Jan 31 2013

PZ Replies

I thank PZ for taking the time to respond to my prior post. I think this is a very useful conversation, and our readers seem to agree. To be clear (sorry for getting all “kumbaya”) my goal here is largely to explain my approach to my own activism, but also to clear the air between different identifiable segments of the skeptical movement so that we can move forward in the most productive way. There are inevitable philosophical differences that arise in any intellectual movement – what is not inevitable is how we deal with them.

My hope is that as a rationalist movement we can respond – rationally.

The discussion has been focusing on how different subcultures within the skeptical movement view other subcultures in the movement. This has not been stated overtly, but that is exactly what I think this is about. There are different conflicting narratives, and it will probably be useful to try to understand those narratives. They include logical and empirical arguments that can be objectively resolved, but also subjectivity for which we can only achieve tolerance.

Here, I think, is the core of PZ’s narrative:

I have to say, though, that what his post actually does is confirm my claim: that a lot of skeptics strain to delimit the scope of skepticism in ways that are not rational, but are entirely political and emotional.

He continues:

No. He objects to the fact that I pointed out that organized skepticism isn’t true to that principle, but has domains where it actively asserts that certain subjects are NOT-true-skepticism, and that many prominent activists are complicit in belittling certain topics…and I have to include Steven Novella among them. There is a skeptical dogma.

Our common ground – common narrative, if you will – is that intellectually skepticism includes the entire list from my previous post: critical thinking, pseudoscience, free inquiry, and all that.

Where we differ is on the attitude and behavior of the skeptical movement, or organized skepticism. Here I think we can agree partly on the facts, but not the narrative.

We seem to disagree on the underlying philosophy. I have essentially taken the position that scientific skepticism (like science) requires methodological naturalism, while atheism is a belief in philosophical naturalism.These are compatible but distinct positions. Methodological naturalism is more narrow. It is my understanding that this is the consensus of opinion among philosophers (feel free to correct me if you think I’m wrong).

For the purpose of convenience, and wanting to avoid getting bogged down in semantics, I am going to define (for this post) three terms: scientific skepticism deals with empirical claims and the promotion of science, atheism focuses on opposing religion and faith, and rationalism seeks to apply reason and skepticism to all areas. This does not capture all the complexity of our movement, but I will use it, again, for convenience.

It is my contention that, while most (certainly not all) individuals in the skeptical movement are rationalists, we have tended to self-organize along subspecialties. This was not a conscious top-down process, as far as I can tell, but an organic bottom-up self-organization.

The most obvious cultural division within the broader rationalist community is that between activist skeptics and activist atheists (there are also many subdivisions, but this is the big one, in my opinion). These two subcultures have developed their own perspective and narrative on the rationalist movement, and it is those narratives that are now clashing. (They have been as long as I have been in the skeptical movement.)

Interestingly, the community has a complex approach to this division. CFI is a rationalist organization, that includes humanist and skeptical sub-organizations. The JREF is a skeptical organization. Skeptic Society is mostly skeptical but I think blurs the lines a bit more than JREF. Freethought Blogs are rationalist with an emphasis on atheism. There are also several atheist organizations.

I am going to try to summarize what I understand as the atheist narrative (again – please correct me if you think this is unfair or inaccurate). This is based on hundreds of conversations I have had with atheists and humanists (and again, to obsessively clarify, I am an atheist and humanist – I am talking about those who choose to be activists in these areas), and on many blog posts, articles, and comments.

What I hear is that there is no meaningful philosophical distinction between skepticism and atheism, therefore skeptics are atheists who are cowards, who want to avoid controversy, are intellectually dishonest, or who are accommodationists. As PZ wrote – for reasons that are, “not rational, but are entirely political and emotional.”

From the comments to his recent post:

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

“Carving out a specific exclusion for atheism from the skeptical movement is just cowardice.”

“If that’s the case, well then, fuck skepticism. It isn’t relevant or useful anymore. It has abstracted itself into the realm of a private academic circle-jerk, and we can stop arguing, because just maybe atheists, who apparently have more rational minds, can just leave the party voluntarily.”

“So long story short, organized skepticism prides itself on being intellectually lazy.”

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

Now let me try to explain the skeptical narrative. (This is my personal narrative, I don’t pretend that it is universal, but it is in my extensive experience quite widespread.) Rationalism and atheism are great, but we choose to focus our activist efforts on scientific skepticism because we are more passionate about science and it fits our background.

Further, there is a legitimate philosophical distinction to be made, one that is broadly recognized and eminently practical. As evidence for this, Judge Jones in the Kitzmiller v Dover case cited the fact that science is based on methodological naturalism as a reason to reject intelligent design in the science classroom.

There is also nothing wrong with a vast and sprawling intellectual movement like rationalism having subgroups that specialize. This is good strategy, as long as the subgroups get along. In fact, within scientific skepticism there is growing subspecialization – a sign of growth and maturity, in my opinion.

Finally, there are strategic arguments involved. Conferences, for example, have to market themselves and one key to marketing is to have a niche and an identifiable image. NECSS, for example, is a conference on science and skepticism. We are not trying to define skepticism, or tell anyone else what to do. We are simply marketing our own conference in the way that we want. There are plenty of atheist conferences, and you don’t hear me complaining about that. They have their target audience and editorial policy and we have ours. It’s all good.

