About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
What's a skeptic to do?
Yet, the real challenge came at the end of the meeting, when our host, Paul O'Donoghue, divided us into working groups and asked us what skeptics can do to help counter the attack on science and reason that has characterized our society during the past decade (well, ok, the past couple of millennia). In other words: given rampant irrationality, what's a skeptic to do?
I would actually very much like to know the opinions of readers of this blog on the matter, but here are some pointers that emerged from our discussion. First off, as Carl Sagan aptly put it when he used the metaphor of science as a candle in the dark, we will always fight an uphill battle. Critical thinking does not come naturally to human beings, and the results of science are increasingly esoteric and difficult to understand. So it might be good for our collective psychological welfare if we set our aims reasonably low: the first order of business is to keep that darn candle lit, and then perhaps to gain a bit more territory against the aptly termed forces of obscurantism. But let us also be realistic and acknowledge that we are not likely to see dramatic improvements during our generation, and probably for much longer down the line.
Nevertheless, skeptics can and should become a regular resource for scientists and vice versa. Skeptics are amateurs who are passionate about their commitment to reason and outreach. Scientists are professionals, but most of their time is devoted to research and academic teaching, and little if at all, to public outreach. It seems obvious that the two groups should cooperate and coordinate their efforts, but there is a certain degree of distrust of skeptics by professional scientists (obviously, with some exceptions, such as Stenger, Dawkins, and myself). I will get to one large root of such distrust with my next point, but in the meantime I suggest that there are, in fact, good models out there for such cooperation. For instance, professional and amateur astronomers generally get along very well, with the pros even taking advantage of the enthusiasm of the dilettantes to gather useful scientific data and to help popularize the findings of the professionals (not to mention sell their books). This cooperation is made possible, in my experience (I used to be an amateur astronomer, when I was much younger), by the active intervention of groups and societies of both types, which often leads to meetings and publications where the two groups cross into each other's sphere of interest.
Why, then, are professional scientists generally wary of skeptics? Take the example of the increasingly popular Darwin Day events, which I helped start at the University of Tennessee in 1997 and that have sprung up more or less independently in hundreds of locations across the world. Some of these events are organized by biology departments (like my current series at Stony Brook University), but many are conducted by local groups of amateurs. Nothing wrong with that, until one realizes that the amateurs often mix a defense of science and reason with an assault on religion. This is true from local groups of skeptics, atheists and secular humanists to national organizations like the Center for Inquiry.
Now, far from me to advocate that religion is not, in fact, nonsense on stilts (during the Dublin meeting it was amusing to have Stenger characterize me as “timid” when it comes to criticizing religion). I also agree that a proper understanding of science does in fact help the general attack on superstition and irrationality. But, having been on the board of professional scientific societies, I also know that their mission simply does not include furthering atheism, and for very good reasons (for instance that such efforts would lead precisely to the same mistake that Stenger and Dawkins make: confuse scientifically informed philosophical positions with science itself).
There is no simple answer to this conundrum, as there are genuinely reasonable diverging opinions among skeptics, with some (such as myself), actually having switched position at some point during the debate (when I was a bit more naïve I was a full supporter of Dawkins-like attacks, and I still find them good fun, sort of a guilty pleasure of mine). But it certainly is high time for skeptic organizations to tackle the issue, or risk permanently alienating professional societies of scientists, thereby unwittingly playing into the hands of mystical, religious and paranormal nuts the world over.