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.

Monday, May 06, 2013

PZ Myers quits skeptic movement, should we care?

by Massimo Pigliucci

PZ Myers, the cantankerous evolutionary biologist / blogger who writes at Pharyngula, has officially announced that he is leaving the skeptic movement. Although PZ has been uneasy for a while with several aspects of grassroots and organized skepticism, the straw that broke the camel’s back apparently came during the recent Freethought Alliance meeting in Orange County, CA, in disgusted reaction to another speaker’s remarks. That other speaker is none other than Jamy Ian Swiss, who apparently gave a talk very similar to this one, in which he chastised PZ personally for engaging in a brand of skepticism that, in Jamy’s opinion, is outside the bounds of science.

Nothing like telling a scientist that he isn’t being scientific to piss him off, though admittedly PZ’s threshold for getting pissed off is pretty low. I have no dog in this fight, since I am on record disliking PZ’s rhetoric and I have told Jamy several times in private that I don’t like his approach either — ironically, for similar reasons to my rejection of PZ’s! Nor, frankly, is it particularly interesting to discuss, let alone adjudicate, a minor kerfuffle that is likely to soon become yet another distant blip in the history of skepticism. But there is something to be learned here, which is why I will use this specific incident to make a broader point about what I think is really problematic in the skeptic movement.

Let’s start by taking a closer look at what exactly PZ is complaining about:

it is clear that “scientific skepticism” is simply a crippled, buggered version of science with special exemptions to set certain subjects outside the bounds of its purview. In addition, its promoters are particularly sensitive to having their hypocrisy pointed out (that, by the way, is what triggered his [Swiss’] outburst — you’d have to be stupid or a liar to think that skepticism gives religion special privileges.)

To begin with, skepticism is not, nor has it ever aspired to be, science. It is a grassroots movement with the triple aim of debunking paranormal claims, defending science in the public arena, and promoting critical thinking (all activities for which scientists have little patience and even less direct incentive). The “certain subject” that PZ thinks people like Jamy shouldn’t be giving a special exemption to is, of course, the supernatural. The idea is that science has no bounds, and that it can (and ought to) be applied to any claim whatsoever, no matter how far such claim may be from anything resembling a scientific hypothesis. As readers of RS know, the issue of demarcation projects (science vs pseudoscience, science vs philosophy) is one about which I think and write a lot. It’s also well known that my take is closer to Jamy’s (on this particular issue) than to PZ’s, though I think the matter hinges on non-trivial aspects of epistemology and philosophy of science, and is not something that can be easily settled on the basis of the somewhat simplistic arguments that abound among skeptics (who, after all, are neither epistemologists not philosophers of science).

Regardless, I recognize that very smart people (such as my co-editor for a forthcoming book on this very topic, Maarten Boudry) have different opinions on whether and in what sense science can address supernatural claims, and that they have good arguments with which to back up those opinions. I most certainly don’t think that Maarten and several others are “stupid or liars” just because they happen to disagree with me. Keep that particular comment by PZ in mind, we’ll get back to it soon.

PZ’s rant continues thus: I was also annoyed by the skeptic movement’s appropriation of the term “scientific” all over the place…except that it’s a “science” that doesn’t make use of accumulated prior knowledge, that abandons the concept of the null hypothesis, and that so narrowly defines what it will accept as evidence that it actively excludes huge domains of knowledge.

Ah, yes, one should not dare to appropriate the label “scientific” without proper warrant. Except of course that “warrant” here shouldn’t be equated with “agrees with PZ Myers.” By the way, the concept of null hypothesis is a bit outdated PZ, you may want to read Chapter 10 of my Making Sense of Evolution to bring you up to date on that particular issue. At the very least we should agree that formulating null hypotheses is by no means a necessary condition for doing science (and it certainly isn’t a sufficient one).

So don’t call me a “skeptic”. I’ll consider it an insult, like calling a writer a stenographer, a comedian a mime, a doctor a faith healer, a scientist a technician. I’m out.

Be my guest, but please don’t insult a large swath of people, both professional academics and not, who value that label because — at its best — it refers to the sort of intellectual rigor and curiosity embodied by philosophers like David Hume and scientists like Carl Sagan. At any rate, why do you insist in being so unpleasant even with people you mostly agree with? (Oh, I forgot, you did that to one of my friends too, and I called you on it.)

That’s pretty much it: PZ thinks the supernatural should not be “exempted” from scientific skepticism (a term he considers an insult to science anyway), and on that basis he is willing to call others names and to quit in a huff. Suit yourself, PZ, we’ll survive without you. But it would be a pity to let this episode go without learning a lesson or two.

I think the primary problem with the skeptic movement — of which I am and remain a proud member — is that too many people, both among the “leaders” and the rank-and-file, seem to be in it for the sheer pleasure of calling others out as idiots. Typically this contempt is reserved for religious people, believers in pseudoscience, etc., but occasionally we turn the guns on some of our own and shoot just as joyfully.

No, I am not suggesting that skeptics should refrain from criticizing other skeptics. I have done (and, be warned, will continue to do so!) my fair share of that, because I think there is value in open dialogue and shared critical analysis of other people’s and one’s own ideas. I am rather talking about the easy insult and dismissal without engaging in actual arguments, the first one being contrary to standards of common courtesy among fellow travelers (I mean, there are plenty of targets out there who really do deserve sarcasm and insult, the current leadership of the NRA being just one example among many), the second one simply being contrary to the whole idea of a Hume/Sagan type skeptical inquiry.

Yes, yes, I realize that I have been intemperate myself on occasion. Nobody’s perfect. But I have apologized for such blunders, and I continue to honestly strive to keep myself on this side of the admittedly fuzzy lines between irony and sarcasm, (strong) criticism and insult, or reasoned argument and outright dismissal.

I’m not the only one to have noticed that there is a problem here: just watch my friend Phil Plait’s famous “Don’t be a dick” talk, presented at TAM 2010, already three years ago. Phil’s comment introducing the talk to his readers was: “I can’t promise that I won’t be a dick. But I will strive mightily to try. That’s the most I can do, and the most I can ask of anyone.” Indeed, but somehow I can hardly imagine PZ coming even close to such a pledge. As is well known, the first step is always to be able to recognize that there is a problem. Will the skeptic community be able to do that, with or without PZ Myers?


