Sunday, May 12, 2013

Where "Scientific" Skepticism Fails

Despite their claims, they can't divide science up into science they like science that doesn't count.

One of my pet peeves regarding the skeptical community is the belief that some of them foster regarding science and empiricism. They try to present themselves as a community that tests every claim in the universe that can be empirically tested. And if they test every claim that can be empirically tested, then anything that they don't test must, somehow, be outside the realm of empirical science. That belief, of course, is bullpucky. Contrary to claims made by various skeptics, they seem to only be interested in a small portion of all the things that can be scientifically tested.

Daniel Loxton wrote a piece at Skepticblog regarding the lack of overlap between the skeptical movement and atheism:

Skeptics like Steven Novella insist that sticking to the realm of science is “about clarity of philosophy, logic, and definition” rather than strategic advantage or intellectual cowardice, but some critics find this position unsatisfying—or even suspicious. (...)

I have divided this paragraph into two pieces so that I could separate out the supposed claim from the actual claim without making it look like I was trying to take his words out of context. As for the above quote, I can see that the supposed claim is that strictly adhering to science is a matter of clarity while others (atheists I presume) claim it is cowardice. I, personally, don't know anyone that thinks this. I could be wrong since atheists think for themselves, I doubt that this is the predominant view that atheists hold of skeptics.

(...) What are we to make of accusations that skepticism’s “testable claims” scope is a cynical political dodge, a way to present skeptics as brave investigators while conveniently arranging to leave religious feathers unruffled? Like the other clich├ęs of my field (“skeptics are in the pocket of Big Pharma!”) this complaint is probably immortal. No matter how often this claim is debunked, it will never go away.

Here is the part that I really have a problem with. Skepticism doesn't include all testable claims. Skepticism only includes a minor subset of testable claims while at the same time actively denigrating people that work in the broader context of science.

Before I upset too many skeptics, I need to point out that this isn't intended as a broad brush claim. There are plenty of skeptics that don't limit themselves to a narrow subset of science. There are also plenty of skeptics that welcome atheists into their ranks. But there are enough skeptics that want to limit skepticism to their narrow definition of science that a reasonable portion of atheists no longer feel comfortable claiming common cause with skeptics. And it is this divide between skeptics and atheists that is frustrating since the overlap between the two communities is so vast.

In his post Mr. Loxton talks about the charges he believes are leveled against the skeptical community. I have never heard these charges myself, but that doesn't mean that some atheist has made them at some point in time. He believes skeptics giving any sort of special pass to religion is inaccurate. He goes on to say that skeptics investigate any claim that can be investigated regardless of whether religion is involved.

Now, here’s what actually is true: scientific skeptics investigate claims that can be investigated (religious or otherwise) and we set aside claims that cannot be investigated (again, religious or otherwise). The “religious” part is irrelevant. It comes up on both sides of the testability equation, so just cross it out and forget about it. The only relevant distinction is simply whether empirical evidence is possible. If we can’t collect evidence, then tough—we can’t. If we can collect evidence, then we do, regardless of whom that evidence may offend.

But is that true? I would submit that it is not. I am not arguing that the skeptics intentionally provide cover for religion, but I do believe that they don't test religious claims unless they are blatantly, obviously, and unquestionably fraudulent. What if a religious claim falls within the bounds of science to the same degree that a non-religious claim would? Are they actually treated the same way?

Imagine a hypothetical person walking up to a skeptic and saying that they believe in complimentary and alternative medicine. What do you suppose the skeptic would say? Since many of the skeptics I know take an active interest in debunking CAM (complimentary and alternative medicine), I would assume that they would follow up with a few questions or assumptions and begin to debunk the crazy claims that many of people in the CAM community have put forward.

Notice that our hypothetical person didn't claim a belief in any specifics that could be debunked. They didn't claim to believe in homeopathy, magneto therapy, or acupuncture. Yet CAM itself falls outside of the skeptics specifically defined bounds. It, in and of itself, can not be empirically tested because it isn't clearly defined. While there might be several things that fall under the CAM umbrella that can be tested, CAM itself can not. Regardless of this fact, I have never seen a skeptic step away from CAM scratching their head and saying that they must remain agnostic about CAM since it falls outside of empiricism.

Now let's take a look at religion. People often say that they believe in a god. There are no shortage of them in the United States or the world for that matter. God, at least at this point in the conversation, is just as much of an umbrella concept as CAM. Since it isn't defined, their god could be an alien hidden under a rock on the far side of the universe that has no interaction with us at all and no ability to pull itself up out of the mud.

Raise your hand if you think this is the kind of thing that religious people are talking about with respect to their god. Yet despite not even scratching the surface of the god hypothesis, many skeptics gladly shrug and assume an attitude along the lines of 'I can't test it, so happy proselytizing'.

Those of us that don't want to ignore a specific claim that something exists have to clarify the claim. We ask a question. Do you, as a religious person, believe that a child was born to a virgin that was the son of your god? Since the most common response in the United States would be "Yes!", we'll assume that answer from the theist. Despite their answer, everything we know about science says that this is impossible. Every test that we have ever observed has demonstrated that women don't become pregnant spontaneously.

So we ask another question. Do you believe that Jesus was crucified and came back to life at a later date (usually considered three days)? Everything we know about science says that humans don't come back from the dead. While there might be some leeway about where exactly the line is that makes a human dead, once they cross that line, they don't come back. And even when they do come back after tens of minutes submerged in frigid water, it is always with heroic measures.

Another question: do you believe that your god interacts with humanity by answering prayers? We have actually tested this repeatedly under controlled circumstances. We haven't ever observed a prayer being answered.

Another: does your god interact with the world in any way? Assuming the answer is yes, then the interactions can be tested empirically. Theoretically, if a fly farts on Mt. Fuji then we can demonstrate that interaction with the world. The more grandiose the interactions, the easier they are to test; yet no evidence for a god has ever been found.

I will, of course, grant that absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence. Regardless, absence of evidence when we have tested for it repeatedly is at least on par with the absence of evidence for Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster.

Atheists often see skeptics trying to define empiricism and science specifically to suit their purpose. When skeptics talk to someone that believes in Bigfoot, they say that they have reviewed the evidence and found no proof that the creature exists. Skeptics then tell the world that there is no reason to believe in Bigfoot unless new evidence is presented to support the case. Yet when atheists tell someone that believes in God that we have reviewed the evidence and found no proof that the creature exists, and we tell people that there is no reason to believe in God unless new evidence is presented, we are accused of operating outside the of the confines of empiricism.

If, as skeptics, you want to avoid religious questions, that is your choice; however, when atheists use science to empirically test religious claims, you don't get to claim that we are doing skepticism wrong without looking like you are, indeed, giving religion a free pass for some reason.

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