The Effect of TAMpocalypse on Web Traffic

I’ve been waiting a few weeks to write this post, waiting for all the stats to roll in.  During the last eighteen months there have been a few high profile “fights” in the skeptical community, and some people have posited (frankly, I’m one of them) that some of these battles have partly become unnecessarily heated for the purpose of gaining of keeping web traffic.  Because it’s practically impossible to run a true double blind test of this theory, this post can only be a superficial look at the results, but I hope that my long experience on the internet can offer some perspective.

For this post, I’m only looking at two websites: Skepchick.org and FreethoughtBlogs.com.  The vast majority of the back and forth blog posts and comments occurred on these two popular websites, and looking at their traffic over the last year or so might be instructive.  First let’s look at SkepChick.org:


This is a screenshot from Alexa, which I admit is not an ironclad view of the traffic on SkepChick.  The spikes are interesting though.  The first spike (starting from the left) appears to be centered around the original “Elevorgate” incident, the second seems to be related to posts and follow ups around Richard Dawkins, and the third spike seems linked to when Rebecca Watson wrote a post about Reddit.  All three of these incidents linked to and were talked about outside the skeptical community, and so they seemed to have generated large spikes in Skepchick.org traffic.

In 2012, there is no such spike showing up in the record so far.  The post about why Rebecca Watson decided not to go to TAM did not generate anywhere the spike in traffic that previous incidents did.  There is a slight trend of increasing traffic, but it’s hard to tell why.

The next screenshot is from FreethoughtBlogs.com:


As you can see, FreethoughtBlogs is a relatively new blog network, so we don’t have the same history as with Skepchick.org.  However, FreethoughtBlogs has substantially higher traffic than Skepchick.org and spikes might be harder to detect.  That said, we can see some traffic increases that seem to correlate with some posts by Greta Christina that were heavily commented and cited.  The trend for 2012, though, has primarily been flat.  There was a slight increase during the days leading up to TAM2012, but nothing dramatic.

So in looking at the differences in traffic over time correlated with high profile blog “wars”, it’s hard to conclude that controversy brings sustainable increases in traffic.  Last year’s high profile blog posts brought people in from outside the skeptical community but the gains did not last.  I don’t have enough information to comment on why that was.  In 2012, the controversies did not cause the same spikes, and in taking an educated guess, I’d say this was because these controversies lacked “cross-over appeal.”   The fighting was kept “inside the family” so to speak.

This post cannot possibly answer all the questions on this subject, but I do think it offers some perspective on the effects of controversies on website traffic.  Controversy does not appear to be a valid strategy for increasing long term web traffic on skeptical websites.  Furthermore, people (including myself) should put to bed the criticism that web traffic is a motive for generating controversy.  Intentions are hard to know, but the results tell me that it’s not worth discussing any more.  Of course, I could be way off base, and all criticism is welcome.

The Effect of TAMpocalypse on Web Traffic

I’ve been waiting a few weeks to write this post, waiting for all the stats to roll in.  During the last eighteen months there have been a few high profile “fights” in the skeptical community, and some people have posited (frankly, I’m one of them) that some of these battles have partly become unnecessarily heated for the purpose of gaining of keeping web traffic.  Because it’s practically impossible to run a true double blind test of this theory, this post can only be a superficial look at the results, but I hope that my long experience on the internet can offer some perspective.

For this post, I’m only looking at two websites: Skepchick.org and FreethoughtBlogs.com.  The vast majority of the back and forth blog posts and comments occurred on these two popular websites, and looking at their traffic over the last year or so might be instructive.  First let’s look at SkepChick.org:


This is a screenshot from Alexa, which I admit is not an ironclad view of the traffic on SkepChick.  The spikes are interesting though.  The first spike (starting from the left) appears to be centered around the original “Elevorgate” incident, the second seems to be related to posts and follow ups around Richard Dawkins, and the third spike seems linked to when Rebecca Watson wrote a post about Reddit.  All three of these incidents linked to and were talked about outside the skeptical community, and so they seemed to have generated large spikes in Skepchick.org traffic.

In 2012, there is no such spike showing up in the record so far.  The post about why Rebecca Watson decided not to go to TAM did not generate anywhere the spike in traffic that previous incidents did.  There is a slight trend of increasing traffic, but it’s hard to tell why.

