Have you seen the rather harsh write-up of the Paradigm Symposium in the Twin Cities Daily Planet? Author Caleb Baumgartner offered a caustic take on the annual gathering of fringe figures, though I can’t say that his analysis was entirely unwarranted. In the interest of disclosure, I do need to say that Scotty Roberts, who runs the Paradigm Symposium, invited me to speak at next year’s gathering. I am not able to commit that far out for a four-day event, but I am looking into whether I can make it work.
In the article, Baumgartner leveled several criticisms against the symposium. The most important is that the speakers and attendees are promoting a paranoid worldview, while the less important criticism revolves around the speakers’ cash grab: “it all boiled down to the idea that they were the keepers of a secret truth that they had unraveled a grand theme and that if you would only buy their book and listen to what they had to say, you, too, could be in on the secret.” Baumgartner noted that the cost of attendance was $250 for the four-day event.
Baumgartner noted that the symposium’s speakers, which included Graham Hancock and Richard Dolan, seemed to have “contempt” for the broader society and used that contempt as a technique for reinforcing a community bond among other fringe thinkers, Baumgartner concluded with an opinionated but not unfair statement:
It is absolutely terrifying to wonder whether these people actually believe these things or if they are wolves who are preying on the money of gullible sheep who are absolutely desperate to believe that the world is something more than it is, and they are somehow special snowflakes in the midst of an ill-informed rabble.
Scotty Roberts commented on the article, and he criticized Baumgartner for what he called the “bias” of “negative skepticism.” Micah Hanks followed suit, reinforcing the claim of “negative skepticism” as well as bias: “It’s very easy to write something like this, and not to think deeply about whether the statements you make are simply broad reasonings, rather that pointed statements based on careful observation.” Both men seem to believe that an opinion that concludes that fringe ideas have no merit must be biased, while of course fringe research is entirely free and open despite its rejection of all or most mainstream ideas.
Hanks devoted most of his comments to PZ Myers’s choice to disassociate himself from organized skepticism, which Hanks characterizes as “walking away from negative skepticism.” (More disclosure: I subscribe to Skeptical Inquirer and have been published in Skeptic, but I am not affiliated with CSI, the Skeptics Society, or the JREF.)
I am intrigued by this theme of “positive” and “negative” skepticism. What might these be? According to Roberts, the negative version, which he also calls “Big-S Skepticism,” involves dogmatic denial of any reality beyond that known by current science. The positive form, by contrast, he sees as being “open to understanding that there might be more than we can quantify,” which appears to be a reference to a non-material dimension of reality, and thus to an abnegation of methodological naturalism as a research method. Hanks builds on this and declares negative skepticism a hindrance to understanding “concepts.”
I am frankly surprised that both see skepticism as, apparently, a research program rather than an evaluation tool. Skepticism, by definition, will not generate new knowledge because it is a tool used to evaluate claims, not to make new claims. Ideally, it applies equally to claims generated by fringe figures and by mainstream research. Of course skepticism is negative; it asks us to think about why a claim might not be true before we accept it as true. Hanks and Roberts both want to merge together atheists, materialists, skeptics, secular humanists, and sundry other groups based on their perception that they are bound together by a denial of the spiritual or supernatural. To me this is a very strange test since fringe claims present themselves as scientific questions and try very hard to render the supernatural scientific (Did aliens build pyramids? Can ghosts be measured by electromagnetic frequency fluctuations?). Theoretically, one need not be a materialist to be a skeptic, or a skeptic to be a materialist.
Yet if we parse their words, it sounds like Hanks and Roberts are more properly opposed to materialism (more specifically, philosophical naturalism) as an ideology. That’s fine, from a philosophical point of view, but they conflate that with methodological naturalism, which is a presumption used for creating and testing hypotheses about nature and is not itself a truth claim. (Philosophers have made arguments for and against both kinds of naturalism, so it’s not as though the subject is settled law.) The issue is that philosophical naturalism, as an ideology, is a claim, while skepticism is a tool for evaluating claims. Their enemy isn’t skepticism as a practice but philosophical naturalism as a belief system, and that’s a completely different argument from the skeptics’ evaluation of whether giant bones exist, whether Puma Punku was carved by lasers, or whether Native Americans have Jesus’ DNA.
I’ve criticized organized skeptics more than once for suggesting that skepticism is not a tool but a materialist belief system, and I’ve been critical of the late Paul Kurtz and Sam Harris for their efforts to raise naturalism into a system of universal values and ethics. So I am not unsympathetic to the idea that organized skeptics too much time promoting atheism and scientific materialism. I’ve always seen those beliefs as distinct from the tool of skepticism. The long and short of it, though, is that the argument over ideology is not really a question of skepticism. Most fringe figures’ claims are wrong on the evidence, and no amount of appeal to philosophy is going to make the evidence invert itself, or turn bad ideas into good, or suddenly make appeals to special revelation or ancient scriptures credible. The reality, for example, of a Freemason conspiracy to encode Jesus’ secrets on Oreo cookies is affected hardly a whit by the existence or non-existence of the supernatural.
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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