Jan 29 2013

Bigfoot Skeptics, New Atheists, Politics and Religion

You are currently browsing comments. If you would like to return to the full story, you can read the full entry here: “Bigfoot Skeptics, New Atheists, Politics and Religion”.


146 responses so far

146 Responses to “Bigfoot Skeptics, New Atheists, Politics and Religion”

  1. funkmonon 29 Jan 2013 at 8:17 am

    I agree with you. I, honestly, feel weird about addressing things like gay rights and feminism as they are political topics, but then again, they are almost exclusively based upon claims that can be scientifically tested, hence, you’re probably right here.

    I see many many many atheist groups and conferences, and I feel like it’s the position of these to do all that other stuff. Skeptics are just skeptics.

  2. idoubtiton 29 Jan 2013 at 9:20 am

    I found this to be very valuable.

    I’ve been disappointed by the weak efforts in terms of cooperation and support of each other’s projects. Instead we have what appears to be a competition.

    I like that you have stated common ground. I’ve been told several times that I assume (wrongly) that we all have the same goals. I don’t know. The people I comfortably associate with do have many of the same goals as me and subscribe to those facets you mention. Can we get back to that? Can we have some cooperation?

    I’m at the point where it seems necessary to disengage completely with those yelling obscenities and telling people they are dumb. There is rampant hypocrisy, double standards and emotion over rational thought. I just want to go and do my own work. But it would be a friendlier and more productive “movement” if we had more coalitions than contingents. Any suggestions for that?

  3. jugaon 29 Jan 2013 at 9:32 am

    Ayn Rand was a sceptic and no supporter of religion. Russian communists were the same. 40% of Democrats are young-earth creationists. It is surely a scientific fact that there is no great correlation between political beliefs and scepticism. Sceptics should not forget this.

  4. CWon 29 Jan 2013 at 9:39 am

    Thank you, Steve. I really enjoyed this post, and I think there’s tremendous value in what you have written here.

    Chris Lindsay
    Ann Arbor Science & Skeptics

  5. tai_fungon 29 Jan 2013 at 9:57 am

    You’d been characteristically (publicly) stoic on this issue, and all the while, I’ve HOPED you’d felt this way enough to speak publicly about it. What you’ve written needs to be said. It reminds me of Jamy Ian Swiss’ talk at TAM (about people who want to come under the tent of Skepticism, and then move the tent, i.e., redefine it to fit a non-science-based agenda).

    I’ve been really disheartened by the amount of people seeking to redefine value judgements as “scientific” inquiries. It’s nice to see someone stand up against such practices. Thank you for writing this.

  6. lotsoftinyrobotson 29 Jan 2013 at 10:28 am

    I largely agree, but I do have one point of contention.

    “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.
    If you believe in the floating, invisible, heatless dragon then you do so as a matter of faith, because you have insulated that belief from every possible empirical test.”

    It is true that untestable claims have ejected themselves from scientific verification or falsification, leaving only faith. But when we look at other pseudosciences that make unfalsifiable claims such as Parapsychology or vacuous Chopraesque cosmic energy claims we take their unfalsifiability as reason to reject them or the very least give them no credence.

    Is it stepping beyond the bounds of science to say we shouldn’t believe in cosmic consciousness to the extent that it’s untestable? Is it outside the bounds of skepticism more broadly to say so?

    If so, on what basis do we make these claims of irrationality (because we do). If no, what makes unfalsifiable religious claims beyond the common ground you’ve laid out?

    Sorry to bring this up again, but I do believe that an important part of critical thinking is not believing in things that are completely without evidential or philosophical justification. Am I wrong?

  7. Reapon 29 Jan 2013 at 10:35 am

    I’m really glad to read this post. As others have said it has been a bit of a let down to see skeptics and atheists fighting over what they should be fighting against. Between that and the push to dismiss those who don’t fit into a certain way of thinking, a tremendous amount of time and effort has been wasted by people who have important things in common fighting with each other. I’ll be glad when I can concentrate on warning people about things like psychics instead of defending myself against claims that even Bigfoot would be skeptical of, that elusive son of a…..

  8. SARAon 29 Jan 2013 at 10:37 am

    I agree, although I rather wish it wasn’t a movement. Although, if it wasn’t I wouldn’t have learned so much…once it is, then people associate the entire movement with the position of prominent people.

    This means I am lumped in with those people’s positions when I announce myself as a skeptic. I then have to explain my lack of agreement with their other positions. I therefore prefer not to label myself as a skeptic.

    I think it’s easiest to use critical thinking and point out logical flaws without saying it under any particular label.

    And further, if PZ Meyer’s positions were the banner positions of the skeptical movement, I wouldn’t have learned as much. I spent about a month reading his blog and being about as involved as I am here. I finally left with a bad taste in my mouth. Without other outlets that would have been the end of my exposure to learning about the logical fallacy.

  9. Steven Novellaon 29 Jan 2013 at 10:44 am

    tinyrobots – how is this different from what I wrote?

    If any claim (ESP, bigfoot, or otherwise) insulates itself completely from refutation, then I have always been clear to say that such a claim is now outside of science. I cannot prove it is wrong, but it is “not even wrong.” There is no difference if the claim is religious or non-religious (or blurs the lines, like with many UFO cults).

    The important bit is whether or not it is within the realm of science.

    I believe I addressed the fact that logic and philosophy are tools for assessing claims that are outside of empirical investigation, and these are legitimate areas of skeptical analysis.

    It is also very effective, strategically useful, and philosophically valid to say – this claim is now outside of science, it is a matter of faith. You have the right to believe whatever you want – but stop calling it science.

  10. DavidCTon 29 Jan 2013 at 10:45 am

    Thank you for taking the time to clarify your stand. I have had a problem with skepticism+ and atheism+ in that the selection of things that must go on the plus side have an agenda. I resent the implication that one cannot be a skeptic without accepting what has shown up on the plus side. There are many causes that logically follow from a skeptical world view. Which ones are most important to any given person, are determined by that person’s values. Science can help us make rational decisions about what to value but it cannot point to a single path. When “professional” skeptics or atheists demand that we follow a given path, they are not to be followed but questioned.

  11. JustinWilsonon 29 Jan 2013 at 11:08 am

    Brilliant post. I often get tired of reading skeptical blogs that promote the merits of their philosophical perspective; ie. athiesm over theism. I find the personal views of the individual over which is better to be completely superfluous. A theist can worship a god AND understand that doing so may be irrational. It may bring value to their lives outside of skepticism.

    I’m with you on this Steve. Again, brilliant post!

  12. tai_fungon 29 Jan 2013 at 11:12 am

    Wait, I just found something to disagree with — shouldn’t there be an Oxford comma in the title?!

    ;) :P

  13. Murmuron 29 Jan 2013 at 11:15 am

    May you be struck by his noodley appendage for that comment tai_fung!

  14. Ori Vandewalleon 29 Jan 2013 at 11:16 am

    I largely agree with the point you’re making here, and I largely disagree with just about all the frothy arguments PZ makes, but I think I differ from you in one perspective.

    You say that you are politically neutral. Well, when you get right down to it, politics is the method by which we organize society in pursuit of particular goals. Yet you very clearly have goals. You want to see knowledge, science, skepticism, and reason flourish. And if that’s the case, should you not subject methods of achieving those goals to scientific analysis?

    It’s very possible that a particular economic system, or type of government, or foreign policy stance is empirically better at promoting those values which you hold dear. I won’t claim to know the right answers there, but I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t be (part of) the mission of the skeptical movement to find those answers.

  15. Steven Novellaon 29 Jan 2013 at 11:37 am

    Ori – and we do. I agree that there are inherent values in the skeptical world-view. That is what I laid out in the post as the common ground of the skeptical movement. This is similar to saying that science, while not being overtly philosophical, has a philosophical premise (methodological naturalism).

    Saying that society should be secular is also political.

    So to clarify – scientific skepticism has certain values and philosophical underpinnings, and we deal with issues that intersect those values and philosophy – because that is our common ground. We try to avoid other values and issues that are tangential to scientific skepticism.

  16. marcdavidbarnhillon 29 Jan 2013 at 11:41 am

    Steve, thanks for weighing in with your usual thoughtfulness and clarity. You’ve helped me think through some aspects of this set of issues that have bothered me for a while.

    One area of ongoing confusion for me, and possibly for others, is exactly what is meant by “scientific skepticism.” Are we referring to skepticism applied to matters of science, or the type of skepticism based on the scientific method? The former implies that you’ve simply chosen science as the subject matter for your skeptical approach, and leaves room for others to apply skepticism to areas like politics, history, and ethics; the latter implies that yours is the rational and evidence-based kind of skepticism, presumably in contrast with other kinds not really deserving of the name.

    The clarification of this seems crucial to me, as I think many of us are talking past one another when trying to decide what we think skepticism properly includes. (Jamy Ian Swiss’s “I know where the tent goes” can, similarly, be taken either as a statement of the pragmatic goals of a particular organization with which he’s involved or a blanket philosophical claim about what topics fall outside of “real” skepticism — something I wish he’d elaborated on during his recent SGU appearance.)

    Regarding who’s accusing whom of what, I’m sympathetic toward your perception that “it is those who are complaining about the scope of skepticism that are trying to tell others what to do – not the people they are complaining about.” At the same time, I have repeatedly encountered a “real skeptics stick to science” attitude when I’ve attempted to discuss the use of critical thinking and skeptical inquiry in other evidence-seeking areas, whether they be historical investigation or approaches to parenting. It sounds to me like you accept all “evidencey” bits of such pursuits as legitimately skeptical, but both semantic and genuine philosophical disagreements run rampant in many grassroots discussions I’ve been involved in — certainly due at least in part to my own unclear but evolving understanding of the distinctions.

  17. mindmeon 29 Jan 2013 at 11:46 am

    As a lay skeptic, skepticism means learning about how we know what we know and helping others understand how we know what we know. Why should we be skeptical of bigfoot? That involves learning things about paleontology (there’s no fossil record in the new world to support a large primate), population genetics (there has to be a breeding population), DNA (ah claims of “unidentified DNA” are really bogus). I argue with the woo crowd to learn how we know what we know. When I stop learning, I stop arguing. (Usually signaled by, say, the creationist re-introducing claims you already addressed as if they were never addressed.)

    Arguments about politics, feminism, religion, etc. bore me. Or I should say, they are all good and important topics to argue about but when the topics are not about testable claims, then I find people trying to apply the tools of skepticism become quickly unhinged. And things get nasty and I tune right out. I don’t read a lot of great skeptical bloggers anymore because I’m just as likely to find some long, flame ridden arguments about pink and sexism as I am about embryology.

    Yes, please, this skeptic wants more bigfoot, homeopathy, UFOlogy, etc. Long live, Doubtful News, Science Based Medicine, Orac, and SGU!

  18. MWSlettenon 29 Jan 2013 at 11:53 am

    “Perhaps I am misunderstanding what PZ is saying here, and if so please correct me, but this sounds an awful lot like a desire to purge the skeptical movement of those with a differing political outlook.”

    I don’t think you are at all mistaken. Anyone who has posted a comment on a PZ post offering a political opinion that differs from the great and powerful one’s is immediately, mercilessly and profanely castigated by his legion of rabid followers. Once labeled as a heretic, even the least objectionable posts–like pointing out the difference between empirical claims and value judgement in the arena of politics–provoke an onslaught of vitriol, bile and obvious hatred.

    Needless to say, such an unwelcoming attitude had the desired effect; I no longer read PZ’s blog.

    BTW Steve, you might be interested to read the comments this post is sure to generate on PZ’s blog. You probably won’t get much in the way of thought-provoking debate, but it should be entertaining!

  19. locutusbrgon 29 Jan 2013 at 12:23 pm

    Love the post, you have expressed far better than I can, my feelings about PZ’s post, and skepticism in general. I am now concerned that the reason I read your post regularly is because of confirmation bias.
    Steve..I know “promotion” is kind of broad based on purpose, but I think teaching critical thinking should be added to the list.

    In my opinion his post smacks of trying to limit skepticism to his definition of a “pure” skeptic. Anything less is illogical and accommodation. Limiting or excluding people from skepticism based on opinion, not science, will only kill it. You will end up with a very concentrated, small population, of like minded skeptics patting each other on the back for their intellectual purity. (Maybe we can get a decommissioned hydrogen bomb for them to worship?) a la plant of the apes ;) Most people have to be dragged in a little piece at a time, as was my experience. You start placing increasingly narrowly defined demands on who gets to wear the title skeptic and you end up all alone. This does not further my goals for skepticism, expanding critical thinking and scientific methodology. SO count me out.
    If a skeptic says “If your not a atheist your not a skeptic”, you catastrophically alienate believers. You place yourself as opposition, and you fall prey to the “atheism is just another religion” argument. You will lose any chance of allowing a believer to develop as a skeptic.

    As person who used to actually listen to Rush Limbaugh I am living proof anyone can be saved.

  20. Ori Vandewalleon 29 Jan 2013 at 12:25 pm

    Dr. Novella: I think perhaps it’s more accurate to say that your stance is not a politically neutral one but one that is agnostic toward certain political issues. As you said yourself, you do have political opinions based on your skeptical values. But perhaps I’m just playing semantics.

  21. lotsoftinyrobotson 29 Jan 2013 at 12:30 pm


    I agree with what you’re saying and a re-reading of your post in that light corrected my misunderstanding of your position.

    If I may sum up my current understanding of your view: faith isn’t science, it’s not even wrong, and trying to apply science where philosophy and epistemology are the correct tools is misguided at best.

    Is that an accurate representation? I don’t want to put words in your mouth.

    If that is the case, then it seems PZ is conflating science with skepticism. Science, as you describe it, can’t address the issues of faith but skepticism (defined more broadly than science) most certainly can. Perhaps PZ is using science in the more broad sense that you use skepticism: to define the methodology of rational thought.

    I don’t want to reduce the argument to simple absurdity, but do you think it’s the case that one side says:
    1. “Science can’t address these questions, so ‘True Skeptics™ are not able to address them?” (PZ’s characterization of the ‘Old Guard’)

    And the other side says :
    2. “Skepticism is an integral part of science, so anything skepticism touches falls under scientific thinking and vice versa?”(my characterization of PZ’s position)

  22. Steven Novellaon 29 Jan 2013 at 12:33 pm

    “agnostic” is a fine way to put it, and I use that term often. But I would say, for example, science is neutral toward any value judgement (except those necessary to science – like respect for truth) and agnostic toward anything untestable. But yeah, this is semantics.

  23. Steven Novellaon 29 Jan 2013 at 12:52 pm

    marc – what I outlined in my post is what I consider to be scientific skepticism. It’s pretty broad. It’s more than science, because science is science. Scientific skepticism is everything I outlined.

  24. Cornelioidon 29 Jan 2013 at 12:56 pm

    Dr. Novella,

    While i can’t respond in great detail (limited experience (everything i say is provisional), time constraints, etc.), i can remark on a couple of your points on which i’ve come to differing views.

