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“Testable claims” is used as a “religious exemption”

The skeptics are circling the wagons. I knew they would. It’s what they always do to defend their naive version of “science”.

Stephanie Zvan has a good post rebutting Daniel Loxton’s defense of the skeptical delusion that atheism is “unscientific”. I can summarize his argument briefly: “I’m an atheist, skeptics have gone after some religious claims, and science can’t tell the difference between invisible dragons and nonexistent dragons and therefore doesn’t care.” And of course he props all this up with the claim that this is the official scientific view.

No, it is not. There is no one true scientific method; testability is not the sole criterion that scientists use to work towards the truth; there is no absolute definition of what constitutes science (nor can there be, I would argue), which is why the demarcation problem is so difficult. Establishment skeptics love to parade their kiddie version of how science works as justification for dismissing atheism as a legitimate scientific position in a way that they would never do to homeopathy or UFOs or any of the other subjects they are willing to pursue. Why, I don’t know. I’ve always assumed it was a political ploy to avoid annoying numerous donors and the mass media, but if they insist it isn’t, I’m going to have to fall back on another explanation: they’re just ignorant.

These skeptics love their little gotcha games. Their ideal is the experiment that, in one session, shoots down a claim cleanly and neatly. So let’s bring in dowsers who claim to be able to detect water flowing underground, set up control pipes and water-filled pipes, run them through their paces, and see if they meet reasonable statistical criteria. That’s science, it works, it effectively addresses an individual’s very specific claim, and I’m not saying that’s wrong; that’s a perfectly legitimate scientific experiment.

I’m saying that’s not the whole operating paradigm of all of science.

I’m saying that we use all kinds of methods: reason, empiricism, inference, hypothesis testing, modeling. Sometimes it conforms neatly to the standard diagram of the scientific method you’ll find in the first chapter of your introductory biology textbook, and often it doesn’t. Science has more avenues to explore questions than just the insta-test skeptics favor, and you should mistrust skeptics who tell you that we know less than we do, because simplistic reasons, like testability.

Individual skeptics may have opinions about all those philosophical matters, but none of these are questions science can answer. As Novella and Bloomberg explained [in a well-known 1999 Skeptical Inquirer article], “science can have only an agnostic view toward untestable hypotheses. A rationalist may argue that maintaining an arbitrary opinion about an untestable hypothesis is irrational—and he may be right. But this is a philosophical argument, not a scientific one.”

Uh, guys? Science is a philosophy, a very specific one. That disavowal doesn’t even make sense.

And you know, I deal with creationists all the time who use arguments very much like skeptics’ to claim that paleontology is untestable and therefore unscientific. “Were you there?” Can you design a simple test that can be demonstrated on a stage to a crowd of onlookers that really shows that that fossil bone is 70 million years old? And the answer is that no, we can’t make our tests conform to the simplistic skeptic standard. That doesn’t mean they’re unscientific, or that we should be agnostic on the age of the earth.

I think this is where the skeptic movement’s foundation in stage magicians begins to hurt. They offer a valuable perspective — they’re far better at detecting intentional fraud than most scientists — but when your whole perspective on science is shaped entirely on criteria that make for a good show, your understanding suffers. And when it leads to stage magicians yelling from the stage at scientists that they don’t understand science, you’ve got a real hubris problem.

You know how real scientists treat untestable hypotheses? Pragmatically and operationally as invalid*. If you don’t even have an evidential chain of reasoning to lead to your hypothesis, we reject it out of hand. If that hypothesis, unsupported by evidence, further contradicts known properties of the universe, we can dismiss it as falsified, even without direct testing of that specific hypothesis…especially if such testing requires elaborate, expensive, time-consuming procedures with negligible likelihood of coming up with a useful result (and if there is no possible way to test your absurd claim, then fuck it, into the trash bin with it). When there are a thousand equally unjustifiable hypotheses being flung about with fanatical certainty and equal lack of reason, we cut the Gordian knot and reject them all and start working our way through known facts to determine a root cause of all the chaos.

I like Stephen Jay Gould’s definition of a fact:

In science, ‘fact’ can only mean ‘confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.’ I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.

By that definition, the non-existence of gods is a fact. Those scientific atheists, the New Atheists, that the skeptics scorn have been working their way down the objective chain of evidence, not trying to disprove gods with simplistic tests (because they’re too incoherent and contradictory), but developing better ideas that more accurately describe how the world works. They’ve been doing the hard work of science. When Victor Stenger can so eloquently describe the natural origin of the universe godlessly using mathematics and physics, when Richard Dawkins can explain the origin and modification of life without recourse to magic or the supernatural, it becomes perverse to withhold provisional assent and babble about being agnostic towards religious explanations. The New Atheists aren’t expressing mere opinions, they’re telling you about hard-earned knowledge about the real world.

And the skeptic movement has become an inbred circle of perversity. They disrespect that hard-working progressive pattern of scientific inquiry because it doesn’t fit neatly into their game-show model of science.

And, as Stephanie points out, they aren’t even consistent about it. Somehow, they insist that we must be agnostic towards religion, while not being so gentle towards alternative medicine, alien astronauts, or moon landing conspiracy theories.

You do realize that the moon landing conspiracy theories are exactly as ridiculous as religion, don’t you? Assertions of insidious agents carrying out elaborate plans, selective and distorted interpretations of the available evidence, avoidance of the actual, substantial evidence that there actually was a natural event…yet no skeptic is getting up and announcing that we must be agnostic about the moon landing, nor are they all beating up Phil Plait for his “unscientific” confidence that men have walked on the moon.


*And even there, there are exceptions: think of string theory. But the exceptions prove the rule that science is a lot more complicated than the neat tidy package into which movement skeptics want to tie it up.

Comments

  1. says

    I don’t get this sudden conflict between atheism and skepticism. For me, they’re inextricably intertwined. I became an atheist when I became a skeptic. Or I became a skeptic when I became an atheist. For me the two are one and the same. I doubt the testable claims about homeopathy just like I doubt the untestable claims about gods. How can you purport to use a critical eye when it’s staring through this ginormous loophole?

