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Are You Paddling, or Just Dragging?

by Brian Dunning, Oct 01 2009

They say you need a thick skin if you want to put yourself out there as a science communicator promoting critical thinking. And, it’s true: Trust me, I know. But that thick skin is not necessarily needed to fend off promoters of pseudoscience; just as often, you need it for public attacks launched by those who purport to be your allies.

Recently someone with a skeptical blog wrote an article criticizing me for two different things (both of which were wrong, incidentally; obviously this person didn’t care to check). I didn’t know the person, and browsed around on the blog for a few minutes. It was a generally skeptical blog, but all too often, it seemed the blogger was less interested in attacking the charlatans than in stroking their own ego by going after just about every prominent skeptic: “I’m smart because Novella, Randi, Shermer, Plait, Nickell, Klass, Radford, Dunning, (the list goes on), are wrong.”

I liken the drivers of the critical thinking movement to paddlers in a giant canoe. Some are more influential and paddle hard, others less so. But we’re all paddling. Every little bit helps. We’re paddling because what we’re doing is important and we believe in it. I welcome everyone who comes aboard to help, no matter the size of their paddle.

So it’s frustrating for me when I see people who represent themselves as paddlers, but really all they’re doing is disparaging those who actually do paddle. Oh, occasionally they may stick their paddle into the water and steer or give a little push or two, but every time they stop to lambaste the contributors, they’re dead weight; and when they shout to other boats what horrible paddlers their shipmates are, they are actively counterproductive.

One of our fellow Skeptologists here on SkepticBlog is renowned for his Libertarian politics, and frequently criticized for mixing that into his science communication. Similarly, another is renowned for his Democratic politics, and frequently criticized for mixing that into his science communication. What their critics fail to recognize is that even though one is paddling on the left side of the boat, and the other is paddling on the right side of the boat, both are paddling like hell and have done far more to advance public awareness of science and critical thinking than their critics. They are close allies and work together frequently. Take note that they do not derail their own cause by turning their attentions inward and infighting with one another.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t be open to internal criticism of the way we do what we do. We have to be, and we are. But unless you’re trying to communicate to the world that skepticism is falling apart, you don’t trumpet your criticism to the world in your blog, you pick up the phone and make your suggestions appropriately. I had a huge problem with something that happened at The Amazing Meeting 7. I didn’t podcast or blog to the world that TAM is all fucked up; I communicated my concerns in private to the appropriate person. Guess what, my concerns were welcomed, and I also discovered that I didn’t know the whole story. How about that for a shocker? And the world still knows what I want them to know: That I think TAM is an incredibly positive event. We’re still paddling in step.

I invite every skeptical blogger, podcaster, or communicator to stop and consider what it is they’re trying to accomplish. Do you really have no better targets to go after than your best allies? If you feel that I or anyone else have done something counterproductive to science education, you’ll probably find that we welcome your comments if you present them appropriately. If you’re just out there trying to shout “Look how smart I am”, well, we don’t have time for you; but we’ll make time if you want to pick up a paddle and climb on board.

99 Responses to “Are You Paddling, or Just Dragging?”

  1. MadScientist says:

    While I don’t poo-poo genuine skeptics (after all, everyone makes mistakes or misses things) everyone should be open to criticism. The scientists out there who have published know how vicious referees can be. I think it improves skeptics to discuss what they’ve missed and what they’ve got wrong. Running around to crow about how wrong someone is without discussing things with that person is weird … infantile even.

    Can I pick up a paddle, climb on board, and whack someone with the paddle?

  2. tingbudong says:

    It would be helpful if we knew what exactly you are talking about, otherwise we cannot have access to all the information necessary to judge the situation. Based on this blog post, all we have is a complaint that somebody voiced unspecified complaints about skeptics. Is this in reference to Brian Thompson’s post from yesterday voicing some concerns about the state of the skeptical community (found at Without even basic context there can be no conversation and no chance of improvement.

    I always thought the greatest virtue of the skeptical community was its lack of emphasis on ingroup loyalty and the willingness of all involved to listen to criticism and respond to it with intellectual honesty, and admit when they are at fault.

    Public (such as in a blog) criticism of fellow skeptics is at times just as important as exposing the frauds and charlatans that are the common (and important) targets of skeptical commentary. It is not a matter of backstabbing but a matter of quality control.

    • Effective quality control is done the way I describe, not by climbing to the rooftop and trumpeting your peers’ failings to the competition.

      • If there are factual errors in Brian Thompson’s piece, then you’ve got a legitimate complaint. Otherwise, the above statement is creepy and reinforces Thompson’s message about an atheist echo chamber.

        “..not by climbing to the rooftop and trumpeting your peers’ failings to the competition..” is absurd. Do you think, for example, that we should refrain from calling out Maher for his anti-vax pseudoscience, since that might help “the competition”?

      • Glenn says:

        Maher isn’t a skeptic. He’s an atheist.

      • tingbudong says:

        Atheism and skepticism are compatible. Skepticism is a method designed to evaluate factual claims. Atheism is a conclusion concerning the existence of gods. Therefore there can be both skeptical and unskeptical reasons both for being a theist or an atheist.

        Although it is true that Maher displays unskeptical attitudes on just about any topic other than religion.

  3. Max says:

    But Michael Shermer said to be skeptical even of the skeptics. Now I’m all confused.

  4. Shayne O'Connor says:

    You make it sound like this is a game with teams and you’ve got to support the team no matter what. You can’t just have an honest debate. You’ve got to have teams that you pledge allegiance to. Actually, this *is* just politics. Not skepticism.

