Reflections on the skeptic and atheist movements

Grouchoby Massimo Pigliucci

Groucho Marx, one of my favorite comedians of all time, famously wrote a telegram to a Hollywood club he had joined, that said: “Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.” [1]

I have recently considered sending such a letter to the skeptic and atheist movements (henceforth, SAM), but I couldn’t find the address. Besides, I don’t actually want to “resign,” as I consider myself a skeptic (in the sense of David Hume: one who attempts to proportion his beliefs to the available evidence) as well as an atheist. I am also a humanist, and more recently, a Stoic. [2] Unlike my colleague Neil deGrass Tyson [3] I don’t have a problem with labels, especially self-selected ones, since I find them to be useful heuristics to navigate a bewilderingly complex world.

Besides, I’ve been into SAM for a long time now. I still remember, back in 1997 — my second year as an Assistant Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville — when a guy named Carl Ledendecker approached me after a talk by a creationist and asked me if I wanted to join the “Fellowship of Reason” (now the Rationalists of East Tennessee [4]), a group devoted to fighting the good fight on behalf of science and against irrationalisms of all stripes. I thought this was a weird idea, and besides I had to work on my tenure (and I had already started one of the first Darwin Days anyway [5]). Still, after a while I decided to give it a try. I’m still friends with Carl after all these years, and with a number of others I met first there and then throughout the country while attending local, national and international SAM meetings (including, incidentally, the two co-editors of Scientia Salon).

I can honestly say that being a part of SAM has immensely enriched my life, added meaning to it, and hopefully has allowed me to contribute my expertise and reflections to the general improvement of society, in however small a way.

But of course things in life change, and so did my professional situation and my personal priorities. Six years ago I made the switch to being a full time philosopher, and last year I was hired by City College in a position that allows me to pursue new venues of both scholarship and outreach. This has meant writing more about philosophy and less about atheism and skepticism — particularly considering that SAM has become a somewhat inhospitable environment for philosophical dialogue anyway [6].

As a result, I first ended my long running (14 years!) blog, Rationally Speaking [7]; then my Skeptical Inquirer column, Thinking About Science (12 years!) [8]; and finally, participation in my podcast, also named Rationally Speaking [9] (my former co-host, Julia Galef, is capably continuing that one). During that time I had managed to publish three books clearly aimed at a SAM audience: Tales of the Rational: Skeptical Essays About Nature and Science [10], Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science [11], and Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk [12]. That, I submit, is a lot of commitment to a movement.

My disengagement has been gradual and not really planned, but rather the result of an organic change of priorities and interests. It has, however, also been accelerated by a number of observations and individual incidents. The most recent one, which finally prompted me to write these reflections for public consumption, was a private email exchange between Noam Chomsky and Sam Harris, which was eventually made public by the latter [13].

I have read quite a bit of Sam Harris (too much, in fact), and I have made it very clear what I think of him [14]. I have also read quite a bit of Chomsky (not enough, unfortunately), and he is one of the few people that I honestly regard as a role model, both as an intellectual and as a human being.

So I began reading the exchange with trepidation, and gradually my stomach got more and more turned by what I was seeing. I invite you to put down your iPad or Kindle, or whatever you are using to read this post, and go read the exchange in full to make up your own mind about it. If your reaction is that Harris was trying to have a genuine intellectual discussion and that Chomsky was unfairly dismissive, then there probably is no point in you wasting time with the rest of this essay.

If however, like me, you come out of the reading with the impression that Harris was looking for easy publicity, that he displays an astounding combination of arrogance, narcissism and rudeness, and that Chomsky simply did what many of us perhaps should do more often, which  is to not suffer fools gladly, then you may enjoy what I’m about to say next.

The Harris-Chomsky exchange, in my mind, summarizes a lot of what I find unpleasant about SAM: a community who worships celebrities who are often intellectual dilettantes, or at the very least have a tendency to talk about things of which they manifestly know very little; an ugly undertone of in-your-face confrontation and I’m-smarter-than-you-because-I-agree-with [insert your favorite New Atheist or equivalent]; loud proclamations about following reason and evidence wherever they may lead, accompanied by a degree of groupthink and unwillingness to change one’s mind that is trumped only by religious fundamentalists; and, lately, a willingness to engage in public shaming and other vicious social networking practices any time someone says something that doesn’t fit our own opinions, all the while of course claiming to protect “free speech” at all costs.

Let me give you some examples and name some names of big boys who can take the criticism and who will keep doing what they have been doing regardless of what I write anyway.

I have already mentioned Harris, who writes about ethics with little acknowledgment (or understanding, or both) of just how complex a topic it is, and how much literature there is out there to engage with. As he infamously wrote in the first footnote of chapter 1 of The Moral Landscape, “Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy … [but] I am convinced that every appearance of terms like ‘metaethics,’ ‘deontology,’ … directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.”  Why are we taking such a brazen display of anti-intellectualism as anything more than a clear mark of an overinflated ego? But far from that, Michael Shermer then builds on Harris’ point (or perhaps simply restates it, at much greater length), coming out with yet another “revolutionary” book about the science of ethics, predicated on an argument that had so many holes in it that I felt a bit embarrassed having to explain them in a public forum a couple of years ago [15].

Then we have Neil deGrasse Tyson. Great science popularizer, but also prone to anti-intellectualism in the form of dismissing an entire field (philosophy) of which he knows nothing at all [16], not to mention his sometimes questionable behavior when it comes to intellectual fairness, as even my colleague (with whom I often disagree) Jerry Coyne has firmly pointed out [17]. That particular episode had to do with yielding to the whims of yet another physicist/anti-intellectualist who has become a darling of SAM: Lawrence Krauss [18].

And speaking of great science popularizers who are very much adored within SAM: Richard Dawkins has actually  trashed yet another field (besides philosophy) of which he knows nothing: epigenetics and the study of its inheritance. Luckily, what he referred to as a “bandwagon” (actually very sound, cutting age biological research) keeps going regardless of Dawkins’ opinion, producing thousands of papers every year and securing tens of millions in funding from evidently profoundly misguided federal agencies. And let’s not go (again) into the exceedingly naive approach to religious criticism that has made Dawkins one of the “four horsemen” of the New Atheism.

One can’t talk about either Dawkins or the Horsemen without at least in passing mentioning Christopher Hitchens, a brilliant polemicist, very funny and caustic writer, who however couldn’t make up his mind about his politics, ranging from Trotskyism to neoconservatism, all the while being universally eulogized by SAM as a genius and a saint (both of which he would have laughed at heartily) when he died [19].

(You may have noticed that the only prominent New Atheist I don’t take to task is Dan Dennett. That’s because I honestly think he is a better intellectual than the rest of them combined, and he also happens to be a genuinely pleasant individual. The fact that moreover he is the only philosopher of the group may or may not be coincidental, we don’t have enough data points to make that judgment.)

Last, but certainly not least (dulcis in fundo, as the Romans used to say) one cannot conclude this parade without mentioning P.Z. Myers, who has risen to fame because of a blog where the level of nastiness (both by the host and by his readers) is rarely matched anywhere else on the Internet, and who has lately discovered (together with a number of others that I don’t need to mention here) both social progressivism and feminism (or perhaps he invented them?), and has immediately proceeded to confuse them, somehow, with tenets of atheism.

