What kind of diversity?

Vjack has a post up on Atheist Revolution discussing his problems with Atheism+. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about it; I think he’s wrong, I think his posts on this and related subjects have been full of telling elisions and bad arguments. I’m personally disappointed that someone I respected and agreed with in the past has devoted so much of his recent blogging to this apparent vendetta. I generally don’t understand the pushback and opposition to the various proposed and enacted social justice initiatives, but it’s more striking when it’s from people I like (see also my quarrel with Toxicpath). But that’s enough of the personal stuff. The point here is simply responding to a couple of statements from that long-ish post.

On Values

In suggesting that we share common goals, I am being descriptive rather than prescriptive. That is, I am suggesting that virtually all atheist do in fact have some common goals and not that we should adopt some set of goals that we do not currently share.

I get where Vjack is coming from here, but he’s arguing against two contradictory strawmen. The implication in this statement (made explicit in the subsequent paragraph) is that Atheism+ is a movement saying that atheists should adopt social justice values, which they currently have not adopted.

This is flatly wrong, and that’s pretty clear from the few prominent posts on the subject. The fact is that a lot of atheists already do share these social justice values, just as most atheists share the values that Vjack presumed for the first sentence, which I suspect would be similar to the incomplete list I compiled yesterday. The percentage of atheists who share social justice values is clearly not as large as the percentage who value science, for instance, but it’s still a preexisting category. “Atheism+” is the label that arose and took off from a discussion of like-minded atheists who already valued social justice to describe themselves.

Imagine that the libertarian wing of atheism–something that’s already in existence and has been clearly visible for some time–wanted to set themselves apart, so they could discuss libertarian issues without having to deal with the constant harping of liberal atheists, and so they could work to enact policies that supported their libertarian ideals, which is not something that the entirety of the atheist movement would be for. Would we begrudge them the ability to label themselves with something catchier than “libertarian atheists” (hey libertarian atheists: “Athei$m.” You can have that one for free) and unite to work toward particular goals that align with both their libertarian and atheist viewpoints?

I imagine some would. I wouldn’t. The less I have to deal with libertarians, the happier I generally am. It’d be a win-win situation.

So Vjack is wrong in suggesting that “Atheism+” is somehow, by its nature, prescriptive. It’s describing a movement and a group that’s been forming for a good long time, even if that movement isn’t “all atheists.” But I think he’s also wrong with seeing prescriptiveness as a problem. There’s nothing wrong or problematic in arguing that a particular group should care about a particular issue, or take action in a particular instance. It’s something that the atheist movement is generally familiar with. We hardly need any prodding to be spurred to action to support a high school atheist in a free speech battle or to speak out against tyrannical theocratic regimes, because those things are obviously in-line with our shared values. But, you know, take a look at the “Bullshit” episodes on secondhand smoke or the Americans with Disabilities Act or Cheerleading. Granted, they’re not directed primarily and solely at atheists, but they’re clear examples of some skeptically-minded folks saying to others “hey, these are issues that are important, which you should care about (and adopt our position on).” They’re making an argument that people who are like-minded on one set of positions and values (existence of gods, importance of science, promotion of reality-based policy) should also be like-minded on other positions and values (corporate liberty, opposing government intrusion, libertarianism).

They’re making an argument, which others are free to accept or reject. There’s no magical barrier between one set of values that some atheists share and any other set of values that some atheists share. If I hold libertarian or liberal or feminist or vegetarian or Objectivist values for the same basic reasons that I hold skeptical and scientific values, then of course I’m going to argue that others who hold one set of values should hold the other. “Hey, we both care about [THING A], and I care about [THING B] for the same reason I care about [THING A]. Since you agree with me about [THING A], you should also agree with me about [THING B].” Making the argument is not a problem, because there’s always the opportunity for a counterargument. And if a movement can handle guys like Bill Maher promoting anti-medical quackery and Penn Jilette promoting anti-government ideology and the legions of AGW deniers promoting anti-climate science demagoguery, all under the heading of “I’m anti-medicine/anti-government/anti-AGW for the same reason I’m anti-religion, because I’m a skeptic,” then I don’t see how it can’t handle feminists and social justice folks doing the same, even if you believe that those people are wrong/irrational/unskeptical/whatever.

