The Amazing Meeting 2014

Like it? Share it!

Sign up for news and updates!






Enter word seen below
Visually impaired? Click here to have an audio challenge played.  You will then need to enter the code that is spelled out.
Change image

CAPTCHA image
Please leave this field empty

Login Form



The Skeptical Disconnect PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Kyle Hill   
A little more than a month ago I attended two conferences, NECSS 2012 in New York and the Freethought Festival in Madison, Wisconsin, where I represented the JREF, listened to speakers, and conversed with attendees. The conferences themselves were great: I met many awesome people, heard some great talks, and got one of my first looks at the skeptical community in action. For all the things that were congruent with a well-oiled skeptical machine, there was something troubling that I noticed, comparing the two events, something I am calling the skeptical disconnect.  

When I talk about skepticism, I believe that I am talking about something that encompasses many other similar philosophies like atheism, humanism, and freethought. By this I mean that atheism, for example, is a logical extension of skepticism. Anecdotally, most skeptics that I know are in fact atheists. However, the disconnect came when I expected the reverse of this observation to also be true, i.e., that most atheists are skeptics.  

My point can be made by looking at each conference in turn. First, at NECSS, skepticism was the name of the game. For example, the talks were all skeptically themed and covered a wide variety of topics, the JREF signed up dozens of new members, and Randi himself was a keynote speaker. Not only that, but I feel like everyone spoke the same “language,” the kind of thing that you get when you have a couple hundred Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe fans in a room. But looking at the Freethought Festival, you get a completely different impression. The focus was squarely on atheism. Atheist activism, atheist student group building, atheism in politics, etc. I am in no way saying that this is bad, surely it was one of the points of the conference, but what I noticed was a recognizable unfamiliarity with modern skepticism, if we could define it by the people who populated NECSS.  

For example, most of the attendees at the Freethought Festival were unaware of what the JREF was, what topics we dealt with or their relevance, or even who James Randi was (I only point this out as a comparison, it’s not like we are rock stars). Given the resounding camaraderie the week before at NECSS, this response puzzled me. Compounding this feeling, one attendee at the Freethought Festival came up to JREF President D.J. Grothe and myself, making a point to bring up that although he was a staunch atheist, he was also sure that malleable psychic energy existed, and that acupuncture was a legitimate medical intervention. It made me think of the conflicted feelings our community has about the dissonance we see in others of our persuasion. For example, I would consider comedian Bill Maher to be a pretty good atheist (Richard Dawkins seems to think so), as he regularly challenges religion and promotes the reason-over-religion viewpoint on a widely viewed TV show. However, as exemplified by his fear of vaccines and other absurdities, he is a poor skeptic.  

Of course, the disconnect goes both ways. Similar to the encounter DJ Grothe and I had at the Freethought Festival, DJ and I were caught fielding questions about psychic powers at NECSS with a man who was convinced he had them, convinced through personal experience mind you, but had since conveniently lost the ability. Rather than chalking these experiences up to isolated incidents, I was gradually noticing a disconnect where, logically, one need not exist.  

Divisions of Labor  

Perhaps I am merely noticing the different groups of people who attend certain conferences with certain themes. And, I cannot stress this enough, I am all for a robust atheist community involving student groups and coordinated activism. However, I feel that there is a widened gap where none need exist.  

To me, being a skeptic is more important than being an atheist. Embracing scientific skepticism for me means a hop, skip, and a jump to atheism. God is simply another topic for which there is no evidence, and therefore deserves our skepticism. But, perhaps because atheism is such a weighty topic, different camps have sprung up. The monumental question of whether there is a god or not has created an entire subculture within skepticism (the philosophical orientation of skepticism, that is) to the point where it seems that we are fracturing.  

I think skepticism is a core concept that all freethinkers can get behind. Skepticism can fruitfully lead to atheism, but as I have noticed, it does not necessarily go both ways. At the Freethought Festival, D.J. Grothe made a similar point in his talk when he noted our common philosophical underpinnings and entreated the atheist community to join up. Skepticism about God isn’t enough to foster a cohesive community of science-based individuals.

                                                            skeptical_disconnect

Perhaps we run in different circles because atheist activism is inherently more political. Maybe atheism is a more salient issue in society and deserves a singular attention from its adherents and activists. I think the disconnect harms us. While the atheist community could do well to extend its disbelief to many more topics, the skeptical community could take a page out of the atheist’s book, as they have been very successful at gaining ground politically, getting into the media, and engaging a young base.  

