What “Matters”

I am doing some more ‘navel gazing’, but in a very real sense, it is of a skeptical nature. Given the name of this blog space, it should be no surprise that my primary goals include refuting or correcting misinformation. Well, I found some more of the kind I have written about many times here: misunderstandings and/or misrepresentations of the nature of skepticism, of statements made by myself and others, and of the ‘movement’ in general.

I will start by quoting from the comments of another blog because I don’t want this comment to go unread. The comment was written by D.J. Grothe, President of the JREF.

…Leaving aside your conflation of atheism, skepticism and secularism, allow me to respond to a few of your remarks.

I appreciate that you reference the diversity panel I programmed into last year’s TAM schedule. JREF is happy to have taken the lead in such programming at conferences, having had both a panel and a workshop on women’s issue in 2010, and a panel on diversity in 2011. We plan some similar programming along these lines in 2012. And I am personally proud that half the speakers at TAM last year were women, and about 40% of the attendees were women (we programmed TAM this way not out of some commitment to quotas, but because we know that skepticism in general and the event in particular are better off if we include the talents of everyone, not just one half of the population). This is a marked improvement over where these allied movements were 15 years ago when I first got involved professionally.

As the only organization in the skeptic/atheist/humanist world run by a gay man, JREF takes issues of diversity seriously (http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/swift-blog/1430-diversity-at-the-amazng-meeting-9.html), including political and religious diversity. (I might add that this one reason why we find it very important to avoid conflating skepticism with atheism; to repeat what I have said elsewhere: JREF is not an atheist organization (http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/swift-blog/1081-new-atheist-directions-at-the-jref.html). Similarly, even though Randi and I are both gay men, JREF is not a gay rights organization.)

But to clarify, I never argued that skepticism should be completely removed from social issues. Indeed, I argued quite the opposite, both in that diversity panel and in a number of previous talks (http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2010/05/10/d-j-grothe-skepticism-and-humanism/) that I have given over the years. The skepticism JREF advances is motivated by our interest in the well being of others, and out of our commitment to make the world a better place, not just from a petty desire to prove others wrong. When skeptics rail against the use of the ADE 561 dowsing rod as a bomb detector at checkpoints in Afghanistan and Iraq, we do so because that unfounded belief kills people. When skeptics rage against psychics who prey on the grieving, we do so not only because belief in psychics in bunk, but because belief in psychics really hurts people.

I do believe it is important for nonprofits to remain focused on their unique missions, and to avoid “mission creep.” The JREF’s mission is to “promote critical thinking by reaching out to the public and media with reliable information about paranormal and supernatural ideas so widespread in our society today.” Obviously, there are many other important missions and causes for folks to commit themselves to, in addition to JREF’s cause. Indeed, for nearly 20 years I’ve been involved with LGBT activism, as well as with atheist activism, and with environmentalism. But I would never join, say, PETA and insist they focus on other causes I care about like global warming instead of their mission, nor would I join the NRA and demand they start advocating for gay rights instead of the right to bear arms.

That said, JREF’s work over many years has been precisely to address the harm that results from undue credulity, and often within marginalized communities. Consider that Peter Popoff preys mostly on socio-economically disadvantaged communities of color, or that there is a lot of harmful pseudoscience peddled about and within the gay community. Or look at the work of Leo Igwe, the Nigerian skeptic and activist who works with the JREF to combat persecution of “witches” in Africa….

D.J.’s comment mainly addressed the following (NOTE: this is edited somewhat, but I do believe that there is enough context to convey the author’s intended message.):

One of the things that I have trouble with in this movement is the lack of focus on issues that “matter”…

…as someone who cares deeply about social justice, it has very often been a very difficult movement to be a part of. For me the great appeal of secularism, the great tragedy of religion, and my own personal passion for this cause is all centered around the fact that religion is the source of many evils or used to justify those evils perpetrated against humanity. As was said several times over the weekend, UFOs and Bigfoot aren’t that important to me, skepticism is much more interesting when applied to issues that impact people’s lives in serious ways. Children, minorities, people of color, women, poor people, the disabled, the elderly, LGBT, and other marginalized groups would benefit so much from having the tragic consequences of religious bigotry removed from their lives.

So when people in charge of important organizations speak on a panel at TAM to say that social justice isn’t and shouldn’t be within the purview of skepticism, or people in my local atheist group leave because they think it is inappropriate that someone posted a link to a story about the Rally Against the War on Women because who cares about that feminist bullshit, or important people in the movement tell me not to bother submitting something to TAM if it has anything to do, even tangentially, with women’s issues, I start to doubt why I am even involved.

