Monday, December 03, 2012

My Unremarked Remarks at Eschaton

At Eschaton 2012, I was asked to appear on a panel about "skeptivism" - a word I'd never heard before, but apparently means "skeptical activism".

I don't know anything about being an "activist", but I prepared some remarks anyway. Then, when it came time for the panel, people were more interested in asking Sara Mayhew and me questions about our talks, so that's the way it went.

Since I prepared these, this is as good a place as any to record them:

1. It pays to complain. (title of a recurring column in Freethought Today): when you see church-state violations, or creationism in the public schools, or silly pseudoscience or outright scams, complain! Write a letter to the editor, or e-mail to the school board, or report scams to the police. You'd be surprised how much mileage you can get out of a single complaint.

2. Adopt your own style. You don't have to destroy a communion wafer to reach people. If you're comfortable with a more confrontational style, that's fine, but if you're not you can still have an effect.

3. Be scrupulous. You don't have to adopt the tactics of creationists. If you cite a quote, check it out first to make sure it's authentic. If you make a mistake, admit it. "Always do right," Mark Twain said, "This will gratify some people, and astonish the rest."

4. Ask hard questions. If your local elected representative has a meeting, go and ask how old he or she thinks the earth is. Ask their opinion of evolution and global warming. If they say something stupid, you can say "You are aware, I assume, that the scientific consensus is uniformly against you?"

5. Don't pay any attention to foolish detractors, whether they're atheists or not. No matter what you do, there will be critics; the "old school" of atheists like R. Joseph Hoffman are sometimes the silliest of all. Listen to people that have something valuable to contribute and ignore the rest.

6. Learn to be a good speaker. Record yourself and watch it. Watch videos of good speakers, such as Christopher Hitchens, and try to learn from them.

7. Know what you're getting into. Depending on where you live, speaking up might cost you your friends, subject your to attacks on you and your property, or get you fired. Choose your battles wisely! Not everything is worth your job.


Luke Barnes said...

Sound advice.

I'd be interested in your thoughts on what makes a good speaker. And/or a couple youtube videos of speakers worthy of close study.

Velour said...

> "You are aware, I assume, that the scientific consensus is uniformly against you?"
It's a bit ironic that one post ago, you give a link in which the scientific consensus was shown to be likely mistaken.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

What do you think the consensus was wrong about, Velour?

Velour said...

Granted, it's from an ID site, but since they quoted Yale, I suppose it's legit:
"The prevailing wisdom has been that every cell in the body contains identical DNA. However, a new study of stem cells derived from the skin has found that genetic variations are widespread in the body's tissues, a finding with profound implications for genetic screening, according to Yale School of Medicine researchers. "

Jeffrey Shallit said...


Well, you have misunderstood. Despite the press release, it is certainly not the case that "the prevailing wisdom has been that every cell in the body contains identical DNA". Ever heard of cancer?

That's exactly the claim that Larry Moran debunked at Eschaton, and everyone laughed. The ID folk, of course, repeated it as gospel.

The moral is that you shouldn't take press releases, even from prestigious universities, as science.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Here's the link, Velour:

Larry Moran on the Yale claim.

Velour said...

OK, thanks! (I find it baffling that Moran focused his attention on the ID folks but didn't mention that Yale screwed up. Shows his bias, sadly.)
Still, I'm uncomfortable with using your argument.
Picture that it's the year 1950, and you corner your local elected representative, and with "gotcha" etched on your face, ask if he believes in geosynclinal theory. Say he responds with, "no, I believe that the continents are drifting." If you respond with "You are aware, I assume, that the scientific consensus is uniformly against you?", what's that going to do for you?

Jeffrey Shallit said...


Then your next question is, "Why do you believe that?" And since he would have been unable to produce any really convincing evidence in 1950, you've would have made your point again.

It's not about being wrong or right necessarily, but having good reasons to believe what you believe.

Is the scientific consensus wrong sometimes? Sure, but if you haven't studied the case in question, you're more likely to be right if you go with what the experts believe.

In the case of creationism, the reasons to believe it are purely religious, not scientific, and that's worth extracting an admission about.