HorganGate: The troll pretends to answer his critics

May 20, 2016 • 11:30 am

Well, I’m trying not to get too deeply sucked into the fracas about John Horgan’s Admonition to Skeptics, so I’ll just note that there are two good critiques, one by Orac on Respectful Insolence and the other by Steve Novella on Neurologica.  They’re similar, but both worth reading, and both make the point that Horgan’s complaints about skeptics’ neglect of “hard targets” like medicine and physics (and war!), while concentrating on “soft targets” like religion, homeopathy, and opposition to GMOs, are completely misguided. As I noted before I read these two critiques, skeptics have been dealing with those hard targets for years, but only informed people have the chops to analyze stuff like string theory or the multiverse notion (which they have criticized). I’ll let Orac’s peroration stand for all the pushback Horgan has gotten:

Of course ending war is important, but so what? As Loxton puts it, almost everything skeptics do is less important than ending war, which is “obvious to the point of silliness.” That includes Horgan as a “small-s skeptic.” In fact, I’d go beyond Loxton. Why isn’t Horgan out there curing cancer? A half a million people die of cancer every year in the US alone, after all! Or what about malaria? Over 200 million people a year suffer from malaria, and 415,000 die. Or what about environmental pollution? Or racism? Or sexism? Or ending totalitarian regimes? Why is Horgan wasting his precious time bashing skeptics when he should be bashing the “hard targets” like cancer screening, multiverses, psychiatric drugs, and war? Inquiring minds want to know!

Obviously—painfully so—there will always be issues more important or more impactful than what any of us does, with rare exceptions. Pointing to them and using them to denigrate someone’s efforts as pointless, which, make no mistake, is what Hogan comes across as doing, is not constructive. Rather, it is a very old strategy to denigrate that which you consider unimportant. A much better question is this: Is what one is doing worthwhile? Coming back to the episode of homeopathy, I say yes: Getting rid of homeopathy, if skeptics could accomplish it, would be worthwhile. Pushing for the FDA to regulate homeopathy the way it regulates real drugs would be worthwhile. Getting the FTC to regulate claims about homeopathy would be worthwhile. Keeping people from being defrauded by psychics is worthwhile. Countering antivaccine misinformation is worthwhile and saves lives. It’s also a direct outgrowth of skeptical activism against alternative medicine, as many antivaccine views derive from pseudoscientific health beliefs.

The bottom line is that, contrary to what Horgan implies, the skeptic movement, be it big-S or little-S, does not dogmatically worship at the altars of Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, James Randi, or anyone else, and it can walk and chew gum at the same time. Horgan would know that if he weren’t so clueless about just what skepticism is and what skeptics do. Yes, we can be tribal at times. We’re human beings, after all. However, I haven’t seen any evidence that skeptics are detectably more prone to “tribalism” than any other large group of humans, and it’s not as though we haven’t discussed this tendency ourselves. Basically, after all this time, the kids are all right. Horgan’s talk illustrates a very important principal. Honest criticism can be a very good thing (and I do think Horgan was sincere). However, even the most honest criticism can rapidly devolve into a string of self-righteous, distorted, and downright wrong characterizations like the ones in Horgan’s speech if the critic doesn’t take the time to understand his audience and learn about just what the heck he is talking about. Skeptics can take criticism just fine, but you’ll excuse us if we don’t react that well to uninformed criticism that betrays a lack of understanding about just what it is we are and do.

Shermer responds to Horgan

May 19, 2016 • 1:15 pm

 This is the second of three responses to John Horgan’s piece of hauteur in Scientific American. In his blog post, he explained why he’s become “nuts”:

The biological theory that really drives me nuts is the deep-roots theory of war. According to the theory, lethal group violence is in our genes. Its roots reach back millions of years, all the way to our common ancestor with chimpanzees.

The deep-roots theory is promoted by scientific heavy hitters like Harvard’s Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham and Edward Wilson. Skeptic Michael Shermer tirelessly touts the theory, and the media love it, because it involves lurid stories about bloodthirsty chimps and Stone Age humans.

But the evidence is overwhelming that war was a cultural innovation–like agriculture, religion, or slavery–that emerged less than 12,000 years ago.

I hate the deep-roots theory not only because it’s wrong, but also becauseit encourages fatalism toward war. War is our most urgent problem, more urgent than global warming, poverty, disease or political oppression. War makes these and other problems worse, directly or indirectly, by diverting resources away from their solution.

In response, Michael Shermer had this to say about war, which I quote with permission:

John Horgan has an understanding of war on par with a beauty pageant winner who declares her dream of “world peace.” He doesn’t understand the nature/nurture issue and he’s stuck in a 1950’s model of human behavior as either genetic and inevitable or cultural and malleable. Since he’s against war (how original) he can’t accept any genetic explanation for human conflict because he thinks this means war is inevitable. In brief, he makes three errors:

  1. Horgan doesn’t understand behavioral game theory and the evolutionary logic behind human conflict of all kinds, from murder to war. In The Moral Arc (p. 39) I begin with Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene:

“To a survival machine, another survival machine (which is not its own child or another close relative) is part of its environment, like a rock or a river or a lump of food,” says Dawkins. But there’s a difference between a survival machine and a rock. A survival machine “is inclined to hit back” if exploited. “This is because it too is a machine that holds its immortal genes in trust for the future, and it too will stop at nothing to preserve them.” Thus, Dawkins concludes, “Natural selection favors genes that control their survival machines in such a way that they make the best use of their environment. This includes making the best use of other survival machines, both of the same and of different species.” (p. 66) Survival machines could evolve to be completely selfish and self-centered, but there is something that keeps their pure selfishness in check, and that is the fact that other survival machines are inclined ‘to hit back’ if attacked, to retaliate if exploited, or to attempt to use or abuse other survival machines first.”

This leads to moral emotions and behaviors that include altruism, pro sociality, and cooperativeness along with selfishness, competitiveness, and revenge when exploited. Conflicts are inevitable between survival machines competing for limited resources, reproductive opportunities, etc. Thinking of conflicts as either inherited or learned misses the point entirely. Such conflicts, from murder to war, often result from the logic of such competition. Horgan seems to think that if violence is genetic then it builds up like steam in a pipe that has to be released before it blows, but that’s completely wrong. And as a hockey player he should know better: when he gets slammed into the boards by the opposition, if he doesn’t slam back, and cultivate a reputation as someone who “inclined to hit back” if hit first, he’s going to lose status, reputation, and resources.

  1. Horgan is trapped in binary thinking that clouds his thinking about how frequent war was (or wasn’t) in the past. Here is what I wrote on pp. 97-98 of The Moral Arc:

“Forcing a continuum of violence into a category of “prevalent” or “pervasive” misses the point of what we’re interested in knowing here: whatever the rate of violence in the past—by whatever the means and whatever the cause—was it enough to affect human evolution? If you insist that the rate must be high enough to be called “prevalent” or “pervasive” then you have to operationally define these terms with a quantity, including the term “war” that by today’s definition has no meaning for the type of intergroup conflicts that happened during the Late Pleistocene epoch in which our species came of age. As [Samuel] Bowles explains: “In my models of the evolution of human behaviour, the appropriate usage of the term [war] is ‘events in which coalitions of members of a group seek to inflict bodily harm on one or more members of another group;’ and I have included ‘ambushes, revenge murders and other kinds of hostilities’ analogizing human intergroup conflict during the Late Pleistocene to ‘boundary conflicts among chimpanzees’ rather than ‘pitched battles of modern warfare’.”

