The sorry state of skepticism in St. Louis

A colleague has notified me that I’m under indictment by a previously unknown blog calling itself the St. Louis Skeptical Society, a site that “was founded on October 11, 2007 by a handful of physics graduate students in order to promote skepticism and science.” These enterprising students have taken exception to my earlier thoughts on democracy in America, concluding that it’s “sloppy and unsupported,” among other things.

Let me begin my humble defense by stating that I categorically share this organization’s stated goals – America could do with a great deal more skepticism and commitment to science (a point that I think is more than evident from my recent writings). However, as I think will shortly become clear, I’m not uniformly impressed with their analysis, tactics, or attention to nuance.

Forgive me if my points are a bit disorganized, but I’m going to take these as they occur to me.

1: I wish my judges were less anonymous. In their opening salvo they refer to me as someone writing under the “nom de blog Bonesparkle,” although it’s painfully apparent that they didn’t feel a need to invest 30 seconds in clicking on the Writer page to review my bio (and one can’t help but wonder how that would have affected their critique). Further, I have to take it on faith that they’re in fact graduate students in St. Louis, because they don’t do their readers even the courtesy of an About page (that I could find), let alone bios on the actual people who fancy themselves a viable panel for “critical examination” of that which falls into their view.

Perhaps I’m simply quaint and old-fashioned, but I like to know who’s pronouncing judgment on me. There’s always the possibility that credibility might matter.

2: They reject the wild assertion that our society is more complex now than it used to be. Witness this:

What makes the author think society today is more complex and difficult to understand than at any time in the past? Oh, maybe because we have cutting-edge research with ethical implications. That’s never happened before. Never before have scientific discoveries challenged the beliefs and morals of the public at large or the established rulers. Never ever. And the fact that a war is going on because of a misinterpretation (or misrepresentation) of prewar events also has never taken place in all of human history. Obviously Bonesparkle doesn’t remember The Maine.

So, if I’m following them correctly, the fact that there have been innovations with ethical implications in the past means that all ages are equal in their complexity. In St. Louis, self-righteous snark apparently passes for skepticism, and it falls the accused to disprove their half-clever rhetorical misdirections.

Fine. Once upon a time a monkey figured out that whacking another monkey with a stick was more effective than using its paws. There you had an innovation with decided ethical implications. This means that prehistory was as technologically complex as the current day.

3: In St. Louis-style skepticism, all you need to disprove a rule is an exception or two. Note their analysis here:

While I’m sure we would all like to think having a PhD makes one more informed and intelligent across the board, I’d like to see some evidence that it’s so. As counterexamples, I offer Michael Behe, intelligent design advocate, and Linus Pauling, Nobel laureate in chemistry and peace, also advocate of megadosing vitamin c (see Quackwatch article). While I may accept a well-formed argument that the voting public should be better informed, the premise that intelligence makes one more suited to vote or to represent the public is flawed.

We’ll begin by ignoring the intellectual dishonesty involved in intimating that I somehow established a doctorate as a prerequisite for voting. Second, we’ll ignore the even more egregious intellectual dishonesty in leading their readers to believe that I said a PhD makes you smarter “across the board.” I said no such thing. Such a degree is likely to afford you particular insight into your area of study, and is also likely to inculcate a generalizable ability to think broadly and critically (at least this ought to be goal of doctoral study). However, I hold an advanced degree in a non-scientific field, and the aforementioned monkey with the stick knows as much about phsyics as I do. Apparently my reference to Lippman meant nothing to my judges.

And at this stage you have important data on the ethical foundations of the St. Louis Skeptical Society.

Instead, let’s sidestep the pile of disinformation they drop before us and focus on what they appear to be asserting. Since Linus Pauling advocated overdosing on Vitamin C and since there’s an “intelligent design” advocate who holds a PhD, that disproves the thesis that those with advanced degrees are somehow potentially smarter than those who dropped out of 4th grade.

