Feb 12 2016

Concern Trolls and Free Speech Nazis

Note: This post was originally published on June 28, 2010 on SkepticBlog. Although it is not about the same issues as the current NECSS controversy, I found the underlying principles relevant, and I still stand by the position outlined here. 

One of the things that I love about the skeptical community is that it is a vibrant intellectual community that is not afraid to turn its critical eye inward. There is also sufficient diversity of background and perspective, superimposed upon a generally skeptical outlook, to provide some genuine conflict. While you won’t find many bigfoot believers in our ranks, we do run the spectrum from liberal to libertarian, militant atheist to Christian, scientist to artist, and politically correct to Penn Jillette.

The wringing of hands may at times seem tedious – but it’s all good. As long as we remember that at the end of the day we are all skeptics, a cultural minority looking to change the world.

Occasionally our diversity of approach does erupt into outright conflict, with the preferred medium usually being blogs. This happened recently in response to the appearance of Pamela Gay, an astronomer and co-host of the Astronomy Cast podcast with Fraser Cain, on my own podcast, the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. Pamela is a Christian, and on the SGU we have a tendency to be less than respectful of unscientific beliefs, including religious beliefs that wander into the arena of science.

This post is not going to be about the epistemological conflict over the limits of empiricism – whether or not science can address issue of pure faith, and how faith is distinct from “religion” – the latter being a cultural construct that involves many things, including using faith to invade science. If you are interested in that discussion, you can read here.

Rather, I am going to talk about the conflict between courtesy and free speech (which does often involve the religion issue as well). The start of this latest exchange was the blog response of Seth to an exchange we had on a recent episode of the SGU where Pamela was a guest. First, as an aside, Seth starts with the following premise:

This is an area of some controversy in the skeptical movement. Many skeptics believe that religion and personal belief are separate from skepticism, and that by conflating skepticism with atheism people with my viewpoint are hurting skepticism.

He then attributes this attitude to the SGU and many others. I would just say, this is not quite right, and you can read my earlier post for more detail. First, he conflates religion and faith (that is very problematic), and also he conflates science and skepticism – also a bit sloppy. I think that science and methodological naturalism are distinct and separate from faith. But skepticism includes not just empirical science, but also logic and philosophy, and you can take a philosophical approach to faith-based beliefs. You just cannot say that science proves faith is wrong.

Seth also makes another false assumption – that the distinction being made is largely tactical – it is about not “hurting skepticism.” While this is a legitimate concern, it is distinct from the epistemological issues.

But on to the meat of this post – Seth was concerned about the following exchange on the SGU, about which he writes:

So imagine my surprise when I was listening to The Skeptics Guide to the Universe episode 255 on my iPod today and heard the following exchange: (around 21:50)

Fraser Cain: That’s where the soul is. (General Laughter)
Steven Novella: Yeah, right!
Fraser Cain: So you remove all that, and the bacteria has no soul.
Steven Novella: A souless bacteria.

Bear in mind, Pamela Gay is on the phone at this moment. She is in the room. And her cohost from Astronomy Cast and the Host of the show she is a guest on are mocking the idea of the soul.

First, it must be noted that we and Pamela are friends. Pamela never voiced any concern over this exchange, and in a private e-mail to me following Seth’s post she expressed that while anti-religious talk may make her feel uncomfortable, we have never crossed the line with her and she likes coming on the SGU. Essentially – yeah, she is religious, but she is cool with it.

Seth’s post was followed by a thoughtful post from PZ Myers at Pharyngula. PZ makes some good points. I think he hits the nail most on the head with this statement:

The skeptic movement will be inclusive and allow anyone to participate, and participation means your ideas will be scrutinized and criticized and sometimes mocked and sometimes praised.

This is how I feel – our own beliefs are all fair game, whether religious, political, or social. We should not demand any litmus test for skeptical purity – that is not practical, reasonable, or healthy for any movement, let alone a minority movement like skepticism. Anyone who wants to participate should be welcome, in my opinion – even pseudoskeptics who don’t get it (but that doesn’t mean they get to speak at our meetings). However – everyone also has to recognize that your own beliefs are fair game for the criticism that is at the core of skeptical philosophy. That means that global warming dissidents, feminists, alternative medicine proponents, deists, free market zealots, anti-government conspiracy theorists, and communists all get to have their beliefs challenged, and have no reasonable expectations that their beliefs or their feelings will be spared.

Where I find the conflict within the skeptical movement to be most persistent and unresolvable is in the personal choices that people make with respect to balances between the dictates of free speech and intellectual integrity (a consistent application of skepticism with no sacred cows) and the desire for courtesy, creating a friendly and collegiate environment, and presenting skepticism in a positive light. Here we run the spectrum – at one end there are “concern trolls” who seem to advocate for an extreme of political correctness, and go out of their way to find offense. At the other end are “free speech nazis” (these are not my terms, BTW) who seem to go out of their way to be offensive, as if they are daring someone to ask for a modicum of courtesy so that they can cry “censorship” and get self-righteous about their freedom of speech.

While we have all likely encountered these extremes, most of us appear to be somewhere in the middle. It is also not easy to balance these concerns, as they are often at cross-purposes – so there is no perfect solution, you have to make a trade off and that will be driven for each individual by which concern resonates with them the most.

That is why I am not advocating for any particular balance. I don’t pretend to have the one true balance or compromise. I am advocating for tolerance and open discussion, and also just recognition that there are legitimate concerns on both sides and perhaps we can discuss it with each other without puffing our chests quite so much.

There are those, for example, who champion blasphemy as a form of social protest. PZ, Penn and Teller, Christopher Hitchens and others argue that nothing should be sacred. While individuals have the right to treat anything they want as sacred, they do not have the right to request that anyone else does so (a principle with which I agree). Some choose to make this point by going out of their way to blaspheme what others consider sacred – especially when they are being requested to respect the sacred. They have a right to this form of protest and free speech and I think it is important.

But also, not everyone should be expected to engage in this form of free speech. This has a lot to do with personality and style. It also has to do with (as PZ acknowledges) division of labor and specialization within the skeptical movement. I would add that context is also important – some venues and topics require more professionalism and courtesy than others. I would not go to a medical conference and decide that I needed to offend everyone’s religion just to make a point.

The SGU is one particular context. On our podcast we are open about our opinions. We champion the use of skepticism and reason in all areas. We feel free to use satire, sarcasm, and even occasional mockery to put absurd beliefs into perspective. But we also choose not to gratuitously attack individuals – we focus mainly on beliefs. We reserve our personal attacks not for the average believer, but for the promoters – those who are engaging in the public conversation and have made themselves fair game. They have no expectation of courtesy, and there the demands of public debate and exchange of ideas outweigh those of courtesy. With an individual “rank-and-file” believer, the balance is different.


I don’t expect this discussion to ever end – perhaps it shouldn’t. The complex balance of multiple social, ethical, and intellectual principles requires constant thought, discussion, and introspection. So let’s keep the conversation going. But I also advocate recognition that no one has the final “correct” answer – when value judgments and trade-offs are involved, there is no such thing.

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