Leeds Skeptics debate “Dealing with controversy”

Leeds Skeptics caused some controversy recently when they booked Steve Moxon to give a talk entitled “Why aren’t there more woman in the boardroom?”. Moxon has, to put it kindly, a chequered history. He first came to light as a Home Office whistleblower who revealed that immigration checks were being waived, but more recently he’s been kicked out of UKIP for comments regarding the Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik. More to the point, he’s written a book about gender roles (which I’m not going to link to), which I am informed cherry-picks a study by Dr Gijsbert Stoet, who happened to be at the debate. Some people complained about the talk, and after some consideration by Leeds Skeptics the talk was cancelled.

The talk was replaced with an open debate called “How should Skeptics Deal with controversy?”. I went along, so I thought I’d give it a write up.

David Icke

Should David Icke speak at skeptic events?

The first question to be asked was “what sort of speakers are acceptable at skeptic events?”. I put forward my position, which is that speakers who want to lecture to skeptics should themselves be skeptics, or at least be sympathetic to the skeptic cause, for example someone who uses the scientific method to arrive at their conclusions. It was suggested that speakers who deliver the standard “skeptic fare” such as “homeopathy doesn’t work” or “it wasn’t aliens” can be dull and just preaching to the converted, and to be interesting speakers should be presenting evidence which is controversial but well researched. However, it was pointed out that although people who can do that do exist (such as David Nutt or Elizabeth Pisani) they are like gold dust. The overlap on the Venn diagram between “controversial speaker” and “speakers who back up their claims with good evidence” is vanishingly small!

So, in order to be interesting and challenging, should Skeptics in the Pub groups invite non-skeptic speakers, as Leeds have done in the past with the Zeitgesit Movement and We are Change? The case was argued for this position, and while I can sympathise with it, I certainly don’t agree. I’ve been to talks by non-skeptics, and found them incredibly frustrating. Everyone bites their tongue for pretty much the entire talk, thinking “when will this nonsense end?”, and the speaker gets eviscerated by the angry skeptic mob in the Q and A. I don’t think this is fair on anyone. It’s not fair on the audience who are expecting an interesting and informative talk, and it’s not fair on the speakers themselves who are invited to talk in good faith, only to be ripped to bits afterwards. I don’t see who benefits from inviting non-skeptics to talk at skeptic events.

After that, the debate moved onto the question of “are there any subjects which just cannot be discussed in skepticism?”. My answer was a strong and unequivocal “no”. Skepticism by it’s very nature is based on questioning. If someone puts up a barrier saying “you cannot question this” I find that to be an affront to skepticism. Also, I find that some people confuse the idea of questioning something with a desire to challenge and reject it. For example, if you asked the question “does 1 + 1 REALLY equal 2?”, that doesn’t immediately make you a maths denialist. So, if you asked a very controversial question like “are women REALLY equal to men?” that does not mean you are automatically a misogynist. I think we need to bear this in mind when asking tough questions, and skeptics should not feel like there are any questions that cannot be asked.

Following that, there was the issue of offensiveness. Should a speaker not appear because they have views that some find offensive? The consensus of the room was “no”, with the usual statements of “you do not have the right to not be offended” being brought out. Although I don’t consider a speaker’s potential offensiveness to be a problem, I argued that you have to look beyond offensiveness and into hurtfulness. I gave the example of the Ricky Gervais “monggate” controversy. A while ago, comedian Ricky Gervais started using the word “mong” on his twitter account, claiming that it was no longer used as a derogatory term for people with Downs syndrome. Why he thought that I have no idea, but in my experience people with Downs syndrome DO get referred to by that term, and by continuously using it, Ricky Gervais could only add to the acceptability of that word, and that in turn is hurtful. So if Steve Moxon did turn up and try and spread the idea that women are inferior to men, someone could take that and use it to enforce their prejudices. The hypothetical I gave during the debate was the idea of a company director taking Moxon’s views as fact and saying “Right, we have new evidence that women are inferior to men, therefore I’m going to make it my policy to only employ men”. It’s a hypothetical situation, but it shows why I have a problem with the propagation of baseless, hurtful notions, irregardless of their offensiveness.

It was also suggested that if Moxon was invited, then Leeds Skeptics should have also invited a prominent speaker with an opposing view to challenge him. The problem I had with this idea is that it would entirely change the nature of the event, from a talk/lecture to a debate. If that was going to happen, this would have to be very clearly advertised! The point was also made that for a debate, the people involved have to be open to opposing ideas and be able to change their views based on the evidence presented to them, something it was believed that Steve Moxon would not be capable of. At the end of the day, I think the consensus of the room was that cancelling Steve Moxon’s talk was the right decision, and I agreed with it.

Overall, I thought the debate was very positive, thoughtful and civilised. It made a very nice change from Internet debate, which always decent into name calling and accusations of “trolling”. I had a very good time, and I’d like to thank Leeds Skeptics for putting the event on. Cheers!