April 14, 2010

All That and a Skeptic

I am a skeptic.

I'm also an atheist, feminist, progressive, absurdist artist. I have prejudices and blind spots and unquestioned notions. And I have friends whom I love dearly who are arguing (in a way I find incredibly painful to watch) over the purity of the mission of the skeptical movement--again. Unsurprisingly, I agree with most of them, even though they don't agree with each other. Only, I don't think I'm doing it just because they're friends.

I agree quite strongly with Barbara Drescher, and others who have chimed in before, including Daniel Loxton, on the definition of scientific skepticism.

Notice that all of these definitions describe a process, not a conclusion. They describe a search for truth, not a search for values. In fact, there is a clear and very scientific statement that values are irrelevant: “A skeptic is someone who applies vigorous and systematic research to any claim, regardless of its political, religious, or social implications.”

At the same time, I have to agree with Rebecca Watson that any movement that can be damaged by those who are associated with it following their values, even if values are not specifically what the movement is about, is not a movement I need to be associated with. I don't give up all those other things I am to be a skeptic, and I won't.

That doesn't mean I don't value the people who do largely set those things aside to focus on skepticism. We need people who can do that. I may not say often enough how much I appreciate them (some of whom may be you), but I do. It just means I can't operate that way myself. And I think they need me too.

They need me in part because for all we like to talk about the objectivity of science, perspectives and values matter. If we don't have enough of them, we're not even asking all the right questions, much less figuring out all the angles from which we need to approach them.

But they also need me because I don't fit tidily into their movement, because I travel to strange places and meet people they wouldn't, because I don't entirely compartmentalize. They ground the movement, keep its core from wandering too far and communicate to the pilgrims who come to them. I carry their message--and their values--to those who wouldn't seek it out on their own.

When I travel, labeled as a skeptic, among those with whom I share other values, I have an opportunity to spread skepticism to a sympathetic audience. People who already agree with me are much more likely to also agree when I say it is important that we don't fool ourselves, that we lean on something more reliable than the faulty cognition that can allow both our ideas and our opponents' to exist simultaneously. They are more likely to trust a scientific method that tells them what they already think they know.

No, this is not an ideal state for anyone to end in, and yes, some of these people will now think they are skeptics without truly understand what skepticism is. Some of these people will fail utterly at skepticism, and if this is where we leave things, the skeptical movement has, as Barbara said, failed.

But what if we don't leave things there? I don't. I don't know anyone involved in any part of this monstrous argument who does. If we continue to nudge these people toward a greater reliance on strong evidence instead of their kind feelings about us, if we continue to slowly sow seeds of doubt and encourage them to sprout, if we push them in the direction of that core of skepticism, have we failed just because that first step was insufficient? I don't think we have. I think we've made progress.

There are (at least) two ways to look at the question of whether some of us should wear our skeptical hats and our values at the same time. We can insist that any values but those of skepticism itself taint the process and must be left outside. That may well be a reasonable approach for skeptical organizations with limited resources. Focus is a pragmatic value in activism, and these sorts of fights have been known to tear plenty of organizations apart.

On the other hand, we can look at this as carrying our skeptical values and processes with us into the wider world. Then it becomes a question of us tainting them, rather than the other way around. And frankly, that's a plan I can get behind. One of those non-skeptical bits of me is an unholy love of subversion, and to be a movement, we need to move.

But honestly, I don't understand why this is being presented as a choice. We need people to do both these things. We need a core full of idealists (and yes, I understand the irony of skeptical idealism, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist), and we need those who carry the methods and the message far and wide.

The more I look around at the conversations going on, the more I think we're all reacting to the things we hear, colored by our preconceptions, filtered through our biases, than to what we're each saying. I'm terribly afraid that if we keep doing that, then skepticism really has failed. And so have all of us.


skepfeeds said...

Great entry, right on the point I think. I personally fall into the camp that thinks that a purely skeptical view may not be in our best interest for the long run, at least from a PR point of view. If we want to break into the public's attention and hearts we must, in my opinion, show them what we are for, besides the scientific method and facts. There already exists a negative perception of skeptics as cynics, as cold automatron robots, and I personally find it paramount to show our sense of morals and that we have highly evolved ethics, because that will also highlight that skepticism does not come at the expense of our humanity; that being a skeptic is not the other option, that it is in addition to the other things that people already are.

We can win people's minds with arguments, facts and logic; but we can't even begin to win their hearts unless we show them ours.


Stephanie Zvan said...

I am so stealing that last line wholesale. :)

skepfeeds said...

I already tweeted that, but you can RT if you feel like it. Just look up @Skepdude. I just started following you. If the rest of your entries are of the quality of this one, you'll make my great skeptical find of the day.

Greg said...

"We can win people's minds with arguments, facts and logic; but we can't even begin to win their hearts unless we show them ours."