  2. carlie says

    So, have you started working on your second book yet? Because you’ve been writing a lot of good stuff lately that would make a very nice compilation…

  3. says

    I don’t get the conflict either. I cheerfully and enthusiastically identified as a skeptic until, in the last few years, some (not all!) influential members of organized skepticism started playing these pissy games of sneering at atheists as insufficiently skeptical.

    I do not consider “hadith science” a real science. But it’s the nature of the demarcation problem that there are fuzzy boundaries, not that everything is equally valid.

  4. evilDoug says

    …on a stage to a crowd of onlookers…

    It appears to me that the opportunity for what is described by those few words is a huge motivating force behind the “skeptical movement.”

  5. says

    @1:
    It’s not “skepticism” as “the process by which someone doubts a claim or an hypothesis proposed.”

    It’s “skepticism” as in “people who have organized around the concept of mocking other people who believe in Bigfoot and aliens with anal probes.”

    You may be a “skeptic” or use “skepticism” or “skeptical inquiry” freely and without regard to whether it applies to Bigfoot of aliens with anal probes. But you probably won’t feel very welcome in meetings of some specific “skeptical” organizations.

  6. says

    For all their handling of religion with kid gloves, they sure wack the hell out of other atheists. What does that say about atheists in their camp? Are they self loathing? Why isn’t there the same incentive to suck up to atheist donors and patrons? Do atheist patrons expect to be taken for granted?

  7. says

    @ PZ (#4):

    I don’t get the conflict either. I cheerfully and enthusiastically identified as a skeptic until, in the last few years, some (not all!) influential members of organized skepticism started playing these pissy games of sneering at atheists as insufficiently skeptical.

    That’s kind of pot-kettle-black, isn’t it? Sounds like they’ve cordoned off an entire domain from inquiry, which seems like a very odd definition of skepticism to me.

    The beauty of science and rational inquiry is that it’s self-correcting. I think you can honestly propose a conspiracy theory about the moon landing, but you can almost immediately say that it doesn’t stand up to a little investigation. If the same cannot be said of religion, you’re saying your methodology does not apply to this area, which makes skeptical investigation a tool no more effective than a slide-rule: you can use it for some things (use a slide rule for math, use skepticism for conspiracy theories), but not for others (don’t use a slide rule for viewing microscopic organisms, don’t use skepticism for examining religious claims).

  8. Sastra says

    Somehow, they insist that we must be agnostic towards religion, while not being so gentle towards alternative medicine, alien astronauts, or moon landing conspiracy theories.

    And what’s particularly ironic is that these skeptics know that people who believe in alternative medicine, alien astronauts, and moon landing conspiracies are often deeply, sincerely, and spiritually attached to their beliefs. Their beliefs are every bit as heartfelt as religious beliefs — in fact, the divide between a belief in a mysterious Higher Power out there and the many little signs of mysterious powers down here is often invisible. When the tests fail, the paranormalists and woo-sters all engage in standard apologetics. Religious apologetics.

    It’s all of a piece. Skepticism works against a the faith-based method of drawing conclusions and knowing things. Tell someone who believes in fairies that there are no fairies and explain how and why we know this and they react just like you’re denying God. Trust me, I know this from experience. Sad but true.

    Most of the major skeptics and skeptic organizations are usually very insistent on not laughing at the paranormal claimants. Such deluded people are not stupid — they’re just mistaken and their mistakes are based on tendencies we all have. Be honest … but be charitable.

    Fine. Extend that policy outward. Religion is the Big Enchilada. It’s the root of the supernatural mindset. It shouldn’t be ignored.

    No. More than that. It CAN’T be ignored.

  9. says

    evilDoug 5:

    …on a stage to a crowd of onlookers…

    It appears to me that the opportunity for what is described by those few words is a huge motivating force behind the “skeptical movement.”

    It has always struck me that the same opportunity is a huge motivating force for clergy. Perhaps this is no coincidence.

  10. Scr... Archivist says

    PZ, is the argument really against skepticism per se, or is it more about the way current American Organized Skepticism is acting?

    I think the tools of skepticism are fine, it’s just that these organizations don’t seem to want to use them all every time for reasons of politics. I suspect, that they think that applying those tools to religious questions will alienate them from the majority of the American public that they already feel is not listening to them on the easy stuff.

    On the one hand, they probably see no downside to arguing against safe nonsense such as homeopathy, UFO’s, crystal pyramid power, and other countercultural woo. Because hippies.

    But there are some people with funny ideas that they want in the tent, and I’m still not convinced this is a failing strategy. It’s interesting to me that there is a kind of Skepticism+ feeling, where they want to be welcoming to scientifically-minded people who still have emotional and cultural ties to religious subcultures. Maybe this is a long-term strategy aimed at encouraging the good over the long haul, or maybe it’s aimed at prying off their kids and grandkids, but if it is they should say so.

  11. says

    I think the comparison with moon landing conspiracies is spot on. We can’t actually test the claims involved; we can’t prove that we’ve landed on the moon. What we can do is show that all the available evidence fits perfectly with a genuine moon landing and that to make a conspiracy theory work would mean having to make some major, and quite outrageous, assumptions. Just like religion.

    Anyone who holds the view that a proper skeptic can’t come to a conclusion on religion is going to have some serious problems explaining why they believe the moon landing was real and not a hoax.

  12. Sastra says

    By the way, I refuse to ‘leave’ the Skeptic Movement. I’ve been to every TAM and I’m going to this one too.

    One day I’m planning on wearing my atheist symbol t-shirt. And another day I’m planning wearing my Skepchicks t-shirt. And the third day … well, I do have a Pharyngula t-shirt. Just sayin’.

    The “Skeptic Movement” also moves from within, you know. Just sayin’.

  13. Amphiox says

    If it has any effect at all, no matter how indirect, on the reality than human beings can experience, then it is testable by human beings, even if humans haven’t yet figured out how to do the testing.

    If it does not have such effects, then the question is irrelevant.

  14. says

    nkrishna @9:

    Sounds like they’ve cordoned off an entire domain from inquiry…

    Not quite. They’re fine with inquiry as long as it stays inquiry. They have a problem with looking at the results of that inquiry, drawing the same sort of conclusions we draw on other subjects, then acting on those conclusions.

