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I Don’t Call People Stupid…

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…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.

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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.

People, Belief, Claims, & the Validity of Ideas

People’s rights generally deserve respect, including that to freedom of belief, and with the occasional exception, people themselves deserve to be respected.

Not so with ideas and claims of a factual nature, and especially deserving of disrespect and even outright ridicule are misleading claims and the typically dishonest means used to promote their acceptance to the unwary, via flawed reasoning, propaganda, and fabricated or misrepresented evidence.

Even when the logic used in arguments promoting such claims is technically valid, the arguments are often supported by false, irrelevant, or at least questionable premises and assumptions.

But even the most absurd ideas have fervent adherents, no matter how silly, and therein lies the problem.

People often identify very closely with their beliefs, considering them to be core to their very being.

What we hold to be true for often poor reasons indeed can be held so close to our metaphorical hearts that it leads to a sort of thin-skinned resentment, defensiveness, anger, and sometimes, rage when those claims are in any way called into question or threatened by contradicting information.

This can cause us to dig our heels in deeper rather than make us change our minds, so aggressively “beating people over the head with logic and evidence” to convince them rarely works, and is often counterproductive.

Much depends on our earliest, most ingrained beliefs and knowledge, and on our value judgments – even the notion of an idea’s truth or falsehood, based on prior understanding or misunderstanding, is a value judgment, of true, false, or somewhere in between, to claims we evaluate and accept or reject using prior information and reasoning, even when that information and our reasoning are incomplete or otherwise faulty.

Over time, though, our beliefs and values are actually rather fluid, and are altered, replaced, and discarded throughout our lives as we gain new information from our environment, information which demands that we accommodate it, account for it, dismiss it, accept it, or ignore it, and sometimes change what we know and believe.

I think we should give our ideas and beliefs less worth than we do, for given time they will change anyway, often without our notice, and what we believe and think we know should always be open to correction and amendment by newer information and better arguments.

Now, you can make any faith-based claim you desire about what is true, or what exists or not, and you can call it a metaphysical claim, not a scientific one, all you want. But whenever you’re making a statement of factual existence, no matter what you call it, you are making a claim that is scientific as long as it’s in principle testable.

This also applies to beliefs deriving from untrained and unvetted personal experience; any testable claim anyone makes about the world is a scientific one, and may potentially be either verifiable or falsifiable depending on how the claim is formulated and the existence or nonexistence of its alleged facts.

Not all beliefs or statements of them are equal in the arena of validity, though any claim should be considered if there is reasonable evidence presented for it when it’s asserted.

The fact that science has built-in mechanisms for a reality-check on ideas, to tell the effective ones from the useless ones, is why it’s so successful in advancing our knowledge of the world.

Faith-based beliefs lack this reality-check, and often are tailor-made to ignore or reject it, while the numerous ways our minds and senses can fool us can make uncontrolled personal experience very problematic as well.

Politics has a bit of a reality-check, though less rigorous than that of science: Policy decisions work well, moderately well, poorly, or fail completely, and a wise politician will abandon failed ideas…

…which raises a few questions about the wisdom of many of my country’s top Congresspersons, though that’s neither here nor there.

To say that science is true or false is a mistake of language, since it is not the sort of thing that can be true or false, but a set of methods for testing ideas against how things really are, not a claim, a belief system nor an ideology of Western hegemony.

The fact that science is a social construct, though true, as is every human endeavor including religion and politics, is irrelevant to the validity of it’s statements or the usefulness of its methods, no matter how hot Thomas Kuhn was in academic circles for decades.

We lay our ideas up against the world and see if they match, and if they do, if experiment agrees with them, so much the better. But ideas are cheap, potentially without number, and unfortunately all but a very few are worthless.

Social construct or not, science works, bastitches.

A Rant: Politics & Science

Politics and the natural sciences have nothing in common in their purpose and processes; politics is all about who gets to be in power and what policies they enact – it’s thinking works often on the basis of motive and vested interest; science is about the facts of the world and how it works – its thinking involves a search for the objective truth which those facts bear out, with the facts winning out in the end.

