Tim Minchin's Storm, a magnificent rant about woo and the miracle of reality (the book)




Pop Skeptics are a sad and angry bunch. It’s a bad combination. A bad way to live.


I like a good rant. I collect them. The best ones are found stapled to telephone poles in cities, and I don’t like cities, so my collection of those is unfortunately small. Minchin is a fine ranter, and I get to see him without going into a city!


Saves money, though.


Exactly right. Unless of course you didn’t mean that Storm is the Pop Skeptic. Then you have it exactly backwards.


Will somebody please tell me what a “Pop Skeptic” is?


I assume that it is somebody who questions whether pop is a real genre…


Reusing a definition for “pop psychologist”, a pop skeptic can be used to describe authors, consultants, lecturers and entertainers who are widely perceived as being skeptics, not because of their academic credentials, but because they have projected that image or have been perceived in that way in response to their work.


Seems to be a shibboleth of people mad that skeptics are overwhelmingly atheist or reject creationism without investigating its claims.


Probably somebody who confuses a philosophically unreflective variety of scientism (which they’ve derived from reading populist rather than scholarly books) for actual skepticism? The poem espouses a philosophical perspective which is called metaphysical naturalism - a perspective which, like any metaphysics, is untestable and unfalsifiable by the scientific method. To conflate this metaphysical view with the scientific method itself is a form of pseudoscience, which attempts to confer a scientific authority on a set of philosophical assumptions about the nature of the world which are no more than guesswork.


Did you have specific ones in mind, or are we just supposed to feel the nebulous truth of your statement and nod sagely?

I’m not expecting a population-level psychological morbidity comparison or anything, that’d likely be untenable; but I can’t even think of of a single anecdote-worthy ‘dawkinsite-lamenting-a-world-without-the-wonder-he-was-too-small-to-do-more-than-mock-now-on-his-deathbed’ instance, much less enough to pad out a NYT human interest puff-piece.

Am I missing some?


I’m going to make a prediction that any discussion about “Pop Skeptics” in this thread is doomed to consist of people talking past each other about their own interpretation of the meaning of the phrase.


Well, that’s pretty much what I did and it worked for me. :smile:

I like a good rant, as I’ve already said, and I like Minchin’s piece, but I would call it “dueling shibboleths” if I was given the task of titling it.


I have a great fondness for the more philosophically involved flavors of skepticism (if, in large part, because philosophizing for its own sake is recreational); but I think that it is only sometimes fair to say that this ‘unreflective variety of scientism’ is arrived at mostly by ignorance or to say that it is trying to ride the coattails of scientific respectability.

The interesting thing about the ‘scientific method’ (to the degree you can say that there is ‘a’ scientific method) is that it can neither confirm nor deny any particular metaphysical claims; but simply ignores that problem and begins poking at stuff under a set of convenient assumptions that more or less boil down to being a metaphysical naturalist in the lab; but don’t require anything outside of that.

If anything, the slightly less naive ones are even more irksome to the philosophically inclined; because their position is not “Metaphysical naturalism; because I don’t even know that there’s anything else!”; but “Sure, metaphysics is a quagmire of the unprovable and I have nothing new and convincing there; but (as the history of science suggests) you can go far by just assuming an approximately metaphysical-naturalist set of working hypotheses and then getting on with things.”

It’s a very philosophically abrasive position; but it’s not naive ignorance, it’s the position that metaphysics is a millenia-old epistemological quagmire that those of us with finite time would be better off ignoring. That’s why ‘science’ is so appealing, and treated as a model: not because science has proven or disproven anything in the realm of metaphysics (it hasn’t); but because science is all the cool stuff that you can do by treating metaphysics as somebody else’s problem and just getting out and prodding stuff.


