Category Archives: Skepticism

The Revolution Will Not Be Secularized…

Perhaps I’m just a contrary old man, but I feel that I can embrace both the most reductionistic physical science, yet also remain devoted to the living heart of religious aspirations. Long after the Age of Faith and the Age of Reason are gone, I believe humanity will live in an Age of Love, Love’s Communism, which will be built upon the fulfillment not only of science and technology, but the maturation and judicious distillation of the world’s cultural legacies, including religion.

Interview with Charley Earp on the Left and Religion in the United States

Charley Earp is the blogger behind Radical Progress and Leftist Quaker and lives in the Chicago area. A Pentecostal preacher’s kid who lived with a commune for 9 years, which led to his political radicalization. A 3-time college drop-out with a day job in the travel industry, he is currently completing a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and planning to pursue a seminary degree focusing on congregational ministry and activism. No longer a Christian, yet actively involved with the progressive wing of Quakerism both locally, with the national Conference, and ecumenical and interfaith work. Born in 1963, married for 30 years, with two adult children. His current long-form writing project is a theo-political autobiography titled, “Jesus Made Me a Communist.” He is currently the acting Chair of the Socialist Party USA’s Commission on Religion and Ethics.

C. Derick Varn:  We chatted via e-mail recently about the characterization of the right and left as religious forces, and you were provoked by many of Keith418’s points in a recent interview I did with him. .  Would you like to go into that in more detail?

Charley Earp: What provoked me in that interview was the statement that American conservatism is fundamentally different than its European predecessor, and therefore somehow an illegitimate rightism. Keith418 seems utterly taken up with a tradition of the Right that has very little traction in the US, though Ayn Rand’s followers are often as anti-Christian as are the kind of Nietszcheans Keith admires. The majority of the American Right does come out of a Christian milieu, but that milieu has some strange incoherence within it.

I watched as the Christian Right began to take over the churches in the Pentecostal tradition where I grew up, and it was definitely a external intervention, not something organic to Pentecostalism. This seems also true of other Evangelical and Fundamentalist churches, that is, those that defend the inerrancy of the Bible. I would almost say that what distinguishes American rightism is the presence of a large group of radical protestants that by pedigree belong in either centrist or leftist politics, not the right.

The Baptists, who comprise the largest group of Christians in the US outside the Catholics, were founded as an opposition to the very idea of a European State Church. The Methodists/Wesleyans, the next largest group of US protestants originated and subsist in perpetual tension with state churches. The modern Christian Right in the US was largely inspired by Calvinist ideas of a “Christian Nation,” a proposition quite foreign to the conversionist ethos of Baptists and Wesleyans. By definition, these traditions deny that an entity like a nation can be Christian because that title is only conferred by a conscious conversion experience to salvation in Christ. Calvinism in its original Swiss incarnation had no such conversion emphasis. Salvation was a predestined election by God that was not conferred by faith, but by irresistible grace. Therefore, no separation of secular and religious realms were recognized, law itself derived from biblical revelation.

This crypto-Calvinist incursion into Evangelical and Pentecostal churches occurred as a deliberate campaign by the architects of the New Right. What has always fascinated me is how Christian conservatives hold in tension two opposed ideas, that of a minority converted remnant church with incongruous idea that the US needs to be restored to its Christian heritage. A favorite saying of conversionist theology is “God has no grandchildren” and that means heritage is nothing, one must be saved by an immediate conversion. Most Pentecostals, even today, believe that someday very soon Jesus will secretly rapture all “true believers” from the earth, leaving behind false churches and the heathen masses to become the followers of the Anti-Christ. It is a wholly pessimistic worldview that had zero room for political activism, only for evangelism to save the souls of those who would miss the rapture. It is that tension that I believe is now unraveling as the younger generation of Evangelicals abandon political conservatism, though most don’t thereby become leftists. Why they don’t is often predicated on systemic race, gender, and class predispositions.
images c- Calvin
C.D.V.: Who precisely do you see as responsible for sneaking a Calvinist streak into all forms of American evangelicalism, particularly given the semi-socialist orientation of a lot of Protestant churches in the 1920s and 1930s in the US?

C.E.: It’s all somewhat murky to me, though I am familiar enough with various trends in the 70s and 80s that shaped the New Christian Right. Certainly the neo-Calvinist idea of theonomism and the “Christian Nation” as refracted through Francis Schaeffer’s dispensational Presbyterianism played a role. Jerry Falwell’s emergence from the segregationist right in the 60s to head the anti-abortion and evangelical Zionist Moral Majority was also significant. Underlying all of this was the politicization of the capitalist class and their bid to mold a populist right front, with things like opposition to high taxes, and Milton Friedman’s 10-part laissez-faire documentary, “Free to Choose” that aired on PBS in early 1980 just as Ronald Reagan was consolidating his presidential campaign.

Christians of the more literalist sort tended to be apolitical right up until the mid-80s, when the successes of Reagan’s first term convinced even more of them to support his policies in 1984, including my father, a Pentecostal preacher who had always voted Democrat before 1984. I personally was headed towards the pacifist and anti-capitalist left following the lead of Sojourners Magazine. If there was a semi-Socialist bent to many churches prior to the 80s, it was probably strongest among liberals in the Wesleyan and Catholic traditions. My mother still complains about the Social Gospel she heard growing up Methodist and how much it didn’t preach the true gospel of individual salvation.

These days I think the nucleus for a Christian Left lies mostly with African-American and Latino churches. White Evangelicals are coming to question their parents’ conservatism, but there is still a strong core of the (White) Christian Right out there and the Tea Party is still trying to reinvigorate that 80s right populism. If the younger generation who supported Obama in 2008 – but ignored the mid-term election of 2010, thereby hamstringing many reform efforts that might have been possible – could learn their lesson and pull off another Democratic congressional majority win like 2006 in 2014, I think the political basis for a national shift to the left will solidify. Even though I believe that a socialist movement will have to form to the left of the Democrats and the Green Party, that is, through a Socialist Party, one strategic prerequisite for that development is to shatter the social and religious basis of the 80s New Right, by advocating some form of Christian Socialism or Social Democracy. This is my motivation for the “Jesus Made Me a Communist” presentations and publications I’ve been working on since late 2012.

That turn for me personally has meant a rapprochement to my Christian upbringing, which I discarded in 1996 for a Universalist Quakerism. In fact, by 2005, I’d become flatly nontheistic and doubted the existence of a historical Jesus. I haven’t become a Christian all over again, but I have decided that it is more important to convince Christians to become Socialists and Communists than it is to convince Atheists on the Left to embrace Christians. It seems to me that a New New Left will be a largely Christian phenomenon and atheists and Marxists will become a minority among socialists by mid-century. Of course, along the way Christians will become more “liberal” and less orthodox theologically. This phenomena is already visible in projects like the “Jesus Radicals” anarchist webzine or the left flank of Emergent Christianity.

C.D.V.:  What do you make of the decline of Protestantism as a whole in North America in relation to these developments?

C.E.:  The decline of Protestantism is probably overrated, just like the long predicted demise of religion itself. While there has been a small uptick in the numbers of Atheists in the world, religion continues claiming new coverts and baptizing more babies every day. Statistically, religion has a lead on atheism that would take decades to outpace.

If you mean US “mainstream” protestantism’s decline, I actually think that what will happen in the next period will be that more Evangelical young adults will drift towards either secularism, alternative spiritualities, emergent Church models, or back to the benighted mainstream Protestants. The megachurches will fade into history, I believe, just like the mass urban cathedrals of an earlier period of American life.

Mainstream protestants are generally committed to ecumenical mutual recognition. Denominational mergers which consolidate bloated church bureaucracies will likely make it possible for a comeback for many currently declining denominations.

My liberal Quaker conference is impacted by several trends. We’ve just restructured our denominational practices, reducing paid staff significantly among other cost cuts in the aftermath of a donor crisis. Our sister body, Friends United Meeting, may actually be fatally crippled by its own internal inability to reach agreement on a way out of that same crisis. Some FUM meetings have decided that our conference is more congenial to their values, especially on same-sex marriage for example.

