Join 3,514 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


"We perceive the world through metaphors"
June 16, 2013 4:41 PM   Subscribe

Why I Am No Longer A Skeptic
That's right: the nerds won, decades ago, and they're now as thoroughly established as any other part of the establishment. And while nerds a relatively new elite, they're overwhelmingly the same as the old: rich, white, male, and desperate to hang onto what they've got. And I have come to realise that skepticism, in their hands, is just another tool to secure and advance their privileged position, and beat down their inferiors. As a skeptic, I was not shoring up the revolutionary barricades: instead, I was cheering on the Tsar's cavalry.
Referenced in The Cult Of Bayes' Theorem

via Gerry Canavan
posted by the man of twists and turns (205 comments total) 86 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Skeptic" is another one of the countless labels that has been devalued by its over-adoption. "Nerd" is even worse... the New Elites are Totally Nerdy.
posted by oneswellfoop at 4:49 PM on June 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


Nice distillation of a lot of otherwise disturbing philosophy
posted by Teakettle at 4:53 PM on June 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Skeptic" is another one of the countless labels that has been devalued by its over-adoption.

It's not so much that it's over-adopted: the main thrust of the article is "because so many skeptics are assholes."
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 4:55 PM on June 16, 2013 [19 favorites]


From what I've skimmed, this comes uncomfortably close to the direction the thought process of my nerdy, white, male, not particularly old and not really rich self has been moving in for the last year or so.

On the other hand, I've always liked Agent Mulder's brand of of The Truth Is Out There skepticism compared to the more recently popular Debunk All The Things type. So maybe this is just the leading edge of the '90s revival that we have all been waiting for.

(less obtusely: maybe our thought process is getting a little better and a little more inclusive, but I suspect it will be the same type of people in positions of cultural authority. Here's hoping that the diversity and humanity of the dominant paradigm(s) will increase over time!)
posted by b1tr0t at 4:56 PM on June 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


A+ FTW!
posted by jfwlucy at 5:01 PM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wow, that Bayes' Theorem piece is one of the most egregiously stupidly wrong things I've had the misfortune to read in a long while. And it's really weird, because the author has the sociology exactly backwards. It's the naive and dogmatic skeptics — who the author attacks in both pieces — who are most inclined to be naive and dogmatic frequentists, and who reliably attack bayesianism in very much the same style as this author.

He's not saying anything we don't already know about skepticism as a subculture. But both pieces, especially the Bayes Theorem piece, have all the hallmark characteristics of an enthusiastic polemicist who suffers from the Dunning–Kruger effect.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:03 PM on June 16, 2013 [32 favorites]


Dang . I defend Dawkins quite a bit, but that post against skepchick was totally assholish and logically fallacious. (And this was from 2011.)
posted by whatgorilla at 5:04 PM on June 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


I bookmarked this so I can make people read it instead of trying to explain why I am automatically wary of white males who claim to be "skeptics".

This has been indicative of my experience with at least 85% of young white guys who say they're Skeptics with a big S: I got into a Facebook discussion with a boyfriend of a friend once about that study that claimed that Victorians are smarter than we are. He tried to tell me that there were only two possible valid criticisms of the study (perhaps not coincidentally, his two!), and, when a third friend weighed, jokingly but rather rudely, in on my side, the boyfriend told me to, "Call off your lapdog," and, "That's what I expected from some social-science-pseudobullshit instead of one of the real sciences." (This dude is a fuckin' self-professed philosophy geek. Real science, hunh?) This is also the guy who tells his girlfriend (my friend), when she is talking about, "Maybe you shouldn't do X because X is a little sexist," that she's not being rational.

Note that these experiences do not extrapolate out to young white guys who say they're skeptics if we were, like, already talking about UFOs or homeopathy. But if they announce that they're Skeptics when it's only tangentially related to the conversation... fuckin' run.

Also can someone explain the dead-endedness of "linguistics, computational linguistics" from the skeptics link? I clearly don't know enough about linguistics to understand.
posted by WidgetAlley at 5:04 PM on June 16, 2013 [18 favorites]


AI researchers used electronic Bayesian brains in a number of equally unimpressive "intelligent" systems — classifiers, learning systems, inference systems, rational agents.

That article on Bayes' Theorem includes this quote, which I think demonstrates the incredible idiocy of this essay. In one short, ridiculous sentence, it dismisses self-driving cars, the Netflix recommendation engine, facial recognition systems, etc. etc.
posted by TypographicalError at 5:07 PM on June 16, 2013 [32 favorites]


The best of internet is toooo often its worst.
posted by hat_eater at 5:08 PM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


I find the "sequences" largely impenetrable, thick with nerd references and homespun jargon, and written in a claggy, bombastic, inversion-heavy style that owes much to Tolkien's Return of the King and more still to Yoda.

So, that thing about shedding his nerd subcultural identity?

Not really working out for him, is it?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:09 PM on June 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


There is no room in the nerdocracy for a Tsar. The nerdocracy is not an empire. The Klingons, the Romulans, the Cardassians - they have empires. The nerdocracy is a federation.
posted by Flunkie at 5:10 PM on June 16, 2013 [7 favorites]


The author has some very valid things to say about what might be called the Skepticism Movement, but ...

Referencing the words of the fictional creations of a cartoonist as if they were that cartoonist's stated opinion? Dismissing entire fields of scientific study as "largely bogus ... poisonous bullshit" because they are frequently misunderstood or misused?

Huh?
posted by kyrademon at 5:12 PM on June 16, 2013 [12 favorites]


"Also can someone explain the dead-endedness of 'linguistics, computational linguistics' from the skeptics link? I clearly don't know enough about linguistics to understand."

It can't be explained because the author is flat wrong. There's a lot of aggressive ignorance in both pieces.

One way we might redeem the skepticism piece is to see it as a kind of satire. The author adopts the same sneering ignorance that many aggressive skeptics display, except with regard to everything the author thinks he doesn't like or disagrees with. This sort of skeptic doesn't actually need to read any critical theory; this author doesn't actually need to know anything about linguistics or statistics or any of his other targets.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:13 PM on June 16, 2013 [20 favorites]


I felt the way the author did for a long time, and didn't want to associate myself with the skeptic movement. But there's been so much weird pseudoscience and woo coming from my friends lately - many of it actively harmful, like anti-vaccination - that I've found myself turning into a skeptical asshole, listening to skeptic podcasts, etc.

The truth is, I became a skeptic for aesthetic reasons, and the truth is, its aesthetics now repel me. I increasingly find the core skeptical output monotonous and repetitive: there are only so many times you can debunk the same old junk, and I've had it up to here with science fanboyism. And when skeptics talk about subjects outside their domain of expertise, I'm struck by how irrelevant their comments are, and how ugly, shrill and trivial.

This still holds water, though, and I can't think of much good art and music made by people with a skeptical agenda that i'd prefer over religious/spirtually motivated art.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 5:13 PM on June 16, 2013 [5 favorites]


Is punk skeptical?
posted by LogicalDash at 5:15 PM on June 16, 2013 [5 favorites]


The author adopts the same sneering ignorance that many aggressive skeptics display, except with regard to everything the author thinks he doesn't like or disagrees with.

He argues with the inexhaustible enthusiasm of the constant convert. I'm sure he'll find something else to jump on in a year or two.
posted by Sebmojo at 5:16 PM on June 16, 2013 [17 favorites]


So the author is actually still a skeptic but rejects the label because too many skeptics are assholish. Stop the presses, film at eleven, etc.
posted by Justinian at 5:16 PM on June 16, 2013 [4 favorites]


and I can't think of much good art and music made by people with a skeptical agenda that i'd prefer over religious/spirtually motivated art.

But this isn't fair because for most of human history art was mainly religious/spiritually motivated. Give secular art another two thousand years and it'd be be a better comparison.
posted by Justinian at 5:18 PM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm a theological non-cognitivist. I don't believe in God because I don't know what the word "God" means, and if you do, it's likely that your conception of Him, Her, It, and/or Them contradicts that of most people throughout history.

From my perspective there's lots of extant secular artistic traditions, many of which are defined otherwise. I haven't really done the research on this, but I suspect the perception that religion defines history is a legacy of certain Christian traditions' influence on the study of history.
posted by LogicalDash at 5:22 PM on June 16, 2013 [5 favorites]


Give secular art another two thousand years and it'd be be a better comparison.
Only 2,000 years?
posted by the man of twists and turns at 5:28 PM on June 16, 2013


But this isn't fair because for most of human history art was mainly religious/spiritually motivated. Give secular art another two thousand years and it'd be be a better comparison.

Even if you limit to the post-war period, there's very little (no?) skeptic art (I may be suffering from No True Scotsman here). It's an interesting omission that had never occurred to me, so thanks, Charlemagne.
posted by Leon at 5:31 PM on June 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm sympathetic to a lot of this article (dunno about the linguistics part that a lot of people here are calling out as crap) but he pulls a conflation of neoliberalism and liberal democracy that is neither earned nor inherently obvious.
posted by furiousthought at 5:33 PM on June 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


Fortunatly this guy is tinkering on an ideology that might be the next big thing, like zumba big.


This still holds water, though, and I can't think of much good art and music made by people with a skeptical agenda that i'd prefer over religious/spirtually motivated art.

Are those really the only two options we have?
posted by Foci for Analysis at 5:36 PM on June 16, 2013 [4 favorites]


I absolutely see his points, and even agree with some of them, but I wonder if he may be a little confused as to why skepticism takes on the opponents that it does. The skeptical "movement", such as it is, pounds away at alternate medicine, fallacious faith-in-action and creationism because those are the big irrational issues that have held sway over Western culture for the last two millennia. (I'd add climate change denial as an issue we'll be fighting over the next 50 ~ 100 years).

All these beliefs cause very real harm, every day. If they can be pushed back to the point at which future President cannot use "God told me to do it" as the rationale and justification for starting a war, or parents no longer deny their child medical attention because their religious faith forbids it, we'll have succeeded, and can move on. Right now, those issues are the big, obvious targets.

I'd love to see skepticism take on capitalism and liberal democracy. I'm sure that part of the reluctance to do so is that we're soaking in it: it's awfully hard to be a firebrand when you are up to your waist in gasoline.

The skeptic movement has a lot of maturating to do, particularly in regard to how it treats women. But before criticising a movement that's 30 years old for its lack of internal progress, we might want to cast an eye back at those institutions taken on by skepticism that have had two thousand years to make the same changes, and have refused to do so.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 5:36 PM on June 16, 2013 [26 favorites]


Irrespective of the actual merits of the fields he dismisses, the practice of dismissing fields of study--the whole body of work being done on some subject--is something I find anti-intellectual. There are certainly lots of fields where the overwhelming majority of the work done in them is wrong or meaningless, but dismissing them on that basis denies them the opportunity for scientific progress. I don't think the author has altogether gotten over his identity as a Bright, see.
posted by LogicalDash at 5:36 PM on June 16, 2013 [9 favorites]


And so I came to look at skepticism as I'd look at an old embarrassing album by a band whose work I've long since disavowed.

Give it 20 years, kid; it'll be "old school" then, and you can talk about how cool it was back in the day.
posted by Avelwood at 5:40 PM on June 16, 2013 [4 favorites]


Forgive me, but is big-S Skepticism really a thing? Or is this just like "hipster" - a vague label used almost exclusively for derogatory othering? I'm, admittedly, a pretty close fit for the "new elite" demographic this guy mentions, and I have never once heard anyone refer to skepticism as some sort of movement.

I'm usually interested when Mefi introduces me to ideas and movements I know nothing about. Usually.
posted by Guernsey Halleck at 5:48 PM on June 16, 2013 [7 favorites]


Skepticism is bigger than this particular inflection.
posted by spitbull at 5:50 PM on June 16, 2013


Yeah, that piece on Bayesianism is terrible.

It's a nonsense in the first place to claim that a sentence is "a logical fallacy": only arguments can be fallacious, and "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" is not an argument. I'll charitably assume that the writer means to claim that the sentence is logically invalid — in which case he's still probably wrong.

This is a hilarious case of a nitpicker needing nitpicking. Only arguments can be invalid.

And yes, "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" really is a fallacy. (Sorry... is often invoked in fallacious reasoning.)
posted by painquale at 5:50 PM on June 16, 2013 [5 favorites]


Wow, that was an incredible waste of several minutes reading that. Somehow I don't think several pages of bad argumentation and logical fallacies is going to be terribly persuasive to the people this person wants to appeal to.

The truth is, I became a skeptic for aesthetic reasons

Oh, fuck off. This sentence right here perfectly encapsulates the whole article- the author is playing with identities like a teenager rather than engaging in serious thought. This isn't "I'm a reasonable person who has come to reject skepticism", this is "FUCK YOU DAD! YOU CAN'T MAKE ME GO TO CHURCH!"
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:51 PM on June 16, 2013 [36 favorites]



Is punk skeptical?


Bad Religion have a bunch of songs about science and skeptism (since the lead singer is a scientist), and Frank Turner has a really obnoxious song about athiesm, and I'm sure there are other examples.

The thing for me is that art comes from emotion and passion and all those fuzzy things, and while you can probably make a song about the trancendent feeling of knowing exactly how many stars are in the sky its much easier to make a song with religous metaphors and make it work.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 5:54 PM on June 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


the author is playing with identities like a teenager

I don't agree with the insinuation that reasonless identity politicking is something anyone grows out of.
posted by LogicalDash at 5:55 PM on June 16, 2013 [11 favorites]


I don't agree with the insinuation that reasonless identity politicking is something anyone grows out of.

Is this a suggestion that identity politics are reasonless, i.e. shallow and useless, or that many people treat them as such?
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:57 PM on June 16, 2013


What has changed is that I have come to reject skepticism as an identity."

I've always seen "skepticism as an identity" to mean "overly argumentative." And that's really the author's problem here; rejecting a label is a hell of a lot easier than rejecting confrontational arguments on the internet.
posted by pwnguin at 5:57 PM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


It is only natural that when some people see the growing partisanship for Bayseanism, they would form a counter-party. That's how many of us humans form opinions. That's even how would-be rationalists form opinions when we're not paying close attention.

and I can't think of much good art and music made by people with a skeptical agenda that i'd prefer over religious/spirtually motivated art.

This reminds me of Eve Sedgwick's line about the problem with questions about gay philosophy and literature. "Where is the gay Socrates, the gay Shakespeare, the gay Proust?" (The joke is, those guys were all gay, but closeted by heteronormative historiography.)

The great secular art of the last two millennia can be found in churches, mosques, and synagogues; the great secular music is sung and played in those places, or it was commissioned and patronized by religious folks; the great secular theater plays with themes of divinity and faith. Theonormativity demanded that skeptics and secularists hide their true intentions, but it was precisely that outsider perspective that made them such great artists.
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:57 PM on June 16, 2013 [30 favorites]


The skeptical "movement", such as it is, pounds away at alternate medicine, fallacious faith-in-action and creationism because those are the big irrational issues that have held sway over Western culture for the last two millennia.

