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Mar 05 2014

Or even another Tosh

What’s the thing about skeptics?

Is there a thing about them? Yes, I think there is. They tend to attract assholes. They tend to be assholes. I know lots who aren’t assholes, but I also know, and know of, lots who are. More than many other groups and movements and “communities,” skepticism seems to be a recruiting hall for assholes. Why is that?

Jason talked about this issue yesterday:

I do not consent to the skeptical “brand”, insofar as there is one, being represented by malicious con-men and other ne’er-do-wells. The skeptical way of thinking is a toolset that supplements a person’s identity. Not every person’s identity toolset is complete — many people lack empathy or a strong moral compass, among other numerous lacks. The skeptical toolset has too long been associated with amoral Libertarian con-artists that comprise the big-name skeptics, like Dunning, and I’d very much like that to end now.

That, I think, is the thing, the one I asked about above. What’s the thing about skeptics? That. The fact that skepticism is not enough, not nearly enough. It’s useful, but it’s woefully inadequate as a foundation for morality or a worldview. It has nothing to do with concern for fairness or equality, it has no connection to kindness or generosity or even politeness. It presents a constant temptation to be a smug superior jerk.

It’s not enough, and it attracts a lot of people who seem to think it is enough – people whose first loyalty is to the skeptical “movement” and other skeptics. It’s becoming more obvious all the time that the result is a movement packed to the rafters with noisy abrasive belligerent assholes, people who think they’re another Christopher Hitchens but are actually another Penn Jillette.

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  1. 1
    Crimson Clupeidae

    people who think they’re another Christopher Hitchens but are actually another Penn Jillette.

    Ouch.

    Accurate….but damn!

  2. 2
    Konradius

    The problem with scepticism is that it’s hard to do well. It’s easy to use the tools of scepticism for the position you’re arguing for. And if you can do that well and happen to have a position that people share you can get quite well known.
    The hard part is using scepticism to determine what position to hold. Especially because if you’re good at using the tools to argue your position, you can far too easily skip the part where you examine your own position.

    There are no easy answers, but I think placing a lot more emphasis on empathy is a good start.

  3. 3
    Konradius

    people who think they’re another Christopher Hitchens but are actually another Penn Jillette.

    I get the point of this. However the best moments of PJ are far better than the worst of CH. I’m thinking for example about the bullshit episode about vacines and CH endorsement of the second Iraq war.

    Both have/had a chronic lack of empathy for the other side. This gets forgotten because most of the time they choose their opponents well (nl the worst people humanity has to offer). However both of them did a lot of splash damage and even friendly fire.

    To me these two people have the same fault, CH was just a lot more eloquent, better at choosing his targets and a lot better in his analysis.

  4. 4
    Ophelia Benson

    Yes quite; that was my point. They think they’re another Hitchens, including the aggression and all the rest of it. But he’s a LOT more eloquent, better at choosing his targets and a lot better in his analysis.

  5. 5
    sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d

    In cultures where scepticism is disapproved of and discouraged then open sceptics will tend to be either people who aren’t discouraged by- or even welcome- other peoples’ hostility or people who are surprised by other peoples’ hostility and so become hostile to other people in turn. As scepticism becomes more widespread and acceptable these attitudes will probably diminish- assholes will be less attracted to scepticism and sceptics will have less reason to be assholes..

  6. 6
    John Kruger

    I think to some extent skepticism and atheism are both very counter culture, at least in the major culture as it is right now. It would make sense that people less interested in maintaining strong social networks would have and easier time letting go of the relatively diminished networks they already have to jump on the bandwagon and question popular opinion.

    Generally I think we are happy to accept the less socially connected members of society, but a large section of those kinds of people are in that position because they are not all that house broken when it comes to respectful social interactions. Along with the various introverts we also get the loud mouth know-it-alls who could care less about hurting feelings or actually listening to counter opinions about their own sacred cows, who are mostly in it because they enjoy reveling in being right when other people are wrong to the point of refusing to admit when they are wrong.

  7. 7
    Latverian Diplomat

    One insufficiency about the skeptic toolset is that it actually requires a fair amount of background knowledge to apply well to any specific area.

    So, psychics can fool naive scientists, but not experienced magicians. Libertarians can con people who’ve had a semester of economics, but they can’t fool people with enough understanding of history and/or more advanced economics to know that unfettered capitalism is not all it’s cracked up to be.

    The thing that seems to be missing from skepticism is humility. The idea that I have to depend on others to find the faults in things that I can’t or won’t (because of my own privilege or ideology) see. Good skeptics are skeptical of themselves, not only others.