  1. Perhaps he had a visitation from another entity. People say 'pseudoscience' like it's a bad word. Is a pseudonym not a name?

    1. It's just a way for the atheist crowd to differentiate between science that is FOR their case, and the science that is AGAINST it. Any science used to refute the atheist/skeptic viewpoint is termed "pseudoscience."

  2. There is still room for rapprochement. You could get PZ to allow that skepticism is "like knitting" and he doesn't want to abolish it.

  3. I hope the door doesn't hit his ass on the way out!°◡°

  4. Massimo I think you've misread one bit - I think "you’d have to be stupid or a liar to think that skepticism gives religion special privileges" is PZ's paraphrase of what JIS is saying.

    1. I think PZ is about 25 percent right, at best, but not 100 percent wrong, either. I have problems with "scientific skepticism" for other reasons beyond what Massimo touched on. (Though he's also on the right track in mentioning Hume; both Gnus and sci-skeptics could stand to know a bit more philosophy.) I guess to some degree, I look at both it and Gnu Atheism as Groucho Marx did groups that would invite him to join. http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2013/05/pz-myers-aka-phrayngula-and-scientific.html

  5. Massimo, I think you misrepresented what Jamy said and more than once. He didn't say that PZ was stupid or a liar because he disagrees with him on the demarcation issue. He said that someone who would continue to use the same straw man argument after it's been clearly pointed out to him that it's a straw man is either stupid or a liar.

    Furthermore, Jamy has made it perfectly clear that he doesn't care what "brand of skepticism" PZ uses. What he doesn't like is when people like PZ try to change the priority or focus of skeptics and their organizations, especially when that effort is based on a shaky (at best) argument.

  6. What does it mean to "quit" from the skeptic movement? It's not like he had an official position there. I assume that he meant that he would not participate in organized official skeptic activities, but it's not like he will stop defending science or writing about it in his blog right?

  7. Hmmmm. This all gets me wondering, given that all of us are embedded in the cultures that we inhabit, what is the culture that the Skeptical Movement seeks to create? Is it a purely philosophical enterprise, or does it offer ideas on better ways of conducting our lives (beyond the purely intellectual pursuit of "truth")?

    1. Actually, no. Most "scientific skeptics" are no more into philosophy than is PZ or many a Gnu Atheist.

  8. When it comes down to it PZ is really just a sectarian. The skeptics don't adhere to doctrine as he thinks it shoud be, so he's going to disavow any association to the comunity and go stand with the new atheists. Recall a while back he labelled all "dictionary atheists" as dumb-asses. Same thing.

    In any case regardless of whether or not you think science can or should address supernatural questions, it's not the role of scientific skepticism to address those questions directly. That's the job of the activist atheist.

    As I see it, it's the sign of a well rounded free-thinker to identify as a skeptic and an atheist (and a humanist and liberal as well) and appreciate, qua free-thinker, where these roles fit in the overall mission of combating irrationality, and to respect where they differ and where they overlap. It's a smart division of labor.

  9. A little anthropology would help understand people who have bought into supernatural absolutes. Accepting such absolutes is often part and parcel of being part of a community. If you can give people questioning religious commitments a place where people are making sacrifices for one another, working together on some project, expressing their hopes and dreams, you might get them to stick with a movement. Giving them concrete benefits for defecting from one social coalition and joining another will be especially effective for people who will be giving up family and community attachments for giving up religious commitments. That ain't physics or biology but it is a kind of scientific perspective that might help the skeptic movement.

  10. I stopped visiting PZ's blog and cut back participation in associated activities during the last year because of all the unnecessary strife and drama. I am put off when love of strife exceeds love of knowledge.

    1. +1

      This phenomenon, of course, is not specific... it sometimes occurs in any grouping of humans, regardless of the purpose or goal of the group.
      Generally speaking I find it off-putting when discussions get what I would call... hysterical. I find it even more off-putting if I suddenly realize I've unwittingly engaged in any hysteria myself. So that's another reason I avoid that sort of thing.
      Arguments, or even venting, are one thing, but getting all hopped up & turning vehement diatribes into an art form of their own, is quite another.

      Anyway, so big whoop... PZ says he's taking his ball & going home. I'm sure the skeptic community doesn't have any shortage of balls.

  11. You simply can't be expect to be respected as a skeptic and go around spewing nonsense about "evil white males" and "patriarchy". You just can't.

    PZ Myers is a drama queen. Good riddance, I say!

    1. Sorry - questions about PZ Myers' methods doesn't provide cover for dismissing feminism.

    2. I don't see where PDMA87 used PZ Myers' methods as cover for dismissing feminism. He was criticising some specific rhetorical tool used in some feminist circles, like patriarchy. Since when considering that patriarchy is a very problematic concept (for example, as many people have point out, it's impossible to refute since even if you bring up counterexample, some feminist will explain to you that patriarchy also oppresses men. So if women and men are oppressed by patriarchy, it's not possible to refute it and thus doesn't have any explanatory power) is equal to dismissing feminism as a all? Is criticising one concept (even if - granted - it's a core concept of feminism) allowed or is it forbidden on the ground that you have to take to all package of feminism if you want to be a "decent human being" (paraphrasing PZ Myers here)?

    3. How is patriarchy controversial? All it means is that a patriarchal society is structured with the male as the central authority socially and politically. Isn't that a pretty accurate description of western society?

      The excesses of feminism have to do with the embrace of critical theory by *some* feminists. I'm a feminist because I believe in political, economic, and social rights for women. That seems like common sense to me.

      I applaud PZ in his defense of Rebbaca Watson for example. I agree with him that there very likely is no a god. But I also wish he could find a better way to say some of the things he says.

      I don't have to accept everything someone or some group believes in. I am allowed to pick the good parts and toss out the junk. I don't think that patriarchy is a core concept of feminism. Equality before the law is. At the same time patriarchy sure does seem to be how western society is ordered and it sure does seem that women are often disadvantaged because of it.

