Saturday, February 2, 2013

Rhetorical strategies against untestable claims

PZ Myers has spent more time complaining about organized skepticism, this time in response to Steven Novella.  You don't need to read all that though, it's mostly people talking past each other.

Anyway, a major point of contention is the correct response to someone who makes an untestable claim.  Steven Novella says that we cannot counter claims that are purely based on faith.  They are outside the realm of scientific inquiry:
As skeptics we can now say – that belief is not science-based. It is faith. Now the rules of faith apply – which means, in a secular society (see above) you don’t get to teach such belief in the public school classroom, and you don’t get funding for scientific research, you can’t impose your beliefs on others without violating their religious freedom, you cannot claim that insurance companies should cover your therapy, etc. It becomes a matter of personal faith only.
PZ Myers is unsatisfied with this.  He'd like to go further and directly counter faith-based claims:
“Faith” is not a magic get-out-of-jail-free word; I don’t think Novella would be stopped cold in his tracks if a homeopath invoked faith and god as a mechanism behind succussed water. Faith-based claims are empirical claims! When someone claims a vast cosmic intelligence named Jesus created the universe, I’m going to ask for their evidence for that claim; it is an empirical claim not just about how the universe works, but about how they arrive at their conclusions and what the chain of evidence that led them to that assertion is.
If you only read PZ Myers, it might seem like Steven Novella was advocating that we stop questioning beliefs as soon as their believers invoke faith.  But I do not think this is accurate.  When properly understood, this is not a matter of attacking faith vs letting faith be.  Rather, Novella and PZ advocate different kinds of attacks on faith.

Novella says, if your belief is faith based, then you cannot get into classrooms or acquire scientific funding, and your belief is "not even wrong".  PZ says, you think your belief is faith-based, but it's still a belief about empirical reality, and you better come up with evidence for it.

Viewed in this way, the disagreement between PZ Myers and Steven Novella seems much more trivial and unimportant then they make it out to be.  So we all don't like faith-based claims.  What does it matter if we take different rhetorical strategies to counter faith-based claims?

Novella's strategy is essentially the more conservative one.  It's the kind of argument you can make in the courtroom or other professional settings, without getting bogged down with philosophical details.  "No matter what you think about faith as a concept, you now have to agree that other people may reasonably disagree with you, and that your idea does not deserve public funds."  It's going after the believer's political power, because faith-based claims deserve no power.

PZ Myer's is the more radical strategy.  It's not just about attacking the believer's political power, it's going after the belief itself.  This is a useful strategy, because when believers retreat to faith, they generally don't quite grok what it is they're doing.  So we have to drive it home.  "In order for your claim to be faith based, it has to be a claim that does not affect reality in any observable way.  Are you sure that you want to say that the resurrection of Jesus has no effect on reality?  You know that even homeopaths and alien abductees invoke faith when criticized, so what makes you so different?"

Both of these rhetorical strategies seem useful, albeit in different contexts.  So I just don't see what the problem is.

11 comments:

Larry, The Barefoot Bum said...

The problem is that prominent skeptics (of the debunking bad science variety) have been pushing back strongly against atheists being included in the skeptical community, people talking about atheism at skeptical conferences and events, and atheists labeling themselves as "skeptics."

This argument is, like many others, not fundamentally philosophical or even rhetorical, but political. Do atheists get to legitimately use the word "skeptic"? Many skeptics object.

miller said...

Larry,

In my post I brought up one of the differences between PZ and Novella, and said it was a trivial rhetorical disagreement. But I was not trying to show that all their disagreements were trivial or rhetorical. I agree that the argument is fundamentally political. I think that trivial arguments about untestable claims are simply made in service of politics.

Larry, The Barefoot Bum said...

I agree that the argument is fundamentally political. I think that trivial arguments about untestable claims are simply made in service of politics.

I concur. In the post you said, "I just don't see what the problem is." I think, and you seem to agree, that the problem is political.

Anonymous said...

Larry, the notion that skeptics are pushing back against atheists calling themselves skeptics is news to me, but I haven't been keeping up with my blogroll as much as I used to lately, so I may be out of the loop. Do you have any examples of such an objection?

miller said...

Anonymous, you could start by reading PZ Myers' post. He refers to several examples of (what he perceives as) skeptics pushing back against atheists.

Of course, I call myself a skeptic (it's in the blog title!), and I do not have an issue with atheists. Novella also cites Paul Kurtz (founder of CFI) as being a skeptic who called for uniting skepticism and humanism. So not all skeptics have this problem.

sz said...

Seems a strawman slipped through, Miller:

"In order for your claim to be faith based, it has to be a claim that does not affect reality in any observable way."

Accurate would had been:

"In order for your claim to be faith based, it has to be a claim that is indifferent to whether it is scientifically measurable."

But better in the context:

"In order for your claim to be faith based and immune to scientific criticism, it has to be a claim that does not affect reality in any measurable way."

I'm sure you just got tired after reading all those lengthy blogs. :p

miller said...

You're doing that thing again where you say something incomplete or incoherent, but I don't want to ask because I know it won't get any better.

sz said...

Ugh, fuck language.

Take #2

Miller, you say:
"In order for your claim to be faith based, it has to be a claim that does not affect reality in any observable way."

I don't see how to interpret this other than as a ridiculous strawman when I read it, yet I doubt that was your intention. Did you perhaps mean to say sometime like:

"In order for your claim to be faith based and immune to scientific criticism, it has to be a claim that does not affect reality in any measurable way"

?

miller said...

No. Start at the beginning. You have to say who I'm strawmanning. You have to say what I say they say. Then you have to say what they really say, and how it's different.

Also, I can think of many differences between the words "measurable" and "observable", but who knows what particular difference you're thinking of.

I'm not here to guide you step by step on how to state your opinion. I don't even care what your opinion is, unless you can produce coherent arguments for it.

sz said...

Really, the point of a take #2 is that it's a new start and an admission that what came before it should be discarded...

How can I express an opinion on what you say if I'm not sure what you mean, other than that it's unclear? I'm not willing to lambast everything sillily stated, especially not if you put quotation marks around it and make it sound like an off-hand argument. I was assuming your formulation was just unfortunate or not explicit enough, and I'm fishing for clarification. (I did attempt to provide it myself in take #1, but it pressumed an unrealistic level of understanding between us.)

I don't know precisely what you mean with "affect reality" and "observable", or more importantly how a religious person could agree with your usage of them in this instance. Claiming that angels appear before some people will normally be faith based, but even if it makes no difference to history if only hallucination exists, those people observe and are affected by the angels if the claim is true. So logically this claim cannot be faith based according to your statement. But that's absurd. Thus at face value your statement is absurd.

On the other hand, the statement could make sense if with "faith based" you meant "exclusively faith based" (and not also empirical), used as a get-out-of-jail/argument card. And this would actually fit how you portrayed PZ Myers position on the issue.
But for all I know you might be referring to a particular skeptical argument which I'm unfamiliar with and which sounds like hubris...

So if you would like to "drive home" a skeptical point against faith in an actual argument, I want to encourage you to be clearer, more explicit than in your hypothetical one.

tl;dr
I don't know why I even bother if you can't distinguish between a proposition and a question...

miller said...

So basically what I'm getting, is that you really disagree with the argument I mentioned off-hand, and don't know what a strawman is. Okay. I don't care.