Friday, December 11, 2009

The Ghost of Dummies Past- The Fallacy of Skepticism

          Let me get this out of the way first- there’s no such thing as a “skeptic community”, so stop using the term.  What constitutes a skeptic? And skeptical in who’s estimation? The people who identify wit the delusion of a skeptical community seem to forget that everybody is skeptical about something, and even the most skeptical person can’t be skeptical about everything. So how skeptical do you need to be to call yourself a member of the “skeptic community”? And more importantly, what do you have to be skeptical about? It’s important to remember that there is a flipside to every argument- ghost hunters are skeptical about scientific explanations of their spooky phenomenon. Conspiracy theorists are skeptical about government undertakings. Creationists are skeptical about evolution- that doesn’t mean they’d blend well at the next Skeptic Society mixer.
(I’ve had this argument before and the counterargument is that ‘skeptic’ as used by the people who consider themselves members of the ‘skeptic community’ may be taken to mean ‘critical thinker’. Which begs the question “why not simply call yourself a “critical thinking community?”)
          It would be great if all the skeptics in the skeptic community were critical thinkers, but apparently there are major caveats about what skeptics are skeptical about. Skeptics can be skeptical about ghosts but not quarks. They can be skeptical of new aged medicine, but not anthropogenic global warming.
(I happen to believe in quarks, not ghosts, and AGW, not New Age Medicine, but that’s beside the point.)
          My point is that few of these “skeptics” can articulate why they believe in the things they do. Viewing the comments on the entry called “The Climategate Fiasco”  there seems to be a general agreement that these “skeptics” believe in Anthropogenic Global Warming, but very little indication as to why. Many people freely admit that they “don’t understand the data”, yet nonetheless they uncritically defend the author of the post and the scientists whose emails were published.
          If you don’t understand the data how can you possibly know whether or not you agree with it?
This comment from a reader called Kostas sums it up great when he says (capitalization and spacing errors theirs) - “That said i believe AGW is a reality just because credible people whose judgment i trust (that would be you) seem to think so.Not to mention that if the right opposes it its probably true (thats being said only half jokingly)”
(Wow… well that just  answers all my questions! I just need to figure out who’s credible and believe what they tell me! And here I was doing all this thinking for nothing! )
          The phenomenon extends well beyond a single post. For every post there seems to be general accolades and agreement for the poster, but only vague hints as to why the audience agrees. In most cases it amounts to a simple restatement of what the poster just said.
          Another great example of this is the recent post “Young Earth Creationism = Darwinism?”. The author was essentially discussing the macroevolution/microevolution debate (if you don’t know what that is then google it)- but everyone who read it and commented seemed to be completely unaware that these arguments were old hat.
          I don’t think it’s necessarily bad to applaud science, even if you lack the capacity to understand it, but if you’re applauding something you don’t understand and calling yourself a  “skeptic” while you do then I’d have to say you’re deluding yourself.
          Believing in something because someone else told you it’s true is not skeptical. They have a word for that, it’s called faith. Many of the skeptic’s have faith that what the other skeptics are telling them, but they don’t know and have no ability to find out.
(This is, ironically the very same attitude that religious supporters are frequently chastised for- them being members of the “non-skeptical community” in the eyes of the skeptic camp.)
          It’s more than that though. A necessary component for critical thinking is to separate a claim from what evidence can be demonstrated and proven to be real. While it doesn’t necessarily have to be scientific proof, a critical thinker should dissemble an idea and see if it makes sense in context. Ideas that don’t, are left on the cutting room floor.
          But I am skeptical about how well they keep to this ideology.
          Daniel Loxton’s Twitter is an excellent source for tidbits:
“Skeptics don't like being together, vilified, called names and dismissed- so (this ain’t rocket science) we shouldn’t do that either.”
You know what else isn’t rocket science? Realizing that, in spite of the fact that Loxton just pointed out that Skeptics don’t like to be lumped together, her lumped them together by calling them skeptics and ascribing a set of preferences.
That isn’t really important- the real problem is that ignores one crucial fact- almost no one likes being called names or vilified. But it also assumes that there are no valid names to be called and no one who deserves to vilified.
He explains that later though:
“It’s off-putting to hear your cherished beliefs mocked, of course, but more than that:  most pseudoscientific beliefs are wrong- NOT stupid.”
While being wrong doesn’t always mean being stupid (to err is human), but sometimes it does. If pseudoscientific aren’t stupid then what is stupid?
Nothing? If ’stupid’, as a word, described nothing, then it wouldn’t be in common use- but it. So surely something must be stupid.
Moreover, stupid is in the eye of the beholder.  Deciding whether something is or isn’t stupid is not a decree handed down from on high- it’s an individual value judgment.
Then there is a whole list of things that skeptics should do or explanations about what skepticism is about- never fully acknowledging that he is only describing what skepticism is for him, and that there are no experts on what a “skeptic” does or doesn’t believe.
Finally, there are statements that tell us skeptics shouldn’t use slang or pejoratives to describe opposing forces, though the exact reason why is not clear. The statement implies that no insults are ever true (if they were then why would we abstain from using them?). No one is ever stupid (even if they are), or obtuse (even when they’re obtuse), or dim-witted, or insipid… even when they are.
It seems like a blatant and deliberate effort to overrule reality in order to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings.
Loxton even mentions how Shermer was dubbed an “accomodationist” and Loxton calls it “probably the lamest thing ever to happen to atheist activism” … since the invention of the term atheist activism, that is. There seems to be an arbitrary standard for what types of euphemisms are permissible.
By all means, look for yourself.
          In fairness, Loxton is not the only one guilty of doing this. It is becoming an increasingly popular attitude espoused within the “community”. and it only calls into question the assertion that skeptics care about finding the truth. 
          I made this entry The Ghost of Dummies past for a reason- we’ve all heard this before. There is another kind of social group that tends to believe what it’s leader say uncritically, make broad moral prescriptions about what it’s members should and should not do, and then makes blanket value judgments based on absolutely nothing- it’s called religion.


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