One of the things that makes me heartsick is watching a fight between activists who focus on similar (but not the same) causes. It’s a waste of time, a waste of energy, and usually is caused by one of them forcefully asserting their position (and the distinctions between it and related but dissimilar positions) and the other activist taking it as a personal attack. For example, look at this post by PZ Myers from Tuesday, called “Skeptics have the amazing superpower of being simultaneously fierce and timid” (all emphasis mine):
I like Jamy Ian Swiss, and he’s definitely a passionate speaker. I heard all kinds of raves about his talk at TAM 2012, so I was looking forward to hearing it myself, and now here it is:
Boy, was I disappointed. Well, I have mixed feelings: about 2/3 of it is excellent. I agree with him entirely that the methods of critical thinking and skepticism are essential, that beliefs in the paranormal and pseudoscience are dangerous and do great harm, I value the input of magicians and experts in spotting foolishness, and I can sort of agree with his emphasis on the ‘consumer protection’ role of skepticism (it’s an odd way to look at it for me, but OK, fine for others). He’s a good and ferocious skeptic — his story about a woman at a faith healing who was deeply worried about a lump in her breast, and who announced that she wouldn’t be going back to the doctor since Jesus had healed her, is an excellent example of why skepticism is important.
But the first half of this talk is scattered with sniping at atheists, and smug back-patting about how superior skeptics are to atheists. I would have been turning purple in my seat if I’d been there; he invites people to join him for a drink at the end, and I would have been there to chew his ear over the blinkered stupidity of these bits.
There’s a part at the 6 minute mark where he’s complaining that they’re getting distracted by the growth of the New Atheist movement, and then he pretends (despite being an atheist himself) that the problem is that atheists have a conclusion, that god doesn’t exist, while skepticism is only about a procedure. Then he goes on about how atheism does not give sufficient attention to how we arrive at our conclusions.
This is simply not true. Of course we do. Like I said, it’s mischaracterization: he’s trying to set the atheists apart as not truly skeptical. When you listen to that section, try substituting “UFOlogists” for “atheists”: would Jamy Ian Swiss single out any other subject for skeptical inquiry and announce that because they’ve made a strong and consistent case, for the nonexistence of little green men from Mars, that they therefore deserve setting apart from all other topics and that their subject of interest is a distraction?
I mean damn. Sounds awful, right? In the comments, Matt Dillahunty gives qualified agreement (again, all emphasis mine):
I actually agree with the overwhelming majority of what Jamy says here. Additionally, having sat at the same late-night table with him as he relentless – and beautifully – ripped religion to shreds in front of two young, religious, magicians, I can easily vouch for the fact that he’s an atheist with an attitude and has no problem going after religion.
My problem is that I have a hard time figuring out exactly what Jamy’s objection is – or what his argument is.
He notes that it’s a philosophical kluge to draw the line at testable claims (skepticism CAN address untestable claims – by noting that, as they’re untestable, you can’t have sufficient evidence to justify belief).
In the end, I agreed with him on most points, and I think he walked a fine line on some of the points of contention…but it’s just a shame that there’s any line to be walked. It should be simple:
Not every atheist is a skeptic or a good skeptic.
Not every skeptic is a good skeptic or an atheist.
As skeptics, the goal is to believe things for good reasons and to reject those claims that do not withstand critical examination.
As skeptics, we should be challenging EVERY claim – including and especially religion.
He talked about a conversation with a woman over “The Secret” and he said that this book was toxic pseudo-science, cover to cover, filled with ancient ideas that are wrong or bad.
I agree. So is the Bible. So is the Koran. So are the holy books of many religions.
I already know that Jamy knows this, I’ve heard him talk about it. And so, I’m left a little puzzled by this talk.
I can’t be as hard on it as Myers was, but I also think that Myers’s comments about this, were mostly on target.
Now think about those things I bolded in the text above. This was a talk by Swiss, a Skeptical activist, about what Skepticism is and why he feels it’s an important enough approach for him to focus on, while quite explicitly accepting that other activists need to focus on what they focus on, and saying that there should be understanding between the different activists about what their focus is so they can with the overall fight against stupid and crazy (my words). In his talk, he did talk about Atheists who were into sketchy things, and did get a laugh line at Dawkins’ expense when he related the story of an Atheist who asked “what’s your sign,” but did not attack Atheist activists or activism as a class. Most importantly, where Myers and Dillahunty heard him talking about Atheists and Atheism, he was talking about Skeptics and Skeptical activism, only referring to Atheism by way of contrast, as an overlapping but not identical movement.
