Criticizing skeptics, John Horgan officially becomes an Internet troll

I’ve had my contretemps with science writer John Horgan on this site, but, except for what’s in the title above, I’ll try to refrain from ad hominems. But I will characterize Horgan’s latest post on his Scientific American blog, “Dear ‘Skeptics’, Bash homeopathy and Bigfoot less, mammograms and war more,” as contrarian, ill-informed, and misguided. (This is a précis of what he said last Sunday at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism Conference [NECSS].) The post is also redolent of arrogance—the attitude that because Horgan’s a contrarian, he’s automatically superior to everyone else, and that includes virtually everyone who’s become famous for skepticism. When he accuses many well known skeptics of arrogance, I see that as projection.

Here are Horgan’s main points and my responses. I also note that Steve Novella has criticized Horgan’s talk at Neurologica Blog, but I haven’t read it yet, for I want to write independently, uninfluenced by what Novella said. Having read Horgan, I am sure that he will respond by not admitting that he may have been wrong anywhere,  and then arguing, à la Chris Mooney, that any outrage he’s provoked just shows that he was right, and has “hit a nerve”. And of course he loves the attention, which he can’t get by saying something constructive.  So my comments below directed at those observing the kerfuffle. Here are Horgan’s points.

Horgan is a REAL skeptic, free from the taint of “capital-S” skeptics. Here’s how he begins his article (note that his “references” throughout the piece usually go to his previous articles rather than primary sources):

“I hate preaching to the converted. If you were Buddhists, I’d bash Buddhism. But you’re skeptics, so I have to bash skepticism.

I’m a science journalist. I don’t celebrate science, I criticize it, because science needs critics more than cheerleaders. I point out gaps between scientific hype and reality. That keeps me busy, because, as you know,most peer-reviewed scientific claims are wrong.

So I’m a skeptic, but with a small S, not capital S. I don’t belong to skeptical societies. I don’t hang out with people who self-identify as capital-S Skeptics. Or Atheists. Or Rationalists.”

Well aren’t you special, Mr. Horgan? I’m not sure what he means by “capital A” atheists or “capital R” rationalists, unless he’s referring to people who constantly flaunt their superiority for holding those views. But I know few people—and none of the ones he names—who fit that description. Yes, people like Sean Carroll, Lawrence Krauss, and Steve Pinker may promulgate the notions of rationalism, or decry the malfeasance of religion, but their actions are constructive. They push arguments, not arrogance. To be sure, I’d rather hang out with those guys any day than with Horgan, who is truly a “capital C” contrarian.

This is a man who, in his attempt to criticize rather than celebrate science, proclaimed, in his 1996 book The End of Science, that science has no more Big Questions to answer. Since then, just to mention physics, we have discovered the accelerating universe, the Higgs Boson, gravitational waves, and dark energy. All this shows that the contrarian view that big scientific discoveries are at an end (not a new thesis, of course—it’s been made repeatedly throughout history) is bogus. If this is science criticism, it’s not very good criticism.

Skeptics pick the low-hanging fruit, preaching to the choir. As Horgan says:

“’The Science Delusion’” is common among Capital-S Skeptics. You don’t apply your skepticism equally. You are extremely critical of belief in God, ghosts, heaven, ESP, astrology, homeopathy and Bigfoot. You also attack disbelief in global warming, vaccines and genetically modified food.

These beliefs and disbeliefs deserve criticism, but they are what I call “soft targets.” That’s because, for the most part, you’re bashing people outside your tribe, who ignore you. You end up preaching to the converted. [I suppose he’d say the same for those who attack creationism.]

Meanwhile, you neglect what I call hard targets. These are dubious and even harmful claims promoted by major scientists and institutions. In the rest of this talk, I’ll give you examples of hard targets from physics, medicine and biology. I’ll wrap up with a rant about war, the hardest target of all.”

I’m incredulous. Yes, Bigfoot and Nessie have been pretty thoroughly debunked, but they can still serve as lessons for students learning how to be critical. I believe Greg Mayer, in his class on cryptozoology at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, uses just these examples to teach students critical thinking. The same goes for Holocaust denialism. Of course it’s low-hanging fruit, but there’s still stuff to learn by criticizing the denialists. I, for one, have learned a lot about the evidence for the Holocaust precisely from reading both the denialists and their skeptical debunkers.

As for homeopathy, global warming, vaccines, and GMOs, Horgan’s simply dumb to say that we’re waste our time attacking the denialists. Homeopathy is a serious problem: people get sick and die from using homeopathic remedies, and many people believe in them. Even the National Health Service pays for them, so the taxpayer funds fraudulent remedies. Global warming is perhaps the most serious problem we face: one that endangers not just humanity, but many other species. Yet many people, and that includes Republican lawmakers, don’t accept it and won’t do anything about it.  When we promulgate it, we are by no means “preaching to the choir.” The same goes for GMOs, with some, like golden rice, having the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives. And we’ve made progress. Teaching creationism is no longer legal in public schools, and vaccinations are required everywhere. Homeopathy is on the way out. So much for our ineffective criticism of those “outside the tribe”!

