Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The "Boundary" Issue in the Skeptic Movement

As alluded to in my post about Bill Maher, a hot topic among skeptics right now is the proper bounds of skeptical inquiry. Massimo Pigliucci, contributor to Skeptical Inquirer and blogger, has some thoughts on the matter here. He ponders why if the domains of the skeptical inquiry, political philosophy, and atheism are are so well defined, do we so often see so much "crosstalk" between them:
Because the three areas in question do have a common underpinning, as illustrated by the diagram accompanying this article: atheism, skeptical inquiry, and political philosophy are all exercises in critical thinking and rational analysis. The differences among them is in the relative role that philosophical and scientific/empirical considerations play in each case.

That is why, for instance, I can coherently say that Penn and Teller are wrong about their libertarianism and about their position on global warming: in the first case, I am talking about philosophy, in the second about science. There is, of course, much more leeway in the first than in the second case. That’s also why there is no contradiction in me praising Bill Maher for his political views and yet thinking of him as a hopelessly inept commentator when it comes to his opinions on medicine. To consider one more example, this is also how I can agree with Dawkins’ and Coyne’s philosophical positions (and disagree with “accommodationists” like Ken Miller) and yet distance myself from them on the ground that I think they are stretching the tools of science beyond what is reasonable.
In Massimo's view, the problem is that some people talk about scientific issues using the discourse of their political philosophy or religion, talk of religious issues in scientific terms, and so on. I don't think he's saying that these areas are "non-overlapping magisteria," rather I believe he is saying that what counts as sound reasoning in one discourse doesn't necessarily work in another. Thoughts?

Sullivan Reacts to the Catholic/Anglican Merger

Andrew Sullivan the openly gay conservative blogger (and practising Catholic) over at the Daily Dish has this to say about the Pope's recent announcement:

For now, however, it seems an almost baldly political move, made at a pace more reminiscent of modern politics and public relations than the traditional ecclesiastical creaking of the wheels. That is troubling to me. Churches are supposed to be about eternal truths and freedom of conscience, not what amounts to an unfriendly take-over bid for a franchise.

And it does not seem to have occurred because of some deep resolution of the theological disputes between Anglicans and Catholics, but merely by a shared abhorrence of women priests and openly gay ones. If you want to switch churches, prejudice seems a pretty poor reason for doing so. But this is so sudden it will take some time to absorb and it's a little hard to take in. Stay tuned.

I appreciate Mr. Sullivan's take on this matter but I am surprised by his "innocence" on the baldly political nature of the Church. The history of all faiths have deep connections to politics. Anglicanism would not exist if it were not for Henry's political concerns about an heir, the Prophet was both a religious and political leader for early Muslims, Shinto is in large part the cult of the Emperor, and so on.

As a believer he comments that a church is "supposed to be about eternal truths and freedom of conscience, not what amounts to an unfriendly take-over bid for a franchise." While this may be the ideal of many churches, however, it is rarely their practice. Churches have always been and will always be, in part, political for the simple reason that people differ on what the "eternal truths" are. So long as there is "heresy" there religions will act in "baldly political" ways to preserve themselves. Without the challenge of the Marcionites and other gnostic sects, the Catholic Church itself would never have coalesced and the canon would never have been compiled.

Aristotle's observation that man is a zoon politikon (a "political animal") helps explicate this matter nicely. Outside the body politic are only beasts and gods.

Shermer vs. Bill Maher - Anti- Vaccination Woo

Michael Shermer of Skeptic Magazine has posted an open letter to Bill Maher on Skepticblog regarding Maher's anti-vaccination views. As you may know, Maher is infamously attracted to woo about medicine, doctors and health. This recently caused a hubbub as he was given an award by the Richard Dawkins Foundation. As many have pointed out, his criticism of religion while amusing coexist with some nutty ideas about medical science. Of course these views are not the only strange bedfellows in the Maher psyche, consider (as Shermer points out) the clash between his political views and his anti-vax woo:

