Jan 31 2013

PZ Replies

You are currently browsing comments. If you would like to return to the full story, you can read the full entry here: “PZ Replies”.

Share

237 responses so far

237 Responses to “PZ Replies”

  1. Harker067on 31 Jan 2013 at 10:38 am

    OK here’s what bugs me….

    You define these three terms as below:
    “For the purpose of convenience, and wanting to avoid getting bogged down in semantics, I am going to define (for this post) three terms: scientific skepticism deals with empirical claims and the promotion of science, atheism focuses on opposing religion and faith, and rationalism seeks to apply reason and skepticism to all areas.”

    Then you go on to use a number of terms, skeptical movement (organizations activists etc), skeptics, and skepticism. You never seem to have defined skeptism in these situations…..

    From this part “What I hear is that there is no meaningful philosophical distinction between skepticism and atheism, therefore skeptics are atheists …”

    Is it to be taken as a given that skeptical here short hand for scientific skepticism? ie “What I hear is that there is no meaningful philosophical distinction between scientific skepticism and atheism therefore scientific skeptics are atheists…”

    If so you might make a clearer argument if you defined this in the body post or stuck to a more rigid use of your defined terms.

  2. Steven Novellaon 31 Jan 2013 at 10:49 am

    Didn’t I define scientific skepticism at length in my post yesterday? I also summarized it today as the distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism. You can read my post on that topic that I previously linked to. I can’t write a book every time I delve into such topics.

  3. JustinWilsonon 31 Jan 2013 at 11:00 am

    As a skeptical atheist, I personally feel that the skeptical movement should not focus on religion. Personal faith in something that is untestable is not my concern. Our constitution gives us moderate protection from being force-fed religious ideology in classrooms and I will do what I can to protect that. The core issue with chasing the religious issue is: if pastor Smith says god created the heavens and the earth. I may ask, “how?” If he says god used all the natural processes around us to create everything we see, how do I prove he’s wrong? Why would I try? I don’t know that he is wrong.

    Focusing, as Steven suggests, on empirical claims and using the appropriate scientific field to address issues is a course with a solid foundation. No topics are off the table, only lines of inquiry.

    I think the biggest frustration with the movement is the slow progress. It’s science – it ain’t fast.

  4. Murmuron 31 Jan 2013 at 11:00 am

    “Argument 1: skepticism is fine if you point it at things which very few people really believe (bigfoot;alien abduction) because if they get angry we can laugh at them. Don’t point it at things which lots of people believe! There are lots of them and if they get angry that might be scary!”

    I would like whoever wrote that to sit in on various discussions I have had with friends who are all either atheist or agnostic but who firmly believe in alien abduction, homeopathy, chiropractic, ghosts and spirit guides. I have been called a number of quite unsavoury things, by my own friends, because I dare to challenge their beliefs on these matters, yet they will gladly chuckle at those going to church every week. True Believers come in all shapes and sizes and implying someone is a coward based on your own anecdotal evidence is disingenuous.

  5. jblumenfeldon 31 Jan 2013 at 11:01 am

    Steve,

    The semi-argument you and I have always had is that when you remove all the testable truth-claims from religion, you are left with a religion that nobody has cause nobody wants (to paraphrase the Lorax for a moment). No religion stops at mere untestable claims like the Omphalos argument you specify above (that the Universe might have been created 6000 years ago to look like its 13.7 billion years old). So when skepticism examines the testable truth claims of religion it pretty much examines all of religion that anyone really cares about.

    Also – atheism as defined simply as the negative of belief in God is pretty restricted, and pretty much not what almost anyone means by the word. Most atheists in my experience are opposed to both the testable and obviously false truth claims of religion, the untestable and therefore empty ‘Omphalos’ type claims, and the invasion of religion into the political sphere by its attempts to impose its dogma on others. So I think the barriers between your areas are pretty fluid in practice. What do you think?

  6. Harker067on 31 Jan 2013 at 11:09 am

    sigh…. no you misunderstood. You talk about scientific skepticism and its limits (which I understand your position on) then bounce back to issues of atheists and skeptics. Sometimes to me as a reader it seems like you’re conflating the 2 but it seems I’m just bothering you so I’ll leave.

  7. Steven Novellaon 31 Jan 2013 at 11:19 am

    Harker – not sure why you got that impression. I have been nothing but patient here.

    There is no clear definition of atheists and skeptics. Everyone pretty much defines what they mean for themselves, and I see every permutation – as I said yesterday, we jealously defend our intellectual individualism.

    I defined those terms for practical purposes of discussion for this post. Skeptics as those who generally are passionate about promoting science, atheists as those who are passionate about opposing faith and religion, and rationalists who are both. These are oversimplified categories used only for convenience.

    They do reflect, however, to a first approximation the cultural divides within the broader rationalist movement. That is the context of the very discussion we are having.

    Sorry if I am still missing your question – if so, please clarify.

  8. Steven Novellaon 31 Jan 2013 at 11:23 am

    Jon – I agree with you. This is what puzzles me about some atheist objections to my approach – in practice, we still take on every religious claim that matters. As I said – we are right there taking on every wacky religious belief, as long as there is a sliver of a testable claim or logic that can be examined. And if there are none – if they retreat to a completely insulated belief, then they are ejected from anything scientific, and our work is likewise done.

    In practice – this happens a lot. Individual arguments retreat to the untestable (with religious and non-religious beliefs). It doesn’t matter if an individual person has only untestable beliefs or not. What matters is – is the specific argument they are making now scientific, philosophical, or isolated faith? Deal with each appropriately.

  9. Kawarthajonon 31 Jan 2013 at 11:27 am

    Steve, I think you are missing one of PZ’s articles’ main points. He is talking about discrimination against atheists in the Sceptical movement, while you are avoiding the discussion of that topic entirely. His experience is that he, and other atheists, are being discriminated against and he has many examples to support that position. How is a discussion about discrimination against women/racial minorities more valid than a discussion about discrimination against atheists in the Sceptic movement? Ignoring discrimination, whether it is towards racial or gender minorities, or even atheists, will not make the problem go away but will serve to drive some people out of what should be, in my opinion, a more unified movement.

  10. jblumenfeldon 31 Jan 2013 at 11:32 am

    Thanks Steve. As I said, it’s only a semi-argument because we basically agree. The one thing that can always be pointed out to those who retreat to untestable claims is to ask why they’ve chosen that untestable claim over any of the infinity of similar untestable claims. The answer is usually some sort of internal revelation causing them to ‘just know its true.’ I think its important to point out that untestable claims are inherently extremely unlikely to turn out to be true and also are effectively sterile since they become testable as soon as they impinge on the real world – for example by God influencing a sporting event or changing water into wine or similar. So the atheist feels safe in saying “I can’t prove that your untestable claims are false, but I am going to live my life as if they are.”

    Anyway, always fun to come back to this topic, which seems itself to retreat to the definition of terms after a while.

  11. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 11:34 am

    I have essentially taken the position that scientific skepticism (like science) requires methodological naturalism, while atheism is a belief in philosophical naturalism.

    Whether intended or not I cannot say, but this is a gross oversimplication of what atheism is and as written is incorrect.

    Atheism is a lack of belief in gods. One needn’t be a philosophical naturalist to lack a belief in gods. One needn’t even apply any skeptical approaches, tools, or mindset to lack a belief in gods.

    Claiming gnostic atheism requires either implicit or explicit philosophical naturalism at a minimum. But even Dawkins clearly states he is an agnostic atheist.

    I think it is unreasonable to define atheism as a belief in anything, even philosophical naturalism.

    Now, how someone came to his or her atheism is an interesting question and, as I said above, is not necessary via skeptical inquiry. I’ve never believed in gods. I have been an atheist my whole life. I didn’t arrive to my conclusion by skepticism – I was always at that default position. I have solidified my stance and been able to argue against specific tenets and beliefs of religion using skeptical tools.

    So at a skeptical conference, would we want to hear a lecture from a person who debunks Bigfoot by citing the fact that the leprachauns told him Bigfoot wasn’t real? Of course not, we want skeptical (specifically scientifically skeptical) reasons which are generalizable to question beyond merely the veracity of Bigfoot.

    In the same way we wouldn’t want to hear from an atheist who is so only because he was abused as a boy by the Catholic Church and thus feels there cannot be any gods because the one he once believed in was served by such repugnant pederasts. That doesn’t address the methods and means of skeptical inquiry at reaching a conclusion. But someone who can describe a deconversion because of growing skeptical inquiry at the plethora of religious claims certainly seems like a good skeptical talk at a conference. Once again, these same reasons would be ultimately generalizable to Bigfoot and CAM.

    Of course, every conference is quite within its rights to focus on whatever specifically it wants or doesn’t want presented for absolutely any reason. But it is also quite fair to say that the arguments cited by PZ with prominemt organizers flat out saying that atheism is not a skeptical activity are false. That is very different to saying that it is a skeptical activity belonging to a specific subgroup which the organizers don’t want for specific reasons (whatever they may be). And both are different to saying that atheism = skepticism or that skepticism = atheism (by the commutative property).

    It is also completely fair for folks like PZ to argue that skeptical conferences should include the skeptical atheistic subgroup more prominently and be willing to put some additional weight behind the public discussion of religious claims. I personally see very good reasons for doing this.

    Saying something like:

    We are not trying to define skepticism, or tell anyone else what to do. We are simply marketing our own conference in the way that we want. There are plenty of atheist conferences, and you don’t hear me complaining about that. They have their target audience and editorial policy and we have ours.

    Smacks a little of “separate but equal” to me. Of course, in this case that is not entirely unreasonable, but the real crux lays with the fact that prominent skeptical convention organizers are not eschewing atheism because it does not fit the marketing image they want but because they are claiming it is not a skeptical endeavor in the first place. And even if that weren’t the case and it really all was just because of marketing considerations, that still doesn’t preclude an argument for the inclusion of atheism as explicit parts of skeptical conferences as being valid to make.

    What I hear is that there is no meaningful philosophical distinction between skepticism and atheism, therefore skeptics are atheists who are cowards, who want to avoid controversy, are intellectually dishonest, or who are accommodationists.

    I agree that there is no meaningful philosophical distinction between the two. One uses skeptical inquiry to arrive at atheism (aka the conclusion that there is no evidence for any gods). The same way one uses skeptical inquiry to arrive at the conclusion that CAM is bogus, Bigfoot doesn’t exist, and mind-body dualism is a dead notion.

    Of course, as I said above and will reiterate breifly, each and every one of these conclusions can be reached by non-skeptical means. In other words, being right for the wrong reasons.

    I also do not understand your critique here:

    Also, as predicted, the issue of the limits of science appears to have gone completely misunderstood. PZ writes:

    Look, get the story straight. Science and skepticism are processes, tools we use to investigate phenomena. It is not conflation when you use that tool to investigate god-claims or sexist arguments or the Republican party platform, any more than it is when you use those tools to rip into the Burzynski clinic or take apart claims about diatoms in meteorites.

    I don’t see how PZ has surpassed the limits of science in this quote. Inherent to the critique of Burzynski is the value judgement that what he does is bad. We can cite plenty of evidence for that, but once again, each is a value judgement that bilking people out of money and not curing them of cancer is bad. We then use scientific skepticism to demonstrate that these things are actually happening. Otherwise if we do that in a vacuum all we are left with is saying “Here is this data on Burzynski. It means nothing and has no impetus for acting on it” – a value judgement is necessary otherwise the endeavor is purely academic and of no… well… value.

    The same with god-claims. We must make the value judgement that religion and religious thought is bad. And then use scientific skepticism to examine the specific claims and use that as a basis for justification of action.

    You may disagree that religious thought is bad. You may also disagree that what Burzysnki does is bad. But applying skeptical tools of inquiry to either is fundamentally the same and both require value judgements in order to mean anything (which, in both cases, I think are definitely there).

    Furthermore, I fail to see the point of citing PZ’s commenters in a critique of PZ’s stance. I get that it is an attempt to demonstrate the general consensus of thought from the “atheistic contingent” (if you will) but I don’t see it as a particularly valid one. Not as it is relevant to the discussion at hand anyway.

    So please stop saying we don’t take on religious or political issues. Can you get out of that stale and inaccurate narrative? We simply focus on empirical claims and valid logic – in any area.

    I agree with you. I listen to SGU and it is great. But that doesn’t address, IMHO, the biggest thrust of PZ’s point – that the organically arisen big players in skepticism view atheism as a completely separate thing and is not only not equivalent to skepticism (agreed and correct) but that it has no place within or relevance to skepticism at all (I do not agree and contend it is not correct).

    We are also careful when dealing with empirical claims that involve a highly ideological area, because personal biases tend to be overwhelming. We don’t avoid these topics – we’re just careful to focus on empirical claims.

    The criticism is that political and religious issues are very tangentially approached and claims are typically cherry picked and addressed in isolation. “That religious claim is scientifically ridiculous, but that’s as far as I will go. I cannot say religion is ridiculous because that would not be a skeptically correct statement to make.” vs “That creationist claim is scientifically ridiculous, but that’s as far as I will go. I cannot say creationism is ridiculous because…” That, to me, seems a double standard. It may, at times, be a practical matter to reach a larger audience. But that is a fair point to argue against especially since, as you yourself say, there is no good data on which approach is better or worse and you have seen success… as has PZ.

    Exactly the extent of this is a deeper and indeed important matter to consider. But no matter how little it is, it is still wrong and should be addressed. Much like Dawkins got (rightfully) reamed for his comments on sexism and how it was such a minor consideration compared to the huge problem of religion and Islam as a whole, however minor this sentiment is that PZ is arguing against does not make it invalid to address.

    At least, that is my take on it all.

  12. lotsoftinyrobotson 31 Jan 2013 at 11:37 am

    Steve, I find your distinction between “Scientific Skepticism, Rationalism, and Atheism” as distinct entities interesting.

    In your terms, I have always treated the “Skeptics Movement” as a Rationalist movement at large rather than a subculture focusing on scientific skepticism. In my understanding, PZ does too which may explain why he is frustrated with your narrative.

    While different organizations certainly can specialize, the organizations that make up the core of the skeptics movement have all tended to specialize in scientific skepticism and as such have made the “skeptics’ movement” into more of a “scientific skeptics’ movement.”

    But when PZ, myself, and others look at this we feel that “skepticism” (as a superset of scientific skepticism) and “rationalism” are synonymous and that the skeptics movement should encompass all rationalism not just scientific skepticism. But within the skeptics community, as PZ points out with multiple examples, there is a trend to make “skepticism” synonymous with “scientific skepticism” instead.

    Again, this is all observed in practice rather than what theoretically should be the case.

    Am I wrong that the Skeptic’s Movement should be a rationalist movement not just a subculture of rationalism focused on scientific skepticism?

    (Note, I use quotes a lot to avoid use-mention errors not to belittle the terms or as air quotes. A word in quotes simply denotes that I am referring to to the term itself, not what it represents)

  13. yankeeskepicon 31 Jan 2013 at 11:53 am

    I love the “MY SKEPTICISM, is way more important than YOURS!”
    This is based on how mad people get at you. The point is, there will be atheists that choose not to be activists. There will be people that feel more comfortable working to fight psychics. PZ may claim most people don’t believe in them, and yet, polls show a large portion of our public does. Even UFOs get good polling numbers. He may think that skeptics simply make fun of these people. They are “easy”. No they are hard, because a skeptic can not just make fun of them. You may say “only people that watch ‘Real Housewives’ shows would go to a psychic”, well don’t they deserve the truth and interaction with skeptics also? It’s not a numbers game, it’s a helping game.

    I became involved as my best friend committed suicide after a psychic took over $40,000 from her so she could talk to her dead son. She wasn’t “dumb”. I also help people that think they have been abducted by aliens, and the success rate is wonderful. Maybe it’s only changing lives one life at a time, but this is what I feel most comfortable doing.

    Some of us enjoy working one on one, with someone that needs help. Someone that I guess PZ would dismiss as they aren’t worth helping as they are too dumb to fall for something that has several major TV shows backing it up. Not everyone had the opportunity to go to college. Not everyone had the background he does, not everyone was born perhaps with the ability to handle college and higher education.

    But those people deserve our attention, and our kindness. Making fun of them, and I don’t know what skeptics PZ is hanging out with if that’s the only way he thinks they are dealt with, is an insult to them. Most skeptics I know work with them, educate them, and in fact the best method of all, give them the critical thinking skills to find out the answer themselves.

    I would say the psychic that knows he or she is lying, go after them. The UFO therapist that treat abductees, I have hate mail that would make anyone’s “best use of offensive language” list, they hate me because I do not treat them kindly. But, the people I work with that actually do believe this stuff, and later change their minds and learn skills they can bring to all their life, that’s a good feeling.

    “My work is more important than yours!” is like saying “My dog goes out to find avalanche victims, and yours just guides blind people! HA!” Life is about finding out what is a good fit for you. What you enjoy doing, and also get great satisfaction out of doing. It’s never fair to complain that work other people do is not “important”.

    I know someone that works at Wendy’s. Is her job important? PZ would probably say no, yet she greets each elderly customer by name, asks about their children and grandchildren and pets, and if one of them seems a bit out of it or doesn’t show up, she contacts their caregivers (she keeps a list). A lot of elderly people eat at Wendy’s because of the discount menu, many everyday. She took her “Unimportant” job and made it important.

    If your measure of success is the number of people that dislike you, well that is good if it makes you feel good. However, I enjoy the personal relationships I build working with the people PZ would just dismiss.

    I have another job, much like almost every skeptic I know, my choice for my skeptic activismtime is personal. It’s my own. But I know, you teach a person about aliens, or Bigfoot, they begin to apply that to every other aspect of their life. And 50% of the alien abductees I work with don’t believe in God, they are atheists. (The Bible is just people seeing aliens and making a religion out of it, which is fairly easy to disprove and also a great hook). Atheism is not the litmus test of critical thinking. Remember the moon hoax guy at TAM8 was an atheist.
    Atheism is important, but it’s also not the only game in town. Respect, for any work a skeptic is doing, and their personal choice of how to live their life, is what is missing in the skeptic movement at times.

  14. Steven Novellaon 31 Jan 2013 at 11:53 am

    nybgrus – I was specifically not attempting to define atheism. I said, for the purposes of this post only, when i refer to atheists and atheism this is what I mean – because the activist atheists in the movement, in my opinion, are mostly philosophical naturalists. In any case, I also acknowledge this is a gross oversimplification. I have to limit the scope of my article somehow.

    I include the comments because they reflect the community and what PZ says, he did not contradict any of them, despite leaving comments mostly to amplify what others were saying (and to be fair make a couple corrections). I was pretty clear that I am talking about the two competing narratives here, not just what PZ is saying individually.

    I know this is complex, and this is why I am trying to resolve the difference in appearance here. I have spoken to many activist skeptics on this issue – almost all of them are atheists. They think atheism is a legitimate part of critical thinking and the broader rationalist agenda. They think that skeptical inquiry should be applied to everything, including religion and faith. I am trying to correct the false impression by activist atheists that we think otherwise. They seem to vacillate between saying that we think atheism is not skepticism, or that we know that it is but are too cowardly to confront it. Neither is correct.

    What is correct is that there is a philosophically different approach between empirical claims and faith-based claims and it is necessary to acknowledge this.

    Second, there are cultural differences (differences in passion) between skeptics and atheists (again, as I have conveniently defined them for the purpose of this discussion). These differences are OK, we are sister movements. but some of use choose to keep them distinct to serve the purpose of specialization, focus, and marketing. They are significant enough that they matter.

    We are not trying to change what atheists do at their conferences or on their blog networks. We just don’t want them to tell use what to do on ours. Both movements have huge overlap, and are part of the larger rationalist movement. So let us specialize and get things done.

    I am not claiming universality on this issue, and the issue is complex so there is a lot of confusion. This is my position, and my interpretation of those skeptics with whom I have discussed it enough to know their position.

  15. Steven Novellaon 31 Jan 2013 at 11:58 am

    robots – in practice there is (regardless of what you think there should be) those who are interested in scientific skepticism, those who are interested in atheism/humanism, and those who are interested in both. There is overlap, and everything in between, and other tangential division – but this is the main picture of the landscape as I see it.

    Organizations have developed organically around these cultures, and I reviewed them quickly (at least as I see it).

    So – let’s not get bogged down in semantics. If the JREF wants to be a scientific skepticism organization, that is their business. CFI is a rationalist organization, with skeptical (CSI) and humanist divisions. I think that pretty clearly outlines the situation.

    What I would like is that we can recognize and respect the various permutations of focus, and all get along for the larger goal that we share. Why the hubbub?

  16. lotsoftinyrobotson 31 Jan 2013 at 12:43 pm

    Steve,
    “If the JREF wants to be a scientific skepticism organization, that is their business.” I completely agree and said roughly as much myself.

    I also think we should “all get along for the larger goal that we share.”

    The hubbub is because of the fact that we aren’t all getting along for the larger goal that we share because the individual organizations (atheist and scientific skeptic orgs alike) have narrowed their focus.

    We each obviously find our own focus more important than other areas (to us at least) or else we would presumably be doing something else. Is it any surprise then that when organizations start to focus, concern about scope creep leaks over into our discourse?

    Don’t get me wrong, organizations need a narrow focus or they will be spread too thin and niches must be filled to have a balanced ecosystem. I don’t have a problem with focused organizations, just organizations that start to narrow the scope of the broader movement towards their own.

    As for getting bogged down in the semantics, I only do that because the semantics matter in these discussions. You took great pains to define your terms and I appreciate that. It immediately clarified your opinions. But when the whole argument seems to be a difference in definition, that’s where the problem should be resolved.

    As I’ve said, I define “skepticism” in much the same way you use the term rationalism: a mental toolset for discerning reality. This obviously includes but is not limited to science, reason, logic, and philosophy.

    It seems to me that PZ is getting upset over skepticism being used as shorthand for scientific skepticism (which is then turned around towards him as an argument that atheism is not a part of that).

    Each subculture has defined it’s terms differently and is using those definitions to delimit the boundaries of their magisteria.

    Does that make sense?

  17. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 12:45 pm

    Thanks for the response Dr. Novella.

    I do see your points and certainly there is not only some overlap here but also talking past each other as well. And of course everyone makes oversimplifications (intentionally or not) and mistakes.

    But the core seems to me this sort of bias that PZ is really on about. He cited a number of examples – and I have seen many others and even experienced some myself – where the statement boils down to “skepticism is not atheism and atheism is not skepticism.” In other words that the two are fundamentally separate and atheism does not belong at skeptical conferences on principle rather than for focus or marketing reasons.

    We find it anathema that women would be excluded from a skeptical conference for any reason (even if it were a marketing one “The Man’s Skeptic Conference”) and we tend to agree that feminism should be discussed at skeptical conferences and steps taken to promote the inclusion of women and feminist speakers specifically. The subtle hegemonic marginalization of women in general and specifically in science and skepticism is something we root out and at least attempt to change. We feel it is nonsense that a person shouldn’t be able to speak about feminist topics and most certainly wouldn’t say it isn’t a skeptical endeavor.

    So why the difference with atheism/anti-theism? I cannot see a fundamental distinction between the two topics. And yes, while many skeptics and skeptical conferences do pick apart certain religious claims, that is not the same as having a skeptical subsection with specific lectures at conferences about cryptozoology, climate change denial, or creationism. Why is it reasonable to specifically address those entire topics from a skeptical vantage point and promote them at skeptical conferences, but not atheism? The fact that there are atheist conferences doesn’t seem like a good justification to me – there are climate change denial and anti-creationist conferences as well. It seems to me analagous to the valid skeptical concerns of women and subtle hegemonic misogyny. We don’t stand for that and we shouldn’t stand for subtle hegemonic anti-atheism either.

    TL;DR: The core issue is the subtle (and not so subtle) marginalization of atheism/anti-theism as an endeavor that is not intrinsically skeptical in nature, not whether skeptics conference should prominently feature atheist/anti-theistic speakers and workshops.

  18. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 12:47 pm

    well said lotsoftinyrobots.

  19. Steven Novellaon 31 Jan 2013 at 1:03 pm

    I guess we have to get down to some details. What is the kind of lecture or panel you would like to see at a skeptical conference that the prominent conference won’t cover? I am on the board of one conference, and advise two others, so I have some insight as to how such decisions are made.

    I anticipate that this issue is going to bleed over into tone – which I think is perfectly legitimate for a conference or any outlet. People have the right to set their own tone.

  20. Michael Bradyon 31 Jan 2013 at 1:15 pm

    Steven

    “I am going to define (for this post) three terms: scientific skepticism deals with empirical claims and the promotion of science, atheism focuses on opposing religion and faith, and rationalism seeks to apply reason and skepticism to all areas.”

    I like that and hope it catches on. Unfortunately “atheism” has long been so loaded with baggage it serves as a line in the sand, if not as a tripwire. Your writing and podcasting suggests you are a small “a” atheist – a non-believer who does not care to fight about. I use the term non-theist to describe my personal brand of agnosticism. PZ, on the other hand, is a large “A” Atheist – who thrives on conflict regarding this topic (in addition to his science related writing). Perhaps better described as an “anti-theist,” PZ and his crew of “angries” talk as though they believe that no one should believe in gods. As for other -isms, other recent events and this thread should make it painfully clear that skepticism is not atheism, progressivism, or feminism. Skeptics may abide by these and other creeds but it is not part of the definition. Like you said, “we” all self-organize according to what we wish to stand for, or fight about.

  21. Reapon 31 Jan 2013 at 1:26 pm

    Thanks for another reasonable post Steven. I’m not sure why come of the comments indicate that you may not have a good grasp on PZ’s position or where the problems originate from. You seem be perfectly clear on the subject(s) IMO. The problem with PZ is he wants to find black and white answers to social problems/interaction. While this is pretty easy to do when it comes to problems like racism, where racism is easily defined, it is not so easy when it comes to things like feminism. Feminism is not so easily defined because of the many types of feminism there are. PZ also seems to be easily influenced/intimidated by what I think is kinda like a large Stanford Prison Experiment, the internet. PZ thinks the behavior people demonstrate online is the same behavior they demonstrate in real life social interaction. That simply isn’t true, if it was the problems he frets about would be least of our worries. Until he realizes that he does not have the ability to evaluate a person’s personality or their biases solely depending on an internet exchange he will be ineffective. Another point that should be made is the personal attacks he allows to go on unchecked in his comment section, or the ones he engages in personally on his blog. The irresponsibility shown in those instances is shameful. I was at one time a supporter of his but I simply can not sit back and allow unfair character assassinations go on without speaking out against it. This has resulted in PZ turning his attacks on me as he will do to anyone who tries to speak out against him. There are countless examples of this in his blog posts, it is really too bad.

  22. Cornelioidon 31 Jan 2013 at 1:31 pm

    Dr. Novella,

    This continues to be a great conversation to watch unfold. I’m glad that so much common ground has been reached and i mostly agree with your concluding points here. As a regular listener, i can also attest that you frequently address religious claims and often political claims as well.

    One point i think i might illuminate; and i’ll try to stick to your three local definitions.

    “I think that paints a pretty clear picture. I am also not cherry picking – read the comments for yourself and tell me what the consensus of that community is.”

    Agreed—however, i think you’re omitting an important qualification to this attitude, namely that the people who take it toward the non-application of scientific skepticism toward religions would also take it toward its non-application toward alternative medicine. You might not consider it “cowardice”, but this would only be an issue if you did consider an exemption from alt-med criticism “cowardice”.

    Similarly, and more to the overall point: There are two meanings of “privilege” potentially at work here. One is an advantage that might be incurred by happenstance, such as the privilege (or lack thereof) to (or not to) an issue you find important at a skeptics conference that does not fall within their official or traditional purview. The other is a systemic favoritism for one perspective (or demographic) over another. I’m not convinced that Myers is correct that the issue of atheism within the sciento-skeptical purview is well-described as privilege, but at the same time you seem to be misunderstanding the framework (that, it’s clear to me, Myers is using).

    There is at least systemic disagreement (if not bias) over whether atheism (which, to briefly acknowledge the distinction, is often used interchangeably with the rejection of organized religions, whose dogmas invariably include false scientific claims) falls within the purview of scientific skepticism, and this is a hurdle for scientific skeptics who wish to put their emphasis on organized religions—a hurdle that does not exist in any systemic way within the movement (so far as i am aware) with respect to alternative medicine. That you are blasted for avoiding this topic (whether or not you do) does not refute that the hurdle exists; in fact it attests to it. (No one seems to feel the need to defend the inclusion of alternative medicine, at least within the movement. Am i wrong?)

    A classic analogy one might draw is to feminism. Systemic disagreement over whether women deserve a place in the polity (or in science, or wherever) is/was part of a broader systemic prejudice against women. That is, men are/were privileged in not having to argue and fight for their place in polity. That promoters of the view that women have no place in the polity receive harsh criticism from their opponents is not any kind of refutation of this privilege.

    So, while i don’t agree that the pushback against atheism is well-characterized in terms of “privilege” for the generally accepted domains of scientific skepticism, an argument from equal virulence does not constitute a rebuttal, since atheism as a topic is still the subject of that virulence.

    @jblumenfeld

    It’s worth noting that you and i are taking away similar but distinct points: discrimination against atheists as participants (with which i also disagree, but that is another conversation) and discrimination against atheism as a domain of scientific skepticism. I don’t really see that Myers is referring to the former in his response; for instance, Loxton’s criticism of the panel was not about excluding atheists but about including non-atheists. Would you disagree?

  23. RedMcWilliamson 31 Jan 2013 at 1:40 pm

    I doubt that the people who decried PZ’s or Dawkins’ inclusion at TAM or other skeptical conferences were doing so because they felt the need to defend the delineation between philosophical and methodological naturalism.

    That, to me, is PZs main point. Atheism is dismissed by some in the skeptical community for some reason but it is incorrect to do so. Just as Steve says he doesn’t wish to impose his ideas of skepticism on other people or other organizations, PZ is tired of public criticism of the inclusion of atheism in some skeptics’ minds and conferences.

    The point PZ made about Daniel Loxton is particularly noteworthy, I think.

  24. Cornelioidon 31 Jan 2013 at 1:57 pm

    @Reap

    While i disagree with much of your comment, i can sympathize with it; however, i believe that

    “PZ thinks the behavior people demonstrate online is the same behavior they demonstrate in real life social interaction.”

    is a false dichotomy. While the Internet affords us unprecedented opportunities for anonymity (paradoxically simultaneously with unprecedented risks of exposure), it is still “real life” in the sense that phone calls, postal mail, and waving (or making other gestures) to one another from the insides of vehicles are “real life”.

    Our behavior does change from online to in person, but that does not make the Internet setting any excuse for—or any reason to abstain from criticism of—condemnable behavior. (Do i misunderstand your point? Has Myers actually conflated the online environment with the in-person, or do you just interpret him as being “too” sensitive to online behavior?)

