Afternoon InquisitionSkepticism

AI: Don’t Talk About That

This topic comes up a lot. It’s the things skeptics shouldn’t talk about topic. The logic that is often used on one side of this argument, if followed to the end would surmise that we shouldn’t even be talking about this topic at all.

Cue crickets chirping.

But nah, screw that. I say we should talk!

To be specific, the topic that often comes up is whether or not skeptics should apply the tools of skepticism, such as logic, rationality, critical thinking and the lessons of science to topics outside the traditional realm of organized skepticism and whether or not organized skepticism should focus it’s energy on these untraditional issues.

In other words:

Should we as skeptics even bother discussing topics like feminism, sexism, racism, health care, world hunger, human rights etc or should we focus our energy only on specific, traditional skeptical issues such as the existence of Bigfoot, the whereabouts of the Loch Ness Monster, the likelihood of alien visitation and the probability of psychic ability? Are we wasting our resources, diluting the skeptic pool or alienating (no pun intended) our audience by addressing issues that were not the focus of the forefathers of skepticism?

Or are we bringing the wisdom and the tools of skepticism to modern day issues and a potential new audience?

*featured art by me.

Tags

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics. She is the fearless leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Follow her on twitter: @SurlyAmy or on Google+. Tip Jar is here.

Related Articles

122 Comments

  1. ABSOLUTELY we should be talking about them! This might sound naive, and maybe I’m putting a bit too much faith in people, but it seems to me that a great deal of things like misogyny, sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, categorism and kyrarchy (sp?) in general, etc. are motivated a great deal by ignorance and by an over reliance upon traditional values, traditional social structures, religion, superstition, ingrained and unquestioned biases, etc. The tools used to combat these issues (education, critical thinking, the right questions asked at the right times, etc.) are the exact same tools that skeptics are the formost champions of.

    I just don’t see much difference between the kind of mentality that gives rise to belief in bigfoot and the kind of mentality that gives rise to the belief that black men are genetically predisposed to violence and criminality. The belief in government UFO coverups and the belief that traditional 1950s gender roles are a “natural” byproduct of our evolution. The belief that all the icky queers will burn in hell and the belief in hell itself. All born from a lack of critical thinking, a lack of the right information, a refusal to properly question the beliefs that were handed down to them…

    Does this make any sense?

    1. Your comments make complete sense. However I am surprised by the need for this discussion topic. I take it the poster lives in the USA? In the UK skeptics have simply taken it as a given for decades that we openly discuss all of the examples cited as, presumably, problematic for skeptics in the USA. Still even in the UK discussion of black on black racism eg African versus Caribbean or Asian on Asian bigotry based on Caste is something otherwise Liberal or Left-wing UK skeptics are in denial of openly debating so yes maybe we all need to be more incisive.

  2. The declaration that a topic is taboo is an acceptance of dogma over reason.

    Every aspect of the human experience* is subject to skeptical evaluation. A topic may not be of interest to a particular person and they can choose not to engage in discourses on it, but to declare it not fit for discussion in a skeptical context is itself anti-intellectual and anti-skeptical.

    *I can’t speak to non-human experience, of course.

  3. If you are not applying skepticism to everything in your life, are you really a skeptic, or are you someone who just happens to agree with skeptics on some issues?
    Furthermore, in order to attract skeptical thinkers who aren’t yet part of the community, we have to be the kinds of people who skeptics want to associate with. Tolerating woo on the subjects of racism, nationalism, and sexism because ‘that’s not what we are about’ makes us unpleasant people.
    Sure we may not focus as much on them (if we don’t want to), but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak out when we see injustice. We are all still human.

  4. I don’t think you’re going to get any traction telling someone else what they should and should not talk about unless they agreed with you beforehand… in which case there wasn’t any point in telling them.

  5. Hi there!

    From the musical 1776: Stephen Hopkins; Rhode Island:

    “Well, in all my years I ain’t never heard, seen, nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about. Hell yeah! I’m for debating anything”.

    Having said (or quoted) that, I am firmly against any kind of skeptical debate on anything that is clearly presented as FICTION. I don’t want to ever get to a place where we’re having a skeptical discussion about how a TARDIS couldn’t have more interior space than exterior, or how Frodo would have been been dead from the heat convection before he got within 50 feet of Mount Doom’s caldera.

    Also? I think there are some areas where skeptics need to be Very Very Careful, especially when talking about issues such as Race. I’ve heard people use skeptical thinking and scientific facts to back up some very racist arguments, and I think that’s a particularly sticky wicket to get into. Again, not so sticky that we’d need to CENSOR ourselves at all, (I’m a Librarian, we don’t truck with censorship too well) but enough for us to exercise a little prudence in discussion.

    — Craig

    1. “Well, in all my years I ain’t never heard, seen, nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about. Hell yeah! I’m for debating anything”.

      One of my favorite quotes from my favorite musical. Well said!

  6. It seems kind of obvious to me that the answer here is a resounding YES.

    What else are the tools of skeptical inquiry for but to improve all aspects of our society?

    Though it’s kind of hilarious that the ads on the site right now are popping up stuff for psychic advice…

    1. I think it would be an obvious yes as well but there are many people who disagree and think organized skepticism should remain focused on only specific topics or else skepticism will become somehow diluted and lose it’s focus.

  7. Absolutely, we need to talk about it, otherwise we’re a sideshow discussing UFOs and bigfoots (bigfeet?). I was wholly uninterested in activist skepticism until I learned more about the dangers of alt med. From there it seems like a short step over to religious opposition to contraceptives and myths about sex ed. I don’t know anyone who was mauled by a bigfoot, but I know lots of people who are affected by government policy around women’s reproductive rights. I care more about bringing up science and rationality where it makes a difference in people’s lives.

  8. Take away “feminism, sexism, racism, health care, world hunger, human rights” and what do you have?

    You can’t discuss the abuses of religion without human rights, you can’t deal with anti-vaxxers or CAM in the US without touching on the medical insecurity brought on by US health care, you can’t battle against creationism and not discuss politics. And so forth and so on.

    Take all that away and you only have issues that do not directly affect the people who are fighting against them. Skeptics aren’t in any danger from Sylvia Browne, homeopathy, aliens, psychics, bigfoot, moon hoaxing, etc. These things do not directly affect their lives. Combating them is intellectual exercise. The only reason for the movement would be to save other people from their own stupidity. Or to challenge the ideas that are widely held but do only localized harm.

    This is hardly a position that will foster empathy. As we’ve clearly seen recently, it creates a false sense of authority in the peanut gallery. Any opinion they state is inherently “less stupid.” Any opinion they oppose is inherently wrong. Google provides an endless supply of confirmation bias, they have no reason to question their own assumptions.

  9. I’m kinda irked that we aren’t talking more about the social ills that effect everyone, because that’s politics, skeptics should talk politics – that’s our marching order.

    To quote spock, to hell with our orders.

    Yes, a lot of skeptics are going to disagree on politics, but we should at least make sure it’s science-based politics. Before we start talking about social ills, maybe we need to look up what the problem really is. I have a friend who wonders why the government isn’t requiring more from those looking for jobs, they are just handing out free money. He found this out from his unemployed friends. So, I looked it up. They do need to supply a list of companies they’ve contacted, and making false statements is a criminal offense. That’s the science in science-based politics. Now, personal ethics will have to carry you the rest of the way.

  10. It seems to me that if we are going to get more people interested in critical thinking/skepticism we really need to address issues that average people care about. Honestly, how many people really truly care if there is a Bigfoot? Sure, it would be interesting to find facts on either side of that type of debate but would it really change the world for better or worse in any meaningful way? Would it change how we view our neighbors or how we feed our families? I look at skepticism as a tool that when combined with the results of the scientific method can be used by the non science crowd in achieving a higher understanding of the way things in nature actually work and a tool in effective rational decision making. I say widen the net.

