Guest post: Pigliuicci defines the “community of reason”

August 13, 2012 • 5:51 am

In a post over at Rationally Speaking, “The community of reason: a self-assessment and a manifesto,” philosopher and one-time biologist Massimo Pigliucci defines what he calls the “community of reason,” sets out criteria for belonging, criticizes those who pretend to belong but violate Massimo’s canons for inclusion and, finally, names those whom he considers role models of rationalism.  I thought it was a pretty good post, though marred by a few unfair accusations and by Pigliucci’s willgness to name good atheists but not bad ones. At any rate, guest poster Grania Spingies, a member of Atheist Ireland, has set down her reaction.


Pigliucci reviews our community of reason

by Grania Spingies

Massimo Pigliucci has a new article up at Rationally Thinking called “The Community of Reason, a self-assessment and a manifesto.”

He lays out his criticisms of the loosely associated group of atheists, skeptics and secularists and tenders his recommendations for how things can be improved. I agree with quite a lot of what he has to say.

The atheist /skeptic online community is not always a bastion of the very best of rationality and reason, and is often rife with muddled thinking, odd ideas and sometimes plain anti-science beliefs. One is mistaken in assuming that the labels “atheist” or “skeptic” denote a worldview that means the same for everyone. An atheist can, for example, be an climate-change denialist, or someone can claim they are a skeptic but then profess skepticism about the efficacy of vaccines, e.g.:

It is also true, as Pigliucci notes, that lot of people in this community use personal abuse instead of critical analysis when confronted by people with whom they disagree. But it is worth noting that in recent weeks a number of prominent bloggers and atheists have drawn attention to the fact that this tactic is harmful and damaging, and that several prominent websites are doing something to address this by implementing moderation policies and advisories on how to engage in civil debate.

Pigliucci gives a list of rationalists that he thinks are good role models:

Sean Carroll, Dan Dennett, Neil deGrasse Tyson, D.J. Groethe, Tim Farley, Ken Frazier (and pretty much anyone else who writes for Skeptical Inquirer, really), Ron Lindsey, Hemant Metha, Chris Mooney, Phil Plaitt, Steve Novella (as well as the other Novellas), John Rennie, Genie Scott, Michael Shermer, Carl Zimmer, etc.

I can’t disagree that these are, in general, outstanding people who have contributed substantially to the promotion of scientific literacy and rationality. But having just called out skeptics who feel that religion is not a proper area of application for skepticism, Pigliucci nevertheless included a number of accommodationists on his list. They do valuable work to be sure, but there are certainly others less charitable toward faith who deserve mention as well.

Pigliucci also lists “bizarre beliefs” that he takes issue with but have sometimes been promulgated by self-styled atheists and skeptics. These run the gamut from the wacky and indefensible alt-med beliefs to the behavior of “scientism”: those who, argues Pigliucci, rigidly and mistakenly apply science to everything.

While I don’t disagree with some of these criticisms (alternative medicine is wishful thinking based on snake-oil salesman pitches), I’m not convinced that others are really a big problem for the atheist/skeptical community at large. Sure, some people hold bizarre ideas and appear impervious to reason. That doesn’t hurt the community. It simply shows that we have a long way to go, and also suggests many potential debates and teaching opportunities for scientists and critical thinkers.

However, there are some items on the list that don’t seem to belong, for Pigliucci oversimplifies the positions put forth by their original proponents. One can hardly hold those proponents responsible for misreading or misinterpretation of what they actually said, even after repeated attempts by authors to clarify their position. Here are a few of Pigliucci’s criticisms of the “community of reason”:

  • Dismissal of philosophy. There are some scientist/bloggers who do this, but most hold a more nuanced position: they are simply critical of the kind of philosophy that reads like theology, involving assumptions and assertions that are dubious and questionable. [JAC: Aside from Alex Rosenberg, I can’t think of many rationalists who completely dismiss the value of philosophy.]
  • Determinism that negates “free will”. I think that most scientists on the determinism side of the Free Will debate are very aware that the science on this subject is not complete and there is still more to discover and learn about the subject. [JAC:  I still maintain that while there is certainly more to learn about the brain, our “decisions” are completely predetermined by physical factors, although a bit of quantum indeterminacy may occasionally intrude. In that sense, at least, our will isn’t free. Nor does Pigliucci offer an alternative.]
  • Richard Dawkins on religious instruction as child abuse. Richard has repeatedly clarified this statement by explaining that he didn’t mean that religious instruction was identical to other forms of child abuse such as beating or neglecting one’s offspring. Rather, he asked us to consider that this idea was meant as a consciousness-raising exercise—to show that brainwashing children in this way is injurious. Yes, some people use this as an anti-Dawkins slogan. They missed the point.
  • Scientism. It is hard—really hard—to find anyone who dogmatically insists that science has all the answers, or is the only way to find any answers. This accusation is nearly always a straw-man. The most extreme position I have seen any of the big name scientist-atheists take is that science is the only way to test whether something is true or not.

Pigliucci also has a list of suggestions of how communities could improve, and many of these are good—and have in fact been seen recently on several other well-known sites and blogs in recent weeks (including this one).

The only one I dispute is this:

Keep in mind the distinction between humor and sarcasm, leave the latter to comedians.