      I am more science-y than I am critical theorist. I think many of those philosophers don't have much that is interesting to say. This sometimes has lead to difficulties. People get funny ideas in their heads sometimes.

      Isn't it better to show people *how* to think critically? Shouldn't we all be doing that as a matter of course? The reason I listen to Massimo's podcast next to Brian Dunning's Skeptiod is for just that reason. I got enough drama in my life.

    4. I think you need to take a closer look at the kind of feminism PZ and company are embracing. He recently posted a shoutout to radfem blogger Twisty Faster of I Blame the Patriarchy, an old-school authoritarian radical feminist of the worst sort. Her ideas have nothing to do with "equality before the law". How somebody can embrace an ideology like this and call themselves in any sense a "rationalist" is beyond me. Then again, one need only look at the exponents of atheism and rationalism who in the past embraced Marx-Leninism as essentially a kind of religion without God. Retrospect shows how foolish, sometimes lethally foolish, those people were. As far as I'm concerned the "rationalists" like PZ who embrace the more lunatic fringe of feminism are cut from the same cloth.

  12. P.S. I thought Jamy did very well in his 2012 TAM presentation of different points of focus. This fits something I wrote about movement Atheism back in October.

  13. I have an idea. If PZ is really so fed up with "organized skepticism" or "the skeptical movement" or whatever he wants to call it, that he wants to divorce himself from it, I suggest that those of us who remain take him at his word. Literally. It's easy. No more invitations to speak at skeptic events, to write articles for skeptic magazines, or to be interviewed on skeptic podcasts, vlogs, etc.. I realize nothing's absolute and that there's overlap between atheist and skeptic events and media and between more scientific events, but I think this is the most elegant solution to the problem. PZ doesn't have to mingle or deal with people for whose views and practices he expresses such obvious contempt, and we skeptics (and, yes, PZ, I am a scientist too, one who also likes being a skeptic) don't have to deal with his insults, self-righteousness, and drama. Both sides will be a lot happier. Win-win!

    1. Orac, in my blog post about this, I actually suggest that he's looking to set up a more specifically Gnu Atheist set of counter-events to the typical skeptics' rostra: http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2013/05/pz-myers-aka-phrayngula-and-scientific.html

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  15. Massimo - I have a feeling that much of what you're saying will be dismissed as "tone trolling".

    To me, it's not a matter of "tone" or "civility". It's about characterizing people and imputing motives to people without evidence, or in a way that (as you say in the apology post) has "no logical connection to the substance of the arguments being discussed".

    I wish the distinction between tone (aggressiveness, anger, mocking) and bad rhetorical methods were more often made. It seems that a lot of the reactions to "Don't Be A Dick" defend the need for passion and stridency but don't address the pointlessness of unsupported characterization and motive-imputing.

    1. I want to add to this. Tone, how you say a thing, matters a lot. There is research to back that up too.

      I mean one has to ask oneself "Why am I doing this?" "What is my goal here?" If one's goal is to convince others of the rightness of your cause *how* you present your argument matters as much if not more than what you say. People shut you out and stop listening if you are too aggressive.

      On the other hand if one's goal is not to convince others but to dominate them so you can feel superior then you are no longer treating skepticism (or... any other discipline) as an end in itself but as merely a means to an end. That of appearing superior to others.

      This is *very* appealing to some (myself included) and worse, the internet tends to only magnify the appeal.

  16. Actually the major problem PZ has is organized skepticism refuses to consider certain topics skeptically. Anthropogenic global warming is never mentioned at TAM because Penn Jillette and other libertarians might have an attack of the vapors and stop supporting JREF. Economic questions are never brought up. Theism isn't critically examined.

    Certain skeptics have decided that only those topics they're comfortable with should be discussed. Bigfoot and Nessie? Yeah, let's laugh at the silly cryptozoologists. Homeopathy and other alt med? How can anyone think "water has memory"? The existence of the Abrahamic god? Nope, ain't going there, that would make me examine my personal religious beliefs.

    1. This has been my impression too of what might be called the "libertarian" skeptics side (like Penn Jillette): They will put a lot of effort into debunking the fortune tellers and mind readers, but what about skepticism of libertarian economic policies?

    2. I don't know if that's totally true, but yea, besides Penn and Teller, Michale Shermer, Brian Dunning, and surely other lesser lights like taking a libertarian piss or two in the skepticism punch bowl. (Oh, and on Shermer, I always add that for years, he's had known racialists Vince Sarich and Frank Miele on the masthead of his magazine. With skeptical "friends" like that, who needs gullible enemies, eh?)

    3. Except that at TAM2013 Micheal E. Mann, climate scientist, the hockey stick guy himself, is a speaker.

    4. "Anthropogenic global warming is never mentioned at TAM" -- that's not true at all.

      TAM 8 had a panel on climate change (Massimo Pigliucci moderated Don Prothero, Daniel Loxton, Michael Shermer, and James McGaha, see http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2010/07/11/liveblogging-the-amazing-meeting-8-sunday-morning-sessions/), and Massimo called out climate change denial by skeptics in his talk at the same conference; at TAM 2011 Eugenie Scott spoke on creationism and climate change denial (online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LuBfns5CcaY).

    5. This is a groundless caricature of those who take issue with PZ Myers and the "Atheismplus" crowd. I think skepticism and rationalism go *way* beyond debunking pseudoscience and superstition, and have bearing on larger philosophical, scientific, and social issues. In fact, it's why Pagliacci is one of my favorite rationalist writers/podcasters, precisely because he tackles the larger issues.

      As somebody who has a beef with Myers and company, my beef isn't that they take on social issues or question right-wing libertarian sacred cows. Rather, it's their claim that all answers to such questions are to be found in a dogmatic "feminist" and "social justice" ideology. In fact, these people are guilty of the very thing you accuse Penn Jillette of - question any aspect of feminist ideology, even on the most solid evidence-based grounds, and that makes you a "misogynist", "hyperskeptic", etc, and somebody to be dismissed not be rational counterargument, but by name-calling, smear campaigns, groundless charges of "harassment", and so on.

