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How something can be a given

So Leeds Skeptics in the Pub has uninvited Steve Moxon. Now they’re discussing the matter. There’s one crux that I think is interesting, and I think more clarity on it would help a lot of people who are disputing about it. It’s a crux we’ve discussed here at FTB, too, especially in last week’s hangout.

This is the crux:

Amy: There are some things that should be a given in any skeptical society, and the equality of its members in terms of gender, sexuality, race etc should be one of those things. Having Moxon speak just gives credibility to the idea that his wacky, bigoted views on women are worthy of debate.

Norman: Not sure how anything can be a ‘given’ in a skeptical society? Surely the point of a skeptical society is that all view points are subjected to a rigorous process of critical analysis, regardless of whether it agrees with our world view or not. One could argue that it is the very ‘givens’ of our own world views that require even more in depth challenging.

Here’s one way something can be a ‘given’ in a skeptical society: you can make a distinction between a view point, or, better, a truth claim, on the one hand, and a moral or political commitment on the other.

It’s perfectly possible for a skeptical society to have a basic commitment to equality, in fact one would rather hope that any skeptical society would have such a commitment, if only so that skepticism won’t be some kind of preserve for the people on top. That’s what Amy was talking about, and it needn’t be or imply dogmatism. It’s an ethical commitment, not an empirical claim. Ethical skepticism isn’t identical to empirical skepticism. It’s helpful to keep those distinctions in mind.

There are some ethical commitments that you don’t really want people challenging except in a philosophy seminar. “When you come right down to  it, shouldn’t I just be grabbing whatever I can and the hell with everyone else?” “If you think about it, what’s the problem with beating people up whenever you get pissed off?” “All this bullshit about treating people as equals is just PC-Nazism and I say the hell with it.”

We’re allowed to have ethical commitments. We should have ethical commitments. Having ethical commitments is compatible with skepticism.

Comments

  1. Brian says

    It’s the skepticism equals nihilism trope religious types throw at atheists/skeptics. Why it’s adopted by it’s intended target suggests a shallow grasp of the distinction you point out.

  2. Josh Slocum says

    1. Super annoying when organizations treat Facebook as the only point of access for a conversation.

    2. Lots of clueless men (yes, of course) arguing that ‘as skeptics we must embrace debate and I don’t see how we should not have X speaker.’. Right. After. A. Woman. Told. You. She didn’t want to have to debate her worth and equality in front of a man like this at a group she belongs to.

    Jeezis.

  3. says

    If Norman and his buddies think it’s so fun debating whether women are people, they can have at it. Leave the rest of us out of it; we have more important things to do.

  4. says

    On the Facebook point – I have no idea how organized SITP groups actually are. It’s probably just easiest to use a Facebook page. Sorry though!

  5. jackrawlinson says

    There are some things that should be a given in any skeptical society

    There are some ethical commitments that you don’t really want people challenging except in a philosophy seminar.

    I bet you people are still a bit puzzled about why there’s a backlash against FtB, aren’t you? It’d be funny of it wasn’t so sad. Still, you know in your hearts that you;re right, don’t you? So that’s okay. Raise the flag high and damn the infidel.

  6. Illuminata, Genie in the Beer Bottle says

    I bet you people are still a bit puzzled about why there’s a backlash against FtB, aren’t you?

    Are you saying that FTB thinks WOMEN are PEOPLE?!?!?!?!?!? and they don’t think that’s up for debate?

    how fucking dare they say women are people and only bigots disagree with that! What monsters! how unskeptical of them to say women are people! What a horrible, horrible thing to say.

    keep fighting the good fight Jack! no one must be allowed to think women are people! Backlash against the notion that women are people!

  7. julian says

    Norman, and who ever else, is free to debate whatever idea he pleases from “Did the Holocaust Happen?” to “Should women just stay in the kitchen?” He is free to play devil’s advocate when someone answers yes to the former or no to the latter. May he he learn something from these pursuits.

    But he needs to bear in mind, no one is under any obligation to accommodate someone’s naivety, stupidity and callous disregard for other human beings. We are, in fact, free to be as scornful as we like when we’re the subject on the dissection table. And I hope people are exercising that freedom everyday.

