Meme Debunking #4: The Faceless Troll Horde

A group of multicolored troll toys. In my last post, Tim Farley seemed preoccupied with the notion of “anonymous trolls” to the point where he seemed incredulous that non-anonymous non-trolls could both have stellar credentials and also, even if just on occasion, be bullies, harassers, and assholes on Twitter.

It seems like a symptom of this larger notion that Amanda Marcotte dissects at length in this Raw Story post that everyone else but me has read already. Here’s the relevant section (but read the whole thing):

But as awful as trolls are, they do serve a major purpose, if people are willing to accept that these are actual people expressing actual opinions, instead of imagining them, as too many people do, as almost a force of nature that the internet willed into existence and not people at all. That purpose is revealing that misogyny exists and it is widespread.
[…]
That’s why it’s uncomfortable to have so many people insist that there’s an easy fix for troll targets, the “ignore the bullies and they’ll go away” fix, usually spouted by people who haven’t considered for a moment that the trolls may very well be actual people who are trying to protect and perpetuate sexism.

We have this tendency to see “trolls” as an anonymous, faceless other, the Vashta Nerada of the Internet, existing in the shadows, omnipresent, and without intent beyond “lulz” or identity beyond stereotypes about neckbeards and basements. It’s a compelling notion, because it allows us to engage in that “it can’t happen to me” kind of wishful thinking. Trolls aren’t people you know, they’re other people. Abusers and harassers can’t be speakers and comedians, they’re other people. People who are apparently just trolls, just anonymous, because we have a very hard time thinking in complex terms about people in general. If a person does good in one arena, it makes us think they must do good in all arenas. It’s hard to believe that your favorite director molested an underage girl, that your college buddy is a date rapist, that the prominent figure in your movement whose books you own has some unexamined sexist beliefs and doesn’t take criticism well. People tend to respond in three ways to these kinds of revelations: denial, defense, and denunciation.

The first allows one to sidestep the cognitive dissonance entirely, and maintain that simplistic worldview that heroes are heroes and only do hero things, villains are villains and only do villain things, and there’s no in-between. Great for cartoons, not so much for real life.

The second relies on the very shaky notion that there’s some virtue in having one’s scales balanced between harmful and helpful actions, or even having a surplus of helpful to balance out the harm. “Yes, Ted beat his wife, but what about all that time he’s put in at the soup kitchen?” It’s a desperate position, and I think largely an untenable one.

The third is more difficult to accomplish, I think, and not a perfect response either. You go from support to opposition in a single turn, and simply change which black-and-white category you’re slotting the person into.

Much harder is recognizing the cognitive and social biases involved in our relationships with people, and recognizing that people can both help and harm, and that one doesn’t necessarily excuse the other. Trolls are people, and some of them are probably people you know. Statistically, you probably know a rapist and almost certainly know multiple rape victims, just as surely as you know divorced people and southpaws. We get nowhere by thinking of trolling (and other forms of bullying and harassment) as some inevitable thing perpetrated by a faceless, unknown force. Only by recognizing reality in all its discomforting complexity, can we actually address the problems.

Unskeptical Complaints

If you’re reading a blog as small as this one, chances are you know about the problem of online harassment of women, trans* people, people of color, LGB people, and other minorities. It’s a problem in just about every subculture with a significant online premise, from the skeptic/atheist community to comic fans to video game nerds to sci-fi/fantasy buffs, and so forth. Different groups are attacking the problem in different ways, but there’s a pretty general understanding among social justice supporters that this is a symptom of larger problems that will only go away if the overall culture changes and the systems of kyriarchy are dismantled. In the meantime, we need to find a way to deal with the trolls, harassers, assholes, and disingenuous arguers that flood various timelines and hashtags. One such stopgap solution is the Atheism+ Block Bot, helmed by Oolon1.

The Block Bot grew out of various needs in the social justice wing of skepticism/atheism, and the problem of online harassment has grown large enough to garner international attention, which led to a media promotion of The Block Bot on BBC Newsnight. It’s nice to see this issue getting mainstream coverage, and hopefully it’ll lead to more substantial action.

Skeptic activist Tim Farley took issue with the idea of the Block Bot as a general-usage or all-purpose solution to the problem of online harassment, and there’s a kernel of truth to his complaints. The Block Bot isn’t a perfect solution for everyone, even though it has grown and expanded its scope since its first appearance (I’ve noticed people in the comic fan community using/talking about it, for instance). Most of Farley’s complaints rest on that premise, which is a little like complaining about your toaster because it doesn’t accommodate every kind of baked good. That’s not what it was built for or intended to do. It’s the “Atheism+ Block Bot” for a reason, though the basic principle could be adapted for most groups.

The issue I had was with his “Problem 5.” That is, his second “Problem 5.” The first “Problem 5” is problematic as well–“blocks have consequences” he says, and I say “so should being an annoying asshole online.” If you’re worried about ending up on a Level 2 or 3 block list, maybe don’t say the kinds of intentionally ignorant, antagonistic, baiting, or bigoted types of things that lead to people wanting to block you en masse.

Which is where his Problem 5b picks up. Farley takes issue with the point that many of the people on Levels 2 and 3 aren’t “just anonymous trolls that deserve it.” The problem is that his entire objection is built on a mountain of logical fallacies, at least one of which is belied by the example he led off with2.

