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.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Rationally Speaking encore: In praise of idleness

[Originally published on August 5 & 7, 2005]

by Massimo Pigliucci

I'm reading Bertrand Russell's collection of essays, "
In Praise of Idleness," an intriguing idea (the praise, not the collection of essays) for modern Western society, especially the American one, where idleness -- as Russell remarks -- is frowned upon as a waste of "productive" time.

Among the radical ideas Russell puts forth is that we have the technology that would enable us to work about four hour a day, and employ the rest in relaxation and cultural activities, or in volunteer work. But, he quickly points out, we are raised in a society for which something like that would be unthinkable, because the people at the top of the economic ladder have never liked those below to have leisure time, and even less to improve their lot. You never know, educated people might start thinking critically, which may lead to dire consequences for the establishment.

Some of my favorite quotes from the British philosopher, from the first essay of the book (the one that gives it its title):

"I think that there is far too much work done in the world."

"The road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work."

"[Work] is emphatically not one of the ends of human life."

"The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake."

"The notion that the desirable activities are those that bring a profit has made everything topsy-turvy."

Pretty revolutionary stuff, for being written in 1932, eh?

Bertrand Russell, in his collection of essays entitled "In Praise of Idleness," goes on to discuss the role of "useless" knowledge in our society. By this he means knowledge that is valued for its own sake, regardless of any particular practical application (in a way, similar to the way we value art for its own sake, regardless of how much money we may make by selling that Picasso we all have in our attic).

"Learning, in the renaissance, was part of the joie de vivre, just as much as drinking or love-making." Interesting comparisons there, no? Indeed, one can get -- in a metaphorical sense -- inebriated by intellectual pursuits (even drunk, perhaps?), and certainly the sudden joy of discovery can be compared to love-making (though usually the sensation of release isn't quite that overwhelming...).

Russell becomes very worried about the tendency of modern society (he was writing in the 1930s) to reduce the size of its vocabulary, to make language more "practical." One consequence of this, he argues, is the potential loss of literary flourishing and of a sense of style in writing and reading. But of course, as Orwell magisterially pointed out in "1984," a much more dangerous result is the inability of people to think about certain thoughts -- especially those that are dangerous to the establishment -- because of a lack of appropriate words. Words and concepts are closely related, one can hardly have the latter without mastering of the former.

Russell, of course, isn't saying that practical knowledge isn't, well, useful! On the contrary. But there is no need why that has somehow to be seen as opposite to theoretical knowledge: culture isn't a zero sum game, and the more the better.

Most importantly, Russell points out that too much focus on practical results often leads to nervous breakdowns, or at least to unpleasant levels of stress; moreover, lack of culture affects human behavior in a most decidedly negative manner, including that of children. As he puts it: "The bully in a school is seldom a boy whose proficiency in learning is up to the average. When a lynching takes place, the ring-leaders are almost invariably ignorant men."

In the chapter/essay on "The modern Midas," Russell discusses the differences and connections between finance and industry. As he puts it:

"Finance is more powerful than industry when both are independent, but the interests of industry more nearly coincide with those of the community than do the interests of finance."

This is exactly the sort of problem that brought us -- 70 years after Russell wrote -- Enron and the whole Wall Street mess. The idea is that capitalism, if it has to work, has to be based on certain rules ("managed capitalism," they call it in Europe). One of these rules is a tight coupling between investments (capital) and the products of the industry one is investing on. In turn, this means that things like day trading and other short-term "investments" are not investments at all (because there is no time for the industry to actually use that capital and deliver a product), they are speculation. And speculation is gambling pure and simple.

We now live in a society in which, for some bizarre reason, it has become normal to accept the idea that people can "make a kill" on the market and become millionaires overnight. Usually, of course, on the skin of thousands of others who either lose their money or their jobs. This is nonsense on stilts of the highest order.

The solution, of course, is pretty simple: regulate stock trading in a way similar to, say, government bonds: you can't sell before a certain minimum period of time, and if you do you incur a penalty. This sort of measures would reconnect, as Russell puts it, finance and industry, and would greatly benefit the welfare of the majority of people. Alas, the American public has been sold on the idea that anybody can become instantly rich, and this hope dazzles and blinds us into acquiescence to a system that makes most people's lives worse than they could be. Just think of the fact that the richest country in the world (and the self-professed best democracy on the planet) still has the shame of having tens of millions of its citizens and children without health care. But that's another story...

Friday, December 30, 2011

Michael’s Picks

by Michael De Dora

* Many people ethically equate deliberately causing harm with failing to prevent it. Why? According to new research, it might depend of the degree to which a person engages in conscious reasoning.

* A district judge recently ruled that a fetal personhood ballot measure in Nevada provides “inadequate” information on its potential effects, and must be rewritten before sponsors attempt to collect the signatures needed to get on next year’s ballot.

* Most women who have second-trimester abortions are not “willfully irresponsible,” but instead face challenges that make it tougher to secure an earlier abortion, according to a new study. You can read more about this study on Salon.

* The European Court of Justice recently banned the patenting of inventions involving human embryonic stem cells and characterized research and other procedures using new or previously derived cells as “immoral.” Now, the prominent Alliance of German Scientific Organizations has publicly slammed the court for stepping beyond its bounds.

* Are those who are overweight in that situation because they lack the willpower necessary to keep in shape? Absolutely not, says Zoe Williams in the Guardian.

* A record 64 percent of Americans consider the honesty and ethical standards of members of Congress “low” or “very low,” according to a new survey from Gallup.

* China is instituting moral instruction for its civil servants, and has categorized the training sessions as “highly important,” according to the Chinese newspaper the People’s Daily.

* An old but good one: Bertrand Russell’s In Praise of Idleness: “I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.”

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Rationally Speaking on (partial) Winter break!

Dear Readers,

The writers of Rationally Speaking are going to take what I think is a much deserved Winter break for a couple of weeks, as a consequence of which the blog will return with new posts in mid-January.

However, we all know that these days people have an insatiable need for new things to read (who said our is a society devoted to mindless entertainment?), think about, and discuss with like minded as well as not so akin readers. Which is why we are going to follow the lead of television and radio stations across the country and run "encore" features, i.e., previously published posts that may be ready for a fresh look and some more discussion.

Yes, we know that you can easily search the blog's archives, but RS has now published a whopping 853 posts since its inception in August 2005, posts that have been graced with (at last count) 1,072,597 page views resulting in 21,710 comments. It is reasonable to believe that you may have missed something worth checking out again.

So stay tuned, enjoy our re-runs, and look forward to our writers coming back refreshed and ready for more thoughtful commentary on science, philosophy, politics and religion throughout next year.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Jerry Coyne loses his cool, Dawkins his style

by Massimo Pigliucci

This is not going to be a post about substance, only about form. Yes, I know, many in the atheist community don’t seem to think that the latter matters. If you are among them, don’t bother to read the rest of this.

As my readers might recall, a few days ago I published a special “Rationally Speaking Picks” with links to several articles critical of Christopher Hitchens, to balance out what I perceived to be a bit too much of a glorification of his persona upon his untimely death.

Apparently, that simple list managed to completely unhinge my colleague Jerry Coyne (as well as Richard Dawkins), in the process precisely making my point that some atheists suffer from hero worship and a selective dearth of critical thinking.

Jerry and I have a long history of mutual criticism, which goes back to our pre-public outreach days, covering a variety of issues in evolutionary biology (species concepts and speciation theory, the status of evolutionary theory, and the like). As readers of this (and his) blog know, we openly take issue with each other’s posts from time to time, and occasionally — and regrettably — the disagreement has gotten personal. It was for the latter reason that at some point I issued a formal apology to Jerry, which he rather ungraciously did not reciprocate.

