Do We Have A Problem?

Over the last week or so I’ve been mulling over some of the things I learned at The Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas. For a great account check out Jonathan Abrams report here.

There were lots of great tidbits of information about how to research and plan skeptical events, get accurate data, separate the woo from the science, etc. There was also a strong emphasis on appearance. No not the clothes we wear, but the way to we present ourselves to those in the community and those outside.

At TAM, Phil Plait, accomplished scientist, author of the Bad Astronomy blog, and several bestselling books like “Death from the Skies”, gave what has come to be a very discussed talk about not being a dick.

Phil Plait at TAM

Now full disclosure, I didn’t see all of Phil’s talk. I was busy doing interviews for Radio Freethinker so I only caught a few moments. I’m hoping to see the filmed version soon. And I should also point out that Phil’s talk has spurred on a lot of water cooler chat. A LOT. With some quick google’ing you can probably find your favourite skeptical blog has already posted their 2 cents worth.

I wanted to talk about this but with a slightly different point of view.

What I perceive here is a demarcation line between skeptics who are (unfairly) characterized as accommodationist and skeptics who are (also unfairly) characterized as confrontational. Phil Plait is someone on the olive branch side and someone like Richard Dawkins or PZ Myers is on the confrontation side.

Where this becomes a problem is that people who identify themselves as skeptics are being driven away by the confrontational proponents. Further, people in the middle, people who don’t really consider themselves skeptics but who might be sympathetic to our cause are put off by confrontational skepticism.

Why are they put off? Being confrontational is considered rude. Phil Plait said don’t be a dick. Keep in mind that he didn’t name anyone. He didn’t say PZ Myers is a dick or that Richard Dawkins is a dick. The point being, calling someone stupid or getting in their face about their beliefs won’t make them any likely to change their minds. Phil at one point polled the audience and asked them how many had changed their mind because someone got in their face about some skeptical topic. (More than a few people put up their hand. Me included.)

The big problem that’s been pointed out by pretty much everyone is that different situations call for different solutions. You really can’t offer an olive branch to Fred Phelps for example, not because he’s so evil you shouldn’t try, but rather, someone like him simply won’t be rational enough to see your point of view. On the flip side, if you have a religious believer come to your skeptic meetings you shouldn’t get in their face calling them an idiot.

Being rude is never a good idea. That’s just a general observation of life. It can be applied to skepticism as much as it can be applied to running a successful frozen yogurt stand.

What can get lost in all that, is that disagreeing with someone is not rude. This next bit is very important, even if someone accuses you of being rude because you disagree with them doesn’t make your disagreement rude.

Being a Dick?

Being a good skeptic sometimes entails challenging people to defend their beliefs. Whatever it is that you’re asking someone to defend, be it religious beliefs, medical claims, ghosts or the supernatural, there’s a good chance you’ll provoke them. That’s because humans don’t always react well when their cherished beliefs are challenged. That’s unfortunate, but it’s not our fault.

Some skeptics are better than others when it comes to provoking people. PZ Myers is unlikely to get invited to a church for a dialog between Christians and Atheists, Paul Offit is unlikely to be invited to speak at a mind body soul expo, but on the other hand, some skeptics will be asked to do these kinds of events. Does that make them better skeptics?

Not really no. Of course that doesn’t make them worse either.

What’s important to remember is that everyone is going to have a different view on what is appropriate for a skeptic to do. Some will say being confrontation is bad. Some will say dialog or debate with non-skeptics is bad because you legitimize them in the process.

Should we police our own to prevent skeptics who we don’t agree with from speaking out? No. Here’s why I utterly reject the idea that some skeptics are poisoning the well. Suppose I refuse to watch the Discovery channel because one of their shows is Ghost Hunters. That’s fine, but I’ll miss some great programming like Mythbusters and Daily Planet. Instead of depriving myself of everything Discovery offers, because I don’t like one aspect of their programming, I should employ my remote control and change channels when Ghost Hunters is on.