As for religion, well, we’ve discussed its harms here. Horgan is soft on faith and prefers not to discuss them. Here’s what he thinks we should be skeptical about:

Physics. A quote from Horgan:

“First, physics. [What we should be skeptical about and aren’t.] For decades, physicists like Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene and Leonard Susskind have touted string and multiverse theories as our deepest descriptions of reality.

Here’s the problem: strings and multiverses can’t be experimentally detected. The theories aren’t falsifiable, which makes them pseudo-scientific, like astrology and Freudian psychoanalysis.

Some string and multiverse true believers, like Sean Carroll, have argued that falsifiability should be discarded as a method for distinguishing science from pseudo-science. You’re losing the game, so you try to change the rules.

. . . When high-status scientists promote flaky ideas like the Singularity and multiverse, they hurt science. They undermine its credibility on issues like global warming.”

Is Horgan ignorant of the fact that there are constant debates about issues like the multiverse and string theory in physics? Seriously, there are no skeptics about such stuff? String-theory critics are a dime a dozen. Sure, people like me simply don’t understand string theory enough to criticize it, but I’m perfectly aware that there is no empirical evidence supporting it, and I’ve said so many times on this sit. As for advocates of things like singularity and multiverses “hurting science”, Horgan is talking out of his nether orifice. Does anybody really question global warming as a result of the promulgation of string theory? That’s ludicrous.

Medicine. Horgan bangs on about the problems of expensive healthcare in the U.S., and the dangers of mammograms, PSA tests, and colonoscopies. Do skeptics ignore these? No way, but you have to know your medicine to be a good critic. Among these are Orac, Steve Novella, and Harriet Hall, who I saw discuss exactly these issues at a TAM talk several years ago. These issues are also chewed over endlessly on sites like Science-Based Medicine and Respectful Insolence. In the UK, people like Ben Goldacre and Simon Singh, as well as the group Sense About Science, have been extremely vocal about a range of medical issues from Big Pharma to quackery to science reporting. (By the way, Mr. Horgan, I’ve been plenty skeptical about that, too.) Goldacre and Singh’s outreach has also gone way beyond the so-called choir, and in fact launched the some of the subjects they were criticising—AIDS quackery and reflexology to name only two—into a very public sphere of debate.

And there are plenty of skeptics about psychotropic drugs, which Horgan also mentions as an appropriate subject for skepticism. In fact, I’ve discussed some of the issues here and have read a slew of books about the dangers of psychiatric medication. There are plenty of people out there worried about antidepressants and similar drugs. The “skeptics” may not be people like Krauss or Sean Carroll, but they’re present aplenty. We may not encounter them often, for you need expertise to properly criticize some subjects.

Horgan is in fact such a contrarian that he claims the so-called “neglect” of medical issues by skeptics has endangered people, and offers the following over-the-top statement:

Given the flaws of mainstream medicine, can you blame people for turning to alternative medicine?

Umm. . . I don’t think a major reason people oppose vaccination and turn to homeopathic cures is because of our failure to properly criticize medicine. How many skeptics, for instance, have gone after homeopathy and the anti-vaxers, as well as “alternative medicine” itself? Answer: plenty.

Genetic determinism. Horgan argues that nobody criticizes the “gene for this and that” school: those people who argue that there’s are single genes of large effect for things like smoking, thrill-seeking, believing in God, being gay, and so on. He’s wrong: plenty of people have criticized those studies, including me. Most of the studies showing such genes have not been repeatable.

War.  Here Horgan mistakes a failure of skeptics to criticize things like mammograms with their failure to adopt certain political views: just those political views that are Horgan’s favorites. Being critical of some wars (I presume Horgan would say that World War II was okay) is a political view, and differs from being skeptical about God or homeopathy.  Horgan also decries the “deep roots” theory of war supposedly promulgated by E. O. Wilson and Steven Pinker—that bellicosity is in our genes, and that war must therefore be inevitable—but I doubt that any of these people think that we shouldn’t try to eliminate useless wars. If you read Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature, you’ll see that that is not Steve’s thesis at all: he’s optimistic about ending wars, and gives a variety of cultural reasons for th decline of violence, which, needless to say, he approves of. But I’ll let Pinker and Shermer respond to this allegation, which they’ll do on this site.

What causes wars? Here Horgan has gone full Noam Chomsky, asserting that the U.S. is the greatest threat to peace in the world and, in fact, calling for people to support Chomsky:

“But war is a really hard target. Most people—most of you, probably–dismiss world peace as a pipe dream. Perhaps you believe the deep-roots theory. If war is ancient and innate, it must also be inevitable, right?

You might also think that religious fanaticism—and especially Muslim fanaticism–is the greatest threat to peace. That’s the claim of religion-bashers like Dawkins, Krauss, Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne and the late, great warmonger Christopher Hitchens.

