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May 08 2013

Skepticism, Religion, and Strawmen

Daniel Loxton has a post up at Skepticblog today titled “‘Testable Claims’ is Not a ‘Religious Exemption’“. Although the article doesn’t specify or provide any links, it is, in large part, a response to PZ’s recent “divorce” from the organized skeptical movement and the arguments leading up to it. From Loxton’s article:

What are we to make of accusations that skepticism’s “testable claims” scope is a cynical political dodge, a way to present skeptics as brave investigators while conveniently arranging to leave religious feathers unruffled? Like the other clichés of my field (“skeptics are in the pocket of Big Pharma!”) this complaint is probably immortal. No matter how often this claim is debunked, it will never go away.

Nonetheless, it is grade-A horseshit. It’s become a kind of urban legend among a subset of the atheist community—a misleading myth in which a matter of principle is falsely presented as a disingenuous ploy. There is (and this cannot be emphasized enough) no “religious exemption” in skepticism. Skeptics do and always have busted religious claims.

Loxton sounds a bit frustrated, and well he may. He’s said this sort of thing plenty of times before, but it hasn’t settled the claims. Of course, there’s a reason for that. Loxton is completely missing the point.

PZ’s post had this to say about the position of the skeptical movement as presented by Jamy Ian Swiss:

I am a scientist, and from the talk he gave tonight (which was pretty much exactly the same as his TAM talk, except for the additions where he called me stupid and a liar), it is clear that “scientific skepticism” is simply a crippled, buggered version of science with special exemptions to set certain subjects outside the bounds of its purview. In addition, its promoters are particularly sensitive to having their hypocrisy pointed out (that, by the way, is what triggered his outburst — you’d have to be stupid or a liar to think that skepticism gives religion special privileges.)

But what else can you call this logic? Skepticism has no sacred cows! Except that skepticism only addresses “testable claims”. By the way, the existence of gods is not a testable claim.

That’s a pretty explicit loophole by definition.

Loxton’s response was to note that skeptics had gone after Peter Popovich and to say this about testability:

Science is not able to demonstrate that undetectable metaphysical ghosts do not exist; only that detectable ghosts appear not to, and that many alleged hauntings have other explanations. We cannot determine whether or not homeopathic preparations are really “dynamized” with undetectable vitalistic energy; we can discover whether they have greater treatment effects than a similarly administered placebo. We can’t demonstrate that we ought to value liberty above the common good, or value security over liberty. We can’t demonstrate that taxation is slavery, or that the means of production should be in the hands of the worker. We can’t demonstrate that there is no afterlife, or that gay marriage is morally good, or that Kirk is better than Picard. We cannot demonstrate that Carl Sagan’s neighbor has no invisible, undetectable dragon in his garage—but only proceed, as a methodological matter, on the basis that we are unable to discern any difference between an undetectable dragon and no dragon at all. Are untestable dragons ontologically identical to non-existent dragons? That’s a question for bong hits in freshmen dorms. Science can’t tell, and doesn’t care.

(A number of those “untestables” are merely poorly designed research questions. With good operational definitions applied to them, they would, in fact, be scientifically testable. Additionally, the underpinnings of arguments made for many of those positions are not only testable, but have been tested. However, that’s a topic for another day.)

Let me be quite clear about this: As an atheist and a skeptic, I would be thrilled to hear most of the religious people with whom I interact talk about gods only as undetectable, metaphysical creatures. It doesn’t happen. What happens instead is that I will occasionally run into someone who points out that atheists can’t prove there are no undetectable gods and, when agreed with, uses this base of agreement to argue for an interventionist god. (Note: This happens to argumentative atheists far more than it happens to me. If you’re a skeptic who wants to talk about religious arguments, you should know that it happens. If you’re a skeptic who wants to talk about PZ, you should know that he uses these moments to teach skeptical lessons about testability and logical lapses.)

What also happens is that I run into plenty of skeptics who don’t acknowledge that the people who point this out are also skeptics. I run into skeptics calling events like Skepticon misnamed because a substantial number of the talks deal with religion. I run into skeptics saying atheists are divisive and accusing them of shrinking tents because they insist on talking about religious belief in skeptical venues instead of talking about some abstraction of skepticism.