Here’s another reason to reject the poisoning of the well, sometimes there are great uses for confrontational skepticism. Recently Kennedy Goodkey gave a talk for CFI Vancouver called “Asshole Skepticism” (we hope to have it on our youtube channel soon) in that talk Kennedy outlined a number of very good reasons to want diversity in the skeptical movement.

And I can’t mention enough that there are some people who no matter how gentle or nice you are, will be offended by your point of view.

For whatever reason, the most radical proponents of anything seem to get the most media attention. So it seems like instead of having reasonable moderate people debate something, you get two extremes shouting at each other. Despite the fact that this model is a complete mockery of what informative media should be, it’s ridiculously common. It doesn’t help when skeptics go on the evening news to talk about climate change and get shouted down by some pundit simply because they’re better at that kind of confrontational info-tainment.

That’s only one example, but skeptics need to broaden our voice. Playing nice with others is really important, but you can’t play nice with a rabid dog. If the notions of free inquiry mean anything to skeptics we need to be free to criticize our peers, but we also need to realize that there is no panacea cure for woo or uncritical thinking. Each individual case will require a unique response. We must also be aware that sometimes the case is not as clear cut as one thinks. A debate for instance, the target there is not to convince the people who walked in already agreeing/disagreeing with you, but rather all the people on the fence, all the people who haven’t made up their minds yet.

Different voices, different situations.

20 Responses to “Do We Have A Problem?”

  1. Tim McDowell says:

    Good article. I’m sorry I missed TAM this year, and the always entertaining Phil Plait.

    I have to admit to being a fan of the “confrontational” skeptics like Richard Dawkins, and PZ….they say things I wish I had the nerve to say to people sometimes. However, I realize that most of the time, that approach may be entertaining to those of us watching the fireworks, but probably we haven’t changed any minds, and perhaps have even hardened some peoples absurd beliefs.

    I do think that it is important we not sink to the level of some of the whack-a-doodles out there (eg Age of Autism). We need to maintain a level of civility, even with peoples beliefs that we despise. I struggle with that, and have the scars on my bitten tongue to prove it. Sometimes, however, a good rant is needed, even if you aren’t going to change anybodys mind.

    • Kim Hebert says:

      I think for me the questions are: How do we know a “rude” approach hasn’t changed any minds (or if that’s even the goal)? How do we know that a gentle approach wouldn’t be equally likely to harden someone’s beliefs? The debate seems largely philosophical, with some vocal people who prefer a certain approach exaggerating the “other side” beyond recognition (often confusing assertiveness with cruelty, or approachability with “accommodationism”) and assigning consequences based on…what? Preference/beliefs? Anecdotes? We should know better than to speculate without evidence.

  2. Indiana says:

    I think Plait’s model of a “rude skeptic” is a straw man, and I am disappointed to see so many people buying into it. The “rabid dog” skeptic is mostly myth, notwithstanding a few special situations. Of course there are probably a few jerks who are rude unnecessarily, but if you carefully look at what the most confrontational skeptics are actually doing, they word their arguments strongly but are (almost) never literally rude (except in extreme cases where it is understandable). When they do confront, they don’t do it to the average person, they do it to the people who are using nonsense to try to take advantage of other people. PZ Myers is not going to flip off someone on the street that says they believe their horoscope; he’s going to flip off the people who try to bilk others out of their money with astrological foolishness.

    I don’t see that railing against someone who is ripping people off and then politely challenging someone’s beliefs in casual conversation on the street are two different “voices” (that is, two different characters). It’s perfectly normal for a single person to behave differently in different situations – to have a calm and friendly chat with most people, then explode on hypocrites and thieves. But if someone saw me unloading on someone who had just unabashedly tried to rip me off, and then tried to characterize that that was how I always acted in every situation, I’d call that person pretty ignorant, and pretty dishonest. Isn’t that was Plait was doing (even though he didn’t name names)?

    I am withholding judgement on the effectiveness of confrontational skeptics until a good set of data is in, but preliminary data that I’ve seen suggests that being a dick is more effective. Logically that makes sense to me: skeptics on established topics (like astrology or traditional medicine) have been meek for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years, until just recently, and how effective has that strategy been? The horoscope in every paper should suggest the answer that question, I would think.

