Plugola: The Skeptical Eyebrow launches

Those of you who enjoyed hearing Gia and Chris on the recent Non-Prophets the three of us did will be pleased to know they have started a little talk show of their own called The Skeptical Eyebrow, which is apparently a Hitchens quote. This isn’t a podcast but a YouTube channel, so go subscribe. They’ve only started, but their first discussion has to do with the recent “Should skeptics walk on eggshells around theism?” kerfuffle Matt has been addressing here. I suspect they’ll refine their little show as it goes along (like, both audio and video together). They’ll be bringing more folks into the conversations in future too. So go check them out and give some constructive feedback if you have it.

Less speculation, more testing…

In keeping with the discussion about whether or not ridicule or insults hinder the process of educating people:

(This is presented as a rebuttal to accusations, not as an argument to engage in more ridicule or insult. Yes, it’s one study, but it’s better than the anecdotal opinions we’ve seen bandied about…)

Journal of Educational Psychology

Abstract of (doi:10.1037/0022-0663.73.5.722):

“Tested the proposition that ridicule is an effective educational corrective by including 1 of 3 motivators (ridicule, insult, gentle reminder) or 1 of 3 controls in a handout of course reading assignments. Sex of Ss was included as an independent factor; 180 undergraduates participated. Scores on an unannounced test on the assigned readings, administered during the next class, provided a measure of information acquisition. Although the gentle reminder and insult increased test scores somewhat, relative to the controls, only ridicule produced a significant increase on information acquisition. Sex differences were found for the insult vs ridicule conditions: Males scored higher than females when insulted; females scored higher than males when ridiculed.”

Don’t be a dick?

I wasn’t able to attend TAM8, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time at TAM7 and fully intend to attend future Amaz!ng Meetings. With any luck, Beth and I will be at TAM9. Every year, there are a great many people I respect and admire and that, coupled with the opportunity to socialize with other skeptics, makes it an event I’d like to regularly attend. Phil Plait is among those I respect and admire…but that doesn’t mean we’re going to agree on everything.

I’ve been asked what I thought about Phil’s comments. To be clear, I have no reason to think that Phil has any idea who I am and I have no idea who he’s talking about (partially because he’s not very specific about that)…but I suspect that, on more than one occasion, I might qualify as a “dick” by his definition or that of other people. Fortunately, the evidence about the impact of the much reviled “new atheists” isn’t good for the “harming the cause” doom sayers.

But let’s get to the point.

During Phil Plait’s talk at TAM 8, he took an informal poll:

Let me ask you a question: how many of you here today used to believe in something — used to, past tense — whether it was flying saucers, psychic powers, religion, anything like that? You can raise your hand if you want to. [lots of hands go up] Not everyone is born a skeptic. A lot of you raised your hand. I’d even say most of you, from what I can tell.
Now let me ask you a second question: how many of you no longer believe in those things, and you became a skeptic, because somebody got in your face, screaming, and called you an idiot, brain-damaged, and a retard? [Very few hands go up]

First of all, who is Phil talking about? This seems a bit quixotic and exaggerated to me. Where are these people who scream in your face on behalf of skepticism? Where are these people whose primary tactic is to yell at someone and call them a retard? Since Phil didn’t provide any examples to support the claim, we can only guess.

Secondly, this is a prime example of a straw man argument – setting up an issue that is easily toppled instead of the actual issue. Not only has he not provided specific examples, or demonstrated that this is a significant problem, he seems to be engaging in an extremely flawed informal poll (read: emotional appeal) to get his point across. The first question is a fair skeptical inquiry (have you changed your mind about something?). The second question is about as far from it as one can possibly stray.

Of course most people don’t simply abandon their beliefs because someone got in their face and called them names. Better questions would be:
– how many of you changed your position after having your beliefs challenged by someone else?
– how many of you changed your mind after having heated discussions?
– how many of you changed your minds after being offended?
– how many of you were prompted to be more skeptical of your position after seeing other people embarrassed by their attempts to defend a view you accepted?
– how many of you have only changed your mind as the result of people treating your beliefs with kid gloves?