In The Arc of War the political scientists Jack Levy and William Thompson begin by adopting a continuum rather than categorical style of reasoning:

“War is a persistent feature of world politics, but it is not a constant. It varies over time and space in frequency, duration, severity, causes, consequences, and other dimensions. War is a social practice adopted to achieve specific purposes, but those practices vary with changing political, economic, and social environments and with the goals and constraints induced by those environments.” (pp. 51-53). When nuanced in this continuous rather than categorical manner, we can see both how and when rates of warfare change. By defining war as “sustained, coordinated violence between political organizations,” however, Levy and Thompson have defined away prehistoric group conflicts that don’t at all resemble political organizations of today. As such, “war” cannot even begin until there are political organizations of a substantive size, which necessarily means that what we think of as war, by definition, was impossible before civilization began.”

Nevertheless, Levy and Thompson acknowledge that the rudimentary foundations for war as they define it were already there in our earliest ancestors—even suggesting that “border skirmishes” with Neanderthals in Northern Europe may account for the latter’s extinction some 35,000 years ago—including “the observation that hunting and homicide skills made suitable weaponry, tactics, and rudimentary military organization available,” and that “group segmentation helped define group identities and enemies, thereby also facilitating the potential for organizing politically and militarily.” (p. 1) Thus, they endorse “an early if infrequent start for warfare among hunter-gatherers,” which then increased over time in lethality with improved weapons and increased population sizes, and this continued throughout the history of civilization as states increased in size until nations fought nations, leading to an increase in the total number of deaths, but a decrease in the total number of conflicts.

  1. Horgan is wrong that there are no “deep roots” to war. I cite dozens of studies showing both the antiquity and frequency of group conflicts in both our Pleistocene ancestors and in modern hunter-gatherer bands and tribes. Here are a few:

Bowles, S. 2009. “Did Warfare Among Ancestral Hunter-Gatherers Affect the Evolution of Human Social Behaviors?” Science, 324, 1293-98.

Gat, A. 2006. War in Human Civilization. New York: Oxford University Press.

Glowacki, Luke and Richard W. Wrangham. 2013. “The Role of Rewards in Motivating Participation in Simple Warfare.” Human Nature, Sept. 6.

Keeley, L. H. 1996. War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lebow, Richard Ned. 2010. Why Nations Fight: Past and Future Motives for War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pinker, Steven. 2011. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Viking.

Wrangham, Richard and Dale Peterson. 1996. Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

In conclusion, I think Samuel Bowles said it best in an email to me on this subject:   “It seems to be a highly ideologically charged debate, which is unfortunate, because finding that war was frequent in the past, or that out-group hostility might have a genetic basis says something about our legacy, not our destiny.” (Personal correspondence, February 1, 2014.)

Krauss on Horgan

May 19, 2016 • 12:15 pm
Lawrence Krauss, Michael Shermer, and Steve Pinker have written responses to John Horgan’s splenetic Scientific American blog post arguing that skeptics are criticizing the Wrong Things. Lay off Bigfoot, homeopathy, global warming, and GMOs, he says; we should be going after physics, medicine, and—war! (Horgan seems to have overlooked pervasive skepticism of physics and medicine.)
One of Horgan’s targets was Lawrence Krauss. Here, Krauss responds; quoted with permission:

John Horgan was a respected science writer years ago up until he wrote a book entitled The End of Science, which essentially argued that much of physics had departed from its noble traditions and now had ventured off into esoterica which had no relevance to the real world, and would result in no new important discoveries—of course, this was before the discovery of an accelerating universe, the Higgs Boson, and the recent exciting discovery of gravitational waves!.   Since then I and most of my colleagues have ignored his writing, but I’m violating that rule because Jerry asked if I wanted to add something about physics in a response to Horgan’s attacks on the work of other respected colleagues in different fields.

In his tract Horgan alludes to past criticisms he has echoed of some physics ideas in my recent book.  I was amused when he admitted that he hadn’t actually read it when he met with me for dinner last year after a dialogue I had on stage with his partner Robert Wright in NY.  I spent much of that dinner explaining to him that the claim that I merely equate nothing with quantum fields in empty space was wrong—a criticism that a number of people who also hadn’t read the book, including the Archbishop of Sydney, have repeated with the same lack of understanding.   In particular, near the end of a book primarily devoted to discussing 40 years of revolutionary empirical discoveries in cosmology, I explored the idea of how quantum gravitational fluctuations might allow spacetimes themselves to spontaneously appear, and in so doing could produce universes that resemble our own.  In this case space, time, and everything that now comprises our universe simply wouldn’t have existed in advance—and in this case the use of  ‘in advance’ is colloquial because time itself might not have existed in our universe before such a fluctuation. This fascinating possibility might occur independent of whatever else might or might not exist in other spaces.  I explained the details to Horgan, but the next day he just repeated the old claims in writing, apeing Robert Wright’s confusions and not even mentioning our discussion.  Empirical data doesn’t seem to get in the way of his writing.

In this regard—and happily having nothing to do with my own work—Horgan egregiously repeats in his piece an ignorant comparison of string theory and multiverses to astrology.  He correctly notes that these ideas can’t be experimentally probed at present, but incorrectly claims they are not falsifiable.  It is of course true that at the present time these ideas cannot be directly probed, but the same was true of the Higgs Boson in 1964 when it was proposed, or of dark energy when we first argued it might actually dominate the energy of the universe, or of gravitational waves when Einstein proposed their existence in 1916.  String theorists, whatever one might say about the hyperbole that has been associated with their work, have been working very hard for several decades to find ways to connect their work to the real world.  The fact that they have not yet been successful does not diminish the significance of the effort, nor the fact that, unlike astrologers, they are attempting to extend very successful and beautiful theories that do work into new domains.  Moreover the phenomenon of inflationary production of multiverses, as I recently wrote about at length and explained to Horgan at dinner, might actually be empirically testable if we can detect gravitational waves from Inflation.  Horgan’s sensational claims demean the efforts of hundreds of  scientists who are doing good science—which may not succeed. But science is never guaranteed in advance to succeed!  This, it seems to me, is the nobility of the effort. Horgan’s mind, however does seem to be made up in advance—not the sign of a credible journalist but rather a blogger with an axe to grind.

Criticizing skeptics, John Horgan officially becomes an Internet troll

May 19, 2016 • 11:09 am

I’ve had my contretemps with science writer John Horgan on this site, but, except for what’s in the title above, I’ll try to refrain from ad hominems. But I will characterize Horgan’s latest post on his Scientific American blog, “Dear ‘Skeptics’, Bash homeopathy and Bigfoot less, mammograms and war more,” as contrarian, ill-informed, and misguided. (This is a précis of what he said last Sunday at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism Conference [NECSS].) The post is also redolent of arrogance—the attitude that because Horgan’s a contrarian, he’s automatically superior to everyone else, and that includes virtually everyone who’s become famous for skepticism. When he accuses many well known skeptics of arrogance, I see that as projection.

