The Two Cultures Redux

By skepticlawyer

On May 7, 1959, British physicist and novelist C.P. Snow delivered an influential Rede Lecture at Cambridge University. His lecture concerned the intellectual division between the sciences and the humanities, and contained the following famous passage:

I remember G. H. Hardy once remarking to me in mild puzzlement, some time in the 1930s, ‘Have you noticed how the word ‘intellectual’ is used nowadays. There seems to be a new definition which certainly doesn’t include
Rutherford or Eddington or Dirac or Adrian or me? It does seem rather odd, don’t y’know.’

A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?

I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.

Snow’s lecture caused a sensation, and its title entered the language. There is still, I think, considerable evidence that his observation holds today, too. Unfortunately, in Snow’s time, most scientists were literate and cultured enough to be able to comment with at least moderate intelligence on aspects of the humanities; the ignorance flowed only one way. These days, unfortunately, it is obvious that many scientists are as ignorant of the most basic information outside their own discipline as were the humanities academics when Snow was writing his lecture. I particularly notice this when it comes to the ‘third discipline’ of law, which is neither science nor humanities but borrows bits from both, as well as from moral philosophy. Both scientists and humanities scholars, for instance, often fall into the trap of believing that the solution to some social ill is to ‘pass a law’.

All that is by the by, however, for the simple reason that a version of ‘The Two Cultures’ arises whenever there is a difference in perspective and attitude, even when the relevant people agree on many other points. Indeed, one manifestation of the ‘Two Cultures’ of interest to me is that which has arisen between skeptics and atheists.

Regular readers of this blog may be curious and a bit nonplussed at this point, partly because I don’t write about skepticism as often as I ought (so failing to live up to my nic and this blog’s name), and partly because you may perceive that there isn’t a huge amount of difference between the two. Skeptics are skeptical about supernatural claims, right? Everything from Bigfoot to Zombie Jesus, yes? Atheists reject supernatural explanations for things, yes? They demand evidence for extraordinary or miraculous claims, right?

Well, ish… Part of the conflict between the two related ideas has its origins in what biologist Athena Andreadis calls ‘the narcissism of small differences’, but part of it is also to do with an intellectual division of labour. This division of labour tends, I think, to have its origins in what position one adopted first, often as a child. In my case, I can’t remember whether I began to be skeptical or atheistic first, although I do know that from the beginning my disquiet with religion was not based on its factual assertions, but its social effects. When it made claims that were then enacted into law, and that law produced destructive outcomes, I rejected it. This is very much a skeptical style of rejection. When religion makes testable claims, then those claims should be put to the proof. If they are found wanting, then the people who hold them–if they are intellectually honest–should give them up.

My skepticism did not (and does not) involve arguing over proofs of the existence or non-existence of God: neither claim is falsifiable in the same way that assertions about the social effect of morality as enacted into law are falsifiable, or accounts of the miraculous (if properly formulated) are falsifiable. Of course, bad arguments for the supernatural are often pseudoscientific, but as Richard Dawkins found out when theologians and philosophers had a go at him over his arguments against the existence of God in The God Delusion, arguments for the existence of God (or Gods) are not pseudoscientific. They’re just not testable.

They can, however, be ranked qua arguments, which is, I think, a useful exercise. It was John Finnis, a Catholic jurisprudential scholar (and one of my tutors at Oxford) who pointed out to me that Aristotle’s argument for the existence of gods is an excellent argument for polytheism and henotheism, because it does not assume omnipotence or omniscience or omnibenevolence. It is a bad argument for monotheism, because as soon as it is applied to monotheism, it runs smack dab into the Problem of Evil. For this reason, Finnis doesn’t make use of it in his scholarship. That struck me as excellent thinking, even though it was about something that cannot be demonstrated one way or the other. In other words, not all non-testable claims are bad or useless.

This intellectual division of labour meant that historically, skepticism steered away from tackling religion ‘head on’, so to speak. Many of the founding fathers and mothers of the skeptical movement were deists (one thinks of everyone from Adam Smith to Mary Wollstonecraft to Harry Houdini), although of course there were atheists, like David Hume and Lucretius.

