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Rise of Scientism and the Pseudo-Skeptics October 7, 2007

Posted by olywood in art & science.
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18 comments

 

You can practically set your atomic-clock to the weekly column inches given over to the new self-elected officials of atheism these days.
The academics spearheading this new movement infact seem every bit as omni-present in the media as the monotheistic deity they can frequently be seen rallying against.

The crusaders of the nu-atheism are (pictured from left to right) Richard Dawkins, James Randi, Danniel Dannett, and Christopher Hitchens.

What I’m going to show here however is that their mandate extends far beyond simply upsetting a few apples in the theologist’s apple-cart.
This isn’t a movement solely preoccupied with it’s own righteous atheism. This is a re-emerging ‘scientific’ movement which has its ideological origins firmly rooted in the initial fits and starts of the enlightenment itself.

The enlightenment for those abit hazy on their history was a key scientific stage in which dogma was temporarily adopted in order to overturn the predominant trend of the day for all things superstitious and mystical.
It had to be this way of course; old truths and methods are rarely put to rest to make way for something which might or may lead us into a brighter future.
No, science had to be sold to the public as something wholly infallible, only then could the principle rights to the public consensus lay safe in the empiricist’s bosom.

Of course the problem is that mysticism is back in again – intelligent design in schools, creationist museums popping up in places we’ve never even heard of before, consensus polls which suggest a public that still quite fervently believes in ufos, esp and ghosts.
If mysticism is to be resigned to past, or at the very least downgraded to the harmless fun of over-the-table anecdotes. Then science is going to have to put rationalism on the back-burner and embrace the polarised dogma of the enlightenment once more.

Scientism Explained

Now i should probably explain what scientism is before anything else.

Scientism is what happens when you get large groups of scientifically-inclined men together who think in aching naive black and white terms.
If society then offers them up a sacrificial common enemy, then irrationality and dogmatic fervour is almost certainly guaranteed.

This is infact essentially all scientism is – dogmatic science, although more than that it’s an ideology which ruthlessly eschews all the ‘tedious fact-checking’ and ‘dull neutrality’ of the scientific method proper.
It’s Science minus the method with only the consensus itself left intact.
Science proper of course isnt anything like or approaching the gospel-empiricism of scientism in which belief precedes fact and confirmation bias frequently sets the tone for any sort of public discourse or enquiry.

‘there are no facts, just things which can’t (or haven’t yet) been falsified.’

That’s the sort of hard-worn nihilism a real scientist has to begrudgingly adopt in order to convincingly call him/herself a scientist.
The impressive self-sadism of the scientist doesn’t end there either.
The scientist (amateur and professional alike) is probably one of the slowest yet methodical creatures in the whole of the animal kingdom – piecing together the consensus over entire life-spans of pain-staking and unforgiving research.

Which is not to say that scientists aren’t risk takers.
Infact it’s an important but easy-to-forget point that the scientific facts we take for granted today, all without exception started out life as usually quite wild and risky speculations.
It has to be this way of course because speculation and hypothesis are the absolute bedrock of the scientific method.

But it’s this unremittingly murky, perpetually out of focus, proven-nor-disproven aspect of the scientific method that seems to be a continual source of consternation for the scientism lot.
For what ever reason they just can’t seem to get to grips with the scientific fundamentals of speculation, hypothesis, and theorising.
It’s all abit of a lost concept on them, or perhaps just abit of an affront to their two-toned monochromatic view of the world which myopically only seems to allow for ‘truth’ and ‘untruth’.

No wonder then that in the hands of the scientism lobbyist science is routinely miscast as little more than the de facto religious doctrine of the day.
Scientific authority replaces religious authority on a purely ‘if you say so basis’.
Infact the entire process of career-risking speculation and hypothesis seems to be wilfully ‘forgotten about’ in favour of the pre-approved orthodoxy of the vindicated consensus.

This however sadly misses out on the whole point of what science actually is.

