The problem with organized skepticism

24 03 2009

Before I start, let me say that I know perfectly well why organized skepticism is important as of now, and I agree.

“Organized skepticism” is, broadly speaking, the (largely online) movement to promote critical thinking among the public. It is apolitical and areligious, although it does lean strongly in both areas for various reasons, some related to the whole “critical thinking” thing, some not.

Now, my problem with it: I think that the movement as a whole has missed the point of its own existence. There is a certain mindset that I see in the skeptical movement towards turning inward and preaching to the choir. That is a problem in its own right, but I think it stems from something larger: the skeptical movement has forgotten or not realized that it is a movement whose very goal necessitates that it be a temporary measure.

What I mean by that is this. Skepticism as a movement will, if it succeeds, become irrelevant. If critical thinking becomes widespread, and if it is brought into standard curriculums in schools, the movement is no longer needed, and indeed should begin to fade away. The problem with such movements after they acheive their goals is that they are often counterproductive and, quite frankly, insular because they have lost their purpose. They become a bit embarrsessing to everyone, and in fact create a push the other way.

The problem is that, as expressed by the “preaching to the choir” tendency I’ve noted, many skeptics seem to have every intention of continuing the movement whether its goals are acheived or not. My question, I guess, is “why?”

I’m not saying that we’re anywhere near the point where skepticism has become widespread (we’re not), but I think it’s worth keeping in mind that this is not a movement whose intent should be permenance.

Yum, Anti-Evolutionists

31 01 2009

I was unlucky enough to stumble upon this little gem of evolution denialism the other day, and thought it was a plump enough victim for my first blog post. Oh, yeah, hey there folks.

“As Darwin envisioned it, [natural selection] could only operate on small variations in the immediate present. No foresight or planning was involved.”

What does he mean by foresight? Of course organisms don’t plan for their DNA to mutate and produce a more fit creature in 20 generations. It doesn’t particularly matter whether or not it was planned.  Any kind of small variations in the immediate present can be used to infer that there were many small variations in the immediate present a thousand years ago, or a million years ago. How many small variations does it take to drastically change an organism?

“Another problem recognized later was that it conveys no information. If fitness is measured by what survives, and survivors are assumed to be the fit ones, then it is a tautology: survivors survive.”

Well, yes, it would indeed be a tautology when you use the theory of natural selection to replace one of the terms in that relationship. If I told you that y=x, would it make sense to claim that by that logic, y=y and nothing has been learned? The principle of natural selection states that because not all of the population can survive, it is more often the most fit organisms that survive. Explaining why organisms change is the point of the theory, not explaining why the fit survive.

“Natural selection is supposed to produce endless forms most beautiful from an unguided, purposeless mechanical process. But chance is not a process! Oh, but the randomness in variation is selected by the environment, the Darwinist says. Well, guess what: the environment is random, too, so this reduces to chance acting on chance.”

Let’s put an end to this idea of the Earth’s environments being “random.” A planet forms through a long, slow, and above all, regular process. It’s messy, but it’s regular. The conditions on a planet are the direct results of this process. Organisms today inhabit dynamic environments, yes, but they are environments with certain types of other organisms, certain geologic features, and certain climates at any one point in time. These DEFINED locations provided challenges for the most fit organisms to overcome. Calling that “chance acting on chance” is like calling human reaction to a certain stimulus “random.”

“Nobody questions the reality of mutations, and not even young-earth creationists disagree with the ability of selection to conserve and adapt existing genetic information to changing conditions, but how could a blind process that can only respond to immediate circumstances build a wing, eye, kidney or brain?”

Well, it was awfully nice of him to concede to natural selection in this article debunking it. An eye, sir, can be created like this. The immediate circumstances and pressures on a species and its mutations are often enough to push the development of biological “parts” that can eventually be consolidated into an incredibly complex organ or system.

“If Darwinism is true, abandon all hope of purpose, meaning, and values… William Provine has been among the few Darwinists willing to go all the way to the bitter consequences of the Stuff Happens law: there is no purpose, no meaning, and no free will, and when you die, you are dead, dead, dead.”

Why should purpose, meaning, and values be abandoned? What would be the purpose to existence if a god HAD created the Earth? A science experiment? Should your values be any different if an unknown invisible man from the sky designed and created you instead of a chance arrangement and bonding of atoms followed by millions of years of evolution? And anyway, this is just the is/ought fallacy. As Richard Dawkins has so eloquently explained, just because something is a certain way in nature does not mean we ought to act that way. Values are not derived from our creation anyway, so not believing in invisible sky pixie creators doesn’t have any bearing on them.


28 12 2008

I assume that if you’re interested enough in science or skepticism to read my little blog you already listen to the SGU, but in case someone reading this blog doesn’t, I figured I’d recommend it. It’s a weekly podcast about what’s going on in science and skepticism. They usually have some news about the latest garbage in antiscience, and then some news about real science.