On Diversity

I have always thought our movement was strong because of our diversity and not in spite of it. I value big tent atheism, and what I mean by that is a large movement with great diversity in which people work together to accomplish the few goals we truly share.

Had I been drinking, I probably would have ruined my smartphone when I read that first sentence. I agree, movement atheism has a lot of diversity, even of the kind that Vjack cites. But the idea that the community somehow only or generally or mostly works together to accomplish the few goals we truly share, that “Atheism+” is somehow an outlier in working together on goals that are only shared by a subset of atheists, is ludicrous. Some atheists have the goal of building bridges with theists to work on shared goals, others see that as a waste of time or worse. Some atheists have the goal of making all discourse civil and professional and non-dickish, others value blunt and acerbic speech. These groups have existed, and have been trying to unite like-minded atheists toward one or another goal, and creating DEEEEEP RIIIIIFTS in the movement/community for years. We generally work together on goals like fighting school prayer and supporting science, but there’s always been factions of atheists pulling in different directions and sniping at their opponents.

But there’s a bigger thing going on here, and it’s one that was laid out pretty clearly by Greta Christina. The question is what kind of diversity do you want? Do you want diversity of opinion, or diversity of background?

To some degree, you can have both. You can have libertarians and liberals and authoritarians, just as you can have blacks and whites and browns and so forth. But there comes a point where you have to make various choices, because encouraging, supporting, defending, or being explicitly inclusive of some opinions will necessarily make people from certain backgrounds feel excluded or dismissed, and vice-versa. As Greta Christina said, you can’t include both women and people who think women are inherently irrational. You can’t include both trans* people and people who think that trans* people are just self-deluded or insane. One way or another, someone’s going to leave.

Again, we’ve seen this recently with organized skepticism. Various leaders in the organized skeptical community have wanted to preserve a diversity of opinions on the god hypothesis by welcoming (and coddling) believers, which has left atheists feeling snubbed and delegitimized. In trying to accommodate one group, they’ve alienated another. TAM made their choice, that they’d rather have the Hal Bidlacks and Pamela Gays than the Christopher Hitchenses. We’ve seen it go the other way as well, such as when Orac declared his end with organized atheism after Richard Dawkins supported Bill Maher’s receipt of that science award. Dawkins said he found embracing a diverse group of atheists more important than promoting medicine, and so he lost the support of at least one medical practitioner.

Of course, it’s not quite that clear-cut, is it? It’s not like Hal Bidlack said at TAM “atheists aren’t welcome,” and it’s not like Vjack has said “feminists aren’t welcome.” What they’ve both said is that those groups are welcome under certain conditions. Atheists were welcome at TAM so long as they didn’t attack believers for their beliefs. Atheists are welcome to have their conferences about the god hypothesis, so long as they don’t do it under the heading of “skepticism.” Similarly, Vjack doesn’t have a problem with feminists, so long as they adhere to his standards of who should be considered a bigot. The rest of the social justice opponents seem to agree: so long as women are like Paula Kirby or Abbie Smith or Mallorie Nasrallah and don’t think harassment is that big a deal, or don’t ask people to change their practices, they can stick around. Heck, they’ll be celebrated. But man, suggest that it’s wrong to make rape jokes to a minor or hand an unsolicited nude photo to a speaker or that guys be more aware of appropriate times to ask women out, and then they’re unreasonable, irrational, unskeptical, shrill, militant, radical, feminazi, femistasi, c***s and t***s.

Diversity is okay–it’s great! it’s desirable! it makes us strong!–so long as it’s on our terms.

And you know what? That’s okay. If they want to prize diverse opinions over diverse backgrounds, that’s fine. But then they really can’t be surprised when the people who feel excluded by the side they’ve chosen (explicitly or through inaction) go off and do their own thing.

