About Free Thinking

January 6, 2012

What is the cornerstone of CFI’s mission? Is it atheism or humanism? No, not really. Commitments to atheism or humanism or any other “ism” are conclusions we arrive at, presumably after consideration of the relevant evidence and arguments. The cornerstone of our mission is freedom of expression and critical inquiry. We see freedom of expression and critical inquiry as indispensable tools for arriving at an accurate understanding of just about any issue of importance, including, but not limited to, the truth of religious or fringe science claims. This brings me to the recent controversy concerning Ben Radford’s blog post on Free Thinking, as well as the related controversy about the blog Free Thinking itself.

The bloggers on Free Thinking, as has been stated on numerous occasions, and as readers of our blog are expressly advised, represent their own personal opinion. They do not speak for CFI. (Even this blog post is not technically official policy, as it has not yet been reviewed by the full Management Committee, but it would be appropriate to describe it as expressing my view in my official capacity as president & CEO.) We intentionally adopted this policy not only because it’s practical (you can’t do a timely blog post if it has to pass through management review), but because we wanted our bloggers to feel free to advance novel and speculative ideas, arguments, and theories without worrying about whether they’d get in “trouble” with management.

We also fully expected that some of the blog posts might make claims that some in our audience would dispute. Great! Isn’t that how the advance of knowledge through free expression is supposed to work? Jane makes claim 1A in her blog post; Joan politely points out in her comments that Jane has overlooked factors x, y, and z; and Jane then thanks Joan for pointing this out, revising her claim to 1B.

This is an idealized version, of course. In real life, it’s more like this: Jane makes claim 1A; Joan calls Jane a fucking idiot; Jane calls Joan a moron and digs in her heels; Tom, over at another blog, yells that both Jane and Joan are stupid; Jane and Joan momentarily join forces to call Tom a sexist pig; Frank says Jane has no business blogging and should be fired; Larry comes up with some obscure dictionary reference the relevance of which no one can understand; and someone using the pseudonym Weeenie10 with a cute Batman icon limits himself to typing in the word “fart,” and on it goes, for about 800 comments spread over 3 or 4 blogs.

Isn’t the Internet wonderful?

Actually, it is. Near instantaneous transmission eliminates certain filters, so, yes, there’s a lot of junk that gets posted, including pointless insults, but there are serious commenters, and their comments can clear up some mistakes and steer a discussion in the right direction. Whether the exchange of ideas works efficiently, as in the ideal model, or in fits and starts, as in the real world, it often works.

Obviously, there are limits to what we’d put up on our blog, not because we want any limits on free expression, but because we are a donor supported organization and we have an obligation to use that donor money prudently. So we’re not going to invite Joel Osteen, Deepak Chopra, Warren Jeffs and so forth to blog. These individuals can take advantage of the outlets available to them. Our bloggers are all, broadly speaking, working from a nonreligious or skeptical perspective.

One or more of our current bloggers could also conceivably write a string of posts clearly contrary to CFI’s mission and/or its official position on important policy issues. A blogger could, for example, argue that the Establishment Clause should not be enforced, that alternative medicine should be exempt from scrutiny, that women should not have the same rights as men, that we should prohibit gays from serving in the military, and so forth. Depending on the frequency of such posts, the person might be removed from blogging or other action might be taken. Again, this would not be because we’re opposed to free expression, but because we don’t see the need to fund a continual stream of messages that are contrary to our mission. That’s never happened and I think it’s unlikely to happen because someone who found themselves disagreeing with several of our key public policy positions presumably would seek employment elsewhere.

This brings me to Ben’s recent post (or posts, as he had more than one, and the one that actually appeared on Free Thinking seems the least controversial). Some commenters have recommended that Ben be fired or removed as a blogger. Similar suggestions have been made, by the way, about Melody Hensley, who commented on Ben’s blog posts, either on Free Thinking or elsewhere.

First, by way of background, these recommendations are not unprecedented. Every few months I receive recommendations about firing employees, terminating individuals’ contracts, or ceasing all contact with certain authors or speakers. For example, I’ve previously been told (in public fora) that I should fire John Shook, Michael DeDora, and Melody, that I should remove Chris Mooney as POI host, that I should never invite PZ Myers to a conference again, that I should not allow Paul Kurtz to post on our blog (back when he was still with CFI) and that CFI should forever cut any and all ties with Richard Dawkins and Rebecca Watson (this last suggestion usually being made by different people). I have declined to follow all such recommendations.  I have declined all such recommendations because the reasons offered were either not worthy of consideration or essentially asked me to cut these people off simply because they were perceived to be on the wrong side of an issue.

The fact that a person may be on the “wrong” side of a particular issue is not a sufficient basis, absent exceptional circumstances, for CFI to stop working with that person—especially when it’s not always immediately apparent what the “wrong” side is. We’re supposed to be free thinkers, not dogmatists.

Ben’s posts may exhibit some mistakes in reasoning and may have used some research that was unreliable. I think I can make these statements with confidence because Ben has acknowledged these mistakes himself, in part because some commenters pointed out some research he may have overlooked. (See, free expression does work—sort of.)

