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.