Afternoon Inquisition 5.23

A new and somewhat controversial group popped up on Facebook last week. It’s a bit inaccurately named, if you ask me: the group is called “The Skeptical Movement Should be Apolitical”, but if you read the statement on its page, the group appears to be arguing for keeping the “movement” free of any specific party affiliation. Regardless of the semantics, I think it’s an important topic for discussion.


Should organized skepticism try to avoid political affiliation? Should it/can it be completely apolitical?

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  1. No group of people that fancies themselves with the oft-inflated moniker “activist” should ever dare to be apolitical.

    In the paraphrased words of Ralph Nader: “You’d better know about politics because politics will get YOU!” He was being a bit brash, perhaps, but the message is not too different from Carl Sagan’s message on science education.

    For Sagan, he knew that our world runs on science and technology, so it was the duty and benefit for everyone to be as science-literate as reasonably possible, especially our elected officials. What kind of world would we live in if scientific illiteracy ruled the roost? Texas, Kansas, and Louisiana offered chilling reminders recently.

    Same goes for politics. I’ve got my degree in political science, so I may be a bit biased here. But how can any group who wished to enact change on any cultural level do so without political awareness and involvement?

    Groups that try to be as non-partisan as possible are generally the ones with the least success (with a few exceptions, obviously). Non-partisanship can only go so far, because in certain matters of skepticism, some parties do abysmally bad, and need to be brought to task. It’s indeed unfortunate that skepticism doesn’t have the organizational infrastructure of say, an energy lobby, but maybe that’s best for us….keeps us grass roots.

    Our world is not ruled by science, but by politics, politicians, and economic concerns. Any group would do well to realize this, and understand this. How successful can we become if we try to avoid politics for the sake of someone’s easily-offended feelings (I’m sure most people here would agree that no topic should be considered sacred, so why does politics get a pass?) while other, more nefarious forces of woo, anti-science, and CAM (just to name a few) make no such compromise.

    Political affiliation, on the other hand, is a sticky-wicket. Attaching to one party, even loosely, could easily blind us to anti-skeptic nonsense in much the same way that nationalism blinds a citizenry from the atrocities that country commits. It has the benefit of organization, but is the cost really worth it? I dunno. But I think making a conscience decision to avoid political affiliation for its own sake is a bit silly, much in the same way that trying to MAKE a political affiliation for its own sake is also silly.

  2. Sadly, I can’t be apolitical, as I’ve seen enough good evidence to conclude that politics is a legitimate and actual phenomenon.

    Apolitical – no. Non-partisan – Yes. There is no Liberal Science, Conservative Math, Tory Chemistry, or Republican Geology.

  3. @Some Canadian Skeptic: I can’t add much to this post beyond the fact that for the past few years the Republican Party has been viciously anti-science while the Democrats have found it in their interests to favor science, so it would only be natural to work more with the Democrats than the Republicans. But keep in mind that the parties’ positions on science are dictated by their agendas and not by any adherence to reason. I’m trying to find a reference for this, but my understanding is that when the Census Bureau first proposed sampling, it was thought it would help the Republicans, so they were for it and the Democrats were against it. When it became clear that it would work the other way, allegiances switched.

  4. I agree with funkopolis, groups should be non-partisan because the personal is ALWAYS political and vice versa. You can’t take politics out of activism. Let it be a tool you use to create change for everyone.

    Obviously I want people to be freed from woo whether they are Democrats or Republicans or neither.

  5. @Some Canadian Skeptic:

    Good post, fellow Canuck.

    Same goes for politics. I’ve got my degree in political science, so I may be a bit biased here. But how can any group who wished to enact change on any cultural level do so without political awareness and involvement?


    As I see it, one of the great failings of Western democracy, and certainly Canadian democratic process (aside from its devolution into little more than a way to wear the brown lipstick of the corporate suite and guarantee oneself a good life-long income) is its failure to effectively inform “the people” of the importance of the process — not the party, but the process. Or perhaps that’s just a failing of Western society and its inability to keep the corporations out of the nation’s bedrooms and thought processes. So to speak.

    We had so-called Social Studies in grade school. But I cannot think of a more effective way to bore the bejesus out of kids when it comes to learning political process.

    At the same time your ( @Some Canadian Skeptic: ) post makes me think of Shermer’s single handedly turning Skeptiblog into a political stump to propogandize, proselytize, and shill his personal, peculiar, and particular ideological belief system.

    Rather sad actually. Such a smart guy bitten by the very bug of credulousness and non-skeptical belief in something as ephemeral as a political ideology. Something that he works so hard to drum out of others.

  6. @SicPreFix:

    We had so-called Social Studies in grade school. But I cannot think of a more effective way to bore the bejesus out of kids when it comes to learning political process.

