The Ideology of Skepticism
Like those matching lab coats? They were a Christmas present. Tom is only eight months, but even when he was one month and barely able to smile, this was a Christmas present I was itching to get. I may have to wait a while before we can mess up the kitchen with anything but unfathomably horrid blowout damage, but I can’t wait until I get to show him how things work. Because more than anything I want for Tom, I want him to be able to understand how science arrives at its conclusions. I can’t wait for him to ask me about some thing and to reply: “That sounds like an experiment! Get your lab coat!” Then we can do matching superhero poses with arms akimbo and the cute will take out a city block.
Or maybe he’ll hate the lab coat, and I’ll have to explain things to him by acting them out with his Pretty Ponies. We’ll see.
It’s been a while since I’ve written here. Of course I have all the usual parent excuses. I had no conceptual grasp what an infant was going to do to my free time when I applied to write for Grounded Parents and committed to the update schedule. I’ve had a few other circumstances too, from teaching summer school to trying to keep up with my own blog.
Mostly, though, I’ve been doing some soul searching. I’ve been deciding if blogging for a skeptical blog was really for me.
I’ve been a skeptic most of my adult life. There are some years of being a Muslim convert back there, but I left Islam in my early twenties, and I’ve been a true blue skeptic ever since. I’m always the guy pointing out that my crazy uncle’s macro has been debunked on Snopes or telling people that their belief isn’t something I find on par with evidence. I would check a fact that sounded weird even if it was anti-war or pro-birth control. I’ve lost friends all over the political spectrum because I treated Christianity and Reiki with the same Spock eyebrow.
However, writing for Grounded Parents has been my first encounter with the skeptical community. And as nebulous and plastic as that term is, there is a culture and mores and taboos, just like in any community. What I didn’t know—and what shocked me, like finding the Minotaur in a Disneyland hedge maze—is how much of the skeptical community isn’t really about skepticism. It’s about being on the “right side” of a constellation of issues that are deemed “important to skeptics.”
Take a few examples of exchanges I have actually witnessed :
Tim: This particular data looks flawed. We should use good data so it’s actually convincing to the people who do not already agree with us.
Tam: When you question our data, it does the whole cause a disservice. “They” will use our divisiveness against us.
Frick: I agree with the issue, but that person is using a lot of fallacies in their arguments. Fallacious arguments are not good arguments. So they are actually hurting the cause they mean to help.
Frack: That person is doing important work. Your criticism is unwelcome.
Oingo: One expert agreed with you, but the other with far more experience did not.
Boingo: The one that agreed with me was right.
Aha fan: You’re using bad data to support your position.
Abba fan: Well what about “them.” They use bad data all the time.
Cal: I’m completely in agreement with you overall. But this one part seems based on flawed reasoning.
Dan: You are obviously with “them.”
If these sorts of “they-do-it-[more]-than-us”/ends-justify-the-means/united-front positions sound like something you might expect to hear in response to a Jew questioning Israel’s actions or a Muslim questioning Palestine’s, you’re right. These are not dialogues interested in truth, they are ideological. And while I’d like to say that they’re exaggerations or hyperbole, I’ve seen versions of them almost verbatim unfold over parental issues like vaccines, home birth, education, and also in larger issues ranging from anthropogenic climate change to evolution. All I’ve done is some minor surgery to remove the exact issues to which (or people to whom) they refer, but some of you may even recognize a few. On blogs and in comment threads that are part of the skeptical community, variants of these conversations are happening almost daily.
It’s not that there aren’t skeptically-appropriate responses to each of these scenarios—whether they’re being brought up by groups of confused experts or scientists in good faith, they’re being advanced by people who don’t understand the science or can’t follow the math, or they’re just being posited by trolls attempting to derail. There are ways to answer that make it clear that truth is still the primary goal. But these particular replies expose a, “With us or against us!” mentality that has nothing to do with truth. When it comes to questioning religions or alternative medicine, skeptics are all about the power of skepticism, but an awful lot of skeptics turn out to be pretty fragile when skepticism shows up in their own backyard.
Skeptics are, of course, humans—flawed humans with tender egos who don’t like being challenged about their deeply held convictions (even peripherally)—but if the skepticism is going to matter more than an ideological cause, skeptics have to be willing to be challenged. They should welcome a crucible to their claims and be grateful if they’ve been called out on using flawed data. They should eschew bad arguments, not point fingers and whine that the other side did it first. They should be willing to entertain differences of opinions on issues of high complexity, especially when experts have differing opinions. They should be willing to accept their ability to err and their human frailty to ignore logic when their blood is up.
Instead, time and again, I’ve seen the opposite. I’ve seen comment threads by people who agree with each other on 99% of an issue breaking down because a single study involves comparing groups with too many x-factors. I’ve seen people conflate doubt with supporting the other side. And I’ve seen skepticism (in its truest sense) met with scathing repudiation and censure. For many in our communities a “skeptic” is more of an ideologue (perhaps even a fanatic would be the more appropriate term) who just happens to be operating on the “correct” side of a skeptical issue.
Further, as long as these folks are basically crusading for the “right” side, the more moderate skeptics don’t really call them out for their bad data or poor arguments. So, like many communities, their passion quickly takes control of the discourse. And skepticism within these communities becomes more about what side you’re on regarding a handful of issues than a ceaseless, high-integrity, yet fallible quest for truth.
When the issue is more important than the truth, the truth is seen as an enemy. Skeptics should be better than that. But a surprising number aren’t. And skeptics who are better than that should be chasing off those who aren’t–agree or no. But almost none do.
It was a little shocking and a lot disappointing. It was hard for me not to feel like I’d left behind ideologues, poor reasoning, fanaticism, and credulity, wandered alone, and found my people at last, only to find that “my people” were as guilty of the same when it came to their pet issues. I needed some time to decide whether I wanted to wish the wonderful writers I’m blogging with here at Grounded Parents the very best in all their endeavors or wade in even further. Even though I’m only telling my personal experiences raising a child who isn’t mine, I know my skepticism is bound to come up.
After a lot of thinking, I decided to let my heroes guide me. Writers like Rebecca have run into misogyny tainting the skeptic community, but have not let it chase them away. If I let the ideology of skepticism drive me off, I lose any opportunity to try to change it or contribute to its evolution.
I hope Tom has a truly skeptical community by the time he’s old enough to appreciate it. But one way or another, if I convey nothing else of the world to him—not one other thing—I want him to know how absurd this (actual) conversation is:
Flip: I agree with you overall, but I’m skeptical about this data.
Flop: Well, that makes you a bad skeptic.