The next screenshot is from FreethoughtBlogs.com:


As you can see, FreethoughtBlogs is a relatively new blog network, so we don’t have the same history as with Skepchick.org.  However, FreethoughtBlogs has substantially higher traffic than Skepchick.org and spikes might be harder to detect.  That said, we can see some traffic increases that seem to correlate with some posts by Greta Christina that were heavily commented and cited.  The trend for 2012, though, has primarily been flat.  There was a slight increase during the days leading up to TAM2012, but nothing dramatic.

So in looking at the differences in traffic over time correlated with high profile blog “wars”, it’s hard to conclude that controversy brings sustainable increases in traffic.  Last year’s high profile blog posts brought people in from outside the skeptical community but the gains did not last.  I don’t have enough information to comment on why that was.  In 2012, the controversies did not cause the same spikes, and in taking an educated guess, I’d say this was because these controversies lacked “cross-over appeal.”   The fighting was kept “inside the family” so to speak.

This post cannot possibly answer all the questions on this subject, but I do think it offers some perspective on the effects of controversies on website traffic.  Controversy does not appear to be a valid strategy for increasing long term web traffic on skeptical websites.  Furthermore, people (including myself) should put to bed the criticism that web traffic is a motive for generating controversy.  Intentions are hard to know, but the results tell me that it’s not worth discussing any more.  Of course, I could be way off base, and all criticism is welcome.

Why TAM2012 was awesome

This year’s Amaz!ng Meeting was my eighth TAM and it was also the best one for me.  I arrived on Wednesday night from Kansas City, got my bags put away and checked on Twitter to see if anyone I knew was around.  Sharon Hill, who I only knew from Twitter, tweeted that she was around, so I decided to head down and try to be outgoing for a change.

The Del Mar bar at the South Point Casino is practically TAM only during the Amaz!ng Meeting as it’s become the bar to go to before, during, and after TAM.  I went right to the bar and ordered a diet coke and rum, and who should come up next to me to also order from the bar? DJ Grothe!  I chatted with him for a couple minutes before looking around for Sharon.  For some reason, I thought she was going to have all blue hair, and I didn’t see anyone with that description.  I got a message from Barbara Drescher, someone I also only knew from online, that she was in the Del Mar, so I looked around, and figured how who she was.

I introduced myself, sat down, and that began the first evening of TAM2012 for me.  Sharon did come over a few minutes later and it was great to meet her.  Throughout that night, I met a bunch of new people, talked about skepticism, TAM, DragonCon, and recent events.  Being on Central Time, I had to crash at only 10 pm local time, but as I went back to my room, it felt that TAM2012 was already a big success.

The next day was all workshops.  I had an All-Workshop pass so I took as many in as I could.  The three that stood out for me were the ones on Skeptical Activism outside the US, specifically Africa, Promoting Skepticism online, and Coalition Building.  All the workshops were great, but those three really stuck with me the rest of the conference.

That night I attended the Monstertalk Meet & Greet held by Blake Smith of the great podcast Monstertalk.  I got a chance to talk to Blake, his wife, Ben Radford, and some new people I’d never met before.  Also, I got a chance to tell Sharon how well I thought her Coalition Building workshop went.  I try to make a point now to let people know when things go really well.  Too much time has been spent crapping all over people’s work, and I don’t want any part of that scene.

Later that night, I met up with my friend Jamie who I met at last year’s TAM during a Vegan Meetup.  We hung out in the bar at the Del Mar for a few hours, before I had to crash.  I had plans to get donuts from Ronald’s Donuts early the next morning and begin freezing them in a fridge I rented.  

Friday and Saturday were the main days of TAM. There were so many great talks, it’s hard to list them all without simply linking to the TAM program web page.  The talks that stood out for me were Carol Tavris, Jamy Ian Swiss, and Elizabeth Cornwell.  Carol Tavris is always funny and interesting, and I always learn something.  Jamy Ian Swiss delivered one of the best presentations I’ve ever heard about what skepticism was, what it is, and what it should be going forward.  If you ever read Barbara Drescher’s icsbseverywhere.com a lot of Swiss’s talk was not necessarily new, but it was great to hear it out loud.

Elizabeth Cornwell focused her talk on online interactions and showed how narcissistic personalities can be enhanced because of the impersonal nature of tweets, blogs, and blog comments.  Her speech was a refutation of the conduct of almost every online conflict we’ve had in the skeptical community for the last two years.  I can’t say for sure if she was thinking about certain people in the skeptical community, but a lot of what she said read like biographies of prominent atheist bloggers.  That being said, my long history with the internet means I know these type of conflicts and narcissistic people have existed for years on internet forums.  Her speech was great insight into these conflicts and people.

