"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 don’t need to rehash all of the reasons that I believe this, among them the fact that (a) skepticism is an activity, not a belief and (b) critical thinking can govern how to think about issues and evaluate alternatives, but it cannot make value judgments for us. It is not for me to tell people what conclusions to draw from evidence, or how to feel about it, but rather our goal should be to ensure that we agree on what constitutes evidence and the rules of logic that allow us to draw conclusions from it. To put it in plainer terms, we might consider the famous “trolley problem” in philosophy: A trolley moves down the track, about to strike three people. Flipping a switch would send it down another track, killing just one person. Do you actively intervene to kill one and save three? Does it matter if the one person is a famous scientist and the three are criminals? Science and reason can help us evaluate the facts and the consequences, but they cannot tell us how to feel about the intangible value of human life, of personal responsibility, etc. Those aren’t questions for science.
However, skeptics want to make them so. In the new edition of Skeptical Inquirer (March/April 2017), there are a number of somewhat disturbing articles that emphasize the “mission creep” that weakens the concept of critical thinking by marrying it too closely to the philosophy of secular humanism, to atheist advocacy, and to a generally misanthropic worldview that is deeply off-putting. It is a philosophy for an angry minority, primarily of bitter old men, but it is not a positive vision of anything, and not one that will reach the large mass of people skeptics claim to want to influence.
Consider Confidence Game author Maria Konnikova’s speech at CSICon Las Vegas reported in the Skeptical Inquirer. She told the audience that stories are bad. “In the wrong hands, stories can be a force for evil,” she said, as though this were any different than any other human endeavor. Hammers are a force for evil sometimes, too, as is even logic itself, when the deadly efficiency of syllogisms lead nations to terrible atrocities in the name of reason. Konnikova complained that storytelling leads to emotions, and emotions lead to terrible consequences, including injustice and fraud. “Humanity sucks; trust no one!” she said, though she was in context a tad more hopeful than this makes her sound. That might sound like a rallying cry for disaffected outcasts, but it reinforces the idea that skeptics cast themselves as outsiders casting angry judgment on the follies of the wicked. In this, they are mirror images of the fundamentalist Christians who issue moral fatwas while pretending to be in the world, but not of the world. I would prefer to call out fraudsters for their frauds without assuming that everyone is inherently evil and corrupt.
But more directly of concern was the interview that Skeptical Inquirer editor Kendrick Frazier had with James “the Amazing” Randi. Both men were present at the beginning of CSI. Randi was a founder of the organization in 1976, and Frazier has edited Skeptical Inquirer since 1977. But as much good work as both have done, their time has passed. They have hardened in their views to the point that they have become limiting. Frazier’s magazine has barely changed, in format or content, in decades. He likes to publish anniversary updates of material written before I was born. The current issue features an update of the book The Selfish Gene, which Richard Dawkins wrote in 1976! Frazier only introduced color a few years ago for crying out loud! He continues to view the magazine as an academic journal for the smart set, and that means that it has virtually no appeal to people who would like a Consumer Reports-style evaluation of what is true but who have no intention of wading through verbiage that is always stodgy and often purposefully complex. Randi has always been more of a populist, but as he has grown older he has become more militant in seeing skepticism as a wedge for atheism, somewhat like the inverse of evangelicals who hope to use intelligent design to advocate for their God. Randi is officially agnostic because he cannot prove there is no God, but his agnosticism is the kind of technical agnosticism born of logic, the way I am technically agnostic on the existence of unicorns.
In their interview, Randi brought up the issue of Martin Gardner’s deism, and Frazier suggested that skeptics “can certainly deal with a deist in the house,” a phrasing that suggests an assumption that skeptics will be atheists until proved otherwise. Randi, however, despite supporting Gardner’s deism because Gardner conceded it was illogical, wasted no words in condemning God: “I just think that a belief in a god is one of the most damaging things that infests humanity at this particular moment in history. It may improve. I see signs that it may be improving. I’ll leave it at that.” He later added that he had been skeptical of religion since childhood. Both men seemed to feel that skepticism and atheism are two sides of the same coin, but this repeats the error of political parties that impose ideological purity tests on their members. It promotes extremism and limits the good that can be done among a larger population.
What’s interesting, though, is the contrast that Randi drew between the early years of CSI(COP) and what it is today. Randi spoke of how he used to develop deep personal relationships with newspaper columnists, journalists, and broadcasters in order to make himself the go-to person for a skeptical viewpoint on unusual claims. By contrast, over the years CSI has moved farther and farther from deep engagement with the mainstream media and instead retreated into an insulated world of Skeptical Inquirer, the James Randi Educational Foundation message boards, and the skeptical conference circuit. As a result, the organization now talks mostly to itself and its membership, and despite its claims to do outreach, a Google News search finds that the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry has almost no presence in the mainstream media in the past few years. (The exception is Joe Nickell, who is usually promoting his own books and his investigations rather than CSI as an institution.)
In the same issue, Ronald A. Lindsay, the former CEO of CFI, says that I am wrong about the insularity of skepticism. He says that this is “the cynic’s view.” Lindsay touted CFI’s public policy arm, which hasn’t really had much impact, to be honest (they pushed for regulations on homeopathy, yielding an FDA label on products that no one will read), and is more aligned with secular humanism than skepticism anyway. To return to my point from earlier, I have a problem with this kind of advocacy because skepticism can’t tell us what values to promote. For example, a few weeks ago, a New Mexico legislator moved to codify into law that no government money should be used to hunt for Bigfoot or other “fictional” creatures after Christopher Dyer of the University of New Mexico took his students on a daylong Bigfoot hunt. The legislator, George Munoz, claimed that it was not “morally right” to spend taxpayer dollars on fruitless research. Skepticism cannot tell us whether to support efforts to rid the academy of pseudoscience or whether to oppose government restrictions on academic freedom. This is a value judgment, and a political one.
But in explaining CFI’s role in political controversies, Lindsay also inadvertently confirmed what I had long suspected: Big-league skeptics want to be seen as “serious” players in public policy at the highest levels, not merely people who work in the trenches with the vulgar masses. He defended skepticism against John Horgan’s charges that it devotes too much time to the supernatural by explaining that CSI is now primarily about health and medicine based advocacy and science education advocacy. But in making his case, he also all but admitted that skepticism is now an abstract concept, talking about vague principles rather than real concerns, and largely divorced from the workaday issues that real people face when confronted with bizarre and unusual claims. Just as Washington seems removed from the American people, so too is a politically oriented skepticism focused on public policy issues removed from the kinds of practical “is this true?” issues that are about the only thing skepticism does differently and better than any other special interest group.
Lindsay concluded with a call for support (read: money) for “appropriate science-based public policies,” happily conflating skepticism and secular humanism, and assuming that science can dictate public policies rather than merely inform a selection of policy options.
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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