This is why people whose only real critiques of science are based on motive and vested interest show rather plainly that they really don’t understand science. You cannot carry over the thinking process of one domain of human activity to one where it does not apply – the result is nonsense, and shows your ignorance of both by confusing the thinking of one for that of the other.

This is why scientists are scientists for their day-jobs; if they did politics, they’d be politicians, and a lot wealthier for it, not scientists working in a lab or in the field on measly 5-figure grants.

Skepticism is a Good Thing [Repost]

(Here’s something from my archives, my first actual critique of a post on a blog I used to frequent. I still pop in there once in a while, but less frequently than I have. Still, it was and still is a good source of insight into at least one believer’s mind and how he argues. The LOL of old Mistykins dates from the original posting of this critique. Rest easy, Mistykins.)

Hey, guys. I recently came upon this post on a psychic’s blog I sometimes frequent, the post in question being entitled There Are No Good Skeptics, and since I feel obligated to act the stereotype of the Evil Pseudoskeptic™, I thought I would have a little fun with it, deconstructing a few of the points it makes in order, and showing just how and where it is simply far off the mark.

Believers tend to have a very parochial view of skeptics, and often promote a number of common logical fallacies and misconceptions about them that they do not bother to challenge.

I’ll attempt to point out in this post precisely how they are excellent examples of highly flawed thinking and how in many instances, believers are merely launching defensive tirades.

There are too many misconceptions and logical errors in the article of discourse for all to be handled in the space of this post, so I’ll deal mostly with the four, in order, that stand out the most, those that the author himself has chosen to highlight.

Where possible for considerations of space, the points addressed will be complete and verbatim:

Skepticism does not allow curiosity. One of the hallmarks of almost every skeptic I have come across is that as soon as they find information that agrees with their views they stop looking. Why? If you’re convinced that something isn’t true or doesn’t exist, you stop looking into it or looking for it. You simply assume that everything you hear that might be positive simply can’t be true.

Wow! My logical fallacy meter just overloaded. This is a straw man as well as a cheap ad hominem. It completely misrepresents how skeptical thinking works, nor are skeptics convinced that something isn’t true or doesn’t exist without doing the research to actually find out. Fact-checking is skeptical. Also…

There also seems to be a bit of a false dichotomy here to round out this troika of fallacies, implying that one has to either be curious or skeptical and not allowing for the possibility of both.

Skepticism does not challenge its assumptions. When you doubt something, you doubt it for a reason. For example, many people doubt the existence of psychic ability because they think all the people who believe it are gullible; Or that the rest of science would rush to embrace it if it were true or that psychic people would rush to the casinos and win millions of dollars. Skeptics do not seem to understand that these are mere opinions about something they know little about.

The three claims trotted out as assumptions are simply a set of straw people. I do not hold these as ‘assumptions’ as part of my skepticism. And they certainly aren’t representative of the views of most skeptics even if ‘many people’ hold them. There is a difference between being skeptical about something, and being a skeptic.

Speaking for myself, the only assumptions I use are that (1) science and reason are valid ways of knowing the world, and (2) the world is real, whether or not it is what it appears to be.

The last statement is just an ad hominem, in this case a cheap way to dismiss skeptics by calling them ‘ignorant.’ It would have been much more informative if he had simply done the research to find out what the ‘assumptions’ of skepticism really are, and then address them instead of just dismissing his critics.

Skepticism slows the advance of ideas. One of the amazing features of skeptics everywhere is that they make very few contributions to the area they are criticizing. In parapsychology this is extreme. Out of thousands of studies you can count all of the vetted professional studies performed by dedicated skeptics on one hand. (Part of the reason for this is that once people are doing careful experiments they are allowing themselves to be convinced by the evidence. At which point the other skeptics consider them to be deluded believers.)

What to say about this one…what to say…This claim is so blatantly false that it comes seriously close to being an outright lie, but as I normally read this guy’s blog with the assumption that he’s being sincere in what he writes, out of respect I’ll refrain from making such an accusation.

All of modern science employs skepticism, as the complement, not the contradiction, to the curiosity to ask new questions and the imagination to conceive new ideas.

Skepticism is essential as the means to separate the good ideas from the bad ones; what works from what doesn’t.

Thomas Edison once said that science is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, the hard work of winnowing the intellectual gold from the intellectual rubbish, since most ideas ever conceived turn out to be wrong.