On Saturday night, we held another Vegan Meetup.  At first, we thought it would be a bust, but then we found our group.  We went to a place called Yayo Taco which has great tacos, but also had a terrible teenage battle of the bands.  Yes, I’m so old now that when I see kids playing amps too loud, playing drums out of beat, and guitars out of tune, it bothers me.  We ate outside, though, and enjoyed our dinner regardless.

I had the great pleasure of meeting a vegan couple from the UK who shared a lot of the same values I do.  How many skeptical, libertarian, vegan atheists do you meet?  On top of that, they are not interested in having kids either, just like my wife and I.  It was a really cool time to meet Paul and Rebecca, and we hung out with them for pretty much the rest of TAM.

Sunday was a day of papers and the closing presentations all of which I enjoyed immensely.  Jamie, Paul, Rebecca, and myself made Frito-Lay corn chips and vegan chili pie for lunch, and after TAM went out for pizza at Mandalay Bay.  I got back to the Del Mar just in time to see Sharon once more before TAM ended, and I got a chance to meet Carrie Poppie and Chris Stedman, two people who do great work in the realm of skepticism and activism.   Before dinner, I caught up with Barbara to say how much I enjoyed meeting her in real life, and my timing was spot on, as she left soon after the last workshops ended (one of which was hers).

Around 10:30 pm I made it back to my room to rest up for my flight back home.  By  6pm on Monday, I was back at home with my wife, seven dogs and cat.  TAM2012 was a great time.  I met more people at TAM2012 that will continue to be friends that at any other time in my life over the last ten years.  It was that great a time for me.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that not everyone had a great time, and there was a small level of controversy.   A certain tee-shirt offended some people, and for some reason people took offense to someone saying something positive about TAM2012.  I’m not sure why everyone has to only say negative things, but I think everyone should be able to express their personal opinion about TAM without too much controversy. 

There has also been a lot talk about harassment policies, and the debate has often been incorrectly framed as a battle between pro-policy and anti-policy people.  It’s never been about that, but about a whole other set of issues that I really have no interest in rehashing.  This year, instead of taking the advice of unqualified bloggers, the JREF consulted with actual experts to craft policies and process to make TAM attendees safe.  You may think they did it wrong, you may think the policies were poorly executed.  What you can’t say, though, is that the JREF implemented their procedures out of indifference or malice.  If you’d ask anyone from the JREF (and many if not all criticizers haven’t) you’d know that they sincerely cared about TAM being safe for everyone.  Criticize the process, criticize the effectiveness, but don’t criticize motive out of your own ignorance.

I don’t want to end this post on a down note, so I’ll add that as far as I can tell, and this is based solely on social media posts, TAM was safe for most everyone.  I saw four comments about how TAM handled harassment, and three out of four were positive.  It’s still early of course, and more might come up, but with the environment such as it was, I was expecting to hear about egregious examples pretty quickly.  That has not happened yet, and it may not.  I have to say TAM put on a great conference top to bottom.  There is always room for improvement, and I hope everyone fills out the survey so that TAM2013 can be even better.  Might be hard to top TAM2012 personally, but for someone next year, it could be the best time of their lives.

Why TAM2012 was awesome

This year’s Amaz!ng Meeting was my eighth TAM and it was also the best one for me.  I arrived on Wednesday night from Kansas City, got my bags put away and checked on Twitter to see if anyone I knew was around.  Sharon Hill, who I only knew from Twitter, tweeted that she was around, so I decided to head down and try to be outgoing for a change.

The Del Mar bar at the South Point Casino is practically TAM only during the Amaz!ng Meeting as it’s become the bar to go to before, during, and after TAM.  I went right to the bar and ordered a diet coke and rum, and who should come up next to me to also order from the bar? DJ Grothe!  I chatted with him for a couple minutes before looking around for Sharon.  For some reason, I thought she was going to have all blue hair, and I didn’t see anyone with that description.  I got a message from Barbara Drescher, someone I also only knew from online, that she was in the Del Mar, so I looked around, and figured how who she was.

I introduced myself, sat down, and that began the first evening of TAM2012 for me.  Sharon did come over a few minutes later and it was great to meet her.  Throughout that night, I met a bunch of new people, talked about skepticism, TAM, DragonCon, and recent events.  Being on Central Time, I had to crash at only 10 pm local time, but as I went back to my room, it felt that TAM2012 was already a big success.