Here are Horgan’s main points and my responses. I also note that Steve Novella has criticized Horgan’s talk at Neurologica Blog, but I haven’t read it yet, for I want to write independently, uninfluenced by what Novella said. Having read Horgan, I am sure that he will respond by not admitting that he may have been wrong anywhere,  and then arguing, à la Chris Mooney, that any outrage he’s provoked just shows that he was right, and has “hit a nerve”. And of course he loves the attention, which he can’t get by saying something constructive.  So my comments below directed at those observing the kerfuffle. Here are Horgan’s points.

Horgan is a REAL skeptic, free from the taint of “capital-S” skeptics. Here’s how he begins his article (note that his “references” throughout the piece usually go to his previous articles rather than primary sources):

“I hate preaching to the converted. If you were Buddhists, I’d bash Buddhism. But you’re skeptics, so I have to bash skepticism.

I’m a science journalist. I don’t celebrate science, I criticize it, because science needs critics more than cheerleaders. I point out gaps between scientific hype and reality. That keeps me busy, because, as you know,most peer-reviewed scientific claims are wrong.

So I’m a skeptic, but with a small S, not capital S. I don’t belong to skeptical societies. I don’t hang out with people who self-identify as capital-S Skeptics. Or Atheists. Or Rationalists.”

Well aren’t you special, Mr. Horgan? I’m not sure what he means by “capital A” atheists or “capital R” rationalists, unless he’s referring to people who constantly flaunt their superiority for holding those views. But I know few people—and none of the ones he names—who fit that description. Yes, people like Sean Carroll, Lawrence Krauss, and Steve Pinker may promulgate the notions of rationalism, or decry the malfeasance of religion, but their actions are constructive. They push arguments, not arrogance. To be sure, I’d rather hang out with those guys any day than with Horgan, who is truly a “capital C” contrarian.

This is a man who, in his attempt to criticize rather than celebrate science, proclaimed, in his 1996 book The End of Science, that science has no more Big Questions to answer. Since then, just to mention physics, we have discovered the accelerating universe, the Higgs Boson, gravitational waves, and dark energy. All this shows that the contrarian view that big scientific discoveries are at an end (not a new thesis, of course—it’s been made repeatedly throughout history) is bogus. If this is science criticism, it’s not very good criticism.

Skeptics pick the low-hanging fruit, preaching to the choir. As Horgan says:

“’The Science Delusion’” is common among Capital-S Skeptics. You don’t apply your skepticism equally. You are extremely critical of belief in God, ghosts, heaven, ESP, astrology, homeopathy and Bigfoot. You also attack disbelief in global warming, vaccines and genetically modified food.

These beliefs and disbeliefs deserve criticism, but they are what I call “soft targets.” That’s because, for the most part, you’re bashing people outside your tribe, who ignore you. You end up preaching to the converted. [I suppose he’d say the same for those who attack creationism.]

Meanwhile, you neglect what I call hard targets. These are dubious and even harmful claims promoted by major scientists and institutions. In the rest of this talk, I’ll give you examples of hard targets from physics, medicine and biology. I’ll wrap up with a rant about war, the hardest target of all.”

I’m incredulous. Yes, Bigfoot and Nessie have been pretty thoroughly debunked, but they can still serve as lessons for students learning how to be critical. I believe Greg Mayer, in his class on cryptozoology at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, uses just these examples to teach students critical thinking. The same goes for Holocaust denialism. Of course it’s low-hanging fruit, but there’s still stuff to learn by criticizing the denialists. I, for one, have learned a lot about the evidence for the Holocaust precisely from reading both the denialists and their skeptical debunkers.

As for homeopathy, global warming, vaccines, and GMOs, Horgan’s simply dumb to say that we’re waste our time attacking the denialists. Homeopathy is a serious problem: people get sick and die from using homeopathic remedies, and many people believe in them. Even the National Health Service pays for them, so the taxpayer funds fraudulent remedies. Global warming is perhaps the most serious problem we face: one that endangers not just humanity, but many other species. Yet many people, and that includes Republican lawmakers, don’t accept it and won’t do anything about it.  When we promulgate it, we are by no means “preaching to the choir.” The same goes for GMOs, with some, like golden rice, having the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives. And we’ve made progress. Teaching creationism is no longer legal in public schools, and vaccinations are required everywhere. Homeopathy is on the way out. So much for our ineffective criticism of those “outside the tribe”!

As for religion, well, we’ve discussed its harms here. Horgan is soft on faith and prefers not to discuss them. Here’s what he thinks we should be skeptical about:

Physics. A quote from Horgan:

“First, physics. [What we should be skeptical about and aren’t.] For decades, physicists like Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene and Leonard Susskind have touted string and multiverse theories as our deepest descriptions of reality.

Here’s the problem: strings and multiverses can’t be experimentally detected. The theories aren’t falsifiable, which makes them pseudo-scientific, like astrology and Freudian psychoanalysis.

Some string and multiverse true believers, like Sean Carroll, have argued that falsifiability should be discarded as a method for distinguishing science from pseudo-science. You’re losing the game, so you try to change the rules.

. . . When high-status scientists promote flaky ideas like the Singularity and multiverse, they hurt science. They undermine its credibility on issues like global warming.”

Is Horgan ignorant of the fact that there are constant debates about issues like the multiverse and string theory in physics? Seriously, there are no skeptics about such stuff? String-theory critics are a dime a dozen. Sure, people like me simply don’t understand string theory enough to criticize it, but I’m perfectly aware that there is no empirical evidence supporting it, and I’ve said so many times on this sit. As for advocates of things like singularity and multiverses “hurting science”, Horgan is talking out of his nether orifice. Does anybody really question global warming as a result of the promulgation of string theory? That’s ludicrous.

Medicine. Horgan bangs on about the problems of expensive healthcare in the U.S., and the dangers of mammograms, PSA tests, and colonoscopies. Do skeptics ignore these? No way, but you have to know your medicine to be a good critic. Among these are Orac, Steve Novella, and Harriet Hall, who I saw discuss exactly these issues at a TAM talk several years ago. These issues are also chewed over endlessly on sites like Science-Based Medicine and Respectful Insolence. In the UK, people like Ben Goldacre and Simon Singh, as well as the group Sense About Science, have been extremely vocal about a range of medical issues from Big Pharma to quackery to science reporting. (By the way, Mr. Horgan, I’ve been plenty skeptical about that, too.) Goldacre and Singh’s outreach has also gone way beyond the so-called choir, and in fact launched the some of the subjects they were criticising—AIDS quackery and reflexology to name only two—into a very public sphere of debate.

