Take Back Skepticism, Part I: The Elephant in the Room

I was planning a short rant about some ironically irrational arguments made by self-described rationalists at the World Atheist Convention in Dublin a couple of months ago. However, events of the past two weeks have left me frustrated, angry, and a little bit sick. Since they are all connected, I have decided to discuss them together in one long post, broken into three parts for easier reading.

The Nutshell

Arguments over scope and the conflation of atheism and skepticism have reached a fever pitch, as have arguments over tone. I will talk about some of this, but I will not attempt to explain all of the issues in any detail because everything that needs to be said has been said here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here… Well, you get the picture. In fact, if you want to argue the definition of skepticism or Skepticism* in the comments of this post, don’t bother. Instead, read what I wrote about it last year, which I would simply repeat in answer. It is clear from the comments on these posts that those who need to are not listening and I am rarely in the mood to spin my wheels. Instead, I will try to focus on the main reason these arguments should not be abandoned: it would be bad Skepticism.

In my opinion, the tone and scope arguments dance around a bigger problem and I do not believe that we can afford to ignore the elephants in the room any longer. We should not give people ‘a pass’ simply because they claim to be on our side.

In both his TAM6 and TAM9 keynote addresses, Neil deGrasse Tyson talked about a letter he wrote to the editor of The New York Times regarding a case in which a teacher was accused of promoting creationist-style anti-science (bold mine):

To the Editor:

People cited violation of the First Amendment when a New Jersey schoolteacher asserted that evolution and the Big Bang are not scientific and that Noah’s ark carried dinosaurs.

This case is not about the need to separate church and state; it’s about the need to separate ignorant, scientifically illiterate people from the ranks of teachers.

Neil deGrasse Tyson
New York, Dec. 19, 2006

Similarly, what I suggest is this: Skepticism, as a movement, is not hindered so much by the conflation of atheism and skepticism, the ridicule of believers, or attempts to promote values-based ideology as it is hindered by the blatant ignorance, arrogance, and irrationality displayed when those acts are committed.

In a field dedicated to reducing ignorance and irrationality, a field in which arrogance is toxic, I find this kind of behavior offensive. It is time that we reclaim Skepticism and restore its credibility and integrity.

A Tiny Bit of Background

The issues of tone and scope have been widely discussed for years, but Phil Plait’s now famous “Don’t be a Dick” speech at TAM8 has become a centerpiece in the debate over tone and Daniel Loxton has become its whipping boy. Daniel also advocates for the limitation of scope for the movement for several reasons. It is the most basic of these limitations that seem to kick up the most dust: empirical claims. It is the dust around religion that I would like to talk about in these posts.

But before I do, let me say this about tone: decades of research tells us that it matters. The next time you read something like, “Neither method is well-supported” or “They can’t prove that my way doesn’t work”, remember that the Discovery Institute still produces propaganda about the irreducible complexity of baterial flagella, despite having been educated about the clear and indisputable counter-evidence repeatedly over the past decade. Then read Tavris & Aronson’s Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me).

What the research tells us is that swearing, sarcasm, and ridicule are great ways to rally your followers and gain new followers. This behavior polarizes groupthink, excites, incites, strengthens group cohesion, and promotes ‘othering’ of outgroup members. The target of ridicule and sarcasm is extremely likely to polarize as well, adhering more strongly to their beliefs** as those beliefs are threatened. Although direct and non-confrontational criticism of a belief is not likely to change the mind of the believer either, it is a seed with chance to germinate and is less likely to strengthen the belief.

Just so that you don’t think that I am a hypocrite, I will say right now that have very little hope that the targets of my criticisms in these posts will allow anything to grow; that soil is hostile. Planting seeds is not my goal. Okay, enough background. Let’s get back to the point:

Skepticism 2.x has been costly.

It is unclear when the tide turned, but at some point the expansion of skepticism as a movement began to get ugly. With “Skepticism 2.0″, the rise of wonderful and creative independent and grassroots efforts made possible by technology, came a wave of fresh new voices. Unfortunately, this has coincided with changes in culture and education practices which seem to be rooted in the United States, but are spreading beyond our borders very quickly – practices which reinforce shallow thinking when it is accompanied by overconfidence. The result is that too many of the new voices are – to borrow wording from Greg Laden – speaking out of their nether regions.