The problem isn’t just anonymous trolls. In fact, I suspect it’s rarely strictly anonymous trolls and far more frequently pseudonymous trolls, but that’s pedantry. Anonymity is a convenient shield for trolls and harassers to hide behind, but not everyone feels the need to do so. There are plenty of people on the Block Bot’s lists, and on the various pages documenting this harassment who are perfectly willing to say abusive, offensive, and antagonistic things right next to their real names and faces. Anonymity is a red herring.

And Farley should know this, since he begins the post by talking about his dealings with Dennis Markuze/David Mabus, who spent decades abusing, harassing, and threatening people on the Internet under a stable pseudonym, and who wasn’t stopped or mollified once his true identity was known. Markuze is a special case, being more prolific, more overtly abusive, and more clearly in need of help than most of the people on the Block Bot’s list, but he’s still a stunning example of how anonymity/pseudonymity is neither necessary nor sufficient for this kind of behavior.

But Farley’s justification is a stunning example of Skeptics Being Profoundly Unskeptical, which I think I’m going to have to make into a post category for how often I talk about it. Here’s the relevant bit:

However, just a casual scan down the list of Level 2 and Level 3 blocks reveals people, many of whom I know personally, who are deeply involved in the atheism, skepticism, secularism and humanism movements all around the world. They include:

  • A Research Fellow for a U.S. think-tank who is also deputy editor of a national magazine, and author of numerous books
  • A Consultant for Educational Programs for a U.S. national non-profit
  • A long-time volunteer for the same national non-profit
  • An organizer for a state-level skeptic group in the US
  • A past president of a state-level humanist group in the US
  • A former director of a state-level atheist group in the US
  • An Emmy and Golden Globe award winning comedian
  • A TED Fellow
  • Co-founder of a well known magazine of philosophy and author of several books
  • A philosopher, writer and critic who has authored several books

These are not anonymous trolls. They are not likely to be arrested anytime soon. Most of these people regularly speak at national conferences to audiences from several hundred to over a thousand people. Starting from the publicly available block list you can click the names to go directly to their Twitter feeds, I see little evidence that these people are attacking, threatening or spamming anyone.

This would make for a great game of spot the fallacy, wouldn’t it? Farley lists all these qualifications, but none of them are “noted anti-spam crusader” or “longtime anti-bigotry activist,” not that those would be excuses either. See, none of these qualifications are inconsistent with “abusive […] anti-feminists, MRAs, or all-round assholes” or “annoying and irritating”3. It’s possible to be an Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning comedian and also be an annoying asshole who delights in baiting feminists with disingenuous arguments, just as it’s possible to be a Ph.D. biochemist who believes in intelligent design. This is a pro hominem argument, an argument from false authority, that these people’s lofty credentials make them somehow incapable of being bigots, jerks, trolls, abusers, or just antagonistic assholes to specific groups of people.

The last paragraph there is a doozy of arguments from ignorance and unstated major premises. “I see little evidence” is very different from “there is no evidence,” and the mechanics of Twitter mean that offensive tweets are often lost to the depths of a person’s timeline after a relatively short amount of time. But there’s plenty of evidence that prominent skeptics are capable of being petty, antagonistic, obtuse, bigoted (both in overt and unintended/unconscious ways), and asshole-ish. Some skeptics love poking various hornets nests, some love directing snide comments and thinly-veiled insults at people/groups they disagree with on social media, some keep dredging up sexist/racist/homophobic arguments and tropes time and time again even after hearing repeated responses/debunkings, some hyperbolically respond to the slightest criticisms with howls of NaziCommieStasi witch-hunt inquisitions. Farley’s right, they’re probably not going to be arrested anytime soon, but that’s because being an annoying, antagonistic asshole isn’t a crime.

The unstated major premises here are that “only anonymous trolls (and certainly not people I consider friends) behave in ways that would merit mass blocking,” which I dealt with above, and “only behavior that is illegal merits mass blocking,” which is the usual response to those complaining about harassment: if it’s not illegal, it’s not really harassment; if it was real harassment, why didn’t you call the police? I’ve responded to this notion, so has Stephanie Zvan, and the fact that Farley is able to spout off with it in such a casual manner shows just how insulated from this stuff he really is.

There are degrees of harassment. Some of it is criminal, some of it is civil, none of it is pleasant for the target. Blocking someone on Twitter is not a punishment that requires a trial and a sentencing phase. And if you were receiving the same disingenuous arguments, the same JAQing off on Twitter day-in and day-out, you might not see it as all isolated innocent incidents. The dude who wolf-whistles at a woman walking down the street might be just one dude, whistling at just one woman, so that’s clearly not harassment, right? But if it’s the thirtieth time she’s had to roll her eyes at that on her walk to work, it takes a different tone. One guy asking a person of color if they wouldn’t rather wash all the color off and be white, or touching their hair and talking about how much they admire it, might be an act of clueless ignorance, but if it happens over and over, it doesn’t matter to the target that the act is being committed by different people. People get worn down. Why should every person have to deal with each individual ignorant microaggression as if it were the first time they’d experienced it? Why would you begrudge people the option to avoid those microaggressions, even if it’s only in one forum? Don’t other people deserve the same ability to check their Twitter mentions without seeing harassment, insults, slurs, ignorance, and abuse that Tim Farley has?