The United States, I submit, is the greatest threat to peace. Since 9/11, U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan have killed 370,000 people. That includes more than 210,000 civilians, many of them children. These are conservative estimates.

Far from solving the problem of Muslim militancy, U.S. actions have made it worse. ISIS is a reaction to the anti-Muslim violence of the U.S. and its allies.

. . . The antiwar movement is terribly weak. Not a single genuine antiwar candidate ran in this Presidential race, and that includes Bernie Sanders. Many Americans have embraced their nation’s militarism. They flocked to see American Sniper, a film that celebrates a killer of women and children.

In the last century, prominent scientists spoke out against U.S. militarism and called for the end of war. Scientists like Einstein, Linus Pauling, and the great skeptic Carl Sagan. Where are their successors? Noam Chomsky is still bashing U.S. imperialism, but he’s almost 90. He needs help!”

Check out the references: most are to Horgan’s other blog articles. As for religion as a cause of war (and, I’d submit, of the oppression of many people), I think there’s sufficient evidence that it’s a major contributor to conflict. As for the U.S. being a greater threat to peace than Islam, Horgan’s evidence for that is our past incursions in the Middle East, some of which have already been amply criticized by atheists and skeptics. But at the moment, would Horgan claim that Islamic nations are less a threat to peace than the U.S.? That is an untestable statement, for it depends on the unpredictable future.

And that is the problem. Criticizing how we deal with ISIS is not the same as criticizing homeopathy. How we deal with ISIS now, for instance, is a judgement call, and will always have a down side. We know that homeopathy is ineffective, and we know what course of action will help people by eliminating quackery.

When Horgan says this at the end:

So, just to recap. I’m asking you skeptics to spend less time bashing soft targets like homeopathy and Bigfoot and more time bashing hard targets like multiverses, cancer tests, psychiatric drugs and war, the hardest target of all.

What he’s saying is this:

So, just to recap, I’m asking you skeptics to spend less time dealing with issues where the answer is clear, and where we can really improve the well being of society, and deal instead with things that are MY pet issues.

As for ending war, who doesn’t want that? But right now we have to deal with ISIS and the Middle East, and not all wars can or should be prevented anyway. Skeptics certainly have opinions and contribute to the national conversation on war. However, unlike subjects where, for example, skeptics can point at evidence for the harm that poor quality clinical trials do, and advocate changes required to remedy the situation, “bashing war” is a more nebulous subject entrenched in a wide-ranging nexus of issues including history, politics and geography.

Are those issues in the purview of skepticism? Yes, we should be skeptical of all claims, especially by governments with an interest in particular outcomes, but there are already plenty of organizations engaged in political activism, and many of us belong to them. If we were to turn skeptics’ meetings (which I don’t much attend anyway) into what Horgan wants, they’d become political meetings. There is a place for discussing homeopathy, the false claims of religion, anti-vaxers, and GMOs, and there’s a place for discussing politics, war, racism, and economics. But they’re not necessarily the same place.

Finally, regarding war, aren’t antiwar activities exactly like those that Horgan criticizes in skeptics: “. . . for the most part, you’re bashing people outside your tribe, who ignore you. You end up preaching to the converted.” When, as a conscientious objector, I went to many anti-war rallies in the Sixties, they weren’t full of Nixon Republicans. But just like a group of like-minded people can stop wars and segregation, so they can stop harmful medicine and the evils of faith.

In the end, Horgan’s claim that skeptics neglect things like physics, multiverses, cancer tests, and psychiatric drugs is just flat wrong. If he had any familiarity with skepticism, he’d know that. As for war, those of us who feel strongly about it do our best. But, unlike Horgan and Chomsky, I will not argue that America is the Source of All Evil in the world.


In an hour I’ll put up Krauss’s response to Horgan’s screed, and then an hour thereafter I’ll post Shermer’s.



  1. Posted May 19, 2016 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Of course the West currently *is* in a pretty anti-war mood, as shown by the fact that we’re currently doing relatively little about Syria or Libya.

    Thus, being highly skeptical of the merits of interventionist wars is not “the hardest target of all”, it’s mainstream.

  2. Posted May 19, 2016 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    Good response; Steve Novella’s response was good too. I agree that Horgan is a contrarian, and his response to critics of this piece is woeful too, but, to his credit, he does admit that it ‘wasn’t nuanced’. On that we can all agree!

    I get the feeling it’s his demand that Sceptics spend more of their time opposing war in all its forms (a laudable objective) that is closest to his heart. A complex topic, though; just consider the literature on Just War Theory, for example, even before politics is factored in. I look forward to the other responses.

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted May 19, 2016 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

      Horgan is a contrarian…

      There’s a rich seam of characterisation here – contrarian, curmudgeon, cantankerous, crotchety or bloody-minded. It’s hard for me to distinguish between Horgan rationally making a point or just indulging himself.

