Paul Kurtz – Science and the Limits of the New Skepticism

April 24, 2009

Paul Kurtz is founder and chair of the Center for Inquiry and a number of other organizations. A Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, chairman of the Committee for the Skeptical Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism, and Prometheus Books. He is the author or editor of almost fifty books, including The New Skepticism: Inquiry and Reliable Knowledge. Throughout the last four decades, Kurtz has been a leading defender of science and reason against the prevailing cults of irrationality in our society, and has been interviewed widely in the media on subjects ranging from alternative medicine and communication with the dead, to the historicity of Jesus and parapsychology.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Paul Kurtz discusses the rationale for changing the name of CSICOP to the Committee of Skeptical Inquiry. He argues that the organized skeptical movement should apply the methods of scientific and skeptical inquiry to religion, and not just to paranormal claims, and he contrasts this approach with a direct atheistic assault on belief in God. He argues that while skepticism is essential to science, that the skeptical movement should promote the application of the methods of scientific inquiry into politics and economics, and talks about how divisive this may be within the skeptical movement. He considers whether political and economic questions are as amenable to critical thinking and skeptical inquiry as are paranormal claims. He talks about global warming and the extent to which the scientific community should be attentive to “global warming skeptics.” He explains why he is cautious of certainty, contrasting certain knowledge with reliable knowledge, and recounts examples in the history of science when widely believed scientific theories were overturned by a small minority of new theorists. He talks about political and economic views he once held that he no longer holds. He contrasts skeptical inquiry with the classical skepticism of ancient Greece and Rome. And he argues that the new skepticism is not negative nor nay-saying, but rather is an affirmative and constructive philosophical worldview.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, April 24th, 2009. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m DJ Grothe the point of inquiries, the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. Before we get to this week’s guest, I’d like to invite our listeners that if you want updates throughout the week about the kinds of things we’re into on this show, find us on Twitter or on Facebook. My guest this week is Paul Kurtz, founder and chair of the Center for Inquiry and a number of other critical thinking organizations. He’s a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Chairman of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. The Council for Secular Humanism. And also Prometheus Books. He’s the author or editor of almost 50 books, including the title The New Skepticism, Inquiry and Reliable Knowledge. Throughout almost the last 40 years, he’s been one of the leading defenders of science and reason in our society against the prevailing cults of irrationality out there. He’s been interviewed widely in the media on subjects ranging from alternative medicine and communication with the dead to the historicity of Jesus and whether or not we can survive death. Today, we’re going to talk with him about the new skepticism. 

Welcome back to a point of inquiry, Paul Kurtz, D.J., I’m delighted to be here again on your great show. 

Well, I’m happy to have you back on. I can’t believe we’re at almost 200 shows now. You were our very first. 

Well, you’ve made a great impact. 

Paul, I invited you on to talk about this new direction. You’ve been leading the organized skeptical movement, really the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. First off, you see us. I mean, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry used to be called Saikat, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Paul, I loved that old name. 

Well, we were called Cyclops is by the people. And it was too long, so we shortened it. 

Okay, so that’s the answer to the question I didn’t ask. You changed it basically, because it was just kind of a mouthful or. 

Well, not only that, we’re not only focusing on the paranormal. I founded the Skeptics movement in 1976, along with other colleagues, and it was had a great impact because psychics and UFO and astrologers were going strong. And I think we did a great deal to test her claim. And in one sense, it burst the balloon. So it’s not as popular as it used to be. 

You’re saying belief in the paranormal is not as widespread decline somewhat. 

And so we have to turn to a wide range of topics, not only the paranormal. That’s what we’ve been doing. 

You mean now that you’re broadening the focus of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry? It’s not just about the paranormal or the pseudoscience stuff. 

Well, it’s not. It has not just been about the paranormal historically, but we were large to a great extent focusing on that. So now we’re really moving beyond. And you’re correct. 

Well, let me put it this way, Paul. Does it mean with a broader focus that maybe organized skepticism is becoming more unfocused? In other words, it’s not as focused as well. 

It should not be only focused on the paranormal. And we argue that it’s essential as a tool of inquiry and that in the sciences in particular, you have to be skeptical. 

