Monthly Archives: August 2015

The Role of Role Models: Massimo Pigliucci at TAM! 2015

What if it came out that Neil deGrasse Tyson believed in Bigfoot? Or that Richard Dawkins was all about astrology? Maybe Bill Nye is anti-GMO. What’s that? Oh.

Yes, Bill Nye the Science Guy, bowtied slinger of truth to a generation of children, was once a GMO skeptic — in the strictest sense of the term. Many people who describe themselves that way are actually better characterized as deniers. They see all the evidence that there’s nothing dangerous or icky about the genetic modification process itself, but refuse to accept it. Maybe they think the research is tainted, or there needs to be even more testing.

When Bill Nye finally saw those studies, he did something remarkable — he adjusted his viewpoint based on the evidence. That’s not an easy feat. Now the science advocate stands as a living example of how skepticism is done. If you say “show me” and the other side brings the goods, you’d better be ready to give up your old position. There’s no shame in saying, “I was wrong.” Nye responded in the only logically appropriate way he could have.

But what if he didn’t? What if the man who lectures against climate change denial, a hero of science communication, had doubled down on his faulty argument? What kind of message would that have sent to people outside the skeptical community, or to self-described skeptics themselves?

A True Scotsman

Not much of one, CUNY philosopher of science Massimo Pigliucci might argue. He doesn’t like the word “hero,” because everyone is fallible, and seeing a hero fall short of ideals can cause those who look up to that person an unwarranted crisis of conscience.

massimoMassimo Pigliucci at TAM! 2015. Photo by Jonathan Nelson

Pigliucci prefers the term “role model,” as he told the attendees of the 2015 James Randi Educational Foundation’s Amaz!ng Meeting! (TAM!) in Las Vegas, Nev., this July. He and several other prominent figures in the skeptical community were there to honor the late Martin Gardner, one of the pioneers of the organized skepticism movement which began in the mid-20th century.

“I’m going to use him as a role model, or [a] role model about role models in skepticism,” Pigliucci said.

Gardner’s only degree was a bachelor’s of arts in philosophy, but he became widely known for the mathematical puzzles he regularly published in Scientifc American magazine. He was a founding member of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), the country’s first organized group for skeptics, and published over 100 books on pseudoscience, magic, math and other topics over the course of his life.

“Gardner epitomized the very ideal of a public intellectual,” read one of Pigliucci’s slides.

And yet, some of the views Gardner held might surprise a lot of skeptics. For instance, Gardner believed in mathematical Platonism, the idea that everything is actually made up of mathematical constructs. That sounds kind of off, and it can’t really be proven empirically, but plenty of mathematicians and philosophers believe something similar.

“Gardner’s position was weird, but not crazy,” Pigliucci said.

It gets weirder. Gardner also subscribed to mind “mysterianism,” meaning he thought the fundamental nature of human consciousness may be unknowable. Again, that might not seem so out there at first blush, but what made him think that? Have we observed anything specific that would make addressing the issue of consciousness unavoidably impossible? Not really. Mysterianism is pretty much just an assumption based on the problem appearing to be difficult. But lots of difficult-looking problems have been solved; why should this one be any different?

gardnerMartin Gardner, from cscicop.org

Pigliucci’s final hard-to-defend belief of Gardner’s was probably the toughest one for the average skeptic to swallow. Gardner was a philosophical theist. He didn’t belong to an organized religion, but he still believed in a personal god. In seeming defiance of his otherwise universal skepticism and desire for evidence, Gardner admitted that the atheists had all the best arguments and he was left without much of a defense for this stance. Gardner said he believed simply because it made him feel better.

Feet of Clay

Are there any lessons to be learned here?” Pigliucci asked the crowd. “I think there are three.”

Firstly, Pigliucci explained, skepticism is an attitude, not a checklist of positions everyone has to adhere to. Skeptics are taught to think for themselves, the opposite of falling in lockstep with a crowd of any kind. It’s also crucial to realize, as we’ve all seen with Bill Nye’s early misunderstanding of GMOs, role models (not “heroes”) are as fallible as everyone else, and shouldn’t be held to impossible standards. You can point to a  a person as a role model, someone whose way of thinking you’d like to emulate, but don’t despair when they turn out to be a human being like everyone else.

Perhaps most importantly, skeptics also need to admit that people can have questionable positions, ones that they came to for less-than-rational-reasons, and not be kicked out of the club. Is it so bad for the rest of the world to see a skeptic stumble now and then? It could show the community’s sympathetic side by saying, “We know this is tough; it even is for us.” The alternative of excluding anyone with a hole in their game from public participation would leave a lot fewer skeptics in a time when they might be most needed. Even one of the best ever wouldn’t qualify.