Aug 30 2012

Massimo’s Look at the Community of Reason

From time to time it’s healthy to take a close and honest inward look at yourself – your life, community, philosophy, goals, and strategies. One of the things I admire about the skeptical community, of which I am a proud member, is that it does this on a regular basis. We wring our hands about exactly what we believe, the scope of our activity, the role of various philosophies in our thinking, the definition of skepticism, and even the word “skeptic.”

Collectively we seem to be endlessly restless and uncomfortable with ourselves. I think this is a good thing. Comfort and complacency may feel nice, but they don’t get you up in the morning an hour earlier so that you can blog to the world about some intellectual nuance, and they don’t lead to the kind of hard introspective questions that allow a movement to mature.

I find it especially useful when some comment about skepticism or the skeptical movement really annoys me. That annoyance is a signal that there is a cognitive disconnect between me and the opinions that annoy me – a conflict that can potentially be explored and resolved.

Recently Massimo Pigliucci appears to have reached a critical mass of annoyance and needed a cathartic dump about the skeptical community, which he refers to as the Community of Reason (CoR). As is typical of Massimo, his article is well-reasoned, and well-written – a useful stick with which to poke the CoR (to use his term).

As background, Massimo is one of my oldest friends in skepticism. He came to speak for me when we were just getting started as the Connecticut Skeptical Society back in 1996, and he was the first guest I had on my podcast, the SGU. I have always found the two of us to be fairly close in our approach to skepticism and on the same side of many internal disputes within the CoR.

Massimo also plays, in my opinion, a critical role within the CoR, because he is an actual philosopher (and not just playing at one, like most of the rest of us). Skepticism is a diverse and complex set of intellectual principles put into practical application. We therefore need a diverse set of intellectual skills (collectively and individually) in order to be fully functional. We need scientists in every field, educators, journalists, writers, performers, marketers, artists, politicians – and we need philosophers. Massimo, more than anyone else I know, keeps the CoR honest from a philosophical point of view.

The core of his recent article is this:

The problem is that my experience (anecdotal, yes, but ample and varied) has been that there is quite a bit of un-reason within the CoR. This takes the form of more or less widespread belief in scientific, philosophical and political notions that don’t make much more sense than the sort of notions we — within the community — are happy to harshly criticize in others.

He gives as examples widespread belief in the Singularity, that humans have no free will, that science can answer moral questions, rejection of anthropogenic global warming, and others. The point of his article was not to discuss or debate these individual points – they have each been the focus of extensive debate within the CoR. Rather he wants to point out that being a self-identified skeptic does not mean one is free of un-reason.

Some of the examples Massimo brings up are matters, in my opinion, of legitimate debate among high-functioning skeptics. They are legitimate controversies. Part of the mission of the CoR, in fact, is to deeply discuss these controversial topics. We can’t spend all of our time taking on the easy questions. Some of the topics, like global warming or whether or not philosophy is of any use, should not be controversial.

Massimo’s point is that, as a community, we need to constantly remind ourselves that, while we respect and aspire to reason, we are imperfect and subject to bias and motivated reasoning just like every other human being. This realization can help inform our tone and strategies for outreach. Massimo points out, and I agree, that we should not treat everyone with whom we disagree as if they were a hopeless creationist or ethically dubious snake-oil salesman.

To amplify this point a bit – in my opinion it is respectful, intellectually honest, and strategically effective to take, as a default, an approach to others with whom we disagree that follows certain rules of thumb:

– search for common ground as a starting point

– do not start with the assumption that you are correct, but rather examine all points of view for logic and evidence

– try to honestly understand the other side, and address the best version of the arguments and positions you are arguing against

– avoid making negative assumptions about the goals, motivations, and attitudes of your opponents

– when you are confident that your position is the correct (or at least superior) one, your goal should be to gently educate others, not ridicule, pontificate, showboat, or condemn.