  5. Jeffery2010 says:

    I think the main take away would be the idea of talking to the person you are critical of first. Brian said he did at TAM7 and discovered he “didn’t know the whole story”. A informed blogger investigates, and checks. Some bloggers just yell.
    Information gathering should be the obvious second step for a skeptic. The first of course being “really?”.

  6. If a skeptic with some measure of public presence chooses to criticize other skeptics, his or her success or failure will depend on the factual quality of that criticism. The relative fame of the critic or the criticized and issues of whether the critic is properly ‘on the team’ or communicating said criticism in a way preferred by the criticized are irrelevant to the accuracy of the criticism. They are, apparently, relevant to the feelings of the criticized.

    As I understand it, skepticism is a process, not a position taken, and I always endeavor to follow the facts wherever they might lead. As to whether I’m in the canoe, in the river, or on the bank, I am indifferent.

  7. Kiera says:

    “What their critics fail to recognize is that even though one is paddling on the left side of the boat, and the other is paddling on the right side of the boat, both are paddling like hell and have done far more to advance public awareness of science and critical thinking than their critics.”

    I love this analogy. Just because sometimes we’re wrong and sometimes we disagree (on both relevant and irrelevant items) doesn’t mean we can’t unite and work toward a common goal. The critics who are in the movement themselves should strive to make that criticism constructive to the movement and not destructive. That’s the ultimate support– making the movement stronger by weeding out the problems without intentionally causing drama– which that blogger seemed set on doing. There is a right time, a right place and a right person for every criticism. No one helps anyone by yelling down at their peers.

    Thanks for this piece, Brian!

  8. Robert says:

    Which Skeptic is renowned for his democratic politics?

    As for criticizing, I thought one of the great things about science/critical thinking/skepticism was that ideas were put out in public, and the criticism of those ideas are made in public. If the ideas are good, then they withstand public scrutiny, if they are bad, they don’t.

    This idea that criticisms of authority figures should be made “appropriately” through private channels smacks to me of bad elitism and authoritarianism.

    Since I do not know what specifically you are criticizing, my comments here may be off base. I have criticized you (sorry! I really think you are great though) and other skeptics (including Shermer, but I really think he is awesome also) on my blog. In fact, I have criticized skepticism in general. But I do these things to try and help the movement, not hurt it (not that I think my little blog with its 20 or so readers has any real impact on the debate).

    I get what you are saying here, but, without knowing the context, I would have to disagree with what I have read as an attempt to silence public criticism in favor of the less effective private criticism.

    • Anthony O'Neal says:

      Since Plait used to write for the HuffPo, I’m going to take a wild guess and say Brian was talking about him. But comparing him to Shermer’s constant and endless pimping of his far-right politics, to the point that he sometimes talks about it more than actual skepticism, is truly silly. We all knew who Brian was talking about when he said libertarian, everyone scratched his head when Democratic was mentioned.

  9. I’m Brian Thompson, and I’m the one who wrote the essay in question. As someone who’s actually a fan of your work, Mr. Dunning, I’m very disappointed to see this demonstrably false response to something that wasn’t even a criticism of your work so much as an overall attitude that seems to be on display in the skeptical community.

    First of all, your statements aren’t even the focus of the essay, and it’s misleading of you to suggest by omission that this is the case. The essay is about the foolishness of AAI for awarding Bill Maher the Richard Dawkins Award and of Dawkins for supporting the decision. My thesis is that Dawkins may be willing to overlook portions of Maher’s message and the overall quality of his film “Religulous” because he agrees with Maher’s anti-religion stance. I argue that substance should never be overlooked simply because of message and provided examples from you and others in the community who appear to have followed along the same path. Regardless, the essay is about an attitude, not about you personally.

    You say I’ve gone after “just about every prominent skeptic” and then roll out a list. This is simply false. I have never once said anything negative about Steven Novella. I have never once said anything negative about James Randi. I have never once said anything negative about Phil Plait. I have never once said anything negative about Joe Nickell, Philip Klass, or Benjamin Radford. Novella, Randi, and Nickell have even been guests on my podcast. Unless you can cite examples from my site that prove otherwise, this kind of incorrect blanket statement seriously damages your credibility.

    And just what about my criticisms of you are factually wrong? You and Michael Shermer both demonstrated your anger about the Shirley Ghostman incident in print. And I quoted your own Twitter feed about “The Invention of Lying”. Again, back up your accusation with evidence, please.

    To extend your rowing metaphor, sometimes it can help if a member of the team suggests we may want to row around a giant, deadly rock.

    • Max says:

      Are you sure that Brian was responding to your essay?
      I didn’t expect him to lie about the prominent skeptics.

      • Robert says:

        I agree. I am not sure Brian is referring to your blog post, someone else just guessed that it might be you.

        Here is what Brian said on facebook:

        Where can I find Brian Thompson’s essay you’re referring to? I don’t know him. The specific post that prompted my blog was from last weekend.

    • Brian Thompson & I have spoken about this over Twitter. His blog is not the one that I saw that prompted today’s post.

      • Yeah, the vagueness here is quite confusing. I was sent a link to Brian’s post here representing it as a response to an essay I wrote, and others seem to have gotten the same impression. If that’s not the case, I apologize for my previous comment and am obviously an idiot.

      • badrescher says:

        I think the reason people thought it was you is that a search of “Brian Dunning” limited to the past week brings up few blog entries. Yours is the only one that I found which was critical of him.

        Yes, my impulses got the better of me & I spent 2 minutes searching. I wouldn’t have brought it up, though, as I think that the general point is lost in the discussion of it.

      • Then why don’t you say, somewhere here, who it IS that you’re upset about rather than hogging the paddle?

  10. badrescher says:

    Surprisingly nice piece for someone who is wrong so often ;)

    I have to take issue with one thing that you said, though.