I hope others equally worthy will not feel too bad about being left out of the above list. These are just examples of what I think has been an obvious general trend in SAM over the last decade or more. Besides, I’m no Dante, exhaustively allocating slots in the Circles of Hell (or, occasionally, Purgatory). My goal isn’t to damn Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris or whoever for being wrong (or simply in disagreement with me!) about this or that. We can all disagree, and we are all wrong at least some of the time. My dismay is at the celebrity culture and degree of groupthink that now permeates SAM — both of which, you would think, are exactly antithetical to what skepticism and atheism are supposed to be about.

{Incidentally, if you are about to launch a cheap shot at my alleged resentment for not being equally popular and worshipped as the people I’m criticizing, go ahead, we are all humans. You couldn’t do much worse than Dawkins himself did when he wallowed in my irrelevance [20]. But I assure you that my Stoic practice — paraphrasing Epictetus — has led me not to give a fuck about celebrity status, Dawkins’ opinion, or yours.}

So, am I simply nostalgic for the alleged good old days of SAM, before the 21st century onslaught of the New Atheists and the rise of the anti-intellectual physicists? Not really. First off, because I wasn’t a part of that movement, so I did not experience it first hand. Yes, I’ve met Paul Kurtz before he died, and he had his own well known issues. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Carl Sagan, but there are reports about his “Harvard Marxist” days and other incongruences too. I have a high degree of personal esteem and respect for people like Ken Frazier (the long time editor of Skeptical Inquirer), cosmologist Sean Carroll, and plenty of others. But I’m pretty sure I don’t worship them, nor do I treat them as celebrities, nor do I think they would particularly appreciate it if I did.

Rather, what has become clear to me is that one needs to look across fields and through time in order to find role models, and even those need to always be treated with a certain degree of skepticism. I can be inspired by David Hume, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell, for instance, despite the well known personal failings of the latter two. And that, of course, means just staying within the narrow confines of science and philosophy. But there is so much more to humanity out there: history, literature, art, and just plain everyday decency.

So in a sense my disengagement from SAM is part of my quest to look more broadly, not to be confined by the strictures of a club to which both Groucho and I would feel odd belonging to. This doesn’t mean I will no longer write for SAM audiences, or give talks to conferences (when they invite me, which may happen less and less the more people I piss off!), or help out in general in the most ecumenical way possible.

But it does mean that I see the future of SAM differently from some others: we have moved from the fringe position of the early days (say, when Skeptical Inquirer was called The Zetetic, and Madalyn Murray O’Hair was busy establishing the very same culture of in-your-faceness that her organization has almost unfailingly maintained since) to the mainstream (from the publication of the early New Atheist books until now, and likely into the proximate future).

Where to next, then? Toward a true integration and a dialogue (as opposed to a shouting match) with the rest of society, when we will not need special organizations and dedicated meetings, because secularism, skepticism, and political progressivism (including feminism) will be part of the normal cultural landscape, embedded by default in ongoing discussions on how to make this a better world. That’s where my target audience is now: I’d rather have a productive conversation with an intelligent Christian than a frustrating one with an obtuse atheist, and believe me, there is plenty of both out there.

_____

Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

[1] For an interesting analysis of the famous Groucho quote, see: The Original Function of Groucho Marx’s Resignation Joke, 16:9, February 2007.

[2] See my essays: Why I am a humanist, Rationally Speaking, 14 October 2008; On the scope of skeptical inquiry, Rationally Speaking, 21 October 2009; On being a fulfilled atheist, Rationally Speaking, 14 July 2011; Why not Stoicism?, Scientia Salon, 6 October 2014.

[3] Neil deGrasse Tyson on Why He Doesn’t Call Himself an Atheist, Rationally Speaking podcast, 9 March 2014.

[4] Rationalists of East Tennessee.

[5] Darwin Day at the University of Tennessee.

[6] New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the Atheism Movement, by Massimo Pigliucci, Midwest Studies in Philosophy 37 (1):142-153, 2013.

[7] So long, and thanks for all the fish, Rationally Speaking, 20 March 2014.

[8] Thinking About Science: Essays on the Nature of Science, RationallySpeaking.org.

[9] The Rationally Speaking podcast.

[10] Tales of the Rational: Skeptical Essays About Nature and Science, by Massimo Pigliucci, Freethought Press, 2000.

[11] Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science, by Massimo Pigliucci, Sinauer, 2002.

[12] Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk, by Massimo Pigliucci, University of Chicago Press, 2010.

[13] Noam Chomsky undresses Sam Harris: Stop “pretending to have a rational discussion”, Salon, 5 May 2015, which includes the full transcripts, with no commentary other than the title (which says it all) and a very short intro paragraph.

[14] Science and the Is/Ought Problem, by Massimo Pigliucci, Skeptic magazine, February 2011.

[15] Rationally Speaking: Pigliucci and Schermer on the role of science in morality, NECSS, 2013.

[16] Neil deGrasse Tyson and the value of philosophy, by Massimo Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 12 May 2014.

[17] Neil deGrasse Tyson blows it big time, by Jerry Coyne, 14 March 2013.

[18] See: Lawrence Krauss: another physicist with an anti-philosophy complex, Rationally Speaking, 25 April 2012; and Krauss does it again, so soon!, Rationally Speaking, 17 September 2012.

[19] Massimo’s Picks, special Hitchens edition, Rationally Speaking, 25 December 2011.

[20] Jerry Coyne loses his cool, Dawkins his style, Rationally Speaking, 27 December 2011.

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202 thoughts on “Reflections on the skeptic and atheist movements

  1. Robin Herbert: “Our last atheist Prime Minister was against same sex marriage (although, to be fair, she was not much of a fan of marriage generally). The Prime Minister who followed her was in favour of it and he was a Christian.”

    And our current Prime Minister is both a Catholic AND an anti-gay advocate who is determined to not allow an individual conscience vote in the Parliament under the guise his position reflects policy that of the government and is not about to change government policy.

    Massimo, I appreciate this comment is off-track, but reliable and accurate information is a premium whatever the circumstance.

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  2. Interesting take on things from someone clearly in movement. Somewhat the same as happened to Antony Flew perhaps?

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  3. So I really dont want my previous comments to somewhat cause a hijacking of the discussion onto the topic of why we define philosophers a certain way or whether academic philosophers are experts (I think we have seen this topic a lot of SS already). So I will only make one brief point and then leave it at that permanently.

    Please note that in my last comment I never said that others besides philosophers couldn’t contribute to the field and that their arguments never ought to be taken seriously. All I said was when pseudophilosophers dismiss an entire field of academic philosophy (call it worthless or boring and deter people from looking into it for themselves), we should not grant their dismissive claim as much credibility as a philosopher’s claim, who has heavily delved into the literature, about how the field is not worthless.

    Unfortunately, we see all too much of these claims coming from celebrity pseudophilosophers, and our inclination to call them “philosophers” frequently invites an unwarranted attribution of the credibility for academic philosphers to these celebrity pseudophilosophers – causing the practical problem mentioned above such as people dismissing an entire field without knowing anything about it.

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  4. Reid,

    “If I remember correctly, Neil dismissed the entire field of philosophy OF SCIENCE, leaving room for ethics, law, and essentially the whole rest of philosophy”

    Not exactly. His initial outburst was about philosophy in general, saying to the Nerdist podcast people that he doesn’t understand why a young bright student would “waste” his time with that. Later on he qualified his statement and retreated to philosophy of science. Of course, he’s wrong on both counts.

    Mad Skeptic,

    “I take exception to your comment regarding scientists requiring a PhD. I’m an employeed research scientist with published papers who doesn’t have a PhD.”