Based on this, I don’t see any reason to take any action.

Some commenters suggested there should have been an official CFI rebuttal. Why? An official rebuttal suggests that Ben was speaking on behalf of CFI and we needed to clarify that he was not, but as indicated, he was speaking for himself. Second, there were already rebuttals aplenty of Ben. PZ Myers, Rebecca Watson, and Julia Lavarnway (a CFI employee) had their own blog posts criticizing Ben and commenters on Ben’s posts did not seem to be at a loss for words.

And what is it CFI was supposed to rebut? Ben’s speculations about the hues of dolls’ faces? Presumably not. What appeared to bother some commenters was Ben’s alleged sexism.

OK. CFI denounces sexism. We always have and presumably always will. Stereotyping based on gender is wrong and policies and practices that promote such stereotyping should be condemned. Furthermore, attitudes that exhibit sexism are unacceptable, and we should work to eliminate such attitudes, including, to the extent they exist, such attitudes within secular/skeptical organizations.

The problem is I doubt that Ben would disagree with anything in the above paragraph, nor did I see anything in his posts to suggest he would. Therefore, I’m not sure it counts as a “rebuttal.”

At the end of the day, it seems to me we had a controversial post (or posts) in which a blogger ventured some opinions, invited comments on those opinions, received comments that suggested he had erred in some ways, and then modified some of his opinions. This is not something we should decry. To the contrary, we should support a robust exchange of opinions.

Because of this recent controversy, CFIs Management Committee will discuss the future of Free Thinking this coming week. I have made plain my views, but we do have collective leadership at CFI, so it’s not inconceivable that the policies governing Free Thinking would change.  I hope not, because I think any radical change would undercut what CFI stands for. There are already an ample number of institutions that provide the comfort of orthodoxy for those want that sort of thing. They’re called churches.

Comments:

#1 Luke Smithems (Guest) on Friday January 06, 2012 at 5:13pm

If I may make a recommendation, hoping I have not overlooked anything since I am not well read in the subject, but should CFI consider a constitution? I think most of us would agree there are discussions we are not interested in funding. Why not have an explicit rationale for what those subjects are? By no means should the discussion be closed on those subjects, but arguments against them should rather be forced into a different vein outside CFI such as open letters or something.

#2 Irene Delse on Friday January 06, 2012 at 8:00pm

Another suggestion: to avoid another PR disaster in the future, how about thinking about ways to be more reactive than four days? Because whether you like it or not, the fact that “personal views” (!) like Radford’s article are published on the CFI website impact the public’s perception of what the CFI stands for or against.

#3 SallyStrange on Friday January 06, 2012 at 11:10pm

I thought your mission was related to skepticism, was it not? And Radford’s post was a massive skepticism fail.

And this one fails for failing to address that.

Hell of a way to be introduced to CFI. At I least I can be happy that I never donated money, and now I never will.

#4 SallyStrange on Friday January 06, 2012 at 11:19pm

So, next time a CFI poster uses The Bell Curve to dismiss a young black girl’s complaint that she’s always being directed away from advanced placement courses, I presume you will see no cause to take action either?

#5 Mrs. A.S. (Guest) on Saturday January 07, 2012 at 8:45am

So, in keeping with the fine internet tradition, my response should be, “You’re a fucking idiot, Lindsay.”

Thanks for the huge laugh, Ron!

Unfortunately, as much as I agree with your analysis of the realities of conducting conversation on the internet, I think we should expect better of ourselves as skeptics.

There have been countless studies done on the most effective ways to engage in good argumentation.  Vilification and name-calling only serve as a means to silence dissenters.  They are not well-reasoned, evidence-based debate.

The reality of internet debate is something people who identify as skeptics should be ashamed of.  We’re supposed to be better than this.  Skepticism should give us some immunity from what is commonly referred to as “internetitis”.

#6 Miranda Celeste Hale (Guest) on Saturday January 07, 2012 at 9:39am

Thanks so much for posting this, Ron. It’s very thoughtful, reasonable, and wise. This quote is especially perceptive and spot-on:

“There are already an ample number of institutions that provide the comfort of orthodoxy for those want that sort of thing. They’re called churches.”

Exactly.

#7 SallyStrange on Saturday January 07, 2012 at 11:59am

So what is the orthodoxy that y’all are so concerned about? The orthodoxy that sexism exists and is not a figment of women’s imaginations? The orthodoxy that marketing informs and is informed by gender roles? The orthodoxy that beige and pink are in fact two distinct colors? The orthodoxy that if one is going to comment on gender roles and sexism, one ought to use accurate facts and up-to-date research? What?

Insinuating that feminists’ concerns about Radford’s factually incorrect dismissal of a young girl’s concerns about gender roles constitutes an orthodoxy is a sneaky low blow.

#8 Illuminata on Saturday January 07, 2012 at 3:02pm

So, CFI follows up Ben’s hideously awful, logic-free nonsense with a post about how being hideously awful and logic-free is perfectly fine at CFI, because [strawman].

