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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

We need a broader skeptic movement - contra Jeff Wagg's idiocy and hypocrisy

PZ Myers has already replied to this idiotic and destructive post by Jeff Wagg, who puts the boot into a recent skeptics convention - Skepticon 3. [Edit: And Ophelia Benson has her say over here at Butterflies and Wheels.]

To be fair to Wagg, he also offers some (rather faint, insincere-sounding) praise to the organisers. But according to his line of argument, the program contained too many topics that were devoted to skepticism about religious claims. Oh noes! They're being skeptical about the truth claims of religion at a skeptics convention!

For Cthulhu's sake, what extraordinary claims can it possibly be more important to express skepticism about than those of religion?

Wagg says:

The pro-atheist cause is an entirely different endeavor with a community that overlaps strongly with the skeptical community. Skepticism is about drawing conclusions that are proportioned to the available evidence. That’s it. And I think keeping the two things separate i[s] vitally important.

What rubbish! First, skepticism has an honorable pedigree going back to ancient Greece, and the concept is far broader than this definition.

But even if you want to define "skepticism" very narrowly, part of what the "pro-atheist cause" does is subject claims about deities to rational examination, seeing what evidence exists for or against the existence of these entities. Conceptually, that is exactly the same thing as examining what evidence there is for or against the existence of Bigfoot or the efficacy of astrology. Of course, it's not as safe and comfortable, socially and politically, to get stuck into the evidence relating to deities as it is with that relating to Bigfoot, but that's all the more reason why people who wish to do so should be made welcome at skeptics conferences - and invited to present on atheism-related topics. The kind of unwelcoming stance that Wagg has taken to the atheist speakers is the last thing we need from people like him, who have some influence on the movement.

If anything, the skeptics movement should be moving to a wider definition, so that it embraces not just skepticism about religion but also skepticism about other extraordinary-but-popular claims that are difficult to square with the scentific picture of the world: such claims as those relating to the existence of libertarian free will. Let's have a genuine equal opportunity skeptic movement that goes well beyond relatively trivial claims about New Age woo, cryptozoology and the like - much as I love me some cryptozoology - and subjects claims that really matter to skeptical scrutiny.

Wagg's attitude conveys the implication that religion should, unlike astrology or claims related to Bigfoot, be protected from skeptical scrutiny. But such scrutiny is far more important in the case of religion, which wields enormous social and political power - unlike clubs for Bigfoot aficianados or Nessie spotters. Right now, we live in a time when it's crucially important to challenge the epistemic and moral credentials of religious leaders and organisations, and Wagg has placed himself on the side of frustrating that effort. Among other things, he is forcing people like me to waste our time replying to him.

What really annoys me is the way people like this, people who are attacking their own allies in public, behave as if they are the nice, reasonable, softly-softly ones. Talk about hypocrisy!

Cheers for Skepticon for dealing with an important issue in the depth that it deserves. As for Wagg, he deserves all the flak he's currently getting. He says, near the end of his diatribe:

And I fear the damage has already been done. I see a lot of good people leaving the skeptical community because they’re uncomfortable with the tone and disappointed with, frankly, the lack of skepticism presented by many people.

If people are leaving because they see skeptical scrutiny of claims about supernatural beings, then I wonder how "skeptical" they were in the first place. Good riddance to them, I say, joining in chorus with PZ on this occasion. And good riddance to Wagg, as well, if he leaves with them, as he's welcome to do. Hopefully he'll never again be seen in the skeptic movement, if publicly expressed skepticism about religion makes him so uncomfortable. It's his choice, of course - no one should be forced out. But the option is there for him to take.

The EXIT sign is right over there ...

37 comments:

ChrisZ said...

Wagg wants skeptics to beat up on crackpots and fools and run whenever anything to big and too controversial comes along.

Svlad Cjelli said...

Interestingly, among Wagg's defenders I have seen only a handful who don't argue that he's being misinterpreted. Much buzzing as there is about this, almost nobody thinks that religion should be guarded from skepsis.

Eamon Knight said...

As I said at Jim Lippard's blog: one can never be thoroughly skeptical about everything you encounter (because there just isn't time), and no doubt everyone has a few things they'd (often unconsciously) rather not look at too closely. But you can't demand of the wider skeptical community that they leave those "walled off" areas alone -- your special affection for Jesus doesn't get a pass any more than your special affection for homeopathy, biodynamic farming, or zero-point energy extractors.

Mark Jones said...

Excellent (strident!) post Russell.

The only slight quibble I have is with this:

"Wagg's attitude conveys the implication that religion should, unlike astrology or claims related to Bigfoot, be protected from skeptical scrutiny."

I agree this is the implication, but *explicitly* they invoke the notion that some claims are beyond science. Now this may or may not be true (how would we ever know?) but to concede that religious claims are among those that are immune to science is begging the question, and that is exactly what Wagg does when he says:

"Bleeding statues? Yes, skepticism comes into play. Jesus rose and is in heaven? Seems unlikely, but there’s not a lot more to say."

The distinction he makes here is entirely arbitrary, so cannot be valid. One could just as well say that bleeding statues are beyond scientific enquiry (invisible, undetectable, *supernatural* blood, don't you know).

Such arbitrary claims themselves are automatically anti-science, and scepticism has every right to pour scorn on them, imo.

Blake Stacey said...

I can think of plenty of things which ought to be included in the programme of skeptic conferences: how to combat global warming denialism, for example. (That actually came up in discussion at one of the Skepticon evening parties as something the meeting should've had more of.) Since the total time available for speakers and panels is limited, adding something new might cut into the time spent critiquing religion, but that hardly means religion should be off-limits in the first place!

J. J. Ramsey said...

Svlad Cjelli: "Much buzzing as there is about this, almost nobody thinks that religion should be guarded from skepsis."

