Steve Novella – prominent member of the Skeptics Gude to the Universe and NECSS
I apologize to those sensitive souls whose toes I am treading on – but I must return to the debate sparked off by the invitation/disinvitation/reinvitation fiasco involving Richard Dawkins and the US Northeast Conference on Science & Skepticism (NECSS) (see Richard Dawkins and the Skeptics Conference controversy).
I must comment on the way this issue was discussed in the last episode of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe (SGU). Listen to the section Free Speech vs Social Justice – A discussion with Julia Galef about the recent controversies in the skeptical movement for the full discussion. In my view, this discussion was misleading because it started with a red herring (“free speech vs social justice”) and only got to the real meat of the issue (irrationality in the “skeptic movement”) at the end of the discussion. And even then that important issue was not handled objectively.
This specific discussion was important because:
1: Steven Novella is prominent in both the SGU and the executive committee of NECSS. In fact, he made a statement as a member of the executive committee of NECSS attempting to explain their decision (at that stage before the reinvitation was issued). This was widely criticised – but, to be fair, it suffered from the bureaucratic restrictions of executive membership. I had hoped he could speak more freely about the problems of that organisation in an open discussion.
2: Steven expressed deep concern at the way these ideologically-driven debates are destroying the “skeptical movement.” In particular, he passed on the fact that several high-profile scientists with public influence had told him they no longer wished to be associated with the “movement” because of the irrationality of the debate.
The problem is Steven’s concerns about the ideological nature of these debates and the destructive role they are playing for sceptics organisations only came up at the end of the discussion. They should have been confronted at the beginning. That is why I call the long time discussing social justice vs freedom of expression a red herring. That discussion was never specific and it is misleading to think it was relevant to the specific issue of the NECSS/Dawkins invitation fiasco. Concentration on this misrepresented the real issue and misrepresented Richard Dawkin’s position.
Misrepresentation of Richard Dawkins and his statements is, of course, nothing new. After all, he is an evolutionary biologist and we all know how much evolutionary science is misrepresented by its opponents – and even the ordinary person in the street. On top of that, he is an outspoken, and largely uncompromising, atheist. Then his literary skills, and his publishers, add another layer where a catchy book title or public statement gets easily misinterpreted.
In an old blog post, Putting Dawkins in his place, I relate how back in the 1970s I fell into the trap of misinterpreting the title of Richard’s first book – The Selfish Gene. I said then:
” I had never read it, of course, but there were all those magazine articles using the book to justify selfishness in people and to provide an ethical basis for a selfish society, for capitalism. These ideas, to me, were reactionary, anti-human. My mind was made up. Despite my interest in science, I was not going to waste time reading a “reactionary” book which I knew I wouldn’t agree with.”
It wasn’t until I read The God Delusion in 1976 that I realised my mistake:
“Mind you, because of my anti-Dawkins prejudice I almost didn’t, thinking it would be a waste of time. I am grateful I made the effort because I then found out my prejudice was baseless. The Selfish Gene was about genes, not about individual humans, other animals or society. Writers and others had taken the title of the book to justify their own political and economic agendas!”
As Dawkins has said – he could have titled the book The Cooperative Gene without changing a word of the text.
If the current fashion of de-platforming academic speakers was in fashion during the 1970s I wonder if there would have been moves to disinvite Dawkins from speaking at conferences? I wonder if I, in my ignorance, would have supported such moves?
In Richard Dawkins and the Skeptics Conference controversy, I explained how Richard’s critics were misrepresenting his position. He was not opposing social justice regarding feminism or Islamism – simply noting the destructive role of a small minority of extreme radical feminists and Islamists. He was, in fact, advocating for social justice. The social media attacks on Dawkins over this issue were misleading and the uncritical acceptance of these misleading attacks by some “sceptics” just illustrates that simple use of a name like “sceptic” is no guarantee of a sceptical or critical approach.
Perhaps sceptics should aspire to be more sceptical, critical and thoughtful in assessing claims. And I mean all claims. I have met sceptics who are justifiably proud of their sceptical approach to religion or alternative health – but who are very unsceptical and uncritical (maybe I should say biassed) about prevailing political claims. I hope this is not due to the hubris of thinking their sceptical approach in one area justifies their bias in another.
On the other hand, perhaps we should recognise that sceptics are just as human as the rest of us – just as prone to group thinking and being mislead. OK, this recognises that use of the name “sceptic” does not confer any magical properties – but it still does not remove the responsibility of at least making an effort.
Misogyny and misandry of sceptics
Some specifics were discussed towards the end of the SGU discussion – not related to Dawkins or his statements, but to the old elevatorgate “chat up” story, Rebecca Watson who “broke” that story and the harsh reaction she got in the “atheist/sceptical movement.” Participants lamented what they saw as misogyny among people who were meant to be rational, and underlined that the misogynistic attacks on Rebecca were more extreme and widespread than many people realised. Finally, there was recognition that some feminists in the “movement” were “going too far” and responding with attacks and charges which were just as extreme. Perhaps, without actually using the word, they were acknowledging that the “movement” had a problem with misandry (the hatred of men) as well as misogyny (the hatred of women).
This acknowledgement, and concern, should have been dealt with – upfront – at the beginning of the discussion instead of burying it at the end. And I don’t buy the concern being expressed over such irrational attitudes simmering away in a movement that is meant to be rational. As I keep saying, the mere use of names like “sceptic,” “atheist” or “rationalist” does not magically confer these properties on a person or movement. They do not somehow make a person or movement immune to all the attitudes, biases and instincts common in a community.
“The battle of the sexes” seems inherent in human societies – and there are probably good reasons for this. Usually, differences are handled in a friendly enough way but this battle can sometimes become extreme in sections of the community – fuelled by social inequalities and violations of human rights (often real but sometimes imaginary). Our life experiences also leave us with personal issues which can fuel resentments and irrational attitudes towards others – on both sides of the “sexual divide.” Nor are such attitudes and resentments restricted to gender issues – let’s not forget ethnic, social and economic differences.
Sceptics should take responsibility
“Sceptics” are part of the community and are not immune to all those irrational attitudes, group thinking and resentments that flourish in the community. They shouldn’t be surprised to discover people in their “movement” might actually give vent to their feelings on these issues. However, those “sceptics” who consider themselves leaders, and the organisations representing sceptics’ should, at least, make the effort to resist the group thinking involved.
That is where I disagree with Steven Novella and the executive of the NECSS. Steven in his statement expressed the:
“wish Dawkins would recognize (perhaps he does) his special place within our community and the power that position holds. When he retweets a link to a video, even with a caveat, that has a tremendous impact. It lends legitimacy to the video and the ideas expressed in it.”
Perhaps Steven should reflect on how this concept of responsibility may relate to his own actions. He and the NECSS should have resisted the misinformation and group thinking that prevented them from carefully reading Richard’s tweets – or even consulting with Richard before withdrawing their invitation (an action they now recognise as “unprofessional” but some might call just plain rude). And as leaders of the “sceptic movement,” they should have the responsibility to avoid succumbing to the irrationalities promoted in social media on the issue. To recognise and avoid the misandry driving these – as well as the misogyny.