– go out of your way to acknowledge legitimate aspects or virtues of the points of view with which you generally disagree (giving the Devil his due).

– freely admit your own error and make appropriate corrections. Avoid the temptation to evade, deny, or minimize your own error.

I consider the above approach to be a default intellectual courtesy that civilized members of the CoR (and society at large) should grant to others, especially those of us who are essentially on the same side of the big question of the role of science and reason in human society. I think, too often, skeptics neglect this courtesy and treat anyone with whom they disagree as if they are a dangerous or hopeless crank.

It remains a point of legitimate debate and controversy, however, what attitude we should take towards those who are promoting an unscientific, anti-scientific, anti-intellectual, superstitious, or gullible philosophy. How do we treat the dangerous snake-oil charlatan whose behavior is indistinguishable from a psychopathic con-artist? What courtesy, if any, do we extend the politician attacking science education in order to promote their personal religious views on creation? Is it OK to ridicule the ridiculous, ethically or strategically? That’s a topic for a different post. What I (and I think Massimo) are advocating is that at the very least a member of the CoR should be taking a thoughtful approach, and not ridicule as a knee-jerk response to all disagreement. If you believe ridicule, sarcasm, and harsh criticism can be effective tools of communication, then skeptics at least should judiciously deploy a sliding-scale of negativity to their opponents.

Massimo also mentions leadership in the CoR. This is a tricky concept for a community that eschews arguments from authority, is staunchly individualistic, and does not feel comfortable with the very concept of “leaders”. I agree with general reticence toward this concept . Further, we have no formal structure or hierarchy. But there are those who stick out as being more prominent than the rank and file skeptic, because they have some recognized media outlet, including books, organizations, blogs, podcasts, TV appearances, or some form of standard celebrity. They therefore lead through example and/or the influence of the content they generate.

How much of the problems with the CoR are the result of a failure of this “leadership,” asks Massimo? That is also an excellent question. I don’t have any pithy answers. Massimo argues that there is a failure of leadership, given that many skeptical “leaders” fall for one or more of his hit-list of unreason, but he also grants that there are positive role-models.

Massimo touches on the fact that today’s community leaders are more likely to be bloggers and twitterers, rather than the likes of Carl Sagan or Martin Gardner. This is also an interesting topic, worthy of its own post. The new media has allowed for many voices to emerge, and has dramatically increased the amount of conversation. Instead of a few celebrities who have broken through to real fame, like Sagan, we have many C-level internet celebrities with a greater variety of backgrounds, skills, and attitudes. We are still adjusting to this new world, seeking advantages while compensating for disadvantages.

Further, the internet has caused in the opinion of many a coarsening of the tone of discourse. The perceived distance and anonymity of the internet has led to an erosion of social courtesies. I also think there is an arms race of negativity on the internet – sarcasm, ridicule, and insults are met with greater sarcasm, ridicule, and insults, as a perceived survival strategy. It seems the internet has given the crassest of us the loudest voice, and as a result the overall tone has been dragged down.

All of these factors tend to blow up every now and then over specific people and/or issues, but they are always there in the background.

This was a bit of a rambling and self-indulgent post (i.e. a typical blog post), but I think the issues Massimo raises are important ones and I agree that as a community we need to keep the conversation going. There is more that unites us in world-view and our basic dedication to reality and reason than divides us over specific issues or opinions about strategies and goals.

38 responses so far

38 thoughts on “Massimo’s Look at the Community of Reason”

  1. SARA says:

    I like the term Community of Reason far better than Skeptic. Too many conspiracy theorist and the like tend to consider themselves skeptical. (And from a dictionary definition, I suppose they are.) In fact before I met the skeptic movement, I had a negative view of people who called themselves skeptics, thinking they were the crank pots who would explain how Loch Ness was real and the Moon Landing was a hoax. So, I like the CoR term better.

