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A recent episode of Skeptoid, covering the Church of Scientology, promised to be particularly controversial.

Brian Dunning said on Twitter that he doubted it would be making him many friends, even among his fellow skeptics, and seemed to decide at one point not to release it, so as to avoid any negative reaction. This all came not long after something of a kerfuffle emerged following his piece on the pesticide DDT, and I did think he was possibly milking the idea of being some kind of rebel, and enjoying too much the thought of being too boldly honest for the rest of the skeptical movement.

He did release it, though, and I listened, interested to see what kind of radical, convention-defying ideas he’d have which the rest of us skeptics would simply find too hot to handle.

The shocking wisdom he was eventually brave enough to share with the world was that most Scientologists are really just everyday folk whose ridiculous belief system works benignly enough for them, and some of the moral panic and outraged backlash exhibited against the church is a little overstated.

So, there you have it. Brian Dunning has revealed himself as a heretic who must be burned for his unorthodoxy.

Or not.

I was more and more curious as the episode went on, as to just what the big final twist was going to be. Mostly it was an interesting and characteristically well researched historical account of L Ron Hubbard’s life and the founding of the Church of Scientology, making the whole set-up seem as transparently fabricated as any other religion. He documents some of their practices which concern some people today, but the only real departure from the traditional opinions of the internet is in his assessment of their role as global antagonist. Essentially, he just doesn’t think they’re that big of a deal.

Most of the church’s members are fairly normal people, who maybe saw one of those “free stress tests” in the streets and decided that this thing kinda works for them. They’re not all some sort of creepy plastic homunculus spouting bullshit like an eviller John Barrowman, and the dues they pay the church aren’t significantly more cultish than what millions of people throw in the collection plate every Sunday.

Similarly, the more hardcore Sea Org stuff can be compared to involvement in the military, and the restrictive and regimented lifestyle is assumed to suit those who sign up for it.

In short, they’re a predominantly self-contained bunch of nuts who shouldn’t really be of much more interest to the rest of us than any other religion with an equally ludicrous mythology and tax-exempt status. And the anti-Scientology “Anonymous” movement have a number of disturbing practices of their own, and seem to attack the church with such a vicious dogmatism that it rather undermines their claims to the moral high ground.

So, is it really all just an over-blown fuss about nothing that need concern us?

I don’t think so.

As far as an empirical recounting of the facts goes, the episode seemed as well researched as usual. The single point of contention really only began to emerge in discussing value judgments, and his assessment of the impact of what the Church do. In this regard, Brian glossed over some points that tend to convince other people that the Church of Scientology is worth being concerned about.

The kind of lifestyle people in the Sea Org voluntarily sign up to might well suit their own personalities, and may not be much harsher than anything you’d expect from the military. But some reports of the Church’s activity and behaviour go beyond the limits of what I think can be shrugged off by saying “hey, it’s what they wanted”.

The notion of “Fair Game” didn’t come up anywhere in Brian’s discussion, despite being critical to the reasons so many people object as vehemently as they do to the Church of Scientology’s practices. It’s understood within the organisation that Scientology’s “enemies” – a status which it seems can be earned all too easily, for even minor infractions such as openly questioning the moral integrity of some of its decisions – may be attacked and persecuted by Church members beyond any limits of reason or compassion.

A number of lawsuits have resulted from the enactment of the Fair Game policy, including the case of Operation Freakout. In this, the Church conducted a plan with the specific goal of getting a journalist (who’d written a book that was critical about them) unjustly imprisoned or committed to a mental institution. The methods used to achieve this were deceptive and illegal.

There was also Operation Snow White, in which the Church of Scientology conducted the single largest infiltration of the U.S. government in history. They broke into and stole from government agencies and private organisations, in an effort to destroy records which reflected Scientology negatively.

This isn’t just about people making decisions on how to live their own life, which simply seem strange to the rest of us who choose not to live that way. This spills over way into the illegal and reprehensible.

And even if it was limited to people’s personal choices, that still wouldn’t nullify a lot of the arguments made against Scientology.

They take a fair chunk of people’s money for no real reason, which isn’t always made okay just because the people are happy about it. If you learn a little about cold reading, you could no doubt give people psychic assessments for five bucks a pop that they’d be very happy with, but it’s still a morally problematic thing to do (and even more so when the rate is $700 a time).

Also, there’s a big difference between anti-Scientology sentiment as a whole, fuelled by the above concerns, and Anonymous, a loose-knit “organisation” from a particular grubby corner of the internet which has chosen to fixate on Scientology with a greater continued interest than most of its targets. Anonymous might be fearless anti-authoritarian freedom fighters tackling financial exploitation and defending free speech, but they’re also the douchebags who spammed YouTube with porn disguised as children’s videos, and launched a campaign of obscene phone calls against a teenager who’d set up a no-swearing club.

So, it’s no surprise if that lot are taking things a little too far. But there are still a lot of legitimate complaints against Scientology to be made from a less frenetically provocative standpoint.

