My recent post “The War Over ‘Nice’” (describing the blogosphere’s reaction to Phil Plait’s “Don’t Be a Dick” speech) has topped out at more than 200 comments. That’s a lot by Skepticblog’s standards. In addition, many further responses have reached me through Twitter, blog posts, email, and direct conversation.
I’m not quite sure how to feel about all that. Certainly I expected some controversy. (After all, I was writing about a controversy.) But quite a few of the critical responses take up a theme that seems… well, kind of strange to me. Many readers appear to object (some strenuously) to the very ideas of discussing best practices, seeking evidence of efficacy for skeptical outreach, matching strategies to goals, or encouraging some methods over others. Some seem to express anger that a discussion of best practices would be attempted at all.
No Right or Wrong Way?
The milder forms of these objections run along these lines:
- “Everyone should do their own thing.”
- “Skepticism needs all kinds of approaches.”
- “There’s no right or wrong way to do skepticism.”
- “Why are we wasting time on these abstract meta-conversations?”
In a few cases, this laissez faire theme rings sort of hollow. (It seems to me that some who make this argument themselves promote certain approaches over others.) Let’s leave that aside.
More critical, in my opinion, is the implication that skeptical research and communication happens in an ethical vacuum. That just isn’t true. Indeed, it is dangerous for a field which promotes and attacks medical treatments, accuses people of crimes, opines about law enforcement practices, offers consumer advice, and undertakes educational projects to pretend that it is free from ethical implications — or obligations.
Before we talk about that, let’s first get this out of the way. No, there is no monolithic “one true way to do skepticism.” No, the skeptical world does not break down to nice skeptics who get everything right, and mean skeptics who get everything wrong. (I’m reminded of a quote: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”) No one has all the answers. Certainly I don’t, and neither does Phil Plait. Nor has anyone actually proposed a uniform, lockstep approach to skepticism. (No one has any ability to enforce such a thing, in any event.)
However, none of that implies that all approaches to skepticism are equally valid, useful, or good. As in other fields, various skeptical practices do more or less good, cause greater or lesser harm, or generate various combinations of both at the same time. For that reason, skeptics should strive to find ways to talk seriously about the practices and the ethics of our field. Skepticism has blossomed into something that touches a lot of lives — and yet it is an emerging field, only starting to come into its potential. We need to be able to talk about that potential, and about the pitfalls too.
Skeptics and parallel rationalist communities spend a lot of time on “inside baseball” — jargon-filled debates about technical matters that seem incomprehensible, dull, or ridiculous to outsiders. These shouldn’t be the main skeptical topics (shouldn’t we be busy solving mysteries and educating the public?) but some discussion on these matters is unavoidable and worthwhile. Many movement-oriented skeptics and organizations have things they hope to accomplish; with goals, there comes discussion of best practices.
Among these insider debates, none is more persistent than that of “tone.” Hardly a week goes by that some tone-related tempest doesn’t spill out of its teacup and across the blogosphere. And yet, these issues matter to many (including me). When people devote enormous energy to skepticism, dedicate careers to skeptical outreach, or generously commit volunteer hours or donations to skeptical projects and organizations, it’s natural that abstract internal debates about the soul of skepticism are perceived to have powerful importance.
The passions of many have been swept up in the ongoing scrap about Phil Plait’s “Don’t Be a Dick” speech at the James Randi Educational Foundation’s “Amazing Meeting 8″ conference in Las Vegas. The skeptical blogosphere began buzzing even as Plait delivered the speech, and hasn’t yet stopped. The debate has reached a new level of feverishness in recent days, after Plait posted the entire video of the speech online. (If you haven’t seen it, it’s a powerful speech which is well worth your time.)
The flood of reactions — many hundreds of lengthy comments, dozens of blog posts and a teeming ecosystem of competing tweets — seem to have broken down along two main axes of debate. One axis defends (or challenges) Plait’s factual assertion that civility tends to help skeptical communication, while incivility tends to hinder it. The other axis concerns moral values.
