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Attack of the pseudo-skeptics!

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on August 19, 2009

I follow Michael Shermer on Twitter, and today he posted a tweet about this guy who apparently is mad at us skeptics…for not being skeptical enough! Now, I don’t know Michael Shermer except for his skeptical activism. I’ve never met him personally; furthermore, he’s into biking (or is it bicycling?) which I can’t stand. But whenever a fellow skeptic is needlessly attacked by some logically challenged buffoon, we must band together no? I mean isn’t that what the Satanic blood…I mean skeptical pledge we took says? Get ready, for this post will end with a “The Stupid it burns” award which I haven’t given out in a long time.

Joshua actually starts off pretty well with his South Pole example of conspiracy theories. He refers to such folks as “radial skeptics” whatever the hell that means, even though I think he might mean “radical” because that’s the term he uses in the next sentence, whatever the hell that means too! I’d probably call them conspiratorial nutcases, but Brian Dunning would slap me on the wrist if I did! See Joshua, we do disagree with each other! Everything, obviously, goes down hill from there, otherwise there would be no reason for me to be writing this entry.

For some reason Joshua decided to pick on Michael Shermer and the following “tell-all” quote from Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things, an autographed copy of which I am sure to receive after my valiant defense of Mr. Shermer.

Skepticism has a long historical tradition dating back to ancient Greece when Socrates observed: “All I know is that I know nothing.” But this is not a practical position to take. Modern skepticism is embodied in the scientific method, that involves gathering data to formulate and test naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena.

Oh he got us, the bastard got us! Oh Michael how could you be so careless? Honeslty I can’t, for the life of me, see why this quote is so damning in the eyes of Joshua but apparently it is. So let us examine his points!

Mr. Shermer has just clearly shown his biases and the direction he is pointing his skeptic’s squirtgun. He will consider all things natural, and doubt all things that fall in every other category of human life. In other words, he accepts a priori that the consensus of our physical senses are accurate enough to postulate theories that don’t need skepticism. (Such as evolution or chemistry) But that all the other stuff that happens in the world of morality, ethics, religion, philosophy, relationships, etc. are so much bunk to be dissected with a materialist toolbox. This is the modus operandi of the atheist, and I gotta say: I’m skeptical about this approach to life.

Where to start? Firstly, let me take an Advil, the headache is coming. Secondly, squirtgun? I’m offended. Thirdly, where is this “he accepts a priori that the consensus of our physical senses are accurate enough to postulate theories that don’t need skepticism” nonsense come from?  What part of “embodied in the scientific method, that involves gathering data to formulate and test naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena” is he having difficulty understanding? What does that have to say about morality, ethics, philosophy, relationships etc? Absolutely nothing! Dear Joshua, since you’re pointing at a quote already, can you identify quotes from other leaders in the skeptical movement that even slightly corroborate what you’re saying? Or is that what you assume we must think, even though you don’t have anything to back that up? See I’m a little skeptical of that claim of yours and I demand evidence to support it.

And why is Joshua moving on to atheists now? I thought this was about skeptics! Or is he making yet another unwarranted assumption that every skeptic must be an atheist? Actually I don’t know what to think because from this point on the word “skeptic” is completely absent and replaced by the word “atheist”.

Joshua let me educate you quickly on skepticism. I have this little thing called ” VIP Interview” where I interview various well known people (at least the ones that agree to) for my blog, and one of the first questions I ask of all the skeptic VIP’s is their definition of a skeptic. Here are some answers I got from previous interviews:

Brian Dunning: A skeptic is someone who requires a high standard of evidence. Conspiracy theorists call themselves skeptics, but that’s because their standard for evidence is different. To them, good evidence is any suggestion that differs from the establishment’s position. The mass media often assigns higher importance to poorly sourced evidence than to well sourced evidence, so they’ll use the word skeptic to describe the people who fear the Large Hadron Collider will destroy the Earth. Nearly everyone considers himself a skeptic, it’s just that there are many varying standards for what constitutes good evidence.

Evan Bernstein: A skeptic is a person who requires evidence for any given claim. The key to this definition is to understand that people’s notions of ‘evidence’ can vary wildly. A practiced skeptic will primarily use science and logic to determine the quality of evidence, and through that, they will come to the conclusion if the claim is real or true.

Do you see a recurring theme here Joshua? A skeptic is a person who requires a high standard of evidence for a given claim. What sorts of claims? Factual claims about the universe we live in, claims that have a truth value, not aesthetic or moral claims! We’d be out of our mind to be skeptical about someone’s claim of “I love Britney Spear’s music” or “I find burqas completely acceptable and moral”. Morals, Ethics, Philosophy and to some degree theology are NOT the subject of skepticism, so long as they refrain from making factual claims about the universe we live in! So what the hell is your point Joshua?

