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Posted by on May 7, 2013 in Politics, Skepticism | 15 comments

Divorcing oneself from movements – or from people

While this announcement will no doubt cause far less of a fuss than PZ Myers announcing that he’s divorcing from the skeptic movement, I can announce that I’ve been enjoying a trial separation from the atheist movement. Well, even that might be overstating things somewhat, seeing as I haven’t exactly stopped highlighting concerns I have with religion. But more and more, the issues that seem important, and worth caring and speaking about, are only tangentially about atheism vs. religious outlooks. Besides occasional clear examples of the potential harms religion can contribute to, like the current madness in Bangladesh, I think far more of us should devote our attention exclusively – or mostly – to addressing the root causes of human misery, like poverty, sexism, racism and poor basic educations.

It’s the last thing – education – that means I’d probably identify more as a skeptic and a humanist than an atheist. I’ve been teaching critical thinking to university students for over 15 years now, and it seems to me that entering students are increasingly poorly equipped to assess evidence, avoid their obvious biases and so forth. These failures in basic reasoning impact on lives quite reliably, in that we end up making rash decisions about relationships, finances, risks and so forth. Religion, on the other hand, is quite frequently harmless (or in fact, meaningless).

I don’t understand PZ’s beef with skepticism. He seems to have some warrant for a beef with Jamy Ian Swiss, but why that needs to extend to skepticism in general, I don’t know. If someone were to say “I can’t be an atheist, because PZ defined atheism in a way I didn’t agree with”, then PZ might be one of the first to accuse that person of poor reasoning. If it’s only a certain sort of skepticism that’s being rejected, then that sort should be demarcated, especially if you have a large audience who considers you an authority on these matters. For those of us who are not scientists, skepticism is a defined and useful approach to assessing propositional claims, and I think various folk like Randi, Schermer, Radford, Dunning et al have helped a lot of people learn many things (despite missteps of various sorts by some of them).

So PZ seems to be throwing some toys around here, as is his right. But in doing so, I can’t help but think that he’s indirectly reinforcing the value of the sort of careful consideration of issues and arguments that can be emblematic of skepticism, through not practising them himself in this instance. He could well be right that a failure to confront some issues (perhaps theism, perhaps climate change or libertarianism) can reveal failures in the skeptical method or outlook – but people who might make these or other mistakes are hardly going to be persuaded by PZ’s divorcing himself from the movement.

Massimo Pigliucci has a post worth reading about this and related matters, in which he not only points out some of the value skepticism has, but also laments the apparent increase in incivility and name-calling when we criticise each other for getting things wrong. I’d concur with most of it, and add this: we sometimes forget how trivial our disagreements – and the actors in those disagreements – are. All these blogs, quabbles, rifts and so forth are sometimes operating in some crude filter-bubbles, where we can become sanctimonious, defiant, and so stubborn that we’re unable to see our own errors.

Not everything is about being on one or another “side” of some rift, whether real or imagined. The important issue is sometimes far more simple, and involves paying attention to being a decent human being and about treating others decently. We shouldn’t forget that, regardless of what we call ourselves.

  • I see nothing wrong with specialisation. We need scientific skeptics to keep educating people when their educational systems fail to inoculate them against pseudoscientific scams. We need secular humanists to continue pushing for ethical progress. And yes, we need atheist activists to confront religious intolerance and faith-based bigotry head-on, giving them the truths which make them most uncomfortable. We also need doctors and bus drivers and biofuel researchers. It’s okay that we don’t all try to do it all at once, and it’s ok to try to get really skilled in just one field.

  • qbsmd

    PZ says “Skepticism has no sacred cows! Except that skepticism only addresses “testable claims”. By the way, the existence of gods is not a testable claim.” and “It’s toothless science that fetishizes “consumer protection” over understanding.”

    I don’t really get it. Focusing on testable claims seems epistemologically justified to me; there isn’t going to be evidence against deism. Consumer protection is a good answer to “what’s the harm” questions, which are presumably not asked by people who care about knowledge for its own sake.

    My uncharitable interpretation, given PZ’s previous comments about “dictionary atheists” and support of “atheism plus”, is that he only wants to support a small tent combining atheism with his political views and priorities, and is upset by Swiss’s “It’s not okay for you to come into my tent and move it” attitude because he wants to pressure atheists, skeptics, and humanist organizations to move into his small tent.