We’re one of the few mainstream Protestant bodies to post growth figures in the past two decades, but one key element in that was that some independent Quaker Yearly Meetings joined our conference. I think we are slowing losing numbers, especially in comparison to population growth rates. However, an uptick in membership such as we experienced in the Vietnam era might change this quite suddenly. We were at the forefront of the same-sex marriage movement and are also quite active in environmental and anti-war concerns. We may very well have mass appeal in some quarters as the Obama era rolls onward.

C.D.V.: I can offers up some specific statistics:  Pews data is as follows: even white evangelicals have seen a decline in the last years data down from 21% to 19%, which was the first reversal in a long a time. Religiously unaffiliated has grown from 5% to almost 10% in since 2005.  Specifically “White” mainline protestants have move from 19% to 15%.  Catholicism has maintained its percentage, but this seems to be from immigration.  Pew didn’t study minority groups, which is interesting because that is where growth would actually be.  Is this in line with what you are talking about?  Why do you think progressive positions have left to declining populations within religious circles since the 1950s? This is a trend that can be seen all over the developed world, not just the US.

C.E.:   I’d imagine that Black churches have declined as well. The stasis of Catholic numbers is very likely based on immigration from Latino countries. However, the rise of the “nones” isn’t tied to a rise in Atheism, but of people avoiding church on Sunday. That might lead to more atheism, but the polls don’t show as sharp a decline in theism, as they do in religious affiliation. For years after I left my former church, I’d have said I still believed in God. From 1997 to 2004 probably. That suggests that just because people have disassociated from churches doesn’t mean they’ve become atheists.

To clarify my earlier point, the decline in mainline and evangelical churches is indicative of the contradiction of American culture. Conservative religion does very well during a general economic stasis or slow decline, like the 70s through the 90s. However, as the economic crisis grinds on, people will leave those churches. They won’t immediately go to mainline protestants, though I did when I joined Quakers in 1998. However, if something changes dramatically, either a capitalist recovery that reduces unemployment or a new sharp drop in jobs, then the picture will shift again. In the former case, conservative churches might rebound. In the latter case, atheists, mainline protestants, and progressive Catholics might enjoy a new growth.

Those Catholics are unusually good at keeping their church alive. Over a millenia. It ain’t going away anytime soon. So, why doesn’t the left get over its view that it has to wage a secular revolution? The American and French Revolutions were secular liberal revolutions, why imitate them? Even blowing up churches like the Soviets did had little staying power, as Ross Wolfe documented recently.

Liberal secularism is based on the privatization of fundamental human passions. We keep the churches out of politics, just like we keep the masses out of politics. It wasn’t that long ago that all of Europe was nominally Catholic. When the Reformation tried to replace an international church with national establishments, it only succeeded in a few places, though they were key, England, Germany, Sweden, Holland, etc. Italy, France, Spain, and Eastern Europe remain solidly Catholic (or Orthodox) and also among those places where Communism has met with significant success. Liberation Theology didn’t come to Latin America because of liberal secularism, but because Catholic priests studying in Europe were exposed to Marxism and the synthetic and dialectic methods of theology dominant in Catholicism made an appropriation of Marxism almost too obvious.

My admiration for Catholic Leftists is only matched by my distaste for the hierarchy, especially at its higher levels. And yet, Catholicism continually makes corrections like adopting evolution and social democracy that many Protestants can’t make. The Church of England is in a funny way more aristocratic than the Catholic church, which doesn’t have many monarchs, dukes, and lords in its membership these days.

badiou paul

C.D.V.:  I know you are not a Marxist, but do you see something dialectical about this?   Also what do you make of both Badiou and Zizek calling for a serious consideration of the Christian identity while also sharply condemning theism itself?
C.E.: I confess that I don’t always know what Marxists mean by “dialectic.” I’ve been told that the interpretation of Hegelian thought as thesis>antithesis>synthesis is a vulgar misreading. However, I also don’t think I am just a linear thinker.

So, can you can say more how you see a dialectic at work in the religious situation today?

C.D.V.:  The beginning of a dialectic is a contradiction within manifestation of a idea or material condition which enables an opposition or a countervailing tendency to emerge, and the resolution of this contradiction through various forms of negation sublates the problem and leads to something new.  Do you see something like this at work?

C.E.:  You assert that Badiou and Zizek “condemn theism.” I’d like to see how that is actually expressed. I’ve read a good bit of Zizek and while he asserts his atheism, he identifies theism with the Lacanian “Big Other” that is, an imaginary person outside one’s self who one believes incorrectly will come to one’s rescue. What is interesting for me is that my Pentecostal experience was that God did rescue me many times from bad choices. God, as I think about it now, functions as a kind of super-super-ego. God is the being with both a perfect moral will for each of us and perfect knowledge of the consequences of any specific action. Being sinful, we are prone to disobedience, which God knows in advance, and God created a world with beings who will disobey him constantly. His reason for doing so (according to classic Christian doctrine) is that this requires God to become an incarnate sacrificial lamb and redeem us from our sins. I used to love to quote Norman Geisler (though I’m not sure it’s his original phrase), “this is not the best of all possible worlds, but the best of all possible ways to become the best of all possible worlds.”

I don’t think theism is irrational, unless one wants to say that all of human history is irrational. I think gods have a certain deep logic, that of trusting our parents when we are children. As a kid, I knew very little about how much danger there was in the world, so I often chafed when my parents interfered with my choices. Now, I believe they were very wrong about some of their interference. Having raised two children, I am convinced that some interference with my ignorant volition was necessary for my survival. Theism is a projection of that benevolent protector onto the cosmos itself. Hey, we exist, the natural world must care that we exist. We know now that this is a hasty conclusion, but only after centuries of accumulating scientific knowledge. I think theism is hard-wired, nearly every kid believes in invisible beings of some kind.

C.D.V.: Why do you think the impact of Liberation Theology has been so varied?

C.E.: The impact of Liberation Theology is still growing, though not as fast as I would like. Liberation Theology has two basic roots, the Black Civil Rights struggle of the 60s and the radical Catholics of neo-colonial Latin America. The successes of the Sandinistas and the election of Lula would have been impossible without it. Even Chavez owes his success to it. Does that mean it is going to ever become the dominant understanding of Christianity? Maybe outside the US. Inside the US seems less likely, but that is partly for the same reason that socialism in general has had very little success.

C.D.V.: In the past two questions there is so much to respond to here that I am going to just focus on two things.  You think theism is hard-wired, but you posited that notion with a notion of divinity is just a supernatural non-physical being, there have been cultures without any sense of the moral impulse or creation given to it’s divinity claims, so that is so thin a definition of God that it amounts to “most children believe in something like mind-body dualism innately.”  Which I suppose stances to reason, but this would be illogical to draw any metaphysicals claims from it.  It would be an informal logical fallacy, the naturalistic fallacy, to use the hardwiredness of dualist beliefs to argue that they are true, which is not what you are necessarily doing.  But let’s clarify here. I find that much less compelling than the idea of divinity’s working as a kind of super-super-ego, but this really seems like a modernization of a pre-modern understanding.

But let’s get away from critiques of theism for its own sake: I noticed your drawing out of a God myth that resembles the scapegoating myths of Rene Girard.  Do you share Girard’s view that Christian myth is an answer to necessity for violence as a basis of group bonding?

C.E.:  Let me try to clarify. “Supernaturalism” seems to me to have arisen in late antiquity as a result of early Greek natural philosophy, perhaps due to the experience of building an international empire. Before this logic emerged, there was only one world, a wholly supernatural world created by god(s), peopled by spirits, and humanity themselves were special creations of god(s). The separation into two realms of incommensurable substances – spirit vs matter – arose when it began to dawn on the early philosophers that the gods couldn’t actually be part of the world they were beginning to examine with geometry and early physics. Our hard-wired theism then got mapped onto that duality as it became ingrained in Western culture. It’s interesting that this dualistic worldview arose just in time to be merged with the Christian movement in the second century.