What is this “high standard of evidence” we talk about? Evidence that conforms to the requirements of the scientific method is the best. We also look for it to be in line with logic and reason, to be replicable, to have a high probability of not being fake, to have a high probability of not having been the result of misinterpretation or human error. In other words we want to be assured, at the highest degree possible, that all errors and frauds have been excluded! Is that really hard to understand?

A problem I’ve found with many skeptics is that they only claim to be skeptics without truly embracing the position’s ramifications for ALL ideas. In other words they pick and choose who or what to be skeptical about based on their personal proclivities.

In light of the above explanation let me educate Joshua about this erroneous claim of his as well. Skepticism does NOT apply to ALL ideas, only to factual claims about the universe we live in. If you call that “pick and choose” fine, we pick and choose only claims that have a truth value and can be explored via the scientific method. But don’t think, Joshua that you’ll be allowed to set up a False Dichotomy here “either be skeptical about everything or nothing” so you could use that as a stepping stone to attack real skeptics. A False Dichotomy by the way Joshua is a Logical Fallacy. You should look it up at Wikipedia.

As far as I can tell, the issue is that atheists work exclusively with material processes, so evidence corroborating one’s claim is subject to a high level of consensus. In other words, others can touch, taste, hear, smell, feel or see the same evidence. This is great and fine, and I’m thankful for all the wonderful things this has brought about in our world. But when one deals with philosophical/religious concepts, such consensus is much harder to come by for obvious reasons. Yet even the most ardent atheist’s arguments are grounded in some philosophical framework that has religious ramifications. So I think their posture towards the spheres of life outside the material universe (such as philosophy) is inconsistent.

Yo, Josh are you for real? Let me educate you about atheism as well. Atheism is a lack of belief in any gods. It has nothing to say about philosophy any more than religion has anything to say about engineering.  There are many atheists, read those that do not believe in any gods, that are nevertheless quite spiritual and believe in “something” out there, and look for more than material explanations. I can’t say I sympathize with that stance but atheism does not exclude other kinds of nonsense, only theistic nonsense.

One cannot apply all the same methodologies and tools towards philosophical critique as one applies to the sciences. To do so and then dismiss the results due to the shoddy outcome is like using a hammer to paint a wall, and then declaring all painted walls to be ridiculous. Clearly your hammer won’t work well and the results will be ugly and ridiculous. A materialist will have all sorts of neat tools in his toolbox, but none of them function like a paintbrush.

Of course not, and we do not! Again, I repeat, Joshua is the first person I’ve seen to claim that skepticism does, or should, I ‘m not sure what his actual position is, apply to philosophy, a quite obviously ridiculous claim I think.

The irony is that all atheists live in a world that has been beautifully painted, but simply don’t value the work that has gone into the project. In fact, the very podium they stand on -jeering at the painters from- is decorated by philosophers and theologians throughout the ages.

There he goes with atheists again. What’s his beef? Yes Joshua, philosophers, and some theologians, have contributed a great deal, I won’t deny that. But be aware that many of said philosophers were indeed atheists themselves, so your whole arguments crumbles after this little observation. I find it a deeply ignorant statement to say that ALL atheists don’t value the “work that has gone into the project” and quite stupid given that a big deal of that work was contributed by atheists themselves. Do you mean to tell me that you think ALL atheists that have ever existed have contributed nothing? You mean to tell me that you think that there are, and never have been, any atheists that were musicians, poets, philosophers, writers, and such? Have you not heard of Mark Twain?

The refrain repeats over and over and there is no point for me to rebutt it over and over. I just want to point out a couple of logical fallacies this guy makes.

But those authorities would have no sway over people’s minds if there were no explanatory power in the systems that they oversee.

If Joshua had spent any time learning about logic, he would know that he just committed the Appeal to Popularity fallacy. “Many people believe this shit, therefore it must be real” is what this sentence amounts to. Keep in mind that he has committed not one, not two, but three logical fallacies so far, the Straw Man, the False Dichotomy and now the Appeal to Popularity. Of course he does not understand skepticism, and what we do, and why we do what we do. This guy would flunk a Logic 101 class.

But please don’t pretend that a materialist toolbox has all the tools necessary to produce a fully fleshed-out plan for human flourishing. It doesn’t. Those atheist that do flourish, (and I’m hoping they all do) do so thanks to a structure of living that is largely invisible to them due to its incorporeal nature. The values that drive humans to do good to each other, (such as love, self-sacrifice, family, etc.) were cultivated in religious and philosophical contexts and only make rational sense in those spheres.