  15. says

    I have no complaint with the principles of skepticism, and actually try to practice them myself. It’s the American Skeptical Movement, as represented largely by the JREF, that has retreated into this bizarre reactionary defensiveness. And it’s a shame: TAM used to be the open, progressive, innovative meeting to go to.

    I’ve said it before: Skepticon now has the mantle. If you want to attend a good skeptic meeting, one that is more concerned with grassroots concerns than the infatuation with celebrities, it’s the place to go.

    Sastra, I have no problem with people sticking with the skeptic movement and trying to improve it — that’s a good thing. I’m just personally fed up with the petty aggressions and blinkered outlook of some of the big names of that movement, and would rather focus on atheist causes and science education, neither of which skepticism does very well.

  16. says

    But there are some people with funny ideas that they want in the tent, and I’m still not convinced this is a failing strategy. It’s interesting to me that there is a kind of Skepticism+ feeling, where they want to be welcoming to scientifically-minded people who still have emotional and cultural ties to religious subcultures.

    I think it might be a successful niche, too — you could say Glenn Beck also has a successful niche.

    But no, this is not a “Skepticism+”. Exactly the opposite. Swiss specifically spat on the notion of a “Skepticism+” in his talk last week, and the whole theme of defining skepticism by exactly the agenda and constituency it has right now, forever and ever, amen, is the antithesis of expanding inclusivity.

  17. says

    They’re fine with inquiry as long as it stays inquiry. They have a problem with looking at the results of that inquiry, drawing the same sort of conclusions we draw on other subjects, then acting on those conclusions.

    Sounds familiar. Osiander would be proud of them, no doubt.

  18. says

    The conjunction of alternative medicine, spiritual guides, aliens and conspiracy theories is basically a religion. I should know because I was basically a practicing member of it before I started to use critical thinking. The new age guy is probably a lot more attached emotionally to those beliefs than most Christians.

  19. says

    From what I’ve read from Steven Novela, he agrees with you on religious explanations; if science can explain something, we should fight the archaic religious answer. Where I differ from you is this, while science has pretty much shown the non-necessity of god(s) to explain our existence, it cannot show that one does not exist. Occam’s razor would say to discard the idea of a god which we have done, but it cannot definitively tell us this is right.

  20. says

    Does anyone else get the impression that this issue is partly fuelled by people servicing childish grudges against PZ?

  21. notsont says

    I think the tools of skepticism are fine, it’s just that these organizations don’t seem to want to use them all every time for reasons of politics. I suspect, that they think that applying those tools to religious questions will alienate them from the majority of the American public that they already feel is not listening to them on the easy stuff.

    I would be OK with that, but they keep saying its not the reason.

    The moon landings being faked are an order of magnitude more likely than most religious beliefs. At least the moon landing deniers don’t usually believe things that would require most of established science to be wrong.

  22. notsont says

    From what I’ve read from Steven Novela, he agrees with you on religious explanations; if science can explain something, we should fight the archaic religious answer. Where I differ from you is this, while science has pretty much shown the non-necessity of god(s) to explain our existence, it cannot show that one does not exist. Occam’s razor would say to discard the idea of a god which we have done, but it cannot definitively tell us this is right.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=1ypyVjSaj4w

    Science disagrees with you.

  23. says

    nkrishna @ 19:

    I’m mostly guessing here, but in the small scope–a faith healer here, a weeping statue there–it’s easier to say that what someone is doing is outright fraudulent. It’s easier to judge the person whose claim was tested and failed. It’s much harder, emotionally, to deal with people who are sincere but wrong, which is the case with the vast majority of people pushing religion. Even when they’re doing harm, it’s less comfortable to oppose people with sincere (incorrect) beliefs.

  24. sqlrob says

    we can’t prove that we’ve landed on the moon.

    So who put the reflectors there? God? The mouse going for the green cheese?

  25. says

    So who put the reflectors there? God? The mouse going for the green cheese?

    Sure, why not? Can you prove otherwise?

    My point is that if you’re willing to make huge unsubstantiated leaps, there’s nothing that you can’t explain. There’s no evidence that you ever disprove your pet theory, if you’re just willing to stretch it far enough.
    Which is exactly why that kind of reasoning is not useful or acceptable. It’s not OK when we’re talking about the moon landing (as most skeptics understand) and it’s not OK when talking about god.

  26. robb says

    thank you notsont #26. i was just gonna post that link to Sean’s talk.

    physics has pretty much shown that gods aren’t necessary, and the available space that is untested, where gods could act, is shrinking. Stephen Jay Goulds definition of science fact applies. gods don’t exist.

  27. says

    You know. Big Foot could exist. We find new species all the time. Maybe a percentage of the sightings, a 0.1% were legit encounters with new species.

    At the very least, an unknown ape existing somewhere is far more likely than, say, a man walking on water. Just saying.

    I wanted to type this a long time ago, but I think there are many levels of skepticism.

    Level 0:
    - Things that are outrageously crazy and a bit ridiculous and you don’t have an emotional attachment to them: It is very easy to apply critical thinking and skepticism to them: E.g: Fairies.

    Level 1:
    - Things that would be a very convenient to be true. e.g: Alt med. Magic diets. Global warming is not real. In this case, there are parts of your mind that would love to bei n a world in which these things were true, because of the extra convenience. If I could lose my extra cholesterol without side effects and with a cheap supplement pill, it would be dandy. If there was no global warming, it would be great.

    Level 2:
    - Things that you have a political agenda with. For some people, global warming being true would be terrible, not only because of convenience but because they work for the oil companies. Same about facts whose existence (or lack of existence) challenge your political beliefs.

    Level 3:
    - Beliefs that are irrational but you are emotionally attached to. A.k.a Religion in general. If your parents were wrong all this time, what are you to do? Some people do refuge in prayer and in the community behind their religion.

    Level 4:
    - Yourself. Are you really as capable/skilled/good person as you think you are?
    - Your own privilege. Is everything you got in life 100% a result of your own hard work. Or could it be that you got some free passes from society because you are male, white (or like me, brown but not too brown in a country that really values that), non-homosexual, non-trans, non-disabled, etc?).

