Friday, 4 March 2016

The Ideology of the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe

I've been listening to the SGU since 2007. It's fair to say that they've significantly affected who I am today. So it's worrying to me to see them being silly. The mess over Dawkins attending NECSS this year gives a single, solid focal point to discuss this around, but I worry that it's a wider problem. Their discussion of this in episode 555 was interesting and revealing, especially the admission that frequent major changes in their public decision are a matter of private internal disagreement within their organisation. My highest academic specialisation (somewhat atrophied now) is in exactly that, the management of internal differences to keep non-governmental organisations running effectively, so this caught my ear. They should probably see to that, before it grows out of hand.

But what's actually prompted me to write this is a different few comments they made in that episode, showing a disappointingly poor understanding or acceptance of their own politics. I liked and agreed with (or at least accepted) many of their points. But they lost me when Steve started saying that they're neutral, that they're the middle ground, that they have no ideology. This is bullshit.

Literally everyone has an ideology; if you don't know what yours is, that's your ignorance. It's like saying that you don't have a pancreas, just because you've never taken it out and properly dissected it before. I groaned when Steve said they embrace [the ideology of] rationalism, rather than any ideology. Rationalism is nice, I like rationalism, but it is an ideology. An ideology is the set of beliefs you hold about how the world does and/or ought to work. Rationalism is the belief that the world functions in rational ways and that people ought to use reason and evidence to understand this. I like that, it's an ideology that makes good sense to me, but it is both clearly an ideology, and a somewhat limited one. There are important things that fall outside the strictest limits of reason and evidence, so it can't be the only ideology we rely on.

I was similarly bugged by the Rogues' insistence that keeping the skeptical movement together ought to be our common and chief goal. This is not how conflict resolution works. People don't cooperate and get along just because they happen to share one goal. That can be helpful, no doubt, a necessary condition for conflict resolution. But the sufficient condition, the real key, is to generate consensus on the things people don't already agree on. I felt this episode dodged that problem too much and leaned too heavily on the "guys, just pretend to get along, ok?" gambit. (I exaggerate for emphasis.)

The reason this approach is a problem is that it is close to impossible to be truly neutral (outside of D&D). There's a perfect Tutu quote on this:
If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.

Dawkins is a clear analogue, in this case, of the elephant. His history and prestige and influence give him power over those he tries to shut up, and he abuses that great power like he never had an Uncle Ben. The SGU people know this, and the NECSS people should all know it too. Giving him a free extra podium to speak from as he pleases (even more) is not the same as challenging him to make a proper case for his dodgy positions, turning the skeptical goggles around for some thorough introspection. Who you do and don't invite to speak at these sorts of events is, to some extent, a statement in itself. Pretending otherwise is disingenuous. How and for what purpose you invite them also carries implicit and explicit meaning. It doesn't help to pretend that an invitation for Dawkins is no different at all to an invitation for, say, Bill Nye (or someone similarly unobjectionable).

(Cue someone trying to suggest that Bill Nye is some sort of huge asshole.)

But Dawksy is not specifically interesting to me, he's just an example of how the "we're the sane middle ground" trap works. Being a moderate sounds safer than being an extremist, right? But some things don't have sane middles. There is no sane moderate position to murder and rape threats, for example. There is no acceptable number of threats above zero, and on that issue I'd be very comfortable to position myself with the extreme opposition to that sort of thing. SGU claiming the neutral middleman role for themselves is either naive or dodgy. Considering how much I've heard the Skeptical Rogues complain about false balance in the media, I would have hoped they'd be better at spotting it in themselves.

I would say that the root of the SGU's problem is the assumption that everyone ought to be, first and foremost, a skeptic. Not surprising, but also not realistic. They point out, quite correctly, in ep 555 that neither the "free speech" camp nor the "social justice" camp (as they classify them) have absolute claim to being most important and essential. But they don't seem to have grasped that the "skeptic" camp is just as artificial and non-essential, and just as biased by its own preferences. They could even have used that angle to justify at least some form of partial neutrality. But instead, they just come across as tone-deaf and/or arrogant. It's a fucking pity.

I am quite aware of my own biases, and admit them freely. It doesn't solve all my communication problems, but it helps. I side unapologetically with the feminists, and maybe I'm crazy to, or maybe I'm not. The thing is, I'm pretty sure, if I was wholly with the Dawkins fan club instead, that I could construct almost exactly the same complaint against the SGU's attempt at false balance. I think that suggests that their approach really was flawed. I'm happy to accept that they genuinely want to make things work best for everyone, that there's no malevolence behind it, but this time they really should have thought through at least their choice of words better, if not also their choice of ideas.