Blog Update: Now Entering Year Two

This blog had its first anniversary last week, but I didn’t see any reason to commemorate the occasion. I haven’t updated it in quite some time, and it’s been even longer since I kept to any sort of regular posting schedule. I’ve been busy with other things that take up most of my time and energy, so I don’t currently have any plans to resume a regular schedule. That could change in the future, but even if you don’t see any updates here, I’ll still be around.

If I do start writing here again, my approach will be different. This is a largely meta issue. Over the last year, I’ve had plenty of occasions for critical self-examination. When I reread many of my old posts, I often find myself wanting to facepalm at how I went about making my points. While my main ideas may have been fine, how I expressed them belies the uncomfortable presence of erroneous (even prejudicial) preconceptions. Ableism, for example, was a thing that I hadn’t ever thought about, and it shows.

It might be interesting to revisit some of my old posts at some point to address the problems I was previously ignorant of, but until that happens, let this blog stand as a testament to the progress a person can make in a year, provided they don’t try to hide behind a screen of motivated reasoning.

Happy late birthday, Subjunctive Morality.

On Offense (Free Speech and The Right to be Wrong)

When I first discovered the online skeptic movement, I was thrilled. A community of people devoting themselves to rationalism—to actively opposing fallacious reasoning and cognitive biases for the noble goal of maximizing truth? I am unequivocally on board with these ideals, and on the whole, the skeptic movement tends to be far better than average in its approach to scientific reasoning. “Better than average,” however, still is not perfect, and the unfortunate reality is that even skeptics fail to exercise critical thinking at times.

There is a distressingly common trend, even among self-styled rationalists, where empty rhetoric is parroted in lieu of rational argument, disregarding the entirety of what someone says if it contains elements that run counter to the former person’s malformed ideals. This runs entirely counter to the expressly stated goals of skepticism. Free speech is one such recurring example. There are those who say that freedom of speech is absolute—that imposing any restrictions on the content or context of someone’s speech is uniformly a violation of that person’s rights. This is, of course, demonstrably false, yet the claim persists. “Free speech” is a nuanced concept, and holding it up as if it were some immaculate, unconditional virtue is the polar opposite of rationality: it is perhaps even dogmatism, that unholy grail of skepticism sins, and those who would have you believe it to be absolute and axiomatic would ask you to surrender your reasoning capacities in favor of their hollow ideology.

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This is my impressed face. Can you tell?

Hoo, boy. I just got a comment on my abortion article, and I can’t tell if it’s laughable or just sad. It’s just a bunch of condescension from someone who certainly hasn’t earned the right to condescend even the four-year-old they write about. Put on your softest gloves before you read this—you’re in for some facepalm material. My comments are in red.

its just astonishing! A person can have brains and yet be so miseducated. (Find me a person without brains, and I’ll wonder why you’ve brought me a corpse.) Perhaps God in his wisdom and humour spread stupidity evenly across humanity irrespective of each intellect. (Oh, there’s a good argument: anyone you disagree with is stupid. Look at the wit on this one!)
Even a child of four knows what is in mums womb. (Well, I guess we know how to save a lot of money on pregnancy tests now!) Now that child may feel they will lose time with mum but they nevertheless know a sister or brother is in their and that the womb protects him or her while so small and defenceless. (Look at the grammar on this one…)
The child wold never jump up and down on her while her mother is pregnant. (Never? Really? That’s quite a claim. You sure you don’t want to walk that one back a bit? No? Okay, then.) Nor would the child think of that pregnancy as a mere question. (Pregnancy isn’t a question. Pregnancy is pregnancy.) For that child the mother has a baby sister or brother in a protective case. (So older siblings own their younger siblings? I don’t think that’s a very good idea.) Its not a question of will she ever see her brother or sister or when. (Do you want to point out what a bad idea it is to think of a fetus as a brother or sister before it’s actually born into the world, or should I? There’s this old adage about counting chickens, and something like a quarter of pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion…)
When the mother tells her child shall she…. it does terrible harm. (You’re missing a grammatical object and an antecedent for that pronoun. Too bad God doesn’t provide copy editing services.) Think about it….mum asks a four year old…shall we kill your little brother or sister? (Why the hell would anyone ask this question? If you’re trusting a potentially major life decision to your four-year-old, you’ve got some serious problems.) What would her or his response be? (Since children are pretty ignorant, it probably wouldn’t be the right response, which I peg as something along the lines of “Mommy, getting an abortion would not be ‘killing my little brother or sister.’ Please seek psychological counseling because you are asking your four-year-old child for medical advice.”)
You can philosophize as much as you like but you wont get closer to the truth unless you have the heart of a child… (This person is obviously doing too much thinking with their heart and not enough with their brain. That probably explains the overall quality of this submission.) i mean a modicum of humility but you proud vain men continue in your revolting rants. (Ah yes, having opinions based on logical reasoning is just so vain and proud. I really should be ashamed, shouldn’t I?)

No doubt, dear reader, you will be surprised to discover that this deeply insightful comment has not succeeded in showing me the error of my terrible, sinful ways. I am no more convinced  by this commenter’s vacuous, inept failure to present (and punctuate!) a coherent thought than I am the living embodiment of King Solomon himself.  (Ah yes, if you want to see a Grade A baby-killing, look no further than that the god of the Bible.)

A suggestion to any future commenters of this magnitude? Your malformed convictions, no matter how strongly held, are worth nothing without at least paying lip service to reason. If you cannot manage to communicate your thoughts in at least a skillful manner as your average middle schooler, do yourself a favor and keep them to yourself.

The Digital Plague

It occurs to me that many of you may not be aware of a very serious epidemic that’s been silently ravaging the globe, so I’d like to take this time to talk with you about it. Before I begin, let me start with the obligatory disclaimer: I am not an epidemiologist. I do not have a degree in virology or anything similar. What you are about to read may not be 100% medically accurate, and I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies. Where I lack the medical jargon to deliver this information with clinical precision, I have instead substituted analogy. In the many places I am sure to deviate from good science, you are encouraged to take my words as the metaphor they are intended to be. Do not give in to the affliction I am soon to discuss. Engage your irony sensors before objecting. Let us now begin to discuss the digital plague—digititis, if you will.

Common symptoms include:

Headaches, vomiting, and nausea in one’s neighbors. Mental flatulence. Reflexive disagreement. Inflamed sense of self-importance. Uncontrollable urge to make everyone know how right one is. Inability to back down. Intermittent fusion of one’s cranium and buttocks.

Of course, this list is not comprehensive, and some of the items need elaboration, so let’s begin, shall we?

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On the Internet and Basic Interpersonal Skills

Disclaimer: If this comes across as ranty, that’s probably because it is.

There’s this trend online where some people seem to think that being in front of a computer entitles them to flout the rules of basic interpersonal decency. For example, in meatspace, you wouldn’t just walk up to a group of strangers engaged in conversation and start throwing your opinions around as fact, condescendingly contradicting everything they were talking about. In most cases, interjecting without at least beginning with an introduction (“Hello, I couldn’t help but overhear you discussing X. Mind if I say something?“) would rightly be regarded as inappropriate behavior, even if you’re officially an expert on the subject. You’d very likely be told to piss off and be disregarded entirely. Why, then, do some people react with such horror to facing the same consequence online? (“I showed up and told you were all wrong, and when I tried to correct your terrible inaccuracies, you were rude to me!“)

“Normal person + anonymity + audience = total fuckwad” Source: Penny Arcade

For all its wonderment, the Internet is not without its flaws. It is ridden with rot in the form of the common presumption that every space defaults to being a debate club, and any argument to the contrary is (wrongly) interpreted as “censorship.” I enjoy arguing as much as the next guy, but only when I’m in the mood. I cannot grok the perspective that says “every exchange must be treated as a faux-scientific debate!” You don’t get to come into my house and tell me how to arrange my furniture. Similarly, you aren’t entitled to enter someone else’s online space and demand they acquiesce to your demands.

This isn’t an issue of critical thinking—you aren’t making an ad hominem fallacy by telling someone who’s being rude to go away. There’s no fallacy involved in saying “I think you are an asshole, so I do not want to associate with you. You are leaving now.” Hell, most of the time you see “ad hominem” thrown around online, it’s being used incorrectly. Getting tired of someone’s dishonest argumentation and washing your hands of them doesn’t magically prove them right, nor does it prove you wrong. As they say, an argument stands on its own merits.

There is no obligation to engage an argument just because it has been left at your doorstep. If saying “I don’t have time or energy to waste on you” made the other person right, we would have to concede that the world is only 6,000 years old. Since it is not, I think it is safe to conclude that being shown the metaphorical door does not make one’s arguments any more valid. There is no such thing as the “fuck off, you ignorant brat” fallacy.*

The most likely explanation that I see for this phenomenon is hubris. “I am so great that I have the right to dictate how other people—even complete strangers!—conduct themselves online. If they do not live up to my standards, they are wrong.” As trivial as this might seem to a third party, it quickly grows tiresome. Amusingly enough, however, it is quite often followed up with a wonderful display of arrogant fallacy (“Since you’ve failed to live up to my personal standards of discourse, you’re obviously terrible at critical thinking/skepticism/self-aggrandizement rationality.“), and giving in to a cognitive bias is not a very critical thinky thing to do.

For many, engaging in “gotcha” debate theatrics is standard operating procedure. In meatspace, this would make you a social pariah, but online, they believe this makes you a good master debater. Ultimately, I have no interest in wasting time on those who can’t be bothered to conduct themselves with a modicum of decency, and I see little merit in catering to these people. I especially have little motivation for coddling them in the hope that my niceness will somehow reverse the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory. You might be the smartest person in the world, but until you can engage with others as though they really are human beings, I can’t be bothered with you. If you are such a person, I’d like you to know that your arguments are probably completely terrible, and no, I am not obligated to point out why. If you’d like to discuss the matter, pull your head out of your ass first. Otherwise, you’ll never be able to hear the explanation. I welcome good-faith evidence-based argumentation, but if you’re just here to spread your shit along the walls, I’ll be keeping you outside the gates.

* On a side note, I wonder if the people who think otherwise have a coherent understanding of the concept of consent… Ah, well. “The world may never know.”

Addendum: Now that I’ve got this all written out, it occurs to me that I had a troll here recently. If you’re reading, Troll-in-Question (and let’s not kid ourselves, you probably will, since the post you commented on was not recent), I hope my deletion of your comment left you with a bad taste in your mouth. Although I did not write this post for you, now that I think about it, it certainly applies to you.

Lady Parts Justice

I’m a big fan of abortion. When politicians say “nobody’s pro-abortion,”* I’m the guy who says, “Fuck you, buddy. I’m pro-abortion.” Anyone who wants an abortion should be able to get one, and I’m not interested in attaching excepts to that statement. Any time a woman wants an abortion and gets one, that’s a win for freedom. Like most anyone, I have various emotional reactions to certain kinds of abortion, some of which seem particularly distasteful, but merely being uncomfortable with something just isn’t an acceptable justification for banning it.

Apparently nobody’s told the GOP that, though, because they keep trying to pass harsher and harsher restrictions on abortion services all over the country. It’s to be expected, I suppose, as a natural consequence of their legal inability to outlaw abortion for religious purposes. (That, unlike having tax money go to birth control, would be a violation of the First Amendment.) Since the Constitution and the Supreme Court have both been entirely clear on the illegality of these bans, they’ve been increasingly trying to do away with abortion by making it practically impossible to get one. That’s a damn problem, and I can’t even conceive of how they still have voters.

(Oh wait. Yes I can: religion. “God says abortion is killin’ babies, so it’s wrong. Let’s support the GOP’s attempts to remove a woman’s right to control her own body to please Jesus!” Yawn.)

That’s why I’m incredibly pleased to see this video:

That video comes to us care of Lady Parts Justice (seriously, check them out), the brain-child of one of the minds behind the Daily Show (aka the best news show on television—and it’s not even a news show). The Daily Show uses humor to connect with people. It takes incredibly serious issues and, almost as if by magic, makes them significantly less depressing. It makes being informed entertaining. Not only does it feel good to know stuff, it feels good to laugh, so combining the two is an excellent strategy for spreading an important message.

And this message is important.  Republicans—and some Democrats, yes, but mostly Republicans—are busily fighting their “culture war” against the liberal, uh, reality, and abortion is just one such battle. As with so many other strategies undertaken by the GOP, the war on choice is an attempt to use government to impose their religious values on the rest of the country. Sadly, however, most Americans don’t appear to be terribly concerned with this marriage of church and state. I find it incredibly hard to maintain apathy in the face of this kind of injustice, but it seems the majority does not share my perspective. (What a shame that is!)

This campaign seems like the perfect way to bridge the gap. The crusade against women’s liberty has been underway for a good many years now, and we on the left are still playing catch-up. Making it fun to fight back against oppression is a great idea, and I commend the people over at Lady Parts Justice for their efforts. I look forward to seeing more of this kind of thing from them. The conservative Christian political wing deserves to be mocked. Turning women into cattle is not okay. The war on rationality is not “legitimate.”

*Okay, sure. Some politicians take the “nobody wants to see more abortions” route. This might be true, assuming you mean “let’s prevent unwanted pregnancies instead of terminating them.” I’m all kinds of in favor of promoting open access to birth control, but not at the cost of restricting access to abortion services. We need both.

A Truly Controversial Position

As an “out” atheist, I’m used to proffering polemical positions on everyday subjects. When you don’t believe in the existence of the supernatural, magical thinking becomes something of a trifle; there’s little point in holding court on the hidden minutiae of the Tooth Fairy. “Luck,” for example, does not exist; it’s a meal of hypersensitivity in the brain’s pattern recognition software combined with a spot of confirmation bias tea—if you think you’re un/lucky, you’re far more likely to remember experiences that support that conclusion and forget ones that run in contradiction to it. “I’m so un/lucky” is an absurdly common trope, and I have to confess my desire to roll my eyes when I hear it, but such is life. When I tell people that I don’t believe in luck, destiny, innate “higher purposes” and the like, I’m used to being greeted with some combination of surprise, apathy, and condescension. What I am not used to getting, however, is open hostility. Not to worry, though: I’m relatively certain I can evoke abject horror in my audience by sharing an unprecedentedly contentious position:

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