    My charitable interpretation is that the post is a rhetorical message meaning that attempts to bring theists into a big tent will push atheists out the other side and is a bad strategy. This relates to the New Atheist idea that faith is a bad thing and disagreement with people believing things on
    faith while calling themselves skeptics.

  • The only reason anyone at all is mentioning PZs latest flounce is because of some lingering respect they may have once held for the guy. Personally i’m just happy that there’s hardly anyone who really cares what he says or does anymore. I do think you’ve hit the nail on the head with your focus on teaching people how to think rather than the particular failures of religion (Bangladesh & similar excepted) as most of us are moving beyond that now. We’ve made our arguments IMO & those that still don’t get it probably never will, while critical thinking will inexorably lead to a questioning of religion anyway.

  • bluharmony

    All true. But PZ is nothing without the drama he causes, so what else would you expect?

  • The gist of PZ’s beef, as it nearly always is these days, is that some skeptics are rejecting the idea of addressing social justice issues under the skeptic/atheist banner. He does love his straw. There are very few (if any) saying that. The main complaint against his ‘camp’ is that they don’t seem willing to accept that rejecting his brand of social justice as unskeptical and divisive is not a blanket rejection of social justice concerns. He has set up this false dichotomy between acceptance and non-criticism of his coterie and misogyny. He has been one of the prime instigators of the habit of elevating innocuous remarks to the status of harassment and threat and of tarring all detractors with the actions of the worst.

    The irony of his claim that he wants to make the community more inclusive is the number of people he seems to want to exclude. He likes to make out that it’s a small group of extremists who have a problem with him, which is definitely not the case. Many among the underrepresented groups he supposedly champions think he’s just as nuts and patronising as the ‘tired old white guys’ do.

    As an avid member of the PZ Despisers Club, I cannot say that I have come across more than 1 or 2 of his regular detractors who have any problem with any race or sexual orientation. The notion of PZ’s that there is this disingenuous white male club knowingly excluding others from the skeptic/atheist community by rejecting the ‘rape culture’ hype is absurd. The people his cronies have hounded for minor, or non-existent, transgressions will no doubt hope that he sticks his flounce this time. He seems to have little capacity for normal human interaction with theists, political foes or atheists with different attitudes. It’s either agreement or “you’re too stupid to breathe, asshat”.

    • I should add that the above is my take on what his real issue with skepticism is. I know that he does have a problem with what he sees as a free pass given to religion, but coming now, and taken with his other pronouncements, I think that his real beef is around social justice issues.

      • Karmakin

        I think that a lot of what he’s trying to do is a bit of an ill-fit for skepticism, and I would also agree that this is a pretty big weakness for skepticism as a whole. However, that’s not a reason to throw the whole thing out. One can bring together skepticism and humanism IMO and kinda sorta do what they want to do.

        The problem with religion isn’t the beliefs in and of themselves. Theoretically we could live in a society with deistic and even monotheistic beliefs where religion really wasn’t that much of a problem. It would be this quaint, weird thing that some people believed in that was relatively harmless. Of course, in the real world it’s not, because the dominant religions in our culture (and some of the non-dominant ones) foster a real sense of privilege and entitlement among its followers, along with some very dangerous sub-beliefs.

        But they don’t necessarily HAVE to be there. So the criticism shouldn’t be based around the beliefs in and of themselves, but at the results of those beliefs. It’s understanding how all the gears work under the radar.

        I largely agree with the concepts of equality (both opportunity and to a lesser degree outcome, as differences in outcome could reveal hidden or hard to see differences in opportunity) However, I think that PZ’s particular flavor (and he’s a late comer on this) of “equality” filled with the same sort of sense of privilege and entitlement, and as such is equality only in name, and as such, I reject it.

        But I do think that generally speaking most people DO agree with equality (at the very least of opportunity) at this juncture, and as such that’s relatively non-controversial. As such, there really is room for a skeptical humanist (if not wanting the “social justice” label) part of the movement. But, it CAN’T be based around opposition to academic feminism being like creationism or being a young-earther. And that’s where we sit right now. The demand is that we accept this academic feminism, that’s hugely problematic both in terms of modeling the real world and morally/ethically, as being the foundation for this skeptical humanism, is where the rift is right now.

