ICBS Everywhere Rotating Header Image

The Amaz!ng Meeting [TAM9]: Some Notes

Workshop: Skepticism in the Classroom

Matt engages the audience. Photo by Dean Baird (minor retouching and cropping by me)

Matt engages the audience. Photo by Dean Baird (minor retouching and cropping by me)

First I would like to thank those who attended our workshop at The Amaz!ng Meeting 9 for your patience as we recover from the meeting and organize our thoughts. I have created a permanent page (under “Resources”) where you can access the materials we promised. Some of the things you will find are videos of Skeptical Teacher, Matt Lowry’s Self-Tying Knot trick its solution, a few exercises Matt has developed, my presentation with additional slides to provide notes and explanations (both embedded and in downloadable PDF), and links to purchase the books that I recommended.

Matt recapped the most important concepts from his piece last year and presented more of his fun and interesting demonstrations. I used to think that cognitive psychologists had all of the fun because we study the interesting ways that our brains and minds fool us and can blow those minds by showing them. However, after some thought I realized that the physics teachers I know have the coolest, scariest, ickiest, and most surprising demonstrations. They deal with the physical world and there are almost as many bizarre things in the physical world as there are in the mind.

No, I do not remember what I was saying when I made this face. Photo by Dean Baird (minor retouching and cropping by me)

Matt did not walk on fire or lie on a bed of nails, but he has done those things and has the video to prove it! What he did do is show the audience that getting your hands dirty can be a great way to reach minds.

I was a bit nervous about this workshop because some of the material I presented is very different from my usual “Oew” and “Ah” and “aHA!” stuff. In addition, its connection to promoting skepticism is distant, at least on the surface. The title of my presentation was Deep Thoughts: Facilitating Critical Thinking at All Ages. In teaching critical thinking, the age of the student is extremely important in determining methods and focus. For adults, the biggest roadblock to critical thinking is overconfidence. This is just a nice way of saying “arrogance” or “closed-mindedness”. The irony is that we humans are so overconfident that we think the term applies to other people and not ourselves.

For young children, there are few roadblocks. What we should focus on is guiding cognitive development in a way that minimizes overconfidence. In my opinion, the best way to do this is to encourage the practice of consideration and deep thinking. This, I suggest, is accomplished through discussion of philosophical questions.

I have yet to read a review of the workshop. However, the immediate feedback I received was very positive and I heard my words flowing from the mouths of others all weekend, including on the stage. It is entirely possible that others have been thinking about the same issues, but I choose to take it as evidence that my ideas were discussed and found worthy of some consideration.

A Short TAM9 Review

Unfortunately, I was still tweaking my workshop presentation and was unable to attend the other workshops. I caught only some of the activism workshop – the one I needed the most – but luckily there is a wonderful manual available which was produced by Desiree Schell and Maria Walters. Last year’s reception, which kicks off the official meeting on Thursday night, featured music and live interviews. This seemed to defeat the ‘meet and greet’ purpose of most attendees. The reception this year returned to the usual format of conversation, but there were so many people that it was difficult to find anyone. Friday morning JREF president D.J. Grothe announced the final headcount. Attendees, organizers, and presenters at TAM9 From Outer Space totaled 1652, approximately 300 more people than last year, which was 200 more than the year before.

In general, the long list of speakers booked for this year included the most inspiring scientists and science communicators in the skeptical community. The original keynote speaker, Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, is a personal hero of mine. His talk repeated much of what he covered in his very long and satisfying TAM6 talk, but I never tire of the material or his presentation style. Unfortunately, the other keynote speech, delivered by Richard Dawkins, was as boring (to me, anyway) as Tyson’s was entertaining. I have never found Dawkins to be a dynamic speaker, but this was particularly snore-worthy. He chose to spend much of his time describing his soon-to-be-released children’s book rather than discussing anything of note. Likewise, I find PZ Myers’ style a little bit dull, but I usually enjoy his talks simply because he chooses to talk about some of the most interesting topics. This year is no exception. His was one of the few talks that I missed, but I am looking forward to his discussion of alien anatomy when the JREF posts video of his talk (they committed to making all of the content available online).

Every other talk (not including the Sunday Paper Session, which varied in quality) was fantastic.

