Dawkins, NECSS, and Working Together

The recent news is that Richard Dawkins was un-invited from the NECSS conference because of a tweet he sent that many found offensive. Of course it caused all sorts of uproars and divisions. Sigh… how tiresome; and at a time when there is real work to be done.

I was reminded of this short SkepticBlog post I wrote way back in 2009, another time I found myself frustrated with those supposed friends of science communication who seem to place a higher priority on finding things wrong with their allies.

Diversity has value only when it’s real diversity, and that means diversity of opinion in addition to ethnic or gender diversity. Many self-declared “champions of diversity” would do well to actually practice what they preach.

Are You Paddling, or Just Dragging?

They say you need a thick skin if you want to put yourself out there as a science communicator promoting critical thinking. And, it’s true: Trust me, I know. But that thick skin is not necessarily needed to fend off promoters of pseudoscience; just as often, you need it for public attacks launched by those who purport to be your allies.

Recently someone with a skeptical blog wrote an article criticizing me for two different things (both of which were wrong, incidentally; obviously this person didn’t care to check). I didn’t know the person, and browsed around on the blog for a few minutes. It was a generally skeptical blog, but all too often, it seemed the blogger was less interested in attacking the charlatans than in stroking their own ego by going after just about every prominent skeptic: “I’m smart because Novella, Randi, Shermer, Plait, Nickell, Klass, Radford, Dunning, (the list goes on), are wrong.”

I liken the drivers of the critical thinking movement to paddlers in a giant canoe. Some are more influential and paddle hard, others less so. But we’re all paddling. Every little bit helps. We’re paddling because what we’re doing is important and we believe in it. I welcome everyone who comes aboard to help, no matter the size of their paddle.

So it’s frustrating for me when I see people who represent themselves as paddlers, but really all they’re doing is disparaging those who actually do paddle. Oh, occasionally they may stick their paddle into the water and steer or give a little push or two, but every time they stop to lambaste the contributors, they’re dead weight; and when they shout to other boats what horrible paddlers their shipmates are, they are actively counterproductive.

One of our fellow Skeptologists here on SkepticBlog is renowned for his Libertarian politics, and frequently criticized for mixing that into his science communication. Similarly, another is renowned for his Democratic politics, and frequently criticized for mixing that into his science communication. What their critics fail to recognize is that even though one is paddling on the left side of the boat, and the other is paddling on the right side of the boat, both are paddling like hell and have done far more to advance public awareness of science and critical thinking than their critics. They are close allies and work together frequently. Take note that they do not derail their own cause by turning their attentions inward and infighting with one another.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t be open to internal criticism of the way we do what we do. We have to be, and we are. But unless you’re trying to communicate to the world that skepticism is falling apart, you don’t trumpet your criticism to the world in your blog, you pick up the phone and make your suggestions appropriately. I had a huge problem with something that happened at The Amazing Meeting 7. I didn’t podcast or blog to the world that TAM is all fucked up; I communicated my concerns in private to the appropriate person. Guess what, my concerns were welcomed, and I also discovered that I didn’t know the whole story. How about that for a shocker? And the world still knows what I want them to know: That I think TAM is an incredibly positive event. We’re still paddling in step.

I invite every skeptical blogger, podcaster, or communicator to stop and consider what it is they’re trying to accomplish. Do you really have no better targets to go after than your best allies? If you feel that I or anyone else have done something counterproductive to science education, you’ll probably find that we welcome your comments if you present them appropriately. If you’re just out there trying to shout “Look how smart I am”, well, we don’t have time for you; but we’ll make time if you want to pick up a paddle and climb on board.

About Brian Dunning

Science writer Brian Dunning is the host and producer of Skeptoid.
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46 Responses to Dawkins, NECSS, and Working Together

  1. Sharon Hill says:

    The skeptical scene currently has no innovative leaders, no goals, no organization, and no agreed upon framework or guidelines. “Skeptics” don’t seem to know what they are, what they stand for, how to do anything towards progress (towards ‘whatever’ their goal is) and have many and various social maladaptations. If all we wish do is constantly complain, stir pots, and break into outrage wars all the time, there never will be any good to come out. And, hmm, I’ve not seen net GOOD in the past few years, just a lot of rather awful behavior. So, there are many of us that have chosen to be independent and do our thing. I don’t think that works nearly as well as having a network, a team. I have asked for cooperation, but many doors were metaphorically slammed shut. It’s been disappointing.

