Oh, Uncle Richard

Richard Dawkins and Ophelia Benson made a joint statement denouncing and decrying the harassment and other bad behavior in the atheist movement.

This is a good thing. It’s good because after “Dear Muslima,” after all the asinine things Dawkins has said on Twitter and elsewhere, the dedicated antifeminist harassers have taken his comments as a sign of his tacit approval of misogyny and harassment. For him to join forces with one of the prime targets of antifeminist, anti-“FTBullies” abuse, sends an important, necessary message. All the kudos to Ophelia Benson for pursuing this, and kudos to Dawkins for recognizing that this is an important issue that required his comment and clarification.

But.

But “Dear Muslima” was three years ago, three years of non-stop abuse directed at atheist feminists, in many cases by Dawkins fanboys, in many cases by people who believed Dawkins was unambiguously on their side. It’s impossible to see this statement and not wonder why it didn’t come a lot earlier.

But Ophelia Benson had to reach out to Dawkins and apparently hold his feet to the fire a bit1 in order to get the statement made at all. This statement would hold a much greater amount of power if Dawkins had initiated it. As it is, it’s far to easy for the naysayers and harassers to say that Dawkins was bullied into this, that he’s doing it reluctantly.

But Ophelia Benson is the person who made the statement with Dawkins, and while she’s certainly been on the receiving end of tons of abuse, imagine how much more impact this would have had if Dawkins had made a joint statement with Rebecca Watson. Imagine if he had apologized for that, had expressed horror specifically at how his ill-conceived and fallacious attack had painted a target on Watson’s back. Imagine if he had finally put to rest the claims of blackballing2 and unambiguously supported Watson’s presence in the community. You’ll have to imagine, because obviously that didn’t happen.

But the statement, while clear, is still open to the same reinterpretation and spin that we saw back in the “don’t be a dick” debacle, that we see any time harassment policies arise. People who are motivated to be assholes will use motivated reasoning to justify continued assholery. Some already are dismissing this statement as Dawkins being duped, others undoubtedly will argue that what they’re doing isn’t bullying or harassment, but criticism and satire; that the FTBullies use terms that could be called “vulgar epithets” and they’re bullies (it’s right there in the name!) so it’s okay, or so Dawkins was really, slyly, calling out the FTBullies themselves and Benson was just too dumb to see it. We can reasonably guess this will happen because it’s what they’ve been saying for years now. Tu quoque and false equivalence are the air and water of the pro-harassment crowd.

But, and perhaps this is the most significant but, it doesn’t seem like Dawkins has actually learned anything. There is no admission of error in the joint statement, no acknowledgement of the seriously problematic things Dawkins has said about race or Islam or rape or molestation or abortion. And then, the very same week, he goes back to the “Dear Muslima” well, the “mild paedophilia” well, of trying to rank horrible tragedies as if their harmfulness could be measured with an SI unit, as if any positive purpose could be served by doing so, as if drawing a distinction between extremes weren’t a common tactic used to dismiss things like “mild paedophilia” and date rape. This blunder makes it unfortunately clear that Dawkins hasn’t internalized any of this, hasn’t realized that the reason people see him as an ally in their racism and misogyny and anti-Arab bigotry isn’t just because of one bonehead comment to Rebecca Watson three years ago, but because of a larger pattern of statements and behavior.

So it’s hard to see this statement as anything but a symbolic gesture. It’s a good symbolic gesture, a necessary symbolic gesture, but it’s hard not to wish it hadn’t come sooner, with a different motivation, with a clearer message, and with an indication that it represented real reflection and substantive change. Hopefully it’s a first step, and not a destination.


1. Ophelia Benson noted in the comments below that Dawkins needed convincing, not pressure, so I have corrected the account.

2. This is not to suggest that the claims of blackballing are incorrect, merely that I haven’t seen Dawkins confirm or deny them, and whether or not they have been true, denying them now would be valuable.

