Marginalia on Skeptical Thinking: A dialogue with Rob Tarzwell

Rob Tarzwell is a doctor of nuclear medicine and a psychiatrist, a skeptic, and a health advocate.

Skepoet: How long have you been involved with the “skeptic’s community” in Canada?

Rob Tarzell: My involvement with skepticism in Canada in any identifiable sense began informally via Skeptics in the Pub in about April 2009. I then attended a Skepticamp, again just as an observer, and then the annual JREF conference, TAM, in Las Vegas that summer.

Formal, participatory involvement started in Fall 2009. This was sparked by the H1N1 Swine Flu epidemic. A lot of fear arose about the vaccine, stoked by deliberately uninformed anti-vax fear-mongering. Although the information was false, it did result in genuine fear, and I attempted to address those fears with short notes on Facebook about the flu, flu shots, adjuvants, and additives. I also dove into discussions about swine flu and vaccination on various discussion threads, which is how we first became acquainted, since there was a rip-roaring thread churning away on your profile. These notes and discussions ended up being somewhat widely distributed, and anecdotal feedback suggests they were helpful to some individuals.

This led to an invitation to give a pubic lecture on vaccine safety at UBC and then a live radio debate on Radio Freethinker. Apparently, people aren’t tired of me yet, and I’ve been asked to co-convene a series of public lectures on vaccine safety on behalf of Green College, UBC, during fall and winter terms 2012/13.

The short answer to your question is: 3 years.

S: What do you think about the relationship between scientific Skepticism as a “movement” and “new” atheism as a “movement”?

R.T.: The relationship between scientific Skepticism and atheisms new and old is at once simple and deeply complex. In terms of addressing the simple proposition, “God exists,” skepticism as a method of inquiry brings exactly the same sorts of tools to bear as it would to questions like, “Bigfoot exists,” or, “Electron microscopes exist.” Evidence and arguments are marshaled and scrutinized. The skeptical method is simply to apportion belief in proportion to evidence in favour of a proposition. Most skeptics would say the evidence for a divine being doesn’t pass muster.

The complexity emerges from Skepticism and New Atheism as social phenomena. While atheism itself is at least as old as the Greek Sophists–”Man is the measure of all things,” said Protagoras–this linking of atheism with activism, at least here in the West, is new. My sense of it is, “We’re not going to politely let you hide behind the cover of faith or sacred belief when you say something that has important social consequences.” At least, that’s the message I take from Harris, Hitchens, and to some degree, Dawkins.

I’m ok with that. When theological ideas infuse policy and law, we have a huge problem, in my view. Bluntly, we’re then trying to govern society with false ideas. So, that gets my hackles up, and that’s the point where I get involved.

But something unfortunate has happened. I worry that a kind of arrogance has crept into the movement. In some cases, PZ Myers comes to mind most readily, religions are not just to be dispassionately analyzed and stopped when they enter the polis, but they are to be ridiculed. And not only are they to be ridiculed, but if you think otherwise, you’re an “accomodationist,” something akin to a yellow traitor. This seems to be the closest the Skeptical community has ever come to frank thought-policing, because you do not want to be so-labelled by the superstars du jour like Myers or Jerry Coyne, or suddenly you might find your ideas ridiculed and even your motives questioned.

An example who comes readily to mind is Alain de Botton, the English philosopher who has explored what religions do well. He grants right up front that theological conclusions are nonsense, but then he says we need to pay attention to religious methods of inspiration and education, because these seem to have been rather successful. I’m not sure if de Botton is correct, but surely this is a non-controversial, straightforwardly empirical claim. It is clear, it is falsifiable, and I even grant that it is very interesting. However, de Botton is endlessly labelled an “accomodationist.” It’s also de rigeur to declare he simply must be angling for a Templeton prize, the implication being he has sold his intellectual honesty for dirty money.

I think this is really problematic, for two principal reasons. First, if the real goal is to try and bring about a society which is governed more rationally than not, we need to model rational behaviour. McCarthyesque pissing-contests about who the real rationalists are is really not reflecting wellon big-S Skepticism. Second, to achieve that society, you need to win “the hearts and minds.” Well, you aren’t going to get that done by ridicule.

