Starting the process

For the last handful of years, I’ve been a faithful listener of the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast (not to be confused with the One True SGU). I’m a huge fan. They’re a phenomenal group of people, and are the ones who introduced me to the concept of and movement espousing scientific skepticism.

Almost every week, the “rogues” (as they call themselves) interview someone somehow associated with science, skepticism, or the intersection of those with the humanities. While not all of their guests are necessarily both scientists and skeptics, it’s pretty easy to assert that they see eye-to-eye.

Which is why I was so intrigued when they invited Don McLeroy onto their show (listen to that show here, if you’re interested).

Don was an exceptionally good sport. They traded points, and neither side really budged (and of course I saw the scientific end of things a lot moreso than Don did). Don, while avoiding most of the stale creationist talking points, seemed convinced that his pop-culture literature–of which he had read quite a bit, to his credit–conferred a thorough enough understanding to overturn over a century of scientific consensus.

His most grievous flaw in his logic, in my opinion, is best exemplified by the first comment left on this post by Dr. Steven Novella, who is the host of SGU:

Yeah. For me the key part of this conversation is:

Don: The evidence I’ve seen for evolution is weak. Show me the evidence.
Steven: Here is a tremendous amount of evidence, which is only the tip of the iceberg.
Don: I don’t have time to read all that.

Here’s what Don actually said (emphasis mine):

I admit that I do not have the time to read all the technical articles and read all the links you have referred to, but I do not admit that I am unable to judge the adequacy of the evidence evolutionists have presented for evolution. I have read the popular literature of highly acclaimed evolutionists; I have thought about how much evidence is required to demonstrate evolution. And, I have found it unconvincing.

Despite his good candor, despite his willingness and seeming enthusiasm to engage as constructively with supporters of evolution as anyone I’ve seen, and despite his obvious efforts to understand the science (even if from popular literature), this is where all his arguments fall apart. After all, how can you critique something if you don’t do the work to understand it in the first place?

But all this is still secondary to the point I want to convey here.

After the interview podcast, Dr. Novella and Don McLeroy continued their exchange via email, and Dr. Novella posted about it no fewer than six times on his blog.

  • Part I: An overview of their respective positions.
  • Part II: Dr. Novella addresses Don’s issue with “sudden appearances” in the fossil record as evidence against evolution.
  • Part III: Continuation of Part II.
  • Part IV: Dr. Novella addresses Don’s other issue with evolution: how there is no record of the individual components of a cell evolving.
  • Pseudo Part V: Don responds to Dr. Novella’s points.
  • Final: One last response from Don, and Dr. Novella sums things up.

It’s an engrossing read, and I highly recommend doing so. It’s an enlightening look into how radically different the research approaches and general worldviews are between those who believe in creationism, and those who espouse the scientific process and its essential methods as the basis for evolution.

Don McLeroy was fascinating because he chose to engage with people representing a group who, if you ran into a random skeptic in the middle of the day and asked him or her what they thought of Don, would probably toss the entire conversation to the side as a “waste of time.” At the very least, I know I would.

It’s why I can’t stomach political debates anymore: there is no “debate”. The discussion derails almost immediately into a shouting match, where each side is convinced that they’re the hero in the story, and the other is the devil hellbent on eclipsing every last hint of happiness and rainbows in this world. It leaves each side assuming the worst of the other, painting them with broad brush strokes and essentially shunning any contact whatsoever.

Standing in stark contrast to this general behavior is this interview and subsequent exchange. While still rife with disagreement, there was an actual dialogue. Legitimate points were raised and acknowledged. There was never a time when tempers flared and logic took a back seat to rhetoric. Both sides respected one another as intelligent human beings, as opposed to attacking one another as demons to be stopped in their tracks. Obviously nobody’s mind was changed, but they all came to the table acknowledging the possibility of learning something new.

On some level, I have personal experience with this. As I’m [hopefully!] 14-18 months from a Ph.D., I’ve certainly made clear that I have devoted my professional life to the sciences, and there was no point in the aforementioned debate where I disagreed with Dr. Novella et al. However, I am also a devout Catholic with some nuanced views of my own that aren’t exactly in tune with what you may read or hear about.

Consequently, most of the folks I associate with on a daily basis are atheist or agnostic. 360 out of 365 days of the year, this is no problem. But those few days, when I’m bombarded by uninspiring humorless one-liners like “Happy Zombie Jesus Day”, or when Facebook friends giddily claim that “nothing good has come from organized religion”, it’s made painfully clear that even those who claim to espouse logic do not always employ it. There’s a distinct lack of respect that I find discouraging.

Awhile back, I sent an email to the SGU folks about this very thing. And I got a response from Evan Berstein himself. His response was awesome (emphasis mine).

There are others in the skeptical movement in the exact same position as yourself.

That said, my personal observation from being immersed in the skeptical community since 1996 is that there are some people in the movement (typically strident atheists) that are going to challenge (dare I say provoke) you and call in to question just how “devout” a skeptic you actually are. Some people handle the “pressure” of these confrontations quite well. But I have also seen skeptics driven away from skeptical circles because they are uncomfortable with these types of confrontations.

I know what this is like, because I am an unapologetic fiscal conservative – definitely a minority group in skeptical circles. I have been taken to task before for this way of thinking, but I’ve never backed down from my firm belief in limited government intrusions and my pro-capitalism economic positions.

I would love to say that the skeptical community is one big happy family that is 100% tolerant of each other’s personal beliefs and feelings, but that is just not the case.

All of that said, my overall experience is that the majority of skeptics, frankly, do not care what you or anyone else believe, as long as the principals of good, rational skepticism are being practiced. Critical thinking, logical reasoning, and evidence-based claims are the main pillars of skepticism, so to the majority of skeptics, if you stick to those principals, you are considered a welcome participant.

In the same vein, though: there are many individuals like Don McLeroy out there as well, people “on the other side” who are more than just an obstacle to global acceptance of scientific theories like evolution. These are people who are probably kind and thoughtful individuals who aren’t evil or trying to bring about the fall of humanity, but have simply used the faculties at their disposal to arrive at a belief held just as fervently as yours, if only the other way around.

This is where individuals like Richard Dawkins, though obviously a brilliant man who has done a lot of good work, tend to fall flat in my opinion. This is where nuance is required; tact over brute strength. We need people who can change minds, not simply solidify them. We need more Carl Sagans, more Neil deGrasse Tysons, more individuals like Don McLeroy and Dr. Novella who are willing to engage with differently-minded individuals in an attempt to rationally and logically discuss differing viewpoints in an attempt to achieve a common understanding.

Because that, my friends, would be starting the process.


About Shannon Quinn

Oh hai!
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1 Response to Starting the process

  1. Pingback: Cutting distractions loose | Theatre of Consciousness

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