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.