Skepticism and Science
Posted by Pete Hague on 22 Jul 2012
I wasn't planning to blog about skepticism again. I thought that I had said all that needed to be said when I described my estrangement from the skeptics movement. However, there have been recent events which have reminded me of those last year that began to drive me away from organised skepticism.
Firstly, in response to DJ Grothe (head of the James Randi Educational Foundation) saying that people exaggerating the problem of sexual harassment at TAM (The Amazing Meeting) was more likely to be putting of women attending than sexual harassment himself, Rebecca Watson and others decided to boycott the conference, seemingly based on a complete misinterpretation of his actual statements.
Secondly, Video blogger Thunderf00t joined the rather ironically named "FreeThoughtBlogs" and was then removed a short time afterwards, according to him for expressing an opinion contrary to the prevalent group think. I'm inclined to believe his side of the story - similar as it is to my experiences. Furthermore, his point of view on the matter seems to be based on more accurate representation of the opposing side than the video made by PZ Myers, proprietor of FreeThoughtBlogs
Thirdly, and most ridiculously, a blogger at "Skepchick", Amy Roth, admitted to being reduced to tears by an entirely inoffensive t-shirt somebody wore at TAM, and the wearing of this t-shirt was reported by one of PZ Myers' fellow bloggers, Ophelia Benson, as behaviour beyond comprehension. This apparent victimisation of Roth was used as a springboard for yet another series of rants about how misogynistic and patriarchal everything is.
The result is another schism on the scale of the one that erupted when somebody (allegedly) propositioned Rebecca Watson in a lift last year. The community splits down the middle, with each side denouncing the other in the sharpest terms possible.
When I first start being ostracised and verbally badgered by self-described skeptics, I considered that I had stepped out of line. I didn't think I had, but as I mentioned at the time - nobody came to my defence. It was just me, on my own. Seeing the exact same methods of silencing someone employed on others, makes me realise that I did indeed do nothing wrong. This is a problem with this faction of the community, not with me, nor with any of the other people who've been drummed out.
Denunciations in the skeptics community normally take the form of trying to show that the person targeted is in some way 'unscientific'. This is a tactic I have personal experience of; a blogger I won't even dignify with a link compared my questioning of certain radical feminist principles to climate change denial - and thus by inference he was claiming that the subjective political opinions that constituted his particular brand of feminism should be considered as sound as the hard-won consensus of decades of climate science. As if.
If this were just people trash talking on the Internet, it wouldn't be quite so bad - but there is a potential serious complication. There are plenty of professional scientists in the skeptics movement - Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Sam Harris, to name but a few - and these people probably don't consider there to be a sharp distinction between their lives in the skeptic community and their lives in the scientific community (assuming they believe in the stated ethos of the skeptics movement, why would they?) What happens, then, when a scientist skeptic encounters a denounced person in their professional life as a scientist?
Remember, in sophisticated skeptical circles, people aren't just accused of being dicks. They are accused of being irrational, stupid, and against True Science (incorporating the speaker's opinions, naturally…)
Lets say thunderf00t (who I am fairly sure is a scientist) goes to a conference, and meets somebody from the 'FreeThoughtBlogs' faction of the skeptics movement. He explains some new hypothesis of his - does somebody who has accepted the denunciation of him as unscientific give this new idea a fair hearing? I wouldn't bet on it. If the message being put out by PZ Myers and others is being listened to by professional scientists, he could be engaging in an industrial scale poisoning-the-well operation.
Science can get personal and heated at times. I'm currently reviewing some papers on dark matter halo profiles from around 10 years ago, and even hidden beneath the language of peer reviewed literature it is clear there was genuine, personal animosity behind some peoples' statements. This particular drama has since been resolved - but it does seem to me that the field was held back a little while by it.
So diving in an deliberately introducing biases and personal conflict can't help science. It does not help science when PZ Myers expressed contempt for scientists who don't share his religious beliefs. It could make anyone who listens to him less likely to evaluate the arguments of a scientist who is christian on their own merits, instead of on how 'scientific' the speaker is deemed to be.
I've reduced my involvement with online and offline aspects of the skeptics movement this last year, but it might not be as simple as I thought to walk away. I'm going to be presenting some of my results at a conference soon - I do wonder what would happen in the unlikely event I bump into someone who is aware of and approves of my own denunciation.
Can I afford to just ignore this community? I've no idea what the chances are that anyone I encounter professionally will either a) know or b) care that I've expressed opinions not approved of by certain high profile blogs.
I'm going to try not to let it worry me. Hopefully anybody who is aware of my online contributions, and does not approve of them ideologically, isn't going to let them affect their opinion of my work. Nevertheless, creating a situation where this is something I have to consider at all is a really crappy thing to do - especially whilst claiming to be a cheerleader for science.
Posted by Bill on 23 Jul 2012
Here's a big part of the problem as I see it. The questioning and desire to investigate a subject fully inherent in science is thrown aside when facing issues that concern a personal opinion rather than a professional one. If you question the actions of Rebecca Watson and those who support her, you are evil and wrong. There doesn't seem to be room for any discussion. That doesn't mean I disagree with her. It just means that I support the right for more than one opinion to be voiced.
Posted by Pete on 23 Jul 2012
That is how I see it. I am willing to have a discussion about the issues that clearly matter to Watson and Myers - and I think a lot of people are. But all attempts so far have failed.
Posted by CoffeeLovingSkeptic on 23 Jul 2012
Shared to my page here: http://facebook.com/CoffeeLovingSkeptic