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Mission Drift, Conflation, and Food For Thought

In my last post, I took issue with the a number of problems with a particular straw man complaint that organized skepticism is too narrow. As part of that post, I wrote:

…skepticism, secularism, and atheism are different things. Among them, secularism has the closest ties with liberal ideology, but even secularism is not liberalism.

Shane Brady left a comment which included:

The one panel from last year’s TAM that DJ seemed to take the most criticism for, seemed to be because he resisted an overt support of a particular political idealogy, not a hesitance to attack claims.

The intersection of these two strikes me as important.

That post addressed a specific comment in a much longer piece by Ashley Miller, a comment made my many, so I did not identify the author in order to focus on the issue. However, the broader theme of that piece now comes to mind as I think about this issue: do secularist efforts need to be careful here?

Skeptical activism must ignore ideology in order to maintain its integrity. Science – the method, anyway – is ideally ideology-free. Now, how that works out in practice is another issue. The point is that if we promote scientific skepticism and the idea that science is the best way to find out what’s true about the world, we must follow the rules of science.

Arguing against this is like arguing that some of the Bible is meant to be literal, some of it is symbolic, and that one’s own religion is the single religion which knows which is which.

Most readers know the definition of “secularism”, of course, but humor me. Merriam-Webster defines it thus: “indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations”.

Secular organizations seek to remove religious influence from public life, mostly through the separation of church and state. In the United States, the separation of church and state is designed to promote freedom of religion and, by extension, freedom from religion. We are free to practice any or no religion because the government does not endorse or favor one or more religions. This, at its core, is a liberal concept. The extreme of this, the eradication of religion, is a conservative one.

Secularism tends to be promoted most by those who subscribe to liberal ideology. However, the terms “liberal” and “conservative” carry a fair amount of baggage and self-contradiction. In this country, for example, self-identified liberals tend to support gay marriage, but also support gun control and welfare and some even oppose capitalism. The most extreme of the self-identified conservatives today have formed the “Tea Party” movement, which opposes what they consider to be excessive taxes. In other words, while the political parties may have formed around a narrow idea of how much involvement government should have in the lives of the governed, they have morphed into something else entirely.
Quite frankly, I find both parties oppressive, just in different ways. Each seems to think that they know what is best for the rest of us and each insist on imposing their platforms on the rest of society. Neither is truly liberal or conservative. Both, in my opinion, are oppressive to those who disagree with them.

One problem we face in both skeptical and secular activism is that the larger the movement, the more pluralistic it is. If an organization does not maintain focus and begins to endorse specific political or social ideology, its stances on complex issues will be less and less internally consistent. In a movement based on the concept that reason is the most valuable tool we have, internal consistency is absolutely vital.

I think that people who find these communities see a ready-made audience – an audience whose members appear to share more values and ideologies than the one around which the community was formed. As I noted in my last post, it is easy to wave the liberal flag of “helping people” and rally this audience around another cause, but where is the line drawn?

If, for example, secular conferences take on gay marriage, why not polygamy? Do all skeptics, secularists, and atheists agree with me that polygamy should be legalized? How about an effort to eradicate marriage altogether? What about government-run health care? How about education? Is privatization the answer? What about charter schools? Education, after all, is a central issue for those who care about social justice, so why should skeptics and secularists talk about it?

I’ll tell you why: we do not agree on the solutions, nor do we agree on what is “fair” or “moral” in these areas. These are issues of values. Skeptics can discuss evidence regarding specific questions (e.g., whether outcomes-based teaching is effective), but skepticism cannot tell us whether or not the education of children should be the responsibility of the government. When groups endorse specific values and conclusions which cannot be empirically supported, they’re endorsing ideologies and, in the case of skepticism at least, rejecting the very methods they claim to promote.

I have already made it clear that failing to understand and apply the differences between skepticism, secularism, and atheism makes one a poor skeptic, but does it also make one a poor secularist? Maybe it does. It appears to me that many secular groups today fail to maintain those fences between themselves and atheist groups or individuals with large audiences (e.g., PZ Myers) who have made it clear that their goals go beyond securing the rights of atheists and eliminating social stigmas attached to atheism. Their goal is to eradicate religion. So, the liberal ideology of “freedom of/from religion” is shifting toward the conservative “my belief system is king”. The oppressed become the oppressors, the victims of bigotry become the bigots.

This is what happens when missions drift. Sometimes the righteous mission becomes the immoral one.

You may think that the direction you want to take it is the best and the most righteous, but everyone thinks that about their own ideology.

Just some food for thought.

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  1. Seems to me if someone makes a claim like “gay marriage hurts heterosexual marriages and children” that this claim can be examined skeptically and rejected based on ample evidence. I don’t know why claims of a political nature are not open for skeptical inquiry or how drawing conclusions about political questions in this way is mission creep.

    1. Or is it more like we can answer the question, we just can’t offer solutions? We can argue that global warming exists, but we can’t offer solutions to the problem?

      1. Shane Brady says:

        Any claim about the effects of gay marriage on anything are probably open to skeptical inquiry. I wouldn’t put global warming solutions in the same category as whether or not gays should be allowed to marry, though.

