Controversial speakers

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.



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This entry was posted on Saturday, July 14th, 2012 at 12:39 pm and is filed under Religion & Politics, Thoughts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.