The Block Bot is not a perfect solution for everyone. It’s not meant to be. It’s a decent stopgap for the people who are tired of dealing with harassers, abusers, bullies, and assholes. If you think it’s a problem in and of itself, the solution is to change the culture so there are fewer harassers, abusers, bullies, and assholes, not to buy into a set of fallacies that makes you think only anonymous other-people are capable of that behavior, and that being a prominent speaker (or worse, a friend) puts a person above that capacity.


1. Full disclosure: I don’t use the Block Bot, though I have some of the same people blocked. I do, however, follow the Block Bot and its related Twitter accounts.

2. Yes, I ended a sentence with a preposition. It’s a myth rule. Get over it It is a thing you should get over.

3. The actual descriptions of Levels 2 & 3, from here.

A follow-up

You may recall almost two years ago I posted about the indictment of Brian Dunning, host of the Skeptoid podcast, on charges of wire fraud. I actually signed up for a PACER account to follow the case, since no one else in the skeptical community seemed all that interested, but (like so many things) I never followed through with it since life got in the way.

I especially meant to write a follow-up after Dunning posted a form reply on that original post four months later, linking to his official statement on the matter. The way it tried to redefine and justify cookie stuffing in ways that a glimpse at Wikipedia could refute, and elided the way that the practice actually harms people trying to do business online, rang false and stank of guilt, but I never got around to actually posting about it.

Well, now, Brian Dunning has pled guilty. And to read what some people (like the blogger at the Skeptical Abyss) its as though Skepticism has lost its first martyr.

In the end, though, it is about a public figure in the skeptical community, and not just any public figure. It is, in fact, about a luminary. A shining light. A beacon that has brought many of us out from the swamps of superstition into the light of rationality and reason. The man of whom I write is all of that (and I say this without so much of a whiff of irony), and much more.

You have got to be fucking kidding me.

Look, I enjoy Skeptoid as a podcast. I disagree with some of the stances Dunning’s taken over the years, but I respect that he can at least make a show of correcting his mistakes. I like the wide variety of topics, and at one point, I liked the podcast enough to donate to it.

But Dunning is no luminary, no shining light, and I hesitate to associate with any “skeptic” that would so try to elevate a human being. Especially a human being who, you know, pled guilty to fraud.

This is, without any doubt, a horrible tragedy for Brian and his family, and for the skeptical community at large. One of our leaders has shown that he is not the man that many of us hoped that he would be.

What makes Dunning a “leader”? He heads no organization, he holds no elected or appointed position so far as I know. He talks for fifteen minutes each week about a topic in skepticism. Maybe the problem here isn’t that “one of our leaders” fell short of being the “luminary” and “shining light” that some wanted him to be. Maybe it’s that we conflate “popular speaker” with “leader” and further expect either one to have as much expertise in moral and ethical realms as scientific and skeptical ones.

It’s an ad hominem (or pro hominem) mistake. Being a good skeptical podcaster doesn’t necessarily make one a good leader, or an ethical software designer. Each of those is a separate skill set. One would think that the Skeptical Abyss would be familiar with these basic cognitive biases.

Also, note here that it’s a “horrible tragedy for Brian and his family, and for the skeptical community at large.” I’m sure it is. You know who else it’s a tragedy for? The victims of fraud. Maybe, and I’m just throwing this out there, it wouldn’t have been such a tragic loss if, you know, no one had broken the law.

All leading invariably to where we are now, because once the United States Attorney indicts you, you are pretty much done. The US Attorney, unlike state prosecutors, gets to pick and choose their cases, and they only indict people that they are sure of convicting.

That’s a fascinating claim that I would love to see the evidence for.

When someone does a podcast like Skeptoid, and they speak into our earbuds once a week, we start to think of them as a friend, even though we do no know them.

This is true. And I would kind of hope that a skeptical site would recognize that this is also a mistake. Brian Dunning is not my friend, I do not know him, he does not know me, and I should not assume that because I have fifteen minutes of one-way contact with him each week, that I can thus draw any valid conclusions about his character, his ethics, or any of his activities outside of producing a podcast. The sense of familiarity we feel with celebrities is an illusion, and the gushing laudatory comments throughout this piece are the result of confusing that illusion for reality.

Many of us have looked up to him, and considered him a beacon of reason. And yet, here we are. A hero has fallen.

I said this on Twitter, but it’s worth repeating: how do you end up with such low standards of heroism that “guy who hosts a podcast I like” is worthy of the title? How, in the same week that saw marathon runners continuing past the finish line to donate blood at the hospital, do you arrive at “guy with a fun series of YouTube videos” as your standard for heroism? Do you consider “guy who can do that rubber pencil trick” the standard for a great magician? Is a Big Mac your go-to example of haute cuisine? Is “socks in the dryer” on your list of favorite movies?

This heroism nonsense ends up being a vicious cycle. The more we respond to talented people by placing them on pedestals, treating them like something higher and more-than normal people, the more shocked and disappointed we’re going to be when they fail to live up to the standards we unreasonably held them to. No one should have considered Brian Dunning anything more than a talented, bright guy with a good podcast in the first place, and responding to the revelation that, no, in fact, he’s really just a bright talented guy and also guilty of wire fraud with these fawning “hero” and “luminary” and “shining light” comments only perpetuates the problem. Because it’s likely to become “Brian Dunning is a hero who was persecuted by an unjust system” or “Brian Dunning wasn’t the shining beacon of pure reason that we thought he was, but all these other skeptical heroes surely are!”