  25. chrisjon 31 Jan 2013 at 2:02 pm

    Dr. Novella, I tend to prefer your approach, but I would give slightly different reasons. A little background. I have always been an atheist and I have always appreciated science. I gained an interest in becoming an activist shortly after the events of 9-11. The New Atheists were all publishing their books and I was inspired to be more “out of the closet” with my atheism. However, over the past few years I have drifted more and more towards your approach. Most of the problems I was identifying as religious problems, were really problems with the process people use to arrive at their beliefs and the bad consequences of doing so. Faith is not a reliable process for arriving at true beliefs about the world, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are all kinds pitfalls in reasoning, as scientific skeptics are quite aware. My view is that starting with atheism first, puts the cart before the horse. We shouldn’t start with a conclusion and reason to it. We should always start with a process. Not that I think atheists are irrational or something, but I think we should focus on process and not on particular beliefs or lack of them. If we use reliable processes like science to arrive at our beliefs, the conclusions will take care of themselves. You have noted some success in de-converting people from religion even though atheism isn’t the focus of your activism. I think it is because your focus on epistemic process.

    In a nutshell, I think scientific skepticism focuses more on the process of arriving at beliefs and atheists focus more on a lack of one particular set of beliefs. This is not to say that atheists aren’t rational, most of them are. I want to emphasize that I think atheist, mostly do follow the best epistemic practices. I think it is just a matter of emphasis and focus. I value critical thinking and scientific skepticism more than I do my lack of belief in God. After all, if I was presented with good evidence of God’s existence, I would be compelled to change my mind about my atheism. I am almost certain this will never happen, but if it did, it would be irrational to maintain atheism. I think an emphasis on epistemic practice is the right emphasis.

  26. Jacob Von 31 Jan 2013 at 2:06 pm

    What matters and why…, tough questions as the human animal seems to be taking some small but meaningful and rational steps away from tens of thousands of years of ignorance and superstitions providing most of the answers. This debate seems to me more about process over goals and given the nature of human history and how irrational superstitions have been one of the most significant obstacles to rational thought and social development as well as scientific inquiry, it’s hard for me to parse out or separate ones actions as addressing provable versus un- provable claims given what seems to be the over arching goals of elevating reason, education and science. And achieving these goals must certainly and inevitably challenge beliefs whether they consist of un-provable claims or not.

  27. Philosofrenzyon 31 Jan 2013 at 2:21 pm

    I’m finding PZ’s reply to be puzzling. He wants to make it about how he gets persecuted at skeptics events, which is fine, but in so doing, he comes close to suggesting that Steve approves of this persecution, when he explicitly doesn’t. Steve says “let a thousand lights shine,” and PZ *disagrees* by pointing to how other people try to put out this or that light–as though Steve should be accountable to this. Steve says how he would like things to work, and PZ says he’s wrong because that’s not how things *actually* work. What a weird argument.

    He makes an opposite, and equally unreasonable move when he criticizes Jamy Ian Swiss’ talk. He takes Jamy to mean “no atheist activism allowed,” when he manifestly was arguing, on the contrary, that “you can’t tell me that skepticism HAS TO BE atheist activism or it’s not genuine skepticism.” It’s great if PZ doesn’t think atheist activism is necessary to “true skepticism,” (in which case it’s strange that he lets some of the comments to his post go unchallenged), but it doesn’t change the fact that there are people who think skepticism must be atheist activism too, and that *this* was what Swiss was addressing. How is this “appalling atheism-bashing”?

    PZ asks “So why is Novella complaining? Have I said anywhere that there is one-true-skepticism, and it is mine?” He seems to forget that the conversation started by his including Steve as part of the ‘old guard’ that wants to restrict the skeptical topics and keep atheism out. When Steve clarifies that this isn’t his position at all, PZ changes the subject, essentially, to how he gets insulted by *other* people, so Steve just doesn’t get it. He even seems to suggest that Steve’s not being entirely in his camp means that Steve tacitly supports those that hate him, which is just plain bizarre as a stance.

  28. Pooneilon 31 Jan 2013 at 2:24 pm

    I have noticed the “schism” you mention here among groups that identify as “skeptic” and “atheist.” A claim that one or the other is “just political” is divisive, because both types of organizations are based on social and political goals. We don’t practice science, we attempt to apply science and rationalism to move society forward in a way that we believe will bring a better future.

    The different groups just have a different emphasis to serve slightly different and personal understandings of what will make our world better. In my experience, skeptics have a minority position of people that have various theological leanings with a support of the overall goal of methodological naturalism, but who exempt certain of their on beliefs from skepticism. At the same time, atheist groups have a minority of people that are primarily anti-religious without an inclination to differentiate their own social opinions from settled science.

    Rationalism is a big tent and as long as we keep focused on the goals we have in common the movement can be a positive social and political force. Unfortunately the nastiest fights tend to be among groups that believe in mostly the same thing. We know that our non-critical-thinking critics will make political gains if we fight too much among ourselves.

  29. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 2:36 pm

    I guess we have to get down to some details. What is the kind of lecture or panel you would like to see at a skeptical conference that the prominent conference won’t cover? I am on the board of one conference, and advise two others, so I have some insight as to how such decisions are made.

    I anticipate that this issue is going to bleed over into tone – which I think is perfectly legitimate for a conference or any outlet. People have the right to set their own tone.

    Well, I took a quick look at a few big conferences: TAM, NECSS, CSICon, The World Skeptics Conference, and a smaller one the SkeptiCal (Northern California Science and Skepticism conference).

    In all honesty, there does seem to be at least some inclusion of religious topics in most of them. However, they are certainly not of the same quantity or focus as many other topics.

    All of them feature alternative medicine prominently. All of them feature paranormal investigators, anti-vaxxers, creationists, and are also quite heavy on specifically scientific skepticism. In other words, each features specific critiques of entire concepts. Not just specific aspects of creationism, but specific creationists and their tactics and influence on education (the concept of creationism). Not just specific anti-vaccine claims, but anti-vaxxers in general and their impact on health outcomes. And of course, CAM as a concept not just specific CAM claims. Climate change and denialism as concepts, rather than specific aspects. The same with gender issues.

    Whereas it would be ridiculous for me to list everything having to do with those topics and the rest of the conference line ups I can easily list every single topic even tangentially (yet still specifically) related to religion:

    The Neurobiology of Religious Experience
    Memory and Belief
    From Witch Burning to God-men: Supporting Skepticism around the work
    Overlapping Magisteria
    Unstoppable Secular Students
    Beware the Religio-Industrial Complex

    That’s it. And the belief one was tangential and the neurobio is once again a specific facet rather than the whole concept of religion. Of course this alone isn’t sufficient to prove the point but…

    …as PZ pointed out, the Overlapping Magisteria talk actually spent time talking about how atheism does not belong under the umbrella of skepticism at all.

    And Skepticon seems to have the most featuring of athiesm and discussion of religion as a concept and was, as PZ points out, maligned as not being a “true” skeptical conference, even though that only featured a significant minority of talking points relating to atheism.

    So why is it OK to skeptically point out the flaws in (and ridicule) the entire concepts of specifically creationism, anti-vax, CAM, sexism, racism, climate change denial, and “paranormal investigations” but not religion?

    Sure, tone can be part of it. But PZ documents well how it is actually quite beyond that and skeptic “authorities” assert that atheism – as you define it here – is simply not related to skepticism at all.

    And while each conference is absolutely entitled to set the tone and market that they wish, wouldn’t we get upset if that tone and market was only men allowed to speak and attend? Or only black people? Wouldn’t we be upset if there was just the token woman or black person and all were allowed, but speaking on issues of gender and race were kept minimal and neutered?

    This is not to say that there is no representation of these atheistic topics at any skeptical conference. And I don’t think PZ has asserted or even implied that. But I do see ample evidence that there is a pervasive thought amongst many skeptics, from the organizers of conferences to the attendees, that atheism is not at all related to skepticism and has nothing to do with it. All the while these same folks are happy to hone their skeptical skills on topics like creationism, CAM, and UFO’s but refuse to do the same with religion.

    And I can see – though perhaps not agree fully – PZ’s other point regarding cowardice. If a skeptical conference has a large portion devoted to calling out climate change denialists, anti-vaxxers, and sCAMsters, and pointing out that those who hold those beliefs are deluded for it and clearly not applying skeptical principles we are fine and can weather the (small) heat we get for it especially since those folk tend not to come to our conferences. But if we call out all of religion, or even all of a specific religion, and say the same thing about the necessary delusion believers of said religion(s) and their lack of application of skeptical principles, it is suddenly “inherently not skeptical” to do so. And yeah, a lot of religious folk come to our conferences and we’d risk alienating them. Yet we don’t care about alienating Bigfoot believers and 9/11 truthers.

    It is similar in kind, though not amount, to casually grumbling about how terrible segregation is back in the 1940′s and then doing nothing further about it.

  30. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 2:54 pm

    And of course I know that I am not 100% accurate here, but hopefully one can grok the substance of what I am trying to convey and extend a bit o’ the ol’ principle of charity.

    Also note that I meant “only white people” and then “token black person” but that should have also been reasonably obvious.

    I guess that the TL;DR: for this would be:

    Why is it OK for skepticism to focus in and hone its tools on the specific and general concepts of sexism, racism, creationism, conspiracy theory, etc but not do exactly the same thing for religion? Is it that each of the former is a discrete entity addressable by skeptical inquiry but religion is not? Because I would argue that is not the case.

    Chrisj said:

    Most of the problems I was identifying as religious problems, were really problems with the process people use to arrive at their beliefs and the bad consequences of doing so…My view is that starting with atheism first, puts the cart before the horse. We shouldn’t start with a conclusion and reason to it. We should always start with a process…If we use reliable processes like science to arrive at our beliefs, the conclusions will take care of themselves.

    And I absolutely agree. The point though is that skeptical conference do take on specific conclusions (anti-vax, AGW denial, CAM, creationism) both as examples of failures of skeptical inquiry/poor epistemological processes and topics worthy of combatting in the general population. In other words, we find it worthy as skeptics to educate people so that creationism is seen to be bankrupt and evolution is understood well enough to be accepted. So why can’t/won’t we do the same thing for religion/atheism?

    I’ve even seen it here amongst the skeptical blogs when I draw the parallel between religious thinking and CAM – they are both based on belief, faith, “other ways of knowing,” and “feeling.” When I say we should strive to educate people out of CAM usage and accept modern medicine even with its limitations I am generally lauded (well, except by pmoran who seems to think education won’t work for some reason). But the moment I say the same exact thing about religion and point out the inherent “badness” of religion exactly as I do for CAM, I become a pariah. I’ve even been scolded and been called strident and angry for wanted to eradicate religion in the exact same way I want to eradicate CAM. Because suddenly it seems as if I want to eradicate religious people instead of religious thought.

  31. chrisjon 31 Jan 2013 at 2:58 pm

    I would like to caution you on using falsification as a demarcation criterion for science as it seems you are doing in places here.

    “However, saying the universe was created 6,000 years ago to look exactly as if the universe were 13.7 billion years old is an unfalsifiable claim. Science cannot say that it is wrong – only that it is “not even wrong”- it is outside of science. This ejects it from the science classroom, from scientific consideration and investigation, from anything that matters.”

    The consensus in philosophy of science is that falsification fails as a simple demarcation criterion. This issue is more complicated. Falsification is important because, among other things, it protects us against confirmation bias, but one cannot use it as a simple demarcation criterion. There are lots of unfalsifiable claims that we might still want to call science.

    A few examples of legitimate scientific claims that seem to be not falsifiable. The following examples are from James Ladyman’s (2002) “Understanding the Philosophy of Science”

    1. Probabilistic statements about single events- Science tells us that the half-life of Uranium 235 is 710,000,000 years. We can state, “it is highly probable that if we start with 1 kg of U-235, then after 710,000,000 years 500 g will have decayed.” This statement seems like a legitimate scientific statement. However, it is unfalsifiable because there is a very small chance that 500 g will not have decayed and this outcome is compatible with the the statement. Regardless of whether 500 g of uranium decay, the statement is true.

    2. Existential statements- Scientific theories state that all kinds of things exist, e.g. black holes, viruses, DNA, electrons, and so on. These statements cannot be falsified by one’s failure to find the proposed entities.

    3. The Quine-Duhem problem- consider the conservation of energy. Most scientists would reject any experiment that would falsify this principle. Rather an apparent violation of this claim would be interpreted as revealing that there is something wrong with the rest of science. Probably they would propose a new source or form of energy. A similar argument could be made about the second law of thermodynamics. One can always make this move, because there are a number of assumptions which connect scientific statements to experiments and one can always reject one of the assumptions rather than the statement at hand. Theories tend to have a web of connected ideas that cannot just be considered in isolation. It can be difficult to tell when this is just ad hoc special pleading and when it is legitimate. This is not to say that there are no clear cut cases, it is just to say that there are cases that are not so clear cut. To be fair, the example you use here IS clear cut.

  32. Steven Novellaon 31 Jan 2013 at 3:02 pm

    Nybrus – that is a massive false analogy about racism. I explicitly stated that racism and sexism are morally wrong and we should deal with these issues, at least as they relate to our movement, and also if there are any empirical claims within them.

    Looks like we take on many religious issues also. Not sure why you don’t include creationism as religious. Last year at NECSS we had a speaker who is a woman who got out of an orthodox Jewish community. Fascinating story. This was about feminism, the culture of belief, totalitarian belief systems, and skeptical empowerment.

    So – what is it exactly that we are not covering that skeptical conferences should cover? You want us to call Christians stupid?

    You see – atheists complain about yet another article or lecture on bigfoot or homeopathy, while I think these issues need to be hammered. I just got an e-mail from a science teacher and chemist who learned what homeopathy really is from my show. Homeopathy is still legal in the US and most countries. It is an active issue. Skeptics care about such issues.

    While I know many skeptics would complain about – what are we going to do, sit around and talk about how stupid religion is? Boring.

    I am not arguing for either position being legitimate here – just pointing out the different cultures. Different conferences market themselves to different interests. So left different conferences have a different focus. We may emphasize pseudoscience, critical thinking, neuroscience, fraud, etc., and then dabble in more social issues, economics, and even belief systems and religion. We strike a certain balance and tone, appropriate to our target speakers and audience. Other conferences have a different target. Again – why should anyone be in the business of telling someone else how to define their conference? There seems to be plenty of outlets with a variety of policies.

  33. AGrayon 31 Jan 2013 at 3:36 pm

    It always bothers me when someone says “Atheists believe X.” If I use the word “atheist” to describe myself, I am only telling you what I don’t believe. I have given you no information to indicate what I DO believe. Nothing about my metaphysical or cosmological beliefs, nothing about my ideas about life or death or morals or how I live my life.
    I’m aware that “Atheist” is often assumed to mean “Non/Anti-religion,” specifically Christianity, but I don’t think those assumptions have any place in a discussion this nuanced.

  34. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 3:38 pm

    Dr. Novella – fair enough, but I can also state that religion is also morally wrong and we should deal with those issues. I would even argue that religion is more widespread and pervasive than either sexism or racism and that religion spawns a lot of racism and sexism itself.

    I do consider creationism religious, but the focus of skeptical discussions on it narrows the focus merely to claims specifically relating to creationism and evolution – not religion as a concept.

    The Jewish woman was a great story – I believe she was on SGU and I did enjoy learning about that. As I said, I am not trying to trap myself in a Nirvana fallacy. I recognize there is some discussion of religion in skeptical circles. You even write about it here from time to time.

    My point is not what you are covering but how. Why must homeopathy be hammered? It is legal? And you get emails from science teachers who find out what it is from your show? Religion is legal too. And plenty of people don’t know a lot about their own religion, let alone others (Pew polls show atheists know more about religion than religious people). I simply fail to see the demarcation.

    Homeopathy is a great example of a failure of critical thinking and it is causing ongoing harm. Religion is exactly the same. We don’t talk about how homeopaths are stupid, but how their failure in thought and attempts at pseudoscience cause harm. Why can’t we do the same about religion?

    So how is it not boring to talk about how stupid and bad homeopathy is, but it is so boring to talk about how religion is stupid? Why can we put up those videos of the “quantum” explanations for homeopathy and ridicule them and point out the flaws, but we can’t do the same for religious apologetics?

    The dismissive tone of how you wrote that – “what are we going to do, sit around and talk about how stupid religion is? Boring.” – is exactly what I am referring to, and I believe PZ (at least in part) as well. The skeptical movement has somehow decided that “religion is stupid = boring”, isn’t an appropriate target for skeptical inquiry, and time to move on. I don’t think it is boring. I do think it is actively harmful. I think it actively detriments the teaching of science at a vastly more fundamental and pervasive level than creationism or homeopathy. All these claims have belief systems at their core and the largest belief system in the world is religion.

    Again – why should anyone be in the business of telling someone else how to define their conference? There seems to be plenty of outlets with a variety of policies.

    Absolutely agreed. But saying “This is our conference and we just don’t want to talk about religion because that is our prerogative” is quite different than saying “Religion and atheism are not skeptical topics and cannot be addressed skeptically. Oh yeah, and it is boring and doesn’t really need to be addressed either.”

    It just seems that the criteria for what constitutes a good concept to hammer in on and hone in on for skeptical conferences doesn’t in any way preclude religion and atheism. And there are very good arguments that religion as a whole does more damage to science education, feminism, and racial equality than just about any other topic typically covered but it is rarely addressed anything more than tangentially.

    But the biggest issue is that there is a general “anti-atheist” sentiment which the skeptical community is not immune to and has indeed exhibited. Talk all you want about bigfoot and homeopathy or even a very specific empirical religious claim, but don’t criticize the concept of religion seems to be not uncommon. On the one hand it can be because the process should lead to the conclusion – religion is stupid and detrimental. But the assumption that it is so obvious is demonstrably false and it is no more obvious than homeopathy. But on the other “anti-atheist” sentiment should be considered just as bad as anti-feminist sentiment. Saying that atheists can go to their own conferences and do their own thing is the same as saying feminists can do the same thing.

    So I am not advocating that skeptical conferences should be atheist conferences. I am not even advocating that they should feature any atheist topics. But the anti-atheist sentiment that PZ documents and I have seen myself should be eschewed and if specifically atheistic topics are not approved to be part of skeptical conferences then it should be purely a matter of editorial concern (which it isn’t, not entirely).

    I would, of course, advocate that specifically atheistic topics should be included in skeptical conferences for the above mentioned reasons plus many more. But that does not mean skeptical conferences should be atheist conferences… merely that they should include specifically atheist topics as a subset under the umbrella of skeptical inquiry just like all the others. How much and how valid that is is a separate conversation.

    (I am using atheism in the definition you provided for the purposes of discussion)

  35. Philosofrenzyon 31 Jan 2013 at 3:48 pm

    “The dismissive tone of how you wrote that – “what are we going to do, sit around and talk about how stupid religion is? Boring.” – is exactly what I am referring to, and I believe PZ (at least in part) as well.”

    To be fair, I believe Steven was saying that some people would feel this way about religion, just as atheist activists feel about Bigfoot, etc., not that he ACTUALLY thought the topic of religion is boring.

  36. Sastraon 31 Jan 2013 at 4:02 pm

    Dr. Novella wrote:

    What is correct is that there is a philosophically different approach between empirical claims and faith-based claims and it is necessary to acknowledge this.

    This statement is controversial, and may indicate one of the points of disagreement here.

    Faith-based claims are empirical claims. Religious people are not just stating vague preferences or playacting a role for no good reason — not if they take religion seriously and most of them take it very seriously indeed. People believe in God (or ghosts or Higher Consciousness or karma) because of evidence, experience, and reason applied to both. It is the same approach they use when they reason their way to other beliefs. The “faith” aspect doesn’t indicate anything unique about the nature of the claim, nor the epistemology used to arrive at the conclusion.

    Instead, it signals partiality and bias: faith is an immunizing strategy. It’s introduced afterwards, to protect a claim from normal processes of evaluation — particularly when these methods aim at objectivity and eliminating subjective bias. Belief becomes identity, a commitment made and a promise you try to keep.

    This is the opposite of the scientific, skeptical temperament. As Jerry Coyne has succinctly put it, in religion faith is a virtue; in science it is a vice.

    PZ is right then to compare theism to alt. med. They are hypotheses, purported explanations which not only lack evidence and plausible mechanism, they fail to fit in which what we DO know — and they ought to. Any definition of God or religion which has any detail to it assumes such things as mind/body dualism, pk, esp, vitalism, and/or essences. And, like alternative medicine, the existence of God is believed in passionately by people who ultimately think that conclusions on this issue have more to do with what “paradigm” you follow, what kind of person you are, and how open, sensitive, wise, and ethical you want to be. Turning a rational process into a identifying brand is an illicit attempt to protect a view from falsification.

    It also demonizes the other side in a darker and more significant way than simply being rationally mistaken.

    Many skeptics see religion as the Big Enchilada, the foundational giant which legitimizes poor habits of thought and fallacious types of reasoning by re-branding them as virtues. Like PZ, I think that it is important to go against the common folk wisdom which has too long immunized religion from critical inquiry and instead acknowledge that no, there really is no philosophically different approach between empirical-claims and faith-based claims. Not when you analyze them carefully, instead of skirting them strategically.

  37. Todd W.on 31 Jan 2013 at 4:02 pm

    @nybgrus

    How, would you say, is religion morally wrong? Is it so 100% of the time? Do you make a distinction between organized religion vs. religion as a personal belief?

  38. Thomathyon 31 Jan 2013 at 4:08 pm

    I notice that yet to be addressed is the clear fact that atheists are singled out and maligned in the sceptic movement.

    Isn’t that an important part of this discussion?

    I don’t actually see anyone claiming that any given organisation shouldn’t have the focus that it does or that it should necessarily have to include certain topics. What actually is in evidence, however, is that prominent sceptics and some plurality of sceptics in general, have a problem with the inclusion of atheism under the sceptic umbrella. It clearly belongs there, as do many of the other things that intersect with scepticism as a tool, but for whatever reason, it is specifically singled out.

    Steve, you’re wondering what the hubub is and it’s that there is a segment of the sceptic community that has decided that certain topics are outside of scepticism, that atheists and feminists (to name only two categories) are trying to usurp scepticism.

    Jamy Ian Swiss even said, in an interview on your podcast, that he has a specific problem with people trying to move his tent. Well, he clearly thinks that he has and is entitled to a definition of scepticism that includes what the purview of scepticism can be. Apparently, the ‘tent’ isn’t actually big enough for all the people who self-identify as sceptics, especially with attitudes like Jamy Ian Swiss’s.

    To be very forward and to press quite hard: Can you acknowledge the point that has been made that atheists feel discriminated against? Can you acknowledge that there is a vocal component of the sceptic movement that evidently does not want scepticism to include certain topics?

  39. idoubtiton 31 Jan 2013 at 4:09 pm

    nybgrus: I don’t have a problem talking about atheism and religious topics at skeptical conferences but with caveats. 1 – Balance. It’s shouldn’t mostly ALL be about one subject (people are diverse in interest); and 2 – It often turned into anti-theism. (Black/white thinking, you’re a bad skeptic, etc.) I think it’s absolutely wrong to belittle believers in ghosts or psychic powers or UFOs the same as belief in god(s). It’s more complicated than “you’re stupid to believe that”. I cringe whenever I hear skeptics do it. And I also don’t think that we should belittle our colleagues for not accepting that eradicating religion should be our sole goal. We all have our niches.

    One item that is not clarified here is who exactly we are talking to. Who is the audience at a skeptical conference? Skeptics. Who is the audience for your public blog or podcast or interview sound bite? The public. When the audience is different, it pays to tailor your information and tone accordingly to reach them. PZ appeals to the atheist crowd. Exclusively. I LIKED it when he appealed more to the broader audience interested in biology and good science. I still like to listen to Steve because he doesn’t alienate people as PZ has.

    I’ve never found the whole thing about empirical claims vs value judgements difficult to recognize and adhere to. I get the feeling the people who DO find it difficult is because they don’t want it to be that way. It’s hard, you’re often wrong, and sometimes don’t get your way.

  40. Steven Novellaon 31 Jan 2013 at 4:09 pm

    Sastra – read the previous comments. I believe I have addressed this numerous times.

    To whatever extent anyone’s beliefs are supported with facts and logic, they are fair game for skepticism. If they retreat entirely to faith either on principle or to insulate themselves from refutation, then their beliefs are outside of human knowledge, outside of the scientific arena, and reside solely in the realm of personal faith. Anything you could hope to accomplish has been accomplished by this as far as practicality is concerned.

    You are welcome to try to change that person’s beliefs. I do so by teaching critical thinking and hoping they apply it to their own beliefs.

    I am not sure how you are defining epistemology, but faith is exactly about that. (Maybe you are confusing religion with faith.) It is believing without knowing. Science deals with the knowing.

  41. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 4:11 pm

    @Todd W.:

    I say it is morally wrong in the exact same way I would say sexism is morally wrong.

    The distinction I would make between organized religion vs religion as a purely personal belief is merely one of degree.

    If a person is truly sexist, but never acts on it and keeps it as a purely internal belief they are obviously doing less harm since the only person being harmed is him or herself.

    So yes, it is morally wrong 100% of the time in the same way that sexism is morally wrong 100% of time.

    It is especially morally wrong when young children are forced (and force can mean kind teachings to the exlcusion of other information, not just outwardly obvious abuse) to ascribe to their parents’ religion.

  42. Todd W.on 31 Jan 2013 at 4:15 pm

    @nybgrus

    So, if someone’s personal religious beliefs were that there is a big imaginary sky-daddy that created stuff (at some arbitrary point) and expects people to be good to one another regardless of that other person’s beliefs, you would say that their religious belief is morally wrong? Even if they believe that their beliefs are their own and that everyone else can come to their own beliefs?

  43. Steven Novellaon 31 Jan 2013 at 4:16 pm

    I do not accept as a proven fact that atheists are maligned and singled out in the skeptical movement. That has not been my experience. Most of us are atheists. What I see are attempts to protect the scope and mission of specific outlets from atheists who want to dictate that scope, not content for whatever reason with their own outlets.

    I think specific atheists are criticized by some (not me) for their tone and methods by those who advocate a different approach. In the same way, I and others are maligned (to use your words) as cowards, lazy, and dishonest by some atheist activists. (So no high ground there)

    I am saying – let everyone follow their own style and scope as they see fit. Honestly, it seems to be working well if we just leave everyone alone to do what they want.

  44. chrisjon 31 Jan 2013 at 4:18 pm

    I think that if your goal is to promote atheism, it MIGHT be a better strategy to criticize “faith” rather than “religion.” Faith is a means or process for fixing ones beliefs and, I think we can all agree, a very bad one. “Religion,” on the other hands includes not just a set of beliefs arrived at by faith. It is also used as a cultural identity. There are lots of people who identify as Jewish or even Christian who do not have faith, do not believe in the existence of God, etc. These people identify with the culture, tradition, and perhaps some of the ethical teachings without arriving at beliefs through faith. If you criticize a religion, you criticize someone’s identity. You might avoid SOME of the problem by just focusing on process, i.e. just focus on criticizing faith.

    side note: I realize my comment about falsification was off topic. my apologies.

  45. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 4:22 pm

    @idoubtit:

    That’s the rub, though. “I’m an atheist” is boring. Same as “I’m an a-homeopathist” is boring.

    What becomes interesting (and useful) is the anti-theism. The “why we shouldn’t give religious thought special quarter” conversations.

    I totally get the audience and the alienation aspects. I think that is exactly what Dr. Novella and the SGU does and do well (though my own fiance just admitted to me last night she can’t stand to listen to SGU because it is too much about general skepticism and not enough facts – once again, to each their own). However, as Tomathy said that is not the entirety of the issue – it is the small, but present, anti-atheist sentiment and discrimination that is present even in the skeptical community. I do not think Dr. Novella espouses this at all. I do not think it is a hugely pervasive problem. But it is a problem and one that is not addressed adequately when it comes up.

  46. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 4:26 pm

    @Todd W.:

    No we are getting thorny and off topic. Yes, in the same way that a sexist person who thinks everyone else can choose to be sexist or not is still, to some degree albeit quite small, morally wrong.

    In your example, if the person acts on this faith then he is being right for the wrong reasons. Which is still, to some degree wrong. It is certainly better than being wrong for the right reasons, but at base is still wrong.

    If the person doesn’t act on it then it becomes a moot point. Same with the sexism.

  47. Halfdeadon 31 Jan 2013 at 4:28 pm

    Dr. Novella,

    I agree you do address religious claims I listen to SGU regularly. I think, and this is only my impression of how its coming across, you are making the tiny sliver of what is unfalsafiable into the main focus of what people in the real world are actually saying, when 99% of the claims they are making are completely falsifiable.

  48. Todd W.on 31 Jan 2013 at 4:32 pm

    @nuybgrus

    Sorry, just playing devil’s advocate (no pun intended). So what you’re saying is that if a person holds the religious beliefs I mentioned, that is just as morally wrong as someone who, even if they don’t act on it, believe that a member of the opposite gender is inherently inferior to their own gender?

    Getting more on topic, I wonder if the “anti-atheism” bit is truly anti-atheism or if it’s more “anti-”. I’ve noticed a lot of the anti-PZ stuff that I’ve seen, even if it includes anti-atheism sentiments, seems primarily driven by dislike of PZ himself. The anti-atheism stuff seems more tacked on as a justification, rather than a motivation. Of course, I don’t see everything, so I may very likely be wrong. Just an impression I get.

  49. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 4:34 pm

    At least we seem to have gotten to the crux of it. Perhaps there is no systematic anti-atheist discrimination – I am certainly no expert. But from what I have seen and read, there does appear to be at least some. Maybe PZ is blowing it out of proportion; I’m genuinely not in a position to argue between him and Dr. Novella. But I do think it is unreasonable to say it doesn’t exist at all.

    And it does speak on its own to realize that discussing and dismantling all sorts of claims is fine, except that doing the same with religion as a construct is so alienating.

  50. SARAon 31 Jan 2013 at 4:35 pm

    This entire discussion is why I don’t like movements. People can’t agree. And maybe they shouldn’t.

    But the inability to accept that disagreement, the need to be “right” and to make everyone agree is often detrimental and distracting.

    About the only point I wish people would listen to is Steven’s point that most of this debate is just viewpoint and not something that can be proven.

    It is therefore, not necessary to agree to some commonality.

    The debate creates division and not consensus.

    The inability to accept that there is no right answer, that we don’t have to agree to move forward, that someone else’s view does not undermine your own, is the hallmark of a fundamentalist.

  51. RedMcWilliamson 31 Jan 2013 at 4:37 pm

    Dr Novella,

    Do you think Daniel Loxton and Barbara Drescher were attempting to “protect the scope and mission of specific outlets from atheists who want to dictate that scope” when they complained about that panel at TAM?

    There seem to be folks on both sides that are trying to dictate the scope.

