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The Surprising Twists of TAM9’s Diversity Panel

by Daniel Loxton, Jul 22 2011

The James Randi Educational Foundation’s recent The Amazing Meeting 9 conference came at a sensitive moment, right on the tail of an online shake-up in which the atheist and skeptical communities were forced to confront the interconnected issues of respectful discourse and sexism in a more serious way than they had in recent memory. (For a fascinating discussion of this debate and the “chilly climate” problem, please check out Jennifer Ouellette’s Scientific American post, “Is It Cold in Here?”)

Commendably, the JREF had already taken important steps to make TAM even more welcoming to women—steps which were both bold and sensible. To begin with, TAM9’s line-up of world-class speakers included as many women as men. This achievement was rewarded with a record-setting level of gender balance among attendees, with JREF President D.J. Grothe announcing that fully 40% of TAM9 attendees were women. Further, in keeping with the standards of larger, more established popular culture conventions, the JREF developed a Code of Conduct for the safety and enjoyment of all participants.

With all this going on, it was widely anticipated that TAM’s “Diversity in Skepticism” panel might take some interesting twists.

It did—but not in the direction anyone was expecting.

The Panel

While billed as a discussion of “Diversity in Skepticism,” the panel—featuring D.J. Grothe, Debbie Goddard, Greta Christina, Jamila Bey, Hemant Mehta, and moderated by Desiree Schell—actually drew spokespeople from several related but distinct movements. For this reason, I’ll confess that my hopes were not high. There can be deep, serious, and sometimes poorly-articulated philosophical differences between activists for skepticism, atheism, secularism, and humanism, and these differences can badly derail conversations. (At the same time, all of the panelists were personally atheists of one stripe or another, raising the opposite specter: undue uniformity.)

What we got was as rowdy as a family Thanksgiving. It was also a fascinating and delightful surprise.

The Twist

The irony of an atheist-only panel on “diversity” did not escape me, but I expected it to pass without comment. The sentiment that skepticism is an atheist club is recent, but it has taken root very quickly. As with other sorts of “do-fish-know-they’re-wet?” privilege in other, larger communities, the assumption of default atheism is rarely questioned in the skeptical subculture. Indeed, the panel set out to discuss diversity in gender, sexual orientation, age, race, class, education, and physical ability—but not religion.

This is especially strange when we consider that scientific skepticism was to a large extent founded by people of faith, including Harry Houdini (still arguably the greatest skeptical investigator of all time, and the model for the investigative tradition embodied today by James Randi and Joe Nickell) and Martin Gardner (the model for the modern skeptical literature). At least one speaker at TAM9 was herself religious (Pamela Gay) and there were, as always, members of multiple religious groups and spiritual traditions in the audience. These skeptics often express that anti-theism is a barrier to participation in our science-based events. Whatever your own feelings about religion, this is obviously a topic which fits under the heading of “diversity.”

So you can well imagine that I was surprised into applause when D.J. Grothe raised exactly that topic: religious diversity in the skeptical community. Nor was I the only one clapping. In any given year, the crowd at TAM includes not only pro-science people of faith (despite the chill) and secularists who will go to the wall for them, but also a great many traditional scientific skeptics who see untestable claims as simply off topic.

For a sense of how traditional this latter approach is, consider this passage from the first editorial of North America’s first regular skeptical publication, written when I was a toddler:

Finally, a word might be said about our exclusive concern with scientific investigation and empirical claims. The Committee takes no position regarding nonempirical or mystical claims. We accept a scientific viewpoint and will not argue for it in these pages. Those concerned with metaphysics and supernatural claims are directed to those journals of philosophy and religion dedicated to such matters.1

Demonstrable evidence is common ground for skeptics like Houdini (who wrote, “I firmly believe in a Supreme Being and that there is a Hereafter”2) and for those who, like me, believe no such thing. Throughout the 20th century, this was the dominant view across the North American skeptical community—just as it is across the scientific community. It remains, for reasons of principle and practicality, the working approach of most major skeptical organizations today, including the JREF and The Amazing Meeting.

Grothe spoke up on that historical theme, emphasizing that while movements may change, it is important to begin with an understanding of the work done so far—the mistakes made, the lessons won, and the history of things we’ve done right. For decades, skepticism has very deliberately worked to stay close to what it does best: tackling empirical questions in the realm of pseudoscience and the paranormal, and (as the other side of this same coin) promoting scientific literacy.

This empirical focus has allowed the skeptical community—old and white and bearded as it may have been—to enjoy other kinds of diversity. If political ideology is not a topic for our movement, then anarchists, libertarians, liberals, and conservatives can happily share the same big tent. If science-based skepticism is neutral about nonscientific moral values3, then the community can embrace people who hold a wide range of perspectives on values issues—on the environment, on public schools, on nuclear power, on same-sex marriage, on taxation, gun control, the military, veganism, or so on. It’s a sort of paradox: the wider the scope of skepticism, the less diverse its community becomes. (Think of two groups: the “I Love Toast Club” and the “Association for the Consumption of Toast and Sausages.” It is much easier for the first group to be a welcoming place for both vegetarians and non-vegetarians.)

Now, Here’s Where Things Got Interesting

Greta Christina and Jamila Bey raised a very interesting objection to this notion of traditional subject matter: “If you always talk about the same things, you’ll go on having the community you’ve always had”—to wit, college-educated, nerdy, and widely bearded. If we truly do want to increase diversity, they argued, skepticism should tackle wider topics that wider audiences care about: women’s issues, social justice, progressive political causes, and so on.

Now, “tackle wider topics” is a red flag for me. I’ve spent 20 years of my life in love with scientific skepticism—a distinct and distinguished public service tradition which is worth preserving. In that time, I’ve become rather cynical about scope discussions between skeptics and atheists. Too often, the argument seems to be that the very definition of my field should be scrapped and replaced by a wider rationalism.

But that is not what happened this time. (Or, at least, I don’t think it was. Coming from distinct movements, the panelists brought diverging jargon to the table.) What might have been a clash of movements and expectations—and which, indeed, looked like a clash—resolved, I believe, into a fascinating common thread about useful common ground. If I interpreted it correctly, it was a conversation about how we neighbors can help each other.

Greta Christina and the rest of TAM9’s diversity panel seemed to settle on the position that their call was not for widening the scope of scientific skepticism beyond testable claims (a radical proposal to which I and many others would object) but for widening our hearts—our willingness to be interested in other people’s experiences. As she argued, there are testable, empirical, pseudoscientific claims embedded within the arenas of social values, political discourse, and yes, religion as well. The forest may be out of scope, but some of the trees are not. (D.J. offered the example of harmful pseudoscience within gay rights debates.) Skeptics can tackle those strictly empirical questions without a centimeter of mission drift, and without losing any of our traditional scientific focus. (As an aside, however, I’ll caution here that there are also topics which are in principle within the scope of scientific skepticism, but which we are in practice unqualified to resolve. But that is a topic for another post.)

Of course, skeptics always have tackled testable claims that happen to have important implications for religion, politics, or human nature, but Greta Christina’s point nonetheless bears repeating: traditional skepticism can do its traditional work within its traditional scope, and still contribute useful assistance to our friends in other movements. If we look for places to do that, we’re bound to find new opportunities and new allies.

I believe, more than ever, that good fences make good neighbors. Repairing some of the fences that have fallen into neglect would help distinct rationalist movements get along better. But a neighborhood takes more than fences. A neighborhood takes helping hands, cups of sugar, BBQs on summer days. Our rationalist neighborhood is home to many movements, and many of those movements share some common cause.

After TAM9, that diversity is something I’m in the mood to celebrate.


  1. Truzzi, Marcello. The Zetetic. Vol. 1, No. 1. Fall/Winter, 1976. pp. 5–6
  2. Houdini, Harry. A Magician Among the Spirits. (Fredonia Books: Amsterdam, 2002.) p. xiii
  3. Does science’s neutrality about moral values conflict with measures like The Amazing Meeting’s Code of Conduct? I don’t think it does. I’ve used the example of Astronomy 101. Astronomy as a science is neutral on social justice or moral values, but there will still be a wheelchair ramp on the way into the lecture hall. That accessibility measure says nothing about the scope of astronomy; it’s an administrative decision, and as such, is informed by the wider values of our society. After all, our events have to look like something. “No action” is itself an administrative action.

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158 Responses to “The Surprising Twists of TAM9’s Diversity Panel”

  1. Bart says:

    I have but one question. If someone were to believe in the invisible non-coporeal dragon that Carl Sagan spoke about in Demon Haunted world, would they be justified in believing in that within the skeptical community? I would say that it is exactly BECAUSE something is untestable that makes it unjustified to profess belief in it. You proper skeptical thing to do is to reserve judgement until a test can be thought up or performed and evidence has been found.

    • MadScientist says:

      In many cases I wouldn’t even reserve judgement; sometimes outright rejection is the correct thing to do. For example, on the matter of perpetual motion machines I wouldn’t reserve judgement. Nor would I reserve judgement for any god hypothesis – not even the deist notion. (The deist god is not only unnecessary, it is impossible – just like the perpetual motion machine.)

      • Deen says:

        Suspending judgement seems like a nice ideal to strive to, but in practice, we simply can’t really do it. We either invest in an over-unity machine or in solar power research. We either hire a dowser or a geologist. We either wear the tinfoil hats or we don’t. We either pray for salvation or ignore the Bible. Sooner or later, the world will make us pick which choice is more the more likely bet.

        To me, skepticism is about how you make that choice, and that can often include choices that are backed by untestable claims. This means that to me the “traditional” skepticism that Daniel Loxton champions is simply too limited.

      • badrescher says:

        Don’t confuse personl conclusions with shared knowledge. The question is not what one believes, but what we may reasonably promote as “true”.

        Skepticism is a method, not a conclusion. We can only discuss evidence and promote conclusions only when the scientific evidence is overwhelming (e.g., vaccines are safe and effective).

  2. penn says:

    I found this piece interesting, but I did have a couple of issues. Firstly, saying Houdini or other prominent skeptics were theists of one stripe or another tells us nothing about the actual compatibility of skepticism and theism. It’s like when theists use Newton’s Christianity as an example of the compatibility of science and religion. It’s a strawman. No one has ever argued that one can’t be religious and a scientist or religious and a skeptic. It just shows the power of cognitive dissonance. We are great at compartmentalizing different areas of our lives.