Well, of course. Considering that Wagg himself did say that testable religious claims were as much fodder for skepticism, that's no surprise.

Also, I note this contrast between Wagg said and what our blog host said about it:

Wagg: "I see a lot of good people leaving the skeptical community because they’re uncomfortable with the tone and disappointed with, frankly, the lack of skepticism presented by many people."

Blackford: "If people are leaving because they see skeptical scrutiny of claims about supernatural beings ..."

Emphasis added on both quotes. Wagg isn't talking about theist skeptics being repulsed by criticism, but by abuse and sloppy thinking directed at them. (Stephanie Zvan's mention of the crap thrown Pamela Gay's way seems to be such an example. As she put it, "That stopped being attacking the idea an awfully long time ago.")

Further, the concern about attacking allies in public seems awfully one-sided. It's apparently okay for the "confrontationalists," "Gnu Atheists," or whatever you want to call them, to call out their "accommodationist" allies in public, but not the other way round. It's apparently acceptable (at least among the "confrontationalists") for Dawkins to liken the NCSE to appeasers to Nazis, or for P.Z. Myers to mock the CFI as a "Church of Fatuous Incompetence" and go on an almost logic-free rant calling one of its members a "witless wanker." Where is the concern for attacking allies then?

Badger3k said...

Now, all we have do is wait for the people to come in and say that you don't know what skepticism means (as here - http://www.blaghag.com/2010/11/why-atheism-is-most-skeptical-position.html - for example).

I agree - no topic should be off-limits to skeptical scrutiny.

verbosestoic said...

Russell,

I'd make a long comment about how I think you're misinterpreting what he says in what I feel is the most annoying way, but J.J. Ramsey said a lot of it and there is an opportunity here for a more developmental meeting of the minds.

So, could you please take a look at the two flyers Wagg links to in his post, the one that he doesn't like and the one that he likes, and tell me the difference between the two?

Don't worry if you don't see it right away; it took me a while to see it, too.

I predict -- and hope -- that once you do that you get what he's really bothered about, because that was one of the big hints that sealed it for me.

Russell Blackford said...

JJ, we've been around this before. I for one am not attacking anybody who did not start the fight. I'd be content never to attack my allies. It's the Wagg's, Mooney's, etc., who attack their own allies, thus wasting the time of people like me.

You keep bringing up the ancient history involving Dawkins and Ruse. The fact is that Ruse said some pretty nasty things in print (and doubtless elsewhere) about Dawkins before that quote.

I get sick of this, frankly. I don't care about who was nasty about the other first - Dawkins or Ruse. I don't see Ruse as having clean hands, and I don't see him currently taking the high ground, and I don't see you taking the high ground if it comes to that.

If you guys would just stop attacking us, since you're supposed to be our allies, and concentrate on our common opponents, everything would be fine. But every day I wake up to see new, unprovoked attacks on Gnu Atheists/Gnu Atheism.

As I've said so often, the current round of bickering began when Jerry Coyne wrote a perfectly civil and reasonable book review of two books by Giberson and Miller ... and was told by supposed allies that he should not have done so. Jerry wasn't attacking Chris Mooney or anyone else who could be considered an ally. He was only critical of the books he was reviewing. But he received these collateral attacks from supposed allies. It wasn't a fight that he wanted or picked.

And so it goes. There was no reason for Mooney, etc., to attack Jerry. They weren't responding to attacks directed at them. It was entirely their choice to put their energies into attacking a valuable ally.

It's the same with Wagg. It's entirely his choice to put energy into attacking Skepticon publicly. He shouldn't be surprised when he gets flak back for it, and I'm constantly puzzled as to why you think it's so important to defend these people.

Russell Blackford said...

Oh, and I see nothing wrong with either of those flyers. Honestly, you guys do clutch at straws.

verbosestoic said...

Russell,

I didn't ask if there was anything WRONG about them. I asked what was DIFFERENT between them. Jeff Wagg clearly thinks that there IS something different about them which is at least in part what made him say what he said. He dislikes the first one, likes the second one. I asked you to look at that and those differences to try to get a better idea of what he was trying to say, because I don't think what you say his position is here really is his position.

I don't think that my simple request in the hopes of maybe getting you to understand his position counts as "grasping at straws".

J. J. Ramsey said...

"You keep bringing up the ancient history involving Dawkins and Ruse."

I wasn't talking about Ruse. Dawkins' Chamberlain gambit was not simply a response to Ruse but was a broadside at others who hadn't picked a fight with Dawkins at all.

Furthermore, this idea that "attacks" on Gnu Atheists are unprovoked is rather strange, since these "attacks" are criticisms (of varying quality) in response to what the Gnu Atheists are doing. If we were talking about not airing dirty laundry within a well-defined organization, that would be one thing. However, we're talking about a loosely-defined movement composed of several groups that aren't officially affiliated with each other and cannot simply call each other's leaders for a private discussion. About the only way these groups are going to communicate is through various public forums.

Russell Blackford said...

JJ, you can't say that the attack on Coyne was provoked. He didn't attack Mooney. Mooney chose to attack him for reviewing books by Miller and Giberson and expressing criticisms.

Likewise, Wagg's attack on Skepticon was unprovoked. There were no items at Skepticon attacking Wagg.

All this is fairly simple, really.

v, I can only take Wagg's post at face value. He objects to all these panels by atheists opposing religion. You say he has some subtle point that he doesn't actually articulate but which I'm supposed to "get" by looking at the flyers. Fine. But if the subtle point is so important, why doesn't he articulate it by providing detailed analyses of the semiotics of the flyers? If he did so, I might disagree with his analysis, but I'd be open to it. But he doesn't do so.

