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Take Back Skepticism, Part III: The Dunning-Kruger Effect

First, if you have not read Parts I and II, please read them now. The most important parts of those posts are:

Arguments over scope and the conflation of atheism and skepticism have reached a fever pitch, as have arguments over tone. I will talk about some of this, but I will not attempt to explain all of the issues in any detail because everything that needs to be said has been said here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here… Well, you get the picture. In fact, if you want to argue the definition of skepticism or Skepticism* in the comments of this post, don’t bother. Instead, read what I wrote about it last year, which I would simply repeat in answer…

…I suggest is this: Skepticism*, as a movement, is not hindered so much by the conflation of atheism and skepticism, the ridicule of believers, or attempts to promote values-based ideology as it is hindered by the blatant ignorance, arrogance, and irrationality displayed when those acts are committed.

In a field dedicated to reducing ignorance and irrationality, a field in which arrogance is toxic, I find this kind of behavior offensive. It is time that we reclaim Skepticism and restore its credibility and integrity.

If one of the major goals of Skepticism is to educate, shouldn’t we all understand the material?

I am angry. I am angry and a little fearful for our future. We live in dangerous times and the work of Skepticism is serious. The work is hard. It requires patience, discipline, empathy, and knowledge.

I am angry because an influx of people who have stumbled upon or been recruited to the work of Skepticism are making it much more difficult. We’re moving backwards. This is happening, in part, because some of these rookies insist that their understanding of that work is as good or better than the understanding of people who have studied and worked in the field for years. Many have little or no education in the basics of science or the scientific process. Some claim to follow the teachings of people whose works they have never read. Some believe that the ‘old guard’ have more to learn from them than the other way around. These people voice their opinions on blogs and in talks, discussing topics about which they consider themselves competent after reading a couple of blog posts, listening to a podcast, considering their own limited experiences, or MAYBE reading a book or two on the topic.

What’s worse, they argue about details with little or no understanding of even the big picture. They believe that their understanding is complete and, therefore, requires no study, no thought beyond the surface features, and certainly not time or mentoring.

This is anti intellectualism in a field which promotes intellect and deep thought.

The problem has bothered me for some time and, in fact, ignorance of one’s own incompetence is something that bothered me in my classroom so much that I studied its relationship to academic entitlement, narcissism, external attributions for achievements, and study strategies. What we learned is that narcissism, entitlement, and shallow study strategies are strongly correlated with the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which is the phenomenon that the least competent people overestimate their competence the most as part of a self-serving bias. As relative competence increases, overestimations decrease, until the 75th to 95th percentile (depending on the domain), when estimates are fairly accurate. This is particularly problematic in an academic setting because the less students understand a concept, the more likely they are to believe that they understand it, the less likely they are to make changes to ensure that they learn it, and the more likely they will be to feel entitled to a high grade for their poor work.

Skeptical activism is not unlike academics.  Incompetence feeds on itself in this effect. The more an individual overestimates their competence, the more entitled they believe they are to an uncritical audience to which they can voice their opinions. What’s more, the more confident a blogger appears, the more their audience will reinforce their views (because they convince the audience that they know; the same thing occurs with eye witness testimony), although this is somewhat limited to situations in which the view is shallow enough to for the audience to understand, a perfect enhancement to the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

But high confidence is not an indication of actual understanding, nor is the number of supportive cheers of agreement from their followers.

The rest of this post will focus on one example of this, but there have been countless. This particular example is an especially egregious one, since she attacked both a friend for whom I have a great deal of respect and the field I defend daily. It was back-breaking straw for me.

When Amanda Marcotte whined that Daniel Loxton doesn’t want us to talk about religion, she built a now very familiar straw man and dressed him with inappropriate comparisons and other ignorant rambles. She appears to be upset because she somehow thinks that the usurping of a movement in motion, one which is founded on scientific principles, for the promotion of her personal political and religious ideology, should go unchallenged.

Amanda does not appear to understand what skepticism actually is or what science involves, yet she’s thrown her hat in, anyway. Perhaps she is insulted that somebody tried to tell her, I really don’t know, but I do know that the confidence with which she writes about the issues is unwarranted, a fact which is clearly demonstrated by the content of her post.

Amanda wrote,

“Look: atheism is the result of applying critical thinking and demands for evidence to the god hypothesis. It’s not any different than non-belief in all sorts of supernatural claims, such as ESP and ghosts. All of the weaseling around that is intellectually dishonest. It’s not about critical thinking, but about politics and frankly, not taking on religion because religion is seen as too powerful. “

Wrong.

What is intellectually dishonest is arguing about something you do not fully understand against people who are experts in the field. What is intellectually dishonest is advancing an uneducated opinion because the educated one does not help you achieve your own goals.

Her first two sentences demonstrate the problem with this entire post and most of the comments on it: ignorance. The rest of the paragraph is bullshit that Amanda made up. Nobody is ‘backing down’ and there is no concern that “religion is seen as too powerful”. This is not about politics. It is about scientific integrity.  This point has been made again and again, but ignored by people like  Amanda. Perhaps they ignore it because they do not understand it, or maybe they ignore it because it doesn’t help them, but the reasons don’t matter. Ignoring it won’t make it go away.

Science is the pursuit of truth. Truth is not value. Desires are not facts. Facts are not morals.

Scientific integrity requires adherence to scientific principles. Likewise, scientific skepticism relies on scientific integrity. Otherwise, we are just a bunch of people with opinions.