  28. says

    We can “prove” that we landed on the moon, in the scientific sense (that is, not absolutely). We can show that the conspiracy theorists’ evidence that it was faked is bogus and nonsensical, and we can also show the demonstrable scientific evidence for the Saturn V, the astronauts, the results brought back.

    This is precisely analogous to how the New Atheists address religious claims, in every way.

  29. says

    I could have sworn I posted something here. Boy do I need to find my glasses. I probably posted it somewhere else, but on this topic.

  30. Bernard Bumner says

    Even if we grant that atheism faces this problem, I’ve yet to meet anyone whose religious beliefs are neatly untestable.

    I used to happily make the argument that science was strictly agnostic, but I came to realise that this semantic quibble was not only a coward’s offering by way of a sop to religious friends, but also that it was practically at odds with reality.

    Every religious person makes claims of the supernatural interacting with the natural; there are no invisible gods.

  31. notsont says

    One of the things that is always brought up is “you can’t disprove the god that just poofed the universe into existence, vanished and has since done nothing”. Of course it always fails to register that no one cares about that god, not believers and not atheists. Seems the only people who do are “skeptics”.

  32. says

    @Stephanie #27:

    Weirdly, my question was rhetorical, which is I suppose slightly hypocritical, but what you said is effectively my thoughts on the subject. Asking hard questions is hard (well, duh), and it’s much easier to live and let live.

  33. says

    Found it with the help of my old glasses. I posted it at Stephanie’s blog on the same topic…

    Untestable, imperceptible, undetectable…Here’s the kicker supernatural! Why would anything in nature have to be SUPERnatural? Like saying superreal it is an oxymoron.

    Is it more scientific to believe in the supernatural if organized skeptics are wanting to be scientific? Like know one thinks it is necessary to be an aunicornist, because no one takes that supernatural claim seriously. But it is necessary to be an atheist because people do take religion seriously, and enact awful public policy based on it and retard scientific progress with it.
    Isn’t it more scientific to not have untestable beliefs until there is evidence for them?

    Checkmate organized skeptics.

  34. Archaeopteryx lithographica says

    Your explanation of what science is and isn’t, and the fact that it isn’t as cut-and-dried as we sometimes like to make it seem, is exactly right. Oversimplification and desire for science to follow a recipe as if we’re making a batch of corn muffins leads down a trail that ends at the AIG webpage. I’ve actually had folks argue to me that Alfred Russel Wallace wasn’t a scientist because he didn’t spend his career testing hypotheses.

  35. says

    It is okay chigau. I don’t mean to draw attention to my absent-mindedness and short sightedness. Back to the topic.

  36. says

    @sqlrob and lykeX

    Well OBVIOUSLY the grey’s planted the reflectors on the moon to lend credence to the stories THEY wanted you to beleive. It’s just like the moon landing footage it was all an elaborate hoax by the grey’s which they made … ON THE MOON. That’s why it looks so good!! O.O!

  37. says

    I agree with you on the philosophical point that the scientific method is broader than just hypothesis testing. However, I think of the division between testable and non-testable claims is more of a pragmatic one than a philosophical one.

    It’s a division that makes sense to me from the perspective of skeptical leaders and investigators: testable claims are their expertise, opinion-formation is not. However, I’m not sure it makes sense from the perspective of people who are not literally testing claims (ie you and me). I see this as the true source of disagreement, not the philosophy. (I’m trivialknot on skepticblog, in case anyone was wondering.)

  38. chigau (違う) says

    What reflectors?
    Have you ever bounced a light-beam off the moon?
    Were you there?

  39. grumpyoldfart says

    I’m guessing there must be some sort of payoff for the skeptics if they go easy on religion.
    More members, more donations, more column inches in the newspapers. I wonder what it is.

  40. kemist, Dark Lord of the Sith says

    Where I differ from you is this, while science has pretty much shown the non-necessity of god(s) to explain our existence, it cannot show that one does not exist. Occam’s razor would say to discard the idea of a god which we have done, but it cannot definitively tell us this is right.

    The thing is, you can say the exact same thing about invisible underwear gnomes, UFOs, Bigfoot, and anything ludicrous thing anyone might invent on a boring friday night after a few beers provided that it sticks to untestable claims – which is essentially what religion is. Some shit that someone made up that for some reason went viral.

    For what reason should it be treated differently from invisible underwear gnomes ?

  41. notsont says

    It’s a division that makes sense to me from the perspective of skeptical leaders and investigators: testable claims are their expertise, opinion-formation is not. However, I’m not sure it makes sense from the perspective of people who are not literally testing claims (ie you and me). I see this as the true source of disagreement, not the philosophy. (I’m trivialknot on skepticblog, in case anyone was wondering.)

    Who are these people that make untestable claims? Its certainly not religious people.

  42. says

    It’s a division that makes sense to me from the perspective of skeptical leaders and investigators: testable claims are their expertise, opinion-formation is not. However, I’m not sure it makes sense from the perspective of people who are not literally testing claims (ie you and me). I see this as the true source of disagreement, not the philosophy. (I’m trivialknot on skepticblog, in case anyone was wondering.)

    The disagreement isn’t limited to what skeptic organizations should test. Some are also making a claim that atheism isn’t a skeptical view because religion isn’t testable.

  43. daniellavine says

    Mark Fall@23:

    Where I differ from you is this, while science has pretty much shown the non-necessity of god(s) to explain our existence, it cannot show that one does not exist. Occam’s razor would say to discard the idea of a god which we have done, but it cannot definitively tell us this is right.

    Nor can any scientific experiment demonstrate definitively that the gravity is an apparent force caused by the curvature of space-time in the proximity of massive bodies — any more than scientific experiments definitively demonstrated that gravity is a real inverse-squared force exerted by massive bodies on each other. It’s just not how science works. If science needs to definitively demonstrate something for that thing to constitute knowledge then there is no such thing as scientific knowledge.

    Yours is exactly the argument that the OP argues is invalid.

  44. chigau (違う) says

    coralline #52
    I’m guessing the ‘yes’ is for the ‘Have you ever bounced a light-beam off the moon?’ rather than
    ‘Were you there?’
    So Waaay Cooool!!!