My view of the skeptical disconnect is that many passionate atheists have chosen an inherently skeptical topic in isolation, without providing themselves with a fundamental basis for determining the validity of other claims, such as in medicine, physics, or the occult. Surely, I am not suggesting that the majority of atheists fit this bill, but there is a minority who I think are missing out on the intellectual gains to be had from embracing a wider skeptical worldview.  

Having a well-informed community means taking the time to round out our knowledge. Being educated on the wealth of topics that skepticism covers is indeed a challenge, but then again, being able to overcoming this challenge is one thing that we pride ourselves on. I love the fact that we can have organizations that focus down on topics and hit them hard, as we need that for activism and mobilization. But we can’t have this to the point where we lose focus of the big picture, or don’t even recognize each other as brothers and sisters in arms. When you can be adeptly skeptical about the idea of a god, but yet consider psychic powers to be within the realm of possibility, we have splintered too far.  

Do you notice the skeptical disconnect? Let me know in the comments.  

Kyle Hill is the JREF research fellow specializing in communication research and human information processing. He writes daily at the Science-Based Life blog and you can follow him on Twitter here.

Trackback(0)
Comments (43)Add Comment
"God is simply another topic for which there is no evidence", Lowly rated comment [Show]
...
written by Baloney, June 07, 2012
People in the US aren't trying to deny rights to people that don't believe in UFOs, and aren't building displays on the public grounds to glorify and commemorate Sasquatch; so, it makes sense that atheism is large point, politically, for both skeptical and non-skeptical atheists. If legislatures were passing laws to teach psychic phenomena in public school science classes, you'd see a division in the a division between skeptical and non-skeptical atheists.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +17
...
written by beowulff, June 07, 2012
I don't see why it should surprise you to find atheists who are poor skeptics on particular issues. I'm sure we could all come up with a few prominent skeptics who have some major blind spots in their skepticism as well. Why would you expect atheists to be any different?

Also, this discussion about the supposed "a disconnect where, logically, one need not exist" would not be complete without mentioning that some skeptic organizations have actively tried to distance themselves from atheism. Some skeptics even dismiss atheism as a proper topic for skepticism because the existence of God can't be tested (as if not being testable in itself isn't enough reason for skepticism about the existence of anything).
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +22
...
written by rosie, June 07, 2012
Scepticism is not the only route to atheism. So it doesn't surprise me to find that not all atheists are sceptics - atheists have a whole different mindset. They include people who choose to reject all forms of authority. They not only refuse to be told what to believe by magical books written by ancient mystics, they refuse to let "scientists" tell them that vaccines are safe, that ghosts do not exist or that snake oil will not cure their ills.
Even atheists can be ignorant of the scientific method, and while they remain so it is not clear how to bring them to scepticism.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +27
...
written by Idle, June 07, 2012
Rosie is correct. There are many paths to Atheism. For some, its because of some trauma that happened to them (read, molestation, or the church abandoning them when they needed it, disagreement with tenants, etc). That is just a prominent example and is why some theists ask "what did the church do to you to make you an atheist?" There are other examples too, but the point is that it isn't necessary to question everything to become an atheist, only to reject something. A contrarian can be an atheist for all the wrong reasons.

And, of course, Beowulff is also correct. I met a skeptic who didn't understand why chiropractic or "energy" healing didn't work and actively promoted them. Everyone has their own biases. Many people, even in the skeptical community, don't spend any time in introspection and say "maybe I am wrong, and I want to be right".
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +11
Lazy Atheism
written by bjolley, June 07, 2012
There are people who don't happen to believe in god but are not critical thinkers. You can find crystal energy enthusiasts and aura readers who will proudly declare their lack of belief in god or gods. Such are not skeptics. The Venn diagram can't have atheism as a full subset of skepticism.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +14
"Religion poisons everything"
written by disabstraction, June 07, 2012
My hope would be that this trend will increase.

As an anti-theist I look forward to the day (although I won't see it) when the entire population of the world with all its rich diversity of opinion will be described as atheist.

Yes there will always be a need for skepticism, but I look forward to the day when the word atheist will be seen as an amusing historical novelty. As it stands many of us feel the word is virtually without meaning, or certainly not "required". As Sam Harris would put it, "I think that 'atheist' is a term that we do not need, in the same way that we don't need a word for someone who rejects astrology."

So this should be a matter for some rejoicing. Don't be disappointed about feeling a disconnect. We should all be aware that it is coming and be happy to see more of it.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: -1
There is no disconnect.
written by badrescher, June 07, 2012
What you call a "disconnect" is a result of meeting people who do not share all of your views. In order for there to be a "disconnect", there must be connections, but the connections you speak of are connections that exist in your personal representation of the world and not in the world itself. You have confused your own personal conclusions with "skepticism".