Organized skepticism may not refrain from testing all of the claims of religion, but skeptics within various organizations all too often insist upon doing the same thing as those argumentative believers. They use the untestability of gods no one believes in to suggest that talking about the harm done by and the intellectual bankruptcy of religion as a whole is antithetical to skepticism.

This is where religion gets its special exemption in much of organized skepticism. We can’t test whether there’s that (non-operationalized) “vitalistic energy” present somewhere in a homeopathic “solution”. We haven’t yet tested the efficacy of homeopathy for every possible ailment out there. Yet we don’t tell people who condemn the homeopathy industry as a whole that they’re being bad skeptics. We don’t tell people who lecture on how to counter the political power of alternative medicine or people who directly fight those political fights that the work they’re doing doesn’t count as skeptical activism. We don’t tell people who talk about the history of homeopathy rather than the scientific studies on it that their talk doesn’t count as skepticism. We don’t say that anyone who takes steps beyond talking about testable claims in homeopathy isn’t really doing skeptical work.

We only do that–or allow others to do that under the banner of skepticism–for religion. That’s special treatment. If you want to claim that people are strawmanning the skeptical movement, those are the complaints you have to address.

Don’t tell me that you tested this one man here and that one woman there and this group over there, and therefore, you do exactly the same things for religion as you do for other subjects. You don’t. Unless you treat religion as an industry that has consistently failed to provide what it advertises (yes, the operationalized, testable, tested claims) and you treat the people who point this out and who fight this industry as people doing skeptical work, you’re providing an exemption to religion that you don’t to other industries based on claims that have not survived scientific testing.

If you claim that this movement is organized around consumer protection, that’s really not acceptable. Religion absorbs twice several times the amount of money that alternative medicine does in the U.S. It also has high additional costs to believers and to society as a whole. You can’t simply say, “Oh, well, we do some of the same things for this industry as other industries.” You need to explain to me why this movement doesn’t do more to deal with this industry than it does for smaller industries that affect fewer people.

Or you can tell me that you just don’t deal with religions for other reasons: because you don’t have the stomach for that particular conflict, because your donors won’t support that work, because you find you’re more effective addressing already-fringe beliefs. Fine. Some of those reasons I might even respect.

Just don’t try to tell me that you’re not making an exception for religion by misrepresenting atheist activists’ argument. No one is saying the skeptic movement doesn’t occasionally test religious claims. We’re saying the idea that “testable claims” are the only acceptable skeptical work is a standard that is only applied to work on religion, that this standard isn’t applied to skeptical work on other industries. If you’re going to answer an argument, answer the argument made.

If you don’t, don’t go talking about strawmen while you’re having your say.

28 comments

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  1. 1
    SallyStrange

    Really well said.

    I’m quite enjoying the discussion this has sparked.

  2. 2
    Tyle

    So much win. :)

  3. 3
    Robert B.

    O.o Alternative medicine absorbs half as much money as religion? I didn’t know alt-med was that big…

    *reads links*

    Oh, wait. You’re comparing just the money lost to the government by religious tax exemption to the total national expenditure on alt-med. We don’t have tax brackets much higher than 33%, so a fair comparison would have religion taking in six times as much as alt-med. (Actually that still might not be fair – since alternative medicine businesses presumably do get taxed, a percentage of the alt-med money should arguably be taken off their bill because it actually comes back to the people via taxes.)

  4. 4
    sawells

    Fundamentally (heh) the problem is that the “skeptics” who say gods aren’t testable are ignoring all the stuff which believers keep saying their god wants and does. We need pushback. “When you say the existence of a god is not testable, are you conceding that a god never actually does anything, answers no prayers, performs no miracles, dictates no scriptures…?” The undetectable god is not the god of any historical religion.

  5. 5
    Stephanie Zvan

    Thanks, Robert. Fixed.

  6. 6
    Dave W

    The goals of the skeptical movement as described by Loxton and others (consumer protection, science education) are moral and political goals, and thus untestable themselves. The “testable claims only” claim is thus plain-old hypocrisy in that the movement embraces certain untestable claims as high virtues while rejecting others as being outside its scope.

