I should have warned John Horgan

He gave a talk at a skeptics’ conference, and he called them out on their screwy priorities. You do not question movement skeptics on the importance of fighting Bigfoot.

The references to “Bigfoot” in the headline above and text below were inspired by a conversation I had with conference Emcee Jamy Ian Swiss before I went on stage. He asked what I planned to say, and I told him, and he furiously defended his opposition to belief in Bigfoot.

I can picture this — I’ve seen Swiss in Indignant Fury mode.

What Horgan did was point out that there are a lot of things to be skeptical about, and skeptics have a peculiar fondness for picking the easiest targets, especially targets that are safely outside the mainstream. He points out that there is a lot of troubling nonsense spouted by establishment figures, for instance this recent babbling about the universe being a simulation, or that the politics of health care in the US are totally screwed up.

Another bug-a-boo is bad science reporting in the popular press, which is often gladly adopted by the skeptics. There are a lot of skeptics who think explaining behavior with genetic hardwiring is good science.

Another hard target that needs your attention is behavioral genetics, which seeks the genes that make us tick. I call it gene-whiz science, because the media and the public love it.

Over the past several decades, geneticists have announced the discovery of “genes for” virtually every trait or disorder. We’ve had the God gene, gay gene, alcoholism gene, warrior gene, liberal gene, intelligence gene, schizophrenia gene, and on and on.

And then there’s the bad history, which they love to explain with some form of biological determinism.

The biological theory that really drives me nuts is the deep-roots theory of war. According to the theory, lethal group violence is in our genes. Its roots reach back millions of years, all the way to our common ancestor with chimpanzees.

The deep-roots theory is promoted by scientific heavy hitters like Harvard’s Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham and Edward Wilson. Skeptic Michael Shermer tirelessly touts the theory, and the media love it, because it involves lurid stories about bloodthirsty chimps and Stone Age humans.

But the evidence is overwhelming that war was a cultural innovation–like agriculture, religion, or slavery–that emerged less than 12,000 years ago.

Which reminds me — there are a great many bad actors in the skeptical movement who are never weeded out. Instead, those who point out the flawed characters, or even criminals, who are accoladed by credulous skeptics are ostracized.

Do not expect the skeptical movement to ever confront real social problems. Being skeptical about policy or cultural biases might antagonize the substantial segment of their membership who consider ‘social justice’ to be a dirty phrase. They’ve been working for decades to grow by cultivating a facade that is non-threatening to assholes, and their reward has been to become a welcoming cesspit for assholes. It’s unfortunate, because we need skepticism more than ever.


  1. says

    Years ago, before I became an atheist, I was curious about paganism. My dad gave me Shermer’s book “Why People Believe Weird Things.” I read it, and really enjoyed it, and thought the chapter criticizing Objectivism was interesting, since he said he was an Objectivist, and it’s important to turn the skeptical eye inward, even to things you cherish. Of course, he only criticized the low hanging fruit of Objectivism, rather than anything ideological, but I appreciated the sentiment. I wish the skeptic community in general were willing to do that.

    Granted, he turned out to be an asshole, but this had nothing to do with that.

  2. says

    I foolishly expected the skeptical movement to take on the messed-up justice system in the US at some point. Their skill set should be perfect for taking on things like the inaccuracy of drug-sniffing dogs, useless stop-and-frisk laws, the flaws of eyewitness and “expert” testimonies, the awful interrogation techniques that often produce false confessions, and the inherent biases throughout the system. I should have known better. They care more about showing their superiority over people who believe in Bigfoot and Ancient Aliens.

  3. says

    While I believe you, I might not want to read anything Shermer’s written, period. Plenty of awesome non cishetwhitedude atheists I’d much rather support.

  4. says

    Oh, and wait, what? Shermer has been hypocritical? You mean the guy for whom the only thing bad he could come up to say about Objectivism was that Rand might have been treated a bit too reverently (and he wanted you to know just how hard it was for him to admit that), turned around and engaged in Rand worship?

