Has the skeptical movement failed?

The skeptical movement has been behaving in very self-destructive behavior over at least the past year as cults of personality and bitter rivalries have sprung up while those screaming the loudest on different sides of numerous issues have been allowed to dominate the conversation.

Just one recent example of this was highlighted when Ian Murphy penned a rather weak piece on Alternet that called out five individuals as The 5 Most Awful Atheists. There’s been much criticism about the rather subjective criteria Murphy used as well as his over-simplification of the views of several individuals on his list.

Well now Sam Harris, one of the alleged “awful” atheists on the list, has responded not just to this piece but to much of the recent criticism he’s received as well as the larger problem of internet critics with the ability to potentially smear a person’s name forever with the total freedom to make any accusation they wish. Now I don’t agree with Harris on everything. For instance, I do take issue with his current positions on torture and profiling. However, I also recognize that his position is far more nuanced than Murphy’s article and many of Harris’ critics let on. And I think to some degree Harris is willing to engage in civil discourse on these subjects. But I also think simply writing Harris off as a monster or a racist or a fascist or whatever does a great disservice to the conversation and to the rationalist goal of building a society on reason and intellectual discourse. But that being said, I’m not so sure Harris would easily change his mind when confronted with compelling evidence against his position. If he would, I surmise he’d have changed his position already given the currently available facts of the matter.

Harris also calls out PZ Myers for allegedly contributing to gross misrepresentations of Harris’ positions. And in these criticisms, Harris doesn’t pull his punches. Nor did Myers when responding to Harris’ condemnation. And it’s in these sorts of back-and-forths that I’m sadly reminded of the Joker’s line from the film, The Dark Knight about what happens when an unstoppable force collides with an unmoveable object. I suspect neither side of this rivalry will back down any time soon.

And that brings me to the thesis of this piece here. Shouldn’t we expect more from so-called skeptics and rationalists?

It’s unfortunate that supposedly rational atheists are utterly incapable of engaging in civil discourse when faced with disagreements and instead ultimately always choose the least rational approach of treating all disagreements as giant pissing contests where it’s far more preferable to vilify the other and score points before one’s fans than be seen trying to actually understand where the other party is coming from and find common ground. Rationalists should welcome civil disagreement, not attack it as if it were the enemy.

And skeptical audiences should cheer the moments when our peers admit being proven wrong, not the moments of grand-standing and bloviation. Until that starts to happen, this movement is at best failing in its mission and at worst a fraud.

George Sanayana once said that fanatics are those who redouble their efforts while forgetting their aims. Have the most prominent figures in our movement done just that? And if they have, where do we go from here?

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7 Responses to Has the skeptical movement failed?

  1. There’s been more than a few times, where I thought I’d change the name of the Ann Arbor Science & Skeptics to the Ann Arbor Science Enthusiasts or something, for precisely this reason.

    • Thomas_T says:

      You could call it Ann Arbor Science & Stuff or An ASS for short.

      The process of questioning shouldn’t be ridiculed if the person asking is sincere about inquiry.

  2. An interesting dynamic of this example is that Myers said nothing rude; he merely said the bulk of the ridiculous Alternet article was ‘spot on’. Harris then noted he was treated very rudely by FreeThoughtBlogs commenters and that he holds Myers responsible. Myers responded by, essentially, laughing that off. It’s telling that Harris doesn’t allow blog comments, and Myers has something of a community centered around his.

    It’s hard to see where the blame exactly lies. I am of the opinion that blog comments (like this one!) should generally be ignored and should carry no weight. Which in my mind means Harris has overreacted. However, it’s not unfair to put his complaint in context of Myers many other posts where he’s shown to be of a similar mind to his ‘pharyngulites’, making it fair that Harris puts their comments in Myers’ mouth.

    Other ‘controversies’ of late (particularly dealing with issues related to sexism) seem to also have been exacerbated by the contents of blog comments, and also to the proliferation of blogs by those with no particular qualifications on the subject; but the nature of the internet and our small culture gives everyone an ironically disproportionately equal voice.

    We all need to learn to ignore what almost everyone has to say. Especially me.

    • mjr256 says:

      Thanks for your comment. I particularly like how you end it because that’s exactly the sort of gestures we should be valuing in this community.

