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Further Thoughts on the Ethics of Skepticism

Posted in SkepticBlog by Skepdude on September 10, 2010


My recent post “The War Over ‘Nice’” (describing the blogosphere’s reaction to Phil Plait’s “Don’t Be a Dick” speech) has topped out at more than 200 comments. That’s a lot by Skepticblog’s standards. In addition, many further responses have reached me through Twitter, blog posts, email, and direct conversation.

I’m not quite sure how to feel about all that. Certainly I expected some controversy. (After all, I was writing about a controversy.) But quite a few of the critical responses take up a theme that seems… well, kind of strange to me. Many readers appear to object (some strenuously) to the very ideas of discussing best practices, seeking evidence of efficacy for skeptical outreach, matching strategies to goals, or encouraging some methods over others. Some seem to express anger that a discussion of best practices would be attempted at all.

No Right or Wrong Way?

The milder forms of these objections run along these lines:

  • “Everyone should do their own thing.”
  • “Skepticism needs all kinds of approaches.”
  • “There’s no right or wrong way to do skepticism.”
  • “Why are we wasting time on these abstract meta-conversations?”

In a few cases, this laissez faire theme rings sort of hollow. (It seems to me that some who make this argument themselves promote certain approaches over others.) Let’s leave that aside.

More critical, in my opinion, is the implication that skeptical research and communication happens in an ethical vacuum. That just isn’t true. Indeed, it is dangerous for a field which promotes and attacks medical treatments, accuses people of crimes, opines about law enforcement practices, offers consumer advice, and undertakes educational projects to pretend that it is free from ethical implications — or obligations.

Before we talk about that, let’s first get this out of the way. No, there is no monolithic “one true way to do skepticism.” No, the skeptical world does not break down to nice skeptics who get everything right, and mean skeptics who get everything wrong. (I’m reminded of a quote: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”) No one has all the answers. Certainly I don’t, and neither does Phil Plait. Nor has anyone actually proposed a uniform, lockstep approach to skepticism. (No one has any ability to enforce such a thing, in any event.)

However, none of that implies that all approaches to skepticism are equally valid, useful, or good. As in other fields, various skeptical practices do more or less good, cause greater or lesser harm, or generate various combinations of both at the same time. For that reason, skeptics should strive to find ways to talk seriously about the practices and the ethics of our field. Skepticism has blossomed into something that touches a lot of lives — and yet it is an emerging field, only starting to come into its potential. We need to be able to talk about that potential, and about the pitfalls too.

Professional Ethics


The War Over “Nice”

Posted in SkepticBlog by Skepdude on August 27, 2010


Skeptics and parallel rationalist communities spend a lot of time on “inside baseball” — jargon-filled debates about technical matters that seem incomprehensible, dull, or ridiculous to outsiders. These shouldn’t be the main skeptical topics (shouldn’t we be busy solving mysteries and educating the public?) but some discussion on these matters is unavoidable and worthwhile. Many movement-oriented skeptics and organizations have things they hope to accomplish; with goals, there comes discussion of best practices.

Among these insider debates, none is more persistent than that of “tone.” Hardly a week goes by that some tone-related tempest doesn’t spill out of its teacup and across the blogosphere. And yet, these issues matter to many (including me). When people devote enormous energy to skepticism, dedicate careers to skeptical outreach, or generously commit volunteer hours or donations to skeptical projects and organizations, it’s natural that abstract internal debates about the soul of skepticism are perceived to have powerful importance.

The passions of many have been swept up in the ongoing scrap about Phil Plait’s “Don’t Be a Dick” speech at the James Randi Educational Foundation’s “Amazing Meeting 8″ conference in Las Vegas. The skeptical blogosphere began buzzing even as Plait delivered the speech, and hasn’t yet stopped. The debate has reached a new level of feverishness in recent days, after Plait posted the entire video of the speech online. (If you haven’t seen it, it’s a powerful speech which is well worth your time.)