    The skeptical movement seems to be engendering a type of arrogance where, having understood why UFOs and Bigfoot are nonsense one becomes a clear-thinking skeptic whose gut check on any given issue is a “skeptical” view. Thus the number of arrogant, know-nothings in the skeptical movement.

  8. 8
    A. Noyd

    John Kruger (#6)

    Generally I think we are happy to accept the less socially connected members of society, but a large section of those kinds of people are in that position because they are not all that house broken when it comes to respectful social interactions. Along with the various introverts…

    Wait, what? What are introverts doing wrong? We’re the ones who have to put up with extroverts acting entitled to our time and attention. And being introverted doesn’t mean you’re socially inappropriate when you interact with the rest of the world.

  9. 9
    latsot

    I think there’s some Spockism in skepticism: not the idea that logic is all that matters, but the sheer bloody-minded pretense that logic trumps everything else; that the application of logic is automatically unfeeling; and that matters of emotion or individuality are somehow outside the scope of logic. Where we have Spock logic, we have Bones logic or – *shudder* – Neelix logic which says gut feeling is automatically better than analysis. Personal morality – no matter how flawed – is better than a ‘cold’ regard for a situation and a response based on a proper understanding of the facts. Regardless, the most important thing for characters is to ridicule logic-users and the most important thing for writers is to…. ridicule logic-users. Unless they – the logic-users – have big tits, of course.

    Movement skepticism these days seems largely to be of the Neelix type with a presto-changeo pretend shift into the Spock type when it’s expedient.

    Both are absolutely fucking stupid ways of thinking about things. But there’s a reason Neelix is a shitload more annoying than Spock. Let’s do Sisko logic instead: a bit self-righteous but willing and occasionally glad to be told off. Angry at injustice but unwilling to allow personal anger to dictate response. Strong set of ideals, but willing to compromise them for the greater good.

    My feeling is that many skeptics think of themselves as Spock when they’re actually Neelix and they ought to be Siskp.

    Yeah, I’m defining morality in terms of Star Trek. It wasn’t what I intended when I started this post, but here we are, I guess, not much I can do about it now. Sorry.

  10. 10
    mildlymagnificent

    My own feeling about the far too many self titled skeptics that I deal with online is that they’ve not really learned to be appropriately skeptical. The first and most important lesson for a real skeptic is to acknowledge that it is no longer possible, if it ever really was, to be a “renaissance man” or a fully rounded autodidact.

    There really is a limit to how much of the available knowledge and skill in any given topic a non-expert can acquire. So the first responsibility of being skeptical is as accurate an assessment as possible of one’s own expertise. It really doesn’t matter how clever you are or whether you’ve acquired advanced qualifications of various sorts. Knowing everything is just not possible and you mustn’t let yourself fall into the trap of thinking you can know everything.

    To be thoroughly and conscientiously skeptical, you have to develop the skill needed to judge the value of the baying hordes of people claiming expertise in all sorts of areas. If you prefer to say that you can’t venture an opinion until you’ve worked whatever it is out for yourself, then you’re abrogating your responsibility to stick with properly evidenced positions. You simply cannot check all the work of all the astronomers and microbiologists and road builders and physicists and veterinarians and sociologists and epidemiologists and car mechanics and agricultural hydrographers and your own doctors, you have to pick and choose.

    It’s how well you pick and choose the experts you will listen to and how you go about judging the quality of the evidence you rely on that makes you properly skeptical. Not a cynical dismissive waving away of everything you’ve not seen with your own eyes or worked out for yourself from first principles. That’s not skeptical. That’s being arrogant or suspicious or untrusting or fearful or some mixture of any of those.

  11. 11
    Leo Buzalsky

    Sorry that this comment might not flow well…got into a time crunch, so wasn’t able to edit it as thoroughly as I would have liked…

    Could there be a problem that skepticism possibly attracts people who think of themselves as superior? (This, I think, could go with your “think they’re another Christopher Hitchens” statement.) People who think they are the shit because they are so much smarter (or so they think) than the rest of gullible America?

    What is sparking my thoughts is a situation outside of the skeptic community with an anchor for RT (formerly known as “Russia Today”) speaking out against Russia. I have then seen people celebrate her for her supposed bravery and journalistic integrity. The first I had heard of this, though, was in regards to a piece that was pointing out she’s a 9/11 truther, so these claims about her integrity were essentially jumping the gun. Go figure that a bunch of her supporters have also turned out to be 9/11 truthers. I’ve seen others point out that there are other conspiracy theories she believes in.

    Point, though, is here’s a group of people thinking they are just fricken awesome for being so wise that they can see the lie that is mainstream media (or something like that)…but turn out to believe all kinds of bullshit.

    So I can’t help but wonder if some of these skeptics have similar personalities — arrogant and self-congratulatory.

  1. 12
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