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted May 19, 2016 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

        For me, the definition of contrarian is usually something like arrogant a$$hole.

        And although I’ve done neither, I’m darn sure I’d rather hang out with Jerry. This post is considered and well argued (as usual), unlike the writings of Horgan. I always feel like I could have a proper discussion with Jerry whether we were talking about something we agree on or not.

        Horgan gives the impression that he’s not interested in anyone’s opinion except his own. He often seems to be arguing for the sake of arguing. There doesn’t seem to be any core there.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted May 19, 2016 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

          Oh sure, you think that about Jerry but then he goes ahead and hangs his toilet paper the wrong way.


          • Heather Hastie
            Posted May 19, 2016 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

            Jerry and I are in agreement on the TP front, so we could even talk for long enough to need bathroom breaks. 😀

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted May 19, 2016 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

              Look how open minded I am to still like the both of you! 😉

              • Heather Hastie
                Posted May 19, 2016 at 7:26 pm | Permalink


        • Posted May 26, 2016 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

          + 1

    • Harrison
      Posted May 19, 2016 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

      I liked Novella’s response but lest we forget NECSS is his baby. This is the same conference that shamefully disinvited Richard Dawkins (then later capitulated and asked him back, though by that time his health problems precluded attending), yet Novella invites Horgan and now he’s made an ass of the conference and the people who organize it. How much credit does Novella get for putting out a fire when he invited the arsonist into his home?

    • Happy Snacks
      Posted May 28, 2016 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

      but what was wrong about criticism being levelled at scepticism? Is that domain above and beyond bloating the way other domains are not? Because it’s called ‘skepticism’?

      Soft targeting has the following hallmarks

      1. you know all the arguments off by heart.
      2. for a long time you regurgitate arguments without new modification.
      3. your scepticism enjoys large-size support from skeptics and media
      4. too many skeptics are involved for it to make any difference whether you throw your oar in or not.

  3. Diki
    Posted May 19, 2016 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Just a note, homeopathy on the NHS is in terminal decline.

  4. Michael
    Posted May 19, 2016 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    John Horgan is not a skeptic in the modern sense of the word. His skepticism is more akin to classical skepticism where everything is questioned all the time, and that’s it. Modern skepticism is about questioning but generally accepting prevailing bodies of knowledge until better information overturns established knowledge. Horgan, by believing whole-heartedly in Mysterianism (especially of consciousness), is not in the camp of “scientific skepticism”. The only reason we care at all about what he says is that he writes for a science magazine, which gives him an air of authority. His criticisms of skeptics is no more valid than being criticized by Ken Ham and other loons.

  5. Jeff Lewis
    Posted May 19, 2016 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    I read that article yesterday and had started an entry on my own blog responding to it. It really seems to me that Horgan’s argument was, the problem with Skepticism is that it doesn’t address these issues that it actually addresses. Like PCC pointed out, practically every topic he brought up is something I already knew about because of organized skepticism. It would be like complaining that the problem with math education is that it doesn’t address calculus both only covers the easy topics of arithmetic and algebra. It covers all of them.

  6. Posted May 19, 2016 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Nina's Soap Bubble Box.

  7. Posted May 19, 2016 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    public education vs religion

    religion does not confer quality thinking

  8. Posted May 19, 2016 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    If he really thinks god is a soft target, then I can only conclude he must be a hermit who is (perhaps blissfully) ignorant of the reality of American society.

    Also, I’m not sure who he might have in mind as people who exclusively cheerlead for science. In fact, I’d say the best cheerleaders for science are those who criticize science that deserves criticism. That’s part of the process of science! He set up a straw man on the one side of that false dichotomy.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted May 19, 2016 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

      That struck me as well. He’s basically saying the scientific method isn’t used. For example, he seems to be saying that no cancer screening should be done at all. Cancer screening is over used in the US because of the screwed up health system, but it has its proper place (e.g. age group, pre-existing conditions, family history etc.) and that place is determined by a proper analysis of the science.

    • Vaal
      Posted May 19, 2016 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

      That’s exactly what I saw. He’s acting as if science weren’t a self-criticizing method and scientists don’t critically examine the claims within science!

      I mean, what is the method he suggests for scrutinizing scientific claims? ..uh…science?

    • phil
      Posted May 19, 2016 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

      Well, religion is a soft target in that demolishing it is like nailing jelly (jello) to a wall. The fact that most religions have excedingly poor evidentiary bases never seems to affect believers much.

      • Posted May 19, 2016 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

        Ok, but it’s certainly not easy to be an outspoken critic of religion in the good ol’ US of A. You certainly won’t get to hold an office of any political import if you’re a vocal critic of religion.

  9. WT
    Posted May 19, 2016 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    “Having read Horgan, I am sure that he will respond by not admitting that he may have been wrong anywhere, and then arguing, à la Chris Mooney, that any outrage he’s provoked just shows that he was right, and has “hit a nerve”.”