Sounds great, but I'm afraid that there are strong arguments that we win people's hearts first, then their minds. Oh wait, maybe thats what you are saying.

Damn.. I promised to not read this until after C-2!!!.


Greg said...

OK, my official comment on this:

If a tree falls in the woods, no one will hear it, no matter how loud it is.

However, the best way to cut lumber is not to burn it down.

A bit of marketing, getting to the mind via the heart, is good and necessary but giving away the show with appeasement, etc. is bad.

Moreover, much of the fight over how to do this has in the past taken up too much energy.

Finally, I seriously object to what has developed as a dichotomization of various value systems and skepticism. Most of my values are based on skepticism yet they look like and can be labeled in the tradtional ways as well as anyone else's values can be. A movement CAN be based entirely on skepticism, and many are based largely on it but are imperfect. But, skeptics are also imperfect.

Sorry, but a person who is not an atheist is not a pure skeptic. A person who is not liberal and progressive in their ideals can only be a skeptic in limited ways. Fundy repulbican yahoos can only be sketpical about a few things and must be in denial of rationality for much of the time.

These things are connected. It IS a progressive value to be a scientific sketpic. It IS a liberal value to be a scientific skeptic. And, the modern Atheist movement has adopted, by and large, the idea of being a scientific skeptic.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Greg, you used the word "pure." I don't disagree with you, for some values of "atheist," but I'm not sure the discussion helps here.

As for politics, I think you're looking at two sets of values. The set you're talking about is indeed informed by skepticism and science. However, drilling down through those two layers, you come to another layer of more fundamental values, basic beliefs about what life should be like: suffering should be minimized or freedom is good, for example.

We run into a problem with these basic values, because we all tend to talk about them in the same overarching way. There's a generally socially acceptable set of values to have, and we think we have them and those who disagree with us don't.

You've discussed the various levels of metacognition before. These values look rather different at the different levels of metacognition, in scope if nothing else. Absolute freedom and maximal limited freedom are fundamentally different ideals, but they're basically "freedom is good" viewed at different levels. And from those different starting points, following the evidence leads to different places.

Not that everyone follows the evidence or even values what they think they value. There are plenty of people who say suffering is bad at the same time they say suffering is good for the soul/character/what have you.

Greg Laden said...

Stehanie, I certainly understand the distinction between values and aproaches to understanding.

But the difference between, say, a Republican and a progressive Democrat in values is LESS than in approach to understanding.

For example, suffering should be minimized and freedom is good .... it would not be hard to get a Republican and a Democrat to agree to those.

But then what happens next? What happens next is very much a difference in approach.

If you hang around with political activists who are in the middle of political activity, you don't often hear "OMG, that thing Palin/Bachmann/McCain or whomever said is so against what I fundementally belive, value wise" but you CONSANTLY hear "OMG< that thing Palin/etc. said is so STUPID. It makes NO SENSE. (and so on)."

Prorgessive liberals are self consciously rational thinkiers. There may be times when values interfere. When values inverfere with a progressive liberal's rationality, you will often hear something like "Well, this may not be entirely rational, but I still want.... xyz"

You won't hear honest, accurate sentences that use any form of the word "rational" coming out of Republicans. It is simply not how they operate.

On purpose, by the way, in case anyone was wondering. Which is partly why we find framing so icky, yes?

Stephanie Zvan said...

Hmm, I got so caught up in trying to think through what I was saying about values that I forgot to bring it back around. I think that valuing truth works much the same way as other fundamental values in this respect. You have the truth that not necessarily easily discoverable and is complicated and somewhat contradictory if not understood in full, and you have the "truth" that imposes itself on our senses in an uncomplicated way. And then you have the "truth" that is so clearly self-evident in all respects that whatever goes on in someone's head at a particular moment is obviously true, even if it contradicts what was thought a minute ago or will be thought a minute from now or even the basic evidence of the senses.

I don't think we disagree on this particularly. I did want to bring that more basic difference in values into the discussion, though.

Adamo said...

"Truth" - whatever kind - is a hard thing to pin down. What I observe and think is truth varies from what you (generic) observe, etc. What I think also derives from how/what I feel, thus imposing a degree of subjectivity into different truths. Is there an absolute truth? Perhaps, say, mathematically: two plus two...

Gravity seems to be a truth, but it's a variable one and it took a special kind of observer to pin it down for the rest of us. When we wander out further into particle physics, what is currently claimed to be truth is so far from observable and intuitive as to render it unbelievable.

Of course, truth doesn't need belief (nor vice versa), but that's where we start stumbling all over ourselves. As a species, we seem to be programmed for belief, and that even extends into definitions and practices of skepticism. And that seems to be the point at which you started this post. Belief begets rigidity, rigidity begets doctrine, doctrine begets disputes among folks who actually agree with each other.

Anonymous said...
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Adamo said...

Oooooohhhh, word salad, yum.