Skeptics’ Circle Number 127; Skeptic Fail #10

[I wrote this article last night, then decided not to run it. I was going to rewrite it this morning with just a mention of the carnival and a recommendation for another article.

However, the last two comments made me decide to run this as is. The article only addresses those comments peripherally, but it contemplates the broader issue arising from them.]

The 127th Skeptics' Circle is out

The 127th Skeptics’ Circle has arrived at Unibrow One Brow. Go check it out.

One of the articles there has dredged up one of the ongoing dilemmas of this blog. The article is “The Trouble With Skeptics” by James Cole over at Stuff and Nonsense. The article consists of his comments on the 10 “skeptic fails” twittered by Daniel Loxton of Junior Skeptic magazine.

I especially liked fails 8 and 9:

Skeptic Fail 8: Thinking your skepticism makes you immune to error; it should make you more aware of your own fallibility.

Skeptic Fail 9: Assuming that your fellow skeptic is (or ought to be) an atheist.

The one that bothers me the most is #5:

Skeptic Fail 5: Using ad hominems. Ad hominems are as ugly and offputting coming from us as from anyone else.

First of all, a lot of people don’t really know what an ad hominem is. Here’s the Wikipedia definition:

An ad hominem argument… is an argument which links the validity of a premise to an irrelevant characteristic or belief of the person advocating the premise.

It takes the following form:

Person 1 makes claim X
There is something objectionable about Person 1
Therefore claim X is false

As you can see, that is a fallacious argument. It is also something I have never done.

However, I have been accused of making them. Just look at that last article, where I call Ray Comfort retarded. Wikipedia tells us about common misconceptions:

Gratuitous verbal abuse or “name-calling” itself is not an argumentum ad hominem or a logical fallacy. The fallacy only occurs if personal attacks are employed instead of an argument to devalue an argument by attacking the speaker….

I called Ray Comfort retarded, because he thinks that evolutionists contend that a male animal evolves into a new species and then has to sit around and wait for a female animal to evolve into this same new species. No scientists contend this. It has been explained to him numerous times, yet his tiny brain is unable to comprehend it. Ergo, he is retarded.

OK. That leads to fail #10:

Skeptic Fail 10: Thinking that disrespect and mockery are ever effective outreach. At best, superiority entertains the base.

I know I’m not convincing anybody out there. I gave up on that belief long ago. Really, the only thing this blog does is “entertain the base”, if it even does that.

I wonder if I’m doing more harm than good.

I do this blog, because I would have stepped in front of a speeding train long ago if I had to keep all this frustration bottled up.

Look at “Climategate”. The fact of global warming hasn’t changed, but now we have a bunch of retards who have discovered that they were actually called “retards” by some scientists.

Somehow, in their retarded brains, they think this is proof that global warming isn’t real. I know, they’re “really” claiming it’s because they see words like “trick” in the emails. Actually, though, they’re just pissed off about the venomous rhetoric. It must be very painful to go through life not knowing that you’re the village idiot and that everybody is laughing at you, and then to one day gain that realization all at once. They’re reacting the only way they know how: By retreating into the comfortable beliefs that they know so well.

Likewise with the creationists who come across this site. I’m just making them stronger. OK, well those people were unreachable anyway. But what about the fence-sitters? I’m sure I’m turning 100% of them to the other side. Who wants to be on the team with the smug elitists who think they know everything?

We don’t know everything, of course. In fact, we know very little. But we do know a few things with virtual certainty: The age of the Earth, that life evolved and approximately how it did so, etc.

So should I cut the justified insults? Do they really accomplish anything?

Ray Comfort, this means you!

17 Responses to “Skeptics’ Circle Number 127; Skeptic Fail #10”

  1. Antiochus Epimanes Says:

    Longtime reader, first-time poster here to say no, you should go on saying exactly what you want. Toning down your rhetoric at all will merely play into the fundie nutjobs’ hands – because they certainly won’t reduce their own hysterics in turn.

    I think we’re all speaking to several audiences: those in agreement, who won’t change their minds; uncertain fence-sitters, who might; and ignorant fanatics, who also won’t change their minds. At least a few of all three will read what you write.

    But they won’t read only what you write. They’re also reading and listening to a variety of other voices across the spectrum of opinion. And there must be courageous voices and bold scoffing on the side of reason and fact, lest all the aggressive assertions come from the other end. Bluntly, even rudely, making the case for science serves a valuable purpose: you are carving out maneuvering room for more conciliatory voices who might indeed persuade the undecided. Without you and similar others, those gentler voices would be cast as “radicals.” There’s plenty of room for all the snark you care to fling, and seeing you do so is a great encouragement to the more timid who aren’t sure they should speak up.

