Category Archives: Science

All Roads Lead to Communism, or None Do: Theses on Marxism & Intersectionality

(The following is my response to the “Exiting the Vampire Castle” controversy on The North Star webzine about tensions between Marxism, intersectionality, and left politics.)

1) Communism is the goal of ending human domination, exploitation, oppression, and repression in a world of abundance, justice, and harmony among all living beings. Therefore, the practical subject for revolutionary analyses are the social systems that perpetuate and extend systemic suffering for living beings. It is proposed based on careful study of social science and left-wing political theory that the basic categories of human social systems are eightfold:






Martial Systems (institutional use of coercion)



2) No single one of the above social systems is independent or dominant over all others.

3) Revolutionary analysis identifies institutional structures that perpetuate systemic suffering and propose political collective mobilizations to overturn these structures and replace them with emancipatory new systems and institutions.

4) Revolutionary analysis considers the objective collective systems to be the primary focus of activist mobilization and engagement. It is also engaged with collective cultural aspects of these institutional systems. It considers interpersonal and personal subjective behaviors and attitudes of subordinate importance, though not entirely unimportant.

5) By identifying eight interdependent social systems, an adequate revolutionary analysis cannot advance communist goals by minimizing the objective importance of any of the social systems. A “revolutionary” change in one or a few aspects of these social systems without attempting broad changes in all of them will leave the new institutions vulnerable to counter-revolutionary mobilization from one of the unrevolutionized social systems.

For example, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 did indeed radically change the political, religious, and economic character of Russia, but it at best merely reformed systems of cultural, gender, martial, ecological, and ethnic domination and oppression, which formed the basis for the counter-revolutions against communism from within Russia and the Soviet Union.

6) There are important aspects of Marxism, feminism, anti-racism, radical democracy, pacifism, sex radicalism, progressive religion/irreligion, and environmentalism that must be applied to revolutionary analysis to better equip radicals to overturn the systems that dominate our world. Posing irreconcilable oppositions between feminism and Marxism or any of these important approaches to social criticism is to betray the revolutionary movement from the very start.

Why the Left Needs to Be Agnostic about Religion: Part I

In an essay recently re-blogged here, the author lays out a case for why he believes a rapprochement between socialism and religion is ill-advised or even impossible, depending on how you interpret his claims about the incompatibility between them. It would be tempting to argue back that he is characterizing religion incorrectly, or that he fails to account for positive religious involvement in struggles for liberation around the globe. But to make such arguments would be to compound the primary error, and reinforce the dysfunction of the understanding which produced the author’s arguments in the first place. What we must do, if we care about the future success of leftist endeavors, is to question the idea of religion as a meaningful category in the first place. That is, not to argue over whether religion is good or bad, or whether it is compatible with socialism, but to deconstruct the idea of religion as a cultural category.

Over the last couple centuries, social scientists have been studying religion, and have created a succession of different definitions of religion in the process. Unlike the study of, say, geology, the study of religion presents the challenge that it has no concrete referent. When one studies geology, one does not have a great difficulty in identifying the object: rocks are rocks. When one studies religion, however, one does have the difficulty of first creating a definition that allows us to call one thing (set of beliefs, actions, symbols, institutional arrangements, etc) religion, and yet exclude another thing as not religious. (See Arnal 2000 here for a thorough discussion.) Long story short is that none of these definitions have been able to simultaneously include all those things which we consider religious and exclude those things which we consider non-religious. Not, that is, without recourse to theological notions that are unsupportable within a scientific context. Whether it is Rudolf Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans, or Mircea Eliade’s “orientation to the sacred,” these substantivist definitions only work if one assumes that religion is a sui generis category which exists in relation to an actual God or Divine Reality. That transcendent reality may exist, but it is beyond the ability of science to speak to it, and therefore can not be the basis for a scientific definition. The problem of definition here is the problem of the actual existence of the category. Anthropologists came to the same conclusion about “race” in the 20th century, and we should detect here a useful pattern: when the thing you’re trying to define eludes all attempts at useful definition, the thing just might not exist except as a cultural construct. (See also Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions.)

Arnal suggests, following Talal Assad’s reasoning in Genealogies of Religion, that the task for the social-scientific study of religion therefore must be to deconstruct the idea of religion in order to uncover not what religion “is,” but rather in what cultural contexts the concept of religion is evoked to separate some human phenomena from others. And it is in this task that the importance of understanding what we are talking about is made clear for the success of the left’s intellectual projects. Give Arnal a listen:

 The very concept of religion as such—as an entity with any distinction whatsoever from other human phenomena—is a function of [the] same processes and historical moments that generate an individualistic concept of it. The concept of religion is a way of demarcating a certain socio-political reality that is only problematized with the advent of modernity in which the state at least claims to eschew culture per se. Further, one of the current political effects of this separation—one of the political ends served currently by it—is the evisceration of substance, that is, collective aims, from the state. That is to say, the simple positing of religion is a covert justification for the modern tendency of the state to frame itself in increasingly negative terms: the secular state is the institutional apparatus by which the social body prevents the incursion by others into the personal and various other goals of individuals, rather than being the means of achievement for common projects and the collective good (pp. 32).

Which is why it would be dysfunctional to argue against Cancovic’s claims about the incompatibility between religion and socialism: it reinforces the category we should be exposing as a tool of the state. When you see a self-professed leftist talking like Richard Dawkins, it should give you pause. An academic like myself would be inclined to use one of the many functionalist definitions of religion popular in social science still, despite their fundamental inability to effectively circumscribe a real phenomena; but here we have no attempt at definition whatsoever. “Religion” seems to be, for Cancovic as with Dawkins, “whatever people I don’t like believe.” That essentially anti-pornographic definition (I can’t define it but I know it when I see it) might suffice for casual conversation or beer-fueled debate among college sophomores, but it most certainly does not suffice for a discussion of leftist organizational tactics in which religion is problematized as the main subject.  It is in Dawkins’ interest to discourage the study of religion as a serious topic, because if his audience understood anything about religion from a social-scientific standpoint he wouldn’t have an audience.  One can’t make a career selling books blaming religion for everything bad that ever happened if people know that “religion” is whatever thing you want to call it willy nilly. But the concern of the left is, at least ostensibly, to make real changes in the material conditions of human beings.  We can not do this if we are hampered by belief in categories which exist only to subjugate people to regimes of thought facile to state control. It should be an item of concern that leftists are borrowing rhetoric from modern supporters of right-wing state policies (Hitchens, Sam Harris, et al) which spread war and terror around the globe in the name of combating “religious extremism.”

Volumes could be written about this, and very well likely will be, but time constraints at the moment prevent me from anything more than this short first draft at a reflection. Suffice to say for the moment that claims about how religion “does” this or “says” that must rely on a refusal to study religion scientifically, or else such claims could not be made. Not least because religion is a made-up category. Religion is dying? Somebody should talk to Peter Berger. One of the ironies of the piece is the call to “always preach the scientific worldview.” Which scientific worldview is that, exactly? The one that refuses to study religion scientifically but feels specially entitled to denounce religion? Again, hello Christopher Hitchens. Preaching is the correct word here.

Rather, what we need to do, how we need to be, is agnostic about religion. The obsession with the beliefs in other people’s heads is an Enlightenment hold-over natural to fundamentalist Protestantism and its sibling New Atheism, but it is not useful to the cause of social emancipation. Cancovic’s essay amounts to “I don’t want to play with those kids I don’t like.” Okay, maybe they were mean to you; but guess what? They’re the majority of people on the planet for all of human history (by any of the definitions of religion or religious out there). If you want to build a movement, you should probably not be looking at the comrade next to you digging that ditch, and tell him he can’t help because he worships an Octopus. Or, worships himself for not worshiping an Octopus. Instead of telling people they’re not allowed to have symbolic culture you don’t approve of, just try explaining political economy to them.

Interview with McKenzie Wark on the outer limits of Marxism and Information Theory

McKenzie Wark is originally from Newcastle, Australia, but moved to New York City in 2000. He is Professor of Media and Culture at Eugene Lang College the New School for the Liberal Arts and Professor of Liberal Studies at the New School for Social Research. He is the author of several books including The Beach Beneath the Street.


C. Derick Varn:  Recently, you mentioned in an interview on Douglas Lain’s Diet Soap that you didn’t think Marx had an understanding of theories of Information, such as that of McLuhan, and that limits a lot of Marxist answers to fundamental problems.  However, there is something similar to information theory in the idea of the objectification of the commodity fetish (the abstract idea that is given material manifestation and then thus drives material production).  Do you see a relationship between this theory of reification and information theory?

McKenzie Wark:  Well, you could get a theory of anything out of reading Marx, or any other classic text, if you want to. You could get a theory of information out of Aristotle. You could get a theory of fly fishing out of The German Ideology. But my method is to ask: what would Marx do? I think he would read the technical literature on the subject, like Shannon and Weaver. I think he would read equivalent of the political economy journals of his time, like the Macy Conference proceedings. I think he would look for something like the Parliamentary reports on factory conditions, which in our time probably only comes out in court cases, and so on. He wasn’t just making notes on Hegel in his voluminous journals, he was also drawing steam engines. So I think we have to get away a bit from this text-grubbing approach to Marx, which is so utterly unmarxist, and study the forces at work in the class struggles of our time. We need the spirit of Marx to do that as well as the letter. Central here is the rise of a whole techne that barely existed in his time, the control technologies of the information age, which have so fundamentally reshaped the production process, not to mention its spatial distribution over the planet. Its what Norbert Weiner called the second industrial revolution.

C.D.V.:   You have no argument from me on the focus of current conditions of life and its empirics.  Why do you think Marxists have gotten away from going through the hard numbers?  Furthermore, do you see this shift as a sign of developments within what you see as the information economy itself? Or to be put it simpler, is there something about the text focus that shows us something about our political reality today?

M.W.:  The problem is more that the theoretical and empirical sides of Marxist work drifted too far away from each other. The intellectual division of labor as the university defines it edged out any other way of organizing the production of knowledge, such as around a common sense of struggle.

Perhaps the beginning of the end was Althusser. The doctrine of the ‘relative autonomy’ of the superstructures legitimated working on just one, and using the conceptual tools of a given discipline: economics, politics, culture. And of course in his universe philosophy retained a policing role overall in relation to method. For a while it was enabling, but then each of the separate bodies of Marxist work were absorbed by their respective disciplines.

I am of course in favor of a close reading of Marxist classics, but they have to be understood now as classics, as works of another time. They cannot be read philosophically, as Althusser did in his own disingenuous way. They are texts from a project that has to be re-imagiend in all its components.

First of all: I just don’t think we can assume that we are living in ‘capitalism’ as Marx defined it. Just exactly what kinds of mutations occurred in its form between the 1850s and our time? But to frame such a question one has to overcome the tremendous unthinking insistence by — of all people — ‘Marxists’ that nothing much has changed. Ironic given that “all that is solid melts into air.” And note that all I want is to ask the question; and yet the alleged Marxists keep telling me the answer in advance. This is scholasticism. It isn’t method.

C.D.V.:  What can we learn about capitalism from information theory?

M.W.:  If one were to root this in Marx it would be in something he mentions occasionally but does not yet grasp conceptually — the telegraph. He sees how it is part of an extension of the turbulence of capital in space, but he does not quite see its distinctiveness as part of the ensemble of technological changes going on around him in the mid to late nineteenth century.

The telegraph is really the first time that information can be mobilized at a different, and faster, speed, to any other kind of ‘thing’. Labor, commodities, munitions — all those things are moving rapidly by the railway age, at least along those vectors where there is a railway or a steamer. But information is suddenly moving even faster. Its the real beginning of the ‘market’ as an abstract, non-localized place. What Marx presciently describes as the ‘world market.’ But one not based on ‘adventure’, which was when merchants set off with stock not even knowing who or what they would trade with. The telegraph closes the era of adventure.

But the concept of information is not really going to appear until after world war two. And its connected to another dimension of information. The telegraph is what I would call an extensive vector. It enables information to move across broad spaces. It enables commodity markets to exist that are uncoupled from space yet still based on calculation rather than adventure. But there is also the intensive vector, which is the capacity to process information rather than merely compile it.

One of the first forms of which was the modern newspaper. Marx himself is a journalist of the telegraph era.Techniques of sorting and ordering these vast flows of information from remote sites is a nineteenth century invention. But the quantitative evaluation of information is another side to the intensive vector, and it takes a big step forward due to war time logistics and code breaking. People start using machines to find patterns in information.

Information theory arises out of the needs of managing production and distribution at new scales of complexity and over unprecedented territories. Control is vested much more in information than in the design of physical plant. The design of the labor process within the factory to extract maximum value was at the center of nineteenth century capitalism, and this is still being refined into the twentieth century. But the new kind of production and distribution circuits take full advantage of the intensive and extensive vector together. To the point where ownership and direct control of the factory becomes optional. (Samsung runs its own factories, but Apple does not).


C.D.V.:  What do you think you can seem about possible post-capitalist futures through information theory?

