Reactions keep rolling in to my humble advice to capital-S Skeptics to bash homeopathy and Bigfoot less and mammograms and war more. (I keep thinking of alternative headlines: “Your country is killing kids, and you’re worried about Bigfoot?” Or, “All I am saying, capital-S Skeptics, is give peace a chance.”) My follow-up post didn't seem to satisfy anyone, so I thought I’d offer a few more thoughts on the controversy, plus links to comments of others. [See NEW RESPONSES, added May 20, by Jerry Coyne, Lawrence Krauss, Michael Shermer and “Scathing Atheist,” who calls me “a misinformed childish jackass that looks like a high school wresting coach that’s been warned multiple times about long hugs.”]
*Is the enemy of my enemy my friend? I’m getting lots of strokes from promoters of soft targets, who perhaps assume that I’m the enemy of their enemy (i.e., Skeptics) and hence their friend. I'm not. Just to be clear: I am a hard-core skeptic and scientific materialist. I don’t believe in homeopathy, ESP, God (except in sentimental moments) or any of the other things I identified as soft targets. I even bash Buddhism and meditation, sacred cows of the western intelligentsia! To see how skeptical I am, read my recent dispatches on a major consciousness conference in Tucson. I share Skeptics’ distaste for bullshit, I just think their methods and goals need adjusting.
*Were my complaints old news? Skeptics complain they’ve already debated the issues I’ve raised, notably questions about priorities and tribalism. So how dare I bring them up? This is the major gripe of Skeptics Daniel Loxton, Steve Novella and David Gorski. But they have not resolved these debates in a satisfactory way, if the reaction to my critique is any indication. PZ Myers also makes this point in his new comment on this fracas.
*Is scientific hype journalists’ fault? Skeptics betray their confirmation bias toward science when they claim that journalists are primarily to blame for scientific hype. Novella repeats this slur when he responds to my complaints about “gene-whiz science.” “The notion that there is a single gene for a complex trait is a fiction of the media,” he writes. This professor of medicine at Yale is apparently ignorant of the history of behavioral genetics, on which I’ve been reporting for almost 30 years. If Novella asks nicely, I’ll send him a reprint of my 1993 critique of behavioral genetics, “Eugenics Revisited.” The major promoter of the “gay gene” and “God gene” (to cite just two examples) is Dean Hamer, a geneticist at the National Cancer Institute (now retired). Of course journalists often amplify scientists’ hype, but scientists are the primary hypers of gene-whiz science, string theory, multiverses, the Singularity and the deep-roots theory of war.
Enough. Now here are responses to my talk:
NEW RESPONSES (AS OF MAY 20) FROM COYNE, KRAUSS, SHERMER, OTHERS
Jerry Coyne, Lawrence Krauss and Michael Shermer have whacked me on Coyne’s blog Why Evolution Is True. Shermer, a defender of the deep-roots theory of war, has the best line, comparing me to “a beauty pageant winner who declares her dream of ‘world peace.’” Krauss says I “admitted” to him last fall that I never read Universe from Nothing. That’s odd, because I never admitted any such thing, and in fact I did read his book (although, I confess, I didn’t exactly savor every word, because the material was so familiar).
I don’t blame these guys for being annoyed with me. See my critiques of Krauss’s work here and of Shermer’s here. And Coyne is no doubt still upset over my Wall Street Journal review of his book Faith vs. Fact. Here is an excerpt:
Coyne’s defenses of science and denunciations of religion are so relentlessly one-sided that they aroused my antipathy toward the former and sympathy toward the latter… He overlooks any positive consequences of religion, such as its role in anti-slavery, civil-rights and anti-war movements. He inflates religion’s contribution to public resistance toward vaccines, genetically modified food and human-induced global warming.
Conversely, he absolves science of responsibility for any adverse consequences, such as weapons and ideologies of mass destruction. “The compelling force that produced nuclear weapons, gunpowder, and eugenics was not science but people.” Right. Science doesn’t kill people; people kill people.
Naïve readers of Mr. Coyne might conclude that science is rapidly filling in the remaining gaps in our understanding of reality and solving ancient philosophical conundrums. He claims that free will, the notion that “we can choose to behave in different ways,” is being contradicted by research in genetics and neuroscience and “looks increasingly dubious.”
As evidence, he cites scientific revelations that our choices are often influenced by factors of which we are unaware. Yes, Freud told us as much, and Sophocles for that matter. But it is absurd to conclude that all our conscious deliberations are therefore inconsequential…
Mr. Coyne’s critique of free will, far from being based on scientific “fact,” betrays how his hostility toward religion distorts his judgment. Evidence against free will, he says, “kicks the props out from under much theology, including the doctrine of salvation.” Mr. Coyne thinks that if religious people believe in free will, it must be an illusion.
Mr. Coyne’s loathing of creationism, similarly, leads him to exaggerate what science can tell us about our cosmic origins. Mr. Coyne asserts that “we are starting to see how the universe could arise from ‘nothing,’ and that our own universe might be only one of many universes that differ in their physical laws.” Actually, cosmologists are more baffled than ever at why there is something rather than nothing… And multiverse theories are about as testable as religious beliefs.
Mr. Coyne repeatedly reminds us that science, unlike religion, promotes self-criticism, but he is remarkably lacking in this virtue himself. He rejects complaints that some modern scientists are guilty of “scientism,” which I would define as excessive trust—faith!—in science. Calling scientism “a grab bag of disparate accusations that are mostly inaccurate or overblown,” Mr. Coyne insists that the term “be dropped.” Actually, Faith vs. Fact serves as a splendid specimen of scientism. Mr. Coyne disparages not only religion but also other human ways of engaging with reality. The arts, he argues, “cannot ascertain truth or knowledge,” and the humanities do so only to the extent that they emulate the sciences. This sort of arrogance and certitude is the essence of scientism.
“Diatribe 170: John Horgan Is a Diuretic Karate Dad.” The Scathing Atheist (podcast).
“Skeptics should cast a much wider net.” Ashutosh Jogalekar. The Curious Wavefunction.
“Two Kinds of Science ‘Skepticism.’" David Klinghoffer, Evolution News and Views.
“Division of Labor Is a Good Thing for Science and Skepticism.” Chad Orzel, Uncertain Principles.
“Skepticism and the Fallacy of Relative Privation.” Steven Novella, Neurologica.
OLDER RESPONSES (BEFORE MAY 20):
“Scientific sceptics hit back after rebuke.” Chris Woolston, Nature.
“Skepticism will not fix its problems by denying their existence.” PZ Myers, Pharyngula.
“Are Skeptics skeptical enough?” Bob Collins, Minnesota Public Radio News.
“The actual hard target for skepticism.” David Osiorio, Skeptic Ink.
“John Horgan Expresses his skepticism of skeptics at NECSS, a skeptics conference.” Skeptical Science.
“Skeptic fights back against skepticism about skeptics.” Uncommon Descent.
“If you’re going to be contrarian, pick harder targets.” Contrarian.
MORE REACTIONS (AS OF MAY 25)
“Horgan Affair.” The Skeptical Review.
“Dear Skeptics…” Patrick Durusau, Another Word for It.
“NECSS 2016.” The Rants and Raves of Thickness.
“We get letters: The godless are not amused.” Doug Fields, The Bolingbrook Babbler.
“Strategy, War, and Skepticism.” Adam Elkus.