Strand 1 Statement 3 by Stephanie Zvan

This is a response by Stephanie Zvan to the response by Thaumas Themelios to the Strand 1 Opening Statement by Stephanie Zvan.

For the sake of word count, I have removed points of settled agreement from this statement, though I expect we will refer to them throughout the dialog.

SZ: The key to working together under these circumstances is to understand that there are myriad solutions to each of these problems. None of them are complete in themselves, but together, they provide a strong force for change. Additionally, pursuing multiple strategies at once allows us to take advantage of the diverse talents and motivations of those who find value in promoting all or any of these ideals.

TT: I agree with this with reservations. The ‘many approaches’ approach supports and encourages multiple ways of pursuing activism, and I’ve argued this also. However, when you state that none are complete, but together they are strong, this omits mentioning a critically important caveat: Some ways can also be misguided and actually harmful. History is littered with tragic examples of good intentions resulting in more harm than good. And it’s not always clear at the outset which approaches are the misguided ones and which not. There will be disagreements on this topic and it seems our current ‘rift’ is an example of this. Speaking only for myself (Thaumas) here, I do not believe we can answer the question of “How we can work together … in the real world” without each of us also asking ourselves: Where do I draw the line? Do I support everyone regardless of approach (all inclusive)? Do I go it alone (all exclusive)? Somewhere in between? And what is the basis for this decision? Each person will have their own answers, and our individual criteria for making this decision will ultimately decide “How we can work together … in the real world”, depending on how they overlap. So, in the interests of moving the dialogue along, here are my own views:

  • I may not like or prefer some particular approach to activism myself, so I might not actively support it. But so long as there is no clear evidence that such activism is likely to lead to more harm than good, then I will not actively oppose it either. Diversity of approaches is generally a good thing. This is the basis of my support for ‘many approaches’.
  • However, if I consider some particular approach likely to lead to more harm than good in the long term — even if it is intended to promote some cause or idea with which I agree — then I will not support it. Indeed, I may actively oppose it, especially if it involves the promulgation of potentially harmful, unsupported ideas in society. This is the basis for my skeptical and atheist activism in the first place (i.e. against theism/religion, faith-based reasoning, pseudo-science, etc.).

1. I have already stipulated that an approach that is either not effective (points 13 and 14 here) or not ethical (point 3c here) should not be supported. If there are other criteria that would lead you to oppose a form of activism, please specify. Otherwise, we are in agreement.

SZ: To use science as the least contentious (currently) of these topics, we already recognize that there are different roles to be played. We recognize the bench scientist and the field scientist. We recognize the physicist and the sociologist. We recognize the philosopher of science and the critic of methods. We recognize the lab manager and the lab technician. We recognize the grade-school science teacher and the PhD student. We recognize the peer reviewer and the science journalist.

TT: I agree with this with reservations. I readily endorse the methods and findings of mainstream science (pending future shifts in scientific consensus, of course). And that does not preclude discussions on emerging advancements or areas of active scientific debate. However I do not accept the latter type of discussions as beyond question or debate as they do not form part of mainstream scientific consensus.

  • Furthermore, no one has a complete and thorough understanding of all of mainstream science. So in my view part of our role as skeptic activists is to educate both the greater public and indeed ourselves on a continuous and regular basis. This allows us to further develop the public understanding of even the most basic aspects of science, as may well be needed.
  • Many of us are inspired by famous popularizers of science, such as Carl Sagan, Einstein, and many others. We are deeply curious about everything in this universe. We want to fully explore science ourselves. There are no dumb questions, only dumb answers. The most tragic honest question is the one unasked, for whatever reason. The most dangerous answer is the one which cannot be questioned. Some of us delight in being asked even the most mundane questions, because it offers us an opportunity to ask ourselves, “Hmm! How do I really know that for sure?”

2. I don’t understand the point of this response. I simply said that we recognize multiple roles in science. I don’t understand whether there are reservations with that statement or whether this was meant to introduce a new topic.

SZ: There are far more roles to be played in promoting science than I’ve listed, but this gets the idea across. We require all those people and more to do good science, and we understand that. We don’t expect Neil deGrasse Tyson to be Shinya Yamanaka or either of them to be Mary Roach. We don’t tell them they’re hurting science because they’re not doing each other’s job. We all understand this.

TT: I agree with this with reservations. Some people in some roles taking some actions can be positively harmful to the promotion of science and reason. We cannot blindly accept all efforts, however well-meaning, as inherently valid and immune from critique. Further, some critics of science offer no useful criticism but serve only to undermine public understanding of science. For example: Post-modernism, Intelligent Design, the Templeton Foundation, Scientology, pseudo-scientists, ideologically motivated academics and scholars (such as some Bible historians for example), alternative medicine, etc. These are exactly the kinds of pseudo-allies we need to be wary of and should be allowed to question.