  3. Jason Ellis says:

    I think ‘don’t be a dick’, regardless of the actual skeptic personality demographics, is an important message.

    I was initially drawn to skepticism by the eloquence of Carl Sagan’s deconstruction of ‘woo’. The way he delivered his message was very convincing without being condescending. It’s one of the (many) reasons he is so popular to this day – he made room for anyone who was willing to have an honest discussion.

    I think that though many skeptics may not necessarily be taking the rude ‘shock jock’ approach to engaging the other side, skeptics (all people for that matter) do have a tendency to talk down to others, which can be an unattractive over-extension of an argument that should be enough all on it’s own. I am personally guilty of this more than I care to admit. It turns me off to myself, I can’t imagine what others think.

    While I am a fan of PZ and Dawkins and similar strong personalities, the vitriol that they can deliver their messages with have frequently made me cringe and does strike me as counter-productive.

    Am I being an Accommodationist? No, I think being it’s just being civil. If you want people in your camp, present them with a warm seat next to the fire. If they refuse, spend your energy on the folks who are still undecided.

  4. Haefen says:

    Different voices, Different situations, is a good general rule but many skeptics and atheists use voices that should never be used in rational adult discussion. Voices that espouse hate or encourage vilification have, IMO, no place in rational discussion. Suggesting people or their ideas are a virus that must be handled as deadly viruses, or labeling a group of people as child abusers because of their ideas, has nothing to do with logic or reason it is hate.

    There are many skeptics and atheists (they are not one in the same) who have no problem with such hate, even among those who know where such persecution leads. They regularly use very degrading terms and/or illogical, irrational, and ad hominine arguments to the point that whatever valid point they may have had is lost.

    For other skeptics, maybe the majority, who hold no hate, identifying with a group that supports or encourages hate or even rudeness, could be a problem. I too would expect them to have a limit to “different voices”.

    For the evangelical skeptics and those wanting the movement to grow or wishing to convert people to the “cause” it is not so clear there is a problem with some “rudeness” even hate. History shows how effective mocking, degradation, and vilification can be when it comes to converting the masses. People do not want to be on the “wrong side”. Certainty and a common enemy can be powerful stuff.

    This is part of the attraction to Dawkins (for example) and I have seen it myself. A friend of mine, a lay priest no less, rejected my “no God”, pro-science position, for decades before leaving the Church. After reading some of the New Atheist material he went on a hate filled rant attacking friends and family. Logic and reason had little effect and it has only been the response of others (non-Atheists) and time that resulted in him being less vocal about the hate he has embraced. Still there are others, not unlike him, who are very vocal, very certain and gaining in numbers.

    New Atheists and Aggressive Skepticism are drawing more to their cause but what kind of Skeptics are they? Are they trying to be logical? Rational? Are they genuinely interested in trying to apply knowledge and reason to their own life, to the many questions humanity faces?

    Sure maybe some are but many are attracted to a growing movement. They want to be part of the crowd and not part of the “wrong” crowd. In a complex world they are attracted to the certainty offered by New Skepticism and New Atheism and partake of the many bonding rituals like TAM and the various meetings off and on line. They are comforted by the group, it defines them, gives them a common enemy, certainty, it forms part of their world view and they want to share.

    The idea as expressed in the original post is to go out and argue with Non-Skeptics so armed with all the buzz words, ideas and beliefs, of the movement New Skeptics set out under the banner of Skepticism to confront, to argue. But the movement is less concerned about rational, respectful discussion than ever before. Rarely do we see Skeptics trying to correct the fundamentals of their discussions unless it is to “win”. These New (and many old) Skeptics are not arguing well or respectfully.

    How can one argue rationally, respectfully if one does not learn and practice?!

    Rude skills, developed on a rude internet, transfer very well to a movement that is not stressing the importance of respect, free thinking, rational discussion or logic. Those concepts can be the antithesis of certainty, something that has attracted so many new Skeptics.

    These New Skeptics are certain, certain that their movement is right therefore they do not need to be knowledgeable, to learn or be polite and that can be very rude.

    Depending on your objectives that may or may not be a problem.

