Are skeptics skeptical enough?

Last Sunday, science writer John Horgan gave a speech to the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, the name of which should give you a clue about what happened.

The skeptics weren’t happy.

“You are extremely critical of belief in God, ghosts, heaven, ESP, astrology, homeopathy and Bigfoot,” he said. “You also attack disbelief in global warming, vaccines and genetically modified food.”

And there’s not much wrong with that, he suggested, except that on those issues, skeptics are speaking to the choir — other skeptics.

Harder targets, he said, would be people within their tribe.

“Last month, Neil de Grasse Tyson said ‘the likelihood may be very high’ that we’re living in a simulation. Again, this isn’t science, it’s a stoner thought experiment pretending to be science,” he declared.

Some powerful people believe in Singularity, the notion that “we’re on the verge of digitizing our psyches and uploading them into computers, where we can live forever,” he said, calling it “an apocalyptic cult, with science substituted for God.”

So why believe the same people when they talk about climate change?

If that wasn’t a big enough grenade, he then went after mental health.

Mental-health care suffers from similar problems. Over the last few decades, American psychiatry has morphed into a marketing branch of Big Pharma. I started critiquing medications for mental illness more than 20 years ago, pointing out that antidepressants like Prozac are scarcely more effective than placebos.

In retrospect, my criticism was too mild. Psychiatric drugs help some people in the short term, but over time, in the aggregate, they make people sicker. Journalist Robert Whitaker reaches this conclusion in his book Anatomy of an Epidemic.

He documents the huge surge in prescriptions for psychiatric drugs since the late 1980s. The biggest increase has been among children. If the medications really work, rates of mental illness should decline. Right?

Instead, rates of mental disability have increased sharply, especially among children. Whitaker builds a strong case that medications are causing the epidemic.

Given the flaws of mainstream medicine, can you blame people for turning to alternative medicine?

Nothing was off limits in his speech.

“The United States, I submit, is the greatest threat to peace. Since 9/11, U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan have killed 370,000 people. That includes more than 210,000 civilians, many of them children. These are conservative estimates,” he said.

Then he advised them to live up to the name of their organization.

“I don’t expect you to agree with my framing of these issues. All I ask is that you examine your own views skeptically.”

When he finished, the emcee wouldn’t let him take questions — he was hoping for a debate — and apologized for the speech.

Writing on the Scientific American blog today, Horgan said it wasn’t until later, when he met people in the hallway, that he got what he was looking for: give-and-take:

We argued about … all sorts of things. Whether physics is really explaining why there is something rather than nothing, whether world peace really is possible, whether skeptics should take a stance on political issues.

Skeptics are much more diverse than my critique implied, several informed me. Skeptics constantly debate their priorities, and some express concerns about the same “hard targets” that concern me, such as medical over-testing.

I said I was glad to hear that. I conceded that instead of calling my talk “Hard Versus Soft Targets,” I could have called it “Stuff You Care about Versus Stuff I Care About.”

“After reading his article, it is safe to say that Horgan does not have the first clue about scientific skepticism,” counters Steven Novella, a clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine, who writes the NeuroLogica Blog.

Scientific skepticism, like most other movements, includes a complex variety of opinions and approaches, and certainly has undergone a great deal of growing pains in the last decade. I, of course, cannot vouch for every self-described skeptic. But I have a fairly thorough knowledge of the major players.

Skeptics (despite what our critics claim) are thoughtful, self-critical, and not afraid to take on any fight. We have addressed all of the issues that Horgan raises, and in a much more sophisticated fashion than Horgan himself. We are already miles past the superficial framing that Horgan gives.

Related: Who will debunk the debunkers? (FiveThirtyEight)

  • BJ

    That FiveThirtyEight debunking link is great!!!

    • tboom

      A great article!

      My head is about to explode.

      From now on every time I hear “Darwin” I’ll think “Matthew”, and my next immediate thought will be “I think I’m supposed to think Matthew”.

  • Khatti

    Many years ago I read a complaint some scientists had about skeptics. It seems that skepticism takes the place of religion with many hard-care skeptics.