    “your goal should be to gently educate others, not ridicule, pontificate, showboat, or condemn.” This is a major concern to me within the skeptic’s movement. I am often reluctant to identify myself as a skeptic or an atheist because I don’t want to thrown in with some extremists in the group that do and say some things that I cannot condone.

    Nor do I think it is particularly useful to attack rather than reason. It has been said that using derision is a way to convert people to your viewpoint. I would prefer people chose to reason their way to a position and not cower in face of taunts and mockery, eventually choosing to agree with mockers because it’s psychologically easier. I don’t like bullying in any form.

  2. Bronze Dog says:

    Courtesy can indeed go a long way, but I say the same for ridicule. There’s a lot of variation in circumstances where one might work better than the other. In either case, there’s still a need to illustrate the logic and evidence behind the skeptical position and the fallacies and weaknesses of our opponents.

    I see the coarseness of the internet as a mixed value. On one hand, some people use it as an argument that people should grow thicker skin and focus on substance, since politeness is often used to avoid talking about unpleasant truths. On the other hand, it’s a convenient excuse for many people to ignore facts and logic from adversaries and to stick to their safe echo chambers.

  3. banyan says:

    I typically went by two rules of thumb when “arguing” with others: (1) always assume good faith and (2) always present the other person’s position in its best possible light. Your rules of thumb encompass both of these, but probably do more over all. I do this even with those who are plainly not in good faith, because unless there is an actual conspiracy going on, folks out there certainly believe them in good faith, and you must keep those people in mind.

  4. Banyan – I would state it a bit differently. I actually wrote, essentially, not to assume bad faith. But I would not assume good faith either. I would just remain agnostic, unless you have evidence to inform you one way or the other.

    Assuming good faith can get you into trouble also, by, for example, giving credit where it is not due or being exploited by having your words (assuming good faith) used as an implied endorsement of nonsense.

  5. Johann says:

    Excellent post, Dr. Novella.

    – Johann

  6. kikyo says:

    Bronze Dog – While politeness can be a way to avoid unpleasant truths, at it’s heart, I believe politeness is an attempt to provide structure such that emotions don’t overcome the substance of an interaction. If you are making someone feel personally upset, it is going to be very difficult for them to overcome that and actually focus on the substance of a conversation. That is the very reason why we create manners – to try to avoid the intrusion of feelings so that we can get on with the business at hand.

    In some situations, this is the very opposite of what you want, since addressing the feelings should be the focus. But if you are trying to explain something factual, leaving the personal emotional stuff out of it as far as possible is probably best. I think something like ridicule only has a place when it is more important to convince and benefit others than to persuade the object of your discussion. For example, a quack who is harming people with their assertions. Making them ridiculous may be appropriate if it will cause other people to realize the harm and therefore save some people from a bad decision, particularly if there is reason to believe that they ARE acting in bad faith.

  7. Ray says:

    Thanks for the great post!
    Related but tangential. As someone who takes a view that is at odds with some in the scientific and skeptical communities, I find the following to be, unfortunately, very representative of the way some scientists and skeptics often argue. Nicholas Mosley, author of Hopeful Monsters (Dalkey Press 1991) discusses the way the scientific community responded to the Lamarckian ideas of the biologist Paul Kammerer: “But what is striking about the objections to Kammerer on the part of mainstream biologists . . . was that they did not point out rationally, as they might so easily have done, the flaws in his arguments and procedures; they seemed intent on impugning emotionally his honesty and even his sanity; they claimed that he was ‘cooking’ his results – even those that were so obviously tentative.”
    In listening to podcasts other than SGU, and reading blogs other than this one, I find that some in the skeptic/science community just assume the listener/reader knows the facts or, worse, explain the “facts” in a manner inconsistent with reality, or simply attacks the character of their opponent rather than explaining the facts. This is obviously counterproductive. Whether and or when to use sarcasm etc is a topic worth pursuing but first and foremost we should be very careful not to repeat the mistakes of others and make sure we know the facts and can competently explain them before pontificating on them.

