Tag Archives: Tim Minchin

TAM London – How should Skeptics debate?

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”.

And how do your assumptions colour your debate?

(More on TAM London soon).

Re-validating the wheel

Crop Circle Swirl (image in the public domain)

Crop Circle Swirl (from Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a bit of fun for a Friday. Somewhere deep in our genetics there’s obviously a need for answers.  I should give that a capital A really.  Somewhere deep in our genetics there’s obviously a need for Answers.

Answers are good: when you know the answer to a question you can move on to the next one.   That’s how progress works, by not reinventing the wheel. Newton stood on the shoulders of giants, and all that.

However, there is a danger in this.  Sure, no-one wants to waste time re-inventing the wheel but we should certainly revisit the blue-prints every now and again.  If we didn’t, we’d still be burning witches because we’d settled for a crude and inaccurate answer to the question of why a single woman might prefer to live by herself.

There’s a sequence of thinking that goes something like this:

We don’t have an explanation for crop circles…

… so we say “it’s a mystery” meaning we haven’t yet found the answer …

… which is an un-answer: it is an unanswered question to ponder or to research or to put on one side until more data is available …

… but people don’t like un-answers,  so they answer the question, saying “it’s a Mystery” (meaning aliens or ley lines or the Ancients) …

… and the question’s been answered and doesn’t need revisiting because it is a done deal …

… but it’s a non-answer which shuts down debate …

… so when we get more knowledge, and it turns out to be two blokes and a plank of wood …

… only some of us say “ah, the mystery is solved” while others say “No, no, no! We knew the answer already.  It’s a Mystery”.

The difference between answers and non-answers is invidious.  They can be hard to tell apart because they both feel like closure.  The wheel’s invented. Nothing to see here. Move along now.  By contrast, un-answered questions itch and scratch and nag and gnaw away at us; and that’s good, that way progress lies.

Many invalid assumptions are based on non-answers masquerading as answers. We have to check that the wheel we are using has an axle in the middle. Questioning those assumptions helps us root out the non-answers. But it is uncomfortable because we then have to live with those itchy, scratchy, nagging, gnawing un-answered questions, and keep them open, keep on asking them, possibly for ever. We have to be willing to live with not knowing all the answers about what Tim Minchin calls ‘this beautiful complex wonderfully unfathomable natural world’.

Ach, he puts it much better than I do, and this is the Friday Fun that I promised you, though I worry about the red wine and the white carpet.


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