    Fear not! Courage, while rarely appreciated at the time, is vitally important.

  2. James Cole Says:

    I’ve seen a few people argue that mockery is more effective than the skepticfail list assumes. To be honest, I think that some forms of mockery (f e.g. creationism) might actually be effective as well as funny.

    Perhaps we need to design a trial to test the effectiveness of mockery? (I’m only being slightly tongue-in-cheek here — I’d be genuinely interested in seeing whose perception is backed up by evidence.)


  3. KennyCelican Says:

    *agree* with AE. Whenever one side of an issue has stopped speaking coherently, there must be a radical on the other side, lest the moderates be painted as radicals and allow the definition of moderate to shift in the direction of the side with the loudest moderates.

    *disagree* with JC on effective mockery, although I’d love to see survey results. Something tweaks that some of the research done for The Authoritarians might apply, but I don’t recall exactly. As regards mockery type effectiveness, IMAO the attitude of the reader is more likely to make the mockery effective than the subject of the mockery.

  4. Jeff Eyges Says:

    I agree with the others, Ron. Over the past year, I’ve walked away from Atheist Experience, Vjack and Daniel Florien because I find them far too accommodationist – “Can’t we all just get along”? Please. I’ve had fundies on their blogs chide me for being “uncivil”. Seriously? You think I’m going to burn forever in a lake of fire, while you sit on Jesus’ lap and eat toast marshmallows. Fuck you, I’m uncivil!

    If they were merely deluded, I wouldn’t mind. I’ve said this here before – life is hard, and as mean-spirited as I am (and, of course, we have no basis for morality), I don’t like to take away someone’s hope. If believing in Sky Cake gets them through life and affords them some security and happiness, I really don’t want to ruin it for them. The problem is, they don’t leave it at that. They take all of their pathologically low self-esteem, along with all of those foul archetypes Freud was kind enough to unearth for us, and come up with a cosmic sadist worse than Hitler if he were trying to win a “Biggest Bastard” contest.

    I’ll say it again (because I haven’t said it in the past five minutes) – they are the worst people in the world. They are the worst people in the history of the world.

    Don’t you back down an inch. Or I may get cranky.

  5. Jeff Eyges Says:

    BTW, I wasn’t threatening to leave – not that you wouldn’t be better off not having to listen to me bitch and moan all the time – “The end is near!”; “Morons shouldn’t vote!”; “The sky is falling!”

    Consider yourself lucky; you only have to read my comments here and there. I have to listen to me all the time. Believe me, it’s no picnic.

  6. Ron Britton Says:

    The problem is, this is a self-selecting group. Most people who read this blog for an extended period do so because they agree with it. I expect most commenters to say I should keep doing what I’m doing.

    The trouble is that I get lots of one-time traffic. Most of those people are going to be somewhere in the squishy middle. If they get pissed off about the “name calling” (even though it’s not directed at them), then they won’t hear what I have to say.

    Like I said, I’m trying to assess whether I’m doing more harm than good. Do they not hear the message, because they don’t like the bottle it comes in?

  7. Antiochus Epimanes Says:

    Well, to borrow the familiar religious terminology, if you’re worried that your sermons may not be reaching beyond the choir, then the choristers may not be the people to ask about it. Dunno how, but you’d have to consult a representative sample of occasional visitors, or even non-readers to get a valid answer.

  8. Syldoran Says:

    Heh, well, my thought is to simply not give a crap.

    Crude, but I find that not letting yourself worry too much about it can be quite uplifting. Besides, if someone comes to this one blog –just this one– and develops the idea that all we gosh-darned liberal left-wing crazies are so horrid without looking at some other people with the same views but different attitudes, well, they probably aren’t too bright.

    And aside from that, I reeeally hate being told that I’m not allowed to insult anyone but they can.

  9. RaViola Says:

    “Do they really accomplish something?” – they did with me! The first time I stumbled upon your blog, I was still one of those fencesitters. Well, more like spiritual agnostic leaning towards atheism, but anyway. I have to admit that I did stop reading entries after a while because of the name-calling. I was still in my “let’s just get along”-phase, so yeah. However, what you wrote made me think – precisely because of the justified insults. I wondered why you would be so mean about “the poor creationsts”, and the more I thought about the facts that I read here, the more I realized that you were completely right in insulting them. It’s not like they just don’t know better, they don’t want to know better. Well, that thought process took a while and was kind of subconscious, but when I happened to come across the Darwin Was Wrong series, I realized that I now fully agree with your remarks. You may credit yourself with turning me into a proper atheist 😉

    (And, btw, you probably saved me from becoming a creationist myself… I spent a year living in a fundamentalist creation-believing family, and by the end of that year, I was almost ready to believe that they might be right after all. Too much creationist propaganda, pseudo-scientific evidence and stuff around me, I guess. It was on this blog that I found the first actual rebuttals of the “evidence”. Thanks for that 🙂 )

  10. Jeff Eyges Says:

    I have, for some time, been of the opinion that the vast majority of them will never find their way out, b/c, as RaViola said, they don’t want to, whereas those who are capable of taking a wider view (i.e., those who have frakking brains) will do so in any case.

