“Cheap Talk” skepticism

Oh, that is a useful term. As Aaron Rabinowitz explains, “Cheap talk skepticism occurs when someone expresses skepticism in a way that comes at little cost to them, though it frequently comes at a significant cost to others.” These are people who cultivate an environment in which they can make bold assertion and receive little pushback, who don’t actually invest something of themselves in challenging the status quo. And Rabinowitz delivers examples!

If there is any room for criticism in this explosion of cheap talk skepticism, I believe it should be focused on the individuals with the platforms that allow them both the time for proper skepticism and the obligation to skepticism properly. In the parts of the skeptical world referred to as the Intellectual Dark Web, there has been rampant cheap talk skepticism around both Covid and the recent American election. Under the umbrella of “distrusting institutions”, there has been such an absurd amount of “just asking questions” that Sam Harris felt compelled to very publicly “turn in his IDW membership card”. Unfortunately, Harris neglected to explicitly criticise anyone by name, which makes is hard to determine if his criticism was meant just for the brothers Weinstein, or if he was including folks like Maajid Nawaz, who he has frequently promoted and who I’d argue has been one of the worst of the cheap talk skeptics.

For example, here’s Nawaz retweeting Team Trump Twitter sharing a video from OAN (One America News Network), an unreliable right wing “news” organization, which they claim is evidence of election tampering. Rather than emphasise the high likelihood that the video proves nothing of the sort, Maajid’s response is “I see what this looks like & I hope I’m wrong” followed by “sensible people should agree that this entire controversy needs to be resolved ASAP & urgently”. That tweet is not an isolated event either, here he is unknowingly sharing election fraud conspiracy materials from the explicitly antisemitic Red Elephants website. Here he is getting strung along by Trump’s reality tv shtick . Here he is citing Ted Cruz’s election denialism as proof that Nawaz was “right all along”. I could continue, but the pattern is obvious, and it’s not unique to Nawaz. This is deeply irresponsible, but the cost of cheap talk skepticism will be born by the American electorate and not by Nawaz, who has since circled back around to claim the OAN video produced a state audit, but not to point out that Georgia found no significant fraud of the sort that Team Trump and OAN were claiming.

Nawaz has also engaged in cheap talk skepticism around Covid conspiracy theories, favorably retweeting a thread by a guy who thinks Covid is caused by 5G and directly quoting his claim about “the myth of a pandemic”. Similar cheap talk skepticism towards Covid and the Covid vaccine has arisen from Brett Weinstein and unsurprisingly from James Lindsay, given his ongoing business relationship with conspiracy theorist Michael O’Fallon. James recently attended a Sovereign Nation conference and a conservative event in California with Covid lockdown skeptic Dave Rubin. Rubin has attended several anti-lockdown events and posted cancel bait tweets implying that he’s hosting dinner parties in violation of social distancing rules. Again, the cost of their skepticism is far less likely to be born by them than by medical workers and vulnerable individuals, like my aunt Sue who suffered a stroke while being treated for Covid. Society doesn’t even condone the desire that they should directly experience the consequences of their skepticism. We’re forced to hope that their cheap talk remains cheap.

It’s a great term. Add it to your lexicon! One of the things skeptics and atheists have to do is police their own — we’ve been telling religious people to do that for years — and it’s only fair that we do the same for ourselves.


  1. drew says

    So skepticism has to cost the skeptic something otherwise shaming ensues? And I suppose opinions from people with more to lose count more. Who decides what this loss is? Who decides which people have that thing to lose? Or can I not ask those questions because mere curiosity isn’t even table stakes?

  2. raven says

    Nawaz has also engaged in cheap talk skepticism around Covid conspiracy theories, favorably retweeting a thread by a guy who thinks Covid is caused by 5G and directly quoting his claim about “the myth of a pandemic”.

    You can call this cheap talk if you want.

    I just call this guy and people like him idiots, reality deniers, science deniers, and plague rats.
    The number of people I know who are permanently disabled long haulers or just dead from Covid-19 virus is high and going up steadily.

  3. hemidactylus says

    I used to like Nawaz in the early stages of his bromance with Harris, giving a specific personal take on Islam and stuff, but that has gone out the window now. Yipes!

  4. brucegee1962 says

    The problem with Rabinowitz’ “cheap talk” criticism is that it opens our side to the accusation “You’re all in favor of challenging the status quo when it suits you, but not when it’s one of your sacred cows that’s on the block.”
    Also, saying “Talk is cheap” isn’t really an argument — it’s just a taunt. If we say “You claim the election is stolen, but talk is cheap” and then the person you’re talking to goes and storms the capitol, then your rhetoric hasn’t had any positive consequences, has it?
    The proper skeptical argument against these conspiracy theorists should be that they are WRONG, not that they are insufficiently committed to their cause.

    the obligation to skepticism properly

    Skepticism is a verb now? What?

  5. KG says

    Are you really as stupid as that comment makes you appear? The linked article, and in particular the excerpt PZ quoted, make quite clear what is meant.

