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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TAM 2012

Do you like science, skepticism, rationalism, critical thinking, magic (the real unreal illusion kind), humor, and other awesome things? If so, go here, and lose the rest of your day to TAM 2012 related things, including links to recordings of various presentations.

Don’t blame me for any loss of your day, though. Seriously.

Edit: Boo. All the big stuff is on the first page. It gets pretty thin pretty fast. I’m sure more will be released in the future, since apparently most of the talks were recorded. Patience is not a virtue of mine, however. (Aw hell, it’s not even a virtue.)

Here are the videos worth watching so far:

Carol Tavris, Ph.D. – “A Skeptical Look at Pseudoneuroscience” – TAM 2012

Jamy Ian Swiss – “Overlapping Magisteria” – TAM 2012

If you don’t know what rbutr is (Shame on you!), watch this one (the audio sucks): rbutr at TAM2012 – Tim Farley’s Workshop

Pure Logic

“Pure logic cannot tell us anything about facts; only experience can.”
James R. Flynn

This is also the single largest criticism one can make of those who rely only on abstract thinking. It is why theist apologetics cannot be compelling. I can reason that the world was created by the omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent Flying Spaghetti Monster, who defies all attempts to measure Him by actively interfering with the instrumentation of scientists (though judicious application of His noodly appendage) yet reveals himself to the faithful in ways that only He can understand; until there is evidence of my claim, however, you would do well to reject it out of hand. Believers are loath to consider that their arguments apply equally well to the FSM, if not significantly better for its lack of contradictory dogma. When it comes to claims of truth, the following quote should be ever-present in our minds:

“What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”
Christopher Hitchens

On Religious Experience

“Seeing is believing.” How cliché. This saying is so common yet entirely without merit. When it comes to scientific analysis, seeing alone is most certainly not believing. One first needs to demonstrate that what one is observing is actually what is happening. (Is that really a lake, or is it a mirage?) Then one needs to repeatedly verify one’s observation in further testing. (It sure looks like a lake, but I’d like to make sure before I walk over there. How can I find out? Aha, I’ll climb this tree to see if it gives me a better view!) Of course, other people must also verify our findings. (Hey, Fred. What’s that thing over there? A lake, you say? Great! Let’s go check it out.)

This is perhaps the biggest difference between the scientifically oriented and, well, everyone else. Perhaps the most relevant personal example I of this I can think of took place a few years ago, just as I was discovering my atheism. I had been involved in a lengthy conversation with a friend, and it eventually turned to religion. I knew very little about the scientific method, and I knew far less about cognitive psychology, so I was not prepared for the revelation that followed.

I was an atheist, I said, because I saw no reason to believe; I saw (and indeed, still see) only reasons not to. I had never had a personal religious experience that could not be explained through entirely naturalistic mechanisms. I cited the wide variety of religious traditions as evidence against the accuracy of all religions, for surely if one of them were really true, it would be demonstrably different from the rest (and presumably followed by the majority of humanity). I mentioned the inconsistencies between denominations and even within shared holy texts. I mentioned the incomprehensibility of a deity who wanted to make its presence known, but not badly enough to actually do so in person.

These reasons were entirely unconvincing to her. She told me about a time that she had been filled with doubts, so she had started reading various books on religion. The one that most swayed her was one by a man who claimed that he had previously been an atheist. She said he started writing his book as a way to disprove religion (which speaks volumes to his reasoning capabilities—religions are specifically designed to be unfalsifiable), but the things he found while doing his research caused him to embrace Christianity as the One True Religion™. What she found most convincing of all was the argument for personal experience—seeing feeling is believing.

The reason she believed in God, she said, was that she had felt an undeniable wave of emotion during a religious gathering. She had raised her hands into the air alongside everyone else, and she had felt elation. Thus, God.

I didn’t really know what to say. This is why I regret not having studied cognitive psychology.

Of course it should come as no surprise that emotionally charged social situations can trigger emotional reactions (even especially profound ones). It’s even less surprising when you take into consideration the fact that she was in a crowd of people swaying to rhythmic music. Peer pressure, a sustained beat, and preexisting religious expectations? If this doesn’t sound like fertile soil for a hypnotic experience, I don’t know what does. This does not add any evidence to the theistic argument, however, because the very same kind of experience found in Christian worship can be achieved through Buddhist meditation. If this experience indicates any connection with a divine power, that power does not seem to particularly care about an individual’s religious beliefs. This also supports the naturalistic position, as these experiences are entirely observable in the physical state of the brain, and they can be activated through external stimulation.

Does that mean that my friend did not feel the emotions she described? Absolutely not. This is crucial—I do not deny the realness of religious experience. It’s just that people are wrong to attribute those experiences to supernatural causes.

This is where the science-minded and the religion-minded butt heads. To the “spiritual” believer, personal experience is the single most important thing.

To the scientist, it’s just the opposite.

Richard Feynman sums it up perfectly: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.” Perhaps no lie is so dangerous as the one you tell yourself.

There can be no denying religious experience, but we can certainly disagree about attribution. Dan Barker, a former evangelical Christian turned atheist, often talks about speaking in tongues. He remarks upon the tingly feelings he used to get while speaking in tongues as a believer. Since becoming an atheist, he has lost precisely none of his ability to do this, and it still brings him the same feelings. My own personal experience parallels this—I can still summon forth, at will, that sensation I used to get during “spiritual” activities.

Reason teaches us to rely on valid and reliable demonstrations of evidence before establishing firm convictions about anything, and this applies equally to issues of religion. If a phenomenon isn’t repeatable, it probably isn’t worth discussing. To the believer, a satisfying feeling may suffice to substantiate religious claims, but a scientist knows that the easiest person to fool is yourself. The cognitive sciences show us that we are pretty terrible judges of our own minds, particularly because we are incapable of perceiving the processes that occur inside our own brains, below the level of consciousness.

If belief in the supernatural is a prerequisite to experiencing “transcendence,” there is no explanation for the otherwise seemingly religious experiences felt by former believers. But belief is clearly not necessary, and the obvious explanation is that these feelings are in no way supernatural; they are simply brain states. Like every other brain state, they are largely similar between individuals and have a wide range of possible triggers. The experiences, then, are entirely real, even if they are nothing more than convincing hallucinations.

Simple Answers for Simpletons

It can’t just be me—surely other people have noticed the freakishly high frequency at which people who are trying to sell you something will insist that their product is easy to understand. In the public sphere, every time I hear a politician advocate for common sense solutions, I throw up a little in my mouth. Running a country (especially one with over 300 million people in it) is not easy. It’s can’t possibly be simple. Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is lying to you.

Here’s a simple statistic: the US government spends over $400 million dollars … per hour. Can you even imagine that much money? Most people don’t make anywhere near that much in a single lifetime. (Indeed, most won’t even earn even one percent of that.) The US government spends that much every single hour.

Common sense has absolutely nothing to do with such a system.

You know what else common sense has nothing to do with? Anything. This alleged common sense thing is complete crap. It’s just crap. Common sense is an intuition, and intuitions are inconceivably unreliable. Seriously.

Creationists say that biologists are wrong about evolution. Why? Because it’s easier to believe goddidit. According to them, that’s a common sense answer. Those creationists who insist on trying to develop further reasons have been rather prolific, and you could end up wanting to claw your own eyes out before you finished reading all of their nonsense. (I recommend you stop before reaching that point.)

Denialists of global climate change deny that the planet is warming. Why? Because some scientists’ emails were leaked without context, and some of the stuff they said looked fishy, so obviously all scientific conclusions about climate are false. To them, easier to believe in a conspiracy than it is to understand all the complicated science that goes into climatology.

Birthers continue to insist that Barack Obama is ineligible for the office of the Presidency. Why? Because he’s black. Or something. Actually, I don’t really get this one at all. I guess “amazingly sophisticated multi-generational international anti-American plot” seems far more likely to them than “all the available documentation that demonstrates his US citizenship is authentic.” Whatever.

The point is that there are a lot of people who try to oversimplify reality to sell you a message, and these people are terribly misinformed. (I wanted to say evil, but Hanlon’s razor won out. I’m willing to believe that most of them are just well-intentioned fools.)

So in keeping with this spirit of oversimplified and/or completely wrong answers being given in lieu of actual reasoning, I’d like to address this little gem I came across today. Get your barf bag ready because it offers “six straight-forward reasons to believe that God is really there.” And you know what? They’re uniformly terrible reasons.

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Critically Missing the Point

Recently, I found myself engaged in conversation with someone about the topic of climate change, and this conversation is a striking example of why critical thinking skills are so important. As the result of his unwillingness to question his sources—especially someone he viewed as an authority—this gentleman was claiming not only that there has been no increase in average global temperatures but also the more egregious notion that the human species has had and is not capable of having an impact on global climate. In his view, it seems that nothing we do to the environment actually matters.

The amount of mental acrobatics that must go into maintaining this belief is staggering. I would have loved to present to him a small earthen dish containing naught but dust, but I rather doubt he would have appreciated the joke.

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