One of the strands at this year’s #TAMlondon was the question of how strident should skeptics be? Tim Minchin referred to this as the question of tone.
P Z Myers argued (calmly, kindly, almost sweetly) for anger, ridicule and truth. D J Grothe by contrast put it to us that we should be both rationalists and humanists, that we have to be good about being right, because being right by itself is not enough. Melinda Gebbie reminded us that one of the sources of failure in the feminist movement was that “didn’t have a maniesto of behaviour”, in other words because too many of them were self-indulgent and became whiny, strident and easily ignorable caricatures.
This disagreement is no surprise: Richard Wiseman (I think) reminded us that when cats get frustrated they talk about herding skeptics. That’s what happens when you have a bunch of people who think for themselves.
I’m with D J Grothe on this one, though. I think the key to how we interact with others (even the dull and ignorant) is respect. As one of the TAMsters asked P Z Myers
Is it constructive to be so confrontational?
Why the different approaches? What do we want to achieve when we engage with the purveyors of woo? Randi told Robin Ince that he is fuelled in part by anger and wants to expose the liars and shut down the frauds. His motivation for exposing “faith” healers was rage; rage at the shamless way they turned grief and fear, and disability into cold hard cash. Dawkins is angry about the abuses of human rights embedded in Sharia law’s treatment of gays and of women. Evan Harris is disgusted that Boots’ excuse for duping the ill with homoeopathic remedies is that they are also available on the NHS. There is indeed a lot of anger among skeptics.
However, I suspect that others who claim to be fuelled by anger are just fuelled by the need to be Right. That it’s egotism, pure and simple, and a bullying egotism at that. One interesting quote from Myers was
“We have science and reason on our side”.
Well, surely it should be the other way round? Shouldn’t we be on the side of science and reason? One of the unexpected highlights for me was Susan Blackmore’s account of her double-blinded, randomised, statistially significant journey from woo to material atheism as she researched for decades but found no evidence for the psychic powers she absolutely believed in.
Back to the question of how should we debate? Too often, exasperated passion comes across as shrillness and underemines the message. Debates between skeptics and believers frequently collapse in a morass of crossed purposes based on different ways of testing and arriving at the truth. Did Tim Minchin persuade Storm that she was narrow minded and wrong, or merely shout the poor woman down? Both P Z Myers and Adam Rutherford reminded us: “Don’t be a Dick”.
The success or failure of these debates so often boils down to what kind of knowledge the debaters accept as true. Assertions that my logic is better than your intution are pointless. Stupidly so. Our double blinded randomised controlled trial does NOT beat their personal experiences (in their minds at least), no matter how much it convinces intelligent, empirical, skeptical us. Besides which, it is always so much more interesting to find out WHY people think what they think than to listen to yourself prating on about evidence to somone whose touchstone is their intuition.
So do you assume you are dealing with charlatans? Or with fools? Or with people of intelligence and integrity whose approach to uncertainty and evidence are different from yours? And this last one is, of course, much more threatening than the dismissive thought that “they’re all stupid”.
I am currently reading “Irrationality” – an excellent book in which Stuart Sutherland describes the mechanisms by which we leap to conclusions, confuse and deceive ourselves.
I am deeply amused by the publisher’s cynical use of the techniques that Sutherland describes to promote the book. Sutherland discusses the halo effect (when we assume a person’s good or bad characteristics apply more widely than they do), and they way we give more credence to authority figures than perhaps we should. It’s a book about cognitivie processes, right? So you’d have to be a psychologist to give authorative recommendations, right? Now, Richard Dawkins is a hero in his own field and Oliver Sacks is another, but how come a geneticist and a neurologist suddenly have expertise in psychology? It can only be the halo effect and that pesky deference to authority.
These ironies aside, it’s an excellent book and if you think, evaluate evidence or make recommendations for a living then it will keep you awake at night.
I’ve been tidying up and fixing all sorts of things recently including my CDs, the contents of the box room, the lights in the kitchen, my plant pots and the categorisation of my blog posts. See how neatly they are listed on the right. That’s one of the things I’ve been doing. There’ve been all sorts of spin-off from this activity; for example I can now take a shower again after three months or so of strip washes and baths, (who’d have thought that when the kitchen lights blew they’d take the shower with them?)
One thing I’ve noticed while wading through my blog posts is that the word “meme” has become little more than a synonym for “personal quiz”.
Dawkin’s original explanation of the meme embraced such things as “tunes, catch-phrases, beliefs, clothing fashions, ways of making pots, and the technology of building arches”, according to Wikepedia. But as you know, in the blogosphere a meme is a quiz which you answer, naming one or more other people so that they have a social obligation to do the same. I’ve posted 15 posts which I have categorised as “memes”, and though not all of them fall into this category most of them do.
This has led me to two specific thoughts:
don’t we lose something if this word is narrowed and dumbed down in this way, and
would it be possible to create memes in the blogosphere which aren’t quizzes?
In many respects of course the blogosphere comprises nothing but mimetic behaviour. “Posting a blog entry”, “commenting on a blog post” and even “having a blog” could all of them be added to Dawkins’ original list of memes. People lift and copy ideas, topics and subject matter all the time and we learn on-line behaviours (such as providing or using RSS feeds) on the fly.
Explicit memes in blogland have to be posts whose subject matter is generic enough for anyone to post on and which differ from each other by the poster making them personal. I suspect I am trying to square a circle which simply cannot be squared.
Still I would like to think of a subject which anyone can post about, which is not actually about them.
I was raised by people of great personal and moral integrity with reasonable intelligence who had no exposure to science or scientific thinking at all. This didn’t stop them having Opinions on things so it is no surprise that they were Flakes one and all. Bless ’em.