      Speaking for myself, I have a big problem with ideology masquerading as "rationalism", whether it comes from libertarianism, Marxism, feminism, or anywhere else.

  17. badrescher,

    > He didn't say that PZ was stupid or a liar because he disagrees with him on the demarcation issue. He said that someone who would continue to use the same straw man argument after it's been clearly pointed out to him that it's a straw man is either stupid or a liar. <

    I corrected the exact wording to clear the misunderstanding, but my qualm was with calling a colleague stupid and liar, regardless of whether this was done directly or by not-so-subtle implication.

    > What he doesn't like is when people like PZ try to change the priority or focus of skeptics and their organizations, especially when that effort is based on a shaky (at best) argument. <

    And he certainly has the right to point that out. Indeed, I tend to agree with him. But there are more constructive (and more intellectually serious) ways of saying it.


    > what is the culture that the Skeptical Movement seeks to create? Is it a purely philosophical enterprise, or does it offer ideas on better ways of conducting our lives (beyond the purely intellectual pursuit of "truth")? <

    It’s certainly not about philosophy, not much at least. I think the goals of the skeptical movement are to defend science, debunk pseudoscience, promote critical thinking and promote a culture of reason. Good enough for me, if well done...


    > I am put off when love of strife exceeds love of knowledge. <

    Couldn’t have put it better myself.


    > I have a feeling that much of what you're saying will be dismissed as "tone trolling". <

    Yeah, as if being respectful and constructive were somehow a bad thing in the internet culture. Yes, a lot of what I ma saying *is* indeed about tone, and I couldn’t care less if some people will label it as trolling.

    > It's about characterizing people and imputing motives to people without evidence, or in a way that (as you say in the apology post) has "no logical connection to the substance of the arguments being discussed". <

    Yup, that too...


    > Anthropogenic global warming is never mentioned at TAM because Penn Jillette and other libertarians might have an attack of the vapors and stop supporting JREF. <

    Not exactly. At TAM 10 I gave a talk immediately after Phil’s “Don’t be a dick” one, and explicitly criticized James Randi (who was sitting right in front of me) and Pen Jillette for that very reason. I’ve been invited again to TAM this year...

    1. Paul Krugman has effectively called the "Austrian school" of economics a pseudoscience (or a 'cult', anyway). I wonder how Krugman would be received at one of these meetings.

    2. I didn't know Randi was a minimalist, denialist or whatever. I do know that most professional skeptics said very little about him knowingly help perpetuate ID fraud, harbor an illegal alien, etc. ...

      I also know that a lot of skeptics get defensive when you ask if libertarism is a "driver" of their actions, like Dunning's cookie-stuffing crime.

      Anyway, now that I know that about Randi, it's another reason to be more skeptical of "Professional skeptics." And, c'mon, isn't that half of what they are, Massimo? Not all of them may be peddling overpriced swag to groupies like Dunning, but maybe some besides him are? Of course, per what I said above, maybe PZ wants to start a GNU financial empire, you know?

    3. "But there are more constructive (and more intellectually serious) ways of saying it."

      It's BEEN said to him many, many times in much more constructive ways, Massimo, yet he keeps banging that drum. Spinning one's wheels isn't exactly productive, either.

    4. Also, since I wasn't clear the first time, I'll try to rephrase it. Jamy didn't call anyone "stupid and a liar". He stated that someone who continues to misrepresent his opponent's argument after having been repeatedly corrected is EITHER stupid OR a liar. There may be better ways to say that, but those haven't gotten through.

      And Jamy's discussions of why he and the organizations he supports have the scope and focus that they have ARE constructive and intellectually serious. They have nothing to do with the "stupid or a liar" comment.

    5. Randi changed his position on global warming after educating himself on the issue

  18. "You simply can't be expect to be respected as a skeptic and go around spewing nonsense about "evil white males" and "patriarchy". You just can't.

    PZ Myers is a drama queen. Good riddance, I say!"

    Yes, clearly the skeptical movement cannot contain both feminists like me and social science denialists like this person.

    Note the implicit association of drama with both negativity and femininity. Such gendered language DOES influence how people treat each other and alienates women and men who care about women.

    A skeptical movement that was skeptical about everything would not have room for a person who is a conspiracy theorist about the existence of the social phenomenon we call "patriarchy." Their denial would be dismissed as quickly as those of global warming denialists.

    ...Which, as it turns out, is not very quickly.

    Yeah, if the skeptical movement ever gets around to applying skepticism in a concerted manner to really INTERESTING questions, I'll be there. Until then, have fun debunking UFOs and tone trolling activists.

    1. SallyStrange wrote:

      - "Yeah, if the skeptical movement ever gets around to applying skepticism in a concerted manner to really INTERESTING questions, I'll be there. Until then, have fun debunking UFOs and tone trolling activists." -

      How far removed from skepticism does one have to be to say something so ridiculous?

      I can only assume that quote is some kind of defense for PZ. If that is what PZ is out there saying, or the message he's sending out these days, then he's clearly lost his grip.

      I don't know what "tone trolling" is, but that tone is irrational. Besides, that quote sure looks like trolling.

      I suppose this goes back to the title of this post - "should we care". I say we can't be bothered to care if this is the type of reactions we would expect to see. Ignorance of this magnitude signals a deep problem.

      Instead of bothering with such nonsense, peruse some back issues of a skeptical movement magazine...


    2. LV: So you think PDMA87's comment was reasonable?

      Sally Strange's comment merits a response of "nonsense", but PDMA87's comment doesn't merit a response at all?

    3. Instead of skepticism perhaps some sort of group therapy movement is one possible course of action and "consciousness raising groups"?

    4. What's unreasonable about PDMA87's comment? He's saying that you can't claim to be a sceptic, but then cling to clearly unsceptical -- or untestable -- ideas, like the patriarchy*, the concept of "white male privilege" and so on. Besides, your objection to it is more than a little amusing. Who said anything about dismissing feminism?

