Posts Tagged ‘controversy’

Controversial speakers

Saturday, July 14th, 2012 | Religion & Politics, Thoughts

In my previous blog post, I wrote about our decision to cancel Steve Moxon’s scheduled talk at Leeds Skeptics. In this blog post, I wanted to explore the wider issues of controversial speakers, and balancing freedom of speech and proper public debate with being an inclusive and welcoming organisation.

In the discussions, someone asked if I would want to attend an event where someone had views that I found offensive. The answer is without a doubt yes. I totally would – and I did – I spent my university years while running Leeds Atheist Society, going to talks run by religious societies where speakers said some very offensive and controversial things.

I wanted to learn about their points of view. To me, they seemed like obviously wrong and bigoted. But how could I say that for sure unless I had heard them out? And if it turned out their views were as shallow as it seemed, I wanted to challenge them on it. To be honest, it never really occurred to me that other skeptics wouldn’t feel the same way.

When I asked my girlfriend about it, she said the same thing. She would have liked Steve to speak, so she could hear him out and challenge the opinions she disagreed with. As Mike points out, how else are we supposed to challenge prejudice?

The only way SITP can come out on top is if the members take him to task; it’s recorded and publicised in order to counteracts any publicity claims he makes himself. It needs to be clear that this is an exercise in critical analysis and the application of skepticism and not a sounding-off platform. That includes the common decency of informing the speaker himself to give himself a chance to pull out should he so wish.

I often try to bring controversial speakers to the group as a springboard for debate, because I have always felt that Skeptics group suffer severely from preaching to the converted. We bring in someone who rubbishes UFOs for a living, and we sit there with our pints and go “ha, ha, ha, there’s no such as UFOs, what idiots for believing in them, isn’t that funny.” Of course, it’s a good laugh for us all, but it is neither thought provoking nor challenging. As Adrian summarises…

At present we have a network of groups like SitP that invite scientists and atheists to speak to other scientists and atheists, and a network of groups like Truth Juice that invite woo-woo merchants to speak to woo-woo sponges. Thus speakers of all types are largely preaching to the converted and very little of any value is actually taking place.

For someone like Moxon to speak to skeptics groups is good for Moxon, since he gets to see that not everyone shares his point of view, and has to listen to people debunking his irrationality, and good for the audience since they learn first-hand what kind of woo-woo there really is out there in British society (and how it is rationalised) and they can practise arguing against it.

Trystan feels the same way…

You mention that there is a difference between a controversial speaker and one who attempts to pass of poorly reasoned views as science, but SitP is a fantastic venue to highlight – specifically during Q and A – what is wrong with the argument being made on scientific grounds. It is a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate skepticism at work.

If certain people at Leeds Skeptics are unhappy that the talk was booked then (a) it doesn’t mean anything and (b) I’m wondering why. I can guess. Most, if not all, SitPs I’ve encountered seem to have an element who feel each event is about having an on side preacher come and speak to the choir, doing all of the skepticism for them. I recall upsetting a gentleman in Oxford because my views on private ownership of land was at odds with his own. It rocked the boat, made him think. Why not seize the opportunity to perform some self-think rather than following group-think?

If anything, the academic-cum-philosophical-cum-skeptical platform should be opened up more for people with views that are groundless and have the potential for harm. Oxford Debating Society did a wonderful job by opening up their doors for Icke to bury himself under a deluge of his own nonsense.

Indeed, while the majority of organisers from local Skeptics groups haven’t commented either way, most of them who have seem to have similar feelings.

I have always thought that the point of a Skeptics event should be to make you think. We’re supposed to be non-dogmatic; and a group of individuals who can think for themselves and challenge ideas. If you don’t agree, that’s fine, it just means you’re not a skeptic by the very definition of the word and are unlikely to find much benefit attending skeptics events.

After all, if we’ve not providing thought provoking and challenging events, what exactly are we doing? Preaching a monthly sermon to you about something you are supposed to accept without question? That isn’t the movement I signed up.

Rather, Skeptics meetings should be a bastion for critical thinking, a place where we aren’t afraid to let bad ideas be proposed every once in a while because we have enough trust in our own critical faculties to be able to tell the difference between a good argument and a bad one. Such events are an ideal time to confront prejudice and show good skepticism in action.

Cancelling Steve Moxon

Friday, July 13th, 2012 | Events, Religion & Politics

This is the first of three blog posts I have coming out regarding the debate points that have been raised recently around inviting controversial speakers to Skeptics events. In my first post, I want to discuss the situation at hand in a little more depth.

At the start of the year, we booked Steve Moxon to speak at Leeds Skeptics, on the topic of “why aren’t there more women in the boardroom?” On Monday, 9 June, we announced that we were cancelling the event.

