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.