LOL Wow.  Please don’t send me anymore mail.  I will not be wasting any time on this joke of a skeptical org.

#9 Irene Delse on Saturday January 07, 2012 at 3:44pm

Mr. Lindsay, I suggest that you and Ben Radford read the Feminism 101 FAQs for some education on the subjects of “sexism”, “gender roles” and “male privilege”, to understand why dismissing societal influences on the marketing of toys for girls and boys does nothing for the credibility of a critical thinker. Especially if his arguments are propped up with faulty logic and insufficient research, of course.

http://finallyfeminism101.wordpress.com/

Including in the site are links to resources on what feminism is and isn’t, and how not to repeat the errors of the past (including many so-called evolutionary psychology studies who are mere just-so-stories but keep getting used to justify gender inequality by the existence of alleged “natural” differences between the brains of men and women.)

#10 skmc (Guest) on Saturday January 07, 2012 at 7:28pm

And what is it CFI was supposed to rebut? Ben’s speculations about the hues of dolls’ faces? Presumably not. What appeared to bother some commenters was Ben’s alleged sexism.

What did in fact bother many commenters was the abandonment of basic logic, reason, and research.

This is a deeply disappointing response.

#11 Eric S. on Saturday January 07, 2012 at 7:59pm

As someone who cares very much about CFI’s mission, I am pleased with this response. Thanks for being reasonable and fair, though I had no reason to expect otherwise.

#12 Robert B (Guest) on Sunday January 08, 2012 at 2:08pm

May I second Irene Delse’s suggestion that you review the Feminism 101 pages?

You (a male) don’t see anything particularly sexist about Ben’s (another male) writings that dismiss the concerns raised by women. I’m not saying that free speech is bad. I honestly want people to show that they don’t get it, so that they can be directed to reliable sources of information (as Irene did above). But when somebody notes a thematic failure of reasoning, don’t dismiss it. Use it as an opportunity to learn.

In the last year, (and especially the last week), we have seen many leaders of the skeptic and atheist movements display an embarrassing level of what we call sexism, and the response has not been, “How can we do better?” but directions about how to find the kitchen and a sandwich order.

#13 jerrys on Sunday January 08, 2012 at 6:52pm

It is disheartening to those of us who support CFI and reason that discourse among atheists/humanists/skeptics/etc.  so frequently degenerates into personal attacks. Within the past week I’ve seen this happen here in this dispute between Rebecca and Ben and also a dispute between Massimo Pigliucci and Jerry Coyne.  Disputes are healthy, but personal animas isn’t. 

Ron’s description of how the internet works is a caricature, of course,  but it captures the spirit of these exchanges.  The only way to prevent it from happening is for people to ignore the personal attacks and not respond in kind.  Yes, I know it’s hard to do.  I would hope that this problem would be less on atheist/humanist/skeptic blogs, but sadly I don’t think it is. (I know that’s only an impression and I don’t have any data.  If anyone does have data on this I would love to see it)

CFI will continue to have my support whatever the outcome of this current flap.

#14 Rich Orman (Guest) on Sunday January 08, 2012 at 7:33pm

Anyone who uses the word “fora” as a plural for the word “forum”, at least in the English language, is a pretentious nincompoop.

#15 SallyStrange on Monday January 09, 2012 at 11:24am

Yes, Ron’s insertion of “sexist pig” amongst the other insults (“moron,” etc.) was rather telling. Apparently he thinks “sexist” is simply another insulting, meaningless name to hurled, rather than a fact-based label.

#16 Mrs. A.S. (Guest) on Monday January 09, 2012 at 1:10pm

Perhaps, Ron’s insertion of “sexist Pig” amongst the other insults (moron, etc.) IS because it has simply become another insulting, meaningless name to be hurled, rather than a fact-based label.  Although, I doubt that was Ron’s intention, IMO it is apt.

I’m getting rather tired of branding people as sexists, or misogynists, or gender traitors as a means of outright dismissal of any point the “brandee” is attempting to make.  Unfortunately, the use of the word dismissal means more than just refusal to engage with each and every point in an argument.  Now, we are insisting that any “brandee” must actually be dismissed from their job. 

This behavior is not what we should expect from “free thinkers”.  It’s what we’ve learned to expect from the religious - crusades to purge the infidels from our midst.

#17 SallyStrange on Tuesday January 10, 2012 at 5:41pm

Ah yes. The “feminism as orthodoxy” meme again.

Look, Radford was flat wrong and he admitted it. Why was he wrong? Because he was unable to bring his skeptic principles to bear on his own sexist biases. IOW, he was acting like a sexist in that particular instance. That’s a fact-based assessment.

#18 Larry Clapp on Wednesday January 11, 2012 at 8:26am

@ #14 Rich Orman, “Anyone who uses the word “fora” as a plural for the word “forum”, at least in the English language, is a pretentious nincompoop.”

Color me pretentious, then.

Do you also object to “media” and insist on “mediums”?  Why or why not?

#19 Asdfg (Guest) on Sunday January 15, 2012 at 12:23am

Sally, you have already said you have not and will not give money or support CFI. Why are you still here spraying bile?

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