The Skeptic's Skeptic's Skeptic

2011-01-06 16:56

I’m sad to write this, because I (used to?) think quite highly of Michael Shermer. His column in Scientific American about skepticism has often really appealed.

However, there’s a risk we always face. Once you identify yourself with a label, you’ve created a sense of self-identity in that label, and the natural thing to do is talk the label up, and promote other people who share that label. This is how humans work, whether they’re skeptics or not. We have a very strong set of instincts designed to make us loyal to “us” and hostile to “them”.

In the November issue of Scientific American (unlike skeptics, I am very slow to get around things), Shermer’s column was titled The Skeptic’s Skeptic.

Happily, The Skeptic’s Skeptic is online, so you can read it.

Let me quote two parts that particularly interested me.

If God created the eye, then how do creationists explain the blind salamander? “The most they can do is to intone that ‘the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,’” Hitchens mused. “Whereas the likelihood that the postocular blind­ness of underground salamanders is another aspect of evolution by natural selection seems, when you think about it at all, so overwhelmingly probable as to con­stitute a near certainty.” To confirm his instincts, Hitchens queried evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who agreed: “Why on earth would God create a salamander with vestiges of eyes? If he wanted to create blind salamanders, why not just create blind salamanders? Why give them dummy eyes that don’t work and that look as though they were inherited from sighted ancestors?”

Now, to see the problem here, you have to know who Richard Dawkins is. Richard Dawkins is an evangelical atheist. By that I mean, not only is he an atheist, he has made a career out of aggressively promoting atheism, talking up atheism, and attacking religion and religious people. To give you some idea of how ludicrous this gets, consider that Richard Dawkins was, at one point, promoting awareness of The Rational Response Squad. (WARNING: Link is to Encyclopedia Dramatica. It is quite possibly inaccurate, but it gives a much clearer picture of the essential character of the group than anything else would.)

So Shermer would have us believe that, when you want to confirm that an argument showing people you loathe and despise to be wrong is a persuasive argument, you should naturally take it to someone who is even more famous for loathing and hating those people. Dude. That is not how skepticism is done. That is not how you test a theory. This has all the scientific rigor of, to use a purely hypothetical example, having someone who has a patent on a competing vaccine do a clinical study to determine whether a given vaccine is linked to autism.

Shermer continues:

Hitchens’s point is even deeper, however, when he applies the counterfactual argument of regression to the cosmos itself, noting that “there is a dialectical usefulness to considering the conventional arguments in reverse, as it were. For example, to the old theistic question, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ we can now counterpose the findings of Professor Lawrence Krauss and others, about the foreseeable heat death of the universe…. So, the question can and must be rephrased: ‘Why will our brief ‘something’ so soon be replaced with nothing?’ It’s only once we shake our own innate belief in linear progression and consider the many recessions we have undergone and will undergo that we can grasp the gross stupidity of those who repose their faith in divine providence and godly design.”

Note that most of this is a quote from Hitchens, not Shermer’s own words. But he continues (page 2 of the linked article, containing an entire paragraph):

The dialectical usefulness of clear logic, coupled to elegant prose (layered on top of the usual dollop of data), cannot be overstated and should be considered by scientists as another instrument of persuasion in the battle for ideas. 

You know, when I try to persuade people, one of the first things I usually do is accuse them of gross stupidity; I feel this makes them more receptive to what I have to say. Oh, wait. That wasn’t me, that was some utter lunatic who has never tried to interact with other human beings. Me, I try to be a little friendlier. The problem here is that the prose isn’t particularly elegant or effective; it’s just prose that affirms Shermer’s prejudices. The mutual back-patting society has worked its magic, and produced the characteristic blindness towards what other people actually believe that has so defined the impossibility of talking to many religious fundamentalists.

Clear logic? Yes, certainly, “clear logic” would be a great way to describe the jump from “one argument commonly used by creationists, who are a minority among religious people, isn’t particularly persuasive, and here’s a sort of witty way of phrasing that” to “… we can grasp the gross stupidity of those who repose their faith in divine providence and godly design.” Well, I don’t know; is non sequitur the Latin phrase for “clear logic”?

Here’s the thing. Skepticism is supposed to be about trying to check your ideas carefully. Checks and balances, sanity checks, double-checks, and watching out for biases. That’s skepticism. You know what you should do when you think you have found an argument against someone’s position? Show it to someone who actually holds that position. That would be a good starting point. If they don’t think it’s persuasive, well, maybe it isn’t very persuasive. Showing it to someone you already know agrees with you strongly and has a deeply vested emotional interest in thinking the argument you’re attacking is stupid tells you nothing. Skeptics or not, very few people are capable of giving a fair evaluation in a circumstance like that.

There is a temptation, of course, to write this piece, then wait for the inevitable response, accusing me of only writing this because of my own biases. Evangelical atheists who know that I’m religious are always quick to point out my powerful biases against evolutionary biology and in favor of intelligent design. But, in this case, I’m afraid I must disappoint. I think evolutionary biology is transparently obvious at this point, I don’t see any reason at all to appeal to “intelligent design” in explaining life on earth as we know it, and I am quite confident that the phrase “intelligent design” was coined purely out of genuinely dishonest intent by people who wanted to break laws and get away with it. The problem here is not that Hitchens has a bad argument; while it’s hardly necessary to find even more arguments against intelligent design, this looks at least superficially like a persuasive one.

The problem is that the modern “Skeptics” have started laying the foundations for a new social structure indistinguishable from an organized religion or political party, founded in a desire that the people identified as “Us” be thought of as good and clever and superior, and the people identified as “Them” be thought of as stupid, dysfunctional, and inferior. To that end, Shermer is praising Hitchens, not because his behavior could possibly be objectively mapped onto the word “skeptical” in any meaningful sense, but because his behavior and his anti-religious ranting affirm Shermer’s sense of superiority to those stupid intelligent design people.

It is particularly frustrating to me to see this done to the word “skeptic”, which at one point could be used to denote a genuine devotion to outsmarting the primate brain’s tendency to try to feel good about itself no matter what happens. Now, the word “skeptic” is being hijacked to mean “people who are as dogmatic and unthinking in their rejection of anything labeled as or associated with religion as their enemies are in their enthusiastic acceptance of anything labeled as or associated with religion.” Just as there are people who really do fall for 419 scams because the scam letter starts out “Greetings in the name of our Lord”, we now see atheists who get scammed because they assume an atheist is necessarily trustworthy.

Shermer should know better. Heck, he does. But he’s still a primate, and the battle with the primate brain is not one you can declare victory in just by assigning yourself a title.

Peter Seebach




  1. If Shermer’s point with Dawkin’s quote is that creationism is impossible, that’s one thing. If the point is that it’s implausible, that’s something different. Even if Shermer means the latter while Dawkins means the former.

    I have no problem with Shermer quoting someone who is dogmatic and closed minded if that person happens (even by accident) to make the most eloquent wording for his argument. Even if his column has “skeptic” in its title.

    In short, if you have to know who Dawkins is in order to see the problem, there’s no problem. The words stand or fall on their own merit.

    Dave Leppik · 2011-01-07 12:46 · #

  2. The problem is that he’s upholding Hitchens as an exemplar of skepticism, when all Hitchens did was ask someone he already knew agreed with him whether he agreed with him.

    It’s not that Dawkins is necessarily wrong; it’s that what Hitchens did is in no way a good example of skepticism. He wasn’t doing something which could reasonably be expected to expose a flaw in his argument if it had one, but rather, something which would probably affirm his argument even if it was flawed.

    Peter Seebach · 2011-01-07 16:05 · #