It’s All Semantics – That Doesn’t Mean We Shouldn’t Argue It

You can handle one more article on this before it blows up all over again at Skepticamp, right?

Once again that membrane which has been pierced so many times on this blog, has been broken, allowing us to once again wade hip-deep into the demarcation between skepticism and atheism.  Joy of joys.  On the bright side, I think I can safely say that this time it wasn’t my fault, but that the lance wielder du jour has been my dear Mr. Rosch.

There’s this funny thing that happens whenever we start talking about where skepticism ends and atheism begins.  Someone brings up the word “agnosticism” and all of a sudden people pounce on that person shouting that they don’t want to get embroiled in an argument of semantics.  I have unfortunate news for those people: the discussion on atheism and skepticism already IS an argument about semantics.  The confusion people have, however – and trust me, I’ve had this one wrong in the past – is that the discussion isn’t really about the definition of atheism.

The definition of atheism is one that atheists have fought for a good long time about.  That definition, that atheism is a lack of belief in god(s), has been whittled into this sort of perfect non-positive statement.  By definition, an atheist doesn’t have to prove anything and believers are, by default, on the defensive side of the argument.  Any believer foolish enough to say “well why don’t you believe in God?” has broken the rules of argument, that the one with the claim is the one with something to defend, and can be summarily told so.  Well done, atheists. … continue reading this entry.

Hey Phil! I wasn’t a dick!

On Friday I did something that was fairly new for me.  I’ve been online writing about my opinions for… years.  I’ve been getting into random arguments with strangers for… years.  What I’d never done before was get up in front of a room full of Christians and try to represent an atheistic and highly skeptical viewpoint.  And now I have!  The people that ran the event say they’ll have it up online by the end of the week, when it is I’ll give everybody the link and if you want to see me with my ratty blond beard being told that I’m representing the New York City Skeptics (I told them that I wasn’t a representative of NYCS, but just a member, but they didn’t always listen) and saying why I don’t believe in God, you can check it out to your hearts content.  For today, I’m going to do what I can to tell you about the event, say what I took from it, where I think I could have done better.  Basically, I’m going to use this blog that I hope you tend to enjoy as my diary.  Aren’t you lucky? … continue reading this entry.

I want to get involved in this education question!

Is it okay if I keep writing for the Gotham Skeptic, even if I can't find a picture of me in one of these hats?

A couple weeks back, there was a flurry on this blog about education and the degrees gained in the annals of higher learning.  I wrote something about testing, Lisa and Page each wrote articles about confident people with degrees and then why that didn’t in fact make getting a degree unimportant, we had commentators on either side, it was all very fun to be a fly on the wall for.  I think one of the reasons this particular debate hit hard was because as skeptics, we have a bit of a divide between the professionally academic and those of us with… non-traditional education.  It is reflected clearly in our skeptical super-stars.  On the one hand, we have guys like Phil Plait and doubly doctoral Massimo Pigliucci (is he actually at three now?).  On the other hand, we adore Adam Savage and have practically nominated James Randi for skeptical sainthood.

There has been some sniping coming from both sides.   Randi has at times stated a certain disdain for those classically trained.  I get the impression that he was told to get out of the field a few times and this is his “FU” back.  That could just be me.  I’m a writer who specializes in drama and I like trying to deduce motivations.  On the other end, often I will listen to those from Academia and it can sound like I’m being told that those without degrees should automatically conform to the beliefs of those that do.  I am not the only one who has felt this way, I still distinctly remember a year ago at our first SkepticampNYC the question of a man who saw himself as a working-class skeptic who felt he was being kept out of the conversation (go to about two and a half minutes into the video from Skepticamp to be reminded of the question). … continue reading this entry.

Skepticism and Cynicism

Apparently, cynics wear robes made of stone. No wonder they think everything's going down the crapper. The last time they bought new clothing, their robes kept them from moving for millennia...

When I first told my friend Charlie that I was going off to my first drinking skeptically, he asked me if we were just going to sit around “thinking about nothing.”  I had to point out to Charlie at that point that he was confusing skepticism with nihilism, which is weird, especially when you think about the fact that everyone else confuses skepticism with cynicism.  Which is also not correct.  As you probably know though, most folks out there don’t really understand what skepticism is.  I’m sure you’ve had to explain it to them when telling them what your views are, I know I have.  It’s a hard thing to grasp at first, and I’m going to put this out there right now, I think the knee-jerk confusion of skepticism and cynicism is there for a reason.  It’s been discussed on the JREF, it’s been talked about on Yahoo! Answers, it’s even been picked up by certain newspapers, the delineation between skepticism and cynicism is fraught for a reason.  I think that as skeptics, we are constantly in danger of becoming cynics. … continue reading this entry.