Why Western? I thought Skeptics were about logic and science being universal pursuits. Doesn't matter if one believes in Jesus, Allah, Buddha, or Shiva. They all deserve to be slain by the sharp blade of knowledge.

And admittedly, that's part of the reason why though I'm generally a skeptic, I'm not a Skeptic.
posted by FJT at 5:58 PM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Bora Horza Gobuchul wrote: But before criticising a movement that's 30 years old for its lack of internal progress [...]

Skepticism is much older than thirty years. I suppose you could quibble about the definitions, but Jefferson was clearly a skeptic as were many intellectuals of his time, and an actual skeptical cult was instituted under French Revolution.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:58 PM on June 16, 2013 [6 favorites]


Is this a suggestion that identity politics are reasonless, i.e. shallow and useless, or that many people treat them as such?

They are frequently reasonless, ie. emotionally charged and intractable to reason. Not because your identity could not in principle be described in a rationalist way, but because no one alive, least of all yourself, has the information needed for that kind of analysis. Will they ever? People are trying, certainly, but it's the kind of challenge that incidentally requires you to solve entire fields of study.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:03 PM on June 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


Why Western? I thought Skeptics were about logic and science being universal pursuits. Doesn't matter if one believes in Jesus, Allah, Buddha, or Shiva. They all deserve to be slain by the sharp blade of knowledge.

There's an active skeptical movement in India. The issues they tackle are those that are specific to their culture, which are often different from the specific issues addressed by, say, American skeptics.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:04 PM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


(I'd add climate change denial as an issue we'll be fighting over the next 50 ~ 100 years).

This is now totally unrelated to the linked post, but I will be thrilled if the state of the world 50 years from now is such that climate change denialism is even conceivable.
posted by a birds at 6:06 PM on June 16, 2013 [20 favorites]


Somehow I don't think several pages of bad argumentation and logical fallacies is going to be terribly persuasive to the people this person wants to appeal to.

Luckily, the name of the article is "Why I Am No Longer a Skeptic" and not "Why I Am No Longer a Skeptic and Why You Shouldn't Be, Either". It's a summary of what he found problematic in the skeptic communities he had associated with and why he no longer associates with them, not a manifesto.
posted by girih knot at 6:06 PM on June 16, 2013 [6 favorites]


but I will be thrilled if the state of the world 50 years from now is such that climate change denialism is even conceivable.

Chief of US Pacific forces calls climate biggest worry
posted by the man of twists and turns at 6:11 PM on June 16, 2013


The great secular art of the last two millennia can be found in churches, mosques, and synagogues; the great secular music is sung and played in those places

Be careful not to conflate secular and Skeptic.

For my money, the essence of the Skeptic movement is reductionism, which is what makes then such poor social scientists (either that or they're deliberately obtuse). Maybe that goes double for art.
posted by Leon at 6:12 PM on June 16, 2013 [4 favorites]


I mean, I am deeply sympathetic to "fuck the Skeptical subculture"- the biggest names in it are often useless assholes like Penn Jillette, whose TV show Bullshit displayed deep skepticism about supernatural phenomena and utter, slack-jawed credulity about any position taken by the Cato Institute, or Harriet Hall, who does an amazing job at debunking and attacking medical quackery and then tells women who feel unwelcome in Skeptical spaces due to their sex that their feelings and experiences are wrong and imaginary. There's an incredibly vulgar variety of Libertarianism shot through the subculture which is gross as hell. But to reject not the Skeptical subculture but skepticism because the culture is full of assholes, well, I've got some really bad news for you about basically every position and subculture in our society.

Basically, this is no different from "There's a bunch of really privileged white guys in punk rock, so fuck them, I'm a Republican now."
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:12 PM on June 16, 2013 [52 favorites]


But to reject not the Skeptical subculture but skepticism because the culture is full of assholes, well, I've got some really bad news for you about basically every position and subculture in our society.Basically, this is no different from "There's a bunch of really privileged white guys in punk rock, so fuck them, I'm a Republican now."

FTFA:
I still have no faith in anything supernatural, mystical, psychical or spiritual. I still regard the scientific method as the best way to model reality, and reason as the best way to uncover truth ... What has changed is that I have come to reject skepticism as an identity.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 6:15 PM on June 16, 2013 [6 favorites]


The great secular art of the last two millennia can be found in churches, mosques, and synagogues; the great secular music is sung and played in those places, or it was commissioned and patronized by religious folks; the great secular theater plays with themes of divinity and faith. Theonormativity demanded that skeptics and secularists hide their true intentions, but it was precisely that outsider perspective that made them such great artists.

A lot of religious people also do that kind of "I really like this person's work, so I'll bet their religious beliefs (or politics or philosophy) are similar to mine" wishful thinking.
posted by straight at 6:16 PM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


FTFA

If only that were reflective of the rest of the essay. Look at that section on positivism and tell me that's not an attack on skepticism as a thing.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:18 PM on June 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


A lot of religious people also do that kind of "I really like this person's work, so I'll bet their religious beliefs (or politics or philosophy) are similar to mine" wishful thinking.

See also a bunch of atheists and liberals talking about Barack Obama about five years ago.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:20 PM on June 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


A few other very very general thoughts this pieces inspires:

- it's often the case that when on the internet someone, or a movement, you're generally sympathetic to starts making a lot of repetitive ill-considered arguments, it's because they are manning the barricades against some real idiots and/or assholes

- it is also the case that if you spend all your time manning the barricades against real idiots or assholes, you're going to lose your edge

- it is furthermore the case that if you become disenchanted with a repetitive ill-considered group such as above, the answer is not to jump in the arms of the idiots they were opposing
posted by furiousthought at 6:20 PM on June 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


Really, the least someone should do when writing on Bayesianism is to distinguish between (a) Bayes' Theorem, which everyone who accepts Kolmogorov's probability axioms and classical logic must accept, and (b) Bayes' Rule for updating beliefs on evidence, which many people dispute for various and sundry reasons.

Bayes' Theorem: Pr(H | E) = Pr(E | H)*Pr(H) / Pr(E)
Bayes' Rule: Pr_new(H) = Pr_old(H | E), where E is whatever your new evidence is.

posted by Jonathan Livengood at 6:20 PM on June 16, 2013 [13 favorites]


I swear this is a double.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 6:22 PM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


the main thrust of the article is "because so many skeptics are assholes."
Which is a pretty decent thesis. Sadly the articles spend more of their time demonstrating that becoming a non-skeptic is an inadequate strategy for becoming a non-asshole.
posted by roystgnr at 6:23 PM on June 16, 2013 [8 favorites]


I liked a lot of the essay, and most of what I didn't comes under the rubric of taste. E.g. "there's no use in preaching, like Dawkins and Phil Plait, about the wonders of objective reality"... well, I disagree, I like hearing about the wonders of astronomy, but I can see that he's just sick of the rah-rah-science atmosphere.

On linguistics, my reaction is "Has he actually read any linguistics published since 1970?" I was reading lots about pragmatics in the 1970s; the whole school of cognitive linguistics is precisely the sort of thing he thinks doesn't exist. When he talks about "metaphors" he's recycling Lakoff; that is linguistics.

Basically, this is no different from "There's a bunch of really privileged white guys in punk rock, so fuck them, I'm a Republican now."

Not at all, Pope. He's much more saying "I'm a socialist now." A lot of his complaints are precisely that skepticism, as a movement, is permeated with white male privilege, and refuses to apply its considerable debunking powers to capitalism. He may or may not be right, but it sure makes no sense to tar him as being a Republican when his complaint is precisely that the movement is too right-wing.
posted by zompist at 6:26 PM on June 16, 2013 [15 favorites]


A lot of religious people also do that kind of "I really like this person's work, so I'll bet their religious beliefs (or politics or philosophy) are similar to mine" wishful thinking.

It's true. But I don't mean to claim that all religious art was made with a secular purpose, just that a lot more of it was than it at first appears. This is sometimes called "esotericism" or "Straussianism" but I think it's a straightforward extension of what we know about homosexuality and the epistemology of the closet, or what appears commonsensical given what we think we know about the relation between artists and patrons that maps onto any ordinary principle-agent problem.
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:36 PM on June 16, 2013


I was talking about explicitly religious music being better than explicitly secular music.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 6:40 PM on June 16, 2013


zomp, I wasn't calling the author a Republican, I was saying that if you're mad about a group being full of assholes, joining another group that is also full of assholes is not a sign of critical thinking skills.


I was talking about explicitly religious music being better than explicitly secular music.

If we're talking about classical music, perhaps, but this is exactly the opposite of reality in rock music.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:51 PM on June 16, 2013 [4 favorites]


explicitly religious music
posted by Flunkie at 6:58 PM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've always liked Agent Mulder's brand of of The Truth Is Out There skepticism

The difference between Mulder and Scully is that Scully's the one who believes in UFOs. Mulder believes in aliens and wild conspiracy theories that are fractionally right leaps of logic on a good day. Scully believes in Unidentified Flying Objects and wants to identify them through careful evidence gathering. Her null hypothesis is weather balloon, but provide her with overwhelming evidence and she buys in.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 7:03 PM on June 16, 2013 [13 favorites]


I very much liked the main linked article, and most of the broad strokes are entirely the reason I've avoided entering capital-S Skeptic spaces online, even though, along with the author, I am in line with their beliefs. They are so regularly called out for sexism, Islamophobia, intolerance, and general assholery that I assume I would be unwelcome and annoyed.
posted by jaguar at 7:08 PM on June 16, 2013 [5 favorites]


I was talking about explicitly religious music being better than explicitly secular music.

If we're talking about classical music, perhaps, but this is exactly the opposite of reality in rock music.


I obviously disagree.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 7:16 PM on June 16, 2013


Well the only movement I want to be a part of is the kind that involves my bowels.

...

As ever here the issue seems to be that being A Skeptic is ultimately pointless and dumb, whereas using skepticism as a cognitive tool is quite useful. Baby/bathwater, I contain multitudes etc...

posted by Doleful Creature at 7:22 PM on June 16, 2013 [6 favorites]


But there's been so much weird pseudoscience and woo coming from my friends lately - many of it actively harmful, like anti-vaccination - that I've found myself turning into a skeptical asshole, listening to skeptic podcasts, etc.

Excuse me for my cultural naivety ... but the notion that skepticism has become some kind of an ideological position just feels wobbly. It's as simple as the words above. How is anti-vaccination not a skeptical position? Skeptical of official medical wisdom ... and so on.

Or, in fewer words, what

Forgive me, but is big-S Skepticism really a thing?
posted by philip-random at 7:24 PM on June 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


If they can be pushed back to the point at which future President cannot use "God told me to do it" as the rationale and justification for starting a war, or parents no longer deny their child medical attention because their religious faith forbids it, we'll have succeeded, and can move on. Right now, those issues are the big, obvious targets.

They're obvious but there are bigger. Parents denying the their kids medical care versus people who just can't afford it, or presidents being able to start wars at all. Which has caused more problems, a belief in astrology or a belief that if a person can't afford food, they should starve?
posted by smasuch at 7:25 PM on June 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


Sometimes it seems that (a) 95% of idea-based writing on the internet is just plausible-sounding polemics by people with a superficial and often incorrect understanding of their subject, and (b) the filter applied to this writing emphasizes the contrarian, sensational, but also least informed. The internet is fucking yellow.
posted by Nomyte at 7:27 PM on June 16, 2013 [9 favorites]


Excuse me for my cultural naivety ... but the notion that skepticism has become some kind of an ideological position just feels wobbly. It's as simple as the words above. How is anti-vaccination not a skeptical position? Skeptical of official medical wisdom ... and so on.

Or, in fewer words, what

Forgive me, but is big-S Skepticism really a thing?


Those people don't rigorously examine the science. Their 'skepticism' goes as far as not beliving the 'science' and 'medical establishment' and instead believing dodgy websites that a second's Googling would reveal as false. Standing against that makes the Skeptical movement opposed to not just religion but all forms of fuzzy woo.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 7:29 PM on June 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


Look at that section on positivism and tell me that's not an attack on skepticism as a thing.

I don't know enough about positivism, and to me he evades it entirely - no further piece is forthcoming. I would appreciate more explanation on this point.

Sadly, I didn't go to college.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:29 PM on June 16, 2013


Forgive me, but is big-S Skepticism really a thing?

I was sitting in a Peet's Coffee one day and unintentionally listening in on the conversation of the two people at a nearby table. There was a man and a woman. The woman would say something earnest about her life or her childhood or whatever. Then the man would explosively shit all over it, and follow it up by weirdly, backflailingly looking for affirmation from the woman, as if he'd just made some incisive, profound statement. It went something like:

HER: "When I was a girl, I lived in this rural village in Albania, and… you'll probably think this is weird… but every once in a while they'd slaughter a lamb for a celebration and they'd take out the liver and give it to the kids, and the kids would eat that liver."

HIM: "The liver, you know what the liver does? You know what the liver does? It's where the, you know, all the poisons in the body go. It's where all the poisons go, in the body, they go in the liver. You know, like…?"

HER: "I've been trying some alternative Chinese medicine recently. I got some of these herbs from a store and it makes a pretty nice tea."

HIM: "That's bullshit, all of that eastern medicine stuff. You know what they do in China? They eat tiger penis because they think it'll make them more, you know, it's like an aphrodisiac to them. That's why tigers are extinct in China. It's just all junk, you know…?"

I think they were on a date. It was really painful to listen to and it went on for quite a while.

That's not skepticism.
posted by Nomyte at 7:44 PM on June 16, 2013 [15 favorites]



That's not skepticism.


Why not? Again, this whole 'alternate medicine/organic food' type thing has been spreading into areas that are usually filled with pretty smart people, and while there's a nicer way to say it it does need to be called out as bullshit.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 7:51 PM on June 16, 2013 [5 favorites]


Why not? Again, this whole 'alternate medicine/organic food' type thing has been spreading into areas that are usually filled with pretty smart people, and while there's a nicer way to say it it does need to be called out as bullshit.

Why does it need to be called out as bullshit?
posted by codacorolla at 7:55 PM on June 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


Because it's harming people, and many people who follow it think they've discovered some secret knowlede instead of getting sucked into a scam.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 7:57 PM on June 16, 2013 [17 favorites]


It's "alternative medicine." Alternative. "Alternate medicine" would be, like, taking pharmaceuticals every other day.
posted by jaguar at 7:58 PM on June 16, 2013 [10 favorites]


Modulo the vagueness of their statements, and the thing about brains being deterministic Turing machines*, I think all of the author's stated core beliefs are also core beliefs that I have. It is therefore slightly strange that there's a lot in this essay I find kind of silly, starting with the failure to capitalize the "S" when referring to what seems to be a specific group of people rather than a practitioner of an epistemic yoga that shares its name with said group.

