Last week, I wrote about the annoying backwardness of some old-school skeptics — the ones who want to dictate what is an allowed topic for skeptical inquiry and what is not. I targeted Daniel Loxton for criticism; he’s a good guy who does good work promoting skepticism, but he also has this rather nannyish side that prompts him to deplore everyone else who doesn’t do it exactly like he does.
This week, I’ve found someone worse: Barbara Drescher. Once again, we have someone with a distinguished history in the skeptical movement and great things to contribute, who digs in her heels at these new and different people who dare to intrude on her little domain and offer different perspectives. And I’m going to go further: on some things, she is just plain wrong, persisting in a hidebound version of skepticism that has been dogma for far too long. In particular, she wants to — as is typical — restrict the range of subjects to which skepticism may be applied, and sneers at anyone who disagrees.
She has posted four articles, all spawned by her resentment at what she saw at TAM9. I found them infuriating.
It was the sum total of the little things that I found aggravating. Like this:
However, I did not leave TAM9 with the optimism that Daniel Loxton left with. One reason for this was that D.J. made those statements [about religious diversity] while discussing “Diversity in Skepticism” with Debbie Goddard, Greta Christina, Jamila Bey, and Hemant Mehta. Debbie Goddard is the campus outreach director for CFI, a secular organization with a branch devoted to skepticism (CSI). The panel’s moderator, Desiree Schell, is firmly rooted in the skeptical community as the host of Skeptically Speaking and an occasional blogger on Skeptic North. The other three panelists are closely identified with atheism and, in my opinion, have contributed little, if anything, to skepticism itself. I kept wondering who this “we” was in the discussion (e.g., “We could offer…”).
Not only is she the self-appointed guardian of True Skepticism, but she gets to say who is the True Skeptic. Apparently, she sniffs, Christina, Bey, and Mehta do not belong in this community and lack the proper bona fides to appear on stage—they are not part of the official “we”, which, I presume, includes Drescher but not these bedraggled ragamuffins who have crashed her party. Why, they are mere atheists.
I know the work of all three well, and they are enthusiastic, intelligent, rational communicators who have much to contribute to skepticism. To just pick one example, I heard Hemant Mehta give a talk at the Secular Student Alliance that I considered the highlight of the weekend: he discussed how to get students to think imaginatively and critically, using examples from his work as a math teacher. I learned stuff: he’s a guy on the front lines of education, who is teaching high school students critical thinking and the joy of mathematics. But no; he has not been properly trained in skeptical dogma, does not understand the pre-defined boundaries of inquiry as allowed by professional skeptics, and therefore can have “contributed little”.
This is a good way to kill the skeptical movement, by dismissing the contributions of new members. Contra Drescher, all three of those people are essential contributors to a growing movement, and people have to learn that no movement can be static if it is vital — it will change as new people pick up the torch and add their own input to it.
And this is just over-the-top fear-mongering. This could be a Republican complaining about those damned immigrants moving in.
I am angry. I am angry and a little fearful for our future. We live in dangerous times and the work of Skepticism is serious. The work is hard. It requires patience, discipline, empathy, and knowledge.
I am angry because an influx of people who have stumbled upon or been recruited to the work of Skepticism are making it much more difficult. We’re moving backwards. This is happening, in part, because some of these rookies insist that their understanding of that work is as good or better than the understanding of people who have studied and worked in the field for years. Many have little or no education in the basics of science or the scientific process. Some claim to follow the teachings of people whose works they have never read. Some believe that the ‘old guard’ have more to learn from them than the other way around. These people voice their opinions on blogs and in talks, discussing topics about which they consider themselves competent after reading a couple of blog posts, listening to a podcast, considering their own limited experiences, or MAYBE reading a book or two on the topic.
What’s worse, they argue about details with little or no understanding of even the big picture. They believe that their understanding is complete and, therefore, requires no study, no thought beyond the surface features, and certainly not time or mentoring.
The work of atheism is also hard. It requires patience, discipline, empathy, and knowledge.
The work of communicating science is also hard. It requires patience, discipline, empathy, and knowledge.
These are not unique attributes of skepticism. These are shared properties of lots of intellectual endeavors, and to just dismiss anyone who hasn’t drunk deep of the kool-aid of establishment skepticism as ignorant and lacking understanding and being arrogant is also a kind of ignorance, misunderstanding, and arrogance. And mischaracterizing them as Drescher does is unjust.
What it really boils down to is an old irritation that’s getting increasingly itchy for the Old Guard: there are atheists among us. And in the old dogma of skepticism, atheists are second- or third-class citizens. Why? Because traditional skeptics have consciously set up their definitions with arbitrary boundaries that exclude atheism and religion from serious consideration. They have created an unjustifiable division between the two that dismisses atheism instead of recognizing it as a significant and growing subset of skepticism.
Drescher describes some behaviors as troublesome, and here’s the first among them:
conflating atheism with skepticism. This goes beyond the old arguments about testability and method vs. conclusion. In recent years, I have see these terms used interchangeably far too often. More and more speakers at major conferences (like TAM) have little connection with Skepticism and more atheism-laden conferences are adopting names and promotional language which suggests that the meeting is about Skepticism. I suspect that the overlap of ‘members’ of the atheism and skepticism movements is at the root of this.
She’s complaining about TAM? This last one had as speakers people like Loftus, Oullette, Hecht, Nye, Gay, Tavris, Wiseman, Plait — this was not in any way an atheism-heavy conference. Even I got up on the stage and gave a pure science talk, with no mention at all of atheism. If anything, the representation of atheism in the talks was low compared to the interest in the audience; to complain about the damned atheists at a meeting with almost no atheism discussed implies that she really wants to just purge the meeting of us outspoken atheists altogether, not because of what we said or the way we’re dominating the conversation (because we aren’t), but because she just doesn’t like who we are.
The reference to “atheism-laden conferences” is an old and tired argument about Skepticon, which admittedly does go the other way — it tends to have far more discussion about atheism than TAM. This has led to positively insane arguments in past years from fusty old purists that it should change its name, despite the fact that it has also had skeptical traditionalists, like Joe Nickell, speak there, and that the atheism talks are based on evidence and critical thinking. And once again, last time I was there, I talked about genetics, not atheism. It rankles, though, that a student-run skeptical conference has dared to breach the traditional boundaries of skepticism set by old poobahs to talk about subjects that are of greater interest and importance to a rising new generation of skeptics.
And that’s where I get really peeved. Drescher drags out the same old tired arguments that atheists aren’t True Skeptics, that gods are off the table in skepticism, and that atheists are lazy thinkers who haven’t considered the subtleties and nuances of skepticism.
To which I can only say: bullshit.
What sets her off is this post by Amanda Marcotte. Marcotte is apparently not a member of the True Skeptics Club, she’s political, and she’s also assertively atheist. Bad Amanda. She’s the very worst thing that could happen to skepticism in Drescher’s eyes.
So Marcotte said some very straightforward things that Drescher does not agree with.
The excuse from “traditional” skeptics for making an exception for religion is that the god hypothesis is an untestable claim, and they’re only interested in testable claims. But as this fairy example shows, that’s not really true. There are plenty of things skeptics are skeptical about because of the preponderance-of-evidence standard. We don’t believe in ESP or ghosts or fairies because no one has ever produced solid evidence in favor of these things existing, and we combine that with an assumption that these things are highly unlikely and so the burden is on the people making the claims to prove them. I don’t see how god is any different.
… Yes, it’s true that you can’t test whether or not there is a god somewhere that simply refuses to show himself, but that’s also true of fairies, people with ESP, and ghosts. And yet it’s considered a good use of skeptical time to point out the weakness of the ghost/ESP argument. So why not god?”
Drescher declares that all as completely “wrong”, and goes on to prove my point by dogmatically reciting the skeptical anti-atheist catechism. And I will say simply that Drescher is wrong or irrelevant at almost every point, and take her argument apart piece by piece. Here’s the list of claims she marshals to oppose that atheist, Marcotte.
Science is empirical, therefore scientific skepticism is empirical. This is more important than testability, although it is related.
Since Marcotte said, “atheism is the result of applying critical thinking and demands for evidence to the god hypothesis”, I think she’s already aware of the importance of empirical evidence, so nothing here challenges atheists in any way.
Skeptics do not “make exceptions” for religion. The fact that “God exists” is not an empirically testable hypothesis is not the fault of skeptics or Skepticism. It is the nature of the hypothesis. Science and skepticism have nothing to say about any hypothesis which can never be tested empirically.
Yes, dogmatic skeptics do make exceptions for religion — that’s precisely what Drescher is doing in this long list of claims to exclude god-claims from skepticism! The whole grand revelation that Dawkins brought to the table with The God Delusion is that god can be treated as a hypothesis about the nature of the universe, and can be examined scientifically — this is probably the one common theme of the New Atheism, that we can look at the claims of religion empirically and logically and see that they are false.
And no, the whole “Does god exist” question isn’t very interesting to atheists, either, because everyone who brings it up leaves the meaning of this “god” thingie tends to leave it undefined. We do narrow it down, though. Is there evidence of an interventionist god who tinkers in the world today? Is there evidence of a creator god who started the universe? Are the specific deities of the religions that are actually practiced by people supported by any reasonable historical or scientific evidence? These are perfectly appropriate questions for skeptical inquiry. Why does Barbara Drescher pretend they don’t exist?
Skepticism is not a set of beliefs or conclusions. This is important. “We don’t believe in ESP or ghosts or fairies” is not something that a good skeptic would say and the ‘we’ part is presumptuous. I certainly do not want someone like Amanda Marcotte speaking for me if this what she thinks skepticism is.