It fascinates me that we’re in the midst of a ridiculous debate about confrontationalism and accomodationism. Again, let’s be empirical and look to the evidence about what actually works at winning someone over. If you don’t want to look at the evidence, here’s a quick thought experiment: hands up everybody who wooed their current beloved via ridicule.

S.: What do you think about the charge of scientism against Dawkins and Harris? This seems like an entirely different problem than the Coyne/Meyers one. In fact, in recent claims Harris has made about the is/ought distinction and a softer demarcation line, both Meyers and Coyne took more moderate positions than Dawkins and Harris and stood by the Humean distinction.

R.T.: I think against Harris, the charge sticks. We can empirically discover what values people actually hold via anthropology. We even discover how and why they priorize their values via the methods Jonathan Haidt has developed. Where empirical methods fail is when we take two lists of priorized values and seek to determine which is the better ordering.

In medical ethics, we broadly place a premium on patient autonomy, but not so long ago, we priorized physician paternalism. That seems repugnant to us now, but it didn’t in the 1940′s, when patients were routinely *not* told about grave diagnoses, for fear that would overwhelm them with hopelessness needlessly. Were we right then, or are we right now? It’s a great question, and I think it is even answerable. How neuroscience contributes to that, I have no idea. I think we’re likely to get better engagement with the problem from cultural historian and ethicists than PET scanners.

That’s not to say PET scanners have no role in ethical explorations. They may, for instance, help us answer intriguing questions about why individuals and groups publicly endorse one set of values while privately adhering to another. Writing off that kind of behaviour as “hypocrisy” may be smugly satisfying, but it hardly constitutes an inquiry. If Harris, as a trained neuroscientist, focused his efforts on those sorts of problems, I’d be very interested in the results.

Within Skepticism, there certainly has been a heavy emphasis on rationalisitc, scientific inquiry in an almost Victorian, reductionistic sense. That sort of scentism or at least priorization of scientific methodology is changing. It’s great to see new voices emerging, like Natalie Reed who writes in a wonderfully rational way about LGBT issues, or Ian Cromwell applying skeptical methods to overt and covert racism. It’s really refreshing to see the movement getting beyond Bigfoot!

S.: What do you make on the problems raised by the Rebecca Watson/Richard Dawkins spat a few years back?

R.T.: That whole incident was a real eye-opener. A quick recap for your audience is in order.

In the original video, Rebecca describes having been at a conference in Ireland where a topic of one panel was being emotionally sensitive to another person’s feelings when making sexual advances. She’s out until 4 after the day’s events and announces she’s going to bed. A chap she never names follows her to the elevator and invites her up for coffee. She says she found that creepy and mildly exhorts the men: “Guys, don’t do that.” Then she briefly explains what it was like on the receiving end and moves on to other topics. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uKHwduG1Frk (starts at about 4:00)

Well, then the furies begin howling, with a lot of sharp division, all the way up to death threats against Watson. Dawkins posted a satirical letter to an imagined female, Muslima, about how she should stop whining about genital mutilation, because American women are getting invited for coffee in elevators. http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2011/07/always_name_names.php (Comment #75)

Although in the main people lined up for Watson, there was a surprisingly loud and strident support for Dawkins, among both men and women. She has been accused of holding a double-standard, along two distinct lines (and I’m paraphrasing here): 1) “You don’t like that this guy did this, but I bet it would be ok if he was hot and rich;” and 2) “Double standard! Guys wouldn’t mind if girls did this, so girls shouldn’t mind if guys do it!”

Now this is genuinely surprising. Apparently, at least with some individuals in the skeptical community, it’s simply impermissible to describe circumstances which you find anxiety-provoking and request that they not occur. This has been described as privilege-blindness, and perhaps it is, but that does not explain the numerous females who rallied to Dawkins or just generally against Watson with accusations of hypocrisy. There was massive attribution to Watson of all sorts of motives which are patent nonsense when examined in the clear light of day.