        A skeptical humanism has to be based round finding “best moral practices” and then encouraging consistency to how they are applied. And until folks like PZ and his merry crew stop defending hypocrisy based upon traditional (and often arbitrary) “power imbalances”, they’re not going to be able to change anything or convince anybody.

        • I don’t see anything wrong with skeptical discussion of social issues, however I think that it would not be very useful to incorporate humanism into the skeptic movement. The skeptic movement is surely about promoting skeptical enquiry, not adopting conclusions as policy. The idea is to foster the kind of thinking which will hopefully lead to a better society. It can sometimes look as if the skeptic movement has adopted scientific conclusions, but that is usually where the science is fairly settled and the counter arguments are clearly based on fallacious thinking. The atheist movement is a much better fit for humanism. I think it’s sensible for skeptic groups to adopt broad commitments to equality.

          Attempts to foist pet ideologies onto a healthy skeptic movement by creating threat narratives would be taken care of as a matter of course by examination of the evidence, perhaps a reason why the JREF has proven resistant and perhaps a reason for the flounce as well.

  • MosesZD

    It’s just another temper-tantrum aimed at someone who doesn’t agree with him. Which is kind of funny considering how PZ Myers claims to be focused on including everyone in the atheist movement. How he claims to be a skeptic and a scientist (neither of which are currently true). How he claims to be ‘the adult in the room’ (when it’s pretty clear it’s all about the drama).

    In the end, it doesn’t matter much. His Pharyngula traffic is down significantly and has tailed off to under his 2006 level after peaking in around 2010/2011. His little FTB site has lost 50% of it’s traffic since it’s 2011/2012 peak.
    He can keep on throwing his tantrums and purging his audience for all I care. I’ve long since washed my hands of him and he’s only useful for amusement purposes now.

    • Some quite specific claims you make there – do you have any evidence for them? But more importantly, please keep a lid on the personal abuse on this corner of the Internet? I disagree with PZ on some things, as do you and others, and I’d rather focus on those things than tell someone he’s not a skeptic nor a scientist, etc.

      • MosesZD

        Scientists DO SCIENCE. Or, as they put it in Wikipedia (which does the term justly) “Scientists perform research toward a more comprehensive understanding of nature, including physical, mathematical and social realms.”
        That’s what a scientist is… Not somebody who, decades ago, did science then left the field for TEACHING. Which is what PZ Myers does.

        PZ Myers does not have any grants. The last paper that got a PUBMED reference, on which he was an author, was written in 1993. It’s been 20-years since he’s been a ‘scientist.’

        Concordance, and others on YouTube have shown in their videos his over-all loss of traffic over the longer time-period. Alexa, which I referenced, will show the loss of traffic at FTB over the time period I mentioned. There are other sites that measure traffic. They show the same thing.

        As for the rest, I used to read his blog long before he jumped the shark and started acting like the people he pilloried. But he became so vile, like an atheist Bill Donohue, toward anyone who refused to march lock-step with him I stopped reading long before Elevator Gate and dumping PZ Myers became ‘cool.’

        • ool0n

          Hehe embarrassed to present your “evidence” of a 50% decline? Given you
          have no actual stats beyond stuff like the below its probably best you
          ignore the request.

          You should really ask yourself if you think the argumentum ad populum is for you? If so then at least get the figures right 🙂

          • “You should really ask yourself if you think the argumentum ad populum is for you?”

            Fair enough. Would you say the same thing about the “We’re winning!” rhetoric that Jason Thibault, Greta Christina, and the like throw around every time some non-FTB source writes about them approvingly?

      • Try disagreeing directly with him on his pet issues and see if you come away without the impression that he is a skeptic. You may, of course, come to a different conclusion from me, but if it’s OK to tell a creationist that he is no skeptic, then surely it’s OK to say the same to Myers when you see him pull moves from the same playbook.

    • What’s your measure of FTB’s site traffic? I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a reliable measure of it. There’s Alexa, but I have my doubts as to whether they’re a reliable indicator.