The difference between skeptical thinking and scientific thinking

Skepticism has a serious problem, and there are a couple of reasons I’ve grown disenchanted with its current incarnation. Belief is a continuum, and I think that skepticism as it stands occupies an untenable part of that continuum.

On one side lie the extremely gullible; people who drift with the wind, and believe anything a sufficiently charismatic guru tells them, no matter how absurd. Far to the other side are the conspiracy theorists. These are people who believe fervently in something, who have a fixed ideology and will happily twist the evidence to support it, and are therefore completely refractory to reason and empiricism.

And then, somewhere in the middle lie science and skepticism. People readily conflate those two, unfortunately, and I think that’s wrong. Science is all about following the evidence. If a bit of evidence supports a hypothesis, you willingly accept it tentatively, and follow where it leads, strengthening or discarding your initial ideas appropriately with the quality of the evidence. You end up with theories that are held provisionally, as long as they provide fruitful guidance in digging deeper. It is ultimately a positive approach that winnows out bad ideas ruthlessly, but all in the cause of advancing our knowledge. I am far more comfortable with science then skepticism, because I’d rather be working towards a goal.

Skepticism is the flip side. It’s all about falsification and disproof and dismantling proposals. I think it is the wrong approach.

Consider one classic example: Bigfoot. Skepticism is all about taking apart case by case, demonstrating fakery or error, and demolishing the stories of the Bigfoot frauds. That’s useful — in fact, skepticism is most useful in dealing with malicious intent and human fakery — but it doesn’t advance our knowledge significantly. The scientific approach would involve actually studying forest ecology, understanding how the ecosystem works, and getting a handle on what lives in the forest…and at the end, you’re left with something informative about the nature of the habitat, as well as a recognition that a giant ape isn’t part of the puzzle.

Again, sure, there are good and necessary aspects of skepticism. When you’ve got a fraud like Burzynski peddling fake cancer cures, the skeptical toolbox is helpful. But in the end, when you’ve shown that injecting processed horse urine into people doesn’t help anything, what are you left with? Better to understand the nature of cancer and normal physiology, providing alternatives and useful explanations for why the cancer quacks are wrong. That’s why the best skeptics of quackery are doctors and scientists — they have positive insights to contribute in addition to simple falsification.

So far, I haven’t said anything that makes skepticism bad; it might be better regarded as a complement to the scientific approach, that clears away the garbage to unclutter the operating field. Unfortunately, the current doctrines of organized skepticism open the doors to pathology, because they so poorly define the proper domain of skepticism, and what they do say are inconsistent and incoherent. What we’re stuck with is a schema that tolerates motivated reasoning, as long as it looks like debunking.

So we get skeptics who argue against the dangers of second-hand tobacco smoke, or anthropogenic climate change — it’s OK, because they’re being critical — and these same skeptical entertainers are lauded for berating an MD and throwing him out of a party, because he had criticized their pandering to a quack…and also their climate change denialism. Do I even need to get into their contemptible sexism or their Libertarian bullshit?

And then the movement as a whole has been wracked with this bizarre denial of sexual harassment, and refusal to deal with the issue. I think part of it has to be a culture of dealing with complications by rejecting them — that the movement is full of individuals whose favored approach to the deplorable messiness of human interactions and the existence of malefactors is by retreating into a Spock-like insistence that the problem does not compute, and therefore can be ignored. It’s a culture of explaining away, rather than explaining.

Also…hyperskepticism. Some people take their skepticism to such pathological extremes that they become conspiracy theorists or fanatical denialists of simple human behavior. I encountered an example of this yesterday that had me stunned with its contrarian stupidity. Not all skeptics (hah!) are this bad, but too many tolerate and approve of it.

A short while ago, I received a very nice letter from a young woman in Indiana who liked my book. I scanned it and posted it, with her name and town redacted — it was a lovely example of a phenomenon we’ve noticed for quite some time, of the way the internet and books about atheism have opened the door for many people who had previously felt isolated. It also said kind things about The Happy Atheist, so of course I was glad to share it.