In fact he makes very clear what the main point is supposed to be, i.e. that skepticism is not atheism and that a skeptics conference should not have a theme of questioning religion.

I mean, folks, really. It's a head-kicking post. I see all this stuff people going around saying, "Poor Wagg. He's so misunderstood. His subtle point is not being grasped." But he doesn't make subtle points. He doesn't even say cryptic things that he leaves us to think about with the implication that he'll follow up. And he hasn't followed up with some kind of clarification that all he objected to was some obscure aspect of the design of a flyer.

The post is an outright attack on the convention, and on its organisers for having a convention with that kind of thematic emphasis. I don't see any way around this, and I don't understand why so much energy is being spent on super-subtle arguments to try to say that he didn't really mean it, that he really meant something quite different.

PS. Perhaps he obtained permission to publish the private correspondence that he did. I really hope so. He doesn't say that he did, thought, which is worrying, because why wouldn't you say that it's by permission if that's the situation? It's pretty low if he didn't. After seeing this, I would never communicate with him by email, because I'd fear that he'd use my privately-expressed words against me in public.

Frankly, I'm getting the impression that this Wagg person is just a nasty piece of work all round.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"JJ, you can't say that the attack on Coyne was provoked."

And I didn't mention Coyne, either.

"I see all this stuff people going around saying, 'Poor Wagg. He's so misunderstood. His subtle point is not being grasped.'"

That may be what you see, but the complaints have been more along the lines of "To the Wagg-haters: reading comprehension #FAIL."

Not seeing that Wagg considered testable religious claims to be fair game for skepticism is a pretty bad failure of comprehension.

Reading "tone" and "lack of skepticism" and seeing "skeptical scrutiny" in their place is a pretty bad failure of comprehension.

Neither of those examples, by the way, is that subtle.

As for the difference between the flyers, just look at the headers:

* "Unbuckling the Bible belt" -- a cheeky jab at religion, with nothing about questioning, critical thinking or other elements of skepticism.

* "Got questions? We've got [striked out "answers"] better questions!" -- a emphasis on questioning, very much a part of skepticism.

That's not a very subtle difference, either.

verbosestoic said...

Russell,

"In fact he makes very clear what the main point is supposed to be, i.e. that skepticism is not atheism and that a skeptics conference should not have a theme of questioning religion."

I agree with you about the first -- with the extension that it isn't even clear that being skeptic necessarily leads to atheism -- but not the second. But that isn't the sort of interpretation that bothers me. This is:

"Hopefully he'll never again be seen in the skeptic movement, if publicly expressed skepticism about religion makes him so uncomfortable."

I don't see that at all, or the extended claim that he just doesn't want religion expose to skeptical scrutiny. To be fair, you're far milder than others have, and I think that my concern was influenced by the priming of other authors. But this is still a grave misinterpretation to me. I suppose you could try to get there from that point about the theme, but that's would be a long, treacherous haul, in my opinion.

But now we can look at the flyers, and the difference that J.j. Ramsay noted. The flyer that he doesn't like seems to talk about an anti-religious conference that they're calling skeptical, while the second advertises a skeptical conference focussing on religion. Wagg seems clearly concerned about the former, and not the latter, and there's a big difference between the two.

Could he be making much ado about nothing? Perhaps. But it does no good to interpret his claim as what it isn't in order to attack it.

Russell Blackford said...

JJ, I don't care whether you mentioned Coyne or not; I just did in order to drive home a point. You're well aware of the example I was referring to whether or not you were the one to bring it up. In fact I never said that you mentioned him. Why suggest otherwise? Since when do you get to decide what the thread is all about? It's about situations such as the one involving Wagg and, by analogy, the one involving Coyne and Mooney.

Yes you brought up totally irrelevant points about PZ or Dawkins which were never the subject of the thread. The situations you mention are so remote from my post that it's ridiculous, but you're obsessed with PZ and Dawkins. If you want a thread about how mean and nasty they are, create it on your own blog. We're not talking about that.

I'm sick to death of people like Mooney and Wagg and I'm not much happier with people like you who enable them and run interference for them. Every time one of them is criticised by me you're here blathering on about how nice and misunderstood they are and how mean their detractors are. Spin it how you like, you're obsessed with distancing yourself from the Gnu Atheists to the extent that you spend your time defending the indefensible.

Spin it how you like once again, and insult my comprehension as much as you want (until I get sick of being insulted on my own blog), but Wagg attacked Skepticon in terms that are very obvious to anyone who reads his post. He does in fact not want skeptic conventions to be like Skepticon. I've set out in detail on this thread and the other one what's wrong with his reasons for that - that religion is fair and important game for sceptical inquiry, that there is much to be said about it, that much of this comes from the humanities (as with many extraordinary claims), and so on. Wagg is, for example, totally incorrect to think that all you can say about the resurrection of Jesus is "seems unlikely". There are whole books' worth of stuff to say about the issue.

And again, there's nothing wrong with either flyer. These are flyers - pieces of advertising - for a convention. Of course we can expect that one or both of them might contain cheeky jabs, etc. This is what advertisements do, or one of the things they do. They are not philosophy textbooks. They are meant to be clever, engaging, even provocative. They are supposed to attract attention.

You hold non-accommodationists to absolutely ridiculous and impossible standards of civility and decorum in totally inappropriate contexts. But you don't hold Wagg or Mooney or Scott to similar standards, and you don't seem to care if they go off and make noises that weaken the campaign against religion. You care about precisely the wrong things.

Wagg can be as publicly nasty as he likes to his allies, and in your eyes he's poor dear misunderstood Wagg. But if Skepticon puts out (gasp!) a piece of advertising with what you call a (gasp!) "cheeky jab" at religion (oh noes!) this is somehow a bad thing.

Really mate, with friends like you (and Wagg and Mooney) who needs enemies?

