May 19 2016

Skepticism and the Fallacy of Relative Privation

There has been a lively exchange surrounding John Horgan’s article about skeptics, which I responded to previously. (See also Orac’s and Daniel Loxton’s responses.) At the core of Horgan’s piece is a logical fallacy so common, I feel it deserves special attention. In fact, PZ Myers wrote approvingly of Horgan’s fallacy, showing that it is still alive and well.

That fallacy can be called the fallacy of relative privation, which is a type of red herring or distraction from actual issues. The fallacy is essentially an argument that a problem is not important or does not deserve attention and resources because there are other more important problems. “Why are you wasting your time on X when there are children dying of cancer?”

In Horgan’s case, he would like us to end all war and bring about everlasting world peace before we tackle lesser problems like quackery, fraud, global warming, vaccine denial, the environment, and other such trivialities.

The argument can seem compelling because it feels like a simple application of priorities. Priorities are important, and we do have to think carefully about how we expend our resources. Context, however, is important.

First, are we talking about an individual or society? It is one thing to argue that, for example, our research funding should be proportional to the problems at which they are targeted. That does not mean, however, that every individual researcher should focus on the one most urgent problem.

The fallacy also often amounts to a false choice. We can focus our efforts on more than one thing at a time. We don’t have to feed the poor before we have a space program, or end war before we try to educate the public about fraud and pseudoscience.

Another major problem with this way of thinking is that it misses collateral benefits, which is tied to the fact that civilization is a complex web. Returning to the research priorities example, often basic science research is criticized because it does not have an obvious and immediate practical application. However, all scientific knowledge works together, and it is impossible to anticipate how one line of research might cross fertilize with another, or lead to unexpected applications.

Finally, there is also an unstated major premise to the fallacy – that the only valid criterion to determine where one should focus their efforts is the relative importance of the problem or need they are addressing. There are, however, many other valid criteria.

How Skeptics Choose Their Targets

If relative importance is not the only valid criterion, then what are some others? To answer this question it is important to understand what skeptics and organized skepticism is generally about, and that is making the world a more rational and critically thinking place. Our primary goal is to educate ourselves, each other, and the public about science and critical thinking. We also oppose fraud and pseudoscience, especially their infiltration into important institutions. We advocate for regulations that support and protect the integrity of science and academia, and freedom of thought.

Our goal is not to cure cancer, or fix every social problem afflicting the world. However, science and critical thinking are important tools, and there is no telling what downstream benefits might result from having more of both in the world.

With these goals in mind, what criteria do skeptics use to choose their targets? This is an actual decision I have to make dozens of times every week in order to produce my social media content.

Teachable Moment

One very important criterion is this – would addressing a claim or topic provide a useful teachable moment? Since one (if not the) primary goal of skepticism is education, this is a crucial criterion, and in fact is often sufficient reason to address a topic.

This is the primary reason I have ever addressed issues such as ghosts, bigfoot, astrology, or the Bermuda triangle (classic skeptical topics). I honestly don’t care at all about ghosts, and agree that this has extremely low priority as an issue. However, ghosthunters engage in a variety of pseudoscientific activities and defend their claims with numerous logical fallacies.

There are many generic lessons about science and critical thinking that can be learned by examining any pseudoscience, and often the most obvious ones are the best examples.

I have also found that by examining the full spectrum of pseudoscience, I have been able to see recurring patterns that enable me to understand pseudoscience much more thoroughly, and then apply those lessons to more important areas, like medicine.


Related to the teachable moment criterion is public interest. The whole point is to engage the public, and one technique for doing so is to go to where they already are. The public is interested in ghosts, cryptids, and UFOs, and in fact they often learn pathological science from popular treatments of these topics.

If we leave these popular subjects to the charlatans, they will happily spread scientific illiteracy unopposed. This is, however, a great opportunity to teach the public about how science actually operates, mechanisms of self-deception, how to tell if a claim is valid, and how to detect pseudoscience.

Addressing pseudoscience and the paranormal is a way to popularize science, like writing about the physics of Star Trek, or the philosophy of the Simpsons. Ghosts and UFOs are the hook, the payoff is scientific literacy and the ability to think a bit more critically.


The relative impact or importance of an issue is definitely important, and nothing I write here should be interpreted as dismissing or minimizing that point. In fact, as the skeptical movement has matured over the last few decades I have noticed a definite shift to issues of greater social importance.

My primary issue is alternative medicine, the abject infiltration of fraud and pseudoscience into the institutions of health care. This results in the wasting of billions of dollars, diverting of research funds, and causes direct harm to the health of individuals.

Other important issues we tackle regularly are vaccine refusal, global climate change, genetically modified foods, our energy infrastructure, future technology, teaching creationism and other pseudoscience in science class, issues surrounding mental illness, the self-help industry, scams, racial or gender pseudoscience, and other issues that have a direct impact on peoples lives and our civilization.

We also may consider how much of an effect we can have. Some issues are more amenable to scientific information than others.


