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11/6/08

Michael Shermer – The Neglected New Atheist

This, unfortunately, comes to us from the “Nice try but no cigar” and or “Aw shucks, what about me guys?” files.

Back in 2007 AD Michael Shermer, pseudo-skeptic extraordinaire, made an obviously failed attempt to reason with the four celebrity New Atheists. In Scientific American Magazine of all places, yeah I know you thought that Scientific American Magazine was about science (apparently their online version is not exactly a peer-reviewed science journal), Michael Shermer wrote an article entitled, “Rational Atheism - An open letter to Messrs. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens.”

To read/Or not to read


Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins are the celebrity New Atheists, the so called “Four Horsemen,” who are really more akin to “My Little Ponies.” Sure, when you first get a toy you are really excited and your purchase all of the accessories but after a while you grow up.
In the case of the big four et al, at first they are exciting they are vociferous, they play the part of the underdog, they make emotionally charged statements, the make arguments from outrage, arguments form embarrassment, they take on Christianity, they encourage and insight reactions of ridicule, and elbowing your buddy in the ribs to the point that atheists think that laughing at someone is tantamount to the discrediting of their argument.



Michael Shermer quotes and comments on Prof. Richard Dawkins’s “always poignant prose, ‘raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one. You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral and intellectually fulfilled.’ Amen, brother” (religious reference in original).
Who would argue that it is not a good thing to raise consciousnesses, be brave, happy, balanced, moral and intellectually fulfilled?

But how do these things play out in the lives of atheist, particularly the New Atheists, specifically the celeb-four? What is having your consciousness raised realizing that you are one of the most intelligent people in the history of the planet? Is being brave becoming the most recent in a 2,000 yr old line of people who besmirch Christianity? Is being happy, balanced and moral making a living by expressing personal prejudice and inspiring others to do likewise? Is being intellectually fulfilled inventing quaint tall tales about how things just happen to happen?

Ultimately, atheism is consoling delusion, which manifest themselves in various ways such as:
The consoling delusion of lack of ultimate accountability.
The consoling delusion of absolute autonomy.
The consoling delusion of considering yourself to be the highest being in creation.
The consoling delusion of erudite elitism.


In any case, Michael Shermer made an obviously failed attempt to reason with the supposed champions of reason.

Some of the obviously ignored advice went as follows:
we should be cautious about irrational exuberance…

Anti-something movements by themselves will fail. Atheists cannot simply define themselves by what they do not believe…

Positive assertions are necessary. Champion science and reason…

It is irrational to take a hostile or condescending attitude toward religion because by doing so we virtually guarantee that religious people will respond in kind…

As Carl Sagan cautioned…‘You can get into a habit of thought in which you enjoy making fun of all those other people who don’t see things as clearly as you do. We have to guard carefully against it’…

In the words of…Mart­in Luther King, Jr…‘…Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred…

If atheists do not want theists to prejudge them in a negative light, then they must not do unto theists the same…

As long as religion does not threaten science and freedom, we should be respectful and tolerant…

One may be tempted to state that at least the four follow the advise about champion science and reason. However, gone are the days when scientists in a lab coat were virtually considered infallible in their pronouncements. Modern day people are too well informed and can readily parse a scientist’s statements into actual observation on the one side and pure worldview biased interpretation on the other.
As far as reason, this is also an area in which the top four fail miserably having had their attempts at reason exposed for the emotive assertions that they really are.

10 comments:

  1. None of those comments deal with the concept of truth.

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  2. I agree with Shermer: you are more likely to be able to live in peace with your opponents, and be taken seriously, if you are polite and respectful. You, Mariano, might also consider taking Shermer's advice. For instance, you say:

    Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins are the celebrity New Atheists, the so called “Four Horsemen,” who are really more akin to “My Little Ponies.” Sure, when you first get a toy you are really excited and your purchase all of the accessories but after a while you grow up.

    ...Michael Shermer, pseudo-skeptic extraordinaire...

    I could go back to your earlier posts and find lots more, but you get the idea.

    I admit, you are not as strident as many Christians (or atheists). But still:

    Pot=kettle=black.

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  3. I agree with Shermer's view about that "As long as religion does not threaten science and freedom, we should be respectful and tolerant…".

    It's a reasonable and tolerant statement, and I think some atheists could benefit themselves from it.

    Shermer is a strange guy. He's a well known professional debunker, but some times he seems to be reasonable and honest. For example, he tested astrologer Jeffrey Armstrong, and Armstrong passed his test (making Shermer look like a fool):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3N1dIUTbZTo

    However, Shermer presented the results of that test, not hiding them. For a professional debunker (whose public prestige and professional income consist in debunking those topics and discrediting unorthodox hypotheses, specially if they are inconsistent with materialism or contrary to orthodox science), he was honest enough to present the unexpected result of his own scientific test.

