Elite Skeptics, Elitist Skeptics, and me.

A bunch of nerds at TAM London 2010.

Many people get a lot of attention on the internet for saying or writing things like “Atheist and skeptics are just the same as religious people!”

They go on to say things like “Skeptics like to take down the beliefs of others, but they never question their own beliefs.”

Near the end of the rant, you’ll probably find accusations of elitism and arrogance.

Personally I think there is a confusion between the labels of “elite skeptics” and “elitist skeptics”. There is some overlap between the groups, but from my own anecdotal evidence, not very much.

I have no problem with people who are not skeptical about every one of their beliefs. My problem is with those people who aren’t skeptical of the reasons they THINK they are skeptical.

It’s a tricky concept, but maybe I can explain.

Not everyone can be skeptical of everything. There are loads of areas where I don’t think skeptically at all. This is the only way to get through my day, otherwise I’d never get anything done. I’d spend all the time investigating every tiny detail of every tiny truth claim, and never be able to have an awesome, albeit slightly random, life.

Who can really be that skeptical? Not us everyday people. And yet “skeptics” come under fire for NOT examining every single thing. And because we believe some things without question, and challenge a certain set of beliefs of others, we are called arrogant and elitist.

For that attention to detail we rely on elite skeptics. These can be professional scientists, or they can be trusted journalists or public figures who communicate the current state of scientific thought.

When Ben Goldacre says “Homeopathy is bullshit” I don’t rush out to do my own tests on diluted water. I just take his word on it. There is a virtuous circle of trust among scientists and science writers that allows them to reach a consensus on certain topics.

Yay for the elite skeptics!

My problem is with elitist skeptics, and I have a good working definition of the term.

First, let me state that I have no problems with any single belief or stance on any issue an elitist skeptic might talk about, or browbeat others about. The chances are they are 100% correct on the matter when held against the standards of modern science.

My only problem is the reason that they THINK they are skeptics, and are therefore scientifically right. The reason they believe they skeptics is their own intelligence.

Which leads to them believing everyone who believes something scientifically incorrect is stupid, or at least less intelligence than they are.

THIS is elitist skepticism, in my opinion.

I experienced it many, many times at the TAM London conferences in 2009 and 2010. More so in 2010. There would be a statement from the stage about how stupid religious people are, or how people are stupid for not knowing this scientific fact, and the audience would erupt in applause and cheering. It made me feel very uncomfortable. Same with my brother and sister-in-law, who attended one and two of the events respectfully.

The truth of the matter, as I see it, is that fact that you are a skeptic has nothing to do with your own intelligence. Instead it has everything to do with circumstances of your birth, your upbringing, and the society in which you live.

If this wasn’t the case, we could look at the most incredible minds throughout history, and they’d all be atheists and skeptics.

How about Isaac Newton? Oops. Was totally into alchemy and all kinds of batshit crazy stuff, as well as being a Christian. Same with every other intelligent person up until the Enlightenment.

Also, atheists have no problem saying “If you were born in Saudi Arabia, you’d probably believe in Allah, if you were born in Texas you’d probably believe in Jesus.” Which is totally true. This isn’t a statement about the mental capacity of any religious person, just the admission that people are shaped by their surroundings.

So why do skeptics think they are any different?

I was brought up in a hardcore Christian home, and I’m now an atheist and a skeptic. Is it my intelligence that took me down that path? I’d say no, just a great many incidences and coincidences along the way. My Christian upbringing probably contributed more to me being a skeptic now than other people’s secular upbringing, to the point where they’ve thought as much about the existence of god as the efficacy of Homeopathy. As in, not at all.

I have an identical twin brother who also attended TAM London in 2009 and 2010. He was also brought up in a Christian home, of course, and is now probably more hardcore atheist than I am. Did we reach the same beliefs because we are both as intelligent as each other? Well, no. It could be said that I’m objectively more intelligent than he is, as measured by grades at school. But even our grades at school had more to do with our only very slightly different life experiences up until age 16.

We took different paths to our skeptical mindset, at different paces, but in each case it took a repeated exposure to the skeptical mindset of others, each time totally outside of our control. After a time, by applying skeptical tools we’d picked up to our own beliefs, we came to the same kinds of conclusions. This had nothing to do with our intelligence levels, and way more to do with the fact that skepticism itself works. We didn’t invent it, we only slowly, and by accident, learnt it.

So what next?

Thinking other people are stupid because they are religious or not skeptical is totally misguided. It becomes worrying when these elitist skeptics think they should also be elite skeptics, or worse yet, elite members of society in general.

You may be CORRECT about the topics of which you are skeptical, but that doesn’t mean the “stupid” people should be sneered at and then ignored. They should, instead or at least, be educated.

As a final argument, I’d like to bring up the parallels between elitist skeptics and Randian thinkers on economics.

“I got to where I am today, financially, due to my own skills, intelligence, and hard work! I am the 53%! Pull yourself up by your boot straps!”

The common rebuttal is something on the lines of “Really? You didn’t rely on your parents? Your schooling? The circumstances of your birth? Your parents’ economic standing? Your gender? The colour of your skin? Your reliance on the wider society to provide the safe environment in which you can flourish?”

Soon the claims that someone, anyone, got to their current financial position due to their own abilities falls flat. It involves long chains of coincidence, circumstances outside of the person’s control, and the actions of other people. All these things combine to bring any single person to any point in their life. There is no fate, there is no destiny, there is no god in the machine. If you are a hardcore skeptic, you won’t believe in true free will, only in the illusion of free will. You are only the culmination of matter and energy playing itself out in the universe.

Really.

“I’m a skeptic, and have all the right answers, due to my own skills, intelligence, and hard work! I have the same religious beliefs as all these Nobel Prize winning scientists! If you weren’t so stupid, you’d be just like me!”

My rebuttal is exactly the same as before. “Really? You didn’t rely on your parents? Your schooling? The circumstances of your birth? Your parents’ economic standing? Your gender? The colour of your skin? Your reliance on the wider society to provide the safe environment in which you can flourish?”

Yes, even skin gender and colour. How many black women at TAM London in 2010? Maybe there was one, but she was hidden among the sea of caucasian men. Then again, only middle-to-upper-class people could afford the money and time to attend TAM, and we all know that white men, aged 25-40, only reach that position through their own intelligence and hard work. Ho hum.

To conclude: Some people DO rely solely on their outstanding mental capacity to independently formulate the principles of science and skeptical thought. Good on them. But these people are few and far between. I’m not asking you to defend the ancient philosophers’ intelligence compared to the general population. It’s obvious they had the chops to rise above the rest, and have influenced world history since their times.

No, I’m asking you to defend your OWN intelligence compared to the general population. Is knowing the truth about some subjects, and knowing a method of thought to reach true conclusions on other subjects, reason enough to sneer at everyone else?

I think not.


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