Tag Archives: scepticism

Richard Dawkins and the Skeptics Conference controversy.

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I had been meaning to comment on the controversy surrounding the invitation to Richard Dawkins to speak at the US Northeast Conference on Science & Skepticism (NECSS) – followed by his disinvitation. But events have moved on – he has now been reinvited but has had a mild stroke so there is no longer any possibility of speaking engagements for a few months.

Many people are concerned about Richard’s health – the news seemed good but you can get a better idea from his own description of the problem in an audio message – An update on Richard’s condition in his own words.

He sounds pretty frail to me – and the fact he was hospitalised for 4 days suggest it was more serious than I originally understood. Hopefully, though, he will recover well and be back to his usual speaking programme. That’s of some interest to us in New Zealand as a planned appearance at the Wellington Art’s Festival next month has been postponed. Hopefully, his plan to make an appearance here a few months later will go ahead.

Interestingly, Richard’s doctors advised him to avoid controversy because of blood pressure problems! And he acknowledges that recent controversies may not have help his blood pressure.

The current controversy

It seems this problems stems from Richard’s use of Twitter. Which seems pretty petty because Twitter is hardly a format for reasoned discussion with it’s 140 character limits – and the usually abusive and stupid responses.

A comment I saw said Richard on social media “comes across as petty, insulting and yes, sexist.” Well, I think almost anyone debating on twitter comes across this way. I think he is rather naive to use twitter as much as he does (he refers to twitter in his most recent book – Brief Candle in the Dark – and admits to being in two minds about it). While he appears to make an effort to qualify comments and present logical arguments in his tweets that does not stop people from misinterpreting him (innocently or intentionally) – and misrepresenting him in later articles and debates.

Mind you, basing even a blog article, let alone an op-ed or similar media article, on tweets seems rather desperate of people.

The controversy appears to boil down to reaction to this tweet:

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Despite the qualification critics have used the tweet to claim he is misogynist and attributes stupid behaviour to all feminists! It contained a link to a polemically crude video drawing parallels between the arguments of extreme feminists and extreme Islamists – so Richard has also copped the Islamophobia charge too. (As well as a new one on me claiming he is saying that extreme feminists behave the same – rather than drawing parallels).

Faulty generalisation

This interpretation is so mistaken I think only people who are already hostile or desperately searching for something to confirm their anti-Dawkins or anti-male bias would actually fall for it – or promote it. But that is the sort of thing we get on social media – especially Twitter.

Drivers

This is the fallacy of faulty generalisation – or more precisely, faulty induction. Very often resorted to by people with a large axe to grind.

Rebecca Watson is one of Richards most vocal critics. She is very hostile towards the regard that many sceptics and atheists have for Dawkins, recently writing in her article Center for Inquiry Merges with Richard Dawkins & His Twitter Account:

“In conclusion, the skeptic/atheist sphere is an embarrassing shitshow and the organizations will continue polishing Richard Dawkins’ knob until he dies, at which point he will be sainted and his image will be put on candles and prayed to in times when logic is needed.”

(People who find fault with Richard’s tweets should really apply their critical and analytical skills to that sort of anti-sceptic, anti-atheist, vitriol.)

In her article commenting on the NECSS disinvitation, NECSS Dumps Richard Dawkins Over Hate Tweet, she wrote:

“Let’s hope that Center for Inquiry and other organizations take similar steps to distance themselves from Dawkins’ hateful rhetoric.”

So, she has added “hate speech” (or “hate rhetoric”) to her list of Richards failings.

(I must be careful here as some people argue that the terms “hate tweet” and “hate rhetoric” are not the same as “hate speech” – rationalisation by mental gymnastics in my opinion.)

I can’t help feeling there is a lot of bruised ego involved there – but lets stick with her logical fallacy. I have criticised her in the past for committing the fallacy of faulty generalisation. In that case her use of valid cases where studies in evolution psychology amounted to very poor science and bias confirmation (pop-psychology) to attribute that problem to the whole field of evolutionary psychology. See Sceptical arrogance and evolutionary psychologySceptical humility and peer review in science and Sense on evolutionary psychology  for the details.

I was critical because she, and some of here allies, were demonising a whole scientific field because of the obvious faults of just a part of it.

Professional jealousy

Professionals, like any other human, often suffer from jealousy of other professionals. And this is particularly true in attitudes towards scientific popularisers like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Carl Sagan, and many others. Hell, I have seen it many times in my own scientific community when a colleague gets media coverage.

Massimo Pigliucci has for a long time exhibited this sort of professional jealousy, often being unable to hold himself back when even a distant opportunity arises to have a biff at Richard. He has a Pavlovian knee-jerk reaction to the word “Dawkins.” So, not surprisingly, he has commented on this recent fiasco in a very long blog article – Richard Dawkins.