First, I must say that I find the implication topics in traditional skepticism do not “matter” nothing less than offensive. If you agree with that statement, I invite you to visit whatstheharm.net and read a few of the stories under topics that D.J. mentioned. Then tell the families of children who were maimed or decapitated by witch doctors that their suffering does not “matter”. Tell the people who were bilked out of their life’s savings by psychics that their problems do not “matter”. Tell the people whose loved ones succumbed to cancer because they were told that their faith would heal them that their deaths – that they – do not “matter”. Tell them that these things did not “impact their lives in serious ways”.  Need I go on? Or perhaps that statement should have read, “…lack of focus on issues that “matter” to me.”

The majority of Americans believe in psychic phenomena, although that proportion is declining, thanks to the efforts of groups like the JREF.

According to a CBS poll, the majority of Americans believe in psychic phenomena, although that proportion is declining, thanks to the efforts of groups like the JREF.

Newsflash: The issues addressed by the JREF and other skeptic organizations matter to me. They matter to others. They “matter”.

It is easy to wave the vague flag of liberal ideology, to throw out terms such as “marginalized groups” and claim to care about the well-being of others, but how does that translate to real progress? What, exactly, are you doing that “matters” more than the work you claim does not “matter”?

Next, although D.J. is not named, it is clear that in the second paragraph the author refers first to D.J.’s comments on a panel about diversity in skepticism which appeared at last year’s Amazing Meeting. This panel sparked quite a bit of discussion and at least one blog post. Many clarifications and “hammer-it-home” comments were made, including this one by D.J. (bold mine):

No questions should be off-limits to us, no issues taboo, including religious beliefs. And I feel the same way about diversity when it comes to political and economic views. I would hate to see the skeptics movement become merely a platform for left-leaning (or right-leaning) ideologies. As I have said many times, I personally favor a skepticism that is widely and consistently applied (and personally believe that will lead to atheism), but I professionally also favor organizations that have clear and limited missions, since an organization that tries to do everything may end up doing nothing very well…. our mission is focused on the paranormal, pseudoscience and testable supernatural claims. Unapologetically.

D.J. noted that the JREF plans to post video of the entire panel soon, so you can see for yourself what was actually said about the scope of skepticism.

Before I add my two cents (or more of it), there is one part of D.J.’s comment which I think is likely to be challenged:

…I might correct the misinformation or misunderstanding that there are people who go around insisting that skeptics only focus on UFOs or Bigfoot; a quick review of the program over the last few TAMs should disabuse you of the misunderstanding, or combat the misinformation…

Discussions of the scope of the movement have popped up in the past and there are those who advocate for a focus on traditional topics such as psychics and UFO abduction. However, any interpretations of those efforts as “insisting”, “telling people what to do”, or even as a question of the definition of skepticism, are misguided.

I know of no instance in which an individual connected with a skeptic organization (big or small) or a blog or anything else which might identify the person as involved with Skepticism has disagreed with the ideal behavior of applying skepticism to all aspects of life. If you think that is untrue, please read at least the first half of this post before reading further here. If you still disagree, please provide examples in the comments of this post.

There are good reasons for organizational focus which go beyond the issue of “mission creep”. One involves the fact that movement skepticism is, as D.J. noted in his discussions of the diversity panel, diverse. I say this, not to point out the inclusion that goes along with diversity, but the fact that a group of people who agree on what is best for society in every possible way is not a group at all. It’s an individual. People are complex. Issues are complex.

Skeptics promote scientific skepticism because they agree that it is the best way to evaluate claims. They do not necessarily agree on political, economic, and social issues.

Most importantly, however, is that the only role that ideology can play in science or scientific skepticism is in motivating individuals to act. Ideology [30 min mark] gets in the way of good reasoning and good science.

This does not mean that science and scientific skepticism should not inform one’s personal ideology, but this is not the same thing. It also does not mean that one’s values should not motivate them to do what they do, as D.J. has noted on numerous occasions (follow the links in his comment). For example, the claim that homosexuals are more likely to be child molesters is one that organized skepticism can address with scientific evidence.  The claim that homosexuality is “morally wrong” is not.

It is worth noting that self-described skeptics are overwhelmingly supportive of gay rights initiatives, but that does not make gay rights a skeptical issue. The ability to separate scientific and logical reasoning from ideology makes it possible to know what we know about homosexuality, which paves the way for acceptance of it. however, when we start with ideology and allow it to lead us, we greatly impair our ability to draw reliable conclusions.

