Michael Shermer is a prominent figure in the skeptical community. He is the founder of the Skeptics Society, editor of Skeptic magazine, gives TED talks promoting skepticism and has published a tonne of books on the value of science, rationalism and skepticism. However, he is not without his controversy. He is a devoted libertarian and sometimes let that political perspective mix in with his skeptical activism and a few years back there were allegations about sexual assaults at skeptical conference, although Shermer strenuously denied these.
But despite some reservations, I would still say, generally, I’m a fan.
That’s why it was extremely disappointing to come across the following tweet where Shermer endorses Stefan Molyneux of Free Domain Radio as ‘one of the most articulate podcasters for reason‘.
Why Skepticism Is Important. My dialogue with Stefan Molyneux, one of the most articulate podcasters for reason.https://t.co/vKsPQk6rBQ
— Michael Shermer (@michaelshermer) February 8, 2017
Many people are likely unaware of who Stefan Molyneux is and I can only say that those people are very fortunate. I came across his videos after they were repeatedly shared and endorsed by an old university friend who has fallen deeply down the alt-right rabbit hole. According to Stefan, he is the host of the world’s largest and most popular philosophy show on YouTube. But anyone who spends any time watching his videos will quickly notice a distinct lack of philosophical content and an absolute abundance of partisan alt-right political and social commentary.
The self-proclaimed ‘world’s most popular philosopher’ currently devotes most of his time to defending Donald Trump, criticising the omnipresent bogeymen of the alt-right: social justice warriors and political correctness and issuing heavily skewed click bait hit pieces on celebrities and notable historical figures (‘the Truth about Robin Williams/Martin Luther King/Trump’). Recently he has also began to flirt with IQ and ‘race realism’ content (i.e. black people are genetically less intelligent), increasing his appeal amongst the far-right and White supremacists and resulting in one ex-guest decrying “a libertarian icons descent into racist pseudoscience“. Shermer thus joins a prestigious line of recent ‘featured interviewees’ on Stefan’s show which includes Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulous, Mike Cernovich, Paul Joseph Watson, Gavin McInnes, and so on. (Notice any pattern?)
But wait, there’s more. Stefan isn’t just your run of the mill alt-right bobble head. No, in a previous life (i.e. just prior to the current election), Stefan was better known for promoting his own brand of libertarian anarcho-capitalist, combined with a kind of quasi-Freudian psychoanalysis that attributes any and all problems with the world, or his follower’s lives, to their ‘abusive’ upbringing (and women in general). Stefan even gained some infamy a few years back for his advocacy of the practice of deFOOing – a euphemism he invented for cutting contacts with all friends and family if they didn’t share your anti-state views.
Here’s a video of him explaining to his followers that anyone who isn’t anti-state wants them to be shot and here’s his wife’s disciplinary from her professional psychology association for advocating practices that “would reasonably be regarded by members as disgraceful, dishonourable, or unprofessional”. If you think all that sounds a little cultish you are not alone. Stefan’s community has a detailed profile on a cult-awareness site, Stefan himself has repeatedly been identified as a cult leader by a prominent anti-cult activist, and there has been some mainstream coverage of the damage Stefan’s ‘philosophy’ has caused for families (see here, here and here and this Channel 5 documentary on cults).
During the recent election cycle Stefan migrated to an alt-right platform, ignoring that many of the views he had been promoting for years were incompatible with the views he now endorses. But although his political allegiance may have shifted, his modus operandi remained largely the same. In both iterations he has employed the same authoritative presentation style, making liberal use of cherry picked reports and statistics. And he still focuses his efforts on appealing to those feeling disenfranchised with partisan rhetoric, emotionally manipulative language and claims that by supporting him monetarily they will help to save the world from a coming disaster!
The above information isn’t hard to find. The hyper credulous Joe Rogan even called him on some of it during their interview. And yet it seems to have largely escaped one of the world’s most prominent skeptics, Michael Shermer. It’s one thing to go on a show without looking into the host’s history and having an enjoyable chat, Stefan does come across as professional and intellectual in the interview, that’s part of his appeal. But it’s a rather different thing to come out afterwards and provide a fawning public endorsement and thus tacitly endorse Stefan’s alt right nonsense.
The content of the interview isn’t the issue, there is very little to complain about there, aside from the mutual back patting. Nor is there anything wrong with skeptics engaging with, or being themselves, right wing figures. In a post Trump world bipartisan engagement is increasingly important.
The problem is the complete lack of skepticism which led a prominent skeptic to make a public endorsement of a manipulative alt-right ideologue. In a post-Trump world the key figures in the skeptic community should be working to curb the rampant spread of misinformation, not praising those who promote it.
P.S. Sorry I’ve been away for so long. Been busy with research…