One factor is that self-identified skeptics in general do not seem to be much more rational than the general public. Intelligence is not enough. A rational person is one who has two things:

  1. the tools (knowledge and intelligence) to reason well in a given situation.
  2. open-mindedness and flexibility of thought; the ability to consider that their current knowledge might be wrong.

Without both of these characteristics, individuals resolve cognitive dissonance in all manner of ways except the rational way, which is to alter their current knowledge to accommodate new evidence. I do not believe that anyone has done the research, but it makes sense that self-described skeptics and atheists have more of the first characteristic than the general public. Atheism is correlated with education and IQ; it seems reasonable that skepticism would be as well. However, I have seen little evidence that, beyond many successful professional skeptics and scientists, they are any more open-minded or flexible than the general public. In fact, I would not be surprised to find that the opposite is generally true. And although there is “generational” component to this phenomenon, some of the most stubborn people that I have seen in the Q & A sessions at meetings, shouting that “some people are JUST WRONG!!” and putting people into two categories: atheists and irrational people, were middle-aged white men.

The behaviors which, in my opinion, are the most troublesome, are:

  • conflating atheism with skepticism. This goes beyond the old arguments about testability and method vs. conclusion. In recent years, I have see these terms used interchangeably far too often. More and more speakers at major conferences (like TAM) have little connection with Skepticism and more atheism-laden conferences are adopting names and promotional language which suggests that the meeting is about Skepticism. I suspect that the overlap of ‘members’ of the atheism and skepticism movements is at the root of this.
  • calling for social change related to political ideology or other values. Attempts by Michael Shermer and Sam Harris to promote their values were at least attempts to provide scientific support for those values. More recently Shermer publicly acknowledged (during the climate change panel at TAM8) that political values are outside the scope of Skepticism. However, there remain a large number of Skeptics who continue to argue for the promotion of ‘progressive values’ and Liberal ideology in the name of Skepticism.
  • insisting that offending and ridiculing believers is an effective means of outreach.

These behaviors are troublesome because they impair us in various ways. The impairments are severe enough to see daily if one is on the front lines of grassroots work. For example, recruiting students to my campus club was easy. Retaining them was not. Several of my students abandoned the work they’d begun after encounters with other ‘skeptics’ at meetings and online. This happened with students whose beliefs can be described as agnostic and atheist; imagine if any of my recruits were Christians.

Even more troublesome than these behaviors is the uneducated groupthink that arises from these behaviors. By ‘uneducated’ I mean incorrect. Or so far afield that it’s ‘not even wrong’. This ignorance (and refusal to learn) is another very influential factor. If one of the major goals of Skepticism is to educate, shouldn’t we all understand the material?

Arrogance and ignorance, along with some shallow thinking, need only a cause to produce mob behavior. Opinions become stronger, more polarized, and more emotionally-laden they are spewed by overconfident people with an audience. When groupthink grows, hate often grows with it.

There is a very large overlap in the make-up of atheist and skeptic communities. My Facebook friends list is full of people whom I suspect sent requests only because I am an atheist. Despite little interest in atheism or religion, I once supported atheism-related activism. I continue to be a die-hard supporter of secularism. However, I will think twice before supporting any endeavor with the label ‘atheism’ in the future. In my opinion, the current climate of the atheist movement is making the work of Skepticism much more difficult. It has become, in my opinion, a septic tank of arrogance and hate.

For example, when reports spread that the man suspected of killing more than 90 people in Norway was a Christian, I read comment after hate-filled comment on Facebook and Google+ calling for the annihilation of Christians. Comments which claimed that Breivik was mentally ill were quickly attacked under the straw man that mental illness somehow absolves him of responsibility. I don’t happen to agree that an illness is more than an explanation of behavior (even in court, ‘insanity’ is much more than a diagnosis of ‘illness’), but that’s beside the point. What we wish to be true has no bearing on what is true. Even if, as reported at the time, some of the evidence suggested that he committed these acts as part of a God-loving crusade, the idea that he would not have been just as motivated by some other extreme ideology (e.g., anti-capitalism ideology) is absurd and an individual acting alone is much more likely to be mentally ill than to be part of an organized terrorist effort. His manifesto eventually revealed that he was fueled by any ideology that fit into his clearly delusional view of the world.

