the fuzzy, shapeless future of organized skepticism

September 7, 2013

calvin superhero

Apologies for the lengthy pauses between posts but with Project X in full swing and long days at the office, there’s only so much time to write, and the more gets written the more problems there are for the aforementioned project. But more on that in due time. For now, I decided to take the occasional detour into the realm of meta-debates and talk about news stories documenting the growing pains of the skeptical movement. Their common theme is that there are people under a banner called skepticism who want to confront pseudoscience while at the same time arguing a great deal about how to do it, and with certain influential skeptics trying impose their politics on the entire movement. Does a skeptic need only to worry about debunking Bigfoot, UFOs, quack remedies, and ghosts? Does a skeptic need to be atheist? Are skeptics allowed to shelter hope that a belief for which there’s little to no evidence might still somehow end up being true? And in the grand scheme of things, what do the skeptics really want to accomplish in the end and who gets to be invited to join them in their campaigns? In short, what exactly makes one a skeptic?

But hold on, you might object, why does arriving at a concrete definition matter? Aren’t skeptics just scientifically literate folks applying basic scientific methodology to bullshit claims made by all sorts of profit-minded shysters and by well-meaning but potentially dangerously ignorant people who pass them on or weave them into their personal brands of cargo cult science? Well, yes, in the broadest way that’s correct, and it’s what let me to start forging ties with organized skeptical organizations when this blog was in its prime skeptical phase. However just because you called yourself a skeptic for denouncing pseudoscience and were recognized for it by JREF or another skeptical group, doesn’t mean the topic you’re best equipped to address will ever get any major boost, even within the group. For example, I’m most often cited for Singularity skepticism, mostly because I’m a techie by profession and education, and have the experience and tools to put the wild claims of our impending immortality through technology under very tight scrutiny. Good for me, right? A new branch of skepticism can be added to the collective’s efforts, right?

Sorry but no dice. In fact, a certain very popular 2012 skeptic once told me that until he started reading my dissections of Kurzweil & Co., he thought that their ideas were a lot more plausible than they actually were, and the Skepchicks hosted a very sympathetic take on the claims and predictions being made by the attendees of a Singularity Summit. After talking to those involved on the subject, I was told that while my take was appreciated in the form of links, what I wrote on the subject was "sort of advanced skepticism" and they wanted to focus on something that was more common, the old school skeptics-as-common-sense-debunkers approach. Pretty much the only recognizable skeptics not only interested, but willing to give transhumanist and AI skeptics a real platform was the team at Skeptically Speaking, for which I ended up doing half an episode, and a two-hour debate with a prominent transhumanist. That’s right, we were so popular and the audience was so receptive, I had to come back twice. But to the old school skeptics, it’s really all about debunking common myths and popular quacks. It needs to be done but for those of us no longer interested in that, there doesn’t seem to be much room in organized skepticism.

And this is one of the biggest sources of friction that I’m seeing right now. Those of us who are technical experts in one subject or another interested in applying our specialized knowledge to a possibly arcane but still popular topic, are sick and tired of the umpteenth dissection of Dr. Oz and a UFO sighting now decades old, but we’re not really being included or asked to bring light to a new topic or two because that puts the old school skeptics out of their comfort zone. Now, I won’t be surprised if by now you’re tempted to dismiss this grievance by pointing out that it came from personal experience and makes for only one data point. But if you go back to the Atheism+ fight for just a bit, you’ll hear an undertone of the same exact issues from a completely different group of people with completely different goals. They wanted to turn organized skepticism into a left wing political movement rather than broaden its primary topics, but their reason for trying to create a new offshoot was due to a) feeling that the skeptical old school is not interested in new ideas for the future, and b) their avoidance of the skepticism vs. atheism question based mostly on marketing considerations, to make the religious feel more welcome at skeptic meetups.