But his latest post is a rant pure and simple, and has finally closed the book on Jerry Coyne, as far as I am concerned (and pretty much also closed the one on Dawkins too, more on him near the end). I will leave aside, as I said, the substantive content, partly because it is so preposterously an overreaction to what I wrote that it takes care of itself, partly because many of the questions that Jerry asks have actually been answered in the articles I linked to. Instead, here is a taste of what he writes about me:

“I respond briefly: Pigliucci is full of what comes out of the south end of a bull facing north.”

(I appreciate the colorful, if somewhat burlesque-style metaphor. As it turns out, however, his response is anything but brief.)

“Give me a fricking break, Dr.3 Pigliucci!”

(Jerry appears to have a complex of inferiority in my respects, at least as judged by his constant jeering of the fact that I have three PhD’s and he only one. What’s up with that, my friend?)

“Let me dispel your ignorance of his accomplishments by listing the books he wrote.”

(This actually displays Jerry’s inability to read what I wrote, since I did say that Hitchens is going to be remembered as a good writer, as well as an advocate of atheism.)

“I needn’t say more to dispel Pigliucci’s willful ignorance.”

(Or is it Jerry’s willful ignorance? In my brief note accompanying the list of links — which is not a full post — I did acknowledge one of the very things Jerry accuses me of being ignorant of, Hitch’s on the mark criticism of Kissinger.)

“Misogynyist? Does Pigluicci know what that means?”

(Yes, he does, and he knows how to spell it, too. He also knows out to spell both Coyne’s name and his own. But apparently Jerry, in the midst of his rage, was typing far too furiously on his keyboard. Or perhaps I haven’t made it into his user spelling dictionary yet. Odd, given the number of times he mis-writes about me.)

“I find Massimo often wrong in his philosophical positions, including those about scientism, free will, and the way we atheists are supposed to behave.”

(One of those ways includes treating colleagues and fellow atheists with a minimum of respect, even when one disagrees with them. Oh well.)

“And don’t get me started on Massimo’s biology!”

(Please, do! Oh, I forgot, Jerry has already done that, rather gratuitously, in the pages of both Nature and Science magazines. I suppose that was in retaliation for my highly positive review of his Why Evolution is True book. As we all know, no good deed goes unpunished.)

“If I had a choice of having a drink and a conversation with Hitchens or Pigliucci, or having to choose to read an essay written by either Hitchens or Pigliucci, I know exactly what I’d do.”

(And yet, Jerry apparently even reads my lists of links, let alone my essays! And of course with that statement he foreclosed forever the possibility of tasting my killer dirty martinis.)

Finally, we get to Dawkins. Here is his comment on Jerry’s rant, in full:

“Bravo Jerry. Hitch wasn’t always right — who is? — but he was a giant, and irreplaceable. As for Pigliucci, who would even bother to replace him?”

Ouch. Not exactly a gentlemanly remark, particularly from a Brit of supposedly high class as Richard Dawkins. (And this, of course, is his second faux pas this year, after the debacle caused by his infamous comment to Rebecca Watson about “Elevatorgate.”)

Look, I have been guilty of my own share of critical and sarcastic comments about both Coyne and Dawkins. But I don’t think anything I wrote has ever (and, I hope, will never) come even close to this debasing level of anger and pettiness. It is a shame, and it only further lowers the level of discourse within our community, inflicting additional damage to the way the outside world perceives us. A sad way to conclude the year, and no particular reason to expect better next time around, I’m afraid.

The goals of atheist activism

by Massimo Pigliucci

Even before the recent demise of Christopher Hitchens, and before I had read two recent (and quite opposite, here and here) opinions about this, I was thinking of keyboarding a few words about the goals of atheist activism. So here we go.

The two recent opinions I came across are by Greta Christina over at FreethoughtBlogs, and by Chris Stedman at the HuffPost. They seem to agree that there are two distinct goals of atheist activism, as Christina put it: “For many atheists, the primary goal of atheist activism is to reduce anti-atheist bigotry and discrimination, and to work towards more complete separation of church and state ... For many [other] atheists, our main goal is persuading the world out of religion.” Stedman agrees on the separability of these goals, but says “I maintain significant disagreement with many religious beliefs, but I do not wish to be associated with narrow-minded, dehumanizing generalizations about religious people. I am disappointed that such positions represent atheist activism not only to the majority of our society, but to many of my fellow atheist activists as well.”

Let me make a few points about this debate, and then move on to articulate what I think are four (not one or two) objectives of atheistic activism, and to argue that we should refocus our efforts along more complex and efficacious lines than those pursued by some (but by all means not all) atheist organizations, local and national.

First off, Christina makes an argument at the beginning of her post for in-your-face atheism coupled with a nicer and gentler approach, claiming that this good cop / bad cop strategy “works.” How does she know? To quote: “hey, there’s a reason cops use it!” Interestingly, no source is provided as to the extent to which said technique is in fact used by the police, whether it works (outside of movies), and why it would be appropriate to social discourse, as opposed to dealing with criminals. But okay, let’s get to Christina’s second source of evidence.

That would be that the dual nice/in-your-face approach worked in the past, for instance with the civil rights movement, or concerning gay rights. There are two things I think we should be clear about in this context. First, atheists really ought not to compare themselves to blacks or gays, as it is an insult to people who have experienced real discrimination. Yes, it may not be politically correct to tell your co-workers or family that you are an atheist, and I’m sure some people suffer psychological consequences as a result. But atheists are not being made to sit at the back of buses, hanged from trees, put in prison, or denied voting rights qua atheist. So let’s not make unseemly comparisons.

Moreover, the “bad cops” of the civil and gay rights movements rarely went around insulting the other side, they were simply vocal about their own rights. There is a huge difference between being in-your-face in the sense of taking to the streets and loudly complaining about rights you are unjustly denied and being in-your-face in the more basic sense of hurling insults at other people.

Which reminds me. Many of my fellow atheists are nice and smart people, but there is also a tendency within the community to think that one is automatically smart just for being an atheist, as opposed to all those deluded idiots who believe in things for which there is no evidence. I don’t know about your personal experience, but I can point to a lot of religious people who are a lot smarter — by any reasonable definition of “smart” — than several atheists I have encountered. And the same goes for being ethical (or not). So, let’s tone the self-righteousness down a few notches, it is unbecoming and smells too much of religious bigotry.

Stedman also pushes his argument a bit too far in some respects, I think, but his opening example is one that has made me think a lot about what we are doing and why when I came across it independently from Stedman. He quotes Jon Stewart, not exactly a friend of religious fanaticism or illiberalism, commenting after showing a clip of American Atheists’ President Dave Silverman pulling off yet another of the publicity stunts for which AA is so (in)famous (and for which I openly have criticized them before). Stewart quipped, imitating Silverman: “As President of the American Atheists organization, I promise to make sure that everyone, even those that are indifferent to our cause, will fucking hate us.” Stewart is right, I’m afraid, and I say this as (literally) a card carrying atheist and life member of AA.

Let’s now go back to a broader discussion of our goals as a movement and a community. I actually think we have four of them, logically separable from each other, and which can of course be pursued in parallel and/or be prioritized according to each individual’s or organization’s leanings:

* Separation of Church and State. Because neither we nor a lot of religious believers want to turn the US into a theocracy, or even allow the State to mingle with religion to a significant extent, a combination that has always been pernicious in the past. Here it seems to me that the proven strategy is to build bridges with ecumenical or even individually religious groups with similar interests, following in the steps of Thomas Jefferson, who reassured the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 that the US Government would keep “a wall of separation between Church & State.”

* Acceptance of atheism. Atheists are still among the most mistrusted groups of people in America, as a consequence of which it is hard to imagine an openly atheist politician (to my knowledge there is only one) and even less a President. Now, if one’s goal is to be accepted (not just tolerated) in a society, one is more likely to achieve that goal by playing social and nice (which does not at all mean to capitulate or compromise on principles), as opposed to constantly jeering or hurling insults at other members of said society. That’s why my friend and Secular Coalition for America founder Herb Silverman often goes to interfaith breakfast meetings wearing his “Friendly Atheist Neighbor” t-shirt.