      Certainly Harris has some very problematic positions on several issues. But I feel you let Myers off too easy, especially given his not entirely unfairly earned reputation. The failure to engage in civil discourse and conduct oneself in a skeptical manner exists on both sides. And one doesn’t have to say anything explicitly rude to connote a hostility in their tone and approach. And man, even the title of the Myers piece linked to above contains enough snark and condescension to fuel a dozen hipsters.

      A key problem I see among many skeptics these days is an unwillingness to represent those they disagree with in the most charitable way possible and a pathological need to always appear as though one has won a debate, when these are not the values of skepticism. It takes far more courage to attempt to see where the other party is coming from to the point of even maybe beginning with the assumption that one is wrong by actively looking for potential biases in one’s own thinking. Words like “racist” and “misogynist” should not come nearly as easily as they do from many skeptics these days.

      In the case of Myers, when he says Harris simply dismisses Bruce Schneier out of hand, I quite honestly don’t what article Myers is talking about. Sure, Harris did use the phrase “long and rather tedious debate with him” when describing his conversation with Schneier, but it’s clearly presented as Harris expressing his personal frustration with seemingly the lack of ground that was made in either side to persuade the other as opposed to some blanket dismissal of Schneier’s points, as Myers seems to imply. Now I’m not defending Harris’ position and I haven’t myself even heard the aforementioned debate, but surely a skeptic as prominent as Myers can do better to fairly represent Harris’ point of view than he does. But what motivation does Myers have to do so as long as his fans just want to see him score points in a non-existent debate?

      Further, calling Myers’ comment section, or even the comment sections of most of the FreethoughtBlogs, a community may take far too many liberties with the term “community” than I’m willing to grant. They’re a disaster. And while no one, Harris included, holds the blogger themselves responsible for every third-party comment on their page, the blogger does bare some responsibility for having a general sense of the overall environment of their comments section and to police particularly objectionable comments when they are brought to the blogger’s attention. It’s one thing to have a few irrational comments fester in a comments section, but many of the FreethoughtBlog comment sections are halfway to 4chan status. And certainly some of the blame for that does rest on the bloggers themselves.

      Thanks again for the comment.

  3. Thomas_T says:

    My comment? Hmmm?

    What do you want to happen?

    For three of these five barely work in the atheist movement at all.

    Sam Harris is the most prominent one. But he is far from as active as say David Silverman, PZ Meyers, FFRF, and others groups and people.

    I hear this more and more about the confrontationlist and the accomadationalists.

    The first time I heard about it was in 2011 at Skepticon III in 2010.

    I have since seen several articles and blog post about it.

    I have even been attacked for being “too confrontational”.

    I have this to say, we have but one life, one time that we are able to affect a change in this world. We are able to use the tools at our disposal to make such changes. Why should we not use what ever means we can to help bring people to a point of shedding their baggage of religion so they can join us in reaching a high level of understanding of humanity and the natural world?

    From most of what I gather from those that tend to be the accomidationalist it seems they want to just be good examples and present reality as opportunities present themselves.

    I see this as fine but far from the only method. If you are in business do you simply make a product and hope some people buy it?

    No you promote it, you give samples, you advertise, you have promotions in businesses, you do all sorts of different things to get your product to market.

    Isn’t the promotion of reality something worth going all out for?

    Just because it is the best doesn’t mean people will pick it, Windows VS Apple; VHS vs beta, Laser disc VS cd etc.

    Because one thing no matter your point, the “churchies” are not going to stop promoting their bullshit!

    • mjr256 says:

      I don’t see the relevance to the confrontationalist/ accommodationist paradigm here as all parties involved have been branded confrontationalist or overly strident quite often. I for one don’t have a problem with confrontationalism, as it’s often used to describe Myers, Harris, Dawkins, etc. Hell, I’m perfectly fine being grouped in with them when it comes to fighting irrationality. But who’s watching the watchers? At what point does confrontational behavior stop being reasonable and start becoming bullying and harmful to the very cause we all share? The skeptical cause I subscribe to seeks to minimize bullshit, not create more of it for the greater glory of a handful of egotists with a large platform. We should critical of prominent figures in the movement, but we also need to be self-critical. I see little to no benefit to writing off individuals who have done a great deal within our movement simply because of political disagreements.

      • Thomas_T says:

        I guess at the point we start having people killing people that will be a good sign. Not heard of that yet, even though people like pat Robertson keep trying to pin the blame on atheists.

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