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Why Skeptics Pick On Jenny McCarthy and Bill Maher

Why do skeptics criticize Jenny McCarthy and Bill Maher?

Because they publicly trash mainstream science despite lacking the expertise to properly analyze methodology and draw different conclusions (how scientists do it).

Science uses peer review (not just “review”) to weed out bad studies, test the robustness of findings, and discuss appropriate conclusions. Peers are people who work in the same field – experts.

Scientists in related fields (or even completely different fields) are sometimes able to criticize the methodology of a given study, but big-picture stuff usually requires specific expertise. Non-scientist experts in a field of science are rare. VERY rare.

Pseudoscience and fraud are not science, so please don’t drag out the straw men and accuse me of claiming that only scientists can be good skeptics. I’m not. Think about the role that magicians have played in exposing so-called psychics, for example – the right tool for the job.

So, what am I trying to say here? Well, I’m trying to say that skeptics should criticize people who talk out of their asses about science on a public stage.

And I’m trying to say that skeptics should criticize it rather than do it themselves.

A skeptic, like anyone else, is entitled to make a mistake or two, even a big one. However, making a habit out of spouting one’s uneducated/under-educated opinion (or regurgitating one’s own interpretation of a cherry-picked opinion of an expert) from a stage is not what good skeptics do; it’s what people like McCarthy and Maher do. It shouldn’t be tolerated, much less encouraged.

But this has been discussed before:

http://www.skepticblog.org/2009/12/22/what-if-anything-can-skeptics-say-about-science/
http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/swift-blog/1338-need-advice-ask-an-expert.html
http://icbseverywhere.com/blog/2010/12/know-what-you-know/

For the record, there is NOTHING morally or ethically wrong with voicing one’s uneducated (or under-educated) opinion during private discussion or even in a public forum of equal footing. That’s called “discussion”.

This applies to both criticism and promotion, by the way.

Sometimes it is obvious where the line between pseudoscience and science is and sometimes it’s not. SkeptiCamps are a great place to get one’s feet wet and learn where those lines are, but I must warn you that even at these casual events, research-by-Google isn’t usually well-accepted. Do your homework if you’re planning to speak about pseudoscience.

And if you’re planning to talk about science, be very, very careful. Remember that reading a book or two, even if written by experts in the field, does not equate to the 10,000 hours of study required to gain expertise.

A note on why I wrote this:

There has been a lot of discussion about speaker lists in recent months.

I do not condone ultimatums or demands–attempts to bully organizations into punishing people you don’t like because you feel entitled to control. However, I have serious concerns about the quality of speakers at skeptic events and strongly believe that public discussion of the problems in general is needed.

These concerns are not new, but they have continued to grow and currently weigh very heavily on my mind.

So, sorry to be all judgmental and everything, but this stuff matters.

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34 Comments

  1. [...] in my opinion. I’ve discussed why in a blog post (with links which discuss the consequences): http://icbseverywhere.com Share this:Like this:LikeBe the first to like [...]

  2. julian says:

    Why do skeptics criticize Jenny McCarthy and Bill Maher?

    Because they publicly trash mainstream science despite lacking the expertise to properly analyze methodology and draw different conclusions (how scientists do it).

    Kinda wish I’d read this before I replied to your comment at Croft’s. It seems we have entirely different reasons for objecting to McCarthy and Maher. Will save my breath in the future.

    1. Instead, why not put a little bit of thought into the issue?

      They think that they are saving people from harm. They reject vaccines because it doesn’t fit with their beliefs.

      You think that they are causing harm. Do you reject their view because it doesn’t fit with your beliefs?

      You can’t both be right, so who is right and who is wrong? More importantly, HOW DO YOU KNOW?

      1. julian says:

        Ha!

        I get a kick out of people telling me to consider a problem and then completely failing to provide an original view or assessment of it.

        I use skepticism as a tool to approach real world issues and problem. It is not something I value in and of itself though I recognize its importance to finding any kind of solutions. It is very useful so, naturally, I cherish it.

