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Aug 08 2011

Skeptical dogmatism

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.

108 comments

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  1. 1
    Steve LaBonne

    The “skeptical” movement as such is way past its sell-by date and needs to die ASAP. It’s full of idiots like these. We need “out” atheists to normalize atheists in the public mind just as gay people are gradually becoming normalized, and we need scientists who know hoe to communicate with the public. We do not need clods like Drescher, whose emissions serve no useful purpose whatsoever. Nor do we need the libertarian clown show at places like Reason.

  2. 2
    Glen Davidson

    The conclusion that there is no God cannot be arrived at empirically, so it cannot be “the result of properly-applied skepticism” as some claim.

    Hm, could one perhaps skeptically ask if God’s existence can be arrived at empirically? And if not, well, what would a good-thinking person conclude?

    Sure, just pose the wrong question (a favorite ploy of the IDiots), and you can come up with the wrong, yet desired, answer.

    Glen Davidson

  3. 3
    PZ Myers

    You know, I just reviewed the program from TAM9. There wasn’t one session or talk on atheism — not even Dawkins, and not me. To complain that there was too much atheism at TAM is ludicrous — we ought to be complaining that there wasn’t enough.

    I also notice that Drescher has presented on the problems of teaching to the test, and how it fosters poor thinking skills. This is one of the things Hemant specifically discussed at SSA; if instead of dismissing him, she’d talked to him, she might have found a lot in common.

  4. 4
    Sastra

    Examining a claim with scientific skepticism doesn’t just involve setting up a specific test. It also involves analyzing the hypothesis and looking to see whether it fits in with our current background assumptions in science. There is nothing in the methods of science which make any up front distinction between natural and supernatural. It is all grist for the mill.

    The God hypothesis assumes a top-down reality made of essences, mind-/body dualism, and psychic forces which began to be questioned and whittled down to nothing as a collective form of objective inquiry remodeled our primitive understanding of the world — and how the brain works. People who believe in God not only rest their belief on these antiquated assumptions, they drag in all sorts of evidence to back up their “faith.” It’s never just a leap: it’s always a “little” leap from a heaping huge empirical pile.

    I got involved with atheism after starting out in the so-called “skeptic movement.” I joined Skeptic Society and CSICOP before I joined the Council for Secular Humanism or Atheist Alliance. As PZ has said, “Science changes the way you think.” One you get into the critical thinking habit you’re simply no longer going to be content with accepting the breezy assertion that religion is immune to critical inquiry as long as it remains general and vague enough.

    No. It can’t be so general, or so vague, that it fails to conflict with what we’ve learned about minds, forces, and how complexity evolved without mind.

    Funny that the atheist organizations never seem to have a problem with those newfangled skeptics stepping on their lawns.

  5. 5
    Sastra

    By the way, I think it very sly to label the stance of Drescher and her allies as “skeptical dogmatism.” It will probably infuriate her, that you used the term on their view before they got to use it on us.

    Personally, I’m disappointed in Drescher’s lack of nuance here.

  6. 6
    PZ Myers

    I started out in skepticism before the atheism thing, too — atheism had a much smaller population interested in it at the time, and we had the Skeptical Enquirer and James Randi to keep skepticism alive with regular updates. Atheism really was a boring backwater full of greybeards who just wanted to talk Bible exegesis, and it’s not surprising that that version of atheism was set aside by the skeptical movement.

    But now it’s atheism that has a burst of vigor and is growing fast and drawing a wider audience. Skepticism is looking creaky and dry and boring (except for TAM, which has always done a good job of promoting diverse views, including the world of entertainment).

  7. 7
    frankensteinmonster

    Compromising your intellectual integrity to gain some questionable allies is just plain wrong. OK. you MIGHT need them to survive. You may be forced to pretend to them that they are not on the target list too, by concentrating exclusively on the more important targets, and by not telling them, that at the end of the day, their pet delusion will be taken to the task too. But to twist your own logic voluntarily to the point that you actually start arguing and fighting against the original, more coherent, version, is to cross over to the dark side. You are no longer defending the truth, you are defending a convenient lie against the truth.

  8. 8
    PZ Myers

    I don’t think Drescher is doing anything as calculated as seeing this as a way to maintain religious allies. I’ve run into these arguments a lot from skeptics: they’ve sort of absorbed them as irrefutable, inarguable basic principles that must be defended at all costs.

  9. 9
    frankensteinmonster

    they’ve sort of absorbed them as irrefutable, inarguable basic principles that must be defended at all costs.

    Not sure whether that makes it any better. If you just unthinkingly latch onto such an idea, that was created as a little more than a tactical deceit, and defend it unthinkingly and recklessly, then you are an unreflective dogmatist just as most of the skeptic’s adversaries are. Not sure whether that is much better than a deliberate liar.

  10. 10
    badrescher

    About the only thing that I have to say in response to this is that you’ve misrepresented me and just about everything that I wrote. Given the effects of expectation and the ever-present confirmation bias, there is not much that I can say that will keep your readers from vilifying me in the same way, so carry on.

  11. 11
    Michael S

    It sounds like Drescher wants to maintain a purely academic existence for skepticism. It is a mathematical kind of standard, but even math and logic fields contain branches to deal with the unknown.

    I don’t see how you could endorse any type of human application without acknowledging the value in challenging the most widely prevalent and influential belief systems in the world.

  12. 12
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    I consider myself kind of an outsider to this whole cluster of movements/communities. I came to know about it through a renewed interest in science (always a scholar, my primary discipline was history). An exploration of current science led to studying a bit about evolution which led to awareness of the gnu atheists. The rigourous scepticism displayed by people like PZed and Matt Dillahunty led me to abandon all the romanticised woo I’d adopted through my twenties. A movement that encompasses reason, intellectual integrity, promotion of universal education, human rights (including equality for women and queer people), denunciation of pseudoscience and unscientific “medicine” and healthcare, aims to abolish the political expression of religion, and calls for rational approaches to public policy is a movement I would love to join and work for.

    So what is this “Skepticism” animal? Debunking psychics and bigfoot sightings (can’t debunk bigfoot itself cause that’s not a testable claim)? Why bother? What a monumental waste of time. Those kinds of claims should be last on the list of priorities. Do we really give a fuck that some people believe in astrology when twelve year-olds are being raped by God’s prophets and priests? Let’s get people operating with a rational, sceptic approach to *everything* and only the kooks will still be believing in moon landing hoaxes and fairies. And gods.

  13. 13
    PZ Myers

    I have quoted you extensively; I even took pains to respond to every single one of the bulleted arguments you made against Marcotte, even though I found many of them redundantly erroneous. How you can now claim I misrepresented you is hard to see, especially since you won’t even try to explain yourself.

    Your message came through clearly in that set of posts. Atheists are lazy, sloppy thinkers who you think don’t belong in the skeptical community, and you tried at length to isolate a whole set of obvious problems with religion from inquiry.

  14. 14
    Matt Penfold

    Drescher, in part III of her rant says:

    Amanda [Marcotte] wrote,

    Look: atheism is the result of applying critical thinking and demands for evidence to the god hypothesis. It’s not any different than non-belief in all sorts of supernatural claims, such as ESP and ghosts. All of the weaseling around that is intellectually dishonest. It’s not about critical thinking, but about politics and frankly, not taking on religion because religion is seen as too powerful.

    Wrong.

    What is intellectually dishonest is arguing about something you do not fully understand against people who are experts in the field. What is intellectually dishonest is advancing an uneducated opinion because the educated one does not help you achieve your own goals.

    Her first two sentences demonstrate the problem with this entire post and most of the comments on it: ignorance. The rest of the paragraph is bullshit that Amanda made up. Nobody is ‘backing down’ and there is no concern that “religion is seen as too powerful”. This is not about politics. It is about scientific integrity. This point has been made again and again, but ignored by people like Amanda. Perhaps they ignore it because they do not understand it, or maybe they ignore it because it doesn’t help them, but the reasons don’t matter. Ignoring it won’t make it go away.

    Sorry, Drescher, there is most certainly concern that religion is too powerful. One only needs to look at what has been happening in Ireland to realise that. The Catholic Church was able to keep secret the sexual. physical and mental abuse carried about its priests because it was too powerful. The Irish state felt powerless to intervene, and those affected by the abuse also felt powerless. If you read the various reports that have now been published, Cloyne and Ryan and others, you will know that powerlessness is a recurrent feeling reported by the abused. It is sickening that you should dismiss those feelings in so cavalier a manner.

