Skepfeeds-The Best Skeptical blogs of the day

Further Thoughts on the Ethics of Skepticism

Posted in SkepticBlog by Skepdude on September 10, 2010

READ THE FULL ENTRY AT SKEPTICBLOG

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.

Professional Ethics

READ THE FULL ENTRY AT SKEPTICBLOG

The War Over “Nice”

Posted in SkepticBlog by Skepdude on August 27, 2010

READ THE FULL ENTRY AT SKEPTICBLOG

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.

READ THE FULL ENTRY AT SKEPTICBLOG

Skeptics gone wild

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on August 23, 2010

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.

The Skeptic Delusion?

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on August 20, 2010

As skeptics, we take pride in our allegiance to evidence; we take pride in applying the skeptical method to various claims in order to figure out if there is any truth behind the claim or not. “Be skeptical; look at the evidence, defer to scientific consensus; look it up for yourself” are usual phrases that we throw around. Yet, the question must be asked: how realistic are those tenets? How honest is it to claim that, for every position we take in our skeptical activities, we’ve done the research? That we’ve found out what the scientific consensus is? That we’ve looked it up, ourselves?

This latest rambling is inspired thanks to a tweet by Daniel Loxton who pointed to a comment on, what else, a commentary on Phil Plait’s now famous, DBaD (a.k.a. Don’t be a Dick) TAM8 speech. Here is the comment by Red Pill Junkie, in its entirety:

Another thing I liked about Phil’s speech was in his telling the anecdote of how he chose to argue with a young Creationist; when she wanted to discuss things about dinosaurs and evolution, he quickly admitted he is not a Biologist, and hence wasn’t qualified enough to give her the answers to such questions.

That is an important message. Obviously a person with such a passion for science like Phil is perfectly entitled to have a layman’s opinion on fields that stand aside of his particular expertise; people should have many fields of interest, not just the stuff you studied as an undergraduate —Hell, that’s why you’re here reading this, ain’t it? :)

But one of the main problems with skeptics as a “movement”, is that the moment they acquire the term —and the methods of acquiring vary greatly from person to person, although more fall into simply “not believing in God, aliens and fairies” and be (very) vocal about it— they tend to erect themselves as experts in *EVERYTHING*; they feel entitled to give an “expert” skeptic opinion about everything they come across —UFOs, ghosts, Atlantis, reincarnation, 9/11, etc etc.

But this is not just their fault, since the Larry Kings of the media world always love to use the age-old formula of inviting an expert in some paranormal field —someone like Stan Friedman, who has spent decades researching the UFO phenomenon— and then inviting another “expert”: an official skeptic. The results are often …disastrous.

So yeah: part of not-being a dick is admitting you don’t have a diploma in Everything-ology ;)

It is important to pay special attention to that last sentence. No one is an expert in Everything-ology. It is simply impossible for any skeptic to have the time, or resources, to do an exhaustive search into every claim that we as skeptics express opinions on. Think about this for a moment: how readily do skeptical activists jump on any claim involving ghosts hauntings? How, quickly do we pull out the staple explanations to explain away that haunted house? Yet, how many of us have gone on just one haunted house investigation? The answer, I suspect, will be that not many of us, myself included, have taken part in such an activity.

Let’s look at something like global warming. How many of us have read at least a substantial portion of the science about global warming? Again, I suspect the answer will be that only a small fraction of us have. When we go around proclaiming that the scientific consensus supports the view, are we really basing that on our survey of the science, or are we basing that on what we heard some acclaimed skeptic say in her podcast, or write in his blog? Honestly, how many of us have read the IPCC synthesis report, all 52 pages of it?

Now, I’m not writing all this to belittle grassroots skeptics; I am myself one. The point is that, as the comment above says, we have to be very careful to first have it clear in our head, and also to make it clear to whoever we’re talking to, that in most cases what we’re expressing is an opinion, and that most of us are not an authority in any sense of the word about most things we’re expressing such opinions about.  We have to know our limitations, and knowing our limitations doesn’t necessarily mean that we ought not to form or express opinions, but it does mean that we have to be more flexible than the believer in the opinions we hold. We have to know that we are fallible, that we are most likely forming an opinion based on incomplete information; that we are utilizing an argument from authority when we’re repeating arguments heard on a podcast, or read on a blog without taking the time to “check it out for ourselves”.

Checking it out for oneself is impossible to apply to everything, so we have to rely on others; we have to rely on Joe Nickell’s expertise when it comes to investigating haunted houses; we have to rely on the IPCCs expertise when it comes to summarizing climate science, but we do so with a grain of salt, beacause we did not do the skeptical thing and check these things out for ourselves. And that grain of salt must grow, the further away the commenter, on whose words we’re basing our opinion, moves from his/her area of expertise. That is why the grain of salt would be small when relying on the IPCC report, bigger when relying on Phil Plait’s comments on evolution, and even bigger if you’re relying on my comments about vaccines at my spanking new, and wonderfully informative vaccination blog, Vaccine Central.

The Skeptic’s Calling

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on April 22, 2010

Tagged with: ,

The Pope, the Church, and skepticism

Posted in Bad Astronomy by Skepdude on April 14, 2010

READ THE FULL ENTRY AT BAD ASTRONOMY

Introduction

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.

So.

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

READ THE FULL ENTRY AT BAD ASTRONOMY

Tagged with: , ,

What Skeptical Movement?

Posted in Skepchick by Skepdude on April 13, 2010

READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY AT SKEPCHICK.ORG

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.

READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY AT SKEPCHICK.ORG

Tagged with: ,

Skepticism and Religion – Again

Posted in Neurologica by Skepdude on April 5, 2010

READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY AT NEUROLOGICA

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.

READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY AT NEUROLOGICA

Skepticism – What’s it mean?

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on March 29, 2010

Via Joe Nickell we get, what to date, is the best, most concise definition of skepticism I have come accross.

SKEPTICISM:

Science

Knowledge

Evidence

Postulations

Testing

Impartiality

Criticism

Investigation

Solving

Mastery

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!

Tagged with: , ,

The skeptic’s dilemma: to be or not to be…

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on March 2, 2010

An atheist that is. Welcome to my whateverth stab at the good old skepticism vs. atheism issue. Actually, this entry is not meant to be a long rehashing of older arguments (which I have laid out here, here, here, here, here and here), but a comment on Daniel Loxton’s latest entry, on Skepticblog, that touches on this subject. Daniel recently published a book, called Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be, a children’s evolution book that has been getting great reviews in the skeptic/scientific circles, except for a few paragraphs that is. Some big names, PZ Myers for example, have taken exception at Daniel’s take on the old religion vs. science debate.

What about religion?

This is a question people often ask when wondering about evolution. They want to connect the discoveries of science to their religious understanding.

Unfortunately, this isn’t something science can help with. Individual scientists may have personal opinions about religious matters, but science as a whole has nothing to say about religion.

Science is our most reliable method for sorting out how the natural world functions, but it can’t tell us what those discoveries mean in a spiritual sense. Your family, friends and community leaders are the best people to ask about religious questions.

We’ll leave to scientists to debate between themselves if science has anything to say about religion. I do not intend to get involved in that discussion as I am not a scientist by training. Some of these critiquers (I know the correct word is critics ok, just having some fun, dont’ bother me about this in the comments) seem to be making an unwarranted assumption though about Daniel’s reasons for including the paragraphs above in his book. Here is what a reviewer said:

Loxton’s inadequate reply was unavoidable, given the unwritten social rule that religion has a special role in our society. That we are not allowed to criticise religion. Any properly adequate reply would have lead to people being “offended” and campaigns to exclude the book for schools.

Now how someone can proclaim to know that Loxton really means to come down hard on religion, but doesn’t because of these “unwritten social rule” escapes me. I for one do not profess to have the ability to read minds. From what I’ve read of Daniel’s writings before, this seems to be a very consistent position that he has always maintained, not a new one he adopted for the book release. It appears to me that when Daniel says that science has nothing to say about religion, he really means it. I have nothing to say to that. It also appears to me that when he says skepticism is a “different project than atheism” he also means it. I have had plenty to say about that in the past, and my position has not changed.

I do agree with Daniel, that much of what religion peddles out cannot be evaluated scientifically. The afterlife promises for example are so set up as to be unassailable from a scientific point of view; but on the other hand we have done experiments to test NDEs, and those haven’t turned out so good for the religious claims. Furthermore, I don’t think we can hide behind the “we can’t evaluate something therefore we don’t have to worry about it” argument. A staple of critical thought is the idea of the burden of proof. The burden of proof falls upon those that make the claims. Religion claims Gods exist; they have provided not one shred of acceptable evidence to support this claim.

Let us be clear, the god hypothesis is an existence claim; it is different from moral/ethical claims. An existence claim that is so set up as to make it impossible for us to test said existence, might as well not been made at all. Also I want to point out the real beef I have here: an existence claim has to be supported by evidence, that we all agree on. However, if someone says “X exists” but I can never provide you with evidence that X exists, that should make the claim rubbish in the eyes of the skeptic, not a claim to be placed in a special bucket, as is being done with the god hypothesis. The special treatment is not warranted. Imagine if someone came out tomorrow, as will invariably be the case just maybe not tomorrow literally, with a claim that they’ve seen a new cryptozoological creature but they have no proof, not even a grainy video or an out of focus photograph. Would we as skeptics say “well let’s put this claim on the side until later” or would we say “sorry no evidence, your claim is not accepted”? That what it really comes down to, are we willing to relax the burden of proof requirement when it comes to god? If yes, why?

Daniel will agree with me on these points: that the religious have made a claim, and that they have nor provided adequate evidence to support the claim; where we go next from here is where we part ways. From this point on Daniel maintains that (someone please correct me if I am making a bad assumption) since the idea of God has evolved to the point that he/she/it has been almost completely shielded from scientific inquiry, skeptics cannot take a position on god’s existence. I maintain that since the burden of proof falls on the religious, and they haven’t provided any proof, that skeptics ought to reject the claim until better evidence is provided, thus leading to atheism (defined appropriately as just lack of belief). So I still maintain that skepticism, properly applied, ought to lead to atheism; Daniel still maintains it doesn’t.

The second question that seems to come out of Daniel’s writings is this: Should skepticism make atheism one of its branches?  In other words, should skeptics even bother to fight the atheist fight, or is it something that they shouldn’t bother with. The answers to this will vary, even within camps that agree on the whole skepticism->atheism issue. I can see how people on my side of the argument can go with either yes or no on that one,  for various reasons, one of which is the fear of not wanting to break the unwritten rules that society does have about critiquing religion. However, in order to have that fear one must be on my side of the argument, and Daniel clearly isn’t, as such accusing  him of taking the expedient solution, and thus indirectly accusing him of intellectual dishonesty, is unfair and unwarranted. We may disagree with him on the issue itself, but we should be careful not to arrogantly think we know why he did what he did, better than Daniel himself!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.