    One is outreach. I have long appreciated your and your cohosts’ approach on the SGU toward, for example, the demarcation between science and faith, largely because it has demonstrated its ability to bring people of faith into the discussion (though partly also because you have not argued that faith can be interpreted as reasonable, despite its unreason not being unscientific). However, this outreach-conscious orientation, like the political neutrality you describe in the post, is one among a variety of such orientations that (a) would likely be differently effective at attracting people of various backgrounds and (b) are in some ways mutually exclusive. For example, it does seem that the broad brush with which skeptics paint postmodernism serves as a deterrent to scholars of race/gender/etc. relations who have recognized (or had imposed upon them) the importance of viewing the scientific enterprise as a sociological phenomenon, “yet” remain committed to a pro-science worldview and agenda. (I can of course cite Natalie Reed (here and here), but if i remember correctly Sikivu Hutchinson and others have also invoked postmodern critiques of scientism (a variety of pseudoscience, as i understand it) as well as some popular science.) The wholesale dismissal of postmodernism, which may be appropriate given the proportion of scholarship that is bunk (possibly a majority; i don’t know) and the limitations of time, is incompatible with a sincere outreach toward groups for whom this framework is as essential as, say, religions or political ideologies are to others—and, it seems to me, no less legitimate when handled responsibly.

    Another is consumer protection. This strikes me much more as an application of the scientific skeptical enterprise—much like policy critiques—than as a foundation. While the analysis and exposure of frauds and scams (which includes SCAM) is certainly as core an area as (and intersects heavily with) fringe science, my own experience with skeptics is that as many take a “buyer beware” approach as make any effort to better inform the public. The attitude might be, “if they just Google it, they’ll find all the criticism they need to make an informed decision”, but the habit of Googling products (especially conjoined with the keyword “skeptic”) is itself a lesson that consumer protection advocates must make efforts to teach.

    Finally, you used the buzzword “purge”, which has become extremely overused lately, and i don’t think that your interpretation is correct. While i don’t read Myers, he does manage a blog network whose other manager is a libertarian. Much as Pigliucci has denounced Randian objectivism as an absurd and bankrupt ideology, Myers (as i read him) is denouncing an extremist subcurrent of libertarianism that has been a prominent presence in recent discussions of social justice topics (which ostensibly don’t concern themselves with libertarian principles in the first place), one quite similar to that espoused by Ron Paul, whom me mentions explicitly—which is chock full of economic pseudoscience as well as threads of racism and sexism, so far as i have found. He does not even mention Michael Shermer (whose libertarianism has been a frequent target (and not just by non-libertarians), even leading one reviewer (in Free Inquiry, i believe) to accuse him of abusing science in his book The Mind of the Market), with whom he often disagrees but has not (nor has anyone else, so far as i can tell) attempted to purge. Taking a step back: If it were the case, for instance, that this particular subcurrent of libertarianism is crackpot economics (the minimum that it is accused of), would it be any worse to have the subcurrent of skepticism that adheres to it implode than to have some subcurrent that embraces crackpot 9/11 conspiracy theories implode? (I should perhaps note that, since i don’t read Myers, i should not be construed as passing judgment on his style, appeal, or worldview.)

    I very much appreciate your contributions to the skeptical movement—which, i agree, is a legitimate movement that should be concerned with its own success, cohesion, and endurance.

  25. Todd W.on 29 Jan 2013 at 12:59 pm


    Thanks for posting this. I tend to follow a similar approach, or try to. I may quirk an eyebrow more quickly here or there, but try to approach issues with at least an open mind willing to examine the evidence and come to whatever conclusion (however tentative) may be warranted.

    As to the whole whatever+ of the day, I haven’t bothered with following any of it. Much of what I’ve seen smacks more of cult of personality and playground spats (“This prominent person I agree with is right.” “No, this one’s right.” “Well, he’s a poopy-head.” “Nuh uhh.”) than substantive debate. The actions of both sides drive me away from caring about it.

    Your call for finding common ground, since much of what we do is ultimately aimed at a common goal, it timely and welcome. Yes, we differ in our individual beliefs. Yes, we use myriad methods of achieving our common goal. But we can still work together and do our best to put personal grudges and disagreements aside.

  26. superdaveon 29 Jan 2013 at 1:03 pm

    Steve, you so rarely let emotions into your writing that when you do it is very effective. Bravo for this post. My two cents on religious accomodationism. I echo your opinion, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with at least recognizing that religion is a deep part of many people’s culture and personal life , and thus even though we should treat religious beliefs with the same skepticism as anything else, we should at least try extra hard on this issue to be sensitive and understanding. For example, I disprove of PZ’s “Host” stunt. I don’t think it accomplished little more than pissing people off.

  27. superdaveon 29 Jan 2013 at 1:09 pm

    correction, I meant disapprove…clearly I believe that the stunt actually occurred.

  28. Mark Ericksonon 29 Jan 2013 at 1:28 pm

    As someone who shares PZ’s liberalism and isn’t heavily involved in the movement (just several blogs, no message boards, conferences or meet-ups), my head was bobbing up and down reading PZ’s post. “Easiest to fool” comes to mind. Your post was a good – and very detailed – corrective.

    Some push-back, because that is the fun part: “the framing of the issue by those who think skepticism should address matters of faith does not change, which implies to me that they are not really listening”. Pretty weak inference. They might have listened attentively and just disagreed. Or just wanted to polemically frame the issue that way. Nothing wrong with that. Of course he should name names or at least ofter modifiers if he wants to be completely precise. But all posts can’t be all things to all people.

    “I am not telling anyone else what to do”. Aren’t you telling someone not to do something? For instance:

    “All movements have internal divisions, and these divisions grow as the movement grows. There is a natural tendency for movements to splinter over time into sub-groups based upon these divisions. I think that would be disastrous for us, given that we are still a relatively small movement with a monumental task before us,”

    So this movement shouldn’t behave like all other movements before and since. And what is this monumental task before us? Is it an ad hoc one, dealing with issues as they come up, or do you have an end goal in mind?

  29. Steven Novellaon 29 Jan 2013 at 1:37 pm

    Mark – Since I am talking about their characterization of my position (and others), the fact that it does not change when corrected does mean that they are not listening (they may be hearing, but they are not listening). Disagreeing does not explain this.

    I was clear throughout that I am not telling anyone else what to do, only explaining my own approach. I am further pointing out that there is a tendency (not a certainty) for movements to splinter, and I believe that would be a bad thing for us. If we want to avoid that, then I recommend we stay focused on our common ground.

    What our long terms goals are is the subject of another post. I quickly summarized them as making the world a more rational and skeptical place.

  30. Steven Novellaon 29 Jan 2013 at 1:49 pm

    corneliod – when discussing post-modernism I have been careful to write “as applied to science” so as not to dismiss the entire enterprise. Not all of my colleagues may be as careful. I have done this for the very reasons you cite.

    I may be wrong about PZs intent at the end, that is why I framed it as I did. I would be happy for him to clarify.

  31. Quineon 29 Jan 2013 at 2:14 pm

    Thank you, Dr. Novella, for this post, I am very much in favor of your position, here. Last year I was excited to be part of the “movement” as a blogger and conference attendee, but have been put off by the storm of infighting during the last few months. (I have written more about that here.) One of the worst things someone in leadership can do is to announce a “you’re either with us or you’re against us” position. As you have pointed out, there are multiple dimensions in this problem space, and you cannot put each person in the community at some point on a linear scale that has a “with us or against us” dividing line. I am afraid that some (v)bloggers have done that because they have applied the defensive reflexes developed to deal with Creationists, to other problems that are not so simple.

    Thanks again.

  32. DOYLEon 29 Jan 2013 at 2:16 pm

    Skepticism is the point of departure,the first defence mechanism against lunatic ideas that can,in the wrong hands,become political or the basis of social policy.

  33. Philosofrenzyon 29 Jan 2013 at 2:40 pm

    Excellent post. Nothing frustrates me in quite the same way as listening to skeptics who’ve lost sight of where their skepticism ends and their political/philosophical views begin. It usually takes the subtle form of skeptics taking their own political views for granted, and acting as though their opponents have the burden of proof.

  34. DoctorAtlantison 29 Jan 2013 at 3:08 pm

    Oh great. “Bigfoot Skeptics” — I wonder if anybody will slap that on MonsterTalk?

  35. Rayon 29 Jan 2013 at 3:38 pm

    Great post Steve!!! Thanks for taking the time to put thoughts into words!

  36. nybgruson 29 Jan 2013 at 4:39 pm

    I’ve been reading along and don’t have terribly much substantive to add. I would say, however, that as someone who does read Pharyngula regularly (though I have never once looked at the comments nor commented there) my take on his position is that he is going through a minor existential crisis. Ok, perhaps that is too strong a statement, but that’s the gist anyway.

    I think PZ – not unlike myself – believed that being enlightened in the sense of possessing critical thinking capacity and scientific knowledge (aka being a skeptic) would organically bring forth activism in certain social arenas like feminism, race equality, gay rights, and even politics. I don’t read it as him wanting to require others to do those things in order to deserve the moniker “skeptic” or “atheist” but merely that he sees many examples of people who are atheist or are skeptics but still don’t apply that evidence based outlook and skepticism to all aspects of their lives and rhetoric. He doesn’t, by my read, demand everyone do this for everything, but makes note of many spectacular failures in this regard like Thunderf00t and his anti-feminist tirades, or Shermer and accusing others of witch hunting him and even invoking Godwin’s law. He comments on groups of atheists who are still MRA’s or PUA’s and how detestably vile they are. And his thesis is that he is forced to realize that simply being an atheist or a skeptic about certain things (and not others) is not sufficient for that organic flow of (my words here to grok the idea) progressive humanism.

    It’s like the old joke about the perfect girl who is an atheist, a skeptic, and a scientist and then says she can’t go out on a date with you because her horoscope says you are incompatible.

    He does get whipped into a froth about this stuff – and that is his right. The angry atheist/skeptic/scientist is just as valid an MO as the politically neutral skeptic medical scientist. And of course, Dr. Novella makes this point clearly – our means should be diverse since we are diverse. Others can get to pick and choose from examples they like and dislike to form their own thoughts on how to best proceed and what ideas and problems to tackle based on their own predilections and expertise. Obviously, I agree that medical science skepticism is indeed the best front to tackle but everyone is entitled to their own inferior ideas ;-)

    I’ve actually learned more about feminism from PZ than anyone else. It was reading him that led me to not only re-evaluate many of my own stances and biases, but to even see them in the first place. Obviously it works for some but not others. And that is the point. We, as skeptics, are at our core opposed to dogma. No sacred cows amongst us reside. True enough that certain fundamentals and principles are so deeply rooted as to be often and reasonably taken for granted, but not True Skeptic (™) would ever be opposed to examining even the deepest and most dearly held principles and changing them with sufficient evidence ;-)

    And that is the one sentence summary I think of when I define myself as a skeptic: someone who is always willing to change his mind based on evidence and always seeking out that evidence and a better understanding of how to parse it.

    All the other things I am require separate terms – humanist, freethinker, feminist, gay rights advocate, atheist, egalitarian, anti-theist. I use my skepticism to inform those other things – to figure out to the best of my ability what is true and what the best ways to achieve those goals are and even to determine which goals are actually reasonable to pursue in the first place. But just like “atheist” does not mean “anti-theist” or “evolutionist” or “liberal” or anything else, besides a lack of belief in gods, “skeptic” does not readily equate with these other terms either (though I would argue that skeptic is a much broader term with more descriptive power than atheist) though it does, and should, inform them.

    So much for my nothing substantive to add. What actually spurred me to comment at all was a post by Lilandra (AronRa’s wife) about this post.

    **in case it wasn’t obvious from my two winky face emoticons, those were intended as jokes.

  37. Adrianaon 29 Jan 2013 at 4:51 pm

    This post makes many good points about skepticism and what subjects are fair game for skepticism to approach. However, I disagree that political ideologies such as libertarianism or socialism or other -isms are out of bounds because they are about values. Yes, they are about values but they also make predictions about the world. Many of these _isms make very clear predictions about the economy, effects on society, etc. Science is in the business of making and testing predictions, therefore I think it is is fair game to use scientific methodology to investigate the validity of their claims, for example, that applying free market policies will reduce inequality is in principle, a testable claim. Unless of course, Steve is arguing that libertarianism should not be investigated using a scientific approach because it is a faith-based belief that can’t be proven wrong by science. :-)

  38. Joctrelon 29 Jan 2013 at 5:17 pm

    I just want to express agreement with the point on intellectual humility. Skepticism needs to be turned inward, almost as much as it needs to be directed at all the scammers and believers in the outside world.

    All of us skeptics are pretty complicated human beings, with a variety of identities and beliefs about ourselves. It’s not humanly possible to have examined every single one of them and applied perfect skepticism to every facet of our complicated human lives. Skepticism (or should I say “living a skeptical life”) is a process, and we’re all located at different points along it.

    There is talk of compartmentalization as a bad thing, but I think it’s one of the skeptic’s most valuable mental tools. Without compartmentalizing, many of us would never cross the divide between creationism and evolution, for example. Without compartmentalization, quantum theory would not be possible.

  39. ccbowerson 29 Jan 2013 at 6:26 pm

    Very well done post again. If I were more active in skepticism I think I would be interested in a very similar approach to what you do, which is probably why I follow this blog.

    Personally, I find that activism can be a turn off as it can lead to competition with the goals of skepticism itself. This is not true of all activism, but if someone makes a strong committment to a particular activist goal he/she will have a lot of resistance to disconfirming evidence that may contradict that goal in some way. This is a set up for motivational reasoning. Now, I am not saying that activism and skepticism are incompatible (in fact, skepticism may convince a person that activism is necessary), but that it can be a tricky endeavour depending on the details.

  40. massimoon 29 Jan 2013 at 6:34 pm

    This is just my opinion, but PZ has a serious problem overstating the case and wears a pretty serious set of ideological blinders. Just to take one example:

    “We’re riddled with wacky libertarians and their worship of the capitalist status quo (or worse, demanding a greater reduction in government and compassion”.

    Now, I’m not a Libertarian, but my father was one growing up I’m perfectly familiar with this sleight of hand. It appears to people that support state solutions as self-evident that if you have compassion, you should give money to the government for it to distribute. But there is no necessarry connection there at all. Libertarians are free to give and give and be compassionate, but they do it out of their own volition. Obviously there are value judgments involved in how think about property and giving, etc..

    That is just one example, and I use it only to point out that I think PZ, who is free to have and espouse these opinions, isn’t merely being “skeptical”, but has a lot of assumptions when it comes to politics. Surely skeptical people can disagree about these things, not that anyone needs my assurrance, skeptics will continue to debate these things. Except for certain questions of fact, poltical values are not merely empirical, and questions of economics are not reducible to easy answers.