The next day was all workshops.  I had an All-Workshop pass so I took as many in as I could.  The three that stood out for me were the ones on Skeptical Activism outside the US, specifically Africa, Promoting Skepticism online, and Coalition Building.  All the workshops were great, but those three really stuck with me the rest of the conference.

That night I attended the Monstertalk Meet & Greet held by Blake Smith of the great podcast Monstertalk.  I got a chance to talk to Blake, his wife, Ben Radford, and some new people I’d never met before.  Also, I got a chance to tell Sharon how well I thought her Coalition Building workshop went.  I try to make a point now to let people know when things go really well.  Too much time has been spent crapping all over people’s work, and I don’t want any part of that scene.

Later that night, I met up with my friend Jamie who I met at last year’s TAM during a Vegan Meetup.  We hung out in the bar at the Del Mar for a few hours, before I had to crash.  I had plans to get donuts from Ronald’s Donuts early the next morning and begin freezing them in a fridge I rented.  

Friday and Saturday were the main days of TAM. There were so many great talks, it’s hard to list them all without simply linking to the TAM program web page.  The talks that stood out for me were Carol Tavris, Jamy Ian Swiss, and Elizabeth Cornwell.  Carol Tavris is always funny and interesting, and I always learn something.  Jamy Ian Swiss delivered one of the best presentations I’ve ever heard about what skepticism was, what it is, and what it should be going forward.  If you ever read Barbara Drescher’s icsbseverywhere.com a lot of Swiss’s talk was not necessarily new, but it was great to hear it out loud.

Elizabeth Cornwell focused her talk on online interactions and showed how narcissistic personalities can be enhanced because of the impersonal nature of tweets, blogs, and blog comments.  Her speech was a refutation of the conduct of almost every online conflict we’ve had in the skeptical community for the last two years.  I can’t say for sure if she was thinking about certain people in the skeptical community, but a lot of what she said read like biographies of prominent atheist bloggers.  That being said, my long history with the internet means I know these type of conflicts and narcissistic people have existed for years on internet forums.  Her speech was great insight into these conflicts and people.

On Saturday night, we held another Vegan Meetup.  At first, we thought it would be a bust, but then we found our group.  We went to a place called Yayo Taco which has great tacos, but also had a terrible teenage battle of the bands.  Yes, I’m so old now that when I see kids playing amps too loud, playing drums out of beat, and guitars out of tune, it bothers me.  We ate outside, though, and enjoyed our dinner regardless.

I had the great pleasure of meeting a vegan couple from the UK who shared a lot of the same values I do.  How many skeptical, libertarian, vegan atheists do you meet?  On top of that, they are not interested in having kids either, just like my wife and I.  It was a really cool time to meet Paul and Rebecca, and we hung out with them for pretty much the rest of TAM.

Sunday was a day of papers and the closing presentations all of which I enjoyed immensely.  Jamie, Paul, Rebecca, and myself made Frito-Lay corn chips and vegan chili pie for lunch, and after TAM went out for pizza at Mandalay Bay.  I got back to the Del Mar just in time to see Sharon once more before TAM ended, and I got a chance to meet Carrie Poppie and Chris Stedman, two people who do great work in the realm of skepticism and activism.   Before dinner, I caught up with Barbara to say how much I enjoyed meeting her in real life, and my timing was spot on, as she left soon after the last workshops ended (one of which was hers).

Around 10:30 pm I made it back to my room to rest up for my flight back home.  By  6pm on Monday, I was back at home with my wife, seven dogs and cat.  TAM2012 was a great time.  I met more people at TAM2012 that will continue to be friends that at any other time in my life over the last ten years.  It was that great a time for me.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that not everyone had a great time, and there was a small level of controversy.   A certain tee-shirt offended some people, and for some reason people took offense to someone saying something positive about TAM2012.  I’m not sure why everyone has to only say negative things, but I think everyone should be able to express their personal opinion about TAM without too much controversy. 

