We have met the enemy and you know the rest

One of the comments on The Troublemaker really stood out for me, because I’ve been thinking the same thing. It’s by one ADHDJ:

There is a huge overlap between skepticism and mansplaining.

I find cowardice in so much of what skeptics spend their time on — writing a 20 page article debunking a photo of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster and believing you did something intellectually valuable, like that makes you some kind of big thinker.  Considering whether or not fairies exist is worthy of great study and serious analysis, but whether some drunk dude acted like a creepy asshole at 3AM is so unlikely as to never merit a thought.

To quote the great Harry Frankfurt, “one of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.”  And most of it is pretty easily debunked.  So if you’re fairly smart, lazy, and argumentative, skepticism is very emotional satisfying, as it supplies a constant stream of unequivocally silly bullshit and bullshitters to do battle with, a constant stream of reasons to feel superior.

Call it Cognitive Assonance.  Can you believe people who think the earth isn’t spherical?  (Seriously, there are.)  Good thing there are people like me to point out someone was wrong on the internet!  It leads to this mindset where you are the high arbiter of truth, the world’s designated bullshit-caller.  One can feel like a great intellectual even though you’re doing the equivalent of dunking over your 5 year old cousin on a Nerf hoop.

From this position, anything that makes one uncomfortable (like teh lay-deez and their mysterious lay-dee ways) is a target to be debunked or rebutted, and can be assumed to be wrong about everything.  One starts adopting the language of skepticism to opine about social issues and other things that are not debunkable, but just happen to be your opinion.

The skeptic community says that everyone is stupid except for you, and needs the benefit of your munificent belligerence — “what you ________ just don’t understand about science is _____”, etc.  It leads to a conversation that has the same shape as when I talk to my crazy brother about conspiracy theories.  “What the mainstream media don’t want you to understand about flouridation…”  Or my crazy uncle about economics.  “What you tax and spend liberals don’t understand about the laffer curve is…”

It’s fucking toxic.  It’s science that’s been bitten by a radioactive asshole.  It’s people who nominally detest conspiracy theories taking up the very language of conspiratorial certainty, in the name of rationality, to justify their own stupidity.  It’s a way to feel righter than everyone, smarter than everyone, because science, all while not having to challenge your own cultural beliefs or prejudices no matter what.

ADHDJ then responds to being called an anti-skeptic:

What on earth is an anti-skeptic?   I enjoy and in some circumstances see great value of debunking crazy bullshit.  I was a member of CSICOP for several years in the mid 80′s,  I was an active on alt.folklore.urban for a long time, and read many books by Shermer, Randi, Nickell, etc.

I was trying to describe what I’ve seen the movement turn into in the internet age: it’s another venue for Internet Tough Guys to feel smart, while either turning their rhetorical guns on social issues — feminism, “political correctness”, etc. often couched in a completely uncritical embrace of the pseudoscience of evolutionary psychology — or on the easiest targets in the world (faith healing, Bigfoot, etc).

Seeing a movement that’s supposed to be devoted to rationality and critical thinking turn anti-intellectual and authoritarian pisses me off.  I don’t think that makes me an asshole.  Plenty of other stuff does, though, so point taken I guess.  However if you do consider yourself a skeptic, you should give the No True Scotsman bullshit a rest.

So this is internal criticism, not external. It’s the same with criticisms I make here, and many of us make elsewhere on FTB and on social media. I’ve been writing on skeptical-type subjects since B&W started in the fall of 2002 (by the way it had its 11th birthday last month sometime), but by god I have plenty of criticism of “movement” skepticism. It’s what ADHDJ said. For a lot of people it’s just another way to be an asshole.

There are “skeptics” on Twitter right now offering “reasons” to think fat-shaming is a good idea. Yeah.


  1. says

    Bigfoot, UFOs, all that stuff? Perfectly legitimate subjects for skepticism, and yes, they deserve 20 page articles written about them, because a huge number of people still believe in them. Turn on your TV, and most of the initially ‘educational’ channels are now fully committed to a menu of ghosthunters and alien astronauts, because it pays the bills.

    But you’re right, the problem is that organized skepticism shuns other topics that ought to be dealt with critically. I’ve clashed with them before about religion, for instance: the biggest con game on the planet, and these pious consumer protectionists have dedicated more effort to inventing excuses for not touching it than they have to Bigfoot. Sexism and all kinds of gender bias are similarly regarded as off-topic, except when the goal is to defend the status quo (see Radford, Ben).

    That’s why I see organized skepticism as organized fencebuilding. There are simple, safe topics that they will embrace as legitimately under their purview, and then there are the topics that actually involve address deep-seated biases, which are called “not scientific” or “failing to meet their rigorous criteria”.

    They ought to just admit it. Organized skepticism is about swatting down the fringe rather than confronting core mythologies.

  2. brucegee1962 says

    I agree that skepticism can too often be douchebaggery, but I can’t be too harsh on it, because it’s the door I came in through. Skeptical Inquirer led me CSICOP and Rand and several years of enthusaistic debunking, which eventually led me to Phil Plait, who led me to PZ, who led me to atheism.

  3. CJO says

    But I don’t think the commenter is talking about the intellectual focus of the sort of quaint debunkery that occupies skeptics organizations attention so much as the smokescreen: “skepticism” and “atheism” being used by online personae solely for the purpose of othering. In the hands of otherwise bog-standard Internet Tough Guys they become shibboleths and loyalty tests, not principled intellectual stances; clubs used to beat on basically anyone that doesn’t fawn in admiration of the intellectual acumen of the (obvs) unbiased and clear-thinking sooper-genius while he ‘splains. I like the bit about “cognitive assonance” because it seems to me that in many cases the adoption of the mantle “skeptic” is intended to be an “I’m right, suck it” card, regardless of how self-serving is the bilge that issues forth under the banner. “You just can’t handle the truth!”

  4. says

    I think both can be true: that it is worth writing 20 page articles about Bigfoot & co and at the same time that exclusive focus on that can encourage assholeishness.

  5. johnthedrunkard says

    Writing 20 page articles about Bigfoot, and seeing that the credulity industry rolls on unbothered, may be the source of a kind of exasperated self-righteousness. The emotion is easily cultivated until it blocks future reasoning.

    A snide self-certainty follows and attaches itselt to irrational beliefs as well as rational ones. I think this emotional tone is especially associated with Rand, not Randi. When we encounter new sources of this angry sexist horseshit, it may be worthwhile to find out if Atlas Shrugged is lying on the bedside table.

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