Movement rationalism has lately been characterized by several archetypical and high-profile manifestations of the Dunning–Kruger effect*, as widely renowned scientists, skeptics, and atheists have slipped in succession into scientistic or proto-philosophical defenses of logically and empirically indefensible assertions or positions. Some notable examples:
- When Jeffrey Epstein‘s plea deal over allegations of soliciting prostituting minors—itself a privilege of political connectedness—was challenged by his victims’ attorneys, Lawrence Krauss came to his defense with a fairly obvious abuse of scientific language. In short, Krauss professed to “always judge things on empirical evidence” immediately before confusing empirical evidence with personal experience, relationships, and trust (among the most widely-recognized sources of bias in movement skepticism).
- When Rebecca Watson detailed her experience with (a specific example of) contemporary systemic sexism, Richard Dawkins chimed in to assert that this variety of sexism is unworthy of scrutiny and redress, despite having no relevant background in sociology or feminism. (See also: Michael Shermer.) In a follow-up comment he bemoaned the weak case and foul language of his objectors, though he seems never to have responded to the nine letters tailored specifically (and cordially) to him.
- Sam Harris has developed something of a reputation for pseudophilosophy. This came to a head a little bit back as he shrugged off expert refutation of his defense of racial profiling by Bruce Schneier. Meanwhile, his defense of torture has gradually come to be seen as minimally-contemplative contrarianism, which he arguably maintains by conflating its philosophically literate criticisms with the mainstream progressive onslaught.
- Michael Shermer continues to defend his libertarian political ideology and his broader (also libertarian) view of morality on scientific grounds, errors in judgment in disciplines outside his expertise on which he has been called out multiple times, most recently (and publicly) by Massimo Pigliucci.
Beyond (what may admittedly be a pop-science overgeneralization of) Dunning–Kruger—ignorance of the main topic coupled with proportionately undue self-assuredness—these incidents share context that strikes me as at least equally important for movement rationalism. I see three important aspects to this context Read more…
I’m been having a bit of back-and-forth with commenter OaringAbout on skeptic extraordinaire Steven Novella’s Neurologicablog. They brought up the increasingly tangentially familiar (and very plausibly artificial) equity–gender divide among feminists, in response to which i asked for some examples within the so-called “community of reason”. They obliged, somewhat, and while checking their claims, citing sources, and formulating my response, i synthesized some ideas i’d not taken the time to before—though admittedly with limited confidence in some of it. So, it seems appropriate to put it here as a touchstone, even (especially) if i’m forced to recant some of it in light of new evidence. But do read the background of the conversation first (and apologies in retrospect for the opportunistic moralizing at the outset).
@OaringAbout, thanks for responding. I have a few problems with your setup, though i don’t think they need to tint the rest of this exchange. One is that, while you seem partial to literalism (judging from the links you provided), you are willing to conclude from circumstantial evidence that people believe things that they have not said. The other is that likening the drawing of provisional conclusions based on circumstantial interpersonal evidence, perhaps analogous to journalism, to a bona fide science strikes me as unnecessarily haughty and perhaps hazardously self-assuring. (If i understand the chronology, for instance, evolutionary theories existed before fossils were understood as such, and Darwin’s early work was not based on fossils at all.)
To put us more in alignment: I don’t doubt that several feminists are antagonistic toward and perhaps even in denial of the science of sex and gender differences. What i doubt is that any prominent feminists identified with atheism or skepticism as movements or communities are so antagonistic. There is, however, widespread criticism among these feminists of the tendency of other feminists or atheists or skeptics toward biological determinism, loosely speaking the opposite extreme from tabula rasa along the traditional nature/nurture axis (itself, i understand, outdated in the face of such interactions as gene-environment interactions).
In case someone’s actually wondering, i’m focusing on other things.
I’ve been tempted to disassociate myself from the Richard Dawkins Foundation since Mahergate and the hit-and-run Muslima comments — not that i’ve ever been affiliated; i just use the Zapfino A. I kept my little A because, in the non-event that someone comes across my writing, it’ll be obvious that i’m a proud atheist.
Via the Skeptically Speaking interview with Bruce Schneier, i’ve learned of the hubbub over Sam Harris‘s latest flirt with leftist disavowal, on the topic of ethnic profiling at airport security. The short, short version goes like this: Harris said “If it works, do it.”, Schneier replied “Here’s why it doesn’t work.”, and Harris shrugged. Harris and Schneier summarize the exchange with admirable concision in the intro and outro to their email debate. (If you haven’t yet, read it; it’s better than this.)
This was one fascinating hubbub. And it touches upon a few nagging issues i’ve had with the discourse i’ve been spectating. First, the reaction.
Hank Fox’s call to atheists to share our strategies prompted me to write this note about something i do that probably lands me in the “militant” atheist camp. For a regular smattering of accessible irreligious wit, i urge you to check out Blue Collar Atheist. Thanks so much, Hank, for what you do!
I do a lot of the familiar stuff at the personal level: I sit at Ask An Atheist tables, i write letters to the editor, i regularly post religious commentary on Facebook. I cross out “In God We Trust” on dollar bills and write in “E pluribus unum”. These things matter. but they feel reactive, and marginal, like online comments on an op-ed.
Here’s something i wish more people would do: Take the Pledge of Allegiance. When i’m at a government function — e.g. most recently a Town Council meeting — and we are led in the Pledge, i no longer stay silent during the “under God” bit (that desecration of cadence). Oh, no. I take the pledge loudly, proudly, and fluidly, in its original glory.*
This leaves me pronouncing “indivisible” while everyone else is saying “under God” (or staying silent), and then “with liberty and justice” during “indivisible”. And people hear it. It turns heads, in very much the way that the silent treatment doesn’t. And, anymore, that obnoxious pause irks me like acquiescence.
I refuse to let a coalition of zealots and national supremacists coerce those of us who wish to pledge ourselves to Enlightenment values into installing their god right above them. and i refuse to be shamed into accommodating their personal superstitions in the very midst of our collective commitment to an evidence-based, inquiry-positive society.
It’s only recently that i’ve come to a greater awareness of and appreciation for the uniquely secular origins of my country. When i pledge my allegiance to this republic, my pledge extends to the principles of democracy and free inquiry on which it is founded.
Would that our citizenry were more directly confronted with the values that truly underlie our society. This is my little contribution to that effort. and it feels proactive.
* Yes, i know that the original pledge was slightly different in other ways. (Note, from the same link, that the words “under God” were indeed an overt — and unconstitutional — endorsement of religion over irreligion.)
You might have no idea that a local group called Fluoride Free NRV, spearheaded by Dan Steinberg, is attempting to rally public support for an end to the fluoridation of our water, which they denounce as “ineffective for preventing cavities”, “harmful to public health”, and “unethical forced medication”. (But then i would conclude that you must not live in Blacksburg.) In November a friend of mine handed me a copy of this flier at the Farmers Market, asking if i’d join the campaign, and Mr. Steinberg got a blurb on the last Environmental Coalition newsletter of the semester. I’ve been doing some research in response to a few of the scarier (and stranger) claims the group has made, and, suffice to say, i’m not panicking.