There has also been a lot talk about harassment policies, and the debate has often been incorrectly framed as a battle between pro-policy and anti-policy people.  It’s never been about that, but about a whole other set of issues that I really have no interest in rehashing.  This year, instead of taking the advice of unqualified bloggers, the JREF consulted with actual experts to craft policies and process to make TAM attendees safe.  You may think they did it wrong, you may think the policies were poorly executed.  What you can’t say, though, is that the JREF implemented their procedures out of indifference or malice.  If you’d ask anyone from the JREF (and many if not all criticizers haven’t) you’d know that they sincerely cared about TAM being safe for everyone.  Criticize the process, criticize the effectiveness, but don’t criticize motive out of your own ignorance.

I don’t want to end this post on a down note, so I’ll add that as far as I can tell, and this is based solely on social media posts, TAM was safe for most everyone.  I saw four comments about how TAM handled harassment, and three out of four were positive.  It’s still early of course, and more might come up, but with the environment such as it was, I was expecting to hear about egregious examples pretty quickly.  That has not happened yet, and it may not.  I have to say TAM put on a great conference top to bottom.  There is always room for improvement, and I hope everyone fills out the survey so that TAM2013 can be even better.  Might be hard to top TAM2012 personally, but for someone next year, it could be the best time of their lives.

What is “Freethought” ?

As a computer programmer in the northwest corner of Missouri who rarely leaves his house, who has trouble writing, and who is a workaholic, I find it hard to consider myself part of any movement, much less the “freethought” movement.  I promote equality and respect at my day job as a manager, by doing things as mundane as telling men to change their screensavers of bikini clad women, telling people to not use use words like “Bitch” as the name of a programming module, and by always, always offering to call people by their native non-American name.  The last might seem like a small or silly thing, but I find it important to respect people’s names, and I never want someone I work with to feel uncomfortable having a non-American name.

I donate to the “freethought” related causes by donating to podcasts, websites, or by buying books.  I try to let people know how much I enjoy their work because it seems that no matter what the topic is, most people only hear negative feedback.

My background includes a lot of reading of science books, a lot of programming, and almost no humanities other than fictional writing.  I have a skill at writing prose and poetry, but writing a clear concise email is a challenge for me.  Forget philosophy classes.  I would take extra classes on math (my minor was practically math) before I’d ever take a philosophy class.  So that brings us up to date on where I am coming from when I sincerely ask the question: What is “Freethought”?

The Wikipedia entry on “freethought” states “Freethought holds that individuals should not accept ideas proposed as truth without recourse to knowledge and reason. Thus, freethinkers strive to build their opinions on the basis of facts, scientific inquiry, and logical principles, independent of any logical fallacies or the intellectually limiting effects of authority, confirmation bias, cognitive bias, conventional wisdom, popular culture, prejudice, sectarianism, tradition, urban legend, and all other dogmas. “

The cynical part of me would posit that “freethought” therefore is aspirational rather than a description of any particular movement.  Humans are bias machines.  We love being part of groups and groupthink is almost inevitable.  Even someone like myself, who can sometimes be called an misanthrope, feels the pull of being involved in a group.  Once that happens, you’re “tainted” from true “freethought”.

Even as a computer programmer writing code, I cannot escape bias and groupthink.  I am a student of computer science, I’ve learned of methods from reading what other people do, and often times, programming is simply recognizing a problem and using the large toolbox of pre-existing algorithms that exist.  Occasionally, I’ll develop something new like when I developed a new style of singleton class for Java, or where I developed my own random distribution method.  Those are few and far between.

As a self-described skeptic, I’m loosely part of the “freethought” movement, but it doesn’t mean everyone practices true “freethought.”  Atheists, a group related to skeptics, often are both great examples of “freethought” and terrible examples of “freethought.”  As an atheist myself, I know I’m highly biased against religion, not to the point where I would discriminate against religious people, but that intellectually, I find it hard to take any religion’s philosophy serious.  

With the rise of blogs, the “freethought” movement has been able to marshall forces and create “freethought” blog networks, and some even take the name.  However, they all have multiple flaws, where they clearly have not reached anywhere close to being a real “freethought” space.  Smugness and righteousness are just as likely to be found in a “freethought” blog as a creationist blog.

The real poison to “freethought” spaces though, is politics.  Politics in the United States is so toxic that I see skeptics get sucked into political chicanery all the time.  Skeptics might feel they are too smart to get sucked into a political phrase, but perhaps that makes them all the more vulnerable.  Let me bring up some examples.  My own political biases will be easy to spot, but I still feel that my points are valid.

In early 2009, a lot of skeptics were happy to promote Obama’s stimulus package because a small, very small, part of it would go to science funding.  Almost no skepticism was show about the wisdom of the entire stimulus package, nor was there much discussion if the package would actually fund science efficiently.  

