Do you have any interest in the loosely organized community of critical thinkers who call themselves “skeptics”? Have you not been in a coma for the last few months? Then you’ve probably noticed a lot of discussion lately about skepticism as a social movement, about the strategies we’re employing as we try to foster an interest in reason and evidence in the wider world around us, while maintaining our identity as a community.
It’s a valuable discussion, and one that every social movement needs to engage in. We have have a common goal, after all. We’re trying a variety of methods to get there, but we’re all theoretically working toward the same thing. There are going to be strategies that work well, and others that aren’t as efficient. As in science itself, peer review is a powerful tool for sorting out the tactics that work from the ones that are just a waste of time.
Unfortunately, the discussion as it’s currently taking place is happening in perhaps the least useful way possible. So much of the talk that’s going on starts from accusations that some person or group is harming the movement, and devolves into clashes of strawmen, lumbering across blog comment areas, slinging ad hominems apace. It’s enough to make the siege of Helm’s Deep look like a tea party (with orcs).
I’ve mostly stayed on the sidelines during the bloodiest of these battles, for two reasons. First, the sheer rancor of a lot of the debate is something I’ve tried very hard to keep out of the Grassroots Skeptics sphere. I want GRS to be able to support people who are trying a variety of different ways to foster critical thinking, and I feel like that mission is undermined if we’re being drawn into hostile debates about whose skeptical street cred is bigger than whose.
Second, I don’t feel like I’m anywhere near smart enough to be telling anyone the “right way to do skepticism.” If there even is such a thing, it’s going to take a far better mind than mine to identify it.
But as I’ve watched the embers of these conflicts glow, and occasionally flare into major conflagrations, I’m starting to feel like we as a community are doing a collective impression of the Spirit rover. Stuck in the sand, wheels spinning, letting valuable time and effort go wasted on a meta-discussion that could be extremely valuable, but is instead just digging us in more deeply. I’m hoping, in my own small way, to encourage everyone to take a deep, cleansing breath, and start having a discussion about our methods that will be more useful than its current incarnation, where everybody hates everybody and the thoughtful reflections and cogent criticisms are getting lost among the shouty bits.
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
- Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride (screenplay by William Goldman)
One of the first issues obscuring the discussion is that we’re not all even talking about the same thing. The question at the heart of the argument seems a simple one: “what is skepticism?” Yet the simplicity of the sentence belies a fundamental disconnect among the parties engaged in the debate.
Some of the most interesting and thoughtful writing has tried to answer that question by focusing on what skepticism actually is in practice. My (grossly oversimplified) understanding of that line of thought is that skepticism is a process by which we examine the world and the claims that people make. We try to understand the limitations of our own perception, and the tendency of our brains to misinterpret the world, and we try to compensate for that when we’re making decisions. We do our best to limit ourselves to the empirical evidence that’s available. And we try to recognize that there are some questions that are amenable to science and reason (medical and technological claims) and others that aren’t quite so (why a particular milkshake brings more boys to one’s yard).
I agree with the vast majority of what’s been written by proponents of this view, which is trying to define what they refer to as “scientific skepticism.” That definition makes a lot of sense, and I think we as a community could all benefit from a deeper understanding about that common toolkit of critical thinking skills, and where and how it’s most useful.
As valuable as that examination has been, however, it doesn’t really address the question that’s been at the heart of the most vociferous debate. It’s like an awkward cohabitant sharing a small apartment with a larger, more contentious question that it met through an ad on Craigslist.
It seems to me that most of what we’re really talking about isn’t about skepticism with a small “s.” Yes, there are plenty of people who call themselves skeptics because they read blogs and listen to podcasts, who’ve never bothered to actually define the term. And it’s never a bad thing for all of us to make sure we’re using the word correctly. But for the most part, the people doing the arguing seem to at least have some grasp of the process. They all probably do it a little differently in practice; humans have an endearing habit of adapting things to their own uses. And they might disagree about what topics are suited to that kind of examination. But their concept of what skepticism does and how it’s practiced doesn’t seem to vary too wildly.
