Skeptical Current Events

Despite my absence from blogging lately, big happenings are…happening in the skeptical world. Here’s a brief run-down of some of them:


First, my good friend Akusai of the Action Skeptics will be appearing on Skeptically Speaking this Friday next Friday, March 5th, at 8 PM EST to talk about the Skeptic Symposium we’re doing at Gen Con this year. Give it a listen; I certainly will!


Did I mention the Skeptic Symposium at Gen Con? Because it finna be off the chain, yo! Akusai, Magus, myself, Jon Maxson, and various other skeptical folks will be gathering together for a variety of presentations, talks, and events, including an awesome vaccine fundraiser. Akusai has done all the heavy lifting to get this whole shebang together, while I’ve slacked off so much that I can’t even return e-mails to important organizations in a timely fashion, so make sure to give him oodles of kudos for his efforts while I ride his coattails to skeptical stardom.


Speaking of me riding coattails, Akusai has also been working on Skepchicamp, a Chicago-based event featuring presentations by some of the biggest names in the Skeptosphere, including Akusai, Bug Girl, various Skepchicks and Hemant Mehta! Also, I’ll be there to talk about something or other, but you can skip that bit if you want. Heck, I might even skip it, depending on how long the book-signing line around Hemant is, so I can’t blame you. In any case, you know you want to come, so get your ticket and show up at the Brehon Pub in Chicago on March 6th (next Saturday) from Noon to 10 PM CST.


In other news, the forums over at RichardDawkins.net have shut down amidst a great deal of drama. I first learned of this from Peter Harrison, a former moderator on the blog who provided an in-depth look into the ugly politics and dirty dealings surrounding the whole event. He presents a level-headed account backed up with direct quotes from people involved, and it doesn’t look good for the administration team at the Dawkins site.

Which is why I was so puzzled when PZ wrote a post about it, saying he didn’t want to get involved, and making a series of irrelevant points that displayed either an ignorance of the complaints (despite linking to the Peter Harrison post) or an amazing strawman of the complainants. The situation was exacerbated when Dawkins himself did much the same thing, painting all the disgruntled commenters with the violently colorful and abusive language of a few, and citing those over-the-top comments as justification for the forum’s closing when, in fact, the comments came from a different forum after the RD.net forums had been closed and mangled.

I didn’t have a horse in this race, really. I haven’t ever been a regular visitor to those forums. If I’d heard about the situation from PZ first, I likely would have just rolled my eyes regarding another overreaction by peoples on the Internet to trivial wrongs. But reading the Harrison account gave me a different perspective, and (as I mentioned in the Pharyngula comments) made me want to find out both sides of the story.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t. See, apparently in shutting down posting on the RD.net forums, the admins deleted several users, thousands of posts, and at least one thread critical of the coming changes. So, as much as I would have liked to have seen if the critical threads on the RD.net forums were as abusive as they supposedly were, I couldn’t. The evidence had been destroyed, which further confirmed at least part of the Harrison account.

This made me realize something important: nothing will cause me to distrust a person or organization faster than seeing them hide or destroy relevant evidence. The moderators and posters who have since flocked to boards like Rationalia may have all been overreacting potty-mouthed nutcases, whose abusive behavior led to the premature locking of the board, but without the offending thread, no one but the admins has any way of knowing that. Given the dearth of evidence to support what little explanation or argument has been put forth by the admin side, and actions like destroying evidence that at least seem quite dishonest and do nothing to promote trust or the appearance of trustworthiness, it seems to me that the only justified position would be to accept the moderators’ account of the events. Which, again, reflects rather poorly on the administration.

Ultimately, yes, this is a trivial thing, but it’s a microcosm for similar behaviors and situations outside of the Internet. If we’re being good skeptics, then our natural drive should be to doubt any story regarding events, examine the evidence, and draw our own conclusions about whom to believe. Consequently, destroying evidence–even (or perhaps especially) if that evidence is of hateful comments and angry dissent–should be anathema to the skeptic. If anything should be sacrosanct to skeptics, it should be evidence.

