Sunday, May 12, 2013

Skeptical Hypocrisy

Ok so Jamy Ian Swiss's latest talk has been making the round and I eventually broke down to watch it.

I'm not going to discuss the whole video but I do want to point out one bit of hypocrisy that we see from skeptics.

In the defense of religious skeptics Swiss brings up the idea that skepticism is about the method not the destination. It doesn't matter what you believe so much as the reasoning you used to get there. While I think I  care a bit more about the end beliefs then Swiss does (Beliefs ultimately affect ones actions) I don't really have a problem with this. I don't have a problem with homeopaths, or religious people or in general skeptics who have beliefs I find ludicrously unsupported in skepticism and I don't think we can always expect everyone to be a perfect skeptic on everything or to share all our views. Having set up this fairly reasonable goal of judging thinking not conclusions can Swiss stick to it for the whole 60min lecture.

Well no.

The problem comes at the end of the lecture when he's defending his idea that skeptics and atheists are different things and different movements. To do this we get two examples: Bill Maher and an unnamed woman at an atheist meet up he organised over the american pledge in schools.

44:30 With Bill Maher Swiss has this to say: "Just as there are plenty of good atheists who are in fact not skeptics at all. But in fact what I would dub faith based atheists who have not come to atheism through a grounding in the scientific world view. These atheists are of no value to the skeptical movement and indeed can sometimes be our opponents. Bill Maher was given an award by the Richard Dawkins foundation. FUCK BILL MAHER. Bill Maher was given an award by the Richard Dawkins foundation but Bill Maher is an outspoken anti vaxxer. He is anything but a skeptic and he`s far from an isolated example."

Note that in discussing Bill Maher and what makes him not a skeptic we are only given his conclusions and that he is outspoken about them not. We are not given any thing on his reasoning or his thinking or how he arrived at his anti vaccination stance. This comes not even 5 minutes after the latest repeating of the idea that "So the skeptical movement is about how to think about testable claims." The process not the conclusion is what matters we're told until it comes time to bash someone.

Now maybe you want to defend Swiss saying well everyone has heard of Bill Maher and knows his reasons and thinking are sloppy. First I`d say then you still should have focused on his reasons for anyone not in the loop. Then that leads me to Swiss's other example of an unskeptical atheist.

46 min an anecdote about a woman at a meetup: "So umm she (his wife) decides she's going to organize an atheist parenting meetup group and because I've been an activist for many years I say you know you call it atheist you may actually not get the demographic that you're looking for exactly. OK you might be surprised about that but at the same time we were all worked up about the whole god thing coming into the house so ok we'll call it atheist *growls*. Sure enough we go to the first meet up atheist parenting meeting and this woman turns to me and says "So what's your sign? *groans from the audience* So a year or so ago I'm at dinner with Candice, myself, Richard Dawkins, Shawn Faircloth and robin hawk and Candice is telling this story. So she finishes the story and Richard looks across the table and says that did not happen. Yes it did! But that's that oh well its down but that's those atheist that are outside skeptics and humanists."

Now I'm going to completely ignore the non sequitur that this woman is somehow not a humanist and assume Swiss simply meant an atheist not in the skeptic-atheist overlap. In this case we know even less about the woman then Maher. Here we have a woman who initiated a conversation about astrology with Swiss and that makes  her not a skeptic. It's fairly reasonable to assume she believed in astrology but really we could be mistaken on that. We know nothing about her other beliefs or what other activism work she may have done. Maybe she was a completely new age infused woo woo atheist non skeptic. Maybe she was a staunch defender of science based medicine, well versed in the skeptical explanations for spiritualism and ghosts, and frequently argued against cryptozoology and on top of all this believed in astrology for some personal reasons. We don't know.

Just like Maher again all that is given is that they believe (concluded) something mainstream skeptics have concluded is bunk. Nothing about their thought processes or motivations or reasoning is given or needed. You're an antivaxxer or an follow an astrologer well the litmus test says you're not a skeptic case closed. Here we see the hypocrisy the actions that Swiss and other skeptics use all the time in denouncing people for their irrational conclusions is called off the table for peoples religious conclusions  Both reactions from the same person in one hour long lecture.

Now if you want to focus on peoples thoughts and not their conclusions as Swiss claims at the start of his lecture I'm fine with that. If you want to use the conclusions people have made as a litmus test of skepticism as you have shown you practice, it's sloppy and kind of a jerk thing to do but, that's also fine. But you have to actually make up your mind on which game you're playing and stick with it otherwise it's just more special privileges to religion and general skeptical hypocrisy.