You have to raise questions. You have to doubt hypotheses or theories until you find evidence for it. So it’s a generalized method that you should use in the sciences and all other fields as well. 

So really, this method applies to all areas of interest. No questions should be off limits. We’re not just talking about things that go bump in the night. 

Well, that’s that’s correct. And it should be used in everyday life. And and we indeed we do. I think it’s the mark of an educated mind of reflective intelligence to raise questions about any about any area of human interest. 

So what are some of these new areas that CSI and that you are nudging the organized, skeptical movement to get into what? Politics, religion, economics? 

Well, I should say first to focus on critical thinking and did to hone our skills to think critically about any subject. But the main point is first in all of the sciences. Yes. No matter what the science, the social sciences, the behavioral sciences, the natural sciences, the theory of evolution everywhere. But do we have to go beyond that? Of course. And one area that needs examination is religion. And many of the skeptics at one time were very reluctant to criticize religion. So the method of skeptical inquiry should apply to religious claims as well as the paranormal. 

Historically, there was this kind of division of labor where in terms of the organizations that you founded, the Council for Secular Humanism, concentrated on critically examining religion. Other organizations you founded, you know, there’s more scholarly, some more activist. And then on the paranormal side, there was Saikat. Back then, there was this division of labor. Do you think there should still be that division of labor? 

No, I don’t think so. Well, it depends on the specialists. 

Now, in in the area of the paranormal, we have specialists such as John McCain’s Randy Yeah, James Ranvir show nickled that stands out and others. 

So you do have specialists, but I think you relish any question. It’s open to critical scrutiny. And the question of religion requires scholarship. I don’t believe in any kind of direct atheistic assault. I think that’s a mistake. I think you ought to use the best kind of critical investigation, drawing on the best empirical research and the greatest specialists in order to examine the claim. 

It seems like you’re contrasting their a kind of village Athie ism from a more academic, scholarly, critical assessment of religious Clell by all means. 

I, I know I can appreciate the village atheists and indeed so-called New Atheists, and they had a point and I’m not sure you’d put both of those in the same note. They’re not the same. The village atheist. As always, the man is set up and raised the real descending point of view, and often he was cheered, but he played a key role. And the new atheists have come forth. But I think we have to go beyond that. You know, since so many people are committed to religious faith, you really have to carefully examine the claims, whether it’s Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, drawing on the best talent that you have. 

Mm hmm. I’d like to let our listeners know that you can see a video of Paul Kurtz talking about the affirmations of the new skepticism through our website point of inquiry dot org. Paul, it it also sounds like it’s not just religion, which is part of the new new focus of the organized skeptical movement. Although if you look at luminaries like James Randi or Michael Shermer or others, including yourself, you’ve all, as skeptics, spoken out about religion increasingly, you know, both of them have come out as brights or whatever it was. And Shermer has written books about his kind of religious skepticism. 

That’s very true. And he’s done a good job. But, you know, I use the term affirmations of the new skepticism and now it’s run on the back cover of the Skeptical Inquirer because it’s something affirmative. It’s not negative. The other area that he’s examining should, of course, is politics. 

Right. I was just going to get there. But that raises another quandary, because historically in this skeptic’s movement, in the humanist movement as well, there’s been a kind of avoidance of big political questions because we were a political you know, there were liberals who were active in our efforts and conservatives and and libertarians and what Social Democrats, Democratic socialists, if you start applying skepticism to all of these political and economic systems, kind of in the same way that you would apply skepticism to paranormal claims. Isn’t that gonna be kind of a divisive thing in this book unnecessarily? 

I do not saying that we do it unless we’re really skilled in this area. But no society needs a kind of critical eye. And it’s really the political domain only claims made. Now, fortunately, we have a lot of columnists and editorial writers who do that. But I think we have to bring the best intelligence to bear. Take this question of global warming. Now, a preponderance of science is accept global warming. And I do, too. I think the evidence is very, very strong indeed. 

Well, you accept the evidence for it. You don’t accept the fact that it happens like you’re not celebrating it. 