Atheists–often–were interested in the social effects of religion, thereby keeping themselves on the skeptical side of the equation, although even then there were difficulties. Some atheists allowed themselves to be diverted into attacking all religion (and religious believers) as an undifferentiated lump. Many have tied atheism to political progressivism, forgetting that some of Richard Dawkins’ most powerful arguments in The God Delusion came from Barry Goldwater. Meanwhile, some skeptics became so focussed on dealing with pseudoscience and claims for the miraculous that they abandoned even outcomes-based religious critique, leading to a situation where we became known for sitting around laughing at people who believed in Bigfoot and UFOs. This is unfortunate, because traditional skepticism had (and has) important contributions to make to scientific literacy. The efforts of skeptics the world over in debunking the claims made by the anti-vaccination crowd are vital (as in, life-saving), and something we do very well.

The intellectual differences between atheism and skepticism have been forced into the open of late in large part because the former has grown at the expense of the latter, but also contributed to exponential growth in the latter. The atheists (attracted by the writings of the aforementioned Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Ophelia Benson and others) want to contribute to skepticism as well, and are left wondering at the reluctance among many skeptics to use their (very considerable) intellectual weapons on religion.

They have a point, but not every point. Let me explain.

G.K. Chesterton once observed that, for many people, an end to belief in God meant the start of believing in anything. Organised skepticism stands athwart this process (you know, exchanging Jesus for crystals) and doesn’t just yell ‘stop’. It provides methods for interrogating claims, and helps to ensure that people who have abandoned one form of pseudoscience don’t get taken in by another. Skeptics are foolish if they attempt to fence off their skepticism from making religious critiques, a point PZ Myers makes here:

I can understand turning away from purely philosophical abstractions that have no weight in the real world: skeptics will not be able to quantitatively resolve the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. But faith has real world consequences, and the metaphysical claim that a god is dispensing information by undetectable means to a chosen few on earth, which is certainly a common claim in Christianity, should have effects that could be measured, and that they don’t have such effects is not a reason to recuse the subject from inquiry, it’s a reason to reject it.

However, another virtue of skeptical thinking about the outcomes attached to different religious beliefs and traditions (rather than theorizing about the existence of God) is the capacity to draw meaningful distinctions between religions. Quakers (the historic leaders, along with the pantheistic Stoics, of abolitionism) are different from Catholics, and both of the former are different from various Islamic groups, and so on. What they believe has different social effects.

However, it’s become clear to me that many of the new participants in organised skepticism and atheism hold to canards of their own, and these beliefs are just as vulnerable to skeptical enquiry as UFOs or Zombie Jesus (there is a broad strap of social constructivism in much modern feminism, for example, and that really does cry out for skepticism). They also don’t get to remake skepticism in their own political image, for the simple reason that many political claims are like religious claims: they, too, are empirical, and ought to be subjected to skeptical enquiry. This is one point that noted skeptic Daniel Loxton makes with some force:

Grothe spoke up on that historical theme, emphasizing that while movements may change, it is important to begin with an understanding of the work done so far—the mistakes made, the lessons won, and the history of things we’ve done right. For decades, skepticism has very deliberately worked to stay close to what it does best: tackling empirical questions in the realm of pseudoscience and the paranormal, and (as the other side of this same coin) promoting scientific literacy.

This empirical focus has allowed the skeptical community—old and white and bearded as it may have been—to enjoy other kinds of diversity. If political ideology is not a topic for our movement, then anarchists, libertarians, liberals, and conservatives can happily share the same big tent. If science-based skepticism is neutral about nonscientific moral values, then the community can embrace people who hold a wide range of perspectives on values issues—on the environment, on public schools, on nuclear power, on same-sex marriage, on taxation, gun control, the military, veganism, or so on. It’s a sort of paradox: the wider the scope of skepticism, the less diverse its community becomes.

I wouldn’t go as far as Loxton: claims about the badness of gay marriage or abortion or gun control or nuclear power are typically empirical claims, and can be scrutinised in the same way that claims about ESP or Bigfoot or the social effects of Islam on women can be scrutinised. However, the moment both skepticism and atheism become cosy communities of left-liberals, failing to interrogate left-liberal claims in the same way that religious and pseudoscientific claims are interrogated, then both movements will have lost their way, utterly.

That this could one day come about is evidenced by statements like the following (from Amanda Marcotte, in response to Daniel Loxton above):

In other words, the kind of ‘diversity’ he supports is one where a bunch of well-off, older white men can enjoy talking about the silliness of Bigfoot without having to bother with those political concerns that are unavoidable when people who get the shit end of the stick–women, non-white people, poorer people, disabled people, gay people–get involved.  There are many flavors of white-dude-whose-privilege-shields-him-from-having-to-be-politicals, but those darn diverse people are forever being political because they don’t have an option to ignore oppression that directly affects them.  Personally, I’m far more concerned about a group that’s politically diverse only because they all live in the same bubble than one that’s got racial and gender diversity because everyone has a shared concern about religious power.

