May 18, 2016

John Horgan misses the point

And he misses it spectacularly, and that's scary. Why? Because he's supposed to be a science journalist--someone who communicates science--and yet, as Steve Novella points out, Horgan tilts at strawmen and doesn't even appear to understand the examples he himself is using.

Let's start with how Horgan himself states his claim:

So, just to recap. I’m asking you skeptics to spend less time bashing soft targets like homeopathy and Bigfoot and more time bashing hard targets like multiverses, cancer tests, psychiatric drugs and war, the hardest target of all. 
I don’t expect you to agree with my framing of these issues. All I ask is that you examine your own views skeptically. And ask yourself this: Shouldn’t ending war be a moral imperative, like ending slavery or the subjugation of women? How can we not end war?

I also encourage everyone to check out Steve Novella's response over at Neurologica. It counters Horgan's mispoints beautifully. In that spirit, the point of my post isn't to offer counter-arguments. I can't do it as well as more experienced skeptics. I'm still a noob, a baby skeptic, and I'll leave that to those with the experience.

This is a personal blog, so what I'm offering is what the greater point of the skeptical movement is, for me, personally, and why I think we're on the right track.


Let's start by saying that skepticism, like science, is less about the knowledge than about the process. I don't think any skeptics would disagree with me there. Skepticism is a way of thinking.

When it comes to Horgan's points, this is critical to point out. Skeptical thinking--critical thinking, in other words--could be applied to any of the examples he gives. It can be applied to anything, any time, any where, if you know how.

Steve Novella put it like this:

Horgan also misses several important points that skeptics have already made in defense of our chosen scope. We address the full range of issues within our purview, what Horgan would call soft and hard targets, because it is all useful. Sometimes we deconstruct simplistic and obvious pseudoscience because it provides a teaching moment, so that our audience will be better able to deconstruct more complex targets.

It's undeniably true. We're not all equally capable of applying ourselves to every problem of our time. What's more important is that we're each committed to encouraging skepticism. If you have skeptics each talking about the subjects they themselves are most familiar with, you wind up with a skeptical movement that's looking at a great breadth of subjects with expert detail.

I can't focus on string theory or multiverses. I don't have the expertise, training, or knowledge to do so. I find them interesting, but they aren't law to me. They are merely interesting models. Asking me to be critical of them in a meaningful way is entirely pointless. It's a futile exercise for all of us.

What I can focus on are the things that I know best, and that's what I do as a skeptic--but that doesn't mean that I am not also able to address other issues when they come up.

There aren't hard and soft targets. There are priorities.

Take the emphasis that Horgan puts on war. Don't we all want to end war? I know this is a word some people don't like, but I'm offended. As the child of a wounded veteran, as the spouse of a disabled veteran, as someone who has known people lost in war, as someone who considers herself a compassionate person, I'm offended by the implication that I am not skeptical of war. I'm offended at the implication that I don't want to end war simply because I talk about other topics.

I'm intimately aware of how war affects people. It's not popular, but I've often said that there are no heroes in war--just the victims on both ends of the weapons.

When I'm confronted with politicians agitating for war, I'm immediately suspicious--skeptical, you might even say--of their claims. I'm not willing to accept that war is necessary immediately, although I may be persuaded to accept that it is necessary if I am presented with evidence to that effect. I don't think war is some biologically mandated action, and even if it were, I can't accept that we, as thinking, self-aware, autonomous beings, are bound by our biology.

So I have to ask: what exactly does Horgan want of skeptics here? He gives examples, he encourages us to be skeptical of our own views, but as these are things were are already doing, the talk (as posted, anyway) falls far short of giving meaningful encouragement or advice.

Horgan misses the point. Big time.

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