by, 30th December 2009 at 12:24 PM (8536 Views)
Those of you who have been an active skeptic for more than the last few years will have noticed that skepticism has become sexy. Suddenly everyone wants to be a skeptic. Skeptics in the Pub has gone from one meeting in London with 20 to 40 fat beardy men, to meetings all over the country, with more than 300 people turning up at the London SitP meetings including (gasp) young men and even women!
I'm not sure exactly why this has happened. It is easy to credit Dawkins, Singh, Goldacre and even journalists such as Jon Ronson or comedians like Tim Minchin with the responsibility. But there have always been skeptics around in science and journalism and I'm very wary of the cult of personality. Reasons behind this popularity would be a good subject for a different post, I was trying to point this one in another direction.
Obviously I am happy that there seems to be more skeptics around now. Or at least we are better organised and talking to each other and campaigning together. But inevitably this attracts fringe elements to the "movement" who are not really skeptics at all but want to jump on the bandwagon. I'm not talking about raving loonies like Rupert Sheldrake, who calls himself a real sceptic (because he believes evidence-free nonsense), nor the "deniers" such as "climate change skeptics", but people who claim to be skeptics in the way that we understand the term.
I think it is inevitable that at some point in the future there will be some divisions within the skeptical movement as some of these self-promoting personalities try to assert themselves. They can only hide amongst us for so long and the non-rational approach that they take to some issues will become clearer.
I will give an example of someone who, to my mind, holds positions that are not those of a "real" skeptic. Jack of Kent. I pick on him only because I am more familiar with him than many others. I have been aware of him since he first turned up at London SitP and heckled annoyingly from the back regardless of who the guest speaker was or what point they were making. Indeed he was very unpopular with the regulars back then because of his attention-seeking antics. He doesn't do that now, he has his own group, Westminster Skeptics, and is a highly respected member of the skeptical community for the excellent role he has played in the Simon Singh/BCA debacle.
Here's Jack on the subject of denialism:
For some time I have been troubled by the tone of climate change and global warming discussions, especially the use of the terms Denialism and Denialist.
As a layperson, I regard Denialism and Denialist as rather unhelpful terms.
Indeed, I would even propose a general rule.
Whatever the other merits of making an accusation of Denialism, it will usually tend to be a public engagement FAIL.
That is not to say that the term should be banned; I am not a banner. There may not be a public engagement context, or that context may not perhaps matter. And the term may well mean something important and precise to at least one person in the discussion and so may be preferred.
But for any layperson following the discussion, the accusation of Denialist can be problematic and off-putting. The important thing is to see whether someone is incorrect, and more emotionally-charged terms cannot not assist on this.
So returning to the Twitter discussion, my subsequent Tweets tell the story of how my mind started working:
"I do not like the way films and books are now trampled on as "denialist". It is a form of non-legal chill"
"For example, even I dare not ask critical questions about climate change as I anticipate endless bother. So I accept party line"
"So if it is so clear, why this clamour to stop access to the "wrong" stuff. It seems quasi-religious."
"Well, it makes an onlooker like me genuinely think you guys are trying to silence inconvenient truths."
All of this is, to me, a massive fail in terms of a reasonable skeptical approach: Jack doesn't like the word "denialism" so he thinks it shouldn't be used to describe denialism.
Contrast Jack's expression of a personal belief with Crispian Jago's skeptical approach:
Surely if we reserve the word “sceptic” for views and opinions on items without scientific consensus and reliable evidence and use “denial” for the non agreement of widely accepted scientific theory it would avoid confusion.
So for example you could talk about:
Alien Abduction sceptics
Alternative/pseudo medicine sceptics
Past life regression sceptics
And then use the term “denier” exclusively for those who argue against the scientific consensus, thus:
HIV causing Aids deniers
Moon Landing deniers
Climate Change deniers
Adhering to these semantics might help alleviate people outside of the scientific and sceptical community making association with my views and the later list, thus avoiding annoying comments like “Yes I’m a sceptic too, I don’t believe in evolution or the moon landings”
It should be clear to any skeptic that "denier", "denial", etc, are perfectly valid words to use to describe the sort of people who deny that there's any evidence of man walking on the moon, or who pretend that there is no evidence of climate change. There is a massive difference between, on the one hand, disputing the meaning of the evidence and/or querying its importance and, on the other hand, the people who just claim that it doesn't exist, that it is all a massive conspiracy by scientists to increase taxes. The second group are deniers and are far from sceptical in their approach. Although he claims neutrality, Jack's position seems to be very close to the denier's camp when it comes to Climate Change.
I use Jack's post on denial simply as an example of the irrational thinking that he sometimes engages in.
And I don't mean to detract from the brilliant blog posts he has written on the subject of the BCA. He should be, and has been, praised for them.
But is he a skeptic? How many of the plethora of minor celebs born out of the current craze for skepticism are just out for some egoboo and will soon have moved on from skepticism to something else that keeps them in the public eye?
I think we're currently at the peak of a passing fad, like skateboarding or the Rubic's Cube. It won't go away completely but there will be fewer activists in a few year's time.
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