    I think maybe you need to examine yourself, since integrity is not an attribute I would associate with you. Dishonesty, yes, integrity, no.

    Still, why let the buggery of children get in the way of you ideology.

  15. 15
    Josh, Official SpokesGay

    This is truly curious. Drescher’s own words from her site:

    I do not believe there is a God or other omnipotent being.

    But in her recent articles, she says:

    A good skeptic would never state that there are no ghosts…A good skeptic would not say there is no such thing as extrasensory perception.

    Somebody’s confused about their own position.

  16. 16
    bybelknap

    No, Ms Drescher, those damn kids will not get off your lawn!

  17. 17
    Abelard

    It is difficult to see Drescher’s animus. Atheists are natural skeptics and should be welcomed rather than shunned by the skeptical community. There certainly is no reason to build ideological walls between atheists and ‘classical’ skeptics, either. There are many areas of common interest where collaboration would be fruitful; witness the rise of alternative medicine, faith healing and reiki, for instance, a movement that has all the characteristics of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo common to religious dogma (and is undoubtably inspired by it.) An atheist is as likely as a classical skeptic to point out the lack of evidence for mind-body duality, soul energy or the power of prayer, perhaps even more-so. Unfortunately, we live in a world rife with superstitious nonsense. Skeptics everywhere have common cause enough.

  18. 18
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    I think Drescher has forgot why the Null Hypothesis is always non-existence in skepticism. That is simple, it keeps the burden of proof on those making positive claims, like ESP exists, they can move a paper clip with their mind, or their imaginary deity exists. Simply an extension of every other tool she uses. Nothing special.

  19. 19
    Cuttlefish

    Josh, there is no confusion there. “I do (or do not) believe X” is a very different statement from “there is no X”. I personally think one can go considerably further than Dr. Drescher in actually drawing conclusions and stating “there is no X”, but she is not being inconsistent.

  20. 20
    Josh, Official SpokesGay

    Cuttlefish, that’s a distinction without a difference (mostly). It’s silly semantic parsing, not nearly as profoundly different in meaning as is so often claimed. And it’s a stupid distraction a lot of people use to try to claim the skeptical high ground when they wish to be perceived as NOT THOSE ATHEISTS. That’s exactly what Drescher is doing.

  21. 21
    Josh, Official SpokesGay

    I do not believe there is a God or other omnipotent being.

    Read that again Cuttlefish and tell me how you can claim it’s a different statement from “I believe there are no gods.” Just. . why? Why do some people find this linguistic sleight of hand so compelling, and so very worth spending time on?

  22. 22
    Alenonimo

    Barbara Drescher is not a real skeptic and I can prove it quite easily.

    Her refusal to acknowledge that religion have testable claims shows that she does not want to question religion. A skeptic is characterized as a person who will always question beliefs and allegations in order to find evidence.

    Since she does not want to, she is not a skeptic by definition. Period.

    Yes, I used the dictionary attack. But so what? A religious skeptic is like an god-fearing atheist. You can’t eat the cake and have it too.

  23. 23
    Cuttlefish

    Drescher, in one of her posts, says she is using “belief” in a broad definition, including things believed because of evidence (some call this “known” rather than “believed”) and without evidence (some would call “faith”). As such, it is (in my opinion) perfectly reasonable to speak of a difference between “what I believe” and “what I can claim as fact”. She sets a higher bar for things about which we may claim are fact. You do not. Both are reasonable positions, but they are not the same reasonable positions.

    What bothers me is that you are on the same side. We (humans) are very good at dividing ourselves into factions. Perhaps it is a good sign, really–the battle against irrationality is going so well that we are free to draw distinctions among our own forces.

  24. 24
    Cuttlefish

    On your second bit, Josh–her “I do not believe there is a god” and your “I believe there are no gods” are functionally identical. They do, however, differ from “there is no god.” The prior two are stated explicitly as beliefs; the last as fact.

    Again, I see it as reasonable to see a distinction there, and I see it as reasonable to see it as semantic games. Where you draw the line can be defended, one or the other, it doesn’t bother me. Again, you are both leagues away from the real opponent.

  25. 25
    Kol

    Testing propagation.

    Original thought was this:

    “This is like watching my parents fight…

    Doesn’t it all just boil down to, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof”?

    Look. It took a while for me to become a skeptic. It took a while longer to become an atheist. Now I’m both and there are no rules or definitions that can keep that from being a fact.

    Is this a search for truth or a Kennel Club event?”

    Yay! It’s fixed

  26. 26
    Josh, Official SpokesGay

    I’m not sure that Drescher and I are on the same side, Cuttlefish. To the extent that she wants to decrease irrational thinking and its consequences, we are. To the extent that she wants to ring off skepticism from involvement with atheism and the critique of religion, we are not on the same side (and stronger-I think she’s doing damage). Life is messy that way.

  27. 27
    'Tis Himself

    badrescher #10

    About the only thing that I have to say in response to this is that you’ve misrepresented me and just about everything that I wrote.

    You were quoted directly and extensively. A link was given to your full remarks. All PZ did was comment on your statements.

    Given the effects of expectation and the ever-present confirmation bias, there is not much that I can say that will keep your readers from vilifying me in the same way, so carry on.

    So you’re going to whine about how mean the nasty atheists are but you can’t be bothered to answer PZ’s or the commentariat’s refutations of your position.

  28. 28
    Fukuda

    There’s another erm.. interesting blog entry in her blog:

    The polarizing nature of skepticism

    For example, in May of last year, I was a little surprised about the reaction, especially of PZ Myers to this court ruling reported by The Orange County Register:

    The reader comments are more of the same polarized complaints of pursecution that I have come to expect from Pharyngula, but there are a few voices of reason.

    If you read the original complaint, you will discover that this was a public high school history teacher whose mocking of religion during lectures would put PZ to shame, yet comments such as “When you put on your Jesus glasses, you can’t see the truth” were ruled as having a pedagogical, secular purpose. In fact, a very long list of clearly derogatory comments (some of which are quoted here) were fine, but this single comment was ruled as having no secular purpose because it was made outside the context of the classroom in his role as an advisor for the school newspaper.

    Remember kids, you can only mock creationism if you’re teaching history, doing so outside of class will fairly grant you legal action.

    I bring up this example because the reactions on Facebook and other blogs were much like PZ’s knee-jerk, “How can this happen!” and I think that many people would have a completely different perspective if they took a few minutes to get some facts.

  29. 29
    Marcus Ranum

    Barbara says:

    Political, moral, and social ideology are ‘outside the scope’ of skepticism because they remove objectivity. In addition, untestable claims (e.g., “Does God exist?”) are off-limits because they cannot be addressed scientifically.

    Skepticism fail, right there. Or, should I say, be more skeptical about NOMA?

  30. 30
    Robin Marie

    This really surprises me. I’ve arrived at skepticism through atheism, but furthermore, through the study of history. I was ignorantly naive that some “Old School” skeptics were so bothered by the growth and energy of the atheist movement. This strikes me as very strange. I can imagine being apathetic towards the question of God, and having a preference not to focus on religion — but to have an active antipathy towards it seems like the classic behavior of someone who wants “their” social group to stay the same way it always has been, because that is affirming for their identity. Drescher is being extremely defensive here, and I’m surprised that she can’t step back and see how phobic and emotional her behavior appears.

    It seems especially odd to me that she would insist on scientific credentials in order to be a real contributor to the skeptical community. Does she really think the lessons of skepticism require degrees in science to grasp? It also ignores that the hard sciences are not the only source of skepticism, although obviously they provide the best forum in which to display the power of skepticism. But I didn’t learn about critical thinking, the importance of empirical evidence and all the other tools I employ in skepticism primarily from science, but from studying history. Historians value evidence and learn how to weigh it as well. But it would seem I am not qualified, in Drescher’s eyes, to have anything to say about skepticism because I am not professionally trained in science. That is a very weird kind of elitism, weird only for being so blatant. Does she even read the blogs of people like Greta Christina? They clearly understand how to evaluate evidence, and also clearly understand the major pillars of current scientific consensus.

    I am just so confused at this.

  31. 31
    Cuttlefish

    Exactly, Josh. In the big picture, you agree. In the details, you and she each think the other wrong. And on the details, you clearly disagree. My curse is, I see both points of view, and think both are reasonable. Just different. Different weightings on the factor analysis, as it were, leading to a different conclusion.

  32. 32
    Josh, Official SpokesGay

    Cuttlefish, I apologize for my too-hostile tone with you above. I’m severely irritated by lots of goings-on in this topic lately, but that’s not your problem.

