When is a skeptic not a skeptic?

An article in the Daily Skeptic recently was by an Australian who had, before COVID, classed himself as a “skeptic,” contributing to websites pouring scorn on pseudoscience, and so on, as compared to Proper Science. The article expressed his disillusion with the way that science, and in particular medical science, got subverted during the pandemic. A common tale, you’ll agree.

Toby Young’s Daily Skeptic began life as Lockdown Skeptics, focusing on the single issue of this perversion of science and common sense in response to the dreaded virus. Young’s focus, as founder of the Free Speech Union, was primarily on the censorship and propaganda, and the skepticism was against the “consensus” being foisted on us all under false pretenses.

But this particular article got me thinking about the sociological context of “skepticism” before 2019, which was very much about condemning “fringe pseudoscience” in the name of rationalism. It had close links to the “New Atheist” project of Richard Dawkins and his chums, as a result of which its targets included the majority of Americans, who maintained doubts about the truth of undirected Neodarwinian evolution. But you’ll remember it included the attempts to cancel (before cancel-culture) even those who professed religious faith alongside quite orthodox evolutionary views.

This is how I first encountered them, as I pursued my science-faith interest in biological origins from 2010 onwards, initially at BioLogos, whilst keeping up with the Intelligent Design websites, and later at Josh Swamidass’s Peaceful Science. For reasons never quite clear to me (other than their apparent desire to enlighten, or more often to denigrate, the ignorant masses) most of these sites became heavily populated with skeptics of that description, turning any serious discussion of alternatives to Neodarwinism into a feeding frenzy against evolutionary heretics.

That was one reason I drifted away from such sites, and why I made this platform unwelcoming to such people. I found it impossible to develop new ideas when others were determined to goad one constantly into basic Christian apologetics of the “pearls before swine” variety. As I have mentioned, the mantra of the skeptics, back then, was the Enlightenment ideal of hard reason. This was the background assumption even of the ignorant teenage trolls who would drop by The Hump, dismiss complex arguments with comments like, “So you think Jebus did it – read some books – cheers,” and never be heard of again.

Yet even back then, I detected some level of excessive trust in a manufactured consensus about all kinds of issues, quite apart from evolution. I remember my acceptance of the reality of climate change beginning to change when “real scientists” on Peaceful Science united to dismiss the misinformation I’d found in David Attenborough’s first presentation about walruses falling off cliffs because of global warming. This became notorious as “Walrusgate,” but at that stage I simply presented, for discussion, Susan Crockford’s detailed unpacking, with primary sources, of the true circumstances, from which Attenborough’s presentation didn’t emerge well.

My critics made no attempt to engage with the evidence, but instead insinuated Crockford’s supposed funding by Big Oil, and proceeded to try and “educate” me socratically by assuming I was a climate change denier and asking if I didn’t even accept that CO2 levels had risen over the years. So I read some more books and became a denier anyway.

Well, the Daily Skeptic article brings to my attention that, in my limited experience, “skeptics” from the classic mould don’t appear to have been particularly prominent amongst skeptics of the accepted COVID narrative. It’s been interesting to see how different classes of people have gradually come round to that position, and how disparate their origins. Medics and scientists were among the first as their various disciplines were massacred, to be joined by economists, sociologists, journalists, comedians, musicians and so on. Religious backgrounds ranged from atheist to Christian via Hinduism, Judaism and belief in alien reptile people in our midst. Politically the traditional divisions between left and right broke down, so that gay liberal agnostics began to find common cause with conservative Republican Calvinists.

But offhand I can’t think of any prominent “skeptics” whose skepticism and critical rationalism have caused them to call out the lies to which we have been subjected on a whole range of issues over the last two and a half years. Now, I may be unfair here, since I never frequented sites like The Skeptical Zone and, as I have said, I’ve gradually withdrawn from those where they turn up to bait the “Creationists.”

But YouTube has not brought to my attention any of these voluble spokemen for reason becoming champions of the cause of COVID truth or doubters of Western government motives, in the way that, for example, it made me aware that Eric Clapton and Van Morrison have. Scanning Peaceful Science it seems to me that the discussions of phylogenies and Adam’s genealogy have continued without COVID having obviously happened at all. As for BioLogos, which always seems to work hard to keep on the right side of the “real” skeptical scientists, it early on became a mouthpiece for the whole Fauci narrative, damning the Evangelicals daring to keep their churches open and rolling their eyes. behind their masks, at the unvaccinated. In this they were possibly influenced behind the scenes by Francis Collins as head of NIH, or else were just aware that in that role he must surely endorse the policies, which made them OK by BioLogos.

I’ve no doubt that some readers from the early years of this blog have been closer to the skeptical action than me, and will be able to correct me on whether any of the cheerleaders for skepticism have come aboard. Perhaps, without my knowledge, Jerry Coyne has shared a platform with Bret Weinstein on the lab leak theory.

But my impression is that most of them have kept quiet or remained staunchly behind the mainstream narrative on COVID, as well as climate change, the Great Resest and the war in Ukraine, as well as on evolution. And that leads me to suspect that what was called “skepticism” was in many cases no more than compliance to a safe and profitable elite consensus. It’s easy to condemn Bill Dembski’s ID opinions when the whole academy, the BBC documentary makers and state education all officially endorse Neodarwinism. It’s easy to pour scorn on “global warming denialists” when 95% of scientists are repeatedly said to endorse it, and when rebels like David Bellamy or Peter Ridd simply disappear from public view. And it’s easy to believe that masks, lockdowns and mRNA vaccines work when the world and his wife say it’s so, and throw bricks and travel-bans at those who disagree.

My suspicion is that skeptics of the “old school” are, as it turns out, in fact compliant to what they perceive to be the beliefs of the socially dominant intelligentsia. COVID, as far as I can tell, has shown that willingness to confront evidence, when it might make one part of the “out-group,” is no more common amongst them than it is amongst doctors, or politicians, or church leaders.

It’s funny how irrelevant the old alignments have become, isn’t it?

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to When is a skeptic not a skeptic?

  1. Levi says:

    Skeptics of the first kind (I’ve known many) are very often materialists, and so, self-interested egoists, hedonists or, if not materialists, solipsists. Hence, during the early stages of the pandemic, they were gripped by fear of losing their only treasure – their bodily life and consciousness of it – as much as, or more, than the rest, and were happy to throw their lot in with “the Science Ltd”. Like their skepticism, agnosticism and atheism, this was only to be another psychological therapeutic, between their other more ordinary vanities.

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