In their own words

I have seen tweets over the last few months from people vowing never to read FreethoughtBlogs because they heard that FreethoughtBlogs is purported to condone groupthink, and comments in response to various blog posts about FTB that seem to suggest PZ or others at FTB promote the silencing of dissent, or that they condone bullying or threats of banning toward dissenters, or that they believe that commenters would be unsafe because they feature this or that writer on the network. I think this misinformation results from irresponsible messaging coming from a small number of prominent and well-meaning skeptics who, in trying to help correct real problems of divisiveness in skepticism, actually and rather clumsily themselves help create a climate where bloggers — who otherwise wouldn’t — end up feeling unwelcome and unread, and I find that unfortunate.

People who read FreethoughtBlogs do not feel silenced or unwelcome, and that bears mentioning at least somewhere in all of these posts about supposed rampant groupthought and unnamed lists of certain bloggers “bullying” dissenting commenters, and the like. So much of that feels to me more like trolling and distasteful chat room banter, often pretty mean-spirited, especially when it is from just one or a few skeptics recounting disagreements they’ve had with writers who are eventually deemed as “controversialist,” and whom they feel should be not allowed to write for such blog networks going forward.


(Relevant source material)

Friendship

[Trigger warnings: rape, misogyny, terrible people]

You may be aware of the Rationalia affair, where poster and admin “Pappa” wondered:

Would it be immoral to rape a Skepchick?

Post by Pappa » Fri Jul 20, 2012 8:46 am

Not for sexual gratification or power or anything like that, just because they’re so annoying.

I’m really torn on this one. :dunno:

Given the recent climate, this post isn’t all that surprising. Rape “jokes” that don’t follow any kind of typical joke structure and aren’t funny? Check. Treating outspoken women (and Skepchicks in particular) like something less than human1? Check. People coming out of the woodwork to claim this is “out of context” and how dare the #FTBullies publicize this one post and demonize a whole group for condoning this sort of thing from a leader in their community, while remaining strangely silent on the actual thread? Check.

The one thing that weirds me out about the whole thing is a set of comments by Pappa’s supporters in the Pharyngula comment thread. Here are a couple by poster “comeatmebro,” which illustrate the thing I don’t understand. Comeatmebro says that Rationalia is a “close-knit…community,” and that Pappa is a “nice person,” that this statement was in bad taste but “is not characteristic of Pappa.” He cited much of this as reasons why more people on the Rationalia forums haven’t condemned Pappa’s comments.

And I just don’t get it. See, if one of my friends were going to say something as stupid, offensive, vile, hateful, and misogynist as what Pappa decided to post on a public forum, I would be the first in line to slap them upside the head (figuratively) and say “not cool, bro.” See, that’s what friends do. Being someone’s friend gives you the benefit of their company and association. It means they care what you have to say, they care about your opinions and what you think. But that also comes with a responsibility, the responsibility that belongs to all good friends, the responsibility of honesty. Friendship means looking out for each other, but that’s not just “if you ever get in a barfight, I’ve got your back” or “if you’re down on your luck, I’ll help you out,” or “if you ever lose your teeth when you’re out to dine, borrow mine.” It means that you’re there to protect them, even from their own mistakes, and help them, even if it’s to overcome their own faults. Being a good friend means being willing to pull your friends up short and tell them when they’re being an asshat.

You do this, in part, because you care about your friend, and you don’t want to see them hurting themselves or others. You do this, in part, because you know that a strong friendship is unlikely to break over one disagreement. You do this, in part, because you know they’ll listen to you more than others. You do this, in part, because you want the people you associate with to reflect well on you.

And when you shirk that responsibility, when you let your friend continue using homeopathy instead of real medicine/dating her obviously abusive boyfriend/making bad rape jokes on the Internet, eventually your friend is (hopefully) going to realize their mistake, and then they’ll ask you that question: why didn’t you tell me sooner? Why didn’t you warn them ahead of time that they were making a mistake? Why didn’t you tell them how they looked to everyone else? Why didn’t you say what no one else was brave enough to say to their face?

The answer is always the same: because you were being a bad friend.

Rationalia, your friend Pappa has a problem. His problem is that he thinks he’s joking. He thinks he can make comments about raping people and laugh it off as a joke. He thinks “annoying” may be a crime punishable with rape. He thinks it’s okay to double-down on this stuff and throw around ableist slurs. He’s shown that he doesn’t care how all this reflects on himself, or on all of you. Some of you are Pappa’s friend. It’s your responsibility to tell him what an ass he’s being, and how harmful it is. Harmful to himself, because you know2 that he doesn’t actually condone rape. Harmful to you, because your community’s silence looks like assent. Harmful to the culture at large, because this kind of speech going unchallenged acts as a cover for those who do think some people deserve rape, who do think rape’s a laughing matter, a trifle, a joke. You are shirking your responsibility. You are being bad friends.

Either you need to start being better friends to Pappa and save him from himself, or you need to stop being friends with Pappa, and save yourselves from him.


1. I think Pappa’s post implies that there are people–less annoying people, obviously–that it would be immoral to rape. I honestly can’t wrap my head around it.

2. You don’t know this. Sadly, rape is very common, and thus rapists are a lot more common than we think. And since most rapes are committed by friends, dates, or acquaintances, it’s fair to suppose that most rapists are generally thought to be “nice people.”

A Play in One Act

I posted this at Lousy Canuck, in response to the most recent entry in the harassment tragicomedy of errors, which only gets worse the more you learn. But because I’m easily impressed with my own cleverness, I decided to make it a blog post here, too. For posterity.


I like the logic of “damned if they do, damned if they don’t.” Imagine, if you will, the JREFstaurant.

MAITRE D’J: Welcome, sir, to the JREFstaurant.

PATRON: Thanks, I read some reviews and–

MAITRE D’J: Anything bad you’ve heard about our food is clearly the fault of some well-meaning food critics who are engaged in some distasteful cafeteria banter after they willingly ate their food and thought the price was too “steep.”

PATRON: What I read was actually pretty positive, except–

MAITRE D’J: Controversialist food bloggers, looking for better circulation! There has never been a report of food poisoning at the JREFstaurant!

PATRON 2: Wait a minute, I got food poisoning here last week! You helped me to the bathroom!

MAITRE D’J: I thought you just had the stomach flu. You didn’t think it was important at the time to say it was food poisoning.

PATRON: Didn’t I hear about a food poisoning case here a couple of months ago? They even made documented reports.

MAITRE D’J: Your table’s over there. I’m going into the back now, and you won’t see me for the rest of your meal.

[PATRON sits and reads the menu. WAITER enters to serve them]

WAITER: What would you like to order, sir?

PATRON: Actually, your menu doesn’t seem to have any food information on it. Just this long welcome note.

WAITER: I assure you, we have nineteen specially-prepared chefs in back to take care of your order.

PATRON: Yes, but if there’s no food on the menu, how do I know what to order?

