WHY I AM NO LONGER A SKEPTIC
Former Skeptic rejects the Skeptic Movement and explains why
This is not a tale of how I found Jesus, of how acupuncture cured my haemorrhoids, or of how my alien abductors revealed the ultimate truth about 9/11. I still have no faith in anything supernatural, mystical, psychical or spiritual. I still regard the scientific method as the best way to model reality, and reason as the best way to uncover truth. I’m no longer a skeptic, but not one of my core beliefs has changed.
What has changed is that I have come to reject skepticism as an identity. Shared identities like skepticism are problematic at the best of times, for numerous reasons, but I can accept them as a means of giving power and a voice to the disenfranchised. And indeed, this is how skeptics like to portray themselves: an embattled minority standing up for science, the lone redoubt of reason in an irrational world, the vanguard against the old order of ignorance and superstition. As a skeptic, I was happy to accept this narrative and believe I was shoring up the barricades.
However, it’s a narrative that corresponds poorly with reality. In the modern world, science, technology and reason are central and vital, and this is widely recognised, including at the highest level. On any major political decision, the technocrat speaks louder than the bishop, or anyone else, for that matter. Sure, Bush and Blair were noted god-botherers, but if you seriously think that, say, Gulf War 2 was their decision alone, or that that “God wills it” would have convinced anyone they had to convince, then you’re subscribing to a cartoon view of history. Such decisions are always calculated, reasoned, and backed by dozens of accommodating scientific experts.
Science has a high media profile and a powerful lobby group: in the midst of a global recession and sweeping government cuts, science funding has generally held up or even increased. Hi-tech corporations have massive wealth and influence, and their products are omnipresent and seen as ever more desirable. In fact, the world today would be unthinkable without the products of science and technology, which have infiltrated into almost every economic, political and social process. We live in a world created by and ever-more dependent on science, technology and reason, in which scientists and engineers are a valued and indispensable elite.
That’s right: the nerds won, decades ago, and they’re now as thoroughly established as any other part of the establishment. And while nerds a relatively new elite, they’re overwhelmingly the same as the old: rich, white, male, and desperate to hang onto what they’ve got. And I have come to realise that skepticism, in their hands, is just another tool to secure and advance their privileged position, and beat down their inferiors. As a skeptic, I was not shoring up the revolutionary barricades: instead, I was cheering on the Tsar’s cavalry.
REASON IS NOT JUST FOR AN INTELLECTUAL ELITE
Of course, there is nothing inherently elitist about reason or the scientific method. Critical thinking involves applying a few simple rules that are accessible to everyone, at least in theory. And indeed, a lot of people become skeptics for the best of intentions: to spread the word of reason and critical thinking, to arm the masses rather than shoot them down. In highlighting bunk and deception wherever it occurs, their aim is to protect the vulnerable against the hucksters, charlatans, politicians and priests who exploit them.
But such is the character of skepticism that good intentions quickly get swamped by bad ones. Look past the crocodile tears on any online debunking forum, and you’ll quickly find that the majority of visitors are not drawn there by concern for the victims of irrationality, but by contempt. They’re there to laugh at idiots. 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. It’s never pleasant to watch a group of university graduates ganging up to sneer at people denied their advantages in life, especially when for some of them it’s a full-time hobby. It’s an unfair fight between unequal resources, and far too few skeptics care about this inequality or want to do anything about it.
If anything, I’m convinced that most of them 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. His superior reason is what separates him from the chumps around him, and he has no interest in closing the gap. For him, the appeal of the skeptic clique is its exclusivity. It’s a refuge from the stupid masses, and a marker of his own special privileges. It’s Mensa rebranded.
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. Many skeptics indeed see themselves as “brights” in a world of “dims”. And rather than illuminate the world, they prefer to gather on skeptic forums and try to outshine each other.
Online forums, whatever their subject, can be forbidding places for the newcomer; over time, most of them tend to become dominated by small groups of snotty know-it-alls who stamp their personalities over the proceedings. But skeptic forums are uniquely meant for such people. A skeptic forum valorises (and in some cases, fetishises) competitive geekery, gratuitous cleverness, macho displays of erudition. It’s a gathering of rationality’s hard men, thumping their chests, showing off their muscular logic, glancing sideways to compare their skeptical endowment with the next guy, sniffing the air for signs of weakness. Together, they create an oppressive, sweaty, locker-room atmosphere that helps keep uncomfortable demographics away.
