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The Must-See of TAM2012 & Some Thoughts on Good Neighbors

The highlight of TAM2012 was an easy pick. That does not mean that the talks were bad by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, despite what some felt was a scarcity of “big draw” speakers (e.g., high-profile science communicators like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye or high-profile atheists such as Richard Dawkins), the talks were as excellent as always. This was no surprise to me, though, because I have come to expect that kind of quality from those in the line-up.  I could list the talks I particularly enjoyed, but that would be far too long a post and my Twitter feed recorded some of the highlights. Many will be also posted by the JREF in coming months.

The meeting was smaller than last year (~1200 vs. >1600), but this is a good turnout considering that last year the line-up included both Tyson and Nye. Sizable, also, despite the hubbub that led some people to ‘boycott’, the economy, the growing number of skeptic, secular, and atheism conferences offered each year, and (probably the biggest factor, but the one that everyone seems to forget) the fact that Comicon was held in San Diego the same weekend!

For my part, I was honored to participate in a discussion on the main stage on the Future of Skepticism with an impressive panel: SkeptiCamp creator Reed Esau, skeptical IT guru Tim Farley, and long-time activist Jamy Ian Swiss (moderated by D.J. Grothe). I also presented a workshop on skepticism in classroom settings for a third time, along with Matt Lowry,  and I would like to thank the wonderful panel of educators (Dale Roy, Dean Baird, Ani Aharonian, and Sachie Howard) who took the stage for a round table-style Q & A with only a couple of hours’ (or less) notice.

So, the weekend was a good one. And the video embedded here was the stand-out highlight of it. If you have read more than a post or two on this blog, it will be immediately clear to you why it was the highlight and why I found it important enough to urge you to watch it. I should also note that almost everyone I spoke with at TAM found this talk to be, far and above, the best of the weekend if not more. Please watch it before continuing.

Jamy spoke clearly about the difference between discussion of and battling over issues such as scope, definitions, and goals. What he hinted at, but did not say, is that discussion can only happen among those who are educated about those issues (or those who are trying to educate themselves about them). With a few exceptions, it is usually when people who do not fully understand the nature of what we do insist on being allowed to redefine our work that distinctions become battle lines.

One sign that someone does not fully understand scientific skepticism is something Jamy hit hard – that skepticism, secularism, and atheism are different things. When we all understand this (good fences), we can identify our common goals and work together (good neighbors). The differences are complex, but as Jamy noted, we have general rules for practical purposes that allow us to operate while the philosophical discussions can continue among those interested. However, shallow treatment of the issues (or outright dismissal of the ‘rules’) is an ironic form of anti-intellectualism.

When Elizabeth Cornwell’s TAM2012 talk is posted, I hope you will revisit this post. She discusses the characteristics and behaviors of cyberbullies and it should be clear how it fits here. You might notice the enormous overlap in the sets of people who conflate atheism/skepticism and those who argue for verbal aggression (A.K.A., bullying and ridicule) as a means of outreach (and, apparently, as a general communication style).  It does not need to be this way.

I attended a couple of workshops on Thursday and one was interesting as well as relevant. “Coalition Building for the Skeptical Activist” was lead by the most qualified person I can think of to lead such a thing, Doubtful News founder Sharon Hill. Also on the panel were Kitty Mervine, whose website helps those who believe that they were abducted by aliens connect with other possible abductees and learn about alternative explanations for their experiences, Chris Stedman, an interfaith activist and author of the upcoming book “Faitheist“, American Atheists president Dave Silverman, and vice president of the Secular Coalition for America David Noise. What an interesting combination.

Sharon, Kitty, and Chris are all known for their bridge-building style. Chris’s efforts center around coalitions with diverse groups to work toward common goals. Chris is not a skeptical activist, yet his work and ours overlap in several areas. Chris is the kind of “good neighbor” that Jamy discussed in his speech.

Silverman and Noise, on the other hand, seemed odd choices for a workshop on coalitions. Noise seemed to echo a lot of what Silverman said; he seemed more of an activist for atheism than secularism. During the panel, the language and content both Silverman and Noise provided was related to ingroup-outgroup thinking. They stopped short of discussing the kinds of militant strategies PZ Myers has talked about, but considering that Silverman describes his organization as the “Marines of the Freethought Movement”, it is cause for concern. I heard nothing about building coalitions from either of them, only unsupported assumptions and uncreative, brute-force solutions to problems.

On Thursday, before the main stage events even began, Silverman tweeted this:

There are so many things wrong with this statement that it’s hard to know where to start, but I wanted to reply with this entire post. The next morning I gave in to temptation and tweeted:

While Silverman is not known for “waging war” with skeptics over where to draw lines, he has attempted to redefine skepticism (or perhaps simply shown his lack of understanding of it). Furthermore, this kind of insult (which, I will note once again, comes from a place of ignorance) to skeptics who are not atheists does not even remotely resemble an attempt at discussion. Neither did his reply to Kylie Sturgess when she dared to disagree:

 

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One Comment

  1. Well, I dare to disagree with a lot of people over a lot of things. The conflation of atheism and skepticism is one of them, which I do both publicly and in backchannels with those who I think should be (as you put it) avoiding the anti-intellectualist approach to the issue. There’s a lot of genuinely passionate people who can be misguided as to where their energies can be directed, when it comes to this issue.

    But such disagreements do not stop me (or the likes of Jamy Ian Swiss, et al) from continuing to speak out. In the end, it’s up to those who can provide outlets and platforms for such views to continue to do so – I’d look forward to giving my input to a future Education panel for example, now that I’m teaching critical thinking at a tertiary as well as producing resources for secondary and primary level. In a similar vein, it’s good that the JREF chose this speech in particular to be featured on YouTube relatively soon after the event. Very well done, JREF.