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.

Doggerel #11: “You Skeptics Think We’re All Stupid!”

Welcome back to “Doggerel,” where I discuss words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless. I’ve encountered my share of trolls who just seemed intellectually incapable of grasping the issue of the day. In some places, there are enough such trolls that some skeptics may start making hasty generalizations. While today’s doggerel has some grain of truth from that, it’s not that simple.

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Doggerel #10: “I’m Not Arguing to Convince Anybody!”

Welcome back to “Doggerel,” where I discuss words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

This phrase and its variants strike a chord of incredulity when I read them, especially if they show up late in an argument, after several points are raised and rebutted. Presumably someone who devoted that much time and passion to arguing over an issue would be greatly interested in swaying people towards their firmly-held position.

Then the cynicism I’ve built up over my years of being an internet skeptic sink in: Trolls. The particular variation I’m speaking of are those who argue a position not because they believe it, but because they enjoy angering and frustrating people who hold a contrary position, often with deliberately and transparently fallacious arguments. They avoid changing their position or making any sort of concession a sincere person might make in the face of good arguments to amplify the frustration.

Less cynically, it harkens to my own soft-sell vague spirituality phase of my life, when confrontation was discouraged and “negative.” It dipped in postmodernism, since being right wasn’t considered a part of being happy or prosperous. Phrases like that were used in attempts to move the argument towards a non-judgmental brainstorming session where any idea was welcome. The problem is that brainstorming is a beginning for generating a large pool of ideas to test, not a place where you want to remain. Finding good ideas means sorting them out from all the bad ones. This means you have to be willing to criticize an idea that looks bad or defend an idea that you think looks good and argue convincingly in either case.

Advice to my opponents: If you don’t like having your position criticized, think twice before asserting it. It’s better to bow out or remain silent than to grow indignant because you didn’t expect opposition. It gets worse if you carry on an extended argument and then claim that you weren’t arguing toward the purpose of argument, namely convincing other people. In the age of the internet, where insincere trolls arguing for the lulz are a dime a dozen, don’t use an escape clause that so easily depicts you as one of them.

Doggerel #9: “Open-Minded”

Welcome back to “Doggerel,” where I discuss words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

Qualia Soup said it better than I can, but I’ll still give it my best shot.

As a skeptic, I’m often told to be more “open-minded” because I question various claims, particularly supernatural claims. The problem with many such critics is that they’re often quite unaware of the fact that I did seriously contemplate the issue with an open mind. I weighed in the evidence available to me, explored several alternative explanations, and settled on the most probable-seeming hypothesis. This review process can be revisited if new evidence comes to my attention or a genuine fallacy in my logic is identified. That’s what I think of as open-minded, and it’s how you’re supposed to think about the issue.

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Doggerel #7: “You’re Just an Anonymous Blogger!”

Welcome back to “Doggerel,” where I discuss words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

One thing that commonly irritates me is the abuse of identity inherent in a lot of irrational worldviews. Humans have some inherent authoritarian, hierarchical biases. It’s not hard to understand in our more primitive days why a child’s obedience to his parents would provide a survival advantage. The same thing is true for a tribe member obeying the generally more experienced leader. On an instinctive level, it’s understandable that if someone tells you you’re wrong about something, you would demand to know who they are so that you can establish their position within the hierarchy and presumably their trustworthiness.

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Doggerel Suggestions, Anyone?

Sorry I’ve been quiet for the past couple of weeks. I’ve been busy with the fleshy side of my life, and thus neglected teh internets side.

For the fans of the original Doggerel Index, I’m doing a bit of reorganizing, and I’ve decided to put some of the more “elemental” doggerel entries at the top of the list. There’s plenty of variety in the subject, but a lot of them can be boiled down to some general bad ideas that can become the foundation for specific bad ideas. Let me know what you think deserves a place up front. I’m thinking about making #7 “You’re Just an Anonymous Blogger!” to cover how a lot of trolls use that ad hominem, though one version is a cry of “Shill!” It’ll also cover a bit about why I choose to blog under a pseudonym.

Of course, if you’d like me to write posts about anything else, let me know. I’m thinking about randomly picking out another Bruce Lipton article to dissect, since I get the feeling he’s got plenty of silly ideas.

Doggerel #6: “Impossible”

Welcome back to “Doggerel,” where I discuss words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

To me, “impossible” isn’t really a word for skeptics, despite what you may have heard. It’s only really supposed to be used for some relatively narrow circumstances. Even when it’s used, there’s typically an understanding that it’s conditional or just very unlikely. Let’s look at those extremes:

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Hanging Pictures

One of the old things I did with the original Doggerel series was provide a “helpful image” at the front of the post that had some humorous take on the subject matter or made some kind of reference I could link to. I stopped doing that after a while. Sometimes image searches just didn’t find what I was looking for. Sometimes I just didn’t feel motivated.

I’m thinking about picking that back up, and a little crowd sourcing might help… Though I again realize I don’t have much of a crowd at the moment. (Hi, Yakaru!) So, if you’d like to help, think about images to go with woo cliches as well as my existing Doggerel entries and drop a comment with a link. Don’t wait for me to write up the entry if you’ve got a worthy visual pun. The right image might encourage me to bump up a Doggerel on the schedule.

Doggerel #5: “Theory”

Welcome back to “Doggerel,” where I discuss words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

Today’s entry is a word that’s commonly misunderstood on forums and comment threads about science. In colloquial language, “theory” implies guesswork. “It works in theory, but not in practice” is a phrase used to describe an idea that sounds reasonable, but doesn’t work, speaking of theories as if they were restricted to thought experiments. Often in fiction, “pragmatic” characters will criticize a dreamer or intellectual’s plan asserting “this is no time to test your theories!” or similar arguments. This definition of “theory” is more consistent with what a skeptic would call a hypothesis, not a theory.

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