Wednesday, 2 November 2011

An open letter to skeptics.

I have been a skeptic for a number of years now. Skeptic's Guide to the Universe hooked me away from any esoteric leanings I might have had in my youth, and since then I've come to see that the rejection of ideology inherent in the community can itself be a uniting factor in a vanguard for evidence-based change. Now however, I am no longer as sure as I once was.

As skeptics, we try to use a set of evidence-based rules to evaluate information. But what do we use to objectively pick which information to evaluate in the first place? I'm sure many would reply that aim of skepticism's public face is to try and educate others and counter some of the many falsehoods that have the potential to cause suffering. Huge amounts of energy have gone into tackling Power Balance bracelets, anti-vaccers, climate-change deniers, homeopaths... any number of people that abuse reason and science. Well, I put it to you that if you really care about miss-information causing suffering on a massive scale, we have one massive elephant in the room.

The Neoliberal capitalist system the majority of us live under is founded upon false premises that have absolutely no evidence to back them up. Where else would we countenance such power on the scientific basis of a couple of slightly intuitive but evidentially lacking phrases (trickle-down, rising boats etc)? It causes misery to billions. We are real, society is real, the economic system is real... surely that's all we need to be skeptical? Where are the guests at TAM speaking out about the falsehoods inherent in the Neoliberal economic model, or their views on human nature? Is politics off the table, and if so why?

Scientific consensus is adequate to assure that the skeptical community trusts scientists regarding climate change. Why then do we patently ignore the consensus regarding the relative nature of the human mind? Both are conclusions born from complex systems. Both have deniers yet we go for the crack-pot and not the powerful. Have we all lost sight of what is most important in life? How else to explain the silence while a psuedo-scientific ideology structures societies in ways that are completely counter to what the consensus suggests makes humans happy.

Any other pseudo-scientific, profit-driven endeavour that caused this much suffering would be brought up all the time, on multiple podcasts and proportionately represented at TAM. Glancing through The Amazing Meeting line-up from London, I see one person, a blogger Greta Christina, who has politics among their interests. This is just wrong.

I have long thought that the skeptical community will grow and usher in a new age of (actual) rational, ideology-free thought. But the ideology-less taking on the BIG skeptical issue of our times are not the skeptics but the people of the Occupy Movement. Their courage to speak truth to power while rejecting ideology has made me question why the skeptical community seem content to tackle the little fish. As a community we have to discuss this glaring blind-spot and ask, honestly, why it is there. I sincerely hope that it is not to avoid controversy. If you don't feel like me, then all I ask is that the next time someone asks why you do what you do, just consider saying "mainly it's because I don't like the direct affront to the science I care about" instead.

Because people ARE suffering, and if we do not challenge this ideology and reverse this explosion of inequality, the science says it's only going to get worse if nothing is done to reverse this trend toward greater inequality.

I'm struggling to reconcile this now I've thought about it. Would sincerely live to hear your thoughts.

Yours sincerely

Ben King

If you would like to read more on why Neoliberalism is the new organised religion, here's my take on it.


Ben King said...

OK, so first response, kindly given by @DJgothe:

"I agree with much of the Occupy criticism but I wouldn't consider it "scientific."


Just to clear up, I wasn't saying that the criticism coming out of occupy was scientific, merely ideology-less. As a response I would say...

1) Can anything real be said to be unscientific? There is far more data on state and economic governance than religious, yet it doesn't stop us arguing against religious belief. We have evolved to respond to our environment; politics shapes that environment. There IS science there to draw on.

2) Considering the scale of that power, and the suffering it causes, does such a view justify the taboo nature of politics? I thought NOTHING was taboo from skeptical thinking, so why the silence?

In case people missed it, there is a link at the bottom of this blog but I couldn't find how to change the colour! It shows a very clear correlation between inequality and a whole range of social and physiological ills. I believe very strongly that had that correlation been with religious belief, the skeptic community would be all over it.

Ben King said...

2nd Reply from @Rebeccawatson

"I talk about politics all the time. Not sure what your criticism is..."