So when a major voice in the skeptical movement engages in apparent quote-mining and at least apparently suborns the destruction of evidence, it really casts them in a negative light, more than most things they could do (kind of like when they fail to quickly or adequately respond to a pseudoscientific buffoon being given a science award in their name).

This should be an object lesson in skeptical advocacy, especially in the Internet age. Skeptical blogs shouldn’t be afraid to allow negative and dissenting comments, and skeptics should be aware that allowing idiots and assholes to speak for themselves ultimately shows them to be idiots and assholes to any reasonable person. We often talk about how debates aren’t for the people involved so much as they are for the audience, and this is true even when it’s not actually a debate. Silencing critics, banning dissidents, and throwing evidence down the memory hole is what they do on Age of Autism and Uncommon Descent and Natural News. It should not be standard practice on any site that values reason, evidence, science, and skepticism.


Finally, for tonight, I stumbled on a post at an apparently recent addition to the ScienceBlogs community, Universe. I’ll admit that the blogs I follow on Sb are relatively limited; I rarely venture outside of Pharyngula, Respectful Insolence, and Dispatches from the Culture Wars. Sure, I hit up ERV occasionally, and I’ve recently become a fan of Tomorrow’s Table, but I don’t usually tool around the Seed Media conglomerate looking for new hangouts.

But I followed a sidebar link to a post called “No Skepticism Policy” that was about the last thing I would expect to find on the media group which plays home to so many skeptical and scientific voices. It’s ignorant in the purest sense, in that I don’t think there’s a lot of malice involved, just a general unawareness of what the skeptical movement is about (and a lack of desire to find out) and what the harm is, coupled with a willingness to smear an entire intellectual movement with the same Doggerel we hear from every quack with a blog and a degree in pomposity. I posted a comment in response to the post, but it hasn’t made its way out of moderation yet. I’m reproducing the comment below because I’m kind of proud of it, and I think it underscores something that even budding skeptics often forget: that debunking is the first step, not the last. Enjoy!

I can’t recall which skeptical luminary said it (I’ve heard it repeated several times, however), but the point of good skepticism shouldn’t be just “debunking,” and good skeptics understand this. Debunking is a necessary step, however; it clears out the garbage so that something better can be built. I won’t lie and say that there aren’t people in the movement who forget this essential second step, but to broadly paint all skeptics with the “just debunking,” “you just want to tear things down” canard is ludicrous and ignorant. Go to any of the major skeptical sites, shows, or podcasts, and what you’ll find is exactly what the advice I started out suggests: debunking presented alongside or as an introduction to quality education and enthusiasm about reality and good science. For instance, the UFO video you present was also “debunked” by Captain Disillusion, who discussed the same point as the video above while also demonstrating just how impressive the CGI artistry was, providing an object lesson in how knee-jerk skepticism can be just as wrong as blind belief, and being damned entertaining.

And you don’t even have to scratch the surface to find the same thing on any skeptical site, forum, or outlet, whether it’s Brian Dunning’s concise explanations of real science or the Novella brothers’ infectious enthusiasm about birds and nanotechnology and solar power or PZ Myers’s pictures of beautiful aquatic fauna or Orac’s Tales of the Hitler Zombie, I propose you’d have to do a pretty thorough search of the skeptical movement before you found any major voices who were just “debunkers.” Those who are, I suspect, are much like the author of the video you cited: uninteresting. There wouldn’t be a skeptical movement if it were just about “debunking.” I have a hard time imagining anyone buying a book or attending a convention or booking a cruise to hear nothing but people lambasting pseudoscience.

It’s all well and good to “believe in good science,” but the layperson cares as much about that as she does about UFO-man’s idiosyncratic belief system. The goal of good skepticism–and the practice of each and every popular skeptic–is to correct that latter problem, by being unashamed promoters of reality and hoping that their enthusiasm will infect others.

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So it’s come to this

It’s taken quite some time, but the camel’s back is officially broken. I fucking can’t stand Bill Maher.

I don’t know where to begin, really. I liked “Politically Incorrect” back in the day, but Religulous was a mixed bag. And now, between the AAI debacle and his renewed rampaging against basic medicine, as well as the frothing and infighting he’s inspired in the skeptic and atheist communities, I’m finally done with the asshole.

I guess the place to begin is AAI. I don’t know, I think there’s some tackiness involved already with their Richard Dawkins Award, and the criteria don’t help assuage my concerns. Here’s what the award was supposed to honor (according to the Wikipedia page):

The Richard Dawkins Award will be given every year to honor an outstanding atheist whose contributions raise public awareness of the nontheist life stance; who through writings, media, the arts, film, and/or the stage advocates increased scientific knowledge; who through work or by example teaches acceptance of the nontheist philosophy; and whose public posture mirrors the uncompromising nontheist life stance of Dr. Richard Dawkins.

Wikipedia cites the Atheist Alliance website as their source for that quote, but the site is poorly designed, and neither the search function there nor Google can find anything about the Dawkins Award anywhere on either that site or the convention site. I’ve heard charges that the criteria were changed after the Maher controversy started, but I can’t confirm that. What I can tentatively confirm is that there’s no apparent mention of the criteria on their site. There is this telling bit:

We are also pleased to announce that Bill Maher, effervescent host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher and host and co-producer of the 2008 documentary movie Religulous, will be in attendance Friday evening to receive the 2009 AAI Richard Dawkins Award for his efforts to further the values science and reason in the world.

Here are the problems: first, Maher is avowedly not an atheist. While all the direct quotes addressing his agnosticism, disavowal of the term “atheist,” and vague spirituality come from years back, I seem to recall even in “Religulous” he claimed that atheists were just as dogmatic, or something along those lines. It wasn’t until just before the convention, when he had Dawkins on his show, that he claimed that title for himself.

Second, there is no way that anyone can claim Maher “further[s] the values of science and reason.” There wasn’t any science in “Religulous,” and even the reason was a bit light. I don’t watch “Real Time,” but I’ve seen enough clips of his antivaccination, antimedicine views to know what an antiscience kook he is. I’m convinced that the only reason Maher buys into global warming and evolution is because his political opponents are against them, not because he understands or trusts the science. His views on medicine have been and continue to be insane and dangerous–and probably spurred again by his anti-corporate political beliefs. He thinks that vaccines are a less settled science than global warming, overestimates the role of nutrition in disease prevention, subscribes to various flavors of detox woo, and generally distrusts “western medicine.” All this should rather disqualify him for any award based around the promotion and advancement of science.

And I’m sure that there were others in 2008 who would better deserve this kind of award. What about the people who organized the London bus signs? How about Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, who made serious waves with the Washington Christmas sign, have expanded their billboard campaign, and have continued their radio show and other ways of promoting both atheism and reason. What about Simon Singh, who has taken on the British Chiropractic Association in an ongoing campaign against pseudomedicine? These are just a few, off the top of my head, and there are others who have done more–and consistently–for science and reason than Maher.

Which has skeptics in an uproar, and rightly so. And no one has been roaring louder than Orac, one of my favorite bloggers, who has discussed Maher’s woopidity in the past. Unfortunately, I think Orac got a little overheated in one of his last posts on the subject. For context, Orac’s discussing a post by PZ at the AAI convention. PZ talked about Dawkins’s introduction of Maher, and how Dawkins had to walk a tightrope in the speech between acknowledging Maher’s contributions to the atheist movement and dissociating himself and the AAI from Maher’s stupid views on science and medicine.

I don’t envy the position that Dawkins was put in, there. AAI fucked up in their choice of Maher, and it’s not as though Dawkins was in on the decision. He’s also on a book tour, and apparently wasn’t familiar with either Maher or his views (outside of “Religulous”) until fairly recently. He could have disavowed Maher and refused to present the award, in which case I imagine AAI would have replaced him with someone who would give a glowing boilerplate introduction. By staying involved, Dawkins was able to throw a few punches in as well as acknowledging Maher’s contributions.

Anyway here’s what Orac had to say about it:

As for the “tightrope,” well, suffice it to say that I’m still less than impressed. PZ is right about one thing; it wasn’t enough. To me, this whole fiasco is pretty strong evidence that, if atheism and science come into conflict (unless, of course, that science happens to be the science of evolution, in which case I highly doubt that this controversy would have been so flippantly dismissed), for Richard Dawkins atheism wins hands down, and science-based medicine once again remains the poor, neglected stepchild of the so-called “reality-based” community. Atheism is clearly what’s more important to Dawkins now. As long as he bashes religion, Maher’s a-OK with him and only gets a brief remonstration for his promotion of quackery and anti-vaccine views.

Orac’s posts on the matter, especially some of the later ones, came across to me as mildly unhinged (such as where he criticized PZ for not complaining about Maher in a post that was clearly just a list of speakers–no one was commented on), and this quote is really the apex of that. Richard Dawkins cares more about atheism than science? Yes, I’m sure that’s why he just wrote a science book about science and is touring the country to read scientific excerpts from that science book. That claim, I think, is ludicrous.

Furthermore, it’s not “atheism and science” coming into conflict, as Orac suggests. It’s an atheist group and science coming into conflict. It seems that by the time anyone knew about Maher’s receiving the award, the choice had already been made. So what to do, have all the prominent speakers pull out of the conference? Or use the moment to remind people that atheism isn’t a dogma, and that we can vociferously disagree with one another–and with the organizations that supposedly speak for us? Perhaps there wasn’t enough of that, but it’s not reasonable to claim that this was a conflict between “atheism and science.”

And then there’s this bit: “science-based medicine once again remains the poor, neglected stepchild of the so-called “reality-based” community” Quoi? I’m sorry, Orac, but I’m not entirely clear on this: which reality-based community are you talking about? Certainly not the skeptical community, which gets more vitriolic about antivaccinationists and the dangers of alternative medicine than any other subject. Certainly not the skeptical community who rallied behind Simon Singh in his legal battles. Certainly not the skeptical community who take every quack’s attempt to silence a skeptic and spread it like wildfire around the Internet. Certainly not the skeptical community who has tirelessly fought against the Mercury Militia and the Jenny McCarthy and Oprah followers. Certainly not the skeptical community who typically cut their teeth on debunking homeopathy. Certainly not the skeptical community who trumpets every child’s death due to faith healing and quackery. Certainly not the skeptical community whose top luminaries include a neurologist, a psychiatrist, and a cancer surgeon. No, it must be some other reality-based community that Orac is talking about, because the one I’m a part of makes medicine a primary focus.

So, overall, I don’t think anyone comes out of this looking good. Maher is a contrarian idiot, and has reaffirmed that since the conference ended. The AAI made a boneheaded mistake and apparently is more concerned with covering it up than addressing it, which certainly doesn’t give me any desire to be associated with them. Dawkins comes across as someone who doesn’t pay enough attention to what’s done with his name and assumed endorsement (see also: the Brights). I think PZ makes it out relatively unscathed, though I’m willing to reconsider that. And Orac comes across as someone who wrote one too many insolent posts on this subject.

But while my opinion of the latter three isn’t enough to tarnish my opinions of them more than a little, Maher’s continued use of creationist-style arguments to promote his antiscience views has led me to the conclusion that he’s a world-class asshat, and I’m as done with him as I am with Ben Stein. At this point, I’m glad I haven’t bought “Religulous”: I don’t think I could stand to watch Maher for that long anymore. Fuck ‘im.