• On John Horgan’s Confusions about Skepticism and Science

    Modified work of Simon Child.
    Modified work of Simon Child.

    John Horgan is not a skeptic with a capital-S. Or a small one. Horgan is a science journalist who recently, controversially, spoke at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS). He implored organized skeptics to choose “hard targets” over soft ones. That is, to criticize dubious and harmful claims from mainstream science and institutions. I will take Horgan’s advice by criticizing dubious and harmful claims made by a large institution, the media, starting with his. It is not clear Horgan understands what skepticism is or what organized skepticism is for.

    Horgan framed this issue in terms of a community being “tribal” and bristling at any criticism. We agree here. This can be a problem in any group of people. I have loudly and sharply criticized skeptics, rationalists, and organizations several times:

    I broke the story about American Atheists being sued for racial discrimination and wrongful termination of a whistle-blower.
    I strongly critiqued skeptic-hero/legend/saint Carl Sagan in a post titled “Carl Sagan’s Stumbles”.
    Ditto for Christopher Hitchens. I even criticize parts of Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion, here.
    I wrote a lengthy critique and detailed 90 significant errors and problems with a talk given by “Skepchick” skeptic Rebecca Watson, whom I charged with science denialism.

    John Horgan wrote about his talk here and invited reply. Here is mine (see a list of other replies below).

    Horgan does not appear to know what skepticism is.

    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. . .  You are extremely critical of belief in God, ghosts, …You also attack disbelief in global warming.

    In these lines we learn Horgan thinks that the job of skepticism is to bash, or that criticism is commensurate with bashing or attacking. Number one, criticism (the form of science and skepticism) isn’t aggression. If you are deploying aggression, you are doing it wrong. Sometimes skeptics do employ mockery and ridicule:

    This is skeptical activism. Doing skepticism is intellectual and interrogatory. Using the fruits of it to try to enable positive change is activism. These are different. Just as environmentalism is a good idea, even when PETA does something absurd, skepticism is a good idea even when skeptics do absurd things. Regardless, the topical focus and content are different from modes of changing society.

    Number two, skepticism isn’t criticism. The word comes from the Greek skeptikos meaning “inquiring, reflective”. It is about employing objectivity and investigating. In a word, question. But the good skeptic must be ready to accept the answer, whatever it is. When “bashing” or setting out to criticize, you’ve already decided what the outcome will be. That isn’t skepticism, that’s aggression.

    Number three, by deliberately flushing any semblance of objectivity, you disclaim skepticism instantly. Horgan’s honesty is refreshing. He is clear that he had an agenda (before speaking), that he already saw “Skepticism” as a tribalistic echo-chamber of choir-preachers, and he was going to bash it. And you know, there’s nothing in particular wrong about that. His beliefs are probably closer to true than we would like to admit. Even if they are, there is nothing whatever skeptical about his approach. He is simply, categorically not a skeptic here. If he has done some careful, objective analysis, he mentions none of that here.

    Horgan seems confused about what pseudoscience is.

    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.

    Horgan noted that Sean Carroll has argued that falsifiability should be discarded. Horgan dismissed this with “You’re losing the game, so you try to change the rules”. There are a few things to unpack here.

    A. Those things are not necessarily pseudoscience.

    Pseudoscience is “a system of theories, assumptions, and methods erroneously regarded as scientific.” Horgan uses astrology and Freudian psychoanalysis as examples. They are good ones. But neither string theory nor the multiverse fit this definition. Astrology entails many asserted but unsupportable claims. String theory does not. It is, undisputedly, conjecture without any hard evidence. Conjecture and hypothesizing is an important part of science. It is how every great idea is born. The crime of pseudoscience is making false claims of evidence or scientific rigor. Sean Carroll himself, a guest on NPR’s Science Friday podcast last Friday, said ideas like the Big Bang are “just hypotheses… speculations, it’s very possible there was something before the Big Bang.”

    B. Falsifiability is not and never has been etched in scientific stone somewhere.

    Questioning the supremacy of falsification is not “changing the rules.” Falsification was proposed by philosopher Karl Popper. Distinguished philosopher, but not captain of science. And his idea was immediately criticized by scientists and philosophers, most famously his own students. Popper didn’t write some new science rule, he described an important difference between many good scientific ideas, and many bad ones. This launched a robust conversation about the demarcation problem that continues to this day.

    A more basic objection: many things we all agree are scientific aren’t falsifiable, or were not falsifiable for many years. Benjamin Franklin suggested the continents may move, floating on a denser fluid and noted the puzzle-piece fit of the continents. The technology to prove it would not exist for centuries. Was he a pseudo-scientist? Paleontologists and paleoanthropologists use remnant evidence to build a picture of the past. However, no picture they suggest can be directly tested (and they admit as much). Are these fields of inquiry also the same as astrology? I hardly think so.

    Falsifiability is a good heuristic, but a better description of science is abduction- inference to the best explanation given all available evidence.

    Skepticism isn’t science and can’t play scientific Internal Affairs Department.

    Right after explaining pseudo-science is bad, Horgan implored skeptics to go pretend that they are scientists:

    During the debate over Obama-care, we often heard that American medicine is the best in the world. That’s a lie . . . Mental-health care suffers from similar problems . . . Another hard target that needs your attention is behavioral genetics, which seeks the genes that make us tick. I call it gene-whiz science, because the media and the public love it.