    Apologies, I certainly didn’t mean my description to be absolute. There are plenty of non-PhD research scientists, but they are rare in the academy, which was the crowd I was referring to. Non-PhD academic philosopher too are difficult to find.

    Labnut,

    thank you, your latest comment was spot on. Of course, I still have a long way to go to practice virtue…

    karl,

    “Pigliucci has always come across as anti-science to me — saying things like “every scientific theory has been proven wrong” and other screeds”

    I didn’t make that up, it is a trivial result of studying history of science.

    “He strikes me as bitter that scientists don’t take his cherished philosophical musings as seriously as he would like”

    Sigh. For the umpteenth time: I am also a scientist. Indeed, I have spent most of my academic career in a biology lab.

    “going so far as to fabricate the label “scientism””

    Scientism is a widely discussed concept, which I most certainly did not invent.

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  5. Few more thoughts

    First, what Nick said, especially his second paragraph. Just read that.

    Second, Richard Schloss While doing intellectual judo on my conservative Lutheran background via my graduate academic/professional theology degree, I came across “Critiques of God” as edited by Peter Angeles. One essay in Angeles book spelled out the difference between “soft” and “hard” atheism, degrees of agnosticism, etc.

    From there, I went on to read more Sidney Hook. Per Massimo I also dropped in from time to time at the St. Louis Ethical Society. (John Hoad was still leader there then.) I then went on to Corliss Lamont, Kai Nielsen, Walter Kaufmann and other authors from Angeles’ book, and on from there.

    All good authors, who if alive today, would probably grasp the “secular humanist” handle above any. All good critical thinkers in various ways. None went out of their way to be deliberately abrasive to organized religion.

    In fact, I have strongly recommended Kaufmann’s “Without Guilt and Justice” here before, and do so again: http://amzn.to/1ICBrQo

    From there, I went on to other philosophers that I had not read in conservative Lutheran seminary, conservative Lutheran intro to philosophy undergraduate classes, or the classical Greek and Latin philosophers I had read in original as part of my classical languages undergrad degree.

    So, Richard, I think there are plenty of “entrees” to critical thinking that could well lead people to some version of secularism, without having to use modern New Atheists.

    Aravis is otherwise right about atheist “movements.” All atheism is, is the rejection of belief in personal deities. Technically, it’s not the same as philosophical naturalism, even; let’s not forget (as Gnu Atheists often do, or don’t even know) that a good Theravada Buddhist can also be a good atheist.

    Occam No, I’m agreeing with Phillip. I think libertarianism is no more attractive as a “hook” for movement skepticism than SJWdom is for movement atheism.

    Per your other question, I do think that secular humanism, unlike atheism, does favor a political philosophy, and a generally liberal one. That’s why I became more liberal myself as I rejected my religious upbringing. I would never call the likes of a Robert Price a secular humanist.

    Massimo, per your book reference, knowing what entails metaphysics (per my reference about correctly defining atheism) is of value, yes. After that, though, I stand by Hume! And also say, folks, per two essays back, Hume is readable, accessible, and a good intro to many philosophical topics. That also said, nice review by you, especially for scientism types who claim you want to make science←→philosophy a one-way street.

    Labnut notes this was a values decision by Massimo. I’m sure it was, but it was an ethical decision that was still driven by facts. IMO, fact-free moral or values decisions are possibly the most dangerous ones people make.

    Finally, it’s “nice” to see new commenters here. Actually, it’s nice to see some, but not the seeming new trolls.

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  6. A few words on the discussion of conservatism upthread… You can define ‘conservative’ to mean irrational, committed to fundamentalist religion, selfishly seeking to hold on to one’s power or privilege, etc. if you like; but it needn’t be understood like this. It can be seen as a (neutral) descriptive term. You could just as easily list a set of positive conservative characteristics as negative ones if you wanted to. (E.g. being appropriately cautious, being aware of the dangers of unintended consequences in social and political matters, seeing culture and society in organic rather than mechanistic or abstract terms, etc.)

    More generally, I think it’s always a pity when partisan politics gets mixed up with science. (The science inevitably gets compromised.)

    And it’s also a pity when partisan politics-talk gets mixed up with science-talk. It can be great fun, of course — reassuring, ego-boosting, etc. — if one’s views happen to mirror those of the polemicist. But unfortunately confusion tends to reign and this sort of discourse is not worth a lot in the scheme of things.

    Chomsky is unusual (and admirable) in this respect: he maintains two distinct public personas and (unlike a lot of linguists, social scientists, etc.) keeps his politics quite separate from his work in linguistics. No hidden or half-hidden political agenda as far as I can see in his scientific work. (The universalist assumptions are upfront and not implausible.) Moreover, if you go to a Chomsky lecture — or read an article by him — on a linguistic topic, you’re not likely to encounter any gratuitous political asides.

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  7. (sigh) — yes, I know you are a scientist, but that in no way guarantees any attitudes regarding science so in some ways it is a non sequitur. When you say that “every scientific theory (is) proven wrong” – I think you have a lot to account for.

    Massimo,if you have some evidence that electro magnetism is wrong I think that would be worth sharing with the community.

    Apologies for attributing the invention of the word “scientism” to you, but it is an invented word which you seem to agree is just for the purpose of insult…?

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  8. karl,

    first off, I didn’t say that every scientific theory is wrong. I said that every *past* scientific theory has been proven wrong. This, as I mentioned above, is a truism, and if you check any book on the history or philosophy of science you will find plenty of evidence and discussion.

    Second, of course the fact that I am a scientist doesn’t guarantee any particular attitude on my part about science. But then I wonder how on earth did you get access to my mind to the point of being so sure that the attitude you describe is actually mine.

    Third, scientism is not necessarily an insult. People like James Ladyman, Alex Rosenberg and others wear it as a badge of honor. I have explained my position on scientism in death elsewhere, you are more than welcome to look it up.

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  9. It’s for the purpose of insult, and it’s target is largely a straw man. I’m sure there are small grains of truth with respect to a few of the most optimistic claims about science, which are outliers, but in general scientists just don’t think they way those wielding the term “scientism” claim they do. The claims about “scientism” as a real problem are gross exaggerations. The word is a tool for framing a debate, used by those wishing to gain advantage for themselves in what amounts mostly to a turf war.

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  10. Karl – None of my business, but I see no point in these personal attacks. They clog up the airwaves. Nobody who actually follows the debate could possibly imagine that MP invented the term ‘scientism’ so this accusation is suicidal.

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  11. I think I may seem unsympathetic to Dr. Harris who presumably was just hoping for a reasonable discussion. I suppose Dr. Chomsky could have said that no one has raised an issue with his thoughts that were not adequately addressed in his books. (I.e., make sure you buy all my books because I assure you I adequately answer all objection in there)

    Therefore he should have been willing to issue a challenge. Dr. Harris and everyone else should feel free to submit an essay (of 1000 words or less) criticizing one of his core positions. Dr. Chomsky will have some third party decide which one is best. And *if* Dr. Harris’s essay is chosen he will be granted the privilege to engage in some back and forth with Dr. Chomsky. (Assuming that can be arranged, but if it is too difficult to arrange then he will just do a fluff piece answer to Harris and call it a day.)

    Oh and if that piece is chosen *and* it changes Dr. Chomsky’s mind on a core issue he will pay Dr. Harris $10,000. Surely that would have been better, right?

