Category Archives: Science and Skepticism
Science, Skepticism, Rationality.
I have decided that it is time to leave the skeptics. I have poured myself out trying to give the benefit of that doubt, and hoping to someday have trust and understanding with the core members of this group, seemingly to find myself toiling alone on a fool’s errand.
When I first joined I was at a new phase in my life. I had just found the courage to escape an abusive marriage, and took it as the impetus to reevaluate many unbalanced and unhealthy dynamics in other relationships. I was shedding the shackles of religion and was also prompted through new friendships and relationships to tackle many unchallenged beliefs, both inside and outside the realm of science. I found it difficult yet rewarding, and continue to do so. My hunger for continued change lead me to this group: The Winnipeg Skeptics.
I was very excited to get involved and eager to build relationships with these new people who were not afraid to question their beliefs or discuss ideas. I am sure this still happens and to some extent will continue to. I have no delusions that groups or even individuals are either all good or all bad. I am not broad-brushing every person, but for me overall, the bad unfortunately has come to outweigh the good.
It’s all fine and good to advocate for scientific literacy, and critical thought on scientific matters. Not that that there aren’t any concerns on that front, but that is not really what brings me here. I am here to say that when it comes to operating as a community it fails at being what it declares itself to be. It is not progressive. It is not inclusive. It is, in short, not welcoming; at least not in the way it would have to be to even begin to reach the goals it claims to care about: being a movement that aims to win over a culture rife with irrationality and ignorance.
You cannot win over the world with science alone. Before you get to the science, they people need education. To get that they need schools, physical safety, food security, healthy psychology (good home life), adequate income and many other things. You want to change the world towards scientific enlightenment? This is where you start. Get rid of desperation and hopelessness, and you’ll have granted some immunity to the siren call of delusion and woo.
Certainly a skeptical community can’t tackle every social issue themselves, but at the very least it needs to be aware of the reality behind them or you risk being complicit in their harm. You cannot simply opt out of reality no matter how unfair or uncomfortable. A skeptical community needs to be accepting, welcoming and open to understanding the experience of others. It should be obvious that to win a culture means being aware of culture, including your own. If these are indeed your goals then you’ve carved yourself one big damn piece of pie to chew on. If they’re not your goals, then all you have is a lot of self-serving, disingenuous hot air.
So what do I see instead? I see a community of people where the most active members with few exceptions are not interested in these things. I see a number of people who regardless of their conscious intentions and intuitions about themselves are, in practice, are working to make a group that is safe and comfortable… for themselves. Damn anyone else.
Over and over I see arguments where members take disingenuous stances against those who voice real concerns in order to gas-light and discredit them, only to flip-flop 5 minutes later on that same issue when someone from their in-group expresses that same sentiment or argument. This is just one recent example. I’ve seen this and various other tactics made in the effort to discredit, dismiss, and shut down discussion. Points are not addressed. Efforts are not made to understand or engage. Rationality is appealed to as a concept rather than practiced: like a holy text to beat people over the head with like a cudgel. Is see people fighting, not to whittle out the truth, but to win at all costs. Not dialectic, but debate. I don’t see scientists. I see lawyers.
Rather than a community. I see a mob. Drop one of the trigger words like ‘homeopathy’ or ‘privilege’ and watch the dog-pile. Too many views are merely borrowed from the giants on whose shoulders you stand. You pass them around with congratulations and pats on the back for being masters of the universe as though you came up with them yourselves. Looking at your actions, I would have to conclude that you do not really want to change the world, only to carve yourself out a little piece of it, and sit in your huddle with your pointed sticks and fearful hearts. If someone has something to say that gives you pause that maybe you’ve done something hurtful, you react like they are trying to steal your home, your clothes, your food, and your life. It’s a fight to the death. You can always win your battles on your home turf and always make the rules.
Social privilege? Body-positivity? Class division? SENTIMENTALISM! SKEPTICISM FAIL!!!!!!1!11!eleventy! Skepticism done this way is just another warm blanket in the cold dark of the universe, like any other over whom you would claim enlightenment. In the end its your own war that you’ll lose, not that of the people you drive away. Unless of course your goal really is to create your own elite.
