Monday, September 10, 2012

Skepticism in Unexpected Places

Words of Wisdom

Back in June, I was accepted into a week-long writing workshop called Viable Paradise. It takes place the second week of October, 2012. I'm quivering with anticipation. Since then, I've been reading suggested works by the instructors (all published authors & editors) to get some idea of what their styles are like.

I was reading Theresa Nielsen Hayden's Making Book, a book of essays that I didn't expect to like, but which I do.

On pages 101 and 102, I came across these gems.

  1. Never take on the necessity of a negative proof, or argue with someone about their own thoughts and intentions.
  2. Causality is lots of fun to think about, but is never at home when you phone. Correlation isn't as attractive at first, but is friendlier; you can call up and make a date.
  3. Keep a close eye on violations of statistical probability, but bear in mind that you yourself must always constitute an inadequate sample.
  4. The tidier a story is, the less I tend to believe it. I can't demonstrate that this is necessarily effective, but so far it's never steered me wrong.
  5. And watch out for eyewitness accounts that, on consideration, require the eyewitness to have been standing in an unlikely position relative to the alleged events.
  6. Watch out for thought systems that have built-in explanations, valid within the terms of the system, for why someone disagreeing with that system is doing so and is wrong.
  7. You can't logically refute bullshit.

[Any misspellings or typos are entirely my own responsibility.]

Wow. There were a few others I left out that were less applicable to the idea of skepticism. And I'm quoting this without any permission whatsoever and if asked, I will take it down (albeit with much pouting).

But my point in posting it is that Ms. Nielsen Hayden says these points better than I see them explicated on many a skeptical website that spends many thousands of words saying the same things.

First, I cannot tell you how many times I've encountered someone online telling me what my thoughts and intentions are. Thoroughly convinced, these people are, of what goes on in my head; but it's obvious to me from the way they argue their case that they have little to no idea what goes on inside their own skulls, much less mine. You can doubt someone's stated thoughts and intentions, but keep your mouth shut. You do not actually know what goes on inside another person's mind. And if you can prove you do, please apply for the 1 million dollar prize offered by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). The Nobel Prize will follow, as well.

The second one is brilliant. It humorously states the skeptical mantra of "correlation does not equal causation," but does it in a way that makes one smile instead of glaze over in boredom and oh look a butterfly and I need to pick up milk and bread and did I turn off the iron?

The third one I take as an exhortation against making the "Argument from Ignorance" fallacy and pareidolia, all in one admonishment. (Argument from ignorance shows up a lot. You can recognize it by listening for the key phrase, "I don't see how that can be true.")

The fourth one is also quite brilliant, to me. It neatly unties all the connections of every conspiracy theory that I've ever heard. All of them manage to explain everything from inside the bubble of whatever premise the believer adheres to. If something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. Real life is seldom (not never, but seldom) that tidy.

Number five is great. Sometimes, you'll hear someone talk about how they saw thus-and-such with their own eyes (Could they see it with someone else's eyes?) and therefore it totally happened exactly as I said so there. And then later, you find yourself in a position to examine the story and you realize that to have seen what they claimed to have seen, they would have had to be somewhere improbable or impossible, such as in two places at once, or hovering in mid-air above. This one is easy to fall into, as well. Our brains love stories – crave them, even – and if something doesn't make sense, our brain will conveniently fill in details that we never actually saw.

Number six, though . . . Number six is why I decided to write this post. OMFSM, I can't even estimate how many times I encounter this. "You just hate God, and you're lashing out at Him." "You had a bad experience as a child and now you're rebelling against the Church." "You're denying what you know in your heart is true. Why don't you just admit you're wrong?" Recognize it? I'll bet every atheist has heard one or more of those on more than one occasion. Because you don't believe what the speaker believes, they have to come up with some rationalization that fits inside their own belief paradigm to make it make sense to them why you don't agree with what they see as self-evident. Our brains hate cognitive dissonance, and will go to almost any length to get rid of it.

Or how about, "You've been brainwashed by the ______, and you just won't let yourself hear the truth." That one comes from most conspiracy theorists, and people who wholeheartedly believe in some form of quack medicine, like homeopathy or iridology.

Make no mistake, though: I've heard number six from atheists and skeptics, as well. We accuse believers of being too stupid or closed-minded to see what's so obvious to us.

And then we arrive at number seven, which I often hear stated as "You can't reason someone out of a position they didn't reason themselves into." In other words, no amount of reason is going to talk someone out of their belief/faith. It just isn't. The very best you can hope for is to present your case to them and let them follow the path on their own if they're interested. It has happened. People have heard skeptical podcasts like the Skeptics Guide to the Universe, for instance, and have sent letters later saying, "Something you said in an episode made me wonder, so I started researching, and now I'm a skeptic."

But the change had to come from within themselves, not from without. Another way of stating this one goes around FaceBook from time to time as a silly meme: "'Your constant yelling and screaming at me about how wrong I am totally convinced me,' said no one, ever."

So even if I remember not one other word Ms. Nielsen Hayden said, I'll always have these words of wisdom to remind me of this little book of essays.

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