Hmmm. Well, let’s test this posit, shall we? If I buy the intellectual structure of their “reasoning,” then that would suggest that I could disprove the theory that blacks are as innately intelligent as other races by providing two examples of black people who were morons. (Or, at the very least, my ability to produce two black morons would require that you prove your theory, and evidently no theory can hold true in the face of exceptions.)

Let’s try another one. Theory: women are as qualified to vote as men. Indictment: without much trouble I can find a couple of women who voted for David Duke, I bet. If so, this either means that women aren’t qualified to vote or I want to hear you prove that David Duke is a perfectly qualified candidate. How about this one. Theory: gays should be entitled to the same employment rights as straights. But, if I can find a couple of gays who walked out without giving notice, performed so poorly that they had to be fired, or God forbid, embezzled, then that certainly disproves the theory and puts the onus right back on you.

Hmmm. I’m pretty good at this skepticism stuff.

By the way, is it just me, or is there a certain … assymetry … to people making a point of billing their graduate-level credentials in the masthead and then suggesting that education doesn’t necessarily make you smarter? Maybe that’s been the conclusion they’ve drawn based on their own educational experiences – I can’t really say – but it doesn’t square with my own. On a case by case basis advanced education doesn’t automatically guarantee that one subject will be more intelligent than the next. (Trust me, I have multiple graduate degrees and I’m sure I know more highly educated idiots than you do, so on that point we do not disagree even a little bit.) But on a society-wide scale that’s certainly where the smart money is.

4: In St. Louis, skepticism means you’re responsible for the veracity of things you never said and, in fact, have never even thought in your whole life. For example, they pretend I said that there’s not a single qualified elected representative in America. But Dick Durbin is qualified, so I have again fallen short of my burden of proof.

Okay. Your turn. I demand that you prove that there are no left-handed Lithuanians in Laguna Beach. What? You can’t? A-HA!

5: Finally, just for the record, with St. Louis Skepticism the burden of proof is always on you. If they can bring themselves to be unpersuaded, for whatever reason, it is not on them to demonstrate reasons why you are wrong. (And their failure to grasp critical nuances is your problem, not theirs.) It’s you who are back to the drawing board until such time as the anonymous certifiers of validity are satisfied.

Truly, I appreciate the earnestness and effort that went into this critique. Indeed, you can fairly hear the degree to which the author is laboring to make a point. And in truth I cannot swear that the thoughts I offer in my essays are correct. As noted repeatedly, I have not asserted that there is a problem with American democracy. As best I can tell, it’s working precisely as designed. I merely tried to offer some suggestions for a commenter who insisted that I provide solutions, and I felt I should attempt to do so by working from his perspective. Again, I do share the stated goals of the author and whoever else might be involved in the project.

However, I would advise the St. Louis Skeptical Society to pay closer attention to the context of that which they are critiquing and to approach their subjects with a bit more respect and a good deal more attention to intellectual honesty. Whatever flaws there may be in my modest proposal, they pale in comparison to the chicanery of this indictment.

True skepticism doesn’t need to two-step. And the more it does, the more you risk people concluding that skepticism in the fine city of St. Louis, one of the bastions of American intellectualism, has fallen into disrepute.

18 replies »

  1. I agree with the sentiment in the post before mine (the “hitting a monkey with an Uzi” bit), but maybe it will teach them a lesson.

  2. I can’t speak for Dr. Sid, but it looks like the theory is “never smack a monkey with a stick when you can machine gun him instead.” 🙂

  3. St. Louis??? You have people in St Louis itching for a debate. This seems like a new low.

    Btw, most people are glad to say they are from St Louis. 😉 Even Josephine Baker realized this about a century ago.

    Nuff said!

  4. Bonesparkle said: “By the way, is it just me, or is there a certain … assymetry … to people making a point of billing their graduate-level credentials in the masthead and then suggesting that education doesn’t necessarily make you smarter? Maybe that’s been the conclusion they’ve drawn based on their own educational experiences – I can’t really say – but it doesn’t square with my own.”

    Well, I could quote Emerson here: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

    Wait. I just did….

    So maybe that means they’re attacking you for being…logical and consistent?

    Or does it mean they don’t have to be logical and consistent? Therefore, your being so makes you…hmm….

