Friday Food for Thought: What Skeptics Get Wrong About Science

Friday Food for Thought: What Skeptics Get Wrong About Science April 20, 2018

Four skeptical, science-savvy atheists get together and discuss what we get wrong about science.

A Meeting of the Minds

Last weekend’s OrbitCon online atheist/skeptic conference hosted a panel that read like a who’s-who of Patheos contributors, talking about issues of science and the public understanding of scientific issues. In this video we see:

Jeremiah Traeger from  A Tippling Philosopher

Ari Stillman from Gaytheist Manifesto

Alix Jules from Graffiti Wall

Katie Marshall, assistant biology professor and researcher at the University of Oklahoma

Science and Skepticism

Jeremiah started the discussion with the following mission statement:

We as skeptics really have a healthy valuing of science. Science is really useful. It’s basically the best way we can explore the natural world. But unfortunately, I think a lot of people can drift into weaponized skepticism, try to abuse science and overstate what its capacities are.

With that as a springboard, the panel then launched into a wide-ranging discussion about the fact that science is a philosophical program, the problems with peer review, the pitfalls of weaponized skepticism, how unconscious bias affects scientific research, the use of factoids to support racist or sexist ideas, how prominent scientific spokespeople misrepresent scientific inquiry, why scientists shouldn’t stray too far from their area of expertise when communicating about scientific matters, and why Jordan Peterson is an ass.

It’s good to get a diverse group of people who are educated in and work in scientific fields to talk about the way they approach science, as well as the problems with the way they see science characterized in the media and online. This wasn’t a bunch of science fans bashing creationists, or a walk through the low-hanging fruit orchard. The panelists covered a lot of ground in such a short discussion.

I thought the discussion was intelligent, good humored, and full of food for thought. If that sounds interesting, watch and let me know what you think.

"I don't consider either campus speech codes or the deplatforming of celebrity speakers to be ..."

Trump and the Gullibility of Free ..."
"the only conclusion is the gov't is supposed to limit speech, but Shem stomps up ..."

Trump and the Gullibility of Free ..."
"And as is the case with many things Shem writes I can agree that there ..."

Trump and the Gullibility of Free ..."
"Your main misunderstanding here is your idea that I'm attacking free speech.All I'm saying, and ..."

Trump and the Gullibility of Free ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Nonreligious
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Unfortunately most people are not skeptical enough about science. Now, that does not mean that we should disregard theories which have survived numerous falsification attempts, and which are relied upon repeatedly, but there is a tendency to promote the pseudoscience of “confirmed” theories or “truth” in science. Unfortunately science can only take a theory and maybe falsify it, and only within some imperfect degree of certainty. A theory surviving experimentation does not really do much in terms of saying how true the theory is.

  • DKeane123

    I recently just heard of Jordan Peterson a few months ago and now it seems this dude is everywhere. I don’t get why he is popular at all.

  • You got me. He’s popular with freeze peachers and people who use terms like “regressive left.”

  • Tawreos

    I guess I’m the lucky one then as I had no idea who he was until I googled him

  • RLL

    I am not sure I agree completely. Certainly, if you limit yourself to simple induction, no theory can ever be true. However, science is not merely an empirical induction cookbook. It is a human endeavor practiced both by humans and groups of humans. Observation, hypothesis and validation are merely one part of this process. Eventually, an idea or theory is sufficiently validated via multiple, independent lines of research (consilience) that a consensus is reached, and no serious scientist questions the validity or at least the utility of the concept. No serious scientist questions the existence of gravity. They may believe it is possible to reach a deeper understanding of the concept, but gravity is “real”. The entire enterprise of the Copenhagen school was an attempt to salvage the concept of objective physical reality in the face of quantum indeterminacy–and it was largely successful.

  • chemical

    People think he’s smart because he uses big words to prattle on about a bunch of nothing. He’s very good at taking a very long time to say very little. Similar to Deepak Chopra, but a summary of an hour-long Peterson speech might be something like “Treat others how you would like to be treated”. Whereas every Chopra speech can be summarized as follows: “Deepak Chopra has absolutely no idea what he is talking about.”

  • Tawreos

    Chopra could could give that summary as the title of his speech and still draw a crowd.