  11. I think the question being asked isn’t “Should skeptics talk about this?” but rather “Are political issues like gay and women’s reproductive rights that involve value judgments considered part of the skeptical movement/cause?” I don’t think anyone’s saying skeptics shouldn’t talk about these things. I think people are starting to wonder if they want things like feminist causes inserted into the promoting-empiricism causes that form the ideological common ground for most skeptics. It’s an uncomfortable deviation WITHIN the definition of skepticism, not a taboo topic outside it.

    1. hi skepticasm,

      Three comments by you, and not a dud among the bunch! Of course, I have a bias towards anyone who who can see into the empty core at the heart of Myers-Briggs horoscopes — I mean, personality testing.

      But this comment seems to me the most thought-provoking: to what extent does the skeptical community — with its empirical values and goals — want to adopt the political values and goals of ANY external movement.

      It’s not just about “dividing the camp,” either. It seems to me that a lot depends on whether a groups first allegiance is to political ends or empirical ends. Sometimes those goals align, but often they do not.

      Or you could look at the problem from the alternate side of things. To what extent do we want to open up the presuppositions of our political allegiances and goals to a cold critical eye?

      If we try to align skepticism as an endeavor to the central moral and political goals of feminism (or libertarianism, or socialism, or even theism), we will be just as willing to apply the tools of skepticism to the ideas and claims of feminism itself (or libertarianism, socialism, etc.)?

      It’s not that this can’t be done. You can try to align your allegiance to Truth and to Goodness. But sometimes you can’t do both — and one side loses.

      Wow, that got heavy.

  12. I would like to talk about the indifference towards male victims in society. Most feminists seem to fight sexism when it matters to them, but won’t bother binging light to male problems. If one is there to fight for equality, I would expect both genders to be equally represented.

    Like the lack of concern for the issue when recently, 5 female daytime talk hosts, laughed at a man being mutilated by his wife on national television (along with 300 audience members). Most feminist blogs, and the entire media, failed to see this as an issue.

    1. When the majority of men are at risk for having their penis severed I’m sure it will become a hot button topic that will get the attention it deserves. And while I agree that it is inappropriate to laugh at violence directed at anyone, the particular incident you mention is not something that men have to be concerned with on a daily basis (or usually ever). When something happens once or twice it isn’t sexism.

      1. I hate to say it (because I don’t think MFC is particularly serious)… but I think you’re wrong here, and being excessively and unnecessarily dismissive. Are you saying that men’s issues (with society-mandated gender roles, or child custody issues perhaps) don’t deserve a place at the skeptic’s table because they aren’t as serious as women’s issues? I don’t think those issues should dominate the discussion, but there should be a place for them.

        Not to say that THIS needs to be the place for those conversations. And certainly, there’s very often something dismissive and tacky about the men who bring up their issues in the middle of a conversation of women’s issues and try to hijack the discussion or use it as an excuse to lash out in anger at women. But there are valid issues of sexism that negatively affect men (and women too, the same way addressing feminist issues ultimately benefits guys too), and they should be addressed with the same seriousness and properly-applied skepticism as any other issue.

        Again, I’m not saying this website is the place for it, but this post isn’t a bad place to mention it at least in passing.

        1. With regards to your post, I would like to add that this is the place for it. Any website or blog, that deals with feminism, should address both gender issues equally. You cannot be a feminist and only care about women’s issues. You can be a woman’s rights activist though. But being a feminist means being for equal treatment and representation of both genders.

          1. Imagine the outrage if it were a group of male hosts and audience members, laughing at a woman who had her breasts and clitoris chopped off by her psychotic husband. Hell, that’ll teach her not to file for divorce.

            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k1J8wC1AWus&feature=related

            Again, if you are for women’s rights, than by all means, ignore this sexist bullshit.
            But if anyone is to call themselves a feminist, they should be expected to stop shit like this. If one wants true equality, they must not show indifference to events like this simply because it was a male victim.

          2. That video has quite a good point to make without overstating the case with selective editing. Should’ve just shown the video unedited.

  13. We actually need to expand our discussions, not limit them. One area we need to expand is methods of communication.

    For example, people have been using Myers-Briggs (introvert vs extrovert, sensing vs intuition, etc) as a means of learning more about how we communicate with each other. We as skeptics feel that logic will simply win the day, but what usually wins the day is a well crafted message. As Skeptics, we are more often strong Thinking, or T type communicators. In the US, especially, most people are F type communicators. This is not to say they are de facto illogical people and always think illogically, but merely that they prefer communicating in a more empathetic type way, rather than the cold hard logical way that Thinking types do.

    I think the problem is that we shout our problems at each other until we are tired of hearing it and most people just move on with their lives and hope the problems go away. I think applying skepticism to communication styles and communication in general is a fascinating thing to analyze.

    1. Sadie Crabtree gives a very interesting talk on framing and communication in skepticism. She recently gave the talk at TAM so I’m sure it will be available online or on DVD soon. Be sure to look for it. I think you will like it.

  14. A couple more things:

    I think the issue with more political topics is one of testable claims.

    An exception might be birth control, which is discussed as an issue of safety, so while they do fall under “reproductive rights”, I hear podcasters and other skeptical figures discussing the science intentionally separately from the political/ethical/moral implications (outside of improving/saving human lives on the whole). It seems it falls more under medical ethics than anything political. I think that’s the only reason we’ve gotten involved in that topic at all.

    1. The majority of political topics are actually based on testable claims. For example, you can test whether or not abstinence only birth control is effective in comparison to actual birth control. You can test whether or not the earth is warming and study whether or not the results are effected by humankind. You can study evolution and determine whether or not it is legitimate science and should be taught in school. You can study and test women’s intelligence and determine if we are capable of doing math and science and therefor should be given equal opportunities and equal wages. I think that promoting basic skepticism 101 topics are fine to hone critical thinking skills but if we really want to improve the world we are going to need to apply these skills to the issues that directly touch our lives.

          1. Not only is wage discrimination illegal, and grounds for a civil lawsuit, it is not a real issue.

            I’d also like to point out, that if every woman were paid 0.77 for ever 1.00 dollar that a man made, it would be cheaper for a corporation to hire women. It would lower their expenses, increase profits, and would drive other businesses into bankruptcy. Businesses send jobs oversees all the time because it increases profits. Trust me, if women were paid less for doing the same work, they would only hire women as well.

            http://www.americanthinker.com/2010/09/the_wage_gap_myth.html

            The link you sent me only takes yearly earnings from women into account. It does not address the fact that more men; work longer hours, take bigger financial risks, work hazardous jobs, and ones that are inconvenient or unpleasant.

          2. For the Record, I’m not agreeing with Mike and there is a wage gap but the numbers are a bit misleading, and I’m not convinced it is due to widespread discriminatory actions. Some recent studies have actually shown women in their 20’s in urban areas are actually earning more than their male counterparts. The original 2007 study by Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn sited a 77/23 cent wage gap, but it also went on to say 14 cents of that was explained by nondiscriminatory factors and at most 9 cents was unexplained, possibly discriminatory.

            Statistics don’t always paint the whole picture when it comes to discrimination. We live in a capitalist society so people are rewarded for their work. Life choices can effect that compensation. 10-12 years ago, I was in grad school and teaching, I was engaged to a medical student. It didn’t work out, I ended up going back into HR and eventually married a yoga teacher. Had I married the doctor, I would have been the one to stay home with the kids, now it is my wife who stays home with our kids. My career and income are in a far different place than they would have been on the other path. The reality is if person A put in more hours, gives in on the work life balance,and doesn’t take a hiatus, they are likely to be farther along than person B who makes a different set of choices. Now you can argue the fact that society pushes those choices on to women, I can’t argue with you. But I for one would happily trade places with my wife, it just doesn’t work for us financially. But that isn’t about gender, she is smart, graduated from a great college, she could have done whatever she wanted. But she made a choice to do something she loved over paying the bills. I tried that as well (teaching, but changed my path for financial reason.