  7. 7
    michaeld

    PZ should have divorced skepticism years ago if it meant we get posts like this and Greta’s ^.^

  8. 8
    mikmik

    Excellent. Skepticism certainly is about more than strict application of science to claimsas they are presented. You don’t get to define skepticism by the framing of a claim with “disprove it.”

  9. 9
    John-Henry Beck

    Hmm. Michaeld makes a good point.

  10. 10
    doublereed

    I don’t think people understand what it means to say that something is “untestable” or “unfalsifiable.” It’s not something to go “HA HA!” about.

    The fact is by saying something is unfalsifiable like that is actually saying that it doesn’t matter. If it did matter, then it would have a notable effect on reality in some way or another. By saying something is untestable is literally saying that there is no way to tell the difference between it existing and not existing. Think about how incredibly inconsequential that is.

  11. 11
    Reginald Selkirk

    I hadn’t heard of Loxton, so I looked him up and (Surprise! Surprise!) he is not a scientist. Why do nonscientists like Loxton and Jamy Ian Swiss want to tell us what constitutes the scientific method? I don’t want to base my argument on credentialism, but the deficiency of their arguments brings it to bear.
    .
    Like PZ, I am a scientist. What is this vaunted “scientific method”? It’s not that clearly defined. Is math a part of science? Most scientific papers I read contain math, especially statistics. Is logical reasoning a part of science? Most scientific papers I read also contain logical reasoning (We found X in a cell culture, therefore we infer X will also occur in the body. etc.) Is Occam’s razor (priciple of parsimony) a part of science? I was taught that it is.
    .
    Eugenie Scott is another atheist acommodationist (and one who happens to be a scientist as well!) I have seen her talk on the compatibility of science and religion. She spends the first talk giving a brief summary of science and what it can do. This is mostly an anti-Creationism talk. And she specifically states that Occam’s razor is a part of science. Then, in the second half of her talk, on how science and religion are compatible because they are separate magisteria, she seems to forget the bit about Occam’s razor, and says that science cannot investigate the supernatural.
    .
    This is plenty bad coming from a scientist like Scott. You can imagine how annoying it is to be lectured on science by nonscientists like Loxton.

  12. 12
    Kevin

    Science cannot investigate the supernatural, because it cannot investigate non-existent things. Invisible dragons in the garage are not testable, either. That does not mean we give such claims the benefit of the doubt.

    Hell, aliens with anal probes is an untestable claim. There’s more evidence for aliens with anal probes — ie, “eyewitness testimony” — than there is for the existence of any god.

    I would be thrilled to hear most of the religious people with whom I interact talk about gods only as undetectable, metaphysical creatures. It doesn’t happen. What happens instead is that I will occasionally run into someone who points out that atheists can’t prove there are no undetectable gods and, when agreed with, uses this base of agreement to argue for an interventionist god.

    There’s an important point here, one that Sean Carroll (the physicist, not the biologist) has been making recently. With the announcement that the Higgs boson has been found, we now understand everything that interacts with our universe on a physical level. If there were some “other” field (boson) that interacts with the universe on a physical level, we (meaning physicists) would have 1) predicted it, and 2) already detected it. They haven’t. Therefore, the idea of something “supernatural” that interacts with the natural world is positively disproven. There are no other fields. The “supernatural” does not exist.

  13. 13
    David Wilford

    I haven’t read Loxton’s talk, but he seems to want to limit skepticism to a very narrow definition of only considering claims that are testable. That’s missing the forest of all sorts of unsubstantiated claims for one particular testable tree that may or may not have fallen. I don’t think it’s necessary to divorce skepticism as much as point out that Loxton’s notion of it is blinkered.

    Robert T. Carroll has an essay that gives a much broader and nuanced view of what skepticism is here:

    http://www.skepdic.com/skepticism.html

    It’s a good summation of the skeptical view, IMO.

  14. 14
    Mobius

    Well said.

