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Skepticism and Social Justice

One of the arguments that I often hear from skeptics and the skeptical community is that while skepticism is a powerful tool for analyzing truth claims or the efficacy of medical modalities, it is poorly suited to examining issues of social policy or politics. Examining claims about the efficacy of homeopathy is relatively easy (it doesn’t work) but, the argument goes, it is far more difficult for skeptics to draw any conclusions about specific policy goals or initiatives. How ought skeptics to examine abortion? What about capital punishment? Should skeptics have anything to say about political platforms?

This argument isn’t unique to skepticism either. As Jen McCreight and others have pointed out, the same sorts of assertions are often made by so-called ‘dictionary atheists’ who argue that atheism is only ever about not believing in god, and that topics like feminism or social justice lie far outside atheism’s bailiwick.  Why should atheists or skeptics concern themselves with the issues of feminism; why should skeptics look at economics or jurisprudence? Why shouldn’t skeptics stay holed up in the ‘hard’ sciences and leave issues of social policy and social justice to the sociologists, anthropologists, and other social scientists?

Because those issues matter; that’s why those of us who call ourselves skeptics ought to become involved. Well, that and the fact that many of us in the skeptical movement are anthropologists, sociologists, economists, or political scientists. Is homeopathy harmful? Obviously; it encourages people to abandon tested and proven medical treatments in favour of eating candy. But you know what else is harmful? How about lopsided justice systems that impose harsher penalties on some segments of the population based on their skin colour or heritage. How about political campaigns that aim to strip women of the right to seek abortions – even in cases of rape or incest? How about relying on economic models that benefit the ultra-wealthy at the expense of the poorest members of society – or models that reject empirical research or statistical modelling?

Sure, my questions are built on fundamental social biases – I believe that women ought to be able to control their own bodies and their own destinies; I believe that even the poorest members of our society deserve to be treated fairly and ought to be able to obtain help from those of us with the means to do so (yes, I like the idea of taxation to pay for social safety nets). I believe that people ought to be protected from predatory business practices that prey on the uninformed and ignorant. We all have these sorts of underlying biases, and we should be debating them too – that’s sort of the whole point of skepticism, isn’t it?

Skeptical inquiry alone may not be able to tell us if, for example, capital punishment for violent crimes is a good thing (‘good’ in the moral sense – should we put people to death for killing other people?), but it can allow us to examine the claims that it is a successful deterrent (it isn’t). Similarly, skeptical inquiry can help us determine the extent to which comprehensive sex education has helped to lower teen pregnancy rates in Canada (it has). Once we know the answer to these questions, we have gone a long way towards answering the follow-up question: what steps should we take now? If the stated aim of the ‘War on Drugs’ was to reduce the consumption of illegal substances and therefore dry up the market for them, then we can demonstrate, empirically, that it was a failure. Is it reasonable to continue funding a failed policy? No? Then is the United States still doing it?  Skeptical inquiry gives us the tools required to tug at the threads of social policy, and by doing so, we can follow those threads all through the social fabric in order to see what other policies and initiatives they are bound to.

I think that at least part of the reason why there are relatively few prominent social scientist skeptics is perhaps because of the worn out cliché that the social sciences are ‘subjective’ or that “there really isn’t a right or wrong way of looking at ‘X’”. A large part of the reason for the existence of this cliché probably has something to do with how the social sciences and traditional sciences have interacted over the last few decades. There was a lot of fallout from the ‘science wars’ of the 1990s; the ‘Sokal Affair’ and similar conflicts certainly helped to foster the growing rift between the sciences and the social sciences. In some universities, it isn’t uncommon for the social sciences and the traditional sciences to not talk to each other. Some of this is certainly related to funding; money is a finite resource, and there are often strong disagreements over where it should be spent. But there is also the problem of language; in a very real sense, these disciplines all speak different languages and sometimes words mean different things to different people. It takes time and effort sometimes for each party to understand the other, and in academia, time is often in very short supply.

Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that for the most part the luminaries of the skeptical movement remain firmly ensconced in the sciences, while other fields of inquiry remain overlooked. And they shouldn’t be. Homeopathy is harmful, sure. But so was the repeal of Glass-Steagall. So is institutionalized racism, or discrimination against members of the LGBT communities. So is the perpetuation of toxic patterns of masculinity.

The social sciences are every bit as important as the traditional sciences for skeptical inquiry, and social justice is just as important a topic as medical claims or creationism. As skeptics, we need to realize this and begin turning our attention to these often-overlooked areas.* Just as the atheist movement has begun to talk about issues of social justice, the skeptical movement needs to loudly begin doing the same – skepticism+**, if you will. Why not? We’re a big movement now, and we should be able to tackle many different topics at once. Surely we can walk and chew bubble-gum at the same time?

PS: I feel that it’s necessary to point out that I could be entirely wrong about there being a lack of focus on social justice in the skeptical movement. I just haven’t really seen it outside of some blogs and a podcast or two. I’d love to see it at TAM; I’d love to see it at NECSS CON. I’d love to hear more about it on the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe.

* This is not to minimize or ignore the fantastic work done by people like the Skepchicks. They’ve been leading the charge against sexism and harassment within the movement. I’m saying that they need backup and support; they cannot do it alone, and they shouldn’t have to.

** While I understand that many people within atheist communities are also skeptics, the two terms are not synonymous, nor are the communities the same. I’m sure that most of you reading this already know this, but I’m pedantic and I feel the need to point it out anyway.

Comments

  1. says

    One of the arguments that I often hear from skeptics and the skeptical community is that while skepticism is a powerful tool for analyzing truth claims or the efficacy of medical modalities, it is poorly suited to examining issues of social policy or politics.

    I’m willing to bet that this argument is coming from libertarians, who don’t want skeptics to effectively advocate for any social or political cause that involves people making sacrifices, or doing any work, for the benefit of other people. It certainly sounds identical to the AGW-denialist argument that climate scientists should never advocate policy changes.

    And I wouldn’t be surprised if Republican propagandists were orchestrating this “controversy” as one more tactic to neutralize any movement that might effectively oppose their agenda. What are libertarians, after all, but sock-puppets and propagandists for reich-wing Republican interests?

  2. mythbri says

    Skepticism was applied (in spades) to Akin’s assertion that “the female body has ways to shut that whole thing down.”

    What he said was biologically incorrect. Skepticism was applied, the assertion was debunked, and hopefully widely-held misconceptions were corrected.

    That is the kind of use that skepticism has (and should have) in public conversations about social justice and human rights issues. Want to see the effects of prioritizing a potential person’s “rights” over the actual rights of an actual person? Turn your gaze toward the Dominican Republic, where a 16-year-old was denied treatment for her cancer because she was pregnant. She died while they were trying to decide if it was morally acceptable to save her life. Oh – by the way, the fetus died, too.

    You can see it here in the U.S., as well – Angela Carder was forced to undergo an emergency C-section against her will instead of an abortion because she needed treatment for cancer. The baby lived for about two hours – one of the nurses said that trying to inflate its lungs was like trying to ventilate a rock. Carder lived long enough to hear of her baby’s death and then slipped into a coma and died.

    When skepticism is applied to the ridiculous claims that people like Akin make, their internal thought process is laid bare and the argument becomes more honest. It’s not about “life”. It’s about punishment and control. It can be used to expose the reality in other “arguments” about social justice and human rights.

  3. smrnda says

    I agree with the above post. There are people who seem to argue that public policy is entirely outside the realm of systematic and rational inquiry, and that it should just be left up to blind forces to decide. I always retort that the forces at work are not blind, but are actually nothing but people making decisions, with some having much more power to decide over far more things than others. One of the most intellectually dishonest claim that I heard from a libertarian was that a deregulated market represented ‘decentralized’ decision making. No, it’s a system where rich people make all the decisions.

    There’s lots of conclusive evidence on lots of social policy issues; the war on drugs or abstinence based sex education are two of the biggest failures in the US, but I think a problem is that the supporters of these policies tend to be outside of the skeptics movement in general, and since these issues don’t typically have much of an effect on privileged members of the movement (well, the drugs issue might, though someone who is poor and Black is bound to suffer more from drug criminalization) and so the privileged members regard them as non-issues.

    I never noted the rift between physical and social sciences but that might just be age for me. Plus, my opinion is that religions emerged to help enforce the status quo much of the time, and even if you ditch religion, it’s had such a powerful impact on our thinking and on other ideas we’re exposed to that aren’t explicitly religious.

  4. says

    Is A+ about kicking the bastards out of your movement or applying skepticism to social issues? I’ve heard both. There’s overlap, but they aren’t the same.

    Part of the issue is that everyone tends to think they are skeptical. THunderf00t put up a good show that he was the one being skeptical on gender issues, for instance. This issue is easy enough to solve as evidence will tell. At some point it’s like being “skeptical” of evolution or global warming.

    The throwing the bastards out is more problematic. Pretty soon you get to “You aren’t part of the A+ movement because you support X,” where X is eating meat or industrial capitalism or voting for Obama. Throwing the bastards out is a bad basis for a movement that’s going to need to discuss issues and cooperate.

  5. artharjar says

    I have never understood why there is any serious discussion about keeping atheism (skepticism) out of politics. That’s ridiculous. If all we are is godless whats the point. The idea behind ditching god is to find a better way.

    As has been pointed out above, there are plenty of evidence based ways to deal with social issues. Atheists and Skeptics need to wade into the fray. Everyone else is using their biblical perspective to distort public policy. Its high time we go to work to combat that.

  6. says

    How about relying on economic models that benefit the ultra-wealthy at the expense of the poorest members of society – or models that reject empirical research or statistical modelling?

    I’m amazed at the number of empiricists and skeptics who don’t realize or don’t care that all that free-market, libertarian economics that’s been taking over othe US political system (like Ron Paul’s) is based on theories that not only dismiss mathematical modeling completely but also explicitly claim that no empirical testing can falsify their theories.

    Seriously, is this not at least as deserving of skeptic’s attention and time as homeopathy? Just as homeopaths claim that water has memory and ignore empirical testing, we have a whole school of economics rising to greater prominence in the US which claims complete independence from empirical investigation.

    To quote von Mises, for those who didn’t read the article you linked to: “Its [Austrian economics] statements and propositions are not derived from experience. They are, like those of logic and mathematics, a priori. They are not subject to verification or falsification on the ground of experience and facts.”

    And: “Economics, like logic and mathematics, is a display of abstract reasoning. Economics can never be experimental and empirical.”

  7. smrnda says

    Typically, when you are promoting a theory that is unfalsifiable you try to hide that part, coming out and admitting it doesn’t seem like a rational action and I’m surprised that anyone would latch onto any sort of theory that openly declares itself to be true simply on the basis of its own axiomatic assertions. I always thought unfalsifiable = bullshit was a good enough equation.

    The other thing is that this isn’t an opinion shared by all or even most economists, who actually do use real-world data to determine what actually works in the real world. Who should anyone listen to, people who are willing to advance ideas that can be empirically tested or those that don’t? Dismissing mathematical modeling dismisses the entire field of econometrics. I suspect its dismissal by libertarians might just be because that way, they can get out of having to do more maths than they absolutely have to.

    Then again, Ron Paul follows the religion of Ayn Rand who takes property rights to be some kind of eternal platonic ideal, and then basis everything else on that. All concepts of morality, including the ideas of private property, emerged over time, and like all concepts of morality they need to be investigated critically.

    To compare these things to mathematics or logic is justfalse; logic and mathematics rely on highly precise definitions, but any time I read any libertarian economic propaganda I always felt that they were just throwing out words that could be conveniently redefined when convenient. Rand does this constantly which is why I can’t do more than a page of her in a year these days…

  8. br0kenmech says

    I don’t see any significant problem with applying skepticism to specific social justice issues. I think it does become extremely problematic when concepts like patriarchy theory, or rape culture, are being uncritically embraced. These concepts are about as abstract and ideological as one can get. Ill defined and vague ideological constructs should have no place in a skeptical framework. They are not necessary or helpfull in rationally in addressing any specific instances of discrimination of inequity.