The tone of Ben Goldacre’s excellent Bad Science was at least a part of its attraction for me when I first read it. Goldacre has both the writing skills and the careful research and expertise in his area to back up his snark. Sarcasm works, and sometimes is appropriate. While not everyone who is sarcastic has a good point to make, it isn’t necessarily a conversation-stopper, and even the untrained can sometimes use it with sufficient panache to make it an appropriate weapon.

In that respect, I think this quote from Henry Van Dyke is apposite:

The woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.

This community’s strength is its many voices that are silent no more.

. . . even the ones who don’t know their Latin.

85 thoughts on “Guest post: Pigliuicci defines the “community of reason”

    1. He’s wrong about Dawkins and child abuse…in TGD Dawkins clearly says that being raised Catholic can be worse than physical abuse.

  1. “. It is hard—really hard—to find anyone who dogmatically insists that science has all the answers, or is the only way to find any answers.”

    Science, while it may not be the ONLY way to find answers, is an approach, a way of asking questions that greatly increases the odds that whatever information those questions uncover is valid.

    And, as Jerry and many others have pointed out, all those answers are provisional, and leave open the possibility that greater information will alter them, or in some cases, render them false.

    People who rely on faith, whether religion- based, or just-plain-pigheadedness-based, are not open to additional information. They just BELIEVE, so STFU and quit asking questions!! L

    1. Dawkins has more than once commented that just because science does !*not*! have all the answers !*doesn’t*! mean that religion !*has*! them!!!
      And as I posted on this blog the other day, when religion !*does*! have good insights into ethics or human nature, it can still be asserted that these were obtained through naturalist means (often by employing non-religious sources.)

      Reason is a sifter/tester/touchstone of insights that may be initially obtained through intuition or feeling, but religious people frequently plead that scientists use reason to repress or deny feeling. It is ultimately not true.

    2. If you search this blog for “other ways of knowing”, you get quite a list, including this one from today:

      …. But where [Konnikova] goes wrong is in concluding … that there are other “nonscientific” ways of knowing involved in what she calls the “humanities.”

      The regular Jerry’s regular take, right? That it’s an oxymoron to talk about “‘nonscientific’ ways of knowing” … that’s what I personally would call “scientism”, and it isn’t hard to find.

      1. I think most of us are waiting for examples of things that one can know without observation and verification (science broadly defined).

      2. I think the confusion comes from lack of clear definition of ‘knowing’. The scientism accusation is often used to dehumanize scientists and atheists, to imply they don’t get the subtler aspects of life, of beauty, and love, and longing, that this subtler form of consciousness is the privileged domain of those sensitive enough to perceive god. And that’s an obvious load of rubbish.

        What can you really ‘know’ from religion that isn’t already a part of the human cultural storehouse of language, meaning, and emotion? In other words what can religion know that is not subjective? And what is subjective is essentially the creative and imaginative work of the brain.

        Of course we can learn from the Bible, just as we can learn from reading Moby Dick. But we wouldnt accord Herman Melville special rights to proclaim hidden access to secret knowledge of the origins of life, the stars, the universe. How would he know such things? We accord him knowledge and wisdom about human subjective experience, and this is the only possible legitimate realm for religion. Why? Because religion has no unique means of gaining knowledge about what is millions of miles away or millions of years in the past. Only reason and observation of nature can accomplish these tasks. Religion’s claims to knowing what is true can’t really go beyond the realm of human psychology and emotion and experience.

        Yet religion makes a grander claim than this: revelation, and direct connection to a higher source of wisdom that is external to the human mind. This is what science disputes. Science doesn’t dispute that religion makes people feel secure, gives them pleasurable states of mind when they join with their communities in prayer and song. Of course people feel something or they wouldn’t do it. Scientists are quite capable of recognizing these feelings and why people value them. And all this happens without needing knowledge of science on the part of the participants. This doesn’t mean that the participants know why they feel what they do. They assign it to a supernatural explanation, while scientists assign it to a biochemical explanation. They can’t both be right, but that is effectively the nonsensical position of those who throw about the accusation of scientism and claim that religion is a special way of knowing.

        1. I had some post modernist once tell me that science can’t tell you why rain is beautiful.

          After 10 years living in Ireland I had to assure him that the “beauty” of rain is most certainly in the eye of the beholder!

          There are certainly fields that warrant different forms of investigation than the scientific method (History for instance), but there is a vast array of fields that claim to offer “differnt ways of knowing” and yet what they judge to be “knowledge” is nothing of the sort.

          Suggesting that religion and post-modernism have nothing to offer a curious human, in terms of better understanding the universe around him, does not make me guilty of scientism.

          1. Post modernism is partly about privileging the subjective over the objective, and it shares that with religion.

            What history and science have in common is that they are pursuits of truth that use reason and observation of what is outside of their head, what is not a priori judgement but rather evidence driven inquiry. That is the way to at least approach truth asymptotically, as opposed to floating about unmoored from any solid foundation in empirical fact, as the religious do and the post-modernists often do.

            I think the post-modernists make some legitimate points, especially when it comes to analyzing power structures and the unnatural culturally embedded assumptions that perpetuate imbalances and injustices. When they go too far is when they drift into the realm of saying that there is absolutely no objective truth, as opposed to focusing on subjective habits of thought that pretend to be founded upon objective truth, but really aren’t, for example patriarchy and religion.