Let’s learn from this mistake: having a good podcast does not make you a leader. It does not make you a good person. It does not make you a law-abiding citizen. It does not make you a hero or a shining beacon of reason or even correct.

It makes you a good podcaster.

Brian Dunning is a pretty good podcaster. He’s also someone who pled guilty to wire fraud. Anything else requires additional evidence.


Edit: There are lots of people in various comment sections saying we should be skeptical, that a guilty plea doesn’t necessarily mean that the person committed the crime, and so forth. I agree, but I also think it’s worthwhile to consider the evidence against that claim, too. Evidence like the statements he made to an FBI Special Agent. It’s damning, and further damning are the claims made in the suppression request that, were they the subject of one of the Skeptoid podcasts, would be among the things torn apart toward the middle.

You can be skeptical of Dunning’s guilt; you can believe his claims of feeling like he was under duress and disbelieve the counterclaims of the FBI agents, and that’s all well and good. But if you’re doing it out of loyalty or personal incredulity, you’re not really being skeptical.

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.

America’s Increasingly Mementoesque Gun Conversation

Last year, after the tragic shooting of Congressional Representative Gabrielle Giffords, there were a lot of conversations worth having. There was the conversation about how the increasingly divisive martial rhetoric of the conservatives–and in particular, the Tea Party, may have made the tragedy an inevitability. There was the conversation about what responsibilities the political parties have to try to defuse the more radical fringes of their movements. And there was the conversation about how Arizona’s lax gun laws might have contributed to the problem.

Unfortunately for the country as a whole, we couldn’t really have that conversation. Because every time anyone tries to have that conversation, conservatives and libertarians stick their fingers in their ears and shout “LA LA LA GUNS DON’T KILL PEOPLE LA LA LA THE SOLUTION IS MORE GUNS LA LA LA!” And because those chickenhawk conservatives and libertarians are in the pockets of the NRA and the gun lobby, and because the liberals have no spines especially when it comes to gun control, no one ever tries to have the conversation anyway.

It might seem like a strawman argument to say that conservatives think “more guns” is the solution to gun violence, but every time one of these tragedies happens, some asshole comes out and says “this wouldn’t have happened if someone in the crowd had a concealed weapon!”1 Because conservatives live in a fantasy world where carrying a gun makes you a cool-headed sharpshooting superhero, capable in a moment of precisely evaluating a situation that would have anyone else pissing their pants, drawing a bead on the bad guy, and taking him down in a single shot, then probably saying something clever and manly right before the credits roll. This is the same ridiculous fantasy world in which torture is a reliable way of producing information and trickle-down economics works.

Which is why I was so interested in this article in the wake of the Tucson shooting. See, there was someone at the event with a firearm. Joe Zamudio rushed over from a nearby drug store and, gun at the ready, nearly shot an innocent man who’d taken the gun from the actual shooter. If he had been a little more trigger-happy, a little less cautious and thoughtful, one hero would have shot another, and Zamudio might have been mistaken for a second gunman.

So we have here a clear-cut situation where carrying a concealed weapon at the scene of a tragedy didn’t prevent the tragedy (in fact, the gunman was taken down mostly by unarmed people, unless you count the folding chair as “armed”). Not only that, but the guy carrying the weapon explains that it would have only made things worse. In the end, having a firearm didn’t make anyone a hero–there were heroes with and without guns–and discharging that firearm would have resulted in more innocent people being injured or killed. Any lingering belief I had in that conservative myth of the Civilian Hero Who Shoots Back was well and truly shattered.

Then, earlier this year, that myth took another blow when would-be civilian hero George Zimmerman followed unarmed youth Trayvon Martin, ignoring the warnings of police, and indefensibly shot him to death. Zimmerman’s history marks him as a wannabe vigilante, leading a Neighborhood Watch and frequently calling the police to report suspicious individuals. Zimmerman’s tale punches further holes in the myth of the Hero With a Gun, because it’s a textbook case of someone mistaking their own fear and prejudice (whether toward Martin’s race or his attire) for evidence of someone else’s criminality. Zimmerman lacked the plot-granted rightness that belongs to the hero vigilantes of fiction, but retained their dogged certainty and lack of faith in the law to do the right thing. As a result, he killed an unarmed teenager, whose crime (at most) was defending himself against an armed stalker. The Martin case shows us that owning a gun and carrying a gun does not grant a person magic insight into the level of danger presented by individuals, nor does it give them the abilities or authority of trained law enforcement officers. Owning a gun does not make a person better able to sort out good from evil, does not make its owner a virtuous hero.

But if the Gun-Toting Vigilante is in luck, they might just live in a state whose laws treat Gun-Toting Vigilantes like automatic heroes, where you can “stand your ground” if you so much as feel threatened (whether or not that feeling is justified) and kill the source of that threatening feeling. And, in the eyes of the law, go on as if no crime has occurred. It’s interesting; if we trust Zimmerman’s story, then the law seems to be that it’s okay to shoot someone if they make you feel threatened, but it’s not okay to assault them. Or maybe it’s just the might of a firearm makes right.