    It is not always possible to “settle” things in private, nor do people always respond to private communication in a way that resolves anything (including you, I’ve been told) and sometimes issues are important enough that expressing an opinion publicly is a way to get people talking or demonstrate that there are people who think it matters.

    That said, I think you made some excellent points and I don’t need to know the details to agree with them. Not that I’m not as curious as everyone else, mind you.

  11. Skepdude says:


    I’ve only publicly disagreed with you once, and it wasn’t even a specifically skeptical issue, more of a metaphysical one. However, I don’t know which blog you’re referring to in this entry. I understand you probably don’t want to drive traffic on some whacky guys blog by linking to it from here, but I’d like to add if you could e-mail me a link to it, as I am surprised that they were able to get under your skin like this. And if you’re right, I’ll probably just call them idiots in their comments or lambat them on my blog, which won’t generate too much traffic their way at all. That’s one of the nice things about not being hugely popular on the web I guess.

    • The blog in question did not get under my skin. Such things are posted ALL THE TIME and I’ve been used to it for years now. I just felt it was time to make some of these points, and hopefully compel some people, who WISH to be constructive, to be more so.

  12. But Brian (Thompson) – the Twitter comment was from a tweet?? Those things are 140 characters long and it seemed like a joke from Dunning. Surely he’s allowed to joke without fact checking to see if the film is actually out?

    Or am I wrong? Did Brian really want all skeptics to hop up and go see a movie just because the content was anti-theistic?

    And for the Shirley Ghostman stuff – I too found it disappointing to see Shermer and Dunning so upset about it. But from my perspective it seemed that both men calmed down and whether it was because they had friends politely tell them they were overreacting, or it was their own conclusions, both seem (at least publicly) to be okay with the events now.

    Compare/Contrast THAT with how the AAI and Dawkins are handling the Bill Maher incident and you’ll see a pretty big difference. Here we have a situation that has been brought up since July and NOBODY in either organization is hitting the brakes. This was a completely avoidable train wreck as far as I can tell.

    Brian’s (Dunning) comment about not knowing the whole story here is not applicable to the Maher/AAI/Dawkins situation. There is simply no justification that is going to make me accept that it is okay to give an award that ostensibly is for the promotion of science and non-theism to a man as openly loopy and conspiracy-paranoid as Bill Maher.

    If Shermer and Dunning were still ranting about Ghostman and plotting how to take him down the comparison would be more apt. But they’ve changed their tack and that’s more important for the furtherance of skepticism. – for my own rant about the RDA.

    • FYI – I was mad about the Ghostman show for about 5 minutes and quickly took a humorous attitude toward it. Your memory is confusing my reaction with Shermer’s, who took it considerably more seriously and made a lot of noise about it. If you recall, he got burned big time by Expelled and is understandably quite sensitive to such things.

      But none of that is relevant to the point I was trying to make. :-)

      • You are correct. On reflection I probably lumped those memories together. And you definitely did the right thing in your blog response.

        Dawkins is still disappointing me – but still has time to fix it or make it somewhat better.

    • Thomas Nickledock says:

      Yes, I think the Maher situation is precisely one of those cases where gloves off criticism is warranted.

  13. commentator says:

    I suspect the essay may be this one – but again, as others have said, it may not be.

  14. You make some good points about the skeptical movement in general. Unfortunately, we’re not all working from the same play book and different people respond in different ways when trying to promote skepticism.

    However, I think you lose a great deal in this post by not referencing the exact post you mean. I don’t know why you wouldn’t do that. The fact is, regardless of how good or bad this person is at criticizing you, regardless of whether s/he is right or wrong, we only have your word to go by unless you cite your sources.

    And we wouldn’t be very good skeptics if we only went on that.

    I understand the point you’re trying to make and if this person is indeed simply looking to bash other skeptics, it’s a problem. But the solution to that problem isn’t to covertly insinuate that someone out there is doing something wrong. The solution is to hold them up as an example of what not to do, to get agreement from others and to call the person on what they are doing.

    You’re asking us to agree with your opinion based on your response to something critical of you, which, of course, you’re going to be at least somewhat emotional about, since it’s about you. That’s pretty difficult.

    I don’t disagree with your basic point, but I think it loses credibility when it appears you are doing it simply because someone criticized you and you’re upset about it.

    • If you’re expecting me to call out an ally, by name, and disparage them publicly, you must not have read this post very closely. I don’t roll that way. If I disagree with an ally enough to say something, I say it privately. I don’t fuel the promoters of woo by showing them that skeptics infight.

      Besides, my commentary here has nothing to do with any one specific blog post, podcast, or other communication.

      • D Dawg says:

        You say your post wasn’t about a specific blog, but you did specifically call out a specific blog. Specifically.

        After an albeit quick google search, I couldn’t find any other post that matched your description except for AmateurScientist’s. So either that IS the blog you meant (and you are lying/exagerating?) or that ISN’T the blog in question, and there really is some jerk blogger out there we should watch out for.

        You can clear this up easily by posting the reference.

      • But you *did* call them out publicly and you *did* disparage them. You just didn’t name them. But you did use them as an example to prove a point. If you’re going to use a source as evidence of a particular type of behavior, you have to qualify that with the actual citation.

        Personally, I find very few examples where people go out and disparage prominent skeptics. I do see some in-house bickering and egos, but that’s to be expected with any group and is generally kept private.

        And, how do you even know this person is an ally? You said you had never been to their site before. There are plenty of people who call themselves skeptics who are extremely non-skeptical.

        You say these things should be handled privately but if you don’t know the person and have no relationship with them, how could that person handle it privately? They could email you on your blog, sure, but since they don’t know you, that wouldn’t necessarily be the appropriate way to handle it.

        I’m curious – did you contact the person directly to voice your concerns over their blog before posting this?

