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.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Penn & Teller: more Bullshit!

All right, I promise to leave Penn & Teller alone for a while after this post, though I’m beginning to think that their show has run out of gas, and that they need a couple years of rest. Catching up with season 6, I just finished watching the episode on “world peace.” It has now become a very predictable pattern: P&T are effective and at the peak of their game when they take on the paranormal and other forms of pseudoscience. But, when they veer into politics, they are full of bullshit.

This is no coincidence: creationism, astrology, ghosts, alternative medicine, ufos, clairvoyance, magnetic therapy and so on are unquestionably reality-challenged beliefs. That’s the proper domain of the skeptic, that intelligent, science-informed, philosophy-savvy member of the human race exemplified by the likes of David Hume and Carl Sagan. And that’s where P&T make us laugh and think at the same time — no minor feat — and it's something for which I will always appreciate them.

But public policies and economics, though surely marked by their own examples of nonsense, are not in the same category at all. When P&T talk about global warming, recycling programs, or, as in the case at hand, world peace, they are out of their league. And they are neither thoughtful nor funny.

Before I started watching the world peace episode I made some empirically testable predictions: a) they will make fun of some dim-witted, though probably well intentioned, peace-nick; b) they will attack the United Nations as the worst idea since the Inquisition; and c) they will ask the enlightened opinion of an anonymous member of some libertarian think tank, most likely the CATO Institute (of which Penn is a proud Fellow, whatever that means). Check, check, and check; that’s exactly what happened. Maybe I should reconsider my skepticism of psychic powers!

Sure enough, P&T went on to interview some silly peace-loving but not exactly bright people of the “Code Pink” organization, who apparently thought that praying with lit candles in Nancy Pelosi’s office really advances the cause of world peace. No, it doesn’t, though the group at least came across as compassionate, unlike that asshole P&T featured as spokeswoman for Move Forward America, a group which maintains that a permanent state of war is necessary for our prosperity. (To their credit, P&T did make merciless fun of her.)

Next, of course, came the United Nations. It is admittedly a flawed organization, beginning with the inane idea of having a Security Council, formed by the five nations who won WWII, granted absolute veto power on any and all resolutions. But the UN does a world of good, both by providing the primary forum for peaceful international dialogue, and by its far reaching field humanitarian work. P&T couldn’t find anything better than to attack the latter by focusing exclusively on the occasional scandals that arise in any sufficiently large organization. I mean, if we are talking about bribery and rape, shall we not start at home, with our own government and military respectively? Would that be an argument to abolish the US Government and to get rid of the Army?

And finally we have P&T’s own solution to the problem of world peace, courtesy of the infinite (lack of) wisdom of the CATO Institute and of a questionable personal anecdote. Did you guess? But of course: the only road to world peace is a planetary free market! It would work because nations would be increasingly inter-dependent economically, which would set up a powerful disincentive toward war. Indeed, P&T tell us that their own professional and personal relationship has worked well over so many years for similar reasons: you see, when they disagree and yell at each other, they don’t resort to violence, because otherwise there wouldn’t be a Penn & Teller show, and Penn’s kids couldn’t have “fancy birthday parties.”

Really? I don’t know P&T personally, but I hope (and strongly suspect) that they are better than that. They are probably friends, and the reason they don’t assault each other violently when they disagree has a lot more to do with the fact that they care for each other and that they are decent human beings. The fact that they also work well together and make a nice living from it is just pleasant icing on the cake.

So, is free market capitalism the key to world peace? Interestingly, as you will find out by reading 1919, the remarkable book by Margaret MacMillan on the making of the peace treaty that ended WWI, people thought exactly the same thing at the beginning of the 20th century. They were proven wrong by not just one, but two world wars.

Of course interconnectedness helps, though it better be cultural as well as economic. But one cannot pretend to be a thoughtful analyst of the problem of world peace and ignore the issue that capitalism itself has motivated some recent conflicts, at least in part, in a quest to control ever larger shares of valuable resources (think both Iraq I and II). And of course capitalist nations don’t have a much better track record of non-aggression than non-capitalist ones (think US history, since its inception, not just recently).

No, if there is an answer to the problem — or at least a way to ameliorate things — it is precisely through something like the United Nations. The current incarnation of the organization is really its version 2.0. Version 1.0 was the League of Nations that was set up after WWI, and which failed in great part because the Americans insisted in inviting only democracies to the high table. Version 2.0, which began after WWII, is better, because everyone has a seat, yet still some seats are better than others. Much better, in fact. So what we need (hopefully without having to go through WWWIII to get there!) is a United Nations 3.0, without a Security Council and where each nation gets an equal vote. You know, it’s called democracy, and we’ve made a business of spreading it to the world for the simple reason that it is a great idea. Greater even than capitalism, you can bet your tv show on it.


  1. Agreed, Penn and Teller need to stay out of politics and stick to what they know, debunking junk science and scammers.

  2. "..But one cannot pretend to be a thoughtful analyst of the problem of world peace and ignore the issue that capitalism itself has motivated some recent conflicts, at least in part,"

    NO. Capitalism does not cause the problem. It is PURE envy in peoples hearts that causes the problem.

    When people have worked for their money like you have worked for your degree WHY SPECIFICALLY is it wrong for them to have it? I note that extremely poor countries have terrible violence between tribes and resources have practically nothing to do with the killing and bloodshed. In Africa, Rwanda was it the Hutus and Tutsis killing each other for nothing but pride and territory?

    When you begin to realize that the problem is in people's hearts (how they manage their resources, their phds and when other people have things that I don't) you'll stop stirring up class warfare just for the sake of something to do.

  3. You know, Massimo, in portuguese "máximo" (spoken just like your name) has several meanings, and "awesome!" is one of them!

