skeptical blogging ain’t what it used to be…

February 28, 2013

broken emo

Oh how I miss the good old days of skeptical blogging, when PZ Myers was unloading on inane creationists and New Agers with the delicate touch of a tactical nuke, the Skepchicks didn’t lock down the comments under heavy moderation and traded links and the occasional friendly e-mail with me, so many skeptical big shots returned my tweets and e-mails, and many of us knew that our focus should be on science, education, and fact checking popular media for the benefit of a reader who didn’t see what was wrong with creationism in science class, or why so many people claimed to see UFOs if there’s almost no chance they’re really out there. That’s what we did. We educated, entertained, and started debates. But post-Elevatorgate, all that went to shit. Popular skeptical blogs now overflow with gossip and infighting, and the results are sad to behold. Sides have to be taken, lines have to be drawn, and the actual science and education stuff they used to be all about has taken a backseat, showing up between angsty s/he-said-what? posts.

PZ and the Freethought Blogs contingent has decided to turn their atheism and skepticism into some sort of a political campaign based on the logic that if you’re an atheist and a skeptic and know that creationism isn’t science, you also know why Paul Ryan’s budgets are crap and then proceed to take proscribed positions on key social issues. And as for the Skepchicks, well, the Elevatorgate horse hasn’t just been beaten to death, it’s bleached bones have been desecrated many times over by now, but of course Watson won’t quit because it brings her hits and lets her offer herself as a martyr to the hordes of sexist pigs in the skeptical community — who are really mostly rabid internet trolls who spew nothing but hatred anyway — to fawning fans. Her dubious behavior as a moderator at JREF can now be safely buried under her martyr cloak and skeptics who don’t agree have to tip-toe around her lest they displease her, explaining their behavior in great detail only to get a dismissive, passive-aggressive reply over a year after the fact.

I’m not sure what was the moment I first facepalmed while reading what has become of some of the big profile skeptics nowadays. Was it PZ Myers’ brief manifesto filled with disgust that some libertarians have the gall to call themselves atheists? Was it Greta Christina’s breathless praise of a cafe that put a diaper change station in the men’s room because it didn’t have space for a second one in the women’s restroom as if it was some sort of revolutionary anti-sexist message to its patrons despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of men’s rooms do have changing stations anyway? The whole Atheism+ affair that ultimately went nowhere fast? Perhaps it’s true that nostalgia is a seductive liar, as George Ball once opined, and maybe I am glossing over a periodic rift or two, but the last year has been one of the skeptical movement taking three steps back to quibble over semantics, late night bar gossip, and internal politics instead of promoting the united message of science and education needing to triumph over ignorance and stubborn fundamentalism, rendering once flourishing blogs less and less relevant.

Perhaps the real bright spots have been Phil Plait, whose passion for space overruled his meta analysis of skeptical niceness and who keeps cranking out fantastic skeptical and pop sci work on a daily basis, and the former top dogs of the Discover Network who never changed their big picture focus on the science and the narrative of discovery and education. They’re on to a new home but they’re still going strong. And here’s the important thing. If they paid any attention to the drama at TAM and the gossipy blog fights, they moved on. Maybe that’s what FTB and the other squabbling self-proclaimed skeptical leaders need to do? Maybe they could find a hobby that doesn’t involve writing passionate treatises about their feelings and how those around them are failing to nurture their personal existential crises? Last year I found a hobby that has zilch to do with computers, blogging, or Singularity skepticism and find it amazing how much that clears your mind. Maybe a little less focus on their drama will get the back into being the strong voices for science, education, and skepticism they were before they let politics overtake them?

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  • Last year I tweeted a young woman who is a fairly well known feminist saying how it would be great if we lived in a world where we didn’t have to break down into groups like feminists, or gay and civil rights activists, where we could just be humanists. My meaning was that it would be great if we could see each other as human beings first.

    I spent the next half hour being accused of being a subtle sexist who was trying to strip her of her identity as a feminist to disempower her. I apologized for the careless phrasing of my tweet and tried to explain my my meaning, but nothing I said could say would convince her I wasn’t a sexist.

    Now, maybe she was just having a bad day. Maybe she had just finished dealing with someone who was actually trying to disempower her and overreacted because of it, but the last thing I am is a sexist. I believe in equal rights for everyone and I’m quite vocal about it. That exchange was an opportunity for her to make a connection with someone who could help her to spread her message, even after her initial response. Instead, it has caused me to not reach out to her again.

    When people go out if their way to find enemies to fight, they get in the way of their message. Unfortunately, even something as “right” as the skeptics movement can go awry.

  • Unfortunately, Damian, I’ve seen (and been a part of) your story waaayyyy too many times.

    Skepticism seems, at times, to be in danger of becoming another religion, in that it serves as more of a label than a method of thinking/acting. Not everything said by a scientist is scientific, and not everything supported by a skeptic can be called skeptical. And while it’s far from the only example of this, feminism (or what some seem to believe it is, anyway) is one of the most distinctive examples of this disparity.