    “Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem”

  9. says

    I think the problem may have less to do with the absence of interest in, or application of skeptical methods to, issues of social justice than a sense that skepticism doesn’t map as neatly onto those issues. Show me a skeptic who believes in homeopathy, and I will show you a loner who is definitely not sitting at the cool table in any skeptic conventions. But when we address issues like affirmative action, abortion, etc. the consensus becomes a little less clear.

    We can even reject the proposition that social issues are merely subjective, but that doesn’t erase the actual divisions at stake. So, invoking the values of skepticism here just doesn’t get one very far. People may even think that their approach to these issues has in fact been motivated by skepticism in some way, but that doesn’t mean they incorporate direct appeal to skepticism in their actual pitch for any given cause.

  10. says

    These concepts are about as abstract and ideological as one can get.

    Abstract is not necessarily a problem. For example, transfinite set theory is pretty damn abstract, but that’s no reason to deny it or be skeptical of it.

    Nor is something necessarily incorrect if it is ideological. That it is part of an ideology should not lead one to unquestionably accept it, certainly, but we cannot say that is part of an ideology, therefore it is wrong.

    Additionally, “ill-defined” (the same as not-well-defined) is actually a well-defined term: it means specifically that a term does not properly exclude alternates (that is, the defined term could apply to two distinct and typically dichotomous results.) Neither rape culture nor patriarchy seem to fit the bill, but by all means, please demonstrate how they are ill-defined.

  11. br0kenmech says

    Neither rape culture nor patriarchy seem to fit the bill, but by all means, please demonstrate how they are ill-defined.

    I know of no means by which the authoritative definition of these terms can be determined. In common usage the terms are regularly used to describe a variety of very different things.

    Patriarchy is an excellent example of a term that means many different things to many people.

    Are we talking about the patriarchy of another culture? 1000 years ago? Modern western democracy? A system whereby male patriarchs maintain power through the subjugation of women? etc…

  12. F says

    Those “free market” systems? They aren’t even close to free market systems at all. Which puts lie to the entire position by its own putative merits.

    No one has ever seen a free market at scale, so I don’t know where the free marketeers get their facts from. But the arguments against unregulated commerce which also ignores externalities still hold, whether they are against a free market or a “free market”.

  13. F says

    Well, if you don’t read anything from the massive amounts of literature and research, and don’t have to personally deal with these things, you’ll never have more than an abstract understanding of what someone else means when they use the terms “rape culture” or “patriarchy”. The where and when are pretty much covered in the context of a discussion, and for those interested in social justice, you can pretty much assume “here & now” unless otherwise stated.

    If you don’t observationally or intuitively know that these things are even real, I don’t even know what to suggest other than reading research or literature. There are metric craptons of this.

  14. br0kenmech says

    If you don’t observationally or intuitively know that these things are even real, I don’t even know what to suggest…

    and therein lies the rub.

  15. says

    Hey br0kenmech — quote-mining doesn’t work when the original is right above. The person you quoted doesn’t know what to suggest except reading the research literature.

    Wow, what a crazy suggestion!

    Can I ask you what research you’ve done on this stuff in actual peer-reviewed sociological journals?

  16. br0kenmech says

    Hey aleph squared –

    I was clearly only interested in the part which implied that intuition and personal experience are how people should know about the reality of the patriarchy.

  17. smrnda says

    F, great point on libertarian economics. I’ve run across many libertarian climate change deniers, since admitting that a deregulated market might produce a negative externality would invalidate their belief system.

    For things like sexism or racism, there is a massive literature. A sound-byte isn’t going to explain patriarchy any more than it would explain any other field. Since these things deal with human subjects human experience and observations are often the starting point, but studying these things isn’t just relying on a bunch of personal testimonies and nothing else.

    Since we live in a society that is built on sexism, racism, Christian privilege and lots of other things, these things can be kind of invisible since we’ve been taught that they are normal, consciously or not. Part of inquiry means realizing how our own perspectives and observations are shaped by the prejudices of the societies we live in and finding ways to get beyond that.

  18. says

    Yes, you are clearly only interested in things which support your biases: when two options are presented for understanding something, you only cite the one that potentially agrees with your presupposition that patriarchy and rape culture can’t possibly be well-supported by the research literature.

    Again, I’ll ask: since you are so certain of this, how much research have you done on the topic in peer-reviewed sociology and psychology journals?

  19. br0kenmech says

    aleph squared –

    My point is not that there is no patriarchy or that patriarchy theory is even invalid. My point is that these concepts are vague, ill defined, unfalsifiable and generally not useful to those on the ground trying to affect action towards social justice.

    One can be absolutely opposed to every concrete instance of sexism or discrimination against women, while firmly and emphatically rejecting the concepts of patriarchy theory, male privilege, and rape culture.

  20. says

    One can be absolutely opposed to every concrete instance of sexism or discrimination against women, while firmly and emphatically rejecting the concepts of patriarchy theory, male privilege, and rape culture.

    Yes, but one cannot understand why they happen, or understand the many other instances that don’t “qualify” as sexism (as judged almost exclusively by men), or understand how to make useful or concrete changes to prevent them from happening. One’s “opposition” is therefore terribly UNhelpful – simple tongue-clucking after the fact while doing nothing to help. I would not count that person as an ally whatsoever – only someone who’s going to obfuscate and criticize any effort to make change because ze hasn’t bothered to do the minimal amount of reading and listening that it would take to realize that these things are not vague, ill-defined, OR unfalsifiable.

    I’m very interested, by the way, in hearing about the ‘on the ground’ work you’re doing to make progress on social justice.

  21. says

    My point is not that there is no patriarchy or that patriarchy theory is even invalid. My point is that these concepts are vague, ill defined, unfalsifiable and generally not useful to those on the ground trying to affect action towards social justice.

    Claims you have failed to support.

    Here’s some reading material (an extremely incomplete list, there are MANY more studies) for you, if you’d like to learn what aspects of rape culture,* as an example, are supported by recent scientific literature.

    *Connections between rape jokes and social acceptance of rapists, the predatory and repetitive nature of rapists, social disincentives for women to say no, the role of “real rape” stereotypes in discouraging women from reporting rapes, as just a few examples of the scientifically supported claims and bases of rape culture as a theory in peer-reviewed studies linked above.

  22. br0kenmech says

    Crommunist –

    I admit I am not very active in any social justice movement these days. I am a stay at home dad, and just don’t have the time or the motivation to get involved. In my youth I was active within the socialist community and did quite a bit of work supporting striking workers at various picket lines.

    Just because someone doesn’t accept feminist patriarchy theory as an explanation for the existence of sexism in society, doesn’t mean they don’t have an alternative theory to explain the source of the problem.

    I recommend the excellent book by Lindsey German called Sex, class and socialism

  23. says

    Lindsey German appears to have a straw version of patriarchy in her head, or at least she just argues against it:

    But if patriarchy is indeed something by which all men oppress all women, how can it ever be overcome by women and men acting together?

    Note the subtle difference between the above statement and the one below:

    They argue that men (all men) benefit from women’s oppression, and that they are able to do so because of the fundamental biological differences between the sexes. Here lies the basis for patriarchy.

    “All men benefit” is not the same as “all men oppress.” Those paragraphs are from the same article.

    I’m not a social scientist, but I have read up on patriarchy a fair bit and to my knowledge, it is NOT a system in which “all men oppress all women,” but rather a system of male rule of other men and most women, in which traits are coded according to gender and those coded masculine are lionized while those coded feminine are degraded and despised.

    I’m broadly sympathetic to the argument that a critical analysis of the causes of women’s oppression should include Marxist analysis of class inequalities, but I also know that German is not representative even of socialist feminists, most of whom have no problem recognizing that inequalities between men and women predate and seem to exist independently of capitalist oppression. Intersectional feminist theory recognizes multiple axes of privilege; upper class women are still women and still oppressed in ways specific to women, though their oppression may be mitigated by their wealth and status.

    Your alternative to patriarchy theory is underwhelming so far. And you’ve really failed to demonstrate that patriarchy and male privilege are, as you claim, ill-defined and unfalsifiable.

  24. br0kenmech says

    They argue that men (all men) benefit from women’s oppression, and that they are able to do so because of the fundamental biological differences between the sexes. Here lies the basis for patriarchy.

    So is this working definition of patriarchy theory then? All men benefit… but I thought patriarchy hurt men too?

    All men benefit for it… even those that are hurt by it?

    Right… got it.

  25. says

    All men benefit for it… even those that are hurt by it?

    Yes. What, did you think that was some kind of contradiction?

    Benefiting from something and being hurt by it are not mutually exclusive.

    Think dentist. Or taxes.

  26. says

    I’d just like to point out that the paragraphs the two of you are discussing were written over 30 years ago – before the rise of third-wave feminist theory and the development of intersectional analysis. The discourse has moved on a bit since then. Arguing against this position is a bit like arguing against evolutionary theory circa 1978.

  27. br0kenmech says

    aleph squared –

    Benefiting from something and being hurt by it are not mutually exclusive.

    Think dentist. Or taxes.

    By this reasoning we could argue that women benefit from the patriarchy. So let’s see how that works out.

    men and women (all men and all women) benefit from women’s (and men’s) oppression, and that they are able to do so because of the fundamental biological differences between the sexes. Here lies the basis for patriarchy.

    Were definitely getting some clarity now.

  28. br0kenmech says

    Edwin

    So this isn’t a good working definition of Patriarchy then? Jeez… I thought I was the only one who didn’t know what people meant by patriarchy.

  29. says

    @br0kenmech: Women do benefit from patriarchy. Some women are rewarded with status for keeping others in line with its ideals. All women get the benefit of certain stereotypes that make it less likely for them to be charged with minor crimes and get minor sentences, etc. Patriarchy is a social system based on gender roles which was shaped primarily by certain men for their own benefit. The way it works out for people who aren’t the feudal lords or societal equivalent varies, but women get the worst of it.

  30. says

    No, I said that the discourse has moved on a bit since this particular iteration of partriarchy was used, and that arguing against this one is problematic since it’s out of date… I mean, are you trying to be as obtuse as possible here? There is a metric-shit tone of data available freely on these very interwebs that offer up-to-date discussions of patriarchy; why don’t you go take a stroll around and read some of it?

  31. br0kenmech says

    Ace of Sevens –

    That sounds fine, but my point here was that these are vague and ambiguous ideological concepts that mean different things to different people, often in the same discussion. Everyone uses the terms as though they have some clear meaning, but when the concepts are scrutinized they become less and less coherent.

    Specifically, my point was that requiring people to uncritically accept these vague ideological constructs as “true” is problematic.

  32. br0kenmech says

    Edwin –

    There is a metric-shit tone of data available freely on these very interwebs that offer up-to-date refutations of patriarchy; why don’t you go take a stroll around and read some of it?

    This is fun.

  33. Pen says

    I completely agree with the need for skepticism in social justice, and you’ve pointed out many socially important facts that can be demonstrated and which are currently being ignored. I do think there’s a need, if we intend to be skeptical, to be circumspect about the status of the social sciences and tentative in our conclusions in general. We don’t have a validly established general mechanism of social causality or collective human behaviour equivalent to evolution in biology. We do only have tentative conceptual models. Nobody even understands the neuropsychology of humans yet – a branch of biology which we need in the social sciences. We’re very much at the data collection stage and we can sometimes identify proximate causes of social trends with reasonable reliability. We’re pretty good at identifying the state of the system (the effect), though we run into problems of sampling and assessment of qualitative and complex states. We’re most fortunate where policy has provided us with social experiments such as the war on drugs, or abstinence only sex education, or in very institutionalised settings such as the judicial system where careful record-keeping is the norm.

  34. says

    aleph squared –

    Benefiting from something and being hurt by it are not mutually exclusive.

    Think dentist. Or taxes.

    By this reasoning we could argue that women benefit from the patriarchy. So let’s see how that works out.