Perspective

Dear Muslimo

Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you get stopped and harassed and interrogated and strip searched every time you try to travel . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you’re constantly judged based on superficial similarities to bad people, and you can’t live where you please without enduring rude questions and harassment from rubes who think you’re a terrorist or infiltrator, and the government is allowed to detain you indefinitely without trial if you behave suspiciously, and you’ll never be able to take a piloting class or run a marathon or buy fertilizer without ending up on a dozen watch lists. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor British brothers have to put up with.

Only this week I heard of one, he calls himself “Richard Dawkins,” and do you know what happened to him? A TSA security agent took away his jar of honey. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He took his jar of honey. Of course he protested, and of course he knew the preexisting security rules, but even so . . .

And you, Muslimo, think you have inconvenience, intrusion, and harassment to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.

Tom

(Relevant History)

The Shocking Truth SHE Doesn’t Want You To Know About!!!1!

Yesterday, I introduced you to the kinds of laughable conspiracy theories that can result when, like Twitterer Atheismpluscrap, you choose comforting delusions over unpleasant realities.

But man, if you’re going to believe ridiculous things, you might as well go all-in, right? “Atheism plus is a covert religious group trying to discredit atheism by promoting fascist feminism” barely registers on the conspiracy theory wackyometer. Chart of conspiracy theories where craziness is on the x-axis going from less to more crazy as you go left to right, and where importance is on the y-axis, going from less to more important from bottom to top.It’s on the very bottom of this chart, and only slightly toward the right-hand side. So let’s help Atheismpluscrap out a bit by punching up their conspiracy.

It all starts in Atlantis, a perfect society built on MRA principles, where the social recognition of women as inferior emotional sperm-vampires led to the development of a technologically-advanced continent the likes of which have not been seen since. When men are not distracted by the needs of and endless competition for women, there is no need for war or hierarchy. There was no need for stifling government in Atlantis, for the perfect free market directed all things, unsullied by feminine influence.

This is not to say that women were mistreated in Atlantis; quite the contrary. They were well provided-for, never needing to work beyond mating. The lack of a system of marriage or paternity ensured that children would be raised by he community as a whole, without distracting men with the unnatural demands of monogamy and the so-called “nuclear family”–nuclear because it’s radioactive, causing a slow wasting-away death of both individual and society.

Of course this hyper-rational, enlightened culture was atheistic. The concept of gods never even occurred to a society without the feminine invention of “faith,” or knowledge derived from womanly “feelings” and “intuition.”

But then there were the Amazons, a warlike, man-hating, petty matriarchy living on the mainland. The influence of the Amazons on other cultures was what led to the development of most violence and disease in the Mediterranean and Middle East, and they pillaged technological advances from the men of those lands. They spread their philosophies of religion and feminism to indoctrinate women and enslave men to a system of faith-based “tradition,” installing an unachievable male ideal as the head of a system of gods which emphasized the notion that males and females could be equals.

Atlantis had the oceans and its technology to protect it from the toxic influence of fascist feminism, but eventually those barriers were breached, the Amazons wearing away at their defenses until they could no longer stand the assault. Once the women of Atlantis began to believe the comforting myths of the Amazons, they rose up and demanded male enslavement, or male extermination. Some enlightened men escaped, but the knowledge and technology of Atlantis was scattered to the winds, and the island itself was lost forever.

The Amazonian system of religion spread, changing here and there, but always holding men in an emasculating position subordinate to some greater man. This, along with the inventions of sex competition and marriage and paternity, created competition and hierarchy between men, and led to all wars and conflicts, all class stratification and government.