Interestingly, some hands still went up for his ill-formed second question (which sort of refutes his larger point) and I wonder how many more hands would have gone up if we actually addressed the issue fairly instead of poisoning the well.

In times of war, we need warriors. But this isn’t a war. You might try to say it is, but it’s not a war. We aren’t trying to kill an enemy. We’re trying to persuade other humans. And at times like that, we don’t need warriors, what we need are diplomats.

What an odd argument…I almost can’t tell where he’s talking about a metaphorical war and where he’s being literal because he seems to shift between them without missing a beat. Of course we’re trying to persuade other humans, of course we’re not trying to kill an enemy…but if Phil doesn’t think that skeptics are struggling against the enemies of reason in a way that is occasionally a metaphoric war, then I think he’s lost sight of what’s actually going on.

It’s a false dichotomy that one is either a warrior or a diplomat and an unfounded assertion that there’s only room for one or the other in changing people’s minds. When superstitious beliefs are killing people or doing serious harm and some in the anti-science, anti-reason crowd refuse to respond to diplomacy, what do you do? Shrug your shoulders and agree to disagree? Write it off as a difference of opinion? Aren’t we, on occasion, actually going to need to do something…including things that might shock or offend? Isn’t that one of the things that would distinguish a ‘skeptics movement’ from ‘people who are skeptical’?

Find me a skeptic who starts off with insults and name calling and I’ll agree with Phil: those people are dicks who are most probably doing more harm than good. Maybe I’m out of touch, but I haven’t seen much of this. I’m sure they’re out there, but are they really a significant problem?

What I’ve seen are people expressing frustration, on occasion. What I’ve seen are people passionate about the truth. What I’ve seen are people who are unwilling to compromise and unwilling to give certain categories of credulity a “get out of skepticism free” card…

…and I see some skeptics who seem willing to compromise while chastising those who aren’t by telling them they’re hurting the cause.

What I see [in the skeptical movement] is that hubris is running rampant. And that egos are just out of check, and sometimes logic in those situations falls by the wayside.

Agreed, but the egos going unchecked might just be the egos of those who think that challenging people’s beliefs should be avoided if there’s a significant risk of offense or hurt feelings – the ego that thinks their way is the only viable path to change (despite evidence to the contrary). The logic falling by the wayside may be demonstrated by dishonest, exaggerated, emotional arguments that misrepresent and oversimplify the situation (as if skeptics are running around shouting at people and calling them names as a primary debate tactic).

And maybe I’m missing something, but isn’t Phil basically calling those who disagree with him, “dicks”? Granted, he’s being very polite about it, but that seems to be what he’s doing.

He took a flawed poll, in order to lend emotional support to his position and the goal seems to be to chastise some unspecified segment of the skeptical community who he thinks are being dicks, because they’ve engaged in name-calling…by calling them “dicks”.

I agree with him on many of the points he made and I’m not faulting him for trying to convey his opinion or convince people to agree with him. What I find most amazing, though, is this…

A former president of the JREF and perennial icon of the skeptic community presented a blatant emotional appeal with quite a few logical fallacies tucked in, to a crowd of skeptics at the premiere skeptic event…and it seems the majority of attendees lapped it up (or that’s the impression I was left with based on reports).


Perhaps it’s because Phil’s a genuinely nice guy. I like him and I don’t take any pleasure in ripping apart his speech. Hell, I have no idea whether he’d consider me a dick or not and it wouldn’t change the fact that I like the guy and we agree on most things.

Perhaps it’s because the underlying message was not only positive, but one that we basically agree with: don’t be a dick. Don’t scream at people and call them names. Attack the issues, not the person. Let’s try to avoid unnecessary and unproductive conflicts.