Scientific skepticism is simply a process of applying critical thinking to empirical evidence; it is not a rejection of ideas or claims. It is examination of them. Assuming that the conclusions that you have reached are "the truth" is the opposite of good skepticism. People have reasons for what they believe and everyone thinks that their conclusions are well-reasoned.

Because you I have written about this extensively on my blog recently. If you are interested, the most relevant post is this one:

[ http://icbseverywhere.com/blog...onclusion/ ]
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +16
oops
written by badrescher, June 07, 2012
That last line should read "Because you are not the only individual to discuss this, I have..."

And if the link does not work, the URL is (http://) icbseverywhere.com/blog/2012/05/you-cant-judge-an-argument-by-its-conclusion/
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +6
...
written by C4llum, June 07, 2012
Great read. The circles really illustrates what I think too. All in all I must say that the 'disconnection' gap is decreasing. From what I notice, more and more atheist are becoming skeptics and vice versa.

Btw, typo in the second paragraph under devision of labor: 'that' should be than
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +0
...
written by a11m0n, June 07, 2012
This addresses an important point. If asked I prefer the label radical atheist. You could fairly describe me as an anti theist. As a former true believer I came to my current position through the failures of religion, the dishonesty of religious people, an interest in science, development of critical thinking skills, and reading books like The God Delusion. Some of my fellow atheists have disappointed me in the ways you describe, and some just seem to enjoy being nasty to people. Not having much of a real formal education means that I do not fit in with the broader skeptical community either, even though I consider myself to have a scientific world view. Guys like me represent the triumph of critical thought over superstition. But we are in no mans land.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +1
...
written by mslongjr, June 07, 2012
As others have noted, people often arrive at atheism by means that don't involve formal or organized skepticism, and even accomplished skeptics can have blind spots. What's interesting to me is to think about the institutional histories of the two movements. If we look at atheism through the lens of leaders like Madalyn O'Hare and Christopher Hitchens, for instance, we can see a strong focus on social justice within atheist activism. Defeating religion in the political realm is about maintaining church-state separation, but not only that; historically it's also about defeating sexism, racism, and class-based injustice to varying degrees, which is one reason atheism is itself a prime target of the kind of Red-baiting McCarthyist attacks that still strike fear into progressive activists.

By contrast organized skepticism appears to have shied away from these kinds of fights over the years. As individuals, of course, many staunch skeptical activists (Kurtz, Sagan, Randi, Gardner, and so on) have fought for many of the same progressive goals, but when articulating organizational priorities, it seems that skeptical organizations and science-teaching organizations have tried hard to shy away from issues pertaining to religion and social justice so that they could focus on teaching science for the sake of teaching science. The theory seems to have been that reasonable and educated people can disagree about politics and god, but not about evolution or atomic theory. Or: it's OK to describe the mechanism of a weeping statue, but it's a dick move to tell religious people that historical and scientific evidence suggests that their central beliefs are almost certainly fictions, that is, the products of human brains instead of the other way around.

But here's a question: do matters pertaining to social justice and egalitarianism actually belong in a third circle called Humanism? It's clear that there are many atheists and skeptics who think that the social justice goals of many progressives ought to be off the agendas of their respective movements. Whereas if you're an atheist, skeptic, and humanist, it's actually very easy to find oneself appalled by statements coming from leaders of all three circles.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +5
I am saddened by the comments on this post.
written by badrescher, June 07, 2012
Having a focused mission and maintaining the integrity of an organization's work do not qualify as "shying away from" or "distancing from" the things you wish the organization would address. If the JREF promoted atheism, it would contradict its own mission.

What the JREF does is important. If you want to promote social justice, then by all means do so. But you can't do that well if you don't have accurate information and accurate information comes from objective evaluation of empirical evidence (what the JREF teaches people to do). You can't evaluate anything objectively if you think you already know what's true and what isn't.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +9
@badrescher
written by Baloney, June 07, 2012
JREF's missioin is "to promote critical thinking by reaching out to the public and media with reliable information about paranormal and supernatural ideas so widespread in our society today."

If the god claims of most religions aren't supernatural enough for you, I don't know what would be.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +15
@Baloney
written by badrescher, June 07, 2012
JREF's missioin is "to promote critical thinking by reaching out to the public and media with reliable information about paranormal and supernatural ideas so widespread in our society today."