  8. lippard says:

    There are some philosophical reasons to start with a (rebuttable) presumption of good faith–the nature of our epistemic dependence upon others requires it in order to get off the ground. The individualist Cartesian skeptical project of building up all knowledge from the cogito as a foundation turned out not to work.

    (For some of the issues of epistemic dependence, see, e.g., John Hardwig’s “Epistemic Dependence” from the Journal of Philosophy (, C.A.J. Coady’s book _Testimony_, and the book _The Philosophy of Expertise_. In the latter book, Alvin Goldman’s contribution, similar to some of the content in his book _Knowledge in a Social World_, offers some good rules of thumb for laymen judging expertise, but IMHO it doesn’t quite solve the problem Hardwig raises.)

  9. ccbowers says:

    This is an important topic, and the way it is being brought up is much more substantial than the typical discussion about “tone.” It is important to reevalute aspects of the skeptical movement to see if there are areas of the movement that fail to be skeptical or intellectually honest. It is also good to discuss whether various approaches are effective at achieving certain goals, assuming we agree what those goal are.

    There is certainly room for sharp comments and ridicule (I enjoy those from time to time), but those could be used more judiciously. Its a tough thing, since the internet seems to have had an important role in the recent growth of the movement, but it also allows for an environment in which people feel free to say things that they would never say face to face.

  10. ccbowers says:

    One thing that Massimo and Steve have in common is that they are both very good at identifying the important aspects of discussions/arguments, and carefully choose words that clarify. An important component of this is that they do this in ways that are direct yet tactful. It can be a difficult thing to do, and I assume that it took much effort and practice over many years to hone this skill. Over the past few years I have tried to work on this as well, and I find that it improves my own thinking, because being able to explain things clearly requires greater understanding

  11. BillyJoe7 says:

    We should all strive to be more sceptical and be more aware of our propensity to slip into unsceptical or irrrational ways of thinking. As Robert Carroll says, scepticism, rationality, and logic are unnatural acts. Wek on them. Even Massimo is vulnerable (eg his views on free will 😐 )

    As for approaches and tone, I reject Massimo’s attempt at censorship. There is room for everyone to put their view in their own way, be it Pigliucci, Novella, and Dennett, or Dawkins, Coyne, and Myers. In any case, the contrary crowd are here to stay and he’ll just have to get used to different approaches to his own. As someone else once commented, it is as difficult to herd sceptics as it is to herd cats. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

  12. ccbowers says:

    “I reject Massimo’s attempt at censorship”

    Who said anything about censorship? Give me an example of censorship in his post. Criticism is not censorship, and can be very helpful to those open to it.

  13. ccbowers says:

    “There is room for everyone to put their view in their own way, be it Pigliucci, Novella, and Dennett, or Dawkins, Coyne, and Myers. In any case, the contrary crowd are here to stay and he’ll just have to get used to different approaches to his own.”

    True, and I agree that it will take many styles and approaches to be maximally effective, but I think the criticism is justified when a particular style becomes over represented (in his opinion). When you identify with a group and it strays to far in one direction, it is not only appropriate, but it is almost an obligation to say something when you have a voice in that community.

  14. BillyJoe7 says:


    “Who said anything about censorship? ”

    I didn’t literally mean “censorship”, but his comes close:
    “Turn on moderation on all your blogs”

    And this suggestion makes no sense:
    “Keep in mind the distinction between humor and sarcasm, leave the latter to comedians, who are supposed to be offending people.”
    Apparently, it’s okay for Tim Minchin to be sarcastic and offend people because he’s a comedian, but not Jerry Coyne or PZ Myers, because, oh you know, they are not comedians!

  15. pro.reason says:

    I like this conversation! Just the fact that we’re going up in the helicopter a bit to look down and more empirically examine how the skeptical community is “occurring” to others seems very rational to me.

