Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Skepticism of skepticism of skepticism, and wi-fi woo-woo

One often meets a theist who believes, erroneously, that atheism is in all its forms accounted for by a hatred for whichever deity failed to deliver on the wanted goods. This is an unfortunate assumption, however common -- it presumes that there couldn't possibly be reasonable reasons for one's disbelief. Contrary to their theory about our collective god-hating, the majority of atheists I've known arrived at their position via a process of self-inquiry, consideration of the evidence, and skeptical thought. That is, their atheism is more of a judgment arrived at, rather than a reaction brought about by fear or anger. When I try to explain the true origins of such atheism to the folks who think we're just irritated that our prayers weren't answered, I encounter an interesting attitude: skepticism of skepticism.

This recursive skepticism is terrifically convenient for theistic apologists, double-standard though it is, since it de-legitimatizes skepticism as a way of considering the question of the existence of gods, while reserving the right to exercise skepticism to cast doubt on any claim skeptical of theism. It reminds one of the old atheistic bromide -- "We are both atheists, my dear Christian. I simply believe in one less god than you" -- turned on its head "We are both skeptics, my dear atheist. I simply am skeptical of one more thing than you are, that is, I am skeptical of your skepticism." We might fall into a recursive tumble chamber here, flexing our own reciprocal skepticism at this skepticism of skepticism, and so on, if we didn't sit up right straight and say: hey, this is wolfish disingenuity in skeptic's clothing. Skepticism is a tool for evaluating claims, and as there is a right way to employ it, there certainly are wrong ways. One of those wrong ways is to impishly turn this tool of inquiry upon itself, and call the entire scheme of rationality into question.

Of course, if we abandon skepticism, we have few other options aside from dogmatism and relativism, the former being the principle that certain things are true because someone said so a long time ago in an impressive way, the latter being the principle that anything a body says is true because, well, who are we to say otherwise. These are dangerous enemies, these too, and recent news from England gives us a reminder of how seemingly innocuous skepticism of skepticism can allow nonsense to flourish and bear alarming fruit.

The headline reads: "Mystics Combat Wi-Fi With Orgone"

In the alternative health-crazed community of Glastonbury, "healers" are demanding the removal of the nation's first free community wi-fi network. Their protest is grounded in concern for public health, they say; for the radiation emitted from and electromagnetic fields generated by the various wi-fi components are disrupting the energy balance of human bodies and the living earth. Chakra pollution and ley line imbalance have prompted all kinds of complaints, from headache and soreness, to fatigue and, er, headache.

Matt Todd, identified by the Telegraph as a campaigner against electromagnetic fields (is he boycotting the sun, as well?) has responded to these health complaints by planting orgone generators around the town: "The pyramid-like machines use quartz crystals, selenite (a clear form of the mineral gypsum), semi-precious lapis lazuli stones, gold leaf and copper coil to absorb and recycle the supposedly-negative energy."

Todd and other alternative health advocates have bought into Wilhelm Reich's orgone theory, which posits the existence of a biological energy flowing through and vitalizing all living things, including the good green Earth. This orgone flow is unfortunately vulnerable to disruption by our modern savage gadgetry. Sounds reasonable, no? Electrons flow through metal, orgones flow through marrow, nucleons flow through nuclei, bobitrons flow through roberts, all is right with the world.

Or perhaps it sounds incredible to you -- there wasn't any mention of orgone energy in freshman bio that I recall. But don't bother bringing your skepticism to bear on these claims, since orgone theory isn't empirically valid. It is dogmatic -- Reich made his claims, and his followers accepted and continue to promote them, and there is nary a moment to ask about "evidence." Ah -- but such proponents are terrifically skeptical when asked whether the complete absence of orgone theory in science and industry implies anything about its credibility. Says Mr. Todd in the Telegraph article, "The science hasn't really got into the mainstream because the Government won't make decisions which will affect big business, even if it concerns everyone's health."

The scenario plays out as follows: The government constructs a free wi-fi network for common good. The dogmatic orgonians oppose this effort, since their opposition is an opportunity to exercise their right to be heard as a constituency, and from political acknowledgment follows a passive endorsement of their crackpot theories. Skeptics point out the crackpottedness running amok; the orgonites retaliate with their own skepticism, and the objective media fail to distinguish between the honest skeptics and those who are full of it (full of orgone, presumably).

Among the possible outcomes, I fear two. One, that the government, reluctant to impose an obviously unwanted technology on the community, dismantles the wi-fi network. The community has one less access point to the realm of information, and settles comfortably back into its medieval woo-woo ignorance. The other, is that though the network remains, the orgone fringe continues to make its silly noise, and the media continue, with their obliviousness which wears the colors of neutrality, to imply that orgone theory and its ilk are as valid as science, just woefully opposed by dogmatic empiricists. The community suffers all the ill health of EMF immersion (that is, none) and pseudoscience enjoys visibility and normalization. Relativity reigns. Sales of selenite skyrocket.

I do think one should be skeptical of one's self. But it does not follow that all skepticism is equal; as the Devil may quote scripture, skepticism can be used to dishonest purposes. Orgone energy does not exist; the citizens of Glastonbury are not necessarily healthier without a free wi-fi network; it is not fair to say that the skepticism which Mr. Todd shows toward science is of the same species as that directed toward alternative medicine by skeptics.

NB: Over at the Skeptico blog post about this Glastonbury nonsense, one commenter has a great suggestion: the town council can sell the orgone generators, for "entertainment purposes only," and thus the New Age brigade can help subsidize the wi-fi network.