    Michael Shermer, pseudo-skeptic extraordinaire

    For a critical review of professional pseudo-skepticism, one of the best articles I've read is this:

    http://www.suppressedscience.net/skepticism.html

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  4. jime- I read that article, and their definition of "pseudo-skeptic" is "someone who critically investigates claims of the paranormal". Scientists who have debunked claims of telepathy, water memory, and astrology, are all "pseudo-skeptics", by this definition, because to be a "true" skeptic apparently requires swallowing it all. I could just as well label any Christians who debunk, say, those Filipino "faith healers" with their buckets of pig entrails, as "pseudo-Christians", because they don't swallow my particular brand of woo.

    And jime- you quote Shermer saying

    "As long as religion does not threaten science and freedom, we should be respectful and tolerant…".

    I agree wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, religion often does threaten science and freedom, lately in the form of "Intelligent Design" and Christian initiatives such as Prop. 8 in California, not to mention the religiously based global warming denial of many fundamentalists. That's my main motivation in debating matters of religion: while religion can inspire people to work wonders, it can also close their eyes to injustice and destruction. Of course, politics and economic structures can do the same, and I argue about those too.

    Drop me a line if any of you are in Vienna, or the SF Bay Area most summers, and the drinks are on me. Cheers, zilch

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  5. jime- I read that article, and their definition of "pseudo-skeptic" is "someone who critically investigates claims of the paranormal"

    Did you really read the article?

    The definition of pseudo-skeptic isn't "someone who critically investigates claims of the paranormal".

    According the to the article "Properly, a skeptic is a nonbeliever, a person who refuses to jump to conclusions based on inconclusive evidence. A disbeliever, on the other hand, is characterized by an a priori belief that a certain idea is wrong and will not be swayed by any amount of empirical evidence to the contrary. Since disbelievers usually fancy themselves skeptics, I will follow Truzzi and call them pseudoskeptics, and their opinions pseudoskepticism"

    Scientists who have debunked claims of telepathy, water memory, and astrology, are all "pseudo-skeptics", by this definition, because to be a "true" skeptic apparently requires swallowing it all

    According to the article "A skeptic is a nonbeliever, a person who refuses to jump to conclusions based on inconclusive evidence

    Why do you misrepresent the definitions of that article?

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  6. Jime- I did read the article, and I stand by my statement. While the author does define "skeptic" and "pseudo-skeptic" pretty much as I would, the list of people, organizations, and positions that qualify as "pseudo-skeptics" in the article tells the true story: anyone who is critical of astrology, water memory, telepathy, and all kinds of other paranormal phenomena, is christened a "pseudo-skeptic".

    Of course, none of these phenomena can be disproven, and the true scientist is always openminded about new evidence. But at some point even the most openminded skeptic will come to a provisional conclusion, as the people cited in this article have about astrology, etc. The fact that some of these scientists are militant critics of the paranormal does not mean that they would not accept evidence for their existence- if there were any.

    What motivates their attacks is that pushing the paranormal is a large industry that fleeces the gullible of millions, if not billions, of dollars a year, especially if you include quack faith healers such as Benny Hinn. Should one be respectfully silent about such charlatans to earn the title of "true skeptic"? I suppose it's only "pseudo-Christians" who would speak out against Hinn and his ilk.

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  7. I don't see why you all think Shermer is such a nice guy.

    What he is saying is that as long as religion shuts up about anything of any relevance to real life, then it is to be tolerated.

    Like the guy who says, "well, see that Jew over there? He's one of the good ones."

    In his own way Shermers work is more insdious that Dawkins or Hitchens.

    Many prefer if more honest, more out in the open.

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  8. Hi Zilch,

    While the author does define "skeptic" and "pseudo-skeptic" pretty much as I would

    But it contradicts your previous comment "I read that article, and their definition of "pseudo-skeptic" is "someone who critically investigates claims of the paranormal" (A evident misrepresetantion of the article's real definitions)

    The fact that some of these scientists are militant critics of the paranormal does not mean that they would not accept evidence for their existence- if there were any

    How do you know that?

    Pseudo-skeptics can't accept paranormal evidence because they're philosophical materialists. And materialism (if true) implies the falsehood of paranormal (and spiritual) claims.

    This is the reason why they are hyper-critical of paranormal (and anything else inconsistent with materialism). It's part of their ideological cruzade.

