Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Review of CMI's "Voyage That Shook the World"

John Lynch and I have co-authored a review of the Creation Ministries International film on Darwin which will be appearing in vol. 30 of Reports of the National Center for Science Education and which may be found on their website.

My previous blogged review of the film is here.

I gave a little more background on the film here.  John Lynch has said more about it here, herehere, and here, mostly about the deception used to get interviews by prominent historians.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

What to think vs. how to think

While listening to a recent Token Skeptic podcast of a Dragon*Con panel on Skepticism and Education moderated by D.J. Grothe of the James Randi Educational Foundation, I was struck by his repeated references to Skepticism as a worldview (which I put in uppercase to distinguish it from skepticism as a set of methods of inquiry, an attitude or approach).  I wrote the following email to the podcast:
I am sufficiently irritated by D.J. Grothe's repeated reference to skepticism as a "worldview" that I will probably be motivated to write a blog post about it.
There is a growing ambiguity caused by overloading of the term "skepticism" on different things--attitudes, methods and processes, accumulated bodies of knowledge, a movement.  To date, there hasn't really been a capital-S Skepticism as a worldview since the Pyrrhonean philosophical variety.  A worldview is an all-encompassing view of the world which addresses how one should believe, how one should act, what kinds of things exist, and so forth.  It includes presuppositions not only about factual matters, but about values. 
The skepticisms worth promoting are attitudes, methods and processes, and accumulated bodies of knowledge that are consistent with a wide variety of world views.  The methods are contextual, applied against a background of social institutions and relationships that are based on trust.  There is room in the broader skeptical movement for pluralism, a diversity of approaches that set the skepticisms in different contexts for different purposes--educational, political, philosophical, religious.  An unrestricted skepticism is corrosive and undermines all knowledge, for there is no good epistemological response to philosophical skepticism that doesn't make some assumptions.
Trying to turn skepticism into a capital-S Skeptical worldview strikes me as misguided.
To my mind, what's most important and useful about skepticism is that it drives the adoption of the best available tools for answering questions, providing more guidance on how to think than on what to think, and on how to recognize trustworthy sources and people to rely upon.  There's not a completely sharp line between these--knowledge about methods and their accuracy is dependent upon factual knowledge, of course.

I think the recent exchanges about the Missouri Skepticon conference really being an atheist conference may partly have this issue behind them, though I think there are further issues there as well about the traditional scope of "scientific skepticism" being restricted to "testable claims" and the notion of methodological naturalism that I don't entirely agree with.  Skepticism is about critical thinking, inquiry, investigation, and using the best methods available to find reliable answers to questions (and promoting broader use of those tools), while atheism is about holding a particular position on a particular issue, that no gods exist.  The broader skeptical movement produces greater social benefits by promoting more critical thinking in the general public than does the narrower group of skeptical atheists who primarily argue against religion and especially the smaller subset who are so obsessed that they are immediately dismissed by the broader public as monomaniacal cranks.  The organized skeptical groups with decades of history have mainly taken pains to avoid being represented by or identified with the latter, and as a result have been represented by skeptics of a variety of religious views in events of lasting consequence. Think, for example, of the audience for Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" and his subsequent works, or of the outcome of the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial.

In my opinion, the distinction between skepticism and atheism is an important one, and I think Skepticon does blur and confuse that distinction by using the "skeptic" name and having a single focus on religion. This doesn't mean that most of the atheists participating in that conference don't qualify as skeptics, or even that atheist groups promoting rationality on religious subjects don't count as part of the broader skeptical movement.  It just means that there is a genuine distinction to be drawn.

(BTW, I don't think atheism is a worldview, either--it's a single feature of a worldview, and one that is less important to my mind than skepticism.)

Previous posts on related subjects:
"A few comments on the nature and scope of skepticism"
"Skepticism, belief revision, and science"
"Massimo Pigliucci on the scope of skeptical inquiry"

Also related, a 1999 letter to the editor of Skeptical Inquirer from the leaders of many local skeptical groups (Daniel Barnett, North Texas Skeptics, Dallas, TX; David Bloomberg, Rational Examination Association of Lincoln Land, Springfield, IL; Tim Holmes, Taiwan Skeptics, Tanzu, Taiwan; Peter Huston, Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York, Schenectady, NY; Paul Jaffe, National Capitol Area Skeptics, Washington, D.C.; Eric Krieg, Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking, Philadelphia, PA; Scott Lilienfeld, Georgia Skeptics, Atlanta, GA; Jim Lippard, Phoenix Skeptics and Tucson Skeptical Society, Tucson, AZ; Rebecca Long, Georgia Skeptics, Atlanta, GA; Lori Marino, Georgia Skeptics, Atlanta, GA; Rick Moen, Bay Area Skeptics, Menlo Park, CA; Steven Novella, New England Skeptical Society, New Haven, CT; Bela Scheiber, Rocky Mountain Skeptics, Denver, CO; and Michael Sofka, Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York, Troy, NY).

UPDATE (December 1, 2010): D.J. Grothe states in the most recent (Nov. 26) Point of Inquiry podcast (Karen Stollznow interviews James Randi and D.J. Grothe), at about 36:50, that he has been misunderstood in his references to skepticism as a "worldview."  This suggests to me that he has in mind a narrower meaning, as Barbara Drescher has interpreted him in the comments below.  My apologies to D.J. for misconstruing his meaning.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Does Vocab Malone understand the implications of his own position?