  15. I thought the whole point of skepticism as a process was that it is to be applied to everything, and that skeptics themselves are not immune to the scrutiny.

  16. Oh, and all the comments speculating on who the original post was from are only strengthening my point :) It’s human nature to be curious :)

    • badrescher says:

      It may be human nature to be curious, but it is also human nature to refrain from rational thinking and we don’t think that’s okay.

      I think the situation itself detracts from the points made. His points are not limited to that blog post or blogger and specific examples get picked apart until the general point is completely lost.

      • I guess my point is that by referencing a ‘mysterious’ post that said unspecified ‘wrong’ things about a lot of people, he’s detracting from the point himself.

        If he wanted to post about the problems with in fighting in skepticism, that’s fine. But referencing an example without specifics simply plays on our innate curiosity (which, by the way, I think is a good thing, as long as it’s tempered with good sense), and pulls attention away from his point.

        On the other hand, without some sort of an example, the point becomes somewhat weakened. It’s a bit of a Catch 22.

      • badrescher says:

        I agree that a hypothetical would have avoided the problem, but (as you alluded to) that is a more difficult post to write without losing strength.

        I have been vocal about this mostly because – as you know – I have seen my intended arguments completely lost in arguments over details I consider to be either irrelevant or simply annoying sidebars. It is both frustrating and disappointing.

  17. Brian D.:
    It’s probably time to dig through your browser’s history (if that’s necessary) and post a link to the offending blogger’s post. Let’s all have a look at the cause of this problem. Then if it’s called for, we can all leave snarky comments over there.

    It was nice meeting you at D*Con! When you walked up to me at the Bradley Observatory and said “Where did you get that laser?” with –THE VOICE– (:lol:), it was a delightful surprise! You should really do VO work. Great pipes!

    • See my reply to #14 above.

      Thanks for the compliment! I’m still waiting for my check from Big Voiceover. And I decided not to get the laser. I would not have used it for any constructive purpose. :-)

    • Skepdude says:

      Yeah,I agree, nice podcast voice there.Immagine this one ” You’re listening to Real Time with Bill Maher. This guy won a science award” LOL

  18. One certainly hopes we aren’t expected to accept assertions on faith….

  19. Kimbo Jones says:

    Brian (Dunning) I seem to remember someone (not me) contacting you privately regarding a serious issue they had, only to have you dismiss their concerns as childish. What were they supposed to do then? Shut up about it? Sometimes blogging/podcasting is the only avenue to express these necessary constructive criticisms of the most vocal and visible of skeptics. You’re making the mistake of assuming that all skeptical leaders are open to private constructive criticism – apparently they are not, especially for issues they consider beneath them.

    I agree that senseless ad hominem or blatant libel is completely unacceptable. But this isn’t a church and we don’t have revered leaders. While I, and I’m sure many others, respect the trail-breaking that some skeptics have done, they are not protected from public scrutiny. Your claim that it’s somehow harmful to criticize skeptics publicly is without evidence – please demonstrate how this is the case. How has the cause been “derailed”?

  20. Rob Miles says:

    It seems to me that Brian isn’t specifically saying that skeptics shouldn’t disagree with other skeptics publicly, or that ideas you disagree with are off limits. He just wants you to think about why your criticizing a skeptic that you disagree with. If Brian says something I think is wrong, or expresses an opinion I disagree with, I can blog about it (except I don’t have a blog, but anyway) and explain my position without saying “Lol, Brian is teh sux0r” at the same time.

    There’s too many “and that’s what’s wrong with my fellow ‘new’ atheists” blogs out there, instead of “here’s why I think the idea expressed by this person/group is wrong.”

    If I’m wrong about Brian’s intentions, and he specifically says so, then nevermind.

    • Max says:

      Sounds like Brian doesn’t want you to blog about it at all, but rather call him privately about it.
      Come to think of it, why are we all having a public discussion right now? Let’s inundate Brian with phone calls and emails instead, and then publicly tout the party line.

  21. Brian Botticelli says:

    Devil’s Advocate makes a great point that skepticism is not some team we’re on, but rather a process. The one thing that I love about the skeptical movement is that it is not an us vs them mentality. This may not facilitate a widespread skeptical following, but we need to accept that most people are not critical thinkers, and that is okay. Do we really want to live in a world where everyone is as obnoxious as us?

    • That’s true, of course, but the reality of our culture is that it IS two sides. There are charlatans making money selling woo and doing harm, and there are skeptics trying to protect the public from that harm. I feel that it’s ultimately in the public’s best interest for us to present a united front.

      • Brian Botticelli says:

        Right on, and thank you for your hard work.

      • “That’s true, of course, but the reality of our culture is that it IS two sides. There are charlatans making money selling woo and doing harm, and there are skeptics trying to protect the public from that harm.”

        And there are skeptics making money selling articles and appearances and doing good, and the potentially corrupting presence of money, not to mention media notoreity, renders all ‘name’ skeptics viable targets for skeptical scrutiny. In fact, it is necessary. If one of you ‘name’ skeptics blows it on a big issue, the entire movement suffers accordingly, at least in the eyes of the leaners and woosters we seek most to affect.

        I reject the notion one needs to ‘check in’ with anybody before offering criticism. The merits of criticism lies in its factual content, not in the manner or route of its presentation, and we may each judge it as we will.

      • Max says:

        But but but it’s in the skeptic movement’s and the public’s interest for the ‘name’ skeptics not to get their feelings hurt.

      • Brian Botticelli says:

        The reason that they are “name” skeptics is because of their efforts and ability to communicate effectively. Let’s not forget how these skeptics came to the forefront (hint: it’s not because they are known to ‘blow’ big issues) Nobody is above a good rhetorical ass kicking, but I have a hard time believing that Mr Dunning and his colleagues are corruptible money whores.

