In which I piss on the ‘Dude’s rug

I’ve recently had a bit of a back-and-forth with the Skepdude that eventually spilled out onto Twitter. I started writing this post when it appeared that my last comment might languish in eternal moderation, but it has since shown up, so kudos to Skepdude for exceeding my pessimistic expectations. If this post hadn’t turned into a larger commentary before that bit posted, I might have deleted the whole thing. As it stands, I’ve used poor Skepdude as a springboard.

In any case, you can go ahead and read the relevant posts, then come back here and read my further commentary. It’s okay, I’ll wait.

Back? Great. Here’s the further commentary.

I think this conversation touches on a few key points relevant to skeptical activism. The first is this trepidation regarding basic rhetoric. We tend to throw around “rhetoric” in a disparaging fashion, often in the context of “baseless rhetoric” or “empty rhetoric.” And those can be to the point, but I think we run the risk of forgetting that rhetoric is the art of argumentation, the set of tools and strategies available to craft convincing arguments.

We’ve heard a lot from skeptics and scientists in the past few years claiming to be communications experts and saying that skeptics and scientists need to communicate better; we’ve all seen and complained about debates and discussions where the rational types fail because they can’t argue or work a crowd as well as their irrational opponents. These are both, to some degree, failures of rhetoric. Scientists are trained to argue in arenas and fora where facts and evidence are the most important thing, and the only convincing thing. That’s great if you’re defending a dissertation or critiquing a journal article, but as we’ve seen time and time again, it doesn’t translate to success in debates outside the university. Kent Hovind and Ray Comfort and Deepak Chopra may be blinkered idiots without a fact between the three of them, which would mean death in a scientific arena, but in the arena of public discourse, it becomes a strength. Because when you have no facts to work with, you have to make sure that the rest of your techniques have enough glitz and flash to distract the audience from your lack of substance. Scientists ignore the style, knowing they have substance, unaware or naïve about audiences’ universal love for shiny things.

We in the skeptic community, such as it is, have spent a lot of time recently debating whether it’s better to use honey or vinegar; one lesson we should all take away from that, however, is that facts and logic are bland on their own. You need to dress them up with spices and sauces if you expect anyone to want to swallow them. If one of your goals is to convince human beings–not, say, robots or Vulcans–then you can’t rely on pure logic alone.

Moving back to Skepdude, he seems to be in two places in this argument. On one hand, he seems to think that we can ignore ethos and pathos, and argue on logos alone. Depending on his purpose, this may be enough. I don’t know what his goals are, in particular, but if he is content with arguing in such a way as to make his points clear and valid to any philosopher, scientist, or skeptic who happens to be reading them, then arguing with pure logic might be all he needs. Heck, he could break everything down and put it into those crazy modal logic proofs, and save himself a lot of typing.

But if he’s hoping to make his arguments convincing to a broader swath of people–and the amount of rhetorical questions and righteous anger in some of his other posts suggests that he is, and that he already knows this–then he’s going to need to slather those bland syllogisms in tasty pathos and savory ethos.

But here’s where I have the problem, and nowhere was it more apparent than in our Twitter conversation, while he elevates and venerates logic, he doesn’t understand a pretty basic principle of it, which is how fallacies–in particular, the ad hominem fallacy–work.

The whole post revolves around skeptics saying that Jenny McCarthy claims to oppose toxins yet uses Botox. Skepdude calls this an ad hominem fallacy. And I can see where it could be. Where he makes his mistake–and where most people who mistakenly accuse ad hominem make the mistake–is in failing to understand that ad hominem fallacies are all about the specific context. It’s true; if my only response to Jenny McCarthy’s anti-toxin arguments were “Yeah, well you put botox in your face, so who cares what you think,” I’d be dismissing her arguments fallaciously, by attacking her character–specifically, by suggesting that her actions invalidate her arguments.

But that doesn’t mean that any time I were to bring up McCarthy’s botox use would be fallacious. Let’s say I said, for instance, “You claim to be anti-toxin, yet you use botox; that suggests you’re a hypocrite, or that you don’t understand what toxins are.” Now, if I left it at that, it would still be fallacious; saying just that in response to her anti-vaccine arguments would be fallaciously dismissing them on the basis of her character.