The decision was reached after we had received a significant amount of concerned messages from people who attend our events, as well as new information being brought to our attention and after review, we eventually concluded that it would not create a positive debate as we had hoped. Here is what the Leeds Skeptics officially said:

After careful consideration, we have decided to cancel Steve Moxon’s upcoming talk. As a Skeptics group we strive to host events that are both interesting and challenging, however, based on feedback from those who attend our events, and new information being brought to our attention, we now believe that it is unlikely that the event would create a healthy and positive debate on the matter.

It was a very tough decision to reach though. On one side, we don’t want people who turn up to our events to be offended, at the same time, we do want to host events on thought provoking subjects and not be limited on topics by those that are on the approved skeptics list.

In the end, the question of censorship was a moot point – even if we did cancel the event, it wasn’t a case that we were censoring anyone – it’s our forum, we can invite who we like, and we ultimately called off the event because Steve would not have been well received, nor would it have created a proper debate on the subject. The subject itself remains as a topic worthy of debate.
After this had all taken place, someone asked if Leeds Skeptics was in the habit of giving radical speakers a platform – the implication being that we didn’t, so we shouldn’t give Steve one.

So, Leeds Skeptics, do you regularly hold events where creationists are given an uninterrupted platform? Do you regularly invite anti-vaxxers to speak at Skeptics in the Pub and blurb their work in the same tone? Isn’t the appropriate form to engage with someone whose views are controversial and that you want to see ripped to shreds a debate, not a lecture?

However, the answer to this question is yes. We have previously invited speakers from the Zeitgeist Movement and We Are Change. They’re both good examples of when we have invited controversial speakers, with views at odds with those of most Skeptics, backed up with some very questionable science. Naturally, they were both taken to task in the Q&A.

That said, they are tame compared to the kind of events that Leeds Atheist Society puts on. They regularly give an uninterrupted platform to members of the religious community, who often have strong and open views against women and homosexuals. I remember one of the Reason Week debates was opened by the Islamic speaker making the following joke.

50 years ago homosexuality was a crime, today it’s accepted, in 50 years time it will probably be compulsory.

He got booed for it. So he should, it’s rare that you hear something that offensive said in public. But there was no question as to whether we should be challenging this kind of bigotry – of course we should be. That was in the context of debate, but through the interfaith talks, it’s more normal for a religious speaker at LAS to get an uninterrupted platform where they can say what they like without rebuttal. I’ve never heard of anything avoiding such events because of the controversial things the religious speaker had to say – we’re there to learn, and to challenge prejudice.

At no point throughout any of these events could it ever have been implied that they were legitimising such speakers, associating themselves with such with such groups or providing a platform for such detestable views. As Skeptics, we’re here to challenge ideas – that is the definition of skepticism.

I have more to say on such speakers, and will discuss that in my next blog post, but I hope the above helps to elucidate the thought process we went through.

Violent video games don’t lead to violent crime

Monday, February 22nd, 2010 | Religion & Politics, Thoughts

I was recently in a discussion about whether violent video games led to violent crime or not.

The main argument from the other side was “well, it’s just obvious isn’t it” and, on a slightly more substance based strand, “kids just think violence such as they experience on a video game is normal and acceptable.”

My argument was that there simply isn’t any evidence for this. I wasn’t going to chase it up or anything but I have work to do that I’m procrastinating from and as I saw a related article in the news just now, I thought I would double check my facts.

A quick consultation of the encyclopedia helpfully points out the bottom line – that Harvard Medical School and the British Medical Journal have both done studies into this topic “have shown no conclusive link between video game usage and violent activity.”

The fact is the evidence shows there isn’t a link between violent video games and kids going out and committing violent crimes.

But I would also goes as far as to say that, if you put some thought into it, it’s actually obvious that there isn’t a link. I think there are two main reasons for this.

The first is that Wikipedia also points out that over the past 20 years violent crime has been consistently in decline whereas sales of video games have been consistently growing. If there was a link we would expect that as more violent video games were sold, violent crime would increase. But it doesn’t. In fact it goes the opposite way. I’m not suggesting that violent video games actually decrease violent crimes but it certainly is evidence against the idea that encourage it.

Secondly, society hasn’t really got any more violent than it used to be.

Video games may be a relative new comer (although of course the ZX81 is actually older than I am) but the idea of violent games certainly isn’t. For years kids have been running around playing cops and robbers, cowboys and indians, playing with toy soliders and toy guns. Indeed my dad has often told me that one of the must have toys of his era was the Johnny 5 Gun, so called because it had five different modes of shooting. The only difference today is that kids run around a virtual world connected by their X Box Live rather than doing it in real life – which is arguably far more real than in a computer game.

Given these two reasons alone, it does not seem intuative that the popularisation of video games including some which are violent, would automatically lead to violent crime – and you would be right, because the evidence backs up that it doesn’t.