Bold mine. "There is no god" is not information.



report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: -2
@bjolley
written by Caller X, June 07, 2012
written by bjolley, June 07, 2012
There are people who don't happen to believe in god but are not critical thinkers. You can find crystal energy enthusiasts and aura readers who will proudly declare their lack of belief in god or gods. Such are not skeptics. The Venn diagram can't have atheism as a full subset of skepticism.


You make a good point. Mucking up one of the world's simplest diagrams doesn't inspire much confidence in the mental acuity of the author, especially when the diagram contradicts the main point of the article.

Or, the author wants all atheists to be skeptics. There are two ways to look at it and I think the second is what was intended.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +0
...
written by Antares42, June 08, 2012
@badrescher

"There is no god" is not information.


"Religious texts are most likely man-made, gods quite probably don't exist, and here's why:"

Better? You're arguing against a straw-man version of atheism. There is no qualitative difference between weighing the evidence on Reiki and Chiro and come to the conclusion that the "vital force" doesn't exist and to look at religious claims and come to the conclusion that it's fiction.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +6
...
written by yarro, June 08, 2012
I wonder if there is a difference between those that have "converted" to atheism from some sort of religion and those that are born atheists. I am a third generation atheist. My brother's kids are fourth generation. We have never had a bible at home, never been to church, never had bible classes at school. (and yet somehow we turned out to be decent, law abiding people smilies/wink.gif) All our relatives, friends, team mates at sport etc, they're all atheists. Even my GP and dentist are atheists. We can go through life without ever touching on religion. Imagine such a secular heaven. It's easy if you try...
We never had to struggle to break free of religion. We never had to take that concsious skeptical step. Taking the next step, being a skeptic, is therefore not a given. I can imagine the some goes for other "born" atheists. I also can imagine "converted" atheist are more likely to take that next step and become full blown skeptics. They've already made that concsious choice to break free of religion.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +2
@Antares42
written by badrescher, June 08, 2012
You're arguing against a straw-man version of atheism.


No, I am not. YOU have changed your argument and it's still invalid. Skepticism is a process of evaluating claims, not drawing conclusions.

Please read the link I provided in my previous comments.

report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +1
@Antares42
written by BubbaRich, June 08, 2012
What straw-man version of atheism is she arguing against? I don't see that. In fact, I don't see her arguing against any atheism, but only against specific behavior and arguments used by people that are less effective arguments because they tend to try to mix up the Venn diagram for strategic advantage.

But @badrescher is right, reasoning from your desired conclusion as "the truth" is not what skeptics do. I take that back, I see a lot of "skeptics" doing that, I should say that reasoning that way is NOT a skeptical way to reason.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +3
...
written by beowulff, June 08, 2012
@badresher: I'm not really sure how you can evaluate a claim, but not come to a conclusion (if only a tentative one).
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: -1
...
written by bjolley, June 08, 2012
@beowulff

"I'm not really sure how you can evaluate a claim, but not come to a conclusion (if only a tentative one)."

??? Come on. Be serious. Often "I don't know" is the only honest answer because there isn't enough information to evaluate the claim. Reserving judgement is essential to skepticism.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +1
@bjolley
written by BubbaRich, June 08, 2012
Hmmmm, I wasn't sure if I completely agreed with @beowulff on this one, but you've helped shape my ideas. Reserving judgment, recognizing that all conclusions are tentative, is a critical part of the skeptical approach. But it is also important to real life to be able to draw a strong enough conclusion to act upon, if necessary. There's a complex balance in that sentence.

I think I agree with @beowulff on that one. I would disagree with @badrescher on that point, if I could find where she said something opposite to that, but I can't find it.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +0
We aren't talking about personal conclusions...
written by badrescher, June 08, 2012
The issue isn't personal conclusions, but skeptical activism. The fact that conclusions are tentative does not mean that we should not draw them; it means that the process must be separated from the conclusion itself. The problem with promoting conclusions rather than process is connected to the problems with addressing claims which cannot be tested empirically because both are related to what we can and cannot assert. Neither is related to what anyone *should* believe. There is no judgement of beliefs in skepticism. There is only judgement of the accuracy of information.

We stick to scientific skepticism because we can discuss empirical evidence (information that we can share). But even when we all have access to the same evidence (which is actually rare) and use the same tools, we do not all come to the same conclusions. What makes your conclusions better than someone else's? You may think that yours come from better reasoning, but everyone thinks that. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't draw conclusions when you think the evidence suggests one. It means that telling others that their conclusions are wrong is not skepticism.

The bottom line is that what we can agree on and share is empirical evidence. What organized skepticism does is provide some of the evidence (information) and educate people about critical thinking so that they can evaluate the information they bring with them. Although many of us are confident enough in our own conclusions to think that most people will end up sharing them, we should never be so confident as to insist that anyone who doesn't is stupid or even wrong. To do so is arrogance, not skepticism.

Skepticism is not about beliefs. This goes for beliefs about God, ghosts, psychics, and vaccines.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +3
ugh
written by badrescher, June 08, 2012
And I misspelled "judgment" repeatedly because of the language settings. I hate that!
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +0
@badrescher
written by Baloney, June 08, 2012
"Skepticism is not about beliefs. This goes for beliefs about God, ghosts, psychics, and vaccines."

badrescher,

I completely agree that skepticism is about testing claims, but I feel that excluding supernatural claims of any sort (such as those made by many religions) from skeptical inquiry is intellectual dishonesty. And skepticism is about beliefs, with respect to not accepting claims without evidence -- this goes for ghosts (holy or otherwise), cryptozoological and mythological beasts (such as dragons and unicorns), and returning to life after death (resurrection, reincarnation, interstellar travel to planet Kolob), and miraculous powers (magical healing, talking animals, levitation). If the religious supernatural claims are exempt from critical investigation, then why not crystal healing and telepathy? Why not talking to the dead and fortune telling? How are any of these different and beyond the scope of skepticism and skeptical activism?

Also, atheism isn't limited to "There is no god," and many skeptical atheists don't make that claim. In fact, atheism also (and -- I feel -- predominantly) can mean "rejection of belief in the existence of deities" or "having no belief in god (or god claims)", which is a very skeptical approach to the existence of divine beings -- not accepting claims with evidence. Saying "I don't believe there is a god" is not the same as saying "there is no god."

I certainly don't think any skeptic should be "required" to demand evidence for supernatural religious claims, but dismissing the right of any skeptic to make those demands sounds pretty non-skeptical to me.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +4
errata
written by Baloney, June 08, 2012
"...not accepting claims with without evidence..."
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: -1
What's intellectually dishonest...
written by badrescher, June 08, 2012
...is promoting science and scientific skepticism while claiming that the rules of science do not apply.

Baloney, your arguments are straw men. If you are interested in discussing what I actually wrote, please read what is in the link I provided in my comment above (and rereading my comments here would not hurt).
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +1
@badrescher
written by Baloney, June 09, 2012
I read what you wrote in your link, and I am trying to figure out how what I wrote differs from what you wrote in your article. Your article doesn't seem to be saying that (I read the article to mean "There is no god" is not scientific skepticism, a statement with which I agree). Your comments above sound like you're saying that "There is no god" is the only definition of atheism you accept, and therefore, atheism is not scientific skepticism -- to which I strongly disagree. I'm not trying to build strawmen (and I don't believe I have), but it's possible I've misread or misinterpreted what you wrote in your comments (and maybe your article, too).

But I stand by the statement that atheism does also mean "lack of believe in god(s) and/or god claims," and that it is, indeed, a scientifically skeptical stance.

Also, not excepting claims without evidence is a rule of science. Please (anyone) show me an example of where I claimed that the rules of science do not apply to skepticism and science.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +4
@Baloney
written by badrescher, June 09, 2012
Also, not excepting claims without evidence is a rule of science.


No, it's not. You're thinking of science backwards. Science is not about what we do not have evidence for; it is about what we learn by examining empirical evidence. Science does not "accept" untested claims, but it does not "accept" any claim. Science does not draw conclusions; people do.

Science does not reject claims which are not empirically testable, either. It has nothing to say about them. It can't because it is a process by which we empirically test claims.

Thus, scientific skepticism can have nothing to say about such claims, either. If claims are testable, scientific skepticism can involve testing them and discussing what those tests reveal, which is often simply an alternative explanation for the claimed phenomenon.

Furthermore, your assumption that there is no evidence for the existence of God is incorrect. Ask a religious believer why they believe and the vast majority will site evidence. How you evaluate or interpret that evidence may be very different from how the believer interpreted it, but that does not make the evidence any less real. Personal experience, for example, is evidence. It's not scientific evidence, but it is evidence. Also, I am quite sure that there is at least some scientific evidence supporting the existence of a God. Evidence which supports even the most unlikely hypothesis is much easier to come by than you might think (which is what makes cherry-picking so bad).

What all of this means is that claiming that someone has failed to think critically or "in a skeptical manner" simply because they hold a belief that you do not hold is not good skepticism or good critical thinking. It's judging their process by its outcome (judging a process you have no information about).
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +0
@badrescher
written by mslongjr, June 11, 2012
I'm sorry for being so slow responding, but after having a long think I want to say that you're right: what the JREF and other skeptical organizations do is important, and they have a right to maintain their institutional focus on scientific skepticism. I made the mistake of conflating the sniping that sometimes goes on between skeptics and atheists with expressions of "institutional will" (or something like that--there's probably a better way to put it, but I can't think of one at the moment).

I think that atheists new to skeptical activism see the "what's the harm" aspect of the movement -- the bits where we urge the general public to avoid faith healers and psychics and mediums, for instance, on the grounds that misinformed actions result everything from lost happiness to lost money to lost lives -- and assume that their own concerns about harm done by religion can fit neatly into that space. I'll confess that from my point of view it's difficult to see much difference between promoting the (tentatively held!) conclusion that psychic mediums almost certainly can't talk to the dead, on the one hand, and the conclusion that a man with a funny hat probably isn't uniquely privy to god's will, on the other.

But even that -- questioning the soundness of a given religious person's claim to godly authority -- is very different from promoting the general conclusion that there is no god, or advocating church-state separation, or promoting feminism as a desirable alternative to a church-endorsed patriarchy.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +1
...
written by badrescher, June 11, 2012
"...it's difficult to see much difference between promoting the (tentatively held!) conclusion that psychic mediums almost certainly can't talk to the dead..."

But this is not what the JREF promotes. The JREF does not say, "psychic ability does not exist". The JREF offers a prize for those who can demonstrate it and allows others to draw their own conclusions about why that prize has not been claimed. Randi did not sit in the chair next to Johnny Carson and say, "It is 'almost certain' that people cannot talk to the dead." He exposed Peter Popoff as a fraud by explaining how Popoff was able to appear to have knowledge that we would not expect him to have. It may seem like a subtle difference, but it only seems that way because of the beliefs you hold. A believer in such things would appreciate the difference. They would also be more likely to look for alternative explanations for how others (e.g., John Edwards) are able to do what they do than they would if they were simply told, "That's bunk".

When people come to conclusions on their own, they believe those conclusions (by definition). When they are told that they are wrong or have been fooled, they resist; who wants to be wrong? So, promoting conclusions is both bad skepticism and bad activism.

And you can't "question the soundness" of something that is not testable. You can certainly provide some alternative explanation for their claim, but without empirical evidence you're having a philosophical conversation and nothing more.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +0
your diagram
written by @blamer, June 11, 2012
1. size of the circles, show us how many more skeptics there are than atheists
2. size of overlap, show us how many of the atheists aren't skeptics

I think Kyle's anecdote shows we like stories better than we like falsifying claims.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +0
"skeptic" and "atheist" have a common root trait IMHO
written by Mostly Harmless, June 12, 2012
I don't understand why someone who strives to be an objective reasoner would apply the term skeptic to themself. A skeptic, to me, by definition and personal observation, implies someone who approaches information with a bias of doubt and often with a pro-active one. Someone with a bias is not objective. Therefore, it does not surprise me that a lot of skeptics consider themselves atheists as it has also been my observation that atheists tend to have a pro-active bias against theism of any form.

I say of myself "I would be an atheist if that did not require faith" because while I have yet to see any evidence of validity in any religion, I cannot rule out there they may not be some currently unknown force acting upon the universe which when perceived relative to our current understanding of the universe might not be perceived as analogous to a religious perception of the universe.

This reflects a standard of objectivity I strive for which is based on Heinlein's concept of a "Fair Witness". Google "Heinlein fair witness". Heinlein's fair witness, however, was prohibited from drawing conclusions (at least publicly anyway).

I think also I differ from most in that while I have enormous curiosity about the mechanisms behind life, the universe, and everything, I have no personal need to definitively resolve this issue one way or the other for myself or others.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +0
skepticism
written by BubbaRich, June 13, 2012
@Mostly Harmless:

The main element that creates science is "peer review," and the more hostile the review, the better. That doesn't mean being malicious or personal, just advocating for an alternative conclusion or explanation.

A good, scientific thinker can throw in a layer of "internal review" at the beginning. Yes, I agree that constantly doubting everything in the universe is probably an unhealthy way to approach life, but I tend to tentatively accept things based on both the potential cost of being wrong and the amount of evidence in favor of them. I don't trust anybody who tells me they "know" something, I think that is almost always a horrible model for how our minds deal with reality.

By saying you have no personal need to definitely resolve those issues, you are indicating that you actually ARE the type of skeptic you decry. Do you see the disconnect between the beginning and end of your post?
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +1
...
written by mslongjr, June 13, 2012
@badrescher: But this is not what the JREF promotes. The JREF does not say, "psychic ability does not exist". The JREF offers a prize for those who can demonstrate it and allows others to draw their own conclusions about why that prize has not been claimed. Randi did not sit in the chair next to Johnny Carson and say, "It is 'almost certain' that people cannot talk to the dead." He exposed Peter Popoff as a fraud by explaining how Popoff was able to appear to have knowledge that we would not expect him to have. It may seem like a subtle difference, but it only seems that way because of the beliefs you hold.

Well, you could be right about me and my perceptions, and about the JREF. I certainly agree that the JREF, the the skeptical movement in general, works hard to give people the tools and information they need to make up their own minds, which is very much to its credit.

On the other hand, I'm not sure you can support the assertion that the JREF and other skeptical organizations don't promote -- or at least loudly telegraph -- the conclusion (tentatively held, of course) that psychic, supernatural, & paranormal powers don't really exist. In his TED talk, for instance, James Randi states pretty clearly that psychics belong to a "subculture" that depends on fraud at worst and self-delusion at best. He also derides supernatural and paranormal claims as "nonsense," without offering much in the way of a qualifier. The JREF web site says that it exists not only to help people investigate but to "defend themselves from paranormal and pseudoscientific claims" (emphasis mine), which implies a strong general prejudgment regarding the nature of such claims. Of course Randi also says in his TED talk that he can't conclusively disprove the existence of paranormal powers -- hence the Million-dollar Challenge -- but that disclaimer seems to me to be a far cry from refusing to form and share his general conclusions.

Read the main news feed at randi.org, read other skeptical blogs, listen to skeptical podcasts, watch videos from skeptical meetings, and there's more of the same. Scare quotes ("alternative" medicine), epithets ("so-called"), rhetorical expressions of dismay ("people really believe this stuff"), snarky asides about "woo woo," and the expressed hope that better scientific and skeptical education will tend to eliminate supernatural/paranormal beliefs are all routinely on display. All of this, in my eyes, adds up to clear evidence that the skeptical movement, broadly construed, allows itself to draw and express general conclusions about certain kinds of claims, and not just specific cases -- albeit with the disclaimer that one must be willing to change one's mind in the face of evidence.

(Obviously I have no problem with this; I'm just raising my eyebrows at what appears to be a claim that it isn't happening. Is that just my personal bias interpreting meaningless cues in ways that no reasonable, unbiased observer would detect? Maybe.)
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +2
...
written by mslongjr, June 13, 2012
@badrescher: When people come to conclusions on their own, they believe those conclusions (by definition). When they are told that they are wrong or have been fooled, they resist; who wants to be wrong? So, promoting conclusions is both bad skepticism and bad activism.

I remain skeptical that the case is as black-and-white as you suggest. Teaching and encouraging people to form their own conclusions is good, I agree. I'm not sure it follows, however, that sharing one's own conclusions is therefore bad -- bad communication or bad activism. Telling people that they're idiots is arguably bad; but there's a wide gulf between "you're an idiot" and "accumulated evidence makes me conclude that psychics probably don't really exist (though I'm open to new evidence)." Sometimes it's the knowledge that other people form other conclusions that makes a person start to think differently in the first place (that seems to have been the case with me, anyway). (Then again, here I am, resisting someone else's conclusion. But can anyone really avoid that?)

And activism isn't just educating people you think are misinformed; it's also inspiring the people who agree with you to work towards what everyone hopes will be a better future, and that's awfully hard to do unless you're willing to traffic in shared general conclusions, which to my eyes is a lot of what makes the skeptical community a community and not just a set of investigative journals with strict editorial policies.

@badrescher: And you can't "question the soundness" of something that is not testable. You can certainly provide some alternative explanation for their claim, but without empirical evidence you're having a philosophical conversation and nothing more.

The testability of a given claim to godly authority would depend on the details and context of the claim. A claim of uniqueness, as in my example, might well be a testable detail, but it would depend on the broader context and narrative.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +3
...
written by badrescher, June 13, 2012
I'm just raising my eyebrows at what appears to be a claim that it isn't happening.


I am not claiming that it doesn't happen; I'm claiming that it is not good skepticism. Organizations and people are different things. I cringe every time I hear Randi blurt out an overgeneralization about skeptics, scientists, or the media, btw. But if we allow such things to be the 'norm' - if we fail to keep in sight the fact that science and scientific thinking do not work from conclusions, we will become just another group of people who claim to know the absolute truth.

I'm not sure it follows, however, that sharing one's own conclusions is therefore bad -- bad communication or bad activism.