Yeah, well, no. Well, I mean, I think we have to be cautious about the implications and that we need to not pollute the atmosphere to reduce global warming. But there are skeptics. So the point I’m making, E.J., here’s one area in which critical inquiry is important and which ought to be debate and that we ought to bring the best talent to examine the claims. Is the planet becoming warmer? Yes. And is this due to human activity and those who many of them claim that it is. Others deny it. So that’s that is open to scrutiny. Evidence, evidence, evidence. That’s what we demand. 

And when you look at a question like global warming, though, and you look at the evidence, there seems to be widespread consensus that it is real. And to talk about needing to open up critical inquiry into the claims or having a debate about it really riles up the establishment. They say, wait, there is no debate. There is no reason to even explore these questions because we are certain that it’s happened. 

Well, I I’m cautious of certainty. I think the principle of fallibilities, which was introduced by Charles Pearse, the father pragmatism. He said that we can never say that this is final. Absolutely true in any sense. So we are always to be prepared to doubt even the hypotheses or theory that seem well established. And there are a significant number of, let’s say a minority of people are skeptical of global warming. I don’t fit into that category. But nonetheless, we have to listen to them and the claims made. 

Isn’t there a point at which, though, that you should just shut the door? I mean, you don’t want to condone. 

I wouldn’t do that by a lot of voters as it is a responsible claim. I mean, if you have some of the defense of flat earth. Well, you know, we listen to them. That’s hardly responsible. But if you go back to 1915, thereabouts, when Wegner, a German geologists claim that the continents were shifting and moving over a period of time, he was laughed at at a court and no one would accept that. And it was it was a final dictum that the continents were stable and did not change. But the evidence now is clear that the continent has. And over a period of time. And so even the so-called received documents and signs were criticized and modified. 

So staying on this point about kind of casting a critical eye, a skeptical eye to say economics. If you look for a ghost and you don’t find any evidence for it whatsoever, you can reasonably conclude that it isn’t there. But are the questions as cut and dry when it comes to the economic arena? Are political questions say as amendable to reason and critical thinking is maybe also more a subject. But people of equal intelligence and critical thinking standards, they look they may disagree about taxes or regulating industry. 

That’s true that you’re talking about policy, public policy. But take economics as a science. Is it a science? Well, you have Adam Smith, a classical book, The Wealth of Nations, and you have models of the rational consumer who makes choices in the marketplace and considers whether or not he should buy or produce or consume based upon the cost factors. Well, it turns out that humans are not entirely rational. And although that model is very, very helpful, if often breaks down because emotion enters in, as advertisers know, so that the critical examination of the claims of economists, surely these are important and the economists disagree. I mean, not everybody agrees with Milton Friedman or the libertarian. And you have Social Democrats who have other models. Lord Kanes, the great Keynesian economist, disagrees with Milton Friedman. Right. So the consumer or if you will, the intelligent laymen or the educated student needs to apply critical thinking and the skeptical method to that. The differing points of view of economists and economists do disagree very much so. 

But in there, there seems to be a suggestion that if you apply the this method of skeptical inquiry that will all arrive at the same place. 

Where would that the case, T.J.? I mean, there are schools of economics like there, schools of philosophy. I mean, in philosophy, you have widespread disagreements historically and even today. Therefore, every field needs critical scrutiny. 

Look at history. We can dispute about things that happened in the past. Who assassinated Lincoln? Did he get a highway? And a great interest in that. So history is an applied science. You use circumstantial evidence, but you always have to have a critical eye to make sure that historical interpretation is correct. 

So I. I hear where you’re coming from. The skepticism should be widely apply. But here’s a concern. When you look at paranormal or pseudoscientific claims, scientists don’t widely disagree. It’s not like there’s a conservative in a liberal camp when it comes to whether or not ghosts exist. They look at the evidence and and wherever you fall on the political spectrum, you’re if if you’re committed to this method of inquiry, you’re going to agree with your fellow, even if he’s on the opposite side of the political spectrum about this skeptical question of ghosts. But if you apply the same kind of methodology to politics or economics, you won’t necessarily arrive at consensus. 

