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.

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.

Power Outage and The Greatest Show on Earth

Pole in my neighborhood fell down. Curse you, outdated infrastructure!

Anyway, after finishing off Dawkins’ Greatest Show on Earth, I suddenly remembered I had a WordPress app on my iPod and a full battery. So, here I am. You’ll probably see a post about a dream troll right after this one. Decided I needed to get that one written down, since dreams tend to be forgettable, even if they start out vivid.

The last bit of Greatest Show had a lot on how much waste, cross-purpose, and suffering there is in the world. It helped me become aware of the vast scale of it all once again. Evolution had its part in it, but not in the way fundies harp on: Evolution is driven by competition and scarcity. There’s no grand designer concerned for our wellbeing. In some ways, it’s like unregulated capitalism. You can make money by hurting others, and without a conscious effort to curb exploitation for selfish gain, it’s accepted as business as usual. There’s no god out there regulating the biosphere, telling parasites not to be too horrible, diseases to tone down their symptoms, or telling invasive species not to reproduce into giant swarms.

There’s not even a metaphorical Gaia seeking a balance that supposedly happens the moment humans stop meddling. Sometimes that balance ends in mass extinctions and wasteland, human involvement or not. Nature often is red in tooth and claw. Balance seems more a happy accident and consequence of having adaptable organisms, rather than any top-down governing force. There’s always the possibility that a change is simply too drastic for life to find a new balance we’d like. Of course, human intervention is responsible for a lot of changes like that, not just natural disasters.

Back to the point on evolution and Creationism, this world simply doesn’t look like anything I’d expect from typical human-like deities. Especially not benevolent ones. This isn’t some Disney fantasy backdrop.


It seems Pat Robertson recently brought up the silly “D&D is Satanic” meme, again. It’s accompanied with the usual fainting over players allegedly learning black magic.

For the people who are actually worried about witches going around hexing people, I have one point to make: People like you probably carry the bulk of the blame for witchcraft gaining any sort of popularity. I think it’s ironic. Dungeons & Dragons, Harry Potter, and all the fantasy franchises out there treat magic as fictional. It’s just entertaining escapism. Just like any other hobby, there are people who turn it into an unhealthy obsession, but they’re not the norm. I don’t play fantasy games out of some delusion that it’s a road to magical powers, I play because they’re fun.

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I’ve been slowly making my way through Married to the Sea‘s archives. It’s a silly comic most of the time, but sometimes it gets political. This one reminded me of a point I like to make. It’s the 10 Commandments as a graven image that gets pushed into schools and courthouses. On top of violating freedom from government imposition of a religion, showing undue favoritism, and all that, it makes the point that the 10 Commandments is essentially an idol.

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Why Fallacies are Stupid

Recently, Mariah at Post-Abe wrote a post challenging Hicksians to defend Hicks. She explicitly discouraged them from using logical fallacies, going so far as to include a link to a chart displaying a lot of the popular ones. That’s when things get silly. Someone named Flipside decides to comment on the matter:

Mariah–how fair, let alone rational, is it to invite a “defense of Esther Hicks”, which you say you will be “…glad to hear”, and then, before anyone has even offered anything at all, you limit said defense with “no logical fallacies”? Wow! And I don’t see any responses. What a shock!!

It’s hard to find words to describe how amazingly oblivious that comment is. Being rational pretty much means minimizing the use of logical fallacies, as does being fair in an argument. If this were a saner world, discouragements like Mariah’s wouldn’t even need to be typed, but apparently some people are so out of touch with reality and/or so shameless in their deceit, they’d object to such reminders. They generally aren’t so explicit about it, though.

In logic, a valid argument is one where if the premises are true, the conclusion will be true. A fallacy is an invalid argument because the premises can be true but the conclusion can be false. There’s some fuzziness with the real world, since there’s uncertainty, but on that level, there are “cogent” arguments, where correct premises will lead to the conclusion most likely being true. Fallacies undermine the cogency of an argument for the same reasons. In many cases, the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises at all. There’s no connection between P and Q. It’s a non-sequitur. Hence, rational people will favor valid or cogent (non-fallacious) arguments to reach conclusions and reject fallacious arguments.

Using logical fallacies is inherently unfair. It’s also like in math class when you don’t get any points on a question because you didn’t show your work. If you skip the process, the teacher is justified in suspecting you just stole the answer instead of actually working the problem. If you rely on logical fallacies, we’re justified in suspecting that your assertions are baseless and that your conclusions are likely to be wrong. People with a sense of fair play (and the requisite critical thinking skills) will call out fallacies because they’re a way to cheat your way to the illusion of a correct answer and a way to cheat your way past some people’s critical thinking abilities to convince them of the accuracy of an unsupported conclusion. Humans have cognitive biases that distort our thinking towards irrationality. Fallacies are often employed by propagandists and other deceivers precisely because they unfairly exploit our irrational tendencies.

The non-sequitur type fallacies are probably the best reason why Mariah moderates her comments. As much as I like to roast trolls at times, it’s often pointless because they simply won’t learn what they’re doing wrong, and many readers will just roll their eyes as they try to dominate the topic while everyone else tries to convince the troll that he’s wrong on a seemingly obvious and fundamental level. The trolls will just spin their wheels and double down on their insanity without actually contributing anything meaningful to the discussion, forcing the others to either dwell on a PRATT (Point Refuted A Thousand Times) or let the troll get the last word in and have the illusion of victory and unearned self-esteem. It can be quite draining and distract from thoughtful comments that might get skipped over as a result of the troll’s inability to learn basic logic.