    Horgan has in fact already put up a response to various reactions from his talk. I’ve read his original post, plus reactions from Orac, Steven Novella, and now our host. I too expected his follow-up to have a smug “Wow, I musta hit a nerve” tone, but instead he went with a back-patting “See, I got people talking! Mission accomplished!”

    I try to read pretty broadly (whether it’s in atheism, skepticism, science, politics, so on) to avoid epistemic closure and confirmation bias. Or at least as best as one can. It’s exceedingly rare to find a well-regarded writer or figure with whom I will ALWAYS agree or ALWAYS disagree. If nothing else, a broken clock ought to be right twice a day, no? Yet over the years, I cannot recall Horgan picking an argument where I came away thinking he was right.

    • Posted May 19, 2016 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      Lord, you could say the same thing about Donald Trump trying to ban Muslims from the U.S. That extraordinarily stupid statement provoked a storm of outrage. Were Horgan Trump, he could say, “See? I got people talking.” Yes, talking about what a dumbass he was. That’s not a “conversation”; it’s pushback against an untenable position.

      • Diane G.
        Posted May 20, 2016 at 4:20 am | Permalink

        “Yes, talking about what a dumbass he was.”


  10. E.A. Blair
    Posted May 19, 2016 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    “This is a man who, in his attempt to criticize rather than celebrate science, proclaimed, in his 1996 book The End of Science, that science has no more Big Questions to answer.”

    This reminds me of the suggestion attributed to US Patent Commissioner Charles Duell that the US Patent Office should be closed in 1900 because there was nothing left to invent.

    Of course that suggestion was never made, nor did Mr. Duell say anything of the kind*. It does, however, let those who do give credence to the story have a chance to look condescendingly on the people of an earlier day and pat themselves on the back for being far less naive (or evian, as the case may be) while at the same time harboring people who are given credibility for saying thisng equally, if not more, ridiculous.

    • E.A. Blair
      Posted May 19, 2016 at 11:58 am | Permalink

      *Here’s what Duell actually said:

      “In my opinion, all previous advances in the various lines of invention will appear totally insignificant when compared with those which the present century will witness. I almost wish that I might live my life over again to see the wonders which are at the threshold.”

      Judging from this, I’d say he anticipated that the Patent Office’s work was barely begun.

  11. Pliny the in Between
    Posted May 19, 2016 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    “Bash” to strike with a crushing or smashing blow.

    Sorry, that’s not skepticism – that’s assholiness.

    it is possible to be a skeptical asshole, or even a smug skeptical asshole, but skeptic is not equivalent to dyspeptic.

    • Posted May 19, 2016 at 12:05 pm | Permalink


    • Tom Czarny
      Posted May 19, 2016 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

      Since Horgan doesn’t doesn’t hang out with capital A-Atheists or capital S-Skeptics perhaps he may identify as a capital A-Asshole.

  12. Petrushka
    Posted May 19, 2016 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Chomsky is also wrong about language and evolution. His ideas about evolution are similar to Behe’s.

  13. Posted May 19, 2016 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    “…the late, great warmonger Christopher Hitchens.”

    Ugh. He’s gone full PZ.

    • Ken Phelps
      Posted May 19, 2016 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

      Ouch. Nice shot. And in a related vein, let’s make organized skepticism more political, because AtheismPlus was such a roaring success.

  14. Posted May 19, 2016 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    “Preaching to the choir” is fine by me when it comes to homeopathy. Ever try preaching to homeopaths? At least preaching to the choir keeps the issue alive and makes people think twice before advocating it in public.

  15. Posted May 19, 2016 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    Validating suspicions of wonky thinking, I notice that Horgan was a recipient of a Templeton-funded journalism fellowship in 2005: the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowship in Science and Religion

    • Diane G.
      Posted May 20, 2016 at 4:27 am | Permalink

      Ah, Templeton–that epitome of skepticism.


  16. TJR
    Posted May 19, 2016 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Never heard of him before, but just read this article and skimmed another.

    Dreadful stuff, won’t be bothering to read anything else.

  17. Posted May 19, 2016 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Great response. But why did Horgan include you, Steven Pinker or Richard Dawkins in his list? Are they, are you, capital letter “Skeptics”? (I hope not)

    They disinvited Richard Dawkins, and I am sure neither you nor Steven Pinker would sign up for this authoritarian, postmodern secular movement it has become, and which it demonstrated excellently once more by the disinvite, and getting John Horgan on board instead (Steven Novella was a board member).

    Trashing Dawkins and other actual critical thinkers is typical for these “Skeptics”, to which Novella also belongs. He can go back into his safe space with Horgan.

    I like Chomsky, and find him important. And he’s not a “regressive” or “authoritarian” leftist, as Sam Harris for example claimed. He’s in fact the exact opposite, as much opposed to this vulgar postmodern mutation as Richard Dawkins is.

