Navelwards the Skeptics Gaze

In a vain and self serving attempt to extend my lasting impact on the universe beyond some rapidly aging family photos and that one drunken story my friends endlessly reminisce about, I have decided I need to coin a law. Considering the fact they’ll name laws after you for the most feeble of statements (Stein’s law says that “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop”. I mean, come on, that’s not even trying) I am confident that my deeply insightful but handily phrased phrase shall be the talk of Malcolm Gladwell readers in no time.

Thus it is with great humbleness and eager delight I present to you Paul’s First Law of Movement:

“If more than three people argue they are not part of a movement due to the fact the movement does not exist, said movement’s existence is automatically confirmed”[pullquote]Paul’s First Law of Movement:

“If more than three people argue they are not part of a movement due to the fact the movement does not exist, said movement’s existence is automatically confirmed”[/pullquote]

Powerful and wise, I think you’ll agree. And will immediately piss off a reasonable chunk (well, hopefully more than three) of the skeptics who happen to be reading, due to the fact they do not consider themselves part of a “skeptical movement”, a term which is thrown around blogs with gleeful abandon. And despite my smug smart-arsery I completely appreciate where they are coming from- I do not even refer to myself as a “skeptic”, let alone consider myself part of any movement.

A bit rich from someone writing for Skeptic Ireland, I know. And indeed if I’m honest I find it difficult to deny that the skeptical movement exists, or that for all intents and purposes I am very much a part of it. This is not because there is some clear-cut definition of a skeptic, or that we are a single-minded entity, nor that there is sacred charter we all sign up to. Indeed carr2d2 summarises it eloquently:

“Skepticism means something different to all of us. I think we need to stop being so hung up on labels and definitions and focus on what we’d like to accomplish”

And I couldn’t agree more. But I don’t think this diminishes the fact that when you have a group of like minded people who also tend to hang out together, whether online or at specially organised events, well you’re going to be viewed as a movement, rightly or wrongly. And this perception only grows as self identified skeptics begin campaigning for change out in the “real world”.

I’m not here, however, to discuss the finer semantic details of how we or others may refer to skeptics. I am simply attempting to outline my belief that there is a vague, nebulous group of persons out there who, for want of a better term, we shall refer to as the skeptical movement (we could just as easily refer to it as the “Skeptics Gang!” or the “Skeptical Club!”, but for some reason that sounds far too 80’s and vaguely sinister).
If we can go so far as to accept the existence of this movement as offered above, and I know I’ve probably lost a good 85% of readers now, I would go on to argue that there’s a growing sense that it finds itself in the interesting position of being on the verge of becoming somewhat mainstream.
Today telling someone you’re a “skeptic” does not immediately lead them to think you believe President Kennedy was actually killed when he slipped on the bottom rung of the ladder of a mock up Apollo lander on a sound stage in New Mexico (though you may possibly have to explain that you don’t believe Jews caused 9/11 by the corruption of the world’s climate scientists across the entirety of human history). Recent campaigns have brought the skeptical frame of mind to the public’s awareness, with the 10:23, Science is Vital and Libel Reform campaigns all receiving good media coverage. The ongoing vocal support of a number of writers, comedians, entertainers etc. (and figures like Prof. Brian Cox coming at it from the opposite direction) does no harm either.

However I feel a sure sign of the successful move from internet forums and back room discussions to full on engagement with those outside the movement is the number of navel-gazing pieces of writing that have appeared in the last few months. There’s nothing like realising people who aren’t members of your immediate circle are paying attention to what you‘re saying to give one a moments pause for thought.

The skeptical movement seems to be going through a lot of the same growing pains that “New Atheism” has experienced. While obviously not the same thing (you can class yourself a skeptic and still believe in god, and you can be the most fundamentalist of atheists and not have any time for the skeptics) I think it’s not excessively crazy of me to suggest that New Atheists and skeptics are close relatives with similar outlooks on the world.

While no longer a mortal sin to declare oneself an atheist, the New Atheist movement has taken on an organised feel, with an attempt to directly engage with what one might term the negative propaganda and activities of certain religious movements [gangs/clubs], while also expanding on their exposure to the general public with such things as the Atheist Bus Campaign. Further there’s been some considerable soul searching, as the loud and shouty school of engagement who are all about unloading both barrels of the rational shotgun in the faces of the religious meets the more restrained and accommodating who reckon everyone should just chill out and stop being obnoxious.
Thus it currently seems to be with skeptics. Not only have there been some controversial talks on how skeptics engage with others, from Phil “Bad Astronomy” Plait’s ‘Don’t be a dick’ TAM speech, to Frank “Science Punk” Swain’s ‘Skeptical about skeptics’ riff. But more fundamentally there has been an ongoing discussion on what exactly the skeptical movement is doing (if anything), what its aims are (if any) and how it’s going about achieving them (if there is, in fact, anything to…well you get the idea…).[pullquote]Surely, engage and argue with people when you disagree with what they’re doing. That is, after all, what skeptics do best. But don’t let this disagreement become the main focus of what the movement does. Put pithily- remember to be the skeptic you wish to see in others. But if they steadfastly refuse to submit to your Gandhian mind tricks, well that’s ok too.[/pullquote]