One demographic skeptics are particularly uncomfortable with is the female of the species. It’s an increasingly acknowledged fact that the skeptic community is rife with sexism — especially in the wake of the “elevator guy” controversy, about which more later. Women are a small minority in the skeptic world, and the few who get involved get shit thrown at them constantly by their skeptic peers. Every day, they suffer the whole gamut of attitudes from sneering to leering.
[Note by Jime: see an example of sexism and misogyny by male skeptics and atheists in this link]
Skepticism, of course, is only one of the many online interests which attract barely-closeted sexists. But the particular attraction of skepticism is also its particular problem: it allows the sexist to disguise his prejudice as rationality and “common sense”. You can spot guys like this easily on skeptic forums: the word “feminism” brings them crawling out, like slugs after a downpour. For them, feminism is an unscientific discipline (but how could it be otherwise?), as nonsensical as astrology or Roman Catholicism, and as ripe and essential for debunking. They’re okay with women’s lib, within reason; but now it’s gone too far, and the firm hand of reason must rein it in. Reason, weirdly enough, never seems to disrupt their own grip on power. It’s always on the side of the patriarchy.
To be fair, such unabashed sexists are a minority on skeptic forums, but to be fairer, the general attitude to women isn’t exactly healthy. 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. When a male scientist knows about science, it’s expected and goes unremarked; when a female scientist knows about science, she’s hot! And she’ll be barely visible beneath the throng of nerds trying to fap off over her lab coat.
Too often, the skeptic nerd who tries to display his women-friendly credentials ends up revealing himself only as a sexist creep. He’s all in favour of women, as long as they satisfy his own ideals of what a woman should be. This kind of attitude is typified by the skeptic-oriented webcomic xkcd. “I like nerdy girls”, says Randall Munroe — but can he tolerate any others? I looked through hundreds of his stick-figure strips, god help me, and where his females are characterised at all, they inevitably conform to the same constructed ideal — geeky, quirky, all-knowing, whimsical — an ideal largely constructed around Randall himself, or his own self-image. This female ideal says a lot more about his vanity than his feminism; and it’s an ideal shared by many guys in the skeptic community.
Idealising women is not the same thing as feminism — in fact, it’s usually the opposite. Throughout history, the concept of the “perfect female” has been more about men forcing their impressions on women, stifling them, not allowing them a voice. The Virgin Mary was not a progressive figure, and neither was Joan of Arc, and neither is the skeptic chick of your dreams, guys, whoever she may be. Wrapping women up in your clammy fantasies is not much different from wrapping them up in a burkha.
Only a minority of Muslim women wear burkhas; some of them do so by choice, as a statement of cultural identity. Some others do so purely on the insistence of the men in their family. Some of those men are traditional sexists of the kind you might find in the skeptic community; many of the others are guided by the same kind of wrongheaded chivalry that makes nerds idealise quirky science chicks.
I don’t want to blow my own trumpet unduly, but I believe the above paragraph to be a more measured and factual statement about Islam than you will find in all the work of Prof. Richard Dawkins or his co-thinkers. In fact, in the skeptic community it’s much more common to find statements insinuating that all Muslims are women-hating, freedom-hating, clit-butchering, suicidal terrorists, and furthermore, find those statements accepted without comment. Under the guise of atheism, liberalism and rationality, ugly Islamophobia thrives.
A recent shocking example occured in the aftermath of the so-called elevator guy controversy. At a skeptic conference in Dublin, prominent skeptic Rebecca Watson (aka “Skepchick”) was propositioned by some creep in an elevator at 4am. She politely refused and later video-blogged about the incident, saying that, guys, elevator come-ons are not such a good idea. Fair enough, one might think. But predictably for the skeptic community, her words incited the fury of a number of sexists, including Prof. Richard Dawkins, who couldn’t resist dragging in one of his other prejudices from left-field. It’s worth quoting his words in full:
Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.
Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so…
And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.