    The US was involved in wars and has attacked other countries without support from the international community. It has meddled in the affairs of other countries far away and propped up radicals. It’s not helpful to pretend as if Chomsky’s take was completely unreasonable, as if one cannot fathom at all where he is coming from.

    • Ajit Bains
      Posted May 20, 2016 at 6:07 am | Permalink

      Chomsky has recently claimed that the US and the UK are the greatest sources of evil in the world. A truly contemptible statement but completely in line with Chomsky’s jaundiced view of the world.

      • Filippo
        Posted May 20, 2016 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

        Would you care to say whether you think Chomsky’s view is totally/significantly/partially “jaundiced”? For example, do you have a problem with his view on U.S. involvement in East Timor (Chile, Guatemala, etc.)?

  18. Jeremy Tarone
    Posted May 19, 2016 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    “…Horgan, who is truly a “capital C” contrarian.”

    Horgan’s article reads more like “Capital C” for condescending.

    • Posted May 20, 2016 at 9:51 am | Permalink

      Was thinking more “Capital A” for…. Something impolite to say

  19. Diana MacPherson
    Posted May 19, 2016 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    I don’t really get the mammogram thing. There are guidelines around doing them. They are rarely useful for younger women (under 50) and the guideline where I live is to do them after age 50. Even my oncologist is hesitant to have me do them too often because they are a lot of radiation (well less than radiation treatment).

    What he’s really criticizing is false positives and the likelihood of having false positives. The PSA test is an example of a test with too many false positives to the point that it is not recommended anymore.

    So, it seems to me the mammogram and PSA tests have had a lot of skeptics questioning their usefulness and as a result, guidelines have been put in place to use (or not use) these tools in more effective ways.

    • TJR
      Posted May 19, 2016 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

      I remember a talk about this from about 10 years ago and IIRC the conclusion was that mammograms for women under about 40 were actively counterproductive because they were more likely to cause a problem than uncover one.

      • Posted May 19, 2016 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

        That’s not the public justification (at least for the recent NIH recommendation changes — which were in the direction of fewer mammograms).

        The public justification was that the incurred costs (pain, discomfort, hassle, money) caused by false positives outweighed the deaths avoided by having them.

        I wouldn’t want to be the one to explain that to the children of someone who dies of breast cancer and didn’t get a mammogram.

  20. colnago80
    Posted May 19, 2016 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Horgan has also bad mouthed physicist and Nobel Prize winner Murray GellMann, in addition to Carroll and Krauss

    By the way, let’s not forget Glenn Greenwald who is right up there with Noam Chomsky in believing that the USA is the greatest aggressor in the world.

  21. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted May 19, 2016 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    “You are extremely critical of belief in God, … heaven…”

    Ironically, there is a component of the skeptical movement which insists that supernatural claims are not a suitable target for skepticism, and that it should restrict itself to “testable claims.” So Horgan is going full-on straw-man here.

    • phil
      Posted May 19, 2016 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

      Funny thing about heaven and testable claims: if Carrier is to be believed then about two thousand years ago the belief was that heaven was out in space, past the moon IIRC. Now THAT is a testable claim.

      Part of the problem with religious claims is that they are malleable, so when you think you have a way of testing one it changes into something less testable, to the extent that sometimes being untestable becomes part of the definition.

    • Diane G.
      Posted May 20, 2016 at 4:44 am | Permalink

      Reminiscent of when Paul Kurtz and his organizations –CSICOP and CSH, with their respective mags, Skeptical Inquirer and Free Inquiry, were the biggest skeptical/freethinking effort in the US. He was determined to keep CSICOP out of the religion debates, to the extent that he once took a young Dawkins to the woodshed for having the gall to raise the subject at a CSICOP affair.

  22. Posted May 19, 2016 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    If one is skeptical about skepticism, does that make you are a gullible, equivocating nitpicker like Horgan?

  23. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted May 19, 2016 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Horgan is a non-constructive contrarian, indeed. He has found his trail of bread crumbs, and he can’t change.

    As a contrarian, Horgan is mush-brained on science. To wit:

    most peer-reviewed scientific claims are wrong.

    The peer-reviewed scientific claim Horgan is basing his rant on is itself wrong.

    If memory serves, the worst affected science turned out to be psychology where 30 % of findings couldn’t be replicated. Other sciences fared much better. [I know there has been a recent replication effort that showed much worse results. But it has been criticized for not replicating the original experiments, and for faulty statistical analysis.]

    Here’s the problem: strings and multiverses can’t be experimentally detected. The theories aren’t falsifiable, which makes them pseudo-scientific, like astrology and Freudian psychoanalysis.

    It doesn’t matter how many times this erroneous claim is paraded around, it has been tested and found in error. So please, stop this futility.

    – String theory predicted nuclear force flux tubes a year before QCD replicated it based on simpler quantum field physics. It is now “a consistency post diction”, as is ST prediction of black hole entropy.

    But if you trust testability, it means ST was once an “experimentally detected” theory. And it may be so again.