  5. Parrot says:

    It seems to me like when you’re facing rabid believers, like your example of Fred Phelps, it still behooves us to conduct our arguments calmly and rationally.

    Not so much because I think that such an attitude would be likely to change Phelps’ mind, but because I believe such a response is more likely to resonate with anybody witnessing the exchange to see who has the better argument.

    If I have an online argument with somebody, I want other people to look over the text of the debate and clearly see that I kept my wits about me and brought forth rational points to counter the claims that were made.

    If I did so in spite of being faced with somebody seething with vitriol who did not make an adequate attempt to counter my arguments, then I take that as a further point in my favour.

    I like to think that most people reading the debate will feel the same way and be more convinced by my side.

    But there is one other aspect to consider. A common theme that I’ve noticed among people who’ve turned to a more skeptical mindset is that making the change is often a slow process. The seeds of doubt are planted and then may take a while in order to germinate.

    The fact that you don’t convert somebody right away with the strength of your argument doesn’t mean that the seeds of doubt haven’t been planted. Even if the more immediate effect of your argument is that your opponent becomes more entrenched in his beliefs, that may be a sign that your seed of doubt has gotten through and is being forcefully resisted.

    I personally don’t know how the seeds of doubt are best planted. Perhaps a more confrontational attitude is best for that in some cases. But I think we should strive at least to avoid seeming arrogant and dismissive.

  6. Ethan Clow says:

    Thanks for the comments all.

    @Tim McDowell, I think part of the struggle is to find that line between being up front on what we think, and going off on a rant.

    @Kim, I like to say how each situation calls for a different approach. Sometimes that approach will be more confrontational than other times. The idea that we should tailor our responses seems pretty logical. I have heard some interesting studies that suggest that people react very poorly to information they don’t agree with and that it actually makes them more convinced of their preconceived notions. I’m not sure if the approach matters in that case though.

    @Indiana, I agree that Phil’s version of the “dick skeptic” is something of a straw man. But I think part of his argument is public perception as well. Meaning, people will look at the more confrontational skeptics and assume negative things about the rest of us. I don’t know if I agree with that point but it is something to think about.

    @Jason Ellis, to me, Carl Sagan’s approach is a very useful and inclusive way of teaching skepticism. But as I’ve mentioned before, the Sagan’s method won’t work on some people, as good as it is, we should have back up methods too.

    @Haefen, I disagree. I don’t think Dawkins or the “new skeptics” ever promote hate. The only way to view someone like Dawkins or PZ as promoting hate is if you make up your mind a head of time that profoundly disagreeing with someone is hateful. That is sort of the point I was trying to make. Some people, no matter what approach you take, will view you as a hate-monger, close minded, dick.

    @Parrot, yes, I agree about being civil in a debate with someone like Fred Phelps. In that case your target is not Phelps but the audience. But I think that’s a strategy you need to have going into the debate. Before hand, your plan should be to convince the onlookers. I would suggest that there are many different ways of doing this though. In fact, in some cases you audience might be already skeptics, and I think for people like Dawkins or PZ, they are doing this method, only they are trying to make casual skeptics more active by provoking a more dedicated and vocal form of skepticism.

  7. Haefen says:

    I have indeed decided ahead of time that some one vilifying a group for their ideas is likely hate. If they say, suggest, imply or give support to the idea, that the group is a virus that needs to be exterminated (taken care of, treated like, or whatever euphemism is used) then that is hate and I’ll call them on it. History tells us that we must.

    Rational people, rational arguments, should not use hate or anything that might look like it to manipulate people or spur people into action.

    Skeptics of course are not particularly rational so hate, vilification, and other ad hominem methods is acceptable and seems to be increasing in acceptance as more people are drawn to the movement rather than the, now old, ideas of Skepticism.

    • Kim Hebert says:

      Could you please provide specific examples of those accusations? I don’t recall any skeptic advocating genocide.

    • Erik Davis says:

      Haefen, I’m going to suggest that your lay priest friend may have had some issues of his own, because it would be difficult to come away from Dawkins with genocidal tendencies on the face of his material. Hitchens on the other hand….

