First, a quick reminder: I’m hosting the next Carnival of the Godless blog carnival on 1st August. If you’ve got a blog post you’d like featured, submit it here before the end of the month – or tweet at me, comment here, or email cubiksrube @t hotmail d0t co d0t uk. So far there’s precisely two entries you’ll be competing against. Any efforts to spread the word and round up a few more good godless posts will be much appreciated.
And I completely agree with almost everything in it. In particular, this paragraph sums up something I may have been attempting to say about the nature of disagreement among skeptics:
Two people reaching different conclusions on an untestable claim does not mean that either side made some grievous error. It certainly doesn’t mean that one view is an attack on the other. The answer to the religion question requires a lot of looking inward. We all come from different backgrounds, different experiences, and different points of view. That’s what makes talking to other people interesting. That’s what makes having friends desirable. Of course occasionally you will have different opinions. If not, you might as well talk to yourself.
However, I have a slightly different take on what it should take for someone to be “welcomed among the skeptics” in spite of a single isolated wacky belief.
The author here bases it mainly on whether or not the belief in question is harmful. If someone’s a Christian but not trying to push creationism in schools, fine; if Bill Maher’s spouting anti-vaccination bullshit, not so much. And this isn’t an irrelevant point. But I think that a failure to employ appropriate critical thinking can be considered harmful in itself, and a lot of skeptical kudos can be lost even without endorsing anything as dangerous as the anti-vax movement.
Here’s another example from that post:
What if Massimo Pigliucci thinks he saw a flying saucer once? Massimo isn’t writing “They Are Among Us” books or pushing to spend billions of tax dollars on methods to prevent alien abductions, so does he have to give back his doctorate in genetics?
I only have a passing familiarity with Massimo Pigliucci’s work, but he seems pretty awesome. I’ve heard him interviewed on the SGU a couple of times, and he really knows his stuff when it comes to dismantling creationist pseudo-science. And no, his valuable understanding and acumen in the field of biology probably wouldn’t be greatly affected by an unrelated belief in flying saucers.
And yet, if he claims that he saw a thing in the sky one time and reckons it was a UFO – in the sense of being a genuinely extra-terrestrial craft, not just a flying object which he personally could not identify – I still think this would have significant implications about his overall credibility as a skeptic.
Countless UFO sightings have been reported over the years, and many alternative explanations have proved more plausible than aliens flying over our heads. If someone lacks the basic skeptical nous to realise that it’s far more likely that their perception or their judgment was in some way erroneous, than that they sighted evidence of a visiting alien intelligence for which no other evidence has ever been found… then I think you’d have to wonder how much their critical assessment can be trusted on anything else. The belief itself may be benign, but it speaks to an underlying approach which is far from what the skeptical community should be aspiring to.
Similarly, I can imagine some harmful beliefs which shouldn’t necessarily rule someone out from taking part in any scientific discussion. Not every mother who’s read some tabloid headlines, watched the news, seen Oprah’s guests express their deep concern for our country’s children, found some sciencey-sounding autism support websites online, and is now worried about the risk of getting her kid vaccinated, is in any way villainous or reprehensible. Being misled by credulous media outlets in one area doesn’t instantly lose you the right to claim to know what you’re talking about in other fields of science.
I just hope they’d have taken on board some better information before they’re invited to speak at TAM. Anyone claiming to be an active skeptic really ought to be at least sufficiently familiar with the literature to know that the anti-vax movement is bunk. Just like they should be aware of the cognitive biases and imperfections that can make people think they’re seeing aliens.
Bill Maher’s still an idiot, though. I think we can agree on that.