While we were still having the Trayvon Martin conversation, a similar incident occurred2, with even less pundit-exploitable gray area. 13-year-old Darius Simmons was moving garbage cans outside his house when his 75-year-old neighbor John Spooner confronted him with a handgun and accused him of committing a theft that he couldn’t have possibly been involved with. Spooner shot Simmons in the chest while his mother was watching. When the police arrived, they treated Simmons and his family as if they were the criminals, despite Spooner having apparently premeditated the crime.

The myth of the Gun-Toting Vigilante Hero takes another blow, as it becomes obvious that not only does a gun grant magic insight into other people’s guilt, but it doesn’t even grant self-insight. There’s no way for the gun owner to know if their certainty and belief in their own virtuousness is accurate or delusional. In other words, there’s no way for the gun-owner to know if they’re the hero vigilante, or just a murderous asshole.

And so we come to the recent3 shooting in Aurora, CO, which by virtue of occurring at a screening of a Batman film, throws these myths of heroic vigilantes into the spotlight. The shooter in this case, James Holmes, apparently planned the attack for months. He came armed with canisters of tear gas, a 12-gauge shotgun, a Glock pistol, and a .223 Smith & Wesson M&P semi-automatic loaded with armor-piercing bullets in a high-capacity magazine. He was wearing body armor and a gas mask. He’d booby-trapped his apartment with bombs. And it looks, for all intents and purposes, that this guy didn’t want to be the courageous gun-toting hero vigilante, but a straight-up supervillain. Seventy people were shot. Twelve died.

Colorado is a concealed carry state, but there are no reports that I can find of anyone in the audience pulling a gun on Holmes. It’s certainly possible that no one else in that theater was armed. It’s also possible that someone was armed, but realized that additional gunfire wouldn’t help–because of the tear gas, because of the dark theater, because of the body armor, because of the crowd trying to get away. It’s also possible that someone was armed and just wanted to get out alive.

But no one stood up in that darkened theater and, squinting through the tear gas, drew a bead and fired a single shot at the weak spot in the shooter’s armor, taking him down. No one even (as in the Giffords shooting) rushed him to tackle him to the ground. Where was our Vigilante Hero?

Where he belonged: in the fictional film playing on the screen.

The worst part of all this is how easily it could have been ameliorated, if not prevented entirely, if our country had sensible gun laws. We accept, as a nation, that you can’t buy certain kinds of weapons. If I went searching online for places to purchase nuclear warheads, I think I’d have the Department of Homeland Security on my back pretty quickly. We accept, as a nation, truly ridiculous extremes of security theater at airports, submitting ourselves to X-Ray scanners and randomish searches and taking our shoes off and not carrying certain amounts of liquid, because some very small number of people have or might use those types of things to kill.

Remind me: how many shoe bombers have there been versus gun-toting killers?

We accept, as a nation, that because pseudoephedrine can be used to make methamphetamines, there should be limits on who can purchase it and how much they can purchase in a given time period. We accept that places selling pseudoephedrine must keep careful records on the names and addresses of people buying it, and that any suspicious activity be reported.

In 2009, all drug use (of which methamphetamine use is a subset) caused 37,485 deaths. Firearms caused 31,228.

There’s a major difference, of course, between guns and pseudoephedrine. Used as intended, pseudoephedrine can clear up congested sinuses without making one drowsy. Used as intended, guns can wound or kill. Using guns to wound or kill is not off-label use. It is the purpose of the device. The wounding or killing may be in service of some greater good (defending innocents, hunting for food). But a “greater good” was not served in all 31,228 cases in 2009. There was no “greater good” served by George Zimmerman or James Holmes or John Spooner. And unless you live in Kashmir or dine exclusively on utahraptors, there’s no “greater good” served by owning a semi-automatic assault weapon.

Can anyone give me a good reason why we can’t regulate guns at least as heavily as we do cough medicine? The best I’ve ever heard is “but the Second Amendment!” Take a look at the Second Amendment, kids:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The word “regulated” is right there. “Well regulated,” in fact. Was James Holmes part of a well-regulated militia? Does letting George Zimmerman or John Spooner carry guns contribute positively to “the security of a free state”? How many more shootings will it take before we realize that maybe, just maybe, it’s time to give the NRA the finger and start working on more rational gun policy?

I know the response. It’s the response that Louie Gohmert gave: If someone in the theater had a gun, they could have taken the Aurora shooter down. Nevermind how many blows to the chin the Gun-Toting Vigilante Hero Myth has taken in the past few years. Nevermind the specific circumstances of the Aurora shooting that made it highly unlikely for anyone, gun-toting or not, to have taken Holmes down. Conservatives cling to their myths while real people die.

The other response is that determined criminals will always find a way to get their hands on weaponry. I suspect that’s a bit facile (I wouldn’t know where to start looking for, say, enriched uranium or sarin gas, even if I had the desire to use such things), but yes, determined criminals would almost certainly find a way to obtain guns.

And if that were monitored like pseudoephedrine is monitored, like terrorists trying to purchase WMDs are monitored, the lone nut stocking up on assault weapons would trigger law enforcement alarms as surely as the secret cabals trying to obtain grenade launchers or bomb bridges. And, moreover, the police would have a crime to hold the criminal on, namely possession of (too many/concealed/the wrong kind of) firearms. It wouldn’t be “oh, you killed someone, but we can’t charge you with anything because you said you felt threatened.”