Moving on, I would like to say something about the conflation issue that D.J. set aside, because I think that the problem is related. Here’s my hypothesis about what happens in this community:

  1. There are large overlaps of the communities of skepticism, secularism/humanism, and atheism, with individuals who are involved in more than one and with organizations working together on specific projects.
  2. There is a high correlation of identification with one or more of these communities and socially-liberal values.
  3. An individual discovers the community, either through skepticism, secularism, or atheism, and mistakes this correlation with a “movement”.

Here’s the thing: skepticism, secularism, and atheism are different things. Among them, secularism has the closest ties with liberal ideology, but even secularism is not liberalism.

This may seem unimportant to some and I have often heard the argument, “But people care about X!” That argument is not relevant. If you care about X, promote X. Just stop calling it Y and stop insisting that promoters of Y also promote X.

Furthermore, referring to complaints about conflation as “nit-picking” is ironically anti-intellectual. These distinctions matter. A lot. If you do not know the difference between these things, and if you discuss them as if they are one, the integrity of skepticism as a scientifically-minded endeavor is lost. So are your ability to reason well and the ability of skeptic organizations to achieve their goals. As Daniel Loxton often says, “good fences make good neighbors”.

Individuals new to the communities are best served by studying these issues before publicly opining about them, much as we are all best served by speakers whose expertise supports the content of their talks. Unfortunately, I think that many do not see a role for themselves in activism unless it’s a leadership role. I find that a bit sad; there is plenty to be done while one learns the field.

Finally, I will add that complaints about TAM and other conferences failing to offer “what I want” leave me scratching my head. Most of these complaints are ridiculously off-base if you look at the content that is offered. Even if the topics you want are not discussed, so what? It is not organized just for you and what you think is important.

The Amazing Meeting is a curated event for which speakers (and discussion topics) are chosen by the curators themselves. It is clearly content hat more than 1650 people wanted last year, a number that has grown by at least 10% each year. If you are not among those people, then by all means, go to a conference that meets your requirements for “worthy of attending”.

Or perhaps this is really about whether or not the community should have input into the programming of such events. In that case, I can only point out that the community has plenty of input. You choose to attend/not attend. If you attend, you are asked to provide comments about what you did/did not like as well as offer suggestions for the future.

Anyone here think that your input should be valued more than that of the other attendees?



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13 comments to What “Matters”

  • The post was a personal reflection on the conference, things that “matter” are necessarily things that matter to me.

    I specifically said UFOs and Bigfoot because I think other issues, like homeopathy and con-artists, are problematic and need to be addressed.

    It was not a criticism of TAM, which I have attended and enjoyed and has a diverse collection of speakers and subjects. It’s a criticism of the fact that there’s nothing like the JREF focused on social justice problems looked at from a skeptical point-of-view. I understand why DJ felt the need to defend his and TAM’s reputation, but it’s not what the post was about, TAM is not the only thing that exists in the skeptic universe.

    Obviously where I disagree with you is as to whether gay rights is a skeptical issue, in my opinion, it absolutely is.

    • Obviously where I disagree with you is as to whether gay rights is a skeptical issue, in my opinion, it absolutely is.

      As with previous discussions of the definition of “skepticism”, its definition is not a matter of opinion and does not depend on how much you understand or like it.

      And this post is not a criticism of your post. It’s a criticism of the mentality expressed in the paragraphs I quoted.

  • Barbara,

    I think you nailed it here. To me, when you attack all the “-isms” (racism, sexism, etc), skepticism is the tool you use to knock down the claims that people use to support the -isms. They make great examples of applied skepticism which should be in the toolbox of any social justice group. The one panel from last year’s TAM that DJ seemed to take the most criticism for, seemed to be because he resisted an overt support of a particular political idealogy, not a hesitance to attack claims.

    • Exactly.

      I’m not sure that “…when you attack all the “-isms” (racism, sexism, etc), skepticism is the tool you use to knock down the claims that people use to support the -isms.” is more clear than other attempts to explain this nuance, but maybe it will resonate with people for which other explanations hasn’t.

      And you just sparked something in my head about secularism that probably deserves attention in the form of another blog post. Thank you!

  • laursaurus

    And you just sparked something in my head about secularism that probably deserves attention in the form of another blog post. Thank you!