Some argued that all terrorists are mentally ill; there is no difference between Breivik and an organization like Al-Qaeda. Or they described all terrorists as ‘evil’ – an evil created by religion, as if religion is the only reason that people commit terrible acts. This simply is not reality. Psychologists have studied ‘evil’ relentlessly since the atrocities of the holocaust during World War II and we have learned that average people will commit some fairly heinous acts if situational factors are aligned. If we do not recognize that good, sane people are capable of bad acts, we will be helpless to prevent it. What’s more, such extreme ‘othering’ may make us feel better, but it closes our eyes to our own potential for wrongdoing.

The right-wing propaganda machine has done its best to paint Breivik as an isolated, politically-motivated nut job who was not a Christian. This is clearly wrong. However, painting him as part of a Christian terrorism-laden culture is equally wrong and serves only to fuel even more hatred. Hate breeds hate. Following are some examples of the kind of hate that I see growing among atheists.

A comment on a link to a report that the Westboro Baptists plan to protest at the funerals of the Norway victims made by a now ex-Facebook friend who claims to work for ‘The God Killers Inc’ (and two replies):

“FUCK THE Westboro Baptist Cult, and the God they pray to. I hope someone guns down this whole fucking group of hate fueling motherfuckers.”

“Hopefully the Norwegians will take them into custodian at the airport then fly them far north and dump them on a shrinking iceberg!”

“I always wondered why that hasn’t happened already? What a sad world we live in where innocent children are slaughtered and WBC isn’t? WTF OMG LMFAO…not really :(“

A Status update from the same ‘God Killer’ quoted above:

“Got banned on Teens Need Jesus page for telling the truth on the BS they were slinging trying to suck teens into their cult. Only took 1 day before I got banned this time. The Truth Is Consider A Crime By The Religitards.”

A commenter wrote this about a member of a Christian teens group:

“sick fucks are everywhere and need to be grouped together and sent to antartica or somewhere nice and cold”


…then posted a warning about a Facebook virus without first doing a simple search to find out if it was a hoax (it is).

Another now ex-Facebook friend whose comment, “fucking religitards!” prompted me to visit his wall, which reveals contact information that includes links to several Herbalife sites. His ‘activities and interests’ section includes ‘fuck Walmart’, ‘fuck religion’, ‘profanity’, and ‘rationalism’. Yeah, ‘rationalism’. Because God is fucking stupid and Walmart is fucking evil, but Herbalife really works, right?

Finally, one former Facebook friend blew me away with this series of equal-opportunity status updates and link introductions:

“The fat behind the desk rush said the heat index is all made by the government. And the earth is cooling f ing idiot”
– on an article about Rush Limbaugh

“Xtains fundies are diferent musnutts fundies”

“This guy is bat shit crazy and be taken awaywith men in white coats” – about Glenn Beck

“Pat was funny he’s jusy bat shit crazy now.” – on a post titled Tell MSNBC to Fire Pat Buchanan!

“Another bat shit crazy” – about Donald Trump

“Just found out 22 dems votedfor bonehead biil the f ing retards”

And the shocker (bold mine):

Hate spreads quickly with the idiots he he bought his clips from the US” – on a link titled Norwegian Shooting Suspect’s ‘Manifesto’ Inspired By American Right-Wing Thinkers

Which was followed the next day by:

“F ing republicnuts I hope they get what coming to them” – on an Article in The Daily called How Republicans Screwed the Pooch

When I can’t tell the ‘good guys’ from the ‘bad guys’, there are no good guys.

And this leads me to something I’ve been trying to write about for weeks. In Part II I will discuss examples of irrationality and hypocrisy at the World Atheist Convention.

*”Big-S Skepticism” refers to the work of the skepticism movement in promoting the practice of skepticism.

**In my writings, the word “belief” refers to anything that an individual holds to be true. This includes those things that we accept on faith, because of convincing evidence, or as a philosophical conclusion.

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23 comments to Take Back Skepticism, Part I: The Elephant in the Room

  • […] Take Back Skepticism, Part III: The Dunning-Kruger Effect    Take Back Skepticism, Part I: The Elephant in the Room […]

  • […] if you have not read Parts I and II, please read them now. The most important parts of those posts are: Arguments over scope and […]

  • I’ll be the first commenter besides the links here.