Mark Jones said...

Blimey, J.J. Ramsey is consistent in his wrongness. Like a dog with a rubber bone.

DEEN said...

@J.J. Ramsey: "Wagg isn't talking about theist skeptics being repulsed by criticism, but by abuse and sloppy thinking directed at them."

How much of that abuse and sloppy thinking did Wagg (or did you) expect was going to happen at Skepticon? Or did he (or you) think that abuse and sloppy thinking would increase because of conventions like Skepticon? If so: How are they related? If not: why bring it up as if it's related?

J. J. Ramsey said...

DEEN: "Or did he (or you) think that abuse and sloppy thinking would increase because of conventions like Skepticon?"

The problem is probably less with the Skepticon convention itself and more with that its naming and promotion help to further conflate atheism and skepticism in the minds of both atheists and theists.

It's the conflation that's the dangerous part. First, the conflation is itself sloppy thinking, and someone who confuses atheism and skepticism is probably going to be very confused as a skeptic. Second, the atheist movement as it is practiced all too often encourages bad behavior toward the religious, and our blog host himself has described such behavior thus:

"Treat all religious folks as liars or fools (of course, some are ... but many are far from it). Don't just satirise religion and (as I like to do) question its right to special respect; feel free to treat even moderate religious folks offensively. Of course, some people will take offense if you condemn or satirise their ideas, but you should go beyond that: make sure you attack them personally if they try to engage with you, even in a reasonable and honest way."

This sort of nastiness is probably much of what Wagg was alluding to when he referred to "tone" and "lack of skepticism." Anyway, conflating the atheist and skeptic movements is likely to further encourage the skeptic movement to absorb this bad behavior from those in the atheist movement.

J. J. Ramsey said...

By the way ...

"These are flyers - pieces of advertising - for a convention. Of course we can expect that one or both of them might contain cheeky jabs, etc. ... But if Skepticon puts out (gasp!) a piece of advertising with what you call a (gasp!) 'cheeky jab' at religion (oh noes!) this is somehow a bad thing."

Um, why are you assuming that Wagg's or my objections have to do with the "cheeky jab" bit? You already saw verbalstoic's summary: "The flyer that he [Wagg] doesn't like seems to talk about an anti-religious conference that they're calling skeptical, while the second advertises a skeptical conference focussing [sic] on religion." That's pretty much my take on it, as well. The "cheeky jab" bit is neither here nor there except as a handy description of the flyer header.

Also, (if my earlier reply to DEEN gets posted), my musings on the connection between bashing theistic skeptics and conflating atheism and skepticism are my own speculations. I don't exactly know what Wagg thinks the connection between conflating atheism and skepticism and the "abuse" and "lack of skepticism" is, only that it is apparent that he thinks there is one.

verbosestoic said...

J.J. Ramsay,

Two quick points:

1) It's "verbosestoic" ...

2) It's good to note that in context, the quote you provided from Russell is something that he doesn't support. That's not clear from how you quoted it.

J. J. Ramsey said...

verbosestoic:

1) Sorry about that. In the (im?)mortal words of Homer Simpson, "D'oh!"

2) I had hoped that "has described such behavior thus" was enough to indicate that Blackford was describing but not prescribing such behavior. I had thought of quoting where he said that there is "something at least a bit like fundamentalist atheism," but I couldn't think of a way to add it that wasn't clunky. I actually wanted to quote something that highlighted that even our host was aware of the sort of bad behavior to which Wagg seemed to allude (although I think he underestimates the extent to which such behavior is encouraged by the more prominent atheists).

Russell Blackford said...

I'm getting totally lost as to what's supposed to be wrong with the flyer. Wagg doesn't say. JJ tells me that the objectionable flyer contains a cheeky jab and then expresses surprise that I think that's what he's objecting to.

I really do think you guys are clutching at straws, and JJ in particular is making up stuff about what Wagg might have meant but didn't say.

I'm also struggling to assume good faith when JJ quotes me out of context. The discusssion of knee-jerk atheists was not about the behaviour of the skepticon organisers or speakers, or any similar behaviour. Yes, there are indeed kneejerk atheists around - people who are totally unnuanced and mindlessly hostile. On the thread concerned, even PZ Myers expressed disdain for such people. That should give the hint that we were talking about an approach far harsher than PZ's, let alone anything that is being discussed in this thread.

In the end, Skepticon was run with a theme or emphasis this year of criticising claims about God, etc. Wagg says that that should not be done under the banner of a skeptic conference, and he gives lousy arguments for it.

As someone pointed out on his own thread, if the theme had been ghosts (perhaps appropriate if it had been held in a part of the world where ghosts are a big thing) he wouldn't have been complaining and saying that it shouldn't have called itself a skeptic con but an anti-ghost con. He'd almost certainly have been happy with it, and he wouldn't have objected to snark about belief in ghosts in a flyer (or whatever else he was objecting to, since he doesn't actually say in any detail what was wrong with the flyer).

Wagg is assuming that ghost stories are not analogous to God stories, but that is the very thing that skeptics should not assume. All these stories about the supernatural are grist to the mill of skeptical scrutiny, and the ones about God are much more important targets. And again, Wagg is simply wrong to think that there's not much to say from the perspective of rational inquiry.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"JJ tells me that the objectionable flyer contains a cheeky jab and then expresses surprise that I think that's what he's objecting to."

I certainly express surprise that you overlooked "with nothing about questioning, critical thinking or other elements of skepticism," that I also said, especially since another commenter, verbosestoic, didn't make the same oversight.

"JJ in particular is making up stuff about what Wagg might have meant but didn't say."

That's why I called it speculation. Also, that speculation was part of a reply to DEEN, who asked about my own opinion, not just Wagg's.

