Has the skeptical movement failed?

August 8, 2012

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?


Elevatorgate and Rebecca Watson haters

September 29, 2011
Rebecca Watson

Rebecca Watson

I’m pretty sure that I managed to completely ignore the so-called “Elevatorgate” controversy that’s been brewing for months until now. I still don’t know why it’s called Elevatorgate, given that whichever hotel the inciting incident occurred in, it definitely was not named The Elevatorgate Hotel. (Ya see, folks, the Watergate Conspiracy was only called that because the hotel was called Watergate, not because the suffix “gate” means conspiracy or controversy).

Anywho, I’ve tried to avoid the topic because it seemed to be a complete distraction from the core mission of skeptics and rationalists that only served to divide us. But with the recent posts by Rebecca Watson and PZ Myers, I’ve decided to briefly break my silence.

First, let be begin by saying that this shit’s got to end already.

Second, as demonstrated by Rebecca’s post above as well as various websites I’ve seen, some people in our community who didn’t like what Rebecca had to say have fucking lost their minds and have gone so far over the line that they can’t even see the line anymore. Some of the behavior I’ve seen is disgraceful and all the more disturbing given that it’s coming from inside the skeptical community.

Third, not to be one-sided, I’ve also seen some people completely overreact to Richard Dawkins’ rather idiotic  response to Rebecca by basically writing him off entirely as some kind of misogynist. That, I think, is also unreasonable.

Now it might be that both Rebecca Watson and Richard Dawkins made some mistakes. Though I think Dawkins’ mistakes are far worse than any Rebecca may have made. I also think Dawkins made another mistake by remaining silent on the issue. If it were me who had said something that stupid and I saw the enormous controversy that it sparked, I’d feel obligated to open the doors to communication and try to turn this ugly incident into a teaching moment. I’d also apologize. I don’t know what motivated Dawkins’ response, whether he was just having a bad week and vented his frustrations on the wrong person or if he didn’t fully understand the nature of what Rebecca was saying. But whatever it was, it’s certainly beneath him. And while he has remained silent, the wound has only festered and diminished his reputation among many people.

It seems to me that Dawkins breaking his silence to have a civil conversation with Rebecca, explaining his behavior would be the best thing for everyone since some people feel they needed to pick sides. The anti-Dawkins crowd could start to forgive him and the vitriolic anti-Rebecca crowd might feel less of a need to defend Dawkins’ honor or whatever.

Dawkins screwed up, plain and simple. But he’s not a misogynist and he’s still a great spokesperson for atheism and rationalism. Likewise, Rebecca Watson may not have effectively conveyed her message earlier on, causing some to think she was saying something far more unreasonable than she really was, but she too is a great spokesperson for atheism and rationalism.

So let’s cut the crap and get back to what unites us rather than waste our time on petty feuds and unproductive internet drama.

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This Week In God 8.10.11

August 10, 2011

1. Three great blogs moving – PZ Myers’ blog, Pharyngula, has moved from Scienceblogs to freethoughtblogs. Though he still posts some of his material at the old site, I’m not crazy about this move because because freethoughtblogs seems more atheist-focused whereas scienceblogs at least gives the impression of Pharyngula being more science-focused, regardless of whether the actual emphasis changes or not. Hermant Mehta has also moved his Friendly Atheist blog to Patheos, a site hosting blogs from many different religious and spiritual perspectives. I think this one was a good move because it gives Mehta’s atheist blog a great opportunity to gain readers among the religious, and this could possibly change some people’s views about atheism. And lastly, blogger Greta Christina will be soon moving her blog to freethoughtblogs. I’m fairly neutral about this because she’s already got a strong atheist readership, so I don’t expect much change one way or the other in terms of her readership.