  8. Lyanna says

    How about we debate whether Norman is a person? That’s not really a given, after all, since we’re skeptics.

    Let’s debate whether Norman should have the right to own property, to control his own body, to say no to sex, and to vote. Let’s debate whether Norman can possibly be raped, or whether it’s always just him playing the victim after he’s used sex to his advantage. Let’s debate whether he’s intelligent enough to be a full citizen or if he should just content himself with being a trophy-spouse.

    Or on second thoughts, let’s not, because that’s revolting.

    It also goes against the point of a debate, or any exchange of ideas. If you’re exchanging ideas with anyone, you have to assume the full and equal humanity of your interlocutor, or else the exchange totally fails. You have to treat them as your equal as far as the conversation goes. You have to respond to their ideas with the same rigor and seriousness as someone of your own race and gender. You have to consider their ideas with an open, critical mind, no matter what their status is. If you didn’t believe in their humanity, why debate them? Why take their ideas any more seriously than the squawking of a parrot? We don’t debate with dogs or children, after all.

  9. GMM says

    Lyanna, you PC feminazi fascist. How DARE you censor my right to question Norman’s humanity? I won’t be cowed into believing your dogmatic view that Norman is people. And you call yourselves free thinkers! You are sad. Yes, raise the flag high and damn the infidel.

  10. Nurse Ingrid says

    I completely agree with this decision. It’s not like racist, sexist douchebags have a lack of platforms in this world. Why should any particular organization be in any way obligated to provide them with one? No one’s basic humanity needs to be up for debate in order for us to be good skeptics. You better believe it is a “given.”

  11. Martha says

    Ethical skepticism isn’t identical to empirical skepticism. It’s helpful to keep those distinctions in mind.

    and

    We’re allowed to have ethical commitments. We should have ethical commitments. Having ethical commitments is compatible with skepticism.

    QFT

    Before I looked it up, I thought QFT meant “quite fucking true,” which is a better descriptor of my reaction to this post than “quoted for truth,” though I mean that, too.

  12. says

    I’m confused. What is it that we should be skeptical about in this case anyway?

    A) Equality as a social value?
    – What values are at odds with equality, social efficiency or something?

    B) Equality (good or bad) is possible?
    – Even if equality is a noble goal, maybe it is not achievable.
    So we should do what? Accept the inevitable, and give up?

  13. A Hermit says

    There’s an old line about not opening your mind so wide your brain falls out…same thing applies to skepticism. There’s a point at which it becomes an excuse for letting in the worst kind of stupidity. Inviting Moxon to a conference is like inciting the Grand Exalted Wizard of the KKK or the head of the Aryan nations to give a talk on the superiority of the white race and the need to keep non-whites in their place… I don’t have to subject those views to a “rigorous process of critical analysis.” That work has already been done.

    It would be like inviting Kent Hovind or Sylvia Brown to be keynote speakers at skeptic conferences…

  14. Illuminata, Genie in the Beer Bottle says

    Well, Giliell, it’s okay to teach the controversy about whether women are stupid, inferior to men or stupid AND inferior to men. It’s skeptical to demand evidence that women are not, in fact, stupid incubators who suck at math and are inferior to men.

    What’s NOT skeptical is disagreeing with Moxon and like minded bigots. You see, having a pink fuzzy ladybrain means that we just don’t understand how stupid and inferior we are, so we need Moxon and other like-minded bigots to tell us. Agreeing with them unquestioningly, and never ever challenging them, or expecting them to do really hard things like listening, is the only way to be truly skeptical.

  15. Sili says

    I bet you people are still a bit puzzled about why there’s a backlash against FtB, aren’t you?

    Puzzled? Not in the least. Has anyone actually been in doubt as to what motivates the backlash?

  16. Joel says

    I have to say I’m with Norm on this. Atheists often say that Christians such as myself don’t open their minds enough, and want to stay in their box, not opening certain thins to discussion. (Which in my experience is often not the case).

    I therefore find it rather hypocritical that such persons might then say – ‘but I’ll only open my mind to a certain extent, some things are off the table’.

    Surely it has to be all or nothing? We either open our minds or we don’t. Surely, we should engage with people that want to say women are less than human, and expose the fallacy of their arguments.