There's a whole lot in this essay that is not the sort of thing with which I would argue, but I am lost at, for example, "skeptics are neoliberals". I too am confused by the claims about linguistics, and insufficiently educated to evaluate them. This piece is less out-and-out ignorant than the one on Bayes' theorem, to my eye, though.

I do disagree with the "what's so bad about fortune-tellers?" business, though, although the fact that the author compares fortune-tellers with Hollywood blockbusters in defense of fortune-tellers is weird. Hollywood blockbusters are much worse than psychics, astrologers, etc. in terms of the total amount of pernicious bullshit disseminated.

However,

"Arguably the worst purveyors of bunk are the conspiracy crackpots and pseudohistorians, who really do fill the minds of their followers with some reprehensible opinions. But in picking apart the nonsense they come out with, skeptics miss the most important question, which is why they felt the need to create this nonsense in the first place. "

is an excellent point.

The aesthetic part I just skimmed, but it's main claim is disproven by the beauty of the notion of "balls-out logical positivism" -- like actual Rudolf Carnap cavorting on a riverbank in actual crotchless panties -- which idea is itself a fantastic work of comedic secular art.

This concludes my random and disjointed commentary predicated on a brief skimming of TFA.

*I don't know enough about brains to have a belief about this.
posted by kengraham at 8:01 PM on June 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


Why not?

Because in my man-on-the-street example, it was a rhetorical stance that was completely unrelated to actual examination of any facts. He listened to a statement, found a broad contrarian position, and then loudly announced that position. He could have just as easily taken a shit on his partner's taste in coffee ("all of that fancy coffee stuff was just bullshit made up by snobs"), clothing ("you know how all of the clothing all the stores sell is made in the same sweatshops by slaves, right?"), movies, whatever.
posted by Nomyte at 8:07 PM on June 16, 2013 [8 favorites]


Also can someone explain the dead-endedness of "linguistics, computational linguistics" from the skeptics link? I clearly don't know enough about linguistics to understand.

It's a really weird complaint that ignores the existence of qualitative research and sociolinguistics, which explore how language structure (including pragmatics) changes depending on context, position, and things like personal aspiration.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:10 PM on June 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


One way we might redeem the skepticism piece is to see it as a kind of satire.

I hope it's satire. It reads to me as trolling. It pushes so many skeptic, atheist, and rationalist nerd buttons: The last is particularly galling given how the essay depicts both "hocus-pocus" and skepticism as crutches or "warming blankets." I don't see the phrase "their creed is even more discredited than Christianity" as anything more than prodding atheists with a stick.
posted by knuckle tattoos at 8:15 PM on June 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


"We place no reliance
on Virgin or pigeon.
Our method is science,
our aim is religion."
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:31 PM on June 16, 2013 [5 favorites]


anyone who points out how creepy and weird lesswrong is gets a pass from me.

because seriously, that place is a rat king composed of fearful forever child prodigies and wannabes, like some rebooted grimdark pied piper morality tale.
posted by Ictus at 8:40 PM on June 16, 2013 [24 favorites]


because seriously, that place is a rat king composed of fearful forever child prodigies and wannabes, like some rebooted grimdark pied piper morality tale.

I have literally no idea what this sentence is talking about, but I very much enjoy the phrasing.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 8:49 PM on June 16, 2013 [12 favorites]


Much of what passes for (and congratulates itself upon) rationality is basically scientism; a kind of appeal-to-authority belief in a science that the believer doesn't actually understand. I'll take those people over the wilful ignoramuses who try to refute evolution with made up conundrums that only prove how committed they are to being uninformed, but they're only narrowly separated points on a line, not opposite poles as they like to imagine.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:05 PM on June 16, 2013 [20 favorites]


Capital-S Skeptic: A New Kind of Scientism.
posted by polymodus at 9:11 PM on June 16, 2013


Commenting on a derail-
Explicitly secular music:John Lennon, Pearl Jam, Arcade Fire

Explicitly secular movies include Monty Python and the Life of Brian and Agora, and if you want an example of skeptic videogames just look to pretty much any major RPG. Killing god (who's actually just a really tall alien) is a played out cliche.

The ideas of skepticism are deeply offensive to huge portions of consumer culture, so of course you're going to see less profit based art hinged on telling 2/3rds of a potential audience 'lol you're living a lie' even if the message is as important to some filmmakers/musicians/etc as the path to heaven is to others. And of course most secular art isn't even expressly identified as such because the artist just doesn't think about religion- at least one lyrics-writing member of Led Zeppelin spent the 1970s as a satanism fanboy but it didn't come up because they wrote songs about doin' it and elves and more doin' it instead of about how much there isn't a god. Additionally, some deeply religious folk shame each other for consuming music that isn't explicitly about how cool god is, so without that push on the other side you're never going to see too many anti-religion works.

As far as the 'skeptics=assholes' thing, I've personally met a few people involved with freethoughtblogs and they all seemed to be extremely nice and conscious of how to not be sexist assholes. Can't speak about anyone else since that's my whole experience.
posted by sandswipe at 9:27 PM on June 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


I do machine learning and will happily expound on Bayes' theorem to anyone who will listen and I think that piece is actually kind of brilliant. I'm still digesting it, and I already have major baby/bathwater problems with many of the points he's bringing up, but it's a great callout of a particular strand of thought that I think is pretty pernicious. Maybe more detailed comments sometime when I'm not about to go to sleep.
posted by en forme de poire at 9:34 PM on June 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'd be perfectly happy if the first essay was devoted only to taking down the cult of XKCD and Randall Munroe. lesswrong and Yudkowsky are perfectly capable of bringing down themselves.
posted by Apocryphon at 9:36 PM on June 16, 2013 [4 favorites]


I liked this part:
Objective reality in a liberal democracy might well be wonderful if you're a media personality or a tenured professor in a leafy college town. But for most people, reality sucks. And if they choose to reject it, I can't blame them. Proselytising skeptics certainly offer them no incentive to change their minds. Skeptics ask society's castaways to leave a reality in which they are good and valued people, and enter one in which they are pieces of warm garbage. Little wonder that so few take up the offer.
I also liked his piece on smug skim-readers.
posted by flabdablet at 9:43 PM on June 16, 2013 [4 favorites]



Explicitly secular music:John Lennon , Pearl Jam , Arcade Fire


Arcade Fire feel very religious.


The ideas of skepticism are deeply offensive to huge portions of consumer culture, so of course you're going to see less profit based art hinged on telling 2/3rds of a potential audience 'lol you're living a lie' even if the message is as important to some filmmakers/musicians/etc as the path to heaven is to others. And of course most secular art isn't even expressly identified as such because the artist just doesn't think about religion- at least one lyrics-writing member of Led Zeppelin spent the 1970s as a satanism fanboy but it didn't come up because they wrote songs about doin' it and elves and more doin' it instead of about how much there isn't a god. Additionally, some deeply religious folk shame each other for consuming music that isn't explicitly about how cool god is, so without that push on the other side you're never going to see too many anti-religion works.


Again, this is what I mean by aesthetically bad. I'm talking about explicitly religous rock and roll, and much of that is very, very good.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 9:43 PM on June 16, 2013


This was a very interesting set of essays. I would like to have a beer with this guy.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 9:51 PM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've become less religious in the last few years, primarily because I've stopped seeing eye-to-eye with a lot of the beliefs of American Christianity. But I'm unwilling to move towards skepticism and atheism because I see the same crap in their vocal adherents as I do in the vocal adherents of the American Christianity I came up in.

I think there's a good argument in there for Dawkins' blindness to his own bigotry, and there's some evidence of a neoliberal bent within this so-called "evangelical atheism" of Dawkins/Harris/Hitchens. And yes, there's a lot of white male privilege throughout this whole modern thread (and a lot of being criticizing the Church and Islam from the comfort of Western upper middle class living rooms).

But this piece, and the Bayes piece, are terrible. They're like so many anti (or pro) religion screeds -- filled with invective, appealing to emotion, but ultimately leaving the reader with only feelings, not beliefs. If there is a good argument to be made, it's not by him.

(And by the by, I don't think religion and the hoodoo are prima facie horrible things. I worry far more about the overall anti-science vibe of Western society of late -- the anti-GMO, chemophobic, anti-vaccine, anti-fluoride, you're-either-with-me-or-a-Monsanto/GSK/government-shill attitude. And that pervades among atheists as well as the religious, and it's threatening us with regressing from the Enlightenment itself. [I don't include the climate change skeptics since they really are mostly shills.])
posted by dw at 9:52 PM on June 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


I couldn’t get through the whole thing because his thrust seemed to me to be; "Those guys think they’re smarter than everyone else and like to mock others, let me tell you how I’m smarter than them and how stupid they are". Basically he moved up to a higher level. Maybe he just expressed himself badly, maybe I took it wrong. But still way too preachy and condescending for me.

but they're only narrowly separated points on a line, not opposite poles as they like to imagine.

I always think of them as points on opposite ends of a circle, they don’t realize they’re sitting right next to each other. I used to sympathize when I was younger, but I was an asshole when I was younger. I really see Skeptics and Evangelicals as pretty much the same. Anyone who thinks they have it all figured out is most likely mistaken, anyone who wants to tell others how to do it because they’ve got it figured out is obnoxious, and I don’t have time for any of it.
posted by bongo_x at 9:55 PM on June 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


Charlemagne In Sweatpants: "I was talking about explicitly religious music being better than explicitly secular music."

That's not entirely true. There's a lot of of Ars Subtilior that's just complete wankery noodling.
posted by meehawl at 10:05 PM on June 16, 2013


That article on Bayes' Theorem includes this quote, which I think demonstrates the incredible idiocy of this essay. In one short, ridiculous sentence, it dismisses self-driving cars, the Netflix recommendation engine, facial recognition systems, etc. etc.

He dismissed the Netflix recommendation engine and Apple's photo-sorting technology?! All I can say is, if pearl-clutching were computation, the Singularity would be here already!
posted by No-sword at 10:08 PM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Like just a few others here, I stop at the first sentence of the second para. Scepticism as an identity, WTF? Sceptics, whatever that means as an identity, are sexist, racist and elitist? Yah bollocks.

And scepticism is neoliberalism? get yer hand off it, tosser.
posted by wilful at 10:22 PM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Like countless other gurus, Yudkowsky has the pose of someone trying to communicate his special insight, but the prose of someone trying to conceal his lack of it. I suspect this is the secret of much of his cult-leader charisma.
Zing!
posted by flabdablet at 10:36 PM on June 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


> Irrespective of the actual merits of the fields he dismisses, the practice of dismissing fields of study--the whole body of work being done on some subject--is something I find anti-intellectual.

Life is short. Am I really supposed to take Breatharianism, Scientology and similar cruches for the weak-minded seriously? Why can't I simply dismiss them as obvious crap and go on with my life?

> Scepticism as an identity, WTF?

Well, you could try reading the comments here, or doing the tiniest bit of research. There are all sorts of people who primarily identify as skeptics, and they have magazines, associations and conventions.

The irony is that they're completely unskeptical about their skepticism... (and many times they are completely unskeptical about their political beliefs, often mindless libertarianism, and yes, Mr. Gillette, I'm looking at you.)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:40 PM on June 16, 2013 [7 favorites]


I enjoy that some skeptics get torqued when someone creates a 'skeptic' straw man and kicks the shit out of it. Yes its a form of intellectual masturbation that maybe people ought better do in the privacy of their journal, but a lot of skeptic rhetoric I've encountered is all about jousting with straw men. Believer's too. And adherents and opponents of almost everything that involves mental constructs.

Everyone wants their movement and their allies treated with more fairness and consideration than they have been so far, and we are almost all have some good points about being mischaracterized.
posted by logonym at 10:45 PM on June 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh, and I found the original article quite repellant:

> There's a lot of phony outrage on skeptic sites about spirit mediums like John Edward, who purport to channel voices "from the other side", and in so doing exploit the grief of the kind of people skeptics laugh at anyway. Edward is obviously slime, but I'm convinced that many of his customers are quite aware of that.

Clearly the writer either never actually watched John Edward, or has no empathy with others at all. John Edward's show was really one of the most nakedly evil things I ever saw - he is literally a ghoul, profiting hugely from people's grief, nearly always parents who have lost their children and are at their most vulnerable.

> And even at their worst, the hucksters of mumbo-jumbo are only minor-league con artists.

What sort of argument is that?! "There are bigger criminals in the world, so it's OK to be a small one."?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:46 PM on June 16, 2013 [15 favorites]


Well, you could try reading the comments here, or doing the tiniest bit of research.

Thanks for the entirely unnecessary tone, there. An alternative reading of my comment was that I had not realised that people identified with such a community, and this was a new concept to me, so rather than denying it's existence I was expressing my surprise.

I still don't care what this person thinks and I will still express my scepticism that this so-called community is anything worth thinking about or caring about. And I’ll still read Dawkins’ books, and won’t take personally the fact that he’s no great philosopher and may do more harm than good.
posted by wilful at 10:49 PM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


>"I was talking about explicitly religious music being better than explicitly secular music."

I think extremely religious artists feel more obligated to put their best efforts towards praise. They're immersed in an environment where people are talking about worship and people are discussing different levels of praise and things like that all the time.

Like, John Lennon wrote Imagine, and that was alright, but he never felt like he had to make Come Together into Come Together And Flip Off A Nun or anything because he didn't have a reminder once (twice, thrice+) a week that religion is basically the only thing in life that matters so he wrote more songs about being in love, a circus poster, or how high he got with Peter Fonda at a party once instead of making those really great songs all be about God.
posted by sandswipe at 10:56 PM on June 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


I still don't care what this person thinks and I will still express my scepticism that this so-called community is anything worth thinking about or caring about.

Then, trying to put this as politely as possible, why are you in this topic anyways? It doesn't sound like you're in a mindset to discuss this with other people.
posted by FJT at 11:04 PM on June 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think extremely religious artists feel more obligated to put their best efforts towards praise. They're immersed in an environment where people are talking about worship and people are discussing different levels of praise and things like that all the time.

Also, historically, the Church has had the deep pockets and has hired the best artists. Mozart wrote some of the most beautifully sublime religious music in the western tradition, but if he believed in God at all, it was only through inertia.
posted by KathrynT at 11:04 PM on June 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


I was talking about explicitly religious music being better than explicitly secular music.

People like Jerry Lee Lewis, Al Green and Nas all made great music before they renounced the devil's work and went back the church.

Then all of them decided that their true heart lay with secular rock and roll, but the church had pretty much ruined them for it.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:17 PM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Then, trying to put this as politely as possible, why are you in this topic anyways? It doesn't sound like you're in a mindset to discuss this with other people.