Some of the highlights for me:

  • Carol Tavris delivered a speech about reducing cognitive dissonance by first considering the target’s vantage point (i.e., empathy). This was probably the best speech I have ever heard, and I have heard a LOT of speeches and talks.
  • Dylan Keenberg, Sabrina Gibson, and me Photo by Daniel Loxton (minor touch-ups and adjustments by me)

  • Dylan Keenberg, a former student and collaborator of mine, delivered a wonderful Sunday talk describing one method for talking to others (Rogerian argumentation) which is highly likely to reduce both cognitive dissonance and misunderstandings. The most important aspect of this method is, once again, empathy. In order to more than simply fake empathy, though, one must be open to the possibility that one’s current understanding is wrong. My informal polling of TAM9 speakers and other community leaders tells me that I am justified in feeling extremely proud.
    Dylan Keenberg and Daniel Loxton Photo by Sabrina Gibson (minor touch-ups and cropping by me)

    Dylan Keenberg and Daniel Loxton Photo by Sabrina Gibson (minor touch-ups and cropping by me)

    Daniel Loxton’s discussion of these two talks (Tavris’s and Keenberg’s) as well as the two which specifically addressed activism (one by JREF Communications Sadie Crabtree and the other by union organizer and radio host Desiree Schell) is much more thoughtful, thorough, and interesting than what I could write at the moment.

  • Daniel also wrote about the panel to discuss diversity. In a nutshell, the discussion was quite a mess for the first half, but the more they discussed the more each clarified, and in some cases, changed their views until they settled on a middle ground that I think all could embrace. Essentially, they agreed that applying skepticism to a more diverse set of problems/questions/domains would result in a more diverse community without compromising the integrity of skepticism as a movement. Political, moral, and social ideology are ‘outside the scope’ of skepticism because they remove objectivity. In addition, untestable claims (e.g., “Does God exist?”) are off-limits because they cannot be addressed scientifically.

    I am always thrilled to hear D.J. speak about such things from a stage because he tends to be clear, firm, and directly on-message. Last year, for example, he made a point of asking nearly every speaker to clearly define the scope of their organization and each answered with some form of “scientific skepticism”. This year, he elaborated on this by noting that he strives for a diversity of religious views.

    However, I did not leave TAM9 with the optimism that Daniel Loxton left with. One reason for this was that D.J. made those statements while discussing “Diversity in Skepticism” with Debbie Goddard, Greta Christina, Jamila Bey, and Hemant Mehta. Debbie Goddard is the campus outreach director for CFI, a secular organization with a branch devoted to skepticism (CSI). The panel’s moderator, Desiree Schell, is firmly rooted in the skeptical community as the host of Skeptically Speaking and an occasional blogger on Skeptic North. The other three panelists are closely identified with atheism and, in my opinion, have contributed little, if anything, to skepticism itself. I kept wondering who this “we” was in the discussion (e.g., “We could offer…”).

    The conflation of atheism and skepticism is a very serious problem with dire consequences. The most important of these is the degradation of the integrity of skepticism itself. The scientific method only works when scientists are open to interpreting any result objectively – to consider all evidence with an open mind and to hold all conclusions tentatively. The conclusion that there is no God cannot be arrived at empirically, so it cannot be “the result of properly-applied skepticism” as some claim. I am very worried about this trend to conflate these two for several reasons, including the manner in which the majority of atheists talk to and about the faithful.

  • Bill Nye’s talk was condensed from the longer talk he gave at the Skeptic Society’s Science Symposium last month. In his position as the executive director of The Planetary Society he is concerned with science education and the consequences of failing in this area. For this reason, he is another hero to me.
  • The panel discussion of the future of space exploration was almost as lively as the diversity panel would be two days later. Most notably, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s verbal sparring with Lawrence Krauss left Bill Nye and moderator Phil Plait with little room to get a word in. However, Pamela Gay managed to do so by literally shushing Tyson – three times! For that, if not for the plea during her solo talk for all in the audience to be activists for education, made her another hero. Phil’s talk last year still rings in my years, so the odd man out on that panel – Lawrence Krauss – was the only one on the stage that I would not walk a few miles, breaking a path in the snow, to hear speak.
  • Speaking of heroes, there were two announcements at TAM9 which deserve to be noted. One was that The Richard Dawkins Foundation has committed to fund child care at meetings and conferences like TAM. The other involves everyone’s hero, Genie Scott. At the end of a talk in which she described the parallels between evolution denial and AGW denial (described and discussed in a great post by Donald Prothero), she announced that the NCSE is beginning an initiative to fight climate change denial in public education.
  • Finally, two Jennifers, Jennifer Michael Hecht and Jennifer Ouellette, merged poetry and popular culture with skepticism and science, respectively, in the most uplifting and inspiring ways. Hecht condensed a normally hour-long history of doubt into half an hour by speaking quickly, but this only enhanced the talk. Jennifer held a cultural mirror up to science and space exploration, showing clips and images from A Trip to the Moon to Doctor Who and beyond. These were as, if not more, intellectually fulfilling as the talks given by the psychologists (okay, I’m biased) and neurologists (Elizabeth Loftus, Richard Wiseman, Susana Martinez-Conde, and Stephen Macknik all spoke). Wiseman even introduced me to a new favorite ‘suggested lyrics’ video, so I think that I will leave you with that.




Print Friendly
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditPinterestEmailFlipboardEvernoteKindle ItInstapaperPocketShare

34 Comments

  1. KWombles says:

    Thank you for this; it’s nice to see what the event was like, and to get links for some of the materials!

  2. [...] — and go check out Barbara Drescher’s summary of the Classroom Workshop from TAM9 and much more — some things in skepticism DO make me immediately happy to see and this is such an [...]

  3. Rachelle says:

    This is a great recap, and thanks for it! I had an absolutely wonderful time at my first TAM and it was great to get the chance to speak with you, fleeting as those chances often were: so many people, so little time!

    Also thanks for posting your talk slides that I missed due to my interview schedule: I’m devouring them now. Your thoughts on deep thinking for children is very top of mind since I’m waiting for the camp season to be over in order to approach the local Philosophy for Children organization about LogiCON. I’d love to pick your brain for ideas and more deep thoughts sometime!

    Do you know if the workshop presentations were also recorded and will be available online? I remember seeing video cameras in the room at some point, but don’t remember if they were stationary or roaming in and out.

    1. admin says:

      I know that it was filmed, which is new to the workshops this year, because we had technical problems and they redid part of the intro to help with flow. I don’t know if/when it will be posted, but you know that I’m always available to chat! I’m kinda new to this philosophy for kids stuff, too, so I’ll pick your brain as well… :)

  4. Rob says:

    The conclusion that there are no ghosts cannot be arrived at empirically, so it cannot be “the result of properly-applied skepticism” as some claim. I am very worried about this trend to conflate disbelief in ghosts and skepticism, including the manner in which the majority of disbelievers talk to and about ghost believers.

    1. admin says:

      This analogy may appear to be equivalent on the surface, but it is not.

      - No good skeptic makes the claim that there no such thing as ghosts, psychic powers, etc. We claim that there is no evidence for these things. I did not say that the same claim could not be made about the existence of a god.

      - Most religious people will admit that there is no empirical evidence for the existence of the god in which they believe. Skepticism has nothing to say about that. If someone makes a testable claim (e.g., the prayer heals), the game is on.

      - People who claim that a house is haunted do so in response to some observed event – strange noises, changes in temperature, etc. These are empirical. They are testable.

      - In line with #3, ghosts are detectable. If they are not defined as possessing mass of their own, they affect the physical world in some way that is observable (empirical).

      - What skeptics themselves believe is not relevant. What they can demonstrate with evidence is. We can demonstrate that there are natural explanations for the strange noises, etc. that led Joe Blow to conclude that his house was haunted. We can demonstrate that praying for people does not cure their cancer. We cannot demonstrate that there is no God.

      1. Wendell says:

        You say
        “No good skeptic makes the claim that there no such thing as ghosts, psychic powers, etc.”

        I concur and exactly the same is true concerning go. I am Atheistic concerning Ghosts and Gods in exactly the same measure. You there should retract your point or eliminate Ghosts from the Skeptical scope.

  5. “The other three panelists are closely identified with atheism and, in my opinion, have contributed little, if anything, to skepticism itself.”

    I suppose that may be true (and a little snotty) – if you begin with the elimination of religion from the purview of skepticism. So, what reason do you have for doing that?

    “The conclusion that there is no God cannot be arrived at empirically, so it cannot be “the result of properly-applied skepticism” as some claim.”

    You seem to have bought into the lie that atheism is the absolute assertion that no gods exist. Atheism is the rejection of the claim “some god exists”. There’s a difference. If I do not believe that you’re telling the truth that is not equivalent to a belief that you are lying….and telling others that I remain unconvinced of your claims or challenging you to provide evidence of your claims is not a violation of skepticism, it’s an exercise of it.

    You’re right that properly applied skepticism does not support the conclusion that absolutely no gods exist, but that isn’t relevant to the skeptical atheist position.

    The idea that skepticism has nothing to say about untestable claims is utterly false. What skepticism says about untestable claims is that, by virtue of being untestable, there isn’t sufficient evidence to rationally justify belief.

    Meanwhile, a great many religious claims are, in fact, testable (and continually fail to produce confirming results). While I would say that those are part of a separate discussion, those claims benefit from the undeserved protected status that some want to afford to untestable claims – by virtue of falling under the same blanket of “religion”.

    “The conflation of atheism and skepticism is a very serious problem with dire consequences. The most important of these is the degradation of the integrity of skepticism itself.”

    And I’d argue that giving religion a protected status, outside the realm of skeptical analysis, is what is truly degrading the integrity of skepticism.

    The tools of skepticism apply to every claim, universally.

    Skepticism isn’t just about debunking or confirming, it’s about analyzing every claim about reality to find out whether or not one is rationally justified in accepting a proposition as true or likely true.

    There are any number of untestable superstitious claims that aren’t being given this special protected status. Why is it that religion continually gets a pass?

    The tools of skepticism, properly applied to religious claims, does result in a position:

    Those claims have not met their burden of proof and there is no rational reason to accept them as true.

    That’s the position of those of us who come to our atheism via skepticism. We are not holding this straw man position of absolute certainty that some want to dangle about in order to avoid directly challenging the biggest elephant in the room: religion.

    By the way, this isn’t about eliminating religious people from the community or even from the podium. I want to see as many people embracing skepticism as possible…but if we attempt to make skepticism more palatable to people who hold irrational views by claiming that their beliefs shouldn’t be challenged because they’re not testable, we’ve done them a huge disservice.

    We’ve weakened their toolset and left them with the impression that their pet superstitions are beyond critical examination and that is the real damage to the integrity of skepticism.

    1. admin says:

      “I suppose that may be true (and a little snotty)”

      Snotty? I don’t think so. It’s a plain statement. Perhaps I don’t wrap my direct statements in flowery sentiments in an attempt to avoid sounding ‘snotty’, but I do not add anything in way of pretense to them, either.

      “…if you begin with the elimination of religion from the purview of skepticism. So, what reason do you have for doing that?”

      I didn’t. When I discussed the panelists, I was talking about their affiliations with a movement, not a question. The hypothesis that a god exists is not testable, but there are many religious claims that are (e.g., that prayer heals). Religion does not have ‘protected status’, nor is anyone telling people not to critically analyze anything.

      The issue of testability is basic science, which it is clear that you understand given that you note that it is not appropriate to hold a conclusion with certainty. However, your claim that my argument includes straw men assumes that you are typical. I only need to go as far as the comments of Daniel’s post on the diversity panel to see the arguments I’m opposing.

      But here is the problem:

      “Skepticism isn’t just about debunking or confirming, it’s about analyzing every claim about reality to find out whether or not one is rationally justified in accepting a proposition as true or likely true.”

      Skepticism is not about rationally justifying positions. Skepticism is about determining what is likely to be true through scientific inquiry. Science is empirical. Reason is often necessary, but reason alone can tell us nothing because it requires us to assume that the premises we start with are true. Without observations of some kind, there is no science.

      That’s the bottom line and that’s all I’m going to say about it in this forum. If a reader is interested in why science is restricted to empirical testing, I can suggest some reading material, but a course on the philosophy of science is in order.

      “There are any number of untestable superstitious claims that aren’t being given this special protected status.”

      Name one.

  6. Matt Dillahunty says:

    “Skepticism is not about rationally justifying positions. Skepticism is about determining what is likely to be true through scientific inquiry.”

    Care to clarify the distinction here – because I see those statements as, effectively, equivalent? Determining whether or not a position is rationally justified is the same as determining whether it’s likely to be true through scientific inquiry.

    “Name one.”

    How can you test whether or not person X actually saw a ghost as a child (or last night)? You can’t – and it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the ghost of George Washington or the Christian concept of a holy ghost. You can’t test any single experiential event, if it’s in the past.

    We can evaluate what little evidence is available and reach the conclusion that either there’s sufficient evidence to rationally accept the claim or there isn’t.

    I don’t really have data, but I’d suspect that you’d probably agree that the overwhelming majority of skeptics don’t believe in ghost. They’re the equivalent of atheists with respect to ghosts (remembering, once again, that atheism isn’t the absolute assertion that no gods exist, but the disbelief of the claim that they do).

    They’d argue that what keeps them from accepting that ghosts are real is an overwhelming lack of evidence supporting the claims…that their lack of belief is the result of properly applied skepticism, with respect to the ghost claims.

    Ghost claims are a category with some untestable claims (as noted above) and some testable claims. The testable claims fail to produce sufficient evidence…but I’d be surprised if one of the leaders of the skeptical movement would ever take the stage at TAM and point out that there are people at TAM who do believe in ghosts and, as their beliefs aren’t testable, skepticism has nothing to say about those claims and that we should remember this and try to be respectful of their beliefs.

    I doubt we’d see a blog post including comments on a panel that included 3 people who are vocal about their disbelief of ghost claims, who focus primarily on pointing out the flaws in ghost stories and the potential harm…and claim that they haven’t really contributed anything significant to skepticism…or complaining that these a-ghosters are degrading skepticism.

  7. admin says:

    “Care to clarify the distinction here – because I see those statements as, effectively, equivalent?”

    Empiricism and rationalism are not equivalent at all. Again, I will not attempt to teach the philosophy of science in the comment section of my blog, but, again, science is empirical by definition.

    Regarding your ghost example, we do indeed test hypotheses about what people claim to have witnessed in the past. Would you say that we cannot determine the accuracy of an eye witness’s testimony without a time machine? We often can.

    Sometimes we are limited by the amount of evidence we can find, our technology, ethics, and many other considerations, but a lack of evidence to support or refute a hypothesis or claim does not equate to a lack of testability – not even close.

    Finally, I never claimed that the panel members are “degrading skepticism” and I resent the implication that I did. What I claimed was that the conflation of atheism with skepticism damages the integrity of what we do because it defies the very definition of scientific skepticism. The inclusion of panelists who are primarily identified with atheism is an indication of such conflation. That is not even close to what you have accused me of.

  8. Rob says:

    My analogy is solid. You have made a distinction without a difference.

    I could easily construct a ghost belief that is immune from empirical detection: ghosts are only observed by believers, they leave no physical evidence, no scientific instrument detects them, etc. And this is exactly what ‘sophisticated’ theologians have done.

    But that does not mean a skeptic should remain silent when faced with these immunizing shenanigans. It’s exactly like Sagan’s garage dragon. Skepticism, properly applied, has plenty to say about gods, ghosts, and dragons.

    1. admin says:

      I could easily construct a ghost belief that is immune from empirical detection: ghosts are only observed by believers, they leave no physical evidence, no scientific instrument detects them, etc.

      Look, psychics can always claim that the entities that give them their powers do not want to be found and, therefore, their powers do not work under controlled conditions. THAT is the equivalent of a religious claim and it, too, is one about which we have nothing to say. You can always come up with specific cases of untestable claims.

      Yes, it is something like Sagan’s dragon. However, Sagan was describing a pattern of behavior (moving the bar) which allows pseudoscientists to start with a testable claim, then wiggle away into the land of the untestable (out of the reach of science). It may be sensible to reject such a claim tentatively and consider new evidence as it becomes available, but that He was NOT making the statement that scientific inquiry leads to the conclusion that there is no dragon. No scientific inquiry is possible.

      Sagan spends much of the book in which talks about the dragon scenario (Demon Haunted World), discussing the issue of framing hypotheses as testable in order to study them. He also discusses some of the testable hypotheses that organized religion offers, noting that it is only these which place them in the realm of science.

      Back to your example, you’ve made a sweeping generalization that does not apply in practice. If there was nothing to investigate, scientific paranormal researchers would have little to talk or write about about. Ask Ben Radford, Joe Nickell, Karen Stollznow, Blake Smith, Sharon Hill, etc. how untestable ghost claims are. You might be surprised.

      Every major organization in the skeptical movement has adopted scientific skepticism and they did so for a reason: science is the best method for learning about the world. Science is limited to testable hypotheses.

      There is a lot more depth to these issues than what you’re trying to argue – a lot more to understand about it, such as why testability is necessary and what makes a hypothesis ‘testable’, why conclusions are never held with certainty, and so on.

  9. Rob says:

    Now you are are arguing my point for me. You say:

    “Look, psychics can always claim that the entities that give them their powers do not want to be found and, therefore, their powers do not work under controlled conditions.”

    And when they do this, we point out that they are moving the goalpost. Recognizing when folks move the goalpost is an important part of a skeptic’s toolkit. So when a religious person makes this move in order to protect their god belief, we note that they are using fallacious reasoning.

    I don’t think we are going to get anywhere here. I agree completely that you cannot get to “there is no god” using empirical science. But from that it does not follow that a skeptic cannot arrive at tentative atheism using the tools of skepticism. You yourself seem to have done so.

    One final point. In your various comments about the philosophy of science, you seem to imply that we can draw a strict demarcation line between science and other methods of rational inquiry. I think that is wrong. The demarcation problem is a hard one, and as far as I am aware, nobody has yet solved it. My thinking falls in line with the ideas of Susan Haack.

    Thanks for the exchange.

    1. admin says:

      “I agree completely that you cannot get to “there is no god” using empirical science. But from that it does not follow that a skeptic cannot arrive at tentative atheism using the tools of skepticism. You yourself seem to have done so.”

      Because:

      “Every major organization in the skeptical movement has adopted scientific skepticism and they did so for a reason: science is the best method for learning about the world. Science is limited to testable hypotheses.”

      The demarcation problem is a philosophical question and I have little interest in debating it here. When I teach the philosophy of science, I discuss the reasons the demarcation is logically necessary, but the bottom line is that the demarcation exists whether philosophers continue to debate it or not.

      Science lives by a set of rules; it must in order to operate. You are entitled to disagree about whether or not science should live by those rules (an opinion), but that does nothing to the reality that it does (a fact).

  10. “Empiricism and rationalism are not equivalent at all.”

    I understand this, and I didn’t mention either empiricism or rationalism – I was talking about skepticism, which isn’t equivalent to empiricism (or we’d be having empiricism conferences).

    Skepticism is an extension of empiricism, the application of it, so to speak. When I said “rationally justified” I wasn’t talking about rationalism – and I assumed that me repeated references to evidence would make that clear.

  11. admin says:

    “Skepticism is an extension of empiricism, the application of it, so to speak. When I said “rationally justified” I wasn’t talking about rationalism – and I assumed that me repeated references to evidence would make that clear.”

    Unfortunately, your references to evidence and the fact that you seem to understand the role of uncertainty only served to confuse me because it also appeared that you were interchanging the two terms.

    Although it is true that we will not see eye-to-eye on the issue of empiricism, at least we have finally reached an understanding of where we differ in our views. That’s positive, IMO.

  12. Rob says:

    After rereading these comments I noticed something that needs clarification.

    At first, it seemed clear that you understood my ghost analogy as a reductio ad absurdum. Yes, that was my intent. But then you wrote this:

    “Back to your example, you’ve made a sweeping generalization that does not apply in practice. If there was nothing to investigate, scientific paranormal researchers would have little to talk or write about about. Ask Ben Radford, Joe Nickell, Karen Stollznow, Blake Smith, Sharon Hill, etc. how untestable ghost claims are. You might be surprised.”

    And now it looks like you really think that I think ghost claims are beyond the purview of skepticism! OF COURSE certain ghost claims can be investigated using the tools of skepticism. You really think that surprises me? Weird.

    So let me state my position in plain language. It is a simple matter to engineer a belief such that it cannot be investigated scientifically. Some defenders of god belief, homeopathy, psychics, and ghosts have made this move.

    But from that fact it does not follow that those topics generally are off the table for skeptical inquiry.

    1. admin says:

      “And now it looks like you really think that I think ghost claims are beyond the purview of skepticism!”

      Not at all. You equated belief in ghosts with belief in god. I simply tried to explain why they are not equal at all.

      I never argued against the idea that it is simple to ‘engineer a belief’ so that it is untestable. I argued that it is not what usually happens in practice with claims of ghosts.

  13. Rob says:

    “I argued that it is not what usually happens in practice with claims of ghosts.”

    My experience has been different. I have a friend who thinks her house has a ghost. Each time I offer a suggestion on how to investigate her claims, she starts making excuses which make the investigation impossible. I doubt my experience is unique. My reading of psychic investigations likewise reveals that this phenomenon is common. I also recall Dr. Oz playing this card with Steve Novella.

    So, it seems to me immunizing beliefs is what usually happens – whether it’s gods, ghosts, or the healing power of crystals.

  14. Rob says:

    I also have no interest in debating the demarcation problem.

    How do you demarcate science? Could you point me to a resource that you use in your class? Thanks. The best thing I have found is on naturalism.org, but I’m always looking for something better.

    I agree that science must operate by a set of rules. But stating exactly what those rules are has been historically problematic.

    1. admin says:

      But stating exactly what those rules are has been historically problematic.

      It has? Says who? Philosophy is ill-defined. Science is not. Yes, there are always going to be philosophical discussions of epistemology, but science has a pretty solid footing. Massimo Pigliucci wrote an excellent essay on the difference between philosophy and science: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/rationally-speaking/200911/the-difference-between-science-and-philosophy

      Most undergraduate science textbooks, especially those written for research methods courses, almost always cover the the basic canons of science: empiricism, determinism (really naturalism), parsimony, etc.

  15. Rob says:

    OK, I finally understand our disagreement (I think). I think there is a demarcation problem, while you don’t think there is one. Is that right?

    I read Massimo’s article when it came out, but I will read it again, thanks.

    (But just because science cannot be precisely defined does not mean it’s not the best thing going. I think it is. I would LOVE to be convinced that there is not a demarcation problem. This is an issue about which I hope to be proven wrong.)

    1. admin says:

      “I think there is a demarcation problem, while you don’t think there is one. Is that right?”

      Close enough. I don’t think that there is a problem with demarcation, or that science is not defined by it.

      There is not way to prove you wrong about it. The best that I could do would be to explain why the canon of empiricism is included. I might be able to convince you, but I can’t prove anything.

  16. Rob says:

    OK. I would love to be convinced that there is not a demarcation problem. I just flipped through Pigliucci’s recent book to confirm my recollection of his position. The concluding chapter has the phrase “The demarcation problem remains”. Not that that means it does, he could be wrong, but to give you an answer to your question “Says who?” (besides me).

  17. admin says:

    He is not wrong; you’ve cherry-picked from his book. It remains a philosophical argument (his current occupation is philosopher). In the practice of science, it’s not even a blip on the radar.

    Here’s another cherry pick that supports what I’m saying (bold mine):

    “These three elements, naturalism, theory, and empiricism, are what make science different from any other human activity.”

  18. Rob says:

    I agree that in the usual practice of science it’s not a blip. As Feynman put it “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.”

  19. Marcus Ranum says:

    The conclusion that there is no God cannot be arrived at empirically, so it cannot be “the result of properly-applied skepticism” as some claim.

    Empirical evidence for god? Oh. You say there’s none? Then I guess there’s nothing to talk about. There’s no need to prove god doesn’t exist because those that claim god exists have failed to make their case. That’s “introduction to reasoning for dummies” and if a ‘skeptic’ needs that explained to them, they’re not a skeptic, they’re a woo-woo.

  20. Peter says:

    Religion is the ultimate woo so i dont understand your position at all.

  21. Chet Saberhagen says:

    There seems to some intellectual dishonesty floating around here since you can’t proof any negative. You can never prove there is no god, so it comes down to testing the positive claim made by believers that there is a god. And science can definitely test that. You can use every tool skeptics and scientists have to test all the empirical evidence a believer has for their claim that god exists.

    It’s very simple. There is so much dancing around a very simple point. If there is no empirical evidence for something to exist, it can only be said it doesn’t exist. Or do you claim all things which have no empirical evidence must exist? That is a vast set of things. I think it’s just less clutter to say there is no god until someone comes up with some empirical evidence one might actual exist.

  22. articulett says:

    What would be a valid reason for a skeptic to believe in some immaterial beings (gods, souls, angels, demons, say) but not others (ghosts, gremlins, fairies, and Xenu)? What is the differential and why shouldn’t one be equally skeptical of all purported immaterial beings? Why can’t we treat them all as myths? What does it even mean to say such a thing exists, when it has none of the properties associated with existence? How does a skeptic choose which “divine truth claims” to be mum about since we cannot demonstrate any supernatural being is real? Why should god belief be off limits any more than ghosts or claims about psychic powers or belief in witches? Aren’t they all cut from the same cloth? (The same cloth used to make the proverbial emperor’s new clothes?)

    Since religion is the number one institution that elevates faith (anti-skepticism) to a salvation worthy virtue and it is the “woo” that causes the most harm, I think it’s a natural part of the skeptic movement– perhaps the most important part.

    Despite eons of belief in such things, there is not an iota of evidence that any immaterial/divine agents exist. The evidence increasingly shows that souls (and all other invisible beings) are products of the material brain of humans. You may not think that atheists contribute to the skeptical movement, but I would say they are on the forefront of leading humanity to understanding the above. When people no longer fear that they will suffer forever because of non-belief, then belief in gods because irrelevant– humans are no longer subject to manipulation whereby voices in one’s head are confused with revelations or prophesy or divine directives. Non-believers in such things can come out of the closet.

    I disagree with the notion that atheism degrades skepticism; I think protecting religion from skepticism does more to degrade skepticism than being equally skeptical of all purported immaterial/magical/divine beings– even the ones said to be responsible for universe creation… and the ones named “God” or “Jesus”… and the ones that are 3-in-1 monotheistic deities.

    1. admin says:

      Nobody is “protecting” religion. Your comment demonstrates a misunderstanding on your part of what skepticism is. Is it not a set of conclusions, nor is it about your personal beliefs or anyone else’s. It is simply a method for evaluating evidence. If that’s not for you, there are plenty of atheist organizations.

  23. Peter says:

    I dont understand why god and religion shouldnt undergo the same scrutiny as anything else that is claimed without evidence.
    Why does religion get a free pass ?

  24. articulett says:

    I became an atheist through skepticism and an outspoken atheist as a result of an early TAM; I don’t consider you to be more of an expert on what skepticism is than I am –nor than the many that disagree with you. Anything that is purported to be real is subject to scientific investigation and, thus, skepticism. Skepticism has taught me that real things should be distinguishable from illusions when tested. Lack of evidence IS evidence when evidence is expected. A real god (or holy ghost) should be distinguishable from myths or misperceptions. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jk6ILZAaAMI When someone tells another to “just have faith” or tries to shame them for asking probing questions, or claims that it’s “arrogant to question god”– then that’s the time to utilize skepticism!

    How do you discount demons without discounting gods? Or do you think we should be silent about demon belief too? Science cannot prove that there are no such things as witches (still being put to death in Africa) nor that the 9-11 hijackers aren’t in paradise. But we can point out these are primitive beliefs and unlikely to be true; we can also say that if scientists can’t test, refine, and hone our knowledge on such things, it’s unlikely that some guru has either. We can note that there is no more evidence for hell than there is for Valhalla… no more evidence for gods than there are for gremlins. We can point out that if there were evidence for souls, we could expect scientists to be testing, refining, and honing that information for their own benefit while Randi would gladly pay out the million dollar prize so that we might all learn more.

    You think atheism degrades skepticism, but you have failed to give an example as to how or evidence as to why. I’m skeptical of such a claim. I expect to see a huge overlap between science, skepticism, and atheism. When a person is as skeptical of their own religion as they are of others, they tend to become atheists. When a person tests their faith based beliefs using the scientific method, they tend to become naturalists (who are also atheists.)Shouldn’t a skeptics convention be a place where such nonbelievers don’t have to walk on eggshells as they do in regular life? Why should the attendees at such a convention have to know or care about other peoples’ magical beliefs? Shouldn’t this be the one place where we are able to assume that others are as skeptical as we are?

    I get along equally well at skeptic and atheist conventions– there is a huge overlap of people, so your pedantic advice is unneeded. Atheist groups have a few more new-agey sorts of believers and skeptic groups have a few more faitheists (those who subscribe to or protect some forms of religious faith) — both types of “woo” seem equally sensitive to those who don’t treat their “woo” with the respect they imagine it deserves.

    If there are skeptics who don’t want to include those who are skeptical of gods or outspoken atheists, then I think it’s up to them to organize such an exclusionary and prejudicing event and it’s up to them to show the benefits of such an approach. From my angle, it appears that the accommodationist crowd is attempting to make religion off limits for skeptical discussion at a skeptics convention– they are protecting some brands of faith and magical thinking by treating it in a way they would not treat belief in psychics or channeling or demon possession or other unfalsifiable claims. This gives the illusion that some brands of faith are more “scientific”– that the some magical beliefs are more respectable or off limits to scrutiny than others.

    You seem to be asking skeptics to care about the feelings of believers while caring very little about the atheists whom you took a swipe at because in your opinion they haven’t contributed sufficiently to skepticism.

    From my observations, the biggest growth and diversity in the skeptic community has come from the atheist crowd.