In other words, I support a diversity of viewpoints, not a diversity per se of views. A group of skeptics isn’t made stronger because some people diverge from the norm because they believe they have an army of small fairies to do their bidding, but it is strengthened by improving the number of women and people of color who can speak to communities who aren’t currently being reached.

I’m afraid this is the beginning of totalitarian thinking. If Marcotte thinks that diversity of skin colour or disability or gender trumps intellectual diversity, then there are many fine churches she can no doubt join. Churches (with a few notable exceptions) are generally pretty good at making sure the people in the pews are all the colours of the rainbow, and typically do a nice job of disabled access. Oh, and they have plenty of women members, too–as opposed to skepticism and atheism, which are still male-dominated.

Diversity, I’m afraid, is not a per se good. It’s only an instrumental good. If it were a per se good, then we’d all have to change our view of Islam PDQ: the annual Hajj in Mecca is the most diverse gathering of humanity on the planet. I’m hoping that’s not the sort of argument Marcotte wants to make.

In sum: skepticism is a cast of mind, and when done properly, it can be used to consider and examine religious, political and scientific claims. While religion should not be walled off from scrutiny, the cosy assumptions of politics ought not to be protected either.

21 Comments

  1. Posted August 9, 2011 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Diversity isn’t a per se good no. But it’s inevitable because it’s natural. Monotheism appears to me to be a struggle to accomplish the impossible which is to create a unified idea of God.

    All you have to do is examine the history of the Catholic Church to find how difficult this is. You’ve got Francis of Assisi, Gilles de Rais, Augustine, the Borgias, John Paul II and Teilhard de Chardin, all very much Catholic figures. And not all of whom can be considered ‘good’ yet which ones are ‘good’ and which ones are ‘evil’?

    Reason can establish facts but by themselves they aren’t enough. Reason can’t tell you what they mean. For that you need the imagination… and without God you get Chesterton’s maxim and around we go.
    Just try and get agreement there. Yet the RC is simply the Western half of Christian orthodoxy.

  2. Posted August 9, 2011 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    They also don’t get to remake skepticism in their own political image, for the simple reason that many political claims are like religious claims: they, too, are empirical, and ought to be subjected to skeptical enquiry.

    This is well and good, but humans and the complex systems they create together are notoriously difficult to put to the test.

    You can smash atoms and see what happens to them. Squeeze them together and make notes about it. Pipe in surplus electrons and eyeball your instruments.

    But people tend to object to that sort of treatment.

    Plus, as Jean-Baptise Say pointed out:

    Cause and effect are easily distinguished, when they occur in succession; but are often confounded, when the operation is continuous and simultaneous.

    For the next 20 years Australian economists will be arguing about whether the 2008-10 fiscal stimuli “worked” or not.

  3. Posted August 9, 2011 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    On Arts/Science divide:

    A few years ago, maybe 6? I sat down with Isaac Asimov’s general reader on science to relearn what I’d forgotten since high school. It is really interesting how much of this stuff you can forget. I’ve always loved science but I realized when I was 12 or so that I didn’t have the temperament required for it. Friends of mine that did however had a tendency to struggle with English. They had trouble with lateral allusion, metaphor, complex narratives etc.

    I wonder to what extent the AGW brouhaha is caused by this. A lot of the greenie scientists I knew at uni had a very simplistic view of politics. Hell my father likewise had a very simple view. When met with the Arts type minds which tend to sophistry you get a right muddle and, well, that’s what we’ve got. Right?

    Thing is in this complex technocracy you will specialize and if you do you’ll meet that Arts/Science fork and probably take one road forsaking the other for good. But, I reckon, to claim to be a genuine intellectual you should be basically competent across the board. You should also, like scientists and like Socrates be aware of the limits of your knowledge and view.

    I don’t see much of that.

  4. Posted August 9, 2011 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    For the next 20 years Australian economists will be arguing about whether the 2008-10 fiscal stimuli “worked” or not.

    In the field of economics such arguments are enormous job-creating schemes. The Great Slump was getting a bit tired. 🙂

  5. Posted August 9, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    the ‘third discipline’ of law, which is neither science nor humanities

    How is law not part of humanities? If anything it seems to be something of a religion.

    failing to interrogate left-liberal claims

    Claims across the political spectrum tend to go uninterrogated.