Huh? One thing doesn't lead to another - came for the conversation, didn't realise I had to justify my participation. I disagree with the proposition of the original post, just like some other here.
posted by wilful at 11:18 PM on June 16, 2013


Describing Dawkins's mean but understandable sarcasm in the "Dear Muslima" jibe as "hate speech" tells me all I need to know about this person's skeptical abilities. Yeah, he's probably not cut out to be a skeptic.
posted by Decani at 11:28 PM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Life is short. Am I really supposed to take Breatharianism, Scientology and similar cruches for the weak-minded seriously? Why can't I simply dismiss them as obvious crap and go on with my life?"

Those aren't what LogicalDash was referring to. The author dismisses linguistics, for crying out loud. He sneers at perfectly legitimate academic fields of study the same way that skeptics sneer at the things you list.

"I enjoy that some skeptics get torqued when someone creates a 'skeptic' straw man and kicks the shit out of it.

and

"I also liked his piece on smug skim-readers."

...which is a blog entry that basically claims that his critics must not be actually reading what he writes, otherwise they wouldn't criticize him.

I'm pretty much completely okay with his mocking and debunking of capital-S Skepticism, as a movement. It really is a thing (seriously, those of you who doubt this, google it) that's grown over the last twenty years, a subculture where people have conventions and see it as some sort of way of life, or something. I use to be a subscribing member of Committee for Skeptical Inquiry but these people alternately baffle and annoy me. I've also been an atheist for my entire adult life, but the New Atheists, likewise, alternately baffle and annoy me. Again, I share his criticisms of this as a subculture and I do so from the same direction.

The problem I have is that he confuses the subculture with, well, pretty much every idea associated with the subculture. Okay, that's not the problem, really. That would be annoying. But what is insufferable is that he's so incredibly sophomoric. He's exactly like the people he's mocking. It's kind of amazing. He reads, to me, just like some Objectivist talking about shit they don't understand but are so relatively incompetent, they don't even know they don't understand it. He writes about Bayesianism the way that Michael Crichton wrote about chaos theory. Everything he criticizes he writes about as if what he knows comes from other polemics plus a few Wikipedia articles.

What nomyte wrote above...

"95% of idea-based writing on the internet is just plausible-sounding polemics by people with a superficial and often incorrect understanding of their subject"

...is so very, sadly true. Well, I'm not sure that all idea-based writing can be characterized this way, but I'm pretty sure that all idea-based polemics on the internet can be characterized this way.

And the reason this is the case is because polemics, in particular, are primarily about social identity. They're a way to represent, to define in-group and out-group. It's not really about the ideas, that's why the writers never feel the necessity to actually be competent in these topics.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:51 PM on June 16, 2013 [13 favorites]


Skeptics of big-S Skepticism may not have heard about politicized atheists:
I had the pleasure and discomfort of attending parts of the Reason Rally on Saturday, a march on Washington by atheists, agnostics, and heathens. It was cold, rainy, and frequently quite boring. I mostly went to see Bad Religion, but I enjoyed Eddie Izzard’s routine and Cristina Rad, who responds to theists this way: “You can keep your personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I have a personal relationship with reality.”

But I also found myself disappointed by how much it sounded like a meeting of milquetoast liberalism, and wondering, again, why atheism needs to be a social movement.
It's largely an outgrowth of politicized evangelicals, an acceptance of the conflation of Christianity and the Republican Party.
posted by anotherpanacea at 12:47 AM on June 17, 2013


The Skeptic movement is often a fairly good example of weak sense critical thinking, which Richard Paul describes thusly:
The weak-sense critical thinker is a highly skilled but selfishly motivated pseudo-intellectual who works to advance one's personal agenda without seriously considering the ethical consequences and implications. Conceived as such, the weak-sense critical thinker is often highly skilled but uses those skills selectively so as to pursue unjust and selfish ends
One particularly good example/litmus test surrounds Rachel Carson's 'Silent Spring', where a lot of 'Skeptics' are just as wilfully wrong as the most devout of homeopaths.

I also do tend to feel it would be helpful if the myriad lists of logical fallacies also had 'Being a dick. (Biggus Dickus)' listed.

I do feel, however, that there is more than one (or a more differentiated) Skeptic movement; sure you have your Jillets (does he have a razor like Ockham?), but there's also people like Ben Goldacre and the peeps at Real Climate, etc... (and indeed a lot of people here)
posted by titus-g at 12:49 AM on June 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


I disagree with the proposition of the original post, just like some other here.

Ah, okay, so you disagree. Because I interpreted "don't care what this person thinks" and "skepticism that this community is worth caring about" as stating that you'd rather not think of the article or the Skepticism community AT ALL, to the point of apathetic indifference.
posted by FJT at 12:50 AM on June 17, 2013


This guy is just some hipster who has identified a 'thing' and decided he is against it, it reminds me of the fervour and zeal and mayfly-like ephemerality of (UK) student politics (or this). As someone commented, give him a year and it will be something else.
posted by epo at 2:28 AM on June 17, 2013


That video begins with NSFW language, I only remembered after the curfew ended.
posted by epo at 2:43 AM on June 17, 2013


That anti-Bayesian article is... special. It's a sad state of affairs when it falls to a Bayesian to point to the rather more impressive anti-Bayesian rhetoric of one R.A. Fisher (1922):
It is this last confusion [between a true population parameter and an estimate thereof], in the writer's opinion, more than any other, which has led to the survival to the present day of the fundamental paradox of inverse probability [i.e., Bayesianism], which like an impenetrable jungle arrests progress towards precision of statistical concepts. The criticisms of BOOLE, VENN, and CHRYSTAL have done something towards banishing the method, at least from the elementary text-books of Algebra; but though we may agree wholly with CHRYSTAL that inverse probability is a mistake (perhaps the only mistake to which the mathematical world has so deeply committed itself), there yet remains the feeling that such a mistake would not have captivated the minds of LAPLACE and POISSON if there had been nothing in it but error.
Scathing, poetic and ever so gently patronising at the end. That is how an anti-Bayesian screed should be delivered.

Agree with Fisher or disagree with him, he was always worth listening to and thinking about. But this is just sort of pathetic, and more than a little disheartening. As a Bayesian, I feel we've earned the right to a better class of enemy.
posted by mixing at 3:14 AM on June 17, 2013 [7 favorites]


There definitely seems to be some kind of group intersection between Skeptics, Libertarians and Antifeminists.

It's not the case that every Skeptic is a Libertarian or Antifeminist. But if you get a group of Skeptics together, it does seem to be true that there will be a higher proportion Libertarians and Antifeminists among them than in the general population.

This kind of intersection isn't uncommon. If you get a group of Feminists together, I strongly suspect you'd find a higher proportion Vegetarians than in the general population. That doesn't mean you can't be a feminist and enjoy a good steak. But the groups do seem to be associated somehow.

I'm not sure how these associations arise. There are various possibilities.

It might be pure contingency. One group happens to be differentially exposed to another, and the memes propagate between the groups: Vegetarians start to adopt Feminist ideas, Feminists start to adopt Vegetarian ideas.

It might be that the groups are associated through a third group. Feminists are more likely to be Liberals, Vegetarians are also more likely to Liberals, so Feminists are more likely to be Vegetarians, without there being a direct association between Vegetarianism and Feminism.

Or, there might be an underlying ideological reason. Feminists are people who are concerned with exploitation in the abstract, Vegetarians are also, so the underlying abstract idea of opposing exploitation leads to both Vegetarianism and Feminism.

So, why is there an apparent intersection between Skeptics, Libertarians and Antifeminists?

It might just be pure contingency. But I think there might be other reasons.

A lot of people in the Skeptic and Atheist movements seem to come from an Evangelical Christian background or environment, and to be rebelling against the specifically Christian aspects of it. These people might find it reassuring if they can find pseudo-scientific reasons to keep believing in a subordinate role for women, to replace the biblical reasons they were brought up with. That way they can minimize the changes to their worldview.

Ideologically, Evangelical Protestants, Skeptics and New Atheists seem to have a highly Individualist ideology. They believe that what happens to a person depends almost entirely on his own decisions, not outside forces or group membership.

In Protestant religion, this individualism is associated with the doctrine of Sola Fide: salvation by faith alone. Protestants believe that individual faith is all that is necessary to get to heaven. (Catholics on the other hand believe that various sacraments are necessary for salvation: faith is a part of salvation, but so are "works", which consist of both good deeds, and communion with the church as a collective entity.)

In politics, individualism is associated with libertarian politics, in which the individual is primary, and government should have the minimum control over individualism. It is also associated with opposition to feminism: if an individual's success is mostly down to his or her own choices, feminism must be mostly irrelevant.

So, there might be an underlying ideology of strong Individualism, which results in the intersections between Evangelical Protestantism, Libertarianism, Anti-feminism, Skepticism and New Atheism. However, it might just be contingency.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 3:26 AM on June 17, 2013 [14 favorites]


Look, even if this guy changes his mind about what he's passionate in a year, he's done a fairly thorough job of explaining how identifying as a Skeptic ends up putting you in bed with dogs just as much as identifying with a variety of theist groups because of the rampant misogyny, thinly-veiled racism, regular embracing of pseudoscientific ideas such as those in evolutionary psychology, etc etc.

I have a lot of issues with gender and science that come down to the fact that I got a social science education and it makes me one of those people whose lower case s skepticism actually keeps them from identifying with the Skeptic movement. There's enough history of science propping up those in positions of power and putting down the marginalized through eugenics, through only having men as test subjects, through only having college students as test subjects, etc etc that there are a lot of scientific conclusions that I'm simply unwilling to accept just because I'm putting my bet on the side that most structures that hold people down are social constructs and not something that comes from nature. This is because the shit that's been taken down over the course of history has included tons of stuff like eugenics. I can't know enough about every field to be able to explicitly take down scientific conclusions (though I can generally pick apart methodology, and metafilter comment threads about papers are always good for getting a general idea of what's right and what's wrong about anything in the news), but I have a healthy bullshit sensor and enough knowledge of the trends in scientific history in relation to marginalized groups to be skeptical of anything that punches down, so to speak.

And this makes me uncomfortable in Skeptical communities, because they are often so well versed in the bullshit around evolutionary psychology in particular that they can draw their own bullshit conclusions about their own relationships with their girlfriends from something some evopsych person told them that happily reinforced the ideas they already have. (I spent a few weeks reading LessWrong and that was an actual article I read on there.)

Anyway, I subscribe to Atheism + stuff now, because it's better about these things.
posted by NoraReed at 3:40 AM on June 17, 2013 [14 favorites]


Can I bring up here that one of my least favorite attitudes on the Internet is the one where we pick apart pieces of writing on the Internet as if they were anything other than a guy kind of dumping out his mind, trying to make connections? I'm not gonna bother reading the second of these two essays, because the first was unnecessarily long and not entirely well thought-out, but it was nonetheless an entertaining read with some thoughts in it that weren't entirely incorrect.

Stephen Bond is a known curmudgeon and I disagree with virtually everything he's ever said about books and movies, but he seems to use the Internet as a way of dumping out his brain and he doesn't aggressively self-promote himself (dude doesn't even Tweet) and the only reason people know who he is is that he's been on the Internet since just about ever, and he's also a fairly entertaining read. The nitpicking is unnecessary, not because it's invalid but because Bond doesn't deserve that level of close scrutiny.

What I do think is interesting, though I'm not sure if he said it directly, is that skepticism is a tool rather than an identity, and that many self-proclaimed skeptics are unwilling to direct that tool at the parts of their lives they'd rather enjoy without scrutiny. His criticism of Dawkins is spot-on for that reason. And while I think it's in somewhat bad faith to accuse Randall Munroe of sexism – he writes a more-or-less diary comic, and doesn't write men or women who don't sound like Randall Munroe – he's still largely correct about the problems with "skeptics" and sexism, who like to aim their skepticism at the notion that women are in some ways equal to men rather than at the notion that they are not. "You say you want equal pay to men but you ALSO talk about going shopping! I HATE shopping! Clearly there are profound differences between etc etc etc etc etc." It would be kind of hilarious if it wasn't, like, sexist as balls.

Ultimately I avoid the term "skeptic" even more than I avoid the term "atheist", because while I find that neither word is an adequate self-descriptor, atheism is at least rooted in a very logical attitude towards the world, so it works as a simple identifier even if not as a full-blown identity. But I've met very few people who are full-blown skeptics, and the ones who pretend to be are often the least skeptical of the lot. Ironically, I find that the most skeptical people I know are often the ones who most strongly identify with some flavor of religious faith. I've said it before on the blue, but I think that the strongest faith comes entangled with a constant and brutal doubt, and people with experience testing their belief in some kind of God over and over again often come out the other end much more able to detect subtle shades of ignorance in somebody else's argument. It's not the same as "has this been tested?" or the weird LessWrong attitude of "let's identify ALL THE LOGIC", both of which allow for a lot of cherry-picking and favoritism. It's more a matter of noticing what beliefs somebody else has and takes for granted, and also noticing what things they believe because they feel that they must believe it. In other words, it's a more person-centric process, which is also what I feel makes it so effective.
posted by Rory Marinich at 3:41 AM on June 17, 2013 [14 favorites]


Dear Internet: Like many people, I've recently come to the conclusion that atheists are assholes, and as such no longer want to have anything to do with them. I'm now faced with the dilemma of what form of irrationalism I should believe in. Be old-school and go Catholic? Go further and Orthodox (no half measures there)? A tasteful modern Episcopalianism? Judaism looks interesting, but I love bacon. Islam looks interesting but I fly a lot and am worried that could be a problem. And then there's Buddhism, Hinduism, New Age spirit healing, Scientology, Mormonism, UFO mysticism, Kabbala, Wicca and more. Please help!
Yours sincerely,
Ex-skeptic searching for the truth, or a truth
posted by acb at 3:42 AM on June 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


Dear Ex-skeptic:

No need to fret! Simply post all your sincerest-held beliefs to MetaFilter, and we will cheerfully tell you to stop existing immediately. It's fun in the same way that atoms have fun whilst being ripped apart by nuclear blasts!

Yours sincerely,
Doesn't Know A Damn About Nuclear Physics
posted by Rory Marinich at 3:44 AM on June 17, 2013 [6 favorites]


acb, I recommend Unitarian Universalism. They seem to be more about searching for truth than anything else. Or they can be, anyway? They accept multiple truths.

However, if what you feel like is adopting an identity that is more about yelling "fuck it!", throwing your hands in the air, and laughing hysterically, Discordianism is pretty great!
posted by NoraReed at 3:45 AM on June 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Even if you limit to the post-war period, there's very little (no?) skeptic art (I may be suffering from No True Scotsman here). It's an interesting omission that had never occurred to me, so thanks, Charlemagne.