    Of all the people to complain, Harris has no right. Lots of people have written loads of problems with his views. He doesn’t engage them. Problems with his views were written before he even published his book and he admits he did not engage the literature because it would be too boring.

    Yet he with his undergrad degree in philosophy feels entitled to have a public e-mail exchange/debate with one of the most prolific philosophers alive. Even setting aside whether he mis-characterized the man’s views in one of his books, this demonstrates an ego problem.

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  12. I read the Harris-Chomsky email exchange and nothing surprising here. Because there is a 40 year age difference and Chomsky espouses the elder liberal pov towards govt which was minted during the Vietnam era while Harris espouses the Clintonian practical pov, who was elected President when Harris was 25 years old.

    It sounded a lot like the son trying to change the father’s opinion or point out flaws in each other’s thinking. Nothing surprising at all.

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  13. Regarding the Paul Paolini, Dantip business:

    I do believe that each make valid points, which goes from the Shakespearian “What’s in a name?” to the practical, “It’s quite disrespectful for the scientists and philosophers who’ve actually built these titles, to permit the likes of Sam Harris to use them.” I offer no objection. Nevertheless, do most philosophers have a similar level of pride in their field that scientists do? Perhaps, though I wouldn’t think so. Massimo obviously seems a bit disheartened with philosophy right now, though perhaps also science.

    Nevertheless, in the past few hundred years the scientific community has developed a vast array of accepted understandings regarding reality, and these understandings have effectively made us tremendously powerful. For whatever the reason, the philosophy community has not. Because I believe that all of reality is ultimately connected, I also suspect that this void does leave our mental and behavioral sciences quite primitive today.

    So what might be done? Perhaps a formal education in philosophy does naturally place a philosopher on a less than optimal path — essentially teaching one to ask the wrong questions. Thus I’ve been working on somewhat different questions. Instead of “What is ‘moral’ for the human?” I ask “What is biologically ‘good’ for the human?”

    Hi Joe,

    Thanks for your advise to help get me up to speed regarding philosophy (which should be here: https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2015/05/11/reflections-on-the-skeptic-and-atheist-movements/comment-page-2/#comment-14104).

    If you would like to discuss things with me, my email is: thephilosophereric@gmail.com. In the end I do doubt we’d see things similarly, given my extreme physicalism and your apparent endorsement of the supernatural, but friendly perspectives are always appreciated!

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  14. An interesting commentary, as expected, from Massimo Pigliucci. Of course, can you really trust a guy so ashamed to be associated with Freethought that he misstated the name of his publisher [10]? I mean, really!

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  15. A lively conversation, but a messy one. Too many preconceived notions and poorly defined terms to find a line of thought worth pursuing systematically. Just some comments:
    —–
    I’m with Aravis, kelskye, and SocraticGadfly, the need for an ‘atheism movement’ seems unfounded. Secularist movements are considerably better grounded, and have in the past included liberal theists. In choosing one’s causes, one must be open to sometimes uncomfortable alliances.
    —–
    Deepak Shetty: “The argument is if (Reason,Evidence, Logic , Science, Philosophy) then (Atheism, Feminism, Pro equality etc).” That would be nice but – it doesn’t follow. The most obvious field where this hope fails is in economics – most economists in the US are hardly religious by anyone’s standard, care very little for social justice, tend toward libertarianism, and like to figure out better ways to predict what climate-endangering fuels to invest in. ‘But these guys are biased’ – of course, that’s the whole point. Politics is about perceived collective interests. Reasoning in politics bleeds into rhetoric, to persuade others that their interests are the same as one’s own. Assuming that reasoning alone, or the rightness of one’s cause just by itself, will make connections between various political positions is naivete at its worse, and leads to failure-bound insularity.
    —–
    Mark Erickson suggested we read the post at Pharyngula “Ashamed of atheism” as evidence that the conversation there was not “beyond the pale.” When I see a commenter being told to “shut the fuck up,” that their opinions are ‘shitty drivel,’ that they need to ‘ ‘choose a side or be called an amoral arse,’ that’s not a ‘conversation’ I wish to follow.
    —–
    I second jarnauga111’s response to Disagreeable; suggesting that someone like Alasdair MacIntyre is merely capable of inventive arguments, is like saying Joseph Heller wrote some funny jokes.
    —–
    I don’t think interesting philosophy need only be written by professional academics or even needs peer-reviewed publication; however, I understand why it is useful, in the present social climate, to differentiate between what academic philosophers do and what is done by non-academics writing philosophically. We don’t see the term ‘public intellectual’ used very much anymore – Americans are slightly in awe of ‘experts,’ but don’t like ‘intellectuals.’ Still, hopefully we can agree that there are some issues that, when properly discussed, are discussed philosophically. The possible existence of a divine intelligence is one such issue. Science may indeed be incompatible with theism, but the argument that it is, is necessarily philosophical in nature. Any philosophical discussion is open to criticism of its philosophical foundations, especially by those trained in practice of such criticism; its proper defense needs similar training.
    —–
    The discussion concerning ‘scientism’ has quite a history on Scientia Salon; I suggest reading previous articles and their commentary before taking umbrage.
    —–
    I agree with labnut that Massimo is making a choice congruent with his ethics. As a last note, though, I admit myself trending in the same direction for personal reasons – I’m just getting too old to find internecine (frankly adolescent) bickering very entertaining.

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  16. Massimo: with all due respect and no slight to your character intended – I am just trying to get to the bottom of this, to understand your position as it seems unclear:

    In “Nonsense On Stilts” you said:
    “If they did, they would realize with dismay that every single scientific theory proposed in the past has been shown to be wrong.”

    I guess I don’t get the distinction… are you now saying that only theories that have been since discredited have been proven wrong? That seems redundant…perhaps you can clarify? thanks

    Massimo, you said :“The term “scientism” encapsulates the intellectual arrogance of some scientists who think that, given enough time and especially financial resources, science will be able to answer whatever meaningful question we may wish to pose — from a cure for cancer to the elusive equation that will tell us how the laws of nature themselves came about.”

    My question is : where else could a cure for cancer, or an equation describing the laws of nature come from — if not from science? Isn’t this the domain of science?
    thanks.

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  17. PeterJ – these are not personal attacks, this is inquiry into a stated position and that is the way free inquiry works. No worries.

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  18. Massimo, can you provide more details as to what exactly Dawkins said that was denigrating to the field of epigenetics? Perhaps a link to an article or interview or something?

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  19. Karl – I think that your dislike of Massimo’s comments regarding the disproval of past scientific theories is based upon a misunderstanding of his meaning. When a theory is proven to be incomplete, it is, in fact, being proved wrong – as the correct theory would include the thing that the past theory was missing. All prior versions of currently accepted theories were wrong in this way.

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  20. I apologize if this is moving off-topic, but:

    karl schuch says: “When you say that ‘every scientific theory (is) proven wrong’ – I think you have a lot to account for. […] Massimo,if you have some evidence that electro magnetism [sic] is wrong I think that would be worth sharing with the community.”