Personally, I prize diverse backgrounds. Somite argued that gender (and by extension, other background factors) didn’t determine ideas or facts. Would that that were the case. Societies around the world do not treat people of different backgrounds (gender, social class, skin color, neurology, disability status, etc.) the same way, and so those people develop different perspectives on the world. Those perspectives do not change what is objectively true or real, but they do affect which aspects of reality people are concerned about and focused on. Would an all-male group of skeptics and atheists ever consider the pseudoscience behind douching or various cosmetics? How highly would they prioritize those things? Would a group of non-parent skeptics and atheists consider the claims about the effects of breastfeeding or water birth or teaching about Santa Claus? How much effort would they expend on those topics as opposed to acupuncture and angels? White American ex-Christian atheists have certainly addressed the Muslim claim about the 72 heavenly virgins, but do they have the same depth of analysis on the subject as Heina Dadabhoy did? Would they provide the same emphases?

People from different backgrounds provide perspectives and priorities that a more homogenous group wouldn’t consider. And I think that’s important, I think that’s valuable. I think seeing problems or claims from different perspectives is an important tool in evaluating them, and an important tool in arguing about them. Just given the god hypothesis, some people might be more swayed by a moral argument (like the Euthyphro dilemma, or “Why Won’t God Heal Amputees”) than an evidentiary one, and vice versa. Having both those arguments in your toolset is more useful than only having one. But I also think that the perspectives of people who come from different backgrounds can also help shape and change what we find important. If all atheism were run by folks from mostly-godless European countries, then we’d probably see a lot more Alain de Bottons and a lot fewer Matt Dillahunties–and if the majority of atheists shared Alexander Aan’s perspective, then the movement would be different in a lot of other ways. Our backgrounds and experiences shape who we are, what we care about, and what we spend our time and effort on. Failing to consider the perspectives of others means we make those choices with less information, and may expend our efforts in less-than-worthwhile directions.

Moreover, there’s the P.R. angle. Like it or not, people are primed to listen to and agree with people who share their backgrounds, who come from the same place they do, who speak their language. Alain de Botton’s atheist-church arguments might play well in Europe where churches are mostly toothless, but it was roundly dismissed and ridiculed in god-soaked America. And I suspect that Reg Finley is going to play better at a black church in Tuskegee than a white doctor, as an example. The more people of different backgrounds, different places, different perspectives, we have, the more “languages” we can speak, the more people we can speak to and reach. If the whole movement looks like an old white boys’ club, it’s going to speak less strongly to people who don’t fit into those categories. You can call it irrational, I call it ethos.

So I’d prize diversity of background, which provides different perspectives and opinions and prioirties, over diversity of opinion, for the most part. Given the choice between an ex-Muslim atheist and a white supremacist atheist, I’m going to go for the former every time. I think we gain more than we lose by excluding the bigots. Is that divisive? Hell yes. But “divisiveness” is not in and of itself, a bad thing. Movement atheism has divided itself from secular Intelligent Design proponents like the Raelians and largely-secular cults like Scientology, and I think it’s benefited as a result.

And if what it takes for the social-justice-concerned atheists to move forward and work on those topics without being weighed down by the rape-jokers and c***-kickers and “only on my terms” diversity enthusiasts is to relabel themselves and widen an already-extant rift, then so be it. We’ll be divisive, and you can do whatever. The rest of us will work together on the goals we truly share, and you can comfortably sit back and call us irrational nazis and baboons.

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Flush the Movement

Natalie Reed’s most recent post is must reading. Please do.

I’m writing this here because it’d be derailing if I wrote it in the comments there. So, yeah.

You may recall that I’ve previously expressed some of my problems with movements, and even with the very notion of a “movement” inasmuch as it implies directed motion toward some single common goal. There are multiple goals within atheism and skepticism, and there are also multiple myopic people trying to claim that some of those goals are illegitimate.

But then, I look at the arguments I’ve had with asshats on Twitter, I look at my own beefs with the “movement,” I look at the concerns about being “outed” that led to my switch to WordPress and my attempt to build some kind of retroactive anonymity, and I read Natalie’s post and feel like a giant fucking idiot. I feel like the things I’ve seen as problems, the worries that have kept me up nights and sent me scrambling to lock down my blog or watch what I say in different venues, as problems that people without my tremendous level of privilege dream of having.

Being “outed” to me means worrying about the integrity and stability of my job for a whopping couple of years until increased job security sets in. It means worrying about discomfort in a close-knit community that I already have very little contact with outside of idle chit-chat. It means worrying about awkward conversations with some family members about matters that, ultimately, don’t affect anyone’s lives because they’re centered around entities that don’t exist. It doesn’t mean being attacked for my appearance, it doesn’t mean losing my house or possessions, it doesn’t mean being ostracized for an integral part of my identity.