Time and time again I have tried to advocate for those you say you want to include. Time and time again you have shown yourselves to be more interested in protecting yourselves from the straw-people who are apparently at your door to dilute you and enfeeble you, and perhaps even destroy you. You don’t see would-be kindred minds who cared enough about truth and honesty to take a stand for it. You seem to only see persecution and the slippery slope of your own destruction. Not everything that brushes past you or goes bump in the night is a monster come to get you. Sometimes there is a reasonable explanation. Sometimes that explanation may require that we give up the illusion that we know ourselves, that we are rational beings.
Until you are ready to shed the warm blanket of rigid worldview and your pointy stick of self preservation, you will never be congruent with your own values. Science is only as good as the questions you can ask of it and if you are clouded by the delusion than your love of rationality makes your intuitions rational, then science can only give you a biased answer to your biased questions. The point is not to deny the existence emotions and biases. The point is to recognize and counteract them. You cannot shed yourself of these shortcomings like having your tonsils removed. You can only be ready to make up for them when they present themselves and be diligent in working against them to the best of your ability for the rest of your life. That’s life.
I remember saying in the documentary “The Non-Believer’s Beliefs” that you can take rationality and with the right inputs, boil it down and come out with love. I’ve also recently borrowed a quote in my a recent blog post shared on TWS Blog:
Empathy is about seeing things from another person’s perspective, not imagining yourself in somebody else’s situation. The former is the first step to understanding others; the latter is a kind of naive narcissism that does more harm than good.
Unfortunately, the reality is that a few loud voices within The Winnipeg Skeptics’ seem to fall into the latter category. You imagine yourself within a trite reconstruction of what you think is someone else’s experience, only digging deep enough to discredit and disarm. You don’t investigate where your ideas and feelings come from. At worst you cut down straw-persons, disingenuous positions, ad hominem attacks, backtracking and sliding goalposts, right from your first breath. Everything you supposedly despise in others. At best, you take your intuitions and work backwards building a trail of pseudo-logics, and then tell yourself you’ve done it with RationalityTM, because you’re a Real SkepticTM, not one of those sentimental trolls.
Every bit of progress in social justice and every bit of social enlightenment you currently enjoy from was won by people who grasped this concept and poured their lives out in its pursuit. Any progressive views you have (except those that serve your group or score points against your enemies) have been tacked on after they’ve gained great momentum elsewhere. It is argued that skepticism and lack of religion leave much room for all kinds of wonderful humanity, but you don’t practice it. Not really. Not enough. Not if you feel that it brings your character into question. Not if it really challenges you.
In your fervor to build the name of Skeptic, you deny your emotions. You deny your own biases and false intuitions. You deny your irrationality. You have done so to try and escape them, but you have only made yourself more captive to them. Instead of rationality I see straw-Vulcans. You pay lip service to these things in a kind of pro-skeptic dogma, but your actions don’t follow.
I am not above reproach, and this isn’t about who’s better. I’m sure there are things I could have done better. I’m sure I’ve picked the wrong battles at times. Perhaps I have misinterpreted a thing or two, but I have not been disingenuous and I’m not a fool. I have made rational cases which have been for the most part, either twisted or ignored, but no more.
But, tell you what. You don’t really need to listen to any of this. I’m sure one of your trusty SSRs will tell you what you want to hear. You can just get together at the next Skeptically Drinking and agree how “I never really was a very good christian… oops I meant skeptic” (see what I did there?). Just repeat those trusty old narratives of the valiant intellectuals (Crusaders?), shoring up the barricades against the unworthy, uneducated, touchy-feely masses (unwashed heathens). Remind yourselves not give anyone a foothold with their wishy-washy sentimentality (evil self-indulgence), or they may just destroy you from within! Remind yourselves how rational (good/holy) you are. Everything will be just fine. It’ll all go back to normal. No more uncomfortable dissent. No more questions to challenge your self-image. No more scary unknowns. Just a nice, warm, comfy blanket.
