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Skeptic-schism Saturday (or Sunday): Skeptics lose another follower


The inaugural week of my attempt to blog more by having themes for particular days of the week, has been a success, in that I’ve stuck to my plan. However, I did plan to write about some teapot tempest within the skeptical movement yesterday, but ended up working on my resume instead. Priorities, yo. It just so happens that today I found an article to write about that fits nicely into my chosen weekend theme.

Today my good friend Kylie Sturgess  posted a link facebook to a blog post that while not without its flaws, strongly resonated with me. When questioned on why she chose to post it, Kylie said,

“…it’s an old article (‘last summer’) but after Jack [Scanlan] tweeted a link to it, elements were timely and got me reflecting.”

It’s called “Why I am no longer a skeptic”, and was written by Stephen Bond.

Bond writes that while he still values skepticism and science, he no longer feels the desire to identify as “a skeptic”. He then goes on to address several problems within the movement. For one, he feels that the skeptic movement tends to frame the current cultural conflict between science and faith with faith on the winning side.

 “…this is how skeptics like to portray themselves: an embattled minority standing up for science, the lone redoubt of reason in an irrational world, the vanguard against the old order of ignorance and superstition. As a skeptic, I was happy to accept this narrative and believe I was shoring up the barricades.”

However the majority of evidence, at least in countries like America, Britain and Australia, contradicts this.

“We live in a world created by and ever-more dependent on science, technology and reason, in which scientists and engineers are a valued and indispensable elite.”

Of course there are areas that can be shown to contradict this. New laws in Arizona, Tennessee and Texas to name a few, have begun to privilege certain religious beliefs especially in the areas of education and women’s reproductive rights. There are also other parts of the world that still privilege religion and other non-scientific philosophies. However, Bond’s point that these are often the exceptions rather than the rule, is still an important one. Despite efforts by a powerful and vocal minority, our society does value science and technology quite highly.

Bond goes on to make another important point: That while the values have changed, the appearance of the people in power has stayed roughly the same.

“…while nerds [are] a relatively new elite, they’re overwhelmingly the same as the old: rich, white, male, and desperate to hang onto what they’ve got. And I have come to realise that skepticism, in their hands, is just another tool to secure and advance their privileged position, and beat down their inferiors.”

He writes about the sexism within the movement, with which I have had my own experience , and the inherent Islamophobia, which has always made me particularly uncomfortable. Dressing racism, sexism, and ignorance up in ‘rationalist’ drag doesn’t help the movement’s image, let alone help address the supposed problems that totalitarianism and patriarchy cause within society.

The next section addresses a topic that I admit I don’t completely understand. He addresses what he sees as a problematic conflation of skeptical values with ‘neo-liberalism,’ a term I’m unfamiliar with. His political and philosophical arguments are a bit cloudy and without specific examples to tie them to, he has lost me for a bit. However, he does address a common problem I’ve witnessed: that so-called rationalists see philosophy as irrelevant because science has all the answers, while failing to acknowledge science itself as a philosophy. This lack of self-awareness means skeptics tend to de-value other modes of thinking in favour of the supremacy of science. He states:

“…I do not believe in the primacy of the scientific method as a source of knowledge. It might be the best we’ve got, but when it comes to human advancement — including the advance of science itself — other sources of knowledge can be just as useful, and often more important.”

He goes on to address the problems of failure to recognize the political aspects of science. He gives some examples of areas that would benefit from this awareness, but again, he has lost me in the details. I agree to the extent that failing to recognize the flaws in scientific philosophy, and enshrining science to the extent that we fail to see its shortcomings can be dangerous. However, I think it is a wishy-washy area. Sure, privileging science has social implications, and science is itself a social construct, but my brand of skepticism is inclusive of this problem. In other words, I’ve been questioning this for a long time, and other skeptics I know are aware of and address this problem frequently, even going so far as to write an outstanding new book about it. So it’s old territory for me.

Similarly the next section’s exhaustion with the constant ‘debunking’ of alt-med and Psi is fairly well-worn territory and I while I don’t disagree, I don’t fully agree either. Debunking still has a place, so long as John Edwards is raking in money for ‘talking to the dead’ that could better be spent on Alzheimer’s research that would benefit the living. Attacking debunking for me has become just as tired as debunking itself.