I’m lucky. I’m incredibly lucky. I’m playing the game of life on Easy with the Konami Code.

And that’s a hard lesson to learn, that by virtue of luck, you have an easier time than others. It’s far easier to buy into the just-world fallacy and believe that, if people have it rough, then it’s because they deserve it, or because they’ve brought it on themselves, or because it’s just the way things are. It’s hard to realize that you’ve benefited from a system that inhibits others. It’s hard to realize that the world is more complicated than “people get what they earn/deserve.”

But it also seems like it’d be a basic lesson learned by anyone applying skepticism to reality. A lesson I’ve learned, time and time again, is that reality is generally more complicated than you think. Reality is fractal. Zoom out or in, and there’s always some new level of detail, some new perspective, some new complication, that you haven’t accounted for. It’s part of why a scientific understanding of the universe is so full of wonder. Anti-science types will criticize science for its “reductionist” stance, “reducing” everything to mere aggregations of particles. But that’s not it at all, because those aggregations of particles are anything but “mere.” At every level of magnification there is something new and amazing to be fascinated by, something grand and beautiful to admire. Whether examining the patterns of cells in a tissue sample or the patterns of whorls in a fingerprint or the pattern of mineral deposits on a continent or the pattern of stars in a galaxy, there is fascination to be had and wonder to be felt and beauty to be seen. By closing yourself off to those other perspectives, your worldview lacks detail and nuance, lacks those sources of beauty and awe and interest.

But it appears that not all skeptics, not all atheists, not all science enthusiasts learn this lesson. I’ve long suspected that some people arrive at atheism or skepticism out of some kind of contrarianism. They see the silly shit that some people believe and reject it. They reject religion and Bigfoot and UFOs because those are the beliefs of “The Man,” of the majority, of the establishment. Man, they reject the establishment. They’ve seen the light, man. Take that far enough, and they reject the “establishment” account of what happened on 9/11 or “the man”‘s opinion that you have to pay taxes, and you get the Zeitgeist crowd. Take that in a different direction, without the tempering influence of science enthusiasm, and they might reject the “establishment” notions of medicine like the germ theory, and become like Bill Maher. Sprinkle in a bit of that black-and-white overly-simplistic worldview, and you get libertarians, who reject the idea that the system might be unfair, that life and civilization might be more complex than what’s portrayed in an Ayn Rand novel. And focus that rejection of “the man” and the “establishment” on the notion of “political correctness,” and suddenly you have MRAs and every other bunch of “I’m so persecuted” bigots that roam these here Internets (and elsewhere).

And friend, I’m not sure that there’s anything that’s easier to believe than that you’re a brave hero fighting against a grand conspiracy that is behind all of your problems, and that everyone who disagrees is either in on the conspiracy, or duped by it. It’s the DeAngelis-Novella Postulates, the underlying egotist worldview behind all conspiracy theories. I am the enlightened hero, my enemies are powerful and legion, and everyone else is a dupe who just hasn’t seen the light like I have.

That’s what I don’t understand about the people ranting over how they’ve been “silenced” by the “FTBullies,” or that “feminists” are sowing “misandry,” or that the “atheist scientists” are “expelling” Christians, or that “the Illuminati” are doing whatever nefarious things they like to do. The worldview is ultimately so simplistic that it falls apart on comparison with the complexities of reality. And as skeptics, isn’t that precisely the sort of thing we train ourselves and pride ourselves on debunking?

I guess that’s one more privilege afforded the majority: the ability to believe a comforting, simplistic, ego-stroking version of reality, to perceive the world through the tinted glasses of a persecuted minority while being neither, and to claim heroism while tilting at nonexistent windmills.

I realize this is all armchair psychology, which I’m doing from an office chair without a background in psychology. It’s almost certainly true that the real situation isn’t nearly as simple as what I’ve laid out, and that the MRAs and libertarians and Zeitgeistians and so forth that infest the atheist and skeptical “movements” are the result of far more diverse factors.

