Friday, October 20, 2006

Debunking the debunkers

The normally reliable spiked-online currently features a confused piece on 'Debunking the debunkers'. An attack on what the author, Ben Pile, calls a loose movement to oppose the 'attack on science', the piece seems to link together a number of disparate strands of thought to form a composite 'sceptics movement' which it attacks in turn for lacking the confidence in rationality itself.

To quote:

The view of scepticism that emerges is that it feels impotent, is terrified of the world, and lacks trust in other people’s ability to determine their own interests or make their own decisions. The leading thinkers of the loose movement of sceptics end up coming across not as confident individuals who have radical visions about how to use their rationalist outlook to change the world, but rather as timid souls, keen to advance the idea that that world is a dangerous place, made all the more dangerous by ideas themselves.

In part it does this by suggesting that many sceptics subscribe to the 'meme' hypothesis proposed by Richard Dawkins. This is the theory that ideas themselves are discrete units that can reproduce and spread through a population - they are the mental equivalent of genes in other words. Firstly it's not clear whether Dawkins meant that memes are real or whether he's speaking metaphorically. The whole thing is confused and confusing. However, to suggest that the majority of sceptics subsribe to the idea is bizarre. It's not clear on what evidence Pile bases this assumption.

Pile also assumes that the sceptics accept the computationalist view of consciousness - in other words that we deny the central role of conscious thought and instead view it as a convenient fiction to rationalise deeper semi-conscious processes. In this view mind is composed of competing agents - independent units of thought - which somehow come together to direct our actions and which we then piece together a narrative called conciousness.

Again, to propose that this is a widely accepted idea within the sceptics community seems to be based on wishful thinking on Pile's part.

The central message that rationalists have is that it's the scientific method which is primarily the engine for debunking pseudo-science and religion. And, far from being embedded in the establishment, it is increasingly those who refuse to accept the primacy of 'faith' who are in the minority.

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