M.W.:  Like anything that emerges out of the development of the forces of production, one has to separate out the actual and potential powers of a technology. The tendency in what Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron used to call the “California Ideology” is to talk only of a potential, and to make that potential equivalent to some sort of free market libertarianism. The tendency on the left is to take those people at their word, and to merely address the negative side of that rather narrow understanding of potential. Its really striking how critics on the left often just take the Silicon valley mouthpieces at their word about the shiny free market future.

But I think there’s another way to go about it. And its to ask: who are the organic intellectuals of these new developments in the forces of production? One has to seek out people actively exploring the hidden potentials of information based technology. Yes, overall it is being used to control the labor process in ever widening and deepening patterns. Yes, it is being used to extract information from people’s nonwork activities and valorize it. But those uses are not identical to the potential of the technology itself. So in short, its about reconnecting Marxist thought with the leading sectors of workers, or as one might also call them — hackers.

For those who think everything about information technology is always evil, just remember that the only reason we know about climate change is because of the bringing together of the intensive and extensive vector. Its messy big data sets massaged via computer and put through models which simulate the laws of physics. And the result is robust science. We have a pretty good idea of what after Marx we could call the “metabolic rift” opening up through the displacement of carbon into the atmosphere.

At another scale altogether, if you look at Occupy Sandy, it turns out the be a counter-logitics exercise. Can we use mutual aid to start learning how to run infrastructure where both capital and the state are failing? But for that mutual aid to be effective takes a whole lot of information-based tools. Its a small thing, obviously, and does not confront the totality of — call it what you like — neoliberal or vectoral commodity production in all its flailing glory. But points to the kind of praxis we might need to develop when the current infrastructure starts to really fail. I think we’re going to need every tool we can get, no matter how embedded it is in the old regimes of accumulation, to start putting together coalitions of those who work with their hands and those who work with their heads in a common front to build again in the ruins of the old commodity economy.

C.D.V.:  Do you think these counter-logistics movements could be scaled up to deal with problems the size of the ecological problems we have now?

M.W.:  Well, we’ll see! In one way not. We really are sitting on top of a massive infrastructure that was built for a mode of production for which we are simply running out of planet. If you have ever seen an open-cut coal mine or a steel plant or have flown over the midwest and seen industrial agriculture — the scale of these things pretty reliably produces the feeling of the technological sublime. And we need not just other technologies but another mode of production — or maybe modes. So scale is a major problem for our times.

The importance of something like Occupy Sandy is on the one hand that it reveals the scale of that problem in negative. The gap between what can be done and what is to be done is always the space where critical thought happens. And its a school for techniques of organizing life and labor and the everyday otherwise.

And also — who knows? — the future might actually be about a more finely distributed network of finer links and nodes, rather than the massive hub-and-spoke approach of late capitalism. But one would want to sever that technical and geographic imagination from some of the ideological baggage that currently comes with it.

There’s always a difference between the space of possibility that a technology implies and its actual deployment within a given economic and cultural context. Technologies are usually brought out of the lab into the world to fight some war or other, be it actual war or economic war. But these things exceed their instrumentalization.

The tools for the kind of cybernetic socialism imagined, say, by Bogdanov in Red Star now actually exist. But it is as if we are caught in an additional regime of surplus extraction. The extraction of surplus information, and not just from labor, but from non-labor as well, from everyday life. At least a part of what is distinctive about Google for example as a business is the capture of surplus information.

But that’s not all these sorts of tools could do, and a different, more livable, more equitable organization of life is certainly an affordance of what half a century of information technology might enable. Classic case of the forces bumping up against the fetters of obsolete relations of production, although not quite as Marx imagined.

C.D.V.:  To shift gears for a moment, I would like to ask you about what do you see as the limitations of left-wing imagination since Occupy?

W.M.:I’m a bit tired of ‘critiques’ of occupy by people who were not even there. I was myself only one of the crowd, a body, and only ‘part time’, as it were. Actually I spent more time writing in Zoccotti Park than anything — all three of my pieces where actually written there! That’s why they are rather abrupt — the battery does not last forever! And particularly in ‘This Shit Is Fucked Up and Bullshit’, which ended up in my book Telesthesia but circulates pretty freely as well, I wanted to concentrate on the ‘glass half full.’

I went to the launch of the latest issue of Tidal just last week, and I was impressed with some of the directions people were pressing an activist analysis. Looking at how the Palestinian Authority, and Palestinian people, are increasingly controlled by debt. And I was particularly interested in the attempt to reach out to comrades in Detroit who have many decades now of organizing in the ruins of the old capitalist mode of production. What Grace Lee Boggs calls visionary organizing rather than protest organizing.

But I think one forward step would be to join up critical energies coming from the humanities and the technical fields again. It Happens intermittently: in the thirties, again in the seventies, and it needs to happen now. The mutual suspicion of these two domains is an effect of reification itself. So I would like to see something like Mike Cooley’s work, and the Lucas Aerospace Plan, but imagined for this whole, emerging, post-capitalist but still commodity and exploitative economy we are entering upon. Given current productive capacities, what other totality could this be? That strikes me as a key question for the times.

C.D.V.:  Why do you think there is much more interest in Humanities on the academic spectrum of the left and seemingly less interest in sciences in the theoretical discourse?  Do you think this is a large part of why there has been less thinking and writing on information theory in Marxist and post-Marxist circles?

M.W.:  Its good to have a knowledge of Marxist philosophy, but one can only get so far reading ‘classical’ texts and interpreting the world through them. That way you end up often seeing what is old about the present moment and not what is new. You see how it still conforms in a large part to the analysis Marx makes in the 1850s. But then he was talking about emerging tendencies. You do this now and you see the residual ones more clearly than the new ones. And one is certainly not going to have much clarity on forces of production that did not exist in his time. One is in short going to see the thermodynamic economy rather than the information economy.

There’s several historical twists where the interest Marx and Engels had in all things technical gets downplayed and we end up with a Marxism of the residual superstructures (culture, politics, art, literature) rather than of the emerging technical forms.

One is Lenin seeing of his rival Bogdanov, and opting for Plekhanov’s rather dogmatic materialism rather than Bogdnaov’s open-ended critical theory of science — his ‘tektology’. Another is Lukacs’ polemics against ‘reified’ scientific knowledge — about which he actually knew very little. He does not see, dialectically, how his knowledge of the totality is also reification, in negative. There’s Althusser’s return, not to science but to the philosophy of science, and the ‘high’ sciences at that. And where incidentally philosophy still claims for itself a regulatory role.

Perhaps most important for our historical moment is that I think we are still in the shadow of the ‘western Marxism’ put together after the failure of the moment of ’68. A western Marxism that retreats to the superstructures. It curious how Perry Anderson can claim with a straight face that outside of historiography there is no English Marxism. He pretty much totally ignores the great anglophone marxist science culture of the 30s and 40s. It was rather Stalinist, so there were good reasons to slight them at the time. But those reasons no longer apply to us.

And, unfortunately, a ‘one-dimensional’ romantic anti-scientism took hold. This was not without its merits, but in our era of climate change denial and evolution denial, it is definitely time to ‘bend the stick’ (as Lenin would say!) back the other way. Of course actually existing science and technology are homologous with the commodity form, but so very obviously are culture and philosophy. Its time for the dissenters on both sides of the ‘two cultures’ to find each other. One step towards that might be a revisionist history of what i would prefer to call ‘Northern Marxism’, some of which i just sketched.

And that might clear some space. Not to go off and obsess about Cantorian set theory or magically withdrawing objects or some other distraction, but to look at the sciences and technologies that really did reshape both the world and our perception of it in the late twentieth century, of which information science is an element. There are some elements of this already, but the task would be i think to reimagine Marx’s 19th century critique of political economy as a 20th century critique of information science.


C.D.V.:  Do you think that the last say five years and the reemergence of popular forms of Marxian discourse could open up a way out of the current malaise?

M.W.:  I think its good that there’s been a revival of interest in Marxian discourse. There has also been a renewal that you can see going on in several directions. The critique of university, of precarious labor, of finance and debt, even of the new post-culture industry media. There’s also new theoretical work going on and also some interesting engagements with various past thinkers. There’s a more practical discourse going on connected to occupations as well. Its all good.

On the other hand there are some more etiolated philosophical trends that may not be so helpful. The task is to get out of philosophy, not to endlessly return to it. After Lukacs and Sartre, there may be diminishing returns in yet another return to Hegel, for instance.

Some future paths to explore might include looking back through the archive for paths not taken, which might be useful now in ways they did not appear to be at the time. Why did Merleau-Ponty have to say about nature? How can the ecological and the informational components of marxian critique be brought together? But I think in the end its the vitality of social movements that leads to the vitality of theory, and not the other way around.

Interview with David Poulter on the New Atheism, Atheism Plus, and the Skeptical Movement

C. Derick Varn: You and I have both followed the careers and patterns of a few of the predominant members of the “Skeptical movement,” and in particular, the recent debates over Atheism Plus and New Atheism.  What do you think the issues are in New Atheism?

David Poulter:   I think the biggest issue in New Atheism is that they have attempted to create a “big tent” movement based entirely on a non-belief rather than on any sort of a belief. And I think that developments like Atheism Plus show how much of a failure this has been. Simple disbelief in a divine spaceman isn’t really a unifying concept, certainly not in the sense that desires for social justice, or class struggle or even racial/ethnic “identity” and “solidarity” can be and are.

In my view it’s almost like forming a social movement around being left handed. Perhaps if I grew up in a more religious-minded society I might see it differently and view a shared disbelief as something more significant than I do but that is not the case. At any rate I see myself as having far more in common with the likes of Baptist preacher Tommy Douglas and Archbishop Oscar Romero than I do with someone like Sam Harris or Penn Jillette despite a shared disbelief in the divine with the latter two.

Another significant issue, so far as I see it, includes a definite propensity to take on many of the characteristics of dogmatic religious belief systems while at the same time trying to wave the banner of “open-minded free thought”. Take the whole “elevatorgate” incident involving Rebecca Watson. As soon as she received criticism from Richard Dawkins to many that made her some manner of heretic and her response provoked further outrage. The wise man had spoken, she should have shut up seemed to be the feeling of many.

It’s amusing and sad that the New Atheist movement has chosen to ape many of the features of the religions it claims to reject. It has it’s holy figures in the form of Dawkins and Hitchens notably. Look at the outpouring of grief around Hitchens’ death, some of it taking the form of nigh-iconic drawings of him. Like this one.

That is a lovely halo effect going on there.

You also have the veneration of “impartial” science over all else with a rabid refusal to even contemplate that perhaps power does inform knowledge and that the likes of Foucault or Irigaray may be right when they discuss how it is the dominant power structure which dictates the sort of scientific knowledge is important or valid and thus impartiality is, to some degree, a myth. Only instead of using terms like “blasphemy” or “heresy” to rebuke contrary views the New Atheist movement and it’s true believers will chastise you for your “moral relativism”. Now I know this assessment will be denied by many Atheists given that I haven’t presented an empirical study in a proper journal and it’s only based on real life experiences dealing with New Atheists in a variety of arenas. And we all know actual real-life experience is worthless as it is mere “anecdotal evidence”…

C.D.V.:  Why do you think New Atheism takes two forms of liberalism (center-left liberalism a la British Labour Party, or American style libertarianism) as the dominant political modes? Often the binary is posited as if these positions are the only viable positions and all others are either religious outright or crypto-religious (such as Hitchen’s writings on his early Trotskyism).

D.P.:  I honestly have no idea. I find the libertarian position especially confusing given that there is actual statistical evidence that shows that state involvement in the economy is beneficial in terms of unemployment and overall standard of living. I guess it ties into how many in the New Atheist movement have developed their own articles of faith that can never be questioned despite the claims of making judgements based on empirical evidence.

I would guess that some of it stems from an entrenched adoration of the Enlightenment period and it’s heavily atomistic view of the individual. Whenever there is any discussion of philosophy amongst the New Atheists/ Skeptics I know it always seems to stall out at Hume, Mill, Paine, Locke etc. which makes sense given the aforementioned veneration of Science and the Scientific Method as the “one true path to knowledge”. So it would make sense that their political models would be similarly entrenched in the concepts of the primacy of the individual. To get all anecdotal again I know one person who started reading Heidegger and there was some trepidation expressed by her fellow New Atheists. It was felt that his philosophy was adequately “scientific”, although the links to Nazism were not really important. She defended her interest in non-Empiricist philosophy by stating “I do believe an objective universe exists out there, but I also get really frustrated with people in the skeptical community who seem to really not want to acknowledge how subjective personal experience/thought/memory/language/etc is.” which I see as being a great response. Although it is puzzling that a defense had to be proffered at all.Another factor that I think might play a role in this libertarian streak is the background of many in the New Atheist/ Skeptic camp in “geek” culture notably fanstasy and science fiction. These genres do tend to focus on the deeds of the “Great Man” and how important they are, again advocating the primacy of the individual. So I can see how that might lead to a similar outlook in life. There was a discussion I got into on a D&D board about 10 years ago about the inherent right-wing bias in most RPGs where issues of the actions of the exceptional individual were touched upon as well as the issue of non-relative/absolute morality as expressed in the alignment system. Comics also play into this in my opinion, especially with the rise of the heavily individualistic “gritty anti-hero” figure in the 80s and 90s. I can see how someone who grew up with the message that “great” individuals can and should set their own rules and act as agents of true morality and justice might lead someone into developing a quasi-Nietzschean/ Randian philosophical underpinning.

