Did you see PZ Myers’s recent blog posting about the problems with skepticism? It was an interesting read, and one that seemed to reflect criticism I have myself received on more than one occasion. In sum, Myers disapproves of skepticism because it does not generate new knowledge and instead suggests that the positive knowledge generation of science is the most effective weapons against falsehood. He uses the example of Bigfoot:
Skepticism is all about taking apart case by case, demonstrating fakery or error, and demolishing the stories of the Bigfoot frauds. That’s useful — in fact, skepticism is most useful in dealing with malicious intent and human fakery — but it doesn’t advance our knowledge significantly. The scientific approach would involve actually studying forest ecology, understanding how the ecosystem works, and getting a handle on what lives in the forest…and at the end, you’re left with something informative about the nature of the habitat, as well as a recognition that a giant ape isn’t part of the puzzle
This reflects much of the criticism I receive from my more thoughtful readers—as opposed to the angry adherents of alternative ideas: They complain that debunking ancient astronauts, Atlantis, Templar conspiracies and the like is all too negative. One reader demanded to know why I don’t come up with my own alternative explanations to explain what really happened in the past.
The most obvious reason for that is that I am not a trained historian. I have to rely on the expertise of those who have done the hard work of combing through archives and assembling the big picture of history. It takes hard work to come up with an explanation for history, and when I have ventured to do so, it was the result of years of research—as in my books, The Cult of Alien Gods, Knowing Fear, and Jason and the Argonauts. I wouldn’t give away the results of all that research for free! Moreover, fringe history thrives by holding itself as an equal and opposite alternative to mainstream history; only by explaining in great detail what is wrong with a faulty fringe history claim does it become possible to show that it is not an equal alternative.
But here is where I depart from Myers because he wants to conflate the act of skepticism with what he calls “movement” skepticism, that is to say the series of conferences, meetings, and forums revolving around the Center for Inquiry, JREF, and the Skeptics Society. These, in turn, he conflates with anyone who says something negative about anything.
Unfortunately, the current doctrines of organized skepticism open the doors to pathology, because they so poorly define the proper domain of skepticism, and what they do say are inconsistent and incoherent. What we’re stuck with is a schema that tolerates motivated reasoning, as long as it looks like debunking. […] Also…hyperskepticism. Some people take their skepticism to such pathological extremes that they become conspiracy theorists or fanatical denialists of simple human behavior.
We seem to have reached an epistemological impasse, for Myers would count climate change deniers as skeptics, the same as those who debunk psychics. Under that definition, Scott Wolter becomes a “skeptic” for doubting the teachings of the Catholic Church, and Giorgio Tsoukalos a skeptic for doubting archaeology. Indeed, many fringe thinkers have claimed they are skeptics—of academia, of the government, of science.
Myers also takes movement skepticism to task for its misogyny, which is not something I can comment on since I am not involved in movement skepticism and have never attended one of their conferences. But the human failures of an organization make no claim upon the value of doubt in search of truth.
But this was the line that was perhaps the most challenging:
When your whole business model is simply about rejecting fringe claims, rather than following the evidence no matter how mainstream the target, you’ll inevitably end up with a pathologically skewed audience that uses motivated reasoning to abuse the weak.
The first clause I think is unfair; skepticism in theory is about evaluating claims rather than planning to reject them. However, a claim that is supported by evidence isn’t really worth publishing on since there is little to say except in agreement; and if a claim is supported by evidence it ceases to be a fringe claim once that evidence is proved true. The second clause, however, is the one that is the hardest: Myers wants skeptics to focus on bigger, more mainstream targets rather than fringe claimants. But someone has to say something about the odd ideas that creep in at the fringes of rational discourse. One of the failures of the academy was to ignore fringe archaeology as unworthy of public rebuttal—don’t we have better things to do? Jeremiads calling on archaeologists to do more date back a century, but the response was always the same: It isn’t a big enough issue to care about. And today we have a world where surveys find untold millions hold illogical or fringe beliefs about archaeology. Fringe ideas seem small, but they have a funny way of growing.
