As I’ve announced, I’m leaving CFI in December. Wish I could say that in the seven years I’ve been with CFI as president, the level of discourse in the atheist/skeptic community has improved. But I can’t say that. If anything, it may have become worse.
I’m not referring here just to the vile, hateful language, combined with puerile insults, one finds all too often on blogs and tweets. These are lamentable; indeed, sometimes there are literally nauseating. There is also the more serious problem of false attributions and distortions of others’ statements.
Case in point is a blog post that appeared yesterday on the Skepchick site. (I happened to read it this morning because I saw a reference to it on Twitter.) The blog post is entitled “The Friendly Atheist Endorses a Hate Forum.” I was taken aback when I saw this because although I do not know Hemant Mehta (a/k/a “The Friendly Atheist”) that well, I found it surprising that Hemant would endorse a hate forum. Also, when I read the body of the Skepchick blog post, the passage cited did not seem to support an attribution of endorsement of The Slymepit, the forum in question.
So I read Hemant’s post. There is nothing in that post that can be properly characterized, by any imaginative to stretch of the English language, as an endorsement of The Slymepit. The sole relevant paragraph in Hemant’s post is as follows:
“As for Myers himself, he responsed on Twitter with a sarcastic “Oh no! I’ve been disowned by the slymepit!”… in other words, associating Atheist Ireland with an online forum that frequently criticizes and mocks him and is populated by people he deems trolls (even though they correctly uncovered plagiarism on his blog network). In other words, he didn’t care.”
There is nothing resembling an endorsement contained within that paragraph. Admittedly, Hemant did not denounce The Slymepit in a way that Rebecca Watson, the author of the Skepchick blog post would have liked, but a characterization of a person, group, website, and so forth in objective, relatively neutral language does not constitute an “endorsement.” If I describe Ted Cruz as “a conservative politician” that does not imply I endorse Cruz simply because others might, with some justification, describe Cruz as “an extreme right-wing theocrat and homophobe.”
Those who hold prominent positions within the atheist or skeptic communities, whether as leaders or writers— and I think it’s fair to say Ms. Watson regards herself as a prominent writer— have an obligation to be as accurate as possible in their comments and observations. In particular, they should refrain from unwarranted accusations. Ms. Watson should rephrase the title of her blog post and apologize to Hemant Mehta. It’s not an easy thing to apologize (as I know, and Ms. Watson knows I know), but unquestionably it’s the right thing to do here.
In closing, I’m going to anticipate what I know some will say: that I am commenting on the Watson piece because she and I have a “history,” to which I have just made an allusion. That’s not the case. As indicated, my reading of her latest post was entirely fortuitous. But, in any event, let me take this opportunity to acknowledge what is obviously true, namely that Ms. Watson is an intelligent person who has made some significant contributions to the cause of skepticism, and her writings are sometimes interesting and insightful. But her latest blog post does her no credit. Acknowledging her mistake and setting the record straight would.
I also recognize that this is just one blog post out of hundreds published recently, some undoubtedly with worse misstatements. But reform has to start somewhere.