He raises more important issues in the next section. One that, again has been brought up frequently by others, but I still see as a major problem with what appears to be the goals of the skeptical movement. That it’s all well and good to promote the beauty of ‘reality based thinking’ however,

“…for most people, reality sucks. And if they choose to reject it, I can’t blame them. Proselytising skeptics certainly offer them no incentive to change their minds. Skeptics ask society’s castaways to leave a reality in which they are good and valued people, and enter one in which they are pieces of warm garbage. Little wonder that so few take up the offer.”

He also makes the claim that clinging to skepticism serves the same purpose for many as religion, another old argument.

In the penultimate paragraph he briefly compares skepticism to the positivists of the 19th century, however he touches on this so briefly, it’s almost not worth mentioning. The rest of the article is spent attacking the character and arguments of prominent voices within the skeptic community.  I am reminded of the embarrassing ‘debate’ between Richard Dawkins and Cardinal George Pell (or Pierced Anal Egg Roll as I will always think of him – thanks Catherine Deveny!) which I quite accurately predicted would be “two old white dudes talking past each other”. The flabbergasting ignorance of each of them about the other’s area of expertise, was only surpassed by their inability to recognise and address their completely different philosophical and linguistic perspectives.

Bond confesses an early admiration for Dawkins, but now can only see the flaws and narrowness of his arguments and attacks against the religious. He refers to an an article by a reasonable Christian journalist who sums up the major problem when Dawkins goes up against religious bigots:

“…both hide behind a shallow empiricism to justify their right-wing politics. When they come to pronounce on world events, they’re both equally ignorant and self-serving.”

He concludes by comparing his former skeptic identity to a band he no longer likes, and thus, has discarded.

I admit this article echoes many of my feelings about the skeptic movement. I agree with many of Bond’s points, however I still identify as a skeptic. Just as I still identify as an atheist although many other people using the same label repulse me. I cling to the label of skeptic because ultimately, I don’t really care about labels. They are shorthand to describe one aspect of me. I am a skeptic, but I’m not a Skeptic. I’m an atheist, but I’m not an Atheist. I’m also and actress, a mother, a blogger, a feminist, a nerd and a slut (you say that like it’s a bad thing). But I have never let any one of these labels alone define me. I get to change my t-shirt every day and still be me underneath. Just because I’m not wearing my Cure t-shirt doesn’t mean I no longer dance when I listen to Disintigration (I should have added ‘goth’ to the list above), and just because I no longer go to The Amaz!ng Meeting or contribute to online forums doesn’t mean I am not still a skeptic.

I also feel uncomfortable abandoning the label entirely because if I disavow it, it means that the “mean boys” get to keep it. More diversity within the skeptic movement is exactly what it needs. By removing a dissenting voice from the greater conversation, the voices within it will become more and more homogenized. Skeptics need more skepticism. That is, if everyone who criticizes the skeptic movement just leaves, there is nobody within the group to point out its flaws. Sure, there will be the strident bullies who try to silence those voices, but running away from the fight means they’ve won. Maybe by removing myself from pointless forum bickering, I’ve already made myself an outsider, but the name of my blog will stay the same. I hope that means every now and then someone will read it, or better yet link to it and I’ll get to keep my membership card.

  1. 29/04/2012 12:02 pm

    Hello! I no longer use my old blog – could you redirect to ? Thanks and I’ll respond later (assignments are due, argh).

  2. 29/04/2012 4:09 pm

    I LOVE the last paragraph!! I get so frustrated with the situation where someone is annoyed about something within a group/label/movement and react to that annoyance by essentially taking their toys and going home. I understand that sometimes people change, the group changes or they simply feel they need to disengage for whatever reason – I can absolutely respect that. However, writing a harsh criticisms of a group that you wish to leave just seems petty. If you don’t care enough to stay – throwing barbs on the way out the door is just obnoxious.

    The high-profile characters of any group do not own that group nor do the media outlets have a trademark that they have the right to brand.

    I feel the same way about people who shy away from the term “feminist” – also frustrating.

    By the way – Disintegration = Best Album Ever!


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