The Skeptics Movement
Posted by Pete Hague on 05 Apr 2012
I've had a loose association with the skeptics movement for some time now. I've contributed to the Pod Delusion several times, beginning way back in the second episode. I've periodically attended skeptics in the pub, and even spoken at it once. I have in the past learned much from the skeptic movement.
But there is a problem.
Not everyone in this movement likes me. Some, in fact, hate me passionately. Many shun me, as they happen to be friends with some of the people who hate me. The social network of skeptics that has emerged on the Internet is quite closely knit, so this happens an annoyingly large amount of the time.
A lot of people blame me for my own sour relationships. If they want to make this case, they can easily cherry pick comments I have made towards people. They might find it more difficult to make that case if they include the context - which ordinarily includes me being verbally attacked, at length, by substantial mobs of people on Twitter or in group emails.
Much of the hostility I experience can be traced back to a single event. Last year, an event called "elevatorgate" divided the skeptic community along lines of peoples' opinions of certain feminist positions. It was convoluted and annoying - a good summary of it is provided here by the excellent James Onen.
The details are not especially important; suffice to say that one faction believed that belief in certain feminist principles was a necessary condition for skepticism, and the other disagreed. I belong to the latter category, and this got me into quite a bit of trouble.
I had produced a piece for the Pod Delusion, citing specific things that feminists had said (including some things pertaining to "elevatorgate" ) and pointed out that these things could be construed as misandry and thus are unlikely to advance the feminist cause amongst men. This did not go down well with many listeners and contributors to the Pod Delusion. The culmination of this was an exchange of emails between myself and several other contributors, on the group email list
I was called a variety of obscene names. I was called stupid (and when I pointed out the irony of calling me stupid the same week I received my Masters degree, this was falsely claimed to be an appeal to authority.) I had my criticisms of an ideology compared to racism - and not one person in that mailing list so much as batted an eyelid as this absurdity. These comments came from prominent skeptics, not from people whose names wouldn't be recognised outside the Pod Delusion mailing list. And the fact that nobody at all publicly took my side was hurtful.
This was the beginning of my break with the skeptics movement. It isn't that nobody agreed with me; people privately had said that I had a point in the report that triggered this all. Not one of these people spoke up when certain individuals decided to lay into me, even when the arguments these individuals made were overtly logically flawed. It seems to me that some people were simply more aggressive than others, and begin to dominate the discussion.
In retrospect, the may have been inevitable. The skeptics movement rewards this kind of verbal aggression (which it is why it thrives on the Internet, where a person is free from social or physical reprisals no matter what they say) and so perhaps encourages such domineering people. It reminds me of the fate of the commune movement in the US, as perceived by Adam Curtis in his documentary All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace. Aspiring to remove all authority and politics, these communes opened the door for certain individuals to dominate other members of the community.
Ostensibly, the skeptics movement is about truth, and about questioning supposed intellectual authorities. It is about support for the scientific method, and opposition to ideas that fly in the face of scientific knowledge, such as homeopathy. I have discovered that in practice it can be quite different.
Its all too often about feeling smarter than other people. Its about trying to mix up your personal opinions with the conclusions of science so that the credibility of science might rub off on those opinions - and then, of course, shouting down anyone who disputes your opinions on the basis that they are somehow against science. Its about in groups and out groups - the out group being considered deserving of the most brutal, vicously framed criticism, and the in group being considered above criticism entirely. It can feel, at times, a little cult-like. I'm not going to claim that atheism, or skepticism, are just like other religions. I think that this is a poor argument. What the movements that have grown up around atheism and skepticism can do, though, is imitate some of the worse aspects of religious organisations.
After the incident in question, I did try to re-establish a place in the skeptics community, but without much success. Conversations I had with people on Twitter would suddenly be interrupted by some of the people I'd made enemies of - because I had inadvertently spoken to someone that the enemy in question followed, and they were ever keen to settle old scores. I made new enemies, as the arguments with existing ones spilled over, and they bought in their friends to join in what became mob-like verbal abuse session directed at me. There were more subtle slights as well; I often felt shunned and ignored by people who were friends both with me and with someone who had taken a disliking to me. The situation became unbearable.
So, basically, I'm out. This is not an especially happy moment for me, and I don't take pleasure in saying the above things. I don't feel the skeptics movement has anything further to offer me, and certainly plenty of skeptics would love to see the back of me. I'm an intolerable critical thorn in the side of their ideal community - ironic given its purported nature.
I've been pushing towards doing this for some time, but what it isn't immediately apparent in many peoples lives is that connections are far easier to form than to break. Despite the difficulty, I feel it is important to move on and get away from what I now see as a stagnant, intolerant, and self-congratulatory community. My views on this community, however, do not alter my admiration for some people who still consider themselves part of it, and I would maintain links with these people where possible.
My views on important matters have not changed. I am still willing to refute anti-scientific arguments, but not in the condescending style that the skeptics movement seems to favour, and I am still willing to defend atheism, but not in ways that are little more than veiled mocking of belief systems that do not directly contradict scientific knowledge. What I am going to do is minimise my contact with the skeptics community.
I also consider this a smart move from the perspective of trying to build a career in science. In my first months as a PhD student I've already noted the striking difference between the discourse of scientists and this discourse of skeptics, and I doubt that I will get very far in my chosen career if I speak to people or construct arguments in the way that is considered the height of intellectual sophistication amongst the skeptic community. I wouldn't recommend to anyone thinking of science as a career to consider the skeptics movement any kind of preparation for it.
Farewell skeptics. It was (sometimes) fun being part of your group.