It would have been very easy to write a speech that conveyed that message in a way that almost everyone would agree with and I suspect that Phil probably thought that’s the speech he wrote…but it’s not the speech that some people heard/read.

Why not?

In addition to the problems noted above, I think part of the reason is that the atmosphere of the day seemed thickened by what many people perceived to be yet another attempt to erect a skepticism-free barrier around theistic beliefs. It’s a recurring theme and it was reportedly more pronounced this year than last.

An attempt to avoid conflict actually created conflict. Is anyone surprised?

When are we going to actually act like skeptics and address this subject openly?

Open thread on show #666

Sorry most of the week was quiet around here, gang. I’ll try to have some good posts for you in the upcoming. For now, we’ll open this one up as a general thread on today’s show, the highly anticipated Episode 666. There have been hints that hijinks, tomfoolery, and shenanigans of some nature will ensue. Then again, it could just end up being a normal episode of taking calls. Or Matt and Jeff could stun us all by converting to Zoroastrianism and sacrificing a life-size gummy bear, not that the two things have anything to do with one another. Nothing for you to do but watch and find out, is there?

Atheism and Skepticism

I’ve talked about the Skeptics’ Schism before…and I’m sure I’ll talk about it again. Here’s today’s take on the subject.

I’d recommend reading D.J.’s post at the JREF site, and PZ Myers’ post that it links to.

Seriously. They’re good posts and provide the needed context and background for this quote from Pamela Gay:


“To me, skepticism applies to testable parts of my life. Through science, I can test ideas and make predictions. As a skeptical thinker, when I’m confronted with data I have to be willing to change my ideas about reality, and if the predictive powers of science fail me, I have to admit my science is wrong. A belief in God is a belief in something frustratingly untestable. I can make no testable predictions using religion, but instead find myself faced with having to make an opinion-based judgement. I have made the choice to believe. I admit I have doubts – I am not so strong a person as to say my faith is complete and that in the dark of night I don’t worry that I’m wrong. But in the absence of data, I have made the choice to believe in a God.”

Here are the questions I’d like to ask:

1. If something isn’t testable, how do you justify believing it?

2. How is this not simply a shifting the burden of proof – accepting an answer, without data to support it, and holding that position until data is presented to contradict it?

3. What makes you think belief is simply a choice? Did you really consciously choose to believe a god exists in the absence of supporting evidence or was there more? Isn’t it more accurate to say that you’ve become convinced for reasons that are admittedly not rational or supported by evidence…reasons of which you may not be full cognizant? Was it a choice or is there some underlying presupposition that you’re not recognizing?

4. Do you care whether or not your beliefs are justified?

5. Is it hypocritical to selectively apply skepticism?

I’m not picking on Pamela here – these questions are for any skeptic that identifies as a theist. They’ve been asked before and I have yet to hear any satisfactory answers. Pamela is simply the most recent, relevant example. And, while I shouldn’t have to say this, I’m not raising this to attack her – I’m addressing the claims.

Anyone can be skeptical of something. It’s probably the case that every sane person is skeptical of many things. It’s natural for us to be curious and skeptical. But when someone identifies as a skeptic and we identify others as a skeptics, we’re not talking about “natural skepticism” or being skeptical, we’re talking about “applied skepticism” – the conscious application of skeptical ideals as tool for evaluating claims.

How skeptical do you have to be in order to qualify as a skeptic?

Skeptics strive (even if they fail) to be skeptical of all things, don’t they? That, to me, is what skepticism is. If it’s nothing more than picking and choosing what you’ll be skeptical of, where is the usefulness? How can you criticize untestable claims while holding your own and claiming they’re immune? When I hear that people like Paul Kurtz are claiming that we shouldn’t be skeptical of everything, I have to wonder exactly what’s going on.