    . Mutiverses were predicted and tested by Weinberg 1989. Horgan can’t rewrite history! That Weinberg’s result is not accepted is a matter of science consensus psychology, not testability as such.

    And we have more recent attempts to test them by observing bubble collisions, work that Sean Carroll has promoted on his blog.

    By Horgan’s own measures, he is hurting science by promoting his flaky ideas.

    • Kevin
      Posted May 19, 2016 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

      Well stated.

      Horgan confuses science with ‘science consensus psychology’ and public opinion (as if it matters to scientists who can discern fluff from substance).

      I think Horgan pays too much attention to what dumb people say and think and he does not understand that this is what makes him upset.

      My advice: turn the TV off Horgan and tune into the universe. My children are opting to move ahead of you with regard to what it means to understand the predictive value of science.

  24. chris moffatt
    Posted May 19, 2016 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    Horgan writes “. . . When high-status scientists promote flaky ideas like the Singularity and multiverse, they hurt science. They undermine its credibility on issues like global warming.”

    Lack of credibility re ‘global warming’ is a result of the pseudoscience being pushed by a small number of climate scientists who are exaggerating and misinterpreting less than perfect data and observations in a science where there is still a lot of uncertainty and a great over reliance on incomplete computer models. It has nothing to do with prominent cosmologists

    • Ken Phelps
      Posted May 19, 2016 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

      I think the rejection of global warming is because it is part of a package. The religious right have accepted a bundled set of unrelated ideas that they accept because, well, it’s what the rest of the tribe is doing. They have no more thought about that subject than they have about evolution, or cosmology, or the nature of substitutionary atonement. It’s a bundle, complete with talking points, the contents are just black boxes.

  25. kieran
    Posted May 19, 2016 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    “but I’m perfectly aware that there is no empirical evidence supporting it, and I’ve said so many times on this sit.”

    Last word should be site?

  26. Posted May 19, 2016 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    This guy makes some weird arguments, but surely there can be a place for a contrarian among skeptics. I’ve had many interactions with “young recruits” that make me wonder if skeptical media is having some unwanted impacts. When pop science is absorbed by enthusiastic kids, they can easily get the feeling that they know more than they do. Skepticism seems to inspire a militancy in some of them that resembles those authoritarian leftist making so much noise these days. I’m not endorsing any of Horgan’s complaints; I do think there can be a conversation about what skepticism wants to achieve and how well it’s doing that.

  27. Shwell Thanksh
    Posted May 19, 2016 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    I prefer to think of myself as a medium-sized-S skeptic, with italic lettering, in a cool font. This places me firmly outside Mr. Horgan’s “tribe”, which of course by his reasoning makes me a “soft target” for his diatribe.

    Oh dear, that does sound rather contrarian of me, doesn’t it? So inadvertently I find myself back in his tribe against my own desires. This is all so confusing.

  28. Randall Schenck
    Posted May 19, 2016 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    Horgan speaks in such generalities regarding war it is nearly impossible to make sense of what he says. He is disappointed there are no marches in the street against this imperialistic country that is the cause of all wars and expects scientist should jump in and join him and his views. I suspect scientist have other things to do and if our war crazy politicians need a good thrashing, should we not be hearing something from the media, the journalist.

  29. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted May 20, 2016 at 12:16 am | Permalink

    Can I be the first to quote xkcd 774?


    • Posted May 20, 2016 at 2:04 am | Permalink

      Empirically, you can.


    • Diane G.
      Posted May 20, 2016 at 4:50 am | Permalink

      And the question of whether you may is now moot.


    • somer
      Posted May 20, 2016 at 6:03 am | Permalink

      Everything Horgan says is logically or empirically contradictory and the only consistent thread is self righteousness.

  30. Jonathan Dore
    Posted May 20, 2016 at 5:03 am | Permalink

    Horgan sounds like John Gray, another professional jeremiah.

  31. Somer
    Posted May 20, 2016 at 5:22 am | Permalink

    Often I do wonder how the generation that fought the Second World War produced so many naive, small minded and petulant people like John Horgan

  32. steve
    Posted May 20, 2016 at 5:40 am | Permalink

    The other night while having dinner with 3 guests and my family of four, we all witnessed through the dining room window right in our own back yard the “gang rape” of a female mallard duck. 6 males and 1 female with 2 males actually gaining access to the female (in the time we witnessed) much to the female duck’s vociferous seeming dissapproval .

    So by Horgan’s reasoning, we all feel that gang rape of female humans is inevitable so we should do nothing to stop it?

  33. maryemangan
    Posted May 20, 2016 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    So, in a kind of hilarious irony, you can’t respond at SciAm. A couple of us–NECSS attendees–had commented on the Nature News piece.

    Horgan’s media tribe removed our comments. You know, to protect him from the scary female skeptics, apparently.

    And I was quoted in the damn piece.

    • Posted May 20, 2016 at 7:27 am | Permalink

      Can you tell me (or us) what you said in your comment that Nature found so offensive?