This comment was not made by some low-rent Youtube troll, or by a declared BNP member, or even by a malicious impostor; as was later confirmed by PZ Myers, these are the words of Richard Dawkins himself. That’s the Richard Dawkins, author of Unweaving the Rainbow and The Blind Watchmaker, professor emeritus for the public understanding of science at Oxford university, the skeptic’s ultimate skeptic. And his words are hate speech, plain and simple.
As is typical of hatemongers, Dawkins is careful not to name his target directly: instead, he works with insinuation — though that said, calling the victim “Muslima” is particularly crass. As is also typical of hatemongers, he 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, and furthering the agenda of Fox News and the “war on terror”. (Incidentally, the irony of the first paragraph doesn’t conceal Dawkins’ lack of compassion for the plight of “Muslima”. Looking for an example of skeptical crocodile tears? I can think of none better.)
To their credit, many big-name skeptics (including PZ Myers and Phil Plait) called Dawkins out on his obvious sexism; but to my knowledge — and correct me if I’m wrong — not one of them has said a word about his Islamophobia. It seems as though this racist trash is as accepted within the skeptic community as it evidently is within the common rooms of Oxbridge.
And racist trash is what it is. Some Dawkins apologists claim that he is not Islamophobic, but simply a militant atheist combatting the evils of religion wherever he sees them; but Dawkins sees his evils rather selectively. Indeed, he is markedly sympathetic towards the faith of his childhood, the good old C of E — so much so that I suspect the “God Delusion” per se is not his main concern. From his writings, I gather that Dawkins would be content to live in a world where gentle Anglican vicars presided over their bored, civilised congregations in England’s vales and hills, while the British Empire did its dirty work elsewhere, in places like Kenya, India, and West Cork. He saves his real ire for the creeds of the unruly natives — all those nasty Muslims and Catholics and tribalists who don’t know their place. Not that he’d want to associate himself with the bloodshed done in his name. Like a lot of gentle liberals, he hypocritically declared himself against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while continuing to poison the atmosphere in their favour with his hate speech. At least his buddy Christopher Hitchens, for all his thuggery, was consistent enough to follow his views to their logical, and repugnant, conclusion. But then, Hitchens is better aware of what skepticism is.
SKEPTICISM IS NEOLIBERALISM
As we have seen, skepticism is a broad and varied church — welcoming, among others, elitist, sexist and racist views. One thing all skeptics have in common, though, is that they support the freedoms they believe to exist in present-day western civilization, and think those freedoms should be spread worldwide. In other words, all skeptics are neoliberals. They might disagree, like Hitchens and Dawkins, over the correct strategy to win the latest neoliberal crusade, but they can usually be relied upon to support it, at least in principle.
All skeptics are neoliberals: if you do not consider yourself a neoliberal, you should not consider yourself a skeptic. I realise this can sound like a contentious claim, so please let me explain.
Skeptics are people who believe in the primacy of the scientific method as a source of knowledge. For a skeptic, all knowledge derived through other means is either inferior or spurious. Extreme skeptics like Dawkins come close to claiming that the scientific method is the onlytrue source of knowledge, and that what is presently non-scientific knowledge — like morals and culture — will eventually become more rigorously and correctly established through the scientific method.
The scientific method generally involves observation of reality, hypothesis based on observation, and experimental testing of hypothesis. All of these elements, particularly the first and third, involve the use of human perception — which, when building models of objective reality, can introduce a dangerously subjective element.
We perceive the world through metaphors: mental models that help us interpret and understand our raw perceptions, and construct our observations. Some of these metaphors are inherited and probably immutable without some kind of biological engineering: a rock wall is mostly empty space, but we’ve evolved to see it as solid mass. Other metaphors are learned, and liable to change or be transmitted to others in the environment. As an example, one can regard events as having apurpose, or one can regard events as having a cause; these are very different metaphors, that lead to very different perceptions of reality. The existence of such metaphors is uncontroversial, by the way; this isn’t wishy-washy pomo stuff. Even Dawkins acknowledges them: he calls them memes.