  45. says

    @grumpy old fart and any other cynics out there
    While I can’t claim to know the intentions of the people behind this stance your comment did remind me of this chunk of a previous blog post.

    An excerpt from Daniel Loxton’s April 9th 2013 post on atheism and skepticism
    http://www.skepticblog.org/2013/04/09/try-not-to-lump-us-atheists-in-with-the-skeptics/

    “The “skeptic” euphemism in particular is an especially problematic one for atheists to adopt. To begin with, an awful lot of active movement skeptics believe in god—something like a fifth to a third, depending on the measure. …. Recent surveys of attendees of the James Randi Educational Foundation’s The Amazing Meeting conference similarly find that almost a third of TAM-goers identify as something other than atheist or agnostic. Skepticism’s religious diversity is longstanding and will certainly continue, because the largest skeptical organizations, media, and events are organized around scientific skepticism.”

  46. Scientismist says

    Thank you so VERY much for that rant. My wife and I just about gave up on organized skeptics 20 years ago when we gave a talk on “Why Skepticism Can and Should be Applied to Religion” to a local group, and were told that it was harmful to “Skepticism”. Like you, PZ, we thought the reason was political, to attract believers to the cause of education in the science of biological evolution. But we have come to the conclusion that it is more than that: as you say, it is a misunderstanding of science.

    It’s not just the early influence of stage magic (we recall with great fondness the afternoon we spent with James Randi, escorting him to second-hand shops to buy spoons). The real problem may be the myth of the “killer experiment,” (which affects some lab scientists as well), which is likely a holdover from religion and the experience of conversion (and de-conversion).

    If all the order you have previously believed in was said to be the result of conscious divine thought and planning, after loosing your religion you may still be comfortable only with those questions where answers are as clear as they are in Scooby Doo, when the alternative explanation to ghosts, or dowsing or spoon-bending is a human being deciding to perpetrate fraud. The question of whether conscious thought and planning exists prior to and outside of life, or is the product of evolution, is one of degrees of certainty, and requires all of science to be brought to bear in a Bayesian calculation (or estimation). That not only lacks the pizazz of stage magic and paranormal debunking, but is slow hard work, and leads at best only to Dawkins’ chapter title: “Why there almost certainly is no god.” Try building a Las Vegas convention around that! (I’d go).

  47. says

    Yeah, Randi is a hero of mine, and a lovely man in addition. The stage magicians, like Randi and Swiss, are not executing their limited repertoire incorrectly, except when they try to dictate that theirs is the One True Scientific Skepticism.

    I guess there is just no room in their tent for examining the broader universe with the tools of science. (and hey, shouldn’t the tent of skepticism encompass everything?)

  48. says

    There is a central dilemma to claims about religion with respect to science; namely, any claims to know anything about god or gods must be gained empirically and, as such, they are all testable and all falsifiable. If one has a god about which no claims are made and about which no knowledge is had then I suppose it’s unfalsifiable and not worth talking about. But, in the meantime, every basis upon which knowledge of god can be founded is testable and – so far – has been tested and found wanting.

  49. Sastra says

    Scientismist #57 wrote:

    The real problem may be the myth of the “killer experiment,” (which affects some lab scientists as well), which is likely a holdover from religion and the experience of conversion (and de-conversion)… The question of whether conscious thought and planning exists prior to and outside of life, or is the product of evolution, is one of degrees of certainty, and requires all of science to be brought to bear in a Bayesian calculation (or estimation).

    I think you’re right, but I think there’s a strong factor contributing to the general unwillingness to do unspectacular Bayesian calculations on whether conscious thought and planning can exist prior to and outside of life. It’s the standard, ancient, and intrenched way of dividing this question off from science and into “metaphysics.” Does mind come from matter or does matter come from mind? Well, now — that’s starting to get into metaphysics, isn’t it? Science can’t go there. It’s special. Too special. People make their choice on metaphysics based on what they feel is true. Or on what they need.

    No, this matter of what we can reasonably know about the Mind is indeed something science can deal with. It’s not all up in the air, with the jury still out on the Ghost in the Machine. And when the Ghost in the Machine goes then yes it damn well does take the Ghost in the Universe with it. The analogy is what has always made it seem plausible, a live option.

    My own guess — and it is a guess because I don’t participate in the Forum or know a lot of backstory history — but I think Swiss and the JREF’s stance here is also arising a good deal from deep respect for a particular skeptic who had undergone some personal crises, was privately leaning on religion as a method of coping, and was called out and vilified for not wanting to defend it as a topic of debate. If we’re dealing with individuals on a case-by-case basis then yes, I think that’s a violation of personal space. At any rate it caused a hell of a lot of anguish and ill will … and the outcome was that this ‘personal space’ issue apparently bled into public policy for the organization as a whole.

    Which was a bad idea.

  50. Sastra says

    Marcus Ranum #59 wrote:

    If one has a god about which no claims are made and about which no knowledge is had …

    …then one would not call it “god.” How could they? How could anyone? Nothing is there to classify.

    They always mess up on that. It can’t even work as a hypothetical belief.

  51. says

    I propose again a variant of the “otherness test” for Bigfoot.

    Assume bigfoot is god. Oh, you don’t believe in bigfoot? Why not? Why are your reasons for not believing in bigfoot better and different than your reasons for not believing in god.

    Q1) It’s possible. A1) Certainly. But it’s most parsimonious to assume neither exist.
    Q2) I wish it were true A2) I wish I were 10,000 feet tall with laser beam eyes but it’s not happening.
    Q3) Lots of people believe it A3) Lots of people believe wrong things all the time. There are no WMD in Iraq, either.
    Q4) There’s an ancient book that says so A4) Do you also believe in Spiderman? There are books that say he’s a real person, too
    etc.

    Skepticism is an algorithm. You apply it and confront the results. Sometimes you like the results, sometimes you don’t. So some self-styled skeptics need to be skeptical about their skepticism.

    Here’s a question for them: “Are you a skeptic? Do you always use the same method for determining what you believe is true and what isn’t? If not, why not? Can you apply your skepticism to your skepticism?”

  52. says

    …then one would not call it “god.” How could they?

