The Newsweek article about the sceptics movement that I mentioned last week has appeared, nicely titled The Bullshit Police. I was interviewed by the writer, Michael Moynihan, but wasn’t quoted. No matter - it’s fine for journalists to get a broad range of opinions without having to describe them all.
The article is about the opposing currents within the movement itself, and it’s a fascinating read. Moynihan agrees with its worldview, but as the subtitle makes it clear is not an uncritical supporter (‘Inside a brilliant, nerdy, arrogant, sort of admirable, sort of insufferable movement that questions everything – and wants to upend the way you live and think’.) It’s interesting to learn about the confusions they have when it comes to climate change, and also about religion. The sceptic and the atheist aren’t the same beast necessarily.
The debate is not over the existence of God—almost all the skeptics I met . . . were nonbelievers. Rather, the argument is over whether skepticism should be synonymous with atheism, or whether the two movements should stay separate.
Jamy Ian Swiss, a close-up magician by trade, is one of the chief advocates for the latter view. Swiss lives in Southern California but is New York through and through. He’s voluble and opinionated, delivering withering judgments with the kind of lilting Brooklyn accent that one rarely hears in today’s Brooklyn. He’s a left-wing Jew who disdains religion (“The rabbi and the cantor were such assholes that they turned me into an atheist by the day of my bar mitzvah”) and is obsessed with science. He isn’t an academic, but his references to radical journalist I.F. Stone and knowledge of scientific history might persuade you that he should have been.
Addressing a group of California atheists in 2010, Swiss delivered a barbed speech on the relationship between skepticism and atheism. “Read my lips: there is no fucking God,” he roared. “But that is my personal belief, it’s not my public cause. My cause is scientific skepticism.” After the speech, PZ Myers, a widely read—and notoriously prickly—academic and science blogger, denounced “asshole” Swiss’s “incredibly repellent talk” and announced that he would “no longer consider myself a ‘skeptic.’?” The skeptic world, as it so frequently does, convulsed with charges, countercharges, ad hominem, and endless debates over whether God is a “testable scientific claim” or whether guys like Swiss were selling out atheism in an effort to expand the movement’s popularity.
This was a side of Myers that I wasn’t familiar with, so I took myself off to his blog to check it out. But before I could find it I came across posts taking shots at other people who I would also have thought were batting for his team. Fellow biologist Jerry Coyne, for instance, who with Myers started the TED row over Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock a few months ago. Coyne’s offence was to put in a good word for evolutionary psychology, a discipline that Myers is deeply suspicious of. Coyne notes that he started out as an opponent of sociobiology, as it was first known, but thinks that it has matured and is now a ‘valuable’ way of studying human behaviour. He decries the sceptics who debase it.
Sadly, some self-professed skeptics have decided to debunk the entire field of evo-psych, and for reasons that I see not as scientific, but as ideological and political. . . It pains me that skeptics are so dogmatic, so ideological, in viewing (and rejecting wholesale) a legitimate scientific field.
‘Pure ad hominem, unsupported by evidence,’ Myers snorts.
I detest evolutionary psychology, not because I dislike the answers it gives, but on purely methodological and empirical grounds: it is a grandiose exercise in leaping to conclusions on inadequate evidence, it is built on premises that simply don’t work, and it’s a field that seems to do a very poor job of training and policing its practitioners, so that it primarily serves as a dump for bad research that then supplies tabloids with a feast of garbage science that discredits the rest of us.
Another post that caught my eye attacks Steven Pinker on the subject of scientism. The target was an essay that Pinker wrote recently for New Republic titled ‘Science is Not Your Enemy’, which has attracted quite a bit of attention. The article is actually an impassioned defence of humanism, and in that regard – considering, as I do, that humanism is the only ‘ism’ seriously worth defending, at least in its true sense – I found it rather admirable. I filtered out the patronising comments that people like Pinker always make about science in such contexts. Not so Myers. As an academic he rubs shoulders with people in the humanities, and was angered by Pinker talking down to them. He was especially incensed by Pinker recasting great Enlightenment thinkers like Descartes, Spinoza, Hume and Kant as early pioneers of scientific thinking. Pinker writes:
Not only did many of them contribute to mathematics, physics, and physiology, but all of them were avid theorists in the sciences of human nature. They were cognitive neuroscientists, who tried to explain thought and emotion in terms of physical mechanisms of the nervous system. They were evolutionary psychologists, who speculated on life in a state of nature and on animal instincts that are “infused into our bosoms.”
Pinker finds them all the more remarkable for having crafted their ideas in the absence of formal theory and empirical data.
The mathematical theories of information, computation, and games had yet to be invented. The words “neuron,” “hormone,” and “gene” meant nothing to them. When reading these thinkers, I often long to travel back in time and offer them some bit of twenty-first-century freshman science that would fill a gap in their arguments or guide them around a stumbling block. What would these Fausts have given for such knowledge? What could they have done with it?
To which Myers retorts:
Look, there’s some reasonable stuff deeper in, but that opening . . . could he possibly have been more arrogant, patronizing, and ahistorical? Not only is he appropriating philosophers into the fold of science, but worse, he’s placing them in his favored disciplines of cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and social psychology. Does the man ever step outside of his office building on the Harvard campus?
Pinker commits the fallacy of progress and scientism, Myers thinks.
There is no denying that we have better knowledge of science and engineering now, but that does not mean that we’re universally better, smarter, wiser, and more informed about everything. What I know would be utterly useless to a native hunter in New Guinea, or to an 18th century philosopher; it’s useful within a specific context, in a narrow subdomain of a 21st technological society. I think Pinker’s fantasy is not one of informing a knowledgeable person, but of imposing the imagined authority of a modern science on someone from a less technologically advanced culture.
It strikes me that these sorts of disagreements are becoming more common. Sceptical scientists are taking public exception to each others’ positions, not just to the opposition’s. And it's interesting that some are starting to discover problems with ideological dogmatism. But it makes sense. As the sceptics movement grows (everyone Moynihan talked to used the word ‘movement’, he notes) it is bound to fracture and factionalise to some extent, as all movements do. Of course sceptics will always unify around core disbeliefs - God, supernaturalism and quack medicine, etc. But as they find some of their own, less central beliefs and interests coming under attack they might increasingly turn their attention to each other.
Could there one day be a major schism? And if so, what would it look like? Would it be ideologists and dogmatists on one side, moderates on the other? Or would it be the fuzzier, more open-minded speculative types ranged against the hardcore materialists?
It’s hard to say how the sceptics movement will develop in the future, but we can be reasonably sure it won’t always look the way it does now. In that changed environment, it’s possible that some people who call themselves sceptics might hold more nuanced views about psi-research than seems now to be the case.