  5. says

    Given a particular level of expertise, there’s a trade-off between tackling technically challenging topics, and being consistently correct. John Horgan seems to be asking skeptics to tackle harder topics AND to be more consistently correct. I would instead advocate that skeptics tackle impactful topics, not “hard” topics. Take the abilities you have and use them to change the world for the better.

    The part of the talk that I feel I have the expertise to evaluate (“multiverses and the singularity”) shows Horgan to be inconsistently correct himself. Multiverses are not standalone theories, they are predictions of other well-established theories. They don’t really belong in the same category as the singularity or the simulation hypothesis. Also, he is wrong about falsifiability, which is poorly regarded among philosophers. I won’t go into depth, given that Horgan seems uninterested in depth.

  6. says

    Clicking through some of the links, I was also very disappointed to find Horgan supporting “argumentative theory“.

    The evopsych paper he’s citing, I remember seeing it in 2011. Basically, the paper shows that people have cognititive biases. Fine so far. But the conclusion is that cognitive biases evolved in order for people to better win arguments. The evidence? Look, cognitive biases exist! And John Horgan said he liked it because it is obviously true and confirms his biases. What BS.

  7. says

    It seems to me as though there are a lot of skeptics that are simply having a laugh at the less-well educated, or more credulous. You know, like they’ve sniffed around and managed to find someone to feel better than. Sort of like a cool kids club, except that cool kids clubs are never cool.

    The problem with being skeptical about the patriarchy is … it’s hard. And any deeper examination than a surface glance is going to lead you to the realization that the patriarchy has been laughing at you all along. How unpleasant. Much better to bash on the bigfoot believers and UFOlogists. Other than looking perplexed and sometimes hurt, they don’t, you know, fight back.

    The stereotype of a skeptic as a dogmatic bully is starting to do some work, in other words.

  8. Becca Stareyes says

    This pairs really well with the post about why PZ went to the #ParadigmSymposium. I imagine most of the folks there aren’t hurting anyone else* by believing in the things they do, because they are a small group and most of their issues don’t impact public policy. Asking questions like ‘will Candidate X’s tax policy result in growth (and, if so, under what conditions)’ do affect many people.

    * The alt-med folks who have kids or ignore public health are an exception. Or people who know they are selling snake oil.

  9. gmacs says

    Ooh, another thing that drives me nuts is when people treat averages like absolutes.

    Example: The average human male has greater skeletal-muscle strength than the average human female. Therefore men are stronger than women. Therefore women should not be allowed in certain roles that require physical strength, even if they meet the same requirements men do.

    There are also plenty of people who publish in PNAS who want to hammer home this idea that there is a male brain and a female brain. Here’s what I want to know: who cares? It’s going to be an average on some obscure metric, and I’m not sure what use it will have.

    Why are so many supposed scientists concerned with confirming a gender essentialist viewpoint?

  10. consciousness razor says

    The part of the talk that I feel I have the expertise to evaluate (“multiverses and the singularity”) shows Horgan to be inconsistently correct himself. Multiverses are not standalone theories, they are predictions of other well-established theories.

    Doesn’t seem like the most accurate way to put it either. I mean, in my understanding (which I’m sorry to say is very limited), these are “predictions” in a very weak sense. It’s not as if they follow strictly from well-established theories. It could be that the “predicted” multiverses do not exist, and the basic story about cosmic inflation is nevertheless correct (don’t know what other theories you have in mind, maybe those too). Isn’t that more or less right?

    Something about the resulting theory might look ad hoc or hard to explain. Maybe there are lots of physical constants/laws/etc. which don’t have different realizations in some other universe … and so what? Why believe that would be a problem? Who says those sorts of things need to be anything other than a singular brute fact about this one universe which has no further explanation? So, I mean, complaining that the theory looks kind of messy if the multiverse doesn’t exist is a very long way from claiming that you know people like Horgan are incorrect when they believe it isn’t real. If you’re not claiming that, then what are you saying?