    Exactly. That’s why I lump deists in with the silly partial skeptics and bigfoot believers. They’re not quite as stupid as full-up fideists but they’re all in the same leaky boat.

  53. Roberto Aguirre Maturana says

    You know how real scientists treat untestable hypotheses? Pragmatically and operationally as invalid

    That’s not incompatible with skepticism, nor with falsifiability. There’s nothing in the principles “hypothesis are presumed invalid until proved valid” or “hypothesis are affirmed as invalid if they are falsified” that restricts its application exclusively to testable hypothesis.

    Skepticism doesn’t have to be restricted to testable claims, thats why you don’t have to believe there’s no god to be an atheist, nor have to believe there are no unicorns to be an a-unicornist.

  54. says

    My own guess — and it is a guess because I don’t participate in the Forum or know a lot of backstory history — but I think Swiss and the JREF’s stance here is also arising a good deal from deep respect for a particular skeptic who had undergone some personal crises, was privately leaning on religion as a method of coping, and was called out and vilified for not wanting to defend it as a topic of debate.

    And that’s fine. You don’t have to make atheism (or disbelief in bigfoot, UFOs, or Slender Man) a litmus test for being a skeptic — everyone of us has some bit of irrationality in us, or ideas we’d rather not question because that would make us deeply uncomfortable. The problems arise when they decide that not questioning beliefs is to be the new litmus test for being a True Skeptic.

  55. says

    lilandra #53

    The disagreement isn’t limited to what skeptic organizations should test. Some are also making a claim that atheism isn’t a skeptical view because religion isn’t testable.

    Yes, people seem to think that skepticism should be limited to subjects that skeptical organizations can test. Leaders, especially, seem to take this view. I think it’s a too-narrow perspective–*my* favorite parts of skepticism have to do with critical thinking philosophy and psychology, not so much the paranormal testing.

  56. says

    *my* favorite parts of skepticism have to do with critical thinking philosophy and psychology, not so much the paranormal testing.

    100% agreed on that! For me, the most fascinating part of my journey into skepticism (and away from the woo-ish goddess/aura/chakra beliefs of my youth) has been learning about common cognitive errors and the weird structures in our brain which evolution has bequeathed to us.

  57. says

    *my* favorite parts of skepticism have to do with critical thinking philosophy and psychology, not so much the paranormal testing

    I agree with you.

    Being skeptical about bigfoot, homeopathy, reiki, etc – is really nothing more than beating a dead horse. The fact that those bad ideas continue to flourish is a cultural problem, but the facts of those matters are indisputable. It’s not as if “organized skepticism” has contributed anything new to the discussion about “why homeopathy is bullshit” since shortly after the invention of homeopathy. Thus, I conclude that the people who enjoy being part of a skeptical movement with the aims of beating a dead horse have little contribute other than clever little twists on their lashing techniques. Meanwhile, physicists and biologists continue to staunchly find no evidence of god, on one hand, but – more importantly – push science (and thereby narrow the remaining gaps for god) on the other. The more I watch what’s happening the more I realize it’s just a social problem; it has nothing to do with science at all.

  58. Sastra says

    Religion is category error as an art form.

    I think the main reason theists insist that there is evidence for God but it’s still outside of science is because they place God (a fact claim) in the same category as morals and values — and then establish its existence the same way. They think of God as being like Love, or like deciding to do the right thing, or like appreciating a beautiful sunset. God being the source of good things is conflated with whether good things are good. Can you scientifically verify that it’s better to be kind than it is to be cruel? Well, God is like that. You see the sunset and infer it’s beautiful. That’s like seeing God is there. Just like it. Same process. You can’t verify God using measurements and tests. You find God — like kindness and beauty– in your heart. In how you respond.

    Yes, this is hopelessly confused. And no, they don’t realize this. It’s sloppy thinking applied to what is essentially a category error. God having meaning, worth, and value as its basic nature, its essence, is somehow supposed to entail treating it in a way no fact claim should be treated.

    That’s one reason they don’t like to define God. Or, if they do define God, they don’t like to analyze the definition. If they do that it might become too clear that no, believing that God exists is not like believing love exists; it’s much more like believing Cupid exists. The God hypothesis is an explanation drawn from observation and experience: it is not the experience itself, or the decision to believe, or the way you feel when you think about God. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. But elaborately and exquisitely set forth.

    Lacking experience in analyzing theism, many skeptics fall for this category confusion. It’s not only what they were probably taught as kids, but it’s the main rhetoric pounded on in our faith-loving culture. Belief in God is to be approached like a moral choice. If we don’t choose to believe in it ourselves, we still need to respect different choices because one the ‘faith’ card is played the game is over for us.

    But skeptics should know the field and examine it critically before we accept that something is ‘beyond science’ or ‘can’t be tested’ because it’s empirical yet in another category, a category which is more private and subjective and personal. Don’t most forms of bullshit say the same thing? Don’t they all eventually play some version of the ‘faith card?’

    Religion just does this very, very well: high art.

  59. says

    Lilandra@38; I really like your overall point, but I think you’ve misunderstood the prefix “super-” as applied to nature.

    Why would anything in nature have to be SUPERnatural?

    Nothing in nature is “beyond” natural. By definition. The point, such as it is, is that the supernatural is not in nature and is thus untestable and unbound by natural means.

    Like saying superreal it is an oxymoron.

    No, not really oxymoronic (superUNreal would be an oxymoron). Just plain old moronic. Or, perhaps, simply hyperbolic but that’s not what they mean (in fact, hyperreal would better serve that purpose).

    Huh. I did not know hyperreal was a real word. Thank you mathematics, semiotics and art theory!

  60. says

    Psychology is a big part of skepticism…and I’ll plug the fact that Richard Wiseman and I will be in Bucharest in a few weeks. He’s a skeptical psychologist, and not one of the silly ones. Well, except sometimes. For amusement.

  61. says

    These people with their anything-goes attitude toward what they perceive as untestable seem to want science to be more than it is. In general, the goal of science is not to say what is true, but to say what is probably true. The desire for certainty is strong however, and leads people to make another error, that falsification is deductive (it’s not, it’s inductive, just like the rest of science, as I’ve demonstrated elsewhere). If science can’t possibly provide evidence to falsify a hypothesis with absolutely certainty, people reason (something true of all coherent claims, by the way), then the hypothesis must be beyond the reach of science entirely. This is a completely unreasonable conclusion, misunderstanding falsification, and misunderstanding the function of science.