I’m becoming skeptical of my optimism

Plum pox-resistant plums (Photo from the Agricultural Research Service)

The argument I’m getting into lately is the one about Genetically Modified crops. I tend to take the position that 1- these are the most tested crops in the world 2- they’re completely healthy 3- what we’re doing is not fundamentally different than what we’ve been doing through selective breeding since agriculture began – we’re just doing it smarter now and, oh yeah 4- without them, approximately 1/3 of the world will starve to death. “Their” position is that corporations are evil. I generally come back with “Yes, but we’re talking about science here,” but… honestly I can’t shake the juggling feeling that these organic folk have a bit of a point. The business end of GM crops actually does make me kind of uncomfortable. The laws and patents that go into these things, seed laws, charging farmers when their crops are accidentally pollinated by GM crops planted in the vicinity… It all does feel kind of… wrong. I’m starting to worry that perhaps, my intended science advocacy has become a sort of science idealism, and to me, that means I’m not being very skeptical. … continue reading this entry.

I Was A Teenage Woo-Woo

Jane Roberts, from the cover of "The Seth Material."

Jane Roberts, from the cover of "The Seth Material."

It’s true, my friends. Long before embarking on my career as an enemy of humbug, slayer of mountebanks, and scourge of human folly, I believed in pretty much every errant piece of woo that the culture coughed up. The following list comprises ten of the stumbling blocks that tripped up my adolescent self during my years as a Seeker.

1.  I went into therapy with a psychic healer, with whom I corresponded for many years. Seeking help with chronic depression and what I later realized was Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, I embarked on a series of therapeutic sessions with a very sweet but probably delusional woman named Kristi, who met with me at her home in Spokane. Of course there are two types of psychics—the ones who know they’re full of it and don’t care, and the ones who firmly believe in their own supernatural claims. I suspect, and hope, that Kristi was the latter type. Her insights were often astonishing, but knowing what I know now about cold reading techniques, perfectly explicable. I also remember the tortured lengths I would go to in justifying her occasional blunders, such as when she sensed on our first meeting that I was brilliant at math. (Actually, I flunked algebra repeatedly until my teacher took pity on me.) … continue reading this entry.

Skeptic of the Year

The year 2009 brought us a number of controversies that called for skeptics to step up and expose the myths and misconceptions surrounding a wide array of topic.

But some skeptics stood out this year more than others and deserve to be honored for their hard work and dedication to science, reason, and the truth.

First up is … continue reading this entry.

James Randi, global warming and the meaning of skepticism


James “the Amazing” Randi is an icon of skepticism. The man has done more — over a span of several decades — to further the cause of critical thinking and to expose flimflammery of all sorts than arguably anyone else in the world, ever. That is why I was struck with incredulity and sadness yesterday when I read Randi’s latest take on global warming. He begins by stating that, contrary to scientists’ own self-image as almost preternaturally objective human beings, “religious and other emotional convictions drive scientists, despite what they may think their motivations are.” Well, true, to a point. Many philosophers and sociologists of science have said that before (and documented it), but your baloney detector should go up to at least yellow alert when someone starts a commentary on global warming with that particular observation. … continue reading this entry.

One more on the relationship between atheism and skepticism

I’d like to make a few comments on Jake Dickerman’s piece about Michael De Dora’s recent talk concerning the relationship between skepticism and atheism. (A fuller version of my thinking on this topic can be found at Rationally Speaking). … continue reading this entry.

Why Skeptics Should be Atheists

Enrapt audience at SkeptiCamp2009 (photo by Mitch Lampert)

Enrapt audience at SkeptiCamp2009 (photo by Mitch Lampert)

Editor’s note: this is a rebuttal to The Quixotic Man, about De Dora’s talk, “Skepticism Includes Atheism (So Deal With It),” at SkeptiCamp NYC 2009. TQM’s post can be found here.

Jacob, it was nice meeting you at SkeptiCamp NYC 2009, and thanks for inviting me to join this back-and-forth about skepticism and atheism. We  seem to agree on at least one thing, that the conversation is worth having. I tend to think we agree on more than just that, and that some of your “disagreements” with me, outlined in your post Monday, are actually due to poor communication work. I suppose the following will tell us if I’m correct. (On the topic of communication, I’d like to quickly thank Scott Stafiej, Michael Rosch, and Julia Galef for clearing up some of what I meant in their responses to your post. They did such a wonderful job I urge everyone to read their comments, because I can’t cover everything even in a 2,000-word essay).

Skepticism Includes Atheism (So Deal With It)

Let me briefly provide some background on my talk. … continue reading this entry.

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