        But it isn’t the end of the line or it’s beginning or even the most important point on it. “Who’s right?” is only ever one question however frequently you may have to ask it.

        1. You don’t seem to understand the problem at all and, if that’s the case, then you aren’t actually using skepticism. You’re just promoting some of the conclusions that skeptics tend to share (e.g., that vaccines are relatively safe and effective).

          You can’t know find good solutions to anything if you can’t look at evidence objectively. That means letting go of what you think is true or what you want to be true. THAT is the essence of science. It doesn’t start with what someone wants to prove. It starts with what someone wants to know.

          If you wave the flag of science while rejecting its basic tenets, then how are you different from the hypocrites you claim to rail against?

          What happens when you come across a scientific finding you don’t like?

          1. julian says:

            I’m promoting the conclusions I’ve reached. I’ve looked at them from every angle I could think of or was told about, tried to weigh each argument to the best of my (low) ability and tried to keep my responses in line with how severe the issue is and how certain I can be. Ideally anyway.

            I just recognize there’s probably some facet I’m missing or some bias I don’t have a full grasp on when I’m doing this.

            If you wave the flag of science while rejecting its basic tenets, then how are you different from the hypocrites you claim to rail against?

            People like McCarthy? I don’t think I’ve ever called her a hypocrite. Dangerous and horribly misinformed, yeah but I don’t think I’ve called her a hypocrite.

            And I don’t reject the basic tenets of science.

            What happens when you come across a scientific finding you don’t like?

            I don’t know. I was pretty miffed for a bit when I realized anti-depressants aren’t as good as I thought they were.

            I honestly don’t get the question.

          2. And I don’t reject the basic tenets of science.

            Your reply suggests otherwise. Why don’t you learn what they are so that you can make an informed choice about whether or not to reject them?

        2. julian says:

          Alright. I have a (very) basic understanding of science and the philosophy behind it so I guess that’s a fair request.

          Later.

  3. laursaurus says:

    It’s great when you weigh in on these issues.
    Interesting how the same person who gave an hr long science-denial lecture at Skepticon, also launched the first public boycott. First, she launched a boycott against a particular evolutionary biologist’s books, then his presentation at TAM 10. Next she went on to lead the community-wide boycott of TAM 11, impugning the reputation of the JREF as a whole claiming the organization endorsed a cavalier attitude towards the personal safety of female attendees.
    I don’t blame a single person who quite rightly, disassociated with any organization or event that continues to give her a platform. Unlike Randi, who immediately clarified that his article was never intended as a dismissal of climate science, but a comment on the doomsday hysteria over imminent catastrophe, she doubles down on her non-sense. Since Randi’s AGW gaff, he has wisely remained silent on the issue.
    RW only cranks up the drama. I’m sure a snarly, ad hominem rebuttal is forth-coming since she has zero tolerance for criticism. Yet the CFI pretends none of the senseless damage she’s inflicted on the skeptical community over the past 2 years never took place. No, they feel an indignant response is warranted over a single tweet.
    She is the reason I never wanted to participate in organized skepticism. Now that she isn’t going to be at TAM anymore, and you actually encouraged me to attend in another comment section, I am seriously considering the possibility. I’m female, if that is still considered a good thing ;)

  4. laursaurus says:

    Clarification: the rebuttal RW is writing (or maybe not) is for the evolutionary psychiatry blogger who deconstructed her pseudoscience on the Skeptinkblog linked in the article, not to you, Barbara. Unfortunately, your blog might fly under her radar.
    The Skepticink article is well-cited and informative, so it might turn out that she just ignores it. After all, she’s a busy TV celebrity these days. It will be interesting to see how the mainstream TV viewing audience feels about her. After reading the rave reviews on iTunes, I eagerly downloaded a few episodes of the SGU podcast. I suffered through several, convinced I must have gotten a few duds. They all seemed to begin pining over Jenny McCarthy and/or some remote town school board being pressured to teach Creation in science class. The persistently pessimistic tone was unpleasant, yet tolerable if it also had great content in the additional segments. But the interjection of RW’s bitter snark was insufferable for me. Try as I might, this show was the opposite of entertainment, except for some old episodes recorded before she joined the show. This was long before Elevatorgate, back when the skeptical community loved her. So hence, I was not interested in conferences that seemed to center around her. (She turned one TAM into her wedding. Great way to not spend a dime, especially when you dump his 2 months later. -ok, that was my own bit of snark :P)
    You do a terrific job of writing about these core issues. I respect your ability to present things objectively, immensely. Even the comments you leave on other blogs really contribute to the conversation.

