You May Be Forgiven For Thinking That Some Skeptics Are Taking A Firm Stance, But…

You May Be Forgiven For Thinking That Some Skeptics Are Taking A Firm Stance, But… January 30, 2013

…well, maybe some skeptics are. About bloody time.

Check out the two-post volley (is that how I should see it?) that has popped into my feedreader over the past 12 hours.

To begin win (and yes, that was a spelling error, but I think I’ll leave it…) – as Daniel Loxton puts it himself, “Skepticblog’s Steven Novella has an interesting post up at Neurologica this morning, in which he addresses some issues of conflation between scientific skepticism and other movements or interests.” It is a direct response to a recent post by PZ Myers, which I’ve noticed has got the usual (often unquestioning) support from a number of people, so I’m glad that there’s time being taken to unpack PZ’s claims:

What is the skeptical community all about? What are the limits, if any, of skeptical analysis? What should be our goals, and our main focus of attention? There is also an even deeper question – are we, in fact, a movement at all?

(Nothing new there – “do you think there’s a skeptical movement?” is a question I’ve popped to a number of interviewees over the years, mostly with a fairly positive reaction, although I’ve noticed a tendency towards an attitude that Daniel Loxton expressed in 2009: “Personally, I don’t believe that unification was ever particularly desirable, but in any event, that ship has sailed. Or, rather, ships: the reality we are faced with is a flotilla of national, regional, and local skeptical organizations (plus all manner of humanist, atheist, and rationalist groups) moving independently and chaotically yet roughly in parallel.”)

Novella continues:

I am happy to find common cause with anyone who also wishes to promote scientific skepticism. I honestly don’t care if they also choose to promote skepticism plus some other agenda (as long as that agenda is not inherently anathema to skepticism). I understand that some skeptics wish to also promote atheism or feminism, or to argue for the virtues of their political ideology. Hey – I am an atheist and a feminist, and I support their promotion. I even see the need to promote feminism within the skeptical movement, if we wish to maximize our reach.  I just don’t want them to be conflated with or confused for scientific skepticism.

I do object to others telling me what I should care about and promote. I am not telling anyone else what to do, and they have no right to tell me what to do. I am only defining how I spend my own efforts.

I will object if someone makes an illogical argument about what skepticism is, or blurs the lines between scientific skepticism and some other issue. These kinds of discussion are worth having – philosophical and logical arguments about the nature of science and knowledge, and how that informs our movement.

This is also where it gets rather difficult, as there’s been a number of times that I (and others) told that we don’t know what skepticism is and that it’s in fact equal to atheism – the “if you’re not atheist you’re not &$*#&# skeptical enough” abusive false dichotomy fallacy comes to mind (as someone in the comments of the blog-post that Daniel Loxton wrote, Maybe we just need to carve out a niche, wherein every time I call myself a skeptic, I have to call myself a ‘scientific skeptic’ just to make it clear.”

I’ve even had a number of people via social media networks refuse to even glance at the transcript of Dr Novella’s talk to the New York Skeptics on Skeptical Activism (featured on the New York City Skeptics website from 2007), because they are so convinced that they have nothing to learn other than atheism = skepticism:

It doesn’t really necessarily mean that we believe that natural is naturalistic or materialistic, that we have to believe that there isn’t anything supernatural or beyond the physical or causative world. It just means that we are following a methodology that acts within that paradigm. That’s critical I think to understanding what skepticism is about – because skepticism is about not what we believe but what we can know and what we can know is tied to methodological naturalism.

There was a recent, just playing off of this a little bit, there was a recent editorial in the New York Times by Davies, Paul Davies, who concluded that science is dependent upon faith. I wrote in my Neurologica blog about that: it’s not actually true because science is not dependent upon faith in a naturalistic world. It just follows the methods as if it is naturalistic.

[My emphasis]

But then, Dr Novella has tackled this often before now, and returns to the issue of understanding what skepticism means once again in 2013:

Here it is (again) – The issue is not with religion or religious-based claims. We address them all the time (creationism, miracles, faith healing, separation of church and state, secular moral philosophy, etc.) Really – we are right there shoulder to shoulder with organized atheists taking on every such issue. It is NOT that religious claims are untestable (some are, some aren’t), it is only that when claims (religious or otherwise) are framed as untestable then they are matters of faith and not science.