  33. 33
    Philip L

    One point given heavy emphasis in Drescher’s articles is that (lower-case “s”) skepticism is fundamentally a scientific process, or at least one which uses the same empirical toolset of science to look at claims about reality: Carl Sagan’s “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection”, which I think is a chapter in The Demon-Haunted World (I think?), is a great summary of methods and techniques.

    Now the ranks of atheism and skepticism have evidently swelled in recent years – Drescher notes attendance at TAM 9 was several hundred more than the previous year – and a larger, more diverse group will also expose differences in many views on all subjects. It’s also obvious that there will be a range of people’s experience with, and knowledge of, the practice of science: TAM 9 had scientific luminaries of the highest order in attendance, and at the other end of the gamut, there may have been some attendees lucky to have been given any acquaintance with the principles of science if they suffered through an education system where rote-learning of facts or adherence to religious dogma were the dominant modes of teaching. (That’s an extreme possibility, but the atheist movement has many converts who had to break away from a fundamentalist upbringing, and usually science education isn’t high on the agenda – if it’s there at all.)

    With the extreme specialisation in learning that occurs at the entry into university level, perhaps a substantial minority of people who are now coming into the movement were interested in and enjoyed science at say high-school level, but were unable to combine that into further learning at university while pursuing other areas of knowledge. Or another sub-category of people are those whose science education and participation in academia stopped after the baccalaureate (as mine did) or after attaining a higher degree, who still remain passionate about the subject.

    So while the articles on “Taking Back Skepticism” have their share of good ideas, and a variety I disagreed with, I also detected a sort of academic elitism at work that is offended by people speaking their minds without the benefit of a scientific education, and presumably the “Taking Back” would involve returning (upper-case “S”) “Skepticism” to a niche status, only inhabited by salaried, and properly credentialled academics, rather than letting so many of the hoi polloi in, and speaking (sometimes unscientifically) on its behalf.

    I think PZ’s objection to this idea, and I find myself in agreement with it, is that no one should be put off by vigorous debate that will ensue from having a larger and more varied skeptical community, even if that means putting up with people whose academic backgrounds are less stellar than others: truth will out in the end. And yes, there will be uncomfortable relations between skeptics who are atheists and those who maintain theistic belief, but there already is contention between various groups within each subset (Deep Rifts!) and the ways ahead seem to be either growth going forward, or splintering and retreating to safe but ultimately irrelevant pigeon-holes.

    I’d like to finish by pointing out two other tangential, related things: in the current fracas that shall not be named, one especially odious tactic has been to point out the supposed lack of scientific credentials for women in the movement, and thus questioning their right to speak for it/within it. That contrasts neatly with Drescher’s second article, pointing out that a woman speaking on a panel came across as the most rational person on it in her opinion (no guesses whom), while also receiving the most rebarbative reactions from the anonymous Internet commentariat – and that panel included Dawkins, who is no easy pushover to beat on that score.

  34. 34
    'smee

    skepticism: All authority is provisional, all statements are conditional, all knowledge is open to question.

    Josh, Cuttlefish – I see where both of you are coming from, and I agree with Josh… There is nothing about Atheism that is non-skeptical, other than the fact that it (at worst) simply dismisses religion according to the Null hypothesis (per Nerd, above) which is, at least, in keeping with the spirit of skepticism.

    Religion is, after all, chock full of extraordinary claims. The onus is on the religious to prove their claims. The skeptical position is to remain skeptical and, until convinced by evidence remain unconvinced.

    It is a (sad) testament to the ubiquity of religion that the default state can only be stated in the negative (a-theist), rather than the positive (rational).

  35. 35
    bastion of sass

    I can understand the dismay of the old-school skeptics who, by golly, developed the definition of “skepticism” and “skeptic,” to the influx of some of these new folks who insist on calling themselves “skeptics” even though they don’t meet the old-schoolers’ definition and who want to expand the old-school definition of “skepticism.”

    Dontcha know that once a term has been defined and traditionally used, it can never, ever be changed? In that regard “skepticism” is like “marriage.” You’re stuck with the traditional definition of what those terms mean, and you can’t change them even if there are darn good arguments for a change. So there!

    And git off my lawn, you punks!

  36. 36
    'Tis Himself

    Drescher is wrong if she thinks god and religion can’t be tested. The literal-interpretation Genesis god is quite obviously false. Jesus is extremely iffy from a historical viewpoint. Divine intervention and prayer have been scientifically examined and found wanting. Hindu “miracles” don’t stand up to rigorous examination. Islamic creationism fails the same tests as its Christian counterpart. In short, goddism and religion have been looked at skeptically and have failed. Unfortunately, Drescher, for whatever reason, refuses to accept this.

  37. 37
    Josh, Official SpokesGay

    ‘Tis, I’m betting Drescher would readily accept that specific claims about things such as God parting the Red Sea can be tested. Well, that is, if such a thing were to occur today. What she objects to (distractingly and not constructively, I think) is the idea that Capital G God, the omniscient being, can be tested.

    And I think she’s doing it out of political, emotional, and turf-protecting motivations, even if not consciously. She’s bought into the Atheists Are Big Social Meanies meme big time, so much so that her own atheism is something she thinks she has to apologize for.

    From her About Me page:

    I try to avoid talking about religion with students and acquaintances because the stereotype of an atheist is not pleasant; I do not want to offend or give the wrong impression. When someone I do not know well personally initiates a discussion, my first instinct is to keep it short and step lightly.

    I find that so offensive I could spit. In order to avoid “giving the wrong impression,” she decides her atheism is to remain hidden and discussed only very lightly, except under special circumstances. She’s wholly uninterested in challenging this unfair stereotype; she’s actively coddling it and shielding it from challenge.

    Replacing one word illustrates:

    I try to avoid talking about homosexuality with students and acquaintances because the stereotype of a lesbian is not pleasant; I do not want to offend or give the wrong impression. When someone I do not know well personally initiates a discussion, my first instinct is to keep it short and step lightly.

  38. 38
    Phalacrocorax, z Třetího Světa

    *yawn*

    Just finished reading the Take Back Skepticism trilogy. While I may have encountered one or two valid points, what really struck me was the author’s trigger-happiness in accusing various atheist of being irrational, while holding that religious people may have rational reasons to believe. I wonder if she really has evidence to accuse others of irrationality, or if she’s just being irrational herself.

    The trilogy is briefly interrupted by a comic that purports to illustrate what happens when you are outspoken to people you’re trying to convince: it’s like threatening to explode the bench where the person comfortably sits while watching the sunset. It is a bad metaphor, though: nobody wants to deconvert people by exploding their houses of worship and religions aren’t just like sunsets on the sea. It’s more like trying to convince a man staring at a wall that what he sees is not a wonderful bay with merry jumping dolphins.

    Anyway, I’d like to quote a sentence from the text that summarizes it pretty well:

    What I would really like to see happen: atheist activists take their ball and go play in their own yard.

    Sounds much better than get off my lawn, don’t you think?

  39. 39
    Marcus Ranum

    It seems especially odd to me that she would insist on scientific credentials in order to be a real contributor to the skeptical community.

    #define SNARK
    That’s because James Randi is notoriously thin on scientific credentials and hasn’t contributed a darned thing to the skeptical community, of course…
    #undef SNARK

  40. 40
    Josh, Official SpokesGay

    What I would really like to see happen: atheist activists take their ball and go play in their own yard.

    Oh my stars, Phalacrocorax. She really did say get off my lawn. Really.

    Dumbfounded.

  41. 41
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    Gods of heaven and earth, but Drescher is the most condescending, inarticulate, confused writer I’ve read in a very long time. I wanted to find out exactly what she was trying to say about those scientific, sceptical credentials so I read pretty much all of all three articles. I’m still not sure exactly what her complaint is except that a bunch of people aren’t “educated” in Skepticism™ as she defines it. And she wants to argue semantics or something (you can only share your conclusions that are based on evidence only if the evidence is the result of a test? wtf?)? Her arrogance and disdain towards Amanda Marcotte was beyond the pale.

  42. 42
    Marcus Ranum

    I can understand the dismay of the old-school skeptics

    It doesn’t bother them. Most of the old school skeptics were dead by 200AD. I’m being arbitrary but I think we could say that Sextus Empiricus was the end of the “old school” (primarily because he demolished epistemology) and then there was a dead period until the rise of the “new school skeptics” like Bayle and Hume.

