One of the little pieties I like to spout is that my goal as a journalist isn't to make people agree with me. It’s to provoke them into reconsidering their beliefs. That’s what I hoped to accomplish with my critique of the skepticism movement, and I succeeded.
I gave a talk Sunday at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS), and then posted the talk here yesterday. My talk wasn’t nuanced, it was blunt, because it was short. My slot was only 30 minutes long, and I wanted to give the audience time to tell me if I had been unfair. I was looking forward to a vigorous debate.
But Emcee Jamy Ian Swiss didn’t let me take questions. After I left the stage, Swiss said, “Oops!” He spent the next 10 minutes denouncing me, defending physicist Lawrence Krauss and insisting that homeopathy is a huge problem. I walked toward the rear of the darkened auditorium thinking, Oh well, failed experiment.
Before I got to the door, however, a man who identified himself as a conference speaker grabbed me and apologized for Swiss’s behavior. He didn’t agree with everything I said, but he thanked me for saying it, because the skeptic movement needs shaking up.
In the lobby outside the auditorium, a bunch of people approached me to say pretty much the same thing: Don’t agree with everything you said, but… Several apologized for Swiss’s behavior, and I said I loved it, because he was demonstrating the tribalism I had just criticized.
Then I got the debate I’d hoped for. We argued about… all sorts of things. Whether physics is really explaining why there is something rather than nothing, whether world peace really is possible, whether skeptics should take a stance on political issues.
Skeptics are much more diverse than my critique implied, several informed me. Skeptics constantly debate their priorities, and some express concerns about the same "hard targets" that concern me, such as medical over-testing. I said I was glad to hear that. I conceded that instead of calling my talk “Hard Versus Soft Targets,” I could have called it “Stuff You Care about Versus Stuff I Care About.”
I left feeling that my experiment wasn’t a failure after all. I posted a transcript of my talk the next morning, and the response has been similar to the response at NECSS, except hugely amplified. Some skeptics are angrily denouncing me, notably physician/skeptics Steve Novella and David Gorski. Both reiterate points I heard at NECSS: Skeptics are more diverse and self-critical than my critique implies, and they—meaning Novella and Gorski, specifically—have addressed problems of mainstream medicine, such as the downside of mammograms.
[Other complaints of Novella and Gorski aren’t worth responding to, except for one too important to ignore. Both criticize me for citing Robert Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic, which argues that psychiatric medications might do more harm than good. Novella and Gorski dismiss Whitaker’s book, citing a negative review by E. Fuller Torrey. They do not mention that Torrey, a psychiatrist, has a strong bias against Whitaker’s thesis. See Whitaker’s detailed rebuttal of Torrey’s review here.]
Unlike the people I spoke to at NECSS, neither Novella nor Gorski give me any credit for raising any reasonable points. They say, essentially: How dare I criticize capital-S Skepticism when I’m so ignorant of it? “If you are going to criticize a movement, discipline, subculture, science, or group from the outside, to the point of telling them what they should be doing, you should at least have a working knowledge of that group,” Novella says. (Ironically, parapsychologsts and psychoanalysts have also accused me of being too ignorant of their fields to criticize them.)
Others are a bit more generous. Dan Broadbent, who blogs as “A Science Enthusiast,” calls my critique “not even wrong" but concedes: “Horgan actually did make some valid points. I often see other Skeptics mocking peddlers of pseudoscience, or even consumers of pseudoscience, then slapping each other on the back with a solid ‘attaboy!’ afterwards. Hell, I’ve even engaged in this type of behavior at times. Essentially what Horgan is saying is that Skeptics have created an echo chamber of self-gratification for ourselves which our target audience (consumers of pseudoscience) ignore.”
Thanks, Dan, for restating my thesis so eloquently. Moreover, biologist/atheist PZ Myers, who has a long, contentious history with skeptics (and so cannot be accused of ignorance), agrees with me about skeptics’ “screwy priorities.” He writes that “skeptics have a peculiar fondness for picking the easiest targets, especially targets that are safely outside the mainstream.”
I’ve also received diverse reactions via email. One guy calls my piece “one of the stupidest things I have seen in a long time… I guess one thing that really stuck out is you saying that the US is the greatest threat to world peace, which is a common claim among psychotic Leftists who for one irrational reason or another hate the same country in which they find so much security that they have no fear of writing such bizarre insanity.”
But most comments resemble this one from Sandra Wilde, who attended NECSS: “Your talk crystallized many of my feelings about the whole skeptic movement during the few conferences I've been to. Much of it is permeated by a dogmatic, unbending atheism, not so much as a lack of interest in religion but an evangelistic battle against it.”
So do I regret giving my talk? Hell no. I accomplished what I set out to do, to provoke a debate about skepticism. And I really enjoyed my chats with people at NECSS, who taught me a lot about their goals and methods.
In fact, if capital-S Skeptics want to invite me to another conference—perhaps to discuss how skeptics can contribute to the moribund antiwar movement?--they know where to find me.