What would skeptic art be? Art put up to nothing in particular? Piss-Christ? Or what? And how could you tell?

Because most of the time when sceptics create they create things about where they see beauty in the world. That picture of a landscape or of stars might be there because they see it as beautiful because God made it - or they see it as beautiful because God didn't. Good art normally comes out of love - and whether it's for God or for the world the consequence is almost the same. In fact you'd almost have to tell good skeptic art by the absence of signifiers.
posted by Francis at 4:23 AM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Not at all, Pope. He's much more saying "I'm a socialist now."

Okay, so basically, this is no different from "There's a bunch of really privileged white guys in punk rock, so fuck them, I'm a socialist now."

How is this any different? It's still a simplistic dismissal of a lot of concepts because he doesn't like the aesthetic, followed by embracing a simplistic philosophy with a cuddlier aesthetic.
posted by corb at 4:53 AM on June 17, 2013


I have to agree with many of his points in the skeptic article. Anti-vacers and economists need to put under severe scrutiny because what the are doing can hurt a large number of people indirectly. Your average psychic generally only hurts people that seek them out. Skeptics love going after psychics because they are an easy target, so easy to disprove, where as economists are not.

The article in particular was spot on about Penn and Teller's political gullibility, Dawkin's Isalmaphobia.

Surprised he didn't mention Sam Harris.
posted by KaizenSoze at 5:04 AM on June 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Science has a high media profile and a powerful lobby group: in the midst of a global recession and sweeping government cuts, science funding has generally held up or even increased.

I'm pretty sure if the NSF had feelings, this sentence (and associated links) would reduce it to lonely crying in a corner.

I generally liked the article, because a lot of my colleagues do pride themselves on being assholes and that annoys me, but I don't really like the author's habit of getting science or scientists in general caught in the crossfire. We have enough problems from the anti-intellectual movements in the U.S. and their claims of elitism, they don't need help from him. (And yes, I know that's not what he's trying to say, I just wish he would be clearer about the distinction.)

Off to read the Bayes' theorem article. This should be fun.
posted by yeolcoatl at 5:09 AM on June 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


>> And even at their worst, the hucksters of mumbo-jumbo are only minor-league con artists.

> What sort of argument is that?! "There are bigger criminals in the world, so it's OK to be a small one."?


Right, but I think it *is* valid to say that if your goal is fighting crime, it's better to fight the big criminals first, and work your way toward the small ones (to first order; ignoring broken-window effects, etc., etc.). If you spend lots of time fighting small-time criminals while ignoring big-time ones, then probably you're biased against the small criminals, biased for the big criminals, or both.

That is, someone who was really only motivated by desire to comfort suffering people could easily spend a lifetime helping the poor and fighting injustice, without even having enough time to notice that John Edward exists.
posted by officer_fred at 5:15 AM on June 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


...well, that wasn't what I was expecting at all. Not sure what any of that has to do with Bayes' Theorem or Bayseans (I only know the statistical sense, I guess there was some metonymy happening somewhere and nobody sent me the memo?).
posted by yeolcoatl at 5:35 AM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm glad to see someone who seems fairly reasonable calling bullshit on this "skepticism"/nerd-worshiping scientism. I can't tell you how many conversations I've had with dogmatic "skeptic"/scientistic (note: not: scientific) STEM/IT types in which it became clear that my interlocutor was just another dogmatist--a religious fanatic without a religion, and with an unshakeable, blind faith in science.

It turns out that I know quite a bit about the philosophy of science, and I'm pretty good at explaining the issues to neophytes...but, man, you simply cannot reason with some of those people... Even if you're doing nothing but, say, trying to get them to understand the problem of induction you'll often run up against the derision for philosophy that they've picked up in their little community. I've actually had interlocutors on the internet who would send me lame clips from Dawkins or NDT saying something dumb about philosophy, as if that constituted some kind of argument.

OTOH, I do worry about the well-known tendency, flirted with in the first piece, for people to flee from hard-core positivism or scientism to equally bad stuff on the other end of the spectrum--e.g. Kuhnianism or Po-mo-y conceptions of science. True, the author only says that "science always has a political dimension," and not that it is irredeemably political...and, well, even the former/weaker claim probably isn't quite true, the latter is a disaster. I get especially nervous about creeping Kuhnianism when people deploy that Planck quote to the effect that scientific argument never convinces people, but that the old generation just has to die off. First, that quote is beloved of those who want to analogize scientific argument to religious conversion. Second, Planck's claim turns out to be inconsistent with actual empirical evidence in the history of science. In actual fact, older scientists often adopt new theories before younger ones do. (If I'm not mistaken, that's what happened with the Copenhagen interpretation of QM.)

Anyway, no reason to go hopping out of the scientistic frying pan into the relativistic fire...
posted by Fists O'Fury at 7:07 AM on June 17, 2013 [12 favorites]


Because we perceive the world through metaphors, all observations, theories, experiments, statements and facts have a context, including a political context. Our science is necessarily and unavoidably contaminated by our political system; political ideologies propagate through science, and science on its own is incapable of purging them. This is widely understood by people who study scientists, but less often by scientists themselves, and never by skeptics.

Sorry for posting twice in a row, but this is the sort of thing I'm talking about. "Because we perceive the world through metaphors..." Well, no we don't. It's not even clear what it means to "perceive x through a metaphor." Metaphors seem to have some important role in our thinking, but not every thought can be metaphorical. The unqualified claim "we perceive the world through metaphors" isn't even clear enough to evaluate, but to the extent that we can evaluate it, it's false. (Note: it's clearly intended as a universal generalization.)

And "facts have a context"??? This all spins off the rails very quickly. "Our science is necessarily and unavoidably contaminated by our political system"...well, this might mean that the political system has some effect on what scientists accept, or it might mean that each scientific result is so contaminated. The former is probably true, but the latter isn't. Science is, in fact, a way of letting the relevant facts and evidence have its full force on our beliefs, so that that evidence can shove things like presuppositions and political biases aside. And that's exactly what happens in a hell of a lot of cases. If I want to know whether timber rattlers eat mice in the wild, I go and observe timber rattlers. If I observe fifty timber rattlers, and all eat mice, there's really not much room here--unless I'm some kind of nut--for my political beliefs to interfere.

This is the point, of course, at which all sorts of weak points about the alleged "social construction" of this or that, or political considerations about funding, or whatnot, or skeptical points to the effect that we "can't be sure" that our results are unbiased get deployed...but those are different points, and refuting them is beyond the scope of this comment. But it's not permissible to simply say them and pretend that they've been proven. (In fact, if political bias really *were* so pervasive, we couldn't even prove this point, as we'd have to admit that even our reasoning about this might be biased...

Again: the real danger here is that people will be tempted to leap from scientism to equally indefensible varieties of relativism, anti-realism, social constructionism, skepticism in the traditional sense, etc.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 7:43 AM on June 17, 2013 [7 favorites]


What would skeptic art be? Art put up to nothing in particular? Piss-Christ? Or what? And how could you tell?

Piss Christ is an interesting entry into the "how could you tell?" category because Serrano has identified himself in some interviews as not traditionally religious but spiritual. A fair bit of art identified as "blasphemous" toward religion was produced by religious or "spiritual" people. Chris Ofili and his political antagonist, Rudy Giuliani happen to both be Catholic. Then on the other side, you have people like Verdi historically, who probably was an atheist but wrote one of the most popular Requiems and an opera that featured a complex religious minister as its moral protagonist and concludes with a homily about forgiveness.

I think the notion of some sort of social and artistic separatism between theist and atheist, the artificial dichotomy between believing in and critiquing mainstream religion might be a relatively recent fabrication.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:02 AM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Has anyone written a really good essay on how to point out to nice people that their deeply held views and beliefs may not only be objectively incorrect but actively harmful to themselves/their society without coming off as an arrogant asshole?

Because I would read that.
posted by Wretch729 at 8:04 AM on June 17, 2013 [7 favorites]


This isn't "I'm a reasonable person who has come to reject cism", this is "FUCK YOU DAD! YOU CAN'T MAKE ME GO TO CHURCH!"

This is too deliciously ironic for words.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 8:33 AM on June 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Has anyone written a really good essay on how to point out to nice people that their deeply held views and beliefs may not only be objectively incorrect but actively harmful to themselves/their society without coming off as an arrogant asshole?

I was just going to write something similar. It's difficult to fight for what equates to a negative position without being taken as a contrary douchebag who doesn't have an "open mind."
posted by papercake at 9:04 AM on June 17, 2013


Right, but I think it *is* valid to say that if your goal is fighting crime, it's better to fight the big criminals first, and work your way toward the small ones (to first order; ignoring broken-window effects, etc., etc.).

The broken-window theory of skepticism might be that debunking easy targets like psychic hucksters is a way of teaching people to think skeptically so that they can go on and apply that kind of thinking to more important targets like economists or anti-vaccine crusaders.

But a skeptic might note that there isn't much evidence that the broken-window theory of crimefighting actually works.
posted by straight at 9:08 AM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm really warming to this man.
Lest anyone declare I'm trying to out-moralise the moralisers and out-prig the prigs: you can stop projecting now, bronies. I'm not trying to knock you off my perch, I'm trying to drag you back down to my level. I'm no model for anyone. I'm lost, like you once were. I'm still searching for meaning and belonging, I'm still struggling with how to be conscious and human in the 21st century and not go insane, and I'm not making any progress. I don't know the answer, but I do know this: the New Sincerity ain't it.
Nice find! Thanks, tmotat.
posted by flabdablet at 9:09 AM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ender's Game as porn is making me grin like a loon.
posted by flabdablet at 9:13 AM on June 17, 2013 [5 favorites]


The Weak Man Fallacy
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:20 AM on June 17, 2013


I'm with everyone else who broadly agrees with his reservations about Skeptics, while thinking that he maybe overreached himself a bit with some of his points.

Dawkins and Harris in particular were very important to me in that they 'positively' converted me to atheism while also 'negatively' converting me from New Atheism and what seemed like the attendant Islamophobia and intolerance. And don't get me wrong, I'm not a touchy-feely relativist: I'm the guy from the comment above who ruins the party/date/whatever by being rude about your opinions on aspirin being 'unhealthy' or the efficacy of reiki.

But I remember always being sickened by the kind of comments on Dawkins' site and that horrible realisation that he condoned much of what they were posting. And having been a bit dubious about the Buddhism, Drugs 'n' NMR ending of End of Faith, I read the Dusky Hordes of Heathens ending of Letter to a Christian Nation, laughed out loud and threw the book across the room.

> man, you simply cannot reason with some of those people... Even if you're doing nothing but, say, trying to get them to understand the problem of induction you'll often run up against the derision for philosophy that they've picked up in their little community. I've actually had interlocutors on the internet who would send me lame clips from Dawkins or NDT saying something dumb about philosophy, as if that constituted some kind of argument.

Yeah, the problem of induction is a big fat button of rage for some people. I'm not so hot on philosophy of science (my masters was chemistry and I've only dabbled with the philosophical aspects) but I remember commenting to a fellow zealous atheist that I thought apologists for faith should use better arguments and that if it was me I'd use stuff like the problem of induction to show that 'everything comes down to faith really' or whatever. I was going to go on and say 'of course, it's easy to knock that one down by appealing to their own behaviour' but I didn't get that far. We were hiking in the hills in Scotland and must have covered about 5 km of shouted disagreement over the problem of induction.

> Ideologically, Evangelical Protestants, Skeptics and New Atheists seem to have a highly Individualist ideology. They believe that what happens to a person depends almost entirely on his own decisions, not outside forces or group membership.
...
In politics, individualism is associated with libertarian politics, in which the individual is primary, and government should have the minimum control over individualism.


You can add neoliberalism to that list (individuals as rationally self-interested consumers), which may be where the article's author was coming from with the neoliberalism thing.
posted by Isn't in each artist (7) at 9:21 AM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


If I want to know whether timber rattlers eat mice in the wild, I go and observe timber rattlers. If I observe fifty timber rattlers, and all eat mice, there's really not much room here--unless I'm some kind of nut--for my political beliefs to interfere.

Well, except if you were studying timber rattlers in a particular geographic area or during a particular event (like a temporary spike in the mouse population) that might not reflect their eating habits at large. Or if you were predisposed to miss timber rattlers that don't eat mice because of some other aspect of your data collection methods. And while these might seem like simple technical problems, you might be inclined to be less critical about your own methods because of your political beliefs. They don't even have to be political beliefs, of course, just any type of preconception. It gets even hairier when we start talking about more complicated behaviors that rely more on interpretation -- Joan Roughgarden has an interesting section in her book about this where she talks about how feminine males of a particular bird species were commonly referred to in the literature as "deceptive," because of course a male in the wild couldn't be having a same-sex encounter on purpose. But there was no evidence from the actual data that these birds were actually being duped or that they couldn't tell the difference.

Again: the real danger here is that people will be tempted to leap from scientism to equally indefensible varieties of relativism, anti-realism, social constructionism, skepticism in the traditional sense, etc.

But is this a defense of scientism, to say that other ideologies are also dangerous?
posted by en forme de poire at 9:34 AM on June 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


I still regard the scientific method as the best way to model reality, and reason as the best way to uncover truth ... What has changed is that I have come to reject skepticism as an identity.

Okay, I'm glad the author got over his weird little problem, but I don't see what use this is to anyone else. It's like a recently sober alcoholic warning me about addiction when I'm drinking a beer. Your issues are not universal, your issues are not profound.
posted by spaltavian at 9:34 AM on June 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


This might just be me, but I don't really think talking about Dawkins as part of the Skeptics community is quite accurate. He is a leading figure of the New Atheist movement, which does overlap with the Skeptic community, but they aren't really the same thing. I always think of skeptics as people like Phil Plait, Carl Sagan, or The Amazing Randi who sort of ignore religion until it starts dealing in pseudoscience or fraud, things like faith healing or trying to get Young Earth Creationism taught as science. New Atheism on the other hand very aggressively goes after religion to the point of almost ignoring pseudoscience unless it's being used by religious people. The thrusts of the two movements are different, and any overlap in goals is just that, overlap. That could just be my own (mis)interpretation of the movements though.

The truth is, I became a skeptic for aesthetic reasons, and the truth is, its aesthetics now repel me.

If you want me to take you seriously as a deep thinker, admitting to choosing your personal philosophy based on its fashion sense is probably not the best move. In fact, I don't really know what the aesthetics are. The Skeptic community certainly has it's problems, and I've stopped being as active in it in large part because of the blatant sexism, but I've never noticed that the movement even has an explicate or even implicate aesthetic.
posted by Gygesringtone at 9:36 AM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


spaltavian: I mean maybe, but to extend this metaphor it seems like there's a whole lotta alcoholics in denial out there.
posted by en forme de poire at 9:36 AM on June 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Your issues are not universal, your issues are not profound.