    I would acknowledge, however, how frustrating it can be at times to, however kindly, discuss matters of disagreement with those less skeptical. Even though I try to apply many of Steve’s guidelines, I find myself often getting hooked, which can then lead to sarcasm, however unintended. This particularly happens with family members on matters of faith and religion.

    I would add the following to the above guidelines when appropriate: the ole’ Socratic method. By keeping this simple guideline in mind, I find that by looking to ask more questions I’m able to (at times) lead people further along the path of critical thinking than if I bury them with facts and perspectives.

    For what it’s worth.

  16. banyan says:

    “Apparently, it’s okay for Tim Minchin to be sarcastic and offend people because he’s a comedian, but not Jerry Coyne or PZ Myers, because, oh you know, they are not comedians!”

    I think what he’s trying to say is that people should be more aware that it’s extremely difficult to use sarcasm effectively, especially in a written medium. Comedians can do it, but the rest of us should probably hold off.

  17. Eric Thomson says:

    Good to see people calling out the new breed of internet skeptic sheep, demagogue, and dilettante. I worry there is nothing to be done because the coarse is king on the interwebs. THere will always be a sizeable demand for such dreck, and a much smaller demand for serious intelligent informed commentary. Sigh.

  18. BillyJoe7 says:


    False dichotomy.
    There is dreck and intelligent discussion on both sides.
    It’s more a matter of approach and what people find effective in their particluar circumstances with their particular skills. And it is merely intuitive (hmmm…) not evidential that only accommodationism will get us there.

  19. BillyJoe7 says:


    “I think what he’s trying to say is that people should be more aware that it’s extremely difficult to use sarcasm effectively, especially in a written medium. Comedians can do it, but the rest of us should probably hold off.”

    Most of the time you’re not trying to convince true believers. By and large, there is no evidence that anything will be effective with them. It’s the fence sitters and those who already are sceptical about non-evidence based claims to more effectively see the arguments against those claims. Sarcasm can work as effectively as considered discussion and argument, it can more effectively summarise the considered argumentl, and it can allow instant recall of the considered argument.

    Also I haven’t seen any evidence that comedic sarcasm works any more effectively than serious sarcasm. Have you?

  20. Jared Olsen says:

    Excellent post Steve. My philosophy has always been that a conversation is not a battle, but a dialectic, a search for truth. My experience with true believers is that unless you agree with them, any criticism, no matter how polite, is unwelcome.

  21. jo5ef says:

    Hear hear, I agree we all should stay cool

  22. tmac57 says:

    For me,nothing counters blatant hypocrisy as effectively as biting sarcasm. It just highlights and amplifies B.S. in a way that a reasoned deconstruction can’t,because people ‘get it’ almost instantly,where they might tune out on a lengthy and fact filled argument.

    The key is that there needs to be a very strong truth element to the sarcasm.That’s what makes it so compelling. (It’s funny because it’s true ).

  23. steven johnson says:

    Dear Professor Novella,

    You write “Massimo’s point is that, as a community, we need to constantly remind ourselves that, while we respect and aspire to reason, we are imperfect and subject to bias and motivated reasoning just like every other human being.”

    Prof. Pigliuccki does write “The point of this list, I hasten to say, is not that the opinions that I have expressed on these topics are necessarily correct, but rather that a good number of people in the CoR, including several leaders of the movement(s), either hold to clearly unreasonable opinions on said topics, or cannot even engage in a discussion about the opinions they do hold, dismissing any dissenting voice as crazy or irrelevant.” The opinions themselves are held to be unreasonable. Perhaps he feels he personally doesn’t “dimiss” unreasonable opinions, much less imply they are “crazy or irrelevant,” and those who hold unreasonable opinions do. But this clearly implies that it is first of all the rationality of certain opinions he is attacking, not just bad manners. I think you misrepresent him.

