Strand 1 Statement 2 by Stephanie Zvan

This is a response by Stephanie Zvan to the Strand 1 Opening Statement by Jack Smith. All of the Opening Statement by Jack Smith is quoted within this response.

JS – The subject of this opening strand, first of 5 strands, is: “How we can work together on core issues on which we broadly agree, including promoting reason, critical thinking, science, skepticism, atheism and secularism in the real world”.

I speak as an individual member of “the atheist/skeptic community” and recognize that other members of that community will not agree with me, or not on every point. What I say here is consistent with my understanding of core features of atheism and skepticism.

The primary purpose of this dialogue is to find common cause on which we can ‘work together’ while accepting diverse political and social beliefs. We first need to identify core areas of agreement and of disagreement. I think the following are core to atheism and skepticism and have served the community well for many years; on which of these do we agree, and on which do we disagree?

1. I agree that this is a fair characterization of the purpose of this portion of the dialog. I think it would be useful to define the term “community” wherever it is used, however, as it is often a source of confusion.

JS - We stand for equality for all. We believe that all humans should be treated equally as people, with no inherent superiority of one over the other, as there is no rational basis for such claims of inherent superiority. Addressing areas of inequality such as seen in religions, cultures, and laws is done on the basis of these principles.

2a. I agree with some reservations. The first reservation is that treating people all the same is not the same thing as treating people equally. This becomes obvious when one sees arguments from opponents of marriage equality who claim that everyone is already treated equally under the law because everyone already has an equal opportunity to marry someone of the opposite sex. Prescriptions for equal treatment that don’t include consideration of how different people want to be treated are not merely meaningless but likely to drive away people who could, and other circumstances would, be happy to work with us.

2b. The second reservation is that treating people equally has–and as far as anthropology and primatology are currently telling us, have always had–exceptions carved out for those people who act in ways that damage the community (at whatever level “community” is defined for the purpose). We in industrialized societies tend to agree that this description should include people who are overly physically aggressive and cheaters. There is less agreement on what other violations of the social contract may also fairly invite sanctions.

JS - We seek to establish real truths from untruths, for without this discernment we end up with religions, dogmas, and demagogues poisoning our society. We establish truth through the application of logic, evidence-based reasoning, critical thinking, skepticism, and scientific inquiry. Our competence in this truth-seeking endeavour is the most valuable asset we have.

3a. I agree and disagree. We don’t only seek truth for reasons that are that dramatic or noble. The basic reason we seek truth is that, without it, we’re flailing ineffectually in the dark. Curiosity drives us to seek truth. The desire to predict and control the world around us drives us to seek truth.

3b. Additionally, “dogma” here seems to be used in a limited sense that may cause confusion later if not unpacked now. On top of the common meaning of “a point of view or tenet put forth as authoritative without adequate grounds“, “dogma” is also that set of common agreements or principles that underlie our work. For example, the Freedom From Religion Foundation treats the desirability of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as dogma. That idea is the foundation of their work, and they don’t devote energy to exploring whether the idea is true. Dogma is not necessarily a bad thing, nor is it escapable. Any dogma must be examined on its own to determine whether it is problematic.

Photo of white researcher drawing blood from black subject. Two others look on smiling.3c. I am unwilling to put competence at truth-seeking above other–I’ll call them “virtues” for lack of a better word. It is certainly important, but making it our primary consideration has come to be recognized as a bad idea. Placing the collection of knowledge above all else was the kind of thinking that led to the Tuskegee experiment. Researchers uncovered a great deal of truth about the progression of untreated syphilis, but they did so at the cost of the health and lives of people who did not volunteer to be sacrificed for truth. In response to this and other travesties, we’ve instituted safeguards intended to curb unchecked truth-seeking. Putting truth-seeking above ethics and compassion is deeply troubling.

JS - In our pursuit of truth, we must test our beliefs in the forum of open and free debate. Nothing is left off the table; all claims can — and sometimes must — be fully examined and tested to determine the best evidence, arguments, and explanations. We can do this without rancour or dismissal and it is a key requirement in achieving our objectives: freeing this world of the terrible injustices we see all around us.

4a. I’m not sure who “we” is supposed to represent here. I can’t tell precisely what this is advocating for, so I’ll cover the most likely interpretations. If this is a statement that the scientific process should be as open as possible–given the ethical constraints I’ve already discussed–I generally agree. Where I disagree in that case is that science is supposed to be a cumulative process. Once consensus has been reached on a particular topic through that process, it’s typically time to shelve that topic and move on until we come across information that doesn’t fit the models. Continuing to study geocentric models of planetary and stellar motion at this point would not advance our pursuit of truth. Debate does not go on forever on a topic without the introduction of substantial new information.