    Actually, don’t bother to answer that question. Considering your comments on how Trump and Biden are really no different, I admit that indeed, you are.

  6. KG says

    The proper skeptical argument against these conspiracy theorists should be that they are WRONG, not that they are insufficiently committed to their cause. – brucegee1962@6

    Being wrong – or even WRONG – is not reprehensible if you have come by your error by honest effort, and it’s not “their cause” sceptics need to be sufficiently committed to, but an honest effort to discover the truth, rather than easy contrarianism. Here’s another brief quote from the linked article (my emphasis):

    Besides putting lives at risk by promoting a cavalier approach to a global health crisis, cheap talk skepticism externalises a social cost by driving quality skepticism out of the marketplace of ideas. Quality skepticism is research intensive.

  7. says

    @2 You should have said “You lefties are the real fascists! You’re colonizing skepticism with your patriarchal imperialist gatekeeping!”

    Troll Moar Harder, kiddo.

  8. says

    Without disagreeing with the rest of the article, I greatly dislike the “cheap talk skepticism” framing device. The validity of criticism is simply unrelated to the cost to the critic. If you find a valid piece of criticism that is easy to make, then kudos to you for finding a win/win. If you sow chaos, and suffer greatly for it, then at least we have the schadenfreude. Skepticism that “comes at little cost to them, though it frequently comes at a significant cost to others” is problematic because it comes at significant cost to others, regardless of how much personal cost it incurs. Good criticism is a service to others, not a burden.

  9. says

    For example, although Maajid Nawaz may have shared Trump tweets at no cost to himself, it seems that Trump himself may incur personal costs (or at least, one hopes!). And so what, would Trump’s suffering make him even one ounce a better person?

  10. kome says

    Denialism and cynicism are not skepticism, but often masquerade as skepticism. But “cheap talk skepticism” is a nice phrase to describe either or both of the former, I suppose.

  11. Muz says

    Harris wanting out is interesting. A litte late, but most of these guys would never opt out of this stuff for the risk of seeming to be engaging in shouting down people’s free speech and guilt by association. Only those dirty woke pinkos do that sort of thing.

  12. says

    I’ll definitely agree with other commenters here that “cheap talk skepticism” is essentially a logical fallacy. That said…it also does seem a fair way to describe many so-called skeptics. Unfortunately, I find the concept could also be applied to many so-called progressives. So can we add “cheap talk progressivism” to the lexicon? “Progressives” who seem more worried about taking down the “establishment” than implementing any actual progress would be the more obvious people to fit this category…people who tend to be white and male (but not exclusively!) whose lives will be mostly fine and dandy if nothing change or even if fascists were to exceed in taking over our government. So, like the “cheap talk skeptic,” they have little to lose and can instead do more harm than good.
    Sorry, those people get on my nerves so damn much.

  13. says

    Erlend Meyer (#1) –

    But the real challenge is how to raise the cost of cheap talk…

    Supply and demand, baby. Cheap and low quality crap is easy to produce, and more gets made because it sells. You have to convince people they need higher quality ideas and to be willing to pay for it.

  14. Tethys says

    Police our own? No thanks, those bloviating dudes ain’t mine.

    Anyone who cluelessly takes information from, or frequents something called the “intellectual dark web” is failing at step one of critical analysis.

    A.) Consider the source.

  15. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    @2: Who decides if our raising costs is harmful? Who decides if someone is just curious or rather being disingenuous? If we are wrong about someone’s skepticism, can’t we just change tack later?

    See how now at all frustrating this is? See how easy it is to just ask a bunch of obtuse questions?

    These people are literate adults who not only intentionally cultivated a following of people who listen to them but also did so by posing as skeptics. Some, like Harris and Peterson, have advanced degrees. They have a duty to educate and not misinform.

    Yes, sometimes you have to make ethical decisions. Well, actually, YOU ALWAYS HAVE TO MAKE ETHICAL DECISIONS. Every moment of every day. We have outlined a reason to raise the costs to people who are demonstrably irresponsible. If you have an actual argument to make and not chickenshit faux skepticism, go ahead. Otherwise, maybe we can start by cleaning up this idea that a lot of supposed skeptics seem to have that it’s possible to be neutral on a moving train.

  16. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    @6: How about the idea that expressing skepticism SHOULD be done with sensitivity and attention? That maxim solves all the problems, right?

    I have seen countless atheist commentators (e.g. TMM) say in response to people asking why they criticize religion that they wouldn’t bother if religious people stopped trying to bother everyone else. In other words, it is wholly possible to have an ethos that you actually spend the time fisking claims when it is warranted.

  17. DanDare says

    #8 has it right. The framing of “cheap” is with respect to doing the actual deliberation as a “cost”. I.e. that requires effort. Also people who try to deliberate over some issue are open to making errors, recognising them and correcting. The cheap talkers don’t recognise or accept their errors and permanently assign wrongness to anyone that does. That is a political move that blocks improvement.

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