    • Johnny says:

      This is wrong, Sharon. Look outside the USA. Many countries in Europe have national skeptic organizations. There is also a European umbrella skeptic organization. While I agree the skeptic movement could be better organized, to say there are no organizations at all is not correct.

    • DrRachie says:

      I know you’re (probably?) referring to the USA but we here at SAVN get a s**t load done in the absence of leaders or official organisation. Our official face is nothing more than a Facebook page and we are a ragtag bunch of people from disparate professions. Many of us don’t identify as skeptics. There are “official” organisations that also do equally good stuff.

      It’s a shame you have had trouble assembling like minded people as you describe.

    • Linda Rosa says:

      I agree. There are some good things in the works (e.g. the Wikipedia project), but they are largely driven by a few individuals, not groups. Skepticism could use more visionaries, but mostly more activists. Activists, I think, are a rare subset. We look at things differently because of our experiences and our drive “to do something” about a bad situation. We need to organize.

  2. Jeff Wagg says:

    Dawkins has stopped being an ally of reason. NECSS did the right thing.

  3. Daniel Morrow says:

    Does anyone else think that being a Skeptic and being an Atheist are mutually exclusive? Why does Dawkins creap me out?

    I think that what is necessary is not some steadfast militant point of view, but compassion and drive to understand the world and universe around us. We need to be able to dream, hope and reflect. We are illogical, believe and hold faith that what is before us is the truth. We leap.

    Today is the 30th anniversary of the loss of Challenger and her crew. The spear of humanity has faith and hope, makes mistakes and discoveries.

    Never walk in anger, but understand and help each other achieve their best.

    • Brian Dunning says:

      Many thumbs up to your comment, sir.

    • Darren says:

      “Does anyone else think that being a Skeptic and being an Atheist are mutually exclusive? Why does Dawkins creap me out?”

      I don’t really understand what you’re trying to say? An atheist and a skeptic are not the same but they’re not by any means mutually exclusive, in fact, it’s HARD to separate them.

      The rest of what you said is true, but not really relevant. It’s like saying the sky is blue in a talk about politics. Frankly, if that is Brian, I’m surprised at him.

      • Daniel Morrow says:


        My point is you can be a scientist, a skeptic, and not an atheist. Also you can be an atheist and not a scientist or skeptic. Why? If you can keep each one separate, even though in your own conviction they are one and the same, it will allow you and others to to work with many more people to achieve the goals of not only yourself but the common good. It allows politics to take a back seat.

        Simply working together achieves a greater outcome than working separate or against each other. Let’s say we are on the cusp of becoming a type one civilization. If you believe in that, we have great hurtles ahead of us. We MUST, diversify how we live, where we live, populating the rest of the solar system.

        We can’t do it single-mindedly. Franky, politics is exactly what’s hurting civilization. It’s everywhere and prevents each side from playing along.

        Everything I said is related. We do things because we believe. Politics is an exercise in what we believe. Today is particularly special. So I am reflective. But the meaning of it is that we jump into space, taking risks and making sacrifices in the name of science, discovery and belief.

        • Darren says:

          Ah okay, my mistake, I see what you’re saying. I don’t disagree. At this point though, I doubt we’ll solve these problems before any jump to colonizing space, sadly. I imagine we’ll be bringing a lot of baggage with us on that journey.

        • John Monroe says:

          Then “mutually exclusive” is not the term you should be using. They can be represented by two intersecting circles on a Venn diagram. As long as there are people who are both, they are not mutually exclusive.

          • Daniel Morrow says:

            Yes you are right… They are NOT exclusive. They are better thought of “mutually inclusive.” I was thinking you could have one without the other – not tied together, but can coexist.

            Quoting Einstein: “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.”

            Religion can be a number of things – even a flying spaghetti monster. This discussion is about tolerance, and working together, reaching all kinds of thoughts to achieve winning solutions.

            A homogeneous culture will likely fail, very efficiently.