I can only assume in the case of the center-left liberalism that it’s because it’s a pretty easy position to maintain and doesn’t really rock the boat at all or call for wholesale and massive systemic changes, while still running contrary to the conservative philosophy of most religious people and displaying some basic laudable humanistic concerns. Again pointing to how poor a motivating or unifying force simple disbelief is. Expecting libertarians to co-exist with soft left liberals in some sort of big tent group solely because of a shared disbelief is nonsensical as developments with the Atheist Plus movement show us. And this is a split more inevitable than the numerous splits amongst the far Left and based far more on very real differences of belief. Obviously I’m pretty comfortable with this sort of position amongst New Atheists as it’s fairly close to my own wishy-washy Democratic-Socialist beliefs although I would like it better if they were a little more opposed to capitalism as a whole and not just its more egregious offenses.

Another factor would probably be that the far Right does tend to employ a fair amount of what New Atheists dismiss as “woo” in terms of romanticized visions of race and pseudo-spirituality along with dodgy anthropology. While on the far Left, atheism is simply a given and not really a central point of belief at all. And as mentioned before conservatism generally has a fair religious streak which would make it unattractive to work with, at least so far as domestic politics is concerned.

C.D.V.: Why was a particularly mild form of feminism the launching point for the split?

D.P.:  Again for that I would point to the background of many New Atheists in “geek” culture which is not and has never been particularly enlightened or egalitarian when it comes to women’s issues and is somewhat deservedly noted for a fair amount of social awkwardness. Making it worse is the self-image of enlightened thought that many have so as soon as the slightest criticism comes down it provokes a shit-storm response because it is seen as an attack on the very most central element of their self-concept. It’s being pointed out that they are not the enlightened noble intellectual who is above the base masses so when it gets pointed out that they are little better than the stereotypical construction worker shouting “Hey baby!” and that goes over poorly. Add to this a certain amount of that libertarian value system that feels “personal freedom” is somehow imperiled by any sort of feminism that seems to run in the NA community to this generally poor track record in dealing with women and let simmer.

That’s a big part of why you see the same figures who were at one point lauded for their actions when they were proposing their “Boobquake” now being vilified for being “feminazis” because they expressed a desire to not be hit on in isolated places (like elevators at 3 in the morning) or because they would like to see the most rudimentary of harassment policies in place at conventions and the like. They’re heroines when it’s letting the boys see some skin but when it’s time to curb the neck-licking and crude come-ons suddenly they are evil incarnate. Again it ties into the lionizing of the individual, in this case it takes the form of “I want to act like a pig and those mean ol’ feminists are telling me not to so I’m a victim.” Let’s not forget this is a community where the fairly banal suggestion “don’t be a dick” was seen as an attack on the honest and free expression of thought and was actually controversial. Honestly I see more responsibility for actions taken by my 4 year old than I do from some New Atheists.

C.D.V.: This brings me to what I see as a failing of Atheism Plus, it does not actually articulate its ideology and instead tries to wrap left liberal politics in the guise of an identity: the atheist identity, which is posited as developing like that of religious minorities or homosexuals.  Do you see any significant failings politically in this approach?

D.P.: Well I do think they will run into huge difficulties being taken seriously as an actual identity worthy of recognition. There’s obviously a world of difference between being gay or black and being an atheist. As for religious identities often there is a racial/ethnic component attached to them that is part and parcel of the identity and keep people in that identity regardless of their actual belief system. For example I was arguing with one Atheist (that is to say a part of the New Atheist community) about, well everything I’ve brought up so far. He was trying to argue that Islamophobia had no racist component to it at all if I recall correctly and claimed that one couldn’t experience anti-Semitism if one was not a practicing Jew. So I guess the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 never existed and no-one ever wound up in a death camp who was labeled as Jewish yet was not a practicing Jew. This same sort of religious identity existing outside of actual religious practice is also something I have also seen firsthand amongst the Catholic/ Protestant divides in the UK, well Northern Ireland anyways. Given that atheism lacks the sort of history that leads to these identities existing I cannot see the attempt to create an Atheist identity succeeding anymore than I can see an attempt to create a LaRouche Democrat identity that is viewed with any sort of validity. Not being seen as an atheist is a simple matter of saying “God? Yeah he’s cool”. Other groups don’t get that luxury even when their identity is supposedly a matter of belief.

C.D.V.:  So what do you think the Atheism Plus movement is masking in response to divisions with the New Atheists?   Furthermore, why do you think they are afraid of prior militant atheism even if they argue some of the same positions or even slightly more radical ones?

D.P.: If by “masking” you mean what are they trying to gloss over in order to set themselves apart from New Atheism the most notable factor would have to be the continued advocacy, or at least tolerance, of neo-conservative politics of hegemony and extant power structures found in Capitalism. As you pointed out Atheism Plus has by and large adopted the politics of the liberal left and can even be considered progressive in terms of their outlook in terms of social and domestic issues. When it comes to foreign policy politics or the political underpinnings of society as a whole though there is often no critique of neo-conservative policies or Capitalism as a system. Specific outrages, like Abu Ghraib or abuses by banks, might be condemned but the overall policies that lead to these situations go by and large ignored or accepted, if not endorsed. It’s not really that surprising mind you given that two of the idols of the liberal left are Clinton and Obama both of whom were and are staunch advocates of neo-con policies and certainly nothing close to being the “socialists” their foes have claimed them to be. Certainly with a quick perusal of the Atheism Plus forums you see scant attention paid to foreign policy or economic issues while social and lifestyle issues get considerably more mention. This in spite of the professed desire of the likes of PZ Meyers to apply “Skepticism and the scientific method… within even fields that are routinely disparaged by skeptics, like sociology and economics.”

I don’t know if the proponents of Atheism Plus really are afraid of the previous school of militant atheism so much as they have started to realize that they do have some major disagreements and differences with many in that group, notably seen in the fallout from both Plait’s “don’t be a dick” speech and from Watson’s “elevatorgate”. Such a split was, as I posited earlier, pretty much inevitable. I suppose it could be argued that they are merely a happy progressive face slapped on the same old Atheism. Certainly at times it seems like it is for the most part the assessment of simple identity/lifestyle politics from a liberal left position with an adding of non-belief and continue in the “objectivity and science shall set you free” mindset. But if Atheism Plus can lead people to focus more on issues beyond a non-belief in a god, get over their “empiricism or gtfo” attitude and possibly even start to apply their critical assessments to more than identity and lifestyle politics that would be great. Although I do love the arguments over whether the word “stupid” is “able-ist”. Riveting stuff that.

C.D.V.: Let’s shift out to a larger focus: The Skeptic’s Movement as a whole. Recently, I was listening to the Skeptoid podcast and the host listened Penn and Teller as the number one celebrity in science. This hit me given that I remembered Penn Juliette once saying at a skeptic’s conference: “No education is better than a government education.”  But what hit me even more was the number of celebrities that claimed that “science” is the “only method of thinking that had any kind of check against bias” which is fundamentally false.  What do you think is going with this rather a-scientific view of science itself?

D.P.: You mean why does there seem to always be a subtext to every discussion of science with Skeptics? A subtext that goes something like “Allow yourself to be engulfed by the Purifying Blue Flame of Science’s Great Bunsen Burner of Reason! For it shall burn away all your subjectivity and leave you Enlightened and seeing the Truth! Hallelujah!”? I know it’s a pretty flippant answer but I see Science as Skepticism’s holy of holies and any criticism or questioning of Science (as opposed to science) and it’s actual objectivity is essentially blasphemy. It’s ironic given the supposed value placed on critical thinking and assessment but Science and the belief in complete Scientific Objectivity is the religion of Skepticism and can never be assailed. It could be that it’s an over-reaction to writers like John Ralston Saul, Code, Foucault (again) and the like. Certainly books like Voltaire’s Bastards seems to get their metaphorical undies all bunched up as do the numerous post-modernist and feminist discussions on the role social forces play in shaping our perceptions and values about knowledge.

 Backtracking to the question about how the most mainstream and soft form of feminism led to huge backlash within the Skeptic/New Atheist community it could very well be the role feminism has played in critiquing and questioning scientific objectivity that contributed to that. Because some have come to see feminism as an enemy of science any sort of feminist thought must be guarded against. Again ironic given the lip service paid to “critical free thought”.
C.D.V.:  Well, I’ve actually noticed an unwillingness to define what exactly they mean by “reason” (as there are many different systems of reasoning) and what exactly they mean by science other than either peer-review or the Baconian method (which isn’t accurate for all disciplines including theoretical physics and biology or social sciences). In fact, there have been attempts to expand the traditional demarcation of science without either meta-ethical or meta-methodological justification  Sometimes, Popper’s falsifiability criterion is used, but then mathematically sciences are eliminated as well as anything involving Bayesian statistics. Take, for example, Sam Harris’s “objective science” of morality which conflates the normative and descriptive without serious argument but with an analogy to medicine. When pushed on this, even figures with a philosophy background such as Harris (who has a philosophy degree from Stanford) become hostile to philosophy or the humanities.What do you think motivates this hostility? It is the same kind of hostility one sees in the humanities towards, say, mathematics, or is there something more ideological at hand?

D.P.:The inability/unwillingness to define “reason” etc is pretty funny considering when pop criticisms of this “cult of reason” (like Voltaire’s Bastard, I’m Canadian and in my 40s, the book was a bit of a popular phenomenon here in the 90s) get criticized one of the common critiques takes forms like “one searches in vain — not only in the introductory chapter, but throughout the entire book — for an unambiguous explanation of the term defining his central thesis.” (as Pat Duffy Hutcheon said of Saul’s book). So if you are using “reason” in a positive sense you can be as vague as you want but if being critical you have to provide a painfully specific definition, otherwise you’re being obscurant. Funny, but not unexpected given the notable and documented human tendency to be more critical in their assessment of positions they already disagree with while not applying the same rigorous standards to positions they like.

As for where this hostility towards the humanities and philosophy come from I think it might have some of its origins in the all too common “hard vs soft” science divide found in academe but certainly it now seems very ideological. Going back to the friend who had her New Atheist/ Skeptic friends expressing surprise over her reading of Heidegger, at least one of them had an academic background in Philosophy. And a cursory look at the friends (and friends of friends) who are a part of this community shows the same sort of backgrounds. Many have no academic background in the “hard” sciences yet they readily join in this elevation of the concept of “objective science”, so obviously it has gone beyond simply the general academic rivalry and become an ideological tenet of this group that the sort of epistemology found in the “hard” sciences and mathematics is superior to that found in the “soft” sciences. And funnily enough it often seems like the ones who do have a definite “hard” science background are more willing to accept, or at least consider, criticisms of scientific objectivity beyond vulgar interpretations of Popper. Probably just a case of their being more notable though, I can think of a few who exemplify the “hard” science bias who do have a background in that area.

As an aside in some cases I do wonder how much of the humanities backgrounds, along the lines of Harris’ in Philosophy, are dilettantish endeavors undertaken in order to become the sort of “well-rounded” expert figure that Voltaire lionized. Certainly many seem to like to restrict their philosophical reading to Empiricists and Logical Postivists, seldom straying far from those who might question scientific objectivity. Nothing against dilettantes mind you, I generally consider myself to be one. It’s just when that confuses some basic knowledge with expertise you run the risk of developing the sort of “arrogance and ignorance” that Popper saw in some of the Atheist community.

There’s no question as to how much of the “I fucking love Science” mentality is down to dilettantish dabbling though. A lot of it.

C.D.V.: What do you think socialists should do when interacting with the skeptic’s community? We superficially share some values. What do you think socialists should do when interacting with the skeptic’s community? We superficially share some values.

 D.P.I think that basically Socialists can’t view someone’s status as a “Skeptic” as at all relevant in determining what form any interaction takes. I think that’s an all too common error made by some in cases where they decide there must be some sort of kinship based on not believing in a god or a professed desire for critical analyses. To me there needs to be more than that. To me it’s more important where they stand politically and doing an inventory on areas of agreement vs areas of difference and evaluating whether those differences outweigh the areas of agreement.