    I may basically agree with you about falsifiability, that it isn’t always a useful dividing line between science and non-science (at least it’s too simplistic and not how science is really done in some cases). However, leaving falsifiability aside, even then it doesn’t seem like there is some other set of compelling reasons to count that specific idea as a reliable scientific finding. You presumably still need some fairly systematic criteria for evaluating such things, and I just don’t know what those are supposed to be in this case.

  11. consciousness razor says

    the “predicted” multiverses

    Sorry, I meant universes, not multiverses.

  12. antigone10 says

    There are also plenty of people who publish in PNAS who want to hammer home this idea that there is a male brain and a female brain.

    I always want to ask: How do they KNOW? Do they look at all of infant male brains and infant female brains and notice how the brains are different? Do they account for region, diet, class, ethnicity and environment? Do they find some statistically significant number of adult brains that have been raised in a genderless environment and go “yep, that’s definitely biological, no nuero-plasticity overriding basic biology due to upbringing.” Do they find exceptions to this “male” and “female” brains, and if so, what is the accounting for it? Have they looked at trans-gendered individuals and compared and contrasted their brains against cisgendered brains and modified their theories accordingly? What have been the ramifications for these gendered differences when it comes to medication?

    Beyond the “Who cares if male and female brains are different” I’m always annoyed about how lazy the science seems to be. I’d like to see if there were major differences between brains because I’d like to see if it would help when it comes to prescribing medication for mental health problems, much like discovering how women generally have “atypical” heart attacks, and therefore aren’t caught as quickly. It’s always “men and women have different brains, and therefore women should raise babies” nonsense.

  13. screechymonkey says

    It’s worth noting that Horgan was being generous in listing global warming as one of the things Skepticism does go after. Shermer, Randi, and Penn Jillette were saying dumb things about global warming long after the scientific consensus was clear, and the general attitude seems to be, “yeah, but Shermer and Randi eventually changed their minds, isn’t that an awesome display of True Skepticism!?”

  14. gmacs says


    I know there are interactions between drugs and predominantly sex-related hormones, but again, we’re talking about averages and most of the people looking at these sex differences are looking at it from a connectomic angle… which in my opinion is the absolute fucking stupidest application of connectomics. Oh, women on average have stronger connections between this region of the cortex and this region of the hippocampus? So how is that useful in any medical capacity?

  15. says

    @consciousness razor,
    No I mostly agree with you re: multiverses. They don’t necessarily follow from QM or inflationary cosmology, and I think they’re generally less interesting than they’re made out to be. But Horgan isn’t merely arguing that multiverses are unreasonable, he literally says they are like Freudianism and astrology. Furthermore, he thinks this should be a major target for skeptics.

    PZ would like skeptics to drop bigfoot and start talking about social justice. But as far as I can tell, that is not what Horgan is arguing at all. Horgan wants skeptics to talk about an entirely different set of (mostly) socially irrelevant topics, topics that skeptics arguably don’t have the expertise to address properly.

  16. says

    Mind you, I’m very focused on the physics part of Horgan’s article because I’m a physicist. Maybe the rest of Horgan’s article is better.

  17. Athywren - not the moon you're looking for says

    @Marcus Ranum, 8

    The problem with being skeptical about the patriarchy is … it’s hard.

    No it’s not! It’s trivially easy to realise that the idea of a conspiracy of a dozen or so men sitting in darkened rooms, communicating via skype-like comms with garbled voices and an exclusively anti-woman agenda is nonsense!

    Wait… that’s not what “the patriarchy” means? Huh. Oh, well, I’m sure it’s all a silly conspiracy theory anyway. Skepticism!! :D

    ^It depresses the fuck out of me that there are self-described skeptics who actually think that way about it. I mean, I can understand coming to different conclusions on issues, but not even bothering to understand the claim before “debunking” it? Fuck….

  18. dadge says

    What I get from both these articles is that skepticism is a good thing, nay an excellent thing, so the only thing available to criticise is the priorities of people who call themselves skeptics. Well at least that’s established that skepticism is a force for good in the world, which is more than you can say about many other things. I’d advise readers to ignore the false dichotomy of hard and soft targets, and the neat goalpost-shifting that tries to make skeptics feel guilty about the fact that they are at least actually doing something to make the world a better place.