Dermatologists and plumbers also focus their professional interests in a very narrow area, but rarely (as Daniel points out) are criticized for not addressing more important issues. It is recognized that they have a particular area of expertise, and the world needs all kinds of experts.

Scientific skepticism itself is an area of expertise. It involves a deep knowledge of pseudoscience, the philosophy of science, mechanisms of deception, what I call neuropsychological humility, scams, logic, and other aspects of critical thinking. This includes knowledge of the history of pseudoscience.

Within skepticism individuals also tend to focus their writing and speaking on their area of scientific expertise. So skeptical doctors focus on medicine, astronomers on astronomy, biologists on issues like evolution and creation, and physicists on free energy.

If we have a bias it is toward the areas of expertise that also tend to attract people to the skeptical movement itself, but this is hard to avoid. It is also not simple to correct, and straying outside of our areas of expertise is not a good solution. At the very least, it takes a lot more work to address an issue about which I am not already fairly expert.

Filling a Need

Very relevant to the question of what targets skeptics choose is who else, if anyone, is already addressing those problems. For example, reviewing evidence and establishing a standard of care for a particular issue within mainstream medicine is very important, but there are already professional societies that do that. Physician skeptics are not needed and have nothing particular to add.

We tend to focus our efforts where there is the most need, meaning there is a current lack of attention. Fringe ideas tend not to get attention from scientists, who don’t want to waste their time. Whether or not this is a reasonable position is debatable, but meanwhile skeptics are happy to fill the void.

Skeptics have, as I stated above, expertise in controversies, pseudoscience, deception, pathological science, and science communication. We spend some of our time communicating regular science, because we are enthusiasts and it’s part of the package and there’s a lot of bad science reporting out there, but a lot of our time examining ideas that lack mainstream attention.

As a skeptical neurologist, for example, I am not going to spend my time delving into and engaging in debate over the possible mechanisms of Parkinson’s disease. There are scientists who are doing that. But I will engage with those claiming that near death experiences are evidence for an afterlife because most scientists don’t bother.

Journalistic Integrity

This last criterion is a bit of a personal choice. Some journalists and outlets unapologetically advocate for a political ideology. Everyone knows the Huff Po is a liberal news source, for example. Some journalists, however, try to be as politically neutral as possible so that they will be viewed as a fair arbiter of factual information and analysis.

Similarly, some skeptics combine their skeptical activism with ideological activism. I have no problem with this, and most are up front about it.

Some skeptics, however, choose to be political or ideologically neutral in their activism, except for a defense of science and reason. I think this can be helpful.

While I certainly do have political opinions, I try to keep them separate from questions of science and evidence. If, for example, I am discussing global warming, I want to focus on the science and not be dismissed as liberal. Or, if I am writing about GMOs I do not want to be dismissed as conservative or libertarian. That can still happen, sometimes simultaneously, because people make unwarranted self-serving assumptions, but it helps when it is untrue. My opinions on these and similar topics are informed by the science, not my politics. This becomes a harder sell when you are also advocating for a political position.

I also think it is helpful to have a movement which is based upon evidence and logic and is agnostic toward ideological positions or values which are tangential.


The fallacy of relative privation is common. You may catch yourself using it at times.

Keep in mind, it is usually not a valid line of argument. Unless you are literally making a choice between competing interests with limited resources, these arguments are often a false choice.

There are over 7 billion people on the planet. There is room for plumbers and electricians. We don’t have to decide which one is more important.

Scientific skepticism is an area with a particular expertise that fills an otherwise neglected role. I also think we are very diverse in the topics we address. There are, however, many reasons why some topics get more attention than others. Someone’s personal judgments about which they value more is insufficient reason to ignore the many valid criteria I outlined above.


38 responses so far

38 Responses to “Skepticism and the Fallacy of Relative Privation”

  1. WalterWon 19 May 2016 at 2:18 pm

    While I don’t agree with everything Horgan said, I’m glad he said it simply because the skeptic movement needs to be challenged from time to time. It is clear he hit a nerve based on the amount of (digital) ink you and other figures in the movement have spent rebutting him.

    I’m not sure I agree with you about the logical fallacy. Horgan’s point was skeptics go after the “soft targets” that generally don’t challenge their worldview or that of the “tribe” — he’s not saying you should ignore those targets or downplay them. In fact, he flat out said “these beliefs and disbeliefs deserve criticism.” He accused skeptics of failing to apply the same scrutiny to people and institutions they already are inclined to support. (Dawkins and Krauss being the example he gave.) While I don’t agree with his views of what those “hard targets” should be, I think it is a valid point. You are straw manning his arguments more than a little.

  2. mumadaddon 19 May 2016 at 2:26 pm


    Would ‘relative privation’ apply to an example such as, ‘GMOs won’t solve world hunger therefore they are no use’, in which something is dismissed because it doesn’t address a far wider, but related, issue? Is this a separate fallacy or just a subset or relative privation?

  3. mumadaddon 19 May 2016 at 2:27 pm

    …subset of relative privation

  4. daedalus2uon 19 May 2016 at 2:36 pm

    Horgan is already practicing the bad skepticism that he is decrying in others. He says he is a “contrarian”. Arguing with other than facts and logic makes you not a skeptic.

    Whether a belief deserves criticism or not, if you criticize a belief using other than facts and logic, you are not a skeptic.

    The scrutiny in skepticism is on the use of facts and logic to make arguments, not on the conclusions the arguments reach.

    The issue of relative privation is itself a logical fallacy that leads to great waste in scientific funding. Funding agencies tend to fund multiple researchers to chase the “scientific fad de jour”. Before research is done, we don’t know and can’t know what its value will be.

    It is like trying to figure out which is the most important nutrient, or the 10 most important nutrients, and then focusing only on them. What happens then is that you die of a deficiency in the 11th most important nutrient. Fix that, and you die from the 12th most important.

    The only reason that product development can happen is because there is all of this basic research out there that increases general knowledge. If basic research is done well, then its value will persist over time. If it is done poorly, then it isn’t worth doing.

  5. Steven Novellaon 19 May 2016 at 4:45 pm

    Walter – you are simply wrong. He is exactly saying we should downplay them – bash them “less.” (I also disagree with his use of the term “bash” but that’s another point.)

    He is also wildly inaccurate in terms of how he characterized the skeptical movement, what targets we address and how much. He simply is not sufficiently familiar with the skeptical movement to make these kinds of statements.

    He also absolutely committed this fallacy, using as his sole criterion of what he thinks we should prioritize how important the issue is according to his subjective beliefs.

  6. Steven Novellaon 19 May 2016 at 4:46 pm

    mumadadd – that is the nirvana fallacy, if something is not perfect then it is of no use. Vaccines aren’t 100% effective so why bother, etc.

  7. tmac57on 19 May 2016 at 7:18 pm

    I wonder if John Horgan has heard of the many cases of people dying from treatable diseases because they instead used the “soft target” homeopathy? Maybe if he had , he would be more sympathetic toward “bashing” that bit of pseudoscience.
    Also, does he live the rest of his life using that sort of ‘triage’ of action? For instance, does he always forgo a nice dinner out because that money could be better spent helping the hungry a half a world apart?
    Does he only watch the very most important and highminded fare on TV rather than lighter entertainment from time to time?
    Does he spend his journalistic energy tackling only the direst threats to humanity, rather than some well meaning skeptical groups? Oh wait…

  8. Average Joeon 19 May 2016 at 8:32 pm

    I think it was the Nature article that said J Horgan had an impressionist view of skepticism. I know that SN has talked about this but I think it’s germane to bring up again as an example. This impressionist view of skepticism. I think it’s a problem, how the larger public, not familiar with the ins and outs of skepticism, views the skeptical community. My perspective and maybe wrong. Skeptics are portrayed as deniers, closed minded, athiests. Nasty unpleasant people that have nothing better to do than to criticize and belittle strongly held beliefs (imo, I agree that not challenging core, benign religious beliefs is the correct approach to having a big tent. However, if atheists/agnostics become a majority in the US, then I’d reexamine this.)
    What to do? SN has pointed out that elementary education is lacking in critical thinking. I suppose that’s something I can work on.

  9. ccbowerson 19 May 2016 at 10:34 pm

    In general, there is another way that the fallacy of relative privation can fail. Besides perhaps being wrong about which are the “bigger problems,” it often fails to take into account the likelihood of being able to address problems. Often the “low hanging fruit” have incredible value in not only education, but in terms of ability to make an impact and perhaps downstream effects.

    As far as Horgan, what he characterizes as soft (i.e. easy) are anything but. Battling the skewed narratives of genetic modification and climate change are far from taking an easy way out. In fact, they are as challenging as any of the topics he mentioned. And although most skeptics are more or less in agreement on climate change these days, this has changed over time, with many skeptics having changed their stance on the issue over the past 10-15 years towards the consensus understanding. The topic of genetic modification is way behind in this regard, with many people still struggling with the influence of misinformation and idelology, but skeptical community has come around on this topic lately. This occurred, at least partially, due to discussions among scientists and skeptics. In places that Horgan imagines we “pat each other on the back.” But that is not what happens. We discuss. We argue. We learn. “Truth springs form argument amongst friends.” Yes, we occasionally pat each other on the back, but not for the reason he envisions.

  10. ccbowerson 19 May 2016 at 10:50 pm

    “Similarly, some skeptics combine their skeptical activism with ideological activism. I have no problem with this, and most are up front about it.”

    As I discovered skepticism as a formal process, I felt that this meant getting rid of ideological motivations and biases, (to least in the way that most people mean when they refer to ideology). Other than a few foundational assumptions, adherence to skepticism meant that other ideologies needed to go, to the extent that were motivated towards particular outcomes regardless of their merit.

    This also makes it difficult for me to be a pure activist on an issue. The way I see it, activism is about achieving a particular goal, but that can lead to conflict between that goal evidence/reality. Pure activism often forces a motivated reasoning state, and makes it hard to maintain intellectual honesty.

    At the same time, I realize the activism is necessary in many instances. And that skeptics can be good effective activists and skeptics. Other than a few straightforward issues, I’m just not sure that both can be done at the same time.

  11. brive1987on 20 May 2016 at 6:19 am

    Wasn’t there a time when PZ called out Dawkins for a similar but 180 degree example?

    Ie when RD advocated that human rights abuse against woman in Islamic countries trumped examples of minor inconveniences experienced by privileged white western women? Rings a bell.

    It seems that PZ likes to define which issues are inconsequential and which are “must dos”.

  12. ccbowerson 20 May 2016 at 8:51 am

    “Ie when RD advocated that human rights abuse against woman in Islamic countries trumped examples of minor inconveniences experienced by privileged white western women? Rings a bell.”

    I’m not sure what point you are making bringing this up as an example. To show an apparent inconsistency of Meyers? A “tu quoque?” The Dawkins quote referred to as “Dear Muslima,” is much less defensible than even Horgan’s bad arguments, because 1. It is an appeal to others’ problems as a way of being 2. truly dismissive (basically ‘quit whining, other people have it worse’)and 3. It is truly are a false choice (or nonchoice) as people can’t make a choice between being themselves and others.

    As much as I dislike Horgan’s arguments, I at least think that we can individually make some choices about which topics to emphasize within skepticism. I just think he is wrong on the facts and mischaracterizes the situation due to his own ignorance of the skeptical community.

  13. Todd W.on 20 May 2016 at 8:59 am


    Re: PZ Myers

    My impression is that his support of Horgan is largely driven by his dislike of Jamy Ian Swiss and his sour feelings around the whole skeptic/atheist divide from a few years back.

    As for Horgan himself, his “rebuttal” to the response he received basically boils down to an admission that he was just trolling, rather than trying to make a substantive point. It would have been much more refreshing if he were just up front and honest about that motive, and admit that the examples he used were factually incorrect strawmen of his own design.

  14. daedalus2uon 20 May 2016 at 9:12 am

    Skepticism is a process. It can be directed against any issue. The issue it is directed against is irrelevant to the process of skepticism.

    Trying to derail arguments by dismissing the issue the argument is about as unimportant is not skepticism.

    Arguing from anything other than facts and logic is not skepticism.

    Skepticism is a process where one is trying to get closer to a description of reality by looking at facts and using logic. It is not about “winning” an argument.

    “Winning” is something that happens in games. Trying to understand reality is not a game.

  15. Oracon 20 May 2016 at 9:14 am

    In fairness, PZ didn’t actually write approvingly about the fallacy of relative privation. From his post:

    On the other hand, Horgan commits the fallacy of relative privation. Bigfoot and chupacabra are silly topics, but as long as a significant number of people believe in them, they are part of the skeptical purview…and they also represent easy learning exercises, a kind of skepticism with training wheels. It’s just that too often, skeptics think they’re smart enough to dismiss UFOs, and then use that cockiness to also dismiss sexism or racism as equivalent. It makes for a very unpleasant environment for a lot of us.

    OTOH, I do agree that much of PZ’s approval of most of what Horgan said appears to be fueled by his dislike of Jamy Ian Swiss and his dislike of the skeptic movement in general.

  16. Oracon 20 May 2016 at 9:19 am

    Oops. Hit “Submit” too soon.

    OTOH, PZ’s tone is very forgiving of Horgan’s use of the fallacy of relative privation. He seems to be saying that, yes, Horgan used the fallacy but it’s understandable because the topics covered by “Bigfoot skeptics” are so easy and, in his view, some “Bigfoot skeptics” think knowing how to debunk UFOs and Bigfoot is enough to be able to take on more politically charged topics.

  17. ccbowerson 20 May 2016 at 9:21 am

    “OTOH, I do agree that much of PZ’s approval of most of what Horgan said appears to be fueled by his dislike of Jamy Ian Swiss and his dislike of the skeptic movement in general.”

    Which further undermines Horgan’s assertion that we gather and just pat each other on the back. Conflict can be healthy, and struggles can be a sign of progress, but such things can be destructive as much as constructive.

  18. ccbowerson 20 May 2016 at 9:26 am

    “Skepticism is a process. It can be directed against any issue. The issue it is directed against is irrelevant to the process of skepticism.”

    In fairness, this is true with regards to the process of skepticism, but not to the application of skepticism or what we are actually talking about, the skeptical community. Where to put efforts is about values, perceived need, ability, etc. To talk about skepticism in a vacuum misses the issue entirely.

  19. tmac57on 20 May 2016 at 9:34 am

    daedalus2u- ““Winning” is something that happens in games. Trying to understand reality is not a game.”

    Well said! We shouldn’t view our ideas about the world as territory that we own and are ready to defend them at all costs, but as approximations of reality that should be modified as necessary to align with the facts. It’s not always easy to do, but it’s the only way to rationally approach life in my opinion.

  20. mindmeon 20 May 2016 at 10:45 am

    In a world where they get their wish…

    “The War Skeptics would now like to recognize Karl from Burlington and have him offer his skepticism about war.”

    “Thank you. If you look at frame 43 of the Patterson–Gimlin film it’s pretty obvious that –”


    “Sorry, Bigfoot skepticism is all I know. But since the Horgan-Myers Hard Targets Act of 2018 shut down all the Bigfoot skeptical groups, I was only able to choose between the War Skeptics Society and the International Brotherhood of Mammogram Mansplainers!”

    Yeah. Let skeptics apply their talents to areas they think they can best apply their talents to.

  21. praktikon 20 May 2016 at 10:45 am

    Totally on side with you here Novella and that Horgan talk was atrocious.

    But just one thing I thought I’d note as someone with one foot deeply in political and social science and another I have come to plant deeply in science and skepticism.

    Looking at issues like the War on Drugs is actually fertile ground for skeptics as the Prohibitionists have a stunning lack of evidence to back their policies that is easily countered with a growing body of harm reduction literature. I spent a lot of time feeling as if I was a “debunker” in these debates, much the same way I felt when discussing vaccines or 9/11 Controlled Demolition claims. Economics was maybe a lost opportunity for us as assumptions like the crumbling of the “rational man” as a basis of much of their theories crumbled in recent years – might have been nice to have had skeptics on these issues debunking ideology with strong economic research more grounded in reality, but others went ahead and did that largely without our help.

    As I grew into my skepticism, I definitely noted the lack of attention paid to issues in politics and social science as I felt well placed to notice the areas in politics and economics where the skeptical approach was well suited, but much of this was not a topic on the big blogs or skeptical podcasts or conferences.

    I don’t know if this is because of the sense of some in “real science” that the entire body of social science is somehow not trustworthy, and its easier to get involved in debates where the facts are a little less prone to the pressure of our subjectivity.

    Maybe its a cultural thing.

    If there was a kernel of truth under Horgan’s BS it was this one – Skeptics do seem to discuss a narrower range of issues than they could otherwise be, especially when it comes to issues in politics and economics and social science.

  22. GWDon 20 May 2016 at 12:17 pm

    @ Steven Novella

    At this point isn’t most likely that Horgan (now PZ) are just upset that their political views are the dominant ones in the skeptical community. It is not really about how people fail to criticize each other its just that the of all the opinions held by prominent skeptics they tend not match the more left wing views of Horgan and PZ (which says something because Coyne is a marxist, Dawkins is pretty far left and so is Krauss). It was hinted at by Horgan in his original talk when he said that skepticism needs a blanket condemnation U.S. Imperialism. But his rebuttals and PZs defense show its clearly about inserting social justice and other political into the heart of skepticism and making it official dogma. This is kind of disappointing because skepticism should not explicitly be about politics and we should be able to have people of all political stripes as long as they are willing to debate and talk about their beliefs.

  23. MaryMon 20 May 2016 at 12:19 pm

    I have been at NECSS multiple times now, and I’ve talked to a wide range of people. I was very impressed last year by a guy I talked with who was a social worker. He told me things about the influence of religion and woo in a lot of social work. I would love to have more conversations with skeptics about this–but it’s not my field. I wish folks in this arena would step up and raise this. But we all know it’s also really hard to do these things while you are working in a public/govt type of job.

    I also talked to a surprising number of lawyers. These are people who were very much interested in public policy/political issues and their relationship to nonsense. I was favorably impressed that their training in analyzing arguments was so solid (at least for the ones I spoke with).

    The folks–political activists–bought us drinks at this thing. They are working on political action.

    It’s clear the people stereotyping skeptics don’t know of these people in our “tribe”. But we also can’t demand that people align with us and carry the flag on their issues if they aren’t ready to do so. Still I’m glad they are part of it.

  24. Todd W.on 20 May 2016 at 12:35 pm


    Issues of social justice are perfectly good topics for skeptics to address, and while that is something that I think PZ very much wants to be a big part of the dialogue, I don’t think that Horgan much cares about it in a broad sense. And social justice is something that is being discussed, though it could use more discussion.

    For example, NECSS has had several panels on diversity in science and skepticism the past several years. There have been numerous discussions online around how to deal with discriminatory or harassing behavior. It’s certainly an issue within the skeptical community, and it has implications for society in general. One of the speakers this year noted that we need to improve diversity to help foster creativity and innovation.

  25. hardnoseon 20 May 2016 at 1:08 pm

    I mostly disagree with Hogan’s article, however I think a couple of his points are valid. For example, he notes that the Skeptical movement is a tribe with an ideology (mythology, I would call it).

    The Skeptic mythology includes the faith that scientific progress solves problems (when in fact, it is more likely to cause problems). It includes faith in rationalism, the idea that everything can, theoretically, be understood by human reason, given enough time and effort. It rejects all ancient knowledge as primitive superstition. It rejects the possibility of higher-order levels of reality, and insists that the level we inhabit is the only one. It refuses to consider that intelligence and consciousness might be an essential aspect of the universe, and insists that intelligence is something that is generated by brains. It does not consider that there might be substances, energies, fields, etc., very different from those already known to science.

    The Skeptical mythology is invisible to Skeptics. It is the air that surrounds you, so you can’t see it. That is true for any tribe and its ideology.

  26. rasmuron 20 May 2016 at 2:23 pm

    I’m glad that I first heard of the book Farewell to Reality by Jim Baggot on a skeptical podcast, Skepticality. I realize the need to specialize, but it might be interesting to vary the topics we discuss from time to time.

  27. edamameon 20 May 2016 at 2:29 pm

    This is a tricky one, and that likely explains why it is a corner case in the museum of informal fallacies (one you typicall won’t hear about in a logic class). Because it is mixed up with neuroeconomic factors in complex ways.

    This is because people who have a distorted utility function have a broken sense of rationality. If someone is pointing out the paint smudge on the hardwood floor, in a house that is burning down, then they likely need a dose of Clomipramine, and are not going to get a lot of my rational attention until they do. If they turn around and say I am committing the fallacy of relative privation, there is something wrong with their utility function.

    OTOH, I remember when I complained about the prayer at my graduation ceremony (at a state school). I was told that on graduation day I should be thinking about bigger issues than whether there is prayer at graduation, like whether kids are hungry in the world. I found this strange, because…in a four hour graduation ceremony there is a lot of time to sit and ponder the mechanics of the graduation ceremony.

    OTOH, what if there was a fire at the graduation ceremony? It would have been weird and selfish for me to complain about the prayer.

    While it is true that we sometimes aren’t in a case of limited resources, or in urgent conditions like a fire, in practice life hands us a case of extremely limited resources (time, energy). We have probably 20-50 years of productive, intelligent life on the planet when we are old enough to be smart and motivated enough to contribute, before we get old and tired, and weighed down by various illnesses and other shit that happens to organisms that age (with some exceptions that TV might make you think are the rule, but…people energetic and productive in their 60s-70s are not the rule).

    There are talented smart people out there fighting against things (e.g., bigfoot) that are taking time and energy that would often be much better spent on other things.

    On the other hand, if that’s your passion, then just say that’s your passion. Like stamp collecting. It gives you pleasure, it’s just sort of useless. 🙂 And that’s fine. You don’t need to save the world. If winning arguments on the interwebs with stupid people on the web is your thing, arguments that nobody will remember in 4 months, awesome! It doesn’t have to rise to the nobility of plumber or doctor.

  28. edamameon 20 May 2016 at 2:33 pm

    I have met so many smart Christians and skeptics who I wish were taking science classes and just…doing science, programming, generating cool theorems, etc.. Instead, they spend 3 hours a day bickering on the internet. It’s sort of sad.

    I am lucky the internet wasn’t really around until I had my degrees. 🙂

  29. Steven Novellaon 20 May 2016 at 2:33 pm

    praktik – I think the issue is primarily one of expertise. Skeptics don’t really get involved in scientific debates that are being properly handled by mainstream scientists, except perhaps to communicate these topics to the public, in which case we are more in our role of science communicators.

    We tend to get involved when something is interfering with a healthy process of science, such as crank populism, denialism, religious interference, common misconceptions, fraud, etc.

    Further, we tend to get involved in areas where we either feel comfortable understanding the science directly, or feel comfortable understanding what the scientific consensus is.

    I rarely if ever write about economic issues because I do not have a sufficient understanding of the science to comment, and I have tried and failed to understand what the consensus is on any particular economic issue. What I find is that there are liberal and conservative economists defending their positions and I don’t see a clear non-ideological consensus.

    For example, I recently tried to find out what the best consensus is with regard to the minimum wage – does raising the minimum wage cost jobs, if so how many, and what are the net effects for the working poor? I invested a lot of time and came away without a clear picture, just different opinions.

    In the end there wasn’t much for me to write about from a skeptical point of view. Maybe what we need is a skeptical economist. If you know anyone, let me know.

  30. tmac57on 20 May 2016 at 3:29 pm

    As far as economists go, Russ Roberts from the EconTalk podcast is an interesting case. He is clearly in the Libertarian camp but not too extreme, and his guests that he interviews, are all over the map, but are usually well spoken and educated. He seems pretty open minded, and even skeptical about his own views and economics in general, even though that is his area of expertise, and has taught in that discipline.
    I think he would be a good guest for SGU if you could book him, and had a specific area that you would like to discuss.

  31. mumadaddon 20 May 2016 at 3:53 pm

    As we’re introspecting… I agree with those who said that skepticism is about process (rather than focus), and envy/slightly resent those who have the specialist knowledge to be able to piss on endeavours less lofty and important than their own. As a layperson who basically learned skepticism from Steve Novella, and because I really, really give a shit about understanding good vs bad reasons for believing things, and what is more likely true than not, I would define my version of skepticism as emphasis on:

    – Epistemology
    – Standards of evidence

    And that’s it.

  32. praktikon 20 May 2016 at 7:31 pm

    Steven – a few sources I would recommend.

    Baseline Scenario was a great blog started by Robert Simon, who worked for the IMF, and James Kwak. Kwak has been maintaining it more lately but check it out : -> especially in the period of the 2008 financial crisis. They managed to cut through, with data, a lot of the more irrational claims made in defense of the old order.

    I am not as well read on economics (mostly through my International Relations degree I had some more in-depth exposure) as I am on drug policy.

    This is an excellent compendium of issues on drug policy with links to actual research in every area. This one feels a lot to me like Climate Science or the GMO issue – there really isn’t a great body of work to back up the Prohibitionists claim, which stem mostly from emotional button pushing, tribalism and our Victorian inheritance of Puritanism. Nearly all the research in this field describes the abject failure of Prohibition in quantitative and qualitative ways.

    I’ve asked friends who are on the field and in many an online forum – show me the best evidence for Prohibition!

    And what you find is a morass of emotion, moralizing and cherry picking.

    Would love to see skeptics come on side for harm reduction on drug policy and to help debunk the myths of prohibition (and while we’re at it – Tough On Crime policy in general has little foundation in evidence-based policy)

  33. praktikon 20 May 2016 at 8:21 pm

    The minimum wage issue was definitely something of a disappointment waiting for you as you began to investigate it looking for a dispositive case for or against raising it.

    But i can think of similar issues in completely different arenas like assessing the toxicity of a pesticide and whether exposure is leading to a verifiable health outcome – when an issue seems to have no clear winner and lots of arguments on either side, one thing you can walk away from the debate with is the idea that were the effect actually real or strong- one side would have surely won the debate. And if the question is “is this linked to cancer” maybe you could say “probably not”, if a debate has gone a long time and no strong causal link could ever really be demonstrated.

    Reading this Richard Wolff blog on the minimum wage could have saved you some time!

    “Economists have accumulated a vast literature on the minimum wage. That literature is divided into two opposing schools. The first, comprised of paid spokespersons for business and their various allies in politics, media and the academy, strives to establish the following sort of argument. Raising minimum wages will reduce the number of jobs available to those earning the pre-rise minimum wage. This is because of the “law” of supply and demand which holds that demand for anything fall as its price rises. Raise the price of labor power, less will be demanded. In short, raising the minimum wage will push more workers out of jobs into unemployment. It is thus bad for just those in whose name the minimum wage is to be raised.

    Such arguments provoked liberal, labor, and radical economists to seek to prove the contrary point. They questioned the theoretical assumptions about supply and dermand as it pertains to wage determination. They also offered empirical analyses to show countless cases where wages rose and no unemployment followed, etc.

    Excluding unrepentant ideologues, most economists now acknowledge that the end product of the vast literature on both sides is a kind of stalemate. That is, it is not at all clear whether raising the minimum wage would help or hurt employment numbers. There is no one-to-one correlation, no clear-cut cause-and-effect relationship, between raising a wage, on the one hand, and increasing versus decreasing the number of workers employed at the raised wage, on the other.

    Thus, to make arguments for raising the minimum wage on the grounds that it will necessarily have a determinate effect on employment is unsustainable and therefore ill advised. The simple truth resolves into these two points. (1) Raising the minimum wage always occurs together with countless other changes occurring in any economy. All those changes influence employment so that the effect of raising the minimum wage cannot be usefully isolated to be known. (2) Raising the minimum wage causes an immense number of other changes across an economy in the present and into the future…and all those changes will in turn exert their effects on employment. What the net effect will be is unknowable in advance. Making definitive claims will always invite and get refutations leading into endless debates that few will follow or be persuaded by. Not the way to go!

    Given that we dont know how raising the minimum wage will play out on employment in advance, that the employment outcome will vary from case to case, the decision about raising the minimum wage ought to be made on other, non-economic grounds (political and ethical and social) where the positive effects of doing so can be more confidently described, predicted, and/or advocated.”

    And here we end up in moral philosophy, as I think we should – and this may make some skeptics uncomfortable. But i think Wolff makes a great point – if its really a “wash” every time we raise the wage – lets make sure we pick the option that lets more people have a better life. When in doubt – fall back to utilitarianism! (my policy anyway!)

  34. praktikon 20 May 2016 at 8:32 pm

    And this book was recommended in a recent Rationally Speaking podcast: (from this podcast:

    And I think I need to buy this book because it endeavours, from this polymath’s perspective, to offer a better way to marry scientific methodology and economics research. And my light exposure to economic debates probably had me over-valuing the impact of “behavioural economics” – which attempted to address deficits in economics theory when it came to modelling the behaviour of individuals (an actual deficit, just the cure has its own issues!).

    (from my review link above):

    “His second target is another recent mainstream approach: behavioral economics. This approach is what Ross takes to be a ‘cancer’ in contemporary economics. In chapter 4, Ross rightly points out that the dominant narrative accompanying behavioral economics is that it makes the discipline progress because it replaces a mistaken theory of individual choice—rational choice theory. According to the usual story, psychological evidence overwhelmingly rejects this theory of choice as an accurate description of human choices in economic as well as other settings. Furthermore, behavioral economists maintain that they supply alternatives—new models of choice that are more descriptively accurate and conducive to improvements in explanatory and predictive powers. According to this narrative, the future place of economics among the sciences is in an entanglement with psychology.

    Ross argues that this narrative grossly misrepresents the role of choice theory in economics. The discipline has been primarily interested in market-level variables. These variables are “subject to choice” in the specific sense that they are “sensitive to changes in relevant incentives—typically shifts in opportunity costs at the market or population level.” (238) This understanding of choice must be distinguished from the one once prevalent in cognitive science: choice being the outcome of a computation from which one alternative comes out the winner. This crucial distinction between two definitions of choice is obscured by how economics is usually taught: rational choice theory is typically presented as being about “stylized individual people” (238) who have well-behaved preferences that, once combined to their beliefs, cause them to choose. The first mistake in this presentation is that preferences are better interpreted in economics “as summaries of, rather than causes of, economic choices” (201). Since Samuelson’s theory of revealed preferences, economists have a framework to rigorously talk about preferences without being thereby committed to a theory about the cognitive processes that give rise to actions. The other mistake is that the bulk of economics has little to do with individual-level phenomena: both the explandum and the explanans are at collective scales. The widespread opposite belief among economists—who have long “marinated in the rhetoric of methodological individualism”—can be explained by “a lazy tendency to not reflect carefully on what they, as economists, actually do.” (237)

    Looks like some other recent avenues of economic research come under question too:

    “The first target, which is not the main one, is the wave of empirical research using either randomized controlled trials or “pseudo-experimental randomization” (185) based on instrumental variables. What disturbs Ross the most in this wave is the frequently associated disdain for economic theory. For instance, Angrist and Pischke (2010, 23) state that “[i]n a design-based framework, economic theory helps us understand the picture that emerges from a constellation of empirical findings, but does not help us paint the picture.” Ross vehemently criticizes this position: “a science that abandons its theory invites degeneration and loss of generality and epistemic power” (186). According to him, the econometric estimation of structural models—i.e., models explicitly built on economic theory—should remain a core empirical method in economics. Ross thus positions himself as a defender of an established mainstream approach to empirical economics against a newer mainstream approach calling for a withdrawal from economic theory.”

  35. brive1987on 21 May 2016 at 6:54 am


    The obvious point is that Myers can be summed up and largely dismissed as an ideologue. He is ready on the one hand to libel skeptics who use (say) the chupacabra as a teaching point and on the other he defends the cause célèbre of elevator gate within the sphere of fighting female oppression.

    I reference him only because he was mentioned in the OP as someone seemingly of note. Probably just an oversight by the author.

  36. MaryMon 21 May 2016 at 11:48 am

    BTW: comments are now working over at the original SciAm piece. I would encourage people to leave thoughts over there. I did.

  37. Waydudeon 23 May 2016 at 1:54 am

    The ‘preaching to the choir’ always gets to me. Preachers preach to their flock so that they get value from it but also when they go out in the world they have that as ‘ammo’ towards the unbelievers.

    It’s much the same for me, I do a somewhat popular (about 10% of tSGU size audience which still blows my mind) religious sketical podcast (ok, atheist) in which we are (haha) preaching to the choir. But just like info I get from SGU when I discuss issues like vaccines, global warming, etc., I have more info when confronting those who do not accept those things. And hopefully my listeners have more info when talking to Mormons, for example, and they bring up reformed Egyptian as a real thing.

    Anecdotally, I had a friend with a new wife and child and ended up getting diagnosed with Esophageal cancer. They are very ‘natural’ and decided to treat it with eating lots of vegetables and avoiding sugar. Yeah. But after some talks and with things looking poor he consented to standard treatment and ended up going into remission. Will he live a long life? Who knows, but statistically he would probably be dead for years now instead he gets more time to see his kid grow up. I had help, some of it from SGU podcasts, so thank you for preaching to this choir.

  38. grabulaon 08 Jun 2016 at 3:40 am


    “Skeptics do seem to discuss a narrower range of issues than they could otherwise be, especially when it comes to issues in politics and economics and social science.”

    Sounds more like your exposure to skeptical communities might be limited. While there are hot topics amongst skeptics I don’t find the lack of depth or breadth of discussion in these circles that you do.

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