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On Oversimplification and Certainty

Responses to requests, demands, and criticism in the blogosphere in recent months has prompted a great deal of discussion, most of it terribly unproductive. In fact, most of it has been downright silly – a childish back-and-forth which, to an outsider, might appear to be violent agreement. In other words, camps do not appear to disagree, in general, about foundational issues, yet the bloodshed continues. Need I provide examples? I don’t think so*.

I hate to harp on a point (I really do), but oversimplification and shallow treatment of issues appears to be at the source of so much of the animosity that I think that rational discussion could be had if a short checklist were followed which included keeping one’s mind open to the possibility the other person is not evil simply because they criticized something or failed to submit to demands.

I am short on time and not prepared to discuss “Atheism Plus” in detail at the moment, but the discussion of it provides an excellent example or two that I think provide some insight into how discussions devolve into battles.

First, there is a slippery slope involved which is accelerated by crowd behavior and by unproductive reactions to criticism. We may, for example, start with a civil discussion about whether or not gender disparity in local groups can be attributed to a barrage of unwanted sexual attention women may receive at meet-ups. A number of views will be expressed, some with comments about their own experiences:

Person A: “I don’t do that.”

Person B: “I’ve been groped at meet-ups and it made me feel powerless and alone.”

Person C: “That’s never happened to me.”

Person D: “I think we should ban people who do that kind of thing.”

Person E: “So, I can’t ask a woman out at a meet-up?”

Person F: “Wait, I go to meet-ups to meet men and I like it when they grab me. I can take care of myself and I don’t want that behavior banned.”

Person G: “I’m not going to attend meet-ups anymore if people think that groping is okay.”

…and so on.

None of these views should shut down discussion. The refusal to concede that one’s own view may not be “right” is what turns discussions like these into battles of wills. Note that the original talking point was simple and there are small steps away from it as people talk rather than listen or make assumptions about what was said rather than ask for clarification. Those small steps add up. One day, a woman casually asks that men put a little more thought into when and how they proposition women and a few months later dozens of people are painting everyone who doesn’t support a rather specific call to action as a misogynist or ‘gender traitor’ while some of those called misogynists and gender traitors have dismissed the original problem altogether. This helps no one.

Those promoting “A+” have painted critics with a broad brush; we are “haters” who are “against social justice”. A post by Greta Christina on the issue of inclusiveness provides some insight:

An atheist movement cannot be inclusive of atheist women… and also be inclusive of people who publicly call women ugly, fat, sluts, whores, cunts, and worse; who persistently harass them; who deliberately invade their privacy and make their personal information public; and/or who routinely threaten them with grisly violence, rape, and death.

An atheist movement cannot be inclusive of atheists of color… and also be inclusive of people who think people of color stay in religion because they’re just not good at critical thinking, who blame crime on dark-skinned immigrants, who think victims of racial profiling deserved it because they looked like thugs, and/or who tell people of color, “You’re pretty smart for a…”.

In addition to holding up the reprehensible behavior of a few trolls as representative of the community as a whole, these statements are so full of subtext that they cry out for scrutiny. There are clearly false dichotomies buried in there as many of the proponents of A+ and many of their readers have expressed the desire not simply exclude the asshats who “publicly call women ugly” or “who deliberately invade their privacy”, but also anyone who dares to question whether such things have actually happened in given situations.

As has been said many times, we should be charitable when someone’s meaning is not entirely clear – give them the benefit of the doubt when we have little evidence of malice. This requires empathy. It requires us to resist defensive reactions and reconsider our views when we realize that we have failed in that regard.

Greta also notes that to provide a safe space for people of color, they must exclude “people who think people of color stay in religion because they’re just not good at critical thinking”. I found this particularly interesting in light of the fact that the belief that everyone with faith in a deity of some sort is “not good at critical thinking” is a widespread view among atheists (and skeptics, unfortunately). PZ Myers, one of the founders/owners of FreeThoughtBlogs said  this of the religious in a debate a few months ago (one I urge you all to watch: http://youtu.be/ZsqqFpWh7m8 ): “There’s something wrong with their braaains!”

It may be that Greta meant to refer to those who claim that people of color are generally poor critical thinkers and this explains lower rates of atheism. However, the math does not add up. Try constructing a syllogism from these statements. The proportion of believers in the population of people of color is higher than the general population. Believers are poor critical thinkers. Therefore…

So, who is right? Well, neither is right. Or correct.