WAITER: Putting food options on the menu might be a serious waste of time! Do you have any evidence that putting food options on the menu makes people more likely to order something?

PATRON: But all other restaurants do it.

WAITER: See, that’s just an argument from popularity. Surely you expect the JREFstaurant to have higher standards. Besides, what if we put these food options on the menu, and someone wants an item that’s slightly different? Or worse, what if they ordered the wrong thing?

PATRON: That doesn’t seem like it’s much of a problem.

WAITER: You’re just some kind of foodinazi! I mean, I’m not saying you’re a Nazi, but you know who puts food options on menus? Nazis.

PATRON: Okay…can I get a sandwich?

WAITER: Fine, I guess.

[WAITER leaves, and returns a few minutes later with a sandwich on a platter.]

WAITER: Your sandwich. Happy?

PATRON: Wait, what is this? Why does it smell so bad? [Picks up one of the bread slices] Is this what I think it is?

WAITER: It’s a sandwich, just like you ordered.

PATRON: It’s shit!

WAITER: What foul language!

PATRON: No, this is a shit sandwich. It’s dung on toast!

WAITER: Look, you ordered a sandwich. I gave you a sandwich. It’s got stuff between two slices of bread, therefore, a sandwich.

PATRON: But it’s a shit sandwich.

WAITER: Jeez, there’s just no pleasing you people!

FIN

Nothing of Consequence

Rant mode activated. You’ve been warned.

So, I got into another Twitter kerfuffle, this time with a blogger from Skeptic North. This, of course, hot on the heels of some moderately heated exchanges in Jen’s comment thread. I don’t know what it is with me and these Canadian skeptics, man. I mean, I love Degrassi and hockey and bacon.

But I don’t love the current popular trend among some skeptics to blame atheism for diverting resources, energy, and attention away from other skeptical causes. I don’t love the current efforts by some skeptics to hide or silence atheists because they see them as some threat to recruiting theists. The circular firing squad is getting fucking old.

Some additional highlights of the evening:

As usual, my side of the argument can be seen here. Just scroll down and keep clicking. You know, I hate threaded comments on blogs, but I sure wish Twitter had a feature that let you slot comments in a conversation with each other, so you could actually follow what was being said. But then, that would also require a system that didn’t drop every third tweet on its way to my feed. Eventually, I will learn that Twitter is not the proper medium for this kind of asinine argument, but not yet, apparently. Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: yes, I was most certainly being hostile, antagonistic, snarky, sarcastic, and borderline insulting right off the bat. Maybe it’s because I’m writing this rant directly after the argument, but I don’t even feel bad about my tone, the way I sometimes have in the past. “He started it” is a poor excuse for anything, but I think the condescending, ‘get out of my way’ post which kicked everything off, set that tone. Believe me, I’ve been bored with the religion fight too. There are times when I’ve felt exactly the same as Mr. Thoms, that anything worth saying about religion had already been said–most of the time, centuries ago. That’s one of the reasons that this blog has gone through such long dry spells in the past, and I know folks like Don and Bronze Dog and Skeptico have felt the same at various times. On the other hand, I suspect they’d all agree that we’ve all felt the same about most of the typical skeptical topics from time to time. For me, there are four loose categories of skeptical topics: those I don’t care about, those I care about enough to talk about, those I care about but am sick of talking about, and those I don’t know enough about to talk knowledgeably. I suspect that any skeptic would have a similar breakdown. We have our areas of interest, our areas of expertise, and hopefully we largely stick to talking about the places where those two overlap. And yet, I’ve never really felt the need to tweet about how the anti-dowsing crowd is getting in the way of my anti-antivax activism. It all goes back to that philosophy I keep espousing regarding skepticism: do what you want, just stop telling me what to do. Different people have different interests, different goals, different priorities, and so forth. Let ’em. So, let me lay down a few things that I haven’t expressed before, because I don’t generally care that much (but they make for a good example):

  • I think skeptics in the United States generally spend way too much time and effort on homeopathy. It’s not ubiquitous here the way it is in Europe, and I’ve found that in order to argue against homeopathic remedies with Americans, I first have to explain what they are. That doesn’t mean they’re not a problem; the Zicam scandal and Airborne lawsuit showed that they certainly are. But I think the attention they receive on this side of the pond is disproportionate to the danger they actually pose, largely because there’s such a large contingent of skeptics from Europe and Australia, where the stuff is endemic.
  • I think skeptics, and particularly James Randi, spend way too damn much time on dowsing, relative to the prominence and harm actually caused by dowsing. Those useless bomb detectors certainly were a big deal, and it’s good that skeptics worked against them. But before that, I don’t think I’ve ever seen dowsing in the news outside of the occasional local story about some hick who thinks he can find water or oil or gold with a stick. I know there’s some annoyance on the JREF side of things too, since ‘the dowser who is convinced of their ability’ was the particular example given of wasted effort when they changed the parameters of the Million Dollar Challenge a few years ago to focus it on more prominent figures.
  • I think we could be doing a lot more to promote vaccination, especially since we have the CDC and other major organizations on our side. The groups involved in promoting vaccines are dedicated and good at what they do, but I think we could focus more effort and time on that.
  • I think we’re way too resigned to the glut of woo-woo programming on television, and particularly on channels that should have higher standards, like Discovery and History. The Skepchicks recently spearheaded an (apparently somewhat) successful campaign to keep an antivax ad from running in movie theaters around the country; it seems like we ought to be able to exert similar pressures against garbage like Ghost Lab or any History Channel show that consults Fred Zugibe or John Hogue as credible sources. Some prominent television figures, like, say, Adam Savage, speaking out against some of the televised paranormal dreck in public would probably help raise a little consciousness and exert a little force in that regard.
  • I think we ought to be doing more against Chiropractic. Like, period. I have a hard time believing that the ubiquitous back-cracking which people generally think is real medicine is more powerful in Great Britain (where the whole Simon Singh flap has been going down) than here.

Those are all things I think about the priorities of (at least) the American skeptical community, as I see them. But here’s the rub: I don’t begrudge anyone for sorting their priorities differently. I don’t claim that the 10^23 movement is taking money and resources away from the fight against shit like “Ghost Lab.” I don’t say that because it’s fucking absurd. There is certainly a largely common pool of people with a largely common pool of money to be had for all of these groups and causes, but people are going to associate with and support the causes they prioritize most highly. You want to change people’s priorities? You want to get a bigger piece of the skeptical community pie? I’ll give you two hints: one, you’re not going to get there by alienating existing allies, and two, you’re not going to get it by complaining about how everyone else’s slice is bigger than yours. This is a marketplace of ideas. If you want more people to buy into your idea more strongly, then you need to be a better marketer. I offered Mr. Thoms some suggestions as to how he might go about doing that, but he didn’t seem receptive. Because, after all, I’m an angry atheist, and my presence alone, what with my desire to be out and open about my atheism, and my penchant for criticizing religious believers, is driving potential theist supporters away in droves.

Let me break down some of the problems with that notion, shall I?