In my line of work, when someone gets attacked for saying what makes them feel vulnerable, the term is emotional abuse. Another is identifying with the aggressor. Something about Watson’s honesty triggered an enormous and hostile reaction in some quarters. As a community, some of us absolutely fell from the standard of rational inquiry, including rational inquiry into our own behaviours and genuine motives.

While it was perhaps right to call Dawkins out in no uncertain terms, or to call out the really nasty and abusive responses, there was far too little, “Hmm, Dawkins said that. Now, that’s really interesting. Why did he say that? What are the arguments for and against that stance?” So, maybe this is another take-away: we’re not very rational as a community when it comes to turning our rational gaze upon ourselves. It’s far easier dissecting homeopathy and the anti-vaccine cranks.

To his credit, Dawkins announced that the Richard Dawkins Foundation would pay for child-care at future TAM’s (the annual meeting in Las Vegas hosted by the James Randi Educational Foundation) specifically so that single mothers could attend and engage in the rational community. I asked Rebecca in a chat thread whether she thought that might constitue an indirect form of apology from Dawkins, and she speculated that it might.

S.: Why do you think the spectrum of skeptics runs liberal to libertarian politically now. This was not always the case historically. Many of the philosophical icons of the skeptics movement prior to its current incarnation being socialists ( Bertrand Russell) to Marxist (Stephan J. Gould) to even moderate conservative. Why do you think the political spectrum now is more narrow and liberal in the European sense of the word.

R.T.: Oh, that’s a *really* interesting question. I’d be dishonest if I said I had definitive, expert insights into this, but perhaps I can offer what looks like a perspective in political culture.

Within Canadian skepticism, we are by far overwhelmingly liberal, which may in part explain the rise of Canadian skeptical bloggers looking at specifically liberal topics, from a liberal perspective, like the aforementioned Ian Cromwell on race or Natalie Reed on transgenderism. Is that a product of a generally more liberal, Canadian society? Possibly. We’re single-payers on health-care in our very bones and opted in favour of gay marriage in the mid-90s, right around the time we banned smoking in bars and restaurants. Abortion was decriminalized in the 80′s, and we gave capital punishment the boot in the 70′s. The skeptics that Canada produces may be more liberal simply by virtue of marinating in this.

The American story is a much more interesting one to watch. The early composition of some of the earliest skeptical organizations, like, say, CSICOP, would certainly have found a congenial mix of liberals, conservatives, moderates, and perhaps libertarians or anarchists. To the degree that skepticism becomes linked to atheism, then it also becomes linked to folks like Ayn Rand, and that probably makes the link to libertarianism. Rand never really caught on in Canada the way she did in the US, and it’s interesting that libertarian skepticism seems almost singularly an American phenomenon. I meet all kinds of libertarians, Randians, and various other flavours of soft and hard Objectivists at TAM, and sometimes have to act as a kind of cultural interpreter for European skeptics who come to Vegas.

Another hunch I have about this is that whereas in the 60′s and 70′s it was the left which had renounced science, today it seems to be the right. Climate change is the most obvious example of this departure, though certainly we lefties have our share of loonies: anti-vaxers come to mind, or alt-med adherents. But on the big culturally and politically relevant questions of the day–global warming, evolution, “choosing” to be gay–the right is just flat-out bonkers wrong on the science. Since skeptics of various political stripes are surprisingly unified on the science, this is going to repel people who have prior ideological commitments.

As a side note, it’s refreshing and fun to chat intelligently about global warming with a political conservative who advocates for free-market solutions to the problem, as it is to grumble with Berkeley flower-power lefties about all their neighbours who don’t vaccinate the kids. Science, because of its open model of truth-seeking, has a capacity to draw us all together in the movement, by providing a common touchstone of agreement.

S.: Marxists never renounced scientific thought. For example, I have many, many problems with the Sokal hoax and the books that it spawned, but Sokal was a Marxist. Still the relationship to vulgar postmodernism is interesting. For clarification, the Canadian liberals are left liberal, as in liberal in the American sense, no?

