance to them than abject obsequiousness can be fun. Both to indulge in personally and to watch from the sidelines. And things that can be enjoyed and laughed at are an important part of any debate which you expect to hold anyone’s interest.

And sometimes, as well as being entertainingly engaging and provocative, potentially dick-like behaviour is simply necessary to make a point. Sometimes it’s not only possible but necessary to call people’s ideas ludicrous, and their decisions ignorant and ill-informed, if you want to retain your intellectual integrity.

The people being criticised in this way might claim that it makes you a dick. But if your criticism is honest and justified, then being this much of a dick is worth it for the ability to make an important point forcefully.

 

Common ground

Here’s what really bugs me about this debate so far, though: I don’t think I’ve actually said anything here which either Phil or PZ would seriously disagree with. Despite the way that some absolute dichotomy between two opposing worldviews is often depicted, I think their positions are virtually identical.

Phil’s message was primarily about being nicer and less aggressive, but with a clarification about the usefulness of well placed scorn and severity. In essence, his proposition amounts to:

Sure, we shouldn’t be totally spineless, but that doesn’t mean we should act like douchebags.

PZ, on the other hand, has defended taking a more assertive and unapologetic approach, but is careful not to be needlessly cruel to undeserving targets. His point, then, is basically:

Sure, we shouldn’t act like douchebags, but that doesn’t mean we should be totally spineless.

There’s more common ground there than the debate often seems to admit. Really, they’re just expressing concerns about different pitfalls to be avoided.

Phil’s “side” of the debate is often being painted as the caring and thoughtful side, which would never stoop to ridicule of anyone, at any time. It’s as if this particular bloc of skeptics are the only ones who understand that mockery will only ever turn outsiders away from your cause, and would never stoop to anything so self-evidently counter-productive.

But let’s be clear: Phil Plait has never claimed to be the goddamn Buddha.

The image of a man whose brain seems to have caught fire, with a caption reading “The Stupid, It Burns”, is a regular feature on Phil’s blog, often appearing when some kooky opinion is expressed by some person or organisation of note. He’s more than once declared the entire state of Texas (it’s usually Texas) to be “doomed” because of some backwards political decision being made somewhere.

He’s also not held back from loudly expressing his outrage over the dishonesty, credulity, and carelessness that some supposed medical authorities have exhibited over the issue of vaccines, and the number of children who die of preventable illnesses as a direct result of irrational non-medicine.

Does any of this really qualify as being unwaveringly delicate and sensitive toward those who disagree with him?

In fact, it seems perfectly in keeping with the advice given by P-Zed in the presentation he gave at 2010’s TAM London. One of the soundbite suggestions he offered as a counterpoint to “Don’t Be A Dick” was: “Be The Best Dick You Can Be”. The line that summed it up best was: “We shouldn’t be gratuitously obnoxious; we should be purposefully obnoxious.”

PZ and Phil are both, to my mind, pretty good at this.

 

In Conclusion

The end.


Further reading which I couldn’t integrate into the above blather itself:

Almost Diamonds
A comment from Dawkins
The War Over “Nice”

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So there’s this thing called Skepticon happening in Missouri right now. It’s not really made much of a blip on my radar, but it’s a big annual skeptical meet-up and conference, along similar lines to TAM, but free to attend.

I’m not there. Mostly because it’s taking place more than eight miles from where I live, and you know how I feel about getting organised and doing things. Ugh.

I hope everyone’s having fun there, and I’m sure the skeptical blogosphere will be deluged with reports and personal accounts over the coming days. But I wanted to chime in briefly on an argument that’s been centering around the format of this event.

Jeff Wagg, who’s done great stuff as an integral part of the JREF in the past, wrote a piece this week opining that Skepticon seemed like primarily an atheist convention, and should consider adopting a new name that more accurately describes its anti-religious purpose.

Skepticon organiser JT Eberhard disagreed. And I’m with him. Looking at the schedule for the event, it’s clear that there’s quite a variety of topics on the list for discussion, many of which wouldn’t be of direct interest to anyone just turning up for a fix of angry shouting about how religion is bullshit. (This is a popular caricature of atheists at conferences, which I’d guess is at least 95% straw man.)