That sounded harsher than I meant, so let me add that my issues aren't universal or profound, either. But "some guy worries a little less about fitting a label" doesn't mean said guy has any special insight on the topic.
posted by spaltavian at 9:42 AM on June 17, 2013



Has anyone written a really good essay on how to point out to nice people that their deeply held views and beliefs may not only be objectively incorrect but actively harmful to themselves/their society without coming off as an arrogant asshole?


You might want to start here (What in life did it take you a surprisingly long time to realize you've been doing wrong all along?) ... because we've all done it. Indeed, we keep on doing it. One of the prime arguments for generalized skepticism, I figure, which includes skepticism toward Skepticism.
posted by philip-random at 10:21 AM on June 17, 2013


There is an interesting difference between ancient and modern varieties of philosophical skepticism. The ancient skeptics argued that, since knowledge is unobtainable, it is best to withhold assent to any position. One then cultivates one's garden, I suppose. The contemporary, relativist skeptic, on the other hand, seems to conclude that, since all positions are equally good (or bad), they should pick the one they like the most, and fervently champion it.
posted by thelonius at 10:25 AM on June 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


If you want me to take you seriously as a deep thinker, admitting to choosing your personal philosophy based on its fashion sense is probably not the best move. In fact, I don't really know what the aesthetics are. The Skeptic community certainly has it's problems, and I've stopped being as active in it in large part because of the blatant sexism, but I've never noticed that the movement even has an explicate or even implicate aesthetic.

I think "aesthetics" is a weird word choice, and the author would have done better to stick with the other key word: "ugly." It's, to him, an ugly movement with ugly people saying ugly things in an ugly way. That I get. I understand disliking skepticism's smug, strident, know-it-all tone aesthetic.

I have no idea how "touchy-feely dorks" fits in with that aesthetic in the author's mind - that seems like guilt by association to me. Does skepticism really have a reputation as overly touchy-feely?
posted by knuckle tattoos at 10:39 AM on June 17, 2013


MetaFilter: just plausible-sounding polemics by people with a superficial and often incorrect understanding of their subject
posted by Gelatin at 10:44 AM on June 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


Certainly good advice philip-random but the reason I asked for an essay or better yet a book is that such a pithy one-liner ("wisdom is usually an outcome of life experience and rarely the privilege of the untried" for those who didn't follow the link) is generally true but specifically useless. If I'm conversing with a Scientologist who cites the acumulated wisdom of the life experiences of hundreds of sincerely believing Scientologists where does it get me?
posted by Wretch729 at 10:48 AM on June 17, 2013


^ white people bickering about nothing ^
posted by Ghost Mode at 10:49 AM on June 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


I have no idea how "touchy-feely dorks" fits in with that aesthetic in the author's mind

I think that's sort of just him shoehorning a hate-on for xkcd in with the rest of his thesis. I'm willing to forgive it: xkcd fans can be fucking horrible and they have a ton of overlap with the communities he's talking about, a lot of the essay is pretty good, and he's obviously writing this as part of a process to figure things out.
posted by NoraReed at 10:54 AM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Certainly good advice philip-random but

whoops. didn't mean to link to the single comment but that thread as a whole. My overall point being that I've found the best way to engage with someone who I think of as WRONG is to start by acknowledging how easy WRONG is. We all do it. We all keep doing it. and so on.
posted by philip-random at 11:13 AM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm skeptical that skeptics are a problem, largely because I'm reading too much of columnists and bloggers going into full-on flamethrower mode over something Dawkins posted to twitter, and minimal reviews of what McGowan, De Waal, and Hutchinson published this year.

IMO, that bias feeds right into discrimination. So it's entirely acceptable to say on the House floor that humanist chaplains would discard their interfaith tendencies and training in talking to soldiers or their family.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:48 AM on June 17, 2013


I think "aesthetics" is a weird word choice, and the author would have done better to stick with the other key word: "ugly." It's, to him, an ugly movement with ugly people saying ugly things in an ugly way. That I get. I understand disliking skepticism's smug, strident, know-it-all tone aesthetic.

That makes more sense. What gets me is that compared to the average Bad Astronomy post, this rant is WAY more smug, strident, and know-it-all. I don't really know how anyone can read that and not realize that he's doing to skeptics the exact same things that he complains (rightfully in some cases) about them doing to other people.

Like Ivan said, as satire, it works.

I think that's sort of just him shoehorning a hate-on for xkcd in with the rest of his thesis.

Honestly, the thesis seems to be that he shoehorns a hate-on for a bunch of sort of related things into one rant.
posted by Gygesringtone at 12:09 PM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm skeptical that skeptics are a problem, largely because I'm reading too much of columnists and bloggers going into full-on flamethrower mode over something Dawkins posted to twitter, and minimal reviews of what McGowan, De Waal, and Hutchinson published this year.

Yeah, but prominent New Atheists do kinda deserve this callout behavior given their own penchant to target idiotic and bigoted theists as if they're representative of the other 85% of the population. The lesson should be: don't lump theists together, and don't lump small-s skeptics and old atheists and non-Singularity Bayeseans with the people who make this their sole identity.
posted by anotherpanacea at 12:10 PM on June 17, 2013 [5 favorites]


anotherpanacea: My lesson is that twitter messages are not news (unless they briefly crash the stock market). Stalking celebrity twitters for headlines is journalistic masturbation, worse than tabloid reporting or a CNN fuckup because those usually demand putting on a pair of shoes. It's lazy, biased, and misleading reporting about religious issues.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:39 PM on June 17, 2013


Attacking Bayes Theorem because some people are using it wrong is like attacking the Pythagorean Theorem because the ancient Pythagoreans believed in the transmigration of souls.

Methinks the author has trouble differentiating the views of the bird from the views of the tribe that proudly wears its feathers.
posted by belarius at 1:00 PM on June 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's really weird that y'all are reading it as an attack on Bayes' Theorem. It's pretty clear to me that he has no issue with probability theory. "Bayesianism" is just a frame to hang Yudkowsky on.

Metafilter can be very uncharitable in its interpretations.
posted by cdward at 1:09 PM on June 17, 2013


Yeah, it's kind of funny, because a lot of the stuff he's saying about libertarians, sexists, capitalism, etc would be buckling under the weight of all the favorites if they were posted here in a different context.
posted by prize bull octorok at 1:13 PM on June 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


So, there might be an underlying ideology of strong Individualism, which results in the intersections between Evangelical Protestantism, Libertarianism, Anti-feminism, Skepticism and New Atheism. However, it might just be contingency.

That was an awfully long-winded way of saying "bright young men who aren't very good at understanding people". But it was a thoughtful and interesting way of saying it, and I'm glad you posted it.

Has anyone written a really good essay on how to point out to nice people that their deeply held views and beliefs may not only be objectively incorrect but actively harmful to themselves/their society without coming off as an arrogant asshole?

You just start all of your assertions with the phrases "I feel like" or "I think that". By carefully designating one's opinions as opinions, rather than objective facts, you deflate a lot of the automatic defensiveness that people exhibit when being told that they are stupid/ignorant/evil/crazy. This requires admitting to oneself that one's opinions are opinions, though. Many people dislike this. That's just my experience, though.
posted by Diablevert at 1:39 PM on June 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


"It's really weird that y'all are reading it as an attack on Bayes' Theorem. It's pretty clear to me that he has no issue with probability theory. 'Bayesianism' is just a frame to hang Yudkowsky on."

No, like he does in most of his essays, his main targets are (often) deserving (in this case, pop-bayesianism) but he grounds his attacks in what appear to be debunking of foundational ideas but are, instead, egregiously uninformed.

So, here's something from the beginning of his Bayes piece:
The researchers decided to reinterpret all statistics in this subjective, prescriptive and profoundly individualist sense, launching a revolution that set their field ablaze. The struggle that followed pitted "frequentists", who defended the old statistical ways, against "Bayesian" radicals — though since most of the Bayesians were ideological mates with Milton Friedman and John von Neumann, maybe "radical" isn't the right word. The Bayesians were excited by the potential applications of their new way of thinking in political, business and military spheres. Their opponents, meanwhile, kept pointing to Bayesianism's central difficulty: assigning a confidence value to a subjective belief is a whole lot more problematic than assigning a probability to the outcome of a coin toss.
He's making a vague fundamental critique of Bayesian statistical methods, pretty much like the frequentists did forty years ago, except with the added nonsense (and it is nonsense, I mean really it's just wrong) of tarring the Bayesians as being right-wing.

"Yeah, it's kind of funny, because a lot of the stuff he's saying about libertarians, sexists, capitalism, etc would be buckling under the weight of all the favorites if they were posted here in a different context."

To repeat what I wrote earlier, but from a different direction, just being "right" means fuck-all to me. You should be right for the right reasons and in the right way. His critique of the skepticism movement or pop-bayesnianism or whatever all attack targets that I, myself, criticize, too, but his thinking is sloppy and self-serving and he could just as easily be (and probably was) arguing the opposing positions and identifying with his enemies because his habits of mind are shit. He's accidentally right and he may or may not continue to be right tomorrow.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 1:40 PM on June 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


except with the added nonsense (and it is nonsense, I mean really it's just wrong) of tarring the Bayesians as being right-wing

Yeah, I mean, I have some bad news for him about R. A. Fisher, frequentist of frequentists.
posted by en forme de poire at 1:45 PM on June 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


He's making a vague fundamental critique of Bayesian statistical methods, pretty much like the frequentists did forty years ago
Not being at all familiar with this whole frequestists vs. Bayesians thing, I read that paragraph to be making a much weaker statement than you do - not a criticism of the method because it's used by certain people, but a criticism of certain people for the way that they use the method. The essay is about the cult of the theorem, not the theorem.
posted by cdward at 2:01 PM on June 17, 2013


Well, except if you were studying timber rattlers in a particular geographic area or during a particular event (like a temporary spike in the mouse population) that might not reflect their eating habits at large. Or if you were predisposed to miss timber rattlers that don't eat mice because of some other aspect of your data collection methods.

But nobody denies these points, and it does nothing to move us toward the claim that science is thoroughly political, nor any of the other anti-science philosophies of science aforementioned.

And while these might seem like simple technical problems, you might be inclined to be less critical about your own methods because of your political beliefs.

See how far afield from the original point we've moved? First it was: "science is always infected by politics." Now it's: maybe possibly you'll make some technical errors, and maybe possibly your politics will keep you from seeing that." So if the real point is just that: all sorts of things can affect all sorts of other things, and sometimes things other than the evidence have some effect on theory-choice in science...well, sure. But so? Sometimes none of that stuff happens.

They don't even have to be political beliefs, of course, just any type of preconception. It gets even hairier when we start talking about more complicated behaviors that rely more on interpretation -- Joan Roughgarden has an interesting section in her book about this where she talks about how feminine males of a particular bird species were commonly referred to in the literature as "deceptive," because of course a male in the wild couldn't be having a same-sex encounter on purpose. But there was no evidence from the actual data that these birds were actually being duped or that they couldn't tell the difference.

But this is another mistake that gets made in this vicinity. Again, the original claim was that science is irredeemably and thoroughly political. That's refuted. Then the response is "but in this one case, a kind of case in which scientists might be expected to be particularly prone to being tripped up by their moral/political beliefs, scientists may have been tripped up by their moral/political beliefs." Still just a maybe, and a maybe that does nothing to advance the original conclusion. Furthermore and again: if we drop the skeptical bomb, everybody is destroyed. You want to claim above that scientists were caused to accept a conclusion about birds because of their moral/political preconceptions. But, if the bomb is dropped, that can't be proven either. Maybe it's just your political preconceptions talking...

Again: the real danger here is that people will be tempted to leap from scientism to equally indefensible varieties of relativism, anti-realism, social constructionism, skepticism in the traditional sense, etc.

But is this a defense of scientism, to say that other ideologies are also dangerous?

But I explicitly was not defending scientism. I was just saying that the falsehood of scientism is often used in invalid arguments that purport to support weird views on the far intellectual left--relativism, social constructionism, and so on. But there are a whole lot of reasonable stopping-points in between.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 2:09 PM on June 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


Didn't know 'scepticism' was a thing, but it reads like the author has made a voyage within the democratic materialism vs. dialectical materialism dichotomy from the former to the latter.
posted by klue at 2:21 PM on June 17, 2013


Yeah, but prominent New Atheists do kinda deserve this callout behavior given their own penchant to target idiotic and bigoted theists as if they're representative of the other 85% of the population. The lesson should be: don't lump theists together, and don't lump small-s skeptics and old atheists and non-Singularity Bayeseans with the people who make this their sole identity.

Whether they deserve to be called out or not is aside the point. The question is whether they deserve to get free publicity for trolling the mass media through their twitter feeds, and whether the people boosting their signal through the news desk are engaged in an editorial bias in doing so.

Congress just rejected an amendment that would allow ordained humanist ministers/celebrants to provide services in the U.S. armed forces. How many UU ministers, Humanist chaplains, or Secular Culture celebrants were interviewed for this story? None. Apparently, neither was anyone not in congress interviewed about the amendment they did pass after controversial dismissal of a couple of officers for disruptive preaching while in uniform.

So you have two different acts of Congress involving relationships between theists and non-theists in one of the most powerful governmental institutions in the United States, and I can't find sources covering this story beyond what's in the Congressional record and C-SPAN, well, except for right-wing editorials crowing about congress making the armed forces safe for Christianity. They're not doing much beyond putting spin onto the congressional record.

That suggests a bias to me. Computer-mediated communication (CMC) has another set of biases bolted in. So when someone tries to make rather strong claims about a religious, philosophical community, I start taking a hard look at what those claims are, and how they claim to know those claims are true.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 2:47 PM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


"But this is another mistake that gets made in this vicinity. Again, the original claim was that science is irredeemably and thoroughly political. That's refuted. Then the response is "but in this one case, a kind of case in which scientists might be expected to be particularly prone to being tripped up by their moral/political beliefs, scientists may have been tripped up by their moral/political beliefs." Still just a maybe, and a maybe that does nothing to advance the original conclusion. Furthermore and again: if we drop the skeptical bomb, everybody is destroyed. You want to claim above that scientists were caused to accept a conclusion about birds because of their moral/political preconceptions. But, if the bomb is dropped, that can't be proven either. Maybe it's just your political preconceptions talking..."

I think that your example misses his point.

Why are you studying rattlesnakes eating mice? Why has this research been funded? In the U.S., research is overwhelmingly funded as part of a political project, one that often justifies its funding of foundational science by the claim of future economic gains. That's, again, a political process. There is virtually zero science that is not funded as part of a political or economic project; even the idea of pure science as a social good still requires funding as part of an ideological project.

