why big time online skeptics just can’t keep on doing what they’re doing

August 23, 2012

dog in headphones

A few years ago, when faced with a balancing act between blogging as a skeptic and trying to get into a new career, I wondered which one should be my top priority. I did what I could to show up at virtual meetups, commented on all the blogs, got in touch with big name skeptics, and overall, tried to get and stay as involved with the movement as possible. Ultimately, I made the choice to focus on my career as much as I could and looking back at it now, I’m happy I made that choice, especially in light of all the drama emanating from the top blogs. It’s like an angsty high school scene but with a lot more nerds and geeks present and the histrionics a lot more eloquent since it’s professional writers composing them, not emo teens still working on the basics of persuasive composition. Yes, several major meetups like TAM are flourishing, which is great, but too many of the smaller ones seem to have become epicenters for the next great debacle to be covered extensively across the skeptical blogging world. It started with Elevatorgate and it very quickly went downhill from there.

When the movement that’s supposed to help promote education, skeptical inquiry, and combat laziness and disinformation in pop sci media is wracked by battles between those who don’t seem to understand that “show us your tits!” is a monumentally dumb thing to say to women on the web and that maybe they should not be proving the point of women who decided to tackle the topic of sexism in typically male realms by harassing them to the point of warranting coverage in major news outlets, and those who respond to this by positing that “you are male, you have a penis, therefore you are likely to rape me” is a good basis for a sexual harassment policy at a meetup, I’m left wondering when we’re going to get to the actual promotion of skepticism and education part. It’s not that such problems should be swept under the rug, no, not at all. In fact it’s the exact opposite of that. If those who want to engage with the skeptical movement and those who want to lead it are fighting over how to treat each other like decent human beings, how the hell can we move on to anything abstract or lofty?

And what’s even worse is the way these issues are being handled in the skeptical blogosphere. Rather than being calmly discussed and debated, like many other topics, these basic issues are spun into maelstroms of rage and fury by posts pleading and demanding that they’re addressed exactly the way the poster wants them to be addressed and angry verbal fist-shaking about the dire state of all things skepticism or atheism when the mood either fails to change right away or another fit of drama ripples across the interwebs. Well, when those who took it on themselves to lead just further the divide and call their fans into their camps, how do they expect these issues to get resolved? Are they looking for a solution or tallying the votes in their favor, because it increasingly looks like they’re a lot more interested in the latter. Skepticism is not a magical cure to all the world’s ills and its pretty unreasonable to think that socio-economic and gender issues wouldn’t rear their ugly heads when a whole lot of people get together and have free reign to comment at will on skeptical blogs.

Somewhere along the line, the exchanges went from “what can we do to educate people about science and the validity of secularism?” to “how can this movement become a social panacea for my needs?” while those who emerged as the movement’s leaders decided to fight each other until the echoing message is “to hell with skepticism and atheism the way they are, I’m leaving the movement to turn it into [blank], who’s with me!” It’s really selfish, immature, and shows that the supposed leaders simply can’t lead. Is it bad that women say they feel harassed at a number of skeptical meetups? Yes it is. Can every single jerk who gets a little too cocky after his fifth beer be purged? No. Should there be some sort of an official policy for how to deal with unpleasant incidents at meetups? Absolutely. Should this policy be based on anticipating a standoff between those who are assumed to be rapists in waiting and those who believe they’re future victims? Not at all because Stranger Danger never leads to good decisions about safety, and makes no one feel welcome or at ease during the entire event. If you don’t like the way the TSA does things, you’re not going to like any other Stranger Danger-based security because they’re going to be fundamentally the same in their implementation.

But instead of coming together and saying that whatever harassers can be stopped will be, and that a few basic policies are in order just so everyone knows what should be done if things go wrong, we’re told that the movement is either failing or being plagued by extremists and must be purged of these offenders post haste. How exactly does this help to build and maintain a major movement? The points are valid but the management is atrocious. It simply takes the broad goal of promoting better science, education, and the need for secularism, and turns them into selfish pissing matches, fragmenting the visible top of the movement along personal loyalties so one of these “thought leaders” can crown him/herself as King or Queen of the Nerds. This is not what skeptics need. They need leaders who will give them a group on which they can count, a group that can make use of their activism and take it to the next level so we can fight the good fight for sound science and leave social issues to politicians and the public who we’ll strive to inform with facts. They don’t need infighting cliques with their own agenda trying to boldly and with great fanfare take charge of a movement they seem to think they own.

[ photo illustration by Arturas Kerdokas]

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  • Brett

    I figure conflicts were inevitable as the Skeptic movement expanded, including new groups of people for whom Skepticism was about more than just educating people about science – it was a way for them to critique inequities of gender, class, whatever. The internet culture then adds a whole layer of virulence to it.

    Not that it bothers me too much, since I stopped following most skeptic blogs a long time ago. Mostly because my tolerance for “Outrage of the Day” has gone way down.