3. Postmodern critiques of measurement and classification have been extremely useful in at least the social sciences. Otherwise, I agree.

SZ: For whatever reason–possibly because the secular and skeptical movements in their current incarnations are much younger, smaller, and more consistently besieged than the broad institutions of science and science popularization–we lose that insight when talking about these movements and their priorities. All sorts of people suddenly seem to know The One True and Proper Way to conduct the campaign for the Pure and Shining Platonic Ideal of…whichever issue we happen to be promoting.

TT: I agree with this with reservations. Your paragraph appears to be describing dogmatists and ideologues. Could you give an example from within the atheist/skeptic community to illustrate your comment that “All sorts of people suddenly seem to know The One True and Proper Way to conduct the campaign for the Pure and Shining Platonic Ideal …”?

4. The accommodation “wars” can largely be seen as a disagreement between those who argued for many approaches and those who say that “militant atheism” cannot lead to any productive discourse. Similarly, in skepticism, some people want to apply skeptical methods to a large variety of topics while others describe “proper areas of focus for skeptics” (pdf). In each case, the latter person is declaring a “One True and Proper Way” to conduct activism.

SZ: According to these people, we may not or we may or we must include religious skepticism under our skeptical umbrella. We may not or we may or we must build friendly working relationships with religious institutions with similar goals. We may not or we may or we must shape our agendas to appeal to groups of people whose relationships to these various issues are very different from the relationships of the white, cisgendered, educated, middle-class to upper-class men who have shaped the traditional concerns of our movements.

TT: I cannot agree or disagree without clarification. Could you please define who these prescriptive people are and include evidence to support that?

5. See point 4 above.

SZ: That kind of prescriptivism is no more necessary for us, however, than it is in science. Beyond the basics of ethics and efficacy, we can take as many approaches as we have time and/or money, talent, and motivation for. Beyond ethics and efficacy, the more prescriptivist we are, the more people we exclude, because we don’t offer meaningful work that motivates them and puts their talents to work. The demand for active volunteers is high. They can always find another issue that motivates them with groups behind those issues that will welcome their work instead of endlessly insisting it’s the wrong kind of work.

TT: I agree with this with reservations. If by prescriptivism, you mean dogma, then I agree.

  • I agree with second sentence. I endorse a ‘many approaches’ approach. This kind of diversity is very healthy and more importantly it works very well to counter dogmatism and to reach a wide variety of people from all backgrounds.
  • I’m concerned with your vague usage of the word ‘efficacy’. How are you measuring efficacy? What are the criteria for separating effective from ineffective? Are you allowing for context-dependence? Are you unintentionally letting in a form of prescriptivism through the back door by importing, without realizing it, assertions of ‘what is effective and what is not’ which are not themselves open to examination?

6a. By “prescriptivism”, I mean declaring that there is a single way to conduct a particular type of activism.

6b. I am using a dictionary definition of efficacy. Once we have identified a goal, some actions will help us reach that goal. Some will not. Those that do are effective. However, they may still be more or less effective than other actions, they may help or hinder us in accomplishing additional goals, or they may be undesirable actions for ethical reasons.

6c. If only one type of activism is effective, that would support an evidence-based prescriptivism, yes. However, as a practical matter, there will rarely if ever be only one way to make progress toward a goal. For that matter, there will rarely be situations involving just one single goal. I don’t see any kind of broad prescriptivism being granted much ground under these circumstances. At most, this kind of analysis may take certain approaches off the table for specific goals because they don’t work.

SZ: Some of us are particularly in developing younger activists and support the Secular Student Alliance, have joined Secular Woman because we’re motivated by the assault on women’s rights to bodily autonomy, or feel that the Black Skeptics Group Los Angeles do important work with young adults that no one else is doing. Or we’ve joined some other specialized affiliation group that speaks to our interests. Some of us take our advocacy for skepticism or secularism with us into our other advocacy work because those principles can and should make our most important work better. Some of us consider our advocacy for skepticism and critical thinking our most important work and insist that we apply these principles to our shared advocacy work do for exactly the same reason. And on and on and on.

TT: I agree with this with reservations. See point 8 above. In addition as already stated no person or group of persons has the right to impose their particular brand of advocacy on anyone else.

7. As I have noted in points 7 and 13 here, I don’t understand how anyone is able to impose any brand of advocacy on anyone. Please explain how this would be done.

SZ: All of that is working toward common goals, even when it isn’t working hand in hand. It’s working together without having to agree at every point or even to work closely with anyone else. Everyone gets to do what motivates them–to a point. We do still have to consider ethics and efficacy.