I was certainly taught the Christian fall/redemption myth. Adam ate the forbidden fruit and passed on his disobedient genes to us. God is perfect so every sin must be atoned, and only a perfect sacrifice can do that, ergo the incarnate Christ gets crucified and resurrected. Girard’s view, with which I have a passing familiarity, implies that this myth has its basis in the tribe’s need for blood vengeance against lawbreakers within itself. I can’t say that whether I believe that is the true source of sacrifice myths. I’d want to do a cross-cultural analysis of sacrifice/redemption myths, which I have not.

The influence of Liberation Theology on me was to break down the sacrificial mythology and replace it with a “Christus Victor” mythology of Jesus as the miraculous revolutionary initiator of a millennia-long subversion of the bondage of the world and its people to a Satanic overlord who ruled via capitalism, tyranny, patriarchy, racism, and ecocide, which would culminate in a global overthrow of those systems by the oppressed. I’ve seen this sort of view working in various places, even in the US among Christian Anarchists, Black Churches, and the Evangelical/Pentecostal Left. This is why I believe that Communism can be embraced by Christians in the future without them abandoning theism.

I pose to the left that they can either work to change people’s theology or their politics, but changing both doesn’t work very well. I’ve seen many Christian abandon the faith and become libertarian atheists. Therefore, I try to change their politics by using the immanent critique of Liberation Theology to steer them towards the left.

C.D.V.: Do you see Christianity in specific as being key to liberation theology?
C.E.: Christianity is strategic in that it is the largest living religious tradition in human history. Liberation theology holds an important place as the “new left” period’s – 1955-75 – expression within Christianity. As I read the history of Communism it began as a religious idea first named “communism” by Etienne Cabet, who explicitly identifies the early Jerusalem church that “held all things common” as his inspiration. Then, it spread into secular left movements within the Enlightenment. Marx himself is tied to Christianity, both through his religious upbringing, but also by his Hegelianism. Liberation Theology reconnects the Christian origins of Communism – not only Cabet, but the Munsterites, Diggers, Hutterites, etc. – with its contemporary expressions, especially Nicaragua, Brazil, and Venezuela.

Judaism has its own connections to Communism and therefore a Liberation Theology also implicit. A literature has developed in the 2000s. I think Islam also has this potential, and there were some important expressions of “Islamic Socialism” that have been largely suppressed by Islamist movements and governments.

Other religions, such as Buddhism and Neo-Paganism can also develop liberation theologies that don’t rely on monotheism, but build from within their traditions and sources to connect their visions of ultimate value to a revolutionary politics. Atheism can also benefit from considering the emergence of Liberation Theology as a “worldly turn” that increases the possibilities for creative cooperation in left politics for religious-secular alliances.

Just as Badiou sees communism as implicit in the origins of Western philosophy, especially Plato, I see Christianity and Judaism as also containing important source material for elaborating a new Communist politics and culture.

C.D.V.: What do you predict will happen to North American Christianity over the next 50 years?

C.E.: I believe that a variety of post-conventional theologies will come to dominate at the lay level and eventually even most of the leadership levels. If the US turns to the left in the next half-century – as I sincerely hope and work towards – then religion will follow. As Caucasians become a de facto minority, both the overall percentage of Christians will decline, as will the strength of orthodox doctrines and the white supremacist versions of Christianity, which includes all the Continental traditions such as Lutheran and Catholic, as well as varieties such as fundamentalism.

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

C.E.: My view remains that the Left needs to develop its capacity to collegially embrace religious diversity. For too long it’s been hostile or indifferent to religion. That needs to be replaced by a principled diversity. A quote is attributed to Augustine of Hippo “in essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Since for a political movement the essentials are practical matters of principled action, this means that in the expression of religion, we should encourage liberty and diversity. I’d imagine that Black churches have declined as well. The stasis of Catholic numbers is very likely based on immigration from Latino countries. However, the rise of the “nones” isn’t tied to a rise in Atheism, but of people avoiding church on Sunday. That might lead to more atheism, but the polls don’t show as sharp a decline in theism, as they do in religious affiliation. For years after I left my former church, I’d have said I still believed in God. From 1997 to 2004 probably. That suggests that just because people have disassociated from churches doesn’t mean they’ve become atheists.


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.

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.

Sam Harris, bothering me with philosophical inconsistency since 2004

For eight years now, I have been critiquing Sam Harris: his hatchet job comparison of Islam to Buddhism where he white-washes the Buddhist tradition and negatively cherry-picks Islam in The End of Faith, trying to figure out how a person with a philosophy degree from Stanford could so badly confused normative and descriptive in both meta-ethics and philosophy of science, jettison with almost no real argument the is/ought distinction, and ignore 200 years of debates on all three topics in his book on morality, and generally pass a flippant “tone of reasonableness” for reason itself.  It was good to see ‘s take-down of his positions and their incoherence in his recent discussion on Harris,   while I have been ranting about this for years and Neera Manda pointed some of this out seven years ago, the fact that Harris still has so much cache in the “secular movement” (whatever that is), means it needs to re-pointed out:

The spirit of the Zionist law attorney infuses a book in which he is approvingly quoted and in which he provides the basis for Harris’s ticking time bomb defence of torture. It’s not for nothing Dershowitz blurbs the book. But is it true as Harris gushes that Israel’s moral capital lies in the fact “They’re still worried about killing the children of their enemies”?

Consider the findings of human rights groups like Amnesty International’s investigation into the Gaza war of 2008:

“Amnesty International on Thursday accused Israeli forces of war crimes, saying they used children as human shields and conducted wanton attacks on civilians during their offensive in the Gaza Strip. “

What about the assertion that Arabs take cover behind their own children? Amnesty finds that although Hamas rocketed Israeli towns during the war, that:

“It could not support Israeli claims that Hamas used human shields. It said it found no evidence Palestinian fighters directed civilians to shield military objectives from attacks, forced them to stay in buildings used by militants, or prevented them from leaving commandeered buildings”

The co-author of the influential Goldstone Report for the UN Human Rights Council, Desmond Travers, has said:

“We found no evidence that Hamas used civilians as hostages. I had expected to find such evidence but did not. We also found no evidence that mosques were used to store munitions. ”

For a man who likes to badger Muslims about their “reflexive solidarity” with Arab suffering, Harris seems keen to display his own tribal affections for the Jewish state. The virtue of Israel and the wickedness of her enemies are recurring themes in his work. The End of Faith opens with the melodramatic scene of a young man of undetermined nationality boarding a bus with a suicide vest. The bus detonates, innocents die and Harris, with the relish of a schoolmarm passing on the facts of life to her brood, chalks in the question: “Why is it so easy, then, so trivially easy-you-could-almost-bet-your-life-on-it-easy to guess the young man’s religion?”

To which historians will answer: Because it is not.


And this:

the Harris depiction, Tibetans bear the jackboot of Chinese occupation meekly and in Christ-like surrender to violence in deep contrast to the mindless violence of Palestinians, proof yet again that Islam, and not the depredations of US foreign policy, is the progenitor of terror. From this narrative one would never guess that Tibet fought a bitter conventional war against China. The national liberation struggle of Tibetans doesn’t quite mesh with the dovish non-violence Harris conjures. And so out it goes from the record.

Given that Harris rails against pacifism in later chapters as being, not a worthy but impossible ideal as so many cherish, but an “evil” precept that would let killers go unmolested, his sudden enthusiasm for turning the other cheek is a suspect one. And you will seek in vain for any reference to Arab civil disobedience against the occupation in his work from the peaceful protests of the first Intifada in which scores of unarmed demonstrators were gunned down by the IDF to the present wave of mass hunger strikes.

The Jains are yet another commonly-trotted-out source of comparison for Harris. He wants to know why there are no Jain suicide bombers, unlike those horrid Arab barbarians. It is painful to inform this Princeton graduate of philosophy who presumably took a first year course in the rudiments of logic that Jains, unlike Palestinians, are not occupied by hostile foreign powers, are not displaced from their homes, are not imprisoned en masse without trial and tortured.