Another thing I see skeptics mention a lot is how investing in NASA is a 10, 15, sometimes 30 multiple in ROI.  This is said on many skeptical blogs as fact, but as far as I can tell, it’s far from a “fact”, and it apparently hasn’t been updated in years, since the figure’s history started in the 1970’s right after Apollo.

When it comes to global warming, I side with the scientists who say it’s happening and it’s man made.  Almost no one in the skeptical community spends time investigating the political solutions being offered by their preferred party.  If you accept climate change as I have, it’s very frustrating to see almost no discussion about what to actually do.  One prominent person out there who is doing this, Bjorn Lomborg is routinely pilloried by the skeptical community for the sin of accepting climage change and trying to examine the economic impact of different kinds of mediation.  I don’t support everything Lomborg says, but, it’s not like he’s not trying to help people now and in the future.  However, his perceived politics makes him unwelcome in many skeptical circles.

The word “progressive” gets thrown in a lot with a connection to the “freethought” movement, but I fail to see how you have to be a “progressive” to be considered a member of the “freethought” movement.  I’m a libertarian, and I truly care not a bit about whether someone is a women, gay, transgender, intersexual, etc.  I find most of these “divisions” superficial and long for the day when no one cares because everyone is accepted as is.  I’m a supporter of equal rights/treatment of everyone under the law, support a woman’s right to choose to do whatever she wants, a supporter of the right of gays to marry, or people to marry more than one person.  I really don’t care what people do.

But I don’t support federal programs to promote paid child care, I’m leery of government run health care, I think Social Security is a scam, and I think most attempts by the government to close the income gap are often nothing more than political parlor tricks. For these views, many “freethought” blogs would cast me out as someone who “doesn’t get it”.  Never mind that I believe in helping the poor, or allowing the poor to close the wage gap, it’s not enough to believe the same things, it’s a matter of believing the “correct” way to do it.  

In a true “freethought” movement, I could discuss my ideas on how to help the poor, or to insure the poor without government intervention, and be treated with respect, as long as I was basing my arguments on logic and reason.  That is not the case on many “freethought” blogs.  Mention that Steve Jobs was heavily influenced by “Atlas Shrugged” and you will be called all sorts of nasty names.

The way I approach every day is through a contradictory process of believing that what I  know, I do every well, but on the other hand, I’m probably an idiot and all wrong.  I can be as blustery as the next programmer, but fully able to admit when code I wrote was garbage.  I endeavor to write perfect code, because though I’ve been doing this for twenty years, I can do better.  I can always learn.

I approach my politics, skepticism, veganism often the same way.  Sure, I’m a “good” skeptic for not believing in homepathy, UFO’s, or sasquatch. I’m a “good” skeptic because I understand cognitive bias and how awful people are as observers.  However, I’m a “bad” skeptic because I know very little of the philosophical underpinning of skepticism.  I haven’t read all the classic skepticism books, and I’ve probably not read enough books on skepticism in general.

So, I’m both a “good” skeptic, and a “bad” skeptic, and that is what keeps me as humble as possible, even though I know I can get better at being humble.  My opinion is that the “freethought” movement, at least the louder voices, could use some more humility and maybe even sometimes blog “I was wrong.” or “I’m sorry”.  From my layperson perspective, being able to say you’re wrong or sorry, is big part of the process of aspiring to reach true “freethought.”

What is “Freethought” ?

As a computer programmer in the northwest corner of Missouri who rarely leaves his house, who has trouble writing, and who is a workaholic, I find it hard to consider myself part of any movement, much less the “freethought” movement.  I promote equality and respect at my day job as a manager, by doing things as mundane as telling men to change their screensavers of bikini clad women, telling people to not use use words like “Bitch” as the name of a programming module, and by always, always offering to call people by their native non-American name.  The last might seem like a small or silly thing, but I find it important to respect people’s names, and I never want someone I work with to feel uncomfortable having a non-American name.

I donate to the “freethought” related causes by donating to podcasts, websites, or by buying books.  I try to let people know how much I enjoy their work because it seems that no matter what the topic is, most people only hear negative feedback.

My background includes a lot of reading of science books, a lot of programming, and almost no humanities other than fictional writing.  I have a skill at writing prose and poetry, but writing a clear concise email is a challenge for me.  Forget philosophy classes.  I would take extra classes on math (my minor was practically math) before I’d ever take a philosophy class.  So that brings us up to date on where I am coming from when I sincerely ask the question: What is “Freethought”?