      In any case, it's irrelevant. He's divorced himself from the sceptic movement and doesn't want to be called a sceptic anymore, so as far as I'm concerned he's free to believe in whatever he wants - including the patriarchy.

      *feminist theory patriarchy

    5. I'm not understanding how ideas like patriarchy and white male privilege are untestable. They're ideas about states of affairs in the world. If those states of affairs exist, then the ideas have weight. If, for example, women are not legally allowed to vote or own property, that's evidence for patriarchy. There's nothing inherently "unskeptical" about looking at the evidence (wage differences, composition of legislative and executive bodies, legislation that takes bodily control away from women, etc., etc.) and concluding that white males have privilege in, say, U.S. society.

      Perhaps PDMA87 wasn't trying to dismiss feminism as a whole. But waving away ideas like patriarchy and privilege as untestable or obviously wrong is dismissive of some of feminism's central ideas.

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    7. "I don't see why PZ Meyers can't get his mind around Mr. Swiss's distinction between testing claims and advocating a position"

      I don't think it's a matter of getting his mind around it so much as seeing it as a dodge.

      For a skeptic, maybe testing claims is enough. For a skeptic movement, there's more to it. Why test alternative medicine claims? It's not just to find out the truth -- it's also to advocate for public policy that results in safe and effective medicines and gets rid of unsafe and ineffective ones. There's a position being advocated. There are values at work which are prior to the skeptical analysis.

      The most basic value of feminism is that sex and gender should not effect what rights and opportunities people have. So you: 1) Accept or reject that value; 2) empirically/scientifically evaluate ways in which societies thwart or promote equality; and 3) Come up with policy prescriptions, just as skeptics now think about (and disagree about) medical policy prescriptions.

      I don't know if Myers would agree with me, but I think the "we're just evaluating claims" line is incorrect. There are always prior values and assumptions, and the ones we adopt for scientific skepticism aren't different in kind than the ones we adopt for feminism or atheism.

    8. Asher Kay,

      >There are always prior values and assumptions, and the ones we adopt for scientific skepticism aren't different in kind than the ones we adopt for feminism or atheism.<

      Whether or not such values differ in kind, they differ in contentiousness, and that may be what matters with respect to skepticism as a movement. If the movement becomes "based" on a list of contentious values, it will come apart as a movement.

      Perhaps a better way to look at this matter is in terms of the question of what sorts of claims the skeptic movement should properly make. To me it seems that questions of (scientific or science-minded) truth has been charter touchstone of the skeptic movement. In this light, the case that atheism advocacy or sex/gender equality don't belong may be made on the basis they are both matters of morality rather than scientific truth. That atheism is true and that the world should be entirely atheist are not scientific truths or matters of scientific truth. The same can be said questions of human equality; while science can uncover inequality, that inequality is a problem is not a scientific truth or a matter of scientific truth. In this way, including atheism and feminism in skepticism moves skepticism away from concerns of scientific truth and renders it a hodgepodge moral movement.

    9. Pure baloney. The skeptic movement is primarily philosophical, and the word itself refers to "an ancient or modern philosopher who denies the possibility of knowledge, or even rational belief, in some sphere." Which also makes it seen by some as limited to the taking of negative positions, and not only where that negativity fits probability, but where it even seems remotely possible.

    10. @ Kay. I agree that skepticism should examine claims like male privilege, "patriarchy" etc. And I'm an anti-feminist.

  19. "[Skepticism] is a grassroots movement with the triple aim of debunking paranormal claims, defending science in the public arena, and promoting critical thinking."

    Massimo, it's regarding the specificity of the first of these aims that many who disagree with PZ (on all manner of things) also take issue with Jamy and others who get (unfairly, I think) disparaged as "Bigfoot skeptics." Surely, skeptics regularly tackle claims—conspiracy theories, media biases and errors, pyramid schemes, historical revisionism—that are unrelated to science or the paranormal. If these topics fit into the aims of skepticism as presented above, it must be in the "promoting critical thinking" area—but then why bother mentioning paranormal claims at all?

    When I asked Steve Novella about this during his own recent skepticism-vs-atheism exchange with PZ, he said he felt that these areas were definitely included within the "scientific skepticism" tent, since the term refers to evidence-based (rather than solipsistic) skeptical inquiry, not to claims dealing with scientific topics. Is that conception (both of the term and of the movement's character) off base in your view? Are skeptics who focus on these non-paranormal areas of inquiry "moving the tent"?

    1. I can't speak for our blog host here, but I'd say that the anti-CAM skeptics definitely fall into the category of those who defend science in the public arena.

  20. Another easy one. Science & philosophy both deal with reliable knowledge. Spirituality is outside the bounds of knowledge. In a broad view of science & philosophy as applying to everyday life, "beliefs" are merely hypotheses within systems of knowledge - if you don't have a reliable knowledge base to define your hypothesis, you've got no hypothesis. Knowledge builds from, and to, beliefs.

    Spirituality has no knowledge base of reliable facts from which to define its hypotheses, let alone being able to prove its claims to being reliable knowledge. If people say they witnessed this or that and others believe them, that's their choice, but its rational to ignore those people unless you have witnessed it yourself and then tried to fit it within a reliable knowledge base.

    1. There isn't anything easy about this. There are all sorts of scientific and skeptical issues surrounding spirituality. Psychology. Neurology. Fallacious thinking.

  21. I revisited my small brush with DBAD in a blog because of PZ quitting.

    I'm proud to be a skeptic, and the funny thing is that Phil's talk was not aimed at PZ or Dawkins or any other one skeptic. It was aimed at all of us.


  22. What's the last thing Myers has done for the promotion of skepticism? Ophelia Benson recently made a post about skepticism being a "motionless movement" that isn't even really a movement. But what has she done?

    Myers, Benson, and plenty of other drama bloggers like to act as a peanut gallery and drum up hits to their sites with manufactroversies.

    The movement will do fine without them; podcasters keep drawing in newcomers, JREF/CFI keep drawing crowds. The people who are moving skepticism forward are the Sharon Hills, and Tim Farleys. Groups like the Guerrilla Skeptics and Virtual Skeptics.