  41. nybgruson 29 Jan 2013 at 6:42 pm

    Very excellent point Joctrel. I think it was clear in what I wrote, and I don’t think you were addressing me specifically, but just to be sure I am clear on the point…

    I fully agree and recognize that not everyone can possibly explore every facet of life with a solid skeptical lens. What I believe a skeptic should hold dear is the notion that unexplored facets must be held less dearly and should be open for sleptical examination should the need or opportunity present itself. In other words, (s)he mustn’t be shutting out skeptical examination for certain facets and not others. That, I believe, is what PZ has been (mostly) on about lately. Compartmentalization is fine and necessary – so long as each compartment can be opened and examined when required.

  42. Gojira74on 29 Jan 2013 at 6:52 pm

    ” I think it is is fair game to use scientific methodology to investigate the validity of their claims, for example, that applying free market policies will reduce inequality is in principle, a testable claim”

    Yes, but the decision to have a society with variant incomes creating incentives or one where the status quo is held sacred is entirely different. There are 100 implications in your hypothesis about the way societies and human beings interact. This is the value divide. How does PZ who argues vehemently against Sam Harris’ suggestion that values can be determined by science then turn around and argue that his values must be taken as scientific. This I think is Dr. Novella’s point.

  43. Joctrelon 29 Jan 2013 at 7:53 pm

    @nybgrus “Compartmentalization is fine and necessary – so long as each compartment can be opened and examined when required.”

    I agree 100%. And perhaps the rub is this: should we be rummaging through each others’ compartments?

    As someone who thinks of himself as a skeptic, I welcome anyone to rummage through my compartments and point out inconsistencies. I will ask you to be gentle though, because I’m aware that I still have blind areas.

    At the same time, those unexamined, unexplored areas are places where we must be protective, because we haven’t developed callouses and defenses. So that we don’t know, if we’re being “attacked” or just “challenged”, either way, it is precisely because that area is so-far unexamined, that we cannot simply trust anyone who comes by and says “be more skeptical here.”

    Actually “be more skeptical here” is something I don’t mind hearing from anyone. But sometimes the rhetoric is more like “you benighted fool”.

    “You benighted fool” has its place in rhetoric, but maybe later on in the discussion. Maybe it should only come when it looks like the arguee is being willfully ignorant. And I’ve always been the type to attribute ignorance before malice.

  44. Gerryon 29 Jan 2013 at 8:20 pm

    Love the post.
    Just one note… not a disagreement, but in response to your statement:

    “this claim is now outside of science, it is a matter of faith. You have the right to believe whatever you want – but stop calling it science.”

    I know many (non-skeptical) people who would take your statement about their belief with a smile feeling that now their belief is strengthened because it cannot be refuted.

    So when telling someone their belief is purely a matter of faith and outside of realm of science, I’d like to add a reminder of what the implication of that is: There is no rational justification for holding that belief.

  45. Nolanon 29 Jan 2013 at 8:30 pm

    Dr. Novella, if I am understanding your position correctly, you are saying that empirically unfalsifiable claims (like an invisible heatless dragon) are outside the realm of science, and thus not susceptible to scientific scrutiny, but instead are better investigated with philosophical or logical scrutiny. You are stating that faith based beliefs can’t be proven wrong by science.

    I’m not sure this makes sense though. The way I understand it, science combines empirical data with probabilistic reasoning. When empirical data builds up regarding things like the spherical nature of the earth, the relatedness of all life on earth, or the speed of light, we consider these ideas “proven” (proved?) because they are exceedingly likely to be true based on a combination of observation and probability theory.

    Similarly, ideas can be proven wrong in science not just with direct contradiction by the empirical data, but by probabilistic reasoning based on what we have observed.

    For example, science can in fact “prove” (by a reasonable definition of the word) that there is no such thing as an invisible heatless dragon, because the empirical data we have about biological systems and the physics of light renders it unbelievably unlikely that such a creature could exist.

    The same can be said about the supposedly unfalsifiable existence of a disembodied soul. Everything we know about consciousness and biology would suggest that thought without a brain is extremely unlikely. Therefore the faith based idea of a soul can reasonably be considered “proven wrong” by science.

    Science wouldn’t make any sense without probabilistic reasoning built into it, so I don’t think I am unduly expanding the scope of science. Instead, I think that it is an undue limitation on science to say it cannot prove wrong faith based claims.

  46. smccloudon 29 Jan 2013 at 9:18 pm

    I agree with you, Steven, a skeptic need not embrace all of the applications of skepticism, and it is indeed a broad arena. I’m attracted to the skeptic movement (if by definition- the advancement of critical thinking) where it applies to both fact claims of medicine and faith claims of religion, but I don’t conflate empirical skepticism with religious skepticism or what each can realistically accomplish.

  47. nybgruson 29 Jan 2013 at 9:41 pm

    I agree 100%. And perhaps the rub is this: should we be rummaging through each others’ compartments?

    I judge how good a friend someone is by how willing they are to point out my flaws and mistakes, and how much red is dripping on the page after I have asked them to edit my work.

    “You benighted fool” has its place in rhetoric, but maybe later on in the discussion. Maybe it should only come when it looks like the arguee is being willfully ignorant. And I’ve always been the type to attribute ignorance before malice.

    Exactly. Never attribute to malice that which can be attributed to stupidity/ignorance.

    I believe this short piece is good advice in this regard as well, thoug not directly related.

  48. Steven Novellaon 29 Jan 2013 at 10:05 pm

    Nolan – The problem with your logic is that you are assuming your conclusion – you are assuming facts that are empirically testable. A claim can be insulated from empirical testing by invoking things unknown to science, or that are outside of the naturalistic assumption of science. It cannot be determined through scientific methods that such claims are not true. Science can only say that such claims are outside the realm of science. But then feel free to use philosophical arguments to argue why such beliefs are not desirable.

  49. Nolanon 29 Jan 2013 at 11:00 pm

    Dr. Novella,
    That thought did occur to me as I was writing my post. I felt I was justified in my claims though, because you yourself used a floating invisible heatless dragon as an example of a claim that is unfalsifiable, or insulated from every “possible empirical test.” My comment pointed out that if this is an example of something unfalsifiable, then science can investigate those things and “prove” them false.

    The same can be said for many beliefs that I’ve heard skeptics claim as unfalsifiable. Bigfoot, psychic abilities, a deistic God all have been claimed as unfalsifiable, but I think they can certainly be proven wrong with the methods of science. I think many of the above can be thought of as outside of the naturalistic assumptions of science, but they can still be coherently proved wrong by science (e.g. a supernatural bodiless timeless mind is unbelievably unlikely to exist, even if it is outside the naturalistic assumption of science. We come to a probabilistic that a supernatural mind is unlikely using the information we have about minds in the natural world)

    What are specific examples of things that you would consider unfalsifiable? The only things that really come to my mind are logically incoherent statements (square circle). I would agree that those are better objected to with philosophy/logic, and are outside the realm of science.

  50. Thadiuson 29 Jan 2013 at 11:35 pm

    Nolan, the existence of a being that by definition cannot be observed, is by definition unfalsifiable. Specific claims about the nature of that being(only those which interact with the naturalistic world) can be falsifiable(think prayer healing, miraculous statues) and are discussed at length in Dr. Novella’s skepticism.

    What you are talking about is the Null Hypothesis, which is as far as we can scientifically get to these unfalsifiable claims. That is, because of lack of evidence we hypothesis that the claim is false. This only serves as creating a hypothesis that CAN be falsified should some evidence for the supernatural and unfalsifiable claim turn up some day.

    This hypothesis is not “prof” of anything. It is however solid scientific ground to base ones beliefs about an untestable claim. I can believe that there is no invisible tooth fairy, undetectable, and omnipresent, but as that would render is outside the natural world and thus scientific scrutiny, i cannot say scientifically that it does not exist. I can scientifically determine that it was your parents that put that money under your pillow however!

  51. Thadiuson 29 Jan 2013 at 11:41 pm

    Steve, good post! It does sadden me that P.Z. seems to be taking the same approach to skepticism as he has with Atheism, a sort of “if your not with us, your against us” mentality. I don’t happen to agree with his group’s attempt to conflate Atheism with Feminism, liberalism, or any other ism, (although i tend to agree with those ideologies most of the time) and i very much hope he does not try to do the same thing with skepticism. I believe that both Atheism and Skepticism are large enough, and worthy enough topics and movements to stand on their own.

  52. Nolanon 30 Jan 2013 at 12:11 am

    I’m not sure that I am talking about the null hypothesis here. I think what I’m talking about is more like “prior probability” and “background evidence,” both of which Dr. Novella has talked about when they apply to scientific reasoning about things like homeopathy.

    I think this same scientific reasoning can be applied to your example of a tooth fairy that is undetectable and omnipresent. I’m not sure how background knowledge applies to undetectability and omnipresence, but if the tooth fairy is a being with a mind, then our background knowledge concerning embodied minds does bear on the prior probability of a tooth fairy existing, and we can come to reasonable scientific conclusions that some supposedly unfalsifiable claims are so unlikely to be true, we can regard them as proven false.

  53. Thadiuson 30 Jan 2013 at 12:35 am


    Perhaps, but all a tooth fairyist would have to do is suppose that the entity in question does not have an embodied mind and your “prior probability” and background knowledge is shot to hell. It is much more useful to assume the null hypothesis and allow the burden of proof to stay where it should be. That being said, it is important to ad hear to the axiom “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. In other words, out of focus and over exposed video footage of a sprite like blob steeling young peoples teeth would not qualify as evidence for our tooth fairy.

  54. Cornelioidon 30 Jan 2013 at 12:42 am

    Dr. Novella,

    Sorry to buckle down a bit; on two counts i should have been clearer.

    First, i was under the impression that i, too, was referring to (though not exclusively to) the postmodern critique of science. Does that phrase exclude the topics i mentioned, for instance? (Eventually i’ll have to read up on it carefully.)

    In any event, my point was that it is not so straightforward as you seem to be claiming that including critiques of postmodernism (as applied to science) while excluding critiques of political philosophies is necessarily part of a maximally inclusive strategy. (And that’s of course not to say that you’re wrong to adopt it.) And i only use postmodernism as a handy example.

    Yes, a clarification from Myers would be welcome. Part of my point, though (second clarification), was that statements such as the one you cited are ubiquitous in the skeptical dialogue in reference to other varieties of crackpottery, yet are generally not cited as suggestive of purging. Your interpretation therefore seems off base (and by extension any expectation that Myers refute it), rather than just incorrect. (Of course, if Myers confirms it then i’ll be shown to have been off base myself.)

    Thanks for your earlier reply.

  55. Nolanon 30 Jan 2013 at 12:45 am

    If all being a “tooth fairy” entails is undetectability (in any way whatsoever I presume), and omnipresence, then I think it would be fair to say that the tooth fairy concept is literally meaningless. It sounds like a totally contentless concept, so I think it would be fair for something like that to be outside the realm of science and as Dr. Novella put it “not even wrong.”

    What’s important to point out though, is that very frequently people will make claims that things are outside of science when background evidence and prior probability do have significant bearing on them. It is this brand of “unfalsifiable” that I think is scientifically disprovable.

  56. ccbowerson 30 Jan 2013 at 12:49 am

    “I think this same scientific reasoning can be applied to your example of a tooth fairy that is undetectable and omnipresent.”

    You can make the same type of arguments, but those are not scientific arguments. If a person wants to make a supernatural claim that has no connection to the natural universe, science cannot be used demonstrate such a claim is false. That does not mean that there aren’t reasons to think the claim is false, you would need to use other means such as logical inconsistency or philosophical arguments. A common analogy used is “Russel’s teapot” to demonstrate why the burden of proof should lie with the person making the claim. This is not, however, a ‘scientific’ reason to dismiss the claim

  57. rezistnzisfutlon 30 Jan 2013 at 2:07 am

    I also think our differences strengthen us because they help keep us honest – if we confuse our ideology with skepticism there are other skeptics with a different ideology who are likely to point it out.

    Perhaps I am misunderstanding what PZ is saying here, and if so please correct me, but this sounds an awful lot like a desire to purge the skeptical movement of those with a differing political outlook.

    I want to reflect what MWSletten mentioned about about how Myers and his followers often castigate and hound anyone who differs from them, well, in anything.

    What’s most ironic is that the guy who created and runs the Freethought Blogs has not been hesitant to condemn and ban anyone who doesn’t always agree with him. This is the guy who wants to marry his liberal and feminist politics with skepticism, and disregards anyone who uses their skepticism in other ways as “not true skeptics”. This kind of leadership is what led to movements like Atheism+ and how the members of that group have treated those who don’t belong to the group, even other atheists.

    I regard his style of skepticism as I do with much of modern feminism – they call for equal rights while at the same time alienating those who would otherwise be their allies, oftentimes simply for not automatically falling within their specific biological group or agreeing with their pretty extreme beliefs.

    So yes, I do think he’s trying to purge the skeptical movement of those with a different political outlook.

  58. ginseng2on 30 Jan 2013 at 3:44 am

    Steven, you mention specific examples where science can be used to make an informed decision but can you give examples of political issues that are outside of the scope of science? I don’t mean things like “freedom vs security” because freedom is too vague and can be the same as security depending on whom who ask.

    You are trying to be politically neutral. However, you are not. By saying that everyone can have their own opinion and do what they want you are making a political statement. You are advocating a free society, not a restricted one. Wouldn’t you say that certain political systems are better at encouraging the goals you list in your outline of common ground among skeptics? Isn’t that list a value jugdment anyway? Why should consumer protection matter from a skeptical or scientific standpoint? Isn’t everyone free to be scammed?

    As an aside, libertarianism is an extreme position and I don’t think we should be afraid to say it. I reject it because it is based on faith, just like communism.

    “I regard his style of skepticism as I do with much of modern feminism – they call for equal rights while at the same time alienating those who would otherwise be their allies, oftentimes simply for not automatically falling within their specific biological group or agreeing with their pretty extreme beliefs.”

    Extreme beliefs? Examples?

  59. Aardwarkon 30 Jan 2013 at 4:45 am

    I absolutely agree with Dr Novella and have nothing to add. In fact, I think that the ‘core principles’, as defined in this post, should permanently be on a separate well-marked (and massively linked to) page on every skeptics’ blog.

    As for the PZ Myers’ position, I think this is the quintessence of a certain way of thinking that, if left unchecked, inevitably brings decay and destruction to any intellectual enterprise, dragging it down into the quagmire of politics and ideologies, suffusing it with confusion of all matters, and eventually drowning it under a mountainous pile of junk activism, fit for little else but tabloid press.

    (I wasn’t going to use ‘junk activism’, but that’s what I give them for ‘bigfoot skeptics’.)

    The only obligatory issue in this “movement” (regardless of how exactly we define its operational pathways) is, in my opinion, how we think about how we think. And this simply has to apply to everybody who can think. Political prefixes and divisions, quite simply, belong elsewhere.