All scientists who have contributed to major advances in their field are skeptics by definition. It’s blind belief that impedes the advance of ideas.

Believers tend to express views of skeptics almost exclusively in terms of their relationship to the paranormal, and little else. They don’t consider the use of skepticism in the broader context of all of modern science.

It is very hard to learn new things about the subject you are skeptical about. Being skeptical means that you hold strong views on a subject. That means that contrary information only gets through via cognitive dissonance. That is to say, the evidence contrary to the opinion that is held has to be so overwhelming that the skeptic’s thinking process finally seizes up. All evidence up to that point is either ignored or dismissed. This is a very inefficient way to learn.

This claim is also simply false.

First, cognitive dissonance mostly applies to those beliefs that are very important, such as to our self-image and how we view the world, not what we only casually accept.

Second, different people deal with cognitive dissonance in different ways, and I deal with it by changing my beliefs without a hitch if the evidence warranting it is sufficient.

Third, as a skeptic I do not hold strong views on the paranormal, and many skeptics I’ve read consider belief in it it more interesting and important than the paranormal itself. To me, the idea of psi ability is just an intellectual curiosity, not something I’ve invested years and a lot of money in.

Conclusion: The author of the post critiqued here has said in at least one entry on his own blog that he has never understood the skeptical mindset, and his article is a prime example of that shortcoming.

In his article, he has attributed motives, thinking, beliefs and biases to skeptics that are simply not borne out as fact, and that despite claiming to be psychic he has no way of knowing short of doing the legwork to find out.

I have attempted to avoid committing such attributions in this critique, and out of respect for the author suggest that before he tries to present his personal views as objective fact, that he make the effort to inform those views. Otherwise, he’s just rehearsing his own prejudices.

Blowing off steam this morning…

This morning’s post is going to have next to no editing, since I’m just not in the mood for it right now. This last evening, I’ve been saturating myself with the reports and videos, courtesy of the BBC, coming out of Japan about the recent disaster smorgasbord of tsunami, earthquakes and the threat of nuclear meltdown.

It’s been estimated that upwards of thousands have been killed, and others are without power, fresh water, even homes, that last having in many cases simply been swept away by the 10 meter high wall of water that inundated the coastline.

And if you are one of those assholes who think that this was retribution for Pearl Harbor as some idiots have ranted, then I can only offer an unqualified, unequivocal, hearty ‘F*ck You, you sorry bigoted sacks of sh*t.’

No, I’m in a most uncharacteristic mood right now, because in addition to one of the worst catastrophes in history having happened to one of my favorite Asian nations, the other two being India and the Philippines, one of my two surviving cats has recently come down with Azathoth knows what and we have to have her taken to the vets later on this morning.

Misty is an old kitteh, going on 15 years, and I’ve grown rather attached to her after Sammy passed last year. Losing two cats in as many years is gonna be rough on me, but to be honest, I kind of expected it to happen.

But I’m not going to pray to some imaginary anthropomorphic sky fairy to bless it and make it better, since that NEVER worked even when I believed, and I have no reason to think it will now. Life sucks, but I’d rather look it in the eyes as it is than kid myself that it will just all magically get better, and that all will be sweetness and light.

I no longer believe in a personal god for what I see as very good reasons, and I’m not going to believe now either, desperate situation or not. There’s no sense in lying to myself just to feel good. If I was doing military service right now, rest assured that I would be one of those atheists in foxholes that peeps claim don’t exist.

Despair sucks, but there’s a benefit to seeing the world as it really is, for what doesn’t kill me makes me wiser if not stronger. And that’s a good thing.

(Update 2011/03/16)

Well, the poor sick kitty has been checked and found to have nothing life-threatening going on, just an infected tooth, which yesterday afternoon was removed. At least her kidneys aren’t going just yet, so she’s got more time left among the living, thank Hastur, Hastur, Hastur… *Ahem* Anyhoo, she should be fine, and she’s got meds for the next couple of days to deal with the soreness. That’s one weight off my chest, but I still have a low tolerance for the bigots who are babbling that the Japanese had it coming. *Grrrr* I have very little patience for people who say idiotic sh*t for media pandering at the misfortune of others…


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