Skeptical damnation: What happened to withholding judgment?

For the past few weeks, I’ve been researching Professor Ray Hyman’s writings about the field of parapsychology. I don’t have to tell some of you how awesome he is (but shame on you who don’t even know WHO he is if you call yourself “skeptical” Sorry, didn’t mean to pull an almost “no true Scotsman”).

In the 1980’s, Hyman and parapsychologist Charles Honorton went back and forth in a public debate regarding a database that Honorton (and others) put forward as the best evidence for psi (extrasensory information exchange). The details of this project are endlessly fascinating but, in a nutshell, two top representatives from opposing viewpoints had a productive, intellectual discussion which resulted in the issuance of a joint communique between them stating what they agreed upon. Hyman noted that this document influenced the quality of future experiments of this type. The interesting quote I found from Hyman caught my eye today since it had less to do with any particular subject than with peoples’ response to opposing positions in everyday life.

No one knew the ins and outs of the extensive database like Hyman and Honorton because of their in-depth discussion. This was a huge collection of specialized information and five years of thoughtful critique. Yet, many commentators in the peanut gallery felt it their place to put in their two cents worth of opinion. To this wave of opinionation, Hyman said:

“Neither sides’ supporters had the necessary grasp of the details to independently judge which one of us was right.”

[R. Hyman, “What’s wrong with materialism?” In Debating Psychic Experience,  Krippner and Friedman, Eds., 2010, 144-145.]

Yet, judge they did.

This statement hit me square in the face today. We hardly ever have a solid grasp of the evidence in order to make a fully informed conclusion about an issue, let alone to condemn another person. Thanks to the internet, we feel inclined to head to our respective team corners and respond publicly and emotionally as soon as possible, to shoot from the hip based on less-than-valid information. Then, we defend that position.

I’ve been APPALLED by self-styled “skeptical advocates” who have made a habit of jumping to convenient conclusions on a controversial issue instead of waiting for evidence to be verified or even to come out at all! Especially when it involves personalities that the individual dislikes, the drama-bloggers, facebook-swearers, and rage-tweeters are ever so quick to point fingers and call names. They feel obligated to state their opinion regarding even highly personal and subjective issues, even to the point of being libelous and defamatory.

Really poor skepticism abounds. There have been so many incidents of outrage theatre over the past few years where snap judgments (followed by a conviction and metaphorical execution) have been made – mostly about feminist, social justice or he-said/she-said disputes – based on poor or no evidence except someone’s story or second or third-hand claim. Or, let’s throw a fit simply because he/she really hates him/her. It’s been embarrassing to watch.

What are you, twelve? This behavior is juvenile. However here are professionals, organization employees, and role models who are doing this. Last I checked, we are supposed to be rational adults. Any outside observer to the skepto-atheist community would be hard pressed to come to THAT conclusion based on evidence all around.

There is nothing wrong with defending or supporting your friends. But that does not mean blindly accepting that they are faultless and ganging up on others who have a different view. I have admitted that I support my friends who are in trouble, but that does not excuse whatever bad behavior they exhibited. I’m learning to take no side regarding right or wrong because I can’t know what the truth is. I also won’t condemn people for eternity for a mistake that they have the ability to make right. I value positive contributions and will continue to do so.

Excuse my bluntness but, Jeez, what a bunch of self-absorbed know it alls are around! Maybe, try taking a break from the flame-fests on the internets for a while and do something that’s not destructive to yourself, your friends, your reputation, and your philosophical colleagues who agree with you about generally everything else except these few internal squabbles!

You do not have a grasp of enough detail to judge who is right in a personal dispute that is not your own. Neither do I. But at least I recognize it.

About idoubtit

Fluent in science, animals, paranormal culture. Expert in weird news.

0 thoughts on “Skeptical damnation: What happened to withholding judgment?

  1. AHH…The Amazing Ray Hyman. On a TAM panel in 2010, Ray Hyman stated that he wanted to know how we can be sure we are being successful in promoting critical thinking. What are the metrics we are using to judge success?

    I think we are counting the explosion in the number of “skeptic” podcasts, blogs, and bums on seats at conferences and claiming, “SUCCESS!”. Counting “skeptic” things is not the right metric for measuring success, IMO. Perhaps we should be counting the number of times we hear a skeptic say, “I don’t know.” It’s a phrase we should hear often but rarely do.

  2. You said: “There is nothing wrong with defending or supporting your friends. But that does not mean blindly accepting that they are faultless and ganging up on others who have a different view. I have admitted that I support my friends who are in trouble, but that does not excuse whatever bad behavior they exhibited.”

    This is exactly it. I was very much involved with the skepticism world a few years ago (no, i’m not famous or anything) and took a couple years “off” because I had some other things I had to do in life. Then when I dip my toe back into the water, I find this huge divide between people.