Harris never quite stoops to articulate why suicide bombing is objectively worse than more common variants of homicide like the monopoly enjoyed by Christians and Jews on aerial bombing which rubbles entire nations with far more loss of life than a semtex in a rucksack. The mystery unravels when we learn that Harris backed the 2006 carpet bombing of Lebanon and Gaza by Israel on the dubious premise that “there is no question that the Israelis now hold the moral high ground in their conflict with Hamas and Hezbollah. And yet liberals in the United States and Europe often speak as though the truth were otherwise”.

The rejoinder Harris offers to those wooly-minded liberal peaceniks who just don’t compute the bottomless evil of jihadism is that Arabs murder civilians intentionally whilst Israel, trained in the Holiness of Arms, kills women and children accidentally. Setting aside the unreality of this claim, which veils the indiscriminate shelling of Operation Cast Lead whose lethal casualty ratio was over 1,300 Palestinians to Israel’s 13, the logic of “collateral damage” is a proven con. As the late historian and WW2 air force pilot Howard Zinn noted:

“These words are misleading because they assume an action is either ‘deliberate’ or ‘unintentional.’ There is something in between, for which the word is ‘inevitable.’  If you engage in an action, like aerial bombing, in which you cannot possibly distinguish between combatants and civilians (as a former Air Force bombardier, I will attest to that), the deaths of civilians are inevitable, even if not ‘intentional.’  Does that difference exonerate you morally? The terrorism of the suicide bomber and the terrorism of aerial bombardment are indeed morally equivalent. To say otherwise (as either side might) is to give one moral superiority over the other, and thus serve to perpetuate the horrors of our time.”

At other times Harris acknowledges that what is termed collateral damage is not accidental but a predictable certainty of industrial war, conceding that “What we euphemistically describe as  ‘collateral damage’ in times of war is the direct result of limitations in the power and precision of our technology”. A concession he repeats in this interview with Joe Rogan:

“The reality is that whenever you put Navy SEALs on the ground and let them shoot or drop bombs from Predator drones you’re going to kill some number of innocent people and that’s terrible; and the terrible truth is there is no alternative to that. Unless you are going to be a pacifist, you are going to run the risk of killing innocent people when you have to fight certain conflicts.”

It’s revealing that after this frank admission of the fundamentally anti-civilian nature of modern warfare, he proceeds to defend the incineration of Afghanistan by NATO and vilifies Julian Assange (“creepy bastard”) and Wikileaks for exposing the atrocities of the US state.

And then there is this:

Not quite done with salvaging the humanitarian case for the Iraq war, he offers this defence of collateral damage:

“Chomsky might object that to knowingly place the life of a child in jeopardy is unacceptable in any case, but clearly this is not a principle we can follow. The makers of roller coasters know, for instance, that despite rigorous safety precautions, sometime, somewhere, a child will be killed by one of their contraptions. ” (p. 147)

So there is no moral distinction between cluster bombs and Disneyland. Death is death, so what’s the problem? The claim amounts to holding that there is no difference between choking on a pretzel and sustaining a nuclear attack because, well, in both cases people die. The act of raining down “Shock & Awe” bears no likeness to the far less perilous and unlikely accidents of theme parks which, on the rare occasion they occur, do not make rubble of homes and infrastructure and uproot millions of refugees. And rollercoasters invite the willing patronage of thrill seekers, as opposed to Tomahawk missiles, whose victims do not volunteer for the risk of being shredded. The distinction is both in scale and human agency, between a minuscule risk undertaken freely in the knowledge that one is strapped in by “rigorous safety precautions”, and mass lethality thrust upon one by a hostile foreign power.


And then this:

My hope in this review was not to get tangled in the finer points of Islamic theology, but if former Muslims like myself stand any chance of winning friends and family to the cause of the Enlightenment, we must begin to deconstruct the tabloid caricatures of Muslims by Harris and his fellow immigrant baiters. I use that phrase advisedly. Harris dabbles in the most extravagant conspiracy theories about the impending conquest of Europe by Muslims:

“Islam is the fastest growing religion in Europe. The demographic trends are ominous: Given current birthrates, France could be a majority Muslim country in 25 years, and that is if immigration were to stop tomorrow.”

To understand how nine-months-pregnant with delusion this claim truly is, one has to only reflect that the French Muslim population is forecasted by the Pew Research Centre to grow to 10% by 2030 from its present figure of 7.5%, and France will be the Western European state with the highest number of Muslims. The only country that surpasses it is Russia which, even as it borders autonomous Muslim states, is projected to see her share of Muslims rise to 14%.

This fetish for the breeding habits of immigrants is one that Harris cultivates with far-right nationalists like Robert Spencer and Daniel Pipes. He admits: “With a few exceptions, the only public figures who have had the courage to speak honestly about the threat that Islam now poses to European societies seem to be fascist.” (Letter To A Christian Nation, P. 85)

And then this:

It’s a forgivable indulgence to ascribe this military cowboyism of Harris to a misplaced idealism to bring democracy at the point of Hellfire missiles, but that would be to misread him. Gravely. The reason he presses for US interference in the region is that, like his deathly silence on the pro-democracy movements of the Arab Spring that have dynamited his notion that Muslims are hot for theocracy, he thinks only Western imposed dictators can lead Muslims to Enlightenment:

“It appears that one of the most urgent tasks we now face in the developed world is to find some way of facilitating the emergence of civil societies everywhere else. Whether such societies have to be democratic is not at all clear. Zakaria has persuasively argued that the transition from tyranny to liberalism is unlikely to be accomplished by plebiscite. It seems all but certain that some form of benign dictatorship will generally be necessary to bridge the gap. But benignity is the key and if it cannot emerge from within a state, it must be imposed from without. The means of such imposition are necessarily crude: they amount to economic isolation, military intervention (whether open or covert), or some combination of both.” (The End of Faith, p. 151)

He has his reasons for shrinking from writing about the most revolutionary and hopeful changes of the modern political era, namely the great Arab Awakening that is sweeping away the US-backed tyrants in North Africa and the Middle East. It began of course last year, and in the interval, Harris has found time to devote thousands of words to ethnically profiling Muslims at airports. His justification for ignoring the awakening is that he thinks “we cannot merely force Muslim dictators from power and open the polls. It would be like opening the polls to the Christians of the fourteenth century”. Although conceding that “our collusion with Muslim tyrants” has been despicable, “our culpability on this front must be bracketed by the understanding that were democracy to suddenly come to these countries, it would be little more than a gangplank to theocracy”. Those who delight in the flowering of Arab democracy must remember that “the only thing that currently stands between us and the roiling ocean of Muslim unreason is a wall of tyranny and human rights abuses that we have helped to erect”. (p. 132)

The region’s people are unfit to be trusted with self-determination because they are morally inferior: “It is time for us to admit that not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development.” Indeed, such is the moral depravity of these barbarians that “At this point in their history, give most Muslims the freedom to vote, and they will freely vote to tear out their political freedoms by the root”. The solution then is for the US to command stewardship of the area imposing “benign” dictators in the place of bad ones who may lead Muslims to reform.


Sayeed goes on to recount how Harris’s flirtations with supernaturalism had James Randi on his tail and he backtracked, but apparently that has changed too:

“One appears far more likely to meet extraterrestrials or elves on DMT than traditional saints or angels. As I have not tried DMT, and have not had an experience of the sort that its users describe, I don’t know what to make of any of this.”

Is this the product of a mind scattered by intoxicants? Apparently not. Harris repeated the same flight to occultic planes at the Melbourne atheist convention where, after enthusing about the curative powers of spiritual meditation, he was desperate to reassure the assembled gathering of skeptics that his fascination with “aliens and insectile like creatures” is not “insanity”. Observe that he says these are not vacant hallucinations by high school stoners on a par with UFO sightings and crop circles, but that corroboration comes from “smart and serious people” of an extra-dimensional universe occupied by elves, reptilians and extra-terrestrials keen to impart scientific knowledge to lowly mortals about whose veracity “I don’t know what to make”. Welcome to David Icke territory.

