HorganGate: The troll pretends to answer his critics

Well, I’m trying not to get too deeply sucked into the fracas about John Horgan’s Admonition to Skeptics, so I’ll just note that there are two good critiques, one by Orac on Respectful Insolence and the other by Steve Novella on Neurologica.  They’re similar, but both worth reading, and both make the point that Horgan’s complaints about skeptics’ neglect of “hard targets” like medicine and physics (and war!), while concentrating on “soft targets” like religion, homeopathy, and opposition to GMOs, are completely misguided. As I noted before I read these two critiques, skeptics have been dealing with those hard targets for years, but only informed people have the chops to analyze stuff like string theory or the multiverse notion (which they have criticized). I’ll let Orac’s peroration stand for all the pushback Horgan has gotten:

Of course ending war is important, but so what? As Loxton puts it, almost everything skeptics do is less important than ending war, which is “obvious to the point of silliness.” That includes Horgan as a “small-s skeptic.” In fact, I’d go beyond Loxton. Why isn’t Horgan out there curing cancer? A half a million people die of cancer every year in the US alone, after all! Or what about malaria? Over 200 million people a year suffer from malaria, and 415,000 die. Or what about environmental pollution? Or racism? Or sexism? Or ending totalitarian regimes? Why is Horgan wasting his precious time bashing skeptics when he should be bashing the “hard targets” like cancer screening, multiverses, psychiatric drugs, and war? Inquiring minds want to know!

Obviously—painfully so—there will always be issues more important or more impactful than what any of us does, with rare exceptions. Pointing to them and using them to denigrate someone’s efforts as pointless, which, make no mistake, is what Hogan comes across as doing, is not constructive. Rather, it is a very old strategy to denigrate that which you consider unimportant. A much better question is this: Is what one is doing worthwhile? Coming back to the episode of homeopathy, I say yes: Getting rid of homeopathy, if skeptics could accomplish it, would be worthwhile. Pushing for the FDA to regulate homeopathy the way it regulates real drugs would be worthwhile. Getting the FTC to regulate claims about homeopathy would be worthwhile. Keeping people from being defrauded by psychics is worthwhile. Countering antivaccine misinformation is worthwhile and saves lives. It’s also a direct outgrowth of skeptical activism against alternative medicine, as many antivaccine views derive from pseudoscientific health beliefs.

The bottom line is that, contrary to what Horgan implies, the skeptic movement, be it big-S or little-S, does not dogmatically worship at the altars of Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, James Randi, or anyone else, and it can walk and chew gum at the same time. Horgan would know that if he weren’t so clueless about just what skepticism is and what skeptics do. Yes, we can be tribal at times. We’re human beings, after all. However, I haven’t seen any evidence that skeptics are detectably more prone to “tribalism” than any other large group of humans, and it’s not as though we haven’t discussed this tendency ourselves. Basically, after all this time, the kids are all right. Horgan’s talk illustrates a very important principal. Honest criticism can be a very good thing (and I do think Horgan was sincere). However, even the most honest criticism can rapidly devolve into a string of self-righteous, distorted, and downright wrong characterizations like the ones in Horgan’s speech if the critic doesn’t take the time to understand his audience and learn about just what the heck he is talking about. Skeptics can take criticism just fine, but you’ll excuse us if we don’t react that well to uninformed criticism that betrays a lack of understanding about just what it is we are and do.


  1. Posted May 20, 2016 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    If every time we try to do something in this world we heeded the advice “what you’re doing isn’t as important as ending war”, nothing would ever get done.

    • Kingasaurus
      Posted May 20, 2016 at 12:21 pm | Permalink


      It used to be common to hear “We shouldn’t bother trying to land on the Moon when we still have poor people.”

      Unfortunately, this attitude hasn’t disappeared from some quarters.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted May 20, 2016 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

      +1. In fact the use of that and similar arguments is one of my pet peeves. It’s lazy and never makes any point.

    • reasonshark
      Posted May 22, 2016 at 6:55 am | Permalink

      To be even-handed, an appeal to bigger problems isn’t a bad thing. Looking at the bigger picture can help put a particular action into context, and it’s worth asking whether what you’re doing is a compliment of some other worthy goal, neutral to it, or a hindrance.

      It’s not the case that the problem is with the “why are you doing X when Y is more important” argument. After all, devoting at least some of your time to one thing is a decision not to devote that time to something else, and if we don’t want to devolve to random chaos or self-contradiction, some level of critical discretion is necessary.

      The problem is that those who invoke it are hypocritically using it solely to stifle the lesser issue. It’s just a way of saying “shut up” without addressing the current issue on its own merits.

  2. Kevin
    Posted May 20, 2016 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Horgan is being critized by intelligent people (unofficial peer review) and he scoffs. Belligerent and misguided. Dr. Evil knows how to act better than this hair dresser.

  3. Curt Nelson
    Posted May 20, 2016 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    I clicked on “the other by Steve Novella on Neurologica” and it took me to a page called “Elder of Ziyon.”

  4. jrhs
    Posted May 20, 2016 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    Will this “who shall not be named” get invited again to speak at NECSS? Who knows. The mentality that bad attention is better than no attention may have some truth to it.

