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Concern Trolls and Free Speech Nazis

by Steven Novella, Jun 28 2010

One of the things that I love about the skeptical community is that it is a vibrant intellectual community that is not afraid to turn its critical eye inward. There is also sufficient diversity of background and perspective, superimposed upon a generally skeptical outlook, to provide some genuine conflict. While you won’t find many bigfoot believers in our ranks, we do run the spectrum from liberal to libertarian, militant atheist to Christian, scientist to artist, and politically correct to Penn Jillette.

The wringing of hands may at times seem tedious – but it’s all good. As long as we remember that at the end of the day we are all skeptics, a cultural minority looking to change the world.

Occasionally our diversity of approach does erupt into outright conflict, with the preferred medium usually being blogs. This happened recently in response to the appearance of Pamela Gay, an astronomer and co-host of the Astronomy Cast podcast with Fraser Cain, on my own podcast, the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. Pamela is a Christian, and on the SGU we have a tendency to be less than respectful of unscientific beliefs, including religious beliefs that wander into the arena of science.

This post is not going to be about the epistemological conflict over the limits of empiricism  – whether or not science can address issue of pure faith, and how faith is distinct from “religion” – the latter being a cultural construct that involves many things, including using faith to invade science. If you are interested in that discussion, you can read here.

Rather, I am going to talk about the conflict between courtesy and free speech (which does often involve the religion issue as well). The start of this latest exchange was the blog response of Seth to an exchange we had on a recent episode of the SGU where Pamela was a guest. First, as an aside, Seth starts with the following premise:

This is an area of some controversy in the skeptical movement. Many skeptics believe that religion and personal belief are separate from skepticism, and that by conflating skepticism with atheism people with my viewpoint are hurting skepticism.

He then attributes this attitude to the SGU and many others. I would just say, this is not quite right, and you can read my earlier post for more detail. First, he conflates religion and faith (that is very problematic), and also he conflates science and skepticism – also a bit sloppy. I think that science and methodological naturalism are distinct and separate from faith. But skepticism includes not just empirical science, but also logic and philosophy, and you can take a philosophical approach to faith-based beliefs. You just cannot say that science proves faith is wrong.

Seth also makes another false assumption – that the distinction being made is largely tactical – it is about not “hurting skepticism.” While this is a legitimate concern, it is distinct from the epistemological issues.

But on to the meat of this post – Seth was concerned about the following exchange on the SGU, about which he writes:

So imagine my surprise when I was listening to The Skeptics Guide to the Universe episode 255 on my iPod today and heard the following exchange: (around 21:50)

Fraser Cain: That’s where the soul is. (General Laughter)
Steven Novella: Yeah, right!
Fraser Cain: So you remove all that, and the bacteria has no soul.
Steven Novella: A souless bacteria.

Bear in mind, Pamela Gay is on the phone at this moment. She is in the room. And her cohost from Astronomy Cast and the Host of the show she is a guest on are mocking the idea of the soul.

First, it must be noted that we and Pamela are friends. Pamela never voiced any concern over this exchange, and in a private e-mail to me following Seth’s post she expressed that while anti-religious talk may make her feel uncomfortable, we have never crossed the line with her and she likes coming on the SGU. Essentially – yeah, she is religious, but she is cool with it.

Seth’s post was followed by a thoughtful post from PZ Myers at Pharyngula. PZ makes some good points. I think he hits the nail most on the head with this statement:

The skeptic movement will be inclusive and allow anyone to participate, and participation means your ideas will be scrutinized and criticized and sometimes mocked and sometimes praised.

This is how I feel – our own beliefs are all fair game, whether religious, political, or social. We should not demand any litmus test for skeptical purity – that is not practical, reasonable, or healthy for any movement, let alone a minority movement like skepticism. Anyone who wants to participate should be welcome, in my opinion – even pseudoskeptics who don’t get it (but that doesn’t mean they get to speak at our meetings). However – everyone also has to recognize that your own beliefs are fair game for the criticism that is at the core of skeptical philosophy. That means that global warming dissidents, feminists, alternative medicine proponents, deists, free market zealots, anti-government conspiracy theorists, and communists all get to have their beliefs challenged, and have no reasonable expectations that their beliefs or their feelings will be spared.

