Frequent readers probably know that I’m a huge fan of Dr. Steven Novella, who’s an academic clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine, president of the New England Skeptic Society, blogger, and lead host of the most popular skeptical podcast in the world, The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe. Novella is a major reason I call myself a skeptic today.
I’ve been an outspoken atheist for some time but it’s only been about three years that I’ve even known about the skeptical movement. It was the autumn 2007 that I first discovered James Randi. Randi was being interviewed by an internet atheist radio show I listened to and on their website, they’d linked to some videos of Randi on YouTube. One of those videos was a lecture Randi gave to Yale University years ago. It was the standard Randi lecture but it was the first time I’d seen it. And at the time I was still a bit of a believer in a number of classic paranormal claims but was already sort of realizing that there wasn’t much to them. Randi’s Yale lecture pushed me one small step closer to renouncing my woo woo beliefs.
Around that same time I discovered YouTube videos of Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic Magazine. And I found myself liking a lot of what he had to say. And by the time, later that fall, I caught Shermer debating the evidence for alien visitation on The Larry King Show, I’d already moved to a position where I completely agreed with Shermer that the evidence just wasn’t there. Shermer’s opponents in that debate were Stanton Friedman and Buzz Aldrin, both long-time heroes of mine. It was during that debate though that I realized my hero Stanton Friedman was a complete nut.
The one issue that I did take issue with Shermer on though was that in many of the videos I’d caught of him on YouTube, he rejected the label “atheist” and embraced the label “agnostic.” Then on November 15, 2007 I attended an atheist event where several famous faces were in attendance, one of whom was Michael Shermer. I briefly talked to him about the current Uri Geller television show at the time that also featured skeptical magician Criss Angel. I wanted to ask him about the “atheist” label issue but didn’t get around to it. But when I heard him use the label himself later that night my concerns were alleviated.
As I was leaving that night I saw several fliers for other upcoming events and one of them was a Saturday afternoon lecture hosted by a group calling itself the New York City Skeptics. The speaker was someone I’d never heard of by the name of Steven Novella. It sounded interesting enough and so I attended. And I was so impressed by Dr. Novella’s lecture that when he mentioned that he hosted a podcast, I decided to check it out. And today, it’s my favorite podcast. I also now write for the New York City Skeptic’s official blog, the Gotham Skeptic. But since that lecture, Novella and the other skeptical rogues on the podcast have become my biggest skeptical influences and were the biggest reason I’m part of this movement.
But as Steven Novella reminded me this week, there is at least one issue we do not see eye to eye on, and that’s whether science and religion can coexist peacefully. While he identifies as an “agnostic” and feels science is agnostic toward the untestable claims of religion, I disagree.
The problem I have with this position is that just about every issue skeptics address is unfalsifiable. Maybe our primitive science just can’t detect the water memory of homeopathy and anyone testing the efficacy of homeopathy is sending out negative vibrations that screw up the tests. Maybe vaccines really do cause autism but all the data to the contrary has just been faked by an omnipotent evil conspiratorial force that will stop at nothing to poison us with toxins in the vaccines. Sooner or later, every form of pseudoscience, denialism, and paranormal claims moves its goalpost outside the bounds of falsifiability. And yet we never seem to have this conversation when it comes to homeopathy or ghosts or vaccines. But some skeptics seem to feel they need to apply special pleading to religion because it’s religion.
Few people seriously argue the “hard atheist” position that we know with certainty that no gods exist. The principle argument is that there’s no evidence to believe that one exists and the burden of proof lies with those claiming otherwise. And it’s because the burden of proof is on the believer, that once they introduce an unfalsifiable position, they fail to meet the burden of proof and thus automatically lose the debate. This is true whether we’re talking about homeopathy or religion.
But for all intents and purposes one can reasonably conclude that gods almost certainly don’t exist. It seems that some don’t want to put their nickel down on a position and risk the minute possibility that they could be wrong. But I have no problem being wrong. I’ve been wrong before and I’ll be wrong again. And if one day new evidence is presented that proves a god does exist I’ll gladly admit that I’m wrong. But until then I have not been sufficiently persuaded that I am wrong. Take the Bible. The very first verse of the book is objectively and scientifically wrong by many orders of magnitude. And it only gets worse from there. It’s scary to me that in another universe we might all be having this same insane discussion over whether science can conclusively dismiss The Cat In The Hat.
At a certain point it’s unreasonable to keep a case open. If Judge Ito was an agnostic, the OJ case would still be running because maybe one day new evidence would drop from the sky. No, make a bloody decision, at least provisionally, and move on.
Now to be fair to Steven Novella’s position, he does address the unfalsifiable claims of pseudosciences like homeopathy. However, I don’t happen to find his answer particularly satisfying.
I don’t feel that once the true believer makes it a faith argument that the skeptic just has to take it on the chin and has to concede that they can’t disprove it. There are certain ideas that are simply too idiotic to even entertain in intellectual discourse and that line in the sand is falsifiability.
Unfalsifiable claims about reality have no place in intellectual discourse and are cause an immediate disqualification from the realm of science. The believer hasn’t met their burden of proof so they’re done. Case dismissed. We can proceed to mock them. What you don’t do is keep a case open indefinitely just in case new evidence one day comes to light. It’s about practicality. If a claim can’t be demonstrated or doesn’t say anything useful about our reality, why am I paying lip service to it? It’s utterly useless. It’s garbage. And I have no problem being honest enough to tell the believer this, especially since it’s proven far more persuasive than being coy and overly agreeable. And at least they’ll know that I respect them enough to be honest with them instead of treating them like fragile children. And sure there are skeptics who believe in some god or another. There are skeptics who believe in ghosts too. They’re simply wrong.