Division of Labor Is a Good Thing for Science and Skepticism

Noted grouchy person John Horgan has found a new way to get people mad at him on the Internet, via a speech-turned-blog-post taking organized Skeptic groups to task for mostly going after "soft targets". This has generated lots of angry blog posts in response, and a far greater number of people sighing heavily and saying "There Horgan goes again..."

If you want to read only one counter to Horgan's piece to get caught up, you could do a lot worse than reading Daniel Loxton's calm and measured response. Loxton correctly notes that Horgan's comments are nothing especially unique, just a variant of an argument that you find everywhere:

I've spent much of my career confronting the common argument that skeptics should not perform the service skeptics do best, but instead tackle other subjects we may not be qualified to address. It's a head scratcher, honestly. "You have specialized expertise in X, but I think X is trivial. Why don't you specialize in Y, because I think Y is important?" Nobody ever says this to Shakespeare scholars or doctors or plumbers. ("Dear 'fire fighters,' fight fires less and solve more murders"?) Seemingly everyone says it to skeptics.

There are only two minor points where I disagree with Loxton. One is the claim that this is primarily deployed only against skeptics, because the general tactic is everywhere. I get occasional comments and emails of the form "Why are you wasting time writing about arcane quantum physics when climate change is so much more important?" The endless arguments defending "the humanities" in academia are another version of the same basic thing-- "Why should students study English lit when computer coding is so much more important?" And there's even a sense in which much of the Democratic primary campaign has been dominated by this sort of thing-- the arguments between Bernie Sanders supporters and Black Lives Matter activists, for example, basically boil down to each side thinking that the other is too focused on an issue that is not as important as their own primary concern.

So, skeptics have a lot of company in fending off "Your issue is trivial, you should spend more time on what I find most important."

The other tiny disagreement I have is that I would slightly expand the qualifications justifying a decision to work on X rather than Y. That is, I don't think it's just a matter of specialized knowledge, but also a question of temperament. I don't spend a whole lot of time battling quantum kookery-- a rich source of targets both hard and soft-- not because I lack specialized knowledge, but because I don't have the right sort of personality to be good at it.

It's not that I'm not bothered by charlatans trying to profit from misrepresentations of physics-- on the contrary, I'm a little too bothered by it. I do occasionally write about this sort of thing, but it's very difficult for me to do it without becoming snide. It's sort of cathartic to vent about on occasion, but mostly not particularly productive-- when I go back to stuff that I write in that mode, I generally don't like the way I sound.

And it's absolutely not in any way sustainable for me. One of the most notable thing about the skeptical fight is that it's neverending. No debunking of Bigfoot, or Ancient Aliens, or quantum crackpottery is ever definitive-- the folks on the other side always come back for more. There are two ways to deal with this: you either draw from a bottomless well of righteous indignation, a la Orac, or have a similarly deep reservoir of patience, as Loxton seems to.

I can't really do either of those. I can be patient long enough to give a reasonably gracious reply to the nutty questions I get after public lectures, but that's exhausted pretty quickly. And while I can get angry about this stuff at times, I can't keep it up long enough to sustain me through the fifteenth round of the same stupid shit. I burn out, and that leads nowhere good.

Don't get me wrong-- I'm not saying this to disparage Loxton or Orac or any of the other folks out there fighting the good fight. What they do is good and valuable, and I'm glad they're doing it. I'm also glad that I don't have to do it, because I just don't have the temperament.

But in the end, that's the fundamental problem with Horgan's provocation, and the similar arguments deployed by advocates of every Cause Y confronted with people who work on Issue X. It's not necessarily the case that someone who does good work on X will be well suited to help with Y. There's specialized knowledge involved in any of these issues, but also questions of personality and inclination. I'd do a lousy job of fighting kooks even within my field of expertise, let alone some other kind of "more important" political activism, because I don't have the personality for it.

At bottom, this is just the classic problem of specialization and division of labor in economics. Different people are good at different things, and making people do things they're not suited to will get you sub-optimal results. The best course is to have everyone work on the things they're good at: Orac does rage, Loxton does patience, I do "Hey, isn't quantum physics cool?" And Horgan pokes anthills with sticks.