    I don’t mean to be rude, but speaking as practicing physics researcher, I must say that you don’t appear to have a strong command of the history of physics if you want to use this as your “gotcha” example. What do you mean by “Electromagnetism”? For the sake of argument, I’m going to assume that you mean Maxwell’s equations. If so, then, yes, Maxwell’s equations are “wrong.” Classical electromagnetism was corrected by Quantum Electrodynamics (developed initially by Paul Dirac in the late 1920’s/early 1930’s) by understanding the quantum nature of EM waves (photons), which puts electromagnetism on a firm quantum footing. Later in the 60’s, it was realized by Steven Weinberg, et al., that electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force (two very, very different seeming forces) actually combine into a different theory, called a Yang-Mills theory, that describes the “Electroweak” force (The Higgs was the final vital part of this story, now firmly corroborated by the LHC), and photons are actually superpositions of W and Z bosons. But we still don’t know how the Electroweak theory fits into Quantum Gravity or if it needs to merge into the Strong Nuclear force. So it’s certainly a statement of fact that physicists don’t yet know the ultimate theory of electromagnetism. In that sense, our current knowledge of electromagnetism is almost unquestionably “wrong”, but with the understanding that, as Isaac Asimov said, “When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”

    This is all basically the problem of induction (which Hume foresaw 167 years in advance of Einstein demonstrating the point): You cannot say a theory is “correct” because all experiments are based on incomplete data. New data can, and will, change the picture. You can say that currently your principles are very powerful tools at creating theories, and these theories create reliable predictions, and thus one ought to take the physical principles seriously (Lorentz invariance, unitarity, causality, locality, etc). Theories continue to gain more explanatory power, and that explanatory power is never (in the long term) receding. But you cannot claim that the current theories/principles are “true,” that’s simply not how science works.

    I’m sure that Massimo knows all of these points, but I get the feeling that you don’t. And I think this is the worst sin of scientism: It leads people to actually misunderstand science and scientific progress, and be confident in things they don’t actually understand enough to ‘correct’ these ignorant philosophers.

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  21. How exactly is there rampant groupthink among the group of people you mention in this article? For example, Jerry Coyne (and many other atheists) frequently criticizes Neil deGrasse Tyson for not calling himself atheist and not taking more of a stand against religion, a point I personally disagree with. Tyson may not wear the label, but he does plenty to criticize religion in its worst forms. PZ Myers, meanwhile, has gone off the rails to the point where he’s created a schism between himself and the Four Horsemen. Hitchens supported the Iraq War and is roundly criticized to this day by other prominent voices in the SAM movement. Michael Shermer holds some rather conservative fiscal views that separate him from the others on economics. Coyne and Dennett constantly clash on the issue of free will. Harris and Dennett have publicly done the same. Harris has completely different views on gun control than many of the others. Dawkins and Tyson dismiss philosophy while Coyne sees value in it. The list could go on here on not just minor quibbles, but legitimate disagreements both within SAM at large and between the more prominent faces of the movement. To reiterate the initial question, how is this evidence of groupthink in the movement, or are you intending to convey a much narrower definition of the term?

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  22. Hi all… Wow, I leave for a neuroscience conference in Paris and come back to find Massimo has left the skeptic and atheist movements (SAM)?!?!

    As it happens I am a skeptic and atheist and agree with much of what Massimo wrote. I had read the Harris/Chomsky email exchange (it was not a debate) and certainly felt like we were hitting a new low. Then again I had been shaking my head ever since I saw Harris’s original tweet fishing for a debate.

    I am uncertain how commenters like Modus Pwnens and Occam’s beard missed that this was a publicity seeking exercise by Harris, given his initial tweet and his opening email to Chomsky. Harris was not primarily interested in a private exchange of ideas or he would have first tried to understand Chomsky’s position before interaction (by reading more in prep), and he would not have asked Chomsky to reply with an idea of writing for ease of editing (toward publication).

    Basically he asked Chomsky to come out and fight a strawman for public consumption. One wonders at his annoyance? That said, =) was right that Chomsky could have cut to the chase and ended it in a single email.

    I’m not sure if I should blame Harris and co for the rise of this behavior, or view them as victims of a media machine which demands publication (and provocation) or consignment to irrelevance. Quality has been lost to quantity. And this has also promoted a celebrity culture, which at times borders on cult of personality.

    Contrary to Massimo these antics don’t make me feel like distancing myself/casting myself as an outsider to SAM, but rather to show that pop-skepticism/atheism is not all there is/must be to SAM. Though I understand not wanting to be associated with the current “brand” these pop-skeptics/atheists have created.

    Aravis voiced my feelings/concerns along these lines very well…

    If [Harris] was a spokesman for any movement I was in, I’d disassociate myself immediately.

    and

    A healthy atheist movement should be able to join in coalitions with progressive, pluralistic religionists, with respect to the movements I describe above. But the new atheists want nothing of the sort.

    Of course the last quote sort of raises a question that underlines my position, do the New Atheists represent the entirety of SAM?

    I guess I considered myself as “part” of the SAM when trying to counter (in my own small way) the intelligent design (ID) movement’s actions in public education. This was before the NA, much less Harris, were invented by pop-media.

    Can’t one say, “Those guys may be a part of the SAM but represent some recent pop-media driven version of it. I’m a classic skeptic/atheist, not a pop-derivative.”?

    Liked by 3 people

  23. Hi Massimo, I liked your essay but have some areas of disagreement, particularly based on your replies.

    1) I was surprised a while back when you mentioned that Dawkins was against epigenetics. I took your word for it, but have to admit evidence so far suggests his criticism was more limited in scope. It would be useful to find harder evidence or retract the claim.

    That said, he certainly does not seem to understand it well or represent the latest in (molecular) biological theory, and your criticism of him falling outside relevance in that respect (and modern synthesis) appears correct.

    I wish he spent more time catching back up to the field than spending time on Twitter, and fighting religion.

    2) I strongly disagree with your criteria for labelling people philosophers and scientists. I should note these are not just yours and were similar to criteria mentioned by Coel in a thread a while back which I was too late to respond to. This is perhaps a useful topic for an essay itself. Given the state of academia, funding, and peer-review journals these criteria seem inadequate and distorted.

    Science and philosophy represent methods of investigation. When engaged in such methods one is a scientist or philosopher. It seems to me the only thing required is to add qualifiers for those terms.

    Does the person hold a degree (are they credentialed) or not? Are they currently working professionally in that field? Are they published? Are they well known or accepted as authorities by others in the field?

    Each of these qualifiers may add confidence in reading or citing their work, but it does not justify claims they are more or less a philosopher or scientist than someone else lacking these criteria (when they are engaged in the same actions).

    On top of these, one may also ask are they actually speaking from that vantage point (based on evidence towards conclusions in their field of investigation) and is their work competent?

    Taking Harris as one example, he is a credentialed philosopher and scientist (holding higher credentials in science). As such he certainly has done work in both, and he is published in neuroscience. That said, and contrary to myth, he has not written a book speaking as a neuroscientist on any topic. Quoting studies from a field one works in does not suggest one is talking as a scientist, or from a scientific perspective, on that topic. He is a popular book author, who happens to be working professionally as a scientist.

    To be fair, I think he has written (some) books that engage in some level of philosophical reasoning and so should be considered a philosopher when discussing those works. Of course he isn’t writing as a professional, much less an authority, and most importantly his work is not competent. That last point is the most damning and really all that needs to be said.

    If a philosopher (which is what he claims) he is superficial, and poor quality.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Hi Joe, I really enjoyed your analyses of the Harris/Chomsky debacle throughout. Your post suggesting Chomsky might have offered an essay challenge to which Sam could submit was spot on.

