Jan 30 2016

NECSS and Richard Dawkins

The Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS) will hold its 8th conference this year in New York from May 12-15. While we are expecting a great conference this year, the opening of registration has been marked by a bit of controversy. Last week we announced that Richard Dawkins would be a featured speaker at the conference. However on Wednesday we withdrew our invitation to Professor Dawkins.

This was a difficult and complex decision that requires further explanation, in the name of transparency and open discussion. I don’t expect to resolve any controversies here, just to explain our thought process and answer some of the questions and speculations that have been circulating.

NECSS is run by the New York City Skeptics and the New England Skeptical Society, both non-profit organizations. NECSS has its own executive committee, consisting of members of both organizations. (Added clarification: those members are Michael Feldman, Steven Novella, Jamy Ian Swiss, Benny Pollak, and Jay Novella.) There has been much speculation about who is making the decisions for NECSS – it is this committee. I will just say that there were a range of opinions on this matter within the committee, and we came to the best decisions we could, given that range of opinions. When I refer to “we” in this article, I am not speaking for every individual on the committee, just the majority result.

NECSS is primarily about science and critical thinking with an emphasis on issues of interest to scientific skeptics. We pride ourselves on being an open and collegial conference. This has sometimes been challenging given the controversies that have strained the skeptical community.

Richard Dawkins has been a polarizing figure in the skeptical community for several years.  On the one hand, many people (myself included) greatly respect the work that Dawkins has done. He is a brilliant science communicator. His books have brought many people to rationalism. He is one of the few “rock stars” of our movement.

I also greatly respect and appreciate the fact that he is an outspoken public atheist. This is tremendously important, and serves to legitimize atheism for many. Dawkins has dedicated much of his career and effort to charitable endeavors, to make the world a better place.

All of this is why it has been very puzzling to many that his social media activity has often not reflected his reputation as a public intellectual. He has famously made tweets or blog comments that have come off as insensitive or worse. I will not dissect each instance here, which is well trammeled territory already.

Interestingly, Dawkins himself recently tweeted:

“I’m really as polite as my books. Twitter brevity forces you straight to the point, which can sound aggressive.”

In any case, the dichotomy between Dawkins the author and Dawkins the social-media maven has proven extremely polarizing within the rationalist movement. Even for an individual, one can find themselves admiring the former while regretting the latter.

For further background, over the last 5-6 years the skeptical movement has been rocked by intermittent controversy over sexism and racism in the movement. This is a complex topic I am not going to tackle or resolve here. Suffice it to say this controversy has caused many in the movement to form various camps, some championing free speech, others social justice. Others have tried to chart a course down the middle, while still others left the movement.

In the mix, unfortunately, there have been truly vile trolls who have made threats of violence and rape, serving mostly to radicalize the entire issue. Trolls and psychopaths are part of the new social media reality, a new reality to which we are all still adapting.

It is with this (granted very quickly summarized) background that the NECSS committee was faced with the decision of whether or not to invite Professor Dawkins to our conference. In the end we decided that we would be having a brilliant science communicator communicate about science. We felt we could do this without endorsing his controversial statements and positions on social media.

We had our reservations about the controversy this would create, but were prepared to defend this decision for the above reasons. Unfortunately, within a week of opening registration many of us became concerned that this might not be tenable.

Dawkins retweeted a video (called “Feminists Love Islamists”) depicting an Islamist and an angry feminist (who it turns out is a real person and not just a character) and essentially making the claim that these groups share an ideology. Dawkins tweeted:

“Obviously doesn’t apply to the vast majority of feminists, among whom I count myself. But the minority are pernicious.”

He included a link to the video. This, of course, set off another round of controversy over Dawkins’ social media activity and the attitudes they reflect.

The concern for some of us at NECSS was that by hosting Dawkins as a featured speaker we were making a statement we did not intend to make, a statement that could be interpreted as being unwelcoming and even hostile to many attendees. Since we had just opened registration this created an urgency, because we did not want to “bait and switch” our attendees if we would ultimately decide to reverse our decision to have him at the conference. We felt it was important to make a decision quickly.