Science is in reality a huge revolving door of trial & error, with facts replacing fictions, fictions replacing facts, and data that leads us to believe in something one day and then just as suddenly instructs us to discount it the next.

If you cant treat science as anything, you definitely can’t afford to treat science as a sacred doctrine.
A doctrine is a closed-system, nothing gets in, nothing gets out. Its as true today as it is the day you die.
Science on the other hand is always moving, and usually headed in the direction directly away from your dearestly held sensibilities.
What science will ask you to believe in 50 years time would be unthinkable for you to even consider today.

Don’t Mention the ‘P’ Word

Yes *spooky-hands* I’m talking about ‘the paranormal’.

Scientismists absolutely hate, and I mean hate anything remotely paranormal, weird or seemingly mystical – ufos, ghosts, telepathy, clairvoyancy, bigfoot ad infinitum.
Its all bollocks to them in a very old fashioned ‘age of reason’ type of way, and they tend to arbitrarily group it all together as more or less the same thing – a threat to science and to reason.
And its not for any lack of proof either.
Infact if empiricism was part of their mandate they’d have to acknowledge that there’s technically more statistical evidence of telepathy than there is for parallel universes or dark matter (all of which they’ll dutifully accept anyway of course on purely authoritative terms).

But still the myth lingers that if any of these paranormal things were true (and it’s of course perfectly feasible that they might not) we’d have to re-write the entire laws of science and the universe itself.
Strangely, even a meagre amount of fact checking confirms that the universe is theoretically more than weird enough to accommodate something like clairvoyancy.
Time certainly isn’t the linear succession of events we phenomenally perceive it as.
Modern science infact seems to consistently confirm that if anything time is a uni-directional relative affair in which cause and effect can work either way, and in which time represents more of an ‘undivided whole’ than a directional flow of events.

On this basis, you have to wonder if the scientism naysayers actually bother with the fact-checking or empiricism that they purport to live by, or whether they instead simply allow ‘the truth’ to be measured against their dyed-in-the-wool sensibilities.

Going out on a limb, but hardly that far out; Id suggest that stauch anti-paranormalism is larged based in unwitting auto-association: Where the term paranormal ends up correlated and lumped-in with everything science once fought to over come – ‘superstition, irrationality, witches, divination, etc’

While ‘science’ lovingly coaxes all those pleasant sounding words from the back of the mind like – ‘rationality, logic, reason, truth’.
In this more common than you’d think game of free-association-science, words trigger long-held beliefs that are so ingrained you needn’t bother with anything as time-consuming and dry as ‘empirical research’.
Instead you need only let your sensibilities sort it out for you, while relying on a good old bit of confirmation bias if you need to ever justify your beliefs to the conscious part of your brain that demands you actually have ‘reasons’ for why you believe xyandz.

The Public Face of Scientism

So lets get to know the main culprits abit better.
As I brought to your attention in the first paragraph there’s the big guns of Richard Dawkins, Danniel Dennett, James Randi and Christopher Hitchens. Although other notables like Michael Shermer and Chris French also play a large part in this modern scientism crusade.

Now to give you an initial idea of where these chaps are located within the varied spectrum of scientific belief here’s a quote from the Harvard professor of philosophy and author of the book ‘Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon’ Dan Dennett.

” I have absolutely no doubt that the secular and scientific vision is right and deserves to be endorsed by everybody. ” – Daniel Dennett

No doubt whatsoever? No wonder Dennett doesn’t have any faith in a divine being, he’s donated it all to science.

Dawkin’s himself however makes his academic partner-in-crime Dennett look quite the moderate in comparison.
Authoring books with titles like ‘The God Delusion’ embossed in large jumpy-outy font; you barely even had to leaf through the book atall to guess at the central premise.

Infact Dawkins is quite the man on a mission these days, as I write this Dawkin’s has just put out his new channel 4 series ‘the enemies of reason’. Which he proports will help guide people to “changing their consciousness”.
In this he will lay his sights on everything within the broad realm of the unexplained and set out to prove that it’s all just another form of wish fulfilment for the religious and innately credulous.
However while this all sounds vaugely reasonble on paper there’s a two-fold danger in this – Dawkins doesn’t really want you to understand the process of science so you can join the dots for yourself and make the informed choice.
He just doesn’t want you to believe in anything that exists outside of it, which from what I can make out includes almost anything you care to imagine.

