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“We”?

So Daniel Loxton comments on his tent. I found it exceptionally revealing, just not in the way he probably intended.

(From another commenter) Again, it would result in much less heat to declare that atheism/religion in not wiyhin your focus or interest, rather than insisting on a controversial position that plenty of scientists apparently don’t agree with.

(Loxton) I’m not about to accept the controversial positions of handful of atheist activists as representative of the wider view of scientists. (These are, you realize, positions novel enough to them that they felt they were good hooks for controversial books?) But regardless, many skeptics have argued just as you ask: that for reasons of division of labour, skeptics will stick to the testable paranormal claims that we do best. Paul Kurtz, for example, argued in 1999 that,

As I have said, I do not believe, however, that CSICOP or the Skeptical Inquirer should in any way, except tangentially, deal with religious issues. But my reasons are pragmatic, not theoretical. It is simply a question of the division of labor. We lack the resources and expertise to focus on the entire range of scientific questions about religion: biblical archaeological, biblical and koranic criticism, linguistics, psychology, anthropology, sociology, the genetic or environmental roots of religion, etc. It would take us too far afield. We have focused on fringe science and specialized in the paranormal, and we have made important contributions here. Skeptical inquiry in principle should apply equally to economics, politics, ethics, and indeed to all fields of human interest. Surely we cannot possibly evaluate each and every claim to truth that arises. My reasons are thus practical.

Atheist hardliners are no more willing to accept that pragmatic argument than any other. The only answer that will satisfy atheist activists, apparently, is that skeptics must accept that atheist activism is the most important cause in town.

That’s an impasse that skeptics resolve by getting back to our own work.

I think he’s feeling a little exasperation — it’s a cheap and ineffective shot to complain that some scientists write “controversial” books, therefore…what? The only worthwhile books are bland and uncontroversial? And if he’s thinking of, for instance, Dawkins’ book, wrong — atheism wasn’t controversial among scientists at all. It was just a bold move to slap the facts down in front of the public.

But it’s the Kurtz quote that is most remarkable. What jumps out when you read it?

I. I. We. Us. We. We. Who, kemosabe?

Who has specialized in those particular subsets of skepticism? Why, Kurtz, and Loxton, and Swiss, and Shermer, and Dunning, and Radford, and many others. And that’s fine; they should do what they know and what they’re good at. Yet somehow they’ve got this amazing close-minded privilege that what they are doing, their local “we”, is what their entire constituency, the more global “we” of all skeptics, should be doing.

Are these people even aware that their movement should be more than the desires of a few so-called leaders? That their group is made up of individuals, each with unique talents and interests, and that what determines the focus of the skeptical movement ought to be the ever-changing concerns of the people in the movement, and that as the movement grows (as we hope it would), the wider pool of talent would broaden the range of interests?

If an atheist joins the skeptical movement, and says she wants to work on the harm religion does to society, what are you going to tell her? “No, you have to study the wily chupacabra”? If an atheist joins the skeptical movement, does that mean some High Poo-Bah goes up to Daniel Loxton, and orders him, “Put down that keyboard, Loxton, we’re sending you off to rural America to blow up a church, because we’re all atheist hardliners now”?

No. And it’s idiotic to fret over it. I’ve been listening to the gay marriage debate in the Minnesota House this afternoon, and the skeptics sound so much like the conservatives — somehow, opening the door to different views means that their personal interests are compromised. No, they’re not. Keep on chasing Bigfoot, guys! Keep on doing “your own work”! No one is telling you to stop!

But, you know, if skepticism really is an analytical tool set for examining the world, stop being so damned possessive of it, and let people apply it in ways that reflect their expertise, not yours. Skeptical inquiry should, in principle, apply to all fields of human interest, as Kurtz said. What is impractical is policing skeptical inquiry and straining to keep it from being applied by people who aren’t members of the skeptical elect, who have goals different from the usual white male magicians and libertarian dilettantes. You don’t get to do that.

It’s not your damn tent. It belongs to everyone.