        Media notoriety? You must get different TV channels where you are.

      • Haven’t you ever heard of luck?

  22. Badger3k says:

    If a skeptic has views of some kind, including political, that are intensely faith-based and not supported by critical thinking, then we should criticize them. Critical thinking should apply to all areas of life, not just science/pseudoscience. If one of the skeptical community pushes forth woo in whatever form, they need to be taken to task for that.

    • If you expect every skeptic to be perfect, you will be disappointed. There is no such thing. We all have failings. The response to that should not be to publicly lambaste everyone – we’re all supposed to be working together to better inform the public.

      • Skepdude says:

        I still have to figure out the offending blogger, but I know from experience that one of the best ways to drive traffic to your site is to pick on a VIP.

    • badrescher says:

      Criticism is not what I think Brian was talking about. I think what he took issue with is that the blog site appeared to be self-serving rather than serving the cause.

      I do wish that I could judge that for myself, but again his intent was not to pick apart the site. I believe it was to simply make the statement that progress toward our cause is not made by picking and clawing at and over each other when we could be picking and clawing at “the enemy”.

      We SHOULD criticize each other, but we should do so constructively, and if are doing more of that than the other, we’re sunk.

  23. Nicole G says:

    You might be wise to give skeptics the benefit of the doubt. If the blog in question is blatantly name-calling and being unhelpful, most of us will have enough sense move along to other, more constructive pursuits. Why should it even bother you? Are the purveyors of nonsense so strong that we must hide our quarrels lest we be weakened by their arguments?

    Of course, without knowing to what you are replying, we can’t make that judgment call.

  24. Cthandhs says:

    Thanks for the article. This brings up a really good point that a lot of people don’t get experience with. I work on a team at a company where we build large high-stress software projects. If I have a problem with someone else on my team, I go talk to them about it first and we work it out like adults. If I started yelling my complaints to all of my coworkers, I would look like a jerk. Sometimes this is hard, but in the end our goal is the same, to complete the project. My role, quality assurance, is frequently antagonistic. My job is to find and point out flaws with other people’s work. The only way that I can do my job and maintain my colleagues trust is to act with a high degree of professionalism. If private communication fails, then it is time to escalate, but bringing down someone else doesn’t make me look better. It makes both of us look worse.

  25. I don’t see why you couldn’t do both: paddle and point out when one of your fellow paddlers is paddling in reverse. Both contribute to making the boat go forward.

    • You seriously don’t see the difference between tapping your shipmate on the shoulder to say “Excuse me you’re paddling in reverse” and standing up to shout to all the other boats “LOOK HOW TERRIBLE OUR PADDLERS ARE”? One is teamwork, the other is antithetical.

  26. Trausti says:

    Well the thing is as the skeptical community grows so will the number of morons within it.

    Of course I´m not taking a stand against that person Brian is talking about since I´m not familiar with the issue.

    I´m just talking overall. We got the luxury now in being small as opposed to the religious or the quacks. But as we grow in numbers I suspect we will get more and more of idiots that will identify with our cause and, well, ruin it. Thats, I guess, just a natural progression of things.

    Aren´t we always accused of only taking on the stupidest true-believers? I´m guessing soon they will be able to focus on the stupidest skeptics.

    • Akusai says:

      Well the thing is as the skeptical community grows so will the number of morons within it.

      I have a friend who characterized this tendency by referring to “cargo cult skeptics,” who have latched onto this exciting new “counterculture,” as it were, of doubt and disbelief but only ritualistically parrot the ends without engaging in or bothering to understand the methods used to reach those ends. They shout “Ghosts don’t exist,” for example, but don’t bother to understand why skeptics doubt the existence of ghosts or why they are skeptical of the methods used by ghost hunters.

      To use Brian’s analogy, they don’t paddle; they shout “We have a boat! Look at our boat go!”

      It seems likely (to me, at least) that any time any community or movement begins growing in size and intensity, it will attract these sort of “cheerleaders,” so to speak. What’s important is how they are dealt with; one can dismiss them as “poseurs,” like the “true” punks did with Billy Idol, or one can attempt to educate them further and move them from “cheerleader” status to “paddler.”

  27. Brian M says:

    I agree. Simply babbling and yelling is the wrong way to do it. However, for some of us, we couldn’t contact the skeptic (say Shermer for example), and voice our concerns. Our only outlet to contact them is blogs (and comments sections). The difference between constructive criticism and destructive is the willingness to hear the counter arguments.

    You “celebrity” skeptics are in your little box, many miles away, untouchable to us mere mortals. Much like youtube has done for getting results (see, United airlines breaks guitars), blogs and other public mediums are sometimes the only way to get a response to our (sometimes) legitimate complaints/opinions. If others start positively acknowledging it, then thats something to worry about. If its just some oddball buried on page 400 of a google search, who nobody cares about, then you can feel free to ignore it. You don’t need to even respond to the average crackpot. But if the claim carries some merit that others are seeing, then thats when it should get a response.

    Anyhow, thats just my 2c.

    • Brian M says:

      …we couldn’t contact the skeptic (say Shermer for example), and voice our concerns. Our only outlet to contact them is blogs (and comments sections).

      Leaving aside the question of whether public criticism is good or bad, you certainly can contact Michael Shermer with any comments you may have. Most other skeptics are equally easy to reach. Whether they are able to respond to every letter is another question (some get hundreds of emails a week), but the mail that comes into the Skeptics Society is read carefully.