          3. Only I think 17% of company directors are women. The figurres calculated on real earnings across a career given all career choices available to both sexes I think found a figure that gave gave women 44% less earning power thn men.

          4. Also, Echidne of the Snakes has a wealth of information proving the wage gap’s existence.

            And, did anyone else laugh out loud at Mikey’s “it’s illegal, therefore no one would ever do that!” defense of his lies?

          5. Please show me this proof where a woman is currently getting paid less for doing the same work? The wage gap is not a current problem of sexism in society.

          6. “You can’t be serious that you first call us biased with the provided information and then are attempting to respond by sending links to sites that state their goal as “Curing Feminist Indoctrination” as a legitimate response”

            That’s nothing. Did you see the links he provided on the ‘Sexual Advise’ page?

        1. I gave you the blog name. I’m sure you can figure out how to find it.

          Or, just keep right on lying. I’m sure you’ll eventually believe that there is no wage gap, if you repeat it enough times.

          1. Sending me to a blog made for progressive women is hardly unbiased evidence. And if such a blog were to publish this story, they would need to link to the website that had this evidence. Now I scanned two pages, and read the links on the right of the page, and I found nothing. And I don’t feel like wasting my time searching for your evidence. If it is such a problem with society, it should take you five minutes maximum to locate this proof.
            In the meanwhile, here’s mine.

            http://www.americanthinker.com/2010/09/the_wage_gap_myth.html

            http://abcnews.go.com/2020/GiveMeABreak/story?id=797045&page=1

            http://www.womenonbusiness.com/is-the-male-female-wage-gap-a-myth-you-decide%E2%80%A6/

            http://www.bnet.com/blog/ceo/the-gender-pay-gap-is-a-complete-myth/6928

            http://antimisandry.com/articles/wage-gap-myth-women-execs-earn-more-than-men-not-less-142.html

            http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/opinion/s_732853.html

            http://www.amptoons.com/blog/2003/09/25/wage-gap-myth-the-pay-gap-only-exists-because-men-work-so-many-more-hours-than-women-wage-gap-series-part-4/

            A little bit of advice. Any one, regardless of gender, who gets paid less for the same work, needs to stop complaining. This problem has been addressed culturally and legally. And if any men or women feel they’re paid less, they should act like adults and file civil lawsuits. Issue resolved.

          2. This is for Mike in response to his anti-feminism-teh-womens-is-just lazy-and-won’t-work-weekends-or scary-jobs link farm.

            You can’t be serious that you first call us biased with the provided information and then are attempting to respond by sending links to sites that state their goal as “Curing Feminist Indoctrination” as a legitimate response to the fact that women make less money on average then men.

            We are not biased just because we are women. Also, please stop derailing this conversation. We have had plenty of threads on feminism alone. This is not one of them.

          3. “And if such a blog were to publish this story, they would need to link to the website that had this evidence.”

            A quote from myself.

            This is me saying that taking the word of a biased blog is not enough, and that they need to link to studies that show evidence. Some of these websites, even if they were anti-feminist, provide links to studies. Even people who had their work published in the wall street journal.
            ABC news, Bnet and American Thinker are hardly biased. Not to mention a website geared towards advice for women in business.

            In the real world, someones claim without evidence will not stand up to research and statistics.

            And like I told the other, instead of telling me I’m wrong, show me.

            “Also, please stop derailing this conversation. We have had plenty of threads on feminism alone. This is not one of them.”

            Actually I thought the whole point of this post was that nothing is off the table to discussion. Not only that but you played along with me in the beginning. And when you realized that your claims don’t hold up to scrutiny, you tell me this isn’t the place for it. If I derailed the conversation, then tell me, don’t get into a verbal debate with me and then say this isn’t the place for it.

  15. I have long thought that Bigfoot, Loch Ness, UFO’s, etc are just fun educational tools to teach critical thinking and scientific skepticism. They allow people to cut their teeth on topics which they have very little vested interest and are unlikely to get upset about. The purpose, of course, is not to disprove Bigfoot, but to teach the important lessons that allow someone to evaluate dangerous ideas like alt-med, religion, creationism, and, yes, misogyny. It is very hard to critically evaluate a deeply held belief, especially one tied to one’s own identity, and practicing on something silly is often the only way to learn the ropes.

  16. I think the real problem is that things like Bigfoot, aliens, and ESP don’t really matter that much to anyone either way. They are mostly fringe ideas, and the majority of people either don’t believe in them or aren’t especially emotionally invested in them. Then you’ve got things like anti-vax and homeopathy and creationism, where experts can bury their opponents in mountains of evidence. That’s a pretty safe place to argue from, isn’t it? Dry and cold and strategically calculating, and awfully damned safe.

    Sexism and racism, politics and human rights issues? Those are messy, and to the academic egghead elitists they are located too close to the border between “fact” and “opinion” to dare wade into. People are emotionally involved, and you can’t hide behind a wall of facts to avoid getting emotionally involved yourself. And worst of all, you might hurt someone’s feelings… and if you’re one of those “community-building” types who think that sheer numbers are more important than shared values, the last thing you want to do is alienate people. I say that it a sure sign of ethical cowardice, to take important issues off the table to avoid conflict.

    Put everything back on the table, and if people walk away from your group because they don’t share your values… then THEY DON’T SHARE YOUR VALUES, AND WHY SHOULD YOU SPEND TIME WITH THEM?!?!?!

    *****

    Also, I just realized that you’re THAT Surly Amy… neat!

    1. Sometimes not talking about things but just doing what you believe can be more constructive. because you’ve given someone a positive demonstration they like, that no amount of words could have explained to them and if that converation was confrontational and adversarial it could have likely had the oposite effect and had them even more set against you.

  17. Sure we should expand our topics. Should it become the only thing we talk about no but we all claim to value critical thinking. So if we really value critical thinking we shouldn’t be apposed to applying that same approach to other things. As to “… addressing issues that were not the focus of the forefathers of skepticism?” just sounds like the argument from tradition.

    If you’re going to a group of people who claim to focus on critical thinking then, to quote Denis Loubet, “Prepare to be challenged”.

  18. “And I won’t be laughing at the lies when I’m gone
    And I can’t question how or when or why when I’m gone
    Can’t live proud enough to die when I’m gone
    So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here”

    Yeah, I’ll apply skepticism and critical thinking to anything and everything. It is a movement tied together under the topic of critical thinking, not under the umbrella of critical thinking about the Loch Ness monster or some other specific weirdness.

  19. Should we be talking about this wider range of topics? Yes, absolutely.

    However, we should also be aware that political issues are often more complex than we are accustomed to (often relying on abstract arguments rather than hard data regarding what will happen if a particular policy is enacted), issues of the various “-isms” are often based as much on personal experience and subjective views as on hard data, and as we veer into these territories, we are likely to find that each of us has made assumptions that we can’t justify, but that feel “right” to us.

    I think that may be one of the reasons why many people are inclined to stay out of this territory – we can use evidence to show whether or not bigfoot exists, whether or not a claim from the Bible is true, etc., but when we talk about the effects of economic policies or the role of men and women in society, or the proper position on a particular human rights issue, we eventually have to supplement data with a set of assumptions and moral/ethical positions that are not as readily testable.

    Which is not to say that we shouldn’t get into these discussions – we absolutely should, discussions can only benefit from a more reasoned approach – but we shouldn’t expect anything to be easily resolved, and some things may not be resolved at all.

