The following is a response to Sharon Hill, noted Skeptic and voice of reason in the community of paranormal research, Forteana, and fringe science. She is my friend, and my colleague, and she has asked for any and all opinions regarding the future of organised Skepticism.
It’s been said of atheists that organising them is like herding cats. I’m hesitant to conflate atheism with skepticism – as many others have done – but it can’t be denied that there are certain personality traits the two groups share. Independent thought, reason, a penchant for evidence and the scientific method, etcetera.
Of course, there are other personality traits that they share, ones that aren’t so laudable. Elitism, condescension, cronyism, groupthink, and an adversarial attitude.
The Skeptical community, as measured by the behaviour of its most visible members, is big on in-group back-slapping, and very small on conversation with out-group elements. I recognise that this view of the community isn’t representative of the whole of the group, but it does set a tone.
I, personally – speaking as one who sits in opposition to both sides of the usual debate – would like to see much more open communication, as opposed to tongue wagging monologue and self-aggrandizing. I would like to see more people making a pointed effort to understand and to retreat to the original purpose of the community: Education.
There has been a long tradition among skeptical thinkers to belittle the beliefs and ideas of those who don’t sit at the table, but that tradition is contrasted by minds like that of Bertrand Russell, who, with his great intellect, sliced through the proverbial bullshit without simultaneously cutting down his opponent.
Publicity stunts and manufactured drama, in the style of reality television is unbecoming of such an intellectual endeavour, but we so often see that both of those things are fundamental to the operation of Skeptic organisations. It’s more than just personalities and egos getting in the way. It’s childish pseudo-political maneuvering, immature management, and a promotion of unrelated ideologies. It’s like a modern adaptation of the old boys club, in so far as they do occasionally allow women into the clubhouse. Not that they treat them very well once they’re inside.
An aspect of the cultures that emerge from the Skeptic movement, on either side of it, that seems to be ignored by those within Skeptic organisations, is the psychology of belief. It’s commendable for people to understand and see through pseudoscience, to expose hoaxes, and to educate one’s self on the natural sciences and the way the world truly works. So why don’t those in skeptic circles make the same effort to understand why believers believe what they do, beyond simply wagging a finger in their face, proclaiming that they’re stupid for not getting the facts straight and then looking to their comrades for a good laugh at someone else’s expense?
It seems to be because a large number of people who identify themselves as capital-S Skeptics, aren’t there to learn or educate, they’re in it to make themselves feel smarter. Which is hardly something anyone else should congratulate.
There may be a time and a place for such antics, like perhaps in response to harmful marketing claims in alternative health circles, but shouldn’t the whole enterprise be based on a sincere desire to educate those who are being duped, rather than belittle the ones who currently have their attention? I’ll point out that insulting a person or organisation that holds someone’s respect, will not in turn win respect for the one slinging the insults.
Skepticism, as a field of community activism, is fraught with pitfalls, and needs to be navigated carefully and deliberately. If the Skeptic’s attention is constantly focused on a mirror, they can hardly see the landmine they’re about to step on.