Our observations are conditioned by the metaphors we have been exposed to culturally, socially, and in our society’s history. This is what Newton meant when he said he stood on the shoulders of giants: he was acknowledging the accumulation of metaphors which helped him make his discoveries. Some of these metaphors were provided by scientists, like Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler. Others were provided by philosophers, like Descartes and Francis Bacon, who helped transform the way people looked at the world, introducing a mechanistic and empirical view. Other metaphors still came from the cultural, political, social, economic and even religious transformations experienced in Europe in the previous two hundred years. The decline of feudalism, the emergence of a strong middle-class, renaissance humanism, the Protestant reformation, all had a profound effect on the way Europeans of Newton’s time could perceive the world. (And all those transformations in turn were influenced by the influx of Islamic culture in the preceding centuries, pillaged during the crusades….)
It’s impossible to imagine the breakthroughs of Newton or Copernicus or Descartes happening in 14th-century Europe. The medieval mind did not perceive the world in the right way to make them. It was too clouded with metaphors of heaven and hell and angels and divine will and oaths and tithes and loyalty and hierarchy and feudal exchange; metaphors that, in our understanding, obscured its perception of reality. When these metaphors were transformed and replaced, people could see more clearly; but these transformations were not and could not have been wrought by the scientific method alone, even if such a thing existed at the time. Scientific advance was inseparable from political, social, and economic advance. And the same has been true of all scientific advances. It’s just as impossible to imagine Darwin’s breakthrough in Newton’s time, or Heisenberg’s in Darwin’s time.
Skeptics, in insisting on the primacy of scientific knowledge, deny the value of non-scientific metaphors in future scientific advance. As far as they are concerned, western liberal democracies have made all the political, social, cultural and economic advances they need to. Western thought is already so free that anyone who tries can perceive reality direct and unmediated, with no obscuring metaphors in the way. To the trained western eye, the truth simply reveals itself, in as much detail as our scientific understanding allows. It’s difficult to imagine a more absolute statement of confidence in liberal democracy.
Similarly, when skeptics insist that scientific thinking should be spread worldwide, they necessarily mean that liberal democracy should be spread worldwide. Which is to say, they are neoliberals.
This is not the place to describe the many problems and hypocrisies of neoliberalism. Suffice it to say that I do not believe that liberal democracy, which condemns the majority of the world’s population to varying degrees of slavery, is a perfect system. I do not believe that the metaphors of liberal democracy allow us a perfect view of reality. And therefore I do not believe in the primacy of the scientific method as a source of knowledge. It might be the best we’ve got, but when it comes to human advancement — including the advance of science itself — other sources of knowledge can be just as useful, and often more important.
It is my hope that human beings will one day live in a more just society, a more free society, than any that has yet existed in our history. I am certain that the people of such a society would look back at us and regard our minds as clouded today as we regard those of medieval peasants, and look back on those who insisted we had it all — today’s skeptics prominent among them — as we look on friars, preachers, despots and other historical enemies of progress.
SCIENCE ALWAYS HAS A POLITICAL DIMENSION
Because we perceive the world through metaphors, all observations, theories, experiments, statements and facts have a context, including a political context. Our science is necessarily and unavoidably contaminated by our political system; political ideologies propagate through science, and science on its own is incapable of purging them. This is widely understood by people who study scientists, but less often by scientists themselves, and never by skeptics.
Skeptics like to portray science as a hermetically-sealed, self-correcting enterprise, where false theories naturally yield to conflicting evidence, and the truth will always out. To support this position they always trot out the same old anecdotes. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read the heartwarming tale of the old geologist who happily dismantled his life’s work once the truth of plate tectonics was demonstrated to him. However, the history of science shows that such tales are the exception, and that old theories, and old scientists, have greater stubbornness. Much more common is the scenario described by Max Planck:
“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
This “new generation”, not incidentally, tends to be armed with new political attitudes.
The idea that politics could or should have any input into science is anathema to skeptics. They often bring out the examples of Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union, or the racial science of Nazi Germany, to illustrate the dangers of allowing science to be contaminated by political ideology. They less often acknowledge that racial science was not unique to Nazi Germany, and that the same kind of racist garbage was enthusiastically pursued by scientists in the most enlightened liberal democracies of the time, and found in all the standard British and American anthropology textbooks. Eugenics, including racial eugenics, wasn’t just supported by Nazis, but by people who considered themselves among the vanguard of all that was good and progressive. Liberal democracy was no guard against the influence of political ideology on scientific thought. (On the contrary, liberal democracy is a political ideology that influences scientific thought.