    In fact, I dare say that when Prof. Pigliucci is so kind as to label his targets A, B and C, we should take him at his word. Prof. Pigliucci is not reminding us to be humble and mild-mannered, he is attacking A) anti-intellectualism, B) I’m smarter than you syndrome and C) failure of leadership.

    As for his assault on A, he quickly aims his fire at…”scientism.” He add anti-intellectualism “proper” next. This is frankly what political writers have called an amalgam, falsely lumping together two different things to rhetorically taint the one with the other. Whatever your feelings about so-called scientism, redefining it as anti-intellectualism means excluding science from the sphere of intellect.
    And looking at his list of objectionable opinions, it is by no means clear which (any, even?) are in fact attributable to “scientism.” Why do you accept that scientism, whatever you conceive it to be, is anti-intellectualism and that it is responsible for these irrational opinions? And if you don’t, why haven’t you articulated your disagreement with Prof. Pigliucci on this key point?

    Could I suggest instead that it is the undefined nature of skepticism that invites people who hold these irrational opinions? One thing skepticism notably is not, is neither simple atheism nor even scientific materialism. If skepticism were either, it wouldn’t be upheld as something separate and better, after all. But, if skepticism is better than materialism, won’t people who reject science’s materialism sometimes become skeptics? Won’t people who reject materialism’s dogmatic certainty about science’s ability to describe reality sometimes become skeptics?

    Isn’t the real cure for this kind of embarrassment being a thorough-going discussion as to what metaphysical beliefs skepticism really does hold. If it is anti-realist, or agnostic on the existence or knowability of reality, mustn’t it therefore admit to its ranks those who hold what some of us would unhesitatingly affirm to be irrational?

    I admit that actually defining skepticism would be a fractious business. But since Prof. Pigliucci is in so many words arguing that the skeptic movement already includes people who are irrational, he is already arguing the movement should be fractionated between the rational and nice as against the irrational and not nice. Instead of a laundry list of specific issues and complaints about people’s behavior, wouldn’t it be better to clarify thinking about what skepticism really means in terms of ontology, metaphysics, epistemology? It’s not materialism or atheism, so what is it?

    As for his assault on B, this secondary target is what he perceives as the attitude of too many skeptics. As such, the mere existence of a widespread “I’m smarter than thou” syndrome is as questionable as the use of the pronoun thou. This is a nicely invidious motive to ascribe to people. I also daresay that there are quite a few motives at work in the people whom he dislikes. After all, this is about people whom he dislikes, first for their irrational opinions and secondly for their inability to politely argue their case.

    I’m not sure it is legitimate to blend these two criticisms together, but he does. In particular, the importance of the internet means that the contradictions between a public forum and a private blog creates an anarchy of standards. With the best will in the world it is not possible for the same manners to serve in a public debate and a private correspondence.

    At any rate, those people who are genuinely concerned that religious fanaticism is a rising menace (to cite one common example,) are not going to be as placid as the professor wishes. To dismiss their ardor as “I’m smarter than thou” really seems to be intentionally demeaning. This is particularly striking in a supposed plea for civilized debate! I’m sure there are other emotions at work in some of the people whose opinions and manners Prof. Pigliucci. My anecdotal but vast experience of people tells me they have all sorts of reasons for their behavior, not just one.

    It is also particularly striking that there is no logical connection demonstrated between the problem of anti-intellectualism and the laundry list of behavioral modifications Prof. Pigliucci proposes! There is an implicit demand for deference by others to his professional credentials, I think. That isn’t actually an argument. Perhaps I’m misreading and Prof. Pigliucci really does mean to argue that believing only science provides knowledge is irrational. But that argument isn’t there either.