      • Brian M says:

        Well, thats the problem. I bet at least some of those ones had tried to contact them, but got nothing back. Then they start to get loud. I’ve never tried, nor have I ever even looked into contacting them, but I doubt getting a response is easy at all… :)

      • SicPreFix says:

        I imagine it depends on the individual. I’ve emailed questions to James Randi 5 times over the last 4 or 5 years, and received a prompt reply every time — and it wasn’t some kind of auto-reply either. On the other hand, I’ve emailed questions to Phil Plait and Michael Shermer 2 or 3 times and received no reply.

      • Glenn says:

        Yeah, actually Randi is really good like that. Or was, not sure if that’s changed in recent times. But he’s responded and even shared my thoughts, suggestions and news item leads with his readers. So he sets a good example for accessibility.

        Also, come to think of it – and this is relevant to this conversation – he has responded to my criticisms in such a way that we both came a mutual agreement – in public, right there on his blog.

        That, to me, really stood out as a shining example of the self-maintaining nature of skepticality.

    • Shermer’s a libertarian ostrich with his head in the sand. Contact away. Have fun. Will do zero good, or even negative numbers good.

    • Shermer also has two racialists involved with Skeptic mag and h as for years. Good luck getting him to reply on that, too.

  28. cheezfri says:

    Wow. I come to blogs like these to (hopefully) read something like, “Here’s the deal with [skeptical or paranormal subject]. ” Then the comments are something along the lines of “I agree with [subject]“. Or “I disagree with [subject] because of [x, y, and z].” But this post and especially the comments is just a mess and only seems to prove Dunning’s point. I’m embarrassed this is out there for irrational thinkers out there to point fingers at.

    Of course there will be dissent. But let’s focus on the message and not the messenger. If you have a real problem with Shermer, Dunning, Thompson, et al, then you need to take it up with them first. It’s just good form, not elite or authoritarian. This isn’t politics. Or at least it shouldn’t be. It’s all sailors on the SAME BOAT.

    • Alan says:

      Trying to deal directly with (in particular well known and busy) skeptics just isn’t practical, I’d argue. They don’t want to get into long email exchanges over whether or not their views or tactics are justified. If they did that to everyone who disagreed with them they wouldn’t have time for anything else!

      It may be imperfect, but “open letters” speaking to particular issues strikes me as the only possible practical solution.

      (Mind you, this does not include very specific issues that involve individuals concerning clearly private matters. So, for example, you wouldn’t want to go public with your fear that skeptic X may not pay back that twenty dollars he borrowed from you, but you would want to go public with criticisms of skeptic X’s >public< stance on, say, global warming).

  29. Alan says:

    I understand where you are coming from Brian, but I am afraid your essay is just too vague to be of much use. I’m sure that anyone here when presented with broad concepts such as “we should work together” or “be sure to be positive and fair toward other skeptics” will readily agree with such sentiments. The problem comes in the details — just what is going too far? Just what is not being sufficiently “fair and positive?”

    In practice, without giving exact examples or proposing particular guidelines (something you have vowed not to do) these sorts of platitudes are meaningless. In fact, they can potentially do much damage than good since people naturally tend to interrept events in ways that validate their own actions. So, for instance, they tend to see their arguments as “proper” and those of others they sufficiently dislike as “improper”. Thus, when a warning like this is sent out people are apt to think it is aimed at the “other guy” and may therefore become even more frustrated and angry when the “other guy” does not take the hint and “mend” their ways.

    Or, the flip side is that people will see your words as veiled threats aimed directly at them (such as Brian Thompsom mistakenly did) and — for the same reasons I give above — feel unjustly attacked. If they are feeling paranoid they might even see a posting like this laying the groundwork for fundamental changes to this blog meant to silence a certain range of views.

    It doesn’t matter that such feelings either way are wrong — you’ve sown the seeds of suspicion and doubt. If you aren’t willing to tackle specific issues and examples (which would doubtlessly lead to fiery debates) I’d argue it would have been better for you not to bring up the subject at all.

  30. I told myself that I wouldn’t get involved in this discussion, but I don’t know how much I can buy the argument that our opponents will see us as squabbling in-fighters, and that it can/will work against what we are trying to accomplish.

    I’m actually rather proud that we call-each other out with such verve. Obviously, ad-hominems (et. all) are out-of-scope and should be the object of scorn and wolves, but I ask you to consider: how do homeopaths or chiropractors deal with criticism, be it from within or from without? When they face criticism, they lock arms and march as one. Internal criticism in those circles is rare, and it’s a bit of a put-off to watch the love-ins that are alt-med conferences/expos.

    I’m small-fish in this community, but people have called me out when I dropped my skeptic ball, and I’m very glad they did…keeps me on my toes. I’ve called out other skeptic fish big-and-small when their skeptic-ball went too close to my yard, and I expect the same treatment. It doesn’t detract from my respect for them as skeptics or as skeptic activists, but rather I find it promising that we can largely not let conflicts-of-personality rule the dialogue, but rather conflicts-of-opinion/argument. If I was unfair in my call-outs (there’s hardly been any), then I expect a counter-argument, and the accompanying evidence…not a call to ‘back off’ (and I’m certainly not suggesting that ‘back off’ was the message of Dunning’s post here)

    This is why I’m a skeptic, and I’m proud that we can take such a beating.

  31. Brian’s song speaks not to the *merits* of criticism directed by one skeptic upon another, but to the manner in which it is delivered. In effect, it sets the wants of skeptical personalities above evidence of their potential inaccuracies or other criticism-worthy errors. While assertions are out front and public, criticism is to be kept underground. This is a problem.

  32. It’s a “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” kind of a thing, in my view.

    Brian is completely correct to say that public squabbles and dirty laundry make skepticism look terrible. In-fighting is poison for a movement like ours — a movement built on optimism.