      But — if what you’re saying is that easy access to well-argued and confirmation-bias-enhancing material is making some atheists more rabid, well yes I suspect that’s true. Group polarization is well established, and the New Atheists have for perhaps the first time in human history allowed atheists to exist as a group (at least outside of an enforcing political structure, i.e. communism). Skepticism is actually the answer to that problem, because it forces us to consider our biases — cognitive, social, or otherwise. This is one of the things I’ve argued in these pages — that skepticism isn’t just about reason or just about science, it’s also about debiasing.

      The problem though is that the term “skeptic” has been misappropriated by people who are definitely not skeptical — it’s come to mean “challenging the common wisdom”, which is just wrong, and at worst, mere denialism. Thus every atheist thinks they’re a skeptic, while many are just “believers” in atheism. (Though Dawkins himself certainly
      does not fit this description). We’ve also got climate “skeptics” who ignore the basic science, holocaust “skeptics” who ignore the historical record, etc.

      Simple test: a skeptic changes his mind when new facts change the weight of the preponderance of evidence. If you can’t say that, you’re not a skeptic.

      • Alex says:

        I know you were probably just trying to be funny with your shot at Hitchens, but the guy gets way too much undeserved flack of that type so i figured I’d speak up. I don’t think I’ve met anyone in the skeptical community who is as dedicated to freedom and equality as Hitch. We’re talking about the guy who got his ass kicked in Lebanon for writing an insult under the SSNP’s swastika logo. To accuse the man of advocating genocide – even jokingly – is uncalled for. Besides, it’s not as if he doesn’t have plenty of other faults that you can pick on!

      • Erik Davis says:

        Alex – yes, it was a joke, but the contrast was intentional, and relevant to Ethan’s post about different styles of engagement. Both are great thinkers who’ve made amazing contributions to the debate, but only Hitch revels in the bombast. The rise he gets out of getting a rise is at times palpable, and he’s admitted as much.

  8. Haefen says:

    Can’t recall any significant skeptic openly advocating physical genocide either. Quite a few “skeptics” do, and often emotionally. Hang out at any active skeptic/atheist forum and you can find lots of examples of people calling for the deliberate and systematic destruction of ideas and people (if they will not give up their ideas).

    And who do they refer to when their position is challenged? Lately it is more and more the New Atheists. If NAs were concerned about such use of their material they could make it clear they do not hate people or religion or whatever but of course many would have to lie to say that.

    To Dawkins credit when challenged he does not back away from his extreme positions. Given the definition of hate supplied I cannot see how anyone can ignore the hate being espoused by so called rationalists. I would suggest finding your own links if interested in the topic, youtube would be one place to start. I find many of the interviews and debates with Dawkins and others to be well worth the time if interested of course.

    I agree with Erik that the term Skeptic has been taken over or has evolved into something new. Either way past skeptics, or more of them than today, made an effort to not hate or even morally judge (required to hate) positions or ideas.

    Using Eriks definition for a Skeptic would exclude many of todays skeptics, who must first check with the “experts” before deciding on their all too often moral position on an issue.

    Todays Skeptics almost pride themselves in taking moralistic positions on everything from human caused global warming to utilizing placebos, even politics.

    Hence the reason that even though I try to change my mind when I become aware of new facts I am not a “Skeptic”. I am trying to be rational and reasoned, not hero worship a self proclaimed media personality.

    I think this is the problem. As the movement has expand it has adopted more of a mass appeal position and has had to drop the emphasis on some of its basic tenets to do that.

    I suspect that this is in large part why Atheists and Skeptics can now exist as large groups. As one very notable Atheist once pointed out, looking into the abyss comes with risks.

    Apparently it can also come with the reward of mass acceptance.

  9. Kichae says:

    “Different voices, Different situations, is a good general rule but many skeptics and atheists use voices that should never be used in rational adult discussion. Voices that espouse hate or encourage vilification have, IMO, no place in rational discussion. Suggesting people or their ideas are a virus that must be handled as deadly viruses, or labeling a group of people as child abusers because of their ideas, has nothing to do with logic or reason it is hate. ”

    Dawkins has called the indoctrination of children into religion by scaring them with ideas like hell, everlasting torture, etc. as child abuse, yes. It’s a threat, brandished to entice children to behave in certain ways, and such threats are abusive. If someone threatened to beat you with a club if you performed a certain act, that, too, would be abuse.