    Yes! Thank you!
    I love your writings, Barbara. I have started to comment countless times, but the perfectionist monster eats my homework.
    What resonates with me is the way skepticism seems hopelessly distorted by the community that has gathered under the banner. Why does skepticism need to be a social justice movement? That involves ideology. Critical-thinking is a such a valuable skill to analyze what is factual. Ideology involves value judgments, like “what is important”. As a female, I cringed when I first visited a particularly controversial blog who’s unabashed mission is promoting Feminism with Skepticism. When did selling skeptics on a pet cause happen? When did stamping out religion while co-opting Judeo-Christian ethics become important? The Movement is a frightening paradox of euphemisms. How does a skeptic square the importance of increasing the ethnic and gender diversity with imposing group-think?
    Here’s the thing. I believe in God and I love science. We exist in larger numbers than NECs or atheists. When I reveal my mainstream worldview in a skeptical forum, a deluge of vitriol follows. “Skeptics” never discuss viewpoints, they debate them for the benefit of on-lookers. The JREF may officially not endorse atheism. But should the straight-forward explanation of the rationale be stated, the moderates are viciously pummeled into dropping the issue. After all, they are sympathetic to the plight of atheists.
    But I have already taken your sage advise. The fundamentals of scientific skepticism matter the most to me. But other than a mission statement which is really more of a disclaimer, it isn’t the most important to the JREF. TAM has other priorities like Feminism, Secularism (aka stamping out religion), LGBT equality, Progressive politics, and ethnic diversity. More colorful faces confirms the conclusion that racism, sexism, and homophobia only exist because people have a concept of God. When a group of “privileged” atheists asserts this, it doesn’t fly. The church leaders not only look like them, they embrace them with dignity. Not much of that going on in white non-believer communities. If it was truly about scientific skepticism, all would be welcome. Defining people as enemies of science and reason, tends to be unwelcoming.
    I appreciate that you really make an effort to keep skepticism on track. I rather enjoy critical thinking. But I am one of those evil theists who feels closer to the Creator (Evolutioner) by examining the His technology.

    • Why does skepticism need to be a social justice movement? That involves ideology.

      Oh, Laursaurus. You will love my next post. I am a little pissed off because half of it was eaten by the server this morning, but I’m recreating it and it’s right along the lines of what you’re talking about here.

      Regarding the rest, I’d like to add a couple of notes:

      – I stay away from forums in general. They’re somewhat poisonous, imo.

      – TAM is diverse. The audience is filled with great people, but there are some who are just jerks. Unfortunately, identifying as a skeptic does not make one reasonable.

      – I can see why you’d think that TAM’s priorities are things like feminism and secularism, especially when you look at the program for some years, but I don’t think that’s accurate. Its priority is skepticism of the paranormal, but secularism is part of that mission (the CFI has been a co-sponsor of TAM) and the importance of issues such as alternative medicine warrant some attention. The Skeptic Society has also been a co-sponsor of TAM and their focus is much broader, encompassing skepticism of mainstream science.

      Feminism, however, is not an issue that I believe any of the organizations considers within their scope. The panels about women in science and skepticism serve a different purpose: to discuss effective means of outreach to achieve gender parity among community members. There was also a “feminism” workshop at TAM8 which was a bit of a disaster, imo, but the idea was supposed to be to applying skepticism to feminist issues, not to apply feminist ideology to the skeptic agenda.

      The organizers are not perfect, but they do learn from their experiences and I strongly believe that the JREF tries to put together a professional conference whose focus is scientific skepticism. So far, I find it a conference worthy of my support (I have contributed my time and work for the last three years) and one I love to attend. This year’s will be my 6th or 7th (I have actually lost count). I hope that someday you’ll feel comfortable there and enjoy it, too.

  • John Greg

    Unfortunately, identifying as a skeptic does not make one reasonable.

    No kidding!

    Another very interesting post. I’ve been dropping by here for a while now, and I find that everything you write is really interesting. I just wish you wrote more. I am certainly looking forward to your next post.

  • […] my last post, I took issue with the a number of problems with a particular straw man complaint that organized […]

  • A very interesting post, and especially good reading after somewhat losing hope for the future of the sceptical community (or at least my own involvement in it, slight as it may be) due to exactly these issues. It’s very encouraging to see someone expressing rational thoughts on the matter.
    My first visit to your blog, but it certainly won’t be my last.

  • Darren

    This makes a refreshing change from some of the garbage I’ve read lately.

    Some people seem to conflate critical thinking with skepticism. Whilst critical thinking is, obviously, a major part of skepticism, that does not mean that any issue you can apply critical thinking to (ie: same-sex marriage) and come to a specific conclusion (of course it should be legal) is a skeptical issue.

    Traditional skepticism consists of critical thinking applied to claims about the nature of reality.

    While I support issues such as gay rights and equal opportunity, they do not fall under the umbrella of skepticism.

  • bluharmony

    Excellent post. Conflating issues drives people away, while a successful movement toward any cause needs unity despite differences on unrelated (or even marginally-related) issues. Also, people need to distinguish between their ideologies, philosophies, and methods of inquiry. Skepticism is, and should be, an example of the latter. But maybe even more importantly, it should allow for dissent without ridicule.

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