Wednesday, May 8, 2013

On Jamy Swiss on skepticism

PZ Myers wrote a post in which he "officially divorces" himself from the skeptical movement (whereas before he was only "so over" the skeptical movement).  This interests me because I like the skeptical movement, I like PZ Myers, and I like internet drama (schadenfreude!).  This particular drama has also been the talk of the blogosphere (eg here, here).  PZ Myers was reacting to a talk by Jamy Ian Swiss, who is a skeptical leader and magician.  The talk is not online (ETA: it's here, but I haven't watched it yet), but by all accounts it's similar to this talk from 2012:

Of course, I had to watch the video to see what everyone's on about.  Upon watching it, I discovered I have Opinions about it, which I'm sure you're all fascinated to hear.  But seriously, let me know if you're interested in me expanding out any of these comments.

6:37 - Swiss immediately defends himself by saying he's an atheist.  I view this as a sort of "Some of my best friends are gay!" moment.  The atheist movement has never really been about siding with every atheist, just like feminist movements have never believed women are always right.

11:18 - Swiss starts telling a few anecdotes about meeting atheists who were anti-skeptical. While I'm sure the anecdotes are true stories, it comes off as a bit... stereotype-enforcing?  There's a basic misunderstanding of the atheist movement here.  Insofar as it can be said to have unified views, the atheist movement supports skepticism.  Seriously, there's some bitter dispute in the atheist movement about what goals the atheist movement should have, but both sides of that dispute agree on skepticism.  If there's an atheist who believes in The Secret, most atheist activists consider that deeply regrettable.  Although, we wouldn't necessarily force such a person out, in the same way that Swiss thinks it's okay if there are some skeptics who have their own pet kooky ideas.  (But I agree Bill Maher is terrible, and I think he should be shown the door.)

17:28 - Swiss suggests that skeptics have the broadest view of the atheism/humanism/skepticism magisteria.  This is kind of arrogant, especially given his earlier missteps in understanding the atheist movement.

17:51 - Swiss says that skeptical organizations are purely concerned about testable claims, as opposed to claims based on faith.  Of course, he explains, someone who believes in ghosts purely on faith doesn't get a free pass, and even people with religious beliefs are using evidence-based arguments (and thus fall within skepticism).  I consider this a concession on Swiss' part, but PZ appears to have misinterpreted it, leading to unnecessary disagreement.  In any case, I've expressed the opinion that this philosophical issue is a red herring.

19:30 - Swiss says that when people criticize skeptics of giving religion a free pass, they're setting up a strawman.  I don't agree at all.  Everyone knows that skeptics claim not to give religion any free pass, but some people think that they are in fact giving religion a free pass, based on their behavior.  For example, some consider it a double standard that Swiss won't accept an atheist who asks for his astrological sign, but will accept a skeptic who believes in the resurrection of Jesus.  I'm not sure that this is a good argument, but it's definitely not a strawman argument.

22:01 - Swiss refers to a panel on diversity in the skeptical movement and laments that the panel was rather non-diverse, being made entirely of atheists.  Here's another example of that double standard.  Would he say the same if they all disbelieved in ghosts?

22:13 - Swiss says that skepticism would only focus on gay rights when gay rights opponents make testable claims.  JREF, though it is run by two gay men, is a skeptical organization, not a gay rights organization.  I agree.  Further, I think this is all people are asking for when people say that skeptics should place some focus on women and people of color--they want skeptics to tackle testable claims, and for women and POC to be represented among leaders.  (See Greta)

25:01 - Swiss criticizes "Skepticism 2.0".  I had never heard the term before, so I looked it up.  It refers to the grassroots popularization of skepticism.  Skepticism 2.0 is associated with blogs, podcasts, and skeptics in the pub.   But Swiss very clearly supports grassroots skepticism, and seems to mean something entirely different by "skepticism 2.0".  Basically he's criticizing people who want to depart from the canonical topics of skepticism.  The language confusion is not auspicious.

26:31 - How can anyone claim that pseudoscience and the paranormal doesn't matter? Swiss rattles a list of especially harmful examples.  I totally agree.  I resent when people reduce skepticism to talking about bigfoot and UFOs.

27:53 - "You are still welcome in my skeptics tent, but the one thing that is neither fine nor good is to come into my skeptics tent and declaring that you are moving it." ... Your skeptics tent?  It sounds a lot like he's saying skeptical leaders such as himself have the sole power to dictate their focus.

30:50 - People are not fooled because they're stupid.  Mocking the people who are fooled is victim-blaming.  Hear hear.

39:50 - Swiss says that the primary purpose of grassroots skeptical organization is not to do activism, but to connect with like-minded individuals.  I'm glad he thinks so.  At times in the talk it seemed like he was complaining about grassroots skeptics contributing to mission drift, or otherwise crippling activists.

Next I plan to read Daniel Loxton's document on the history of skepticism.  So far seems fascinating.

1 comment:

miller said...

I watched Swiss's more recent talk. I think he took the edge off of it. But he also added a section about atheism, which gave him opportunity to reveal a few misconceptions. I can see why this got PZ angry, but it mainly made me feel sorry for Swiss, who seemed to be trying to make concessions to critics.