Massimo in this article describes his relationship with Dawkins as “colleagues who disagree on a number of issues” – but he is being disingenuous. Colleagues “who disagree on a number of issues” (and shouldn’t we all be described this way) do not build campaigns on that disagreement. Perhaps we should look to Dawkins as an example of how reasonable “colleagues who disagree on a number of issues” should treat that disagreement in public – with personal respect. I have yet to see any personal invective for Massimo from Richard.

In summary, Massimo argues that Dawkins has no original work in his field (except “memes” – which to Richard was simply a passing speculation), is “utterly” ignorant about important biological concepts and has a “hopelessly limited” view of biology.  Massimo  criticises the gene-centric view of Richards first book The Selfish Gene and finds The God Delusion “simply ghastly in its cartoonish simplicity.”

Most of all, Massimo bridles at the occasional media portrayal of Richard as “a leading evolutionary biologist.” Perhaps Dawkins also bridles at that description as it is rather meaningless – there is a media tendency to label any scientist they cover as a “leading” or “top” scientist (and that often causes jealousy among colleagues).

My point is that Massimo comments seem motivated by professional jealousy, rather than any real concern about the sceptic/atheist “movement.” He is being unprofessional to carry out a personal public campaign in this way. And he ends up looking foolish for that and his identification with the NECSS blunder (I have not seem any comment from Massimo on the later reinvitation which attempted to correct that blunder.)

A critical minority?

I don’t want to give the impression that all the reaction to Richards tweets has been negative – far from it. Here is a long blog article from Michael Nuget, chairperson of Atheist Ireland. – NECSS should reconsider Dawkins decision, made in haste without full information It’s worth reading and probably gives a more representative assessment of the issue but, for reasons of space, I won’t comment on it here except to quote this significant passage:

“This is the fourth recent controversy involving activists having speaking invitations withdrawn. Warwick University Students Union and Trinity College Dublin both withdrew invitations to Maryam Namazie, citing fears of incitement to hatred of Muslims. And Saint Dominic’s College in Dublin withdrew an invitation to me, citing fears that my talk would undermine its Catholic ethos.

After being asked to reconsider, each of these three institutions reinstated the invitations, with Warwick Students Union publicly apologising to Maryam. All three talks have since gone ahead successfully. I hope this article will help to persuade NECSS to follow the example of these other bodies, and revisit their decision based on the skepticism that they promote.”

Well, I guess  we now have 5 recent examples of disinvitations under pressure from biased pressure groups, followed by organisations coming to their sense and reinstating the invitations.

See alsoSam Harris’s audio comment on the fiasco.

What about responses from Richard Dawkins

I think Dawkins handled this issue very well – even wishing the organisers a successful conference after their disinvitation (made rudely by public statement, not personally to Richard):

“I wish the NECSS every success at their conference. The science and scepticism community is too small and too important to let disagreements divide us and divert us from our mission of promoting a more critical and scientifically literate world.”

In his later oral message – An update on Richard’s condition in his own words – Richard revealed his invitation had been reinstated and politely expressed his thanks and gratitude, even though his health now prevents him taking up the invitation (or reinvitation).

Here are the full texts  of the NECSS formal reinvitation and Richards response:

From the NECSS executive committee, February 14, 2016:

We wish to apologize to Professor Dawkins for our handling of his disinvitation to NECSS 2016. Our actions were not professional, and we should have contacted him directly to express our concerns before acting unilaterally. We have sent Professor Dawkins a private communication expressing this as well. This apology also extends to all NECSS speakers, our attendees, and to the broader skeptical movement.

We wish to use this incident as an opportunity to have a frank and open discussion of the deeper issues implicated here, which are causing conflict both within the skeptical community and within society as a whole. NECSS 2016 will therefore feature a panel discussion addressing these topics. There is room for a range of reasonable opinions on these issues and our conversation will reflect that diversity. We have asked Professor Dawkins to participate in this discussion at NECSS 2016 in addition to his prior scheduled talk, and we hope he will accept our invitation.

This statement and our discussions with Professor Dawkins were initiated prior to learning of his recent illness. All of NECSS wishes Professor Dawkins a speedy and full recovery.

The NECSS Executive Committee

Richard’s Response:

Dear Jamy,

Please convey my thanks to the entire Executive Committee for their gracious apology and for reinviting me to the NECSS conference. I am sensitive to what a difficult thing it must have been to rescind an earlier, publicised decision. I am truly grateful. Politicians are regularly criticised for changing their minds, but sceptics, rationalists and scientists know that there are occasions when the ability to change ones mind is a virtue. Sympathy for the victim of a medical emergency is not one of those occasions, and I therefore note with especial admiration that the Executive Committee’s courageous and principled change of mind predated my stroke.