The Wikipedia entry on “freethought” states “Freethought holds that individuals should not accept ideas proposed as truth without recourse to knowledge and reason. Thus, freethinkers strive to build their opinions on the basis of facts, scientific inquiry, and logical principles, independent of any logical fallacies or the intellectually limiting effects of authority, confirmation bias, cognitive bias, conventional wisdom, popular culture, prejudice, sectarianism, tradition, urban legend, and all other dogmas. ”

The cynical part of me would posit that “freethought” therefore is aspirational rather than a description of any particular movement.  Humans are bias machines.  We love being part of groups and groupthink is almost inevitable.  Even someone like myself, who can sometimes be called an misanthrope, feels the pull of being involved in a group.  Once that happens, you’re “tainted” from true “freethought”.

Even as a computer programmer writing code, I cannot escape bias and groupthink.  I am a student of computer science, I’ve learned of methods from reading what other people do, and often times, programming is simply recognizing a problem and using the large toolbox of pre-existing algorithms that exist.  Occasionally, I’ll develop something new like when I developed a new style of singleton class for Java, or where I developed my own random distribution method.  Those are few and far between.

As a self-described skeptic, I’m loosely part of the “freethought” movement, but it doesn’t mean everyone practices true “freethought.”  Atheists, a group related to skeptics, often are both great examples of “freethought” and terrible examples of “freethought.”  As an atheist myself, I know I’m highly biased against religion, not to the point where I would discriminate against religious people, but that intellectually, I find it hard to take any religion’s philosophy serious.  

With the rise of blogs, the “freethought” movement has been able to marshall forces and create “freethought” blog networks, and some even take the name.  However, they all have multiple flaws, where they clearly have not reached anywhere close to being a real “freethought” space.  Smugness and righteousness are just as likely to be found in a “freethought” blog as a creationist blog.

The real poison to “freethought” spaces though, is politics.  Politics in the United States is so toxic that I see skeptics get sucked into political chicanery all the time.  Skeptics might feel they are too smart to get sucked into a political phrase, but perhaps that makes them all the more vulnerable.  Let me bring up some examples.  My own political biases will be easy to spot, but I still feel that my points are valid.

In early 2009, a lot of skeptics were happy to promote Obama’s stimulus package because a small, very small, part of it would go to science funding.  Almost no skepticism was show about the wisdom of the entire stimulus package, nor was there much discussion if the package would actually fund science efficiently.  

Another thing I see skeptics mention a lot is how investing in NASA is a 10, 15, sometimes 30 multiple in ROI.  This is said on many skeptical blogs as fact, but as far as I can tell, it’s far from a “fact”, and it apparently hasn’t been updated in years, since the figure’s history started in the 1970’s right after Apollo.

When it comes to global warming, I side with the scientists who say it’s happening and it’s man made.  Almost no one in the skeptical community spends time investigating the political solutions being offered by their preferred party.  If you accept climate change as I have, it’s very frustrating to see almost no discussion about what to actually do.  One prominent person out there who is doing this, Bjorn Lomborg is routinely pilloried by the skeptical community for the sin of accepting climage change and trying to examine the economic impact of different kinds of mediation.  I don’t support everything Lomborg says, but, it’s not like he’s not trying to help people now and in the future.  However, his perceived politics makes him unwelcome in many skeptical circles.

The word “progressive” gets thrown in a lot with a connection to the “freethought” movement, but I fail to see how you have to be a “progressive” to be considered a member of the “freethought” movement.  I’m a libertarian, and I truly care not a bit about whether someone is a women, gay, transgender, intersexual, etc.  I find most of these “divisions” superficial and long for the day when no one cares because everyone is accepted as is.  I’m a supporter of equal rights/treatment of everyone under the law, support a woman’s right to choose to do whatever she wants, a supporter of the right of gays to marry, or people to marry more than one person.  I really don’t care what people do.

But I don’t support federal programs to promote paid child care, I’m leery of government run health care, I think Social Security is a scam, and I think most attempts by the government to close the income gap are often nothing more than political parlor tricks. For these views, many “freethought” blogs would cast me out as someone who “doesn’t get it”.  Never mind that I believe in helping the poor, or allowing the poor to close the wage gap, it’s not enough to believe the same things, it’s a matter of believing the “correct” way to do it.  

