What is he talking about?

As I warned you about below, this is a continuation of the controversial “Don’t be a Dick” opera brought to us by Phil Plait, which I started from my perspective in this post. Phil has now posted Part Three, which goes on to explain, it seems, exactly what he was talking about. If you haven’t been following this, haven’t read my last entry, or couldn’t care less (and I don’t blame you, really,) then you can skip this post ;-). But if you want to see where even the more prominent skeptics can go astray, read on.

The only content in Phil’s final post on the subject deals with the aftermath of his talk, and he tells of three immediate cases where he was congratulated, immediately after his talk, by sobbing and tearful people in the skeptical “community” (hate that phrase) that had been longing to hear that from someone for a long time. They had apparently been ostracized and insulted by others for their religious standpoints. As Phil pointed out, these people were active advocates for critical-thinking, who were being marginalized for their beliefs – one active christian, one “deist” (Phil’s quotes, not mine,) one unknown. He also related how he’d heard from “hundreds” of similar situations.

Now, I’ve been spending my time with other, more meaningful pursuits recently, and did not read through the 300+ comments following this post, nor the reaction from the various other blogs that Phil listed in Part Two. So I haven’t actually seen how many others tumbled to the discrepancy here, or Phil’s reaction to them. This comes only from the posts he’s made directly, and my reaction to them. But this post still failed to show what it was I, and several others, have repeatedly asked for: evidence that this is an issue.

You see, people coming up to Phil and complaining about their treatment, or thanking him for his attack on said treatments, isn’t actually showing us the examples of the treatments that, to judge from a half-hour lecture in the most prominent skeptical seminar that exists, must be rampant. This is, instead, something that is called “anecdotal evidence,” a factor in fuzzy thinking that many skeptics actually rail against. Personal experience does not carry any more weight than one data point, if that – this is provided that the experience has not been clouded by any inability to evaluate data effectively in the first place. If we are going to deny this as useful when coming from someone we’re trying to reach, correct, or enlighten, we can’t abandon this when it comes from someone we agree with, or we’re being hypocrites.

The second part is a bit more involved. There is no real definition of “skeptic,” so there are no particular guidelines to what makes a proper one. But I’m glad I mentioned “cognitive dissonance” in the previous post on this subject, because it suddenly becomes a key phrase here. Cognitive dissonance is something that plays a huge part in skepticism, as well as in evaluating people’s convictions and belief systems. Basically, it refers to something that has become exempt from someone’s typical criteria for rational thought [EDIT: See comments below]. Police officers who are drug addicts. Politicians that find upholding the Constitution is “traitorous.” That kind of thing. It’s actually something that can be very hard to deal with, because most people who display this either haven’t recognized it for what it is, or have rationalized it in some way. To anyone promoting critical-thinking, it’s one of the major roadblocks – maybe even the biggest.

Being a skeptic and being an atheist or agnostic do not directly relate, but they do often go hand-in-hand, and a very large percentage (I don’t think it’s possible to get good numbers) are both. This stands to reason: religion is the most prominent example of fuzzy, uncritical thinking that exists, by a wide margin. Without any evidence behind it, with such varied practices and beliefs, and with its driving force of “faith,” defined as conviction without proof, it’s really hard to argue against it leading the pack.

So, can you be a skeptic and religious at the same time? Well, that’s going to depend on your definition of skeptic, really, but if it includes doing away with cognitive dissonance, then no, you cannot. I have actually seen such discussions taking place on forums, but again, no serious attacks. I’m quick to say that this doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but then again, I trashed this bad argument previously, didn’t I? We’re still at the “show me the money” stage, and can’t seem to get past it. But at this point, if someone says they haven’t been accepted among skeptics because of their religious views, now I’m starting to understand what might be taking place.

I still haven’t gotten to Phil’s viewpoint on it, though, and unless he does a much better job, I cannot. Personally, I’m not concerned with someone’s religion – they can do as they please, believe what they want. The sticking point becomes when they feel their personal standpoint has to apply to anyone else, and that’s what I, and a majority of skeptics, actually address. At the same time, I don’t feel this is supposed to apply to everyone, and others have their own personal approaches. It can certainly be argued that religion is one of the biggest issues in defeating critical-thinking that exists – if you make it acceptable to refer to immaterial beings or vague otherworldly influences, you are defeating the entire idea of skepticism, of dealing with the here-and-now, testable, provable world. A religious skeptic is quite a bit like a vegetarian that eats beef – I think you’re going to find a lot of people that deny you’re a vegetarian. And if you’re trying to convince other people to examine themselves critically – if you’re actively advocating skepticism – then you’re actually in a damaging position when you cannot show that you yourself have overcome certain hurdles. Again, we’re dancing with the concept of hypocrisy.