And there are plenty of skeptics about psychotropic drugs, which Horgan also mentions as an appropriate subject for skepticism. In fact, I’ve discussed some of the issues here and have read a slew of books about the dangers of psychiatric medication. There are plenty of people out there worried about antidepressants and similar drugs. The “skeptics” may not be people like Krauss or Sean Carroll, but they’re present aplenty. We may not encounter them often, for you need expertise to properly criticize some subjects.

Horgan is in fact such a contrarian that he claims the so-called “neglect” of medical issues by skeptics has endangered people, and offers the following over-the-top statement:

Given the flaws of mainstream medicine, can you blame people for turning to alternative medicine?

Umm. . . I don’t think a major reason people oppose vaccination and turn to homeopathic cures is because of our failure to properly criticize medicine. How many skeptics, for instance, have gone after homeopathy and the anti-vaxers, as well as “alternative medicine” itself? Answer: plenty.

Genetic determinism. Horgan argues that nobody criticizes the “gene for this and that” school: those people who argue that there’s are single genes of large effect for things like smoking, thrill-seeking, believing in God, being gay, and so on. He’s wrong: plenty of people have criticized those studies, including me. Most of the studies showing such genes have not been repeatable.

War.  Here Horgan mistakes a failure of skeptics to criticize things like mammograms with their failure to adopt certain political views: just those political views that are Horgan’s favorites. Being critical of some wars (I presume Horgan would say that World War II was okay) is a political view, and differs from being skeptical about God or homeopathy.  Horgan also decries the “deep roots” theory of war supposedly promulgated by E. O. Wilson and Steven Pinker—that bellicosity is in our genes, and that war must therefore be inevitable—but I doubt that any of these people think that we shouldn’t try to eliminate useless wars. If you read Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature, you’ll see that that is not Steve’s thesis at all: he’s optimistic about ending wars, and gives a variety of cultural reasons for th decline of violence, which, needless to say, he approves of. But I’ll let Pinker and Shermer respond to this allegation, which they’ll do on this site.

What causes wars? Here Horgan has gone full Noam Chomsky, asserting that the U.S. is the greatest threat to peace in the world and, in fact, calling for people to support Chomsky:

“But war is a really hard target. Most people—most of you, probably–dismiss world peace as a pipe dream. Perhaps you believe the deep-roots theory. If war is ancient and innate, it must also be inevitable, right?

You might also think that religious fanaticism—and especially Muslim fanaticism–is the greatest threat to peace. That’s the claim of religion-bashers like Dawkins, Krauss, Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne and the late, great warmonger Christopher Hitchens.

The United States, I submit, is the greatest threat to peace. Since 9/11, U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan have killed 370,000 people. That includes more than 210,000 civilians, many of them children. These are conservative estimates.

Far from solving the problem of Muslim militancy, U.S. actions have made it worse. ISIS is a reaction to the anti-Muslim violence of the U.S. and its allies.

. . . The antiwar movement is terribly weak. Not a single genuine antiwar candidate ran in this Presidential race, and that includes Bernie Sanders. Many Americans have embraced their nation’s militarism. They flocked to see American Sniper, a film that celebrates a killer of women and children.

In the last century, prominent scientists spoke out against U.S. militarism and called for the end of war. Scientists like Einstein, Linus Pauling, and the great skeptic Carl Sagan. Where are their successors? Noam Chomsky is still bashing U.S. imperialism, but he’s almost 90. He needs help!”

Check out the references: most are to Horgan’s other blog articles. As for religion as a cause of war (and, I’d submit, of the oppression of many people), I think there’s sufficient evidence that it’s a major contributor to conflict. As for the U.S. being a greater threat to peace than Islam, Horgan’s evidence for that is our past incursions in the Middle East, some of which have already been amply criticized by atheists and skeptics. But at the moment, would Horgan claim that Islamic nations are less a threat to peace than the U.S.? That is an untestable statement, for it depends on the unpredictable future.

And that is the problem. Criticizing how we deal with ISIS is not the same as criticizing homeopathy. How we deal with ISIS now, for instance, is a judgement call, and will always have a down side. We know that homeopathy is ineffective, and we know what course of action will help people by eliminating quackery.

When Horgan says this at the end:

So, just to recap. I’m asking you skeptics to spend less time bashing soft targets like homeopathy and Bigfoot and more time bashing hard targets like multiverses, cancer tests, psychiatric drugs and war, the hardest target of all.

What he’s saying is this:

So, just to recap, I’m asking you skeptics to spend less time dealing with issues where the answer is clear, and where we can really improve the well being of society, and deal instead with things that are MY pet issues.

As for ending war, who doesn’t want that? But right now we have to deal with ISIS and the Middle East, and not all wars can or should be prevented anyway. Skeptics certainly have opinions and contribute to the national conversation on war. However, unlike subjects where, for example, skeptics can point at evidence for the harm that poor quality clinical trials do, and advocate changes required to remedy the situation, “bashing war” is a more nebulous subject entrenched in a wide-ranging nexus of issues including history, politics and geography.

Are those issues in the purview of skepticism? Yes, we should be skeptical of all claims, especially by governments with an interest in particular outcomes, but there are already plenty of organizations engaged in political activism, and many of us belong to them. If we were to turn skeptics’ meetings (which I don’t much attend anyway) into what Horgan wants, they’d become political meetings. There is a place for discussing homeopathy, the false claims of religion, anti-vaxers, and GMOs, and there’s a place for discussing politics, war, racism, and economics. But they’re not necessarily the same place.

Finally, regarding war, aren’t antiwar activities exactly like those that Horgan criticizes in skeptics: “. . . for the most part, you’re bashing people outside your tribe, who ignore you. You end up preaching to the converted.” When, as a conscientious objector, I went to many anti-war rallies in the Sixties, they weren’t full of Nixon Republicans. But just like a group of like-minded people can stop wars and segregation, so they can stop harmful medicine and the evils of faith.

In the end, Horgan’s claim that skeptics neglect things like physics, multiverses, cancer tests, and psychiatric drugs is just flat wrong. If he had any familiarity with skepticism, he’d know that. As for war, those of us who feel strongly about it do our best. But, unlike Horgan and Chomsky, I will not argue that America is the Source of All Evil in the world.


In an hour I’ll put up Krauss’s response to Horgan’s screed, and then an hour thereafter I’ll post Shermer’s.


RationalWiki guts a reader’s attempt to correct its article on female genital mutilation

February 13, 2016 • 12:00 pm

JAC: I haven’t used RationalWiki very much, as its articles are not only not as thorough as those in Wikipedia (though some day Greg will produce his long-awaited post, “What’s the matter with Wikipedia?), but also appear slanted toward the Authoritarian Left. Although created to counter the odious Conservapedia site, it seems to have swung too far in the opposite direction—towards censorship of Incorrect Thought. Wikipedia says this about the site:

RationalWiki is a wiki written from a skeptical, secular, and progressivist perspective. It was created in 2007 as a counter to Conservapedia after an incident in which contributors attempting to edit Conservapedia were banned. Since then, it has developed into a wiki that criticizes “crank” ideas, pseudoscience, and fundamentalism. Ideologically, RationalWiki typically argues in favour of freedom of religion, atheism, feminism, and LGBT rights, and it criticises conservatism and right-libertarianism. RationalWiki frequently uses sarcasm and humor in its articles. Unlike many wikis, RationalWiki has no formal system for electing sysops, and most users who are thought to have good intentions are given the tools.