  17. Nathair says

    Still, you know in your hearts that you;re right, don’t you? So that’s okay. Raise the flag high and damn the infidel.

    Barring the sophomoric loaded language that’s right. I do know that treating people equally as people regardless of their gender is the right thing to do. And if by “raise the flag” and “damn the infidel” you mean “be outspoken” and “condemn the bigots who think anything less is acceptable” then, yeah, you got that right too.

    I knew sooner or later you’d be right about something, if only by accident.

  18. says

    Funny. We were just talking about this at the SSA con the other day. And the point I was making (or rather, the point I came to in the course of the conversation) is that some questions are dehumanizing and offensive just in the asking of them. The obvious extreme example we used (so that we could have a conversation about more nuanced and complicated examples) is, “Are black people human beings?” I would hope that the answer “Yes, of course, what the fuck are you thinking” would not “require even more in depth challenging.” The idea that this question might require in-depth challenging would be hyper-skepticism taken to a repulsive degree.

    The way I finally started thinking about it: Some questions have so many wrong assumptions packed into them — “wrong” in the sense of “factually incorrect,” and “wrong” in the sense of “immoral” — that they are wrong in the very asking of them.

  19. says

    So, Joel, do you think it would be productive to have a discussion of whether or not it’s ok to punch people in the face when you get annoyed at them? Ok to set fire to people’s houses for entertainment? Ok to drop live grenades off a highway overpass onto cars passing below?

  20. Brian M says

    I know I am repeating wisdom from upthread, but said wisdom does not seem to be seeping into some people’s conscioussness, so….

    I myself, taking Joel’s maxim to heart, doubt that HE exists in any way other than as a software bot generating random “I love this website, now please you buy Gucci here” words of wisdom. As skeptics, we cannot use our minds to admit that yes, some things are not worthy of further debate. Holocaust denial was an example. Joel…can you prove to us that the Holocaust really existed? Then why not invite David Irving to your next conference? I am soooooo very open minded.

  21. Stacy says

    I therefore find it rather hypocritical that such persons might then say – ‘but I’ll only open my mind to a certain extent, some things are off the table’.

    Surely it has to be all or nothing? We either open our minds or we don’t

    Is your mind open to the possibility that the world is flat?

    That I have an invisible dragon in my garage?

    That there are fairies in the garden?

    To Alfred Lawson’s Zig Zag and Swirl physics? (Look it up.)

    In fact, there are all kinds of kooky ideas out there. If you keep an “open mind” to all of them–in the sense that you take the time to judge and then rebut (or defend) all their claims–you will find yourself wasting an awful lot of time on garbage.

    In this case, offensive garbage. Bad science that supports inequality doesn’t deserve a platform. And if you think it does, take some time and imagine a world in which people like you are the ones being targeted as inferior.

    One of the things skepticism stresses is that you judge the sources making claims. You bear in mind that a bad source could still be making a claim that’s correct. But, in a world where each of us has limited time and energy, you don’t go out of your way to give credence to every wackjob.

    That’s why few biologists debate creationists.

  22. says

    The only possible reason you would ever consider the subject “women are people” more open to debate than “there’s a dragon in my closet” is if you yourself are not yet quite convinced.

  23. screechy monkey says

    From “Norman” in the OP:

    Surely the point of a skeptical society is that all view points are subjected to a rigorous process of critical analysis, regardless of whether it agrees with our world view or not.

    What, by the way, was the “rigorous process of critical analysis” that the Leeds SiTP were planning to employ with Moxon? Were they planning to do a long and careful study of Moxon’s data, consult with experts in the field, and reach a well-thought-out conclusion? Or were they planning to sit around a pub and have the guy spout off his “conclusions,” and maybe subject him to a critical question or two. I’ve never been to a SitP event, so I don’t know, but my suspicion is that it’s the latter — I can’t even imagine how you’d do the former in the space of one evening in a pub. At best you could set up a debate, which is not always the best way to get at the truth, and I certainly wouldn’t call it a “rigorous process of critical analysis.”

  24. says

    I gotta tell you, I went to a Manchester SITP when I was there, and there were serious, informed questions being asked during the talk. I was too jet-lagged to stay so I missed the Q&A.

  25. F says

    If we are to be so open-minded, surely any case for inequality must be made on an individual and situational basis.