But I realize that, because I realize that the world is more complicated than “us” and “them,” than “good” and “evil,” than “baboons” and “slimepitters,” than “FTBullies” and “the silenced,” than “the Conspiracy” and “the Army of Light” and “the Sheeple.”

I just wish that were a more generally-understood lesson.

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)

Housewarming

Welcome to the new digs! It doesn’t look like much yet, but I’ll be playing with the layout and such over the next several days until I get it looking the way I’d like. Hopefully I’ll have a blogroll and stuff up in the near future.

As for other details, if you follow with a feed reader, the new feed should be: http://www.dubitoergosum.net/feed/

You can also click the “follow” link up top, but I’m not totally sure how that works yet.

All the posts and comments moved over from the original site, which redirects here now after a short delay. Comments should be closed on the Blogspot page, and I’ll probably do some other stuff to it to reduce available content.

Please use the comments here to let me know if you’re still around, and to tell me about any broken links, image issues, or other problems on the site.

Thanks!

In which I piss on the ‘Dude’s rug

I’ve recently had a bit of a back-and-forth with the Skepdude that eventually spilled out onto Twitter. I started writing this post when it appeared that my last comment might languish in eternal moderation, but it has since shown up, so kudos to Skepdude for exceeding my pessimistic expectations. If this post hadn’t turned into a larger commentary before that bit posted, I might have deleted the whole thing. As it stands, I’ve used poor Skepdude as a springboard.

In any case, you can go ahead and read the relevant posts, then come back here and read my further commentary. It’s okay, I’ll wait.

Back? Great. Here’s the further commentary.

I think this conversation touches on a few key points relevant to skeptical activism. The first is this trepidation regarding basic rhetoric. We tend to throw around “rhetoric” in a disparaging fashion, often in the context of “baseless rhetoric” or “empty rhetoric.” And those can be to the point, but I think we run the risk of forgetting that rhetoric is the art of argumentation, the set of tools and strategies available to craft convincing arguments.

We’ve heard a lot from skeptics and scientists in the past few years claiming to be communications experts and saying that skeptics and scientists need to communicate better; we’ve all seen and complained about debates and discussions where the rational types fail because they can’t argue or work a crowd as well as their irrational opponents. These are both, to some degree, failures of rhetoric. Scientists are trained to argue in arenas and fora where facts and evidence are the most important thing, and the only convincing thing. That’s great if you’re defending a dissertation or critiquing a journal article, but as we’ve seen time and time again, it doesn’t translate to success in debates outside the university. Kent Hovind and Ray Comfort and Deepak Chopra may be blinkered idiots without a fact between the three of them, which would mean death in a scientific arena, but in the arena of public discourse, it becomes a strength. Because when you have no facts to work with, you have to make sure that the rest of your techniques have enough glitz and flash to distract the audience from your lack of substance. Scientists ignore the style, knowing they have substance, unaware or naïve about audiences’ universal love for shiny things.

We in the skeptic community, such as it is, have spent a lot of time recently debating whether it’s better to use honey or vinegar; one lesson we should all take away from that, however, is that facts and logic are bland on their own. You need to dress them up with spices and sauces if you expect anyone to want to swallow them. If one of your goals is to convince human beings–not, say, robots or Vulcans–then you can’t rely on pure logic alone.

Moving back to Skepdude, he seems to be in two places in this argument. On one hand, he seems to think that we can ignore ethos and pathos, and argue on logos alone. Depending on his purpose, this may be enough. I don’t know what his goals are, in particular, but if he is content with arguing in such a way as to make his points clear and valid to any philosopher, scientist, or skeptic who happens to be reading them, then arguing with pure logic might be all he needs. Heck, he could break everything down and put it into those crazy modal logic proofs, and save himself a lot of typing.

But if he’s hoping to make his arguments convincing to a broader swath of people–and the amount of rhetorical questions and righteous anger in some of his other posts suggests that he is, and that he already knows this–then he’s going to need to slather those bland syllogisms in tasty pathos and savory ethos.

But here’s where I have the problem, and nowhere was it more apparent than in our Twitter conversation, while he elevates and venerates logic, he doesn’t understand a pretty basic principle of it, which is how fallacies–in particular, the ad hominem fallacy–work.