Out of curiousity, I watched a recording of a few people discussing “Atheism+” [A+]. Much of this particular discussion involved defending the approach of A+ and suggesting that critics are somehow against social justice in general. I won’t got through the entire discussion; many of the arguments were straw men, which are not relevant. However, many were based on unsupported assertions (assumptions) and that is directly relevant.

One of the participants, Debbie Goddard (of CFI On Campus) attempted to address real criticisms rather than discuss those straw men and from her comments the disagreements became more clear. At one point, Stephanie Zvan criticized skeptics for ignoring evidence, noting that “We have mountains of evidence that ‘treating people equally’ is not treating people equally.” Debbie clarified this by expressing her belief that “color-blindness” is wrong.

That is when I realized that what they are talking about here are legitimate and rational disagreements over how to approach social injustices.

Legitimate and rational disagreements. Meaning that neither view is so well-supported that they can claim to know what’s best.

Yet people attempting to discuss these things rationally have been vilified and views have polarized. And the people who were speaking in this recording were doing so with such certainty that they were “right” that they failed to see that legitimate and rational disagreement was even possible.

And this has happened with many on both sides of the issue with most of the ‘dust ups’ in the community. I think a lot of the problem lies in treating these topics as simple when, in fact, they are not. As Ron Lindsay stated in a recent post on A+:

Social justice is great. After all, who’s against social justice? It’s when one starts to fill in the details that disagreements arise.

And it’s the details that matter here.

There are some who argue that, because minorities are at a disadvantage due to a history of oppression, they require special protection in order to reach equality. There are others who argue that such protection is both unnecessary and racist/sexist/___ist in and of itself. And there is a full spectrum of positions in the grey area in between these two views. 

What Stephanie claimed is that science tells us that the first view is “right”. Her certainty in that conclusion is clear from the video. Yet, she is wrong – sort of.

There are three details that we should consider. I am going to ignore one which comes from that grey area because it is extremely complicated, and that is the question of whether equal opportunity or equal outcome should be the goal. In other words, what “equality” means [If you claim that the answer to that question is no-brainer, you are making my point]. The other two major issues are the evidence for the claim and the evidence which suggests the best courses of action to correct injustices, which is the whole reason for asking the question in the first place.

We all know that stereotypes exist and that racism, sexism, any-ism, are alive and well in our society. And there is plenty of evidence that implicit biases exist. In fact, they are impossible to eliminate. We favor people whom we view as “like us” in many different ways. Depending on one’s definition of “ingroup” in a given context, we favor those who fit it. However, we are capable of making choices and taking actions which render such favor powerless. We are capable of overcoming these biases just as we are capable of overcoming other cognitive biases. Not eliminating, overcoming.

So science tells us that we have implicit biases which require a special effort on our part to overcome. Stephanie is right, no?

Not so fast.

Science may be able to tell us if affirmative action has contributed to the huge reductions in racism and related outcomes which have occurred in recent decades, but it cannot tell us if affirmative action is a good idea today simply based on the knowledge that we need to make a conscious effort to overcome biases. Even the first question is difficult to assess confidently, but I suspect it can be done and I suspect that the answer will be, “Yes. Yes, it has.”

But this is an extremely complex issue and it is further complicated by the fact that we all have dog in the race. We all care about it because we all identify with one or more of those man made categories we sum up as the variable “race”.

My personal views about special protection are like most of my political views (this IS a political issue, after all): very centrist. I believe that we need to pay attention to things like gender parity if we are interested in decreasing it. I am not convinced, however, that quotas are entirely appropriate in all situations. And if you think that science has the answer to whether my views are “correct”, I challenge you to prove so.

And here’s where I say that in my view, both Stephanie and Debbie are wrong. What I won’t do is reject their views outright and wonder why they can’t just see the truth that I think is written in “mountains of evidence”. I won’t do that because, although I am confident in my own conclusions, I am open to the possibility that I am wrong about this very complex, emotionally-charged issue.

Why I think they are wrong:

The goal is not to place blame for disparities, but to reduce them. If the major source of disparity is discrimination, then the act of discriminating needs to be reduced. Science does provide us with information which is useful in efforts to reduce interracial and other inter-group tensions. What the evidence suggests is not the multiculturalism approach that Debbie believes is best, but what she rejected: color-blindness (and gender-blindness, etc.). Or perhaps a better term would be color-not-noticing, but that doesn’t roll of the tongue very well.

We all have multiple identities. I am a woman, a scientist, an educator, a skeptic, an activist, a blogger, etc. There are always people with whom I share some identities and not others. When the context focuses on a specific value or identity, those with whom I share that value or identity are part of my ingroup. Ingroup/outgroup classification changes with context, but some are more flexible than others.