    But the opposite is also true: it is deeply, profoundly damaging when skeptical leaders present themselves as defenders of science and unbiased thinking, and then embrace pseudoscience or fringe ideology. This happens more frequently than I am comfortable seeing, and it is liable to get worse as “skepticism 2.0″ shortens the turnaround time from first discovering the skeptics lit to speaking as a skeptical leader.

    So I regard this as an open question. How do we deal with quality control and internal criticism in skepticism? The avenue Dunning suggests — the private word between peers — is often best. And yet, it is also a close-the-barn-door-after-the-horse-has-escaped strategy. If a skeptical leader makes a wrong-headed public pronouncement and no one objects publicly, that statement stands in the public record. Worse, the silence of other skeptics is itself a visible public statement.

    I’m afraid I have no good answer to suggest. Damned if we do, damned if we don’t. The best I can suggest (and frequently do suggest) is social trend toward cultural norms that discourage skeptics from going beyond their expertise, opining outside of the verifiable facts, or discussing non-skeptical topics while wearing their skeptics hats.

    • Just so, and we run the risk of allowing within skepticism the development of an unwritten governing structure wherein skeptical personalities begin to take precedence over skeptical principles, to wit:

      “Skeptic _________ really blew it with his response to that article in Nature. I feel I have to respond in my blog.”

      “No, you can’t do that! He’s famous, a ‘name’ skeptic! Better to call him up and discuss it…” Better for whom?

      I think the prospect of getting immediately taken to the woodshed when one errs will only help to make sure one is careful about publishing or posting. Appearances and courtesies be damned. This may become a bit messy, but Mr. Lofton is correct in his last sentence to warn against what are essentially appeals to authority: “I’m a famous skeptic -books, website, and everything! -so heed my words on whatever I choose to speak.”

      Skepticism must always remain 100% transparent no matter how messy that get. Would/should we tolerate covert criticism in science? Secondarily, the tendencies towards conspiracy and mild paranoia exhibited by many of the leaners and woosters we’d hope to educate demands total openness.

      • If there was nothing else to skepticism beyond academic research (digging into the history and folklore of paranormal beliefs, say) I’d agree: appearances be damned.

        But skepticism is more: it is also an awareness campaign, an advocacy effort, an outreach project. To that end, donations are made; independent podcasting and blogging hours are spent; money is expended. In that effort, the public face does indeed matter — as much as (or even, in some ways, more than) the message. Communication only occurs when people can be persuaded to listen.

        From an outreach perspective, the two problems are really one. It harms the outreach effort when skeptical leaders say things that distract from, undermine or contradict the core messages of skepticism; and, it also harms the the outreach effort when skeptics are seen to be bogged down in bickering. No one wants to support a science advocacy movement that supports pseudoscientific or fringe stuff. Neither does anyone wish to support a movement that is divided and ineffective.

      • Who do you propose should decide what is and isn’t distracting? How would you control intra-skeptical bickering? How would you consolidate the skeptical movement? [rhetorical alert].

        The day the ‘skeptical movement’ elects officers and governing boards and writes up approved and disapproved agenda is the day I abandon the movement. Skepticism, like freedom or other grand philosophies, belongs to no one, but to everyone.

      • But isn’t calling it a “movement” or even “a grand philosophy” already moving too much toward consolidation and orthodoxy? Is being a skeptic simply to adhere to a particular dogma, “scientism” as a positive metaphysical doctrine?

        Why should inquiry stop there? Why cannot we question our own and one another’s even more basic assumptions . . . and motives?

      • The day the ’skeptical movement’ elects officers and governing boards and writes up approved and disapproved agenda is the day I abandon the movement.

        In a trivial sense, that happened 35 years ago with the founding of skeptical organizations. Much of the actual work in skepticism since that time has been done under a handful of boards, with officers and so on.

        In a more substantial sense, you needn’t worry. The new face of digital-era skepticism is far beyond anyone’s hope of consolidation or control. It’s distributed, fluid, organic. I’ve used an analogy that coincidentally dovetails with Brian’s canoe: skepticism and its many rationalist and secular cousin movements are like a huge, chaotic flotilla. Big ships, little dinghies, some sinking or rowing in circles — but most, on average, rowing in the same direction.

        There are too many captains for anyone to try to impose unified “fleet” decisions. But this does not keep us working out customary rules of the sea that most crews can follow most of the time.

        We already have some, like, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” and “the burden of proof is on the asserter.” I’d add other such customs, like “ad hominems are as ugly and off-putting coming from skeptics as from anyone else,” and “the confidence of our opinions should decrease as we get further from our area of domain expertise.”

      • Robert Kirkman says:

        But isn’t calling it a “movement” or even “a grand philosophy” already moving too much toward consolidation and orthodoxy? Is being a skeptic simply to adhere to a particular dogma, “scientism” as a positive metaphysical doctrine?

        The skeptical community is loose and heterogeneous bunch. Some do indeed reject the idea of a skeptical movement; others do worry about establishing a skeptical dogma. For some, skepticism is a purely academic endeavor. For others, it’s a social club.

        And then there is a large subset of activity within the skeptical sphere that can only be described as an activist movement. People self-identify as part of such a “skeptical movement,” and work toward practical goals (promoting science literacy, pursuing consumer protection in paranormal and fringe science arenas). There are formal organizations that have a mandate for those goals, and many independent efforts to further those goals on a volunteer basis.

        I don’t expect everyone to approach skepticism in that way, but it happens that I do. The activism project of skepticism — promoting science literacy and discouraging fraud — is what gets me up in the morning.

      • Max says:

        The activist skeptics can worry about their public image, the social skeptics can worry about their friends’ feelings, and the academic skeptics can worry about the truth. Does that sound fair?