Now, let’s imagine I said: “In fact, all the evidence demonstrates that the ‘toxins’ you insinuate are in vaccines are, in fact, present in non-toxic doses. Furthermore, the evidence shows that there is no link between vaccines and any autism spectrum disorder.” This bit addresses the substance of her argument, and does so using facts and evidence. If I further added “Also, you claim to be anti-toxin, yet you use botox; either you’re a hypocrite, or you don’t understand what toxins are,” I would most definitely be attacking her character, but it would not be fallacious because I wouldn’t be using it to dismiss her arguments.

The ad hominem fallacy requires that last part: in order for it to be fallacious, in order for it to render your argument invalid, you must be using the personal attack to dismiss your opponent’s arguments. Otherwise, it’s just a personal attack.

Skepdude disagrees:

This is what he linked to, by the way.

I replied:

And these were my links: 1 2 3.

And then I walked away from Twitter for a few hours, because I’m getting better at knowing when to end things.

And then I started writing this post, because I’m still not very good at it. I’d respond to the ‘Dude on Twitter, but I feel bad dredging up topics after several hours, and I know what I’m going to say won’t fit well in Tweets.

Anyway, the ‘Dude responded some more:

Oh, I’m so glad to have your permission. I would have tossed and turned all night otherwise.

Yes, you can infer what someone’s saying from their speech. I can even see some situations where the implication is strong enough to qualify as a logical fallacy–of course, the implication has to be an argument before it can be a fallacious one, and that’s a lot to hang on an implied concept–but that is, after all, the whole point of the Unstated Major Premise. However, (as I said in tweets) there’s a razor-thin line between inferring what an argument left unstated and creating a straw man argument that’s easier to knock down (because it contains a fallacy).

Skepdude even found a quote–in one of my links, no less!–that he thought supported this view:

He’s right, the ad hominem fallacy there doesn’t end with “therefore he’s wrong;” most ad hominem fallacies don’t. His point, however, isn’t as right, as a look at the full quote will demonstrate:

Argumentum ad hominem literally means “argument directed at the man”; there are two varieties.

The first is the abusive form. If you refuse to accept a statement, and justify your refusal by criticizing the person who made the statement, then you are guilty of abusive argumentum ad hominem. For example:

“You claim that atheists can be moral–yet I happen to know that you abandoned your wife and children.”

This is a fallacy because the truth of an assertion doesn’t depend on the virtues of the person asserting it.

Did you catch it? Here’s the relevant bit again: “If you refuse to accept a statement, and justify your refusal by criticizing the person who made the statement, then you are guilty of abusive argumentum ad hominem.” The point isn’t that the anti-atheist arguer attacked the atheist speaker to justify rejecting his argument.

So, once again, context is key. If, for instance, the atheist had argued “all atheists are moral,” the “you abandoned your wife and children” comment would be a totally valid counterargument. The key in the example given was that the anti-atheist respondent used his attack on the atheist arguer to dismiss their argument, in lieu of actually engaging that argument. A point which my other links, which went into greater detail, all made clear.

I’ll say it again: in order for it to be an ad hominem, the personal attack has to be directly used to dismiss the argument. Dismissing the argument on other grounds and employing a personal attack as an aside or to some other end is, by definition, not an ad hominem. You don’t have to take my word for it, either:

In reality, ad hominem is unrelated to sarcasm or personal abuse. Argumentum ad hominem is the logical fallacy of attempting to undermine a speaker’s argument by attacking the speaker instead of addressing the argument. The mere presence of a personal attack does not indicate ad hominem: the attack must be used for the purpose of undermining the argument, or otherwise the logical fallacy isn’t there. It is not a logical fallacy to attack someone; the fallacy comes from assuming that a personal attack is also necessarily an attack on that person’s arguments. (Source

For instance, ad hominem is one of the most frequently misidentified fallacies, probably because it is one of the best known ones. Many people seem to think that any personal criticism, attack, or insult counts as an ad hominem fallacy. Moreover, in some contexts the phrase “ad hominem” may refer to an ethical lapse, rather than a logical mistake, as it may be a violation of debate etiquette to engage in personalities. So, in addition to ignorance, there is also the possibility of equivocation on the meaning of “ad hominem”.