  11. mary b Says:

    Who wants to be on the team with the smug elitists who think they know everything?

    I do.

    The problem with the ‘tards are pretty much summed up in your post.

    They are afraid of education. They’re scared to learn new things. I suppose that makes them lazy. If they opened up their minds to explore different things/beliefs, it would take them out of their comfort zone.

    And if they really want to cling on to their religion, why can’t they think about that God just may have intelligently designed Earth and Humans by way of evolution? What’s wrong with that type of theory?

  12. Jeff Eyges Says:

    What’s wrong with that type of theory?

    Oh, ’cause then they don’t get to be “special”.

    Also, if the Biblical texts are to be understood metaphorically, then they have to start worrying about metaphor and nuance, and their minds simply don’t work that way. Where does it end? How do they know which parts were written by God, and which by man, and which parts by God through man – it’s just a nightmare. Why, next thing you know, they may have to start actually thinking about what they read (when they read it at all, and don’t just let pastor regurgitate it for them). Oh noes! We got trouble right here in River City!

  13. Parrotlover77 Says:

    Antiochus Epimanes – Word!

    Ron – Looks like you already made up your mind from your most recent post, but I’d disagree a little about your comment about the comments. I do agree it’s a self-selecting group. All writers in all mediums get that effect. It’s just what happens when somebody becomes a “fan” of somebody else. So it’s definitely not a neutral group.

    That said, sometimes it takes somebody exclaiming BULLSHIT to get the fence sitter to choose one side of the fence. You seem to assume that the act of calling bullshit “bullshit” will cause the fence sitter to choose the other side because of some sort of reaction of disgust against a strong argument (paraphrasing). But what you don’t consider are the fence sitters that deep down agree with you on some individual subject and when you call out the individual subject’s bullshit for what it is, they internally exclaim, “Hell yea!” It’s that moment that you might win them over on other issues.

    I can remember personally as a young lad that it took reading some “extreme” (for me at the time) skeptical opinions on certain subjects for me to come around and embrace my natural skepticism, instead of making excuses.

    Besides, this hypothetical fence sitter if truly a fence sitter is visiting blogs on the other side of the issue. If you think what you say is offensive, just imagine what effect the various ‘YER GOIN TO HELL’ comments have.

    At worst, it’s a wash. At best, your saying somebody is retarded is nowhere near as bad as, say, death threats levied against someone for desecrating a piece of stale bread.

    P.S. I wrote this before reading RaViola’s comment. Awesomeness! 🙂

    mary b – Laziness is probably a factor for some. But I tend to think that fear is the biggest factor. Jeff is right. The world can be a very scary place. Death is also a very scary event! It’s natural to want a security blanket and very tough to realize the security blanket doesn’t exist.

  14. Jeff Eyges Says:

    Yeah, except that now I’m thinking I may be wrong! (Not about my analysis, just about whether one ought to use honey or vinegar.)

  15. J. Allen Says:

    The insults can be useful for recovering theists, if not theists themselves. They can help people get through their ‘anger’ phase laughing.

  16. Renshia Says:

    Give people the respect they have proven to deserve. Each one is deserving of least the basic respect of being a human being upon first encounter. The level of respect goes up or down from there. It needs to be earned from then on.

    Ideologies can be treated in the same way. Give it the respect it deserves. With a six thousand year history, religion has paved its way in ignorance. No respect is due. The mess that has been made of society because of its influence removes any earnings of respect and then some. Mockery takes religion off its laurels and into the dust of quackery where it belongs.

    Treat people with respect that they have earned. Don’t allow people to make you think you need to give their ideologies undeserved respect.

  17. Ron Britton Says:


    I have said on numerous occasions that respect has to be earned and that somebody’s beliefs don’t automatically get respect just because they are somebody’s beliefs. I respect the right of people to hold whatever beliefs they want, but I do not have to respect the beliefs themselves.

    This article wasn’t about giving respect to ideas that don’t deserve it. The dilemma is whether my caustic tone does more harm than good. I still don’t have an answer to that, but I decided that I have to be true to myself.

    I have nothing but contempt for certain long-discredited ideas and for certain anti-social behaviors. I can’t hold back on expressing that opinion. I guess the easily-offended morality-dictating creationists will just have to hang out elsewhere.