"I'm also struggling to assume good faith when JJ quotes me out of context. The discusssion of knee-jerk atheists was not about the behaviour of the skepticon organisers or speakers"

And when I was quoting you in my reply to DEEN, I was clearly referring to the behavior occuring in the atheist movement in general, just as you did in the part of the post that I quoted, not necessarily the behavior of the Skepticon attendees themselves. At the beginning of my reply to DEEN, I even wrote, "The problem is probably less with the Skepticon convention itself and more with that its naming and promotion ...," etc.

"Yes, there are indeed kneejerk atheists around - people who are totally unnuanced and mindlessly hostile. On the thread concerned, even PZ Myers expressed disdain for such people."

Which rings hollow given the behavior that PZ has exemplified or condoned.

"As someone pointed out on his own thread, if the theme had been ghosts (perhaps appropriate if it had been held in a part of the world where ghosts are a big thing) he wouldn't have been complaining and saying that it shouldn't have called itself a skeptic con but an anti-ghost con."

First, someone on the JREF forum suggested, "For several years the con keeps going, but the theme of the talks doesn't change much; everything is directly or tangentially related to dowsing. At a certain point you have to ask, 'is this a convention about skepticism, or just about dowsing? Maybe it would be better called "DowseCon."'" So, yes, there might very well have been complaining, especially since all the previous Skepticons also were focused on religion, much like the hypothetical "DowseCon." Second, there has already been a long-standing confusion between atheism and skepticism. It's highly unlikely that someone would blithely equate nonbelievers and, say, UFO-skeptics, but blithely equating nonbelievers and rationalists? That's already been done.

"Wagg is assuming that ghost stories are not analogous to God stories"

We've already discussed Wagg's stance on religious claims, especially testable religious claims, and at this point, we're probably going around in circles.

Brian said...

"The distinction he makes here is entirely arbitrary, so cannot be valid."

I think it's worse than you imply. The problem isn't just that it's obviously arbitrary and foolish, the problem is that Wagg refuses to make a case that it isn't arbitrary and foolish. He simply says that everyone has to play by his rules, or he'll leave and end dialog.

At least Ray Comfort argues that he is right because a banana fits in his hand. That's an argument. We can work with that. Wagg argues that some religious claims are beyond skeptical inquiry, that they "[seem] unlikely, but there’s not a lot more to say".

I think if you're going to criticize so many other people for being wrong, you should have something of substance to say about why they're wrong in thinking that there is more to say.

Then again, his thinking arguments need not be supported may be what drives him to defend religion in the first place...

"First, the conflation is itself sloppy thinking, and someone who confuses atheism and skepticism is probably going to be very confused as a skeptic."

Where's the concern that people will conflate skepticism with disbelief in ghosts? Or bearded white males with skeptics? Or their asses with holes in the ground?

WehavetodosomethingjustthinkoftheCHILDREN!

I'm more than tired of these monthly accommodationist whines. It's a good thing that Wagg quoted the email stating the organizers' opinion that "...skepticism leads directly to some brand of atheism/metaphysical naturalism, so the name “Skepticon” fit in with precisely what we were wanting to do with the conference." By immediately following this with "The e-mail is an admission that the organizers of Skepticon believe that Skepticism = Atheism..." he makes it quite clear that his argument is based on a failure to comprehend English and understand basic logic. It's so awful that the usual crowd of apologists for this sort of thing may even give up defending it before a new controversy over tone is manufactured, giving the rest of us a brief respite.

Fingers crossed ;-).

J. J. Ramsey said...

Mark Jones: "The distinction he makes here is entirely arbitrary, so cannot be valid."

I missed this one. I noticed the part of Wagg's post that you didn't quote. If you had quoted him saying,

"As for Christianity, skepticism has nothing to say except about testable claims associated therein. [emphasis mine] Bleeding statues? Yes, skepticism comes into play. Jesus rose and is in heaven? Seems unlikely, but there’s not a lot more to say."

and then added, "The distinction he makes here is entirely arbitrary, so cannot be valid," what you said would have been shown to be entirely false, since testable vs. non-testable is hardly an arbitrary distinction at all. (You perhaps should have tried to argue that Wagg picked an iffy or bad example of a non-testable claim.)

Furthermore, this, ahem, cheeky jab is just silly: "One could just as well say that bleeding statues are beyond scientific enquiry (invisible, undetectable, *supernatural* blood, don't you know)." The statues that skeptics have investigated have quite visible blood (or, depending on the particulars of the statue hoax, "blood"), thankyouverymuch.

Brian: "Where's the concern that people will conflate skepticism with disbelief in ghosts? Or bearded white males with skeptics?"

See my post above. There hasn't been a history of conflating skepticism and disbelief in ghosts, bearded white males, etc., but conflations of atheism and skepticism have already been witnessed. (FYI, in the link I gave, scroll down to the sections starting with "Maybe they’ve never spoken to students from university groups ..." and "However, many of the guests I have on Skeptically Speaking" to see examples of such conflations.)

verbosestoic said...

Russell,

"I'm getting totally lost as to what's supposed to be wrong with the flyer. Wagg doesn't say. JJ tells me that the objectionable flyer contains a cheeky jab and then expresses surprise that I think that's what he's objecting to.

I really do think you guys are clutching at straws, and JJ in particular is making up stuff about what Wagg might have meant but didn't say."

I flat-out told you what the difference between the flyers implies about Wagg's position. This interpretation is consistent with the rest of his post and is far better an interpretation than the "He just doesn't want religion subjected to skeptical scrutiny" line that you, yes indeed, assigned to him, though not as strongly as others. Your interpretation cannot cover his dislike of the first flyer and his at least acceptance of the second, and mine can.

