Thursday, 31 January 2013

PZ Myers, A Demonstration of Entitlement

In a belated bid to try and get my first love - my YouTube channel - back on track, I thought it might be wise to commit some of my thoughts into the written medium, on this blog. Ok, so here goes: it certainly seems somewhat more relaxed tapping away here rather than having the camera poking in my face :)

So it seems that the ever-popular PZ Myers, presumably in a bid to give us an unequivocal example of what white, middle-aged, middle-class, heterosexual, cis-gendered, neurotypical, able-bodied male privilege really looks like, has now launched a crusade against skeptics organisations for the crime of not being precisely what he wants them to be.

So it started off with a blog entitled A common complaint I hear a lot nowadays… . Now I can't claim any specific involvement for triggering this piece but I will say that it followed only a few days on from his eulogy to Natalie Reed as she departed from FtB to pastures new. The relevance of this you ask? Well, I posted a comment critical of Natalie Reed for her admission of..... well let me copy it across here:

The very first post I read fron Natalie Reed rubbed me up the wrong way. Why? It was this post, the one where she says that right from the off she didn’t give two craps about atheism but she DID give a crap about skepticism. Here was the salient passage, starting with a quote from Natalie Reed:
"The skepticism I believed in wasn’t about some little club for people to get together and tell each other how smart they all are for not believing in incredibly silly things like UFOs, Bigfoot, psychics, ghosts and the Loch Ness Monster…
The ban on gendered slurs somewhat mitigates my putting into words exactly how I felt about that piece when I read it, but it partly made me feel like going to a gender politics associated convention and announcing that rather than talking about their subjects (you know, like erm, ***gender politics***), as I have little interest in them, we should have a few speakers talk on poltergeists and ESP instead.

It is for that reason that she will be sadly missed here on Freethought Blogs. This place absolutely suited her down to the ground.

So there followed on from this about two dozen comments telling me, in a variety of entertaining ways, what a truly disgusting person I am and by what methods I should fuck off. This had the unfortunate effect of making the comments section temporarily more about me than about Natalie Reed and duly PZ Myers took action and banned all the commenters who had left me vitriolic and aggressive responses!!

Haha, of course I jest!

No, instead he did the cowardly, though eminently pragmatic, thing and banned me for causing the thread to become derailed through being so thoroughly hated: perchance his love of cephalopods has grown so all encompassing he has taken to disowning his own backbone? Who knows? Anyway, I digess.

So, following on a few days later, he launches in to this attack on claims such as the one I had been making at my Pharyngula 'last supper' mentioned earlier. It effectively seemed to boil down to two things:
1) The 'old guard' (read: incumbent members) objecting to their organisations being turned into something entirely different by opening them up to other avenues.
2) Skeptics organisations being about issues that are less important that the issues PZ is more interested in.

It seems that what PZ Myers wants skeptics organisation to be about is the most important issues. To wit: decide what the most important issues we face are (clearly not abominable snowmen, loch ness monsters and alien abductions) and then make skeptics organisations about them. The problem here is that we already have a field that has a long and established history in tackling the biggest problems (or, at least, the biggest as we perceive them). That field may be known to you, it is called POLITICS.

To compound the issue PZ finished off his blog with the following somewhat alarming comment:
"Unfortunately, opening up the skeptic community to actually discussing these topics would lead to Deep Rifts that make the one over religion look insignificant. We’re riddled with wacky libertarians and their worship of the capitalist status quo (or worse, demanding a greater reduction in government and compassion). A libertarian speaker who openly espoused the opinions of a loon like Ron Paul — and there are people in this community who regard him as a saint — would pretty much guarantee a kind of noisy riot in the audience, and lead to a big chunk of organized skepticism decamping in fury.
Which would probably be a good thing."

So let us sum up then. Not only are we going to make skeptics organisations about the most important issues (on pain of us stamping our feet like Rumpelstiltskin if we don't get our (PZ's) own way) but we will aim to marginalise all those who don't view those new issues in the right way. This also already has a name and, again, it may be known to you, it is called PARTY POLITICS.