I think by focusing on "corrupted," you're missing the better sense of being biased or myopic — irrespective of the benefits of observing rattlesnakes eating mice, someone funded to do just that is rarely (publicly) going to question the political project that leads to that funding. While the chances that the rattlesnake research is detrimental or occluding to the public good are low, the assumptions made in a lot of, say, pharmaceutical research are less publicly benign.
posted by klangklangston at 4:03 PM on June 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


7,387 words?

Normally I wouldn't bother reading 7k words about someone else's internal deliberations, but since he bashed computational linguistics I figured I'd run it through Microsoft Word 2000's auto-summarize feature and see what came up. I'm not sure about the fidelity with which the point's was captured, but the results were fun:

REJECTING SKEPTICISM
The average skeptic has little time for spreading the word of reason to the educationally or intellectually lacking. Many skeptics indeed see themselves as "brights" in a world of "dims". Women are a small minority in the skeptic world, and the few who get involved get shit thrown at them constantly by their skeptic peers. Intelligence in a male skeptic is taken for granted; intelligence in a female skeptic is a turn-on. This kind of attitude is typified by the skeptic-oriented webcomic xkcd. At a skeptic conference in Dublin, prominent skeptic Rebecca Watson (aka "Skepchick") was propositioned by some creep in an elevator at 4am.

SKEPTICISM IS NEOLIBERALISM

All skeptics are neoliberals: if you do not consider yourself a neoliberal, you should not consider yourself a skeptic. Skeptics are people who believe in the primacy of the scientific method as a source of knowledge. Scientific advance was inseparable from political, social, and economic advance. Skeptics, in insisting on the primacy of scientific knowledge, deny the value of non-scientific metaphors in future scientific advance. Similarly, when skeptics insist that scientific thinking should be spread worldwide, they necessarily mean that liberal democracy should be spread worldwide.

SCIENCE ALWAYS HAS A POLITICAL DIMENSION

Our science is necessarily and unavoidably contaminated by our political system; political ideologies propagate through science, and science on its own is incapable of purging them. This is widely understood by people who study scientists, but less often by scientists themselves, and never by skeptics.

The idea that politics could or should have any input into science is anathema to skeptics. (On the contrary, liberal democracy is a political ideology that influences scientific thought.)

What's more, skeptics never acknowledge that racial science was defeated by political ideology, and not by science itself.

Medical science. Blame skeptics.

Proselytising skeptics certainly offer them no incentive to change their minds. That skepticism is a religion is a idea frequently ridiculed and debunked on skeptic forums. One reason you don't hear about positivism often in skeptic circles is that skeptics have no time for philosophy; many skeptics hate and fear it. It's the skeptic Kryptonite.

SKEPTICISM'S UGLY AESTHETICS

A lot of the most prominent skeptics, though, are ugly all the time.
___

Okay, so I get the argument that skeptics can be assholes, but I don't think rejecting "skepticism" means rejecting science. I went back and read the section on skepticism and neoliberalism and found this:
Our observations are conditioned by the metaphors we have been exposed to culturally, socially, and in our society's history. This is what Newton meant when he said he stood on the shoulders of giants: he was acknowledging the accumulation of metaphors which helped him make his discoveries.
I thought the common interpretation of Newton's use of that phrase was to make fun of Robert Hooke's height? It's certainly a huge stretch to say he was talking about metaphors or something - I don't think he thought he was thinking metaphorically at all.
This is not the place to describe the many problems and hypocrisies of neoliberalism. Suffice it to say that I do not believe that liberal democracy, which condemns the majority of the world's population to varying degrees of slavery, is a perfect system. I do not believe that the metaphors of liberal democracy allow us a perfect view of reality. And therefore I do not believe in the primacy of the scientific method as a source of knowledge. It might be the best we've got, but when it comes to human advancement — including the advance of science itself — other sources of knowledge can be just as useful, and often more important.
It may be that most 'skeptics' think of themselves as both libertarians and science minded, but there's no link between science and any particular ideology, except for anti-science ideologies.

There's also lots of 'fake' science out there as well, like global warming "skepticism", people like penn & teller are not being "scientific" when they reject global warming.

Ironically it seems that the auto-summary is far less ridiculous then the actual article.
posted by delmoi at 6:33 PM on June 17, 2013 [2 favorites]



I'm really warming to this man.
Lest anyone declare I'm trying to out-moralise the moralisers and out-prig the prigs: you can stop projecting now, bronies. I'm not trying to knock you off my perch, I'm trying to drag you back down to my level. I'm no model for anyone. I'm lost, like you once were. I'm still searching for meaning and belonging, I'm still struggling with how to be conscious and human in the 21st century and not go insane, and I'm not making any progress. I don't know the answer, but I do know this: the New Sincerity ain't it.
Nice find! Thanks, tmotat.


I'm not a brony, but I think New Sincerity is a pretty good answer to things.

And when I think of 'skeptic art', I think of songs like this.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 6:39 PM on June 17, 2013


his dismissal of fanboys is perfect and i think its tied into his problem with skeptics. they're the same sort of ultra-defensive, mostly white, privelieged Internet demographic social jerks
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 6:43 PM on June 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


...I don't think he thought he was thinking metaphorically at all.

"The shoulders of giants" in the phrase "standing on the shoulders of giants" is a metaphor. The entire concept is metaphorical. There are no literal giant people with shoulders to be stood on.
posted by jsturgill at 6:45 PM on June 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


I can't believe that nobody's thought to link to this incredibly relevant xkcd yet.
posted by Gygesringtone at 6:54 PM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


this incredibly relevant xkcd yet.

Is finding someone annoying being superior to them? Or just being tired of their shit.
posted by philip-random at 7:11 PM on June 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


But both pieces, especially the Bayes Theorem piece, have all the hallmark characteristics of an enthusiastic polemicist who suffers from the Dunning–Kruger effect.

the dunning-kruger effect sure is a fancy way to say "you're stupid"
posted by speicus at 7:17 PM on June 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


fact: every time you say "the dunning-kruger effect" you get a little bit dumber and more overconfident

the dunning-kruger ouroboros

you just lost the game
posted by speicus at 7:19 PM on June 17, 2013 [8 favorites]


Is finding someone annoying being superior to them? Or just being tired of their shit.

The writer, in the same paragraph, calls the skeptics bullies and the people they're bullying (including Evangelical Christians) idiots. So, yeah I'd say if he doesn't feel superior to both groups he REALLY needs to work on how he words things.
posted by Gygesringtone at 7:22 PM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am sure he is a terrible writer and that his arguments are weak and badly constructed and generally terrible. I scanned it very lightly and saw where it was going, and am not interested in getting into the detail, which I'm sure as full of flaws as the comments indicate.

Yet there are important, and very true, points to be made about the privilege and power people who embrace this way of thinking assert to themselves, and also thoughtlessly attempt to wield, in the face of people who do not share their backgrounds or positions. I applaud this guy for at least making the effort to recognize what are some serious problematics, and hope that better writers will take up the cause. Although that's not really rejecting the game, it may start to constrain some of its nastier expressions.
posted by Miko at 8:19 PM on June 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


It may just be my own idiosyncratic experience; but, nevertheless, my experience has been that almost always, when I come across someone (especially a polemicist) who I find makes weak arguments, speaks authoritatively beyond their competence, has a nasty temperament and a tendency to vilify and paint in black-and-white, but who I decide I support and will defend because they are on the side of the angels ... I eventually regret that decision.

Such folk often end up discrediting their allies and the arguments of their allies. And, kind of surprisingly and dismayingly often, will end up on the side of the devils either by defecting†, or on some other important issue. David Horowitz was an ardent socialist, after all. So, over my adult life, I've slowly moved from a "are they on the right side of the argument" litmus test to a "how are they on their side of the argument" litmus test.

† People who defines themselves and their beliefs on the basis of opposing their enemies are often quite flexible in their beliefs, as their enemies and priorities change, or as their narrative about why their enemies are bad people change.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:49 PM on June 17, 2013 [7 favorites]


the means are the end.
posted by philip-random at 9:31 PM on June 17, 2013


One of the oldest, most important rules of politics is that sometimes neutrality is impossible. Sometimes, by refusing to take a side, you end up siding with one side, usually the bad guys. That’s why activists and politicians, particularly on the left, say that you always have to vote even if it’s for a politician you don’t like, because by not showing up to vote for the Democrat, you are essentially voting for the Republican. Sometimes, you can’t just opt out.

That is what the Center for Inquiry is doing by releasing this cowardly “both sides” statement full of bureaucratic doublespeak that is really beneath people who claim to be for “free inquiry” and even features the namby-pamby statement, “Going forward, we will endeavor to work with all elements of the secular movement to enhance our common values and strengthen our solidarity as we struggle together for full equality and respect for women around the world.”

The problem with that statement is that “all elements” of the secular movement most assuredly do not share the “common value” of “full equality and respect for women around the world”. Sure, the pro-harassment folks that are trying to drum feminists out of the movement say they do, but then again, so do Republicans who are trying to craft laws banning abortion and trying to end the Violence Against Women Act. Skepticism is supposed to be about clearing out the bullshit, and if you do that, what you have are two factions that really, truly have a fundamental disagreement over the issues of diversity and mission within the secular movement. One side, the feminist side, believes that the movement should strive to make itself more diverse, in no small part by putting more emphasis on secular issues that have a broader appeal to women and people of color and by aggressively fighting off reactionary elements within the movement who make public skeptical spaces uncomfortable for women by engaging in sexual harassment. The other side thinks the movement should ignore feminism and that sexual harassers should be given preferential treatment over their targets when it comes to who should be made unwelcome. It’s really pretty straightforward. As such, if you believe in women’s full equality and respect, there really is only one side to take in this fight: The feminist side.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:10 PM on June 17, 2013


the dunning-kruger effect sure is a fancy way to say "you're stupid"

Except, that's not what the Dunning-Kruger effect is about. The DK effect is much more specific: it is one of several variations of the classic overconfidence effect, in which people who possess less expertise tend to show greater overconfidence. There's another variation called the hard-easy effect, which is basically DK within the same person: the same person will tend to show more overconfidence when they have less relevant knowledge (hard questions) than when they do have such knowledge (easy questions).

Now go back to the original comment that you're criticising. It quite specifically argues that the author of the Bayesian article is both egregiously wrong (lacks knowledge) and is overly enthusiastic about the polemics (overconfident) because he is so egregiously wrong. That's exactly the claim being made in the original comment, and the reference to DK is totally appropriate. I share (what I assume is) your belief that DK is thrown about far too freely on the internet, but Ivan Fyodorovich's comment above looks like a pretty fair use of it.

The author of the piece really doesn't know much about Bayesian inference; this ignorance has led him to make foolishly over-stated claims about Bayesianism; taken together, these two things imply that the Dunning-Kruger effect is in play.
posted by mixing at 10:33 PM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Sometimes, by refusing to take a side, you end up siding with one side, usually the bad guys. That’s why activists and politicians, particularly on the left,"

This sounds to me like "you are either with me or you are against me" or the more modern version "you are a part of the solution or you are a part of the problem". People need to feel there is a neutral position in controversies because no one can discern a meaningful and right position in all of the the myriad meaningful controversies of our time. We need time to evaluate the positions we have already taken more than we need people telling us its imperitive for us to decide on yet another issue.

"Sometimes, you can’t just opt out."

Sometimes the situation is that people just won't let you opt out. Is it really that there is no neutral position or is it that some parties have decided in this issue, we don't allow neutrality. Do secularists have an equivalent of "kill them all and let God sort them out" I think they do have a similar position and it is that on this issue there is no neutrality. I'm saying that as a ardent secularist. Everybody needs a neutral place at times. Moral imperatives abound and sorting them out can not be done in a jiffy. In fact such things can take centuries. Putting a ticking clock on people's choices and disallowing neutrality often constitutes coercion.
posted by logonym at 10:43 PM on June 17, 2013


Between the oppressed and the oppressor there is no neutrality, only cowardice and selfishness.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:10 AM on June 18, 2013


Between the oppressed and the oppressor there is no neutrality, only cowardice and selfishness.

I wish my world were so binary.
posted by philip-random at 1:08 AM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


That was an awfully long-winded way of saying "bright young men who aren't very good at understanding people". But it was a thoughtful and interesting way of saying it, and I'm glad you posted it.

That's not really my point. My point is that one possibility is that many of the Skeptics or New Atheists are former Evangelical Protestants, and to minimize the changes to their beliefs, they tend to construct their atheism to match it as closely as possible.

Instead of believing that Faith alone will get you to Heaven, they adopt the libertarian equivalent that Hard Work alone will get you to Prosperity.

Instead of believing that the Bible decrees that women are subordinate to men, they adopt the belief that Evolution has evolved women to be subordinate to men.

Instead of going to church to celebrate their status in a Saved elite, they go to conventions to celebrate their status in a Rational elite.

That way, they can don't have to alter most of their beliefs much. In particular they don't have to act different, alter their lifestyle, or relate to other people in a different way.

Even those Skeptics and New Atheists who are not former Evangelical Protestants, being exposed to these ideas, are likely to absorb them. Surrounded by other "Rational" people who adore Ron Paul and believe women have evolved to be happiest when dominated by men, they will likely accept these ideas themselves.

If this possibility is correct, anti-feminism isn't just a coincidental part of their movement. Ideas about feminism, racism and privilege are deeply threatening to their world-view. Their self-esteem is dependent on being part of an elite: the Saved in their religion, the Hardworking Rich in their economics. If economic outcomes aren't totally reflective of individual merit, their whole worldview crumbles.

Feminism therefore has to be false when it claims that membership of a group influences economic outcomes. Suggesting that pay discrimination exists against women is like telling an Evangelical Protestant that you can go to hell through not being in communion with the Pope: it theatens the core of his identity.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:54 AM on June 18, 2013 [8 favorites]


I get the epistemic conservatism analysis you're giving, but I don't think it's limited just to liberals. It's no surprise that assholes end up on both sides of the a/theism divide: your beliefs about the ontology of metaphysical entities aren't really doing important work for your politics.

So it makes sense that all of the atheists I know are feminists too, and most are atheists because of their progressive politics rather than progressive because of their atheism. This suggests that progressive athists are just as epistemically conservative, on your analysis: they go from liberation theology to liberation socialism, etc.

So in that sense, if there is going to be big tent atheism, it's going to involve uncomfortable bedfellows: people who have nothing in common with me but their insistent lack of a certain belief. Which is why I still wonder why we need big tent atheism at all.
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:39 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


who I decide I support and will defend because they are on the side of the angels ...

And did I support and defend him? No, I did not.
posted by Miko at 6:10 AM on June 18, 2013


Some great Randi.
posted by Eideteker at 6:24 AM on June 18, 2013


Which is why I still wonder why we need big tent atheism at all.