    What we’re talking about is a bun-fight in which the “n00b skeptics” are trying to isolate themselves from the “johnny come lately skeptics” and they look damn silly attempting it.

    (PS – Popkin’s “history of skepticism” is a wonderful, wonderful book – highly recommended)

  43. 43
    Josh, Official SpokesGay

    You know, the sooner that the Skepticism Is About Paranormal Stuff wing is no longer dominant the better. PZ’s right; it really is starting to look creaky and old. Now, I’m glad the Joe Nickells and Ben Radfords are out there, and it’s good fun to watch the reasoning process that goes on during their work. I’ve learned a lot.

    But honestly, every time I see Joe Nickell say something like, “of course, I’m not here to debunk, I’m here to investigate. You see, you’re not being a good skeptic if you’re not open to the possibility of blah blah blah,” I just turn the page. After all the haunted houses, Bigfeet, lake monsters and chupacabras these guys have seen, it’s almost insulting that they expect us to believe they have no informed suspicions on entering another “investigation.” They don’t believe in ghosts, ESP, or chupacabras. Full stop.

    And really, Eric Von Daniken-type nonsense is not the pressing problem. This isn’t the 1970s, even though it feels that way when you read some of their current “investigations.” Leonard Nimoy is no longer in search of anything.

    What’s been truly impressive is the shift in focus to alt-med claims (homeopathy, healing touch, etc.). These things have dire consequences to health and welfare, and belief in them is pervasive. I’ll take Steven Novella, Harriet Hall, and Orac any day over yet another paranormal investigator.

    Extending this critique to religion, particularly in America, is way past overdue.

  44. 44
    consciousness razor

    This whole issue is completely baffling to me.

    I don’t think it makes any sense to call it “traditional” or “old school” skepticism, or to accept the claim that it has any more historical continuity than does that of skepticism applied to religion. Quite the opposite. Read a single textbook about the history of Western philosophy, and you’ll find plenty of ancient Greek skeptics putting religious claims on the chopping block — routinely, along with everything else, because that’s what the damn word has always meant.

    Sure, ancient skeptics had a lot of stuff wrong. Of course, many of then were not atheists. You obviously don’t have to be an atheist to be skeptical about religious claims (others’ as well as one’s own). It certainly helps, and I think you’re doing it wrong if you’re incapable of making some kind of tentative conclusion. The point is that you keep learning from your mistakes, keep improving your methods and how you interpret the available evidence. That applies to individuals and skepticism as a whole, and I’d say we’ve come a long way in just over two thousand years, if we’re to give credit where credit is due.

    You also don’t have to personally investigate every wacky claim you come across, since there just isn’t time and we’ve got better things to do with our lives. So, I can certainly understand that some focus on certain issues more than others. However, that doesn’t mean you can set a whole class of ideas aside, especially not because the claimant him/herself says it’s off-limits. As far as I’ve ever been able to tell, religious bullshit smells like every other kind. If the religious think their shit doesn’t stink, then I say that is an empirical claim which can be tested.

  45. 45
    Marcus Ranum

    BTW – the main topic that the “old school skeptics” were skeptical about was religion. Socrates, in his discussion with Euthyphro, was challenging Euthypho’s claims to know what “piety” was and whether the gods’ notion of proper behavior was self-contradictory. Socrates was, skeptical about damn near everything but didn’t waste his time on trivialities like acupuncture or homeopathy (though watching Socrates ask Jenny McCarthy about vaccines would be worth the price of admission) Epicurus was skeptical about worldly power, the pursuit of material goods, and doubted society’s notion of “the good life” — my point: the “old school skeptics” main targets were religion, the powerful, and social conventions. Not lightweight cardboard cut-out targets like homeopathy or magnetic bracelets. Considering the very real and important issues that the ancient Greek skeptics tackled, I prefer to call people like Randi “debunkers” because that’s really what they’re doing. Skepticism is a philosophical process of challenging claims to knowledge – not challenging dowsers or cheap spoon-bending conmen. There’s value to revealing those chumps, but what modern society really needs is more epistemological skepticism.

    It’s not dogmatism (the skeptics of ancient Greece were usually seen as opposed to “dogmatists” – people who claimed that they had knowledge but couldn’t support that claim) to reject outright ideas that have no possible avenue by which they might work. For example, if someone claims to be able to channel healing energy, it is not dogmatic to dismiss the claim without any evidence, if the claimant can’t explain where in the electromagnetic spectrum the healing energy is. Because if they can’t tell you, then they don’t know it’s there, and therefore cannot possibly be channeling it. The tools of skeptical enquiry don’t “make mincemeat” out of claims of the paranormal and quack medicine – they evaporate them outright.

  46. 46
    Arcadia's ashes

    PZ: Agree

    Dr Drescher: the old road is rapidly aging, so…… you know

  47. 47
    Rorschach

    One can not help but wonder what the real old-school skeptics from 2500 years ago would have made of a selective, biased and good-weather skeptic like Drescher.

  48. 48
    Matt Penfold

    A thought has just occurred to me.

    If someone who considers themselves a senior figure in the sceptic movement thinks that too many people calling themselves sceptics are not properly educated in scepticism, then surely at least part of the blame for that must lie with that senior sceptic.

    I see nothing from Drescher that suggests she regards she has failed in anyway.

  49. 49
    RichardD

    Ha! How silly. You have a disagreement, she has come to one conclusion and you another, and some of you can’t seem to keep your pissant bitching under control – people can disagree without “wanting to protect religion” or “blah blah sociological explanation for her opinion that make her look like a weak infantile woman incapable of your manly religion defying logic” – some people just have a different opinion for reasons that aren’t because they’re “scared” of religion or “want to make happy-nice with all the believers to ‘protect’ their groups from change” – how about you quit the bullshit attempts to ‘explain’ how her position is weak and the ‘foolish’ reasons she has for holding it and only concentrate on attacking her ideas? It will make you look less pathetic.

  50. 50
    John Morales

    Drescher:

    About the only thing that I have to say in response to this is that you’ve misrepresented me and just about everything that I wrote. Given the effects of expectation and the ever-present confirmation bias, there is not much that I can say that will keep your readers from vilifying me in the same way, so carry on.

    I see a bare assertion and an opinion used as an excuse to not respond.

    (Apparently, a response on her blog addressing PZ’s response on his blog is not even to be considered)

    Weak and unconvincing, this is.

  51. 51
    'Tis Himself

    Richard D #49

    You have a disagreement, she has come to one conclusion and you another, and some of you can’t seem to keep your pissant bitching under control

    We believe her conclusion is wrong AND we’ve given reasons why. This isn’t “pissant complaining“, it’s having a debate.

    people can disagree without “wanting to protect religion” or “blah blah sociological explanation for her opinion that make her look like a weak infantile woman incapable of your manly religion defying logic”

    Nobody is attacking Drescher for being a woman. You’re the one using sexist language here, unlike everyone else.

    some people just have a different opinion for reasons that aren’t because they’re “scared” of religion or “want to make happy-nice with all the believers to ‘protect’ their groups from change”

    We’re disagreeing with her unsupported claims to be the only True Skeptic™ and her objections to having gods and religion be skeptically examined. Some people have expressed possible reasons for her refusal to examine gods and religion but these are obviously opinions. People are allowed to express their opinions as long as they give reasons for having them.

    how about you quit the bullshit attempts to ‘explain’ how her position is weak and the ‘foolish’ reasons she has for holding it and only concentrate on attacking her ideas? It will make you look less pathetic.

    But her position is weak and it’s reasonable to explain why her position is weak.

    By the way, you can forgo using “bitching” and other sexist language here, especially if you’re complaining about sexist attacks.

  52. 52
    Rick Miller

    Personally, I think that dispelling religious nonsense is one of the most important aspects of skepticism in the US at this time.

  53. 53
    Ben

    I cut & pasted this entry into an email for my friend (who can’t check the site at work…). I wrote a few sentences before it and realized maybe I should just post that here as a comment!

    This is interesting. I think the “old skeptic’s” main issue is one of language, but I don’t think she’s aware of that. It reminds me of this kind of discussion in biology where you’re not supposed to anthropomorphize genes or animals, but people do it as shorthand and everyone’s expected to know it’s shorthand. It only becomes a problem if, say, you’re talking to undergrads or Joe Six-Packs who don’t know it’s shorthand, in which case you should speak precisely. In the case of skeptics, most of these skeptics are talking to other skeptics. I don’t think it’s an issue. And the people who aren’t skeptics, are probably do busy drooling to even appreciate the difference between how one set of words is perceived as compared to another!