Clearly PZ Myers position is that he has looked long and hard the length and breadth of the western world and has been unable to find any left-leaning political organisations or movements to join, where both his fields of interest would be their fields of interest and his own positions would be shared and welcomed. He must have looked really fucking hard don't you think?

So instead, what he and his bedfellows are insisting is that groups of skeptics that have remained as apolitical as they can, often for quite understandable reasons, must give up their positions to accommodate him. He is PZ Myers and this is his entitlement at work here. However, I doubt our friend Mr Myers is entirely heartless and I am quite sure he would not deny them starting up a fresh organisation (in lieu of the one he has hijacked) concentrating on the apolitical silly issues that traditional skeptics members know and love. After all, it is a win-win: if the new organisation becomes more successful than the old one the 'political skeptics' can always, like the best parasites, jump host and once again insist that their interests are accommondated on the grounds of how much more important their issues are!! ......Brilliant eh?

The funny thing is that PZ Myers is also really upset that these organisations do not tackle religion. He even said so much to me, presumably hoping that would bring me on board.
However, I was already well aware of all of this and have absolutely no issue with it. As it goes, my father and his best friend are long term traditional skeptics and I have always accepted that these interest groups are not for me. My interests ARE religion and atheism and that is NOT what these groups are about. It isn't for me, some johnny-come-lately, to start lording it over some group or other insisting my interests must be incorporated into theirs on the grounds of how important they are! Jesus fuck!
So you know what I did?
I got involved with people who shared my interest both because I respect an established groups right to set its own bounds and because I can quite understand why they don't want messy, contentious and much bigger subjects like religion/atheism both clouding and crowding out their much-loved subjects. Makes you think that maybe some of us just naturally check our privilege, whilst those who preach the mantra just don't bother?

So the story moves on and a guy called Steven Novella responds to PZ with a piece entitled  Bigfoot Skeptics, New Atheists, Politics and Religion. Steven outlines a few reasons why some skeptics organisations choose to steer clear of religion, gender politics etc. Note, he specifically says some organisations and in no way does he preclude any such organisations embracing such topics but simply wishes to point out that some skeptics want a space apart from the hurly burly of such discussions. You know - like the atheismplus forum members want their safe space and PZ Myers et al think we should respect that? Yes, a bit like that.

So PZ Myers responds with a blog post A reply to Steven Novella that builds to a climactic crescendo like a kind of literary Ravel's Bolero. Along the way he says a quick line I couldn't agree with more:
"Skepticism has a broad brief. The skeptical movement does not."
This is bang on! The only difference I would add is that I don't demand that every movement exactly fits the remit that would be implied by its name so as to accommodate my own pet interests. If a movement is about something other than my interests I move on. If that means that somewhere in the world there remains a movement or interest group that is not about the most important subjects, such as the environment, gender politics and fake twitter accounts then so be it! Of course the implications are severe: amateur car gatherings may still be talking about how best to strip down a Volkswagen Beetle or what size tappit to use on on your big-end (ok, so I am showing my lack of knowledge here i realise!), rather than why there are less women involved in classic car renovation and what manner of misogyny must be responsible. It is surely only arrogance that leads anyone to assume that everyone would be better off talking about their issues rather than the issues they choose, of their own volition, to involve themselves in?

Myers then goes on to cite the complaints some in the skeptic community made at a skeptic panel that was all atheist and therefore, they claimed, insufficiently diverse. This seems to enrage Myers, his usual penchant for diversity seemingly suspended when it comes to opinions and beliefs (the kind of thing that really defines who and what we are). He even includes the following in one of his gumby quote boxes which he uses for things he regards as really dumb:
"The other three panelists are closely identified with atheism and, in my opinion, have contributed little, if anything, to skepticism itself. "

The problem is, I can really understand where that quote is coming from. As an atheist who has made well over a hundred of his two hundred or so videos detailing the various and multitudinous arguments against religion I can still well see what a next to hopeless panellist I would be for an organisation more interested in things like (as Steven Novella lists):
"all of alternative medicine, parapsychology, cryptozoology, conspiracy theories, scams, post-modernism, self-help, education, science and the media, neuroscience and self-deception, fringe science, and a long list of topics that do have political, religious, or social implications – genetically modified foods, organic farming, free energy and other energy issues, climate change, creationism, miracle claims, faith-healing, prophesy, channeling"
Creationism aside, what use would I be on a skeptics movement panel really?