Talking Past Each Other
The empirical dispute about the effectiveness of civility has sometimes devolved to a clash of straw men. As PZ Myers responded,
It’s a little annoying. Everybody seems to imagine that if Granny says “Bless you!” after I sneeze, I punch her in the nose, and they’re all busy dichotomizing the skeptical community into the nice, helpful, sweet people who don’t rock the boat and the awful, horrible, bastards in hobnailed boots who stomp on small children in Sunday school.
I can relate. I’m similarly exasperated when it is suggested that “nice” skeptics are trying to enforce uniformity; or it is imagined that Phil’s speech was secretly “yet another attempt to erect a skepticism-free barrier around theistic beliefs”; or it is supposed that anyone wants to take anger and passion out of the skeptics toolbox; or, even, argued that “nice” skeptics want to “go with the flow, to pretend that a thousand issues, whether it’s homeopathy or religion or transcendental meditation or an absence of critical thinking or a lack of concern about our health, are OK because they make people happy.” Where does this stuff even come from?
All this noise conceals a non-trivial amount of consensus. In general, everyone actually agrees that passion, anger, comedy, and ridicule can be useful in the right context, when used carefully and well. Everyone agrees that face to face conversations are best conducted with kindness and respect. Everyone (PZ included) agrees that fact-based, collegial discourse is often-but-not-always the best outreach strategy. (Consider PZ’s stated position: “I think the best ideas involve a combination of willingness to listen and politely engage, and a forthright core of assertiveness and confrontation — tactical dickishness, if you want to call it that.” To me, this sounds surprisingly similar to Plait’s “Don’t Be a Dick” argument: “Anger is a very potent weapon, and we need that weapon, but we need to be excruciatingly careful how we use it.”)
In other places, the effectiveness debate has bogged down in red herrings. For example, Richard Dawkins complained that
Plait naively presumed, throughout his lecture, that the person we are ridiculing is the one we are trying to convert. …when I employ ridicule against the arguments of a young earth creationist, I am almost never trying to convert the YEC himself. … I am trying to influence all the third parties listening in, or reading my books. I am amazed at Plait’s naivety in overlooking that and treating it as obvious that our goal is to convert the target of our ridicule.
This is a serious misreading of Plait’s intent, and I think rather baffling. Phil Plait is an experienced public figure, a career science communicator. Of course he knows (as I know, and as Dawkins knows) that our largest and best opportunity for outreach is often the wider audience of third-party onlookers.
Indeed, the audience of onlookers are exactly where the empirical question matters most.
I’m no fan of Jenny McCarthy, especially given her anti-vaccination views. I think that most of her arguments are invalid; she insists on perpetuating long debunked myths about vaccines, and seems to refuse to look at the actual evidence regarding vaccines. For that she needs to be criticized as much as we, politely but strongly, can. Nevertheless, it troubles me to witness ad hominem attacks, and the use of logical fallacies against McCarthy. One such argument that seems to have gained a bit of popularity these days goes along these lines:
Jenny McCarthy speaks of dangerous “toxins” in vaccines, yet she gets Botox shots, which include botulinum, one of the most toxic substances around, right on her face.
Unfortunately, even the one who is recently threatening to become my favorite active skeptic around (James Randi of course is on a category of his own, I’m talking mere mortals here), the Bad Astronomer himself made a similar comment at his Bad Astronomy blog.
I see. So injecting kids with scientifically-proven medicine that can save their lives and the lives of countless others is bad because of a fantasy-driven belief that it causes autism, but injecting a lethal pathogen — in fact, the most lethal protein known — into your face to help ease the globally threatening scourge of crow’s feet is just fine and dandy.
I’ve also heard a similar comment being made in an episode of The Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast, fairly recently.
Now, as satisfying as taking shots to people we whole-heartedly disagree with may be, I fail to see what the above comment adds to the vaccine discourse. Jenny McCarthy is wrong because of what she’s choosing to consider evidence, and due to poor critical thinking about the issue at hand, not because of her personal, adult live-style choices. Think about it; it is a non-sequitur, it has nothing to do with the discussion at hand, and I’m not even sure what it is supposed to highlight about Jenny McCarthy herself.