    Are you sure they think intelligent design is bad…? 😉

    Could someone please show those math geeks the way to the humanities building so they could be made to read some Aristophanes, Juvenal, Rabelais, Swift, Pope, Diderot, Franklin, Voltaire, Kant, Twain, Gide, Vonnegut, or Bonesparkle…?

    But they read Bonesparkle, didn’t they?

    Well, I’m just a boy from a small town in the South. We have a word for such as the St. Louie Skeptical Society…


  5. I read their post a couple times to make sure I was tracking properly – I’m trying to avoid taking Dr. Sid at face value any more than I have to. And while I agree with the nuts and bolts of his assessment, what he did to them in his reply could take months to unravel.

    On the whole, Jim, you and I have taught a wide range of students, grad and undergrad, and hailing from across all disciplines. So I feel qualified to say that while they might be quite adept as physics grad students, on the skills required to do what they’re attempting to do in that post they’re probably on the level of precocious sophomores or juniors? They’re well intentioned and as Sid says the goals they’re pursuing are worthy, but they have overestimated their own readiness a tad.

    Still, I encourage them. I’m a teacher, and I always want students biting off a challenge. You don’t get to be the best without engaging the best. Poking Bonesparkle with a pointy stick, though – not so sure about that approach.

  6. “Perhaps I’m simply quaint and old-fashioned, but I like to know who’s pronouncing judgment on me. There’s always the possibility that credibility might matter.”

    That’s precisely the point I made in the post below.

    Perhaps Bonesparkle should pass on this advice from Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson to the supposed “skeptics”:

    “Much information is in some way incomplete or imperfect. The proper response to evidence you dislike or dispute is to supplement it or discredit it with better evidence.” Repeat: “with better evidence.”

  7. While I agree in theory, Denny, the reality of having someone show up in your backyard, trying to break into your house, because of something you said on the ‘Net that was attributed to you, tends to cool one’s ardor for full disclosure. So does a death threat in an in-box.

    I’ve experienced both.

  8. Dr. S:

    I, too, have sympathy for the monkeys… bless their little hearts. They take BS and themselves far, far too seriously; however, if they’re about the age I think they are, it’s a normal, healthy feckless egoism. And if you play with the big kids, you take your knocks. If BS feels they’re worth a smack, it’s his blood pressure, not mine.


    Add manic-depressive exes with loooooong memories to the list.

  9. While I agree that the post from the St Louis Skeptical Society may have come off as being slightly alarmist towards your views, they do make a valid point of your thought experiment. Certainly you did not say that you had to be highly educated to vote, but your examples (namely a nobel laureate and a PhD holder: see paragraph 5 of your original article) both showed people with what one could say are abnormally high degrees of education. While it is lamentable that such a thing IS abnormal, you do set the bar far too high with your examples.

    You also link classical education as the way of being worthy to vote in your comment that the founding fathers only allowed white landowners to vote because “those were the only people who could afford sufficient education to participate intelligently in the government”. Certainly that is true, but you add weight to it when you refer to it as “the most pragmatic and sensible reason of all”.

    This causes issue because, despite your comment about not needing to bias based on class, you emphasize the importance of a classical education, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and ends up being predominantly a) those who can afford it b) those few who can make it on scholarships and merit. Few of the lowest classes can make it through college. Certainly you, of all people, can see the trouble of that argument. Regardless of what you meant to say, it is what you said.

    I must say, though, I admire the backhandedness of your rebuttal. Calling them unethical one minute and then complimenting them the next. It gives you the benefit of being insulting while also leaving you a chance to come off as caring despite a rebuttal that is, in many ways, just as alarmist as the Society’s.

    If you are just as flamboyantly confrontational as you appear to be, I’m sure you’ll start commenting on how I obviously don’t understand you and say that I don’t have the credentials to cross swords with you. So let me clarify beforehand. My name is John Burch, and I am a self-taught college student. I have a boyfriend I plan to marry one day and I suffer from pronounced mental illness. I have to deal with people disregarding me every day. I don’t have a fancy name like “Dr. Sidicious Bonesparkle” and I haven’t shared drinks with the founding fathers as you say you have in your writer’s bio (and before you comment, I do in fact know that it’s an attempt at humor), but I do have an opinion that I feel is valuable.