    You can imagine my frustration that at least in Ontario, Politics/Civics is not a teachable for teacher’s college purposes. I’d be a high school teacher right-the-crap now were it otherwise!

  7. Sometimes the facts have a political bias. Or at least, sometimes a political party’s position is alignment with the facts as opposed to their opposition. I think politics is something skepticism should be a part of, and skeptical organizations and individuals can be as partisan as they care to be, but the skeptical movement as a whole shouldn’t be tied to a particular party or politician.

    It can be political without being partisan the same way police and firefighters are courted for support by parties and candidates, without actually being tied to one party. Whoever best represents them, they go with, and who doesn’t gets pushed to win their support, regardless of party. It’d be a great day when the contestants for a political position bent over backwards to get the skeptical vote.

  8. The skeptical movement is gonna have to get political if for the sole reason that the peddlers of woo and pseudoscience won’t be so hesitant. If we’re not out there fighting in the political realm we’ll just get more of the same bullshit we’ve gotten from the boards of education in Kansas and Texas. And it’s not just the creationist who are getting involved, we still gotta deal with all the antivaxxers, the alternative medicine quacks and the rest who are pushing for political influence. Of course we shouldn’t put all our efforts into the political sphere, educating the public should always be our top priority, but if we want greater influence we’re gonna have to get our hands dirty.

  9. @Merkuto:

    Whoever best represents them, they go with, and who doesn’t gets pushed to win their support, regardless of party.

    I think this. I think you have to be political to a certain extent if you want to make change. But it should be geared to the person/party that represents that change.

  10. I don’t think any group or movement can be anything less than political. It seems to be human nature. Robert Heinlein said some thing like, “…you can no more keep people from politicking than you can keep them from copulating.”

  11. Excellent comments so far. I would add Howard Zinn’s pithy quote: “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”

    In other words, trying to remain politically neutral equates to tacit endorsement of the status quo. We should, of course, embrace our political diversity, but we should not feel afraid to state our opinions, like how Shermer frequently has no qualms about his libertarianism on SkepticBlog.

  12. I think it’s important to separate policy from party. Skeptics and freethinkers shouldn’t compromise our beliefs in specific policies, like increased funding for science, teaching evolution, logic and critical thinking, science based environmental and development policy, etc… It doesn’t matter which party is doing the supporting.

    This may seem obvious, but politics is the game of power, not policy.

    Or we could just vote for whoever is cutest.

  13. Politics is life. You can’t navigate any social group without some kind of politics. All groups have leaders, and some kind of process for appointing them, whether the constituents recognize it or not.

    Trying to be totally apolitical would in in essence be inhuman. We believe in objective proof, and we use politics to forward it.

  14. Skepticism and rational thought are necessarily constructed from the bottom-up. From facts and logic a larger picture of reality is constructed. Skepticism is about process, the process of taking facts and manipulating them with logic to come to conclusions about reality.

    Political, religious and social systems are constructed from the top-down. A “leader” dictates ideas from the top to those underneath who must follow them to remain in the group. Facts and logic are irrelevant to social systems, what matters is the chain of authority, where leaders dictate to followers.

    Political, social and religious goals don’t need to be consistent with reality, and many are not. Facts and logic are independent of any political, social or religious system, and are independent of all human agencies.

    There is a great quote from Moynihan (a Democrat), “you are entitled to your own opinion, you are not entitled to your own facts”.

    The GOP and the Bush administration had a different approach.

    In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

    The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

    If you want to be a skeptic, you have to belong to the reality-based community.

  15. @banyan said:

    … trying to remain politically neutral equates to tacit endorsement of the status quo.

    No it does not. That statement is near-equivalent to “you’re either with us, or against us,” which is a logical fallacy.

    To quote (Wikipedia):

    The statement (you’re either with us, or against us) can sometimes be interpreted as a false dilemma, which is an informal fallacy; however, it may also serve merely as a descriptive statement identifying the beliefs of the speaker(s), and thus state a basic assumption and not a logical conclusion. It may also be interpreted as a speech act.

    False Dilemma:

    The informal fallacy of false dilemma (also called false dichotomy, the either-or fallacy) involves a situation in which only two alternatives are considered, when in fact there are other options. Closely related are failing to consider a range of options and the tendency to think in extremes, called black-and-white thinking. Strictly speaking, the prefix “di” in “dilemma” means “two”. When a list of more than two choices are offered, but there are other choices not mentioned, then the fallacy is called the fallacy of false choice, or the fallacy of exhaustive hypotheses.