Today’s big, organized skeptical groups don’t seem to be evolving or really expanding past the few topics that bound them together. More and more skeptical meetups seem to be preaching to the choir rather than exposing skeptics to new topics. The whole movement just seems stuck in place, retracing the same fake Bigfoot steps and analyzing the same flying saucer on a wire for the hundredth time. And as if that wasn’t enough, we get drama and gender wars on an endless loop for publicity and stats instead of guidance and fresh ideas. Wasn’t the point of well-funded, organized skepticism to spread education and combat the popularization of pseudoscience in all of its forms rather than spending a lot of time with people who agree with what you say? Where are the skeptical conferences that invite expert speakers to expose skeptics to big, cutting edge scientific ideas to peak their interest in broadening their horizons and taking on new topics? Is a skeptical equivalent of TED without the buzzwords out of the question? No wonder reporters on missions to write about organized skepticism all end up asking where would the movement go in the next few years and fail to prove an answer. They can’t. There’s no future game plan…

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  • TheBrett

    I suspect it’s because we don’t really have a “Skeptical Movement”. We just have a bunch of different groups that generally agree only on a few things, and those things happen to be debunking woo (helped by the first couple of celebrity atheists cutting their teeth on this stuff). Start talking about debunking Singularitarianism, and now you’re starting to step on people’s toes and potentially sending us all back into fragmentation.

    . . . Truth be told, I don’t really care about building a broader Skeptical Movement for that reason. I think it’s just impossible – you’ll inevitably up with something watered-down and weak, because Skepticism tends to act against any sort of dogmatic belief that might drive stronger centralization in the movement.

    Agreed on the Atheism+ stuff. I can definitely see skepticism being useful in examining political and gender roles, but what I usually see out of the Atheism+ crowd isn’t really skepticism – it’s advocacy. They already have goals and beliefs in mind, and skepticism is just another tool set to build justifications for getting there. Scratch the surface and the usual word-and-definition arguments pop out, along with the ever-present accusations of privilege.

  • Johnny

    “Where are the skeptical conferences that invite expert speakers to
    expose skeptics to big, cutting edge scientific ideas to peak their
    interest in broadening their horizons and taking on new topics?”

    The Skeptics Society seem to have it, sort of at least:

    You might also be interested in Massimo Pigliucci’s critical assessment, who like you is troubled by the prevalence of singularitarianism:

    I think Daniel Loxton’s attempt to make skepticism synonymous with anti-paranormalism (nothing less, nothing more) is very troubling. But otherwise, skeptics do seem to pursue different topics, though to a rather small degree.

    The tendency to accommodate religion is also annoying. Plenty of religious people don’t believe in ghosts or reincarnation, not due to evidence, but due to their religious beliefs. Yet they might well believe in demons…

  • gfish3000

    Johnny, look carefully at that lecture series in the Skeptics Society link. What are the lectures? Harris on free will. Why evolution is a real thing. Carl Sagan’s favorite astronomy topics. Has science refuted religion with Dinesh D’Souza, who is far better suited for participating in a debate about what sandwich to order for lunch than over any serious topic.

    Which part of this is new? Which part of this is unknown to those of us who passed our science classes? By this point, the only people who don’t really understand how evolution works and what merits it has as a scientific theory are either the willfully ignorant, or those who don’t want to take the slightest effort to educate themselves. You can do a search on a few things I’ve written about D’Souza to see why debating about religion with people like him is even less productive than talking to a wall. At least the wall doesn’t reply with vapid, fallacious talking points you now need to waste time refuting. It’s all old hat, it’s all been done to death already.

    As for Pigliucci’s critique of Singularitarians, it focuses on the easy stuff — that Kurzweil has a skewed view of evolution and his predictions are meaningless — but doesn’t even try to tackle anything on the science of mind-machine interfaces or what would need to happen to make the big vision work, and what problems will be encountered along the way. Sci-fi author Charlie Stross did an infinitely better job on the subject on his blog. And debating with Yudkowski? The man who writes 40 page AI papers that manage to contain nothing more useful than another rehash of a Naive Bayes classifier? Pfft.

    Ultimately, I’m not that distressed that you can count the publicly active Singularity skeptics who actually understand the claims being made and can refute them on a technical level being few and far between. I get it, it’s an esoteric topic with a lot of complex jargon and computer science to unload, as @TheBrett:disqus said. It’s more the drumbeat of sticking to the same stuff and repeating the same lectures and the same debates over and over again instead of trying something new or showing some sort of concerted effort into making it respectable to be an expert again that worries me.

  • Darwyn Norris

    I recently warned Skeptical Specticals that sometimes they were guilty of not being scientific in some of their post about the subject they were ridiculing. That if they weren’t careful they would create a religion of skepticism. Of course I was instantly slammed by one of their followers. And this, made my point. They no longer have to defend themselves. A true believer will step forward to insult whomever dare question their methods of ridicule. Just keep it scientific. That’s all I was saying.