Some nut named Cavanaugh, in the name of True Atheism and Skepticism, has posted a lengthy dissection of the letter. He doesn’t believe it’s real. He thinks I wrote it myself. To prove his point, all he has is the scan I posted…so he has taken it apart at excruciating and obsessive length. He has carefully snipped out all the letters “w” in the letter, lining them up so you can easily compare them. My god, they’re not identical! He has another figure in which he has sliced out a collection of ligatures — would you believe the spacing between letters, in a handwritten letter, is not consistent? She used the word “oblivious” a couple of times…a word that I also have used many times. She wrote exactly one page, not two. He mansplains the psychology of teenaged girls to assert that there’s no way a 15-year-old woman could have written the letter. You get the idea. He is being properly skeptical, accumulating a body of “facts” to disprove the possibility that someone in Indiana actually wrote a letter.

Furthermore, he lards his account with purely imaginative stories about what my correspondent was thinking — he injects his account with the most contemptible interpolations, like this one.

It’s okay, Mr. Myers, she reassures him, I think you’re cool. I’m just like you, and if I can make it through, so can you. Keep spreading the word. Oh, and come rescue me from Indiana — I’ll be legal in 2016.

That was not in the letter, of course: he made it all up. On the basis of his own foul-minded speculations, he transformed a pleasant fan letter into a come-on from a small town Lolita. It’s a disgusting spectacle of hyperskepticism gone wild. Oh, and skepticism and atheism: Jebus, but you do have a misogyny problem. Please stop pretending you don’t.

And boy, am I glad I cut out the name and hometown from that letter. Can you imagine if I’d left it in, and asshole Matt Cavanaugh thought it would be clever to do some investigative skepticism, tracked down her phone number, and called her up to slime her with innuendo directly? It would be a natural and expected step in the hyperskeptical toolbox to make such a thorough examination of all the data.

So stands movement skepticism, perfectly tuned to question the existence of chupacabras or UFOs. But also poised to doubt the existence of the US Postal Service, while simultaneously sneering at atheists who reject the biggest chupacabra of them all, god, flying in the grandest possible UFO, heaven. When your whole business model is simply about rejecting fringe claims, rather than following the evidence no matter how mainstream the target, you’ll inevitably end up with a pathologically skewed audience that uses motivated reasoning to abuse the weak. And you end up valuing flamboyance and showmanship over the contributions of science…unless, of course, the scientist has grope-worthy breasts.

So no thanks, skepticism. I’ll stick with science.

Also, if my Indiana correspondent should stumble across this faux “controversy,” I am very, very sorry. Apparently it isn’t quite safe yet for everyone to come out — the wider internet, as well as rural America, has its share of small-minded, pettily vicious shit-weasels.

Key issues to trigger an internet fight

Amanda Marcotte claims to have published a definitive list of the weirdest people on the internet, but I think she’s wrong, and has missed a few. She hasn’t crossed swords with fanatical astrologers, New Age solipsists, or Presuppositionalists yet, apparently.

And the first item on her list might strike you as a bit odd.

1. Anti-male circumcision obsessives. No, not people who are simply opposed to circumcising babies. I’m talking about the people who act like removing a foreskin is one of the greatest human rights abuses of all time, on level not just with the much more serious female circumcision but also with slavery and the Holocaust and who tend to use the word “mutilated” to describe it. Most of them are misogynists whose eagerness to construct an edifice of male oppression has completely overwhelmed any concern that their weirdness is permanently destroying any ability to have a reasonable discussion about the pros and cons of circumcision. Because of the combination of gender weirdness, sexual obsessions, bad faith, and lack of all proportion, they get the number one spot.

But then you read the comments, and most of it is dominated by…anti-male circumcision obsessives. It’s like they’ve crawled out of the woodwork specifically to substantiate the validity of Marcotte’s ranking.

This is not to say that anyone should approve of circumcision. Personally, I consider it cosmetic surgery (in most cases — there are unusual conditions under which it’s medically necessary) that ought not to be inflicted on small children, but I don’t consider it crippling or significantly damaging to sexual activity. Which means I’ll probably get hate mail from both the loons who want to make it mandatory for every one, and the loons who regard it as tantamount to castration.

Ing gets email

It is rather bizarre.

The ONLY way for Hominid branching to be possible is through RACE. Yet you have a professor deliberately teaching junk science which completely DESTROYS the theory of human evolution by saying RACE DOESN'T EXIST. Do you guys REALLY want … to be known as a University teaching nonsense which destroys Human Evolution? … i am only a HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATE AND EVEN I KNOW WITH 100% CERTAINTY THAT THIS IS JUNK SCIENCE

The ONLY way for Hominid branching to be possible is through RACE. Yet you have a professor deliberately teaching junk science which completely DESTROYS the theory of human evolution by saying RACE DOESN’T EXIST. Do you guys REALLY want … to be known as a University teaching nonsense which destroys Human Evolution?


