In Aeon magazine, English professor Emily Ogden from the University of Virginia has a disturbing piece in which she argues that “debunking” is not a quest for truth but rather a scene in the grand drama of defending modernity against the alternative ways of knowing that populate our postmodern world. According to her published CV, this is the only subject to which she has devoted significant attention over the nine years since she earned her PhD in English, and, to be frank, her argument is a load of postmodern bunk with a small kernel of correct observation that goes too far toward demonstrating why those outside the academy are suspicious of its sophistry. You might expect me to disagree with the thesis that “debunkers” are biased performance artists, but instead I am going to disagree with the limited view she takes of epistemology as psychodrama.
Skeptical Inquirer Publishes Another Reflection on the Skeptical Movement, But Is Still Dwelling in the Past
The other day, I received my copy of the July/August issue of Skeptical Inquirer, and usually there are a couple of stories worth talking about. This time, I really struggled to find anything that really merited much notice, except for the oddball editorial choices in the current edition. Three separate stories covered a CBS News report about U.S. government efforts to investigate remote viewing, tied to the release of a new book about the subject, which the skeptical publication found insufficiently critical because it did not include sufficient numbers of skeptical rebuttals. That’s terrific, but the report aired in March, and by the third story, I sort of got the idea. It also didn’t help the magazine’s own credibility that it mixed up CBS Sunday Morning and CBS This Morning Saturday. I get that the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry is outraged by the 10-minute report, but given the sheer volume of fraudulent nonsense put out by the media, often in one- or two-hour blocks at a time, devoting three reports to this one segment grossly overstates its importance. No one, for example, holds expensive fan conventions around the world with tens of thousands of attendees apiece for CBS Sunday Morning the way they do for Ancient Aliens. No offense to Jane Pauley, of course.
Last week, Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine published a column in Scientific American describing his view of moral philosophy, arguing against a heavily simplified form of utilitarianism and in favor of natural rights theory. This, in turn, garnered a response from philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, who pointed out Shermer’s gross oversimplification of the complexities of philosophy, and Shermer responded on Twitter by claiming to already know and understand the aspects of philosophy that Piglucci pointed out, but without explaining why he chose to ignore two centuries of philosophical development in order to rail against a version of utilitarianism that went out of fashion in the 1830s.
ENLIGHTENMENT NOW: THE CASE FOR SCIENCE, REASON, HUMANISM, AND PROGRESS
Steven Pinker | 543 pages | Viking | 2018 | ISBN: 9780525427575 | $35
Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now has been in stores for a few weeks now, and I need not devote much space in this review to detailing Pinker’s many failings. Other reviewers have more than adequately demonstrated that Pinker’s Pollyanna pronouncements on the utopian glory of modern society are shortsighted, and his grasp of the Enlightenment, the putative topic of his book, is incomplete at best. Pinker makes almost no mention of the individual philosophers of the Enlightenment, nor does he take time to note the differences among them, subsuming all of their many and varied opinions on reason and science to the skepticism of David Hume and the veiled atheism of Voltaire. He also fundamentally misunderstands the Enlightenment as the pursuit of pure reason against all emotion, a fact belied by no less a figure than Immanuel Kant, who literally wrote a book entitled Critique of Pure Reason (1781/1787) in which he stated that his purpose was to criticize “the faculty of reason in general, in respect of all knowledge after which it may strive independently of all experience.” More directly relevant, while Pinker claims Enlightenment figures bowed before reason, Hume actually discounted the power of reason to discover moral truth: “Reason is wholly inactive, and can never be the source of so active a principle as conscience, or a sense of morals” (Treatise, 22.214.171.124)
I love The Good Place. In addition to being a hilarious sitcom about the misadventures of flawed people in a morally dubious afterlife, it is also a clever reflection on moral philosophy. What is astonishing, though, is that the show has a better handle on understanding the limits of universalist moral philosophies than many of the secular humanists who have put forward claims for “scientific” morality.
Before I get to my main topic today, I’d like to address a couple of odds and ends. First, I am aware that the Daily Grail reported today that fringe archaeology writers Robert Schoch and Robert Bauval have published a new article on the Sphinx in a pay-for-play open access Chinese academic journal. I am reading the piece, but it’s going to take me another day or so to digest it and decide what I think. I hope to have some thoughts about it tomorrow.
Michael Shermer Publishes Journal Article Promoting "Enlightenment Humanism," But Overlooks Basic Philosophy 101 Concepts
This week, Skeptic magazine publisher Michael Shermer promoted an article he published in Theology and Science (full text here) which constitutes a “manifesto” for “Enlightenment humanism.” The article is an extension of Shermer’s ongoing quest to universalize his own preferences and to argue that the traditional (read: midcentury) American values of his childhood are somehow encoded into the fabric of the universe.
Remember how I said that so much “new” fringe history content is really reposted material from the last few years? The Express took the cake this weekend when they published an article on the Piri Reis Map that simply summarized Erich von Däniken’s chapter on it from Chariots of the Gods, complete with quotations from that volume. That book was published half a century ago. In what world is that news? To this, they added a video of Graham Hancock discussing the map, and that video was an excerpt from the 1996 NBC special The Mysterious Origins of Man, more than two decades ago!
Massimo Pigliucci Advocates for Virtue Epistemology in Skepticism, Seems to Accidentally Justify Using Ad Hominem Attacks
Since I discussed some of the articles on skepticism in the current issue of the Skeptical Inquirer yesterday, I thought it was worthwhile to mention one more, which I saved for a separate post because, while it is on a similar topic, its approach is very different. Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci has a piece on virtue ethics in skepticism and asks whether skeptics should be experts in the topics they discuss. It’s an interesting argument, and I think one that skeptics as a group need to come to terms with, but which Pigliucci fails to take to its logical conclusions in a couple of different directions.
"Skeptical Inquirer" Tries to Defend Scientific Skepticism, Slides into Secular Humanist and Atheist Political Advocacy
Over the years, I have been critical of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (formerly CSICOP) and its parent organization, the Center for Free Inquiry. As a result of the particular interests of its founding generation, notably philosopher Paul Kurtz, CSI has routinely conflated scientific skepticism with secular humanism, going so far as to ostracize those who aren’t atheists from the skeptical movement. This tendency will only grow worse now that CFI has officially merged with the Richard Dawkins Foundation, another group that is officially dedicated to science and reason but is informally an atheist advocacy group. I think that it is a mistake to claim skepticism as a cadet branch of atheism.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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