If you’ve been living in a cave for the past two years you may be unfamiliar with the alt-right. Essentially they are a far-right movement who don’t identify with mainstream conservatives but still know “far right” has enough negative connotations to avoid using that term. There rise has been worrying for many reasons and one of the most striking elements of their philosophy is their relationship with rationalism and the sceptic community.
Aside from their support for Trump – who likely thinks rationalism is a method for sharing out food – their main objective is white nationalism. This put them at odds with the broadly defined “Left”, in particular, “social justice warriors” (SJWs) and by extension third wave feminists.
Sam Harris and Milo Yiannopoulos
These last two have also been the subject of attack from members of the sceptic community. Both online – from the likes of YouTubers TheAmazingAtheist, The Armoured Skeptic, Thunderf00t and Sargon of Akkad – and in print. Phil Torres has written an excellent and frankly damning piece about the connections between the likes of Sam Harris and alt-right darling Milo Yiannopoulos.
Even though most of these people would deny being a part of the alt-right, the usual line being that they are advocates of facts, not politics – they, intentionally or not, do court the alt-right movement. They offer legitimacy and support for their ideas and fuel for the movement.
The problem with this is twofold. The first is that when discussing socio-political issues such as sex, gender, race and class, any statement you make for or against a given position is inherently political. The second problem, as Torres and others have pointed out, is that the facts aren’t always presented correctly or fairly or at all. Studies that contradict expected beliefs are frequently ignored whilst studies supporting existing ideas can be given more credence than they necessarily deserve.
Needless to say, this isn’t rationalism. What this group actually seem to display is a limiting in sceptical and investigative thinking because the facts they are presented with matches their politics views. Once “evidence” no matter how flimsy, is found that supports their existing views, investigation ceases.
To quote The Big Short – which was misquoting Mark Twain – “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble; it’s what you know for certain, that just ain’t so.” Even the staunchest sceptic will make mistakes but what we have here is potentially very dangerous. As stated above, giving the alt-right the appearance of scientific credibility not only galvanises their position, it has the potential to make them more appealing to usually rational minded.
Many of these sceptic-orientated media outlets have an air of authority. What reasons have we to be sceptical about an outlet whose function is scepticism? If the editor presents us with evidence, we assume that there has been a level of inquiry undertaken regarding the evidence that we need not do. If that evidence posited that some alt right thinking was fact, wouldn’t we believe it? We would have no reason not to. But why are these individuals promoting such poorly researched ideas?
There are a number of potential reasons why this might happen. The first is the scariest but also the one that is the least likely. It could be the case that leaders in the sceptic community genuinely support the alt-right and the suppression of evidence is part of a larger conspiracy of misinformation. As I said unlikely.
The second is that there are financial stakes involved. This is probably a contributing factor for the sceptics using YouTube as a platform. More controversy means more views, means more ad revenue. But this doesn’t have to mean that those users have a disingenuous belief in their theories, only that they produce more content for the ones that bring in the most revenue.
Personal Cognitive Bias
But the most influencing factor is likely the personal cognitive bias of these individuals. A phenomena that everyone falls to and is the bane of rationalists everywhere wherein we inherently look for information to suit our subject view of the world. But if this the case, what is it about the cognitive bias of sceptics that so lends itself to a dalliance with far-right theories?
Perhaps it is a combination of subject matter and approach. Scepticism, when done properly, often addresses assumed authority and exploitation. Religion is the best example, as for the longest time it claimed moral and cosmological authority at the expense of any number of groups and individuals.
The New Atheist Movement
The New Atheist movement was a sceptical revival that took on religion and notably, Islam. This was an important shift as it tried to separate the religion of Islam from race and address issues that there were liberal sensitivities about. Whilst it opened up a secular discussion about Islam, the downside is that it demonstrated that “political correctness” could be less of a constraint and sometimes ignored entirely.
Unfortunately, the nuance of the debate around Islam and race is easily missed, there are atheists, inspired by the likes of Sam Harris who claimed that “we are at war with Islam”, who take fair criticisms of religion and take them to illogical, even evangelical extremes. This is where we see the Venn diagram of the far right and scepticism crossover and the agendas of the two bleeds into one other. Perhaps the only thing that stops the two merging together entirely on this subject is the fact that there is a strong Christian influence within the alt-right.
Sceptics can become fervent in their quest for the truth and can even place a moral objectivity on it. What is true is good. For the large part, this is agreeable. Homeopathy is a con, and people get sick, faith healing is a con and people robbed, one should always tell the truth, so on and so forth. Knowing the truth about these rackets helps people. But this means that the crusades that the individuals in question choose, despite being misinformed, take on a monumental level of moral importance.
Political Correctness and Social Justice
Social justice and political correctness are seen as an authoritative standpoint. The assumption is that they, like religion previously, have designed a set of morals that must be obeyed and have become totalitarian in their pursuit of enforcing them. There could possibly be some worthwhile or at least interesting discussion to be had in that but again, it tends to mutate from inquiry to suspicion to damnation. Challenges to social injustice become perceived as being fabricated and causing harm to certain groups, actually one group, straight white males.
Each of the sceptics mentioned is a straight white male. It’s only human nature to react to perceived attacks on yourself or your social group. Add that to the fact that, it’s very hard to accept that what we know for certain is wrong. If you consider yourself well informed and well read it’s very easy to dismiss new information as being incorrect, it’s your confirmation bias kicking in.
Make America Great Again
Even outside the realms of what we know scientifically, what we know as cultural norms can suffer from confirmation bias and we can experience a social future shock; an ossifying at the world moving too fast and changing too quickly. The alt-right movement is a reaction to this rapid societal change, they want American to be “great again.” Again being the operative word. They too are reacting to a fairer society with claims of victimhood.
The goal of scepticism is to find a claim and provide evidence to the contrary, or demonstrate that the claim hasn’t enough evidence to be asserted as true. It isn’t enough however to provide unsubstantiated counter evidence to dismiss a claim without merit. This thinking, moral behaviour and deductive practice can breed a scepticism based prejudice in people we would normally assume to be rational and intelligent, and qualify a prejudice in people we wouldn’t.
The Sceptic Community Is Not Damned
The sceptical community is not damned though. There are sceptics out there challenging those that flirt with the alt-right and the great news is that the nature of scepticism means that we can weed out poisonous elements simply by engaging. But we have to do it correctly. As Professor Quassim Cassam has pointed out elsewhere on The Freethink Tank,
For the misleading counterevidence not to undermine my original belief I need to be able to say what is wrong with it and I can’t do that if I ignore it.
Stepping outside of The Freethink Tank editorial guidelines on political neutrality for a moment; in my view, scepticism is a fantastic tool and movement, and to have it co-opted by the alt-right for a hateful agenda is shameful. But regardless of our politics, as sceptics, we should be challenging these ideas and asking for a better level of representation in our community. Eventually, through discourse, deduction and reason, these champions of bigoted and regressive views will either see new information and readdress their theories, or be seen just for what they are and what they are not, and they will not be sceptics.
The opinions in The Freethink Tank’s Opinion category are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.