Decades of applied research has failed to demonstrate that interracial tension in schools can be reduced by increasing discussions of cultural differences and celebrating diversity. This should not be surprising given the mountains of research that Stephanie mentioned about ingroup/outgroup mentality. Attention to differences increases that tension.

What reduces the tension? Focus on similarities, seeing people as part of the ingroup and ignoring the differences which are present in a given context. Reducing the amount of “othering” we engage in. The best way to do that is to focus on commonalities. For example, the work that Chris Stedman, author of a soon-to-be-release book entitled Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious  does has been criticized by PZ Myers and others because it brings people of different religious affiliations (and none) together to work toward common prosocial goals. Just yesterday a group of interfaith activists (as they call themselves) spent the day picking up trash on a beach to make it safer and cleaner.

Am I suggesting that people suppress parts of themselves about which they are proud? Let me make this clear: Hell, no. 

If that is what you’re taking from this post, you need to look outside of yourself and try to see the bigger picture. What I am saying is that my gender identity should have zero bearing on whether I am hired for a job or asked to speak at a conference or viewed as a sexual object in a professional context. Does that mean that I should not be proud to be a woman? Of course not.

Interfaith work does not suggest that people ‘check their religion at the door’, either. The work benefits more than just the likelihood that they will accomplish common goals.  Working together exposes each participant to people with whom they both share ideology and differ in ideology. Focus on the common ideology reduces the tensions caused by differences in other views and that reduction spreads to the differences themselves.

For example, a 2009 Gallop Poll result which most will find unsurprising is that people are much, much less likely to oppose same-sex marriage if they know someone who is gay/lesbian. There are certainly problems with drawing causal conclusions from such a study, but the effect is large and the findings are consistent with many lines of research which converge.

As I stated before, this is a complex issue. You may completely disagree with my argument, but to dismiss it altogether would be ludicrous, not to mention closed-minded and, dare I say it?, anti-intellectual.

I prefer to be recognized for my work rather than patronized because I am female. You may not see the issues the way I do, but calling me a misogynist for that disagreement is not only outrageous, it’s insulting and wrong.

When you speak with such certainty about how right and moral you are in relation to your critics without considering the possibility that you may be missing a nuance or two, you cannot hold any sort of moral or intellectual high ground.

My purpose here is not to argue about the topic of social justice, but to make the point that certainty, particularly about moral questions, is something we all need to be careful about. Too much (more than what is warranted) and it gets in the way of rational discussion. Too much and it divides people when no division is necessary. Too much and it is counterproductive. Too much and it is not confidence; it’s arrogance.

 

NOTE: Before you start commenting that Atheism Plus is about “allowing these discussions” because nobody else will, let me remind you that nobody ever said that discussions about evidence were outside the scope of Skepticism (one of the primary reasons put forward for the founding of A+) just because they relate to issues of social justice. In fact, quite the opposite is true and I think that this post is a good example of how science and skepticism can be applied to those areas.

 

*For those not following the ‘rationalist’ blogosphere, I apologize for my lack of links to the incidents I mentioned here. Frankly, there are too many and it’s difficult to know where to start or to choose one link which clearly demonstrates what’s happened. It seems to me that one does not need the background information to understand the example, but I cannot tell for certain.

 

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26 Comments

  1. Very interesting breakdown. Countdown to total internet meldown in 3…2…1….

  2. I have tried to stay away from this particular discussion, too, but the issues that you bring up are helpful to understand.

    I became involved with atheism because I wanted to have a group in which issues such as this could be engaged without having to justify my religious lack of belief; but not as defining. Now, the factionalism is really turning me off. There is too much of the “Peoples’ Front of Judea” versus the “Judean Peoples’ Front” going on, too many schisms are forming by absolutist thought.

    Thanks for writing this, Barbara.

    1. I wonder sometimes if the schisms are real, Mike. At times like these they seem to be more like fluid cliques than differences in studied, thought-through philosophies.

    2. Mike, exactly that Monty Python scene-thought popped into my head yesterday as a descriptor for what’s happening. Barbara may be right in part, that they’re as much cliques as factionalism. Given the “youthiness” of some of the participants, and that cliques can relate to power and popularity for their own sake, that certainly wouldn’t surprise me.

      1. I do think that we are all somewhat guilty of grouping into cliques of a sort based on, ironically enough, whatever value is salient at the moment. I can think of alliances 2-3 years ago which are structured very, very differently today, even in my own corner.

