A common complaint I hear a lot nowadays…

If you’re loafing about on a Sunday morning and looking for something to read, here’s a long form argument requesting skeptical consistency regarding political economy. Oh, man, is this familiar.

Unfortunately, the majority of high-profile skeptics in our community seem to promote scientific skepticism and so do not address political economy, citing a pre-requisite of hard data in forming skeptical conclusions: SGU doesn’t do politics (and when it does, as with Rebecca Watson’s work on feminist issues, you end up with petitions calling for their removal.); Brian Dunning, amongst others, blithely say that skepticism is not applicable to political “values”; and economic and political issues are barely represented at conferences, on podcasts, and in blogs, despite the disproportionate suffering it causes compared to staple feed such as homeopathy and psychics.

Yes. Yes. Yes. The modern skeptical movement is built on a very narrow foundation; a lot of the Old Guard spend an incredible amount of effort restricting the range of allowed topics to a tiny set of staples, which means that too often we hear lots about the bogosity of Bigfoot, but almost nothing about the bogosity of an economic system that maintains gross social inequities. And which belief do you think does greater harm?

We’ve been struggling for years just to get the established skeptics to recognize that religion, that citadel of lies, is a legitimate target for public criticism. The arguments to exclude that topic have been strained and absurd; most commonly, we’re told that since the claims of religion are completely evidence-free and untestable, True Skeptics™ are not able to address them…and usually these gatekeepers are as bad as creationists in claiming that they have the mantle of science in so constraining their range. They disregard the fact that scientists tend to be extremely dismissive, and appropriately so, of extravagant claims made in the absence of substantive supportive evidence.

Similarly, I can predict that skeptics will now struggle to exclude politics and economics from any debate; economics is notoriously fuzzy, and politics is wracked with extremes of opinion. But of course both fields do have hard evidence that can be addressed. Does the American political and economic system cause great hardship for many people? Does it promote stability and international cooperation? Are some of our expenditures unnecessary and others insufficient? Are there evidence-based alternative strategies that work better? Can we compare economies in different countries and assess their relative performance?

And most importantly, should rational skeptics take a stand on these issues, discuss and debate them, and come to reasonable conclusions? I don’t think it’s true that they are unresolvable.

Unfortunately, opening up the skeptic community to actually discussing these topics would lead to Deep Rifts that make the one over religion look insignificant. We’re riddled with wacky libertarians and their worship of the capitalist status quo (or worse, demanding a greater reduction in government and compassion). A libertarian speaker who openly espoused the opinions of a loon like Ron Paul — and there are people in this community who regard him as a saint — would pretty much guarantee a kind of noisy riot in the audience, and lead to a big chunk of organized skepticism decamping in fury.

Which would probably be a good thing.


  1. says

    The Bigfoot skeptics remind me of the dictionary atheists. Congratulating themselves that they figured out that giant apes, ancestor spirits and gods don’t exist, and this is forever the height of their intellectual bravery and achievement. Anything that requires more brain prowess or introsprction than that, or that could even in the slightest lead to any kind of controversy, is off-limits.

    Personally, I find Bigfoot skeptics just as useless as the atheists who seem to have a problem with the concept of A+. As you say, if those people were to decamp in a hurry, it would be a good thing.

  2. kevinalexander says

    Modern economic theory is not hard to understand. All of the sophisticated mathematical formulae are just a tarted up version of “I grabbed it first, it’s mine, now fuck off.”

  3. jnorris says

    Modern economic theory is explained by the Eight Word, Two Part, Iron Laws of economics: “Them what’s got, gets; Ain’t no free lunch”.

  4. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Gee, real skeptical thinking does take out the political sloganeering with its demand for evidence. Like the Laffer curve. Did lowering taxes really raise revenue? NOPE. Wrong side of the Laffer curve, it it really exists. But they Rethugs keep pretending it is there.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    Economics at present qualifies only as a quasi-science at best.

    Until we see a discipline which (1) bases itself firmly on material premises (this year’s corn crop is down; we have about this much remaining accessible quantity of this mineral; demographics indicate this; climatology predicts that burning oil sands will permanently flood the Netherlands & Bangladesh; …) and (2) comes to regard the latest crooked manipulations of Goldman Sachs and The FedⓇ as tertiary deck-chair feng shui … then the reflexive skeptics will have a strong point that debates on such premises are little better than dancing on marbles.

  6. atheist says

    I can understand why some skeptics are frightened to criticize economic & political bullshit. There are powerful institutions and individuals supporting the religion we call neoliberal economics… much more powerful and organized than Bigfoot believers. These institutions will attempt to destroy your career if you speak out against them.

  7. dobby says

    Many of the “political economists” I am familiar with are also rabid science deniers. Groups like the Heartland Institute claim that ozone depletion, climate change and other issues are myths and hoaxes. These groups use “political economy” as a front to promote a political agenda.