4b. If this is intended to suggest that individuals must test all their beliefs through debate and that this process will lead to understanding the truth, I strongly disagree. When people who are taught to debate are taught to be equally comfortable taking either side of an argument, we are looking at a process designed for winning, not truth. If we want to arrive at truth through give-and-take, we need a more collaborative process in which the goal is not to win.

4c. Additionally, we have long since passed the point at which every person could be well educated on every topic for which we have accumulated evidence, if such a time ever existed. I could debate with someone on whether a call made in a hockey game was a good one, but since I don’t know much about the rules of hockey, debate would not be productive. What would be productive is listening to expert consensus (or disagreement) on the topic or pursuing a course of education. When discussion is used as a pedagogical tool, it is guided by someone who is educated on the topic.

4d. It is also frequently reasonable to expect that the uninformed opinion will be dismissed. When the crank sends their “theory of everything” letter to physics departments at universities around the world, we do not expect the physicists there to suspend their research and/or their teaching in order to carefully rebut the letter. We expect them to throw it away or keep it to laugh over. The presence of an idea is not enough to compel debate on that idea.

JS - We recognize that personal feelings have limited utility when determining objective reality. However, this does not ignore the fact that emotion and personal experiences are crucial components of being human and determining values. Further, these are important components in supporting cohesion and unity within our community.

5. I agree.

JS - We believe that ethics is a valid area for discussion and debate While morality is an important part of our lives, by its nature it is highly subjective and dependent on values. We therefore feel, in the interests of mutual cooperation, that it is appropriate to consider the best in others, give the benefit of the doubt, and assume others are acting in good faith.

6a. I agree with reservations. I’m not sure what the last sentence has to do with the first two, so I’ll treat it as unrelated for the purposes of this reply. My reservation on debating ethics is that, as with any other sort of debate or discussion, will generally be most productive if done, or at least led, by people trained to debate ethics. This is a field that has experts. We should make use of them.

6b. I agree that making immediate judgments about those we are dealing with is not helpful. I agree that when one can, one should generally err on the side of charity in judgment. At the same time, however, not everyone is in the same position to risk that kind of error. Sometimes the consequences to trusting and having that trust betrayed are too much. Given this, it also behooves those who desire to be trusted to create an environment in which risks are reduced.

JS - We believe that in order for us to be effective we should strive to avoid:

Imposing political or social beliefs on others. We can of course form our own social and political groups within the movement but they have no inherent right to impose those beliefs on others.

7. I am confused by this statement. I don’t understand how people are able to impose their beliefs on others in this context.

JS - Attributing motives or character traits on others. Ad Hominem fallacies serve no good purpose in reasonable dialogue.

8a. I agree with reservations. The more interactions we have with people, the more information we have about how they behave. Granting some charity and proceeding cautiously in how we interpret this knowledge is one thing. Declining to draw any conclusions from it is quite another and not productive in our search to understand and be effective in the world around us.

8b. Additionally, I have some concerns that ad hominem argumentation not be confused with insults or observations relevant to an argument, but that can be discussed later if necessary.

JS - Dismissing others in a dialogue if they do not follow our own beliefs. Our strength is in our diversity. We should try to work together, irrespective of differences of opinion, as long as equality for all remains a core principle.

9. I generally disagree with this. I do agree that diversity is a strength, but that is not the same thing as claiming that we all must work closely enough together that we are in dialog. To borrow an aphorism, sometimes good fences do make good neighbors. Sometimes we simply accomplish more by limiting the amount of time we spend in conflict with each other.

JS - Commenting on others without accepting a right of reply. The right of reply is fundamental to any open society. If we criticise others then others have the right to respond to that without being personally attacked for doing so.

10. I agree with reservations. This is more generally covered under free speech and, thus, is subject to the same restrictions that other speech is. I’m not sure what “personally attacked” is meant to mean here, but I will note that a stipulated “right of reply” would not be a right to have one’s reply be the last word in a discussion or a right to not be criticized for the form or content of the reply.

JS - Ignoring the feelings of others. However we should not use our feelings to shut down valid and genuine debate and discussion. How many times have we heard theists say we should never attack their beliefs as it hurts their feelings? Allowing this would put us into a position where we are hostages of our own making.

11. I agree that it will not help us to work together to ignore the feelings of those with whom we’re working. I am confused as to what “valid and genuine debate and discussion” is intended to describe. I don’t think this can be discussed until we agree on the circumstances in which debate is useful (see #4 above).

