Nature has a short news piece on the Horgan/NECSS spat. I’ve read several of the rebuttals now, and I’m not impressed: I can agree that Horgan’s talk was kind of scattershot, but let’s not go the other way and pretend that organized skepticism is a happy clappy land where all the issues are objectively evaluated and treated with the weight they deserve. There is a terrifyingly substantial number of skeptics who are rank assholes who hate anyone who introduces the concept of social justice into the organization; they are dominated by us privileged white guys, too.
Anyway, the reporter asked me to comment, and I’ve got teeny-tiny mention in the story (which is appropriate, it’s not about me), but since I sent him a longer argument, and I have a blog, I’m including it here.
Steve is correct that there has been frequent discussion about priorities. What he left out, however, is that the conclusion of such discussion has typically been to shout down anyone who argues that there are major social issues that ought to be on the skeptical slate, like war and racism, as Horgan mentions, and I would also add that feminism has been a hot-button issue. Novella is one of the more open people on these topics, so he sees a more benevolent skepticism than I do. I found the intolerance and narrowness of a great many skeptics so frustratingly oppressive, that I had to simply announce that I would have nothing more to do with the skeptical organizations, and stepped away from them as a waste of effort.
There is a fair amount of diversity in the skeptical movement. There are a substantial number of skeptics who buy into scientific racism, for instance, or are climate change denialists, or even, I’ve discovered, a few who believe in flying saucers. At least those latter people get laughed out of the movement, but the others have been dealt with by largely avoiding the topics, because they would bring on too much dissent. And when they do deal with them, they tread far more carefully than they do when addressing psychics or Bigfoot hunters.
On the other hand, Horgan commits the fallacy of relative privation. Bigfoot and chupacabra are silly topics, but as long as a significant number of people believe in them, they are part of the skeptical purview…and they also represent easy learning exercises, a kind of skepticism with training wheels. It’s just that too often, skeptics think they’re smart enough to dismiss UFOs, and then use that cockiness to also dismiss sexism or racism as equivalent. It makes for a very unpleasant environment for a lot of us.
Another concern that should have been brought up is skepticism’s treatment of women. You should definitely get a few women’s voices in your article. Karen Stollznow has had a less than happy experience with organized skepticism; Rebecca Watson has worked happily with Novella in the past, but has some general grievances with both the skeptical and atheist movements. They can tell you about another problem: that chronic harassers are tolerated and even rewarded within skepticism.
I would hope that rather than pretending all of Horgan’s objections are irrelevant, that the next meeting of NECSS makes an effort to include a few speakers who broaden the range and who gore a few dangerously sacred cows, not just the spavined beasts that make for light entertainment.