That stroke, however, does make it impossible for me to accept the invitation, much as I would like to do so. I shall especially miss the pleasure of an on stage conversation with you. I hope another opportunity for that conversation will arise. I wish the conference well. May it be a great success. You certainly have managed to put together a starry list of speakers.

With my best wishes to you and the whole Executive Committee

Richard

Richard’s refusal to be pulled into a silly tit-for-tat online – with all the usual charges against the other side – reinforces my favourable opinion of him. He is not prone to extremist positions or personal infighting. I suggest that he comes out of the little tiff well – even if he did make some mistakes on his twitter account (and who doesn’t). In contrast, his critics have exposed their unreasonable and extremist attitudes and NECSS has ended up with egg on its face – unable to resist bullying from these extremists. Let’s hope similar organisations do not get caught in the same trap.

Finally, I welcome the NECAA organisers decision to include a panel discussion on these issues in its conference. As they say – “There is room for a range of reasonable opinions on these issues and our conversation will reflect that diversity.”

Let’s hope that they do not abandon this plan just because Richard is unable to take part. The issues of cyber-bullying and use of labels like “sexist,” “misogynist” and “islamophobic” to shut down important discussion should be dealt with. These issues – the ability to discuss topical problems and those problems themselves – are too important to ignore. Hopefully, organisers will find a person (perhaps Michael Nugent?) who is brave enough to stand up and speak openly and honestly about them.

As Richard would have done.

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“Fair-weather” scepticism

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My old man used to label us kids as “fair-weather sailors” when we bitched about working outside during bad weather.

That phrase comes to my mind sometimes when I come across people who claim to be “sceptics ” (“Skeptics”) behaving very unsceptically when confronted with a claim outside their area of interest. For example, someone who can be quite objective about scientific claims but reacts quite unobjectively to political claims.

Perhaps politics is a bit like religion to some people – they line up instinctively on one side or another. However, I think a true sceptic should still be able to consider political claims according to the facts available and not just rely on instincts.

So, I am all for this image. Yes it is hard. But when you think about it what use are one’s ingrained prejudices if they do not stand up to sceptical consideration.

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Sceptical arrogance and evolutionary psychology

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“We should be skeptical of all points of view, including those of the skeptics.”*

I came across the quote above in Michael Shermer’s article remembering Paul Kurtz, one of the founders of the modern US skeptical movement (see “Paul Kurtz & the Virtue of Skepticism“). It struck a chord – I have been thinking about this for a while. It strikes me that self-declared sceptics can sometimes be far from sceptical in the own beliefs and declarations.

No, I am not adopting the position of some of the targets of scepticism. I am not saying “sceptics’ are biased or arrogant because they criticise superstition, pseudoscience and religion. Nor that their ridicule of religious and superstitious ideas is somehow unwarranted. Within reason, ridicule is sometimes the most effective form of criticism. No way am I defending superstition and religion.

No, the arrogance I refer to is the claim that we are on the side of reason, simply by declaring that we are on the side of reason. To a limited extent I agree with the religious critics of the Reason Rally held a few months back in Washington, DC. At the time I did raise my concern about how ideological groups co-opt words for their own purposes (see Co-opting “Truth”). Perhaps the atheist rally was slightly disingenuous to label itself the Reason Rally, as a contrast to faith. But how much more disingenuous was the religious response when it launched a small group called “True Reason.”

A sort of ideological poker game: “see your reason and up you with Truth (with a capital T).” Well, what did we expect?

Rational or rationalising?

I have a thing about this word “reason” because if modern psychology and cognitive science tells us anything it is that we are not a rational species, more a rationalising one. Often (very often) our reasoning is motivated. We are justifying actions or attitudes which may be more driven by emotion and feeling than by logic and reasoning.

I am not saying that as a criticism – just as a fact about the human species. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. Emotions and feelings are often a more efficient (and humane) way of making decisions than logic. And individuals find careful reasoning difficult. It’s best done in groups.

So yes, support reason and logic against faith and prejudice. But let’s not fool ourselves that this is enough to make sure that our own positions and proclamations are always based completely on reason and logic. They aren’t. And sometimes this becomes obvious.

I think if we are conscious of current understanding in psychology and cognitive science we would not fall into the trap of arrogance. We would seriously take on board another quote from Paul Kurtz: “No one is infallible, and no one can claim a monopoly on truth or virtue.” Maybe then sceptics would avoid such co-option of words by self-proclamation. And we might have the humility to temper the criticism of groups and people we disagree with.

Rebecca Watson’s talk

My current reason for commenting on sceptical arrogance is a video I watched of Rebecca Watson’s talk at a recent Scepticon conference in the US. This is relevant in NZ because Rebecca is currently here after attending an Australian Skeptics’ conference. She has delivered the same talk down under as she delivered in the US.

