Thursday, January 5, 2012

2011: My Year of Living Skeptically

For me, 2011 was the year I “came out” as a skeptic. That's a bit dramatic, admittedly, as my ‘coming out’ was not accompanied by any particular anxiety or family pressure or societal repercussions.  What I mean is that, after years of absorbing skeptical content and becoming more and more aware that I identified with the movement, I decided to get actively involved in 2011.

I started out by attending our local Sacramento Skeptics in the Pub events. I’m not one of the world’s great schmoozers, but it was fun to be in a group of people - disparate and eclectic as we are - who shared common interests and worldviews. The discussions at these events are lively and interesting, and I always found myself staying later and enjoying the events more than I expected to.

My involvement with the skeptical community accelerated when I posted a song I had written, The Skeptic in the Room, on YouTube. I was very pleased to see the positive reaction the song received from skeptics. I owe thanks to several people who embedded the video on their own sites, often accompanied by very positive commentary.   In particular, Shane Trimmer of the Sacramento Area Skeptics got the ball rolling by posting the link to the SAS site, after which it was picked up by Pharyngula, Respectful Insolence, Occam’s Razor and many others. It also got a boost when Jeff Wagg featured it on the Rational Alchemy podcast. So thanks to all of those who helped make it a viral hit (defining ‘hit’, of course, in the most generous way),

Events followed, including the SkeptiCAL conference in Berkeley and TAM9 in Las Vegas, where the conversations were lively, the presentations enlightening and the atmosphere convivial. I was particularly pleased to be joined in Las Vegas by my sons Ryan and James, both young skeptics who were also entering the movement this past year. I figure that between Ryan, a professional magician in San Francisco and James, a student of molecular biology at UC/Santa Cruz, we’ve got a least a couple of branches of the skeptical movement pretty well covered in our family!

One more highlight of the year came last month, when my son James and I performed The Skeptic in the Room for the local Winter Solstice/HumanLight party. That was a kick - not only performing with James, but also getting some actual live audience feedback to the song.

So, for the most part, my year of living skeptically was very positive, and I’m really looking forward to 2012, which will include a return visit to TAM and, hopefully, participation in the Reason Rally in Washington DC.

But, unfortunately, I found that skepticism has its dark side as well – that would be, in my opinion, the community's tendency to splinter into battling tribes who then attempt to - metaphorically! - beat each other to a pulpy mass.

From the ongoing arguments about the place of strident atheism in the skeptical movement to the elevatorgate kerfuffle to the great Gelato battle of 2011 to the regular debates about male/female interactions, the skeptical community seems to like to engage in internecine warfare.

I'm all for a healthy and rigorous debate, and I don't object to forceful argument at all. The disheartening thing about this is that these are all serious and important issues, and one might hope that a group that espouses reason and logic might find a way to discuss those issues in, I don’t know, a sane and lucid manner.  But these disagreements seem inevitably to devolve into name-calling, condescension and sanctimonious self-righteousness.  

I recognize that most of this rancor takes place in the cacophonous echo chamber that is the Internet, where being controversial and outrageous is a way to drive success, but it's disheartening nevertheless. Luckily, the actual real live, face-to-face interactions among skeptics at conferences and other events seems to be much more civil.

OK, got that off my chest.

So, to summarize – for me, my year of living skeptically was rewarding and exciting and satisfying. In most ways the skeptical world was what I had hoped it would be – a place where people who share certain views of the world we live in can learn, grow and exchange ideas among their peers and friends.

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