R.T.: Broadly, yes, we’re mostly left-liberals. Even a majority on the right here would support gay rights single-payer health, and social regulation over things like where we can smoke in public. Many of the former Progressive Conservatives worry about the hard-right social swing the Conservative Party of Canada caucus keeps trying to reinvigorate. To his credit, our conservative Prime Minister Harper has been opposed to reopening debates on abortion and gay marriage. He got caught in a parliamentary procedural snag that basically forced an hour of debate on a private member’s bill about fetal personhood recently, and both he and the party whip spoke unequivocally in opposition to the private motion. That would look positively alien, if not repugnant to most Republicans, methinks.

Have Marxists always been pro-science? One example that comes to mind of a potential exception would be Lysenkoism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trofim_Lysenko). To be strictly fair, you might just as easily link that to Stalinist excesses as to Marxism proper, but where do we ever find a pure political strain?

S.: Lysenkoism is not post-modernism. It’s not a denial of science as a discipline, it was bad science that was politically enforced. There is a pretty substantive difference there. I mean I can go off on liberal bad science now: Neo-classical economics has pretense to science, or how polygenism was pushed in North America by liberals and conservatives for racist reasons, or that frankly many European liberals enforced bad anthropology to maintain their beliefs about race and their justification for colonial expansion. This would be to weaken my own point. When people talk about the left turn against science in the 1960s and 1970s, they mean specific readings of continental philosophers who broke with the Marxist tradition (Deleuze, Foucault, and Lacan), although I actually think outside of some of the Lacanian stuff, a lot of the scientific criticisms didn’t really understand the philosophers they were criticizing, but those philosophers were being used that way, so perhaps it was fair. This also gets tied into the “Science Wars,” which was about sociology within science and the functioning of the community. Some of this did get taken in an anti-science direction, but some of the criticisms of this seem to be me opportunistic. The scientific method does not protect one from all the logical failings inherent in community power-relationships.The idea that science can bring you together though seems optimistic to me. For example, what is was proven through game theory or through observational data that the free market can’t solve climate problems? Would your friend change? Behavioral economics cast a long shadow over readings of rationality in micro-economics, and I have to admit that even many Marxist have ignored this. So to put in your terms, how would holding on to that belief not be like holding onto Lysenkoism for political reasons? It seems like the anti-science bent of conservatives and liberals has lowered the bar.The American libertarians, for example, often compare evolution to the market, but this is no less unscientific than way Sokal criticized Deleuze for using biological terms metaphorically. Evolution isn’t like the market: It’s massively inefficient and prone to failure of catastrophic variety for the individual and gene centered point of view. If the market is evolutionary in a pure sense, then it would an argument against the very function most people ascribe to it: efficiency in the “knowledge problem.” Yet I don’t see a lot of skeptic’s pointing this out–although I do see some–because it would alienate the libertarian element in North America and the liberal (in the European sense) in the UK and Australia.So the umbrage taking seems highly selective, or if not, then opportunistic to keep the coalition of ideologies going. Honestly, this was the kind of thing the sociology of science people were first interested in pointing out.

Your thoughts?

R.T.: I believe I may see what you mean. Essentially, if I read you correctly, there is selective attention within Skepticism (and within other formal movements you’ve outlined) given to certain topics while others are ignored, perhaps willfully, perhaps not. I suspect that’s true. Other topics are grossly misunderstood or oversimplified. The easy explanation is, it’s simply impossible for any group to be interested in all things at all times. That wouldn’t be a group anymore, rather, it would be the entire population of the planet.

The harder explanation regarding what catches our interest and why is still unfolding. It may ultimately never find a satisfactory answer. There are hints, perhaps, in the founding of various skeptical organizations. When James Randi began turning his attention toward psychics and faith-healers, it really bothered him that people were being swindled by self-proclaimed miracle-workers whose miracles often amounted to little more than the same kinds of conjuring he was using to entertain his audience. I’m speculating, but perhaps he was motivated by moral indignation against swindlers, the misuse of his own profession’s skills, and compassion for desparate individuals seeking out, say, psychics, to help them cope with their own grief over a lost loved one.

One needn’t look too far to see that the early members of CSICOP were most certainly motivated by a moral mission. It really troubled them that the Uri Gellers of the world were making scandalous amounts of money through pure fakery, even securing government grants for research into spooky mental action at a distance. Project Alpha or Carlos stand as brilliant demonstrations of the human capacity to be fooled by conjuring, a kind of reminder to us that we’re perhaps not half so clever as we imagine. That bug in the mental software is something Randi takes seriously, as do, I think, many of the more morally motivated within the various organizations.

Speaking personally for a moment, I’ll admit that a lot of my fuel for tilting against anti-vaxxers or alt-med proponents comes from the intentional misuse and appropriation of scientific language and terminology, the frank abuse of rhetorical techniques (“Your ‘science’ is a closed paradigm!”), leading to real harms in the real world. Thanks to dropping vaccination rates, there’s a massive outbreak of Whooping Cough where I live, probably the largest outbreak since we introduced effective vaccines. It’s a disease that kills infants or can permanently maim. This is horrendous! If people had effective strategies to notice and then undo pernicious rhetorical techniques, that would literally save children’s lives.

So, yes, selective for sure. It drives me a bit crazy at times in certain quarters. Haven’t we heard enough about UFO’s and bigfoot? There are real problems in the world which deserve critical attention that needn’t even be at the level of specialists. Basic critical thinking skills will do.

S.: This focus on basic critical thinking skills is good, but this is why I am cautious about things like the Harris version of new atheism, or the Dawkin’s promotion of memetics. These actually don’t seem to be all that far off from bad philosophy using science language and scientific evidence out of context. Is that fair? Why do you think these had so much attraction in the beginning of the movement? Why does popular evo-psyche catch on, for example?

R.T.: Indeed! To some degree, there may still be an element of excessive deference to Harris or Dawkins in some regards, but there’s also an interesting self-correcting mechanism that pops up in unexpected ways. One example would be the rapid backlash about Dawkins’s satirical letter. Another would be Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a Dick” speech from TAM 2010, which drew both praise and sharp reactions.

Other new voices are also rising to take on Harris’s ideas about Islam, warfare, and profiling, exposing what essentially amounts to simplistic racism. John Shook has taken Harris to task quite effectively, right on the Centre For Inquiry website. This is important and healthy. All the dirty laundry needs to be right out in the open.It’s crucial, I think, that criticisms are beginning to arise not just about the methodology but about the ideas themselves, and from new voices. One of the most interesting yet under-noticed critics of Sam Harris is a grad student in strategic studies who also has a background in analytic philosophy, Simon Pratt. His academic interests include terror and assassination within a strategic context, and his blog recently included a really important and clarifying discussion of suicide bombing which shows almost immediately how facile Harris’s analysis remains.

So, in a sense, while we’re inevitably always behind the curve, the reasoned voices of dissension are arising. I’m very much looking forward to Skepticism 3.0!

S.: I have found Massimo Pigluicci’s blog, Rationally Speaking, to be a corrective to a lot of this sort of thing. Now, I still think many in the Skeptic’s movement don’t take “Continental” philosophy seriously enough, but I understand why. When I first came into the skeptic’s movement there was a hostility to almost any sort of philosophy aside from Dan Dannett, but that has changed. However, I also feel like there are move divides within the “movement.”I think the Watson issue really illustrated that there were political tensions and problematic normative assumptions. I have a question though, do you see scientism as a real threat to skeptic’s movement? I found the denial of the concept in many of my skeptic friends problematic. Of course, I would say “undialectical,” but I will avoid the jargon of my philosophical leanings. I actually think scientism is dangerous to science because my demolishing clear ideas of demarcation and justification, it makes science look “just” like another social practice and thus appear entirely relativistic. It’s almost like an inversion of the post-modern critique that validates it. I remember in the Sokal and Bricmont book, they defined science as “rigorous common sense” and I have trouble seeing how that could possibly be true: it seemed like a move to avoid the issues, but in a way, it does the opposite of what it is designed to do.What do you think on this matter?

R.T.: Right away I’m going to sound more weaselly than I’d like to and say, it depends on which concept of scientism we’re referring to. I think there certainly are some versions of scientism which do attach to some skeptics at some times, and Pigliucci is an important astringent to this process. It does bother me that a lot of skeptics have little time or patience for philosophy, because I think it has an inescapably important role, actually, as outlined by Pigliucci himself in a recent post.

S.: The same with Eco-psyche, which Coyne and Pigliucci both have said major problems logically and methodologically in the comparative biological field. So this seems much larger than just Austrian economics. String theory is another example of a science that is completely non-empirical, although one without social consequences.

It is interesting to me that Dennett is okay because he uses memetic theory, a theory that is also non empirical and frankly seems to be a way to avoid sociology and more developed social theory in favor of something that looks like evolutionary biology. The fact that Dawkins speculated on memetics early on seems to be a place where this came in. While memetics seems to have reached it high tide, the journal of memetics having closed down, and there still being nothing stronger than a metaphor for the mechanism, but it still has much pull in the community.

Do you see why I think this is a bigger problem than just with libertarians?

Hard scientism, the idea that only scientific approaches can yield knowledge succumbs to the same kind of critique which brought hard positivism down: there’s no way to scientifically the statement that “only scientific approaches can yield knowledge.” Even so, it’s strangely common among more strident and uncritical skeptics. I sometimes wonder if even Dawkins himself might be some varietal of the species, given his notorious impatience with philosophy of science, Dennett being the single exception.

I can see what motivates the stance. As soon as you open the door to non-empirical methods of inquiry, perhaps the worry is that you let theology and parapsychology in the door. The trouble is, of course, non-empirical methods already are in the door: von Mises and the Austrian school of economics come immediately to mind, particularly among US right-libertarian skeptics. Somehow, he gets a pass while Freud and psychoanalysis get the boot. Fascinating!

R.T.: Ahh, ok, yes, now I see what you mean. I think ePsy is indeed very problematic, and I’m hardly an outlier. No less a light than Gould considered ePsy essentially a farce and not even worthy of the label “science.” It’s all a bunch of post-hoc stuff with various levels of plausibility. Niles Eldredge’s book, “Why We Do It” is a wonderful critique of ePsy as applied to human sexual behaviour. Yes, sadly, it’s got great traction within Skepticism. Perhaps it is precisely the kind of theory that appeals to non-expert but nonetheless intelligent lay audiences. It is simple, has elegance, and it appears to have broad explanatory power. There may even be limited applications where it is genuinely useful and offers real lift.

Memetics is another field. It seemed like there was a time in the late 90′s when you could hardly turn a corner without running into another book about memes. Like ePsy, it certainly looks like an elegant and easily understood theory which unfortunately lacks falsifiability. This isn’t to say it’s wrong or even bad. However, if it is to be understood as some kind of science, it certainly isn’t hypothetico-deductive science. Rather, it’s more along the lines of psychoanalysis, ePsy, and Austrian economics.

These aren’t bad things in themselves, but they’re not *empirical* things. Perhaps once the movement has demonstrated a capacity to accept that there can be non-Popperian kinds of science, it will be able to look more dispassionately at all knowledge claims and methodologies and judge them on their own merits, not on crude versions of scientific realism. The recent rise of non-scientific writers and concerns within Skepticism is a source of hope that these types of critiques may arise.

S.: Well, Popper’s falsification criterion cannot apply to any form of statistical analysis as probability can never be completely falsified empirically or experimentally. So the fact it has so much hold in the community seems problematic. But I have seen a slow shift too, but the shift has left rifts in the community.

Another worrying trait is that I see postmodernism used as a strawman to attack any thick and qualitative analysis in the humanities as “anti-scientific” to favor statistical analysis which is necessarily thin and cannot account for qualia in any way.

This I actually think is a bad strategy: most of us continental philosophy/critical theory people do believe in science as a methodology for physical understanding, even if we may take a Kuhnian view of its conception or be critical of attempts to destroy the is/ought distinction; however, the contempt that some seem to hold out enterprise in seems to be a double standard. When people like Harris or Sokal assert that there is no meta-ethical or meta-scientific point worth making, this looks like a cultural power grab and an attempt to naturalize particular perspectives. It makes the vulgar relativists suspicion that science is veil for cultural power look legitimate. If anyone in the humanities said that “humanities are universal because the humanities is just what humanists do” or “the humanities is just rigorous common sense,” the patent absurdity and circularity of that would be laughed at. Yet I have seen those claim made for science by people in the skeptic’s community.