    I was also humbled to see you citing my old site regarding Harris’s work. While I still don’t have much free time for writing blogs, I do have a new site (with a broader focus): emergingmind.wordpress.com

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  25. Karl,

    others have already addressed your questions about the sense in which past scientific theories (and, likely, by induction, current ones) are wrong.

    chrisbuckley80,

    “How exactly is there rampant groupthink among the group of people you mention in this article? For example, Jerry Coyne (and many other atheists) frequently criticizes Neil deGrasse Tyson”

    Groupthink referes to the followers, not the leaders. Of course the latter are going to disagree among themselves on at the least some issues. That said, it is remarkable how a subgroup of these people keeps endorsing each other’s books. Normal, but telling when the group is small.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Febo, and others,

    As I mentioned, much of the epigenetics issue has to do with the broader attitude that Dawkins (and Coyne) has taken about the Extended Synthesis vs the Modern Synthesis in evolutionary biology, and much of my reaction is to direct conversations with Dawkins (Coyne has been more vocal in print).

    However, I was able to track down the infamous footnote I mentioned before. It’s from The Greatest Show on Earth: “That is a risk that ‘epigenesis’ will be confused with ‘epigenetics,’ a modish buzz-word now enjoying its fifteen minutes of fame in the biological community. Whatever ‘epigenetics’ might mean (and its enthusiasts cannot seem to agree even with themselves, let alone with each other), all I intend to say about it here is that it is not the same thing as epigenesis.”

    This is classic Dawkins. First, notice the utter lack of qualification of his dismissal of the field of epigenetics. Second, he is entirely wrong that epigenesis and epigenetics have nothing to do with each other: the latter is the study of the former. Third, the “15 minutes” of fame have lasted a bit longer than that, apparently, since he wrote that back in 2009. Fourth, proponents of epigenetics have a very good idea of what they are talking about, unlike Dawkins himself.

    Liked by 4 people

  27. Massimo: I asked you a direct question which you seem to have ducked…let me restate it:

    where else could a cure for cancer, or an equation describing the laws of nature come from — if not from science? Isn’t this the domain of science?

    Nick: you seem to be saying that if a theory is incomplete then it’s wrong. …no, that’s incorrect.
    You also seem to be saying that QED overturns everything we know about electromagnetism… no, that’s incorrect.

    Maxwells field equations are no more incorrect that Newtons equations of motion — they just describe a different realm, but are completely useful for many domains. This idea that any additional information obliterates theories is demonstrably wrong… unless you’re suggesting that Maxwells equations no longer have applicability?

    Is our understanding of EMF wrong? how about Ohm’s Law?

    And btw, I don’t have the burden of proof to demonstrate the “correctness” of these theorems as I made no such claim — rather the burden of proof is on those who claim to know they are wrong.

    To make the statement that “…every single scientific theory proposed in the past has been shown to be wrong.” is so indefensible that I’ surprised you attempted a defense — as I noted that Massimo backed away from defending that pretty quickly.

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  28. Karl,

    I haven’t dodged anything. Your substantive question has been answer, more than once.

    “where else could a cure for cancer, or an equation describing the laws of nature come from — if not from science? Isn’t this the domain of science?”

    Yes. I entirely fail to see the connection to what we were discussing. Take this example: Newtonian theory is known to be wrong. It has been replaced by general relativity (which is also already known to be wrong, but is awaiting for a suitable replacement). Yet, if you want to send a probe to Mars, or hit someone with a missile, you better use Newtonian mechanics, because it works well enough.

    Liked by 3 people

  29. Karl said: “My question is : where else could a cure for cancer, or an equation describing the laws of nature come from — if not from science? Isn’t this the domain of science? thanks.”

    I believe that the question isn’t so much “where else will we get the answer” as it is “should we assume that the answer will be found at all.” Scientism, in Massimo’s usage (and correct me if I’m wrong), appears to be the assumption that we will always find the answer to any meaningful question, and do so by using science – that is, a sort of positive assertion that any meaningful question can, in principle, be answered by science, and that nothing can escape its grasp.

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  30. fyi –I’ve created an account, so my name is not “Nick” anymore, it’s “FieldTheorist”.

    karl: “You also seem to be saying that QED overturns everything we know about electromagnetism… no, that’s incorrect. Maxwells field equations are no more incorrect that Newtons equations of motion — they just describe a different realm, but are completely useful for many domains. […]”

    You seem to be operating under a very strange notion of “false”, but yes, you’re right –they’re both false. I said QED and Electroweak theory invalidates Maxwell’s equations because it does invalidate them. If I go up to high enough energies, Maxwell’s equations will predict nonsense. You seem to be hung up on this idea that falsity means useless, stupid, or profoundly wrong. That’s not what is meant. It means “Maxwell’s equations are not literally true.” For instance, Euclidean geometry is very enlightening, its a great conceptual toy, it’s an extremely convenient approximation in everyday life, it very accurately “describes a different realm” (everyday life where gravitational fields are weak), but that surely does nothing to make Euclidean geometry “true.” If you break the conditions that made the approximation reliable, the fact that it isn’t true will become manifest. That’s the same thing as “Euclidean geometry is false.”

    Notice that I clarified these issues of usefulness, etc, with the point regarding Asimov’s quote, and I stated that it is a crucial point. There’s levels of “wrongness”, but under any sensible valuation of the word “false”, the statement “Maxwell’s equations are false” is true. But that’s not to say that Maxwell’s equations are equally as wrong as Aristotelian physics. Nor does it say (and nor did I say) that Maxwell’s equations aren’t reliable approximations in it’s regime of validity, there’s no insightful content to Maxwell’s equations, it doesn’t say that Ohm’s law and co aren’t reliable formulas in everyday electrical work, it doesn’t say that EM waves don’t exist, and so on.

    If you’re operating under a nonstandard definition of “false” –for instance, if an incorrect proposition contains information regarding reliability under certain conditions, if it might also be insightful, etc, then it shouldn’t be called “false”– then I’m sorry, but there’s no onus on the part of Massimo, myself, or others to conform to your definition when we speak. False means “Not true” in my (and pretty much everyone else’s) book, even if the fiction is very insightful, very useful, very close to the truth, or containing sub-truths within it. There’s a reason why Popper went on about “verisimilitude”, and why related ideas are important in the philosophy of science. And you’re right, it’s entirely to do with the inadequacy of simply ascribing “true” or “false” to scientific theories. You do need richer adjectives to capture scientific inquiry, but that doesn’t mean we renegotiate the definitions of “true” and “false” to accommodate these needs.

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  31. Chrisbuckley, I can’t answer for Massimo but most New Atheists tend not to criticize each other in public in the same way they criticize those outside their group (in tone and message). And they come down hard on those from within their community which disagree. If not groupthink they are certainly generating an echo chamber within their fanbase.

    As it is, they all seem to endorse each others’ books without any critical review. Dan Dennett infamously did not not reject Harris’s ill thought-out book “Free Will” only to reject it later which resulted in retaliation from the in-crowd (followed by deafening silence from Dennett). Dawkins ran a glowing Twitter feed campaign supporting Ayaan Ali’s latest book before, during, and after he read it.

    Indeed, which NA author can be seen questioning Ayaan at all? And by this I mean approaching her claims and arguments with skepticism, and not examples such as Sam Harris throwing soft balls to her on his website.

    If there is anything lacking in the SAM it is less the S then than the A.

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  32. fieldtheorist: you seem to be borrowing from Sy Ten Bruggencate a bit, unless we have absolute certainty then we can’t know anything.
    you said: ” If I go up to high enough energies, Maxwell’s equations will predict nonsense. ”
    Sure, and if we go to very high energies Newtons equations will predict nonsense…. but you seem to be pretending that there is no domain in which these provide very high accuracy.