    As I said on FB, I agree that politics need to be keep separate from skepticism, both for reasons of explosiveness and because many political claims aren’t scientifically testable, certainly not in terms of natural sciences, and many not even in the looser terms of social sciences. I say that about liberalism as a left liberal of sorts, as well as libertarianism and conservativism.

    Religion, ditto. Many of the 2.0 skeptics Barbara mentions seem not to distinguish between religion in the general, with untestable claims, and specific claims about specifically defined deities, doctrines, etc. Of course, when Gnu Atheist leaders Vic Stenger and P.Z. Myers claim to have disproved god, or at least elliptically comment in that way, this isn’t just a problem at the bottom.

    And, that leads to the insight that, while we can’t all be scientifically knowledgeable enough to test issues in global warming or whatever, people with reasonable intelligence can and should learn at least some rudiments of philosophy, including basic principles of informal logic. If 2.0 skeptics understood things such as logical necessity, it would help right there.

    Finally, treating skepticism as a zero-sum we win, they lose game, even if without tones of dickishness (or bullying, which I see at times), is the wrong mindset.

  • Oh, and besides what is “off limits,” there are many other things that don’t get enough airplay within skepticism that should be getting more. And about which good skeptics may well have personal experience.

    I can speak about the 12-step movement, for example. i’m sure that we can do more to expand legitimate skeptical enquiry beyond issues of the past without touching “third rails.”

    • There are certainly many issues that don’t get enough airplay. Education is one of them. The amount of pseudoscience in education is astounding.

      However, the “12-step movement” is not as ineffective as many Skeptics seem to think. AA, for example, has a better track record than most other options (according to research). Of course, the ‘active ingredient’ is probably the well-established community of members which is an insulated, yet portable, support system. But without a similar community for comparison that does not include the rest of the program, it’s difficult to tell.

  • I was once happy to call myself an atheist. It was a word that people understood, more so than “humanist.” Now the impression people have of “atheists” is all the obnoxious, invasive types of whom you speak. I feel like the term has been hijacked at this point. So people are just going to have to ask what it means when I say I’m a secular humanist (which has always been my bent, I just didn’t have a name for it).

  • […] If you’re reading this due to the Freethought Blogs – read this. Thanks! […]

  • Oh dear, it’s so true… My big turn-offs are, indeed, the conflation of “skepticism” with “atheism,” and the ensuing vitriol one encounters. Should one dare to point out that skepticism is to do with how we think not what we think, and that agnosticism might just be a better “fit,” cries of “heretic!” ensue, complete with pitchforks, torches, and angry villagers. Barbara, this article is a keeper!!

  • Another agreement here with the lack of airplay that education gets – hoping to do more on this in the future and to further raise awareness as to how skeptics can work with educators rather than ‘blame the system’ and think that there’s an easy answer (which educators are exempt from). Thanks for this, Barbara. It’s greatly needed, all of it.

  • Of course, some things, such as some claims in education, or claims in economics, may not be testable for moral reasons. On 12-step groups, actually, an organization I’m involved with is participating with a study comparing AA to “secular” alternatives. (At the same time, I note that the religious/metaphysical issue is a separate issue from the effectiveness one.)

  • BJ Kramer

    I don’t think it makes sense to pay any attention at all to twitter and facebook comments, as if they are indicative of ‘atheism’ or ‘skepticism 2.0′ or anything beyond, well, the nature of the internet. Go anywhere on the internet and you will find similar morons spouting hate. The fact that some self-selected subset of atheist/skeptic groups are like that means nothing about the nature of these groups themselves.

    It does, however, make sense to analyze the statements of people selected to speak at atheist or skeptic events. I was just at TAM 9 (very much a skeptic, and not ostensibly ‘atheist’, event), and I thought the speakers were overwhelmingly focused on skepticism (there was very little about atheism). Which speakers did you think had “little connection with Skepticism”?

    • BJ, actually, I felt that the speakers were all associated with Skepticism – even PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins, who are probably better known for atheism these days. However, there were several people on panels (who were considered ‘speakers’ just the same) who may have attended or participated in Skeptic events, but otherwise have little to do with Skepticism. My list would include three of the ‘diversity’ panel members (Mehta, Bey, and Christina) and a few others would be ‘borderline at best’.

  • Interesting posts, Barbara, thanks. I’m still digesting all three of your posts, but I’ve shared a lot of the same concerns for some time now, even though I’m neither a professional scientist or a professional skeptic.