Gosh. I’m only a university professor of biology, not AGuyWhosYoutubeChannelGetsMillionsOfViews with a high school diploma, but I thought the key ingredients for speciation were reproductive isolation and subsequent divergence by drift and/or selection. Not “race”, which is a sociologically loaded term that is poorly connected to any legitimate scientific concepts. Does this guy really think that humanity is poised for branching into 3 or 5 or 7 or 63 (or whatever the current tally of ‘races’ is nowadays) species? Is the unit of any potential speciation event in our future likely to be what we label as ‘race’?

Does anyone know who AGuyWhosYoutubeChannelGetsMillionsOfViews actually is? I’d love to watch some of his videos. I’m sure they’re…entertaining informative amusing irritating.

The Dark Enlightenment loons and HBD

Remember the Dork Enlightenment? It’s this bizarre ‘movement’ consisting largely of head-up-their-asses libertarian types with a fetish for the kind of medieval world they played in their Dungeons & Dragons games…but they’ve got Silicon Valley money and have happily embraced cult recruiting techniques, so they’re also somewhat dangerous. One escapee from the Dark Enlightenment has posted his account on a Catholic blog.

The Dark Enlightenment Exposed

I first heard about the Dark Enlightenment (aka “Neo-Reaction” or just “Reaction”) last year, the year after I graduated from college and was interning at a conservative think tank. I briefly become involved with the Dark Enlightenment and then left the movement in disgust. Here is what I learned:

- The Dark Enlightenment is controlled by what the media call “Sith Lords”. You have more public Lords like Mencius Moldbug and Nick Land, but there are even some Lords up higher whose names are not revealed. They say the Master Lord says ‘Et Ego in Arcadia’ which is an anagram for ‘Tego Arcana Dei’ (“I hide the secrets of God”).

- But only the media call them ‘Sith Lords’. In Inner Speak, they will often use phrases like the Men of Númenor or the Eldars.

- I never met any of the higher Eldars, but I did once meet an Eldar in Training. I don’t know his real name but people called him Legolas. He had long blond hair, was dressed like a 19th century count, and wore a pendant that had both a Christian Cross and Thor’s Hammer on it.

- The movement is a weird mixture of ethno-nationalists, futurists, monarchists, PUAs (“pick-up artists” like Chateau Heartiste), Trad Catholics, Trad Protestants, etc. They all believe in HBD (what they call “human biodiversity” i.e. racism) but disagree on some other minor points.

- The religious people in the movement (both Christians and pagans) practice what is called “identitarian religion” (religion that doesn’t deny ethnic identity).

- Some of the rising stars of the Dark Enlightenment on the internet seem to be Radish Magazine, Occam’s Razor Mag, and Theden TV.

- The Dark Enlightenment allegedly has millions of dollars of money to play with. They have a couple big donors. One is rumored to be a major tech tycoon in Silicon Valley. They actually had a private 3-day meeting on an island which was furnished with a French chef, etc. Different forms of formal attire were required for each day (tuxedos, 3-piece suits, etc), and some weird costumes were required too (capes, hoods, etc) — which sound like a pagan cult. (I wasn’t at this function but heard about it.)

- I was initiated into the first stages of the Dark Enlightenment, which involved me stripping down naked so people could “inspect my phenotype”. I was then given a series of very personal questions, often relating to sexual matters. I was then told to put on a black cape. (I really regret doing this but at the time I was younger, more impressionable and eager to please.)

- For the initial oath taking, everyone must swear on a copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species, just to show their fidelity to HBD. After that, for the later oaths, seculars will swear again on Darwin, while Christians will swear on the Bible, and pagans on the Prose Edda or Iliad.

- At one of the meetings I heard someone continuously chanting “gens alba conservanda est” (Latin for “the white race must be preserved”) and then others were chanting things in Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse and Old German, but I don’t know those languages so I can’t remember exactly what they were saying.

- They also have all their own secret handshakes, and their own terminology [like the Cathedral ("political correctness"), thedening ("re-establishing ethnic group identity"), genophilia ("love of one's own race"), NRx ("neoreaction"), etc.].

- On the philosophical level, this movement is not entirely original. Much of it is borrowed from the Identitarian movement in Europe. They also all detest democracy. They are not trying to be a “populist movement” but are only trying to convert other elites to their way of thinking.

This whole movement is like a secret cult, which is why I left. Also, because of the valiant and brave efforts of people on the net exposing this movement, I saw this cult for the evil it truly is. Please stay away from it.

There has to be a typo in there: Radish Magazine is an organic food/healthy living site which almost certainly has no connection to the pasty-pale Hot Pockets-gobbling clientele of the Dark Enlightenment. [I stand corrected: there is also a Dark Enlightenment associated Radish Mag.] I think the writer meant Taki’s Magazine, which with Occam’s Razor Mag and Theden are among the more popular sites for neo-racists. Visit them at your peril — they will fill you with rage.

You might also notice the overlap between the Dark Enlightenment dogma and HBD dogma. They’re all championed by biological ignoramuses who think they understand evolution, but really don’t — and they happily trumpet their bigotry as scientifically justifiable. Here’s one list of the shared beliefs of both HBD and the Dark Enlightenment. Really, it’s just old-fashioned racism of the sort Houston Stewart Chamberlain would have endorsed, right down to their muddled love/hate relationship with science — evolution is only useful if it can be twisted to agree with their preconceptions, while they yearn more for religious justifications, especially the Identitarian religion they want to practice.

Another area of overlap is with the MRA/PUA crowd, as noted above. Lately, the obnoxious kooks who flood my email and twitter accounts with ‘proof’ that I’m an evil feminist have taken to sending me links to places like Taki’s Magazine. Apparently, I’m supposed to see the mad scribblings of John Derbyshire and Steve Sailer as evidence that science shows that I’m wrong about everything. Some of them don’t even seem to be aware of the racist tone of their sources (but I could be wrong), and are cherry-picking from the reactionary right to find just the bits that agree with their views on women.

The Dark Enlightenment, with their contradictory name, are looking pretty dark, at least. It seems to be the fulminating cloaca of the internet, where all kinds of sewage drifts to mingle and react to produce a cloud of noxious fumes. The only responsible thing to do is…flush.

Think about why it was trending

Remember that video by Joshua Feuerstein in which he claimed to destroy evolution in 3 minutes? It went viral. The BBC interviewed him, and got Aron Ra’s perspective. Feuerstein himself is bragging about the power of Social Media.

But they don’t ask why that video got so many views. I saw it because so many other atheists were linking to it…and laughing. It was this beautiful distillation of rank, raving creationist idiocy — a supremely confident ignoramus gushing over creationism’s dumbest hits as if they haven’t been smacked down a thousand times before.

Feuerstein got his moment of fame because he was that week’s stupid cat video, or comedic compilation of crotch punches, or amazingly clueless thing said by a Republican.

Dear Mr Atheist allow me to destroy evolution in 3 minutes!

That’s the title of a video I was sent that is supposed to utterly crush my faith in evolution. By the way, why is it that people who worship faith as a perfectly valid way of knowing so insistently insist that evolution is wrong because it takes too much faith to believe in it? Shouldn’t that be a sign to them that it’s even better than God?

I don’t know why anyone is impressed. It’s an ignoramus ranting at his cell phone camera, reciting tired, familiar creationist tropes.

evolution is not a science…because it was never observed…which is why it is called a theory.

But people have observed and documented evolution, and done experiments to test its predictions, gone out in the field and the lab to do science guided by the theory. Of course it’s a science! And it’s called a theory because it’s predictions have been successfully tested, and the mechanism has a lot of useful properties to inform the science. I don’t think he knows what “theory” actually means, but if you stuck it out to the end, you know his grasp of language is rather weak.

Then he blathers on with creationist misconceptions about evolution. We developed different characteristics because we willed it? “Will” doesn’t play any role in evolutionary theory. And of course he has to trot out Creationist Thermodynamics, which he defines as chaos can never produce order…because it defies the logic and laws of science, which is not something the laws of thermodynamics claim, and naturally he has to babble about tornado in a junkyard. Thanks, Fred Hoyle, your legacy lives on!

Then he wraps it all up with made-up etymology. You know what universe means, right? Uni, one; verse, like in a poem. Therefore Uni-verse means one single spoken statement, just like the book of Genesis says. Too bad the dictionary says otherwise:

late Middle English: from Old French univers or Latin universum, neuter of universus ‘combined into one, whole,’ from uni- ‘one’ + versus ‘turned’ (past participle of vertere ).

As long as we’re making up word origins, I think it’s clear that it’s like “united” + “versus”, meaning “everyone against”, reflecting the inimical, conflict-driven nature of existence, and therefore we have to all gather and laugh at the dumb-ass obnoxious mouth-breather who made that video.

No cure for insomnia here

I’m not adjusted to Pacific time yet, so I woke up this morning at 3am, and figured the thing to do is watch some boring debate…and you may have heard that Sye Ten Bruggencate debated Matt Dillahunty last weekend. Just the thing! Bruggencate is a tedious kook, and it’s just the thing to put me to sleep.

But then it turns out that Bruggencate’s position is so far out there it jarred me constantly. He’s arguing that belief in god is reasonable, and here’s his reasoning:

Why is it reasonable to believe god exists? Because it is true that god exists.

I say it’s true that god exists, therefore it is true that god exists.

You can’t know what’s ultimately real without revelation from god.

This is called begging the question. His entire opening argument is snippets of video of Matt Dillahunty, quotemined bits that he falsely boils down to claim Dillahunty is a solipsist who can’t tell whether he’s a brain in a vat.

And then, darn it, Matt is a really good debater and drills right down to Bruggencate’s fallacious approach. I keep saying this, that debating is a very specific skill, scientists don’t do debate, and you need someone who knows both sides inside and out. It was very entertaining to watch Bruggencate publicly dissected. Too entertaining. How am I going to get back to sleep?

So I kept going, and Bruggencate is infuriatingly obtuse. Also not conducive to sleep.

So here you go, better than a quart of coffee.

Evidences presupposes truth, truth presupposes god.

Grrr. Idiocy. And ultimately he admits that he regards Scripture as Absolute Truth.

I’ve debated Jerry Bergman, and I thought that was a futile exercise with a fool. I would not be able to calmly argue with Bruggencate, so kudos to Matt.

Oh, and a suggestion for Matt. One of the questions in the Q&A was from a neuroscientist who questioned the value of philosophy, and asked for a specific example of a genuine contribution of philosophy to our understanding. Matt fumbled it a bit, though, but there’s a really easy answer to give to a scientist who asks that kind of dismissive question about philosophy.

Philosophy gave us science.

There’s more, obviously, but that one ought to silence any anti-philosophical scientism.

Is Ken Ham literate?

It’s an open question. He’s quite irate with me for stating the truth, which he says is a lie, while confirming that I was accurate.

One atheist blogger is claiming that I was wrong to write on Wednesday that Rachel Maddow of MSNBC TV declared that our Ark Encounter would be built using taxpayer money (through tax incentives). The blogger (PZ Myers) stated:

"He [Ken Ham] declares that no Kentucky taxpayer money is being used to construct the Ark Encounter, but that is a claim no one made. Maddow says quite clearly several times that the Ark Park has been given $43 million in tax incentives — that is, Answers in Genesis has been exempted from a requirement to pay taxes on their for-profit enterprise, and will also receive rebates on sales taxes. So all Ham has done is rebut a claim that Rachel Maddow did not make."

Well, judge for yourself. At the beginning of her mocking rant against us Maddow stated:

"And when the creationist group Answers in Genesis announced their plans to build their Noah’s Ark theme park, the state of Kentucky offered them $43 million dollars in tax incentives for them to build that theme park …".

You can hear Maddow say it for yourself at around the 1:55 mark of the video captured at . The atheist blogger has once again, as such secularists often do, did not tell the truth—and of course Rachel Maddow didn’t tell the truth, either.

I said, and Rachel Maddow said, that Ham received $43 million in tax incentives. We know exactly what that means: he got tax exemptions and rebates that would total $43 million as an incentive to construct his monument to idiocy. So when Ken Ham says we’re lying because no armored cars rolled up to his front door and unloaded big canvas bags with dollar signs printed on them, he is replying to a claim we did not make. Which I also clearly said in that bit of mine that he quoted.

You know, on the cop shows when a suspect is accused of X, and he immediately starts blustering “I did not do Y!”, you kind of suspect that he’s guilty of something. What is Ken Ham hiding?