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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Why are physics talks so bad?

As I get closer to the end of my PhD, I wanted to talk about why grad school sucks so much. For my first complaint, let’s talk about physics talks. I’m not referring to popular stuff like Stephen Hawking’s TED Talk or whatever. I’m referring to talks given by physicists to other physicists in their field.

By design, a physics talk starts out with a broadly accessible introduction, and dives into technical details that only two people in the audience understand. This is followed by a Q&A where those two people ask (apparently) extremely intelligent questions, and everyone else silently feels stupid as they listen to arguments over arcane details.

When I started out my PhD, approximately 0% of physics talks made sense. I thought that maybe when I got further into my PhD I would understand much more. Nope! Now, maybe 10% of talks make sense. And even that high rate comes from knowing when to avoid going to a talk in the first place.

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Call-out culture: a meta-meta-commentary

A couple years ago, I made this linkspam on call-out culture. “Call-out culture” refers to a pattern in social justice activist spaces of jumping on, and piling upon other activists who are perceived to have made a mistake. It’s an issue when it turns into bullying, or when it just scares people away from communities that they need.

This is a really difficult problem to address, and to be honest, I think I am uniquely unsuited to address it. I don’t have personal experience calling people out, or being called out, or at least not in any way that meaningfully impacted me. I am not a very anxious person, and it is very difficult to scare me or burn me out. My interest in this topic is purely based on compassion, and an interest in the meta. So for several years, I’ve wanted to say something, but couldn’t figure out what to say.

After thinking about it a lot, here’s what I want to say: Most articles on call-out culture are bad. That’s right, I collected a bunch of links in a linkspam, and I think most of those links are bad. I mean, they’re good. But they’re also bad, especially after reading several of them. They often fail to say anything novel or meaningful. And the bottom line is that they’re not having the impact they need to have.

The coopter threat

Just the other day, I read a new article that seemed to epitomize the “call-out culture article”: Righteous Callings: Being a Good Leftist, Orthodoxy, and the Social Justice Crisis of Faith. It’s by Kai Cheng, a former writer at Everyday Feminism. And it follows a particular structure. First, the author establishes “insider status”, making it clear that she is a certified social justice activist critiquing her own culture. Then a list of grievances. And in the conclusion, a rebuke of those who would coopt this criticism to reject social justice entirely.

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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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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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If you think there’s no atheist movement, tell me why

One of my pet peeves is when people say that there is no atheist movement. At many times, I’ve reacted angrily to the suggestion. I don’t understand how anyone could believe that, especially when I hear it from people who are involved in, or interact with atheist organizations.

Dear readers, help me understand. If you don’t believe there is an atheist movement, please explain your thinking in the comments. I will listen, and as long as you are polite to me I will be polite to you, setting pet peeves aside.

Here are some questions which you may use to guide your responses:

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Three views on social justice in atheism

Previously, I wrote a post framing social justice as a meta-movement, a movement which seeks to change how all other movements are run. Here I’ll talk about how that applies to atheism.

Why should the atheist community pay attention to social justice? The reasoning is quite elementary: The atheist community is a community. All communities should pay some attention to social justice. Therefore the atheist community should pay some attention to social justice.

Some atheists like to argue that social justice is beyond the scope of atheism. The argument goes that the community should take a neutral position, thus being inclusive of people with various relationships to social justice. However, this is missing the point. The “scope” of the community doesn’t really matter for the argument. All that matters is that it’s a community. As I said before, the same argument applies to the physics community, despite it being obvious that social justice is outside the scope of physics. The “neutral” position is not really neutral, but directly in opposition to the goals of social justice.

However, there are various degrees of “pay attention to social justice” which I describe below.

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