        As for claims of a political nature, how would you prove anyone should have the right to marry, gay or straight, prove drugs should be legalized, prove the government should have no place in regulating abortions?

        Those are all political opinions I came to through applied skepticism, sure, but not everyone will come to the same conclusions as I do. I accept that almost no one at TAM ever shares my political leanings, and that’s ok. Would be pretty boring to see nothing but libertarian, vegan, skeptical,atheists.

        1. Nicely said, Shane.

          The question you posed, Ashley, is a bit too broad (e.g., what you do you mean by “hurt”?), but if refined, it is probably something which can be refuted with evidence. As I noted before, something such as refuting the claim that homosexuals are more likely to be child molesters than heterosexuals is good skepticism.

          I will say this again, because it seems to be getting lost no matter how many ways I put it: this is not a matter of what is and is not “allowed”.

          If you do not understand the distinctions, you risk the integrity of the field. If you cannot separate your values from the method, you are almost certain to get the facts wrong. That is something we know from decades of studying how human beings decide what is and is not true.

          I have written about his many times now (including what’s wrong with promoting conclusions). If it is not clear, that’s probably because I cannot fully cover such things in blog posts. I have watered it down quite a bit; it is certainly not this black and white. But you cannot argue the grey areas without the foundation and that part cannot be learned by skimming blogs.

          1. I know it probably seems like I’m harping on this, but I genuinely am trying to understand your perspective.

            Claim: Gay people do not raise healthy children.
            Therefore: Gay people should be banned from having or adopting children
            Apply skepticism
            Science: Gay people raise healthy children
            Therefore: Bans on gay adoption or childrearing are illogical
            So: Fighting against bans is fighting bad science and within the purview of skepticism

            Where have I gone wrong?

          2. To answer your question, I first need to point out that “Therefore” denotes a conclusion and “Gay people should be banned from having or adopting children” is not a claim or a conclusion. It’s a value judgement. Conclusions come from arguments, not claims. Conclusions cannot be “logical” or “illogical”, nor can “bans on gay adoption”. Only arguments can (this post clarifies this). I’m not just arguing semantics here. There are important reasons for making this distinction that should be clear if you read the link and follow the rest of this comment.

            Now, what you’ve written is a good example of how facts (which can be critically evaluated using scientific evidence) inform values. However, it’s the facts and claims themselves that can be examined scientifically, not the values. Good skepticism would involve presenting evidence to refute a claim (e.g., “Gay people do not raise healthy children”), but it cannot not decide what should or should not be done with that information. It may seem stupid not to take that extra step, but, again, it’s not.

            There are good reasons for refraining from promoting gay adoption which even go beyond the fact that doing so is not skepticism. For example, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other “facts” involved in such values, many of which are not scientifically testable (e.g., God says so). In the end, it doesn’t matter if 99% of self-identified skeptics think that there should be no bans on adoption based on sexual orientation; it’s still a value, not a “fact”.

            These values are a lot like untestable claims and personal conclusions; telling someone that their values are wrong is arrogance and bigotry, not skepticism.

            A couple of other notes:

            - “Gay people raise healthy children” is like saying that vaccines are 100% safe. It’s not true. There are certainly gay people who raise unhealthy children. I have not evaluated the evidence about gay parenting, but I am somewhat confident that what it would show is that, after controlling for variables such as S.E.S., children of gay parents are not more or less healthy than children of straight parents. If that sounds like nit-picking, think about how easily one could refute your statement (e.g., showing one unhealthy child with gay parents) and how it would look if they did. Not only would people assume that the opposite is true, but you’d be branded a liar.

            - “Fighting against bans is fighting bad science” is simply not true. Fighting bad science or misinformation is certainly good skepticism, but fighting against bans is acting on one’s personal values. The majority of skeptics may share those values, but since values are not what skepticism is about, you’d be usurping an audience for your own pet cause.

            Again, these concepts and issues deserve a lot more attention than they can get in blogs, which is why I encourage people to read and study science and philosophy before they try to argue about what this ‘movement’ is/is not or should/should not be about.

          3. Eric Immanuel says:

            It’s important that people recognize the limits of scientific skepticism when it comes to questions of law. In cases involving safety, consumer protection, and forensic evidence, certainly scientific skepticism has its place, but legal judgments are far more often decided not simply on facts, but on values such as justice, fairness, or the values expressed in the Constitution.

            The standards of evidence in law are also quite different. On a practical, everyday level, law works–lie detectors aside–on the basis of testimony, which is a very different animal than scientific fact. (On a side note, one of the reasons why paranormal and religious ideas persist is the willingness of people to throw out scientific evidence in favor of belief in what they perceive as a credible witness. It’s called “witnessing” for a reason, and people are readily convinced by moving testimony.)

            Law needs testimony because it’s often not about what’s “true,” but rather what’s good for a community. Obscenity laws, for example, are based in “community standards” rather than some scientific measure of what is actually obscene (if such a thing could exist). This allows for a recognition of the fact that different communities have different standards, and that community standards are not fixed, but can change over time.