      3. gbjames, You’ve defined “science” so broadly that even “nonscientific” cultures do it. Even “power of prayer” true believers would tell you they are observing the results of their actions. Whereas “the scientific method” involves things like constructing well-formulated theories, statistical comparison with a null hypothesis, submission of data to peer review, etc.

        Jeff, you’re right about “knowing”, which tends to lead too directly to talking about “facts in the world”. “Wisdom”, meaning something like “how to lead a better life” would be better. One can learn about living life from reading the Bible or Moby Dick; reading Moby Dick is not an application of the scientific method. More to the point, neither is hanging out with the Grandkids.

        The rest of your post is strawman stuff. 1, I’m not accusing eg JAC of not appreciating beauty, only of asserting scientism. 2, The claim that scientism exists is not equivalent to the claim that revealed religions are true.

        Biped, you make my point for me: some things, like the Beauty of rain, are in the eye of the beholder. If you are claiming that beauty arises only from justified true belief, then you are asserting scientism. I would not use the pejorative “guilty”.

        1. My point wasn’t that you personally are asserting Jerry can’t appreciate beauty or love. My point was that in general the accusation of scientism (by others, not by you) is an attempt to reserve a special domain for religion that is inaccessible to the scientific method or point of view. Not from you, but one sometimes sees uses that seem either explicitly or implicitly to imply there is something inhuman about scientists, something lacking that religious people have and scientists don’t.

          That particular claim is the straw man.

          What is in fact true is that the only domains unique to religion are narratives of the subjective, emotional, and psychological sort. Some of these narratives are of practical value to humans regarding conduct, family, and work, and some are mythological with no known basis in actual human observation or measurement, but seem to evolve out of imaginative human story telling and human need to have an explanation for their place in the world, even if that explanation is fictional.

          Science conflicts with religion not in the former area of practical advice for family, work, and conduct, but in the latter area of explaining the world, the universe, and our place in it.

          Religious claims about the world external to the human mind, for example claims about the soul, heaven, miracles, the existence of god and the creation of the universe and life, directly conflict with the findings of science and are fair game for science to criticize, which should be possible without being accused of being callow inhuman unfeeling robotic automatons, which is the way those fond of bandying about the term scientism like to see it.

          1. “I know you are, but what am I?” is not a valid argument.

            The point is that there is something that EVERYBODY has or does that hyper-rationalists like JAC or Linda don’t seem to want to admit.

            Off to my day, see ya some other post.

            1. Huh? I don’t see how you could reduce my response to a childish evasion. You would have to explain that a bit to be taken seriously.

              What is it that every body has or does that “hyper-rationalists” won’t admit? Again, you really haven’t explained yourself. On it’s surface that claim sounds absurd.

        2. The fact that a “power of prayer” believer claims to be observing the results of their activity doesn’t mean that they are, in fact, doing so. My loosely defined definition of science is one that we generally agree upon here at the WEIT website.

          So, I guess I’m still waiting for examples of things that you can know without observation and verification (science broadly defined).

  2. Scientism. It is hard—really hard—to find anyone who dogmatically insists that science has all the answers, or is the only way to find any answers.

    The former is of course a strawman (I’ve never seen anyone assert that science has all the answers, obviously it doesn’t).

    However, I, for one, would assert that indeed “science is the only way to find answers” (if by “answers” one means answers with enough evidence to assess how reliable the answers are, rather than guesses that might be vaguely right by chance).

    But, in asserting that I am really asserting that anything that leads to such answers is part of “science”, thus adopting a broad definition of “science”.

    And in asserting that I’m really saying that the sphere of knowledge is a unified and seamless whole, and that there are no rigid demarkation zones between different disciplines, where radically different rules of evidence apply.

    Thus any type of enquiry that does lead to evidence-supported answers merges seamlessly into other areas of “science”, and there is no reason to argue for radically different methods in different “magisteria”.

    1. When most people strawman “scientism” they are thinking that only people in lab coats have all of the answers. The real position is that the scientific method is the best method we have for finding reliable answers about our world. The method isn’t restricted to people in white lab coats. Anyone can do science.

    2. Clearly science does not “have all the answers”. If it did, the search for knowledge would be over.

      I would ask, what “answers” does humanity have which are not the product of science?

      1. I would ask, what “answers” does humanity have which are not the product of science?

        I’m guessing that Pigliuicci would argue that maths and philosophy are examples of non-sciences that also produce answers.

        But I would argue that they only provide answers (at least, answers about the observable universe around us) to the extent that they are empirically confirmed, and are therefore ultimately the product of science.

        Yes, you can argue logically from axioms, but that only has any relevance to us if those axioms and that logic are empirically validated.

  3. In the past, I have found so many of Pigliucci’s pronouncements to be silly or incorrect so I stopped reading his blog and dismiss him as a poor philosopher, therefore I am not surprised that he makes wrong claims.