    I shall also venture to add that PZ’s accusations against skeptics who are ‘not loud enough’ on important political/social/ideological/religious/whatever issues do sound suspiciously like the reasons given for trying the guillotine on the necks of many “lukewarm revolutionaries” during the terror of 1793 in revolutionary France. Not to mention the more notorious twentieth-century examples.

    To keep all issues except the core ones here described deeply personal is not just the right thing to do. It is essential for the very survival of the skeptics’ movement. It is even more than that: it is absolutely necessary for the movement to be meaningful in any possible way.

  60. ianoz87on 30 Jan 2013 at 6:32 am

    PZ seems to come from a perspective where skepticism can lead to objective truths that then require a moral response. For many issues he also appears quite consequentialist – is the outcome on balance good or bad? If bad then evil and stamp on it.

    Much of the plus in A+ is tied to this and it is also the basis for his frustration with those “old guard” that fail the moral clarion call.

    I don’t really have a problem with this as it could lead to interesting debates and reflection.

    What I think is the real threat to our movement is the zealotry of the championing of the perceived moral imperative. Argument and rational thought becomes passé, the thought police descends and trolls spring out. The place becomes a self-perpetuating mess.

    The tone, commentary, veiled censorship and angry defensiveness in the FTB and Skepchick communities is matched in intensity by the foulness of their sparing partners. Two words – Thunderf00t, Elevatorgate. Nice one all.

    I suggest a new code – S /+ Where S is Skepticism and the plus (militant atheism through to third wave feminism) is firmly to the right and separated. Pun intended.

  61. Steven Novellaon 30 Jan 2013 at 7:17 am

    Nolan – I think this is the way to look at it:

    Science has to assume methodological naturalism in order to function. So yes, within the confines of methodological naturalism you can say that supernatural-sounding hypotheses are extremely unlikely and can be scientifically rejected.

    Science does not require philosophical naturalism, however – that is a philosophical or faith-based position. So someone can maintain a supernatural belief on faith, outside of methodological naturalism because they choose to reject philosophical naturalism.

    For such supernatural beliefs science can only be agnostic. You have to then appeal to philosophical arguments to justify your preference for philosophical naturalism.

    Regarding politics – I acknowledge that science can address empirical claims within political discussion. It is extremely difficult, however, to tease apart value judgments from politics, and the value judgments themselves are not objectively resolvable.

  62. Steven Novellaon 30 Jan 2013 at 7:23 am

    Regarding my use of the term “purge” – this seems to be getting the most attention over at FTB. I deliberately framed this sentence as “I’m not sure what PZ is saying here, please correct me if I am wrong” because I honestly would like clarification of his position.

    However, even if the word “purge” is too strong and not his (or anyone’s) overt intent, I do think that conflating scientific skepticism with political views tends to exclude skeptics with differing political views. If PZ’s views do not amount to a desire to purge, they certainly seem to amount to an attitude of “good riddance.”

    In my view, those who are generally skeptical (or at least like to think that they are) but have a significant area of uncritical belief are prime targets for organized skepticism. They seem like the sweet spot of where we can be the most effective – they already buy to a degree into skeptical philosophy but need to improve their critical thinking skills and apply it to areas that they previously have not.

    These are exactly the people we should not be alienating.

  63. BillyJoe7on 30 Jan 2013 at 7:23 am

    Well, I don’t get it. Surely the only religious idea outside the purview of science is deism. And no one is a deist. And, in any case, there is Ockham’s razor. As far as theism is concerned, first define your god. Once properly defined, your god will then inevitably come into the purview of science and, just as inevitably, can be disproven by it. As a particular example, let’s take the christian god: Firstly, the idea of the bible as the word of god has been well and truly disproven by biblical scholars. Secondly, population genetics has disproven Adam and Eve, which means no original sin, which means no need for redemption. So science has effectively disproven the christian god and Christianity. Exit christianity as a viable option for a sceptical scientist. Or did I misstep somewhere?

  64. Steven Novellaon 30 Jan 2013 at 7:31 am

    ginseng – to what extent should we redistribute wealth? I guess this depends on your goals. How do you determine those goals? Science can tell you how different policies achieve different goals, but not what goals to have. For that, at best, you have moral philosophy, which itself will require some basic values as first principles.

    Should we pass laws that require people to wear helmets when riding motorcycles? Does the state have a right to protect someone from themselves? How much of a right? How do we decide what is more important, the extra safety of wearing a helmet or the personal freedom to decide if you want to take the risk or not? Science can tell you statistically the effect of wearing the helmet, but not whether or not you should.

    Where is the balance between a nanny state and personal freedom?

  65. Marc David Barnhillon 30 Jan 2013 at 8:00 am

    Steve, I notice you include conspiracy theories and scams in your list of issues that skeptics address. While I can think of obvious cases where the subject of such skepticism is related to science (the claim that the WTC towers must have been detonated or that a miracle cure does such-and-such, for example), what about instances like a claimed government coverup, a phishing email, or an apocryphal statement attributed to a political figure? Are people who are rooting out the truth in these instances “skeptics,” and if so are they doing “scientific skepticism” or some other type — perhaps “evidence-based skepticism”?

    I hope this doesn’t sound like a purely semantic question, because I don’t think it is. Totally aside from the “faith claims can’t be tested” debate, there is the ongoing discussion about whether evidence-based investigation in areas other than the sciences is a valid part of the movement, and whether it constitutes “skepticism” at all. (To oversimplify slightly, I’ve been told that “It’s only ‘skepticism’ if it addresses a science claim; what you’re doing is just critical thinking.”)

    So if someone is using the critical-thinking tools of baloney detection — questioning premises, evaluating sources, seeking both confirming and disconfirming evidence, parsing logical argumentation, formulating and testing hypotheses — in order to judge the validity of a claim about, say, whether the Royal Family ordered Princess Diana’s assassination, or some other not-explicitly-about-science situation, is what that person is doing:
    (a) scientific skepticism because it’s based on real-world evidence,
    (b) skepticism, but not *scientific* skepticism because science isn’t involved,
    (c) a worthy endeavor but not “skepticism” as that enterprise is currently defined, or
    (d) some other way of looking at this that hasn’t occurred to me?

  66. nybgruson 30 Jan 2013 at 8:26 am

    In regards to PZ and the Thunderf00t issue, he had made it absolutely clear that FTB is overtly intended to be skepticism plus atheism, feminism, liberal social policy, etc. He unequivocally stated that Thunderf00t (and anyone else) is perfectly within his rights to say whatever wherever… just not at his blog where the stated intent is to promote those values. To me that seems eminently reasonable. It is his forum to say what he wishes on topics of his choosing. Cries that he has been silencing and censoring are ludicrous – Tf00t and anyone else still has every opportunity to say what he wants. This is not 100 years ago where someone could actually be silenced by removal from one of the few outlets able to reach large outlets.

    However, I do agree that PZ does tend to conflate value statements with objective empirical statements. I don’t think he is particularly egregious at it, at least on my reading of his blog. We are all imperfect after all. The real question is how will he respond to the criticism? I would give him the benefit of the doubt that he will do so with equanimity. To make a prediction, I think it most likely that he would take note, agree on the conflation, and state that his goals and agenda are to promote the values and all the “plus” stuff from a skeptical standpoint. That is, after all, what he has been doing all along. Unless I have been misreading him, he does not promote skepticism first and foremost. He promotes the use of skepticism as a means to realize the need for and carry out the “plus” goals he values.

    But maybe I am being too charitable to him?

  67. Steven Novellaon 30 Jan 2013 at 9:32 am

    Marc – I think it’s “a”, which is why I included the list of core skeptical principles that I did. Scientific skepticism is about applying the methods of science and critical thinking. It is not restricted to any narrow definition of what constitutes “science.” I include history and sociology as sciences (and criminal, forensic – anything where empirical claims are involved) – to the extent that they follow scientific methods.

    I am trying to make this as clear as possible – critical thinking and skepticism should apply to all empirical claims (even those under the heading of politics and religion). The only distinctions that need to be made are:
    - don’t confuse value judgments for empirical claims
    - Understand the boundaries of science (methodological naturalism)
    - Understand the relative roles of philosophy and science within skepticism and critical thinking

    I think that’s it. Much of what I disagree with in PZ’s post is not hat his position is wrong, it’s just that he has erected a straw man about what the “skeptical old guard” is really saying.

    The rest has to do with forcing non-science issues into the category of science. This is a philosophical disagreement, and I have laid out my position pretty clearly.

  68. Marc David Barnhillon 30 Jan 2013 at 9:40 am

    Thanks, Steve, that’s very clear. I appreciate your taking the time to help untangle the knots in my understanding.

  69. Harker067on 30 Jan 2013 at 9:53 am

    I’ve asked this over on the JREF but I’ll kind of rephrase it here as your answer to Marc is very close to what I’m curious about.

    I’m with you on – don’t confuse value judgments for empirical claims
    - Understand the boundaries of science (methodological naturalism)
    - Understand the relative roles of philosophy and science within skepticism and critical thinking

    Where my question(s?) lies however is:
    Should critical thinking be applied to everything not just empirical claims?

    Is this critical thinking outside of empirical claims part of skepticism or is your use of skepticism short hand/synonymous with scientific skepticism?

    To me skepticism is about critically examining all claims with the best tools available (science claim with science, philosophical claims with philosophy informed in part by the results of science etc). So scientific skepticism would be a part of that larger goal but not the totality of it. Using my definitions and views some of your statements seem to be equivocating or dodging these questions. So I would assume you have different ideas on the subject then I do.

  70. Steven Novellaon 30 Jan 2013 at 10:05 am

    Harker – no, I agree with you. If you read my core principles above, I include philosophy and critical thinking separate from science. My only point – don’t confuse the two. Don’t think you can answer philosophical questions entirely with empirical methods.

    The term scientific skepticism is not meant to limit skepticism to science, but to distinguish it from philosophical skepticism, which is a bit nihilistic toward knowledge, and other uses of the term “skeptic” (like global warming skeptic).

    The distinction between science and philosophy has practical implications – for example, what is allowable to teach in the science classroom.

  71. RedMcWilliamson 30 Jan 2013 at 10:25 am

    I feel like I’m cowering under my covers while mom and dad are arguing in the kitchen.

    Steve is incredibly intelligent and I’ve never see him be completely, or even mostly, wrong about any topic he discusses, but I tend to identify with PZs way of looking at things. I get not wanting to engage in a political argument about values, but I think it would be useful if Steve and the SGU would point out that many political claims are ‘not even wrong’. The anti-Rebecca Watson misogynists come to mind. I don’t think feminism is simply a value judgment. Fighting for all people to be treated equally seems to me to be a natural outcome of logical thinking. At least pointing out that misogyny (as one example) is completely irrational and not even wrong should be a regular statement from anyone who claims to value critical thinking, because that irrational behavior is so rampant.

    Commenter massimo mentioned libertarianism and charitable giving. That’s an empirical claim that should be tested and answered scientifically. What is the best way to get ‘welfare’ to the needy? At the very least, we should be discussing those kids of questions at least as much as we do homeopathy. There are answers out there. All we have to do is focus our intellect on them in the same unflinching manner we do with claims of UFOs.

    It irks me a bit when Steve says he wants to remain politically neutral because it sounds like he’s deliberately avoiding ‘hot button issues’, even though they are empirical questions with scientific answers, just to avoid offending a segment of his audience (or potential audience).

  72. Harker067on 30 Jan 2013 at 10:39 am

    Ok I did read your core principles above but I’ve seen enough wiggle room as to your exact position on the bounds of skepticism that I thought it appropriate to ask further. Obviously a philosophical question like should you wear seat belts can’t be determined by science though the efficacy of seat belts would inform the issue.

    Maybe as back story, the reason I bring this up is I have had discussions with skeptics Barbara Drescher for example who do think that skepticism is limited to scientific skepticism. That skepticism can address evidence but can never move into philosophical claims or questions of what ought* to be done. So I wanted to know if your personal views of skepticism extended into philosophical issues or whether those philosophical issues were important but beyond the scope of skepticism which is limited to empirical claims.

    *BD would make exceptions to this for global warming and immunization as too important not to support an ought position just so I don’t mischaracterize her position

  73. Cornelioidon 30 Jan 2013 at 11:25 am

    Dr. Novella,

    On your comment about the word “purge”, i very much agree with you that the staking of political positions has the effect of alienating people (even many people who share those position). I personally am very glad that SGU does not dig into politics except when it trespasses on the staples of skepticism, and in that sense i strongly disagree with Myers that all skeptical outlets should freely engage in politics.

    (A yet unmentioned problem with the provisional interpretation of purging is that it feeds into (and might have derived from) a very widespread and arguably malicious narrative about FTB that (i have found in every case i’ve checked) collapses under scrutiny.)

    You’ve acknowledged the importance of different subgroups within skepticism addressing these topics nonetheless, which (as i read you, and i agree) is preferable in the aggregate than having every skeptical outlet refrain from politics (to the same extent as the SGU, say). This will have the effect of drawing people in who align themselves with these politics in tandem with alienating people who do not, and i think it is important to not confuse alienation with ostracism.

    Myers does seem to promote ostracism toward holders of certain political positions. However, (a) this similarly should not be confused with purging and (b) it remains the case that many political positions are incompatible with skepticism. To build on your example of the generally skeptical person who remains credulous in one area: Would you say that we should make a greater conscious effort to be welcoming to people who remain credulous with respect to, say, macroeconomics than to people who remain credulous with respect to, say, pharmacology? If so, why? If not, i don’t understand the problem.

  74. Cornelioidon 30 Jan 2013 at 11:54 am

    @Adriana, i am essentially in agreement with you, though there are distinct “schools” of libertarianism that i think run the gamut from mostly value-informed to verifiably false. While so far i seem to disagree with all of them, i think it important to make that distinction.

    @rezistnzisfutlon, i wonder if you have read any of the entry-level documentation at the Atheism+ forums or subreddit and, if so, either (a) what concerns you about their policies or (b) how they have failed to live up to them. They took some getting used to for me, but they strike me as both fair and consistent.

  75. grimeandreasonon 30 Jan 2013 at 12:09 pm

    Hi Steve. Thanks for flagging my blog up. I understand the temptation to focus on Myers rhetoric, but I believe my original post to be more nuanced than he made out (not hard).

    Crucially, I think I see a hole in your argument. As you say,

    “If you believe in the floating, invisible, heatless dragon then you do so as a matter of faith, because you have insulated that belief from every possible empirical test. You have ejected your own belief from the arena of science. As skeptics we can now say – that belief is not science-based. It is faith. Now the rules of faith apply – which means, in a secular society (see above) you don’t get to teach such belief in the public school classroom, and you don’t get funding for scientific research, you can’t impose your beliefs on others without violating their religious freedom, you cannot claim that insurance companies should cover your therapy, etc. It becomes a matter of personal faith only.”

