Skeptical content creation

As I mentioned in my bloggiversary post, good skeptical content creation is hard. In order to debunk something, and do a good job of it, you have to do research. You have to do a lot of research, even if it’s something ridiculous, like 9/11 conspiracies or bigfoot. Talking about a conspiracy theory is an invitation for conspiracy theorists to start arguing with you, and they tend to be pretty familiar with the topic, because it’s their topic. In contrast, the skeptic needs to spread themself thin, because there’s just so much bunk in the world.

That was fine decades ago, when “skepticism” basically referred to a committee of experts who dedicated their time to it. It doesn’t work so well today, when most content creators are hobbyists, or at least start out as hobbyists. My experience as a new blogger was that research was sometimes fun, but it got tiring really fast, and I didn’t have the readership to justify putting a lot of work into it. And rigorous research doesn’t get rewarded, because it’s not necessarily entertaining. Furthermore, “research” would mostly consist of me repeating things I had learned from basic resources, and what’s the point of that?

There are ways around this problem, but I don’t think they were very healthy for the movement. One method is to gloss over the lack of rigor with humor and mockery. Another method is to get by with a few general principles of reasoning, the stuff we call “critical thinking”. I took the latter approach, so I will talk about that.

The trouble with fallacies

Critical thinking in the skeptical movement was an odd beast. What exactly is it? How do you practice it? Can you name any principles of critical thinking?

Some of the most recognizable principles are the logical fallacies. You know, ad hominem, begging the question, argument from authority, etc. Many people such as myself gravitated towards logical fallacies, because it’s fun to learn about all of them and read silly examples of them. I liked to write about them too.
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Not all activism must be top priority

In many varieties of activism, there’s a drive to argue that our cause is the most important thing in the world, or at least somewhere up there among the top priorities.

For example, in atheism, there has long been the notion that religion is the “root of all evil” or that it “poisons everything”. I think most people who say that are being hyperbolic, although it’s hard to say to what degree. Certainly, there is a conscious attempt to assign religion more blame for the evils of the world.

In some socialist/communist/Marxist circles, it is argued that class struggle is the root of all oppression, including the oppression of women and ethnic minorities. And sometimes it is argued that much of feminism is pointless because all it fights for is for more women to become part of the ruling class.

There are also some feminists who have tried to interpret everything through the lens of feminism, for instance blaming homophobia and transphobia on the patriarchy. Gender critical feminists (aka TERFs) demonstrate an extreme version of this thinking; they argue that trans people’s problems will go away once we abolish gender.

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From the archives: Dawkins’ way with words

For this month’s repost, I selected an article I wrote in 2008.  Considering how old this is, I don’t necessarily stand by what I said, nor do I vouch for the writing quality.  There were a couple parts that I thought were unclear, so I added footnotes.  But this is interesting from a historical perspective, because it shows a slice of the problems with Richard Dawkins even before “Dear Muslima”.

Richard Dawkins has an irritating habit of using the wrong word, or otherwise saying some very silly things.

Example 1: “Delusion” The number one sign that you’re dealing with an uncareful skeptic is when the skeptic chalks everything up to insanity. People believe weird things not because they’re clinically insane, but because they’re normal. They have normal cognitive biases. Everyone does. Religious beliefs are no different except that they’re even more commonplace than other weird beliefs. Calling it all a delusion is simply sloppy.

Dawkins fans will come to his defense, saying that he carefully defines “delusion” as “a false belief or impression”, eschewing any psychiatric connotations. But that’s not the case. Dawkins is surprisingly ambiguous. He endorses a quote by Robert M. Pirsig: “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called Religion.” It’s as if Dawkins wants to satisfy both parties. Well, I am not satisfied, because I see too many people claiming that religion really is a delusion, and Dawkins is at least partly to blame for it.

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Can we dispose of the four horsemen?

A comic panel showing the four horsemen on horses. Dawkins: We held a calm, rational debate and came to the consensus that we should initiate doomsday!! For we are the four horsemen of the atheist apocalypse! The world as you know it ends this day!

Source: Virus Comix. This is from circa 2008, and you can judge for yourself how well it has aged.

“The Four Horsemen of Atheism” is first and foremost, a marketing term. The term was coined almost exactly a decade ago, in 2007, in order for the horsemen to sell recordings of themselves.  From there, the term had runaway success.