    As for his assault on C, the bad leaders of the CoR, his vade mecum of skeptical etiquette, is indeed aimed directly at certain people. By their absence we can guess Richard Dawkins (is he a “skeptic?”) Jerry Coyne, P.Z. Myers et al. Now I’m sure that being part of the charmed circle of approved leaders makes it seem ungrateful to disagree that these should be drummed out of a movement that not only isn’t organized, but has no agreed upon principles. I should daresay that this list really has no meaningful role to play in combating anti-intellectualism. But it’s not really a program, is it? It’s really a bill of indictment. As I read your comments on this aspect of Prof. Piglucci’s post, it really seems as though you wish that the bad leaders would plead guilty in return for probation/suspended sentence. Is it really reasonable to think it can work out like that?

  24. Tetyana says:

    Those are great rules of thumb – thanks!

  25. tmac57 says:

    Steven Johnson-You have provided an impressive set of words in your comment.
    What do they mean again?

  26. Mlema says:

    No matter how right, no matter how smart, no one likes an asshole.
    But if the asshole is your friend and you agree with him, well then he’s not an asshole, right?

  27. ccbowers says:

    “The key is that there needs to be a very strong truth element to the sarcasm.That’s what makes it so compelling. (It’s funny because it’s true ).”

    I think you may be referring to satire when I think his use of sarcasm is a bit more specific. I think satire can be an incredibly compelling way to demonstrate an argument or point, and I view sarcasm as a briefer and cheaper version and is usually used as an insult. I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for sarcasm (I use it myself, perhaps too much), but it doesn’t have the same impact intellectually. I think of Stephen Colbert’s character as a brilliant use of satire, and David Spade as a person who has use sarcasm primarily in his career in comedy.

  28. locutusbrg says:

    I only know Massimo from his podcast. I have tried very hard to be appreciative of his point of view but failed. I find him to be far more condescending and insular than other well known skeptic “leaders”. It is my opinion that he always come across as intolerant of others opinions. I appreciate that when your sacred cow is taken away you can have a personal and guttural reaction. He never really took any positions that I disagreed with. His banter with Julia gave me an impression of rank superiority. I do not claim to know anyone in the “CoR” personally, but I have always found Massimo to be the most abrasive. I keep questioning why he bothers me, but I still have no clear answer. I just felt that other’s pod-casts SGU, Dunning, skepchic, ETC were very open to being wrong. I never got the sense of any openness to being wrong on the NYC skeptics podcast. To be honest I stopped listening 1 year ago. When I read this post and his quote my first though was yea sounds like him. Maybe it is his training, philosophers argue for a living. I don’t know. Given my bias about him I find his complaint to be ironic. Sorry Steve I find your sort of velvet glove approach to be much more palatable.
    Why no there is no Sagan in the current CoR? Simply put most people don’t know Sagan as a skeptic or atheist, just as a man of science who believed in possibilities. Skepticism still suffers from a degree of superiority. You have to be really really charismatic to tell someone they are wrong and have them accept it. That is why Tyson does so well.
    I agree 100% with arguing from commonalities, but so few skeptics do it.

  29. mtskeptic says:

    One aspect of blogs that contributes to the “arms race of negativity” is that success is often counted by the number of page views. This is particularly true of blog/media outlets that that is their whole business, driving traffic to their posts. But even among non-commercial sites, bloggers will seek more eyeballs because that’s what a good blog should have, many readers.

    This can entice them to craft more sensational headlines as well as take more opinionated stances. Inducing a strong emotional reaction in readers is very good at getting more page views. It doesn’t have to be a strong positive one either, negative reactions and controversy can often be more effective at getting people to click through.

    This fact is easily manipulated by people seeking to promote their cause, on the SGU you talked about the guys who posted images of the fake Apple screws. Many prominent blogs picked it up because it tapped into an existing controversy over how Apple designs it’s products and makes modifying and upgrading them difficult and made an easy headline sure to draw many clicks.

    It seems that like you say some skeptical outlets are not immune to these same driving forces.