  • The panelists were laying into Peterson because of his pseudoscientific use of the lobster as some sort of evidence of innate gender differences and dominance hierarchies. Katie Marshall in particular was appalled by his ignorance of real-world invertebrate nervous systems.

  • DKeane123

    You are.

  • DKeane123

    I would also add that most scientific principals are used in models that are adapted for real world uses via “engineering”. If the theory doesn’t work during application, then there is a problem. A common example of applied science using a strange theory is quark behavior in modern transistors.

  • DKeane123

    Sounds a lot like Dunning Kruger.

  • Anthrotheist

    I liked how, around 21 minutes in, the topic of philosophy took the stage. I like the idea of scientists being “applied epistemologists”.

    If engineers are people who utilize the practical applications of science; then scientists are like the engineers of philosophy.

  • RLL

    OK, now wait a second. Quarks in transistors? This I gotta hear.

    BTW, Richard Hamming once said of the difference between science and engineering:
    “If you are an engineer and you don’t understand exactly what you are doing, you probably shouldn’t be doing. If you are a scientist, and you do understand exactly what you are doing, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.”

  • DKeane123

    Actually – I was a bit too specific. Instead of Quarks – I should have just referenced Quantum Mechanics. As a geologist, it is out of my field of expertise 🙂

  • Take that, Deepak Chopra.

  • chemical

    In a way, it is. He is a bona fide college professor and teaches psychology. Shem is pointing out a time he stepped out of bounds and thought himself a marine biologist.

  • That’s the aspect I figured would annoy science fans the most. The panelists all seemed pretty adamant that you can’t just ignore the philosophical context of scientific inquiry.

  • DKeane123

    Smart people have an exaggerated confidence in fields they know little about. Ben Carson expounding on how the pyramids were used for grain storage is an excellent example.

  • Being an amateur myself, I’m not going to make it sound like you need to be an expert to discuss these things.

    Just keep it in the ballpark.

  • RLL

    OK. Quantum mechanics, I’ll believe–although most of the time, you can completely ignore quantum theory in analyzing transistors…unless you want to really understand what is going on.

  • DKeane123

    I suspect knowing you are an amateur – you actually look things up and rely on the consensus of those with greater expertise- unlike Carson, who looks at pyramids and automatically knows better.

  • (((J_Enigma32)))

    I’m pretty sure that it’d annoy them is because they traded one absolute set of answers (religion) for another absolute set of answers (scientism), with the latter having the added benefit of usually being right, even if they don’t understand how it works (see: the sheer number of people who insist that Africans are less intelligent through lower IQ scores and then provide genetic data that definitely shows Africans are distinctive without realizing that they’re demonstrating text book confirmation bias; the data shows that there are indeed differences in humans, but it doesn’t back up any arbitrary label or grouping you might apply. Hell, I had one of these tools tell me I was stupid because I pointed out that averages are artificial and easily manipulated, so they aren’t even good at math and statistics). Philosophy is uncertainty, and these folks have no use for uncertainty — no more than fundamentalists do, at any rate.

  • Just wait until someone uses one of his videos as a response to one of your comments. One of his fans did that to me a few months ago, and the person was practically slobbering over Peterson. It was gross how worshipful of him they were and how offended they were that I was not impressed.

  • NEIL C. REINHARDT

    IF YOU ARE AN ATHEIST, PLEASE GET A GREAT FREE NEWSPAPER FROM FFRF AND JOIN US!
    https://l.patheos.com/ffrf-signup/?track1=LI_300x250

  • NEIL C. REINHARDT

    I THINK HE IS FAIRLY CLUELESS.

  • stphneye1971

    How we get by them? How we get by them?

    We stand on the shoulders of giants. Journal editors are giant insects. Logic.

    I don’t know how many times I’ve mention that science has a philosophy *crickets chirping*

    I have spent years arguing (yes, mainly with my Self) whether race and gender should be IVs or DVs in statistics (I will here testify that Dawkins didn’t care, but then again he thought a feedback mechanism was a cue to start talking about tonnes of hotel soap being discarded every year).

    Yes, there’s The Bell Curve and then there’s the bell curve.

    I’m too distressed to watch more than 30 minutes.

  • Quit spamming the channel, you kook.

  • My sentiments exactly.