            The key difference between skepticism and activism is that activism relies so heavily on the imagination. Plato’s Republic and Thomas More’s Utopia have their place here, as does MLK’s “I have a dream” speech. It requires the belief that “a better world is possible,” whether or not you have facts to support that argument. Skeptics, as multifaceted individuals, can certainly be activists, as almost everyone is wiling to point out. But it’s very important, as you, Barbara, suggest, not to conflate or confuse skepticism with activism. That would be a mistake.

          4. Eric, I completely agree, but with a note that the language does get sticky and that contributes to these knds of conflations.

            For example, what we call “Skepticism” often refers to something we also refer to as “activism”. Most of us use a capital S to differentiate the act of promoting skepticism from the thing we’re promoting. Plus, it is not exactly activism and does not fit with your use of the term here. It may be more accurately described as “education”, but there is no word that fits precisely.

            In short, you made an excellent point.

          5. So skeptics cannot conclude that homeopathy does not work because “the bottle says it works” is a valid argument?

          6. WTF? That doesn’t even make sense.

            And “the bottle says it works” is not an argument at all. You seem to be missing an understanding of the basics of logic and, given that science and skepticism rely heavily on logic, you won’t understand skepticism without that foundation.

            Ashley, I write this stuff, not because I expect to change your mind (or the minds of others I’ve criticized), but because it provides me with the motivation and context I need to create posts that can be used as references.

            In other words, you have not wasted my time, whether or not you were sincere when you said that you wanted to understand. But I’ve written enough about it for now.

            If you really want to understand this stuff, then pick up a book or two, take some classes in philosophy and/or science, or whatever else you need to do to get a handle on it. Perhaps then you can argue about what skepticism should or should not be. Until then, I will continue to criticize misrepresentations and correct misunderstandings. That’s what Skeptics do (when they have done the work and know what they’re talking about; I would not teach it or write about it if I didn’t).

            If you’re just baiting me, you’re not helping anyone.

          7. Notung says:

            So skeptics cannot conclude that homeopathy does not work because “the bottle says it works” is a valid argument?

            Ashley- Barbara’s point is that some statements are value judgements and others are claims about facts; only the latter are subject to skeptical or scientific inquiry (this isn’t to say that skeptics cannot make value judgements, just that skepticism as a practice does not concern itself with them). So the skeptic can conclude that homeopathy doesn’t work (which is an empirical claim), since they can test it and so forth.

            Also, “the bottle says it works” is not an argument at all, and is thus not able to be classed as valid or invalid. ‘Valid’ has a special meaning in logic – an argument is valid iff the conclusion cannot be false and the premises all true. So you could have a valid argument that leads to a false conclusion. Philosophers often call an argument that is flawed in some way unsound (as opposed to ‘sound’).

          8. I love your comment, but I feel the need to clarify something, since it is central to the post I asked Ashley to read.

            ‘Valid’ has a special meaning in logic – an argument is valid iff the conclusion cannot be false and the premises all true.

            This is correct (as you know), but it confuses people who are learning what the term “validity” means. They fall prey to the Belief Bias (the problem I mentioned in the post) and get stuck.

            Validity has nothing to do with truth, definition-wise. An argument is valid if the conclusion logically follows from the premises.

            That results in the property that “if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true” (i.e., what you said), but many of my students start to confuse truth with validity when this property is introduced. They try to reason from what they think is true rather than judge an argument’s validity by its logic.

            Humans are notoriously bad at conditional reasoning, so learning this is a bit of a catch-22.

          9. If “God says so” is valid, why is “_____ says so” not?

        2. Notung says:

          If “God says so” is valid, why is “_____ says so” not?

          First, did you read either of the replies to your last comment? I don’t see how you could have asked that question if you had.

          Second, I don’t know who mentioned “God says so”. Perhaps I’m missing something.

          Third, I’ll say it again in case you missed it last time. “God says so” is a claim, or a proposition. These can be true or false, but not ‘valid’ or ‘invalid’. Arguments are the only things subject to validity (btw the way, this refers to the way validity is used in logic, not in vague colloquial usages).

          “God says so” might be used as a premise in an argument, but it still wouldn’t make sense to call it ‘valid’ or ‘invalid’. Rather, the argument as a whole can be ‘valid’ or ‘invalid’. As Barbara helpfully clarified, ‘valid’ isn’t the same as ‘true’, so if the conclusion of an argument follows from the premises then the argument is valid, even if they are all false!

          Here is an example:

          Premise 1) If God says so, then penguins can fly.
          Premise 2) God says so.
          Conclusion) Therefore, penguins can fly.

          You might notice that it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. What is it that God is saying? Penguins can’t fly! However, believe it or not, the argument is valid, since the conclusion follows, given the premises.

          The argument has the form:

          1) If A then B.
          2) A.
          C) Therefore, B.

          The form of this argument is valid. So whatever you ‘plug’ into ‘A’ and ‘B’, if the argument takes this form then the argument is valid. Always.

          If you think this is all a bit silly, then take note that I’m not saying ‘true’, ‘correct’ or ‘sound’. An argument can’t be ‘true’ (only propositions can), but it can be sound, and the example above is certainly not sound!

          I hope this helps.

