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.

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Tone Deaf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Answering a Challenge

Akusai and I have been conversing quite a bit lately over GMail Chat about the recent skeptic infighting. Yesterday’s exchange was very odd, with an unintentional one-upping of overextended metaphors. The end result had Akusai literalizing “grassroots” and me coining the term “Joe Everygay.” As a challenge, Akusai said my next analogy should involve the Transformers. Well…

At least they color-coordinate well.So, there’s this faction of Autobots called the Protectobots. As their name implies, their role is mainly to protect people. Their alternate modes are all rescue vehicles–a MedEvac helicopter, a fire truck, a police car, etc.–and they combine to form the giant robot Defensor.

Now, the Protectobots are useful, don’t get me wrong. They’ve successfully defeated the brutal Combaticons, and they’re one of the few early Autobot combiner groups. But mostly, their utility is in defense (as the name implies), rescue work, and cleanup. It doesn’t help that at least two of their members are pacifists, which has caused friction in the past (like when Defensor was left with only one arm because pacifist medic First Aid refused to fight). They may be great if you’re a wounded Autobot or a human trapped in a burning building, but they aren’t much use at actually driving off the Decepticon invasion.

On the other hand, you have the Dinobots. As their name implies, they turn into dinosaurs (sort of; I mean, I’m pretty sure pteranodons aren’t technically dinosaurs, but you get my drift). They’re strong and loud and not particularly subtle, and they can often be found taking on significantly larger enemies with little regard to whether or not they’re outclassed. Much gooder! But not more gooder enough!They’re not the sharpest tools in the shed, but they’re certainly the heaviest, and they’re loyal to a fault–at least, to whomever happens to be strongest. In a fight, you want the Dinobots on your side–and you want to stay out of their way.

Most Autobots fall somewhere along the spectrum between these two groups. Warpath is a loud and energetic little tank whose eagerness to fight far outstrips his ability. Perceptor is a thoughtful scientist whose capabilities in battle are limited by his microscope alternate mode. Kup, Ironhide, and Optimus Prime are all old warriors, willing to fight when necessary and preferring diplomacy when possible, but always striving for peace and an end to the Decepticon menace–which is ultimately the goal of all Autobots, whatever their role happens to be in the war.

If all the Autobots were pacifistic Protectobots or battle-hampered scientists like Perceptor, the war against the Decepticons would have been lost ages ago. Things would be similarly dire if all the Autobots were as blunt and unrestrained as the Dinobots–sure, the Decepticon forces might be damaged, but so would everything else around them. Were all the Autobots to rush in like Warpath, not thinking ahead or considering the odds, a well-crafted Decepticon plot could wipe them out just as effectively as wiping out the pacifists. The Autobot army needs both groups to function–but moreover, it needs members with versatility: Blaster‘s boombox alternative mode is mostly suited to communications and entertainment, but he is able to use that in an offensive manner when necessary; Ratchet might be a medic, but he’s no slouch with a gun. Some Autobots are able to use their specializations offensively; some Autobots are just able to move seamlessly from defense to diplomacy to offense as the need arises.

Altogether, they make a pretty effective team. The Dinobots and their ilk can charge in, attack and distract and occasionally demolish an enemy; the Protectobots can clean up and attend to the bystanders, ensuring that any collateral damage is minimal, and the rest of the Autobots can assist one, or the other, or both, or work in totally separate areas on different problems. The Protectobots would assist no one by insisting that the Dinobots be less aggressive, and the Dinobots would get nowhere by trying to make the Protectobots take the offense. The team’s effectiveness comes from their differences in focus, specialty, attitude, and strategy, and from the willingness and ability of most members to support and assist with any plan of action. Those who would lead the Autobots would do well to recognize and accept this state of affairs, and to realize that it’s foolish to try to apply the same tactics, strategy, and soldiers to every situation.
Also, skeptics can turn into cars. True story.

How’s that for an analogy?

A Manifesto

I am a skeptic. This is because skepticism is what I do, it’s the tool set I use to evaluate reality. My default position in regard to any claim is disbelief and the provisional acceptance of the null hypothesis, a position which can be revised based on quality evidence (or, in the case of subjective issues, sound arguments). I use this basic approach to most aspects of my life, from science to politics to ethics.

I am a scientific skeptic. This is because science is my passion, and centuries of progress and improving knowledge have demonstrated that science is the most reliable method we have of learning true things about reality.

I am an atheist. This is a position I hold regarding belief in gods. Disbelief is the default position, and so far I have seen no evidence to overturn the null hypothesis for any but the most trivial definitions of “god.” Consequently, I lack belief in gods.

I am a “strong atheist” or “antitheist” regarding some definitions of god. In short, for some gods, I am willing to make the claim that those gods do not exist. I feel that this claim is justified (depending on the god claim) by specific evidence against those gods’ existence or lack of evidence when evidence would be expected. I do not hold this (or any position) with absolute certainty, and I am willing to revise it based on new evidence.

I am a materialist. I reject the supernatural, mostly on the basis of the null hypothesis and Occam’s Razor. I see no reason to invent a category of “things that exist but do not interact with reality”–as far as I’m concerned, “interacting with reality” is a major component of the definition of “exist.” I am willing to revise this position, but I suspect that any phenomenon currently described as “supernatural” were actually discovered, it would have to be incorporated into the natural universe. So far, though, I have yet to hear of any supposedly supernatural phenomenon which was not easily explained by natural causes.

I am an advocate of open, vocal, harsh criticism of just about everything. I don’t think organizations or people or claims or ideas should get any kind of free pass or special kid-glove treatment by virtue of their prestige or popularity or other such considerations. I would like to see a society where people expected their claims, beliefs, and actions to receive widespread reasoned criticism, and didn’t find such a thing impolite or inappropriate or unconventional. I certainly think one should pick his or her battles wisely, but I also think people shouldn’t be thin-skinned scrota when challenged on their bullshit.

I suppose I am a member of the “skeptical movement.” I am a skeptic, I’m a blogger and apparently a public speaker, and I’m actively involved in some skeptical outreach events. I started blogging here because I wanted to talk about politics and religion; I found blogs by like-minded people who I enjoyed reading, and we formed a moderate little online community. I didn’t join any big skeptical organizations until fairly recently in this game, and I certainly haven’t agreed to make anyone into an authority over my conduct or content here. Any “movement” I’m part of is the emergent property of a large number of different people working with some similar methods towards some similar goals. It’s nice, and I hope it grows, but I have a hard time accepting it as some sort of monolithic, unified thing that can be harmed by differences in opinion over tact and tactics among its members. If being part of the movement means omitting certain topics from my skeptical purview, focusing my efforts on one subject, eliminating useful or entertaining methods from my arsenal, or treating certain groups of people with vaguely dishonest condescension out of fear of hurting or alienating them, then I’ll move on my own, thanks.

I am, I’m sure, often wrong, often stubborn, often overly verbose, and often an asshole. And I am dead tired of arguing against other skeptics over what they think I should and shouldn’t do for the good of the group.

I am going to continue doing this, writing about whatever I feel like, and doing it all from a skeptical, scientific point of view, until I decide otherwise. If you don’t like it, the little red X is in the corner.