    Finally, a skeptic and rational voice that has no problem in sticking it up to the too-libertarian (in the american sense) among us skeptics. Thanks!

  4. "I don’t know P&T personally, but I hope (and strongly suspect) that they are better than that."

    I also strongly suspect that they are better than the subjects of their recent episodes. In fact, i'm willing to put money on it.

    Do you think they have been airing these asinine "conclusions" because they really believe in them? I think that, like Michael Moore, these guys are going to air what sells. They don't have to truly believe in it, this is what gets eaten up. This is what is marketable and will make them money. They are willing to put their seal of approval on it, no matter how degenerate it makes them look, in order to watch their ratings soar.

    P&T make all kinds of points (good and bad), and just like MM they will only focus on the points, typically controversial ones, that bring in the big bucks.

    These guys aren't stupid, no way. But i agree that they should give it a rest for ahwile if they wish to keep their dignity in tact. Though, i doubt they are even concerned about that, as long as the money's coming in.

    Think, non-aggresive capitalists.

  5. Re: United Nation 3.0--what about a democracy-only "group of 40" (or however any democracies there are)? Any nation could join--once they've met the requirements of a true democracy. Wouldn't that be an incentive to become more democratic? And then a true group of democratic nations could work democratically. You obviously couldn't join a democratic group until you knew how to run a democratic country. I've read about this idea elsewhere, but can't remember the source. What are your thoughts?


  6. Don't fall into the same pit as P&T. They lose their credibility when they mix their own political views with skepticism and science.

    "So what we need (hopefully without having to go through WWWIII to get there!) is a United Nations 3.0, without a Security Council and where each nation gets an equal vote. You know, it’s called democracy,"

    This is debatable, if not entirely wrong. For one, because it's not a democracy, you know. Democracy is a manifestation of a government system which is derived from humanism and respect to such things as human and civil right, which are rejected by a significant number of UN members. Thus you have representatives that represent tyrants, not people, which is quite contrary to being a "democracy".

    However, this note is not to start a debate over this, but merely to point out how easy it is to do this mistake.

    This is not only bad because you (or I) are wrong. This is bad because it makes you lose credibility when you don't make the distinction between a scientific claim (astrology is BS), and a personal opinion (taxes are BS). Religious preachers thrive on it.

  7. Massimo,

    Even though I tend to agree with your overall view here, Massimo, I do however think that you make the same mistake I see lodged against Michael Shermer when he discusses economics.

    Let me first state that (not that it really matters to the point) I am politically and economically liberal, a social democrat in a way similar to how the eminent skeptic Martin Gardner may describe (one of the founders of the modern skeptical movement and a deist, also one of the greatest advancers of science and reason in our time). Unlike Martin I am an "atheist" (though I tend dislike the label for many reasons, but it does work in a general sense).

    Here's the mistake, I think. You point to what is seen as the proper area for skeptic's, yet, you will go on and discuss the very thing you claim should be off limits. You then are bringing in your bias even in an area you claim is not appropriate for skeptics to speak about.

    This has become a popular tactic and most often used to attack Libertarians (at least the out spoken ones who tend to be "atheist" and skeptics).

    So, here you'll have a ton of comments about someone like Shermer's Libertarian remarks (usually on economics since his liberal social views are wildly popular) which claim how unscientific and beyond what is a proper topic for skepticism by so-called skeptics who expound endlessly on what's wrong with Libertarianism and what's right about their views (on economics and politics).

    My conclusion to watching this happen repeatedly is that "skeptic" liberals like to claim it's off limits but have no problem with allowing it as long as it's agreeable or disagreeing with someone else, then they will in fact talk about it, endlessly. This is no more obvious than when religion is somehow involved in the political system.

    For example, your entire last paragraph falsifies your second. Don't worry, it's happening everywhere, just admit you want to talk about this stuff (as you have on it's own - as do many others) and stop waiting for someone to disagree with before proceeding - don't become another "groupthink" atheist which is all the rage.

  8. After KROQ radio in New York closed down, the replacing station created a day-time talk radio show with Penn.

    My stand-out memory of Penn's veering into politics was their discussion of a prison that was using old xbox games to reward good behavior by inmates.

    Anyone who knows anything about behavioral modification knows that the strongest tool for altering behavior is positive reinforcement: this is an old piece of knowledge, now, and tested in a number of species and contexts. A pilot study in the prison also showed good results, before the program was fully instituted.

    It still stands out in my memory that everyone that called in didn't discuss the goal of rehabilitating inmates, transitioning them to the external world again (this wasn't a max sec prison for lifers), didn't discuss the purpose of the games, or anything else. It was just emotional pablum, "they're there to suffer! Why should they have games? They need to be suffering all day!"

    Penn was not the voice of reason. He was leading the charge. There was no critical thought, no momentary pause to consider any of the above elements: just emotional rabble-rousing.

    As far as I can tell, Penn just likes being rebellious against anything main-stream or institutional. Sometimes that overlaps with skepticism, sometimes it doesn't.

  9. ...must...not...engage...with...psychotic...troll....

  10. "Creationism, astrology, ghosts, alternative medicine, ufos, clairvoyance, magnetic therapy and so on are unquestionably reality-challenged beliefs. That’s the proper domain of the skeptic, that intelligent, science-informed, philosophy-savvy member of the human race exemplified by the likes of David Hume and Carl Sagan."

    I think the proper domain of the skeptic is anywhere he chooses to go. I just don't think that Penn meets the standard. (It's not worth discussing Teller - he doesn't share his viewpoints explicitly.) Like JHSteinberg said, sometimes Penn's views overlap with skepticism, sometimes they don't.