* Combating dogmatism — even internally! Atheists and freethinkers pride themselves in being free from prejudice and open minded about life, the universe and everything. Which is why our antipathy towards religion is rooted in the latter’s dogmatism. But then we ought to realize that some religions are actually not dogmatic (e.g., there is a long tradition of internal criticism within the Jewish tradition, and one of the least dogmatic religious figures of all time is the Dalai Lama), which means that not all religions are our enemies, or at least not all to the same extent. Moreover, look me in the eye and try to seriously make an argument that you’ve never seen or heard a dogmatic atheist, and we’ll have a good laugh. Let’s start by cleaning our own house, before we self-righteously pretend to (metaphorically) demolish other people’s abodes.

* Elimination (or at least reduction) of irrationalism. In a sense, of course, all religions are irrational, to the extent that they foster beliefs that are not based on evidence, or that in some cases even flatly contradict evidence. But, again, irrationalism comes in a variety of degrees and shapes, and not all of them are equally worthy of counter-efforts or even public scorn. No human being is likely capable of holding completely coherent evidence-based beliefs, so let us be reasonable and cut some slack to the mild offenders while joining forces with them against the really dangerous ones. And let’s not fall into mindless self-praise and consider a profession of atheism as ipso facto evidence for rationalism. I assure you that I know a number of atheists who hold mystical, new agey, political, or even scientific beliefs that are either unfounded or flatly contradict the available evidence.

As you can see, none of the above goals is defined in terms of the abolition of religion per se. The real targets are irrationalism and dogmatism, of which various religious beliefs are only examples, and only to a variety of degrees. And of course atheists can be irrational and dogmatic as well, if atheism is allowed to turn into an ideology to be defended at all costs. If we manage to work (together with as many other reasonable people as possible) toward a world with more critical thinking, less dogmatism, and less irrationality, the problem of religion will take care of itself, since religion is a symptom, not the root, of human evil.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Massimo's Picks, special Hitchens edition

by Massimo Pigliucci

As you all know, Christopher Hitchens has recently passed away after a valiant (and very public) struggle against cancer. Most of the commentaries and obituaries were positive, and many of my fellow atheists and freethinkers seem to genuinely admire the man. I have always been puzzled by why, exactly, this is so.

Yes, he was an atheist. Yes, he wrote eloquently. But that's about it. He was also personally abusive (particularly, it appears, toward fellow writers), misogynist, obnoxiously in your face about his beliefs (or lack thereof), and spectacularly inconsistent (and incredibly often wrong) about his political positions.

So here is my admittedly contrarian collection of commentaries on Hitch, in the hope that we can come up with a more balanced view of the man and begin a thoughtful discussion about just how much good or bad he has done to atheism, freethought, and political discourse.

Regarding Christopher, by Katha Pollitt (The Nation)

When Hitch was wrong he was disastrously wrong, by Alex Pareene (Salon)

The other Christopher Hitchens, by Kevin Drum (Mother Jones)

Christopher Hitchens and the protocol for public figure deaths, by Glenn Greenwald (Salon)

More Paranoid Fantasies on the Right... or Why Christopher Hitchens Needs to Drink Less, by Brian Leiter (Leiter Reports)

Christopher Hitchens’ unforgivable mistake, by John Cook (Gawker)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Massimo's Picks

by Massimo Pigliucci

Are definitions of art stupid? If so, how can you call yourself an artist without being stupid?

What is college for?

Isn't logic great?

Jesus gives advice to the Denver Broncos...

* Some indication that religion being more about socializing than belief may be a myth.

* Simon Blackburn on Hume and bondage...

* Faux News declares war on the communist Muppets.

How doctors die. A sobering look at how the pros face the end of their life.

Flying Spaghetti monster statue installed on Tennessee Courthouse lawn. His noodly appendages will be pleased.

* So, Plato and a platypus walk into a bar... With a nod to Groucho Marx.

* How to spend more psychological time with the good parts of your life, sort of like the Tralfamadorians.

Philosophy for everyone, in Europe. When in the US?

What does it mean to be human? Good questions, several answers.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Newt, anti-intellectualism, and family values

by Massimo Pigliucci

The consensus outside of the Republican party is that the GOP — broadly speaking and with the due exceptions — has become a party of anti-intellectuals in thrall to the religious Right. Chris Mooney, for one, has devoted quite a bit of effort to documenting the Republican mindset, first in his The Republican War on Science, and now with the forthcoming The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Don’t Believe in Science (or Many Other Inconvenient Truths).

That the GOP base is obsessed with its own peculiar definition of “family values” is also well known. They — allegedly — care a lot about the right of fertilized eggs, as well as the “sanctity” of family and marriage. But, peculiarly, other obviously relevant issues often don’t blip on their moral radar, for instance war, access to health care, or poverty.

Whence, then, Newt Gingrich? The former Speaker of the House is currently the frontrunner in the Republican group of Presidential hopefuls and — bearing in mind the caveat that predictions in politics are usually as good as those of psychics — appears to have a very good shot at facing Obama in the general elections, but it’s not clear why.

The Newt question has been asked recently in the New York Times by Frank Bruni: “How does an ostentatious know-it-all fare so well in a party supposedly hostile to intellectuals and intellectualism?” How indeed. Well, I have a theory.

First, let us refresh our memories with a sliver of the ample record on Newt’s deeds and misdeeds. The guy, you will recall, led the Republican charge to impeach then President Clinton for lying about an affair with a much younger intern — at the same time that Newt was having his own affair with a much younger intern (though, to his credit, he later made her his third wife, which in turn reminds us of the ugly episode of Newt serving divorce papers to his first wife while she was in the hospital with cancer. Compassionate conservatism!).

Gingrich also thought, at some point, that global warming is real, though he has conveniently flip-flopped on the issue recently. He also supported a provision in the Obama stimulus package that promoted the use of electronic health care records, since apparently big government is good when it comes to benefiting clients for which he was consulting, like Allscripts and Microsoft. Newt was also positively fuming at the big government bailout of Freddie Mac, one of the two giant federally-sponsored mortgage companies — conveniently neglecting to note that he made $1.6 million to $1.8 million as a “historian consultant” of big Freddie.

I could go on, but I think I have established that Newt is not: a) anti-science (unless it’s convenient for him); b) a particularly family-value oriented guy; c) an enemy of big government (at least when it comes to him making profit from bloated bureaucracy). So why is he the current darling of the anti-science, get the government out of my Medicare, family values above all, base of the GOP? Because that base isn’t really about any of those things. It is a hate group that relishes a confrontational son of a bitch who can stick it to whoever they delude themselves is the anti-Christ of the moment.

This isn’t cheap demonizing of one’s opponent at all costs. There used to be a time when I would have gladly had a conversation with Republican politicians, or with a Republican friend (I still have some of the latter). We would have disagreed on many issues, but there would have been a sense that we were talking to each other, and that political compromise was possible on a number of issues (as indeed has been the case on and off throughout the history of the American Congress — just think of the fact that Nixon and Reagan would look like liberals by the standards of today’s right wingers).

But these days the Republican base (and therefore the politicians they elect) is simply not interested in dialog or compromise. They are not even particularly interested in their own self-avowed values. They just want to kick Obama (or any Democrat, for that matter, but particularly the Black-ish Barack Hussein Obama) out of the White House. That’s the beginning and the end of their political wishes. Consequently, they simply want a confrontation, they want to punch the other guy in the stomach, at least metaphorically (well, many of them do show up armed at politically rallies, so who knows). They even relish their own candidates engaging in an unusually high number of unusually bloody debates, because they enjoy the spectacle of kicking an opponent — any opponent — in the teeth.