  15. 15
    lilandra

    Untestable, imperceptible, undetectable…Here’s the kicker supernatural! Why would anything in nature have to be SUPERnatural? Like saying superreal it is an oxymoron.

    Is it more scientific to believe in the supernatural if they wanting to be scientific? Like know one thinks it is necessary to be an aunicornist, because no one takes that supernatural claim seriously. But it is necessary to be an atheist because people do take religion seriously, and enact awful public policy based on it and retard scientofic progress with it.
    Isn’t it more scientific to not have untestable beliefs until there is evidence for them?

    Checkmate organized skeptics.

  16. 16
    lilandra

    Sorry can’t find my glasses. I really need to write a blog too, so I need to find those things.

  17. 17
    penn

    I think that it’s actually pretty obvious that Skepticism does not only deal with “testable claims”. If a homeopathic remedy doesn’t work in some double-blind trial, that doesn’t prove anything about whether it worked in the past or will work in the future. Maybe double-blind trials upset the invisible dragon that normally makes homeopathy work. You can’t prove that’s not happening. You’re bringing all sorts of assumptions in to conclude that failure in a test or even all tests proves that homeopathy doesn’t work. The only true scientific is to be agnostic.

    You can take every issue that Skepticism has made claims and develop unprovable magical reasons why whatever specific thing that was tested doesn’t negate the general claims. And this is what fraudsters do all the time. If you read James Randi’s Flim Flam, every test he performs is followed by a litany of excuses why the person’s very real powers didn’t work in this instance. Is the only truly skeptical or scientific position to be agnostic towards these obvious post hoc excuses?

  18. 18
    Robert B.

    What doublereed @ 10 said.

    Also, a untestable claim isn’t even something you should back off and say nothing about. If a claim is really untestable, then anyone who claims to have reason to know the claim is true is wrong by definition. Once a claim is established as untestable, then any position on it other than complete and apathetic agnosticism is demonstrably false, and therefore to be disputed by rational people.

    Also, the mere existence of an untestable claim is immediately suspicious. Untestable claims don’t emerge naturally, in response to people looking at the world and thinking about it – if a claim arose that way, it would relate to evidence in some way and be testable. The only reason for an untestable claim to exist is to evade those pesky heathens who might try to test it. (That, IIRC, was the point of Sagan’s invisible-dragon analogy.) To remove untestable claims from the scope of your skepticism is to give explicit permission to this intellectual dishonesty.

  19. 19
    Kevin

    Liliandra: The problem as I see it is that the Bigfoot Skeptics (BSers, as I like to call them) apply their skepticism to some supernatural things but not all supernatural things.

    If you’re a BSer, you cannot claim to be able to apply your brand of skepticism against ghosts, demons, angels, or pixies living up my nose. You cannot declare leprechauns to be false.

    The only thing that’s left for BSers are things like Bigfoot, aliens with anal probes, homeopathy, and other “alt” medicine claims. And outright frauds like Peter Popoff.

    That’s a mighty short list, frankly. And aside from the damage done by homeopathy, most of those beliefs are pretty darn benign. Who cares if someone wants to tramp through the woods making audio recordings of animal screeches? Heck, someone is probably out there creating those animal screeches because Bigfoot tourism is big business.

    But again, I’ll point out that the physics is now in. It’s finished. There is no such thing as “supernatural”. Not one that can interact with you and me and DNA. If there were, it would be something both detectable and already detected. The supernatural is positively proved to not exist. We don’t have to take “well, we can’t test it” anymore. We’ve tested it. We know it can’t exist.

    Don’t take my word for it; ask Sean Carroll.

  20. 20
    Dave W

    Kevin @12 wrote:

    Science cannot investigate the supernatural, because it cannot investigate non-existent things. Invisible dragons in the garage are not testable, either. That does not mean we give such claims the benefit of the doubt.

    Some high-profile people within the skeptic movement are theists, and when it’s pointed out that that’s not a very skeptical attitude, they come back with “skepticism only applies to testable things” as if it’s okay to believe whatever untestable things they want to believe. This wouldn’t fly with any other subject. None of them would think that it’s okay to believe that they have an undetectable dragon in their garage.