    I agree. But, where I believe many skeptics to be inconsistent is in not treating political and economic ideologies by the rules of faith also. Were we to do so, we would have to conclude that the only consistent conclusion would be to conclude that political ideology is illegitimate when imposed on non-believers. Yet political economy IS public life. Now I’m not saying that skeptics should be calling for the abolition of state or anything, but simply because political and economic ideologies frame normative culture, does not objectively remove them from being considered, as you say, by the rules of faith.


    “Issues of freedom vs security, individualism vs collectivism, meritocracy vs egalitarianism are all value judgments. It is not just counterproductive, it is simply wrong to frame these issues as empirical questions objectively resolvable with skeptical analysis.”

    I never suggested that we had to. I was simply suggesting that the imposition of any ideology concerning these matters, and by extension the advocacy of them through self-identification, was wrong for a skeptic.

  76. Steven Novellaon 30 Jan 2013 at 1:10 pm

    grime – I think you are collapsing three categories (science, philosophy, and faith) into two (science or faith). I think that philosophy is a reasonable area of interest for skeptics. I just think it’s critical to distinguish philosophical argument from empirical ones. Also, it is critical to acknowledge when values are intruding.

    I do think that skepticism as an intellectual discipline is best served when we respect the divisions above, and I also think we should avoid making any unnecessary value judgments. There are necessary ones – like valuing truth and honesty, and there are ones that I think are completely tangential to skepticism, like individualism vs collectivism. At best science can inform such an issue, and logic and philosophy can guide thinking, but not determine what values we should have.

    In other words, while it is valid to address political and economic issues on empirical and philosophical grounds, we have to be extra careful not to simply promote our own personal ideology. If someone is going to consciously promote their own ideology, they should be crystal clear that this is what they are doing and not conflate such promotion with skepticism in general.

  77. Steven Novellaon 30 Jan 2013 at 1:19 pm

    Red wrote: “It irks me a bit when Steve says he wants to remain politically neutral because it sounds like he’s deliberately avoiding ‘hot button issues’,”

    This claim comes up quite a bit among the freethought crowd. It is completely unfair, in my opinion. Can you honestly read my blog and listen to SGU and say we avoid “hot button issues?” It has absolutely nothing to do with that.

    Rather, I think we should decide what our shared core values are (truth, free inquiry, etc.) and avoid taking a position on values that are tangential to skepticism, because that will only serve to distract from our common goals and unnecessarily marginalize our group. Plus, it’s just philosophically sloppy.

    Again, I have no problem with anyone advocating a skepticism + agenda. That is their right and it’s fine. But let’s be clear about what is skepticism and what is the “+”.

    I also have no problem with the skeptical movement as a whole deciding that we will endorse certain moral philosophies that are valid and generally a good idea, even if those morals are not strictly skeptical. Therefore, the skeptical movement should condemn racism and sexism, because all groups and institutions should condemn racism and sexism.

  78. Nolanon 30 Jan 2013 at 1:40 pm

    Dr. Novella,
    I disagree with the premise that methodological naturalism is an a priori assumption necessary for science to function. Instead I think it is more coherently viewed as a conclusion based on the history of science.

    It’s not that the supernatural is outside of the scope of science, but that supernatural explanations have failed every time we’ve been in a position to scientifically falsify them. Because of science, the prior probability of a supernatural explanation being successful is so low as to be worth ruling out in our methodology (methodological naturalism). This goes against your premise that philosophical naturalism is only justified by philosophy. Instead it is justified by the history of science itself.

    In principle, the scientific method could successfully establish some supernatural claims. Harry Potter type spells for example, could be shown to work. Supernatural psychic abilities (not based in any type of biology) are within the realm of science to establish as well.

    When we make methodological naturalism out to be an assumption that rules out before investigation any supernatural explanations, we can rightly be accused of dogmatically defining out things we don’t believe in. If we instead show that methodological naturalism is a conclusion based on evidence and the constant failed supernatural explanations, that critique loses its weight.

    My conclusions come mostly from the philosopher Greg Dawes, who wrote the excellent book Theism and Explanation. A paper that defends methodological naturalism as a posteriori instead of a priori is here: http://www.academia.edu/1952998/In_Defense_of_Naturalism

  79. grimeandreasonon 30 Jan 2013 at 2:07 pm

    I firmly believe that advocating for skeptics to make no affiliation with ANY ideology is not in itself an ideology.

    In fact, is it not simply an extension of the atheist argument that atheism, the rejection of religious beliefs, is in itself another belief system?

  80. Steven Novellaon 30 Jan 2013 at 2:17 pm

    Nolan – philosophers disagree with you. This was settled a few hundred years ago. Science requires methodological naturalism (I suggest you read my longer blog post on the topic linked above).

    Supernatural causes, by definition, cannot be falsified. At best you can document persistent anomalies.

    Having said that, I agree that the success of science suggests that methodological naturalism is itself valid, and certainly the simplest explanation for this is philosophical naturalism.

  81. grimeandreasonon 30 Jan 2013 at 2:36 pm

    Sorry, ‘extension of the argument atheists *have to refute*, that…’

  82. RedMcWilliamson 30 Jan 2013 at 3:11 pm

    I guess that depends on what you consider a hot button issue. PZ certainly touches more frequently on topics that elicit strong reactions. But, of course, we tend to be drawn to the loudest voices regardless of their correctness so maybe some of my affinity toward PZs style stems from his willingness to stir things up.

    Now I don’t mean to say that you’re deliberately avoiding talking politics just to preserve as large an audience as possible. I would imagine your knowledge of political economic topics is not as vast as medical ones and you’re not going to wade into a discussion without being informed. I completely understand. It’s just the blanket refusal to get into politics that strikes me as odd. That’s not specifically directed at you; it’s more of a general observation.

    My main point is that there are political issues that desperately need the light of scientific skepticism on them, but many folks in the skeptic community refuse to apply it and I don’t really understand why.

    By the way, I think it’s tremendously cool that you’re spending so much time engaging with your readership on this topic.

  83. Halfdeadon 30 Jan 2013 at 3:31 pm

    The invisible heatless dragon being unfalsifiable is fine I suppose, until you make the claim that you know its there. Once you make the claim that its there, that you somehow have knowledge of it, don’t you then bring it into the realm of science? So its either irrelevant or non existent. Pretty much can be said about all faith based claims. Once you make your God unfalsifiable you render him impotent and irrelevant.

  84. luther1010on 30 Jan 2013 at 4:03 pm

    The main problem I see with the expansion of skepticism into political issues is the movement away from what originally built a number of the communities. A number of communities that were built around the personalities that advocated a broader set of ideals now have a litmus test to participate.

    This seems mainly around the subject of feminism. You may think that creationism is unscientific and fails logic but if you don’t agree or understand certain feminist principals then you are no longer welcome. Other political views don’t generate as much animosity. I’ve seen many heated debates that involved libertarian principles but not once did anyone get banned from the discussion because of their views.

  85. Nolanon 30 Jan 2013 at 4:04 pm

    Dr. Novella,
    I think the issue in methodological naturalism is really about how supernatural is defined. I don’t really think your definition, as I understood it in your Methodological Naturalism post, makes sense. If I understood it correctly, your position is that supernatural should be defined as outside of the methods of science- not amendable to scientific scrutiny.

    By your definition, a great many things that we consider supernatural are not. Harry Potter Style magical spells could easily be falsified or justified by science. If someone can reliably and repeatedly transform into a cat under controlled conditions, and James Randi says there’s no way he knows of that this could be faked, we have pretty good scientific grounds to say this is validated. Are you trying to say cat transformation spells are not supernatural? Same can be said for things like reincarnation, psychic powers, and any number of things any normal person calls supernatural- all these make testable predictions, and yet we all would consider them supernatural.

    I disagree with your premise that supernatural things are by definition outside the scope of science. I think Richard Carrier has the most coherent definition of supernatural that is also in line with how we use the term normally:

    In his post, Carrier directly addresses your definition, and I think you would find his case reasonable.

  86. ianoz87on 30 Jan 2013 at 4:26 pm

    nybgruson – I agree with your comments, Thunderf00t was not censored in totality and PZ can exercise whatever editorial control he sees fit – at the risk of sometimes losing some ” free thought” high ground.

    My point was more that the commentary that arises from A+ polemic is very ideological and therefore often the antithesis to the Skeptic values Dr Novella outlined. The community response to the Thunderf00t and EGate drama from all sides demonstrated this. In my mind the plus needs to be very firmly separated from the A. In addition the A probably needs to be a clear subset and only dotted line connected to the S(keptic).

  87. Steven Novellaon 30 Jan 2013 at 5:08 pm

    halfdead – I agree.

    Nolan – I think you are confusing currently unexplained with unexplainable. Sure, something really fantastical like turning into a cat seems paranormal. But can you say that a super advanced alien technology could not duplicate that feat using materialist (but super advanced) technology?

    At best you can have a currently unexplained phenomenon that defies our current scientific knowledge.

    I certainly would not abandon my materialist world view even if something apparently paranormal occurred. I would assume it was naturalistic, but simply beyond our current knowledge.

    In any case – I do not equate supernatural with unfalsifiable. It all depends upon how you frame the claim. Supernatural claims are frequently unfalsifiable because once you invoke “magic” as an explanation it’s hard to pin it down in such a way that it can be falsified.

  88. Nolanon 30 Jan 2013 at 5:47 pm

    Dr. Novella,
    Your comment sounds like a naturalism of the gaps argument, or a case of special pleading in favor of naturalism. While one may always posit a superintelligent alien civilization to explain potential supernatural phenomena in terms of naturalism, I think it’s clearly the case that the scenarios I described would be positive Bayesian evidence for supernaturalism- they increase the likelihood that supernaturalism is true, and after a certain amount of this evidence, we would be justified in believing in the supernatural, although we would revise this if aliens did decide to take credit for what looked supernatural.

    I don’t think it makes sense to make naturalism a totally unfalsifiable stance. At some point, if enough apparently supernatural events occurred, a naturalist should convert. We are currently justified in assuming explanations are naturalistic because the prior probability is so high in favor of naturalism, and can absorb a few events like cat transmutation. Still, we should allow that enough evidence would change the balance of the conclusions.

    At any rate, I really appreciate the attention you pay to the comments. It’s really awesome of you to respond to everything here. This will be my last comment regarding this issue, and thank you for all your responses.

    I maintain that we should consider methodological naturalism to be a pragmatic, a posteriori commitment instead of an a priori one, and that in principle, supernatural events can be investigated by the methods of science. I also maintain that the tools of probabilistic reasoning based on empirical evidence can “prove false” many things that skeptics consider unfalsifiable (like a floating invisible heatless dragon), and that such proof lies within the scope of science.

  89. daedalus2uon 30 Jan 2013 at 7:17 pm

    nybgrus really hits the nail on the head with the term “No True Skeptic”.

    He is right, no true skeptic would leave beliefs unexamined and then not change them if and when they are shown to be wrong.

    To examine a premise, we need to examine that premise from a perspective that is outside the compartment where that premise trumps all else. This is the problem that people of faith have, their faith trumps all else. When faith trumps logic, then you can’t use logic to examine faith.

    Being a “true skeptic” is a solitary activity. You have to personally analyze the arguments, personally verify the data, personally verify that the logic used is valid. You can’t rely on someone else, or you are doing an appeal to authority by following a leader. You can read an authority’s argument, once you understand the premises and the steps in it, then you can adopt it as your own and be as much an authority on that argument as is the original poser.

    I don’t follow FTB very carefully. I tried to follow some of the sexism stuff and Egate and I think I understand where skeptics of good will (and of not good will) are coming from. Just as we can derive behaviors from values, we can also derive values from behaviors, . Actions speak louder than words. If someone acts as if they don’t care about the feelings of other people, then (as skeptics) that is good data that indicates that those people actually don’t care about the feelings of other people. If people claim they do care, but act as if they don’t care, as skeptics we are free to use the data of actions to draw inferences on non-caring no matter what other claims are made.

    Many self-proclaimed skeptics only want to use skepticism for certain things and not for other things. In a political discussion with a libertarian who wants to pay no taxes, it is perfectly acceptable to ask them then who pays for schools, roads, hospitals, police, and who picks up the dead bodies from jobless people dying of starvation, exposure and disease in the gutter? If there is no answer that is consistent with reality as we know it (i.e. no magic sources of food or energy), then we have the equivalent of an invisible, heatless, massless dragon.

  90. daedalus2uon 30 Jan 2013 at 7:26 pm

    Nolan, the problem is, what method did you use to conclude:

    “methodological naturalism to be a pragmatic, a posteriori commitment instead of an a priori one”?

    If you use methodological naturalism, then you are using that a priori to conclude that it is useful a posteriori. That is circular reasoning.

    You can’t get to methodological naturalism except by using some type of reasoning method, and your conclusions can’t be any stronger than the reasoning method(s) you are using. Better to keep that assumption explicit and watch it carefully than to try and “prove” it using circular reasoning.

  91. Davdoodleson 30 Jan 2013 at 8:21 pm

    The notion of “being entitled to one’s own opinions, but not entitled to one’s own facts” pretty much sums it up for me.

  92. ianoz87on 30 Jan 2013 at 9:29 pm

    Devils advocate here, but if as Dr Novella says he would always play to the naturalistic regardless of supernatural appearence isn’t that a basis ultimately resting on belief?

    Ie “I don’t know if there are super intelligent aliens, or gods or weird paranormal woo energy and current science is incapable of of addressing these issues in any case. Future science may well be able to locate the material manifestation of a transcendent being, who knows? But in the meantime, and in lieu of other options I will choose to believe that anything, no matter how fantastical is material. I believe not because I know, but because there is no other evidence apart from that gained from material observations – which is itself a bit self-fulfilling.”

    I suppose I am startimg to touch on issues of induction …..

  93. ianoz87on 30 Jan 2013 at 9:33 pm

    Pz has a reply up.

  94. ianoz87on 30 Jan 2013 at 9:40 pm

    Apparently Dr Novella is the one who is irrational, emotional and political in his (absurd) arguments. I say pull the drawbridge and disengage. You will never get him to re-evaluate his world view, he has progressed beyond intellectual reflection and is firmly dug-in. I also note his tone appears to be only one step from outright insult. Run away! run away!

  95. cletuson 30 Jan 2013 at 9:46 pm

    Dr. Novella, you have demonstrated why I consider you one of the more reliable and authentic skeptics.
    I like PZ’s blog and I like his writing. No one gives such satisfyingly blunt rebuttals to purveyors of silliness,(religious or otherwise).
    But, I am one of the many who are appalled at his tendency to be needlessly vicious towards his supposed allies over trivial political differences, and as bad as he can be, his commenters make him look like a saint.

    I find that this style is discrediting, in that it can be very tribal and demonstrates a lack of what you call ‘neuropsychological humility’.
    Anyway, I hope they don’t give you too hard a time, regards.