  6. Posted August 9, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    It is not clear that David Hume was an atheist.

    [email protected] On the contrary, the 1930s has become enormously topical, sadly.

  7. derrida derider
    Posted August 9, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    This line – that the existence of God is not testable and therefore not disprovable and should therefore be accepted – has always seemed a copout to me, for a couple of reasons.

    Firstly, both “therefores” in that sentence seem to me contestable, to put it at its lowest. Secondly, the whole history of religious thought consists of the religious confidently – nay, dogmatically – asserting claims they think are not testable, followed by modification of those claims when they are in fact tested and found wanting (disregarding, for the moment, the fundamentalist’s strategy of just ignoring empiric results). Now that’s an inductive argument, of course – perhaps the future will be different. But I wouldn’t put money on it.

    Sorry, but I think the difference between your “skepticism” and religious unbelief is a distinction without a difference.

  8. Posted August 9, 2011 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    On the contrary, the 1930s has become enormously topical, sadly.

    Yes in fact the True International Conspiracy does not involve the Illuminati, the Welsh or Skulls and Bones at Yale; it’s the international conspiracy of economics professors who want to maintain their lucrative perks and junkets. They’ve been fooling us for years.

  9. Posted August 9, 2011 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    Secondly, the whole history of religious thought consists of the religious confidently – nay, dogmatically – asserting claims they think are not testable, followed by modification of those claims when they are in fact tested and found wanting

    Theological history recedes in relevance in the modern era because religious institutions are no longer responsible for the guarantees of human dignity. Modern humans have rights guaranteed by national sovereignty in a liberal state; religious observance is optional and the traditional institutions of such in the developed world are dwindling.

    There is a revival of monotheistic creeds but they are in some way transformed by modern technology and culture.

    Faith is an emotional thing, so proof of the existence of God is immaterial. It’s kind like analyzing Beethoven or something. There’s no intellectual formula that distills its raison d’etre.

    Monotheism has much potential to be dangerous to national sovereignty and liberality because it claims to be founded on the direct word of God. The Qu’ran begins: This book shall not questioned. A skeptic will raise an eyebrow immediately.

  10. Mel
    Posted August 9, 2011 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    “Both scientists and humanities scholars, for instance, often fall into the trap of believing that the solution to some social ill is to ‘pass a law’.”

    I would whack in economics. It concerns me that those in the social sciences/humanities can be ignorant of basic economic concepts such as comparative advantage. Failure to grasp such concepts leads to some very silly thinking.

    “The intellectual differences between atheism and skepticism have been forced into the open of late in large part because the former has grown at the expense of the latter, but also contributed to exponential growth in the latter. ”

    Is it just me or does the second part of that sentence contradict the first part?

    “I’m afraid this is the beginning of totalitarian thinking.”

    I’m not inclined towards Marcotte’s sentiments but I don’t think the word “totalitarian” is appropriate here.

    ” … the cosy assumptions of politics ought not to be protected either.”

    Fine but a skeptic’s frame of mind can’t be defined beyond the vague and platitudinous let alone furnish us with a special pair of super goggles that allows us to cut through the mist of unfathomable complexity, ideology or our own substantial cognitive limitations. Moreover, the very best scientific methods known to us, like double blind trials, are simply not available to us in “political” fields that are already soaked in a stew of ideology, like macroeconomics.

    The other great confounding factor regarding political matters arises from human self-direction. To paraphrase Helvetius the Elder “man’s beliefs may not be true but the consequences of any action that arises as a result of those beliefs is always true”.

    Even the best and brightest skeptic can do little more than glimpse the odd fleeting shadow of social reality in amongst the mirages.

  11. Posted August 9, 2011 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    Apologies for the delay with replying to comments, my partner works in the City and I’ve just had confirmation that he didn’t go into the office today. *Breathes a sigh of relief*.

    Mel: My principal concern with the political appropriation of skepticism and the scientific method is that if it is tied to one side of politics (particularly in the US), then we are all deeply stuffed when ‘the other side’ has its hands on the levers of power.

    As incredible as it may seem now, there was a time when Republican administrations funded science more generously (including basic science research) than the Dems and beefed up science education a lot as well. That happened because the GOP had people like Barry Goldwater in it (which is why Dawkins draws on him a fair bit in The God Delusion).

    Science and skepticism can’t afford to be tied to a particular ‘side’, which is why Marcotte’s exercise in political appropriation is very, very unsettling and–I think–totalitarian.