  4. The fundamental problem for people like Pigliucci is that some bloggers have moved beyond mere atheism and are now engaged in the Social Justice movement. This causes problems as racism sexism and homophobia occurs among atheists. I would argue that on the European side of the Atlantic, objections to Atheism is not a major concern, what is a concern are LGBT issues, and poverty.The need for Atheism is an area of concern within Social justice as Religion is used to justify oppression but atheism is not the be all and end all and action in other areas is of critical importance.

    1. I would argue that atheism is not required to combat religiously justified social oppression. What is required is strong secularism and that can involve the cooperation of both non-believers and believers who share similar values.
      Individual atheists make different value judgements. What we share (well, excluding some outliers, like SE Cupp) is a wish for a clear separation between church and state.
      The history books don’t paint a pretty picture of when atheism has been equated with one political viewpoint.

    2. Those issues are not atheist issues, they are ideological issues not really directly related to atheism. While they represent worthwhile goals, there is substantial room for variation as to how those should be addressed. Atheists will have differing approaches, there is not one true faith.

  5. Point of order: Ben Goldacre’s book and blog are titled “Bad Science”. The “Bad Medicine” title is Prof. David Wootton’s.


  6. I’m with Grania on this – I think Massimo’s post is generally pretty good. I can’t get behind it all, and I’m even with Grania, largely, on which bits I can’t get behind. But I do think Massimo is moving in the correct direction in wondering how we can have more productive discussions in which we’re more prepared to learn from each other.

    I don’t much like his list of role models. I actually think, for example, that there’s an unfortunate tendency to overlook Richard Dawkins – you don’t have to agree with every point that he makes to appreciate how courteous and gentle he usually manages to be, even under great pressure and provocation. If we could all manage this to the same extent, we’d have amuch healthier culture within the community of reason that Massimo is talking about.

    1. I agree regarding Dawkins. People simply can’t shake their pre-conceptions of the man.

      However, he does call for ridicule to be used as a weapon against religion. While I’ve always agreed with him on that, spending a small amount of time around the FTB camp over the past few weeks has forced me to lean towards Phil Plait’s “don’t be a dick” stance on that.

      It works if you have a very strong reductio ad absurdum argument. But we’re increasingly seeing someting more akin to appeal to ridicule fallacy to the point that a rational discussion cannot take place.

      1. When there is no rational discussion to take place — such as with those who claim that the Universe is several thousand years old and that there was a global flood in the midst of the Egyptian Fourth Dynasty — then ridicule to the point of shutting down the irrational discussion is exactly what’s called for.

        You’d ridicule an adult who was collecting donations to fund Peter Pan’s antics against Captain Hook (assuming this isn’t a literary or theatrical exercise, of course). So why wouldn’t you ridicule an adult collecting donations to fund Jesus’s antics against Satan?



        1. I can’t disagree with anything you’ve said there. But I’d say those are examples of where you do have a very strong case.

        2. I totally agree with you Ben. Mocking and sarcasm are great tools to prove how absurd (and wrong) opinions/beliefs can be. Especially if they’re supporting the dissemination of lies.

    2. Indeed. Many echo your thoughts about Richard Dawkins, I watch a huge amount of youtube videos and this has been pointed out innumerable times in the comments. Patience of a saint, courteous, gentle. Though personally I am a fan of him because of his relentless quest for the truth and would remain a supporter if his decorum metamorphosed into that of an impolite pitbull.

  7. Nice article Grania. Like a lot of Pigliuicci’s writings his piece contains some good stuff and some idiosyncratic elements.
    I’m not sure how convincing it is likely to be, however, as he makes sure to avoid naming names. Those who are his likely targets (and no, I’m not naming names either – I’m too young to this weeks ‘Witch of the week’!) are unlikely to see his accusations as directed at them, or if they do, will regard them as strawmen.

    1. JAC: I’m sure I’m a target, as I have been on Massimo’s blog for a while (to be fair, I’ve gone after him, too!), but it’s a sign of Ceiling Cat’s magnanimity that I have posted approbation for Massimo’s essay!

    2. I don’t think you have to have read much of Pigliucci’s writing to figure out who he’s targeting in his post.

      Among others: Dawkins (for the “child abuse” line), Coyne (for alleged scientism and dismissal of philosophy, and for his position on free will), Harris (“science can answer moral questions”), Myers (“apologia on behalf of a culture of insults”). I suspect he’s also thinking of Bill Maher (alternative medicine) and Penn Jillette (global warming denialism).

      And on some examples I would agree with him. But that just further illustrates the problem with that kind of post: he starts with some good discussion of how just calling yourself skeptics or critical thinkers or a “community of reason,” but it’s not hard to see the score-settling lurking a millimeter below the surface.

      1. If he could make these points without the implication of “score-settling” that would be an improvement.

        1. Honestly, I’m not sure there’s a way to write on that theme without doing it.

          Once you set out to identify the people who are using “un-reason,” it almost by necessity is going to entail a laundry list of people (whether identified by name or by subject matter) with whom you disagree. (With the exception, I guess, of subjects on which disagreement is just a matter of subjective opinion.)

          I guess this kind of article could be a useful corrective for anyone who was under the impression that the “community of reason” was free of “unreason.” I’m not sure how many people are under that impression, though.

