Monday, 6 March 2017

Meet The New Skeptical Heroes Of YouTube: Cult Leaders, Global Warming Denialists and Conspiracy Theorists.

What do you think of when you think "skeptic" or "skepticism"? For me, the term means someone who applies the scientific method to claims, someone who values empiricism and objective evidence. I picture conjurer James Randi challenging James Hydrick with styrofoam pieces on TV. Instantly breaking the deceit of an up and coming woo-merchant with nothing more than a couple of cents worth of packing foam (below), or behind the scenes derailing Uri Gellar's appearance on the Tonight Show simply by instructing the Johnny Carson's crew not to let Geller anywhere near the cutlery. Or carefully exposing Peter Popoff's scam ministry with the aid of a radio scanner. 

I picture Simon Singh standing up up the British Chiropractic association who
attempted to sue him regarding his description of the chiropractic method as "bogus". Singh risked ruin to stand by his condemnation of chiropractors. He and his supporters, including the charity Sense about Science, help reform British libel laws for the better as well as bring accurate information about a potentially harmful medical practice, arguably no more effective than placebo, to the attention of the public.

I picture freezing cold skeptics in 10:23 tee shirts and inspired by Randi and a group of Belgian skeptics who preceded them, overdosing on Homoeopathic remedies outside the Royal Albert Hall in an attempt to influence major British retailers and health organisations to questioning the efficacy of homoeopathic interventions. A stunt which worked. Since that mass demonstration organised by the Merseyside Skeptics Society and matched by skeptical groups all over the country, NHS support for homoeopathy has steadily dwindled. The battle is by no means over, the Good Thinking Society now carries that mantle in the UK and do great work in presenting accurate information regarding the efficacy of homoeopathy to the general public.

Finally, I picture Richard Feynman. Nearing the end of his life confronting NASA regarding their failures in preventing the Challenger disaster. Brave and uncompromising, Feynman exposed the disconnect between NASA heads and their engineers with nothing more than a glass of ice water and a rubber O-ring.  Feynman refused to toe the line of the Rogers commission and conducted his own investigation into the disaster, resulting in Rogers referring to Feynman as a "pain in the ass". Feynman couldn't give a shit about politics or massaging egos. He wanted the truth. And he got it.

My description of a skeptic isn't universal of course, nor should it be. But, some people's descriptions are so far from mine that I wonder if we're even speaking the same language. This was never more true than when I read a recent Facebook post by Michael Shermer. No one can doubt the impact that Shermer himself has had on the skeptical movement, his book "Why People Believe Weird Things" is one of the seminal works of skepticism, standing alongside Carl Sagan's "Demon Haunted World" and James Randi's "Flim Flam". His legacy is assured. What I'm less enthused about is Shermer's recent hailing of Stefan Molyneux as "one of the most important podcasters for reason" in regards to his discussion with Molyneux "why skepticism is important".

Molyneux, in case you weren't aware, is a blogger who is also a prominent figure in men's rights activism and operates the Freedomain radio (FDR) community, a group which has been repeatedly accused of cult-like tendencies. This includes encouraging members to "De-Foo" (Foo being Molynuex's term for member's families Family Of Origin). This is absolutely no different from Scientology's attempts to have members "disconnect" from family member's and friends who aren't part of the organisation, one of the key factors that has led to many skeptics demanding they are labelled as a cult. The British Cult Information Centre is currently monitoring FDR and a representative of the charity states of the group: “(FDR are) symptomatic of a worrying trend. I’ve seen these families torn apart by loved ones first of all accessing the Web sites of this group and then being influenced in some way by the leader and becoming—from that point on—alienated from family and friends.”