    Also: in days gone by, atheists really were the ‘beardy-weirdies’ while the skeptics (mainly because we had James Randi and TAM!) was where the cool cats hung out. Skeptics are now in the unusual position of being more numerous, but also outnumbered by atheists (who are no longer beardy-weirdies but tres cool). Many people have not adapted well, partly because not all skeptics are atheists (or, if they are, they’re not interested in atheism as a social movement), but also because not all atheists ‘get’ skepticism (especially when it comes to examining their beliefs independently of atheism).

    Desipis: law is a terrible magpie, neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring. Most universities stick it in the social sciences, along with economics, but it still permits arguments from authority (a characteristic of theology), relies heavily on propositional logic (pinched from philosophy), conducts research into efficacy (statistics, mathematics, economics) and operates as a series of norms (closest to moral philosophy, but independent of theology and moral philosophy): law is happy to say ‘because I said so!’, while moral philosophy attempts to provide reasons.

    I think there is something to be said for having a separate law faculty (as Oxford does). It really is like nothing else.

    DD: I’m an outcomes-oriented gal, which means I have difficulty getting excited by the thought of (dis)proving someone’s sky fairy. I am alert to moving the goalposts, however: that’s something a lot of CAM practitioners and anti-vaxxers do when their woo is found wanting. Skeptics are generally onto them in a flash, too.

    Lorenzo, Hume was trying to land Adam Smith’s Chair in Moral Philosophy at Glasgow, so he had to change his tune (it didn’t work, by the way — he didn’t get the gig). Until 1934, holders of professorships at Scots universities had to make a public profession of Presbyterianism, a requirement written into the Acts of Union 1707. Similarly, Lucretius maintained the public ritual of religiosity expected of a Roman (especially when his relatives visited; he didn’t see the point of pissing off his niece and her fiance; upper-class Romans tended to take ‘don’t be a social dick’ fairly seriously).

  12. Movius
    Posted August 9, 2011 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    Don’t mention the elevator. I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it.

  13. Posted August 9, 2011 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    Movius, you owe me a keyboard… and possibly a laptop screen.

  14. Malcolm
    Posted August 10, 2011 at 1:45 am | Permalink

    I don’t understand your criticism of Amanda Marcotte’s position. Full disclosure: I do tend to agree with her point of view.

    Are you saying that a diversity of viewpoints is strictly a lefty proposition? A diversity of viewpoints could include a diversity of political viewpoints. You also seem to be saying that if someone on the left chooses to call themself a skeptic, she has appropriated skepticism. I don’t see it.

    Throwing out the specter of totalitarianism is pointless hyperbole; Amanda Marcotte has an opinion, she’s not forcing you to agree with it nor stopping you from being a skeptic.

  15. Posted August 10, 2011 at 1:59 am | Permalink

    She is explicit about preferring a diversity of viewpoints over a diversity of views, as well as conflating skepticism and atheism, all the while making it uncomfortable for conservatives to be either (skeptics or atheists).

    This strategy only works while there is a Democrat in the White House (see comment 11). In every other respect it is utterly self-defeating.

    I am unpersuaded, too, of the benefits of diversity per se, and tend to endorse the argument outlined by Germaine Greer in Slipshod Sybils: bad and shoddy work (of whatever sort) by minority authors or women is worse than no work at all.

  16. Peter
    Posted August 10, 2011 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    I think Amanda Marcotte’s point is pretty clear: a diversity of views may only mean a bunch of the proverbial rich white dudes who have academic disagreements about, in this case, politics, but don’t particularly see the outcome of the disagreements as being particularly more important than which sports team they root for. She’s contrasting that with a diversity of viewpoints, reflecting that people with vested interests in the outcome of the disagreements are around to present the fullest and best case for each view. And hey, if in the end, a consensus is reached despite the differing viewpoints, then you may have a paucity of “views,” but the few views that everyone shares will presumably be very robust, which is probably a good thing (and I don’t see how you’re getting anywhere near totalitarianism from there).

    Also, in the US at least, the more inclusive a movement is, the more liberal it’s going to be seen as offensive to conservatives. Southern bigotry is almost the core Republican value.

  17. Posted August 10, 2011 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    Marcotte is also conflating theology with pseudo-science. Theology (generally) doesn’t make any empirically measurable claims about the world, simply believing in a god doesn’t dictate that the world work a certain way. Thus, theistic questions generally fall outside of the scope of scepticism and science (and arguably outside the scope of rationality and logic too). This means the use of the ‘preponderance of evidence’ is also outside its accepted scope and thus forms an invalid argument.