Finally, Bill, please consider the odd juxtaposition of your enthusiastic support for health care reform and government intervention into this aspect of our medical lives, with your skepticism that these same people — when it comes to vaccinations and disease prevention — suddenly lose their sense of morality along with their medical training. You excoriate the political right for not trusting the government with our health, and then in the next breath you inadvertently join their chorus when you denounce vaccinations, thereby adding fodder for their ideological cannons. Please remember that it’s the same people administrating both health care and vaccination programs.
Maher is an uncomfortable topic for many reasons. Not the least of these reasons is that he is a reminder of our own tendency to compartmentalize and hold inconsistent beliefs. Shermer, a noted libertarian as well as a skeptic (i.e. global warming denial issues), knows this only too well:
One of the most remarkable features of science is that it often leads its practitioners to change their minds and to say “I was wrong.” Perhaps we don’t do it enough, as our own blinders and egos can get in the way, but it does happen, and it certainly happens a lot more in science than it does in religion or politics. I’ve done it. I used to be a global warming skeptic, but I reconsidered the evidence and announced in Scientific American that I was wrong. Please reconsider both the evidence for vaccinations, as well as the inconsistencies in your position, and think about doing one of the bravest and most honorable things any critical thinker can do, and that is to publicly state, “I changed my mind. I was wrong.”
I hope Maher takes Shermer up on this offer, because on the whole I find Maher amusing, though I doubt Maher has the same integrity as Shermer.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Anglican? Don't like gay clergy? The Pope Wants You!

Interesting. The Catholic Church has announced that Anglicans can become Catholic en masse and still retain some Anglican traditions. Obviously the Anglican/Episcopalian schismlet over gay clergy will have some effect on this:

Cardinal Levada said the Vatican created the structure in response to many requests from Anglicans over the years since the Church of England first ordained women in the 1970s and more recently when it faced what he called “a very difficult question” — the ordination of openly gay clergy and the blessing of homosexual unions.

The American branch of the Anglican Communion, known as the Episcopal Church, has come close to schism over these issues. Disaffected conservatives in the United States announced in 2008 that they were organizing their own rival province of the church in North America.

In other words, many Anglicans may decide that debate over gays and women isn't worth it and join the Catholic fold. That's unfortunate, further polarization of religions is unlikely to be helpful to skeptics. It will be harder to engage in dialogue if people simply retreat to the safety of conclaves made up of homogeneous beliefs. Not that religion is a paragon of internal debate on these issues... but this doesn't help.

Monday, October 19, 2009

"SuperFreakonomics": Not-So-Super Analysis of Climate Change?

The Economist's "Free Exchange" blog has an interesting post on the follow-up book to "Freakanomics" entitled, rather unimaginatively, "SuperFreakonomics." Apparently, Mssrs. Leavitt and Dubner have decided to ply their economic expertise to the science of climate change in a manner that does a disservice to both disciplines:
One interesting point that a number of critics have made is that the Freakonomists' writing seems to be vastly different in quality when using research that Mr Levitt has himself produced (as was the case in the first book) than when addressing topics he has not previously discussed. This isn't all that difficult to understand; Mr Levitt no doubt chooses his research topics based on things like the quality of data available rather than the likelihood of a particular question being "hot button". And there are also very different publication standards for academic work than there are for popular publications.
We might lament the loss of an age when there were true "renaissance men" like Jefferson, Franklin or da Vinci, but the fact remains that academic disciplines are terribly specialized nowadays. One cannot, pace SuperFreakanomics, just wade into a subject and hope to be an "expert" on it, regardless of one's expertise in other areas.

What does these mean for those of us who are non-experts and skeptics? How do we tell bunk from building blocks without falling into the same traps as Leavitt and Dubner? Thoughts?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

6 year old taken away in UFO..

I don't know what is more amazing; the fact that some people managed to make a functional flying saucer in their back yard, or that they were unable to keep their 6 year old from taking it for a 'spin. What flabbergasts me even more is how difficult it is going to be to rescue this kid. What a story..