2. Speaking of PZ Myers, he too has now publicly taken a position on the American Atheists’ lawsuit over the “9/11 Cross.” It seems that even that nasty militant atheist that Jeff Wagg today (I think quite unfairly) called the “FoxNews of atheism” in a tweet agrees with me that it’s just not worth the effort and that we’ve got bigger fish to fry:

I can understand that in principle it’s promoting religion, and I look at that random chunk of steel that forms a crude cross and can see that it is abysmally stupid to consider it a holy relic, but man, if atheists have to police every single act of stupidity committed by the human race, we’re going to get very, very tired. We need to pick our battles better, and this one is just plain pointless.

3. Stephen Hawking’s Curiosity refutes god on Discover Channel – You can watch the whole first installment at the link above…at least for now.

4. Jonathan T. Pararajasingham follows up his videos of 100 academics explaining their atheism with a 25-minute video of 20 academics and theologians explaining why they believe in god. The former is a wonderful collection of brilliant thinkers making intelligent arguments in favor of atheism while the latter is a depressing example of how motivated reasoning can poison the minds of otherwise intelligent people, causing them to make the most asinine and incoherent arguments to defend their indefensible faith.

5. Evolution wins out in Texas – Okay, I’m very late on this story. So sue me. The Texas Board of Education has unanimously come down on the side of evolution in a 14-0 vote, approving scientifically accurate high school biology textbook supplements from established mainstream publishers, rejecting the creationist-backed supplements from International Databases, LLC.

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TAM 9 and the return of the ‘Don’t be a dick” debate

July 19, 2011

The Amazing Meeting 9 (or TAM9 From Outer Space) took place this weekend. I wish I could say that was the reason I’ve been neglecting my blogging duties for the past week but unfortunately, I’ve once again missed out on the largest skeptical conference in the world (hopefully I’ll make it to TAM10).

No, I’ve just been busy with a number of other projects this past week, one of which is a slightly skeptically themed short film I directed that I’ll be probably be posting here when it goes live on the internet next month. I can’t post it now because it was made for a 72-hour film festival that requires the entries to not be publicly available until after the festival ends. But if all goes well, within a week or so I’ll finally be able to post a skeptically themed short film I wrote. I’ve been wanting to post it for awhile now but now the only obstacle is getting one more actor to sign a release.

Anywho, while I haven’t attended TAM9, The Friendly Atheist has posted a live blog of the proceedings as they happened during the entire weekend’s events:

You can read about the Friday Morning Session here, the Friday Afternoon Session here, the Saturday Morning Session here, the Saturday Afternoon Session here, the Sunday Morning Session here, and the Sunday Afternoon Session here.

From the looks of it, it was an amazing success with over 1600 attendees, making it the largest turn-out yet and proving that the number of passionate skeptics is growing.

Now from what I can tell, once again, the issue of how to communicate with the public was the central theme of the event, particularly in the Sunday morning presentations such as Dylan Keenberg’s talk, Ashley F. Miller’s talk, and the more heated “Communicating Skepticism” panel discussion featuring PZ Myers, Eugenie Scott, Carol Travris, Phil Plait, and Jamy Ian Swiss, moderated by Sadie Crabtree.

And so, while I’ve written endlessly about my position that there’s a place for both skeptical diplomats and firebrands in our movement, the commentaries of TAM9, including Daniel Loxton’s latest commentary have convinced to briefly take yet another go at it.

I’m confused over the use of words like “radical” or “militant” with regards to the skeptical and/or atheist movements because we have no prominent radicals. I can’t think of anyone who commits violence in the name of skepticism or atheism like the “radicals” in past social movements. If the term is being attributed to someone like Richard Dawkins, then I dare say the word has lost all its meaning because Dawkins is just slight to the right of Mr. Rogers. If it’s PZ Myers who’s being considered the radical, he’s only slightly more aggressive in tone than Dawkins. Neither to my knowledge has committed violence or incited others to commit violence. If merely being passionate and firm in ones position is the new radical and something that is to be condemned by our movement, then our movement is doomed to forever be ignored.