    They can't be open minded regarding possible phenomena contrary to their philosophical worldview. They'll try to debunk them, to keep consistent their view of reality.

    For example, suppose (for the sake of this argument) that telekinesis (=influencing the reality with the mind alone) exists.

    Materialist pseudo-skeptics would try to debunk and dismiss any scientific research about it, because this phenomenon refutes the materialist view that mind is "nothing but" a non-efficacious by-product of the brain.

    A example of this was the case of Natasha Demkina (a girl with suppossed X-Ray vision), and CSICOP attempt to debunk (not research) the case:

    http://paginas.terra.com.br/educacao/criticandokardec/natasha_demkina_summary_update.html

    As far I see Demkine's case as inconclusive (and her "powers" as improbable), the "research" showed more the bias and prejudices of pseudo-skeptics than gave light about the Demkine's real abilities.

    That explain that organized skepticism was born from an humanist-atheist-materialist organization (American Humanist Association):

    http://www.skepticalinvestigations.org/New/Observeskeptics/CSICOP/30yearswar_5.html

    By the way, what do you think about Shermer's positive results with astrologer Jeffrey Armstrong? Do you think it counts as "some" evidence (get in a skeptic's test)?

    Keep in mind that I'm not a defender of astrology. But it's illogical to say that there isn't "any" evidence, when Shermer's get a positive evidence for it (that is, empirical evidence from his own controlled/blind test consistent with the astrologer's claim).

    Is Shermer's test valid only if it had get a negative result? Are the negative results the only ones taken seriously by "skeptics"?

    Pseudo-skeptics only counts as evidence the negative ones, not the positive ones (that is, they only counts as evidence the ones consistent with their materialist anti-paranormal bias)

    A clear example of this is the case of Mars Effect, that exposes the professional pseudo-skeptics dishonesty:

    http://www.discord.org/~lippard/kammann.html

    "Should one be respectfully silent about such charlatans to earn the title of "true skeptic"?"

    Problem is that charlatans, frauds and liars exist in the "skeptical" community too. A example is professional "skeptic" Stephen Barrett:

    http://www.canlyme.com/quackwatch.html

    Your comment would be more credible and objective if you were critic of professional pseudo-skeptics like Barrett too.

    But you won't see a critical examination of Barrett's lies and professional bias in "skeptics" magazines or websites.

    I hope my english is good enough to avoid misrepresentations of my views due to my own linguistic limitations (I'm japanese...)

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  9. Jime- first of all, your English is very good, much better than many Americans. I wish I could speak Japanese that well. Congratulations.

    Second: you are correct to point out my sloppy language. Instead of saying "their definition" I should have said "their application".

    And you are also right: there are certainly skeptics who do not investigate rationally, and skeptics who lose their tempers and do not have open minds. That is, of course, true of believers in the paranormal too. We are all human.

    The history of the "Mars effect" is a can of worms, and some of the original debunkers undoubtedly indulged in unscientific manipulation to try to make the apparent effect disappear. A fair, impersonal, and thorough debunking of the "Mars Effect" had to wait for more than forty years after the original publication; it can be found here.

    About Natasha Demkina: yes, the tests were not done perfectly. But the people doing them admitted as much: it was a rush job for a documentary, and did not meet scientific standards. That's why CSICOP called it a "test" and not an "experiment". And I will happily agree that people who lie about their credentials, such as Stephen Barratt did, can reasonably be called "charlatans".

    But I still don't agree with the very broad application of the label "pseudo-skeptic", and I especially don't see how it applies to Michael Shermer, which was my original point here. The film clip of Shermer with Jeffrey Armstrong showed Shermer fairly admitting surprise at the results.

    Yes, they are certainly positive results for astrology; the question is, are they significant? Given the loose protocol of the test, it's hard to say- I would test this guy again under more controlled circumstances with a larger sample and see how he does. In any case, I didn't see any sign of Shermer reacting inappropriately, so I will stick by my opinion that he should not be called a "pseudo-skeptic".

    cheers from chilly Vienna, zilch

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  10. My 2c on Shermer would be, he's a proper skeptic all right, but there's still something wrong with him. He seems to have some sort of multiple personality issue, at least politically. I always read his factual articles with great appreciation and agreement, and some of his books are very good - but I am often infuriated when I hear him speak. He's one of those, what Dennett would call "Yes I'm an atheist - BUT..." ("I don't want to be associated with you guys.") Maybe. That last is my own interpolation; I don't know if that's how Shermer thinks, but he often acts like it.

    His "open letter" by the way, was pretty much shredded by the community; none of the addressed, as far as I know, wrote any reply.

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