      • maryemangan
        Posted May 20, 2016 at 8:33 am | Permalink

        My comment was something like (paraphrasing, didn’t expect to need a screen shot): So he gives an evidence-free (“impressionistic”) talk at a event full of folks who demand evidence? What a surprise that there’s pushback.

        Sharon Hill gave a longer paragraph about skeptics–I’ll ask her if she has more details.

        • idoubtit
          Posted May 20, 2016 at 8:44 am | Permalink

          My comment was that the community was not “seething” but flummoxed. That word suggests that he pointed out a flaw in the community and I don’t agree that’s true; I cited Steve’s blog as a good rebuttal that clarifies matters. And, then I said I was off to do something like help people learn how not to be scammed.

          I thought you could retrieve comments from Disqus but not if they are controlled by the site-profile, which this was. I think Nature didn’t want the riff-raff coming in and messing up their page with back and forth arguing.

      • maryemangan
        Posted May 20, 2016 at 8:41 am | Permalink

        In a further funny twist, he’s allowed to bucket people into a tribe and blame them for things, but he’s immune.

      • maryemangan
        Posted May 20, 2016 at 9:01 am | Permalink

        Ah–they have restored the comments. I had several people confirm to me yesterday that they were gone.

        • idoubtit
          Posted May 20, 2016 at 10:47 am | Permalink

          This is interesting! They were definitely gone “No Comments” “Comments are not being accepted”. I wonder who pushed the button?

  34. Saul Sorrell-Till
    Posted May 20, 2016 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    From what I’ve read Horgan’s tubthumping is a continuation of the Two Cultures war written by a cheerleader for the ‘other side’.

    Horgan’s post reads like a checklist of the kind of things you read in every anti-science(or ‘anti-scientism’ as they sometimes themselves describe it)piece by someone from the humanities/academic left…
    there’s the soft defence of religion and ‘other ways of knowing’; the usual deranged, Michael Moore-level targeting of western imperialism to the exclusion of vastly more pernicious and damaging ideologies; the clottish implication that physicists just made up the multiverse in order to either fill some gaps in their theories or ward off religious apologists; the churlish little dig at Christopher Hitchens; the predictable insistence that before us wicked westerners came along ISIS’s Islamist founders were dancing through meadows arm-in-arm, reading Keats and placing flowers in one anothers’ hair…and of course the reference to the increasingly charmless and crank-ish Noam Chomsky.

    BTW, re. the idea that the latter “needs our help”, even though much of the left have completely internalised his specious worldview, even though his attitude to global politics has shaped the direction of university politics for at least the last twenty to thirty years…well, I think he’s doing okay as he is frankly.
    …And it might astonish mr Horgan to know that some liberals find Chomsky, Greenwald, etc. nauseating, hypocritical and ethically compromised, and as a result we do not think that that section of the left are automatically to be considered comrades-in-arms.

    Horgan’s piece is so incredibly predictable(if you’ve read a quarter of it, and you have any experience of these anti-science/anti-atheism articles, you can map out the remaining three-quarters without much effort.) it’s difficult to take seriously. The thing is, if he’d reined in his strawmandering and sixth-form politicking he might have made an interesting if hardly earth-shattering point.

    • Filippo
      Posted May 20, 2016 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

      ” . . . and of course the reference to the increasingly charmless and crank-ish Noam Chomsky.”

      One should hope to live at least to Chomsky’s age, and similarly retain ones cognitive faculties.

      Surely you don’t require Chomsky to “charm” or “entertain” you, much as, e.g., NY Times reporters (and by implication editors) who apparently feel the need to “entertain” and “engage” readers in the first couple of paragraphs. Is Chomsky a “crank” because he declines to so “entertain”? I for one am glad when a speaker dispenses with prefatory bloviation.

      Do you disagree with Chomsky’s view of U.S. involvement (meddling) in East Timor, Guatemala, Chile, etc. during the last sixty years? If so, feel free to synoptically offer rational, objective support for your position.

    • Diane G.
      Posted May 21, 2016 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think Michael Moore targets western imperialism as much as he does US conservative politics and the plutocracy. IMO he’s a valuable (and entertaining) gadfly.

  35. Posted May 20, 2016 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    I probably agree with Chomsky more than most people here, but Horgan isn’t helping. Can’t one care about foreign policy (I’m apalled at the Canadian relationship to Saudia Arabia re: arms deals and Raif, for example) of one’s own country (and that of the US, which affects the world, for better or for worse) *and* about what to do about the homeopaths?

  36. Jacob
    Posted May 23, 2016 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    This may get lost in the comments, but as a show that the “soft targets” still are important, here’s an unbelievably credulous story about dowsing in India by NPR:

    Shameful of them.

  37. Posted May 28, 2016 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Ratliff Notepad and commented:
    Aside from the inflammatory name-calling in the title, this is an excellent response to Horgan’s seemingly misinformed and rather emotional article.

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