JS - Shutting down all forms of criticism. Criticism has been a mainstay of free debate for hundreds of years. Satire, caricature and critical commentary are a valid human response to any issue and have been for millennia. it’s even on the walls of ancient Pompeii. While everyone has the right to their own protected spaces that does not provide the right to censor others outside those spaces.

12a. As with imposing beliefs, I am confused as how this censorship is supposed to be accomplished. I don’t know of anyone in our overlapping movements with the power and reach to shut down “all forms of criticism”.

12b. I agree that satire, caricature, and critical commentary are common human responses. I am unsure, however, what “valid” is meant to convey in this context. All these things can be illuminating or can serve to obscure the truth. They can be proportional, productive, reasonable–or none of those things. They are all simply means of communication. Talking about them collectively tells us nothing about their content, and this is the important part of any communication.

JS - We see the issues as a clash of ideas between those who wish to impose a particular political and social ideology, and those who wish to maintain the rationalist principles that have served us well for so many years. This kind of imposition will necessarily divide the movement and weaken it. It will set up an ‘us vs. them’ mentality which distracts from our core aims. It will alienate our friends and allies who would otherwise wish to support us, but will be discouraged if they do not hold the same political beliefs. It will impose unelected political leaders and encourage schisms.

13a. I have a number of problems with this point. Above, it was suggested that attributing motives is unhelpful, yet this entire view of the conflict is predicated upon ascribing motives to others. Additionally, even if anyone wished to impose any ideology, it has not been demonstrated that this could be done. I don’t see anything to be gained in opposing a hypothetical that is also, as far as I can tell, impossible.

13b. The extent to which any fundamental disagreement can distract from a movement’s work is the extent to which the parties involved insist that the issue must be continually debated. The secular and skeptical movements already contain several fundamental disagreements that were successfully resolved by schism. Working apart much of the time allows us to work toward common goals even when we have conflicts, as I noted in my opening statement. Beyond that, not insisting that there be constant friction let’s us more easily work in concert when the need for numbers arises.

13c. I am also unclear on how this idea of “unelected political leaders” is supposed to happen. Is this intended to refer to being persuasive? If so, I fail to see the problem, particularly in movements that value skepticism and rationality.

JS - People with similar interests will tend to congregate and should have spaces in which they can communicate and work together cooperatively. We do not seek to control anyone’s space, the policies in others’ spaces, or their expression of their beliefs and values. However, when people in one such space criticize or challenge other people, we feel it’s important for them to accept rebuttal or presentation of counter-evidence in accordance with the core principles outlined above.

14. I disagree. Accepting rebuttal in the same space that a criticism was made is at most a courtesy. It is neither an ethical imperative in our world of easy access to publishing nor a universal practice. As a courtesy, it is expected that it will be taken away when abused. When we criticize creationists, we are not required to host a Gish Gallop in return. Those who write about antisemitism should be under no pressure to publish racist comments. When we criticize a climate change denialist, we are not required to allow them to spread their astroturfed disinformation in our space. No less than the blogs editor for Scientific American routinely deletes comments from denialists of multiple stripes. These are extreme examples, but they do illustrate the general point.

JS - Failure to reach a common ground on these issues puts at risk our efforts in achieving our common goals.

15. I disagree. Again, we do not have to work closely together to work on common goals.

JS - We can work together by following the principles core to atheism/skepticism and remembering we are each and all fallible humans, each with one life to live and with an equal right to self-determination. We owe it to those who are hurting, suffering, and dying in this big wide world of ours.

16a. I agree that we should follow our principles. I agree that we should remember we are each fallible. I agree that we have an equal right to self-determination. I am unsure how having just one life fits into this list or how most of these fit in with working together. I would request further elaboration.

16b. Promoting reason, critical thinking, science, skepticism, atheism, and secularism is worthwhile, necessary work. I would disagree that any individual owes it to anyone to do specifically this work. There is other humanitarian work that is just as necessary and just as worthwhile. One of our challenges going forward is making people feel that ours is the worthwhile, necessary work on which they want to spend their time.

JS - I welcome your comments about this statement and your efforts to help the atheist/skeptic community identify and hopefully expand our “common ground”.

17. I welcome your comments in return.

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4 Responses to “Strand 1 Statement 2 by Stephanie Zvan”

  • Submariner says:

    Replies exclusive to Ms. Zvan’s numbered comments:

    1. Agree.Re: defining “community”- fortunately an associate of yours from FTB has recently done just that.(a) Richard Carrier said, “Atheism is now a community”. Let us therefore follow his lead and define it as he suggests.