But the skepticism has been tainted by authoritarian leftism, something amply documented by reader Aneris, who attempted to fix RationalWiki‘s article on female genital mutilation (FGM). Its original article (the one that’s still there) did everything it can to dissociate the practice of FGM from Islam, even though, as reader Heather Hastie documents on her website, at least four schools of Islam either recommend the practice or deem its obligatory. There have also been fatwas saying that the practice is Islamic, and the vast majority of women mutilated in this way are Muslims whose families follow the practice. Only the blinkered, or those who excuse Islam of all malfeasance, could deny the close association of the practice with Muslim belief.

Below Aneris’s recounts his/her unsuccessful attempt to get RationalWiki to give the fact about FGM instead of an Islam-exculpating ideological take. He rewrote their article, only to discover that his additions were quickly and completely expunged. Why? Because they associated FGM with Islam. I doubt there would have been the same reaction had FGM been a habitual practice of evangelical Christianity.

by Aneris

Some wikis document fictional universes like that of Harry Potter, Star Wars or Creationism. The “RationalWiki” documents the beliefs of what is perhaps imperfectly called (authoritarian) “Regressive Left” or “Social Justice Warriors”. Jerry’s recent post about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) motivated me to look into the matter and also see where those “Regressive Leftists” are coming from, and perhaps suggest improvements to their RationalWiki article. I wound up writing a section for them.

I try to make a difference, but typically find that what is deemed “true” is not determined by sources and evidence, but by a spontaneous majority that merely wins the “edit war”. Alas, FGM was just such a case. I sacrificed style for direct quotations in the belief that this would provide a solid evidential basis; however, I found everything I wrote was deleted quickly – including about a third of all sources of the article, down from 39 to 24 (this doesn’t mean much in itself, but gives a rough idea).

Before I touched it, the article already contained a small section on FGM and Islam, but that has now been purged as well. The reason given, and they’re serious, is this: “terribly written section with random unsourced statements […]”. But the icing on the icing on the cake is that such Regressive Leftists deny what they are doing. The RationalWiki is adamant that neither Social Justice Warriors nor Regressive Leftists really exist. The current article, one that would please even Reza Asla, can be viewed here.

Something new to read

April 19, 2015 • 12:59 pm

by Grania Spingies

There are some interesting-looking books in the Sunday Book Review in the New York Times which are going onto to my Wish List.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

I’ve long come to think of the Internet as the thing that has turned our planet into a village. With all the benefits that it brings, it also has turned the lives of some ordinary people into living nightmares once their sometimes small and sometimes imagined transgressions go viral on social media. I’m interested to see what Ronson has to say on the subject, and what solutions he suggests; although I fear that once the damage is done it is not easily undone.

Galileo’s Middle Finger by Alice Dreger

This book looks like it has a bit of everything in it, but is essentially about empiricism vs activism, based on among other things, her own experiences on both sides of activism: an activist herself as well as a target of activists. It is a somewhat sobering thought; that something could be suppressed for social or political reasons. I remember Dan Dennett thoughtfully talking about this himself in the Four Horseman chat, about whether he could ever see himself deliberately suppressing knowledge that he thought would be harmful if it became public knowledge. He said he hoped not. Indeed. (The discussion is here if you want to see it).

However, as the reviewer notes:

When a motivated group with a playbook of ugly tactics spots a ­scientific finding they don’t like, they can often dominate public discussion in a way that replaces a factual story with a false one. Only scientists of Galilean character can weather the storm. And even they, like Galileo, might be effectively exiled. 

That is pretty disconcerting. I’m definitely looking forward to reading this one.

Please feel free to add your own reading recommendations as well.

Shermer has a woo experience, admits there may be something to it

December 4, 2014 • 8:25 am

UPDATE: I’ve heard from Michael, who emphasizes that he does not think that the experience implies the supernatural or the paranormal, and he points to a clarification (mentioned by a reader) that Shermer recently published in a “Big Ideas” piece on Slate.  Distressingly, that piece is part of a discussion/advertisement sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation (subject: “What is the future of religion?”), and the discussants are well remunerated by the Foundation. (I loathe these “Big Questions” pieces, which are really ads, not articles in Slate or the New York Times.) But the point of Shermer’s piece stands: he affirms clearly that he doesn’t accept the supernatural, and he’s going to add the update to his original Sci. Am. post.

But this sentence still remains in his text: “I have to admit, it rocked me back on my heels and shook my skepticism to its core as well.”  Bad choice of words.

UPDATE 2:  Michael has written a clarification of his piece for me to put up, and here it is:

I read your commentary, Jerry, and as usual with your critiques in your blog I agree with all your points about my Scientific American column. To clarify matters please see this further explanation of my interpretation, which is that my experience in no way implies something paranormal or supernatural. As I’ve always said (and repeat here), there’s no such thing as the paranormal or supernatural; there is just the normal, the natural, and mysteries as yet unexplained by natural law and chance/contingency.
Much has been made of the subtitle of the original column (stating that my skepticism was shaken to the core), a variation of which was used for the Online title of the essay. As is common in all magazine and newspaper articles, essays, and opinion editorials, the editors write the title and subtitle in a way that will make the article seem more compelling to read, and that is the case here. My Scientific American editors give me much freedom in choosing my own titles and subtitles, but when they have done rewrites for previous columns I have always felt they were better than my original, and this one seemed good to me at the time. But now I see that many readers took it in a way I had not intended. My skepticism is in fine shape.
Hopefully this clarification in Slate will clear up matters. I guess if I had to sum it up even briefer it would be this: Weird things happen. We can’t explain everything. Enjoy the experience. But don’t abandon science or the natural worldview.

My only response besides expressing relief, is the one above: the title and subtitle were actually taken from Shermer’s own words. But again, his stand is clear, and that’s what we should take away from this (besides the lesson to be careful with words!).

When a reader sent this to me, I was naturally curious, and so went over to Scientific American to see what all the fuss was about.

Screen Shot 2014-12-03 at 5.57.26 PM

There I found Michael’s piece, “Anomalous events that can shake one’s skepticism to the core,” which recounts a story that happened to him when he got married. It’s a short piece, so you can read it yourself, but a brief synopsis follows. Before the wedding, Shermer’s fiancée Jennifer received a box of stuff that belonged to her beloved grandfather, stuff that included his broken 1978 transistor radio. It was busted, and Shermer tried to fix it, even putting in new batteries and banging it about, but no dice. The radio was kaput.