Exactly. Surely the good thing about atheism is that no one can tell you what to think or do.
posted by Summer at 6:56 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Which is why I still wonder why we need big tent atheism at all.

big tent anything is bad for everyone's health, or as a friend put it long ago, "I hate it when everyone in the room agrees with me."
posted by philip-random at 8:59 AM on June 18, 2013


Feminism therefore has to be false when it claims that membership of a group influences economic outcomes. Suggesting that pay discrimination exists against women is like telling an Evangelical Protestant that you can go to hell through not being in communion with the Pope: it theatens the core of his identity.

That's a terrible analogy. Protestantism is, among other things, defined by its rejection of the need for intercession between God and the laity by clergy, especially the Pope. Skepticism makes no claims with regards to economic or political theory. In fact, there are many policies promoted by big name skeptics that involve MORE government involvement and regulation. Mandatory vaccines, regulation of the nutritional supplement industry, higher levels of government funding for scientific research, etc.

I get that there are certain types that show up in Skepticism, but they're the same types that show up in all sorts of internet cultures. Your just-so-story is just that, a story. It might be accurate in a lot of cases, but I think you're really putting the cart before the horse on this one. The Skeptic movement has these problems for the same reasons that gaming has these same problems, or the Science Fiction community, or whatever: because they're part of a larger culture that is absolutely infested with those ideas. It's not like either the Skeptic community or Evangelical Christianity are these isolated community of patriarchy and free market libertarianism. A person could pick up those beliefs from pop culture without ever having set foot in a church or registering for a skeptic website.

That doesn't mean that we shouldn't call out crappy sexism, classism, in the skeptic community. If anything, I want to say the opposite, since there is nothing inherently anti-feminist about Skepticism, nor is it an ideology driven by free-market worship it should be called out. A Skeptic can be a Skeptic even if they think that women get lower wages because of system wide discrimination rather than relative worth.
posted by Gygesringtone at 9:25 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


"The shoulders of giants" in the phrase "standing on the shoulders of giants" is a metaphor. The entire concept is metaphorical. There are no literal giant people with shoulders to be stood on.
Er, yeah. Obviously that is a metaphor. What I meant was that he was not metaphorically referring to other metaphors, but rather what he thought was 'true' about the universe.
posted by delmoi at 9:30 AM on June 18, 2013


It's not like either the Skeptic community or Evangelical Christianity are these isolated community of patriarchy and free market libertarianism.

But you do recognize that patriarchal and libertarian ideas are more common among Evangelical Christians than in the general population, right?

And also that many people who self-identify as "Skeptics" do so because they are consciously rejecting their Evangelical Christian upbringing?

So it is not at all surprising if a lot of capital-S Skeptics retain some of the worldview they were raised in, even if they're trying to reject (some) of it.
posted by straight at 9:33 AM on June 18, 2013


"Sometimes the situation is that people just won't let you opt out. Is it really that there is no neutral position or is it that some parties have decided in this issue, we don't allow neutrality. Do secularists have an equivalent of "kill them all and let God sort them out" I think they do have a similar position and it is that on this issue there is no neutrality. I'm saying that as a ardent secularist. Everybody needs a neutral place at times. Moral imperatives abound and sorting them out can not be done in a jiffy. In fact such things can take centuries. Putting a ticking clock on people's choices and disallowing neutrality often constitutes coercion"

I'm sorry, this is just mealy-mouthed nonsense, specifically in this discussion. The idea that there is a neutral position on feminism ignores the effects of that neutral position, which is enabling the current oppressive system to keep going. You are, in fact, by adopting the pose of a neutral position, enabling the oppressive status quo. Calling that coercion is bullshit, especially compared to the actual structural violence faced by women. And the "Kill them all and let God sort them out" is just a ridiculously bad analogy.

A better one for your argument would be the notion that agnosticism is a cop out for atheists, but even in that case, agnostics function much more like atheists than the status quo functions in a feminist mode.

There are, in fact, many things on which proclaiming neutrality or refusing to take a position is asinine, and to be held as a moral person, one must take a side.

To cop a line credited to Plato, "The penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men."
posted by klangklangston at 9:46 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Er, yeah. Obviously that is a metaphor. What I meant was that he was not metaphorically referring to other metaphors, but rather what he thought was 'true' about the universe."

Yeah, it was one of the weaker points in the original essay, but pretty clear what he meant in context: The author regards narratives of science as narratives, and uses "metaphor" as a metanym for narrative. While science is generally described in terms of narrative, and humans have a narrative bias, that doesn't necessarily make metaphors nor narratives irrational, which was what he was trying to argue. They can certainly be, but I don't think they are inherently.
posted by klangklangston at 9:50 AM on June 18, 2013


So in that sense, if there is going to be big tent atheism, it's going to involve uncomfortable bedfellows: people who have nothing in common with me but their insistent lack of a certain belief. Which is why I still wonder why we need big tent atheism at all.

I'm a slight bit baffled at where this "big tent" idea comes from, and the insertion of the intensifier "insistent" into the implicit definition of atheism.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:07 AM on June 18, 2013



But you do recognize that patriarchal and libertarian ideas are more common among Evangelical Christians than in the general population, right?

And also that many people who self-identify as "Skeptics" do so because they are consciously rejecting their Evangelical Christian upbringing?

Yes to the first question.

The second question is a good narrative, but there's lots of good narratives out there, things that everybody knows but nobody's bothered to question or research. I've never seen any actual numbers on the matter. Have you? The only thing I have to go on is that other than myself all the Skeptics I've ever met (including the ones with sexist beliefs) came from backgrounds other than Evangelical Christianity. I was a skeptic a good long while after I rejected Evangelical Christianity, and while the libertarian thing stuck around for awhile, it was actually my skepticism that caused me to eventually reject it. I really don't doubt that there are people that that story fits for, but I have my doubts as to how wide spread that really is.

I think that once we start drifting into "Of course they're sexist they're all _____" territory with a group we're giving up the idea of the community ever improving. I think sometimes that's a valid judgement, you're not going to turn the Pick Up Artist community into a gathering place for feminists, but I think that for Skeptics that's throwing in the towel way to soon. Skeptics can, and do, believe some crappy things with regard to gender, but that belief is the problem, not anything inherent in Skepticism or the people that choose to become Skeptics. That's why I'm pushing back against the narrative.
posted by Gygesringtone at 10:24 AM on June 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yeah, it was one of the weaker points in the original essay, but pretty clear what he meant in context: The author regards narratives of science as narratives, and uses "metaphor" as a metanym for narrative.
Sure, in a sense Newtonian mechanics, the concept of "forces" "mass" and even "velocity" are metaphors for underlying quantum and relativistic effects - but I don't think Issac Newton actually thought that he was only coming up with metaphors. I think what he believed was that doing Science was a way to learn about the mind of god, which he believed was totally real and not at all a metaphor.

It seems like the author is projecting his own views onto Newton.

It was only one line, but it just stuck out at me as I was skimming.
posted by delmoi at 10:32 AM on June 18, 2013


I think that once we start drifting into "Of course they're sexist they're all _____" territory with a group we're giving up the idea of the community ever improving.

On the contrary, if it's true that a significant amount of misogyny among Skeptics is a holdover from their religious upbringing, simply pointing that out might make a big difference.

But I take your point that it's an unwarranted assumption. Most of the Skeptics I've run into are Recovering Fundamentalists, but obviously my anecdotes and your anecdotes aren't enough for me to be making any claims about how prevalent that is.
posted by straight at 10:33 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


That's why I'm pushing back against the narrative.

Especially when that narrative seems to depend on playing "no true scotsman" with feminists and other minorities publishing from within those movements, rather than promoting their work.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:52 AM on June 18, 2013


Do secularists have an equivalent of "kill them all and let God sort them out"
How about "A Single Death is a Tragedy; a Million Deaths is a Statistic"? It's not like there were never any bad people who were also atheist. One of the more annoying things about "new atheists" is the insistence that being an atheist actually makes you a better person. The "kill them all" quote wasn't just a hypothetical btw, someone actually said that (well, he said "Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius"), and it was advice to a real soldier in a real atrocity.

Before the 20th century, all the atrocities were committed by religious people because those were pretty much the only kind of people there were, certainly the only kind with any power. But once the 20th century rolled around non-religious people got into power and were just as bad.
But both pieces, especially the Bayes Theorem piece, have all the hallmark characteristics of an enthusiastic polemicist who suffers from the Dunning–Kruger effect.

the dunning-kruger effect sure is a fancy way to say "you're stupid"
-- speicus
___
Now go back to the original comment that you're criticising. It quite specifically argues that the author of the Bayesian article is both egregiously wrong (lacks knowledge) and is overly enthusiastic about the polemics (overconfident) because he is so egregiously wrong. That's exactly the claim being made in the original comment, and the reference to DK is totally appropriate. I share (what I assume is) your belief that DK is thrown about far too freely on the internet, but Ivan Fyodorovich's comment above looks like a pretty fair use of it.

The author of the piece really doesn't know much about Bayesian inference; this ignorance has led him to make foolishly over-stated claims about Bayesianism; taken together, these two things imply that the Dunning-Kruger effect is in play.
-- mixing


While mixing makes a good point there's something else to consider: the fact that in reality sometimes people are actually stupid. And there isn't actually anything wrong with pointing that out.

I don't think the author is necessarily "stupid" in a broad sense, he seems like a pretty smart person, but he definitely lacks intellectual humility.
posted by delmoi at 10:57 AM on June 18, 2013


"I think what he believed was that doing Science was a way to learn about the mind of god, which he believed was totally real and not at all a metaphor.

It seems like the author is projecting his own views onto Newton.
"

Still, that's all irrelevant and either misses or supports his point that metaphors are how we think, and even when trying to think literally/ametaphorically (as you posit Newton), one still communicates in metaphors, ergo they're unescapable.
posted by klangklangston at 12:34 PM on June 18, 2013


He was claiming, incorrectly I think, that Newton agreed with his point:
Our observations are conditioned by the metaphors we have been exposed to culturally, socially, and in our society's history. This is what Newton meant when he said he stood on the shoulders of giants: he was acknowledging the accumulation of metaphors which helped him make his discoveries.
I don't think that is true at all. I don't think Newton was talking about "seeing better metaphors" when he said he could see farther. I don't think he was thinking about the accumulation of metaphors but rather the accumulation of actual, literal, facts about the world.

(Obviously he was using a metaphor, but I don't think he was metaphorically referring to what he considered other metaphors)
posted by delmoi at 1:46 PM on June 18, 2013


I'm a slight bit baffled at where this "big tent" idea comes from, and the insertion of the intensifier "insistent" into the implicit definition of atheism.

"Big tent" references partisan politics that tries to unify many different factions, sometimes even factions that have only narrow common interests. It doesn't have to be a bad thing. One "big tent" might, for instance, attempt to unify liberal and conservative charities in the common cause of alleviating global hunger or preventing the roughly 20,000 daily deaths due to poverty. That's a tent where you generally want to suppress your differences to achieve a goal that is more important than your disagreements.

Another "big tent" is the one signaled by various skeptics and rationalists, where feminist and anti-feminist atheists are supposed to unite in the common cause of defending secular folks from religious persecution. But since it's not at all clear that anti-secular oppression trumps misogyny, I don't see much reason to unite in that cause if the cost is ignoring or putting up with misogyny. I'm a feminist first, an atheist second, I guess.

As for "insistent," I'm not sure what's baffling about it; I don't just happen to think there is no God, in the way that I happen to think that there is no Tooth Fairy. I insist that there is no God, in the sense that I bring it up, discuss it with those that disagree, and find that it matters a quite a bit to me. It's not the most important part of my identity, but it's one of ten or twenty facts about me that I would want to be sure to tell you if we sat down to really get to know each other.
posted by anotherpanacea at 2:12 PM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Is it just me or is he actually using the word 'metaphor' incorrectly? He writes that perceiving a rock as solid when it's mostly empty space is a 'metaphor' but a metaphor of what? he also calls memes metaphors.

He defines them as "mental models that help us interpret and understand our raw perceptions, and construct our observations." when in fact the technical definition a metaphor is a figure of speech - but it functions more like a map: mapping related things in one set to related things in another. When newton says he's "standing on the shoulders of giants" you get what he's saying, and it takes far fewer words then explaining the process of building (also a metaphor) on prior scientific work without any metaphors, but it can be done. You don't actually need the metaphor to understand things.

Also, thinking with metaphors can actually cloud judgement, because if they're thinking Y for X they can mistakenly draw a conclusion about X that's actually just true about Y. like, if you're standing on the shoulder of a giant, and the giant trips and falls you could seriously hurt yourself. But if you are inspired by some prior scientist and discover something, and that prior scientists turns out to have been wrong, that doesn't mean your discovery is invalid. It depends - if your data is ultimately right you may float freely after the giant falls away beneath your feet.
posted by delmoi at 6:23 PM on June 18, 2013


I can't follow the metaphor section at all. It feels very wrong to me, but since I value knowledge gained through observation and reasoning over knowledge gained by intuition, that doesn't help me.
posted by knuckle tattoos at 6:47 PM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Charlemagne In Sweatpants: The thing for me is that art comes from emotion and passion and all those fuzzy things, and while you can probably make a song about the trancendent feeling of knowing exactly how many stars are in the sky its much easier to make a song with religous metaphors and make it work.

How about the Symphony of Science series? Sure, it's remixing and autotuning rather than classical art, but parts of it still give me goosebumps even after years of familiarity.

I don't see anything inherent in either religious or secular art that makes one superior to the other. However I do grant that it's easier to communicate trancendent feelings through religious metaphors because those metaphors are deeply embedded in our culture. Unless that changes, more people will be moved by religious art than non-religious.
posted by Zimboe Metamonkey at 6:59 PM on June 18, 2013


you can probably make a song about the trancendent feeling of knowing exactly how many stars are in the sky its much easier to make a song with religous metaphors and make it work.
People write songs about their humps, their humps, their lovely lady lumps, and it works.
posted by delmoi at 10:02 PM on June 18, 2013


Actually there are probably a lot more popular songs about scientific topics then religious topics, Particularly if you include psychopharmacology.

(btw, the 32nd top selling CD in 2012 was a concept album about the second law of thermodynamics [1, 2])
posted by delmoi at 10:35 PM on June 18, 2013


"Has anyone written a really good essay on how to point out to nice people that their deeply held views and beliefs may not only be objectively incorrect but actively harmful to themselves/their society without coming off as an arrogant asshole?"

Only requires 3 minutes of your time
posted by Blasdelb at 3:28 AM on June 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Hmm.
posted by mippy at 4:31 AM on June 19, 2013


« Older Chicago's hillbilly culture may come as a surprise...  |  Sly Stone's history of drug ad... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments