Shermer’s brand of skepticism: rotten to the core

Michael Shermer <ick, spit> put out a call for an article for his worthless magazine defending CRT, and complained that no one would defend the theory (he didn’t look very hard, I guess). Aaron Rabinowitz answered the call and volunteered.

CRT, and what I believe is the moral panic surrounding it, is something I’ve written about in the past, so I reached out to Mr. Shermer, who told me he already had a CRT overview article “that mostly summarizes the history of the movement going back to its postmodernism roots (and before)”, which he described as “mostly neutral, albeit slightly critical on the consequences of accepting fully the belief in system racism by POC.”

Would you like to read this “mostly neutral” article? Don’t bother.

I later found out that that “article” is actually the CRT chapter from James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose’s book Cynical Theories, two individuals who played a significant role in developing and mainstreaming the CRT moral panic.

You all remember James Lindsay, right? There’s a man descending into oblivion, recently banned on Twitter. Here’s all you need to know about Lindsay.

At the time, in 2018, Lindsay insisted he was a “left-leaning liberal,” a fellow traveler of the erstwhile anti-woke collective that once called it itself the “Intellectual Dark Web,” and he was praised and promoted by some of its leading figures as an important and brave public intellectual.

But in 2022, he’s a Trump-supporting, Big Lie-espousing, vaccine-denying, far-right bigot who thinks Sen. Joe McCarthy “had it right” and “didn’t go nearly far enough” during his infamous (and near-universally repudiated) witch hunts of suspected communists during the 1950s.

And, perhaps most notably, he helped popularize the “Ok Groomer” epithet (and hashtag) on Twitter, feeding the right wing’s moral panic about LGBTQ teachers.

Right. That’s the guy Shermer believed to be a credible and objective source. Sort of says it all, I think.

Rabinowitz was working on the piece, communicating with Shermer on the content as it progressed. He’s a stronger man than I am, because if I got a message like the one below where Shermer brags about being a “social liberal” and promoting his own crappy book, I would have noped right out of there, even before I found out where his sympathies actually lie.

Then, predictably, Shermer abruptly pulled the plug on the article. You won’t find it in Skeptic magazine.

But good news! Rabinowitz got it published in The Skeptic, a UK magazine which isn’t a Shermer vanity rag. You definitely should read that rather than our corrupted American version. Rabinowitz is quite clear in naming some of the most rabid of the CRT opponents, and curiously, they’re all people who have have been prominently featured in Shermer’s magazine and podcasts.

While Rufo has received the lion’s share of credit for inciting the CRT moral panic, Lindsay et al’s anti-woke activism served as the social and ideological springboard for the CRT moral panic, because it gave the impression that the movement grew out of concerns expressed by self-identifying heterodox liberals. Shermer even personally promoted Lindsay and Boghossian’s grievance studies appearance on Joe Rogan, an episode full of easily debunked misinformation.

Given these facts, CRT activists might reasonably conclude that it would be harmful to lend credibility to an outlet that could use it to offset further unsupported attacks. That was certainly my largest concern in deciding whether to write this piece, which was originally commissioned by Skeptic Magazine in response to my conversation with Shermer. Ultimately, I lean towards engagement, even when the chance of persuasion is likely to be low, but we don’t have remotely enough evidence to decide on the best approach to engaging with individuals and organisations that appear caught up in a moral panic.

I believe the original question was actually something of a dog whistle, aimed largely at other critics of wokeness. It served to signal that CRT advocates can’t defend the theory, and that they are too ideologically captured to admit defeat, so they instead avoid debate entirely. Douglas Murray made this accusation explicitly in his recent interview on Shermer’s podcast, around 40 minutes in. He claims it is a major red flag that CRT advocates like Kendi and DiAngelo are unwilling to engage in public debate. In the interview both men credulously repeat one of Rufo and Lindsay’s most absurd accusations: that the woke are too fragile and fanatical to risk open debate.