Take Penn Jillette, are Socialists to see themselves in solidarity with someone who is an unabashed advocate for unbridled Capitalism who is just as home on the Glenn Beck show as anywhere else? Or in the case of Hitchens, while he may have claimed to still be a Socialist the fact is that he became an apologist for neo-Conservative politics and acted as a mouthpiece for the Bush administration’s policies in both the Middle East and domestically (when he proclaimed bin Laden to be a greater threat to freedom in America than then AG John Ashcroft). Or Harris with his supporting the concept of “preemptive retaliatory strikes” against Iran should that nation ever acquire nuclear weapons. It’s great that they don’t believe in a god and what have you but those differences are far too great in my opinion to overcome. It’s like expecting Socialists to work with the Far Right anti-Capitalists and not take into account the issue that many of them are, for want of a better way to phrase it, Nazis or at least pretty racist and/or Fascistic. Or expecting Anarchists from the Bakunin/ Kropotkin school to align themselves with “An-Caps” because both don’t like hierarchical power structures. I suppose the more Libertarian Skeptics could be worked with on an issue by issue basis but to expect them to ever be in any sort of real accord with Socialists because of a shared disbelief is unrealistic.

The same holds true for the more left-liberal Skeptics as well, although there are probably more issues there that I can see co-operation on. Even so they tend to get bogged down in issues of identity politics and semantics from a fairly mainstream liberal position, at the expense of considering issues of dismantling Capitalism, to ever really be in accord with Socialists. Particularly in terms of dealing with the more Marxist elements of Socialism. I think the adage of “morality has no place in politics” might strike them as being too close to the “Empiricism or gtfo” attitude (as one friend who leans towards the Atheism Plus school describes it) that they take issue with from their fellow Skeptics and that their focus on things like combating ableism would probably drive many Marxists bat-shit crazy.

C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?

D.P.: Nothing much really, we’ve covered most of the bases as to how I feel about the New Atheist/ Skeptic community. In general I had and have high hopes for it and think it’s great if we can see the influence of religion and superstition lessened in the world. I just think that it tries to tie too many disparate points of view and outlooks to ever succeed as a movement in it’s own right. And I also find that in spite of the professed desire for critical analysis and constant questioning the NA/ Skeptic community tends to refuse to apply those same standards to itself as we saw with the veritable shit-storm that arose when the most mild of criticisms was made from within. In that regard it mirrors the worst quality of many movements, including ones on the Left, that being a tendency to cleave too strongly to a set core of beliefs with nigh-religious zeal and not allow any questioning of those beliefs. It’s just that with the professed advocacy of free thought in the NA/ Skeptic movement such dogmatic adherence to beliefs comes off as disappointingly hypocritical.

Interview with Ben Campbell on Marxism’s relationship to science

Ben Campbell is a Ph.D. student in computational neuroscience, and a Marxist.  He is a frequent contributor to The North Star and a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society.


C. Derick Varn: Marxian notions of science are characterized in two incompatible ways:  I have heard Marxists and Marx being accused of proto-postmodern relativism and absolute social constructivism, and conversely as positivistic and crudely deterministic. Do both of these characterizations misunderstand something fundamental about Marx and Marxist-influenced epistemology?

Ben Campbell: In discussing Marxism’s relation to science, it is important to note that there is no one “Marxism”. Rather, it must be understood that Marxism frayed into several strands, particularly after Marx and Engels’ death, and especially after the political failures of the early twentieth century. One of the many areas in which this great divergence of Marxisms can be seen is in their relation to science.

The coherence of Marxism rests upon an attempted synthesis of materialism and the Hegelian dialectic. What exactly is meant by such a synthesis has been a subject of great debate. A particularly problematic character in this debate has been Lenin. Lenin’s philosophy, as expressed mainly in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism and his Philosophical Notebooks, is quite ambiguous and perhaps contradictory—he seems never quite able to resolve the synthesis between the Hegelian dialectic and materialism. At Lenin’s worst, his philosophy reduces to a “reflection theory”, and what Axelrod called “naive realism”. At his best, Lenin wrestles with the attempt to “apply dialectics to… the process and development of knowledge”, but the issue was never really resolved in his writings. Due to the eventual canonization of these problematic texts, these ambiguities would lead to great disputes in Soviet Marxism, and consequently in Marxism more generally, ranging widely from the metaphysical to the positivistic. Eventually, Soviet “dialectical materialism” would largely be reduced to mechanistic materialism, with the “dialectic” a mere superficial stylistic ornament, the ambiguity of which could be deployed for political purposes. Partially in response, much of the academic work of “Western Marxism” moved in the other direction, abdicating claims to the natural sciences, eventually leading to what you call “proto-postmodern relativism.”

So yes, various “Marxisms” can be accused of suffering from one or the other of these shortcomings, but these must be seen as symptoms of the degeneration of Marxism as a coherent whole. And from a Marxist perspective, this intellectual fragmentation is inseparable from the political failure of Marxism, and the continuation of capitalism with its extreme divisions of intellectual labor. Marxism, at least as envisioned by Marx and Engels, was meant to be a coherent Weltanschauung capable of transcending this divide. While one could argue that there have been some Marxists who have demonstrated the potential of such an aspiration, I do not think that Marxism has ever reached this aspired level of coherence.

Soviet-era chart of the brain: Where intuition resides

Thus it seems necessary to return to Marx and Engels themselves, and ask if there may have been something faulty in their project—perhaps the attempted synthesis of materialism and the Hegelian dialectic is ultimately unstable? Did Marx and Engels themselves even have a clear sense of Marxism’s relation to natural science? Here, many authors have attempted to stress a fundamental distinction between Marx and Engels, for the implicit purpose of saving Marx from some of the ostensibly “positivist” or “metaphysical” elements introduced into “dialectical materialism” by Engels (note the opposite charges). While there are certainly differences between the two thinkers, their correspondence indicates that these are mainly differences in emphasis rather than fundamental differences in outlook.

So what was Marx and Engels’ orientation to natural science? Certainly it is not as explicitly identified or consistent as we might like. The question of what a materialist dialectic exactly means is one that strikes to heart of Marxism’s relation to science, and epistemology. And it is a question that has never really been answered, even in the writings of Marx and Engels. But then again, perhaps it wasn’t supposed to be, for as Engels would write in Anti-Duhring, dialectics “is nothing more than the science of the general laws of motion and development of nature, human society and thought”, and in Dialectics of Nature, “to me there could be no question of building the laws of dialectics into nature, but of discovering them in it and evolving them from it.”

Thus instead of looking to Marx and Engels to discover what they really meant by this synthesis, perhaps it is more useful to look to scientific developments for insight.

C.D.V.: What does a Marxian theory of science look like in specific terms?

B.C.: There are really two approaches to this question. The first is a meta-scientific response that addresses the question as one of the theory, practice, philosophy, and history of science. What does Marxism tell us about science and how it is practiced in capitalist society? In this sense, it is worth considering the Hegelian dialectic and its advancement through the resolution of contradictions. There is some similarity here to Karl Popper’s famous view of science proceeding by falsification, with the obvious irony that Popper was a strident anti-Hegelian. The difference is that a Hegelian conception of science anticipates the criticisms that would be leveled at Popper, such as “confirmation holism”, and historicizes this notion of scientific progress. Interestingly, Popper’s most famous epigone, Imre Lakatos was an ex-Marxist émigré from Stalinist Hungary, were he was schooled in Hegelian Marxism — at times directly from György Lukács. Based partially on this background, but more importantly on the themes of his philosophy of science, the author John Kadvany has referred to Lakatos as a “philosophical mole”, and a “covert Hegelian taking the Popperian castle by storm”. But regardless of Lakatos’ intentions (was he really trying to Hegelianize Popper?) we can see in Lakatos something resembling a Hegelian philosophy of science.

As for a Marxist philosophy of science, it would have to synthesize such Hegelian notions of scientific progress with the recognition that scientific consciousness, while ultimately empirically constrained, is shaped by social being—and in capitalist society that is by the reproduction of capital and the scientific labor process. Thus, if you were to synthesize a philosopher like Lakatos with “externalist” accounts characteristic of the best of sociology of science, then you’re starting to get at a Marxian philosophy of science.

Now, speaking of “philosophy of science”, there is a tendency in the West to separate philosophy from science, such that “philosophy of science” studies how science progresses as an institution, but it doesn’t have much to say about scientific theories or nature—that is, it is a study of form, rather than content. This view has been encouraged, by what are seen as the historic failures of Soviet science, which are often seen as a blanket condemnation of philosophical and political interference in science. This rather simplistic portrayal is unfortunate. As Engels once said:

“Natural scientists believe that they free themselves from philosophy by ignoring it or abusing it… they are no less in bondage to philosophy, but unfortunately to the worst philosophy, and those who abuse philosophy most are slaves precisely to the worst vulgarised relics of the worst philosophies… It is only a question whether they want to be dominated by a bad fashionable philosophy or by a form of theoretical thought which rests on acquaintance with the history of thought and its achievements.”

Scientists always use philosophy to inform theory, whether they realize it or not. The very act of induction implies metaphysical speculations about the way the world is. Thus, the second response to this question, which is in my opinion more interesting, involves looking to contemporary science to inform philosophy, and vice versa.

If we return to Hegel, I should point out that he was deeply influenced by the Naturphilosophie of his day, and his thinking was really an attempt to develop an organic conception of the world. Indeed, as Frederick Beiser puts it, the purpose of The Science of Logic was to develop a “logic of life”. While some of Hegel’s scientific errors have been notorious, the central vision of the logic of life expressed by Hegel stands up remarkably well. That is, that life itself is a process driven by the resolution of contradictions between the object and the subject’s representation of it. That is, we can see in Hegel an attempt to answer the question later posed by Erwin Schrödinger: What is Life?

In answering this question from a biological perspective, there is a long tradition viewing life as a homeostatic process. Sometimes this perspective has been dominant, at other times less so. You can see it from early experimentalists like Claude Bernard and Walter Cannon to cyberneticists like Norbert Wiener and W. Ross Ashby. In this general view, life is envisioned as a process of regulating an internal environment against the ongoing threat of entropy. “Cybernetics”, coined by Wiener, comes from the Greek for “steersman”, emphasizing life as a perilous process of navigation. And as Ashby would note, the process of regulating a system requires the “modeling” of that system. Thus, life is seen as a process of organism modeling its environment. Or, as I said earlier, this is a view of life as a “process driven by the resolution of contradictions between the object and the subject’s representations of it”. Thus, there are long-standing conceptions of life that are ‘dialectical’, quite different than much of the popular molecular biological reductionism.

This conception of a materialist dialectic is perhaps most interesting in the cognitive sciences. In his own day Hegel critiqued Kant, who was himself responding to the threat posed by empiricism. To simplify greatly, this general progression can be seen from behaviorism, to the “cognitive revolution”, to today’s increasingly dialectical conception of the brain. That is, the cognitive science of the 1960s and 1970s was characterized by the study of “forms of thought” in response to the limits of naive empiricism. Hegel praised Kant for a similar maneuver, but went further, arguing that the forms of thought must critique themselves, and thus become dynamic. And likewise, the contemporary conception of the brain has moved from one of a more passive filter to an active conception usually termed “Bayesian”.

Thus, while few contemporary biologists would recognize it as such, contemporary biology is increasingly a vindication of Hegel’s dialectical understanding of the subject-object relation, and hence Marx’s materialist dialectic. Does that mean that today’s science is, in a way, Marxian? No. Marxism is more than just the materialist dialectic. A Marxist scientific practice would be one whose subjects were conscious of that dialectic, both in its natural and social forms. Today’s science, greatly atomized and lacking in coherence, is a long way from that.

C.D.V. Could you expand on this notion of the “increasingly dialectical conception of the brain”?

B.C.: Well, let’s start with a behaviorist conception of the brain as a model learning the statistical relation between sensory inputs and motor responses, a view taken to its logical extreme in B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior. What was known as the “cognitive revolution” was very much a reaction to the limits of such a conception, with Chomsky’s review of Skinner’s book somewhat of an opening salvo. From then on you begin to see in the “cognitive sciences” an increasing focus on mental forms, cognitive schemata, internal representations, etc.  A particularly crude way of thinking about this is that there are a priori mental forms, into which external input is stored, with these forms often (but not always) taken as innate structures of the mind or brain.

However, as I mentioned earlier, to parallel all this work, there has been a trend in cybernetics and computational neuroscience looking at the relation between content and form. Some of this work started by asking the question: how would the brain efficiently store all of this information? And of course the most efficient forms are dependent on content, giving rise to conceptions in which the “forms of thought” themselves vary dynamically, a view developed by early information theory and cybernetics, but also in experimental neuroscience. And so, for example, you would see theoretically-heavy work arguing that the forms in which the visual cortex stores information depend dynamically on the spatial statistics of visual input.

Now, the interesting development in neuroscience came throughout the 1990s when this relation between form and content was increasingly considered temporally. This view of the brain, leaning an internal model of the temporal statistics of its inputs, is one of prediction—that is, that the cerebral cortex, far from just passively receiving incoming input, is actively predicting that input. This has given rise to a contemporary conception of the brain (usually called “Bayesian”) that emphasizes the central importance of contradiction. That is, the brain is constantly predicting its input, and updating its internal model when these predictions are contradicted. And this contemporary view, as emphasized by theorists like Karl Friston, relates back to the earlier homeostatic views of cyberneticists.