    The unfortunate thing is, there really are sexism issues that should be addressed, but when enough people seek to turn every situation they can into a misogynistic plot of immense proportions, the overall public reaction is to dismiss it all – the witch hunt stands the chance of setting things even further back.

    I still encourage anyone to make the effort, to bring attention to any examples of irrationality. There will be some that utterly refuse to recognize it, of course, but sometimes you still end up highlighting it for others, and making the irrationality a bit more obvious.

  • Yeah, it does seem as if a few of the more prominent bloggers have let it go to their head. There’s a lesson in there, perhaps…

    I ended up changing my reading habits rather significantly over the past two years or so, dropping several sites, picking up others (though admittedly fewer.) You actually hung on much longer than I did. In some ways, I see this as just another dynamic of the intertubes, like the death of newsgroups (replaced by Facebook and Twitter, just in case you thought mankind was improving.) It would be nice to think that new bloggers will come up to replace the old regime, but becoming ‘known’ is actually harder, as personal links are now anathema and spam filters both merciless and indiscriminate.

    In the meantime, there are still some that remain free from the ego trip. Harriet Hall as you linked, Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science, Carl Zimmer at The Loom, Sean Carroll, Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution Is True, Jason Rosenhouse at EvolutionBlog, most of Scientific American’s bloggers… they’re out there. Let the snipers attack one another, and maybe they’ll get the hint when the traffic goes elsewhere.

  • If I were a conspiracy theorist, I’d say someone or some group of people purposely dropped a turd in the skeptics punch bowl. That’s the ONLY explanation.

  • TheBrett

    Part of the problem is that talking about creationism and skepticism in the US is more or less beating a dead horse. How many times can you make the same critique of the same idiotic new age nonsense or latest push by religious idiots to push creationism in the schools, without the whole thing turning into a mess of repetitive “Outrage of the Day” blogging? Myers’ and Orac’s respective blogs became dull and unreadable for me specifically because of that.

    It was also inevitable that as the body of skeptic bloggers grew bigger, it was going to incorporate people for whom “atheism” means something different than criticizing nonsense – for them, it’s political/social/whatever. Of course, being the Internet, this meant that strong personalities were going to dominate the discussion, alongside the inevitable sexist/racist/whatever trolls that such topics inevitably invite.

    And for whatever reason, the social left blogosphere is obsessed with terminology – I remember a tempest in a teapot over whether or not men could be called “feminists”. Then there’s the constant “identity politics” pissing matches, like the kind that Damian mentioned below. At some point, you just start rolling your eyes and removing such people from your twitter feeds and blogs.

  • gfish3000

    You’re right that you can’t be 100% skeptic, 100% atheist on the blog all the time or it will get repetitive not only for the readers but for you as well because you end up writing the same post over and over. I think you’ve been following Weird Things for a while and probably noticed less typical “skeptical” posts and more science/tech think pieces for this very reason.

    That said, when said idiotic New Age nonsense spreads across the internet like herpes and when a big, possibly law-defining push for creationism in science class is made, you have to address it.

    And for whatever reason, the social left blogosphere is obsessed with terminology…

    A lot of leftist political groups tend to be very focused on language, terminology, and addressing every constituency’s rights, sometimes so much so that they end up coming across as condescending to the groups they want to defend, see last year’s great big anthropology/science debacle for an example.

    And yes, part of that are the identity politics pissing matches in which the demand for conformity with the group-dictated terminology can overshadow the goal…

  • gfish3000

    when enough people seek to turn every situation they can into a misogynistic plot of immense proportions…

    But that’s the thing, there are people to whom every situation is a misogynistic plot of immense proportions and if you’re not with them, you’re against them and support the patriarchy. That’s the sad part.

  • Richard

    There’s a lot of skeptics who are still on point — Sharon Hill, Barbara Drescher, Hayley Stevens, Karen Stollznow, Daniel Loxton, Ben Goldacre, Brian Dunning, Reed Esau, Eugenie Scott and podcasts like Monster Talk, Skepticality and QEDCon aren’t into the drama-fest. Even some of the Free Thought bloggers like Kylie Sturgess, Non-Stamp Collector and Digital Cuttlefish aren’t getting involved. The “big picture focus on the science and the narrative of discovery and education” is still being done, just the signal gets overwhelmed by noise. Support what you want and maybe there’ll be more of it.

  • Richard

    My comment got lost but I agree, there’s a lot of skeptics like Sharon Hill, Hayley Stevens, Karen Stollznow, Eugenie Scott, Reed Esau, Daniel Loxton even Ben Radford to an extent who keep up with the “big picture focus on the science and the narrative of discovery and education” and that includes some Free Thought Bloggers Kylie Sturgess, Digital Cuttlefish, Non-stamp Collector and podcasts like Monster Talk, Skepticality and QEDCon. You just have to support what you want if you want change for the better.

  • Paul451

    We spent so long standing guard against the religious right that we forgot about the crazy left.