This can be really hard to remember, especially when you're passionately attached to a particular thing. God knows, I do my share of grumbling about the overemphasis on particle physics and lack of attention for atomic and condensed-matter physics. But it's important to try to maintain perspective and recognize that just because you think Y is the most important thing in the world doesn't mean that the world would be improved by making people who are good at X work on Y instead.


More like this

This was a very reasoned response to Horgan. Far better than I could have mustered. Personally, I long ago stopped reading any of his essays... they had a whiff of nonsense that I just couldn't stomach, and never left me saying, "Wow, that's something to think about."

I'm betting that Horgan would REALLY hate the skeptic work I do in my very narrow branch of sexology focused on the science of transsexuality and transgender sexuality. How's THAT for a "soft target"? But given the high profile venom being spewed by certain radical right culture warriors, I think my work suddenly has become quite au currant. So many myths, canards, and false tropes... on both sides. But would Horgan say that my work is now topical and important? Or would he say that that effects far too few people in the world and remains a "soft target"... well... for those "Targeted" (yes, pun intended) with these vicious lies and very public protests at discount stores... and ugly disciminatory bills becoming laws in historically bigotted States... my little pet skeptical project field is important to ME and MY community !!!

By Kay Brown (not verified) on 19 May 2016 #permalink

Leave it to the master of "I know what social norms should be followed better than anyone", sn, to reference an old article by a many who has repeatedly distorted the work of others on these issues.
We know you don't ever try to understand science sn, so what attracted you to this guy?
- His belief that transgender women are either self-hating gay men or perverted heterosexuals?
- his misrepresentation of Ceila Dhehne's 2011 study on post-operative surgical outcomes for transgender people?
- his dishonest attempt to move the continuing issue of pedophile priests preying on young children to an issue involving homosexual predators, despite the lack of evidence? (I know that's your favorite, with your "priests never preyed on children, homesexual youths entrapped them" line)

More simply: you continually try to "support" your bigotry against people of whom you disapprove by citing the "harm" they cause. Explain the harm in your stance here.

My interest in hosting a flamewar over transgender issues is nonexistent, so just wrap this right the fuck up. Comments attempting to continue this will be summarily deleted.

Sorry. Warning taken.

For the record, Shakespeare scholars do get told to look at this alternative author who is to supposed to be the REAL Shakespeare. #TeamWill

By Bob Blaskiewicz (not verified) on 19 May 2016 #permalink

Dean, at the risk of censure... your first line refers to very well established and documented science that there are two (and only two) etiologies leading to MTF transsexuality. I fully support that taxonomy, because the EVIDENCE supports that that taxonomy. This is what I meant by science denialism on both sides...

Its just that SN wants to bait me with transphobic lies from Paul McHugh... and you responded with an overly simplistic, and sarcastic mischaracterization of the Fruend/Blanchard two type taxonomy... the doubly distorted lens of McHugh followed by the typical transactivist distortion of the science. But you properly address in the next few lines, some of McHughs other distortions.

Chad, at least let me post the response I have to Paul McHugh, who indeed IS one of the science distortors that I address as a science educator / Big S-Skeptic at my blog. I invite folks to read that essay and others, to learn what the science ACTUALLY says, without the distortions from misguided trans-activists and transphobic activists alike:


There, done... now back to our regularly scheduled program...

By Kay Brown (not verified) on 19 May 2016 #permalink

“But it’s important to try to maintain perspective and recognize that just because you think Y is the most important thing in the world doesn’t mean that the world would be improved by making people who are good at X work on Y instead.”

It’s also important to try to maintain perspective and recognize that in society today, and particularly with the force of the government, believers in Y think that the world would be improved by making believers in X conduct their lives as if they believed in Y.
Under penalty of law.

By See Noevo (not verified) on 19 May 2016 #permalink

The English lit example made me think I more often hear something like the opposite: I don't need to study math cause I won't use it. I don't need to exercise that part of my head, and it seems hard so no thanks. I don't know what decision theory is and I don't need to know, I think.

