At the 2013 Lexington Scarefest, a horror genre and paranormal convention, I had the opportunity to meet Greg and Dana Newkirk of the awesome Who Forted? site. During our conversation, I made a confession: I feel more at home with believers than I do among my fellow skeptics. I’m disgusted with the community-at-large. One only need to look at the past year to figure out why.
2013 was an ugly one for organized skepticism, or “Big S” Skepticism, or whatever you want to call it. This is not to say that the paranormal field is without its personality conflicts, scandals or crooks, but a higher standard is demanded from those who would hold themselves up as the paragons of reason and logic.
In April, Brian Dunning — host of the popular Skeptoid podcast, dedicated in part to exposing frauds in the paranormal field and pop-culture — pled guilty to wire-fraud charges for his role in a scheme that robbed eBay and its affiliates of over $35 million dollars. Dunning netted $7 million, but still asks for listener donations at the end of every Skeptoid episode, and ran a Kickstarter drive to fund a book project. Dunning has yet to be sentenced at the time of this writing, but he stands to be sitting in a federal cell for the next twenty years.
And of course, Atheism+ pusher and professional-complainer Rebecca Watson was engaged in yet another bridge-burning, attention-grabbing “-gate” controversy, this time over being supposedly kicked-out of Dragon*Con. This follows 2011’s “Elevator-Gate”, during which Watson used the bully-pulpit of her keynote speech at a convention and a YouTube video to attack a student blogger for having the audacity to disagree with her, including accusing this female student of being a misogynist. The affair ended up intangling prominent skeptics/atheists PZ Meyers and Richard Dawkins on opposing sides supporting and opposing Watson, respectively.
In August, Karen Stollznow, writer and co-host of the Monster Talk podcast detailed in a Scientific America blog, a pattern of sexual harassment and assault she had suffered for years at the hands of a fellow skeptic, one that she worked with in various capacities. She made frequent complaints to his employer, who found her accusations to have merit but only gave her abuser a punishment that did not even amount to a slap on the wrist — suspending him while he was on vacation. Though Stollznow did not name her abuser, PZ Meyers did. It was Ben Radford, writer, speaker for the Center For Inquiry, and one Stollznow’s co-hosts on Monster Talk. (For the record, Stollznow and Radford are no longer on Monster Talk, but it carries on with creator Blake Smith. Monster Talk is a great show, looking at cryptozoology from a skeptical perspective, handling the subject with utter love. Check it out, you will not be disappointed.)
I wish I could link you to Dr. Stollznow’s blog. It was powerful thing, urging us to not turn a blind eye to allegations of sexual harassment in the community, however weary it may become. Unfortunately, the Center for Inquiry decided Stollznow had not suffered enough and continued where Radford left off, threatening legal action against Scientific America if they did not remove her piece.
The scandal should have ended there…well-known face and name raising awareness of the sexual harassment problem in the skeptical/atheist community, rallying us to eradicate those creating an uncomfortable environment from the movement, and Radford shamed into obscurity. But that was not to be.
Enter once again Rebecca Watson. Having a feud with Radford, it did not seem she could be happier about the allegations against him, taking a victory lap at her blog. Exhibiting opportunistic parasitism, Watson did not stop there. In the same blog, she implied that anyone disagreeing with the anti-harassment/abuse policies at conventions may themselves be misogynists and sexual abusers. There was no room for sincere concerns of these policies having a chilling effect on speech or demonizing male sexuality. Worst of all, she promoted a Tumblr site, ominously titled “More Will Be Named”, that allowed users to post anonymously accuse prominent skeptics of sexual impropriety. By what Watson would be sure to say is pure coincidence, many of those named included men that Watson and her followers had feuded with, such as Lawrence Krauss and Michael Shermer. Even Bill Nye the Science Guy was accused of misbehavior. Under threat of lawsuit, the site has been repurposed. However, much like Watson, PZ Meyers did not want to waste a good crisis and accused Shermer of being a serial rapist. In turn, Shermer is suing Meyers for libel.
Across Watson’s blog and the “More Shall Be Named” site, self-proclaimed skeptics engaged in the worst sort of un-skeptical behavior. They conspiracy-mongered, alleging that trolls may use the Tumblr to muddy the waters and discredit sincere allegations. When skeptical-thought was exercised, criticizing the posting anonymous allegations that carried little evidence beyond anecdote, such skeptics were met with the refrain “believe the survivors.” The evidence was irrelevant, it was the seriousness of the charge. Those accused were guilty, no room for doubt allowed. It was demanded everyone accept every accusation at face-value. None were to be questioned. Skepticism had no place here and actively attacked.
This behavior was not an isolated incident for Watson and her supporters. Criticism is not meet with cogent arguments. Instead, they resort to accusations of obsession and stalking. Statements are purposefully twisted. Critics are accused of being racists and misogynists. Watson’s supporters us language and tactics lifted straight from the worst, weakest-minded conspiracy-mongers. They are not skeptics; they are pseudoscientists wearing the clothing of skeptics. For example, look at her supporters comments in this Change.org petititon to have her removed from The Skeptic’s Guide and the petition to keep her onboard. Or, when a supporter called Hemant Mehta a sexist for criticizing Watson’s Elevatorgate antics.
Topping off a stellar 2013, in November, one skeptic threatened another with a gun while attending Skepticon, albeit off-site. Deep in some bowel of hell, the ghost of Bill Cooper is laughing. The convention was overshadowed by a pissing match over how the incident was handled.
Though the community-at-large may not want to admit it, these personality conflicts, opportunism and lusts of various sorts are damaging to the Skeptical movement. No one should be held to the misdeeds of others and one’s work should stand on its own merits regardless of the author’s sins. But this is the real world. All of Dunning and Radford’s work is now tainted. Every debate between a skeptic and a believer has the potential to descend into a recital of these misbehaviors and crimes, the skeptic having to defend himself against them as if he were responsible. Amid these squabbles, demands for attention and genuine crimes, the hard work of skeptics like Blake Smith, Sharon Hill and Tyler Kokjohn is overlooked. They do good outreach that could bridge divides between the skeptics and believers.
I found Watson and company’s behavior particularly grating. While victims of sexual harassment should not be considered as anything less than sincere (unless they are shown to be otherwise), this is not something Watson and company extend to any other extraordinary claim, especially when it comes to paranormal claims. Granted, we know that things like sexual harassment and abuse are an unfortunate part of our world, but we don’t know for certain if things like ghost or Bigfoot exist (or don’t). The nature of the latter demands more skepticism than the former. However, far too often Watson and other skeptics are quick to scoff at the claims of paranormal witnesses. They do not believe such witnesses deserve a moment of thought, and are to be dismissed outright as liars or idiots.
While I may be a skeptic, I still believe that every witness to the paranormal should be considered sincere. They may be wrong, they may be mistaken, but that does not mean they are not telling the truth as they understand it. And if such witnesses are right, or even if they are wrong but hidden within their experience is another truth, we would never know if we dismissed their claims out-of-hand, thus robbing ourselves of a better understanding of the universe around us.
This is not to say skeptics should believe any extraordinary claim at face-value, but we should not rush to dismiss. Each case should be examined on its own merits. Believe the sincerity of the survivors, all of them.