  8. Akira MacKenzie says

    When I first started to get interested in skepticism, I was happy that there were organizations dedicated to science and rationality. However, as time went on, I began to notice that there was no desire to use those critical thinking skil beyond doubting the efficacy of homeopathy or Uri Geller’s alleged powers. As evidenced by JREF’s request that no one debate religion at TAM to the current gender wars, the so-called boundries of “what we can prove” are tightly enforced and woe upon those who dare step over them by applying skepticism to something other than the existence of ghosts and the Loch Ness Monster.

    At this stage, after the unofficial gag order on issues regarding atheism and social justice (would’t want to offend Hal Bidlack and Penn Jillette), I want nothing to do with organized skepticism.

  9. loreo says

    How in the hell did any group of people calling themselves “skeptics” fall prey to such cheap tribalism?

  10. DLC says

    In order to bring more critical thinking to political ideas, it requires one to actually turn a critical eye toward one’s own views, and few people are willing to give it a forthright try.

  11. w00dview says

    Trickle down economics is woo of the highest order. It does not work and time and again, right wing doofuses try to implement it insisting it will work this time; the epitome of irrational, faith based thinking. Skeptics who whine that this subject is too political for them to discuss miss the point completely. Skepticism should have no sacred cows and should force you to look at your own beliefs just as much as the beliefs of cryptozoologists or new agers.

  12. says

    The Paulist strain of libertarianism has a rabid little following among young male college students who consider themselves way smarter than their peers and also assume that the universe is stacked in their favor. I find it peculiar that I run across them at an institution of public education, since they so vehemently oppose government-subsidized organizations. I hope most of them eventually grow out of that unprepossessing phase, but the reality-distortion field is powerful within this youth group. One particularly enthusiastic supporter of Ron Paul’s presidential campaign assured me at intervals during 2012 that Paul’s nomination at the GOP national convention was inevitable: Every time I cited polls showing that Paul’s support was mired in single digits, he would trot out a rebuttal, citing some Internet poll that he and his buddies had swamped! The poor kid seemed totally sincere while drinking that strong Kool-Aid. When he leaves Ron Paul behind, a move to Ayn Rand would actually be more constructive than a switch to Rand Paul. But not by much.

  13. Gregory Greenwood says

    The trouble with libertarian pseudo-skeptics is that they sneer at ridiculous claims of Bigfoot, Nessie and probe-happy aliens, laugh at the idea of supernatural spirits and (in some cases at least) scoff at the delusion of an invisible, undetectable creator deity – and then turn around and demand that everyone worship at the altar of the The Great and Powerful Invisible Hand of the One True Free Market Capitalism(TM), a system to which they attribute the characteristics and abilities of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and omnibenevolent deity with every bit as little justification as that possessed by the theists who prattle on about the supposed power and importance of their imaginary god(s).

    Confident that by stating the obvious nonexistence of mythological creatures they have reached the very apogee of rationalism and sceptical thought, they are either unwilling or incapable of refocussing that scepticism upon their own cherished, unevidenced beliefs that make them feel better about themselves and the unearned social privilege that benefits them at the expense of others in society.

    It is not that Libertarianism is another strain of religion – rather it represents a fundamental failure to properly apply the principles of rational thought; their skepticism isn’t broad or inclusive enough for them to apply it to anything other than the safest of targets that have only scant impact on the realities of peoples lives when compared to the gross injustices perpetrateds by their beloved, untrammelled ‘free market’ system.

    They lack the intellectual honesty and personal courage to turn the bright light of reason on themselves, lest the find that they don’t like what they see there.

  14. ethicsgradient says

    I think Ben’s, and PZ’s, optimism that hard evidence for the basis of programmes of political economy is going to appear any time soon is misplaced. Sorting out what works for what community in what situation is extremely difficult; as well as the almost unique situations of any group you care to designate (how autonomous the group is, what resources, physical, intellectual or cultural, it has, how other groups are trying to interact with it, and so on), changes in technology or resources make it difficult to compare different periods in time.

    I think the sceptical community, if it wants to have an impact in a wider area, would be better off tackling something easier, because it has a visible body of hard evidence: climate change. This will involve politics and economics, of course, but the ‘values’ involved are easier, I think, to describe objectively than for, say, an argument between capitalism, anarcho-syndicalism, or a system that hasn’t yet been thought of.

  15. Sastra says

    I think at least part of the concern over opening up skeptic organizations to political debate is that such arguments could soon swamp the more traditional concerns — which includes the paranormal and supernatural — and there are plenty of political groups and organizations already out there. Groups and organizations providing evidence and arguments against the paranormal and supernatural? Not so many. CSI and Skeptic Society are pretty much it.

    It’s not hard to get the media to pay attention to political issues, or air views across the spectrum. But popular news and entertainment forums often tend to shy away from promoting a skeptical view of anything which smacks of “faith” or a willingness to believe. God and ghosts fall into the same basic category here. Libertarian economics? Not so much. I mean, not in quite the same way.

    That said, I still think PZ’s right and it would be a good idea for skeptic organizations to become more open to presenting political controversies. Maybe I “have faith” that people who are interested in focusing mainly on other topics will not be filled with fury if it turns out that other skeptics want to focus on other topics than they do. The trick perhaps would be to make it clear that it’s okay to be divided on political views AND it’s also okay to debate them — in the same organization!