  19. Kreator says

    @Athywren #19:

    Wait… that’s not what “the patriarchy” means? Huh. Oh, well, I’m sure it’s all a silly conspiracy theory anyway. Skepticism!! :D

    [sarcasm inbound…]

    Of course it is! You see, there’s absolutely no discrimination towards women by employers or faculties in our society, disparities are mostly just down to women choosing worthless Liberal Art degrees. I know it well because a self-described feminist man told me. Oh, a second wave feminist, by the way, not one of those coddled professional victims of the third wave who like to cry rape at every opportunity.

  20. HappyNat says

    dadge @20

    Does proving bigfoot doesn’t exist (again) really make the world a better place?

  21. says

    Actually the oldest known evidence of warfare is from 13,000 years ago, and evidence has been found of warfare involving hunter-gatherers, although it was more recent, about 10,000 years ago. The antiquity and origin of warfare is as yet uncertain.

    Just to be more precise about the issue. Since people killed in communal violence would likely go unburied, war or similar phenomena may be older than we know. Note also that extant hunter-gatherers are often quite warlike.

  22. Reginald Selkirk says

    While admitting that he has a point, John “End of Science” Horgan is probably not the best person to deliver the message, and doesn’t do a particularly good job of it.

    … because, as you know, most peer-reviewed scientific claims are wrong.

    Start off your talk about how skeptics are misguided with a questionable trope.
    Then hit Richard Dawkins for writing a cover blurb for someone’s book.
    Then uses longevity as a measure of quality of health care w/o discussing what a huge oversimplification that is.

    If the medications really work, rates of mental illness should decline. Right?

    Does Horgan understand the distinction between a treatment and a cure?
    “Gene-whiz Science” – yes, this is bad stuff. But is it believed and promoted by a significant number of skeptics? Not that I’ve noticed.

  23. gmacs says


    Yeah, I was wondering about the mental illness part, too. I’ve been on some form of amphetamine since I was 7, and I used to get people asking “so when will you not need to take it anymore?”

    I’m sorry, what? My brain functions differently, and this helps make me more functional and able to focus. Why do people assume that my brain will “get better”? To make an extreme comparison, let’s ask a person born with only one leg when the other will grow in.

    As to how many skeptics believe in the Gene-whiz Science, you’re more optimistic than I am.

  24. Reginald Selkirk says

    Gwen Sutton #1: Shermer’s book “Why People Believe Weird Things.”

    Don’t get me started.

  25. anchor says

    @consciousness razor #11:

    “…these are “predictions” in a very weak sense.”

    A new theory that offers one or more readily plausible avenues for investigation and therefore ‘prediction’ that may be obtained via observation or experiment of the natural world under current or established understanding (e.g., confirmed by observational-experimental demonstration) is one thing, while new theories that are (or at least seem) consistent with confirmed understanding yet eludes immediate avenues for confirmation is quite another.

    We aren’t quite so constipated (yet, I trust) to imagine ourselves incapable of appreciating that distinction, or allowing ourselves the capacity to distinguish which theories may be better accessible to refutation based on our current understanding whilst still entertaining consistent (however extravagantly weird) theories on the back-burner until such time that new information may allow a means of ascertaining their worth.

    The rip-roaring rabid fad energized by holier-than-thou ‘not even wrong’ advocacy at once depletes human ingenuity, forsakes its competency in identifying mistake, and adds yet another thick and distracting layer of dogmatic detritus onto the scientific scene. (Especially in physics).

    Consensus in the human scientific community is important, but nature doesn’t give a flying fuck whether we are getting it right. All we have to do is pay attention to what nature AND the mathematics says. The trouble with the latter is that we are not particularly good at interpreting or understanding what our mathematical contraptions are actually telling us.

    There are many examples of this phenomenon in the history of science.