Vocab Malone, with whom I had a blog debate about abortion and personhood last year, recently came across this comment of mine on the Point of Inquiry podcast with Jen Roth, an atheist who argues for the immorality of abortion:
Was Jen Roth ultimately arguing that personhood is something that a human organism has for its entire lifecycle? At what starting point? Conception, implantation, or something else?

I find it completely implausible that an organism at a life stage with no capacity for perception, let alone reason, counts as a person. Nor that a particular genetic code is either necessary or sufficient for personhood.

I think every point that she made was brought up in a debate I had with a Christian blogger on the topic of abortion, who similarly argued for an equation between personhood and human organism. I wonder if she has any better rejoinders. Does she think that IVF and therapeutic cloning are immoral? IUDs?
Vocab claimed that my argument was a "Chewbacca argument," a smoke screen, or a slippery slope argument, but in fact it is none of these.  I posted the following comment in response to him:
The argument I made is not a slippery slope argument, it's a reductio ad absurdum.  Your position is that the human organism is a person and has a right to life from fertilization to death (and presumably beyond), so you've already gone down the "slippery slope" and must of necessity say that IVF, therapeutic cloning, and IUDs are immoral because they result in the destruction and death of fertilized ova.  My position is that it is absurd to think that these things are immoral, and if you were to avoid the slippery slope by agreeing with me, you would have contradicted a logical consequence of your own position--thus, a reductio ad absurdum by being committed to a proposition and its negation.
A slippery slope argument is an argument that says your position is committed to some consequence because there is no criterion that you can use to draw a line to avoid.  For example, if I argued that your position committed you to giving a right to life to all animals, and required you to be a vegetarian, or that it required you to give a right to life to every organism with DNA, and required you to hold a position like the Jain religion that all killing is wrong.
As it happens, you never did supply an account of just what it is about the human organism that gives it a right to life or personhood--you offered no constitutive account of what properties entail a right to life or personhood, other than a genetic one.  I made the case near the end of our debate that you are probably implicitly assuming that personhood comes from a soul, and that souls are connected to human organisms at the point of fertilization, but there's clearly no evidence for that position, scientific, philosophical, or theological.
BTW, my argument is also clearly not a Chewbacca argument or smoke screen, which is a simple non sequitur.  To think that, you would have to fail to understand that the items I identified all result in the destruction of fertilized human ova.
It's important to note that not all slippery slope arguments are fallacious--if there really is no criterion to stop the fall down the slope, the argument is valid.  As Vocab never did explain what it is about human organisms that make them rights-bearers, I think he does face the slippery slope argument I presented unless he can offer some criterion for distinguishing human organisms from other organisms with respect to having a right to life.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Pamela Gorman edits her own Wikipedia entry?

Former Arizona state legislator Pamela Gorman, or someone claiming to be her, took issue with the following passage in her Wikipedia entry:
Also in 2005, Gorman was one of several Arizona legislators who supported parental rights legislation which was also supported by the Citizens Commission on Human Rights. She attended the grand opening of the Church of Scientology's "Psychiatry: An Industry of Death" exhibition in Los Angeles in December 2005 at the request of Robin Read, President of the National Federation for Women Legislators.
The edit, which was described as "clarification of falsehoods entered about me and other organizations" and came from Cox Communications Phoenix IP, added the following right after that text:
It was a quick visit which did not include any meals or other "fluff." The goal of the trip was to determine what the Citizen's Commission on Human Rights was about, as they were becoming heavily involved in NFWL. The cost of the roundtrip flight for the small group to tour the museum was reported by CCHR, according to Arizona disclosure laws. Gorman's political enemies have tried for years to make a leap from her touring a museum as a favor to the president of her professional organization to her actually being a Scientologist. Further attempts to alter this page with falsehoods of this nature may be met with legal action.
I'm not aware of any online claims that Gorman, who is an evangelical Christian, is a Scientologist, only that she was one of several Arizona legislators who sponsored legislation on behalf of a Scientology front group and accepted gifts from the Church of Scientology.

It's good that Gorman was willing to give a bit more context, but it should be noted that this was not simple "parental rights legislation which was also supported by the Citizens Commission on Human Rights," it was a bill that was at least partly written by CCHR. As the Arizona Republic reported at the time, the original text required not only parental consent before mental health evaluations by schools, it required that parents read CCHR anti-psychiatry propaganda before signing a consent form:
Another bill introduced this year would have required written consent from parents for any mental-health screenings in schools. The bill was similar to other measures passed in previous years and vetoed by the governor. Sponsored by Sen. Karen Johnson, a member of the commission's international advisory group, the bill had a bipartisan group of 36 co-sponsors. Still, it failed by a tie vote in the Education Committee, in part because of testimony of mental-health advocates.

The original text of the bill would have required parents to sign a lengthy consent form that contained paragraph after paragraph of negative information about psychiatric practices.
Information about CCHR is easy to come by on the Internet (e.g., at Wikipedia or xenu.net), so it's unclear why Gorman needed to accept a round trip flight to Los Angeles on the CCHR's dime to find out "what the Citizen's Commission on Human Rights was about," or why she sponsored their bill.