What’s more, skeptics never acknowledge that racial science was defeated by political ideology, and not by science itself. In fact, there was nothing that could have defeated it within the empirical framework of racial scientists. Their racist experiments confirmed their racist hypotheses based on their racist observations. But while the science supported them, politics, in the aftermath of World War 2 and the Holocaust, did not. After 1945, racial science became politically unacceptable in western liberal democracies, and remains so in spite of the various attempts to revive it. It was not disproved by the scientific method; instead, the political ideologies behind racial science were discarded, and replaced by new ones that did not accommodate it.
And when the political consensus shifts, other sciences could go the same way. Whatever science you support, future generations might well regard it to be as wrongheaded as we regard racial science today. We look at reality through a thicket of political metaphors; as these metaphors come and go, different parts of reality become more or less visible; it can become easier to see where we were wrong at earlier times, and harder to see where we are wrong at the present.
What parts of reality do the metaphors of present-day liberal democracy obscure? I’m willing to believe that it affords us a very good view of physical reality: the “hard sciences” have truly prospered under the last few hundred years of political progress. Facts like “the Sun is larger than the Earth” or “the Earth is billions of years old” or “humans and chimpanzees have a common ancestor” are unlikely to be rendered obsolete by political progress, certainly not progress of the positive kind.
I’m less willing to believe that liberal democracy affords us a good view of the realities of human experience. I’m as deep in the liberal thicket as anyone else, so I can’t say for sure, but I suspect many human sciences as they are practised today are heavily clouded by dubious political assumptions. The most dubious of these is the assumption the liberalism itself is a politically neutral context. This has led to the widespread fetish for reducing complex psychological or social or cultural problems to “quantifiable” data amenable to scientific study. When this data and the conclusions drawn from it are subjected to the scrutiny of free-thinking liberal experts, the results will necessarily be unbiased — or so the assumption goes. That assumption can fuck right off.
Which is not to say that the human sciences are entirely wrong or useless as currently practised: I’ve no time for the hardcore skeptics who dismiss anything that isn’t maths or physics. But skeptics should be careful of cheerleading indiscriminately for all science, any science. Here are just a few examples of where the problems could lie.
- Medical science. In criticising homeopathy, chiropractic, faith healing and the like, skeptics tend to overstate the integrity of medical science, which for all its achievements is still rife with difficulties. I can’t help but be suspicious of a field in which research is dominated by a handful of particularly large and unscrupulous corporations. But even if Big Pharma doesn’t bother you, you should consider, for example, the political assumptions inherent in the sciences of pathology and psychopathology. Symptoms can be empirically there, but the decision to categorise a set of symptoms as an illness is frequently a political call. Over the years, medical science has tended to pathologise those sets of symptoms which interfere with an individual’s participation in the profit system (like physical disability), or which confirm existing social prejudices (homosexuality and female hysteria were once considered mental illnesses), or which can be profitably “treated”, regardless of whether the symptoms are actually debilitating (a process known as disease-mongering). It is conceivable that to a future society all these decisions might seem as barbaric as the decision to categorise a set of cranial measurements as characteristic of an inferior race.
- Evolutionary Psychology, Sociobiology, etc. These fields are largely bogus, and almost everyone associated with them, however tangentially, is a purveyor of poisonous bullshit. The modus operandi of evolutionary psychology is to take some observation about human behaviour (which is typically a statistical artifact of dubious significance), shear it of all cultural, historical, social and political context (other than the scientist’s own), and explain it as a necessary consequence of our genetic coding or hunter-gatherer past — typically in a way that endorses the scientist’s political and cultural assumptions. In fairness, skeptics like PZ Myers and Ben Goldacre regularly criticise the most obviously loony excesses of evolutionary psychology — but the methods and conclusions of celebrated friend o’skeptics Steven Pinker are just as bogus, and are seldom remarked upon. Perhaps because his politics are generally in line with the skeptic consensus.