Don’t misunderstand, I agree that we can only adequately investigate testable claims – but we should be skeptical of all claims. What would we say if James Randi, for example, stated that he received an applicant for the Million Dollar Challenge who presented a claim that was untestable but that he was going to go ahead and “choose to believe” this untestable claim (though not aware the prize) despite the lack of supporting evidence?

Pamela writes:

“Someone who compartmentalizes their life – placing religion in one box and skepticism in another – is tearing themselves apart”

… yet she tries to claim that her religious beliefs are untestable and immune from skeptical examination. How is that not compartmentalization? If her beliefs are untestable, why believe? If her beliefs are not untestable, why claim they are…and why believe? How is this different from someone who makes any other untestable woo claim?

None of us are perfect in our application of critical thinking and skepticism, we’re all going to make mistakes. We’re going to accept bad evidence. We’re going to allow our emotions and desires to color our evaluation of evidence. We’re going to show a little special treatment for the things we treasure.

But shouldn’t skepticism be about recognizing those errors and striving to overcome them? Shouldn’t it be about a diligent pursuit of the goal to hold the best possible understanding of reality? When confronted with an error like this, wouldn’t we expect a good skeptic to acknowledge the error and change their position? Isn’t that the hallmark of skepticism?

I’ve said, many times, that I want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible. Both sides of that coin are critical. If you’re only concerned with believing as many true things as possible; believe everything. If you’re only concerned with believing as few false things as possible; believe nothing.

Skepticism shuns both of those extremes (credulity and cynicism) and cares solely about serving as a filter to separate information into piles marked ‘reliable’ and ‘unreliable’. It is an ideal predicated on the desire to have the most accurate understanding of reality that we’re capable of.

Pamela even notes this when she writes; “the natural outcome in skepticism is acknowledging doubt”. That’s true and beautiful but it’s only part of the story. It’s not simply about acknowledging doubt (because that allows people to misrepresent the burden of proof), it’s about attempting to doubt appropriately – to discover which bits of information are reliable enough to be believed and which are not.

There’s a difference between being skeptical and being a skeptic – or there should be. If someone claims to be a skeptic, yet believes in god or auras or ghosts without presenting supporting evidence, is that a problem? Not so long as they recognize that on that particular subject, they’re not properly applying the skepticism they advocate. Essentially, they’re hypocritical in their application of skepticism.

Does that mean they’re a lousy skeptic? On that subject, yes. Overall? That depends. Some skeptics will recognize and acknowledge that they’re not properly applying skepticism. Others will claim that skepticism isn’t relevant to that subject. I’m having a really difficult time deciding which of those is more dangerous and which represents the greatest hypocrisy.

Is the willful rejection of skeptical values in order to cling to a cherished belief more or less detrimental if that rejection is acknowledged? Is it better to say, “Yes, I’m not being skeptical about this – because it makes me feel good” than to say “Skepticism simply doesn’t apply here”?

I’ve got to think that the latter is a gross conceptual error about what skepticism is, if we’re going to distinguish it from simply “being skeptical”.

It’s very likely that each individual case is different. It’s a complicated landscape and this isn’t about assigning people a score, as though I’m 92% pure skeptic and they’re 89% or 96%. There are plenty of things that I’ve been insufficiently skeptical of – but when I’ve been challenged on those things, I’ve acknowledged it and reevaluated my position. I’ve never said or implied that I hold some belief that is beyond the realm of skeptical inquiry.

It may be the case that some of these willful rejections of skepticism amount to no more than traveling slightly over the speed limit, but if you’re part of a movement that encourages people to adhere to the speed limit, you don’t get to willfully ignore it without being called out for hypocrisy.

I like Pamela. She seems to be a nice person, she’s smart, she’s probably a good scientist and, apart from her religious views, she seems to be a pretty good skeptic. I not only don’t object to her speaking at TAM 8 (The Amaz!ng Meeting), I was happy to hear she’d be speaking. Unlike some people, I actually hoped that she’d be specifically addressing theistic skepticism – as that’s a subject that I find fascinating (if not frustrating). I also don’t object to Hal Bidlack (another skeptical theist) serving as MC for TAM. Hal’s someone I liked, despite the fact that we may disagree about the relationship between skepticism and theism.

