Emotions, Skepticism, Hypocrisy and a Standing Ovationby Don Lacey on Jul. 24, 2012, under Atheism, Christian Self-Righteous Arrogance, Christianity, Critical Thinking, Education, Ethics, Faith, Freethought, Freethought Events, History, Language, Logic, Materialism, Reason, Religion, Science, Separation of Church & State, Skepticism
I just read an interesting article on the internet by a fellow Skeptic and Atheist. It’s titled “Do Be a D**k (sometimes): Emotions and Skeptics” by Ashley Miller. I just came back from TAM 2012 (The Amazing Meeting) in Vegas. This will be a discussion of two speeches undeserving of the standing ovation that they received. Both relied heavily on emotion to make their points. In a room full of Skeptics, I expect the crowd to respond to logical and ethical appeals which should overshadow the emotional appeals. The reality is that emotions are powerful and Skeptics are not immune. People are emotional. What drew me to Ashley Miller is what she said about Phil Plait’s famous “Don’t be a D**k” speech. Apparently, it got under her skin.
The first speech was presented at TAM 8. In Phil Plait’s now famous speech he broke from his normal scientific topics to give advice about “how to be a Skeptic”. He was concerned that the merits of the arguments were being lost in Skeptical discussions then immediately used a straw man argument to try and make his point. So it went, bouncing from preaching to violating the very principles of Skepticism. Of course, the feeling of the talk was well received. He immediately follows a statement that anecdotes are not data with an anecdote about Julia Sweeny. I could go on because the entire speech was full of examples of non-critical thinking and he got away with it probably because the central theme is one that the TAM 8 crowd wanted to hear and generally agreed with. We have a tendency to ignore the nitty-gritty details and forgive inconsistencies as long as the message is one that resonates. Don’t get me wrong. He made many good points about Skepticism. He made the point that Skepticism is hard and it doesn’t make sense sabotage your message by being “a d**k.” He didn’t go into specifics; he stated that “specifics aren’t his goal” and proceeded to try to make his points on unsupported generalities. His bottom line was that insults don’t work and he finished with a personal anecdote…. He got a standing ovation.
Zoom forward two years. This year Jamy Ian Swiss made an impassioned speech. Once again, it was a well received speech, very popular. He expressed a lot of good points about Skepticism and reinforced some good ideas but there was an element of hypocrisy and manipulative emotion that scuttled the effort. He started out well enough. Ten minutes in, he was claiming that kooky ideas don’t bother him and everyone is welcomed in his Skeptical tent. He was talking about Skeptics that were religious. He accepts that they are not far enough along in their skepticism journey. However, eight minutes later he’s claiming that Bill Maher didn’t come to Atheism through reason, which in Skeptics circles is a damning ad hominem attack. Jamy went on to say that Bill Maher is a despicable person because he doesn’t believe in vaccination. This is a popular stance in Skepticism now. We’re not allowed to question the beliefs or intelligence of people that believe in religion but there are no limits on anti-vaccination proponents. The right way, of course, is to address the arguments in all cases and leave off the personal attacks. The crowd is with Jamy though when he says, “Sc**w Bill Maher!” To be sure, anti vaccination proponents are contributing to needless disease and suffering in the world but let’s not forget the Catholic Church’s position on condom use in Africa and the needless suffering and death that that causes. Jamy finished strong and almost lost his voice in the process. His closing point was to not blame the victims of irrational belief. He received a standing ovation.
I’ve listened to Phil’s and Jamy’s speeches a couple of times now and the more I listen to them the more I find to like. Jamy and Phil deserve their place as highly respected Skeptics. It’s sad that they stooped to the emotional plea and demonstrated such hypocrisy. Without the minor inclusion of manipulative emotions and inconsistent logic, these good speeches would have been great and well deserving of a standing ovation.