It’s true, the determined criminal will get his or her hands on firearms if they want them badly enough. But there’s a big difference between “I can get this if I want it bad enough and save up enough to buy it on a black market” and “I can get this with a quick trip to the gun show/sporting goods store/Wal-Mart.” A determined meth producer is going to get their hands on tons of Sudafed, but we still keep it locked up and scan their licenses if they try to buy it.

And, as one last blow to the Mythical Hero Who Shot Back, James Holmes takes that craftiness a step further. Not only will determined criminals get weapons if they want them bad enough, they’ll also choose to attack places (like a no-guns-allowed theater in a concealed-carry state) where people won’t have guns. They’ll armor up and throw gas bombs so that, even if someone did have a gun, it wouldn’t do any good.

It’s time to put away childish things, like readings of a Constitution that omit the uncomfortable bits and fairy tales of gallant heroes with perfect apprehension of chaotic situations. It’s time that we close the Big Book of Conservative Myths and turn our attention to saving real lives in the real world. It’s time that we stopped waiting for Batman or John McClane or Dirty Harry, and started working on making a safer reality.


1. Following the Giffords shooting, one of those assholes was Arizona state representative Jack Harper (Republican, of course), who said “When everyone is carrying a firearm, nobody is going to be a victim.”

2. Sadly, I imagine that many such similar incidents occurred, but this is the one I read about at the time.

3. Since I started writing this post, the shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin also occurred. So far, it looks like the shooter puts another few holes in that Conservative Hero Myth, namely that the hero of one story (say, the White Supremacist narrative about taking back the country for white folks) might be the villain of another (say, the American story of one peaceful nation coming together out of many diverse races, ethnicities, religions, and so forth).

On Educational Reform

I don’t like to talk about work on this blog1. Despite everything, I like to maintain a modicum of anonymity, especially with respect to my career. But I’ve had some recent conversations that touch on it, and I feel like venting a little. So, without much detail, I’ll say that I’m currently employed as an educator. Most of what I’m going to say in this post is off-the-cuff and anecdotal, so take it with a serious grain of salt and do the research for yourself–and feel free to let me know if I’ve gotten anything wrong (but also feel obligated to direct me to a primary source).

So, I had a recent conversation with a good friend about education reform, largely based around the claims of the film “Waiting for Superman.” I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I’m inclined to skepticism–not just because of who I am, but also because of the counterclaims and responses that paint it as a kind of anti-union propaganda piece, the “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” of public schools. This Washington Post piece isn’t exactly the point-by-point rebuttal I’d like to see, but it echoes the sorts of responses I’ve heard from the unions and others.

So let’s start with the basics: there needs to be reform at nearly every level of the process. Let’s start with one of my favorite topics in this conversation: teacher education. My own experience is still fairly recent, and while anecdotal, I feel like it’s fairly representative. One of the biggest problems is just attracting people into the field; teaching is not exactly the most presitgious or well-paid of careers. Education programs often go beyond the average four-year college plan, including at least one semester of full-time student teaching. Student teachers still incur tuition costs, but do not get paid for their time in the classroom, rarely get reimbursed for any travel costs, and often are discouraged or outright prohibited from holding outside jobs. That means a full four to six months of mounting debt before they can even begin looking for a teaching job. Not the most attractive of propositions, I assure you. All of the significant incentives–tenure, insurance, stability–only happen well after the novice teacher has been hired and established. Consequently, it’s hard to attract people to education if that wasn’t their goal all along.

Most teacher candidates go into education from the start. On one hand, this means that their entire college experience is supplemented with educational philosophy and psychology courses, and they’re on-track to become educators as soon as they graduate. On the other hand, this means that they often don’t get the same rigorous, in-depth examination of their subject area as a non-education major in the same field. Education courseloads are not major-plus-education, they are education-plus-subject-area. This presents a number of problems; some might be attracted to education as an option because they don’t want to do the in-depth work required by the advanced courses in the subject major. On the other hand, the people who end up teaching lack some of that in-depth knowledge, and while they may never be expected to teach a class on those topics, a more thorough understanding of any topic is important to being able to teach it accurately and correct students’ misconceptions and answer questions.

This is especially problematic when we’re talking about elementary school teachers. At least in some education programs (and I would suspect it’s a majority), elementary school and even some middle school teachers get only a minimum of education in science or math. It’s been my experience that many non-science or non-math teachers exhibit the same distaste and disdain for those subjects as non-science and non-math majors did and do, and consequently science education at the elementary level is often cursory or nonexistent. While students may do some reading or occasional experiments, rarely is there any education on the actual process of science. Math is much the same, teaching skills devoid of conceptual context. I’ve been in districts where entire elementary schools had eliminated science as a subject because no one was trained or particularly interested in it. This problem will rear its head again shortly.

My own path was different; I went to college on a typical four-year career-oriented track, but decided mid-way to go into education. Naturally, it was too late to start up an education major, so instead I went through all the four-year extensive training in my subject areas, then did my education training in graduate school. I think this gives me a leg up when it comes to some of the more arcane and advanced questions I get from students, and it certainly gave me a leg up on the pay scale to come into the field with my Master’s degree. Unfortunately, it also drove me further into debt, kept me in a dwindling program that was tied up in the academic bureaucracy of three different departments (four, in my case) so that no one knew what my requirements were or could communicate them to anyone else, and made me radioactive to various low-budget districts who won’t hire a first-year teacher with a Master’s, due to the pay requirements. Six-point-five years of college and plenty of knowledge earned me a degree that made me too risky a candidate for many underfunded schools. The economic side of the system, in at least some cases, is designed to penalize highly-trained candidates. This is a problem.

