Steven Novella has written a post taking exception to some things I’ve said, specifically on the issue of the overlap of science, skepticism, and religion. I have to say, though, that what his post actually does is confirm my claim: that a lot of skeptics strain to delimit the scope of skepticism in ways that are not rational, but are entirely political and emotional.
But there’s also a lot I agree with. He has a lengthy introduction in which he lists many of the core elements of skepticism, including for example, promoting science and critical thinking, opposing pseudoscience, etc. (he also includes “methodological naturalism”, a claim I’ve grown disenchanted with…but that’s something for another day. Here’s something from Larry Moran for a contrary view.)
With that one exception, sure, these all sound like things I promote, too. I also agree with this, and have said so many times:
I have never endeavored to tell other people what to do with their own activism. If Penn and Teller want to have a skeptical/libertarian show, that’s their right. They can do what they want. The Skepchicks combine feminism and skepticism, and PZ combines (by his own account) skepticism, atheism, and liberal politics. My view – let a thousand lights shine. At the end of the day, we are all skeptics. Let’s celebrate that, and we can still argue about our differences but let’s not pretend that any skepticism-plus is the one-true-skepticism just because it’s our own.
So why is Novella complaining? Have I said anywhere that there is one-true-skepticism, and it is mine?
No. He objects to the fact that I pointed out that organized skepticism isn’t true to that principle, but has domains where it actively asserts that certain subjects are NOT-true-skepticism, and that many prominent activists are complicit in belittling certain topics…and I have to include Steven Novella among them. There is a skeptical dogma.
Let’s get to specifics.
With all of this as background, let me address some of what PZ wrote in his blog. In response to another blog complaining that many skeptics (specifically naming the SGU) avoid political or economic issues, PZ wrote:
Yes. Yes. Yes. The modern skeptical movement is built on a very narrow foundation; a lot of the Old Guard spend an incredible amount of effort restricting the range of allowed topics to a tiny set of staples, which means that too often we hear lots about the bogosity of Bigfoot, but almost nothing about the bogosity of an economic system that maintains gross social inequities. And which belief do you think does greater harm?
I love the opportunity to disagree with a fellow skeptic – it usually means we are getting to an interesting and complex area, and it tends to be more satisfying than shooting more fish in a barrel. So let me disagree with everything that PZ wrote above (sorry, PZ). First, I do not think that the modern skeptical movement has a narrow foundation. I outlined it above – that is a massive foundation. It is, in fact, overwhelming. We need more than one movement to tackle it. Science-based medicine itself needs its own movement.
Skepticism has a broad brief. The skeptical movement does not. There’s a difference there; there is a lot of bigotry against atheism, for instance, within the skeptical movement, and much contempt for atheists that gets expressed. I think Novella’s privilege is speaking here; skepticism focused on alternative medicine is part of the traditional package, and he’s not going to get any pushback against his skeptical specialty. Skepticism about religion, however, has been stigmatized and traditionally excluded from the scope of skepticism, so I get to see the ugly side of the skeptical movement far more often than he does.
Does he get a flood of email and twitter protestations every time he’s invited to participate at The Amazing Meeting, Skepticon, or NECSS (for that one, I should hope not)? Do people write to him and tell him he’s not a True Skeptic for combating quackery, or that his presence is inappropriate at a meeting of skeptics? I do.* And it’s not just me. How soon we forget the “scandal” when Richard Dawkins was invited to speak at TAM; why, he’s openly atheist. He might criticize religion, and there are religious people at these meetings!
We had people resigning from the JREF because there was too much of this atheism stuff goin’ around.
There was that bizarre episode where Daniel Loxton, one of the people Novella cites approvingly, was dismayed at a panel on diversity that included D.J. Grothe, Debbie Goddard, Greta Christina, Jamila Bey, Hemant Mehta, and was moderated by Desiree Schell…why, they were all atheists, so it wasn’t diverse at all. Yeah, and they were all skeptics, too, and every one of them also rejects quack medicine, but no one is going to complain about a panel of people who reject pseudoscience at a skeptics’ conference. But oh, all those people reject religious superstition, too? Too much. That’s a problem.