I should have mentioned, and will do so now since it was brought up in the comments, that Kurtz’s “we” was focused on just the organization he was running, and in that it is perfectly appropriate for a specific organization to limit it’s brief to what the personpower within the organization can manage. It requires a deliberate administrative commitment to focus on a topic. An example would be NCSE’s recent expansion from a group that addresses evolution education to one that addresses evolution and climate change. This is very different from what a larger movement can do; there, expertise can bubble up from the base.

Comments

  1. says

    Well, I don’t know about that. We’d have to move the tent to accommodate wimminfolk, or brown people, or people who are liberals or feminists or activists for social justice, and we just can’t have that.

    Those people need to stay out of the tent.

  2. consciousness razor says

    We’d have to move the tent to accommodate wimminfolk, or brown people, or people who are liberals or feminists or activists for social justice, and we just can’t have that.

    And here I thought that tents were made to be mobile. Now that I’ve seen the light, it’s obvious that they’ve always been an immovable object. But what happens if we found an unstoppable force? Like, say, a cephalopod or something. What then, poopyhead?

  3. says

    I’m not a skeptical leader or a person of great learning, or really anybody of any note at all. So clearly I might be missing something that shoots down everything I’m about to say, and maybe those brilliant Bishops of Skepticism have already addressed this somewhere else and I missed it.

    But it seems to me that if your problem with skepticism addressing religion is a practical one based on you personally not having the expertise or time to deal with it… hold on, I know this is going to sound crazy coming from someone outside the tent of organized skepticism leadership… don’t you INVITE THE EXPERTS IN THOSE FIELDS TO JOIN YOUR FUCKING MOVEMENT?!?! I understand that not everyone can be an expert in “biblical archaeological, biblical and koranic criticism, linguistics, psychology, anthropology, sociology, the genetic or environmental roots of religion, etc.” but that doesn’t mean that those people don’t exist, and that those people wouldn’t be more than happy to tackle the issue under the heading “skepticism.” You don’t say “our current membership can’t do it, so from a practical standpoint no future membership can ever do it”… do you? Is that how it works?

    Like I said, I’m no expert on anything. But because I’m no expert on anything, I’m really used to calling upon the experts to help me. I don’t insist that because I’m not an electrician, if my wiring goes bad I have to do without power in my house. I’m not a plumber, but I know that plumbers exist and can be called upon to fix my leaky sink with a simple phone call. That Paul Kurtz and his friends in the skeptical movement aren’t all experts in debunking religion is no reason to pretend that no one else can do it either, or that you can’t and shouldn’t call upon those experts when you need them.

  4. Anthony K says

    We have focused on fringe science and specialized in the paranormal, and we have made important contributions here.

    Like?

  5. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    This heteroskeptuality threatens our 2,000 year tradition of homoskeptuality. Why, in ages past people skeptical about the wrong things were burned or axe-murdered (albeit after a trial of sorts)! Now we not only have to refrain from killing these heteroskeptuals, but we’re being told that we aren’t allowed to keep them off our airwaves and internets???

    the HORROR!!!

  6. Sastra says

    Who has specialized in those particular subsets of skepticism? Why, Kurtz, and Loxton, and Swiss, and Shermer, and Dunning, and Radford, and many others.

    I’m going to make a quick plea here on behalf of Michael Shermer. I’ve been a member of Skeptic Society for many, many years (it was my first foray into atheism/skepticism/humanism) and have read every issue of Skeptic Magazine. From the very beginning it has made a huge point of going after not just the paranormal and pseudoscience, but religion, economics, medicine, politics, etc — wherever skepticism leads. There have been entire issues focused on the ‘God question’ and atheism is a regular subject.

    I’m not saying you can’t complain about Shermer at all, of course. But I don’t think he falls into the same category as Kurtz.

    And in Kurtz’s defense I’ll point out that he was trying to keep TWO organizations and TWO magazines afloat. Council for Secular Humanism and Free Inquiry took on religion — and CSICOP and Skeptical Inquirer took on the paranormal and pseudoscience. He may have wanted to establish separate divisions of labor because he had to — I mean, he already had.