This is memetic reduction over meme induction; Dawkins isn’t interested in adding to your selective pool of knowledge, he simply wants to prune you abit and kindly relieve you of your intellectual falsehoods.
Which to a limited extent is fine, only this hurried removal job isn’t likely to enlighten, without the scientific method or the process of empiricism ever explained, all this is likely to do is breed a new generation of scientismists who believe science is the way forward and yet can’t even begin to explain why.

While Dawkins is out and about debunking religion and anything anything seemingly ‘anti-science’. James ‘the amazing’ Randi in a plume of smoke has materialised onto the scientism circuit as the new self-appointed chief debunkee of the telepathic and ‘paranormal’

If you’re not aware of who Randi is by the way, its worth pointing out he isn’t infact a scientist himself (small detail) he’s just been partially adopted as one by elements within and outside of the scientific community for making the right noises.

By trade I’m told he was originally one of those top-hat and tails magicians that society’s fickle whims have since grown a wee bit too sophisticated for.
All harmless fun, except during the course of his extended career hiatus Randi’s managed to convince himself hes a qualified scientist fit to design controlled experiments.
This has culminated in the creation of the million dollar challenge, which in it’s current guise looks like this.
http://www.randi.org/research/challenge.html.

It’s also worth mentioning that the outspoken atheist, anti ‘woo-woo’, and author of “God is not Great” Christopher Hitchens is also the underwriter of this challenge. Proving that the authors of the nu-atheism have interests far beyond whatever it is joe-bloggs chooses to say a silent prayer to before bed.

Now if you didn’t look at the site, the basic idea of Randi’s challenge is that if you have some sort of ‘supernatural’ mental ability, you can contact Randi who will then screen you as a potential applicant before putting you forward for his show-trail.
If you do manage to achieve the impossible and prove the existence of your ability to a man who’s staked both reputation and hard cash on ESP being arse-gravy, then he is in theory duty bound to hand over a million dollars.

Dawkin’s had this to say about Randi and his challenge

‘’Paranormal phenomena have a habit of going away whenever they are tested under rigorous conditions. This is why the $740,000 reward of James Randi, offered to anyone who can demonstrate a paranormal effect under proper scientific controls, is safe.’’ – Richard Dawkins

What’s jaw-dropping about this statement is that James Randi isn’t actually a scientist; or even a qualified psychologist.
So its hard to work out how Dawkins has spontaneously decided this test can be anywhere close to what would usually pass for science.
Apparently though, anything is science and anyone can be a scientist when they’re out there getting their hands dirty -confirming your biases on your behalf.

The great letdown here of course is that this is the precisely the kind of personal belief and invasive whimsy that scientists have struggled so hard to painstakingly remove from research over decades and decades of experimentation.

And yet in one deft hand Randi has introduced it all back again; putting himself in position of losing both reputation and hard cash if the experiment doesn’t go his way.
Which by any interpretation of empiricism i’d think takes a huge steamy piss over the whole notion of it.
Randi isn’t worried about losing the challenge though, he gets to screen anyone who wants to take his challenge (no I’m not making this up) which is sort of like putting the pope in charge of investigating pedophilia in the catholic church.

Interestingly, no proper qualified scientist has ever set up one of these challenges which should tell you something. Fringe Evangelic Christians have though which should also tell you something.
Dr.Hovind has a huge wad for you if you can prove the theory of evolution to the satisfaction of his strange criteria.
http://www.drdino.com

Do all dogmatic minds (even ones with diametrically opposed beliefs) think alike?
If Randi and Dr.Hovind are anything to go by, im pretty convinced that they do.