What I object to are the attempts to curtail discussion on this subject. What I object to are the attempt to portray some skeptics as troublemakers, negatively affecting the whole, simply because they’re not hesitant to say that they’re skeptical of the claim that “theistic skeptic” isn’t oxymoron.

Pamela writes:

“There is currently a philosophy that “skepticism is a proper subset of atheism: that is, not all atheists are skeptics but all skeptics are atheists.”” [snip] “This is false logic. Being a skeptic does not preclude a belief in a God. Being a skeptic simply means I have to admit that there are things I know are scientifically true and based on evidence (such as the age of the universe), and there are things that in the absence of sufficient data I may choose to believe in or not believe in (such as God).”

D.J. agrees with Pamela (in part):

“I do not believe that skepticism is a subset of atheism. I believe, and I wonder why it isn’t obvious to everyone, that atheism is a subset of skepticism.”

It’s true that skepticism is not a subset of atheism, in that context. I agree with D.J. that this should be painfully obvious. Atheism deals with a single claim and that is insufficient to serve as a superset for skepticism. But we’re talking about ‘isms’ in that context. Skepticism could include a bunch of “isms” under its umbrella…that tells us nothing about whether or not skepticism supports or precludes theism.

Pamela, though, shifts scopes – both from ‘skepticism/atheism’ to ‘skeptic/atheist’ and also from ‘is’ to ‘ought’. Of course there are theists who identify as skeptics – that’s not in question.

Here’s the simple question that seems to be avoided like the plague:

Does the proper application of skepticism support theism?

Anyone who thinks the answer is “yes”, please defend that position – just as someone who felt that their belief in ghosts was supported by the proper application of skepticism.

If the answer is “no” – then it is clear that the proper application of skepticism supports the atheistic position, in the sense that (skeptical) atheism rejects theistic claims as unbelievable due to insufficient evidence. Read that twice. Insert the word “nontheism” for “(skeptical) atheism”, if it makes it more clear. (I’ll bet I still get someone e-mailing about middle ground…)

That’s what we’re really discussing here: Is theism consistent with the proper application of skepticism?

Pamela would like to have us believe it is and she attempts to do so by claiming that her theism is untestable and claiming that “Being a skeptic does not preclude a belief in a God.”

That, though, is a dishonest shifting of the burden of proof. She might as well have said “Being a skeptic does not preclude a belief in the supernatural/ghosts/auras.” It’d be just as true and just as irrelevant. Skepticism does’t preclude belief in anything provided that you assert that your belief is justified until disproved. Skepticism is about investigating all claims to discover truth. It’s about discovery, not just debunking.

Isn’t it one of the core principles of applied skepticism that if something is untestable, then belief is unjustified? How can one justify belief without supporting evidence?

I’m baffled by the unwillingness of some skeptics to state the obvious when it comes to religious claims: they haven’t scratched the surface of meeting their burden of proof. Some act as if honestly acknowledging that someone’s beliefs are not rational and not consistent with a skeptical assessment of the evidence is somehow a disservice; as if we don’t want to hurt the feelings of our skeptical friends who have bought into a particular brand of woo. What sort of friend are you being when you do that?

It’s not as if we’re trying to kick people out of skeptic groups or exclude them from meetings and events. It’s not even as if we’re unwilling to consider their case – but pretending that there isn’t a dilemma here that should be defended? That’s a disservice.

If there’s a theistic skeptic who would actually like to defend their views, why not encourage that? Why not arrange for a public debate or panel discussion at TAM9? I suspect that the answer has more to do with image and the perception that such a discussion might alienate people that are otherwise supportive. Honestly, though, I think it probably has more to do with finding a skeptical theist willing to publicly defend that position.

