Monday, January 03, 2011

accommodationism debate

Round 1: http://fledgelingskeptic.com/2010/12/30/accommodation-vs-confrontation-a-debate/

Round 2: http://fledgelingskeptic.com/2010/12/30/accommodation-vs-confrontation-a-debate-round-2/

Round 2 isn’t up yet, here is what I wrote:

It’s widely suggested that skeptics should take a tactical rather than an ideological stance. I’m all for practicality and the idea sounds superficially reasonable. It’s only when it comes to practice that my spider-sense starts tingling. This approach has been called ‘accommodationism’ because it involves accommodating views antithetical to a movement or community in order to achieve some perceived greater good.

There are two troubling issues.  First, it’s unclear whether any such greater good exists; whether the majority of skeptics agree that it’s a greater good; or that accommodation is the best way (or even *a* way) to achieve it.  Second, we must consider the costs of accommodation: compromise is fine in many cases, but compromising one’s *values* or the shared values of a community seems a large price to pay, especially for a dubious goal.

Let’s illustrate by example: the teaching of creationism in schools. It’s for the most part (sadly influential) Christian extremists who want to do this; moderates tend to take Genesis less seriously. Accommodationists hold that if we get moderates on our side, they’ll be our allies in the battle against creationists. It’s important to consider what kind of evidence we’d need to support this assertion. I think we’d need evidence that moderate religious groups tend to be as concerned about the teaching of creationism as are atheist skeptics. If that’s not already part of their agenda, I see little hope that collaboration will be fruitful.  To date I've seen no evidence that it is and much evidence that religious types with even cavernous ideological differences prefer to stick together against the onslaught of evidence and reason.

But suppose we do manage to present a united front against creationism, what would it cost us?  Well, there might be various ways to achieve it, but the *accommodationist* stance holds that we should court the religious; that we should suspend our critical faculties in this particular case; and thereby become hypocrites.  Religion – like other irrational beliefs – is fundamentally incompatible with skepticism and while we might welcome the deluded as skeptics in other areas, we shouldn’t consider their beliefs immune to criticism, and neither should they.  By all means let’s engage with non-skeptics in a friendly and hopefully productive manner, but by regarding their delusions as off-limits to skeptical enquiry, we’re doing several unpalatable things:

• We compromise our core values.
• We risk lending a spurious air of skeptical or scientific credibility to nonsense. In particular, we might imply that certain forms of woo are compatible with skeptical enquiry when they most assuredly are not.
• We necessarily draw lines concerning what we should and shouldn’t accommodate in more or less entirely arbitrary places.
• We dilute the core message of skepticism, which is that everything can and must be questioned.
• We open ourselves to (justified) accusations of hypocrisy.
• We risk alienating hardcore skeptics in favour of short-term goals.
• Other stuff it would be fun to discuss in the comments.

This seems a high cost indeed and I’m not prepared to pay it.
This doesn’t mean I’m not prepared to work with woo practitioners against such evils as teaching creationism in schools.  I've done exactly that in the past.  I’m just more inclined to recognise that we’re all adults and can work together on the things both groups care about, while also recognising our differences

This is not the same as accomodationism: the accomodationist approach is to attract believers to a cause by strategically pretending their woo ain’t woo.  The approach I’m suggesting is that we fight them tooth and nail on all fronts we don’t share.  We use all the tools at our disposal: logic, reason, evidence, ridicule... but we still, if we want to, form brief alliances when they’re useful, without either side ever needing to compromise its values.

Wait, isn’t this how we were doing things anyway before accommodationists started telling us how to be nice?

I don't know whether my approach is the most effective given any particular goals and metrics, let alone in the general case.  But neither does anyone else, including accomodationists.

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