So to leave you with one last quote from PZ that sums his whole position up here:
"As for that awful, dishonest, destructive claim that “Political, moral, and social ideology are ‘outside the scope’ of skepticism because they remove objectivity” — I ask, OK, so would you claim that there is no rational, evidence-based argument against, say, slavery? That it is impossible to make an objective argument in any domain against treating people as property? 
If that’s the case, well then, fuck skepticism. It isn’t relevant or useful anymore. It has abstracted itself into the realm of a private academic circle-jerk, and we can stop arguing, because just maybe atheists, who apparently have more rational minds, can just leave the party voluntarily."

The irony here is how he makes it sound like skeptics movements have suddenly just stopped being about these things he is so interested in, yet he has already, many times, admitted that skeptics movements have always had a narrow focus. That is simply what they have chosen to do.

Some advice i have received the last few months:
"If you don't like Atheism+ just move on" 
"If you don't like FreethoughtBlogs or some specific blogger, just move on"

So I throw this one right back: if you find a skeptics organisation, like the JREF, and its remit doesn't fit in with your interests, stick your entitlement - the entitlement of the politically pious - where it belongs and just move the fuck on!

Thanks for reading and bye for now,


  1. Sir I admire your indefatigability. Thankyou for the work you have done this last year, i lost my bloody temper once i started to delve into the rabbit hole, and have only recently started to engage as A+ and FtB appear to be gaining ground on the 'Con' circuit whilst losing it outside of their internet bubbles. As a Brit it has little real effect upon me. However if i can save one human being from having to listen to Rebecca Watson on Evo-Psych or PZ on feminism, all the effort will be worth it.
    keep it up Jim.

  2. You have outlined the essence of PZ's argument, he wants everyone to follow his ideas. Personally, I support many of the same areas but concentrate on only a few and those don't include the A+ brand of feminism. His abrasiveness to any criticism can be counter-productive but should be welcomed, if we are confident that the skeptical approach is worthwhile we can progress, with or without him. His goads will just keep us on our toes.

  3. Here's the problem with that idea Jim. If PZ went off somewhere else he might have to be in the audience.

  4. PZ's biggest problem, I think, is that he is trying to redefine the word "atheism" instead of using the word that already is there, "humanism". If he was trying to give his own definition to humanism instead, no one would have a problem with him promoting his own favourite moral opinions, various ism's/causes, etc, as what he means by humanism. The word humanism allows for individuals to have their own set of opinions, favourite social justice causes, and definitions for what counts as good or not good to promote for a better quality of life for everyone.

    Unfortunately, dictionaries are PZ's kryptonite. He'll never figure out that he's parading under the wrong banner and making an ass of himself.

  5. Hi Jim, I've watched a large number of your videos on youtube so first I'd like to thank you for the hours of entertainment.

    On the post topic, I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with everyone about this whole thing*. I consider that the prime value of skepticism is in the approach to evaluating our world, not in the specific output opinions on particular topics. Therefore I'm on the rhetorical side of Myers as far as the stance that religious claims and social justice issues are valid topics for skeptical discussion.

    Where Myers (and the A+/FTB/Skepchick etc. crowd) lose me is in their bizarre inability to see the hypocrisy in how they call for their issues to be included under the skeptical umbrella while at the same time not allowing for any skeptical inquiry into the fact claims that they personally hold to be true. Indeed, their groups often insist on rules that specifically prohibit questioning "personal experience" -- a position that is about as anti-skeptical as you can get.

