At this point there is little I could say about the tragic comedy that is the Regressive Left in the wake of the terrible attacks in Paris of November 13 that hasn’t already been said, probably better than I could have said it. As people discussed the attacks and the ideologies and policies implicated therein in the many atheism- and skepticism-centered groups that I frequent, a similarly alarming realization has dawned on me: That just as there are Regressive Leftists who are actively betraying liberal ideals, so too are there what I will henceforth call Regressive Skeptics who are undermining the credibility and effectiveness of the skeptical community. Here are a few behaviors that should raise your antenna when observed in a fellow “skeptic.”
1. They treat constructive feedback as a personal attack.
Let’s face it: No one really likes getting constructive feedback. Hearing about the things that other people think you did wrong or could have done better is not usually a lot of fun, but when offered from a place of authenticity and backed up with sound reasoning, it can be incredibly enlightening. Back in my corporate days, my mentor was someone whose brain could not have been wired more differently from my own, and that dichotomy proved to be of great value because he saw things in a way that would never in a million years have occurred to me. Sometimes his observations hurt, and sometimes I disagreed with him, but they were always worth considering.
The Regressive Skeptic, on the other hand, will give lip service to the benefits of healthy debate, but the unspoken caveat is that he’s always going to be right, and that his opponent will sooner or later concede this. When his arguments are poor, his premise weak, or his opponent tenacious, he becomes indignant and rude, increasingly fallacious, and eventually ends the debate with a flounce (“Whatever,” “I don’t even care at this point,” “Let’s agree to disagree,” “Just let it go already”).
It’s OK to run out of time or patience for a discussion. It’s OK to be annoyed or hurt by criticism you think is unfair. It’s not OK go on the offense at the first hint of criticism without even considering whether there’s something to it.
2. There are areas of inquiry they consider off-limits.
This is another way of calling out the hypocrisy of Regressive Skeptics who will mercilessly go after homeopathy, chiropractic, GMO-denial, the paleo diet, and other forms of woo, but refuse to touch religion, the Grande Dame of all woo. It is the single-most pervasive and common mechanism by which people learn to accept that for which there is no evidence and to rationalize contradictory evidence. Some skeptics even hold religious beliefs, which is a curiosity that is difficult for me to understand, but which in and of itself is less problematic than those who simply dodge the issue altogether – or worse, pander to their religious followers with assertions that science and religion are entirely compatible, or admonish their openly atheist counterparts to keep quiet so as not to alienate potential allies.
If you are more interested in promoting science literacy than anti-theism, that’s great. Science literacy is tremendously important and a laudable pursuit. But don’t be disingenuous for the sake of popularity, and don’t make efforts to undermine those of us who place anti-theism at the top of our own list.
3. They ignore questions asking for clarification or treat them like fallacious arguments.
Especially on the internet it is easy to inject emotion, intentionally or not, into a discussion. Without the benefit of seeing someone’s facial expressions and body language and hearing their vocal inflections, translating what they’re trying to express is made that much harder, and if your opponent doesn’t write well to begin with, you have a real challenge on your hands. It’s important to know what your opponent is actually saying if you hope to provide any kind of meaningful response, and sometimes the only way to do that is to repeat back what you think you heard (“I read your comment as saying X” or “So are you claiming that Y?”). Whereas someone with a degree of maturity and fair-mindedness should be able to distinguish between a clarifying question that got it wrong and a deliberate mis-characterization, the Regressive Skeptic will immediately respond as though the question was a straw man. This of course erodes understanding even further, because the opponent still doesn’t know what she is responding to and now she has to defend herself against the straw man accusation too. It’s a strategy that relies on misunderstanding to win, rather than on having a defensible premise and a sound argument.
4. They reject any argument coming from “the other side” regardless of whether it has merit.
The most obvious example of this is the Regressive Left’s refusal to acknowledge that the “Islamic” in “Islamic State” has anything whatsoever to do with, you know, Islam. They are so fearful of being mistakenly associated with the likes of Donald Trump, so afraid of being labeled a racist, that they cover their eyes and ears and make excuses for mass murderers and theocratic fascists. It’s an unconscionable form of denialism because it trivializes the suffering caused by ISIS and similar organizations, and sacrifices those who are most vulnerable in those societies on the altar of white guilt and a warped vision of multiculturalism.
It’s bad enough for an anti-vax, organic-kale-eating, Spirit Science-reading loon to go down that rabbit hole. When people who claim to be skeptical thinkers place ideology over reality in this way, it’s unforgivable. They are ceding the discussion to the Far Right and the jihadists by refusing to acknowledge the nuances – not because the nuances aren’t true, but because they cannot abide that the Far Right might have a point. And the only thing I can think to say to those Regressive Skeptics is, shame on you.