- Linguistics, Computational Linguistics. These have been dead-end fields for decades, chiefly because their practitioners are anally obsessed with syntax and semantics, the elements of language most easily tackled by scientific methods and of least importance to human communication. I’m convinced (and Wittgenstein agrees with me) that the pragmatics of language — its use in context — is much more significant; but a proper study of pragmatics (and not the quasi-semantic junk you usually see) would require dropping those clumsy logico-empirical tools and admitting the presence and value of non-scientific knowledge. Want to know why we won’t be remotely close to a talking AI any time soon? Blame skeptics.
- Economics. A lot of the claims of free-market economics, such as the notion of endlessly increasing growth, sounded rather dubious to my skeptic ears, and still do. I’ve seen skeptical exposes of Ponzi schemes (where people are incited to buy into an idea that only tiny minority at the top have a chance of profiting from) and Scientology’s Sea Org (where, in order to afford the cult’s most desirable products and treatments, poorer members are forced to slave away at shitty jobs for a meagre salary, or otherwise risk ignominy and destitution), but have yet to see any skeptic make the obvious observation that both of these scams are just capitalism in miniature. Perhaps it’s because the capitalist perpetual-motion-machine underpins the political assumptions of skepticism that no skeptic is interested in debunking it. On the whole, they’d much rather debunk fairground sideshows.
WHAT’S SO BAD ABOUT FORTUNE TELLERS?
In their fevered debunkings of astrologers, hypnotists, mystics, spirit mediums and the like, skeptics usually miss the fact that these are simply sources of entertainment for a lot of people, and taken no more seriously than the plot of any random Hollywood blockbuster. For paranormal sideshow acts, hocus-pocus is all part of the spectacle, a fact skeptics are willing to overlook in performers who meet their approval. If anything, the psychobabble that friend o’skeptics Derren Brown uses to sell his mediocre conjuring tricks is more fraudulent than the the mind-power nonsense Uri Geller uses to sell his, if only because Geller has apparently deluded himself more than his audience.
And if you truly believe in any of these frauds, so what? They’re mostly just a harmless diversion, a faint ray of amusement to guide us through the long and darkening days. Uri Geller fans, if indeed such people exist, are not hurting anyone. Evil hypnotists are not programming people’s minds. And astrologers, except in the paranoid fantasies of skeptics, have virtually no influence in the modern world, for good or ill. Skeptics aside, the only person who believes Ronald Reagan’s former astrologer had an impact on US policy in the 80s is Ronald Reagan’s former astrologer. (That Reagan employed a court astrologer, by the way, was the least of his crimes. Skepticism would be better directed at the scum he put into positions of actual power.)
There’s a lot of phony outrage on skeptic sites about spirit mediums like John Edward, who purport to channel voices “from the other side”, and in so doing exploit the grief of the kind of people skeptics laugh at anyway. Edward is obviously slime, but I’m convinced that many of his customers are quite aware of that. They know he’s feeding them lies, but they’re comforting lies, lies they feel the need to hear at that moment in time. And the cash transaction and the audience setting and the hocus pocus and even Edward’s clumsy name-flailing all help legitimise them. Edward’s customers are looking for the kind of catharsis he provides; to claim he simply cheats them out of their money isn’t the whole truth.
And even at their worst, the hucksters of mumbo-jumbo are only minor-league con artists. 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. But which skeptic is going to debunk these swindlers?
Cheating people out of their money is one thing, but cheating them out of their lives is quite another. To read some skeptic takes on alternative medicine, you’d think only heart disease rivalled it as a killer. It’s true that alternative medicine is not going to cure anyone of serious illness, but it’s also generally true that the terminally ill only turn to it when real medicine has given up hope on them. And the value of hope in one’s final days is not to be dismissed so easily. The relaxed swagger of a charlatan can be far more comforting than the stress of an overworked hospital registrar, and the charlatan typically receives his patients in more comforting surroundings than a hospital. If I’m going to die anyway, I’ll take aromatherapy over chemotherapy every time.
The placebo value of alternative medicine should also not be so easily dismissed, and neither should its emphasis on “wellness” instead of illness. If a homeopath cures your imaginary itch by giving you diluted water, is it really much worse than a GP curing your imaginary itch by prescribing you paracetamol or antibiotics? It might be nonsense from start to finish, but alternative medicine helps millions of people get through the day, with no side effects apart from spouting the occasional line of bullshit. Real medicine is better at curing its recognised ailments, but alternative medicine seems to be better at helping with a chronic unrecognised ailment: daily life under the capitalist system. And so it shall remain until opiates are freely available in pill form.