Flaky thinking is cozy, it provides comfort blankies such as “everything happens for a reason”or “someone was looking after me that night”. It also provides explanations which appear to be simple and easy to understand: ” stimulating the body’s natural healing processes” or “bright lines of golden energy”.
I’m not going to rip into acupuncture, auric photography, biomagnetic bracelets, biorhythm charts, cranial-sacral therapy, earth energy lines, feng shui, food sensitivity analysis, homoeopathy, osteopathy, reiki or any of the other forms of flakiness which I’ve spent money on in my time. To be honest, I cannot be bothered. Either you consider me to be foolishly narrow-minded because I dismiss them or foolishly forebearing because I don’t critique them and we both have better things to do with our time than argue the point.
Let’s just say that I spent my money on all of the above, probably thousands of pounds now that I look at the list, but I don’t feel ripped off; every one of them brought me a good 40 minutes of someone’s undivided attention and a nice warm placebo effect. I was lucky; it was a life-style choice not a fearful attempt to ward off cancer. But I wouldn’t spend my money on any of them again.
So what undermined my warm fuzzy view that the word “energy” means something when used metaphorically, that there are forces which cannot be measured by science, and that there is more to life than meets the eye?
Lots of things. Feel free to skip the list and cut to the conclusions at the end of the piece.
I check out the Asthma UK site and realise the approaches described are infinitely more cautious, detailed, rigorous and robust than the approaches of the herbalists I’d instinctively turn to.
My father, with cancer, is dramatically better after a stay in hospital which grants him at least another year of good quality of life.
A crystal healer describes the “lovely warm lines of yellow energy” flowing through her treatment rooms. When I ask her if she can see them she says “no, but Gordon has dowsed them and told me where they are”. The inane warmth in her voice sets my alarm bells ringing.
I have to describe my symptoms to the German pharmacist rather than selecting the herbal tinctures and ointments I’d choose in the UK; I find myself thinking “These German pharmaceuticals are very effective” and then realising that they might work well simply because they are pharmaceuticals and being German has nothing to do with it.
I work for a large petro-chemical company and find that the individuals there are responsible and serious people, and not in fact the spawn of satan who just don’t “get” it.
I acknowledge that the scientists working on GMOs are (a) intelligent and (b) not malicious. I think that they are wrong about genetically modified organisms being good for the planet, but acknowledge that if they are wrong then it’s not because they are stupid.
A friend sends me a link to DHMO.org and I realise just how easy it is to writes spurious science-speak which is manipulative and emotional.
A friend of mine compulsively adds and subtracts numbers to find co-incidences and meanings without noticing that if you manipulate any date enough you can reach the number 7, or 26.
I read something which explains that the phenomena described in all documented near-death experiences (tunnel vision, a distant light, etc) are also consistent with specific forms of neurological shut-down.
I develop an increasing respect for the methodologies in my own field, and by extension for standards’ based methodological approaches in others. In other words, I come to prefer rigorous testing to instinct.
I have a relationship with a statistician.
I come across evidence that a feeling that there a ghostly presence in the room can be reliably triggered by certain localised electro-magnetic phenomenon.
I start a post-grad degree and within a few months become imensely more picky about authorities and references.
Ok. It’s not a particularly impressive list: a lot of it is based on a distaste for poor critical thinking in others which of course doesn’t demonstrate any improvement in my own, the books are pop-science even if the scientists are credible, the rest of it is un-referenced and at this distance in time I have no way of checking where I got the information about near death experiences and ghostly presences from.
But I think that the real epiphany is that I am only entitled to an opinion on subjects where I have some expertise. Guess what – experts really do know better. It’s a matter of knowing my limitations. I cannot bake cakes, design power stations or diagnose illnesses. I have no choice but to delegate those tasks. Generic intelligence is not the same as experience, training or qualifications and this is hard for people, particularly those educated in the social sciences or humanities, to accept.
Not all experts are equal, of course. Gillian McKeith’s “doctorate” is a tad light-weight to say the least, though the woman is undoubtedly sincere. We cannot accept the word of experts unquestioningly. We must continue to challenge and ask the pertinent questions – how did you arrive at that conclusion – how large was your sample-size – how well conducted has your research been – where do you get your funding, and so on. But challenging does work: 20 years of hindsight bias, selective memory, anecdotal evidence and the placebo effect do not equal one double blind controlled trial. Sorry.
Some people argue that science is just as much a matter of belief as religion is. It isn’t of course. I’ve argued that you have to trust the scientists but as Reagan put it you “trust but verify”. You can by definition repeat and test a scientific experiment or demonstration. You cannot test bach flower remedies, post-modernism or god. In fact there’s even a commandment against it.
This of course means that the opinions of true experts whose conclusions are based on testable and repeatable methods vastly outweigh yours and mine. We are entitled to doubts, concerns, worries, uncertainties and even rage, anger and disgust. Those are emotions and emotions are not opinions. We must also remain entitled to challenge – that is what accountability is.
To some extent I do miss the warm fuzziness of flaky thinking, but on the other hand if you acknowledge that real life is unfair, that shit happens, it becomes much easier to deal with. Nastier, but more straight-forward. There are a few flaky things I still adhere to: meditation, NLP and yoga specifically, though I’m not going to defend them here. The only school of “alternative” thought which I have not yet found to be intellectually undermined is the Buddhist approach to re-incarnation. To be honest, I doubt it’s got any validity to it, but does have the merits of being (a) internally consistent and (b) not yet countered by harsh scientific enquiry. However you look at it, the idea that bad things happen to good people for no reason is a nasty one.
I had been going to illustrate this with one of the Cadbury’s Flake ads but I couldn’t find the girl painting a picture in a poppy field in the rain, so I decided to show you this instead which did at least make me laugh.
You must be logged in to post a comment.