Where I find the conflict within the skeptical movement to be most persistent and unresolvable is in the personal choices that people make with respect to balances between the dictates of free speech and intellectual integrity (a consistent application of skepticism with no sacred cows) and the desire for courtesy, creating a friendly and collegiate environment, and presenting skepticism in a positive light. Here we run the spectrum – at one end there are “concern trolls” who seem to advocate for an extreme of political correctness, and go out of their way to find offense. At the other end are “free speech nazis” (these are not my terms, BTW) who seem to go out of their way to be offensive, as if they are daring someone to ask for a modicum of courtesy so that they can cry “censorship” and get self-righteous about their freedom of speech.

While we have all likely encountered these extremes, most of us appear to be somewhere in the middle. It is also not easy to balance these concerns, as they are often at cross-purposes – so there is no perfect solution, you have to make a trade off and that will be driven for each individual by which concern resonates with them the most.

That is why I am not advocating for any particular balance. I don’t pretend to have the one true balance or compromise. I am advocating for tolerance and open discussion, and also just recognition that there are legitimate concerns on both sides and perhaps we can discuss it with each other without puffing our chests quite so much.

There are those, for example, who champion blasphemy as a form of social protest. PZ, Penn and Teller, Christopher Hitchens and others argue that nothing should be sacred. While individuals have the right to treat anything they want as sacred, they do not have the right to request that anyone else does so (a principle with which I agree). Some choose to make this point by going out of their way to blaspheme what others consider sacred – especially when they are being requested to respect the sacred. They have a right to this form of protest and free speech and I think it is important.

But also, not everyone should be expected to engage in this form of free speech. This has a lot to do with personality and style. It also has to do with (as PZ acknowledges) division of labor and specialization within the skeptical movement. I would add that context is also important – some venues and topics require more professionalism and courtesy than others. I would not go to a medical conference and decide that I needed to offend everyone’s religion just to make a point.

The SGU is one particular context. On our podcast we are open about our opinions. We champion the use of skepticism and reason in all areas. We feel free to use satire, sarcasm, and even occasional mockery to put absurd beliefs into perspective. But we also choose not to gratuitously attack individuals – we focus mainly on beliefs. We reserve our personal attacks not for the average believer, but for the promoters – those who are engaging in the public conversation and have made themselves fair game. They have no expectation of courtesy, and there the demands of public debate and exchange of ideas outweigh those of courtesy. With an individual “rank-and-file” believer, the balance is different.


I don’t expect this discussion to ever end – perhaps it shouldn’t. The complex balance of multiple social, ethical, and intellectual principles requires constant thought, discussion, and introspection. So let’s keep the conversation going. But I also advocate recognition that no one has the final “correct” answer – when value judgments and trade-offs are involved, there is no such thing.

43 Responses to “Concern Trolls and Free Speech Nazis”

  1. Max says:

    Of course, Skepticblog has a Comment Policy, and censors offensive politically incorrect posts.

  2. Somite says:

    Right on. #thatisall

  3. Max – true, but our threshold is very high. We do not moderate every comment. We do not censor ideas. We do reserve the right to remove posts that are not just offensive, but are essentially just gratuitous content-free insults, hate speech, or libelous statements.

    If you don’t count one obnoxious and likely mentally-ill poster who wants to kill all atheists, we have had to remove very few posts – single digits in the last couple years. That’s pretty liberal.

  4. tmac57 says:

    I’m trying to think of an instance in a social situation,where somebody was concerned about offending a non-religious person. I suppose that it happens, but it must be relatively rare.(I’m not talking about situations where the Establishment Clause would apply).

    • Drew says:

      Some believers oppose non-believers and some don’t care, but none of them actually want non-belief to be more respected; the non-believers are the ones that want something and so they’re the ones that have to be polite. It’s unfair, just like every other power imbalance.

  5. itzac says:

    Phil Plait’s commenting policy on Bad Astronomy is probably one of the simplest and most productive: Don’t be a jerk. And it’s something you can take into just about any conversation.