SCIENCE AS A WARM BLANKET IN THE DARK
Arguably the worst purveyors of bunk are the conspiracy crackpots and pseudohistorians, who really do fill the minds of their followers with some reprehensible opinions. But in picking apart the nonsense they come out with, skeptics miss the most important question, which is why they felt the need to create this nonsense in the first place.
Our political system, education and culture leave a lot of people marginalised, lost, impotent, irrelevant, and made to feel so daily. But these people are not complete idiots. They know something is wrong (though they’re not sure what), they know they have been denied knowledge and power (though they’re not sure by whom), they know that official life has left them on the scrapheap (though they’re not sure why). They look at the reality that has been dealt to them and ask, can this be all there is? Is this as good as it gets? And so, quite justifiably, they invent an alternative. An alternative reality where the people who marginalised them are reduced to easily-identifiable comic-book villians, plotting in underground hideouts. An alternative reality where, more often than not, they and their people are the heroes: the rebels, the fearless investigators, the pioneers of science, the true keepers of knowledge.
And the same is true of almost all bunk, from cryptozoology to Christianity: it’s an alternative reality for the disenfranchised, a wonderland where the losers are promised triumph, and The Man holds no sway. The masters of bunk — the bishops and wizards and cult sages — can wield considerable power in objective reality, but their greatest power is always over the downtrodden and the cast aside.
To convert their followers to skepticism, there’s no use in preaching, like Dawkins and Phil Plait, about the wonders of objective reality, however eloquently they may do it. Objective reality in a liberal democracy might well be wonderful if you’re a media personality or a tenured professor in a leafy college town. But for most people, reality sucks. And if they choose to reject it, I can’t blame them. Proselytising skeptics certainly offer them no incentive to change their minds. Skeptics ask society’s castaways to leave a reality in which they are good and valued people, and enter one in which they are pieces of warm garbage. Little wonder that so few take up the offer.
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. For nerds, skepticism is the perfect self-justifying schema: a personal theology that validates their interests, their deeds, their prejudices and their politics. In this sense it’s markedly similar to one of skepticism’s favourite targets.
That skepticism is a religion is a idea frequently ridiculed and debunked on skeptic forums. As so often in the skeptic world, PZ Myers says it best (and here, by “the New Atheism”, he means more or less exactly what I understand by “skepticism”):
“[The ‘New Atheism’] is about taking a core set of principles that have proven themselves powerful and useful in the scientific world — you’ve probably noticed that many of these uppity atheists are coming out of a scientific background — and insisting that they also apply to everything else people do. These principles are a reliance on natural causes and demanding explanations in terms of the real world, with a documentary chain of evidence, that anyone can examine. The virtues are critical thinking, flexibility, openness, verification, and evidence. The sins are dogma, faith, tradition, revelation, superstition, and the supernatural. There is no holy writ, and a central idea is that everything must be open to rational, evidence-based criticism — it’s the opposite of fundamentalism.”
I’ve got a lot of time for Myers, but I can’t agree with his claim that dogma plays no role in skepticism. The skeptic dogma is, of course, the belief that “a core set of principles that have proven themselves powerful and useful in the scientific world also apply to everything else people do”. This belief is as simple and seductive as any of the claims that priests and mullahs and gurus have made over the millennia — and almost as wrong. While science in its material domain has worked miracles, in the social and emotional and political domains its achievements are highly questionable, to say the least.
But if the skeptic dogma sustains you through the day, I can’t blame you: most of us here are just trying to get by, with as much comfort and dignity as we can scrape together. And indeed, skepticism was once a faith I found comfort in myself. 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. While ultimately I believe the world would be better without religions of any kind, faith can still motivate people for good. Skeptics follow a faith with fundamentally well-meaning principles; not all of them are kneejerk science fans; some of them make a decent and positive contribution to the world through their skepticism. I’m not going to dismiss them personally just because their creed is even more discredited than Christianity.
