Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Trial by blog post [updated]

There has been remarkable turmoil sweeping through organized skepticism (and the overlapping movement of organized atheism) in recent days. Attempting to provide an overview of all this is a task beyond my time and patience, though this is worth a look especially for background. Interested readers can trace one strand of this story here, here and here, and another here, here, here and here.

I am agnostic on a number of important issues involved, not least the validity of the accusations and whether they represent widespread problems in organized skepticism. But I do have one strong opinion on the conflict between P.Z. Myers and Michael Shermer, which is that Myers did an extremely reckless and malign thing by posting the accusation against Shermer on his blog. If Myers thought the woman's claims credible and had wanted to do something responsible, he would have helped her find a lawyer (and possibly private investigator) in order to ascertain whether her assertions could be substantiated in any way and whether she had any recourse in criminal or civil law (the idea that it was too late to do anything merited a professional opinion before being accepted at face value).

That instead Myers chose to plaster the accusation onto the Internet indicates a distinct and appalling lack of that thing ... what's it called?... critical thinking. Also lacking was any sense of fairness or foresight. And left totally unclear, of course, is whether the accusation has any validity at all. Trial by blog post is a 21st century innovation that one hopes will be abandoned by a more enlightened future.

Note: I have had tenuous connections to the people mentioned. I fact checked Shermer's column at Scientific American for several years around 2005-10 (in which capacity I communicated with him mostly through email and never met him in person) and I have also reviewed one of his books. As for Myers, I had lunch with him and two other people while attending a Seed magazine conference in around 2006, though I can't recall anything particularly noteworthy being discussed.

UPDATE 10/6/14: I've belatedly noticed that there's now more out about this story. See this piece at Buzzfeed and Shermer's statement (PDF). It's still not clear to me what happened in this matter, but at least now there's a name to the accuser and some details to be argued about. As for the wider picture, this has become (more clearly than it initially was) about organized atheism as such more than about the (overlapping but largely distinct) movement of organized skepticism. Being an Episcopalian (however liberal theologically), I have little interest in what happens to organized atheism.


Ray Haupt said...

Interesting article, Ken. This is a dismal post for sure from the standpoint of ardent skeptics seeing Skeptical Super-Heros at each other's throats. On the other hand skeptics, like clergy, are as fallible as anyone else and probably no worse.

I tend not to follow juicy he-said/she-said scandals such as this one very closely, but being a member of the skeptical tribe I suspect that I may read a bit more about this imbroglio than is my normal habit.

Kenneth Silber said...

Thanks, Ray. I too don't normally gravitate to the tabloid-type scandals, but this one I find hard to ignore. I suspect that, among whatever other consequences, it will have a significant negative impact on the skeptics' community (if that's even a suitable word for such a bitterly divided population). On the other hand, thus far it's not gotten much notice beyond blogs and bulletin boards, so who knows?