Believe it or not but Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck didn’t become influential because they were the model of polite and calm discourse. Nobody is suggesting we turn to dishonesty or screaming insults at our opponents, but unless some of us are willing to be at least a little more assertive and confrontational than science communicators of the past, no one is going to pay the slightest attention to us, just like they didn’t before. And why would they? The media thrives on controversy. Unless someone is putting up some kind of real fight, they’re simply not interested. We may not like the idea of advertising a strong, fairly hard-line position but as someone whose expertise is in media, I have to say its a necessary evil if one is to get heard over all the noise out there. That’s not to say we should behave like the WBC or PETA by being as offensive as possible to grab attention, just that it wouldn’t hurt to put up the occasional giant roadside billboard unambiguously calling self-proclaimed psychics frauds…

…or a billboard like the bottom one displayed here:

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You’re pitting WHO against Stephen Hawking?!

May 18, 2011

"Suck it, bitch!"

The other day, the world’s most famous living physicist Stephen Hawking made headlines with an off the cuff remark he made about heaven:

“I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first,” he told the newspaper.

“I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

And all of a sudden, people went ape shit, and several people called out the genius physicist for his statements. So who were these brave intellects who entered the ring against Stephen Hawking? Evangelical and former child actor Kirk Cameron, for one.

According to Cameron:

“”To say anything negative about Stephen Hawking is like bullying a blind man. He has an unfair disadvantage, and that gives him a free pass on some of his absurd ideas. Professor Hawking is heralded as ‘the genius of Britain,’ yet he believes in the scientific impossibility that nothing created everything and that life sprang from non-life,” the former TV star tells E! News.

I do agree on one point. Hawking does have an unfair advantage…actually knowing stuff.

Then ABC Nightly News with Diane Sawyer pitted Hawking against a random 12-year-old kid who we’re told had a near-death experience where he gained access to easily accessible information. ABC even framed the story as one versus the other. It’s almost like this kid had some sort of internet or something.

Then a religious physicist named Scott M. Tyson criticized Hawking with a bunch of logical fallacies, which Steven Novella details in his latest article. And finally, there is some writer for The Guardian who states that he’d stake his life that Stephen Hawking is wrong, which PZ Myers references in his piece explaining how not to argue with Hawking.

I’d love to be able to say there was no clear winner in any of these battles but just look again at the people going up against one of the greatest physicists of our time: an actor, a journalist, a 12-year-old kid? It’s sad that not only do these laypeople think can contend with Hawking but that the media seems to think they’ve got what it takes to be fair opponents. That’s like a boxing match pitting Mike Tyson against…well, a 12-year-old.

Sorry media but it wasn’t even close. The winner and still champion is Hawking, who only wins this battle of wits on the grounds that he’s way smarter than you and is a leading expert in the subject.

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News From Around The Blogosphere 4.26.11

April 27, 2011

1. God is dead – Okay, not really because there is not such entity. But Sri Satya Sai Baba, a man who millions worship like a god because he fools them into believing he can perform miracles with simple parlor tricks is dead. I must say that if not for Sam Harris, I might not have even been familiar with this shamless con artist. Good fuckin’ riddance. Couldn’t have happened to a more deserving individual.

2. Scientists anoint new fly queen – If your as sick of hearing about that bloody royal wedding in limey-land as I am, you’ll probably enjoy this news item:

Masaki Kamakura, a biotechnology researcher in Japan, has identified the protein in royal jelly that turns female worker bees into queen bees, which are larger in size, more fertile, and live longer. So, like anyone else would do upon making this discovery, he tried to turn a regular fly into a queen fly. And it totally worked. It’s a huge discovery in the study of insects:

I guess that makes it the lord of the flies. Now if only we can figure out how to turn Anne Hathoway into the Queen of England. Don’t just sit there. Get on it, scientists!