I came here looking for critical minds. I came here looking for empathetic hearts. I came here looking for self-aware human beings. I found a few, but I also came here looking for a community. I doesn’t seem to be that yet. Not for everyone. Not for me. You have hurt me deeply. Maybe one day it will be different, but until then…
Seeing a link on Gem Newman‘s wall today I was inspired to comment. He did a critique on a piece of sensational media. I hope that my own sensationalized title isn’t too much of a turn-off for the skeptics out there, but I just like having fun with them 😀
I have to say that I pretty much agree with this article’s basic assertion, which to me seems to be that the article upon which they are making commentary is sensational, misleading and playing logical hop-scotch to the distraction of the reader.
Where I divert is where it calls out the three points which I actually agree are being falsely conflated.
1. The business ethics of Monsanto
2. The safety of Agent Orange
3. The safety of GMO crops
Firstly, both 1. and 2. should absolutely be conflated. How can they not be? However, to leave it there without further reflection is also problematic, which I will try to get to.
Now with regards to the third point, there needs to be some clarification. What do we mean by “safety of GMO crops”? Are we talking about the concept of GMO technology striped of it’s economic and political context? If so, then surely their assertion is correct. This has nothing to do with the other two. The technology should stand or fail on it’s own merits.
Now, what about the relative safety of “GMO” fully contextualized as a technological concept who’s development and application are governed as a product of industry (using scientific methods) which is in turn governed the collective realities of current day North American capitalism?
As a side-note, notice how much text is contained in the previous paragraph simply describing a single concept. That’s how packed our language can be. It is how much we often either take-for-granted or utterly ignore, and often without being aware of it.
I still maintain that the original article is broad-brushing and sensationalistic. I also think that this kind of critical response to it is not only acceptable, but necessary. However, I also think this editorial response to it may be overcompensating in it’s criticism. Moreover, I think this kind of polarized reaction is somewhat prevalent with those who come to the defense of “science”. That’s another word who’s breadth of definition is often ambiguous, but that’s another discussion in itself.
In my opinion the most relevant discussion about GMO as an overall concept must include the full context in which it resides, because that fully realized context will by definition affect it’s fully quantifiable results. This is whether or not we have the tools to fully measure it or even a broad enough understanding of what to measure. For example, what effect will changes in food production have on political power balance in the global economy.
Part of the fully qualified context is the particular brand of capitalism in effect in the U.S. and the global economy and political power balance in the world. This is the “natural world” within which Monsanto and other corporations live.
It is a terrible failure of understanding in my view to think that corporations who do very bad things are simply unethical entities that randomly spring out of an otherwise functioning system that does good things for us as a species. This is magical thinking at it’s finest IMHO. My understanding is that corporations act the way they do necessarily according to the nature of the system they exist within.
Just as with evolution, individual entities in nature succeed or fail according to the physical rules of the natural world within which they exist. It is absurd to speculate that when a particular entity has survived or failed, that it has done so DESPITE the nature of that system rather than BECAUSE of it. The rules of that system have operated against the characteristics of that entity and it has either failed or succeeded. Thus, if a corporation has survived in the system within which it exists, it has done so according to the nature of that system. If the nature of those entities is considered not ideal, then necessarily that system or at least some part of it must also be considered not ideal.
Now before I run off on a tangent about capitalism, the take away for this discussion is that surviving and thriving corporations that exist within their legal and economic context, have a certain amount of predictability. The nature of today’s corporation is not merely strict competition, but the LEGAL MANDATE of its controlling body to produce profits. Profits in the greatest possible magnitude and at pretty much at all costs. Their context also includes governmental, legal restrictions.
But like human beings, one of the traits it has acquired is the ability to change the environment within which it exists. For the corporation this includes abilities like lobbying against these restrictions, and to a greater degree in more recent years, infiltration of the regulatory government agencies who manage these restrictions.
So, it’s perfectly valid to call “logical fallacy” when we hear someone say that this thing is necessarily evil because that other thing they did was evil. *BUT* calling out this logical fallacy doesn’t negate the deduction that Monsanto or any other powerfully situated corporation for that matter, are very likely to engage in unethical behaviour. Not simply because we FEEL that they are evil, but because there are specific characteristics which they are likely to have given the context in which they exist and are successful in.
We are at the very least, justified in being suspicious assuming we are using the right reasoning for being so.