This is another straw man.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +0
Oops again...
written by badrescher, June 13, 2012
That should read "...overgeneralization about psychics, scientists, or the media..."
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +0
@badrescher
written by BubbaRich, June 13, 2012
But it _is_ good rational thinking to bias your preliminary conclusions on the weight of previous evidence and experience. I'm nearly 100% that TV psychics will be lying, and I can usually see HOW they are going to lie by watching a couple of minutes. I won't necessarily defend that as good "skepticism," but it is a good and important part of rational thinking.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +1
...
written by badrescher, June 13, 2012
But it _is_ good rational thinking to bias your preliminary conclusions on the weight of previous evidence and experience.


In as far as "previous evidence and experience" is evidence, yes (and it I'd argue that it is good skepticism). But, again, we're not talking about personal beliefs or conclusions. We're talking about whether it is good skepticism to tell the believer who is watching the same TV psychic that they are wrong, simply because we know they believe it. People watching that TV psychic have different sets of information - different past experiences and knowledge. Good skepticism would be an open-minded discussion of the evidence/reasons why they believe and the reasons why I don't.

Good skeptical activism provides empirical evidence (and, where needed, education about critical thinking) such as how/why some self-proclaimed psychics appear psychic, so that the next time an individual sees a psychic on TV, they are better equipped to evaluate. But if we just assume that all self-proclaimed psychics are frauds (and I would contend that MANY are not; many truly believe that they are psychic), we limit our own ability to evaluate.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +0
skepticism is not synonymous with objectivity
written by Mostly Harmless, June 13, 2012
@BubbaRich
> By saying you have no personal need to definitely resolve those issues, you are
> indicating that you actually ARE the type of skeptic you decry. Do you see the
> disconnect between the beginning and end of your post?


I presume we have different definitions of what it means to be a skeptic as I truthfully do not see the correlation. I feel not having a need allows me to remain objective when evaluating new information and theories. Atheism does not automatically derive from a debunking of known religions. Those who pro-actively advocate for atheism seem to have a need to force that interpretation onto not only their lives, but the lives of others. Since the universe still holds many mysteries well beyond our capacity to understand (such as what existed before the big bang), to me, it takes a kind of faith to presume that atheism is valid when there is no justification for it other than the absence of validity in known religions.

I do not see objectivity and skepticism as synonymous. In fact, I'm coming to believe that those who foremost describe themselves as "skeptics" do practice an ideology that, although it is highly rooted in critical thinking and therefore can be defended as being objective and scientifically grounded, tends to have a predetermined position on most all of the issues skeptics tend to go after. Most of those issues are the kind of low-hanging fruit that are easy to debunk (paranormal abilities, holistic medicine, etc) and for which most critical thinkers of any stripe can find common ground and kinship. But, when it comes to some issues such as religion or climate change, those in the skeptic community suddenly lose their ability to doubt and keep an open mind and become advocates for positions with as much passion and seeming subjectivity as those they decry.

I feel no need, and can live my life without the need, to resolve the mechanism of the universe. I have found logical fault with the premise of all religions I've encountered so far and there is very little new information to suggest that will change. But, that does not automatically imply that there are no truths which are so significantly beyond our current understanding to explain with modern science that they would not be akin to the kind of mysteries that man has felt the need to assign responsibility for to a deity.

> The main element that creates science is "peer review," and the more hostile the
> review, the better. That doesn't mean being malicious or personal, just advocating
> for an alternative conclusion or explanation.


A chess computer can find holes in an opponent's strategy by objectively exploring all possible logical paths. It does not do that by "doubting" the strategy of it's opponent and presuming there is a weakness. My point is that scientific validation can be performed very well through an objective analysis of a hypothesis without requiring the investigator to approach with the mindset of doubt. Doubt may provide motivation to do so, but it also brings a bias which is not the mark of objectivity and is the opponent of an open mind.

I realize that we can get caught up in semantics pretty easily here as there are some extreme interpretations of skepticism (such as doubting everything including ones own observations) which approach objectivity. However, I am referring to what I've observed as the practical definition of it by those who assign the term to themselves.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: -2
...
written by BubbaRich, June 13, 2012
@Mostly Harmless:

If you don't doubt, you aren't verifying, you are confirming your belief.

The chess computer would be foolish to doubt the opponent's strategy, what it (or a skeptical human chess player) is trying to do is question the worth of each potential move.

If you're not doubting, then you are reinforcing the very natural and always-present confirmation bias.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +0

Write comment
This content has been locked. You can no longer post any comment.
You must be logged in to post a comment. Please register if you do not have an account yet.

busy