If you’re loafing about on a Sunday morning and looking for something to read, here’s a long form argument requesting skeptical consistency regarding political economy. Oh, man, is this familiar.
Unfortunately, the majority of high-profile skeptics in our community seem to promote scientific skepticism and so do not address political economy, citing a pre-requisite of hard data in forming skeptical conclusions: SGU doesn’t do politics (and when it does, as with Rebecca Watson’s work on feminist issues, you end up with petitions calling for their removal.); Brian Dunning, amongst others, blithely say that skepticism is not applicable to political “values”; and economic and political issues are barely represented at conferences, on podcasts, and in blogs, despite the disproportionate suffering it causes compared to staple feed such as homeopathy and psychics.
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?
We’ve been struggling for years just to get the established skeptics to recognize that religion, that citadel of lies, is a legitimate target for public criticism. The arguments to exclude that topic have been strained and absurd; most commonly, we’re told that since the claims of religion are completely evidence-free and untestable, True Skeptics™ are not able to address them…and usually these gatekeepers are as bad as creationists in claiming that they have the mantle of science in so constraining their range. They disregard the fact that scientists tend to be extremely dismissive, and appropriately so, of extravagant claims made in the absence of substantive supportive evidence.
Similarly, I can predict that skeptics will now struggle to exclude politics and economics from any debate; economics is notoriously fuzzy, and politics is wracked with extremes of opinion. But of course both fields do have hard evidence that can be addressed. Does the American political and economic system cause great hardship for many people? Does it promote stability and international cooperation? Are some of our expenditures unnecessary and others insufficient? Are there evidence-based alternative strategies that work better? Can we compare economies in different countries and assess their relative performance?
And most importantly, should rational skeptics take a stand on these issues, discuss and debate them, and come to reasonable conclusions? I don’t think it’s true that they are unresolvable.
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.