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. Thatâ€™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 doesnâ€™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 Iâ€™m sure we would all like to think having a PhD makes one more informed and intelligent across the board, Iâ€™d like to see some evidence that itâ€™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.