  96. ccbowerson 30 Jan 2013 at 10:05 pm

    “Again, I have no problem with anyone advocating a skepticism + agenda. That is their right and it’s fine. But let’s be clear about what is skepticism and what is the “+”.”

    Well said.

  97. ccbowerson 30 Jan 2013 at 10:32 pm

    “I disagree with the premise that methodological naturalism is an a priori assumption necessary for science to function. Instead I think it is more coherently viewed as a conclusion based on the history of science.”

    You are mistaken here. Methodological naturalism is required, for example, in order to evaluate cause and effect in experiments. We would not be able to evaluate our interventions even in simple experiments, for example, because we would not be controlling for magical effects or for goddidit explanations (we don’t because we treat them as if they don’t exist). Certainly the history of science and its tremendous progress of science indicates that we are likely on the right track, but daedalus2u is correct in that you are utilizing a form of circular reasoning in your argument if you think science “proves” this. Although the progress is compelling, you are essentially arguing that by assuming methodological naturalism you later prove philosphical naturalism. Do you see the flaw in that?

    “Your comment sounds like a naturalism of the gaps argument, or a case of special pleading in favor of naturalism”

    Its not special pleading, it is an assumption of science and therefore an actual limit to what experiments can determine. How can it be special pleading when you yourself said that supernatural explanations are highly unlikely (by your statements I assume close to zero). If someone claimed to have supernatural powers, and we could not explain an effect we are not to throw our arms up and conclude magic, which is what you are implying with the Harry Potter thing. From my perspective the alien technology argument is much more reasonable because it does not require us to overturn our laws of physics.

    “At some point, if enough apparently supernatural events occurred, a naturalist should convert.”

    Perhaps if one day causes and effects became so unreliable that all of established science failed to hold up any longer… but if that happened, I think that it is more likely that my mind has failed me, and that I was hallucinating. That seems to be more likely to happen than for such a drastic change in the behavior of the universe

  98. Quineon 30 Jan 2013 at 10:44 pm

    Always remember that Science also has the job of evaluating its own tools. In order to see how far we can get with Methodological Naturalism, we have to stick to Methodological Naturalism, until it is found ineffective. I would not suggest holding your breath while waiting on that.

  99. Nolanon 30 Jan 2013 at 11:43 pm

    Well I suppose I have to respond to the direct questions to me. It would be impolite to ignore them:

    “Nolan, the problem is, what method did you use to conclude:
    “methodological naturalism to be a pragmatic, a posteriori commitment instead of an a priori one”?
    If you use methodological naturalism, then you are using that a priori to conclude that it is useful a posteriori. That is circular reasoning.”

    I do not assume methodological naturalism to conclude methodological naturalism. That is a misunderstanding of my claims. Instead my conclusion of methodological naturalism comes from the history of science, in which naturalistic, and not supernatural, explanations and theories have been borne out.

    It didn’t have to be this way. The world could have been such that some could transform into animals by sheer force of will, that prayers from devout Muslims and no other faiths were answered, that reincarnation was expected, and repeatedly happened. Methods of science i.e. probabilistic reasoning coupled with empirical observation (no methodological naturalism here) could easily establish the supernatural scenarios I outlined, and it would be within the realm of science. Then scientists would have no such presumption of methodological naturalism.

    I maintain, non-circularly, that methodological naturalism is an a posteriori conclusion based on the history of successful science in which methodological naturalism was not assumed.

    “You are mistaken here. Methodological naturalism is required, for example, in order to evaluate cause and effect in experiments. We would not be able to evaluate our interventions even in simple experiments, for example, because we would not be controlling for magical effects or for goddidit explanations (we don’t because we treat them as if they don’t exist).”

    I don’t think methodological naturalism is required to evaluate cause and effect. Instead we just apply basic probabilistic reasoning (i.e occam’s razor), which is again, within the scope of science. Magical and theistic explanations are more complex and require more assumptions than mechanistic (naturalistic) explanations that have the same or more explanatory power. Sure evolution + spirits is possible, but evolution by itself is much more likely to be true. I have given plenty of examples of how one could establish a supernatural explanations. It would take a lot of evidence, but it could be done in principle.

    “you are essentially arguing that by assuming methodological naturalism you later prove philosphical naturalism. Do you see the flaw in that?”

    Not my position. Instead, by using probabilistic reasoning coupled with empirical observation, we have good reason to conclude philosophical naturalism. Philosophical naturalism is provisionally accepted as very likely, therefore we can proceed with methodological naturalism in science.

    “Your comment sounds like a naturalism of the gaps argument, or a case of special pleading in favor of naturalism”

    “Its not special pleading, it is an assumption of science and therefore an actual limit to what experiments can determine. How can it be special pleading when you yourself said that supernatural explanations are highly unlikely (by your statements I assume close to zero). If someone claimed to have supernatural powers, and we could not explain an effect we are not to throw our arms up and conclude magic, which is what you are implying with the Harry Potter thing.”

    I deny that naturalism is an assumption of science, which is really the issue at hand. I really don’t think it’s hard to come up with potential scientific results that could overturn naturalism. It’s true, it would take a lot of evidence, but it would be dogmatic and against the nature of scientific skepticism to deny any amount of evidence no matter what. If we admit that human to animal transmutation is supernatural, then a certain amount of repeated transmutations under controlled conditions with James Randi giving his approval should convince any rational person that something supernatural is occurring.

    To deny this and simply posit a totally unproven advanced civilization with the desire to trick people is a perfect example of special pleading. It is a case of coming up with something totally new and unestablished solely to avoid the falsification of one’s beliefs. Repeatable human-animal transmutation would be provisional evidence for the supernatural which could be overturned if we found some mechanistic explanation.

  100. daedalus2uon 31 Jan 2013 at 12:00 am

    Skepticism is always a solitary pursuit. It only happens inside of a single person’s brain.

    Politics is always done in a group.

    Religion is always done in groups. Feminism is about group interactions. The Patriarchy is about group interactions. Libertarians are concerned with property which only matters in groups. Bullying is always about more than one person, the perpetrator and the victim.

    You can’t force someone to be a skeptic because skepticism only happens voluntarily inside a person’s brain. Any group activity can be forced by threats of violence and death.

    If you are trying to turn skepticism into a group activity by threats of violence and death, you will fail. When ever someone accepts a position because they belong to a group and the group has that position, then that person is a non-skeptic.

    If someone is too caught up in their delusional world view to understand and adopt a skeptical world view voluntarily, there is nothing that can be done to force them to do so, and anyone trying to do so will not be successful and is wasting their time.

    Having a meeting to do skepticism is kind of an oxymoron. Meetings of multiple people are to do things that multiple people do together. People can share their versions of skepticism, but each person has their own individual tent. There isn’t a “big skepticism tent” because skepticism is a solitary pursuit.

    Being a skeptic is not about “questioning everything”. Being a skeptic is about only arguing from facts using valid logic. The reliability of “facts” is unknown, and the train of logic may be too complex to follow. This is where the more facts you have, and the better you can tie them all together, the better your conceptualization of reality can be.

    If you can’t tie an idea back to facts using valid logic, then you have adopted that idea as a non-skeptic. If you bring that idea to a meeting of skeptics, you need to be prepared to defend that idea with facts and valid logic. If you can’t, then you shouldn’t mention it at a skeptics meeting.

    Skepticism is not something that can be used to beat other people up with. Beating someone up doesn’t accomplish anything that has to do with skepticism. Beating people up is akin to war, and war is diplomacy by other means, which is back to politics.

    There are lots of people getting beaten up. They are not getting beaten up by skepticism. They are getting beaten up by people with agendas. They are getting beaten up by people practicing politics, not by people practicing skepticism. They are getting beat up by people who want to hurt them and are trying to hurt them and are succeeding in hurting them. Skepticism doesn’t provide reasons to want to hurt people. If hurting people is something you want to do, you have arrived at that idea through a non-skeptical thinking and/or feeling process.

  101. ccbowerson 31 Jan 2013 at 12:26 am

    “Instead we just apply basic probabilistic reasoning (i.e occam’s razor), which is again, within the scope of science.”

    Occam’s razor is used as a heuristic in science, but is not part of science. It is not a way of determining Truth, but to provisionally rule out the potentially infinite number of alternative more complex explanations that are not separable by the available evidence.

    “I maintain, non-circularly, that methodological naturalism is an a posteriori conclusion based on the history of successful science in which methodological naturalism was not assumed.”

    I see your argument now. The problem is that you are wrong- science does assume methodological naturalism, and this is the concensus of both philsophers of science and scientists themselves. I’m not saying that you can’t attempt to make a counter-argument, but you simply haven’t done so.

    If this is not an assumption of science, how could a person do the simplest experiment with one intervention on one variable between 2 groups. How could we control for the effects of astrology, gods, or energy fields from a person’s consciousness (or whichever supernatural belief you may hold)? We can’t and we don’t even try, because we assume those things will not impact our study (because we operate under the assumption that they don’t exist- which is what we mean by methodological). If we didn’t operate with this assumption we would be designing such studies very differently.

  102. Aardwarkon 31 Jan 2013 at 3:26 am

    Well said, Daedalus2u. You have perfectly summed up the position I have been struggling to express for some time.

  103. kongstadon 31 Jan 2013 at 4:31 am

    But it is not outside empirical and logical testing whether libertarian ideas move the economy in a desired direction.

    As an example, the skeptical community is very big on assuring that all children have access to a minimum of (science) education. It’s not the goal of everyone, but it is a big majority.

    Some libertarians wish to make away with public education, whether by using vouchers, or just by cutting all funding.

    So i the light of the goal of improving (science) education in the US, different strategies towards schooling can be examined and understood. It is testable how different strategies will influence the goal of improving the basic level of science understanding.

    So if a rational argument can be made that defunding of public schools will harm science understanding, then this is a conversation which is worth having, even though it is deeply political.

    The same goes for a million other issues.The claim that universal health care will harm the economy, the claim that levying higher taxes on the rich will harm the economy etc.

    What can’t be decided is the priority, I know libertarians who base their faith in inalianable individual rights. They wan’t a minimal state, with no funding for infrastructure, police, schooling etc, because all taxation is theft.

    I cannot argue their belief that taxation is theft, but I can argue what type of society will follow from their minimal state idea. That is a testable claim.

    Now with feminism. No one is arguing that people have a right to be disinterested about how minorities, and women experience the skeptic community. in fact a lot of people say they don’t care, if they can’t take the heat then they can just leave.

    But it is still a testable claim whether women and minorities are stopped from participating through endemic biases in the community. Whether the amount and form of abuse is different for outspoken women, than for outspoken men. (I Notice that Reap Paden is not asking Steve Novella about how much cat food he is eating)

    So what actions can be taking to welcome more women and minorities in the community is a question open to testing. Whether it is a goal or not, is a values question. One can be opposed or in favor of making women more welcome.

    Whether there are biases is a testable claim, so being agnostic to the value of the goal of making women and minorities welcome is not an option. Being agnostic upholds the status quo, whether the status quo is that there is a bias or not.

  104. DemonHauntedon 31 Jan 2013 at 4:35 am

    Having read PZ’s reply I think he may have one or two points of merit. If I understand the gist of PZ’s post he appears to consider Dr Novella’s position as good in theory however not implemented (or partially implemented) in practice by Skeptical convention organisers.

    Additionally he considers the distasteful and venomous objections to feminist skeptics from other self identified ‘skeptics’ appears to not be addressed or given elevated importance over traditional issues. I wonder whether anyone listening to the SGU podcast, without reading skeptical blogs, would realise the extent of this particular issue? Has it been addressed in the podcast? I cannot remember, perhaps so.

    It will be interesting to read Steven’s reply to PZ which hopefully it to come in another post.

  105. ccbowerson 31 Jan 2013 at 7:31 am

    “I cannot argue their belief that taxation is theft, but I can argue what type of society will follow from their minimal state idea. That is a testable claim.”

    It is a testable claim, but when we are taking about competing values, libertarians tend to put so-called personal freedoms above all else. In the end, regardless of the evidence, you may still have a disagreement if you have extreme ideological differences which boil down to prioritizing values. An libertarian on the extremes could simply argue that even if there are negative consequences which result from a libertarianist view of government, the positives of individual liberties would outweigh such consequences. Of course, the more evidence you have the clearer those tradeoffs will be, which I think could be convincing to most people who are not at the extremes.

  106. Halfdeadon 31 Jan 2013 at 8:10 am

    Dr. Novella you have been as close to being a “hero” of mine as I get to having, this being said I strongly suspect you having a major blind spot and bias in this area. I understand completely not addressing “faith” claims that are solely based on faith, however in practice no one ever makes claims like this and to draw a line and make such a loud statement that skeptics need not address claims based on faith seems strange.

    I have yet to see PZ attack a purely faith based claim, why would he? When he attacks its always because someone has taken their faith and brought it to the real world, making a real claim, that is testable.

    In the end I don’t see the difference between alt-med and religion except one harms a couple billion people more than the other. You can attack nearly every single claim made by almost any religion and never touch a “heatless invisible dragon” because even the religious don’t care about things that have no effect on the real world. Its seems to me the only people who make completely faith based claims are people in the skeptic community.

  107. MKandeferon 31 Jan 2013 at 8:18 am

    “If you use methodological naturalism, then you are using that a priori to conclude that it is useful a posteriori. That is circular reasoning.”

    It’s possible that one is using induction from their observations to conclude that naturalism is true, as that individual believes the supernatural can be observed and conclusions induced from observing supernatural entities. Nolan already gave examples of things he (and many other people) would consider supernatural. A world where one speaks utterances and waves a wand to produce predictable magical spells manifesting themselves would be a supernatural world. A world with demons possessing bodies and having psychologies that can be studied through our current psychological methods would be a supernatural world.

    I think it’s likely that Steve and Nolan are talking passed each other as they have differing uses of the term “supernatural”. Nolan is using a term that most English speakers would understand, as most English speakers do think observable ghosts, Harry Potter magic, and demons would be supernatural. Steve may be using a highly technical use of the term some (but not all*) philosophers use. I’m not sure what the definition of this term is as it was not given, but from context I infer that it seems to be “that which cannot be explained through scientific investigation (i.e., methodological naturalism”).

    * – See Richard Carrier: http://richardcarrier.blogspot.com/2007/01/defining-supernatural.html

  108. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 8:21 am


    I must agree with ccbowers on this one. Both from a historical perspective and a practical one, methodological naturalism must be an a priori assumption of science. I absolutely agree that the unequivocal success of it deeply validates the assumption, even to the point where philosophical naturalism is now, IMO, the only reasonable provisional stance to have.

    But as ccbowers pointed out, that whether or not one explicitly states the a priori assumption it must be present in order to even “do” science in the first place. The fact that the scientific method exists and is outlined takes that a priori assumption as implicit.

    You cite the ability for supernaturalism to be verified once enough unexplainable anomalies stack up and/or cause and effect are completely out the window. In other words, too much is unexplained and nobody can possibly do experiments because nothing is repeatable no matter what we do.