  54. 54
    dictionaryatheist

    Good post PZ. I think you’ve got Drescher worked out.

    Until last year I had no idea who she was. When I came across some of her comments on a skeptic blog I was amazed that someone could be simulataneously so confident of her intellectual ability and yet appear incapable of constructing a rational argument.

    Although I doubt she’s malicious she does not appear to think very deeply or clearly in some of the areas she claims to understand.

  55. 55
    Ashley F. Miller

    My trouble with Drescher is, and always has been, her constant dismissal of anyone who doesn’t have credentials that live up to her personal standards. Anyone who is too young, anyone who doesn’t have the right degree, or a high enough degree, or enough time devoted to the movement, or hasn’t read enough of the “right” books doesn’t have the right to be a part of the movement. It’s academic elitism at its very worst, and if her approach to skepticism was the only one, we’d lose a lot of voices, and with them a lot of people who are interested in the movement.

    She seems to operate under a wish for the movement to remain small, both in number of contributors and in size of impact. I don’t understand it at all. I can’t fathom why someone would want to denigrate the young contributors who are the people most likely to ensure the future promotion of skepticism. It’s just baffling. She doesn’t simply disagree with them, she is completely dismissive. It’s not that it’s rude and snobby, though it definitely is, it’s intellectually lazy.

    And I literally cannot comprehend, in a way that makes me feel like I must be missing something, this tendency for the “old guard” to want to keep skepticism away from subjects that impact people’s daily lives in massively important ways. I just don’t understand intentionally limiting the scope when doing so keeps skepticism from being relevant to most people.

  56. 56
    dean the bean

    I’m going to give these “old-school” skeptics the benefit of the doubt and believe that they sincerely want to include within their ranks people who are unwilling to apply critical thought to their religious beliefs. As such, it is not a horrible goal if you feel that society is better served by growing the ranks of skeptics while not excluding religious people.

    But the world is changing. I honestly believe that atheism is close to a tipping point, and the increasingly reactionary religiosity is a sign of religion’s (well Christianity anyway) death throes.

    It is time for progress, Ms. Drescher. Let it go.

  57. 57
    Ing

    I’m going to give these “old-school” skeptics the benefit of the doubt and believe that they sincerely want to include within their ranks people who are unwilling to apply critical thought to their religious beliefs. As such, it is not a horrible goal if you feel that society is better served by growing the ranks of skeptics while not excluding religious people.

    I will not support a world that is intolerant of ghost hunters but tolerant of theologians and child abusers.

  58. 58
    Case M

    Elitist, self-appointed arbiters are a pleasure to ignore. It’s a sad to see someone try to be a gate-keeper when there’s no gate to begin with. In the future I’ll be sure to avoid events that feature Drescher.

  59. 59
    P. lonchitis

    Her tiresome semantics remind me of my 7th grade students, who when I say “Take your seats”, inevitably will grab the chair and smugly reply, “OK, now what should I do?”
    The smug kid knows what I mean, but has a need to be literal in order to be obnoxious. Being 12 is a good excuse for that kind of behavior.
    (I’ve been conditioned to say “be seated” now, btw)

  60. 60
    Matt Penfold

    Is it just be or is Drescher a crap writer. She seems to have taken three blog posts to say what could have been said in one, and she does not seem to be able to write what she means to write.

  61. 61
    llewelly

    Drescher:

    If they claim that God created the universe and man by making these natural processes possible, well then, we can’t refute that.

    In other words, if “God” is rendered meaningless, “God” can’t be disproved.

  62. 62
    llewelly

    Ing | 9 August 2011 at 10:17 am

    I will not support a world that is intolerant of ghost hunters but tolerant of theologians and child abusers.

    This is really the meat of the whole disagreement. Skepticism toward lake monsters, bigfoot, ghosts, astrology, ESP, and so forth, is interesting, and fun, but has relatively modest moral or social impact. The ravages religious delusion are vast. It has ruined hundreds of millions of lives, it has gone one for thousands of years, it has horribly warped entire societies. Supplements, Complementary, and Alternative Medicine and AGW denialism are the only other things I can think of which even come close. (And let’s be honest; for years after Naomi Oreskes showed peer-reviewed science overwhelmingly agreed AGW was real, most of the skeptical community continued to be a giant case of FAIL .)

  63. 63
    Kil

    One theme I see being expressed here over and over again is that what Drescher is suggesting is that religion is a subject to be avoided by skeptics. But she isn’t saying that at all. There are many religious claims that are open to investigation and “scientific skepticism” has a long history of looking at those claims. It’s just that there are certain claims that are outside of what science can look at and rule out (or in) using methods that are science based. Empiricism is the thing.

    The problem is the conflation of methods of inquiry. It’s become muddled by the insistance of some to place all methods under one name. Some of us think that’s a mistake that leads some “skeptics” to not getting that at the heart of modern skepticism is science.

    The CFI, for example, publish two magazines. Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer. They haven’t shy’ed away from religious questions of the non empirical variety, but by separating what is this and what is that, they have kept the mission of scientific skepticism focused on claims that can actually be tested using methods that produce empirical results. And since every claim that can be tested with regard to religion has failed, most of us who think there should be a clear delineation of methods used to arrive at conclusions are also atheists.

    Many of us are fine with this division of labor. In fact, we think it’s necessary. It’s not about being elitist though I do agree that it would be a presumption on my part to claim the expert knowledge of a scientist or an expert trained (by whatever method, including the art of conjuring) to investigate many dubious claims. As a skeptic, my roll is mostly one of support for those who are doing the heavy lifting.

    No one is saying that there shouldn’t be atheist organizations and some of us wear more than one hat. But it’s also important to know that while some atheists are skeptics, not all atheists are skeptics, (much as they like to think they are, which is part of the problem) and not all skeptics are atheists. So again, placing atheists under the brannar “skeptics” can be very misleading and again muddles what some of us promote, which is a skepticism based on scientific methods and empiricism.

  64. 64
    Erulóra (formerly KOPD)

    But she isn’t saying that at all.

    Of course not. She’s just saying things that are functionally identical.

    No one is saying that there shouldn’t be atheist organizations and some of us wear more than one hat.

    Actually, that’s basically what she’s saying. She’s complaining about outspoken atheists being featured at TAM when they’re not even talking about atheism (one of the ones she complained about even spoke on a topic that’s a hobby horse for her). She’s basically saying that they have to choose one hat. Be an outspoken atheist, or a skeptic – not both.

  65. 65
    Aaron

    Yeah, actually, I think someone with a Ph.D. in cognitive science knows better than all y’all what skepticism and rationality are. Just sayin’. Drescher’s premise is dead-on: atheism does not necessarily follow from skepticism, and vice versa. Plenty of atheists are atheistic for very non-rational reasons, and plenty of top-level scientists have been religious and rational at the same time.
    Some of the comments here are truly laughable, especially the ones accusing Drescher of “elitism”. She’s a cognitive scientist, she doesn’t have to justify her qualifications or her past work to random bloggers. Go look it up at your local university – oh, wait, that’s harder than firing off on a blog with a bunch of half-formed opinions.
    As for dogma, that’s exactly what the “atheist community” has been bringing to the table – an atmosphere where it’s not ok to question the very political, non-rational assumptions of the chosen few. Well, I’m an atheist, but it sure as hell isn’t my religion. For a community that believes in “questioning everything”, it sure seems there’s a lot of self-identifying “atheists” who respond to questioning with attacks.
    Drescher’s not claiming she’s the only true skeptic. She’s claiming that a whole whack of people identifying themselves as skeptics and rationalists aren’t actually such – that they are dogmatic and unwilling to have their “wisdom” questioned when they don’t know the first thing about what skepticism is or how it’s applied – hell, most of them don’t even know the difference between an empirical fact and a value judgement. She’s right, as evidenced by the mass of strawmen, ad-hominem attacks and other fallacies collected here at the holy altar of He Who Goes By His Initials. If you can’t address the arguments, tear down the individual – it’s important to label anyone who questions anything as an enemy immediately so that they can be demonized and discounted by the masses that follow blindly.
    What a joke.

  66. 66
    Erulóra (formerly KOPD)

    Argument from authority… Check

  67. 67
    PZ Myers

    The argument from authority isn’t going to fly here. There are a fair number of us who have Ph.D.s, too, so pointing at Drescher’s degree is not going to dazzle anyone.