If you are not convinced, let us do the usual experiment and replace the word “Botox/Toxin” with something else, smoking for example. Now let us assume for a second that teachers can smoke in the classrooms and McCarthy was advocating against smoke in the schools. Also assume she was a smoker herself and had said the following about cigarettes:
I love smoking, I absolutely love it,” she said. “I get it minimally, so I’m not a chain smoker. But I really do think it’s a savior, when I’m stressed and tired.
Now ask yourself: would her own personal love & consumption of tobacco, invalidate her arguments against smoking in schools? Of course not, and for the same reason her own personal use of Botox is not an argument against her anti-vaccine views. It is not related in any way; it is a non-sequitur and using it amounts to nothing more than an ad-hominem, or a poisoning-of-the-well, logical fallacy.
We skeptics take pride in our allegiance to logic and evidence; we are aware of our own shortcomings; we are aware that we are fallible and that we make mistakes. In my opinion the above comments about Jenny McCarthy are a mistake that we should own up to and make amends, and stop using it. If you really want to counter Jenny’s anti-vaccine views, choose one of the claims she makes, do some research, and write a nice blog entry showing where she goes wrong and what the evidence says, but do not resort to ad-hominem attacks. We are skeptics and we ought to be better than that.
This is a bit of a long post. As such, I’ve broken it up into sections, to help me corral my thoughts, and make it more likely people will actually read what I’ve written before leaving comments.
Yes, that’s a hint. I’ve spent quite some time wrestling with these issues the past two days, and I’m interested in rebuttals as well as supporting arguments. I urge people to comment, but please read what I’ve written first, and please keep it civil.
By now you’ve probably heard that the Pope is in trouble. A letter written and signed by him seems to indicate that he was complicit in, at the very least, holding up discussion on what to do with an Oakland priest who was a pedophile. That’s pretty awful, even more so when considering that it took him four years to get around to even writing this letter after he was informed of the trouble, and during that time the priest was still working with children. At worst, it looks very much like Ratzinger, at the time a Cardinal, may have actively stalled the Church’s actions against the priest.
Let me be as clear as I can here: if Pope Ratzinger in any way stalled or prevented an investigation, Church-based or otherwise, into any aspect of child molestation by priests, then he needs to be indicted and brought to trial; an international tribunal into all this is also necessary and should be demanded by every living human on the planet. Obviously, a very thorough and major investigation of the Catholic Church’s practices about this needs to be held. It is a rock solid fact that there are a lot of priests who have molested children, and it’s clear that the Church has engaged in diversionary tactics ever since this became public (like the abhorrent Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone who says homosexuality lies at the heart of this scandal).
The skeptic community has been up in arms about this, as one would expect, since organized religion is a major target of skeptical thinkers. There have been rumors and misinformation about all this, including a dumb article (one of Rupert Murdoch’s papers, natch) that said that Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins — both noted skeptics and atheists — were going to try to arrest the Pope if he visited England. This has been debunked by Dawkins himself.
But the idea of Dawkins swooping in to arrest the Pope got a lot of people fired up, notably in the skeptic community. A lot of folks have sounded off about what the skeptic community should do about this as individuals, as organized groups, and as a whole.
But the ideas being tossed around, to me, are a bit confused. The bottom line is, what role does the skeptic movement, such as it is, have in all this?
It depends on which part of this issue you mean. First there’s the Pope’s behavior. Then there’s the Church’s behavior, and then why the Church did the things it did. Finally, there’s the issue of the skeptics’ behavior.
Here are my thoughts.
1) The Pope
This is actually pretty cut and dried.
I agree in part with Rebecca Watson’s premise that the Pope needs to be called before justice. However, I do in fact care who does it and why; more on that below. But the important thing is that there is a fair trial and justice is served.
Basically, it seems that the Pope was putting the Church before the children, children who were being sexually molested. That is so abhorrent that words fail.
However, I don’t know if this is specifically a skeptical issue. It’s more a human issue, and a criminal issue. If the Pope had said that the Bible says it’s OK to molest children, then yeah, critical thinking and skepticism come into play. But if he was trying to protect the Church and was breaking laws (moral or civil) to do it, then see my comment above re: resignation and indictment. That’s something anyone should understand, whether or not they are a skeptic.