    And, yes, it’s anecdotal but do you doubt PZs claim that he gets “a flood of email and twitter protestations every time he’s invited to participate at The Amazing Meeting, Skepticon, or NECSS”?

  52. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 4:42 pm

    @Todd W.:

    I am saying that if you truly believe in something and truly don’t act on it, it is entirely a moot point (just like how Dr. Novella states that a purely faith based claim is “not even wrong”). So perhaps we could call it “not even amoral.”

    I suppose you could find a circumstance where a religious belief that was acted on is truly isolated from anything else and the outcomes of it are 100% positive and make an argument that this is an example of a religious belief that is not immoral. But that would be just as contrived as me coming up with an example of a sexist who uses that belief to support women and ultimately engender equality. And either would only serve as the exception to prove the rule.

    At base though, any religious belief must be a faith based one and is thus, IMHO, intrinsically “bad.” Whether that means “amoral” in the hypothetical contrived sense becomes thorny, but from a practical standpoint it is certainly true to say that religion as it actually exists in the world is amoral.

    By distilling it to one (or a few) isolated belief that isn’t acted upon, I would argue that you are no longer referring to religion. So it may be “bad” but not “amoral” and it may not be something we should care enough to worry about.

    As for the part re: PZ and anti-atheism… I see your point and absolutely agree that is a part of it. However, I believe that does not explain the totality of it.

  53. Sastraon 31 Jan 2013 at 4:44 pm

    Steven Novella wrote:

    To whatever extent anyone’s beliefs are supported with facts and logic, they are fair game for skepticism. If they retreat entirely to faith either on principle or to insulate themselves from refutation, then their beliefs are outside of human knowledge, outside of the scientific arena, and reside solely in the realm of personal faith. Anything you could hope to accomplish has been accomplished by this as far as practicality is concerned.

    My disagreement though is over their “retreat to faith” — I don’t think people who do this really have faith in it. Meaning, I don’t think they sincerely believe that their beliefs are irrational, outside of human knowledge, outside of the scientific arena, or solely personal. The retreat is an illusion, and not what it appears to be. They invoke faith not in order to take themselves and their views outside of the game of critical inquiry, but to elevate themselves within it and commit a category error. And my concern is that when we credit them with being “untouchable” they are nothing of the sort. But they love to be reassured.

    How is “faith” defined? It seems to be one of those deepities, like “spirituality.” I strongly suspect its meaning is ambiguous and slippery for good reasons. Atheists who define it as “belief without evidence” aren’t really following what the religious themselves think it is, nor how they use it.

    They do have evidence. The evidence is enough to convince anyone who’s open. No, it’s not compelling. People who don’t want to believe won’t be forced. In other words, the evidence won’t convince a “skeptic.”

    The religious usually use faith to mean a willingness to meet truth half way, and a commitment to stand loyally by what’s True. When it’s used as an epistemology it’s apparently a form of ESP, a ‘way of knowing’ through some inner sense.

    It all springs from the same sloppy tendencies and habits of thought. When people protect supernatural, paranormal, and pseudoscientific claims they almost always fall back on supernatural ‘certainties’ they can count on in religion, and apologetic techniques they can find reinforced in religion.

  54. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 4:47 pm

    @SARA:

    Very excellent points and I agree. The issue is not, for me at least, one about whether we should agree that the skeptic movement should incorporate anti-theism prominently. It is to address the point that RedMcWilliams (and others) raised- the anti-atheist sentiment.

    That said, I am perfectly happy to admit it is in general quite minor and for all practical purposes can be essentially ignored. Hence why I have never raised it here or anywhere else even though I agree with it being present and have experienced it myself. But this was a discussion specifically about this fine point that is necessarily troublesome. After all this is PZ and Dr. Novella disagreeing here, not Eugenie Scott and Ken Ham.

    I will also clarify that I am not arguing with the intent of converting people to my viewpoint. Obviously the only way to really argue anything is to state the viewpoint and if we already agreed the conversation would be over. But for me this is an opportunity to flesh out ideas, thoughts, see where I may be wrong, and offer up information and thoughts of my own for others to do the same. At a minimum I will be considering this topic more consciously in my future relevant readings (and at TAM when I go this year) and with a more.. skeptical eye.

  55. Thomathyon 31 Jan 2013 at 4:48 pm

    I do not accept as a proven fact that atheists are maligned and singled out in the skeptical movement.

    On this point I suppose we’ll have to disagree.

    What I see are attempts to protect the scope and mission of specific outlets from atheists who want to dictate that scope, not content for whatever reason with their own outlets.

    This is an odd thing to see, especially if atheists are a subcategory within the larger sceptical movement. I consider myself to be a sceptic. I see myself as belonging to the sceptical movement. I am also atheist and gay and feminist; I self-identify as many things. I am also an activist in regards to each of those things. As a member of the sceptic movement (Membership is self-chosen, isn’t it?), should I not be entitled to ask that the scope and mission of a specific outlet that I may be a part of be extended to include things that I rightfully consider within the scope of scepticism?

    Whether or not I consider myself first and foremost to be a sceptic activist or a gay rights activist or anything else, the sceptical commmunity is a place where I feel I belong, it is a place where I have chosen to belong and a place where I ought to be able to belong. I have to wonder that if what you see is true, whether there actually is a place for me within the community, especially if the inclusion of some of my sceptical passions require protecting against.

    I absolutely agree that it would be best if everyone could leave well-enough alone and get on in their own way, but it’s clear that there is some problem, certainly not solely that of atheists, when what you see is sceptic outlets having to protect themselves from a shift in focus ‘dictated’ by atheists whether or not they also have their own outlets.

    In the case of atheism and scepticism, people seem to be waking up to the fact that there is significant overlap between what used to be two separate identities, even waking up to the fact that atheism can be fully within a sceptical identity. This is happening more and more, with feminism and LGBTQ issues and racism and class inequality, from politics to economics. People are identifying first as sceptics with their other beliefs subject to scepticism, even resulting from the application of scepticism. It’s a problem that any outlet that considers itself first and foremost as sceptic should see any need to protect itself from attempts to ‘dicate’ the scope.

    (I take specific issue with your use of ‘dictate’ and framing the issue as atheists trying to dictate to sceptics the focus of their outlets. I would think ‘broaden’ is a better term, from my perspective.)

  56. Steven Novellaon 31 Jan 2013 at 5:02 pm

    I take PZ at his word. I said I cannot account for nor will I defend the actions of anonymous people on the internet. There are also probably a complex set of reasons for such protests, but I can only speculate.

    But PZ’s original post was about the skeptical “old guard” and that I can speak to. We do include religious topics, although we emphasize empirical claims and critical thinking. At NECSS we also try to emphasize science specifically (we actually consider ourselves a hybrid science and skeptical conference, hence the name). Some old guard is outright rationalist. There is a spectrum.

    The prevailing sentiment I hear is that there is a nice division of labor between skeptical conferences and groups and atheist conferences and groups. This works well, it tends to follow natural cultural divisions, it allows us to focus on promoting science and perhaps penetrate different demographics. The lines are fuzzy, but that’s actually a good thing. It gives us some wiggle room. So why insist that everyone has to promote atheism directly in the same way at every venue? I have only experienced skeptics recoiling from that insistence. I still have not heard any reasonable justification for it.

    I specifically reject the “bigfoot skeptic” criticism that our focus is not broad enough and our topics not important enough. If you think that, this is just evidence, in my opinion, for the cultural difference I am talking about. It’s why we need different conferences with difference characters.

  57. Philosofrenzyon 31 Jan 2013 at 5:07 pm

    @Thomathy

    “Jamy Ian Swiss even said, in an interview on your podcast, that he has a specific problem with people trying to move his tent. Well, he clearly thinks that he has and is entitled to a definition of scepticism that includes what the purview of scepticism can be. Apparently, the ‘tent’ isn’t actually big enough for all the people who self-identify as sceptics, especially with attitudes like Jamy Ian Swiss’s.”

    But you’ve mischaracterized Jamy Ian Swiss’ actual argument, just as PZ does. Jamy objected to people “moving” the tent–i.e., saying “no, no, skepticism ISN’T x, it’s y: you have to be y to be a ‘true skeptic.” The objection is against the very notion of defining what “counts” as a good skeptic, and yet PZ, and others, somehow take that to mean that he was *defining what counts as a good skeptic.* It’s a bit ridiculous. You couldn’t get further from his intended meaning–it’s literally the exact opposite.

    There’s something very strange going on here. Athest activists insist that “true skeptics” are also atheist activists. Other skeptics object that they are quite happy to focus on other things, thank you, and that you shouldn’t try to redefine skepticism as being whatever your pet interest is. Atheist activists are offended and outraged at this, and cry foul–that they’re being discriminated against, and that skeptics “don’t think atheist activists have a place within the skeptical movement.” It’s bizarre. It’s very much like how religious people cry foul, and claim persecution when they are prevented from persecuting other people.

    Now I’m not saying there is no discrimination against atheist activists–maybe there is some, and if there is, it’s bad. But I think PZ exaggerates how much there is, how pervasive it is, and what form it takes–and further seems to think that the big names and leaders in the skeptical movement actually endorse it, when most have explicitly come out as saying that no, they don’t, and they think everyone should be able to focus on whatever they want to–just as Steven has here.

  58. Steven Novellaon 31 Jan 2013 at 5:10 pm

    Thomathy -I don’t see atheists as a subset of skeptics. I see skeptics and atheists as overlapping circles. Not all atheists are skeptics, and not all skeptics are atheists. This is, in fact, what the survey information we do have shows. (I believe the overlap is 70%.)

    There are related but distinct scopes in terms of focus, emphasis, and tone. I didn’t make it this way, but this is the way it is. So why not allow different groups to set their own focus and tone?

    In any case, we are open to discussions about what this scope is. It is a moving fuzzy line. But saying we should broaden it in a way you desire is trying to dictate it.

  59. Sastraon 31 Jan 2013 at 5:11 pm

    nybgrus wrote:

    I will also clarify that I am not arguing with the intent of converting people to my viewpoint.

    Oh, dear — then what’s the point?

    Maybe you’re just distancing yourself from the implications of the word “convert,” but it seems strange to me whenever scientific skeptics seem to eager to deny that they’re trying to change anybody’s mind.

    This fear that trying to work towards a consensus in a debate is really just one person imposing themselves on another one and inhibiting a happy diversity of viewpoints usually comes out of the sort of category confusion religion delights in, where beliefs are identity and if nybgrus successfully converts me to his viewpoint then all we’ve got now is a couple of little nybgrus clones and the world has lost the individual piece of artwork that once was me.

    Maybe this isn’t one of those situations where nobody is right or wrong, just different. Maybe you’re right. Don’t apologize for arguing. At least, not in general.

    Personally, I think Dr. Novella and Dr. Myers aren’t too far apart.

  60. Todd W.on 31 Jan 2013 at 5:12 pm

    @nybgrus

    It seems to me then, that your argument (re: the moral “wrongness” of religion) can be boiled down to this (though perhaps oversimplified): beliefs that are arrived at via irrational means are inherently morally wrong, regardless of whether they are acted upon or are “good” or “bad”.

    Getting back to atheism at conferences, I’ve been to the past two NECSSes (NECSSi?), and each one had at least one discussion touching on atheism/religion/secularism. Two years ago, one of the panels discussed skepticism and the founding fathers. Or at least, that’s what it was billed as. I had been looking forward to it, and I expected at least a portion of the talk to focus on how some of the founding fathers held secular, if not outright atheistic, beliefs. The speakers indeed put forward evidence suggesting the possible atheistic leanings, which was fine, but ultimately, the tone struck me more as a session of religion-bashing. Frankly, I found it boring because it didn’t really get me thinking. It certainly did not address the larger picture implied by the title; I was expecting to learn how they applied skepticism to more aspects than just religion. And ultimately, the speakers (well, one in particular) came off as a bit strident. I wouldn’t have had any problem with discussing atheism or how it relates to the founding of the U.S., but it almost seemed as if, in an effort to assert the virtues and long history of atheism in this country, the speakers were trying so hard that they just came off as little different from a believer arguing in support of their beliefs.

    And I think that perhaps that’s where the issues may be coming from. Too often, when I hear someone advocating atheism, it really strikes me as just as fundamentalist as an evangelical Christian. Maybe it comes from a sense of persecution, a desire to assert that much more strongly that their views are worth hearing. My own background is coming at this as a person who was an evangelical and is now an atheist.

    Anyway, my two cents, which should not be taken as attempting to narrow the scope of any skeptical discussion. The topic’s fine, it’s the presentation that matters.

  61. RedMcWilliamson 31 Jan 2013 at 5:19 pm

    I guess it all depends on whose ox is being gored, but I see PZ also saying that we need different types of conferences and groups and that no one should dictate to another what “type” of skeptic someone else should be.

    So everyone feels like they’re being attacked by everyone else while agreeing almost completely with each other about how things should go.

    Sounds like we’re right on track!

  62. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 5:21 pm

    @sastra:

    In this case I am not arguing to convert. When someone argues against evolution or plies CAM garbage, then yes, that is my explicit argument.

    Here, I am not versed well enough in the details to really argue such that I would be happy if someone converted to my view. I am just as happy to convert to theirs and argumentation about what I perceive to be the case vs what others do is a means to that end. I also recognize that in this case I may well be wrong and hope I have tempered my rhetoric enough in light of that. I tend to agree with PZ, but I recognize Dr. Novella’s relevant expertise. Trying to convert someone to my view here on this topic would be like me trying to do the same in a conversation about physics between Krauss and Mlodinow.

    When it comes to things I am well versed in – evolution and medicine for example – I am more than happy to admit I am trying to change someone’s mind. I am not worried you will become a clone of me and lose some unique diversity of opinion. I just recognize my own limitations in this discussion. So I wasn’t apologizing for arguing – merely trying to be clear that I am not intending to be antagonistic or on the offensive since that can be easily lost or misinterpreted.

    I also agree that PZ and Dr. Novella are nott too far off from each other.

  63. ccbowerson 31 Jan 2013 at 5:21 pm

    “At least we seem to have gotten to the crux of it. Perhaps there is no systematic anti-atheist discrimination – I am certainly no expert. But from what I have seen and read, there does appear to be at least some. Maybe PZ is blowing it out of proportion;”

    I think there is something to this ‘blowing it out of proportion.’ PZ is fairly aggressive and fairly unapologetic which makes him more of a target for disagreement with others, and for those people to react to what he says because they don’t like his personality or approach or arguments. He may be (and his detractors maybe doing this as well) conflating this dislike of his personality and style of argument and the more general view of atheism within skepticism.

  64. Thomathyon 31 Jan 2013 at 5:24 pm

    If I’ve misunderstood Jamy Ian Swiss, very well. I can’t say that I didn’t actually take away from his interview anything other than what I have. I’m certainly willing to reevaluate what he said, but I can’t promise I won’t hear the same thing again.

    You’re working on a generalisation while complaining about a generalisation. Not all atheist activists insist that ‘true sceptics’ are also atheist activists. PZ Myers hasn’t done that and I haven’t and no one on this thread has and no one over at Pharyngula has. Who has? Names have been named from the ‘sceptical community’ identifying those who have spoken out against atheist inclusion, so I must insist that if you want to claim that atheist activists think that the only true sceptics are atheist activists, you’re going to have to get specific.

    you shouldn’t try to redefine skepticism as being whatever your pet interest is

    You know it’s funny that you can claim that atheists want to redefine scepticism to be atheism right after you say this:

    skeptics object that they are quite happy to focus on other things

    Things like their pet interests? Like alt-med and (I can’t resist) bigfoot.

    There’s nothing at all wrong with any sceptic wanting to focus on a particular thing. It’s good, as both Steven Novella and PZ Myers agree, that sceptics focus on different things, like atheism or homeopathy or whatever else.

    A problem is intentionally excluding other things from the sceptical movement in general. And that’s something that I, and I believe others, think is actually happening.

    It’s fascinating that while you claim atheists are trying to redefine scepticism (and you presumably self-identify as a sceptic), atheists (who also self-identify as sceptics) see some sceptics as trying to define scepticism in order to narrow it. Obviously, Steven Novella isn’t doing that and neither is PZ Myers, so that’s not at issue between them. What’s fascinating really, is how the people who claim these things seem to be talking past each other. Perhaps some people need to lay off generalisations and get more specific?

  65. Sastraon 31 Jan 2013 at 5:26 pm

    philosophrenzy wrote:

    Jamy objected to people “moving” the tent–i.e., saying “no, no, skepticism ISN’T x, it’s y: you have to be y to be a ‘true skeptic.” The objection is against the very notion of defining what “counts” as a good skeptic, and yet PZ, and others, somehow take that to mean that he was *defining what counts as a good skeptic.*

    Yes, that’s what I thought he meant. I remember waiting to see if Jamy was going to ask atheists to lay off of religion at skeptics conferences and didn’t hear that. Iirc, his view was that good skeptics could be inconsistent — and that it was okay to attack them for that inconsistency and still consider them allies.

    There’s something very strange going on here. Athest activists insist that “true skeptics” are also atheist activists.

    Okay, I think there’s a general misunderstanding here being fueled by misinterpretations. From what I can tell, atheist activists are not insisting that “true skeptics” are ALSO atheist activists. They are insisting that theism is a legitimate subject for skeptic communities and that an honest application of critical thinking to the issue will entail atheism. But yes, you can be a skeptic and inconsistent.

    You can be a skeptic and believe in reiki. Or UFOs. Or Bigfoot. You can believe in psychic powers and welcomed at skeptic conventions.

    But be prepared to defend your view. Don’t try to say that “health” is very personal and private and you know reiki works and don’t have anything to prove to anyone and you’re offended they have all these SBM types all the time.

    Steven Noverlla wrote:

    So why insist that everyone has to promote atheism directly in the same way at every venue?

    Okay, who is insisting on THAT?

  66. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 5:27 pm

    @todd:

    I suppose that is a reasonable over simplification.

    And perhaps you are right in your assessment. As I said before, it is distinctly possible that PZ is overblowing this and perhaps for exactly that same reason.

    However, I don’t think Dr. Novella’s characterization vis-a-vis the 70% overlap comment is correct. Skeptics are not evolutionists either, but that is a distinct subset of skepticism and one that is featured prominently and hammered extensively because of the detriment anti-evolutionists (aka creationists) make to education. So the fact that not all atheists are skeptics is irrelevant. Atheism, just like like a-creationism or a-cryptozoology, is a state of understanding that can be and is most correctly arrived at by skepticism.

    Perhaps atheism started out in a non-skeptical way (I delineated above how one can be an atheist completely removed from skepticism). But we can also see how people can believe creationism to be a crock in a completely non-skeptical way as well. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong under the umbrella of skepticism as a general overarching construct – the means by which to become or maintain atheism.

  67. Halfdeadon 31 Jan 2013 at 5:31 pm

    It bothers me that there seems to be a distinction without a difference, what is the difference between religion and all the other things covered by skeptics? And why the distinction?

  68. Philosofrenzyon 31 Jan 2013 at 5:43 pm

    @Thomathy:

    I need to clarify that I meant that SOME atheist activists were insisting that you’re not a true skeptic unless you’re an atheist, and an atheist activist, and this is what other skeptics objected to.

    “You know it’s funny that you can claim that atheists want to redefine scepticism to be atheism right after you say this:

    ‘skeptics object that they are quite happy to focus on other things’

    Things like their pet interests? Like alt-med and (I can’t resist) bigfoot.”

    There’s no contradiction between objecting to some atheist activists trying to make atheist activism a necessary condition to being a good skeptic and acknowledging that some skeptics aren’t interested in being atheist activists: they have other pet interests. Some skeptics are atheist activists. Others are more interested in Alt-med, for instance. That’s fine.

    Personally, I’m more interested in religion–I *am* an atheist activist, if anything in particular. So I don’t think it’s illegitimate. But I definitely see a trend among other atheist activists to both put down skeptics who leave religion alone AND to feel persecuted by other skeptics. It’s weird.

  69. Halfdeadon 31 Jan 2013 at 5:46 pm

    “I need to clarify that I meant that SOME atheist activists were insisting that you’re not a true skeptic unless you’re an atheist, and an atheist activist, and this is what other skeptics objected to.”

    Hate to do this but umm, “Citation needed”

  70. ccbowerson 31 Jan 2013 at 5:46 pm

    Philosofrenzy-

    I largely agree with your description. Its odd to argue that atheists are maginalized within skepticism when the people accused of doing the marginalizing are atheist themselves.

  71. RedMcWilliamson 31 Jan 2013 at 5:46 pm

    Who are the well known atheist activists saying that atheist activism is necessary to be a good skeptic? As best I can tell, that sentiment is limited to random blog commenters.

  72. Thomathyon 31 Jan 2013 at 5:47 pm

    But saying we should broaden it in a way you desire is trying to dictate it.

    And what isn’t dictating, then? And who, then, dictates the scope?

    I don’t see atheists as a subset of skeptics.

    Well, clearly some people who identify as sceptics also identify as atheists, but mores so as sceptics, in terms of their activism and their self-identity.

    I see skeptics and atheists as overlapping circles. Not all atheists are skeptics, and not all skeptics are atheists.

    Yeah, but where there is overlap, surely the sceptic-atheists have some say in what the focus of a movement they claim membership in is about? I guess that depends on your answer to the first two questions …

    I didn’t make it this way, but this is the way it is. So why not allow different groups to set their own focus and tone?

    That may be the way it is, but that’s not the way it has to be. Is there anything particularly wrong about wanting to change that?

    I haven no problem letting different groups set their own focus and tone. There is no reason not to allow that. The lines between the different groups are blurring significantly though. People may have stakes in more than one focus, they may be between two ‘camps’ or several.

    You seem to be saying that there is a clear distinction, ‘[...] this is the way it is.’ while also acknowledging an overlap, but without acknowledging the implications of that overlap. One of the implications, as I see it, is that as a member of the sceptical movement, I might want that movement to include some ‘pet inerests’ of mine. After all, the sceptical movement already represents a wide array of ‘pet interests’. What exactly is wrong with broadening it now? Is it just too established in the interests it serves? I don’t think so, and you even say that subcategories are forming, indicating a growth. Is there a specific direction of growth that should be off limits? If not, then what exactly is the problem with an atheist, or a feminist or anyone else who self-identifies as sceptic, asking for the movement to grow to include those things as well as UFOs and alt-med?

    Or is that actually ‘dictating’ and are some other things out of bounds? I like to think you’d say no to both those things, if, after all, ‘we are open to discussions about what this scope is.’

    (Royal ‘we’?)

  73. ccbowerson 31 Jan 2013 at 5:52 pm

    I’m not even sure what we are discussing anymore, but it seemed important at one point. The discussion has lost focus, and this results in many different topics getting conflated into one big convoluted one. I would like there to be progress in this discussion, but misunderstandings seem to be getting in the way

  74. ccbowerson 31 Jan 2013 at 5:55 pm

    “Who are the well known atheist activists saying that atheist activism is necessary to be a good skeptic? As best I can tell, that sentiment is limited to random blog commenters.”

    They are standing next to those skeptics silencing atheists. I joke. People are extrapolating from what others say and how they behave, and it may be overstated from both ends

  75. Thomathyon 31 Jan 2013 at 6:00 pm

    ccbowers, pointing them out and discussing them can help to clear up particular confusions. Pointing them out and doing nothing won’t.

    There are, actually, several important things that need discussing and not just one. There isn’t just one focus (there’s almost irony there) and there isn’t just one discussion happening. There are happens to be a lot of intersection in the topics, though, and that may contribute to misunderstanding and convolution. The conversation also isn’t just happening here, which adds to possible confusion.

    There isn’t likely to be a good way to extract the various discussions and their topics expect by careful reading, both here and at Pharyngula and (probably) elsewhere now, and by participating.

  76. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 6:02 pm

    @ccbowers:

    LOL. I may be beginning to agree with you here. It is starting to feel like those times I argue with the fiance and at the end we are yelling at each other, in complete agreement, and finally say “Wait, what were we actually arguing about??”

    I mean really, this could be something as mundane and simple to fix as having organizers explicitly say what has been implicitly meant all along:

    “We as organizers of large skeptical conferences recognize skeptical inquiry can be brought to bear on religion as a whole and that many atheists arrived at their worldview by doing exactly this. However, for purposes of editorial desire we choose to limit the topics of conversation to [X] noting that there are many atheist conferences that are much better suited and already have a niche for that particular topic”

    Or something like that.

    But Tomathy makes a good point – if enough skeptics want explicitly theistic discussions at conferences, doesn’t that reflect the market that conferences should be trying to attract? The issue seems to me that “too much” inclusion of atheistic topics at skeptical conferences makes them less attractive and alienates too many people, yet many skeptics are saying that is what they would like to see. The same way that being an open atheist would sink your political aspirations, it seems that open skeptical focus on atheism would sink conferences. To what degree that is true… I dunno. Like I said, maybe PZ is overblowing it. But it undoubtedly exists to at least some degree. Big enough a degree to worry about addressing and rectifying (like sexism)? Maybe not.

  77. Davdoodleson 31 Jan 2013 at 6:20 pm

    From my perspective, atheism is an inevitable conclusion following from skepticism.

    No different from Bigfoot or the easter bunny. It’s clearly cods-wallop, with no evidence and virtually no plausibility, and there’s an end to it.

    That said, I’ve no interest in it beyond that, unless-and-until religious dogma purports to guide, or veto, public policy; or justify the harmful act of one person against another.

    Then, I definitely have, and loudly express, a view.

    But until then, I don’t see what purpose needling the religious serves. Proudly and loudly wearing an “athiest” mantle is no more a cred-enhanser than a theist’s braying about how his “Buddah” is “Akbar” makes him better than anyone else.
    .

  78. Philosofrenzyon 31 Jan 2013 at 6:30 pm

    @ Thomathy

    “Is there a specific direction of growth that should be off limits? If not, then what exactly is the problem with an atheist, or a feminist or anyone else who self-identifies as sceptic, asking for the movement to grow to include those things as well as UFOs and alt-med?”

    Nobody here has suggested this. That’s the whole point. The topic started with PZ accusing Steve and “the old guard” of doing this. Steve denied it and suggested everyone should be free to pursue whatever skeptical avenue most interests them. Where is the discrimination in this?

    Skepticism is a movement, but it’s not an organization; there’s no authoritative body dictating what can and cannot be talked about skeptically. Skeptics want to discuss feminist issues? Cool. The Skepchicks are created. A focus on alt-med produced Science Based Medicine. Great!

    Skeptics want to focus on atheist activism? Excellent. Do it. Create a group focused on that. Nobody is stopping anyone from organizing a yearly skeptical atheism conference, for instance. When it became apparent there was enough interest to have a skeptical aspect to Dragoncon, lo! It was done: because someone interested in doing it did the hard work of organizing it (Derek and Swoopy, if I recall). The same can happen with skeptical atheism; but instead of doing the work to add the features they want to existing conferences, or to create new ones, skeptical atheists want to call it discrimination that nobody already has.

  79. Halfdeadon 31 Jan 2013 at 6:30 pm

    “That said, I’ve no interest in it beyond that, unless-and-until religious dogma purports to guide, or veto, public policy; or justify the harmful act of one person against another.
    Then, I definitely have, and loudly express, a view.
    But until then, I don’t see what purpose needling the religious serves. Proudly and loudly wearing an “athiest” mantle is no more a cred-enhanser than a theist’s braying about how his “Buddah” is “Akbar” makes him better than anyone else.”

    Can I move to your world? Because you obviously don’t live in this one. Seriously on what day of the week do you not run headlong into religious dogma affecting policy or people?
    .

  80. Halfdeadon 31 Jan 2013 at 6:33 pm

    “Skeptics want to focus on atheist activism? Excellent. Do it. Create a group focused on that. Nobody is stopping anyone from organizing a yearly skeptical atheism conference, for instance. When it became apparent there was enough interest to have a skeptical aspect to Dragoncon, lo! It was done: because someone interested in doing it did the hard work of organizing it (Derek and Swoopy, if I recall). The same can happen with skeptical atheism; but instead of doing the work to add the features they want to existing conferences, or to create new ones, skeptical atheists want to call it discrimination that nobody already has.”

    Short version is “find your own conference. This one is ours.”

  81. Oracon 31 Jan 2013 at 6:37 pm

    I do not accept as a proven fact that atheists are maligned and singled out in the skeptical movement.

    Nor do I, Steve. In fact, my anecdotal experience echoes yours in that someone like myself, who doesn’t make religion the focus of my skepticism and activism, tends to be derided by the more “militant” atheists as squishy, lacking conviction, hypocritical, inconsistent, etc. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve had such invective aimed at me.

  82. Philosofrenzyon 31 Jan 2013 at 6:39 pm

    “Short version is “find your own conference. This one is ours.””

    By “Short version,” you mean “straw man.”

    I also said “The same can happen with skeptical atheism; but instead of doing the work to add the features they want to existing conferences…”

    If you get from what I wrote that I don’t think atheist activism has any place at existing conferences, you’re not reading what I wrote. Atheist activism is my primary skeptical interest.

  83. ccbowerson 31 Jan 2013 at 6:42 pm

    Nygrbus-
    I agree. I don’t think there is as much disagreement when confusions and misunderstandings are cleared up.

    “But Tomathy makes a good point – if enough skeptics want explicitly theistic discussions at conferences, doesn’t that reflect the market that conferences should be trying to attract? The issue seems to me that “too much” inclusion of atheistic topics at skeptical conferences makes them less attractive and alienates too many people, yet many skeptics are saying that is what they would like to see.”

    Well, that depends on more than demand of a vocal subgroup (you are more likely to hear from people who want that change than from people like me who feel that they are doing a good job balancing the topics). There are already theistic discussions of skeptical conferences, and I disgree that they need more. Again, with this complaint… there are conferences that cater to this already. And again this sounds too much like people telling others what should be in their conference… if you (not “you” specifically but in a more general sense) want more atheistic content in a skeptical conference then go ahead and do just that. I was at NECSS last year and watched/listened to the story of Deborah Feldman that Steve mentioned which was a narrow look at a particular religious community in NY, and in addition to that talk I did feel that the topics were wide ranging and balanced and it did not feel artificially so. To include more specific religious content for me would have been less interesting- I want a variety of topics at an event like this.

  84. Halfdeadon 31 Jan 2013 at 6:46 pm

    “The same can happen with skeptical atheism; but instead of doing the work to add the features they want to existing conferences, or to create new ones, skeptical atheists want to call it discrimination that nobody already has.”

    They have made groups devoted to it, and are derided for it, or accused of trying to change skepticism. Which is odd because there is no definition of religion that does not fit everything else skeptics focus on.

  85. Philosofrenzyon 31 Jan 2013 at 6:48 pm

    @ccbowers

    “And again this sounds too much like people telling others what should be in their conference… ”

    Couldn’t have said it better myself–and I tried!