          I guess I just have milder expectations for a “community of reason” these days. Basically, I think the most you can ask for is:

          1. General agreement on principles for discovering the truth and making arguments (burden is on the claimant, claims should be supported by evidence, etc.) In other words, we reject things like argument by anecdote or by what feels good or sophistry about “we don’t know everything, therefore my brand of speculation is valid,” even though each of us may fall into those and other errors on occasion.

          2. Issue-by-issue coalitions. We may not all agree on, e.g., alternative medicine, but enough of us do.

  8. Thanks for providing this exhaustive list of corrections to Pigliucci’s post.

    It seems that he isn’t a particularly thorough researcher. Failing to consider even the simplest nuances in other people’s positions, accepting opinions from second hand sources as fact etc.

    I’m reminded of the reaction to the God Delusion when it was first released. Articles were written all over the world based on preconceived ideas of the book’s content. These blatantly false articles were then reproduced by other journalists.

    One of the funniest was the claim that Dawkins didn’t consider the beauty of art and literature influenced by religion. That’s despite the section in chapter 3 entitled “The Argument from Beauty” and chapter 9, “Religious Education as a Part of Literary Culture”, covering exactly that.

    Germaine Greer arrogantly mocked Dawkins for not considering that religion could be adaptive, despite large sections of chapter 5, “The Origins of Religion”, covering that topic.

    Either of these misconceptions could have been remedied by a short perusal of the table of contents alone!

    If I’ve learned anything from this experience, it’s that you must never rely on a secondary source, even if that source is a well respected accademic.

    1. And it continues. The Catholic Herald frequently has a post denigrating Dawkins but never arguing about the points he makes. The comments make it abundantly obvious that many have never read any of his works.

    2. Gee!! I thought the worst part of Dawkins’ book was his critique of Albert Einstein’s views of religion. And if that’s the worst part, he’s doing awfully well!!!!

  9. I’m questioning the use of the word “rationalist” or “rationalism.” There is a very strong take on this word that identifies a powerful error: “logic without facts.”

    Short form: if a thinker can legitimately apply logic to premises that contain imaginary unproven-to-exist existents, and his logic is “valid” per modal logic or some other evaluator, could not a theologian arguing about the number of angels that can fit on the head of a pin be called a “rationalist?”

    There are many places to delve into this point, but just as a starter, this blurb from the Wikepedia article (on the notion that if is mentioned in ‘pedia, there are other more credible places to scope it out.)

    “Rationalism should not be confused with rationality.”

    My main point is: Reason must require both facts and logic.

    1. Yes, I think atheism is based a LOT more or radical evidence-based empiricism, than any kind of appeal to reason!

  10. I’m puzzled by the comment that Alex Rosenberg (the philosopher!) completely dismisses the value of philosophy. If so, where?

    As to accusing someone of scientism being a straw man–Alex Rosenberg is relevant there are as well. In his new book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality he affirms scientism (though gives it a special and slightly murky definition).

  11. It is easy to get behind Grania Spinges response, but I feel it delves into a subject that diverges in all directions. Reading the links in “in recent weeks a number of prominent bloggers and atheists have drawn attention to the fact that this tactic is harmful and damaging,” they vary between discussing use of epithets (Fincke) to strawmen (Harris).

    I can’t but feel that this is a social move fueled by similar concerns that lies beneath the recent web meme of “web hate” and the skeptic movement debate on sexism. In both cases there is little to no statistics that says it is a specific problem for the time or the group, but all the reasons to think it is no worse than before or outside the group. (Which is not to say that these are not odious problems.)

    The irony that there is no to little statistics that shore up my perception of these movements do not escape me. Maybe someone could do a study of this, the web is young and interesting while the social tendencies that come or go are old but still interesting.

    Added fuel could come from Harris’ & Grodin’s observation that they simply have no time, the growth of the web is demanding and their responses is responses to that. And perhaps AndrewD’s note on ever ongoing diversification of groups is another incentive.

    I think Fincke has a sound basis. One should be able to criticize a group or an idea (no epithet) without an individual taking it personally or be singled out (epithet). And emotional motivation works, see Rosenhouse on how accommodationists tactics are inferior to atheists according to science.

    As for Pigliucci’s simplifications in his criticisms, I would reflect back Harris’s strawman characterization. I think it is fair to observe that philosophy fails the outsider’s test as much as theology and religion, in that different schools or philosophies exist and can maintain opposite conclusions indefinitely. This is testable of course, and the same goes for scientism that has no need to be proposed on a dogmatic basis. What would be the point of using dogma among a universe of evidence, especially among skeptics?

    Maybe Pigliucci, in Spinge’s account, can’t make a stronger criticism based on philosophy. But that is just pitiful.

  12. Since “Procter” is sort of Latin for “overseer” the error could also be interpreted as a pun: “post hoc ergo procter hoc” = “after that, therefore because of God.” (Or, since it doesn’t quite work as a pun — propter is the part that means “because” — maybe we can call it a Freudian slip instead.)

  13. One of the criticisms I’d add of our community is the annoying frequency with which skeptics make the “fallacy fallacy”, which is to presume that because a claim has been poorly argued, or a fallacy has been made, therefore the entire argument is wrong and can be dismissed.