        • JIMJFOX says:

          “My point is you can be a scientist, a skeptic, and not an atheist”

          True- but these are very few and far between. Some, like Francis Collins of DNA fame was supposedly ‘converted’ by the sight of a waterfall frozen in 3 streams and concluded this was proof of the Holy Trinity! Hardly a rational scientific conclusion but more likely the failing of his aging mind. Scientist and atheist?- highly unlikely.

    • Grimbeard says:

      “Does anyone else think that being a Skeptic and being an Atheist are mutually exclusive?” Only in the sense that scepticism is no longer appropriate when an issue has been settled. For example, being ‘sceptical’ about the miracles of Jesus is akin to being ‘sceptical’ that the Earth is flat or that there is a prehistoric monster living in Loch Ness. Scepticism is for claims for which the evidence (or lack thereof) is such that a reasonable conclusion cannot be reached. Once a conclusion *can* be reached, scepticism has done its job and is no longer needed for that particular claim (at least until new evidence presents itself).

    • Bill Kowalski says:

      Well said. Everyone seems to carry a bit of a natural mean streak buried in themselves – whether we let it overpower our human kindness and compassion is our decision to make. If we would all decide to spend one day acting only in kindness, to as you say “dream, hope and reflect”, that day would be a lovely day indeed. Not a fan of the angry commentators because they tend to whip up the mean streaks of their audiences. Skepticism in my opinion is antithetical to Atheism, if we define Atheism as a firm disbelief in the existence of a god or gods. I have no belief in any god, but I also do not have any disbelief, and thus would fit into the Agnostic category that some religious people dislike more than Atheism. It is entirely possible there is some sort of higher power somewhere in the Universe or elsewhere, and a god is a valid explanation for the ultimate unanswerable question of “why is there anything?” Wouldn’t a truly skeptical perspective need evidence which we can never have to prove beyond all skepticism there can be no god? Wouldn’t a skeptic be skeptical of anyone who is so sure no god exists? Even if you can’t believe in any of the magical stories and religions mankind has created for itself, and completely reject the Judeo-Islamic-Christian, Hindu, Shinto, B’Hai and all other codified beliefs, I think we must at least allow for the possibility of a god. I’m not talking about Pascal’s Wager, or a fantasy scenario where there could be magical unicorns, pixies or Bigfoot. What I’m saying is at a much more basic level, akin to not believing in atoms, molecules, bacteria, and other microscopic things back in the days before there was any evidence to prove they existed. Surely back then, while some people flatly denied there could be anything so small as to not be seen, the skeptical view would have allowed that when there are unanswered questions and not enough evidence to answer them, a skeptic will not be quick to write off any possible answer without the necessary evidence. Maybe I’m looking at this all wrong… and of course it’s just my opinion, everyone is entitled to their own.

    • JIMJFOX says:

      Creep, not ‘creap’. And scepticism, wariness, dubiousness, caution, etc lead often to outright disbelief. You are obviously a Faith- based operator which is why you made the unsubstantiated claim that “Dawkins has stopped being an ally of reason”, an outrageous exaggeration.
      He makes the occasional error- so what? He’s first to admit it, unlike the religious who seize on any and every slip-up to condemn him. RDFRS= Richard Dawkins Foundation for REASON and Science.

      • Daniel Morrow says:

        I didn’t make a comment about Dawkin’s reasoning. Someone else wrote that, below me. I simply asked a question regarding my feelings about him, which was rhetorical, and doesn’t require an answer which is right or wrong.

        I use the word faith to denote that we believe in things without imperical proof, simply because we can’t avoid it. It’s human nature. Again as much one might like to be logical and correct, a religious person would express a declaration of faith and righteousness. The irony is that they are the same.

        One can’t be correct about anything, just close to correct, at the time they come to a conclusion. To be 100% certain is a lot like going the speed of light, even then, it takes faith. Because one can’t know for sure.

        I make typos and spelling errors all the time. I have to live with it. I hope others can too. Another leap word – hope.

  4. Stephen Connell says:

    I’ am constantly amazed that people are surprised by the bloody mindedness of some human beings in sabotaging the efforts of other human beings.This type of person has been here ever since someone had a contradictory explanation to the saboteur or appeared to be more in the limelight than said saboteur so whats new? Nothing under the sun when it comes to human nature so lets just move on and get done what needs to be done and leave the rest to fight amongst themselves.