But it came back to life, and at a weird time. Shermer tells the rest:

Three months later, after affixing the necessary signatures to our marriage license at the Beverly Hills courthouse, we returned home, and in the presence of my family said our vows and exchanged rings. Being 9,000 kilometers from family, friends and home, Jennifer was feeling amiss and lonely. She wished her grandfather were there to give her away. She whispered that she wanted to say something to me alone, so we excused ourselves to the back of the house where we could hear music playing in the bedroom. We don’t have a music system there, so we searched for laptops and iPhones and even opened the back door to check if the neighbors were playing music. We followed the sound to the printer on the desk, wondering—absurdly—if this combined printer/scanner/fax machine also included a radio. Nope.

At that moment Jennifer shot me a look I haven’t seen since the supernatural thrillerThe Exorcist startled audiences. “That can’t be what I think it is, can it?” she said. She opened the desk drawer and pulled out her grandfather’s transistor radio, out of which a romantic love song wafted. We sat in stunned silence for minutes. “My grandfather is here with us,” Jennifer said, tearfully. “I’m not alone.”

Shortly thereafter we returned to our guests with the radio playing as I recounted the backstory. My daughter, Devin, who came out of her bedroom just before the ceremony began, added, “I heard the music coming from your room just as you were about to start.” The odd thing is that we were there getting ready just minutes before that time, sans music.

Spooky, no? Even spookier is that the radio then played through the night, but went dead the next day and has never worked since.

What can we conclude? Shermer, I believe, has published on the fact that such coincidences happen; and with stuff like broken watches restarting when Uri Geller appears on television, you can actually calculate the probability that it would happen among thousands of people watching. It’s not miniscule. Further, as Shermer has pointed out, incidents like the above stick in one’s mind as anomalies, and can be interpreted as miracles, but what does not stick in our minds is the vastly more numerous times when these coincidences do not occur.  

The parsimonious conclusion, given our lack of evidence that the dead somehow live on and try to communicate with us, is that the radio’s new batteries and getting whacked somehow turned it on. Indeed, Shermer asserts that that’s the logical explanation had it happened to someone else:

What does this mean? Had it happened to someone else I might suggest a chance electrical anomaly and the law of large numbers as an explanation—with billions of people having billions of experiences every day, there’s bound to be a handful of extremely unlikely events that stand out in their timing and meaning. In any case, such anecdotes do not constitute scientific evidence that the dead survive or that they can communicate with us via electronic equipment.

But it happened to Shermer, so, as he says below, it “shook his skepticism to the core.”

Jennifer is as skeptical as I am when it comes to paranormal and supernatural phenomena. Yet the eerie conjunction of these deeply evocative events gave her the distinct feeling that her grandfather was there and that the music was his gift of approval. I have to admit, it rocked me back on my heels and shook my skepticism to its core as well. I savored the experience more than the explanation.

The emotional interpretations of such anomalous events grant them significance regardless of their causal account. And if we are to take seriously the scientific credo to keep an open mind and remain agnostic when the evidence is indecisive or the riddle unsolved, we should not shut the doors of perception when they may be opened to us to marvel in the mysterious.

Sorry, but the emotional resonances of such events don’t give them any greater credibility than possible scientific explanations, if that’s what Shermer means by “significance.”

And I’m not sure why it should shake his skepticism to the core simply because it happened to him. After all, if it happened, it had to happen to someone!

Shermer’s last paragraph is a bit distressing to me, for he made no attempt to gather more evidence—by looking at the radio, for instance.  The “evidence” he has is a one-off event, so is he really going to remain agnostic about the possibility that the dead grandfather was somehow trying to communicate with his wife? After all, people have rare experiences seeing or talking to God, so is Shermer going to remain agnostic about God as well? I don’t think so.

Yes, if there were repeated evidence for the dead trying to reach their descendants (and, after all, why didn’t Grandpa simply speak to them?), we should indeed discard our tentative conclusion that the dead don’t communicate with us. But this is a one-off event—certainly not enough to make scientists and skeptics revisit our provisional rejection of communication from the dead.

But it’s no wonder that Shermer got so much mail about this. For those who believe in an afterlife, this somehow buttresses their delusions, and for Scientific American readers like the one below, Shermer is allowing a personal experience to shake his skepticism so severely that he now becomes an agnostic about communicating with the dead. That’s just weird.

Take-home lesson for all skeptics: one off coincidences like this should not suddenly make us agnostic about the numinous and the supernatural, especially when they aren’t repeated or investigated thoroughly.

Here’s one comment on Shermer’s piece—a comment that’s on the money:


I was embarrassed to read your concluding paragraph. What are we to keep an open mind about? That Jennifer’s dead grandfather maybe fixed the radio? Did he even know how to fix radios? Wouldn’t there be an easier way for the dead to communicate with the living? It would be mildly interesting to have an electronics expert determine exactly what is wrong with the radio.



h/t: Barry

The New York Times profiles James Randi

November 8, 2014 • 10:45 am

There’s a really nice and informative piece about James Randi for tomorrow’s New York Times Magazine (already online), called “The unbelievable skepticism of James Randi.” It’s chock full of information about Randi’s history, his Amazing Challenges, his run-ins with Uri Geller, his relationship with José Alvarez (plagued by legal troubles over immigration status), and his health problems, which seem serious but haven’t felled the guy yet.  I recommend the article highly, especially if you haven’t yet seen the movie about Randi, “An Honest Liar” (I haven’t, but readers who have weigh in below).

Just a few snippets from a long piece:

He prefers to describe himself as a scientific investigator. He elaborated: “Because if I were to start out saying, ‘This is not true, and I’m going to prove it’s not true,’ that means I’ve made up my mind in advance. So every project that comes to my attention, I say, ‘I just don’t know what I’m going to find out.’ That may end up — and usually it does end up — as a complete debunking. But I don’t set out to debunk it.”

Randi’s epochal battle with Uri Geller is especially fascinating. Here’s just one bit:

Geller provided Randi with an archenemy in a show-business battle royale pitting science against faith, skepticism against belief. Their vendetta would endure for decades and bring them both international celebrity. Recognizing that the psychic’s paranormal feats were a result of conjuring tricks — directing attention elsewhere while he bent spoons using brute force, peeking through his fingers during mind-reading stunts — Randi helped Time magazine with an exposé of Geller. Soon afterward, when Geller was invited to appear on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” the producers approached Randi, who had been a frequent guest, to help them ensure that Geller could employ no tricks during his appearance. Randi gave Carson’s prop men advice on how to prepare for the taping, and the result was a legendary immolation, in which Geller offered up flustered excuses to his host as his abilities failed him again and again. “I sat there for 22 minutes, humiliated,” Geller told me, when I spoke to him in September. “I went back to my hotel, devastated. I was about to pack up the next day and go back to Tel Aviv. I thought, That’s it — I’m destroyed.” But to Geller’s astonishment, he was immediately booked on “The Merv Griffin Show.” He was on his way to becoming a paranormal superstar. “That Johnny Carson show made Uri Geller,” Geller said. To an enthusiastically trusting public, his failure only made his gifts seem more real: If he were performing magic tricks, they would surely work every time.

Finally, Randi on science and God:

Randi now sees himself, like Einstein and Richard Dawkins, in the tradition of scientific skeptics. “Science gives you a standard to work against,” he said. “Science, after all, is simply a logical, rational and careful examination of the facts that nature presents to us.”