    Secondly, I don’t like how respecting religious beliefs is being conflated with respecting individuals regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. People choose their religious beliefs and those beliefs should be just as open to criticism as any other. If religious people cannot deal with that criticism and defend their beliefs, that is completely different than not respecting a woman for being a woman or black man for being black. People shouldn’t be mocked or treated disrespectfully due to their beliefs, but as skeptics they should accept that their beliefs are open to challenge and criticism.

    In reality, purely religious claims are either false or unfalsifiable like Sagan’s invisible dragon and therefore useless. I define an atheist as someone who finds no use for the god hypothesis in explaining the natural world, and I believe that is the truest skeptical position on the matter. I respect those who disagree, but I expect them to be able to offer arguments in defense of their position.

    • Ye, yes, exactly what you said…

    • poof says:

      I agree completely with the first paragraph, and I somewhat disagree with the take on respecting religious beliefs.

      You say (and many as well) that religious skeptics should deal with criticism of their religious belief/cognitive dissonance. This is logically valid to me. What causes me concern is that direct criticism causes distress and discomfort. I don’t want to imagine what a skeptic christian feels like walking into a skepticism club/meet up/convention and announce that they believe in god. I say this as an Atheist. When we have well placed and formulated responses, we can be very effective in causing distress in a religious person. But in practice I prefer not to bring up the issue, *unless* I am being proselytized at, or the religious person in question puts themselves in the position of being criticized (making proclamations of superiority or fallacious arguments that are religiously influenced). As we all know, this already happens frequently enough. But if a casual religious skeptic simply states that they happen to have some religious beliefs, then there’s no need to get them in a defensive stance. At least not until they demonstrate the reach that those beliefs have on their rationality. Scoff at the nonsense not at the person. I think that’s what we mean by respect. Hopefully we’re all mature enough to understand that.

    • badrescher says:

      No one has ever argued that one can’t be religious and a scientist or religious and a skeptic.

      Actually, many, many have. This was a hot topic about this time last year, actually. Pamela Gay was one prominent Skeptic in the line of fire.

    • Jim Lippard says:

      “People choose their religious beliefs”

      Do they? I think this is rarely, if ever, the case. Most of what we believe, we do not believe on the basis of choice. At best, we can indirectly change our beliefs by developing habits and methods of inquiry, examination, and test.

      IMHO, the mission of skepticism should be to help people develop and improve those habits, independently of their current positions.

    • The issue of religious “choice” relates to larger issues of free will. Free will vs. no free will is a continuum, not two poles; genetics, parental nurture, other pre-adult environment, etc. are all constraining factors, not just in choice of religious belief, but also in choice of political point of view and many other things. (Addiction is another good example.)

  3. Tim Farley says:

    Bart: Doesn’t directly answer your question, I admit, but:

    1. People, in general, have flaws.

    2. All skeptics are people.

    3. Ergo, skeptics have flaws too.

    I’d rather focus on the testable claims, and choose to overlook the flaws where they don’t get in the way of that. I think it makes for a more pleasant experience for all involved.

    But maybe that’s just me.

    • Neill Raper says:

      Several topics you cover on your website are not “testable”. UFO claims are not strictly testable. Sure chances are the thing they saw was the military plane, or venus, but whats the experiment you can run to demonstrate that? You are stuck in the same situation we are with religion. The only thing you can ask is “how do you know”. When they give you an answer that has interpretation that don’t involve.

      Much of what Randi does to discredit psychics is simply demonstrating that he can reproduce the effect. He is careful to note that this isn’t equivalent to a disproof. We don’t get all up in arms about it though. It is well within the purview of skepticism for him to do those demonstrations because it demonstrates that people who believe that Uri Gellar just because it seems like he can bend a spoon are believing he is a psychic for a terrible reason.

      Ghosts are completely untestable if you ask me. In fact, all skeptics do when they “test” ghost claims is to demonstrate that the methods being used to find evidence of ghosts are really finding slightly warmer areas of the house (for example). If someone says “I believe in ghosts” at a skeptics meeting we are not going to get all up in arms when someone else questions the validity of that belief.

      If you ask me faith is just as terrible a reason to believe something as a thermal imaging device, if not more. It’s the pachinko machine of belief.

      It’s time we admit that skepticism does not just involve us proving the claims wrong. Another important aspect is to ask “how do you know that”, and if we don’t get an answer that involves reason and evidence, then we are well within our mission statement to call bullshit on that.

      Now I’m not saying that we need to jump down peoples throats about it. Lord knows I’ve seen inappropriately confrontational behavior directed towards religious believers at skeptics meetings. There is middleground between jumping down their throats and pretending skepticism has nothing to say about methods of knowing however.

      When a UFO or ghost believer moves the goalpost we point it out as the fallacy it is. The only difference is that religion (at least modern religion) starts with the goalpost way out of reach.

  4. Shane Brady says:

    I saw on twitter, and from whispers in the hall (take it for what it’s worth) that Greta Christina and Jamila Bey sounded awfully political, and wanted help from skeptical groups to further promote their political views.

    • badrescher says:

      I would agree that this was the case for the first half of the session, but one of the reasons it was such a great discussion was the fact that they actually listened to each other and shifted their stances as was reasonable.

      In the end, there was some agreement about diversifying the topics of discussion and not the approach. In other words, promoting the application of skepticism to issues relevant to a diverse population, but not promoting an expansion of the goals of the ‘movement’.

  5. Bart, I know what you mean. You would be shocked how many people I heard at TAM say they “loved” each other. Ridiculous. Such illusory and untestable claims have no place at a meeting based on pure reason!

    • Shane Brady says:

      Nicely done, Blake! :)

    • penn says:

      We can’t gather evidence on whether someone loves another person? Really? That’s obviously bs. If my wife says she loves me and sleeps around and is verbally abusive, then that’s very good evidence that she doesn’t in fact love me. I can’t prove that she subjectively does not love me in her own mind, but skeptics don’t deal in proof, we deal in evidence.

      • badrescher says:

        Agreed. We measure ‘love’ all the time.

      • Actually, what you’re describing is how YOU decide whether or not to believe your spouse loves you. That has no bearing on whether or not she actually does. You look for confirmatory evidence based on your own expectations. You can’t know if she does or not, AFAIK.

      • badrescher says:

        We have fairly objective measures of emotion that allow us to generalize from samples. What we cannot do is say for certain if one specific person loves another specific person. Complexity limits our conclusions, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t measure abstract concepts.

    • Somite says:

      Love and other emotions are internal psychological states of the mind. They are as real as constellations or any other pattern or configuration of objects.

      • tmac57 says:

        They can also be faked…and you might have no clue.

      • badrescher says:

        Actually, it is very difficult to fake emotions well enough to change physiological measures of them. In addition, attempting to do so often changes the emotion one experiences – in the direction of the ‘faked’ emotion.

        For example, using the muscles that we use to express happiness (the ‘smile’ muscles in the cheeks) makes us happier – it’s called “Facial Feedback” if anyone wants to look it up.

    • I’m with Atlantis on the idea that “love” in particular can and is an overused word, if that’s his ultimate idea. Why not just say “I like you” instead?

      But, I don’t think that’s where he was headed.

      That said, on measureability of emotions, this dips into cognitive philosophy and heterophenomenology.

      Tis true that it’s hard to fake emotions; the “fake smile” can readily be detected by humans vs. a real one.

    • satan augustine says:

      Is this the “you can’t observe, measure, test love so therefore god is as real as love” argument (or some variation of this theme)? If so, you must know that it’s a terrible analogy. If, when someone refers to belief in a god they mean some internal emotional state, then yes, love and god are on the same level. But if god is some external being with various superhuman powers – which, let’s be realistic, it nearly always is – then this is a failed analogy.

      And why do people always use love as the internal – allegedly untestable – state that is comparable to god? Why not anger? Why not fear? Why not the need to urinate?

      Love and god are not comparable. Category error.

    • Neill Raper says:

      I’m sorry but this is thoroughly unimpressive. Yeah, congrats, love is exactly like believing in an invisible dragon in the garage. Thanks for setting me straight.
      Why do you think we date for such a long time before we decide that we trust partners enough to commit to them? We are gathering evidence. It is genuinely tough for a human to fake affection for long periods of time. There is much information displayed on the face, through body language, tone of voice, etc. I can tell when someone is pissed off but trying to hide it. Can I prove to you at the end of it all that the people I love, love me back. Nope. Can you prove to me that there is not a demon flying around the world overseeing all of the dowsing tests who teleports the water between all of the pipes or jars involved to make it look like dowsing doesn’t work?

  6. Penn, I question your hypothesis that people choose their religious beliefs. Most accept them from birth don’t they? I figured one of the jobs of skeptics was to expose people to the idea that they CAN question their religious beliefs, a concept which is not part of the construct of many religions. “Delivered Wisdom” as opposed to researched conclulsions, if you will.

    Many who have made their way out of religions to a place of non-theism are so happy to find a community of like-minded people unafraid to criticize their former masters that they forget how hard it can be to make it out in the first place.

    • Shane Brady says:

      I believe the biggest determining factor for what your religion is, is simply where you are born. There is some % of switching around, especially within Christian sects, but almost everyone is born and raised to believe in some sort of supernatural deity.

      • Bob Grumman says:

        I think about the only determining factor in what an adult’s religion is, is his innate intelligence–which would include his innate “contradicticity”–or ability to perceive contradictions to what his innate “patternicity” invalidly causes him to believe.

    • penn says:

      We are talking about grown adults. They are responsible for their own beliefs, so I don’t really see the point of the correlation argument. Yes, Muslims generally raise Muslims, Christians raise Christians, anti-vaxxers raise anti-vaxxers, homeopaths raise homeopaths. What’s the difference? If can argue against one set of beliefs why is it inappropriate to argue against the other? If some of the groups are responsible for their beliefs (thus we try to argue them out of them), why aren’t the others?

      • What’s the difference?

        That’s the thing: this remains contested philosophical ground, and always will. Some skeptics feel that theism is the grandaddy of paranormal claims; others argue, as a good faith matter of principle, that untestable claims are different in kind from testable claims.

        My purpose today is not to argue either position, but just to note that we in fact have, and have always had, religious diversity in the skeptical community. The “testable claims” scope has, as a practical matter, allowed people of faith to make fundamental contributions to our field. On the other hand, important contributors now say that mission drift (toward atheism or wider rationalism) has made skepticism a chillier and less welcoming place.