Skepticism deals with issues of the paranormal, issues with faith, issues where scientific evidence can be used to test a claim. In this case, I don’t see skeptics needing to be involved more than any other interest group.
2) The Church
We’re at it again. Skeptics fighting each other over whether or not a particular issue falls within the jurisdiction of skeptical inquiry, and precisely what it means to be a Skeptic, and whether others’ definitions of skepticism and actions based on those definitions “hurt the movement”.
Rather than go into all of the various factions in this battle, and continue to rehash the argument, I’d like to challenge the fundamental assumption behind all this bickering: The idea that a single Skeptical Movement actually exists.
It seems to me that what we have here, currently, is a worldwide community of self-identified skeptics, out of which movements of different sorts can crystalize and spread. Certain factions within the community seem to think that the next logical step is to create a single, unified Skepticism, encapsulating everyone who identifies as a skeptic, and expecting to be able to limit the scope of skeptical inquiry to what they deem appropriate.
This is inherently problematic, for several reasons; the most daunting of which is the fact that, by definition, skeptics tend to eschew authority. We like to figure things out for ourselves. Because of this, we are never going to come to the same conclusions about everything, especially matters like religion that can be fraught with personal experience and cultural baggage. Also, because of those different personal experiences, we all come to the table with different priorities and ideas on how to create the change we’d like to see in the world.
Another problem lies in controlling how the word “skeptic” itself is used. I posit that such control is impossible, given the fact that it is currently used by science advocates and woo peddlers alike. Even if one assumes there is such a thing as a monolithic Skeptical Movement, we still don’t own the trademark on the word, and the general public isn’t ever going to necessarily identify the word “skeptic” with our particular brand of scientific advocacy and anti woo activism.
These problems solve themselves when we stop trying to be something we’re not. Skepticism means something different to all of us. I think we need to stop being so hung up on labels and definitions and focus on what we’d like to accomplish. Multiple tactics are capable of accomplishing each goal. We may not always agree on how to achieve these things, but I think it’s unhelpful to bandy about the “so and so is hurting the movement” card.
The topic of skepticism and religion comes up on a regular basis within skeptical circles, and I find I have to define my position on a regular basis. Because I host a skeptical podcast and contribute to several skeptical blogs, it cannot be avoided. This week’s episode of the SGU featured Eugenie Scott as a guest rogue, and the question of skepticism and religion came up. And, as predictably as the dawn follows the night, the old debate sparked up again.
Genie takes a position very similar to my own – that science is agnostic toward untestable claims. Science follows methodological naturalism, and anything outside this realm is by necessity outside the realm of science. It’s not a choice so much as a philosophical/logical position. (I will call this the “agnostic” position for simplicity.)
However, I think many people are confused when we discuss this topic, especially since we often refer to “religion,” which can create the false impression that we think science cannot address any claims that falls under “religion” – it may, depending on what those claims are.
Science is a Process
I think the primary confusion stems from this – defining science vs religion as a set of beliefs vs a set of methods or processes. A commenter on the SGU forums represents this confusion well when they write:
“…what the hell kind of skeptic movement would give an approving nod to the theist saying ‘I’m a skeptic–I won’t believe in ghosts without good evidence, …unless they’re holy ghosts.”
His comment focuses entirely on the beliefs themselves, but the agnostic position is about method not beliefs. It is absolutely not about ghosts vs holy ghosts – it is about methodological naturalism (science) vs faith (not necessarily religion). Any belief which is structured in such a way that it is positioned outside the realm of methodological naturalism by definition cannot be examined by the methods of science. In short, this usually means that the beliefs cannot be empirically tested in any conceivable way. One can therefore not have scientific knowledge of such claims, and science can only be agnostic toward them. Any belief in untestable claims is therefore by definition faith.