  5. Michael Bigelow says:

    Thanks for the post Brian. If what Dawkins posted about the withdrawal of his invitation is accurate, then it seems like he was totally kicked under the bus, (dumped out of your canoe).

    Richard has been an amazing draw to science and reason. Although he is known more as a firebrand atheist, his work is expansive. I know you’re friends with the Novellas but this really pisses me off. I think Steve and company handled this horribly.

  6. Wordwizard says:

    I received a nice from NECSS that it was uninviting Richard Dawkins because he had retweeted, in an approving manner, an offensive video. No further details. I tried to find out what was behind it, but apparently Richard Dawkins has removed the tweet because the silly song was based on a real woman who has been getting death threats, and he’s against death threats, no matter what, though he hasn’t apologized for posting it in the first place. What silly song? I found bits of a video of a real woman that seem connected, but no silly song. How do I evaluate the whole matter in context, unless I can see what it’s about? Does anyone have a screen shot of the tweet(s) in question, or a link to the “silly song” video? or the complete “real” video”? I hate to be asking for more publicity of something that seemingly needed less, but if I can’t look at the facts, I’m at a loss.

    • Darren says:

      Sure thing:

      Original video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ecJUqhm2g08

      The red headed girl has become a bit of a caricature for radical feminism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XxY-5ISEHPg (there’s a less cut, more complete video if you want, along with another where she was among a group of people protesting an MRA meeting and they pulled the fire alarm in order to end it)

      Dawkins had no idea who this girl was because it wasn’t really required for the cartoon video, since as mentioned, she’s become a caricature for the movement, but few actually care about her, she’s never been relevant really and certainly isn’t now. So there’s no way Dawkins knew this was a real person.

      After he found out he decided to take down the video, then someone posted a video of her from the same event I showed you and he started to retract his apology (rightfully). He pretty much ended by saying that he’s against any kind of bullying and rape and death threats, even if the person is vile.

      I agree with him, you can decide yourself.

  7. Adam Ant says:

    Here is a screenshot of Dawkin’s tweet.

    Here is the Video:

    Here is Richard Dawkin’s response:

    The video spoof is not what caused the red head’s trouble as it is only a few weeks ago. Since you say you have seen the real life red head’s videos of her yelling “fuckface” and “shut the hell up,” all of that occurred 3 years ago. All of that is pretty much old internet news at this point. Unless anyone can provide any evidence, I sincerely doubt the cartoon video nor Richard Dawkin’s tweet caused any new abuse to occur.

    If you want to see the history of Richard Dawkin’s tweets, it begins on Jan. 26th.

    As far as what abuse she received 3 years ago, this is a blog for a person who is known to bullshit, but I have no reason to doubt that the screenshots of the internet comments made on those real life viral videos.

    I hope that helps.

  8. Bill Kowalski says:

    So much can happen these days because of a click – a click which can take a quick perusal of a photo, a partial viewing of a video, or a poorly thought-through statement and convert it into a scandal. I can’t say I know a lot about Richard Dawkins, but he seems to be an articulate speaker with an intelligent perspective. If we could see this tweet, it would be helpful to any discussion of whether it was truly offensive or simply a statement of opinion which clashed with that of someone influential within NECSS .

  9. Leart says:

    Dawkins has caused controversy in the past with his tweets. Sure. That was not unknown to the NECSS organizers however, so this knee-jerk, holier-than-thou, you-shall-not-play-in-my-toybox, reaction to one re-tweet certainly seems unwarranted, but I’m willing to hear their explanations before I make my mind up and move on. Certainly I do not like what I see so far however, I’d think the least someone you invited would deserve is a private conversation and a private withdrawal of the invitation, not a public “tweet shaming” like this. It just doesn’t leave a good impression.