    And nobody, not even your prestigious self, has the right to judge me as incapable of casting a ballot. Start paring away people with opinions you think are unfounded, and next you can start paring away people with opinions you think are stupid. Next come ones that threaten your views, then those you simply disagree with. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

    As Plato described in The Republic, the perfect society would be ruled by one who does not wish to rule but realizes that he is the best for the job. Since nothing is perfect, I suppose we have to deal with what we have.

    Fire away, Mister Bonesparkle. Fire away.

  10. Mr. Burch: Thank you for your thoughtful and measured response. It is FAR more worthy than anything I’ve yet seen out of our friends in St. Louis.

    As for your conclusions and your assumptions about my impending smackdown of you, I’d say you’ve misread me. Can a solid classical education lead to the sorts of qualifications I think should matter at the ballot box? Certainly. But I’m sure you and I have also both known our share of well-educated morons (and I can think of at least one major industrialized nation that elected one as president).

    On the other hand, it is more than possible to come by tremendous knowledge and wisdom by other means. You’re not only a self-taught college student, but the astuteness of your analysis marks you as a very WELL-taught student. I can’t imagine setting before you any reasonably good-faith voter qualification test that you wouldn’t pass with flying colors.

    My focus, then, was not about the FORM of the education, but instead the ends of it. I’m nothing if not a pragmatist, and all I care about are the results.

    I’m sorry you read my thoughts and concluded that I’d be hostile to you. On the contrary – you seem like precisely the sort of person the US needs more of on Election Day.

  11. I must say, I am very pleased in the courteous nature of your rebuttal. However, it does bring up another point or two I would like to make. Your comment that all you care about are the results reminds me of a similar remark made by the esteemed Ms. Ann Coulter (esteemed, of course, by those other than you or I). It was in May of 2003 – “It would be a much better country if women did not vote. That is simply a fact. In fact, in every presidential election since 1950 – except Goldwater in ’64 – the Republican would have won, if only the men had voted.”

    If one only cares about the results, then they cannot appreciate freedom. I know you don’t think this way, but it’s another comment that could cause people to form the wrong impression of you. Still, I suppose it is better to speak your mind and have to explain later than not speak at all. I agree that education needs to be fixed but I do not think one should be forced to take a test to show that one has the right, shall we say, mental fortitude to cast a vote. It’s too easy to tamper with and, I think, would limit the potential of voting in general. What we really need is MORE people voting, not less. Too many intelligent people just don’t bother.

  12. I guess it’s time to ask a question. What exactly do you mean by “freedom”? That’s a word that Americans toss around pretty casually, but I’ve never gotten the impression that they’ve actually THOUGHT about it a great deal. They have a picture of Lee Greenwood singing on the 4th of July with a flag waving in the background and are secure in the knowledge that they can go to Wal*Mart without being hassled by the Gestapo, but that’s about the limit of their reflection on the subject.

    In reality, a vast majority of your citizens aren’t nearly so free as they imagine themselves. Ignorant people are never truly free, especially when they’re ignorant of their own conditions.

  13. My personal belief is that freedom is the ability of a person to do what they will without fear of persecution, as long as said activity does not impede the freedoms of others. It’s a bit idyllic, I know, but I never said that United Statesians are free. I just hope that we can take baby steps toward it in the future.

  14. But how can you be “free to do what you will” when the very structure assures that have no chance of doing most of what you’d like to do? Gross financial inequities, obscene gaps in educational opportunities, an increasingly dynastic political system that excludes all but the select few born into the right families, and so on.

    You’re free to do as you will in America. I suppose you’re also free to sprout wings and fly to Mars, if we considering the realities of the probabilities you face.

  15. Oh, I do agree with you there. That’s just what freedom means to me, not what is actually achievable.

    As to what is achievable, I think we are of one mind on the idea and so it does not need continued debate.