        Whatever our opinions about all that, religious diversity in skepticism is worth talking about.

      • penn says:

        I definitely agree that religious diversity is a worthy area of discussion. I don’t want theistic skeptics to feel unwelcome in our community, but, it’s also not fair to ask atheist skeptics to refrain from questioning or criticizing religious beliefs just because it may hurt the feelings of religious believers. Theists can and should be welcome and respected members of the skeptical community, but they do need to accept some challenges and criticism of the beliefs they hold, as we all do.

      • badrescher says:

        This is a tough sell for those sticking a toe in. As someone who has been actively recruiting college-aged students who have only recently begun to question their beliefs, I can tell you that 80% of the students who run away do so because someone INSISTED that are either stupid or irrational if they don’t embrace atheism with both hands.

        One student of mine worked for months to raise the funds to attend TAM9 and ended up missing the majority of it. She takes full responsibility for her state of mind (I would currently describe her as somewhat agnostic, somewhat deist), but she was so uncomfortable that I am quite certain she will not return.

        Yes, she’s an adult. Her choices are her choices. However, the people who wrongly insisted that she is not as smart as they are had choices, too.

      • Yes, but the claim that “some claims are untestable” is itself not just questionable, but I believe misguided.

        I have a very hard time coming up with claims that are untestable or unquestionable in any way at all.

        There are TONS of ways to address virtually any and all religious claims. Claiming that they can’t be tested or addressed with empirical evidence in any way is just nonsense and a smokescreen.

      • MadScientist says:

        One of the problems is that if you ask honest questions about religion, many people feel that you’re somehow putting them down even if you’re not. How dare you question this thing which they value? Go ahead and question the obvious loony stuff like UFOs (which other people value and believe in), but don’t you question any of my own pet ideas because that makes me feel uncomfortable.

    • Regardless of the influence that childhood may have on an individual’s religion, the fact remains that religious beliefs are just that beliefs, ideas, and as such they deserve 100% scrutiny. Race, gender, etc. are not.

      There is no such thing as determining if black is true or not, or determining if female is true or not, but there is such a thing is determining if “God was born on earth 2,000 years ago in a manger under a special star,” is true or not.

  7. John says:

    Atheism is the result of properly applied skepticism. I don’t respect religious beliefs. I DO respect religious people, though. It seems strange to me to worry about religious diversity in the skepticism movement. It’s the same to me as worrying about diversity in belief in psychics. As a former Catholic, I understand the discomfort this can cause.

    • Nope, you’re wrong.

      By the logic you’re following, of focusing skepticism on metaphysical issues, agnosticism, not atheism, would be the “correct” skeptical end point.

      • penn says:

        It really depends on how one defines atheism. Most atheists think there is near if not complete overlap between atheism and agnosticism. There are no prominent atheists who claim to know with certainty that their are no gods or deities. I personally prefer to define an atheist as anyone who has no use for the god hypotheses to explain the natural world. That would generally include self-identified agnostics and other non-theists.

      • Well, both PZ and Vic Stenger have in the past claimed to have, in essence, disproved god’s existence, so, at least two prominent atheists DO essentially make the claim that you say no prominent atheists do.

        That’s why there’s also the oft-expressed division between “hard” and “soft” atheism. Had John made that distinction clear, I would have had a more nuanced reply to his nuanced response.

      • penn says:

        PZ has never claimed to have disproved god’s existence, nor has he claimed certainty that god doesn’t exist. He has claimed at at this point in his life he cannot come up with any hypothetical evidence that would convince him that any traditional monotheistic gods do exist. That is different and you have misrepresented his position.

      • Penn, I don’t think I have misrepresented P.Z., and I’m not alone. Bob Carroll has similar thoughts:

      • PZ Myers says:

        You have completely misrepresented PZ Myers’ position. I’d know.

      • Well, now that we’ve heard from PZ, and “agreeing to disagree” as to whether I … or Bob Carroll … may see his thoughts on this subpoint correctly or not, PZ, since you’re expressed a personal preference to not have conservatives be considered real atheists (and I have your blog post on that linked, too), do you agree with Greta Christina with similar items on skepticism, that skepticism needs to move into progressive social justice? OR her implication that conservative skeptics may not be full-blown skeptics?

      • satan augustine says:

        Vic Stenger claimed to disprove the traditional Abrahamic god, not any and every possible formulation of god. He also makes the excellent point that a being with certain characteristics and which is supposedly interventionist is testable. Does prayer work? This is testable. Do miracles occur? Also testable. Is there any need for the god hypothesis to explain the universe based on what we know given the evidence we have?

      • MadScientist says:

        I suspect a true agnostic always dies an atheist since the agnostic will never see evidence of this god in whom belief had been predicated on discovery of evidence.

      • oldebabe says:

        As an agnostic/skeptic/nontheist, I await the moment.

      • Jacob Shepherd says:

        I am a Christian and I believe in God….I expect to see God someday in the presence of Jesus Christ of Nazareth who has great historical presence in the Bible…Jesus is in Heaven and I know it is difficult for some to believe in something they can’t see….but the overwhelming evidence I have experienced in my long lifetime gives me satisfaction that I will see Jesus…..but not until I have died, and that is where I think so many fail. Absolutely no one sees Heaven until they have died….I am
        in touch now with a man who was killed in an auto wreck and certified dead by four medical groups who had come to the wreck…this man’s story is convincing to me and millions of others that he in fact did spend 90 minutes in Heaven.. his books tell it in finite detail..his name is Don Piper, a minister in Pasadena, Texas..there have been many others who have had similar experiences…

    • drdave says:

      Sometimes this respect thing sounds like “hate the sin, love the sinner”, which can be a dog whistle for bigotry.

      But I do agree that religion makes many claims that are testable. So test them.

  8. Mike says:

    Notwithstanding the valid objections to anecdotal evidence, I cannot help but think of how my own path to skepticism was encouraged by my love of science and rationality while simultaneously constrained by my fear of losing my religion. It was only in an environment of religious neutrality that I felt it safe to explore skepticism. I did not mind that atheism was a part a subset of rational thought, but I needed to know that it was not a necessary condition for rationalism before I could feel comfortable enough to take any steps into the domain of empiricism and rationality.
    Little by little, I would eventually adopt an evidence based approach to life and find myself (reluctantly?) throwing in with the atheists, although I cannot quite shake that there is a mystic deontological something to the whole of the cosmos. Call me a Spinozan, I suppose. In any event, my point is merely that if skepticism is equated with atheism, that equality will prevent people from even considering the utility and beauty of the skeptical movement.
    Logically, it is entirely possible that skepticism properly applied necessarily leads to atheism, but if the perception is reversed and people assume the opposite causation, that atheism begets skepticism, or that the two are simply synonyms, people of faith will inevitably see the skeptical movement as just another opposing faith system. That the perception is based on false assumptions and poor reasoning won’t matter. This will be how it is perceived and there will be few “conversions”.
    This reasoning is valid for any pseudo-scientific belief and any adherence to “woo thinking”. No believer in (say) homeopathy is going to put aside that belief in order to investigate the evidence. However, if s/he can be persuaded to investigate the evidence and apply the scientific method, s/he might just change his/her mind about things. And s/he will probably start by applying the method to things which s/he is not emotionally invested in before moving on to the personally challenging stuff.
    Most people consider themselves to be rational (often a delusion, but one that most people share), so would a “rational” believer in UFO abductions be welcomed into our midst? Surely we would hope and expect that exposure to skepticism would lead to a change of views – but would we demand that change before allowing the person to explore the field?
    A love of science and rationalism is not limited to atheists. Allow the others to explore the realm as well, and see where it takes them.

  9. I don’t know Penn. I don’t know.
    I think fighting religion is like whack-a-mole, while many of my friends and colleagues believe they’re nailing shut a box they’ll be able to toss into a grave. Different metaphors producing entirely different attitudes in the person with the hammer.
    I get tired of whack-a-mole quickly.

    • penn says:

      I am definitely a proponent of taking multiple paths to address a problem. No one is demanding that all skeptics must be atheists and that everyone in the skeptical community must be constantly attacking religious beliefs. You can do your thing and I can do mine, and we can both recognize that we’re on the same team and have similar goals even if we differ in our preferred methods.

  10. PandaMan says:

    I felt the introduction of a diversity panel to TAM was, itself, an imposition of non-diversity. A call for diversity is a call for political correctness, the most divisive and exclusive dogma ever.

    • penn says:

      political correctness, the most divisive and exclusive dogma ever.

      That statement is just filled with historical ignorance and fail. How many people have the PC police killed or imprisoned? I would imagine each of us can come up with a half-dozen dogmas that led to the imprisonment, torture, and death of thousands, but the “most divisive and exclusive?? dogma ever” has a total count of zero. Do you care to explain, or are you just a one-hit troll?

      • John Greg says:

        Penn, where in “divisive and exclusive” do you find “kill”, “torture”, and/or “imprison”?

        I think the only real problem with PandaMan’s claim was the use of the loaded bookend term “most … ever”.

      • penn says:

        You do not think that killing, torturing, or imprisoning people for disagreeing with your beliefs is divisive? Are you being serious? I guess saying political correctness is a divisive and exclusive dogma could be true, but mostly because it excludes bigots of all stripes and makes them feel alienated by the fact that the bigotry and prejudice they grew up professing is no longer tolerated by polite society.

      • MadScientist says:

        Division is not dependent on killing, torturing, or imprisoning people – you can have division with none of that. However, I disagree with PandaMan’s assertion that ‘political correctness’ is the most divisive and exclusive dogma.

      • John Greg says:

        Talk about reverse logic. Yes, killing, torturing, and/or imprisoning people for disagreeing with X beliefs is divisive.

        But neither divisive nor exclusive acts or actions require killing, torture, or imprisonment.

        Please follow the chain of logic: PandaMan says political correctness is divisive and exclusive (that’s all he said; nothing more); penn asks how many people the PC police have killed or imprisoned; [rinse and repeat] PandaMan said nothing about killing or imprisonment; penn says … dogmas that led to the imprisonment, torture, and deaths….; [rinse and repeat again] PandaMan said nothing about political correctness imprisoning, nor torturing, nor killing.

        Do you see it yet?

        I’ll ask again, and please read slowly and carefully. Where in the following statement are the actions (either implicit or explicit actions), or the words (either implicit or explicit words), “killing”, imprisonment”, “torture”?:

        “A call for diversity is a call for political correctness, the most divisive and exclusive dogma ever.”

        Where in that staement does PandaMan say “killing”, “torture”, or “imprisonment”?

        And where in the concept or action of division and/or exclusion is the explicit or even implicit act of killing, torturing, or imprisoning?

      • PandaMan says:

        Wow, I thought this was a Skeptic blog. Not only did you attack my post with the most absurd straw man I’ve seen all month (as others have ably pointed out), but you greeted a first-time poster as a “one hit troll.” Thanks for the warm welcome. Call me a two hit troll, I’m done with this blog, maybe rethink the way you treat other new posters who don’t conform to your secret standard.

      • BearedWhiteMale says:

        PandaMan….WOW indeed…what a reception. I know the problem, you forgot to bring your shield and sword to ward off those ghosts and goblins..the skeptics of the underworld…woooooo. Just a thought.

    • satan augustine says:

      So a request for diversity is an imposition of non-diversity. Diversity=non-diversity? This does not compute.

      An attack on political correctness and diversity? Let me guess: you are a heterosexual, white, male. Am I right?

  11. Nyar says:

    “but Greta Christina’s point nonetheless bears repeating: traditional skepticism can do its traditional work within its traditional scope, and still contribute useful assistance to our friends in other movements.”

    This seems like mission creep to me. Skepticism SHOULD do its traditional work within its tradition scope and leave other movements to do their own work. If you want to assist your friends in other movements then go be a part of those movements.

    I reject the framing that for some reason skepticism needs allies to combat some imaginary enemy (probably dragons).

    • For the most part, I agree as well. I’m not in favor of mission creep. My purpose here is more to note that skepticism already does some of what the panel called for, and already does have—even by a traditional, conservative view of the scope of skepticism—overlap with other movements.

    • MadScientist says:

      I think I commented on that sort of thing at Randi’s site years ago. JREF is committed to promoting critical thinking, not to attacking and eliminating absolutely every nonsensical thing. Teach people how to think well and let them sort themselves out. Maybe you can teach a cryptozoologist to think and eventually reject cryptozoology – but must you police that person and get them to dump their religion as well? There are already other groups who try to help people who are struggling with religion. Any skeptic group would have a number of things in common – the tools of the trade – aside from that, anything goes. As I see it, the JREF promotes the tools and occasionally fights some of the nonsense directly when the con can be demonstrated, such as in the case of Uri Geller, but not in the more general case of religion where you have little hope of convincing a majority of people that there is a con game.

      It’s certainly not the first time that someone has said “hey, I think it would be great if all you skeptics added this to your list of things to do”, but I think most sensible people have a look and say “that’s nice, but I can’t help out because I’m working on other things that interest me”.

  12. Several thoughts:

    Totally agree that Greta Christina (and PZ on his blog) are wrong. Skepticism is NOT about political beliefs, period. In fact, I turn a skeptical eye to left-liberal political beliefs even while identifying as a left-liberal. And, then, we might have the problem of what PZ wants to do with atheism: defining people OUT of a movement based on political identity. Ultimately, Greta Christina’s idea would probably decrease diversity for the informal logic reasons Mr. Loxton notes.

    @John/7, no, not necessarily. By the logic you’re following, of focusing skepticism on metaphysical issues, agnosticism, not atheism, would be the “correct” skeptical end point.

    Agreed on ideas of mission creep in general.

    • Trimegistus says:

      If skepticism becomes a left-liberal club it will become irrelevant. Just another Party mouthpiece.

      It both amuses me and alarms me to see self-proclaimed skeptics reflexively trash one political viewpoint while still congratulating themselves on having an open mind.

      • penn says:

        They typically trash those political viewpoints using rational arguments, and that’s all we ask of skeptics. Having an open mind doesn’t mean thinking all points of view are equally valid. It means listening to their arguments before making up your mind. And, I think most politically vocal skeptics do that.

      • Trimegistus says:

        Repeating cheap shots at Michelle Bachman or Sarah Palin is not “rational argument.”

      • penn says:

        There are numerous rational arguments against the policy positions espoused by Bachmann and Palin. Yes, numerous skeptics have ridiculed the two of them and others for the various stupid things they’ve said in non-skepticism related posts, but I don’t see how that is relevant. Should a skeptics not be allowed to blog about their political beliefs and their skepticism?

      • Nyar says:

        There are numerous rational arguments against just about all policy positions and all politicians say stupid things at one point or another.

        Which political ideology is superior or more correct or whatever is probably beyond the scope of skepticism and we would be wise to avoid politics as much as possible.

      • Look in the mirror before you allege that it’s just others doing the trashing, Trig.

        Beyond that, as I told Nyar in another post, I’ve called PZ out on my blog for his comments.

  13. D.J. Grothe says:

    I agree with Penn here: “that religious diversity is a worthy area of discussion. I don’t want theistic skeptics to feel unwelcome in our community, but, it’s also not fair to ask atheist skeptics to refrain from questioning or criticizing religious beliefs just because it may hurt the feelings of religious believers. Theists can and should be welcome and respected members of the skeptical community, but they do need to accept some challenges and criticism of the beliefs they hold, as we all do.”

    No questions should be off-limits to us, no issues taboo, including religious beliefs. And I feel the same way about diversity when it comes to political and economic views. I would hate to see the skeptics movement become merely a platform for left-leaning (or right-leaning) ideologies. As I have said many times, I personally favor a skepticism that is widely and consistently applied (and personally believe that will lead to atheism), but I professionally also favor organizations that have clear and limited missions, since an organization that tries to do everything may end up doing nothing very well. 

    The “diversity panel” ended up being a “scope of skepticism” panel, which is fine. But some folks sort of new to the skeptics movement don’t seem to be able to take yes for an answer: we are more diverse a community now than ever, even with the “same old” topics focused on that we have look at for decades. I don’t want to change our focus just for diversity’s sake. Speaking for an organization and not for a movement or movements, I am interested in applying skepticism to testable claims (recognizing that what constitutes this category of claims is up for debate). And our mission is focused on the paranormal, pseudoscience and testable supernatural claims. Unapologetically.

    • Shane Brady says:

      I personally thought Greta was a little too dismissive of your concerns about political diversity. I wonder what would have had happened if instead of GWB’s face being “terrifying”, Wiseman used Obama’s face. Would we have heard the same big laughs? Don’t think so…

    • I don’t want to change our focus just for diversity’s sake. Speaking for an organization…our mission is focused on the paranormal, pseudoscience and testable supernatural claims. Unapologetically.

      Enthusiastically agreed, with the note that some pseudoscience can have implications for other people, or may be relevant when viewed through other lenses. (Anti-gay pseudoscience, or psychic hotlines that predominantly target the poor have moral implications that I care about as a person, even if my moral judgments are extrinsic to my skeptical practice.)

      The values we bring to the table from outside of skepticism—from humanism and left-leaning politics, in my case—may inspire us to work harder and more carefully in pursuit of our narrow mandates to investigate the paranormal and pseudoscience. (I take that to be the theme of your 2010 “Skepticism is a Humanism” speech.)

    • Deen says:

      Speaking for an organization and not for a movement or movements, I am interested in applying skepticism to testable claims (recognizing that what constitutes this category of claims is up for debate). And our mission is focused on the paranormal, pseudoscience and testable supernatural claims.

      Which is an entirely appropriate position for an organization to take. What would be inappropriate is to tell other skeptics what they should and shouldn’t be applying skepticism to.

  14. The whole notion that there are some things that “just can’t be examined” is, I believe, just a relic of a time when people didn’t WANT to examine those things out of politeness or out of personal fear, etc.

    The notion that skepticism can’t apply to religion because religion has “untestable claims” is just utter nonsense, its an idea promoted BY RELIGIOUS PEOPLE, and by scientists who have, in the past, wanted to do their work without upsetting religious people, being allowed to work in peace with the religious folks sufficiently satisfied that they wouldn’t be turning their lens on them.

    Indeed I think this will have to be the topic of my next SkeptiCamp presentation.

    Let me offer some examples.

    Can we question whether “God” exists or not as skeptics? It’s not a testable claim right? Well, not exactly. It is testable in certain ways.

    Can we ACTUALLY test whether flying saucers exist or not? No, we can’t. But we can use the fact that the first account of a “flying saucer”, which then spawned other accounts, was the product of misreporting to conclude that flying saucers have never actually been observed.

    What we know is that someone gave a reporter an account of having seen a flying object, which he did not describe as saucer shaped, which the reporter then described as being shaped like a saucer. From that day on numerous reports of alien craft described those crafts as saucer shaped. Thus, as skeptics we can conclude that these accounts are bogus, or at least, this is one significant piece in a line of evidences that we can use to support the conclusion.

    The very same types of approaches can be used with religion. No, its not something where we can engineer a test, like a lab test for ESP, but it is a case where we can apply the same types of research that is used to discredit Chupacapra sightings and flying saucers.

    For example, I’ve done a lot of work on Jesus historicity, both for and against, and in many cases refuting bogus claims by “Jesus mythers” as well, though I myself have come to the conclusion that “Jesus never existed.”

    See examples of my work here:

    All religions make specific claims about their gods and their view of how the world works. All of those claims CAN IN FACT be tested (As Dawkins is fond of pointing out).

    Then we have the application of other historical methods as well, such as addressing the historical development of Islam and science in Islam. Many Muslims claim that “scientific concepts aid out in the Koran, which couldn’t have been known at the time, have sense been proven true by science, thus proving that the Koran is a product of divine revelation.”

    But this is not true, in fact the Koran contains many teachings from Aristotle which had been denounced by the Catholics and thus expunged from Western civilization for centuries, but these were concepts that were in fact widely accepted prior to the rise of Christianity. Indeed Islam developed as the Catholics drove non-Christians and heretical Christian sects out of the Empire and they migrated East, carrying pre-Christian teachings with them, leading to the development of Islam.

    All kinds of stuff can be shown using historical and textual critical methods to demonstrate that the Koran wasn’t the product of a single individual, Muhammad, and that it is in fact a collection of works from a variety of existing sources. So, can we prove that “Allah doesn’t exist”? Well, sort of we can. We can prove that the Koran isn’t a product of revelation, and if the Koran isn’t a product of revelation then there is no means by which any knowledge of the existence of Allah could exist. In other words, Muslims claim that knowledge of Allah comes from revelation, but if it can be shown that no revelation took place, then there is no means by which there could be any knowledge of Allah at all.

    Likewise we can prove that the Jews never did many of the things claimed in the Hebrew Bible, we can prove that Jesus either didn’t exist or that at the very least the Gospels are essentially entirely fabricated accounts, etc., etc. We can prove that claims made in various holy books from across the spectrum contradict how the world really works.

    In addition we can show, through historical, archaeological, textual, and anthropological methods, how various religious ideas originated and developed over time.

    So, as a skeptic, if someone says that God exists and they he is all knowing, all powerful, and all loving, this isn’t a claim that I even have to address by “testing it” or through mere philosophical argument, it is a claim that I can address by dissecting the historical development of this philosophical notion, showing that this concept originated within the Platonic school hundreds of years before Christianity, exposing the principles upon which the conjecture was originally put forward, showing how the idea evolved over time, showing that the early Church Fathers who incorporated this idea into Christianity were themselves classically trained in the Platonic school of philosophy and learned this concept from there, etc. which can be used to demonstrate that this concept is not, in fact, as many Christians would claim, a product of revelation, but is rather a product of human imagination, and having done that, in and of itself, it calls into question the very basis for the claim, just as showing that a reporter misquoted a statement from someone about a UFO looking like a saucer calls into question the basis for all claims of flying saucer sightings.

    So, to me, this notion that there are some things that simply can’t be tackled within the scope of skepticism is just bogus IMO.

    • There’s a difference between testing whether a certain, specifically claimed idea of god exists or not, versus a generic description of god/gods.

      There’s also a difference between examining claims empirically and looking at their logic. There’s also the baseline issue that one cannot logically prove the nonexistence of anything; it’s like dividing by zero.

      • Somite says:

        It is not like dividing by zero. It is literally zero.

      • Somite, I use the “dividing by zero” because it’s a readily understandable/understood analogy.

      • But this is meaningless. This is just a debate tactic used by either religious people or people who don’t feel like taking on religious claims.

        At issue here is discrimination against RELIGIOUS PEOPLE or RELIGIOUS BELIEFS, or not.

        No one has a set of religious beliefs that is so vague that it can’t be “tested” or evaluated in some way.

        Is it possible to define a god in such a vague way as to make the assessment of such a god impossible? Yes, but no one believes in such a god, so its a meaningless issue.

        It is possible to assess all kinds of claims made by traditional religions, and skeptics should make it a point to do so.

        When you show be a religious person who holds no testable beliefs at all, I’ll show you someone with no meaningful religious beliefs.

    • Jacob Shepherd says:

      Rationalrevolutions comment that his research tells him that Jesus never existed is among the most absurd statements I have ever heard anyone make…Jesus not only existed, He exists even now, as we belabor the point, but it is in a realm where neither he nor I will be privy to until we have ceased to breathe…everybody who is created as a human being is created with a soul…it is the soul that never dies….when a human body dies, the soul moves into an eternal state and will never die….it will go to either Heaven or Hell…..take your pick!

  15. miller says:

    I have a lot of mixed thoughts on the panel, and here’s one:

    Whenever skeptics bring up Martin Gardner as an example of a theistic skeptic, it feels an awful lot like tokenizing. 1) He’s the only major example most people can think of from the past 40 years. 2) Much is made of the fact that he was a fideist, as if to underscore how only the most minimal of theistic beliefs is acceptable. The additional irony is that many skeptics, like me, really do not think fideism is any more acceptable just because it acknowledges a lack of evidence.

    Imagine if people could only name one notable female skeptic from the past 40 years, and they always made a point about how it was okay because she wasn’t hysterical or anything.

    Either we have to admit that inclusivity of religious people is a very different matter than inclusivity of women, or we have to admit to inconsistency.

    • The reverse of Gardner being considered a “token” is that many hardcore atheists want to lump all religion under the tent of “fundamentalist,” or nearly so. Folks kind of like Sam Hassir and ZP Meyrs.

      That said, I agree w/Bill G below that Gardner’s personal stance sure seemed like a leap of faith to me.

  16. Jeff says:

    I simply don’t think diversity for the sake of being diverse is a worthy idea. ‘You’ whoever you are, are welcome here. Period. Your point of view will be debated, agreed to, or we’ll agree to disagree. I think the whole idea of a panel on diversity is nuts. Superficial and made up to make someone else’s agenda point. This is not a political party, a religious organization, and not a social justice club. You ARE free to join those things as you wish. Scientific Skepticism IMO has nothing to do with religion, politics, or social culture / justice. It is about educating one’s self and ones around us in the application of an idea. The scientific method. And frankly if that only interests white males with beards, so be it. Yes, its pedantic, simplistic, and narrow. That what keeps it FOCUSED on Skepticism and not Social Justice, Politics, or Religion.

    Let me ask you: Would ban a sexist from TAM? Would ban a known racist? Really? Ban them? Make them so unwelcome as to leave?

    • satan augustine says:

      Ban them? No. Ask them what evidence they have to support their bigotry? Most definitely! Not associate with them because I find their beliefs not just baseless, but dehumanizing and offensive? Oh yeah.

  17. BillG says:

    Speculating, I think Martin Gardner’s belief in god was a “leap of faith”, strictly anti-religous and argued on emotional grounds only and conceded atheists had the better arguments.

    Hope (perhaps in god) and love can be reduced neurons and chemistry not unlike one’s passion for cold beer and baseball. Gardner knew this and I find it difficult to argue against his reasoning for his “leap” or hope thereof.

  18. Somite says:

    There is no evidence that there is a god nor its existence is a necessary mechanism for any observable phenomena.

    There. God discussion concluded. If you choose to believe in god it is only out of wishful thinking or indoctrination. Definitely not out of proper skepticism.

    For those that have brought up emotions or thoughts those are only states in your mind and brain. They don’t exist anymore than constellations do.

    • As I said above to RationalRevolution:

      There’s a difference between testing whether a certain, specifically claimed idea of god exists or not, versus a generic description of god/gods.

      There’s also a difference between examining claims empirically and looking at their logic. There’s also the baseline issue that one cannot logically prove the nonexistence of anything; it’s like dividing by zero.


      Beyond that, on the “belief” side, no, there can be other reasons. Your two claimed reasons don’t philosophically exclude others.

      Also, scientists themselves can exhibit quasi-religious beliefs. Like SETI-ians; many of them appear quasi-religious about that. And, I’m not alone in making that claim; Paul Davies does too, in “The Eerie Silence.”

      • Somite says:

        Nope. The burden of proof is on those that propose the existence of god. Lack of evidence doesn’t mean that there is some probability of its existence. You can’t prove a negative but again this does not raise the probability that anything exists.

        The fact that some scientists believe in god just means that people can have illogical ideas along logical ones. No one has a 100% scientific mind or thinks scientifically 24/7.

      • BillG says:

        Hope in a god or explicitly an afterlife, differs from belief. Thus I would hazard that atheism/agnosticism could be widespread and contrary to many bogus polls that fail to capture this distinction.

        Don’t always believe the believers.

      • Actually, not likely. In the wake of the Norway shootings and Breivik’s semi-Christianity, IIRC, only about 10 percent of people there are atheist/agnostic. Tis true many, many Europeans aren’t “religious,” but … many probably have some sort of “theism” belief. Others are New Agers, Wiccans, neopagans etc. in higher numbers than here in the U.S.

      • I wasn’t talking about “burdens of proof.” I was talking about logically possible versions of religious belief vs. specific empirical cases. Otherwise, Daniel below says, in response to Deen, exactly where I come from not just on religion, but related issues vis a vis skepticism.

      • Jacob Shepherd says:

        I have never asked anyone to prove to me or try to prove to me that God exists…I don’t have to have proof….the fact that “I” exist is proof enough to me that God exists … I wouldn’t be here unless He existed, and I certainly wouldn’t have had the extra-ordinary long lifetime that I have the pleasure of looking back on, if God did not in fact, exist. When I look at my very own body, having been an engineer and having been in manufacturing for many years, I realize that it would have been impossible for me or any other human to “create” a human body. Think about it … I can’t even “create” a rose, that beautiful flower that my wife likes so much…

  19. Deen says:

    The skeptical movement can’t limit itself exclusively to empirical testable claims, as it’s trivially easy to turn any testable claim into an untestable, mystical claim. Even the “traditional” skeptical movement should be well aware of that by now, because it happens every time they test a claim. We’re told dowsing is supposedly perfectly reliable – except all of a sudden when there is a skeptic watching and generating “negative energy” or “bad vibrations”.

    The very same tactic is used when we’re told that God can give us specifics on how to live, but he’s suddenly totally unknowable and mysterious when an atheist comes asking questions.

    Instead, I think the message should be that unfalsifiable and untestable claims are themselves suspect, simply for being unfalsifiable and untestable.

    I’m not saying that every skeptic or skeptical organization should do this – I think it’s perfectly OK for people to want to specialize, or keep a more narrow focus, and there’s some perfectly good reasons for that. What’s not OK is to tell other people that they can’t make this discussion part of their skepticism, or suggest that it’s somehow a lesser skepticism if they do.

    • Instead, I think the message should be that unfalsifiable and untestable claims are themselves suspect, simply for being unfalsifiable and untestable.

      They are suspect. What they aren’t is demonstrably untrue.

      It’s worth remembering that the world already had believers and disbelievers long before organized skepticism was conceived. “Skepticism” was meant to fill an honest broker role, sorting out what science and rigorous scholarship can usefully say about the paranormal. Paul Kurtz spoke to this in the first issue of what would become the Skeptical Inquirer in 1976: “We wish to make clear that the purpose of the Committee is not to reject on a priori grounds, antecedent to inquiry, any or all claims, but rather to examine them openly, completely, objectively, and carefully.”

      By definition, untestable claims must remain “antecedent to inquiry”—but that isn’t a compliment. In a scientific context, “untestable” is as much the touch of death as is protection for beloved ideas: it indicates that a given claim is, as formulated, functionally irrelevant. The traditional skeptical position is not that, say, homeopathic water has no mystical vitalistic memory or that ghosts do not exist, but that we are unable to discriminate between untestable existence and non-existence—which is to say, “Huh. Well, come back when you’ve formulated a testable hypothesis.”

      • Somite says:

        “They are suspect. What they aren’t is demonstrably untrue”

        They are untrue unless the burden of proof is met. Again, that you can not demonstrate something is untru does not affect the probability that it exists.

      • I’m not sure it’s meaningful to talk about the “probability” of something we can’t even frame as a hypothesis. I think it is perfectly fair to reply to untestable assertions with, “Huh?” or “Insofar as I understand what you’re saying, that appears to be speculation on your part.” On the other hand, by definition, the claim that “Your untestable assertion is untrue” goes beyond the facts in evidence.

      • badrescher says:

        They are untrue unless the burden of proof is met.

        This would exclude an awful lot of theory, including much of quantum theory.

        I think that we can agree that denying what is theoretically-likely simply because the burden of proof has not yet been met is ridiculous, right?

        We can estimate the probability of an experimental outcome, but this is quite different from estimating the probability that a hypothesis is true. This we can only discuss in terms of likelihood. It may seem like a subtle distinction, but it’s an important one.

        If a claim is testable, we can derive the likelihood of its truth from empirical evidence, then test it empirically. However, if a claim is untestable, not simply untested, there is no experimental outcome whose probability we can estimate and the likelihood that it is true can only be derived philosophically.

        This is, essentially, the difference between scientific speculation and faith. We can argue about scientific speculation because we can use shared knowledge (empirical evidence) to support or refute it. Without shared knowledge, we have no point of reference.

      • Somite says:

        To address both points: this is a logical sieve. Before we can even suggest something exists it has to meet at least one of these conditions:

        1) it may exist because it is consistent with previous observations
        2) It is at least mathematically possible
        3) there is empirical evidence for it

        Any of these conditions result in a testable statement.

        If it is not testable and does not meet any of the previous criteria it is undistiguishable from imaginary and non-existing objects. The god hypothesis obviously falls on this category.

      • I disagree on your sieve conditions.

        First, here’s No. 1:
        1. It has to be logically possible. Note that that is different from *mathematically possible.*

        And, that’s it. That’s ALL I need to logically suggest something exists.

        Now, to have empirical basis for that is different.

        However, per Barbara, that’s not a restraint.

        Planck suggested “quanta” existed without empirical evidence for quanta. He had … empirical evidence that *something was wrong with current physics theory.*

        And that was it. He had NO empirical evidence for “quanta.”


        Beyond that, this is an issue of philosophy, illustrated by a twist on a classic syllogism.

        1. All men are gay.
        2. Socrates is male.
        3. Socrates is gay.

        It’s totally, 110 percent logical. Now, the warrant in the major premise is empirically wrong. But, that has nothing to do with strength of reasoning of the argument.

        From this, getting back to religion.

        If I make some generic claim about a generic deity that is logically possible, but whose warrants are neither testable nor untestable empirically, that’s where we are.

        If, OTOH, I claim that a deity is both omnipotent and omnibenevolent, that can be tested, and we of course soon hit “the problem of evil,” etc.


        Back to science.

        I can suggest all sorts of things exist that have no basis in previous observations, and no current empirical evidence.

        Here’s one:

        1. I suggest multicellular methane-breathing life exists somewhere in this universe. It’s logically possible, but there’s no previous observations that connect with it, and no current empirical evidence for (or against) it.

      • Somite says:

        Your example would fulfill requirement #1. Is is possible because it is consistent with previous observations, ie, chemistry, biology, etc. It is also potentially testable.

        God belief otoh is not consistent with any observation and is therefore untenable.

      • Jim Lippard says:

        “They are untrue unless the burden of proof is met.”

        Truth, justification, knowledge, and provability are distinct concepts that shouldn’t be conflated.

        “p is true” is different from “p is provable” is different from “I know that p” which is different from “I can prove (to you) that p.”

      • Somite says:

        True. None of which apply to the god question.

      • You left out the issue of “logical possibility,” Jim, which I am still trying to get at here, in different ways. As I said above, certain generic concepts of god are indeed logically possible.

    • badrescher says:

      What’s not OK is to tell other people that they can’t make this discussion part of their skepticism, or suggest that it’s somehow a lesser skepticism if they do.

      Actually, what’s not okay is to try to redefine the word “skepticism” and, in particular, “scientific skepticism” (I’m not accusing you of this, but read on). This is what happens when Skeptics claim that scientific skepticism provides any information about whether an untestable claim is true or false.

      If we agree that empirical testing (i.e., science) is the only way to determine what is true, it is irrational to dismiss those claims we cannot test as false.

      If we cannot test a claim, there is no knowledge to share. The discussion becomes philosophical, not empirical. That’s fine, but it’s not scientific skepticism, nor can it be resolved.

      • Somite says:

        Claims that we can not test are not false or true. They are indistinguishable from being imaginary. They simply don’t exist.

      • Jim Lippard says:

        The claims you make in that comment are self-undermining.

      • Somite says:

        I would appreciate if you could elaborate.

      • Well, this gets back to the science issue, and the example I stated. Some claims simply aren’t testable now.

        Let’s take an example from today, not Max Planck.

        Are claims of string theory imaginary because we can’t test them now? (I’m not necessarily defending string theory in general.)

      • Somite says:

        And untestability and lack of evidence does not imply that a claim should be taken seriously or given any credence. It should not be part of any worldview that cares about what’s real.

        I would go so far as to say that once a claim is recognized as untestable it also should be understood to be imaginary.

      • BearedWhiteMale says:

        badrescher …. Your last para I totally agree…”nor can it be resolved”… my thought is religion or a belief in God is a philosophical one but the beliver is as valid a person as a non-beliver. The two just do not agree on the same idea.

      • Somite says:

        Do you believe this regardless of burden of proof?

  20. Ticktock says:

    I’m disappointed that I’m late to the game since this article discusses one of my personal goals for skepticism, widening the scope. I don’t see why the assessment of claims in fields other than paranormal or pseudoscience can’t be considered skepticism. Are there not claims made by politicians that are assessable? Are there not claims made by economists that are not only false but also harming our well-being? Why do we shy away from topics that carry the baggage of opinion? Are we afraid that we will unable to refrain from being subjective? And is that a good enough reason?

    The reason that I want to widen the scope of skepticism is because I want to widen the impact of the skeptic’s movement to issues that are truly important to people, such as how we are trying to handle the antivaccine campaign. That’s not to say that we should abandon our valuable work on paranormal, but that we would be able to help more people by widening our scope to topics that are affecting people on an every day basis.

    Are we helping as many people as possible? Do people look to us as a resource for truth? Or as a resource for paranormal truth? Why not both? Why do conspiracy theories fall under the scope of skepticism but clearly falsifiable statements from politicians are taboo?

    The movement started with scientists and magicians, and I honor what they’ve done, but we have the momentum and responsibility to expand our scope beyond their original boundaries. Just as the goals of the equality movements (race, gender, sexual orientation) share a common denominator, so should the diversity of the goals within skeptic’s movement have a shared foundation.

    Or at least that’s my opinion.

    • Why do that work under the frankly not-very-reputable banner of “skepticism”? The project you describe sounds a lot like “investigative journalism” or “political science” to me, which are already much better developed and more credible fields—fields in which we are amateurs.

      I only touched on this in the post, but this brings us to another key limitation on the effective reach of skeptics: many investigable claims which are in principle within the scope of skepticism (or could be by some wider rationalist re-definition) are also topics in which we have no reason to expect skeptics to have any particular qualifications or any particular ability to do useful work. The main reason our rag-tag band is able to contribute usefully in the paranormal realm is that the bar for scholarship in that arena is so low. On Bigfoot, we’re the best available experts (though even here we have significant quality control challenges). On politics? I’ll turn to trained political scientists for analysis, or perhaps the BBC for description.

      My own opinion is that skeptics collectively (despite a few highly qualified individuals) are not even able to undertake mainstream science journalism as responsibly or as well as other, better-established popular science portals outside of skepticism. (Our failure to assist the public in understanding climate science really puts that in perspective for me.)

    • Ticktock says:

      Yes, I believe we’ve failed to engage the public on the subject of climate science, and I worry that we are not as effective on vaccines for the same reasons. Why is it so hard to get anyone other than Paul Offit to speak up in favor of vaccination? His reputation is (unjustifiably) tarnished.

      With our numbers growing full of amateur activists, admittedly such as myself, the problem of our relative infancy becomes widely apparent and troubling. My solution to this problem is that once we start to widen the movement in new directions, we can find leaders in those areas who do have the appropriate level of expertise and intelligence to lead the movement in an evidence-based direction, just as we’ve done with Dr. Novella in the subject of medicine.

      What I’m advocating is that we absorb certain investigative journalists and political scientists into the movement, so long as they are consistently applying critical thinking and evidence-based research. If we don’t expand, we will end up discussing the same topics at the ten different yearly skeptic conventions, and we’ll become oroboros. And we’ll start to become something similar to a cult (picture people in Randi beards assembling in a hot tub), at least in the eyes of the public.

      I shouldn’t care about how we appear to people, but I do because it’s more than just a message we are delivering, it’s an identity that many of us have accepted for ourselves. I want people to think of skeptics as mythbusters and a resource for the truth. Instead, the most common question I receive is whether I’m one of those conspiracy nuts who believes 9/11 was an inside job (etc). We should fire whoever is in charge of the skeptical marketing department because we are not only unknown to the wider world, but we are falsely known to those who have a passing familiarity with the term skepticism.

      That doesn’t stop me. I take hope that we will have one rising star who is able to reach the general public and shift their understanding of who we are. It only takes one.

      • If we don’t expand, we will end up discussing the same topics at the ten different yearly skeptic conventions…

        I’ve long agitated for more, rather than less focus on passé old chestnuts, and called for skeptics to resist the temptation of mission drift. To support that argument, consider this 87-year-old passage I read last night, from the introduction of Daniel Hering’s 1924 skeptical book Foibles and Fallacies of Science.

        It may be asked, “Why give so much attention to subjects so antiquated as astrology or perpetual motion—subjects long ago abandoned or at any rate now passé?” The question would be more pertinent if either of these or any other of the general topic here considered were actually obsolete or even obsolescent. The excuse for including them lies in the force with which these things once seized and commanded general interest, and in the fact that with very many supposedly intelligent people similar things are little less compelling today than they were in the Dark Ages.

