I’m With PZ and Jane Doe

I’m on the side that openly denounces misogyny, racism, and rape culture. It disgusts me that this conflict has become necessary in the skeptical and atheist communities.

We’re supposed to be better than the dogmatists who set up the self-fulfilling inequalities in our culture. We’re supposed to strive for high moral standards, not merely settle for being slightly better than the invisible sky monsters and their idolators. We’re supposed to blame perpetrators, not victims. We’re supposed to be sympathetic to the oppressed because we’ve experienced oppression. We’re supposed to be self-aware so that we don’t become oppressors ourselves. We’re supposed to tear down pretty facades to uncover the ugly truths. We’re supposed to disrupt a bad status quo, even if it means rocking peoples’ boats. We’re supposed to judge people by their character and merits, not by their claimed affiliations and labels. We’re supposed to criticize our heroes when they make mistakes.

We’re supposed to look at the merits of an argument instead of dismiss them with convenient ad hominem appeals to popular stereotypes and absurd narratives that were invented to dismiss them. We’re supposed to exercise extra scrutiny when someone claims biology supports cultural stereotypes. We’re supposed to know that our experiences are biased, limited, and not the whole context so that we can listen to other people’s experiences, look at raw data, and examine the logic behind a position with a genuine open mind. We’re supposed to act like skeptics if we call ourselves skeptics. We’re supposed to continue improving ourselves rather than idly pat ourselves on the back just for being atheists.

Atlas Shrugged Part 2 Review, Post-Production

Well, King of Ferrets, Inquisitive Raven, and I watched it and we can’t un-watch it. We paused at various spots to comment while I recorded the audio. I’ll eventually get around to editing, including taking out our silences, whether awkward or thoughtful.

One point I raised in the conversation was the stealing of cars, since there were many in the movie with “don’t take” written on them. Given that gas went up to $40 per gallon in the movie, it left me wondering: Who would benefit from auto theft? Where would the black market demand come from? On the other hand, I could understand selling them for scrap metal. Then my brother, who is a fan of the Grand Theft Auto series, enlightened me to another theft motive and the flaw in my thinking.

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Monism

You could call me a “materialist,” but I think that dilutes some of the point. I happily use materialist language because, let’s face it, the advocates of the supernatural, the spiritual, and the Platonic ideals simply don’t have the language it takes to describe the everyday world with a useful level of accuracy, precision, and detail the way materialistic science can. They have a hard enough time getting their stories straight when it comes to their alleged specialty. Still, being labeled a materialist risks catering to a dualist misconception: That people like me say the supernatural is categorically impossible.

To condense the point: My problem is not that I think the supernatural is categorically impossible. My problem is that dualist categorization doesn’t make sense to me, so I don’t understand how or why scientific methodology should adapt to their asserted categories.

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Good News/Bad News

You may have heard about a woman who recently decided to try living on solar power, tea, and water, instead of food. Good news: She’s stopped. Bad news: She lost about 20% of her weight in the experiment, and she’s rationalizing. One sentence in particular got me annoyed:

“I was just asking a question, but there was just so much negative response that that means the question can’t even be asked,” she said.

This is the sort of tepid excuse I’ve come to expect from a lot of woos regarding scientific questions. They can’t handle adversity like adults, and science is pretty adversarial. You don’t just dismiss criticism for being “negative.” You deal with criticism as rationally as you can, using logic and evidence to answer it. That’s a part of what it means to ask controversial questions. Criticism is supposed to be expected. Brainstorming without criticism is good for generating new ideas, but sooner or later, you need to sort the good ideas from the bad, and that typically means having a two-way conversation with critics. When you speak, you are not entitled to uniform cheering.

A lot of the time, people with the consensus view reacts negatively because the idea in question has been tested and failed or is implausible for well-established reasons. And with ideas like hers, the most likely outcome was that she’d harm herself. I care about people, even if they do stupid things. I criticize precisely because I care and want to dissuade them from harmful action.

Here’s the kicker: If you don’t have answers to criticism, question the value of your idea. You might be the one who’s wrong.

I’m glad she stopped, though I’d prefer if she did so for rational reasons.

Answering Theists #1

There are a lot of theists out there who type up what they think are “gotcha” questions for atheists. Theist trolls absolutely love these lists and to copy/paste them, often on a hit-and-run basis. Judging from the newlines I’m cleaning out, Michael Benson Ajayi copy-pasta’d such a list in a Pharyngula comment thread. (Or he wrote it in Notepad or something and word wrap tweaked it.) So I’m starting this series here.

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Anti-Doggerel #1: “I Don’t Know”

The beginning of wisdom is, ‘I do not know.’ [gestures toward the “hole in space” on the viewscreen] I do not know what that is.

– Lt. Cmdr. Data, “Where Silence Has Lease

“I don’t know” is a phrase that probably should get more mileage. When used appropriately, it’s humble. It’s honest. It’s open. The universe is a big place with lots of tiny details, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that there is still much that we don’t know as a species, let alone as individuals. Being aware of that ignorance inspires both caution and curiosity, virtues of science. We can devise hypotheses to explain unknown phenomena, but a scientifically minded person doesn’t jump to the conclusion that his hypothesis is true without carefully testing it. Sincerely admitting ignorance typically means being open to entertaining new ideas as well. Those ideas still have to be tested before they’re accepted as knowledge, of course.