          1. Notung, I appreciate your efforts, but I hate to see them wasted. It’s pretty clear that Ashley is trolling.

          2. Notung says:

            Hmm what a shame, although I don’t feel I’ve wasted my time – talking about this stuff is fun, even if it is to a brick wall!

  2. Notung says:

    I appreciate this post. Another way of framing it might be to say that skepticism (in the relevant sense – I’ll try not to accidentally start using the philosophical definition) deals with descriptive claims rather than prescriptive or normative claims. At least, that is what science deals with. I’m not sure what the difference is between the application of science and the application of (what is called) skepticism, so I’d be grateful if someone could enlighten me. So a claim like ‘gay people ought to have the right to marry’ cannot be dealt with by skepticism as it is prescriptive. We might have good reasons for thinking that, but it is not an empirical claim.

    I do feel that there is a sense in which skepticism is not even a method. Instead, it is an attitude – to continually doubt and examine all claims, even those held by oneself. Nothing is beyond doubt, no matter how certain we may be that it is true. So in this sense ‘gay people ought to have the right to marry’ is subject to skeptical inquiry, since we can doubt and examine our stance on the matter (and the stances of others), by looking at the reasons for why any particular stance is preferred, and checking that it stands up to all possible scrutiny. Someone is a ‘skeptic’ if this is their attitude, no matter how well or badly they reason.

    However, it should be noted that if ideology is not out-of-bounds for the practising skeptic, then (necessarily) no particular ideology is sacred. There will be disagreement about what is right and what is wrong. Moral claims tend to divide opinion the most, and there will be good skeptics on both sides of any issue. The true skeptic will set their own ideology aside and argue for its claims dispassionately, examining the arguments involved without attacking their opponents merely for having a contrary opinion. Those who care most about the truth always argue against the very best possible objections to their view, presented in the most charitable light.

    Skepticism ends where dogma emerges.

    Again, thanks for the excellent article.

    1. I think you’re talking about the “is/ought” problem of demarcation. It has been argued, but my bigger concern is that many lay skeptics seem to have such a shallow understanding of what it is that we’re promoting that they do not even recognize that there is a distinction, much less the importance of keeping it in mind.

      Skepticism ends where dogma emerges.

      Love that. :)

  3. D.J. Grothe says:

    Ashley: Of course when someone makes a junk science claim about supposed negative effects of gay marriage on children, or the effectiveness of quack reparative therapies, skeptics (and skeptic organizations) can contribute to combatting the pseudoscience. Indeed, I have debated on precisely these issues as a skeptic a number of times over the last fifteen years. But this is different than advocating for gay rights, gay marriage, ENDA and the like (I personally do not support marriage of any kind, and instead favor secular civil unions, but this is not a position arrived at through scientific skepticism, per se). Similarly, if someone proffers pseudoscientific theories for why women or blacks are inferior, skeptics may have something to contribute in opposition to such quack claims (and, indeed, skeptics and scientists like Carol Tavris and Stephen J Gould have done just that in their works). But this is different than a skeptics organization pushing for the Equal Rights Amendment or various social welfare programs to help address socioeconomic inequality among some communities of color.

    Such distinctions are often lost in these discussions, and Drescher is effective at navigating through these important points that get lost in the shuffle in many of these blog discussions. One way of thinking about it is how skepticism and science can be used to fight harmful pseudoscientific theories, but to go further than that, people of good will can disagree on exactly what prescriptions are needed to solve social ills that the skepticism of various pseudoscientific theories don’t specifically address.

  4. Kylie S. says:

    I’m planning a conference where the only thing on offer is what individuals want to have presented, but you have to take part in a lottery to be in it and then compete in a televised battle in a wilderness area with limited supplies and a one-winner-only conclusion, while wearing roller-skates.

    It’s the only way to be sure everyone’s happy.

    1. Make sure there’s a panel on the difference between roller-skates and roller-blades. Maybe there could be some discussion of figure skating vs. hockey as well. ;)

      1. Kylie S. says:


        Brilliant series of posts, btw, have been passing them onto as many others as I can.

  5. Eric Immanuel says:

    I think the key issue to underline is that skepticism is so much more about negating truth claims rather than positing them, and this applies to both values and facts. Long before Bacon and Descartes, for instance, the Greek skeptics sought to challenge claims about what is “true,” “good,” “just,” and so on. Only relatively recently has science been brought into the equation, testing claims based on empirical evidence.

    To advocate for this or that position or truth isn’t really skepticism. Skepticism should, on the other hand, only advocate for itself. It’s much better at clearing the ground for new truth to emerge, which can then be tested to see if it holds up. It should always remain “negative,” that is to say, clearing away the false, rather than positively standing up for a certain position, however noble it may be.

    From here, the distinctions between skepticism, secularism, and atheism become pretty clear. Good skeptics should question truth claims made by atheists, such as “religion poisons everything.” As far as secularism is concerned, Stanley Fish wrote a good skeptical blog post questioning secularist truths about the separation of church and state, making certain advocates of secularism quite uncomfortable.

