John Horgan’s Ideological Tribe

A few weeks back the well known science journalist and arch-contrarian John Horgan gave a talk at NECSS, a science and skepticism conference. The title of his talk was “Skepticism: Hard Versus Soft Targets” (or as he titled it on his blog “Dear “Skeptics,” Bash Homeopathy and Bigfoot Less, Mammograms and War More”). In it, he lambasted the skeptical community for focusing on soft targets (like alternative medicine and Bigfoot) rather than dealing with the important hard targets of our time, specifically- War/US militarism and the trends of over-prescription and over-screening in mainstream medicine.

Horgan also accused skeptics of being uncritical and engaging in defensive ‘tribalism‘, explaining that skeptics like to “pat each other on the back and tell each other how smart they are compared to those outside the tribe”. Conversely, on Twitter he declared himself to be a tribeless gadfly, not even a member of the ‘media’: “I don’t have a tribe, unless I count myself. Then I’m a tribe of one.”

Historical War
War is all too common historically but does the pre-historical evidence show what Horgan claims? (Source CC BY-SA 2.0)

Horgan has the kernel of a valid point: skeptical and atheist communities do need to be wary of becoming too insular, overgeneralising and uncritically demonising members designated as an outgroup (see, for instance, the increasingly toxic environment that PZ Myers promotes at FreeThoughtBlogs). But as his tweet aptly illustrates, Horgan’s critical insight doesn’t extend to his own ideological position, in that he fails to recognise his arguments actually do signal a clear allegiance to a specific problematic tribe. A tribe of self styled ‘outside the box’ science contrarians and pseudoscientists who interpret and (mis)represent scientific evidence in accordance to non-scientific ideological commitments. This is why his article was strongly endorsed by all manner of pseudo-science advocates and conspiracy theorists (including the despicable Mike Adams).

It’s not just, as Horgan subsequently suggested, because the “promoters of soft targets” mistakenly assume that he is “the enemy of their enemy (i.e., Skeptics) and hence their friend”. While this is certainly a part of the appeal, another factor is that the arguments he raised echo the exact same kinds of criticisms that promoters of pseudoscience and conspiracy theories level themselves at skeptics and mainstream science. Criticisms like: scientists are arrogant and the findings of scientific studies are unreliable, skeptics ignore the bigger picture of the danger posed by corporations and militaristic states, mainstream science is dominated by dismissive tribalists who persecute ‘outside-the-box’ thinkers, mainstream medicine is primarily a money making scheme, and so on. These are not particularly rare or unusual sentiments they are in fact the bread and butter of pseudoscientists.

In short, Horgan’s tribal affiliation with science contrarians and pseudoscientists may run a lot deeper than he cares to admit.

If this makes me sound like just another reactionary member of the skeptical tribe dismissing the criticisms of an unwelcome intruder, let me preface the rest of this post by stating that, in spite of his faulty arguments, I actually like Horgan. He comes across well in interviews (like this recent one on the Prism podcast), he’s engaged in good natured banter on Twitter and I think that he is fundamentally correct when he argues that science needs to have communicators that are willing not just to promote new research but to criticise problems and call out unwarranted generalisations. Additionally, while his talk wasn’t an accurate representation of the overall skeptical community, his criticisms do apply to a specific vocal sub-section of the skeptical community- specifically, self-righteous anti-theists. So, although I agree with most of the criticisms levelled at his talk (see here, here and the various replies on Jerry Coyne’s blog for examples), he is correct that his provocations have inspired some productive discussions. And since he regards this as being the primary goal of his talk, by his own controversy generating standard the talk was a ‘success’:

“One of the little pieties I like to spout is that my goal as a journalist isn’t to make people agree with me. It’s to provoke them into reconsidering their beliefs. That’s what I hoped to accomplish with my critique of the skepticism movement, and I succeeded… So do I regret giving my talk? Hell no. I accomplished what I set out to do, to provoke a debate about skepticism.”

But to return to my main argument: Horgan is not as devoid of tribal affiliations as he believes. For an illustration of his affiliations in action I would suggest that people listen to him being interviewed by Alex Tsakiris on his podcast ‘Skeptiko’. Despite the misleading title, Skeptiko is a podcast in which the host Alex Tsakiris promotes all manner of pseudoscience (remote viewing, past life regression, psychic dogs) and disparages skepticism and mainstream ‘materialistic’ science. When Skeptiko began many years ago it attempted to hide behind the veneer of ‘presenting both sides of the debate’ but that charade has long been abandoned in favour of Tsakiris using his platform to criticise skeptics and promote his personal favourite pseudoscience: the non-material nature of consciousness and its ability to survive bodily death- as proven by research on Near Death Experiences (NDEs). The level of understanding of science on display at Skeptiko is often mind-boggling low given how many years the show has been discussing ‘science’ and you might therefore anticipate that this would make it a rather unwelcoming environment for a science writer.

However, while Skeptico has hosted all manner of uncomfortable interviews with skeptics, scientists, and writers who don’t share Tsakiris’ worldview, there is nothing uncomfortable about his encounter with Horgan. Rather, it is quickly evident that Tsakiris and Horgan are, in many respects, kindred spirits and the interview consequently features precisely the kind of ideological back slapping that Horgan was so critical of in his talk to skeptics. While they don’t agree on everything (Horgan affirms several times that he remains [mostly] a materialist), they are of one mind when it comes to the flaws of mainstream science. Hence, as one commenter on the Skeptiko forum noted: “I think some of what he says is almost identical with what Alex says, but packaged differently.”

The double standards this invites is at times quite jarring, for instance, alongside Horgan ruefully disparaging the speculative nature of much of modern theoretical physics he happily discusses his admiration for Rupert Sheldrake, a discredited biologist, who has long promoted pseudo scientific essentialist theories (look up morphic resonance) and uses hugely problematic experiments to argue that dogs and other animals have psychic powers. While Horgan stops short of fully endorsing Sheldrake’s views, both in the interview and on his blog he provides a glowing personal testimony to Sheldrake’s brilliance and repeatedly implies that there might be something to his research but he hasn’t looked into it enough and is not quite convinced… yet.

Where in all this is the John Horgan that claims to be an independent and tireless critic of bad science and overhyped theories? If the standards of mainstream science are worthy of criticism then surely the even worse bias and lax experimental methodologies found in psi research and other pseudoscience fields should be fresh meat for John’s critical grinder?

Nope. Because this is John’s tribe. (Or at best this is a neighbouring tribe that his tribe has very strong trade relations with…)

He might retain more credibility than the majority of his tribal brethren by avoiding any outright endorsement of pseudoscience but the hallmark signs are there:

  1. Present yourself as a lone renegade fighting the good fight against oppressive mainstream scientific dogma? Check.
  2. Rely strongly on personal experiences and anecdotes to inform your positions? Check.
  3. Misrepresent the scientific literature on chosen topics by cherry picking studies and books that support a preferred conclusion? Check.
  4. Get angry when you are expected to defer to the consensus of experts? Check.

In Horgan’s case his tribal identity primarily manifests in his selectively applied criticism and biased representation of the scientific literature on his chosen subjects. Similar issues to that Horgan chastised skeptics about. To illustrate these tendencies, take what Horgan identifies as his topic of main interest- ‘war’. Like most reasonable people Horgan desires to see an end to war and the terrible suffering it engenders. In fact, he is so committed to this endeavour that his last published book was titled The End of War. This is an admirable goal and I’m not going to fault Horgan for his peace activism, but what does deserve criticism is how he misrepresents the scientific literature in order to support these efforts and his tendency to conflate his personal political views with science journalism.

Horgan’s central thesis is that humans can escape the self-destructive practice of war because, as argued by the anthropologist Margaret Mead, it is actually a recent cultural invention that is strongly linked to the emergence of states. From Horgan’s telling there is no evidence for war being a long enduring feature of human society (what Horgan labels ‘the deep roots theory’). Instead the evidence suggests that prehistoric humans were remarkably peaceful or at least did not often engage in “lethal coalitionary aggression”.