Although many modern skeptics continue to hold religious beliefs, and see no contradiction in embracing critical thinking and faith in God, Randi is not one of them. “I have always been an atheist,” he told me. “I think that religion is a very damaging philosophy — because it’s such a retreat from reality.”

When I asked him why he believed other people needed religion, Randi was at his most caustic.

“They need it because they’re weak,” he said. “And they fall for authority. They choose to believe it because it’s easy.”

I wasn’t aware that many modern skeptics are still religious, but being a “religous skeptic” seems to me to resemble being a “married bachelor.”

Anyway, there’s a lot more to read, and you’ll enjoy it.

Screen Shot 2014-11-08 at 11.28.29 AM
Randi with his partner of more than 25 years, the artist José Alvarez, at their Florida home. Credit Jeff Minton for The New York Times

h/t: Sharon Hill

A professor gives his students an object lesson in religious bigotry

August 31, 2014 • 3:17 pm

UPDATE: I didn’t check the date carefully on this story, which I read as August 2014. My error: it’s August, 2012, so the story is two years old. My apologies. I’ll leave it up, however, as I think it’s still of value to discuss this, but be aware that the fracas is dead by now. And a note to readers as well: when sending me pieces, do check the date yourself.  Of course, I bear the ultimate responsibility!


Charles Negy is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Central Florida.  His faculty page says he specializes in cross-cultural psychology:

His research interests vary, but have focused primarily on how Hispanic Americans adapt to the United States’ culture and how that adaptation manifests itself on psychological and personality tests. . . Specifically, he examines how variables such as race, ethnicity, culture, acculturation, gender, social class, and sexual orientation influence people’s attitudes and behaviors, including performance on personality tests. Although his studies usually are contextualized in clinical psychology, the essence of the research falls more within the domain of personality/social psychology.

Well, there’s already some potential flashpoints there, but things really blew up when, according to Inside Higher Ed (IHE), Negy apparently was teaching his cross-cultural anthropology class when a fracas occurred (the following is, according to IHE, based on Negy’s account):

In Negy’s telling, about 8 to 10 students, among 496 students in the class, started arguing that Christianity was superior to other religions. Negy asked the protesting students to demonstrate how this was so. At this, one of the students in the group asked the rest of the class not to take part in the discussion.

Negy said the class continued after he steered the discussion in another direction, but he was fuming. Soon after, he sent out a stinging e-mail message to all the students in his class.

Here’s his email, which was also posted, presumably by one of his students, on reddit

Hello, Cross-Cultural students, I am writing to express my views on how some of you have conducted yourself in this university course you are taking with me. It is not uncommon for some-to-many American students, who typically, are first-generation college students, to not fully understand, and maybe not even appreciate the purpose of a university. Some students erroneously believe a university is just an extension of high school, where students are spoon-fed “soft” topics and dilemmas to confront, regurgitate the “right” answers on exams (right answers as deemed by the instructor or a textbook), and then move on to the next course.

Not only is this not the purpose of a university (although it may feel like it is in some of your other courses), it clearly is not the purpose of my upper-division course on Cross-Cultural Psychology. The purpose of a university, and my course in particular, is to struggle intellectually with some of life’s most difficult topics that may not have one right answer, and try to come to some conclusion about what may be “the better answer” (It typically is not the case that all views are equally valid; some views are more defensible than others). Another purpose of a university, and my course in particular, is to engage in open discussion in order to critically examine beliefs, behaviors, and customs. Finally, another purpose of a university education is to help students who typically are not accustomed to thinking independently or applying a critical analysis to views or beliefs, to start learning how to do so. We are not in class to learn “facts” and simply regurgitate the facts in a mindless way to items on a test. Critical thinking is a skill that develops over time. Independent thinking does not occur overnight. Critical thinkers are open to having their cherished beliefs challenged, and must learn how to “defend” their views based on evidence or logic, rather than simply “pounding their chest” and merely proclaiming that their views are “valid.” One characteristic of the critical, independent thinker is being able to recognize fantasy versus reality; to recognize the difference between personal beliefs which are nothing more than personal beliefs, versus views that are grounded in evidence, or which have no evidence.

Last class meeting and for 15 minutes today, we addressed “religious bigotry.” Several points are worth contemplating:
Religion and culture go “hand in hand.” For some cultures, they are so intertwined that it is difficult to know with certainty if a specific belief or custom is “cultural” or “religious” in origin. The student in class tonight who proclaimed that my class was supposed to be about different cultures (and not religion) lacks an understanding about what constitutes “culture.” (of course, I think her real agenda was to stop my comments about religion).

Students in my class who openly proclaimed that Christianity is the most valid religion, as some of you did last class, portrayed precisely what religious bigotry is. Bigots—racial bigot or religious bigots—never question their prejudices and bigotry. They are convinced their beliefs are correct. For the Christians in my class who argued the validity of Christianity last week, I suppose I should thank you for demonstrating to the rest of the class what religious arrogance and bigotry looks like. It seems to have not even occurred to you (I’m directing this comment to those students who manifested such bigotry), as I tried to point out in class tonight, how such bigotry is perceived and experienced by the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, the non-believers, and so on, in class, to have to sit and endure the tyranny of the masses (the dominant group, that is, which in this case, are Christians).

The male student who stood up in class and directed the rest of the class to “not participate” by not responding to my challenge, represented the worst of education. For starters, the idea that a person—student or instructor—would instruct other students on how to behave, is pretty arrogant and grossly disrespects the rights of other students who can and want to think for themselves and decide for themselves whether they want to engage in the exchange of ideas or not. Moreover, this “let’s just put our fingers in our ears so we will not hear what we disagree with” is appallingly childish and exemplifies “anti-intellectualism.” The purpose of a university is to engage in dialogue, debate, and exchange ideas in order to try and come to some meaningful conclusion about an issue at hand. Not to shut ourselves off from ideas we find threatening.

Universities hold a special place in society where scholarly-minded folks can come together and discuss controversial, polemic, and often uncomfortable topics. Universities, including UCF, have special policies in place to protect our (both professors’ and students’) freedom to express ourselves. Neither students nor professors have a right to censor speech that makes us uncomfortable. We’re adults. We’re at a university. There is no topic that is “off-limits” for us to address in class, if even only remotely related to the course topic. I hope you will digest this message, and just as important, will take it to heart as it may apply to you.

Charles Negy

I see nothing objectionable in this email. Its language is strong, and perhaps the students singled out (not by name) could feel that the professor will be biased against them, but they’re adults, and this is a lesson on how to be an adult at a university.

As of yesterday afternoon, there were more than 1,600 comments on the Reddit discussion thread. I’ve just skimmed them, but most of them think that Negy’s letter and attitude are fine, which is heartening.

Even more heartening is that his university is standing by him. According to Inside Higher Ed:

Jeffrey Cassisi, the chair of the department of psychology at UCF, said in an e-mail that he supported Negy’s perspective. “I view Dr. Negy’s discussion as protected by the fundamental principles of academic freedom,” he said. “I am encouraged by the worldwide positive response to his letter, because if critical thinking and debate were not permitted in our public universities, I believe the future of all human rights would be at risk.”

Tony G. Waldrop, provost and executive vice president, said in an e-mail that the university encouraged faculty members to have classroom discussions that help students think critically. “We also hope our students will arrive at their own opinions based on those thought-provoking discussions,” he said.

There is one fly in the ointment, however, as the IHE article starts with this statement (my emphasis).

Charles Negy, a professor of psychology at the University of Central Florida, has taught his cross-cultural psychology class for 15 years. Uproars are not uncommon, especially when he talks about religion or tells his students that there is no evidence of a “heaven.”

And it makes me wonder what Negy said that made the students proclaim that Christianity was “the most valid religion.” I hope it wasn’t that he’s promulgating atheism at a public university (UCF is a public university—with 60,000 students, it’s the second largest in the U.S.).

Even at a private university, like the one where I teach, I wouldn’t tell the students there is no evidence for a heaven. For one thing, it’s not in my brief as a biology teacher. But even were I teaching a course on comparative religion or culture, I would ask the students for the evidence, and let them argue it out under my guidance. Students should be adults and be willing to have their beliefs challenged, but for a professor to question religious beliefs in a public university, even as a lesson in learning to tolerate dissent, seems to me a violation of the First Amendment. In a private university, it’s no legal violation, but remember that a professor is an authority figure.

In the end, I love Negy’s letter but wonder if there’s anything a bit less honorable behind it. What got those students riled up?


h/t: pyers

Carol Tavris on accusations vs. skepticism

August 7, 2014 • 8:24 am

After this post I’m going back to atheism, cats, food, and biology—at least for a while; but I thought that this talk, given by Carol Tavris at this year’s The Amazing Meeting, was a good complement to the discussion we had about Dawkins two days ago. Not all will agree with what she says, of course, but I hope to inspire civil discussion.

Tavris is a well-known social psychologist who has worked at UCLA, the New School, and has published widely. Twof her better-known public books are Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me):Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts (with Eliot Aronson)—a book I’ll read soon—and The Mismeasure of WomanBecause both her academic and feminist credentials are strong, she’s one of the few people with the credibility to pull off a talk about such a hot-button topic: skepticism around claims of sexual abuse.

The YouTube notes say this:

The Woody Allen sex scandal of 2013 triggered a national conversation on who to believe, with people lining up on each side as if they knew what really happened. Based on recent research on how people navigate the often tricky waters of sexual negotiation, Dr. Carol Tavris shows that it is entirely possible in some sexual assault cases neither side is lying, but instead both sides feel justified in their positions. This talk was considered one of the best ever given at The Amazing Meeting.

My friends who were there agree with the last sentence. What I like about this talk are two things. The first is the emphasis on skepticism. Presumably many of us lost our religious faith through skepticism—the absence of evidence supporting religious claims—or are skeptics because that is the prime characteristic of the scientific attitude.  I think Tavris’s emphasis on maintaining skepticism whenever the issue of evidence is relevant is an important one.

For many years I worked (without fee) for public defenders (lawyers representing indigent defendants for free), trying to make sure that the DNA evidence presented against accused criminals was used accurately. In the early days of such evidence, state and federal governments would regularly present “match statistics” (i.e., “the chance that someone other than the accused did this is one in 2 billion”*) that were not only misrepresented (as in the quote I just used, which was used often by prosecutors but is dead wrong), but also miscalculated. The possibility of lab error, which could give false matches at frequencies as high as 2%, was never taken into account, which of course would grossly reduce the match probability. There were many other types of calculation errors made by the prosecution. But., as I found to my dismay, the prosecution didn’t care about accuracy: they wanted a conviction. After all, we need to convince the public that offenders are caught and incarcerated.

From this I learned a few things. The first is that evidence must be used properly, and not twisted to fit one’s preconceptions, which is partly what Tavris’s talk is about. The second is that the prosecution’s brief is to obtain justice, but gets twisted by public opinion and their bosses into their real aim: convict the accused.  That’s just wrong.

The brief of the defense, for whom I worked, is not to ensure that justice is done but to ensure that the system of justice is maintained: that the prosecution must be able to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt. Public defenders (the vast majority of lawyers I worked with) told me that their assumption was that about 85% of their clients were guilty.  But they rarely knew for sure, and I never did. But it didn’t matter, really. We were trying to preserve those standards of evidence that the justice system mandates are required to convict.

Maybe this is all irrelevant, but it’s given me an enormous respect for the need for evidence when there is an accusation, and for certain standards to be preserved, standards that are easily eroded by emotion, personal bias, and so on. This is what Tavris’s talk is about, but she’s applying it to accusations of sexual misconduct.

A brief precis: the talk is summed up by her statement, near the beginning, that “As skeptics it is our intellectual obligation to tackle big complicated, emotionally charged issues as well as the easy ones we all agree on.” Some of those questions involve these: What is sexual assault? How common is it? How reliable are the statistics? Do those stats “anchor” people in their views, in the way Daniel Kahneman describes in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow? How can two people, or two groups, see the same facts and draw such different conclusions? What preserves the divide between such people?

Based on her work, and that of others, Tavris shows three ways that different people can present conflicting narratives of the same event—not because any of them are lying, but because they are presenting what she calls “honest false testimony.” That is, their views of what really happened aren’t made up, but are tinged by several factors that makes them believe they are telling the truth. Tavris pinpoints three factors causing honest false testimony. The first is the “dance of ambiguity” that occurs in conjunction with so-called “normal” sexual relations. As Tavris says, ” by being vague and indirect, each party’s ego is protected in case the other says no, . . . one can thus can reject offer without rejeccting the suitor. . . The price of all of this ego-protection is possibility that each partner misunderstands the other’s wishes.”

The second reason for “honest false testimony” is alcohol, which, says Tavris, facilitates and increases miscommunication, and impairs memory.

The third reason is the kind of normal errors of memory that Elizabeth Loftus apparently discussed at TAM.

Perhaps I’ve said too much, but I offer the video to promote discussion. Please leave comments below, don’t call your fellow commenters names, and try to be civil and temperate, please.


* A forensic note: The real way to present a match statistic is to say “The probability that a randomly selected person would have a DNA profile that matched the sample from the crime scene is one in X.” [This happens when the victim’s DNA matches the blood or semen at the crime scene, and a probative value must be assigned to the match]. X is usually huge, but the statistic should really revert to 1 in 50 if the DNA testing lab makes false positive errors at a frequency of 2%.  (In the days when I testified, contamination that could cause such false positives was fairly frequent: I myself contaminated samples when sequencing DNA). And, of course 2% plus 0.00000000001 is still 2%.

Also, one has to take into account what ethnic group one is talking about when you do those calculations, as groups differ, sometimes markedly, in the frequency of DNA markers. If the defendant is Asian, what database do you use to calculate the statistic if you don’t know what ethnicity of the criminal? All you know is the ethnicity of the defendant. Some way of making conservative estimates has to be concocted, and that was once an issue of great controversy.