All Paths Lead to CSICOP

So far qualified scientists have rightly steered clear of these sorts of ‘experiments’.
Id suspect because they probably believe as I do that these sorts of things aren’t science, they’re publicity stunts designed to imply the non-existence of phenomena via the looming spectre of an ‘unclaimed prize’.
However one of Randi’s more rational friends at the CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) has spoken out against his divisive methods.

Dennis Rawlins slammed the Randi challenge and described Randi as unfairly behaving as “policeman, judge and jury”.

However this rare outburst of rationalism seems to be the exception to the rule, the organisation has never really attempted disguise the fact that it’s little more than an extension or front for the scientism movement, or as they would probably prefer to be known ‘champions of reason’.

This in itself wouldn’t be a worry if CSICOP didn’t have their sticky fingers in so many influential pies.
CSICOP are the umbrella organisation for such publications as the Skeptical Inquirer and skepticism websites like skepdic.
And in their own modest words are” the defenders of the Enlightenment”, so we can see already why Dawkins is onboard then.
Ah I didn’t mention that did I, yes CSICOP is a veritable who’s who of modern scientism – Dennett, Rhandi, Dawkins and tv-rent-a-skeptic Chris French are all denizens of this tight-knit fundi cabal.

Having all these strong-viewed fundamentalists onboard certainly raises the issue of impartiality and hidden interests, but being men of reason they should still be immune to experimental bias surely?
Sadly it would seem not, Randi himself has been publicly quoted as saying

“There’s no reality to psychic phenomena, nor to reincarnation, other than the conviction of some incautious or seriously deluded individuals who can attract publishers who know the naivety of the book market – James Randi

Lee Nisbet the Executive Director of CSICOP isn’t shy about exposing his biases for all and sundry to see either.

“[Belief in the paranormal is] a very dangerous phenomenon. Dangerous to science, dangerous to the basic fabric of our society…..We feel it is the duty of the scientific community to show that these beliefs are utterly screwball.” -Lee Nisbet

Hmm that doesn’t really sound like a sensible jumping off point for unbiased critical research and honest skeptical enquiry.
In fact it sounds like CCICOP has already made up their minds about whats true and what isn’t, making empiricism a mere trivial after-thought.
With this in mind the impartiality of their publications has to be seriously questioned.
Oh did I mention Nisbet isn’t a scientist either? Well hes not.
CSICOP did have a go at science once though, they investigated the claims of an astrologer called Michel Gauquelin – the evidence panned out in his favour and as a resort factions within CSICOP attempted to cover it up resulting in several members to resign in disgust.
Infact the whole thing was such a huge fuck-up that they never attempted anything like it again.

The New Skeptics

Nisbet and the CSICOP organisation represent the archetypal pseudo-skeptic I made somewhat implicit in the title heading.
You’ll probably know a pseudo-skeptic yourself by the way, even if you don’t think you do, they’re never that far-afield.
Theyre the people at parties who always intone when the conversation turns to the paranormal “well I have to say, I’m a huuuge skeptic actually”.
Which they’re not of course, they’re selective-skeptics.

I.e. people who only ever get skeptical about things like astrology, tarot cards, or ghosts; but never bother getting skeptical about things like black holes, m-theory, or dark matter, because that’s all proper (probably).
Although to even say they’re skeptical about ghosts or tarot readings is probably abit of a stretch, like most of the CSICOP members they just ‘don’t believe in it’.

Which is absolutely fine with me, there’s lots of things I don’t believe in too, but these convictions of disbelief are rarely based in any kind of skepticism or rational process. Not believing in things doesn’t necessarily infer critical thought.

CSICOP and its offshoot Skeptical Inquirer and web offshoot skeptic.com have infact forever altered the general public’s idea of what skepticism means via their endless stream of one sided ‘paranormal debunkings’.
Skepticism, which was once a critical tool in the philosopher’s and scientist’s mental arsenal, primarily used for testing the gross aggregate of human knowledge and experience (even your own existence) is now forever associated with people simply snorting at the paranormal.
Although this doesn’t seem to particularly bother the members of CSICOP, their scientism mandate seems to be not so much to enlighten, but to simply steer people clear of the paranormal at any cost.

