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!

8 Comments

  1. Amy

    “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.”

    Numbers are not people. Unlike women, who are human beings, and who might find it a degrading and humiliating experience to attend a talk where a man or men questions their worth and equality in the name of skepticism. The misogyny lies in not realising this. The misogyny lies in thinking it is okay to put women through an experience which by its very nature divides them from their male fellow skeptics and puts them on a lower footing. Even if the outcome of the debate is ‘actually yes, women are equal to men’, the damage has already been done by the fact that men are deciding the subject ought to be up for discussion in the first place, and that women have to justify and argue for their own equality.

    No woman would want to hold a talk about whether she is really equal to a man. No black person would want to hold a talk about whether they were really equal to a white person. It’s not because they are un-skeptic, it’s because of their basic human self respect and dignity, without which, society would be a pretty ugly place. Do you really have to be a member of a historically oppressed group to realise this?

    The same does not apply to ‘1 + 1’ because ‘1’ will never be sat in the audience wondering whether others regard them as fully human.

  2. Tim

    Hi

    I was at the debate. It was my first Skeptics in the pub meeting. I didn’t really put my point of view across very well but the gist of my feeling was:

    Q. Do skeptics-in-the-pub groups invite any old idiot to give a talk? Because Moxon was clearly any old idiot. And this should have been obvious from a brief view of his back catalogue.

  3. Jason

    There are a few points that I think are worth commenting on.

    Firstly, Moxon should have been researched more deeply by Skeptics in the pub. If your going to put a speaker on who has an emotionally charged and controversial viewpoint then we need to look into their background better and evaluate them on a few criteria.

    1. Are they basing their view on actual evidence.
    2. Is their conclusion actually worth debating at all regardless of truth value.
    3. Is their speaking style odious or conducive to an enjoyable laypersons attendance.

    The idea of putting on a second speaker with an opposing view is not to generate a debate as not everyone will engage it in that format. It’s to offer a second perspective and to illustrate that we are taking a balanced view in evaluating the speakers viewpoint.

    I think this an especially important exercise in PR when your touching on a subject such as Moxon’s.

    I don’t think he should have been cancelled but I do think he sould have either had the format changed or not been booked in the first place.

    I enjoyed the open forum of the event and really enjoyed some of the perspectives put forward.

  4. Ruth

    I’m afraid you’ve hit on my pet peeve here. People who don’t seem to understand the difference between objective facts, and subjective value judgements. Whether or not 1 + 1 = 2 is an objective fact. Whether people are ‘equal’ is a value judgement. If someone holds the subjective value judgement that women/blacks/jews are ‘inferior’ to men/whites/gentiles, I can’t argue with them on the facts, because there aren’t any. However, I reserve the right to think less of such a person for their misogynist/racist/anti-semitic values. I also reserve the right to choose not to associate with such people, i.e. to avoid groups who seem to accept such vile opinions as valid topics for discussion.

  5. Tim

    Jason,

    So you would put any old idiot on to give a talk? Providing there was a second perspective afterwards?

    Fair enough. I know a guy down the pub who thinks black British people should be sent to Africa. I’ll put you in touch with him. You can provide the person with the second perspective for the talk.

    I won’t be attending, of course. Who wants to listen to any old idiot? I don’t. And by the way, I’ll be telling people that skeptics-in-the-pub hosts talks by fringe racists and misogynists.

    That’s what those skeptics do, these days, don’t you know?

    C’mon. Get serious please.

  6. Jen

    “are women REALLY equal to men?”

    Equal in what way? As that stands it looks as though it means equal in terms of basic human dignity, and as Ruth says above, there aren’t facts about that. I don’t know how I’d persuade someone that women have the same basic human value as men, and I don’t want to have to talk to people who need persuading. (It’s not that it makes me feel offended, more sort of afraid…) (see Amy’s point above)

    But maybe you meant equal in terms of some kind of mental or physical ability? That would be different, because there can be facts about that. That would be an improvement. Even then, a question like `are women REALLY as good at men as [some specific cognitive task]?’ is still sexist, because it is set up as though the questioner expects the answer to be `no’. `How do women’s and men’s performances differ when it comes to [some specific cognitive task]?’ — that could be ok. (I think — am I wrong?)

    What I’m saying is, gender related issues are obviously not off limits. But the questions should be phrased in such a way that it’s possible to have an intelligent discussion about them, bring evidence to bear and so on. And they should be phrased in a way which doesn’t make it sound like the questioner thinks women’s inferiority is a foregone conclusion!

  7. Jason

    Ruth and Jen, I’m not sure if your replying to me so apologies if you are.

    Tim. . . . .

    I’m not entirely sure if your reading my point correctly. Looking at your example of British black people being sent back to Africa I think would fall fairly heavily afoul of all 3 of my very basic criteria for a prebooking dismissal.

    The second perspective is not for any old dingbat dragged in off the strip, its a method of approaching controversial subjects that have meat to them which may need to be dealt with some sensitivity.

    Sorry for not replying sooner I forgot that FB wouldn’t notify me of response here..

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