I’ve probably gone on far longer than I needed to, given how little Brian said which I take issue with at all. On reflection, my only complaint with his original piece came in the last paragraph or so, and even then it’s mostly that I just don’t think he’s giving sufficient weight to some of the more worrying aspects.

It’s taken me a couple of weeks to get around to putting all this together, and he has posted some further thoughts on SkepticBlog in the meantime. The comments there are getting predictably lively, and people are raising all the points I’ve made and more (the comparison between some Sea Org members and victims of domestic abuse comes up a couple of times, and may well be apt).

Brian’s main point in the follow-up is that he wanted to place more emphasis on the everyday, lower-level Church members than they sometimes get, and encourage everyone to remember that most people involved with Scientology are not brainwashed cultists or violently tribalistic thugs. There’s a lot of perfectly decent, ordinary folk in that Church, who have probably had limited but positive experiences with it on the whole, and may feel like they’re being included in some extremely harsh and incomprehensible criticism when Scientology’s critics get going, if we’re not careful.

I absolutely agree that this is an important and under-appreciated point. But the organisation is still capable of a great deal of harm (of which this is surely just the start), and although more care may be needed in picking our targets with greater precision, there’s still a lot about Scientology that should cause no little concern.

If you made it through all that, where do you stand?

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While I was offline for a month, I kept a note of any links and news stories worth commenting on. Now that I’m back, I’m aiming to post two short items a day here, about stuff that happened during my online absence, until I’ve cleared the backlog. This is one of those.


Skeptoid is a podcast by Brian Dunning, which seeks to provide a brief summary on the scientific state of affairs on a particular topic every week, coming in at about ten minutes each time. You should be listening to it. Recently, Brian ran an episode on DDT, the controversial insecticide.

Although the show always attracts its fair share of kooks, often complaining loudly about its obvious agenda to cover up some deep conspiracy about aliens or crystal skulls or whatnot, this episode got a fair bit of criticism from the rest of the skeptical crowd. Notably, the Skepchick blog and Orac were both disappointed with how Brian had gone off-track on this particular subject, and fallen for some bad science.

Brian responded to this criticism some time later, and was unconvinced by what he’d heard. The debate is ongoing, both in the comments to that blogpost and on the transcript of the Skeptoid episode itself.

Now, I’m a big fan of this podcast. I’ve learned a number of things from it, and Brian’s commitment to objectivity and in-depth research is generally evident. I didn’t think too much about the DDT episode at the time; it’s not something I’d given much study before, so I didn’t have the expertise to usefully assess his interpretation of the facts. If I was ever going to write about the subject myself, I’d do a little more digging, but at the time I wasn’t moved to take it any further.

I’m still not intending to weigh in and settle the whole argument here – these catch-up posts are meant to be brief and just get me back up to speed, for one thing, and it sounds like a hefty project.

What’s easier to notice is that Brian’s done over two hundred of these shows, and the reason it’s notable that the skeptical response has been largely weighted against him this time is that it’s pretty rare. He’s earned something of a reputation by now, and I’m willing to give him credit that, if and when he gets something wrong, it’s more likely to be down to an honest misunderstanding of the facts than a deliberate distortion motivated by some political bias. Some of the criticism against his DDT piece has taken this latter form, which I think is unnecessarily harsh.

Having said that, I think parts of Brian’s response also go way beyond what’s reasonable. At one point he describes himself as having suddenly ended up as “Science Enemy #1”. I can understand that he might have felt a bit shaken up, to have been abruptly set upon by several articles popping up so firmly set against him, but… Science Enemy #1? Really? Because some people opined “Hmm, usually he’s good but this was a rare cock-up”? That was enough to rocket him beyond the likes of Mike Adams, Joseph Mercola, Andrew Wakefield, Kent Hovind, and Oprah on the skeptosphere’s hit-list?

Also, one of the things he complains about is not having been personally contacted by anyone who saw any problems or factual errors in his reporting before they went ahead and blogged publicly about it themselves. I know this has no direct bearing on who’s been accurate and who’s been misleading on the facts about DDT, but it’s interesting to note the differing ideas about how this kind of online disagreement should go.

This kind of discussion often does take place in a public arena, through blog post responses and comment threads. This seems to me a significant part of how our online community is arranged; blogging openly about someone else lends itself much more easily to group discussion than a personal email, and can give people just as much chance to correct mistakes and resolve disputes.

It’s not clear from his blog post whether Brian actually did himself what he seems to think other people should have done, and privately contacted the other bloggers who criticised him before posting publicly about them. Judging by the scare quotes he still attaches to the pseudonymous “Bug Girl” (who wrote the Skepchick article), I’m guessing not.

I’ve started to just bitch unproductively about “tone” again, haven’t I? Shit, I was hoping not to do that so much any more.

Okay. I’m reading through the comments to Brian’s post again, and some of them are making me angry, but I know that if I try and write about this any more now then I’m just going to make people angry too, for exactly the same reason. And that won’t help anyone. Maybe I’ll come back to this later.

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