    I would agree that there is “a whole whack of people identifying themselves as skeptics and rationalists aren’t actually such”. There are many people who take it as an identity rather than an intellectual position. The problem is that Drescher tries to draw the fault line between true skeptics and poseurs at atheism, and that is false.

    She is being “attacked” for making poor arguments and setting false boundaries. And I notice that you’re approach is not to actually consider the substance of the criticisms, but to make extraordinarily stupid assertions that this is a church.

    But notice, no one here is saying I must be right because I have a Ph.D. in neuroscience.

  68. 68
    'smee

    I’ve always thought being skeptical meant having an open mind… just not so open one’s brain falls out onto the floor.

    Drescher appears to have forgotten the last part of that definition.

    @Aaron Yeah, actually, I think someone with a Ph.D. in cognitive science knows better than all y’all what skepticism and rationality are

    Appeals to authority don’t really constitute an argument, especially when said authority seems not to act, behave, or argue skeptically.

  69. 69
    Matt Penfold

    Drescher’s premise is dead-on: atheism does not necessarily follow from skepticism, and vice versa.

    Just how does atheism not follow from scepticism ? Religious belief involves not just belief without evidence but makes a virtue of belief without evidence. One can of course be religious and be a sceptic, but not without there being a glaring flaw in the application of one’s scepticism. One can also be a sceptic and believe in homoeopathy. One just would not be a very good sceptic.

    One can resolve this dilemma to some extent by stating that god does not intervene in the universe, but then you just end up with a useless entity that is not worth bothering about. A non-interventionist god is even more useless than alcohol free beer.

  70. 70
    'Tis Himself

    As for dogma, that’s exactly what the “atheist community” has been bringing to the table – an atmosphere where it’s not ok to question the very political, non-rational assumptions of the chosen few.

    No, what we’re bringing to the table is the demand that god and religion undergo the same scrutiny as Bigfoot and telekinesis. People like Drescher are complaining about this demand. “That’s not how it was done in the good old days and what was good enough for Grandpa Skeptic should be good enough for you nasty atheists, so suck it up or get off my lawn.”

  71. 71
    Aaron

    My apologies if I stooped too low, I was probably out of line.
    Drescher is saying is that the conflation is a Bad Thing, because it leads those atheists who have not examined their own views skeptically to claim they’re skeptics and to promote their position as rational, when it’s simply not. Does that mean there can be no discussion? Of course not, and that’s certainly not what Drescher suggested. She never branded herself as the true keeper of skepticism, she just pointed out a few things that are troubling her about the “movement” – specifically, the attack dogs that pile in via comments sections, blog posts and Facebook threads any time someone dares question the idea that all religious people are irrational fools who can’t produce an educated opinion. I’m an atheist myself – and sometimes I even like to think I’m a rational one – but frankly, that kind of behaviour reminds me too much of the religious mob. And a lot of it supposedly comes from people who’ve apparently watched DBAD without any of it sinking in.

    I think the dialog is useful – I’ve been a regular lurker on both Pharyngula and Drescher’s blog (and a few others) for a while now, and I’m learning things all the time, both about my own positions and those of others. I’ve seldom said anything because, frankly, the level of rancor often shows up reminds of anything but the word “rational”.

    I don’t see anything “sneering” about Drescher’s post. I see her lamenting the state of discourse and the lack of self-examination that’s going on in the “movement”. I think what you call the “old school”, the traditional definition of “skeptic”, is changing – but I’m not sure that’s a good thing. We’ve reached a point where the atheist faithful are getting difficult to distinguish from the Fox News faithful. That disturbs me, generalization though it may be.

    On a side note, I’m not sure Drescher’s dividing line starts at atheism. The impression I got was that it starts at “atheists who haven’t crtitically examined their own position, but are perfectly fine with suggesting the religious should do so”.

  72. 72
    'Tis Himself

    Aaron #72

    I don’t see anything “sneering” about Drescher’s post.

    When Drescher writes things like:

    What the research tells us is that swearing, sarcasm, and ridicule are great ways to rally your followers and gain new followers. This behavior polarizes groupthink, excites, incites, strengthens group cohesion, and promotes ‘othering’ of outgroup members. The target of ridicule and sarcasm is extremely likely to polarize as well, adhering more strongly to their beliefs** as those beliefs are threatened. Although direct and non-confrontational criticism of a belief is not likely to change the mind of the believer either, it is a seed with chance to germinate and is less likely to strengthen the belief.

    Just so that you don’t think that I am a hypocrite, I will say right now that have very little hope that the targets of my criticisms in these posts will allow anything to grow; that soil is hostile. Planting seeds is not my goal.

    then she can be accused of sneering. “Oh those nasty ‘New Atheists’, they don’t raise their pinkies when drinking tea and have the gall to not pay attention to those of us who try to instruct them in the proper manner of tea drinking.”

    Drescher may be right that some who call themselves skeptics don’t really use skepticism when considering some position or other. It’s reasonable for her to complain about those. It is not reasonable for her to lump all vocal atheists in this group.

    I think the dialog is useful – I’ve been a regular lurker on both Pharyngula and Drescher’s blog (and a few others) for a while now, and I’m learning things all the time, both about my own positions and those of others. I’ve seldom said anything because, frankly, the level of rancor often shows up reminds of anything but the word “rational”.

    I quote Drescher’s post #10 in its entirety:

    About the only thing that I have to say in response to this is that you’ve misrepresented me and just about everything that I wrote. Given the effects of expectation and the ever-present confirmation bias, there is not much that I can say that will keep your readers from vilifying me in the same way, so carry on.

    Two sentences which essentially say she’s retrieving her spheroid and retiring to her domicile. You may be interested in dialog, Drescher is not.

  73. 73
    chigau (違う)

    Which Institution of Higher Learning granted Barbara Drescher a “Ph.D. in cognitive science”?
    oh wait
    http://www.psych.ucsb.edu/~eckstein/lab/Barbara/index.htm

  74. 74
    Ant Allan

    Great post, PZ: Your writing seems very forceful, here, more so than when you’re taking down creationists and other religionists. Is it because you expect better from a “fellow” sceptic?

    But I do have one quibble, and maybe it’s about an issue that (mis)informs some of Drescher’s views. It’s typified here by ’smee:

    There is nothing about Atheism that is non-skeptical

    I agree with Kil @ 1:54pm (comment numbering, please!) on at least this much: Not all atheists are sceptics. Sure, all atheists have a reason for their non-belief in (a) god(s), but not all for the “right” reasons. Gnu atheists may very well be sceptic-atheists (although maybe not all are), but there are many atheists that find that some kind of woo fills the god-shaped hole very nicely — super-atheists, to hijack a term from the Brights.

    Maybe Drescher can’t get past the atheist label she pastes on those attending sceptics’ events to see the scepticism that informs that? (But that seems hard to credit.)

    Maybe (as Kil suggests) not all atheists who self-identify as sceptics are sceptics in any formal sense, maybe they’re not card-carrying sceptics, maybe they’ve had no formal training in science (I have) or other discipline that demands rigorous evidence, maybe they’ve had no formal training in critical thinking (I haven’t), but I still think they are sceptics at heart. The one thing that typifies the herd of cats that are gnu atheists is, I think, the rejection of extraordinary claims because there is no evidence for them.

    I do find it kind of surprising that “not all skeptics are theists” (as Kil) says, but accept that some aren’t (a small fraction of the attendees at last year’s TAM London certainly were). However, if you’re committed to scepticism, I cannot see how atheism (at least, “weak atheism”) is anything but the only rational position. But I certainly wouldn’t suggest barring theistic sceptics from sceptics’ events (like TAM) or complaining about their being there — would Drescher?

    /@

  75. 75
    Ant Allan

    Oh, PZ kind of addressed that issue in his comment @ 3:11pm.

    But I still think many here say “atheist” when they mean only sceptic-atheists or gnu atheists.

    @ Aaron : I think it’s disingenuous to interpret Drescher in that way when some of her comments are aimed at panellists who are quite clearly genuine, self-critical sceptics.

    /@

  76. 76
    'Tis Himself

    I realize (or realise) that it’s a difference between American and British English, but whenever I see “skeptic” spelled “sceptic” I read the word as “septic.”

  77. 77
    Ant Allan

    Ha! I work for a US company, so I have to write in American English professionally. On my own time, I’m British, goddammit! ;-)

    /@

  78. 78
    Erulóra (aka KOPD)

    ‘Tis,

    I was going to say something about that, too. I think if ‘sceptic’ is pronounced the same as ‘skeptic’*, then I want to hear a Brit pronounce ‘sceptre’.

