Spring 2011 -- On the 16th of October, 2010, I tramped into London along with two thousand other minds to attend The Amazing Meeting, the major conference of the skeptic movement.
The meeting was dedicated to reason and science, and, apparently and surprisingly, to an uncritical affirmation of the tenets of that strange pseudo-philosophy that Americans call “liberalism.”
Now I happen to have a great deal of personal respect for the skeptic movement and its leading lights. The modern skeptic movement, whose origin is usually dated from the 1952 publication of Martin Gardner’s Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, has played a very notable role in maintaining the honor and importance of reason and the scientific method.
The most salient religious feature in modern British politics is the Islamic far right.
Any review of its leading figures has to struggle against becoming hagiography. There is Carl Sagan, a man whose writing has been a scientific inspiration to millions, myself included. The title of his treatise on the scientific method, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, remains one of the finest metaphors for the subject. There is “the amazing” James Randi, whose single-handed exposure of the murderous “faith healing” racket alone would earn him his sobriquet. There is Michael Shermer, whose Skeptic magazine sets an example for clear reasoning and sound discussion. And who can ignore the raucous Penn & Teller duo whose show Bullshit! must demonstrate the practical value of reason more than do any twenty scholarly treatises combined? And finally, there is the case of the modern Mastro Cecco, Simon Singh.
Like the enlightened Florentine, Simon Singh is a man of reason who has run afoul of mindless superstition backed by state power. After confidently and accurately describing chiropractic treatments as bogus in the pages of The Guardian, Dr. Singh found himself the subject of a libel charge by the British Chiropractic Association. Britain’s libel laws are an international disgrace, strongly favoring the moneyed plaintiff, leading to the phenomenon of “libel tourism,” of which Russian oligarchs, British Holocaust deniers, Islamic petro-barons, and Hollywood pederasts have made repressive use.
The flavor of the law can be tasted in the comment by Mr. Justice Eady, who insisted that in order for Dr. Singh to be acquitted, he would have to prove, not that his comments were accurate, but that the chiropractors were consciously deceiving the public. In other words, any form of unreason was to be given legal protection from criticism provided that its practitioners had successfully concealed their dishonesty from themselves. If there has ever been a legal principle to put a wolfish smile onto superstitious bigots of all brands, then this is it.
That is why the skeptic response is so heartening. Singh’s trial was answered both with solidarity for the man and with a retaliatory campaign that left one in four British chiropractors under investigation. The pressure lead to the overturning of the verdict and a general call for libel reform. (Columnist Nick Cohen aptly described the general feeling as “Now charlatans will know to beware the geeks.”) The skeptic movement has everything to be proud of in this record.
That is why I found myself surprised by the unspoken third theme at The Amazing Meeting, which became more manifest as the day progressed. Initially, one could only hear it on the edge of a remark. As an example, one speaker regurgitated the common chestnut that George W. Bush “took us to war because he thought he was told to by God.” This piece of foolishness is originally traceable to an uncorroborated assertion by Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian “foreign minister.” This is easy to find out, and if it is not known at a meeting of skeptics, it is because no one has thought it worth verifying.
The unspoken theme was also manifest in what was not discussed. While the Singh victory was, quite rightly, celebrated, no one mentioned other cases of the defeat of unreason (such as the Dimcock case in Britain, where it was shown that Al Gore’s famous piece of agitprop, An Inconvenient Truth, distorted and lied about the scientific consensus in no less than nine major instances). This grew nearly pathological when the discussion turned towards religion in the public life.
One speaker proceeded to lecture us for an hour on the dangers of something called “the Christian Party,” an unpolished political crew that has apparently cribbed a manifesto from the American Christian right, but has fewer votes and less name recognition than the Monster Raving Loony Party. Even the speaker was forced to concede that the chances of any member of the Christian Party winning any seats anywhere was nil, but, he maintained, they still presented a danger as they might lobby for change nonetheless.
This is truly bizarre. As everyone knows, the most salient religious feature in modern British politics is the Islamic far right, a movement that is capable of getting its own courts, demanding censorship from the government, and raising its own paramilitary force within the country, in the form of the British Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters. To focus relentlessly on a fringe movement and ignore this fact when religion in British politics is under discussion genuinely counts as evasion.
