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Valuing Science with Differing Values: Let’s Broaden the Debate in the Skeptical Movement

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Barry Fagin

Volume 37.3, May/June 2013

In light of recent debates in our pages about certain political aspects of skepticism, we invited this commentary from a libertarian and skeptic.—Editor


What do you do when your heart says one thing and the data says another? When science conflicts with values, which wins the battle for your soul? Which, for that matter, gets your vote?

Skeptics have a particular challenge with science and moral values, because for us science is a moral value. Critical thinking, honest engagement with the evidence, understanding the world as it is, avoiding self-deception, intellectual integrity, these all have moral stature in our lives. We are denied the simple consolations of “science is just a tool,” “ethical living is more important than empirical facts,” and other outlets of the less critically minded.

These conflicts affect skeptics of all political stripes. Liberal skeptics, for example, may feel some tension between the science of evolutionary psychology and gender differences. How society should respond to the scientific basis for gender difference is a policy question, not a scientific one, but liberals might legitimately worry about how the evolutionary basis for gender differences could be used to hamper their goal of a more egalitarian society.

In this magazine, this conflict has most recently manifested itself with conservative and libertarian skeptics on the issue of global warming. (See, for example, Frazier [2013] and Mooney [2012].) As a longtime libertarian, skeptic, and occasional contributor, I’ve felt this conflict personally. I accept the scientific consensus that the Earth is warming and that human activity is a significant contributor to it, because, frankly, in light of the evidence, what else can I do? But I understand the upset of readers who were bothered by the Mooney article, most of whom I assume are conservatives or libertarians. We have, I think, two principal concerns.

First, accepting anthropogenic global warming means we will have to accept a larger role for government than we have traditionally been comfortable with. Following Haidt’s (2012) terminology, libertarians and conservatives tend to value the moral dimension of liberty more than liberals, who tend to emphasize fairness and proportionality. As the primary institution for establishing the latter at the expense of the former, we take a dim view of government, believing it should be used only for certain narrowly defined functions required to secure the rights of its citizens.

Libertarians understand economics, externalities, and market failure perfectly well. However, we also understand that all institutions are subject to failure, including government. In fact, we believe as skeptics that the evidence shows that even though politics and governmental approach to problems do not work particularly well, they nonetheless expand far beyond their original intent, making things worse and far more difficult to repair. We wish to break that cycle.

Thus we worry, I think with good cause, that any approaches to combat global warming will not be restricted to affecting global climate but will be used to advance a political agenda that we oppose.

After all, what actions could not be justified in the name of saving the planet? Is it really so beyond the pale to think that global efforts to address anthropogenic global warming are at risk to be hijacked by others with a much more expansive agenda? Is the profound emotional response we get from believing we are saving humanity at risk for affecting our rational judgment?

As a skeptic, I would argue the risk is quite real. This doesn’t mean we should reject the science, any more than liberals who aspire to gender equality should reject evolutionary psychology. It simply means that we will have to work for our respective political goals within the context of what the science says to try and prevent “agenda overreach.”

This would be easier for conservative and libertarian skeptics to do, I think, if we felt more welcome in the skeptical community. When it comes to politics, I like to think of libertarians as consistent skeptics. We want to know how everything actually works in practice, not how it is merely supposed to work or assumed to work. This includes government.

This is in principle an empirical question. While it is one best suited to the social sciences and therefore not easily settled via controlled experiments, it remains an appropriate one for skeptics to ask and explore.

And yet, while I and others have tried for years to introduce this perspective into the skeptical movement (see, for example, my 1997 article in SI), we have met extraordinary resistance, due to implicit articles of faith within the skeptical movement we would like to respectfully challenge. In all these cases, we don’t dispute the science, but we think there is room for a broader debate on policy.

For example, is more government funding for science always a good thing? Equivalently, must cuts in government funding of science always be opposed?

What are the rights of psychics and fortunetellers? Are we as skeptics at risk for violating them when we take certain policy positions?

As of this writing, CSI has a petition submitted to the FDA to regulate homeopathic medicine similar to other drugs. Should skeptics be so sure this is a good idea?

These are just some policy questions on which libertarian and conservative skeptics have different views from their liberal colleagues. Were our views proportionally represented in skeptical writings, on skeptical websites, and at skeptical conferences, I suspect the discussion on policy issues would be more civil, more dispassionate, and healthier for the skeptical movement as a whole.

Perhaps my perception is inaccurate. Perhaps libertarian and conservative skeptical voices would be welcomed if they spoke out more, wrote more, and contributed more to the skeptic community. Or perhaps we make up a smaller fraction of the skeptical movement than my anecdotal experience suggests.1

I do not know for sure. It would be interesting to find good data, or perhaps to conduct a rigorous poll that attempts to understand better how skeptics describe themselves politically. Perhaps libertarian and conservative skeptics could be encouraged to take a more proactive role in the skeptical movement, and we could see what happens. In that context, I’d respectfully ask my liberal colleagues to be a little more receptive to the ideas of their non-liberal comrades in arms.

We are all bound to run into situations where science conflicts with our values. When that happens, the best we can do is accept the science, state our values explicitly, and work to achieve the world we want. If you’re worried about how the science might be used, work to make sure it’s not used that way. If you’re concerned about science being used to promote an agenda you oppose, show the evidence and state why you oppose it.

Finally, all skeptics should realize that the political power of science, even when used in ways that threaten our own personal values, is a sign of humanity’s progress. It used to be that societies made decisions impacting thousands of lives by casting lots, appealing to revelation, killing animals and examining their entrails, killing humans to appease imaginary beings, and innumerable other appeals to superstition and ignorance. While we continue to fight these same forces in the modern world, it would be both unduly pessimistic and intellectually dishonest to deny the hard-won credibility that science now has.

That ought to be a source of satisfaction to us all.


Note

1. At the 2007 Amazing Meeting (TAM 5), one panelist asked libertarians in the audience to self-identify. By my estimate, between 20 and 25 percent of the conference attendees raised their hands.


For Further Reading:

Fagin, Barry. 1997. Skepticism and politics. Skeptical Inquirer 21(3): 40–43. See also Skepticamp 2011 presentation, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJhSKOfcz9c.

Frazier, Kendrick. 2013. Can we have civilized conversations about touchy science policy issues? Skeptical Inquirer 37(1): 4, 25.

Haidt, Jonathan. 2012. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Pantheon Books.

Mooney, Chris. 2012. Why the GOP distrusts science. Skeptical Inquirer 36(4): 8–11. (Letters in reaction, SI, January/February 2013, 37(1): 64–65.)

“Petition Seeks Review of Homeopathic Drugs.” 2011. On CSI website at http://www.csicop.org/news/press_releases/show/petition_seeks_fda_review_of_homeopathic_drugs.

The Skeptical Libertarian: http://www.skepticallibertarian.com/.

Barry Fagin

Barry Fagin is professor of computer science at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. The views represented here are his alone. He is an ACLU National Civil Liberties Award Recipient and a syndicated newspaper columnist who writes frequently about skepticism and critical thinking. In 2012, he was named the Colorado Professor of the Year by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. Readers can contact Dr. Fagin at barry@faginfamily.net.