Thursday, March 20, 2014

Why this person is no longer a skeptic

I found this essay called Why I am no longer a skeptic, by Stephen Bond, and I was immediately sympathetic.  I think that one can agree with the values of skepticism, and feel disconnected from the skeptical identity, the community, and the institutions.  The essay seemed to express this view, at first.

Then it turned out that the whole thing was a bunch of mischaracterizations and unsupported assertions.  The essay successfully explains what it purports to explain--why the author is no longer a skeptic.  It does not make a persuasive case that anyone should follow the author.

Are skeptics elitists?

Stephen Bond talks about how skeptics like to make fun:
I'm not going to plead innocence here: I've often joined in with the laughter, at least vicariously; laughing at idiots can be fun. But in the context of skeptic sites, the laughter takes on a bullying and unhealthy tone.
I appreciate that the author honestly has this impression, but when I compare it to my own impressions, it seems off-base.   Your impression against mine, not a good argument, eh?  People like to make fun, and can be bullies about it, but skeptical institutions do their best to discourage it.  On the Skeptic Society's about page, there's a quote by Spinoza, something to do with understanding human actions rather than ridiculing them.

Compare to say, social justice "call out culture" which also leads to bullying.  People have brought up the issue, but I don't see people discouraging it to the same extent bullying is discouraged in the skeptical community.
If anything, I'm convinced that most [skeptics] would prefer to keep the resources unequal. The average skeptic has little time for spreading the word of reason to the educationally or intellectually lacking.
Like the entirety of the skeptical movement is dedicated towards educating people and disseminating information.
About ten years ago there was a short-lived movement to rebrand skeptics as "brights". This proposal was widely derided within the community, perhaps because it revealed too much about the skeptic mindset.
That was more the atheist community, not the skeptical community, but whatever.  If "bright" had been a popular term, it would have confirmed Stephen's belief that skeptics are elitist.  Since "bright" was not a popular term, it still confirms Stephen's belief?  One wonders why Stephen even bothers with evidential arguments.

Are skeptics sexist?
Women are present on skeptic forums in much the same way that women are present in early Star Trek episodes: while the men can take on a variety of roles, the women are always sex characters. Their every attribute is sexualised and objectified. Intelligence in a male skeptic is taken for granted; intelligence in a female skeptic is a turn-on.
Actually I largely agree with this section.

Are skeptics Islamophobic?

I think Stephen Bond might be conflating the skeptical community and atheist community, especially since their primary example is Richard Dawkins' infamous "Dear Muslima" comment.  Not really the best example, since that comment caused large swaths of the atheist community to become disillusioned with Dawkins.
[Dawkins] builds us a generalised picture from a number of isolated and unrelated instances. Female genital mutilation, for example, is nothing to do with Islam, as Dawkins probably knows, though he's quite happy to throw it in there and suggest it's endemic. The effect of his screed is to portray Islam as a kind of institutionalised woman-torture in which all Muslim men are complicit, thus slandering about half a billion people
You know, I can accept that Dawkins was a tremendous ass, and that the atheist community can be Islamophobic, and that Dawkins in particular is Islamophobic.  But I don't agree that this is an instance of Dawkins being Islamophobic.  I mean, Dawkins does not really say or imply that female genital mutilation (FGM) is endemic among Muslims.

And while it's bad to slander half a billion people, this argument largely seems like an attempt to shut up criticism.  When Bond stated that skeptics are sexist, you didn't see me complaining that the they were slandering skeptics, who are not all sexist.  Sexism is a problem among skeptics, it needs to be said, alright?

Are skeptics neoliberals?

Allow me to summarize the argument in this section.
  1. Metaphors are necessary for political, social, and economic advance.
  2. "Skeptics, in insisting on the primacy of scientific knowledge, deny the value of non-scientific metaphors in future scientific advance."
  3. Skeptics, therefore, must believe that "western liberal democracies have made all the political, social, cultural and economic advances they need to."
  4. Skeptics want to spread scientific thinking worldwide, and therefore want to spread liberal democracy worldwide.
  5. That's neoliberalism, and it's bad.
Aside from the unfounded claim that skeptics reject metaphors and therefore political progress, what I'm hearing is that Stephen Bond can't stand any community that has capitalists in it.  Fair enough, he has his political differences, but it hardly seems like an indictment of the skeptical community specifically.

Is science affected by politics?
The idea that politics could or should have any input into science is anathema to skeptics.
Says who?  No citations are provided. It seems clear to me that science is affected by politics, so I don't know what they're disagreeing with.  But perhaps we don't agree on the extent of it.  The author thinks skeptics should avoid "cheerleading indiscriminately for all science, any science."  In particular, the author criticizes medical science, evolutionary psychology, linguistics, and economics.

Actually I don't see skeptics really cheerleading for these fields.  Linguistics and economics simply aren't discussed much.  The medical establishment is frequently criticized--it basically has to be criticized in any discussion of alt-med, because we seek to understand the motivations of alt-med users.  Evolutionary Psychology is also a frequent target of criticism (in my experience, even in offline groups).  And at the same time we also express the value of those fields.  Overall I'd say we get a much more balanced view than that of Stephen Bond.

Are fortune tellers bad?