    So far, I've raised enough to send 6 talented 18-30 yr olds to TAM2013--young people who have the potential to be the future of skepticism. And I'M heading to a TEDFellows event this summer to bring my "art and skepticism" work to the over 100 other Fellows who will be there.

    There are TOO MANY people and groups in the skeptic movement to mention who do real work that has a real impact. Myers' leaving will have zero impact.

  23. I share with PZ Myers the view that supernatural should not be exempted from the purview of science. Strictly speaking, if you say "All apples fall", you are not being scientific. No matter how solid your theory and evidence are, due to the problem of induction, you can never make that claim. Perhaps you should say "All apples ought to fall according to my theory". But I have no problem in saying "All apples fall" because, well, all apples do fall.

    So in the case of supernatural claims, I would say, "look, my theories do not directly prove that your supernatural claim X is false. But knowing what I know about the world through my theories that strongly suggest that your claim is false, I'm going to say your claim is just plain false.

    I'm also going to call what I'm doing is scientific. You may say that my definition of science is too broad such that it blurs the line between science and rationality. Go ahead, I don't believe there is a line between science and rationality. I will say that I have proof that we can send a man to the moon, not that I have a theory that suggests we can send a man to the moon that is not known to be false yet. So just grant me the money."

  24. I'm an outsider here and don't have much knowledge of the institutional side of things. Like a lot of other people, I remember Martin Gardner fondly, having grown up with his writings. Tone-wise things were rather different back then!

    There are no doubt good reasons why skeptics and atheists in America have created organizations and movements for themselves instead of just being skeptics and/or atheists. To counter the influence of evangelical churches in setting education agendas and so on. Fair enough.

    But it looks pretty unseemly – and pretty silly at times – to see advocates of reason and rationality at each others' throats. Sad, actually, when, as Massimo suggests, these people agree about important things.

    Though religion is always going to be contentious, many religious claims are fair game for skeptical analysis.

    But political and moral values seem to me to be in a slightly different category. Science and reason may modify or refine our basic values, but can't create them or adjudicate on them (though they may have something to say on the likely effects of implementing specific policies).

  25. I'm not quite sure how "critical thinking" doesn't cover religion any more than it covers any other system of nonsense, but announcements like this are quite silly. It's little more than a tantrum, and absurd as those who don't associate with skepticism for fear of getting some of Michael Shermer's libertarian germs on them. Is the mission statement any different for the skeptic movement now than 10 or 15 years ago?

  26. While we're at it ... bit more food for thought on Randi. Maybe he's not so innocent in the "Alvarez" situation. http://dailygrail.com/blogs/Steve-Volk/2012/3/TOP-10-DEVELOPMENTS-FRINGE-OLOGY-5

  27. Marc,

    > Is that conception (both of the term and of the movement's character) off base in your view? Are skeptics who focus on these non-paranormal areas of inquiry "moving the tent"? <

    No, I don’t think so, but they are certainly enlarging it. My view is that skepticism has two, interactive, components: scientific and philosophical. Criticism of theology are more philosophical in nature, while criticism of empirically based claims are scientifically grounded. Religion can be criticized from both perspective (scientifically in the case of specific ideas, like young earth creationism, philosophically when those ideas become more vague, like mainstream theology).


    > It's BEEN said to him many, many times in much more constructive ways, Massimo, yet he keeps banging that drum. Spinning one's wheels isn't exactly productive, either <

    Indeed, but I am not actually talking to PZ, I’m talking to as many other skeptics as I can reach...

  28. This appears to be the video in question.

  29. Such is the danger of basing a movement on very general epistemological principles (critical thinking, science literacy, logic) that it becomes very hard to tell what is in its purview and what isn't. What CAN'T one apply critical thinking to? What person DOESN'T think their position is logical?

    As far as I can tell, "scientific skeptics" want to stick to their movement's traditional aims, which tended to be mostly correcting bad science among the public (and being ecumenical about religion). They are therefore reluctant to have their movement dragged into atheist activism (which sometimes touches the empirical world, but is 99% philosophical), and into political activism, which is basically 100% philosophy. Fair enough.

    (Although a cynic would suggest that "traditional" skeptic topics seem to involve a disproportionate amount of mutual back-patting for making fun of low-status kooks like bigfoot believers...)

    Meanwhile, PZ and his crowd are essentially coalition-builders (except they're really, really terrible at it). They don't seem to care about what atheism or skepticism mean, they just care that there is overlap between the sets [skeptics] [atheists] [liberals] & [feminists] and want to make a big, rather ill-defined social movement out of them.

    This is, of course, all complicated by political dynamics between the two groups. Naturally, most of the feminists have sided with the PZ camp, and the anti-feminists with the scientific skeptics, making both groups less mainstream along the feminism axis (a self-reinforcing tendency). Then we have specific history (like codes of conduct etc.), and specific personalities (like PZ).

    What to say about PZ? The discourse surrounding him is always and everywhere poisoned, if not by him then by the legions of trolls in his entourage. Whatever your position on the object-level stuff, for the sake of your sanity, stay away! I stopped reading him about 3 years ago.

    1. ianpolock wrote:

      - "Naturally, most of the feminists have sided with the PZ camp, and the anti-feminists with the scientific skeptics..." -

      What kept me reading your post is that I was hoping it would lead somewhere, which of course it doesn't, sorry to say.

      As to your quote above - please, just speak for yourself. Have you no sense to realize that by making such irrational generalizations you paint people into corners. Do you know "most of the feminists" (even within the skeptic/atheist movements)(?) if someone identifies as a "scientific skeptic" do you assume they are anti-feminist (or course you don't, right) (?) That quote reads like you're in a bubble of information, I suggest popping it.

    2. You are right that I spoke too broadly; if you replace "feminists" with "activist/radical feminists" I believe my statement is more or less correct.

      Don't you agree that there has been a strong polarization along those lines?

      I admit that my knowledge of these minutiae is less than exhaustive.

    3. "Naturally, most of the feminists have sided with the PZ camp"

      I severely doubt it.

      The flipside is true though, most of the anti-feminists will side against the PZ camp.