        That in and of itself isn’t bad as long as these different groups are able to concede acceptable differences and work together on shared goals. That’s not what I see going on in this case.

        What I identified in the post was one detail about which there is clearly legitimate and reasonable disagreement which has been painted as unreasonable (demonstrated by the vilification of those who suggest that legislating behavior is extreme and by the reaction to Harriet Hall’s T-Shirt at TAM), but I’ll be honest and say that I am not sure that most of the people caught up in this frenzy even understand what’s being argued. It’s all vague rhetoric pitting rape against bubble wrapping women.

        With legitimate issues buried, my thoughts return to “power and popularity”. And trying to outhate “haters”.

  3. While you said you didn’t want to discuss in detail, Atheism Plus, feels like you you got right to the crux of its existence anyway.

    I think there is more to it, though, than just being open minded and willing to accept you might be wrong. I allow for people to be certain they’re right about something, as long as they’re not obnoxious about it. For eg, I feel certain there is no god, but I’ve decided to just “not be a dick” about it. I contrast that with my youth, where I was most definitely a “dick” about it. You don’t always need to be in battle mode, and in fact, I was much unhappier when I was young, and always “fighting” with people about atheism.

  4. Beth says:

    Barbara – Great post. Thank you again for being one of the centered voices that I follow in this arena. I have hovered around the various blogs for while and have been turned off to what I perceive to be a number of instances of in fighting and hypocrisy. I love checklist and here is my checklist for hot topics that come up in my social circle:

    What do I know about this issue? Is my knowledge supported by primary sources? Do I accept these sources as reliable and accurate? Are they other resources that I can draw upon to support my stance? What do I think about this issue based on all of the above. What personal bias or values am I bringing to the table? Could I be wrong?

    Second: What do you know about this issue? Is what you know supported by primary sources? Do we agree that our sources are reliable and true? Are there other sources that we can agree upon that are reliable? Is there public record information that can guide us in the discussion or settle it entirely? Can you provide me with evidence that contradicts my own? What personal values and opinions are you bringing to the table? Could you be wrong?

    You should hear some of the discussions that my home school group delves into on a regular basis. We self identify among the following labels as Atheist, Agnostic, Jewish, Pagan, Christian, Straight, Gay, Transgender, Feminist, we are Attachment parents and Traditional parents, Conservative, Liberal and Libertarian. Those are just a few of the “labels” and seem to cover a few areas in which we tend to disagree.

    What we all share is a a vigorous desire to educate our children with the best Secular curriculum available and delivered in a way that our children learn best. This purpose is the core of of our connections and provides a foundation in which all else follows.

    Maybe we are able to have heated discussion without resorting to name calling and childish behavior because we know one another. We are part of a physical community where we can not hide behind an anonymous screen name or pseudonym. Boorish behavior has real life consequences. We don’t always agree but we definitely work to be in the other’s shoes.

    Just my two cents in a billion dollar world.

  5. Michael says:

    My take on this whole thing is that A+ sprang out of the whole Elevatorgate thing. Evident of this is that the people behind it are pretty much the same and they have gone on a crusade for the last year and tried to cut down pretty much anybody who didn’t agree with their “interpretation of events”.

    To me it smells seriously of those same people to try and monetize the “controversy”, a bit like the anti-climate change people who over and over again manufacture a controversy to sell more books or ads or get speaking engagements.

    As for:

    I am going to ignore one which comes from that grey area because it is extremely complicated, and that is the question of whether equal opportunity or equal outcome should be the goal. In other words, what “equality” means [If you claim that the answer to that question is no-brainer, you are making my point].

    For me it is about equal opportunity and I would say it is a no-brainer. Why? Because we aren’t all the same, we don’t all have the same skills, desires, drive. So to expect that there should be an equal outcome strikes me as ludicrous. Now giving everybody a SHOT at succeeding, that’s a different story and that is clearly something we should try to achieve.

    One thing to keep in mind though: Humans aren’t perfect and we will never get 100% equal anything, that’s just not how the world works, regardless of how much foot stomping ensues, but we can try to get as close as possible.

