Barry Arrington pays us the somewhat dubious compliment of posting an article on the subject of The Skeptical Zone. I’d like to respond to it here (as I cannot respond to it there, although in contrast, Barry is welcome to come here if he would like to make a counter-point).
For those of you who do not know, some months ago Elizabeth Liddle started the website known as The Skeptical Zone (TSZ). The site has a sort of symbiotic relationship with UD, because many, if not most, of the posts there key off our posts here.
Not only does TSZ have a name that invokes a skeptical turn of mind, it also has a motto apparently intended to bolster that attitude: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.” The motto is taken from Oliver Cromwell’s August 5, 1650 letter to the synod of the Church of Scotland urging them to break their alliance with royalist forces.
Now with a name and a motto like that, one might think the site is home to iconoclastic non-conformists bent on disrupting the status quo.
Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Being “skeptical” doesn’t necessarily mean “disrupting the status quo”. It means, well, being skeptical – being prepared to doubt claims, to demand supporting evidence, to accept conclusions provisionally, and, above all, being prepared to hold one’s own assumptions up to scrutiny. But be that as it may…
But you would be wrong. I just finished pursuing the articles that have been posted at TSZ during the last six months. Among the regular posters there I found not a single article that even mildly criticized (far less expressed skepticism toward) a single dogma one would expect to be held by the vast majority of the denizens of the faculty lounge at a typical university.
Hmm. Do I detect a “poisoning of the well” – what “dogma” is “held by the vast majority” of “denizens of the faculty lounge”?
Merriam-Webster defines “dogma” thus:
1a : something held as an established opinion; especially : a definite authoritative tenet
b : a code of such tenets <pedagogical dogma>
c : a point of view or tenet put forth as authoritative without adequate grounds
2: a doctrine or body of doctrines concerning faith or morals formally stated and authoritatively proclaimed by a church
Well, clearly, “2” doesn’t apply, as universities are not churches, and in any cases, universities (or even the denizens of faculty lounges, whoever they are) don’t “formally state” bodies of “doctrines concerning faith or morals”. Barry may mean 1a: “something held as established opinion” – certainly some scientific conclusions are so well attested that although they are in principle held provisionally, they are regarded as “fact”. I wonder if he means 1b: “pedagogical dogma” – certainly universities are sometimes guilty, in my view, of teaching science as though it is a body of disconnected facts, not a method that has led to an edifice of conclusions, with a firm base, but with flimsier and more provisional upper branches. And it’s possible he is thinking of 1c: “a point of view or tenet put forth as authoritative without adequate grounds” – and clearly, as Barry disagrees with the “point of view” that evolutionary processes can account for the diversity and diversification of life from simple ancestral beginnings as being “without adequate grounds”. So he may mean no more than that we are a group of people (or those who post here regularly are) who find evolutionary theory more persuasive than Barry does.
But wait – he gives examples:
Atheism. It’s true
Whut? Atheism is a “dogma one would expect to be held by the vast majority of the denizens of the faculty lounge at a typical university”? Atheism is “held as established opinion” at universities? Really? Or forms a pedagogical code? Or is” put forth as authoritative without adequate grounds”? Well, I’m a Brit, not an American, but atheism is simply never mentioned at my university (not that I hang about in any “faculty lounge” much, although there’s a Starbuck’s next door, and we do talk about science sometimes).
As for posters at TSZ – I know for a fact that not all are atheists, and I was a theist myself until only a few years ago. I still consider theism entirely compatible with the scientific consensus, and most theists I know are in the same position. Dammit, St Augustine was in the same position.
Neo-Darwinian Synthesis. Fact beyond the slightest doubt
Not sure what this is supposed to mean, even. Evolutionary theory is not “fact”. What are facts are the many data that support many evolutionary hypotheses, as will as those that don’t some others. Evolutionary theory is, like all scientific theories, a work in progress, and indeed, always, in some aspect, incorrect. We do not distinguish between true models and false, in science but between models that fit the data better and ones that fit the data less well. And no model is every a perfect fit to data. But it would certainly be nice if we could spend some time here evaluating alternative evolutionary models, rather than getting hung up on ID. There are some really interesting ideas out there – as well as some really interesting (and conflicting) OOL models.
Philosophical materialism. Check
I assume that Barry mentions philosophical materialism as opposed to “methodological naturalism“. Methodological naturalism is certainly de rigeur in science departments as it is, essentially, the basis of the scientific method. Philosophical naturalism appears to have no generally accepted definition, so I’m not sure what he is alleging here.
It seems that the regular posters at TSZ are skeptical of everything but the received wisdom, accepted conventions and cherished dogmas of the academic left. Perhaps they should change the name of the site ever so slightly to The “Skeptical” Zone. The irony quotes would make the name more honest.