If you're going to call someone an idiot and a hypocrite, you'd better understand what points they're actually making, and if you find yourself puzzled by what one of the most prominent examples in someone's position means, the right thing to do is simply to admit confusion, not obstinately stick to an interpretation that others are providing evidence is wrong.

"As someone pointed out on his own thread, if the theme had been ghosts (perhaps appropriate if it had been held in a part of the world where ghosts are a big thing) he wouldn't have been complaining and saying that it shouldn't have called itself a skeptic con but an anti-ghost con."

You're right; he probably wouldn't. But I have two answers to that:

1) Even though he wouldn't, he probably should; there are those who call themselves skeptics that are not ghost debunkers, and it isn't a conclusion of skepticism that ghosts don't exist.

2) Ghosts are far easier to see as a simple statement of fact than theism is. Theism is seen as a worldview, and so you can make a charge that anti-religion and some stronger forms of atheism are worldviews as well. Promoting a particular worldview is not the point of skepticism, unless it is the worldview of skepticism itself (whatever that is). There is no "anti-ghost" worldview. The closest you can get is ghost debunking, and a skeptical conference that focused on ghosts that only talked about ghost debunking would be just as bad.

We can debate whether he is correct and whether not considering ghosts in the same way is justified, but first we really do have to try to understand what he's talking about.

Russell Blackford said...

Jeeze, V., you and JJ sure are reading a lot into what Wagg said.

Look, maybe there are all sorts of things that he could have said if you or JJ had written his script, but I can only go on what is actually there,which I did indeed read carefully.

I do think he's being idiotic and hypocritical. I've examined his argument in detail and shown why it's "idiotic" (of course that's hyperbole, but the point is clear). His hypocrisy is in complaining about the nastiness of other people while being pretty damn nasty himself (which is typical of accommodationists in my experience). Don't you think you'd have felt slapped in the face if you were one of the organisers and read his oh-so-cuddly post?

I get sick of these people who want us to think they're so damn nice when they're nothing of the sort.

Your two points don't take us anywhere. FWIW, I never said that it is a conclusion of skepticism that God doesn't exist. Perhaps it is. But all I said was that no principled line can be drawn between claims about gods and claims about other extraordinary things such as ghosts. Both merit skeptical scrutiny. If there can be a focus on speakers who've concluded there are no ghosts, there can also be a focus on speakers who've concluded there are no gods.

That said, I don't see anything wrong with a skeptic conference that focuses on ghost debunking or a conference that focuses on religion debunking, or dowsing debunking if it comes to that. The only problem with the latter is that it's rather narrow and trivial.

And you can't save his position by claiming that theism escapes sceptical scrutiny because it is, in some forms, such a comprehensive worldview. So what? If anything that means that there is more to be said about it, not less, because the arguments will be more complicated and there will be so many aspects. Whatever is said against it may involve an accumulation of evidence from different lines of inquiry.

But skeptical investigation of entire worldviews is more urgent than that of narrower claims. These sorts of wordviews exercise great power and influence.

Russell Blackford said...

And if you "flat out told" me the difference between the flyers, I can't see it. I mean that literally. This has been a long thread with lots of complicated comments, many seemingly at cross-purposes, with extraneous issues being raised and JJ's tu quoques. I'm fallible, moreover, and most of my thought processes right now are currently devoted to the book I'm trying to finish, not to this thread.

So humour me. Perhaps I made a mistake and missed it.

But it's pretty damn rude just telling me: "I flat out told you what the difference is" without saying again, in a civil manner, whatever you supposedly told me somewhere on the thread.

When you first raised the question about the flyers you actually said:

So, could you please take a look at the two flyers Wagg links to in his post, the one that he doesn't like and the one that he likes, and tell me the difference between the two?

Don't worry if you don't see it right away; it took me a while to see it, too.


That is not telling me the difference at all. It's a cheap debating trick. Why not just say what the difference is, as you see it? I responded that I see nothing wrong with either.

In a following comment you still refuse to say what the difference is supposed to be, but continue to talk down to me rather unpleasantly with your rhetoric about asking me to tell you the difference.

Eventually you do assert that "The flyer that he doesn't like seems to talk about an anti-religious conference that they're calling skeptical, while the second advertises a skeptical conference focussing on religion. Wagg seems clearly concerned about the former, and not the latter, and there's a big difference between the two."

But that is still not telling me what the salient difference is supposed to be. What is it about the posters that I was supposed to see that leads you to that conclusion? Maybe you've said it somewhere that I've missed, as I said, but I can't see where you've said what the relevant difference is supposed to be in any of those three comments at least, or where Wagg has said it, let alone where Wagg has made any actual argument about it.

As far as I can tell, talking about some difference in two bits of advertising material, is indeed, much ado about nothing, especially if the salient difference is sufficiently subtle that I'm supposed to not worry if I don't see it right away because it "took [you] a while to see it, too." (I still don't know what it is, but maybe you'll be good enough to repeat it if I've missed the comment where you told me.)

If Wagg's complaint is that one flyer was that unobtrusively different in some salient respect from one that he approves of, we're not left with much to motivate his post.

verbosestoic said...

Russell,

This is the difference in the flyers, thanks to J.J. Ramsay (and you will recall that before my assertion, I did say that he had explicitly mentioned the difference):

"* "Unbuckling the Bible belt" -- a cheeky jab at religion, with nothing about questioning, critical thinking or other elements of skepticism.

* "Got questions? We've got [striked out "answers"] better questions!" -- a emphasis on questioning, very much a part of skepticism."

To be more explicit, then, the first doesn't seem to mention SKEPTICISM in its main header at all, which is the thing that should draw the most attention, while the second is VERY explicitly taking a skeptical stance and then focusing on religion. Taking that difference and the rest of the post into account, it's pretty safe to say that Wagg is not all that upset by skeptical examination of religion. And yet, at least in part that's what you're accusing him of.