Yesterday, I saw the familiar face of one of my favorite atheist icons on Facebook and did what any bored atheist, I.T. guy at work would do. OK besides making him my avatar and flaming all the christians in my friend list with his blog articles and telling them they’re minds are warped by religion. That’s the stereotype isn’t it? Sometimes they fit, but sometimes stereotype do. But that doesn’t mean they’re all true, mostly true, or even true at all. Even if they are, it doesn’t mean they’re useful or appropriate. Really, I just clicked ‘like’…honest!
So the first feed to come from Mr. Harris was a link to a post on his blog. It features neuroscientist David Eagleman, author of “Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain” sharing his thoughts on what I would have to call hard atheism versus devout religiosity. I happened to get busy again so instead of reading the actual post, I just fired up the video and listened to it in the background.
I found that what he was saying resonated with me, especially the following:
“…these are very smart people on both sides that are spending all of their energies polarizing each other, and arguing against each other’s details. I feel like there should be another voice in there somewhere…”
I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the past year, and not heard many others in the skeptic community express this sentiment, and I feel it’s an important one. Without too much thought, I threw the link back onto my wall, recommending it to others.
Today I went back and read Sam’s thoughts which suggested to me that I should listen to it again. It would appear to me that despite making some really excellent points (and he does) he is also using a pretty broad brush in referring to all of neo-atheism as being strict atheism that claims certainty of no god existing. In my experience, most atheists are not in that category. More than that, I’ve always seen it as being like a kind of right-of-passage in a way to understand the fact that we can’t claim that as certain. To claim that is to fail at science after all, but have I missed something? I haven’t actually read the books of the “four horsemen” yet, but this just doesn’t seem very accurate to me.
Then he seems to kind of re-invent the wheel of soft atheism and claim it as his own idea:
“In every generation, scientist have always felt, that we sort of have all the pieces of the puzzle…we should be able to get it all from here. It has never ever been true in the history of human-kind, yet…that we have all the puzzle pieces.”
Aren’t most of us in this community already pretty comfortable with the idea of the vastness of things that we don’t know? Both the things that we know we’re ignorant of, and the probability of things we don’t even realize that we’re ignorant of and can’t even conceive of yet?
I think that most atheists, scientist and skeptics are not in that category. I seem to recall hearing funny stories of centuries past when “scientists” used to believe some pretty silly things. Our understanding of the subjects that science tackles, the advancement in our technologies, and our understanding of how to do science (tool-box as David puts it) have all improved, dare I say exponentially? Yet from every scientific talking head I’ve heard, I get the impression that they have only grown more humble in terms of understanding the minute scope of our collective knowledge of the universe.
I have to heartily agree that there is something being missed in the intense polarization of our atheism vs religion culture war. Yet in the way he chooses to call it out, he’s making it even more black and white than it really is. He seems to be pushing the neo-atheist straw-person to the left to make room for himself.
Where I think David is right is what is implied (by who his audience is) more than what’s stated. I think it is going to have to be the Atheists who eventually take the high road. Not because we’re the bad ones. Not because it’s our fault or definably our responsibility. And I don’t mean that we should stop fighting our legal and political battles to keep religion out of our schools or to be afraid to call out religious logical fallacies or social distortion for what they are.
Instead, like so many things in history that had to be done by someone… we’re the ones who are more capable. Or at any rate, we should be if we can just bring our rationality and humanity together. I think that beyond the rationality embedded in the subject matter of our arguments, we need to have openness to possibilities within our personal philosophy. How we think of and value each other, how we think of and value ourselves, the possibility of our own cognitive biases and emotional ego-blindness…these are some of the things where we need to remain open to other possibilities of understanding. Even beyond this, there are radical notions worth exploring. For example: Spiritual Atheism
Considering the assertions of religion in the name of keeping scientific possibilities open is a fine idea as a premise, but one that has failed over and over again to produce anything to justify itself. However, what’s important is the idea of affirming the value of the human beings who hold them and keeping it with us when we debate. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” was something they touted a lot when I used to be church-goer. This is the principle that needs to be flipped over. Love the religious, hate the religion. Or at least, hate the harmful falsehoods and misguided ideas that they promote. I think that this is maybe what Mr. Eagleman really had in the back of his mind, but was probably just too busy “geeking out” 😉
It’s OK David, just be like science:
Get up and try again.
*cross-posted to The Winnipeg Skeptics blog*