Nov 10 2016

One more round with Massimo on GMOs and Skepticism

platoLast week I wrote a response to a NYT article on GMOs. Massimo Pigliucci wrote a critical analysis of my response. I then responded to that piece.
Below is the final round of responses on this issue, one from Massimo and then a final response from me. In this round Massimo changes the focus from GMOs specifically to how the skeptical movement handles such issues.


My (further) response to Novella on GMOs

by Massimo Pigliucci

I promise, this is the last round concerning this particular discussion, at the least on my part. To recap: Danny Hakim, an investigative reporter for the New York Times, published a critical piece on certain aspects of GMO technology; my friend and fellow skeptic Steve Novella responded; I commented critically on Steve’s response; and he responded to my criticism. The current post, however, isn’t going to be yet another blow-by-blow affair, for a few reasons: i) it would be even longer than the last installment, which I fear would severely test readers’ patience; ii) there is a diminishing return to going deeper and deeper and insert more and more qualifications to any argument; and iii) it seems to me that most of what Steve and I wanted to say has been said already.

So let me try to zoom the discussion out a little, shifting attention to what I think are some background issues of which this exchange has been a particular instantiation.

To begin with, I’m afraid Steve and I are talking past each other. We both agree that issues such as GMOs are “complicated,” and we are both sufficiently experienced and nuanced thinkers to appreciate that. We both know that the industry has repeatedly forced the hand in economic and legislative terms (for instance by spending millions to lobby against regulation and labeling); we also both know that more or less naive environmentalists have repeatedly ignored the facts on the ground to pursue their own political and ideological agendas. And yet, somehow we disagree. On what exactly?

Ultimately, on the very role of skepticism and on what it means to be a “skeptic.” This goes back to Steve’s harsh reaction to John Hogan’s invited talk at the latest North East Conference on Science and Skepticism. Steve is one of the co-organizers, and I have participated a number of times. Indeed, I was the one who suggested inviting Hogan to begin with.

(I know, this may seem a distraction from the topic of the post, but bear with me for a little while longer.)

In a nutshell, Hogan has criticized the skeptic movement for focusing on easy targets and shying away from real and socially relevant controversies, as well as for being a rather uncritical supporter of science and especially of a small number of high-profile scientists and science popularizers. Steve took Horgan to task on the details, and he was right in doing so, but missed, I think, the big picture — which is that the skeptic movement does need more than a bit of self-reflection and soul-searching.

Something similar has unfolded in this latest round. While Steve certainly makes good points about Hakim’s original NYT article, as well as my own criticism of his rebuttal, I need to explain what brought the whole thing to my attention to begin with.

He opens his piece on Hakim in this way: “It is unfortunate that so many journalists begin with a narrative and then back fill the facts and points necessary to tell their narrative.” And ends it this way: “In my opinion Hakim’s article in the Times was a hack piece with a biased narrative that is nothing more than a rehash of tired anti-GMO tropes that have already been widely deconstructed.”

It is a very unfortunate approach, one that reveals Steve’s own biases and showcases his heavy-handed rhetorical style. The Hakim article is most definitely not a hack piece, no matter how much one may disagree with the details; and there is no evidence that Hakim “buys” into any pre-determined narrative. He is an experienced investigative journalist, working for the premiere newspaper in the world. I think it is reasonable to assume that he knows how to do his job. Constructive criticism is not the sort of thing that begins with poisoning the well (“It is unfortunate that so many journalists…”) and ends with an ad hominem (“a hack piece with a biased narrative”).

One thing that doesn’t surface in Steve’s response is a fear that he brought up to me in direct correspondence (I cannot quote his email directly for privacy reasons, but I don’t think he will deny this, he’s an honest writer): you see, articles like the one in the New York Times give ammunitions to the irrational side of the debate. To substantiate his fear, Steve sent me the link to this article in Mother Jones, which sure enough does build on Hakim’s NYT piece and runs with it.

So yes, such fears are perfectly reasonable, and all too often come true. But wait a minute, I thought that as skeptics we were after the truth, not pushing a particular political or ideological position, however well-intentioned it may be. Was I mistaken?

Let me give you another example, concerning my own writings and how they have been and continue to be misused. I am one of the main promoters of what is referred to as the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, a new version of the “standard model” in evolutionary theory. In doing so, I have commented on rather unorthodox ideas in evolutionary biology, such as epigenetic inheritance, niche construction, and so-called facilitated variation (a mechanism that makes natural selection’s jobs in generating complex structures much easier). Well, what do you know, the Discovery Institute — the creationist think tank based in Seattle — has had a field day with my writings, which they took (predictably, and mistakenly) to be points in their favor. (Here is just one example, from a few days ago, building on my recent critique of Andreas Wagner’s biological Platonism.) So be it. I do have a duty to write clearly and as precisely as possible. But I do not control the misinformation, willful or not, that others spread by making ill-use of what I write.

That should go for Steve and other skeptics too. It shouldn’t matter if an article or book can be misused by “the other side.” What matters is whether that article or book is accurate or not. If it isn’t, let’s correct it. But we shouldn’t help ourselves to rhetorical smears in order to circle whatever wagons we think we have a duty to defend.

An additional issue here is presented by the political positions of the people involved in the debate. Steve makes a point of not revealing publicly what his ideological leanings are, and I both understand and respect that. But of course that doesn’t make him immune from bias, it only hides from public view a potential source of bias. I make no beef in letting it known that I am a progressive liberal, what in Europe is known as a social democrat. Of course that biases my view of certain issues, for instance I tend to be instinctively skeptical of anything any big corporation says. This, however, doesn’t make what I say immediately wrong. Just like it didn’t make Pen Gillette’s and Michael Shermer’s original denial of climate change, probably fueled by their libertarianism, inherently wrong (they were plainly and simply wrong). Not only “bias” is inevitable, as much recent work in social psychology has shown, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing either.