  6. An articulate and well reasoned post. Thanks Barb.

  7. G says:

    I first really became interested in skepticism (although I did not know it by that name) as a psych major. I not only learned about statistics and study design but a lot about cognitive psychology such as biases, heuritics, etc. It was mind-blowing and I found that it was difficult to apply it to myself but I felt compelled to try now that I had that knowledge. Sometimes I would see someone say, commit the availabilty hueristic when they downplayed the harms of smoking by citing George Burns. I would point that out to them (people who were in my class), and they would deny it. These biases only applied to others, not themselves. Much like the title of Carol Tavris’s book, “Mistakes were made, but not by me.” Doesn’t everyone who hears of this book want to give it as a gift, missing the great irony? :)

    I find skepticism to be a process of humility and self-control and I fail miserably as we all do, but I still keep trying. That is why I like where you said,

    The refusal to concede that one’s own view may not be “right” is what turns discussions like these into battles of wills. Note that the original talking point was simple and there are small steps away from it as people talk rather than listen or make assumptions about what was said rather than ask for clarification.

    and then…

    As has been said many times, we should be charitable when someone’s meaning is not entirely clear – give them the benefit of the doubt when we have little evidence of malice. This requires empathy. It requires us to resist defensive reactions and reconsider our views when we realize that we have failed in that regard.

    I have to say, I’ve been reading all the essays about atheism plus from Christina, and never did I get the impression (or from Jen) that anyone who didn’t sign on was any of the negative things you are interpreting from the essay. Richard Carrier did use some harsher language which Jen and others later publicly criticised and disagreed with, and even Carrier admitted his mistake and corrected himself.

    Again, I really, really agree with what you stated in the quotes above. In the interest of humility and Carol Tavris’s warning to us all, to those who read Greta’s essay as condemning as immoral or haters or misogynists people who don’t support A+, maybe try re-reading with a more charitable interpretation. I am not going to call myself A+ but I don’t fear that means Greta thinks I’m a gender traitor. Can I assume you asked Greta for clarification as you suggested is often productive in your quote above? I fully understand it is difficult with emotions so high and such a long history of conflict.

    1. I appreciate that you are asking me to look in a mirror; that is something I oten suggest to others myself. I can only assure you that my interepretations here are as charitable as they can be. I am sure that you and I have different experiences and I did my best to provide examples which I felt clearly demonstrated what I described. The Google+ Hangout alone was clear, I thought.

      Harsh language is the least of the problems with Carrier’s post. The problem is with the ideology and that ideology is promoted less covertly by many and demonstrated through the behavior of those promoting A+. For example, deciding who is and is not being “rational” is not, in most real-life situations – something that many people are qualified to judge. Carrier certainly is not.

  8. G says:

    To clarify, did you then write to Christina and ask for clarification or ask for it in the comments regarding the part of her essay you quoted before you came to your most charitable interpretation of her words?

    Since I come to a different, more charitable interpretation of Greta’s words, do you think that I am mistaken in that I didn’t ask for clarification or read it less charitably? I don’t want to get all post-moderny, and say both of our views are right, so if yours is more accurate in your opinion, from a cognitive psych perspective, how should I re-assess the essay you quoted? In the spirit of what you are suggesting in your post on how we can all try harder to avoid misinterpretations and thus maybe reduce some of the hostility, how can I re-assess her words to come to the same conclusion you did?

  9. Asking for clarification is something one does in conversation or during an interview. This post is not about Greta. I used something Greta wrote as an example of oversimplification and this post is about that practice. Whether or not you agree with my interpretation is not relevant; that you understand my interpretation is (and you clearly do).

  10. [...] έχει σ’αυτό το σημείο η άποψη της Barbara Drescher για το θέμα του δογματισμού. Όταν μιλάς με τόση [...]

  11. Sameer Marathe says:

    This is off topic, so apologies in advance. I am not familiar with this site and this is the only post where I found the “Leave a Reply” feature at the bottom, so I am leaving a comment here. We exchanged arguments recently on Facebook which led me to your blog and I found many interesting reads here and many things to learn. Thank you for that.

    You have repeatedly stated in many posts that the “god hypothesis” does not fall into the purview of skeptical inquiry. Richard Dawkins’s book “The God Delusion” makes the case that at least certain kinds of hypotheses about god are certainly amenable to scientific inquiry. If you have a more articulated post detailing your insistence on excluding the “god hypothesis” from skeptical inquiry, I would love to read it.

    1. I close comments automatically after a couple of months, so the lack of comment space reflects how infrequently I blog. Sorry about that, but I do appreciate your interest.

