…and I don’t, not because I’m a nice guy — there are times where my darker nature frightens even me — but because it diminishes me and demeans the one I’d otherwise call stupid. Believe me, there are times I’ve been sorely tempted, and each day I plan out arguments, but not those I will use — those I won’t, or those arguments I hope never to have to use — so scathing do they seem to me in the unvoiced rehearsal of my internal monologue.
But scathing is not something I do well, nor do I hope to. All too often, there’s the temptation to, as Carl Sagan put it, “…wax contemptuous and superior” and the temptation disgusts me.
This is a good thing, I suppose, for snark is a skill set I don’t like to exercise, as I’m forced daily to recognize boundaries for civil relations with people that should not be crossed if effective communication is to be achieved. I suspect that there’s a lot of native intelligence even in the willfully ignorant, and that its not so much people who are stupid, but dogmatic ideologies, erroneous doctrines, and fallacious arguments, failed promises, and exaggerated claims meant to snare the unwary.
I know paranormal believers and people of religious faith, many of them friends and family, and I have no intention of considering them idiots.
I don’t call people stupid — not because of some noble impulse or silly sense of high-mindedness — but because I just don’t feel comfortable doing it. It doesn’t sit well with me but I also don’t judge those who do it, for that would say nothing of them and speak volumes about me. Let others use the methods that work for them.
But calling people stupid leaves an ugly feeling in my gut.
There was an incident on Facebook last evening. Someone I know had private messaged me and went on a tirade about my calling her husband stupid, and I’m pretty sure that no such thing happened — it is simply not done — and confused, I pressed her to explain, but she would give me no specifics. Finally I grew tired of the game being played and asked her to name one instance, just one, where and when I called her husband stupid.
Her only reply: “Never mind.”
She gave no answer to my question, leaving me to conclude that she didn’t have one.
I thanked her in annoyance and broke off the chat at that point. I’d had my fill of vacuous nonsense and was quite angry with her, and at no time had she ever shown any specific knowledge of what she claimed. I’ll say this much: If ever that night I had been tempted to call anyone stupid, it wouldn’t have been her husband, who is more intelligent than me in a number of ways.
She owes me an apology, by the way, for my anger at her cost me several valuable hours of restful sleep which would have been useful before my kitten, Mr Eccles, got me up later that morning to be fed. How rude. Not Eccles — her — for ruining a potential good night’s sleep over trumped-up churlish foolishness.
But I’m not that nice, I’m just not that good at putting people down with skill and finesse — I’d make a poor standup comic — So I use what works, naughty or nice.
It’s been a few days past three years since I began posting on this site, and in terms of blogging principles, writing style, the tone of my ‘voice’ and my skepticism, there are some valuable lessons I’ve learned, and I expect, with more to follow from both prior experience and in future experiences in posting on this site.
Here are a few:
- Avoid perfectionism. Rather than attempting to seek perfection, which is conceptually questionable in the first place, as well as a road to inevitable failure, seek instead to asymptotically strive for perfectibility, always strive for improvement, as there is plenty of room for it in any enterprise.
- Rational justification permitting, allow for the questioning of every source of information, even other skeptics and especially scientists, who are, after all, only human and have finite reliability even in their own field of expertise.
- Do not dehumanize believers. Avoid gratuitous cruelty in critiquing individuals and unfair blanket generalizations of believers. There’s a surprising amount of variation in any demographic, including members of paradigmatic and ideological subgroups.
- Restrict the most pointed attacks to ideas, actions, and claims, and strive to keep personal critiques fair and honest, though perhaps a bit blunt. I don’t need to give those critiqued a valid reason to accuse me of libel or slander, however often that sentiment is not shared by some of the more irate, easily enraged and unstable proponents and believers.
- Avoid unnecessary snark when addressing individuals in personal comment responses, especially trolls, since being attention-whores, that’s what they want in the first place. Offer it only if the situation truly warrants it. If I’m going to be a d*ck, I should be the best possible at the time.
- Avoid undue reverence for and unrealistic enthusiasm about skeptics and skepticism in general. It makes no sense to think of and de facto treat others as saints when one does not believe in saints. Other skeptics are simply both teachers and learners, sometimes both at once, not impossibly epic intellectual Brobdingnagians to be held in rapturous awe.
- Strive for the most realistic, fair, accurate, and clear conceptions of science, atheism, and skepticism one may harbor. Avoid naivete in what they are and how they work, the better to avert cognitive dissonance in the here and now. The truth is more important than wishes or personal feelings of how these things ought to be, and recognizing this fact greatly reduces if not eliminates disappointment and possible disillusionment. The truth is also much more interesting.
- As a skeptic, I do not have all the answers, I cannot have all the answers, and I know that I don’t have to. It is permissible for me to say, “I don’t know. I have no independent access to the events you’ve described in your anecdote, and so can’t explain it without enough data to go by. I remain skeptical of your claim until that changes.”
- Saying the previous does not strengthen the case for anything paranormal or otherwise out-of-this-world. Such things are often unexplained because of a mere lack of sufficient data, not because they’re magic.
I’m fairly certain that this is not an exhaustive list, and likely I’ll be following it up with other posts in a similar vein in future.
To me, allegedly necessary rather than contingent statements about reality tend to be problematic anyway, so I try to avoid them:
No principle should be held dogmatically when keeping open one’s provisional understanding of matters of fact, for it causes one’s grasp on reality and intellectual honesty to fail disastrously, giving rise to the fallacy of thinking that what is true must be dependent on faith, or on a misconstrual of personal experience, the one being a core principle in many organized religions, and the other the seed of nascent pseudoscience.
