This is a ranty one [edit: that turns a bit mushy].
Before I start, a bit of a disclaimer. This is not a reaction to any one discussion, comment/post or person in particular. It is the culmination of many that have happened over an extended period of time. So don’t be offended if you feel like I’m talking directly at you – it’s not the case! (Basically, get over yerself, I talk to loads of people, innit).
So, what’s getting my goat today?
Again a little disclaimer. Criticism is often a good thing, I’ve written about this before; it’s central to medical science for starters. I don’t mind being criticised – sometimes we need things pointed out to us that we don’t want to hear or admit, haven’t realised and so on.
However, the caveat is that it should really be constructive. I’m happy for someone to point out how I’m doing something wrong, particularly if that leads to a way to improve it; either coming from them, or logical steps from taking said criticism on board.
If you just go around pointing out people’s flaws, mistakes and anything you don’t quite agree with for no reason other than being generally disagreeable, that’s just anti-social and mean-spirited.
There seem to be more and more attitudes developing that there’s a competition going on. The aim of which is to be the ‘best’ kind of skeptic.
The ‘most skeptical’? The most active of the activists? Most lovable and huggable or most aloof and untouchable? I don’t know. As far as I’m concerned, no such contest exists.
Partly because it is (obviously) ridiculous, also because, again as I’ve said before, there is no coherent skeptical movement; it’s just something people have chosen to identify as (or not!) because they utilise some common philosophies. And quite probably enjoy going to the pub.
What exactly is the use of standing up, pointing the finger, telling someone they’re not doing things right (whatever that means) while not offering ideas of how to do it better or at least backing up such an assertion with some decent reasons for your assessment?
Not doing so seems all too reminiscent of reading some right-wing publication, loudly pon
tificating about the sorry state of the country then not even bothering to drag yourself to a polling station.
Each to their own
Going back to the no-coherent-movement.
There is no skeptical application form, no church (despite some deliberations around echo-chamber/back-patting events, there isn’t), no rulebook or set of requirements. It’s the old herding cats thing, if you like.
Some people like the spotlight; these are the TV/radio presenters, ‘media tarts’ (affectionate rather than derogatory; post to come on that, eventually!) and so on. Others don’t, but want to get their message out – the spotlight-lovers can help with that e.g. in podcasts and talks.
For some, the most important thing about being a skeptic is the activism side. These include the people in positions of relative power (the famous names, journalists, authors, lawyers and politicians) and all the grass-roots activists doing their bit, whatever that may be – writing letters, blogging, spreading the word to whatever extent they wish or indeed have the time to do so.
This is not one’s cup of tea
For some there’s just being skeptical by nature and not necessarily feeling the need to do anything more than that. Talking to people with similar views is often reassuring, pleasant and enjoyable. I count so many wonderful ‘skeptics’ among my friends now, I could take or leave everything else, to be honest. The friendships are reason enough to attend events, the bonus being the odd brilliant/extremely interesting talk you just weren’t expecting.
There’s nothing wrong with this, in my view. Maybe you don’t want to go to the pub, maybe you don’t want to spend what little free time you have writing letters – perhaps you’re a bit cynical yet more on the hopeful-skeptical side. Not everyone has to be an activist. It’s not a requirement, you’re not going to be turned away from anything if that’s your position.
However, I do not get the criticism aimed at things like SitP because some people choose not to go – it seems very misdirected to me. Some people don’t fancy it; I don’t think it’s not welcoming – I went by myself the first time (thanks to one David Allen Green!) and have since come to love it. Others won’t find it so appealing. Is that the fault of SitP, or is that just because not everyone likes the same stuff?
Getting offended on behalf of others when you’ve no evidence those people even exist is hardly useful, methinks. If they do exist, I expect people will listen to what they have to say and if it’s valid criticism, it should be taken onboard somehow.
SitP is well-attended and well-liked, nationally and indeed internationally! If it’s something different you want, you are free to go and do it – SitP was built from the ground-up by people who cared enough to bother and so can any other phenomenon be; whether it’s Skeptic Mums in the Café, Skeptic Minorities in the Park, We Don’t Like the Term ‘Skeptics’, or whatever. SitP doesn’t turn people away (except for that very drunk top-hatted man in Camden with the foul language, not knowing where he was the other week…) but probably not everyone wants to go.
Dare I labour the already dubious metaphor, we don’t all decorate our houses the exact same way. I wouldn’t see the existence of various groups as rivalry or splintering, but simply the result of a range of tastes.