    There are plenty of theological claims that cross over into pseudo-science by making claims of affecting the way the world works (e.g. faith healers). These kinds of claims are certainly open to sceptical and scientific inquiry (and ultimately rejection). So claims about the existence of fairies can be rejected by skeptism as their existence would strongly imply a measurable impact on the world. In this way, belief in fairies is distinguishable from belief in god or the afterlife in terms of empirical claims and thus the ability of scepticism to deal with it.

    The second problem is that she’s drinking a fairly strong brand of post-modernist cool-aid. She’s not just arguing that people from different backgrounds have the potential to provide insight not available to others, she’s arguing that this overwhelmingly outweighs the value of an already existing element of ideological diversity. Then she goes on to do the typical simple minded lefty thing of conflating diversity with superficial diversity by focusing on a very small list of traits (race, gender, disability, etc) as if they represent the whole of human diversity. I think it’s quite reasonable to remain sceptical about these claims.

  18. Posted August 10, 2011 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    I would whack in economics. It concerns me that those in the social sciences/humanities can be ignorant of basic economic concepts such as comparative advantage. Failure to grasp such concepts leads to some very silly thinking.

    Yeah. It depends on the university, you can avoid economics altogether. I didn’t enrol in the politics school so I’m not sure to what extent they actually taught economics. But in first year we did political economy which teaches the dismal doctrines as ideology with an explicit slant to social context views. My 1st semester, 1st year sociology dude always insisted that human nature didn’t exist.

    A right-wing dude I knew asked his tutor if he could just stick to the economics and she said ‘yeah, you can be creative.’.

    Creative?

  19. Posted August 10, 2011 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    I would whack in economics. It concerns me that those in the social sciences/humanities can be ignorant of basic economic concepts such as comparative advantage. Failure to grasp such concepts leads to some very silly thinking.

    The same could be said for those in economics and a lack of understanding of human behaviour.

  20. Movius
    Posted August 11, 2011 at 2:01 am | Permalink

    A more serious reply this time. I largely agree with the sentiment of the article, but don’t really agree with the delineation of skeptic vs atheist. While the issue of where atheism fits in to things is an ongoing argument. The current divide sparking “vocal debate within the community(tm),” (thankfully largely limited to the internets,) is plain old politics and you have vocal atheists lining up on both sides. Think “Jesus the fairy tale that only idiots believe in, you don’t want to be an idiot do you?” vs “Jesus the oppressive heteronormative misogynist patriarch who was also a white man.”

    For mine, there are 2 major causes. Firstly, the lesser cause. The explosion of skeptical blogs and podcasts on the internet*, resulting in a much younger audience who aren’t aware of past controversies. Particularly, in this case, the rise of anti-scientific post-modernism in the 90s.

    The much larger problem is an inability to cope with “idiots who agree with you.” You are passionate about issue X for rational reasons. Your friend Bob is also passionate about issue X, so he must be rational too.

    This manifests in many minor ways. eg. Atheists who think religion is harmful because it limits rational inquiry, etc. may not want to speak up about the atheist who doesn’t believe because Jesus was invented by the same guys who REALLY DID 9/11.

    But most seriously the cause is the abject failure to communicate on the issue of global warming.

    You have people refusing to accept climate science because they don’t like the implications, or much more problematically, accepting blatant pseudoscience merely because they reject environmentalism (wind farm sickness anyone?)

    Similarly, you have a bunch of ‘science communicators’ who apparently think this involves only teaching hippies that global warming is real and anyone who believes in global warming is therefore pro-science. Which works fine until they decide to whipper-snipper your GM food crop or ban wireless internet.

    *This is not at all a bad thing. After all, my own skeptical inspiration was rekindled many years back after reading one too many BBC science articles in quick succession claiming that an asteroid was about to kill us all. A fortuitous google search for “Bad Astronomy” landed me at Phil Plait’s website and from there I found many of the other skeptical internet mainstays.

  21. Posted August 12, 2011 at 2:24 am | Permalink

    Similarly, you have a bunch of ‘science communicators’ who apparently think this involves only teaching hippies that global warming is real and anyone who believes in global warming is therefore pro-science. Which works fine until they decide to whipper-snipper your GM food crop or ban wireless internet.

    I saw that over at Deltoid, actually — Greenpeace have really gone ‘full retard’ when it comes to the anti-science fooferaw.

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