Where the the bulk of the disagreement seems to be coming from is about what I will, for lack of a better way to distinguish it, call capital “S” Skepticism. It’s about a process, yes, but the process of promoting a reason-centered lifestyle, of encouraging an interest in science and sharing the value of critical thinking skills. In other words, it’s about the way we behave, both when we’re trying to sell critical thinking to non-skeptics, and when our behavior is public in a way that non-skeptics can observe us, even if unintentionally.
Like I said 900 or so words ago, it’s a valuable discussion, and one that every social movement needs to engage in. Figuring out what works and what doesn’t is an integral part of creating change, no matter the subject.
It’s very like evolution in that respect. Try a lot of different things, and you’re bound to hit on something that’s effective, but the system is best served when there’s some mechanism to weed out the less useful practices. Since the things that fail aren’t going to literally die, we need some process for identifying and diverting resources away from the weaker strategies. But in order for that comparison of tactics to yield any real benefit, it needs to be constructive. Discussion is one thing, yelling and throwing things quite another. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the discussion of late has mostly been of the “shattered flatware” variety.
“The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention.”
- Oscar Wilde
I’m going to assume, for the purposes of not waking up to a pitchfork-wielding mob outside my bedroom window, that everyone who’s expressed an opinion on this topic, however caustic, has done so with an honorable motive at heart. To wit: trying to advance the cause of Skepticism by discouraging strategies or behaviors they see as detrimental in some way.
I know that many of us are tired to the point of exhaustion of discussing our tone. We want to believe that the information content matters more than the delivery method. And ideally, that might even be true. But even among skeptics, who attempt to be as rational as possible, the way criticism is presented often matters as much, if not more, than the actual substance of the critique. The most efficacious medicine, delivered on a load of buckshot, is still going to do less healing and more blowing holes in people.
Lately, it seems as though most of the time the discussion starts with a particular accusation that gets thrown around so frequently, it’s almost become a Mad-Lib attack. (PROPER NOUN) is so (ADJECTIVE). (PRONOUN) is going to make (COLLECTIVE NOUN) hate us.
RICHARD DAWKINS is so STRIDENT. HE is going to make RELIGIOUS BELIEVERS hate us.
SKEPCHICK is so SEXUALIZED. THEY are going to make FEMINISTS hate us.
P.Z. MYERS is so ABHORRENT. HE is going to make THE WHOLE UNIVERSE hate us.
Please note that I’m not piling on these particular people or institutions; neither am I suggesting that they don’t deserve any criticism whatsoever. Like pretty much anybody who ever existed, they do some things that are great, and they do some things that are not so great. I doubt that even they would suggest that they’re perfect; I hope that nobody seriously believes they are uniformly odious.
So if we assume for the sake of argument that any skeptical activist is doing some good stuff, and some other not-so-good stuff, what exactly is served by starting out on the attack? Again, maybe in an ideal world, the person against whom you’re leveling your criticism would have the skin of the rhino, and would be able to separate the broad, helpful intent from the specific, antagonistic phrasing. But in practice, this just isn’t true.
Almost nobody is going to be able to respond to a perceived attack in any positive way. They’re bound to get defensive, or to respond with an attack of their own. If you’ve ever made the argument that some institution or individual was in some way bad for the skeptical movement, ask yourself honestly; did you phrase your assertion in a way that had any hope of persuading your newfound nemesis to take a step back and consider adjusting his or her methods? Or did you grow a big ol’ pair of Internet cojones, call him or her something awful that you’d never say in real life, and enjoy the momentary adrenalin rush you got from stirring the pot with the bitchy stick?
Which isn’t to say that there isn’t room for improvement in the people receiving the criticism. More than once, I’ve seen an actual attempt at a thoughtful and cogent critique go down in flames, because the person or group at issue overreacted in a way that can only be described as monstrously oversensitive.
I think there’s an argument to be made that they’ve been primed in some way to expect to be attacked. The Internet didn’t invent flame wars, exactly, but it allowed them to flourish to a point that, if the term were literal, you’d need the equivalent of several tons of napalm to manage the comments section of any blog with even a medium-sized audience. But if you’ve been on the Internet for more than about a week, you should be expecting that, and making a concerted effort to correct for that if you read a criticism of your own work that might contain a kernel of worthwhile advice, despite being served with a triple side of jerk.
