Has the skeptical movement failed?

August 8, 2012

The skeptical movement has been behaving in very self-destructive behavior over at least the past year as cults of personality and bitter rivalries have sprung up while those screaming the loudest on different sides of numerous issues have been allowed to dominate the conversation.

Just one recent example of this was highlighted when Ian Murphy penned a rather weak piece on Alternet that called out five individuals as The 5 Most Awful Atheists. There’s been much criticism about the rather subjective criteria Murphy used as well as his over-simplification of the views of several individuals on his list.

Well now Sam Harris, one of the alleged “awful” atheists on the list, has responded not just to this piece but to much of the recent criticism he’s received as well as the larger problem of internet critics with the ability to potentially smear a person’s name forever with the total freedom to make any accusation they wish. Now I don’t agree with Harris on everything. For instance, I do take issue with his current positions on torture and profiling. However, I also recognize that his position is far more nuanced than Murphy’s article and many of Harris’ critics let on. And I think to some degree Harris is willing to engage in civil discourse on these subjects. But I also think simply writing Harris off as a monster or a racist or a fascist or whatever does a great disservice to the conversation and to the rationalist goal of building a society on reason and intellectual discourse. But that being said, I’m not so sure Harris would easily change his mind when confronted with compelling evidence against his position. If he would, I surmise he’d have changed his position already given the currently available facts of the matter.

Harris also calls out PZ Myers for allegedly contributing to gross misrepresentations of Harris’ positions. And in these criticisms, Harris doesn’t pull his punches. Nor did Myers when responding to Harris’ condemnation. And it’s in these sorts of back-and-forths that I’m sadly reminded of the Joker’s line from the film, The Dark Knight about what happens when an unstoppable force collides with an unmoveable object. I suspect neither side of this rivalry will back down any time soon.

And that brings me to the thesis of this piece here. Shouldn’t we expect more from so-called skeptics and rationalists?

It’s unfortunate that supposedly rational atheists are utterly incapable of engaging in civil discourse when faced with disagreements and instead ultimately always choose the least rational approach of treating all disagreements as giant pissing contests where it’s far more preferable to vilify the other and score points before one’s fans than be seen trying to actually understand where the other party is coming from and find common ground. Rationalists should welcome civil disagreement, not attack it as if it were the enemy.

And skeptical audiences should cheer the moments when our peers admit being proven wrong, not the moments of grand-standing and bloviation. Until that starts to happen, this movement is at best failing in its mission and at worst a fraud.

George Sanayana once said that fanatics are those who redouble their efforts while forgetting their aims. Have the most prominent figures in our movement done just that? And if they have, where do we go from here?


News From Around The Blogosphere 8.31.11

September 1, 2011

The pale blue dot--that's home. That's us.

1. Earth:  home to 8.7 million species – At least that’s the latest estimate. Two of each of them fit on Noah’s Ark. And if you believe that one, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.

2. Sam Harris corrects David Eagleman about atheism – I was unfamiliar with the term, “possibilianism,” but I certainly recognize the position. Eagleman thinks he’s found a position in between atheism and theism; he’s wrong. As Sam Harris says, what he describes is by any other name…atheism.

3. Bill Nye teaches climate science to Fox Business’ Charles Payne   – Bill demonstrates in this clip what a superb science communicator he is. He manages to hold court and deliver a fairly lengthy speech without even once being interrupted by a Fox pundit. It’s remarkable! Even better, when Payne tries to move the dialogue away from the science towards a personal attack on Al Gore, Bill brilliantly takes a moment to first repeat his key message, that global warming is an indisputable fact,  before giving a perfect political response that manages to neither “defend” Gore, who denialists like to pretend personally invented the “myth of global warming” nor falling into the trap of saying something that might be later taken out of context to portray Gore as some wacky alarmist. It’s a perfect performance and a solid win for science communication. That’s why we call him “The Science Guy.”

4. An atheist billboard rejected in Nashville – So what was so shocking that it was too hot for Nashville?

“You don’t need God — to hope, to care, to love, to live.”

How dare those mean, ol’ nasty Gnu Atheists!