      To answer your question…
      There are a great many testable claims in religion, but untestable claims are, by definition, unscientific. We don’t exclude them from personal skeptical inquiry, but they fall outside the scope of Skeptical Activism because organized Skepticism is almost universally scientific skepticism. The bottom line, though, is that Skepticism, like science, does not begin or end with definitive knowledge. They are processes – one for examining claims, the other for gaining new knowledge. All we can share is evidence and discussions of how to interpret evidence. Since the god question is not testable, there can be no refutation of it. The most that we can do is provide alternative explanations for the events which individuals claim are acts of or evidence for god.

      Many who are considered leaders in the skeptical movement have written about the limitations of scientific skepticism including Steve Novella and Daniel Loxton. I have linked to others’ writings on the issue in some of my own discussions of the scope of Skepticism (links below). It was also touched on in Jamy Ian Swiss’s TAM2012 talk, which you can find here: http://icbseverywhere.com/blog/2012/08/tam2012-must-see/

      Although I often water down the philosophy a bit, I have discussed issues of acope in several posts. The two which address the testability question the most directly are http://icbseverywhere.com/blog/2012/05/you-cant-judge-an-argument-by-its-conclusion/ and http://icbseverywhere.com/blog/2011/08/take-back-skepticism-part-iii-the-dunning-kruger-effect/

      But I have also touched on it or a related issue in each of these posts:

      http://icbseverywhere.com/blog/2010/04/scientific-skepticism-a-tutorial/
      http://icbseverywhere.com/blog/2011/08/take-back-skepticism-part-i-the-elephant-in-the-room/
      http://icbseverywhere.com/blog/2011/08/take-back-skepticism-part-ii-the-overkill-window/
      http://icbseverywhere.com/blog/2012/05/mission_drift_conflation_and_food_for_thought/

  12. Joel says:

    “My purpose here is not to argue about the topic of social justice, but to make the point that certainty, particularly about moral questions, is something we all need to be careful about.”

    I am certain you are correct about that. I would say I am completely certain and sure also but I am afraid I might burst from correctness.

    What is it about certainty? The certainty one sees dramatized in the skeptic community blogosphere is……well, is there a stronger term than ironic?

    Certainty is so appealing. I indulge it all the time, so I get angry when others do too.

    It causes so much trouble, how can we raise a red flag high enough to be visible?

    Thanks for your effort in this regard.

    Joel

    PS: (When I mention this folks often get upset, I don’t think you will). In your first paragraph you use “childish” as a pejorative. I don’t like this, I don’t think it is good for us or for children to use them as exemplars of behavior of which we disapprove. . There are many other similar terms of disparagement puerile, infantile, immature, adolescent, etc. We no longer use other groups in this way(blacks, gays, women etc), why is it still ok to use children? Is it that we, as adults must continue to celebrate that we are not like ‘them’, that we have arrived, have achieved maturity? Or what?

    1. …well, is there a stronger term than ironic?

      I haven’t found one. If you come across one, please share! “Ultimate irony” is getting a little tiresome. :)

      Regarding your objective to the term “childish”, I used it because it’s descriptive. While I understand what you’re saying, “child” is a developmental stage, not a socially-constructed category separating people. Children do engage in behaviors which adults find unproductive and even silly. That is not an insult to children, nor is it an “othering” of them; we were all children once. Adults presumably have experience and knowledge (i.e., they know better) that children do not. That’s fact, not stereotyping.

  13. Bob Bramel says:

    First of all, what a great site! My interest that led me here is in discussing medical research and medical studies, but this discussion of theism has tweeked me. So, I have two comments.
    The term “atheist” is rather unusual and it has an implication that needs to be addressed. It is a term used to describe what someone is not, and is used often to avoid labeling those who have a particular view but who do not want to have a label applied to them. It is not unlike labeling all who don’t believe in the easter bunny as “a-easterbunnyites” in order that easterbunnyites (EBites) aren’t required to have a label. If we begin talking about a-easterbunnites (AEBites) and associate attributes to them, we miss the essence of the topic, namely, there are people who believe in the easterbunny. There need be no commonality at all between AEBites except that they are not EBites. Similarly, making any general statements at all about “atheists”, other than they are not theists, leads to significant risk of error. Many statements can be make about EBites, however, based on their beliefs, and many statements can be made about theists. Which leads to my second point. If I told you that I was an EBite and a skeptic, I think you could reasonably deduce that I could not be “good” at both, based on your understanding of what I most likely meant when I said easter bunny and your understanding, based on your lifetime of experience, about the absence of evidence to support such a belief. Such a conclusion is not unwarranted and is not intrinsically offensive.

    If you have ongoing discussions concerning medical research and the misuse of associations to establish causation, I’d be really interested in connecting with that discussion. Thanks.