The paranormal debunker James Randi chastised him for this quackery, twice, saying there were no choices to be made between virgin births, reincarnation, alien reptiles and telepathy– that bunk was bunk, and that science had once and for all spoken. And finally Harris appeared to step back from the crankdom: “My position on the paranormal is this: While there have been many frauds in the history of parapsychology, I believe that this field of study has been unfairly stigmatized.”

Or maybe not. It’s a custom of his when interrogated by experts to berate scientists for being mean to New Age bosh-mongers. He alone is the true empiricist who, though having just recently acquired his doctorate at the late age of 40, knows more about the scientific enterprise than all those intolerant and smug lab rats who graduated decades ago. So when the pressure mounted on him, his last ditch effort was to backtrack somewhat: “I have not spent any time attempting to authenticate the data” because it is not worth his time. Which begs the question of why he trumpets their mumbo jumbo as “credible evidence” that is “ignored by mainstream science”. Plainly what is not worth one’s time is not “unfairly stigmatised”.

And just when it appears that Harris wants to extricate himself from the unwisdom of wading into mystical humbug and pseudoscience, he slides right back into sham insisting that he “cannot categorically dismiss their contents.”

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: Interview with Simon Frankel Pratt, Part 1

Simon Frankel Pratt recently received a Masters of Arts in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, and is currently embarking on a PhD at the University of Toronto this September.  He gained my BA at Simon-Fraser University, in international studies and Middle East history, and has lived, studied, and conducted research in Israel for extended periods. He is a  co-founders of ‘SFU Skeptics’, a club devoted to sceptical thinking and humanist activism. His excellent blog can be found here. 

Skepoet:    I came across your work by recommendation from a friend who said you were a necessary correction to a lot of the vulgar anti-Islamism and misreadings of terrorism in the Skeptic’s community,
particularly that done by Sam Harris.  What do you think the key problems are there with a lot of the assertions one sees about terrorism from say Pat Condell or Sam Harris?

Simon Pratt:  So the Skeptics are a fairly well informed bunch when it comes to international goings-on. They – we – read the news and enjoy discussing events of significant political or human importance taking place in the Middle East or in Europe, and so-on. And so, of course, Skeptics read about stuff which reasonably carries the label ‘terrorism’. It is the interest of the Skeptics to address and combat bad critical thinking and its harmful consequences, particularly as an apparent consequences of religious doctrine. Terrorism, as we encounter it, thus seems to be the perfect exemplar of flawed, religious beliefs leading to terribly harmful consequences. And it has escaped no-one’s notice that most of that stuff we call terrorism, insofar as it is reported in our mainstream media, is done by Muslims, and often justified in explicitly Islamic language. This is the context within which we should understand the perspectives of intellectual leaders of the Skeptics community such as Sam Harris.

The Sam Harris School (SHS), in which I think we can include Pat Condell along with quite a few other Skeptics, seems to hold the following views on terrorism:

1. Terrorism is caused by extremist, irrational beliefs, usually of a religious character.
2. Islamic scripture and doctrine is essentially conducive to terrorism, to a greater degree than other religion’s texts and doctrines; a moderate Muslim is simply not a very pious Muslim, and is not practicing their own faith in a committed way.
3. Islam as its widely practiced today is particularly conducive to terrorism, with adherents comprising ‘death cults’ and espousing violent cultural chauvinism.
4. Terrorists, by virtue of their extremism and commitment to irrational religious doctrines, cannot be reasoned or bargain with, and should be dealt with via hawikish counterterrorism policies.

All of these views are undermined, to varying but generally substantial degrees, by the history and social science scholarship on terrorism, extremism, religious fundamentalism, and the intersections between ideology and violence. They are undermined in ways that should be understandable to anyone, and their flaws should be apparent to more than just experts in the field.

I will explain how this is the case.

1. There is a robust debate amongst experts as to the causes of terrorism, but that debate has, almost comprehensively, taken it as a given that relevant factors include political freedom, economic development, social structure, government effectiveness, and human security. For at least three decades, scholars on terrorism have considered both ‘underlying’ and ‘proximate’ causes, and specified a relationship between background forces that make terrorism more likely, and ‘triggers’ which push a person or a community into using terrorism. Now, of course these factors influence one-another in complex ways, and the religious or ideological beliefs held by members of a society both influence and are influenced by all these other things. Notably, though perhaps largely as a result of methodological concerns and as a legacy of behaviourism, religion is treated by many experts as epiphenomenal or as an intermediate factor which is caused by other things and serves only to enable immediate moral justification for action. It isn’t often assigned a causal role at all. While I won’t argue endorse this position, I will say that there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that our beliefs concerning legitimate targets and forms of violence, and on tolerance of difference within our community, are strongly shaped by precisely those material and structural forces I previously named. This brings me to number two.

2. Islam isn’t a thing. While there is undeniably bellicose language within Islamic texts, the meaning of those texts is determined solely through human interpretation. Why do so, so many Skeptics seem not to realise this? Some argue that certain kinds of statements terms are harder to interpret in a way that supports liberal values, and are more likely to lead to chauvinism or violence, but there are so many examples of even the most bloodthirsty or misogynist of biblical passages being ‘contextualised away’ by Christians here in North America and the UK which should be immediately available to recall. Many skeptics tend to look upon this process of contextualisation with contempt, noting that these passages are plainly awful and that
theological gymnastics are a pathetic attempt to deny the obvious evil of the dogma in question. Other Skeptics argue for some kind of exceptionalism, suggesting that Christianity has a liberal tradition
which Islam lacks, perhaps because Islam is hundreds of years younger and just hasn’t had its reformation yet. Well, the first argument is not only narrow-minded but ironic: Skeptics who see biblical literalism as more sound or apt are engaging in amateur theology of their own, and in the process are endorsing the notion that there are certain interpretations of religious texts which are more authoritative or accurate. I think this happens because we come from a tradition in which texts contain fairly clear arguments, penned by philosophers who make full use of modern language to ensure that their ideas are as unequivocal as possible precisely because they are committed to the kind of analytic reason which serves as the foundation to the Skeptics’ ideology. As for the second argument…

3. There are many examples of Muslim groups whose message appears very liberal and tolerant, as well as very pious.There are groups such as Imaan or al-Faitha, which campaign for greater acceptance for LGBT
persons within Muslim communities on the basis of extensive theological argument. There are political parties such as Hizb al-Wasat, whose platform endorses liberal democracy of a type quite similar to what we enjoy here, in religious langauge and with reference to religious norms and principles. I published an article last year on Islamic norms and liberal democracy, as it happens.  Anyway, the point is that while there is undoubtedly a powerful, global conservative movement in Islam, and while most Muslim communities in Asia, Africa, or the Middle East – and their young diasporas in Europe – would not be what I’d call liberal, this does not mean that those Muslims who are liberal are necessarily any worse at being Muslim. Nor does it mean that Islam just hasn’t yet had its reformation. Remember what I wrote earlier about religious beliefs being strongly shaped by material and structural forces? One doesn’t need to spend long comparing the conditions of primarily Muslim countries to Canada, the US, or the UK to see why something other than a failure to reach the requisite theological epoch could be behind Islam’s apparent conservatism. At the same time, one is likely to find greater similarities between Islam and Christianity as its practiced in, say, many African countries, compared to similarities between Christianity there and Christianity here. Again, this is not an argument for crass material determinism – and the powerful conservative religious movements amongst US Christians and British Muslims alike would be two prima facie confounding examples – but for the recognition that belief systems aren’t objects that endure unaffected by the world in which they dwell, exerting causal influences but receiving none from elsewhere.