I’m just baffled at how Myers and Dillahunty can hear a talk that was not about their focus and in their minds make it about their focus. The point was not to push Skeptics away from Atheism and Atheist activism, it was to outline the ways in which Atheism, Skepticism, and Humanism are different. Really there’s too much to address here at this hour, so I’ll make a few points about what I excerpted above, and then close.
Skeptics (in his interpretation of the movement) focus on truth claims which can be debunked, and the New Atheist movement focuses on (from what I can tell) supporting others who lack a belief in deities and advocating for secularism/separation of church & state. These are not the same things. They overlap, but are not the same. Swiss called them “overlapping and non-competing magisteria” as sort of an ironic riff on Gould, which made me twitch, but I think I understand the point he’s trying to make.
Seriously, I wish Swiss had chosen the word “falsifiable,” because that is the test in science, and that would have avoided a lot of problems with language and misinterpretation. When Dillahunty says that Skepticism does have something to say about Atheism, what Dillahunty is revealing is that he’s not taking Skepticism as far as Swiss is. In my understanding of Skepticism, you may get a grudging acceptance that something is true under the conditions and at the time and place you tested it in, to the extent that you designed, implemented, and documented the process of dilligent testing. Only when the data become overwhelming is something going to be accepted as true, and even then one negative result can ruin your whole day, opening your initial claim to investigation all over again to determine how it was flawed.
In Dillahunty’s claim (that Skepticism has something to say about Theism because there is no evidence to support Theism, therefore there is no reason to believe), there is a fundamental piece missing: there is nothing to examine skeptically, and nothing to test. Now if you want to talk about The Flood, Creationism, or the Shroud of Turin, Skepticism is the way to go. If you want to talk about literary accounts of specific deities and comparing them to historical records or the laws of Physics, the same thing goes. When you’re talking about belief or non-belief in something that you cannot distinguish from an identical thing save that it lacks the property of existence, there is nothing falsifiable to grab on to, and the Skeptic has nothing to do (but claim that this thing can cure your cancer and a Skeptic will be on your ass).
PZ, if you ever read this, at the very least I suggest that you watch the video from 17:00 to 21:00 again. Write down what he says verbatim, then compare it to how you describe it in your blog post. The two documents will appear totally unrelated (this is left as an exercise for the reader). I don’t take transcripts of videos as often as I used to, but it is a good thing to do from time to time because it teaches you not just to hear, but to listen as well. The only problem with it is that the ability decays when not practiced and attended to, or in moments of anger or preoccupation (occupational hazard of being human). Maybe you do this regularly, but that ability failed you here.
While some of the commenters had a field day about the conflict between bloggers and JREF centering around the harassment policy debate, and whether the perceived hostility toward New Atheism (that I didn’t see) was partially motivated by it, I’d like to point something else out that I think may have actually been connected to that conflict that Myers completely skipped over: Swiss said quite plainly that Skepticism is not an ideological or political movement, and therefore can embrace all sorts of viewpoints (I disagree in some ways, because certain ideologies value the re-writing of history and fact, but I digress). He specifically noted that JREF was headed by two gay men, but was explicitly not a gay rights organization, except where that cause intersected the desmene of Skepticism.
In the bolded text in the citations above, there seems to be a common implicit assumption: that Atheism and Secularism versus Theism and religion are the primary struggles that needs to be addressed, or are the primary subjects of discussion in this set of communities. In Swiss’ talk, he contends that sloppy thinking and poor standards of evidence versus education, understanding how people are deceived, rigorous examination are the primary focus of concern for Skepticism. In other words, Myers and Dillahunty were criticizing the talk from a point of view that wasn’t being made, that I can tell. Nor did they support the idea that religion is a more important focus than basic skepticism, when it could also be argued that religion is just another institutionalized expression of the fuzzy-headed thinking that Skepticism fights against. In a world with no privileged frames of reference, I don’t see the point in telling other people that their priorities are wrong, or assuming that ours are necessarily correct, when what they do supports what I do.
Skepticism has a lot to say about the pointlessness of faith healing, the bogus “research” stating that same-sex couples make worse parents than opposite-sex couples, and the claims that abortion increases the risks of suicide and breast cancer. Skepticism does not have much to say on the moral quandry faced by a doctor treating an individual who refuses medical treatment beyond pallative care in favor of prayer, the question of marriage equality, or at what point a zygote has fully transitioned into a human being with legal rights. Each of us is going to have different priorities in these areas, for whatever reason, and that’s a necessary thing because of the limited perspective (and time) we have to work with. Swiss stated very clearly what his territory was as an activist and that he would actively fight to resist attempts to tell him he needed to focus on something different. I can respect that.