  6. Dr Stu says:

    Great post. Points well made.
    I love the skeptic philosophy of the scientific method and the rigorous examination of evidence is the best tool humanity has to separate fact from fiction. However, I always veer away from labelling myself a ‘skeptic’ because all too often it is hijacked by the ‘New Atheist’ movement and other ideologies.
    What people choose to do with their findings from the skeptic / scientific process is up to them (be it evangelise against religion or otherwise) but – as you rightly put – this should be something quite distinct from skepticism.

  7. Matt Madison says:

    Thanks, Barbara, for these two posts. I’ve never liked the idea of building a skeptical ‘movement’, or even skeptical ‘activism’, for reasons you mention here. The goal of a movement, in the popular/political sense that it is typically understood to mean, is to get as many people as possible to support your cause/claim/conclusion, regardless of the method by which it is reached. Likewise, the techniques activists use to garner support for their causes often involve oversimplification, emotional appeal, and groupthink — again, to get as many followers as possible, regardless of method. The goals are political, and the way to measure success in politics is popularity. How can these goals and methods be reasonably squared with promoting critical thinking and the scientific method?

    I hadn’t really thought much about this problem in relation to humanism and secularism, but now that you’ve pointed it out, I think you’re onto something there, too.

    Thanks again, and please keep it up!

  8. laursaurus says:

    It seems to be that some people are bothered that they aren’t “allowed” to claim their ideology is skepticism done properly. There is a clearly defined scope for skepticism. You can support any cause you feel called to. Pointing out that it isn’t skepticism doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy or that your viewpoint is irrational. There are probably facts shaping your position. But if the evidence is not scientifically or objectively solid, it isn’t skepticism.Instead of tweaking scientific skepticism to convince yourself or others that it isn’t ideology, why not attempt to grasp what skepticism actually is?
    For example, I am convinced that there is a deity that I don’t understand well enough to define. Despite all my doubts and skeptical analysis, my conclusion never is atheism. No matter how I tweak it, theism doesn’t qualify as scientific skepticism. However, atheism isn’t skepticism either. PZ Myers believes it is. He has stated that supplanting theism is a skeptical duty. If he happens to read this, I’m sure he’ll accuse me of misrepresenting his position without clarifying. Here’s what he said http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=df9nKRvlmkY (warning-tedious discussion)
    Ashley’s rave review about how the conference she attended describes how it basically fed her fem-atheist soul in ways that TAM could not. Reading how passionate she is about those causes one can understand that skepticism isn’t her cup of tea. Except she doesn’t want to accept that her core issues are outside the purview of skepticism. As a female myself, I can make an evidence-based case for how Feminism has harmed women. I might derail things away from the purpose of this thread, though. Can I expect skeptics to rally to oppose Feminist indoctrination for damaging my generation of women? Not likely.
    If you make the outrageous claim that there is a “War on Woman”, please provide evidence. RW’s infamous “calling out” of a dissenting audience member effectively distracted attention and scrutiny from the her main topic. The “evidence” consisted of random quotes that were vague and meaningless out of context. No dates or citations. She provided the narrative wind up to a war on uteruses (sic). Seriously, she peddled a conspiracy theory to impressionable college students who embraced it as the gospel truth. Where are these victims who lost custody of their internal organs, were defeated by, or became POW’s in this war? Why would Michelle Bachmann (whom she quote-mined)wage a war on herself or her own uterus?
    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence (or at least some factual support). Inflammatory rhetoric is indoctrination, not critical-thinking. To be fair, this was during a secular activist event. Pure propaganda, thankfully, is woefully out of place in a skeptically-focused venue.
    Gay marriage is a social/political issue. However, there is undeniably a physiological difference between men and women. Aunt and uncle, mother and father, sister and brother, grandma and grandpa are how we refer to specific relatives according to gender. Marriage is one man and one woman, a husband and a wife. Same-sex couples should not be forced into defining their relationship by the heterosexual world. Should one partner be designated as the husband and the other wife? I agree that we ought to just use “Civil Union” for legal/contractual purposes just like DJ. Call the participants “spouses.” See how that works? The sad thing is that want the same rights and procedure for divorces; entitlement to alimony, child custody, support, as well as, NOK designation. Somehow calling the arrangement a marriage endows these rights more distinctly than civil union. This can be fixed legislatively without redefining marriage. Clergymen deserve to have the right to decline requests to officiate ceremonies at their discretion. You disagree? Fine, but I maintain that the proper application of skepticism lead me to this conclusion. Since the head of the JREF agrees as a gay man and a skeptic, the skeptic movement ought to actively endorse this goal.
    No, they shouldn’t actually. This is an “ought” not an “is”. Fishy sounding semantics are red flags of mission creep.

    1. If he happens to read this, I’m sure he’ll accuse me of misrepresenting his position without clarifying.

      Actually, I doubt that’s true, at least not today. He has not minced words lately. If you can stomach it, I highly recommend listening to this debate with Chris Stedman and Leslie Cannold: http://soundcloud.com/nonprophetstatus/chris-stedman-pz-myers-leslie

      PZ’s stance is crystal clear.

      Except she doesn’t want to accept that her core issues are outside the purview of skepticism.