    1. First, welcome! Medicine is not my field, but it does come up occasionally.

      If I told you that I was an EBite and a skeptic, I think you could reasonably deduce that I could not be “good” at both, based on your understanding of what I most likely meant when I said easter bunny and your understanding, based on your lifetime of experience, about the absence of evidence to support such a belief.

      I disagree. Is it reasonable to say that a six-year-old believes in the Easter Bunny because they are a bad skeptic? After all, how likely is it that they reasoned well from evidence? They wake up on Easter morning to find baskets of goodies that weren’t there before and colored eggs on the ground. Their parents tell them tales of seeing a giant bunny.

      As I noted in this post, judgments about someone’s ability to reason which are made based solely on their conclusions are irrational. If we don’t know how some came to their beliefs, how can we judge that method?

  14. Bob Bramel says:

    Thanks for the quick reply. Your question about the six year old is interesting, and it brings to mind for me what is meant by being a good skeptic. With all respect to my six year old grandson (and I’ve worked hard to help him learn how to sort out fact from my own BS statements), I consider that he is certainly above average as a six year old skeptic, but not good when held to an adult standard. So maybe my definition of being a good skeptic contains some notion of resources and results as well as process. If I understand you correctly, given an adult whose only source of information was, for example, a bible, then if that adult, after overhearing evolutionary theory, used all of his available information to create a “skeptical” argument of evolution, I guess you would say the adult was a “good skeptic”. I would say that adult is not a good skeptic, regardless of process, just as I would say my grandson is not yet a good skeptic. For me, “good” requires both a good process and a reasonably well developed database.
    The thought occurs that if a person is a good skeptic that person, over time, will have automatically developed a good database of information on which to form more skeptical notions. Failure to have a reasonably good database suggests, at the very least that the person is a new skeptic.
    I spent way too many hours (years?) at work with fundamentalist colleagues who offered up all of the usual anti-evolutionary arguments. Using the limited database they allowed themselves, they could argue they were being “good skeptics”, and they used all “available information” to come to the best conclusion. They did not consider it necessary to use “secular” sources. These same people could think skeptically about engineering tests and results, but overall, I would not consider them to be good skeptics.

    1. Open-mindedness is part of skepticism, but I would never assume that someone’s “limited database” is the result of a closed mind. The bottom line is that we cannot judge people based on their beliefs (per the link in my last comment). If you introduce examples in which you have more information about the individual’s process (e.g., they limit their exposure to information), then your basis for judgment is different and my original statement doesn’t apply.

      1. Bob Bramel says:

        I’d like to comment in detail to each part of your response.
        “Open-mindedness is part of skepticism,” Absolutely agree, it is essential, and we are none of us perfect in staying fully open-minded. Feynman’s “first of all, never fool yourself” guides me frequently.

        “but I would never assume that someone’s “limited database” is the result of a closed mind.” It seems irrelevant to me why someone’s database is limited. If I don’t have a large vocabulary then I’m not going to be good at NY Times crosswords puzzles. Why my vocabulary is limited is irrelevant. There is no need to moralize about my vocabulary limitations, but it is a relevant fact and it plays as to my crossword puzzle “goodness.” Someone with a small database cannot be very good at skeptically evaluating a statement such as “the redshift associated with type 1A supernovas tends to confirm that dark energy expansion began 5 billion years ago.” Someone with a larger database would be better able to skeptically evaluate this statement and would potentially be a better skeptic. I certainly agree, as you pointed out earlier, that a large database is not sufficient. Terribly illogical thinking can and does sometimes come from people with enormous databases, but without a good database, skeptical thinking will be limited at best.

        “The bottom line is that we cannot judge people based on their beliefs (per the link in my last comment).” I’m not sure the context of “judge”. If there is a moralistic component then the discussion is more complex. If judge means evaluate, as I try to do, then evaluating is entirely appropriate. People I encounter have said, “carbon dating doesn’t work to date carbon containing material”. I evaluate these people to have never read scholarly literature concerning the methodolgy for carbon dating. I further evaluate that they have no real interest in trying to understand the methodology (primarily because the information is readily available). Nor do they have a significant understanding of current nuclear theory. I speculate, based on other similar encounters, that they will not know about Greenland ice core dating, and likely will have little knowledge about plate tectonics. If important, I will ask about these speculations, but certainly a preliminary judgement falls from any assessment that their database is no large. Assessing others based on input is continuous and, when the assessment limitations are taken into account, quite appropriate.

