Friday, February 1, 2013

Steve Novella takes on Atheism+

Steve Novella, who has the knowledge, experience, skills, temperament and clout to be recognized as the next leader of the scientific skepticism movement, wrote a piece this week explaining what the skepticism movement is and why he rejects the attempts to hijack it by people like PZ Myers who wish to turn it into a generic left wing movement.

I have never endeavored to tell other people what to do with their own activism. If Penn and Teller want to have a skeptical/libertarian show, that’s their right. They can do what they want. The Skepchicks combine feminism and skepticism, and PZ combines (by his own account) skepticism, atheism, and liberal politics. My view – let a thousand lights shine. At the end of the day, we are all skeptics. Let’s celebrate that, and we can still argue about our differences but let’s not pretend that any skepticism-plus is the one-true-skepticism just because it’s our own.

Novella is completely right. I run a blog that is both libertarian and skeptical, and I have never tried to say that being a skeptic means one has to be a libertarian. In fact I believe that there is logic and solid evidence behind some of the policies of libertarians, progressives and conservatives, even among those that challenge my world view. That is the nature of information.

The post was a reply to something PZ Myers wrote that included a remarks about economics and skepticism I agree with followed by some hubristic remarks about how anyone who disagrees with his personal politics is a pseudoscientific agent that should be purged:

Similarly, I can predict that skeptics will now struggle to exclude politics and economics from any debate; economics is notoriously fuzzy, and politics is wracked with extremes of opinion. But of course both fields do have hard evidence that can be addressed. Does the American political and economic system cause great hardship for many people? Does it promote stability and international cooperation? Are some of our expenditures unnecessary and others insufficient? Are there evidence-based alternative strategies that work better? Can we compare economies in different countries and assess their relative performance? 
And most importantly, should rational skeptics take a stand on these issues, discuss and debate them, and come to reasonable conclusions? I don’t think it’s true that they are unresolvable. 

PZ Myers is absolutely right that we should include economic topics in skeptical conversations - that is to say his words are absolutely right, but perhaps not his intention. I have been promoting the pseudoscientific nature of the "Buy Local" movement on this blog for three and a half years and have been trying to get it wedged in to a conference for a nearly as long.

Support of free trade and opposition to rent control are both economic policy positions backed by rock-solid scientific consensuses, so why not start with them?

However, I don't think that's what PZ Myers really meant. He assumes his crude anti-capitalist ideas are wise and expects that the science will support him. This is just another lame attempt for him to confuse his personal value judgments with metaphysical truth, and label anyone who disagrees with those value judgments as an interloper who needs to be purged.

Look what he went on to write:

Unfortunately, opening up the skeptic community to actually discussing these topics would lead to Deep Rifts that make the one over religion look insignificant. We’re riddled with wacky libertarians and their worship of the capitalist status quo (or worse, demanding a greater reduction in government and compassion). A libertarian speaker who openly espoused the opinions of a loon like Ron Paul — and there are people in this community who regard him as a saint — would pretty much guarantee a kind of noisy riot in the audience, and lead to a big chunk of organized skepticism decamping in fury. 

Which would probably be a good thing.

Novella's response to that was:

Perhaps I am misunderstanding what PZ is saying here, and if so please correct me, but this sounds an awful lot like a desire to purge the skeptical movement of those with a differing political outlook. I find it hard to see how this would be a good thing.

And PZ responded to that remark:

Yes, I apologize, I am being misunderstood. No, I’m not saying we should purge people with a particular political outlook. I am saying that the skeptical movement, just like the atheist movement, contains a largely irrational element that doesn’t really accept the principles Novella outlined.

Oh, we understood you just fine. This is not the first time he's said he wants to purge non-progressives from the secular and skeptical communities. He considers anyone who disagrees with his politics to be irrational. He just can't fathom that he could be wrong, even about something as complex as capitalism that lies outside of his area of expertise.He can't even distinguish between someone who opposes feminism and someone who opposes using skepticism limited resources to fight generic feminism battles.

The battle between Keynes and Hayek is a fight within economics by experts. It is not like the battle between evolutionary biologists and creationists where misinformed outsiders are up against united experts.

I'm glad Novella is speaking up.

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