It’s disappointing to see someone perpetuate unfounded agendas, especially in a magazine one would like to think better of. There are a few different respects in which John Horgan’s Scientific American articles is lost in his personal agenda and that of others. If you know some of the background, this stuff leaps from the page as you read.
Dear “Skeptics,” Bash Homeopathy and Bigfoot Less, Mammograms and War More – “A science journalist takes a skeptical look at capital-S Skepticism”
With regard to skepticism here, Horgan is a bit of a hypocrite. As you can see from his Wiki page, he’s a naysayer – so much so that he’s basically engaging in hyper-skepticism, in making claims about what science can’t achieve which are as unfounded as the claims for science that he is criticising.
Skepticism is about not taking bold claims at face value. That not only applies to claims for science but claims against its possible future achievements. Horgan himself has made bold claims and sold a book based on them, about what science won’t achieve.
He’s on safe ground criticising Dr Phil, as he does in one article. But he’s off the mark with Dawkins, Krauss, and others.
For example, he misunderstands Dawkins with regard to Krauss. Dawkins isn’t, as Horgan says, likening Krauss to Darwin, but making the very more specific and limited point that the Krauss book provides good ammunition against theism (of the cosmological kind believed by the likes of Willian Lane Craig) as Darwin’s did against the Genesis Adam and Eve religion of the time.
With regard to String Theory and the like, they are theories at the edge of cosmology and physics. It is a mistake to think that all science requires falsifiability at all stages. Speculation, theorising, following mathematical ideas, they are all important in giving cosmologists an idea where to look and what to test. Falsifiability doesn’t apply here. Where it does apply is in experiments.
Imagine various theory variations around String Theory – there might be n of them, and a specific theory might be S(i). Suppose a scientist were to say (to declare the hypothesis) “If the string theory S(i) is correct, then this experiment, E(i), will show result R(i).” And if the experiment E(i) showed R(i) was not found, then what has been falsified is the connection between the specific theory, S(i), the experiment, E(i), and the expected result, R(i). It could still be that S(i) is true (or maybe some other version, S(j)), or that E(i) does not imply R(i), or that the experiment was not the right one to show the theory S(i) implies result R(i). Falsifiability isn’t the simple matter Horgan is playing on.
Take his antipathy to the “deep-roots theory” of war – it is misplaced. There’s a lot of disagreement about it, but that in itself is no reason not to express one’s agreement with it, if you agree with it. He targets Pinker and Schermer here. But the point is that his ‘cultural’ answer is no better. What explains why the cultural influences result in war so often? Is there a deeper biological reason we are so amenable to war? But then he says, “If war is ancient and innate, it must also be inevitable, right?” Well, no. What a stupid claim.
On this specific point, take a look at Jerry Coyne’s review of Pinker’s response to Horgan.
Moving on, with Horgan:
You might also think that religious fanaticism—and especially Muslim fanaticism – is the greatest threat to peace. That’s the claim of religion-bashers like Dawkins, Krauss, Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne and the late, great warmonger Christopher Hitchens.
And here we are getting to the nub of this article. Ironically it’s showing the biases that Horgan has himself.
But dealing the particular point first. Religion isn’t necessarily a cause for strife. But it provides a divisive framework in which strife can arise and be encouraged. When the very basis of religion is deep moralising, the demonisation of non-believers, then it’s a recipe for war – even if most humans choose not to follow the recipe. This is the problem with Islam at the moment.
A typical point made in defense of Islam is that many of the people joining ISIS have only a cursory understanding of Islam and the Quran, and that Harris and others take the Quran too literally, just as those joining ISIS do. Well, that’s very damning for the Quran, if it can be so easily used as a manual for Jihad. And criticising Harris and others for pointing out all this is no more than shooting the messenger – or even more common in this case, blaming the messenger for the occurrence of the events they report on (yes, Harris has been blamed for Islamic terrorism).
There are other things wrong with this article, but that’s enough about the article itself.
It’s no surprise that this guy was invited by Massimo Pigliucci – a scientist turned philosopher who gets butt-hurt when scientists criticise philosophy. He jumps on the ‘scientism’ bandwagon at every opportunity. Critics of Pigliucci include Harris, Pinker, Coyne – targets for Horgan here.
Nor is it a surprise that this talk took place at NECSS. Here’s some background as to why – which goes some way toward agreeing with at least part of the piece, on why some ‘Skeptics’ organisations aren’t quite up to their own lofty skeptical goals. They have just been in a spat over disinviting Dawkins, and then having to retract the disinvitation.
There are links between organisers of the NECSS event, the Novella brothers, and feminists like Rebecca Watson, who has history with Dawkins, and Sam Harris, and to a lesser extent Coyne and Pinker. It all boils down to the ‘nub’ I mentioned – they don’t like the ‘New Atheists’ because they criticise religion too vociferously; so much so that many in the ‘skeptical’ community don’t look too skeptically at claims that Dawkins, Harris and others are demonising all Muslims in a racist hate campaign.
Look up ‘Elevatorgate’, ‘Dear Muslima’. In brief:
Watson made a video mentioning (reasonably so) that it might be a good idea if guys didn’t come on to women alone in elevators, especially after the sexism often experienced at ‘atheist’ and ‘skeptic’ events. Ultra-feminists and Social Justice Warriors, including male supporters (one PZ Myers in particular) went ape-shit over such obnoxious sexist dude-bro behaviour, but got more than a little caught up in the rape-culture meme. Dawkins, wanting to point out that there are plenty of women being persecuted in other cultures wrote a sarcastic “Dear Muslima” comment on the Myers blog. That drove the feminists wild and dragged Watson down into the depths with them. It’s been a hate-fest on Dawkins since then.
In other news, Harris fired up Social Justice Warriors because he basically translated the Trolley Problem into the real world religious-political sphere, by doing what isn’t allowed – criticising Islam. Of course, the SJW criticise Islam, they say, but you rarely see them do it. But the real trick they play is to state that criticism of Islam amounts to racism. Oh, and Harris wants to nuke all Muslims. So much bull shit, from a crowd that takes on a group identity mania that doesn’t look in the least bit skeptical.
It’s a long story with a lot of history, and it’s been covered in many places. Try this list for links.
But one thing Horgan gets right here is his criticism of some ‘group’ dynamics of the skeptical community’, particularly in the US. However, Horgan seems no more immune to tribalism that those he criticises.