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Why I decided to close ‘The Science Enthusiasts’ group

As many fans of the page are aware, I started a companion group for the page called “The Science Enthusiasts” in 2015. The goal of the group was to have a small group of friends help create, refine, and direct content for the page. Like most things I’ve done on social media, it quickly grew into something I never expected, and as of this moment it has over 37,000 members.

As the group grew, it became an enormous timesink. I had individuals volunteer to help manage the group, but slowly I started to have less and less engagements as other projects took priority. With the explosion with many of my public pages, a podcast, and wanting to not be on Facebook 24/7 (gasp!), I essentially allowed the moderator team to have control of the group. I simply didn’t have the time to monitor and engage in the group. So moderators were added who I didn’t really know, but people generally seemed to be happy.

But Tuesday night, I decided to close it.

(Facebook calls this “archiving.” The group is still visible to members, however no new posts, comments, or reactions to posts can be made.)

The reason I started my page and this blog was to encourage others to use facts to support their beliefs and to always seek truth through a slightly different medium than the average Facebook page. Sure, we can post lots of science articles to promote truth, but there are oodles of places to find that on social media, and that’s rather vanilla. I’ve managed to build the pages I have by injecting my personality into them, be it through funny memes, or expressing my opposition to ideologies that I think are problematic.

Part of confronting bad ideologies means people will disagree with you. And that’s great! When someone disagrees with you, it forces you to re-examine your own beliefs, but also understand where the other side is coming from. It’s a chance to refine your position, articulate it to someone who disagrees with you, and possibly change your views.

The problem is that all too often, people don’t do this. They are either too lazy to listen and understand what someone is saying or they are maliciously distorting the words of someone they disagree with. I’ve jokingly called it “The Sam Harris Effect.”

Many things that Sam Harris has said have been deliberately misrepresented by those who don’t like him, particularly when he speaks about Islam. An excellent example of this happened last summer, when Harris had Maajid Nawaz on his podcast. Maajid, if you’re unfamiliar with him, is a British Muslim, and an activist who co-founded Quilliam, a counter-extremist organization. A twitter user excerpted a clip from Harris’s podcast, Waking Up, and posted it. Take a listen:

Sounds pretty horrific, right? The tweet was shared by author Reza Aslan, to bring attention to Harris clearly advocating for genocide of Muslims. Because that’s what he said, right?

… Except that’s not what happened. The sound bite was carefully selected in a deliberate attempt to misrepresent the statement he was making.

But that doesn’t stop the outrage crew from trying to wreck him – they have a sound bite, with no context, that they feel they can attack him for. What’s worse is that they don’t care to stop and think about what the context could have been, or why he would have made the statement. Instead it’s far easier to assume the worst about him, particularly if you don’t like him, and run with your own engineered version of the truth.

A more recent example of this is the disastrous interview Jordan Peterson had with Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News last week:

Throughout the interview, Newman tried to recapitulate Peterson’s statements and beliefs, and nearly every time was wrong… To the point that many YouTubers have compiled every time Newman (incorrectly) told Peterson what he was thinking.

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to read the recent article in The Atlantic about the interview. I shared the article on aSE yesterday, adding my own thoughts in the caption:

In my post, I didn’t give my opinion on Jordan Peterson. I didn’t defend anything he said. I didn’t make any mention of the interviewer’s gender affecting the response, either.

Over the past week, many people shared posts into The Science Enthusiasts group about the interview, and Jordan Peterson in general. Most commenters simply mocked the fact that Peterson talked about lobsters, and ran with Newman’s incorrect recapitulation of Peterson’s points. There was no skepticism regarding the information, simply a dogpile on Peterson and mocking the idea he was attempting to convey.

Post after post, I saw this type of “skepticism” being used by many members of the group. One post tackled how Peterson was wrong about lobster’s serotonin uptake, and the divergence of lobsters and humans. While this technicality may be correct, it did not address the greater point that Peterson was making. When I raised this issue, I was met with a disingenuous response from the post’s author, even claiming that I failed to defend Peterson’s claim. The problem is I wasn’t attempting to defend Peterson’s claim at all.

This sort of behavior was common throughout the group, and is not the brand of “skepticism” I want to endorse.

So I shared the Peterson post I made on aSE into the group. One of the moderators, who I’ve disagreed with on many things privately in the past, brought up points irrelevant to the post itself and pretended that I was implying that the interviewer was emotional because she was a woman. Having had numerous disagreements with the moderator before, I made the decision to remove her as a moderator, because she was not engaging in good faith or addressing the actual words and statements being used. That sort of behavior is not skepticism, nor is it even attempting to engage in a worthwhile discussion. It’s seeking out opportunities to be offended, a problem that is all too prevalent. The Peterson debacle served as a microcosm of issues that had long plagued the group.