  30. tmac57 says:

    ccbowers-No,I intentionally use the word ‘sarcasm’ for the specific case of countering “blatant hypocrisy”. To understand that better look up ‘blatant’ ,and you will see my point I think.
    I would agree that the gentler ‘satire’ is more appropriate for unintentional hypocrisy,though.

  31. ccbowers says:

    I was more referring to the latter part of your post:

    “The key is that there needs to be a very strong truth element to the sarcasm.That’s what makes it so compelling. (It’s funny because it’s true ).”

    I thought that this comment was more consistent with satire than sarcasm. I agree with the implication of your response about when each is best used

  32. I like the idea, however some of us use our blogs to let off steam and create an outlet for our frustrations rather than attempt to change people’s opinions on a personal level.

    Frankly, I have a very low tolerance for alternative medical viewpoints as I find it difficult to reconcile the fact that people think it’s okay to insult my intelligence by insisting that the magic medical fairy is the only one to trust, whilst referring to dissenting viewpoints as naive.

    It becomes exponentially more offensive when people insist that they will treat their children with the same magic medical fairy.

    In personal life, I tend to just ask a few challenging questions and try to hide my contempt before agreeing to disagree. A little gentle ridicule within the conversation doesn’t make me the most popular person, however I feel ridiculed by having to listen to some people’s opinions. If they’re met with a gentle, but slightly embarrassing situation when airing their views, then at least they might think twice before attempting to preach to the next unsuspecting victim.

    If I’m still annoyed, I’ll write a scathing blog post whilst arming myself with a few more facts for the next time someone decides I need to be educated about reiki healing or homeopathy .

    In fact the new Health Secretary in the UK thinks that homeopathy works.

    I can feel another blog post coming on!


  33. Jared Olsen says:

    I think it was Harlan Ellison who said something like: we’re all entitled to an opinion, but I’ll only listen if it’s an informed opinion.

  34. sonic says:

    In order to discuss what communications are good or bad, we would have to know what the goal of the communication is. For example- do you want a person to think rationally or do you want them to accept some idea as fact? Sometimes these might be the same goal, but what if there is conflict?

    If a person can think rationally, then she can make up her own mind about things by investigation. In that case a discussion of evidence should suffice. If we have a disagreement, then the communication could consist of an exchange of evidence (perhaps various experimental results). We could then discuss implications and reach an understanding– perhaps I understand why the person thinks differently about the subject than I do- perhaps we reach an agreement as to how to think.
    An example of this might be the various ways people interpret the basic experiments of physics (quantum mechanics). I can understand why someone might like the ‘many-worlds’ over the ‘copenhagen’ interpretation- but those people might just agree to disagree…

    If the point is to get a person to accept certain things– then independent thought gets in the way. That person could be indoctrinated into the correct idea. This can be done through ridicule, intimidation, legal threats, and so forth.
    This can take the form of demanding one agree with a certain position in order to graduate from school, for example.

    The question becomes real in this way– what happens if a rational person looks at the data and decides to write something like “Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Concept of Nature is Almost Certainly False” as Thomas Nagel has done?

    Would you opt for the person to continue to think for himself and draw conclusions based on his study and understanding or would you demand he agree with you?

    If one knows the goal of the communication, then one can match the style of communication to that intended goal.

    I would suggest if the goal is rational thought- then the conclusions must be left to the individual and the communication should be factual and about evidence.
    If the goal is to indoctrinate into certain positions, then the use of sarcasm, ridicule, intimidation, and legal threat comes into play.

    At least that how it looks to me.

  35. BillyJoe7 says:


    Where that falls down is where a person’s belief is clearly irrational, where their attachment to an idea is emotional. There are those who believe in homoeopathy even when they know what is involved in homoeopathy. In that case, no rational argument will convince that person. In that case, sarcasm and ridicule are valuable tools to expose the nonsense contained in that idea to those less familiar with what is involved with homoeopathy.

  36. sonic says:

    You have given an excellent example of what I am talking about.

  37. the_woodman says:

    Very good blog post. 🙂

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