Why I’m a still a (non-card carrying) Skeptic

1 (1)I just came back from Las Vegas, where I had a lovely time at the annual CSICon event, organized by the folks that bring you Skeptical Inquirer magazine, among other things. As I’ve done almost since the beginning of my involvement with the skeptic movement, back in, ghasp, 1997, I’ve delivered a bit of a gadfly talk. This one was about scientism, reminding my fellow skeptics that they have a tendency to overdo it with the science thing, at times coming across nearly as evangelical and even obtuse as their usual targets, from creationists to UFO believers. After asking the audience to be patient with me and not serving me hemlock for lunch, I minced no words and criticized by name some of the big shots in the field, from Neil deGrasse Tyson to Richard Dawkins, from Sam Harris to Steven Pinker. And of course several of those people were giving talks at the same conference, either right before or right after me.


No hemlock was served, and I got less resistance to my chastising than usual from the audience. Some people even approached me later on telling me how much they appreciated my reminder that our community is not perfect and we need to do better. It was all very congenial, set against the perfect backdrop of the ultimate fake city in the world, and accompanied by the occasional dirty martini.


On my way back to New York I then got a tweet from a follower linking to yet another “I resign from the skeptic movement and hand in my skeptic card” article, written by a prominent (former) skeptic. It doesn’t matter who. The list of complaints by that author are familiar: a tendency toward scientism, a certain degree of sexism within the movement, and a public failure to lead by some of the de facto leaders. The same issues that I have been complaining about for years (for instance, here). But I have not quit, and do not intend to quit. Why?


The uncharitable answer would be because I’m part of the privileged elite. I doubt anyone would seriously consider me a “leader” in the movement, but I have certainly been prominent enough. And I am a male. White. Heterosexual. The problem is, uncharitable views are highly unhelpful, and I’m on record advocating on behalf of diversity in the movement, against sexual harassment, and – as I mentioned above – have made a mini-career of stinging the big shots every time I think they deserve it, which is rather often. So I’m afraid a casual dismissal based on my gender, sexual preference and ethnicity will not do. Quite apart from the fact that it would be obviously hypocritical on the part of anyone who claims that gender, sexual preference and ethnicity should not be grounds for blanket statements of any kind.


No, I stay because I believe in the fundamental soundness of the ideas that define modern skepticism, and also because I think quitting to create another group is an example of an all too common fallacy: the notion that, despite all historical evidence to the contrary, next time we’ll definitely get it right and finally create utopia on earth. Let me elaborate on each point in turn.
“Skepticism,” of course, has a long history in philosophy and science. The original Skeptics of ancient Greece and Rome where philosophers who maintained that human knowledge is either highly fallible or downright impossible (depending on which teacher of the school you refer to). Consequently, they figured that the reasonable thing to do was to either abstain entirely from any opinion, or at least to hold on to such opinions as lightly as possible. Theirs wasn’t just an epistemological stance: they turned this into a style of life, whereby they sought serenity of mind by way of detaching themselves emotionally from those opinions (political, religious) that others held so strongly and often died for. Not my cup of tea, but if you think about it, it’s not a bad approach to good living at all.


The philosopher that embodies modern skepticism most closely, however, is the Scottish Enlightenment figure par excellence, David Hume. He held an attitude of open inquiry, considering every notion worth investigating and leaving the (provisional) verdict of such investigations to the empirical evidence. He famously said that a reasonable person proportions his beliefs to the available facts, a phrase later turned by Carl Sagan in his hallmark motto: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.


The contemporary skeptic movement was the brainchild of people like philosopher Paul Kurtz (the founder of the organizations that preceded CSI, as well as of Skeptical Inquirer), magician James “the Amazing” Randi (organizer of the long running conference that preceded CSICon, known as TAM, The Amazing Meeting), Carl Sagan himself, and a number of others. Initially, the movement was rather narrowly devoted to the debunking of pseudoscientific claims ranging from UFOs to telepathy, and from Bigfoot to astrology.


More recently, mainly through the efforts of a new generation of leaders – including but not limited to Steve Novella and his group, Michael Shermer, Barry Karr, and so forth – the scope of skeptical analysis has broadened to include modern challenges like those posed by the anti-vax movement and, of course, climate change. Even more recently, young people from a more diverse crowd, finally including several women like Rebecca Watson, Susan Gerbic, Kavin Senapathy, Julia Galef, and many others, have further expanded the discourse to include an evidence-based treatment of political issues, such as gender rights and racism.


The values of the skeptic movement, therefore, encompass a broad set that I am definitely on board with. At its best, the community is about reason broadly construed, critical but open minded analysis of extraordinary claim, support for science based education and critical thinking, and welcoming diversity within its ranks.


Of course, the reality is, shall we say, more complex. There has been plenty of sexual harassment scandals, involving high profile members of the community. There is that pesky tendency toward closing one’s mind and dismissing rather than investigating claims of the paranormal. And there is a new, annoying, vogue to reject philosophy, despite the fact that a skepticism (or even a science) without philosophical foundations is simply impossible.


But this leads me to the second point: I think it far more sensible to stay and fight for reform and improvement rather than to “hand my skeptic card” (there is no such thing, of course) and walk away. Because those who have walked away have, quite frankly, gone nowhere. Some have attempted to create a better version of what they have left, like the thankfully short-lived “Atheism+” experiment of a few years ago.


The problem with leaving and creating an alternative is that the new group will soon enough inevitably be characterized by the same or similar issues, because people are people. They diverge in their opinions, they get vehemently attached to those opinions, and they fight tooth and nails for them. Moreover, people are also fallible, so they will in turn engage in the same or similar behaviors as the ones that led to the splintering of the group in the first place, including discrimination and harassment. So the whole “I’m leaving and creating a new church over there” kind of approach ends up being self defeating and dispersing resources and energy that could far better be used to improve our own household from within while keep fighting the good fights we inherited from the likes of Kurtz and Sagan.


So, no, I’m not leaving the skeptic movement. I will keep going to CSICon, NECSS, the CICAP Fest, and wherever else they’ll invite me. I will keep up my self assigned role of gadfly, annoying enough people and hopefully energizing a larger number so that we keep getting things more and more right. After all, this is about making the world into an at least slightly better place, not into our personal utopia tailored to our favorite political ideology.

Advertisements