  21. 21
    Adam

    Robert B. @18: I wouldn’t be so quick to doubt the existence of nontrivial untestable claims and it may even be possible to show that a claim is untestable. At least in mathematics this has been done; we have found claims, like the axiom of choice, which we can show are untestable.

  22. 22
    notsont

    Some high-profile people within the skeptic movement are theists, and when it’s pointed out that that’s not a very skeptical attitude, they come back with “skepticism only applies to testable things” as if it’s okay to believe whatever untestable things they want to believe. This wouldn’t fly with any other subject. None of them would think that it’s okay to believe that they have an undetectable dragon in their garage.

    Of course it can also be pointed out that science does preclude things when your claims violate the laws of physics and you have no evidence, then such claims should be dismissed and the people who make those claims should not be mollified with “well I guess we can’t test that”.

  23. 23
    hjhornbeck

    Adam @21:

    I wouldn’t be so quick to doubt the existence of nontrivial untestable claims and it may even be possible to show that a claim is untestable. At least in mathematics this has been done; we have found claims, like the axiom of choice, which we can show are untestable.

    You’re mixing up “untestable” with “unprovable”. In the physical world, we only claim that something is a fundamental axiom, as we have no way of altering or removing them. Mathematics is a collecting of toy universes, where we control which axioms are in play. They are unprovable because they are declared to be unprovable.

    You do not test axioms, per-se, as they are always true. To attempt that anyway is to show one statement is tautologically equivalent to one or more others, which may be impossible to accomplish in the real world (depending on your epistemology).

  24. 24
    Tom Foss

    I love the bong hits comment. You would think, if the question were so vapid, Loxton would be able to answer it. Or to at least realize that the question of “what does science say about it” is largely irrelevant when the point is “what do we say about beliefs.” The nonexistent dragon and the completely undetectable dragon may or may not be ontologically distinct, but our approach to both is the same: disbelief, because there can be no reason to believe in either one’s existence.

    And, as usual, Loxton seems to be completely ignorant of Occam’s razor and the null hypothesis, and brings out his special pleading “metaphysical” category. How such a fuzzy thinker became so prominent in the skeptical movement is beyond me. But I guess when you have no other claim to a “field” or “expertise,” you end up being very protective of the one thing that gives you a sense of worth.

    It’s mean, but I generally think Loxton is the absolute fucking worst.

    A number of those “untestables” are merely poorly designed research questions. With good operational definitions applied to them, they would, in fact, be scientifically testable. Additionally, the underpinnings of arguments made for many of those positions are not only testable, but have been tested.

    Very good point. Science could very easily tell us whether freedom is better than security or Kirk is better than Picard if we define ahead of time with respect to what. Picard is better than Kirk at following the Prime Directive. Kirk is better than Picard at dealing with planets of gangsters and Nazis. Simple.

    Skepticism requires a set of skills. Among them is the recognition of logical fallacies. Like the equivocation Stephanie exposes here, using the word “god” to mean “an untestable being indistinguishable from a nonexistent one” and then using that as cover for all the testable gods that believers actually claim exist. Like the special pleading involved in inventing a category called “metaphysical” that is exempted from the usual scientific and skeptical investigations. Like the arguments from tradition and authority involved in invoking Paul Kurtz and Carl Sagan to explain why we should keep doing things the way we’ve always done them. It’s really a shame that so many skeptics are so willing to turn off their skills at detecting such reasoning errors when talking about skepticism of religion.

  25. 25
    Tom Foss

    @doublereed:

    The fact is by saying something is unfalsifiable like that is actually saying that it doesn’t matter. If it did matter, then it would have a notable effect on reality in some way or another.

    Exactly. If someone says “it’s untestable,” then that means there cannot possibly be any evidence to support the claim that it exists. If there’s no evidence to support its existence, then the null hypothesis holds. The only reasonable position is to disbelieve the claim of existence, and one is totally rationally justified in saying that it does not exist. Whether “it” is a god or a unicorn or a dragon or a chi meridian.