That is also why Faux News is so popular, and why its abrasive, ultra-partisan approach has rubbed off on other networks and has turned political analyses into shouting matches. Fox isn’t just partisan, it has no sense of coherence whatsoever, as demonstrated over and over by Jon Stewart, whose comedy for a while has often consisted simply of showing a clip of someone saying something on Fox, immediately followed by another clip of the same person arguing exactly the opposite — the only thing in common between the two occasions being that the commentator in question was attacking the Democrats for either X or ~X, depending on the specifics of the moment.

Some are now anticipating with gusto the stark contrast that we might see during the general campaign, when a notoriously introspective and calm Obama might face off with an abrasive and aggressive Gingrich. It will make for good spectacle, but it is really a sorry commentary on just how low the self-professed best democracy in the world has sunk.

There are ways out of this situation, of course, but none of them is a quick fix, or particularly likely to happen. To begin with, we could have some meaningful election financing law passed, so that our politicians aren’t going to be picked from the ranks of millionaires (the entire US Senate and many Representatives) or beholden to billionaires and their corporations. Or perhaps cultural and demographic shifts may finally relegate the moral majority to permanent immoral minority status, as evidenced from nationwide trends on issues ranging from the death penalty to gay rights — all moving in a progressive direction. Or maybe we could finally have a viable third party whose candidates can get on the ballot in all 50 states. Someone is trying for the 2012 cycle, though frankly the idea of a “moderate” party that strikes a middle way between completely crazy (the current GOP) and sold out to Wall Street (the current Dems) isn’t exactly one to get excited about. But hey baby, small steps first...

Monday, December 19, 2011

New Rationally Speaking podcast: neurobabble

The media is increasingly bombarding us with reports of advances in neuroscience which claim all sorts of amazing feats, like allowing us to read our thoughts and intentions. It sounds like neurobabble. Most of these reports though are either based on bad science, reach false conclusion, or are based on conceptual misunderstanding of how our psychology works. To be fair, much of this is manufactured by the popular media but, unfortunately, some of it comes from the neuroscience community itself. So, what information can we really get from fMRIs? As with the misunderstanding of what genes are (like whether there is a God or a conservative gene), are there really parts of the brain dedicated to categories of thoughts like some of these reports claim? And, perhaps more importantly, what are the ethical implications of this neurobabble, should we arrest people who we can tell, based on this research, will be committing a crime?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

An alternative take on ESP

By Maaneli Derakhshani

[Note: this is a guest post by Maaneli Derakhshani, a graduate student studying theoretical physics at Clemson University, a past volunteer for the Centers for Inquiry in New York and Long Island, a current member of the Secular Student Alliance of Clemson University and the Clemson Philosophical Society, and a former undergraduate student of Massimo’s. We invite readers to apply their critical thinking skills to respond to Maaneli’s challenge. Have fun!]

My purpose in this essay is to address some claims Massimo has made over the years about parapsychology (the scientific discipline that studies claims of extrasensory perception, or ESP, psychokinesis, and survival of consciousness after bodily death), and to show why I think the scientific evidence for ESP (e.g. telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition) is more plentiful than he seems to believe.

On many past occasions, I have heard Massimo publicly claim that ESP has been refuted, such as in a Skeptiko podcast interview last year in which he said “... research on the paranormal has been done for almost a century. We have done plenty of experiments, say on telepathy or clairvoyance or things like that, and we know it doesn’t work.” And in his recent book, Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk, Massimo even implies that parapsychology is a pseudoscience on par with astrology.

It would be reasonable to expect, especially from someone as learned as Massimo, that these bold claims about research on telepathy and clairvoyance, and the status of parapsychology as a discipline, were derived from a thorough assessment of the parapsychology literature (a literature which includes informed skeptical criticisms of parapsychology experiments). However, in my assessment of the parapsychology literature, I have been unable to find an evidenced basis for Massimo’s claims. Not only that, my study of the literature has turned up evidence that strongly supports a conclusion contrary to Massimo’s. Here’s why.

In parapsychology, the three research paradigms considered to provide some of the best evidence for ESP are (a) the Maimonides and subsequent dream telepathy/clairvoyance/precognition experiments, (b) the SRI, SAIC, and PEAR remote viewing experiments, and (c) the Ganzfeld experiments. Here I’ll limit myself to discussing (c) only, and refer the interested reader to this recent anthology which overviews the evidence from (a) and (b).

Within parapsychology, the Ganzfeld experiments have probably been the most widely used to test for the possibility of telepathy, clairvoyance, and to some extent precognition. For the unfamiliar reader, a concise account of the Ganzfeld procedure can be read here. The main point I want to make about the Ganzfeld experiments is that, since 1985, there have been 8 independent, published meta-analyses of Ganzfeld experiments; and with the exception of the 1999 meta-analysis by Julie Milton and Richard Wiseman, which was shown by statistician Jessica Utts and acknowledged by Wiseman (personal correspondence, July 2011) to have used a flawed estimate of the overall effect size and p-value of the combined results, all of them have shown statistically highly significant effects with a replication rate well above what’s expected by chance. The literature also shows rather convincingly, in my view, that the leading Ganzfeld critic, Ray Hyman, has been unable to account for these highly significant effects by prosaic means like publication bias, optional stopping, inadequate randomization of targets, sensory leakage, cheating, decline effect, etc. On this last point, I recommend reading Bem and Honorton’s 1994 paper, Bem’s reply to Hyman in 1994, and Storm and co.’s reply to Hyman in 2010.

As an example of the strength of the statistical evidence, let’s look at the most recent Ganzfeld meta-analysis by parapsychologist Patrizio Tressoldi, who applies a frequentist and Bayesian statistical analysis to 108 Ganzfeld experiments from 1974–2008. All these experiments were screened for adequate methodological quality and have an overall hit rate of 31.5% in 4,196 trials, instead of the 25% hit rate expected by chance. Moreover, using the conservative file-drawer estimate of Darlington/Hayes, the lower bound on the number of unreported experiments needed to nullify this overall hit rate is 357, which is considered implausible by Darlington/Hayes’ criterion.

For the frequentist analysis, Tressoldi applied two standard meta-analytic models, namely, a ‘fixed-effects’ model (which assumes a constant true effect size across all experiments) and a ‘random-effects’ model (which assumes a variable true effect size across all experiments). Whereas a standard deviation from the mean of only ~1.6 is needed for the results of a meta-analysis to achieve statistical significance, the fixed-effects model yields an overall effect that’s significant by more than 19 standard deviations from the mean effect of zero, while the random-effects model yields an overall effect more than 6 standard deviations from the mean. The corresponding odds against chance for the fixed-effects model is off the charts, and for the more conservative random-effects model is greater than a billion to 1.

For the Bayesian analysis (which I know Massimo believes is more reliable and valid than the classical approach), Tressoldi follows Rouder and co. in considering two hypotheses. The first is the null hypothesis that the true effect size is zero for all experiments, and the second is the ESP hypothesis that the true effect size is constant and positive across all experiments. He then finds that the ratio of the prior probability of the ESP hypothesis to the prior probability of the null hypothesis, each conditioned on the combined Ganzfeld data, yields a ‘Bayes factor’ of 18,886,051 (or the number of times the latter probability divides into the former probability). So, for a skeptical person who gives prior odds of, say, 1,000,000:1 against ESP, they should update their beliefs by a factor of 18,886,051 in favor of ESP. In other words, if we divide 1,000,000:1 by 18,886,051 we obtain posterior odds of about 0.053:1, or equivalently, 19:1 in favor of ESP. Interestingly, according to Utts, Ray Hyman told her personally that he would put prior odds of about 1,000:1 against ESP being real. For the Ganzfeld Bayes factor calculated by Tressoldi, this would mean that Hyman’s posterior odds should be 18,868:1 in favor of ESP.