The content of the beliefs, however, does not matter – it does not matter if they are part of a mainstream religion, a cult belief, a new age belief, or just a quirky personal belief. If someone believes in untestable ghosts, or ESP, or bigfoot, or whatever – they have positioned those claims outside the realm of science. This, of course, is Sagan’s invisible floating heatless dragon – creating a belief that cannot be tested.
It is important, in my opinion, for skeptics to be crystal clear on this point, because often the purveyors of pseudoscience will try to evade falsification or the negative effects of evidence on their claims by positioning the claim outside of science. At that point the skeptic must acknowledge that science can no longer demonstrate that the claim is likely to be false, but rather the claim is no longer scientific and can only be an article of faith. You can believe in the kind of bigfeet that are immune to all scientific investigation, but then you have to also stop claiming to have evidence for this bigfoot, or that you are doing science. Belief in bigfoot has become a tenet of your faith.
Via Joe Nickell we get, what to date, is the best, most concise definition of skepticism I have come accross.
That is, with Science as a basis, one approaches some question or mystery using past Knowledge and acquired Evidence to form Postulations (or hypotheses) which undergo Testing to rank them, with Impartiality (i.e., guarding against bias) and Criticism (the act of making judgments), finally conducting an Investigation (targeted research) that results in Solving (or determining the most likely explanation for) the mystery at hand, providing Mastery over it.
Pure deliciousness! I didn’t know one could wax poetic about the word skepticism but Joe just did! Smooooooth! Love it!
I am often asked if skeptics and skeptical organizations should undertake first-hand investigations. Of course, it depends upon what your goals are. But I think the question can be re-phrased to mean – is there any value or benefit to first hand investigation, and to this the answer is a definite “yes.”
But this is not to denigrate the value of skeptical review from the comfort of your computer chair. This kind of activity has sometimes been referred to as “armchair skepticism” – meant to be derogatory. While I see the value in going out into the field, armchair skepticism has a valuable and complementary role to play.
In fact, these two activities mirror what real scientists do, and are roughly analogous to peer-review vs experimental replication.
The community of scientists keep each other honest, and keep the process of science grinding forward, in various ways – only one of which is going into the lab to replicate a study or do follow up research. When a colleague publishes a paper, or presents a paper at a meeting, his colleagues provide analysis and criticism. Ideas are examined for logic, internal consistency, and plausibility. Other options, perhaps neglected by the researcher, are explored. And existing research, perhaps not taken into account by the researcher, is brought up and discussed.
This feedback is provided without ever doing any actual investigation. When skeptics perform the exact same service to paranormal or fringe claims, this should not be denigrated at all, but seen as providing in our area of expertise the same kind of analysis that scientists provide in theirs.
This “peer-review” takes several forms. First, the term “peer-review” is often used to refer to the formal process of reviewing a paper that has been submitted for publication. I am not referring to this formal peer-review (which I do not think has any analogy in skeptical activity), but rather to the informal peer-review that collectively refers to all the efforts of the scientific community to hammer errors and flaws out of scientific thinking.
A little while ago I wrote an entry as a reply to Jim Lippard’s entry on the scope of skepticism at The Lippard blog. Jim has updated his original entry to include a reply to my arguments, and he makes a few good corrections that I grant I should have spelled out on my own. For example he points out that:
Skepdude has taken issue with a couple of points above, and offers his contrary arguments at his blog. First, he says that skeptics need to defer to scientific consensus with the “possible exception” of cases where “the person is also an expert on said field.” I think that case is a definite, rather than a possible exception, but would go farther–it’s possible to be an expert (or even just a well-informed amateur) in a field that has direct bearing on premises or inferences used by experts in another field where one is not expert. That can give a foothold for challenging a consensus in a field where one is not expert. For example, philosophers, mathematicians, and statisticians can spot errors of conceptual confusion, fallacious reasoning, invalid inferences, mathematical errors, and misuse of statistics. It’s possible for an entire field to have an erroneous consensus, such as that rocks cannot fall from the sky or continents cannot move. I suspect an argument can be made that erroneous consensus is more likely to occur in a field with a high degree of specialization that doesn’t have good input from generalists and related fields.