Let me explain. In the early part of the 20th century philosophers of science were looking for ways to explain why science is an objective enterprise. Think the logical positivists, or Karl Popper. Then came the so-called “historicist” turn, with Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, and philosophers finally realized that science is not, in fact, intrinsically objective at all. (Many scientists haven’t matured to that point yet.) Does that mean that science is, then, just another social construction? That knowledge and truth are inevitably relative to one’s tribe and worldview? No, and the best answer to this challenge is that of so-called “perspectivism,” articulated for instance by Ronald Giere. The idea is that science advances in a spectacular, if imperfect, fashion, not because individual scientists are somehow less biased or more objective than anyone else, but because there is a healthy confrontation of ideas advanced by people with a variety of perspectives, backgrounds and, yes, “biases” (i.e., preferences, values, personal experiences, etc.).

So I would actually urge my fellow skeptics to declare their biases, rather than keeping them close to their chest, precisely in order to advance a frank discussion about the issues.

Finally, Steve not surprisingly rejects my suggestion that there is a degree of groupthink within the skeptic community. And yet he has been to plenty of skeptic conferences where certain positions seem to be more or less sacred, being pro-GMOs is just one of them. Witness, for instance, the incredibly harsh and childish reaction the above mentioned talk by John Horgan at the latest NECSS got from the MC, simply because John had dared criticize Skepticism(TM). So much for open inquiry and critical discourse. Or witness the worshiping of a number of scientists or science popularizers whom I’ve repeatedly taken to task for their willful ignorance of philosophy (that includes Lawrence Krauss, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye). I’ve actually seen people walking away from my talks at NECSS on the ground that “philosophy is useless anyway” (apparently forgetting that I’m also a scientist, oh well).

What does much of the above have to do with GMOs? As I said, both Steve and I have explained our positions on that particular issue, but I was drawn to his post by his opening and closing comments, which I saw as symptomatic of the sort of broader problems with the skeptic community that I am most concerned with. Steve is by far one of the least offenders here, but the fact that even his normally level-headed demeanor gave way to that outburst made me worry.

Of course, all of the above matters much less now that the United States has elected a fascist to the Presidency and given absolute control of power to a bunch of regressive sexists and homophobes. (Sorry, I just had to get that off my chest.) But that, obviously, is an entirely different story.


My Response

I want to first thank Massimo for this polite and thoughtful exchange. It is refreshing to have a polite discussion with someone with whom I basically agree but where we have a difference of perspective. My overall opinion is that Massimo and I are not far off in our opinions. Our differences are nuanced and a subtle matter of style and context. They are still meaningful and worth exploring, but we should keep them in perspective.

I often find this is the case. It is possible to agree with someone on a basic premise but to disagree with them only on the magnitude of the effect. For example, there are undeniable problems with the institutions of science. I don’t think those problems are fatal, they are improving, and we need to keep them improving. Others will use the same facts, however, to argue that science is broken and cannot be trusted.

The same is frequently true of corporations. I agree that they are primarily concerned with their own profits, they frequently do ethically questionable things, they make a deliberately biased case for their own products and services, and they sometime abuse their power (their wealth and resources) to bully people without such resources.

But does this mean that regulations are completely ineffective, that corporate funded science can be ignored, that government is entirely in the pocket of industry, and that they are basically evil entities that do no good? I can agree with someone on objective facts but still disagree with them on the big picture conclusion.

Massimo’s main concern with my original article about the NYT piece was how I bookended it:

He opens his piece on Hakim in this way: “It is unfortunate that so many journalists begin with a narrative and then back fill the facts and points necessary to tell their narrative.” And ends it this way: “In my opinion Hakim’s article in the Times was a hack piece with a biased narrative that is nothing more than a rehash of tired anti-GMO tropes that have already been widely deconstructed.”

He thought this was heavy handed and poisoned the well, reflecting my personal bias on this issue. I agree that these are subjective, just as the examples I gave above are subjective. We might agree on the facts but disagree if the term “hack” is fair. I suspect that this is therefore unresolvable.

I typically try to frame blog posts that are about a specific issue by putting them into some broader context. In this case I thought that Hakim’s piece was an example of journalists following a narrative, rather than telling it like it is. The result was a piece that took at face value anti-GMO tropes that have already been thoroughly criticized. Readers can decide for themselves if I was fair.

Turning to the Skeptical Movement

But this is the main thesis of Massimo’s current response:

In a nutshell, Hogan has criticized the skeptic movement for focusing on easy targets and shying away from real and socially relevant controversies, as well as for being a rather uncritical supporter of science and especially of a small number of high-profile scientists and science popularizers. Steve took Horgan to task on the details, and he was right in doing so, but missed, I think, the big picture — which is that the skeptic movement does need more than a bit of self-reflection and soul-searching.

This is another example of the “Is science broken,” or “Are corporations evil,” debate. We can agree on the facts but disagree on the implications.

Let me start by saying that I don’t think I missed the big picture. I agree that the skeptical movement needs self-reflection. In fact, I have argued frequently that, of all intellectual movements, one that is based on critical analysis needs to be obsessively self-critical.

My disagreement with Horgan was not on the mere fact that he was being critical of the skeptical movement, it was on the details of his criticism, which Massimo agrees I was right to. In the end Horgan criticized a massive straw man and essentially argued that we are doing it wrong because we are not addressing the issues he thinks we should address (which were mainly derived from his own personal political ideology.)

As with the NYT piece on GMOs, if you are going to enter a mature argument over a complex issue, you better have done your homework. Horgan did not, and as a result his criticisms were ultimately way off the mark and self-serving.

Massimo then makes another specific point, that we as skeptics should seek the truth, whatever that is, even if it is abused by some to push an anti-science agenda. Of course I agree with this.

I know it’s not fair to say, “Read my thousands of article to substantiate my point,” but I think regular readers will recognize that this is the approach I take. Our points and positions all have to be valid in-and-of themselves. We have to acknowledge facts and valid arguments, even those that may be inconvenient for our position.

I think Massimo is misunderstanding my position with respect to Hakim’s article, so let me clarify. My premise was that framing a discussion of GMOs as if they are one monolithic thing is an inherently biased frame, and specifically an anti-GMO frame. Hakim used examples of specific genetically modified organisms but framed the discussion as “the more basic problem” with “genetic modification.”