Here the author argues that fortune tellers are just used as entertainment, that the clients of big name psychics know that they're being lied to, and the placebo effect helps people.  I note that the Stephen Bond himself sincerely believed in superstitious things before identifying as a skeptic, so the argument apparently does not apply to him.  Also psychics have done lots of demonstrable harm, so Bond largely comes across as an insensitive jerk.

Earlier he was accusing skeptics of wanting to keep resources unequal, but now I just think this is true of Bond.

Their crimes pale next to those of our financial institutions, and all the others who convince the public to throw their life savings at the stock market, take out mortgages they can't afford, buy junk they don't need with money they don't have, and pay for the fuck-ups of bankers and the greed of speculators.
Come to think of it, why do we ever discuss problems that aren't capitalism?  Like sexism, why did the author bring that one up?  Wait, no, I suppose sexism is capitalism (but psychics are not).  Nevermind then.

Is skepticism just about comforting people?

Here Stephen argues that people believe in nonsense because it is comforting to them.  The same is true of skepticism.
But as much as hocus-pocus is a comforter for the disenfranchised, skepticism is a comforter for nerds. Even the privileged need to be reassured in their ways; no one is too old or too grand to be tucked in at night with a conscience soother.
This is not much of an argument, because anyone can accuse their opponent of only believing what they do because it is comforting.
And as long as it does no harm to them and others, I wouldn't want to disabuse anyone of their faith, or deprive them of their warming blanket.
Okay, now I'm really convinced that Bond has no interest in spreading the value of reason, and instead "prefers to keep resources unequal".

Is skepticism positivism?
...skeptics have no time for philosophy; many skeptics hate and fear it. It's the skeptic Kryptonite. As a fundamental, rigorous, intellectually respectable but defiantly non-scientific discipline, philosophy makes a lot of skeptics feel threatened.
There's basically no way that Stephen Bond's essay stands up to philosophical scrutiny, but maybe philosophical scrutiny isn't really the correct standard to use.  I use a lower and more casual standard, which Bond still fails.

Next, Stephen identifies skepticism with the discredited philosophy of positivism.  Based on what I know of positivism, it is unlike modern skepticism in very relevant ways.  Any philosophy people want to comment?

Is skepticism ugly?
The truth is, I became a skeptic for aesthetic reasons, and the truth is, its aesthetics now repel me. I increasingly find the core skeptical output monotonous and repetitive: there are only so many times you can debunk the same old junk, and I've had it up to here with science fanboyism.
I did not personally come to skepticism for its aesthetics.  Indeed, I don't really care for Saganesque "awe and wonder at the universe" aesthetics, and resent that people expect me to have these aesthetics just because I study physics.

I think aesthetics are largely irrelevant, although it may decrease or enhance your personal enjoyment of a community.  If you don't like the aesthetics of skepticism, that is a perfectly good reason to focus on something else you find more enjoyable, although it doesn't really say anything about skepticism.


While Stephen Bond's criticisms seem completely off the mark in most cases, I now seriously suspect they are in fact applicable to whatever skeptical forum that he used to frequent.  I don't know which forum it is, and the only representative I know of is Stephen himself.

And indeed Bond is very guilty of many of the same things he criticizes.  He seeks to mock rather than to understand.  He seems to have picked up bad arguments such as, "You just believe that to comfort yourself," and "Why talk about that when there are bigger problems?"  He doesn't believe in "spreading the word of reason", and would "prefer to keep the resources unequal".  And he clearly knows very little about philosophy.

"Why I am no longer a skeptic" is a serious indictment of skepticism, not because Stephen points out many things wrong with skepticism, but because he himself exhibits so many bad beliefs and terrible arguments.  I don't have a problem with people departing from the skeptical community, but I sure hope they leave in a better state than this.

Ref: Debunking Denialism also fisked the same post.


miller said...

After clicking through the links to read this author's critique of positivism, the essence seems to be that positivism is bad because it is (supposedly) some sort of elaborate attempt to rationalize capitalism. It's filled with bizarre arguments by association, such as that Popper's work is bad because it was published in 1934 but did not gain popularity until 1945, supposedly because it was popularized by Hayek, a conservative economist.

The critique of linguistics also seems to be way off. The author appears to be pushing for some version of critical theory semiotics, but claims that syntax and semantics have been dead ends but semiotics has not are not sustainable. If the author means something completely different, it's left utterly unspecified. It's actually a bit like Marxist utopianism--observe the very significant problems with the existing system, and purpose overthrowing it without providing any details about what would replace it.

miller said...

In my understanding, positivism really is a discredited theory in philosophy, so I assumed that all Stephen Bond needed to do was read up on, and summarize the standard critiques. It surprises me to hear that he completely bungled that one.

I don't know enough about linguistics or economics to fully evaluate Bond's critique of these fields, but I can easily see that his "argument" is really composed of vehement assertions.

miller said...

Yeah, it surprised me that his critique of positivism was a political criticism rather than just a reiteration of the standard criticisms you'd find in a philosophy department. I think the function is to preempt people who are sympathetic to the positivist attitude from generating a modified positivist-ish theory that evades the standard criticisms. (Philosophy being the contrarian discipline it is, there are no doubt plenty of philosophers who have tried to do this.)