The economic problem is a major one, and if that Washington Post article is accurate, it’s a problem that Waiting for Superman largely ignores. That seems strange, since it was a recurring theme in just about every semi-popular text that I read in my education courses; it’s not as though economic disparity is some arcane issue that no one’s explored. I can’t speak for every state, but in my state the schools are funded primarily by local property taxes. I can understand the reasons for this, but the unfortunate consequence is that this perpetuates and furthers the economic divide between the rich and poor; wealthy neighborhoods tend to have schools that are better-funded, have better equipment, have more opportunities for electives and extracurriculars, and can lure top teachers away from smaller, poorer schools. On the other side of things, I have a hard time believing that anyone could be ignorant of all the schools who have cut music and art programs, sports and extracurriculars, and have even been unable to buy textbooks or equipment due to funding problems.

NCLB and related programs have exacerbated that matter by imposing various–often draconian–regulations on which schools get additional help and what metrics are used to measure student ability and growth. I know that my teacher education classes explored a wide variety of different pedagogical styles, techniques, and methods, designed to stimulate students with different strengths and different levels of ability; it didn’t teach me what the requirements of the ACT were and how to teach students to pass standardized tests. I didn’t go to college to be a test preparation tutor, and the more that schools move toward that, the more you’ll see qualified, passionate teachers leaving the profession.

The more you’ll also see qualified, passionate teachers forced out of the profession as schools cut any programs that are not explicitly tested on the common standardized tests. Music programs, art programs, and foreign languages are typically the first to go. In many cases, it seems the only reason that Physical Education remains is because it’s typically mandated by law. Whole subjects of teachers are being cut out of the industry as the number of available jobs in their fields dwindles. The teachers whose subjects and programs remain experience increased pressure to align their curricula with the expectations of the standardized tests, which generally means a very tight focus on a very small set of skills. The ACT doesn’t require you to have read Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, it doesn’t require you to know who wrote the Declaration of Independence or what the Magna Carta was, it doesn’t require you to know Avogadro’s Number or how to balance a chemical equation. The ACT is designed to measure a certain set of reasoning, verbal, and mathematical skills, and all the other things that go into a high school education–from hands-on experiments to basic cultural literacy–can be allowed to fall by the wayside. If they’re not on the test, then they’re a lower priority.

Which, unfortunately for everyone, goes against all the research that says students perform better when they can make connections between disparate fields of knowledge, and are more likely to graduate the more invested they are in the school, through courses they enjoy and extracurricular activities. Cutting out the electives and extracurriculars that students enjoy cuts down on their interest and cuts into their performance. Restricting teachers to the skills-based topics covered by standardized tests cuts down on their interest and cuts into performance. No one excels when no one is motivated to excel.

Which, I suppose, brings us to the matter of tenure and the unions. Again, teaching is not the most prestigious or high-paying of careers. It involves, especially early on, considerable education and a time commitment that well exceeds the typical 40-hour work week, much of it unpaid. Contrary to what many think, the teaching doesn’t end at 3:00, and grading papers is no small task when you have over a hundred students and have to plan lessons for the following days on top of it. The longer you teach, the more you build up a set of assignments and techniques and things that you can go back to without re-inventing the wheel each year, but novice teachers only have those kinds of archives in the form of what their colleagues have accumulated. The problem with this is that it stifles innovation; when it’s 9:00 at night and I have to be up at 5 to get ready and be at the school on-time for a staff meeting, and I have to choose between using a decade-old worksheet that may not represent the best modern research practices, a textbook-designed worksheet that may not reflect the emphases I have in my particular classroom, or a tailor-made assignment that I take time to put together on my own (with my knowledge of educational research but lack of expertise in crafting assessments), circumstances are often going to necessitate taking the easier options. Circumstances especially dictate those shortcut methods when, in the last few months of the year, when students have checked out mentally (and in many cases physically, what with the increase in field trips and family vacations) the novice teacher receives notice that they will not be hired back for the following school year. April, May, and June become a juggling act, where the novice teacher must continue their commitment to cover a certain amount of material and keep consistently grading to maintain the fidelity of the students’ scores, while also rewriting their résumés, submitting applications, and arranging interviews–with administrators at other schools, whose goals are to complete hirings before their own current school years end, and who are only available for interviews during school hours on school days. The faint glimmer at the end of this whole process is that, if you get hired by a school district, perform well for your periodic evaluations, and are not let go due to budget- or enrollment-related issues–for two to five years (more in some places)–then you don’t have to go through that juggling act again. You can settle down, put down roots, and have insurance during the summer months. That’s tenure.

“Ah,” you might say, “what about bad teachers? Doesn’t tenure make it so hard to fire a bad teacher that some districts refuse to even begin the process, preferring to just wait until they retire?”