    @penn:

    You can take every issue that Skepticism has made claims and develop unprovable magical reasons why whatever specific thing that was tested doesn’t negate the general claims. And this is what fraudsters do all the time. If you read James Randi’s Flim Flam, every test he performs is followed by a litany of excuses why the person’s very real powers didn’t work in this instance. Is the only truly skeptical or scientific position to be agnostic towards these obvious post hoc excuses?

    The last time that I actively engaged with a Loxton on this topic (I think it was brother Jason), I brought up that great point. These same skeptics who claim that we have to be agnostic about all this stuff, who implicitly reject the null hypothesis and Occam’s razor, will laud the work of folks like Ben Radford and Joe Nickell. Except that Radford and Nickell’s work is only significant in light of those basic principles. Neither Radford nor Nickell can go to a lake and prove there’s no monster, or go to a gas station and prove that a ghost didn’t appear on the surveillance camera. All they can show is that now there are moths around the camera that look similar to the ghost from a few nights before, or that there are otters in the lake that swim the way the lake monster does. Without the basic principle that if you have a naturalistic explanation and no evidence to support the particular supernatural one, the reasonable position is to reject the supernatural one, then their work is worthless sightseeing.

    Hell, Loxton brings up Peter Popoff as if Randi’s sting proved that he wasn’t talking to God. All it showed was that he was talking to his wife that day. Who’s to say he wasn’t talking to God the previous week? Who’s to say he wasn’t talking to his wife and God? The entire edifice of organized skepticism crumbles without the null hypothesis and Occam’s razor. There is no debunking otherwise.

    And Loxton rejects them, at least when it comes to god-claims and his special category of “metaphysics.” Some skeptic.

  26. 26
    Robert B.

    Adam @ 21: The Axiom of Choice is unprovable. Formal proof and empirical test are two wildly different modes of establishing truth, and you can’t apply examples from one to problems in the other. (In fact, I could make a plausible argument that “truth” in math and “truth” in science aren’t even the same thing… though I’m not sure whether I’d believe what I was saying.)

    If you like, I’ll be more formal – “untestable” here means something like “a claim whose Bayesian probability does not update on any possible evidence.”

  27. 27
    JesseW, the Juggling Janitor

    I’ve posted a comment on Loxton’s post linking to this one, and asking for his response. We’ll see what comes of it.

    Here’s what I wrote (still in moderation as it’s my first comment there):
    ———
    Stephanie Zvan has a response to this post up: http://freethoughtblogs.com/almostdiamonds/2013/05/08/skepticism-religion-and-strawmen/

    Her basic point, as I understand it, is that the “testable claims” exclusion is unequally applied to some topics, like religion, while not applied to others, like homeopathy, even though there are false testable claims (and untestable claims) made by both.

    I (and I suspect others) would be curious about your response, if any.

  28. 28
    Kevin

    Again, I want to try to be as clear as possible. With regard to the testability of supernatural claims — the data are in.

    Anything that is claimed to be “supernatural” that interacts with natural things on Earth have been positively disproved. Not only can we do the testing, we have done the testing.

    It was a $9 billion project called the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson.

    We found it. That means no supernatural things are possible that interact with the natural world.

    Why? Because the Higgs boson completes quantum field theory. And in that completed theorem, there is no other field besides the natural ones we know about (ie, gravity, electromagnetic, Higgs). Not only that, if there were other fields, they would have been detected already. They haven’t been, and can’t be. Anything supernatural would be an additional field.

    Therefore, the supernatural has been positively disproved by science.

    The supernatural does not exist. Positively.

    Again, don’t take my word for it. Ask Sean Carroll and the other smart physicists.

    So, Please. Stop saying that science can’t test claims of the supernatural. It can. It has.

  1. 29
    “Testable claims” is used as a “religious exemption” » Pharyngula

    [...] Stephanie Zvan has a good post rebutting Daniel Loxton’s defense of the skeptical delusion tha…. I can summarize his argument briefly: “I’m an atheist, skeptics have gone after some religious claims, and science can’t tell the difference between invisible dragons and nonexistent dragons and therefore doesn’t care.” And of course he props all this up with the claim that this is the official scientific view. [...]

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