    AND it’s also okay to skip the economics forum and go instead to a panel discussion on Bigfoot — if that’s what floats your boat. Imo people in general and rational scientific skeptics in particular need to lower their dudgeon and do a lot less storming out.

  16. says

    I have no trouble at all with bigfoot bashing or shooting down UFOs; those are legitimate components of skepticism, and I don’t propose that we should look down on a Nickell or a Radford because they do that traditional stuff — it also needs to be done, and it’s also an excellent training ground for exposing the public to straightforward skepticism without making them too uncomfortable. Where I get cranky is when the Old Guard starts closing off avenues of inquiry, saying they can’t be subject to critical thought.

    If skepticism is to matter, it has to be universal. Not selectively applied to only subjects we aren’t personally invested in.

  17. Sastra says

    I wrote:

    CSI and Skeptic Society are pretty much it.

    Oh, and JREF. Of course.

    Where I get cranky is when the Old Guard starts closing off avenues of inquiry, saying they can’t be subject to critical thought.

    I agree.

    I think the argument against dealing with religion is usually made in terms of “not in our jurisdiction unless a claim is testable enough to be considered pseudoscience.” The arguments against dealing with politics are usually along the lines of “not in our jurisdiction unless it involves pseudoscience.” At issue, obviously, is how much we want to include under the umbrella of “pseudoscience.”

  18. inflection says

    There are two areas where I think skeptics have an immediately obvious interest in a political argument, namely the acquisition of data on two issues: guns and drugs. For many years, just doing the research to generate data on gun violence and marijuana effects has been blocked by laws whose sole purpose is to prevent the status quo from being challenged by data. It’s like trying to legislate them into religion status. Regardless of your position on either of those issues, I think the skeptic community should be firm that research on those questions ought to be unmuzzled, and this is an explicit action you can call for your elected officials to support — especially those with duties in related areas.

  19. anteprepro says

    Where I get cranky is when the Old Guard starts closing off avenues of inquiry, saying they can’t be subject to critical thought.

    You know, I just realized how similar this scenario is to the people who shriek out “scientism” and talk about the limitations of science. Both are setting the arbitrary borders of skepticism and science so that nonsense can still have a territory to reign. Though, in the case of “scientism”, it is so the purveyors of nonsense will still have a job. In the case of “True Skepticism” it is so the “True Skeptics” will not have deal with confronting the purveyors of nonsense. And also so that the tiny hills that “True Skeptics” have built their cottages on won’t seem so meek and pitiful once other skeptics clean up and set up civilization on Bullshit Mountain.

  20. jackasterisk says

    The Republican War on Science pretty much ended the debate about whether skepticism is political. It is. When you have a party whose members routinely deny global warming, deny the age of the earth, deny the possibility of rape pregnancies — not merely as personal belief but as part of a coordinated campaign to maintain their franchise — then that party is the enemy of skeptics. We’re under political attack. Only the deluded would fail to see that.

    Oh right. Libertarians.

  21. says

    I think it’s true that much of what drives people’s political and economic vision is based in values, and that you can’t really take a skeptical look at people’s values because we all want what we want. But the thing about politics and economics is that values only lead people to name problems to solve–what do we need to fix? How do we, say, make health care more available? Or, how do we get first generation child immigrants up to speed with academic success? Or climate change, or gun control, or birth control accessibility, or farm subsidies, or whatever.

    At this point, anyone who is politically or economically minded–no matter what values they hold–makes claims, and those claims can certainly be investigated skeptically. This PROBLEM X can be solved with THIS AMAZING STRATEGY.

    When people clearly state their problems and their goals and strategies for fixing them, then those strategies can be judged–via research and history–according to how effectively they will likely meet the stated goals. It’s perfectly appropriate to use skepticism for that.

    My suspicion, however, about why people try to fall back on why “skepticism” is “useless” because politics and economics are just “values,” is that no one wants to/can articulate what their actual goals are. They don’t want to admit that, say, bilingual education programs might help immigrant children succeed in school because saying out loud they don’t like Mexicans brings disapproval. Or how abortion restriction laws (and their loopholes) reveal attitudes about women’s behavior rather than babies. Or that they value their own wealth above another person’s physical health. Which is what it is–people’s values are their values–but it’s very scary to be honest about them even in the best of circumstances. Courage of convictions and all that… it’s an old story and it’s not new to suggest people are afraid they’ll be called upon to make public moral stands. Ancient anxiety.

    In the most basic terms, of course. I could use lots more words to explain this with more kindness and nuance, but hopefully the gist of what I mean comes through.

  22. says

    I think the argument against dealing with religion is usually made in terms of “not in our jurisdiction unless a claim is testable enough to be considered pseudoscience.”