And this was not just happening within the group, it’s happening elsewhere as well. Even “science defender” Kavin Senapathy tried to cash in on the Peterson outrage by throwing Monsanto employee Vance Crowe under the bus and staining his reputation. Senapathy, along with one of her co-founders of March Against Myths About Modification (MAMyths), Dave Sutherland, took to twitter and engaged in an incredibly childish harassment campaign against Vance – for having a conversation. For talking to someone. It’s a wonder how MAMyths expects to have the support of farmers, who anecdotally tend to vote republican, when their leadership views anyone to the right of them as “alt-right” or “alt-right enabling.” Their rabid thirst to destroy people’s lives, in an attempt to elevate themselves, is extremely obvious. This type of harassing behavior is toxic and has no place in our community. (Full disclosure – I consider Vance a friend, and he was on our podcast in the past.)

Criticizing bad skepticism is not an endorsement of the opposing side’s views. Yet, I’m branded as an ‘alt-right transphobic racist MRA’ despite never making any statements alluding to that. In fact, I’ve posted about my support for the LGBTQ movement before. I’ve posted about racism. A lot. (really.) I’ve not once shown any semblance of support for the alt-right. Natalie and I grilled Michael Shermer on our podcast about the “conceptual penis” study he published in Skeptic magazine, where he attempted to show that gender studies is a ridiculous field of study (and ended up proving the opposite). We had Jessica Bluemke Greiff, co-host of the Friendly Atheist Podcast, on our podcast and discussed implicit racial bias. We had atheist and transgender activist Callie Wright on our podcast to talk about issues facing transgender people. So to call me a ‘racist transphobe MRA’ means you’re simply not paying attention, allowing emotions guide your opinions, and therefore forfeit the ability to be taken seriously. It’s easy to “go with your gut” about something, but isn’t that the same philosophy anti-vaxxers employ?

This is the same thing I see playing out with people like Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris. I’ve intentionally not shared my opinion on Peterson, because I’m more interested in how people react to him and discuss him. People deliberately misrepresent what he says, and form opinions without bothering to even hear what he is saying. He says *a lot* of silly things, but when you misrepresent him (either deliberately or out of laziness), you do a terrible disservice to facts and truth, and you “prove” to his adherents that he’s right. You reaffirm Peterson’s credibility to them, and help him gain new followers. You become part of the problem.

When you engage in hyperbole in situations like this, you benefit no one, and actually damage your cause, because when someone comes along who is legitimately transphobic, you’ve forfeited your credibility to make that determination. The same applies for calling people Nazis, Nazi sympathizers, and so on.

If you truly believe that your “side” of a discussion is right and has truth supporting it, then there’s no need for hyperbole. There’s no need to be vague. There’s no need to misrepresent facts. Lower your voice and strengthen your argument.

So, why did I close the group?

Because I can. Because I believe it was the right thing to do. Because people weren’t using it for the purpose I created it. Because I was tired of seeing discussion after discussion of controversial topics derail into people shouting past one another instead of talking to one another. People were yelling about what was being said, but not giving reasons as to why they disagree. People were focusing on the individuals themselves, rather than the actual issue being discussed. People weren’t challenging ideas, they were challenging people.

The level of tribalism in the group was unhealthy. I was tired of the disingenuous discussions that were occurring. I felt that the group itself was doing a disservice to the very concept of skepticism, and I could not in good conscience allow it to continue. The moderators of the group have created their own group that I have no part of and am not responsible for. I have no hard feelings or ill will towards the moderators (in fact, they still have posting privileges on many of my side pages).

I’ve received a lot of messages regarding how much the group will be missed, and for that I’m sorry. I understand that many friendships were created in the group. Many people used it as a way to connect to other like-minded individuals. It’s possible that the group will be un-archived in the future, however I don’t know if or when that would occur.

What’s important to me is that facts and reason are valued, and are able to be discussed without vitriol or assumptions made about those who are discussing them. Facts are more important than feelings. It’s important that we don’t fall under the seduction of hyperbole as, by definition, hyperbole introduces fantasy into the discussion. It’s important that we value truth more than feelings. This doesn’t give us license to be rude, but if a fact like “evolution is real” or “the universe is 13.8 billion years old” offends you because of your belief system, well, there’s not much I can do about that.

But what’s more important is recognizing that not every opinion can be expressed concisely, and many views require nuance in their explanations. There are a myriad of factors affecting nearly every issue, and it’s important to consider these factors when expressing opinions or engaging in discussion, however uncomfortable that may make us.

As I said before, there’s no need to misrepresent facts.

Lower your voice and strengthen your argument.

Written by Dan Broadbent

Science Enthusiast. Atheist. Lover of cats.

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