The flood of reactions — many hundreds of lengthy comments, dozens of blog posts and a teeming ecosystem of competing tweets — seem to have broken down along two main axes of debate. One axis defends (or challenges) Plait’s factual assertion that civility tends to help skeptical communication, while incivility tends to hinder it. The other axis concerns moral values.

Talking Past Each Other

The empirical dispute about the effectiveness of civility has sometimes devolved to a clash of straw men. As PZ Myers responded,

It’s a little annoying. Everybody seems to imagine that if Granny says “Bless you!” after I sneeze, I punch her in the nose, and they’re all busy dichotomizing the skeptical community into the nice, helpful, sweet people who don’t rock the boat and the awful, horrible, bastards in hobnailed boots who stomp on small children in Sunday school.

I can relate. I’m similarly exasperated when it is suggested that “nice” skeptics are trying to enforce uniformity; or it is imagined that Phil’s speech was secretly “yet another attempt to erect a skepticism-free barrier around theistic beliefs”; or it is supposed that anyone wants to take anger and passion out of the skeptics toolbox; or, even, argued that “nice” skeptics want to “go with the flow, to pretend that a thousand issues, whether it’s homeopathy or religion or transcendental meditation or an absence of critical thinking or a lack of concern about our health, are OK because they make people happy.” Where does this stuff even come from?

All this noise conceals a non-trivial amount of consensus. In general, everyone actually agrees that passion, anger, comedy, and ridicule can be useful in the right context, when used carefully and well. Everyone agrees that face to face conversations are best conducted with kindness and respect. Everyone (PZ included) agrees that fact-based, collegial discourse is often-but-not-always the best outreach strategy. (Consider PZ’s stated position: “I think the best ideas involve a combination of willingness to listen and politely engage, and a forthright core of assertiveness and confrontation — tactical dickishness, if you want to call it that.” To me, this sounds surprisingly similar to Plait’s “Don’t Be a Dick” argument: “Anger is a very potent weapon, and we need that weapon, but we need to be excruciatingly careful how we use it.”)

In other places, the effectiveness debate has bogged down in red herrings. For example, Richard Dawkins complained that

Plait naively presumed, throughout his lecture, that the person we are ridiculing is the one we are trying to convert. …when I employ ridicule against the arguments of a young earth creationist, I am almost never trying to convert the YEC himself. … I am trying to influence all the third parties listening in, or reading my books. I am amazed at Plait’s naivety in overlooking that and treating it as obvious that our goal is to convert the target of our ridicule.

This is a serious misreading of Plait’s intent, and I think rather baffling. Phil Plait is an experienced public figure, a career science communicator. Of course he knows (as I know, and as Dawkins knows) that our largest and best opportunity for outreach is often the wider audience of third-party onlookers.

Indeed, the audience of onlookers are exactly where the empirical question matters most.


Armchair Skeptics

Posted in SkepticBlog by Skepdude on March 1, 2010


I am often asked if skeptics and skeptical organizations should undertake first-hand investigations. Of course, it depends upon what your goals are. But I think the question can be re-phrased to mean – is there any value or benefit to first hand investigation, and to this the answer is a definite “yes.”

But this is not to denigrate the value of skeptical review from the comfort of your computer chair. This kind of activity has sometimes been referred to as “armchair skepticism” – meant to be derogatory. While I see the value in going out into the field, armchair skepticism has a valuable and complementary role to play.

In fact, these two activities mirror what real scientists do, and are roughly analogous to peer-review vs experimental replication.

Armchair Skepticism

The community of scientists keep each other honest, and keep the process of science grinding forward, in various ways – only one of which is going into the lab to replicate a study or do follow up research. When a colleague publishes a paper, or presents a paper at a meeting, his colleagues provide analysis and criticism. Ideas are examined for logic, internal consistency, and plausibility. Other options, perhaps neglected by the researcher, are explored. And existing research, perhaps not taken into account by the researcher, is brought up and discussed.