  • Paul451

    Cat Societies. Small groups that develop intense cliques and hypersensitive culture and language. Usually centred around a small number of key players who have decided What Must Be, and their supporters who treat that as a natural law.

    The mundanes try to get along with everyone and tend to unintentionally encourage the worst behaviour. The grouches try to show the stupidity of cliques and get pushed out. And as the regulars get sick of it all and drift away, the group becomes even more tightly focused around the personal politics (hidden behind “real issues”) of those key players.

    And eventually the president of the cat society hires her hairdresser to kill her main rival. (Actual case.)

  • gfish3000

    I agree with your overall sentiment: good skepticism interwoven with science is still out there and it was highlighted at the end of the post. But some of your examples of skeptics staying out of the mess might not work for the purposes of this discussion.

    Most of them are from the UK where Elevatorgate was forgotten quite quickly, and a number of them are writers and journalists, not daily or regular bloggers. Eugenie Scott is way too far above the fray to even mention here and focuses exclusively on fighting creationists and global warming deniers. Dunning is an investigative journalist who’s focused on medicine. And considering that two of Drescher’s last three posts were about PZ Myers/atheism and skepticism as a moral movement, I don’t think she’s staying out of it, especially because she debates PZ.

    Likewise, keep in mind that these are the dyed in the wool, old school skeptics against whom PZ and the Atheism+ crowd rebels as stifling their social causes in favor of just doing the same thing they’ve done for years on end and yet again debunking ghosts, or Bigfoot, or Nessie, instead of helping them fight religion, misogyny, and Republicans with the power of skeptical inquiry and science…

  • IDoubtIt00

    I used to read Pharyngula for the “Blogging on Science Research”, remember that? It was great. The Skepchicks USED to write about skepticism. You’re hard pressed to find much of that there these days. FTB was a great idea that went wildly off the cliff. Even Atheism+ was at its core a fine idea but took the dark path from DAY ONE. Overall, I’m sad that some great ideas went rotten.

    It’s been my goal to stay out of it and mostly I have but things have taken a very bad turn in the past few months with two of the major skeptical orgs. I have no intention of giving up because the audience I aim for is the public and, actually, VERY FEW even self-labeled “skeptics” know of the “inside baseball” stuff going on. But notice something… if you look, Skepchick and FTB page stats have been on a steep decline. People are leaving and not coming back.

    I’m glad this piece is out there. I’m curious, regarding those of us who aren’t going away but are trying to stay the course, what do you think we should do? Only a small group of us actively support each other’s work. We are ignored (deliberately) by others who seem only out for themselves. I’m currently trying to reach out more to the paranormal community and have found that some (not all) are much more pleasant to be around than “skeptics”. But I often become discouraged that someone is just not playing fair. Is there a way to grow a rational, non-over-reactionary audience?

  • shanepbrady

    I’m always an optimist, but I find more and more interesting skeptics out there, once you get away from the FTB/SkepChick crowd. And as Sharon said, a lot of real-world skeptics have no idea about most of this stuff.

    Really good post, sums up a lot things I’ve been feeling as well.

  • gfish3000

    I think everyone has a unique field in which he or she is best qualified and those of use who don’t associate with FTB, Skepchick, or other big name groups, need to do a better job of finding each other, cross-linking to informative posts as references in ours, and be willing to e-mail each other asking for thoughts on a story we can’t quite make heads or tails out of, but we think the other skeptic might. Basically, good, old-fashioned, informal teamwork.

  • (Howard) Nigel St. Whitehall

    This piece really hit home with me. I probably could have written 95% of it. I nearly burned out of writing own obscure blog at the end of 2011-12 due to being a skeptical funk. I took a somewhat similar tactic, but instead of martial art hobby, I made myself listen to a number of tech, history, and automotive podcasts. Anything that was not science, atheist, or skeptically related even though it meant not listening to the same amount of material. It helped me gain some perspective. I tend to think sometimes one can get too immersed in a subculture, and mentally one can get out of whack.

    I suspect the vast majority of folks interested in skepticism all the infighting is an annoyance and something to keep out away. I suspect it is only producers of content, great or tiny, really pay attention to a lot of this stuff. I have informally tallied who comments on “hot” blog posts and it is the same people over and over. It’s a few who roar while the ‘silent majority’ stay mum and move on. I do keep in mind that Skepticality, the SGU for the most part, Exposing PseudoAstronomy have steered clear of the drama. There are still blogs that just blog about skepticism and paranormal activities etc. I think the solution is to keep on trucking doing whatever niche of skepticism you like to do. Support others who are doing the same. Build new communication lines outside of the soapopera scene, and realize sometimes some internal strife is necessary for healthy debate. Try, try very hard to keep it civil.

    My own hope is over time the hotbeds of the drama such as FTB and Skepchick will burn themselves out, or finally simmer down and get back to what they did four years ago.

  • RDW

    As a newbie to the internet Skeptic Community, I must say that I wish I’d had this piece to guide me when I first entered a few months ago. It’s a minefield out there. You’ve concisely explained The Rift. I hope it can heal.