July 12, 2011

Ad Hominem

The recent bruhaha over Rebecca Watson's elevator encounter (the details are here, I won't be recapping or arguing it) has reminded me of one of the biggest problems within the skeptical community. And as I was mulling it over in my head, Ryawesome made this long, angry post which essentially got to the crux of what I was rolling around my brain.

A lot of skeptics treat skepticism as a fandom.

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with fandoms; I was never part of one myself, I was always more of a lurker over the things I found myself super-interested in, like Harry Potter, but I completely understand the value of a community built around a common interest. And really, there is very little wrong with a fandomesque nature within skepticism: there are a lot of powerful, charming people at the forefront of the 'movement'. I believe that having a hero in science, philosophy or equality activism (etc) is much more valuable than idolising a movie or sports star (though, I stress, there is nothing wrong with having entertainment heroes!).

However (and this is the important however), by its very philosophy, a skeptic must always appraise an argument on its individual merit above the loyalty he/she holds to the proponent of the argument.

Over the last week, a difference of opinion arose over an incident recalled by Rebecca Watson. The most high-profile opponent to her position was Richard Dawkins, who was chose to dismiss her views with (in my opinion) an overly sardonic rhetoric. Watson and Dawkins are both prominent figures in the skeptical community and both have their masses of fans and ... anti-fans (what is the opposite of fan?) and this provided the ideal condition for an all out bitch-fight.

Dawkins fans were getting angry at Watson and her followers; Watson fans were getting angry at Dawkins and his followers. People were crying that skepticism was splitting down the middle and things would never be the same and most people seemed to stop listening to the actual arguments involved.

I'm a big admirer and supporter of Richard Dawkins. I think he has done wonderful things for science communication, pushing forward skepticism, secularism and awareness about religion. I love hearing him talk and I love reading his books and I almost always agree with him. But not this time. I think he was in the wrong; I think he had misjudged the situation and he argued in the wrong way. It was disappointing, but it should be a timely reminder that no one is right all of the time.

No one is right all of the time.

You should remember that. No matter how much you admire someone for their ideals, their arguments, their intelligence, their charm, their benevolence - they can still be wrong. As a skeptic, one should always be aware of this. PZ Myers has a legion of followers and admirers and I'm absolutely certain that he would much, much prefer that people considered his arguments - really, really considered them - than just mindlessly absorb them into their subconscious and rally around him like a bunch of pharyngulate zombies.

In the real world, people are not just homogenous lumps of rightness or wrongness. They are nuances and complex and can be absolutely bang-on right about one thing and completely wrong about another. Ally or enemy, friend and family, criminal or crusader: everyone's position must be appraised and criticised on its own merits, and not on the strength of their character.

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