Skeptoid: Epic Cognitive Dissonance

'Headache' by Flickr user 'TheRogue'

‘Headache’ by Flickr user ‘TheRogue’

Rebecca at Skepchick has written a critique of Brian Dunning’s latest work. I originally heard the thing through the podcast feed, and it’s not quite as awful in audio-only. I groaned at most of it, chuckled a couple times, and assumed the style and execution was meant as a tongue-in-cheek self-deprecating parody. It still has a big dose of (fairly common) skeptic smugness that makes us all so endearing to others.

A lot of the points Rebecca heaped on in her piece seem like selective perception bias and poisoning the well. But wow! I sure had never heard about his wire fraud case or conviction before! I reproduce my comment on the Skepchick thread here, which pretty much summarizes my reaction:

Came to say/ask the same thing as phronk: it seems like pareidolia works fine in this usage.

As for science errors, the skeptoid ‘cast *seems* to have a good history of correcting errors in future episodes. Also of course career skeptics cannot be domain experts in everything at once. Citing the podcast’s factual imperfection as part of the argument that Dunning has an overall negative impact on skepticism seems to be logically unsupportable. (I would be interested to know if there is a systematic or recurring bias issue here that I wasn’t aware of.)

I am crushed to hear about the ebay fraud. While it is *technically* a “poisoning the well” fallacy to let this influence your opinion of someone’s skeptical chops, I won’t sit here and say with a straight face that the two should be held separate. After all, being convicted of fraud, by definition, sort of impugns your credibility. And credibility is the one thing that skeptics must always hold inviolate, because any chink in that armor becomes a fatal flaw in any sort of argument. Brian’s choice to participate in this scheme (or mastermind, or go along with, or whatever) sure could be the undoing of years of positive work.

Like a permanent, giant asterisk next to anything he does or argument he makes, and anyone who cites skeptoid as a source for any argument in the future.

Skeptics *must* be perfect in order to keep our heads above water. Unfortunately, we are not. Try to stay as close as possible. Protip: do not commit wire fraud.

I didn’t comment about the allegations of “casual sexism”, because I don’t know the guy at all. I could certainly see how a middle-aged white male could be at least tone-deaf to how he comes across to women. Is that basically the definition? Or is some active misogyny actually needed to qualify as a sexist? In any case, how you are perceived by your community and constituents (regardless of your intention) is definitely fair game when talking about what impact you are having on your cause.

I have so much cognitive dissonance about all this. Skeptoid has been a good resource, and I learn a lot listening. What should I do now? I have a strong urge to come down on one side or the other. First I find myself outraged, wanting to confirm details and vilify Brian, and chucking everything he has ever said or done as tainted. Then alternately I feel dismissive of the whole thing as an overblown hit piece by Rebecca, who seems to gleefully sidestep the burden of skeptical meta-cognition when she is writing or speaking about someone she dislikes.

In summary, I think Brian Dunning did a lot of good for the Skeptic community. And I also think it is probably ruined now. Dammit.

P.S. From the comments on the Skepchick thread, I just learned of the Gypsy Queen story on Skeptoid. Wow, what a completely tone-deaf way to try to make a good point. I’m going for “definitely, totally tone-deaf about giving offense”, as opposed to “affirmatively holds beliefs that would be found offensive”. Of course to some people, not trying hard enough to root out your own latent biases is sufficient grounds for dismissal. But so is writing a hit piece on people who have that flaw. And (probably) so is writing a blog article about both of them.

Update: Welp… so much for that. Rebecca makes the great point that defrauding people tends to make you an absurd choice as a voice of skepticism.

Update2: Aaaand, time to remove the Skeptoid link from the ol’ blog roll.

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