The last clause is the most disturbing, the idea that skeptics would pick on the weak in the name of asserting their superiority. This strikes me as a question of how the so-called “movement” utilizes its resources, not a question of whether skepticism is invalid just because the proponent of a false claim is impecunious or has a small audience. Heaven’s Gate had just 39 members when they committed mass suicide to meet up with aliens on a passing UFO.
I understand Myers’s point, but I think he errs in confusing JREF, CFI, etc. with the value of doubt. Negative knowledge is still knowledge, and knowing what is untrue can be as valuable as know what is true. If nothing else, it saves time and energy by avoiding costly errors.
6/20/2014 07:35:09 am
I have to strongly disagree with the idea of(reasonable) skepticism, debunking, etc., being 'negative', in fact I don't understand that argument at all. There are already scholarly explanations for most of the things that fringe types like to portray as 'mysteries', all you're really doing is defending the scientific method and it's results, by exposing the lies of it's detractors. If anything, it's idle, untempered conjecture, masquerading as open mindedness, and the wholesale dismissal of academics as a bunch of biased conspirators, which is negative, I'd say.
6/20/2014 07:45:56 am
Skepticism is putting things to the critical test.
6/20/2014 07:51:17 am
I agree 100%, and, most of the time I think that they are part of the same process.
6/20/2014 10:44:57 am
Typo in second to last paragraph. I think the word if should be is in that first sentence.
6/20/2014 11:18:38 am
Isn't this guy's argument kind of circular? I mean isn't he kind of skeptical about skeptics?
6/20/2014 11:45:57 am
To use a sports metaphor, you have to play defense as well as offense, and some people are better at and tend to focus on one as opposed to the other.
6/20/2014 12:03:11 pm
We are evolutionary pattern-seeking creatures with the added benefit of higher brain functions. The same pattern-seeking takes place at that higher level and results in belief systems and the applications thereof. The scientific method is a tool to cut through that and remove our beliefs and pattern-seeking from the process of fact-finding.
6/20/2014 02:49:33 pm
Here's a blog post entitled PZ Myers quits skeptic movement, should we care?
6/20/2014 06:23:12 pm
"the straw that broke the camel’s back apparently came during the recent Freethought Alliance meeting in Orange County, CA, in disgusted reaction to another speaker’s remarks."
6/20/2014 06:39:28 pm
P. Z. Myers is an outspoken critic of intelligent design (ID) and the creationist movement, and is active in the American creation–evolution controversy. He is widely regarded as a confrontationalist.
6/21/2014 03:50:29 am
For myself, NO, I do not care what P. Z. does. I used to follow his blog and some of the others at the "free thought" blogs site. No more, IF you dare to not agree with the exalted Mr. Myers, even on some point that you may not have fully understood, after explaining that you (me actually) is NOT a "scholar" but just an old retired machinist, you still will be raked over the coals, and not only by the "great man" himself, but his devoted acolytes are all too happy to pile on.
6/20/2014 03:00:19 pm
I don't know...I may be alone on this, but to me saying that "[skepticism] doesn't advance our knowledge significantly" is akin to saying "I like my chair, but it doesn't clean my bathtub." I don't see Skepticism as a [new] knowledge divining process, rather as a guard against rampant speculation (with manic creativity on one end, ignorant asshattery on the other). Neither is it a blunt with which to club people nor a self-contained system of glad-handing and spite. Put simply, it's surface tension. If the preponderance of evidence falls on the side of change, it breaks. If not, it remains intact and change is rejected.
6/20/2014 06:26:44 pm
There are folks contributing to this blog only too happy to criticise Scott Wolter, but who reject freethinking and scepticism.
6/20/2014 04:25:41 pm
While Myers has a point, I think his focus is too limited. One doesn't have to be a member of "movement" skepticism or the fringe element to contribute to skepticism run amok.
6/20/2014 06:17:39 pm
6/20/2014 07:56:33 pm
Yep, a lawn mower forum of all places. That highlights my point.
6/20/2014 07:59:57 pm
And the composition of the Bible and the invention of Religion has "nothing to do" with self-serving.
6/20/2014 09:47:21 pm
When you have a point that is on-topic, let me know.