For instance, the charge of “ad hominem” is often raised during American political campaigns, but is seldom logically warranted. We vote for, elect, and are governed by politicians, not platforms; in fact, political platforms are primarily symbolic and seldom enacted. So, personal criticisms are logically relevant to deciding who to vote for. Of course, such criticisms may be logically relevant but factually mistaken, or wrong in some other non-logical way.
An Abusive Ad Hominem occurs when an attack on the character or other irrelevant personal qualities of the opposition—such as appearance—is offered as evidence against her position. Such attacks are often effective distractions (“red herrings”), because the opponent feels it necessary to defend herself, thus being distracted from the topic of the debate. (Source)

Gratuitous verbal abuse or “name-calling” itself is not an argumentum ad hominem or a logical fallacy. The fallacy only occurs if personal attacks are employed instead of an argument to devalue an argument by attacking the speaker, not personal insults in the middle of an otherwise sound argument or insults that stand alone.(Source)

And so on, ad infinitum.

To return to the original point, let’s say a skeptic has said “Jenny McCarthy speaks of dangerous ‘toxins’ in vaccines, yet she gets Botox shots, which include botulinum, one of the most toxic substances around, right on her face.” Removed from its context, we cannot infer what the arguer intended. I can see three basic scenarios:

  1. The skeptic has used the phrase as evidence to dismiss Jenny McCarthy’s arguments about “dangerous ‘toxins’ in vaccines,” and has thus committed an ad hominem fallacy.
  2. The skeptic has used the phrase as an aside, in addition to a valid counter-argument against her anti-vaccine claims. This would not be an ad hominem fallacy.
  3. The skeptic has used the phrase as evidence for a separate but relevant argument, such as discussing Jenny McCarthy’s credibility as a scientific authority, in addition to dismissing her arguments with valid responses. This would not be an ad hominem fallacy.

There are other permutations, I’m sure, but I think these are the likeliest ones, and only one out of the three is fallacious. Moreover, trying to infer such a fallacy into those latter two arguments would not be valid cause to dismiss them, but it would probably demonstrate a lack of reading comprehension or a predisposition to dismiss such arguments.

Let’s say I’ve just finished demolishing McCarthy’s usual anti-vax arguments, and then I say “She must not be very anti-toxin if she gets Botox treatments on a regular basis.” Would it be reasonable to infer that I meant to use that statement as fallacious evidence against her point? I think not. If I’ve already addressed her point with evidence and logic, how could you infer that my aside, which is evidence- and logic-free, was also meant to be used as evidence in the argument I’ve already finished debunking?

On the other hand, let’s say I’ve done the same, and then I say “plus, it’s clear that Jenny doesn’t actually understand how toxins work. Toxicity is all about the dose. She thinks that children are in danger from the miniscule doses of vaccine preservatives they receive in a typical vaccine regimen, and yet she gets botox treatments, which require far larger dosages of a far more potent toxin. If toxins worked the way she apparently thinks they do, she’d be dead several times over.” Same point used in service of a separate argument. Would it be reasonable to infer here that I meant the point to be used as evidence against her anti-vaccine claims? Obviously not.

The only case in which it would be reasonable to make that inference would be some variation of me using that claim specifically to dismiss her argument. Maybe I say it in isolation–“Obviously she’s wrong about toxins; after all, she uses botox”–maybe I say it along with other things–“Former Playboy Playmate Jenny McCarthy says she’s anti-toxin, but uses botox. Sounds like a bigger mistake than picking her nose on national TV”–but those are fallacies only because I’m using the irrelevant personal attack to dismiss her argument.

So why have I put aside everything else I need to do on Sunday night to belabor this point? Well, I think that it’s a fine point, but one worth taking the time to understand. Skepdude’s argument is sloppy; he doesn’t seem to understand the fine distinctions between fallacious ad hominem and stand-alone personal attacks or valid ethical arguments, and so he’s advocating that skeptics stop using arguments that could potentially be mistaken for ad hominem fallacies. That way he–and the rest of us–could keep on being sloppy in our understanding and accusations of fallacies and not have to worry about facing any consequences for that sloppiness.

I can’t help but be reminded of my brother. When he was a kid, he did a crappy job mowing the lawn, and would get chewed out for it. He could have taken a little more time and effort to learn how to do it right–heck, I offered to teach him–but he didn’t. Rather, by doing it sloppily, he ensured that he’d only be asked to do it as a last resort; either Dad or I would take care of it, because we’d rather see it done right. He didn’t have to learn how to do a good job because doing a crappy job meant he could avoid doing the job altogether. By avoiding the job altogether, he avoided the criticism and consequences as well.

The problem, of course, is that the people who actually knew what they were doing had to pick up the slack.

