Dinner With the Unknowers: The NYC Skeptics Break Bread

It’s a well-trod truism of folk science that you can’t prove a negative. But can you build a popular movement–or at least a well-received dinner party–around one?

“We probably should ask for them to bring the menus. People can order, and then we’ll get started.”

Massimo Pigliucci was planted at the Da Vincian midpoint of a long, white-clothed supper table set for just over a dozen. The restaurant was, appropriately, Italian; the neighborhood, regrettably, Kips Bay; the time, just after 7 last Tuesday night. The chair of the philosophy department at Lehman College–and possessor of second and third doctorates in botany and genetics, besides–Mr. Pigliucci looks like the Platonic ideal, or at least the Wachowskian archetype, of a modern epistemologist of science: wire-frame glasses (silver), close-cropped hair (silver), round, surgical-steel stud in his left lobe (black).

Like Jesus, Mr. Pigliucci tends to gesticulate when welcoming or admonishing his dining companions; unlike Jesus, one of his hands is constrained in a cast, and he finds the idea of God and believers in God–not to mention homeopathy–insipid, violently ignorant and begging for forcible conversion.

The first point occupied a pre-dinner chat with his nearest tablemates (if not quite disciples), including Joel, a retired psychologist, and John and Daryl, heretofore strangers but, implausibly enough, both poets. Mr. Pigliucci’s hand was recently operated on, and he told them he’d only taken one of the pain pills his doctor prescribed. He joked about making a fortune selling the rest on the street.

“What are they–Percocets, Vicodins?”

“No, it was–something better.”

When he remembered they were OxyContins, the conversation shifted seamlessly, inexorably, to Rush Limbaugh. For New York City Skeptics, the sect that sponsors the monthly dinner, Rush Limbaugh is something like the Pilate of rapacious, idolatrous mass culture.

After the waitress took the drink orders–perhaps three-fourths white wine–Mr. Pigliucci laid down the ground rules and, so to speak, broke the bread, rapidly.

“So, the topic for this week’s discussion is, ‘Is there anything unique about human beings?’ Not individual human beings, because you can argue easily that each one of us is of course unique–in the trivial sense of being unique.

“But the question–the other way to put it is–‘Is there such a thing as human nature?’ Is there such a thing as some characteristic or characteristics that distinguish human beings from the rest of the living world?

“Now, there’s a long history of people saying yes, and an equally long history of people being wrong, no matter what the criteria that they suggest. You can go back all the way to Aristotle, who said that we are the rational animal. So maybe we are the rational animal, though recent research in cognitive science suggests we are more than anything the rationalizing animal.”

The table laughed the especially heartening kind of laugh brought on by an inside joke.

After Mr. Pigliucci’s breathless introduction, the Skeptics erupted with enough Big Questions to account for the average bourgeois New Yorker’s last three group dinners–or 30 white wines. Hai-Ting Chinn, an opera singer, wondered whether considering oneself a humanist necessarily implied a belief in human exceptionalism. Computer developer Bill, co-organizer of the dinner, asked what the neuro-atypical–read: retarded–do to generalizations about species difference.


A definitional note: The “Skeptic” in N.Y.C. Skeptics is not a relational or situational term, any more than the “Believer” in The Believer is. “Skepticism” about anthropogenic climate change is a classic anti-Skeptical position, like believing in Hayekian neo-liberalism is a classic anti-Believer one.

It is also not, as The Observer discovered the hard way, what’s known as “philosophical skepticism,” the very ancient and very Matrix-y idea that it’s impossible to know whether we actually know the things that we know. This type of argument tends to be considered indulgent, finicky and perverse by movement Skeptics; for instance, saying at dinner that one can’t be sure if anyone else at dinner actually thinks the way he does–that is, like a human and not an automaton or elephant seal–is liable to draw a dozen or more simultaneous guffaws.

To the contrary, Skepticism starts with the feeling of being under siege by the nonthinking. It becomes Skepticism with the faith that there must be people out there who think like you do–that is, who think. 

“I got into Skepticism in the ’90s,” Mr. Pigliucci wrote in an email, “after I moved to Knoxville, Tennessee. I was freshly appointed assistant professor of evolutionary biology, and during my second semester there the Tennessee legislature tried to pass an equal-time-for-creationism law. I got involved with colleagues and graduate students, and pretty soon I was writing op-eds, giving talks and eventually writing books. It is an involvement that has immensely enriched my life and added meaning to it.”

One becomes a Skeptic, he said, as a “reaction against superstition and unreason”; the mission of Skepticism is “to further the role of reason and evidence in our society.”

For a movement that seems to attract a disproportionate number of scientists, technologists and artists, Skepticism is surprisingly indebted to stage magicians–at least the ones who admit that they’re in the business of physical and cognitive illusion and not spiritual divination. James Randi (the amazing one) became the godfather of the movement in the 1970s by accusing the psychic Uri Geller of fraud; Penn & Teller’s Showtime series Bullshit carries on the tradition today.

Dinner With the Unknowers: The NYC Skeptics Break Bread