Contemporary scientists wouldn’t go near the word “dialectics”, but I cannot think of a better word for this emerging conception of the brain, and indeed life. The characteristic features of a “dialectical” understanding—contradiction, internal relations, emphasis on “the totality”—all find their parallel within contemporary neuroscience. And so in this view, as I said earlier “life is a dialectical process driven by the resolution of contradiction between the environment and the subject’s representation of it.”

Importantly, however, this is not merely a passive question of ‘modeling’. In speaking of the importance of the brain the neurophysiologist Rudolfo Llinás often references the tunicate, or “sea squirt”. Sea squirts begin their life as tadpoles using a primitive nervous system to navigate along the ocean floor looking for a suitable place to live. When it finds such a location, the sea squirt implants itself, to live its adult life as a filter feeder. It then proceeds to digest its primitive brain. The lesson here is that the brain is an organ tied to movement; an animal that does not move has little use for a brain. Thus, in talking of a dialectical conception of the brain, it is necessarily an active interaction of subject and object—or to paraphrase the most famous of Marx’s theses on Feuerbach: the purpose of the brain is not to interpret the world, but to change it!

Soviet-era chart on the relationship of materialism to various other philosophical forms

C.D.V.: What do you think are the key differences between Marx and Engels on science?

B.C.: I am not convinced that there are key differences. Certainly, Marx wrote much less on natural science than Engels, but it seems that this was merely the result of Marx’s deference to Engels on the topic, not a fundamental disagreement between the two. While I am not a Marxologist, I have not seen any evidence of such disagreement. Nevertheless, this has not stopped many Marxists from asserting a fundamental difference between the two, with the seeming misstep of the “dialectics of nature” pinned on Engels. As I stated earlier, these criticisms have come from two opposite directions! On one hand, Engels has been blamed for introducing metaphysical speculation reminiscent of Naturphilosophie into materialism, while on the other hand he is accused of reducing Marx’s humanism to a vulgar mechanical materialism. The fact that Engels can be attacked from two different directions indicates the fundamental tension that exists in Marxism’s attempted synthesis of Hegelian philosophy and materialism. As his problematic Dialectics of Nature demonstrates, Engels never seemed to quite resolve the problem—and thus neither did Marx. But both were interested in it, understood the general contours of it, and attempted to synthesize a Weltanschauung of “dialectical materialism” (although the term was coined by Dietzgen, and now seems inseparable from Stalinist orthodoxy).

Now, having said that, I cannot help but wonder if Marx would have avoided some of the unfortunate formulations and speculations contained in Engels’ scientific writings. In particular, Lukács in History and Class Consciousness is correct to claim that the “the interaction of subject and object” is lost in many of Engels’ metaphysical speculations. It seems incorrect, however, for Lukács to claim that these “crucial determinants of dialectics” are “absent from our knowledge of nature”. They are abundantly present in biology, which is unsurprising, since Hegel was so influenced by an organic view of nature.

C.D.V.: What do you make of the recent turn of a lot of technocratically center liberals towards both neurology and evolutionary psychology to underpin their political instincts?

 B.C.: Well, science has a reputation as a neutral arbiter of truth, and as such it is unsurprising that “scientific” claims are frequently enlisted as ideology in support of those with power, which exists today as capital in its manifestation as neoliberalism. One could go back many decades, of course, to see science used as ideology in previous phases of capital accumulation, such as various racist theories in the heyday of imperialism, and even the advocation of eugenics against the working class in the august pages of Nature. Of course, liberals now look back at this “science” in horror, as though it marks mere scientific misconduct or bad practice, while from a Marxist perspective it is entirely expected. Marxism is unique in its understanding of science, ascribing neither to a naive scientific empiricism, nor a postmodern relativism. It questions the ideological assumptions of science, particularly with respect to the requirements of capital, without denying the possibility of scientific truth.

The turn to neoliberalism has been accompanied by the ideology of the “free market” increasingly read into science, as a part of human nature. Evolutionary psychology is the most well-known example, itself somewhat of a rehash of the earlier sociobiology of the 1970s. In their most vulgar forms, these schools of thought attempt to explain nearly all features of human behavior as natural byproducts of human evolution. In this way, through Darwinian selection, people have been selected to maximize “fitness”. While fitness can be precisely defined in terms of reproduction, such controlled experiments are impossible in most cases. Thus, in the hands of an evolutionary psychologist fitness can be treated somewhat similarly to the neoclassical economic category of “value”—that is, in an entirely circular manner. Why do people do things? Because they increase fitness. What increases fitness? Why, whatever people do! By this type of armchair reasoning, evolutionary psychologists can deduce “just-so” stories to explain nearly all human behavior. Some are plausible explanations, for example that the common fear of snakes was adaptive for our primate ancestors. Others are less plausible. In a famous example, the neurologist V.S. Ramachandran wrote an evolutionary psychological response to the question “Why Do Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?” (“to enable them to detect the early signs of parasitic infestation and aging”). It was satirical, but some didn’t recognize it as such, giving some indication of the level of scholarship in this field. At any rate, seldom are evolutionary psychological explanations in any way testable.

While it is easy to laugh at the more absurd examples of evolutionary psychology, from a Marxist perspective it is far from humorous, as it serves as both a Panglossian justification for the status quo (one can always find an evolutionary explanation), and more specifically as “scientific” support for the ideology of neoliberalism, with its view of human nature as maximizing some utility function.

As I have mentioned, these debates are nothing new. Marxist-influenced biologists like Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould had ongoing disputes with sociobiologists like E.O. Wilson beginning in the 1970s. Unfortunately, this type of highly ideological science is today increasingly unchallenged. While there was a scientific element to both the Old Left and the New Left, today’s scientific Left is virtually nonexistent (or more optimistically, has yet to be born). One obstacle is the increasingly anti-scientific stance of the American Right, which for many scientists appears to have reinforced the identification of scientific values with liberalism, and at least postponed any critical scientific challenge to liberalism itself.

As a neuroscientist and a Marxist, some of the more troubling developments in recent years have been in the area of “neuroeconomics”. While much of the work carried out on human decision-making is quite valuable in challenging the assumptions of neoclassical economics, much of the work being conducted by “neuroeconomists” is heavily ideological, driven by a desire to synthesize neoclassical microeconomics and neuroscientific theory. And so the human brain is increasingly viewed through the lens of neoclassical theory, with the ventral tegmental area correlating with utility—dopamine as value drug. And so today, an increasing number of neuroscientists (well-intentioned people, indeed my colleagues and my former self) speak of the human brain as maximizing value, endeavor to measure value and reward with functional MRI experiments (often played for money), and elucidate our contemporary notion of “human nature” through this framework.

Now, from a Marxist perspective it is important to note that this heavily ideological science is not entirely wrong. Marx did not just dismiss his predecessors in political economy because their theories were ideological. Rather, he recognized fundamental insight in their work and went on to develop a critique from that work. Similarly must a Marxist approach both the later developments in economics, and the type of science derived from its assumptions.

I do not dispute that the functioning of the brain can be read in a manner broadly consistent with the notion of maximizing utility. But just as there are different coordinate systems for the same geometry, so are there different interpretations of the same brain activity. Why is brain and behavior so commonly interpreted as “maximizing utility”, when it could be equally interpreted as “minimizing disutility”? Note how the trivial shift in wording leads to a significant shift in our view of “human nature”. The first interpretation points to the neoclassical homo economicus. The second leads back to the homeostatic—and dialectical—view mentioned earlier.

 C.D.V.: Do you see this blurring of the lines between a highly philosophical (ideological) discipline like economics with neurology to be related to way most scientific endeavors are funded? Or do you think something else is going on?  I noticed a lot of co-option of evolutionary language in economics since the 1970s and Hayek’s use of socio-biology underpinning of the market as a form of evolution, but it seems to have gone far deeper now and the reason for it eludes me.

 B.C.: Well, the question of how capital influences the scientific “superstructure” is predictably difficult, especially science the large majority of scientific funding occurs via the state, and then through universities. So you’d need to get into some serious institutional analysis. It is for the most part not a question of vulgar causality, where corporate interests are directly funding science, such as in the age of tobacco research (although there are exceptions). Indeed, when one thinks of such conflicts today one thinks of climate scientists, whose conclusions, far from supporting capital, have been directly opposed by it (hence reinforcing the liberal notion of neutral science). So it is clearly not a situation of either extreme—of a neutral science “speaking truth to power”, nor of science as merely the ideology of capital. Unfortunately, the Marxist study of the history and practice of science is significantly underdeveloped, with the field of “Science and Technology Studies” really lacking a strong Marxist critique.

So, to speak only of the example given, neuroeconomics, I think there are two factors at work. The first is that economics, in order to address increasing criticism, has been forced into the field of psychology, in the form of behavioral economics. The second factor is that neuroscience, and biology in general, is a theory-poor field. This is largely the result of the intellectual fragmentation caused by the specialization of intellectual labor—a fragmentation that has increased substantially over the last few decades. This has led to a general decrease of coherence, with science increasingly reducing to a pastiche of theoretical forms—the science of late capitalism, in Fredric Jameson’s sense. And so just as economics is looking for support from psychology, neuroscience is largely looking for theory.

This trend is probably true more generally. With the decrease of coherent narrative, biology has been increasingly vulnerable to ideological interpretation—and it is certainly related to the decline and fragmentation of the Left.

 C.D.V.: What do you think a concerned response to these trends might be by Marxian thinkers?  Do you find Gould to be a particularly good example? 

 B.C.: There haven’t been many explicitly Marxist scientists in the West, at least not since the late 1930s and the disasters of Stalinist science (e.g. the purges of geneticists). There have been scientists that are Marxist-influenced, like Stephen Jay Gould, however this largely attests to the relative strength of Marxism academically in the post-War era. Back then simply receiving a broad pluralistic education would expose one to Marxist critiques and perhaps leave one sympathetic to them, but this is rather different than explicitly looking for connections between Marxism and science, as scientists and Marxists of previous generations had. In the case of Gould, it certainly made him much more skeptical of simplistic causal claims, particularly when they supported capitalist ideology, as well as emphasizing the role of contingency and historicism in nature.

While we could certainly use more scientists like Stephen Jay Gould (these days one can receive a broad pluralistic education without really learning about Marxism), I don’t think that this is sufficient. Scientists, and especially those who study science (e.g. sociology, history, and philosophy of science), really need to develop more of a structural critique of scientific institutions, ideology, and their relation to capital accumulation. And given the hitherto failure of the institutionalized study of science to do enough of this (e.g. Science and Technology Studies) it is likely that this will increasingly have to be done outside of the academy in collaboration with activists and journalists who are willing to engage with science dialectically—succumbing to neither the facile anti-scientific stances that have characterized some on the “left”, nor the uncritical championing of scientific empiricism. And this will be aided enormously with the participation of scientists engaged in an immanent critique of their own practices.

The question of how to radicalize a new generation of scientists is interesting. I do not think it will happen to a great extent without a broader rebirth of the left and leftist critiques more generally. In my case it was the broader upsurge of leftish politicization of 2011, epitomized in the Occupy movement, that sparked my interest in the relation of science and capital. And I think that only rarely would scientists even consider these questions without them being raised by a broader left.

Marginalia on Skeptical Thinking: Interview with Steven Gibson on the limitations of skepticism as a movement

He is a small-town entrepreneur who is by nature at odds with “the man.” The man says he is unemployable, and he is increasingly comfortable with that reality. He has been self-employed in video production and multimedia for the last decade. It was there that he wrote the well-reviewed novel of big and skeptical ideas “A Secret of the Universe: a Story of Love, Loss, and the Discovery of an Eternal Truth.”  Before that he ran a small office products dealership for a decade. Now he has started what will hopefully be the occupation for his next decade–a boutique car and driver service for independent seniors and busy professionals. Between all of that he questions everything and enjoy time with friends, his significant other, and his kids. I first came across him five years ago on his old podcast, Truth-Driven thinking.  Recently Steven Gibson has been more concerned with popular fallacies in economics, and over-claims in regards to religion and politics that are not often covered in the general skeptic’s community, or are covered only in a standard “Democratic Party” liberal or libertarian matter.  His honest struggling with the implications let me to want to talk with him on the issues in the community and the problems with skepticism as a “movement.”

C.Derick Varn:  What are the major “skeptical issues” that concern you that you don’t think get covered in the greater skeptic community?

Steven Gibson: ether it can be called a major “skeptical” issue or not is unclear; most of the “major issues” do seem to be adequately covered, almost by definition. That said, there remain many important areas of everyday life that appear to lack critical analysis. Economics and politics come to mind, though admittedly they are complex, “softer” areas of inquiry, so difficulties abound. That said, it seems to me that many, many assumptions exist about how our complex economies and markets work, and that economists don’t understand them nearly as well as advertised. Trickle that down to we everyday pundits and skeptical non-economists, and contrary to what we might expect, we see solutions promoted confidently–often quite certainly as “obvious” truths. But it is clear that ideological biases are attached, perhaps hinting at how we wish the world worked.