  10. I find the whole invitation/dis-invitation thing to be disappointing. It provides a glimpse into the far-too-soap-opera-like state of the modern skepticism movement. Of course, it is a diverse community, and of course, the NECSS committee has the right to invite (and un-invite) anyone they wish to their conference. But in this case, I disagree with their decision for reasons I wrote about yesterday, here: http://talk.faseidl.com/general/2016/01/31/richard-dawkins-at-necss-or-not/

    • Darren says:

      I very much agree with you. The video Dawkins tweeted was a stupid video. I watch Sargon, and it was a stupid video when he posted it too. But it’s not wrong. And even if it were, Novella is not the decider of that.

      If you read the comments Novella posted under that article, you’d see that this has apparently been a long time coming. That Dawkins has crossed the line too many times and this event was the one that broke the camel’s back. To this I ask “what specifically”? Were the tweeted video about Christians or anti-vaccers or whatever, no one would bat an eye. So why are we here Novella? What exactly is it that you disagree with?

      The idea that a convention based on open dialogue would disinvite someone for retweeting a video critical of something is ridiculous. I thought Novella better than this frankly.

  11. Dawkins is by nature controversial. I support the SGU in addition to Skeptoid. They both do good work albeit very different formats. This type of controversy is a sore spot for the Skeptic Community as a whole. I don’t have any of the direct info from Tam 7 so I will leave that alone. As a society misogyny and abuse is a perception issue not a science issue. In my opinion, Dawkins need to fight his instincts on this issue to stay his previous course, and just be hands off with this issue. He is under too much scrutiny and cannot be properly judged due to bias. He just refuses to recognize this, or maybe worse, intently trying to foster a point because of prior events. Feminist degrees of separation is not a science question it is not an atheist issue, he should not be arbiter of what is mainstream or acceptable. Skepticism needs to be me more welcoming as a whole. Skepticism by its nature in inherently conflict oriented. It is hard to attract new members if we continue to let us be perceived as authoritarian, parochial, and worse misogynistic. True or not. It is a PR issue. The tone of Steve blog leads me me to believe that he thinks it was as stupid move by Dawkins. To pretend that the emperor has clothes on when he doesn’t is disingenuous and makes NECSS look stupid. I am sure that it could have been handled much better by the committee. Frankly I think it speaks volumes that Rebecca Watson is not present she has been an equally polarizing and antagonizing figure in my opinion. Even though she left the show with some back handed complaints, and probably would claim that she wouldn’t go, she should also be excluded due to her divisive statements and antagonism. For me NECSS handled removing Dawkins poorly, and Dawkins makes yet another in a long line of ill advised social media comments.
    TO use Brian’s analogy they are both creating a whirlpool while the rest of us are trying to paddle.

    • allanj says:

      “he should not be arbiter of what is mainstream or acceptable.”. He isn’t and he would never claim to be. People either agree with him or they don’t Most of the 1.36M who follow him on Twiiter probably agree with his views on 3rd wave feminism. If you disagree with him, fine. I like people who speak their mind rather than censor themselves on behalf of “the movement”. His criticism of 3rd wave feminism is spot on.

      • Mudguts says:

        I completely avoid that part of the cross skept/ath debate,

        I think this “third wave argument” is a valueless distraction.

  12. mudguts says:

    Thanks for covering a lot of what I wanted to post Stephen.. saves joules for me..

    I was appalled at some of the blogs and posts I read a few years ago.. I am entirely unhappy with the turn a few bloggers/youcasters have taken of late as well.

    Hopefully the presenters of the skepticism get back to lambasting the quacks, frauds and charlatans on the basis of their lack of evidence for product and money grubbing lifestyles.

  13. Cameron says:

    Well there’s a few things that skeptics could do to improve the “skeptical community”. 1 – Stop tweeting and generally avoid quick and simple social media. If something can be said in a quick and simple manner about something that is in reality very complicated it probably shouldn’t be said at all, or at least on a better platform. 2. – Anyone who calls themselves a skeptic should start with themselves. If you’re first reaction to something fairly mundane is self-righteous indignation you should stop, calm down, and think it through first. Chances are your first reaction is probably wrong. 3. – We should just accept the fact that brilliant people can hold pretty stupid beliefs. Let’s politely accept the belief, consider it, then challenge it openly and honestly.
    That’s just my 2 cents.

  14. joan johnston says:

    Totally stupid and silly video. Totally stupid and silly to disinvite a speaker because of it.

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