I have been an active member of the self-described Community of Reason since about 1997. By that term I mean the broad set encompassing skeptics, atheists and secular humanists (and all the assorted synonyms thereof: freethinkers, rationalists, and even brights). The date is easily explainable: in 1996 I had moved from Brown University — where I did my postdoc — to the University of Tennessee, were I was appointed assistant professor in the Departments of Botany and of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. A few months after my arrival in Knoxville, the extremely (to this day) unenlightened TN legislature began discussing a bill that would have allowed school boards to fire teachers who presented evolution as a fact rather than a theory (it is both, of course). The bill died in committee (though a more recent one did pass, go Volunteers!), in part because of the efforts of colleagues and graduate students throughout the State.
It was because of my local visibility during that episode (and then shortly thereafter because I began organizing Darwin Day events on campus, which are still going strong) that I was approached by some members of a group called “The Fellowship of Reason” (now the Rationalists of East Tennessee). They told me that we had much in common, and wouldn’t I want to join them in their efforts? My first thought was that an outlet with that name must be run by cuckoos, and at any rate I had a lab to take care of and tenure to think about, thank you very much.
But in fact it took only a couple more polite attempts on their part before I joined the group and, by proxy, the broader Community of Reason (henceforth, CoR). It has been one of the most meaningful and exhilarating decisions of my life, some consequences of which include four books on science and philosophy for the general public (counting the one coming out in September); columns and articles for Skeptic, Skeptical Inquirer, Free Inquiry, The Philosopher’s Magazine and Philosophy Now, among others; and of course this blog and its associated podcast. I made many friends within the CoR, beginning with Carl Ledendecker of Knoxville, TN (the guy who originally approached me about the Fellowship of Reason), and of course including the editor and writers of Rationally Speaking.
But... yes, there is a “but,” and it’s beginning to loom large in my consciousness, so I need to get it out there and discuss it (this blog is just as much a way for me to clarify my own ideas through writing and the feedback of others as it is a channel for outreach as an academic interested in making some difference in the world). The problem is that my experience (anecdotal, yes, but ample and varied) has been that there is quite a bit of un-reason within the CoR. This takes the form of more or less widespread belief in scientific, philosophical and political notions that don’t make much more sense than the sort of notions we — within the community — are happy to harshly criticize in others. Yes, you might object, but that’s just part of being human, pretty much every group of human beings holds to unreasonable beliefs, why are you so surprised or worried? Well, because we think of ourselves — proudly! — as a community of reason, where reason and evidence are held as the ultimate arbiters of any meaningful dispute. To find out that too often this turns out not to be the case is a little bit like discovering that moral philosophers aren’t more ethical than the average guy (true).
What am I talking about? Here is a (surely incomplete, and I’m even more sure, somewhat debatable) list of bizarre beliefs I have encountered among fellow skeptics-atheists-humanists. No, I will not name names because this is about ideas, not individuals (but heck, you know who you are...). The list, incidentally, features topics in no particular order, and it would surely be nice if a sociology student were to conduct a systematic research on this for a thesis...
* Assorted nonsense about alternative medicine. Despite excellent efforts devoted to debunking “alternative” medicine claims, some atheists especially actually endorse all sorts of nonsense about “non-Western” remedies.
* Religion is not a proper area of application for skepticism, according to some skeptics. Why on earth not? It may not be a suitable area of inquiry for science, but skepticism — in the sense of generally applied critical thinking — draws on more than just science (think philosophy, logic and math).
* Philosophy is useless armchair speculation. So is math. And logic. And all theoretical science.
* The notion of anthropogenic global warming has not been scientifically established, something loudly proclaimed by people who — to the best of my knowledge — are not atmospheric physicists and do not understand anything about the complex data analysis and modeling that goes into climate change research.
* Science can answer moral questions. No, science can inform moral questions, but moral reasoning is a form of philosophical reasoning. The is/ought divide may not be absolute, but it is there nonetheless.
* Science has established that there is no consciousness or free will (and therefore no moral responsibility). No, it hasn’t, as serious cognitive scientists freely admit. Notice that I am not talking about the possibility that science has something meaningful to say about these topics (it certainly does when it comes to consciousness, and to some extent concerning free will, if we re-conceptualize the latter as the human ability of making decisions). I am talking about the dismissal-cum-certainty attitude that so many in the CoR have so quickly arrived at, despite what can be charitably characterized as a superficial understanding of the issue.
* Determinism has been established by science. Again, wrong, not only because there are interpretations of quantum mechanics that are not deterministic, but because a good argument can be made that that is simply not the sort of thing science can establish (nor can anything else, which is why I think the most reasonable position in this case is simple agnosticism).
* Evolutionary psychology is on epistemic par with evolutionary biology. No, it isn’t, for very good and well understood reasons pertinent to the specific practical limitations of trying to figure out human selective histories. Of course, evopsych is not a pseudoscience, and it’s probably best understood as a science-informed narrative about the human condition.
* The Singularity is near! I have just devoted a full column for Skeptical Inquirer (in press) to why I think this amounts to little more than a cult for nerds. But it is a disturbingly popular cult within the CoR.
* Objectivism is (the most rational) philosophy according to a significant sub-set of skeptics and atheists (not humanists, since humanism is at complete odds with Randianism). Seriously, people? Notice that I am not talking about libertarianism here, which is a position that I find philosophically problematic and ethically worrisome, but is at least debatable. Ayn Rand’s notions, on the other hand, are an incoherent jumble of contradictions and plagiarism from actual thinkers. Get over it.
* Feminism is a form of unnecessary and oppressive liberal political correctness. Oh please, and yet, rather shockingly, I have heard this “opinion” from several fellow CoRers.