To his credit, Dawkins removed his tweet in which he linked to the video. He did this prior to learning about our decision. Likewise, we made and executed our decision prior to learning that Dawkins deleted the tweet. I don’t know if this would have changed our decision. On the one hand removing the tweet is recognition that it was a mistake in the first place. On the other hand, it shows he is willing to admit error and make changes.

Richard Dawkins has responded to our action. You can read his full response here, in which he states:

I do not write this out of concern about my appearance or non-appearance at NECSS, but I wish there had been a friendly conversation before such unilateral action was taken. It is possible I could have allayed the committee members’ concerns, or, if not, at least we could have talked through their objections to my tweet. If our community is about anything, it is that reasoned discussion is the best way to work through disagreements.

and

I wish the NECSS every success at their conference. The science and skepticism community is too small and too important to let disagreements divide us and divert us from our mission of promoting a more critical and scientifically literate world.

Obviously there is much to debate and criticize in this entire process. I do want to acknowledge some of the points on both sides and address some of the feedback we have already received.

First, many have pointed out that if we had such reservations about Dawkins we should not have invited him in the first place. This is a fair point. I only have an explanation (given above) not an excuse. Sometimes the decision-making process fails. But keep in mind hindsight is 20-20 and it is easy to criticize from the sidelines.

Dawkins himself also raises the point that another option would have been to privately express our concerns to him. This was actually discussed as an option, as were other options. We were faced with a complex set of trade-offs and in the end did what we felt was best for attendees of our conference. But again this is an entirely fair point.

There have been many other points expressed that I do not think are fair. The issue here, for example, is not free speech. Dawkins is completely free to express himself and he has a massive audience and plenty of outlets. Far be it for our humble conference to have any effect on his free speech. That is simply framing the issue in the wrong way.

As an analogy, creationists often complain that firing professors who teach creationism is a violation of their free speech, while the real issue is about academic quality control. In our case, the issue is about our right to craft our own conference the way we wish.

People have a right to speech, but they don’t have a right to access a private venue for their speech. In fact, whom we invite or uninvite to our conference is the primary mechanism of our free speech. This was ultimately about the character of NECSS and the statement we wish to make (or not make) to our community. Obviously where one sets the threshold for not inviting, or uninviting, a guest is subjective and there is room for reasonable disagreement here.

Others have questioned whether or not we condemn all satire, with South Park being brought up as a frequent example. We are not against satire, but this video is no South Park. The video in question, in my opinion, was spiteful and childish and was merely hiding behind satire. That is a judgment call, but making that judgment does not condemn satire as a form.

Another frequent point is that we are against any criticism of feminism, as if it is a taboo topic. This is also not true. No topic should be taboo, and we favor open and vigorous discussion of all important issues. In fact, pointed criticism is good for the feminist movement – or for any movement. (This does not mean that NECSS is the proper venue for any particular topic.)

The point, rather, is that this video, and the discussion that surrounded it, was not constructive. It was hateful and divisive. Further (as Dawkins later acknowledged) the video targeted a woman who is allegedly already the target of threats and harassment.

Context here is important. The tweet and video did not occur in a vacuum.

I want to directly address Dawkins’ last statement:

“The science and skepticism community is too small and too important to let disagreements divide us and divert us from our mission of promoting a more critical and scientifically literate world.”

I completely agree. That is, ironically, the exact reason we were so disturbed by that video and Dawkins spreading of it. I do wish Dawkins would recognize (perhaps he does) his special place within our community and the power that position holds. When he retweets a link to a video, even with a caveat, that has a tremendous impact. It lends legitimacy to the video and the ideas expressed in it.

That is why Dawkins is so polarizing. In my opinion, someone in his position, with his eloquence, knowledge, and intellect, with his academic background should be doing everything he can to elevate the level of discussion. He has the ability to address legitimate criticisms of feminism, or atheism or skepticism, if he thinks he has them. He could be a force that is helping unite our very small and critically important rationalist movement.

Instead, I fear, he is helping to divide us, 140 characters at a time, and helping to lower the level of the discussion.

I do praise Dawkins for his polite and collegial response to our move to uninvite him from NECSS, and for deleting the tweet for the right reasons.

It is our sincere hope that the movement can grow and mature out of this experience, and our previous travails. This has been a learning experience. Thank you for your patience with these very difficult decisions.

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