        We have nowhere near the capacity to address all of the ongoing topics within our traditional scope. There is still (indeed, there will always be) a pressing public service need for someone to address those otherwise-neglected topics, and we’re all we’ve got. Why try to take on other people’s projects when our own work is only started?

        (Do note that skepticism has not expanded to combat medical pseudoscience. That’s where we started in the 19th and early 20th centuries: “quackbusting,” and exposure of fraudulent spirit mediums—ie, alternative medicine and psychics).

      • Trimegistus says:

        Yes! Exactly! If there comes a day when religion is the only form of pseudoscience left in human civilization, then skeptics can tackle it. Until then, why attack religion when there are so many OTHER targets for legitimate skeptical inquiry?

      • Have you not read Orac at Sciblogs, Ticktock?

  21. Richard says:

    I really appreciated D.J. Grothe’s comments about elevatorgate, and I found Jennifer Ouellette’s post interesting and informative. I do not believe that skepticism should be an atheist club. While there is nothing wrong with politely disagreeing with someone about their beliefs and stating the reasons for your disagreement, that is not the same as intellectual bullying. I think most of us would agree that science is not just for atheists, and we should encourage all people, no matter what their metaphysical beliefs, to become interested in science and have a more scientific outlook. Hence, the skeptic movement should be welcoming to people of faith, who have an uphill battle because of the atheist majority in skepticism. I believe that the path of reason teaches us love and tolerance, not narrow-mindedness and ridicule.

    • Somite says:

      It doesn’t seem to me skepticism is excluding anyone from participating. The problem is that some advocate artificial off-limit areas to avoid offending sensibilities. Others believe that the primary goal of skepticism is to teach that the truth is the most important goal; regardless of how we feel about it.

    • BearedWhiteMale says:

      Now THAT I agree!! Brovo

    • …science is not just for atheists, and we should encourage all people, no matter what their metaphysical beliefs, to become interested in science and have a more scientific outlook. Hence, the skeptic movement should be welcoming to people of faith, who have an uphill battle because of the atheist majority in skepticism.

      Very well said. I agree wholeheartedly.

      • Somite says:

        Wait. You would expect most of the skeptic community to the atheist because this is the correct conclusion of applying skepticism to the god question. Again, no one should be prevented from participating but privilege for any idea can not be claimed.

      • You would expect most of the skeptic community to the atheist because this is the correct conclusion of applying skepticism to the god question.

        I don’t expect your opinion on this philosophical debate to soften, but do note as a factual matter that many other skeptics reach different conclusions. Indeed, the idea that atheism is “the correct conclusion of applying skepticism to the god question” has been a dissenting minority viewpoint within the skeptical community for most of its existence—even among skeptics who are also atheists.

      • Somite says:

        Fair enough. I only want to point out this is not my opinion but the application of reason and logic. The assertion that something can not be addressed because it is untestable misses the point that you are addressing it by declaring it untestable, that is, imaginary.

      • badrescher says:

        What Jim Lippard said above is extremely important: ‘true’ and ‘correct’ are not words scientists use to describe conclusions – not good scientists, anyway. We do not use them because we understand that the scientific method cannot tell or show us whether our hypotheses are true. It can only tell us whether they are likely to be true.

        To claim to know the ‘correct’ answer to any question is to close the door on the possibility that your answer is wrong. Science doesn’t do that.

        Scientific skepticism, then, doesn’t do that either. One may argue that there are ‘correct’ philosophical conclusions, however, those cannot be supported empirically if they cannot be tested empirically. No matter how you slice it, you have to make some assumptions. Science assumes that the only way to acquire genuine information is by observation. Logic does nothing for you if your premises are pulled out of thin air. You can’t have it both ways. Either you rely on evidence or you don’t.

        By the way, one of the wonderful things that we have discovered in the past few years by using science is that intelligent people can be divided into two categories based on their ability to correctly navigate an identifiable subset of cognitive problems. The one notable difference between those who do well on those problems and those who do not? An open mind.

      • Somite says:

        Although degrees of certainty are important science is not post-modernistic. Geocentrism was discarded a long time ago and heliocentrism is considered correct. Your discussion adds to the uncertainty of our conversation but it doesn’t contribute to the subject. What precisely makes my remarks less than correct or certain?

      • badrescher says:

        Somite, the comments of a blog are not a place for Science 101. I have mentioned first principles and induction. I’ve noted the problem of open-mindedness and that scientists do not use the word “correct” in relation to conclusions. If what I have written is not resonating with you, I am sorry, but you will have to do some reading on your own about the philosophy of science for a more thorough explanation.

      • Somite says:

        It’s not that it’s not resonating with me. It is that it does not make a contribution to the conversation. Can you point out what part of what you posted disputes the point there is no observation or logical conclusion that makes the god hypothesis correct or at least plausible?

      • Somite says:

        The thoughts of these 48 nobel laureates should be the minimum baseline for the “scope” of skepticism regarding religion.

      • Somite is simply not going to change on this/these issues, all. Ba, Daniel, Jim and I have all made philosophy-based “runs” at his beliefs on this issue, and he’s not changed.

  22. As DJ Grothe posted earlier, “we have worked to make sure that at The Amazing Meeting this year, more than half of our main program talks are by women.” So now skepticism is supposed to operate on a Quota system?

    Also, far too many people operate on the principle that “skepticism” and “secular humanism” and “progressive politics” are all part of the same package. The larger the pill that one must swallow, the fewer who are willing to do so. Keep these subjects separate, and fewer people will feel excluded.

    • As DJ Grothe posted earlier, “we have worked to make sure that at The Amazing Meeting this year, more than half of our main program talks are by women.” So now skepticism is supposed to operate on a Quota system?

      No, but individual organizations have the ability to make their own administrative decisions in this regard. In this case, I applaud the JREF’s efforts to increase the representation of women on stage—because the high-calibre speakers they invited made TAM better. (Notably, Carol Tavris’s talk was my favorite of the event.)

      Also, far too many people operate on the principle that “skepticism” and “secular humanism” and “progressive politics” are all part of the same package. The larger the pill that one must swallow, the fewer who are willing to do so.

      I strongly agree with this. Conflating scientific skepticism with other movements diminishes decades of work—and erodes support for that work going forward. (For example, my own enthusiasm for skepticism is sharply reduced when it becomes a platform for anti-theism, or for libertarian political ideas.)

      • individual organizations have the ability to make
        their own administrative decisions in this regard

        I’m not questioning that. I’m questioning whether it is a good idea for skeptical groups to get started down the divisive path of quotas, especially since the trend is away from them in schools and corporations, and in politics. In any case, Carol Tavris, who you chose as the best speaker, was obviously not there to fill some “affirmative action” quota, but rather because of her skills and accomplishments.

        I had thought that, as skeptics, we were beyond caring about a person’s sex or sexual orientation, ethnic background, age, appearance, etc. I am disappointed to now see so much attention being paid to precisely these irrelevant characteristics.

        The supreme irony is that the most beloved and sought-after skeptical speaker and spokesperson is the oldest and most bearded of all. But nobody cares about that, because the Amazing One is a fantastic skeptic and entertainer. That should be all that matters.

      • In any case, Carol Tavris, who you chose as the best speaker, was obviously not there to fill some “affirmative action” quota, but rather because of her skills and accomplishments.

        In my opinion, the female speakers at TAM9 were top notch in general. Being a part of the Skeptics Society, I can’t speak for the JREF—but my informal understanding is that this was a matter of attracting more female speakers of the same quality as the men, not of lowering standards to fill a quota. JREF spokespeople have indicated in the past that women, for whatever reason (perhaps because of the “chilly climate” described by Jennifer Ouellette?) are significantly less likely to accept invitations to speak at TAM. Overcoming that tendency took extra administrative work, but was I think worth it: TAM9 had the best line-up across the board of any Amazing Meeting—including the most spectacular roster of male speakers.

  23. Jacob Shepherd says:

    Don’t Be Afraid

    Don’t be afraid of Jesus, He’s a regular guy.
    He’s always waiting for your call He likes to just say “Hi.”
    You may not know it but it’s true, He knows us all by name.
    You will recognize His voice, it always sounds the same!

    “Good morning Jesus, it’s me again” I said to Him today.
    “I’m here to ask a favor Lord, I hope that that’s okay.”
    “Of course it is my child” He said, “Tell Me what’s your plan?”
    When I told Him, He simply said, “I’ll do everything I can!”

    From that moment on I knew, deep within my heart,
    That all the things I asked of Him would soon begin to start.
    Sure enough it wasn’t long until my plan was in full swing.
    It was just as He had said, He took care of everything!

    So if you find you’re in a bind, don’t know just what to do.
    Don’t hesitate to call on Him, He’ll help to pull you through.
    He knows all the ins and outs, the wherefores and the whys.
    Jesus can still do miracles, that’s where His power lies!

    Someday you’ll find, just like I said, that you can’t do it all.
    You’re overwhelmed without a clue and don’t know who to call.
    Remember then the things I’ve said and get down on your knees.
    It’s time to ask for help from Jesus who will listen to your pleas!

    What a thrill it is to know that we are not alone,
    That there is someone real nearby that we don’t have to phone.
    Just bow your head and say “hello”, He’ll answer with His “Hi!”
    And after He has heard your plea, you merely say, “Goodbye!”

    Copyright 2009

    Jacob Nathaniel Shepherd

    • I’m not totally familiar with all blog nicknames in the “hierarchy” of skepticism … and can’t find any “about” on your blog, tho you’re obviously familiar to Grothe. So … I’ll move on.

  24. Ouellette’s blog used to have a link to mine, and on twitter, I told Jennifer Ouellette that I thought she had interpreted my blog incorrectly. In response, she accused me of making the article all about me, dismissed me out of hand, and then edited the article to remove the link. You’ll note that there is no indication of this post-publication edit in the blog, and I noted, with deepest irony, that only a few hours later, she tweeted a link about how to correctly cite blogs when posting.

    When someone displays such a lack of basic integrity, I’m afraid I can’t take seriously what they have to say about serious issues. Looking for proof – screenshots, etc. at my blog:

  25. John K. says:

    Believing only in things that can be demonstrated by evidence is at the center of what it means to be a skeptic, in my opinion. Giving theism a free pass in skepticism seems a lot to me like a red meat exemption in a vegan club. Being inclusive to bolster attendance is fine to a point, but go too far and the meaning of the group becomes lost.

    A theoretically untestable claim can be dismissed out of hand since it makes no predictions and is indistinguishable from something completely imaginary. Untestability is often the result of too many ad hoc rationalizations. Once the goal post is firmly beyond what can be observed in any way, I am confident in planting my flag in the observable world and walking away. I am not going to entertain specifics about the creatures of Narnia until some evidence can be presented to the effect they actually exist in some way. An untestable claim needs an automatic flush in the skeptic community, not a special free pass.

    I am not perfect and no doubt have areas of belief that could use skeptical criticism, but I want as many beliefs as possible to be based in reality. Skepticism is the best tool I know for doing this. I don’t want a ban on theism or policing of the doors on skeptical events. Let everyone on board, anti-vaxers, UFO belivers, theists and the like, but each one must be prepared to defend their position, and be prepared to change their mind in light of evidence. If we cannot do this, we ought to change the name from “skepticism” to something else. If your sacred cow gets attacked and it makes you uncomfortable, too bad. I want reality based beliefs more than everyone’s comfort.

  26. Austin Dacey says:

    Thank you, Daniel, for prompting this timely and healthy debate. I appreciate especially your focus on “mission drift.” It seems that for the most part the community shares an understanding of what the previous generation–of the Randi-Gardner-Kurtz era–concerned themselves with. But we disagree about precisely why they concerned themselves with the things they concerned themselves with. To borrow a concept from the humanities, we have a canon but we lack clear principles of canon formation.

    Making matters more complicated, there is a tendency to drift built into the self-conception of the previous generation. With apologies, I’ll quote my own modest contribution to this debate, which I’ve posted over at Skeptical Inquirer (

    “…most first-generation skeptics took on two quite different projects. They would perform the public service of investigating paranormal and pseudoscientific claims, while at the same time taking on the monumental social project of promulgating the philosophical outlook that provides the rationale for this service: scientific naturalism and critical rationalism. But defending a scientific and rational analysis of something is not the same thing as defending science and reason, and an organization designed to undertake the former may not be best-equipped to undertake the latter. The U.S. Geological Survey provides the public with reliable scientific information about earthquakes, but it leaves the teaching of seismology—to say nothing of ‘the methods of science’—to others.”

    • Thank you. Your own article is fascinating. I must say, I’m interested to see where you go with Part 2.

      For my own part, this post caught me in a moment of particularly conciliatory neighborliness—but in general I take a highly traditionalist view of scientific skepticism, as you may know. I’ve argued very often that skeptics should stick close to our roots critiquing the paranormal. Our work on the “canonical” skeptical topics fills a public need (as your article suggests, these niche questions otherwise fall through the cracks of mainstream scholarship). I think that cluster of traditional topics is internally consistent (odd as the mix may appear).

      I agree with your article’s suggestion that some newer skeptics may not have a good sense of how or why the traditional topics became the focus for scientific skepticism. I agree as well that historical trajectory is part of the answer, though I note that the suite of traditional skeptical topics was developing many decades (even centuries) before the formation of CSICOP.

      Another common denominator for skeptical topics is neglect by other fields: skeptics before and after Houdini have concentrated on topics that are otherwise largely ignored by critical scholars, scientists, investigative journalists, and law enforcement.

      And, another set of too-little-discussed constraints on skeptical scope are the limits of the collective competence of organized skepticism. I’ve argued that “testable claims” is still far, far too broad a mandate in practical terms, and that there are severe limits on the things skeptics can responsibly say on straight science topics (empirical though those topics are). Even then, when skeptics do resist the temptation to try to weigh in on scientific questions that lie outside of our areas of domain expertise, the more limited roles of science reporters, science educators or science advocates may still not be a great fit for us in many cases. After all, those projects are all undertaken by other movements and organizations—often better established, better focussed, and better equipped.

      I look forward to the second part of your treatment. I’m hopeful that it will emphasize the one area in which skeptics perform a unique public service: tracking and studying paranormal and pseudoscientific claims.

  27. “Giving theism a free pass in skepticism seems a lot to me like a red meat exemption in a vegan club.”

    As an atheist at times I feel the same way. But being a vegan myself I have noticed similar issues with our potlucks and meet-ups. Yes there are many “vegan clubs” who openly bill their events as open to vegans, vegetarians, non-vegetarian, and veg-curious folks. The vegan organizers may not be too happy if you whip out a burger in the middle of the meeting just as I’m sure you would get really strange looks if you whip out a prayer rug or rosary beads and start to earnestly pray during a presentation at TAM. Its when the meat eaters try to derail the vegan meet-ups or the theists or conspiracy mongers try to derail skeptical meet-ups when the problems arise, otherwise their participation should be welcome. None of the skeptical theists I have known ever did that, when asked they would certainly defend their views but it didn’t seem to negatively affect their over-all skepticism, in fact some of the most passionate skeptics Ive known were not atheists.

    • Somite says:

      “they would certainly defend their views”


      • with words…you know those verbal debates folks tend to get into. Such debates with theistic skeptic Ive been in tend not to be about empirical claims but rather address things such as humanism, philosophy and untestable matters. I didn’t say they were always successful, rational in their defense, or that I agreed with them, just that they would defend their theistic view point if challenged. They generally consider themselves a good skeptic, some will admit an apparent contradiction while others see their spiritual/religious views and skepticism as compatible. Unless they make testable claims there isn’t much you can say about it objectively.

      • Somite says:

        I just ask because I find the ability to hold contradictory point of views fascinating. In my experience discussions with religious skeptics involve much haranguing about epistemology and testability without addressing the fact that there is no evidence for their belief and no need for it outside of wishful thinking.

      • I quite agree. I find differences in epistemology are often at the root of many disagreements. I personally don’t get believing in a god.

      • Somite says:

        Epistemology! Drink! I play a continuing drinking game with some philosophy concepts including epistemology and demarcation problem. I was going to include “testable” but I would be drunk all day after visiting this site. :)

        But seriously, don’t let them invoke epistemology. It’s a cheap way out.

      • tmac57 says:

        Call that game ‘Getpissedemology’.

    • Kitty says:

      sweet! I like the “come try vegan…” The point is if we only bring the “converted” to these meetings, and people have to have a check list…you’ll be losing a lot of good skeptics. Including perhaps Adam Savage who is married to a lovely woman many people would not consider a good “die hard pure” skeptic.
      Heck go with the really hard core Libertarians. I’m not always sure they are thinking “clearly”, at the very least I think they are thinking “wishfully”. But while I”m not going to agree with them, I think they belong at TAM. Just looking at the Del Mar, filled with lovely skeptics some of which are smoking…do we kick the smokers out for not thinking crtically? Or those overweight ones (well that means I’m out on more than one count). Skeptics are in the process of learning, you aren’t instantly “born again” like some religious belief.

  28. Bryanderthal says:

    Taking a positive position regarding the belief in the impossible while simultaneously upholding the greatest methods ever devised for filtering bullshit is not skepticism. That being said, my favorite people to talk to at any skeptic meetup, etc. are the religious (the “skepticurious”) folks so I definitely don’t want them not to feel welcome!

  29. aimai says:

    I find it odd that the Skeptical writer of the post thinks that religion is out of bounds for skeptical discussion because it lacks a “testable hypothesis” and can neither be proven nor disproven. This would come as a surprise to many believing Christians who have, in fact, staked their lives and their afterlives on a firm conviction that the traces of their god and his doings are everywhere apparent in everyday life, in history, and in the archaeological record. A serious skeptic actually can’t help but disbelieve most religions that insist on miracles (the sun stood still, Jesus appeared in the Americas and strove with civilizations of a particular type and technology, Noah’s ark has been discovered, the shroud of turin). At almost every turn prior to the enlightenment Christianity, Islam, Mormonism after it was invented, offered their followers and their detractors a near infinite set of factual propositions that can be proven, or disproven.

    Of course, if you insist on claiming Harry Houdini as the archtypcal Skeptic and insisting on modeling yourself on him then that’s a personal preference that no one can contest. But its certainly not the only way of being a skeptic and strikes me as extremely culturally bound in a way that skepticism really ought not to be. To me its like saying that a prominent founder’s taste in clothes proves that all future skeptics need to wear spats. That’s fairly typical of some minority groups, like the Hasidim for example, but has absolutely nothing to do with a community which prides itself on investigating and using reason rather than mere habit.


  30. tof says:

    I am a skeptic but for me the role of scientific skepticism is simply as a methodology, the use of which may produce an improved outcome when applied to many of the decisions I face in daily life. But it is not the only tool I carry in my decision-making toolkit. Nor do I feel it is the best and only tool appropriate for every application. Just because I have a very good hammer, not every problem is a nail.

    Since for me the scientific approach is a tool rather than a way of life, I see only good in a more inclusive forum that promotes scientific skepticism to a wider audience. We here agree that for most questions, scientific skepticism is a much more effective decision making tool than most of the alternatives. So therefore a wider acceptance of scientific skepticism is a desirable thing. A more inclusive forum for promotion of scientific skepticism should broaden its adoption. On the other hand, using scientific skepticism to attack personal beliefs is likely to have the opposite effect. To be more blunt, the debate is between skeptics who believes in the benefits of critical thinking for society at large versus those who prefer to uses critical thinking as tool of persuasion at best or a weapon at worst in some kind of personal contest of wits with people who hold views that are outside the province of science.

    Finally let me be clear about one thing. Nothing I have proposed here would deter me from using scientific skepticism to attack those who would knowingly use pseudoscience as a way to harm others.

  31. Kitty says:

    If you narrow the definition of “skeptic” too much, you won’t be left with anyone. Diversity is good. I know a lot of atheists that refuse to believe little green men aren’t visit Earth. I know that many Big Foot groups are outraged at being grouped with “Paranormal” and “woo”, because their group is really just looking for something that “could” be real. THey HATE the whole “Big Foot is an alien” theory. The Baylor 2005 study says more than 80% of Americans believe in the paranormal. But it’s only SOME portion of the paranormal. Like reading a horoscope. Horoscope readers might laugh at dowsers. Dowsers might laugh at Nostradamus….most people aren’t broad spectrum paranomral believers (though some ARE).

    • Somite says:

      But no one has proposed that anyone should not be allowed to join skeptic groups. The problem is when for the sake of diversity some areas of inquiry are discouraged. The best example is religion and the misguided excuse of its lack of testability.