    Would it not?

    “There are many skeptics and atheists (they are not one in the same) who have no problem with such hate, even among those who know where such persecution leads. They regularly use very degrading terms and/or illogical, irrational, and ad hominine arguments to the point that whatever valid point they may have had is lost. ”

    If I called you a “tone troll”, would you consider that hate?

    You present a lovely series of rants where you white wash a group (or groups) of people (Gnu Atheists and “assertive skeptics”) and then accuse them of being irrational, illogical, ad hominem, hate filled sheep, while simultaneously complaining that they do more or less the same thing.

    Then you say things like:

    “New Atheists and Aggressive Skepticism are drawing more to their cause but what kind of Skeptics are they? Are they trying to be logical? Rational? Are they genuinely interested in trying to apply knowledge and reason to their own life, to the many questions humanity faces?

    Sure maybe some are but many are attracted to a growing movement.”

    This is a lovely little strawman. You’ve assumed:

    A) That the number of atheists or skeptical people have changed, without any kind of evidence. Is it not at least equally likely that most of these people have always been skeptics or atheists, but are now starting to “out” themselves in light the number of peers who are now visible?

    B) That a large number of people in these now increasingly visible social groups are just there for the attention.

    Therefore, these groups can be ridiculed and raked over hot coals because most of them are just faking it to make it anyway.

    And you base this off of what? The fact that a small percentage of them are hot headed?

    “Rude skills, developed on a rude internet, transfer very well to a movement that is not stressing the importance of respect, free thinking, rational discussion or logic. Those concepts can be the antithesis of certainty, something that has attracted so many new Skeptics. ”

    I’ve yet to see a skeptic website that doesn’t stress the importance of free thinking, rational discussion, or logic. I have seen a growing number of people use an absolutely beautiful line, though: Respect is something that’s earned. If you want someone to show you respect, you’d best do something to earn that respect. Don’t assume you’re privileged to it simply because you exist. Whining about how no one’s showing respect toward people who demand it without cause is an excellent way to fall deeper into a respect deficit.

    “These New Skeptics are certain, certain that their movement is right therefore they do not need to be knowledgeable, to learn or be polite and that can be very rude. ”

    More claims without basis. More opinion as fact.

    And you have the gall to complain about other peoples skepticism? Why, I find that quite RUDE!

    “Lately it is more and more the New Atheists. If NAs were concerned about such use of their material they could make it clear they do not hate people or religion or whatever but of course many would have to lie to say that. ”

    Is it not a lie to pretend to know what someone else thinks or believes, and then tell the world that it is so?

    I know of many atheists who, yes I’ll use the word, hate the church. Usually this is the Roman Catholic Church, but depending on context it could easily be the Church of Mormon, or what have you. “The Church” is an institution. It’s not a person. Wanting to see “The Church” fail, fall, and crumble is not advocating genocide.

    I also know many atheists who would like to see religion be de-emphasized, delegitimized, or even disappear. Again, that’s not violent. It’s no different an attitude than wanting to see astrology or psychics be de-emphasized, delegitimized, or for those practices to disappear.

    As it stands, you still seem to be raging against a strawman. You’re showing yourself to be unwilling to defend your characterizations of certain peoples or groups, in the same way that many climate change deniers, moon hoaxers, or relativity theory deniers are unwilling to defend their own characterizations of the “other” idea – by telling people to go out there and find the evidence which supports your picture for themselves.

    But that’s not how this whole thing works. You’ve painted a portrait of the “bad skeptic” and the “hateful atheist”. You’ve said “this is how they’re like” – that they’re angry, hateful, rude, and only there because it’s “cool”. You’ve made a positive claim. The burden of proof for that claim lies on your shoulders.

  10. Haefen says:

    Yes I am expressing many opinions and you seem to be most concerned about those. I would suggest not trying to argue opinions.

