I like Jamy Ian Swiss, and he’s definitely a passionate speaker. I heard all kinds of raves about his talk at TAM 2012, so I was looking forward to hearing it myself, and now here it is:
Boy, was I disappointed. Well, I have mixed feelings: about 2/3 of it is excellent. I agree with him entirely that the methods of critical thinking and skepticism are essential, that beliefs in the paranormal and pseudoscience are dangerous and do great harm, I value the input of magicians and experts in spotting foolishness, and I can sort of agree with his emphasis on the ‘consumer protection’ role of skepticism (it’s an odd way to look at it for me, but OK, fine for others). He’s a good and ferocious skeptic — his story about a woman at a faith healing who was deeply worried about a lump in her breast, and who announced that she wouldn’t be going back to the doctor since Jesus had healed her, is an excellent example of why skepticism is important.
But the first half of this talk is scattered with sniping at atheists, and smug back-patting about how superior skeptics are to atheists. I would have been turning purple in my seat if I’d been there; he invites people to join him for a drink at the end, and I would have been there to chew his ear over the blinkered stupidity of these bits.
It was the fucking hypocrisy, which is getting to be one of the hallmarks of self-proclaimed skeptics. Check it out at the 28 minute mark:
We waste our valuable time and our limited resources not to mention damage our perception in the public eye when we treat fences between good neighbors as battle lines between combatants.
Oh, yeah? Then why, Mr Swiss, did you spend a good chunk of your talk caricaturing atheists and defining battle lines?
There’s a part at the 6 minute mark where he’s complaining that they’re getting distracted by the growth of the New Atheist movement, and then he pretends (despite being an atheist himself) that the problem is that atheists have a conclusion, that god doesn’t exist, while skepticism is only about a procedure. Then he goes on about how atheism does not give sufficient attention to how we arrive at our conclusions.
This is simply not true. Of course we do. Like I said, it’s mischaracterization: he’s trying to set the atheists apart as not truly skeptical. When you listen to that section, try substituting “UFOlogists” for “atheists”: would Jamy Ian Swiss single out any other subject for skeptical inquiry and announce that because they’ve made a strong and consistent case, for the nonexistence of little green men from Mars, that they therefore deserve setting apart from all other topics and that their subject of interest is a distraction?
The worst part begins at 11:30. This is where he starts reciting anecdotes. He declares that “the world is full of atheists who are not skeptics,” and gives us a few personal examples.
He was at an atheist meetup and found an atheist woman who believed in The Secret. At an atheist parenting group, he met someone who asked his wife about her astrological sign. He hates Bill Maher.
Yes? This is new? We’re supposed to be surprised that there are dumbass atheists? Of course there are.
I don’t believe in The Secret, or astrology, and I also detest Bill Maher. When Maher got nominated for the Richard Dawkins award for his movie Religulous, there were howls of protest from the atheist community, too. Portraying atheists by the stupid people in their midst is a game I can play, too — I’ve been to TAM several times.
Guess what? The world is full of skeptics who are not skeptics. I’ve met skeptics who are 9-11 truthers, at TAM. I’ve met skeptics who think ESP is reasonable and has been demonstrated, at TAM. I’ve met skeptics who believe in an afterlife and think ghosts can be detected by their electromagnetic emissions, at TAM. I’ve met skeptics whose idea of arguing with believers is to make cheesy martial arts videos of skeptics kicking woo-woo proponents in the crotch, at TAM. I’ve met skeptics who believe in goddamn Jesus, at TAM.
You want to start listing people who believe in idiotic things within the atheist movement? I can match them one for one with people in the skeptics movement. It is an utterly invalid kind of argument.
And then there’s all the backpatting. At 17 minutes, he argues that skeptics are familiar with atheism/humanism, but atheists may not have ever heard of Randi. Really? This is more of that pointless anecdote-flipping. I’m afraid he’s wrong on one thing: there are a lot of skeptics who are not at all familiar with atheism or humanism; I’ve met them too. There are also lots of atheists, as he knows, who came to our position by critical thought. We’re familiar with the tools of skepticism. Whether we’ve heard of Randi or not is irrelevant.
Next we get into the empirical part. Skeptics think evidence and testable claims are essential! Yes, no one is arguing with that. So do atheists.
I’d be happy with skeptics if they were consistent in prioritizing evidence…but then he goes on to make excuses for religion. He argues at 18:30 that religion is different, because believers say they have evidence. Maybe we don’t think it’s good evidence, but, he says, it’s still evidence…implying that skeptics are going to let religious belief slide. But you know what? People who believe in homeopathy, faith healing, and dowsing also claim to have evidence. Shall we make excuses for them, too? The double standard is incredible.
Here’s a final strawman at 26 minutes, and then I’ll give up in despair.
I believe that skeptics should unapologetically reaffirm our commitment to our strengths, and not be embarrassed by about these concerns, and not retreat from these concerns, and not dilute our priorities in the name of subjects or problems that are somehow supposed to be bigger or more important.
He specifically means that the opposition to religion is not part of skepticism. I’m fine with the skeptical movement encompassing a diversity of topics; you’ll never catch me telling people that critical thinking is unimportant, or that you have to pursue my bêtes noires of creationism and theism or you don’t belong in the skeptical movement, or are not truly skeptical. You definitely won’t find me telling the TAM organizers that they have to move their tent, and abandon criticism of ‘alternative’ medicine to tend to my concerns (well, actually, that is one of my concerns). But the modern skeptical movement is so chickenshit that even fierce activists like Swiss will take a talk that should be an enthusiastic celebration of all of skepticism (and was, in part) and turn it into an exercise in fence-building.
He wants skeptics to focus on pseudoscience and the paranormal, but apparently, religion, despite being the most common refuge of superstition and dangerous dogma, does not count, and atheists are to be made to feel unwelcome among skeptics. Even his concluding story about that poor woman with the lump was about a problem caused by religion…but no, let’s all pretend it’s only an issue of a lack of critical thinking, and not give any sign that maybe those obnoxious atheists have anything to contribute to this great problem.
It could have been a great talk. Ultimately, it just reaffirmed my regret that “skepticism” has become a label for the timid almost-skeptical, who like to reassure each other that they’re all truly the very best critical thinkers, now let the believers among us close their eyes and pray.
Give me a good hardcore New Atheist any day. Those are my people. They’re skeptical about everything, and don’t make special allowances for the benighted believers.