    I don’t know where I read that you teach at an institution in So. Calif. That’s within driving distance for me. Although I work full time, it sure would be interesting to take one of your courses IRL. I don’t see it in the “Welcome” intro at the top of the page, so not sure where I read this or if it is current.

    1. I resigned from teaching more than a year ago, but I do presentations occasionally, including a workshop at TAM each year.

  5. Tim says:

    Lets get back to skepticism being about the promotion of critical thinking…like it used to be in the good ‘ol days.
    I’m tired of having to bite my tongue when I hear drivel preached from a supposed skeptics podium.

    1. Well, even in “the good old days” there was a LOT of discussion about best practices. It just took a much more productive form we like to call “civil discussion” and the participants were a lot less likely to allow their personal relationships and ideologies to get in the way of objective evaluation.

      But they were human, too.

  6. Marcel Kincaid says:

    Ooh, ooh, you’re an MRA! –atheismplusgonetragicallyawry

    1. Oh, finally!
      BTW, loved your comments on the Temple post.

  7. I have zero problem with the idea of laypeople talking about technical issues. Indeed, someone who is informed, but an outsider can often show up a shortcoming in the conventional wisdom that those closer to the issue they’re talking about can’t see.

    This is why I make sure to talk to “normal” people about computer issues a lot. They don’t make the same assumptions I do, and often point out things I would have never thought of in spite of, and maybe because of, my 20 years in the field. If nothing else, it can be useful as a way of seeing how your work is viewed by the general public, and help you better educate them.

    But there is a world of difference between that, and calling something junk science or crap or dangerous because it doesn’t agree with your worldview. If you are going to stand up and talk in front of ANY audience about a subject, you owe them the effort to be informed about it. John Stewart is not a “political scientist”, but it is clear from the Daily Show and his other appearances that he spends the effort to be well-informed, even though he is “just” a comedian. Other comedians waxing about political, social, or scientific issues do the same thing. If you are talking to an audience of laypeople, I think you have an even GREATER responsibility to be informed and correct. You can do those things and still be funny, gregarious, what have you.

    The idea that “oh he/she is ‘just’ a comedian” lets you off the hook is, quite simply, intellectually lazy, intellectually dishonest bullshit that should not be allowed to pass without criticism.

    1. julian says:

      John Stewart is not a “political scientist”, but it is clear from the Daily Show and his other appearances that he spends the effort to be well-informed, even though he is “just” a comedian.

      ….
      ….
      ….

      And he’s often overly sweeping,ignores important aspects of news stories and uses the defense that he’s just a comedian.

      1. so if it’s wrong for him, it’s wrong for everyone????

        1. julian says:

          I didn’t say it was wrong for him. I think he does a wonderful job and that he’s right to point out you shouldn’t expect him to provide thorough political analysis. That’s a ridiculous expectation to have.

          1. no, no, let’s actually be clear here:

            is it wrong to use “just a comedian” as an excuse?

          2. julian says:

            Depends on the situation, the frequency of the claim, how the claim was made, where…

            It’s a situation by situation thing. I think when Stewart has used it he’s had a point but Tina Fey was pretty out of line back during the ’08 election on SNL when she talked about then Senator Clinton and then Senator Obama.

          3. so you can be completely wrong as long as you’re a comedian? I’m just trying to get some consistency here other than “it’s okay to use that excuse as long as I agree with its use.”