    Okay, and since I can't altogether abandon hope that the tender bud of reason atop the troll's brain stem may one day be coaxed into bloom, I offer this:

    "If knowing that someone's beliefs differ from yours causes you to lose a sense of perspective when talking to them, so that as soon as you hear certain trigger words you start grafting inaccurately assumed attitudes onto them, you're no longer communicating. You're merely rehearsing your own prejudices."


  11. All,

    expect more on this issue of the relationship between skepticism and politics (and atheism, for that matter) especially in virtue of the latest Michael Shermer post on his own blog. For now though:


    unfortunately what you proposed has already been tried and failed: that was the concept behind the precursor of the UN, the League of Nations. The fact is, if you want world peace, you have to engage all nations, and hold your nose if their internal political systems are not quite up to standards.


    the UN is based on the most humanistic principles advanced by human society so far, spelled out in the UN charter. They are pretty big on human rights. As for representative representing tyrants, I agree, but the two alternatives are worse: a league of only democratic nations (see above) or everyone on its own...


    I don't think I'm making the same mistake that P&T (and Shermer) make, for reasons I'll go into more deeply probably in my next post. I think there is an important distinction between core, or scientific, skepticism, and political philosophy (and atheism). The first admits of relatively straightforward empirical debunking (ghosts don't exist; the earth is not 6000 years old, etc.). The second one (and the third) doesn't one, because it is largely a matter of values, not facts.

    That doesn't mean we cannot have a rational discussion, but from the point of view of scientific skepticism. Notice that my blog clearly states that it is about "science, philosophy, politics, and religion", which means that I purposely do not limit myself to skepticism.

  12. Massimo,

    I don't think P&T or Shermer are mistaken.

    Take for example your mentioning global warming. It's not included in the domain for skepticism even though skeptics, including a position paper by CFI that was printed in Skeptical Inquirer and others such as Skeptic magazine and many skeptics independently have discussed global warming.

    Also, you mention Carl Sagan, even though Carl was open about his concerns over public policy.

    So, it seems what you're talking about is an appropriate forum. In the forum of the show Bullshit, you are saying they are being skeptics and global warming is something they handle poorly (and appears you're also arguing it is not in their domain as skeptics on a skeptical show).

    Yourself being a skeptic, who regularly writes a column for a skeptical journal (and has been published in other skeptical magazines) has decided on this forum, your blog, to decide that you can approach public policy and economics and will make clear the boundaries for appropriate skepticism in its right place.

    My argument would be that I'd bet dollars to donuts your opinion would be different if their view was closer to yours on, lets say, global warming.

    This idea that if a forum (such as a magazine, blog etc.) mentions an advocacy of skepticism they should be limited to what you've decided. Clearly, I do not think scientific matters such as global warming should be left out of the mix, nor do I think public policy or economics be kept out.

    In Skeptical Inquirer I noticed they've stretched out a bit, including energy policy and "stranger danger" mania. It's been that way in other forums as well. In was in Season 1 of Bullshit when Penn & Teller did "Environmental Hysteria" which included a look at global warming and "green peace activities". Were they wrong to do so, is Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic wrong to talk about it?

    Like I say, skeptic's talk about a range of things in different forums, including ones that mention skeptical advocacy (as you do here) and what I'm sensing is there is a liberalized "skeptic"/"atheistic" view of reminding those of what is appropriate to talk about even though they will go ahead and talk about it, endlessly (just look at the comments to Shermer's more economic blogs at SkepticBlog).

    As I noted also, I am an honest to goodness liberal, a social democrat and "atheist".

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. I felt this particular episode of P&T fell apart with one very simple question during the stunt they pulled with the little girl outside the UN building. She asked passers-by why the UN was so scandal-ridden, and not one person gave the correct answer: that the flawed individuals who are UN ambassadors and staff don't live up to the ideals of the UN. It's like the current British MPs expenses scandal. 600 or so politicians have failed to live up to their oath of office. This doesn't invalidate democracy; it just means we need a better quality of candidate. P&T failed because they assumed that the current status of the UN is the best it can ever hope to be, rather than actually aspire to something grander. They also omitted the fact that the UN is too in hoc to the big nations of the world. For example, the Japanese use it to coerce small nations into supporting the resumption of commercial whaling, and when Yemen opposed the invasion of Iraq, the US ambassador told the Yemeni ambassador "that was the most expensive vote you'll ever cast", and two days later, the US cancelled its aid budget to Yemen. As long as the rich members of the UN use it as a forum for strongarming smaller nations, the UN will never live up to its potential.
    BTW, Shermer used exactly the same "capitalism as the only route to world peace" argument in his speech at TAM a couple of years ago.
    Now I'm going to take a risk, but here goes:
    @Cal: Rather than envy, do you not think that some people such as subSaharan farmers are righteously angry at being exploited by the 1st world, which forces them to have monocrop, export-led economies rather than the protections so desperately needed to raise their economies above subsistence level? Or do you think that if there is anger at the current economic system, it must necessarily be born of envy?

  15. It's not a risk, Kimpatsu. A risk implies a chance you might succeed at something, but you won't. The problem is not primarily her point of view, but that she completely misrepresented Massimo's views and recast the discussion according to her own prejudices. I'm not saying she did it on purpose, but she did it. The behavior is reinforced by virtue of having gotten someone to take the bait and engage her in conversation on her terms. And no matter where the conversation goes, it predicates upon those prejudices.

  16. Hear Hear! I second the Blogging man!

  17. So basically when you agree with what they say (even if they are making fun of maybe clueless but otherwise well-intentioned people) they are intelligent, thoughtful and funny. When their oppinion is different from yours and they make fun or criticize another set of maybe not too competent but still well intentioned people they are not.