    You are operating with the conclusion that is a theorem is incomplete then it’s all wrong… sorry but that’s just silly.
    Germ theory is incomplete – does that mean it’s all wrong?

    Massimo: re:
    (“where else could a cure for cancer, or an equation describing the laws of nature come from — if not from science? Isn’t this the domain of science?”)

    YOU SAID: “Yes. I entirely fail to see the connection to what we were discussing.”

    I asked that question because in your book you said:”:“The term “scientism” encapsulates the intellectual arrogance of some scientists who think that, given enough time and especially financial resources, science will be able to answer whatever meaningful question we may wish to pose — from a cure for cancer to the elusive equation that will tell us how the laws of nature themselves came about.”

    Now I understand why you want to avoid these questions, I just think it’s a shame.

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  33. Karl, for crying out loud, please at the least try to read things in context:

    of course we are not going to find out a cure for cancer, or the ultimate theory of everything, except through science. But scientism is about an attitude that says not only that these answers will be forthcoming (they may or may not, because science has limits), but also that any meaningful question must have scientific answers.

    This will be my last reply on this topic, which isn’t even germane to the post. As others have pointed out, I have written a lot about scientism, so there is little sense in rehashing it here.

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  34. I can’t answer for Massimo but most New Atheists tend not to criticize each other in public in the same way they criticize those outside their group (in tone and message). And they come down hard on those from within their community which disagree.

    I saw Massimo’s answer and I do agree somewhat more about groupthink within at least certain segments (i.e. fans of one particular person associated with the New Atheist movement). I still think it’s quite a stretch to suggest that the whole movement is participating in groupthink, PZ Myer’s readership, for example, is almost entirely hostile to any outside ideas, dismissing them in the most juvenile, emotional and irrational ways imaginable.

    Your comment above seems at the surface to be somewhat contradictory. Is the implication that New Atheists are less tolerant of disagreement from outsiders than they are from insiders? If so, how does this comport with the notion that they come down hard on those within their community with whom they disagree?

    As for the book endorsements, I agree that they don’t exactly approach it with skepticism, but it is also not unexpected, especially when atheists are the least trusted people in America (there’s bound to be some sense of loyalty to the community).

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  35. Karl –I believe this is going to be my last response to you. This conversation seems not to be progressing and I don’t think there’s much left to say here. I’ve been rather clear twice now about my position, I must confess that I don’t suspect reiterating myself for a third will do anything to quell your dislike of my (in my opinion entirely correct) use of “false” with regards to scientific theories.

    Karl says: “you seem to be borrowing from Sy Ten Bruggencate a bit, unless we have absolute certainty then we can’t know anything.”

    This is a strawman of my statements. I never stated this (nor do I know who this person is that I’m “borrowing from”), in fact I haven’t really talked about knowledge. The closest I came was a discussion of insightfulness v. truth.

    Karl says: “Sure, and if we go to very high energies Newtons equations will predict nonsense…. but you seem to be pretending that there is no domain in which these provide very high accuracy.”

    I am not pretending like that’s not true, Karl, I literally and explicitly took an entire paragraph that amounted to one quarter of my previous comment to say otherwise. I hate to re-post part of my previous comment, but I feel bereft of a better option:

    FieldTheorist said: “There’s levels of “wrongness”, but under any sensible valuation of the word “false”, the statement “Maxwell’s equations are false” is true. But that’s not to say that Maxwell’s equations are equally as wrong as Aristotelian physics. Nor does it say (and nor did I say) that Maxwell’s equations aren’t reliable approximations in it’s regime of validity, there’s no insightful content to Maxwell’s equations, it doesn’t say that Ohm’s law and co aren’t reliable formulas in everyday electrical work, it doesn’t say that EM waves don’t exist, and so on. […] False means “Not true” in my (and pretty much everyone else’s) book, even if the fiction is very insightful, very useful, very close to the truth, or containing sub-truths within it. There’s a reason why Popper went on about “verisimilitude”, and why related ideas are important in the philosophy of science. And you’re right, it’s entirely to do with the inadequacy of simply ascribing “true” or “false” to scientific theories. You do need richer adjectives to capture scientific inquiry, but that doesn’t mean we renegotiate the definitions of “true” and “false” to accommodate these needs.”

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  36. Fabulous piece! Ironically, I was linked here through a blog group that pretty much epitomizes the New Atheist religion of preaching critical thinking without ever, under any circumstances, actually practicing it. I was a great fan of CSICOP back in the 1980s, and I regarded its members and writers as especially bright. (Back then, that was a reasonable assumption.) And, completely unlike its publicity-seeking current incarnation, CSICOP seemed utterly on the level. And so I was pretty much horrified to discover what both CSICOP and the movement at large had become since I last checked: “Honk if You Love Darwin” bumper stickers, rabid faith-bashing, mindless assertions of the “Science and reason back my claims” variety (a variation on the old “9 out of 10 doctors…” scam), the idiocy of indiscriminately “challenging” everything and everyone in sight just to be doing it (and treating even the most innocuous claims–e.g., “I had eggs for breakfast”–as if they carried a sky-high burden of proof), and so on. And with nary a Randi-level I.Q. in sight.

    It’s not simply the dysfunctional marriage of the skeptical movement to the agree-or-else cult of Dawkins–it’s a tragic lowering of smarts across the cause. That’s what happens when a movement sells its soul for larger member counts, no? You become a collection of TV talking heads who dub themselves “science geeks” for reading the occasional piece about NASA; you become an exclusive club in which not believing in “Bronze Age mythology” trumps any and every other qualification for membership; you gain a collection of know-nothings who mistake the discipline of science for a claim-endorsement service instead of a means of TESTING claims. “My views are backed by science” makes as much sense, to me at least, as “My theorems are backed by numbers.” (My comments, meanwhile, are backed by commas.)

    Once, while arguing on line with a “Science says…” person, I pointed out that my intention was to debate HIM, not science. I wasn’t challenging anything held to be true by science (I dig Darwin and think we need to take action on global warming)–rather, I was finding fault with HIS assertions, not science’s. After all, an opinion “based on science” is no more science than a movie “based on real life” is a documentary.

    I used to think the first rule of the skeptical cause was to seek one’s answers from experts. And, first and foremost, to respect expertise while acknowledging the limitations of your own. And so we see you accused of hating science–because, after all, what would you know about it? (Smile face) Thanks again for your brilliant essay.

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  37. Massimo: “first off, I didn’t say that every scientific theory is wrong. I said that every *past* scientific theory has been proven wrong. This, as I mentioned above, is a truism, and if you check any book on the history or philosophy of science you will find plenty of evidence and discussion.”

    Karl’s challenge was for “some evidence that electro magnetism is wrong”. Where is it? Surely Maxwell’s 1873 treatise would be considered a past scientific theory. Typos? Yes. Incomplete? Yes. Not yet reconciled with relativity and quantum mechanics? Yes. Predating the discovery of the electron? Yes. Speculative explanations that are now considered obsolete? Yes. But where was it proven wrong?

    If you and other philosophers are going to say that science is all wrong, or irrational, or non-objective, then you cannot expect scientists (such as Tyson, Hawking, Krauss) to take you seriously.

    Fieldtheorist, it is not true that Dirac and Weinberg proved Maxwell wrong. If anything, they affirmed the essence of Maxwell’s theory into domains not considered by him. If Maxwell were alive today, I doubt that he would concede that his theory was proven wrong.