        “If you introduce examples in which you have more information about the individual’s process (e.g., they limit their exposure to information), then your basis for judgment is different and my original statement doesn’t apply.” Everyone, including me, limits exposure to information. It isn’t so much that limiting occurs (I do close my web browser from time to time and decide I just won’t pull up that last paper), rather it is the reason(s) behind the limiting. Again, it seems entirely appropriate to make assessments about others based on observed patterns in the other persons database (e.g., he is very knowledgeable about old testament, but knows next to nothing about DNA).

        Well, of you’ve read this far I applaud you. I’ve tapped everything I’ve sent you one finger tap at a time on my iPad, and my finger is getting numb. Bob.

        Regarding Medical papers, ive been digging into the literature in a few areas and am appalled at the poor quality of many, and especially appalled when they come from places such as Harvard and Yale. The term “risk factor” has become a real flag for me. Typically, early in a paper it will be used to mean associates with, then later, without explanation, to mean causes, and finally as a thing to be reduced or eliminated, usually with drug intervention. All this without ever even talking about designing an experiment. Also, I observe papers that seem to pick values of “p” that appear to have been calculated after the fact in order to make the results statistically significant. Writing to authors, editors and publishers seems to have no effect. Do you have ideas for increasing the discomfort level for those who write or publish such junk?

        1. My point was that while you are arguing something that is far beyond anything I have actually said. I never referred to judging patterns of behavior of an individual. I have merely discussed the problems with making sweeping generalizations about believers one has never even met.

          Regarding the quality of research, it’s plummeting in most fields. The proportions of studies retracted due to both fraud and sloppy work has increased sharply in recent years. I think there are a number of factors involved, including the commercialization of science for both the purpose of competing for funding and efforts to make science more assecible to the masses. The publish-or-parish mentality in the tenure process doesn’t help. Only a dramatic culture shift can save it.

          I was on a discussion panel at Dragon*Con a couple of weeks ago about what could end life as we know it. One thing that scares me probably more than anything else: the growth of narcissistic anti-intellectualism – too many think they know enough and don’t need to study, use precise language, or even think more deeply than they do.

          1. Bob Bramel says:

            I’m not sure I understand your first sentence. If I have assigned unjustified thought or intention to you, I apologize.

            I do strongly feel that it is appropriate to judge an individual negatively for beliefs held when the path to the belief is blatantly without substance and is simultaneously used to control others. If someone choses to believe in a god but acknowledges that “normal” evidence, such as would be necessary for a falsefiable experiment, I have no particular problem with that. Personally I believe that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the Milky Way. I recognize there is no falsefiable experiment currently and I would never use my belief to control anyone else. When a person “knows” there is a god and “knows” that this god requires some behavior of me (and “knows” he is an authorized agent of this god), I judge them negatively (and back way slowly).

            I think anti-intellectualism is a natural, if unfortunate, outgrowth of being surrounded by and obligated to technologies that are entirely beyond 95+% of the public’s comprehension. It must be terrifying to need a car and have absolutely no understanding of its major elements. When the mechanic says your car needs a new camshaft position sensor and you have no idea what any of the words mean, much less whether it ought to cost $10 or $5,000, that has to be terrifying and infuriorating. Multiply that by smart phones, kitchen appliances, medical studies, climate issues, computers, food safety, and it’s easy to imagine that for a large fraction of the public, magic is as good an explanation for how things are as any other explanation. And in my opinion, institutions that the public turns to for guidance are grossly negligent and even perhaps criminally guilty of exacerbating all of this. Telling people to pray for a brighter future rather than mobilizing and educating the community is routine and a horrible betrayal of public trust.

  15. Bob Bramel says:

    Sort of left off the discussion of the idea of atheism. Re-reading some of your blog quotes it seems even more essential to avoid discussions of those “without theism”. All that can ever meaningfully be said is that they are not theists. I’m not a banjo player. I must therefore belong to the a-banjo players. What can meaningfully be said about this group? Why try to discuss them? Let’s see, presumably Beethoven, Carl Marx, the guy across the street, many Rockettes, and most of the NFL players are also a-banjo players. Can we even say they like or don’t like banjos or banjo music? Nope. If you come up with a common statement, rest assured I can add groups of other a-banjoists to negate the statement. Can we say significant things about banjo players? Well, depending on what one considers important, sure. The point is, it seems to me that discussions of atheists or atheism are logically flawed at the start because the group or any positive beliefs (as opposed to the one negative belief) are inherently not definable.