I think I have well established that this is a flawed way to approach the issue. I was simply then trying to further establish that this approach is part of anti-GMO talking points. That is not why it’s wrong, but that is why it is done.

Massimo uses as an example creationists abusing legitimate debate within evolutionary biology (including his own work) as talking points against evolution. I have specifically written about this phenomenon – science deniers use this as a general strategy, confusing debate over details as if they call into question more basic established facts.

But that is not analogous to what I was saying. The analogy would hold if Hakim made a valid point that was being abused. He didn’t. He made an invalid point that is already part of anti-GMO propaganda (I was simply pointing out the latter).

A better analogy would be if a journalist wrote an article about the “missing link” and then creationists played off this silly trope for another round of evolution bashing.

Ideology and Bias

Massimo turns next to an interesting issue:

Steve makes a point of not revealing publicly what his ideological leanings are, and I both understand and respect that. But of course that doesn’t make him immune from bias, it only hides from public view a potential source of bias.

This is a really complex issue with which I continue to struggle, and I welcome the opportunity to clarify my current position. I agree that everyone, including me, has biases. I try to be as transparent as I can about what I perceive as my own biases, and I try to be as aware of my own biases as possible.

With regard to political ideology and science communication, I currently have two policies. First, I do not advocate for my own politics at the same time I am advocating for science and skepticism. Some skeptical writers choose to do both, and that is their choice (as long as they are transparent about it). We have openly liberal and openly libertarian writers in our community who make no bones about promoting their political ideology along with science and critical thinking. More power to them.

I don’t do that. I think it compromises my ability to be an impartial (and perceived as impartial) broker of critical analysis of scientific issues.

In terms of revealing my own political ideology, it is true that I don’t publicly label myself. There are two good reasons for this. The first is that I think ideological labels have too much baggage. They are likely to prejudice readers and get in the way of my science communication.

But there is actually (and here I am going to reveal something about my politics) a deeper reason I don’t label myself – there is no political label with which I identify. I do not identify with any political party, and I don’t think that any political label describes my political positions with any accuracy.

This is partly because I try to be as non-ideological, evidence based, and fair as possible on each specific issue. As a result my individual political opinions tend to range all over the ideological map.

Instead of applying an inaccurate and loaded ideological label to myself, I have opted for revealing any relevant biases I might have on a case-by-base basis. This includes all biases, not just political. I probably don’t do this as much as I could, but that is my policy.

Skeptics and Groupthink

This is definitely a “science is broken” or “corporations are evil” issue. Even when I agree with someone on specific examples, I can disagree with them on the overall interpretations.

Let me start by saying, of course skeptics, to a degree, are tribal and are prone to the psychology of groups. We are people. We can get defensive, we can close ranks, and we can idolize our standard bearers.

The real discussion is – what is the magnitude of these phenomena within skepticism. My purely subjective sense (there is no objective data of which I am aware) is that they are overall pretty low. I think this is because skeptics tend to be individualistic and contrarian, but also because the whole idea of skepticism is following a valid process.

I think skeptics tend to agree on the easy things, precisely because they are easy. I think Massimo is unfair to characterize such positions as “sacred.” They are not; they are just obvious.

He specifically uses being pro-GMO as an example, but that is a terrible example. My own experience is quite different – that is one of a few scientific issues on which skeptics disagree. I may have a different experience than Massimo in that I have almost 200k listeners of my podcast who will send me e-mails when they disagree with me, and I get more pushback on GMOs than most other issues. I have also publicly lectured to skeptics on GMOs and received more pushback than on most other issues I discuss.

I do think this is shifting, however. As skeptics have been dissecting the anti-GMO propaganda I think we have built a very strong case against it and revealed it to be on the level of anti-vaccine or global warming denial propaganda. The tide is shifting quickly within the skeptical movement, due to evidence and arguments. It is also shifting more slowly in the general population.

I also think that Massimo is being unfair in his overall characterization of our response to criticism. We pushed back against Horgan not because he dared to criticize the skeptical movement, but because the quality of his criticism was horrible.

I will agree that some skeptics engage in hero worship of science celebrities, like the ones Massimo named. But yet again – what is the magnitude of this effect? This probably gets filed under confirmation bias, Massimo and I are looking at the same data but coming to different conclusions. Try posting a meme on Facebook with one of these people, and you will not see universal hero worship.

In fact, I would argue that skeptics love tearing down their idols, pedantically pointing out when they are wrong or make a mistake. Bill Nye has come under extensive criticism for some of his positions. Tyson has been criticized for stepping out of his area of expertise. Michio Kaku has been eviscerated among skeptics for over hyping pop ideas. Don’t even get me started on Krauss.

These people all have their fanboys, to be sure. But they equally have their critics. Skeptics are a tough crowd. Again, I probably have a different overall experience than Massimo.


This has been a fun exchange, partly because I probably agree with Massimo more than any other individual in the skeptical movement. Our common ground dwarfs our nuanced disagreements.

When you drill down to these nuances, even subtle effects can be manifest. Massimo and I occupy different positions in the skeptical movement. We have different careers, and therefore are subject to differing effects of confirmation bias.

Here we are mostly clarifying subtleties of our positions, or discussing differences in subjective perceptions and judgments. It is important to recognize then that is the case, and not pretend you have objective truth on your side.

This is the final installment on this specific exchange, but I am sure the conversation will continue in the comments.


Note: In reprinting Massimo’s article I had to strip out all the formatting. I put back all the critical links but did not have time to put them all back, so see Massimo’s original piece for the full linked version.

44 responses so far

44 thoughts on “One more round with Massimo on GMOs and Skepticism”

  1. jblumenfeld says:

    Well, if you want to see skeptical groupthink in action, try disagreeing with a prominent skeptic on their own website. PZ Meyers, for example, has very rabid fans who will defend him intensely even if he himself is willing to engage. And, , I have been rather harshly treated here for the occasional disagreement with or criticism of my old friend Steve, who I daresay I have known longer than most of his defenders, and with whom I have enjoyed much agreement and the occasional polite (I hope) and nuanced (I’m sure) argument over the years. Again, it’s not Steve (or PZ) I’m talking about – it’s their enthusiastic fans, who sometimes lose sight of the fact that a good old fashioned back and forth helps refine and a hone a good thesis.