    ‘Untestable’ is a completely inapt word, one that implicitly destroys itself. It means no amount of evidence can change the reasonableness of attaching belief to a proposition. Since there are vastly more false propositions than true propositions, however, the only suitable prior to attach to such a hypothesis is vanishing. The ‘untestable’ fails the test, automatically. No need to even lift our arses out of the armchair.

  62. says

    I find this discussion all very interesting. I don’t really have much to add since others have said it better than I could, but I do want to nominate Sastra’s comment at 71 for the next Molly. I found it a really eye-opening explanation to the confusion I often encounter in conversations about believing in God.

  63. says

    but I do want to nominate Sastra’s comment at 71 for the next Molly.

    She already has 5 of the things plus a lifetime achievement award, IIRC. And Mollies went out of fashion circa 2012, again IIRC…

  64. unclefrogy says

    I am not an “Official Skeptic” as in a member of any organization so designated.
    I have come this way by a long and winding root but part of me always doubted just what I was told to some degree or another.
    So what I have found here at this blog is a place where others share their lack of blind faith in unevidenced assertions. It was a surprise for me to find such a place and to hear (read) the depth of conversation on any and every subject. I find myself what ever that my be, here in this time and place (another question) and I encounter many conflicting claims about what reality is. I just am unable to believe any one idea without questioning it and I distrust anyone who says I should not question something without any reason that does not fall apart under scrutiny.
    Why not question that subject say religion?
    Does that mean not question all religion or just some religions or one particular religion? How was that decision reached?
    I am sorry I am unable to believe and will continue to question.
    thanks for doing what you can’t stop doing PZ turning the lights on in the darkness and asking questions.

    uncle frogy

  65. mirror says

    To me, the belief in the fake moon landing is way more rational than the belief in God because an explanation can be given for how it could have happened without contradicting the laws of the physical universe as we know them. Of course, this is how it can be debunked as well.

  66. says

    @72 I think that there are actual phenomena that are “hyper”. Like someone, who is hyperactive is excessively active.

    On the other hand, there is nothing that has been proven to ever be supernatural. The origin of lightening isn’t a god; it has a natural explanation. For a deity to exist, it would most likely have to have a natural explanation. It could be beyond our understanding, but it is highly unlikely it is beyond nature or beyond reality. It would be irrelevant to the universe it created. This is the why the word supernatural is nonsensical to me.

  67. consciousness razor says

    From Loxton’s article:

    Where an atheist activist might have railed against the a priori implausibility of these performances, Randi and his allies (from the Houston Society to Oppose Pseudoscience,5 the Society of American Magicians, and the Bay Area Skeptics6) instead took scientific skepticism’s much more concrete path: they broke Popoff’s schtick down to its testable components, and then literally tested them.

    It’s convenient that he only claims they (we? someone?) “may” have used a priori reasoning. It’s sort of ambiguous whether or not he thinks this is the only alternative to “literal” tests, but given no mention of others it seems this is likely the fallacy at play.* Later it pops up as this:

    Setting aside untestable metaphysical speculations, Randi’s team hypothesized that Popoff’s information was harvested directly from the audience. They tested this by seeding the audience with skeptical activists.

    Reasoning about all of the other evidence we already have which suggests the claim is false is apparently “metaphysical speculation,”** because it isn’t a test right here and now of one very specific, isolated claim. (Following this? Me neither.) It’s tricky — the funny thing is that this kind of testing doesn’t work as advertised, though like any test it does work to do something. You need lots of other results (and the evidence to back it) on all sorts of other subjects to know what kind of conclusions you could have with your one very specific, isolated test. What it does is support those other results, just like they support it, assuming we believe any of these tests ever happened which of course may not be the case.

    No one “disproved” Popoff’s claims with one test or set of tests which were all about Popoff and only Popoff, in that one room that one time when that test was being done. We already had all kinds of background knowledge which made the test possible to begin with and established what any of the possible results could be. So it was in some sense superfluous anyway: given what all we knew back then about the nature of reality (granted, quite a bit less than now, a couple decades later), this was effectively a way to make it abundantly obvious to people who didn’t have a lot of that background knowledge. It didn’t do much more than that, but it was nevertheless important that it be done and certainly made for a good show.
    *So he’s apparently a positivist or something… and assuming it hadn’t been refuted long ago, it’s supposed to lead to what exactly? Doing nothing but “investigate” specific claims, since everything else people do is not “skeptical” or “scientific”?
    **Gotta shove “metaphysical” in there to make it sound nice and spooky!

  68. says

    Science itself is beyond agnostic in practice. It is atheistic. The Anthropic Principle for example assumes our universe contains the elements to produce conscious life on it own. God did it! has never produced any data. You can’t really use Occam’s razor to slice atheism from “scientific skepticism”. The methodology of science is atheistic, because looking at the universe from a natural perspective yields data. Has Intelligent Design ever produced a scrap of data?

    Look at what a waste it was to mine Darwin about the origin of the eye. a god that would poof completely formed eyes into existence in already extant organisms is implausible and if true would make that god incompetent. The evolution of the eye has been explained using natural methodology. I don’t think that you should be jerks to theistic skeptics, but you can politely and figuratively correct their math. The Discover Institute is doing science wrong. Their navel gazing will in all likelihood never produce a workable explanation for anything. If theistic skeptics and scientists get their egos bruised by suggesting their god/man isn’t real I don’t know what to say about that.

  69. Scientismist says

    consciousness razor @#80:

    ..the funny thing is that this kind of testing doesn’t work as advertised, though like any test it does work to do something. You need lots of other results (and the evidence to back it) on all sorts of other subjects to know what kind of conclusions you could have with your one very specific, isolated test. What it does is support those other results, just like they support it…

    Well said. I would only add that the “a priori implausibility” that Loxton essentially dismisses as the railing of atheist activists, is actually the Bayesian prior probability that must be a part of the assessment of the meaning of the Randi team’s experiments with respect to the Popoff claims. You are right, the experiment, by itself, did not and cannot disprove the claim that Popoff, or someone like him at some place and time, could read minds and effect miracle cures. You need lots of other results.