The whole post revolves around skeptics saying that Jenny McCarthy claims to oppose toxins yet uses Botox. Skepdude calls this an ad hominem fallacy. And I can see where it could be. Where he makes his mistake–and where most people who mistakenly accuse ad hominem make the mistake–is in failing to understand that ad hominem fallacies are all about the specific context. It’s true; if my only response to Jenny McCarthy’s anti-toxin arguments were “Yeah, well you put botox in your face, so who cares what you think,” I’d be dismissing her arguments fallaciously, by attacking her character–specifically, by suggesting that her actions invalidate her arguments.

But that doesn’t mean that any time I were to bring up McCarthy’s botox use would be fallacious. Let’s say I said, for instance, “You claim to be anti-toxin, yet you use botox; that suggests you’re a hypocrite, or that you don’t understand what toxins are.” Now, if I left it at that, it would still be fallacious; saying just that in response to her anti-vaccine arguments would be fallaciously dismissing them on the basis of her character.

Now, let’s imagine I said: “In fact, all the evidence demonstrates that the ‘toxins’ you insinuate are in vaccines are, in fact, present in non-toxic doses. Furthermore, the evidence shows that there is no link between vaccines and any autism spectrum disorder.” This bit addresses the substance of her argument, and does so using facts and evidence. If I further added “Also, you claim to be anti-toxin, yet you use botox; either you’re a hypocrite, or you don’t understand what toxins are,” I would most definitely be attacking her character, but it would not be fallacious because I wouldn’t be using it to dismiss her arguments.

The ad hominem fallacy requires that last part: in order for it to be fallacious, in order for it to render your argument invalid, you must be using the personal attack to dismiss your opponent’s arguments. Otherwise, it’s just a personal attack.

Skepdude disagrees:

This is what he linked to, by the way.

I replied:

And these were my links: 1 2 3.

And then I walked away from Twitter for a few hours, because I’m getting better at knowing when to end things.

And then I started writing this post, because I’m still not very good at it. I’d respond to the ‘Dude on Twitter, but I feel bad dredging up topics after several hours, and I know what I’m going to say won’t fit well in Tweets.

Anyway, the ‘Dude responded some more:

Oh, I’m so glad to have your permission. I would have tossed and turned all night otherwise.


Yes, you can infer what someone’s saying from their speech. I can even see some situations where the implication is strong enough to qualify as a logical fallacy–of course, the implication has to be an argument before it can be a fallacious one, and that’s a lot to hang on an implied concept–but that is, after all, the whole point of the Unstated Major Premise. However, (as I said in tweets) there’s a razor-thin line between inferring what an argument left unstated and creating a straw man argument that’s easier to knock down (because it contains a fallacy).

Skepdude even found a quote–in one of my links, no less!–that he thought supported this view:

He’s right, the ad hominem fallacy there doesn’t end with “therefore he’s wrong;” most ad hominem fallacies don’t. His point, however, isn’t as right, as a look at the full quote will demonstrate:

Argumentum ad hominem literally means “argument directed at the man”; there are two varieties.

The first is the abusive form. If you refuse to accept a statement, and justify your refusal by criticizing the person who made the statement, then you are guilty of abusive argumentum ad hominem. For example:

“You claim that atheists can be moral–yet I happen to know that you abandoned your wife and children.”

This is a fallacy because the truth of an assertion doesn’t depend on the virtues of the person asserting it.

Did you catch it? Here’s the relevant bit again: “If you refuse to accept a statement, and justify your refusal by criticizing the person who made the statement, then you are guilty of abusive argumentum ad hominem.” The point isn’t that the anti-atheist arguer attacked the atheist speaker to justify rejecting his argument.

So, once again, context is key. If, for instance, the atheist had argued “all atheists are moral,” the “you abandoned your wife and children” comment would be a totally valid counterargument. The key in the example given was that the anti-atheist respondent used his attack on the atheist arguer to dismiss their argument, in lieu of actually engaging that argument. A point which my other links, which went into greater detail, all made clear.