    Exactly. And that’s the problem: they claim that’s the scientific way of looking at it, but if they’d talk to actual working scientists, they’d discover that we have many criteria for deciding what works as science. And one of the first things I had pounded into my head is that you don’t get to pull hypotheses out of your ass — you have to justify them with prior observations and evidence and reasonable extensions of theory. There are many hypotheses we reject not because we have direct evidence against them, but because there is no prior cause to accept them.

    My Ph.D. thesis was a test of a hypothesis I made about how the timing of motoneuron outgrowth affected their pattern of connectivity. I wasn’t advanced to candidacy until I’d gathered enough circumstantial evidence from the literature and preliminary observations to justify it. If I’d walked in cold and said “I believe X, and want to spend 3 years studying it” without that cause, I’d have had the door instantly slammed in my face.

    So why do skeptics so happily accept religious claims as mere “untestable hypotheses”? I don’t know.

  23. unclefrogy says

    It is not a decision on my part to be skeptical not an intellectual process that I have adopted.
    I grew up trying to be a believer but the question kept occurring to my mind and the effort of trying to reconcile what I was told by “authorities ” that were in conflict just became impossible.
    I put my name on the registration here only so I could engage the conversation . I am reluctant to “join” any movements. Though it is uncomfortable to admit I am still subject to illusions, delusions and being just plain wrong but my mind wont let it be I have to push against it to test it.

    I do not begrudge anyone not being able to ask the questions some times I wish I could just stop with my perpetual doubt and just believe something but I am very sorry I can’t.
    So do not tell me what I can question.
    What is real?
    Why do you think it?

    uncle frogy

  24. madscientist says

    Economics isn’t all fuzzy, just the crap that you always see on TV – stock markets, government economic forecasts, etc. The stock market for example, with the way it’s operated today, is nothing but the world’s largest legal pyramid scam. It doesn’t have to be that way – the stock market can be used as in its original form to raise capital for business. The catch of course is that you’ll have to accept realistic gains on investment (whether gains in stock price or in dividends) which are tied exclusively to increase in profits and all ventures of course still have associated risks. If folks think the current recession is bad, just wait until people accept the fact that the current incarnation of the stock market is nothing but a scam.

  25. Jeff Morgan says

    I came into the skeptical/freethought/atheist community from an already-establishing, somewhat radical left political perspective. For some time I felt most leaders in the community were simplistic and uncritical in their views of political economy. And they are.

    But you know what? We all are. Any honest, skeptical starting point should begin here, acknowledging our own ignorance of the near-infinite complexity that is social life. That’s not to say we can’t understand aspects of social reality, culture, history, psychology, human desires, drives, etc. We can and do. That’s also not to say humanity is powerless in its attempts to make the world a better place in the most non-controversial sense. Science has greatly expanded our knowledge of these things. Life has gotten better for more and more people.

    The difficulty comes in interpreting the world. There’s something to be said for philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s reversal of Marx:“Don’t Act. Just Think.” He’s not recommending silence in the face of injustice. He is recognizing the inherent limits of our answers to society’s problems and that we need to think more deeply before confidently establishing doctrines in our efforts to change the world for the better. Finding answers to how, why, and what to do (politics) is a tremendous undertaking fraught with countless, unforeseen problems having real-world consequences.

    For example, in the United States, levels of violence have been dropping since a peak in the early 1990s. In trying to solve the violent crime problem at the time, numerous solutions were undertaken, particularly the “tough on crime” movement of many states and municipalities. So we saw increased incarceration rates and harsher sentencing. Lo and behold, violence levels fell. But they fell regardless of policies implemented. Why? (The tough question.)

    Well, there is growing evidence that decreased amounts of lead in the environment may have much to do with lessening rates of violence. If true, this is something all the dominant theories of violence spanning the political spectrum failed to account for and are still largely silent in addressing.

    Violence in society is obviously a vast topic. And certainly environmental lead is not the only component. I think we all recognize this truism. But in my opinion, when operating within a limited political framework people tend to privilege one or more interpretation, those which reinforce a pre-existing political outlook, while ignoring or denouncing anything that falls outside their limited interpretive perspective.

    Political beliefs tend to ossify and resist alternative explanations. Internally their logic is self-apparent to the believer and should therefore be so to everyone else. But that’s not how the world works, whether one is right or wrong. Critics are correct in warning against dogma when it comes to discussions of politics and economics. Even well-meaning, skeptical, intelligent people can easily slip into a type of moralizing that ultimately demonizes opponents, real or perceived.

    Let’s continue, humbly aware of our limits, willing to change even the deepest held beliefs if the evidence takes us there. It’s what we expect of others and we should expect the same of ourselves.

  26. generallerong says

    I confess wry amusement at those who dismiss economics with a wave of the “Nothing But..” hand. It seems to be yet another instance of the My Job Is Harder Than Yours predisposition to regard someone else’s occupation as a scam, especially if you don’t understand it. Waving the dismissive hand lets you out of doing some research into the field and just going with whatever biases you pull out of your ass.

    Really, are you gonna say you know more, have a more inquiring mind, and look for data to support or disprove hypothesis more such economists as Paul Krugman? Brad DeLong? Do they pose as gurus who are never wrong, or more as intelligent people trying to find out what works best?