4. I’ll make this short, since I appear to have rambled and ranted quite a lot. Terrorism is not some kind of extension of religiously driven rage, nor is it the inevitable and cathartic shucking of shackles by the colonised. It is a strategic response, an attempt to connect means to ends in an appropriate and efficient way. WIthout a doubt, individuals committing acts of terrorism believe that the harm they cause is justified, and thus from our perspective they are likely to be quite ‘extreme’ in their beliefs. WIthout a doubt, the moral principles by which those who use terrorism justify their actions are quite often expressed in religious langauge, and makes reference to the grievences – whether legitimate or not – of the colonised and the
oppressed. But if terrorists didn’t think that terrorism would serve their goals, they wouldn’t be terrorists because they wouldn’t use terrorism. We might very reasonably think that the cost of bargaining with groups that hold highly illiberal social goals is too high, but there is no essential reason why we should come to that conclusion. We might decide, after careful consideration of its associated benefits and costs, that hawkish counterterrorism is the best way to go, but that decision should be both contextually contingent and tentative. It may be a tired maxim, but very often, violence begets more violence.

S: So am I to understand that you also think the Robert Pape’s reading is a bit too simplistic?  Why do you think the Sam Harris model has such appeal?

S.P.:  Could you elabourate a bit more on this? Pape’s reading of what?

Aha, well, I have a few thoughts on this. The Sam Harris School offers a narrative that fits well into how Skeptics a whole view religion and violence. Religion is understood as a set of bad ideas, and those ideas are taken to have causal powers. Consider the axiom of folk psychology: Agent does X because desires Y and believes X will achieve Y. Religion is understood to supply bad desires and bad beliefs. Thus when people do bad things (‘Violence is bad’, says the Enlightenment Liberal, ‘for violence deprives individuals of their rights and is inefficient, to boot!’), it is because they have bad goals or bad methods for achieving good goals. Religion is understood by Skeptics as a cultural vehicle which supplies these bad goals and methods. It is not understood as the product of social structures but as the cause of them. The cause of Religion is persistent misinformation. This is, of course, entirely in keeping with a general understanding of causality as a Humean array of discrete variables interacting regularly to produce conjunctions of events, which is part of the Skeptical paradigm.

As for why Islam is singled out, I would say this is to some extent a product of a poor understanding of Islamic theology and dogma, but mostly the result of only encountering images of illiberal, often violent versions of Islam via the media. People who only see Christianity as its articulated by racist, homophobic, misogynist Deep-South ‘Tea-Party’ types will also come to a different conclusion about Christianity than people who encounter United Church members or Unitarians, or people who toddle down to their low-key local Anglican church for the hymns like my granny does. Of course, just as Horrible Deep South Christianity is real, so too is Violent Islamism. So too is Illiberal Islamism. There is a massive, global, and from my perspective highly awful movement of Muslims whose understanding of their religion leads them to seek things that are anathema to me. If I need to think carefully about how best to differentiate between bad and good Islams, and bad and good Muslims, think how difficult it must be for someone who hasn’t spent the bulk of their academic education studying these things?

So in short, the Sam Harris School is popular because Skeptics don’t really understand religion very well, and in particular they don’t understand Islam very well.

S.:  I mean Pape’s reading of terrorism as almost being solely rooted in foreign occupations.  Am I mischaracterizing him?

S.F.: Pape argued that suicide bombing was rooted in occupation, but certainly doesn’t seem to have argued that terrorism as a whole is limited to such situations.

S.: Ah yes, but you often see Pape used by left liberals to be generalized about terrorism in general, which would be a vulgarization of Pape, perhaps?

S.F.:  I can’t say that I’ve ever seen an example of Pape’s work misinterpreted by lay observers. If you provided me with an example, I could say more, but I infer from this that you’ve seen so-called ‘left liberals’ using Pape to argue that military occupations cause terrorism in general? I’m not hugely familiar with Pape’s work, since his methods don’t really interest me, but that would certainly seem like a very crude and loose reading.

One explanation for these kinds of readings lies, I think, in the discourse on terrorism outside of academia, where rhetorical camps divide into causal arguments. The RIght says ‘they hate us for our freedoms’ while the Left says ‘they hate us for our interference’. Latching on to social science that appears to justify one position over another is understandable, but of course, utterly flawed and simplistic. ‘They’ hate us for both our freedoms and our interference, and other things besides. Of course, the search for and deployment of simple narratives is ubiquitous in public discourse, but terrorism is one of the worst subjects for it.

May I ask where you’re going with this? Your question to me on the appeal of the Sam Harris School within the Skeptic community prompted me to think of some intriguing aspects of the epistemological commitments that lie at the heart of much Skeptic critique or discourse.

S.: I noticed you posited another problematic binary to to Sam Harris’s reading in the end of your answer, and I wanted to see you clarify how you think the term gets misused.

Now to return to the Sam Harris school of thought:  do you see this at all related to his claim that we can ignore the is/ought distinction?

S.P.:  I don’t think this is related immediately or even necessarily consciously to his attempts to Science away the is/ought distinction by arguing that deep down, we’re all basically  Benthamites. But I do think that the popularity of the Sam Harris School derives from the sense that any moral or social system which does not seem predicted upon the kind of subject and set of values typical of Enlightenment liberalism is simply ignorance that can be corrected by education or drone strike, depending. This is consistent with the view that there really can’t be any true debate over what ‘ought’ to be the case and that such debates merely arise from imperfect factual knowledge.

And don’t get me wrong, I’m a great fan of Enlightenment liberalism. I just think it needs to be understood as historically contingent, and constituted by a set of rules, institutions, and identities that are quite hard to sustain, and which run counter to many of our biases and dispositions as shown in psychological and sociological research.

S.: In your drawing out of the SHM you seemed to imply that perhaps another issue is that Enlightenment view of religion may be a little too simple.  Do you think that rationalist reading of religion as mainly a function of beliefs is sound?

S.P.:   I absolutely think that a reading of religion as the function of beliefs is insufficient. Enormously so. I
think religion should be understood as a process by which certain ‘sacred’ principles are maintained as central to social life. The propositional content of such principles is, of course, relevant, but I see that content as being largely contingent upon a great many other socio-economic conditions and structures. Really, I think religion is the way that people manage to keep sacred principles despite the speed with which any particular interpretation of those principles becomes obsolete, and the way communities glued together by those principles manage to stay together according to them. Any given piece of doctrine should be understood as an attempt to negotiate a whole host of pressing circumstances while remaining within the roles and norms appropriate to the sacred principles that provide its authority.

To Be Continued. 

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.

Marginalia on Skeptical and Radical Thinking: Interview with Sophie Hirschfeld

Sophie Hirschfeld is a writer for various websites, manager of shethought, activist, performer and professional dominatrix. She run the Eastern Washington Sex Workers Outreach Project and often focus on educating the public about the adult industry.  Sophie is the second in my interview series on the North American “skeptic’s movement” but we primarily focus on the politics of sex work and not on epistemology or science activism, so this is placed in both marginalia series.

Skepoet: What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions of the sex industry both in terms of workers and in terms of consumers?  In an interview you did on Culture Wars Radio, you said that one of your responses some feminist critiques of sex work as exploitation and objectification, you point out that most work is exploitative. Why do you think there is so much focus on the exploitation in sex work as opposed to be most wage-labor in general?

Sophie Hirschfeld:  I’m not going to pretend I can sum up the misconceptions about sex workers in one response, because there are many. Also, most of what I’m going to talk about doesn’t have data. It bothers me that there is nothing for me to offer beyond mostly experience and a little educated observation. The reality is, many of these issues aren’t examined through testing or studies because few academic institutions are willing to deal with something so controversial.

I’ll highlight what I think is most important, but be aware that this is a very inadequate response and a more accurate response would require a very lengthy book.

Sex workers are seen as a kind of underbelly of society. They’re often clumped together as a stereotype keeping company the likes of murderers, con artists and thieves. In movies, they’re seen as people trapped in a violent world that is inescapable and generally unpleasant or they’re considered the unpleasant, manipulative force. Because the sex workers who otherwise lead normal, healthy lives are not seen by most of society, that stigma is reinforced. The sex workers who tend to be noticed by the public are dysfunctional because the dysfunction is what makes them memorable. It is a tough stigma to get rid of.

In the community of sex workers out there, sex workers have about the same range of function or dysfunction as the rest of the population. There are workers of all types and personalities. Some people suck, some people are awesome.