    Congratulations, you have just found out why people have different tastes in humor :)

  18. janimo,

    I don't think your comment is fair, though it seems to be a recurrent type of attack by some of my esteemed readers.

    No, my post doesn't mean that whoever disagrees with me is stupid and whoever agrees is funny. That would make for really boring reading, don't you think? For one thing, the post provides several of my *reasons* to think that P&T (or Shermer) are wrong, and then added more in the course of the discussion.

    Moreover, I do think there is an issue of partially but not entirely overlapping domains of skepticism which is intrinsically interesting, and perhaps even important for the community. Luke's point about my article on god being published years ago in Skeptic is interesting, but I do, in fact, remember being surprised that Michael would publish it. Besides, I am entitled to change my mind about some issues, so again, stay tuned for more on this soon.

  19. I don't think that giving each nation an equal vote is democratic in the normal sense of the term, because we're talking about the votes of nations rather than people. Angola and China do not hold nearly equal numbers of people. One might make a case for giving them an equal vote in the UN, but let's not say that that's the democratic choice.

  20. You know I was going to respond to Caliana's trollish post, but the last time I did he/she/it re-responded with a not-so-veiled ethreat. So I better not and let christian love win the day.

    This post is a great reminder that just because someone espouses a position we are happy with does not mean all opinions espoused are valid (and highlights that the initial agreed upon opinions should be revisited frequently to determine if indeed they are still valid).

  21. Joseph,

    while I agree with you that the one nation = one vote system is far from ideal, it is no different from the way the European Union works. Oh, and the US Senate...

  22. I think my name will appear now, Luke Vogel, we'll see. It showed as simply luke for awhile, then lukev_1.


    Not sure what happened, but I see that you mentioned my point about Skeptic (Shermer) publishing your essay, The Case Against God, but my post with the point is gone?

    Oh, how I do love the commenting bizz.

    I also think my other points are good too, you know. Not only has Skeptical Inquirer done issues dedicated to science and religion, articles on energy policy, but I'm looking at one now on Sceince, God and [NON]Belief (which even has the sociologist, Mazur's, article on beliefs in genesis. Here's a lead story in another issue on animal rights extremists. Those are just two I've pulled at random from my pile.

    I don't mean to be a prick here, but the idea you were surprised Michael published your God essay is well, surprising. Up to that point Skeptic had already published many essays on belief, they had an entire issue dedicated to, The God Question, for petes sake. Also, in your essay you even mention other issues of Skeptic that dealt with Evolution Psychology (great issues by the way), which Skeptical Inquirer hadn't dealt with either (and still hasn't in any real way).

    I'm well aware of some the conversation on the parameters for proper skepticism and what she be placed in what publication. A kind of traditionalist vs. progressiveness argument (oddly you seem to have backslid into a traditionalist which I see a lot of these days, right down to dictating what is proper discourse when suddenly one finds others actually disagree).

    However, it's worth noting that those you say we should keep hammering on the the traditional aspects, such as alien abduction, alt med etc, are not being disagreed with and some come from the very place with a progressive approach is widely used, such as Daniel Loxton at Skeptic.

    One final note, which may seem a surprise. Even though I fully support an expanded approach to skepticism at large (which includes essays like yours on a Case Against God), I am fairly convinced that I'm in a time of "groupthink" atheism. On a regular basis I see blog post demanding a conformity (though they deny this, yet throw labels out willy nilly, like "accomodationism" as a dirty word). A legion of young "new atheism" disciples are arguing like morons about "science can study the supernatural". It has become an embarrassment and I hold many within the humanist and skeptic organizations responsible because they let greed get in the way of rationality and fortitude.

    BTW, in my post (from yesterday 11:13 PM). Here's how it should read.

    "I'm sensing is there is a liberalized "skeptic"/"atheistic" view of reminding those of what is NOT appropriate to talk about even though they will go ahead and talk about it, endlessly."

    Which I'm half expected you to do today. :-)

  23. "Rather than envy, do you not think that some people such as subSaharan farmers are righteously angry at being exploited by the 1st world, which forces them to have monocrop, export-led economies rather than the protections so desperately needed to raise their economies above subsistence level?"

    As a person who deals with a couple of third world countries and their struggles on a regular basis, most of the oppression and subjugation comes from the inside. And more often than not the oppressors are not WHITE.

    I know that tends to wreck a lot of "educated" peoples grand ideas about class warfare but it JUST ISN'T THE TRUTH. Guess it gives some people something seemingly meaningful to be angry over tho.

  24. "...but the last time I did he/she/it re-responded with a not-so-veiled ethreat."

    Really!? And profs from the U of M don't always tell the truth either I see.


  25. Luke,

    you make fair points, and I honestly don't know what happened to your previous post, I certainly didn't delete it.

    At any rate, whether you believe or not that I was surprised by Michael's agreement to publish that essay is not really the point. The more interesting thing is that, if you recall, the essay was in fact about the different kinds of belief in god, and was arguing that some of those are more or less immune to empirical evidence, forming a sliding scale going from scientifically testable statements (the earth is 6000 years old) to vague hints at a prime mover that are the province of philosophy, not even skepticism.

    As for sliding back toward "traditionalism", what can I say, I'm getting older... :-) But in no way do I intend to "dictate" what others should write about. I am simply interested in not making confusions between things that are best understood as separate if related enterprises.

    Indeed, your concern about atheistic "groupthink" is precisely part of what is concerning me as well. I don't actually have much patience for the "accommodationists" a la Ken Miller, but I also think the scientistic arguments of Dawkins are off the mark (because they are not science, they are science-informed philosophy).