Posted by Claire on 06 Apr 2012
I disagree with your decision to distance yourself from the sceptic community. I think you're making the same mistake as with the feminist movement; a few shouty feminists may be more prominent than most of the community, but they are not necessarily representative and they definitely do not invalidate the ideals behind the movement. Skeptics in the Pub still has interesting talks by interesting people, likewise the Pod Delusion. I believe that encouraging people to think sceptically is important, and these channels are promoting that. Some people that disagree with you and abuse you shouldn't change your view of the entire movement, especially since you did your fair share of attacking them right back. The loudest people are often not the nicest, and I constantly lament that the voice of the atheist movement is Richard Dawkins, but I will not let this change my views on atheism.
Posted by Rob Hague on 06 Apr 2012
The very notion of a single community laying claim to skepticism has always struck me as very odd. I think youre better off out; as you say, you can keep in touch with the people you want to, and keep on doing things under your own steam.
Posted by Vaughan Jones on 05 Apr 2012
Just a question on this:
"I am still willing to refute anti-scientific arguments, but not in the condescending style that the skeptics movement seems to favour, and I am still willing to defend atheism, but not in ways that are little more than veiled mocking of belief systems that do not directly contradict scientific knowledge."
Did you previously, as a result of being in the "skeptic community", use a condescending style to refute anti-scientific arguments and employ methods akin to "mocking" belief systems?
I say this because it seems to me, as the conclusion of your post, that these are methods you did employ but are now dropping as a result of the disenfranchisement you feel with the community.
It's not important I guess but I just wanted to know whether you engaged with the things you now found distasteful?
For what it's worth, I stood on the same fence you did with respect to feminism. I didn't really become that involved with the "Elevatorgate" issue that permeated the blogosphere because I was dealing with the libel case. But I, like you, find that there is a distinct misandry at the heart of some feminist arguments; almost as if there is a quasi-Boxer Rising in the offing where some women want the shoe to be on the other foot.
In all ideologies there is a fundamentalist streak. My advice is not to let the fundies win and continue to present your arguments in the community. Rationalism in a community full of illogical sheep is often the shining light which helps people turn away from their own ignorance.
I wish you well with your PhD whatever you decide to do.
Posted by pete on 06 Apr 2012
Thanks for all you great comments.
Vaughan: Looking back, I have in the past been guilty of what I now criticise the skeptic community for. I only really became aware of it when a lot of skeptics suddenly turned on me and I got a good taste of what it was like to be on the receiving end.
I don't believe I was the worst for this (far from it) but I've now a strong desire not to come across the way people like PZ Myers do.
Posted by Tony Ryan on 30 Aug 2012
I am in the same position. I've made many enemies with many shouty, and self-proclaimed 'active skeptics' to the point where I've been painted as horrendous, vile, and so on.
I started a website more than a year ago with the sole purpose of spreading news and info about alt-med/atheism/skepticism but have had to give it away as these same 'skeptics' have tried to have me sacked by my employer because of arguments on Twitter. (Yes, they really are that pathetic)
Thankfully, 5 people so far are keeping the site going, and it gets quite a few readers sometimes, so there are obviously a silent many that oppose the bullies, sycophants, and hypocrites infesting skepticism on the internet.
But, like you, I'm out. It's just not worth my mental health, or my career. Even though I've been out a while, I am regularly being misrepresented on the web as "CLS" as though I'm still in charge and some sort of bannerwaving mysoginist loon.
Posted by Vonnie on 03 Sep 2012
Wow, I am so saddened to read this. I've only recently learned what "Skeptic Community" even means this past 2 weeks... and from what I gather, it basically means those individuals who attend skeptic conferences on a regular basis. I have never had the urge to attend one of these conferences because frankly, I don't need to gather and affirm non-belief in myths, and science will continue to flourish whether I attend a skeptic conference or not. (Although, I would have loved to attend the Reason Rally, but I think that's a different thing, or least I perceived it to be.)
I've been hearing an awful lot these past couple weeks about the skeptic conferences and your blog kind of echoes the general sense that it's very "clicky... something of which has never appealed to me.
May I just say that I wish you luck in your future endeavours and from someone who has never participated in the skeptic conferences (community) - I have many atheists friends, most of whom I have met on Twitter. Start a new/anonymous twitter account and re-connect in a different way with just average atheists who don't even care about the skeptic conference world. We humans are tribal whether we like it or not. Community, even on a surface level like twitter, would be better than feeling alone. You don't have to be alone.
Peace <3 Vonnie You can find me on Twitter as @Evolution_Child
Posted by Mukil Krishnan on 09 Sep 2012
As a fellow grad student, I totally agree with the last part of your post. The style of debating that skeptics tend to use has no place in academics. If you attempt to construct arguments on those lines, you will lay the foundation of failure.
Posted by Andy Reporter on 23 Feb 2013
Hello, I remember the self criticism obscenities of the Cultural Revolution. Later, we all learned that similar things happened in the communes of the West. The argument over the elevator and who said what to whom is about as far as one can get from any attempt at applying the critique of reason. It's idealogical.
The most difficult and offense provoking thing any of us can do is to think for ourselves. Events also demonstrate a generic similarity with puritan/partisan movements throughout the owrld. As George Orwell pointed out, today's orthodoxy gets you in trouble tomorrow - so listen for the party line; or else.
There was an excellent expose documentary the BBC put out on middle eastern terror groups. Eventually, idealogical purity became such a high bar to jump that the members fought each other to rid the cause of heretics.
I think you will be happier on your own path. the Gestaltians talk about "Independence"; the Buddhists talk of "Liberation", but real life just makes it happen, even without special method. It's not always comfortable but it's better than spewing other peoples' thoughts.
Vrery Best Wishes