No, you don’t. Indeed. And actually, if you look back at the paranormal, when we came on the scene, there were many parapsychologists in the 70s and 80s who claim that there was evidence for E.S.P. And there are some who still do. So I don’t think it’s up that everyone’s a skeptic in the field. You have to look at it very carefully and look at the experimental data. But I agree that the field of economics, though there is disagreement and there are schools, is somewhat different than the paranormal. 

Take astrology. I mean, as I can, I know of no sufficient evidence for astrological claims. Astrology is a kind of mythological art. It’s not a science. So you can be skeptical. I hope that not maybe in parapsychology or ufology. We have an open mind about creatures from outer space. So in economics, there is disagreement and unique critical thinking. 

Where does that critical thinking bring you? I mean, what do you get out of it? If the conservative applies critical thinking, any becomes more of a kind of Chicago school libertarian and the progressive applies critical thinking and becomes more of a leftist. It seems like that critical thinking becomes a tool only to justify or more effectively argue for your previously held. 

Well, I think that’s very well stated, yes, but hopefully you can work out certain principles that you would share. I mean, the great debate today that the Bush administration for eight years has used libertarian free market economics and huge deficit spending. And we ran into great difficulty economically. So now there’s an effort to apply Keynesian economics well with deficit spending again in order to get out of this. So economics is a science, dismal science, but there’s still widespread disagreement and there’s no substitute for evaluating the claims yourself. Mm hmm. 

Well, we’ll move on from economics, but evaluating claims, you know, the smart Chicago school economists, they evaluate their claims and they’re really smart and they have great arguments. 

And the Keynesian folks have great arguments and they both use this kind of well, we’re tapping the Keynesian theory today with this enormous deficit spending. I think the Republicans under Bush were against deficit spending, but they really had huge deficits. And now we’re consciously developing deficits by the government, hoping that it will get us out of it. Right. There are large scale claims being tested throughout the world, at least under the Keynesians. 

The government spends a lot, but they tax to pay for it. You know, under the kind of the Bush regime, the government spent a lot but didn’t tax to pay for it. 

Bush aides claim it reduced taxes and you’ll stimulate the economy. The Keynesian doesn’t disagree with all of that, but nonetheless, they do not hold this notion of taxation as that is the road to nirvana. So you need government spending to stimulate the economy. And so there are differences there between two economic schools. 

I want to just move on from this application of skepticism to economics, because it seems like it’s a big issue and it is a shift for the skeptics movement. We had historically stayed out of stuff like politics and economics and religion. 

Well, I think and I think that is unfortunate. I think we need to teach in the colleges and indeed in the secondary schools. Critical thinking, applied logic and appreciation for the scientific method with the understanding that it should apply everywhere and not simply in the traditional field. And that’s that is the mark of education. Unless you unless you’re willing to change your point of view, unless you’re willing to bet you may be mistaken, unless you’re willing to listen to those you disagree with, then you have a closed mind. So an open mind is crucial to science, and that’s what we want to cultivate. 

Have you ever changed your mind about an economic position or a political position? Yes. 

Often, yes, indeed. And in my investments, especially listening to the stock market pundits who tell us where they invested worrying about your your retirement income. 

I think I was getting at things earlier on in your life. Weren’t you charmed at one point, possibly with a kind of Marxist? No. 

Yeah, well, I should say that when I grew up, practically everybody I know was a socialist. Now, I know you can’t mention that in the United States today, but the governments of Europe are still socialist socialist government. 

I guess you’d call them mixed economies if it’s our economy. 

But nonetheless, the socialist project, another economic theory which goes back to Marxism. I think everyone grants that Marxism as the planned economy was a mistake. And the Russians and the Chinese have learned that centralized economic planning does not work. You have no incentive. And if you want growth, you need a market economy. And the Chinese have learned that as well as anybody, and their economy is growing by leaps and bounds. 

So you’ve changed your mind about that? You might have flirted with Marxism as a young man, but you became more of what a libertarian as time went on? 