    This is one of the things that’s extremely prevalent over on Freethoughtblogs (which, it seems, is a hub of confrontationalism and petty squabbling, even amongst the bloggers themselves), which makes it practically unreadable for me. I think people are so obsessed with their self-avowed skepticism that they take it upon themselves to point out every flaw in every argument, which is not necessarily a bad thing in itself, but it often amounts to pedantry and petulant, exaggerative whining.

    There is no way to transmit an idea from one mind to another digitally; language is a tool with noise in its signal, and we owe it to each other to aim for the kernel of a person’s argument instead of fixating on an argument’s delivery unless it really, truly undermines itself.

    1. The fallacy fallacy isn’t about dismissing an argument on the grounds that it’s fallacious, but rather assuming that the conclusion of that argument is false on the grounds that it’s fallacious.

      You can dismiss an argument without that implying the conclusion is incorrect.

      1. I don’t understand that assertion. Can one not have two arguments for some conclusion, one of which is incorrect while the other is correct? Can I not dismiss the argument that stop signs protect life by emitting protective magic bubbles without dismissing the conclusion that stop signs protect lives?

        1. Of course you can, that’s pretty much the point I was making.

          Callum suggested that if you dismiss an argument on the grounds that it is fallacious, you are commiting fallacy fallacy. I am saying that the definition of fallacy fallacy implied by his post is incorrect.

          Fallacy fallacy means you have assumed the conclusion to be incorrect on the basis that the argument is fallacious.

          You don’t even need 2 arguments. I can dismiss a single argument on the grounds that it is fallacious without simultaneously claiming that means the conclusion is false.

    2. “This is one of the things that’s extremely prevalent over on Freethoughtblogs (which, it seems, is a hub of confrontationalism and petty squabbling, even amongst the bloggers themselves)”
      Whilst I didn’t mention FTB in my post above, it is true that many bloggers there are fighting for what they (and I) see as justice. If they weren’t “a hub of confrontationalism” then the accusations of “Hivemind” or “groupmind” would be more justified. I like the attitudes of the bloggers and commentators at FTB, the arguments among both bloggers and commentators are useful in examining my own privileges which are extensive. There is an element of “if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem” at FTB but given the outrageous attacks on some bloggers over the recent misogyny/sexual harassment war I think this is understandable.
      I realise JAC’s website is run on different lines to FTB and is not the place to continue this argument. I also enjoy Jerry’s posts and recognise that it takes more than one approach to change peoples minds.

      1. It’s very often not just “if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem”, but “if you don’t share my perspective, you are a moron who doesn’t deserve my respect, and I will make no attempts to understand why you think the way you do.”

        1. “It’s very often not just “if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem”, but “if you don’t share my perspective, you are a moron who doesn’t deserve my respect, and I will make no attempts to understand why you think the way you do.””

          That’s my experience too. Also, try making a genuine attempt to understand their point of view, by daring to ask a question and you’ll be accused of JAQing off.

          Misunderstand one of their arguments and you’ll be a accused of straw mannery, but when they strawman you expect to be told it’s your fault they didn’t understand you. At no point does the rational debate or any kind of understanding emerge from such exchanges. They just seem to have a community subscribed list of cop-out responses designed to shut down any dissenting argument. It’s like dealing with the scientologist “what are your crimes” response to criticism, the religious “god works in mysterious ways”, or the school playground “I know you are but what am I” cop out.

          I would have thought that a group interested in social justice would also be interested in educating people and spreading the word. These guys have made it clear on countless occassions that that isn’t the case. As far as I can tell, the only new followers they attract are the impressionable, those who already hold similar views to theirs and those who are willing to succumb to bullying.

  14. The Pontefice Massimo Algorithm:

    1. Posit a set encompassing “skeptics, atheists and secular humanists (and all the assorted synonyms thereof: freethinkers, rationalists, and even brights)”.
    2. Define the set as the “Community of Reason”, CoR for short.
    3. Assume all members of the CoR set to be interacting via hierarchical, one-to-many-relational websites.
    4. Posit the social reality of the CoR set thus defined, hence a sociological entity.
    5. Decree by fiat of Pontefice Massimo a syllabus errorum of thoughtcrimes committed by CoR set members.
    6. Issue by fiat of Pontefice Massimo a “decalogue-minus-one” aimed at regulating social intercourse within the CoR community.

    “Hmm, it’s a funny thing you know. Now that I’ve actually come to tell the story to someone else, I mean — doesn’t it strike you as odd, Number One?”
    Straight out of Golgafrincham.

    It is however entirely rational for the Pontefice Massimo to want sarcasm banished from the discourse of the Community of Reason: as it is, he’s making a prime target.

  15. Grania Spingies: The atheist /skeptic online community is not always a bastion of the very best of rationality and reason, and is often rife with muddled thinking, odd ideas and sometimes plain anti-science beliefs… An atheist can, for example, be an climate-change denialist, or someone can claim they are a skeptic but then profess skepticism about the efficacy of vaccines, e.g.:…

    It is refreshing to see Grania Spingies acknowledge vaccine denial as an example of “muddled thinking.” Just over a week ago, I read a reposting of Spingies’ criticism of an article by Ian Murphy in which Murphy dinged someone for vaccine denial, and Spingies dismissed it as “essentially espousing ideas that Murphy doesn’t agree with.” Does Spingies now acknowledge that vaccine denial is wrong, and not just a political difference? How about some consistency?

