After the NECSS Dawkins debacle I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I didn’t have high hopes — apparently it went fine with just one big caveat.
Turns out one of the speakers was John Horgan, a Massimo Pigliucci kinda philosopher, who has a Scientific American blog. His speech was about bashing capital-S skepticism — Hemant Mehta said he was just complaining about different priorities among skeptics. Daniel Loxton answered once again why soft targets shouldn’t be dismissed the way Horgan argues.
But I think what what Horgan stands for is worse than what he lets on. Horgan asked skeptics to go after ‘hard’ targets, so that’s a good place to start:
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.
Funny how you accepted to give a speech in a self-styled capital-S skeptic conference. Kudos for self righteousness (wink, wink!).
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.
Meanwhile, you neglect what I call hard targets.
Ohh, man, can I be cool? Please?
I call bullshit. We (at least the ones on this side of the aisle — I’ll get to that later) are not “bashing people”, we bash bad ideas.
Horgan’s labels are bullshit as well. The belief in god is more widespread and dangerous, embeded in the public policies of virtually all the countries, granting discrimination to all kinds of people, from atheists to LGBT and women populations. How’s that any softer than letting your mind get the best of your imagination and hypothesizing about multiverses?
What’s more harmful, people wasting their savings on homeopathy instead of getting actual medicine or Kurzweil’s babbling about future technology?
Whose priorities are wrong now?
But there’s more to it than it seems. Horgan has drunk the post-modernist kool-aid, so naturally he’s against evidence-based skepticism (in case you haven’t noticed). If you paid attention to what he said, you would know he’s touting the noble savage myth (no wonder he’s so fond of Margaret Mead, pioneer of cultural relativism and promoter of the already debunked blank slate idea).
Horgan also entertains curious ideas about warfare. Michael Shermer already tweeted some basic problems with Horgan’s view of war, but I think there’s more to say about it. Be warned, this could get a bit longish. I think it’s worth it.
It’s not rare to find someone who buys the noble-savage myth who also happen to not like the US and what it stands for too much. Horgan is no exception. He thinks that the US is the bigger threat to peace, making false equivalence fallacies; for example says Qaddafi and al-Assad kill people but so does the US in airstrikes, hence there is some kind of moral equivalency. Sure, US-led airstrikes have killed innocents people (and it’s wrong), but stripping all context, figures and intentions out of the “civil casualties” label almost says nothing about those deaths or conflicts. Another one: Horgan says it’s more dangerous for the world’s leading democracy to have 8.500 warheads than letting a theocratic liberticidal and anti-semitic regime like Iran (whose moderate president can’t stand nude statues) to have the technology to build nuclear weapons.
And… isn’t Daesh a worst threat to peace? If you happen to hate the US, everything wrong in the world is United States’ fault —from the extinction of dinosaurs to the Crusades—, so according to Horgan, Daesh is obviously US fault, even though that’s demonstrably factually wrong. It should come as no surprise then that by the end of his lecture about how to be a ‘good’ skeptic, Horgan urged people to be more like… wait for it… Noam Chomsky!
But unlike Chomsky and Horgan, we, actual capital-S skeptics, care to use statistics and context. For example, Horgan argues as well that the US should cut it’s military funding. I’m not so sure about that: the numbers are in and it looks like the the size of western armed forces, their stocks of weaponry and their readiness for combat are declining. In a vacuum, that would be fine. But we don’t live in a vacuum: Russia and China are waking up and we’re at the gates of a New Cold War. You’d have to be suicidal to not even consider the geo-political forces at play when irresponsibly arguing for cutting the military funding.
What’s at play?
I rather the US (the West, actually) not because I think it is pefect —I know it’s far from it— but because it is the closest we get to a civilization, a culture that is heir to the Enlightenment.
And just like on a large scale we do not live in a vacuum, neither we do on a small scale. Horgan said we should bash our own tribe and, albeit inadvertently, he was right. I just won’t bash people, because I go after bad ideas. So here we go.
Organized skepticism and the spawn of Atheist/Skeptic organizations are products of the Enlightenment and enlightened thinking. Equal rights, freedom of speech and thought, free discussion of ideas, a materialistic and naturalistic understanding of the world, and tolerance for different tastes and wants. Over the course of the last five years, a good deal of this enterprise has been curtailed and infected by post-modernist thought: a nasty and obnoxious set of ideas that, among other things, says objectivity doesn’t exist, that an argument is wrong just because it’s stated by white people (go figure!) and that people should be granted more or less rights depending on their skin color and sex, and that we should “believe the victims” instead of asking for evidence when they make a claim. (This kind of thought and double standards have an appalling conclusion: less equality and less freedom.)
I get some spoiled kid who won’t have to work a day in his life can go full Trigglypuff because people don’t behave how he demands, so he thinks he gets to bully them. (For instance, they had Joss Whedon close his Twitter account because they didn’t like what he did in his movie.)
That’s not skepticism. That’s being an asshole. You don’t get to tell people what to do on their private lives or businesses, or what to think. You only get to not do it on your own. For instance, no one should be forced to worship a god they don’t believe in, or endorse a religion they don’t practice. That’s why secularism is important, because it guarantees the freedom of thought.
But much of the capital-S skepticism and atheist movement is now gone, because it was poisoned by the policing of what other people think. It’s as if they no longer sticked to explaining why homeopathy doesn’t work, but they went ahead and forcibly took the pills out of someone’s purse, and bullied them all over their social media.
That’s a real, major threat to the skeptic movement. That’s our actual hard target because if we don’t stand our grounds and our principles, there will be no skeptic movement left to fight against pseudoscience, Nessie, god-thumpers, the multiverse, the Singularity, or overmedication.
Post-modernism is a not-so-new source of irrational beliefs, but it keeps delivering new irrational trends (SJW, third-wave feminism, intersectionality, identity politics, blaming other people for your feelings, ‘privilege’, etc) that keep on doing more harm than good.