  20. Or, put another way, I expect us to be able to form a “skeptical community” consensus on whether or not aliens are probing people, and whether medical science has more value than new-age quackery. I don’t expect a consensus on whether or not reducing taxes is a net good or net harm, or whether or not foreign aid should be used as a tool of international diplomacy.

    1. I think this is right. Skepticism is a tool to challenge claims, it is not a political philosophy in and of itself. Skepticism should never become synonymous with paint-by-the-numbers lefty politics. In fact, a skeptic would want to get under the hood and challenge racism and sexism as an explanation for different phenomena. When we see injustice and inequality is it caused by racism/sexism or is something else going on?

      But as to political claims? Skepticism is required. We should be skeptical when politicians tell us that Country X has weapons of mass destruction; that we must give favored corporations a bunch of money to save our economy; that a $4 Billion train is going to be worth the investment; that massive deficit spending has “created or saved” 100 million “green jobs”; that gays will destroy the cohesiveness of military units; that bombing Libya does not constitute “hostilities” requiring congressional approval; etc.

  21. The skeptical movement has a long history of trying to limit the bounds of what can be discussed, so good luck trying to change that.

    The most odious of all the traditional limitations is the argument that only testable claims are fair game for skeptical investigation — it’s an annoying trick that sweeps the table clear of the most extravagant and absurd nonsense (*cough* religion *cough**cough*) and demands that skeptics only criticize fringe phenomena like Bigfoot & UFOs & psychic powers & ghosts. That’s fine, those are certainly legitimate targets for investigation, but it’s not fine to decide that other issues are forbidden.

    Social and political and economic issues often do have empirical data behind them — it’s silly to argue that they can’t be examined with the tools of skepticism. And claims that lack an empirical footing, that don’t have even a legitimate historical basis or the possibility of evaluation, ought to be regarded even more skeptically.

    I’ll come right out and say it: skeptics should be especially skeptical of faith.

    1. When PZ tells us that we should be *especially* skeptical of claims without empirical evidence — and that we should apply the tools of skepticism to those claims — he says sometimes that most will find laudable.

      But I think it is a suggestion without substance. We cannot do an still be skeptics.

      Here’s why. To *what* exactly would one apply the tools of empiricism and skepticism if one doesn’t have testable claims to which to apply those tools?

      I suppose one could stroke one’s chin and say, “Hmm… I’m skeptical.” But then what? The process can only proceed when one reduced to the claim to some kind of empirically verifiable terms.

      That’s what we *mean* when we ask our next, inevitable questions: “What do you base that on? How do you know? Why should I believe that?” It’s only at that point that skepticism can begin — at least in a meaningful, non-hand-waving way.

      Of course, we could test out my idea. Let’s try.

      Imagine trying to apply the tools of skepticism to any of the following beliefs in themselves, *without* trying to discern an empirical, testable core within those claims:

      — Matisse was a greater painter than Picasso (or vice versa).
      — All men [and women] are created equal.
      — In matters of taste, there is no disputing.
      — God is love.

      Again, once could say, “I’m skeptical of those claims.” But even that question points us to the issue of evidence, and thus of testability.

      To paraphrase RD, when it comes to skepticism as tool of inquiry, testability and empiricism are really the only games in town.

      1. The answer is easy: we apply skepticism to the process of knowing, not necessarily to the answer given.

        We know empirically and from a long history of failure that faith is a lousy way to come up with good, practical answers. If someone tells me that faith is the means by which they came up with a solution to something, I’m going to be skeptical with good reason.

        To each of your examples, I would say, “how do you know?” If the person can’t give a credible explanation of that, that’s solid reason to reject their claim. If they can explain in detail what makes one painter better than another one, then they’re using reason. If they just say, “Well, I like Matisse better” than they’re expressing a subjective opinion, and I don’t care: I would concede that so-and-so likes Matisse, and if asked how I know that, I would say that they said so.

        There is no logical, empirical, sensible reason to believe “god is love”. No evidence at all. And it’s even contradicted entirely by their very own holy book. It’s an assertion that should be flatly rejected as nonsense.

  22. Great AI Amy. I’m personally pretty much done talking about ghosts, Bigfoot and that kind of stuff unless there is some new compelling evidence. Everything else is fair game especially the inherent evils of clowns (religious or otherwise) as long as no one ‘high hats the monkey’.

  23. “Imagine the outrage if it were a group of male hosts and audience members, laughing at a woman who had her breasts and clitoris chopped off by her psychotic husband. Hell, that’ll teach her not to file for divorce.”

    Women are abused and murdered by spouses all the time. Please direct me to the hosts who are laughing about it?

    As Amy said, while the behavior you mentioned is not proper, it’s also not a real issue that men have to deal with.

    1. I think the TV hosts fell into the trap because penises are funny and the power difference is in favour of men (rape) so that all tipped the balance in the studio, but on reflection to broadcast to a public where there are men who’ve suffered any penile injury and physical or psycological abuse was insensitive.

    2. Sigh, I guess I’m turning into an old curmugeon myself, and I was a little harsh in that repsonse.

      To make it clear, I don’t think the area of male discrimination should be taboo. It’s just that my general experience is that it’s usually men whining about loss of priveleges they never should have had in the first place. (Which might be an even better reason to talk about it.)

      Also, there already are alot of sites discussing mens issues, and I don’t think Skepchick should be bullied into discussing them in the name of fairness until the other sites start doing a better job of discussing feminist issues. Skepchick has always been rather special the way it is.

      1. Well, it just ain’t fair that us guys can’t hijack every comments thread and even entire websites to talk about their issues. You should understand that!!!! Actually, the real problem is that the MRA guys have made people automatically associate real men’s issues with misogyny and sexism… but it isn’t the job of Skepchick.org to fix that problem, or even address it.

        That sort of speaks to the larger issue, doesn’t it? No one should tell anyone else what they can or can’t talk about in the realm of skepticism, or which issues should or shouldn’t be addressed from a skeptical POV. The flip side of that is no one can insist that every skeptic give equal weight and attention to every issue. No one should tell the Skepchicks not to talk about feminism in a skeptical contexts… and no one should tell them to start talking about men’s issues, or Bigfoot, or astrology, or anything else.

      2. “Women are abused and murdered by spouses all the time. Please direct me to the hosts who are laughing about it?”

        It’s not a contest of who’s being abused more, because that is not what matters. It’s the fact that media and society put less of a worth on the life and well being of a man.

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Vq6njtmU7g

        “As Amy said, while the behavior you mentioned is not proper, it’s also not a real issue that men have to deal with.”

        It is a very real issue. Men’s lives are valued to that of less than women and children. They are portrayed as the primary aggressor in spousal abuse and so are never treated equally in cases of domestic violence.

        “Also, there already are alot of sites discussing mens issues, and I don’t think Skepchick should be bullied into discussing them in the name of fairness until the other sites start doing a better job of discussing feminist issues. Skepchick has always been rather special the way it is.”

        The reason men’s rights websites only discuss male issues is because they are for men’s issues only. It’s the same thing with women’s rights websites, they are there for women.

        However, feminism is supposed to be a place for both, it is about equality, not just women’s issues. I’ve heard far too many times that I should be a feminist if I believe in equality. The fact is, I’m not a feminist because I’ve observed over a period of time how apathetic the feminist movement is towards male issues or male victims. No one should have to bully a feminist blog into discussing both sides equally. Because, apparently, to be feminist is to believe in equality.

        1. “It’s not a contest of who’s being abused more”

          You’re right, it’s not a contest. It’s not even close.

          “It’s the fact that media and society put less of a worth on the life and well being of a man.”

          You throw in a single event and declare a trend. It doesn’t work that way. In any case you’ll have to provide a clearer definition of what you mean. In real life men get more perks/ promoted faster than women in most careers, etc

          Men “are portrayed as the primary aggressor in spousal abuse and so are never treated equally in cases of domestic violence.”

          Well, there’s a good reason for that, isn’t there? They are more often the aggressor, and get harsher punishments (when they face any consequences at all) because they are physically larger and cause greater injuries. This is not to say abuse cannot go the other way, because it does.

          “The reason men’s rights websites only discuss male issues is because they are for men’s issues only. It’s the same thing with women’s rights websites, they are there for women.
          However, feminism is supposed to be a place for both, it is about equality,”

          I didn’t mean mens rights websites, I mean most skeptical sites in general. As for equality, again, why should a feminist site discuss mens issues when other sites are already doing that?

          1. “You throw in a single event and declare a trend. It doesn’t work that way. In any case you’ll have to provide a clearer definition of what you mean.”

            Ever heard something similar to this? “A deadly disaster hit today, women and children among the dead.”
            “bombings in a local shopping center, even women and children were killed.”
            “Warring tribes collide in Africa, women and children forced to flee.”
            Yea, I hear this shit all the time. Oh no, not the women and children. Women and children forced to flee? How about, men forced to die protecting their families? God forbid people consider the life of a man to be equally important.

            “In real life men get more perks/ promoted faster than women in most careers, etc”

            Of course a feminist would see it that way. However I would assume that any logical skeptic would say, “There is no way that just one gender receives all the benefits and the other doesn’t.”
            Who gets drafted in times of war? Who mostly helps to look for survivors and clear rubble after a disaster? Who mostly helps a random stranger in a life-threatening situation? Who is given harsher sentences for the same crime? Who has a higher risk of being attacked? Who controls the majority of the wealth, but spends the minority?

            “I didn’t mean mens rights websites, I mean most skeptical sites in general. As for equality, again, why should a feminist site discuss mens issues when other sites are already doing that?”

            Pay attention closely. Feminism is about treating men and women equal. So of course they both have a place here, that is amazingly obvious isn’t it. There are women’s rights discussing issues, so why are they discussed here? I know, you’re an idiot.

            “‘It’s not a contest of who’s being abused more’

            You’re right, it’s not a contest. It’s not even close.”

            Results from studies vary from women being the victim 70% of the time. Some depict it as 50%, and some cases show it to be as low as 40%.

            In the end, the majority of studies show it to be an even 50/50. I think we can all see that it is a problem for both genders, and that it isn’t always women, nor is it the vast majority, that get abused.

            It seems that to the media, women and children are far more important.

          2. Oh boy, I wasn’t going to waste anymore time, but here goes:

            “Ever heard something similar to this? “A deadly disaster hit today, women and children among the dead.”
            “bombings in a local shopping center, even women and children were killed.”
            “Warring tribes collide in Africa, women and children forced to flee.”

            Not very often, actually, most headlines just say “people killed.”

            “How about, men forced to die protecting their families?”

            Protect them from whom? Other men, that’s who.

            “Who gets drafted in times of war?”

            Men. Who made that decision? Men. Who enlists even though they know they can’t get drafted? Women.

            “Who mostly helps to look for survivors and clear rubble after a disaster?”

            Men and women.

            “Who mostly helps a random stranger in a life-threatening situation?”

            I’d be interested to see the statistics. But you’ll also have to be more specific.

            “Who is given harsher sentences for the same crime?”

            Men, because they usually have a longer, more violent criminal history.

            “Who has a higher risk of being attacked?”

            Don’t know, but if it’s men it’s probably because they’re prone to take more risks. But, again, you have to be more specific. Attacked under what circumstances?

            “Who controls the majority of the wealth, but spends the minority?”

            Men.

            “Results from studies vary from women being the victim 70% of the time. Some depict it as 50%, and some cases show it to be as low as 40%.”

            You can show me as many studies as you like saying the sky is green, but it looks blue to me.

          3. “Men. Who made that decision? Men. Who enlists even though they know they can’t get drafted? Women.”

            As a man, and I were forced to go to war, while women weren’t, I would see this as a perk. This is a perk open to women. It doesn’t matter if some women choose, it is the fact that they have a choice to begin with.

            “Who mostly helps to look for survivors and clear rubble after a disaster?”

            “Men and women.”

            The key word was ‘mostly’. And the answer was ‘men’.

            “Who is given harsher sentences for the same crime?”

            “Men, because they usually have a longer, more violent criminal history.”

            Go up to an African American and tell him he gets harsher sentences because he has a more violent history based on the fact that his skin colour is black.

            “Don’t know, but if it’s men it’s probably because they’re prone to take more risks. But, again, you have to be more specific. Attacked under what circumstances?”

            Men are more likely to be the victim of a random attack on the street.

          4. “As a man, and I were forced to go to war, while women weren’t, I would see this as a perk. This is a perk open to women. It doesn’t matter if some women choose, it is the fact that they have a choice to begin with.”

            You’re dodging the point, which is all you’ve done. Our society is prominantly run by men. Until recently is was entirely run by men. We are where we are because of the rules and decisions made by men.

            Would it be different if the world was run by women? That might be something to argue about.

          5. You are dodging the point. In which I’m saying that it is not only women that get treated as second class in today’s society.

            It is mostly men that control government at the moment because it is mostly men entering these fields. Every woman has equal opportunity to pursue a career in politics.

          6. “In which I’m saying that it is not only women that get treated as second class in today’s society.”

            I think we can agree on that.

            Also, I’m not real comfortable with the idea of two dudes argueing over what should be discussed in what is meant to be a female oriented blog. So lets call it a day.

            Peace.

  24. I’m reading the book “Paranormal America” and it uses the Baylor religion study as a source. What people believe in with the paranormal is very different based on sex. For instance, men like UFOs and BIg Foot. Stuff they can go out in the woods and look for. Women however, were really into the New Age stuff, like psychics and tarot cards. Certainly some overlap, but it might sort of show a difference between men and women. Perhaps skeptic men like a sort of “concrete” issue, like “There are no UFOS and aliens” (like PZ talked about at TAM). And women like things like “how can we treat each other better using skeptic skills?”

    No reason we can’t both educate each other about our common skeptic interests. I think the vaccination movement really seems to be crossing barriers of sex in skepticism (though the anti vax rank and file..seems to be heavily female still)

  25. Skepticism has to be applied to everything in life. However, for many people, skepticism, as an outlook comes very late in life when they already have a lot of baggage. Perhaps Nietzsche was gonna talk about this in his Transvaluation / Revaluation of Values.

  26. I think there are two things going on here: The question of whether skepticism should address social and political issues with the general public and the question of whether skepticism should address social and political issues with itself. It’s one thing if skeptics don’t want to become social activists campaigning for human rights (because of too broad and too far off the chart of what can be approached skeptically), but it’s quite another when people–say, women–try to address social and political issues within the skeptical community and are told that these topics are not fit for skeptical inquiry.

    Can skepticism take on problems that don’t always come with data and measurable goals? Eh… But there’s a lot of tidying up within the movement that needs to be done, by taking actions that are not measurable and without collecting scientific data, and when I hear people claiming that addressing sexism and racism internally aren’t what skeptics are supposed to do, I think they just don’t care about/want to ignore the problems. But unless the skeptical community works together better, it doesn’t really matter what topics it picks up to work on with society at large. The community will either be too fractured to be effective or it will have too negative of a reputation to be taken seriously.

    1. That is excellent advice for those who actually are skeptics.

      But it seems like there’s a certain contigent claiming that title that are anything but. They treat it like its a cool cliche to belong to – they’re not sheeple like those OTHER people are. Yet, they resist any and all attempts at opening up discussions, listening to people who are not themselves and definitely do not want to examine that which would question things they are uncomfortable with questioning.

