It’s the Process, Stupid!

Posted September 5, 2009

I attended a panel discussion at Dragon*Con today titled “What to Do Next”. Its aim was to discuss the skeptic movement’s goals and how it, and the individuals within it, might go about meeting those goals. The panel has been established as a somewhat permanent fixture at Dragon*Con and I would not be surprised to see it at other conferences and conventions with a skeptic agenda. It is one of the more practical talks and perfect for the discussion panel format.

The first sub-topic is one I fully expected, especially given the individual at the “center” of the panel, Daniel Loxton, who wrote what is now promoted as “how-to manual” for enthusiastic skeptics. BTW, I highly recommend it as a start if you are wondering how you can contribute to “the cause”.

In recent months I have noticed a rift in the skeptic community which involves a sharp political division between fiscally conservative (mostly libertarian) skeptics and those with fiscally liberal views (almost all skeptics are socially liberal and many organizations promote secular humanism rather than skepticism). This division has resulted in some pretty heated arguments and many have suggested that politics and economics are untestable and outside the realm of science or skepticism. Of course, this statement itself, if true, would mean that science is useless. As soon as we decide that anything exists outside the realm of what can be investigated scientifically nothing can be known. Anything we find could be explained as “some unknown force made it happen that way”.

However, the divisiveness of the issues, along with the tendency of skeptics to be viewed as promoting atheism rather than, or along with, skepticism (more on that in a moment), has led people like Daniel to speak out. He began the discussion by calling for organized skepticism to limit its scope to those topics on which we can agree, such as astrology, cryptozoology, psychics, ghosts, and more recently, alternative medicine & vaccinations.

Having encountered resistance whenever I try to discuss these issues, I understand and respect this request. I have even vowed to refrain from discussing such issues in open forums unless invited.

This leaves me in a bit of a pickle and brings up another important point – one which surfaced during the panel discussion, albeit subtly: politics and economics affect all of us. We are voters and consumers. We decide if health care is government-run or if public schools give children time to pray. The skills we use to determine if a bump in the night is a ghost (or an alien, as Daniel Loxton said that Jeff Wagg once noted such a bump might be – I will not question that hearsay, since Jeff was sitting next to Daniel and did not deny it) are used to determine how we should vote on these issues.

I am sure I am not alone in feeling rather deprived of interaction which would help me to make better voting decisions or decide to which organization I should donate. However, the fact that there is such disagreement emphasizes the complexity of the issues and it is not productive to argue if the argument provokes anger rather than rational discussion. These fights do nothing to promote skepticism.

Later in the discussion, Margaret Downey suggested that the movement adopt a logo for the purpose of building a recognizable “brand”. This is somewhat difficult as skepticism is not easily communicated symbolically. How does one create a symbol for “no ignorance”? Downey’s suggestion was a question mark.

A question mark may suggest “question everything”, but it does not communicate skepticism to me (Note, however, that I have no alternative suggestion, must less a better one). In science and skepticism, the question is not what is important, nor is the answer. Skepticism and science are not the act of questioning, but rather the method used to arrive at an answer.

Skepticism is a method of evaluating claims. Science is a method of acquiring knowledge. The purpose of both science and skepticism is to determine what is true, but it is the method we call skepticism or science, not the question itself.

This brings me back to the issue of topics in skepticism and the question of whether children should be shielded from pseudoscience and, as many atheists have suggested, religion. Although I agree that some religious organizations use tactics which may be characterized as “brainwashing”, I fail to see the benefit of depriving children of interactions simply because we are afraid that someone will lie to them or teach them something other than what we would like them to know. In fact, I would argue that such restrictions deprive those children of practice applying reasoning skills. In addition, those conclusions we reach through our own critical analysis are more salient and more believable to us; we earned them. These personal experiences stick.

The topics we discuss as skeptics are not particularly important for the same reason that depriving children of the viewpoints of others is not productive.

We should not be discussing, or “teaching” children what to think. We should be teaching them how to think.


1 Comment:

teacherninja on September 10th, 2009 at 19:45:
I agree and I kind of like Daniel Dennett’s proposal to go ahead and teach religion in schools–all of them. Most kids brought up religiously are ignorant of other belief systems and lack true religious literacy. By teaching a bit about the whole gamut of belief they would at least be able to choose their religion more thoughtfully and it would probably lessen dogmatism–the real enemy of reason.
It was a great panel and it was worth missing the parade for!

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