I have to say that although I support the work of the Center for Inquiry in America, I haven’t been a huge fan of their organization. A while back they went through a repellant Social Justice Warrior phase (they seem to be recovering), and sometimes they do stuff that’s just plain weird. (By the way, this doesn’t hold for CfI Canada, which I support unreservedly.) Here is one example, brought to my attention by reader Gary. His comment:
I’m concerned about a strange sounding workshop from Center For Inquiry- Los Angeles. It may be of interest to you, even for a note on your website. If it is, I’d be very interested in your comments and comments from your readers. The title is this:
All of us who value science and reason as indispensable remedies with which to challenge ignorance and largely emotional behavior around us take stable comfort in the power of scientific methodology to keep us safe from the biasing effects of human emotion. But in practice, can science itself fall prey to the same kinds of emotional pitfalls, fallacies, and even fanaticism we more often associate with religious literalists and fundamentalists? The word “scientism”—used to refer to any worldview that attempts to answer all human questions with science, often allegedly at the expense of other resources in the humanities—is considered an irritating but ultimately empty insult by many scientists.
However, given the capacity of every human being to be swayed by emotions and appearances in contrast to hard evidence, would it not be prudent to hold our practice of science and reason to the same standards of scrutiny that we apply to religious truth claims and thinking? Is there not some value in working towards a common set of standards for meeting any of the foreseeable challenges and questions we may face as a species?
In this workshop, academic philosopher of science Dr. David Koepsell, author and professor specializing in the philosophy of religion J.I. Abbot, and phenomenologist and poet Dr. Charles Stein will lead panel discussions and small group sessions on the range of topics in the emerging “religion and science” field that can be food for thought in facing such present and future human hurdles. A keynote lecture by Dr. Stein on the evening of Friday, November 4, 7pm on the history and philosophy of science will set the parameters and tone for the exchanges to follow all day Saturday, November 5, from 9am to 4pm.
Now this sounds like a workshop funded by the John Templeton Foundation, though there’s no indication of Templeton dosh here. But in fact the description is invidious if not disingenuous: of course science can fall prey to emotional pitfalls. Many scientists are so wedded to their theories, which of course buttress their reputations, that they are loathe to give them up in the face of evidence. The debate between Brasier and Schopf on the supposed earliest microfossils are one example, as is Steve Gould’s unconscionable adherence to punctuated equilibrium as a mechanistic as well as a descriptive theory of evolution.
The thing is, though, that science has an inbuilt methodology to guard against such confirmation bias: the practice of testing assertions, of replication, of building consensus through reason and observation, and, above all, of doubt.
Religion has no such way to check the veracity of its claims. That’s why, of course, different religion have not only divergent claims, but conflicting ones. (How many gods are there? Is there a Trinity? Was Jesus the son of God/God, or just a prophet? Is evolution true? Is there an afterlife? A hell? Can women be priests? These are the questions that have repeatedly fractured religions into sects and cults over the last 20,000 years.) Religion is, as I argue in Faith Versus Fact, the very instantiation of confirmation bias. Yes, some religions can change their claims, like accepting evolution, but they do so only after science has shown these claims are wrong.
So it’s incredibly insulting to science and rationality for these authors to suggest, with their faux naiveté, that science and reason need to adhere to the same (presumably more rigorous) standards used by religions to adjudicate their truth claims. Let me give you some news, Drs. Koepsell, Stein, and Abbot: religion has NO rigor in its truth claims, but an emotional commitment to deities and their will that lack any supporting evidence. It is science that has the hard standards, and religion that should adhere to the standards of science when adjudicating its claims.
Of course if religion did that, there wouldn’t be any religions—except for ones that don’t accept the supernatural. Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hindusim—gone in a poof!
Now it’s possible that the “we” in the bit above means “rationalists and skeptics” rather than “all people, including believers.” If that’s the case, though, and the workshop is asking us to apply uniform standards of skepticism to all empirical claims, then my response is this: WE ALREADY DO! So what’s the point of this workshop?
This workshop is not just silly, but mendacious, insulting, and misguided. If I were a member of CfI, I’d complain bitterly about it.
Reader Gary added this comment:
I have always trusted CFI to stick to the rational, but this workshop makes me wonder. The qualifications for the instructors include references such as “Western Mysticism and Esotericism” and “Indo-Tibetan thought”. I find this very discouraging as I have been a paying member of CFI.