Talking about strategy is always thorny, and it could be the focus of a separate post. Let me just say that I don’t think there is any definitive data out there to indicate which strategies are the best, so we are all going on style, anecdotes, and rationalization. There are some psychological studies we can cite for support, but these do not really settle opinions about which strategies should be preferred.

However, I feel justified in persisting in my personal strategic approach to activism because what evidence I do have suggests that it is working. I get regular e-mails telling me how my activism has converted someone from their religious belief, even fundamentalism. I contend that even if your goal is to promote atheism, my approach is effective.

PZ complains that I am suffering from “privilege” because I am not subjected, as he is, to angry e-mails every time he is invited to a skeptical conference. I am not going to defend or account for such e-mails – I can only answer for myself. But I don’t think such feedback makes his point – it is evidence of the different subcultures, not of anyone trying to constrain his activism. Further, it is no different than my being called a coward and intellectually dishonest (and I am not just talking about the above comments – this has happened regularly over the last 17 years). So much for privilege.

Let me address some further specific points. With regard to sexism PZ writes:

“And here, somehow, Novella has managed to rationalize those haters, by claiming political neutrality as a guiding principle of skepticism. This isn’t true; there’s no such thing as political neutrality.”

I take great exception to the accusation that I have rationalized misogyny or hatred in any way. I clarified this in the comments to my previous post, and let me do so again. Skepticism is based upon values, and as an activist movement is inherently political. The point of my previous post is that we should understand and celebrate our common ground – those values and political goals that we share. Truth is a value, promoting science and free inquiry is political. We should avoid, however, letting political differences that are tangential to skepticism divide us (and I outlined what I think they are).

Feminism and racism are two obvious issues to discuss, and are a good test for the application of our various approaches. As I said in the last post (a point I will need to discuss further below) wherever there are empirical claims, scientific skepticism can address those claims and that information can inform political and moral reasoning. So sure, there are empirical claims relevant to feminism and racism.

Further, there are social issues that are relevant to any organization, movement, or institution – whether or not those movements are explicitly about those social issues. Sexism and racism are demonstrably morally wrong. As a movement we should oppose them, and we should absolutely police ourselves and have policies that address racism and sexism. This should be true of any organization – even if they are about bird watching.

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

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

Some of his commenters make egregious misrepresentations of my position, so much so that I am forced to question if they even read my post or just PZ’s response:

The claim that the age of the universe is 6,000 years is untestable because a supernatural being could have created the universe 6,000 years ago, making it look exactly like a 14 billion year old universe, and hence the question is not open to scientific inquiry, and is off limits.

Science is about empirical claims. The age of the universe is an empirical claim that science can investigate. It is therefore not off limits to science, no matter what your justification. However, saying the universe was created 6,000 years ago to look exactly as if the universe were 13.7 billion years old is an unfalsifiable claim. Science cannot say that it is wrong – only that it is “not even wrong”- it is outside of science. This ejects it from the science classroom, from scientific consideration and investigation, from anything that matters.

Another comment:

The very idea that skepticism is non-political is ridiculous. There are many, many political beliefs that are eminently testable and require serious debunking.

Right – and testable claims are legitimate targets for scientific skepticism. On the SGU we talked about gun control – about the evidence for gun control. We criticized the Texas Republican platform for opposing teaching kids critical thinking (I believe they got a Jackass of the Year nomination). Seriously – you’re not paying attention.

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

There are also frequent comments by people complaining – “but wait a minute, religions make empirical claims all the time, so why won’t you take them on?” Because we do, and you are not paying attention.

Where we are careful is to tackle empirical claims with empirical methods, philosophical claims with philosophical methods, and logical flaws with logical analysis. We don’t confuse these areas (saying science can prove an unfalsifiable claim is not true, does confuse them).

We are also careful not to step over the line into value judgements that are tangential to science, skepticism, and free inquiry. This is tricky – I am not pretending it’s clean. But we try. The purpose is not to artificially limit the scope of the skeptical movement by excluding opinions that are ideological or simply not a necessary part of promoting skepticism. We are also careful when dealing with empirical claims that involve a highly ideological area, because personal biases tend to be overwhelming. We don’t avoid these topics – we’re just careful to focus on empirical claims.

Moving Forward

I think it would be helpful to critically examine our own narratives about what the rationalist, skeptical, and atheists movements are, what different groups believe, and what motivates them. I see many straw men that persist despite the evidence and despite numerous attempts at correction.

I am open to having my own narratives revised if I got anything wrong or if I am not being fair to anyone’s position.

I think it would be helpful to avoid dismissive terms based upon such straw men, like “bigfoot skeptic,” “fatheist,” “militant atheist,” “feminazi” and overuse of the term “accommodationist.” These are intellectually lazy labels that serve nothing.

I personally advocate tolerance to our differences, while celebrating our intellectual common ground. I think we should give each other space to define our own activism. Yes, that means that certain outlets (like specific conferences) are going to cater to a subset of the rationalist movement. That is not meant to say that any other fact is not legitimate or valued. It is simply a choice of focus (philosophical, personal, and strategic). There are plenty of outlets to go around, so I don’t really see what the complaining is about.

Finally, issues like feminism and racism cut across these boundaries. At this point it should go without saying that our entire movement should eschew sexism and racism. We should marshal all appropriate rationalist arguments against them, and we should not tolerate sexism and racism in our ranks (just like we should not tolerate fraud, criminality, and abuse). Whether or not you think these issues are skeptical – they are morally important for any movement.

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