"But it's pretty damn rude just telling me: "I flat out told you what the difference is" without saying again, in a civil manner, whatever you supposedly told me somewhere on the thread."

You've misstated my comment, and quoted it badly out of context by only quoting half the sentence. Here's what I said:

"I flat-out told you what the difference between the flyers implies about Wagg's position."

See how that's different from what you quoted?

"That is not telling me the difference at all. It's a cheap debating trick. Why not just say what the difference is, as you see it? I responded that I see nothing wrong with either."

Because I wanted you to have the same revelation I did, so that maybe you'd get it. You can call it a "cheap debating trick", but you aren't qualified to assess my intentions for me, thanks, and you'll note that none of the things that you claim I'm rude for doing did that to you, and I was also careful not to misinterpret your claims, which you seem not so careful about.

"Your two points don't take us anywhere. FWIW, I never said that it is a conclusion of skepticism that God doesn't exist. "

However, the organizer of that conference DID. And that's the biggest part of Wagg's post. You can read that all through his post, and where he gets that from. So how could you miss his objections to that idea being his biggest point?

"And you can't save his position by claiming that theism escapes sceptical scrutiny because it is, in some forms, such a comprehensive worldview"

Fortunately, that wasn't my point at all:

"Theism is seen as a worldview, and so you can make a charge that anti-religion and some stronger forms of atheism are worldviews as well. Promoting a particular worldview is not the point of skepticism, unless it is the worldview of skepticism itself (whatever that is). "

I'm saying that the anti side is just as much a worldview, and so just as open to skeptical examination, and thus it's more obvious that when a skeptical conference takes an anti-religious stance that that isn't just being skeptical than when the same is done for ghosts.

Brian said...

"... testable vs. non-testable is hardly an arbitrary distinction at all. (You perhaps should have tried to argue that Wagg picked an iffy or bad example of a non-testable claim.)"

Wagg's claim that there is a subset of religion that is beyond testing does not establish a meaningful difference between that subset and the rest of religion. His claim would have to be tested, which necessarily involves critical inquiry into the content of the subset that has been claimed to be beyond inquiry. It's not merely that the chosen example of an untestable claim wrong, all attempts to shield conclusions from questioning to at least determine how much skepticism does have to say about them are wrong.

It's clear enough that Mark was not saying that testable versus non-testable is an arbitrary distinction. To have a productive conversation, one should be minimally charitable in interpreting an interlocutors words. Failing that, to have a titillating conversation, there's simply no need to fetishise the words someone else says and ascribe to them only arguments that literally fit those words. So long as you're blatantly ignoring the straightforward, reasonable, and correct interpretation what he said, there's really no need to hold back. Like so:

Mark: "...to concede that religious claims are among those that are immune to science is begging the question, and that is exactly what Wagg does when he says:

"Bleeding statues? Yes, skepticism comes into play. Jesus rose and is in heaven? Seems unlikely, but there’s not a lot more to say."

The distinction he makes here is entirely arbitrary, so cannot be valid."


Mark, there's no justification for acting like a dick. How dare you advocate breaking into Christian orphanages and beating the children to death with endangered baby seal pups? New atheists are fundamentalists who make the rest of us look bad. 30 billion religious moderates would become ardent supporters of science if it weren't for fanatics like you turning them into fundamentalists with your gratuitous violence to innocent children and aquatic mammals!

"...a skeptical conference that focused on ghosts that only talked about ghost debunking would be just as bad."

The horror...

"If you're going to call someone an idiot and a hypocrite, you'd better understand what points they're actually making"

Organizers of the conference said a focus on religion was justified because in their opinion skepticism leads to atheism, and Wagg criticized the organizers for equating skepticism with atheism. Wagg thinks that p->q means p=q. I'm not sure how it's possible to defend that point. The foundation of his argument is clearly invalid and the most you could argue is that he *represents* a larger group of people incapable of thinking clearly regarding religion who aren't as stupid regarding other subjects, not that his *argument* for treating religion as special is valid.

I haven't seen anyone argue that, and that may also require him to be a better thinker on other topics, which no one has asserted. The accommodationists are all too busy defending the indefensible.

verbosestoic said...

Russell,

"Jeeze, V., you and JJ sure are reading a lot into what Wagg said."

I think you are as well, so how do we settle this?

"Look, maybe there are all sorts of things that he could have said if you or JJ had written his script, but I can only go on what is actually there,which I did indeed read carefully."

So, let me look through what he said to support my point. We've done the flyers to death, so let me move on:

"The pro-atheist cause is an entirely different endeavor with a community that overlaps strongly with the skeptical community. Skepticism is about drawing conclusions that are proportioned to the available evidence. That’s it. And I think keeping the two things separate if vitally important."

You can debate whether or not there IS some kind of pro-atheist cause, but right above that he outlines what that might be:

"They have a stellar line up of speakers, and I’m sure much good work will be done towards fostering the atheist community. The politically-active religious right in this country need to be opposed, and Skepticon3 looks to do that in spades."

And then right below as well:

"As Reed points out in his IndieSkeptics article, atheists (and free thinkers and secularists and scientific naturalists, etc.) are fighting a cultural war in this country. It’s a very important war, and I’m a combatant as well. Atheists have been bashed and had religion forced on them forever, and it’s shameful to allow it to continue in a country purporting to be “free.” "

But he finishes even that paragraph with:

"But to conflate atheism with skepticism dilutes atheism and destroys skepticism."

Again, it seems pretty clear that he thinks that skepticism does not lead to atheism, and the E-mail from the organizer J.T. Eberhard flat-out says that he and the other organizers think it does, as do many other commentators. Wagg dislikes that. For good reason.