    1. “Murphy dinged someone for vaccine denial, and Spingies dismissed it as “essentially espousing ideas that Murphy doesn’t agree with.”

      That misrepresents Grania’s article. She doesn’t defend vaccine denial. The larger point is that just because someone holds an incorrect belief doesn’t immediately throw them into the “most awful” category.

  16. While the role models mentioned by Massimo are all worthy of admiration, they’re also a tad….boring. There is room for a greater level of assertiveness, while stopping short of being a complete jerk.

    1. The “jerks” serve a purpose, too. I am routinely enraged by their writings, but I learn a great deal from the vicious back-and-forth of the arguments. Obviously, this is not to everyone’s taste, but readers are always free to find content elsewhere, even if they (the readers) think that their feet have been stapled to the floor of any particular blog.

      Yes, this is producing a huge amount of controversy and tension in the “community”, but it’s a young community, and there are a lot of bugs to iron out. The “jerks” serve to expedite the process.

      1. I read a lot of criticism about these “jerks” or the “New Atheists” being shrill and whining, but for me they fulfil the important role of publicising the atheism/secular agenda. Religions in general still have a large say in our culture so the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris raise awareness among the majority ordinary people who are less engaged with the issues than the bloggers and their commenters.

        1. One less obvious but important role for the New Atheists uncompromising and vocal approach could be to open up a space for atheists less willing to be embroiled in controversy to nonetheless find the courage to come out of the closet.

          For example, I recently read on Mano Singham’s blog at Free Thought Blogs about casual references to atheism by public figures, and he specifically referred to Barry Manilow making mild atheist friendly remarks on stage.

          This sort of thing, while not leading a revolution, creates a kind of cultural zone of comfort for people to open up with more confidence. So the New Atheists, despite the criticism from those who feel threatened, are running interference and making it easier for others to come into the open.

  17. “Steve Novella (as well as the other Novellas)”
    Wait a second, why mention all the SGU team while leaving out one particular member?
    Shame on you Massimo, what have you got against Evan Bernstein?

  18. “Scientism. This is the pernicious tendency to believe that science is the only paragon of knowledge and the ultimate arbiter of what counts as knowledge. And the best way to determine if you are perniciously inclined toward scientism is to see whether you vigorously deny its existence in the community.”
    I like this quote. You see, I actually do believe that. As such I freely admit that I am an adherent of scientism. According to Pigliucci this is nót the best way to determine if I am inclined towards it. Such a nice paradox!
    It doesn’t mean of course that science will find áll the answers thinkable. Science for one thing doesn’t answer unscientific questions like “are the tides round or square? Beautiful or ugly? Right or wrong?” So what? Answering such questions does not provide any knowledge.
    What’s more, science possibly is not even able to answer all scientific questions, ie possibly cannot always give answers that do provide knowledge. But until now I haven’t met a better way.

    1. According to Massimo you need to deny the existence of scientism to be guilty of scientism. Sounds kind of like a postmodern deepity.

  19. I just want to say thank you to JC for whatever magic he does to keep WEIT such a pleasantly civil place for discussion. Every now and then I browse around other places on the web and, while I find much of interest on other sites I often find that I am left with a net negative taste from the various forms of unpleasantness that seems to plague so many web sites. In contrast, I always leave WEIT feeling better than when I came, and that is really worth something.

  20. Accomodationism is a kind of “bargain” made with those religious people that are both open to genuine science and not engaged in knee-jerk rage at having their world-view challenged on any little point, even they can’t discard it wholesale. As I have said so many times here before, I think it a political necessity.

    I think the decision to be an atheist may be informed by science, but I do not think it to be a !*strictly*! scientific conclusion, more of a (informed) philosophical one, a strong bet.

    1. That’s why I’m not sure if I’m a New Atheist or an accomodist. It doesn’t help of course that I’m not American.
      Yes, I’m willing to compromise with believers to a certain extent, as long as they value my rights as an atheist. In other words: I want something back.
      For instance: joint prayer on my work? Fine, as long as I don’t have to participate ánd I am not looked down upon for it. Fortunately that’s the case where I live, even if atheists are as small a majority as in the States.

      1. Of course people who work together need to accommodate one another’s needs to be comfortable and productive.

        That’s not accommodationism.

        Accommodationism is compromising in the philosophical debate about the compatibility or non-compatibility between science and religion.

        An accomodationist would be willing to accept that religion contributes some important kind of knowledge, that religion is an alternate valid way of knowing Truth; that science and religion are non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) that both contribute unique and valid forms of truth.

        Those who are not accommodationists believe that religion can offer no truth or knowledge about objective phenomena; nothing but speculation, guessing, and fictionalizing dressed up as “revelation” that religion has no means to test or verify as true.

        An accommodationist might balk at accepting the following statement: claims about the afterlife, the soul, God, miracles, etc. are empty and based on nothing but imagination and wishful thinking.

    2. Accomodationism is a kind of “bargain” made with those religious people that are both open to genuine science and not engaged in knee-jerk rage at having their world-view challenged on any little point, even they can’t discard it wholesale. As I have said so many times here before, I think it a political necessity.

