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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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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Confrontationalism and Bridge Burning? (More on Atheism+)

Addendum: This is the second post I’ve made on this subject. The first can be found here. If you don’t care about atheist community stuff, feel free to skip both.

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It must be obvious to anyone who’s read anything I’ve written that I have a bit of a confrontationalist streak. When someone says or does something glaringly stupid but fails to realize the stupidity of that thing, I find it difficult to be diplomatic. “Perhaps you’d like to reconsider that point because of X, Y, and Z?” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite so easily as “Are you fucking shitting me right now?” I even have a “that was the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard” face that I reflexively make when I hear something from way out in left field. Sadly (okay, let’s be honest here—thankfully), that face does not translate well into text; one might even say that it is lost entirely.

Smart people who say dumb things need to be called out on those dumb things. This is the only way to avoid forming a cult of personality. No person is without error, but we all want to be, in spite of the impossibility of this goal. In the (ultimately futile) attempt to become paragons of rightness, we engage in a cumulative process of becoming less wrong.  The sad paradox is that the further along this path we’ve come, the harder it is to see where we’re still wrong; it’s not easy to accept criticism from someone so far behind you on the path to perfection, you see. Naturally, this approach is fallacious, but the flawed nature of the thought doesn’t stop it from being our natural reflex—we instinctively doubt things said by people we view asHow can I put this diplomatically?—misguided. In a contest between your Average Joe and yourself, most people will default their support to themselves.* It is far to easy to take offense at the little people when they (mistakenly, of course!) believe that something we’ve said is a dumb thing. To someone who is interested in continuing the process of becoming less wrong, it is necessary to consider the merits of their arguments, which may necessitate an attempt to understand their perspective. (Trying to refute something you don’t understand, after all, is often an exercise in hay-punting.) I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask someone to listen to your point of view instead of dismissing it outright.

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Presuppositional Apologetics

I don’t have anything even remotely positive to say about the nature of presuppositional apologetics. When you base your entire argument on the “presupposition” that Christianity is true, and from that, you conclude that Christianity is true, that isn’t forming a rational argument—it’s begging the question like a complete asshat.

I’ll let my bro* NonStampCollector handle this one. Highlight that absurdity, bro!

Top tip: This argument works equally well to argue for the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. When that’s true, you may wish to rethink your beliefs.

* Disclaimer: Not really my bro.

Why the “Moral Objection” Fails

This notion of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, a.k.a. Obamacare) as a violation of a person’s religious liberty persists because it sounds like a convincing argument. It isn’t, of course, or the law wouldn’t have been ruled constitutional by the (majority Catholic) US Supreme Court. There are two main reasons why this argument does not hold water:

  1. It is a red herring.
  2. It is not sound policy.

It is a red herring because it mischaracterizes the way the law works. That the Supreme Court has ruled that the law is constitutional in its entirety (including this contraception mandate) should be sufficient to illustrate why this objection is irrelevant, but I’ll elaborate further for the sake of being comprehensive.

The religious “moral objection” issue seeks to erroneously portray the law (savvy readers might recognize this terminology as indicative of a straw man) by claiming that the law requires employers to provide contraception for their employees. This is false. So what does this law do? It does three things:

  1. It mandates that people carry health insurance.
  2. It mandates that employers of a certain size (50+ employees) offer health insurance.
  3. It regulates the insurance industry.

At the abstract level, that’s “all” it does.

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Nature’s Law and Gods

The Laws of Nature

What are “laws of nature?” In the conventional sense of the word law, we see a meaning akin to “a rule that people must abide by.” In the governmental sense, laws do not absolutely restrict; they can be broken, even if there are penalties for doing so. When discussing natural laws, this is not the case. Natural laws cannot be broken. This tells us that we are dealing with a very different sort of idea when we use this version of “law.”

I fear I may have just set the stage for a massive deception, however. If you conceive of natural laws as similar to those of the legal sphere (only unbreakable), you’re going at it entirely wrong. The laws of nature are not some combination of metaphysical sliding scales that determine the speed of light, logical progression, mass, energy, or the deliciousness of cheesecake. The laws of nature are deceptively mislabeled—they do not decide the parameters of reality; they merely describe the things we’ve identified as consistent in the observations we’ve made about our universe. These “laws” have been rewritten several times as new information has been discovered. Newtonian physics led to relativistic physics. Observations made under a microscope do not apply to forces acting at the Planck scale or in quantum physics.

In the same way that we might describe a tune played in a minor scale as somber or one in major as uplifting, the laws of nature describe the observable cosmos. As we discover new things, we are forced to refine or reevaluate what we had previously taken to be “law.”

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Disproving Evolution

Creationists love to try to disprove evolution, but they always miss the mark. Why is that? Well, the most obvious reason is that they simply don’t understand it. That’s what perplexes me so much. How can you hope to attack a scientific model you know nothing about? It would be like telling a Muslim that Islam is wrong because it forces its adherents to eat pork!

When I engage with Christians about specific doctrinal issues in the Bible,* I’m often told that I don’t properly understand Christianity. (This particularly amuses me when I’m using one Christian’s arguments against another’s. See also.) In my limited understanding of the Bible, I am told, I simply do not understand the greater context in which a specific passage (e.g., the pro-slavery ones) is meant to be taken. The Bible has contradictions, and each Christian handles these in their own way. Science works differently; because it’s far less individualistic, there’s less room. The scientific process works only thanks to a vigorous interpersonal process of bias-elimination, falsifiability, and objectivity. It’s a collective process, meaning that many minds contribute to the development of any given theory.

This makes it incredibly implausible that one ignorant creationist (and all of the young Earth ones fall under this category) will find “the one proof” that “evolution is false.” If you’ve thought of it, chances are that some biologist somewhere has already encountered the idea. If your criticism had any merit, the evolutionary model would be rewritten to account for it or discarded entirely.

Within the specific perspective of individual creationists, of course, it’s not all that surprising when they believe their criticism disproves evolution. This is because they are simply mistaken about what evolution is. What they are attacking (and indeed, probably successfully!) is nothing but a straw man—an erroneous construct that does not correspond to the actual position it is meant to refute (in this case, the scientific theory of evolution). If I were to suggest that all Christians are immoral because they are all pro-slavery, this would be a straw man because, while the Bible does advocate slavery, most Christians do not support this practice. Both Hanlon’s razor and personal experience suggest that creationists are not deliberately misrepresenting the theory of evolution; they have merely been grossly misinformed about what that theory says.

Jerry Coyne has a list of seven things that could actually disprove (or seriously discredit) the theory of evolution, and it’s a pretty good, concise analysis. In the event that you come across one of those ignorant creationists, this list can be a helpful thing in answering the question, “How would you know if you’re wrong?” These are concrete, evidential findings that we might expect if the theory of evolution were wrong.

How would creationists know if their beliefs are wrong? If the answer is “we can only know after death,” that should set off a pretty big red flag.

* As time goes by, I do this increasingly infrequently. Why? I've come to realize that most Christians do not
actually believe in the Bible. Instead, they believe in their own personal interpretation of the Bible, which
often actually just means the interpretation that their priest/pastor/whoever has told them to believe.

As an aside, I'd also like to point out that an omnipotent god would be capable of guaranteeing that its holy
book would be instantly and unambiguously interpretable so that anyone in the world would be able to precisely
follow that god's mandates without requiring sixteen years of training in apologetics.