… Loxton decided to shit all over the work of people looking at improving gender, sexual oriention, class, and race diversity in the movement by complaining that the panel at The Amazing Meeting dedicated to this didn’t have any fucking Christians on it.

Again, she’s just making stuff up. Daniel noted that the diversity of the panel did not reflect the diversity of the audience in one important aspect. Framing this as “complaining that there were no Christians” is dishonest and the implication that Daniel does not care about issues of gender, class, and race is simply unfounded and abhorrent. Anyone who actually knows Daniel understands just how stupid that accusation is.

He firmly believes that the god hypothesis should be off-limits for skeptics, and that there should be a bright line between atheism and skepticism. This is ridiculous. “God” is a supernatural claim just like fairies and ghosts.

This statement, once again, not only demonstrates gross ignorance and shallow thinking, but the fact that she’s written an entire blog post questioning the knowledge of a professional skeptic on very basic definitions of the field without first educating herself is offensive and disrespectful. Had she even tried to understand the issues, a task which takes time and energy, she might have learned enough to at least recognize that she has a lot more to learn.

But I am clearly expecting too much, because Amanda thinks that “I don’t get it” equates to “It must not be true” as demonstrated by this parroting of Skeptical sound bites and bullet points, mostly taken out of context or misused (bold mine):

The excuse from “traditional” skeptics for making an exception for religion is that the god hypothesis is an untestable claim, and they’re only interested in testable claims. But as this fairy example shows, that’s not really true. There are plenty of things skeptics are skeptical about because of the preponderance-of-evidence standard. We don’t believe in ESP or ghosts or fairies because no one has ever produced solid evidence in favor of these things existing, and we combine that with an assumption that these things are highly unlikely and so the burden is on the people making the claims to prove them. I don’t see how god is any different.

… Yes, it’s true that you can’t test whether or not there is a god somewhere that simply refuses to show himself, but that’s also true of fairies, people with ESP, and ghosts. And yet it’s considered a good use of skeptical time to point out the weakness of the ghost/ESP argument. So why not god?”

She doesn’t ‘see it’, so it doesn’t exist. I hate to add to the sound bites when what is needed here is serious coursework, but there are some basic concepts that could help Amanda “see how” these things are different, starting with breaking down some of her giant straw man. Here are a few basic points that Amanda should have known before she wrote this post:

  • Science is empirical, therefore scientific skepticism is empirical. This is more important than testability, although it is related. NOTE FOR THE RECORD: The concept of testability is watered down somewhat in my posts and comments because it is complicated. For a good discussion of these issues, I recommend Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World.
  • Skeptics do not “make exceptions” for religion. The fact that “God exists” is not an empirically testable hypothesis is not the fault of skeptics or Skepticism. It is the nature of the hypothesis. Science and skepticism have nothing to say about any hypothesis which can never be tested empirically.
  • Skepticism is not a set of beliefs or conclusions. This is important. “We don’t believe in ESP or ghosts or fairies” is not something that a good skeptic would say and the ‘we’ part is presumptuous. I certainly do not want someone like Amanda Marcotte speaking for me if this what she thinks skepticism is.
  • What any Skeptic believes is irrelevant. Personal knowledge is derived in whatever way the individual chooses to derive it. Science and skepticism deal with shared knowledge. Shared knowledge requires empirical evidence.
  • The reason that we can easily discount ESP in most cases is because it is usually easily tested empirically.
  • Requiring empirical testability is not “giving religion a pass”. It is holding true to the scientific process, which is designed specifically to ensure that our human biases and personal values do not affect our ability to distinguish what is true from what is not true. Religion’s most basic claims usually involve an omniscient and omnipotent being, making them largely untestable. This is not at all true of ESP, ghosts, or other traditional topics in skepticism. More on that below.
  • A good skeptic would never state that there are no ghosts. A good skeptic would investigate specific claims of hauntings, searching for natural phenomenon which would explain the evidence. A good skeptic would not say there is no such thing as extrasensory perception. A good skeptic would say that we have no evidence to support precognition, telekinesis, etc.
  • Skepticism is not about pointing out the weaknesses of arguments. It is about evaluating the evidence. These are not even close to being the same. When a self-proclaimed psychic moves the bar and says, “If it failed the test, then the forces that give me these powers do not want to be seen,” they make their claim untestable. Skeptics then have nothing to say in response. However, skeptics can provide natural explanations for phenomena (e.g., reveal that Peter Popoff was being fed information via an ear piece) which are much more parsimonious than supernatural explanations. This is also what we do with religious claims. If someone claims that God created man as he is today, we can point to the evidence which support the theory of evolution. If they claim that God created the universe, we can point to the evidence for the Big Bang. If they claim that God created the universe and man by making these natural processes possible, well then, we cannot refute that.

But Amanda would like to cast out Pamela Gay because Pamela believes in a personal God. Never mind the fact that she has never tried to sell that view to others, that she never claimed to support it with evidence, or that she is a very competent and knowledgeable Skeptic, scientist, science educator, and science communicator. Nevermind that Pamela Gay is a valued member of the Skeptical community who has done more to educate and excite young minds about science than all but a few others. [NOTE: minor edit for clarity, 08/07/11 9:50am]

Pamela Gay is not being irrational. Amanda Marcotte is.