In a true “freethought” movement, I could discuss my ideas on how to help the poor, or to insure the poor without government intervention, and be treated with respect, as long as I was basing my arguments on logic and reason.  That is not the case on many “freethought” blogs.  Mention that Steve Jobs was heavily influenced by “Atlas Shrugged” and you will be called all sorts of nasty names.

The way I approach every day is through a contradictory process of believing that what I  know, I do every well, but on the other hand, I’m probably an idiot and all wrong.  I can be as blustery as the next programmer, but fully able to admit when code I wrote was garbage.  I endeavor to write perfect code, because though I’ve been doing this for twenty years, I can do better.  I can always learn.

I approach my politics, skepticism, veganism often the same way.  Sure, I’m a “good” skeptic for not believing in homepathy, UFO’s, or sasquatch. I’m a “good” skeptic because I understand cognitive bias and how awful people are as observers.  However, I’m a “bad” skeptic because I know very little of the philosophical underpinning of skepticism.  I haven’t read all the classic skepticism books, and I’ve probably not read enough books on skepticism in general.

So, I’m both a “good” skeptic, and a “bad” skeptic, and that is what keeps me as humble as possible, even though I know I can get better at being humble.  My opinion is that the “freethought” movement, at least the louder voices, could use some more humility and maybe even sometimes blog “I was wrong.” or “I’m sorry”.  From my layperson perspective, being able to say you’re wrong or sorry, is big part of the process of aspiring to reach true “freethought.”

Shoutouts to great skeptical blogs/podcasts

Despite all the nasty blogs and even worse twitter battles, there remain shining examples of good skepticism and reasoned discussion.  I’ve avoided getting involved in the recent disturbances in the skeptical force for a couple reasons.  The first, is that I think most of what’s gone on the last month has been so unproductive and so damaging.   Not damaging to the movement of skepticism, for it’s bigger than a few nasty blog writers.  I mean it’s damaging to yourself.  All that negativity and bile is not good for you.  The saying  ”You don’t change the devil, the devil changes you” is probably apropos.

The second reason is because while I rarely care about what I say publicly about things like supporting drug legalization, supporting total unencumbered abortion rights, total support of gay marriage, and being an public atheist, what I don’t want associated with my name is the kind of accusations that have been thrown own too loosely by too many bloggers.  I do have a professional side of me where I deal with issues of sexism and bias as best I can within my power, and the last thing I need is someone making public accusations about me because I follow someone on twitter or because I dislike nasty tone. So, unfortunately, I remain more quiet than I normally would.

So that brings us to the blogs and podcasts that I want to give shoutouts to.

The first blog is ICBS Everywhere written by Barbara Drescher.  Barbara writes somewhat infrequently, but when she does, her writing is a great example of skepticism done right.  Her use of language, rhetoric, and argument far surpasses my own abilities to write so every post is like a lecture in itself, in a good way.  Her dedication to the core principles of skepticism has taught me much about how to  improve my own ideas, such as the intersection of skepticism and veganism.

The second blog is Doubtful News run by Sharon Hill, a daily news site that brings you interesting stories on the paranomal, strange and unusual from the skeptical point of view.  The blog is never boring, always updated, and one of the most impressive collections of news stories out there.  Sharon’s writing is not cynical in the least, and she is fair to everyone involved.  It’s probably the second thing I read every morning after I check my email.

Ben Radford writes a lot and is also on one of my favorite podcasts, Monster Talk.  Ben writes so many articles, covers so many topics that it is inevitable that he writes stuff that I really like, and stuff that I really have a problem with, sometimes based on my own biases.  There is not a thing wrong with this, and in fact, it shows that Ben is not afraid to go after everyone’s sacred cow.  He has also shown the ability to admit when he was wrong, but above all, Ben keeps everything professional and is open to reasoned conflict based on facts and logic.

Brian Dunning is the creator of Skeptoid, a weekly podcast that is a staple of my podcast listening habits.   Much like Ben, Brian hits so many topics that he often touches on subjects that I have a problem accepting I’m wrong on.  Skeptoid is unafraid to go after sacred cows and really push the boundaries past the common consensus.  Not every episode is one hundred percent correct, and Brian has shown a willingness to admit he gets it wrong sometimes.  Skeptoid has something for everyone to love and hate.

For the record, this post is not a comprehensive list, it’s just the starting point, and I hope to highlight a few more blogs, podcasts and people in the days leading up to TAM.