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.