    Regardless, I’d like to see any reason at all why any person or group should not be treated equally socially and before the law. I’s also like to see some sort of facts backing up the presupposition that people are not equal in these ways, or should not be treated equally. For all the claims that “FTB is closed-minded”, I haven’t seen any.

    Until then, I give all claims that people or groups are not equal the same merit that ancient aliens, bigfoot, and god get. Which is so close to nil that it has no practical value at all, and certainly no operant value in my life. Bring the facts so there is something to consider or debate.

  26. mythbri says

    “Surely the point of a skeptical society is that all view points are subjected to a rigorous process of critical analysis, regardless of whether it agrees with our world view or not.”

    Can this standard be applied to the viewpoints of someone who isn’t participating in a good-faith discussion? I have yet to see that Steve Moxon has demonstrated that he makes his arguments dispassionately and in good faith. Therefore, what can be gained by treating him (and his arguments) as such?

    Isn’t it just as useless as evolutionary biologists refusing to debate a creationist?

  27. says

    How it really goes is this: “Someone punching ME in the face is WRONG WRONG WRONG! Someone punching YOU in the face is an intellectual exercise that we shouldn’t be afraid to explore in detail…”

  28. says

    Skepticism is only useful inasmuch as it allows us to be sure that we are applying our principles to reality, rather than a fantasy or a deception.

    Like science, it’s just a tool. Truth is inherently good because we need to accurately perceive the world in order to be effective in it. But it also matters WHAT it is we’re trying to do in the world.

  29. hypatiasdaughter says

    #11 Lyanna
    Yeppers, that’s open-minded fairness in all it’s glory.
    Some guy who could never imagine, for one nanosecond, that anyone would be invited to debate his non-humanity, thinks he is only being a “good skeptic” to debate the humanity of people who (purely coincidentally!!) aren’t members of his particular group.

  30. mythbri says

    You know, it’s not my worldview that is challenged by Moxon’s “arguments” – it’s my humanity, and status as a critical thinking, autonomous human being. Can anyone today truly argue that the Supreme Court made the right decision in Dred Scott vs. Sandford? This is an academic exercise for anyone who isn’t directly negatively affected by Moxon’s arguments. But for those of us who are, it’s not academic at all. We don’t have the luxury of letting our humanity be debated, when we’ve only so recently won the ground upon which its existence is recognized (mostly, kind of). Obviously there’s a lot of work left to be done.

  31. Dunc says

    Having ethical commitments is compatible with skepticism.

    Skepticism is itself an ethical commitment. Would they invite someone to argue against the notion that we should actually care about truth?

  32. Joel says

    @Ophelia and @Stacy. If your objection to a given debate is that it is a waste of time, that seems to me to be a valid objection. You’re right that we can’t debate everything.

    I am merely agreeing with Norm that there is a danger in marking some ideas as off limits because of an apparent inherent evil, without even considering it.

    When we observe the course of human history, we see that certain standards of morality have been challenged and changed. It therefore seems to me to be dangerous for anyone to say that they have reached the monopoly on truth in any one area. I think it Norm is right that the sceptic must be sceptical of themselves.

    And Stacy for what it’s worth I think there are few educational imperatives greater than the need for biologists to challenge creationists.

  33. says

    Point is, some thing have also been proven beyond reasonable doubt.
    We don’t have to ivite Monckton to discuss climate science skeptically.
    We don’t have to invite Ken Ham to discuss Noah’s Flood skeptically.
    We don’t have to invite the president of the NSDAP/AO to discuss the Holocaust skeptically.
    And we don’t have to invite Moxon to discuss “women are people” skeptically.
    At a certain point, if you insist on “we have to be open-minded about this” it means you’re a fucking denialist.

    mythbri

    This is an academic exercise for anyone who isn’t directly negatively affected by Moxon’s arguments. But for those of us who are, it’s not academic at all.

    It’s like those assholes who have fun trying their reasoning skills in an abortion debate. They treat it as sports, as a possibility to practise their debate skills. It doesn’t matter shit to them that they’re trying to convince people that I should be considered as a slave.

