Anyone familiar with the skeptic movement is probably well aware of John Horgan’s talk at NECSS, and his subsequent blog post. Rather than cover all the horrible scientific inaccuracies, and lack of awareness, I will address why Horgan’s opinion resonates with the wider public. For direct criticism of the content of Horgan’s presentation David Gorski, and Steven Novella have wonderful responses.
As a side note, in a future post (or possible video?) I will be criticizing the work of Robert Whitaker, someone who Horgan cites as a respectable journalist. I happen to think Whitaker is wrong, on a lot of issues, but there doesn’t seem to be that much information online explaining how wrong he is. I hope to fill that void in the future; so look out for that! Ironically, this is precisely WHY we need a skeptic movement, so people can think critically about the people they use as sources. And the fact that Horgan used Whitaker as a source, at a skeptic conference, where he criticized skeptics… is priceless.
The first thing that really annoys me with his talk, which is a standard way of shutting down a conversation, is that he automatically set up the skeptics movement as being ideologically motivated to reject his talk. That way, any criticism towards his talk can be perceived as petulant whining and thus easily dismissed. The fact is, that skeptics cover a wide range of topics, including a lot of the issues that he himself raised. We are not, as a whole, superficially science enthusiasts that simply digest what we are spooned by the media or by scientists. The skeptic movement, at its best, has a respectful appreciation for earned expertise, combined with an attitude of critical self reflection and a desire to learn. Of course, not everyone who self identifies as a skeptic is going to be “right”, after all, Bill Nye was wrong about GMO’s (and still is wrong about philosophy), but at least he tries to maintain a proper skeptical outlook. Horgan’s talk reflects a common straw person of the skeptical movement; one which is used by cranks to convince their followers to believe in superstitious nonsense. That skeptics are mindless followers of science.
My main issue with Horgan’s talk, is that Horgan assumes that wanting to end war is obvious. If there is one thing I have learned as a skeptic, it is that very seldom is anything obvious. A lot of issues are complicated. Take, for example, the local food movement. Contrary to popular belief it is not always environmentally beneficial to buy your food locally. Why? Because water use, and soil efficiency, can often create more CO2 locally than the CO2 produced to have the food shipped from more efficient areas. However, sometimes that is really hard to calculate and figure out. People cling to catchy little slogans “eat local!”, “end war!”, but these sayings often try to simplify very complex realities with almost no benefit to actually solving the shared underlying issues.I sometimes have to defer to experts, given that I don’t have the time to do a deep dive on every aspect of the ecological impact of food production while at the same time keeping a steady job.But even then, it is often that when you become deeply familiar with a specific knowledge base that you become intimately aware with the fact that the world is far more complicated than it superficially seems. Only when you know a lot about one specific subject do you realize that there is so much more that you don’t know about it, and then you realize that everyone, in almost every field, has the exact same thought. It is amazing that we know anything, given how little we actually know.
Of course, most people, and most skeptics, would probably love to see an end to war, but we often disagree about the best ways to accomplish such tasks, given how complicated such tasks are. Furthermore, it is not clear what evidence exists to make such complex predictions. Almost no one predicted Donald Trump, and yet Horgan thinks we can somehow reach a consensus on the proper means of ending world wide conflict? Violence and war have been decreasing, but it is not clear what is causing these declines. Steven Pinker has catalogued a lot of interacting social and psychological factors which he thinks play a role in this decline, but his review is far from conclusive. That being said, Pinker is a skeptic, and he is addressing the issue that Horgan thinks that skeptics should address. Given that Horgan had the stage and an opportunity, why didn’t he provide any reasonable solutions to the problems he wishes that we would address (even though we are already addressing them)?
Lastly, Horgan’s distinguishing between soft and hard targets is simply silly. Homeopathy is a soft target? Then why are they a billion dollar industry? The fact that people are avoiding proven cancer treatments for sugar pills is an important issue which requires a movement to combat it. How do we expect to solve war when it is this difficult to convince ordinary, every day people, that homeopathy doesn’t work. The skeptics movement is important because we are on the pulse of why people believe weird things. Why we are motivated, not by the evidence, but by heuristics and biases which lead reasonable people to make unreasonable decisions. So called “soft targets” make these human faults salient, in order that we might learn from our mistakes. If we hope to end war, we should probably get to the bottom of why people believe in Bigfoot first. Horgan has his priorities backwards.