6/21/2014 10:27:43 am
Um...666...you DO realize that "religion" did not start with Christianity, right? And that for the vast majority of recorded history, neither Christianity nor Judaism were particularly large players on the world stage? If you're going to diss religion in general, at least remedy your ignorance that far.
6/21/2014 12:36:08 am
>>Science is the answer and fringe theory is garbage...ignore it and it will go away<<
6/21/2014 04:10:26 am
OK, so P.Z. says skepticism does not advance knowledge. So what?
6/21/2014 12:20:57 am
The antonym of scepticism is conviction
6/21/2014 12:37:24 am
Two of the first things I learned about science is that the facts are always friendly, and that negative findings are findings nonetheless.
An Over-Educated Grunt
6/21/2014 03:39:23 am
Part of the problem with positions like the one Myers takes is that there's this implied duty on the part of any given person to challenge any given idea on any given day. There's not; if a cursory review of the idea shows that the thinking is shoddy, most academics simply ignore it and move on. It doesn't even matter if the idea is fundamentally right and needs refinement, if the foundation's bad, let it tumble on its own. Unfortunately, you can't un-think ideas, so once they've been said, even when it tumbles on its own, someone else will come along, pick up the pieces, and keep tinkering with it. A lot of the fringe "idea structures" we see today come from exactly this root, where lesser sons of greater fathers pick up, say, Donnelly's Atlantis and add to it. The idea is still ludicrous, and there's plenty of evidence to show that it is, but it's not yours, my, or anyone else's duty to go around correcting every single error we see. No one has infinite time, therefore no one has infinite error-correcting capacity, and no one has infinite interest, and therefore most of the silliness that any given person sees gets ignored. You pick and choose the errors you correct and hope the ones that you don't don't come back to bite you.
6/21/2014 04:17:27 am
Supporters of Established Scholarship should accept Evolution. Rejection of inspired Biblical teaching like Creationism should be encouraged. The Bible is a fraud.
An Over-Educated Grunt
6/21/2014 04:22:57 am
Supporters of clear thinking should reject red herrings and strawmen. You're the one who keeps bringing the Bible up on every thread you post, no one else. Anyone who disagrees with you must be "believers in mystification," "closet churchgoers," or something equally dismissive. Very well, I can play that game too. You clearly practice bestiality. I have no evidence to support this, but you've said humans are no different from any other member of the animal kingdom, and you haven't jumped through hoops to prove to me that you DON'T practice bestiality, so it must be true!
6/21/2014 04:29:45 am
Supporters of Established Scholarship should transparently support scientific facts. Not half support scientific facts and half support Biblical teachings that contradict scientific facts.
An Over-Educated Grunt
6/21/2014 04:38:31 am
Supporters of the scientific method should not make broad, sweeping statements as to the possibility or impossibility of something, confining themselves instead to probability and the weight of the available evidence. And again with the strawmen - please, lay out to me which Biblical facts I support? I don't recall ever saying "because the Bible says so" or even using it as a reference.
6/21/2014 04:42:54 am
Evolution has been tested and tested and confirmed to be scientific fact. There is consensus agreement in Established Scholarship.
An Over-Educated Grunt
6/21/2014 05:03:15 am
And you again avoid my question. First, when have I questioned evolution? Second, when have I appealed to religious authority?
6/21/2014 05:24:43 am
Another nebulous posting
An Over-Educated Grunt
6/21/2014 05:32:02 am
Ah yes, nothing says nebulous like "you are a zealot," followed by examples, and nothing says "clear and concise" like dodging questions.
6/21/2014 05:45:10 am
Accusing people who accept the scientific fact of evolution with bestiality is not exactly an endorsement of evolution, especially when it comes from someone who claims the Bible is divinely inspired.
An Over-Educated Grunt
6/21/2014 05:50:11 am
When did I state that the Bible was divinely inspired, please? I can think of once that I said "IF" - and "if" is a conditional, not a flat statement. You appear to ignore the part about its literal truth requires that the stars and the rocks be lying, or the part where I said a physical, historical Christ would obviously not be a divine figure. So please, again, tell me where I said the Bible was divinely inspired?