Leveling some particularly harsh criticism, Alom Shaha recently commented on the insular nature of skepticism, where the choir exists within an echo chamber of self referential preaching, to horrendously mangle metaphors. He aimed considerable ire at the usefulness of organised meeting of skeptics, and in fact there has been much discussion of the role of events such as the unsurprisingly pub based ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ and the £200 a ticket ‘The Amazing Meeting’ (apologies for the typo but TAM is pretentiously named enough without spelling it with an exclamation mark).
Some have also decried the apparent lack of a female presence, rather wonderfully summarised on Skeptic Exchange as “Why is the skeptical movement such a sausage fest?”. Why indeed.

And David Allen Green (i.e. Jack of Kent) has raised questions of the difficulty of a “skeptical” engagement with policy makers, mostly due to the fact we’re all negative buzz-kills, while also providing a rather nice quote on the whole issue of whether a movement exists at all:

“[T]here may not ever be one “Skeptic Movement” – but there will now often be Skeptic movements, and each one will be interesting to watch.”

So what am I trying to get at with all this? Well, a couple of disclaimers. Firstly, as you will have no doubt intuited, the examples I offer above are almost entirely UK-centric. This is both because that’s where I’m currently living, but also because the UK skeptical movement is one of the most coherent in the world, and provides a very good example to Ireland of what possibly lies ahead in its own skeptical future.

Secondly, I realise I am offering nothing but bits of other peoples arguments here. In fact I’m mostly just trying to create some kind of paradox of meta-ness by being introspective about introspection. My own views on the topic would probably involve some kind of amalgamation of all of the above. I personally think noodlemaz gets close to nailing it with her sensible refusal to accept that there’s one way of being a skeptic:

“There are so many parts to play, many different personalities, philosophies, attitudes and purposes.”

The swathe of links offered above provide what I feel is a snapshot of a frame of mind unsure of itself. There are now enough skeptics in the world that we can spend our time disagreeing with each other rather than the charlatans and anti-sciencers who brought us together in the first place. This effect only gets amplified when people begin engaging with non-skeptics to achieve certain aims, as people think only they understand the best way to get things done and that other approaches are giving them a bad name. But it is the huge variety within the skeptical movement which makes it so interesting and allows it to address so many issues. Ultimately any power the movement may have comes from this diversity.

Surely, engage and argue with people when you disagree with what they’re doing. That is, after all, what skeptics do best. But don’t let this disagreement become the main focus of what the movement does. Put pithily- remember to be the skeptic you wish to see in others. But if they steadfastly refuse to submit to your Gandhian mind tricks, well that’s ok too.

Navelwards the Skeptics Gaze

2 thoughts on “Navelwards the Skeptics Gaze

  1. Ooer something went wrong with the html in that; try again!!

    Thanks for the mention!

    Very well-put, especially your closing remarks.
    “There are now enough skeptics in the world that we can spend our time disagreeing with each other rather than the charlatans and anti-sciencers who brought us together in the first place… engage and argue with people when you disagree with what they’re doing. That is, after all, what skeptics do best. But don’t let this disagreement become the main focus of what the movement does. Put pithily- remember to be the skeptic you wish to see in others.”

    I like that a lot.
    That’s why @landtimforgot just refers to the colour of his belly button fluff whenever an article like Alom’s pops up.

    One comment on my write-up of Frank’s talk (URL below) from a never-attended-SitP friend said it was a great insight into the movement (whether it exists or not, but I’m inclined to agree with you! And JoK’s point about movementS, pl.) for outsiders – knowing that people are aware of others looking in makes it a little bit less intimidating and mystifying.
    http://noodlemaz.wordpress.com/2010/08/03/sceptical-about-skeptics/

    But, as you and many of us keep saying, constantly going over the old who’s-offended-look-you’re-doing-it-wrong ground isn’t particularly constructive.

    I had a chat with some people at WestSkep last night; we talked about how much responsibility other skeptics have for the ‘dicks’, especially if you’ve never met them before and they’re over the other side of the room (or indeed, not in the room, building, city or country) – we’re not supposed to be parenting people. I’ll always tell my friends if I don’t like the way they’re behaving (they can take or leave my opinions/advice!) and I might pick up on a dicky comment on a website, but other than that – some people are dicks, get over it.
    Hopefully they’ll remain the minority and the best we can do is hope that outside observers see that they are not approved of.

    We also moved on to the fact that part of the reason a lot of us go to skepticy events is precisely to have conversations with people who disagree; it’s not always an echo-chamber. You know you can find someone to have a bit of an argument with, who will challenge what you say (possibly just to play devil’s advocate), and remain your mate afterwards – maybe some knowledge is gained/shared in the process.

    It’s too common in other circles that expressing disagreement earns you a few shifts down the friendship ladder. I lament this and love the ‘skeptics’ for that reason, because it’s less often the case.

    :)

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