  5. Posted May 20, 2016 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  6. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted May 20, 2016 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Among everything else that you say, it is absolutely true that this will sully his reputation. Now it remains to be seen if this has negative consequences to his having any future with Scientific American. The unsettling thought occurs that that generally well respected mag will discover the revenue of click bait.

    • Mandible
      Posted May 21, 2016 at 3:13 am | Permalink

      Well, his “The End of Science” was published in 1996. Given how silly the book and its main argument are, it should have been enough to wreck his reputation permanently. It obviously wasn’t.

  7. JohnH
    Posted May 20, 2016 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    “Perhaps that means he has no respect for the opinions of others…”. Perhaps that is best demonstrated by mostly referencing his previous publications to support his skeptic bashing essay arguments.

    • Posted May 20, 2016 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

      Appealing to authority is one thing, and can be a legitimate move given appropriate circumstances. But when the only authority to whom you appeal is yourself? Come, now, Mr. Horgan. I thought you were supped to be educating us on proper skepticism.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted May 20, 2016 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

        One should, of course, quote relevant authorities. And Mr Horgan’s way of doing it does, of course, ensure that the authority thus quoted is entirely in agreement with Mr Horgan’s points.



  8. maryemangan
    Posted May 20, 2016 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    His criticism of the gay gene is from 1993. Skeptics are regularly blasting anyone who says they have (or are seeking) the intelligence gene, the warrior gene, most recently the vegetarian gene that will kill you.

    • Petrushka
      Posted May 20, 2016 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

      The vegetarian gene is my favorite.

      At home I joke about the Woody Allen Institute for Medical Research, named after a joke in “Sleeper”.

      It’s the source for all the latest studies.

    • Curt Nelson
      Posted May 20, 2016 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

      I don’t quite understand this criticism about looking for “the ___ gene.”

      Is it that there is rarely a single gene responsible for a phenotype or that genes are rarely responsible at all for a given phenotype?

      If it’s that phenotypes are usually the result of many genes, so what? Why is an oversimplification such a big deal? Whether it’s one gene or seventeen it would be good to know about the responsible sequences. And aren’t there many examples of single gene phenotypes?

      Or is it bad to believe that the way we are is largely dictated by our genes?

      • Posted May 20, 2016 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

        There are single gene phenotypes for stuff like eye color, blood group, and, of course, major diseases. But for behavioral traits like IQ, homosexuality, smoking, and so on, any genetic basis is likely to be based on many genes of small effect and subject to substantial environmental modification. Remember, we’re talking about differences between people and groups. Now I don’t care what the truth is, so long as the research is done well, but the proclamations of single genes for homosexuality, thrill-seeking, and so on, have not stood up to replicative research.

        • maryemangan
          Posted May 20, 2016 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

          For a while they were all turning out to be one of the dopamine receptors. It was hilarious–I’d see a “gene for alcoholism” headline, or a “gene for suicide” headline, and I’d make a bet whether it was DRD2 or not.

          It usually was.

          That said, most of the actual papers were more careful than that. The media hype gives us “gene for X”. And most science practioners who make claims like that are swatted quickly by the genomics community.

        • Curt Nelson
          Posted May 20, 2016 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

          It often seems to me like there is a big hesitancy to attribute characteristics, especially mental ones, to genetics. Recently a study into human intelligence, in which years of education was used as a proxy for intelligence, found that there is a small, weak one. It’s hardly there, really. (Maybe because that proxy for intelligence was a poor one. Probably the reason they chose it.)

          I’ve heard the story of this study repeated two or three times and the science reporters seem delighted by it, because of the weak link. Because no one wants to say that not everyone could be president one day.

  9. Chemist
    Posted May 20, 2016 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    There is definitely a smugness about Horgan’s original talk & his multiple responses. It is telling to note he fails abysmally to address many of the direct criticism that warrant a response (if he indeed wanted to foster a discussion.) His actions belie this assertion he keeps making while basking in the glow of preening about how upset his critics are.

    He is painfully transparent that this was nothing but an ego trip. He slams skeptics and then steadfastly refuses to address substantial shortcomings in his arguments. His weak thinking and inability to address errors should disqualify him from further standing in this debate.

  10. Posted May 20, 2016 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    What about the 750,000 children starving to death annually. A problem that could be significantly reduced almost instantly if we just had the will to do it. I assume Horgan is living in a shack somewhere on a bare minimum so he can send his extra money to organizations that are feeding them.

  11. Posted May 20, 2016 at 3:08 pm | Permalink


  12. Filippo
    Posted May 20, 2016 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

    ” . . . they aroused my antipathy . . . .”

    In other words, Mr. Horgan was “offended.”

  13. Posted May 21, 2016 at 3:46 am | Permalink

    It is disconcerting to say the least that the author of such absurdly self-aggrandizing nonsense–apparently, this is but the latest in a string of vapid, feces-stirring ploys for attention–would retain a relationship with any generally respected publication. I’m not categorically dismissing Horgan as a person or his work as a whole, since I have not read it all. By the “criticism” in question wouldn’t get a passing grade in any freshman year college essay class. It’s not even close to adequate, much less insightful. However, I am preaching to the choir at this point, and rather than become the hypocrite I am currently criticizing, I will simply offer this. Being a “professional contrarian” (TM coming, I guess) isn’t itself a bad thing, if done with sufficient erudition and facility of mind: Christopher Hitchens considered himself a contrarian. That’s not a bad standard to live up to.

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