6/21/2014 06:00:59 am
Gee, never endorsed the historical cultural importance of the Church, never acknowledged that the fictions found in Josephus were propped-up by New Testament scholarship despite the facts that prove the case is the contrary (the testimonies of Origen, John of Damascus, Andrew of Crete and Jerome can be added because I forgot his reference to Jesus found in Josephus). Never said "You clearly practice bestiality. I have no evidence to support this, but you've said humans are no different from any other member of the animal kingdom, and you haven't jumped through hoops to prove to me that you DON'T practice bestiality, so it must be true!"
An Over-Educated Grunt
6/21/2014 06:21:40 am
The last is the same rhetorical device you use, saying that anyone who disagrees with you must have religion in mind. The last time I was in a religious institution of any kind was 2003, so yeah, I must be a "closet churchgoer." See? Just as much evidence as that you practice bestiality.
6/21/2014 06:35:05 am
All wrong. I cannot accept your "summary" because I do not accept your standards. People holding different standards hold different conclusions.
An Over-Educated Grunt
6/21/2014 06:43:18 am
So you admit that it is possible for two people to reach radically diverging conclusions from the exact same evidence?
6/21/2014 06:47:21 am
None of this discussion of the Bible is relevant to this blog post. Please stop. Any more, and I'm deleting the thread.
6/21/2014 06:47:58 am
I am not going to critically dissect a message consisting of 683 words especially when it would involve repetition.
An Over-Educated Grunt
6/21/2014 06:56:26 am
Sorry, Jason. I've said before - not terribly good at keeping my mouth shut.
6/21/2014 04:06:21 am
Facts are facts and truth is truth, whether we perceive the information correctly or not. Truth is there, ready to be explored. Skeptics may say, "Don't waste your time, you won't find anything new," so being overly skeptical can impede the search for truth.
6/21/2014 04:18:39 am
Rejection through Scepticism of the above posting should be encouraged.
6/21/2014 12:17:14 pm
666, you represent very well the bogus mindset I was referring to. Thanks for your personal confirmation of over-skepticism being crass in nature, and unproductive, which was my point.
6/21/2014 01:21:20 pm
6/21/2014 09:37:03 am
Every time Gunn goes on another KRS rant, I am reminded of this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ApxnAr6pRt0&feature=kp
6/21/2014 12:34:53 pm
Laetitia, that clip was a poor rendition of non-Vikings reaching New Gotaland--not on their way to the Western Shores. Those Scandinavians who came well after the Viking period were happy with far inland waterways for the time being. (Expansion west came later with other white people, if that's the issue you wish for.)
6/21/2014 04:42:19 am
From a recent articly by Myers: "Don't you hate it when you get up in the morning and the first thing you read on the internet is the news that your entire career has been a waste of time, your whole field of study has collapsed, and you're going to have to rethink your entire future? Happens to me all the time. But then, I read the creationist news, so I've become desensitized to the whole idea of intellectual catastrophes."
6/21/2014 04:49:07 am
6/21/2014 05:34:02 am
Yes, he's an obsessed debunker, but I guess no one else is doing it right.
6/21/2014 12:43:02 pm
Only a fool would take on the moniker-symbol of the Devil and what he represents. 666, you cannot possibly be that evil, though the thought of being so may be provocative to you, in an unbelieving way.
6/21/2014 01:22:40 pm
No bigger fool than you
6/21/2014 02:04:24 pm
Actually, it's 616.
6/21/2014 08:34:21 pm
>>>Actually, it's 616<<<
6/22/2014 12:49:13 am
According to what I've read, the oldest known copy says 616.
6/22/2014 01:12:52 am
6/22/2014 01:18:04 am
Theresa Bane, "Encyclopedia of Demons in World Religions and Cultures", page 42, McFarland & Company, Inc., 2012
6/22/2014 01:25:21 am
There is only one other MS that gives the number 616 - Codex Ephraimi Rescriptus, fifth or sixth century
6/22/2014 01:32:49 am
6/21/2014 09:08:38 pm
Ben Witherington, "Revelation" (Cambridge University Press, 2003)
6/24/2014 03:04:50 am
It's similar to the Joe Nickell thing you talked about a few weeks ago - a "professional" debunker wants us all to shut up so he and his few other colleagues lucky enough to be paid for it can get on with their work.
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