Daniel Loxton has a post up at Skepticblog today titled “‘Testable Claims’ is Not a ‘Religious Exemption’“. Although the article doesn’t specify or provide any links, it is, in large part, a response to PZ’s recent “divorce” from the organized skeptical movement and the arguments leading up to it. From Loxton’s article:
What are we to make of accusations that skepticism’s “testable claims” scope is a cynical political dodge, a way to present skeptics as brave investigators while conveniently arranging to leave religious feathers unruffled? Like the other clichés of my field (“skeptics are in the pocket of Big Pharma!”) this complaint is probably immortal. No matter how often this claim is debunked, it will never go away.
Nonetheless, it is grade-A horseshit. It’s become a kind of urban legend among a subset of the atheist community—a misleading myth in which a matter of principle is falsely presented as a disingenuous ploy. There is (and this cannot be emphasized enough) no “religious exemption” in skepticism. Skeptics do and always have busted religious claims.
Loxton sounds a bit frustrated, and well he may. He’s said this sort of thing plenty of times before, but it hasn’t settled the claims. Of course, there’s a reason for that. Loxton is completely missing the point.
PZ’s post had this to say about the position of the skeptical movement as presented by Jamy Ian Swiss:
I am a scientist, and from the talk he gave tonight (which was pretty much exactly the same as his TAM talk, except for the additions where he called me stupid and a liar), it is clear that “scientific skepticism” is simply a crippled, buggered version of science with special exemptions to set certain subjects outside the bounds of its purview. In addition, its promoters are particularly sensitive to having their hypocrisy pointed out (that, by the way, is what triggered his outburst — you’d have to be stupid or a liar to think that skepticism gives religion special privileges.)
But what else can you call this logic? Skepticism has no sacred cows! Except that skepticism only addresses “testable claims”. By the way, the existence of gods is not a testable claim.
That’s a pretty explicit loophole by definition.
Loxton’s response was to note that skeptics had gone after Peter Popovich and to say this about testability:
Science is not able to demonstrate that undetectable metaphysical ghosts do not exist; only that detectable ghosts appear not to, and that many alleged hauntings have other explanations. We cannot determine whether or not homeopathic preparations are really “dynamized” with undetectable vitalistic energy; we can discover whether they have greater treatment effects than a similarly administered placebo. We can’t demonstrate that we ought to value liberty above the common good, or value security over liberty. We can’t demonstrate that taxation is slavery, or that the means of production should be in the hands of the worker. We can’t demonstrate that there is no afterlife, or that gay marriage is morally good, or that Kirk is better than Picard. We cannot demonstrate that Carl Sagan’s neighbor has no invisible, undetectable dragon in his garage—but only proceed, as a methodological matter, on the basis that we are unable to discern any difference between an undetectable dragon and no dragon at all. Are untestable dragons ontologically identical to non-existent dragons? That’s a question for bong hits in freshmen dorms. Science can’t tell, and doesn’t care.
(A number of those “untestables” are merely poorly designed research questions. With good operational definitions applied to them, they would, in fact, be scientifically testable. Additionally, the underpinnings of arguments made for many of those positions are not only testable, but have been tested. However, that’s a topic for another day.)
Let me be quite clear about this: As an atheist and a skeptic, I would be thrilled to hear most of the religious people with whom I interact talk about gods only as undetectable, metaphysical creatures. It doesn’t happen. What happens instead is that I will occasionally run into someone who points out that atheists can’t prove there are no undetectable gods and, when agreed with, uses this base of agreement to argue for an interventionist god. (Note: This happens to argumentative atheists far more than it happens to me. If you’re a skeptic who wants to talk about religious arguments, you should know that it happens. If you’re a skeptic who wants to talk about PZ, you should know that he uses these moments to teach skeptical lessons about testability and logical lapses.)
What also happens is that I run into plenty of skeptics who don’t acknowledge that the people who point this out are also skeptics. I run into skeptics calling events like Skepticon misnamed because a substantial number of the talks deal with religion. I run into skeptics saying atheists are divisive and accusing them of shrinking tents because they insist on talking about religious belief in skeptical venues instead of talking about some abstraction of skepticism.
Organized skepticism may not refrain from testing all of the claims of religion, but skeptics within various organizations all too often insist upon doing the same thing as those argumentative believers. They use the untestability of gods no one believes in to suggest that talking about the harm done by and the intellectual bankruptcy of religion as a whole is antithetical to skepticism.
This is where religion gets its special exemption in much of organized skepticism. We can’t test whether there’s that (non-operationalized) “vitalistic energy” present somewhere in a homeopathic “solution”. We haven’t yet tested the efficacy of homeopathy for every possible ailment out there. Yet we don’t tell people who condemn the homeopathy industry as a whole that they’re being bad skeptics. We don’t tell people who lecture on how to counter the political power of alternative medicine or people who directly fight those political fights that the work they’re doing doesn’t count as skeptical activism. We don’t tell people who talk about the history of homeopathy rather than the scientific studies on it that their talk doesn’t count as skepticism. We don’t say that anyone who takes steps beyond talking about testable claims in homeopathy isn’t really doing skeptical work.
We only do that–or allow others to do that under the banner of skepticism–for religion. That’s special treatment. If you want to claim that people are strawmanning the skeptical movement, those are the complaints you have to address.
Don’t tell me that you tested this one man here and that one woman there and this group over there, and therefore, you do exactly the same things for religion as you do for other subjects. You don’t. Unless you treat religion as an industry that has consistently failed to provide what it advertises (yes, the operationalized, testable, tested claims) and you treat the people who point this out and who fight this industry as people doing skeptical work, you’re providing an exemption to religion that you don’t to other industries based on claims that have not survived scientific testing.
If you claim that this movement is organized around consumer protection, that’s really not acceptable. Religion absorbs
twice several times the amount of money that alternative medicine does in the U.S. It also has high additional costs to believers and to society as a whole. You can’t simply say, “Oh, well, we do some of the same things for this industry as other industries.” You need to explain to me why this movement doesn’t do more to deal with this industry than it does for smaller industries that affect fewer people.
Or you can tell me that you just don’t deal with religions for other reasons: because you don’t have the stomach for that particular conflict, because your donors won’t support that work, because you find you’re more effective addressing already-fringe beliefs. Fine. Some of those reasons I might even respect.
Just don’t try to tell me that you’re not making an exception for religion by misrepresenting atheist activists’ argument. No one is saying the skeptic movement doesn’t occasionally test religious claims. We’re saying the idea that “testable claims” are the only acceptable skeptical work is a standard that is only applied to work on religion, that this standard isn’t applied to skeptical work on other industries. If you’re going to answer an argument, answer the argument made.
If you don’t, don’t go talking about strawmen while you’re having your say.