This is the issue with Skepdude’s argument here, and I think it’s a point worth making. I disagree with those people who want to make skepticism into some academic discipline where everything is SRS BZNS, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think we shouldn’t have some reasonable standards. Argumentation is a discipline and an art. It takes work, it takes research and effort, and it requires you to understand some very subtle points. It’s often hard to distinguish a fallacious argument from a valid one, especially in some of the common skeptical topics, since some of the woo-woo crowd have become quite adept at obfuscating their fallacies. It’s not enough to get a general idea and move on; logic and science require clarity and specificity from both terms and arguments. “Ad hominem fallacy” means a certain, very particular thing, and it’s not enough to get a general idea and figure that it’s close enough. If you know what the fallacies actually are and you structure your arguments and your rhetoric in ways that are sound and effective, then you don’t need to worry about people mistaking some bit of your writing for some logical fallacy. You get to say, “no, in fact, that’s not a fallacy, but I could see where you might make that mistake. Here’s why…” When you do the job right, when your arguments are valid and stand on their own, then you don’t need to fear criticism and accusation. Isn’t that what we tell every psychic, homeopath, and theist who claims to have the truth on their side? “If your beliefs are true, then you have nothing to fear from scientific inquiry/the Million Dollar Challenge/reasonable questions”? Why wouldn’t we require the same standard from our own points and arguments?

Skepdude, I apologize for making this lengthy, snarky reply. I generally agree with you, and I obviously wouldn’t follow you on Twitter if I didn’t generally like what you have to say. But on this point, which I think is important, I think you’re clearly wrong, and I think it’s important to correct. Feel free to respond here or in the comments at your post; I obviously can’t carry out this kind of discussion on Twitter.

A Meme that Needs to Die

The nice thing about moving back toward the Chicago area is that I can listen to liberal talk radio again. I don’t do it often–there are really only two shows that I actually enjoy–but it’s nice to have something early in the morning and when I’m driving without podcasts. And generally it’s entertaining or informative or thought-provoking.

But occasionally the subject will turn to immigration. And then the callers will start coming in. And inevitably–inevitably–someone will make a comment that betrays the assumption (or states explicitly) that illegal immigrants don’t pay taxes. And in most cases, no one–hosts, co-hosts, other callers–corrects this notion. I’ve called in to two different shows to do just that, though I’ve never gotten to the air. This is a pernicious and generally-accepted meme, but any sense in it falls apart with even the most cursory thought.

What exactly do people mean when they say “illegal immigrants don’t pay taxes”? There are three big taxes that Americans pay: sales tax, property tax, and income tax. Illegal immigrants buy just as many things as natural-born citizens, so sales tax is right out. Illegal immigrants also tend to live in buildings, which they either own or rent. Either way, there’s no way for them not to pay property tax, either because they own a residence or pay a rent that covers the owner’s property tax payments.

So that leaves income tax. I think people have this notion that most or all illegal immigrants are day-laborers who work temporary jobs and get paid cash under the table. Sure, those workers probably aren’t paying income tax. I don’t think I paid income tax on the cash money I got paid for the temporary painting and lawn mowing jobs I did in and shortly after high school, either. But just as most high school jobs aren’t cash-for-manual-labor gigs, most illegal immigrants aren’t standing outside your local Home Depot. This enlightening Reason Magazine article from 2006 gives a figure of 2/3 for the number of illegal immigrants who pay income taxes (among other things), and even that sound like a low estimate–especially when it later shows that 3/4 of the illegal immigrants file personal income taxes with the IRS.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. See, the majority–and I suspect the vast majority–of illegal immigrants are employed legally. They may be using fake or stolen Social Security Numbers, but the cooks and busboys at your local Mexican or Chinese restaurant, the maids at your local hotel, the guys who work maintenance with my dad, those people are all getting regular paychecks from their employers. And those employers, as they are wont to do, are deducting state and federal income tax, Social Security, Medicare, and various other things from those paychecks automatically–just as they do with yours and mine. It’s not like many (if any) of us has to write a check every payday to the IRS.

And yeah, as of 2006, a quarter of them didn’t file taxes with the IRS. I’ve never actually filed my taxes either–that’s what accountants are for–so I’m not particularly clear on the details. I know that some people, when all is said and done, have to pay more to the government, and it’s likely that some of those non-filing illegal immigrants would have to pay extra, which means they’d be delinquent, which is certainly a problem.

But then, some of those non-filing illegal immigrants would probably also be like me, where at the end of the process the government would send them a nice refund check. I don’t know enough about the logistics and statistics involved to know whether or not these two amounts would balance out, but once we’re talking about maybe four million people, some of whom may owe money and some of whom may be owed money, the problem doesn’t look quite as…problematic.