For those who have not see the talk – its titled How Girls Evolved to Shop and other ways to insult women with “science” and I have embedded it below.

Now, I realise this talk has become controversial in the US. And because of recent ructions over Rebecca Watson, “elevatorgate,”  feminism and misogynism in the atheist movement, and formation of Atheist+ groups this controversy inevitably involves other issues. Personalities and strong feelings are involved. Positions are being strongly defended. None of that interests me. Here I am commenting only on sceptical arrogance and Rebecca’s sweeping rejection of evolutionary psychology – with which I strongly disagree.

However, if you wish to follow the US debate have a look at Edward Clint’s Science denialism at a skeptic conference which criticises Rebecca’s presentation, and Stephanie Zvan’s Science Denialism? The Role of Criticism and PZ Myer’s Oh gob, evo psych again? which defend the presentation.

Is her sarcasm justified?

First, let’s get Rebecca’s sarcasm out of the way. Maybe some of it was justified in commenting on the media presentation of research and on examples of poor science but personally I found her extension of sarcasm to a whole scientific discipline childish, arrogant and unwarranted. Problems and difficulties in an entire scientific discipline require a far more serious consideration than Rebecca gave. In my mind her sarcasm appeared was her way of compensating for her own lack of knowledge of the subject – in much the same way that climate change deniers/contrarians/sceptics use sarcasm when they discuss climate science and scientists.

Sarcasm as a substitute for reason and evidence.

But what about evolutionary psychology? Although Rebecca’s examples were of pop psychology and the media presentation of research (both genuine and motivated “research”) she was clearly aimed her criticism at the whole field of evolutionary psychology. Her slides show this and her shonky definition of evolutionary psychology in one of her slides supports that interpretation.

Is evolutionary psychology a science?

Criticism of evolutionary psychology in not new or unique to Rebecca. Philosopher Massimo Pigluicci even asks the question “Is Evolutionary Psychology a Pseudoscience?” in his book Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk. He sees problems related to historical investigations and the small number of species closely related to humans but concludes these do “not make evolutionary psychology a typical example of pseudo-science, like astrology or parapsychology, but it certainly moves it away from mainstream evolutionary biology . . .” However, “the overarching idea that behaviours (and therefore cognitive traits) can evolve, and sometimes do so as the result of natural selection, is completely uncontroversial amongst scientists, and so to should be.”

So, there are problems in this field. But would we expect otherwise? Evolutionary psychology is a “soft science” rather like psychology and sociology. We should not expect the precision, or epistemic confidence, of the “hard sciences” of physics and chemistry. There is therefore room for a quite a bit of tentative and speculative hypothesising. I don’t see speculation as a bad thing in science – in fact it’s essential. As long as we are conscious that speculative ideas don’t equate to verified knowledge. And we do make room for speculative ideas in even the hard sciences – string “theory” and multiverses for example.

Yes, I know, the difficulties of verification and testing in the soft sciences provides advantages for those wanting to promote pet ideas and fancies. Maybe even advantages for the unscrupulous “researcher.” And the subject lends itself easily to media interested more in scandal and sexual innuendo than real knowledge. Plenty of scope for misrepresentation of even the more genuine research. Rebecca was right to criticise this.

Let’s be realistic

But come off it. Even the hard sciences are not completely immune to such problems. Just have a look at some of the popular writing on quantum physics.

It’s easy to play up, as Rebecca does, the media treatment, the pop psychology and the unscrupulous “researchers” willing to sell themselves to commercial interests. But that ignores the far more honest research that is also going on in evolutionary psychology. Research on the continuity from species to species of emotions. Similarities in the brain. The evolution of morality, society and religion. And I could go on.

Sure, we will have less epistemic confidence in many of the findings and resulting theories. There is plenty of room of mistakes and blind allies. But I believe we are making progress and our current understanding in these areas is much better than when we were informed only by folk psychology and religion.

Yes, evolutionary psychology is a mixed bag. To some extent this is true of all the “soft sciences.” But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.


*The quotation is from The Transcendental Temptation: A Critique of Religion and the Paranormal by Paul Kurtz. Here it is in context:

“The skeptic is not passionately intent on converting mankind to his or her point of view and surely is not interested in imposing it on others, though he may be deeply concerned with raising the level of education and critical inquiry in society. Still, if there are any lessons to be learned from history, it is that we should be skeptical of all points of view, including those of the skeptics. No one is infallible, and no one can claim a monopoly on truth or virtue. It would be contradictory for skepticism to seek to translate itself into a new faith. One must view with caution the promises of any new secular priest who might emerge promising a brave new world—if only his path to clarity and truth is followed. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to temper the intemperate and to tame the perverse temptation that lurks within.”

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