I don’t consider it a red flag to refuse to debate, since there is good reason to question the efficacy of such debates. However, if you do consider it such a warning sign, it’s disingenuous not to highlight that Rufo and Lindsay also routinely deride and avoid debate, to the extent of actively blocking people who attempt to engage them in good faith. Lindsay and Boghossian have claimed that social justice advocates are such “uniformly such dreadful conversationalists” that it’s pointless to engage with them, beyond learning how to counter their tactics. How could such well-poisoning be worthy of praise when it’s coming from the architects of the CRT moral panic, yet serve as a red flag when assessing CRT advocates? I think the most plausible answer is the existence of an ‘anti-woke’ in-group bias.

I don’t entirely agree with Rabinowitz, though: I lean away from direct engagement when the opposition is actively harming people, and is already being fed at the trough of right-wing media. I would think articles, like the one in The Skeptic, that are strongly criticizing the colossally malicious agents of far-right disinformation are OK, and are the kind of engagement I would consider productive, but I would never want to promote Rufo or Lindsay or Murray (or Michael Fucking Shermer) with a face-to-face event, or one where some scumbag is using my words to promote an illusion of balance when they’re actually promoting lies and fear.


  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    … but not much has been said on how the panic was mainstreamed by individuals who don’t identify as extremists.

    Who does identify as extremist? Almost everyone claims that they are the reasonable center.

  2. says


    If I read enough material from people like Rufo – who I know are gas lighting me for political reasons, I find myself drifting into the camp of dismissing CRT entirely.

    When your skepticism is so strong you’re easily swayed by Heritage/Discovery(!)/Manhattan hacks with a transparent agenda.

  3. hemidactylus says

    I had seen the stuff about Lindsay’s Twiiter ban on Pinkerite, but wasn’t aware of Rabinowitz’s interaction with Shermer and publication of this article elsewhere. Thanks PZ for pointing it out! Much in that to digest. Haven’t listened to Embrace the Void (cue the Black Sabbath song) for quite awhile. Deep diving into Know Your Enemy lately.

    As for CRT shouldn’t it be distinguished from popularized antiracism such as Kendi? CRT has its capable popularizers deeply influenced by Derrick Bell such as Michelle Alexander. Her The New Jim Crow is an important work alongside Crenshaw’s take on intersectionality.

    I think the emancipatory aspect that ties prevalent critical theories from new leftish Marcuse to more liberal Habermas together is important but runs a risk of collapsing fact and value (is-ought). OTOH being a splitter, lumping the critical theories as ignoramuses such as Coyne does is a huge pet peeve for me.

  4. says

    hemidactylus @4: Shouldn’t we also be distinguishing “Critical Race Theory” from the ACTUAL HISTORY of racism, slavery, discrimination, apartheid, and racist terrorist actions of the KKK and others? Because it’s really the latter, not the former, that the bigots and scapegoaters are screaming about, and they’re PRETENDING it’s the former because they know they’re wrong and would give it away if they said “we don’t want the full history of our country taught in schools!”

    The right-wing hysterics are trying to suppress the teaching of ACTUAL HISTORY in our schools, not some “critical theory” most of us hadn’t even heard about before the 2021 VA election. This difference is what has to be remembered throughout all this controversy.

  5. anthrosciguy says

    If you know someone is gaslighting you for political reasons but you agree with the gaslighting anyway you’re saying you know the guy is lying but you really really like the lie.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    Lindsay and Boghossian have claimed that social justice advocates are such “uniformly such dreadful conversationalists” that it’s pointless to engage with them…

    When we see such an attitude from the professed inventor of “street debate”, should we consider that irony or the death thereof?

  7. drew says

    AFAIK, CRT still only exists in legal academics.

    These people can’t have a problem with CRT. They have a problem with anti-racism. But calling themselves anti-anti-racist sounds bad, so they changed the label.

    Conservatives are constantly changing labels and winning the ad war. It’s disgusting. Why can’t we just peg them as anti-anti-racists? It’d be more honest.