    That Asimov quote is from an essay against this idea of you and Massimo and other philosophers that all scientific theories have been proven wrong. The essay ends: “Naturally, the theories we now have might be considered wrong in the simplistic sense of my English Lit correspondent, but in a much truer and subtler sense, they need only be considered incomplete.”

    You backtrack to saying “If I go up to high enough energies, Maxwell’s equations will predict nonsense.” Is that what you really mean by “proven wrong”? Yes, all our theories seem to break down in the first picosecond or so of the Big Bang. If that is what you and Massimo mean, then it would help if you clarify your remarks and just say: “I consider your theory to be proven wrong because it does not explain the first picosecond of the Big Bang.”

    This is off the subject of atheism, but the original post does complain about “anti-intellectual physicists” who have become popular in SAM but who have a low regard for the philosophers who think that all scientific theories have been proven wrong.

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  38. I think this is my 5th post so last words on the subject…

    Massimo the quote you supplied is a bit damning, though I’d hope Dawkin’s changed his views on epigenetics since 2009. Funny enough I took a course that year which dealt almost exclusively with epigenetics. It was detailed and explicit, though of course we are still discovering mechanisms and potentially interesting phenomena (like heritability). So his statement about “enthusiasts” and not knowing what epigenetics means, appears almost laughable… except it isn’t.

    Chrisbuckley80 I’ll leave PZ to the side of this. He seems to have personal issues communicating via the internet. I am also uncertain about his followers.

    Regarding the rest, the idea is that the New Atheists are a small, insular group. They resist intrusions into it by outsiders (including other skeptics and atheists), and deliver criticism in a different manner to outsiders than towards themselves. So yes there are some conflicting beliefs among them, but they normally couch any criticism (which is usually brief) with prefaces of how great their friend is. If one of them (for example Dennett) uses the same tone and message as they use towards outsiders, that person get slammed back hard for having broken some code of conduct.

    And in some cases, like Ayaan, there is nothing but gushing, incredulous celebrity treatment. She has become the Mother Theresa of New Atheism (and yes Massimo the Ayn Rand as well ☺).

    I believe NA is largely a product of modern media, which has unfortunately swallowed up some otherwise rational people… this includes the fanbase.

    Propaganda is effective.

    “As for the book endorsements, I agree that they don’t exactly approach it with skepticism, but it is also not unexpected, especially when atheists are the least trusted people in America (there’s bound to be some sense of loyalty to the community).”

    Well I grant you that what we are seeing is an issue of loyalty, but to themselves and not skepticism or atheism. As such it is misplaced loyalty.

    There is some irony that prominent skeptics should be expected to show less skepticism while reviewing a book from a member of the skeptic community in order to show loyalty to skeptics. If that is granted as acceptable behavior amongst skeptics and atheists, it is no wonder they would be considered the least trusted people in America. They’d have earned it.

    As a skeptic and atheist, I expect more, particularly from people trying to be major representatives of a community I’m a part of.

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  39. All this talk about scientific theories being “wrong” and “right” is starting to drive me a little bit batty. As Asimov points out, you can say the earth is flat, and I may say it is spherical. It turns out that we are both wrong, but I am more right than you are. Wrongness isn’t an absolute, wrongness comes in degrees.

    Some people don’t seem to understand that to some degree or another, we are all wrong, just some of us more so than others. The trouble starts when these people decide that they are most definitely “right.” It’s more accurate to say that one is “less wrong.”

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  40. Karl, Jeffrey and others … per my previous post and Sarah Palin, you can put lipstick on a troll, but it’s still a troll. At least under current handle, I don’t recall seeing either of you comment here before, or even during the last couple of years of Rationally Speaking. So, are you fanboys of PZ? Harris? Jerry Coyne?

    Nick/FT, thanks for your second comment, as well as your first. However, I don’t think Karl’s paying attention, or has plans to do so.

    Karl, every scientific theory is provisional based on either finding new evidence or making a better theoretical interpretation of current evidence.

    But, I don’t think you’re that clueless. Given your last comment, it’s a shame that you’re not a better troll. And, if you’re comparing Nick to a creationist — a creationist troll who acts like you’re acting now — I’m very much voting “troll,” not “ignorant.” (Given that that was actually his sixth comment, I hope Massimo “dings” him one should he ever come back.)

    Meanwhile, Schlafly, following on Massimo’s hereditarian essay, seems determined to make up for Karl running out of comments. Massimo never said what you claimed; he was talking about scientific theories, not the whole of science. In fact, you even quoted Massimo to that end before distorting him.

    As for the Asimov quote, that’s his language. Even if applicable to some theories, it’s not to others; remember, Lamarckianism was presented as a theory; so was phlogiston, so was cosmic ether; so were other things.

    Of course, your animus is less surprising now that teh Google confirms you are one of the sons of Phyllis Schlafly. (Thomas Jones, if you’re still reading, this is why I Google! And, sorry that I hadn’t done this before.) http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Conservapedia:Roger_Schlafly

    Holmes is right about about Ayann Ali Hirsi, and the last two paragraphs of his last comment. Selective application of skepticism by so-called professional skeptics is hypocrisy.

    Next, I salute Massimo for his patience and his ataxaria with several commenters.

    Finally, I welcome Nick/Field, Gurlitt and other new commenters who have been positively involved with this essay and hope you stick around.

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  41. After reading this, I came away with a list of thinkers that you think aren’t interesting anymore. I fail to see how this contributes to the spirit of learning and discourse. These “reflections” just seem close minded to me. Stay open! There’s something valuable to learn from all of them. Be teachable, keep the discourse flowing.

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  42. It’s truly upsetting to hear the word ‘wrong’ insisted upon in so crude and draconian fashion in the statement “every *past* scientific theory has been proven wrong”. After all, the terms right & wrong, and true & false have been the subject of debate since the very beginning of philosophy. I’m afraid that analytic philosophers of science are simply using the word here as concession to and foreclosure on social constructivist interpretations of science.

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  43. Socrates,

    I’m absolutely not a fan boy of PZ… not at all. I agree with everything Massimo said throughout his entire essay. It’s true I’ve never commented here before, but I lurk from time to time. It’s also true that I’m terrible at communicating, and I’m afraid I’ve been misunderstood. I’m a plumber, and I don’t write for a living, so my apologies.

    When I say that it is important to consider “being wrong” as a matter of degree, I do so because I think Karl and other sound silly trying to argue that various scientific theories are “right,” rather than less wrong. To me, claiming that maxwell’s equations are “right” isn’t so different than claiming that the world is spherical. You put it more eloquently using Karl’s own language, when you said this:

    “Karl, every scientific theory is provisional based on either finding new evidence or making a better theoretical interpretation of current evidence.”

    Not a troll, I promise! I’ll work on being more clear in the future.

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  44. Aravis in response to Alex > Come back when you actually know something about conservative thought and have some real arguments. Until then, you’re just wasting peoples’ time.

    DM > Well, no, he isn’t

    I agree with DM. And I haven’t found any support that things like (emotional?) ‘put downs’ or ‘side swipes’ are anything but counterproductive for everyone involved.

    To include at least one link I think is generally relevant:

    http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2015/05/06/1500355112

    From the link: “Decline in prosocial language helps explain public disapproval of the US Congress”

    Massimo,

    I sympathize, and especially agree with your “where to” conclusion.

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