  6. Brian M says:

    Hm, I should probably subscribe to SGU. I have been holding off, but I think now is the time. :)

    In any case, we need both sides. Oddly, I think south park put it best in their 100th episode where they had pro-war and anti-war protestors. Ultimately they came to the conclusion that they need the jerks who want to go to war with everyone and everything (see, PZ), and those who want to protest against it. Without the “jerks”, you appear weak, and are unable to defend yourself (perhaps this has been the problem with atheism and skepticism in the past). But without the protestors, you just look like a bunch of jerks who hate everything. So, we need both. I think that works with the skeptical community as well.

  7. Lukas says:

    I must be missing something, but how do feminists fit into the list above? Do feminists believe in some kind of weird thing like global warming or alternative medicine that I do not know about? Feminists want greater rights for women; I don’t think they consistently “believe” anything specific (except perhaps that women have historically had fewer rights than men, which – at least to me – seems like a fact, rather than some kind of faith). Not sure how feminism is in conflict (or in agreement) with skepticism. It seems entirely orthogonal.

    What am I missing?

    • LovleAnjel says:

      There are some pretty nutty facets of feminism, and there are extreme Marxist, post-modernist feminists. It’s like every other movement out there, with a moderate majority and minority extremists.

      • Andreas says:

        The majority is extreme the minority is moderate. If you actually read what they say and write its pretty obvious.

      • I still find it funny that post-modernism is the bugaboo of skeptics. I’m not a great fan of post-modernism myself, but at it’s best (in the work of Derrida, much misunderstood by his most vocal acolytes) it strikes me as a kind of hyper-skepticism.

        As far as I understand it, post-modernist feminism is mostly just a critique of the cultural construction of gender roles. There was this pseudo-scientific theory (from Freud, by way of Lacan) that cultural gender roles are rigidly self-perpetuating. As some of my grad-school colleagues put it, the theory is that little boys are raised to be a****les and little girls are raised to be doormats, and there is no escape.

        Post-modernist feminism starts with a rejection of that particular bit of pernicious pseudo-science in favor of a much more open field for self-interpretation. What goes on in that field may make more conventional Boys and Girls feel uncomfortable, but that may be their own problem . . .

      • Dustin L says:

        I consider myself both a skeptic and a postmodern feminist, and Robert pretty much has it right. I love Richard Dawkins and Judith Butler, and I’ve yet to find a substantial conflict between them.

  8. James Walker says:

    This is one of the clearest, concise and insightful comments on this subject that I’ve yet to read and I find it very reasonable and thoughtful.

    I’m pretty new to the skeptical movement, but this subject of how we are perceived and how best to present ourselves has been of great interest to me since I first started writing about skeptical issues on my Free Thinking for Dummies blog.

    I’ve experimented with both approaches, blasphemous and accommodating of religious views (well, somewhat accommodating. I’m pretty much in the Richard Dawkins camp rather than PZ’s camp). I’m still trying ti find a balance and I’m starting to opt for a respectful (as in polite), but no holds barred attitude toward religion.

    Thank you so much for writing this. I have found it to be really helpful in honing in on my “style”.

  9. regarding feminism – I was actually not making any judgments about any of the things in that list – rather, these are topics I have heard discussed among skeptics. There is a fairly broad range of positions under the banner “feminism” and some definitely are the target of skeptical criticism. Just read the SGU forums.

    Similarly – global warming “dissidents” fall under a spectrum from some legitimate skepticism to outright denial.

    The point is – no matter what your beliefs, if they are even the slightest bit controversial, expect vigorous debate and even criticism within the skeptical movement.

    • Majority of One says:

      I, too, had a reaction to the use of feminism on your list. How extreme can a feminist get? I EXTREMELY WANT EQUALITY NOW DAMNNIT! I don’t get it.

      Anyway, other than that, great topic. I wish I could be more like Christopher Hitchens…no one messes with his badass self. I fear I’m far too polite and just can’t seem to help myself. As I grow older I’m getting more likely to stick up for myself when confronted with the endless religious prattling which goes on in my neck of the woods (Dallas, Texas). I’ll keep studying Hitchens and will subscribe to SGU!

      • Max says:

        For example, they present fictional female characters as real people.
        If you google “Si Ling-Chi” you’ll get a bunch of websites on women in science.

        And here’s the skeptical view.

        Si Ling-Chi, Empress of China, observes silkworms in her garden and develops a process to cultivate them and make silk.
        That is fantasy. Virtually nothing is known about the origins of sericulture (silkworm husbandry) or of techniques for producing silk, and Si Ling-Chi is a figure from myth, not from history. She appears in old Chinese tales as a wife of the legendary Yellow Emperor…

      • John Greg says:

        Makority of One asks:

        “How extreme can a feminist get?”

        Pretty extreme. In Toronto at one time there was a dedicated feminst group whose goal was to completely seperate men from women, allow no physical contact, even for the purposes of procreation, and to create and define a wholly new society based of their view of matriarchal feminism.

        They did not at all believe in equality or egalitariansm.

        They defined and described themselves as the only true feminists in the country.

        There is a very broad range of degree of ideology in the feminist movement as there in any socio-political movement.

    • JoeB says:

      I think using a qualifier on feminist like you did for free-market “zealots” would have made the point much less prone to being misunderstood.

  10. That is why I am not advocating for any particular balance. I don’t pretend to have the one true balance or compromise. I am advocating for tolerance…and perhaps we can discuss it with each other without puffing our chests quite so much.

    If I may suggest, isn’t advocating for tolerance over bluster advocating for a “particular balance”?

    • Daniel – the former is how we deal with each other, the latter relates to how we deal with the public. Different context.

      I am advocating that we be tolerant of each other’s different approaches to the public, since no one has the final answer. As the psychological literature progresses, however, we may have better informed opinions.

  11. Steelsheen11B says:

    I’m curious what constitutes a free market “zealot”? I think I may be one.

    • FDUK says:

      I guess its someone who still believes that the free market is the best way to organise a society, despite the banking crisis and global warming clearly demonstrating that it isn’t.

  12. Jim says:

    I do find it somewhat amusing that, after Steve explicitly stated that no particular sacred cow should be spared skepticism’s critical eye, several people thought it necessary to ask why he didn’t exclude feminism from that list. Feminism may be as legitimate an ideology as any other, but its proponents certainly aren’t spared from the same cognitive shortcomings that plague the rest of the human race. As a quick example (and I’m sure there may be others), some fringes of the movement still use the term “herstory” as an alternative to “history,” based on a grave misunderstanding of etymology. Although in fairness, I’m not sure if the term was originally coined because some feminists thought “history” actually included the male possessive pronoun as part of the word, or because they simply wanted to make a political statement. In either case, I think it’s a pretty clear example of putting ideology ahead of reason, and skepticism certainly does have something to say about that.

    As long as I’m bashing the unskeptical aspects of feminism, I do feel obliged to point out that there are some really cool feminists who are also skeptics. For example, and the people affiliated with it have done a really good job of increasing the visibility of women in the skeptical movement.

    Oh and my sacred cow is libertarianism and free markets. Just thought I’d throw that out there.

    • Max says:

      Libertarianism is often a gateway into denying human-induced climate change, hazards of pollutants like environmental tobacco smoke, benefits of public health measures, etc.

      • Jim says:

        Probably true. I think there may even be data out there showing that an inordinate percentage of climate change deniers are libertarians. My only point would be that there’s nothing wrong with holding a particular philosophical viewpoint as long as it doesn’t force you to take a position about matters of fact that cannot be supported by the evidence. Unfortunately too many of my fellow libertarians see the idea of anthropogenic global warming as a threat to their belief system and go out of their way to deny the scientific consensus.

      • tmac57 says:

        “…as it doesn’t force you to take a position about matters of fact that cannot be supported by the evidence. ” Yeah, I would hope that anyone truly using their critical thinking skills might get a little uncomfortable if they felt like their political position was “forcing” them into taking a position. Sometimes the facts do box you into an uncomfortable realization, but thats the time to use your head, and take a second look at what you believe.

    • Lukas says:

      To be perfectly clear, I’m not saying that feminism should be excluded from criticism. What I am saying is that I don’t see how feminism fits into a list that seems to consist of groups who deny some parts of reality as part of their core belief (and even though I like libertarianism and consider myself to be a part-time libertarian, I include libertarianism in that group because one of its core beliefs is that apart from very few things like the army, more government is always a bad thing).

      Some people have mentioned that there are feminists who fit that “denying reality” description, but that seems like a poor explanation, since it applies to *any* group, and thus does not seem to be a good reason for including feminism in the list.

    • gwen says:

      “Although in fairness, I’m not sure if the term was originally coined because some feminists thought “history” actually included the male possessive pronoun as part of the word, or because they simply wanted to make a political statement.”

      In the 70s it was a political statement. If I opened my mouth in the 70s, to show I had a working brain, the response would likely be “you’re so cute when you try to think!” I don’t think I had a job in the 70s that did not come with an attempted sexual ‘qid pro quo’ that would be illegal today. I was the victim of a sexual assault by a coworker (a doctor) in the cafeteria, at lunch time, and no one took it seriously. There was the opinion that other than a few rare instances, women had contributed nothing meaningful to history. Thus ‘HERstory’. Times have changed, and as a self-proclaimed feminist, the feminism movement needs to change too.

  13. billgeorge says:

    Perhaps for some civility and dignity, personal attacks should be limited to those who prey on the vulnerable – e.g., most psychics and some religious zealots.
    (Scamming funds or promoting hate/violence, thus creating victims.) Otherwise, your voice gains more traction when you focus only on the dubious claim or evidence being presented.

  14. MadScientist says:

    It never fails to amuse me how any religious group would laugh at and criticize the superstitions of all other groups but dare not laugh at or criticize their own superstitions. However, I would rather they laugh at all other religions than accept all other religions as not only equally valid but somehow true.

  15. Cambias says:

    It’s simple: we’re skeptical about everything except the things we ourselves believe — which are UNQUESTIONABLY TRUE!

  16. Seth Manapio says:

    You missed my point rather badly, Steven, and you don’t actually seem to have any idea what I’m saying. I don’t know what possible grounds you could have for saying things like “he conflates science with skepticism”, but I do know that this is far enough from the case that I’m unsure whether you actually read the blog entry.

    This is not, in any way, a free speech issue. No one has suggested that you should be prevented from doing anything. Let me put this in a nutshell:

    I think that the hosts of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe are being less than completely honest when they say that they believe that a Christian can be a philosophical skeptic, and I think that this shows in their humor. If this is true, than they either need to be more explicit about the deep relationship between a position of skepticism and the lack of belief in any gods, or they need to watch their humor.

    That’s it. These weird ideas about who is “allowed” to participate in the skeptics movement and other things are completely unrelated to the point. PZ’s post may have been thoughtful, but it had no substantive relationship to the point that I was making and that Pamela responded to.

    • “Seth” and I differ on many things (and this week is no exception), but I buy his basic point here: skeptics should avoid expressing casual contempt toward matters of faith.

      Some skeptics take the view that organized skepticism should attempt serious critiques of religion; others (including me) take the view that science cannot resolve faith questions. These are positions on which reasonable people may disagree, I think, but any serious option seems to me preferable to mockery. (I hasten to add that I’m expressing a general sentiment. I don’t begin to judge this particular instance, as I don’t know Pamela, and haven’t heard the episode).

      • tmac57 says:

        Daniel, although I tend to side with you on the civility approach to matters of faith, I do realize that sometimes when a person reacts harshly to someone stepping on their ‘toe’, they might have a reason to react more aggressively.What may seem like a gratuitous, mocking comment, may have deeper roots than you or I may understand.

      • What may seem like a gratuitous, mocking comment, may have deeper roots than you or I may understand.

        Sure, and humor has its place, too. I’m just describing a general default principle.

    • Seth, in your blog you say: “My current position is that if skepticism is applied to religious claims, the result –as far as I know–is atheism.”

      I would suggest the result would be more akin to agnosticism.

      I would also suggest that one can be a self-identifying skeptic, embrace skeptical methodology and still be religious or have a mystical faith. And it doesn’t necessarily require cognitive dissonance and mind-wracking logical exceptions. Matters which are based on faith don’t ask for evidence or proof.