    And I hesitate to mention it, but I just posted my take on this dispute at Skepticism and Ethics. I wrote it with some optimism that we could spread skepticism to a wider audience; since reading your posts, I’m not so sure. Hmm.

    Thanks again.

  • David Bailey

    Haven’t really called myself an atheist in years, although I admit to using the term when I just want to get it over with quickly. It’s a negative word, describing me in terms of what I don’t believe in, rather than what my actual philosophy is. I prefer to say ‘naturalist’, which often opens up a bunch of questions. That’s why I still pull ‘atheist’ out every so often, because sometimes I just haven’t got the time to carry on a discussion.

  • […] Barbara Drescher illustrates my own frustrations: Some argued that all terrorists are mentally ill; there is no difference between Breivik and an organization like Al-Qaeda. Or they described all terrorists as ‘evil’ – an evil created by religion, as if religion is the only reason that people commit terrible acts. This simply is not reality. Psychologists have studied ‘evil’ relentlessly since the atrocities of the holocaust during World War II and we have learned that average people will commit some fairly heinous acts if situational factors are aligned. If we do not recognize that good, sane people are capable of bad acts, we will be helpless to prevent it. What’s more, such extreme ‘othering’ may make us feel better, but it closes our eyes to our own potential for wrongdoing. […]

  • Erikthebassist

    Take back skepticism? WTF? Like it’s a singular idea that requires rigid interpretation and leadership? I decided long ago that organizing skeptics and / or atheists was like herding cats. We are by nature fiercely independently thinking individuals. If we have nothing else in common, this one fact alone renders your entire diatribe useless.

    I say let the in fighting continue. I’ve had my own opinions about social issues and politics radically changed in the many years since I’ve become aware of skepticism or atheism as movements, and it’s the blowouts like DBAD and elevatorgate that do more to inform my views on these things than anything else. I celebrate our differences of opinion because it means we’re thinking. At the end of the day, we all have the same goal, the reduction of pseudoscience and magical thinking so far as it negatively affects our quality of life. The rest is just semantic garnishment.

    • Erik, I’m not sure what it is you’re saying. By one token, you’ve suggested that everybody is different and fiercely independent. In the same breath you’re then claiming we all share the same goal.

      The fact is, when you look closer at the movement, those shared goals aren’t as identical as it would first appear. There are not only different strategies and angles of approach, but significantly different shades of desire. Some are keen to address the nature of religious privilege, wishing to enhance the social respect of atheists without caring less about the wellbeing of people of faith. Others are focused on providing sound scientific literacy, without minding if its shares ground with metaphysical and sacred beliefs. Drawing a line and claiming they aren’t true skeptics because they don’t share your view of the overarching goals is to commit a clear logical fallacy.

      Far from semantics, such discussions as these are vital for retaining the strength behind skeptical thinking and keeping it from being a homogeneous belief system.

    • I’m afraid that I don’t know what you are saying, either, and you seem to have missed my points. I am not arguing about differences of opinion.

  • In my recent experience the thought is rarely independent nor especially robust.

    I am all for differences of opinion, for reasoned, even fierce debate as long as those who are in the debate, those who are making the noise actually have some expertise in the area.

    I was astonished for example at a recent high profile sceptical group who awarded a derogatory prize to one of our educational institutions over changes to the national curriculum.

    This group to my knowledge did not engage with the curriculum body, did not engage any curriculum experts, and did not make one bit of difference to the perceived problem they were trying to address.

    As a result I do not participate in organised scepticism, and while I can’t be sure, there are I suspect others like myself who will walk away because idiots are waving a flag and asking sceptics to rally under it.

    I disagree that differences of opinion means we are thinking. Holding an opinion and defending it, requires little thought. Of those two situations mentioned DBAD and elevatorgate, lack of critical thought and lack of ability to perceive that one might be wrong were in clear evidence.

  • […] into attacking all religion (and religious believers) as an undifferentiated lump. Many have tied atheism to political progressivism, forgetting that some of Richard Dawkins’ most powerful arguments in The God Delusion came […]

  • […] Twitter/Facebook — firstly, I posted in order to link to Barbara Drescher’s blogposts on ‘Taking Back Skepticism’ and hopefully helped them reach a wider audience. I noticed a few people re-Tweeting them, so I […]