All of which is right of course. The case of the expert skeptic is a definite case, I grant that. Furthermore, we can imagine cases when a quote-unquote non-expert may be able to spot errors in a field based on the non-expert’s own field of expertise, as the examples Jim gives show, even though I’d think that the cases when a whole field would be based on bad statistics or wrong math would be quite rare, but possible nevertheless. However, these are exceptions to the rule. As skeptics we deal with many varied issues, and one not being an expert in everything, must still, in my opinion, defer to the experts’ consensus, for that offers a higher probability of being the best interpretation of the evidence than a novice can ever hope to achieve. Jim is a bit weary of deferring to the experts however:
I also am uncomfortable with talk of “deference” to experts without scope or context, as it can be taken to imply the illegitimacy of questioning or demanding evidence and explanation in support of the consensus, which to my mind should always be legitimate.
The context is clear in my mind: whenever consensus exists. As I said previously, if the experts themselves are fighting it out we can’t take sides, but if scientific consensus exists I don’t see the point of demanding evidence, especially if we are not equipped to evaluate this evidence. Jim is right that we ought to be careful not to imply that this inquisitive attitude is to be suppressed, but I think that there is little point for a non-expert to question the experts’ consensus. We should have access to the science, but we also ought to be mindful of the argument from personal incredulity. I don’t think skeptics need to reinvent the wheel and start from scratch with every claim. We must accept some things and I can hardly find anything more trustworthy than scientific consensus. That said, I’m not implying that science or consensus can’t be wrong; let us be clear: my claim is that in matter of scientific consensus versus lone non-expert skeptic the odds are overwhelmingly in the favor of the consensus.
Next we move to our real point of contention the skepticism and atheism issue. Jim says:
There is most definitely a distinction between “skepticism implies atheism” and “proper application of skepticism leads to atheism.” The former is a logical claim that says atheism is derivable from skepticism, or that it’s necessarily the case that the use of skepticism (regardless of inputs?) yields atheism. The latter is a contingent claim that’s dependent upon the inputs and the result of the inquiry. If skepticism is defined as a method, the former claim would mean in essence that the game is rigged to produce a particular result for an existence claim necessarily, which would seem to me to be a serious flaw in the method, unless you thought that atheism was logically necessary. But I’m not aware of any atheists who hold that, and I know that Skepdude doesn’t, since he prefers to define atheism as mere lack of belief and has argued that there is no case to be made for positive atheism/strong atheism.
And this is where our agreement starts to fall apart. I tend to take a less philosophical look at the issue, and in the process it appears I’m making certain assumptions that Jim is not. Yes, skepticism is best understood as a method of inquiry, not a set of beliefs, nevertheless this method of inquiry must lead to certain conclusions, based on the same inputs. So, yes I am assuming that there are inputs, thus both statements are equivalent in my mind. As I have said before, a religious skeptic either isn’t applying skepticism properly or he/she has access to evidence/inputs that withstand skeptical inquiry and support the god hypothesis. As such I think atheism is derivable from skepticism, but not regardless of the inputs, which I refer to as evidence. The conclusion is flexible based on such inputs. My point is that a religious skeptic, is not applying skepticism properly. If they are, then they must have access to inputs I am not considering and that’s what I’m waiting to see. New inputs/evidence may lead to a new conclusion. However, so long as all we have is holy books, supposed miracles and pareidolia I maintain that the skeptical method applied to these inputs must lead one to lack of belief, thus atheism. I do not think that the “game is rigged” to produce atheism; I think that given the evidence presented so far, atheism is the unavoidable conclusion of the skeptical methodology.
I do not think that skepticism should be defined as a set of beliefs or outputs, because that suggest that these outputs can’t change, and that’s the opposite of what skepticism is all about. What I am saying though, is that at any point in time, the skeptical method should lead to a set of conclusions, based on the evidence presented. Such outputs however cannot be considered final since new evidence may change the conclusions all the while the methodology remains the same. So I agree with Jim that skepticism is best understood as a methodology, but that doesn’t mean that this methodology doesn’t demand a certain conclusion based on the inputs at a certain point in time. My thought is that given the god hypothesis, and given what we have been presented with as evidence so far, the skeptical methodology must lead one to reject the hypothesis, just like we reject homeopathy and astrology. Thus atheism. Thus skepticism must lead to atheism.