* Feminists are right by default and every attempt to question them is the result of oppressive male chauvinism (even when done by women). These are people who clearly are not up on readings in actual feminism (did you know that there have been several waves of it? With which do you best connect?).
* All religious education is child abuse, period. This is a really bizarre notion, I think. Not only does it turn 90% of the planet into child abusers, but people “thinking” (I use the term loosely) along these lines don’t seem to have considered exactly what religious education might mean (there is a huge variety of it), or — for that matter — why a secular education wouldn’t be open to the same charge, if done as indoctrination (and if it isn’t, are you really positive that there are no religious families out there who teach doubt? You’d be surprised!).
* Insulting people, including our close allies, is an acceptable and widespread form of communication with others. Notice that I am not talking about the occasional insult hurled at your opponent, since there everyone is likely a culprit from time to time (including yours truly). I am talking about engaging in apologia on behalf of a culture of insults.
The point of this list, I hasten to say, is not that the opinions that I have expressed on these topics are necessarily correct, but rather that a good number of people in the CoR, including several leaders of the movement(s), either hold to clearly unreasonable opinions on said topics, or cannot even engage in a discussion about the opinions they do hold, dismissing any dissenting voice as crazy or irrelevant.
As you can see, the above is a heterogeneous list that includes scientific notions, philosophical concepts, and political positions. What do the elements of this list have in common, if anything? A few things, which is where I hope the discussion is going to focus (as opposed to attempting to debunk one’s pet entry, or deny that there is a problem to begin with).
A) Anti-intellectualism. This is an attitude of lack of respect for the life of the mind and those who practice it. It may be strange to claim that members — and even some leaders — of the CoR engage in anti-intellectualism, but the evidence is overwhelming. When noted biologists or physicists in the movement dismiss an entire field of intellectual pursuit (philosophy) out of hand they are behaving in an anti-intellectual manner. When professional “skeptics” tell us that they don’t buy claims of anthropogenic global warming, they are being anti-intellectual because they are dismissing the work of thousands of qualified scientists. To be more precise here, I think there are actually two separate sub-issues at play:
A1) Scientism. This is the pernicious tendency to believe that science is the only paragon of knowledge and the ultimate arbiter of what counts as knowledge. And the best way to determine if you are perniciously inclined toward scientism is to see whether you vigorously deny its existence in the community.B) The “I’m-smarter-than-thou” syndrome. Let’s admit it, skepticism does have a way to make us feel intellectually superior to others. They are the ones believing in absurd notions like UFOs, ghosts, and the like! We are on the side of science and reason. Except when we aren’t, which ought to at least give us pause and enroll in the nearest hubris-reducing ten-step program.
A2) Anti-intellectualism proper. This is the thing on display when “skeptics” reject even scientific findings, as in the above mentioned case of global warming.
C) Failure of leadership. It is hard to blame the rank and files of the CoR when they are constantly exposed to such blatant and widespread failure of leadership within their own community. Gone are, it seems, the days of the Carl Sagans, Martin Gardners, and Bertrand Russells, and welcome to the days of bloggers and twitterers spouting venom or nonsense just because they can.
Where does this leave us? Well, for one thing — at this very moment — probably with a lot of pissed off people! But once the anger subsides, perhaps we active members of the CoR can engage in some “soul” searching and see if we can improve our own culture, from the inside.
To begin with, are there positive models to look up to in this endeavor? Absolutely, and here I will name names, though the following list is grossly incomplete, both for reasons of space and because some names just happened not to come to mind at the moment I was typing these words. If you are not listed and you should be, forgive me and let’s amend the problem in the discussion thread. So here we go: Sean Carroll, Dan Dennett, Neil deGrasse Tyson, D.J. Grothe, Tim Farley, Ken Frazier (and pretty much anyone else who writes for Skeptical Inquirer, really), Ron Lindsay, Hemant Mehta, Chris Mooney, Phil Plaitt, Steve Novella (as well as the other Novellas), John Rennie, Genie Scott, Michael Shermer, Carl Zimmer, and many, many more.
Do I have any practical suggestions on how to move the CoR forward, other than to pay more attention to what the people just mentioned say, and perhaps a little less attention to what is spouted by some others who shall go unmentioned? At the risk of sounding somewhat immodest, yes, I do. Here are a few to get us started (again, discussion on how to improve the list will be most welcome). Once again, the order is pretty much random:
i) Turn on moderation on all your blogs, this will raise the level of discourse immediately by several orders of magnitude, at the cost of a small inconvenience to you and your readers.
ii) Keep in mind the distinction between humor and sarcasm, leave the latter to comedians, who are supposed to be offending people. (In other words, we are not all Jon Stewarts or Tim Minchins.)
iii) Apply the principle of charity, giving the best possible interpretation of someone else’s argument before you mercilessly dismantle it. (After which, by all means, feel free to go ahead and mercilessly dismantle it.)
iv) Engage your readers and your opponents in as civil a tone as you can muster. Few people deserve to be put straight into insult mode (Hitler and Pat Robertson come to mind).
v) Treat the opinions of experts in a given domain with respect, unless your domain of expertise is reasonably close to the issue at hand. This doesn’t mean not criticizing experts or worshipping their pronouncements, but only to avoid anti-intellectualism while doing it.
vi) Read more philosophy, it will do you a world of good. (I am assuming that if you are a member of the CoR you already do read quite a bit of science. If not, why are you here?)
vii) Pick the right role models for your skeptics pantheon (suggestions above, people to avoid are left to your keen intuition).
viii) Remember what the objectives are: to learn from exposing your ideas to the cross-criticism of others and in turn help others learn to think better. Objectives do not include showing the world how right and cool you are.
ix) Keep in mind that even the very best make mistakes and occasionally endorse notions that turn out to be wrong. How is it possible that you are the only exception to this rule?