It appears that the reason that Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens were chosen (instead of other well-known atheists) is that they were all best-selling authors of atheist books in 2007. It also arose from media coverage, such as the famous 2006 Wired article, which coined the term “New Atheists”, and interviewed Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris. (Hitchens hadn’t published his book until 2007.)

But for me, it was never the books which were important, it was the blogs. I started reading Pharyngula in late 2006. I only ever read one of the books, and I read it in 2008 and didn’t care for it. To me, it has always seemed odd how much we venerate book authors. There are other media outside of books, after all! What about bloggers, journalists, youtubers, podcasters, and artists? Or for that matter, any more recent authors?

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Dawkins being “deplatformed”

I will only make a brief comment on this, because I don’t think it is really worth more than that.

In Berkeley, where I live, Richard Dawkins was invited to give a talk about his new book, Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist.  The sponsors of his talk, KPFA, a progressive radio station, decided to cancel the talk because of “abusive speech” by Richard Dawkins.  This story has hit some of those frozen peach buttons, with Jerry Coyne declaring it “a terrible blow for free speech”.

The one and only time I ever saw Dawkins speak was at the very same venue, talking about another book he wrote, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.  There are many things I find objectionable about Dawkins, but I am personally able to separate that from his science writing, which seems fine.  So I don’t really agree with KPFA.

But geez, by turning this into a free speech issue, you’re making me take the opposite side!  Obviously, the KPFA, being the sponsors of the talk, has a right to cancel their own talk.  In fact, it would practically be a violation of KPFA’s free speech, if they were forced to sponsor a talk from someone they didn’t like.  Also, doesn’t sponsoring talks cost them money or something?

People are always thinking of these issues in terms of the speaker’s free speech, but if anything, it’s about the inviters’ free speech.  If speakers have a right to platforms, where are all my speaker invitations, and why isn’t anyone standing up for my free speech?

Educating atheists on religious aces

This is being cross-posted to The Asexual Agenda.

Recently, I wrote an article for A Trivial Knot about how aces are affected by Evangelical Christian beliefs about pre-marital sex. This is an important topic, but also an iffy one for me to talk about. While I’m ex-Christian, I’m not ex-Evangelical, and the experiences described are not so similar to my own. Basically, I’m repeating and condensing stories I’ve heard from primary sources, such as the Aces in the Church zine and various bloggers. I worry that maybe I shouldn’t be talking about it at all, except to boost other voices.

But the fact of the matter is that a lot of atheists, especially politically active atheists, already have their own prejudices and presumptions about the experiences of religious aces. I have this platform that reaches a moderate number of progressive atheists, so I feel at least a bit responsible to get them on the right track. Also, atheist activists are not such a friendly group that I want to just send them to primary sources.

This was fresh on my mind at the 2017 SF Ace Unconference, so I attended a session for religious aces. The personal stories shared in that space were confidential and I will keep them that way. I did, however, ask them if they wanted me to share any particular message with my atheist readers.

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Scientism in the atheist movement

Larry Hamelin pointed me to a recent Existential Comic which criticizes Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris for scientism. The explanatory text below the comic goes on to criticize the New Atheist movement as a whole. It argues:

The real goal [of scientism] is often just to draw a border around what we should or shouldn’t question, because they don’t want any of the fundamental aspects of society to change.

Larry Hamelin has a couple good posts responding to the comic commentary, and looking back on the New Atheist movement as a whole. Partially following Larry, these are my critiques:

  • Harris and Dawkins don’t represent the atheist movement. Harris and Dawkins are widely criticized within the movement, and many (myself included) are positively disposed to philosophy.
  • To the extent that scientism is or was present in New Atheism, it was not motivated by an attempt to maintain status quo. I believe that scientism was primarily a reaction to the way people would hide behind the authority of philosophy, insisting that there exists a complex and subtle defense of religion or belief in God. Of course, the complex and subtle defense did not materialize, and failed to address religion or belief in God as they are popularly practiced.
  • Of all the strengths of philosophy, I do not think effecting social change is one. Certainly academic philosophy is not a force for change. And though my writing is often infused with philosophy, that just makes me a more effective thinker, not a more effective activist.

This might be a bad idea, but let’s read the comments on this comic to see what other people are saying.

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