Among my favorite commentators happens to be a Hayekian, Austrian-leaning economist from the not-so-left George Mason University, Russ Roberts. He hosts “Econtalk,” and is generally a shining example of how to discuss and disagree while employing intellectual honesty (there are a few exceptions). He often has guest economists from other “schools” who disagree with him. But what I enjoy most is that he seems to readily admit that although he finds his math and arguments more compelling, others are just as convinced their math and arguments are far superior. And the truth is that these very limited models of hugely complex and unpredictable systems appear relatively poorly understood. In fact that is a fundamental message of Nassim Taleb (“The Black Swan” among his great books), who has also been a guest on the program.

Many argue that economics as a discipline, is not a predictive science, and thus should be off the hook for its astonishing failures to predict the things that really matter–such as busts like the global financial collapse of 2008. You might recall that most of the leaders of our economy touted the solid footings of the economy, and dismissed the sub-prime mortgage meltdown as quite isolated (from Bernanke and Geithner to Greenspan and Krugman). The simple fact is that for something as vital as how finance and economics systems work and are managed, we simply don’t understand how they really work in the real world. And yet we make all sorts of moral judgments based upon our almost faith-based narratives of what works and what does not.

Steve Keen’s new models, and thinkers like Nassim Taleb, and maybe a few others like Alan Harvey are at least banging their heads on the established clergy and encouraging rigor and dialogue, but there is a long way to go, it would appear. How about a little humility. Doesn’t the fact that an entire discipline completely missed, and cannot explain, the most significant of events in their economic lifetime imply the need for a little humility? A little introspection?

On the political front I will be more brief. It probably doesn’t even need to be summarized again, but from fact-checking to confirmation bias, we can quickly set our skepticism aside when it is “our guy.”


As always, my observations are purely anecdotal, based perhaps too heavily on Facebook exchanges and other interactions; and I admit to being guilty myself. My concern is that we too seem to fall prey to tribally- and ideologically-driven biases, filters of data, and downright flawed reasoning–just like anyone else. Whether that is objectivism, free market worship, or equally strong Marxist or populist views, we are not immune. Yet we do not discuss these real-world implications of lack of “skepticism” enough as a community.

For me, all roads lead to Rome. All the smaller, hard-science questions about how the world works are wonderful, but to me the goal would be to work up the chain to god questions, economics, happiness, and philosophical arguments. We should dabble in what is, and what could be. Unfortunately for this average guy from the Midwest, who has discovered just how little he knows, many of these disciplines are far over my head. That’s why I count on you and your readers. All I can tell you is that everywhere I look I see complexity and lack of understanding, but the appearance from others–including skeptics–of dogmatic certainty.

C.D.V.:  So what do you make of the relative decline of new atheism within the skeptics movement?

S.G.:   Gosh, that’s a tough question because of some built-in assumptions and definitions. If we stipulate that there is a skeptic movement, I’m a bit more hesitant to confess knowledge of the intimate link to new atheism, or of a decline in new atheism within that community. That said, if there is a decline it could be related to the natural cycle of things–there were a few bestselling books for a spell there that ignited conversations; that’s a great thing but momentum ebbs and flows. So I’m not certain about the premise.

It might be that the core of your question, however, focuses on whether or not atheism and skepticism are related; whether they should be; or better still if we run the risk of being scientistic when we spend lots of time on the god questions. At the risk of writing a book here, and showing my ignorance, I’ll take only a quick shot.

Atheism and skepticism are very much intertwined to the degree that supernatural explanations are used to describe natural events and make falsifiable (or potentially falsifiable) claims about how the natural world works. Taking actions based upon untrue assumptions can have horrible consequences. A sick child is refused a transfusion because god has told the parents to not allow it, and that this personal god actively will suspend the cause and effect of the world and move cells or molecules–without other known or unknown earthly cause–and thus heal him another way if we obey? That is a problem, and skeptics and scientists should be all over it. Great harm can come when any imagined claim about reality is acted upon without some degree of critical thinking, naturalistic testing, or thought. (Note: This is quite different than early intuition, thinking outside the box, and creativity or great insights or breakthroughs. (These appear to come from the same parts of the brain that religion does; one can be very “spiritual”, artsy, creative, intuitive, and even irrational, without resorting to defining the sources of such non-linear, non-reasoned creativity as supernatural.)

When “god claims” involve virgin births, causes of earthquakes, moving your pencil, or healing disease, it seems very cool to try to understand those mechanisms and falsify or prove the claim using earthly, naturalistic methods of science. The more we understand about earthly, natural “reality,” (always provisionally), the better off we are. Knowledge is a good thing, and improved knowledge of how the world really works, of causes and effects, always has accompanied forward progress and reduced human suffering. Always.

But beyond falsifiable claims, science has limits that should be recognized so as not to turn it into a religion or philosophy, without very clear disclaimers and delineations that we have entered a new realm (and maybe not even then; see as an admirable effort in that direction). Yes, one can probabilistically make guesses about the unknown based on the entirety of human knowledge, experience, observation, and testing–and thus suggest that a personal god who manipulates atoms is highly unlikely; but one cannot make definitive statements of certainty about that which is beyond our naturalistic, testable knowledge–at least it seems to me. We must be agnostic about mystical, non-falsifiable beliefs, as I believe even the great skeptic Marvin Gardner is said to have argued through his deistic beliefs. While I lean materialist, I realize that becomes a belief, and not the domain of science; . I have much to learn, but that is the thumbnail of my current thinking.

And to bring it full circle, to me it appears that new atheism gains traction slowly but surely when it stays in the realm of natural science, even when refuting claims of religion about testable claims. Where it seems to get itself in trouble is when it dips its toe too far over the line into scientism–which I might add that it does not do very often, but does do.

As for the “ought” part, I still say that all roads lead to Rome (the big questions), and that certainly religious claims made about cause and effect in the natural world are fair game and should be part of skeptical inquiry. But that ought to be engaged in carefully, compassionately, and kindly, with an eye on dialogue that makes the world better and affects meaningful improvements in the human condition. To simply badger or belittle, even with all the facts on your side, gets us nowhere.

C.D.V.:  To be fair, Steve, that was a trick question.  What do you think are the problems with the privileging of science over all other means of discourse for moral and aesthetics questions that often happens in the “skeptic’s community”  through use of disciplines which are themselves problematic as to demarcation as being scientific?  In this I would include things such as the use of simple evolutionary psychology or Dawkin’s memetics or Harris’s claims that morality is analogous to medical sceince to  the claims that the laws of evolution may apply to physics as being prime offenders?

S.G.:  So you are asking about the tendency of even skeptics to use soft or “sketchy” science (e.g. social science research, evolutionary psychology, etc.) in the arguments that science itself should be privileged above other means of answering moral and aesthetic questions? I’m a simple guy from Kalamazoo, and am probably over my head here so will simply say that I’m, well, skeptical of such arguments, and even dubious as to the motives for making them. Mix the demarcation problem with which philosophers of science have long wrestled, the dangers of groupthink and tribalism, and add the seductive power of a great narrative that makes so much sense that it “must” be true—and you have the potential for undermining the search for truth (via both the sketchy science itself, and the use of sketchy assumptions to oversell science, and its epistemological value).

I’ve long argued that one of the reasons we try to find truth in the world is so that we can take actions based upon how the world really works, which will minimize unanticipated consequences and make the world a better place (or less bad—depending on your perspective); conversely, when we take actions based on untruths, we get into all sorts of trouble. Simple. We want to seek truth, and need to be ever rigorous and vigilant of our claims, and avoid overselling what we actually know. But to take it another step, it’s my sense that science loses credibility when it crosses a line into scientism, and starts writing checks that just aren’t cashable (yet).

So it’s a simple answer that I would give: Sam Harris or others could certainly argue that science has the potential to answer moral and aesthetic questions, but as someone on the outside who owns and claims his ignorance on the topic, I can only say that so far I personally do not see any reason to yield too much ground to science on moral and aesthetic questions, especially where such arguments are based upon convenient but far-from-certain narrative hypotheses about what is really true. But again, I’m a non-academic observer and just one person on the jury of billions of humans who get to have opinions and votes; mine could be way wrong, but I’m saying that for good reason or bad, science has some convincing to do on me yet.

C.D.V.: How did you experiment in a Truth Driven Life community on line go?  Why do you think it didn’t take off?

S.G.:  Well I should probably explain what it was, and what the vision was. The goal was to create a “skeptic” learning community, and the “Bloomfire” technology behind it offered some promise to streamline multimedia and webcam exchanges, archival, and indexing such that participants could learn from the posts and exchanges. Those posts and video-heavy exchanges would then remain there for future members. I had noticed that too often we rehash old discussions in forums or “in-groups,” new members don’t know that we’ve already covered that, and the group or discussion never moves forward. But more than that, my suspicion was—and is—that for many people in today’s world it can be difficult to find authentic, open-minded, and intelligent people with whom I can have safe, substantive, stimulating, and open conversations—where emotion is mastered such that all honest thoughts and inquiries are fair game. So it was both a social tool, and a learning environment (dare I say “like church”?).

While I’m painfully aware of the dangers of in-group thinking and groupthink, I have also long argued that everyone needs a community—a safe place where likeminded people can grow and explore. The idea was to combine the power of peer learning with access to subject-matter experts, guest bloggers, great minds, and exclusive content—while supporting the Truth-Driven Thinking programming and mission. I envisioned more than a “forum”—rather a place where authentic people could gather socially, almost as if physically (via webcam elements of the platform), submit content; read; watch; learn; share; support one another; debate; and ask big questions.

We could also have some rules about tone, demeanor, and civil exchanges. This would be more of a “knowledge club” than a public square. Maybe even invitation, and maybe even with some dues to cover admin and membership, and contribute toward my then podcast.

So why did it fail? Probably for many reasons. 1) My time and resources became scarce, so I couldn’t give it a fair shot; 2) People have Facebook and other places to be social online—so who really needs one more; 3) the Bloomfire creators sold the company, went “enterprise,” and I believed that the platform wouldn’t be around for long in that form; 4) I’m not sure it was as technologically “there” as I’d hoped; 5) Eventually the utopian community probably doesn’t exist anyway—but part of me would still like to try someday.

 C.D.V.:   Why do you think that the skeptical community has such a limited range of political options expressed in it?  Is this an indication that politics has replaced religion as an ideological framework within the movement?

S.G.: Based upon only anecdotes and gut, I will try to speculate. (Data driven? Who, me?) That said, I do think the skeptical community has a narrow range of political options that are expressed in it. And yes, I believe this is an indication that politics has replaced religion as an ideological framework within “the movement”.

Due to my retrenchment and restructuring of my income and life, most of my interaction with skeptics, listeners to my former podcast, and readers of my novel of skeptical ideas come via Facebook these days. So my anecdotes are drawn heavily from those interactions, but also from my broader body of exchanges over the years with many self-identified skeptics around the world. That said, I will hastily categorize my experience of skeptics into two main groups: radical libertarian, free-market, Ayn Randian or Hayekian Objectivists on one side—and general Democratic party enthusiasts in the other cluster. These groups find common ground on social issues: getting the government out of vaginas, etc., however they tend to differ on economic issues, ethical questions of fairness and wealth redistribution, effects of economic policy (Krugman vs. Laffer), and the very philosophical ethics that underpin those views—if they’ve ever even really thought about it that way.

Time and again we skeptics pay lip service to the idea that my “beliefs” won’t own me, that emotional involvement and confirmation bias are to be guarded against, that no notion should be held above critical scrutiny, and that we will follow the evidence wherever it leads us—happily, and on any issue. But I simply don’t see humans, and skeptics are certainly human, behave that way. Our “beliefs” most certain to own us and blind us to pursuit of truth.

Economics is a wonderful example, as is the “issue” of anthropogenic global warming. In the economics sphere, one of my favorite scholarly voices is Russ Roberts, who hosts a podcast called EconTalk ( What I love is not only his affinity for genuine intellectual exchanges among people who differ on their interpretations of economic theory (hypotheses)—but his experienced voice in articulating the limits of the discipline. Yet few economists would be as honest. In short, and I’m trying to be careful stating someone else’s views, Roberts admits that on the big questions—we just don’t know! That’s right, he sees major fights between “schools” of economic thought, where everyone has their data and believes their data are the best, and has their regression analysis and their hugely complex data sets and multivariate equations—but the reality is that they are simply inconclusive and unresolved questions! These are experts at rhetoric, but deeply divided by school, tribe, gang, or whatever you want to call it, which biases them and creates the illusion of certainty.

Add famed thinker Nassim Taleb or Australian economist Steve Keen (, who passionately and persuasively argues that much of the neoclassical economic model is completely oversimplified and unsupported by the data (from aggregate demand to the critical role of total debt/shadow banking leverage in the system)—and you get my point. There is great doubt. But we don’t ever see academics or talking heads speaking as if there is any doubt whatsoever. Everywhere we see certainty. We are no different than those who are religious, we need narratives and structure, and will mold reality to fit them. We will then coalesce into tribes based on those “beliefs”.