    By the way, you might like to watch Jamy Ian Swiss talking about this scoping issue at TAM:

    * Which, people being what they are, is read as simply disagreeing with them.


  6. Clearly PZ Myers position is that he has looked long and hard the length and breadth of the western world and has been unable to find any left-leaning political organisations or movements to join, where both his fields of interest would be their fields of interest and his own positions would be shared and welcomed. He must have looked really fucking hard don't you think?

    Hah, spot on!

  7. Regarding PZ's comment: "I ask, OK, so would you claim that there is no rational, evidence-based argument against, say, slavery? That it is impossible to make an objective argument in any domain against treating people as property?"

    Are there rational, evidence-based arguments against slavery? Obviously I find the idea of slavery morally repugnant, but my objection to slavery isn't based on some utilitarian calculus. It would seem to me that there would be just as many "rational" and "evidence based" arguments in support of slavery, as there would be against it.

    1. I was thinking exactly the same thing when I read PZ's piece. Looked at it from a capitalist point of view chattel slavery (which is what the good old US of A had) is both rational and evidence-based. Those good ole boys made a lot of money, and many of today's large American corporations became this large because of chattel slavery.

      And I bring the capitalist bit up because PZ Meyers is himself a capitalist, and he admits as much. His blogging efforts are all about making money, and this is also something he admits. (I seem to recall it was one of the arguments made when he got Thunderfoot on board at FtB.) So basically PZ is a hypocrite, which isn't a surprise.

      In that topic of his I also found his reactions to people arguing with him about his article -- which is the reason you allow comments on your blog I should think -- absolutely ridiculous. No counter-arguments but straight to insults. Pathetic, really.

      And to Jim directly: I've been following you on YouTube for quite some time now, and enjoy your irrelevant asides as much as the main subjects. Can't be arsed to register with Google though so I never left you a kudo there. Even though I suspect that our political views differ quite a bit (I think I'm actually very close to PZ's stated political views) I agree with you that atheism should not be confused with politics. Atheism is a single position on a single issue: the existence of gods.

      Also, it's refreshing to listen to someone who knows how to properly pronounce 'cunt' and 'twat'.

      Regards from right across that bit of water to the east of you.

    2. "Also, it's refreshing to listen to someone who knows how to properly pronounce 'cunt' and 'twat'."

      I actually prefer the way cockney gangster types pronounce cunt (a bit like right at the very end of this ), I love all that 'yuuu fackin cant' talk! Great value.

      With respect to political views, I suspect that many of my sibscribers are to the left of me on economic issues and probably law and order also but not so much on welfare and social justice issues. I don't know if you saw my unlisted video giving my thoughts on the extreme libertarians on YouTube? In case you didn't here it is:

    3. The only person I had (have) problems with understanding in LS&2SB is Danny John-Jules. Not the accent, but the rhyming slang. Barry was fucking brilliant in that one, as were the two Scousers. "Fahking northern monkeys!" "I hate these fookin' southern fairies!"

      I do understand why Americans have problems with the word 'cunt' specifically, as they are the only anglophone (albeit barely) people who specifically use it as an epithet directed towards women. In the UK, Ireland and Australia it's almost always directed at men who are, at that point, acting like cunts. But they don't understand that, nor will they ever pronounce it correctly. (Mind you, Doug Stanhope does pronounce it correctly. But then he's not exactly a typical American.)

      I'm fairly left-wing socio-economically, but when it comes to law and order I'm more traditional in that I think laws should be upheld as they are written down (the NL is notoriously permissive). I'm okay with the laws as they are, no need to go the American route.

  8. What PZ and his gang are calling "derailing" these days is a joke. I noticed Greta decided to call you "derailing" as well when you made a comment about how many shoes your wife had, when the subject she was writing about was specifically about shoes. You know they can call "derailing" whatever the hell they want. I just wish they would stop using "free thought" in their fucking name if that is their position.

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