  • Fantastic article, echoing my own views about the lamentable direction the ‘skeptical movement’ has taken in the wake of clashing egos and the continuous struggle to accumulate as many yes-men as possible.

    Especially your line ‘… the exchanges went from “what can we do to educate people about science and the validity of secularism?” to “how can this movement become a social panacea for my needs?” …’ resonates with me. Rather than fighting tooth and nail amongst themselves to establish an all-encompassing ideology for a glorious new age of Internet bile, prominent skeptics should be focused on… scientific skepticism.

    As a moderator on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe forum, I’m disgusted by the degree of polarisation displayed on both sides of the ongoing feminism-in-skepticism ‘Civil War’, which aggressively drowns out anyone who pleads for the calm and reasonable discussion that should be expected of people who pride themselves on their intelligence, their good sense and their adherence to the power of reason. The current motto: you’re either with us or agin’ us. Choose your side.

    I’d rather eat a brick.

  • Badbass

    I’ve taken the attitude of “you can’t change the world, so improve your little corner of it”. While the internet has given a voice to those who feel lost in a sea of nothingness, it’s also brought out the worst of us with our petty issues and feelings of self-glory. We can only educate one person at a time and that’s through personal contact. The blogs and opinions of others can help shape our own views but we shouldn’t allow them to define who we are as individuals. The taking sides thing, is it sheep looking for shepards, or the other way around? A little of both, maybe. I follow this blog because it’s articulate, educational, and the comments are usually civil and thought provoking. Thanks, gfish, for this little corner of sanity.

  • Reggie

    Thank god! A rational voice! My wife was showing interest in Skepticism until Elevatorgate when her polite but dissenting comment on a Watson post never made it out of moderation. “What’s the point?” was her response and she walked away from it. We had been planning a vacation to attend TAM, but no longer have any desire to go.

    Other Skeptics, women in particular, with whom I have spoken with privately don’t agree completely with how things are being handled or on all points being made, yet remain quiet for fear of a swift and brutal online assault for daring to question the only right way for sexism to be viewed or handled in the community.

    I’ve all but given up on the movement. It doesn’t offer me anything anymore even though I am an ardent atheist and Skeptic. My wife and I are young professionals and parents. I would think we’d be a hot demographic to target in a world filled with corporate fallacy and childcare woo woo. But instead we get drama about things that happen at bars and hotels late at night long after we would have tucked our daughter in and retired ourselves. In fact, there has always seemed to be a strong undercurrent of dislike for parents and children in these communities I have participated in since they tend to be in no shortage of younger people who are likely to stay out late at bars and tend to view children with some amount of disdain.

    I still follow a few big names, but I’m completely removed from interacting in the community or donating any time or money. And I certainly will not promote the community at large to non-Skeptics. At least not while it is in its current state.

  • Greg Fish

    But instead we get drama about things that happen at bars and hotels late at night long after we would have tucked our daughter in and retired ourselves.

    Even as a childless night owl, this is the absolute last thing I want to read about when surfing skeptic blogs. Interesting take on the situation though and I agree with you. FTB is reading more and more like a gossip log network for atheist nerds…

  • cleareyedandsad

    Yep…I think the “skeptical movement” is done, killed by self-inflicted wounds. No longer following skeptical blogs, I only noticed this kerfluffle because of the New Statesman article, and when I looked into it, I had flashbacks. Not a thing has changed.

    I can’t imagine TAM will be around much longer with the splitting that’s going on, which is sad, considering that I think I’d have loved the earlier ones.

  • Adamwho

    As noted in an address by Jamy Ian Swiss at TAM 2012, (video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DIiznLE5Xno), there are are groups of activists in the skeptic movement who would like to shift the focus of the movement to their personal activism. Such examples are atheists, humanists, and feminists, among others.

    These activists should go do what they want to do, in their own groups rather than distorting the mission of skepticism. There should be no litmus tests to participate in skepticism except the desire to use critical thinking. Skeptics are not in the business in having people sign off on a lists of beliefs before they can join the club.

    Unfortunately, it seems like there is as growing group of atheists (see FreeThought blogs) where you do need to not only hold to a list of required beliefs you need to believe them with without dissent (See Carrier, ‘The new Atheism+’, especially the comment section by Carrier http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/2207/).

    What can the ‘leaders’ in skepticism do besides ignore the activists promoting tangential issues?

  • Johnny

    If it makes anyone happy, at least the JREF forum discussion on the issue is an outpost of sanity: http://forums.randi.org/showthread.php?t=242361

    Hopefully the JREF, the Skeptics Society, the RDF (and this blog!) and so on will keep doing what they are doing, and “Atheism+” will drown out.

  • gouchout

    Just like to point out the phrase is “free rein” as in horse, not “free reign” as in monarch. The distinction is important because of the “ruling” implied by the mistake version. Also the former actually means something whereas the latter is meaningless, unless its meant to be a pun.

  • gouchout

    FWIW – agree with your post, definitely