There’s an annoying idea I’ve encountered with various pseudoscience trolls, quacks, and especially with Creationists. They treat any admission of ignorance from their opponents as a victory for their ideas. It doesn’t work that way. For an example, let’s say a particular type of cancer has no known effective treatment. Just because the scientific community doesn’t have an answer doesn’t mean that we should accept a quack’s answer, especially if that answer wasn’t informed by scientific research into its plausibility.

Science is cautious by nature. The world is a complicated place, and there’s always the possibility of discovering new nuances and exceptions to the rules we’re familiar with. We can’t have absolute certainty in what we do know because of our human limitations. The language of scientists typically reflects this, since they will mention nuances, limitations, exceptions, and uncertainty from simple probability.

Pseudoscience doesn’t like humility or measured confidence, often characterizing it was “weak” language. Statements of absolute certainty and absolute rules are much more marketing friendly and easier to fit into a slogan. Religion is quite aware of this and sets up gods and holy books as absolute authorities with circular reasoning. Quacks and pseudoscientists often follow suit and enshrine their gurus and particularly the original creator and his texts. In either case, they often implicitly or explicitly claim they have all the answers in a convenient package. This tends to lead to stagnation. The scientific community knows that it doesn’t know everything. If they did, science would stop.

I think treating “I don’t know” as a concession taps on an unhealthy obsession with completeness and perfection that overrides the healthy desire to know the truth. One problem with many religious, supernatural, and pseudoscientific ideas is that they can explain anything. If you’re sympathetic to those sorts of hypotheses, that’s not a strength. If an idea can explain anything, that’s actually a big problem: It can explain things that don’t exist just as readily as those that do. It can explain failures and success equally. It essentially means that we can’t use it to make predictions to verify its accuracy. We can’t use it to make predictions or decisions. It’s ‘heads I win, tails you lose.’ Such ideas are essentially a way to deceive yourself with the comforting illusion of understanding without the practical benefits of real understanding.

There’s another idea that any answer is better than none. This is simply not true. Actions based on an incorrect idea can be more harmful than inaction. They can waste resources better spent elsewhere. I can understand desperation in the face of death and the desire to go down fighting, but that doesn’t mean I should rhetorically support those who can exploit desperate people just because I don’t know the true answer.

Bunkum: “If You Teach Kids That They’re Animals, They’ll Act Like Animals!”

It’s an old canard that popped into my mind recently. The vocabulary word for the day is “equivocation.” It’s slightly less direct than usual, but that’s what it amounts to.

First, we’re talking about the scientific definition of animal. I’m not familiar enough with modern taxonomy or cladistics to get the specific features that define animals and only animals, but the word amounts to a diverse branch of the tree of life. This branch includes vertebrates, which include placental mammals, which include primates, which include humans. We have a lot in common with our non-human kin, on the cellular level up to the anatomic level to varying degrees. We inherited animal features from our animal, non-human ancestors, therefore we’re still animals, though we have some polymorphism that makes us distinct from other animals. We don’t have any sort of difference that’s profound enough to place us into an entirely separate biological category, but thanks to that polymorphism, we do have enough to place ourselves in a sub-category: The species of homo sapiens.

The colloquial use of “animal” would be better described as “non-human animal.” In fantasy and sci-fi works, other sapient species also get excluded from the category. There is a pragmatic need for this version of the definition, since we place the needs and desires of human-level conscious beings over those of less conscious beings. Our higher level of consciousness means we can suffer in ways that other animals can’t. We also hold humans to a higher standard of responsibility for their actions because of that consciousness. Humans are moral actors who can understand the consequences of their actions.

The equivocation comes from the jump from the scientific definition to the colloquial definition. Funnily enough, it involves a contradiction in the process. The kids are human, therefore they can’t be non-human animals. If you choose to use the colloquial definition in both cases, that leads to essentially the same contradiction, since you’re including humans in a category that’s defined in part by excluding humans.

If you choose to use the scientific definition for both cases, it simply makes the sentence a tautology instead of the ominous assertion they want it to be: Because humans are defined as animals, the set of human behaviors is included in the set of animal behaviors. Writing poetry, building skyscrapers, and arguing semantics are animal behaviors, though they are specific to humans. All human behaviors are animal behaviors, but not all animal behaviors are human behaviors. Of course, teaching kids that humans are animals does not imply that humans are not humans. It simply doesn’t make sense to assert that such a fact condones or encourages the kids to act like non-humans.

There’s something rather arbitrary about the assertion, arguing that our behavior and morality should be dictated by one particular definition of a particular scope about us. The extent of “humans are animals” influence on morality would be about biological needs. “Humans need food to survive, therefore it is moral to provide food to starving humans,” for a simplified example. I find this rationale to be disturbingly similar to science fiction villains who discriminate against sapient robots because they aren’t biological. “Animal” is only one term we can use to describe or define humans, and we don’t have to settle for any one term. The fundies who use this bunkum should get acquainted with the general concept behind Venn diagrams. Things can fall into the overlap between different categories, including irrelevant and impractically broad categories. The category created by the overlap may be significant, but the entities in that overlap don’t cease to belong to the parent categories.