Marcotte’s diet example is another case of irrelevant comparison. She states, sarcastically, that people are also touchy about their diet and so expressing skepticism about food trends is probably bad idea, too. This is clearly a straw man. We can demonstrate the effects of gluten empirically, so it is a poor comparison, too. Nobody is saying that people should not express skepticism about the existence of a God. What we are saying is that we cannot demonstrate empirically that God does not exist, therefore, if that is your conclusion, you cannot share that conclusion with others. The difference between personal knowledge and shared knowledge is not trivial.

Making others comfortable is not the issue, either, although making people uncomfortable out of arrogance and ignorance is certainly a part of the issue. I would like to point out that Amanda’s double-standard is pretty obvious in that paragraph. Apparently, the needs that matter are the needs of those she thinks deserve our attention and that’s it. But while we’re on the subject, it doesn’t matter if you are promoting skepticism, atheism, or your favorite restaurant. Being an asshole is being an asshole. The reason that DBAD matters to the rest of us is that when a dick represents Skepticism, they make our jobs more difficult.

The issue of scope is more complicated than the atheism/skepticism debate. The only reason that religion is given special consideration in the discussions of scope is that there are more people conflating atheism with skepticism than ever before. There are more people acting like superior assholes than ever before. People who could be helped by skeptical outreach as well as people who contribute a great deal to the movement (people like Hal Bidlack, a brilliant, scholarly, honorable man with years of service to the community) have been run off by the relentless arrogance of people like those I have discussed in this series of posts. The ignorant, the arrogant, and the irrational (I’m picturing monkeys of the ‘no evil’ variety, but with interesting facial expressions).

And this problem is growing.

Most of the comments on Amanda’s post demonstrate a frenzied groupthink that will further convince her that she’s on the right track. Comment number 41 describes this problem (among others) quite well: “One cool thing about having a political blog which is allegedly powered by skepticism is that people will be much more tolerant of logical fallacies.”

Some of the most fallacious comments:

…There’s nothing worse than an agnostic who thinks he’s more logical and skeptical than an openly religious person. Whether you’re an agnostic or a believer you’re engaging in special pleading on the god question, subjecting it to a different standard than any other question of existence, and you are not a skeptic nor are you logical.

“Special pleading” is a straw man that is repeated often. But it is just that: a straw man.

what the hell is skepticism for if not doing away with false beliefs?

More ignorance. There is no such thing as a ‘false belief’. Beliefs are simply what you hold to be true. Nobody actually knows for certain what is true. Skepticism is about evaluating evidence, period.

H0: There is no god. H1: There is a god. There is a serious shortage of evidence for H1, therefore we must accept the null hypothesis.

Introductory statistics cannot address the question of whether or not God exists.

If there’s a lack of humanpower and ressources to do everything, the question skeptics organizations should ask themselves is not why they should get involved in the more political aspects of skepticism, but why they should still waste ressources on the trivial, non-political aspects like Bigfoot/UFO/ghost/cryptozoology debunkings and such.

Wow. This is very disturbing, and I’m not just talking about the spelling or misuse of words like “aspects”. Apparently many commenters don’t watch television or get out of the house much. The number of shows devoted to ghost hunting alone is staggering. Then there are the shows about psychics of all ages, animal mind readers, monster hunting, etc. These shows are appearing on channels once devoted to science, for FSM’s sake. As for why we don’t get involved in politics, read this.

And anyone who is interested in the bigger picture – the picture concerned about meeting the goals of the movement – should read Comment number 75 on Amanda’s post.

The parroting that atheism is the result of applied skepticism that is so prevalent in the comments and stated in Amanda’s post is anti-skeptical. It demonstrates a failure to understand the fundamental process of skepticism and the empirical nature of science and scientific skepticism. The definitions of science and scientific skepticism were arrived at through centuries of study, collaboration, contemplation, and discussion. They are not negotiable, at least not without agreement from a vast majority of scientists.  If you cannot accept these definitions as they are, you have three choices:

  1. Publish your opinions in peer-reviewed journals and hope that philosophers and scientists agree with you.
  2. Keep arguing about it with Skeptics and impede our progress.
  3. Go do something else.

 

*”Big-S Skepticism” refers to the work of the skepticism movement in promoting the practice of skepticism.

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45 Comments

  1. I’m curious: are you familiar with Aristotles ‘three laws of thought’? More specifically, the ‘Law of Noncontradiction’? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_classic_laws_of_thought#Aristotle)

    The reason I ask is that these three laws (or a similar formulation) is a prerequisite to scientific enquiry. The history of skepticism certainly predates Sagan, and the modern scientific method. It seems somewhat necessary to accept some version of the law of non-contradiction to formulate any logical method, within which a framework of science can be contained.

    The point of all this: that which contradicts *cannot* be true. Any definition of god which is self-contradictory *cannot* be true. Therefore such a god cannot exist.

    This *is* skepticism, as it is a direct application of the Law of Noncontradiction to the specific case of a god.

    Now, if you reject the Law of Noncontradiction: fair enough. But I’d be curious as to how you do science without it.

    1. admin says:

      Yes, I’m familiar and, no, I don’t reject it. In fact, it’s a necessary (as you said) part of science. I’ve watered down the issues here because, quite frankly, the nuances you’re talking about take study and deep thought to understand and apply properly and can’t be addressed in a single blog post or even a short series. That’s the big problem I’m trying to point out, actually.

      There will be many people like yourself who understand that the issue is more complicated than the simple language I have used here. But I hope that you can agree to the big picture and that the demarcations that professional Skeptics like Daniel Loxton have been accused of making for personal or political reasons are demarcations that are not only necessary, but important to maintaining scientific integrity, even if communication of them is simplified.