It really sickens me that society has been lax in combating fallacious modes of thought. Many so-called “journalists” will happily let people say pretty much any absurd thing unchallenged and unquestioned in the name of “balance” against rational positions, rather than do the critical thinking, research, and investigation involved in their job. Politicians happily employ fallacies in the form of propaganda. Religions demand special exemptions from rational scrutiny. I often wonder if the problem’s getting worse, and/or if I’m becoming more aware of it.

Now, to some popular fallacies, why they’re stupid, and why you should naturally feel ashamed of yourself if you rely on them.

Ad hominem: Attacking the arguer instead of his arguments. It’s one of the big favorites, and it’s worth pointing out that insults are not necessarily ad hominems. “Your argument is wrong because X, Y, and Z, and you’re an idiot because you didn’t realize that” is not a fallacious ad hominem. The ‘idiot’ part is a largely pointless (though sometimes stress-relieving) side conclusion. It does not affect the refutation it’s packaged with. “Your argument is wrong because you live in your mom’s basement” is fallacious. Before you try to badly mimic a critical thinker and sling the phrase around as if it were a magical totem, think. Oh, and welcome to the internet. If you can’t take a few side insults along with the meat of the argument, you’re probably not mature enough to be arguing with adults. This goes double if you’re going to waste the other commentator’s time by whining about the tone and nothing else, trying to halt serious discussion while you go on about your overly delicate feelings. Grow up. If you want to change our minds, do the mature thing and address the meat of the argument before doing any pointless stuff. Or how about doing one better and not doing the pointless part at all? If you’re civil, that will more likely encourage civil tone.

Straw Man: A favorite of politicians as well as woos. The popular metaphor is the image of two combatants; one combatant hastily constructs a straw effigy of his opponent, commences to pummel the straw man into oblivion without touching his real opponent, and then declares victory. Simply put, this is about attacking an argument your opponent never made or attacking a position he never asserted. It makes you look closed-minded because you don’t want to deal with reality. It tells people you’d rather play softball with figments of your imagination than challenge yourself. Oh, and asking a question about someone’s position isn’t a straw man, it’s a question. So many trolls seem to assume that we just know what they believe and that every request for clarification is actually intentional, malicious disinformation. If you don’t know what a person’s position is, ask and listen. Then you can start constructing criticisms based on what they actually say, not merely rehearse a script.

Argumentum ad Populum / Appeal to popularity: Just because a lot of people believe something doesn’t make it true. Epistemology isn’t American Idol. Truth isn’t determined by popular vote or by fashion. The world wasn’t flat until scientists convinced enough people it was round. What’s sick is that I’ve seen trolls use this fallacy and then call skeptics sheep when they start pointing out their fallacies as a result of thinking about it. Of course, there’s something of a hipster reversal of this fallacy, where a troll assumes that popular or consensus ideas must be wrong because they’re popular or consensus and that we must bow down to how superior and independent-thinking he is for subscribing to the most obscure belief we’ve never heard of, even if it is completely baseless.

Appeal to Authority: Here’s a tricky one that trolls never learn the nuance about. If you’re under a time crunch, it’s okay to accept the word of a recognized expert. If I’m severely injured and rapidly losing blood, I’ll trust the paramedics and doctors to do their job. If there’s no time crunch, however, the appeal can become fallacious because it becomes unnecessary. In your typical blog conversation, there’s no pressing deadline, so we don’t have to bow down before an alleged expert’s assertions. That’s when we get into the nitty-gritty details. The real authority is in the diligence of the experiments and observations and the logic behind interpreting the results, not the guy with the most letters after his name. We don’t treat anyone as an absolute authority or divine, infallible prophet. Ironically, I find a lot of trolls who try to assert that skeptics use this fallacy are more often projecting their own authoritarian tendencies, since they’ll often offer up an alternative expert, complain when we dare to question his magnificence, and go on to pretend the whole thing is a clash of two titans of light and darkness, not about logic or the steady accumulation of quality evidence by an entire world full of scientists.

It’s frustrating knowing that so many people out there don’t understand the basics of how to argue, and prefer to rely on cheats and volume to get their way. So many are raised in segments of society that coddle ideas and shelter people instead of striving for something better.

Free Will

I’m tempted to write up a Doggerel entry on it sometime, but for now, I thought I’d have a post for discussion on the topic. The big problem I have with the phrase is that a lot of people are way too attached to outdated, incoherent, unfalsifiable, or self-contradictory definitions of it. I haven’t talked about it in any “academic” context, so I don’t want to get caught confusing one type for another. Those of you better read on the history of the concept have my permission to write long comments about the hair-splitting differences.

My general idea of free will would be something along the lines of “able to consciously evaluate possible actions and determine which is most optimal.” In a way, it’s like a computer’s ‘decision’ that results from a deeply nested set of If/Then statements. Humans are “free willed” because we’re capable of a large set of possible decisions and we’re capable, in part, of thinking about how we make those decisions. At the other end, insects generally react to stimuli with little or no thought about the context of their actions. Of course, like consciousness, this would be on a spectrum instead of a strict binary thing, and circumstantially variable within a particular organism: If I see something threatening suddenly rush towards me, I don’t consciously evaluate possible defense strategies so much as blindly react.

One thing I don’t get is the deal with substance dualists, anti-determinists, and “fuzzy” free will ideas. If souls exist, how do they make decisions, and how is it inherently “freer” than a brain making decisions? How does bringing in the stochastic nature of quantum mechanics make decisions “freer” than a deterministic universe? All it does for me is tack on new variables, middle men, and such for no real gain.