Toward the end, the affirmation became more explicit, with the presence of the comic book writer Alan Moore being a confirmation. Alan Moore is one of those writers ably described by Ray Bradbury as a gold-standard writer with a two-bit philosophy. One example of this will suffice. His magnum opus, V for Vendetta, deals with anarchism versus fascism in a future Britain inspired by (and I do hope no one has been holding his breath for this) the Thatcher administration. However, it was the Thatcher administration that stood up to two instances of fascist aggression, firstly from the Argentinian dictatorship, and secondly in the face of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa on Salman Rushdie. If Mr. Moore decided the spectacle of book burnings on British streets called for a show of solidarity with Mr. Rushdie, I have not been able to find any evidence of it or any evidence of such a stance in the more recent cartoon case. Of course, it is entirely possible that Mr. Moore has since decided to switch sides in the struggle, something suggested by the ending of his most recent work, where two authorial mouthpieces assert that morality is all very well for parlor room debate, but one must first have bread and work and that human survival is maintained by “monstrous deeds.”
Now even Mr. Moore was puzzled why he was there and what he had to do with organized skepticism. Only one explanation occurs, and that is that precisely this two-bit, nihilist philosophy was considered agreeable by the assembled skeptic masses.
If left-liberalism ever desires a pope, P.Z. Myers will certainly make the final cut.
The other figure that made this connection explicit was the blogger P.Z. Myers. P.Z. Myers is something of a celebrity on the American skeptic scene with his blog Pharyngula listed as a top-ranked science blog by the journal Nature. Therefore it is rather depressing to note that if left-liberalism ever desires a pope, he will certainly make the final cut. There are few who affirm every catechism of liberalism with such fervor and unironic devotion. It is this that gives Pharyngula the distinct impression of being the product of a stenographer to parrots. No cliché goes unrepeated, no foolishness unrewarded, no stand of principle taken unless it has been long since proven safe. I offer one example. I asked Dr. Myers what one should do when mockery of religion was answered with violence. He answered with the unoriginal but accurate comment that everyone should then reprint and repeat the mockery, as they can’t kill us all. Very commendable. However, when Islamic lynch mobs were rampaging on a global scale, Myers decided discretion was the better part of solidarity. His ridiculous excuse that the cartoons of Mohammed constituted racist incitement was known even to him to be nonsense: two years after the crisis, observing that others had taken the stance he was too craven to, he republished the cartoons—which presumably can’t become less racist in the course of time.
So far, so typical. But there is worse, and that is Myers’s willingness to subordinate proper scientific method to political aims. Twice he has accused Bjorn Lomborg (author of The Skeptical Environmentalist) of scientific dishonesty on no other evidence than two magazine pieces, one of which was nothing more than a review of a third party’s attack on Lomborg’s work. If it matters, I have checked the references in both articles and can say that they are not merely mistaken, but completely wrong, to the extent that almost every charge they level is false, but that is not the point. Dr. Myers had not read Lomborg’s own work. He had not read the research Lomborg cites. He had not even read the original criticism of Lomborg. He had simply read someone else’s review of the criticism, and he thought that this was sufficient ground to charge someone with scientific dishonesty.
If I write with some feeling about this, it is because science is sacrosanct. Windbaggery, blowhardism, phoniness—if you write about politics, you soon grow a skin resistant to such drizzle. But science is another matter. Science is the first and last line in the defense of reason. It provided the proof and power for the whole project of the Enlightenment. Someone willing to subordinate this to ideological concerns is announcing that there is no line they are not willing to cross.
The phlegmatic reader may respond: “So what? There are always poseurs in any movement, and the leading figures all have more sense. Why not let men like Myers make life miserable for the creationists, which is, after all, a necessary and tedious task, so that the rest of us can get on with the real fight?” I’d like to accept this. It is certainly true that the skeptic movement is lead by men of courage and principle, as well as common horse sense. (I think I saw history being made; following the tedious presentation on “The Christian Party,” Richard Dawkins stood up and offered a possible defense for Christianity, that it might serve as a protection against something far worse.)
Unfortunately, I do not think that this response will be sufficient. Scientists and rationalists tend to lean Left politically, for the simple reason that rightist unreason is so much more obvious and crass. But this was well beyond that normal bias. The skeptic movement is one of the few advocates for capital-r Reason today. I have written about my concerns of the damage that results from the Right’s association of capitalism with superstitious nonsense, but that is nothing compared with the damage that could result if reason itself becomes seen as nothing more than a partisan position, another club in politics. This was the position of the ancient Church, that reason had a wax nose that could be turned any way one wanted.
If we are ever to return reason to its proper role in society, at least as important as showing that reason does not mean unthinking liberalism is the necessity of showing that those who stand for reason are capable of taking a principled stance in the defense of civilization. It is already quite common to hear that atheists may talk a good case, but when push comes to shove, one cannot rely on them. It is hard to exaggerate the importance of conclusively disproving that notion.
If we do not, then what awaits us is another age of faith and force.
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