And Tressoldi’s Bayesian analysis is not the only one. In the Ganzfeld meta-analysis by Utts and co., a Bayesian approach is also used. Their approach differs from Tressoldi’s in that they assume the true ESP effect size to be variable across experiments, which is the more common assumption in Bayesian statistics. They consider three priors labeled “psi-skeptic,” “open-minded,” and “psi-believer,” each corresponding to a guess about the most likely median Ganzfeld hit-rate. Then they examine the extent to which the combined empirical results of 56 procedurally standard Ganzfeld experiments shift each prior median hit rate to posterior median hit rates above chance. What they find is that the shift depends strongly on how wide one’s subjectively decided uncertainty is around each prior median.

In sum, I don’t see how to escape the conclusion that a classical statistical analysis of the Ganzfeld data gives strong evidence for ESP, judging by the standards of evidence commonly accepted by the social and behavioral sciences. And using Bayesian analysis, we’ve seen that one approach shows overwhelmingly strong evidence for ESP, while another shows that the strength of the evidence depends strongly on the uncertainty of one’s prior belief about the possibility of ESP.

Given this evidence from the Ganzfeld alone, it is difficult for me to see on what basis Massimo claims that “... we have done plenty of experiments, say on telepathy or clairvoyance or things like that, and we know it doesn’t work.” And to the best of my knowledge, he has never tried to justify his assertion.
Correspondingly, I don’t see an evidenced basis for Massimo’s characterization of parapsychology as ‘pseudoscience.’ In Nonsense, Massimo says, “lack of progress, i.e., lack of cumulative results over time, is one of the distinctive features of pseudoscience.” But with the example of the Ganzfeld, it seems indisputable to me that there are cumulative results in parapsychology, and that those results provide evidential support for the ESP hypothesis.

Finally, it is noteworthy that the prominent CSI Fellow, psychologist, and self-described parapsychologist, Richard Wiseman, has previously stated that "I agree that by the standards of any other area of science that remote viewing is proven, but begs the question: do we need higher standards of evidence when we study the paranormal? I think we do.”

Wiseman later clarified his comment: “That’s a slight misquote because I was using the term in more of a general sense of ESP. That is, I was not talking about remote viewing per se, but rather Ganzfeld, etc. as well. I think that they do meet the usual standards for a normal claim but are not convincing enough for an extraordinary claim.”

Even granting Wiseman’s insistence on higher standards of evidence for extraordinary claims, I wonder what Massimo thinks of Wiseman’s assertion that the scientific evidence for ESP is decisively in favor of it by the standards of “normal” scientific claims. Surely Massimo would agree that if Wiseman’s assertion is true, then this is characteristic not of pseudoscience but of science.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Michael’s Picks

by Michael De Dora

* A record 64 percent of Americans consider the honesty and ethical standards of members of Congress “low” or “very low,” according to a new survey from Gallup.

* William Saletan, journalist and author of Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War, recently participated in a public dialogue with Ann Furedi, the chief executive of British Pregnancy Advisory Service, on the role of fetal development in the abortion debate. You can read Furedi’s remarks here, and Saletan’s follow-up essay here. Or you can watch video of the event here.

* While it might seem like common sense to most people that fertilized eggs are not persons, such thinking has important implications for the logic of the abortion debate, according to philosopher Gary Gutting.

* What drives your moral thinking? Surely you’ve thought this over, and perhaps even wrote or spoken about it. But now Robert Aunger has come up with an extensive survey that he claims accurately measures what makes you moral.

* Jim Schutze in the Dallas Observer defends legislating morality with an example I would have never thought of: laws that require dog owners to pick up after their dogs. Take a look.

* “Do we want our professional football players to be single-minded destroyers ... or do we want a little humanity to mask the stench of our weekly bloodlettings?” Stefan Fatsis discusses on Slate.

* A new study shows that laws legalizing medical marijuana have resulted in a nearly nine percent drop in traffic deaths and a five percent reduction in beer sales. Brian Palmer talks about the study’s implications.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The entanglement between biology and ideology

by Massimo Pigliucci

[Note: this is an extract from a forthcoming review of Biology and Ideology from Descartes to Dawkins, ed. by D.R. Alexander and R.L. Numbers. University of Chicago Press, 2010. The full article will be published in Science & Education.]

Science has always strived for objectivity, for a “view from nowhere” that is not marred by ideology or personal preferences. That is a lofty ideal toward which perhaps it makes sense to strive, but it is hardly the reality. This collection of thirteen essays assembled by Denis R. Alexander and Ronald L. Numbers ought to give much pause to scientists and the public at large, though historians, sociologists and philosophers of science will hardly be surprised by the material covered here.

As a matter of historical record, the sciences have always been involved in ideological disputes, sometimes battling against anti-scientific ideologies (as with today’s creationism) or being used for nefarious ideological purposes themselves (as with the infamous episode of eugenics in early 20th century America). Peter Harrison, in his essay on the cultural authority of natural history in early modern Europe, makes the point very clearly that advocates of the emerging sciences defended their novel, anti-Aristotelian approach in part on the basis that it was more conducive to a traditional humanistic education. For instance, insect metamorphosis was interpreted as analogical to the Christian belief of a resurrection of the body after death. And the ideological entanglement wasn’t only with religion, but extended to politics as well. As Harrison points out, Milton declared that the organization of ant colonies was a naturalistic sanction of parliamentary democracy! Of course, that game can be played by both sides, so it is not surprising that later in the same century the Whig John Edwards — who supported the monarchy of William and Mary — used bee colonies as indicative of the goodness of female monarchy (it is not clear where one could find William’s alter ego among bees, but never mind the details).

Eugenics is, of course, the historian and philosopher of science’s favorite whipping boy when it comes to warning about the perils of entanglement between science and ideology. It is therefore no surprise to see here a contribution by Edward Larson on biology and the emergence of the Anglo-American eugenics movement. What is surprising is to be reminded of both the damage perpetrated and the high level of endorsements gathered by the eugenic movement in the UK and the United States.

I wonder how many contemporary biologists realize, for instance, that the 1933 Nazi Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Progeny was modeled on a eugenic law that forced sterilization of the feeble minded passed in California. Or that eugenic statutes remained on the book in the United States until the 1960s, by which time more than 63,000 Americans had been forcibly sterilized. And the list of prominent biologists endorsing and sometimes vociferously defending eugenics reads like a who’s who of early 20th century biology. It includes August Weismann, Karl Pearson, William Bateson, Hugo de Vries, Thomas Hunt Morgan, Ronald Fisher, J.B.S. Haldane, and Sewall Wright, among others. It that doesn’t shake your confidence in scientists’ ideological neutrality I don’t know what will. Of course, politicians promptly followed suite, with Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Calvin Coolidge all endorsing eugenic measures.

Michael Ruse, whose writings seem to appear in every noteworthy collection of philosophical essays, contributed a provocative entry on evolution and the idea of social progress. These days it is highly unfashionable among evolutionary biologists to talk about progress, except in the factually obvious sense that the biosphere has become more complicated through time (which Stephen Gould famously attributed to a simple “left wall” effect: if you start simple, the only way you can possible go is toward complex). But it wasn’t like that until relatively recently.

As is well known, evolutionary ideas were the buzz well before Charles Darwin — from Erasmus Darwin’s Zoonomia (1794–1796) to the anonymously published Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844, actually written by Scottish journalist Robert Chambers). What is less well known is that pre-Darwinian evolutionists were considered a bunch of cranks and their ideas pseudoscientific. (Ruse notices that the concept of pseudoscience within this context is not an anachronism: it was used by physiologist Francois Magendie in 1843, and anti-pseudoscience investigation goes back at least to 1784, when King Louis XVI of France convened a special team that included Benjamin Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier to investigate — and debunk — the then popular “mesmerism.”)