This feedback is provided without ever doing any actual investigation. When skeptics perform the exact same service to paranormal or fringe claims, this should not be denigrated at all, but seen as providing in our area of expertise the same kind of analysis that scientists provide in theirs.

This “peer-review” takes several forms. First, the term “peer-review” is often used to refer to the formal process of reviewing a paper that has been submitted for publication. I am not referring to this formal peer-review (which I do not think has any analogy in skeptical activity), but rather to the informal peer-review that collectively refers to all the efforts of the scientific community to hammer errors and flaws out of scientific thinking.


Another Libel Suit – This Time Against Paul Offit

Posted in SkepticBlog by Skepdude on January 4, 2010


We are still in the midst of the libel suit brought by the British Chiropractic Association against Simon Singh, and now another defender of science has been targeted by such a suit. Paul Offit, Amy Wallace, and Wired Magazine have been sued for libel by Barbara Loe Fisher, the head of the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC).

Here is a pdf of the complaint.

The subject of the suit is the excellent article by Amy Wallace criticizing the anti-vaccine movement. Wallace was attacked for this piece by anti-vaccinationists – essentially because she got the story correct. Wallace pointed out that the science strongly favors vaccine effectiveness and safety, and that the anti-vaccine movement is dangerously wrong – hurting the public health with their misinformation. The anti-vaccinationists were apparently very upset over be called out by a mainstream journalist. They got a lot of bad press this year, the Chicago Tribune also did a series of articles detailing the dangerous pseudoscience of the anti-vaccine movement. Wallace’s article earned her a place in the infamous baby-eating photo (along side Offit and yours truly) that only served to further embarrass the anti-vaccine movement via the blog, Age of Autism.

The law suit, in this context, seems like just the next step in the campaign against Offit and Wallace.

The NVIC, despite its innocuous name, is an ideological anti-vaccination group, and they were targeted among others in the Wallace piece. Fisher found a sentence in the article that she felt she could build a libel case around.

Fisher, who has long been the media’s go-to interview for what some in the autism arena call “parents rights,” makes him particularly nuts, as in “You just want to scream.” The reason? “She lies,” he says flatly.

“She lies” will now be the subject of as much analysis as the term “bogus” was in Singh’s article about the BCA, so I might as well start. Critics often walk a fine line – we want to accurately portray the actions and claims of the targets of our criticism, without holding any punches, but we have to be clear in our terminology and careful not to inadvertently give the wrong impression. The term “lie” is problematic. It is not necessarily inaccurate, but it can carry implications not intended by the writer, because it may imply something about what another person knows or believes.


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What, If Anything, Can Skeptics Say About Science?

Posted in SkepticBlog by Skepdude on December 22, 2009


NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio, Larry Stock, Robert GerstenNASA visualization of arctic surface warming trends. NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio, Larry Stock, Robert Gersten

As many skeptics know by now, legendary skeptical trailblazer James Randi set off a firestorm last week with two Swift blog posts about global warming. His first post carried his strong suspicion that consensus science on climate change is incorrect, while his followup post wondered “whether we can properly assign the cause to anthropogenic influences.”

Skeptical bloggers were swift to respond. Critics (including PZ Myers, Orac, Sean Carroll, and James Hrynyshyn) chastised Randi for speaking outside his domain expertise; for dissenting from current consensus science; and for lending his name to the disreputable “Oregon Petition Project.” Others, like Phil Plait, corrected Randi while sensibly reminding us that “anyone, everyone, is capable of making mistakes.” And, inevitably, global warming deniers seized upon the event. (One headline, at Britain’s, gleefully crowed “James Randi forced to recant by Warmist thugs for showing wrong kind of scepticism.”)