  86. Philosofrenzyon 31 Jan 2013 at 6:49 pm

    “They have made groups devoted to it, and are derided for it, or accused of trying to change skepticism. ”

    Nobody has derided anyone for trying to change the meaning of skepticism for being skeptical of religion, and creating their own groups. They are accused of trying to change skepticism for deriding skeptics who aren’t interested in religion as “cowards,” and “merely behaving politically,” and so on.

  87. Oracon 31 Jan 2013 at 6:50 pm

    There’s something very strange going on here. Athest activists insist that “true skeptics” are also atheist activists. Other skeptics object that they are quite happy to focus on other things, thank you, and that you shouldn’t try to redefine skepticism as being whatever your pet interest is. Atheist activists are offended and outraged at this, and cry foul–that they’re being discriminated against, and that skeptics “don’t think atheist activists have a place within the skeptical movement.” It’s bizarre. It’s very much like how religious people cry foul, and claim persecution when they are prevented from persecuting other people.

    Well, I wouldn’t go that far, but I do find it odd that skeptics who aren’t particularly interested in being anti-theist (as opposed to just atheist) and to go charging into battle against religion are so frequently castigated by people like P.Z. as squishy “accommodationists.” I get the feeling that we have a problem of point of view. P.Z. rails against the “old guard,” whom he views as not being sufficiently anti-theist enough to the point of supposedly excluding the more “militant” (if you’ll excuse the term) atheists like him. From my perspective, when I first started getting involved in organized skepticism I was kind of put off by how much anti-theism there was. Maybe this was because at the time I was still hanging on to the last vestiges of my faith and didn’t want to let go, but even now that I have let go my outlook still seems different. Religion is just not something I’m much interested in one way or the other. I tried it for a while. I really did. Briefly fired up by Dawkins’ “The God Delusion,” I tried to become more like PZ and Dawkins, because I thought that that’s how a true skeptic had to be. It was a phase that lasted maybe a year or two, but it just wasn’t my passion. Medicine and science are. And so my Dawkins phase passed, and now I’m back to my passions. I’m much happier now.

    But apparently I’m still too squishy.

  88. ccbowerson 31 Jan 2013 at 6:51 pm

    missing from my last comment

    …and I think this should go without saying that skeptical conferences spend a lot of time and energy creating a balance of topics and speakers. I’m sure that they take such “demand” into consideration, but this would be balance with other competing interests.

  89. Thadiuson 31 Jan 2013 at 6:59 pm

    Halfdead,
    I am starting to think that PZ and his followers are creating a “prosecuted christian” like narrative for themselves. It was PZ who instigates by calling those who would rather not add atheism/feminism/veganism/liberalism or any other ism to already established skeptical groups cowards and lazy. Those that disagree with you are not deriding you they are disagreeing with you. PZ Meyers has no desire to work with any community that does not share his exact point of view. If he would like to take on the fundamentalists and bigots, he should, but he does himself no good attacking people who agree with him, but that don’t wish to join his group. Some may find him and his friends tactics and media material distasteful. The only news that gets out about his group is its attacks on other groups that share most of his view points. That cannot be useful to anyone’s agenda.

  90. ccbowerson 31 Jan 2013 at 7:05 pm

    “Couldn’t have said it better myself–and I tried!”

    I think its because we are mostly on the same page on this topic. I also appreciate with nybgrus is trying to do, giving PZ a fair shake on this blog, but I think PZ’s perspective on this is a bit skewed.

  91. Philosofrenzyon 31 Jan 2013 at 7:11 pm

    “but I think PZ’s perspective on this is a bit skewed.”

    And, by god, by the time we’re done with it, it’ll be a bit skewered! ;)

  92. ccbowerson 31 Jan 2013 at 7:15 pm

    “I am starting to think that PZ and his followers are creating a “prosecuted christian” like narrative for themselves.”

    I thought about this, but didn’t write it because I honestly don’t read PZ enough to know if this is accurate. Its not exactly the “War on Christmas” but its not good to even get close to that line of thinking

  93. Davdoodleson 31 Jan 2013 at 7:25 pm

    “Can I move to your world? Because you obviously don’t live in this one. Seriously on what day of the week do you not run headlong into religious dogma affecting policy or people?”

    Well I do live in Australia, not nearly the quasi-theocracy that the US is.

    Here, most noticably, there is dogma-based legislative discrimination against the rights of homosexual folk to marry, and in hiring practices allowed by theist employers. And the odd religion-based hate crime.

    Every Sunday morning, the local church makes a hell of a racket with a big bloody bell in a tower.

    More subtly, churches seem to think they are above the law when it comes to reporting information regarding instances of child sexula abuse they become aware of, and perhapse even have a culture of protecting pederasts and other criminals from detection.

    Beyond that, they mostly just sing and mumble odd stuff in large groups.
    .

  94. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 7:27 pm

    @ccbowers:

    Thanks. I am also trying to flesh out my own thoughts on the matter. Hence why I told sastra I wasn’t trying to change minds in my argumentation.

    For that, I greatly appreciate the time and input from all the commenters, especially Dr. Novella. I think my view is tempered a bit, though I am still unconvinced that there isn’t specific and unreasonable malignment of anti-theism (which is almost the same definition as what Dr. Novella stated for the purposes of this discussion) amongst the skeptic crowd, including the some of the more notable ones and notable conferences.

    That said, I also absolutely and 100% agree that there are plenty of anti-theists who unreasonably castigate skeptics who don’t care to turn their attention on religion. It is absolutely wrong on both sides of the equation.

    I think we should all just realize that atheism ⊂ skepticism and that’s about it. Not atheism ⊆ skepticism. Not atheism = skepticism. Not skepticism ⊂ atheism.

    And I think it is totally fair to have skeptical conferences focus on whatever the organizers want and however they want. I would push for more inclusion and representation of anti-theism in the same way I would want more feminism, but that is a personal preference and I recognize it as such.

    The only thing that is not okay is saying that atheism/anti-theism =/= skepticism or that atheism/anti-theism ∉ skepticism. (And of course it is not OK to say that skeptics who don’t care about theistic claims aren’t “True Skeptics (™)” I personally use “accomodationist” to mean someone who argues that religious knowledge and scientific knowledge are fundamentally compatible, not someone who merely recognizes they co-exist or doesn’t care about religion at all).

    Once again, thanks to all for the conversation. I’m certain over time the confusion will settle, common goals will be identified, and each group of people can do what they are best at and most passionate about.

  95. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 7:29 pm

    @davdoodles:

    yes, that was a nice breath of fresh air for me when I lived in Australia for 2 years. I’ll be back in just a few weeks for a short stint and will enjoy it again as well.

  96. Halfdeadon 31 Jan 2013 at 7:38 pm

    “PZ who instigates by calling those who would rather not add atheism/feminism/veganism/liberalism or any other ism to already established skeptical groups cowards and lazy.”

    Care to share a link where PZ did this?

  97. ccbowerson 31 Jan 2013 at 7:56 pm

    “Well I do live in Australia, not nearly the quasi-theocracy that the US is.”

    I assume this is tongue-in-cheek, because it is very inaccureate otherwise. Perhaps you are referencing religiosity among the general population, but that has nothing to do with theocracy. From what I understand our First Amendent has been interpreted much more broadly than section 116 of your constitution (which appears to “borrow” from your first amendment) by the courts making the division between church and state much stronger from a legal perspective in the US. Correct me if you think I’m wrong. You are correct in that our general polpulation is more religious, which empowers some of our politicians to challenge this separation, but in the US this issue is highly regional. I am curious about Australia with reagards to this.

  98. ccbowerson 31 Jan 2013 at 7:59 pm

    Woops should be “which appears to “borrow” from our first amendment.”

    Actually I’m assuming this because it came after, and I can’t imagine it is coincidence. Maybe you know the answer?

  99. Didgyaon 31 Jan 2013 at 8:08 pm

    Hi Steve,
    I appreciate your “a candle in the dark” stance between the skeptic and atheist fronts. Some have trouble with a having a spectrum between the two and fitting in wherever they fit best. I do not understand why PZ would act like Skeptics are oppressing the ‘poor little atheist’. Any kind of jokes or criticism is treated like a full attack on there very ‘soul’ (I couldn’t help myself) The attitude that ‘if you are not 100% (or any%) with us, therefore you are an oppressor and by default against us’ attitude, reeks of irrationality at its finest. Skeptics are the one of the (and there are few) best allies for many Atheist causes. (At least the rational ones) PZ should be grateful there are people out there, like you, that are tolerant, thoughtful and skeptical, but I feel that he and many others are taking that for granted now,(much like a teenager, with his ‘stupid’ parents), expecting you to bend to the will of their special interests and setting themselves up as the status quo. He wants the house on the hill but tells the hill to be flat. (if that makes any sense). Kyle Stugis, has a good blog about this also(and not she doesn’t agree 100%, which is why it is good! http://freethoughtblogs.com/tokenskeptic/2013/01/30/you-may-be-forgiven-for-thinking-that-some-skeptics-are-taking-a-firm-stance-but/ ) Anyway, I appreciate your work in skepticism and your honesty! (by the way I came to Atheism by “rational” skepticism, imagine that.)

  100. locutusbrgon 31 Jan 2013 at 8:15 pm

    Steve
    I cannot agree with your position on this discussion. Pointless and divisive.
    PZ and you have taken a position. It is commonly debated within the community and divisive. You have to ask yourself what is the endgame here.

    Goal 1: Expand critical thinking and scientific method, give people the tools and the encouragement to reason. Hope that expanding reason, logic and critical thinking will help atheism, realistic politicians, and humanism. “lead people to the water.”

    Goal 2: Expand Logic, suppress or eliminate religion, focus on scientific method, promote science based, atheistic, political agenda. “shine the bright light of critical thinking on a superstitious world.
    (My framing obviously)

    Everyone has been far more eloquent than me, I would not propose to debate them. Consider this I live in state that is about as blue as it gets politically, Rhode Island. In this state there have been successful atheist litigation, not based on science, just public religions displays. Big atheist wins. Still RI atheism fringe, small numbers. I have seen people show up regularly to skeptic meetups. These meetups are primarily Atheist drum circles. Total number of members still less than 20.
    There is no evidence that this is expanding critical thinking in any way.

    Atheistic activism pointless. You try to force atheism on people you will fortify the religious position with the independent thinkers, I have seen it happen. Teaching someone how to realize religion is worthless, now that just might work. You want to mend the fences fine..
    I think it is dismissing human behavior to suppose that political and atheistic activism will produce real change in our society. Call it a philosophical disagreement fine. I call it one method that could work and one that has no chance of working.
    PZ I use my geeky-ness to remind you”The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers”. Princess Leia star wars.

  101. Davdoodleson 31 Jan 2013 at 8:17 pm

    “Perhaps you are referencing religiosity among the general population, but that has nothing to do with theocracy.”

    I understand the first amendment and s116, hence my use of the term “quasi-theocracy”. I’m talking about the extent to which dogma (by which I mean unsubstantiated assertions about what god reckons) actually controls the political debate.

    It seems (and please correct me if I’m wrong) that in the US, there is still loud dogma-fueled attempts to whittle away the freedom to undertake safe abortions, constant attempts to force gibberish into science textbooks, and science out of them. Presidential prayer events. Each Presidential hopeful’s fitness-for-office turning so absolutely on the sincerity of their avowed piety.

    Australia is far from perfect, but the abortion “debate” is done. Evolution is a fact. We have an unmarried athiest, female, Prime Minister. Religion is, by and large, a quiet matter. And nobody, not even the religious, claims that it makes them better than their neighbor.
    .

  102. Thadiuson 31 Jan 2013 at 8:50 pm

    Halfdead,
    I apologize, that was from the comments on PZ’s and post not from him. However he does say, in essence, that those that make a delineation between claims and “not even wrong” topics for scepticism to cover do so “irrationally” and from a point of “emotion”. A sentiment that is as insulting to any skeptic as anything i can think of. I think that Steve has done a great job of outlining the intellectual stance that demands this delineation.

    In his post PZ points to Randi’s action against Peter Pop’ov as an example of how skepticism can look at religion. This is a story which the SGU has covered, many times, so i fail to see how they are narrowing the scope of skepticism to exclude religious topics when the topic PZ sites HAS been covered extensively by organized skepticism. This kind of behavior is what leads me to think PZ is cultivating a persecution complex and an “with us or against us” attitude toward people who agree on almost everything.

  103. Eric Thomsonon 31 Jan 2013 at 8:54 pm

    Atheism+: for those that are nostalgic for 1980s college campus PC hysteria run amok.

    No thanks.

  104. Danon 31 Jan 2013 at 10:43 pm

    It’s kind of weird that PZ is going on about how strong the “anti-atheist” discrimination is at skeptic conferences (I’d be really curious if he would approve of a speaker at skeptic conferences who had the same beliefs as Martin Gardner). That sure isn’t the impression I get, and a much better explanation for the emails he gets might be that some people are protesting him personally. This will probably be unpopular with many here, but I find him to often be a condescending bully who twists peoples words to make them look bad, and is always in some petty bow-up with someone else who probably agrees on 99% of the issues. His writing on biology is very good, but he and his followers almost turned me away from the skeptical movement for a while, and I would seriously consider not attending a conference to which he was a key-note speaker. It’s not his atheism, it’s that I do not consider him intellectually honest. (PZ does seems like a teddy-bear in video interviews, make he’s just an internet tough-guy?).

    It was the approach of Michael Shermer and Steven Novella that helped me develop critical thinking skills, and I still called myself a Christian and a skeptic for about a year as I slowly began to see how silly my religious beliefs were. Hitchens and Dawkins also helped me become an atheist, and I enjoyed reading them while still a Christian, but PZ’s approach was not helpful to me, and I’m pretty sure that if most skeptics had his approach I would not have learned critical thinking skills and would still be religious. A lot of people obviously favor his approach to skepticism, but I don’t and my dislike doesn’t have to do with his atheism.

  105. svetbekon 31 Jan 2013 at 10:44 pm

    When I read PZ decry skeptics’ silence in the face of “status quo,” he means, I believe, the manner in which power and wealth are distributed in the US. I am certain that he would favor a much wider distribution of both. He wants skeptics to engage with the relevant disciplines (political science, economics, sociology, etc.) and is certain that the examination of evidence will lend support to his political/economic values and would discredit those of libertarians and conservatives. He wants skeptics to use their intellectual skills to mount a sweeping critique of the status quo … but what Steve is willing to give him–at most–is cool-headed examination of specific social or cultural phenomenon.

  106. rasmuron 31 Jan 2013 at 11:25 pm

    I believe that skeptics should beware of fanaticism, bigotry, hate speech, and bullying. I can think of a certain biology professor from Minnesota who epitomizes these frightening attitudes. I am not a New Atheist, and if their goal is to convince people that religion is a great evil that must be constantly fought, I don’t share it. I also have some of the same concerns about feminism as D.J. Grothe, about it infiltrating into movement skepticism and causing division and pressure to conform. While I certainly have no objection with combining feminism and skepticism on a blog, I personally find feminism of the skepchick/FTB variety to be harangueing and sometimes even bullying (and I’m not letting the sexists off the hook, who are even worse). Anyway, I hope that since certain people will not be going to TAM anymore, we won’t have the Internet shitstorm that has happened every year for the past two years around TAM time. And yes, this is political, but I believe that the skeptic movement should be welcoming and encourage people to love science and think more critically, whatever their religious and political pursuasions.

  107. Gojira74on 31 Jan 2013 at 11:58 pm

    “This kind of behavior is what leads me to think PZ is cultivating a persecution complex and an “with us or against us” attitude toward people who agree on almost everything.”

    The comments on his blog have become more and more “echo chamber” like every day. He loves his horde and they love him, but it is not remotely a good place to have any kind of discussion about anything. He is surrounded by 10,000 “yes people,” and that gives me pause when he complains about others privilege. It would take a heroic effort for him to not feel empowered by that environment, and his posts seem to betray his feeling of empowerment.

  108. aabrown1971on 01 Feb 2013 at 1:08 am

    Dr. Novella,

    Thanks for your post @ 4:16pm. I have to admit – I’m somewhere between PZ and you. To be extra geeky – it seems like a Kirk vs Spock battle, Mr. Spock. :) That being said, I was scratching my head a bit about the PZ’s atheist comments. As a Dawkins-like Atheist, I have never felt maligned or out of place on any of the blogs I read and sometimes comment on daily (SBM, NB, Skeptoid). I usually don’t wade into JREF, as it appears (to me anyway) that there is a large contingency of low-education skeptics, and blogs often devolve into huffpost-like drivel. And by low-education, I mean folks who do not fully understand the basics of skepticism, regardless of (or lack of) degree. Perhaps his comments were aimed at them.

    I have enjoyed reading the back and forth, and I know both you and PZ have enjoyed writing them. Perhaps you should have him on the show soon. I think some of the commenters here are confusing a good debate with personal animosity and malice, of which I can tell there is little to none. Cheers.

  109. StellaLunaon 01 Feb 2013 at 2:45 am

    An observation based upon my history with various movements and communities: Fractious and heated internal disputes arise within movements and communities – and to outsiders and newcomers, they amount to “distinctions without a difference.”

    Stick with me through this background, because i do have a point here…

    The science / skeptical / atheist / humanist movement(s) and communities have done so much over so many years to allow me to confidently describe myself as a geek and an atheist and a science-loving nerd. And that community has enough “community” going for it to give me podcasts, magazines, TV specials, conventions, gatherings, and events that feed my joy.

    On the feminism front, the women and men who came before me did the work to raise awareness and defend the rights of women so that even as a 5-year-old girl in the early ’60s there was no doubt in my mind that I was college bound and unstoppable. I have a profession that pays me well, and I love my work.

    On a different social justice front, I am old enough now to be both disappointed and grateful about the news that one of my younger relatives (second cousin once removed) has come out as a gay man. I’m disappointed because this announcement is STILL considered “news” – meaning, of special note and concern — and that this “news” has precipitated shock and anger in a minority of the family members. But I’m grateful that the work done by those who came before him, including me, on behalf of gay awareness and rights has allowed him enough of a sense of safety that he can come out widely and publicly now in his early 20s.

    Is everything perfect and ideal? No – some amount of discrimination and not-always-veiled hostility still exist for me as an atheist and/or a woman and/or as a support to our fellow humans who are gay. But is it better for me than those who came before? HELL YES! Sometimes it is too easy to overlook how hard it was even one generation ago (or still is in many places and cases). It is too easy to overlook the fact that I owe it to those who follow to keep clearing the way.

    I am grateful that the Novellas and PZs and SkepDocs and SkepChicks and CSI-ers and JREFs and Athiest Alliancers and all the rest continue to willingly shoulder the load for us. In one sense, they are the custodians of the movement(s); they inherited the ongoing work from the pathfinders who came before. I am glad it didn’t end with Sagan and Omni magazine.

    I wonder if one of the indicators of success in impacting the larger world is that subcultures arise within a movement and they begin to criticize the other members for “not doing it right” and to argue internally about the priorities and the focus…

  110. Aardwarkon 01 Feb 2013 at 4:15 am

    The complex and highly valuable discussion here and under the first article on this issue may be useful to many readers and participants in many ways. However, it still comes down to a single point that can be expressed in a relatively simple sentence.

    PZ is the type of activist who believes that ‘those who are not with us must be against us’. Steve is not. And I personally agree with Steve.

    And, oh yes, I think that PZ-type activists are those who are persistently being intellectually dishonest, a feature they share with many (but not all) promoters of religions and ideologies.

    As for the question of who is a coward, I see much more bravery in being ready to engage anybody on a neutral common battleground than in lobbing insults over the walls of one’s own comfortable, unassailable ideological fortress.

  111. DemonHauntedon 01 Feb 2013 at 6:09 am

    I second the idea of having P.Z. on SGU as a guest to debate this topic, it would be quite interesting.

    Just out of curiosity are there alt-med or bigfoot panels at atheist conferences? Seems like getting skeptic conferences to also cover atheistic (or anti-theistic) claims will simply dilute the focus of a conference to homeopathic proportions. What will be the point of athiest conference then? May as well call them all skeptical if PZ is to be believed.

  112. DemonHauntedon 01 Feb 2013 at 6:25 am

    In fact I think I have found the solution to this little hubub, simply insert the work ‘Skeptical’ as a prefix to any conference or blog. For example ‘Skeptical American Atheists 2013 National Convention’ or ‘Skeptical Women in Secularism’ or ‘Skeptical 4th International Dry Toilet Conference’ (google it)… it is a wonderful and cost effective solution.

    Now P.Z. may attend the appropriate ‘Skeptical’ conference with welcoming smiles all round!

  113. SimonWon 01 Feb 2013 at 7:34 am

    Hmm not sure on a distinction between methodical naturalism and philosophical naturalism. Definitely sounds like semantics to me.

    Sure we haven’t determined if the world was made 6000 year ago looking 13 billion years old, but NOR CAN ANYONE ELSE. If there was a reliable method of determining such things it would be part of methodical naturalism.

    Even Dawkin’s who is held up as a philosophical naturalist doesn’t say it is impossible that gods exist, just that there isn’t evidence for it so he thinks it exceedingly unlikely.

    The process of rational enquiry into religion is I think key, and where the gap closes. If we can understand why people believe what they do and how they go wrong, then we can probably fix it, or at least help people understand their biases better. I don’t think these “beliefs” (and I question how widely religious doctrine is really believed – although it can be dangerously influential) can be compatible with methodical naturalism.

    But yes, that there is no rational reason to believe in gods doesn’t mean gods don’t exist, in exactly the same way fairies, or N-rays might exist in some form. I think trying to draw a philosophical distinction between gods and fairies, and N-rays risks falling into fallacious thinking.

    It is interesting how humans are so poor collectively updating their beliefs in the light of the evidence.

    My favourite example is the use of the story of Abraham and Isaac in psychiatric text books. Several textbooks use it as a classic example of command hallucination, yet no one seems to make the obvious deduction (Abraham was delusional – although a theologian friend seems to think he may have been mythological – the story reads so much like a case study of command hallucination I’ll grant the Bible there is probably some historicity – if it was invented it was invented by someone who had or had seen someone with command hallucinations). The biblical story even suggests that the mental health issues in Abraham’s family were hereditary in nature, see there is some good stuff in there if you read it with a clear head.

    As a consequence I see no philosophical distinction between erroneous beliefs of religions, and other similar beliefs, aside from the scale of the damage inflicted.

  114. Halfdeadon 01 Feb 2013 at 8:05 am

    I see this huge trend here where people are somehow making this huge distinction between religion and other pseudosciences, on what basis do you make this distinction? You also fail to understand Dr. Novella it seems, because when he says “your not even wrong”, it is a much larger insult than anything PZ ever says, just because most of the people he directs it at fail to understand what hes saying does not make it any less insulting.

    The constant suggestion that PZ is surrounded by “yes men” and that its an “echo chamber” is silly and shows that many of you are either unfamiliar with pharyngula or simply have a reading comprehension problem.

  115. dwiltonon 01 Feb 2013 at 8:13 am

    I have an issue with Dr. Novella’s list of eight facets that characterize skepticism. They’re a mish-mash of methodology, necessary states, and goals. Only “respect for knowledge and truth,” “methodological naturalism,” and “neuropsychological humility” define what skepticism is. “Ideological freedom/free inquiry” is a state required for skepticism to flourish, and the others are all goals, either instrumental or end goals, of the movement. (Why is “consumer protection” in there and “reducing the role of religion in society” not—because the broader skeptical community isn’t on board with the latter, but that’s a question about the goals of the movement, not what makes a skeptic.) We need to make a clear distinction between skepticism and the skeptical movement, and this list conflates them.

    I also don’t find the distinction between scientific and philosophical skepticism to be useful and that serves to exclude questions that can’t be solved by recourse to the hard sciences from the bailiwick of the skeptical movement. Instead of “empirical” (based on controlled experiment), I would use “evidentiary.” It is reason based on evidence (or lack thereof) that is the hallmark of skepticism. Exactly what the composition and standards of this evidence should be depends on the question at hand. Questions in the physical science will demand empirical evidence, questions like what gun control measures will reduce the incidence of spree killings or whether a fiscal stimulus is needed to spur economic growth call for statistics and other evidence from uncontrolled observation.

    Dr. Novella has in the premises of his argument established a bias that works to exclude atheism from the legitimate portfolio of the skeptical movement.

  116. Steven Novellaon 01 Feb 2013 at 9:10 am

    Here are the undeniable facts:

    The broader rationalist movement contains people who wish to focus on promoting science, others who wish to focus on opposing faith and religion, others who wish to do both equally – and everything along that spectrum. This is not just an artifact of a few skeptical organizers – this is the reality within the movement.

    Another undeniable fact – organizations and venues have developed spontaneously along that same spectrum, catering to these different interests.

    My primary point is – why is this a bad thing? Let different venues specialize and cater to different interests. This happened for a reason – because it reflects the reality of the movement. PZ implies that this is simply a few “old guard” imposing their biases, but that is BS. It is organic, it reflects the grassroots development of the movement.

    Further – it works. People can find a variety of venues and gravitate toward the one that fits them the best.

    I would further add, that this is strategically a good idea.

    I think the feminism/ racism issue is a red herring. All groups and movements should oppose sexism and racism. I think the only issue here is how best to do this (setting aside the misogynists who really are poison).

    I also reject PZs argument that I am somehow privileged. He cites as evidence the pushback he gets when he is invited to a skeptical conference. Well – I have been getting similar vehement pushback ever since I have been in the skeptical movement for no equally promoting atheism. There is no privilege – just a difference between the groups I outlined above.

    What I generally hear from scientific skeptics is that they like the division of labor and sometimes feel the need to defend their focus from activist atheists who want to combine skepticism and atheism in every venue. Skeptics are not trying to silence atheists or change the focus of atheist venues, just not have the focus of skeptical venues changed.

    I think PZ demonstrated this. He belittled the skeptical focus as “bigfoot skeptics” – this is bigoted, dismissive, and a massive straw man.

    What I would like is for the broader rationalist movement to all get along. We have much much more in common than differences. But also let’s be tolerant of different approaches, different focuses, different tones, and different strategies. We lose focus and momentum when we infight over such things. Let people do what they do best and it will sort itself out.

  117. Verklagekasperon 01 Feb 2013 at 9:21 am

    Martin Gardner believed in a god as a creator. This didn’t prevent him from becoming an icon of skepticism. It worked since he didn’t try to force his metaphysical views on each and everyone. Who is PZ Myers?

  118. RedMcWilliamson 01 Feb 2013 at 9:52 am

    As best I can tell, PZ likes the division of labor as well. His problem is with the people claiming to be “True Skeptics” who belittle atheists. See Daniel Loxton and Barbara Drescher commenting about that panel at TAM.

    So, Dr Novella, if you’re really against anyone trying to force a particular definition of “skeptic” onto the movement, there are plenty of people on the “scientific skeptic” side that need your attention.

  119. ccbowerson 01 Feb 2013 at 9:54 am

    Davdoodles: “I understand the first amendment and s116, hence my use of the term “quasi-theocracy”. I’m talking about the extent to which dogma (by which I mean unsubstantiated assertions about what god reckons) actually controls the political debate.”

    Well your description, while not entirely inaccurate, is a bit of a caricature. The specific political issues with religion are largely regional, in terms of a given person’s experience. Our contitution and its interpretation creates fairly strict rules, and the constiution has not a single mention of a god or religion other than aspects that separate it from government. I guess my objection is to implying theocracy, because even with “quasi” in front of it is entirely inaccurate.

    Theocracies are governments that recognize a deity (in practice a diety representative) as the official head of the state and bases its rule on the on that religious doctrine. This is exactly the opposite of how the US is structured federally. Now, the issue is that we have a significantly more religious population (and therefore politicians) than Australia and Western Europe at this time, which is why you made that statement, but I think that is a related but separate issue. It is true that a strong subset of our population does not like this separation, and tries to dictate the political discussion, but it does seem to be changing for the better. It may seem slow in real time, but when I look back even 5-10 years ago there has been significant change. This is a much larger discussion, and I have digressed enough

  120. ccbowerson 01 Feb 2013 at 9:57 am

    locutusbrg

    I don’t follow your characterization that Steve has been divisive in any way. He’s been balanced and reasonable, and the rest of your comments don’t seem to explain in what way he is divisive. In fact his stance is much less divisive than yours, unless I misunderstand you

  121. Steven Novellaon 01 Feb 2013 at 10:15 am

    Red – false equivalency and false analogy. They were talking about a panel at TAM – a skeptical conference. Have they complained about a panel at an atheist, humanist conference?

    Also, their point was about balance and diversity on a panel, not bashing atheists.

    Having said that – I would certainly defend activist atheists from any unfair criticism from my fellow skeptics. You will note the list of terms of advised dropping from the discussion.

  122. Aardwarkon 01 Feb 2013 at 10:18 am

    As many posters said, this has been an interesting debate, but I think there is no point in pursuing it much further. I suggest that instead all skeptics (‘true’, ‘truer’, ‘truest’, ‘and those not quite so true as the truest’) turn their attention to opposing the looming legislation that proposes to limit the teaching of evolution in public schools (and make it obligatory that creationism be taught as a ‘scientific alternative’) in four states. All the time and effort devoted to this debate could clearly be put to a better use.

    I also wish to be forgiven for suggesting that this topic be given priority, for I am not from the US myself and perhaps have no right to discuss what children in Oklahoma or Colorado should be taught. But, after all, this is a global struggle, and in my country there was a similar attempt a few years ago, led by no lesser official than Minister of Education. Scientifically minded people did manage to prevent it from happening, thankfully.

  123. RedMcWilliamson 01 Feb 2013 at 10:43 am

    I’m sorry, but that’s not anywhere close to the feeling I get from Barbara Drescher’s comment. Singling out Greta Christina, Jamila Bey and Hemant Mehta, she said “The other three panelists are closely identified with atheism and, in my opinion, have contributed little, if anything, to skepticism itself. ”

    Atheist activism doesn’t contribute much to skepticism itself, according to Drescher and to some extent your most recent comment. And that’s the problem, isn’t it. TAM is a ‘skeptical conference’ so OBVIOUSLY atheist activists can’t offer anything useful to the True Skepticism and shouldn’t be allowed to participate. Atheist activism has virtually nothing in common with skeptical activism, apparently.

    I have not seen any prominent atheist activists making these kinds of comments about other skeptics. No, PZs posts don’t fit that mold. He’s railing about the exclusion of atheists, not advocating for anyone else’s exclusion.

  124. RedMcWilliamson 01 Feb 2013 at 10:46 am

    Or how about Jeff Wagg (who was at the JREF at the time) criticizing Skepticon for being too atheist?

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/11/19/i-had-no-idea-i-was-stepping-i/

  125. Sastraon 01 Feb 2013 at 11:52 am

    Steve Novella wrote:

    My primary point is – why is this a bad thing? Let different venues specialize and cater to different interests. This happened for a reason – because it reflects the reality of the movement. PZ implies that this is simply a few “old guard” imposing their biases, but that is BS. It is organic, it reflects the grassroots development of the movement.