I think Barry is tilting at windmills here. Skepticism is being open-minded, but not so open-minded that your brains fall out. It is perfectly true that I am not skeptical of the “received wisdom” that the earth is about 4 billion years old, and the universe probably more than double that. Nor am I skeptical of the “received wisdom” that all living things are descendents of a common ancestral population. I’m very skeptical of the idea that all features of living things evolved because they conferred some reproductive advantage, and even of the idea that many novel traits were reproductively advantageous at the time. Or even had phenotypical effects at the time.
I’m highly skeptical of the idea, often (though less often now) expressed, that humans have “stopped” evolving, because we no longer die of traits that would have killed us before puberty in the past. And I think that much of what passes for “evolutionary psychology” is a load of codswallop (although I am very convinced that brains evolved, and that the selectable phenotype was behavioral). And FWIW, I am very skeptical of the Human Connectome Project, even though brain connectivity is my subject, and although I find a lot of the work being done absolutely fascinating. I think it’s based on a flawed model of “functional connectivity”. Maybe I should do a post about that.
Here’s a clue to the TSZ posters: If you want to be a real skeptic, perhaps you should challenge the beliefs of the secular elite that dominate our universities instead of marching in lockstep with them. The true skeptics of the early twenty-first century are those willing to take on the dogmas of the academic elite, people like Bill Dembski, Michael Behe, and Jonathan Wells.
Ah. So it is “secular beliefs” that we are not skeptical enough about. Not so, Barry, and this is a key point (I speak for myself, here, obviously, and I invite other TSZ regulars to make their own positions clear): Barry, you have mistaken “secular beliefs” for the simple assumption that we make in science that the universe is predictable. It’s not a belief – simply a working assumption. It may be that the universe will turn out to be fundamentally unpredictable – but it is intrinsic to the scientific method that we cannot proceed unless we assume that it is predictable, and that the unpredicted datapoints we encounter (all the time) are a result of our predictive model being incomplete, not a result of the universe playing games with us. Many scientists (all of whom make that assumption, including, even, mavericks like Rupert Sheldrake) are religious. I was myself. What we object to about Dembski, Behe, Wells et al is not that they “take on the dogmas of the academic elite”, but that they are wrong. By which I mean: their math doesn’t work; their models don’t hold up to scrutiny; they ignore infirming data. They are not whistle-blowing martyrs – they are people who had an interesting idea (well, Dembski and Behe, not so sure about Wells) that they thought was an argument that life must have had a Designer, which turned out to have a major flaw. That doesn’t mean they are wrong about the Designer – but that their inference isn’t justified. Lots of scientists believe in a Designer – they just profoundly disagree that the scientific data is evidence of one.
Or even that an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God even could be detected by science. The problem is not lack of skepticism at TSZ, Barry; it’s your (apparent anyway) lack of understanding about the nature of scientific endeavour.
The posters at The Skeptical Zone are skeptical alright. They are skeptical of skeptics. As for their motto, they certainly think it is possible that someone might be mistaken – anyone who disagrees with them or questions their deeply held beliefs.
As a forum friend of mine once had as his sig line: “Of course I think I’m right – if I didn’t, I’d have changed my mind, wouldn’t I?” But that isn’t the same as refusing to countenance the possibility that I might be mistaken. Obviously, I think I’m right – but should your argument be persuasive (as it was once, for me, about five years ago), I will change my mind. Is the same true of you, Barry? Might you consider that perhaps the evolutionists have a point? That perhaps Darwinism is not coterminism with atheism? That perhaps Dembski’s math is the wrong math?
Why don’t the posters at TSZ see the glaringly obvious irony of their enterprise? I was thinking about this question when I ran across a post by Matt Emerson over at FT. Emerson writes about how the dogmas of secularism act as a type of “revelation” that boxes in thinking in a way that the thinkers probably don’t even perceive at a conscious level. Emerson writes:
Even among those who declare no connection with God, reason operates under what amounts to a kind of revelation. These skeptics don’t conceive of revelation in the same way that I do as a Catholic, but for many, the ultimate source of an epistemological “guide” does not matter: Certain perceived facts, or certain foundational positions, hold the same thetical value for them as the Bible does for many Christians. For these men and women, as for the medievals, it might be technically possible to reason “outside” these givens, but why would they? To ask them to reason as if those givens were not true would be akin to asking a Christian to reason apart from the Incarnation. It just doesn’t make any sense.
I confess I find this post deeply ironic. Perhaps it is precisely because Emerson, and perhaps Barry, consider that “to reason apart from the Incarnation…doesn’t make any sense” that they cannot conceive of a state of mind in which it is perfectly possible to reason as if “givens were not true”. Scientists reason as if “givens were not true” all the time – it’s an essential part of our training, to consider: hang on, perhaps what we think we are seeing here is something quite different….” That’s how the greatest scientific breakthroughs are made. It’s why science is so exciting. It’s why the churches are so moribund. Sadly. Still, there are always the Quakers.
ETA: I am happy to give posting rights to people with alternative views, including Barry, if he would like.