      • Max says:

        The activist skeptics can worry about their public image, the social skeptics can worry about their friends’ feelings, and the academic skeptics can worry about the truth. Does that sound fair?

        Funny, but no, not quite fair. It implies that activist skeptics don’t care about the truth. In reality, the best activist skeptics from Houdini on have also been academics in this sense — truth-motivated investigators with domain expertise in the study of paranormal claims and frauds.

      • Max, instead of “activist” skeptics, I think you mean “selective” skeptics. Maybe even pseudoskeptics. (That’s the tag I use on my blog whenever I write about Shermer. Or Dunning, now, for that matter.)

      • That is funny, Max, but I agree that it’s not really fair – nor particularly accurate. (This coming from an academic philosopher with a deeply skeptical turn of mind.)

        My take, briefly. The key to being a skeptic is always to ask the next question: Why do you believe that? On what do you base that assumption? In principle, no question should be off-limits, for the sake of continuing the inquiry (as Sextus might put it).

        I get the impression that many of the mainstream, public skeptics have narrower goal: to spread the word that scientific inquiry is really very powerful and that, by comparison, much of what people believe about the natural world is based in misunderstanding and shoddy reasoning.

        That seems like a good goal, but the “academic” skeptic wants to ask further questions: Why is that a good goal? Is this the best way to reach it? Are the natural sciences really the only game in town? How do the sciences work? Etc.

        Maybe I’m just a professional boat-rocker . . .

  33. SicPreFix says:

    I would think a public display of internally foccussed criticism is essential to the so-called skepticism “movement” (I’m sorry, but I find the term “movement” to be a little bit bombastic).

    A public display of criticism shows, perhaps as well as anything we do, the willingness within the community to not fall into dogmatic traps; to not blindly follow leaders with the loving support of a credulous sycophant; to be willing to not only point out errors in logic, but to adhere to facts above and beyond taking the lazy road of ideological convenience; and to not accept simple belief over thoughtful debate.

    The challenge is to maintain courtesy, accuracy, and at least some degree of politeness in the criticism. Informed criticism does not need to be hostile, belittling, or dismissive.

    I understand that appeals to/for courtesy, accuracy, and at least some degree of politeness are flamed as being some dreadful thing called “concern trolls” over at Pharyngula. Nonetheless, perhaps here, and elsewhere, a more sophisticated, adult form of politesse can be followed than is enjoyed there.

    Conflict, disagreement, debate are all critically essential in such “movements” as skepticism. They are primary tools for avoiding dogmatism, et al. Hiding criticism behind the false cloak of “nobody’s business,” is a risky road to ride.

  34. Beelzebud says:

    It’s funny how you try to pretend there is a balance between Shermer’s totally biased posts here in regards to libertarian economics, and another person’s Democratic views. You might have a point if the Democratic blogger (who no one can seem to figure out who it is) posted totally unscientific opinions about politics, and tried to pass them off as common wisdom.

    The closest thing I can think of is a post about a month ago about the right-wing “birther” movement, and even in that thread there were a few of the right wing/libertarians that seemed to think that it was a legitimate concern as to whether or not Obama was actually a citizen.

    Don’t try to act like “both sides do it”, when there is only one person making unscientific, politically motivated posts here…

  35. AUJT says:

    I’m gonna get back to paddling now.

  36. I’m new to this blog, but I’m a longtime skeptic (of a particular philosophical sort). I have to say I’m troubled by the entire tenor of this post and the subsequent comments.

    It’s the metaphors that get me: we are in a boat, all paddling toward (or away from) some distant goal. What is the goal? Are will really all in the same boat? Is it really some sort of competition, “us” against “them”? Have we fallen back into a kind of skeptical tribalism, after all?

    And if one of the elders of our tribes says something with which we disagree, shall we tiptoe around, careful not to let anyone know we disagree except in discrete private whispers?

    I’m sorry, the roots of my skepticism lie precisely in a refusal to kowtow to any intellectual authority. I have even dared to disagree (in my own modest little blog) with the Almighty Dawkins on one or two points.

    Either we are engaged in open, critical inquiry or we are not.

    If one of the dear leaders of the skeptical “movement” says something daft, I for one would feel free to point that out. If I am mistaken in my reply, or if I slip into some sort of ad-hominem mockery, I should of course be called out for that – directly and in public.

    Come on. Let’s show ‘em how inquiry is supposed to be done. Let’s show ‘em we can take it.

  37. antiskeptic says:

    “I did make that point specifically. We are all very open to criticism. There is a constructive way to present it, and a destructive way to present it.”

    You bet. A constructive way to criticize proponents of the paranormal would be to talk to them personally with your reasoned input. A destructive way to criticize proponents of the paranormal would be to call them cranks, idiots, and morons on a blog. Then again, they are paranormal proponents, so I guess that they don’t count…

  38. Jim Lippard says:

    I’ve long been a strong advocate for skeptics to be self-critical of skeptics and skeptical organizations when they go wrong, and there are numerous examples of different ways that has occurred. Skeptics are human, after all, and subject to the same kinds of cognitive and social biases as everyone else is. We try to be aware of them and correct for them, but don’t always succeed. And we also don’t uniformly hold the same values, preferences, and interests, so we have opinions and viewpoints that disagree.

    I think it’s fairly difficult to draw a bright line distinction between what should first be handled privately vs. what should be pointed out in an informal publication like a blog. If somebody just made an honest screwup in a public talk, publication, or blog post, it’s not inherently insulting to point it out in a blog post, any more than it is to do so in a letter to the editor. And if the honest screwup really isn’t a screwup at all, then a reply that points that out is equally appropriate, and provides an incentive for those making such criticisms to make sure they have their facts straight.

  39. Fiona Dobson says:

    I’m paddling with you mate. Exercise brains and biceps!