  8. divineconspiracy667 says

    Drew@8 states it clearly.
    There is no actual debate to be had about CRT because the right-wing has (successfully) labeled everything that they don’t like as “CRT”. The fact that “skeptics” like Shermer fall so easily for the ruse just goes to show how they really aren’t all that skeptical at all. They’re basically just conservatives that don’t believe in god, making them centre-right atheist Republicans pretending to be liberals.

  9. unclefrogy says

    @5 and 8
    it is a distraction plain and simple. changing the names around and fighting for words is a waist of time. the problems are right there in plain sight just don’t go to the f’n back of the buss.
    there is no debate racism is real and a net negative for the advancement and prosperity of society it pits the population against itself and therefore promotes weakness in the whole.

  10. hemidactylus says

    @5 Raging Bee
    I wouldn’t want to dismiss the actual importance of CRT for grasping racism in society. I had already mentioned Alexander as an offshoot of that scholary legal approach. Her book taught me to look at mass incarceration in a different way and is itself an unflattering look at US history. I wound up exploring related topics such as Operation Pipeline on my own and learning of a great civil rights hero and his story (Wilkins v. Maryland State Police):

    Alexander mentioned Operation Pipeline, but not Wilkins in the book. I need to reread it sometime. I think there’s a new edition though not sure how much she updated it. CRT can go beyond the boundaries of esoteric legal approaches.

    I think the fear mongering by poseur ( or ersatz) leftists and right wing propagandists has damaged perception of not just CRT but the vibrant approach of critical theories whether traditional first generation Frankfurt School or much later. The student radicalism of the 60s kinda split the old school up a bit in their reactions.

    I have been trying to read more on CRT grandfather Derrick Bell’s perspective and influence on others.

  11. hemidactylus says

    Speaking of Derrick Bell this is from Michelle Alexander’s intro to his book Faces at the Bottom of the Well:

    “As a law student, I read nearly every word Bell wrote; as a civil rights lawyer, I was haunted by his words and ultimately forced to admit the truth of them; as a law professor, I insisted that my students read the very articles and books authored by Bell that had once been assigned to me.
    I still have on my shelf the classic textbook entitled Race, Racism, and American Law, which Bell authored in 1971. That text became something like a bible for me when I was a law student, and I’ve carried it into every new work space I enter. Eventually I wrote a book, The New Jim Crow, which would not have been possible but for Bell’s scholarship and the contributions he made to the field of critical race theory—a body of legal scholarship that revolutionized what was spoken, taught, and debated in classrooms nationwide.”

  12. StevoR says

    @8.Drew :

    Conservatives are constantly changing labels and winning the ad war. It’s disgusting. Why can’t we just peg them as anti-anti-racists? It’d be more honest.

    Even simplier – an anti-anti-racist is a racist or pro-racist and yes.

    What used to be called “Politically Correct” then “Social Justice (Warrrior)” has become labelled as “woke” – same basic if vaguely & poorly defined notion. In essence, from what I gather, all those amount to people who are alert to injustice and not tolerating or accepting of it, willing to listen to other previously marginalised groups and respect their viewpoints rather than overlook or minimise or be be derogatory and hateful towards them.

    Meanwhile people who used to be called neo-nazis changed to calling themselves “alt-right” or unwoke or Trad. Basically regresisves who do not accept progressiev social change or / and aren’t willing to hear and respect historically marginalised groups.

  13. hemidactylus says

    I’m for taking back the use of “woke” as a badge of honor against the common pejorative. A problem though with this is that the history of the term is grounded in African Americans acknowledging and confronting the threat of pervasive racism. Being “woke” was pretty much hand-in-hand with using the Green Book. I’m watching a documentary on that now which recounts the prevalence of “sundown” towns in the North. I guess me knowing about this phenomenon (James Loewen has a book on it) is kinda woke. It would be the sort of thing that makes white students fidget in their seats so must be expunged from our history…for America.