    2. Rich Hammett says:

      The Law of Noncontradiction is a very superficial way to look at any real-world issue. It works very well for geometry, and other simple, limited, human-defined systems, but it fails nearly immediately for any sufficiently complex systems, such as human language, human interactions, or human institutions.

      It fails because there is always “wiggle room” left in linguistic descriptions of the situation or item being discussed. You can, of course, remove this wiggle room with some sort of synthetic calculus, but as Kurt Gödel discovered, it’s not just a vacant claim that any synthetic calculus can’t represent every truth. It’s a fundamental fact of the universe.

      1. I don’t see the relevancy of your comment.

        Science operates on the basis of ‘contradiction = error in reasoning’, as does the bulk of philosophy. A Reductio Ad Absurdum is a standard approach to deny in all walks of life.

        I agree that if people provide vague and ambiguous propositions, one can’t apply the Law of Noncontradiction: the issue there is vagueness and ambiguity.

        And while there are controversies up in the ether of Philosophy (see the reference below to “paraconsistency”), this is entirely besides the point: everyday life, everyday conversation and everyday reasoning takes the Law of Noncontradiction for granted, much as it takes Newtonian mechanics for granted. That it’s not applicable in *all* cases (as argued by people at the top of their field) is irrelevant: it’s applicable in this case.

        1. Rich Hammett says:

          How is it applicable in this case? This case is not even a specific proposition that is being argued, as far as I can tell. State your proposition, and then say how the Law of Noncontradiction applies, and I’ll show you the problems with applying that Law to your proposition.

          1. “This case” is the typical argument for a monotheistic god. There are a variety of arguments put forward for this, all of which collapse under contradiction. Take the Kalam Cosmological argument, for one. Or even just the classical theodicy argument: There exists a god that is all powerful, all knowing and all good, where ‘all powerful’ is defined as ‘capable of irresistibly changing the world to its will’, ‘all knowing’ is defined as ‘has perfect information about the world’ and ‘all good’ is defined as ‘neither causes nor allows evil to exist’.

            The law of noncontradiction applies in Kalam as (once the Special pleading is dispensed with) the central claim is that A) nothing comes from nothing and B) god came from nothing. And C) nothing has existed forever and D) god has existed forever. And E) the concept of ‘infinity’ is nonsense, and has no ‘real’ meaning, and F) the universe existed as a singularity, that is an object of infinite mass, infinite density and infinite temperature.

            These are the contradictions inherent in Craig’s version (and other’s) of the Kalam cosmological argument.

            In terms of Theodicy, knowing that evil exists and being capable of doing something about it, but refused to do so entails the conclusion that the being is not “all good” (which contradicts the claim that the being is “all good”). Knowing that evil exists, wanting to stop it, but being incapable of doing so entails that the being is not “all powerful” (which contradicts the claim that the being is “all powerful”), and being both willing and capable of stopping evil, but being unable to find it entails that the being is not “all knowing” (which contradicts the claim that the being is “all knowing”).

            Now…

            Either you knew these arguments, and are being disingenuous, or you didn’t know these arguments, in which case you should take some time to educate yourself prior to making your claims.

            I’m betting on the former. If so, I’m done here.

        2. Rich Hammett says:

          I can’t go another level deep, apparently, so I’m replying to this one.

          That example you give fails pretty easily: NOBODY uses a rigid, limited description of a God in a rigid, limited argument for or against His existence in their personal faith. In fact, people (regular, real people, not philosophers) will find your argument to be MORE evidence for the existence of an unlimited deity. You do realize that most people throw around the idea of “Can God make a rock so big He can’t lift it?”, don’t you? And this includes many believers who are scientists. If they can make it through such a simple contradiction, then yours obviously has too many words to be more meaningful.

          But yours leaves plenty of room for the things I was actually talking about above, such as the definitions of your terms are vague and unclear, leaving plenty of room on all sides. What does “good” mean, exactly? Although they don’t normally like to phrase it this way, Mormons both limit God’s omnipotence and have a different definition of “good,” to easily discard with your objections here. Of course, I know several very good Mormon scientists, so maybe they’re an outlier.

          1. “In fact, people (regular, real people, not philosophers) will find your argument to be MORE evidence for the existence of an unlimited deity.”

            You seem to be confusing “will reinforce their prior belief” with “evidence”.

            “You do realize that most people throw around the idea of “Can God make a rock so big He can’t lift it?”, don’t you?”

            Citation, please. This argument is bandied about A) by people who are familiar with Aquinas (or, at least, Aquinas’s arguments) and B) the subset of A who don’t understand that this is a terminal contradiction. Your claim of “most people” needs some serious backing up.

            “If they can make it through such a simple contradiction, then yours obviously has too many words to be more meaningful.”

            Wait…

            Because people can rationalize their way through contradictions, contradictions don’t matter? You’re Appealing to Popularity in order to discount critical thinking? If this was a real life conversation, I’d be looking for the hidden cameras.

            Between this nonsensical statement, and the fact that you chose to ignore that I provided definitions (“What does “good” mean, exactly?”: ” ‘all good’ is defined as ‘neither causes nor allows evil to exist’.”), it’s become clear that a rational conversation is off the table. I’m done.

        3. admin says:

          Brian, Science does NOT “operate on the basis of”, or even consider, errors in reasoning. It avoids them (when conducted properly).

          Science applies logical rules (such as contradiction)to the construction of empirical studies and other arguments. The premises of scientific arguments are grounded empirically. In other words, we don’t just make up “givens” to test the validity of an argument. We’re out to find out what is true, so we start with what we already know.

          Philosophy is involved in science, but it is NOT science.

          1. Brian, Science does NOT “operate on the basis of”, or even consider, errors in reasoning. It avoids them (when conducted properly).

            These two statements contradict each other.

            Science applies logical rules (such as contradiction)to the construction of empirical studies and other arguments. The premises of scientific arguments are grounded empirically.

            Yes, I agree: the whole of science is set within a framework of logical construction and givens.

            In other words, we don’t just make up “givens” to test the validity of an argument.

            That’s a bizarre statement to make, given that that’s *precisely* how science *is* done.

            Philosophy is involved in science, but it is NOT science.

            Really?

            What’s your background in Philosophy? I ask this, because you have made it clear that the education of an arguer is relevant:

            What is intellectually dishonest is arguing about something you do not fully understand against people who are experts in the field. What is intellectually dishonest is advancing an uneducated opinion because the educated one does not help you achieve your own goals.

            There is a swathe of people, whose area is Philosophy of Science who disagree with you. Many of whom have PhDs in both scientific endeavours, *and* philosophy. I refer you to Dr. Massimo Pigliucci for one: http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2009/11/on-difference-between-science-and.html

            Dennett like-wise disagrees with you, as does anyone who has spent significant time studying the field of Philosophy of Science. Science is, neither more nor less than, the empirical application of Philosophy. This does not mean that Science ditches reasoning, but that the reasoning is *built into* the scientific approach.

            You don’t appear to know what you are talking about.

          2. admin says:

            Brian, nothing in what I have said is contradictory or incorrect.
            You, however, do not not appear to understand the difference between an assumption and an observation.

            I ask this, because you have made it clear that the education of an arguer is relevant

            Not quite. I have discussed the importance of expertise – knowledge. Formal education is only one way to gain this and formal education doesn’t guarantee it. The fact that I am indeed formally educated in these areas is not as relevant as the fact that I understand them.

            Did you actually read the post that you linked? In fact, did you actually read what I wrote? The stuff that you quoted? Because your argument suggests that you didn’t read either.

            If you think that Massimo Pigliucci disagrees with me, especially in the piece that you linked (one I am intimately familiar with because I reference it often), then you either don’t have a deep understanding of it or your interpretation of what I wrote is WAY off.

          3. Brian, Science does NOT “operate on the basis of”, or even consider, errors in reasoning. It avoids them (when conducted properly).

            How do you avoid something that you don’t consider?

            You can’t: consideration is necessary for avoidance. Furthermore, science that doesn’t ‘even consider’ errors in reasoning is known either as “bad science” or “pseudoscience”.

            Thus: contradiction.

            You keep accusing people who disagree with you that they don’t understand what they are saying. (i.e. Either I don’t understand Pigliucci’s position, or I don’t understand yours)

            How about you open yourself up to the possibility that you are wrong? That you are unfamiliar with the writings of Philosophers of Science?

            That the moment you claim that ‘science = empiricism’ (note the single quotes before I get accused of misquoting you), you dump all the Fallacies out of your toolbox. It’s not good skepticism to point out an Appeal to Popularity?

            It’s not good science to point out that results are (or may be) due to the Fallacy of the Common Cause (aka: one is witnessing a correlation, not necessarily a causation)?

            In skepticism you’re going to walk away from all of these, because they are not ‘Empiricism’? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fallacies#Informal_fallacies

            If you are *not* equating ‘science’ with ‘empiricism’: then I have misunderstood you.

            If you are *not* equating ‘science’ with ‘empiricism’, then your argument that ‘god exists’ is untouchable falls apart.

            You want to talk about intellectual rigor? I’ve made my points as clear as I possible could (with the exception of my last post): if you *still* feel that I’m misunderstanding you, then rather than merely assert your opinion *show* me the error in my characterization of your post.

            All this vague “you don’t understand”, as it stands right now, is unsubstantiated verbiage.

  2. Rob says:

    “The parroting that atheism is the result of applied skepticism that is so prevalent in the comments and stated in Amanda’s post is anti-skeptical”

    You self-identify as an atheist. Is your own atheism in any sense the result of applied skepticism?

    1. admin says:

      My conclusion that there is no God is the result of a reasoning processes which is mostly philosophical, not empirical. Although I have a difficult time understanding how others might come to a different conclusion, I am not arrogant enough to say that I know the absolute truth about anything. All that I can do with any conclusion is discuss the evidence that leads me to a given conclusion. No evidence = no discussion beyond my personal philosophizing. (that’s watered-down a bit)

      Discussions about ‘the God hypothesis’ are not taboo, contrary to what Marcotte and some others have said. What is wrong is promoting something as what people should think instead of how they should think. The only conclusions we can reasonably promote are those with a clear scientific consensus (e.g., ‘vaccines do not cause autism’ or ‘prayer does not cure cancer’) and only those because we can provide overwhelming empirical evidence to support them.

      1. “What is wrong is promoting something as what people should think instead of how they should think”

        Some conclusions are entailed by their premises. There is no alternative to the conclusion from the Euthyphro dilemma that either ‘what is good’ is independent from the existence of deities, or ‘what is good’ is merely an expression of the preference of deities. Adding the additional premise that ‘x is never good, and can never be good’, then “‘what is good is independent from the existence of deities” is necessarily what people should think, not merely ‘how’.

  3. Drew Rae says:

    Barbara,
    Whilst I agree with most of what you have said in this series, the insistence that atheism is not a reasonable conclusion from application of skepticism is based on a very narrow but unstated definition of theism. In practice almost all formulations of theism make emperical claims. Further, the history of the formulations is itself a question which can be investigated and communicated with the use of evidence.

    Where “atheism” is a shorthand for “all theist claims I have sofar encountered contra-indicated by the available evidence” it is a very reasonable conclusion to reach as a skeptic. I have no problem that other skeptics may reach different conclusions, or may hold religious beliefs that they have not investigated in depth. (I myself don’t see a need to investigate the evidence for psychic phenomena personally – I use non-empirical but valid methods such as plausibility and trusted scholarship of others).

  4. cass_m says:

    Interesting article, especially as I am reading The Invisible Gorilla. Seems to me what is missing is actual critical thinking.

    1. admin says:

      The Harvard gorilla study was probably the thing that made me most interested in visual attention. It’s VERY interesting stuff!

  5. Kitz says:

    wait wait, skepticism is about what happens on elevators? And if you disagree, you are not skeptical… and probably a very not nice person.

    I know more people that have said “I can’t even GO there!” because they don’t even know HOW to argue with the issue. A woman engineer that was the only woman in her class, and had to fight prejudice ever step of the way…a young woman scientist continuing her education to be, perhaps…one day, one of the best in her field, and fighting misinformation by creationists in her spare time….a young lawyer that grew up in Russia where her mother had to sleep with her boss to keep her job and saved money so she could send her daughter to the United States (where today she attends skeptic conferences and does pro bono work for rape victims in the Russian/US community at great risk to her own life)….THESE are the women that have just thrown up their hands and said “it’s just like the Tea Party! These young women have no experience, no back ground, no respect, no willingness to work…they just ARE experts!” And like the tea party they are going to bring us down as no one has any clue HOW to debate or talk to them. They have NO CLUE about compromise or seeing the need for unity for the bigger picture. They see no need to even write a decent book or blog post (why when youtube is so much easier and you can delete comments you don’t like). WHY even try to reason with them? And so, young women with your skills and experience are being marginalized by a skeptic youth movement that does not allow their voices to be heard. The very goal of Rebecca Watson and her elevatorgate (“women need to feel welcome by not being hit on”) is having the opposite effect. Her attack mode, and getting all her young cult followers to help out, is a disaster. And yeah, like the Tea Party she’s winning. CSI is even having a whole conference for her and her “issue” in DC. Wow, way to reward the Paris Hilton of skepticism. sigh…

  6. Rob says:

    Barbara,

    Thank you for the answer. It gets back to our prior non-discussion about the demarcation problem (or non-problem), which I know you don’t want to re-hash.

    You say:

    “I am not arrogant enough to say that I know the absolute truth about anything”

    Great! Me neither. And of course you should realize that you may not have the absolute truth about the proper scope of Skepticism.

    Thanks for the fisking of Marcotte et al, I agree with most of it. Prepare thyself for the heathen onslaught!

    1. admin says:

      *Armor Mode ACTIVATE*
      Prepared. :)

  7. Jim Lippard says:

    It should be noted that there is a class of systems of logic which dispense with the notion that everything is entailed by a contradiction, called paraconsistent logics. There is a further subset of those which also dispense with the law of non-contradiction, allowing for “true contradictions” or dialetheias. See the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entries on para-consistent logic and dialetheism:

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/logic-paraconsistent/

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dialetheism/

    The former seems a lot more plausible and useful (for instance, in modelling how human beings actually reason) than the latter (and you can take the former step without the latter, while the converse doesn’t seem to be the case). But it’s worth noting that one can have serious discussions about what happens if you reject even something that seems as obviously undeniable as the law of noncontradiction.

    1. What is the application of paraconsistent logic to the question “is there beer in the fridge?” ?

      If ‘none’, then I have little interest in the topic of paraconsistent logic. (and in reading through those articles, ‘none’ seems to be the answer)

  8. Matt Madison says:

    Thanks for using that Marcotte post as an example. I thought my jaw was going to be permanently stuck to the floor after I read it! And I’d never heard of her until recently, when one of our prominent skeptics referred to her as a “great skeptic and feminist.” (!)

    1. admin says:

      I would have asked them to define “skeptic”. The only thing that I have seen to connect her with Skepticism is that she was invited to speak at Skepticon 3 (which, if you read some of the links in the first post, is arguably more ‘atheist’ than ‘skeptic’) on, of all things, “The Role of Irrationality in Sexism”.

    1. admin says:

      Just so we’re clear, kitz, I don’t necessarily disagree with you on many of these issues. It’s complicated, but my support of Rebecca, even on ‘elevatorgate’, is limited. And “The Paris Hilton of Skepticism” is hilarious, whether it fits or not.

  9. Matt Penfold says:

    If Barbara Drescher does not think religion being too powerful is a problem she may want to read the various reports written for the Irish Government on the role of the Catholic Church in that country. In particular I suggest she read both the Ryan and Cloyne reports.

    Were she to do so, she would find that the abuses carried out by the Catholic Church in Ireland were allowed to happen because the church was too powerful. Further, if she read the testimony of the abused, be that abuse sexual, physical or mental in nature, she would soon realise that many victims report that the sense of powerlessness is something that has stayed with many of them into adulthood.

    This is if course but one example, but it does show Drescher to be wrong in claiming relgion being too powerful is not a problem. It also rather worryingly suggests she is either ignorant of what happened in Ireland, or simply does not care.

    1. admin says:

      You need to read rather than skim, because your comment has absolutely nothing to do with anything that I wrote.

      Marcotte accused Daniel Loxton of “not taking on religion because it is seen as too powerful”. I said that she made that up, nothing more.

  10. Matt Penfold says:

    Drescher, I read what you wrote. Please do not insult me by pretending you wrote something else. It is dishonest of you.

    Unless and until you are willing to be honest, you have nothing worth listening to.

    1. Um, Matt? It seems pretty clear to me that she was taking on Marcotte’s idea that the reason for the weaselling was fear of the power of religion, and Drescher was claiming that that had nothing to do with it at all. I fail to see any evidence from you that she was saying anything that actually addressed whether religion was too powerful or not.

  11. Sarah says:

    Matt you need to read what she wrote. Please do not insult her by pretending you read what she wrote. It is dishonest of you.

    You have said nothing worth listening to, not because you’re dishonest, but because you have failed in your reading comprehension. You have also aggressively and stupidly compounded this error by being arrogant and not double-checking to see whether you have made an embarrassing error.

    You have.

    Please check what she wrote and correct yourself, or resign yourself to appearing foolish in front of everyone.

  12. Chet Saberhagen says:

    You always emphasize empirical as if you regard that to be very important in science. The key to it, in fact. If that is true, why’re you suggesting science can’t test something without empirical evidence? I’m sure your answer will be along the lines of ‘but if there is no empirical evidence to test’. Here’s the thing you’re skipping over for some reason: if there is no empirical evidence to test in the first place, the hypothesis has failed already.’ The phrase ‘not even wrong’ was coined to fit that situation. It comes down to not believing in god because there is no evidence to support the existence in god.

    So far as I can tell you’re mostly caught up with semantics. Because people don’t phrase things as you like them, you call them ‘irrational’. But all that is just words. The bottom line for me and a lot of other people you sneer at as not being skeptics is the lack of empirical evidence which you seem to think is important only when it’s useful to your semantics.

    1. admin says:

      You always emphasize empirical as if you regard that to be very important in science. The key to it, in fact. If that is true, why’re you suggesting science can’t test something without empirical evidence?

      “Empirical” is part of the definition of science. I cover that in this post. Please, if you are going to comment, read the post thoroughly first.

      Hypotheses cannot “fail” simply because there is no empirical evidence to test. If that were the case, much of the field of astrophysics would be discarded. What determines whether or not a hypothesis is scientific is not whether empirical evidence exists, but whether empirical evidence is possible.

      It comes down to not believing in god because there is no evidence to support the existence in god.

      What is “it” in this sentence? You are free to believe that god does not exist for these reasons. I do not believe that god exists for this and other reasons. However, you cannot demonstrate that god does not exist.

      The word “semantic” refers to meaning, so, yeah, I’m concerned with meaning. The things you claim are equal are not and you cannot write off the differences as ‘nit-picky’ when they are fundamental to the process. If you don’t understand that, then you’re part of the problem. Shallow thinking is part of the problem. It’s anti-intellectual and unscientific.

      If you promote science as the best way to acquire knowledge while simultaneously claiming that its rules don’t matter, then you either don’t know much about what you’re promoting or you’re a hypocrite.

  13. Khantron says:

    Aren’t there empirical tests for lots of claims made by religions? The existence of souls seems like a likely candidate for skeptical inquiry. For example, James Randi didn’t prove Uri Geller didn’t have psychic powers only that if Geller was using psychic powers for his tricks, he was doing it the hard way. Other religious claims can be explored in the same way.

    1. admin says:

      Aren’t there empirical tests for lots of claims made by religions?

      Yes, and I discussed that.

      1. Khantron says:

        So if I understand you correctly, skepticism can apply to every god except one so detached from reality there couldn’t possibly be any indication that it exists? I’m fairly sure that the atheists would be fine only talking about the gods people actually believe in at Skeptic’s conferences.

    2. Rich Hammett says:

      I agree that empirical claims made by ANY believer in “supernatural” things can be tested. IF the claims can be nailed down to something testable. As I discussed with Brian up there, the claims are made in natural language, which is extraordinarily hard to pin down to something specific, and religious claims are usually made in an especially vague way, or with multiple possible “acceptable” interpretations. “The soul” strikes me as a good example of a bad claim to test. Most of the claims I can think of made about the soul do not admit of any testing at all. Do you have a specific definition of the soul, with a complete (or at least extensive) list of properties of the soul?

      Without that, and bringing this back to the theme of Barbara’s series, you’re being arrogant in nearly exactly the same way as a 1930 Texas preacher proving that quantum physics is wrong because of devils and Jews.

      1. Khantron says:

        I’m not talking about testing the soul per se. Because most versions of the soul are undetectable. I’m talking about the fact that alternate explanations for things the soul has traditionally explained like agency, can be explained through the physicality of the brain. The only thing it would show is that if a god made us with a supernatural soul to control our bodies he would be doing it the hard way.

      2. Khantron says:

        Now this wouldn’t eliminate all possible conceptions of souls. For example, in the case of a soul that is some sort of disembodied memory/personality recorder that is used in order to go to traverse another plane of existence I would be at a loss. Though I would leave open the possibility that others may be able to devise something.

  14. [...] can’t know” is every bit as true and necessary as the oxygen in the air. Further, we can’t even agree on what skepticism is. When one considers that there are nearly as many ways of defining skepticism [...]

  15. H.H. says:

    I am angry because an influx of people who have stumbled upon or been recruited to the work of Skepticism are making it much more difficult. We’re moving backwards. This is happening, in part, because some of these rookies insist that their understanding of that work is as good or better than the understanding of people who have studied and worked in the field for years. Many have little or no education in the basics of science or the scientific process. Some claim to follow the teachings of people whose works they have never read. Some believe that the ‘old guard’ have more to learn from them than the other way around.

    I don’t know where you learned about skepticism, but I learned from Carl Sagan. I presume you will acknowledge he was part of the “old guard” and very familiar with how science works. In his essay The Dragon In My Garage, Sagan demonstrates that any claim can be made to be untestable with enough ad hoc excuses. He uses the example of an invisible, incorporeal dragon which breathes heatless fire and maddeningly never leaves behind any physical evidence of its existence. The parallels to other alleged supernatural agents are obvious. What position does Sagan suggest skeptics take when faced with such an unevidenced, untestable claim? Well, he says:

    Once again, the only sensible approach is tentatively to reject the dragon hypothesis, to be open to future physical data, and to wonder what the cause might be that so many apparently sane and sober people share the same strange delusion.

    So he indicates we are to reject the hypothesis barring further evidence. Was he wrong to advocate reaching tentative conclusions? Was Sagan ignorant of science, skepticism and suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect as well?

    1. admin says:

      So he indicates we are to reject the hypothesis barring further evidence. Was he wrong to advocate reaching tentative conclusions? Was Sagan ignorant of science, skepticism and suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect as well?

      No, of course not, but you cherry-picked from the story and misapplied the ‘lesson’.

      Go back to the story. It is about an exchange between two people – one attempting to share personal knowledge with another. Sagan discusses a reasonable conclusion for an individual who is confronted with an empirically untestable claim. He does NOT state that it is reasonable to tell the claimant that they are lying or stupid or even wrong. In fact, he states otherwise. He goes on to discuss the need to acknowledge (not accept, but acknowledge) consistent theories (i.e., invisible dragons) in the absence of empirical testing. He then discusses the process of explaining empirical evidence in naturalistic ways (which can be shared).

      Later in the book Demon-Haunted World (which contains “The Dragon in My Garage”), he discusses the many scientifically testable tenets of some religions and notes that many religions are “in no way challenged, but rather uplifted, by the findings of science. There is no necessary conflict between science and religion.”

      AGAIN, skepticism is not a set of conclusions. Skepticism is an empirical method for evaluating claims.

      I don’t know where you learned about skepticism, but I learned from Carl Sagan.

      There is more to science than what can be explained by a paragraph in an essay. I am not suggesting that you are not well-read, but this is a pretty disingenuous thing to say in the comments of a blog post, especially one written by a scientist. It takes a hell of a lot more than a paragraph or two to explain the issues which are involved with the restriction of science to empirical claims.

      You can question my expertise all you want, but that won’t change the fact that you are arguing for a re-definition of science and scientific skepticism. If you think that I’m wrong about how these things are defined, you won’t be able to support that claim by quoting Carl Sagan.

  16. Mel says:

    Thank you. I really appreciate this series. It’s a lot of food for thought.

    I’m a ‘fledgling skeptic’ myself… very much a part of the 2.x wave fueled by the internet and personal research on the web, which is obviously self-limiting and seems like it’s inherently biased. Most of the skeptical information I’ve come across falls into that middle part of the self-proclaimed atheist-and-skeptic Venn diagram, almost to the point that the two are entirely conflated in my mind.

    I have very little experience with critical thinking and I’m trying hard to self-educate myself. I really want to avoid falling into the thinking traps you’ve described in these posts.

    I also see a lot of value in the Skeptical movement and want to do my best to support it/take part in it. I also recognize that the heady rush of my first tastes of rational discourse, critical thinking and the scientific method could motor me right off another cliff-edge of irrationality and dismissiveness. I’m not sure how to temper this in myself, and/or recognize it in others, outside of the blatantly hateful or insulting instances.

    It seems that the more I read/watch/listen, the more I realize just how LITTLE I actually know about these things, and how much more there is to learn. I almost feel like I should bite my tongue at all times, for fear of imposing my own unrecognized blind spots and irrationality on others.

    What’s a young, under-trained but curious and motivated person who values these ideas to do? (I recognize there are no hard-and-fast answers to this and it’s a murky question to begin with, but any advice or rambling thoughts would be appreciated.)

    1. admin says:

      It sounds as if you are doing all the right things (except for biting your tongue!). Reading an assortment of the recommended books is always a good idea, of course, but you don’t need to be well-educated in skepticism or science to get started. You just need to recognize when listening and learning is the better choice and when getting an expert’s input is important. I know people with PhDs who consult someone else ANY time they choose to write about something outside their specific field. It never hurts and sometimes it can make a huge difference.

      I actually think that it’s difficult to fall into those traps if you are afraid to. What gets people into trouble the most is their own egos and biases – failing to face and/or admit them (to ourselves, especially). It’s not just admitting to yourself that you might not be thinking rationally, but also allowing your friends and ‘heroes’ to be wrong, too. And even allowing that people you haven’t admired could be right.