So to tie this back to skeptics, and the question of politics having replaced religion as a narrative ideological framework, I see this play out routinely with both the objectivist/libertarian grouping, and the Krugman-ish liberal culture side. But what if both are wrong on this issue? What if rather than spending vs. revenue, we had a more sophisticated understanding of complex dynamics? Some of the same elements are at play in the global warming “debates”, but you get the point.

Again and again I think we have to pause and ask ourselves what would happen if it turned out that we were wrong, and then specifically examine how that would make us feel? Are we that pastor who has so tightly defined our role in the cosmos to a single school of thought or religion that we are blind to the other options? Are we so unwilling to challenge our very sense of self definition and how we interact with the world that we would succumb to the confirmation bias? Are we so afraid of something being taken from us that we cannot see the starving masses? What is the reality about what motivates humans? I don’t know, but I’m comfortable saying that.

The way I hear skeptics speak (and write) on a routine basis makes me think that even the most educated, rhetorically brilliant among us might simply be delusional and tribal at a higher level. Sometimes I lose the will to scale that wall. Frankly, it gets depressing, because I see it in myself as well. It’s human nature.

And that is my longwinded take on your question as to “why” we have a limited range of political options: we are human. We are tribal. We cluster.

C.D.V.: Do you see the passion in the various skeptics communities waning as divisions within the communities are getting more exposed in social network groups?

S.G.: It’s hard to know and I could be biased by my own skeptic friends and experiences, but in my humble opinion the passion does seem to be waning, perhaps as a result of the exposed divisions. The unity and “family feel” seem threatened. Divisions like “elevator gate” and disagreements over style (a.k.a. “don’t be a dick”—in Phil Plait’s terms), and even over scientistic overreaches do indeed take a toll.  But it seems possible to me that other natural factors contribute to ebbs and flows as well.

For a long while I’ve wondered if skepticism for any individual doesn’t have a bit of a predictable trajectory and life cycle—perhaps not unlike that of a new adopter of a religion. (No, I am not equating them, per say.) Perhaps a more appropriate analogy would be religious de-conversion. There is often a period of strife and upheaval, or at least some emotional wrestling with a good dose of social side effects. There is also new beauty, and new joy, and perhaps a new sense of connection with new friends and people who think very differently than you used to—refreshingly so. But as with church, the power of that initial transition wanes over time. It might be in our own minds or it might be there is a real reduction in attention and outreach from the community as the dust settles and everyday life settles in. But one way or another we revert to the norms, or regress to the mean, of human behaviors and everyday experiences. Normalcy rules, and there are great people, assholes, and everything in between within a “community” that has very few shared beliefs, cultures, or norms to hold them together. (And see my prior thoughts on how we tribally segregate and remain quite fallible to all sorts of very human behaviors.)

So perhaps the initial trajectory of the experiential curve flattens, and individuals go from raging fire and front-of-mind consciousness, to the warm glow of a naturalistic worldview that shall sustain and enrich them for a lifetime perhaps—albeit at maybe a somewhat less intense level. So could that micro-level effect, if real, also affect and play out on the macro level? Just a thought.

The good news, and my hope, is that there are new people and new passions being introduced to the process on an ongoing basis, and that more and more people are adopting more reason-driven and skeptical worldviews. It does seem to me that this is happening at the same time as our current ebbing, as supported by several recent surveys. So I am not without hope, and not without great gratitude for what skeptic groups and passionate individuals accomplish.

Perhaps this relates to another of my unachieved goals. I used to call my blog “Perspectives: food for the skeptic’s sole (if there is one).” Not unlike churches, who always seem to struggle with retention, its my hope that skepticism and intellectually honest discourse can inspire more soul-feeding initiatives like TED, or The Amazing Meeting, or skeptical comedy or art, in order to feed our intellect and fulfill our social needs—such that our passion remains, and the trajectory of our individual curves don’t flatten quite so much. We are, after all, humans. We need to be connected. We need to be re-amazed. We need to be reinvigorated.

C.D.V.: Do you think this maybe because skepticism is conceive internally as a set of methodological and not an ideological movements?

S.G.: As always I’d drop a disclaimer (in addition to the one that says “what do I know anyway”): that is that it’s probably hard to say for sure how the “movement” conceives or perceives itself. But to the degree it exists might there be some waning passion in the skeptic community as the result of a reflexive and endemic in-group perception as being focused on method more than ideology? Again I’ll bite and say yes, because there are real philosophical schisms, right? Many of the divisions I mentioned (and others) have to do with substantive differences in meta-ethics, ethics, morality, and/or guiding beliefs and philosophies. But those of us who are not trained in philosophy, or who are new to it, are often unaware that our differences are at all born of ideological and philosophical assumptions. So yes, if what unites us is an affinity and affection for methodological naturalism, the fact that there are schisms, tribal divisions, or sects should probably not be surprising—especially in light of the lack of common ideology or guiding principles.

C.D.V.: What do you see as your new projects in regards to skepticism?

S.G.: Well, for the immediate future I am rather occupied with the mundane aspects of existence and survival. That said, as finances and time someday allow, I would like to return to some non-fiction book ideas that I’ve been pondering. Specifically I would like to further explore the real-world implications and practical application of a naturalistic worldview to everyday life, and even more so to the challenges of social-sexual ethics and marital customs. I touched on some of those issues and challenges in my novel of skeptical ideas, but would like to explore them in a deep and personal way in a non-fiction book. I see great pain and angst caused by our unrealistic expectations of strict monogamy for life, romantic love, and the western pressures to achieve all depth of intimate experience through a single person, exclusively, forever. Obviously there are great depths and significant complexities to be plumbed there. And as with all things, the more I learn and experience, the less I “know” for certain, and the more gray I see. But that’s another topic.

C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?

S.G.: Just thanks for your work, posts, writings and thoughts. I readily admit that as a non-academic, my skeptic voice is truly just that of a grassroots life traveler in a state of evolving. You and other academics have so much to give and share with we who are emerging from our Midwest (Western) cocoons. Thanks for doing so, and thanks for rolling with my occasional and obvious ignorance on many levels. But I guess that’s really what it is all about, connecting and influencing a humanity that is composed of people on many different levels of their journeys, and with many different capacities. So we have our work cut out for us. Especially you.

The thick and thin as power plays in the field of Aesthetics

There are two trends dominant in academic discussions about the humanities that I find problematic, if not outright repellent. The “thin” move of the likes of E.O. Wilson and Sam Harris to claim that sense some notion of the aesthetic is evolutionary, then all that needs to be said can be said in terms of biology. The other notion is that of those of the post-Althusserian school who deny any “natural” category and subsume it all to ideology: there is “no human nature,” “no species being,” and no aesthetic categories. Both frankly are power-plays more than legitimate thinking: the later removes any empirical check to any artistic claim, while being “thick” it is also essentially putting all power in the realm of those philosophers of suspicion. The former is thin, and places power in terms of biology, but it’s claim could be said of to be even MORE foundationally true of physics. But no one would expect an electro-magnetic analysis of paint to be able to stand for all that is usefully said about art or literature, so the move seems again to suspiciously favor the field of those who make them.

The truth of the matter is probably much harder as there is no reason to assume the validity of parsimony: both biological and ideological limits exist, mediate our views, and contort our notions of truth and possibility. Both the biological and the ideological shift throughout history and change our notions of art and even of self. Yet neither can could be said to be solely determinate. The thick and thin are both necessary descriptors as the biological world is real as is the ideological world, and both are limits and as limits determine thoughts, but neither are solely determinate nor do I see evidence they they completely subordinate the will in any way. A limit is not a cause, and even a cause is not necessarily the sole cause.

Marginalia on Skeptical Thinking: Interview with Simon Frankel Pratt, Part 2

The first part of this interview is here. 

Skepoet: What do you make of Jonathan Haidt’s research that indicates “liberals” have three spheres of value while conservatives have five? I see this related to the your second point about the function of religion. Although I should be disclose my opinion, and say that I think Haidt trans-historicizes both  liberalism and conservatism in a way that is highly problematic.

Simon Pratt:  It would be very strange to suggest that Liberals literally lacked those two spheres of value, but as an ideal typical model, I think it captures something important about the relationship between socio-economic circumstances and values. This is because Liberal and Conservative, globally, tends to correlate closely to urban and rural, and particularly so in the US. Is it surprising that people who live in nuclear families in cosmopolitan centres where diverse ethnic, economic, and linguistic groups interact daily will be less concerned with the sort of values indicative and protective of in-group chauvinism? I don’t think so. Rather than understand Haidt as trans-historicising liberalism and conservatism, I see him as revealing, perhaps by proxy, what happens when you throw people together in relatively unprecedented ways, and expose human beings to a huge array of identity categories. Unsurprisingly, Social Identity Theorists studying conflict have found that places where people meet and cooperate with members of other groups than their own usually feature less bigotry.

How does my interpretation of Haidt compare to yours?

S.:  It’s more charitable, but it is not out of sync with my suspicion that you’re right about the social and economic structure affects things more than ideological ones in the way most liberals use the term. (As Academics, we both know that Marxist and Weberians use ideology entirely differently and in a way that confuses most outsiders).   One thing I noticed Haidt had to do though was place both the far left and libertarians into a liberal camp.  This may be useful for the comparison between rural and urban social values, but it’s highly misleading to ideological battles.  That’s glossed by the categories.

Back to religion:  What do you make of the recent study that shows that middle class, educated people tend to stay religious in higher numbers than the uneducated?  It’s a recent trend, but one that bucks most of the Enlightenment predictions about American religiosity being tied to education and poverty-level.

S.P.:   Grouping libertarians and far-leftists together makes some sense if you consider the historical origins of their ideologies, in terms of how they group morally significant entities and the human conditions that are the goals of their projects. But you’re right to point to this grouping as evidence that Haidt’s categories are themselves fractured, and salient only to certain kinds of explanation. Another way to view the distinction he creates, from an anthropological perspective, is between pre-modern and modern social structures. For people in rural areas, in-group and out-group resembles much more closely the sort of tribal configurations common throughout most of human history, whereas modern social structures, be they libertarian or Marxian, depart radically from this. Perhaps according to Enlightenment and Romanticist lines, respectively? But now we’re entering territory far outside my knowledge.

I was not aware of such a study, but it doesn’t seem hugely surprising on its own. I would need to see more information about what kind of religion inheres more robustly within the middle classes, though. If it’s a particularly flexible or liberal religion, it would make perfect sense to me that it should remain. Nevertheless, a more general negative correlation appears to obtain between wealth/education and religiosity, even if that relationship does not appear in every observable instance.

S.:  Back to terrorism:  in a very broad sense, what do you think would be a good perspective for a skeptic to take in regards to Terrorism as a cultural strategy of marginal peoples?

S.P.:  I’m not quite sure what your terms mean. What is a cultural strategy and what do you mean by marginal peoples?

S.:  Well, a cultural strategy would be under the model that terrorism is not committed under the rubric of state legitimacy, therefore it is only political in a looser sense. And by marginal peoples, I mean those who do not have the dominance within a state.  Clearer?Well,  cultural strategy would be under the model that terrorism is not committed under the rubric of state legitimacy, therefore it is only political in a looser sense. And by marginal peoples, I mean those who do not have the dominance within a state.  Clearer?

S.P.:  If I understand correctly, do you mean to say that terrorism is the strategy of agents who do not have legal legitimacy to their actions? Because there’s certainly no reason why such agents cannot be analysed according to the same models and terms as official state agents can, in assessing how violence is used to achieve political goals. Cultures are not capable of holding agency, I think, and so it is wrong to assign to them the sort of intentionality and capacity for deliberation that enables strategic behaviour. But groups of people, whatever their institutional status, are capable of collective decision-making and behaviour, and terrorism, whether carried out by a state or a non-state agent, can be viewed as rational, calculated, and entirely political.

S.: The agency would not so much be the issue but the structural placement within a social system, but part of the confusion seems to be that line of agency makes one see any collective agency as political, but this type of politics has a logic that is justified through acceptable norms, which is a cultural norm as much as a political one,  I suppose I want to push you on the idea that politics here is separate from culture in that strict way.   But I suppose we must admit that we are dealing with reifications of collective action and norm setting as opposed to something slightly more concrete like a state.

Let me ask another question then, is the bombing of Dresden in World War 2 an act of terrorism?

S.P.:  I define terrorism as the deliberate generation of fear, usually through violence or the threat of it, within a political community in order to change its behaviour. This is deliberately a very broad definition, including not only the bombing of Dresden but the entire deterrent component of a community’s criminal justice system. But I would never use this definition without immediately following it with a typology, and ‘terrorism’ as its used in most popular or non-critical-theory academic conversations tends to refer to what I’d call ‘insurgent terrorism’, which is terrorism carried out by a non-state agent, either individual or organised group, to subvert or influence a government and its citizenry via extralegal means.