But, of the many posts to respond to Randi, two in particular caught my attention. SkeptiCamp pioneer Reed Esau asked,

So what happens now? That uneasy feeling you are now experiencing may be the implications of the situation setting in. … Most of us are laymen who don’t have the professional experience and analytical skills to properly evaluate the data and the methods. To pretend we do (or to reject it on a hunch) separates us from the very scientific enterprise we skeptics purport to value.

Similarly, according to Skeptical Inquirer columnist Massimo Pigliucci, “we need to pause and think carefully about the entire skeptical movement in light of episodes like this one.”

So, What Happens Now?

I’ve long argued that our patchy and lukewarm acceptance of mainstream climate science is skepticism’s greatest failure. I’ll return to that argument in future posts, but today I’d like to concentrate on the general question raised by Esau and Pigliucci: what is skepticism’s appropriate relationship to consensus science? What — if anything — may skeptics responsibly say on mainstream science subjects?

Organized skepticism has always talked about science. Certainly, we use science-informed arguments when critiquing paranormal claims. We use techniques from science (and from other investigatory disciplines, such as history and journalism) when digging into strange stuff. The promotion of scientific literacy is also a core part of our traditional mandate (as I argued in the essay “Where Do We Go From Here?”).

Nonetheless, it’s my opinion that there are severe limits on the kinds of scientific arguments into which skeptics may responsibly wade. If we’re serious about our science-based epistemology, we must be prepared to consistently defer to scientific consensus. As Esau puts it,

That consistency is essential, because without it people like myself will ask “So, what’s the point?” To waver from that consistency risks calling the entire enterprise into question.


Hospital workers fired for refusing vaccinations

Posted in SkepticBlog by Skepdude on December 10, 2009


NBC is reporting that several workers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia were fired for refusing to get vaccinated. CHP cares for very sick children, many of whom have compromised immune systems or are too young to get vaccinated.

The twist? Some of the employees refused vaccinations for religious reasons:

“I am a Christian, and my religion prohibits me from receiving vaccines,” said Tyrika Cowlay, who was a lab technician.

First and foremost, this isn’t a religious issue. It’s a safety issue. I mean, c’mon. We know vaccinations prevent the spread of diseases, especially among children, and even more so among those who are too young to be vaccinated themselves — herd immunity is all those infants have.

Second, I’m thinking that if your religion forbids you from vaccinations (and to my knowledge, mainstream Christianity does not preclude them), then maybe a children’s hospital isn’t the best line of work for you (any more than an orthdox Jew should work at a pork rendering factory). That may seem harsh, but let’s replace a few words in the linked article and see how you feel:


Young Earth Creationism = Darwinism?

Posted in SkepticBlog by Skepdude on December 8, 2009



“News flash: skeptics hack the Answers in Genesis website!” Or, at least, that was the joke  Skeptic co-publisher Pat Linse made when I read her some pro-natural selection material from the young Earth creationist organization’s slick online portal.

For years, I’ve been surprised how rarely this is mentioned: young Earth creationists need Darwin to be right — and when you press them on it, they often agree that he was.

Doesn’t sound like the creationism you know? It’s not a hacker’s prank, and it’s not a radical re-thinking of creationism. It is, however, a nuance as important as it is surprising: creationist leaders share Darwin’s belief that species routinely change (and even originate) through mutation and natural selection.

Indeed, according to Answers In Genesis’ (AiG) current web feature “Top 10 Myths About Creation,” it’s a straw-man to suppose creationists think otherwise:

A popular caricature of creationists is that we teach the fixity of species (i.e., species don’t change). And since species obviously do change, evolutionists enjoy setting up this straw-man argument to win a debate that was never really there in the first place.

Lest we have doubt about what they mean when they insist that “species obviously do change,” the same AiG article clarifies,

Species changing via natural selection and mutations is perfectly in accord with what the Bible teaches.