A couple other thoughts related to Chad’s
“But it’s important to try to maintain perspective and recognize that just because you think Y is the most important thing in the world doesn’t mean that the world would be improved by making people who are good at X work on Y instead.”

To me, here is a somewhat positive story of teachers showing some proper discretion in distinguishing between *what* is taught and *belief* in what is taught.
More specifically, and borrowing Chad’s words, these teachers acknowledge they’re teaching Y to many who believe X (i.e. believe not-Y), and commendably do NOT force the X-ers to believe in Y, only to be able to recite the so-called “facts” of Y.
The “Y” here is evolution.

Some passages from the article found at http://phys.org/news/2016-05-evolution-religion-insight-instructor-atti… and [some comments by me]:

“In a first-of-its kind study, scientists from ASU School of Life Sciences have found that a majority of professors teaching biology in Arizona universities do not believe that helping students accept the theory of evolution is an instructional goal. In fact, a majority of study participants say their only goal is to help students understand evolution. According to the study's authors, this finding was surprising.”

[I think that’s a good thing.]

“…"Evolution is one of the key concepts in understanding biology," said Sara Brownell, senior author of the study and assistant professor with the school.””

[This echoes Dobzhansky’s infamous dictum – “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution".
Both statements are absurd. Not a single advance in biology, or in medicine or any other field of science, required or requires a belief in evolution.]

"My own view is, 'Why would we want to teach evolution, if we don't want our students to accept it? We teach them that cells have membranes and we expect them to accept that. Why should evolution be any different?'”

[This is a bad thing, in at least two ways: a) She wants her students to believe in evolution, not just know what’s taught about it, b) Comparing cell membranes to evolution is absurd; the former can be observed every day, the latter has never been observed.]

“Yet instructors in our study don't see it that way. For most of them, evolution is separated—first, in understanding and second, in accepting the concept."

[Again, a good thing.]

By See Noevo (not verified) on 20 May 2016 #permalink


And nothing about stamp collecting requires a belief in a printing press. Understanding that Curtiss Jenny stamp, on the other hand ...

People can happily use GPS to get around while rejecting a belief in relativity. I attribute commonly observed contradictions like that to some obstinate gene we share with chimps. Confronting it can result in feces flinging, which is why Chad's policy is a useful one.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 20 May 2016 #permalink

Chad, re. the actual subject matter here:

I would argue that there are times and places where skeptics have an obligation to get up to speed on subjects outside of their existing background knowledge.

The proliferation of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories (CTs) is an obvious case in point. When an outbreak of a dangerous and preventable infectious illness occurs, the media go looking for content, and if we know the subject matter, we can offer solid data and sound reasoning. In public forums, we can use well-crafted rhetoric to sway undecideds.

For years I wondered why CSICOP or a similar group didn't take on fundamentalist extremism in the US: it's dependent on demonstrable falsehoods (young-Earth creationism etc.) and it has enough powerful adherents to have successfully set back science policies in the US for literally decades. But if Congress were suddenly infested with astrologers, it would be treated like a five-alarm fire, in part because astrology is what Horgan calls a soft target.

Same case for The Singularity and "mind uploading," which Horgan also correctly nails as pseudoscientific garbage: another hard target with adherents in high places, whose decisions are shaping our culture and our technology policies.

(As it turns out, homeopathy isn't going away: it's sprouting new tentacles, per Orac's stuff on "quackademic medicine", and as I personally observed in a recent trip to the drug store. Homeo-quack stuff was on the shelves right next to regular OTC meds, giving it undeserved credibility, and probably causing further spread of colds etc. by uninformed people who thought that taking sugar pills might make them less contagious.)

Our first choices of targets should be precisely those that are substantial threats with powerful adherents. At the top of the list is climate denialism, followed closely by anti-vaccine CT. We can all have a merry time bickering about what else belongs in the Top Ten and in what order. And the opinions of "noted grouchy persons" should be welcomed, if for no other reason than to keep us on our toes.