Popularity does not Imply Credibility, Be a Skeptic
Vjack has a great post up on his site, Credibility and Popularity in the Atheist Community . Edward Clint also has a great post up on his blog, Science denialism at a skeptic conference. Both are well worth your time to read. I want to weigh in on the larger topics being addressed in both posts: credibility, popularity, and skepticism. [Added later: It is also incumbent upon you to read Stephanie Zvan's critique of Clint's article, I became aware of her article after posting my own. I link to it below in the relevant section]. [Second amendment: Ed Clint cited Mark Hoofnagle in his post. Mark has responded on his own blog writing that Watson may not have been correct in all of her statements, but did not act the part of "science denier" in her talk. I think it imperative that you read this piece as well if you wish to be fully informed.Rebecca Watson’s Skepticon talk is NOT an example of science denialism ].
I made a comment yesterday on vjack’s blog stating that is a mistake to assume that all atheists are intelligent or skeptics (the link to that post is below). This may seem like an obvious statement, and it should be. However, that is not how we often treat our fellow atheists. I agree with both Clint and vjack, that at times, the popularity of an atheist figure seems to lend itself to credibility. This is a mistake. I also see” regular” (non-popular, non-atheist activists) atheists fall into the same trap.
Many of the popular atheists are popular because they are intelligent. However, we will also find that many are popular because they say things that are well…popularly received. I want to use myself as an example. By no means would I be considered a “popular” atheist. My blog does okay, and I appreciate all of you who stop by. There is one thing that I can’t help but notice. My “popularity” often increases at a faster rate when I write something that doesn’t necessarily offer any unique insight, scholarship, or analysis, but rather, when I write something that is simply popularly received. The most successful post I have ever written, if we are to judge success by popularity and number of comments made (which I don’t by the way) is “Can’t You Atheists Keep Your Opinions To Yourselves?”—No I Cannot.” This is a post that I wrote on April 16, 2012. I remember that day…I was in a hurry and didn’t really have the time to write a blog post. I sat down at the computer and wrote that piece in about 20 minutes…no joke. That post still is receiving about 300 reads per day, and each following day, a few of those new readers return. It has done more for my popularity than any other post I have written. I am grateful for that. I am glad to know that other people feel the same frustrations that I do. However, does that post in any way give me credibility on a wide range of other topics? I would argue it does not—it was a rant, and I do think a decent one, don’t get me wrong, but it didn’t really “add” anything to a significant debate. Yet it certainly gave, and is still giving me some popularity. My point is that popularity does not equal credibility. We should be wary of falling into a trap of thinking that it does.
On what topics do I have some credibility? Politics. I degrees (BA and MA)in Political Science and Political Philosophy. I write on those things often. When I venture away from those things, I am just a guy with an opinion. I would like to think that my opinion is usually pretty well informed. However, I am not going to pretend to be an expert on things like evolution and cosmology. I have a decent working understanding of those fields, but an expert opinion? Hardly… I would argue that the same holds true for all of us. We have an area(s) that we “specialize” in. Any “credibility” we have in those areas cannot be allowed to extend credibility to everything we say. Further, just because people have areas that “specialize” in and have some “credibility” in those areas, we still should be skeptical when it comes to believing they are always correct. We must not lose our skepticism.
This brings me to vjack’s post. It is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that someone is an expert in all things “atheist”, when we are not. We must apply skepticism to each other in the same way that we do to other areas in our life. I will use vjack’s example of Richard Dawkins. I happen to enjoy Dawkins’ books and have learned quite a bit about evolution/biology and atheism from reading them. However, should I take all that Dawkins writes or states as absolute truth? Of course, not, we must apply skepticism to what we hear and read. Should I take everything he says on biology without questioning it? The answer is “no”, yet again. Even those claims must be met with skepticism. What research has Dawkins done on the topic, what do his peers think of the idea, etc. When we stop doing this, we become no different than the theists we often rail against—we would be believing something without a reason for doing so. Ask questions, do some research, be willing to learn and adjust your previously held view if necessary, be skeptical.
Here is a quick example. I mentioned this in my comment yesterday on vjack’s post. I recently watched an argument between two atheists. One of them refused to recognize the difference between atheist/theist and agnostic/gnostic. She refused to accept the idea that those two pairs of terms answer different questions. She refused to accept a term like agnostic atheist. (Her position was gnostic atheist—though she refused to accept that as well). She was presented with evidence against her position from at least three other people. She would not, and to the best of knowledge, still has not budged. Her mind was made up prior to the discussion and would not be changed. This person could admit that they were wrong about something but did not, she failed to learn something new, and demonstrated a complete lack of skepticism towards her own position. This is too bad. It is significantly worse we see a “popular” atheist falling into the same trap—and that happens.
Another issue that I see occurring frequently is that some atheists and some theists expect popular atheists to be expert in all areas. This ties in to what Ed Clint focused on in his post. Popular atheists need to recognize their limitations and stick to what they know. I have no reason to doubt a word of Clint’s post, it seems well documented. I also have no particular desire to demonize Rebecca Watson, though I have not seen her refute the argument that Clint made, if I am in error on that, someone please let me know. [A commenter has just informed me that there is a refutation of Clint"s article written by Stephane Zvan. You can read it here: Science Denialism? The Role of Criticism.] So, if Clint’s post is true, her behavior should be a warning to all of us. When you do not know something…keep quiet and go learn about it. Be a skeptic, be inquisitive, become educated…and don’t worry about your popularity. Credibility and respect are earned. With time, both can make one popular. However, let’s not forget the other side of that coin…both credibility and respect can be withdrawn, and with it one’s popularity.
[I have modified this paragraph a bit since the original posting to make it clear that the "jury is still out" on Clint v. Watson. Changes are in red]. I do not want the comments section to become a bash Watson rally, that is not my point here. I only want to use this story as an example. If Watson was speaking about a topic she knew little about, her credibility needs to be called into question by any skeptical person. Period. If Watson is guilty of Clint’s charges I must question everything she says from this point forward, more than I previously would have because she would lose some credibility. I will not assume that she is wrong in the future…but I will need to verify what she says/writes against some outside sources. Conference organizers must absolutely do this going forward. If Watson is guilty and is going to speak at conferences, it is incumbent on the organizers of those conferences to know what she will be talking about and if she is qualified to do so. If they fail in this, they too will lose credibility for having reliable speakers—none of which would paint atheists in a positive light.
I would urge all of us to remain skeptical, inquisitive, and unafraid to say “I don’t know”…when we stop doing those three things we can easily slip into the world of demagogues and logical fallacies. I would urge all of us to not put “popular atheists” on pedestals. Listen to what they have to say and evaluate the words they are speaking/writing and not their popularity. You and they, will be the better for it.
The last thing I want to address is best summed up in a comment on Ed Clint’s blog. The commenters name was “Bert Russell”. Here is what he had to say:
[quoting Clint]“My aim here is not to attack Watson, but to challenge a few of her unnuanced views about science and skepticism with which I happen to have professional experience.”
Am I the only one that finds it unacceptable that reasoned criticisms of stances have to include clarifications like the excerpt above? Is that the kind of people we’re dealing with? People that can’t differentiate and automatically equate criticisms of views with criticisms of the person who holds those views
I realize that I just did the exact same thing above in relation to Watson…Well Bert, I have no idea who you are, but what a great point. It is also something that vjack wrote about the other day in his post: “Distinguishing Between Criticism and Attacks”. When those of us who claim to be skeptics need to make comments like Bert’s and write posts like vjack’s we have a problem. We need to realize that not all disagreement and criticism is an attack. This seems to be a concept that is getting lost in many recent debates between atheists. Let’s try to remember this shall we?
The other side of the criticism/attack coin is the language used. If we are going to try and remember that not all criticism is an attack, we should also think about the words we use when criticizing. A vulgar comment was removed on Clint’s site that was aimed at Watson…this is a) an attack b) childish, c) unproductive and d) unnecessary. If you dislike what someone has to say then criticize what they are saying. Watson has been called a lot of nasty names this past year…I do not know her, I do not know if she is a nice person, and to be honest, I don’t really care at this point in time. I care about what she has to say. I will care if she is a nice person if I ever have the opportunity to meet or work with her. My point is a really super person can be wrong and a huge asshole can be right… Vilifying Watson doesn’t get us anywhere closer to the truth or falsity of what she says/writes. I really can’t see any reason to ever make it into a personal attack. (My pointing out that she has lost some credibility is not a personal attack or vilification. Rather it is a realization of the fact that she has lost some credibility if she gave a lecture on a topic that she knew little about and was incorrect in her assessment of that topic).
My message for the day: I think we would be best served to remain skeptical—of all things that people claim, even if they have credibility, to recognize that criticism is not a personal attack, and to refrain from personal attacks in general.
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