    Accusing economics of pollution by politics and therefore being an unworthy field of research seems pretty much the same as saying climate change studies are polluted by politics, hence we must devalue them. Ditto creationism – life sciences are polluted by political maneuvering, so let’s dismiss them with an airy wave.

  27. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    life sciences are polluted by political maneuvering,

    Citation needed, or with the lack thereof, your prove to the world your idiocy and lack of scientific credentials. Put up or shut the fuck up…

  28. Sastra says

    PZ #22 wrote:

    So why do skeptics so happily accept religious claims as mere “untestable hypotheses”? I don’t know.

    Their reasons? I’ve talked to a lot of accomodationists on this issue (as have you, I know), and from what I can tell they’re minimizing the significance of religious supernatural claims — and/or accepting the framework of faith, wherein concepts like “God” are classified as philosophical or metaphysical.

    In that first one, what religion is “really about” is community, ethics. meaning, comfort, ritual, a sense of transcendence, etc. You go into Therapist/Anthropologist Mode and sympathetically overlook the niggling little detail of truth and instead look only at how religion “works.” It can be positive; it can be negative.

    I think this approach appeals a lot to people who are therapists or anthropologists. It can also catch atheists who emphasize that most people believe in religion for non-rational reasons: they can too easily translate that into truth being insignificant to the believers themselves. But ask them. It’s not.

    Placing religious beliefs into some untouchable category above evidence and argument is falling for a confidence trick. Oh, so no scientific finding could ever count in favor of God — or against Him? How come that’s only trotted out when the discovery is negative n– and would be jettisoned quickly if it weren’t?

    Ironically, I think atheists who want politics to be taken more seriously by the skeptic, atheist, and humanist communities often approach this by wanting to minimize the value of following critical inquiry all the way down. Who cares if people believe in God or not, as long as they’re on the right side of the really important issues? Racism, sexism, secularism, science! Those horrible gnu atheists are so shrill and militant, to alienate our liberal religious allies.

    So why do so many skeptics so happily accept religious claims as mere “untestable hypotheses”? Oh, they have their rationales, but bottom line I think it often comes down to politics. They think we need much more emphasis on politics and economics.

    Oh, goody! Look — PZ’s in the golden middle, between the extremes!

  29. Useless says

    To discount Christianity so readily, you are obviously ignoring the facts. The Naked Archeologist (who is a force to be reckoned with because he’s on cable TV) has found the nails used to crucify Jesus (http://www.examiner.com/article/the-naked-archaeologist-simcha-jacobovici-found-the-crucifixion-nails).

    They were right here in America. Where else would you expect to find them? Whether or not Jesus ever existed, at least now we can be sure He was crucified. Surely, the irrefutable evidence will continue piling up.

  30. generallerong says

    Nerd #28 – my intent was to present Creationism as a pollution of life sciences, and Creationism certainly has a dedicated political aspect, does it not? Have you not encountered those who dismiss biologists and environmental students with a wave of the “Darwin is just a theory” and “creationism deserves equal time” hands? Someone elected the Arizona legislature.

  31. Rey Fox says

    Surely, the irrefutable evidence will continue piling up.

    Oh, it already has. We have enough splinters of the True Cross to fill a lumber yard.

  32. kevinalexander says

    If folks think the current recession is bad, just wait until people accept the fact that the current incarnation of the stock market is nothing but a scam.

    It’s not a scam, it’s a casino……… in which case it’s a scam so you’re right.

  33. firstapproximation says

    Just because economics and sociology aren’t at the level of a “science” doesn’t mean we can’t debunk false claims made in either field. Sure we can’t debunk normative statements*, but far more than normative statements are made in political and economics debates. There are many “facts” or theories that get used that don’t stand up to empirical evidence. Since these are often used to justify oppression of a group we have a far greater moral obligation to debunk this claims.

    * Though we can show inconsistencies or how morally repugnant they are.

  34. cm's changeable moniker says

    Without prejudice to anyone’s political beliefs, this sounds like a job for Ben Goldacre!

    I’ve spent a lot of time arguing that government should be more evidence based, and that wherever possible, we should do randomised trials to find out which policy intervention works best. We often have no idea whether the things we do in government actually work or not, and achieve their stated goals. This is a disaster.


    So, with my grown up hat on, here’s a Cabinet Office paper I co-wrote with some government people on exactly this topic. We explain why randomised trials of policy are so powerful; we explain exactly how to do them; and we explain how to identify a meaningful policy question that can be explored cheaply in a good quality trial.

    We also show that policy people need to have a little humility, and accept that they don’t necessarily know if their great new idea really will achieve its stated objectives. We do this using examples of policies which should have been great in principle, but turned out to be actively harmful when they were finally tested.

    Finally, we address – and demolish – the spurious objections that people often raise against doing trials of policy (like: “surely it’s unfair to withold a new intervention from half the people in your trial?”).