      And that, I think, is who PZ is talking about in mentioning that there has always been attempts at limiting what is “allowed” to be discussed.

      Why would a true skeptic want to NOT question something? They wouldn’t. Those that claim the title but refuse to question some things are posers. But posers true skeptics have to deal with.

      This probably sounds like a No True Scotsman, but the word “skeptic” has a specific meaning. If you’re not skeptical about something for some stupid reason, how can you honestly claim the title?

  27. What natalie1984 said at comment #1.

    Alas, there seem to be certain subjects that it is very difficult to discuss anywhere on the internet without immediately getting derailed. I once hoped that skeptical fora would be an exception to this. I was naive.

  28. When PZ tells us that we should be *especially* skeptical of claims without empirical evidence — and that we should apply the tools of skepticism to those claims — he says sometimes that most will find laudable.

    But I think it is a suggestion without substance. We cannot do an still be skeptics.

    Here’s why. To *what* exactly would one apply the tools of empiricism and skepticism if one doesn’t have testable claims to which to apply those tools?

    I suppose one could stroke one’s chin and say, “Hmm… I’m skeptical.” But then what? The process can only proceed when one reduced to the claim to some kind of empirically verifiable terms.

    That’s what we *mean* when we ask our next, inevitable questions: “What do you base that on? How do you know? Why should I believe that?” It’s only at that point that skepticism can begin — at least in a meaningful, non-hand-waving way.

    Of course, we could test out my idea. Let’s try.

    Imagine trying to apply the tools of skepticism to any of the following beliefs in themselves, *without* trying to discern an empirical, testable core within those claims:

    – Matisse was a greater painter than Picasso (or vice versa).
    – All men [and women] are created equal.
    – In matters of taste, there is no disputing.
    – God is love.

    Again, once could say, “I’m skeptical of those claims.” But even that question points us to the issue of evidence, and thus of testability.

    To paraphrase RD, when it comes to skepticism as tool of inquiry, testability and empiricism are really the only games in town.

    1. Applying skepticism to aesthetic sensibilities in the case of Picasso vs Matisse would be a waste of time because it doesn’t require our attention. No one is being harmed by anyone liking one or the other better and it relegates itself to being simply a harmless opinion. Now, if laws were being passed to govern society based on which painting was was more skillfully produced, or based on the quality of the pigments used to produce the works, or the quality of each painting’s representation or it’s use of creative abstraction, or if people were killing each other in the name of Picasso or Matisse then I could see us turning a critical eye on to the artworks or on the idea of killing people over art but obviously that’s not the case. You see, we could be skeptical about the work if it required our attention. But it doesn’t so we can simply appreciate it.

      We can also determine from a logical, rational standpoint, grounded in empirical understanding of science and specifically human biology whether or not human beings should be treated equally and given equal rights.

      I’m going to ignore the third one on your list because I pretty much addressed it above. Essentially, I don’t care what you decide to like as long as it doesn’t effect other people’s ability to like other things within reason instead.

      As for religion, nearly every single claim surrounding the idea of a deity can in fact be tested and for the most part has been tested by science. There is no Jesus on your toast. Water doesn’t magically turn into wine. That statue wasn’t actually bleeding and prayer doesn’t heal or stop crime from a distance. The list goes on. One of the very few claims that can not be tested in regards to religious belief is whether or not a god-like being is possible but then you are left with just another dragon in your garage, an invisible pink unicorn or a teapot in space.

      You can decide to not be skeptical about these types of issues and still call yourself a skeptic but those topics are not off limits to the rest of us and I see no valid reason to ignore them.

      •side note: Sometimes paintings need to be tested for authenticity. Sometimes that Picasso hanging in the museum isn’t a Picasso at all. If you are a collector of fine art, some healthy skepticism may bode well for you.

      1. Hi Amy,

        I think you completely misunderstood my point (which is probably my fault).

        I was *not* saying that one could not or should not examine any of these statements with the tools of skepticism.

        I was saying that to do so required us to find within these statements empirically accessible and testable claims.

        Your own examples support my assertion, not refute them. For each of your examples, you had to find something testable, at least by the laws of probability.

        This move-to-testability turns an *untestable* statement like “God is love” or even “Prayer is good for the soul” into a *testable* claim like “Remote and anonymous prayer can aid in the medical healing process.

        PZ said that this was not needed — that the tools of skepticism do not require testable claims. I think he was wrong.

        In fact, I think that you agree with me.

        Two last points:

        1. It seems completely arbitrary to limit skeptical investigation to things that “harm people.”

        Why?

        Few people (if any) are harmed by believing in reincarnation. That does not mean that we can’t be skeptical about its claims.

        Few people (if any) are harmed by believing that Bigfoot exists. That does not mean that we can’t be skeptical about those claims.

        Few people (if any) are harmed by thinking that they see Jesus on their toast. That does not mean . . . you get the idea.

        2. To think that you can prove or establish the general equality of people by looking to human biology is very, very dangerous. I hope you can see that.

        1. My point regarding human biology was meant to imply that all humans should have equal rights, not that all people are or should be biologically identical or that we should desire to be similar or anything like that, just that no one is better by default. Sorry if that didn’t make sense.

  29. To me, there’s no sacrid cows when it comes to skepticism…everything and anything is on the table. Whether is big foot, one’s faith or that Republican card one is carrying. If for example, we where to limit things we can only test, we would exclude god (something supposedly too omnipotent in concept to empirically test) from the debate…and thus religions could and would argue their immunity to critism. That simply cannot be. The onus of proof is always on the person and/or groups making the claim; not on those of us who can test that claim or not.

    I wonder though, if there is come political motivations from those who would keep those subjects to skeptical scrutiny to big foot and ilk only. As in, “Oh dear God, the left wingers are infecting our movement! Let’s batton down the libertarian hatches!” But of coarse I have no evidence to back that up…just a sneaking suspicion. :)

    …and what PZ said.

  30. Yes. Unless we suddenly wake up in a world where problems like sexism, homophobia, transphobia and other social issues are no more. And since ‘miracles’ aren’t real, that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

  31. I think skepticism can certainly be applied to political issues in the sense that many political claims are testable. For instance, if a politician claims that Bill A will miraculously save/further destroy the economy we could look at past evidence of similar measures and try and determine if it’s true or not. Likewise if Random Republican A says children adopted by gay parents are worse off than those of straight parents we can look critically at the available evidence and dispute that.

    However, it is difficult and possibly impossible to apply skepticism to things that are just value judgments. For example, take the war/military action/peace keeping mission in Libya. We can use skepticism to examine specific claims about the war (number of deaths, costs etc…), but as to whether it’s worth the money and man power to hammer Libyan forces, I’m not sure there are any answers to be found in skepticism. It just depends on what you value more.

    A similar value situation comes with the recent Supreme Court ruling on video games. We can skeptically examine the studies and try and figure out whether video games are harmful to children. However, if it were somehow proven that video games definitely were harmful to children, it would still be a value judgment as to whether protecting the integrity of the First Amendment was more important than preventing whatever harm video games caused. I don’t really think skepticism helps much there. Skepticism is great for cutting through some of the BS of political and social issues, but what stance to takes often depends on what you personally value more and what you think the role of governments should be.

  32. My answer is, yes, skepticism should confront issues such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and other areas of non-rationality and privilege.

    Ever since becoming a skeptic, I’ve been a big believer in using skepticism to analyze and confront everything, including our own culture. I try my best to not have any gris-gris, but it is unfortunate to find that the same is not true for everyone.

    To mention things said up-thread, I think issues in which men are treated in a sexist manner are absolutely fair game, and we should discuss them, but I must caution that when we are talking about women, do not bring up men. Bring up men’s problems in their own thread or topic, not women’s. That’s derailing.

    Might I suggest that if we are going to talk about some of these issues, we should start from common ground, which means educating people on topics like Feminism 101, white privilege, and male privilege.

  33. Why limit the discussion to feminism, sexism, racism etc?

    Skepticism is a philosophy. It is the philosophy for which I view the world around me, every aspect, every day.

    Discuss/debate/analyze anything and everything. Skepticism has a place in any discussion worth having, and certainly any discussion worth having has a place in a forum devoted to skepticism.

  34. Applying skeptical thought is what a skeptic does and skeptically interrogating the universe, our world, each other and ourselves is the only way by which we progress. So Damned straight, we should talk about these. We should apply skeptical thought to everything because there is nothing that we will always be right about.

    Skepticism simply entails demanding proof and using proof and research to guide the assumptions that we have to make in an uncertain universe. Considering that our assumptions might be wrong and investigating is hardly a bad thing.

  35. Oh!

    I don’t think anyone mentioned this, but we should also be careful to be skeptical of claims ABOUT “feminism, sexism, racism, health care, world hunger, human rights etc.”

    Not everything in life is about privilege, although if that’s what you spend a bunch of your time talking about it you might lose sight of that fact. Sometimes when someone does something you disagree with, it isn’t for any other reason than that they’re a jerk… or because YOU’RE a jerk. There’s a trap there, where someone might start thinking “You’re only saying that because you’re an X, and I’m a Y” and then ignore what people are actually saying to them and why. And there are those unfortunate people who have personality issues that they express through claiming the mantle of victim and then lashing out at the world, instead of dealing with said issues. Gotta watch out for that.

    As far as political, health, and social issues we have to watch out for similar traps and blind spots. Most people are kind and decent and honest… sometimes. If we generally agree with the things someone is saying, we’re more likely to assume that they’re not steering us wrong on any of the particulars. You’ve got to be ever vigilant about someone leading you down a path of reasonable claims, and then slipping in something that doesn’t have the same level of support. There are lots of people who are experts and can be trusted on all sorts of issues who are dead wrong on other issues, and use their authority in one area to lend credibility to the nonsense. And, to finish this long-ish comment at 3:30 in the morning (depression insomnia!), we’ve got to be careful to avoid choosing allies who don’t share our values… we here generally agree that Islamic extremism is a bad thing, but so do the Christian and Jewish fundamentalists. The enemy of our enemy isn’t really our friend.

  36. Most of you will probably agree with this (cue several dissenters…): no topic should be taboo for skeptical discussion, as long as it’s discussed in an appropriate forum.

    For example:
    I’m an atheist, but if I were in a place of worship for any reason I’d be uncomfortable discussing it. Especially if it’s the sort of quiet parish church that is common in England. People go there for community, for ritual (and we all have little rituals, whether it’s a sermon or a coffee in the morning) and for comfort. It’s not an appropriate place to raise the topic.

    So, no topic should be left uncovered but with caveats.

  37. I know that UFO’s, bigfoot, etc are part of the history of skepticism I, frankly, would not be involved with skepticism were it not for the influence of dubious medical claims, feminism, and religion. I will not be told that there are areas that are closed to skepticism. That is the opposite of skepticism. :)

  38. “health care, world hunger, human rights”…

    How do we tackle those as skeptics? We can tackle some aspects of those ideas, but each one is in part a value judgement, not a fact-based claim.

    With health care, which do you value more; having a choice in the matter, or having guaranteed health care regardless of income? (I would choose the latter, but it is a preference)…Now, if we are asking “which system provides a better life expectancy, or happier patients, or lower costs?”, we might be able to address that objectively.

    As for world hunger, we may be able to study the cause, but any imperative choice of action is purely a matter of moral responsibility.

    And for human rights, is there anything that is not subjective about that?

    1. “Now, if we are asking “which system provides a better life expectancy, or happier patients, or lower costs?”, we might be able to address that objectively.”

      But isn’t that exactly the point? Shouldn’t this be the goal of any health care system? Aren’t these empirically probable facts that should decide the debate? I submit that if socialized healthcare could be proven to be the best solution for all of the above, then only a psychopath could make a value judgement in opposition to it. The same should apply if the facts pointed in the opposite direction, toward free market healthcare.

  39. I can’t think of a single social / political issue that can not be informed by rational inquiry. Yes, many of these issues come down to value judgments, but in most if not all cases, those value judgments are based on presumptions about certain facts, and if skepticism is not brought to bear on these facts, then people are basing their value judgments on faulty information, which to my mind is the #1 problem with political dialogue in the west today.

    1. Some examples:

      Abortion: Fact in question, does the soul exist? Without a soul, the intrinsic value placed upon a zygote by the religious becomes a moot point. Modern science tells us there is no reason to believe in a soul. People who ignore this fact are basing their opinion on faulty information.

      Gay rights: Fact in question, is being a homosexual a choice? Many believe it is, despite all psychological and physiological evidence to the contrary. If you think it’s a choice, you may not consider your loathing of gay people to be bigotry. By not knowing the facts, you’ve made a faulty value judgement.

      The list goes on and on… A lack of critical thinking and rational inquiry leads to faulty value judgments, the two are irrevocably intertwined.

  40. Definitely, yes. Taking on a broader array of topics could have three positive effects: 1) Adding spice and flavor to skeptical conferences and online discussions that too often dwell on debunking and ridicule; 2) Giving us a chance to test our commitment to critical thinking even when examining cherished beliefs; 3) Making the skeptical movement more relevant to the mainstream — that is, skeptics have a long tradition of forcing societal change for the better by calling BS on entrenched interests, and the current incarnation of the skeptical movement has been doing a little too much navel gazing.

  41. Confession One: I’ve arrived late to the AI party because I was tired of the reams of “He said/She said” on Skepchick and had stopped checking it.
    Confession Two: The AI and people’s comments have made me ask myself what it is that defines my application of skepticism.
    I’ve been an active “old school” skeptic for 25 years, have attended many CSICOP conferences and have written scores of skeptical articles. My professional qualifications are in physics and electronics so my primary skeptical interests have mirrored these. Thus I have concentrated on pseudoscience and the paranormal. If you bring me a description of a free-energy machine, I shall be delighted to explain to you why it won’t work, that’s my field. I defer to others in matters of, for example, quack cures.
    I have avoided discussions of religion since, absent any evidence for its core requirement, there is nothing to discuss. In principle I could challenge religious claims but I chose not to. There are many others who are happy to take on that job.
    It had never occurred to me to apply scientific skepticism (as opposed to critical thinking) to politics or economics. Let me explain that dichotomy. Critical thinking demonstrates that a conclusion follows from certain axioms without regard to the validity of those axioms. Skepticism requires that the axioms be true.
    That energy is conserved is a true axiom that demonstrates than no machine can create energy from nowhere. That justifies my skeptical conclusion that such machines are scams. One can use critical thinking to determine what would ensue if energy were not conserved but that doesn’t lead to free energy, only lots of special pleading from hopeful nut-cases.
    One can apply critical thinking to economics or politics but there is a problem. There are no generally accepted true axioms in these fields. A critically thinking Marxist and a critically thinking Libertarian will start from different axioms and arrive at quite different conclusions. Which solution should a skeptic prefer?
    As a scientific skeptic, I prefer to stick to areas where there is a consensus of the experts and to explain that consensus to the uninformed.

  42. To be specific, the topic that often comes up is whether or not skeptics should apply the tools of skepticism, such as logic, rationality, critical thinking and the lessons of science to topics outside the traditional realm of organized skepticism and whether or not organized skepticism should focus it’s energy on these untraditional issues.