  • Annerdr

    He must lie. The truth is against him.

  • HOW’S THAT AGAIN? YOU’LL HAVE TO SPEAK UP!

  • Cynthia

    For some crazy reason, I picked up a “popular” book on quantum gravity for airport reading last vacation.

    I’m not going to pretend that I totally understand it. The main message I got was that pretty much any theories we have – including gravity – “work” as models much of the time, but we clearly still have some gaping holes in our basic concept of reality, since gravity and quantum mechanics use different assumptions. We are still working out the Theory of Everything.

  • Annerdr

    NEIL C. REINHARDT IS THE SMARTEST MAN EVER WHICH I KNOW BECAUSE HE TELLS US ALL REGULARLY. I GREW UP SURROUNDED BY COLLEGE PROFESSORS IN MATH, COMPUTER SCIENCE, AND ENGINEERING AND NONE OF THEM EVER TOLD ME HOW SMART THEY ARE. MY DAD WAS A CHEMICAL ENGINEERING PROFESSOR WHO WENT TO MIT AND HE NEVER TOLD ME HE WAS SMART, BECAUSE SMART PEOPLE DON’T HAVE TO TELL YOU THEY ARE SMART. JUST AS DECENT PEOPLE DON’T EVER TELL YOU HOW HONEST THEY ARE.

  • Cynthia

    Unfortunately, some of his opponents stupidly play into that.

    See https://globalnews.ca/news/4066542/woman-arrested-window-damaged-following-protest-at-queens-over-controversial-lecture/

    It’s not all critics, or even all protesters that showed up, but any attempt to shut down a talk and break a window is going to look bad, esp. if the topic of the talk was about coerced speech and you know the guy has a huge online fan base. The rogue protesters may as well have worn a sign saying Exhibit A.

  • I’ve mentioned before that I think people like Peterson are running a pretty foolproof scam. If they appear at a university and they’re allowed to speak, they get to harangue all those coddled college kids they despise as well as reach a large audience of supporters. If they’re not allowed to speak or there’s even minor trouble, they get to blow it out of proportion and make it seem like the end of our precious liberties is nigh, while garnering free publicity in the process.

  • Cynthia

    It goes beyond that. His actual day job as a professor is now only a minor part of his income. He makes more from his online presence. The more people get outraged, the more publicity he gets, and the more people see him online, the more money he makes. There is zero incentive to do anything to be reasonable – if he was moderate, he’d lose money.

  • RLL

    Hi Cynthia,
    The statistician George Box said: “All models are wrong; some models are useful.” In other words, the highest aspiration for a model is that it be useful for understanding the world around us. The thing is that what we do not know does not usually invalidate what we do. The concept of gravity is useful for understanding interactions in the macroscopic world up to the behavior of galaxies. It is less useful for understanding subatomic particles or the birth of the Universe. It may take a more advanced model to understand those phenomena. Newtonian mechanics is still a useful model for understanding the majority of what humans experience in the physical world, even though it has been supplanted by relativity and quantum mechanics.

    This is not the same as saying that a model represents objective physical reality. We cannot know that. We presume that a model that has great predictive power will better correspond with that reality. We cannot know that, either. However, as humans, we need models that allow us to visualize the physical world. So, once a model has proved its utility over a broad range of phenomena, it is “true” at least until someone comes up with something better.

  • This is not the same as saying that a model represents objective physical reality. We cannot know that. We presume that a model that has great predictive power will better correspond with that reality. We cannot know that, either.

    Well said.

    This idealistic notion that the truth about the universe is just sitting out there waiting for us to discover it, and we get incrementally closer to it through testing hypotheses, is sort of naïve. If we know anything through a couple of centuries of scientific inquiry, it’s that the way the universe seems depends on the methods we use to study it. Our picture of the universe isn’t getting more real or more true, it’s just getting more useful to us according to the way we define the aims of inquiry.

  • RLL

    That said, I’ll take useful, and utility and predictive power are not bad heuristics when it comes to truth…or human survival for that matter.

  • You and me both. But you’d be surprised how many people who post here think truth-as-correspondence-to-reality is some sort of self-evident given rather than the Model T of philosophy,

  • RLL

    Hard to believe that once you’ve had Quantum Mechanics.