I’ll say it again: in order for it to be an ad hominem, the personal attack has to be directly used to dismiss the argument. Dismissing the argument on other grounds and employing a personal attack as an aside or to some other end is, by definition, not an ad hominem. You don’t have to take my word for it, either:

In reality, ad hominem is unrelated to sarcasm or personal abuse. Argumentum ad hominem is the logical fallacy of attempting to undermine a speaker’s argument by attacking the speaker instead of addressing the argument. The mere presence of a personal attack does not indicate ad hominem: the attack must be used for the purpose of undermining the argument, or otherwise the logical fallacy isn’t there. It is not a logical fallacy to attack someone; the fallacy comes from assuming that a personal attack is also necessarily an attack on that person’s arguments. (Source

For instance, ad hominem is one of the most frequently misidentified fallacies, probably because it is one of the best known ones. Many people seem to think that any personal criticism, attack, or insult counts as an ad hominem fallacy. Moreover, in some contexts the phrase “ad hominem” may refer to an ethical lapse, rather than a logical mistake, as it may be a violation of debate etiquette to engage in personalities. So, in addition to ignorance, there is also the possibility of equivocation on the meaning of “ad hominem”.

For instance, the charge of “ad hominem” is often raised during American political campaigns, but is seldom logically warranted. We vote for, elect, and are governed by politicians, not platforms; in fact, political platforms are primarily symbolic and seldom enacted. So, personal criticisms are logically relevant to deciding who to vote for. Of course, such criticisms may be logically relevant but factually mistaken, or wrong in some other non-logical way.
[…]
An Abusive Ad Hominem occurs when an attack on the character or other irrelevant personal qualities of the opposition—such as appearance—is offered as evidence against her position. Such attacks are often effective distractions (“red herrings”), because the opponent feels it necessary to defend herself, thus being distracted from the topic of the debate. (Source)

Gratuitous verbal abuse or “name-calling” itself is not an argumentum ad hominem or a logical fallacy. The fallacy only occurs if personal attacks are employed instead of an argument to devalue an argument by attacking the speaker, not personal insults in the middle of an otherwise sound argument or insults that stand alone.(Source)

And so on, ad infinitum.

To return to the original point, let’s say a skeptic has said “Jenny McCarthy speaks of dangerous ‘toxins’ in vaccines, yet she gets Botox shots, which include botulinum, one of the most toxic substances around, right on her face.” Removed from its context, we cannot infer what the arguer intended. I can see three basic scenarios:

  1. The skeptic has used the phrase as evidence to dismiss Jenny McCarthy’s arguments about “dangerous ‘toxins’ in vaccines,” and has thus committed an ad hominem fallacy.
  2. The skeptic has used the phrase as an aside, in addition to a valid counter-argument against her anti-vaccine claims. This would not be an ad hominem fallacy.
  3. The skeptic has used the phrase as evidence for a separate but relevant argument, such as discussing Jenny McCarthy’s credibility as a scientific authority, in addition to dismissing her arguments with valid responses. This would not be an ad hominem fallacy.

There are other permutations, I’m sure, but I think these are the likeliest ones, and only one out of the three is fallacious. Moreover, trying to infer such a fallacy into those latter two arguments would not be valid cause to dismiss them, but it would probably demonstrate a lack of reading comprehension or a predisposition to dismiss such arguments.

Let’s say I’ve just finished demolishing McCarthy’s usual anti-vax arguments, and then I say “She must not be very anti-toxin if she gets Botox treatments on a regular basis.” Would it be reasonable to infer that I meant to use that statement as fallacious evidence against her point? I think not. If I’ve already addressed her point with evidence and logic, how could you infer that my aside, which is evidence- and logic-free, was also meant to be used as evidence in the argument I’ve already finished debunking?

On the other hand, let’s say I’ve done the same, and then I say “plus, it’s clear that Jenny doesn’t actually understand how toxins work. Toxicity is all about the dose. She thinks that children are in danger from the miniscule doses of vaccine preservatives they receive in a typical vaccine regimen, and yet she gets botox treatments, which require far larger dosages of a far more potent toxin. If toxins worked the way she apparently thinks they do, she’d be dead several times over.” Same point used in service of a separate argument. Would it be reasonable to infer here that I meant the point to be used as evidence against her anti-vaccine claims? Obviously not.