    The problem is that this is absolutely undifferentiable from an incredibly advanced alien race messing with us and rendering themselves completely undetectable by our limited technological ability and knowledge. As Arthur C. Clarke said, “Technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.” BTW, how apropos that I somewhat randomly watched the 1980 film Flash Gordon last night since my fiance had never seen it.

    So the issue then is – what do we do? We have this huge history of the success of methodological naturalism that is now challenged. Do we discard everything we had learned before and assume it was all wrong because naturalism turned out to be false after all this time? What do we put in its place? Does science just disappear?

    It would seem to me that such an event would actually support the a priori assumption of methodological naturalism. Since obviously we had been doing that the whole time and now our science is rendered useless because we can no longer assume naturalism to be correct, methodologically or philosophically. Or perhaps we end up delimiting the utility and scope of science to that which is methodologically natural – like Gould’s NOMA.

    So no matter how you slice it, from the start and till the end, you must assume methodological naturalism to even begin to do science. Whether explicitly recognized or not, that is what people are doing and have done since the beginning. Even in the assumption of a supernatural universe, early scientists did experiments that focused on the natural variable at hand. They may have thought that God or gods could be fiddling with stuff, but they recognized they had no control over that variable and so proceeded as if it weren’t there. Even if you lament the fact that you can’t control for it, and explicitly state that your science must be incomplete since it can’t take into account the effects of spirits and fairies, you are still doing science with the a priori assumption of methodological naturalism; whether by fiat or simple necessity.

    But absolutely, the history of science has shown this to be an incredibly correct and powerfully useful assumption.

  109. Nolanon 31 Jan 2013 at 8:33 am

    I think MKandefer may be right about the disagreement here. I think it does really depend on what we’re talking about when we refer to the supernatural. Rather than restate my argument, I’ll just leave what I consider convincing arguments for my case from the two people who have convinced me.

    Once again here’s Richard Carrier defining supernatural in the only way I’ve seen that is coherent and matches how human beings actually use the word:


    And also again is living philosopher Gregory Dawes who argues that methodological naturalism is an a posteriori conclusion based on the success of naturalistic conclusions.


    I would be interested in how people concluded that a priori methodological naturalism is the consensus of philosophers. I find it plausible, but I would like to see how that conclusion came from, so maybe I can read into their rationale a bit more.

  110. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 8:38 am

    As for PZ’s response…. I tend to agree. I noticed above someone commented about his tone and anger. Who cares? He could have cursed out Dr. Novella with f-bombs every other word but if he is correct, he is correct. This is a discussion of the ideas, not the tone and language with which they are conveyed. Sure, you may find PZ too abrasive and not like it and Dr. Novella very kind and accomodating (I certainly see them each that way, except that I rather like PZ too). I actually tend to be more like PZ in style by nature, but in my field that doesn’t get you far and so I have intentionally cultivated my thoughts and comments to emulate Dr. Novella’s example.

    But to the meat of it. It seems clear that Dr. Novella is spot on – and PZ agrees. The core of what skepticism is is to be a tool. Just like science in general. And as Dr. Novella clearly pointed out we can have scientific skepticism as a separate subset of skepticism.

    The issue is, as PZ cites, that certain topics are being dismissed as falling outside the skeptical tent. Not that skepticism = atheism, but that atheism is a valid subset of skepticism, just like scientific skepticism. It seems to me quite reasonable that at a skeptical conference the bigfoot booth should be next to the UFO booth and the CAM booth and the religion booth. None of those individually = skepticism, but collectively they demonstrate the scope of it.

    PZ makes a compelling argument that atheism is indeed excluded as not being a skeptical endeavor. I wholeheartedly disagree – it most certainly is. Now, how pervasive and significant that exclusion is remains a question (in my mind at least, as I am no expert on such things and have yet to attend any sort of conference – TAM this year will be my first).

    Of course we must first decide to value skeptical assessment of religious claims. These are different than faith based claims and I think that is a big part of what PZ is arguing. Not all religious claims are purely faith based. In fact, the majority are not.

    But such an assumption is at the core of every skeptical inquiry we do in the first place and I can see PZ’s point that excluding atheism (or rather the skeptical inquiry of religious claims) does indeed artificially narrow the base of the skeptical movement and skepticism in general.

    In fact now that I think about it, Hemant Mehta has written a number of times about how religious and sociological claims are often eschewed from the big skeptical meetings and hardly ever addressed. He also comments from the other side and says that atheists should use the tools they used to lose religion to examine other claims and that we should always be expanding our scope. It seems that much of this is just because Mehta is the “Friendly” Atheist and PZ is the “Angry” Atheist.

  111. MKandeferon 31 Jan 2013 at 8:39 am

    I find it helpful to just “taboo” the words that are causing disagreement. In this conversation we should just remove the words “methodological naturalism”, “naturalism”, “supernatural”, and possibly “science”. If we can still phrase our claims appropriately using different terms, we’d probably reach consensus quicker than if we continue using them without supplying a definition (i.e., other words).

  112. Aardwarkon 31 Jan 2013 at 9:43 am

    Sorry to intrude but, having agreed that difference in how we understand the term ‘supernatural’ is the key point of argument here, I would like to advise against ‘tabooing words’ as the solution. It is better to simply pay more attention to their meanings and, if necessary, definitions.

    As for my personal opinion, I think that what we mean by ‘supernatural’ depends on what we mean by ‘nature’. I wouldn’t like to go into how to properly define nature (or Nature) right now, but I do need to point out that, under most definitions, nature encompasses the whole range of phenomena we can study empirically. ‘Naturalism’ postulates (yes, a priori, I’m afraid) that the whole range of this world of phenomena is explainable in terms of certain principles or agencies (“laws of nature”) that are universal within this world of phenomena (“scope of nature”), and that no ‘outside’ causing agency is required for explaining any particular phenomenon. Under this definition (and I assure you it is used by the vast majority of scientists and philosophers of science), dragons and demons whose behavior is subject to the same laws and principles are clearly not ‘supernatural’, even if they had the power to change the outcome of an experiment of ours by interfering.

    In fact, one such demon is, since more than a century ago, a kind of scientific celebrity, if only a protagonist of a thought experiment. I am, of course, referring to the Maxwell’s demon, who would not have been able to contribute so much to the development of thermodynamics and information theory had his (or her, for there is no reason demon has to be male) mental processes not been assumed to be ‘natural’ in the above sense.

    As for all the ‘skepticism plus’ questions, I’m with Steve, not with PZ. Each of us can be a skeptic plus whatever he or she wishes to be, but it’s simply unfair if I call you a “bad skeptic” just because my ‘plus whatever’ is different from your ‘plus whatever’. I support everyone’s right to free pursuit of concepts and agendas, but I do believe these should be clearly stated – conflation of concepts is one of the arch-enemies of reason.

  113. MKandeferon 31 Jan 2013 at 9:53 am


    it seems we are having a disagreement over the word “taboo”. My fault. I’m using it in a highly specialized way that is familiar to those in the “Less Wrong” community. In the sense I’m using the term the aim is not to make it so we never use the word, but more like the game Taboo(TM). For the sake of moving conversation forward we don’t use the term in question so we can better get at our underlying baggage we bring to the table when discussing the term in question (which probably differs among interlocutors). It’s very much about paying attention to the meanings of the words, not banning language. This post has more on the exercise:


  114. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 10:38 am

    As for all the ‘skepticism plus’ questions, I’m with Steve, not with PZ. Each of us can be a skeptic plus whatever he or she wishes to be, but it’s simply unfair if I call you a “bad skeptic” just because my ‘plus whatever’ is different from your ‘plus whatever’. I support everyone’s right to free pursuit of concepts and agendas, but I do believe these should be clearly stated – conflation of concepts is one of the arch-enemies of reason.

    PZ’s argument, as I see it, is not that you are a bad skeptic if you don’t do the same “plus” stuff, but you are if you say that skepticism is not applicable to the “plus” stuff not of your choosing. Skepticism is applicable to atheism, but that does not mean that atheism = skepticism, a point he has clearly delineated. He isn’t arguing that True Skepticism (™) means religious claims must be addressed, but that atheistic arguments against religion are indeed a valid subset of True Skepticism (™).

    I see no evidence he is conflating the two concepts – at least not in his response to this post.

  115. sliktson 31 Jan 2013 at 10:51 am

    I find that Dr. Novella falls for the sleigh of hand that is substituting theism for something more akin to deism when it’s convenient for defending theism. In deism’s case you can truly call it a philosophy, since the world wouldn’t look different whether deism was true or not, i.e., deism is reason applied to the natural world. Theism, however, is not as watered down as deism, and a world where the claims of theism are true would look different from a purely naturalistic, material world. This means that you can compare the scientific world view to the theistic world view, and there will be differences. A simple example from Christianity would be the biblical story of Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden and original sin — this story doesn’t make sense in a world view based on a scientifically skeptical approach. The point is that theism doesn’t end with a philosophical definition of a deity, and that theism has implications about how the observable world would look and work, and that there are good reasons to resolve the mismatch between these world views in favor of skepticism.

  116. Steven Novellaon 31 Jan 2013 at 11:32 am

    halfdead wrote: “Dr. Novella you have been as close to being a “hero” of mine as I get to having, this being said I strongly suspect you having a major blind spot and bias in this area. I understand completely not addressing “faith” claims that are solely based on faith, however in practice no one ever makes claims like this and to draw a line and make such a loud statement that skeptics need not address claims based on faith seems strange.”

    I did not say this – read my next post and comments.

    We don’t say that we don’t address faith claims. Only that science does not address them. Skeptical philosophy addresses them by saying they are not science – so stay away from science – no touching. That is an effective, philosophically valid, and very practical way to deal with faith-based claims.

    In practice – I get these kinds of claims all the time. Seriously. Whenever I start to probe a belief (religious, new age, or otherwise) believers often retreat to an untestable haven, and that’s when I eject them from the arena of science. Their haven is really a booby hatch. It’s an effective strategy that has the advantage of being philosophically valid, without violating anyone’s freedom of religion. Really – what’s not to love. I don’t get it.

  117. flieson 31 Jan 2013 at 11:32 am

    Steven Novella wrote: Nolan – philosophers disagree with you. This was settled a few hundred years ago. Science requires methodological naturalism (I suggest you read my longer blog post on the topic linked above).

    Steven, you may be aware of this already, but there is disagreement among philosophers on this point, with some who take Nolan’s point of view seriously. Maarten Boudry’s (et al.) article https://sites.google.com/site/maartenboudry/teksten-1/methodological-naturalism in Foundations of Science makes an argument close to Nolan’s.

    I personally find the idea of methodological naturalism very strange. If science can test the efficacy of intercessory prayer in surgery recovery, then it can test supernatural claims….

  118. ThorGoLuckyon 31 Jan 2013 at 1:03 pm

    In a nutshell, skepticism is about trying not to fool ourselves.

  119. Steven Novellaon 31 Jan 2013 at 1:20 pm

    Flies – I read that paper. I think it makes a false dichotomy. MN is absolutely necessary for science to function. However, as I stated before, the success of naturalistic explanations is a meta-experiments that certainly suggests that naturalism is in fact the case. This can never be absolute, but I agree it does support the naturalistic approach of science.

    Supernatural notions are not falsifiable, however, because they don’t (by definition) have to follow any natural laws. So if intercessory prayer did not work you can just say, God chose for it not to work on that occasion, maybe to test our faith, or whatever. ID proponents essentially say that God created life to look exactly as if it had evolved. If ID were correct then what would life look like? Who knows – you cannot know the mind of God.

    They absolutely try to blur the lines by claiming evidence, then retreating to an unfalsifiable defense when the evidence fails.

    What is really meant by the notion that science requires MN is that nature has to be predictable and follow laws if it is to be examined by scientific methods. If you can invoke miracles in your explanation, then you cannot really follow a scientific method.

  120. daedalus2uon 31 Jan 2013 at 2:37 pm

    A classic example of what I think the difference between Steve and PZ is in how they would deal with Russel’s Teapot.


    Steve would say he is agnostic as to whether or not there is a teapot present (because the space between Earth and Mars has not been scanned with sufficient precision to be sure), but it is extremely unlikely (10^-100 or less), but for all he knows, aliens could have put a whole teapot factory up there and there could be billions of teapots. The likelihood of billions of teapots is even less (10^-1000), but it is not zero. However a mass of teapots equal to the Earth’s mass is proven to not be there through mapping of the gravity of the solar system. However aliens could have technology that would perturb gravity such that an Earth mass of teapots could be there and not be apparent, maybe that is 10^-10,000.

    PZ would say %&*$$#@&!!! of course there is no teapot there.

    PZ and Steve are actually very close, their likelihood estimates are only different by ~10^-100, and Steve’s likelihood estimate does overlap with zero.

    Steve doesn’t want to allow absence of evidence to be used as evidence of absence. It is more of a philosophical than a practical difference. Steve wants to keep an open mind about it, in case aliens do show up and tell us all about the teapot factory they have and wouldn’t we like to trade stuff for teapots.

    PZ has express similar ideas about God, when he was deconstructing an argument that said if there was evidence for God, that would disprove it. PZ said that if a 10 mile tall bearded man appeared with angels flying all around and if people who committed blasphemy started disappearing in a flash of green Hellfire, that he, PZ would start to reconsider being an atheist.

  121. MKandeferon 31 Jan 2013 at 2:57 pm


    So, “supernatural” doesn’t seem to be capable of expressing anything that isn’t conveyed under the label “unfalisifiable” in your mind. It seems that something is supernatural if-and-only-if it is unfalisifiable. Is this the right interpretation of your usage of the terms? If not, can you conceive of something falisifiable that is supernatural or conceive of something unfalsifiable that is not supernatural?

  122. flieson 31 Jan 2013 at 3:10 pm

    Thanks for responding, Steve.

    What is really meant by the notion that science requires MN is that nature has to be predictable and follow laws if it is to be examined by scientific methods. If you can invoke miracles in your explanation, then you cannot really follow a scientific method.

    Agree. Miracles can explain anything and therefore explain nothing.

    Supernatural hypotheses don’t have to be this slipperty though. A hypothesis that God behaves in certain predictable ways is still a supernatural hypothesis, and it can be tested, e.g. intercessory prayer.

    Also, you can twist and turn naturalistic hypotheses as well, e.g. conspiracy theories.

    So there’s nothing particular about the supernatural that makes it unscientific aside from being especially susceptible to the problem you describe. Such susceptibility can be handled. What we need isn’t methodological naturalism, we just need falsifiable hypotheses (and we don’t allow abritrarily explaining away contradictory evidence).

  123. sliktson 31 Jan 2013 at 3:38 pm

    We don’t say that we don’t address faith claims. Only that science does not address them. Skeptical philosophy addresses them by saying they are not science – so stay away from science – no touching. That is an effective, philosophically valid, and very practical way to deal with faith-based claims.