Enhanced by Zemanta

News From Around The Blogosphere 4.26.11

April 27, 2011

1. God is dead – Okay, not really because there is not such entity. But Sri Satya Sai Baba, a man who millions worship like a god because he fools them into believing he can perform miracles with simple parlor tricks is dead. I must say that if not for Sam Harris, I might not have even been familiar with this shamless con artist. Good fuckin’ riddance. Couldn’t have happened to a more deserving individual.

2. Scientists anoint new fly queen – If your as sick of hearing about that bloody royal wedding in limey-land as I am, you’ll probably enjoy this news item:

Masaki Kamakura, a biotechnology researcher in Japan, has identified the protein in royal jelly that turns female worker bees into queen bees, which are larger in size, more fertile, and live longer. So, like anyone else would do upon making this discovery, he tried to turn a regular fly into a queen fly. And it totally worked. It’s a huge discovery in the study of insects:

I guess that makes it the lord of the flies. Now if only we can figure out how to turn Anne Hathoway into the Queen of England. Don’t just sit there. Get on it, scientists!

3.  Measles outbreak linked to one unvaccinated person

Nine cases in the state have been linked to exposure to one unvaccinated person who contracted the disease in Poland, according to the Salt Lake Valley health department. Epidemiologists have determined that the person exposed as many as 1,000 people this month.

Measles are so contagious that if one person has it, 90 percent of those near that individual will become infected if they are not immune.

There’s also  a major measles outbreak in Europe:

The World Health Organization said Thursday that France had 4,937 reported cases of measles between January and March – compared with 5,090 cases during all of 2010. In all, more than 6,500 cases have been reported in 33 European nations.

Another wonderful vision of a what the world will look like if ruled by anti-vaccine nuts.

4. “New” Atheist open letter strikes a nerve – The other day, Dr. Jerry Coyne wrote an open letter to the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) and British Centre for Science Education (BCSE), criticizing them for going out of their way to criticize more confrontational atheists. This led a number of such prominent atheists to responding in favor of Coyne’s position such as PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins. And now Roger Stanyard of the BCSE is firing back with a complete straw man position that just demonstrate how irrational the critics of confrontational atheists are when it comes to this one issue. His claim is that we want these organizations to embrace atheism when I don’t know anyone making that claim. I, like Myers and Dawkins, just want to see these organizations to leave religion out of the discussion entirely and remain entirely neutral on the subject. That’s all.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Moral relativism from an atheist?

January 13, 2011

I’m usually a big fan of many of the popular YouTube atheists but I was rather shocked when one of my favorites, BionicDance, put out two consecutive videos promoting moral relativism. Because they’re very similar in content, I’ll only embed one of them while just linking to the other here.

Now many have taken issue with some of the ideas Sam Harris presents in his latest book The Moral Landscape, and certainly I think some criticisms are more legitimate than others. But to argue that Harris is wrong in favor of some moral relativism is, as Harris would say, untenable.

I’ve written a lot about morality in the past here and elsewhere and don’t want to take much time right now delving into the multitudes of arguments I could present, so I’ll just keep this brief for now.

We really need to stop using the Christian definition of “objective” which is in fact wrong. Objectivity only means lacking in bias. That’s it. We make objective decisions all the time. To suggest murder is only wrong subjectively or only as a matter of opinion is simply absurd. We have rational, objective & secular reasons to not permit murder that has nothing to do w/ personal bias. and the “is/ought” problem is itself a kind of faith that seems to get parroted in order to close the door to further scientific inquiry.

Now BionicDance responded to this criticism by writing:

“We have rational, objective & secular reasons to not permit murder that has nothing to do w/ personal bias.”No, we really don’t.

Rational? Yes. Secular? Yes. Objective? Hell, no. It’s 100% personal bias.

And to this I responded by saying it’s not. This is how evangelicals distort the meaning of objective & subjective. It doesn’t require the outside agency of a deity or “the universe”. Morality is both objective & subjective. You’re right that it only matters “to us” but to claim that makes all morality relative is absurd. The existence of an other w/ the goal of killing humanity doesn’t negate objective morality within human society. Why is human society not an acceptable arbiter of objective morals within humanity?