There have been men who stood up to this system, but the system endures, striking them down whenever possible. Abraham Lincoln was a strong red-pill man, who recognized that all men were equal, superior to women, and so the feminazi woman supremacists had him killed by an effeminate thespian. John F. Kennedy was a virile red-pill man, openly flaunting the oppression of marriage and selecting multiple mates as any alpha deserves, so the gynotalitarian femifascists had him killed by a simpering beta who bought into the feminine collectivist lie of Communism. John Lennon and Paul McCartney were fearless red-pill men who openly spoke about putting women in their rightful places, so with the help of manginas like George Harrison and Eric Clapton, they emasculated John with a forced feminazi marriage and killed and replaced Paul with a beta-male double. When John still wouldn’t cooperate, openly promoting the rational standards of world peace and atheism, compelling people to throw off the government shackles and make a new society, they had him killed by a beta who was infatuated with a book about a frustrated, emasculated mangina.

Whenever men have banded together to fight hysteroppresion, women have subverted their organizations. The Illuminati began as an enlightened male attempt to get back to the roots of rationalist male primacy, but was subverted from within by false doctrines about gender equality. Now, it’s another arm of the gynocracy, secretly manipulating subservient beta-males (e.g., Obama) into positions of world power, and opposing the alphas who make it there through sheer force of manliness (e.g., Putin, Clinton). Freemasonry was much the same, beginning as a masculine attempt to exalt manly physical labor and building things, but subverted by female-controlled betas into being obsessed with girly secrets and fashion accessories and hierarchies.

And now atheism has risen up to battle the evils of feminist religion, and it’s strengthened through alliances with Men’s Rights Advocates and libertarianism. Each of the three groups has a pillar of Atlantean social perfection, which is why feminists are so afraid of them. If they aren’t stopped, then Atlantis may rise again, and this time thanks to globalization and the Internet, the whole world would be part of the glorious Atlantean perfection.

With the control of the FemIlluminati, it’s easy to marginalize libertarians, because the few red-pill elected men like Ron Paul can’t get a foothold in the woman-defined system. With the power of Pussy Control over emasculated beta-men, it’s easy to marginalize MRAs as “misognynist” and “sexist” and creep shame them. But atheism isn’t so easy to marginalize, because it’s so obviously correct with its foundations in masculine science and reason. The enlightened red-pill men who reject feminine religion are too rational and intellectual to fall for the other lies of the hegematriachy. So feminists must resort to other methods to strangle the nascent Atlantean perfection before it leaves its crib.

And that method is Atheism Plus, atheism tainted with the lies of feminism and run by subservient lickspittle beta-males like P.Z. Mayers who are controlled by female supremacists and their fanatic religious adherence to feminist dogma. By insinuating themselves into atheism, they plan to subvert it just like 18th-century radfems subverted the Illuminati, by diverting its efforts and energy to hopeless, unrelated causes, and causing internecine strife by imposing a hysterical hierarchy and forcing inter-male competition for atheist female mates. If they succeed, the rational power of atheism will be scuttled, and the resources that remain will be redirected toward supporting the gynocratic rule of the shadow matriarchy, setting back the rebirth of the perfect Atlantean system, perhaps beyond reclamation.

This is why the alliance between atheists, MRAs, and libertarians is so vital, and why the feminarchist powers are so keen to silence liberated red-pill alpha-males like Michael Shermer and Richard Dawkins and Penn Jillette and The Amazing Atheist. Their natural male power and charisma can’t help but convince people, even semi-rational women, and drive them toward the natural state of humanity, which is the restoration of the Atlantean standard. We need only protect, amplify, and follow these voices, and we can defeat hysteriarchical gynofascist tittytalitarianism forever!

There we go. That’s a ludicrous conspiracy theory. If you’re going to be so unrealistic and unreasonable as to believe in a comforting conspiracy theory, that’s a respectable theory to buy into. Anything else just makes it look like you’re sacrificing reason and evidence and skepticism for nothing.

How Dare You?!

This is kind of a follow-up to my post on friendship, and is likely to hit some of the same notes and indict some of the same people.

I’ve noticed recently, though I’m sure the trend has been around for some time, this tendency in skeptic/atheist circles to suggest, explicitly or implicitly, that a person has done so much for the atheist/skeptic community that it is somehow out of line to criticize them. Here’s an example I saw today, in PZ’s post about Sam Harris:

The Harris bashing going on here is just ridiculous. The man is a hero of the skepticism movement. All you people rushing to judgement should be embarrassed.

Hes admitted countless times he phrased his ideas poorly on the profiling issue (even publicly apologized on TV).

PZ, you need to take note on how well Harris defends himself against this character assassination you’ve exacerbated once again. Compare that with how you usually respond to criticism.

Remember that next time you’re getting all upset over a comedian’s joke and crying all over your keyboard and empty donut cases.

I know that I’ve seen this same kind of sentiment expressed about DJ Grothe of late (there’s one buried in this comment), and I’m pretty sure it came up a bunch about Dawkins in the whole “Dear Muslima” flap.

To put it bluntly, this kind of thinking is wrong-headed, fallacious, dangerous, and dare I say it, religious.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t have role models. That would be absurd. There are always people who are better than us or more informed than us at certain things. It’s fine to look up to people; the problem comes when you begin thinking those people are somehow above you.

A further problem comes if they begin thinking the same.

Must we, scientific skeptics and rational atheists, keep learning this lesson? This is the lesson of Linus Pauling, the lesson of Ayn Rand, the lesson of Edgar Mitchell, the lesson of Bill Maher, and so on. Being brilliant, well-informed, or just right about one area or subject does not make one brilliant, well-informed, or right about everything. Expertise does not transfer.

We as skeptics and atheists spend a lot of our time arguing with people because they’re wrong about something. We argue with strangers, we argue with anonymous idiots, we argue with professional pseudoscientists and preachers who hate us, we even argue with acquaintances and coworkers.

Why would we avoid arguing with the people we care about?

Granted, James Randi and Richard Dawkins and the like are basically strangers to me. The same is true for most people and the famous role models they look up to. We feel a kinship with these people because they’ve said or written or done things that resonate with us, that we wish to live up to or emulate. That forges an emotional connection, even if it’s one-way, which boils down to (at the very least) the point that we care what they have to say. We value their thoughts and opinions enough to spend our money buying books filled with just that, or spend our time watching their videos or reading their words online.

And so when they, our heroes, say or do something that is clearly wrong, I think we have a responsibility to speak up about it. In part, it’s because there’s a cognitive dissonance in saying “I value what you have to say” and “what you have to say with regard to X is wrong/reprehensible.” In part, it’s because we recognize that there are other people who value what they have to say, but may not be informed enough to see that, on this topic, they’re dead wrong. In part, it’s because we hope that our heroes are reasonable and, when presented with evidence that contradicts their position, would change it, making them even more admirable for following the evidence. In part, it’s because we just don’t like people being wrong. In part, I think we realize that leaving the wrongness unchallenged could eventually lead to worse problems (like the ubiquity of vitamin megadosing or libertarians). And in part, I think, it’s our responsibility.

That responsibility has different degrees of strength. If it’s, say, an author you like who has said something stupid, then your purchase of his book, your recommending it to your friends, etc., means that you have contributed to his popularity. But if it’s, say, someone who is often chosen by the media to speak for a group that you’re part of, then they’re sometimes (de facto) speaking on your behalf. And you don’t want the general public to think that this thing they’re wrong about is generally representative of the group’s beliefs.

Because, one way or another, their wrongness makes you look wrong. You’re wrong by proxy.

And so we call out our heroes when they’re wrong because we care about them and their opinions, because we want to give them the opportunity to realize their mistake and correct it, and because we want to show clearly that we don’t share their wrongness. Phil Plait called out Carl Sagan in his first book, because Sagan was wrong about Velikovski. Phil was also involved in correcting Randi when Randi spouted off about climate change. PZ called out Sam Harris about his unfounded views regarding racial profiling, and promoted the opinions of actual experts in response. Many spoke up when anti-medicine Bill Maher was nominated for a science award. And so on and so forth. Maybe if more people had spoken more loudly and forcefully at Linus Pauling, it wouldn’t be a generally-accepted belief that Vitamin C cures colds.

What we don’t do, what we shouldn’t do, what we must not do, is say “well, these people have done so much good that we can overlook this little bit of bad.” We don’t accept that from religious believers about the role of religion in history. We don’t accept that from the Catholic Church regarding its predator priests. We don’t accept that from science, dammit. We don’t say “well, these guys have published a bunch of good papers before, let’s just let this paper slide without peer review.” We don’t say “gee, Dr. Pauling’s been right about so many things, what’s the harm in just assuming he’s right about vitamin megadosing?” We don’t say “NASA’s got a pretty good track record, so we’re just going to overlook this error in the rover program. We wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.”

No, dammit, we’re skeptics, we’re scientists and science enthusiasts. We pride ourselves on seeking the truth and fighting ignorance. When prominent scientists and skeptics go wrong, they’re the ones we should argue with most strongly, most fervently–because either they, prizing truth and knowledge as we do, will change their position, or we–prizing truth and knowledge–will realize that it was our own that was in error.

Or they’ll go on believing and spouting wrong things. And then we’re free to question whether they really are committed to truth and knowledge, or if they are committed to their own sense of infallible rightness. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, to realize that even your heroes (maybe even especially your heroes) can be blinded by ego, but it’s a necessary lesson to learn. It’s necessary because no one is perfectly right or perfectly insightful or perfectly skeptical or perfectly reasonable. Pobody’s nerfect, as the hat says. And sometimes we become complacent in accepting a person’s thoughts or ideas as pure unvarnished truth, and need to be shaken out of it with a glimpse of their clay feet.

Being a luminary, being a role model, being a tireless advocate, being a hero, shouldn’t shield a person from criticism. It may mean that we give them a little more benefit of the doubt to explain or clarify, but even that isn’t inexhaustible.

What it does (and should) grant them is a group of people who care what they have to say enough to explain to them why they’re wrong.

The R Word

The term “mentally retarded” was coined around 1895. Eventually it became the preferred euphemism to refer to people with various developmental and cognitive disabilities. It was used to replace the then-current clinical terms, which had gained wide use in the general culture as pejoratives. Those earlier terms? “Moron,” “idiot,” and “imbecile.”

Today, “retarded” is joining those terms, and for the same reason, called the euphemism treadmill. We have something that is perceived negatively by the general public, and so we develop terms to describe it. Those terms eventually take on connotations that denote the generally negative feelings, and so we develop new terms which lack those connotations, and the cycle begins anew.

And so we have it that “moron,” once a neutral term, is now a common epithet. “Cripple” gave way to “handicapped” gave way to “disabled” gave way to “differently abled,” as each new euphemism took on the negative connotations that caused the rejection of the previous ones.

I can understand the people on any given side of this issue. There are those clinicians and others trying to develop new terms so as to stay ahead of the pejoration of the previous terms, and that’s fairly necessary in writing academic, judgmentally-neutral papers and reports. There are those who try to reclaim old terms, using them as points of pride or power, which has some limited success. The problem is that words then come to carry two related sets of connotations: when Dan Savage calls one of his writers a “fag,” the result is very different from when a bully does the same thing to a kid on the playground. So the word–at least for a time–becomes taboo for some, or in some contexts, but not always, and that really slows down the “reclaiming,” which is (at least in part) an attempt to strip the word of the oppressive power it has from being taboo. There are those who develop new, more positive euphemisms, which are often subject to even quicker pejoration due to their transparent purpose and their use sardonically–for instance, terms like “handicapable” and the use of the word “special” to refer to those with mental disabilities quickly became dismissively pejorative themselves–to the point where a phrase like “She’s special” can have two very different meanings depending on my tone. This can also create terms with other problems; “African-American” was coined as a euphemism to replace “black,” but the consensus seems to be settling on the latter term, since it is more accurate than the term which suggests that many natural-born citizens are originally from Africa. I suspect this is also a part of why the term “people of color” has experienced some resurgence, probably to replace “ethnic.”