So how do you think the community can police itself on these points? Obviously, I think some of this is actually happening now as you point out. In fact, that is the very point of our dialogue.

R.T.: Self-policing is likely only going to occur among the willing. I think we’re still somewhat too reliant on our rock-stars to guide our thought, in the main at least. This is one of the issues which Pigliucci has been making louder and louder noises about, and I applaud that. I’m not sure why Dawkins and Krauss are so pig-headed when it comes to the value of philosophy. They don’t even seem to know, or even care to know, what it is that philosophers do. This is despite both getting on famously with Dennett, who I imagine must be mounting some sort of lobbying campaign. It’s really astonishing that Krauss criticizes philosophy for not making scientific contributions. Nobody expects Krauss to be making philosophical contributions.

The irony is, Krauss makes all sorts of philosophical statements, as does Dawkins, and they seem to do so quite obliviously, since in neither case are they saying anything terribly novel. Hume already laid far more sophisticated groundwork for the limits of empiricism and induction centuries ago. I think even Aquinas would have been bored, or at least no more than mildly amused, with Dawkins’s philosophical efforts. So, it’s a pity, but there’s the Dunning-Krueger effect for you, writ large. There’s nothing new or exceptional about this, but what it does is tend to also disincline the Skeptical faithful against philosophy, except for Dennett, who carries the imprimatur of “sciencey” philosophy, though of course, Dennett’s *not* doing science, and I wish Dawkins would stop saying that Dennett is a scientist.

If the only thing we managed to accomplish was getting everybody driving in their own lane with appropriate humility, a lot of these misguided critiques of Kuhn et al would vanish like morning dew. Now, that’s not to say we could actually interest skeptical folk, who in the main are still 20- and 30-something white, bearded, male IT guys in the broader philosophical debate, but it’d be nice if we could at least ratchet down the mockery.

S.: Let’s move back to some policy issues: The state of Washington in the US seems to having some real issues with anti-vaccination ideology leading to communities without herd immunity, to use a technically correct, but horrible public relations term. What do you think we can do about it? Are you seeing anything similar in Canada?

R.T.: Ha! Yes, it would actually be harder to come up with a *worse* PR term than “herd immunity.”

As it happens, a Whooping Cough outbreak hit both the Lower Mainland of British Columbia and Washington State essentially simultaneously. Since those are neighbours which share a border, it’s instructive to compare responses. As of 8 days ago, Washington had recorded about 1300 cases, about 10 times the normal amount, and climbing. BC at its peak had about 230, which is 2.5 to 3 times typical, and that number is falling.

I think policy differences are interesting in these jurisdictions. In both places, public health officials were aware quite early of the rising number of cases in the early part of the year. Both regions also recognize multifactorial issues in the outbreak. Vaccine refusal is higher than it’s ever been, and it may well be the largest component, but also, infants who have insufficient immune maturity can’t benefit from the vaccine and so are ineligible. Also, the immunity wears off after 5 years, so boosters are required. Essentially, pertussis is a real pain in the ass to keep down in a population. So, why is it skyrocketing in Washington and waning in BC?

We’ll only know the whole story in retrospect, but in Washington, a lot of uninsured families simply can’t afford the shot, and it was only 2 weeks ago that the Washington State government released emergency funding and declared an epidemic. In BC, by sharp contrast, from when the outbreak was detected, local health authorities rapidly defined at-risk groups and offered free boosters. Risk groups were defined very broadly, even including anyone with the potential to have contact with children under 18 months of age. Essentially, who doesn’t qualify at that point?

Just like with SARS in 2003, which hit Toronto hard but was hardly noticed in Vancouver, it was a case of early detection, early response.

What lessons can skeptics draw from this? The most obvious one is, get vaccinated! But there are subtler lessons here: policy matters. What makes good policy? Well, that’s quickly becomes a discussion of values. Crudely, this could be seen as a test-match of individualist (American) values vs collectivist (Canadian) values. Maybe you could make the case that collectivism won the day here, but that might be only a superficial analysis. Both public health authorities knew what was up. Perhaps the greater budgetary autonomy in the BC CDC vs the Washington State CDC made the difference, and it essentially came down to speed, but in both cases driven by the same values. However, you do the analysis, though, what *did* happen was influenced by prior views of policy-makers as to what *ought* to happen.

I’m not sure I articulated that very clearly. Do you see what I mean?

S.: You know I actually don’t buy this individualism difference as the prime identifier, I do and continue to think it is more governmental than cultural, and not just in the mild social democratic tenor of Canada. The congressional as opposed to parliamentary politics leads to more options for policy.

However, the rise of libertarianism in the US does seem based on a type of pseudo-individualism that is kind self-deluding. But as far as public policy goes, I definitely can see which has better outcomes in healthcare.

What do you think the case is of the spike in popularity of this anti-vax nonsense?

R.T.: Fair enough, and I’ll admit that’s nothing more than loose speculation on my part, plus an effort to demonstrate the pervasiveness of is/ought distinctions.

Why is anti-vax on the rise? This is a really important question. I think anthropologists will have much more useful things to say than I do, but I’ll offer an interested layman’s opinion. First, it’s important to observe that not just anti-vax is on the rise. It is only one boat rising in a tide of misinformation. Other bad ideas on the ascent appear to include moon-landing deniers and 9/11 truthers. There’s even a newly emerging interest in geocentrism!

Now, I find it impossible to believe that we’ve suddenly become dumber as an entire culture. I wonder if it isn’t simply something like the Internet being a universally available megaphone for anybody to pick up and shout out their ideas. Ideas then end up finding receptive audiences, inevitably a discussion board arises, and you’re already rounding 3rd base on the way to creating a new society for the promotion of a ridiculous idea.

In the vaccine story, take all the above, and add in the incredibly primal fear parents feel when it comes to the safety of their children. I think fear is the real psychological battleground, which makes it an asymmetric war. An anti-vaxxer is able to stoke fear, and once that’s stirred up, rational analysis is paralyzed. All a guy like me can do is try to de-escalate that a bit.

S.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?

R.T.: A few things: first, my apologies for leaving you with such gargantuan blocks of unedited text, largely of questionable worth! Next, thanks for the questions. It’s helped me think through some issues I hadn’t paid enough attention to, particularly my unease with the New Atheist trend in Skepticism.

I’m seeing “New Atheism” as more of a reactionary movement and methodology than I had previously. In the heady days of ’03 to ’06, it was great fun seeing polemic after polemic hit the press. Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris, for me at least, hit a felt need: why *do* I need to be respectfully silent when someone plays the religion card? That was great. I think these guys genuinely came to believe, unfortunately, that they had done all the hard work, religion was demolished, and ta-da! I’m overstating the case, but I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that Dawkins, and certainly Harris really believe they’ve offered something dialectically new.

They just haven’t.

Dawkins is a biologist, not a philosopher or theologian, yet there’s little evidence that he has realized this. Harris continues to make ridiculous pronouncements on whatever strikes his fancy, and I find his rationalized racism nothing short of repugnant. His thoughts on security are just bloody stupid, and yet the man really thinks he’s offering something golden and important. The principal two tricks the NA’s seem to deploy is to offer polemics as dialectics and to devalue fields in which they lack expertise. This arrogant attitude is beginning to leak well beyond the boundaries of Skepticism and is beginning to do more harm than good. I see early signs of this reversing, but it will take some time. Not too much time, I hope, because I’m getting tired of having to undo the Dawkins-damage whenever a religious person bristles at my mention of being an unbeliever. We can’t even get started until I assure them I’m not there to ridicule them. This is an unfortunate change in the culture, and one we can’t be rid of quickly enough.

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Posted on June 8, 2012, in Interviews, Logic, Philosophy and Politics, Science, Skepticism, Socialism. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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