There are some valid points in his article for the sceptical skeptic, but as is often the case with polemic writing there is a lot of cherry-picking, generalisation and reliance on ecological fallacy.
He makes the point that most Muslim women don’t wear burkhas, but he then misses the point that any community is shaped by all of its members, not just a handful of highly visible (or visibly invisible) individuals. This applies to skeptics as well – the famous, loud and/or obnoxious are more visible, but they do not represent the whole.
I did toy with the idea of dissociating myself with skepticism a year or so ago, for several of the reasons stated by Stephen. Fortunately I discussed this with my friend and colleague James and we decided to do something a bit more positive, which led to us setting up PubSci and later Hackney Skeptics with Alice. These events are more focussed on science and socialising than bashing people we don’t agree with.
I think it’s a shame that Stephen has embraced the typical polemic style adopted by skeptics for his piece, as I think that style is one of the most damaging tools used in modern skepticism. It lacks nuance and is fundamentally unhelpful when trying to encourage consideration of a different perspective and it can alienate those with more moderate views.
In my opinion, polemic needs to be dropped if skepticism is to avoid becoming an echo chamber populated by a smug and mouthy minority.
For anyone who has not been in the sceptical blogosphere much, there has been a rising tide of support for science writer Simon Singh, who is currently being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA). Their grounds for this action was an article published in the Guardian newspaper that highlighted the lack of evidence supporting some of the claims made by chiropractors. Rather than take the opportunity of a 500 word rebuttal of the article as offered by the Guardian, the BCA chose instead to personally sue Simon Singh.
The British legal system has an unusual take on libel laws that strongly favours the claimant by flipping the onus of proof onto the defendant (no innocence until proven guilty here) and by being prohibitively expensive (usually for the defendant). In the case of Simon Singh the judge in the case has fastened on the word “bogus” as having a very specific legal meaning entailing deliberate deception rather than simply being “not genuine” or “spurious” (for the ruling see the excellent Jack of Kent). This means that Simon has a long and expensive time ahead, first appealing this initial ruling and then (assuming his appeal will fail as most do) he will need to compile evidence to support an assertion that he never intended to make.
Many in the scientific and sceptical community are rallying around Simon to offer support where possible. We see the BCA’s action as being inappropriate because science is founded on rebuttal of claims by the provision of evidence, not on who has the best legal support. Science cannot progress without disagreement and libel laws are unnecessary when evidence should be used to rebut. The BCA’s actions undermine the scientific process and they significantly weaken the claims of chiropractic – after all, if they had evidence for efficacy, why would they go through the hassle of suing? The poor support for some of the claims made by chiropractors has been subsequently dragged into the light of the British Medical Journal by a variety of scientists (see DC’s improbable science), and a “quacklash” by members of the sceptical community (in particular by the efforts of Zeno and Andy at the Quackometer [and of course Simon Perry!]) has innundated the BCA with complaints against chiropractors who advertise poorly supported ‘treatments’ for non-spinal conditions.
Below is an edited version of the original article by Simon Singh, which I am reproducing in support of Simon and the Sense About Science campaign to keep libel laws out of scientific debate.
“Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.Continue reading →