It is hard to think of evolution as a pseudoscientific concept, but as Ruse aptly puts it: “Given [the] sense of opprobrium felt toward evolutionary thinking, the best term to use to refer to such thinking before Darwin is ‘pseudo-science.’ This captures both the odor of fanaticism about the supporters and about the critics, and the stench of non-respectability, relished by supporters and hated by critics.”

After Darwin (and Wallace) cleared things up and made evolution a respectable scientific concept, the situation became interesting again during the early 20th century, when a number of biologists were working to come up with what is now known as the Modern Synthesis, the standard model of evolutionary biology. A strange thing happened, following Ruse’s reconstruction of the thinking and writing of the architects of the Synthesis. On the one hand, pretty much all of them were ardent believers in the idea of progress: Fisher thought that God had created organisms progressively through natural selection (a line of thinking that led him to support the eugenic movement, to avoid the decline of the human race); Dobzhansky was an enthusiastic supporter of the idea of progress (again informed by his religious beliefs); and Ruse describes Simpson as “fanatic” about both biological and cultural progress. On the other hand, none of this shows up in any of these people’s technical writings: it’s all confined to their essays for the general public. Moreover, the only architect of the Synthesis that did incorporate the notion of progress in his technical book, Julian Huxley, was shunned, harshly criticized, and penalized in terms of his scientific career (grants denied, negation of the editorship of a new journal on evolution). What was going on?

As Ruse provocatively puts it: “They had all taken in the message that successful science, mature science, epistemic science, professional science, is culture-value free,” which means that they couldn’t risk injecting what they must at some level have perceived as ideology — their belief in progress — into their science, at least not in front of their peers. But it was okay to wax poetic about progress with the general public, thereby indirectly giving the impression that progress and evolutionary biology went hand in hand. It sounds a lot like the increasingly annoying tendency of some contemporary physicists to write about the compatibility of science and religion, and sometimes even more or less explicitly endorse some version of intelligent design (usually in the guise of the anthropic principle) — in their non-technical writings only, of course. As a bonus, contemporary scientists can have a shot at the hefty Templeton Prize, which was not established when Dobzhansky, Simpson and Fisher were writing.

The message of the Alexander-Numbers book should be loud and clear: science has always been, and very likely always will be, entangled with ideology. This is because science, as Helen Longino put it in her Science as Social Knowledge, science is an irreducibly social activity, and as such it reflects the many, not always positive, ways in which people interact. Science of course is also a pursuit of knowledge, and knowledge is power, according to Francis Bacon, and therefore not too far removed from politics and ideology. Actually, that famous Baconian phrase happens to fit very well with this discussion, as the original sentence, in Latin, was “scientia potestas est” (found in the Meditations, 1597). Problem is, Bacon wrote that within the context of a discussion of heresies denying the power of God, so that some commentators actually think that it should be translated as “knowledge is His power.” Science and religion, deeply entangled right in the writings of the man who is credited for having laid out the basis of the modern scientific method by rejecting the Aristotelian approach.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

You don’t really exist, do you?

by Massimo Pigliucci

For some time I have been noticing the emergence of a strange trinity of beliefs among my fellow skeptics and freethinkers: an increasing number of them, it seems, don’t believe that they can make decisions (the free will debate), don’t believe that they have moral responsibility (because they don’t have free will, or because morality is relative — take your pick), and they don’t even believe that they exist as conscious beings because, you know, consciousness is an illusion.

As I have argued recently, there are sensible ways to understand human volition (a much less metaphysically loaded and more sensible term than free will) within a lawful universe (Sean Carroll agrees and, interestingly, so does my sometime opponent Eliezer Yudkowsky). I also devoted an entire series on this blog to a better understanding of what morality is, how it works, and why it ain’t relative (within the domain of social beings capable of self-reflection). Let’s talk about consciousness then.

The oft-heard claim that consciousness is an illusion is an extraordinary one, as it relegates to an entirely epiphenomenal status what is arguably the most distinctive characteristic of human beings, the very thing that seems to shape and give meaning to our lives, and presumably one of the major outcome of millions of years of evolution pushing for a larger brain equipped with powerful frontal lobes capable to carry out reasoning and deliberation.

Still, if science tells us that consciousness is an illusion, we must bow to that pronouncement and move on (though we apparently cannot escape the illusion, partly because we have no free will). But what is the extraordinary evidence for this extraordinary claim? To begin with, there are studies of (very few) “split brain” patients which seem to indicate that the two hemispheres of the brain — once separated — display independent consciousness (under experimental circumstances), to the point that they may even try to make the left and right sides of the body act antagonistically to each other.

But there are a couple of obvious issues here that block an easy jump from observations on those patients to grand conclusions about the illusoriness of consciousness. First off, the two hemispheres are still conscious, so at best we have evidence that consciousness is divisible, not that it is an illusion (and that subdivision presumably can proceed no further than n=2). Second, these are highly pathological situations, and though they certainly tell us something interesting about the functioning of the brain, they are informative mostly about what happens when the brain does not function. As a crude analogy, imagine sawing a car in two, noticing that the front wheels now spin independently of the rear wheels, and concluding that the synchronous rotation of the wheels in the intact car is an “illusion.” Not a good inference, is it?

Let’s pursue this illusion thing a bit further. Sometimes people also argue that physics tells us that the way we perceive the world is also an illusion. After all, apparently solid objects like tables are made of quarks and the forces that bind them together, and since that’s the fundamental level of reality (well, unless you accept string theory) then clearly our senses are mistaken.

But our senses are not mistaken at all, they simply function at the (biologically) appropriate level of perception of reality. We are macroscopic objects and need to navigate the world as such. It would be highly inconvenient if we could somehow perceive quantum level phenomena directly, and in a very strong sense the solidity of a table is not an illusion at all. It is rather an emergent property of matter that our evolved senses exploit to allow us to sit down and have a nice meal at that table without worrying about the zillions of subnuclear interactions going on about it all the time.

What about the neurobiological research that seems to show quite conclusively that consciousness is just a post-facto add-on to our decision making? Don’t we know that “we” don’t actually make our decisions, that it’s all going on subconsciously?

To begin with, I find it bizarre to talk as if unconscious thinking isn’t part of what “we” do. Who else is doing it? “We” are made of our conscious and unconscious processing of information, of our bodies, and of our interactions with the social and physical world. That’s who “we” are, and to limit the definition of “we” to just the conscious part is misguided.

Moreover, a closer look at the evidence does not bear out the increasingly persistent myth that “it’s all unconscious anyway.” Here very interesting work has been done by Alfred Mele at Florida State University. In his Effective Intentions: The Power of Conscious Will, Mele critically examines claims to the effect that, for instance, our brains make decisions before we become conscious of them, or that intentions don’t play a role in producing actions. He finds the evidence for such extraordinary claims extraordinarily deficient and — to the contrary — lines up evidence from neurobiology for the conclusion that consciousness plays a major role in (some, most certainly not all) of our decisions, particularly when it comes to the sort of decisions we normally do attribute to conscious deliberation (like whether to change career, say, not just when to push a button on a computer screen, a la Libet experiments).

One more thing strikes me as strange from the point of view of the “consciousness is an illusion” school of thought. Its supporters have no account of why this illusion would evolve. If we take seriously the commonsensical idea that consciousness aids deliberative reasoning, then we see that it has a (important) biological function. But if it is just an illusion, what’s it for? Now, as a biologist I am perfectly aware that sometimes in evolution shit just happens (“spandrels,” as Stephen Gould and Richard Lewontin referred to structures that seem adaptive but are in fact byproducts of evolution). But if a large amount of metabolic energy used up by the brain goes into maintaining the illusion of consciousness surely one wants an answer to the question of why did natural selection bring this situation about or — if consciousness is a spandrel — why does it persist in the face of what should be strong selection against it. We know that when organisms don’t need complex structures/functions natural selection quickly eliminates them (for instance, in the case of eyes for cave animals).