    Until one is certain of process and all possible options, some degree of neutrality is a necessary position. Certainty in politics is by no means always possible. It is a vanishingly rare occurence, if it even happens at all, to encounter one political side that is all right or all wrong.

    And While Shermer most certainly has the right to express his political views, to do so on a site that is supposed to be solely dedicated to critical thinking, and skepticism is, in my opinion, a contradiction and an abuse of privilege.

  16. I run the Salt Lake City skeptics organization. Politics have come up a few times. Here’s my take:

    I am unafraid to point out my own political affiliation (i.e., progressive left liberal), but state that the goup itself has no political affiliation. That said, I’ve also said that political claims, just like scientific or religious claims, are not exempt form skeptical inquiry. I.e., if a politician makes a claim of fact (“gay marriage destroys families”) then those claim is open to skeptical examination. Why should such claims be exempt from inquiry any more than “my magic juice will cure cancer?”

  17. Politics is stupid, essentially the sole purpose is to bastardize reality for monetary gain.

    Any skeptical group will de facto need to be non partisan, because no political party is ever 100% rational.

  18. @Some Canadian Skeptic: Absolutely right.

    Trying to be apolitical amounts to trying to stay away from the force of gravity. You’ll be as strongly political as strong is your intent to do something with your own ideas.

    Being a skeptic is about being “neutral” (which in politics obviously means nothing, since there is no political neutrality, everything has consequences, either commission or omission), but also about being realistic. How to stay away from politics and pretend that we still care about real-world issues? Is the lab our only reality? So afraid are we about truly doing something at all?

    I thought skeptics were trying to make a difference. Particularly if politics is not a place of skepticism, that’s where we are needed the most. The doctor is not summoned to the healthy people’s homes.

  19. @mxracer652:

    because no political party is ever 100% rational.

    I think you’re presenting a false definition of what it means to be rational. How is it not rational for a political party to twist facts for money gain? How is it not rational for a politician to refuse to change his mind if it suits political/economic ends?

    Politics is intrinsically interwoven with the idea of the rational. That doesn’t mean scientific or fact-based, it means just that: rational. Indeed, politics and parties cannot function if they behave irrationally (remember Ross Perot? He took one helluva swing into irrationality and people turned on him). Just because you happen to disagree with the morals/ethics of politicking for monetary gain, does not mean it is irrational in the slightest.

    And I don’t wish to start a flame-war here, but I think your characterization, “politics is stupid” is particularly telling, and unhelpful.

  20. I think skepticism is inherently Libertarian in nature, not necessarily modern political party Libertarian, but the nature of the concept. In my vision of Libertarianism, each individual has the utmost freedoms that can be allotted to the public while maintaining general safety, since it is my nature to be skeptical of The Man and any of his judgments on our actions. While I am socially Lefty McLefterson, I think Democrats over-legislate law enforcement and equality unnecessarily and I think many skeptics fall prey to the assumption that as long as religion isn’t governing us then big government is okay. I think political discourse has a place in skeptical social circles for sure, since rationality needs a place in politics.

  21. @Some Canadian Skeptic: Poor choice of wording, what I meant was:

    scientific or fact-based

    The morals and ethics of politics are absolutely horrible, legislating known falsehoods into people’s lives, and damn the costs.

    Any other white collar professional would wind up in prison or at least fired, but for some reason these morons do not.

    An activity that actively encourages people to accept known falsehoods is stupid. Sorry.

  22. @cemeterygates said:

    I think skepticism is inherently Libertarian in nature, not necessarily modern political party Libertarian, but the nature of the concept.

    I’ve been trying for a long time to figure out what “the nature of the [Libertarian] concept” is. Everytime I think I’ve found it, some Libertarian comes along and says, “No, no, no, that’s not it at all.”

  23. @SicPreFix: I think Libertarianism, like feminism, is one of those philosophies that has been so broadly defined and interpreted that it’s kind of lost its way. I think the essence of the philosophy is the value of individual rights and community/state rights above all else, in that rules should be defined by the communities they effect and not by country law. I personally believe that major equality laws afforded by the constitution should still apply across the board, but a lot of modern Libertarian politicians are very socially conservative and try to use the philosophy of state rights to avoid having to abide by national interpretations of equal rights.

  24. I was talking with someone recentlywho claimed to be a libertarian. The person wanted the constitution to be strictly interpreted. I said you mean like how there is an absolute right to bear arms, but no right for a woman to control her own body? The person wouldn’t even discuss it (I presume knowing there was nothing libertarian about denying anyone control over their own person).

  25. Skeptics should infiltrate ALL political parties. They can all benefit. I would like to see both the fundy xtians and the new-age loons marginalized.

    Yes, politics is inherently about soft fuzzy social stuff … but that is what drives most people.

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