      People who believe religious works are literally true and can be proven – they have problems. But people with a more liberal idea of god(s) and souls probably have no problem believing in things like evolution as god’s way of putting the world together.

      Your post focused on the idea that Skepticism is a subset of Atheism and that is a false premise. Skepticism is a methodology for examining claims. Atheism is a conclusion. If you are talking about the social groups who self-identify with those monikers, then you’re still wrong. One isn’t a sub-set of the other. They’re two adjectives which are sometimes applicable to the same group of people – and sometimes not.

      People can arrive at Atheist without being skeptical or scientific. And people can definitely be skeptics without being atheists.

      But I think you’re also wrong about the SGU’s joking. The sort of “god of the gap” type logic that the SGU were joking about is indicative of the type of person who is looking for proof that their religion is true through science. Most religious skeptics I’ve met don’t expect their faith to be proven to be fact. It’s unprovable BECAUSE it is a matter of faith, not the reverse.

      But I don’t want to sound all negative about your post – I just think you happen to be wrong on these issues.

  17. Seth Manapio says:

    “We should not demand any litmus test for skeptical purity – that is not practical, reasonable, or healthy for any movement, let alone a minority movement like skepticism. ”

    And this is both a red herring and an expression of dogma. For a detailed and probably dull description of why I think so, read this.

  18. Richard says:

    While I see nothing wrong with respectful discussion and occasionally challenging people about their religious beliefs, I think that skeptics should avoid excessive and unnecessary expressions of religious unbelief and, especially, mockery. That is what atheist venues are for. I believe that skepticism should encourage people of all beliefs to become involved in promoting science and critical thinking. If we make people of faith feel unwelcome, we will always remain marginal, both in numbers and in influence. And by the way, Pamela Gay is one of my favorite people. I hope she comes back again to SGU.

  19. John Draeger says:

    Great post Dr. Novella, although perhaps one sentence needs clarification:

    “You just cannot say that science proves faith is wrong.”

    That’s not usually the case. It depends on the nature of the faith-based claim. If someone claims to believe by faith that the earth is 6000 years old, then science can easily provide evidence proving that claim is false. Sometimes science can’t yet prove a faith-based claim is false in the present, but it can theoretically in the future. Other faith-based claims can never be proven false by science or by any other means of knowing (Carl Sagan’s purple dinosaur, or a god with similar characteristics).

    A widely-accepted definition of faith is something like this: a firm belief in something for which there is no proof. It’s trust in the absence of proof. So faith is not specific to religions; it can be a political or economic ideology, or even brand loyalty. People believe things on faith because it’s easier than being skeptical. Faith-based beliefs are usually absorbed from parents and friends, and then due to cognitive dissonance and the preservation of ego they are not questioned adequately. It seems to me (as you already know) that criticism of all faith-based claims should be at the core of skepticism, preferably without attacking the individual if changing minds is really the goal (ad hominem is usually only appreciated by those on one’s own side of the argument).

    But I agree with you and others here that of all sorts of beliefs should be welcomed into the skeptical community (even people like Bill Maher who rub you the wrong way because of his ignorance of medical science) because everyone has at some point believed something that turns out not to be entirely objectively true (if anyone here thinks they haven’t, a review of self-deception and cognitive biases is needed). But in a free society all beliefs should be open to scrutiny and criticism, including religious beliefs. However, if one knows the sacred cow belief of another in a conversation, it’s probably best to address it tangentially if at all…if continuation of friendship is desired. If people don’t want to learn what’s objectively true, then no amount of evidence, logic, and good philosophical arguments is going to change their mind. But if they do care about objective truth, then given enough time they might just change their mind on their own if we teach the method, as you do. Not everyone has the emotional fortitude to admit being wrong about something they’ve believed for a long period of time or that has formed the basis of their social support network. Your statement that context should inform the approach is good – diplomacy is important when trying to sway beliefs.

    Anyway, wish I had more time to follow this blog and others…great discussions here. Steve, with all these 5 star posts you’re cranking out, your adroit writing at Neurologica and elsewhere, it seems to me you should have the basis of a book by now. People tend to buy books written by MDs you know.

  20. Tom Boocock says:

    Well said Steve :)