    CSI is supposed to have now combined both groups. So Loxton’s argument to follow Kurtz may be outdated.

  7. screechymonkey says

    “Are these people even aware that their movement should be more than the desires of a few so-called leaders?”

    Of course they are. The donations of the little people are important, too!

  8. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    They are exactly of the same mind as the reactant conservatives. I mean, for goodness’ sake, Jamy Ian Swiss said people were trying to “impose beliefs” about social issues on skepticism. Seriously. He said that. What’s next, are we going to shove it down their throats?

  9. Konradius says

    Like?

    Well, I hear they’re fairly certain that Nessie doesn’t exist…
    Not that they tried to prove a negative mind you.

  10. says

    They issue point in the Kurtz quote, which I see Sastra just mentioned, is that he was referring to a *specific* organization and a *specific* magazine. Not an entire “movement.”

    What’s more, it was an organization and magazine which he founded.

    So Loxton misused Kurtz’s quote. For Kurtz, it was perfectly legitimate to say something like “this small organization and magazine can’t do everything, so we’ll keep a narrow focus.” You can’t use that to say that an entire “movement” has to have a narrow focus.

    Furthermore, since he and his colleagues founded them, his “I, We, Us” was also legitimate. Can’t really complain about creating a smaller tent, giving the funding and resource issues he had – especially since he also created a secular humanist group right alongside it to focus on religion. He never presumed (as far as I know, and I did know him a little bit) to declare what skeptics generally should be doing – just what he wanted his corner of the world to be doing.

  11. Ing:Intellectual Terrorist "Starting Tonight, People will Whine" says

    In Dunning’s case doing what he does best would be wire fraud and ebegging?

  12. Anthony K says

    How did I screw that up??

    Maybe Bigfoot ate your words? It’s testable! Skeptics, roll out!

  13. evilDoug says

    INVITE THE EXPERTS IN THOSE FIELDS TO JOIN YOUR FUCKING MOVEMENT?!?!

    While the tent may appear egalitarian, with a nice buffer zone of admiring hoi polloi at the periphery, the room for thrones at the centre is limited.

    They are exactly of the same mind as the reactant conservatives.

    If you can be married, then my marriage is reduced in value.
    If you are allowed on the stage, then I won’t get as much of the spotlight.
    If the pernicious influence of religion on education becomes a focus, chupacabra might become a blur in the background, indistinguishable from a heap of mango pits and banana peels.

  14. says

    Yes about Kurtz…and CFI has also expanded in much more positive directions in recent years.

    And, Sastra, I’m not criticizing any of the people I’ve named for having their own interests (I’ve also enjoyed Loxton’s work on promoting evolution). I’m only jumping on Loxton for trying to set the boundaries of skepticism in such a self-serving way.

  15. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    *A fat baldheaded old man walks into the tent pulling a child’s wagon with what looks like cannolis. Notices the walls of the tents, and say “needs more doors”. Pulls a refs whistle out of his pocket and blows twice. A posse of Pullets run in, and cut new doors using box cutters, and quickly exit after exchanging the box cutters for a cannoli (containing grog soaked corn, of course). Man walks out through a new door whistling tunelessly.*

  16. imthegenieicandoanything says

    I’m not a member of any official skeptic (or atheist) organizations, so I claim no direct voice in whatever such groups may or may not be doing. However, after reading this post twice to make sure, I really enjoy being able to say “Yes, Very well and properly said!” to PZ.
    When it comes to science in its most abstract and broad sense, nobody gets to say “This is mine!”

  17. Sastra says

    Ah, I meant CFI, not CSI. CSI is CSICOP. Was. And is in CFI now. Glad that’s clear.

    My point re Shermer was that from the beginning he hasn’t tried to narrow or limit the field of skepticism, and skepticism definitely includes religion .

    I sometimes think much of this debate though rests on different interpretations of the word “welcome.”