Let’s face it, nobody likes to be insulted, but this very thing may be used as a form of argument in more or less subtle ways, a logical fallacy of irrelevance known by the Latin, because yours truly feels like being a pedant, the Argumentum ad Hominem, or the Argument to the Person.
This tactic of argumentation is the counterpoint to the Argument from Authority, a sort of polar opposite to it on the spectrum of genetic fallacies – arguments that focus on the source of a claim rather than valid logic or evidence – and like it attempts to call attention to real or imagined characteristics or origin of the subject in order to sidestep the argument being made, in this case those that are negative or unfavorable.
A special case of this is a subset called Poisoning the Well, also referred to as the Circumstantial ad Hominem, made even before the opponent makes his argument. This form associates the target with someone or something that is widely regarded as unpleasant or evil, such as implying or stating a connection with, for example, Nazis, terrorists, or an infamous serial killer.
The name of this subset probably derives from medieval Europe, when rumors abounded during outbreaks of plague that Jews were causing Christians to die from the epidemic by poisoning the local well-water, since the real vectors of the plague were unknown at the time. This differs from the usual form in that it can be made against both a person and an idea or belief.
In that hideous little abomination of a movie, Expelled, there was much use of this fallacy in the association of evolution and science in general with the Holocaust and the Nazis in particular.
The most common and least subtle form of this argument, used by the unimaginative, is the use of plain and simple verbal abuse to call attention to perceived (real or imaginary) shortcomings as a cheap way to dismiss an argument by dismissing the person making it.
“Your argument is wrong because you’re a known religious fundamentalist.”
“I don’t have to listen to you because you’re one of those Godless atheists.”
…or my favorite,
“I don’t have to provide any references for what I said. You should just accept it as I said it, or you are an obstinate fool for questioning something so self-evidently true.”
Often used is an alleged conflict of interest, bias, or personal prejudice, the Bias ad Hominem, indicating that the one this is used on is untrustworthy as an impartial source, or as is often the case of an American politician accusing his opponent of being a socialist or a fascist even when these claims are not only irrelevant but false.
Another is when critics of the modern anti-vaccination movement are implicated as paid shills in the pocket of the ‘Big Pharma’ conspiracy, and whose statements therefore must be taken with evil intent in mind.
Another is when mainstream scientists are accused of being afraid for their funding, careers, alleged political agendas, and reputations and so ignore or hide ‘the truth’ of the paranormal or global cooling. These last two, by the way, are also referred to as an argument from conspiracy, or an appeal to motive, another version of the bias ad hominem.
But the Ad Hominem argument is not always a fallacy, and in the proper use it may be a valid and effective form of argument when it is used to promote the goal of critical discussion rather than to obstruct it.
For example, a reasonable use is in pointing out a likely conflict of interest regarding the personal testimony of a claimant when the subject’s questionable background, credibility and circumstances are also true, relevant, and kept in their proper context — such as a disgruntled ex-gang member testifying in a criminal case when he has been given leniency or other favors for his testimony.
And this fallacy is more complex than one might think…
Less commonly known, and just as poisonous to an argument, is the positive ad hominem, which uses the same sort of reasoning, substituting alleged personal attributes, associations, or circumstances for relevant evidence in an argument, but this time uses positive traits, such as sincerity, kindness, or piety, though any virtuous trait will do, and here it shades into an argument from authority/appeal to virtue.
(Last Update 2014/04/04, Updated Text, Related Articles Links Added)
It is nothing short of amazing how many believers in the paranormal, usually without the qualifications to know what they are talking about, but sometimes even those with the training to know better, try to expound upon the ‘psychology of the skeptics™’ and get their attempts at reading our minds so completely and utterly wrong. Nothing short of amazing…and amusing.
First, we skeptics are a pretty diverse bunch personality-wise, without a common theme or reason for being the way we are, so there is simply no such thing as a single universal generalization of ‘the’ personality type applicable to skeptics.
Second, a little look through any up-to-date psychology textbook or journal–yes, even those written by us ‘damned fundamentalist reactionary skeptics’–will reveal a wealth of data pertaining to the psychology of belief, from total incredulity to complete acceptance, without a need for a special psychological profile for skeptics. In most psychology studies on the causes and mechanisms of belief, skeptics are already entered into the equation–otherwise there would be nothing to compare with believers.
Most attempts by believers so far to ‘understand’ skeptics involve the use of logical fallacies, usually ad hominems (It’s comical that believers should be the ones to scream “ad hominem!” as loudly and often as they do, but so given to their liberal usage as well, but I digress…), straw man arguments, well-poisoning, the hasty generalization (using a few non-representative samples of skeptics and applying their motivations and personalities to all of us) and to support this generalization, the use of selective and often misrepresented quoting to validate their foregone conclusion.
These sloppy, unprofessional and ad hoc attempts at psychoanalysis of those who criticize their claims are simply rationalizations made by believers to justify their dislike of those of us who offend or shock their ‘delicate sensitivities.’ Pity pooh.
Lack of belief and refusal to believe are not the same. This is no arcane mystery, just basic psychology 101. When one confuses a lack of belief with a refusal to accept, and goes by the logic that as a skeptic, I must be deeply afraid of the paranormal because I don’t believe in it, one must also argue that I am deeply frightened of dragons, unicorns, faeries and flying pigs, because I don’t believe in them either. Please. That’s just silly. Do believers just not ‘get’ why we skeptics don’t take them seriously when they make claims like this?
For the record, I, a dogmatic cynical debunker™, am fascinated, not frightened, by the paranormal, like a moth to a flame, though I look at it with a more critical eye than I once did. Ever want to find out why and how any particular skeptic thinks the way they do? Just ask one. Really, how hard can that be, rather than just taking the lazy route and holding some wannabe pop psychologist’s word as gospel truth?