I also added that if she at least agrees our reasons for not arbitrarily raping & murdering is rational, then under moral relativism, what makes it rational? It seems that under moral relativism, the most rational option would be to strictly look out for one’s own self-interest & ONLY aid others likely to be in the position to reciprocate. Under that system, nothing could be more irrational than giving humanitarian aid to third world countries who won’t be in the position to reciprocate in my lifetime.

To which BionicDance responded thusly:

Even the outside agency of a deity wouldn’t make something objective because it would be the deity’s subjective morality imposed upon us from without. To be objective, something ABSOLUTELY CANNOT BE THE PRODUCT OF A MIND.There is not, cannot be, such a thing as “objective morality”; the two terms are mutually exclusive as morality is 100% perspective based.

Now the first part, I completely agree with and frequently argue with Christians myself. The existence of an outside agency like a deity does not make something objective but merely that deity’s presumably subjective opinion. I only say presumably subjective because said deity might have objective reasons but simply under the hypothetical scenario of a moral system that’s strictly asserted by an authority, that alone is insufficient to grant that authority’s morality by fiat objective.

However, after that first part, she loses me again. My response to her is this. Again, I contest that definition of the word “objective,” as does every reputable English dictionary. The word “objective” objectively does not mean “cannot be the product of a mind” nor is that meaning part of any common usage. If you want to invent another word for that, that’s fine, but the word “objective” does not mean that. And again, I ask what makes helping those in no position to reciprocate rational under your moral relativity?

Her response:

objective: -adj; not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased (source: Random House Dictionary)If you’;d like to explain to me how ANY mind can be not influenced by feelings, interpretations or prejudice, or can be unbiased, you go right ahead and let me know. People can STRIVE for that, but they’ll never reach it.

Other definitions of objective:-of or pertaining to something that can be known, or to something that is an object or a part of an object; existing independent of thought or an observer as part of reality.

– being the object of perception or thought; belonging to the object of thought rather than to the thinking subject

– intent upon or dealing with things external to the mind rather than with thoughts or feelings

…all from Random House Dictionary. Still don’t believe me, pal?

To which I responded, you’re helping your case. None of those definitions fits yours. Rather some of them come closer to what you define as subjective. You’re taking “not influenced by feelings” way more literately than intended. It doesn’t mean the one making the decision is 100% devoid of feelings of any kind, only that the decision is for all intents & purposes rationally-based rather than overly based on biases. You’re creating a false dichotomy. It’s not 0% vs. 100%.

That’s all I have right now. I’m more than happy to have a larger discussion on this topic.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Sam Harris & Michael Shermer crush Deepak Chopra & Jean Houston on Nightline

March 23, 2010

Although PZ Myers thinks watching the latest Nightline debate is a waste of time, I highly recommend it, particularly because Sam Harris in particular simply demolishes Deepak Chopra and the other woman. Actually, aside from a few needlessly drawn out stories that go nowhere, Jean Houston was almost nonexistent in this debate and I almost even liked her.

The real debate though was between Sam Harris and Michael Shermer against Deepak Chopra, who couldn’t have made more of a fool of himself. Even a guy in the audience during the Q & A session exposed Chopra’s ignorance.

The common theme in the debate seemed to be exposing Deepak as hack who incorrectly co-opts terminology from both science and religion in order to formulate his own brand of meaningless New Age gibberish. The debate was about whether or not the god concept has a future and Deepak refused to actually address the very topic he was invited to discuss, ignoring the god concept that 99.999999% of the world means when they talk about god in order to promote his own “god” in name only that has no resemblance to what almost everyone on the planet would consider “god.” So then why did you agree to the debate in the first place, Deepak?

This is like if I were invited to debate free will versus determinism and instead demanded that we discuss homeopathy, which I renamed “determinism.”

Deepak was also frequently corrected on his constant misuse of quantum physics as a justification for his incoherent magical claims.

Anyway, it’s a fun debate to watch, so check it out. Here’s the first part:

Oh, and check out Shermer’s post-debate debate with Chopra here. No, I didn’t accidentally type “debate” twice. Chopra and Shermer have continued debating a particularly idiotic claim Chopra made on their blogs.


Chris Mooney responds to Sam Harris and digs himself even deeper

September 16, 2009

I’ve written a lot about my disagreements with the accomodationist view that’s apparently advocated by in Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s (M&K) latest book  (here, here, here, here, here, and here). I finally thought I was done talking about M&K’s much criticized book but every time I think I’m out, they pull me back in.

This time it’s Mooney’s response to Sam Harris’ criticisms during his criticisms of Francis Collins. Now I still haven’t read the book at the heart of the controversy and I’m not really planning on it. So I’m not critiquing their book, only their blog response to Harris, which I have read.

Mainly, I wish to focus on this paragraph here in Mooney’s response:

“The point is not to watch what you say, but to understand the context in which you are trying to communicate—and to recognize that most Americans are not going to be dragged all the way from fundamentalism to atheism thanks to the force of reasoned arguments. No matter how much we may wish it, it just isn’t going to happen. Giving them some more moderate stopping off points along the way is the only common sense approach if you want to change minds, or change the culture.”

Here I think Chris is giving away his hand. Harris is right. This is about M&K just trying to get converts who will say they accept evolution. Chris is himself an atheist, and I surmise that if asked about it, he’d say he has good reason for his atheistic position. But his argument condescendingly says that while you and I might be able to understand the full atheistic ramifications of science, some people aren’t as smart as us, so we need to feed them science-lite first to ween them off religion slowly to a less true middle ground. Then once they reach science OT Level III, we can tell them the full truth about Xenu–err, I mean we can eventually get them to embrace full science a lot easier once we’ve gotten them to this bogus middle ground position we originally told them was correct.

It’s just a strategy, a deceptive tactic for manipulating people in order to convert them to our way of thinking. But that’s not what scientific-minded people should do; that’s what the cranks do. We’re better than that. We should be teaching people critical thinking and have enough confidence in our scientific conclusions to expect critical thinkers to embrace it on their own. Even if we assumed that M&K’s tactic was more effective at getting more evolution converts than just being honest with people by admitting the atheistic implications of science, I’d still prefer honesty to Chris’ “giving them some more moderate stopping off points along the way.”


Ken Miller gets it wrong on Francis Collins criticism

July 29, 2009

The other day, I blogged about Sam Harris’ criticism in the New York Times of Francis Collins new appointment as director of the National Institutes of Health as well as Jerry Coyne’s criticisms of Collins. Well now Ken Miller has written a response, where he essentially accuses those opposed to Collins’ appointment of discriminating against Christians:

Dr. Collins’s sin, despite credentials Mr. Harris calls “impeccable,” is that he is a Christian. Mr. Harris is not alone in holding this view. A leading science blogger, also attacking Dr. Collins, demonstrated his own commitment to reasoned dialogue by calling the scientist a “clown” and a “flaming idjit.” When reason has such defenders, Heaven help us.

The blogger he’s referring to is PZ Myers. But as PZ Myers points out in his response to Miller, the mere fact that Collins is a Christian is not the issue:

No, that first sentence is completely false. The head of the NIH can be a Christian, a Jew, a Moslem, even an atheist, and it won’t disturb us in the slightest. Here’s a list of past directors of the NIH; can you identify their faith, their hobbies, their sexual orientation, their favorite kind of music? Do you care? The fact that Collins is a Christian is not a problem at all — we are not interested in narrowing the search pool for science administration to the extent that we exclude the majority of people in this country.

What is disturbing is that Collins is a fervent evangelical believer who inserts his superstition where it doesn’t belong, in the execution of his job. James Wyngaarden and Bernadine Healy and Harold Varmus did not do that. I cannot trust him not to Christianize his responsibilities — from reading his book, it is clear that he actually feels a moral obligation to add religious instruction to everything he does. That should bother everyone.

If Collins could just leave his religion at home, he would not be so criticized. But he won’t do that. Instead, he is using his position and his scientific credentials to promote Christianity. And that is unacceptable.