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, 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.


  1. Interesting.... As a skeptic, and advocate of absolutism in tolerance of conscious (the one basic rule is tolerance of the beliefs of others), the longer I live the less I have 'faith' in the ultimate power of 'Science' to deliver socially and politically (technically and materially it's simply superb)... But when used to advocate political, spiritual or social argument, Science seems even more prone to devolve into tyranny and self-service than all the other highly flawed theologies and ideologies used to that end...made worse for its absolute self-certainty.

  2. "Comment should not be empty". Well it wasn't...but I agree with Sting: say nothing once, why way it again?

  3. Michael, some thoughtful ideas. I'm left-liberal enough for America to vote Green, but because of the party's stance on stuff like alt-med, I won't become a registered member.

    This all said, let's remember that skepticism shouldn't apply only to matters of science. Good skeptics rejected Bush's claims about Iraqi weapons based on matters of science.

    On economics, we should be skeptical about everybody from the Libertarian Party to the Communist Party and in between. Economics, other than behavioral economics, is less scientific than any other social science.

    If we really wanted to change things, we'd push for critical thinking classes in our public schools, but fat chance of that.

  4. "But when used to advocate political, spiritual or social argument, Science seems even more prone to devolve into tyranny and self-service than all the other highly flawed theologies and ideologies used to that end...made worse for its absolute self-certainty."

    You're right. We should tolerate beliefs, and never rail against them. Even if the belief involves hating LGBT. Even if the beliefs can be empirically shown to increase the number of suicides in that community. Even if the beliefs have no basis in reality at all.

    Because beliefs are important. Not people.

  5. I was more than a little surprised that you advocate skeptics get involved in politics and then show no skepticism with regard to global warming. As skeptics, in general, we are the best advocates of skepticism of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming.

    But otherwise, I agree that the entire skeptical community should be active politically. We need a solid balance to the Religious Right because they exert undo influence on one of our polticial parties. But I don't agree with your politics. There is a very active secular conservative community already in place.

  6. I'm much more pessimistic than Michael with regards to the influence of money on US politics. Since money and votes are essentially interchangeable, thanks to Citizens United, I have a hard time seeing votes as all that important. We all have but one vote, and most of us not much money (even pooled). Those who have one vote and LOTS of money are the ones politicians care about.

  7. Heathen Republican,

    there is just about the same amount of reason to be "skeptical" of global warming as there is to be skeptical of evolution. In both cases the best science is on one side and the ideological posturing on the other.

  8. Good post Michael! The NIH should be ashamed of itself. Who's running that place anyway? ;)

  9. "Science seems even more prone to devolve into tyranny and self-service than all the other highly flawed theologies and ideologies used to that end."

    I have no idea where this comes from. Science is not, by itself, an ideology, nor does it contain a full complement of political beliefs. Nor "absolute self-certainty". It's a tool.

    "As skeptics, in general, we are the best advocates of skepticism of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming."

    The history of that last phrase is very telling. First "climate change skeptics" claimed to be skeptical of global warming. Then they started to admit that there might be warming, but they were skeptical that it was anthropogenic. Now quite a few admit that humans have had some effect on the climate, but they claim that "alarmists" have claimed that its magnitude is "catastrophic" for political or financial gain. Since Climategate we've also seen a lot of melodramatic crowing about the conspiracy that has been uncovered. (Because apparently it's supposed to be very revealing that you can make someone look bad or dishonest by quote-mining and cherry picking from over a decade's worth of emails by people working in a politically contentious field.)

    None of these changes has involved any clear attempt at reconciliation with the mainstream scientific community. As each position becomes untenable (in fact falsified), these "skeptics" move the goalposts and dig into a new position, as if they had been arguing against something as narrow as "catastrophic anthropogenic global warming" all along.

    "But I don't agree with your politics. There is a very active secular conservative community already in place."

    Confusing. A major point of skepticism is that one should have a reasonable objective justification for claiming that something is a fact. So questions about things like climate change, at least, should not be liberal-conservative questions, but good science-bad science questions.

    If something like climate change skepticism is really about the science, you shouldn't have to be a conservative to buy into it, and it shouldn't be considered a "conservative" movement. Labeling it as a conservative movement implies that it has more to do with political identity than with going wherever the science leads, which is antithetical to skepticism.

  10. Sean, I don't know what's so confusing. My statements about global warming and an active secular conservative movement were not linked, but you chose to link them. The post suggests that skeptics need to be more politically active. Some of us already are and we call ourselves secular conservatives.

    I agree with you that there's no reason the climate change debate should be a left/right issue. As you say, it's about science. I have no idea why everyone on the left seems to buy into it but, while I can't speak for everyone on the right, I can explain why I'm skeptical. But why it falls along partisan lines? No clue.

    My first point was simply to say that anyone defining themselves as a skeptic should naturally be skeptical about global warming claims. There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical even if you ignore Climategate. How can you call yourself a skeptic if you swallow global warming arguments whole?