    2a. Disagree. Your example is a false equivalence. One must go deeper to the root of the “equal” treatment argument. People are considered to be equally treated in terms of marriage if they are all equally allowed to marry a person they are physically, emotionally, and otherwise attracted to. This excludes the need for “wants to be treated” to be an issue.

    2b. Disagree. We as a society DO treat those who act in ways that damage the community. They are considered not guilty until proven so. They are equally treated to due process. Only then do we impose sanctions upon them. To do otherwise invites errors…

    3b. Agree. Since we have defined the topic of these discussions as atheist skeptic, the only original dogmas that would seem to establish is the lack of belief in deities and the belief in a systematic critical approach to claims. Any other claims should therefore be examined under the first two “dogmatic” precepts.

    3c. Disagree. When one puts ethical treatment above truth seeking one can reach “deeply troubling” results as well. …

    Mod Note: Moderation team removed examples from 2b & 3c in order to keep dialogue within the guidelines.

    4a. Agree and disagree. “We” defined above. Once scientific consensus is reached we generally shelve the discussion until new data is uncovered. You use geocentrism as an example. In the more complex field of human social interaction, is there in fact such overwhelming scientific data that prescribes one coherent picture of human dynamics as there is that the earth travels around the sun?

    4b. Disagree. Jack specified “open and free debate”. Your comment here seemed to mean professional debaters in organized and structured debate formats.

    4c. Agree. Once most experts agree on a matter such as evolution. These are matters which have scientific data. The social sciences have yet to reach such consensus.

    4d. Disagree. I would hope that the physicist actually reads the submission, first. Imagine if Einstein’s papers were thrown away because he was just a patent clerk and therefore a “crank”.

    Wow, this is longer than I had planned. I will shorten my responses to just agree or disagree.and if needed will defend them in the discussion thread.
    6a. Disagree
    6b. Agree.
    7-8 agree.
    10-11 Meh.
    12a. Thankfully this is currently true.
    12b-14 Disagree.
    15. Meh.
    16b. Those are the very foundation of the Atheist Skeptic “community”. The humanitarian values you mention would likely be better served under a different (but not exclusive) banner of humanism, in that they have little to do with lack of belief in deities.

  • R. Johnston says:

    3c. I agree with what you say here but I’d take it a step further. Ethics and compassion are, in the long run, necessary tools of truth seeking. Look at what happened in your example of the Tuskegee experiment. Sure, some truths about syphilis were learned, but millions of people were taught to distrust scientists. Without compassion and ethics the search for truth becomes an exclusive endeavor, with far less brain power driving it and far less truth discovered in the long run. Basically, it doesn’t even make sense to say that compassion and ethics can take a back seat to seeking the truth.

    Life is iterative in nature, and it’s important to recognize that the tools that are somehow effective in a particular search for truth may poison the well and inhibit the successful searches for other truths.

    4d. I agree and disagree here. It is always unreasonable not to simply dismiss uninformed opinion. It might best be dismissed politely or impolitely depending on circumstances, but it should always be simply and quickly dismissed. Teaching cranks and your audience that they have the right to waste other people’s time is a disservice to all those other people even if you feel that addressing a crank seriously isn’t a significant personal imposition in a particular case. Of course it might take time and effort to figure out that a stated position amounts to uninformed opinion in the first place, but that’s another matter; once a position is identified as uniformed opinion simple dismissal ought to be de rigueur.

    6b. I agree. People can’t and shouldn’t simply set aside what they’ve known and learned over the years in order to make debate more comfortable and polite. There are many situations in life where coming to a judgment quickly is at least as important as coming to a judgment accurately. People may learn that certain behaviors in debate, while not triggering in and of themselves, have a tendency to be precursors to triggering behavior, and it’s unreasonable to expect people in such a situation to not take care to avoid the potential for triggering… People are not blank slates and they come to debates within the skeptical community with a history of learned experiences that they can and must necessarily draw upon.

    Mod note: Some content removed by moderation team to keep dialogue within the guidelines.

    9. I strongly agree here. Working together can easily inhibit working towards common goals and there’s nothing wrong with working separately towards a common goal.

    10. Strongly agree. Conflating a right to speech or a right to reply with a right to be taken seriously or a right not to be harshly criticized is all too common a happening and always, in my experience, done selectively. No mere insult is is ever more rude than the belief that others have to refrain from criticizing your brilliance.

    14. I agree. Very well said. This goes back to the point in 4d that it is appropriate to summarily dismiss uninformed opinion.

  • GG says:

    1) Agree. The use of the term “community” tends to imply common concerns and/or values. Defining the scope of the community and these concerns/values seems to be a primary purpose of this exercise.