Another problematic belief is that all or most sex workers are victims. I don’t want to say that there aren’t victims in the sex industry, because there certainly are. However, victimization is not the norm and painting non-victims as victims clouds the water and makes it tougher to help real victims. Painting the adult industry as the problem in matters such as the human slave trade forces ignorance regarding the real problems. It becomes a very dangerous red herring. As long as we’re directing people’s attention to the sex industry as a whole in order to protect victims of the slave trade, the slave trade is better able to function with our attention diverted. The accusation that the sex industry is somehow tied tightly to the human slave trade is probably one of the most damaging myths out there. Yet, it is largely ignored.

Furthermore, continuing along the problem of seeing sex workers as victims, this belief implies that the workers, themselves, are incapable of making their own decisions about their bodies and their lives. It implies that we can’t make decisions about our sexuality, in at least some context, without somehow being forced. It implies that sexuality somehow becomes non-consensual within whatever set of circumstances might involve money. Interestingly, the money as a coercive factor is rarely applied to anything else. In fact, the very suggestion that people in other industries are all coerced by their income is considered absurd by most people.

Sex workers are also stereotyped as stupid and without skills. Sex workers who are successful tend to be business-oriented. It isn’t that there aren’t those without skills, but some skill sets are needed when working in the adult industry. A good business sense is extremely important. There is this attitude that sex workers do what they do because they can’t do anything else. The reality is, other options are not as appealing. Why would a person work stocking shelves in a grocery store when they can have a far more pleasurable job and make more money? For me, the adult industry is more beneficial than the health industry, where my degree is. For others, it is better than bagging groceries, waitress or driving a garbage truck. Sex workers don’t lack skills, they lack the desire to do jobs that are less pleasant or that will make less money. They often want to apply their skills and attributes in a way that is better for them. It isn’t a lack of ability that lands them there.

There is also an economic stereotype that needs to be picked apart. The idea that people in the adult industry are all after the money is problematic. The sex industry isn’t easy money. In fact, while there is no objective information on it, people in the adult industry make a range of incomes. Some people in the adult industry make as much doing, for example, erotic texting, as they would bagging groceries. Sex work isn’t easy money for everybody. Some people do well and prosper and some people make very little. Like with any attempt at running a business, a sex worker is subject to economic fluctuation, market preference and product visibility. Sex work isn’t “a good way to make money,” as many like to say. It is, instead, a way to make money that some people are good at. It is important to note that difference.

As for clients, there’s also far more misconceptions than I could possibly address in one reasonably-sized response. The ones that I think are the most damaging are that people using adult services are socially dysfunctional, disloyal, women-hating and lonely.

In popular culture, with a few exceptions, people who use the adult industry are seen as socially inadequate or, oftentimes, downright evil. They’re seen as violent and uncaring of those who’s services they use. Abuse is often involved and stereotypes about the adult industry and patrons are used to set up victims and villains. Clients are stereotyped as either lonely or the bad guys. The public seems to believe that, too. This is a tricky stereotype to deal with because one of the goals of SWOP is to reduce the instances of violence against sex workers. The reality is, the social environment that sex workers lives in enables violence, but that enabling isn’t there because our patrons are all evil and violent. That problem is there because there’s really nothing out there to protect us. With lack of legal protection, we’re easier targets. To further complicate the problem, we’re social outsiders and, per the norm for human behavior, it is acceptable to harm an outsider. The underbelly of society is expendable, in the public’s mind. Thus, we come to more harm and the stereotype about clients being violent is naturally reinforced. Most clients, though, are like the average person as well. They are empathetic. While there are some that may not care, most of them seem to be understanding and normal, caring people. Just as with sex workers, the patrons of the adult industry are from a range of types of people and stereotyping them as violent and uncaring simply harms everyone.

Another dysfunction that patrons are stereotyped as is socially inept. They are often seen as people who “can’t otherwise get laid” or who can’t keep a girlfriend or properly communicate with those they would be interested in. They’re painted as lonely and unable to resolve the problem of loneliness without using the adult industry. This stereotype poses two problems. Not only does it paint the wrong picture about most of the people who use the adult industry, but it also implies that those who might use the adult industry because they might be dysfunctional are somehow bad. Much like the habit people have had of accusing others of being gay as a part of an insult, creating a stereotype that only the socially inept would use the adult industry, as a form of degradation to those who are socially awkward, is insulting. When people have problems and they find practical solutions for them, we, as a society, should reward that. Instead, we use it as a way to measure ourselves against others and we discriminate accordingly. That’s not healthy for us and it is not healthy for those we’re bringing down in the process. Most people who use adult industry services, though, are pretty average.

The stereotype about lack of loyalty in those who use the adult industry is its own tricky topic and, really, deserves its own article, sometime. The truth is, some disloyalty is often involved with clients. However, I don’t think the patrons of adult services are any more or less disloyal than anyone else. It is simply the case that in the act of using adult services, the lack of loyalty to one’s partner is far more obvious than it is when someone has an affair. There is no objective data on it, but if I had to guess, I would say the relationship status of most of those who use sex industry services are probably pretty close to that of the general population. There are countless problems with the disloyal stereotype, too, that are difficult to address, here. How people decide if someone is disloyal varies tremendously. Some think that if a person watches porn, they’re somehow unfaithful to their partner. Others feel that cheating is a matter of who someone is having intercourse with and others see cheating as a purely mental or emotional thing. With no clear lines drawn, socially, the stigma about clients and loyalty to their significant others is often over-exaggerated.

I’ve already touched on this, some, but the common believe that those who use adult industry services are somehow misogynistic and woman-hating is pretty far off base. Again, the range of individuals adult workers see is pretty much representative of the general population, so there are going to be some woman-hating guys who are generally unpleasant. For the most part, though, patrons of adult services are normal guys, some of whom even see women in the adult industry as liberated and independent. Many of them hold women in high-regard and, quite honestly, if they didn’t see interaction with women as some sort of need, they wouldn’t be using the adult industry in the first place.

It is tough to trace the origins of the idea that sex work is exploitative, but it appears to originate from the various waves of feminism. The goals, originally, were to separate women from the idea that they were only something for sexual use. That goal wasn’t necessarily bad, but it had a bad, probably unintentional, side-effect. Coupling that with the fact that sex work has frequently been seen, in history, in the context of really shitty situations and you have a social recipe for justifying the soup of discrimination that is seen against the sex industry. When we see things in a bad context, it is tough for us to separate what is causing those bad things and what is simply there. We look at ghettos and discriminate against the context, but we have a tough time seeing that the majority of those in the ghetto are innocent and only there by chance, not by personal flaw. So, when people have looked at the adult industry in the past, and even in the present, they’ve seen it scattered amongst things like poverty, racial disparity and a criminal culture. And the biggest association the sex industry had with something bad, for years, was sex. Sex was bad, ergo, selling sex must be bad. In that sense, it has been easy for people to judge the adult industry as much as whatever they think surrounds it.

Because of this, the sex industry, which is already seemingly evil, is easier to target. As people often discuss from sociological standpoints, the us vs. them mentality encourages people to find more ways to discriminate against the “other.” We’re more willing to destroy the “other” if they are seen as bad or if their situation is bad. If exploitation is a main feature of sex industry work, it is easier to keep it firmly rooted as the “other.” It is easier to hate. As sexual liberation becomes more accepted and an ongoing theme in our culture, and sex, itself, is seen as less evil, the most glaring reason to hate the adult industry is slowly vanishing. Exploitation is one of the strongest evils others can point to to keep society opposed to sex work.

As for why people target the concept of exploitation in sex work and not the rest of the work force, that has everything to do with how people compartmentalize ideas. It is a flaw in the way humans think. The condition of work being sexual makes exploitation somehow not-OK, whereas the condition of a normal job is just not something people think about because most people have the normal job. It isn’t highlighted as a problem and ideas surrounding exploitation in regular jobs is not something that saturates our culture.