    The thing that has bothered me the most, I guess, is the way that those on the freethought blogs are always attacking certain folks on the basis of that “third-hand” evidence that you mentioned. No skepticism. But when one of their prominent commenters confessed to VERY serious crimes, they gave him love and support. While attacking others who never confessed and who were accused with lesser crimes. And the worst part is that there’s a defensive line of defenders who, whenever anyone points out what this man said, claim that the pointer-outer is lying. The FTB people who exhibit this confusing behavior seldom argue in a non-FTB arena, so you can never discuss the situation with them in a place that isn’t strictly and irrationally moderated. (I am happy to provide links to what I’m talking about. You and I seem to share the same policy about third-hand innuendo. I don’t know if we share the same policy about first-hand confession.)

  3. You do not have a grasp of enough detail to judge who is right in a personal dispute that is not your own. Neither do I. But at least I recognize it.

    Indeed. But, as the xkcd comic (1) has it, the important thing is that you – and we – get to feel superior to both …. 😉

    However, while I think he was a little wide of the mark – capturing the letter of the law while missing the spirit of it – I also think it highlights a rather natural, and quite credible motivation: the desire or goal of actually being superior in one way or another – arguably an essential element of both the Olympics, and of humanity’s evolution, both physiological and cultural. But that process can also cross into the pathological domain – something it probably shares with virtually every other human endeavour, from patriotism, to motherhood, even to apple-pie – when it is alloyed with baser motivations and intents.

    And, as a case in point, I’m reminded of this post (2) from a Christian pastor on the “lust to dominate”, something he traces back to St. Augustine:

    Loving truth is good; loving being right and lording it over others is sin, plain and simple.

    While he, of course, frames that in Christian terms, it seems psychologically sound and of some relevance to recent and ongoing events.

    1) “_”;
    2) “_”;

    1. This has nothing to do with feeling superior. It has to do with sabataging a community and goals by unsupported accusations.

      I’m not too keen on know-it-all skeptics who lord “truth” over others. Also, not too keen on Bible verses.

      1. One might argue, on some evidence, that “sabotaging a community … by unsupported accusations” is both the consequence and the preferred method whereas “feeling superior” is frequently or in part the objective. One might also argue that group-think (1) is part of the process that you described which seems, in part, undergirded by that feeling. And, this (2) just in, a case of some partisan apparently overdosing on some self-righteousness.

        As for not being “too keen on Bible verses”, I would say you might be missing a bet, missing the opportunity to enjoy and be edified by some powerful imagery and metaphors. You might note that Dawkins’ The God Delusion lists some two pages [384, 385] of aphorisms and concepts from the Bible that provide some justification for his argument that “surely ignorance of the Bible is bound to impoverish one’s appreciation of English literature”.

        1) “_”;
        2) “_”;

    1. They don’t pay attention to me. I often speak to a choir. Those people have their minds made up about who gets their attention. Unless I resort to their name calling, they don’t seem to get involved in my stuff. When they do, none of their audience cares. No hits.

      1. Sharon’s correct. For better or worse (depending on your view) Sharon’s not much on their radar. I’m not entirely sure why, but my guess is that she is neither part of their clique nor is she strictly part of “the others”. She’s stayed pretty much clear of the drama and that just doesn’t bring in the big hits to one’s blog. Writing about weird news, pseudoscience and “bigfoot skepticism” just isn’t sexy and intriguing like a soap opera, nor does it usually bring out much of an outrageous emotional response. (Well, maybe from the Bigfooters)

        On the rare occasions she’s said something and it got their attention the comments to those posts are usually something like this: “Who is Sharon Hill?”

      2. I have it on good authority that Bigfoot has been persistently and laciviously harassing Yeti. Of course, it’s all “he said / she said” at this point, but I expect high dudgeon and low humor at some point.

        (Sorry, I always get whimsical this time of year.)

      3. D4M10N:

        I can’t see that here there is anything more likely to cause many of the Social-Justice-Warrior crowd, particularly the “feminist” cohort, to believe in Bigfoot and Yeti than accusations against them of engaging in rape, sexism, and other depredations of the nefarious patriarchy; I expect the forthcoming Women in Secularism conference to call on Obama to commission studies with the aim of rectifying that deplorable situation … [Almost as an “embarrassing” a situation as the fact that the U.S. has yet to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, an “elevated” status it shares only with Somalia and South Sudan.]

  4. Couldn’t agree more. I’m made physically ill by the way that some people jump to conclusions with no evidence other than what their “idols” tell them to believe. This is the very groupthink that we’re supposed to be fighting.

  5. Nice post. Exercising self skepticism and not idolizing people seems to inflict most people online or not. I guess the best thing to do is be aware and carry on. Just think of the ideological hole that would be left if we all gave up and bent to only the most vocal and belligerent .

  6. I agree with your post completely, Sharon. I share your frustration. There are people I’m personally friends with in this community whose behavior I am ashamed of, and I don’t know what to do about that. I do know there are still a few prominent leaders in this movement who I still admire and respect. And even though many people I know have thrown their hands up in frustration and turned their back on the skeptic community, I tell myself it is going to take more than what these shitheads can dish out for me to to give up on a movement and community that has changed my life in so many positive ways.

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