    Boy, it's lonely out here! (And no, Cal, I don't need to be consoled, it was just a cute way to end my comment, I'm fine, really.)

  26. Hmmm, I'm having comment problems too. Last night I submitted a post just before Kimpatsu's that built on the parent conversation in a serious fashion. (Believe it or not, my primary purpose here is not to engage in border skirmishes with trolls. Honest!) Today I see that it has been "removed by the author" - yet, I assure you, I did not delete it...at least not knowingly.

    I'm also having other issues with my Google account today, such as being told I need to enable cookies even though they already are, and NoScript warning me of potential clickjacking when I perform certain routine actions on this page. Maybe they're related issues. In any event, I am going to cache my comments locally for the time being to make it easier to repost them if this continues to occur.

    What follows is the reconstruction of the now-deleted post, with some revision at the end.


    Massimo, I agree that there is a pretty important distinction to be made between applying skepticism to the realms of science and political philosophy, and I look forward to seeing how you choose to pursue this subject.

    However, even though political philosophy (and the application thereof) is values-oriented, it still must rely on conformity to known facts for credibility. It's all well and good for an individual to be in favor of a policy - for example, abstinence-only education - on a values basis, but if the practice has been factually demonstrated to be ineffective in the past, those values should be insufficient as a basis for setting such a policy in the future. Ideally, once a policy is known to be ineffective, finding out WHY this is so (or more robustly, taking measurable steps toward isolating and establishing the specific factors that DO affect the behavior in question) should be a necessary precondition for enacting another iteration of such a policy.

    In other words, politics, the "art of the possible", becomes more subject to scientific skepticism as more things are tried and the possible is more clearly defined.

    As for atheism, I see this at its core as being solidly in the same camp with science - i.e. "There is no evidence for X, therefore there is nothing to say about X." Values only come into it in two secondary senses: (a) valuing skeptical inquiry itself, and (b) the reactions this view evokes within that subset of the non-skeptical, religious community which believes its values are (or at least should be) wholly separate from and immune to skeptical inquiry.

    Though the narrowly political or religious mind may deny it, values-based reasoning and skeptical inquiry are not altogether isolated from each other. Hence, even if the only conclusion a skeptic may legitimately draw on a values-related topic is "not enough data", it is still not inappropriate to apply skeptical inquiry. It may even be helpful as a step toward parameterizing the discussion so that at least some common ground can be established about what is known, what is unknown, and what must be known in order to enact policy or evaluate behavior in a meaningful way.

    I'd really like to delve into a discussion about how, specifically, the two forms of reasoning interrelate at some point, but that would be far too lengthy and involved a matter to segue into here in any depth, so I'll end with this mathematical metaphor:

    The touchstone for both the skeptical evaluation of values-based reasoning and the values-based evaluation of skeptical reasoning is a curve of intersection that includes the "greatest good/least harm" edict.

  27. "Boy, it's lonely out here!"

    Is it really?

    "(And no, Cal, I don't need to be consoled, it was just a cute way to end my comment, I'm fine, really.)"

    Oh ok.

    World peace is possible only when people individually and personally acknowledge that there could be something in their own heart that makes them part of the problem. Stirring up envy between people groups and classes is no help to that cause AT ALL. Not to be redundant, but is truly not always those people "out there" doing something bad that makes world peace impossible. Its a problem that originates from the inside.

    Sorry that you're feeling lonely. Help people with us or some other org, you'll never feel alone again. Its the best thing in the world.

  28. Massimo,

    Thank you for the responses (especially given that my post tend to appear fairly sloppy due to my bad habit of not proof reading and just hitting the submit button).

    I just want to clear one thing up, only because it's important to me (mainly due to my vast respect for you). I do believe you were surprised about the essay being published - I'm just pointing out that in my opinion it actually seems that it shouldn't have been a surprise at all given what had already been published in Skeptic.

    Within the first year or so of Skeptic I remember thinking that it was like a cross between Skeptical Inquirer and Free Inquiry - I rejoiced in this fact and still do (though as has always been the case, Skeptic has not forwarded an ideology like humanism).

    My fear now is that the "traditionalist" view point may attempt to limit skepticism (which is after all a method) and argue that what falls short of proper use of skepticism, such as economics, will indeed end up to be a roadblock to progress as we attempt to apply empirical analysis to other areas outside the paranormal and pseudo-medicine.

    In this way a proper skepticism can also employ philosophical skepticism while recognizing areas to which science can not answer. Thus allowing for empirical based theory on why one would hold beliefs in areas that science has not shown or can not show to be reality.

    I also think there are ethical considerations that touch on public policy with such things as "alternative medicine" and this is (and should be) expressed by skeptics. One example being to shut down the NIH's department of "alternative and complementary" medicine, because it supports garbage and misappropriates valuable funds.

    I think the area of evolutionary psychology, which has been much maligned (sometimes for very good reason), will also open the door to a wider use of skepticism which should be shared by skeptics in skeptical forums (skeptics on occassion already attempt to debunk EP, but rarely use it when it appears like good science that may help to explain phenomena).

    In a way I could be seen as arguing a point you made in, The Case Against God, essay. In an area such as the science and religion divide, we must recognize the limits of science when dealing with claims, but that does not mean we are limited from talking about why and how the [false]-truth claims are made.

    BTW, I'd love to debate with you the most hated of all ideas to come from a renowned skeptic and scientist (or so it seems), Stephen's Noma. Which I think you are mistaken in describing.

    Strangely to some, given my arguments such as I have on this blog, I support NOMA and find arguments such as the boundaries are to ill defined, it gives all moral and ethical domains to religion, are a false reading. At bottom what I think is the hang up is that religion is given a magisteria when what we want is religion gone (thus it is seen to implicitly give religion staying power), plus many don't like to admit the limitations to science and will claim "science can study the supernatural", then they themselves blur the lines of definition (a very popular tactic lately and done as a direct result of Noma - thus it is said to give science a say in supernaturalism - thus they have confused it's essence and confused a proper understanding of science).