It won’t do to claim that the illusion of consciousness is there because that way we feel in control and suffer less psychological stress. First, this is clearly an ad hoc and hard to test hypothesis (the evolutionary part of it, not the psychological: we do know that people become stressed by perceived lack of control). Second, the problem is only removed by one step: why would we evolve a psychological system that causes stress when we perceive a loss of control? Most other animal species seem to get along in life just well without these psychological mechanisms, so clearly something is missing from the “illusion” account.

Seems to me, therefore, that the increasingly fashionable idea that consciousness is an illusion is both too quick and not actually supported by a careful reading of the neurobiological literature, and skeptics and freethinkers would do well to pause and reflect on it before continuing to spread it. Of course that assumes that you can reflect on things in a way that is conducive to decisions implementing what your conscious will wants to do.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Academic posturing behind the scenes

by Massimo Pigliucci

As I mentioned earlier, Maarten Boudry and I are in the process of putting together an edited book on the philosophy of pseudoscience for Chicago Press. We invited a number of philosophers, skeptics, historians, and sociologists of science to contribute to the volume, the first comprehensive re-analysis of what Popper famously dubbed the “demarcation problem” (what distinguishes science from pseudoscience) in a number of years.

It has been much fun, and we have learned a lot from a number of colleagues who submitted chapters for the book. Except that we also got embroiled in a several months long controversy of which you will never hear, because it will not make it into the light of academic publishing. I’m going to tell you about it anyway, because it is an instructive “behind the scenes” look at what, sometimes, goes on in the academy.

A couple of disclaimers first. Naturally, this is my version of the story, and I recognize that I am biased in this regard. Nevertheless, this is my blog, so that’s the version you get. Moreover, I will not disclose the names of the two colleagues involved in the controversy, and I will make as few references as possible to the specifics, because I am not interested in smearing individuals but rather in having a discussion about the internal workings of academic scholarship. I will refer to the two colleagues in question as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, just so that we can keep their different actions and reactions straight in our minds in the course of the narrative.

The story begins when Maarten and I got the first draft of both Tweedledum’s and Tweedledee’s chapters. Upon reading them, the reviewers thought Tweedledum’s was marginally acceptable, while Tweedledee’s was highly problematic. The problem arose from the fact that Tweedledee’s entire argument reduced to the idea that it is not at all clear why “serious” parapsychological research doesn’t get nearly as much respect in the scientific community as “clearly” questionable speculations on, say, string theory.

We (and the reviewers) couldn’t believe our eyes. What serious research on parapsychology? Yes, from time to time a psychologist or other holder of a PhD publishes a paper claiming marginally statistically significant results purporting to demonstrate telepathy, clairvoyance and the like. But typically, said papers are quickly debunked on the grounds of sloppy experimental design, bad statistical analyses, and sometimes simple fraud. String theory, on the other hand, as empirically directly untested as it remains, is a sophisticated mathematical theory built on more than a century of previous successful theories (quantum mechanics and general relativity in particular), not to mention numerous highly replicable experimental results.

At any rate, we wrote to Tweedledum notifying him of the acceptance of his paper and — separately — to Tweedledee saying that we were sorry but we couldn’t accept his contribution. We included in the letter the detailed comments of two reviewers, in case he decided to take their criticisms into consideration and submit a modified paper for publication somewhere else. Notice that this is, of course, standard procedure: just because one gets invited to contribute to a book or special issue of a scholarly journal there is no implicit guarantee that one’s work will be accepted. Peer review is still needed, or the academy would become a chummy club where everyone publishes his own friends’ papers.

Imagine therefore Maarten’s and my surprise when we get a response from Tweedledum (not Tweedledee) saying that he would withdraw his (accepted) chapter unless we reconsidered our decision not to publish Tweedledee’s contribution. Moreover, Tweedledum also proposed that he and Tweedledee get to decide to whom to send their papers for review, and that they be allowed to write a special introductory section of the book to explain the difference between their “approach” and everyone else’s.

Nonsense, we responded. This amounts to blackmail and to an attempt to wrestle editorial control for a section of the book. Unacceptable. But the dialog continued, mediated by our patient and highly professional editor at the Press. After several weeks, we agreed to consider a revised version of Tweedledee’s paper in which he would do his best to respond to the reviewers’ comments. (Remember, Tweedledum’s chapter had been accepted.)

That was far from the end of it. We got the new version of Tweedledee’s paper (which was barely improved, but still, the guy made an effort) and what should have been only a slightly edited version of Tweedledum’s contribution. Instead, we discovered that Tweedledum’s chapter now featured a lengthy “appendix” which basically functioned as the editorial introduction which had already been rejected, and which included direct attacks on one of the editors’ (me) point of view. What the hell?

The next step was for us to accept Tweedledee’s resubmission (as I said, the guy tried, and it would have been good to include significantly divergent perspectives in the volume), and tell Tweedledum that his originally paper was accepted, sans the appendix.

At which point Tweedledum decided to withdraw his chapter (which, remember, had been accepted from the beginning!) because he just couldn’t live without the polemical appendix. Throughout, he continued to copy Tweedledee on all the correspondence, even though Maarten and I kept trying to treat them as separate individuals, rather than as academic siamese twins.

This left Tweedledee in the very uncomfortable position of having his (initially rejected) paper accepted because of Tweedledum’s interceding, at the same time that Tweedledum had withdrawn from the project! What to do? Naturally, after more than one agonizing week of pondering the dilemma, Tweedledee also withdrew, thus bringing the whole indecorous affair to completion.

I don’t know how often this sort of thing happens in academia. I have enough experience as both a professional scientist and philosopher to have witnessed or heard of many bizarre occurrences, and I am sensitive enough to sociology and psychology of science to know perfectly well that academics are human beings characterized by all the foibles of ordinary human beings. Still, it was highly disturbing to see the whole thing unfold before my very eyes and clearly see it spinning out of control despite what I thought were our best efforts. (I must acknowledge that the tone of some of my emails to Tweedledum and Tweedledee became far from friendly, but the facts are as I reported them above.)

Helen Longino famously wrote that science works in part because it is a social activity where people are free (and, indeed, encouraged) to criticize each other’s works. This is true for scholarship in general, including in philosophy, sociology, history and the like. Criticism includes the idea that papers may be rejected if reviewers or editors don’t think they pass the bar. Reviewers and editors can be wrong, which is why it is good to have many outlets for academic publishing. But when one begins to throw one’s weight around to force things through, we have a breakdown of the basic academic social contract, and the whole affair begins to look a lot more like politics and ideology than an open and frank exchange of ideas. It is only because of the professionalism of our editor at Chicago Press, and because I’m not a young untenured professor, that things went the way they did. The bottom line: reader beware, caveat emptor!

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Why skeptics should embrace political advocacy — and how they can do it

by Michael De Dora

In my nearly three years working in the skeptic community, I have learned many important things. I’ve been taught how science works, and how to spot pseudoscience. I’ve discovered how we fool ourselves into believing we’ve seen ghosts, aliens, and other scary monsters that likely don’t exist. And I’ve found out how psychics, mediums and others prey upon other humans for monetary gain. I’ve also realized that skeptics, like most human beings, love their community. Conferences, pub meetings, blogs, and podcasts: these represent comfortable places where most members are relatively sane and rational, and inquiry into almost any subject is welcomed.

Yet, often ignored or forgotten in the fray of social discussion on science denialism and hucksterism, and community building, is that skepticism also deserves a voice in public policy debates. Secularists have recognized this, and founded organizations like Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and the Secular Coalition in order to pair with more socially focused groups. So far, skeptics have not.