    My opinions are based on both personal experience, and observations. I would suggest not trying to argue personal experiences.

    Observations on the other hand, IMO, are worth discussing. That is an area where it is easy to make a mistake. Things are not always what they appear and when you see a different explanation I’m interested.

    If I understand your query, or your position and correct me if I am incorrect, you are suggesting I am wrong about there being hate within the Skeptic community?

    I have already defined hate, you have a different definition and that’s fine there are many different meanings given time, place, context and so on. That is why I explained it so my use could be understood.

    To repeat, hate would be to vilify a group for their ideas. An example would indeed be telling children about hell. Rather than or along with arguing against the idea of hell a person could say that telling children about it is child abuse. A descriptor likely meant to inflame emotions rather than encourage rational thinking.

    If a person then uses that to justify their negative beliefs and/or uses it to encourage action against the group that could be spreading hate (with the provisos mentioned, not correcting the interpretation or speak out against and so on).

    Are you saying that there are no Atheists advocating action against or vilifying groups for their ideas and/or using material from the New Atheists, (Dawkins and others) to support their position?

    Are you suggesting there are no “bad Skeptics? No hateful Atheists? No anger, no irrational posts or illogical conclusions made by those who claim to be skeptics?

    I do not think so, but I’m not sure, maybe just a very small percentage, maybe none.

    It appears we could only disagree on the number. What percentage of Skeptics, particularly New self described Skeptics are bad or how many new hateful Atheists?

    I do not know. I haven’t seen any data on that but it sure appears to me that there are more of them than ever. Maybe that is because the movement, or membership has grown so there are just lots more of them around, maybe the percentage of hateful Atheists or bad skeptics is actually decreasing.

    But that would be someone else’s claim, opinion or observation. Mine is that the rapid expansion of Skepticism has resulted in an increase in Cult of Personalities or Hero worshiping or Skeptic Authorities, or whatever term describes the effect where a person believes something because the group or leader believes it. Past Skeptics, particularly those from a philosophical background, would argue against that effect. Which seems to have limited their ability to appeal to the masses.

    Your idea that respect has to be earned is true in many cases but older skeptics would say that the argument the “search” should itself be respected. This is what is being disrespected when we are deliberately rude or deliberately use fallacious arguments.

    I am often disrespectful of it myself but try to correct that as much as possible.

    So I reread the “strawman” you pointed out. It was a series of questions in which I was looking for an answer.

    The questions themselves certainly leave open the possibility that Skepticism and Atheism is not growing, that there are no New Skeptics, or increase in the number of Atheists. In fact after stating that the questions are a strawman you suggest just that by asking a question. Your explanation is that they were always Skeptics or Atheists, no increase.

    So I guess no need for me to look for a link pointing out that there are more Athiests or Skeptics in the general population. After all any increase can be explained by the idea that they were already Atheists and are just now saying so because they feel more comfortable.

    That would also explain away any apparent decreases in belief in God. There is no decrease because they never did belief in God.

    Well for the sake of argument I guess I could accept that idea, (premise, suggestion, or position) as it still acknowledges an increase in active Atheists, an increase in self professed Skeptics and it is those to whom I was referring.

    But back to the strawman suggestion. I think of a strawman as a caricature or completely invented representation of a position, though it can also be an extreme position, which must be what your are referring to.

    For example if I said “All Atheists who now feel comfortable speaking about Atheism are hateful” and then attacked the whole movement that would indeed be a strawman.

    I am not trying to do that. I am not saying that all new skeptics are just sucked into the cult of personality. If I wrote that or you read it as that then I retract it. I am saying that LOTS of new skeptics are being sucked into the group and not adopting the basic tenets of Skeptics which would have them challenge the experts. That would include Skeptic experts or personalities.

    So why the strawman statement?

    While your answering that I wouldn’t mind an example of me ridiculing (mocking or humiliating) skeptics and/or Atheists. Didn’t know I was doing that either.

    ……Well I just did a quick reread and thought I should clean this up and knock it down to size maybe address other issues raised but I’m not sure this is a serious discussion worthy of such effort. Please prove me wrong and I’ll try and do better next time.