    Trials are used widely in medicine, in business, in international development, and even in web design. The barriers to using them in UK policy are more cultural than practical, and this document will hopefully be a small part of a bigger battle to get better evidence into government.

    The paper also describes, for the first time, several fun examples of trials that have been conducted in UK government over just the past year, reporting both positive and negative findings. These trials all test small, modest changes in policy – and ones that are ideologically uncontroversial – because this is the best way to get trials adopted more widely.

    What’s more, they’ve all been run by a small group of very smart people running out of the Cabinet Office, who have quietly set up what is effectively a randomised trials unit in government. There are quite a few people in the civil service who seem to be on board for all this, so it will be interesting to see if the idea catches on.

    Anyway, I think (I hope!) that the paper is readable and straightforward, like the Ladybird Book of Randomised Policy Trials, and I really hope you’ll enjoy reading it. It’s a good primer on basic research methods, and on how to do a trial properly in any domain, with clear examples taken from the real world of medicine, business, teaching, job centres, web design, and more. The people I wrote it with are a mix of supersmart civil servant policy wonks and academics.

    To be clear: this is a long read, and there’s a ton of material in these 30 pages. It’s free to download here:


  35. harbo says

    Broadening the brief, is inevitable, and is our responsibility as sentient creatures (sort of).

    The major side benefit is that we will not have to keep patting the accommodationists on the head. Their position is revealed as “accommodationists” a term which will soon be a weasel word, if not derogatory.
    You You Accommodationist!!!

    “access all areas” would be a reasonable starting position. We will suffer from all our own biases, I learnt fairly early on in this thread that they are soon corrected. (thanks to various mollies and others, even an old dog like me can be dragged into new ways of thinking).( more kicked than dragged, subtlety not desired)

  36. benking says

    Thanks for flagging up my blog. At first I thought that you were disagreeing (silly me), but I really wanted to get peoples views on when social sciences will be accepted by scientific skepticism on their own terms.

    BTW, what are their own terms? As I see it, epidemiology seems to be accepted as fine for skeptical discourse, presumably reflecting the number of doctors and the enthusiasm for evidence-based medicine. *But what is the inherent difference between that and social science?* Both study complex systems with all the inherent flaws attached, both cannot, as yet, be reduced down to the individual and both rely on large study groups and statistics to determine a rapidly (in historical terms) moving moral consensus. *The only difference is that we have factors times more data for health than politics, and many skeptics are doctors.*

    It seems to the new initiate that the lines are completely arbitrary! So when will the time come that they see it? And how will they transition when they have been respecting political ideology in their ranks? Do they think any of us have that level of control over such indoctrination? It will be carnage.

    Besides. As i say in the blog, *there is a scientifically tested proof that political ideology is anethema to skepticism*. It has been understood both philosophically and practically that complex systems are impossible to predict over enough time. Yet that is what political and economic ideology IS. A prediction of a complex system. Yet ask a skeptic what lengths climate scientists must go to predict climate, another complex system (simpler – given that society is nested feedback of complex systems). Right… and politics does what know? Oh, so the political ideology you endorse through identifying with it, that one that pre-dates the very existance of scientific fields one would need to construct a model, THATS ACCURATE ENOUGH TO IMPOSE ON NON-BELIEVERS?

    Jeez, however flimsy is this stoopid definition of skepticism? Skepticism should be about one thing only, objective methodology *to the greatest extent to which one can, with the necessary disclaimers and admittance of ignorance as*

  37. twosheds1 says

    Trickle down economics is woo of the highest order. It does not work and time and again,

    Oh, it works, and works quite well. It just doesn’t do what they claim it does.

  38. OlliP says

    There are some problems with sceptically discussing politics and economics. One of them is that so many people think they are experts. But the people specialized in those fields actually know quite a lot more about them. Some simple problems might be easy to understand and solve as laymen but more complex problems are not.

    Another problem with economics is that there are actually some economists that don’t seem to care about the evidence, and it’s probably nearly impossible for a layman to spot who is who. This can be explained by the incentives. For example you can imagine that a specialist speaking in favor of trickle-down could attract some really lucrative speaking and writing opportunities, as that is a system that benefits the wealthy. And they can afford to pay the best.

  39. says

    I’m all for skeptical analysis of economics and politics. The familiar “hard” sciences have already been heavily politicized with all the various denialisms going on. Skepticism is supposed to be about sober, critical thinking about what the evidence says. The only major difference I see between the sciences that get packaged as “science” in popular culture and the science behind economics and politics is one of degree: Economics and politics are very complex, very messy topics, governed by often counter-intuitive rules, filled with dynamic balances of opposing forces, and so on.

    It doesn’t help that there are a lot of blowhards who think they’ve got it all figured out despite having a track record of being disastrously wrong. For someone who hasn’t studied the topic, it’s easy to get the impression that there are no experts, just like someone might glance at medical lore, chemical scares, diet fads, and conclude that doctors don’t know anything. If anything, we need to focus on those topics so that we can find better ways of discerning who the experts are and if an expert consensus exists on an issue.