There are researchers of war who share his view, most notably Brian Ferguson, Douglas Fry and Raymond Kelly (for instance see this article from Science and this edited volume). However, far from the settled topic that Horgan repeatedly implies, Fry and Kelly’s views remain heavily disputed and there are significant empirical challenges to their position and not just from Steven Pinker, there are strong rebukes from a range of experts such as Azar Gat, Lawrence Keeley, and Samuel Bowles (see also this recent review paper and this edited volume). This isn’t like climate change were over 95% of relevant experts agree, it remains a hotly contested area and my reading of the field is that Horgan (and Ferguson, Fry and Kelly’s) position that “the evidence is overwhelming that war is a relatively recent cultural invention” represents an extreme view. The majority of scholars land somewhere in the middle, recognising that there are severe limitations with the archaeological evidence that make drawing any firm conclusions about the prevalence of intergroup conflict during the Paleolithic almost impossible but agreeing that it is likely to vary dependent on a wide variety of factors.

Take for instance, the nuanced assessment offered by the evolutionarily informed historian Peter Turchin who complained that Horgan’s framing of the debate was “completely unhelpful” and relied on “an old-fashioned” dichotomy between ‘innate’ and ‘learned’ that failed to recognise that “we now understand that human behavior is molded by a complex mixture of genetic predispositions, environmental influences, and culture”. Despite this, he agrees with the view of Fry (against the likes of Steven Pinker) that “multiple lines of evidence suggest that during the last 10,000 years the curve of war can be represented with the Greek letter Λ (lambda)… [with] the peak position… generally coincide[ing] with late pre-state and early state societies”. However, he also acknowledges that Fry and others “go too far when they suggest that “war was simply absent over the vast majority of human existence” prior to 10,000 years ago”, elaborating that:

“Nomadic foragers can be as territorial as farmers, and will defend rich hunting grounds or patches of valued plant resources. Once one group resorted to violence, war would spread: pacifist groups would be eliminated by natural selection. Such episodes of warfare could have been relatively rare during the Pleistocene, leaving no clear evidence in the archaeological record. If someone was killed by a well-thrown stone (or died later of the injury), how could we distinguish that from another unfortunate person who died in a hunting accident? In any case, we have very few skeletons from the Pleistocene, leaving us with scarce evidence for statistical analysis.” (underline added)

This kind of nuanced position is common amongst researchers but Horgan tends to avoid such nuance in favour of promoting a highly misleading black or white dichotomy: either war is ancient, innate, and frequent OR it is entirely new, culturally learnt, and highly variable. However, most of these features are not mutually exclusive, hence while we might have inherited traits that make language learning possible we still need to learn language socially, similarly while intergroup violence might be related to widespread propensities for violence and coalition forming, this doesn’t mean that we should expect no variation in its frequency amongst different environments and cultures.

Another problem with Horgan’s assessment is that it is strongly influenced by his repeatedly stated belief that recognising war to have ancient roots means endorsing its inevitability in the future. This deeply held belief means that he doesn’t just disagree with the opposing view, as he stated in his talk he hates it: “I hate the deep-roots theory not only because it’s wrong, but also because it encourages fatalism toward war” (underline added). In response to criticism Horgan has occasionally clarified that his primary objection is due to the clear lack of evidence for deep roots theory but his writings clearly betray that this his motivations are more muddy. Almost every time that the issue is raised, Horgan references that link between the antiquity of war and fatalism:

“The debate over the deep-roots theory matters, because many people think that if war is ancient and innate, it must also be inevitable… This sort of fatalism could undermine efforts to achieve permanent peace. I hope the Japanese study portends the beginning of the end of the flimsy yet insidious deep-roots theory of war.” (Source)

“This is why the deep-roots theory is so insidious. Not only does it lack empirical support. It also makes people pessimistic about peace. Since 2003, I have asked thousands of people whether war will ever end, and almost everyone says no. Pessimists often defend their outlook with some version of the deep-roots claim.” (Source)

This echoes sentiments that Douglas Fry has also repeatedly made and in both cases there is a clear indication that the interpretation of evidence is being determined, at least partly, by concerns about the potential harmful impact that finding war to have been a long term feature of human societies could have in the present. The problem is that this is placing ideology ahead of empiricism and it treads dangerously close to a naturalistic fallacy wherein a behaviour perceived as ancient and recurrent throughout human evolutionary history is considered to be inevitable or worse, desirable. A recent (2015) thorough review of the debate written by the historian Azar Gat highlights the prevalence of this view amongst those who claim war is a recent invention but compellingly argues that:

“the antiquity of human fighting and the question of the future of war are not at all connected in the direct way that people tend to assume… People habitually assume that if widespread deadly violence has always been with us, it must be a primary, irresistible drive that is nearly impossible to suppress. Many find in this reason enough to object to the idea that human fighting is primordial; others regard it as compelling evidence that war is inevitable. Both sides are wrong.”