S.:   I remember, somewhat strangely, seeing feminists that I was studying in graduate school such as Andrea Dworkin cited by conservative Christian students in Georgia, who would have been horrified by her politics, when they are arguing against pornography.  Then I looked into several of the studies that in anti-pornography arguments by feminists and saw that they were done by Christian-influenced and heavily conservative researchers.  This immediately confused me.    Do you think this is a case of confusing “current exploitation” (or even past exploitation) as a baseline for any possible “adult industry/sex work”?  This seems to me to, like you said, to actually protect more serious abuse and also to put sex work in a special category of exploitation (when I think most wage labor is exploitative).How do see this victimization narrative as a means of avoiding how to deal with the real social issues within sex work and the adult industry?

S.H.:   By making Sex Workers out to all be victims, it is a kind of red herring. It is a distraction from other real issues. It would be like trying to solve a puzzle by shaking the pieces in the box. That isn’t to say that there aren’t sex workers who are victims — of course, there are some sex workers who are victims, but by claiming all sex workers are victims, we’re not resolving the problems the individuals who are victims are facing. Instead, we’re blanket attacking something and doing very little that is productive. Oftentimes, claiming all sex workers are victims makes people think that sex work, itself, is the problem and needs to be eliminated. Since sex work isn’t going to just randomly go away, focusing on getting rid of it enables people to think they’re working on something productive and, yet, they’re not finding actual kidnapping victims and freeing them from sexual slavery. We have real examples of this. Last year, I wrote about Annie Lobert’s claims that she makes in her program, Hookers for Jesus. She makes claims about who she is saving and sex work in general that are deceptive.

There is very little evidence that she deals with the issues that she claims. Of course, it isn’t the deception, itself, that is the biggest problem. It is that her deception actually causes harm and that is a problem.

I think that painting sex workers as victims prevents us from looking at the very real problems that they face. When sex worker seeks help, for example, from a trauma they’ve experienced and the counselor can’t get past their idea of a sex worker being a victim, the trauma never gets addressed. Similarly, on a societal level, if sex workers are all victims that are in need of being saved, issues such as laws which prevent sex workers from seeking help when a crime is committed against them are likely to remain in place under the assumption that they are protecting those who they actually harm. Furthermore, painting sex workers as all victims removes responsibility from them. How can a sex worker be a liberated person if it is assumed that their choices are not theirs? How can we properly have freedom if this assumption keeps laws in place that ultimately pose a threat to us? That’s what arguments against the adult industry tend to do. In fact, attempts to ban pornography are constantly using the excuse that porn harms women. Frequently, they misquote studies (or make them up) or cite instances where real people were really harmed and instead of blaming the people who did the harm, they blame the adult industry.

S.:  If how much do you think a failure to contextualize sex and sexuality leads to this sort of thinking?

S.H.:  I think that many people are trained to see sex and sexuality as separate from regular life. Sex is only for certain purposes, sex is not to be talked about, we treat sex as if it is a completely different culture, sometimes. We even refer to people who are openly sexual as members of “the kink community,” even if their “kink” is simply having multiple partners (which is extremely common).

Of course, not addressing sex as a normal behavior is only part of the problem with dealing with issues facing the adult industry. It does play a major role, but even as it has become less common to demonize sexual behavior that used to be considered a punishable offense, sex workers have only seen their noose loosened just a little. The progress is slower, which seems to indicate there are other problems.

I think one problem is that in the attempt to find sexual liberation, sex work was wrongfully accused of being a culprit in the oppression of our sexual personas, especially that of women. This accusation didn’t come from one side of the debate or the other it came from both. The more conservative people on one side saw the accusation as a validation of their claims against normal human sexual behavior and those seeking liberation saw the accusation as a part of a vehicle to finding their own freedom and possibly saving others along the way. Even now, there is a strong movement against the adult industry from feminist groups and from religious organizations and from most political parties and a part of that justification is the claim that sex workers and/or most sexual imagery, is harmful to women and causes problems ranging from abuse towards women to unreasonable beauty expectations to anorexia to community break downs. It appears to be the case that society wanted sexual liberation, but they wanted sexual liberation to remain invisible and in order to keep it invisible, the most sexual of all beasts, the sex worker, seems to have become the prey of society.

S.:  Do you see this as a part of a larger general social problems in regards sexuality?

S.H.:  The problem with society’s view on sexuality is another issue that plays into this. An aversion to open sexual discussion makes it difficult to deal with issues sex workers face. The aversion to sexual discussion highlights people’s fear of open sexuality, which is why many people claim that sex work is exploitative. I frequently hear people tell me, when they hear about my participation in erotic productions, that it is a job they wouldn’t want to do. They seem to think something extreme would have to happen to them for them to do it and they may be correct, but the problem is that they assume that based on their understanding of their world, not with an understanding that I have of my own world. As a result, their assumption that something dramatic must happen to others must be what causes them to go into the adult industry is bad reasoning. It is kind of like saying I wouldn’t be a cook at a fast food place unless something dramatic happened in my life. Of course that is true, but I wouldn’t assume that every person who works at a fast food place has had bad experiences that led them there.

Alongside that, an aversion to open sexual discussion means that discussing real issues in the adult industry, such as abuse and violence, STDs and legal issues are off the table in most contexts. Again, even in the context of such a conversation, sex work gets blamed for things it shouldn’t. Instead of providing safety outlets for victims of violence, the advice is to leave the adult industry. To put that in context, we never tell people in most other lines of work that because they are a victim, they should leave that industry. Even police officers who are shot are not necessarily encouraged to leave their line of work. Instead of reinforcing education about sexual safety, encouraging the use of condoms, dental dams and birth control, it is again the case that people blame the adult industry for disease. Yet, if someone is dealing with a serious STD, it is only the extreme abstinence promoters who wrongly assign the blame and fail to connect the problem with safety.

S.:  What do you make of the arguments I have seen floating around the web about how legalization of prostitution has not stopped human trafficking even in Scandinavia?

S.H.:   The problem is that they are using the assumption that the two are tightly linked. Human trafficking isn’t the same as prostitution. Though, legalizing prostitution has enabled countries to work with prostitutes in order to help find those who are trafficked within the industry. Trafficking within the industry is only a small part of human trafficking. The human slave trade is a very serious matter and blaming the adult industry has caused most people to ignore various truths about it. The sex industry is neither the cause nor the function of most of the slave trade.

S.:  What do you think the skeptic’s movement role should be in issues of sexuality given the political (but also scientific) nature of skeptical activism?

S.H.:  I think that the skeptic community should be examining the issue more thoroughly. I’ve been trying to get opportunities to teach the skeptic community more facts about the sex industry, but finding people who will listen can be difficult. There is so much opposition to my point of view and the subject is so sensitive, many people will ignore it. They have to get past what they think they know about the industry to even allow it.

S. :  What do you think would be needed to get over pre-existing biases within the skeptic’s community?

S.H.:  That is tough to predict. Social change is not an easy task and it usually requires a population to begin to understand the damage their beliefs do. When it comes to sex work or sex-related issues, not only do they have to see the damage being done, we have to dispel myths about the industry, some of which have existed for thousands of years (just look how the Judeo-Christian belief system approaches sex and the adult industry).

S.:  Do you think the Watson/Dawkin’s controversy a few years back has made the issue more front and center than it was in say 2008 when I first got involved?

S.H.:  I think the Watson/Dawkins controversy highlighted some individual biases and misunderstandings in how gender should be approached. I don’t think it focused very much on things like open sexuality or sex work. It would have been nice if it could have led us down a path where we could discuss things like consent, sex and culture and so on, but it became a petty battle, instead. I think everyone lost that battle.

S.:  Anything you would like to say in closing?

S.H.:  Most of the way society views the adult industry is distorted. It is so distorted that it causes harm and we can’t fix it until we work on fixing it. I would hope, if anything comes from the work I do, that it is some measure of progress in getting people to rethink how we view sexuality and the people who openly express themselves and use their sexuality in a healthy way. That includes the ability to see sex work as a normal, acceptable act that should be done safely and respectfully.

Historically, minorities have stepped forward, on occasion, and given the World a simple message, which the World eventually acknowledged. Many people in the adult industry have the same message: We are human, please treat us accordingly.


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