  34. julian says

    @Joel

    It’s true that we often see a shift in ethics and values across a soceity but that means no more than as a soceity grows and develops new ideas and needs change them. The shift you’re describing could easily be in the “wrong” direction, towards intolerance or an re emphasis on the importance of religion. You may view this change as an inherent good (because of ideals or whatever) but there’s nothing to suggest it will be. (At least by our standards.)

    While I balk at the declaration of some topics as off limits there is a place and time for them (like Ophelia points out.) Debating creationism isn’t always a good idea especially if the scientist isn’t familar with rhetorical tricks or lacks charisma. If you can’t rely on the evidence being represented fairly you can’t trust the discussion to provide any insights.

    It may be a useful training experience for some (teaching them to spot these tricks and focus on the issues) and I’m all for that, but isn’t there a better environment and topic for this sort of thing?

  35. says

    Another thing about the “level” of skepticism to adopt is “Absolute Skepticism Equals Dogmatism”, by Bunge. It was in Skeptical Inquirer about 15 or so years ago.

  36. Joel says

    @Julian. I’m not really familiar with this Moxon, or his views, so I can’t really talk in specifics about that. But, of course there is a right time and place for any debate.

    So too I would hope that anyone engaging in a debate knows the relevant facts, as would be important for a biologist, or indeed a right-thinking theologian in a debate about creationism.

    Anyway, I’ve said my main thoughts above, and there is not much more that I would add.

  37. says

    But, of course there is a right time and place for any debate.

    No, there fucking isn’t.
    There is no right place and time to debate
    “Is slavery wrong?”
    “Did the Holocaust happen?”
    “Should pedophilia be legal?”
    or
    “Are women people?”
    Because acting as if those subjects were actually up for debate lends credit to those ideas and hurts the victims.

  38. says

    Joel you didn’t answer my questions in #24. They weren’t rhetorical; I really want to know.

    The point is, there are some ethical basics, without which the social world is simply hellish for some people. It may be that you’re oblivious to this because you’re not one of those people. It may be just that you’re treating ethical skepticism and empirical skepticism as the same thing.

    You’re saying gender equality should not be off the table for skeptics. Do you think skeptics should discuss the claim that people named Joel should be beheaded?

  39. Alukonis, metal ninja says

    Oooh ooh! I have some ideas to examine skeptically!

    Why should humans reproduce, anyway?
    Why is getting laid at a conference a desirable goal, anyhow?
    Why shouldn’t we sterilize our children as soon as they’re born? And also sterilize all adults?
    Why shouldn’t we sterilize genetically inferior people? And how shall we decide who is genetically inferior?
    Why isn’t everyone worshiping cats, as they are clearly the superior species?
    Why bother vaccinating anybody?
    Cancer – is it really that bad?
    Why are humans even having these pub events when we’re clearly destroying the entire planet and should all just go kill ourselves right now?

    I for one am appalled that no one at these skeptic events ever seems to question the premise that humans are worth doodly-squat. Why are humans so fucking special? Sheesh!

  40. Illuminata, Genie in the Beer Bottle says

    I am merely agreeing with Norm that there is a danger in marking some ideas as off limits because of an apparent inherent evil, without even considering it.

    Okay, Joel. What is the “inherent evil” in not debating whether or not men should be chemically castrated upon reaching puberty as a means of lowering rape rates among teenagers and college students?

    It’s something to consider, right? Nothing is off limits, right?

  41. quietmarc says

    I don’t think questions about the value of certain groups of people are necessarily wrong, but I DO think that they are questions that need to be discussed by an informed group. The idea that slavery is wrong, for example, hasn’t been a “given” in all cultures at all times and it was very, very important for us to understand -WHY- it was wrong in order to abolish it.

    The problem is that we have a bunch of people who’ve never taken a single ethics course or examined the history of ethical thought who suddenly think they have a leg to stand on when there are over 2500 years’ worth of discussion on the subject that they aren’t even aware of.

  42. mythbri says

    @quietmarc

    As long as those “groups of people” you’re talking about are categorized according to ideas or philosophies – but even then we would be asking questions about the value of the ideas they hold, not their very humanity.

    It cannot be acceptable to decide someone’s value on their physical and mental attributes – only on their ideas, their work, their actions, and their words. And even then: value relative to what standard? Whose standard? How is that standard decided?

    There is no objective standard against which all people can be measured to determine their value. In this sense, value is a meaningless concept.

  43. says

    @kagerato

    If Norman and his buddies think it’s so fun debating whether women are people, they can have at it. Leave the rest of us out of it; we have more important things to do.

    Exactly this.

    Sure there are plenty of topic some people may want to discuss. That doesn’t mean it’s an interesting topic to the rest of us.

    He thinks this needs critical analysis? Seriously?

    Here it is: “What a load of sexist bullshit… NEXT!”

  44. says

    @Ophelia

    I think what we’re supposed to be skeptical about is the presupposition that “women are not inferior.”

    Interesting point as you can define “inferior” in such a way that you produce the desired result.

    The whole idea of looking for statistical variations in performance for given tasks for men and women, or different races for that matter, is a pretty questionable thing to do in the first place.

    Flipping it around and disproving stereotypes and finding the reasons for such apparent differences does have value. I recently summarised such a study on my own blog.

    Much more interesting topic to debate …

  45. Joel says

    @Ophelia. “Do you think it would be productive to have a discussion of whether or not it’s ok to punch people in the face when you get annoyed at them? Ok to set fire to people’s houses for entertainment? Ok to drop live grenades off a highway overpass onto cars passing below?”

    No – not particularly. Nor do I think listening to this Moxon chap talk about the inferiority of women would be particularly productive.

    But, if somebody was proclaiming that these things were acceptable, then I would be willing to challenge that point of view. I wouldn’t turn my back on the person and say that such things were so obviously unethical that I should not discuss them at all. That’s all I’m saying.

    Would I voluntarily put them on a platform? No, probably not.

    @Illuminata I’m sorry, I don’t understand the phrasing of your question. That’s my fault. Please can you rephrase, and explain your point more fully for me? Thanks.

  46. Joel says

    @Giliell, your vision of a cotton-wool society scares me more than the thought of debating those ideas.

  47. says

    Joel
    Yeah, because obviously your fun is more important than other people’s safety.

    But, if somebody was proclaiming that these things were acceptable, then I would be willing to challenge that point of view. I wouldn’t turn my back on the person and say that such things were so obviously unethical that I should not discuss them at all. That’s all I’m saying.

    Do you realize that there’s a difference between “challenging ideas” (hey, that’s what we’re doing here) and “giving them a room to promote dehumanizing crap”?
    No?
    I thought so.

    So, should we teach the controversy in school?

  48. Joel says

    @Giliel

    “Do you realize that there’s a difference between “challenging ideas” (hey, that’s what we’re doing here) and “giving them a room to promote dehumanizing crap”? No? I thought so.”

    Actually I do know the difference.

    In fact – that’s why in the very next line below the one you quoted I said “Would I voluntarily put them on a platform? No, probably not.”

  49. keddaw says

    Giliell, not to be confused with The Borg: “There is no right place and time to debate
    1“Is slavery wrong?”
    2“Did the Holocaust happen?”
    3“Should pedophilia be legal?””

    1. In a place and time where slavery is the acceptable practice it would be appropriate to raise this question.
    2. In a closed minded group that deny the holocaust it’d be worth presenting irrefutable evidence of it.
    3. If the age of consent is 31 (or 6) it’s probably worth taking this issue out the shadows and having a debate that would set some sensible limits based on current knowledge.

    Basically no ideas should be off the table, but if they are challenging and/or socially regarded as closed issues, then the person proposing upending the status quo should present some novel evidence or ideas that are plausible and have not already been refuted. A skeptic society is the perfect place for such ideas to be presented as the audience would ideally be challenging without being hostile and open without being gullible.

    Here’s a couple from my own ‘challenge the staus quo’ menu:
    Incest shouldn’t be illegal.
    Eating human flesh is not wrong and may solve some nutrition issues in future (“Soylent Green is people!”)
    Necrophilia harms no-one.
    Unpopular views, but ones I can back up rather well.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Nothing should be off the table when skeptics get together for a chin-wag, right? So recreational animal torture should be on the table. It shouldn’t be a given that that’s not ok, just the way “treat people as equals” shouldn’t be a given, because skepticism. Right? We can’t just assume that torturing animals for shits&giggles is a crap idea; we have to demonstrate that it is, with evidence. [...]

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