Aug 30 2012

Massimo’s Look at the Community of Reason

From time to time it’s healthy to take a close and honest inward look at yourself – your life, community, philosophy, goals, and strategies. One of the things I admire about the skeptical community, of which I am a proud member, is that it does this on a regular basis. We wring our hands about exactly what we believe, the scope of our activity, the role of various philosophies in our thinking, the definition of skepticism, and even the word “skeptic.”

Collectively we seem to be endlessly restless and uncomfortable with ourselves. I think this is a good thing. Comfort and complacency may feel nice, but they don’t get you up in the morning an hour earlier so that you can blog to the world about some intellectual nuance, and they don’t lead to the kind of hard introspective questions that allow a movement to mature.

I find it especially useful when some comment about skepticism or the skeptical movement really annoys me. That annoyance is a signal that there is a cognitive disconnect between me and the opinions that annoy me – a conflict that can potentially be explored and resolved.

Recently Massimo Pigliucci appears to have reached a critical mass of annoyance and needed a cathartic dump about the skeptical community, which he refers to as the Community of Reason (CoR). As is typical of Massimo, his article is well-reasoned, and well-written – a useful stick with which to poke the CoR (to use his term).

As background, Massimo is one of my oldest friends in skepticism. He came to speak for me when we were just getting started as the Connecticut Skeptical Society back in 1996, and he was the first guest I had on my podcast, the SGU. I have always found the two of us to be fairly close in our approach to skepticism and on the same side of many internal disputes within the CoR.

Massimo also plays, in my opinion, a critical role within the CoR, because he is an actual philosopher (and not just playing at one, like most of the rest of us). Skepticism is a diverse and complex set of intellectual principles put into practical application. We therefore need a diverse set of intellectual skills (collectively and individually) in order to be fully functional. We need scientists in every field, educators, journalists, writers, performers, marketers, artists, politicians – and we need philosophers. Massimo, more than anyone else I know, keeps the CoR honest from a philosophical point of view.

The core of his recent article is this:

The problem is that my experience (anecdotal, yes, but ample and varied) has been that there is quite a bit of un-reason within the CoR. This takes the form of more or less widespread belief in scientific, philosophical and political notions that don’t make much more sense than the sort of notions we — within the community — are happy to harshly criticize in others.

He gives as examples widespread belief in the Singularity, that humans have no free will, that science can answer moral questions, rejection of anthropogenic global warming, and others. The point of his article was not to discuss or debate these individual points – they have each been the focus of extensive debate within the CoR. Rather he wants to point out that being a self-identified skeptic does not mean one is free of un-reason.

Some of the examples Massimo brings up are matters, in my opinion, of legitimate debate among high-functioning skeptics. They are legitimate controversies. Part of the mission of the CoR, in fact, is to deeply discuss these controversial topics. We can’t spend all of our time taking on the easy questions. Some of the topics, like global warming or whether or not philosophy is of any use, should not be controversial.

Massimo’s point is that, as a community, we need to constantly remind ourselves that, while we respect and aspire to reason, we are imperfect and subject to bias and motivated reasoning just like every other human being. This realization can help inform our tone and strategies for outreach. Massimo points out, and I agree, that we should not treat everyone with whom we disagree as if they were a hopeless creationist or ethically dubious snake-oil salesman.

To amplify this point a bit – in my opinion it is respectful, intellectually honest, and strategically effective to take, as a default, an approach to others with whom we disagree that follows certain rules of thumb:

– search for common ground as a starting point

– do not start with the assumption that you are correct, but rather examine all points of view for logic and evidence

– try to honestly understand the other side, and address the best version of the arguments and positions you are arguing against

– avoid making negative assumptions about the goals, motivations, and attitudes of your opponents

– when you are confident that your position is the correct (or at least superior) one, your goal should be to gently educate others, not ridicule, pontificate, showboat, or condemn.

– go out of your way to acknowledge legitimate aspects or virtues of the points of view with which you generally disagree (giving the Devil his due).

– freely admit your own error and make appropriate corrections. Avoid the temptation to evade, deny, or minimize your own error.

I consider the above approach to be a default intellectual courtesy that civilized members of the CoR (and society at large) should grant to others, especially those of us who are essentially on the same side of the big question of the role of science and reason in human society. I think, too often, skeptics neglect this courtesy and treat anyone with whom they disagree as if they are a dangerous or hopeless crank.

It remains a point of legitimate debate and controversy, however, what attitude we should take towards those who are promoting an unscientific, anti-scientific, anti-intellectual, superstitious, or gullible philosophy. How do we treat the dangerous snake-oil charlatan whose behavior is indistinguishable from a psychopathic con-artist? What courtesy, if any, do we extend the politician attacking science education in order to promote their personal religious views on creation? Is it OK to ridicule the ridiculous, ethically or strategically? That’s a topic for a different post. What I (and I think Massimo) are advocating is that at the very least a member of the CoR should be taking a thoughtful approach, and not ridicule as a knee-jerk response to all disagreement. If you believe ridicule, sarcasm, and harsh criticism can be effective tools of communication, then skeptics at least should judiciously deploy a sliding-scale of negativity to their opponents.

Massimo also mentions leadership in the CoR. This is a tricky concept for a community that eschews arguments from authority, is staunchly individualistic, and does not feel comfortable with the very concept of “leaders”. I agree with general reticence toward this concept . Further, we have no formal structure or hierarchy. But there are those who stick out as being more prominent than the rank and file skeptic, because they have some recognized media outlet, including books, organizations, blogs, podcasts, TV appearances, or some form of standard celebrity. They therefore lead through example and/or the influence of the content they generate.

How much of the problems with the CoR are the result of a failure of this “leadership,” asks Massimo? That is also an excellent question. I don’t have any pithy answers. Massimo argues that there is a failure of leadership, given that many skeptical “leaders” fall for one or more of his hit-list of unreason, but he also grants that there are positive role-models.

Massimo touches on the fact that today’s community leaders are more likely to be bloggers and twitterers, rather than the likes of Carl Sagan or Martin Gardner. This is also an interesting topic, worthy of its own post. The new media has allowed for many voices to emerge, and has dramatically increased the amount of conversation. Instead of a few celebrities who have broken through to real fame, like Sagan, we have many C-level internet celebrities with a greater variety of backgrounds, skills, and attitudes. We are still adjusting to this new world, seeking advantages while compensating for disadvantages.

Further, the internet has caused in the opinion of many a coarsening of the tone of discourse. The perceived distance and anonymity of the internet has led to an erosion of social courtesies. I also think there is an arms race of negativity on the internet – sarcasm, ridicule, and insults are met with greater sarcasm, ridicule, and insults, as a perceived survival strategy. It seems the internet has given the crassest of us the loudest voice, and as a result the overall tone has been dragged down.

All of these factors tend to blow up every now and then over specific people and/or issues, but they are always there in the background.

This was a bit of a rambling and self-indulgent post (i.e. a typical blog post), but I think the issues Massimo raises are important ones and I agree that as a community we need to keep the conversation going. There is more that unites us in world-view and our basic dedication to reality and reason than divides us over specific issues or opinions about strategies and goals.

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