Not too sure about the meaning, but I am pretty sure that they live in the red and green regions.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, I disagree completely! You say that the scientific method involves working under “a set of convenient assumptions that more or less boil down to being a metaphysical naturalist in the lab”; this is no more the case than doing mathematics “more or less boils down” to the assumption that nothing else exists other than pure math! Doing math simply requires the assumption that mathematics exist (whether in a Platonic or mental construct sense) and are useful; similarly, doing science only requires the assumption that certain observable properties or forces exist; the extra step that these properties or forces are ALL that exist is nowhere implied or required by the scientific method. You are taking a huge, unjustified leap in your seemingly innocuous “more or less” boiling down here, and it seems to me that your argument is only valid in the very trivial sense that you can play the drums successfully by narrowing your focus to sticks and drum skins. Being a “metaphysical naturalist in the lab” can mean nothing more than this. “It’s a very philosophically abrasive position; but it’s not naive ignorance, it’s the position that metaphysics is a millenia-old epistemological quagmire that those of us with finite time would be better off ignoring.” So you are saying that the “philosophical position” that non-empirical methods of analysis (ie all philosophy and metaphysics) are useless isn’t naive? It’s not only naive but logically untenable. You can only arrive at such a conclusion by philosophical and metaphysical reasoning; but since you ruled this to be useless, you cannot justify your conclusion on your own proscribed terms. Logical positivism was an abject failure because of these insurmountable inconsistencies.


I love that term “shibboleth”. It’s so Lovecraftian! Much scarier than the straw man and the True Scotsman (though a True Scotsman is pretty scary in his own right).

From Wikipedia, here are the disturbing origins of the “shibboleth”:

The term originates from the Hebrew word shibbólet (שִׁבֹּלֶת), which literally means the part of a plant containing grains, such as an ear of corn or a stalk of grain or, in different contexts, “stream, torrent”. The modern usage derives from an account in the Hebrew Bible, in which pronunciation of this word was used to distinguish Ephraimites, whose dialect lacked a /ʃ/ phoneme (as in shoe), from Gileadites whose dialect did include such a phoneme.

Recorded in the Book of Judges, chapter 12, after the inhabitants of Gilead inflicted a military defeat upon the tribe of Ephraim (around 1370–1070 BC), the surviving Ephraimites tried to cross the Jordan River back into their home territory and the Gileadites secured the river’s fords to stop them. In order to identify and kill these refugees, the Gileadites put each refugee to a simple test:

Gilead then cut Ephraim off from the fords of the Jordan, and whenever Ephraimite fugitives said, ‘Let me cross,’ the men of Gilead would ask, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he said, ‘No,’ they then said, ‘Very well, say “Shibboleth” (שבלת).’ If anyone said, “Sibboleth” (סבלת), because he could not pronounce it, then they would seize him and kill him by the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed on this occasion.

—Judges 12:5–6, NJB


True in part; but only in part: the ‘scientific method’ does not require that the properties, forces, and objects it deals with be all that there is; but it does require that any other phenomena either refrain from meddling with these things while the empiricists are looking at them, or meddle so consistently and predictably that the ‘meddling’ is simply the hidden mechanism by which observable physical laws are enacted, or to meddle so sporadically and subtly that the meddling remains obscured by the noise of questionable eyewitness reports, human perceptual limitations, and so on.

To take your example of mathematics, doing math requires nothing more than assuming some axioms, and neither confirms nor denies anything else; but if it turned out that some of the properties of sets, or the definition of ‘right triangle’ changed in the presence of high neutron flux; mathematics would either have to make additional demands upon the world to exclude those conditions or expand its scope to include set theory and irradiated set theory.

In the case of ‘scientific method’ this means that anyone who thinks that ‘science’ can distinguish between different systems of metaphysics that equally keep their hands off the lab glass is engaging in pure wishful thinking. Between, say, a atheist, a deist, and a nominal theist who doesn’t emphasize miracles, it can draw no distinction. However, it very definitely makes claims about, and demands of, any metaphysics that would have implications for the objects that science observes. For the body of metaphysics as a whole, that takes a fairly tiny bite out of an arbitrarily large set of possibilities; but it is…less kind… to many of the emotionally salient and historically cherished metaphysical systems that involve rather a lot of supernormal tampering with human affairs.


Earliest recorded use of a Biometric Identity Security Solution for Border Control and Homeland Security?


I’ve been trying for some time to figure out how to say exactly what you just said in your last paragraph, but in a single sentence suitable for a LOLcat T-shirt. No luck so far.