3.  Measles outbreak linked to one unvaccinated person

Nine cases in the state have been linked to exposure to one unvaccinated person who contracted the disease in Poland, according to the Salt Lake Valley health department. Epidemiologists have determined that the person exposed as many as 1,000 people this month.

Measles are so contagious that if one person has it, 90 percent of those near that individual will become infected if they are not immune.

There’s also  a major measles outbreak in Europe:

The World Health Organization said Thursday that France had 4,937 reported cases of measles between January and March – compared with 5,090 cases during all of 2010. In all, more than 6,500 cases have been reported in 33 European nations.

Another wonderful vision of a what the world will look like if ruled by anti-vaccine nuts.

4. “New” Atheist open letter strikes a nerve – The other day, Dr. Jerry Coyne wrote an open letter to the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) and British Centre for Science Education (BCSE), criticizing them for going out of their way to criticize more confrontational atheists. This led a number of such prominent atheists to responding in favor of Coyne’s position such as PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins. And now Roger Stanyard of the BCSE is firing back with a complete straw man position that just demonstrate how irrational the critics of confrontational atheists are when it comes to this one issue. His claim is that we want these organizations to embrace atheism when I don’t know anyone making that claim. I, like Myers and Dawkins, just want to see these organizations to leave religion out of the discussion entirely and remain entirely neutral on the subject. That’s all.

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Skeptics & YouTube atheist superstars unite to help Doctors Without Borders

September 17, 2010
Image representing YouTube as depicted in Crun...
Image via CrunchBase

This weekend, the YouTube atheist community is once again organizing a 24-hour BlogTV event to raise money for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) aka Doctors Without Borders. For those unfamiliar with it, MSF is an international medical humanitarian organization working in more than 60 countries to assist people whose survival is threatened by violence, neglect, or catastrophe.

James Randi, PZ Myers, and Matt Dillahunty will all be participating, as will the Marc Dubois, head of the MSF UK and the following awesome YouTubers:  dprjones, Zomgitscriss, NonStampCollector, ZJemptv, ThePeach, AronRa, Thunderf00t, FactVsReligion, DonExodus2, cOctOpusPrime, Darkmatter2525, LaciGreen, and healthyaddict, COncOrdance, among others.

Please check it out and help Médecins Sans Frontières in the name of reason and freethought.

The Show:
The show will start at 4pm (BST) on Saturday 18 September.
It will be shown here;
http://www.blogtv.com/People/dprjones
To see what time that is where you are go to;
http://www.timeanddate.com/worldclock…

The Charity:
If you want any information about the charity please contact me or watch my previous videos or go to one of the websites, some are which are;
MSF(UK)
http://www.msf.org.uk/
MSF(US) (Doctors without Borders)
http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/
MSF(Australia)
http://www.msf.org.au/
MSF(Canada)
http://www.msf.ca/

The MSF(UK) youtube channel is here;
http://www.youtube.com/user/msfuk

How to donate:
On MSF’s recommendation I have set up donation pages at the following sites;
Justgiving;
http://www.justgiving.com/dprjones24h…
THIS SITE ACCEPTS DONATIONS THROUGH PAYPAL
Firstgiving;
http://www.firstgiving.com/dprjones

Both these sites provide an effective, safe and secure method of making donations. You will not get junk e-mails not will your details be distributed.
The pages are open now if you want to donate. They will also remain open for a further 2 months after the show.

The schedule of the hosts and co-hosts:
This video contains the best information that I can give at the moment. There are likely to be some minor changes before the event. I’ll be posting an update video nearer the time with a full schedule.
For the avoidance of doubt, Michael Shermer will not be on the show, but was kind enough to provide the clip used at the beginning of this video.

The e-bay auction:
If you have any items that you wish to donate then please contact;
http://www.youtube.com/user/Proportio…

The MSF’s got Talent competition is open until 12th September. Please watch the video below for details on how to enter. NOTE, mirroring of the video is no longer a necessary requirement.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F6PKQz…

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