    Of course, the scientific method is all we’ve got to go with, yet scientific enterprise is performed by a human community that is constantly encouraged (if not obsessed) by innately culturally-indoctrinated human values to cleave a perceived importance of the findings wrought by scientific method with actual reality.

    Then we tend to perch it on an obelisk of truth.

    That is how science is presented to the public. Need I say more on that?

    We diminish ourselves if we keep thinking our imaginary models – however cleverly acquired – ARE that reality. Rather, we may hope that our energies devoted to ‘theory’ may be allowed to explore the putative possible within the domain of our silly little imaginations – understanding that our imaginary flights are only creative products of creative minds – whilst allowing nature to answer such flights in a fullness of time, that is, until such information allows us to put a flight to the test.

    In the larger scheme, both in science and in the general public, we ought to get a hell of a lot better acquainted with uncertainty and quit the habit of glorification: a provisional attitude is the only road that has any chance of approaching whatever ‘wisdom’ is.

  26. consciousness razor says

    Siggy, #17:

    No I mostly agree with you re: multiverses. They don’t necessarily follow from QM or inflationary cosmology, and I think they’re generally less interesting than they’re made out to be.

    Okay, I see. Sorry I misunderstood.

    But Horgan isn’t merely arguing that multiverses are unreasonable, he literally says they are like Freudianism and astrology. Furthermore, he thinks this should be a major target for skeptics.

    Well, astrology is stretching it (it’s simply been refuted by physics), but frankly I’m not that shocked by the comparison to Freudians. Indeed, maybe that’s being unfair to Freud. We do at least know there are people with psychological states, so there is something to study scientifically, however ineptly or unmethodically … but a multiverse?

    I do think unreasonable things in general should be minor targets at least. And I wouldn’t agree that we should “drop bigfoot” in order to start doing something else. That’s obviously still something that warrants skepticism, and it will continue to be no matter how socially important beliefs about bigfoot are. But of course that one doesn’t take a very sophisticated analysis or much time/effort/etc. to debunk.

    Besides, there’s more than enough skepticism to spread around to other types of issues. Really, it doesn’t seem very helpful to think of it as a fixed quantity that we’ll run out of or something like that. The plan should be more like increasing the amount of skepticism there is (not allocating an amount that we already have), from a larger pool of people who try to apply it consistently in their lives, about a wide array of different issues that may not have anything in particular to do with one another. Different people will focus their efforts on different things, and that’s not really a problem — everybody should be happy, except those who don’t like their favorite brand of bullshit treated with skepticism. But that’s okay; you can’t make everybody happy.

  27. says

    @Consciousness razor,
    Physicists don’t know a priori that a multiverse provides no experimental predictions. They need to explore the hypothesis theoretically to figure that out. What matters is that there’s a relatively rigid framework, to allow it our exploration to rise above idle speculation. If theorists explore multiverses and can make no experimental predictions, that’s not bad science, it’s just science with a negative result.

    Same goes for the simulation hypothesis too, although I tend to think there’s hardly a framework to say anything there. In NDGT’s panel, people were speculating on the motivations of the simulators, and I think other-dimensional psychology is a lost cause.

    Reading PZ’s post again, I realized that I misrepresented him. PZ didn’t really say much about bigfoot.

  28. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    To gmacs and antigone10
    I think that questions of “gender essentialism” e.g. “nature vs nurture” are important in some corner cases of child rearing. For example, see this paper:

    > Published in final edited form as: J Pediatr Endocrinol Metab. 2005 Jun; 18(6): 549–553.
    > Gender Identity and Sex-of-rearing in Children with Disorders of Sexual Differentiation
    > William G. Reiner

    Sometimes, a baby is born that is genetically normal XY, with normal male hormone levels, but without a penis, i.e. aphallia. The question then becomes – what to do with such babies? Some people decided for some such babies to do sex (re)assignment surgery to create a vagina-fascimile, to raise the baby as a girl, and to apply proper sex hormones to achieve a normal girl outcome. However, the evidence of the above paper suggests that these children will later identify as male, in spite of being raised as female, and in spite of use of female sex hormones, and in spite of obvious female body sex characteristics. The paper concludes, very tentatively, that sex identity is generally established during fetal development. It then uses these tentative conclusions to further conclude that this sort of sex (re)assignment surgery and sex hormones in these particular cases is improper.