      She is not alone by far. I think that it is hard to give up the ready-made audience that comes with skepticism, which has been plugging away at this for decades and has made great strides. But, although, organizations love growth, skepticism does not measure its success by the number of people shouting its mantras. It remains somewhat focused on specific short- and long-term goals. That’s smart, imo.

    2. MichaelD says:

      Evangelical and atheist activism aside I’m honestly not sure how you can say atheism isn’t skepticism. In the same way that looking at the evidence for bigfoot being unconvinced and rejecting it is skepticism it seems to me its the same thing if I replace bigfoot with god. Unless we are saying that skepticism can only apply to specific evidence and never address a conclusion based on the evidence.

      ie that skepticism can reject a video of bigfoot as being evidence but can never rule on the totality of the evidence to make a claim as to bigfoot’s likely existence.

      If anyone wants to clarify the distinction or the difference for me I’d be interested in hearing from them.

      1. Please read the post I link to in my comments above. Several of my posts in the last year discuss the problems with what you are saying, but that one is a good start point. Skepticism does not “reject” or “rule on” anything.

      2. John Greg says:

        MichaelID, perhaps one way of looking at it would be to understand that atheisim could be seen as the result of skepticism. Not the other way around, though.

        Atheism neither causes, nor defines, nor confirms, nor results in skepticism.

        Atheism can often be, often is, highly non-skeptical, in the sense that some ahteists are as heavily and myopically indoctrinated in their non-skeptical ideological perceptions as are any theists, and do not, in fact, express their lack of belief in god in a rational or skeptical light at all.

        It has been said in dozens of different ways: atheism is a result or conclusion reached through query, or analysis, or discussion, or research, and so on. Skepticism is a method of, or informs the method of query, analysis, discussion, or research to help in creating conditions around which one can determine or create their world views (for example), and/or decide if they are atheist (for example).

        I think.

        I’m not great at these philosophical blathers, and I often overstep my own rhetoric. So, if necessary, Barb, et al, feel free to correct my blunders.

        1. MichaelD says:

          “perhaps one way of looking at it would be to understand that atheisim could be seen as the result of skepticism. Not the other way around, though.”

          Maybe I should have been clearer but that is exactly my position. I’m trying to read and understand the point of view being put forward here which I somewhat agree on but am trying to clear up this specific point.

          I’ve already read the what matters post and another one who’s name I’ve forgotten but I will go read it again and maybe comment over there.

        2. MichaelID, perhaps one way of looking at it would be to understand that atheisim could be seen as the result of skepticism.

          I disagree (in this context). As I often note when I discuss these things, I am referring to scientific skepticism, which is what all of the major organizations promote. Atheism is necessarily a philosophical conclusion, because there can be no empirical evidence to support it. The assertion of the existence of God is untestable.

          There are many religious claims which are empirically testable, but the existence of God is not one of them. This is, of course, beside the point, because MichaelD’s understanding of the nature of skepticism is inaccurate and one of your paragraphs addresses that well.

          1. MichaelD says:

            For sake of definitions and clairity I view atheism as a rejection of the claim that a god exists based on the evidence presented. Not specifically the claim that no gods exist.

            As to whether or not gods can be tested I think it depends. Some people claim definitions of god that are specifically tied into the claims of its actions. Where for example the claim that god created the universe 5000 years ago is a deal breaking issue on the existence of their god. I think science can make an informed look at such a diety.

            I’ve since read your post “You can’t judge an arguement by its conclusions” and I’m fine with your points as presented there that skepticism can never make any conclusion on any issue. It seems to rely more on the idea of absolute certainty then I care to indulge in as I find absolute certainty a mostly meaningless concept beyond certain tautologies and the logical absolutes.

            Having read this and several other articles in my wiki-walk to understanding your position I am curious as to what activism you think is or isn’t appropriate under the banner of skepticism. From my readings I get the impression that you favor a focus strictly on spreading the ideas of critical thinking and the associated tools to examine a claim. You are then opposed to including activism that results from a conclusion based on the thinking. Things like attempts to spread atheism, promote vaccination, or efforts to regulate psychics or alt med are (potentially) fine but then outside the realm of skepticism as they derive from conclusions.

            I’m wondering if you could clarify if this last paragraph accurately reflects your position on the proper place of activism in skepticism or if I have misinterpreted what you have said.

          2. MichaelD says:

            Ok sorry for the double post v.v

            I don’t think I stated your position clearly in my second last paragraph having thought about this some more and I think I understand where you are coming from. So just ignore it and I think I’ll move on. I’m still not sure i agree with everything but thank you for the interesting articles.

          3. For sake of definitions and clairity I view atheism as a rejection of the claim that a god exists based on the evidence presented. Not specifically the claim that no gods exist.

            I don’t see a difference. If all of one’s conclusions are held tentatively, these are equivalent.

            You are then opposed to including activism that results from a conclusion based on the thinking. Things like attempts to spread atheism, promote vaccination, or efforts to regulate psychics or alt med are (potentially) fine but then outside the realm of skepticism as they derive from conclusions.