There is actually more anti-religious stuff on the agenda than JT acknowledges in his piece – the talk titled “Are Christians Delusional?” surely counts as well, even if the answer it comes up with is more charitable than you might guess – but the list of topics also includes sexism, skeptical outreach, and drinking heavily until late into the night. Several speakers don’t have a description of their talk listed on that schedule, but I know from experience that people like DJ Grothe, Rebecca Watson, and James Randi have much more to say than a simple reassurance that all religious people are idiots.

There’s even a panel discussion on “Does skepticism lead to atheism?”, which implies (I would hope) that arguments against this assumption will at least be considered. And this is what’s central to it, I think – does anyone need to believe that skepticism must lead to atheism to be a part of this conference? And does the way that the conference is arranged imply that its organisers themselves equate skepticism and atheism in this way?

Personally, I’m not worried about religious people feeling excluded from skeptical conferences because of an atheistic leaning at the events. For one, I don’t think anyone’s going to be chased out of the hotel by a baying mob with flaming torches just because they haven’t completely given up on some of the more popular supernatural ideas.

What will happen to such people is that their beliefs are going to be questioned, and the holes in their logic criticised. Because if you walk into a skeptical conference and you believe a bunch of stuff not founded in reason and reality, then these beliefs are entirely fair game.

If anyone is alienated by having their faith questioned like that, then I don’t think it’s our fault for insufficiently pandering to them.

Jeff Wagg wasn’t claiming that any particular atheists at this conference had been especially unwelcoming or hostile to any particular attendants who turned out to be religious believers – he wrote it several days before the event started. And if people were being mean and rude like that, then that should prompt an important conversation about outreach and general dickishness.

Instead, Jeff’s problem seems to be with the very notion that a conference about skepticism has a non-exclusive focus on one particular supernatural belief: that of the existence of an omnipotent deity.

And yet that’s exactly the kind of belief that a skeptical conference should be questioning and criticising. Particularly a conference taking place right in the middle of the Bible Belt, in a country where madcap zealous religion is one of the most harmful and stifling modes of irrational belief out there.

I’m far from the first to make the observation that a homeopath at a skeptical conference, who displayed otherwise intelligently skeptical views, would not be treated with kid gloves, or have his views tip-toed around when it comes to alternative medicine, even if he does have lots of sensible things to say about UFO sightings and psychic powers. Whether or not someone “can still be a skeptic” while believing a particular thing isn’t an interesting question. People can be skeptical or not about numerous different topics, and when their ideas on any topic don’t stand up to reality, they should be open to criticism.

You don’t see many people suggesting that we should try to win more people over to science-based medicine by pretending that alternative medicine isn’t bunk. Nobody seems to want us to de-emphasise how little evidence there is for any alien visitation of Earth, so that more UFO fanatics will listen to what we have to say. It seems to just be religion where we’re expected to tactically act like we don’t disagree with people we disagree with, so that they’ll agree with us.

Hat-tip to the Blag Hag for alerting me to this, and to the Friendly Atheist and PZ Myers who’ve also covered it.

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While I certainly enjoyed myself at TAM London this year, not everyone seems to be a fan.

The most prominent and contentious criticism – not of the particular way things went down at the conference itself, but of the very concept of even holding such an event – seems to be the Champagne Skeptics post from Gimpy. Holding a massive event such as TAM is, to his mind, “too expensive, insular and divisive”, and detrimental to the skeptical movement.

The main worry, which he’s repeatedly expressed on Twitter, seems to be of having one single organisation take over and monopolise the very notion of skepticism, at the expense of more widely accessible grass-roots movements. He’s worried about it turning into an elitist, selective business only available to those with enough money to make it to the occasional back-slapping gathering in a posh hotel.

It all seems very odd to me. Until barely a year ago, The Amaz!ng Meetings were something that had never happened outside Las Vegas, Nevada (except the original gathering of 150 JREF forum members in Florida in 2003), and were attended by a few hundred people exactly once a year. If this lone annual event was capable of somehow dominating the skeptical movement, the movement itself could never have taken off in any way.

It’s true the meetings were exclusive, and attracted big names like smaller local events couldn’t, and had a very high ticket price (it’s a charity fundraiser, after all) – but who has ever had their entire notion of what the skeptical movement is about defined solely by these meetings?