Yes, it does. The union-negotiated contracts and tenure process make it difficult to fire teachers, even really terrible ones. This graphic from the Chicago Tribune demonstrates a typical process, and how it can take 2-5 years to remove a tenured teacher. Obviously, the process differs from district to district, but I suspect this is fairly typical. After all, it took over two years and nearly a million dollars for Mount Vernon, Ohio, to fire John Freshwater, who openly taught creationism in his public school science class, proselytized to his students, had been the subject of complaints by other teachers for eleven years, defied orders from the administration to stop teaching creationism for two years, and branded a student with a Tesla coil. Obviously, there’s something wrong with that system.

Except. Except that for every John Freshwater there’s a Dover School Board, full of elected ideologues with no educational background, who want to force teachers to promote their agenda. For every John Freshwater, there’s a Christine Comer, forced out of an educational position because the administration disagrees with their beliefs or legal conduct. The reason it’s hard to fire bad teachers is because the tenure system and the unions ensure that teachers have fair representation and an appeals process as a defense against ideologically- or personally-motivated administrations or school boards, against false accusations and unconstitutional mandates, and against biased people with personal vendettas. It’s hard to fire a veteran teacher for the same reason that it’s hard to execute a murder suspect. When those protections are taken away, you end up killing a lot of innocent people. Without those protections, administrations are free to staff schools with sycophants and the curriculum is decided by the non-expert school board; without those protections, any student can hold every teacher hostage with the threat of crying ‘rape’ or ‘assault,’ potentially ending a career on a whim, even if the teacher is acquitted. The appeals process protects bad teachers because it also protects good teachers, just as due process under the law protects the guilty because it also protects the innocent.

The system could certainly be more streamlined in many cases. Take, for instance, the Rubber Room situation in New York City, where teachers who were under investigation for a variety of reasons, ranging from the spurious to the serious, were removed from the classroom during the hearing process, but still required by contract to show up, and the districts were still required to pay them in full. It was an unfortunate confluence of protections for both the teachers and the students that worked out poorly for everyone. The trick for unions and districts is to strike a balance between protecting students from bad teachers and protecting teachers from bad students, bad administrations, and bad school boards. That’s a difficult balance to strike, and it differs from district to district.

The hope in any iteration of this process is that bad teachers will be rooted out before they get to the tenure stage. Novice teachers, as I mentioned above, go through a trial period before receiving tenure, and that can take between two and five years (or possibly more) depending on the district. Teachers who don’t make the cut–whether it’s because of performance or because of other issues–get pink slipped and sent back into the job pool. Teachers who survive all the cuts over that whole term are potentially retained for life.

This process creates a couple of problems, to be sure. For one, a teacher’s ability can vary greatly over their lifetime; they may get considerably better with experience, they may burn out and check out, and hell, they may do both at different times. Tenure is a gamble that a school district takes based on a few years of rookie performance. Not that there aren’t checks on that matter; teachers typically have to meet certain requirements of continuing education and periodic evaluations over the course of their tenure. It’s still not easy to fire them, but the schools typically have some recourse.

The other problem is what the process does to the pool of available teachers. My friend who inspired this rant directed me to this podcast, where an economist and education expert suggests that a solution would be to fire the bottom 5-8% of teachers and replace them with teachers of average ability. There are problems with this plan, not least of which is that it’s based around data from students’ improvements on standardized tests–which are not an accurate measurement of anything except how good the teacher is at tutoring students on test preparation. I’d be curious to see how this plan could be implemented regarding teachers whose subjects aren’t tested by the standardized tests–like Spanish class, or Shop class, or most Social Studies classes. The bigger problem, though, is the matter of replacing those 5-8% of teachers. Let’s ignore the point that this is a nationwide survey, and so those bottom 5-8% of teachers might themselves be more heavily concentrated in completely different states than the more average and above-average teachers, and saying “if only we moved teachers from New York to Mississippi” is not feasible. The teachers who are mobile, who are available for new jobs and new hires are almost entirely (by definition) made of teachers who are newly graduated and thus unexperienced, experienced teachers who have not (for whatever reason) been granted tenure by another district, and experienced teachers who have been fired from a tenured position.

In other words, if you fire those 5-8% of bottom teachers, you have to take a gamble on the job pool of untested teachers and failed teachers. I can’t entirely fault districts for going with a “better the devil you know” approach even if they had a fairly easy time of firing those poorly-performing teachers.

Which is where the Hanushek plan makes the same basic mistake as just about any plan I’ve ever seen for an education reform panacea: its proposed solution ignores the complexities of reality. As I said, I haven’t seen “Waiting for Superman,” but my experience and the responses lead me to believe that it makes the same errors–and does so less out of ignorance than out of ideological reasons and a desire to promote propaganda. The truth is that there is no one culprit in the production of bad teachers and bad schools, but a tangled mess of problems in higher education, problems in the management of schools, problems of funding and budgeting, problems in the negotiation of contracts, problems in the turnover of administrations, problems in the measurement of student achievement, problems of priorities, and a further list of problems that would make even Jay-Z blush. Proposing any one school type as a solution or any one group as the villain is, at best, completely myopic, and at worst, profoundly dishonest. The only solution to education reform must be a comprehensive plan that addresses the problems at every level, from teacher education to tenure and everywhere in between, and recognizes that different places have different unique problems and needs. And that’s not a plan that can be expressed in a slick two-hour movie.


1. If recent history is any indication, I don’t like to talk about anything on this blog.

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.