I don’t necessarily see states as any more concrete than the norms and institutions – merely patterns of behaviour – which constitute them. States are what we make of them. The difference to me between collectives like states and collectives like cultures is the presence of decision-making mechanisms designed to facilitate collective action according to some set of intentions. If you have such mechanisms, you can speak of their collectives as you would speak of agents, within certain situations. But as cultures do not have such mechanisms, I struggle to see a situation in which they can be coherently treated as having agency.

Of course, these reifications are useful explanatory and cognitive tools, and nothing more. They entail no ontological commitments to the reality of some entity and the referential status of my language to it.

S.:  Now we seem to be on the same page again: What are good, rational policies for dealing with insurgent terrorism if we assume the ends is to seize terrorist activity without causing more grievances that would inspire new sets of insurgents?

S.P.:  Well, there are a variety of ways to engage in effective counterterrorism. One is to have a totalitarian police state, but since you’re asking this of me, I’m going to assume a more specific question: how can societies maintain a set of Enlightenment liberal values and still secure itself from terrorism? Of course, this is a very hard question to answer, and the particulars of any answer will depend on the particulars of the terrorist threat, but we can still look for policies that achieve in a general sense the following features of government and the state in an already liberal context:

-well-funded and trained counterterrorism police forces and domestic intelligence service, with effective civilian oversight and active engagement with community leaders of subpopulations particularly likely to produce a terrorist threat.

-development and enforcement of hate speech laws, such that people and groups preaching or mobilising for a violent agenda can be legally stopped from doing so, also subject to a diverse committee of civilian oversight and review.

-training for emergency services in coping effectively with the aftermath of a terrorist attack, both in rescue and in maintaining civil order, including public relations specialists able to reassure the public while honestly communicating any extent risks.

-ongoing public discussions on terrorism including experts capable of keeping things honest and focusing discussion both on the grievances that would-be terrorists may have and in the legitimate mechanisms available for addressing those grievances

These still do not guarantee that insurgent terrorism will not take place, nor that government personnel won’t find ways to abuse the special powers granted to them in the name of security from terrorism, but I think they comprise the best arrangement of legitimate coercive powers in a liberal context.

Freedom and security are, of course, not always a dichotomy. There are ways for the presence of greater coercion – state terrorism of the legitimate variety – to enable greater freedom than a lesser level of coercion. The ‘optimal’ level of coercion will depend on the particular threats within a context, as well as the cultural resources available to make that coercion normatively acceptable and palatable for enough of the public, but as an abstract notion of governance it lies at the very heart of liberal thought.

S.:  However, that is what separates liberal as an ideological development, and liberal as a modern orientation, no?   The notion of legitimate coercion varies massively amongst those who developed out of Enlightenment liberalism as everyone from American Libertarians to Stalinist to Bakuninite anarchism are developments of that tradition.

I would tend to agree with you about coercion levels being optimal and handled by community governance.   This means that terrorism then should not have the moral weight attached to it, but should be seen as a strategy in and of itself (not an abstract value of “evil” or a mere tactic?)

S.P.: I’m not quite sure what you mean, here. Do you mean the development of a liberal mode of subjectivity as compared to the moral [and entailed political] value commitments of Enlightenment Liberalism?

S.:  That is certainly my view: terrorism is not essentially evil, and the moral character of a terrorist act depends on the case. But I am also more committed to (Rule) Utilitarianism than most people, and so even if I were confronted with a definition for terrorism that confined terrorist acts to attacks on civlians – as many definitions do – I could still not call it an essential bad. But in the real world, of course, most of what we call terrorism does seem to me to be pretty bad. There is just too much evidence to show that bombing or shooting people in markets, mosques, clubs, or planes will not be as efficient as other, less violent means in achieving any set of goals I consider worthy. A good analogy would be the so-called ‘ticking time-bomb scenario’ that apologists for torture love to trot out. As a Utillitarian I am entirely willing to endorse torture if it is less harmful than the alternative, but since torture is virtually always a worse way to get information than just about any available alternative, the thought experiment is a red herring.

S.:  I mean that Enlightenment liberalism produces very different sets of morality and governance, and the agent of legitimate coercive force and if there is ever such an agent vary greatly.  Modern liberalism is definitely rooted in the legitimate agency of a democratic Republics and generally takes a moral calculus from either modern form of virtue ethics or variants of  Utilitarianism.   Libertarians take a deontological view of such notions, and Marxists tend to deny that have a moral framework as a part of a political theory at all.

This brings me to a another point I have against Sam Harris: do you think meta-ethical justification is important?

S.P.:  From what I’ve been able to tell, almost all members of the Skeptics movements tend towards a sort of naive Utilitarianism, and see any moral system that doesn’t seek to maximise human wellbeing as absurd. This does not mean that they don’t simultaneously belief that life is an instrinsic good, despite the arguable incompatibility of the two propositions, depending on the version of Utilitarianism to which one subscribes. I’ve also noticed that Skeptics tend not to be republicans. They are in favour of political processes that serve as individual interest aggregators and adjudicators, and tend not to endorse collectivist conceptions of the public or the polity. At least here; the ones in the UK are a bit more willing to see the state prescribe morality.

I have mixed feelings about the value of meta-ethical discussions. On the one hand, I think that having them with is important because such discussions tend to produce more nihilists, expressivists, or other forms of non-cognitivists, and I think this is a good thing because moral realism is absurd and dangerous. On the other hand, that naive Utilitarianism I mentioned earlier is very likely to be what cosmopolitan folk end up developing (cf. Haidt) so we might as well leave the existential angst to the academics and apply ourselves to the practical matter of maximising human wellbeing. Just so long as we don’t wander around looking smug and heaping contempt upon those who don’t share our moral norms. As an observer and theorist on so-called political violence, I get very anxious when I see my comrades suggesting that those who disagree with our principles simply don’t know the facts.

S.:  Both Masmimo Piggliuci and myself are virtue ethicists (although his would be center left and mine would be far left), but that does have a nearly consequentialist metajustication, and I actually find collective conception of community as a norm setter for fairly persuasive, but you’re right that I would be in the minority.

So the problem with ethical realism as objective (in both Sam Harris and in say the other popular skeptical claim to absolute ethics, such as Alonzo Fyfe’s Desirism) is more related to epistemological dangers than to practical ones?
S.P.: Yes, Massimo is definitely a nuanced commentator on ethics in the Skeptics movement, though despite his status as a public intellectual within it, he doesn’t seem widely read or, at least, carefully considered. And you are definitely not a typical ‘Skeptic’ in that you are an academic in the humanities.As for ethical realism, my problems with it are threefold:

-it is ontologically absurd, as moral facts are at best social facts (in the way Searle defines social facts) and even in that optimistic scenario we are left with nothing more than ‘Quasi-Realism’ in the sense that Simon Blackburn seems to think.
-it is epistemologically weak, for all the same reasons that realist philosophies of science are epistemologically weak and then some.
-it is practically dangerous, because moral facts seem to entail an imperative power that compels action, and that has huge potential to impel atrocity.
S.: Do you see realism in science as a problem in the skeptic’s Movement as well?
S.P.:  I’ve noticed that Skeptics tend to endorse this thing they were originally taught in secondary school, called ‘The Scientific Method’, that describes a sort of naive neo-positivist falsificationism according to the H-D method. The more sophisticated – including those who are professional scientists – may bring Bayesianism into the discussion. But there seems to be a great confidence in convergent realism, reduction, and the reference of ‘theoretical terms’. In other words, Skeptics have a highly idealised and quite quaint view of science. I think this is problematic insofar as it leads to chauvinism for the natural sciences, a dismissal of the less ‘sciencey’ of the social sciences, and a sense that one set of epistemological and methodological commitments is sufficient to answer all questions.
S.:  What was bothered me about this move is that many of the natural sciences don’t even meet naive positivist view, and this is just ignored.  Is this a case of group think functioning as false simplication?
S.P.: There are certainly a great many professional scientists who would describe what they do in similar terms, I think. But I’m not sure that psychological terms such as ‘group think’ are appropriate for describing or explaining the way that Skeptics view science. False simplification, sure.
S.: Socially consistent false simplification?   Group think is a vulgar term for that but if it the psychological heuristic shoe fits.

Anyway, thanks for up your time, I have enjoyed it.  Anything you’d like to say in closing?
S.P.:  Well, been fun and delight, both for the chance to share some of my thoughts on the Skeptics and to rant a bit about its less attractive qualities to a sympathetic audience.

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. (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. (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 ( 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.

Some thoughts on Marriage:

I have been toying with sociological data on marriage shift in the larger society, and here are some trends. The first trend is that college educated people are increasingly more likely than the uneducated to get married, according to a Pew Study. :

Throughout the 20th century, college-educated adults in the United States had been less likely than their less-educated counterparts to be married by
age 30. In 1990, for example, 75% of all 30-yearolds who did not have a college degree were married or had been married, compared with just 69% of those with a college degree.As those numbers attest, marriage rates among adults in their 20s have declined sharply since 1990 for both the college-educated and those without a college degree. But the decline has been much steeper for young adults without a college education. Young adults who do not have a college degree are delaying marriage to such an extent that the median age at first marriage in 2008 was, for the first time ever, the same for the college-educated and those who were not
college-educated: 28. As recently as 2000, there had been a two-year gap, with the typical college-educated adult marrying for the first time at 28 and the typical adult lacking a college degree marrying for the first time at Among the possible explanations for this shift are the declining economic fortunes of young men without a college degree and their increasing tendency to cohabit with a partner rather than marry. From 1990 to 2008, the inflation-adjusted median annual earnings of college-educated men ages 25 to 34 rose by 5% (to $55,000 in 2008 from $52,300 in 1990), while the median annual earnings of those with only a high school diploma declined by 12% (to $32,000 in 2008 from $36,300 in 1990).

But it was moderated by this bit of information:

A major finding from the above analysis is that college appears to deter marriage for men and women from the least advantaged social backgrounds. For least advantaged individuals college attendance lessened men’s and women’s odds of marriage by 38 percent and 22 percent, respectively. For individuals enjoying status in the highest stratum college attendance increased their marriage chances by 31 percent for men and women by 8 percent.

Another important finding is the pattern of increasing marriage homogamy with increasing social advantage and consistent with a mismatch hypothesis, the authors found the more disadvantaged college attendees were less likely to be matched on education with their spouse.

So marriage is increasingly becoming a classed commodity. This leads me to another thought, the way we view the present in light of the immediate (but not very distant) past, and the distant past in light of the immediate past and the present. We think, for example, the nuclear family, which its love marriage and male provider, was an American norm prior to the 1960s, but was unique to the 1950s as a social creation. On in which female property was beginning to be liberalized and liberated from assumed ownership from men, but was predicated on stronger sexual differentiation than was held prior by most people. There are a lot of factors into this, and it is too easy to play reduce it to just one idea (liberalization of divorce, predominance of love marriage, the economic need for nuclear families for increased mobility within the US, etc), but there is some evidence that married people have tended to be less social than single people and less involved in the larger community. There is also evidence, however, that marriage bonds are pretty much the only social networks that are really strong by the time most people reach their 40s.

This is all very modern. I was reading Philip Larkin’s Ardunel Tomb and then doing research on the family of the tomb it describes. The love match Larkin is talking about was a political second marriage, the countess had probably never met the Earl of Ardunal when he was engaged to her, and his first wife had died in child birth. Larkin though makes the assumption that he didn’t love her, and it that was a show but that seems problematic too. There is evidence to the contrary in the posture, rare among married aristocracy, of the tomb.

The problem is that our ideas of love are based off of love marriage, which seems to privilege the dopamine phases of human sexual interaction, which fade off in most people after a few years. However, sexual bonding between humans does lead, in most cultures, to oxytocin bonds, which may be why arranged marriages have such high satisfaction rates (but then again, it may also be because other options just aren’t common). The privileging of our notions of love to the media portraits and romantic notions which are all based on dopamine reactions, and culturally primed ones at that.

What people say about history also seems to apply to human nature, we rhyme with our ancestors as much as merely replicate them. We are objects of and subjects to history, but we also produce it to paraphrase Marx and Hegel.

The idea that human nature is eternal and unchanging privileges the present, but the idea that we are radically and unknowably “other” to the humans to the past is so discontinuous with my experience of the natural world that it leads me to see the “Chomsky” and “Foucault” positions (Chomsky, human beings are innately what they are and Foucault, human beings are completely historical contingent) as both being sort of a false dichotomy. We are social by our “nature,” and thus primed by social cues, but these cue change us. They change mating habits, change environmental reactions, and even can cause stress hormone releases with change specific manifestations of genes. We are different from our ancestors, but in very consistent ways.

So in a way, we see that marriage has always been about the production of “society” which is to say, it is human relations that reproduce human relations: not just in the form of children. So it should be no surprise how much economic changes affect it, and our ideas about love, which in turn, affects economics. One can see the pull and push here.


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