If that isn't enough to suspect that Molyneux isn't exactly prime skeptic material, consider his recent platforming of global warming denialists (no don't call them skeptics) including their googly-eyed provocateur in chief, Lord Christopher Monckton (left). I agree that skeptics should hold open and frank discussions and debates with pseudo-scientists, but I don't hold they should roll over and let bullshit flow unchecked. During Molyneux's almost two-hour conversation with Monckton, Shermer's "important voice for reason" fails to call out one single inaccuracy. Nor does he pause for a second to point out at Monckton doesn't have a single science qualification to his name. He doesn't point out that Monckton's data is sourced from a single satellite source, the RSS, the outlier in seven independent sources of global temperature, all of which show a similar increase in global temperature over time. Molyneux didn't point out that the authors of the outlying RSS data, have explained why it shows no overall increase in temperature, going as far as to publish a paper explaining their errors and presenting the corrected data. Neither does he point out that the Chinese science journal, in which Monckton claims to have had a scientific paper refuting climate change published, is indeed peer reviewed and well respected. But the paper's online repository, where Monckton's paper actually appeared is "pay to play" and therefore not peer reviewed and not well respected. David Roundtree could have his "Wormhole theory of the paranormal" published there if he stumped up the cash!

In addition to these sins of omission, Molyneux also helps Monckton out by describing legitimate feedback factors in the calculating of global temperature as "magic multipliers." As a legitimate skeptic and frequent critic of Monckton, Potholer 54, points out in the video linked below, Molyneux is using "magic" here as a place-holder for something he doesn't understand.

Shermer isn't alone in lauding a very questionable individual as a bastion of skeptical principles.

Youtuber Computing Forever recently published a video on his channel entitled "The Third Phase of The YouTube Skeptic Community" in which he recants his definition of skeptics' victories, not over crooked pastors, millionaire woo-merchants or bogus medical interventions, but over "SJW" and feminism bloggers and vloggers. He talks about the "skeptic community's war" on social justice, linking to moronic vlogger Andy Warski who laments that the driving of SJW channels and content creators from youtube is depriving him of material. Clearly, it isn't apparent to Computing Forever that this lament is tantamount to an admission that Warski is not a skeptic. For actual skeptics there will never be a dearth of material. If these individuals gave a shit about skepticism, rather than just criticism of those not in political alignment with them, they'd find another focus without too much effort.

Nor does Computing Forever mention the method by which these progressive-left content creators have been driven from Youtube. How exactly have these "victories" have been achieved? Doctor Phillip Moriarty is a physics professor at the University of Nottingham, he was a part of the excellent physics Youtube series Sixty Symbols and also a vocal supporter of feminism and social justice. I didn't always agree with his political opinions but I respected the way he presented them and enjoyed his physics and science output. He left youtube after his personal information was revealed and threats were made to his family. The same happened recently to vlogger the Wooly Bumblebee after she dared to criticise alt-right luvvie Bearing. Computing Forever laughably describes the left's "assault on free speech" clearly failing to view threats and intimidation from the right as similar affronts.

Is this a victory for skepticism? Or "another trophy in the cabinet of Skepticism" as CF puts it?

Well, I have to wonder if I would have held Randi in such high regard if instead of exposing Popoff, Gellar and Hydrick, he'd anonymously informed them if they didn't disappear he'd grind up their kids in a wood chipper? Would Feynman's legacy of critical thinking above all else stand if he'd threatened to strangle the kids of NASA executives with those O-rings? What if the Merseyside Skeptics Society had stood outside Boots shouting "Cuck" at anyone who purchases homoeopathic products? Think that would have influenced the public, or governmental policy, even slightly?

Warski, who CF hails as a part of the new phase of skepticism has a channel filled with anti-SJW rhetoric and nothing else. I don't see any application of the scientific method in the sample of his videos I've watched, I don't see any opportunity to apply skepticism throughout his catalogue. When you are critiquing an opinion or a political stance there isn't much room for a scientific methodology. Sure you can use this method to undermine source materials, but Warski doesn't attack studies or their misrepresentation. He critiques people and their opinions. The same can be said for many of the other individuals CF lauds as the new bastions of critical thinking on Youtube (pictured below). Note too, that Computing Forever humbly includes himself in his collage of the preeminent figures of "phase 3 Youtube skepticism." He's represented by the cartoon with the ginger beard.

As with Warski, most of the individuals pictured above focus their content on the critique of opinions and political positions. It doesn't matter whether we agree or disagree with them, critiquing opinion alone is not skepticism. Nor is mocking and trolling those who hold opposing positions. This is all the Kraut and Tea, Bearing and Chris Ray Gun do on their channels. I wouldn't describe them as skeptics at all.