      Well, what exactly do you mean by “accomodationism?” I take it to mean the position that atheists and other secularists should treat Christianity and other forms of traditional religious belief as intellectually respectable and/or socially benign. That we should refrain from making strong public criticisms of religion. I’m not talking here about only specific religious doctrines, but about religion in general.

      If that’s what you mean by accommodationism, then I unreservedly reject it. I don’t believe that religion is intellectually respectable or harmless, and I don’t believe I have any obligation to pretend otherwise in the interests of making political alliances with religious moderates against conervatives or fundamentalists.

      1. I do NOT think atheists should refrain from saying they reject religion or what their reasons for it are (though I might have issues with over-the-top sarcasm or snark.)

        I DO think that some forms of religion are partially socially benign (although they have indirect and less immediate negative consequences such as promoting cognitive dissonance) though it is usually the less “traditional” ones.

        Pre-18th century, it’s a bit hard to say to what degree religion could be considered “intellectually respectable”, but religion has certainly since then been subject to a series of significant assaults but seems like Rasputin to have a very difficult time dying.

        1. I DO think that some forms of religion are partially socially benign (although they have indirect and less immediate negative consequences such as promoting cognitive dissonance) though it is usually the less “traditional” ones.

          Well, perhaps some forms of religion are benign — some versions of Buddhism, perhaps. But I don’t think any version of Christianity is. One of the basic problems, as Sam Harris says, is that even “moderate” Christians generally assert that religious faith is a legitimate basis for belief. That helps to enable and perpetuate fundamentalism. The real problem is faith itself, not just particular faith-based claims.

    3. Christopher Hitchens is a good example of approaching atheism from a non-scientific perspective, but rather from a philosophical/political/economic/moral view that draws some information from the sciences.

  21. OMG, I’m No True Rationalist!

    “Aside from Alex Rosenberg …”

    How about Larry Krauss? He can speak for himself of course. Then again philosophy is good for keeping philosophers employed.

  22. On free will it’s true that science doesn’t have the final answers. It was nice that Pigliucci was willing to concede the possibility of science having something to say on the matter. My gut feeling reading between the lines was that Pigliucci feels that Philosophy is the real authority on free will, nonetheless.

    I don’t buy that. Philosophy has done a good job identifying the concept and considering all the possible ways to consider free will and determinism. Philosophers are great at discussing and arguing about all the possibilities.

    But I think left to their own devices philosophers would never ever be able to answer the questions (unless they become scientists). They can only identify the questions, and speculate on possible answers, which can help scientists figure out what to look for.

    The actual answers will come from science figuring out how the brain really works, which will answer the question of why we appear to have free will, and whether there really is a kind of free will like most people want to believe they have.

    I strongly suspect, given what is already understood, that the answer will be no, there is no free will. There is very flexible intelligence capable of predicting and learning, which helps create the conscious but illusory perception that the workings of the brain involve free will.

    The idea that not having free will implies no responsibility is absurd. It seems like an obsolete worry that came from philosophers. Of course people can be held accountable and be deterred. They don’t need free will for that. A deterrent just adds new inputs to the intelligent analysis of possible options, a way for society to reduce the probability of undesirable outcomes resulting from the deterministic processes of the brain. People can still think of this as moral judgement and punishment, but still that won’t mean there is free will. It will mean that certain ways of thinking about moral responsibility create emotional states in people that induce them to think that way.

    And knowing that free will doesn’t exist won’t change how people feel immediately. People will still experience the emotions of moral outrage and indignation and vengefulness. That won’t stop just because we understand the brain better.

  23. Pity I am always too late to these parties due to the time zone I am in.

    Pigliucci’s post seems like the a amalgamation of banalities and inanities:

    1. There are people calling themselves rationalists who believe irrational things.

    Well, duh. There are people calling themselves Christians who don’t believe that Jesus was the son of their god, or that said god even exists. One should call them out and try to educate them, but that is not really some astonishing piece of news.

    2. Boohoo, everybody is so mean to philosophy.

    As has already been pointed out, that is mostly a strawman. There seems to be some weird fear on his part that the biologists and physicists will come and close down his department because they don’t see any point in it. If I were him, I would watch managerial and bottom-line-fetishist university presidents instead. And then he always says that ultimately scientism will hurt science, but never presents a convincing mechanism of action, ie how that would work.

    One could add that any perceived scientism on the one side is more than mirrored by scholars in the humanities who consider everybody who hasn’t read Plato and Shakespeare a barbarian but are downright proud of not understanding thermodynamics or natural selection.

    But what particularly annoys me about this pontification on how to do rationalism right is that it comes from somebody who is perennially guilty of applying the fallacy of special pleading to religion and who promotes others whose entire schtick is to commit the same fallacy (ie accommodationists) as role models:

    “Yes, if there is no evidence for Bigfoot where there should have been evidence, then science is of course allowed to conclude that Bigfoot does not exist. What, you say that is exactly the same situation as with god? Nonsense, that question is beyond the scope of science, because priests alone are allowed to move goalposts where cryptozoologists and quacks aren’t. Why? Arghleblarglescientismgnah.”

  24. “Kat”:

    And just so you are all aware, vaccines don’t save lives. Vaccines were invented long after diseases such as mumps, measles, and polio were basically null.

    Breathtakingly spectacular and stubbornly willful ignorance.

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