  • I’d be less angry if I weren’t constantly dealing with patronizing skeptics who want me to stay in the goddamn closet.
  • Where are these droves of theist skeptics who would have joined up if not for those danged pesky atheists? Can we substantiate that they even exist in large enough numbers for us to really care?
  • A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. It seems like shortsightedness to alienate people who already mostly agree with you because you don’t like how in-your-face they are with their religious (non)beliefs, in hopes of catching more supporters who may or may not exist.
  • I think just the idea that–“if atheist skeptics would only keep quiet about their atheism we’d have more theist skeptics”–is profoundly condescending to the theists. It isn’t just that it looks from the outside like you’re trying to hide an uncomfortable truth (skepticism might gasp lead you to atheism!), it’s also that it sets theism apart from all other non-skeptical beliefs. We don’t caution liberal skeptics to keep their mouths shut about social security and medicare lest they scare away the libertarians (or vice versa). We don’t tell the skeptics who accept Anthropogenic Global Warming to stay quiet about hockey sticks and climate forcing, for fear of alienating potential skeptics from the anti-AGW camp. We don’t tell anti-GMO skeptics to lay off of potential pro-GMO allies. I’ve never seen skeptics who love the Cubs told to put their hats away to avoid offending Cardinals fans who happen to agree that vaccines are super. In all of these cases–and many others–skeptics disagree, often vehemently. Heated discussions often rage around these topics on message boards and in blog comment threads. Skeptics argue with each other, questioning their assumptions, pointing out flaws in their logic, and generally secure in the rightness of their own position (but, one would hope, open to changing their mind, given sufficient reason and/or evidence). I think it’s coddling to give theist skeptics a pass on their theism when we would not hesitate to skewer them mercilessly on their objectivism (for instance). If they can’t handle having their beliefs questioned and defending their claims against challenges and pointed questions, then they’ve joined the wrong community.

And here’s a bombshell: I think it’s possible for someone to be a skeptic and a theist. I don’t necessarily even think they’re being a bad skeptic, depending on what their theist-position is like. I fully admit that I could be wrong and other people could have evidence to which I am not privy. Of course, those are the theists I’d be most interested in, since I’d like to know what their evidence is, but that’s kind of beside the point. I don’t actually have a problem with the idea that applying skepticism can lead different people to different conclusions regarding the same question. I think they’re wrong, and if it came up, I’d ask them what led them to their conclusion. And if asked the same, I’d answer. Because that’s the kind of dialogue and discourse that I expect from a community of doubters, questioners, and scientists. If a theist agrees with me on vaccinations and Bigfoot and UFOs and 9/11 and every other skeptical topic, but can’t handle being associated with me because we disagree on the matter of the existence of God, or because they resent the fact that I think they’re as wrong about God as Bill Maher is about medicine, then fuck them. What good is such wishy-washy, fairweather support? Skepticism is a way of thinking; anyone can do it. Consequently, the skeptical community is a diverse damn group, and I should think it’s as disgusting, dishonest, and disrespectful to tell an atheist to remain closeted so they don’t offend potential theist allies as it would be to tell gay skeptics to stay in the closet in case there are homophobes who think acupuncture is nuts. Now, there’s one last point I need to address, and that’s the matter of atheists being aggressive, taking it to the streets, being in-your-face, and, as a side-effect, causing theists to not support skeptical causes or join skeptical organizations. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that anyone who makes that argument is missing the goddamn point, and is likely so self-absorbed with their own goals and priorities that they simply can’t conceive of the possibility that other people might be individuals. The movement toward atheist activism and visibility and openness is almost completely orthogonal to the movement to increase support for skeptical causes. The only real relations are that atheists tend to be scientific, and skepticism tends to lead toward atheism. But the goals are almost completely separate. The specific goals of things like the Atheist Bus Ad campaign or the Coalition of Reason’s billboards or the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s ads, are (as I understand them):

  • To destigmatize atheism
  • To debunk myths about atheism and atheists
  • To make people who are already atheists more comfortable about coming out
  • To make people who are atheists realize that they aren’t the only ones around
  • To raise consciousness about the privileged position which religion has in our society
  • To increase the acceptability of criticizing religious dogma and religious claims

If you think “embarrassing religions” is a primary or even secondary goal of the “There is probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” bus ads, then I think it’s safe to say you’re missing the goddamn point. You and the point are not even on the same brane. If you think that “increasing support for skeptical causes” is a major goal of such ads and campaigns, then again, you are missing the goddamn point. When atheists can generally feel comfortable about being out and open about who they are and what they believe, without fear of reprisal and repercussion from coworkers, employers, families, friends, and communities, then we can start talking about who gets hurt when atheists come out of the closet. Until then, suggesting that an ad which says “Yes Virginia, there is no God” is even in the same league as “guns,” and is “aggressive” is colossal asshattery. When atheists start doing shit like this? Then you can talk about “aggressive.”

So in the end, no, Mr. Thoms, I don’t give a flying fuck how aggressive or in-anyone’s-face you are as an atheist. What I give a fuck about is people telling me what a horrible person/skeptic I am for driving away allies who I’ve never seen. What I give a fuck about is being stereotyped by skeptics with the same asinine brushes used by fundamentalists. What I give a fuck about is hegemonic assholes who think that their way is the only way, and “take issue” with groups and organizations that see things differently, and criticize groups who are achieving their goals because they aren’t helping him achieve his. What I give a fuck about is people who are willing to complain about their lack of support, but not enough to see that if they want to compete, they need to change the fucking message. What I give a fuck about is treating people with openness and honesty, whether or not they believe in God. It seems to work all right for my theist friends and associates. Strange how I haven’t driven them away.

More on Movement Problems (or, Definitions Matter)

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend lately, and while there may be a bit of “when you’re a hammer, every problem starts looking like a nail” going on, I can’t help but see it as a symptom of the apparently growing notion that “skepticism” is something you join rather than something you do. But I keep seeing this twofold trend of people venerating logic and reason while failing to actually understand them (or at least to understand them as well as they think they do) and using terms like “rational” or “fallacy” in value-laden ways that strip them of their actual meaning.

The first time I really took notice of this was when Don talked about his trip to a CFI meeting in Indianapolis. At the meeting, he encountered a number of CFI members who saw skepticism not as a set of cognitive tools, but as a set of dogmatic rules which should be taught to people. In addition, and perhaps most relevantly:

[A]lmost every member I interacted with afterward was like an automaton repeating poorly understood buzzwords: “critical thinking,” “skepticism,” “freethought,” etc. They said these words and seemed to believe that they understood them and that, through that understanding, were part of a greater whole.

The same trend was the subject of the recent kerfuffle with Skepdude. The ‘Dude clearly held logic in high esteem, and clearly understood that fallacies were bad things, but just as clearly didn’t understand what made fallacies fallacious, and was quick to throw out the term “ad hominem” where it did not apply.

More alarming, however, were the comments of the much more prominent skeptic Daniel Loxton, who claimed that most insults were fallacious poisoning the well, despite that clearly not being the case as per the fairly strict and clear definition of poisoning the well.

You can see the same thing in spectacular action in the comment thread here, where commenter Ara throws around terms like “rational” and “anti-rational” as part of an argument that echoes Skepdude’s attempts to say that a valid argument doesn’t make insults valid, when in fact the opposite is the case.

Despite what Mr. Spock would have you believe, saying that something is “rational” or “logical” is to say almost nothing about the thing you are trying to describe. Any position, any conclusion–true or false, virtuous or reprehensible, sensible or absurd–can be supported by a logically valid argument. For instance:

All pigs are green.
All ostriches are pigs.
Therefore, all ostriches are green.

That’s a logically valid argument. The conclusion follows inexorably from the premises. That the conclusion is false and absurd is only because the premises are equally false and absurd. The argument is unsound, but it is perfectly logical. “Logical” is not a value judgment, it is an objective description, and can only be accurately applied to arguments1.

“Rational” is similar. There’s a lot of equivocation possible with “rational,” because it can mean “sensible” as well as “based on reason” or “sane” or “having good sense.” Some of those meanings are value-laden. However, if we are describing a conclusion, an argument, or a course of action, and if we are hoping to have any kind of meaningful discussion, then it’s important to be clear on what we’re trying to say when using the word “rational.”

If, for instance, I’m using the term “rational” to call an idea or action or something “sane” or “possessing good sense,” I’m probably expressing an opinion. “Good sense” is a subjective quality, and the things I consider “sane” may not be the same particular things that are excluded from the DSM-IV.

If, however, I’m trying to say that a belief or course of action or idea is “sensible” or “based on reason,” then I must first know what the reasons or senses involved are. A “sensible” course of action depends on subjective judgment, which is largely driven by circumstance and context. If someone cuts me off at 80mph on the freeway, I may consider such an action to be insensible, but not knowing what caused the person to take that action–say, for instance, their passenger was threatening them, or going into labor, or something–I really have no way of judging the sensibility of the action.

Similarly, if I don’t know what reasons are driving a person to hold some belief or take some action, then I cannot know if that action is based on reason–i.e., if it’s “rational,” in this sense. For instance, if I believe that autism is caused by mercury toxicity and that there are toxic levels of mercury in childhood vaccinations, then it may be a reasonable course of action to refuse to immunize my child. That an action may be wrong, or may be based on false reasons or bad reasons, does not make it irrational or unreasonable.

The fact is that most people do not knowingly take actions or hold beliefs for no reason. Many people take actions or hold beliefs for bad reasons, or ill-considered reasons, but most people do think “logically” and “rationally.” The problem comes from incorrect premises, or from a failure to consider all relevant reasons or weigh those reasons appropriately.

What I’m seeing more of lately, though, is the word “rational” used to mean “something that follows from my reasons” or “something I agree with,” or more simply, “good.” None of these are useful connotations, and none of them accurately represent what the word actually means. Similarly, “fallacy” is coming to mean, in some circles or usages, “something I disagree with” or “bad,” which again fails to recognize the word’s actual meaning. This is fairly detrimental; we already have a word for “bad.” We don’t have other good words for “fallacy,” and they are not directly synonymous with each other.

It seems like an awful lot of skeptics understand that logic and reason are good and important, but they don’t actually seem to understand what makes them work. They seem happy to understand the basics, to practice a slightly more in-depth sort of cargo cult argumentation, while missing the significant whys and wherefores. Sure, you might be able to avoid fallacious arguments by simply avoiding anything that looks like a fallacy, but if you actually understand what sorts of problems cause an argument to be fallacious, it makes your arguing much more effective.

Let me provide two examples. First, my car: I can get by just fine driving my car, even though I really know very little about what’s going on underneath the hood and throughout the machinery. It’s not that I’m not interested; I find the whole process fascinating, but I haven’t put the work in to actually understand what’s going on on a detailed level. Someone who knew my car more intimately would probably get better gas mileage, would recognize problems earlier than I do and have a better idea of what’s wrong than “it makes a grinding noise when I brake,” and would probably use D2 and D3, whatever those are. I don’t get the full experience and utility out of my car, and that’s okay for most everyday travel. But you’re not going to see me entering into a street race with it.

On the other hand, I love cooking, and I’ve found that understanding the science behind why and how various processes occur in the kitchen has made me a much more effective cook. Gone are the days when my grilling was mostly guesswork, and when my ribs would come out tough and stringy. Now that I understand how the textures of muscle and connective tissue differ, and how different kinds of cooking and heat can impact those textural factors, I’m a much better cook. Now that I understand how searing and browning work on a chemical level, I’m a much better cook. I can improvise more in the kitchen, now that I have a better understanding of how flavors work together, and how to control different aspects of taste. I’m no culinary expert, but I can whip up some good meals, and if something goes a way that I don’t like, I have a better idea of how to change or fix it than I did when I was just throwing things together by trial and error.

If you’re content with reading some skeptical books and countering the occasional claim of a co-worker, then yeah, you really don’t need to know the ins and outs of logic and fallacies and reasoning and so forth. But if you want to engage in the more varsity-level skeptical activities, like arguing with apologists or dissecting woo-woo claims in a public forum, then you’re going to need to bring a better game than a cursory understanding of logic and basic philosophy. You don’t need to be a philosophy major or anything, but you might need to do reading beyond learning this stuff by osmosis from hanging out on the skeptical forums. Mimicking the techniques and phrasing of people you’ve seen before only gets you so far; if you really want to improvise, then you have to know how to throw spices together in an effective way.

I’m generally against the faction who wants to frame skepticism as some new academic discipline. I think that’s silly, and I think (regardless of intent) that it smacks of elitism. I’m of the opinion that anyone can be a skeptic, and that most people are skeptics and do exercise skepticism about most things, most of the time. But that doesn’t mean that skepticism comes easily, or that the things we regularly talk about in skeptical forums are easily understood. You have to do some work, you have to put in some effort, and yeah, you have to learn the basics before you can expect to speak knowledgeably on the subject. But believe me, it takes a lot more to learn how to cook a decent steak than to learn how to cook up a good argument.


1. I suppose one could describe the thinking or processing methods of an individual or machine as “logical” in a moderately descriptive way, but it still doesn’t give much in the way of detail. What would a non-logical thought process be? One unrelated non-sequitur after another?

Dear Skeptical Community,

I’ll keep this open letter brief, unlike most of my posts. Just three quick things, said entirely generally and not directed at anyone in particular, except, you know, the people I’m obliquely talking about.

  1. It’s all well and good to talk about being reflective and critically examining our beliefs and practices to determine whether or not they’re right and well-supported and rational. But it’s just empty words if you don’t follow through with it. As skeptics, we ought to be willing almost to the point of eagerness to be criticized, to be proven wrong with evidence, and to admit our mistakes, change, and move on. You can talk about the value of critical self-examination, but it’s worthless if you don’t actually do it.
  2. To the Don’t Be a Dick crowd: from what I’ve seen of the vast majority of you, we have a very strong disconnect regarding what it means to be a dick. I get it, Phil didn’t clarify, and so you were forced to read into his comments whatever you think is dickish behavior, and assume he was calling out the same kind of things you would in that position. Me, I think that Rorschach Test quality of his speech qualifies it for the recycling bin, but your mileage may vary. The one thing I’d caution, though: when avoiding being a dick, try not to be a douche.

    See, you have dicks, right? Dicks are pointy and kind of simple and not really much to look at. Dicks are often hard and unyielding, and they have a tendency to pop up at the most inopportune moments, and sometimes they overstay their welcome. Dicks sometimes go where they’re not wanted, and they often make a big mess. Some people really like dicks, and some people don’t, and that’s fine. Dicks are an acquired taste.

    But then you have douches. Douches go in most of the same places as dicks, but they tend to look very different. Douches are sleek and clean; they’re more flexible than dicks, and they’re a lot easier to handle. Douches smell better than dicks, and they say they just want to make everything better, to clean things up with their refreshing, summery demeanor. The problem with douches, though, is that they really aren’t adding anything. In fact, they’re generally pretty unnecessary. They thrive in large part because they’ve convinced a lot of people that they need douches, because everything has just gotten so dirty recently–mostly because of those awful dicks. Douches might look and smell nice, but ultimately they’re just cold, artificial plastic, and outside of their limited realm of actual necessity, they subsist on feelings of self-loathing and dirtiness that they’ve helped cultivate.

    In more specific terms, I don’t see how false politisse, passive-aggression, holier-than-thou moralizing, and hegemonic “ur doin it wrong” edicts are any less negative than the name-calling, screaming, and whatever else gets attached to the “dick” label. Whether or not you call them retarded, passive-aggressive bullshit like criticizing people in general terms and making veiled insults is at least as dickish as calling them out to their face and being forthright with your beef. Don keeps reminding me of this quote from “Hamlet”: “That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.” It’s true, and the veneer of polite discourse and moral high ground doesn’t turn passive-aggressive attacks into non-dick behavior.

    By the way, if you read between the lines there, you might have noticed that this “open letter” to a general-but-specific set of people falls under that description as well. So yes, this time, I’m intentionally being a dick. At least I’ll own up to it.

  3. Finally, I think this is the only reasonable response to the “Don’t Be” crowd–hereafter referred to as the DBs. It’s really amazing how apt this is:

Sincerely,
Tom

Please feel free to dismiss the following

What should have been a relatively academic conversation has become a feud, and I’m already finding it rather tiresome. I’m Phil Plait’s proverbial “dick,” you see, because I referenced an obscure little movie from twelve whole years ago made by a pair of independent directors with only, like, two Academy Awards to their names, and starring a bunch of unknown Oscar-winning actors, which only ranks #135 in IMDB’s Top 250 films of all time. Maybe it would have been better if I’d referenced a series of porn videos of drunk young women.

Also, because I’m snarky and sarcastic. Well, okay, guilty as charged.

So I’m exactly what Phil Plait was referring to, even though Phil’s clarifications make me suspect that even he doesn’t know exactly what he was referring to, and his speech has become a Rorschach Test for whatever tactic(s) any particular skeptic wants to authoritatively decry. Sure, fine, whatever. I’ve been called worse. By myself, no less.

Anyway, Junior Skeptic’s Daniel Loxton weighed in on Skepdude’s tweet:

Now, I’m no great fan of Loxton. I was; I enjoy Junior Skeptic, and I like his Evolution book. But I disagree with nearly everything he writes on skepticism, I think he tends to adopt a very condescending tone and a very authoritarian attitude over the skeptical movement (such as it is), and I lose a great deal of respect for anyone–especially a skeptic–who blocks people for disagreeing with them. You can read through my Twitter feed, if you like; I defy you to find any abuse or insult which would justify blockage.

So that’s my stated bias out of the way. I address Loxton’s point here not out of bitterness, but out of genuine surprise that someone who is so vocal and respected in the skeptical movement could be so very wrong about basic logical fallacies like ad hominem and poisoning the well. I also can’t help but feel a little prophetic with that whole last post I wrote about sloppy thinking.

Edit: I also want to offer a brief point in defense of Daniel Loxton: being a Twitter user, and knowing the limitations of the medium, it’s possible that truncating his thoughts in that medium impeded what he was trying to say, and that the mistakes are due less to sloppy thinking or misunderstanding, and more to trying to fit complex thoughts into ~140 characters. That being said, the proper place to make such a complex point without sacrificing clarity would have been here, at the linked post, in the comment section.

Loxton’s first claim, as I understand it, is that most insults belong to the “poisoning the well” subcategory of the ad hominem fallacy. This is wrong on a couple of levels. While poisoning the well is indeed a subcategory of ad hominem, neither category can be said, by any reasonable standard, to include “most insults.”

A little background: the ad hominem fallacy belongs to a category of fallacies of relevance, which are arguments whose premises offer insufficient support for their conclusions, and which are generally used to divert or obscure the topic of a debate. Ad hominem accomplishes this in one of two related ways: attempting to draw a conclusion about someone’s argument or points or claims by relying on an irrelevant personal attack, and by attempting to divert the topic of a debate from claims and arguments to the character of one of the debaters.

It becomes fairly easy, then, to see why “most insults” do not qualify as the ad hominem fallacy: most insults are not arguments. A logical fallacy, by definition, is an error in reasoning; in order for something to qualify as a fallacy, it must at least make an attempt at reasoning. If I say “Kevin Trudeau is a motherfucker,” I’m not making any actual argument. There are no premises, there is no conclusion, there is no attempt at reasoning, and so there can be no fallacy.

In order for there to be fallacious reasoning, there must first be some attempt at reasoning, which requires some semblance of premises and a conclusion. “Kevin Trudeau says colloidal silver is a useful remedy. But Kevin Trudeau is an idiot. So, yeah,” is more obviously fallacious (even though, as Skepdude would happily and correctly point out, the conclusion–“therefore Kevin Trudeau is wrong about colloidal silver”–is only implied). The implied conclusion is not sufficiently justified by the premises; that abusive second premise says nothing about the truth or falsehood of Kevin Trudeau’s claim. Even if it’s true, even an idiot is capable of valid arguments and true statements.

I could leave this here, I suppose; if poisoning the well is indeed a subcategory of ad hominem fallacies, and “most insults” are not in fact ad hominem fallacies, then “most insults” could not also be part of a subset of ad hominem fallacies. But poisoning the well is a tricky special case, and if there’s one thing I’m known for, it’s belaboring a point.

So what of poisoning the well? It’s a way of loading the audience, of turning a potential audience against your opponent before they even get a chance to present their argument. You present some information about your opponent–true or false–that you know your audience will perceive as negative, before your opponent gets a chance to state their case. The implication (and it’s almost always implied, as Loxton rightly notes) is that anything your opponent says thereafter is unreliable or incorrect.

Here’s where it gets tricky: it barely qualifies as a fallacy, because all the speaker is doing is offering an irrelevant fact about his opponent’s character. As we said, in order for something to be a logical fallacy, it has to contain an error in reasoning. The point of poisoning the well is not to actually commit a fallacy, but to make the audience commit a fallacy, specifically to commit an ad hominem fallacy, by dismissing your opponent’s claims and arguments based on the irrelevant information you provided at the beginning. So poisoning the well is a subset of ad hominem fallacies, where the fallacy is committed by an audience at the prompting of the well-poisoning speaker.

Here’s where Loxton gets it wrong–and only fairly slightly, I might add. I had to do a fairly large amount of research before I felt confident that this was a key point–is that the key feature of poisoning the well is that it’s done pre-emptively. Insults offered after your opponent has stated their case may be an attempt to manipulate the audience into the same ad hominem fallacy, but they do not qualify as poisoning the well.

An example: You open up a copy of “Natural Cures THEY Don’t Want You To Know About” by Kevin Trudeau, and someone has placed inside the front cover a description of Trudeau’s various fraud convictions. Consequently, everything you read in the book will be tainted by your knowledge that Trudeau is a convicted fraud. The well has been thus poisoned, and now you’re prompted to dismiss anything he says on the basis of his personal characteristics.

If someone places that same note halfway through the book, or at the end, and you don’t encounter it until you finish or partly finish, then you may still be inclined to commit an ad hominem fallacy based on the contents of that note. However, this is not poisoning the well, which requires preemption.

There’s an issue here, and it touches on all the talk I’ve been doing recently about using arguments based on ethos in various situations. See, the fact that Kevin Trudeau is a convicted fraud is relevant if the point is whether or not you should trust what he has to say, or bother spending time and effort listening to it. The truth or falsehood of his arguments absolutely stand on their own, but his past as a huckster is of great relevance to the consideration of whether or not to take his word on anything.

It is a sad fact of life that no one person can conduct all the relevant research necessary to establish or refute any given claim or argument. Consequently, we must often rely on trust to some degree in considering how to direct our efforts, which claims merit deep investigation, and which we can provisionally accept based on someone’s word. This splits the hairs between the matter of whether or not a claim is true and whether or not a claim warrants belief. While it’s a laudable ideal to make those two categories as close to one another as possible, that goal remains impractical.

What this means is that, when considering whether or not to believe a claim or accept an argument (again, not whether or not the claim or argument is true), we generally use a person’s credibility as a piece of evidence used to evaluate whether or not belief is warranted. It’s rarely the only piece of evidence, and it only really qualifies as sufficient evidence in particularly ordinary claims, but it’s a relevant piece of evidence to consider nonetheless.

But, and I want to make this abundantly clear, it has nothing to do with the truth of a claim or the validity of an argument, it has only to do with the credibility of the speaker making the claim and whether or not the claim warrants belief. We should be very clear and very careful about this point: Kevin Trudeau’s record as a fraudster has no bearing on whether or not his claims are true. It does, however, have a bearing on whether or not you or I or anyone else should trust him or believe what he has to say.

In other words, if most people told me it was sunny out, I’d take their word for it. If Kevin Trudeau told me it was sunny out, I’d look up. And I’d wonder if he had some way of profiting off people’s mistaken belief about the relative sunniness of a given day.

So, back to the issue of insults. There’s one more problem with saying that “most insults” are a subcategory of any fallacy, and that’s that, at least with fallacies of relevance, the fallacious nature of an argument is in the argument’s flawed structure, in its failure of logic, and not in the words which are used. An ad hominem fallacy is not fallacious because it contains an insult, but because the conclusion does not follow from the premises. Containing the insult is what makes it “ad hominem,” but it’s the flawed logic that makes it a fallacy.

For instance, take this argument:

If a person copulates with his or her mother, then that person is a motherfucker.
Oedipus copulated with his mother.
Therefore, Oedipus is a motherfucker.

The fact that this argument is vulgar and contains an insult has no bearing whatsoever on its validity. And it’s clearly valid; and within the context of “Oedipus Rex,” it’s also sound. An insult alone does not make an argument into an ad hominem fallacy.

Take this argument, then:

All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Socrates smells like day-old goat shit, on account of his not bathing.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

A valid argument is one in which the conclusion is logically implied by and supported by the premises. The conclusion here is, in fact, logically implied by the premises, and is justified by them. The insulting third premise does not support the conclusion, but the conclusion also does not rely on it. Its inclusion is unnecessary, but including it does nothing to invalidate the argument.

Finally, take this argument:

All men are mortal.
Plato is a really smart guy, and he says that Socrates is mortal.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

This is a fallacious argument–a pro hominem argument, sort of the opposite of ad hominem–because the conclusion is not sufficiently supported by the premises. The conclusion relies upon an irrelevant premise, which renders the logic invalid–obviously, despite not being insulting at all.

I hope I laid that all out in a way that is clear, because I really don’t think I could make it any clearer. It bothers me to see terms which have distinct, specific, clear meanings being applied inaccurately by people who ought to know better. It further bothers me to see skeptics, who of all people should relish being corrected and doing the research to correct prior misconceptions, digging in their heels, committing style over substance fallacies, and generally misunderstanding basic principles of logic and argumentation.

But because I like to belabor a point, and because it’s been several paragraphs since I’ve been sufficiently snarky, let me offer one more example–pulled from real life, this time!–to clarify poisoning the well.


Here, the speaker offers a link to an opponent’s argument, but primes the audience first by obliquely calling his opponent a dick, and moreover, suggesting that the opponent is using tactics specifically identified by an authority in the relevant field as unacceptable and ill-advised. The speaker’s audience, on clicking through to the opposing article, is thus primed to read the article through the lens of the author’s suggested dickishness, and to dismiss it as dirty tactics from a dick, rather than actually considering the merits of the argument. This is classic poisoning the well, which, you’ll recall, is intended to cause the audience to commit an ad hominem fallacy.

We skeptics take pride in our allegiance to logic and evidence; we are aware of our own shortcomings; we are aware that we are fallible and that we make mistakes. In my opinion the above comments about Jenny McCarthy are a mistake that we should own up to and make amends, and stop using it. If you really want to counter Jenny’s anti-vaccine views, choose one of the claims she makes, do some research, and write a nice blog entry showing where she goes wrong and what the evidence says, but do not resort to ad-hominem attacks. We are skeptics and we ought to be better than that.

–Skepdude, “Skeptics Gone Wild,” 8/23/10.


An incomplete list of sources used for this post:

My Problem with Movements

I started this blog in part because I like to comment on and make fun of stupidity. It’s a shame that most of the stupidity I encounter right now comes from other skeptics. And it all seems to keep coming back to this idea of the “skeptical movement.”

Skepticism is not something I joined. Skepticism is something I use. I apply skepticism to the claims I encounter in my life. It’s a set of cognitive tools that I use to evaluate reality and the claims people make regarding it. Being someone who uses this set of tools makes me a skeptic, and so I share a label and a viewpoint with some other people. Because people are social animals, we gather around any commonality, no matter how small or arbitrary.

And that’s fine, when we’re forming clubs and conferences and message boards and shit. I like going to skeptical events and hanging out with skeptical people and talking about skeptical topics and reading skeptical books and generally promoting skepticism.

The problem is when people assume that, because we share this one thing, we must therefore have other things in common. Truth be told, these assumptions can often be accurate, but it’s a matter of correlation, not necessarily causation. Yes, my skepticism caused me to be an atheist, and while a lot of skeptics are atheists and a lot of atheists are skeptics, there are quite a few people who don’t fit in that shaded area of the Venn diagram. The same can be said for every interest: some skeptics are comic fans, lots of comic fans are sci-fi fans, lots of sci-fi fans love “Doctor Who.” But each of those things represents a different circle on a big Venn diagram chart, and you can’t just assume that all skeptics love “Doctor Who.” This can be a source of conflict and annoyance and hurt feelings; people tend to assume that other people are like them–especially people they like and/or admire–and it can be deflating to find out otherwise. Watch The Atheist Experience for a month or two, and you’ll see this kind of thing in action: some atheists assume that because we’ve all come to the same conclusion on the existence of God, then we must all have the same views on morality/aliens/conspiracy theories/politics/ghosts/drugs/etc. It’s just not something you can assume based on having one thing in common.

This problem is just as pronounced even when it comes to things that are directly related to the shared viewpoint. Just because I agree with other skeptics on the importance of skepticism doesn’t necessarily mean that our priorities or goals or methods are the same. As I’ve ranted before, I tend to think that we ought to live and let live, when it comes to each other’s methods. I think there’s room for a variety of approaches to spreading skepticism, from Joe Nickell-style serious investigations to academic debates to “Get in the fookin’ sack” humor to The Pope Song.

Obviously, there are those who disagree, or I wouldn’t keep beating this dead horse. The problem is the same as the one I mentioned above: the people who say things like “you’re not helping” are making some key assumptions about what the rest of us want to accomplish. Some people explicitly want to make skepticism into a serious academic discipline, some seem to think we’ll change more minds and convert more skeptics by being nice and polite all the time. I have my own opinions on the reasonableness of those goals, but that’s really not the point. The point is that those aren’t my goals. I do skeptical commentary because I’m passionate about it, and because I generally find it fun. I like making snarky comments about apologetic e-mail forwards and tearing alt-med idiots a new one and even doing a bit of serious skeptical investigation. I’m perfectly happy with keeping skeptical activism a fun hobby, and I’m bothered by people who want to make the entire enterprise as fun as writing a term paper. And that’s really just the tip of it. Shockingly enough, my purpose is not always to convert or educate. Sometimes my purpose is to entertain, sometimes it’s to vent, and sometimes it’s for my own amusement. I’m a little tired of “for the lulz” being denigrated as a reason to do stuff.

Even if your goals are changing minds, educating, and spreading awareness, it makes sense to have a multiplicity of methods and styles and techniques. Different people have different interests and are convinced by different things; context and audience are significant factors in determining what methods are appropriate. There is no one size that fits all situations or people. Frankly, that’s Education 101. Different people learn differently, and sometimes it takes time and multiple exposures and different pedagogical techniques to get new information to stick in people’s heads. And that’s assuming they’re receptive to the information in the first place, and outside of a classroom, there aren’t many people who appreciate being lectured to. And again, that’s assuming that education is your primary goal, which isn’t necessarily the case for everyone in every situation.

And that’s the problem with a “movement.” The term “movement” carries some baggage; it implies motion toward something, or at least in some shared direction. Skeptics don’t share such a direction in general, much though the tone police would like to impose one. My goals are not everyone’s goals, and it’s condescending and presumptuous for other skeptics, from the lying asshat behind the “You’re Not Helping” blog to bigger names like Daniel Loxton and even Phil Plait, to tell me that I’m not falling in line with their goals and priorities. I’m perfectly capable of setting my own goals and deciding what tactics and methods best suit them, thank you very much, and so are most people.

If I’m part of a movement, it’s because there are a lot of people individually drifting in the same general direction, but a few self-appointed shepherds have decided that they know the one right way to go. They’re quite happy to lead everyone around, and if some of the flock gets lost along the way, that’ll just improve the quality of what’s left. I’m sorry, but that’s poor shepherding, and I’m no one’s fucking sheep.

Tone Deaf

I’ll say this right off the bat: this post isn’t going to be link heavy. I’m talking in generalities, and I’m trying to do it quickly, but I hope my points will be clear regardless. Just consider this a rant, and if you need to dismiss it as such, go right ahead. I’ve long since stopped caring.

There’s a lot of infighting among skeptics right now, with lots of cries that some people or events are “hurting the cause” or “not helping.” It seems that every skeptical blogger and personality has been drafted into the “skeptical movement,” where they are constantly assumed to be speaking for a larger group, and where every action must apparently be scrutinized for its possible effects on how the general public perceives us and how our actions contribute to or against “the cause.”

Ur hurtin teh cause!It’s not quite that bad all over, but the extreme milquetoasts and mollycoddlers have caused folks like me to see even reasonable attempts at discussing tone and tactics as authoritative calls to shut up. It may sound petty to level this complaint, but it’s taken a lot of the fun out of skepticism and blogging. I will shout from the rooftops that science is of primary importance and that we should educate the public and fight against dangerous pseudoscience on every conceivable front, and that passion hasn’t died down. What has died quite a bit is my enjoyment of this whole process. Part of it is that the landscape has changed; we’ve roasted the trolls to extinction, and those who do show up are either looney toons like Dennis Markuze and Graeme Bird, or drive-by commenters who don’t stick around. But part of it, too, is that I have no real interest in speaking for a movement, nor in being told that my methods are “hurting the cause” by people who don’t have a fucking clue what my “causes” are. I’m passionate about skepticism, but blogging isn’t my job. I don’t get paid for this, I do it because I enjoy it. And the more I have to worry about how Internets is Srs Bzns, the less I want to participate.

As I said before, I’m open to the idea that I may be doin’ it wrong, but if you think we should eliminate tactics from our repertoire, if you’re going to claim that someone or some method is “not helping,” then you’d better damn well back it up with evidence. Otherwise, you’re not promoting skepticism, you’re not speaking from any kind of authority, you’re just talking out of your ass.

But to the hardcore tone trolls and the more reasonable group of people who are just concerned with how skeptics represent themselves to the general public and what tactics we use in discussions, I have a few pertinent questions. I don’t expect to get any real answers, certainly not from the people I’m actually frustrated by, but I’d rather post this and get it out of my system for a few days than let it simmer. But if you’d like to answer them, please feel free.

What is ur concernz?The first, and most important question, is this: What are you adding to the conversation? I think it’s trivially obvious, even to those frequently cited as the worst offenders, that one’s content and tactics need to be tailored to the situation and the audience. PZ Myers doesn’t berate the religious students in his Biology classes for being deluded nitwits, Richard Dawkins admitted that he would have been the wrong person to testify in the Dover trial, since he’d have to say that (at least in his case) science leads to atheism. Much like the talk of framing some months and years ago, what I’m seeing from the reasonable tone-talkers is repetition of that basic rule of persuasive writing, and I don’t think anyone disagrees. From my end, it’s as though you’re telling a room of veteran writers “show, don’t tell,” and then repeating it louder when they don’t treat it like a revolutionary concept.

Now, I can understand disagreeing with a person regarding what the appropriate tactics for a given discussion or argument or action are, and what might represent an appropriate tone or effective method. Here’s the problem: in order to say what’s effective or appropriate, you have to measure it against some goal, and different people may have wildly different goals. Yes, as skeptics we generally think that promoting critical thinking and science are major concerns. But that’s pretty much where the assumed similarities end (and depending on how broadly you want to define “skeptic,” there are some folks Bill Maher who might not even fit that latter criterion). We’re individuals, and we all have different interests that often get folded in with skepticism (frequently because we see those interests as outgrowths of skepticism). Michael Shermer puts a priority on promoting his libertarian economic and political philosophies; PZ Myers is generally more concerned with religious woo than cryptozoology; Orac focuses mostly on medical woo and doesn’t care much about promoting atheism; and so forth. In order to talk about what represents an effective tactic, you have to know what kind of effect the person is trying to achieve.

To go back to the Framing debate, there were those (and still are) who claimed that outspoken atheist scientists would hurt the promotion of science by suggesting that science leads to atheism. Well, that might be true. Those who are inclined to reject something because it leads some people to become atheists would certainly be inclined to reject science for that reason (though I can’t imagine how hiding it would help said promotion among said people in the long run), but it seemed that the critics never considered that promoting science wasn’t the only goal at play. Some people, believe it or not, were promoting atheism, or at least promoting the idea that it’s okay to be an atheist, that it’s okay to criticize religion, that religion shouldn’t be beyond critique, and so forth. That goal may sometimes contradict the goal of promoting science to the people who reject it on religious grounds. And that goal may conflict with the goal of maintaining science’s neutral position with regard to religion, as evidenced by the NCSE’s Faith Project Director declaring ID to be “blasphemous” (which explicitly endorses a particular religious viewpoint).

This is why talk of what “helps” and “hurts,” what’s “effective” and “appropriate,” is so frustrating: it relies on the assumption that the critic and the subject of critique share the same goals and priorities, which is unlikely.

I’d be less infuriated by these lines of questioning if it was phrased less “ur doin it wrong” and more “if you’re trying to accomplish [GOAL], then I think [METHOD] is unproductive.” See, this is part of that whole “tone” and “framing” thing: sometimes effective criticism requires you to express some degree of humility, rather than put forth an air of authority (which can seem arrogant and presumptuous).

Even that, though, falls back to my original complaint: saying “If your goal is X, Y is ineffective/counterproductive” is a factual claim. If you’re going to make a factual claim that a person should eliminate some method from their repertoire because it’s harmful (or unhelpful), then you have to show that it’s harmful (or unhelpful). In order to do that, you need evidence. Otherwise, it’s just your opinion, and while you’re entitled to express it, you need to realize what it is and what value it has to anyone else (i.e., none). Without evidential support, your opinion is no more or less valid than your opponent’s.

My final question to those who are concerned about tone and tactics: What is your ultimate goal? What do you want the skeptical movement to be/do? What would your ideal skeptical activist or activism look like? Is there anyone right now who you think is doin’ it right? What do you want this conversation about tone and tactics and effectiveness and appropriateness to accomplish?

Rant over. Feel free to answer, I’d honestly love to hear what people have to say.

Just a quick rant

I’ve got some posts percolating, but I need a moment to vent about something that’s been bugging me recently. I can’t really remember the last time I actually had a decent online argument with a believer of one form or another. I’ve had one or two exchanges that looked promising, and some that went around in frustrating circles, but mostly my recent arguments have been with other skeptics.

And it’s getting tiresome.

It’d be different if there were some other topic, but it’s always the same damn point: outspoken atheists are hurting the skeptical cause/making skeptics look bad/tearing the skeptical movement apart/overstepping the bounds of science and skepticism.

Suffice it to say, I disagree. But in my disagreement, I’m not chastising other skeptics for being too soft on religion. I’m not telling other skeptics that I think the future of skepticism lies in hardcore affirmative atheism. I’m not crafting bizarre strawmen about how accomodationist skeptics want to kick out all the outspoken atheists so they can purify the party. I’m not trying to redefine science to say that it must weigh in negatively on all god hypotheses. I’m not attaching “-gate” to every minor disagreement on message boards or blogs or Twitter. I’m not suggesting that the only way to combat woo is through ridicule and derision. I’m not arrogantly asserting that my way of approaching skepticism and atheism is the right way or the only way–or even that there is some single better way–to do so. And I’m certainly not telling other people in the movement that they’re going to tear the movement apart by being insufficiently outspoken about their godlessness.

See, I can disagree without thinking that everyone else should share my opinion or methods. Why the hell does this seem to be such a rare position?

Look, skeptics come from a bunch of different backgrounds. We have a bunch of different beliefs and personalities and philosophies. We ought to embrace that, not try to shove everyone into one pigeonhole or another. And the last thing we should do is set aside the beliefs or ideas of one group of people as beyond the reach of critical questioning, whether for reasons of politisse or apparent impossibility. I think we should be as willing to question Hal Bidlack’s faith as we are Penn Jillette’s climate change “agnosticism” or Bill Maher’s anti-medicine stance or Michael Shermer’s libertarianism. In fact, I’d say that most aspects of libertarianism (and politics in general) are much farther outside the range of science than, say, religious belief or assertion of a deity’s existence, and yet I think we should apply the same skeptical approach to it as we would to any other worldview.

But other people disagree, and that’s okay. Just don’t tell me I’m doing it wrong because my priorities and philosophies differ from yours. Don’t tell me that science and skepticism have some magical invisible boundaries that you’ve dreamed up (and that the vast majority of scientists and skeptics would disagree with). Don’t tell me that certain methods–such as ridicule, parody, and the occasional angry rant–are counterproductive when those methods are among the most visible and popular (even outside the movement). Don’t tell me that I’m tearing apart the movement when my philosophy is “everyone should be able to do their own thing, but nothing should be exempt from questioning.” Don’t tell me–in any variation of terms or degree of subtlety–that your way is the one right way to do things.

And if you want to tell me any of those things, then I’ve got one demand: present the data, or shut the fuck up. Because the one thing I haven’t seen from any of these self-proclaimed etiquette cops and method masters is evidence. Strange that people who want to define skepticism and set the stage for the next phases of the movement would omit such a key component of any skeptical argument.