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

Celebrity-driven organized skepticism is becoming a loud, partisan, and political disaster.
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Photo by Arturas Kerdokas

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.

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