  2. pdeboer says:

    Massimo is out to lunch on the whole reveal your biases. If a writer must reveal their party leanings when a “political” issue comes up, they would have to talk about politics constantly because many topics of importance has been politicized wildly.

    Talking about GMOs? Well first off are you conservative or liberal?

    Talking about climate change? conservative or liberal?

    Talking about stem cells, vaccines, space program, sexual identity…

  3. jblumenfeld says:

    I both agree and disagree with pdeboer on this.

    On the one hand, I always tell people to leave qualifiers like ‘I think’ and ‘in my opinion’ out of their essay writing – of course you think that, I say. It’s written write there.

    On the other hand, a little bit of self-examination of biases can be helpful for the reader. Says the left-leaning long-time centrist, one time flirter with Libertarianism and current Social Democrat and aging lefty. Did that help?

  4. jblumenfeld says:

    Man, this comment section needs an edit button. I am just ham-handed up there. “Written write there”? Yeah, I meant that as a play on words. Totally.

  5. pdeboer says:


    I agree that I appreciate when biases are examined, because it give me a chance to question my source, but it can look like the writer is absolving himself of bias and continues unbiased.

    The reader ready to believe, will, because the writer shed their biases. The reader ready to reject, will, because the writer revealed their biases.

    I suspect the net effect would strengthen the echo chamber.

    This comes from a very non-political Canadian who has voted conservative and liberal in the past and is horrified by the American political climate.

  6. Jon – while I agree what you are describing happens, I think this is a more complex phenomenon than your conclusion. There is a bit of self-selection going on. People at that blog aggregate there because they already agree with the basic approach. They are then reinforced in that perspective. A culture develops of standards of behavior, and yes, an echochamber also develops. Outsiders are too quickly dismissed as “trolls.”

    But then again, some people expressing unpopular opinions are actually wrong, or their arguments are flawed, or they are legitimately trolls.

    It’s complicated, which is ripe ground for confirmation bias.

    All I can do is try to discuss these issues explicitly, which I have done, and try to foster a culture of openness in the comments to my own blog, which I have done. Human psychology and social media forces are strong, however.

  7. jefscott says:

    Perhaps it comes down to emphasize of different kinds of facts, and which of those are interesting to each person.

    I think many of us, like Steve, want to know the facts and arguments above all, and try to generate a narrative which is simplified if possible, but still reflects a deeper, complex reality. From there we can talk about deviations and specific cases.

    Massimo seems more interested in “soul-searching” and the “lack of skepticism” among the skeptic community as a general thesis. This attracts him to the exceptions to a narrative because they often seem to “prove” there hasn’t been enough soul-searching.

    I don’t know if there’s been enough, how we would measure it, or if it’s a useful thing to spend time on. Maybe, maybe not.

    Even if we assume he’s right, one issue is that focusing on the exceptions to a narrative requires special attention to detail because the exceptions are usually the most technical. You need to have some expertise so as not to lose the narrative…a thing many journalists like Hakim don’t have with respect to food science and agriculture.

    So one can miss or mislead about the narrative, and also just be flat out wrong about it. This is the problem with focusing on exceptional data points. Whether he’s a skeptical soul searcher or not (a different issue), this is Hakim’s biggest problem. His articled wasn’t a nuanced one about when GMOs are, or are not helpful. It was not titled “GMO’s work better in some countries than others”. It was “Doubts about the promise of GMOs”. It was about highly specific contexts using highly specific criteria, and presented without many other data that tell a different narrative. Again, this wouldn’t be a problem if his article was “Differential outcomes of GMOs in different countries by certain criteria.”

    By analogy take antibiotics for Tuberculosis. Without a doubt the overall narrative is that these have been incredibly useful tools in medicine. But they are not magic. Unlike GMO’s, they have real health risks. They also don’t work all the time. We could even tell a story about how some countries are able to tackle Tuberculosis without a deep reliance on them–with better sanitation, hygiene, housing conditions, etc. These are important points epidemiologists spend lots of time on. Clearly the usefulness of the drugs will exist on a spectrum dictated by conditions, ranging from not useful (drug resistance), to somewhat useful (1st world), to incredibly useful (3rd world).

    Now, I could write a factual article titled “Doubts about the promise of Tb drugs” and tell the reader about a few contexts they are not useful, based on very selective criteria, without referencing the larger context. I could tell a story about how Tb drugs haven’t solved all the problems the drug companies promised. But if I tell this story without at least giving the larger narrative, which contains the majority of the data, I haven’t been an honest story teller. I haven’t helped the reader understand the simplified or the complexified world of antibiotics and tuberculosis in any deep sense. I’ve missed the narrative myself and/ or mislead the reader about it.

    I think criticism on such a misleading piece would be justified. But Massimo’s bias towards noticing a lack of “soul searching” among skeptics gets him to think that pushack against such an article – which might be narrowly accurate with respect to some data points – just proves his thesis: “See…it’s more complicated than even skeptics know! They are just as biased as everyone else and need more soul searching!”

    Maybe. But for many of us this just seems an uninteresting focus, especially when it comes at the expense of getting the narrative accurate and reflective of reality. Are there skeptics who aren’t “skeptical enough” and take GMO’s as a universal good without ever thinking of the exceptions? Sure, but so what? The rate will always be greater than zero for any trait in a large group of people. There are some skeptics who probably think anti-Tb drugs are good all the time, no matter what, and aren’t aware of the exceptions. We shouldn’t let this fact distract us from the more interesting story, which is to try and have, at minimum, a basic understanding of the overall narrative.

  8. jblumenfeld says:

    Steve – as so often happens with you, I don’t feel like we’re actually disagreeing with each other. I’m not sure what part of the conclusion you take exception to. Seems to me that I said “sometimes” fans behave protectively and you agreed that an echochamber can develop. Of course I agree that unpopular opinions can also be wrong – and even popular and well-reasoned arguments can be wrong, too.

    What I’m saying is that I’ve been attacked here just for disagreeing with you, and on one memorable occasion I backed off and publicly changed my mind and I was ridiculed for that! Again, not by you, but by another commenter.

    You’ve never been anything but unfailingly polite and always engage arguments on the merits, and I’m not saying otherwise. As for me, I think my non-troll bona fides are well established.

    Last point – the fact that the group is self-selected is not at odds with my conclusion at all. In fact, I think it goes a long way to explain what can happen. And last, last point – the comment section here is pretty good and for the most part does NOT actually suffer from groupthink or knee-jerk anti-trolling behavior. I’m talking about a small number of interactions – in no way the majority.

  9. Evhan Sours says:

    I suspect there’s some degree of selection bias in Dr. Pigliucci’s analysis of the state of the skeptical movement. He often takes it upon himself (not in a bad way!) to criticize prominent skeptical figures. The bias I propose would take form as the people who agree or are ambivalent are less likely to respond than the “fanboys”, who would vehemently disagree. This may also apply to views and conclusions as well. This can apply just as easily to the response to the criticism of anti-gmo rhetoric, but if it in fact applies to both, that kind of proves that groupthink isn’t the cause.

    I also wonder if some skeptics are extra sensitive to internal criticism because there’s so much vehement external criticism. When one has to justify their existence as a movement or ideology on a regular basis, they could understandably have little patience with their comrades who seem to say similar things. That doesn’t make it right, even if true, but the perspective is important to understand.

  10. Jon – OK. I was reacting to your premise: “If you want to see groupthink in action.” So you offered your aneddote as an example of groupthink. Without the specific example I cannot judge.

    My point is, be wary of interpreting these anecdotes narrowly. Maybe that guy is just an asshole. Maybe you touched on a sensitive subject.

    Even wtih PZs blog, I don’t think you have isolated groupthink as a variable.

    And yet again, we can agree in principle (groupthink happens, even in skeptical circles) but disagree on the magnitude and implications. I don’t think it’s a big deal. But I acknowledge that is my subjective perception.

  11. weegreenblobbie says:

    Um, I don’t call PZ Meyers a skeptics, he’s an atheist. Disclaimer: I’ve been influenced by Jamy Ian Swiss’s Skeptic’s Tent talks. Jamy does a good job defining these boundaries.

  12. BillyJoe7 says:


    At the risk of being labelled an instantiation of the sort of person you are describing here…

    “I have been rather harshly treated here for the occasional disagreement with or criticism of my old friend Steve”

    Have you ever considered that you may have been just plain wrong, and that others were merely pointing this out rather than unthinkingly supporting your old friend Steve?
    Do you have a specific reference to such alleged “harsh” behaviour?
    Could you perhaps have been a little thin-skinned as well as wrong?

    “What I’m saying is that I’ve been attacked here just for disagreeing with you…”

    How can you possibly know that?
    And what is it that causes you to characterise this as an attack?
    Just because you disagree with Steve “on occasion” while presumably agreeing with him most of the time, doesn’t mean that you are automatically correct when you occasionally disagree, and that the only reason someone could “harshly” “attack” you is to automatically agree with and defend everything Steve says.

    “and on one memorable occasion I backed off and publicly changed my mind and I was ridiculed for that!”

    Whether that was justified would depend on the circumstances, and whether “ridicule” was the correct description. I don’t suppose you have a link?

  13. flies says:

    @BillyJoe7 @jblumenfeld

    When you disagree with a blogger in his comment section, you can expect that most of the other commenters will agree with the blogger merely because they are regulars to the blog (other things being equal). Comment sections can be forbidding to dissent when many people jump on a particular dissenter even if those folks are not being particularly obstreperous. The more active the comment section, the larger the pool of commenters, and the higher the likelihood that there will be jerks whose behavior you remember more vividly. So even without actual groupthink, you can get behavior that resembles groupthink very closely.

    That said, the culture among commenters at different blogs vary widely, with some being more forbidding than others. The comment section at Pharyngula is not my favorite place; PZ’s bombastic style is mirrored in his comment section, but rhetorical flamethrowers work much better in essay format than in dialogue.

  14. hardnose says:

    “… there is no political label with which I identify. I do not identify with any political party, and I don’t think that any political label describes my political positions with any accuracy.

    This is partly because I try to be as non-ideological, evidence based, and fair as possible on each specific issue. As a result my individual political opinions tend to range all over the ideological map.”

    I disagree with Steve Novella on a lot of things, but I have to say I really like this statement. I feel exactly the same way about political labels.

    It is frustrating to see political labels being thrown around as if they mean something. The two candidates were loved or despised more because of their political labels than because of their ideas or personalities.

  15. MosBen says:

    The point that revealing my political leanings can cause some readers/listeners to reject my arguments out of hand is quite reasonable, if unfortunate. That said, I think the “no label can hold me!” argument is a bit of a dodge. Very few people have a truly random scatterplot of political opinions. The constellation of values that an individual holds tends more often than not to lead to related political positions. Many people have a few heresies, of course. I identify by and large as liberal, but like Steve I’m not as intensely skeptical of corporations as some members of the liberal community. But even with a few strongly held positions that defy normal categorization the vast majority of people largely fit somewhere along the political spectrum.

    Who knows, maybe Steve is the rare bird whose beliefs are truly so all over the map that they defy categorization, I’m just skeptical of that. But as I said, I think that withholding that information so people of opposing political beliefs view his arguments on their merits is reasonable.

  16. ccbowers says:

    “That said, I think the ‘no label can hold me!’ argument is a bit of a dodge. Very few people have a truly random scatterplot of political opinions. The constellation of values that an individual holds tends more often than not to lead to related political positions.”

    MosBen. Here us my perspective on the issue, and why I disagree with Massimo on the recently fashionable ‘transparency is the new objectivity.’ In fact, I think that approach is often a bit of a dodge. Declaring your biases or tendencies is fine, but too often it is used to justify embracing bias itself, in a sometimes almost post modernist way, it can have a negative impact on forwarding intellectually productive arguments. I don’t necessarily think this is true in Massimo’s case (at least not usually), but being transparent about your biases is not and end to itself, but should be used to help address those biases.

    The fact that biases are flaws does not go away just because you admit it. As far as shying away from labels as Steve does, I do the same. That does not mean that people are random scatterplots of biases. Sure biases cluster, but the labels we use are not just clusters of values and biases based upon intellectual connections, but all carry with them political, social, and historical baggage, which will be misleading for many people. For some people, that baggage may be fine (viewed as context) and not misleading from their perspective.

    Also, if you have been in the skeptical community for some time and are motivated to do so, many people try to systematically dismantle biases and ideologies that they identify in themselves. I have certainly put forth this effort for many years, and the main ideology I intellectually identify with is making sure I am not skewing my perceptions with ideology. I think this is central to skepticism. The difference to me is making bottom-up assessments as much as possible and avoiding top-down ones driven by ideology.

    When you do this over many years, the usual labels don’t really capture what is taking place anymore, because the labels imply a top-down effect. I will say that my politics are mostly left of center, but I am not attached to the idea that they are. I actually don’t care about that at all. It is just that in the US, right of center has gone off the deep end on many topics, and the equivalent on the left is fringe/less mainstream. But at the same time, I don’t embrace liberal/progressive etc because when people here those types of labels they think their work is done and extrapolate all sorts of things that aren’t true. If someone wants to know what I think of a topic, I’m usually willing to have that conversation.

  17. BillyJoe7 says:

    I agree with the attitudes expressed by Steve and ccbowers.

    I would go as far as to say that, if you align yourself with a political ideology, you are necessarily biased whether or not you recognise that fact, and that, if you do recognise that fact, you necessarily have not acted to counteract your bias, otherwise you would not still be aligned with that political ideology.

    In the political arena, a sceptic is someone who has recognized his ideology and who has acted to correct the biases that that ideology implies, and who has thereby moved beyond ideology to come to conclusions based on the facts and evidence on a case by case basis – as Steve says, from the ground up rather than from the top down.

    As far as Trump is concerned: He won the election. Get over it. Clinton and Obama have. Trump’s campaign was full of rhetoric, but his acceptance speech was inclusive and conciliatory. He ain’t going to destroy Obamacare, and he ain’t going to build that wall. Let’s see what he does do before taking up arms.

  18. BillyJoe7 says:

    Hmmm…I conflated two threads in the above comment!

  19. ccbowers says:

    “He ain’t going to destroy Obamacare, and he ain’t going to build that wall. Let’s see what he does do before taking up arms.”

    Depends what you mean by “Obamacare.” Most people don’t really know what that means, and even people who claim to hate Obamacare would be unhappy if its provisions were all rescinded. The provisions that are ‘controversial’ that could be removed are the individual mandate, the requirements for businesses of a 50 full time employees to offer healthcare, and the requirement that birth control is covered at no direct cost to the patient.

    I am curious on how he is going to backtrack from the wall nonsense. It was so much apart of his campaign. One pivot is that now Mexico is going to “reimburse” us for a wall. This will be an odd topic for the next election in 4 years. Plus all the other broken promises.

  20. BillyJoe7 says:


    Maybe you’re right. I’m not as tuned into American politics as Australian politics. Nevertheless, let’s see what he actually does before protesting. I’m particularly interested in health, “women’s issues”, migration, climate change, and support for science in general (ie listening to what the scientists say and taking that into account in making political decisions). I don’t anyone is really expecting a wall to be built. It was a “give me” for Trump. It got him votes and he’s not expected to pay. If I am wrong about this time will tell.

  21. BillyJoe7 says:

    Regarding Massimo Pigliucci.

    I followed him for a time but, in the end, I found him a little too annoying. My impression is that he thinks philosophy should take centre stage to science, but that isn’t ever going to happen. Whilst there exists an extensive literature regarding such trivial and useless questions as OIC (ought implies can), philosophy is always going to be off centre. Science may be convoluted and complicated, full of dead ends, mistakes, false turns, biases, and cultural influences, and the occasional deceit, and it might be full of uncertainty and doubt, but it actually gets somewhere. Science works. Philosophy seems relevant only when it assists the process of science. But perhaps that’s just my bias showing.

  22. ccbowers says:

    BJ7- I think some people find him annoying because he has spent recent years criticizing within skepticism. In the late 1990s and 2000s he did a lot of debates with creationists including Duane Gish, Kent Hovind, Williams Lane Craig, Robert Allen, etc. I know that engaging in this way is controversial, but he did a good of a job as any in doing this. I suspect that engaging creationists in this way becomes less and less interesting as the same bad arguments get made over and over and little progress ever occurs. He transitioned from an academic career in science to one in philosphy and began engaging skeptics in argument more, or at least it seems.

    I can’t say I blame him in a sense. I would much rather discuss/debate with Steve or many of the regular commenters on here who are actually knowledgeable and intellectually honest about the topics they discuss, rather than the know-nothing ideologues we also get in these comments and express their opinions without regard to facts. Not that they shouldn’t be heard at all, but it gets old pretty quickly and I am more likely to move one, once there arguments are exposed for what they are.

    As far as philosophy and science relationship, I don’t think you have his perspective quite right, but I don’t think I will attempt to speak for the guy. I also don’t quite agree completely with your take on the relative roles of philosophy and science. I think you are underestimating the contributions of philosophy in areas that science doesn’t quite reach (in that it gives us ‘facts’ or provides information, but not a conclusion. In these situations, logic, reason, and argument do not cease to be important.

  23. rasmur says:

    I enjoy reading what Massimo Pigliucci has to say, and I hope he will continue to engage with us and not abandon the skeptical movement.

  24. BillyJoe7 says:

    BJ: “Philosophy seems relevant only when it assists the process of science. But perhaps that’s just my bias showing”

    ccbowers: “As far as philosophy and science relationship, I don’t think you have his perspective quite right, but I don’t think I will attempt to speak for the guy”

    It seems Massimo Pigliucci has a free online book in which he defends philosophy and outlines progress made in philosophy. It came out in April this year:

    Might be worth a read.

  25. ccbowers says:

    BJ7 – Wow. I missed that. Thanks

  26. BillyJoe7 says:

    No worries. But I hope you don’t up cursing me 😉

  27. MosBen says:


    First, I don’t really have a strong position on the question of whether to reveal your personal politics as a science communicator or just as a member of an online community. I think that both sides of the argument have good arguments, and I’m happy to leave it up to the individual to decide what’s right for them given their goals.

    And you make an interesting point that arriving at your beliefs from application of skeptical principles is different from arriving at them in some other way. That said, I’m still not sure that I buy the idea that the result is that you are unclassifiable. As you point out, despite your methods, the result is that you are somewhat left of center.

    My disagreement isn’t with Steve’s choice not to disclose his political leanings. As you said, they can mislead people or allow them to dismiss your arguments unfairly. My very narrow point was with Steve’s assertion that no labels capture his positions. While I’m sure that he has a few beliefs that don’t jibe with a particular general area on the traditional political spectrum, I’m just skeptical that none of the general labels that we use fit his beliefs, even loosely. But, of course, I could be wrong.

  28. MosBen – You’re wrong. On some issues I am left of center, on others I am pretty centrist, and on still others I am right of center. I am not a classic liberal or conservative or libertarian, although there are aspects of all of these in individual positions that I hold. Nor am I a strict centrist as I am very far from center on some positions.

    I also think this is not as unusual as you think. If you take major policy areas – social, economic, foreign policy, and environment – even if you treated each area as a binary left or right (which is an oversimplification), that creates many more permutations than there are political labels.

    In the US the two political parties used to be more diverse in terms of these permutations, but they have become more purist in the last couple decades. Foreign policy remains the area where there is a lot of diversity in both parties, but otherwise they have closed ranks.

    In any case, there is no label that does any justice to my permutation of positions, even if you break it down by area rather than individual policies. This is not unusual at all for my part of the country, making me more typical than you might think in some respects. The same is true of many of my friends, although they do tend to accept labels more than me. I am studiously non-ideological.

  29. ccbowers says:


    There are a few aspects (implicit assumptions) to your comments that is leading to the apparent disagreement. One is that there is a center to various topics (therefore there is a 2 ended spectrum), that these various spectrums fit into interrelated categories that correspond well to labels, and most problematically you imply that the “center” is the moderate and reasonable position, as indicated by:

    “As you point out, despite your methods, the result is that you are somewhat left of center.”

    Now, notice that you are implying that if I were properly applying skepticism, that I would end up in the center. But the center is an arbitrary position that is dependent on the time and history of the people being discussed. 200 years ago, a moderate position might have been that certain minority groups may be human, but inferior to other groups (the extremes of that spectrum might be that all ethnic groups are equal in terms of their value in humanity, and the other extreme might be that certain groups are subhuman)

    I assume that you would now distance yourself from that conclusion, I don’t know, but that is the implication. That is the ‘argument to moderation.’ I say I am left of center on many issues, but I tend not to make such a determination like that. I am merely extrapolating from the current rhetoric in national politics and online discourse, which has been pretty heavy on social issues in recent years. This is an area in which I think the ‘right’ in the US is often just wrong. Perhaps they have a role as a ‘check’ on radical social change, but I think I am being generous with that. But on many issues, the extreme left is wrong, because in the extremes, ideology tends to trump good argument.

    In my head, I tend to argue from multiple angles and settle on the best argument. I always argue against my position in my head and when discussing with others, when dealing with complex political topics. This, versus starting with an ideology and tossing arguments against it. You can get pretty far with the latter approach, but too often people settle into the ideology and don’t challenge it regularly because they identify with it and it brings them intellectual comfort.

  30. Lane Simonian says:

    Skepticism is not the same thing as scientism. A good scientist would conclude from uncertain evidence that more evidence is required to either prove or disprove a result or an indication of a result. A skeptic will look at evidence that opposes his or her preconceived notion as cherry picking, trash, pseudoscience, etc. And yet skeptics often look at similar quality evidence that supports their point of view as air tight. Or to put it another way, they want absolute evidence to refute their beliefs, but will often accept much less than that for what supports their beliefs. The old saw is very close to the truth: modern skeptics believe what they do not want to doubt, and doubt what they do not want to believe.

  31. BillyJoe7 says:


    You seem to be describing a “climate sceptic”.
    Please be advised that this is actually an abuse of the term “sceptic”.

  32. Lane – you are making sweeping generalizations about a large group of people who are intellectually very diverse. This is pointless, unless you are just trying to support your own preferred narrative.

  33. Kabbor says:

    I just want to point out that the spectrum of what is considered right and left wing varies both over time and with locality. Americans are farther to the right than most western nations such that a centrist would be considered right wing by some standards.

    These things are far from static and so I agree that labels (and party affiliation) are only a convenient shorthand if you happen to align with the current array of positions that is labeled as one thing or the other.

  34. Lane Simonian says:

    BillyJoe, I was not referring to climatic skeptics (if this is what you were referring to). The evidence that the global climate is warming and that greenhouse gases are contributing to climate change is quite strong.

    Steven, I recognize some diversity even in the comments on this blog. For one thing, the quality of the arguments and the degree of nuance varies from commentator to commentator. On the other hand, it is a mistake to think that skeptics are the only group of people who don’t have their preferred narratives. They can see the blind spots in their opponents’ positions but rarely in their own.

  35. BillyJoe7 says:


    You missed the point, the point being that you have confused “scepticism” with those who call themselves “sceptics”. For example, those who call themselves “climate sceptics” are not actually sceptics.

  36. MosBen says:

    Steven, I certainly accept that I may be wrong about your specific case, but I do disagree that most people cannot broadly be categorized. In the same way that many people call themselves independents, but actually align both in voting patterns and beliefs fairly strongly with one side or the other, I’m very skeptical that there are a large number of people whose beliefs across a wide swath of issues are so randomized that they can’t even roughly be fit into some kind of political frame, even a less traditional label like “neocon” or “New/DNC Democrat”, etc. I get the distinct impression that we may be talking past each other because we may be using a different metric for how good a fit a label needs to be to be usable. I tend to think that a label is fairly applied if it fits loosely. There may be some heterodoxies, but taken as a whole, a person’s beliefs usually can broadly be described by some label in use in our political discussions. I think that there are good reasons not to express your beliefs, as you describe, but from my perspective the instance of people truly defying categorization is relatively rare.