    Here I think is the main argument against your primary point: what you describe isn’t a bad thing if it’s simply describing different interests. The gnu atheists — including PZ — are not complaining about different skeptic groups, blogs, conventions, and forums having different specialties or focus. That’s only to be expected, and encouraged. Right.

    The problem comes in when there’s an additional rationale behind the focus: we are excluding a certain topic X because we don’t think we can or should apply skepticism to such claims. X doesn’t belong in the category of things we deal with. And a special point is then made that you can still be a good skeptic and believe in X. People who believe in X should not be made to feel unwelcome to skepticism.

    A skeptic convention might decide they’re not going to deal with alternative medicine. It’s old hat; they can’t find the right speaker; it’s not a popular topic; there was just a SBM convention. Okay. Dr. Novella can accept all this in a way he would NOT accept the claim that alternative medicine is really an area science can’t go. It involves faith. “Medicine is a very religious experience. I have my religion and you have yours. It becomes difficult for us to agree on what we think works, since so much of it is in the eye of the beholder. Data is rarely clean. You find the arguments that support your data, and it’s my fact versus your fact.”

    Doesn’t involve science? That argument would drive Dr. Novella nuts.

    It’s what is driving PZ nuts, and in the same way. Only for the word “medicine,” substitute “religion.” And put this argument in the mouths of people who are otherwise excellent skeptics.

    Very few people get upset if a skeptic venue refuses to tackle the issue of alternative medicine OR religion per se. When they do, then your counter argument here is excellent. Different tastes, different interests, different areas of expertise — find what you want and don’t complain. Great. But the gnu atheist protest concerns not the absence of enough atheism in skeptical venues, but the very real argument over whether atheism (or feminism or alt med or politics) “belongs” in skepticism at all.

    You don’t get that argument with alternative medicine.

  126. melon 01 Feb 2013 at 1:12 pm

    “I think PZ demonstrated this. He belittled the skeptical focus as “bigfoot skeptics” – this is bigoted, dismissive, and a massive straw man. ”

    He does the same thing with atheists who don’t align with his personal social/political ideologies: They are “dictionary atheists” and “intellectual cowards.”

  127. Steven Novellaon 01 Feb 2013 at 1:43 pm

    Red – again, I have to disagree. I was not aware of that specific statement from Drescher and was, therefore, not defending it. This was brought up as an example of skeptics complaining about atheism at skeptical conferences, not about the value of atheism.

    There is also a terminology problem here – skepticism (broadly defined) vs scientific skepticism. It’s possible (I think likely) that Drescher was referring to the latter, meaning that the panelists were outside the focus of what she thinks TAM should be.

    It’s also a massive straw man to say that defending a specific focus for scientific skepticism is denying any value to atheism in the broader sense, or that they have “nothing to do with each other.” It really does not seem like you are responding to the position I am very carefully staking out here.

    Regarding Jeff Wagg, I spoke with him directly about this episode. His complaint was solely that Skepticon was misbranded and therefore may be deceptive. He was not complaining that it was an atheist conference (or that there was too much atheis), only that people might get the wrong idea about the focus of the conference from it being called “skeptical”. Again, his premise is that calling a conference a “skeptical” conference implies a focus on scientific skepticism. I personally don’t think this was a big deal – I am just explaining his position.

    Sastra – I also have to completely disagree with you. This is entirely about branding and focus, not about the underlying philosophy. It is the atheists, in my opinion, who largely obsess over the philosophical stuff because they want to erase any distinction between skeptical activism and atheist activism.

    I find the philosophical arguments interesting, and I certainly try to correct those with whom I disagree on this topic – but I actually think it’s a huge distraction. Even if we put the philosophical argument aside, we are still best served by subspecialization along skeptical vs atheist lines.

    Skeptics are not saying that critical thinking cannot be applied to faith or religion. Most of us are atheists because we apply critical thinking to faith and religion. This is entirely about mission, strategy, specialization, and branding.

    I also have to say I find the indignence on the part of the activist atheists to be ironic given how insulting they can be to activist skeptics. When you stop calling me a coward, lazy, and dishonest and stop minimalizing my chosen activism as “bigfoot skepticsm” then maybe I might take your offense seriously.

  128. pzmyerson 01 Feb 2013 at 2:02 pm

    But if it’s entirely about branding and focus, not the underlying focus, why are you making a distinction on the basis of methodological vs. philosophical naturalism? Now in this comment you’re saying it’s all about specialization and mission, but that’s not the distinction you’ve been making in your posts.

    You don’t seem to grasp the meaning of the “bigfoot skepticism” term. It’s not because it’s bad to debunk bigfoot claims; it’s not because it’s wrong to have a specialized focus within skepticism. It’s referring specifically to skeptics who have a laundry list of what topics are fair game for skeptics (which includes things like bigfoot, UFOs, and most emphatically, alt-med) and which are not. I think it is entirely appropriate for you to make alt-med your bailiwick, and no, you don’t need to be aggressively anti-religious at all. What’s bothersome is when Bigfoot Skeptics try to argue that atheists aren’t proper skeptics, and that’s the defining characteristic of the genus — they define boundaries of what is and is not skepticism by subject matter, not the methodological approach.

  129. Karl Withakayon 01 Feb 2013 at 2:08 pm

    “You don’t get that argument with alternative medicine.”

    Sure you do.

    It’s amusing to see people imply or outright sate that skeptical medicine is not subject to similar conflicts.

    There are those who feel the skeptical medicine community focused too much on outright quack medicine (bigfoot medicine, if you will) and not enough time focusing on malpractice, questionable conventional treatments, big pharma, etc. There are also those who are AOK with tackling obvious bigfoot medicine, but will chaff when you take a critical look at their pet weight loss or life extending diet, supplement or herbal remedy of choice, or male circumcision (that’s a guaranteed firestorm starter, for sure), etc.

    Then there’s that whole EBM & SBM conflict thing

    Peter Moran clearly has strong and sharp disagreements with the SMB crew over the use (and SBM deconstructing) of what can generously be called treatments that may produce clinically significant subjective effects but no objective effects.

    I imagine that if there were a dedicated skeptical medicine conference, there would be some very vocal criticism over the subjects covered or not covered.

  130. Karl Withakayon 01 Feb 2013 at 2:13 pm

    …though it would seem that the medical subculture of skepticism has managed to keep its conflicts from escalating to this level. I’m not sure if that means there is any practical difference in the sub community, if the dissenters are too small a segment of the subculture to cause much serious conflict, or if the skeptical medicine sub group just isn’t big enough to reach that level yet.

  131. Oracon 01 Feb 2013 at 2:23 pm

    It’s amusing to see people imply or outright sate that skeptical medicine is not subject to similar conflicts.

    There are those who feel the skeptical medicine community focused too much on outright quack medicine (bigfoot medicine, if you will) and not enough time focusing on malpractice, questionable conventional treatments, big pharma, etc. There are also those who are AOK with tackling obvious bigfoot medicine, but will chaff when you take a critical look at their pet weight loss or life extending diet, supplement or herbal remedy of choice, or male circumcision (that’s a guaranteed firestorm starter, for sure), etc.

    Absolutely. I get it all the time from self-proclaimed skeptics: Why do you waste so much time on homeopathy, for instance? Or how come you spend so much time going after quackery but don’t go after drug company malfeasance. (As it turns out, I do go after drug company malfeasance from time to time, but not nearly as often as the quackery, mainly because there are lots of people go after drug companies and do it better than I do.) There are people who love it when I go after homeopathy or antivax, but if I take on their one favorite “blind spot” woo (say, chiropractic), then suddenly they’re not so entertained any more.

    As for male circumcision. Geez. Any time anyone at SBM blogs about it, you can count on there being a firestorm in the comments, with comment threads stretching out into near-PZ level length.

  132. Oracon 01 Feb 2013 at 2:26 pm

    I also have to say I find the indignence on the part of the activist atheists to be ironic given how insulting they can be to activist skeptics. When you stop calling me a coward, lazy, and dishonest and stop minimalizing my chosen activism as “bigfoot skepticsm” then maybe I might take your offense seriously.

    Preach it, brother Steven. :-)

  133. MKandeferon 01 Feb 2013 at 2:35 pm

    PZ replies. I found his most pertinent point to be:

    “Is atheism a belief in philosophical naturalism? I suppose for some, it is, just as some skeptics base their position on a desire to feel superior to stupid people. But it is an incorrect description of most atheists, and especially of most prominent atheists.

    I have to assume that Novella has not read The God Delusion — no worries if he hasn’t, it’s not holy writ that everyone is required to appreciate — or he wouldn’t be making this claim. Dawkins is about as close to being the atheist authority as we can get, and his views reflect, and in many cases have inspired, what is really the mainstream atheist position. And really, his position is simply not an a priori commitment to the nonexistence of gods, but is a product of entirely scientific examination of the evidence. ”

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/02/01/atheists-are-skeptics/

    Dawkins makes several arguments in his book, and relies on several rational tools; such as logic, Bayesian probability, parsimony, and the current observed evidence. Depending on your view of the bounds of what constitutes the scientific enterprise, PZs criticism either holds, or doesn’t. If you think logic and parsimony* are part of the scientific toolset, then it would seem that PZs criticism is correct. If not, then you are just talking passed one another as you mean different things by “science”.

    * – I leave out the other two as few would argue that probability or the current evidence are not part of the scientific enterprise.

  134. Sastraon 01 Feb 2013 at 2:54 pm

    karlwithakay wrote:

    It’s amusing to see people imply or outright sate that skeptical medicine is not subject to similar conflicts.

    I did not say that skeptical medicine is not subject to conflicts within the skeptical community. Of course it is. I said that SBM is not subjected to the same conflict — i.e. the claim that you cannot subject alternative medicine to rational analysis because it’s making assertions outside of what a skeptic may draw proper inferences from. When you think about it, vitalism is actually a nontraditional form of God. SBM is overlapping with atheism.

    I also have to say I find the indignence on the part of the activist atheists to be ironic given how insulting they can be to activist skeptics. When you stop calling me a coward, lazy, and dishonest and stop minimalizing my chosen activism as “bigfoot skepticsm” then maybe I might take your offense seriously.

    Yes, I think it is very wrong of some atheists to do this — they’re complaining about focus and, ultimately, taste. But this isn’t really about either, it’s about gnu atheism’s relationship to skepticism. We’re not offended so much over a sneering tone, but over the academic substance which lies behind it — what you seem to be considering a philosophical argument. Atheist activism IS skeptical activism when the aspect of atheism we’re dealing with has to do with what we know and how we can know it and why we need to take this seriously.

  135. Karl Withakayon 01 Feb 2013 at 3:11 pm

    ” I said that SBM is not subjected to the same conflict — i.e. the claim that you cannot subject alternative medicine to rational analysis because it’s making assertions outside of what a skeptic may draw proper inferences from.”

    But it is subject to similar conflicts, very fundamental, philosophical differences, and yes, there are even disagreements over whether scientific analysis can be applied to certain modalities. Anyway, I don’t think the conflicts have be exactly the same for it to be a valid comparison.

    There are, for instance, VERY sharp disagreements regarding use of CAM as “placebo treatment” (Peter Moran). There are arguments over whether we should be strictly addressing scientific validity of treatments or whether ethical concerns should also be considered (again, for instance, “placebo medicine”), and if scientific validity should only be limited to objective outcomes or whether subjective outcomes should also be considered.

  136. Steven Novellaon 01 Feb 2013 at 3:31 pm

    I did not say that atheism was a-prior philosophical naturalism, so the entire argument about Dawkins is a non sequitur.

    My problem with the philosophical argument is that – we generally have non-philosophers getting into the deep weeds on nuanced philosophical arguments and, surprise surprise, people come up with the conclusion that fits their bias.

    My point is – even if we set the philosophy aside, there is strong justification for allowing different groups to have different focuses. This is not a condemnation of atheism.

    As a glaring example of this difference – Bill Mayer.

    He is an atheist and not a skeptic. He was given the Richard Dawkins award by the Atheist Alliance. He would never in a million years get an award from a skeptical organization. It was also disturbing that the description of the award included “advocates increased scientific knowledge.” Gag.

    This is undeniable evidence of a difference in outlook and priorities, and for me points to the need for distinct groups.

  137. Halfdeadon 01 Feb 2013 at 3:56 pm

    Dr. novella I think the problem is coming from the distinction being made at all. Why is there a distinction between alt-med and religion or politics? Why try to separate them?

    “The broader rationalist movement contains people who wish to focus on promoting science, others who wish to focus on opposing faith and religion”

    You might as well have said “The broader rationalist movement contains people who wish to focus on promoting science, others who wish to focus on promoting science”

    I understand the branding issue and not wanting to alienate such a large swath of the population, and I don’t see a problem with people choosing to not have certain topics at certain places, but your going beyond that by marking off areas of inquiry as somehow different than others. I get that you are not saying they are wrong, but it seems a bit dodgy to even try to put a divider between one superstition and another as if one is somehow different.

  138. RedMcWilliamson 01 Feb 2013 at 4:12 pm

    I guess I’m just really slow on the uptake, Dr Novella, but I think I finally get it. If we’re coming from the premise that scientific skepticism and atheism aren’t the same (or at least very similar) and that the term ‘skeptic’ generally refers to scientific skepticism, I can sort of understand some of the criticisms.

    I don’t buy those premises so I don’t think those are sound arguments, but at least I see now where we’re disagreeing on matters of opinion and not fact. So there’s that.

    Anyway, thanks for all the time you’ve spent on this. It’s not like you’ve got anything else important going on, right?

  139. Steven Novellaon 01 Feb 2013 at 4:19 pm

    Halfdead – Bill Maher.

    There is a philosophical difference, as I have tried to explain. Disagree with me all you want, but the distinction is there. Promoting science is distinct from opposing faith (again, philosophically this is not about religion or politics). These are both good, they’re just distinct.

    Now – culturally (not philosophically) there are those more interested in science, others more interested in opposing religion, and still others who are equally concerned with both. So even if you set philosophy aside, there are various cultures here.

    There are atheists who are not skeptics and skeptics who are not atheists. I don’t know of anyone who opposes alt med but who is not a skeptic. Then there is the award-winning atheist, Bill Maher.

    I am not saying this is the way is should be – this is just the way it is.

  140. Sastraon 01 Feb 2013 at 4:25 pm

    Steven Novella wrote:

    My point is – even if we set the philosophy aside, there is strong justification for allowing different groups to have different focuses. This is not a condemnation of atheism.

    But the gnu atheists are a subset of skepticism, just as SBM are a subset of skepticism. They are in the same group.

    As a glaring example of this difference – Bill Mayer.
    He is an atheist and not a skeptic. He was given the Richard Dawkins award by the Atheist Alliance. He would never in a million years get an award from a skeptical organization. It was also disturbing that the description of the award included “advocates increased scientific knowledge.” Gag.

    Granted, that gag is legitimate, though the particular award he got made it very clear it was only for his movie and outspoken atheism and NOT for his science. Last year Eugenie Scott got the Richard Dawkins award: it was for her science and not for her outspoken atheism. She’s an “accomodationist.” Ideological purity is a goal: you move in the right direction by degrees. And you do not hold yourself off from debate and criticism.

    Atheism as a large group contains both skeptical atheists and unskeptical atheists. PZ agrees. But the skeptical atheists – the gnu atheists — are in skepticism as staunchly as are doctors who are neither shruggies nor alties. It’s not only our brand, too — it’s technically our primary brand. Method, method, method.

  141. RedMcWilliamson 01 Feb 2013 at 4:30 pm

    To be fair, Doctor, ‘scientific skeptics’ don’t JUST promote science. There is a great deal of opposing ideas and practices and philosophies that easily fall under the tent of scientific skepticism and are readily attended at strictly skeptical conferences.

    I don’t see much of a difference, philosophically or otherwise, between opposing Dr Oz (or Sylvia Browne or Dean Radin) and opposing Rick Warren. You do (at least it appears you do). The reasons why we disagree are at the heart of this argument, I think.

  142. Steven Novellaon 01 Feb 2013 at 4:43 pm

    PZ – Thanks for commenting here. Sorry it got stuck in moderation, but I just approved it. PZ wrote (so you don’t have to look up the comment)

    “But if it’s entirely about branding and focus, not the underlying focus, why are you making a distinction on the basis of methodological vs. philosophical naturalism? Now in this comment you’re saying it’s all about specialization and mission, but that’s not the distinction you’ve been making in your posts.

    You don’t seem to grasp the meaning of the “bigfoot skepticism” term. It’s not because it’s bad to debunk bigfoot claims; it’s not because it’s wrong to have a specialized focus within skepticism. It’s referring specifically to skeptics who have a laundry list of what topics are fair game for skeptics (which includes things like bigfoot, UFOs, and most emphatically, alt-med) and which are not. I think it is entirely appropriate for you to make alt-med your bailiwick, and no, you don’t need to be aggressively anti-religious at all. What’s bothersome is when Bigfoot Skeptics try to argue that atheists aren’t proper skeptics, and that’s the defining characteristic of the genus — they define boundaries of what is and is not skepticism by subject matter, not the methodological approach.”

    I think it is about philosophy and branding. The point I am adding now is that the philosophical argument tends to get nowhere. It is nuanced, but I think worth making. I think it comes down to – if you base your claim entirely on faith (which happens a lot when believers have their back against the wall) science can no longer say the claim is wrong, only that it is “not even wrong” – it is outside the realm of science and knowledge, and is now a personal choice only. I will add that the claim itself cannot be empirical (there is frequent confusion on this point) – you cannot say the earth is 6,000 years old and defend it with faith, because that is an empirical claim answerable by science. You have to go the extra step of insulating the claim from empirical examination, and render it a pure faith-based claim. When this is done – you get ejected from science.

    The reason, in my opinion, that this nuance is important (in addition to being philosophically valid) is because it enables us to say we respect freedom of religion, we are not trying to oppose anyone’s faith, only address empirical claims, logic, and intellectual freedom. In practice this makes no difference to most of the issues that we all face, like creationism, faith healing, demonic possession, whatever. But it does help with the branding and marketing.

    The reason I am shifting focus (not justification, as I have said this all along) is because after a couple of hundred comments on the philosophy I don’t think we need to keep going around. I am trying to make the additional point that even if we set this philosophy argument aside we still have the marketing, branding, cultural, strategic argument in place – and that is enough to justify the different specializations. Once again – Bill Maher.

    I cannot defend everything every skeptic has ever said, nor do I hold you, PZ, responsible for everything every atheist has said. There has been some bad blood, confusion, misinterpretations, misunderstandings, etc. I am trying to move past that by improving our mutual respect and understanding.

    Most of the scientific skeptics I have spoken to on this issue are atheists, and are glad that there are activist atheists like you out there flying the atheist colors and giving it to religious nonsense. You go. But they feel protective of the venues they have carved out to focus on promoting science and critical thinking in a way that is most appealing to science nerds. We do take on religious and political issues, but are careful to strike a certain balance and tone in these areas. We see a different balance and tone in atheistic circles and (even if we agree with it) feel it is different enough that different venues are needed.

  143. locutusbrgon 01 Feb 2013 at 5:01 pm

    @CC bowers
    I see your point. The more Steve restates his position the more I see the balance. I think my own underlying issues with the some of PZ’s broad statements about political parties. It rubs me the wrong way and I thought Steve was not challenging him enough.

    IE: attacking any political part as inherently bad. In my opinion, it is a critical thinking fail. A republican or a libertarian does not mean that the political ideas are all universally useless. Or that someone from those political parties are religious, creationist, or non-sense providers automatically. The same is true about the US political Liberals, all of them are not science promoting, atheist fans.
    Bottom line PZ is polarizing down political lines, that is not a skeptical viewpoint, it is a atheist viewpoint which is distinctly different. Supporting or fighting specific political issues is a skeptical viewpoint. Allowing PZ “a pass” on his insistence to apply skepticism to politics is not something, I thought, should be glossed over. Given that he has made broad and prejudicial statements about political parties and political support.
    Political parties are polarizing, and ideological not skeptical.
    Political parties are trying to fit the proverbial square peg in a round hole.

    To be honest I think frustration with my personal experience in skeptical meetings locally was bleeding through. “Skeptical” atheist activists driving the focus to a atheist only agenda. everything else is less important.
    Admittedly it came out inappropriately in my comment.
    I love the comment above and will be applying it regularly I am a atheist not an anti-theist.

  144. Sastraon 01 Feb 2013 at 5:03 pm

    Steven Novella wrote:

    The reason, in my opinion, that this nuance is important (in addition to being philosophically valid) is because it enables us to say we respect freedom of religion, we are not trying to oppose anyone’s faith, only address empirical claims, logic, and intellectual freedom. In practice this makes no difference to most of the issues that we all face, like creationism, faith healing, demonic possession, whatever. But it does help with the branding and marketing.

    Even the people who ‘retreat’ to faith seldom stand (or stay) on pure fideism. Instead, they argue for the validity of faith as a “way of knowing,” a virtuous, disciplined, and reasonable leap towards truth motivated by evidence which satisfies those with a humble willingness to seek out and embrace what is true and good.

    Which skeptics don’t do. Because they’re not open to faith.

    In my opinion, opposing “faith” is one of most important things all skeptics can do, because in some form or other it rears its head at the bottom of every debate on psychic powers, alternative medicine, and — eventually — even Bigfoot. As Daniel Dennett put it in his introduction to Nicholas Humphrey’s book arguing against the paranormal, Leaps of Faith:

    Our culture, Humphrey says, has played a remarkable confidence trick on us: “This has been to persuade people that there is a deep connection between believing in the possibility of psychic forces and being a gracious, honest, upright, trustworthy member of society.” We skeptics sometimes sense a need to apologize for our mean-spirited skepticism! It is not polite to expose the gullibility of decent, intelligent, well-meaning folks, spiritual folks, who have savored the depths of meaning to be found in these experiences.

    I’m not so sure that a skeptic group does itself any good by deciding to brand themselves as “we are not trying to oppose anyone’s faith.” Because we ARE. And we should.

  145. Steven Novellaon 01 Feb 2013 at 5:24 pm

    Sastra. That gets to a style/ strategy difference. I would rather give people critical thinking skills and maybe they will give up their faith. Atheists seem to prefer a full frontal assault. Tell you what. Lets try both and see what happens.

  146. Sastraon 01 Feb 2013 at 5:44 pm

    Steven Novella wrote:

    Tell you what. Lets try both and see what happens.

    Sure! :)

    Perhaps the style/strategy difference has an analogy in a skeptical approach to medicine, as well. Some skeptics argue that it makes more sense to work within alternative medicine: emphasize diet, exercise, relaxation, and well-tested herbs and other natural products. Advocate that chiropaths focus only on physical therapy and encourage that naturopaths be pro-vaccine. Emphasize what is reasonable and science-based in alternative medicine and maybe they will give up their faith in the woo.

    Other skeptics prefer a full frontal assault.

    Style and strategy. Let’s try both.

  147. nybgruson 01 Feb 2013 at 5:49 pm

    His [Jeff Wagg] complaint was solely that Skepticon was misbranded and therefore may be deceptive. He was not complaining that it was an atheist conference (or that there was too much atheis), only that people might get the wrong idea about the focus of the conference from it being called “skeptical”

    This, to me, is the crux of the issue. As PZ said in his latest response, it is skeptical to be an atheist. We use the exact same toolset, the same science, the same statistics, the same everything to conclude that CAM is bunk, psychics are bunk, and religion is bunk.

    Yes, there are those atheists whose only goal is to just blindly eradicate religion and are themselves not skeptical nor arrived there skeptically. But that exists for any subset of believers and disbelievers.

    The question is this: if Skepticon ended up, for whatever reason, being very predominantly or almost entirely about CAM or cryptozoology, which Wagg have said that the name of the conference was misleading and it really wasn’t focused on being skeptical? If yes, then ok… there seems to be no issue and we are all just talking past each other. But I reckon the answer is no. Because atheist topics were a significant part of it, suddenly it simply wasn’t skeptical.

    Anti-theism, at least the kind that I ascribe to and so does PZ, is not about just blindly opposing faith on some purely philosophical grounds. Just look at the debates between any religious apologist and anybody else – Dawkins, Harris, Myers, anyone. The apologist uses pure philosophy and obfuscatory language and the opponent uses… scientific skepticism to bring forth evidence why those claims make no sense. It is not just purely a battle of philosophy and logic, thus denoting a need for such demarcation as “overlapping but not the same thing.”

    Atheism, and anti-theism, is just as much a skeptical endeavor as anti-CAM, anti-psychics, anti-UFO, anti-Bigfoot.

    All that said, I have had an off-blog convo with a commenter here and have seen that truly there is a purpose and valid reason to maintaining said division of labor. I am actually all for that and have no problem with skeptical conferences focusing on whatever it is they traditionally focus on.

    What I do have a problem with is trying to say that atheism is not a skeptical endeavor (or even specifically a scientifically skeptical endeavor). It most certainly is.

  148. nybgruson 01 Feb 2013 at 5:55 pm

    That gets to a style/ strategy difference. I would rather give people critical thinking skills and maybe they will give up their faith. Atheists seem to prefer a full frontal assault. Tell you what. Lets try both and see what happens.

    Absolutely we should try both. And all. Not just both. The diversity of our attacks and the usage of our strengths makes us stronger as a whole.

    But atheism is not a different style or strategy from skepticism. It is skepticism. And just like people can attack CAM and Bigfoot either full on and denounce them or just kindly slip them the critical thinking tools to realize CAM is wrong, the same can be said for atheism.

    I think that is actually a very apt analogy Dr. Novella. We at SBM are quite vocal and full on about how incredibly bunk CAM is. Not just specific empirical claims of CAM but literally the entire thing as a concept. You yourself have many times said how it is simply not even a valid category. We often talk about the harms done and how it should be actively routed out of med schools and hospitals and how the NCCAM should be dissolved as a useless bastion of CAM pandering lending a false imprimatur of legitimacy to CAM. And we do so all from a scientifically skeptical POV.

    How is that fundamentally any different than atheism???

    Once again, I get the branding and marketing and I absolutely agree that in the case of religion kindly slipping people critical thinking tools is a very effective (probably more effective) way of doing it.

    But you do realize that Peter Moran spends quite a lot of time saying that we are militant, full of invective, and that our strident approach will do more harm and close more minds than anything else. That sure sounds a lot like the charges levied against PZ around these parts.

  149. Quineon 01 Feb 2013 at 6:07 pm

    A while back I wrote about not all atheists supporting atheism, and I think that meme applies even more to skeptics who don’t see themselves as part of a movement. We all know people who can and do apply critical thinking to Bigfoot and UFO-abductions and homeopathy, etc., but not to their own religious beliefs. My Christian missionary neighbors talks to me about his personal evidence for his beliefs, that he states would change my mind if I just “gave it a chance” to happen to me. I would like to spread critical thinking as far as can be (thanks Dr. Novella for working on that) but don’t need folks to sign up to a movement where they pledge to use it in every aspect of their lives.

  150. Halfdeadon 01 Feb 2013 at 6:12 pm

    “I would like to spread critical thinking as far as can be (thanks Dr. Novella for working on that) but don’t need folks to sign up to a movement where they pledge to use it in every aspect of their lives.”

    And no one is saying you have to, but when you criticize bigfoot you don’t then get to tell someone criticizing Santa that he isn’t a skeptic when he does so.

  151. Enzoon 01 Feb 2013 at 6:17 pm

    I can’t get my head around the actual argument trying to be made here…

    There is a skeptical dogma.”

    It’s dogmatic to say that if you don’t support atheist agendas or confront politics you are not a useful skeptic and cannot be helpful. Even the implication that skeptics should promote something is wrong.

    Steve Novella clearly states that his position is use the term skeptic as you see fit, acknowledging that it is a loose term that broadly groups people of a certain rationalism and penchant for evidence together. Don’t try to force what you find important on anyone else. It’s “meet at least X of the following Y” criteria — exclusions may apply.

    Everyone doesn’t have to do everything. Someone may not be on the front lines, but the unifying core principles of skepticism (basically critical thinking) still support the more specialized agendas.

    Sometimes little meaningful objectivity is to be had in a subject (like politics). Sometimes philosophical, practical or moral grounds trump someone’s preference for science. It’s only a moral argument that skeptics should not be “accomodationists.”

    It sounds like the opposing side is making an argument similar to “You’re a teacher back home while I’m a solider at war overseas. You’re a coward for not coming overseas and fighting these badguys.” We need teachers and soldiers. And the view of badguy is subjective.

  152. Steven Novellaon 01 Feb 2013 at 6:24 pm

    Regarding the CAM analogy – not really apt. Medicine is an applied science and profession with ethical standards. There is no CAM analogy, for example, to deism.

    Interestingly – there are those who make the exact argument that we should accept that CAM as a category exists and try to absorb it by improving the standards of science within CAM. Even at SBM we have had the strategic argument, for example – should we only oppose licensing chiropractors, or accept that they exist and just try to reform their scientific standards. (This has actually been a bitter dispute.) I do tend to say – both. We can argue for why they do not deserve licensure, but also argue for higher standards of science in the meantime. Honestly, if chiropractors became fully science-based I would have no problem with them. Why would I?

    CAM is also a double standard, and I don’t think we should have a double standard in a profession like medicine. Essentially what you are saying is – allow the double standard but try to improve the CAM standard. Rather, we can just have one science-based standard. As a strategic argument, I think the one science-based standard works better, but I am also not a purest – if we have to settle for a double standard, but both science-based, I guess I would prefer that to a pseudoscience or faith-based standard. I don’t think that approach will work, however, for a variety of reasons.

    So this analogy does not really work for your point.

  153. Steven Novellaon 01 Feb 2013 at 6:34 pm

    nybgrus wrote: “But atheism is not a different style or strategy from skepticism.”

    Bill Maher.

    It absolutely is. That is – activist scientific skepticism is a different style and strategy from activist atheism.

    Bill Maher.

    There is a lot of overlap. There are not clean borders (but they are identifiable). It is mostly emphasis, interest, and balance.

    As I said many times – on pretty much all the important issues we are next to you, shoulder to shoulder, taking on the nonsense.

    I think what has happened is that statements, perhaps some resentment, and pushback from activist skeptics wanting to keep skeptical venues from blending with atheist venues has sounded like attacks on atheists – but it really isn’t. This is partly (perhaps even mostly) a problem with loose use of semantics (saying “skepticism” as short hand for “activist scientific skepticism”).

    But there are those who see Bill Maher and see a flawed but heroic atheist fighting for the cause, and others who see a seething malignant pseudoscientist who happens to be an atheist, and every view in between. You cannot deny that difference.

    Yes – we all use science, critical thinking, logic, and evidence. But we approach our activism a little differently. Different organizations have developed organically from the grassroots of different styles and interests, which have sorted themselves roughly into skeptics, atheists, and rationalists (to use my terminology).

    So again – why is this a problem?

  154. Halfdeadon 01 Feb 2013 at 6:50 pm

    I see so Bill Maher is the problem, sorry I didn’t know he was being invited to speak at skeptical events. The Atheists you seem to have issue with aren’t the ones your talking to Dr. Novella.

  155. Sastraon 01 Feb 2013 at 6:56 pm

    So this analogy does not really work for your point.

    Yes it does. That was my point. PZ is arguing against a double-standard in skepticism which is assumed as strategy.

    I’m a long time fan of SBM (and RI), and know about this argument.

  156. Sastraon 01 Feb 2013 at 6:59 pm

    Bill Maher for the Dawkins award caused as huge controversy. But nobody who supported it argued for the validity of alternative medicine. Not that I saw, at any rate. But even the gnu atheists were okay with Genie-the-accomodationist.

    And we aren’t talking about atheists-in-general, but gnu atheists.

    People who believe in God definitely belong in the skeptical movement. But this does not mean that belief in God is not a skeptical conclusion.

  157. Halfdeadon 01 Feb 2013 at 7:04 pm

    After reading all the threads on this topic I have notices both sides saying the same thing. Namely “what is the problem with both sides just doing their own thing?” Seems like we are talking past each other. I don’t know what the atheist topics at skepticon were but I would be willing to bet money that none of them were about bashing religion just for the sake of it. I would also be willing to bet none of them were about philosophy but were instead about real world issues and things that are very testable.

    So, why the complaints? Why is it even a discussion topic, they should have just been seen as another panel about something to be skeptical about.

  158. Steven Novellaon 01 Feb 2013 at 7:16 pm

    halfdead – Bill Maher is not the problem – he is just a prominent example of the different priorities of different groups within the broader rationalist movement.

    Sastra – it is a poor analogy. Medicine is an applied science. It is also a profession with ethical standards. There is no CAM analogy to deism. Don’t just skirt past those points and focus on the double standard comment, which was not offered as a reason the analogy is false but rather why it is about strategy. Supporting the double standard is a bad strategy. Avoiding a frontal assault on faith is a reasonable strategy.

    Why the complaints? I agree. I didn’t start this. Correct me if I am wrong but the apparent problem is that “bigfoot skeptics” are keeping atheists out of skeptical conferences, because we would rather focus on our teeny tiny narrow issues because of lame emotional reasons (like cowardice).

    Hopefully we have moved past that insulting straw man. Can we now say that – it’s all good. It’s all rationalism. Yeah team, boo pseudoscience and irrationality? But – let’s respect different priorities, marketing, strategies, styles, and specialties.

    Am I hearing now that this division of labor is cool, as long as skeptics don’t insult atheists by saying their activism is not important? OK – done.

  159. nybgruson 01 Feb 2013 at 7:17 pm

    I see CAM as a faith based belief system just like religion. In the time I have spent reading and writing on SBM and here that has been the consistent conclusion I keep reaching.

    Medicine is an applied science. CAM is not. CAM is a “religion.” They purport “other ways of knowing,” refer to ancient texts as holy gospel for their actions, are more about ritual than substance, and, just like religion, try to convince us with “evidence.” They do cargo cult science – just like religion. When that fails, they retreat to faith based positions – “science doesn’t know everything,” “medicine is an ‘art’”, “they call it the practice of medicine,” “you can’t test my woo with your evil reductionist science,” etc etc.

    Sounds a lot like religion doesn’t it?

    I think that analogy is quite apt indeed. Just like there are many flavors of “religion” there are many flavors of “CAM” as well. Some have a spirit and a soul, some “energies,” some require ritual cleansing and rites of passage, and the two are often one and the same (faith healing).

    So I still fail to see the distinction and why it is OK to use activist scientific skepticism to counter CAM as a whole entity – one which purports to redefine “medicine” and how it works – but not religion – which purports to redefine “reality” and how it works.

    The goal post moving is the same. The aping of science is the same. The retreat to faith based claims is the same. The claim that our science can’t evaluate their claims but they are still none the less valid is the same. The empirical claims are the same. The attempt at non-overlapping magisteria is the same (the “alternative” part and the “integration” of CAM into medicine). The use of ancient text and ancient knowledge are the same. The pandering to “just believing” in it and using obfuscatory language to deceive are the same.

    I just don’t see the distinction and I don’t see how anti-theism or atheism are any less an activist scientific skeptical endeavor than anti-CAM.

    And Bill Maher is a douche. I was flabbergasted at the award… and so was PZ! He was even upset that the nozzle was invited to speak anywhere. And I think it is unfair to cite one example of someone who is not what we are talking about, nor who we are, getting an award from one atheist foundation one time as somehow indicative of a deep and fundamental philosophical rift between activist scientific skepticism and activist atheism.

    Refer to my comment way above where I used mathematical set notation to describe what I meant. Atheism is a subset of scientific skepticism in the exact same manner as anti-CAM is.

    I will reiterate that I fully understand that difference in venue, flavor, market, yadda yadda. I am not arguing that skepticon and TAM should be atheist conventions or even have more atheist content. But I am arguing that we are not cousins, but sisters in arms, with Skepticism as our parent.

  160. Steven Novellaon 01 Feb 2013 at 7:24 pm

    CAM is complicated. Some of it is religion. Some of it is just bad science. Some of it is conscious fraud. Some of it is all of those things at once.

    Maher is not the only example. Seriously, are you arguing there is no cultural difference between activist skeptics and activist atheists. If there weren’t, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.

    How about PZs “cracker” episode. I am not criticizing this, I get the purpose of deliberate in your face blasphemy, it is just not something I would advocate for every venue.

    It’s also a matter of balance. Yes, we address religious issues, but perhaps not so much as an atheist venue. And we would include straight-up science topics, when an atheist venue might not.

    I have always called skeptical and atheist movements “sister” movements (like CSI and the Secular Humanists). So do we agree now?

  161. Halfdeadon 01 Feb 2013 at 7:46 pm

    This is getting murky, but I am pretty sure while you did not start it Steve you jumped in on the side that did in fact start it. So you are arguing on the side that started the conversation.
    .

  162. JackLewison 01 Feb 2013 at 10:01 pm

    “What’s bothersome is when Bigfoot Skeptics try to argue that atheists aren’t proper skeptics, ”

    I doubt they are really bothersome, is there really such a thing as skeptics who argue atheists are not proper skeptics? Maybe they exist but I can’t really say I know of any… perhaps some notable examples would help and make them appear less mythical in nature.

    Still, it is quite easy to imagine people who simply don’t believe in god(s) but can’t articulate why, have never really thought about the issue but just don’t believe.
    You do sometimes hear about atheists becoming theists at a later stage which probably means they had just adopted their earlier position via either peer pressure, convenience and very little thinking.

  163. Verklagekasperon 01 Feb 2013 at 11:32 pm

    Twenty years ago barely anyone knew what the Internet even is. Everything was fine. But today we have blogs and Twitter. If it wasn’t for Twitter, I dare say this “schism” wouldn’t even exist!
    Cram your messages into 160 characters, and chances are that you piss off everyone. Do not use Twitter. And think thrice before blogging something.

  164. nybgruson 02 Feb 2013 at 12:17 am

    Religion is complicated too. Some of it its conscious fraud too. Some of it its bad science too. And much of it is all the same things at one as well. I genuinely see no meaningful fundamental differences between CAM and religion.

    And yes, between the gnu atheists as sastra says, there really its no fundamentally different culture. Look at Hemant Mehta for example.

    The cracker episode? Sure. How about Randi eating an entire bottle of homeopathic medicine and calling it all a hoax and quackery? Just because one is a “religious tenet” and “blasphemy” and the other its a core principle of an entire practice (religion) and insulting the entirety of a self called profession as charlatans doesn’t make the act, the point, or the premise fundamentally different.

    The difference is that it its culturally taboo to blaspheme against someone’s magic cracker but not taboo to blaspheme against someone’s magic sugar pills. And that’s exactly the problem we are fighting – from a scientific skeptical perspective the two claims are the same. The two actions are the same. (PZ desecrated a magic cracker and was not struck down by God and Randi “desecrated” a bottle of magic pills and did not die).

    Like I said – I get the balance. Obviously we would like more outlets for atheist talking points (btw my auto correct just changed atheist to Christ… Must be a sign. Lol) because we are passionate about it and for good reason. Even I think religion does more harm, on the whole, than CAM. We can make a reasoned case for our position. In all honesty after this convo I agree with you about the balance, marketing, venue, and tactics point. I concede that aspect of the argument.

    But the issue is when folks like Loxton and Drescher say that atheism has not brought anything to the skeptical table. When complaints are that there are too many atheists on a panel regardless of what they are actually talking about (because they are known atheist activists). And when even you do not see gnu atheism as the application of scientific skepticism to religion, the same as applied to Bigfoot, CAM, etc.

    Of course you can point to Maher and a bunch of idiots who are atheist but not skeptical. but that is not representative of the actual movement any more than conspiracy theorists are representative of scientific skepticism. I bet a 10 second google search would reveal heaps of people who denounce CAM and still wear a tin foil hat and worry about black helicopters.

    Dawkins spent the entirety of the God Delusion arguing from a scientific skeptical standpoint. PZ almost always argues from the same.

    And I see no difference between calling religion ludicrous, inane, and the purveyors of it schysters vs calling CAM “a fetid load of dingo kidneys,” quackery, and the purveyors charlatans. In other words we “bash” CAM just the same way we “bash” religion.

    And people complain about anti-theism being boring and repetitive? No new arguments to learn? It is the same with CAM. Just like religion the keep plodding on, completely ignoring the critiques we have demolished them with over and over again. “that was a badly done underpowered study that shows nothing” followed by ten more of the same. “the flood is not a geologic possibility” followed by more bilk about strata and how the “smart”animals climbed to the top of mountains explaining the geologic record.

    Once again, not around changing the theme of skeptics confidences. But acknowledgment that yes, when done right, atheism and anti theism are scientific skeptical endeavors just the same as anti-CAM. And acknowledgment that this is certainly not fully recognized or appreciated by a number of major players in the skeptical movement.

    Ultimately it may be a moot point since it may be unreasonable to alter our current strategies and division of labor. But we are academics and thought exercises and even just purely academic recognition of something is still something we should value.

    Apologies for typos or unintended tone. I am typing this on my tablet late art night in bed after a few cocktails with friends. Hopefully a little principle of charity may be extended my way.

  165. BillyJoe7on 02 Feb 2013 at 3:15 am

    It seems for any change to occur, there has to be activists and diplomats.

    The activist demands change and, without activists demanding change, change will never occur. The public needs the truth slapped in their faces, otherwise it’s too easy just to ignore the message and maintain the status quo. The message needs to be out there loud and clear. But that is not sufficient. Having been woken up to the truth, they also have to be bought around to accepting it. Enter the diplomat. The diplomat can not afford to be completely honest. There are always things that are true that he can not say because he needs to find common ground to achieve the actual change precipitated by the activists. The diplomat has to give those rudely woken by the activists the excuse to make the change that must occur. The diplomat makes them feel that they have made the change themselves and not had change forced upon them.
    This is the way slavery was abolished, women got the vote, blacks achieved equality, and gays will get theirs.

    It’s not a contest between Steve and PZ to see whose strategy works.
    We need both to work.

  166. Steven Novellaon 02 Feb 2013 at 6:53 am

    nybgrus – But I have already clarified that, philosophically, I am not making a distinction between religion and any other topic. I disagree with your equivalence argument with CAM, you are straining this point way too far. Some CAM is religion, and there are many similarities (I have made that point explicitly myself) but there all also important differences (which you have not addressed).

    But – bigger point – I am not saying that the philosophical rules or logic is different for religion or even politics. One of my premises is that they are the same, and we address religious issues all the time. I also never said that most atheists do not come to their atheism through critical thinking. I don’t know what the percentages are, and I know that many prominent atheists (like Dawkins, Harris, PZ) do come to atheism through critical thinking. Heck most skeptics have come to atheism through critical thinking. In fact – that is part of our strategy premise – teach people to think critically, and some of them will eventually jetison faith.

    So we agree on these points.

    So I think have the differences nailed down to two points:

    Philosophy – Skepticism is saying: within methodological naturalism, these are the methods that are valid (science, logic) and these are the conclusions we currently come to. If you choose to hold to beliefs outside of methodological naturalism, you have the freedom to do so, I cannot prove you wrong – but it’s faith, it is not science. BTW – that means all the rules of religious freedom, separation of church and state, etc. apply, and you cannot teach such beliefs in science class or make claims to objective knowledge.

    Atheists take it one step further. They agree with the above, but add – and you shouldn’t have faith, because faith is a bad thing, and here are the reasons why. In essence, you should adhere to philosophical naturalism (I am not saying their PN is a-priori, as PZ assumed in his recent post).

    The second difference is cultural. Skeptics seem to focus on scientific issues, while atheists have more passion for social, religious, and political issues. This is not a clean separation, both do both, but there is a difference in passion, emphasis, specialty, etc. I keep using Bill Maher as an example because he does represent the different cultures. He is not just one guy. And entire atheist organization gave him their highest award.

    It is also true that some atheists are not skeptics and some skeptics are not atheists. Yes – many are both.

    It seems in the comments here there is persistent confusion between the two differences above. It seems that when the second point is being made about cultural differences between science and religion, it is interpreted as if we are saying there are philosophical differences, when we are not saying that. The philosophical differences are between science and faith, and this is a subtle but (we feel) important distinction. The cultural differences are between science and religion.

  167. Steven Novellaon 02 Feb 2013 at 6:54 am

    BillyJoe – I sort of agree. We have two sister movements which are a good 1-2 punch for rationalism. It is strategically sound. Don’t mess with it.

    But I disagree that skeptics have to be dishonest. Not at all. We simply choose a certain emphasis, which is completely philosophically valid. I never say or write anything I don’t believe 100%.

  168. ccbowerson 02 Feb 2013 at 8:38 am

    “The diplomat can not afford to be completely honest. There are always things that are true that he can not say because he needs to find common ground to achieve the actual change precipitated by the activists.”

    I get the diplomat analogy, but where it fails is the point about honesty. I’m not sure if an effective diplomat can be truly honest (or not- maybe that is true), but I don’t think honesty is the distinction here with respect to atheism and skepticism. A dishonest skeptic is not a good one. Steve is correct when he speaks about focus and emphasis (and I think that is also what diplomats do), but there is also another component of how we choose to interact with people who display a lack of critical thinking.

    An important distinction I would point out between CAM and religion (the analogy that nybgrus brought up) is that religion is a form of ideology that is often much more closely tied to a person’s identity, and we don’t want to need for a person to have a spiritual crisis prior to acquiring critical thinking skills. As many people have pointed out, skepticism is a process that works best inward, once the skills are learned. The idea is to teach those skills, and the real “work” comes in the application of those thinking skills towards one’s life.

    For this reason, I don’t buy the idea that we ‘need’ a higher emphasis on atheistic topics in order to combat the problems of religion within skepticism. Although I do think this is a valid endeavour, I don’t think there is a current problem in the content of skeptical conferences (if this is the issue in question). They do this just fine, and there are many outlets that focus on religion specifically (does it make sense for me to go to them and say that they are not addressing CAM enough?). Also, it is not true that religious topics are do not come up in skeptical conferences, and to say that there is unfair discrimination against atheists in skeptical communities seems absurd to me… they are mostly atheists themselves.

    Wait, what are we talking about again?

  169. nybgruson 02 Feb 2013 at 10:04 am

    Thanks again for taking the time to respond.

    I am absolutely willing to extend the principle of charity here and say that I understand what you mean, but you can hopefully understand my confusion when up-thread you say:

    What is correct is that there is a philosophically different approach between empirical claims and faith-based claims and it is necessary to acknowledge this.

    and now:

    It seems that when the second point is being made about cultural differences between science and religion, it is interpreted as if we are saying there are philosophical differences, when we are not saying that.

    Maybe I am not reading you carefully enough or maybe it is just a complex, subtle, and nuanced enough topic that hashing it out in short written fora makes it difficult (probably both).

    Now that I am taking a moment to grok the comments, I think the issue is one of practical vs theoretical and indeed some culture differences.

    I’ll agree that there are cultural differences in the atheist movement. From the perspective of the gnu atheists (which I suppose I self-identify with) the difference is small. But from the perspective of everyone who self identifies merely as “atheist” and the fact that it is true we as a group tend to invite just about anyone who does into our camp (despite the protestations of the gnu atheists like PZ and myself) makes that an empirical point I must concede.

    The practical vs theoretical is still an issue though and I will try and explain how I see it.

    I agree that there is a subtle and necessary difference between addressing empirical/science claims and purely faith based claims. CAM, by its nature, tends to be much more entrenched in the realm of the empirical than the faith. However, they do retreat to faith based claims (your science can’t evaluate my woo) as justification. We don’t let that slide because they still use that to influence the real world and actual medicine. The same applies for religion. We all trounce them when they make empirical claims. When they retreat to purely faith based claims, they are ejected from the realm of science. The problem is that we as gnu atheists see the same thing as CAM – they retreat to a purely faith based claim but still try and use that to influence the real world and politics/legislation.

    So why do we give them a pass but not the sCAMsters? In theory you are absolutely right. But in practice religion becomes like CAM in trying to retreat to faith based claims that we rightfully can call “not even wrong” and just move on, but then they both still try to act in the empirical world with those same claims. In practice they both become the same and the distinction between skeptical dismantling of CAM’s empirical claims is not different than gnu atheist dismantling of religious claims.

    And yes, we say all faith is bad based on the corpus of knowledge and examples we have and the fact that the methodology of faith arriving at answers is demonstrably false. We absolutely allow for certain faith based claims to be right on accident and can be accepted as reality after proper skeptical and scientific evaluation.

    We also say that all CAM is bad based on a similar corpus of knowledge and example we have, plus that fact that the methodology of CAM arriving at answers in medicine is demonstrably false. And we also absolutely allow for certain CAM claims to be right on accident and can be accepted as part of medicine after proper scientific evaluation.

    That which is tested and proven ceases to be CAM and is just medicine.

    That which is tested and proven ceases to be religion and is just reality.

    As for my analogy being strained too far… perhaps a good topic for future posts/discussions. My conclusion on this was not reached a priori but was formed after 3 years of intensely (skeptically) reading vast amounts about both CAM and religion. I wasn’t seeking to find that conclusion – I treated them quite separately for a very long time. It was one that simply kept coming up and the evidence was pointing me there. I have been just as passionate and involved about CAM as I have been about religion and atheism. Obviously they are not identical things. Neither is anything that skeptics or atheists talk about. But the fundamental underlying principles – the means by which conclusions are reached, how they are held, placing conclusions first and evidence second, the rhetoric used, are much too similar from my perspective to be dismissed as merely overlap rather than a process that is fundamentally the same merely directed at a different aspect of life/reality.

    In any event, I’ll stop belaboring the point. I actually really hope PZ is reading all of this. Not because I think I am absolutely right or some sort of authority on the matter, but because I have been attempting to put out my thoughts on the topic and hopefully someone not mired in my own inescapable biases of writing from the inside of my own head can pick apart the good and correct bits and make a better overall synthesis from that (and of course all the other contributions from the excellent comments here – I do not want to come across as arrogant about my own contributions because I truly am not).

    Regardless, I have gained a new perspective and learned a lot from the discussion and for that I thank you all. I do not envision this as the end of a conversation nor should there really be one. Just as a way of thoughtful people to consider things from a few perspectives and see what ultimately makes sense. Or maybe I am just a newb with illusions of grandeur about the whole thing.

    Oh yeah, as for BJ’s comment – I agree with you Dr. Novella. We should never be dishonest and I never am. We should emphasize and de-emphasize certain points at certain times, but never actually be dishonest.

    And I still haven’t had a chance to watch Jamy Swiss’ talk. I woke up this morning with the intent to but I woke up to a lot of work that needed to be addressed right away and could not spare the time. It is still on my to-do list though.

  170. ccbowerson 02 Feb 2013 at 10:16 am

    “However, they do retreat to faith based claims (your science can’t evaluate my woo) as justification. We don’t let that slide because they still use that to influence the real world and actual medicine. The same applies for religion.”

    Yes, but I would say that I would have the same reaction in alt med for faith arguments that Steve mentioned for religious faith arguments. The “that’s not even wrong” argument. Once you get someone to argue that their argument is not subject to reality and can’t be tested, you’ve basically “won” the argument by demonstrating that they have an untenable position. Their argument then becomes unconvincing to anyone honestly looking at the topic, and for those unwilling to be intellectual honest… well they are unreachable as long as they hold such a posistion. You can’t argue with a person who doesn’t value logic and argument. What else can you do?

  171. ccbowerson 02 Feb 2013 at 10:26 am

    “The problem is that we as gnu atheists see the same thing as CAM – they retreat to a purely faith based claim but still try and use that to influence the real world and politics/legislation.
    So why do we give them a pass but not the sCAMsters? In theory you are absolutely right.”

    How are they given a pass? Skeptics do deal with religious claims, but there seems to be a compaint that should be doing more (yet I’m still unsure what the complaint is specifically). For example, skeptics have been fighting creationism for a long time now, and that seems to be something that fits very well with what we are discussing: It also has political and real world implications and deals with education, but it is also making an empirical claim about the nature of our world that is demonstrably false.

  172. nybgruson 02 Feb 2013 at 10:29 am

    you’ve basically “won” the argument by demonstrating that they have an untenable position.

    Sure, but it is a hollow victory. We know we won. But nobody else realizes it, cares about it, or acts on it.

    Instead David Katz at Yale School of Medicine gets to talk about how we should change the standards of evidence for CAM because somehow that makes sense. We get to “win” and say that their stance is faith based since it has retreated outside the realm of scientific inquiry. The response? Then lets change the standards of scientific inquiry! Lets have “pragmatic” studies be gold standard evidence… but only for CAM. Ludicrous.

    So what do we do in medicine? Throw up our hands and say, “See buddy, you are not even wrong, you’ve ejected yourself from the realm of science. Haha, you lose” and then watch as quackademic medicine inflitrates our schools and Andrew Weil champions stoned thinking. Hardly.

    It is exactly the same in religion. We’ve already “won” by that standard. And handily. Unequivocally. Literally on every front imaginable. Yet they still just go right on ahead for some strange reason not caring that we’ve “won.”

    So how do you argue with a person who doesn’t value logic and argument? You don’t. But that doesn’t mean you sit back and say and do nothing whilst said person does whatever the heck (s)he wants anyways. These are real world tangible outcomes, not some verbal sparring match between academic philosophers. In the same way we wouldn’t just be self contented that we “won” in CAM while CAM still gets taught credulously, practiced, and actively harms people we can’t reasonably do the same thing with religion.

    And I think that is probably a good chunk of where PZ gets miffed. In theory we are good. But in practice we don’t actually do anything. SBM kicked off this year asking about ideas on how to actually do something beyond just blog about how much CAM is total BS. Why is it that when we advocate the same thing regarding religion it is now a different endeavor that is so culturally and philosophically different that it becomes separate from scientific skepticism?

  173. ccbowerson 02 Feb 2013 at 11:36 am

    “Sure, but it is a hollow victory. We know we won. But nobody else realizes it, cares about it, or acts on it.”

    I disagree that it is hollow, because I think once that retreat is made it is very obvious its an empty position if the argument is done well. Besides, I’m not sure what alternative we are discussing… I’m not sure that you can force someone to care by argument.

    What I think you are saying is that winning the argument isn’t enough, and to that I agree, but now you are shifting the discussion to something different than what we were discussing before.

    “So how do you argue with a person who doesn’t value logic and argument? You don’t. But that doesn’t mean you sit back and say and do nothing whilst said person does whatever the heck (s)he wants anyways.”

    I don’t think anyone is saying we should say or do nothing, but again I don’t know what specifically is being called out. What specific topics are being neglected? All I hear is a general complaint about atheism, but that is not really helpful without specifics. What is the specific tactic that is being suppressed? I don’t see that as the problem as he describes it. Part of the problem is that it is a vague criticism, and I’m not sure how it can be evaluated as stated. Does he want more broad attacks on religion? Is that the complaint?

    The things that we struggle with are things that are more broadly cultural I think. The anti-intellectualism that waxes and wanes, but was fairly high in the early 2000s is an ongoing problem, but I’m not sure . We need to better influenced the narrative, but how? This is now far removed from the original discussion, as these are big questions with no easy answers.

  174. Oracon 02 Feb 2013 at 12:16 pm

    This, to me, is the crux of the issue. As PZ said in his latest response, it is skeptical to be an atheist. We use the exact same toolset, the same science, the same statistics, the same everything to conclude that CAM is bunk, psychics are bunk, and religion is bunk.

    Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I hate to sound too much like Steve here, but: Bill Maher.

    Atheists come to their atheism due to a variety of things. Some come to it from skepticism. Some, however, come to atheism more out of outrage due to the evils they perceive in religion. In other words, they are opposing religion more than they are promoting reason. The example of Bill Maher comes to mind again. These atheists are not skeptics and their atheism does not “use exactly the same toolset” to conclude that religion is bunk as skeptics do to conclude that CAM is bunk.

  175. Oracon 02 Feb 2013 at 12:33 pm

    Bill Maher for the Dawkins award caused as huge controversy. But nobody who supported it argued for the validity of alternative medicine.

    Yes, but that’s a bit of a straw man, isn’t it? I don’t think anyone’s saying that Maher’s supporters in the atheist community who wanted him to get the Dawkins Award actually supported alternative medicine (although I suppose it’s possible that a few of them might have). However, obviously there must have been a disconnect between these atheists’ skepticism and atheism that rather makes Steve’s point. Maher’s bear hug-style embrace of quackery and antivaccine pseudoscience apparently didn’t bother them enough to force them to conclude that he wasn’t a fit recipient of the Dawkins Award, even though one of the award criteria was the promotion of science. Heck, even Dawkins himself didn’t seem that perturbed by the disconnect, at least publicly!

    I find it hard not to come to one of two likely explanations. Either atheist supporters of Maher for the Dawkins Award valued promoting atheism more than they valued promoting science and reason, or, alternatively, they didn’t view alternative medicine as sufficiently important or legitimate a topic. Either way, I didn’t view such atheists as being skeptics back when I got myself into some trouble raising holy hell on my blog about the choice of Bill Maher.

  176. daedalus2uon 02 Feb 2013 at 2:24 pm

    CAM is like religion, but there have been a few more centuries of religious apologists working on how to hide behind a complete lack of apparent physical effects due to religious activities. CAM does effect physiology through the placebo effect, but that is simply a more complicated way of saying there are no apparent physical effects.

    Religions make physical claims, i.e. that prayer works. If you test those claims experimentally, the tests all fail and religious apologists retreat to the gaps, or to “not even wrong”.

    The equivalent of “not even wrong” in CAM is the placebo effect. If your CAM treatment is not statistically different (and better) than placebo, then your CAM treatment is “not even wrong”. It is the equivalent of a religious person saying that their subjective belief is sufficient even if all physical evidence demonstrates that it is not.

    The idea of awarding kudos and authority to a “leader”, is not a skeptical activity. It is a political activity. It is a top-down power allocation activity, and is anathema to skepticism. No one is correct in skepticism because they are a leader, or an expert, they are correct if and only if what they are saying corresponds with reality.

    Trying to become an “expert”, or an “authority” in a scientific field and then relying on that position as an expert to assert something is what Orac has called the “Nobel Prize Disease”. This is not a skeptical problem, it is a human problem. Once people start to argue or think from authority and not from facts and logic they are no longer skeptics.

    This is a big problem in science, and it can damage a field for a long time. A good example is the rejection of group selection in evolution. In a sexually reproducing population, group selection is always the most important type of selection. Group selection is what determines speciation. The most important trait a member of a species must have is the ability to form gametes that are compatible with that organism’s conspecifics. Other aspects of the phenotype do not matter at all, if an organism cannot make gametes that are compatible with gametes of other conspecifics.

    The way to avoid things like the Nobel Prize Disease is to explicitly recognize the weaknesses in human cognition, as Dr Novella puts it, exhibit Neuropsychological Humility . Human feelings are an unreliable source of information. Evolution has constrained development to have multiple biases, and it is those biases that cannot be addressed by feelings because the whole point of feelings is to bias cognition to improve the survival and reproduction of individuals.

    Dr Novella has talked a lot about hyperactive agency detection. Detecting agency is absolutely necessary for predator avoidance. False positives in predator detection have very low cost, where false negatives have very high cost. Not surprisingly humans have a substantial bias in detecting agency, even when it is not there.

  177. JJ Borgmanon 02 Feb 2013 at 3:08 pm

    @daedalus2u:

    “Detecting agency is absolutely necessary for predator avoidance. False positives in predator detection have very low cost, where false negatives have very high cost. Not surprisingly humans have a substantial bias in detecting agency, even when it is not there.”

    Brilliant and succinct summation. Thank-you for that.

    For many species, in this case humans, the “fight or flight” instinct is oriented toward flight, n’est ce pas? We have called them heroes where the fight instinct was a better option than flight and was answered, but not because of much more than necessity.

  178. nybgruson 02 Feb 2013 at 3:47 pm

    Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I hate to sound too much like Steve here, but: Bill Maher.

    And there are plenty of people skeptical of Bigfoot (not intended as a slight, merely as a catch-all term) but still look at their horoscopes. There are those that wear tin foil hats but call the Birthers and Truthers numbskulls. Those aren’t the skeptics we are talking about. And Bill Maher is not the atheist we are talking about.

    So I guess it boils down to the notion that the atheist movement has shot itself in the foot by making the downright stupid mistake of giving Maher an award?

    I guess that isn’t unfair. But does that mean it is fair to paint atheists like myself and PZ with the same brush that we paint Maher? To make comments that atheism isn’t a skeptical endeavor because of it?

    I can see the argument more clearly now. And I think it has clicked a bit more why Dr. Novella keeps “Bill Maher-ing” at us. I just don’t think it is fair to have such grumblings as Loxton and Drescher towards actual skeptical atheists like PZ and the gnu atheists. But I suppose I must concede that it isn’t entirely undeserved and probably less an issue than I had originally thought.

    I guess I see it as an opportunity to welcome us into the tent, rather than us moving the tent. Because there is a subset of the atheist movement that is scientifically skeptical and uses that toolset; those could and should be under the tent. Not the Mahers.

    Does that seem like a reasonable thought?

  179. nybgruson 02 Feb 2013 at 3:57 pm

    I disagree that it is hollow, because I think once that retreat is made it is very obvious its an empty position if the argument is done well.

    The problem is that it is much easier to obfuscate the retreat than it is to make it obvious. And there are vast enterprises at play to do exactly that.

    What I think you are saying is that winning the argument isn’t enough, and to that I agreebut now you are shifting the discussion to something different than what we were discussing before.

    You are correct. My apologies.

    What is the specific tactic that is being suppressed?

    We are willing to call Burzynski and Rob Young quacks, dangerous charlatans, purveyors of lies and harm. We are willing to call Andrew Weil the same – and even have an article in Slate turned down because of it, but we still try.

    But we are not quite willing to do the same with pastors, priests, and Fox News talking heads. Not from the skeptical tent anyways. We can talk about Dembski and how his ID is not science. But we can’t talk about how the pastor in the local church empowers Dembski to have any traction at all. But we do talk about the med school professors who empower quackademic medicine.

    I am starting to see and agree that we are much closer than I had originally thought. I just don’t think we are quite there yet. But I’m willing to concede it is probably a minor enough point that we needn’t distract the entirety of our movement and goals for it.

    I will just say though that from our perspective (OK at least mine, and I reckon PZ’s as well) faith, sexism, and racism are all equivalently bad things. And the fact that we are willing to cause deep rifts, inflame rhetoric, and stand firm on policies against sexism despite the backlash (when Watson and Egate happened, we were very willing to tell people who couldn’t get with the program to learn more and become more skeptical or piss off) but not the same about faith is, IMHO, a problem. The one thing I will concede about it is that it is probably not strategically favorable to long term overarching goals to do with faith what we have done with sexism. That doesn’t make it right though, and whilst we can and should be strategic we can at least acknowledge that and at least within our own ranks expect the same from the Loxtons and Dreschers.

    Well, I have just put in 40 miles on the bike, need to eat, and have a social engagement so I reckon this will probably end my participation in the conversation. But I genuinely do thank you all for it – including Orac for showing up to elucidate a couple things for me. It is always a genuine pleasure to learn and refine my own stance. I can only hope that I have managed to do some tiny modicum of the same in return rather than just waste y’alls time.

  180. SARAon 02 Feb 2013 at 4:10 pm

    # nybgrus
    “And I think that is probably a good chunk of where PZ gets miffed. In theory we are good. But in practice we don’t actually do anything. ”

    I am also not happy with the lack of practical changes we are working on in the world. However, PZ’s view of practical change is not mine.

    I want to get critical thinking as the structural framework of our school systems from K-12. I want to actively fight any form of religiously based legislation. PZ wants to eradicate religion. Which is like taking the gun out of the serial killer’s hand and then claiming you stopped serial killing.

    Beyond the fact that I find it unlikely that we will eradicate religion by haranguing at it, it’s not really solving any of the bigger immediate problems. It does however have the bonus of making those who harangue feel superior and self important.

  181. JJ Borgmanon 02 Feb 2013 at 4:22 pm

    @nybgrus,

    Value. ROI. It’s a pretty individual evaluation about which constitutes our opinion on worthiness or consideration for mundane social issues and setting standards for psychology and medicine and others of the sciences.

    I find it a sorry representation of our country, because it means we aren’t ready to confront the tough issues here. We’re still a bunch of hormonal adolescents not yet ready to be grown-ups and behave like grown-ups in the real world. Good solutions have been found elsewhere for many of our problems HERE, but we won’t adopt them. We seem to think we can, and should, reinvent the wheel, once more.

    Really, how difficult are the issues of clean energy, climate change, gun control, health care, economic stimulus, financial regulation, drug regulation, foreign relations, immigration control, infrastructure and a host of others? Polarization should not be a component of governance. Meeting minds to solve issues must be the only component of governance. Others can do it. We must also be able to do it.

  182. tmac57on 02 Feb 2013 at 6:07 pm

    Should we welcome religious people into the skeptic movement? If so how should they be treated?

  183. JJ Borgmanon 02 Feb 2013 at 7:06 pm

    @tmac57,

    But how? This is a true dichotomy.

  184. daedalus2uon 02 Feb 2013 at 7:43 pm

    The same as we treat any other person who wants to participate in skepticism; nicely but with zero slack. All of us have biases and all of us could learn to be better skeptics. You are not doing someone who wants to be a skeptic any favors by not pointing out when they are wrong.

    There but for a few quirks in development, environment and education goes any one of us.

  185. Oracon 02 Feb 2013 at 8:12 pm

    I guess that isn’t unfair. But does that mean it is fair to paint atheists like myself and PZ with the same brush that we paint Maher? To make comments that atheism isn’t a skeptical endeavor because of it?

    There’s another bit of a straw man, now, isn’t there? I’m not saying atheism isn’t a skeptical endeavor because of Maher. I’m merely using him as an example (because he’s such a damned glaring one) and saying that atheism may or may not be a skeptical endeavor depending on how it’s done and how the particular atheist came to his or her atheism. In Maher’s case, it’s mind-numbingly obvious that he didn’t come to his atheism through skepticism. He almost certainly came to his atheism from his politics and from a hostility to religion. The favorite example I like to use for Maher’s motivation is his antivaccine views. Basically, he’s antivaccine—except when that vaccine is Gardasil, and then he’s all for vaccines! Why? While I can’t read minds, my guess is that it’s because Gardasil pisses off the fundamentalists. Where Maher’s coming from is to piss off conservatives and fundamentalists, and, I suspect, that’s where his atheism came from: Opposition to religion largely based on ideology rather than anything you or I would recognize as skepticism.

    Others come to their atheism through skepticism. Maybe even most atheists. But not enough, I think, to conflate atheism with skepticism in the way that PZ and those who make similar arguments do.

  186. BillyJoe7on 02 Feb 2013 at 9:07 pm

    Just to clarify, what I meant by diplomats being “not completely honest”….

    I meant that they must hold back some of what they believe to be true because it would alienate the person they are trying to influence if they confronted them with it too soon (a bit like Zach holding back on what he believes regarding god in order to try to win us over with his argument about objective morality first – didn’t work I his case of course).
    Also it wasn’t necessarily meant to apply to anyone here.

  187. tmac57on 02 Feb 2013 at 9:09 pm

    JJ Borgman- I’m sorry,I am not sure what point you are making.Could you add a bit?

    D2u- Yes,I understand your point. If we welcome a religious person,and they keep their religion to themselves,but are discovered to be believers anyway,should we confront them as such,or just let it be if they would rather keep it a personal matter?

  188. BillyJoe7on 02 Feb 2013 at 9:18 pm

    d2u,

    ” A good example is the rejection of group selection in evolution. In a sexually reproducing population, group selection is always the most important type of selection. Group selection is what determines speciation. The most important trait a member of a species must have is the ability to form gametes that are compatible with that organism’s conspecifics. Other aspects of the phenotype do not matter at all, if an organism cannot make gametes that are compatible with gametes of other conspecifics.”

    Well, actually, that’s a bad example.
    There is some disagreement amongst evolutionary biologists re group selection, but it is almost certainly an unimportant evolutionary mechanism for three main reasons: it’s too slow to be an effective evolutionary mechanism; it’s effects would almost certainly be swamped by gene level evolutionary change; it’s meant to explain things like altruism, but the evidence is that organism always care more about relatives than the group.
    Anyway, wrong thread for this.

  189. BillyJoe7on 02 Feb 2013 at 9:23 pm

    tmac,

    The activist would tell the prick to make up to himself.
    The diplomat would try to hone the poor thing’s critical thinking skills.

    (:

  190. tmac57on 02 Feb 2013 at 9:46 pm

    I was just thinking of a few people that I have associated with over the years,who I might see carrying a bible,and reading it quietly from time to time,or who might mention that they knew so and so from church,or they had choir practice on Wed. night, but otherwise,never preached to me,or mentioned god or jesus or scripture.It was obvious that they were religious,but their dealings with me and anyone that I saw them with were as secular as anyone else that I had interactions with.
    If you found yourself in that situation,would you challenge someone with a bible and say “Hey,what’s up with that?” or would you hold your water,until they started in on trying to talk to you about religion?
    For me the question is easy.I would leave them to their own beliefs as long as they didn’t bring it up,and hope that being in a skeptical group who clearly saw religion as just another unsubstantiated belief,that they would take that on board,and see the logical problems that flow from their dogma.
    If they wanted to continue to believe,then all I would hope for is that at least they could join the fight against other forms of irrationality.I don’t feel the need for purity in our ranks,and I’m sure that I would fail someone else’s standard as well.

  191. BillyJoe7on 03 Feb 2013 at 12:24 am

    tmac,

    You’re a diplomat.
    (BTW, that was meant to be “the activiist would tell the prick to WAKE up to himself”)

  192. daedalus2uon 03 Feb 2013 at 12:52 am

    BJ, actually it is a good example. Theorists say that “kin” selection is more important, but how can kin selection evolve? Organisms can’t do a genome scan to figure out who is a relative and who is not. For virtually all organisms there is no mechanism by which genes (all by themselves) could mediate selective treatment of an individual with shared genes. (maybe smell and MHC identification could, but no other sensory modality could). Sensory systems are all polygenetic traits.

    The only way that “kin” can be recognized is with some type of pattern recognition. But pattern recognition neuroanatomy isn’t determined genetically in vertebrates. All sensory pattern recognition requires neuronal remodeling based on sensory input. The nerves that connect the light sensitive cells in the retina to various parts of the brain so the patterns of light can be decoded don’t start out connected. The connections are not determined genetically. The patterns of connections are determined by patterns of sensory input. Those connections then determine what patterns can be recognized.

    In other words, if recognizing a conspecific as “kin” requires environmental input to program the “kin” recognition neuroanatomy, all “kin” selection based on that environmentally determined pattern recognition isn’t “kin” selection at all, it is group selection, with the “group” being conspecifics raised together such that their pattern recognition neuroanatomy develops so as to identify those in the group as “kin”. Usually infant animals in the presence of a mother animal that has just given birth will be treated as offspring and there will be mutual bonding. But this is not “kin” bonding, it is “co-located newborn and postpartum mother” bonding. Cross-fostering of infants and mothers shows that this is what happens.

    Biologists who reject group selection do so because of their own biases, not because there is data that shows group selection does not happen. Even ants must learn to recognize the pheromone pattern of their native nest. Ants that hatch in an alien nest will adopt that nest and its residents as “kin”, even if they are different species. This is group selection, not kin selection.

    Dawkins uses the apocryphal example of a “Green beard” gene, but how could such a gene evolve? Does a heterozygous mother kill all of her null offspring? Do heterozygous siblings kill null siblings? Then the first female with that gene has a reproductive capacity that is ~half that of a female without it. Pretty disadvantageous trait if it cuts your reproductive capacity in half.

    This is not the only wrong idea that has been accepted because of the biases of those putting it forward. The idea that intelligence is determined mostly by genetics is also wrong, but the people looking for the genes are not yet willing to admit they can’t find any. Why? I think because most of them take as an article of faith that intelligence is mostly genetic.

    Replying to what nygbrus said: not all people who are atheists, or even skeptics, hold that faith, sexism, and racism are all equally bad things. This is where some of the push back against RW comes from. People don’t want to give up their privilege, and the biases that make them think their privilege is justified by how reality is.

    One of the reasons that YECs are unwilling to give up their faith, is because their faith makes them feel special, and they have the Privilege that goes with being someone with a Special Relationship with God. YECs are not the only people who like to feel special, skeptics and atheists like to feel special too, and they are fully capable of coming up with rationalizations as to why their particular version of what they call skepticism does make them feel special. Why their genes make them Darwin’s Gift to females, and especially to those who can’t recognize it. Why everyone but them needs work on their neuropsychological humility.

  193. BillyJoe7on 03 Feb 2013 at 4:50 am

    d2u,

    I assume we are talking about group selection and not evolution of organisms within groups or competition between groups.

    A candidate for group selection would require the following: the replication of the parent group presumably by the budding off of daughter groups; the preservation of all the active genetic material contained within the parent group in the daughter groups; the competition between the daughter groups for limited resources; the differential survival of groups more suited to the environment.
    There are no examples of this in nature.

    Another way to demonstrate group selection would be to provide an example of a behaviour that was advantageous to the group but disadvantageous to the individual and providing no benefits to its relatives. Otherwise the behaviour is adequately and more straightforwardly explained by gene level selection and there would be no need for the group selection hypothesis.

    “how can kin selection evolve?”

    Firstly, disproving kin selection does not prove group selection.
    But, at the very least, animals that grow to adulthood together are surely sufficiently visually cued to recognise each other as relatives as are parents and progeny. Also, reciprocal altruism is more likely to occur amongst relatives because relatives are more likely to be close at hand. And reciprocal altruism reduces to gene level selection. There is also evidence of olfactory (squirrels) and auditory (birds) cues in recognising kin. Finally there are the eusocial insects which are more than adequately explained by gene level selection.

  194. nybgruson 03 Feb 2013 at 8:52 am

    @orac:

    Maybe a bit of a straw man. But even in your own comment you essentially lump us together with “the whole movement” and say that it is not skeptical enough to be called skeptical. What I am saying is we are not like those guys. But as I said, I get it and it isn’t entirely unfair. I would actually be all for including the gnu atheists in the tent and all of us calling Bill Maher the douche that he is.

    @tmac57:

    That is a question of timing and diplomacy. When I see someone using homeopathy, if I can possibly find a way to bring it up, I gently inform them what it is and ask them to question the utility (for example). I actively try and heighten their skeptical inquiry towards it. And that is the general population. In a group of skeptics it should be even easier because you have some common ground of critical thought and language about it to use.

    I would do the same for a skeptic with a bible. They are self identifying as skeptics – I would take a moment to (once again gently and in the form of questioning, rather than pointing out how stupid they are for reading the bible) get them questioning the bible thing. It could start as simply as “Hey, I’m just curious what part of the bible are you reading and why?” And go from there.

    I wouldn’t enforce a purity test. As someone said above (probably you) we would all fail in some way. But I wouldn’t let people slide entirely when they are supposedly a self-identified skeptic and are clearly not being skeptical on this aspect of their lives. We would do the exact same if a skeptic was taking homeopathy, going on about how evolution was a crock, or talking about the latest Bigfoot photos. Why wouldn’t we do the same if (s)he is reading a bible and/or talking about church?

  195. ccbowerson 03 Feb 2013 at 9:57 am

    “When I see someone using homeopathy, if I can possibly find a way to bring it up, I gently inform them what it is and ask them to question the utility (for example). I actively try and heighten their skeptical inquiry towards it.”

    If it comes up in conversation, I usually simply ask the person “why” they chose to purchase and consume the specific product (I’m speaking about anything in the “supplements” section). It still amazes me how little thought goes into many people taking such products, because it requires deciding to spend money on, then consuming a product. When asked “why” the response sometimes resembles someone who has either never thought about the”why” or spend very little time think about “why” (which to me is such a fundamental question for such decisions). I find that asking why is helpful because it causes the person to think about the question if they haven’t before, and then it opens up the possibility for further discussion if desired/necessary.

    This reminds me of ‘Alice in wonderland,’ when she drinks the bottle just because it says “drink me.” Really? is that all it takes to consume something? Then a few moments later she eats a cake that says “eat me” after she just shrank from the drink. Beware of foods with signs. A little skepticism is needed, clearly

  196. ccbowerson 03 Feb 2013 at 10:06 am

    “Otherwise the behaviour is adequately and more straightforwardly explained by gene level selection and there would be no need for the group selection hypothesis.”

    I’m not sure how you come to this conclusion (does it necessarily follow?) or what you mean by “no need” when we are asking a question about what actually is occurring, not whether we think we need something. It is not like group selection couldn’t be happening in parallel: it could be that there are contributions from more than one level of selection occurring simultaneously, yet you want gene selection to cancel out other levels of selection.

    As an aside, I’ve noticed a bias when discussing evolution (a general bias, not you specifically) for many people– that is almost always framed with vertebrates as a reference. Vertebrate animals are a tiny fraction of living organisms currently, and this was likely even smaller in the past (less than 10% of animals are vertebrates, and those are just animals: when we include other organisms like plants, various microorganisms that number shrinks considerably.) So when group selection is dismissed in discussions like this, it is often a narrow assessment: the contribution of group selection should be highly dependant on the organism we are discussing.

    It may be that such effects are negligible for many types of organisms, but to the extent that organisms have groups as functional units- there should be (and is) a role for a contribution on this level for selection levels higher than the gene. I know I have brought this up before as an example, but it still seems likely that group selection should be important for organisms that cause infectious disease, because groups are often the individual functional units rather than the individual organisms. I guess the question is the relative contributions of selection at various levels for specific organisms.

  197. daedalus2uon 03 Feb 2013 at 12:58 pm

    BJ:

    “But, at the very least, animals that grow to adulthood together are surely sufficiently visually cued to recognise each other as relatives as are parents and progeny. Also, reciprocal altruism is more likely to occur amongst relatives because relatives are more likely to be close at hand. And reciprocal altruism reduces to gene level selection. There is also evidence of olfactory (squirrels) and auditory (birds) cues in recognising kin. Finally there are the eusocial insects which are more than adequately explained by gene level selection.”

    Becoming visually cued to those you associate with is a group level association. When humans were evolving in Africa, and could only travel by walking, gene flow may have been slow enough that most all people you met in your life were your fairly near relatives and looked similar. But now, with world-wide travel in days, the people in your neighborhood may not be relatives, unless you deliberately exclude everyone who doesn’t look like you do, hence the meme of segregation.

    The whole point of segregation is to prevent people from associating such that they become acclimated to seeing people who look different than them and then not rejecting those people as “the other”. In other words, segregation, a group level practice developed in response to and in order to thwart individuals becoming more accepting of people who are not like the group through mere association. Merely by associating with “the other”, people start to accept “the other” and they become less “other-like”. That increased acceptance through association happens automatically, presumably it is an evolved “feature” of the human phenotype, encoded in the human genome. The cultural meme of segregation does not happen automatically. Individuals have to take initiative and shun or expel members of a community. Infants and children do not spontaneously exhibit xenophobia.

    The whole point of this series of post is about who gets to be a member of the community of skeptics, and who can be expelled because they are No True Skeptic. Those of us who are mature in our skepticism, are able to appreciate that we may have unexamined biases and are willing to look at them and reconsider them.

  198. titmouseon 03 Feb 2013 at 3:37 pm

    Sastra wrote: “Even the people who ‘retreat’ to faith seldom stand (or stay) on pure fideism. Instead, they argue for the validity of faith as a “way of knowing,” a virtuous, disciplined, and reasonable leap towards truth motivated by evidence which satisfies those with a humble willingness to seek out and embrace what is true and good.”

    Your point is valid. However, it does not actually counter Steve’s point, that there is value in forcing a clear distinction between empirical claims and assertions of faith.

    You are correct that the person of faith is not going to concede defeat simply because he is forced to confess that he is arguing over a matter of faith rather than a matter of fact. There will be a subsequent skirmish. But the strategic value in stripping away the pretense to evidence cannot be over stated.

  199. BillyJoe7on 03 Feb 2013 at 3:56 pm

    ccbowers and d2u,

    Neither of you seem to be actually talking about group selection. None of your examples fit the criteria I gave above for recognising group selection and, if you do not agree with these criteria you haven’t said so or explained what you mean by group selection. The examples you have given are actually examples of selection within groups, competition between groups, and extended phenotypes.

    It isn’t sufficient to show that organisms work in groups. If its for mutual benefit, the explanation easily reduces to gene level selection. You must show that the behaviour of the organism 1) benefits the group whilst 2) disadvantaging itself and 3) providing no benefit to relatives.

    ccbowers: “It is not like group selection couldn’t be happening in parallel”

    But you need to demonstrate that. We already know gene level selection occurs. Group selection is an hypothesis used to explain certain observations. If those observations are adequately explained by gene level selection, which we already know occurs, then we have no need for the group selection hypothesis.

    d2u: “But now, with world-wide travel in days, the people in your neighborhood may not be relatives”

    This is reciprocal altruism and reciprocal altruism is adequately explained by gene level selection. As long as there is mutual benefit, group level selection is superfluous.

  200. nybgruson 03 Feb 2013 at 4:36 pm

    May the FSM curse your sauce for bringing up evolutionary biology at a point in time where I do not have time to carefully read the comments and respond thoughtfully.

  201. rezistnzisfutlon 03 Feb 2013 at 6:09 pm

    I’ve been wanting to leave a comment after I read all the posts here, but there are a lot of them and I just don’t have time to go through them all (this after getting through about 100 of them). Many people make some interesting points, though, worth considering.

    As for myself, I consider myself a skeptic first – in other words, my atheism is a result of my skepticism. I’m sure most skeptics would agree with this, but the thing is, there are many atheists in the world who do NOT apply the same level of skepticism to other facets of their lives, so it’s not always an appropriate label to define these atheists as skeptics, at least using the definition of “skeptic” in the context of this forum. So, if they are skeptical about supernatural deity claims, what does it make them when they aren’t skeptical about, say, CAM, GMOs, or conspiracy theories? There are plenty of creationist global warming deniers who accept other forms of science as well. IMO, if one does not apply the same level of skepticism to all facets of their lives, they aren’t really skeptics, they are simply incredulous about certain claims, perhaps even what one would consider as cynics.

    I’m definitely with Dr. Novella on this issue – we have to pick our battles. While it’s hard for me to let certain obvious bald-faced claims go about, well, any subject, there is no way any one person can involve themselves with every subject out there. Not even entire groups can do this. Typically, people take up the mantles of causes they are the most familiar with. I don’t see why it’s a big deal that a certain skeptical conference primarily focuses on a handful of issues – why must they include ALL issues?

    That being said, if it’s true that some modern skeptics really do consider atheism activism as the “red-headed step child” of skepticism, then of course there is a problem with that. I’m only going by what is being claimed here and with Myers, because personally I have not witnessed that. I also find it interesting that Dr. Novella is being basically lambasted for not turning Neurologica into an anti-theist outlet. From what I can tell, that’s just not his fight. He’s made it clear what his position is on theism, I think, so I don’t know what the problem is.

    I used to follow FTB for a couple of years during a time I was “honing” my skepticism and coming to terms with my atheism. One of the big reasons why I became somewhat active in the “atheist movement” originally was because what I perceived as an assault on science, something I feel very protective of. At the time, I did not realize how pervasive anti-science was beyond just theism – I thought it resided mostly with extreme right wing creationists and perhaps a few fringe loonies. When I started to see other aspects of anti-science and uncritical thinking (ie, anti-vaccination, anti-GMO, organic foods, conspiracy theories, etc), even among groups that I identified with, that’s when I realized that what it is that I am is a skeptic more than anything else.

    So, when I was stridently assaulted on FTB a couple of times when I wasn’t in concert with the prevailing sentiment, and when I saw the soap opera that followed last year with feminism and thunderf00t, I became somewhat disillusioned with it. Atheism+ is also something that I consider a symptom of the same problem, where in FTB if you aren’t with them, you’re against them. To me, it felt every bit as vitriolic and vicious as any blog run by anti-homosexual religious people. It appears that it’s not really “free thought” afterall, that term being co-opted for other purposes.

    Did I like it? No, it put me off. However, Myers has every right to have his blog run any way he sees fit, just like I have every right to disagree about some of the nastiness that comes from that blog (especially by some of his followers). I just find it unfortunate that a place called “Free Thought Blogs” isn’t so free thought after all, where every opinion has a voice.

    The reason why I like Neurologica so much is that it maintains skepticism while not banning anyone who doesn’t agree. I don’t expect Zach would have lasted too long at FTB (who knows, I could be wrong). There have been times where I haven’t been 100% in agreement here, but instead of banning me for speaking up, there was what I considered fruitful and enlightening conversation.

    In essence, I don’t come here expecting a lot of anti-theism activism. This is more of a medically oriented skeptical blog (though other subjects do broach here on occasion). Dr. Novella has picked his battles based on his strengths and his passions. I have yet to see him condemn other skeptics for the different battles they choose to pick, or be non-skeptical about those battles. In essence, I don’t understand what the fuss is all about – it seems to me to be a lot of bluster from Myers and his followers who perceive injustices that (likely) aren’t there. Maybe I’m wrong and still haven’t seen it, but until the time that I do, I’m skeptical of it.

  202. rezistnzisfutlon 03 Feb 2013 at 6:11 pm

    *Sorry about the italics, not sure what I did there! :D

  203. ccbowerson 03 Feb 2013 at 7:18 pm

    “If those observations are adequately explained by gene level selection, which we already know occurs, then we have no need for the group selection hypothesis.”

    I guess my issue is the “no need” part of this. This would be very organism specific, and you may be dismissing a contribution of group selection just because there is clearly gene level selection. Just because one “can” view it from the perspective of a gene only, and that this explains a lot, does not mean that that is the end of the story. If we have variation in a trait between groups, and then one groups survives while the other does not (due to this trait variation) then we should have group selection by definition, no?

    Here’s an example: Lets say there is a virus (and these have “groups” as functional units, which are the viruses that occupy a given host) that varies in it’s virulence towards its host from ‘group’ to “group,”and this variation impacts the survival of each group. Doesn’t this differential survival mean that group selection is occuring? I understand that some could argue that there is also gene selection, and individual level selection going on, but does that invalidate group level selection?
    It seems to me that group level is also going on, but that this can be approximated by lower level selection, but don’t you lose some information in this approximation? In this senario- group level selection and individual level selection might be in sync or at odds with eachother depending on the details of the situation (e.g. level of virulence), but doesn’t group selection have increased importance in such an organism, because if the group dies it is a dead-end for the individuals within the group (because they can no longer pass to another host)? There would be a dynamic between increase virulence of viruses, and the risk of group to killing its host. Can we ignore group selection here?

    “If its for mutual benefit, the explanation easily reduces to gene level selection.”

    See above. I acknowledge that what you are saying seems to be the predominate view, and maybe I’m missing some detail about what we mean by grou selection. That is why I have thrown in a lot of questions, because I’m not sure about the implications of various senarios

  204. ccbowerson 03 Feb 2013 at 7:23 pm

    “As for myself, I consider myself a skeptic first – in other words, my atheism is a result of my skepticism.”

    I’m sure this is a very common perspective (it is mine), but I wonder what the percentage is within the skeptical community (or outside, among atheists in general). I guess to some extent, it is almost true by definition, but I do get the impression that many discover broader skepticism from their atheism, (because religion was the first topic which they were skeptical about and they then learned about skepticism more broadly)

  205. tmac57on 03 Feb 2013 at 9:29 pm

    rezistnzisfutl- Your experience and sentiments parallel mine almost exactly concerning PZ and FTB/Pharyngula.
    I really, really wanted to hang in there and follow what was once a very interesting blog,but there came a time when I just couldn’t stomach it anymore.It’s hard to put my finger on the exact reason,other than it seemed like they were becoming zealots.Obviously,others see it differently.

  206. BillyJoe7on 03 Feb 2013 at 11:00 pm

    ccbowers,

    I think you will agree that gene level selection is firmly established. Okay?
    I think you will also agree that individual level selection is really just gene level selection – it’s just a handy way to deal with gene level selection. Each gene is just cooperating with all the other genes to produce a phenotype that will carry them all into the next generation. But it’s genes that are being selected.

    So, in order to introduce group selection, you need to have found real world observations that cannot be explained by gene level selection. Hypothetical scenarios won’t do it for you, because it may be impossible for those hypotheticals to exist. But, if there are no such observations that cannot be explained by gene level selection, then there is actually no need for group level selection. Surely that is just good science – no unnecessary hypotheses. As I understand it, that is the case.

    So I can only repeat: you need a real world observation where the individual organism’s behaviour benefits the group at a disadvantage to itself and no advantage to its relatives. Otherwise gene level selection is the explanation. But, even if you find such a real world observation, you don’t get a free pass. First of all, you may not have observed the behaviour closely enough or thought hard enough for a gene level explanation. But, more importantly, group selection isn’t true just because you have found an observation that (you think) can’t be explained by gene level selection. You must actually show that group selection can explain the behaviour…

    We are then back to the conditions that need to be satisfied in order for group selection to be true:
    “A candidate for group selection would require the following: the replication of the parent group presumably by the budding off of daughter groups; the preservation of all the active genetic material contained within the parent group in the daughter groups; the competition between the daughter groups for limited resources; the differential survival of groups more suited to the environment”.
    Unless these conditions are satisfied, group selection cannot lead to evolutionary change.
    Again, as I understand it, these conditions have never been satisfied for any scenario.

  207. Mark Ericksonon 04 Feb 2013 at 12:16 am

    I can’t (actually, don’t want to) read all the comments here, so pardon me if I missed something, Steven. I said I agreed with you after reading your previous post and now I’m preferring PZ’s take. I should have know that PZ wouldn’t make vague claims without the ability to back it up with examples and details. But, you did convince me of several of your points. Now that I have read PZ’s reply and the above, I’m back to nodding along with PZ, although much the wiser for the debate. Thanks for that.

    Again, apologies if this point was made and/or responded to, but my main takeaway is that you did not address to the most relevant part of PZ’s post, that many in the skeptical movement deny atheists full membership and refuse to countenance skepticism applied to religion. This matters because there are remarkably few deist-like or aphopatic Christians, Muslims, or traditional Jews to worry about distinguishing religious claims that aren’t even wrong. You really don’t need to tread lightly because the vast majority of American believers make testable claims up the wazoo. There aren’t people in the pews who say the earth is 6,000 years old and leave it there. No, they say Adam and Eve were created by God as the first people and everyone is descended from them. And on and on and on.

  208. Mark Ericksonon 04 Feb 2013 at 12:34 am

    From Jen Creight’s recent post, I found out you left out a part of a comment from above. Your right, of course, but it was a good part:

    “Argument 2: skepticism is fine if you point it at other people who are wrong. Don’t point it at me! I’m not wrong! Hence the massive pushback against applying basic skepticism to things like mainstream religious claims and mainstream gender stereotypes.”

    As Jen says, this.

  209. Murmuron 04 Feb 2013 at 5:15 am

    @ Mark Erickson:

    “I can’t (actually, don’t want to) read all the comments here… ”

    I don’t want to read your comments.

  210. nybgruson 04 Feb 2013 at 7:55 am

    tangentially related but I am reading a paper on the reasons for and likelihood of global civilization collapse and came across this paragraph:

    To our minds, the fundamental cure, reducing the scale of the human enterprise (including the size of the population) to keep its aggregate consumption within the carrying capacity of Earth [121], is obvious but too much neglected or denied. There are great social and psychological barriers in growthmanic cultures to even considering it. This is especially true because of the ‘endarkenment’—a rapidly growing movement towards religious orthodoxies that reject enlightenment values such as freedom of thought, democracy, separation of church and state, and basing beliefs and actions on empirical evidence. They are manifest in dangerous trends such as climate denial, failure to act on the loss of biodiversity and opposition to condoms (for AIDS control) as well as other forms of contraception [122]. If ever there was a time for evidence-based (as opposed to faith-based) risk reduction strategies [123], it is now.

    From my perspective this right here is why religion needs to be take on directly and unapologetically. Maybe not at skepticon. I’m just saying in general. Waiting for people to figure out critical thought and then apply it to all the things necessary to prevent a bleak outcome for all humanity might well be too slow. Will a full frontal attack on religion be faster? I don’t know. I tend to think so, but I have little evidence to back that up and there is some against my position as well. But at a minimum it might be better – the lesser of two evils, if you will. And global collapse is a pretty big evil, IMHO.

  211. ccbowerson 04 Feb 2013 at 9:17 am

    “Hypothetical scenarios won’t do it for you, because it may be impossible for those hypotheticals to exist.”

    Actually the senario I proposed its not far fetched, and does exist in many forms. I believe that it also fits the conditions you say are ‘required’ (except I’m not sure about the “preserving all genetic material” thing or why that is relevant).
    I would like someone to point out flaw in my senario, in case I am missing something fundamental here. I just don’t know how well gene level selection explain the data in such a senario. It must do a decent job… or it hasn’t been studied sufficiently or the data is unclear. I don’t know the answer.

    It just seems like a logical conclusion that if there are group traits that impact the likelihood of the individual to survvive and procreate and form other groups, then there is group selection irrespective of contribution of selection at the gene level. Again, I don’t understand how the latter negates the former other than it may often be the predominating factor

  212. tmac57on 04 Feb 2013 at 9:41 am

    Nybgrus- The danger that I worry about in that “frontal attack” approach,is that you risk driving religious folks who already tend to use rationality to evaluate those issues,into the camp of the ‘dark side’ of the fundamentalists in an ‘us against them’ type struggle. This shouldn’t be the Hatfields and McCoys,which is what I sense some (only some) in the atheist movement see the issue.We need to realize that there is a broad spectrum from rational to irrational,and people do not neatly fall along that spectrum based only on their religious or non-religious identity.

  213. nybgruson 04 Feb 2013 at 10:05 am

    @tmac57:

    I absolutely agree. And I really don’t think there is enough data (are enough data, are enough datums, :-P ) to actually really answer the question well. I absolutely agree that I could very well be wrong and the overall outcomes could be worse going the “frontal attack” route (which I am using as a catch-all term here).

    However, we also don’t have nearly enough datumses to answer questions about gun control and school shootings either. Perhaps we have a bit more on that topic, but by rough approximations and for the purposes of my point I believe they are reasonably on par (maybe I’m wrong). But we still feel the need and impetus to act somehow, in the best interest of people’s lives. And this topic affects vastly fewer than a collapse of global civilization would.* Yet politicians are free to stymie climate change amelioration efforts because they believe God said only He can cause the end of the world, ergo we humans can’t be doing it and can’t do anything about it (one example of many similar). They use their religion as a crutch to rationalize any policy positions that they want – often ones that detriment everyone but the elite.

    So at what point is the evidence enough and the dangers significant enough and the time pressing enough to force action? For most, especially certain political factions in certain highly religious first world nations, that seems to be when Las Vegas has beach front property.** But that is obviously way too late.

    The “cultural” difference may then be that folks like myself think earlier is better since later may be too late. And we can’t really predict when “too late” is (it may already be). This roundabout way of slowly getting there may well be too slow and while it would, IMO, actually lead to a better outcome in a vacuum, it may ultimately still lead to a vastly worse outcome. I definitely don’t want to be alarmist here, but I do think it is something to take quite seriously. And perhaps as a Machiavellian rationale for Maher, though that is ancillary.

    The paper explicitly talks about the consequences of even a “small” nuclear war. And they are disastrous (as we can reasonably anticipate). The paper discusses how it was and has been averted because of essentially a Nash equilibrium (mutually assured destruction). But now we have things like Pakistan and India, and the Islamic fundamentalist theocracies trying to gain nuclear capacity. Mutually assured destruction means nothing to them when they genuinely and fervently believe that this earth is but a fleeting moment on the way to heaven via martyrdom. And that exists on a continuum as well – down to the vastly more “rational” politicians who just think AGW is garbage because God told them so.

    I agree that we shouldn’t strive to be the Hatfields and McCoys, but sometimes the McCoys are wrong and extremely dangerous. It is a tough and complex landscape to navigate with a horrible paucity of evidence to guide us. But I tend to fall closer to PZ on this one for these sorts of reasons.

    That said, I absolutely agree a multifacted and multipronged approach is definitively the best. No one single strategy can possibly be as good or better. Which is why I am quite happy with the “division of labor” as we have stated. But a little recognition that the atheist movement is indeed a scientifically skeptical one, despite obvious parts that aren’t (not even “the” skeptical movement is comprised of entirely uniformly skeptical folks – just look at Shermer and his meltdown about being persecuted like the Jews in the Holocaust) would be nice.

    *I’m not trying to say we shouldn’t address both because one seems to be “more important” than the other. That is the error Dawkins made last year and we’d be foolish not to have learned from it.

    **Intentional hyperbole

  214. tmac57on 04 Feb 2013 at 11:02 am

    AGW is an interesting case where there is movement now in the religious community to act on climate change based on the notion that god says that we should be caretakers of the Earth (rather than just takers). I also know very religious people who support gun control because of their faith. It really can work both ways,so I would not want to alienate those religious folks who tend to view the world in more rational ways for the most part.

  215. daedalus2uon 04 Feb 2013 at 12:13 pm

    The problem isn’t religion, the problem is the striving for top-down power and using that top-down power to ruthlessly increase and maintain power by exploiting those at the bottom. Religion is just one example of a system that is used to do that. Because religions are just made-up systems, they can be used to support any and all agendas. Thus we have people who say God wants humans to be caretakers of the Earth, there are some who say God put those fossil fuels there for humans to use and if we don’t use them we are insulting God by refusing His gift of fossil fuels.

    Top-down power is zero-sum, that is there can be only one top, and if you are not it, the only way you can get to the top is by pulling down who ever is above you. The problem is that those at the top use and use up those on the bottom.

    Because top-down power is zero-sum, it doesn’t matter what else is wasted to deliver the top of top-down power to the person at the top.

    Putting essentially infinite value on top-down power is an evolved trait because there are things that are zero-sum, the number of fertile mates in your peer cohort. If you don’t get them, someone else will and then you have lost the opportunity to contribute genes to the next generation.

    Skepticism is inherently bottom-up and so doesn’t lead to the top-down exercise of power to increase top-down power. Appeals to authority are top-down. Characterizing the interactions of PZ and Steve as a clash of the “leaders” of skepticism and atheism is to mischaracterize them. There is a natural tendency to put human social power into a hierarchy. That is the essence of all of the Patriarchal religions. That is the essence of the military command structure. That is the essence of government, there is top-down control.

    Changing who is at the top doesn’t change the inherent inefficiencies and instabilities of top-down control. Bottom-up power can always ultimately defeat top-down power, but it can be very costly. Elections are a cheap way for bottom-up power to change top-down power, violent revolutions are an expensive way. The usual way for top-down power to maintain top-down power is to make itself every more expensive to displace. That is what too-big-to-fail banks do. That is what the fossil fuel companies are doing, making fossil fuel more expensive to displace. That is what dictators do, kill off all the plausible alternative leaders, so the only potential replacement leaders are not ideal.

  216. nybgruson 04 Feb 2013 at 12:22 pm

    I finally have a little time and was able to read the evolution comments.

    I have to side with BJ on this one.

    Coyne has an excellent discussion on it, along with a plethora of links to other arguments as well (both sides). Pinker has an exceedingly long piece on it as well. (both middle of last year).

    What it really boils down to is what do we mean be group selection? And when you look at the evidence and the arguments, we find that group selection only becomes a viable concept based almost entirely on which definition you use. There are hypothetical scenarios of group selection, but nothing concrete. And in essentially every case, what has been dubbed “group selection” can be accurately described and predicted by gene level selection.

    D2u’s argument is essentially one on the question of definition. At what point does “kin” become “group?” The reality is that every human alive is “kin” to every other human being alive. In fact if you do the math we are all descended from all human beings who existed around the time of Ghengis Khan. (I’ll link the first of a two part video by c0nc0rdance on this specific topic in a separate comment for anyone interested). So we are all “kin” and all conspecifics. In other words, the distinction becomes meaningless rather quickly.

    Obviously recognition of “kin” is not genetically hardwired into us in detail. But the mechanisms for kin recognition is. All reproducing creatures need some sort of environmental and social cues for developing kin recognition and indeed we can see examples of that going haywire or being misdirected (imprinting by ducklings on just about anything). But this does not give us support that the selection is at the group level. In fact it demonstrates clearly that the selection is at the gene level to provide the necessary mechanisms for kin recognition. In instances where that goes wrong for whatever reason, it could impact fitness. Yet the mechanisms persist because the selection for them is at the gene level.

    D2u uses the example of ants and pheromones. The example is not group selection, because you can’t take a species of ants that is not conspecific with another species of ant, transplant a “group” of one into the other and thus change the allelic frequencies of the group. The non conspecific ants would simply die at some point, with no overall change to the group characteristics. This is, in fact, an example of gene level selection. A group level selection pressure would be more likely to prevent foreign ants from being incorporated since the transplanted group would lose fitness and the receiving group would temporarily gain fitness. So while the receiving group would benefit the giving group would not, and thus if this were a selective pressure for evolution, a mechanism to prevent this would make more sense. The fact that this can happen anyways demonstrates that the selection is on the gene level for mechanisms to generate kin recognition rather than defining what kin recognition is genetically.

    BJ is correct in that if a phenomenon is better or even adequately described as a gene level interaction (which it is) then group selection is unnecesarily additional. So first we need to define what “group” means. If you take “group” to mean every conspecific possible, then of course “group” selection is a driving force for evolution. After all, by definition, evolution only acts on populations not individuals so make your “group” big enough and all you’ve done is change “population genetics” to “group genetics.” And population genetics is adequately described by gene level selection.

    To make “group selection” as a concept meaningful, you need to have an example where an allele was fixed in a “group” that would otherwise not be explained by gene level selection and can be described as a group level effect. What this means is that a population would have to be fractured into two or more “groups” and that one group would have greater fitness in a manner that would not be possible at any smaller unit than that “group.”

    To take a comment from D2u and ccbowers as specific examples:

    Becoming visually cued to those you associate with is a group level association. When humans were evolving in Africa, and could only travel by walking, gene flow may have been slow enough that most all people you met in your life were your fairly near relatives and looked similar. But now, with world-wide travel in days, the people in your neighborhood may not be relatives, unless you deliberately exclude everyone who doesn’t look like you do, hence the meme of segregation.

    and ccbowers

    If we have variation in a trait between groups, and then one groups survives while the other does not (due to this trait variation) then we should have group selection by definition, no?

    I fail to see how D2u’s description is a group level association. It is merely taking the gene level mechanisms for kin recognition and putting them in a different environment which may require cultural adaptation.

    ccbowers comment is much easier to dissect: you have merely described population genetics speciation whether sympatric or allopatric. Take two groups and put them on opposite sides of an impassible valley and you generate a new species. Put them back together and one outcompetes the other to the extinction of one. All you have demonstrated is that one group became more fit, but the fitness is explained by gene level interactions. Or in sympatric speciation you can have a “group” within the population that outbreeds the rest and fixes that allele. No matter how you slice it the variation in the “group” is always described by gene level variations with interactions on an individual level. The selection takes place down there instead of up at the “group” level. This is just population genetics and playing with the definition of a “group.”

    To actually have a group selection take place, you would need a situation where a “group” has a trait that can exist only because the “group” is a cohesive unit and as a group can outbreed individuals because of that trait. As BJ said, the only way to really describe this would be if individuals in the “group” sacrificed their own fitness and that of their relatives to preserve a group level trait. In other words, that individuals will sacrifice their own fitness to maintain the allelic frequencies of the “group” in question. And that simply doesn’t happen.

    The virus example is an interesting one. However, it fails because the virals species in question exists as a population beyond the level of a single human host. If it didn’t, we couldn’t possibly classify viruses since each host would be a completely new species. That said, because of the nature of viral reproduction, there are indeed vastly more species of virus than would otherwise be possible. But in cases where the virus becomes so virulent as to kill the host before being able to be transmitted, we don’t find evidence of individual viruses (or even subgroups within the “host group”) sacrificing their virulence to ensure that doesn’t happen. In fact, we find that virulence is still explained on a gene level and that increasing virulence is balanced out with transmissability as a whole population of a particular viral species. Those “groups” that go too far simply cease to exist and the population as whole strikes that balance. But it all reduces down to selection on a gene level generating the group or population level allelic frequencies.

    In any event, im probably repeating myself at this point, but the crux is that the necessary criteria for a group level selection is hypothetically possible, but rather contrived, and no empirical examples exist. Everything that comes close is still explained by gene level selection and can only be called “group” level selection when you fiddle with the defnitions and artificially narrow your focus. It isn’t that group selection is not descriptive at all – it is merely that in all cases gene level selection describes everything just as adequately and does not introduce unnecessary extras that group selection models require in certain instances; i.e. gene level does everything group level does, but more simply. It becomes a game of semantics beyond that.

  217. nybgruson 04 Feb 2013 at 12:33 pm

    @tmac57:

    but that is getting it right for the wrong reasons. It works well so long as the situation doesn’t change to change the “right” answer. It was like a lot of the classmates I had in Ochem who would learn specific reactions rather than the reasons reactions happened. They killed the exams. Until the professor changed one little thing such that the exams were not copypasta mechanisms and suddenly they failed. More than that it seems rather disingenuous to me. You are essentially saying that we can just use these slow witted pack mules to keep walking in a direction that aligns with the direction we want to go anyways. What happens when that direction needs to change?

    d2u:

    I broadly agree with you. But the distinction I would add is that religion is a phenotype of the evolutionary hierarchy and mate competition you describe (obviously more complicated than just that). The same as CAM or conspiracy theory. It is a “haywire” response to placing phylogentically old mechanisms in a very different environment – cultural and otherwise. Consipiracy theory is an extreme that is more obviously haywire. Religion became “fixed” because it was at one time more compatible with fitness than it is now. And of course since evolution has no directed purpose, it cares not to generate creatures with an intrinsic need and recognition of conservancy of resources on a global scale. From the perspective of evolution we all evolved in an environment with local scarcity but with globally infinite resources (relatively speaking of course). It is an exceedingly recent development that global resources have become relatively scarce.

  218. BillyJoe7on 04 Feb 2013 at 4:01 pm

    “Will a full frontal attack on religion be faster? I don’t know. I tend to think so, but I have little evidence to back that up”

    History suggests that both the activist and the diplomat are required. The activist speeds up the change, the diplomat actually achieves it. We have the examples of blacks, women, and gays. Do you really think pure diplomacy could have effected change at the rate it did? Those who needed to change in order to change the law needed a fire cracker to get them moving and a bowl of sweets to get them to do it. Do you think action against climate change could be achieved by mollycoddyling the deniers instead of a head on attack? In Australia they are still controlling the airwaves trying to destroy the one politician who has taken serious action against climate change. They’re not going to be stopped merely with polite conversation.

    But, anyway, you agree with me.

    And thanks for fleshing out the discussion on group selection.
    (What neither of us has mentioned is the role of the Templeton Foundation in promoting and financing discusion about group selection in order to promote their religious agenda.The role of that organisation in distorting scientific research is another situation that needs to be confronted head on.)

  219. nybgruson 04 Feb 2013 at 4:53 pm

    Yes, we do agree BJ.

    As for the group selection… I had no idea about the Templeton Foundation. Makes sense though.

  220. ccbowerson 04 Feb 2013 at 7:27 pm

    The more I look into the levels of selection issue, the more technical it appears to be. I came across this video, in which Samir Okasha gives a brief overview on the issue without getting into the content of the issue. He apparently has a much more detailed book, which would require a great deal more of my time. I saw the PDF of the book online, but is 250+ pages and appears to be farily technical.

    http://vimeo.com/8561619

  221. ccbowerson 04 Feb 2013 at 7:30 pm

    “History suggests that both the activist and the diplomat are required.”

    This is a good analogy, but timing is always very important. The activist may be able to speed up the process if the time is right (i.e. the conditions are ripe for change). Also, I think activism can backfire if done incorrectly (e.g. too ideologically motivated, unreasonable, or untimely), and there could be a backlash to this type of activism. There needs to be a balance: the activist can prod the diplomat along when needed, and the diplomat can convince the activist to be more reasonable and realistic when needed. The both can help with the broader change. I definitely am the diplomat by nature, which biases me away from activist-type approaches.

    Oh, and I don’t mean to imply that timing is currently an issue for climate change, I am writing more broadly.

  222. daedalus2uon 04 Feb 2013 at 7:36 pm

    nygbrus, by what basis do you say that the distinction becomes “meaningless”?

    That is the whole point of speciation. If your genome can’t make gametes that are compatible with your fellow conspecifics to make new offspring, then your genome is a dead-end and you will have no descendants. It doesn’t matter how “superior” your genes are, how strong you are, or even if you can fly or live a thousand years. If your genes can’t make gametes that are compatible with conspecifics of the opposite gender, then you are an evolution failure.

    Reproducing organisms don’t need mechanisms for kin recognition. They need mechanisms for opposite gender conspecific recognition to identify potential mates and potential rivals.

    In your two separated populations that drift apart and become mutually infertile, there is now group selection because if a conspecific from population A mated with a conspecific from population B, they would not produce viable offspring. Where matings within their populations would produce offspring. The group of organisms A, is preventing organisms from group B from changing the allele frequency in population A by exhibiting infertility. Group A is selecting against genes that are less compatible from group B.

  223. tmac57on 04 Feb 2013 at 7:40 pm

    nybgrus-

    You are essentially saying that we can just use these slow witted pack mules to keep walking in a direction that aligns with the direction we want to go anyways. What happens when that direction needs to change?

    I am saying nothing of the kind. And I think that you are displaying a narrow view of religious folks if you really believe that they are all “slow witted” as your comment implies,since I never implied such myself. And while I too think that they are wrong by putting god into the equation,I get the impression that they really understand the gun and AGW problems in human terms and what it means for them and their children,just as non-religious people do. The god thing is more of a kind of icing on the cake to make the whole notion relevant to their overall belief system,but is almost beside the point.I know some really smart people who are religious…I don’t understand that part of their brain,but the rest functions pretty well.

  224. nybgruson 04 Feb 2013 at 9:06 pm

    @d2u:

    You’ve just changed “population” into “group.” That’s why it is meaningless.

    Once again we can quibble on semantics, but by most reasonable definitions conspecifics cannot not produce offspring nor can they produce infertile offspring (the definition of conspecific being “two or more individuals of a population that are of the same species” and species generally being defined as those who can produce viable offspring who can themselves then reproduce). A heterospecific would be those individuals who are not of the same species.

    In my example population A and B have become heterospecific.

    But if you wish to take the slightly broader definition of species in which two different species can still interbreed but to varying degrees of success, you have merely invoked conspecific vs heterospecific gamete competition. That then also becomes an individual level of selection, not a group level.

    If the two (slightly different but still close enough) conspecifics produce less fit offspring what difference does that make on a group level?

    You are taking a very long leap and still just getting mixed up in semantics to say that A is preventing change in allelic frequencies of B by producing infertile offspring. I think what you are trying to say is A is exerting a “group level” selection of maintaining the population allelic frequencies by never producing fertile heterospecific offspring. In other words the individual in A mating with B is sacrificing its own fitness to preserve the allelic frequency of the population at large.

    But firstly this only applies if the heterospecific offspring (F1) is completely non-fertile (fitness = 0) and it cannot interbreed with the parental A population (F0). Horses and donkeys producing a mule would be an example of this. But once again you are just describing population genetics and speciation, and describing nothing more than the fact that a human cannot mate with a fish (unless you are Kanye West, perhaps). In other words, the “group” has become the “population” and all the changes in allelic frequency are adequately described by gene level selection.

    Group selection is only a valid concept if a group can have greater fitness than individuals in a population or if you change the meaning of “group” to mean “population.” The former has never been demonstrated and the latter adds nothing useful to the description of population genetics, which is quite sufficiently described by gene level selection.

    And if the F1 population of heterospecific offspring has some fitness greater than zero and/or can interbreed with either F0 population, then there is no group selection either. That is why for Group A (which is really population A) to select against genes from Group B in the manner you describe F1 fitness must equal zero. Otherwise the allelic frequencies from the F1 generation will either influence the F0 generation or form their own species.

    I just don’t see a way it doesn’t reduce down to standard gene level selection population genetics.

  225. nybgruson 04 Feb 2013 at 9:21 pm

    @tmac57:

    I was being a bit hyperbolic, so my apologies there.

    But the point is that these folks arrived at the correct conclusions for the wrong reasons or at a minimum despite their religion. They use the religion and got lucky or as a post-hoc rationalization after using actual critical thinking to come to a conclusion. In other words, I am arguing that they are not more rational – they are merely appearing more rational since they did not use rational thought to arrive at the conclusion.

    In the case of a post-hoc rationalization where they actually did use rational thought but didn’t realize it that negates my point in principle but in practice it cannot be differentiated. We don’t know that and we don’t know when that may change, for what other topics it may or may not happen, nor can we reasonably expect to have these folks follow the consensus in a scientifically skeptical manner to adjust their worldview.

    It becomes the exact same thing as using Bill Maher to promote atheism. He’s great on that one narrow topic and nothing else. Which is exactly why I and many others were quite PO’d about his award – we were riding him like a dim witted mule.

  226. daedalus2uon 04 Feb 2013 at 9:28 pm

    nygbrus you say:

    “To actually have a group selection take place, you would need a situation where a “group” has a trait that can exist only because the “group” is a cohesive unit and as a group can outbreed individuals because of that trait. As BJ said, the only way to really describe this would be if individuals in the “group” sacrificed their own fitness and that of their relatives to preserve a group level trait. In other words, that individuals will sacrifice their own fitness to maintain the allelic frequencies of the “group” in question. And that simply doesn’t happen.”

    Excuse me, but that is exactly what happens during speciation. Members of the group have a trait (reproduce just fine within the group aka species) only because the group is cohesive as a group and as a group outbreed individuals who have reduced fertility and in the limit are infertile with those who are on the edges or outside of the group.

    Each individual that is less fertile with a member of the out group has (in effect) “sacrificed” their fitness (number of descendants) to maintain the allele frequency of the group (not allow incompatible genes to enter).

    How is this not group selection?

    Speciation only occurs via group selection. Without group selection there would be no species (among sexually reproducing organisms).

    The reproductive fitness doesn’t need to go to zero for it to have effects on the group or the population.

    Yes, “species” are defined one way, conspecifics are defined one way and heterospecifics are defined another way. Real populations are not as “neat and tidy” as these definitions.

    Epistasis effects have to be group effects, not individual effects. If gene-gene interactions matter, then the genes of the mating partner matter and selection can only be on the gene-gene interactions that depend on both parents. The “fitness” of a particular genome depends on the genome of the other parent it is being mated with. How is that not a group effect? The “group” being the two opposite gender organisms that mate?

  227. Halfdeadon 04 Feb 2013 at 9:38 pm

    So many skeptics in this thread just making things up that were never said or taking things from anonymous posters in comments and claiming its what PZ said, cut it out.

    Perhaps some commenter somewhere suggested Steve should make this a bastion of atheist I didnt see it and even if someone did it was not PZ and its not what this was about.

    As much as some people would like to twist this into “Atheists are telling skeptics they must focus on religion” That was never suggested by PZ either, in fact if you follow the posts backwards its actually the reverse. That is, skeptics telling atheists they shouldn’t use the name skepticon because 3 out of 15 panels were related to atheism.

  228. nybgruson 04 Feb 2013 at 11:20 pm

    d2u you are still just describing gene level selection. The conspecific is not sacrificing fitness to maintain the allelic frequencies of the group, it is merely just changing the allelic frequencies of the group!

    In your last sentence you even changed it around to define “group” as two organisms. That is not a “group” that is just a breeding pair and the interactions are entirely gene level selection. As I said, group selection is either ridiculous, semantics, or a narrow hypothetical that has no evidence it exists in real life.

    Each individual that is less fertile with a member of the out group has (in effect) “sacrificed” their fitness (number of descendants) to maintain the allele frequency of the group (not allow incompatible genes to enter).

    But if the F1 generation can breed with the F0 generation (which it must be able to unless the fitness of the F1 progeny is zero or it is a new species in one generation) then it isn’t a protection of allelic frequency it is merely a change in it.

    If the fitness of F1 is zero, then we have strict speciation and the point is moot – all you are saying is that populations evolve based on selective pressures. There is nothing unique about “group” level here – you are just substituting one word for another without changing mechanisms of evolution. And population evolution is accurately and sufficiently described by gene level selection.

    To be in any way meaningfully different than plain old gene level selection as described by population genetics, group selection must have the sacrifice of fitness within a breeding population not between different populations.

    Epistasis effects have to be group effects, not individual effects. If gene-gene interactions matter, then the genes of the mating partner matter and selection can only be on the gene-gene interactions that depend on both parents. The “fitness” of a particular genome depends on the genome of the other parent it is being mated with. How is that not a group effect?

    It is… but to be so you must define “group” in a way that doesn’t make sense in context. In this context “group” means nothing more than “a bunch of stuff that interacts.” If you define it that way, then somatic hypermutability is a “group effect.” But at the end of the day gene level selection still describes what is going on when talking about the evolution of populations (because remember, a population is the smallest unit on which evolution can act – it cannot act on a breeding pair, because otherwise we would have speciation in one generation and Ray Comfort would be right).

  229. nybgruson 05 Feb 2013 at 12:52 am

    It took me a while but I finally watched the entire Jamy Ian Swiss video.

    I took some notes throughout. There were definitely some points where he said some questionable things. Originally I was planning on posting them.

    But taken in context of the whole speech with just a little (but well deserved) principle of charity I think I have to side with Philosoraptor’s take on it. As well as Dr. Novella’s.

    It seems like a fine distinction, but it’s not unreasonable. And I’m happy to continue my anti-theism stuff as I see fit, where and when appropriate.

    But I have to admit I’m rational enough to enjoy being wrong from time to time. Well, you know, like how you enjoy being sore after a good workout.

  230. BillyJoe7on 05 Feb 2013 at 7:42 am

    ccbowers,

    “This is a good analogy, but timing is always very important. The activist may be able to speed up the process if the time is right (i.e. the conditions are ripe for change)”.

    The activist, by his very nature is not concerned about whether the time is right. He wants and demands change now. Blacks, women, and gays should always have had equal rights. So the right time for change is now. Getting the timing right is more a consideration for the diplomat. But that timing is brought about, or brought forward, by the efforts of the activist.

    “There needs to be a balance: the activist can prod the diplomat along when needed, and the diplomat can convince the activist to be more reasonable and realistic when needed.”

    I was thinking more along the lines of the activist prodding the public and politicians, and the diplomat sweet talking the public and politicians once they’ve been prodded, rather than an activist/diplomat dynamic.

    “The both can help with the broader change. I definitely am the diplomat by nature, which biases me away from activist-type approaches”.

    Fine. But, remember, the activist provides the fodder for diplomatic action. The activist creates the business, the diplomat signs the deal.

  231. Bill Openthalton 06 Feb 2013 at 10:30 am

    Daedalus2u,

    You might want to take a closer look at multilevel selection.

  232. ccbowerson 06 Feb 2013 at 12:17 pm

    “So the right time for change is now. Getting the timing right is more a consideration for the diplomat. But that timing is brought about, or brought forward, by the efforts of the activist.”

    Actually I think the timing is a broader societal issue. The activist cannot force change when conditions are not ripe for change, but I agree with your overall perspective. Another, perhaps obvious thing, is that people can be both: For example, in the previous discussion the “skeptic” maybe a diplomat about atheism goals, but is an activist with respect to skepticism.

    “But, remember, the activist provides the fodder for diplomatic action. The activist creates the business, the diplomat signs the deal.”

    An important element missing from our discussion is societal attitudes towards the topic, which is really the determining factor, although it can be influenced by actions of activists and diplomats. You may be attributing too much to the activists actions, when there are broader reasons that changes occur. Or maybe not

  233. BillyJoe7on 07 Feb 2013 at 4:46 am

    ccbowers,

    Conditions don’t become ripe for change by accident. It is the activists who are “ahead of their times” who sow the seeds of change, which then slowly germinate and come to fruition as the result of the efforts of those who come after them and are inspired by their activities and writings.

  234. Bill Openthalton 07 Feb 2013 at 6:18 am

    From a couple of interactions on FTB, I agree there are a number of zealots among the regular commenters. Anything perceived to be contrary to their beliefs is immediately, and often viciously, attacked. Like on some feminists blogs and forums, knowledge and acceptance of their particular jargon is expected, nay demanded, before one is “allowed” to contribute to “discussions” on their beliefs. An example is their belief in “rape culture”. The mere suggestion that human males might, statistically, be genetically more violent than human females leads to being called a “rape apologist” and insinuations of being an actual rapist. Their attitude towards social issues is similar: it is obvious that a government-facilitated secular egalitarian society is the only moral social order, and those who do not agree are malicious.

    PZ himself is more anti-religion than merely atheist, very much like the European “anti-clericals” of the 1850-1945 era. It’s all very strident, and again sees intentional malice in the opponent. It is also rather reductionist as it ignores the large number of people whose religious convictions inspire them to do good. What seems to escape PZ and most of the active FtBers is the fact that individuals are situated on a continuum from “good” to “bad” independently of their moral, philosophical, political or religious convictions. This explains why they are so surprised and dismayed by atheists and skeptics who don’t share their political convictions, or simply aren’t very nice humans. One has the impression that for them, the group one belongs to is more important than the person one is.

    If you are a skeptic, you must be an atheist, and you must be a Patriarchy feminist, and you must be a rather radical socialist, because all these things are objectively and absolutely TRUE. It reminds me of the islamic conviction that the koran is so obviously the word of allah, that people who read the koran and not become muslims are evil. They reject what is obviously TRUE. Honest disagreement is impossible.

    This shows how people’s core beliefs are exempt from rational scrutiny. If it weren’t so sad, it would be funny.

  235. Fisheron 09 Feb 2013 at 1:48 pm

    Jesus! When I finally gave up my faith, I didn’t expect to find the same sort of infighting that goes on in religion in the skeptical movement. Clearly, I was naive. But listen guys, we know what will happen if this continues:

    http://www.southparkstudios.com/clips/155423/atheist-war

  236. rezistnzisfutlon 10 Feb 2013 at 6:29 pm

    Here is a video by girlwriteswhat that very well expresses the problems I have with the A+ movement and the style of radical feminism that seems to have spawned it. It’s a little long, but definitely worth it.

  237. rezistnzisfutlon 10 Feb 2013 at 8:21 pm

    To add, I’ll even go as far as to say that I believe that at least some of A+ and the modern feminist movement is not at all skepticism. In fact, some the tenets are even what I would consider contrary to evidence, and when evidence is requested for claims that are made, many in the movement attempt to silent the dissent rather than engage it, and they aren’t willing to self-reflect or consider that maybe they’re wrong. To me, that smacks of ideology and even faith. I think that is why it rubs me the wrong way.

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.