…it’s reiterated by Loxton

On religion, he emphasizes once agin the same point he has made throughout his career (a point on which I precisely agree, and which has for decades been the practical, time-tested, virtually universal position of scientific skepticism as a movement):

…and I’m reminded of a 2010 post authored by D.J Grothe over on the Swift Blog: Is There New Atheism at the JREF?

To me, being atheist is not enough. I suggested in the Dawkins discussion that being a mere atheist is less a worthwhile goal than being a skeptic more broadly. In no sense was I trying to argue that if you are a skeptic you will necessarily be an atheist, although I do personally favor a consistently applied sort of skepticism where no questions or claims, not even personal religious ones, are protected from scrutiny.

(I spoke about why atheism may result from skepticism but that it is not a sufficient condition for skepticism, and therefore why a more broadly applied skepticism is more important to me than mere atheism, in my keynote address at NECSS earlier this year.)

While Novella says “I have never endeavored to tell other people what to do with their own activism“, he does provide ideas in the New York talk from 2007 – and I’m wondering what he’s going to talk about at the next NECSS workshop he’s running if NOT a little evidence-based telling on what works (as it says in the description)?

Workshop 2 – How to Use Podcasting for Social Activism

The workshop will cover the opportunities, strategies, and technical aspects of creating a successful podcast in order to promote a cause or support activism. We will cover the various supportive social media that provide opportunities for marketing and outreach.

But then, I see Dr Novella as informing people about the broad scope of skepticism as it exists (with evidence – so much for the 2 posts  out of 1,284 on Bigfoot…) and that skeptics “…deal with the empirical aspects of these issues, and try very hard to distinguish them from the inherent value judgments, while trying to avoid blurring the lines between science and personal choice”, rather than telling them “this is the only way to see it”, which is definitely how I interpret PZ’s blogpost.

I do think that there should be people who can provide practical, sensible and evidence-based advice on what constitutes Top 20 Skeptical Books Kylie Sturgessgood and effective activism, and they should be encouraged to speak out and be supported when it comes to analysing the effectiveness of campaigns.

I also think that effective activism on the part of scientific skepticism should feature a shared understanding of the underlying values and goals that Dr Novella has mentioned in his blogpost (and in a number of other posts, not just the NYC talk where he is explicit on the topic of methodological naturalism, as I’ve shown).

You can always (as Loxton says himself) be an activist for other causes for other reasons and values. I’m certainly not stopping you, nor are the “Old Guard” (what are their names, by the way)?

On a slightly different (but related) topic, I’ve been doing a lot of work recently grading papers, and the one common factor that I’ve found with students (no matter from what time or what age they are, over many years) is the difference between a response that indicates that they’ve done the required reading, let alone taken time to do some research and just plain read widely in order to express an informed understanding. I was particularly dismayed to see a call-out to crowd-source what constituted a untestable claim rather than do the research themselves, from the wide range of texts that have been available for quite some time.

If we start slipping into anti-intellectual attitudes like “we have nothing to learn from the past” and “the Old Guard” strawmen fallacies? As far as I’m concerned, we might as well stop going to ANY conferences, not support any skeptical-based activism, quit buying books related to skepticism and unsubscribe from ALL of those popular and much vaunted podcasts (that worryingly enough, I’ve seen some claim is their only source of education when it comes to skepticism) that have pretty much ALL featured over past few months the arguably “Old Guard” of Randi, Plait, Novella, Gay, Piggliuci, Pollidoro, Radford, Stollznow, Banachek, Wiseman and so on.

After all, we wouldn’t want to support any nasty Old Guard gatekeepers to skepticism, right? It’s well overdue the time to get into doing your own reading and thinking rather than outsourcing your brain.

And yet, the tradition Steve and I work in—scientific skepticism—is a thing. A precious, small, useful thing. Steve and I didn’t invent it. Over decades and even centuries, whole careers have been spent developing scientific skepticism, defining its scope, discovering its weaknesses and vulnerabilities and strengths…

We owe it to generations of those who came before us in this field to treat their legacy with respect. No one reading this has to share the values of those older skeptics. No one is obligated to carry on their work of scientific skepticism. There are a thousand movements out there, working in service of all manner of values and beliefs. There are million opportunities to invent brave new movements that might speak to each one of us in all of our personal complexity.

There’s a book list in the picture featured and you can check out discussions about those books in the podcast.


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