    A while back my woo-woo friends were talking about one of their woo-woo lectures and I mentioned that I was sure I wouldn’t be welcome since I did not share the views and would ask critical questions. They agreed — but tried a tu quoque and immediately asked if a naturopath/mystic/psychic/spiritual person would be “welcome” at a skeptical conference.

    My answer was yes, definitely: both CSICOP and TAM have tried and succeeded in getting representatives of the “other side” for either talks or panel discussions or ‘challenges.’ And then we quiz them intensely in the Q & A afterwards. There have also been members of the audience who mention at microphone or during social times that they have paranormal abilities or saw a ghost or whatever — and we skeptics love to talk to them, ask them questions, argue over interpretations, etc. Okay; defend your claim. Let’s discuss.

    Apparently this is not what they mean by being “welcomed.” Being welcomed means you are accepted and listened to respectfully without being judged or having to defend yourself. Embrace the diversity. Many ways. Approach a paranormal speaker with an open mind and heart and don’t “go after” them in a Q & A. Questions should only be for clarification and understanding. No, skeptic groups do not “welcome” naturopaths and psychics.

    Should skeptic groups ‘welcome’ religious believers? On my terms, yeah. On skeptic terms. You bring up that you believe in God and oh, what a happy little debate we have. And surely, as an otherwise skeptical person, you will be eager and intrigued to hear what your non-religious critics have to say. That’s how science works. If they just smile blandly and nod when you say something controversial — then you have been insulted.

    But if the religious believers are like my friends and won’t come to skeptic conventions unless they are made to feel welcome on their own terms — then no. That’s how woo-woo conventions work. You seek support and you get it. Even those who disagree with you think it’s lovely you believe what you do. We disagree — so we change the subject.
    What nonsense.

  18. LicoriceAllsort says

    It’s not your damn tent.

    I mean, maybe you drove in a stake, but you built it on public land using donated & found materials and then invited everyone to come party in it. It was all well and good till the wrong kind of people showed up; then you tried to shoo us out and claim it’s a private function. It’s all right, we’ll just take our party over here, and when your party gets boring, we’ll let you join ours.

    *waves at Austin Cline* I’ll try not to fangirl too much, but you were my introduction to atheism and provided a lot of fodder for my deconversion. Thank you!!

  19. says

    That pragmatic argument about the division of labor is the one Loxton keeps falling back on when he’s not engaging in the transparent special pleading/denial of null hypothesis and Occam’s razor/argument from tradition tapdancing bullshit that finally got me to stop buying Skeptic Magazine (and Skeptical Inquirer as collateral damage).

    It’s fascinating to me, because to keep making it, to justify using a quotation from 1999, you’d have to imagine that nothing significant has changed in the last 14 years. We keep hearing how the skeptical movement is just growing and growing and growing, and every TAM is bigger than the last, and there are tons of new local skeptic groups and smaller conferences popping up everywhere, but somehow in all that growth, we (as a movement) haven’t absorbed enough people with the relevant expertise to tackle religious issues? CSICOP as an organization essentially absorbed–or was absorbed into–an organization with that relevant expertise. The only reason the skeptical movement may not have the resources and expertise to deal with religious issues is because the gatekeepers keep trying to exclude them, or telling them to leave their expertise and resources outside the tent.

    The reason Kurtz gave for the division of labor does not support Loxton’s gatekeeping. Kurtz basically said “we can’t make this tent a permanent structure, because we lack the bricklayers and equipment,” and Loxton is standing at the tent flap trying to keep the construction workers out, and telling them that their pallets of bricks and bags of cement have no place inside.

    At times like this, I find it important to remember that Loxton is a former shepherd. I don’t think he’s ever really left that mindset behind.

  20. Ulysses says

    There’s another point about the Kurtz quote. It’s from 1999, 14 years ago. How much longer will it take to finally decide that for all practical purposes Bigfoot doesn’t exist and even if it does it doesn’t really matter but religion does exist and its effects are deleterious for society?

  21. says

    I think Loxton is confused about what his argument is. Either that, or he can’t read. Because the guy he quotes agrees with us, not with him:

    Skeptical inquiry in principle should apply equally to economics, politics, ethics, and indeed to all fields of human interest.

    I mean, no one is actually arguing that those folks who work on paranormal claims and “fringe science”* should drop what they’re doing, and focus on other stuff (especially given that we’ve seen what happens when they do start talking about other stuff *coughbenradfordcough*). The argument is that atheist skeptics shouldn’t be prohibited from disputing religious claims as part of skepticism; and the claims of the A+/FTB/Skepchic crowd is that we should be able to also look at ethics, politics, etc. as part of what we are interested and good at, under the umbrella of skepticism.

    This has nothing to do with resources, given that we bring our own “resources”, we just want to be able to not get whined and blathered at by Skeptics™ who want to keep the label only to themselves.

    – – – – – – – – –
    *wouldn’t stuff like ID fall under this, though, just as much as other woo-pseudo-science?

  22. says

    That’s an impasse that skeptics resolve by getting back to our own work.

    if that were actually true, we wouldn’t be having this problem in the first place. If the traditional Skeptics™ just went back to doing what they’re supposed to be doing with skepticism, and let us do what we want to do with skepticism instead of whining that we’re diluting and adulterating their precious “pure” skepticism, there wouldn’t be an argument at all. We’d all be happily skeptical in our own favorite domains.

  23. says

    Jebus. Now Loxton is plugging this pdf he wrote. 79 pages long. Nothing but a long drone about the boundaries of skepticism. A short book all about building fences.

    Man, but I’m glad I’m not having anything to do with those jack-offs anymore.

  24. says

    I liked the 79 page document. The first half is history; it’s only the second half that is about defining boundaries. Actually I’d like to see more history of skepticism. What internal disagreements did the skeptical community have in the 70s, 80s, and 90s? (I’m basically in it for the drama, haha.)

  25. says

    What really bothered me — and it looks like Tom Foss has adequately addressed this — is that he quotes Kurtz from 1999 Let me repeat: 1999! What Kurtz said may have very well applied in 1999, but why should we think that this must still apply today? I see quite the opposite, actually — reasons for why Kurtz’s remarks no longer apply. Those resources he thought were lacking should now be quite available. Why not? Or what’s missing?

  26. says

    @Jadehawk:

    I think Loxton is confused about what his argument is. Either that, or he can’t read. Because the guy he quotes agrees with us, not with him:

    Wait, the consummate skeptic is quote-mining too? Quote mining, special pleading, argument from authority, argument from tradition, and rejecting the null hypothesis and Occam’s razor? I do believe that’s Bingo.

    I think there’s a fear that if things start changing in the Skeptical Movement(TM), if they start letting too many people in, those people might actually set some standards for who gets to be considered a leader, and maybe the fuzzy-thinking gatekeepers with no actual expertise will be found wanting.

    @PZ:

    Jebus. Now Loxton is plugging this pdf he wrote. 79 pages long. Nothing but a long drone about the boundaries of skepticism. A short book all about building fences.

    It’s not really surprising. Wasn’t his claim to fame a similarly long-winded argument trying to set a road map for where Skepticism should be going in the future and what all our goals should be? Could it be that these folks are so concerned about atheists (and feminists and social justice types and all that) shoving new agendas down their throats and telling them what to do and what to stop doing because that’s exactly what they’re doing and they don’t like the thought of competition?

  27. says

    Wait, the consummate skeptic is quote-mining too?

    I don’t think it quite qualifies as quote-mining; maybe the fact that Loxton is talking about the whole movement, while Katz was talking just about his organization (which is not evident from the quoted section) could qualify as a form of mining. But the bit I highlighted is right there, in context, in the quote Loxtin himself provided. Which is why it seems to me Loxton is confused about his own argument, if he doesn’t even notice that the quote he provides contradicts what he’s claimed his point was, previously.

  28. says

    @Jadehawk #27

    I think Loxton is confused about what his argument is. Either that, or he can’t read. Because the guy he quotes agrees with us, not with him:

    My interpretation was that Loxton finds the whole division of labor view to be acceptable. And if we were under the impression that he found it unacceptable, then we were mistaken. Do we have any evidence that Daniel Loxton himself dislikes the division of labor view?

  29. says

    I think there’s lots of evidence to the contrary. “Division of labor” is something he’s brought up repeatedly on this topic.

  30. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    I do believe that’s Bingo.

    Actually, it’s Numberwang.

  31. says

    My interpretation was that Loxton finds the whole division of labor view to be acceptable. And if we were under the impression that he found it unacceptable, then we were mistaken. Do we have any evidence that Daniel Loxton himself dislikes the division of labor view?

    what the fuck are you talking about. What does any of this have to do with the part I pointed out?
    I pointed out that Kurtz disagrees with Loxton on the idea that Skepticism doesn’t apply to things like religion. Kurtz specifically points out that skepticism should apply to everything, which is our position. That he says that his organization should focus on the things it’s good at instead of trying to do everything is not relevant, and Loxton’s attempts at pretending Kurtz was talking about the movement being thusly restricted is misrepresentation.

  32. says

    @Jadehawk,
    To clarify, it seems like Loxton finds Kurtz’s view acceptable on some level, but I would not say that Loxton agrees with Kurtz. Instead, he seems to be saying “The pragmatic division of labor is a venerable perspective and here is an example of someone expressing that view. Too bad my critics don’t even accept the pragmatic argument.” The part where Loxton is wrong is that his critics are fine with the pragmatic argument, but interpret it as only applying to certain organizations rather than to the movement as a whole.

    And yeah, I agree. Daniel does some serious conflation of certain skeptical organizations and the skeptical movement.

  33. truthspeaker says

    As far as I’m concerned, religious believers are welcome in the skeptic tent. While in that tent, they may hear other people apply skepticism to their religious beliefs. If they do, they can react to that by offering a rational defense of their religious beliefs, or by admitting they hold irrational beliefs (as some believers do), or by remaining silent on that subject, or by leaving the tent. But if they leave the tent, that’s on them. They can’t honestly claim someone pushed them out of the tent.

  34. sigurd jorsalfar says

    Rather than abandoning the skeptic movement to these clowns we need to take it back. We are the skeptics. They are the semi-skeptics or the semi-credulous.

  35. says

    So, seriously, I’m genuinely confused.

    I can’t keep all of these organizations straight. I know individuals with whom I want to have nothing to do with (Vacula, Paden, Mayhew, et al), but not the organizations.

    Can someone please create a handy-dandy guide to the various “skeptical” organizations? Divide them into two groups.

    1. The Bigfoot Skeptics…aka, the BSers. These are organizations I probably won’t be supporting with time, money, etc.
    2. Everyone else, aka, the non-BSers.

    CSI/CFI/CIPI/NOAAKLAISLFLAKSLFLSK… shit, who can keep all these acronyms straight?

  36. anchor says

    “Those people need to stay out of the tent.”

    Precisely. [On the context]

    It seems that segregation and division is so ingrained in the cultural milieu that many an attempt to expand the tent inevitably becomes tantamount to treason.

  37. says

    Fascinating. So we can use the whole broad field of science: ecology, evolutionary biology, physics, astronomy, history, astrophysics, chemistry, archaeology, and so on to counteract the claims of cryptozoologists, dowsers, quack healers, Velikovskians, and UFO spotters, but we can’t use them to evaluate religious claims? Bullshit! The practical reason was not wanting to deal with denunciation by religious organizations and their followers.

  38. says

    Has Loxton never heard of Special Interest Groups where members of organizations congregate to work on the parts of the issues that interest them? Some focus on education, some on management, some on communication, some on computers; or Nessie, UFOs, faith healing, and religious beliefs. Or some put out the newsletter, some organize the conference, some cultivate new speakers, some talk to students. It’s the same thing. In a volunteer organization, people form new subgroups and advance the cause in different ways depending on their interests and abilities. That is how organizations grow strong and stay relevant.