Gat is not a neutral figure in the debate (he has a book about the history of war in human civilization) but I would strongly urge anyone interested in the topic to consult his review, it provides an excellent overview of the debate and outlines a wide variety of evidence against what he terms the ‘Quasi-Rousseausism’ of researchers like Fry and advocates like Horgan. Furthermore, while Gat’s position in the debate is not neutral, he concludes that human societies are never determined by any single form of social interaction but instead are always comprised of a combination of strategies that involve isolation, avoidance and “cooperation, competition, and violent conflicts” and thus contends that conflict is “only one tool… in our diverse behavioral toolkit”. This is a far cry from Horgan’s caricature of the ‘insidious’ deep war theory and it is based on a careful analysis of the relevant literature rather than cherry picking individual studies that support some favoured conclusions.

Finally, to conclude I also want to draw attention to Horgan’s problematic tendency to conflate adopting his preferred political views with the scientific evidence and with any desire to achieve lasting peace and an end to wars. In his talk to the skeptics Horgan exhorts a fairly typical Chomskian/Greenwaldian worldview in which US militarism is “the greatest threat to peace” and “ISIS is a reaction to the anti-Muslim violence of the U.S. and its allies”. In fact, he specifically stated: “Noam Chomsky is still bashing U.S. imperialism, but he’s almost 90. He needs help!” The problem here is that it is perfectly possible to be opposed to militarism, critical of US foreign policy, and desire world peace but crucially not to buy into Chomsky or Horgan’s analysis or of the solutions they propose. There isn’t ‘scientific’ evidence to support Chomsky or Horgan’s worldview there is just the usual cherry picking and ideologically infused interpretation of evidence that is sadly all too common in political debate.

In this article I’ve suggested that Horgan shares an ideological tribe with conspiracy theorists and pseudoscientists, which is not exactly flattering. So I just want to be clear that I am not saying that he is either of these things… rather I’m saying that his style of writing, his cherry picking of preferred research, and the targets he deems to be most worthy of criticism (mainstream science and modern medicine) means that he has an affinity with those who perceive themselves as ‘establishment outsiders’. You might cite in his defence that when discussing a meeting with Dean Radin at a consciousness conference he recently stated:

I tried to be open-minded, but British psychologist Susan Blackmore—who started her career as a psi-believer but became a skeptic–convinced me that psi claims almost certainly stem from delusion or fraud. She didn’t rule out the possibility of psi, but she didn’t want to waste more time investigating it. That’s how I feel.

Now and then, when I meet a smart, sensible proponent of psi, like Rupert Sheldrake–or even Radin, whom I interviewed more than a decade ago–doubt nags me: Could these guys be right? But for the most part, believers in psi—like the spoon-benders I dined with last night—depress me. We’re all lost, but psi believers seem especially lost.

But note that it isn’t the “smart, sensible proponents of psi” that depress Horgan, it is the spoon-bending believers. Again, I don’t think Horgan is some closet psi advocate, I just think he admires their renegade spirit and that he shares with them an inflated sense of personal expertise and a distrust of the ‘establishment’. Listening to interviews with Horgan it is clear that he enjoys generating controversy and because of this approach he does succeed in raising the profile of genuine problems in mainstream science and medicine that should get more attention. But my main criticism of Horgan is not his contrarianism but his tendency to make unilateral assertions about debated science and his apparent conviction that his experience as a journalist makes him better equipped than researchers to objectively assess the value of various theories and entire fields of research. I don’t find such arguments convincing and I think that his tendency to cherry pick studies and criticise those with conclusions he doesn’t like make him more of an advocate than a science journalist.

A statement he might well agree with…

"Ya, a trained corvid would do better"

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