    Dr. Novella, theism is about a deity or deities that affect the world in observable ways, so your insistence that it should be treated like a speculative, non-empirical view is wrong. You would be right if we were talking about a doctrine like deism, which is supposed to be based on reason alone, but theism makes claims about the observable reality and these claims put it in the purview of science. It shouldn’t be “philosophically valid” to accept substituting theism with deism just because it may be a politically “pratical” and “effective” way to enlarge the tent of your movement in a world that’s largely not ready to challenge theism. Take a compromise with skeptics who hold conflicting ideas if you must, give them a free pass for not applying the same skeptical standards of inquiry into reality to theism as they would apply to other such supposed sources of knowledge, but let’s not pretend that it’s more than politics. It’s just a sad truth that skepticism about theistic ideas is less societally acceptable than skepticism about other superstitions because the world is coming out from an era of theistic hegemony. Maybe anti-theists like PZ are wrong that on balance theism does more harm than good (I personally agree with them), but failed notions like NOMA are just muddying up the waters, and they can’t serve as solid common ground for a skeptical movement without holding up to basic scrutiny.

    Whenever I start to probe a belief (religious, new age, or otherwise) believers often retreat to an untestable haven, and that’s when I eject them from the arena of science. Their haven is really a booby hatch. It’s an effective strategy that has the advantage of being philosophically valid, without violating anyone’s freedom of religion. Really – what’s not to love. I don’t get it.

    Questioning faith-based ideas does not by itself infringe on the right to hold such ideas, so mentioning religious freedom in this context isn’t really necessary. Your approach doesn’t respect religious freedom more than PZ’s approach, for instance. The real difference between your approaches to religious ideas is that PZ recognizes how theists want to have their cake and eat it too by turning to the cop out called “faith” while still claiming that their ideas are more than just something in their head. It’s similar to how Christians try to avoid criticism of Bible by saying that its contents are just metaphorical, while simultaneously saying that, for instance, Jesus is more than a character in stories. It’s just a somewhat effective rhetorical tactic to hide the problem, there’s nothing “philosophically valid” about it if you look beyond the surface.

  124. Steven Novellaon 31 Jan 2013 at 3:42 pm

    The notion that every elementary particle is itself a tiny universe is not paranormal, but unfalsifiable.

    There are plenty of hypothesis that are not paranormal, but that are not falsifiable in practice, or may even in theory because the information simply no longer exists. But that would not violate the laws of nature.

    I think a reasonable definition of supernatural is something that is not contained within nature – does not follow the laws of the universe, is not constrained by cause and effect (let’s ignore weird quantum effects for the sake of argument).

    The problem is you can never really know that something supernatural has happened. You can only identify an anomaly – something not currently explained. A really persistent anomaly might suggest that the laws of nature can be violated, but still you could never be sure. In any case – scientific methods require MN to work. If you apply scientific methods to something truly supernatural, you would just come up with anomalies that could not be explained.

    I have simplified the notion of falsifiability in this discussion so far – so many side issues to explore. It depends on how questions are framed. If I say – there is intelligent life somewhere else in the universe – I could never truly falsify this statement, because I could never survey the entire universe, and if I did I would have to start over because enough time would have passed for intelligent life to evolve somewhere. But i could falsify, there is no intelligent life anywhere else but earth, by finding a single example of intelligent life.

    What I mean with the supernatural is that they are not falsifiable in principle because naturalistic methods cannot contain the supernatural. If you can break laws at will, anything is possible, and therefore nothing is constrained – which leads to being unfalsifiable.

  125. Steven Novellaon 31 Jan 2013 at 3:45 pm

    slikts – but I don’t let them have their cake and eat it too either. If they make any logical or empirical justification for their beliefs, they are fair game. If they retreat all the way to naked deism, then that’s enough, isn’t it? It may sound like a subtle difference, but in practice it is important – and it’s philosophically valid.

    What I like best is that it forces people to think about the nature of knowledge, faith, and science.

  126. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 3:46 pm

    Well said slikts. I pretty much entirely agree.

  127. sciberdogon 31 Jan 2013 at 4:01 pm

    One aspect of this debate that can not be overemphasized in my opinion — how a narrower skeptical approach can help with outreach. The SGU does tackle religion from a scientific and skeptical perspective, but it doesn’t outright bash and ridicule it as PZ does. And that is superb for outreach.

    When I started listening to SGU 5 or 6 years ago, I was interested in science and intrigued by skepticism but was fine being (marginally) religious, not seeing the harm in non-fundamental religions, and not looking that critically at religion. I was brought up in a household that respected religion, and had not personally witnessed religious harm.

    Had the SGU been a megaphone for religion bashing, I might not have warmed to it, and I’ll bet that’s true for many, many people.

    Now that I’ve grown to fully embrace critical thinking in all aspects of life, I can clearly see all that is wrong with faith-based ideology, and have grown to embrace a purely secular upbringing for my young children, something I was struggling with how to do when they were born. I also really enjoy PZ’s blog, thanks in part to the road paved by SGU.

    So, something I think PZ missed in his reply to Steve: skeptical education that doesn’t overemphasize religion may be hugely beneficial for outreach and bringing people into the critical thinking camp, which is a primary goal of the skeptical movement.

    And it’s not just bringing people of faith into the discussions so that they can compartmentalize and use critical thinking in one area but ignore it in another, it’s bringing people of faith into the discussion so they can be unblinded and eventually apply critical thinking to their faith, which is good for them personally and for society as a whole.

  128. sliktson 31 Jan 2013 at 4:19 pm

    Thanks for the reply Dr. Novella, but the point is that it shouldn’t be a valid argument to defend theism as if it was something significantly different like deism. For instance, if Christian tenets would be diluted enough so that it could be called deism instead of theism and rely not on any observable difference in the world or “revealed” knowledge but just on reason, it wouldn’t fit any accepted definition of Christianity anymore.

  129. daedalus2uon 31 Jan 2013 at 4:21 pm

    What “methodological naturalism” actually is, and what constitutes “natural” and “supernatural” behavior is not clear a priori.

    In the “classic” double slit experiment, whether a particle exhibits wave-like or particle-like behavior depends on what parameters are measured. It turns out it doesn’t matter when the parameter is measured. It can be before (in all reference frames), indeterminant (i.e. separated by a space-like distance and so reference frame dependent), or after (in all reference frames).


    It turns out that you can’t set your system up, run your atoms through the system, extract photons, wait until you have measured one thing on the atoms and then try to measure something else on the photons. What you measure on the photons fixes what you can measure on the atoms no matter what order they are measured in.

  130. MKandeferon 31 Jan 2013 at 4:35 pm

    Thanks Steve, Your clarifications have helped me come to a better understanding of your position on the supernatural. I especially liked your discussion on falsifiability. It makes me think that in future discussions I should be clear on describing hypotheses in terms of whether or not they are unfalsifiable due to limitations in existing technology/resources (i.e., unfalsifiable in practice), or unfalisifiable because they offer no sensory expectations (i.e., unfalisifiable in essence).

  131. Nolanon 31 Jan 2013 at 8:19 pm

    I am familiar with the lesswrongian strategy of “tabooing your words,” and the concept did occur to me as I wrote about definitions near my first few comments. Of course I foolishly ignored the idea in subsequent comments.

    I think you’re totally right in bringing up “tabooing” as a way to dissolve the whole debate. I do think that most of the disagreement has stemmed from what “supernatural” means, or “unfalsifiable,” or “science,” and when I think about it, I’m not sure there is much disagreement about how reality really works, instead the issue has been more about whether that tree falling the forest is really making a “sound.”

  132. Aardwarkon 01 Feb 2013 at 3:11 am


    I stand corrected and see that we really have no disagreement at all. I was, of course, not aware of the special meaning attached to ‘taboo’. Furthermore, I seem to have become somewhat sensitized against the idea by the previous discussion – that on UpGoer Five.


    That may be so, but then I see no basis for PZ’s attack against the ‘old guard’ in general and Steve in particular. And PZ did, in fact, attack.

  133. Aardwarkon 01 Feb 2013 at 3:56 am

    I would like to express my strong agreement with all posters who have pointed out the difference between applying skepticism to religious claims about the objective world that is shared by all of us (such as biblical creationism) and applying skepticism to religions themselves.

    Of course, one is always free to do the latter, but that discussion should be clearly labeled ‘religious discussion’.

    The outreach issues, also, are not to been frowned upon. If you wish people to open their eyes, the worst thing you can do is to tug at their eyelids. It is much better to whisper in their ears and help them choose to open their eyes themselves. Or, at the very least, to be more aware of how and why they chose to keep their eyes closed.

  134. Halfdeadon 01 Feb 2013 at 8:43 pm

    “I would like to express my strong agreement with all posters who have pointed out the difference between applying skepticism to religious claims about the objective world that is shared by all of us (such as biblical creationism) and applying skepticism to religions themselves.”

    This seems to be a difference of degree, what is the difference of applying skepticism to 100 claims at once or all of them individually?

  135. daedalus2uon 01 Feb 2013 at 9:07 pm

    Applying skepticism can only be done on a case by case basis. You can’t dismiss all claims a religious person makes without looking at each claim individually. If you do, then you are not practicing skepticism, you are committing an ad hominem fallacy.

  136. Halfdeadon 01 Feb 2013 at 11:39 pm

    “Applying skepticism can only be done on a case by case basis. You can’t dismiss all claims a religious person makes without looking at each claim individually. If you do, then you are not practicing skepticism, you are committing an ad hominem fallacy.”

    Sure, except religion is the culmination of 100s of claims and if you only dismiss 20 of them its still no longer the same religion or even sometimes a religion at all. Pull the bottom card out in a house of cards and the whole thing comes crumbling down. Also what can be proclaimed without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

  137. Halfdeadon 01 Feb 2013 at 11:40 pm

    Also no one but you mentioned a persons claims, religions are not people they are claims of truth and knowledge

  138. Mlemaon 02 Feb 2013 at 12:58 am

    Dr. Novella, here’s what i would add:

    Socioeconomic Humility – Being a functional skeptic requires knowledge of all the various ways in which our perception and opinions are influenced by the circumstances of our birth with regards to: race, gender, culture, economic status and educational opportunities. Our prejudices in forming values are affected by our social environment and financial standing in society perhaps as much as they’re affected our physiology. We should have an awareness of how these things affect ourselves and others as we approach topics of skepticism.

  139. BillyJoe7on 02 Feb 2013 at 3:29 am

    “If you wish people to open their eyes, the worst thing you can do is to tug at their eyelids. It is much better to whisper in their ears and help them choose to open their eyes themselves.”

    That has not been proven. Who’s to say that they can’t simply ignore the whispers whilst being unable to prevent their eyelids from being forced open. Whose to say that a bit of both won’t get them round.

  140. BillyJoe7on 02 Feb 2013 at 3:33 am

    “You can’t dismiss all claims a religious person makes without looking at each claim individually”

    Population genetics -> no Adam and Eve -> no original sin -> no need for redemption.
    End of Christianity.

  141. dkasaion 04 Feb 2013 at 10:05 am

    Thanks for this statement!
    Me too, I value Science very high, especially as a self-commitment to clarity and honesty regarding the sources of opinions.
    But what I value even more is Wisdom, which could be defined as the w a y knowledge is used in order to lead a good life. It’s probably impossible to define ‘good life’, but the lack of a definition should not narrow its meaningfulness.

    So, when limiting the sources of knowledge to the scope of scientifically certified facts, one might be seduced to install something like a filter between knowledge and the ways to deal with knowledge in a responsible and wise manner. My point is: there are sources of knowledge that cannot be scientifically falsified or verified (like emotional insights, sense of beauty, insights from meditation etc) that still can form an important part of a person’s wisdom.

  142. lukefreemanon 07 Feb 2013 at 9:15 pm

    Long time reader and I finally signed up to comment just to say this:
    Good on you Steve! I completely support this and it echo’s my sentiments exactly!

    I do think we need to be open and honest with the value judgements we have made before going on to show how they relate to empirical reality.

    I think the human race has a long way to go with philosophy and psychology before we can start using empiricism to inform our value judgements, I think this is worth doing. However, we are not there yet. We are getting closer but we still make many assumptions and value judgements that aren’t empirical or widely shared.

    Keep up the great work.

  143. Armi Leggeon 11 Feb 2013 at 3:39 pm

    Outstanding article Dr. Novella,

    To address the question as to why more skeptics don’t post on multiple topics — that also has a lot to do with effective, intelligent marketing. “Marketing” as in telling a story that resonates with people spreads, not in the “sell-you-stuff” kind of marketing.

    We are trying to spread (“sell” if you will) skepticism, and if you’re online, that usually means blogging and podcasting. Great blogs and podcasts focus on specific topics, or at least fairly specific ones. Otherwise, most people don’t read them.

    We have to remember that people are browsing online usually because they’re trying to solve problem in their life (e.g. Science-Based Medicine solves problems related to making skeptical medical decisions and identifying pseudoscience in healthcare, something many people can and do benefit from). They usually aren’t looking for a new way of thinking, but if that new way of thinking solves problems for them, then they accept it.

    Along those same lines, I think another key aspect of skepticism is that everyone is included. You don’t have to get a license, become approved, or reach a certain age to be a skeptic. You could say this is inherit to all major movements, we place a greater focus on scientific research, and a lot of people become intimidated and assume that others always know better.

    This could be categorized under your point about neuropsychological humility, as it’s a self imposed appeal to authority, but people need to understand that as long as they honor the other key principles of skepticism such as critical thinking, they’re included.

    Thanks again,

    - Armi

  144. fullermon 31 Mar 2013 at 3:54 pm

    I agree that there is a science/reason-based skeptical approach to politics. However, mainstream “skeptic” organizations like CSI and JREF will never have any credibility in this regard until they finally open their eyes to perhaps the most massive scientific fraud ever perpetrated in the name of corporatized politics. CSI and all other mainstream “skeptic” organizations support this fraud and refuse to acknowledge their complicity in it.

    After publishing my article “9/11 Pseudo-Science: A US Foreign Policy Built on Fraud” I asked for an official response from CFI as to why they support the fraudulent official story of 9/11 despite it having absolutely no scientific evidence for their proposed explanation of the key event of 9/11, the Twin Tower collapses. Since this request was ignored, perhaps Dr. Novella would like to respond here. Without committing any logical fallacies of course.

  145. Steven Novellaon 01 Apr 2013 at 12:35 pm

    fullerm – That is a broad topic for a comment. Do you want to focus on one specific aspect of the tower collapse where you think the official explanation is wrong or pseudoscientific?

  146. fullermon 01 Apr 2013 at 6:40 pm

    As explained in the article Dr. Novella there is absolutely no evidence for the tower collapses. (The entire collapses not the beginning of the collapses.) That is, there is no evidence that the falling upper blocks of each tower destroyed the lower buildings. That is not a broad topic. An explanation without supporting evidence is the most basic indicator of pseudo-science.

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.