    At this juncture, I should say not. Many, if not most (putative) “skeptics” have an appallingly sparse grasp of the science and philosophy of decision making. For one thing, at least in my experience, quite a few were unwilling to accept a decision-theoretic argument against a certain minor Internet celebrity’s paranoia, of whom most probably didn’t even understand it.

    People who don’t in fact have any deep understanding of the normative standards of decision making are most likely just going to flail around aimlessly if they try to apply what they do know to these issues.

  43. I think talking about these things is great. One of the reasons I stopped hanging on skepchicks all the time a few years ago is because tradition skepticism gets dull. We can only make fun of Oprah and Jenny McCarthy so much.

    1. The reason I’ve been hanging out here less lately is because the same arguments brought forward by the same trolls who will not listen is getting boring.
      .
      @truthwalker, I am not referring to you BTW.
      Just wanted to point out that repetition of anything, even exciting things, gets old quick.
      Skepticblog is that way, as is Pharyngula most of the time; this was where I came to escape the ridiculous repetition of the same three topics over, and over, and over again and have an actual discussion; but if we can’t purge, or ignore, the MRM proponents and pedants that have descended since “the incident” we are in danger of being just as boring as the comments at those two blogs have become.

        1. I haven’t given up, and have been back a bit more just the last few days. It seems that, with a few exceptions, most of the trolls have gone back to their bridges.
          I have no problem with disagreement, I incourage it, but if you can’t have a truthful and honest debate don’t bother. Whenever a poorly thought out agruement is made, and is therefor jumped on by everyone here, it makes us all look bad; I’m glad it’s getting back to somewhat civil.

  44. This may repeat a bit of what has already been covered but I need to get it off my chest.

    Ahem….regarding skepticism and religion. Not all relgions, there are always a few quasi deists in the room to get indignant. Lets just say, skepticism and most religion, or at least those religions that make wild claims about the world.

    Those who focus on “testability” are missing an important point. The human race has been, in some sense, running an experiment for as long as we have been recording the things that we think we know. Steve Novella calls it the “meta-experiment of science”. It could very well have turned out that when we started recording predictions, those that went with their guts always came out right. In other words that there was something about the act of making up your mind that effected the universe to make you decision true. The same could have occurred for people who closed their eyes and pretended as hard as they could. These methods have been proven to be completely unreliable however. So why the hell should we believe someone who uses these exact same methods to figure things out. Could they be right? Yeah, sure. Is there any reason to expect that they are right. Absolutely not, you don’t need to run a controlled experiment every time you want to disbelieve something. You can also look at the method they used to get to that conclusion. It is true to say that it can be unreasonable to believe something that is true. I could be in Vegas and say “the roulette ball will land on 22 for the next 50 spins”. If I turn out to be right does this mean that I am not a raving lunatic or a cheater? Of course not, and anyone who questioned my claim would still have been acting in a completely reasonable manner.

    Those who ask us to take them seriously when they make a claim based on nothing but their strong conviction are making a further claim, whether they know it or not, beyond the one you are being faced with.
    They are claiming that, while humans have a long and colorful history of being absolutely wrong in their gut feelings, they themselves are special. There is something about their strong conviction that makes sets them apart from the historical parade of confidence and hubris that humankind has been for many thousands of years. How is it skeptical to take this seriously just because you can’t think of an experiment?

    It is not the skeptics who are obligated to come up with an experiment to “prove the claim wrong”. It is the believer who is obligated to come up with an experiment, or at least some kind of reasonable argument, to demonstrate plausibility.

    Somehow skeptics recognize this in the context of the invisible dragon in the garage, but fail to recognize it when the invisible dragon is replaced with God. Is recognizing the fallacy of moving the goalposts “performing an experiment”. Of course not, well all religion does is start with the goalposts already moved.

    1. I agree, the question then is when do you persue the issue? If someone has an irrational belief in one area it does not mean they can’t be rational in others and, while the irrational belief may inform you of a hole in their logic, if no unreasonable claims are being made it is best to let it lie.
      .
      I’ll put it this way. I don’t care if someone truly believes that there is an invisible dragon in their garage as long as they don’t insist that those who don’t have dragons are not to be trusted, or insist I help pay for dragon chow, or blame their constant garage fires on it, etc.
      One irrational belief does not make you totally irrational, if it did there would be no rational humans.

      1. I definitely agree that one irrational belief, or several in fact, does not make you irrational. I certainly have many of my own I’m sure. An example of the type of religious believer who I would take your approach with would be Pamela Gay. She is absolutely an absolutely brilliant communicator in my estimation and has never once (to my knowledge) argued that she has a rational basis for her christian beliefs. She just keeps it out of the discussion of rationality. I disagree with her on the issue for sure, but I don’t have a “problem” with her beliefs in a moral sense. Martin Gardner is another example of this type of religious person. I would even concede that, as skeptics, most of the religious folks in our midst will be of this type and we should be sensitive to that when we discuss religion.

        When it comes to the majority of the culture in America however, they are in minority on that point and we can’t forget that. The role of the skeptics movement in criticizing religion should be, in my view, dismantling the idea that faith is a legitimate way discovering things about the universe. A “way of knowing” if you will. When faith is only taken seriously as a deeply personal practice that has no bearing on making serious decisions that effect all of us, the skeptics movement will have little to say about it. Until then….

  45. I never really left, I just stopped participating in the discussions. I don’t feel like I have anything add. That said, I kinda of miss the way that posts would really get a ball rolling on discussions; it doesn’t seem to happen like it used too.

  46. Wow, leave the internet for two days, and people keep talking!

    I was thinking of responding to what I take as PZ’s misunderstanding of what the question “How do you know” means vis-a-vis the issue of empiricism and testability.

    But instead, I’ll stick to what is probably the bigger issue: the connection of skepticism and progressive politics.

    I’ll quote something Amy said, just as an example:

    “My point regarding human biology was meant to imply that all humans should have equal rights, not that all people are or should be biologically identical or that we should desire to be similar or anything like that, just that no one is better by default. Sorry if that didn’t make sense.”

    Here’s what I take to be the underlying problem with this statement — and the problem with trying to ally “skepticism” in general to political positions that we find laudable.

    Skepticism and empiricism (and science) is not about what “ought to be” — not about what the world “should” be like. It’s primarily committed to “what is” — to the truth, to evidence.

    That means that we make a grave error when we start off by saying “politically or ethically, people should do X,” and *then* trying to harness to tools of skepticism to support that prior ethical principle.

    Such a strategy promotes “the good” above “the true.” And that may — for politics — be an acceptable thing to do. But it eats away at the very core of skepticism.

    Let me be clear. This is not to pick on Amy. Many people have done this in the thread.

    But that’s an indication of the danger in saying that skepticism can be used to promote “good causes” — as opposed to investigating all claims, even and especially those that feel the most right to us.

  47. Not only should we, as skeptics, use the tools of critical thinking and rationality to explore and speak out on subjects such as feminism, sexism, racism, health care, world hunger, and human rights; we have a responsibility and duty to do so. So much of the social inequalities mentioned above are directly caused by irrationality and/or religiously inspired ideas. Homophobia, misogyny, racism are all often justified by religious dogma or superstition. As we saw recently, it was the religious right who lead the fight agains universal health care here in the U.S.. We must speak out against these evils and use critical thinking, skepticism and rationality to support our position. Skepticism is historically closely related to humanism and humanism demands we tackle these issues head on. We should not shy away from any topic, especially those that adversely affect so many people around the world, but we must embrace them and make them our own so that we can try, in our own small way, to make this world a better place to live.

Leave a Reply

You May Also Enjoy

Close
Close