    The strange part is that I am arguing we can have a say in "supernaturalism", but only what can be understood scientifically and that includes refuting the claims with regard to nature and how and why people believe. My thinking is what Gould would clearly expect and had. He already welcomed Shermer's publication and supported it long after it published articles on religion, including yours (he wrote the forward to Why People Believe Weird Things).

  29. Massimo,

    I think you miss the mark w/ a 'one nation, one vote' idea. Nation-states aren't persons, and don't have legitimate interests *expect* insofar as the members of that state have interests. So there is no good sense in which states "deserve" to be treated as "equals" nor any good sense in which states qua states should have "rights" independently of the rights of their citizens.

    As a practical matter, it is very likely the case that *most* of the time, engagement and development are more effective at moving repressive regimes towards reasonableness, but that is a practical matter, not a matter of principle.

    But I can see no reason at all for broadly liberal nations (in the Millian / Rawlsian sense) to put important human rights issues to a vote! I honestly don't care if 90% of the nation-states have leaderships (or even populations) that support basing civil law on particular interpretations of religious texts -- doing so is wrong, wrong, wrong, and should be opposed. Our opposition should be measured, and proportional to our chances of doing good versus harm, etc., but it isn't a popularity contest.


  30. This will be my last post on the topic you [Massimo]and I are (as well as others here) discussing.

    Take a look at the new issue of Skeptic.


    Here's a couple topics:

    "Atheism Rising
    Intelligence, Science,
    and the Decline of Belief"

    "Why Religions Turn Oppressive
    A Perspective from
    Evolutionary Psychology"

    I hadn't seen those before I started posting on this blog post.

    I remember they published David Sloan Wilson's essay, Why Dawkins is Wrong About Religion, and recently a rebuttal to Wilson's "Stealth Religion" blogs.

    I think we can handle it, as we have for over 15 years Skeptic has been publishing. I think we can handle Skeptical Inquirer in its move stretching out a bit (its science and religion issues coming over a decade ago), and I certainly think we can handle areas of public policy and economics discussed by skeptics in skeptical forums.

    Take a look at Shermer's blog's on what can be considered economics from a Libertarian view. It appears a lot of people will say he's off limits, then say how crazy he is as a Libertarian and rants about how naive Libertarianism is.

    What can't be missed is how many are the one's most adamant about what shouldn't be discussed by skeptics on a skeptic forum are liberal's who expound "endlessly" on what's wrong with Shermer's views and what's right with their view.

    This is what I keep seeing and not just with Shermer (and what I've eluded above in other comments). I will go further here, not only will you see this type of double speak, but predictably by reading other comments, they will be some of the most out spoken liberal "atheist" in the crowed who complain about others telling them to "shut up". I just made a testable claim, and I stand by it.

    As I've mentioned, I am a liberal, a social democrat (living in the U.S. - N.Y.). I disagree a great deal with Shermer's Libertarianism, but I don't think he's off base to voice his views as a skeptic in a skeptical forum. He is often respectful and explains himself well. He does try to bring empirical analysis to his ideas, just as I see liberals doing with their views on economics (usually while saying you can't be scientific when discussing economics).

    It's odd (but predictable) that the liberalized skeptic/atheist point of view I have discussed would at once claim to be muted while trying to limit what is discussed. I firmly hold part of this stems from two points. One is to keep cohesion for the sake of how dangerous we view irrationality, mainly religion - second is that atheist/skeptics are usually and predictably very liberal and like to keep politics and economics as a side discussion because they like to hold that we should not allow for scientific rationality with its provisional nature of accepting claims into our discourse.

    Even you who has shown the problem of the argument of claims of "soft" and "hard" science.

  31. This will have to be brief, I'm about to board a plane.

    Jonathan, I completely understand your reasoning, but by the same token then shouldn't we reject the idea of "state rights" within the US (not a bad idea, if you ask me)? And internationally, what would you replace the UN system with? They could operate under a "constitution" of sorts (like the EU will do now) precisely to avoid the problems you mention.

    Luke, I'll say it once more: my intention is not to limit anyone's speech, nor to dictate who can write what where. Besides the obvious point that it would be useless to issue such dictates, it would be extremely presumptuous of me and completely antithetical to my principles.

    But I am arguing (and as I said, will do so in more detail shortly) that there *are* legitimate and important differences among atheism, skepticism and political philosophy. So, if the same person writes about them in the same forum (like I do here) that person ought to explicitly tell his/her readers that the forum is not just about skepticism, but includes politics, or religion, or whatever (again, just like it says at the top of this page).

    In other words, the beef may be with taking the mantle of skepticism - which P&T and Shermer have richly deserved to carry - and extend it without qualifications to areas where it doesn't belong or where it is stretched.

    Moreover, I reserve the right to call whatever bullshit I see as such, of course, with arguments and in a reasoned way (I hope!), regardless of who writes or speaks it.

  32. Massimo,

    Well, I see. I think Shermer has made clear that when he speaks on SkepticBlog he may include economics, isn't that explicit enough for you? Maybe Skeptical Inquirer should give notice when they talk about religious claims.

    So, we get to "qualifications" now, and I'd like to yours on economics compared to say, I dunno, Shermer. Isn't this the tired argument that if one feels someone is outside of their domain they should remain silent. Since skepticism isn't really a domain, this is a wide net Massimo. This stuff deteriorates so fast, you mentioned "atheism", is Shermer qualified to speak on atheism, or chose people who are, how about religion (we'll simply ignore his training in economics or being a professor of).