5. They give advice that they don’t take.
“You should read authors who disagree with you. To help you with that, here is a list of authors who agree with me.”
“You only selected that source because it confirms what you already believe! To prove you are wrong, I am posting this thing that confirms what I already believe!”
Yes, we are all vulnerable to confirmation bias, and yes, there is a tendency when debating a topic to seek out evidence that supports one’s own premise. But it’s also entirely possible that your opponent has actually read all of those authors and found their arguments to be unpersuasive, and it’s entirely possible that your confirmation bias is as much in play as your opponent’s. Whether it is or not, if you are dismissing a credible source just because it is in agreement with your opponent you’ve just forfeited any claim to that pedestal from which you’re preaching.
6. They refuse to acknowledge their own errors.
We all make them. It’s embarrassing – humiliating, even – and it can be a blow to self-confidence, but it is likely also instructive and can lead to personal growth and better methodology in the future. But an error is guaranteed to damage your credibility only when you refuse to admit to it. This is not to say that we must agree every time we are accused of making a mistake that we have actually made one; sometimes we are misunderstood, or were right but perhaps not clear, or were both right and clear and it is our opponent who is mistaken. On those occasions when we have in fact erred, though, we usually know it. The mature, responsible, honest thing to do at that point is fess up and fix it. Unless it’s something that simply can’t be denied, the Regressive Skeptic can be counted on to circle the wagons at the mere suggestion that she made a mistake, often resorting to personal attacks and other deflections. She will profess her fallibility in general terms, but fight like hell when confronted with it.
7. They measure others by a different yardstick than they measure themselves or their associates.
This may be another manifestation of confirmation bias, but it happens often enough to warrant its own discussion. If someone is truly a skeptic, then that person should have a relatively consistent standard for what sources or types of arguments pass the sniff test, and should endeavor to at least meet if not exceed those standards – if for no other reason than to ensure sound arguments that are difficult to refute, but hopefully also for the sake of integrity and respect for the search for what is true. The Regressive Skeptic, on the other hand, accepts or rejects sources on a sliding scale based on their utility and expediency rather than their merits, and will often happily commit logical fallacies in the process of accusing opponents of committing logical fallacies. Another manifestation of this phenomenon is the glee with which Regressive Skeptics will mock woo-followers, but when the subject turns to religion they wag their fingers and say, “You should only criticize the beliefs, not the believers.” It’s a willingness not only to resort to, but indeed to exploit a double standard.
8. They mine others’ arguments for fallacies rather than seeking to understand what they’re saying.
A friend of mine refers to this as “fallacy barking:” Simply pointing out real or perceived logical fallacies in their opponents’ arguments rather than speaking to their premise or making a solid argument of their own. Often they will not even put their fallacy accusation into context, making it difficult to respond at all if it isn’t obvious how (or even if) that fallacy was committed.
This isn’t to say that it isn’t important to understand logical fallacies; indeed, this is a necessary skill for constructing sound arguments and inoculating ourselves against bad ones, and overall is a useful addition to the critical thinking toolkit. Fallacy barking, on the other hand, is a tactic of obfuscation, not befitting anyone who values the actual pursuit of knowledge and understanding.
9. They place identity politics or ideology ahead of scientific findings or other verifiable realities.
It’s hip to claim that the science is settled on matters of sexual orientation, gender identity, and other issues of diversity. New findings that challenge the social justice narrative in these arenas are often vilified and their authors viciously attacked, something that Alice Dreger examines in fascinating detail in her book Galileo’s Middle Finger. Just as with denying the role of Islam in Islamism, rejecting credible, peer-reviewed data simply because it doesn’t conform to the current PR message of a given cause is the antithesis of skepticism: It’s science denial. Might those findings eventually be shown to be untrue? Of course. But that is a decision best left to science, not to its suppression.
10. They equate an opponent who is persistent or correct with an opponent who is just an asshole.
Your being wrong doesn’t make me an asshole. Your making fallacious arguments doesn’t make me an asshole. My calling you out on both of those doesn’t make me an asshole. My providing evidence that backs up my claim and refutes yours doesn’t make me an asshole. My not conceding the argument when you have failed to make your case doesn’t make me an asshole. And to paraphrase the late, great Christopher Hitchens, when you say I’m an asshole I’m still waiting to hear what your point is.
But when you throw up your hands, call me names, and stomp off to the corner to go eat worms? That pretty much does makes you an asshole.