      I would say I'm primarily a scientific skeptic because the epistemology gets harder with metaphysics (but I'll happily debate it) and even harder with abstract sociology claims (I'm extremely agnostic and I suspect an awful lot of claims are closer to creative writing than anything)

  30. So..... what is this really all about? Do the new atheists want to focus exclusively on debating the merits of religion over and above everything else? And then I take it that skeptics want to give religious believers who are skeptical about the paranormal and other pseudoscience the benefit of the doubt in the belief that learning to be a skeptic about one area will help overall in the long run.

    Or is it just that everyone is sick and tired of the sort of atheist triumphalism you get from PZ and others of his ilk?

    I kinda think it is the latter. That "being a dick" backfires after awhile because it alienates potential allies and friends. Seems reasonable. Atheists and skeptics are what... about 6% of the US population? Since any political movement that small must have allies it makes sense to me: *don't piss on your friends and allies*.

    How well have purity purges worked for minority movements in history? Not that well. I have seen the same behavior on very progressive to leftist blogs. It gets difficult to debate reasonable policy because you have to constantly stay to the left (and among conservative, to the right) of the majority opinion.

    That's fear. That's insecurity and... at the extreme.... paranoia. And it never ever does any good.

    1. I agree with most of what you say. But I don't detect a lot of fear and insecurity amongst the people at Crooked Timber, for example!

    2. Well no. John Holbo and the other contributors are professionals like Massimo. I wasn't thinking of them. I had in mind the more strident progressives who are just bloggers or commentors. There are those on both political sides who get agitated (I sure do at times), buy into conspiracy theories and engage is some really ugly behaviors.

      Everyone does it. The odd thing about this time in history is that conservatives are more prone to circling the wagons, epistemic closure and flat out fear, hysteria and paranoia. The world is changing very fast and they are frightened out of their minds.

      Everyone gets afraid though. *Some* people get more afraid than others and their reactions can be out of proportion to the perceived threat. So they have psychological defense mechanisms to protect themselves. Anger is one. Anger is often a cover for fear.

      Religions are neutral vessels. They have no fixed propositions and you can interpret them any way you want. There are no religious truths or falsehoods. So it is irrational to react in fear and anger to religion because it isn't the religion, it's people. It's just people using whatever religion is at hand to justify their behavior.

      Religions are just large frameworks that provide a transcendental moral foundation for large cooperative groups of genetic relatives to work together to accomplish things they could not have done on their own.

      So then... how does it make any sense to fight religion? Religion has never done anything. It's people, just people, who do bad things.

    3. An interesting take on religion. I balk at the "transcendental moral foundation" however.

    4. Perhaps it would have been better to say they provide a *belief* in a transcendental foundation to morals. People seem to really need to believe there is a transcendent basis for morals and religions certainly provide that belief.

    5. Keep in mind that PZ is not the only "dick." The way some women in the movement have been treated is shameful and then when they push back they are called drama queens. There is no winning in that situation.

  31. How much is this about follow the money and/or a broader "cui bono"? PZ can lead the Pharyngulacs into setting up conferences and events that are Gnu-focused, with Gnu-followers, Gnu-tchotchkes to sell, etc., etc.

  32. I personally feel that PZ is too rude and over the top.
    I also think he fails in the principle of charity in that he almost always thinks anyone who disagrees with him is a fool or evil.

  33. Ian

    > Such is the danger of basing a movement on very general epistemological principles (critical thinking, science literacy, logic) that it becomes very hard to tell what is in its purview and what isn't. What CAN'T one apply critical thinking to? What person DOESN'T think their position is logical? <

    Yes, so-called 'critical thinking' takes us beyond science and logic and into values-based areas – and, if we're not careful, down the slippery slope into ideological politics.

    But it's possible (as often happens on this blog) for people who differ in terms of their political values and priorities to have fruitful discussions on broad questions relating to science, math, logic, epistemology, and also religion.

    Some people (PZ Myers seems to be an example) conflate scientific thinking with liberal or left-wing politics, and this is a mistake.

    I would argue that a scientific view of the world is compatible with a wide range of political views, though not with many forms of traditional (especially religious) conservatism.

    1. The science promoted by those opposing the mainstream scientific assessment of global warming could be called "pseudoscience", and this seems to be a topic of discussion in skeptics meetings. But so could the economic theory that is the basis of Republican economic policy, what Paul Krugman compares to "the phlogiston theory of fire". Both "pseudoscience"s could end up hurting people, in fact the latter more immediately than the former. If the meetings of the skeptics societies were to become a safe place for Republicans by avoiding critical assessment of the theory behind Republican economic policies, something is wrong.

    2. My general point is that basic moral and political values and ideologies can't be derived from purely scientific and logical thinking, and we need to be careful to keep this in mind, that's all.

      Science can't tell us whether social equality is a higher ideal than individual freedom, or whether courage and self-reliance rank higher in the scale of virtues than sensitivity and compassion. There's scope for genuine disagreement about what values are most important to instill in children or what features characterize a good society.

      Economics is one science which is very prone to – so to speak – 'ideological contamination'. Which means it's all the more important – and all the more difficult – to have economic theories critically assessed. I have no training in the area, however, and will resist the temptation to comment here on Krugman's ideas, for example.

      I'm just as keen as you are to minimize harm. I agree that conservatives are often culpably ignorant and anti-science, and liberals are often better-informed, but there is quite a bit of mythical and magical thinking on the left also.

      Irrational thinking is pretty universal – none of us is immune.

    3. As for Krugman, he has been at the forefront in examining the empirical basis for why current austerian economics is wrong (e.g., following up on the repercussions of the Reinhart-Rogoff paper fiasco), but more generally why the influence of Austrian School economics in Republican economic think tanks is such a disaster. He looks at the data, not ideology.


    4. At Mark:

      That's why, on PZ's previous post, about "demarcation projects," I mentioned a whole traditional field of philosophy: aesthetics.

      Science certainly can't, and surely never fully will, explain why I love classical music and Mr. X doesn't, or, within classical music, why I think Mozart is overrated and Ms. Y doesn't.

