Daniel Loxton is an annoying fellow. He does good work for the skeptic movement, and he’s got an excellent record of working for the cause, but he’s also prone to flop into simpering, pandering mode at the first sign someone disagrees with him (not in my case, though, but then I’m particularly annoying myself). This time, what prompts my mixed feelings is his summary of the diversity panel at TAM. This was a panel moderated by Desiree Schell, and containing a group of people who actually were diverse: D.J. Grothe, Debbie Goddard, Greta Christina, Jamila Bey, and Hemant Mehta. It’s a sign of good things in the skeptic movement that we did actually have some different backgrounds represented on a prominent panel, and not a collection of old white guys.
This has long been an issue with the skeptical movement. I used to subscribe to the Skeptical Inquirer, a very good magazine with well-written and substantive articles on skeptical issues, but I let my subscription lapse. It was a strange thing that prompted it; several years ago, there was an issue lauding the leaders of the skeptical movement, and it had a nice line drawing of four or five of these Big Names on the cover: and every one was white, male, and over 70 years old. I looked at it, and I wasn’t mad or outraged — every one of them was a smart guy who deserved recognition — but I saw it, sighed, and felt that not only was this incredibly boring, but that organized skepticism was dead if it was going to turn into a gerontocracy. I didn’t let my subscription lapse in protest, but out of lack of motivation.
So I attended that panel enthusiastically — it represented a growing, positive pattern of change where we would actually see young people, brown people, gay people, and female people identifying with this movement and expressing themselves. Daniel Loxton was not so enthused.
While billed as a discussion of “Diversity in Skepticism,” the panel—featuring D.J. Grothe, Debbie Goddard, Greta Christina, Jamila Bey, Hemant Mehta, and moderated by Desiree Schell—actually drew spokespeople from several related but distinct movements. For this reason, I’ll confess that my hopes were not high. There can be deep, serious, and sometimes poorly-articulated philosophical differences between activists for skepticism, atheism, secularism, and humanism, and these differences can badly derail conversations. (At the same time, all of the panelists were personally atheists of one stripe or another, raising the opposite specter: undue uniformity.)
Whenever I see one of the big voices in the skeptical establishment pontificating about “poorly-articulated philosophical differences”, I just know we’re about to get a load of rationalizations for not changing, remaining stodgy and conservative and boring, and repudiating progressive differences in opinion. Loxton is no exception. And when I hear them complaining about all these atheists, a refrain that has been very common in the last few years, my grumpiness gland starts secreting voluminous quantities of bile.
Jebus, Loxton, would you be complaining about uniformity if they were all skeptics? Hey, maybe we need a token psychic, or ufo nut, or climate change denier, or creationist on the panel. You’re on the wrong side of history if you’re going to start whining about the high frequency of atheists in the skeptical population, because that value is just going to go up and up. Just going by the odds, you’re going to find more panels filled to the brim with atheists, and the only ones that might include the odd theist will be panels that don’t actually demand a thorough commitment to, you know, skepticism. I don’t believe in excluding theists — and I’ve said so — but when we get down to putting our ideas on the table for discussion, virgin-born zombies who do magic tricks aren’t going to hold up very well.
That’s where the “poorly-articulated philosophical differences” come in. Old school skeptics have a suite of ludicrous arguments that they use to try and narrow the range of topics allowable under the umbrella of skepticism. We can be skeptical of bigfoot, but not that virgin-born zombie; we can quibble with psychics, but not the transfer of waves of electrochemical activity from your dead rotting brain to an eternal paradise in the sky; laugh at the flat-earthers, but the odious doctrine of original sin and salvation through sacrifice by proxy…why, no, don’t go there. There’s a theme in that: religion is a walled garden, within which skeptics are not supposed to tread, apparently because their skepto-rays will make the lovely imaginary foliage of faith wither and die. And then the religious public will stop looking so benignly on those people chasing the Loch Ness monster.
The usual argument for restricting the domain of inquiry is tiresome and arbitrary: we can’t think of a simple empirical test for many religious claims, therefore we can’t examine it. Everything is reduced to negative evidence on our side: all we can do is try to disprove the small subset of testable claims made by cranks, kooks, and true believers. But another important element is disregarded: we should be able to also address the positive claims made by the believers, and ask how they know that, where is their objective evidence, and can they make a logical argument in their defense? And when they can’t do any of that, it is reasonable to loudly doubt their claims. Instead, though, we get these strange attempts to partition what we’re allowed to question.
For decades, skepticism has very deliberately worked to stay close to what it does best: tackling empirical questions in the realm of pseudoscience and the paranormal, and (as the other side of this same coin) promoting scientific literacy.
There is a wonderful history of going beyond that narrow range in skepticism. Case in point: Randi’s debunking of Peter Popoff. Randi did not accumulate a pile of empirical data to show that Popoff’s faith-healing didn’t work; instead he went straight to the root of the con-artists claims, and showed that he was using radio transmitters to pass around information, rather than getting it delivered from a god. That was a religious claim made by a priest in a religious ceremony, made in the name of a god, and Randi went gunning right for it, without hesitation. There’s no difference between exposing the shoddy lies of a Peter Popoff, and the equally cheap mind-games of an established Catholic theologian or Muslim mullah. Strictly speaking, though, the ability of Popoff to magically heal people was not disproven at all; it wasn’t actually tested, and maybe there actually were cancers going into remission all over that room (in the good Christian people only, of course). What Randi did was undermine the credibility of a claimant, and show natural mechanisms for communication.
Loxton cites approvingly this exercise in garden-walling:
Finally, a word might be said about our exclusive concern with scientific investigation and empirical claims. The Committee takes no position regarding nonempirical or mystical claims. We accept a scientific viewpoint and will not argue for it in these pages. Those concerned with metaphysics and supernatural claims are directed to those journals of philosophy and religion dedicated to such matters.
Bullshit. I can understand turning away from purely philosophical abstractions that have no weight in the real world: skeptics will not be able to quantitatively resolve the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. But faith has real world consequences, and the metaphysical claim that a god is dispensing information by undetectable means to a chosen few on earth, which is certainly a common claim in Christianity, should have effects that could be measured, and that they don’t have such effects is not a reason to recuse the subject from inquiry, it’s a reason to reject it.
Furthermore, this skeptical narrowness intentionally marginalizes the movement and reduces it to irrelevance. It’s nice that they deal with the fringes of gullibility — investigating Bigfoot and weeping statues, running more tests with Zener cards, exposing the silliness of ghosthunters on television — but there’s also a deeper psychological swamp that lies at the heart of all of these issues, and the biggest manifestation of those problems is religion. How can you call yourself a brave hunter of pseudoscience and flim-flam when you run away from the gigantic resource-sucking, child-raping, lying, miseducating monster at the heart of our culture to chase the mice of goofy belief? Hunting the vermin is an important job and I wouldn’t belittle it, but it has to be part of a wider effort to bring critical thinking to every subject.
But Loxton simply capitulates on just about everything.
This empirical focus has allowed the skeptical community—old and white and bearded as it may have been—to enjoy other kinds of diversity. If political ideology is not a topic for our movement, then anarchists, libertarians, liberals, and conservatives can happily share the same big tent. If science-based skepticism is neutral about nonscientific moral values, then the community can embrace people who hold a wide range of perspectives on values issues—on the environment, on public schools, on nuclear power, on same-sex marriage, on taxation, gun control, the military, veganism, or so on. It’s a sort of paradox: the wider the scope of skepticism, the less diverse its community becomes. (Think of two groups: the “I Love Toast Club” and the “Association for the Consumption of Toast and Sausages.” It is much easier for the first group to be a welcoming place for both vegetarians and non-vegetarians.)
Well, gosh, if we don’t question anything, and just open up our big tent to every wild idea on the planet, then everyone could join the skeptical movement! How dare Loxton limit our growth by questioning cryptozoology and astrology and homeopathy? Doesn’t he realize how much he antagonizes proponents of those dogmas?
How about if, instead, we stick to principles. We’re going to question everything, we’re going to argue, we’re going to ask for evidence. Liberals and conservatives can join, but only if they don’t demand that their beliefs be exempt from skepticism. You want to oppose same-sex marriage? Sure, let’s argue about it! You show me your evidence that homosexuality is bad, or that gay marriages will damage heterosexual marriages.
His analogy fails, too. We are not the “I Love Toast Club”; we are the “I Love Arguing About Food Club”. Loxton apparently wants to turn it into “We Only Get To Agree About Toast and Shut Up About Every Other Food Club”, which isn’t very interesting and not at all productive, but I’m sure the members will all be happy and smiling as they carefully avoid conflict.
Amanda Marcotte is also less than pleased with Loxton’s vision. We have to agree on something, or there’s no reason for us to get together. And that something should be the principle of critical examination of ideas, and diverse points of view should be welcomed, even when they start bringing in novel ideas that make some members uncomfortable.
In other words, the kind of “diversity” he supports is one where a bunch of well-off, older white men can enjoy talking about the silliness of Bigfoot without having to bother with those political concerns that are unavoidable when people who get the shit end of the stick—women, non-white people, poorer people, disabled people, gay people—get involved. There are many flavors of white-dude-whose-privilege-shields-him-from-having-to-be-politicals, but those darn diverse people are forever being political because they don’t have an option to ignore oppression that directly affects them. Personally, I’m far more concerned about a group that’s politically diverse only because they all live in the same bubble than one that’s got racial and gender diversity because everyone has a shared concern about religious power.
In other words, I support a diversity of viewpoints, not a diversity per se of views. A group of skeptics isn’t made stronger because some people diverge from the norm because they believe they have an army of small fairies to do their bidding, but it is strengthened by improving the number of women and people of color who can speak to communities who aren’t currently being reached.
I get the impression that the Old Guard wants more women and minorities because they see them as simply increasing their numbers, which is good. They don’t seem to realize that with these new members will come new concerns that the Old White Guys have always ignored, but are now going to have to face. Adapt or die. Recognize that these are valid topics under the Big Tent of Ideas that should be skepticism, or watch all those new people abandon you as irrelevant.
And ultimately, atheism is not an excluded part of skepticism. Atheism is a subset of skepticism, that part of it that has evaluated the claims of religion and found them deficient. Any skeptical movement that tries to exclude atheism and religion from its domain is diminishing itself in arbitrary and self-defeating ways. Suck it up, guys; atheism won’t be the whole of skepticism, but it should be recognized as a respectable and important part of the whole. You don’t tell me that atheism has no place in skepticism, and I won’t try to get those people who debunk Sylvia Browne or John Edward kicked out of the club.