So, I wonder, what exactly is the nature of these attacks that Phil’s acquaintances have gone through? Because now I have some idea what might be happening, but unless Phil actually comes forward with some real evidence, some data instead of stories, I can’t do more than speculate. There are other speculations that have come to mind that I have purposefully not included here, because there is not enough to proceed with – but they still may be a factor. However, Phils’ reluctance to support his viewpoint with empirical data has been seen many times before, and in fact, I have dealt with it personally countless times. It’s actually a pretty common tactic of the fuzzy-thinkers. Which is making this too hypocritical to deal with anymore. I’ve gone past being a little annoyed at this point, I’m now disgusted. This is exactly what we fight not to do.

I was going to say that there’s one more thing that defeats Phil’s argument, but I stopped myself, because it’s not correct – Phil’s argument hasn’t really been defeated, but I’ll deal with that one paragraph down. Change this to, there’s one more thing that doesn’t fit with Phil’s intentions. He asked, what are we trying to do, as skeptics and critical-thinkers? And answered that: we’re trying to convince people. But he said nothing whatsoever about how he changed any of those people who came up to thank him. If anything, he made a point of not changing them, but accepting them and their standpoint. Someone could argue that perhaps he’s in a better position to approach this now, but that’s still a specious argument, if he’s not actually tackling that task. I noticed a long time ago that Phil rarely ever addresses religion, and specifically has begged off on even answering what his personal viewpoint is. That’s fine, really, and his choice – but this starts to look like Phil thinks his choice should be everyone else’s, and that’s not something I’m going to support in the least. That’s what I actually argue against.

Returning to the “Phil’s argument” point above, I have to say I’m not in disagreement with it – “don’t be a dick” isn’t exactly bad advice, and if you’re actually interested in affecting people for the better, your approach matters a lot. I still maintain that it needs to be tempered to the audience and the situation, so I can also say that “don’t be a wuss” is also good advice. But these are also my personal opinions, and not something I’m going to lecture anyone about. Do you hear me, Phil? Stop telling other people what to do!

(Yes, that was intentional irony – did you catch it?)

On the lighter side, and because I can compartmentalize my opinions on specific traits of someone without them overtaking my entire viewpoint, Phil actually has a show coming up on the Discovery Channel, called, “Bad Universe,” and it now has an air date: Sunday, August 29 at 10:00 PM (check your local listings to confirm.) This is Phil’s strong point, and a topic he knows very well, plus he’s a compelling speaker, so this should prove to be good. Check it out!

3 comments to What is he talking about?

  • “Basically, it refers to something that has become exempt from someone’s typical criteria for rational thought.”

    That is not cognitive dissonance.

    Please check the original social psychology behind cognitive dissonance. I don’t think you are using it correctly. Cognitive dissonance is the anxiety or negative affect that results from holding inconsistent beliefs or encountering counter evidence. It is not something that you can arbitrarily attribute to someone else just because you think their beliefs are inconsistent. A cop who deals drugs may not experience cognitive dissonance at all. He or she simply needs to hold additional beliefs that make his/her actions consistent with beliefs. As you said “rationalizations,” but you seem to fail to recognize that if the rationalizations exist, then cognitive dissonance does not. It is disappointing that skeptics abuse the concept of cognitive dissonance so often. It is not a pejorative that you can apply to someone who doesn’t agree with your beliefs. Even identifying inconsistencies in someone’s beliefs is not in itself evidence of cognitive dissonance.

  • Let me add to what I said above. You may be right that the hostility toward “dicks” is an expression of the anxiety and discomfort experienced by theists who attempt to embrace skepticism while maintaining a belief in gods or the supernatural. It is a reasonable hypothesis, but we need to be careful not to label those with whom we disagree as having cognitive dissonance (as if it were a mental disorder) and further interpreting any anger they may express as being a symptom thereof.

    • Al Denelsbeck

      Harold, you’re right, and I stand corrected. I have been using this phrase in the context that I have seen it used, and it doesn’t properly apply as I have it here. I think I need to find the phrase that does apply, if there is one… ;-)

      It doesn’t change the point I was trying to make, which is that someone claiming to be a skeptic but embracing something with little to no evidence behind it might be considered, by some, to be anachronous. This probably happens far more than any of us want to admit, and I doubt anyone is 100% “skeptical.”

      A small correction to your comments: I’m not trying either to interpret the feelings of, nor labeling, those who Phil talked about. Their religion, even held against their pursuit of skepticism or critical-thinking, doesn’t concern me personally, so I was not using the term “cognitive dissonance” pejoratively, only descriptively (albeit inaccurately.) But I actually have seen this discussion taking place, where particular skeptics questioned the idea that a skeptic could actually be religious – given that, I was speculating about the possibility that this was what had taken place with those that Phil mentioned. I will emphasize that this is only speculation, and mentioned simply because it has bearing on the situation. The real point is that it seems we’ll never know.

      You said that if rationalizations exist, cognitive dissonance does not – I’m not sure I can fully see that. I suspect there are more than a few cases where a rationalization has been adopted but is not sufficient to eliminate dissonance. I don’t work in this field, so I can’t say for sure, but I suspect it doesn’t have to be an “either/or” situation.