In my view, skepticism, like secular thinking, should not be limited to the social. It should also be engaged in the political. This essay will attempt to outline why I believe this, and propose both issues and methods that would help skeptics get more involved in the political process.

There are several reasons why many skeptics are not as engaged in political advocacy as much as I think they ought to be. Here are three of the most common:

1. Politics concerns values, which are not amenable to empirical inquiry or rational discussion.

2. Politics demands political party affiliation.

3. Politics is irrational and messy. The system is broken.

As a result of these objections — and, to be sure, skimpy funding — there are few dedicated skeptical lobby groups, or skeptic organizations that lobby on traditionally skeptic issues.
And, without an organized skeptical-political movement, there are few skeptics who get involved in the political process.

I think the three objections above are mistaken, and that they have negative consequences. Here are my brief rebuttals:

1. Skepticism might mostly be about applying science to problems concerning, say, pseudoscience and health, but science itself does rely upon values. These values include, at the least: methodological naturalism, evidence and testability, and logical coherence.

Furthermore, while values might not be amenable to empirical study, they are and should be subject to another thing skeptics value: rational examination. This is not to say reason is all-powerful. But reason can help us evaluate our values and help us assess whether we have properly thought them out. It is also not to say that skepticism should critically examine all values. Rather, my point is that skeptics should not avoid debates just because in some way they include talk of values.

2. Admittedly, much of politics is battles between political parties and factions, such as Republicans, Democrats, Greens, and independents. Yet one need not fit into, or adopt, any of the aforementioned parties to be engaged in the political process.

Indeed, I believe skepticism is by definition non-partisan, and therefore it is unnecessary to consider which political party to lean toward. This is because skepticism is a method, not a position. As such, I think skeptics will be most successful politically if they can manage to focus on applying the method to specific political problems within the domain of skepticism, several of which I will propose below.

3. Politics is certainly often irrational and messy, but it is not necessarily irrational and messy. There are always chances to inject a sliver of rationality into an irrational system. The question is whether you think this is worthwhile.

Moreover, while our political system might appear to be broken, one of the few ways to actually effect change — and perhaps even fix the system — is to work within it. I value conversations on how to make change outside of the current system, or to create a better one. But while having that conversation, we should realize change is being made within the current system. We can either let it happen without resistance, or we can put our chips on the table and work to defend our worldview.

Two questions now remain: which political issues should skeptics concern themselves with? And how should they get involved?

A couple of issues immediately come to mind: evolution in public schools and climate change. Leaving these important but well-worn issues aside for a moment, I propose there are at least three other topics that skeptics could readily concern themselves with:

-- Defunding and/or dismantling the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). Since 1992, NCCAM (previously the Office of Alternative Medicine) has been awarded $2 billion for research, and currently has an annual budget of $134 million. Yet nearly twenty years of study have shown that most alternative medicine “cures” work no better than placebos. As David Gorski writes on Science-Based Medicine, NCCAM should be defunded or abolished, and any valuable parts should be folded into the National Institutes for Health (NIH).

-- Health coverage for alternative medicine practices that have been proven ineffective. Again, most well-known alternative medicine practices have been shown to be unsuccessful as medical cures. Yet lawmakers continue to push for their coverage under health care plans. From Derek Araujo last year:

“Congressional allies of the so-called ‘complementary and alternative medicine’ industry successfully introduced language in health care reform legislation requiring insurers to cover any state-licensed health care providers — including, of course, complementary and alternative medicine practitioners. Language prohibiting ‘discrimination’ against any state-licensed practitioners survived in the Affordable Care Act President Obama signed into law on March 23, 2010.”

-- Government-mandated vaccines and religious exemptions.
In all 50 U.S. states, children are required to be properly immunized before attending school. However, in addition to medical exemptions offered in each state, 48 states allow for religious exemptions, while 20 states allow for personal belief exemptions for daycare and school (source). Unfortunately, this has recently become a more popular trend, leading to greater danger of a serious outbreaks.

These three issues all: stem from historically skeptical subjects; concern some talk of values, but mostly are about science; do not demand party affiliation; and might actually be winnable.

How can skeptics go about getting involved in these issues?

The first step is to merely pay attention and get informed. Take a second and click over to any number of web sites and blogs that carry position papers, reports, and news analysis. Some suggestions: the Center for Inquiry’s (CFI) Office of Public Policy, National Center for Science Education (NCSE), the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the National Council Against Health Fraud, Science-Based Medicine, QuackWatch, and even SkepChick.

The second, and perhaps more important step, is to actually make your voice heard. Even without dedicated skeptic lobby organizations, armed with information, you can and should write and call your lawmakers. Sign up to receive action alerts from organizations such as CFI-OPP, NCSE, and USC, and you’ll soon start receiving emails that will allow you to easily message your representatives on issues relating to science and skepticism. It takes only a couple of minutes for you to fill out an action alert and send it along to a lawmaker, who is — contra to what many think — almost certainly paying attention (perhaps not to the unique content in each message, but certainly to the number of messages they receive). Or, if you feel so compelled, write a letter to your representative (though be aware that due to restrictive security measures, there’s a good chance your letter will be delayed several months, or might never even reach its intended audience). Or pick up a phone and let your representative know you care about a certain issue and are paying attention to his or her actions.

More broadly, attend local hearings and public forums and voice your opinion. Share action alerts and other links to Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, and whatever other social networks you use. Write letters to the editor. Comment on blog posts and online news articles. Do whatever you can to spread the message.

You might think that all of this is relatively inconsequential, but that is not true. Politicians essentially care about two things: money and votes. We might not have the money, but we do represent votes. The more that elected officials hear from us — whether by action alert, letter, phone call, or other means — the more they will have to consider our points of view. And the more that others see that you are engaged, the more likely they will be to get involved and engaged as well. Which means that politicians might have to consider our viewpoints sooner than they thought.

Perhaps more importantly, writing a letter, placing a phone call, sharing a link, or penning a letter to the editor takes very little of your time, and there is no guarantee your fellow skeptics will take up the cause. If you don’t do it, no one else might do it either. And that would be a shame, because a moment of your time could make a difference.


Note: this essay is adapted from a talk I gave at SkeptiCamp NYC on Saturday, Dec. 3. I will let you know if video surfaces.

Further note: I think the word “skeptic” could be replaced with many other labels. We could all probably be more engaged in the political process anyway. But this talk was tailored specifically for SkeptiCamp, so there you have it.

Monday, December 05, 2011

New podcast episode: Genie Scott on denialism of climate change and evolution

Our guest Eugenie C. Scott joins us to talk about a new initiative of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) to tackle denialism of global warming. Both evolution and global warming are “controversial issues” in the public sphere, but are not controversial in the world of science. There is some overlap between the two issues, but far more people are climate change deniers than evolution deniers. What is interesting to skeptics, however, is the similarity in the techniques that are used by both camps to promote their views. The scientific issues are presented as “not being settled,” or that there is considerable debate among scientists over the validity of claims.

Evolution and global warming opponents also demonize the opposition by accusing them of fraud or other wrong-doing. Denialists in both camps practice “anomaly mongering,” in which a small detail seemingly incompatible with either evolution or global warming is considered to undermine either evolution or climate science. Although in both cases, reputable, established science is under attack for ideological reasons, the underlying ideology differs: for creationism, the ideology of course is religious; for global warming, the ideology is political and/or economic.

Dr. Eugenie C. Scott is Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, and sits on the Board of Advisors for the New York City Skeptics. She has written extensively on the evolution-creationism controversy and is past president of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. Scott is the 2010 recipient of the National Academy of Science's Public Welfare Medal. She is the author of "Evolution vs Creationism" and co-editor, with Glenn Branch, of "Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools."