30 July 2009

Prominent Skeptics: People, Not Heroes

Michael Shermer has blogged about politics again, triggering another raft of comments on whether that's an appropriate topic for skeptics. A comment from Jason Loxton warned about the damage that can be done to one's reputation as a skeptic by associating oneself with a particular political view. Jason was concerned about the fact that he was now skeptical of Shermer and Penn Jillette on certain topics because of their politics, whereas he once considered them "intellectual heroes." My first thought on reading that was, "So what?"

Don't get me wrong — I have a lot of respect for many of the prominent skeptics that are out there. I enjoy reading Shermer's writings, watching Penn & Teller's Bullshit!, and listening to Steve Novella on the SGU podcast, to name just a few examples. But that doesn't mean that I do, or should, take everything they say at face value, just because they are big-name skeptics. They're people, and as such are subject to the same cognitive biases that any of us might have. The skeptics I respect the most recognize that, and state up front that they might be wrong about something, and are willing to change their views based on evidence and reason. They want to be challenged if they've screwed up.

And as the old saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. As public figures, our prominent skeptics get a lot more exposure than the rest of us, and as such, have more opportunity to say things, or do things, that we may not agree with. For instance, when Penn decided to name his daughter "Moxie Crimefighter Jillette," my opinion of him went down a couple of notches — a jokey name may have sounded like a fun idea to him at the time, but I'm not sure he thought through the humiliating effect that it could have as she grows up. And while I have admired Richard Dawkins's writings and television programs, he's certainly put his foot in it on several occasions, such as when he got reeled in by Ben Stein and company in the film Expelled, when he really should have known better.

These are people. They'll make mistakes, or do things we don't like, or possibly do damage to the public face of skepticism. That's the risk they take when they become public figures, and some of them may lose the prominence they've gained because of what they say or do.

For skeptics, I think, the real danger is in putting these people on pedestals and treating them as heroes, or worse, as ersatz spiritual leaders whose pronouncements should be followed without question. Fortunately, none of the prominent skeptics I've run across (with the possible exception of Paul Kurtz) have tried to position themselves in that way.

So rather than despairing at the discovery that we may disagree with what prominent skeptics have to say, we should be glad that we can disagree with them. The skeptical movement, unlike other movements, has to be skeptical of its leading lights, and recognize that they're just as fallible as we are. Otherwise, we'll wind up being just another cult, following leaders like sheep. Of course, as I've mentioned before, that's what makes skepticism and politics a difficult (but, IMO, necessary) mix.


  1. Another great blog Matt. I Love the name Penn gave his daughter, Moxey is excellent! Being his daughter she is never going to suffer.

    Anyway, I think as skeptics we do need to challenge our thinking from time to time, otherwise we just become lazy.

    I am interested in the idea of "rising stars in skepticism" and the idea of "moving up".

  2. Bravo!

    I agree with you on this... well said!

  3. Well put.

    I wasn't aware of Penn & Teller's show, so I just watched a few episodes on you tube. The first was great, spot on. Stuck it to 'em. Second one didn't jibe with my politics, but I had to agree with the point they were making. Third one I dropped my jaw - full of the same kind of specious reasoning and red herrings that they (correctly) debunked in the first two.

    So yes. Stay skeptical of them all. Keep the lights on up top!