Mailbag: Skeptical Meanness and Anti-Immigration Extremism

mailbag letter

It is time for another entry into the mailbag series where I answer feedback email from readers and others. If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact form on the about page.

What kind of comments should one except on a post discussing skeptical principles in relation to paranormal beliefs? Rebuttals to “unexplained does not mean unexplainable”? Critical discussion of concepts like belief and irrationality? Not even remotely close. Turns out that topics such as the alleged meanness of skeptics and recycled myths about immigration are far more interesting to some commenters.

Toby writes:

Very well-written, informative post. But you overly poo-poo the idea that skeptics launch mean-spirited attacks. Maybe there’s a cordial spirit at work in the higher echelons of skeptical discussion. But mention any belief in God on, say, a YouTube site or any other open discussion group and you hear the same, unimaginative taunts: “So, you believe in a magical, invisible Sky Daddy? How nice. Do you also believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster? And the Zombie Jew?” (The prolific appearance of these same insults over and over doesn’t speak very highly of the mainstream skeptic’s capacity for originality.)

The “but skeptic’s are not original!” quibble can quickly be dispatched. If comparisons make a valid point, why change it? The second point about alleged meanness assumes that religious beliefs should be given special considerations. Hardly anyone of the “skeptic’s are mean!” make the same objection against movie or food critics whose condemnations of horribly bad cinema or stale and tasteless cuisine can be just as harsh and filled with mockery. For some reason, many people want to give religion a special pass and are appalled at the mere suggestion that religious beliefs run counter to rational considerations of scientific evidence.

The post in question argued that irrational pseudoscience is still a prominent force in society and gave three examples: (1) creationism, (2) alternative medicine and (3) the rising tide of anti-immigration extremism in European politics. Toby objects:

One other thing: Your citation of anti-immigration sentiment comes right out of the blue here. Do you really think that’s in a class with creationism?

Yes. Like creationism, anti-immigration extremism uses the same old rhetorical debating tricks such as quoting research out of context, misunderstanding basic science and statistics, no protection against confirmation bias and so on.

You’re aware, aren’t you, that in many European countries, the Muslim influx has created major problems? In some countries, this minority population has been implicated in a wave of rapes and sexual assaults. Just open a search engine and type “Muslim rapes Scandinavia.”

This is the classic appeal to the belief in “Google University”. If you just Google some terms and read blog posts written by individuals with an ideological axe to grind then, so the argument goes, this “knowledge” will be just robust and valid as actual scientific research. They could not be more wrong.

First, Google uses something called personalized search, which means that they customize the search results based on what the user searched for before and what links he or she clicked (even if you are not logged in). So if you visit a lot of angry blogs about how Muslims are supposedly destroying Western societies, you will get a lot more results like that when you search for phrases like the one Toby recommends compared with those who do not frequent those websites via Google searches. This will contribute to the creation of an isolated bubble of mutually reinforcing biases, since what you see is already what you believe, and frequently seeing it in Google results makes you more confident in it.

Second, anti-immigration extremists almost always look at the number of reported cases of sex crimes, not the actual estimated number of sex crimes. This means that they can easily be misled if the tendency to report sex crimes or the definition of rape changes over time. For Scandinavian countries such as Sweden, both are true. Looking at number of sex crimes in Sweden per year as estimated by the Swedish Crime Survey (webcite) from 2005-2012 (the Swedish Crime Survey studies started in 2005), the numbers were as follows (Table 3.1 page 35):

2005: 0.9%
2006: 0.8%
2007: 0.7%
2008: 0.8%
2009: 0.9%
2010: 0.7%
2011: 0.7%
2012: 0.8%

In other words, the number of estimated sex crimes per year since measurements started has been roughly constant even though immigration from Africa and the Middle East has increased in recent years. Let us compare these figures with the number of reported sex crimes from The Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (webcite):

Manyfold increase in reported sexual offences

When considering the number of reports, the quantity of sexual offences can be seen to have increased fivefold over a period of thirty years. The number of reports increased across all categories — rape, sexual coercion and exploitation etc, indecent exposure and sexual molestation. There is reason to believe that certain types of sexual offence really have increased, much due to changes in society, such as contact with strangers via the internet, more bars and pubs and increased alcohol consumption. But the increase is mainly due to a general rise in people’s tendency to report crime and the changes in legislation that have led to more crimes now being viewed as rape.

In other words, although it is possible that some of the long-term trends in the number of reported sex crimes may be connected to more drinking and Internet contact, the main reasons for the increases in the number of reported sex crimes is because of an increase in tendency to report crimes (perhaps because of increased societal equality and trust in the criminal justice system) and expansions of what constitutes rape.

A similar argument can probably be made for the other Scandinavian countries.

In light of the evidence, the anti-immigrant sentiment becomes a little more understandable. Well … unless you have a political agenda that’s slanting your perception, the way the Bible slants a Christian’s perception of origins. Politically correct multiculturalism can really put the blinders on.

Some political beliefs can also make it very easy for some people to mislabel “carefully researched statistics” as “politically correct multiculturalism”.


Debunker of pseudoscience.

One thought on “Mailbag: Skeptical Meanness and Anti-Immigration Extremism

  • February 18, 2015 at 16:57

    “For some reason, many people want to give religion a special pass and are appealed (sic) at the mere suggestion that religious beliefs run counter to rational considerations of scientific evidence.”

    Very well put, but I wonder if you know how pervasive this is, even among “skeptical” intellectuals. Objective facts and fair debate go right out the window, the minute anyone touches on a subject that involves religious faith. I find it utterly dishonest and disgusting in the light of scientific discussion – hence the possible root of any anger and/or “meanness” coming from me.

    When a person PRETENDS to be a skeptical, science enthusiast, and then starts spouting/defending their own personal dogma and myth tales, as if it were science or somehow off limits in such a discussion, they are exposing themselves as magical thinkers who wish to be seen as rational.

    Like most things, we all do it to some degree – it’s human nature. But to claim science when one is speaking of irrational belief is not just factually wrong, but intellectually dishonest. They know they’re not thinking scientifically and/or that they don’t want their beliefs questioned, but refuse to admit it, and then get angry when we call them on their lies.

    The accusations of “meanness” seem to be the liar’s first weapon of choice, and it’s a red flag suggesting that the speaker is NOT a scientific thinker, and more woo is on its way.

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