          4. julian says:

            How many ways do you want me to say this? I already told you I don’t think “I’m just a comedian” is always a valid excuse. I even gave an example of where I feel it doesn’t apply. What’s so damn confusing?

          5. julian says:

            Nevermind. You have a goodnight, Welch. I still hate your guts.

          6. Someone I don’t know dislikes me. Shall I take to the interwebs and decry your bullying? Shall I demand protection from such hatred?

            Or shall I pat you on the head as one would an angry toddler, and respond in the kindly, yet condescending way that only a genteel southern lady of advanced years can perfect?

            Bless your heart.

          7. Pitchguest says:

            You do realise, julian, that the reason he keeps badgering you is because the excuse “stand-up comedy” or “just joking” has been used to justify Watson’s talk? Since you agree that “just a comedian” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, would you also then agree that Watson made overly sweeping statements and ignored important aspects in order to discredit evolutionary psychology?

            Obviously “just a comedian” is a perfectly fine excuse to have, but let’s have a bit of consistency here.

          8. exactly, although it’s not limited to Rebecca Watson or anyone else.

            If we are going to use “it’s just comedy” or “they aren’t a scientist/engineer/expert” as a justification, then let us be consistent. If it is used to justify the glaring errors in Watson’s talk, then the same bye should apply to:

            Creationists
            Anti-Vaxxers like Jenny McCarthy & Bill Maher
            Climate Change Deniers
            People we do NOT agree with just as much as people we DO agree with.

            Or, we can admit that comedy is not a bye for actual factual errors, regardless of who makes them. We can expect people talking about a technical topic or referencing a field of science to have done the minimal research required to verify the validity of their talking points.

            If lack of “official” qualifications is a bye for *some* people, then basic consistency would require us to allow the same bye for *all* people.

  8. S. Madison says:

    My husband and I earned a reputation for generous support of skeptic endeavors. We were invited to a fundraiser for a skeptic organization recently, and declined the invitation with a further note that we would not be providing any more financial support because we do not approve of whom they are promoting as spokespeople for skepticism. (We did not include a list of names in our response.) Any organization that claims that their mission is to promote skepticism should care about their reputation in fulfilling that mission, and should choose spokespeople who will service as good role models for skepticism.

    I don’t consider our decision to be bullying in any way. My husband and I are not prominent spokespeople for skepticism. The only way that we can have our voice be heard is to withdraw our financial support. We refuse to help pay for a platform for loudmouths who fairly consistently fail to behave as one should expect from skeptics. Particularly, when some of these loudmouths are obviously clueless about what skepticism is. If someone doesn’t know what it is, they can’t do a good job of promoting it.

    If we don’t police ourselves and our own, promoters of hypocrisy, and not skepticism, are what we become. We neglected our duty in this regard, and we have allowed fire-breathing dragons to attain far more prominence then they ever deserved. Their hyperbolic rhetoric and dismissive snark were amusing when it was directed at pseudoscientists. It’s not quite so amusing now that it’s being directed at scientists and skeptics. My husband and I have never been keen on this type of engagement with others. (People like you, Joe Nickell, Daniel Loxton, Brian Dunning, Sharon Hill, Ray Hyman, Jeff Wagg, and Ben Radford have always been our style.)

    Barbara, you are to be commended for your promotion of skepticism through the years, your willingness to speak out about the ideals which the claim of being a skeptic entail, and your efforts to keep the fire-breathing dragons at bay.

    1. Well said, until the last paragraph, that is. I can’t judge myself in that way, but I am humbled by that list.

  9. S. Madison says:

    “I can’t judge myself in that way, but I am humbled by that list” is proof that my last paragraph is well said. The best skeptics exhibit introspection and humility. :-)

  10. matt says:

    i think people like jenny m should be educated about the issue. we have science on our side should’nt we be able to show her the truth of the situation? does this problem speak to the accessibility of science to the general public? is it just to difficult to explain the intricacies of science on certain issues?

    1. You might want to read this again more carefully, then read the links I provided.

  11. MosesZD says:

    I really like your blog, I was beginning to wonder what happened. Glad to see another post.