    So, I salute benking for bringing the topic back into my consciousness. I’ve gotten to be a decent skeptic in a lot of familiar topics over my years of blogging and commenting, and I see no reason not to branch out.

  40. broboxley OT says

    economics is not difficult. It hinges on just a few transactions
    1. How to turn your money into our money?
    2. How to turn our money into my money?
    The various economic theories whether Marxist, libertarian and all systems in between involve transactions based on the 2 principles.

  41. James St says

    @ #36 firstapproximation

    While economics is not (yet) widely considered a science (and justifiably so, I consider it more of a quasi-science at this state, and there is more work to do in the field), sociology is.

    Even just looking at the wikipedia article clearly lays out how sociology is science, and you won’t find that considering sociology “real” science is controversial among scientists:

    Sociology is the scientific study of human society[1] and its origins, development, organizations, and institutions.[2] It is a social science which uses various methods of empirical investigation[3] and critical analysis[4] to develop a body of knowledge about human social activity. For many sociologists the goal is to conduct research which may be applied directly to social policy and welfare, while others focus primarily on refining the theoretical understanding of social processes. Subject matter ranges from the micro level of individual agency and interaction to the macro level of systems and the social structure.[5]


  42. firstapproximation says

    James St,

    What I meant was that economics and sociology aren’t at the level of an exact science, that is, able to consistently make accurate quantitative predictions like physics or chemistry. This isn’t to deride economists or sociologists. People are far more complex than particles or molecules. Their job is much tougher. Hari Seldon will eventually solve the problem in the future. In the mean time, however, we can still debunk economical/sociological claims that contradict the empirical evidence.

  43. im says

    I would favor skepticism about economics but I really think that everybody commenting in this thread is so biased I would not trust them.
    Furthermore, I think that Libertarian Hate is not a good thing even if the vulgar, aggressive American form of libertarianism is really repugnant.

    I am mainly worried about skepticism suddenly becoming the Dismantle Capitalism Brigade, while ‘capitalism’ is not even an accurate description of what needs to be dismantled. I think that the same lack of *self-skepticism* that lead to the focus on Bigfoot and other fringe problems will lead to skeptical communites becoming dogmatic exemplars of a single, specific set of leftist political views which, while more moral and correct than the right wing, are still a dogma. We should have a sense that more is possible. Everybody here seems to already know that the Left is right.

    The majority of debunking of libertarianism is frankly really terrible even when done by smart people. Typically it debunks a really common but really vulgar form, or strawmans it. For an actually good criticism of libertarianism, I go to

  44. Anri says

    So why do skeptics so happily accept religious claims as mere “untestable hypotheses”? I don’t know.

    Well, I do seem to recall fifteen rounds of discussion here a few years back regarding if it was even definitionally possible to have evidence for a god or gods.

    I personally tried to argue that if we were willing to accept any given state as evidence against a god hypothesis, we had to acknowledge the possibility of the alternative, but that didn’t seem to get any traction.
    To put it another way, if you have decided a priori that there can never be evidence for one side of a given question, you have already filed it as an “untestable hypotheses”.

    The issue of a definition of god, or of defining what might be evidence for such a god are massive, and (of course) generally unanswered by the God Side. Likewise, the idea of collecting enough specific evidence to make a god or gods the most likely hypothesis is also utterly beyond anything presented by the goddists.
    However the idea that by definition, there can be no such thing as evidence for god is highly disturbing.
    But then, maybe I’m misremembering/misunderstanding the argument.

  45. Robert Blaskiewicz says

    While I agree that skeptics damned well ought to go out an make a difference in politics and justice, I would say that there is a more basic level in which Bigfoot-slaying, quack exposing, ghost hunter shaming -style skepticism is an important starting point. There is no field of thought that is not improved by critical thinking, and we use the same critical tools to debunk Bigfoot and UFO sightings that we do to debunk climate change denialism. Traditional areas of skeptical activism are a sort of proving ground for using those tools. I would also say that when you look at Ur-skeptic the Blessed Saint Carl of Sagan, he was able to straddle both the traditional areas of skepticism (crypto-, exo-, and pseudo-) and commit positively to social issues.

  46. leonpeyre says

    lead to a big chunk of organized skepticism decamping in fury.

    Which would probably be a good thing.

    Considering how many of the libertarians are also part of the MRA crowd, I’m inclined to agree.

  47. Logan Blackisle says

    when the Old Guard starts closing off avenues of inquiry, saying they can’t be subject to critical thought.”

    Those are two different things; mind you, I’m not disagreeing with you, but there’s a distinction to be made here.

    “saying they can’t be subject to critical thought” – no matter who tries, it’s simply not possible.

    “closing off avenues of inquiry” – attempting to, for whatever reason, impose a no-talking-about-this ban

    This is greatly simplified, of course.

    That said, there could be a lot of reasons for not wanting to engage various issues, i.e. subject them to skeptical inquiry. One of the only rational reasons I’ve heard for this argument (though, I still vehemently disagree with it), is:

    “If we engage every single subject with skeptical inquiry, we are going to get bogged down, and the movement will become diffuse.”