    * Apparently Google Chrome thinks I’m British. It’s complaining about my spelling things correctly.

  79. 79
    Erulóra (aka KOPD)

    @Ant

    Minor nitpick. You quoted this: “There is nothing about Atheism that is non-skeptical”. But in your reply you talked about atheists being non-skeptical. While I don’t disagree, there is a difference between atheism and atheists. Atheism itself is just the withholding of belief in gods. There is nothing about that which is non-skeptical. That said, there absolutely are some non-skeptical atheists. Sure. But is that relevant? What is relevant is that Drescher wants to kick people off her lawn for being outspoken about a subset of skepticism. A subset she happens to belong to.

  80. 80
    Ing

    Somebody has to address another issue

    One of the big reasons for the other targets of Skepticism IS religion, or at very least religion flows from the same root cause. Poor standards of evidence and indoctrination in the implausible primes people to believe other stupid things.

  81. 81
    Kagato

    Ashley F Miller:

    She seems to operate under a wish for the movement to remain small, both in number of contributors and in size of impact. I don’t understand it at all.

    So she’s a hipster skeptic?

  82. 82
    mikmik

    She is so full of shit, even if she admitted to atheism being a skeptical conclusion reached by empirical processes.
    Skepticism employs evaluations based on logic alone, it employs evaluations based on philosophy ie M
    killing or allowing people to die if it can be stopped is moral, therefore God is immoral. Many religions claim that god is in fact perfectly righteous and moral, therefore god doesn’t exist, or isn’t able to control or change things, or is amoral, which he isn’t, therefore ‘god is amoral,’ and ‘god is moral’ are both false.
    Logic, empiricism, philosophy. Father, son, and the wholly ghost of skepticism!

  83. 83
    mikmik

    Drat, should be. “ie killing or allowing people to die if it is vengeful or can be stopped is immoral, therefore God is immoral. Many religions claim that god is in fact perfectly righteous and moral, therefore either god doesn’t exist, or he isn’t able to control or change things.
    Or god is immoral, which he isn’t, by definition, therefore ‘god is immoral,’ and ‘god is moral’ are both false”

  84. 84
    Ant (@antallan)

    @ Erulóra

    Re “There is nothing about Atheism that is non-skeptical”: I see what you’re driving at, but I disagree.

    If the quote had been, “Atheism is a skeptical worldview,” that would’ve been unobjectionable: Atheism certainly expresses doubts or reservations about the existence of (a) god(s).

    But – as we agree, I think – atheism is a worldview that some adherents arrive at through paths other than scepticism. So, that is something about atheism that is non-sceptical.

    Re the relevance of this to Drescher: I was trying to rationalize the blinkered view that she apparently holds, that, somehow, “not all atheists are (‘proper’) sceptics,” has become, in her mind, “all atheists are not (‘proper’) sceptics.”

    But, as I suggested earlier, I think that’s dubious at best.

    Re “sceptre”: You don’t really expect any consistency in English orthography and pronunciation, do you? Both come from Greek words beginning “sk” (“sc” in Latin), but sceptre came to English through Old French ceptre (presumably with a soft “c”). The folks who compiled the first dictionaries of the English language probably gave it back its initial “s” to show off their knowledge of its Classical roots, much like they stuck an unnecessary “b” in “debt”.

    /@

  85. 85
    Erulóra (formerly KOPD)

    But – as we agree, I think – atheism is a worldview that some adherents arrive at through paths other than scepticism. So, that is something about atheism that is non-sceptical.

    Bull. How people arrive at something doesn’t change what the something is. Especially when the something is “lack of belief in X”. There is nothing in there about the reason for the lack of belief, or how it was arrived at.

    Re the relevance of this to Drescher: I was trying to rationalize the blinkered view that she apparently holds, that, somehow, “not all atheists are (‘proper’) sceptics,” has become, in her mind, “all atheists are not (‘proper’) sceptics.”

    But she is an atheist, yet she considers herself a proper skeptic. Her complaint seems to only apply to those who are outspoken about it or don’t coddle believers.

    The folks who compiled the first dictionaries of the English language probably gave it back its initial “s” to show off their knowledge of its Classical roots, much like they stuck an unnecessary “b” in “debt”.

    Those bastards.

  86. 86
    RichardD

    @’Tis Himself, OM – If it doesn’t describe you then it wasn’t a reference to you. If you’re not involved in the pissant complaining, if you “think her conclusion is wrong AND have given reasons why” then that’s great. What I’m talking about is the mind reading “explanations” for why she’s doing this that write her off as “emotional” or a “pandering to the religious”, such as:

    “Compromising your intellectual integrity to gain some questionable allies”

    “seems like the classic behavior of someone who wants “their” social group to stay the same way it always has been, because that is affirming for their identity”

    “I’m surprised that she can’t step back and see how phobic and emotional her behavior appears”

    “And I think she’s doing it out of political, emotional, and turf-protecting motivations”

    Highlights added.

    Even PZ doesn’t agree that she’s pandering to the religious to gain questionable allies:
    PZ: “I don’t think Drescher is doing anything as calculated as seeing this as a way to maintain religious allies.”

    “We’re disagreeing with her unsupported claims to be the only True Skeptic”

    No. That’s your own melodramatic way of putting it, to try and make it seem unsupportable rather than a difference of opinion. She is actually saying “This is the correct skeptical position, yours is not” and you are saying “No ours is the correct skeptical position, yours is not”

    That’s a perfectly reasonable thing to disagree about. And when people bother to disagree with her on topic that’s great, when they try to read her mind and write her off for her supposed motivations instead of wondering whether she’s got a point and engaging with it, they are failing.

    “Some people have expressed possible reasons for her refusal to examine gods and religion but these are obviously opinions.”

    Yes. And that’s the problem. Does this sound familiar? “You’re only an atheist because you’re angry with God”, “You’re only an atheist because you want to disobey God’s rules and not feel guilty” etc etc.

    Saying “Even though you have given reason X for your position I think really you’re just secretly holding demeaning position Y” is a bullshit tactic, whether it comes from the religious or from our own.
    If anyone has any
    evidence that she’s just turf protecting, getting emotional, or seeking religious allies by lying, then by all means criticise. Otherwise, shut the hell up, you’re being as bad as a RTC.

  87. 87
    Kil

    ” Her complaint seems to only apply to those who are outspoken about it or don’t coddle believers.”

    Nonsense. Her complaint is about conflating empiricism, which has been the scope of modern skepticism, with rationalism, which has not been the scope of modern skepticism, and giving it the same name as though they are the same thing. They aren’t.

    You can disagree with her conclusion, a conclusion which I share, but it’s not very helpful to make this something that it isn’t.

  88. 88
    Erulóra (formerly KOPD)

    Therefore outspoken atheists shouldn’t be allowed to speak at TAM on any topics at all?

  89. 89
    Kil

    “Therefore outspoken atheists shouldn’t be allowed to speak at TAM on any topics at all?”

    Oh please…

  90. 90
    Erulóra (formerly KOPD)

    ‘Oh Please’ yourself. The atheists she’s complaining about were not at TAM to talk about atheism. In fact, nobody was. Yet she’s pissed that they were there.

  91. 91
    PZ Myers

    Drescher says

    What I would really like to see happen: atheist activists take their ball and go play in their own yard.

    This was about a meeting in which atheists attended and spoke, but none of their talks were about atheism. It’s an awfully clear message.

    You aren’t seeing those atheist activists saying the converse, that religious skeptics should take their ball and go play in their own yard. What you’re actually seeing is atheists having shared values with skeptics, and speaking appropriately about skeptical topics at traditional skeptic meetings. Just the fact that we’re critical of religion in other venues is enough for Drescher to wish for our ouster.

  92. 92
    Kil

    “‘Oh Please’ yourself. The atheists she’s complaining about were not at TAM to talk about atheism. In fact, nobody was. Yet she’s pissed that they were there.”

    No she isn’t.

    What bothers her is when a rationalist view is presented under the heading “skepticism,” which she argues is an empirically based scientific method and not based in rationalism which is another method that is more philosophically based. She’s an atheist too, and came by it though rationalism. But she doesn’t conflate the two methods and is suggesting that the two methods should remain distinct. As I said in an earlier post, some of us wear more than one hat.

    One of the problems of conflating those two methods are reflected in your replies, by the way. You can disagree with her premis, but you choose to ignore her premis and make this about attacking atheists.

    Your turn.

  93. 93
    Kil

    “This was about a meeting in which atheists attended and spoke, but none of their talks were about atheism. It’s an awfully clear message.”

    See my reply above. I know you don’t agree with her premis but that’s what she’s talking about. The conflation of empiricism with rationalism. She isn’t saying that outspoken atheists should not speak at skeptical conventions. And I very much doubt that she had any problem with your talk. I didn’t. I enjoyed it. And because of the subject, it was unnecessary for you to make that distinction.

    And how do you do that quote thing? I’m new to this format.

  94. 94
    'smee

    Kil:

    I know you don’t agree with her premis but that’s what she’s talking about.

    Bbbbut, Kil! How can you possibly know what her thinking is, or her rationale for the things she said (quoted extensively upthread, so I won’t repeat), while others here cannot. (as you stated multiple times upthread)

    Is is some magical property of Rationalism? Is Empiricism somehow too dirty to be allowed even to share the same stage, let alone the same label of skeptic?

    You seem so certain of your answers, here. Perhaps you could enlighten me — I’m merely a rational empiricist, you see.

  95. 95
    'smee

    Kil: quoting uses HTML tags…

    as stated right above the comment box (is reading for comprehension a challenge?)

  96. 96
    Matt Penfold

    What bothers her is when a rationalist view is presented under the heading “skepticism,” which she argues is an empirically based scientific method and not based in rationalism which is another method that is more philosophically based. She’s an atheist too, and came by it though rationalism. But she doesn’t conflate the two methods and is suggesting that the two methods should remain distinct. As I said in an earlier post, some of us wear more than one hat.

    And what bothers some of us is that she thinks this important. The idea that rationalism does not involve empiricism is idiotic. Rationality does not work without evidence, and that evidence comes from empiricism. Rationalism without evidence is just sophistry. But empiricism also needs rationality. You can have all the facts you like, but without a method to explore how they are related you are just stamp-collecting.

    Rationality is what you apply to the products of your empirical endeavours in order to come up with meaningful explanations of how the universe works. To try and keep the two separate is to undermine the whole process.

  97. 97
    Matt Penfold

    Oh, and if Drescher is an atheist simple as the result of rationality, she can hardly complain about others being atheists for the wrong reasons. Rationality should be part of why someone is an atheist, but since it is possible to build logical internally consistent arguments for the existence of a god, it needs more. That more comes from empiricism, the total lack of any evidence for the existence of a god.

  98. 98
    Kil

    Kil: quoting uses HTML tags…

    as stated right above the comment box (is reading for comprehension a challenge?)

    Thanks. And the insult was appreciated too. I wouldn’t have understood your direction without it, my reading comprehension being what it is.

    I’m not familiar with html tags. On my forum, we use forum tags.

  99. 99
    Kil

    Ooops. Still haven’t got it right.

  100. 100
    Glen Davidson

    But she doesn’t conflate the two methods and is suggesting that the two methods should remain distinct.

    That’s a scholastic approach, and it is what impeded Greek “science” in the past.

    In reality, there is no separation between empiricism and rationality in the brain, and it was always an artificial distinction. It’s just that “rationalism alone” (actually, it’s never “alone,” but empiricism can be minimalized) gave some fascinating results, which seemed so much clearer at a time when empirical matters were a jumbled mess, that intellectuals opted for the beauty of rationalism.

    There’s nothing wrong with artificially separating rationalism and empiricism for the sake of pedagogy and specialized treatment of issues (such as in mathematics), but to pretend that the two are properly separate is as false a notion as exists.

    Scholasticism in large measure gave us the “distinctions” that now exist in supernatural vs. natural and the pretense that the former isn’t subject to “mere empiricism.” Well, in the sense that “supernaturalism” never was grounded in anything worthy of consideration, it is true that it isn’t subject to empiricism, but that also means that it’s a fiction not much different from fairy tales and fantasy.

    The fact is that rationalism has to be concerned with the “existential status” of what it considers. When there is no basis for making existential claims regarding “God,” we know that any God-talk is idle speculation, at best.

    Glen Davidson

  101. 101
    Kil

    bla bla bla

    So maybe this time? Okay. Got it.

  102. 102
    'smee

    Kil:

    And the insult was appreciated too. I wouldn’t have understood your direction without it, my reading comprehension being what it is.I’m not familiar with html tags. On my forum, we use forum tags.

    You are on the web. You have access to GOOGLE.
    here Let me google that for you

  103. 103
    Ant (@antallan)

    @ Erulóra

    But – as we agree, I think – atheism is a worldview that some adherents arrive at through paths other than scepticism. So, that is something about atheism that is non-sceptical.

    Bull. How people arrive at something doesn’t change what the something is. Especially when the something is “lack of belief in X”. There is nothing in there about the reason for the lack of belief, or how it was arrived at.

    What? Like a papal bull? ;-)

    I think you’re being too narrow. Gold is a yellow metallic element with atomic number 79. So, tell me, is gold precious?

    Things, including abstract concepts, accumulate qualities beyond their simple definitions.

    Re the relevance of this to Drescher: I was trying to rationalize the blinkered view that she apparently holds, that, somehow, “not all atheists are (‘proper’) sceptics,” has become, in her mind, “all atheists are not (‘proper’) sceptics.”

    But she is an atheist, yet she considers herself a proper skeptic. Her complaint seems to only apply to those who are outspoken about it or don’t coddle believers.

    “All atheists except me are not (‘proper’) sceptics.”! Well, I did admit I though the idea was specious.

    But she seems to self-identify as a raionalist-atheist rather than a sceptic-atheist.

    /@

  104. 104
    Erulóra (formerly KOPD)

    But she seems to self-identify as a raionalist-atheist rather than a sceptic-atheist.

    She self-identifies as somebody who thinks the wrong people are on her lawn. “Specious” is definitely appropriate, as is “tedious”.

  105. 105
    psanity

    As an “old-school” skeptic — a lot older school than Ms. Drescher, unless her blog photo is from 20 years ago — I have to say even her basic premise is bunk. I assume that by old-school skeptics, she means, i.e., the folks who founded SCICOP and so forth. She doesn’t seem interested in the ancient Greeks. Philosophy is so, y’know, not science.

    I think it likely that Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov would differ with her peculiar territoriality. Asimov would be sharp and, probably, flirtatious; Sagan would be soft-spoken and kind; but they would clean her clock. She is arguing with straw men, and creating categories of acceptable skepticism that do not, in fact, exist. She is rejecting skeptical allies in favor of ephemeral, hypothetical “religious skeptics”.

    My parents taught me to be very guarded about my atheism, ostensibly in kindness to others, but really to protect me. I am no longer a child, and I no longer need to protect myself from playground bullies. To be clear about my skepticism, and my associated lack of belief in gods, I need not be, and am not, unkind. (PZ has often shown this in his talks on atheism, as do many other “public” atheists.)

    Some believers mistake my clarity and honesty as an attack. I would do them no favors by closeting, or even toning down, my atheism. Rather, I try to set an example of rational discourse, and make it safe for closeted atheists, and closeted skeptics for that matter, to come out.

    Ms. Drescher plainly does not want to set an example. That’s her choice, but she should not ostracise those who do. As Josh pointed out upthread, there’s an obvious parallel to gays or African-Americans who objected to civil rights activism because they were afraid it would make their lives worse.

    Q. Did it?

    Q. Is the Skeptical “movement” perfect and complete, like a beetle in amber?

    Q. Is Ms. Drescher aware of the extensive discussion in the Skeptic community about the importance of attracting more young people? (It might, of course, involve allowing them on her lawn. Even with balls.)

    Q. Who says it’s Ms. Drescher’s lawn, anyway? ( I say, it’s my damn lawn.)

    Extra points for making sense, empirically or rationally. Points off for splitting hairs.

  106. 106
    Ant (@antallan)

    (I say, it’s my damn lawn.)

    It’s not a lawn, it’s a common.

    Drescher may have been living close to the common for so long she’s forgotten it’s open to everyone in the village.

    /@

  107. 107
    Ing

    But she seems to self-identify as a raionalist-atheist rather than a sceptic-atheist.

    Forgive me if I’m incorrect, but by the definitions of the thread does that not mean that she is saying she is an atheist for non-empirical reasons? Wouldn’t that make her a dogmatic atheist?

  108. 108
    Mediorite

    In her argument accusing people of conflating skepticism with atheism, Drescher seems to be conflating skepticism with science.

    I always thought of skepticism as a set of tools that are essential to doing good science but that also can be applied more broadly.

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