    Horgan gave examples of people who have criticized mainstream or common medical practices. For example, Peter Kramer, a professor of psychiatry at Brown and Gilbert Welch, a Dartmouth healthcare analyst with an MD and a Master’s in Public Health. People like Kramer and Welch can do this because they are experts in those fields. They know their field literature, and are competent to evaluate the quality of research. They have the access, means, and understanding to properly investigate a question about policy or efficacy. A non-expert is simply not qualified or able to do that, and, like journalists, may embarrass themselves by pretending that they can. Skeptics tend to focus on things like homeopathy because there is no scientific doubt about its usefulness and harmfulness.  Facts are grist for the skeptical mill, but can’t be if they are yet disputed.

    To be clear, there are skeptics who do talk about exactly the medical issues Horgan raises. He evidently did not think it prudent to find out if his claims about skeptical focus were correct before making them at a conference and at Scientific American’s website. For example, Steven Novella and the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast regularly features mangled headline science and medical mumbo-jumbo (see Novella’s well-wrought response to Horgan). There is also the group and website Science-Based Medicine. Note that these are run by MDs. If it seems like the bulk of skepticism does not include mainstream medical criticism, it’s because we are not MDs qualified to do that.

    Being a skeptic is does not magically make you a trained, experienced scientist. It simply means adopting a worldview and habits that elevate the value of evidence, reason, and vigilant, open inquiry.

    In conclusion

    A media maven’s charges of tribalism are a tool as dangerous to the wielder. Horgan has his own allegiance, his own tribe and he marks it clearly,

    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, …I point out gaps between scientific hype and reality.  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.

    A determined contrarian who seems to take zealous joy in faulting others’ objectivity. It doesn’t make you wrong. It makes you look like someone who got dressed in the dark and left the house without glancing toward a mirror.

    I am all for competent skepticism of skeptics. This is not it.

    Discussion links and timeline – Horgan’s talk was on 5/15 and first blog post 5/16

    5/17 Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta “Skeptics Conference Speaker Criticizes Audience for Going After “Soft” Targets Like Bigfoot and God.”

    5/17 Neurological Blog, Steve NovellaJohn Horgan is “Skeptical of Skeptics”

    5/17 Skeptic/Insight, Daniel LoxtonBigfoot Versus the Quest for World Peace?

    5/18 John Horgan responds to criticsMy Response to Responses to My Critique of “Skepticism”

    5/18 Respectful Insolence, David GorskiJohn Horgan is “skeptical of skeptics,” or: Homeopathy and bigfoot versus cancer and the quest for world peace

    5/18 Skeptic Ink, David OsorioThe actual hard target for skepticism

    5/19 Why Evolution is True, Jerry Coyne, Criticizing skeptics, John Horgan official becomes an Internet troll

    5/19 Why Evolution is True, Lawrence Krauss,  Krauss on Horgan

    5/19 Horgan responds againMeta-Skepticism: Update on the Skepticism Debate

    5/21 Horgan refuses his own advice, writes about spoon-bendingSkeptic Debunks Spoon-Bending and Fosters World Peace

    5/22 Why Evolution is True, Steven Pinker,  Steve Pinker demolishes John Horgan’s view of war


    Category: Critical Thinkingskepticism

  • Article by: Edward Clint

    Ed Clint is a bioanthropology graduate student at UCLA, cofounder of Skeptic Ink, and USAF veteran.

    2 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

    • Otto T. Goat

      Good point about falsifiability.

    • Otto T. Goat

      “The U.S. spends much more on health care per capita than any other nation in the world. And yet we rank 34th in longevity. We’re tied with Costa Rica, which spends one tenth what we spend per capita. How could this happen? Perhaps because the health-care industry prioritizes profits over health.”

      Or perhaps longevity rankings are not a good indicator of health care quality.

    • im-skeptical

      You raised a number of good points. Much appreciated.

    • Great post, Ed. The collection of links at the end is a nice touch, too. I really should do that more often.

      I like the idea of continuously reevaluating our skeptical target set, checking if we’ve missed out on some hitherto underserved topics or practices. I also like the idea of sorting out harder targets (e.g. overuse of binary diagnostic testing on patient populations with relatively low apriori risk, thereby elevating the false positive rate) from softer targets (e.g. selling people placebo solutions and calling it homeopathic medicine), if only because it helps us know when to spend more effort on careful background explanation. I also like the idea of challenging the audience in a somewhat contrarian fashion, but only if the speaker takes the trouble to be contrary about something that the audience really is getting wrong, at least in part.

      On this last point, Horgan really did look like he “got dressed in the dark and left the house without glancing toward a mirror.” It only takes a couple of Google searches to discover that the skeptical community has been arguing about most of the topics he brings up for many years, in some cases treating a given topic far more thoroughly than Horgan seems capable of doing himself.

      It would be fun to see someone intimately familiar with the history and scope of skepticism try to make a compelling case for expanding and refining our target set while remaining true to the nature of scientific skepticism. Perhaps this has already happened somewhere and sometime. It would be worth careful consideration if done well.

    • mem_somerville

      I don’t haz a blog for my response. But I put one in the comments at his piece when they fixed the commenting problem.

      Oh–this was an interesting response on the war part too: http://aelkus.github.io/blog/2016-05-23-strategy_skepticism.html

    • Shatterface

      I don’t know much about the situation in America but here in the UK we have many popular and influential journalists like Ben Goldacre who write a great deal on medical matters.

      The public support for Simon Singh after his comments on alternative medicine lead to a change in our libel laws.

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