And then there are those who try to bring clinical terms into common use, using them to escape the same pejoration as the clinicians, but ultimately starting the cycle up again.

There are some ways to hinder this, I suppose. The more lengthy and multisyllabic and technical a term is, the harder (I think) it becomes to make it into a pejorative. A current preferred term like “developmentally delayed” is unlikely to become a playground insult, but it may still gather that pejorative baggage. Especially since “retard (v.)” means “to delay.” Using a synonym has the obvious danger of making the terms synonymous.

The problem with all of these positions–developing new euphemisms, reclaiming old ones, etc.–is twofold. First, language is a tricksy thing, evolving in a very similar way to the way organisms do. It’s possible with either to exert some selection pressure, but it’s not entirely clear how language will respond to those pressures. For instance, the term “gay” originally meant “happy” or “carefree,” and gradually adopted sexual connotations (“carefree” turning to “uninhibited.” It became somewhat linked to homosexuality during the life of Oscar Wilde, and became the preferred term by homosexuals during the 20th Century. “Gay” was subtle enough to go under the radar for quite some time, positive, and a better alternative than the more obviously pejorative terms like “queer.” And I’d say it was pretty successfully reclaimed, becoming a point of pride, with the homosexual connotation completely eclipsing the original meaning, and even the more pejorative “sexually uninhibited” connotations of the late 19th century.

But in the hands of schoolchildren, it has become synonymous with “lame” or “stupid,” due to its association with the perceived negative of homosexuality. “Gay” as a term is now on its second cycle of pejoration.

I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t try to reclaim words or exercise some control over what words mean and how language changes. I would only caution such people that such change is slow and unpredictable at best, and in many cases eventually leads to new problems analogous to the ones that you’re trying to solve.

Which brings us to the second prong of the problem: by exerting influence over language: it’s only addressing a symptom of the real problem. The issue of pejoration will occur and the euphemism treadmill will keep spinning until we correct the root of the problem: the social attitude that holds some people to be generally negative or inferior. The reason that we’ve seen the same thing happen to “retarded” that once happened to “moron” isn’t because the words themselves have some kind of power, it’s because people consciously or unconsciously see the developmentally delayed and disabled as less than people. Until people become so familiarized and accepting of their fellow humans with developmental disorders that they no longer see the difference as negative, the cycle will continue.

Attacking and altering the language we use is a necessary step in these kinds of situations; Richard Dawkins talks about how feminists’ insistence on gender-neutral terminology was a key component of the consciousness-raising aspects of the women’s rights movement. But I think people have a twin tendency to focus on the words more than the attitudes behind them, and to (consciously or unconsciously) blame the problem on the words we use. This ends up making the words taboo, which gives them a power to offend, which only really perpetuates the problem of the connotations which made them taboo in the first place.

In order to combat prejudice, fear, and hate, you can’t stop at correcting the language of the prejudiced, fearful, and hate-filled. That only creates a class of words that are associated with prejudice and starts off a new set of words down the same path. You have to correct the attitudes alongside the language if you want any kind of lasting change.

I’d like to see a world where we don’t ascribe greater power to particular arrangements of letters than others, where we don’t use descriptions of differences between individuals as pejorative terms, and where we all accept each other as equals because of those individual differences. I’d like to buy that world a Coke.

Until then, I suppose we’ll all keep running on this treadmill, naïvely believing that we’re making progress.

An interesting experiment

A friend of mine and fellow vocal atheist has started up a new blog as a sort of religious exchange program. He agreed to read the Bible if his friend agreed to read The Blind Watchmaker. Both are blogging about it, and I’m interested in how it all turns out. There’s not much there yet, but I know that steady comments and regular readers are a pretty good impetus to keep writing, so please go check it out:

Understanding the Christian
And the Christian counter-blog is at:

Understanding the Skeptic
Enjoy!

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.