    2a) Request for clarification: Please elaborate on your definition of “equality”. I suspect that divergent views of “equality” are a major source of tension in the skeptic community, so in the interest of efficiency we might as well surface those differences sooner rather than later.

    2b) Agree with a non-trivial caveat. “Carved out” implies a conscious process, but the best current hypothesis is that the moral sentiments are an evolved feature(1,2). I believe this is an important distinction since it’s not clear what weight evolved sentiments should receive when a community is consciously choosing values to adopt/support.

    3c) Disagree. This confuses “competence at truth-seeking” with “priority of truth-seeking”. The former is how good someone is at distinguishing between fact and fiction, the latter reflects the relative importance that truth-seeking has in relation to other values. We can logically value competence over incompetence while simultaneously decrying the type of vivisectionist experimentation seen at Tuskegee.

    4a) Agree with reservations. Contemporary topics which cause controversy are not necessarily as cut-and-dried as geocentrism; we must guard against the possibility that we will mistake received wisdom for scientific consensus. In order to do so we should adopt broad criteria for what subjects are open for debate, even if that increases the time spent relitigating issues.

    4b) Please elaborate; in what respects does your proposed collaborative method differ from “open and free debate”? Additionally, are you aware of any literature comparing the efficacy of the two approaches? There’s a boatload of theoretical literature critiquing various aspects of the adversarial system, but I’ve been able to turn up precious little discussing the performance of alternatives.

    4c) Agreed, but I’m not sure it solves the problem. Deferring to experts is fine as long as there’s consensus as to who qualifies as an “expert”, but that consensus may prove elusive.

    4d) Agreed, but we should be slow to dismiss. See reasoning from 4a.

    6a) I think your reasoning is solid, but taken to its logical conclusion it leads to us abandoning this dialogue. It seems self-evident that debate on any topic is most productive when it involves experts; if that’s the bar we’re going to set then we’re going to quickly find ourselves dumbfounded when we’re unable to locate an appropriate expert for any particular topic. Can you differentiate between ethics and any of the other topics we might encounter in such a way as to resolve this difficulty?

    1) Haidt, Jonathan; The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics And Religion
    2) Pinker, Stephen; The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

  • Illusio says:

    I think Stephanie’s analogy with creationists in point 14, about censoring critics, fails to capture something rather significant about why this point would be brought up at all – namely the debate around feminism.

    I think it’s worth pointing out something rather significant here. Namely that the creationist movement could be said to be the opposition to the skeptic movement as it exists today. If Stephanie really views her opponents that way, then it is difficult to see that there can be any progress at all in terms of any “we” in this area. Which is fine in my opinion, as long as this is recognized and that we live with that fact by not attempting to create a consensus in such an area.

    I’ll also note that it’s the very attempt to enforce such a consensus, with broad us vs them rhetoric to go with it, that is the sole cause of these problems existing in the first place.

    Further more, the creationist analogy fails because of the overtly stated political goals of unity behind controversial ideas. That is, people are literally trying to create positions of political influence at the top of “the atheist community” where they can make public statements on issues on behalf of it. It should be obvious that no member of the skeptic community has ever claimed to be speaking for the creationists, and consequently censorship is not a big deal. In the current case however, a better analogy would be that a political party where, in the effort to speak with one voice, the leadership deliberately disallows speakers with views that disagree with this viewpoint a voice in discussions about the party program.

    While this might be a tactical decision a political leadership might wish to make, one has to acknowledge that it will have divisive effects and that in our case, the endgame of such an approach can not be expected to be a unified voice of “the atheist community”, but rather a formal separation.

    Lastly, I’d like to note one huge advantage with allowing dissenters to debate ideas in the same forum that they are made. Namely that you minimize misrepresentation about opposition*, because anyone can easily check claims without having to go to sources where they might be unfamiliar with the user interface and have other practical problems. Recent developments in this conflict has taken this problem to such extremes that it seems imperative to make it as easy as possible for people to check what people are saying if one wants to have any hope of even agreeing to disagree within a single platform and not be met with outright demands of kicking people out. The current approach is clearly causing escalation of the conflict, and unlike the situation with the creationists, there simply isn’t any kind of scientific consensus to appeal to as an arbiter of what’s reasonable.
    And I’m not saying this because there couldn’t be solid data about specific questions out there, but because most of the questions people disagree the most about are not scientific questions, but moral ones. (Which frankly makes the examples of censorship by Scientific American that you provide, and acknowledge are extreme, inapplicable to pretty much any controversial topic in this conflict.)

    Mod Note: Moderation team removed a portion of the sentence in order to keep dialogue within the guidelines.

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