And about that same panel, Barbara Drescher weighed in to not only make the same complaint about diversity, but to go further and accuse Greta, Jamila, and Hemant of being mere atheists, not really skeptics at all.
The other three panelists are closely identified with atheism and, in my opinion, have contributed little, if anything, to skepticism itself.
So much for Novella’s massive foundation. There is pernicious boundary-setting and gatekeeping everywhere. Somehow, skepticism about religion isn’t true skepticism. Tell me again about letting a thousand lights shine; are you sure it isn’t more like 999, with a loud and prominent contingent trying to smash one of the bulbs every time it flickers on?
The atheist contingent sees this all the time. Again, the alt-med contingent has no worries. How about the Skepticon controversy? There were people who were actually irate that this conference called itself “Skepticon”, because, they said, it wasn’t actually a skeptical conference, it was an atheist conference. Say what? Within the skeptical movement, there are a lot of people who think those are entirely different things; that atheism, not even the New Atheism, isn’t about applying all those lovely principles Novella listed in his introduction to the claims of religion.
What made the argument even more absurd is that it was based on the claim that 3 out of 15 talks were openly about rejecting religion — rejecting it for its contradictions with history and science, I might add — and this was just too much atheism to qualify for skepticism.
Hoi polloi also assume that atheism and skepticism are entirely different. For example, here’s a stupid comment that parades that attitude well.
if you know of James Randi well, you would have guessed the last thing he would be doing would be speaking on atheism as such, since while he is an atheist, he largely sticks only to skepticism topics, and steers usually clear of talking about mainstream religions.
Oh. “Skepticism topics”, which apparently doesn’t include addressing the claims of mainstream religions. I’m sorry, Steven, but you live in a world where the mainstream of organized skepticism has a body of dogma about what constitutes skepticism, and you’re blind to it because it doesn’t affect you personally; these assumptions are used to narrow the allowed scope of skepticism exactly as I was saying.
And saving the worst for last, I cite the appalling atheism-bashing talk by Jamie Ian Swiss at TAM last year. While complaining about people drawing battle-lines and dividing the movement, he drew a battle line and divided the movement into True Skeptics and those goddamned atheists…and it was enthusiastically received by the audience. It was a declaration of war, that atheists who actively addressed religious claims as skeptics were not welcome, that they were moving his tent.
Oh, yeah. Those fucking thousand lights. Right.
There are no reasonable, rational grounds for excluding atheist arguments from being fully in the mainstream of skeptical thinking. But like I said, movement skeptics put a lot of effort into defining boundaries and gate-keeping. Here’s the dogma according to Novella:
The issue is not with religion or religious-based claims. We address them all the time (creationism, miracles, faith healing, separation of church and state, secular moral philosophy, etc.) Really – we are right there shoulder to shoulder with organized atheists taking on every such issue. It is NOT that religious claims are untestable (some are, some aren’t), it is only that when claims (religious or otherwise) are framed as untestable then they are matters of faith and not science.
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.
I’m going to have to address these claims from a couple of different angles…and I’ll warn you, they look ludicrous from all of them.
Most charitably, there’s nothing there I don’t already know. I’ve been telling creationists for 20 years that all they have to do is say Noah’s Flood was a miracle executed by an omnipotent being as huge violation of all of the laws of Nature, and there ain’t nothin’ I can say to argue against the claim, other than that you’re pulling that one out of your ass. But “Magic!” is pretty much an admission that there’s no science involved.
But they can’t do that. They all start babbling about “evidence” for the Great Flood, and start doing calculations for the size of Noah’s Ark, and claim that animal migrations (not magic poofery from god) explain the dispersal to other continents, and put the ball right back in science’s court. And it’s the same with other religious claims: they can never simply say it’s faith, it’s untestable, it’s a miracle that violates all the principles of science and reason…no, they have to say they have Proof of Life After Death! Jesus’ Tomb! An Instant of Ensoulment! And Here’s Why Our Government Must Be Christian!
And those are the claims the atheists go after. It’s pure skepticism. It’s a legitimate scientific approach. Maybe more skeptics ought to actually listen to atheist arguments rather than recoiling in horror.
Here’s one for the critics of alt-med. Did you see what Dr Oz said recently?
“Medicine is a very religious experience,” he said. “I have my religion and you have yours. It becomes difficult for us to agree on what we think works, since so much of it is in the eye of the beholder. Data is rarely clean.” All facts come with a point of view. But his spin on it—that one can simply choose those which make sense, rather than data that happen to be true—was chilling. “You find the arguments that support your data,” he said, “and it’s my fact versus your fact.”
Uh-oh. It’s the faith argument. He even calls his version of medicine a religion. Sorry, guy, medical pseudoscience has now removed itself from the skeptical purview. Do you intend to announce your departure from skepticism?
I can predict the reply: that’s just a rationalization. Medical pseudoscience also makes concrete claims that can be evaluated by science, and that’s a proper topic for skepticism.
Yes, I agree. But exactly the same is true for other religious claims.
I agree that “Does God exist?” is a tediously vague claim. But what about the claim that there is a supernatural intelligence that has been shaping life on earth with the intent of creating human beings? Biologists can deal with that one using scientific evidence fairly effectively; we can assess known natural mechanisms and their ability to generate the range and kind of biological diversity we see, we can point to the lack of evidence for any kind of outside interference, we can show that the history of the planet shows no sign of any kind of direction in its evolution. What about the claim that the Christian deity created the world according to the plan in the book of Genesis? Even easier to refute. What about specific doctrines, such as the efficacy of prayer? There we even overlap with Novella’s detestation of medical quackery.
And of course, I shouldn’t try to snuff out a light myself. “Does God exist?” is competently addressed by many atheists — and addressed scientifically. I’ll point to the work of Victor Stenger, who purely from the physical nature of the universe, can make a very strong scientific argument that it is not a product of an interventionist god. Why are skeptics rejecting scientific arguments a priori?
It is simply false that these claims cannot be addressed scientifically. Case closed.
As for that awful, dishonest, destructive claim that “Political, moral, and social ideology are ‘outside the scope’ of skepticism because they remove objectivity” — I ask, OK, so would you claim that there is no rational, evidence-based argument against, say, slavery? That it is impossible to make an objective argument in any domain against treating people as property?
If that’s the case, well then, fuck skepticism. It isn’t relevant or useful anymore. It has abstracted itself into the realm of a private academic circle-jerk, and we can stop arguing, because just maybe atheists, who apparently have more rational minds, can just leave the party voluntarily.
That these fields have a value component to them is irrelevant; so does everything. Opposing alt-med, for instance, takes for granted that healing people is a good thing, and practices that interfere with healing are a bad thing…and then within that context scientifically supports their values.
Same with political, moral, and social goals: we all operate with the values that truth is better than lies, that people have a right to live as they choose within practical limits, that we have concrete, real world goals that can be solved with natural, real world solutions. And then we can argue over the evidence to determine what path to our goals actually works. Skepticism and the scientific method work perfectly well within even fields that are routinely disparaged by skeptics, like sociology and economics. Critical thinking certainly can be applied to them!
Except, oh, sorry, Movement Skeptics have declared them Ideological and Not Objective, and thus forbidden.
Now for the grand conclusion.
Unfortunately, opening up the skeptic community to actually discussing these topics would lead to Deep Rifts that make the one over religion look insignificant. We’re riddled with wacky libertarians and their worship of the capitalist status quo (or worse, demanding a greater reduction in government and compassion). A libertarian speaker who openly espoused the opinions of a loon like Ron Paul — and there are people in this community who regard him as a saint — would pretty much guarantee a kind of noisy riot in the audience, and lead to a big chunk of organized skepticism decamping in fury.
Which would probably be a good thing.
Perhaps I am misunderstanding what PZ is saying here, and if so please correct me, but this sounds an awful lot like a desire to purge the skeptical movement of those with a differing political outlook. I find it hard to see how this would be a good thing.
Yes, I apologize, I am being misunderstood. No, I’m not saying we should purge people with a particular political outlook. I am saying that the skeptical movement, just like the atheist movement, contains a largely irrational element that doesn’t really accept the principles Novella outlined. The real reason skeptics refuse to consider “political, moral, and social” issues to be subject to rational analysis is that there are a great number of ideologically committed people within the movement who react with emotional fury to any attempt to address significant issues that might actually force them to change their minds about something. There is a desire to maintain the political and social status quo.
The most prominent example right now is feminism, and I’m sure Steven Novella is fully acquainted with the furious backlash against that, since he regularly works with one of the prime targets of the haters, and has seen more than enough email demanding that a colleague be kicked off his team. I can also point to that response as another example of the way the skeptical movement tries to enforce a dogma (damn, that’s two lights they keep trying to flick off.)
And here, somehow, Novella has managed to rationalize those haters, by claiming political neutrality as a guiding principle of skepticism. This isn’t true; there’s no such thing as political neutrality. Silence is an argument in favor of the status quo. A refusal to address an inequity is a strategy for maintaining that inequity. Similarly, a refusal to address a demand to fire a friend is actually a political statement supporting them (and good for Steven Novella in refusing to bow to the shrieking mob).
The pretense that skepticism is politically neutral is a commonly promoted lie, an excuse that allows a lot of nonsense to fester unquestioned. There is also no virtue in being neutral in the face of the evidence. These subjects, political positions and the social agenda, are amenable to evidence-based inquiry; as Novella notes, there are a lot of questions within these fields that we can directly address with an evidence-based outlook. And when we do look at them, it does the movement no honor to look away and ignore the evidence, because of some strange idolatry for the middle ground.
So no, I’m not saying that all true skeptics have to adhere to my positions in all the things; I’m saying I have no respect for the denial we see in the skeptical movement for skeptical inquiry into questions that make many of the leaders of the movement uncomfortable. Ask the questions. Assess the responses. Don’t run away and pretend it doesn’t fit into your tent. Your ‘tent’ is a process that can be applied to a great many important and humanly relevant concerns, not just Bigfoot.
But I will say that I agree with his conclusion. If only this were true:
I am happy to find common cause with anyone who also wishes to promote scientific skepticism. I honestly don’t care if they also choose to promote skepticism plus some other agenda (as long as that agenda is not inherently anathema to skepticism). I understand that some skeptics wish to also promote atheism or feminism, or to argue for the virtues of their political ideology. Hey – I am an atheist and a feminist, and I support their promotion. I even see the need to promote feminism within the skeptical movement, if we wish to maximize our reach. I just don’t want them to be conflated with or confused for scientific skepticism.
Oh, great. The conflation argument. Gosh, I sure wish those anti-alt-med people would stop trying to conflate their agenda with scientific skepticism!
That’s exactly what I’m talking about. There are traditional topics within skepticism; no problem, no one claims that those proponents are trying to take over all of skepticism, or that they have somehow confused and muddled and diluted the skeptic brand. Talk about any of these ‘foreign’ topics like atheism or feminism, though, and whoops, here come all the dogmatists complaining that they are ‘conflating’ skepticism with their agenda.
Look, get the story straight. Science and skepticism are processes, tools we use to investigate phenomena. It is not conflation when you use that tool to investigate god-claims or sexist arguments or the Republican party platform, any more than it is when you use those tools to rip into the Burzynski clinic or take apart claims about diatoms in meteorites. They should be a “massive foundation” that we can use right now, right here for decision-making in all kinds of experiences. So why do skeptics continue to tell us that we’re breaking the rules if we apply that toolkit to anything but a circumscribed set of phenomena?
At least I agree entirely with the idea of allowing a broad range of topics within skepticism. Why, I even listen to SGU and read Neurologica and Science-Based Medicine, despite the fact that they constantly conflate mere medicine with scientific skepticism. I just wish the skeptical movement could similarly respect the applicability of scientific skepticism to other subjects that are also important, and recognize that we’re all applying that same toolkit to different aspects of our culture that engage us.
*What’s particularly ironic about those protesting my speaking at skeptical meetings is that at all of those — TAM, Skepticon, and NECSS — I have conformed to the expectations of the audience and not talked about atheism or religion at all, and all those talks were about science, evolution, biology. It doesn’t matter, I still get angry complaints about letting the filthy atheist (and now also, feminist!) on stage.