  11. Renshia says:

    I think a lot of people either did not listen to Phils speech at all or were to busy thinking of retorts to hear what he said. Phil did not say that being confrontational was wrong. Nor did he say we should not defend beliefs, or defend firmly with what one believes. He was not saying that a heated debate was the wrong thing to do.
    What he said, or at least what I understood him to say was, “don’t be a dick about it”. Don’t digress into child like behavior like name calling. He asked a question, when has anyone calling you stupid or an idiot ever been helpful in changing your opinion about something? That was all he was trying to get across. That calling people stupid and idiotic and generally just being a dick does not help in trying to present an argument.
    personally I firmly believe in standing up and confronting those with fallacious beliefs. I believe in giving no ground. But I have also found it is more effective to not be a ignorant dick about it.

  12. gmcevoy says:

    Hitchens, don’t always agree with him but he doesn’t seem to take any prisoners whatever his topic. I haven’t read any of his books, but have seen him on TV once or twice and read a column now and then. I saw him on the old Dennis Miller show where I heard him call Mammy Theresa “The Bat out of Hell”. I initially thought how rude and disrepectful until he went on to explain why he used the metaphor and it is quite apt, IMHO.

    I’m sending him “positives waves” to help him beat his affliction for purely selfish reasons. I want him to keep writing columns like one the other day further exposing the blatant hypocrisy and criminality of The Vatican.

    I learned an RC Bigwig in Belgium was caught on tape telling a rape victim to be quiet and at least thirteen other victims of child rape had committed suicide. This was a new revelation to me regarding the Belgian branch of the world wide coverup of what is all too often softened as “child abuse” in the media. Hitchens candidly asks why none of these criminals have criminal proceedings against them.

    Was he being dickish? Perhaps. Anger, and indeed, outrage are not inappropriate responses to a group of people, with the moral authority of the Creator of the Universe guiding them, aiding and abetting child rapists for decades if not longer. That kind of thing might cause the snarkiness he’s known for.

    A very telling letter appeared the next day from a reader who spewed vitriol all over Hitchens and played the hate card too. To paraphrase and summarize the short letter: “Please stop running his puerile columns, we get that he hates the church.”

    There was not one mention of, nor any care or commpassion expressed for, the victims of child rape. None. Sadly, that is quite often the case in response to any further revelations. The Toronto Sun ran a headline(?) that it was an imposition upon the Pope for him to have to apologize for his corporation aiding and abetting child rapists – again… Except they play down the last bit where the church hid the crimes and moved the pervs to new feeding grounds.

    But it is Hitchens being dickish…

  13. biped says:

    We clearly need some proven and quotable studies done on the various demeanours and their effectiveness in delivery of a message.

    It seems to me that if you are looking to promote critical thinking in today’s youth and future generations, antagonizing yourself as a rude skeptic might very well be counterproductive.

    I see quite often at work, how charisma trumps practical knowledge and ability in the management tier.

    Thank you for the wonderful article. This dilemma no doubt runs through the heads of many critical thinking types regularly.


  1. [...] For further reading on the subject: P.Z. Myers at Pharyngula Matt Dillahunty at The Atheist Experience Ethan Clow at Skeptic North [...]

  2. [...] Some people are so bought into the supernatural that the idea that others would rather embrace skepticism is downright insulting. (By the way, for more on my thoughts of this check out my post on Skeptic North “Do We Have a Problem“) [...]

  • Ethan Clow

    Ethan Clow, born and raised in the Vancouver area, is best known in the skeptical community as Ethan the Freethinking Historian, co-host of Radio Freethinker, a skeptical podcast and radio show on CiTR in Vancouver. And as the former Executive Director of the Centre for Inquiry Vancouver. Ethan graduated with a B.A. in History from UBC in the fall of 2009 and has an active role with skeptical movements in Vancouver and British Columbia. He was an executive member of the UBC Freethinkers, a campus club that promotes skepticism and critical thinking. He still maintains a close relationship with the UBC Freethinkers and helps plan events and organizes skeptical activism as best he can. Currently he works for the Centre for Inquiry as the Executive Director of CFI Vancouver.