What I Believe — Science & the Power of Humanity

Posted in SkepticBlog by Skepdude on September 9, 2009


I believe in the power of science and humanity. Specifically, I believe that biodiversity is a good thing and that we have been rapacious in our treatment of the environment, although I think the environmental movement has greatly exaggerated our condition and that the environment is a lot more resilient than most environmentalists give it credit for. I don’t mind eating cows and fish, but dolphins and whales have big brains and they’re cool, so I don’t think we should kill them. I drive an SUV because I haul around bicycles, books, and dogs, but as soon as there is a bigger hybrid, I’ll buy it. And although I am a libertarian heterosexual who is about as unpink (in both meanings) as you can get, I believe people should have an equal opportunity to be unequal. As for evolution, it happened. Deal with it.

I don’t know why the God question is so interdigitated with political and economic issues, but it is. It shouldn’t be. It’s okay to be a liberal Christian or a conservative atheist. I am a fiscal conservative and a social liberal. I don’t think there is a God, or any sort of anthropomorphic being who needs to be worshipped, who listens to prayers, who keeps a moral scoreboard that will be settled in the end, or who cares one iota about who wins the Super Bowl.


A Question to a Professor of Organic Agriculture

Posted in SkepticBlog by Skepdude on August 6, 2009


am in receipt of an interesting email exchange between a Skeptoid listener who prefers to remain anonymous (let’s call him Gump in retaliation for his anonymity) and a professor, Jim Corven in the Organic Agriculture program at Bristol Community College in Massachusetts.

Gump read on the school’s web site the following:

Organic agriculture is one of the fastest growing segments of U.S. agriculture. Its earth-friendly, resource-gentle approach to providing food and fiber attracts a generation who worries that the overuse of synthetics and agribusiness techniques deplete the earth’s health and resources out of the world. The sustainable farming movement uses fewer nonrenewable resources and in that way nurtures not only our bodies, but our earth.

All perfectly reasonable statements. The doomsday scenarios described are indeed worries that some people have. But the web page continues:

Learn the techniques and science behind the movement with the new Organic Agriculture Technician certificate at Bristol Community College. The certificate is designed to prepare people to use ecological production techniques that minimize pollution and create a healthier, tastier product.

Whoa, horsey. Healthier? Tastier? Obviously this is a tired old claim that organic proponents have been making for decades, but it’s neither been evidenced nor is it plausible. And where do they get “minimize pollution”?

Gump began by emailing Professor Corven with a reasonable question, one that all too few people seem willing to ask:

I was reading the front page about organic farming.  I read the sentence about how organic farm produces tastier and healthier foods.  I am wondering how that comes to be. Does organic farming alter the foods DNA in someway making the foods tastier or healthier in someway?  Is there some test that can prove the foods are healthier?  I find it disingenuous that organic farming is being promoted as something that is better than modern farming techniques which use less land to produce more food.

Professor Corven had a most un-professor-like reply:

I’d like to suggest that you might like to study some scientific literature and read up on the issues of soils, agricultural productivity, and nutrition before making the kinds of erroneous comments contained in your email.


Boy Scouts: You’ve Been Cast Out

Posted in SkepticBlog by Skepdude on July 2, 2009


The Boy Scouts of America are notorious for acting like a public institution when it’s time to collect Federal money, and for enjoying the freedoms reserved for private institutions when they feel like being bigots. Whenever the mood strikes them, they eject members regardless of their performance and their service record, for anything from being gay to being something other than Christian; and they make no excuse for it, happily citing religious discrimination as the reason. And still they continue to rake in Federal donations.

I received the following email from reader Neil Polzin:

“We have received information that has compelled us to revoke your registration. You must immediately sever any relationship you may have with the Boy Scouts of America.”

Today I received a letter from Marcus Mack at the San Gabriel Valley Council that started this way.  What was my offense that makes me so inappropriate to be around children?  Before your mind fills with thoughts of violence, violations of youth protection or any other deplorable action, it is simply because I am an atheist.



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