Skepticism for the chaps at CSICOP then seems to be a kind of inverted confirmation bias, “I’ll believe it when i see it” is replaced with “I’ll see it when i believe it”

If you fancy checking up on exactly what I mean by the way, feel free to visit
www.skeptic.com.
You’ll quickly see there’s an echo-less void right at the intellectual heart of skeptic.com.
Plenty of fluff about crop-circles and homeopathy of course, but scant little if anything atall on the bewildering range of unconfirmed and untested theories and hypotheses raging within the scientific hierarchy.
It seems in practice that the writers and editors at skeptic.com only seem comfortable investigating things like crop-circles and telepathy.
Sacred-science just isn’t fair game in this weird pick ‘n’ mix buffet of scientific self-service.

Send in the Clowns

The big academic players of course have their faithful co-horts within the wider public media as well.
you might know some of these as Derren Brown, Ricky Gervias, and Christopher Brookmyre.
Now I’m not suggesting for a minute that Dawkins sits stroking some strange specimen of evolutionary importance in a wood-paneled study somewhere in Surrey; sending out his media-capos to get the public on message.
The point is, vested interests work at all levels of society. Dogma isn’t like the high-society lady seeking ‘professionals only’ in the personal columns.
Dogma doesn’t care what you do or what your income bracket is, she’ll have abit of anything.
And the science fundis come in all shapes and sizes, figuratively and literally.

Derren certainly isn’t shy about his scientific absolutism and distaste for anything outside of consensus.
Just like the founder of Skeptic magazine Michael Shermer he’s also a reformed theist, who incidentally tend to make up the bulk of evangelic atheists and the scientific hardliners.
I suppose this works on a similar principle to outspoken reformed smokers, who always seem to make the most overwhelmingly militant ‘anti-smokers’ you could possibly hope not to meet.

Gervais does a similar line in scientism and pulpit atheism.
In his podcast he plays the man of scientific reason to Karl Pilkington’s credulous stooge who believes in everything silly, weird and irrational.
Misrepresented science wins the weekly battle with Gervais as the dogmatic victor and the round-headed Manc routinely cast as the superstitious oaf.

The greats of scientism have clearly left an impressionable mark
Especially on the novelist Christopher Brookmyre who recently did a BBC interview in which he both promoted his new book while simultaneously lamenting the public and their naivety for even taking some much as serious side-ways glance at the paranormal.

His new book – ‘attack of the unsinkable rubber ducks’ even has a prefaced dedication to the magician James Randi, for all his valiant efforts in debunking the world of mentalism.

Exactly how far reaching and influential the scientism movement will prove to be in the next decade will be remain to be seem, however it’s clearly already reaching a lot of successful celebs eager to endorse the rhetoric and spread the word.

Scientism Disrobed

Scientism then, as I hope I’ve shown in this article, is a far more broad and far-reaching movement than the relatively small radical-atheism movement that other writers have tended to paint it in as.
This isn’t simply about atheism. This is scientific fundamentalism which embraces the current trends of science but stubbornly refuses to embrace the actual methods. All the while actively seeking to spread its influence through both private organisations and publications.
In taking this approach the scientism ilk have reduced the entire process of intellectual enquiry down to an over-simplified binary choice between reason and superstition.

You’re either a credulous newager/theist who’ll believe in any old hokum or you can take the path of the arch-materialist unable to even consider anything outside of current scientific fashion.
And this do-or-die schism seems to have worked for a lot of people, regardless of what I may think either way.
Perhaps the great public could be forgiven for falling in with the wrong crowd and allowing themselves to be lead astray.
However its hard to forgive the academics and thinkers for leading them down that path in the first place.
Educated minds should know better, and an encroaching climate of religious fundamentalism certainly doesn’t provide the excuse to hang the scientific method out to dry.
Do that and you run the risk of creating as society just as ignorant as the one that preceded it, they might be on your side, but they certainly wont be able to explain why.