    More generally, I think that these facts are very relevant when dealing with young children. I don’t care what informed consenting adults do, but children are not adults, and legally and morally we assume that they are not capable of consent, and they do not know what is best for themselves, and it’s up to their legal guardians, with occasional intrusions by the state, to determine what is best for the child. Consequently, it then becomes a question for legal guardians whether sex (re)assignment surgery and application of sex hormone treatment is appropriate, and IMO this should be more than literally and only listening to the wishes of the child at face value. The particular problem is that sex hormone treatments are most effective before the onset of puberty, but this also means that the child is very young, and I am especially dubious of the notion that such young children know what is best for themselves, especially when making such a life altering decision. One of the biggest negative consequences is that these sex hormone treatments often produce irreversible infertility. We want to make sure that the decision made is in the best interests of the child’s future happiness.

    I am not saying that sex (re)assignment surgery and sex hormone treatment should not be done. I am not saying that it should be done. I’m not saying what procedures should be followed. I still haven’t made up my mind, in large part because I am still so ignorant on the topic. However, I do think that these are important questions to ask, and I do think that evidence like this has a bearing on the answers to these questions. Even if we decide that it’s entirely at the discretion of the parents (which is a position that I probably will not accept), this sort of evidence is surely useful to help the parents make up their mind as to what is the best course of action for the child.

    Again, for emphasis, I know almost nothing about this topic, and I don’t know who currently makes these decisions in what capacity, but I do know that these are important questions that deserve proper answers.

  29. ChasCPeterson says

    big ups to cervantes @#23.

    When is it “warfare”? Not 2 on 2. Probably not 20 on 20. Maybe 200 on 200.
    You had to have enough people. Warfare was logistically impossible until villages at least.
    Even if the propensity to kill and maim each other is “cultural” then the capacity to do so is inarguably “genetic”.

    (I’m curious about how reflexive opponents to “genetic determinism” feel about concepts like ‘genetic propensity’ and ‘genetic capacity’, Surely no reasonable non-sociologist* dwould deny that we human mammals have inherited some “genetic” influences on behavior. Where and why do you draw your line of denialism?)

    *these are the jokes

  30. chigau (違う) says


    Warfare was logistically impossible until villages at least.

    I disagree.
    Depends on where you are and on your definition of ‘village’.

  31. Carmi Turchick says

    I think it is important to mention that John Horgan’s views on war can only be true if the theory of evolution is wrong. He could be right about group level violence in chimps having only arisen due to the novelty of….population pressure and unequal distribution of resources in the 1960’s….if we accept that these two main drivers of evolutionary selection have never been seen by chimps or their ancestors before. He could be right about our ancestors living in a magical world with 190,000 years of peace where none of the triggers of war in extent small tribal groups ever caused war, somehow. Somehow no abused wives ever got their brothers in the neighboring tribe to kill their husband. No disease outbreaks ever lead shamans to assert that another tribe was attacking them with black magic, no changes in climate or environment ever drove groups into new areas already inhabited by groups who did not welcome them, no drunken friendly competitions ever spiraled out of control, no desires for women ever lead to aggressive raids…

    And then we have his straw man that if war has a genetic basis then it must take a form that could never evolve: being automatic and autonomic and beyond our ability to consciously control. Sure, the species with the most behavioral flexibility to ever evolve would have no flexibility when it came to war, a behavior with incredibly high fitness impact? He might be right, if the theory of evolution is wrong.

    Group social territorial species compete for resources at the group level. We are one such species. Evolutionary theory predicts that such competition will take the form of group level violence, and indeed we see that in every such species. Ants, bees, meekats, lions, chimps, etc.

    John Horgan has what are essentially religious beliefs about human warfare. That he would go and pressure a group of skeptics to follow his religious views is pretty hilarious.