TT: I agree with this with reservations. See point 1 regarding the risk of unintended harm.

8. See my response at 1 above.

SZ: I’ll assume I don’t have to get into ethics at this point. I will later if it becomes necessary.

TT: I agree with this with reservations. I think discussion of ethics is critical to establishing common ground. See point 1.

9. I agree.

SZ: When we’re talking about promotion of ideals and behavior, attending to efficacy is particularly important and not always easy. I recommend two resources highly. The Skeptical Activism Campaign Manual (pdf) by Desiree Schell, Maria Walters, Trevor Zimmerman, and K.O. Myers is an amazingly detailed resource for thinking your way through activism, including who your target audience is, how you expect to reach them, and how you’ll measure your success. I would also recommend Todd Stiefel’s presentation on Strategy and Leadership that he’s given at a couple of conferences. It covers a similar sort of planning but at the organizational level and over a longer period. Both resources strongly promote an “eyes on the prize” perspective.

TT: I agree with this with reservations. Efficacy needs to be defined. See 7b.

10. See my definition at 6a above.

SZ: That’s an important perspective. We become emotionally invested in the groups and activities in which we invest our efforts. If we hear that we’re not successfully reaching everyone we’d like to, it’s all too easy for us to find reasons to dismiss that feedback or blame the failure on others. Setting benchmarks ahead of time protects us from our own biases–as well as those of other people who might have their own reasons for persuading us to change.

TT: I agree with this with reservations. Whilst benchmarks might be suitable for the objectives of certain individuals or groups within the activist communities, no person or group has the right to impose benchmarks on any others. Benchmarks will vary according to the individual’s or group’s motives or final targets and they are the ones best able to formulate their own criteria for establishing them. It may even be undesirable for some groups or individuals to set any particular benchmarks as their beneficial activities speak for themselves. Finally, many people may have no interest in having a formal structure by which they are required to adhere.

11a. I disagree. Once again, I am not sure how anyone can impose benchmarks on others. People can, however, make observations as to whether any group or person’s actions move them closer to their stated goals. I see no reason to object to this.

11b. I also disagree that it might be counterproductive for a person or organization to measure their efficacy. However, I’m not certain that we’re very far apart on this point. What you seem to be describing here is the use of a mass of anecdotal evidence to support efficacy. I don’t object to that. For example, we understand that Richard Dawkins wrote an effective book in The God Delusion, because people continue to come forward to tell us what part the book played in their deconversion, and deconversion is one of Dawkins’ stated goals. Not all measurements of efficacy have to involve–or can involve–scientific studies.

11c. I agree that not everyone wants formal structure. However, I disagree that this is required for effective advocacy. In fact, in point 10 here, I listed a number of less formal activities people do that are already considered effective in the general case.

SZ: Sometimes that analysis of our efficacy will lead us back to a single, more prescribed approach. For example, we may want to craft a single message that can be broadcast to as many people as possible while alienating as few as possible. Sometimes it will lead us to use more parallel approaches, perhaps because we expect an issue to be important to different demographics for different reasons. Either way, our behavior going forward will be based in evidence rather than our innate or learned biases.

TT: I disagree with this. I already assert that establishing efficacy is problematic. Therefore to impose a prescriptive approach on that would be extremely troubling. Not only will this require a high authoritarian and top-down approach to activism it risks destroying all the bottom-up flexibility that we have already established as crucial to the movement’s success. Furthermore, who is in a position to assert on others which particular standard of efficacy we should follow? This comes across to me as a potentially highly dogmatic way of trying to control people who have no wish to be controlled. I firmly reject this as a concept. While people can lay down the rules on their groups or themselves, they have no right to try to impose that on others. In fact this whole statement seems to fly in the face of what was said in paragraphs 4, 6, and 7.

12. See my points under 6 and 11 above. See both the manual and presentation referenced in point 13 here. All of these talk about groups or individuals setting their own goals. I strongly disagree that there is anything top-down in suggesting attention be paid to efficacy and, again, have no idea how an authoritarian approach would be accomplished. Going forward, please refrain from referring to any concerns about “imposition” or “authoritarianism” without explaining where the power or authority necessary would come from. Otherwise, we’re discussing nebulous fears with no basis in reality. I don’t believe that’s a constructive use of anyone’s time or energy.

SZ: So, in short, we work together by not always insisting we all have to work closely on the same projects in the same ways and by keeping an eye on our ethics and efficacy in order to make sure we don’t overlook opportunities for outreach.

TT: I agree with this with reservations.

13. I will assume all the reservations were already discussed above as no specifics were given here.


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