Posts Tagged ‘freethought’

A given?

Sunday, July 15th, 2012 | Religion & Politics

In the final of three blog posts I’ve written about the fall out from the recent Steve Moxon event, I wanted to comment on an interesting debate point raised on the Leeds Skeptics Facebook group, where someone claimed that some things we should just accept as true.

There are some things that should be a given in any skeptical society

I’m not making this up. Someone in a Skeptics group genuinely just said that there are some things we should just not question.

Of course, the equality of our fellow human beings is something incredibly important and something that when challenged, we would defend rigorously. But to suggest we should just same some things on faith is a violation of the very definition of skepticism. But more to the point, such an attitude undermines our own argument. Our position is that all our members are equal and we take this position because we’ve reviewed the evidence, and that is the case. To rule out a debate on it entirely is simply unskeptical.

Let us not forget that we have equality today because someone WAS skeptical about the prevailing idea that black people were inferior to white people, or that women didn’t deserve the rights as men did. Thank the god that I do not believe in, that someone had the courage to challenge these ideas that were just held as true at the time, so that today we can have equality.

After all, if we’re in the right, we shouldn’t be afraid to challenge our own ideas. As I’ve written before, I entertain the idea of cheating on my girlfriend. Why? Because I know I will never do it. I’m secure enough in my relationship, and I know I love her so much, that I can safely consider the possibility without worrying. I know this, because I’ve challenged my own beliefs, and because they still hold true, that only makes them stronger. As Norman summarises…

Not sure how anything can be a ‘given’ in a skeptical society? Surely the point of a skeptical society is that all view points are subjected to a rigorous process of critical analysis, regardless of whether it agrees with our world view or not.

One could argue that it is the very ‘givens’ of our own world views that require even more in depth challenging.

Challenging your beliefs only makes them stronger (or they turn out to be wrong – but I’m as certain as you can be that this won’t turn out to be the case for equality). But perhaps I underestimate how secure people actually are in their beliefs. I mean, are attendees worried that others are going to be won over by bigoted arguments?

Secondly go to the event, witness said MRA speech, and more than likely become angry at the shit he’s spouting. If you decide to argue with him you’d better have the support of the room otherwise you will get shouted down and feel even worse. At the very least you will be sat in your seat seething, possibly feeling upset or unsafe depending on how many other members are agreeing with the speaker.

I’m sure this wasn’t mean this to be in any way offensive, but she did just imply that that everyone else who attends Leeds Skeptics are at best are sexiest bigots who would shout her down if she tried to call someone on sexist nonsense he was spouting, and at worse a bunch of rapists would threaten her safety. Talk about promoting bad gender stereotypes. But it goes on…

What good would come out of it [the event], to balance against the aggressive sexism and racism that we’d almost certainly have to sit through and which would be at best uncomfortable for people who aren’t white males?

Is she seriously suggesting that white males don’t find racism, sexism or any bigotry offensive? It’s incredibly insulting, and sexist (and racist for that matter), but more than that, I think it shows that there is a real need for careful consideration of what we all hold to be true and bring open to the principle of challenging our own ideas.

As I’ve already said, challenging well founded beliefs only makes them stronger.

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.