The only case in which it would be reasonable to make that inference would be some variation of me using that claim specifically to dismiss her argument. Maybe I say it in isolation–“Obviously she’s wrong about toxins; after all, she uses botox”–maybe I say it along with other things–“Former Playboy Playmate Jenny McCarthy says she’s anti-toxin, but uses botox. Sounds like a bigger mistake than picking her nose on national TV”–but those are fallacies only because I’m using the irrelevant personal attack to dismiss her argument.

So why have I put aside everything else I need to do on Sunday night to belabor this point? Well, I think that it’s a fine point, but one worth taking the time to understand. Skepdude’s argument is sloppy; he doesn’t seem to understand the fine distinctions between fallacious ad hominem and stand-alone personal attacks or valid ethical arguments, and so he’s advocating that skeptics stop using arguments that could potentially be mistaken for ad hominem fallacies. That way he–and the rest of us–could keep on being sloppy in our understanding and accusations of fallacies and not have to worry about facing any consequences for that sloppiness.

I can’t help but be reminded of my brother. When he was a kid, he did a crappy job mowing the lawn, and would get chewed out for it. He could have taken a little more time and effort to learn how to do it right–heck, I offered to teach him–but he didn’t. Rather, by doing it sloppily, he ensured that he’d only be asked to do it as a last resort; either Dad or I would take care of it, because we’d rather see it done right. He didn’t have to learn how to do a good job because doing a crappy job meant he could avoid doing the job altogether. By avoiding the job altogether, he avoided the criticism and consequences as well.

The problem, of course, is that the people who actually knew what they were doing had to pick up the slack.

This is the issue with Skepdude’s argument here, and I think it’s a point worth making. I disagree with those people who want to make skepticism into some academic discipline where everything is SRS BZNS, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think we shouldn’t have some reasonable standards. Argumentation is a discipline and an art. It takes work, it takes research and effort, and it requires you to understand some very subtle points. It’s often hard to distinguish a fallacious argument from a valid one, especially in some of the common skeptical topics, since some of the woo-woo crowd have become quite adept at obfuscating their fallacies. It’s not enough to get a general idea and move on; logic and science require clarity and specificity from both terms and arguments. “Ad hominem fallacy” means a certain, very particular thing, and it’s not enough to get a general idea and figure that it’s close enough. If you know what the fallacies actually are and you structure your arguments and your rhetoric in ways that are sound and effective, then you don’t need to worry about people mistaking some bit of your writing for some logical fallacy. You get to say, “no, in fact, that’s not a fallacy, but I could see where you might make that mistake. Here’s why…” When you do the job right, when your arguments are valid and stand on their own, then you don’t need to fear criticism and accusation. Isn’t that what we tell every psychic, homeopath, and theist who claims to have the truth on their side? “If your beliefs are true, then you have nothing to fear from scientific inquiry/the Million Dollar Challenge/reasonable questions”? Why wouldn’t we require the same standard from our own points and arguments?

Skepdude, I apologize for making this lengthy, snarky reply. I generally agree with you, and I obviously wouldn’t follow you on Twitter if I didn’t generally like what you have to say. But on this point, which I think is important, I think you’re clearly wrong, and I think it’s important to correct. Feel free to respond here or in the comments at your post; I obviously can’t carry out this kind of discussion on Twitter.

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.

You like me, etc.

As of this writing, my last post has been awarded the Internet by The Atheist Experience, has been Tweeted by Phil Plait and retweeted by Grassroots Skeptics, and has gotten commented on by Zeno and Heathen Mike. All that, plus my usual skeptical friends like Bronze Dog and Skeptico, and lots of new people. I’ve had 1,145 page views today, over an average of 60 (I’m surprised it’s that high, given my low output of late).

I feel like the belle of the ball.

So, if nothing else, this has inspired me to get off my tuchus and write a little more frequently, so I can hopefully retain some of the new influx of readers. If you’re new here, take a look around, feel free to comment on old posts. I’ll be responding to the comments and criticisms in the Mike Adams post, I’m planning to follow up (a little less comprehensively) on his smug response to the skeptics, and I promised to do a post on GMOs. After that, I’ll see about dusting off some of the posts I’ve been meaning to finish for weeks.

Thanks for the compliments and the kick in the ass, everyone!