He even reiterates that in one of the last paragraphs:

"I’m a skeptic, and I don’t see that skepticism must lead to atheism. I’m convinced that a litmus test over who’s a skeptic and who isn’t based on religious belief is harmful to both movements."

So, can we move on to discussing that instead of his supposed rudeness or his supposed desire to keep religion free from skeptical challenge?

Let me start that off, with a personal example: Am I a skeptic? I certainly have the "doubting" down, as I generally doubt everything. Or, perhaps, to put it best I'm willing to believe that anything is possible until someone tries to prove it true. I am, however, a theist. That, to the organizers of Skepticon, is enough to make me not be a skeptic. But that's fine, because I have epistemic problems with the idea that you shouldn't believe things that you have doubts about, and that the main principle of not accepting a proposition -- even as a belief -- without "sufficient evidence" (however THAT'S determined) is good. I think it potentially terrible. It may work in science, but it doesn't work out well in every day life, in my opinion. I take a stance closer to Pamela Gay's, which seems to me to be that when you hit a case where you can't settle a proposition with evidence whether you believe true, believe false, or don't believe at all is best left up to other considerations.

But I don't necessarily see how being skeptical is incompatible with my epistemic stance, nor that skepticism can, in and of itself, justify a stance on what you ought to believe.

So, does skepticism actually SAY anything about what you ought to believe? And has that been skeptically examined? Or is it just obvious? What commitments must one have to be a skeptic?

Russell Blackford said...

I've been asking about the difference between the flyers, not what the difference, whatever it is implies about Wagg's position. But okay, I agree that I hadn't picked up the point in the recent comment was about it being the latter that I was supposedly "told" about. I made a mistake there, and of course I apologise for that much; I did misread one sentence in a comment.

But instead of writing as if I was in bad faith here, how about assuming I was making an error in good faith while doing this long after midnight while tired after a long day, and that I read your comment in the context of what I was actually arguing about? I.e. I still don't know what the difference between the posters is supposed to be beyond the fact that one supposedly contains "cheeky jabs".

And I'm still not sure why some points are being made. We dealt with the "cheeky jabs" bit ages ago. Once more, I see nothing wrong with a skeptic convention that is largely focused on religion taking cheeky jabs at religion, any more than I'd see something wrong with a skeptic convention focused on ghosts taking cheeky jabs at belief in ghosts. This is all grist to the mill of people designing flyers to advertise a convention. Again, I think reading something into this is clutching at straws.

But FWIW, I see a different difference between the flyers (maybe you could tell me what it is), and I suspect it may be part of what's really bugging Wagg. But it's a point he never makes. Perhaps he should have, to get what may be the real issue out in the open. Then again, who knows? It's hard to read his mind.

From my viewpoint, the goal-posts are constantly being shifted in this discussion from what Wagg actually said and my actual criticisms of it to points that people wish he'd made but didn't make, points about how Myers and Dawkins are supposedly nasty too, and so on.

Now I don't know where you guys have got to. I hope by now it's clear that Wagg doesn't make the points you wish he'd made. He doesn't, for example, say that religion is a poor target for skepticism (as the latter is understood in the modern skeptic movement) because it's an entire worldview with great resources to evade refutation (if, in fact, that's what you wish he'd said). That simply is not his point at all. If he'd said that, I'd be arguing with it, but his actual point is that there's supposedly little that science can say about religious and specifically Christian claims.

That's a silly point, as I discuss on the other thread. Now, I suspect that it may not be what's really motivating him, but it's hard to deal with this based on suspicions and conjectures about motives that he hasn't actually articulated.

verbosestoic said...

Russell,

I'd like to return to the longer comment when I have more time (and am less wound up) but I would like to quickly address this:

"Now I don't know where you guys have got to. I hope by now it's clear that Wagg doesn't make the points you wish he'd made."

I had made another long comment showing how Wagg's post pretty much directly supports my contention that his point was about how he didn't think that skepticism led directly to atheism in any form, and that that impression was what bothered him, also strongly pointing out that applying skepticism to religion was not what bothered him. Did that one make it through?

Russell Blackford said...

As far as I know all you comments have made it through. I haven't deliberately blocked any.

But, no, I don't think that is what is really going on or what he argues. But because some of the things he says are cryptic, and he may not even be sure himself what exactly he is reacting to in the two flyers, it's hard to be sure.

But we do know that he says explicitly that he thinks that science has little to say about religious claims, such as the alleged resurrection of Jesus, and that that's a reason why they shouldn't figure much at skeptic conventions or in the skeptic movement. For reasons I've set out at some length on the two relevant threads - this one and the other one - I think that's a silly (or idiotic if you don't mind hyperbole) point to make.

Russell Blackford said...

Occasionally a legit comment goes into the spam folder and I have to save it (I do check the folder each day).

Anyway, the thread is now off the front page and getting stale, but there are obviously loose ends about why people like Wagg really find events such as Skepticon, and its associated advertising so objectionable that they write letters to convention organisers and go public with the correspondence.

I'm sure there'll be plenty of other occasions to debate the skeptic movement and how it should relate to the Gnu Atheism.

verbosestoic said...

Let me just do some final housekeeping then:

First, if I implied that I thought you had deleted that long comment, I apologize. I would have been greatly disappointed if that had been the case, but expected at worst a claim of "Oops. I thought it was a duplicate." Nice to know that it's just protection from spam.

Second, I did look at the flyers again but didn't see any other difference that didn't support my contention. But we can let that slide.

Finally, I was not claiming that Wagg said what I said about worldviews but was using that as an explanation for why I would agree that he wouldn't say the same thing for ghosts but wouldn't realize that his view should imply that, too. Mostly because strong atheist and anti-religious views can and do obviously make claims that can and should be subject to skeptical examination, while it isn't clear that ghost debunkers make claims (but they often do).