Unfortunately another strawman. I don't say skeptics, particularly Rebecca Watson, don't talk about politics. It just so happens to mostly be when it coincides with alternative medicine or religion in the public sphere. I also specifically ask about why the *ideology of Neoliberalism* isn't talked about more often.

Ben King said...

3rd reply is from Brian Dunning...

"Politics is a matter of personal opinion and preference. Skepticism is concerned with matters of science. :)"

What does this mean exactly? Could a religious person who does not hold to the literal truth of the bible (of which there are many let us not forget) not say exactly the same thing? Does that stop us?

Why do we allow politics this get out, whilst not allowing religion the same? My guess is that it is because we have hundreds of years of solid, empirical science that consistently goes against religions claims. By contrast, knowledge of cognitive science and the "self" is almost entirely contemporary (withstanding the hard-to-be-skeptical-about introsepctive achievements of some eastern philosophies... though that didn't stop the Buddha himself being skeptical). Yet science there is! What is more, it nearly all out-dates the founding tenets of neoliberalism, evidence in itself that there is at least a very good chance of it simply being wrong. Politics is the art of governing people... isn't it about time it became the science of self-governance?

Think about what else it means. Tken to it's full logical conclusion, it places politics, and by extension the mind and society, outside of the realms of science. This is an absurd position given the presumed near consensus in the skeptic community of a materialist universe. It also bolsters my argument that skeptics, had they been living in the 16th century, would not have opposed the Church (since regardless of how experience shows it's flaws, the data wasn't there, the concepts not yet in the culture).

On the whole, I'm very disappointed by these answers thus far. Can no one engage in anything other than a reactive tweet with no talk of the rationalisations behind them?

badrescher said...

The answer is pretty simple: you are asking us to fight against a particular ideology because you think that your particular ideology is better.

I'm wondering how you have defined "ideology", since you have claimed that the "Occupy" movement rejects ideology. This movement is pure ideology. That's not a value judgment, just the way it is.

Politics and economics are not off-limits to skepticism, nor are they ignored by skeptics. When issues are framed in terms of specific testable (or tested) hypotheses, most of us are happy to talk about them. However, there isn't much in these areas that skeptics can address because the scale that most people would like to see discussed (the scale of things you've outlined here) has little to offer in the way of testable claims. It's ideology, despite your claims to the contrary.

We have scientific consensus about AGW and not about matters of politics and economics because the level of complexity and the state of current knowledge are VASTLY different. They are not comparable.

Unfortunately, everyone thinks that their ideological beliefs are rational while those of others are based on emotion, ignorance, desire, etc. The truth is that most political and economic beliefs are derived from values, not truths.

Ben King said...

Just lost a whole reply.. will make this brief. Thanks for taking the time to reply.

Ideology by definition is the product of a few, disseminated to the many. I do not argue that many individuals bring ideology to the occupy movement, but you cannot claim that the product of the processes they have in place, processes explicitly designed to avoid leadership, is ideological; it is an identity being shared spontaneously by people in 87 different cultures.

I am happy to engage with any part of "my" ideology you think I may have, and I merely hope you feel the same way. Tell me which point I am wrong on and why, and I will happily adjust my position accordingly, should I be convinced.

You say politics and economics doesn't have much that skepticism can address? I put it to you that many religious people could say the exact same thing to skeptics (and do), yet does that stop us when they then try to influence public life? Yet Neoliberalism is an ideology that almost wholly *constructs* public life, let alone merely try and manipulate it here and there. Were religion to do the same, but refrained from saying anything empirically false (keeping to the values as you say...), would you still be so blase?

There *are* claims made everyday by politicians and businessmen that are utterly fictional, that ignore our relativistic nature, that misuse data, cherry-pick evidence and use language in ways that alt-med quacks would be proud of. We have 30 years of data showing the failure of de-regulation, the ballooning of the one variable that correlates with a whole variety of social ills (inequality, us being realtive, social animals... that's science) under the auspices of mythological concepts of endless growth and free-markets.

Religion and Neoliberalism, as with any ideology, are self-similar in their characteristics & function. One made claims about the outside world that were long ago debunked, the other made claims about human nature, and from that economics and politics, that are currently being debunked. Both used that dogma to structure society to the benefits of the few. Both can cause immense suffering, but the one currently in control is ignored. There are hundreds of skeptics that talk about the former; None that talk about the latter.

Ben King said...

Quick example: A group of Christians assert that God hates gay people. This is a "values" based claim that isn't testable. Do you not contest that? Take it further... this group uses money and influence to try and create legislation reflecting these "values". Do you contest that? By now it's almost certainly yes, ideology has no place in the public sphere... well, next logical step...

Neoliberalism has no place in the public sphere. This isn't just a piece of legislation, it is the entire context for the biggest wealth and power grab the world has seen. These "values" are destroying peoples lives, they are far *more* testable than ones that invoke God (although neoliberalists can always invoke an as-yet-unobtained 'purity' of free-market that is invariably to blame each time it fails, special pleading pure-and-simple).

Forget occupy, it's incidental. Do you not see the inconsistency I am trying to highlight?

Badrescher said...

"Ideology by definition is the product of a few, disseminated to the many."

That's not what the word "ideology" means and ideology does not need to be disseminated at all to be ideology. I am not being snarky when I say that has a pretty good definition that is consistent with the way the term is used today.

Most of what you have said here is based on incorrect assumptions and definitions. One example is your claim that data show that deregulation causes harm. No data show this. Talk to a Libertarian sometime. Most will be happy to explain (and they would be correct on this) that we have never had free markets, so "We tried that" is fallacious. They may even be right that the collapse of the housing market can be traced, in part, to government mandates to mortgage companies.

I'm not arguing for free markets, but I am arguing against your claim that deregulation has been proven harmful. It hasn't.

Picking apart pages of stuff like that is not among my favorite activities. I answered your plea for an explanation and, although I certainly don't speak for anyone else, I think most Skeptics would agree with my main points. I am not interested in discussing it further.

I'd suggest instead that you broaded your reading, especially to stuff with which you think you'll disagree. Shermer just wrote a piece on "Occupy" for SkepticBlog and he often discusses politics. You will certainly disagree with him, but you'll understand his view better and perhaps see that there are many, many discussions among skeptics that involve politics and/or economics.

Ben King said...

I find it interesting that you believe there is no evidence for the harm of de-regulation. Also as to why you do not write off the libertarian ideal of the free-market as special pleading, which it clearly is. On my phone so will have to reply in full later (with the evidence you have missed)

Ben King said...

P.s thank you for the sources, please don't give up. I'm not a troll, I am genuinely here to be convinced. Main struggle is how neoliberalism differs from religion enough to justify difference in amount of skeptical focus.

badrescher said...

I don't see how something with such far-reaching consequences as mortgage mandates could be considered "special pleading". It seems to me that you are applying a double-standard to evidence.

As I said, I am not interested in discussing this further. Please ask a knowledgeable Libertarian to discuss it with you. They do exist, I just don't happen to be one of them as I don't believe that their solutions are any better or less oversimplified than those of other parties. I've said what I wanted to say.

Ben King said...

Isn't special pleading where you claims untestable extenuating circumstances for every failure?

Ideology - wiki: "...or a set of ideas proposed by the dominant class of a society to all members of this society"

Libertarian? Isn't that like calling in a priest to answer my questions on why it isn't scientifically based? Why not a skeptic? Oh, yeah... tried that.

You were right about that blog... I will read it but first point is wrong straight off the bat. No one committed a crime? Then why have the Goldman and Citigroup settled a string of cases, despite clear evidence of intentional fraud? A Judge has questionned the latest Citigroup one as preposterous given the evidence... were the will there (i.e. the double-standards in application of the law), people could have, and should have, been in prison. That's the point.

B-Lar said...

I am interested in dicussing this further, but I am tending to agree with the OP.

Regulation is a response to organisations starting off with a free reign, and not using the opportunity to regulate themselves. There will always be groups which can manage themselves honestly, and also other groups who use an unregulated arena to take as much as they can, giving little back. Some regulation is neccesary, but too much is seen to be counter-productive to healthy competition.

The problem, as I see it, is that deregulation is practically synonymous with less accountability. less accountability leads to riskier decision making; risk which is not borne by the risk takers.

There are essays and studies regarding the effects of deregulation which seem quite interesting.