  11. Sean,

    I agree: The findings of climate science ought not to be accepted on the basis of political persuasion.(I am a political libertarian and I accept the findings of climate science; also, as I am not a climate scientist I am really not in the appropriate epistemic situation to disagree with the supermajority of climate scientists.)


    Re: 'There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical even if you ignore Climategate.'

    Your blog does nothing to counterbalance the weight of scientific evidence, which confirms anthropogenic climate change, in favor of skepticism.

    Re: 'How can you call yourself a skeptic if you swallow global warming arguments whole?'

    I actually eschew the title 'skeptic' for various reasons but mostly because it is associated with secular humanism, and I am *not* a humanist (though, I am an atheist). But a skeptic can call oneself a skeptic and accept anthropogenic climate change on the basis that the preponderance of the relevant scientific evidence supports belief in anthropogenic climate change.

  12. "Sean, I don't know what's so confusing. My statements about global warming and an active secular conservative movement were not linked, but you chose to link them."

    I didn't arbitrarily choose to link them; I legitimately thought that the two statements were linked, because

    a) your statement was of the form "I disagree because A, but otherwise I agree because B, but I disagree about C", which suggested that A and C were related, and

    b) saying that there is "already" a secular conservative movement didn't seem relevant to a discussion about the need for nonpartisan skeptical involvement unless you meant to connect that comment with something you thought conservatives were doing particularly well already (and the only thing you'd mentioned that might qualify was the bit about climate change).

    As for your blog post about why you consider it rational to be skeptical, it contains a lot of questions, but doesn't demonstrate a lot of curiosity about how those questions have been answered. That you don't know how global temperatures are defined or calculated, or how one can constrain the errors on those numbers, says nothing except that there are certain things that you personally don't know.

    Furthermore, you seem to focus on popular presentations of the information and not the academic literature. I don't fault you for only talking about what you've seen, but as someone who has done scientific research in quantum mechanics, I can assure you that popular science descriptions for a general audience can lose quite a bit in translation.

    "How can you call yourself a skeptic if you swallow global warming arguments whole?"

    I don't swallow them whole, and in fact I've only really been convinced in the last few years (having not looked very deeply into the question before that, I suspended judgment). My comments about the history of the climate change debate reflect how the dialogue has changed from the sources I'd seen from the 80's and 90's, to how it appears today. Notably, the available evidence has also changed radically over the last few decades.

    I'm not a climatologist, but I expect that assertions on both sides should be justified and able to withstand scrutiny, and I try to at least do some basic homework on new information that comes up. I now also work at an atmospheric research center in Colorado (not as a scientist), which has given me a somewhat better grasp of how this research is actually conducted and what types of data are used. So far everything I have seen has suggested that climatology is equally trustworthy to any other field of physics or chemistry, while all but a tiny handful of "skeptics" of climate change do not seem to understand what they are talking about.

  13. On the first comment by Patrick, where he admitted that science is technically and materially superb, he gave no examples of why it "seems even more prone to devolve into tyranny" in the social and political realms, I can think of several areas where science can and does contribute ably and in a non-partisan manner to clarify social issues. Brian Lynchehaun clearly pointed out how science could counter beliefs with no basis in reality and the crucial ramifications they can have on society and politics.
    The Heathen Republican showed unwarranted skepticism toward catastrophic anthropogenic global warming which was effectively put to rest when Massimo Pigliucci said, "the best science is on one side and the ideological posturing on the other." This Republican ideological posturing is destroying our nation! The Heathen Republican's cluelessness about why climate change falls along partisan lines can be answered by noting that party's collusion with big business, its deregulatory record and anti-environmental stances, all in their efforts to glean unconscionable contributions from gross polluters and industries hell-bent on profiteering by destroying the environmental safeguards put in place by the EPA and other vitally needed agencies.
    Sean (quantheory) very ably and with flawless logic tore the rest of the Heathen Republican's (A very appropriate name) arguments to shreds! I've noticed that the Republicans vote as a block, at the dictates of their Karl Rove or Grover Norquist tyranny, often contrary to their own constituent's best interests and certainly against the best ethical considerations of what is best for America!
    I would love to get more of Michael De Lora's views on the vital issues of evolution in public schools and climate change and how science can contribute to enhancing our political dialog to overcome Republican reticence and obstructionism.

  14. "Yet nearly twenty years of study have shown that most alternative medicine 'cures' work no better than placebos."

    May I ask that this study be identified along with the party that funded that study? What selection process (among all alternative cures) was used for the examination? Exactly what percentage of alternate cures were found to be ineffective? And to put that figure in context, what percentage of treatments currently used in traditional medicine are lacking scientific studies that show their effectiveness?

    I'm all for bringing science to medicine, but let's not assume that traditional medicine is alway synonomous with science and that alternate treatments are always symonomous with bunk.

  15. @Heathen: Skepticism ideally transcends partisan politics. Sorry that it doesn't for you, as it does for me, self-identified as a *skeptical left-liberal.*

    And, actually, there's plenty of reasons to be skeptical about claims there's plenty of reasons to be skeptical about climate change.

    And, if you actually list Jonah Goldberg as among your reading influences, I've got about 5,000 cc of skepticism to share with you.