    Nope! You’ve struck out again, I’m afraid. Logic’s tough. Just because benefiting from something and being hurt by it are not mutually exclusive does not mean they are necessarily inclusive.

  35. says

    Nice piece Edwin. I see Skepticism as extremely important in examining the fact propositions that often form the premises for value propositions (i.e. the “oughts”). One example – I’m currently reading “Brain Storm – The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences” by Rebecca Jordan-Young (see this video of a talk by her) in which she analyzes the science of sex difference research and finds that it is does NOT amount to the “male brain female brain” conclusions that most people draw. Hence value propositions like “it’s fine if there aren’t as many women in STEM” which have the underlying fact proposition “female brains aren’t as suited to STEM as male brains” can be challenged.

  36. says

    No, I already offered my definition of patriarchy, above, as I understand it: a system of male rule of other men and women, in which traits coded masculine are valorized, traits coded feminine are denigrated, gender roles are rigidly enforced, and power and wealth accrue disproportionately to men.

    It should be obvious, then, that I think German is working with a bowdlerized version of the theory (can I call it that?) of patriarchy. Since this article is over 30 years old, it makes sense that she’d be using a more simplified version of the concept.

    Your failure to keep up with the research does not speak well of your ability to successfully critique the concept.

  37. jenny6833a says

    …so-called ‘dictionary atheists’ … argue that atheism is only ever about not believing in god, and that topics like feminism or social justice lie far outside atheism’s bailiwick.

    Edwin, I think you’re hugely misrepresenting the view of “dictionary atheists” of which I am one.

    Topics like feminism and social justice are and must contine to be outside atheism’s bailiwick. But that doesn’t mean they’re outside the bailiwick of atheists.

    In my case, I’ve been an atheist and a feminist for a damn long time, and have been hugely succesful in advancing the cause of women. But I keep the two separate, because I figured out that bundling them makes each one much harder to sell.

  38. 'Tis Himself says

    “Its [Austrian economics] statements and propositions are not derived from experience. They are, like those of logic and mathematics, a priori. They are not subject to verification or falsification on the ground of experience and facts.”

    This is the thing about Austrian economics (and its cousin, the Chicago School) that really annoys me as a professional economist. I’m a New Keynesian but I can have fruitful discussions with a neo-classical economist because we’re both working from the same empirical basis. Austrian economics is based on intuition and “it feels right to me.”

    Trickle down economics is a mainstay of the Austrian influenced libertarians.* During the Reagan and Bush II presidencies trickle down was shown not to work. Neo-conservatives and libertarians ignore these data and keep pushing trickle down as “the fix” for today’s economic woes.

    *Most libertarians are economic illiterates who wouldn’t recognize Austrian economics if it shook them by the hand. They’ve vaguely heard of von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. But they think Adam Smith was the greatest economist ever based on one bullet point that actually isn’t in Wealth of Nations.

  39. left0ver1under says

    Why should atheists or skeptics concern themselves with the issues of feminism; why should skeptics look at economics or jurisprudence? Why shouldn’t skeptics stay holed up in the ‘hard’ sciences and leave issues of social policy and social justice to the sociologists, anthropologists, and other social scientists?

    The religious aren’t the slightest bit interested in things like morality – what they are interested in is control. The religious repeatedly make the claim of “you need god to be good”. The unspoken corollary to which is, “If you’re not religious (especially not of our religion), you’re not moral”.

    The goal is to create an atmosphere of distrust toward anyone not belonging to their cults. And like any propaganda, the inevitable goal of fomenting hate and distrust is to foment violence, to criminalize those who don’t belong to the aggressive side. The religious attempt to claim the “moral high ground” to rationalize and justify the criminalization of non-members, not just non-believers. If you should disagree, I would recommend reading about the crusades, anti-jewish pogroms and the protestant/KKK attitudes towards catholics in the southern US.

    Morality is a matter of how you treat other people. Without warping the definition, without falsely equating belief to morality, it would not be possible for the religious to perpetrate violence and oppression against “undesirables”, whether women, atheists, competing religions, or people with the “wrong coloured” skin.

  40. says

    “Most libertarians are economic illiterates who wouldn’t recognize Austrian economics if it shook them by the hand.”

    The thing is, the same could be said for the Marxists and neo-Marxists who make up *much* of the political Left- those who probably couldn’t summarize basic Marxist economics, but know that capitalism is a Really Bad Thing. (It would probably surprise them that Marx actually spoke of the full development of a capitalist mode of production as critical to building a socialist society.) The kind of kneejerk statements I see about “capitalism” on social justice blogs pretty much flow from this mindset.

    In fact, I see precious little in the way of everyday opinion on economic issues that’s informed by empirical studies on economics, and plenty based on unquestioned moral values. On the Right, it’s all about property rights being morally sacrosanct, and on the Left, it’s adherence to a kind of fuzzy concept of “altruism” that’s unable to recognize that market incentives can ever serve a social good.

  41. says

    “I think that at least part of the reason why there are relatively few prominent social scientist skeptics is perhaps because of the worn out cliché that the social sciences are ‘subjective’ or that “there really isn’t a right or wrong way of looking at ‘X’”. A large part of the reason for the existence of this cliché probably has something to do with how the social sciences and traditional sciences have interacted over the last few decades. There was a lot of fallout from the ‘science wars’ of the 1990s; the ‘Sokal Affair’ and similar conflicts certainly helped to foster the growing rift between the sciences and the social sciences. In some universities, it isn’t uncommon for the social sciences and the traditional sciences to not talk to each other. Some of this is certainly related to funding; money is a finite resource, and there are often strong disagreements over where it should be spent. But there is also the problem of language; in a very real sense, these disciplines all speak different languages and sometimes words mean different things to different people. It takes time and effort sometimes for each party to understand the other, and in academia, time is often in very short supply.

    What you ignore here is that the Sokal Affair simply highlighted some *very real* shortcomings in the social sciences. Social science studies all too often gets away with poor methodology, wielding the fact that it’s not “hard” science as a kind of excuse. This is a very real problem that social sciences need to tackle in order for social sciences to be recognized as a “real” science. And insofar as some social science data is inherently subjective, those sources of uncertainty should be readily admitted to, with due caution for basing social policy on subjective data given.

    Another key problem with social sciences is the lack of any kind of central paradigm around which study can be organized. Biology has evolutionary theory and physics has classical, relativistic, and quantum theory. There’s nothing like this is anthropology, sociology, psychology, or economics, hence, the organizing principal of study comes down to personal opinion. Hence, you have psychologists still pursuing theories based on Jung or Freud, even though there’s precious little empirical evidence for their theories. Sociology seems to come down to political opinion – if you’re Marxist or feminist or conservative, you can find a whole body of sociology that supports your views, but, once again, little in the way of studies that are value-neutral and could reasonably serve as an empirical check of the more politicized kind of sociology. It’s been nearly 50 years since Thomas Kuhn pointed out that social sciences are in a pre-paradigm state, and I don’t see social sciences any closer today to a real paradigm.

  42. says

    I’m talking about ‘dictionary atheists’ critiquing the aims of the atheist movement as a whole; if all that matters is that you don’t believe in a god, then that’s not much to build a community with. What we’ve seen with the modern atheist movement however, is that it is composed of a suite of values that include being pro-science education, pro-reason, and in many cases pro-skeptical thinking in addition to being pro-not believing in god. When the movement as a whole hosts internal debates about the goals and aims of the movement, those debates encompass far more than merely agreeing that god doesn’t exist. The rhetoric of the luminaries of the movement are evidence of this. It’s not enough to not believe in god, they argue, people must also come to embrace rational decision-making and evidence-based thinking.

    The movement has already decided that it’s about more than simple ‘dictionary atheism’. What we’re now saying is that it needs to be broader still. If you are a ‘dictionary atheist’, then that’s great; but you’re not representative of the movement, which has already declared that atheism is more than mere lack of belief.

    That was the point I was trying to make.

  43. says

    I see a whole lot of assertion in this post, and little to substantiate it. How long have you been a social scientist? How many papers have you published in sociological journals that were ‘merely opinion’? Why should the social sciences be judged according to how the traditional sciences are organized – are they talking even remotely about the same sorts of things? Should psychology, economics, and anthropology all have some sort of unifying theoretical framework? Why?

  44. br0kenmech says

    aleph squared –

    Would some men benefit from the dismantling of Patriarchy?

    If yes, then how can someone benefit from both the existence of patriarchy and the absence of patriarchy?

    If no, then how do we make sense of the assertion that patriarchy hurts men too. Clearly this implies a net negative impact on some men’s well being, unlike your dentist analogy.

  45. says

    They benefit and are hurt in different ways. If the patriarchy were suddenly smashed, I would lose my preferential hiring in the workplace and the social acceptance of talking over people and yelling, but I’d also lose social pressure to make me behave in unhealthy ways like avoid doctor visits and healthy food.

  46. br0kenmech says

    SallyStrange –

    a system of male rule of other men and women, in which traits coded masculine are valorized, traits coded feminine are denigrated, gender roles are rigidly enforced, and power and wealth accrue disproportionately to men.

    That sounds like a reasonable definition of Patriarchy to me, but I would not accept that as an apt description of the society we live in.

    The main problem is going to be with the fact that there are few if any overt structural impediments to women entering government. In all likelihood we will see a female president in the near future. So the description of a society of purely male rule is not accurate. Women can and do take part in the running of society.

    Are feminine coded traits all denigrated while masculine coded traits are valorized? I think there are many “feminine” traits that society places a high value on… nurturing is one… niceness might be another. Aggression and a general lack of emotional intelligence seem to be less than valorized “masculine” traits.

    Are gender roles rigidly enforced? I would say they are subtly enforced, but there is very little overt enforcement of gender roles. I would say these masculine gender roles are more rigidly enforced than are feminine gender roles. A woman can wear pants without anyone thinking she is breaking a taboo, but a man wearing a dress is unthinkable.

    Do power and wealth accrue disproportionately to the men? I would the wage gap is a problem, but when education and experience are factored in, the gap shrinks to about 5%

    http://www.aauw.org/learn/research/simpleTruth.cfm

    I would argue that the wage gap is largely not the result of active discrimination against women, but that it is the result of the basic biological reality that many women still choose to have children. I think the wage gap is a legitimate problem that needs to be addressed, but it doesn’t seem likely that this wage gap is the product of a male collusion to oppress women.

    Hanna Rosin: New data on the rise of women

  47. 42Oolon says

    Skepticism IS being applied to the realm of social justice. Stewart Brand is a great skeptic in the environmental realm, Whole Earth Discipline. See also Thomas Homer-Dixon, whose work on robust approaches to difficult complex issues is interesting. Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate and Better Angels of Our Nature looks at psychology and violence. In economics, check out Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan. I might even put Chomsky in there in terms of radical realpolitik, though Pinker would surely disagree.

    I list these folks because most of them presented me with ideas and evidence that was counter-intuitive or made me emotionally recoil. Genetically engineer food to save the world? Heretical! But patience and an open mind following the evidence has brought me around in many cases. Though sometimes further investigation shows these authors to be wrong.

    I don’t know why atheist bloggers think skepticism is not, or may not be applied to social justice. But like with respect to religion, it often seems a lone voice in the wilderness.

  48. br0kenmech says

    The fact that there are situations that make being male beneficial and other situations that make being male a disadvantage is not really the point. The issue is about the implication that there is a net benefit enjoyed by males due to the existence of a patriarchy.

    If there is no net benefit enjoyed by all males, then terms like “male privilege” are misleading and inaccurate.

    If there is a net benefit enjoyed by all males, then saying patriarchy hurts men too, is misleading and inaccurate.

    Net benefit vs net harm.

  49. says

    I don’t see why. There are advantages and disadvantages for men. Which are more important in your life will depend on your individual circumstances. Maybe another example will help: Being tall. Tall men are usually thought more attractive and are more likely to be seen as leaders with all the benefits that brings. (Look at the heights of US presidents compared to the average heights of men at the time, for instance.) Being tall can also lead to hitting your head or door jams and light-fixtures. So while society values tallness in men, some guys might never get out of an entry level job and still hit their head a lot.

  50. smhll says

    The main problem is going to be with the fact that there are few if any overt structural impediments to women entering government. In all likelihood we will see a female president in the near future. So the description of a society of purely male rule is not accurate. Women can and do take part in the running of society.

    Anecdotally, Nancy Pelosi, who is(was) as far up the Presidential succession ladder as any woman has ever been in the USA, didn’t run for public office until all of her 5 children were high school age or older. This is somewhat of a hindrance to the development of her career. She’s probably too old now to be picked for a Vice Presidential slot on the ticket. (Like Kennedy picked LBJ.)

    Less relevantly, when Sandra Day O’Connor graduated 3rd in her class from Stanford Law School, law firms would only offer her jobs as a legal secretary. She ended up taking a less prestigious government job to start her career. (I think.) I don’t know of any male justice who resigned from the Supreme Court to take care of an ailing spouse, either. However, this latter point could reflect personal preference or social pressure, or likely a combination of the two.

    There are women alive today in the USA who have been seriously affected by discrimination. Now, a female baby born today is much less likely to experience any discrimination in her career, but I don’t think a complete absence of discrimination against female people has been proven to have come to pass.

  51. jenny6833a says

    Edwin, I most sincerely appreciate your response. It’s the first clear statement of intent I’ve come across.

    Edwin says:

    I’m talking about ‘dictionary atheists’ critiquing the aims of the atheist movement as a whole; if all that matters is that you don’t believe in a god, then that’s not much to build a community with.

    Who says there’s an atheist ‘movement’ or ought to be? Who says we want ‘community’? I don’t recall a vote of the international atheist ‘electorate.’

    What we’ve seen with the modern atheist movement however, is that it is composed of a suite of values that include being pro-science education, pro-reason, and in many cases pro-skeptical thinking in addition to being pro-not believing in god.

    Those are all natural consequences of ‘dictionary atheism.’ We don’t believe in god(s) or holy books, so some other method of decision making is required. So far as I know, rational analysis is the only alternative.

    When the movement as a whole hosts internal debates about the goals and aims of the movement, those debates encompass far more than merely agreeing that god doesn’t exist.

    You’ll never get agreement that, in your words, “god doesn’t exist.” Most atheists are not strong atheists.

    The rhetoric of the luminaries of the movement are evidence of this. It’s not enough to not believe in god, they argue, people must also come to embrace rational decision-making and evidence-based thinking.

    As before, that’s always and necessarily been an integral part of not accepting authorities in the sky. And who are these ‘luminaries’? They sound to me like professional, self-appointed, so-called ‘Leaders of The Atheist Crusade’ — leaders of the Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, Jesse Jackson, Pat Robertson variety.

    The movement has already decided that it’s about more than simple ‘dictionary atheism’.

    No, not at all. As I keep saying, rationality (etcetera) has of necessity always been part of ‘dictionary atheism.’

    What we’re now saying is that it needs to be broader still. If you are a ‘dictionary atheist’, then that’s great; but you’re not representative of the movement, which has already declared that atheism is more than mere lack of belief.

    I see. The ‘Luminaries’ have decided to add dogma, and the rest of us must now dutifully accept the dogma of the Luminaries — or be excommunicated.

    Good Grief, Edwin, you folks are setting out to create a CHURCH with yourselves as the privileged priesthood.

    Is tithing next?

  52. says

    Who says there’s an atheist ‘movement’ or ought to be? Who says we want ‘community’? I don’t recall a vote of the international atheist ‘electorate.’

    Since when was such a vote or the presence of an ‘electorate’ required to form a community? No one is saying that there ‘ought’ to be an atheist community; I’m saying that there already is one – whether you like it or not. Atheist conferences, podcasts, websites, forums, blogs, and meetups by their hundreds are all a part of the broader atheist community. There are atheist student associations, national atheist organizations and international atheist conferences. Whether you agreed to it or not, an atheist community already exists.

    Those are all natural consequences of ‘dictionary atheism.’ We don’t believe in god(s) or holy books, so some other method of decision making is required. So far as I know, rational analysis is the only alternative.

    No, rational analysis is not the only alternative, nor is it a necessary condition of atheism. There are innumerable atheists who, while rejecting the existence of god, believe instead in ‘ascendant masters’, other-dimensional intelligences, faeries, transcendental philosophies of all kinds, or they believe in some form of universal consciousness or another. There are homeopaths who are atheist; there are astrologers, psychics, and charlatans without number who are atheist. atheism – dictionary atheism – is merely a lack of belief in the existence of a supernatural deity. That’s it. One can be atheist and still be buddhist or daoist or some kind of New Ager; simply lacking a belief in the existence of god does not necessarily lead to rational thinking or a scientific turn of mind.

    And who are these ‘luminaries’? They sound to me like professional, self-appointed, so-called ‘Leaders of The Atheist Crusade’ — leaders of the Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, Jesse Jackson, Pat Robertson variety.

    Dawkins, the late Hitchens, Dennett, Harris, Dilahunty, and others are luminaries – self appointed or not. They are well known and recognized in atheist circles for their contributions to the movement. They are not ‘crusaders’, nor are they the ‘leaders’ of anything. Equating them to Billy Graham or Pat Robertson is doing nothing other than establishing a false-equivalency.

    No, not at all. As I keep saying, rationality (etcetera) has of necessity always been part of ‘dictionary atheism.’

    And as I’ve shown, that is simply not true. There is nothing about a lack of belief in the existence of a god or gods that demands or requires the adoption of critical thinking or an embrace of reason or science.

    I see. The ‘Luminaries’ have decided to add dogma, and the rest of us must now dutifully accept the dogma of the Luminaries — or be excommunicated. Good Grief, Edwin, you folks are setting out to create a CHURCH with yourselves as the privileged priesthood.

    This logical leap is entirely unfounded. What is the dogma? Where is the doctrine? What evidence is there that anyone is attempting to establish a church of atheism? Who is ‘excommunicating’ anyone? People are talking about mobilizing an already existant community and working towards the goals of social justice – something that many within the movement were already doing. In what possible universe does that constitute the establishment of a ‘church’ of atheism? Where is the tablet upon which the commandments of atheism have been carved? What is our mythology? What are our rituals? How can a movement that lacks any of the defining features of a religion be rightfully called so by anyone? Tithing? What?

    Seriously. Where are you getting any of this? It was neither stated nor implied by anything that I said – at all.

  53. says

    How long have I been a social scientist? Cute answer, implying that one cannot critique social sciences unless one is a scientist oneself. In a more direct answer to your question, I once was a cultural anthropology/biology co-major (early to mid-90s), but dropped the anthropology part after taking a few seriously disappointing upper division classes in the subject and never looked back. There is worthwhile scientific work to be done on social science topics, of course, but based on my education on the topic, I did not get the impression that established social scientists were by and large interested in pushing it in that direction. The Sokal Affair only crystallized that opinion. If things have changed for the better since then, then great, but I haven’t noticed a change since I was last involved in it.

    As to social science which is largely built on opinion and poorly designed unfalsifiable studies, designed merely to provide some semblance of empirical backing for those opinions, where to begin! Once could start with the entire work of Gail Dines or Melissa Farley who’s –cough– ‘scholarship’ is all about advocacy of a partisan position and who’s political interventions are a major reason there’s such a lack of solid evidence-based policy around sex work.

    Why have a theoretical framework? Um, because good science proceeds by actually having a coherent body of theory to test and organize experimentation and observation around. Is there something about that point that isn’t glaringly obvious?

  54. says

    “Stewart Brand is a great skeptic in the environmental realm, Whole Earth Discipline.”

    I have to disagree with you a bit there. While Stewart Brand is somebody who I definitely find *inspiring*, Whole Earth certainly embraced it’s share of woo, along with some more solid environmental ideas.

  55. says

    Just because someone doesn’t accept feminist patriarchy theory as an explanation for the existence of sexism in society, doesn’t mean they don’t have an alternative theory to explain the source of the problem.

    you’re using the word “theory” wrong. Patriarchy is a mechanism, i.e. it’s a “theory” in the same sense that ToE is. Alternative theories therefore must account for all the effects that patriarchy as a mechanism can account for, and do it better or explain additional ones that patriarchy can’t in order to be accepted as a better theory. Classism cannot explain all the patterns along the axis of gender-oppression. Also, if you have to strawman* the position of those you disagree with, that’s an indication for an argument that’s less than sound; if only because when you strawman, you can’t accurately refute alternative explanations.

    *”It is at this point that the gap between radical feminism is at its narrowest. What distinguishes the two is that socialist feminists’ politics entail neither a rejection of men nor a withdrawal from them, but an urgent necessity to fight both in and against male-dominated power relations” –> strawman, since radical feminism requires fighting “in and against male-dominated power relations” and does not entail withdrawing from and rejecting men. IOW, it’s the exact opposite of what German claims in that paragraph.

  56. says

    They argue that men (all men) benefit from women’s oppression, and that they are able to do so because of the fundamental biological differences between the sexes. Here lies the basis for patriarchy.

    lol. not even close. like I said: you can’t produce a new, better theory if you are incapable or unwilling to accurately describe the theory you wish to supplant.

  57. reneerp says

    What the Sokal Affair demonstrated most clearly is that few people in the social sciences have a solid understanding of scientific process and intent and that for people with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

    This is the second time in a week that someone has dragged this out as an indictment of post-modernism (first use) or social sciences (second use). Social sciences can’t have the same paradigmatic bases as the natural sciences because their objectives are (of necessity) very different.

  58. says

    So is this working definition of patriarchy theory then? All men benefit… but I thought patriarchy hurt men too?

    All men benefit for it… even those that are hurt by it?

    Right… got it.

    ROTFLMAO. are you even aware that the above words are from Lindsey German, and are a straw-version of patriarchy? That’s why Sally quoted them: the person you suggested as an author for an alternative explanation can’t even get the thing she’s trying to refute correctly

  59. br0kenmech says

    Jadehawk

    So now patriarchy theory is elevated to the same scientific status of the theory evolution?

    No, I’m sorry, but it isn’t even close. Feminist patriarchy theory is a political, ideological theory, with next to no scientific foundation. Patriarchy theory is much more analogous to intelligent design in that it invokes an unnecessary invisible entity to explain phenomena that can be explain through much simpler mechanisms.

  60. says

    implying that one cannot critique social sciences unless one is a scientist oneself

    This wasn’t what I was implying at all. When I hear a creationist critiquing evolutionary theory, I first ask them what expertise they have on the subject. I’m not saying that you can’t have an opinion, or can’t critique the social sciences; I’m attempting to determine what your level of knowledge on the subject is. From your answer, you’ve indicated that you have less than an undergraduate degree in one particular field of the social sciences – anthropology – and you gained that knowledge over a decade ago. Given that this is the case, do you feel that you possess the requisite knowledge of contemporary economics, for example, to be able to effectively critique it?

    Why have a theoretical framework? Um, because good science proceeds by actually having a coherent body of theory to test and organize experimentation and observation around. Is there something about that point that isn’t glaringly obvious?

    Sorry, I suppose I wasn’t particularly clear there. I didn’t ask why it should have a theoretical framework; I asked why they should have a unified theoretical framework – like the Standard Model in physics, for example. Why should sociology possess a unified theoretical framework, instead of the multiple theoretical frameworks it currently possesses? The nature of many of the social sciences makes it exceedingly difficult for there to be any one overarching theoretical framework, so instead many social sciences – like sociology – make use of a limited number of methodological tools that help to frame research questions and correct for bias. Fields like sociology or political science don’t have an single, unifying theoretical model, because the nature of what is being studied (like human societies, for example) are in constant flux. It makes the work more challenging, but the tools we use are the best ones we’ve found so far.

    EDIT: formatting

  61. says

    Sorry, but I think if you’re dealing with actual facts and testing them empirically, you’ll arrive at a unified theoretical framework. Not to say there won’t still be some very deep controversies, as there are within evolutionary theory and within particle physics, but not disagreement to the point of reinventing the wheel. That social scientists have not arrived at some basic paradigm about the understanding of human behavior (and one that is consilient with biological understanding of behavior) does not speak well of the state of these disciplines.

  62. says

    Actually, I think Sokal managed to expose that there’s some very poor understanding of science in the humanities, and by extension, parts of “social science” more affiliated with the humanities than with science.

    I might ask at this juncture if this slagging off of Sokal’s work means that skeptical inquiry must stop when it starts questioning areas of scholarship that partisans of “Athiesm+” happen to like?

  63. says

    So the description of a society of purely male rule is not accurate.

    disproportionately != solely. learn to read.

    re feminine coded traits all denigrated while masculine coded traits are valorized? I think there are many “feminine” traits that society places a high value on… nurturing is one… niceness might be another. Aggression and a general lack of emotional intelligence seem to be less than valorized “masculine” traits.

    this is incorrect. neither nurturing and niceness are considered more valuable than aggression and lack-of-emotion. as is very easy to figure out by listening for more than 10 minutes to political discourse: nanny-state = bad; war = good. Or to the discussions in “rationalist” spaces, where “you’re being emotional” is considered an insult, but behavior ascribed to social ineptness is defended.

    There is however a narrative that basically places women in the “must civilize and tame the beast” role. it’s a clever thing to ascribe nobility to the subservient role, and works for other axes of oppression, too. Hence the existence of a narrative of the nobility of poverty.

    Are gender roles rigidly enforced? I would say they are subtly enforced, but there is very little overt enforcement of gender roles. I would say these masculine gender roles are more rigidly enforced than are feminine gender roles. A woman can wear pants without anyone thinking she is breaking a taboo, but a man wearing a dress is unthinkable.

    feminists have spend over a century trying to weaken the enforcement of gender roles, so it’s of course expected that they’re not static; but they’re absolutely enforced, and transgression beyond what’s socially acceptable is absolutely part of social enforcement.

    I would argue that the wage gap is largely not the result of active discrimination against women, but that it is the result of the basic biological reality that many women still choose to have children.

    your guess is empirically wrong. also, men don’t chose to have children? because you know, the wage gap cannot be explained by a mere 2-3 month absence from the work-force for the tail-end of pregnancy.

    but it doesn’t seem likely that this wage gap is the product of a male collusion to oppress women.

    only because you’re completely ignorant of the data on this subject. for starters: http://www.thenation.com/blog/169400/yes-virginia-there-gender-wage-gap# and http://www.swarthmore.edu/feature-archive-2009-10/swimming-against-the-unseen-tide.xml
    and for further reading:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18315800
    http://www.catalyst.org/file/523/the_myth_of_the_ideal_worker_does_doing_all_the_right_things_really_get_women_ahead.pdf
    http://hbr.org/2010/09/why-men-still-get-more-promotions-than-women/ar/1
    http://hbr.org/2010/03/women-in-management-delusions-of-progress/ar/1

    If there is a net benefit enjoyed by all males, then saying patriarchy hurts men too, is misleading and inaccurate.

    Net benefit vs net harm.

    do you even understand what the word “net” means in this context? a net benefit is the benefit left over after all the harm has been substracted. it doesn’t mean there isn’t any harm. and “net benefit vs net harm” is meaningless. it’s gross benefit – gross harm = net benefit/harm.

  64. says

    Sorry, but I think if you’re dealing with actual facts and testing them empirically, you’ll arrive at a unified theoretical framework.

    ultimately maybe, if we assume sufficient data will ever be able to be collected to reach a unified theory. in the meantime, having multiple frameworks is not incorrect; not when physicists do it, and not when social scientists do it, either.

  65. says

    and by extension, parts of “social science” more affiliated with the humanities than with science.

    and which parts do you imagine those to be?

  66. says

    So now patriarchy theory is elevated to the same scientific status of the theory evolution?

    learn to read. I said that it’s a theory in the sense of being a mechanism explaining phenomenal i.e. “theory” in the scientific sense not in the common language sense. I didn’t say it was anything close to as well-supported as the ToE; because let’s face it, virtually no theory in science is.

    Feminist patriarchy theory is a political, ideological theory, with next to no scientific foundation.

    you wishing so won’t actually make it true. go learn some sociology.

    Patriarchy theory is much more analogous to intelligent design in that it invokes an unnecessary invisible entity to explain phenomena that can be explain through much simpler mechanisms.

    LOL. “invisible entity”. you’re hilariously ignorant, and that was certainly a most amazing bit of pointless anthropomorphization.

  67. reneerp says

    The comments don’t seem to be threading correctly, but this is in response to something iamcuriousblue wrote

    I might ask at this juncture if this slagging off of Sokal’s work means that skeptical inquiry must stop when it starts questioning areas of scholarship that partisans of “Athiesm+” happen to like?

    If that was directed at me, you seem to have misunderstood what I wrote. I’m not slagging on Sokal. I think his prank showed that there was, and continues to be a poor understanding of science process and practice at least for the editors of that magazine.

    That being said, your insistence for social sciences to establish the same sorts of theoretical frameworks as the natural sciences is flat out unreasonable for some fields and already in practice for others (see my link on Boas above). As Jadehawk suggested, until there are enough facts, multiple frames and hypotheses are essential to think about human culture, societies, and behaviors. Even with as much progress that’s been made in brain science, we’re still at the very beginnings of understanding the interactions of the mind, biochemistry, and culture.

  68. Sally Strange says

    It’s so cute how some people dismiss social sciences. The fact is that applying science to human social interaction and human societies is hard and sometimes messy and confusing. Harder, in fact, than applying science to physics or chemistry. Our knowledge of human psychology and cognitive neurobiology is in its infancy, compared to our knowledge of evolutionary theory. A unified framework does not exist and we don’t know if one ever will.

    And? So? Does that mean we dismiss the field altogether? Does that mean we don’t at least try to advance our understanding? Does that mean we don’t listen at all to those who are trying?

    Apparently, to some people, it does. I call those people idiots. Some of them–particularly the ones who are looking down their noses from their vantage point in the “hard” sciences–are also snobs.

    I’m not a social scientist myself, but I find the field fascinating.

  69. says

    The Sokal Affair showed nothing of the sort. It demonstrated that the editors of a literary journal trusted that a renowned physicist was acting in good faith and that they published an article that was beyond the expertise of any of their editorial staff. Not a great idea, sure, but if you want to try to dismiss the entirety of the social sciences and humanities simply because a single literary magazine got hoaxed, then you’re going to have to take a long, hard look at a lot of the bullshit that gets published in scientific journals all the time. Peer review is an imperfect mechanism to guarantee quality control, and it can be exploited or it can simply fail.

    You also clearly know nothing about the history, methodologies, or philosophical foundations of either the social or the natural sciences. Kuhn did not show “that social sciences are in a pre-paradigm state”; that’s a meaningless statement. All bodies of knowledge have paradigms in the Kuhnian system which is itself a paradigm that’s not exactly the state of the art in the history and philosophy of science (my field) anymore.

    The social sciences are really complex, and are not easily reducible to simple explanatory frameworks. There actually have been many paradigms within which social science research has been conducted, but for the most part, they’re too simplistic to be of much use. I have some experience with both biology and the social sciences, and let me tell you, the latter is way harder than the former. But dismissing an entire field of disciplines because they’re not the natural sciences and you don’t understand them doesn’t lend your arguments any credibility.

  70. says

    Just for the record, Pinker’s work demonstrates not skepticism but extreme credulousness. In The Better Angels, for example, he uses cherry picked examples and convenient definitions to reduce an extraordinarily complex topic to a simple narrative, perhaps ironically doing great violence to our understanding of these issues in the process. The same is true of The Blank Slate.

    I have no doubt that Pinker’s work on childhood neurolinguistics is top notch, but the guy’s a joke when it comes to history, sociology, or philosophy. It’s like Jared Diamond, whose work on speciation is great but whose anthropology is embarrassingly bad.

  71. says

    One of the things I’ve actually found fascinating about this blog is the way in which the Crommunist (and Edwin!) do manage to tie their skepticism into social justice issues. From my perspective, the ideals of the skeptic movement have actually been antithetical to social justice, which is a large part of why I stop identifying with skepticism (and at times have even felt ambivalent about atheism) years ago.

    Maybe it’s just the people I’ve encountered, but the skeptic movement has always struck me as deploying its skepticism along already existing power dynamics to reinforce various kinds of privilege and to demonize critical inquiry along lines that question those privileges. That’s why I kept encountering libertarians, gender essentialists, racists, and homophobes who, as Edwin alluded to above, seem to view the nonexistence of Sasquatch as a pressing social concern, but who see flawed models of race, gender, or economics which cause real suffering as unimportant at best, or at worst, enthusiastically embrace those models.

    And honestly, I see the hostility towards the social sciences as part and parcel of that larger dynamic within skepticism of desperately defending the privilege of the overwhelmingly straight, white, male community. Skepticism and Science (capitalized to distinguish science as a cultural legitimator from the natural sciences as a field of study) become ways of policing inquiry and discourse rather than promoting it.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say, thanks, guys. You’ve (along with Rebecca Watson and PZ Myers and Natalie Reed and others) done a lot to restore my faith in skeptics.

  72. says

    “And? So? Does that mean we dismiss the field altogether? Does that mean we don’t at least try to advance our understanding? Does that mean we don’t listen at all to those who are trying?”

    No, but it does mean promoting much greater scientific rigor within the social sciences rather than making excuses for the subpar nature of much of it. And insofar as there are areas where it’s inherently difficult to get clear, unbiased data show due caution before basing far-reaching social policy on it.

    All of this should be glaringly obvious from the point of view of skeptical inquiry.

  73. says

    Maybe it’s just the people I’ve encountered, but the skeptic movement has always struck me as deploying its skepticism along already existing power dynamics to reinforce various kinds of privilege and to demonize critical inquiry along lines that question those privileges. That’s why I kept encountering libertarians, gender essentialists, racists, and homophobes

    First ad homs…

    seem to view the nonexistence of Sasquatch as a pressing social concern

    Then a strawman, and not even an original one…

    And honestly, I see the hostility towards the social sciences as part and parcel of that larger dynamic within skepticism of desperately defending the privilege of the overwhelmingly straight, white, male community. Skepticism and Science (capitalized to distinguish science as a cultural legitimator from the natural sciences as a field of study) become ways of policing inquiry and discourse rather than promoting it.

    Followed by defending one’s pet belief system not based on facts, but more ad homs…

    Thanks for making clear the nature of your “skeptical inquiry” into social issues so clear.

    And you know what, I actually do think that skeptical inquiry can be applied to social questions. But it’s something that’s going to take a hell of a lot more rigor and less kneejerk rhetoric than you have on offer here.

  74. says

    Unless you’re claiming that people cannot be legitimately described as racists or libertarians, I’m not sure how you can possibly say that my observations of people I’ve encountered count as ad hominem.

    Furthermore, I’ve encountered a fair number of anti-Sasquatch diatribes by skeptics. Admittedly, Sasquatch is less popular these days than homeopathy, but unless you’re trying to deny that skeptics have devoted time and energy to disproving Sasquatch, or that the skeptic community by and large considers cryptozoology to be an issue, it’s not a straw man. Also, the social sciences (well, technically history, but with overlap into social and political theory) aren’t my “pet belief system”; it’s my career.

    I don’t recall ever espousing “skeptical inquiry” into social justice issues. In fact, I made it clear that I considered “skepticism” to be a failed approach, and pointed out that I’ve only recently begun to encounter skeptics who could be taken seriously on these topics.

    If you care about rigor in the slightest, you should be aware that different problems require different methodologies. The social sciences are not the natural sciences, and whinging about how the social sciences aren’t “scientific” enough does nothing but demonstrate your failure to understand either.

  75. says

    “but if you want to try to dismiss the entirety of the social sciences and humanities simply because a single literary magazine got hoaxed,

    Not exactly doing that, but I am critiquing the lack of rigor in much of it, and critiquing the idea that such scholarship can hold itself to a lower standard and still be considered the equal of more rigorous methodology in the natural sciences.

    then you’re going to have to take a long, hard look at a lot of the bullshit that gets published in scientific journals all the time. Peer review is an imperfect mechanism to guarantee quality control, and it can be exploited or it can simply fail.

    Yes, LET’S look at that. Rather than dismiss it as “hyperskepticism”.

    You also clearly know nothing about the history, methodologies, or philosophical foundations of either the social or the natural sciences.

    Yep, because somebody who’s clearly *trolling* says I don’t. Never mind that I have a graduate education in biology, and, yes, have bothered with some extra-curricular study the work of people like Popper and Kuhn, because I happen to think that how scientific knowledge is produced is a subject that is both interesting and damned important. But, hey, I come to some conclusions that are critical of your pet ideology, so clearly, I must be wholly ignorant.

    Kuhn did not show “that social sciences are in a pre-paradigm state”; that’s a meaningless statement.

    Kuhn’s exact words from Structure. He certainly did argue that point, and if you want to argue a counterpoint, go ahead. But waving that off as “meaningless” is a dodge. I think Kuhn is self-evidently right. Is there any guiding body of theory in psychology, for example? Hell, you still have a large part of that discipline that bases its ideas on *Freud*, never mind that most of his ideas haven’t exactly stood up to serious empirical inquiry.

    All bodies of knowledge have paradigms in the Kuhnian system which is itself a paradigm that’s not exactly the state of the art in the history and philosophy of science (my field) anymore.

    And what do you consider more “state of the art”, pray tell? I would think figures like Popper and Kuhn are foundational, even if there’s been work that’s built on it since then. Just like “On the Origin of Species” is a foundational work that biologists can still read and get something out of, even if it doesn’t happen to reflect what is now cutting edge in evolutionary biology.

    “The social sciences are really complex, and are not easily reducible to simple explanatory frameworks.”

    And that’s the mother of all excuses for what amounts to a blanket defense of a not very good status quo in those fields. It’s a song and dance I’ve heard before and don’t find any more convincing through repetition.

  76. says

    You can assert that the social sciences lack rigor until you’re blue in the face, but you’re going to need more than the Sokal Affair to back that up. For pity’s sake, my wife’s job involves analyzing clinical trials of medical devices. If you want to see some low standards for rigor, try looking there. Also note that I don’t treat the fact that there are a lot of really shitty clinical trials out there as somehow delegitimating the natural sciences broadly.

    You may have read Popper and Kuhn, but you might be surprised to learn that, much like the natural sciences themselves, the history and philosophy of science has advanced in the past few decades. Popper and Kuhn are certainly of historical interest, but they’re going to tell you about as much about contemporary epistemology and historiography as Darwin will about genomics.

    As far as “Kuhn’s exact words” go, I can find almost identical arguments in Auguste Comte; neither is compelling evidence for a teleological pattern to the development of science. If you think that how scientific knowledge is produced is an important subject (a sentiment I agree with, by the way, which is why I study it professionally and not just recreationally) you might try reading something a little more up to date. You’re not wholly ignorant because you disagree with me, you’re wholly ignorant of the field because the most recent literature you’ve apparently read on the subject was published 50 years ago.

    And no, actually, biologists don’t read Darwin and “get something out of it” except perhaps enjoyment and appreciation. I’ve studied Darwin from a historical perspective; I’ve also worked in a molecular biology lab. I’m not trolling, and I do know something of what I speak here.

    As far as the rest of your argument goes, it’s an argument from ignorance. You know what? I’m not a huge fan of psychoanalysis either. But I can promise you that the state of the field, and its relationship to Freud, is not what you think it is. The scholars working with Freud are much more sophisticated and knowledgeable than you give them credit for. The simple fact is that you do not understand their work and as such you are not qualified to speak to its legitimacy.

    If you’re serious about wanting to better understand current trends in the history and philosophy of science, I’d suggest starting with historian Steven Shapin’s short introduction to the Scientific Revolution (or, if you want a much bigger book looking at the same time period, Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump), and perhaps looking at a variety of older philosophers including Feyerabend, Quine, and Foucault, and if you feel up to it, tackling more recent scholars like Sandra Harding and Bruno Latour. Lorraine Daston has also done some interesting work on objectivity with Peter Gallison.

  77. says

    I’d also suggest Donna Haraway, but somehow I don’t think you’d like that very much. Ian Hacking’s The Social Construction of What? is also a good introduction to issues like social constructivism that plague the philosophy of the social sciences.

  78. says

    Jon, just because I’m not buying into what seems to be little more than intellectual fashion on the part of “science studies” crowd does not make my arguments ignorant or your arguments worthwhile.

    If the ideas of Popper and Kuhn have really been transcended, then I challenge you to provide a solid argument as to why, not just throw a list of your favorite authors at me. As it stands, I am somewhat familiar with Sandra Harding, and I hardly see where her work serves as any kind of refutation of Kuhn. (And pardon me if I *am* dismissive of some of the currents in “science studies”. Feminist science studies lost me at Carolyn Merchant’s claim that scientist are a bunch of sadistic men that want to torture nature upon a rack, based on one rather hideous statement by Francis Bacon from way back the hell back in the Tudor/Stuart era.)

    You also seem to lack an understanding of the relationship between Darwin’s foundational work and that of modern evolutionary biology, but I’ll be more generous than you’re being and assume you misspoke.

    The bottom line is that what many from “A+” seem to be passing off as the relationship between skepticism and/or rationalism and social issues is to take some fields of study that have a poor empirical basis and are highly prone to politicization and all the manipulation *that* entails, and elevate that to something that very far-reaching social policies should be based on. And sorry, but if skepticism and reason in relation to social and political questions mean anything, it is most certainly inquiry into and questioning of such claims.

  79. smrnda says

    Most of my education was in mathematics and theoretical computer science and not physical sciences, so I do not pretend to be qualified to comment on physical sciences. I did do some graduate level work in social sciences and psychology though when I briefly went and dropped out of several graduate programs.

    The subject area of the physical sciences concerns things that lend themselves more to precise definition than the social sciences, but that doesn’t mean that the social sciences should be dismissed, just that they should be understood to be different. This is probably why (at least in my experience) there was more discussion and less consensus in those fields – you’re trying to investigate something that doesn’t lend itself to easy measurement

    I mean, in psychology there are some great experiments done with proper rigor, and lots of sub-par stuff, but I kind of think of it as like journalism; you’ve gotta get good at wading through the muck to find the good stuff. Just like I wouldn’t dismiss all journalism as hack work done by semi-literate propagandists, I wouldn’t dismiss social sciences as a defective field of inquiry.

  80. says

    If you’re seriously trying to argue that there’s some sort of burden on me to demonstrate that the philosophy of science has developed beyond where it was 50 years ago, then I’m sorry, but no. The burden rests on the individual basically arguing against the entire discipline as it exists now that Popper and Kuhn figured it all out back in the day and that we’re done with philosophy now. Harding is not a refutation of Kuhn, but an exemplar of where the field stands now, along with numerous other authors. Your dismissal of feminist philosophers of science based on a grotesque misreading of Carolyn Merchant is hardly persuasive (incidentally, I’ve never understood why the anti-science studies crowd has such a hate on for Carolyn Merchant. William Newman, another historian of science who’s done some good work on the history of alchemy wrote an incredibly dishonest essay attacking her in the atrocious A House Built on Sand edited by Noretta Koertge, a volume that purports to debunk “postmodernist” science studies).

    Also, if you don’t want a list of authors, don’t ask for one. You asked me specifically what the current state of the art is; I’m sorry, but I lack either the time or inclination to try to distill an entire field of scholarship into a single blog comment.

    I assure you that I understand Darwin’s contributions to biology just fine; as I mentioned earlier, not only did I study biology as an undergrad, I worked in a molecular bio lab doing population genetics, but as someone who studies the history of science with a focus on natural history and early evolutionary theory, Darwin and his influence is something I’m relatively confident that I understand better than some random stranger on the internet.

    Look, you clearly don’t understand science studies or the history or philosophy of science, and that’s fine; not everyone needs to be an expert in every field. But you’re clearly not qualified to evaluate the quality of the work being done under those rubrics. And you’re doing a fine job of reaffirming my prior beliefs about the state of skepticism and social justice. You seem to think that it’s the job of the “skeptic” to debunk challenges to power structures rather than to examine the power structures themselves. Which, again, is fine as far as it goes, but it makes the skeptic community look like a bunch of overprivileged dicks.

  81. says

    And honestly, I’m not going to debate the legitimacy of the social sciences or science studies any more. If you want to keep talking about skepticism or social justice, I’m game, but I burned out on defending disciplines from people on the internet who didn’t understand them a long time ago, arguing against creationists. I’m not going to get sucked back into that game here with you.

  82. says

    If you’re seriously trying to argue that there’s some sort of burden on me to demonstrate that the philosophy of science has developed beyond where it was 50 years ago, then I’m sorry, but no. The burden rests on the individual basically arguing against the entire discipline as it exists now that Popper and Kuhn figured it all out back in the day and that we’re done with philosophy now. Harding is not a refutation of Kuhn, but an exemplar of where the field stands now, along with numerous other authors.

    No, you’ve handwaved my argument with the assertion that Kuhn is entirely outdated. I don’t think you’ve demonstrated that at all. And providing a list of more current scholars who are neither challenging nor updating Kuhn shows me that you’re not even indirectly referring to a relevant counter-argument.

    Again, I point out that social sciences exists in a largely pre-paradigm state and that this lack of coherent theory compromises much of social science as an accurate description of human behaviors and interactions.

    Your dismissal of feminist philosophers of science based on a grotesque misreading of Carolyn Merchant is hardly persuasive (incidentally, I’ve never understood why the anti-science studies crowd has such a hate on for Carolyn Merchant.

    Show me where it’s a misreading. Merchant’s ideas get a “hate-on” because they’re a grotesque caricature of science and scientists based on a quote from a Tudor/Stuart-era figure, an era when torture was a commonplace and accepted part of the legal system. Such ideas would be clearly repugnant to anyone coming after the Enlightenment, yet Merchant paints modern science with that brush.

    I assure you that I understand Darwin’s contributions to biology just fine; as I mentioned earlier, not only did I study biology as an undergrad, I worked in a molecular bio lab doing population genetics, but as someone who studies the history of science with a focus on natural history and early evolutionary theory, Darwin and his influence is something I’m relatively confident that I understand better than some random stranger on the internet.

    The funny thing is, I also do natural history and sytematics, and yes, I am pretty dismissive of anybody telling me Darwin’s work isn’t foundational. And, yes, I know the difference between Darwin’s work, the neo-Darwininan synthesis, and issues in contemporary evolutionary biology. If that’s the core of your argument against Kuhn, it’s not a good one.

    “And you’re doing a fine job of reaffirming my prior beliefs about the state of skepticism and social justice.”

    As does your rhetoric, notably my impression that “A+” types simply looking for a shortcut to giving their pet political beliefs the stamp of objective empirical truth.

    You seem to think that it’s the job of the “skeptic” to debunk challenges to power structures rather than to examine the power structures themselves. Which, again, is fine as far as it goes,

    Well, perhaps that’s because I’m not coming at knowledge from some kind of vulgar neo-Marxist POV, where ideas can neatly be divided into those that “uphold power structures” vs those that “challenge” them, and therefore apparently get a free pass intellectually.

    but it makes the skeptic community look like a bunch of overprivileged dicks.

    Ad hom all you want, it doesn’t strengthen your position.

  83. says

    You’ll note I never claimed that Darwin isn’t foundational; rather, that there’s nothing in Darwin that will enhance the understanding of a contemporary biologist. Darwin’s ideas are outdated. Plain and simple. Of course he was critically important to the development of biology as it exists today. That doesn’t mean he’s still directly relevant.

    “Pre-paradigm state” implies a positivistic teleology of knowledge and epistemology that is simply false. History is contingent, not directional, and there do not exist “stages” of development leading to some apex. You assert that lack of a central theory compromises the social sciences without providing any evidence that the social sciences are hurting for this supposed lack.

    Merchant is a historian of science writing about the history of science. She wasn’t using Bacon to indict modern science, she was writing about Bacon because she’s a fucking historian. Point out to me where Merchant called modern scientists or science “sadistic”. Merchant’s argument is about a change in the understanding of nature that occurred during the Elizabethan era and she used Bacon as the most prominent example of and agent driving that change. Yes, that has implications for modern science, but she’s certainly not saying what you seem to think she’s saying (have you read The Death of Nature, incidentally, or are you parroting someone else?)

    I’ll conclude with again noting that “ad hom” does not seem to mean what you think it means.

  84. says

    You’ll note I never claimed that Darwin isn’t foundational; rather, that there’s nothing in Darwin that will enhance the understanding of a contemporary biologist. Darwin’s ideas are outdated. Plain and simple. Of course he was critically important to the development of biology as it exists today. That doesn’t mean he’s still directly relevant.

    And I think your description of Darwin’s work as “outdated” is utter nonsense. Tell it to scientists who are still doing productive work on Galapagos finches or Madagascar hawkmoths. Darwin’s work is the *foundation* upon which modern evolutionary is built. His ideas have been largely *added on to*, massively, yes. But they have not been brushed aside in favor of a better theory the way, say, Aristotle’s ideas on vision have.

    “Pre-paradigm state” implies a positivistic teleology of knowledge and epistemology that is simply false. History is contingent, not directional, and there do not exist “stages” of development leading to some apex.

    Well, that’s an assertion, based on one way of looking at science. I do happen to think there is a such thing as scientific progress, and that we have a better understanding of how natural processes work than we did a couple of centuries ago. Now I don’t buy into a wholly positivistic view that there’s some sort of grand linear march toward progress – it’s more of “three steps forward, two steps back” kind of progress. (See string theory for an example of grand theories that ultimately go nowhere.)

    “You assert that lack of a central theory compromises the social sciences without providing any evidence that the social sciences are hurting for this supposed lack.”

    Earlier in the debate, perhaps before you came in, I pointed to some very badly done pieces of social science that were driving some bad policies toward sex work. And the thing is, when those studies were challenged, the defense was rhetoric that sounds an awful lot like yours – “Well, psychology isn’t an exact science, and it’s just not possible to eliminate personal point of view and bias….” If that excuse dies a much needed death, the social sciences and evidence-based policy making will be the better for it.

    I’ll conclude with again noting that “ad hom” does not seem to mean what you think it means.

    I guess I missed the memo stating that calling people “overprivileged dicks” was actually a solid point of evidence. Silly me. :-P

  85. says

    Well, rather than continue asserting the same points over and over, I think I’ll leave it here – I think that claiming that Darwin’s work has only been built upon rather than supplanted represents a fundamentally flawed view of the history science, as does your (demi-)positivism, but that’s not really going to be hashed out satisfactorily on a blog comment thread.

    I would like to point out for the record, though, “overprivileged dicks” was an observation, not a premise in support of a larger argument. You can call someone an asshole and disagree with them at the same time without it being fallacious. If you had to be totally civil at all times, arguing on the internet would be even more frustrating than it already is.

  86. 42Oolon says

    …and thus we have a problem. I cannot check Pinker’s sources and educate myself sufficiently to determine if he is cherry picking. I dont have the time. Not while doing the same with climate change etc. Ultimately, only professionals are able to spend the time to truly apply skepticism to these areas. I picked these authors because they do cite sources and seem to follow the data where it leads. Based on these two comments I feel less confident in trusting they have properly applied skepticism.

    These are extremely complex areas and ultimately I am left with “I don’t know” in most cases. I don’t know what causes societal problems or how to fix them. However, politicians must act from this place of ignorance. It is a problem. But maybe the role of us lay folk skeptics is to drive towards demonstrating whether or not we “know” to do?

  87. says

    That’s totally fair. And, to be honest, I have something of a bias against authors who make huge, sweeping arguments in areas outside their expertise (something Pinker in particular is guilty of in spades).

    For myself (and I honestly hope this doesn’t come across as patronizing, because it’s truly not intended to come across that way), one test is to look at what relevant scholars say about a given argument, particularly in book reviews published in academic journals. Arguments like Pinker’s (and Diamond’s) because they attract such wide audiences tend to generate discussion by experts in those fields. While I don’t personally study the history of violence (or, to be perfectly frank, any non-Western history at all), I have spoken with scholars who do study violence and (some) non-Western societies, and have applied what I do know to what I understand Pinker’s argument to be (admission: I’ve read a lot of Pinker, but I haven’t yet read The Better Angels). Based on that, I feel relatively confident in saying that Pinker’s full of crap. It’s sadly not an uncommon occurrence with celebrity scholars; they venture outside their field of study, banking on the legitimacy they’ve earned elsewhere to get them a pass on sub-par work in their new areas of interest.

    But at the same time, I don’t expect you to take my word for it. If you feel a little more skeptical towards claims based on Pinker’s arguments, then I’m glad, but as you said, it’s impossible to be an expert in everything, so you’ll have to trust someone eventually. Part of being a good skeptic, in my opinion, is learning to evaluate competing authoritative sources. You obviously can’t know everything about everything, but knowing how to figure out who experts in a given field consider authoritative on a given topic lets you get by anyway.

  88. Suido says

    most fortunate

    Tell that to the victims of those social experiments. Take it a step further – if US policies are social experiments that can yield data, then all of human history is one long social experiment that yields equally valuable data.

    Data on the narcotics trade, imprisonment rates and teen pregnancy rates are available outside of those policies, by looking beyond the national borders and back in time.

    To say that we’re fortunate that those bad policies have been enacted… no. That’s disgusting. Even more disgusting is the fact that they’re still in place (to varying extents) despite the evidence against them.

  89. Suido says

    @IACB

    And insofar as there are areas where it’s inherently difficult to get clear, unbiased data show due caution before basing far-reaching social policy on it.

    1. All government policies are social policies. Tax rates are a social policy. Using taxes to fund education is a social policy. Using taxes (that could potentially be used to improve education) for anything other than education is a social policy.

    2. Any and all social policies enacted by a government are far reaching. An absence of social policies by any government is far reaching.

    1+2= Your sentence that I quoted is both redundant and useless. Social policies such as the distribution of the tax burden already cause problems. Historical/global comparisons of data can show the outcomes of different policies.

    You seem to be advocating that we should sit on our hands, yet by default that means the status quo will continue, irrespective of the outcome. Is this really a good idea?

  90. says

    Ah, nothing like a little obfuscation posing as an argument.

    Your definition of “far-reaching social policy” is seriously lacking, and to use that as a blanket excuse for policies that promote legislative overreach is a piss-poor argument.

  91. Sally Strange says

    No, but it does mean promoting much greater scientific rigor within the social sciences rather than making excuses for the subpar nature of much of it.

    Yes, clearly I was arguing against scientific rigor and in favor of making excuses for subpar research.

    Really biting critique there.

  92. says

    You offer up the standard set of excuses to not hold social sciences up to a more rigorous standards.

    A more accusatory person might say that such blanket defenses of the state of social science research might have something to do with the fact that many social scientists happen to share a political slant favored by the “A+” crowd. ;-)

  93. Suido says

    Your definition of “far-reaching social policy” is seriously lacking, and to use that as a blanket excuse for policies that promote legislative overreach is a piss-poor argument.

    Please note that I didn’t make ‘a blanket excuse for policies that promote legislative overreach’. Those are your assumptions about me. Not particularly sceptical assumptions, I might add.

    I’m passionate about education, and I view it as an intrinsically social policy because it provides the fundamental training required for people to function in society. Education is seen as a key indicator for the development and modernisation of countries. Governments fund (and therefore dictate the manner of) the vast majority of education around the world. Can you explain why my definition of education as a social policy is ‘lacking’?

  94. says

    It’s your definition of “far reaching” that’s lacking. I’m specifically talking about, once again, proposed laws that are overly broad and invasive and are based on flawed research. Anti-pornography feminism would be the archetype of this, though there are certainly other examples of interest groups using junk social science toward their particular agendas.

    That you use the broad existence of legislative policy as a justification for legislative overreach is where your fundamental flaw lies. (You either are missing the finer points of my argument, or cobbling together an ad-hoc counterargument that doesn’t fly.) The existence, or even the benefit, of legislation for social ends does not axiomatically mean that the domain of legislative power should be unlimited.

  95. Suido says

    Far-reaching. Extensive in influence, effect, or range.

    No, my definition of the term is both accurate and value neutral. Education policy is a far-reaching social policy.

    You, on the other hand, are using it to mean reaching too far, and applying negative connotations which don’t exist in the dictionary definition.

    IACB: I’m specifically talking about, once again, proposed laws that are overly broad and invasive and are based on flawed research.

    Interesting, because all I can see upthread (besides one comment about economics) is you attacking social science research, not proposed laws. Care to prove me wrong with just one example of an overly broad and invasive proposed law that you have mentioned/argued against previously on this page?

    Twice now you’ve tried to pin an assumption on me, that my definition of education as a social policy somehow means that I favour large government. If only you’d use some healthy scepticism about my position, and not jump to conclusions in order to argue against a point I never made.

    Example time: If I were to propose that the Swedish education system should be changed to mimic the US education system, do you think I would be “proposing laws that are overly broad and invasive and are based on flawed research”? What about vice versa – importing the Swedish system to the US?

    In both cases, I would be proposing to alter the status quo and cause far reaching social effects. It is possible to argue that either system is better, depending on the chosen metric. Based on your comments in this thread, your default response to the proposals would be to veto them both and maintain the status quo.

    True, false?

  96. physicsFTW says

    Unlurking to point out that even physics, the “hardest” science doesn’t have one theoretical framework! The Standard Model and General Relativity do not have the same theoretical framework. Maybe we will one day discover a common theoretical framework for these two theories (the Theory of Everything), but the fact that a field does not have a unified theoretical framework absolutely does not take away from using the existing theoretical frameworks in the appropriate context (the SM at the LHC or GR in cosmology for example).

  97. says

    The thing is, the same could be said for the Marxists and neo-Marxists who make up *much* of the political Left…

    No, it couldn’t — not without flat-out lying anyways. The “political left,” for all their faults, have proven they — or rather WE, just to be clear — have proven beyond a shadow of doubt that we understand political economy FAR better than the libertards ever did; and we’ve been proven right where the libertards have been proven wrong, by over a century of recent and historical experience. So take your false equivalency argument and shove it back where it came from.

  98. says

    Maybe it’s just the people I’ve encountered, but the skeptic movement has always struck me as deploying its skepticism along already existing power dynamics to reinforce various kinds of privilege and to demonize critical inquiry along lines that question those privileges.

    Trust me, it’s the people you’ve encountered. Or the people you’ve read about, depending on how honest you’re being here.

    I’ve met some asshole skeptics here and there, but AFAIK they’re not representative of the majority of skeptics I’ve met.

  99. says

    I would genuinely like to be able to accept that at face value, but I’ve known way too many “skepticism=rationality=libertarianism” type folks to just take someone’s word for it. The intense pushback that people like Rebecca Watson for pointing out that things like sexual harassment exist and are problems doesn’t make it any easier.

  100. says

    And I’m certainly not trying to claim that skeptics I’ve encountered are bigger assholes than other groups of predominantly privileged people. In fact, groups consisting largely of middle class straight white men tend to be remarkably consistent on the assholishness front. The only thing that makes the skeptic community unique is that the assholes try to use “reason” and “science” and “skepticism” to legitimate their assholery. Witness above: examining power structures is “vulgar neo-Marxism,” patriarchy doesn’t exist, and any discipline that dares to examine anything outside of skeptic-approved natural science is a “pet ideology.”

  101. Illuminata, Genie in the Beer Bottle says

    Jon:

    Unless you’re claiming that people cannot be legitimately described as racists or libertarians, I’m not sure how you can possibly say that my observations of people I’ve encountered count as ad hominem.

    It’s an “ad hom” because he fits into the group being criticised and he doesn’t like it.

  102. says

    The intense pushback that people like Rebecca Watson for pointing out that things like sexual harassment exist and are problems doesn’t make it any easier.

    What the intense SUPPORT that people like Rebecca Watson get? Doesn’t that register with you? I seems kinda curious to me that you’d brush off skeptics as hateful, even though that hatred is directed at other skeptics, and other skeptics are LOUDLY attacking both the hate and the haters.

  103. says

    In fact, groups consisting largely of middle class straight white men tend to be remarkably consistent on the assholishness front.

    You say this on a BLACK skeptic’s blog? You say this on FreeThought Blogs, where several of the authors are women, and have consistently talked about non-straight and trans people’s issues? I’m beginning to suspect you have no idea what you’re talking about, or who you’re talking to.

  104. says

    The support that Rebecca Watson et al get is basic human decency; it doesn’t get you or your group a cookie. And yes, I’m aware that this is a black skeptic’s blog. That’s one of the main reasons I read it. If you’ll notice, in my comment that you originally replied to, I stated explicitly that the work of people like the Crommunist and Rebecca Watson and Natalie Reed were causing me to *reconsider* my established position on the inherent problems with the skeptic movement.

    I’m not sure why you’re taking my problems with the skeptic community so personally, or displaying such hostility. To me, it’s much like the Christians who get upset when people dismiss Christianity as bigoted or hateful. The onus isn’t on the outsiders to recognize the nuances of the internal debates; it’s on the members to fix the problems from within. FTB is one such place where that fight is being fought, and I’m grateful for it. That doesn’t negate the existence of real problems within the broader skeptic community.

  105. says

    The support that Rebecca Watson et al get is basic human decency; it doesn’t get you or your group a cookie.

    Who said anything about cookies? I was pointing out that there are decent people in the movement, after you seemed to be a) clinging to your prejudices based on your own personal experience; and b) harping on the haters while not paying much attention to the non-haters.

  106. says

    The presence of decent people in a given group or movement doesn’t shield the group as a whole from criticism. Must one give a shout out to the awesome nuns who do great social justice work when one tries to talk about the culture of child-rape and cover-up in the Catholic Church?

    To be perfectly frank, your responses to criticisms of the skeptic community aren’t doing your argument any favors. As I said upthread, I *stopped* identifying as a skeptic long ago, due to the attitudes and beliefs of large swaths of the skeptic community. I’m not sure that your definition of “prejudice” is terribly useful in this context.

    And to reiterate, the non-haters don’t need to be highlighted; they’re displaying the bare minimum of human decency. If not being a raging misogynist is something that is sufficiently rare within the skeptic community that it needs to be commented on every time it happens, then your problems are even bigger than I’d realized.

    Now, I don’t believe that’s actually true. I think that there are plenty of good people in the skeptic community. It’s also apparent that there are a large number of assholes who justify their assholery by appealing to their skepticism. Whining about how mean I’m being to the skeptics by pointing this out doesn’t help make your community a better or safer space.

  107. Suido says

    *Crickets*

    I’ll take that as a default acceptance that

    a) Your attempt at definition pedantry back-fired.
    b) Your original sweeping generalisation that governments should ‘show due caution before basing far-reaching social policy on [social science research]‘ was redundant and useless.
    c) Your position of hyper-scepticism on social issues is useless.

  108. says

    “No, it couldn’t — not without flat-out lying anyways. The “political left,” for all their faults, have proven they — or rather WE, just to be clear — have proven beyond a shadow of doubt that we understand political economy FAR better than the libertards ever did; and we’ve been proven right where the libertards have been proven wrong, by over a century of recent and historical experience. So take your false equivalency argument and shove it back where it came from.”

    Well, I certainly can’t argue with, um, logic like that. Responses like this are what I so love about Freethoughtblogs – you so resolutely uphold the philosophical and scientific rigor of your ideas! You provide me with such *good* examples to point to on the health of progressive politics. Keep it up!

    BTW, since we’re discussing political economy, just how is the Soviet economy doing these days?

  109. says

    “Witness above: examining power structures is “vulgar neo-Marxism,” patriarchy doesn’t exist, and any discipline that dares to examine anything outside of skeptic-approved natural science is a “pet ideology.””

    Yep, because not buying the ideology you’re selling means raging misogyny and support of the power structure. Whatever dude.

    Thankfully, I’ve been around the block a few times politically. Some of my formative political experiences were with reps of various Marxist-Leninist sects telling me that I hated the poor and the working class because I didn’t agree with their particular brand of Stalinism. A lot of their rhetoric sounds *an awful lot* like the kneejerk leftism coming from you, actually. I wasn’t swayed by such crass guilt-tripping and false appeals to “the people” then, and I’m certainly not now.

    Thankfully, early exposure to idiot Marxism served as a kind of vaccine against a whole lot of other idiot leftism later on. And, no, I don’t hate the entire Left – I actually happen to be pretty far to the left of the mainstream of the American political center in many of my opinions. But it doesn’t mean I have any truck with the all-too-many authoritarians and irrationalists who hide behind claims of fostering “social justice”.

  110. says

    Crickets = some of us actually have jobs. In education, no less. Do you do anything productive with your time?

    I’m not taking your argument seriously, because you’ve strawmanned the fuck out of my position, backed your argument with at least one serious logical fallacy, and spend an inordinate amount of time pounding your chest and generally being an ass.

    To address one of your points, I’m arguing primarily about the lack of rigor in much of social science, with a secondary argument about how that compromises it’s usefulness to craft social policy, especially social policy that it is very far reaching and in some cases compromises established civil liberties. If you can’t make any distinction between the proper reach of legislation and legal overreach, really, that’s a problem with your argument, not mine.

  111. says

    And to reiterate, the non-haters don’t need to be highlighted; they’re displaying the bare minimum of human decency.

    Actually, a lot of those non-haters are doing a HELL of a lot more than that: they’re enduring ostracism, hatred, death-threats, defamation, child-custody nightmares, and loss of social and economic position merely because they stood up and said they didn’t believe the majority religion.

    And the fact that you’re so eager go take those good people for granted, and denigrate their actions as “the bare minimum of human decency,” really says a lot about your own values.

  112. says

    The presence of decent people in a given group or movement doesn’t shield the group as a whole from criticism.

    I’m not trying to shield anyone from criticism (as if I could); I’m just saying YOUR criticism is based on bullshit.

    Must one give a shout out to the awesome nuns who do great social justice work when one tries to talk about the culture of child-rape and cover-up in the Catholic Church?

    When those two factions of the Church are in dispute, YES, we must indeed publicly point out who is right and who is dead wrong. It matters. Decent actions deserve recognition, and evil people’s attacks on said decency deserve to be exposed.

  113. says

    BTW, since we’re discussing political economy, just how is the Soviet economy doing these days?

    Actually, life was better in the Soviet era in many significant ways than it is now, both for Russians and for people in the former SSRs. Since the USSR’s total existence failure, average Russian lifespans have gone down, the death rate now esceeds the birth rate, the army aren’t getting paid regularly, the environment is being raped and destroyed by unregulated industrialists, organized crime and corruption are out of control, and the Russian Orthodox Church are now overtly acting as sock-puppets for the government, just like they were before the Revolution (as Pussy Riot can attest). Also, the former SSRs are not ruled by liberal democratic capitalist regimes, they’re all ruled by corrupt, incompetent, backward despots, some of whom are trying to fend off Ismamofascist extremism within their own borders, and none of whom have got better results for their people than the old USSR. Tell us again how totally wrong the Marxists were there?

  114. says

    You provide me with such *good* examples to point to on the health of progressive politics. Keep it up!

    …says the guy who vaguely complains about “Marxists” and “neo-Marxists” without naming a single name.

  115. says

    …on the Left, it’s adherence to a kind of fuzzy concept of “altruism” that’s unable to recognize that market incentives can ever serve a social good.

    Examples, please, or I’ll have to discard this as yet another phony “equivalency” dodge. The progressives I’ve heard from aren’t defending any ‘fuzzy concept of “altruism,”’ they’re defending specific policies and programs that had at least some beneficial effect before the Republitarians defunded them.

  116. says

    Ok, I wasn’t planning on continuing this particular discussion, but you’ve perfectly highlighted why I don’t identify with the skeptic or atheist communities anymore and why I think that the work of those skeptics trying to raise awareness of social justice issues is so important.

    Atheists and skeptics are not a marginalized minority at least not in the ways in which women, racial minorities, LGBTQ people, and yes, members of some religious communities are. A big part of what drove me away in the first place was, in addition to the rampant libertarianism, the overwhelming numbers of straight white dudes desperately seeking victim status. There’s something about the American psyche that compels people to try to coopt the legitimacy that comes from being oppressed. Christians do it, Republicans do it, wealthy people do it, white nationalists do it, and atheists do it too. Now, I’ll certainly grant that atheists are not privileged by virtue of their atheism the way that Christians, for example, are, but given that the atheist community is predominantly cis, straight, white, and male, there’s more than enough privilege to make up for that.

    If you can read a post like this and still somehow come away thinking that the skeptic and atheists communities are, simply by virtue of their skepticism and atheism, fighting the good fight, worthy of praise and admiration, and most importantly, beyond criticism, then you’re clearly more interested in your own narratives and how they make you feel about yourself and your community than you are in working within and beyond the skeptics and the atheists to make the world a decent place.

  117. says

    Atheists and skeptics are not a marginalized minority at least not in the ways in which women, racial minorities, LGBTQ people, and yes, members of some religious communities are.

    Tell that to Jessica Ahlquist — she might read the email, if her inbox isn’t already clogged with hate-mail. Tell that to the ministers who come out as atheists and immediately find themselves non-persona-non-grata in the communities in which they grew up. Tell that to the atheists who find themselves making a full-time job of debunking centuries-old zombie-lies about nonbelievers. Tell that to a parent who has lost custody of his/her child because of his/her mere statement of nonbelief.

    A big part of what drove me away in the first place was, in addition to the rampant libertarianism, the overwhelming numbers of straight white dudes desperately seeking victim status.

    Funny how you notice the right-wing haters (not all of whom are really atheists, BTW), without noticing the people at whom their hatred is directed. You admitted at the start that maybe your picture of atheists and skeptics is colored by your personal experience; and I admitted that was a strong possibility, based on MY experience (including what I read daily on FTB); and now you’re taking all this as reinforcement of your bias? That tortured logic makes me suspect that you never were a “skeptic” in the first place, you’re just pretending to be one to fabricate a “why I have a good excuse to piss on skeptics” story.

    If you can read a post like this and still somehow come away thinking that the skeptic and atheists communities are, simply by virtue of their skepticism and atheism, fighting the good fight…

    Once again, you’re flat-out lying about what I said. I never said “the skeptic and atheists communities are, simply by virtue of their skepticism and atheism, fighting the good fight;” I said that many skeptics and atheists are fighting the good fight. Also, I never said anyone was “beyond criticism,” and neither did anyone else here. You really think you can lie about what other people say and get away with it?

    jon, I don’t think you’re a skeptic or a former skeptic; I think you’re a bigot clinging to a wrong opinion based on incomplete information, even after you’ve been offered more information. I’ve seen this behavior in right-wing Christians: admit they might be wrong, pretend to be open to new information, then run away from the information and straight back into the cozy cocoon of their original beliefs, while insisting they REALLY REALLY TRIED to be open-minded.

  118. says

    I’d like to think I am far too mature to make stupid comments like that. I’d also like to think I was able to let things like asinine comment thread squabbles go, but apparently that’s not the case.

    On the other hand, I’m apparently both a neo-Marxist troll and a crypto-Christian bigot, so I imagine that my failure to elevate the discourse can’t come as much of a disappointment.

  119. 'Tis Himself says

    It’s my experience that more Marxists are familiar with economic theory than most libertarians.

    Just as a bit of trivia, supply-side economics was first described by Marx.

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