Conversely, Jeff Holiday, the guy with dreadlocks in the above image, creates some great debunking videos. He is a skeptic without question. Similar to the situation with Prof Moriarty, I don't always agree with Holiday's politics, but I do enjoy his science related content. He's done some great anti-vaccine and anti-GMO debunkings and I really recommend his channel, go follow it.

As for the others. Sargon of Akkad (left) has attempted to critique social science studies and papers in the past, which I suppose equates to "skepticism" in some form. Said criticism relied on berating a study's methodology for being survey based, whilst simultaneously using another survey based study to question the results!

Sargon has also offered suggestions that he suspects there is "no evidence that Pizzagate ISN'T true" seemingly offering support to the crazy Alex Jones supported theory that Hilary Clinton and several high-profile democrats operate a pedophilia ring from a pizza restaurant (yes really), in such a weak-willed way that he was clearly certain that he'd have to do a u-turn in the future when people actually attempted to hold him to his opinion. Sargon has it this point been suspended from Twitter several times. His supporters will tell you it's the liberal elite who run twitter trying to rob him of his free speech. It's actually because Sargon, a darling of the English Defense League, has a habit of tweeting hardcore gay porn at his critics.

Similarly, Black Pigeon speaks has also tweeted about believing Pizzagate may be credible, as has Bearing. In addition to this, BPS has published a video entitled "spirit cooking with the Clintons", alleging that Hillary Clinton was involved in various satanic rituals. This is a claim based on the fact that Clinton associate John Podesta, once attended a dinner with performance artist Marina Abrahmovic (below). Also, the Clinton foundation may also have made a donation to the same artist at some point.

As Marina once held an art installation in which she painted "666" and an inverted pentagram on a wall in semen and blood, she must not only be satanist and Clinton must be involved in her rituals. Oh. And John Podesta has odd hands... Conclusive stuff! I suspect BPS will one day make a follow-up video alleging Obama is also a satanist because a cousin of his once listen to Slayer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, "voice for reason" Stefan Molyneux has also vlogged about "spirit dinner" and Clinton's alleged satanic practices. (On an unrelated note, I know a few Satanists and they are genuinely quite lovely, easy going people. I've never met one I didn't like. Can't say the same about Christians.)

Also in Computing Forever's lovely collage are Lauren Southern and Steven Crowder, mouth-pieces of alt-right channel "The Rebel" and "Louder with Crowder" respectively. Further examples of individuals who shouldn't ever be considered skeptics by any stretch of the word. Southern has produced several videos supporting the idea that climate change is a myth. "Scientists have been wrong in the past" she argues "they must be wrong about climate change" she claims in a video so littered with errors I'd have to produce a separate blog to cover a fraction of them. Crowder is also a noted climate change denialist. Again I point to Potholer 54 who has provided an excellent critique of some of Crowder's claims.

These two idiots attempt to win over an audience presumably so feckless that they no longer accept that research and findings of actual scientists but instead want their alternative facts delivered from the blogosphere via an easy on the eye Ken and Barbie. Is this what we really want from our skeptical role models? Individuals to whom science can be manipulated and distorted to fit political rhetoric?

I have often said the only thing worse than no scepticism is bad scepticism. Make no mistake this proposed "new phase of skepticism" is no skepticism at all.

So, are there any great skeptical youtubers left?

Unsurprisingly, I highly recommend Potholer 54. His content is released extremely sporadically, but that's because he puts a hell of a lot of research into it. Find his channel here. Martymer81 has been producing consistently excellent debunking videos for some time, his series on spirit science a particular highlight. Find him here. Likewise, Myles Power's content is excellent and highly entertaining both on his solo channel and in the form of his input on the League of Nerds podcast. Also, try Logiked and IsetheoriginalCaptain Disillusion, is new on the scene and will be of particular interest to fans of paranormal debunkings as will Oskar Jungell. These guys, and a few others, I believe are the true next phase of skepticism on Youtube, even though some have them have been around for ever. simply because they've never swapped skepticism for drama, denialism, bullying or descended fully into partisan identity politics because that's were the money is.