I understand disliking echo-chambers; on the opposite side of enjoying the company of those with similar views, there’s preferring to be challenged, to argue, to change minds. Perhaps lacking a need for reassurance and general agreement. That’s fine too, but there’s no need to rip into those who feel differently. Why assume that people who like to have an agreeable evening do so all the time? Unfair judgement is passed too often.
There’s one kind of armchair-sitter I do not like. Criticising things you have no or little personal experience of, intention of attending or improving/contributing to in any way – another anti-social manifestation. Or to use that immortal playground line, don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it.
Perhaps this is partly a consequence of a community that contains a lot of ‘nerds’; the old somewhat socially-inept, crowd-hating stereotype occasionally rings true and an even smaller fraction manage to combine it with some actual malice. This is unfortunate but probably can’t be helped; if you don’t have a problem with your own attitude you’re not going to bother to change it, whatever anyone says.
There’s always one – in a big enough crowd, there are a few. Their actions and views are by no means representative of the whole; a ‘dicky’ comment on an article shouldn’t draw the conclusion that all the peers of said commenter are equally dicky. As one sensible person pointed out; just call them on it and move on – showing they are indeed the minority is the best you can do.
Back to the anti-social and holier-than-thou stuff; how is it any less abrasive to constantly pick on large numbers of people (who, as I said, don’t even necessarily formally subscribe to a discreet group) because one or two aren’t behaving ideally? Surely if you walk into a room with your guns blazing, being met with counter-strike should be expected.
There are ways of voicing concerns that don’t elicit such a backlash – people only tend to get defensive when given a reason to do so, so perhaps if when facing such counter-attack, stopping and asking why that is would be sensible, as is being careful to avoid hypocrisy.
Talk of sensitivity doesn’t sit well with me. I find it reminiscent of the old sexist joke-maker, “oh you’re just being over-sensitive”, following something that is demonstrably offensive eliciting an easily-justifiable response.
Yes, people need to be aware of their actions. I’m very much one for being as nice to everyone as you possibly can, unless given good reason to do otherwise. This isn’t everyone’s philosophy, though, and sometimes being nice doesn’t get results.
I wasn’t at TAM (though may I take the opportunity to thank everyone I had a nice chat/drink/dance with during the after-TAM evenings; I had some horrific news on the Friday that I might go into more detail about later – immersing myself in skeptical loveliness kept me going, so cheers for that) but I believe PZ gave a talk along that vein.
There are so many parts to play, many different personalities, philosophies, attitudes and purposes. It is naive to assume that yours are the most valuable or right and that means you’re justified to put everything else down, or that your disagreeing with something means it has no merit at all.
Dare I say that applies to life in general, not just to the mish-mash of entities that is skepticism.
The Big Picture
Possibly the thing that I find most saddening is losing sight of the point. I think most people agree that the enemy (if we temporarily agree on such a concept) is not fellow skeptics, even if they’re being a bit dicky, but the people out there creating victims.
Your Raths and Wakefields, the quacks, charlatans, snake-oil salesmen and swindlers.
The people whose actions result in illness, physical and psychological damage, suffering and death. Or just people wasting their hard-earned pennies.
The average self-confessed skeptic; however bad a day they’re having, however offended another skeptic might be by what they just said, however smug you think they are – they don’t have those crimes on their conscience.
… It’s the spice of life! Yeah, I’m wheeling out the big clichés now.
You might not like that article or that bit of a talk, the tone of voice they said that in, that programme, their hair-do (!), but if we were all the same, it’d be pretty damn boring. Yes, it’s nice to find a niche (as I said above), but it’s also nice to have differing opinions, agree to disagree, have a bit of an argument then a pint and a hug and hey presto, still mates regardless (don’t assume that if I disagree with you about something, I’ll stop being your friend! Pretty much never the case).
I’m done with analysing the inner workings of the skeptics (perhaps an optimistic proclamation, but this is probably long enough to bore people before the end) – I attend what I can and what I want, I see my friends, for whom I am so immensely grateful, I appreciate people’s different approaches and I’ll call someone out if I think they’re being unfair or indeed wrong. They might not pay attention.
I do expect people to do the same for me. Sometimes mistakes are made. Sometimes we get it a bit wrong. But it’s OK, in the grand scheme of things.
Be Who You Are and Say What You Feel Because
Those Who Mind Don’t Matter
and Those Who Matter Don’t Mind.
— Dr. Seuss.
Edit: also Alom Shaha goes on the attack in his Guardian blog, Frank Swain presents a minimally-revised version of his Westskep talk (that I wrote up here) at Winchester SitP, and Kash defends SitP for his own reasons.
Yes, I ended up trying to squeeze in as many clichés and sayings as I could, don’t hold it against me 😉
No points for getting what else I was shoehorning in excessively.