    You said (strangly): "Moreover, I reserve the right to call whatever bullshit I see as such, of course, with arguments and in a reasoned way (I hope!), regardless of who writes or speaks it."

    Gee wiz, well ok - But, I'm calling you on your Bullshit. I didn't see you carrying on like this a decade ago, and you retain your right to change your mind, as you claim, but why now, you haven't provided shit for a reason.

    But, yes, we shall wait to see this incredible blog post that may just explain it all and why your "justification" and domain of skeptics arguments hold any water (which now I am seriously starting to doubt since you took great care in reading past me - like acting as if I've made all personal somehow).

  33. Luke,

    I'm not sure I deserve your sarcasm. One more time, I am not try to censor anyone, just expressing, and defending, my opinions.

    You may think I have not given a shit of a reason for my political views, but I beg to differ, go back and re-read the posts and my commentaries.

    And no, this isn't an "old tired argument" about who is qualified to say what. I am not questioning either Shermer or P&T's qualifications, I am simply suggesting that there are significant differences among the three domains been discussed (again: atheism, skepticism and political philosophy), which means that one shouldn't glide from one to the other without realizing that one is doing somethin different (I don't think Dawkins, Shermer or P&T really see a discontinuity, they don't seem to be aware of it). And mine is by no means a particular heterodox position here.

    As for the forthcoming "incredible blog post," I'm afraid your expectations are so high now that you are bound to be disappointed. Oh well, that's life I guess.

  34. Massimo,

    I sincerely apologize for my sarcastic remarks.

    I'm only going on what you've pointed out so far (so yes I've read your arguments). Also, I’d hoped it may appear obvious by now that I'm not in complete disagreement with you. My poorly made point is that I think I get it already, as wrong as I may be.

    Lets take one example. You placed global warming outside the domain of proper scientific skepticism. Or did you? Your argument seems to be that when P&T talk about it they are out of their league, but is that a proper way to make the argument for what is appropriate for skeptics to speak about in a skeptical forum? You seemed to emphasize this point when you brought in the qualifications argument.

    So, what side are you arguing? I am saying global warming, as shown in my many examples is well placed for skeptics and it is at times an important public policy issue discussion (here’s where I may start to argue what is happening may be more about cohesion since disagreements may arise – especially with economics).

    To clarify my above point a bit - lets stick with P&T. Are P&T out of bounds when they speak on scientific issues at all? They may get others to aid them in particulars, but are either qualified by scientific training (either one at any time a professor either? – BTW, this argument has been used against James Randi). So, we need to more precise I believe to argue how to limit their show to a certain criteria of how to apply scientific skepticism, skepticism in general and current affairs?

    They did a show on PETA, well, Skeptical Inquirer did a piece that dealt with animal rights extremist, so did Skeptic.

    I will point out again that Carl Sagan did in fact speak on public policy issues, publicly and directly. As a renowned scientist and skeptic, the forums he chose to do so varied.

    However, as I have pointed out, there should not be limitations when clearly empirical claims are being made. And that goes for public policy, atheism and economics (certainly global warming). I see some say that economics should be off limits because it is not scientific (enough), but so is religion and we love like hell to talk about it. They do make claims and the claims can be countered and there will be value judgments made.

    The argument then is well, we are limited only to what claims are testable, but we're not entirely (a point I also made), we can empirically show how and why people believe, or give empirically based explanations (even though I argue for NOMA, we are not out of bounds to do this and thus can return to the null hypothesis in our personal beliefs). We can gather hypothesis, testable and repeatable fact and theory based on religious beliefs by looking at the belief system (neurology, through EP etc.). Even with social anthropology, the new and improved approach (in my opinion) is never to take the "supernatural" claims as facts about anything, at first (to see the beliefs as purely a natural phenomena).

    Take for example - I resent like hell these "new atheist" drone followers who clog up comments with the idea that debunking such things as astrology, ESP, alt med etc. is somehow below them, they are above that mess because they deal with religion and are out to save the world for the rest of us. It's part of a "groupthink" bullshit that has a built up play book which includes the claim that "science can study the supernatural".

    On that last note. Here's where we agree completely and so would Shermer. Claims are being made by Dawkins and most recently Coyne on "supernaturalism" (and now hordes of do gooders) which are philosophical in nature but they have decided to blur the lines of definition to make claims about science and the "supernatural", and they are doing it apparently without realizing how idiotic it really is.

  35. Luke,

    thanks for the thoughtful post and the apologies. Don't worry, though, I have a pretty thick skin, otherwise I wouldn't expose myself to public abuse like this... :-)

    You raise an excellent point about P&T and global warming. But my point there was not that P&T shouldn't talk about it, because it is in fact a matter of testable claims, so within the purview of scientific skepticism. My beef in that case is that they get it completely wrong! They just don't seem to understand the science, which may imply that in a sense that topic is indeed out of their league.

    But of course, the problem is not (entirely, or just) that they don't understand the science, but that they are looking at it through their libertarian lenses. It is when they explicitly advocate a free market solution to the problem that they are leaving skepticism and entering social policy and political philosophy. (And, again, they are entitled to do so, just not qua skeptics.) Carl Sagan, to my recollection, was much more careful, sticking to the science and staying away from publicly endorsing a particular political framework (even though he was clearly a progressive liberal).

    We are in complete agreement with the problem of Dawkins and Coyne making (reasonable, mind you) philosophical statements and confusing them with science. To me that's just another aspect of the same problem.

  36. Massimo,

    Thank you for your reply. I consider this a great honor to be able to have this discussion with you.

    I think we've hit on the cusp of the disagreement.