This one I’m going to call the fallacy of being full of shit! No seriously, this is nothing more than circular reasoning, stating as a premise the very same conclusion that you are trying to prove. This is really how this paragraph reads “Either materialism has all the answers or religions fills in all the gaps. Materialism obviously does not have all the answers, because other answers are based on religion, therefore these answers only make sense in light of religion, thus religion, and therefore materialism cannot have all the answers!” Read it carefully this is really what it is saying. It is a perverse marriage of a False Dichotomy with Circular Reasoning. Oops, Josh just hit #4 on the Logical Fallacies list.

If love is nothing but chemical processes than there is no reason to value it over mold on bread. And once one is in a situation where love becomes less-than-fun then there is no way to anchor it as a value to be adhered to. The system will collapse. At least that’s my prediction. Take it for what it’s worth. Or don’t.

Ouch, welcome Logical Fallacy #5, the Slippery Slope. The world will end, THE WORLD WILL F*$%ing end! No your moronic highness it is not the way you say it is. I don’t know about you, but mold on bread never made my heart skip a beat, the way love does, therefore at least I, and I know for sure many others, will value love more than mold on bread. And by the way, love is a feeling, an emotion, not a value to be adhered to. When it becomes less-than-fun it is no longer love, you are contradicting yourself there. But no worry, I will not educate you on love, that one you have to figure out on your own.

So while I like the stance of the skeptic, I really don’t appreciate Shermer and company using the word simply as a club to beat on specific targets. The fact that he outright dismisses Socrates’ most basic assertion: “All I know is that I know nothing”. is telling, and ultimately damning to his entire body of work. A true skeptic, I contend, would embrace this maxim no matter how much it hurt their ability to make other people look like idiots.

Ok buddy wanna be philosophical? First let me make something clear. Socrates did not mean it literally! For if he knows that he knows nothing, then by definition he knows at least one thing, namely that he knows nothing, which is a contradiction in and of itself. What he meant by it, most likely, is to say that there is so much to know, that what I do know, which is in reality not nothing, is so small in comparison as to be weightless, like a drop of water in an ocean. But a drop is a drop nevertheless! And do you know who truly embraces this interpretation, the correct one I believe? Us skeptics. And Michael Shermer, which wanted to make, I think, this very same point. And scientists too. We know we don’t know everything. We know there’s so much to explore. People like yourself are what stands in the way of us getting another drop of knowledge because you want to come in and fill our gaps with your religious mumbo jumbo. You rejected the god-of-the-gaps previously but you are engaging in just that. At least be brave enough to admit it. It is so obvious from your “you materialists don’t have all the answers” rant of a couple of paragraphs ago.

Dear Josh, I am afraid to inform you that you are not a skeptic. You do not understand skepticism, what it  is about, how it works, why it works the way it works. I am afraid you are a pseudo-skeptic. What a sorry state of being that must be!


IVF pregnancy rates down with alternative medicine use

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on August 19, 2009

A Danish study has been reported in both the Times of India and in Private Healthcare UK which allegedly shows that women underoing in vitro fertilization had a lower rate of pregnancies when using alternative fertility treatments than women who followed conventional treatments, by about 30%. That is obviously not surprising to this blogger or the usual readers, as we know that there has never been any evidence to suggest otherwise.

Nevertheless, I must be cautious here as the articles do not link to the study or an abstract, so it is impossible for me to verify how well the authors designed the study and if their conclusions are warranted. They do seem to be very careful though when the following disclaimer is made:

In the study, it could not be determined whether the effect on IVF success is a direct result of the use of complementary medicine, or whether women who were already having more trouble conceiving were more likely to revert to alternative fertility treatments.

A very important point indeed! If someone has a link to the study or an abstract please do leave it in the comments.

UPDATE 08/21/09

Commenter RPG points me to the PubMed abstract of the above study. Reading the abstract it seems that this was a survey based study which compared “spontaneous users and non-users of CAM” and found a decrease of 31.3% in the pregnancy and live birth rate for CAM users.

Now it is important to keep in mind that the subjets appear not to have been randomly assigned, thus there is no way to exclude the possibility that the women that had the most difficulties could be more inclined to go after CAM “treatments”. That could be one way of  explaining the negative result.

So we should be very careful how we interpret these results. I do not think this study warrants us concluding that CAM therapies lower a woman’s pregnancy and live birth rates. The result is quite suspicious in my eyes.  I would have expected the CAM group not to do any better but 31% worse? I don’t know that I buy that!

Skepquote of the day

Posted in Skepquote by Skepdude on August 19, 2009

It looks to me as if being brought up with a belief in the literal truth of a misogynistic document like the Bible can inculcate the evil idea that women are possessions, and that marriage is an act of handing over a woman’s bill of sale to a man. I thought a wife was a partner, not a slave.

PZ Myers