            Not quite. I am opposed to promoting conclusions with a few (very few) exceptions. Those exceptions are reasonable because we cannot expect everyone to be experts in everything and, therefore, it is unreasonable not to rely on the expertise of scientists.

            Shared knowledge exists; there are things about which scientists overwhelmingly agree. Evolution through natural selection has withstood rigorous testing, scientists have formed and documented a consensus that we face human-influenced climate change, and there is an overwhelmingly large amount of evidence that vaccines are our best defenses against disease.

            There are very, very serious consequences for the rest of a society when some its members do not accept some of this knowledge, particularly the last two in that list. So, while skepticism is really about discussing the evidence which supports these “facts”, I fully support the efforts of Skeptics in these areas, even when they are promoting conclusions in the name of Skepticism.

            But, these exceptions can’t be made if we do not maintain the integrity of the field to begin with. Otherwise, the lines get fuzzier and fuzzier and we’ll end up promoting blind acceptance of our own agenda.

            Things like homeopathy involve scientific consensus as well, but we are still best served by sticking with discussing evidence and not promoting conclusions. The same goes for the “alt med” which is still debated. If you read Science-Based Medicine, which I highly recommend for anyone looking for the truth about medical questions, you’ll find tons of analysis, but they are very, very conservative when it comes to drawing conclusions.

            Although a large portion of Skeptics (active skeptics) identify as atheists, this is a conclusion which cannot be arrived at empirically and, therefore, not promoted. The same is true for the question of psychics.

            Notice that the JREF does not promote the idea that there is no such thing as psychic phenomena and they don’t attempt to “regulate” psychics. Instead, there is a reward for anyone who can demonstrate it and, whenever possible, reveal the truth about how self-proclaimed psychics operate. That’s not promoting conclusions. It’s evaluating evidence.

            So, to clarify, I believe that Skeptical activism is best served by limiting itself to the promotion of science and scientific skepticism, which basically what the major skeptic organizations do today. That includes promoting some conclusions for which there is ample scientific consensus, but these are exceptions that can only occur because they are made sparingly and with serious consideration.

          4. MichaelD says:

            Ok that’s about what I thought you were proposing thank you for taking the time to clarify your position so thoroughly.

    3. Lara says:

      I am curious to know what your basis for claiming that “feminism has harmed women” is.

      The people who came before me who fought for my right to vote, own property, obtain an education, not be treated as property, decide my own destiny without having to ask a male family member for permission, decide whether or not I should have a child, and who simply asserted that women were equal to men and should be treated as such has helped me beyond my capacity to express.

  9. Jon Bronson says:


    I stumbled onto this article via a link from Greta Christina. I felt I had to comment based on the following paragraph that she quoted:

    “I’ll tell you why: we do not agree on the solutions, nor do we agree on what is “fair” or “moral” in these areas. These are issues of values. Skeptics can discuss evidence regarding specific questions (e.g., whether outcomes-based teaching is effective), but skepticism cannot tell us whether or not the education of children should be the responsibility of the government.”

    Anyone who is familiar with Sam Harris’ might cringe slightly upon reading this. Of course we can debate whether or not it is ‘moral’ to throw acid on the face of children. Of course we can whether or not it is ‘moral’ to allow slavery. The answer to both of these topics is painfully obvious. Just because some questions are more difficult to answer than others does not mean we should avoid them entirely. The intellectual time we devote to a topic should be based on its implications, not on its intrinsic difficulty.

    You finish that paragraph by going on to say:

    “When groups endorse specific values and conclusions which cannot be empirically supported, they’re endorsing ideologies and, in the case of skepticism at least, rejecting the very methods they claim to promote.”

    I mostly agree with you here, but you seem to be writing under the assumption that questions of morality cannot be understood empirically, and moreover, that empirical data is the only way to understand such issues. Advances in Neuroscience / Computing / Mathematics suggest otherwise.

    1. Anyone who is familiar with Sam Harris’ might cringe slightly upon reading this.

      I realize that I did not include a comment on that here, but I have done so in past posts. I think I was fairly clear with my stance that science informs us in ways that affect moral judgments, but cannot tell us what is and is not “moral”.

      I am well-aware that Sam Harris argues that it can, however Harris’s arguments that morality can be “understood empirically” are essentially limited to what you’ve posted here, which is simply that “there are obvious answers to moral questions”. The problem with that argument is that all debates about where those answers come from rely on one defining “moral” in circular ways.

      1. Jon Bronson says:

        “I think I was fairly clear with my stance that science informs us in ways that affect moral judgments, but cannot tell us what is and is not “moral”.

        You certainly were clear in your stance, but I don’t see any justification to back up that conclusion. It is one thing to say we do not yet have a good methodology for defining how ‘moral’ something is, but it is quite another to say that there is no such way. I understand you don’t want to rehash arguments with every new article, but I don’t think the alternative should be to treat the view as fact, and use it to suggest limits on skeptic conversation, especially when the entire weight of the article’s thesis rests on this assertion.

        1. …but I don’t see any justification to back up that conclusion.

          I’ve discussed the topic many times on this blog, but that specific statement is not the topic of this piece, nor is it something that can be covered in the comments of a post.