    But when the prior is combined with the new specific results, our assessment of the plausibility of the general claim, as a posterior probability, will have gone down — even if only by a small amount. So the specific experiment (like most single experiments) may have been in some sense superfluous. But if, after the experiment, Loxton still wants to dismiss the new and improved “a priori implausibility” as mere atheist railing, rather than admitting that it now carries even more importance, then he just doesn’t understand how science works.

  70. Data Jack says

    I for one, will continue to identify as a skeptic, because I am one. So is PZ. So is anyone who uses scientific principles to examine claims. “My god is real” is a claim. “Gods exist” is a claim. Show me some evidence to support that claim, or I won’t accept it as true. Just like any other claim.
    That said, Jamy doesn’t get to define who is or isn’t a skeptic. Neither does the JREF. It’s not a club, nor a tent. It’s a method of thinking.
    I like what Dave Silverman said about it last year: You can be a skeptic and you can be a theist, But if you’re both, you’re not very good at one of them.

  71. Owlmirror says

    Lilandra@38; I really like your overall point, but I think you’ve misunderstood the prefix “super-” as applied to nature.
    Why would anything in nature have to be SUPERnatural?
    Nothing in nature is “beyond” natural. By definition. The point, such as it is, is that the supernatural is not in nature and is thus untestable and unbound by natural means.

    That’s one way of considering the term “supernatural”, and I certainly have sympathy for thinking about it like that: Every real thing is natural because all real things have a nature.

    But it’s not the only way.

    There’s also the definition of “supernatural” that phrases it as a testable hypothesis about the fundamental nature of mind.

    http://richardcarrier.blogspot.com/2007/01/defining-supernatural.html

    If [naturalism] is true, then all minds, and all the contents and powers and effects of minds, are entirely caused by natural [i.e. fundamentally nonmental] phenomena. But if naturalism is false, then some minds, or some of the contents or powers or effects of minds, are causally independent of nature. In other words, such things would then be partly or wholly caused by themselves, or exist or operate directly or fundamentally on their own.

    And I think that phrasing it that way is useful, because when carefully analyzed, concepts that involve things that are considered supernatural, like ghosts, and gods, and spirits, are positing minds (or mindlike things) that simply exist, with no physical substrate whatsoever. Bodiless minds.

    Oddly enough, whenever the above definition is offered to religious people, they don’t seem to like it. They usually ignore it, or (sometimes) argue against it without explaining why they reject it.

    This thread was the most interesting example of trying to convince a religious person that the above definition was most applicable to his beliefs, and perhaps the most interesting point is that he abruptly stopped discussing it at all.

  72. consciousness razor says

    This thread was the most interesting example of trying to convince a religious person that the above definition was most applicable to his beliefs, and perhaps the most interesting point is that he abruptly stopped discussing it at all.

    Heh. I still don’t miss heddle one bit. It entered the picture with talk of free will — where he said it had to be an “illusion” or supernatural. Minds having some way to operate outside physics? Yes, certainly. But this was his definition when challenged on it:

    A working definition is: phenomena that cannot be explained by science, ever. That is, even in principle. What’s the big deal?

    One thing in favor of R.C.’s sort of definition (even if you’d make some adjustments here or there) is that the typical alternative clearly isn’t a definition of a kind of thing. Which is what we were going for, presumably, until we hit the brick wall and stopped thinking about it, because there’s no point in thinking about that. The usual idea people reach for is that the supernatural is “undetectable stuff” or “untestable stuff” or similar to the one heddle gave, which offers zero information about what the hell the thing is supposed to be. That’s not a kind of stuff. It’s an epistemological state of the person who is failing to describe that stuff.

  73. says

    A working definition is: phenomena that cannot be explained by science, ever. That is, even in principle.

    That is to say, impossible to know anything about. Including that such a phenomenon is real.* Another working definition that means the same as that is, “imaginary.”

    (* though the word “real” doesn’t apply, nor does “exist” because nothing that is knowable does not exist)

  74. Lofty says

    Marcus Ranum

    Photoshop!

    As a callous 8 year old atheist, I believed in the great god Nasa and its ability to put a bod on the moon.
    (Beep!) A small step…(Beep!)
    Glued to the telly I wuz. For every landing. Heaven for a junior science nerd. After drawing endless space rockets in the margins of my exercise books growing up was an anticlimax.

  75. chigau (違う) says

    Lofty
    I hope you were a callow 8-year-old rather than a callous one.
    /Friday morning nitpick

  76. says

    @50

    The thing is, you can say the exact same thing about invisible underwear gnomes, UFOs, Bigfoot, and anything ludicrous thing anyone might invent on a boring friday night after a few beers provided that it sticks to untestable claims – which is essentially what religion is. Some shit that someone made up that for some reason went viral.

    For what reason should it be treated differently from invisible underwear gnomes ?

    I mostly agree. I see one difference. The things you mentioned would exist in this world, but most of the religious will claim that their god is outside time and space which is completely nonsensical and they should be called on that. But to say that science has disproved a god like that, I think, is an overstatement.

    I would say that science has shown that any god that is acting at all in the universe does so in what look like completely natural ways (this incarnation is pretty much the same as your gnomes) or to a deistic god.

    So science leaves us with a god just like the invisible, incorporeal, heatless, windless, dragon or a god that requires no religion

  77. Data Jack says

    This is one of my favorite philosophical problems. I think we _can_ rule out gods that live beyond space and time – because it cannot be demonstrated that there _is_ a “beyond space and time”, and the only support for its existence is the fact that it is needed to put the gods there. That is completely circular.
    “My god exists”
    “Where?”
    “Outside of space & time”
    “What is that place?”
    “That’s where my god exists”

    As far as deism is concerned, that completely gets shaved away by parsimony. Something started our universe. It might have been from within the universe, or it might have been beyond it. Either way, we don’t know anything about that something. So to assume its a being, an entity, is not supportable. To give something completely unknown the qualities of “self aware”, “purpose driven”, “intelligent”, or any other attributes at all really is wrong.