Now go away or I will taunt you a second time!

19 12 2008

A socially acceptable form of aggression. It’s an unfair response to an unfair imbalance of power – a seizing of the joystick. You get to name the targets, you get to fire the bullets – and what you’re essentially doing is putting those people in an impossible situation where they’re forced to like it. There’s a great deal of hostility involved – and the wonderful part is, after you’re finished, you say, ‘What’s the matter, can’t you take a joke? This is humor, sir!’ You can shame them into agreeing that the attack is acceptable. Nobody wants to be accused of not taking a joke. It’s a double-bind. – George Carlin

Your [human] race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon—laughter. Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution—these can lift at a colossal humbug push it a little weaken it a little, century by century; but only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand. You are always fussing and fighting with your other weapons. Do you ever use that one? No; you leave it lying rusting. As a race, do you ever use it at all? No; you lack sense and the courage.
Satan, in The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain

Humor…where do you start? The psychology of it still isn’t agreed upon, and probably won’t be for a long time. It’s one of the sharpest, deadliest tools we have, and yet we so often say that we’re “just joking.” It has been part of the rise and fall of many a movement in history, and the downfall of more than a few politicians. It is, in short, really frigging awesome.

Making fun of something is the greatest insult we can give. We are saying that the object of our mirth is so ridiculous that we have only to point to it and everyone will see what we mean and laugh too. We are saying that the target is so absurd that we don’t even need to address it, because everyone can see for themselves that it is beneath address. And we’re allowed to do this!

When we use humor against those above us, what can they do? If they respond angrily, the world thinks that they have no sense of humor, and that’s humiliating. If they ignored it, an enormous challenge to their authority over us is going entirely unanswered. If they respond in kind, they are mean spirited, picking on the little guy. If they censor us, they are a great oppressor.

And humor really is a powerful tool. It can destroy a position more effectively than a hundred articles and essays. The light of mockery burns away the rationalizations that defend a position and make us see the thing for what it is. Many of our greatest, most deeply held beliefs are absurd and propped up by rationalization, so humor cuts through us. And it is the one medium that we will accept the criticism from. We bluster angrily at a direct challenge to our beliefs, but are left speechless by satire.

And yet we demean humor! “It’s just a joke,” we say. It’s a vicious attack, but we can use adjectives like “merely” to describe it. Perhaps, on some level, the average person is much smarter than we give them credit for. Somewhere in them, almost all people see humor as some sort of sacred right that should be protected, far more than they do of other forms of criticism. Something about it slips past our defenses, and on some level we realize that that’s a good thing.

I think you know where I’m getting with this… 😉

Don’t just debate religion. Laugh about (not at) it. It’s funny, and even Christians see that when it’s criticized with humor. And, what the hell, it’s fun!

First post, and skepticism

15 10 2008

How do you start a blog? Well, I have no idea, so I guess I’ll have to make up my own way!

I’m hoping to start using this blog to write about science, skepticism, atheism, etc from a high schooler’s perspective. If no one ever reads the blog, well, I get to vent frustrations and maybe think through my ideas more often, and if people do read it, cool! I guess this first post should have a topic, so on to the inaugural topic.

Skepticism isn’t a dogma, a body of knowledge, or even a system. It’s a way of thinking. Skepticism doesn’t mean that you reach a certain conclusion, it means that you arrive at that conclusion a certain way. Most skeptics agree on issues relating to pseudoscience because pseudoscience is about facts, not about values. Skeptics disagree on politics, sometimes religion, and often on how to spread skepticism because those are not based on skeptical thinking, although they can use it. Those are based on your underlying values. Conservatives and liberals arrive at different conclusions not just through different types of thinking, but through disagreeing about what matters most.

The point of skepticism, however, is that if you are shown that your reasoning or evidence are wrong, you will change your position. Christopher Hitchens, for instance, after having himself waterboarded, changed his position and decided that waterboarding was in fact torture. He still has the same political orientation, but he has changed his view on a specific aspect of it based on evidence.

That is why skepticism is important. It allows us to realize when we are wrong. If we accept claims uncritically, we won’t find problems with their evidence or holes in their reasoning. Without skepticism we accept falsehoods not through any willful bias, but simply through lack of the tools to tell the difference between truth and falsehood.

Skepticism is about analyzing our own ideas with the light of reason. It is about identifying our subtle biases and avoiding them. It is about finding the little tricks we play on ourselves so that we don’t see when our logic breaks down, or when our evidence is insufficient. It is not about atheism or theism, it is about how you arrive at atheism or why you believe in a god.

A process relies on its input for its output. Skepticism is only the process. If two people have different values or premises, they will arrive at different conclusions. And part of skepticism recognizing when this happens and just agreeing to disagree.