          It is one thing to say we do not yet have a good methodology for defining how ‘moral’ something is, but it is quite another to say that there is no such way.

          If that’s what you are asking, my answer is “there is no methodology which can tell us what is ‘moral’ without first defining ‘moral’ in a way that is circular.”

          Morality is much like “free will”. It’s a philosophical dead end – an impasse.

          I never presented my view of science and morality as “fact”. I presented my view as shared by an overwhelming majority of the scientific community and I stand by that assertion.

          It has been argued by much better philosophers than I for centuries. It’s discussed in many college-level science and philosophy textbooks. It’s covered in a lot of the literature in skepticism.

          Even if you read everything I have written about it and still don’t agree, so what? You’d still be talking about a philosophical argument about what can be known. I, however, am talking about organized efforts to promote a well-defined method: scientific skepticism. If you want to redefine science, take your argument to the scientific community.

  10. S. Madison says:

    I agree with you about the overwhelming scientific conclusions for which skeptics can take action. The efficacy of vaccinations, evolution, etc… are well researched, well documented provisional conclusions. And, yes, since not all of us are capable of doing the science, it is probably good to inform people about what the scientific research tells us.

    I think, though, that we haven’t always been clear in our message that the conclusions we reach through the application of the scientific method aren’t the scientific method and aren’t skepticism. Moreover, when we decide to become active about a provisional scientific conclusion, the decision to actively promote that conclusion is a value judgement we have made about the need for people to make decisions based on the best possible scientific evidence available but, again, informing the public about the available scientific data is not skepticism.

    (And, when we promote those conclusions we should make sure that we are providing the scientific evidence accurately. As an example, vaccines are our best defense against disease, but they are not 100% safe so skeptics should not claim that they are.)

    1. I think, though, that we haven’t always been clear in our message that the conclusions we reach through the application of the scientific method aren’t the scientific method and aren’t skepticism.

      Which is exactly why I write these posts. If we are not clear, we cannot expect new community members to understand them and many feel compelled to jump in with both feet in today’s world in which blogs are free.

      (And, when we promote those conclusions we should make sure that we are providing the scientific evidence accurately. As an example, vaccines are our best defense against disease, but they are not 100% safe so skeptics should not claim that they are.)

      I could not agree more. Well said.

  11. Comment says:

    I’m certain someone will mention this at some point, but here it is.

    1. I am not sure how relevant that is to this discussion.

      1. laursaurus says:

        If I may speculate about the purpose of Comment’s comment, perhaps she interested in what you think about it.
        Guess we’ll have to stay tuned and hope to read your words of wisdom in a separate post. Maybe you’re leading by example by not reacting to her not-really-calling-for-a-boycott boycott.
        This is a real life example of confusing skepticism with one’s social justice issues.
        If it’s possible to troll in real life, the Skepchick’s tombstone will read, “U mad?”

  12. Seth Manapio says:

    So a skeptic can say–speaking AS a skeptic, I mean–that the cancer quack is a quack, but we can’t say he “should” be stopped in any way, we can’t even wring our hands or be upset, we can only, as skeptics, point out dispassionately that he is making dubious claims. Nor can we put any particular emphasis on those dubious claims versus some other… after all, to do so would put some kind of a “value” on human life, and skepticism is NOT ABOUT VALUES! The cancer quack is equivalent to the homeless guy who won’t actually work for food, and there is no measure (after all, all measures imply a value judgement) to determine which talk is most worthy of appearing at TAM.

    By the way, that was the title of my TAM proposal: “That Guy Won’t Work for Food”. It didn’t make it through what I assume was a random selection process. I didn’t take it personally, after all, it’s not like anybody made a value judgement about it.

    1. Sarcasm doesn’t make sloppy logic or shallow thinking magically appear reasonable.

      1. Leo says:

        Well I was trying to make a somewhat similar point (but it appears Freethought Blogs is not the only place that blocks my blog’s URL).

        I do believe I understand your point, but my value judgement does not find skepticism without application very useful. OK, so we can conclude that homeopathy (in reference to an earlier comment) does not work. So do I take homeopathy or not? That would be a value judgement.

        Actually, I think S. Madison’s comment was well said. But it is a value judgement of mine that I don’t need to be spending my time or money on skepticism that leaves out application. (Which probably relates to me being an engineer and being the type that applies science as well.)

        1. Your statement about application does not make sense. Skepticism IS applied. It’s applied in evaluating evidence/information. I’m assuming that you meant that you have no use for skepticism/science if it does not extend to deciding what “should” be true. Well, that’s a problem, since it literally can’t tell you.

          What it seems to me that you and others are arguing, however, is that what you really want is for skepticism to tell other people that your values are facts. They are not.

          My argument is not and has never been “skepticism belongs in a vacuum”. It is and has always been that values have no place in the evaluation of information. When you cannot separate your values from skepticism (which is the process of evaluating information) and skepticism from conclusions, you risk confusing one for the other. That’s how human beings work and science was created to avoid those problems. That’s why these arguments are so silly and ironic.

          Your values are not information. “Gay people should be allowed to raise children” is not information. “Gay people are not more or less likely to raise healthy children” is information.

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