Files from the Academic Fringe: Pt. 4 – Skepticism

Eugenie recapitulates phylogeny
Eugenie recapitulates phylogeny

Eugenie recapitulates phylogeny

Part 1 — Scientism
Part 2 — Creationism
Part 3 — Racism

It’s hard to believe that scientific skeptics would be anything less than ethical. Aren’t they the good guys in our secular society, sniffing out bullshit and putting age-old wives’ tales to rest? Or is that just a myth?

Apparently debunkers have a dark side. It was just before Halloween 2012. While swirling around the clickbait vortex, I stumbled across a scathing allegation. According to “The Skepchick,” numerous men in the “skeptic community” were bombarding their female colleagues with sexist cracks and crass sexual harassment—and with Richard Dawkins’s tacit approval.

Were these disbelieving libertines trying to open the public’s eyes or reenact Eyes Wide Shut? I had my doubts. About everything.

Could it be that the same dudes who obsessively hunt down ghosts, gods, psychics, spoon-benders, miracle cures, conspiracy theories, and flying saucers—for the sole purpose of showing how stupid other people are—also act like arrogant assholes to women? I mean, seriously, think critically for a minute. What’s the probability?

By sheer coincidence (no juju), I discovered that CSICon—a shaky alliance of CSI (formerly CSICOP), CFI, and CfSH (can we all get along?)—were holding their annual Skepticism convention out by the Nashville airport. The author of that damning article was slated to speak about “jerks.” So I woke at dawn, slurped down my coffee, and drove out into the fog, determined to get to the bottom of this. Maybe I would witness a few Pyrrhonian pervotrons in action.

In another stroke of good fortune (no juju), Eugenie Scott, a highly decorated meme sniper in the New Atheist Army, would be there to attack Tennessee’s “Monkey Bill.” Finally, a chance to ask her opinions on Creationism, “scientific racism,” and the Eternal Void. I was ready to make a day of it.

* * *

I paid at the door, grabbed a conference program, and headed straight for the sliced pineapple. Man, I love breakfast buffets. On the back of the four-page program I found a 712-word “Policy on Hostile Conduct/Harassment at Conferences”—possibly the longest of its kind. It has been said, “If God is dead, then everything is permitted.” Well, apparently not.

Prohibitions include, but are not limited to, “sexual harassment…unwelcome sexual attention, stalking, and physical contact such as pinching, grabbing, or groping.” How often do you find “No Dogs Allowed” posted where decent people keep their animals in check?

The breakfast conversation soon turned to feminism. I didn’t know who she was at the time, but social psychologist Carol Tavris was sitting at our table. Her gorgeous grin floored me immediately, as did her shocking views on human diversity. Raised in a “feminist, atheist household,” Tavris was refreshingly open to the notion that men and women display average differences in various measurable traits.

Twenty minutes later Tavris was onstage for the Gender Issues and Science panel, responding to Dick Lippa’s provocative question: “Should We Be Skeptical about the ‘Gender Similarities Hypothesis?’” To heavily paraphrase: Lippa argued that average gender differences are rooted in biology, which might explain contrasts in career choices (who likes working with people and who likes tinkering with equipment), aggressive behavior (think sugar and spice, or slime and snails), and perception (one notices key details, the other sees the big picture). Turns out, evolution plays favorites.

Carol opened by saying, “In the spirit of female compassion…and conciliation, I agree with everything Richard just said.” As the laughter subsided, she launched into her counterargument. “[E]ither/or thinking is not going to advance us anywhere.” While some see the overlaps in bell curves, others focus on differences—but both perspectives are important.

“Women wear shoes they can’t walk in…but men wear Levi’s jeans with the waist size published on the outside. No woman I know would ever wear that!”

Addressing innate rational abilities versus an inclination toward feelings, Tavris pointed out that Taiwanese and Japanese girls outscore American boys in math. Furthermore, Greek, Italian, and Jewish men tend to be exceedingly emotional. Near the end, Tavris joked that “the whole planet is becoming Sweden.”

During the Q&A, a single father suggested the best advice to give one’s daughter: “Enjoy the differences that matter and ignore the rest.”

* * *

The inimitable Eugenie Scott was next to speak. I don’t know if it was her humor, or her forceful arguments, or just that disarming smile, but I fell hopelessly in love with her. What can I say? I’m a sucker for short bangs.

Dr. Scott is the foremost advocate for maintaining evolutionary orthodoxy in American classrooms. She laid into Creationists with eloquence and passion, at one point saying, “I’m a fundamentalist when it comes to free speech…I believe people should be allowed to say whatever stupid thing they want to.” Just not in a publicly funded biology class.

It was difficult to approach Eugenie after her talk—she was surrounded by fawning suitors like Scarlet O’Hara in a single-button blazer. I finally elbowed my way through, but being completely twitterpated, all I could think of was, “What, uh… annoys you the most about Creationists?”

“My annoyance is irrelevant,” she snapped. “Public understanding of science is more important. [Creationists] are actively trying to change the way we do science by eliminating methodological naturalism. …” Then she smiled at me. “Frankly, I find hardcore atheists to be more annoying.”

And with that, she left me for other admirers. So much for my questions about scientific racism and the Eternal Void. Fortunately, I ran into the irascible science blogger PZ Meyers (no juju). First, I asked if the dogma of human equality is a form of liberal Creationism.

“The thing is, there is no significant statistical difference between populations by race or sex. We find pervasive cultural differences and not biological ones.”

“What motivates you more,” I continued, “a love of truth or the hatred of lies?”

“That’s a tough one. … Objectively…a love of the truth. That’s why I chose science as a career. But I have a lot more fun hating lies. One is my life’s work and the other is my hobby.”

Moving on to the ultimate question, I asked if he ever gets bummed out by the Big Zero which subtracts all sentient beings from the equation.

“Not in the slightest,” he replied cheerily. “Every human has died or will die. We find purpose in what we do.”

As coffee breaks transitioned to a long night of whiskey, I asked skeptic after skeptic if they believed in God or the afterlife, total deadpan. Some laughed and some looked confused, but all responded with an emphatic, “No!” Then I would ask them if the idea of being erased at death evokes a sense of emptiness and futility. Does the Eternal Void ever get you down?

Each and every free thinker—with one exception—responded with an “I live in the here and now” rationalization. “My legacy will survive me” and all that.

I’d turn the screws, reminding them of the universe’s inevitable heat death (or collapse.) When every footprint behind you disappears, I would say, it will be like you never took the first step. And in nearly every case, it was as if they’d never considered the Eternal Void seriously.

“What was it like before you were born?” one asked me.

“Extremely boring.”

* * *

The sun went down on autumn leaves. I hopped aboard CSICon’s “Downtown Honky Tonk Bus Trip,” which dropped us off on Broadway. As we filed out onto the street, I saw Eugenie gawking on the corner, the neon signs reflected in her glasses.

“Where are we going?” she asked her entourage. They just stood there dumbly or searched their iPhones in vain. Emboldened, I stepped up and informed her that Jack’s Bar-B-Que has the tenderest ribs in this part of town. “Oh!” she exclaimed. “You’re a local? Well then, I’m following you!”

I offered my elbow and gave her the grand tour of downtown Music City. And no matter where Eugenie Scott went, there were twenty attendees panting on her heels. I’ve never encountered a group of people more easy to lead around than that flock of incredulous skeptics.

I fed them pulled pork sandwiches. I pointed out the tackiest bars. On the steps of the Ryman Theater, I gave an impromptu oration on how this one-time church became country music’s sacred temple. Eugenie insisted I get in the group picture. “Okay, okay,” I said, “but I still believe in God.” I led them into Printer’s Alley for shots of Jack Daniel’s.

“You know it’s funny,” I told Eugenie, “the Discovery Institute guys would drink these atheists under the table.”

“Why would I ruin my brain with alcohol?” a crabby old sycophant interrupted, rattling his ice water, trying to get her majesty’s attention. “You only get one of them.”

Back at the hotel, we enjoyed a midnight magic show, complete with rope tricks and a lovely assistant in a skimpy dress. The performance concluded with a séance. Every year CFI members (or is it CSI?) attempt to contact the ghost of Harry Houdini, who was himself a famous debunker. They also offer a $50,000 reward for any proof that ghosts exist. Harry didn’t show. Later on I told the wizened stage magicians that I would happily kill myself and come back to claim the prize.

“In that case,” one replied, “we’ll double the amount!”

“Say, does the Eternal Void ever freak you out?”

Winding down, I ordered one last whiskey. An attractive young attendee was sitting down the bar from me, stirring her cocktail, smiling at the… very mature fellow beside her. The guy shook his head and asked, “So it’s just my type? You don’t like older men?”

“I would never cheat,” she said, now looking straight forward. “It just wouldn’t feel right.”

“But that is so much of the excitement for me, to act in secret…”

* * *

The best response to my questions about God and the afterlife came from a CFI director (or was it CSI, or maybe CfSH). Her relaxed demeanor spoke of steady curiosity and a clear conscience. Of course, she didn’t believe in God or the next world, but when pressed on the issue of the Big Zero, her eyes filled with tears.

“That’s the saddest thought I could ever imagine,” she confided. Because it would forever separate her from her life partner of 17 years. Her voice quivering, she whispered, “She is everything to me.”

I asked this professional skeptic if she believed in True Love.

You wouldn’t believe her answer if I told you.

© Joseph Allen

Joe Allen

Joe Allen is a writer and fellow primate who wonders why we came down from the trees. A lifelong student of religion and science, he's also kept his hands dirty as a land surveyor, communal farm hand, kitchen servant, and for over a decade, by climbing steel as an entertainment rigger. His work appears in various outlets from left to right because he prefers liberty to security.

Daily interjections: @EvoPsychosis

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