POSITIVISM IS PAST IT
“Positivism” is not a word you see often in skeptic circles, which is odd, because it’s basically the old name for skepticism. The positivist movement in philosophy, which began in the mid-19th century, involved a loose collection of thinkers who to some extent or other believed in the primacy of reason and the scientific method, and set about trying to establish the basis of human knowledge on those terms.
One reason you don’t hear about positivism often in skeptic circles is that 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. Skeptics are like a naval fortress, with weapons fixed to sea; while they regard themselves invulnerable against fleets of art grads, paranormalists, and true believers, they know that philosophers can strike them freely in their defenceless rear. Little wonder that philosophers bring out their inferiority complex. Some skeptics would love to dismiss philosophy, all philosophy, in the same way they dismiss religion, but they’d be afraid of appearing stupid or attracting ridicule in doing so. If anything, they’re afraid philosophers already find them ridiculous.
Which brings us to the other reason positivism isn’t mentioned in skeptic circles: it failed, badly, and became discredited, badly, to the extent that “positivism” is almost a swearword on many philosophy campuses, and “positivist” an all-purpose insult. As a philosophical movement, traditional positivism has been dead since the 1950s (though it lives on in the natural and human sciences in all but name). “Postpositivists” like Karl Popper have tried to salvage something from the carcass, but among philosophers, their work is widely seen as reactionary. (By contrast, Dawkins in The Devil’s Chaplain disdains them as he would disdain new age crystal merchants.)
But why did positivism fail, and why did it become discredited? Well, I’m no philosopher, but I was for some years unwittingly involved in one of the last holdouts of hardcore, balls-out, unabashed logical positivism in all academia. And having seen some of its contradictions and failures firsthand, I think I have a good idea of the answer. But that’s something I want to cover elsewhere at greater detail and from a different angle. Christ knows, this webpage is already long enough.
SKEPTICISM’S UGLY AESTHETICS
Philosophising won’t persuade anyone to change their views; we’re all epicureans, and we believe whatever gives us the biggest kicks. If one philosophy doesn’t do it for you, you can easily find one that does; there are plenty of fish in that sea.
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. And when skeptics talk about subjects outside their domain of expertise, I’m struck by how irrelevant their comments are, and how ugly, shrill and trivial.
Dawkins was a big influence on me in my early 20s, so to repeatedly call him out feels a bit like patricide; but it must be said that this kind of stuff does not cast him or his followers in a good light. In the linked article, Dawkins uses Pat Robertson’s comments on the Haiti earthquake as a launching point for yet another rant about religion. It’s an unreadable screed, the ravings of an obsessive, in style and content hardly less repulsive than Robertson’s original. And it’s all too typical of Dawkins’ output lately.
It also must be said that on many topics, the best religious people have more of interest and insight to say than the best skeptics. Take this Christian response to the above Dawkins article, for example. Its author Doug Chaplin rightly criticises Dawkins’ explanation for the “catastrophe” in Haiti. It was not, as Dawkins says, due to tectonic plates colliding; that was simply the cause of the earthquake. Thecatastrophe was caused by the earthquake happening in a poverty-stricken, overcrowded nation which has been raped by imperial powers for its entire existence. Scientific facts alone give a completely inadequate picture; but you won’t find too many skeptics admitting that. Chaplin also astutely observes that Robertson and Dawkins are two sides of the same coin: both hide behind a shallow empiricism to justify their right-wing politics. When they come to pronounce on world events, they’re both equally ignorant and self-serving.
And Dawkins is far from the worst offender in the skeptic community. At least when he sticks to the science, he reliably brings an infectious passion and sense of wonder; I still have a lot of respect for him as a science communicator. A lot of the most prominent skeptics, though, are ugly all the time. Loudmouth libertarians like Penn Jillette, touchy-feely dorks like Randall Monroe, lazy comedy hacks like Robin Inceand Charlie Brooker, neoliberal thugs like Christopher Hitchens and David Aaronovitch, the sniggering philistines at reddit/atheism: no one I respect could hang out with this crowd. I feel a rush of self-loathing just browsing the same web forums.
And so I came to look at skepticism as I’d look at an old embarrassing album by a band whose work I’ve long since disavowed. Any time I found it taking up space on my mental shelf, I’d think “why is this crap still here?” And now that I’ve thrown it away, I feel much the better for it.