I’d considered myself a part of the skeptical movement for a long time before first attending TAM in London last year, because of my participation in blogs and on Twitter. I met two people at this year’s TAM who I knew, and who knew me, as a result of this online participation. (It could’ve been more if I wasn’t so shy about introducing myself to people strolling by.)

And I hadn’t even gone to a single one of the numerous local meet-ups available, whose total attendance far surpasses TAM collectively. These events are a regular fixture in the calendars of many people I know, TAM attendees included, and a source of just as much fun and inspiration as the occasional massive conference. People are regularly motivated and inspired by the chance to spend some time with like-minded people, on a smaller scale as well.

There have been two new Skeptics in the Pub groups inspired directly by this year’s TAM London (Ealing and Cheltenham & Gloucester, I believe). There were a number of more accessible fringe events associated with the conference, taking place the week of the event, such as a pub quiz costing ¬£2 on the door to get in. It’s rejuvenated people’s excitement about the skeptical movement’s potential, as well as getting some media attention and alerting a greater number of the general public to the fact that gossiping about sciencey stuff in a pub is a thing that other people do.

My point is: how is grassroots skepticism being hurt by one costly event, once a year, happening amidst a flurry of other activity driven solely by personal passion and commitment?

The skeptical movement is all about the grassroots work done by people who feel strongly about something and want to do some good in their own time. James Randi and his organisation have been huge supporters of some of the major skeptical victories of recent times, such as Simon Singh’s libel case, or the ongoing battle to stop the NHS funding homeopathy. These things don’t need TAM or the JREF, but they’re all part of the same picture.

Rhys Morgan has become a skeptical superstar just in the last few months, entirely because of work he’s done off his own back to counter quack medical claims, and his online involvement with the community. At this year’s TAM London, he was given the award for Grassroots Skepticism, and was given the fastest standing ovation I’ve ever seen, but that was barely even relevant to what he’d achieved with the support of the rest of the skeptical movement. TAM recognised and promoted the value of this, and proudly, but the JREF had no direct influence in anything important.

Alom Shaha was somewhat less infuriating on this point, but still doesn’t seem capable of making any important points or offering good advice – like about skeptics engaging directly with schools – without expending far more effort demeaning some of the activities that so many are already finding purpose in.

The problem with this is highlighted acutely in a comment by shockingblu, a newcomer to the skeptical movement, excited to meet people from whom he could learn and with whom he could share ideas, but who’s trying not to be discouraged by all the skeptic-bashing coming from other skeptics, and the “barrage of accusations” about what he’s supposedly doing wrong.

So, I don’t have much time for this rather tedious bashing of what seems to be a positive effort to do something good. And Martin Robbins has rebutted much of it far more eloquently than I have, anyway, in a comment on Gimpy’s posterous; I can’t link to the comment directly, but search the page for ‘Martin Robbins’ and you’ll find it about halfway down.

A rather more interesting critical take was provided by Crispian Jago, who enjoyed much of the event but with some reservations, and some good points are being made in the ensuing comments.

And further worthwhile thoughts arise courtesy of David Allen Green – who was also on great form at the event itself, which I shamefully neglected to mention in my own write-up.

Perhaps the strongest criticism he makes is of the “essentially negative” nature of skepticism itself. It’s worth noting that, if it’s the process which possesses this feature, then this is not a problem with the way the skeptical movement is currently presenting itself. Rather, it’s a factor which the movement should be aware of and account for when deciding how and where to direct its energies.

And in some sense, he’s obviously right. Skepticism tends to be largely about the denial of improbable claims, which is necessarily a negative action, about breaking things down.

But just about everyone I’ve encountered in the skeptical community understands that there can be more to it than this, and there should be if it’s going to be worth participating in things. They don’t gather in pubs or conference centres to talk for hours about how everything’s shit. They’re building friendships, and professional connections, and having fun, and enjoying each other’s company, and launching libel reform campaigns. And often joking (and occasionally ranting) about things that are shit.

Well then. There we are.

Not my most insightful or well constructed piece, if you ask me. The really smart people are probably the ones staying out of all this nonsense and just concentrating on getting shit done.

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