Well, yes. I mean, I I’m a kind of Marxist social Democrat, if you will. And I think you have to draw I think you need need market economy, but you have to be concerned not simply with gross national product, but the quality of life and with distribution and dealing with those who are disadvantaged. 

I love hearing you describe yourself as a social Democrat when if you look at how you’re received in in kind of the conservative intellectual tradition in the United States, you are often claimed as a libertarian. 

Well, well, I’m a libertarian and morality and a libertarian in politics because I believe in civil liberties. But in economics, I’m a libertarian in the sense that I think we need market economies. However, I would modify that. As a social Democrat, that we have to be concerned with social justice distribution and making it possible that those who are disadvantaged disadvantage will be given the opportunity to rise Jim Underdown you’re like a good European. 

Well, that that is the fact European economies are mixed. I mean, you have a Labor government in Britain. 

You had the the socialists in power and France and Germany libertarianism now is in Germany. So you have these mixed economies. And I think that’s a point that many economic principles and you have to test them. And it may be that you work out a kind of combination of them. And that seems the wisest policy. 

Paul, you’ve written this new thing. I mentioned affirmations of the new skepticism. Your big push there is to emphasize skeptical inquiry as opposed to just the classical kind of skepticism of ancient Greece. 

You know, classical skepticism, if you go back to the Greeks, was often nihilistic listing. It was totally negative. You go back to Pyro and Cratylus in ancient Greece and Rome, and they thought no knowledge was possible. And then later, skepticism was rediscovered in modern science by Descartes and others. Even Galileo and you. And so you got kind of mitigated skeptics. Our knowledge was limited and that applied to ethics to you could not make moral judgments. I think that position in the extreme statement is mistaken. And it seems to me skepticism is positive. It contributes to reliable knowledge. So then the difference is the classical skeptics thought no knowledge was possible. 

They’re kind of like the postmodernists. 

Yes. Yes. In that sense. Very much so. And they thought no ethical principles were possible. I think that’s patently false. Knowledge is possible, reliable. 

And the sciences are expanding constantly. And I think I believe in ethical knowledge. 

So you can have reliable knowledge even if you don’t have certain knowledge. 

Oh, yes. Well, I think that notion of certainty is mistaken. I mean, there is. It’s true that there are high degrees of probability and we may be relatively certain in certain contexts, but basically the principle of fallible is to go back to that, that we may be mistaken and we should have an open mind and be willing to modify our series on our beliefs and that it seems to me, to be the posture of an educated mind. 

Paul, I want to end with you reading a snippet from the affirmations of the new skepticism and also remind our listeners that they can see an online video of your presenting the whole thing. But before we get to that. Tell me if I got it right. It seems like you are now making skepticism into something more than just religious skepticism or more than just paranormal. Skip Awesome. 

I’ve always believed that you’re kind of making it a way of life for a philosophical life stance. 

It’s a way of life, but it’s not an end. It’s a means to to positive knowledge and to ethical wisdom. It is a process that we should always be prepared to use. The trouble with skepticism, if you become mired in it and you can’t go beyond that, then you’re infinite. So we have knowledge. And this is what I what I say. I say in this we I submit that skepticism is an essential part of scientific inquiry, that it should be extended to all areas of human endeavor, science, everyday life, law, religion, the paranormal, economics, politics, ethics and society, and that the standards of rationality should apply to every area of human interest. But I also say that rational inquiry and skepticism can help us to test our ethical beliefs on moral values, our social policies, and contribute to human well-being. And the conclusion I draw is we’re not negative. Skeptics were not. Naysayers were not simple. Debunkers were not cynics or Netlist. We wished to oppose hypocrisy and deception and illusion. We emphasize the test of evidence and rationality, but we believe in the possibility of knowledge and the possibility of ethical knowledge as well. And therefore, the new skepticism is affirmative and constructive and essential for any educated person. 

Thank you very much for joining me again on point of inquiry. Paul Kurtz, thank you. 

DJ Grothe. 

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Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved with an online conversation about today’s show. Join us at point of inquiry dot org. The views expressed on today’s show aren’t necessarily ZF Eye’s views, nor the views of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org or by visiting our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music is composed for Spight Emmy Award winning Michael Quale. Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.