If we look at skepticism more broadly, where philosophical arguments more generally are acceptable as input or method, atheism (in the positive or strong form) then becomes a possible output. As an atheist, I think that use of the best available evidence and arguments and the best available methodology does lead to a conclusion of atheism (and 69.7% of philosophy faculty and Ph.D.s agree), that still doesn’t mean that everyone’s going to get there (as 69.3% of philosophy faculty and Ph.D.s specializing in philosophy of religion don’t) or that anyone who doesn’t has necessarily done anything irrational in the process, but for a different reason than in the prior case. That reason is that we don’t function by embodying this skeptical process, taking all of our input data, running it through the process, and believing only what comes out the other side. That’s not consistent with how we engage in initial learning or can practically proceed in our daily lives. Rather, we have a vast web of beliefs that we accumulate over our lifetimes, and selectively focus our attention and use skeptical processes on subsets of our beliefs. The practical demands of our daily lives, of our professions, of our social communities, and so forth place constraints on us (see my answers to questions in “Skepticism, belief revision, and science”). And even with unlimited resources, I think there are reasons that we wouldn’t want everyone to apply skeptical methods to everything they believed–there is value to false belief in generating new hypotheses, avoiding Type I errors, keeping true beliefs from becoming “dead dogma,” and so forth (which I discussed in my SkeptiCamp Phoenix presentation last year, “Positive side-effects of misinformation”).
And that seems to validate my point that the religious skeptics are not applying skepticism to their faith. Jim says “we don’t function by embodying this skeptical process, taking all of our input data, running it through the process, and believing only what comes out the other side. That’s not consistent with how we engage in initial learning or can practically proceed in our daily lives. Rather, we have a vast web of beliefs that we accumulate over our lifetimes, and selectively focus our attention and use skeptical processes on subsets of our beliefs” which is exactly what I am saying. We do not apply skepticism to all areas of our lives, and some skeptics do not apply skepticism to their faith, but I’m not claiming that they are. What I am saying is that if they did they’d have to get to atheism, but they choose not to,so they don’t have to make the choice, thus they are both religious and skeptic (except for religion that is). Not everyone does that, and most likely it is not a conscious effort either; I can see how people can sincerely think that religion and skepticism have nothing to do with each other; that god is beyond skepticism. I just happen not to agree with that view. The above paragraph also supports my point about deferring to expert consensus, precisely because “the practical demands of our daily lives, of our professions, of our social communities, and so forth place constraints on us (see my answers to questions in “Skepticism, belief revision, and science”).” Absolutely so, we cannot possibly be skeptical about everything, thus this supports my view that we must defer to experts’ consensus wherever such consensus exists.
Now to quickly touch on Jim’s reply to Michael DeMora, I just have this to say. I do not think that skepticism has anything to say about morality. Should one go with Kant or Mill? Should one be good for goodness sake or try to increase happiness for the largest number of people? Some a priory axioms are necessary in order to be able to derive one’s ethics, and I don’t think such things can be evaluated via the skeptical method. So no, skepticism doesn’t have anything to say about ethics; we skeptics must rely on other things in order to develop our sense of morality and that is perfectly fine, because skeptic is only part of what we are, only part of our personality.
Jim also says:
I’d rather see skeptical organizations share some basic epistemic and ethical values that are supportive of the use of science than a commitment to a set of beliefs about the outputs of skeptical methodology. The latter seems more likely to result in dogmatism.
I don’t know exactly which skeptical organizations Jim is referring to. If what he says is true, then why would the JREF keep testing dowsers after countless failed tests in the past? I do not believe that, at least the major, skeptical organizations are committed to a set of beliefs rather than the skeptical methodology. That seems like quite a big charge to make which needs to be supported by some evidence. Yes skeptics reject astrology, but the important thing is why we do so, not that we do so! It is precisely because it has failed the skeptical methodology over and over, and the moment it doesn’t fail it we’ll stand up and pay attention to it.