    While I certainly don’t agree with this sentiment, I think it’s rather silly to say that “a big chunk of organized skepticism decamping in fury [would] probably be a good thing”, because even though we’re growing as a movement, we still need as many as possible.

    There’s a great difference between saying “I prefer only ‘handling’ these particular kinds of cases” to saying “these cases do not have any claims that can be subjected to skeptical inquiry”.

  48. la tricoteuse says

    Logan Blackisle:

    There’s a great difference between saying “I prefer only ‘handling’ these particular kinds of cases” to saying “these cases do not have any claims that can be subjected to skeptical inquiry”.

    But there’s also quite a difference between saying “I prefer only ‘handling’ these particular kinds of cases” and “Hey! You lot! Stop ‘handling’ types of cases that are different from the ones I prefer to talk about!”

  49. Logan Blackisle says

    la tricoteuse:

    “Hey! You lot! Stop ‘handling’ types of cases that are different from the ones I prefer to talk about!”

    I don’t think I’ve ever run into that particular brand of stupidity. I don’t suppose you have a link…?

  50. says

    There’s a great difference between saying “I prefer only ‘handling’ these particular kinds of cases” to saying “these cases do not have any claims that can be subjected to skeptical inquiry”.

    Sure, there’s a difference. However, that’s not what’s happening. What’s happening is a whole lot of people insisting that there are “proper” subjects for skepticism, and anyone who wants to apply skepticism outside of said “proper” subjects is wrong for doing so. It’s a handy dandy way for a certain group of people to refuse to turn that skeptical eye on their own biases and things which don’t effect them personally.

  51. says

    I don’t think I’ve ever run into that particular brand of stupidity. I don’t suppose you have a link…?

    Oh FFS, if you don’t have a clue as to what’s been going on, why are you talking about it? Try reading about DJ Grothe’s reaction to harassment policies and his idiocy regarding TAM. That’s a start. I figure you can manage a search, right?

  52. dobbshead says

    I am mainly worried about skepticism suddenly becoming the Dismantle Capitalism Brigade, while ‘capitalism’ is not even an accurate description of what needs to be dismantled.

    What if a careful skeptical inquiry demonstrates that capitalism (by which I mean private ownership of capital) itself causes a host of injustices and that there are better was to encourage productivity and innovation? Then shouldn’t skepticism turn into the Dismantle Capitalism Brigade?

    You have proscribed an answer you don’t like. That’s not a skeptical position.

    Here is an example of a limitation of the capitalist model. I’m a scientist, I work routinely with extraordinarily expensive equipment: things like electron microscopes and synchrotrons. There aren’t many people who can do what I do, and without my labor the machines are useless. Similarly, without the machines my labor is much less effective. However, if I work for a company as a scientist and I use their equipment to produce a valuable piece of intellectual property I probably wont have ownership rights to the IP, the shareholders in the company who paid for the equipment and work get the ownership.

    Granted, because of the scarcity of my labor, I have a strong position to negotiate for a pretty good deal in my contract so I’m not asking you to pity me or anything. I’m just pointing out a conflict that exists because of the way we have decided to determine ownership.

    Similar limitations are seen in the fact that workers in many fields have felt the need to unionize to extract a better share of the profits from their labor. That conflict of interest between workers and owners is inherent to the structure of capitalism, where people who happen to have money get to own the results of other people’s work and people who only have labor must work for wages or else starve.

    A skeptical analysis of capitalism needs to address these criticisms.

  53. Mikkel Birch says

    Oh FFS, if you don’t have a clue as to what’s been going on, why are you talking about it? Try reading about DJ Grothe’s reaction to harassment policies and his idiocy regarding TAM. That’s a start. I figure you can manage a search, right?

    It seems like you either don’t understand what loganblackisle is saying, or you don’t understand what DJ Grothe has been saying.

    What loganblackisle says that he hasn’t encountered is someone saying

    “Hey! You lot! Stop ‘handling’ types of cases that are different from the ones I prefer to talk about!”

    Which is not even close to DJ Grothe’s reaction, or words, about harassment policies and TAM.

  54. Ev Lutts says

    I completely agree. Because if we’re honest about it, it will force people to actually understand where people’s economic and political beliefs (or whatever it is) come from, and address the arguments head on, rather than dismissing them with phrases like ‘wacky libertarians’. It will also force a lot of us to step outside our comfort zone.

    Modern economics has just as many peer reviewed journal articles as modern astro- physics and genetics, so lets start there. I would whole heartedly support skeptical debate about these issues, without reverting to straw man arguments. I think that will be the real benefit from wideing our skeptical nets.

  55. EE M says

    “We’re riddled with wacky libertarians and their worship of the capitalist status quo (or worse, demanding a greater reduction in government and compassion). A libertarian speaker who openly espoused the opinions of a loon like Ron Paul…”

    very rational

  56. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    very rational

    I think you were trying to be snide, but until you explain what you mean, it is nothing but a non-sequitor.