Oh, come now. Quibbling over language. Barbara Drescher does not believe in ESP or ghosts or fairies, either, unless she’s really a clueless ninny. This is simply colloquial language: I don’t believe in ghosts at all, either. If you ask me why, then I would tell you that there has been no credible evidence for them. Similarly, I believe in evolution, which isn’t to say that I accept it as part of a faith package, but because I’ve looked at the evidence and see that the theory adequately describes the phenomena, and that there is no consistent alternative that currently accounts for all of the evidence.
A skeptic who will not say that they don’t believe in fairies is a poor communicator.
Also, again with this complaint about “we”! I doubt that Marcotte was intentionally including Drescher in her “we”, or that the fact that many of us agree with Marcotte’s sentiment implies that all skeptics do. They don’t, and I for one would rather not have Drescher speaking for me, either.
What any Skeptic believes is irrelevant. Personal knowledge is derived in whatever way the individual chooses to derive it. Science and skepticism deal with shared knowledge. Shared knowledge requires empirical evidence.
We’re beginning to go in circles here. We’ve already dealt with this: the atheist position is not one of faith or personal belief, it’s a consequence of an evaluation of the empirical evidence. Just like our rejection of ghosts, which is what Amanda Marcotte said. That Drescher is totally oblivious to the atheist strain of thought is not a reason to call it unskeptical.
The reason that we can easily discount ESP in most cases is because it is usually easily tested empirically.
Prayer can also be tested empirically. Historical claims about the Jewish kingdoms can be tested empirically. Religious claims about the nature of the universe can be tested empirically. Seriously, a good part of Drescher’s problem is a complete unwillingness to consider that many religious claims are subject to a critical examination of the evidence: they are testable and empirical.
Requiring empirical testability is not “giving religion a pass”. It is holding true to the scientific process, which is designed specifically to ensure that our human biases and personal values do not affect our ability to distinguish what is true from what is not true. Religion’s most basic claims usually involve an omniscient and omnipotent being, making them largely untestable. This is not at all true of ESP, ghosts, or other traditional topics in skepticism.
Oh, come on. As I’ve said repeatedly here, religion’s claims are empirical: invent all the omniscient omnipotent beings you want, it doesn’t matter because if they are to make some difference in the universe, they must in some way impinge upon and affect us. The completely alien god who resides outside the universe and never ever dabbles in ours is inaccessible to empirical examination, I would agree — but almost no one believes in that kind of god.
A good skeptic would never state that there are no ghosts. A good skeptic would investigate specific claims of hauntings, searching for natural phenomenon which would explain the evidence. A good skeptic would not say there is no such thing as extrasensory perception. A good skeptic would say that we have no evidence to support precognition, telekinesis, etc.
Oh, more bullshit. I say, “there are no ghosts.” I am a good skeptic, though, because if someone brought me evidence of such things, I would change my mind.
I detest this tepid shilly-shallying. Come right out and state your position clearly. I would say the opposite: no good skeptic who has examined the evidence for these phenomena would hesitate to say that there are no such things as ghosts, ESP, telekinesis, precognition, etc. Hiding your position behind academic abstractions and conditionals and evasive language is not a way to make a point lucidly.
Skepticism is not about pointing out the weaknesses of arguments. It is about evaluating the evidence. These are not even close to being the same. When a self-proclaimed psychic moves the bar and says, “If it failed the test, then the forces that give me these powers do not want to be seen,” they make their claim untestable. Skeptics then have nothing to say in response. However, skeptics can provide natural explanations for phenomena (e.g., reveal that Peter Popoff was being fed information via an ear piece) which are much more parsimonious than supernatural explanations. This is also what we do with religious claims. If someone claims that God created man as he is today, we can point to the evidence which support the theory of evolution. If they claim that God created the universe, we can point to the evidence for the Big Bang. If they claim that God created the universe and man by making these natural processes possible, well then, we can’t refute that.
What? We can’t point out illogical and weak arguments? Nonsense. That’s a perfectly reasonable approach for a skeptic to take. Evidence is also primary, in which case…why are dogmatic skeptics so dead set against examining religion? Again, all religions except the most philosophically abstract make claims about the nature of the real world, and we can test them. It’s also true that, as Drescher explains, the religious, like the psychics, are constantly moving the bar and sending their gods off into the unexaminable and untestable — but that is also a legitimate logical reason to argue that their claims are baseless and false. After all, if their beliefs about god are not examinable by mere mortal beings on planet earth, how the heck do they know about him? Epistemological issues ought also to be in the toolbox of a good skeptic.
I’m not going to be the reverse of Drescher and declare all those dogmatic skeptics persona non grata — the traditional domain of skepticism, artificial as it is, is still relevant and important, and people like Drescher can be an important source of rigor and historical continuity in the skeptical movement. However, when they start lecturing us about “true skeptics” and building walled gardens into which they’ll toss important questions and heap scorn on anyone who tries to address them, they are almost certainly always wrong, and ought to be ignored.