Like it or not, we’re all emotional creatures. We get worked up about something we see as harming a movement we care passionately about, and we lash out without thinking. Likewise, we have a project that we think is useful or effective, and we resist hearing anything negative about it.
So there is fault on either side of any particular divide, and it would behoove all of us, I think, to choose our words with an ear toward trying to inform and advise rather than to antagonize and alienate. With rare exception, the most ill-informed attempt to advance critical thinking is going to be more helpful than harmful, and there are plenty of people actively trying to undermine science and rationality who we can turn on if we feel the need to sharpen our rhetorical claws. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t criticize things that we think aren’t effective. But we need to ask ourselves if we’re honestly trying to improve the things we disagree with, or if we’re just carping because we’ve thought of a particularly clever insult that we can’t wait to try out.
“False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for every one takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness.”
- Charles Darwin
There is another point where I think a lot of the “bad for the movement” arguments break down, and that’s with the evidence used to support them. Again, I can’t rule out the possibility that I’ve missed something obvious in most of the examples I’ve encountered. But if I haven’t, it appears to me that the majority of these arguments are primarily predictive. They’re conjecture and sociological doomsaying, forecasting a negative response from some other group or demographic based mostly, if not entirely, on the writer’s opinion.
And there’s something important to note here. I’m doing it too. I’m not giving you links to particular claims or attacks. I’m only giving you my synthesis of the material I’ve read. I’m doing this intentionally, because I’m seriously hoping that someone will refute me. If you’ve seen someone offer specific evidence that some skeptic or skeptical group is doing more harm than good, I hope you’ll educate me. It’s disheartening to think that folks who normally abhor the use of conjecture and anecdotal evidence would resort to it when discussing the dissemination of the very system of thought which leads them to be suspicious of those things in the first place. I would desperately love to be wrong about this, and if I am, please, please enlighten me.
So what should you do if you’re a conscientious and concerned skeptic, who believes that a particular tactic being used to promote reason and critical thinking is inefficient, or even harmful to that goal? Your first option is to make suggestions for ways to improve that process, and do it in such a way that your criticism has any hope of falling on receptive ears. Being constructive in your criticism isn’t a guarantee that you’ll influence the direction of the project that’s inspired your umbrage, but it’s a good start, and if your thoughtful entreaty is rebuffed, it gives you a great excuse to dive into the name-calling, if that’s been your secret desire all along. If you’re reasonably sure that a skeptics group is getting together on Sundays to kick puppies and elderly women, by all means start with the nasty. Otherwise, consider trying to actually provoke some change before you resort to being obnoxious.
All of which is a long way of saying yes. We, as a community, as a movement, as capital “s” Skepticism, need to engage in discussion about the methods we use. We’re working to encourage critical thinking and reasoning skills among the broader population. It’s an insanely big job, and it’s as uphill a battle as any since Sisyphus looked at Hades and said “you want me to push what where?” While there is plenty of room for a variety of different approaches, there are going to be things that work and things that don’t. It’s a useful exercise to identify the weak strategies, and to divert resources away from them, and toward more effective tactics.
The thing is, the sturm und drang that typifies the discussion lately takes a lot of time and energy, all of which could be far better spent trying different approaches. Sure, some of those may wind being as useless or futile as the things they were trying to replace. But some of them won’t, and the net gain in effectiveness definitely won’t be realized if all that effort is being spent on finding creative ways to tell other skeptics that they suck.
So please, I encourage you, in fact I implore you, to engage in critical analysis of the ways that we’re trying to get our message across. But I also encourage you to stop before you go in swinging, and ask yourself if you’re really hoping to influence the trajectory of the thing you’re criticizing, or if you’re just looking to get into an online spitting match. If it’s the latter, I hope you’ll consider channeling some of that energy into doing something different and, hopefully, better. And if you’re already out there trying to promote reason and critical thinking, then keep it up. But don’t stop looking for ways to improve your process. We could all use a little of that, and a reasoned, rational discussion about our methods would be a great place to start.