    However, with your explanation here I find it difficult to disagree with you. I am wondering if this is so primarily because we may share similar political ideals.

    Sticking with P&T may be worthwhile (though I will admit to not watching much of their show and find Penn to be an obnoxious gadfly at times).

    We seem to agree that global warming (GW) falls within the purview of scientific skepticism. It appears we may also agree that in doing so we approach the area of public policy - going where the evidence leads and perhaps advocating a corrective course.

    Outside of GW, this indeed has been the case in many instances.

    With P&T, two problems seem to arise - scientific ignorance and the corrective measure (and the twain have perhaps met - signaling bias dictating preordained outcomes).

    However, as I understand the argument, this does not preclude skepticism going into public policy areas or other domains either, such as economics. If indeed you felt P&T's science was correct on GW and the corrective measures reasonable, I doubt you would have not placed the issue of "global warming" outside of the listed areas for proper skepticism.

    It would appear then a question may have arisen of how is bias conflicting with skepticism at a time when skepticism is clearly moving beyond just paranormal and pseudo-medicine claims.

    I agree that Carl Sagan was careful with his science in public advocacy (he was indeed arrested in a protest against nuclear weapons). However, if my recollection is correct the paper he helped draft on a nuclear winter was in fact incorrect in many areas and some felt purposefully biased. Some have considered the episode of Carl's and Ehrilich's advocacy was an inappropriate meddling of science and politics (not skepticism and politics - I'd like to find skeptical literature from skeptic organizations that really took Carl to task on this - do I once again find bias?).

    The question then is getting the science wrong an argument for areas for skepticism in said area to be tossed? Is a perceived biased approach to a solution means to dismiss as an area for skepticism? (since we all seem to hold bias and scientific skepticism does not stick to the same protocol of proper science - Skeptical Inquirer is not Science magazine).

    I'm limited in space and my points are not fully explained.

    But, I would like to end by saying I disagree that what you perceive as the problem with P&T is not the same as what Dawkins and now Coyne have done with overlapping science with the "supernatural".

  37. Need to correct final paragraph.

    I do not agree that the discussion of the domain of skepticism (as in our example's of P&T) is the same as Dawkins' and now Coyne's mistakenly overlapping science and the "supernatural" (to put it simply).

    Even though I would say D&C are doing it from a biased perspective - what they have done goes beyond getting the science wrong and advocate a corrective measure. They are outside of science claiming that science is explaining their position with regards to "supernaturalism".

  38. I need to clarify that last sentence now (I luvs da commentin biz).

    The idea here is that they are claiming that science and the supernatural can and do indeed overlap. They have not provided evidence of this claim outside of relating potential possibilities, which would be fine but they have not proposed a single one that adhears to what we understand thought science regarding reality.

    I could easily be mistaken in that sentence since I can say I hold no belief in the "supernatural" because of what I understand of reality through science. What they are doing is quite different, and in my opinion, incredibly dishonest and misleading.

    They have absolutely nothing that supports their claim outside of made up events. When it gets ugly is when they do apply philosophy by blurring the lines of definition to fit the "supernatural" within science.

  39. Luke,

    I really don't find much to disagree with in your latest posts. Of course there will always be grey areas, and I certainly wouldn't want a separation of science and public policy. But while science can inform policy, the latter is more complex because it includes issues of values, which certainly cannot be settled scientifically.

    >> They are outside of science claiming that science is explaining their position with regards to "supernaturalism". <<

    Right, but so are P&T and Shermer, if their claim is that libertarianism is scientifically based (Shermer comes *very* close to say so in his latest posts).

  40. Massimo,

    I may be coming slowly over to your side, but I'm not there yet.

    Two points I think need to be made.

    Shermer's Libertarianism doesn't need to be scientifically based in order to apply scientific skepticism towards a public policy issue such as presented in his review of Moore's film.

    He can in fact apply the sciences to explain and understand his political and economic view points (can't we all - wouldn't be better if we did?).

    He is clearly applying skepticism towards Moore's film without running afoul of scientific skepticism. Skeptics often do this with religion. We can claim that scientific skepticism should only deal with testable claims (what is within science's purview, such as testing the claim of the age of the earth - 10,000 year old earth is "reality challenged"), but even that is more NOMA than NOMA (a point I've tried to make to other atheist friends of mine).

    My complaint here of Coyne and Dawkins should enlighten this point. What will happen often is to say, as Coyne has, that "supernaturalism" is within the realm of science".

    What is missing of course (beyond the fact that he's yet to substantiate his claim in any reasonable scientific fashion) is that we can treat the beliefs as natural phenomena. We are not dealing with the "supernatural" at all, science is not saying anything about the "supernatural" - science can say something about belief systems which are naturalistic (clearly groups of people claiming to believe something outside of purview of science and reason that is not testable can indeed be "reality challenged").

    Of course some claim at this point that we can not define naturalism or "supernaturalism" clearly enough - so "supernaturalism" is still within the realm of science, - that my friend is a bullshit maneuver.

    My point here is that scientific skepticism should not leave out religious claims. Even ones that are not directly testable because we can study belief systems and offer scientific explanations for how and why people believe and behave as they do (applying scientific skepticism to beliefs).

    In the same way, scientific skepticism should not leave out politics or economics which not only touch on beliefs and values, but often have direct testable claims.

    Now, Shermer can claim his Libertarianism is science based, but I'm not sure what your point actually is here. So, the challenge is to show me how he is "very" close to saying it is and what it matters to his argument?

    Point being again, arguing from a more Libertarian point of view does not a priori place your argument beyond scientific skepticism. It does not tell us he is outside of science claiming science is backing up his skepticism of Moore.

    Or so I think.


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