    Of course, I don’t know whether I would agree or disagree that your beliefs match to what I would describe as uncategorizable, but I certainly don’t deny that it is possible. And I certainly don’t begrudge you keeping your political beliefs private.

    ccbowers, I must have been unclear in my last post. I apologize. I didn’t mean to imply that being towards the center of the political spectrum is the moderate or reasonable position. My point was that you specifically said that your beliefs are left of center for US politics, despite lots of caveats about the left/right dichotomy being flawed. I certainly agree that it is a bit flawed, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a measure without use. I am personally left of center as well, and while I do have beliefs that don’t perfectly map with other people who describe themselves as left of center, when applied loosely it’s a label that roughly approximates my political stances.

    I don’t think that labels like ‘left’, ‘right’, or ‘center’ necessarily imply correctness, but if the purpose of a label is to be a useful approximation for some measure, then the only instance in which no political labels apply, even roughly, is when the deviations are so significant that no category fits better than any other. I agree that the definitions of these labels change over time, and calling myself a left of center in the United States in 2016, while in the Federation in 2365 I may be a reactionary. But the fact that the labels change over time does not mean that in a specific time and place they don’t apply and are not at least somewhat useful.

    When Pandora came out there were a certain group of people that reacted against the idea that their tastes could be categorized or predicted. But while there might be people whose taste in music truly follows no pattern, for most people there are patterns in their musical preferences. Few people are so truly random that they completely defy categorization.

  37. MosBen says:

    TLDR version: I think that the political labels which exist in our political culture can be pretty specific and pretty broad, and there are relatively few people whose beliefs cross across lines to frequently that they are literally uncategorizable in a loose sense. Part of the reason for this is that whenever there’s a population that differs from the existing categorizations significantly but which have similarities among each other, for instance libertarians, a label usually arises to fill the need. If application of skepticism and science reliably results in certain political beliefs, then it’s likely that either there IS a label which applies broadly to those beliefs, or the group of people ascribing to those beliefs is significant enough that a label will/should be created to describe that group. If, on the other hand, political beliefs are also heavily influenced by core values, then there’s an increased likelihood that this population fits, broadly speaking, into an existing label.

  38. Mos – do you see how you are moving the goalpost. Sure, if you make more and more specific labels to capture finer and finer variations of political views, you could theoretically come up with a label to fit any set of beliefs. That is completely beside the point.

    My position is that none of the existing political labels really capture my positions. They are more likely to mislead you about what I think than to inform you.

    If you want to invent a label for someone who is non-ideological and evidence-based, that’s fine, but that doesn’t really address my point. Until such a label exists and carries with it useful information about what someone thinks on various issues, it’s pointless.

    I could just as easily say, I follow the science. I am pro-science. There, you have labeled my position. That’s not really a political or ideological label, however, and that’s my point.

  39. MosBen says:

    Steve, I don’t actually think that I am moving the goal posts. You assert that no labels apply to your political beliefs, but you don’t define what labels you are referring to. We have in our political discourse some fairly broad categories as well as more and more specific labels to capture groups who have specific varieties of beliefs. If your point is that “liberal” and “conservative” do not capture your beliefs, that’s one thing, but it’s not what you said, even in this most recent post. You said that “none of the existing political labels” capture your positions. We don’t know your beliefs because you choose not to reveal them, but we also don’t know what labels you are discarding because you also don’t define those. We don’t know how strictly you require a label to fit before you feel like it “really captures [your] positions”.

    As I said, I don’t begrudge keeping your political positions private because of the impact that disclosure could have on your ability to communicate science. I’m just dubious of assertions that no labels can apply to a given set of political opinions for the same reason that I’m dubious when people describe themselves as “Independent”. People don’t like feeling like they’re categorizable, and describe themselves as independent, but in practice they’re anything but.

  40. MosBen says:

    I think that cbowers made a good point in his original response to me that though he lines up politically with left-of-center political positions, he’s not ideologically tied to those positions. And that may be a reasonable distinction to make; that though in practice a person’s positions may line up with a particular political group they don’t personally feel an association with that group because they derive their positions from different sources. I think that as skeptics we should be hesitant to give ourselves too much credit for forming positions based purely on science, as often there are still values playing a role. Climate science, after all, doesn’t necessarily imply a position on how we should act unless you infer some values about harm to developing countries, impact on wildlife, etc. Still, regardless of how I derive my political positions, in practice I end up on the left side of the political spectrum in the US in 2016. Despite the caveats, I am categorizable.

  41. ccbowers says:

    I was going to repond to your previous comments, but your last comment anticipated what I was going to say. Much of my (and I suspect Steve’s) hesitance to accept ideological labels is that they imply an ideological commitment. Many people who identify as liberal and conservative, for example, value that label as saying something about who they are. As a result they filter what they observe in the world through that ideological lense.

    It is the distinction between believing X because you looked at the evidence and X appears to be the most likely to be correct, and believing X because you are a conservative and X fits best with conservative ideas. (or liberal or libertarian etc)

    Of course most people do a mixture of the above, but the more you distance yourself intellectually and emotionally from ideology, the more problematic those labels become.

    If you want an example, look at Ivan’s (the commenter here) responses to many of Steve’s posts. Because Ivan is very committed to his view of conservativism, he frames many of Steve’s statements as ‘liberal’ and incorrectly extrapolates from them. He does this repeatedly, and misrepresents Steve’s arguments all the time.

  42. ccbowers says:

    … You’ll find some examples in the ‘Trump and Climate’ post.

  43. MosBen says:

    I suspect that I just have a more relaxed relationship with application of labels. For me, it doesn’t matter that a devout Catholic prefers a swath of political positions due to application of the tenants of their faith while I may prefer a more or less similar swath of political positions arrived at from a different methodology. At the end of the day, it’s the similarity in the positions that create the group and thus the application of the label.

    But you and Steve both raise good and interesting points, and I appreciate the discussion. And I know that I keep repeating it, but it’s precisely because of reactions like Ivan’s that I think keeping your political positions private as someone that does non-political science communication.

  44. MosBen says:

    “is reasonable” is how that last post should have ended.

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