      At Mark/Philip: Except for behaviorial economics (which may, on some things, have some of the same study replication issues as does social psychology) the rest of economics is less scientific than sociology in general. Most versions/spinoffs of neoclassical economics are constructed on the straw man of Homo rationalis.

    5. The Austrian school explicitly rejects empirical evidence so we can toss it into the bin on those grounds alone. They really believe you can deduce economic facts from a priori principles. I mean, you have to really want it bad to believe that.

  34. Can someone name me one prominently well known skeptic who has said that all supernatural or religious claims should get a free pass from skepticism?

    I might be relatively new to skeptic community compared to some others here but I can't think of anyone who has ever said that.

    So please, name me at least one well known skeptic who has said this. I'm going to have to make ask that it's a well known skeptic who has said this, because if someone who's a nobody like me ever said, people like PZ wouldn't go apeshit about it.

    Oh, and to exercise good skepticism, please provide a link to a blog post, comment section or video as your evidence. Thank you!

    1. "Can someone name me one prominently well known skeptic who has said that all supernatural or religious claims should get a free pass from skepticism?"

      You're asking for proof of a claim, but you don't say who made it or where.

    2. Isn't that why PZ was so upset? That all religious claims supposedly get a free pass from skeptic scrutiny?

      Or have I misunderstood this topic completely and that's not at all what PZ hissy fit is about?

    3. You're kind of close but not quite there. Here's basically what happened:

      * Jamy Ian Swiss did a talk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iyLULErf_6E, about 35 mins. in) where he invoked Hanlon's Razor and said that anyone who has kept insisting that skeptics give religious claims a free pass is stupid or a liar.

      * PZ Myers has kept insisting that skeptics give religious claims a free pass.

      * Ergo, Swiss implied that Myers was stupid or a liar.

      PZ Myers didn't like being called stupid or a liar, hence his hissy fit.

  35. You seem to be saying that Myers is arguing against a claim nobody has actually made. So why not quote him or point to what he actually said, and tell us why you think it's a straw man?

    Myers appears to be saying (in the post that Pigliucci links to above) that restricting oneself to "testable claims" (and defining "testable claim" in a way that means that the absence of gods is not the null hypothesis) has the effect of putting claims about the existence of gods off-limits to scientific skepticism. Not "all religious claims" -- claims about the existence of gods.

    So if you are looking for a quote from a well-known skeptic, you'll want one that says something like, "Atheism shouldn't be part of scientific skepticism because claims about the existence of gods are not testable claims".

  36. I don't understand how people can be so foolish to still use the meaningless classification "supernatural"; there are claims; some can be verified, other can not. To call those not verified 'supernatural' is a metaphysical poisoning of the well...

  37. Swiss never mentions PZ Meyers at all during this talk on May 5. It's up at youtube.

  38. Just listening now to Jamy Ian Swiss' talk now: "Richard Dawkins' priority as an activist is to combat religion. I'm not willing to accept that brokered alliance [with Bill Maher].... SCREW BILL MAHER." The talk's purpose is to keep the skeptic's movement on methodology, not outcome: "Skepticism is about HOW to think, not WHAT to think." Well, PZ Myers via his blog always struck me as someone more interested in WHAT to think. I stipulated that as a professor of biology, he encounters the myth of creation every day in the classroom, and through that experience, he has gilded mission.

    Fast forward 3 months, and Myers re-posts anonymous, vague, 3rd-hand and 4th-hand accounts of multiple rapes committed by a major icon and force in the Skeptics' Movement: Michael Shermer. Unless Myers' blog has previously used his blog to warn women of the dangers of particular individuals, it sounds to me that he has a particular axe to grind here.

  39. http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2013/08/is-pz-myers-demagogue-opportunist-or.html

  40. Paul "PZ" Myers seems to think that having a graduate degree in science and an associate faculty position at a lesser Minnesota campus translates to some kind of holistic wisdom. It's funny -- whenever I read Myers I see a lot of non-skepticism and un-wisdom, demonstrated by his ideological partisanship. He is a Democrat whose Democrat-ness blinds him to the foibles of the Donkey Party. He is a Feminist whose man-blaming blinds him to the equal contributory role of XX genomes in the XX-XY friction situation.

    Now, I'm not saying Republicans are great, nor that men are superior to women. I'm saying that a skeptic whose primary driver is truthful objectivity, well that person should be able to note flaws wherever they exist on the human landscape. By pretending that Democrats and women do not have flaws, Myers shows himself un-skeptical and non-wise.

    In Myers' world, "skepticism" means "blame men and blame Republicans and worship science as the key to all of mankind's problems." Pity he can't be bothered with holism, honesty or thorough skepticism.

    I don't think I'd enjoy taking any scientific classes from him. I doubt I could trust his perspective.

    So, no -- you shouldn't care what Paul Myers does. He's irrelevant, despite his popularity among gullible people whose outlook is driven by ideology rather than holism, objectivity or honesty.

  41. If you wish to see why I, and tens of thousands of others, welcome PZ Myers walking away and hope he never returns merely google 'PZ Myers rape controversy' to find out precisely why he is a vacuous angst riddled drama baiting fucking douche canoe. His cannibalism of other atheists and his infatuation with white knighting for crazed feminazi's sickens me.

    After a previous comment to this affect I found myself under attack on all social networks by a good thirty 'tumblr feminists' who were attempting to cyber stalk and intimidate me.

    Given I live my life in the spotlight (@bashpr0mpt on Twitter for verification of that, and my extensive fan base) I unfortunately made a bad trolling target by instead descending to the same primary school playground rhetoric as them, and instead of taking it to heart decided to just opt for calling them names and being as offensive as possible at their expense.

    So it goes without saying that PZM not only is a douche canoe, but seems to have the most vile, depraved, and mentally decrepit imbeciles flock to his defense. It would be quite pleasant if his fanboys/girls would also GTFO (or preferably die of testicular cancer; however that would involve a solid mass in the testes, and they lack any testicular fortitude, even the feminazi's testicles are soft) or preferably DIAF.

    Good riddance, douche canoe!


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