If anyone needed evidence of the pernicious, nefarious, deleterious effects of religious beliefs and their ability to protect themselves while affecting their surroundings; they need look no further than the collection of otherwise committed skeptics who not only shy away from the subject but encourage others to do the same.

Lame YouTube Apologist Caught in a Lie

I know, it’s shocking. YouTube apologists lie. A lot. The one calling himself Shockofgod has been getting a lot of attention lately, because he claims that he called The Atheist Experience and that his question “terrified” the hosts. Here, take a look:

What’s immediately obvious to anyone who’s ever watched or listened to an episode of The Atheist Experience is that this isn’t us. Of course, that doesn’t stop Shockofgod, whose real name is Rich Allen, by the way. Rich, who is known for his YouTube videos in which he mounts a camera to his helmet and rides his motorcycle in traffic while spouting bad apologetics, truly knows no shame. He not only posted the clip above, he posted the following on Yahoo! Answers:

Note the answer he chose as the best answer, and the fact that he totally misrepresented what Michael was saying to him. He dismisses all the other gods, because no one has presented sufficient evidence to support their existence. Likewise, we dismiss his god for the same reason.

Now, you could argue that maybe Rich is just so dumb that he didn’t realize what Michael was saying. I’d think that too if he hadn’t chosen this answer after I posted the following response to him:

So now that Rich has so thoughtfully provided written evidence of his dishonesty, feel free to call him on it whenever you can. Of course, you can’t do that on the video above. He’s disabled comments. So now which one of us is terrified again?

I guess we could all hope that he really does call the show tomorrow, but I won’t be holding my breath.

Can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

Another viewer mail worthy of sharing:

I found Atheist Experience on Youtube when browsing on the web. I am writing in reference to the statement in one episode that the journey from theism to atheism can, for some people, be long and painful. It was long for me, about 75 years, but not painful. I just stumbled gradually toward atheism over the years as I read a great deal and thought more about my religion. During my early 30s I left the Lutheran Church for the Unitarians, where I remain, but I gradually changed my belief from the traditional Unitarian position that God is one to that of the agnostic, and eventually to what I understand is a strong agnostic. But, by watching the episodes of Atheist Experience I realized that I was not intellectually consistent to require evidence for either that God exists or does not exist while maintaining that I do not believe in Santa Claus because here is no evidence that he exists. I don’t require evidence that he does not. You provided the final argument to convince me to become an atheist: that it is irrational to believe something for which there is no evidence.

Your program does two marvelous things: (1) It helps people like me, who have a stumbling block in their reasoning, to think more clearly. And (2), and this is most important, it demonstrates that persons such as I was, who are on their journey towards atheism, need not be alone on that journey.

I am approaching my 86th birthday. My only regret is that I do not expect to be here when the atheist position will no longer be detrimental to a person’s social position or employment, nor considered a factor in determining a person’s qualification to hold public office.

My best wishes for you and the ACA.

Positively made my day!

Non-Prophets 9.6 is up

For your consideration.

Gia, Chris and I had a blast doing this. As there was no live chat involved, we’ll just make this an open commentary thread about the show. (Also, here is a much lower bitrate version, as I didn’t take into account just how huge the higher quality version is and I didn’t know at the time what bitrate the guys usually use. So choose this one if you just want a faster download and don’t mind some loss of fidelity.)

The last thing that sidewalk evangelists ever see…


Posted without comment (other than the implied one…and that one…and that one….)

Dont use all Gods blessing and say you dont believe him.

You think you dont need him, but you live on His dependency. That is

In next tv show, i would like that all of your members, create a sun
and give to all people that believes what you believe. Or create the
air, and give to them. Or create a land, and plant and give food for
them. Not just plant, but create a land where you can plant and give life.

If you dont believe him, dont use air, dont use food that come from
land you dont create. Dont use your car, or ur home, because man uses
raw material they didnt create.

We all depend on Him. We cant create air, or sun, or anything.”