I’ve heard there’s more to this issue, involving deductions and ultimately suggesting that illegal immigrants may pay more than most legal families, but I can’t find a source for that. I think it’s worth noting that, at least as of 2006, illegal immigrants paid significantly more in than they took out of the system. Which pokes a big nasty hole in the concerns of the person typically making this “they’re a drain on the system” argument.

Which is where it’s worthwhile to mention Social Security, too. Just like taxes, Social Security is automatically deducted from your steady paycheck in most jobs. This holds true for illegal immigrants working with fake Social Security Numbers. Unfortunately for them, having no genuine Social Security Number means they can’t collect Social Security when they retire. They’re paying into the system but getting nothing back from it. Which is the complete opposite of their typical freeloader image.

Illegal immigration is a boogeyman, drummed up because it taps into easy fears about outsiders and interlopers, and because it provides an easy scapegoat for the crappy job market and shit economy. The narrative today with Mexicans is the same one that worked against the Irish and Italians and Japanese and Germans and Jews in the past. The United States has always been an attractive place for people to come and make a new, successful life, and those who are determined to do so will make their way here by any means available. I don’t think that’s an attitude to discourage; that’s the old American pioneer by-your-own-bootstraps spirit, isn’t it? Don’t we want America to be a place that people dream of emigrating to?

If you want to curtail illegal immigration, fine: make legal immigration easier. The current system is long, expensive, draconian, and uncertain. Paying a coyote to ferry you across the border looks quick, cheap, safe, and straightforward by comparison. If you want people to pay all the taxes they owe, then you’re not going to get much by squeezing a few pennies out of every illegal Tomás, Ricardo, y Geraldo who owes back taxes. I guarantee you’d make better bank by going after the perfectly legal residents who exploit tax loopholes and the corporations who use tax havens and other workarounds to avoid paying their share. Want to improve the job market? Go after the corporations who have decided to outsource their operations to countries with cheaper workforces and fewer regulations. Increase tariffs on imported goods, place sanctions and extra taxes on businesses who outsource, and make it more attractive to hire American workers. Focusing on illegal immigrants obscures these actual problems in favor of something that has almost no effect on anyone.

Oh, and if you’re just tired of seeing brown people who speak a different primary language, start packing for Sweden, asshole. America’s a melting pot: E pluribus unum. Love it or leave it.

My Problem with Movements

I started this blog in part because I like to comment on and make fun of stupidity. It’s a shame that most of the stupidity I encounter right now comes from other skeptics. And it all seems to keep coming back to this idea of the “skeptical movement.”

Skepticism is not something I joined. Skepticism is something I use. I apply skepticism to the claims I encounter in my life. It’s a set of cognitive tools that I use to evaluate reality and the claims people make regarding it. Being someone who uses this set of tools makes me a skeptic, and so I share a label and a viewpoint with some other people. Because people are social animals, we gather around any commonality, no matter how small or arbitrary.

And that’s fine, when we’re forming clubs and conferences and message boards and shit. I like going to skeptical events and hanging out with skeptical people and talking about skeptical topics and reading skeptical books and generally promoting skepticism.

The problem is when people assume that, because we share this one thing, we must therefore have other things in common. Truth be told, these assumptions can often be accurate, but it’s a matter of correlation, not necessarily causation. Yes, my skepticism caused me to be an atheist, and while a lot of skeptics are atheists and a lot of atheists are skeptics, there are quite a few people who don’t fit in that shaded area of the Venn diagram. The same can be said for every interest: some skeptics are comic fans, lots of comic fans are sci-fi fans, lots of sci-fi fans love “Doctor Who.” But each of those things represents a different circle on a big Venn diagram chart, and you can’t just assume that all skeptics love “Doctor Who.” This can be a source of conflict and annoyance and hurt feelings; people tend to assume that other people are like them–especially people they like and/or admire–and it can be deflating to find out otherwise. Watch The Atheist Experience for a month or two, and you’ll see this kind of thing in action: some atheists assume that because we’ve all come to the same conclusion on the existence of God, then we must all have the same views on morality/aliens/conspiracy theories/politics/ghosts/drugs/etc. It’s just not something you can assume based on having one thing in common.

This problem is just as pronounced even when it comes to things that are directly related to the shared viewpoint. Just because I agree with other skeptics on the importance of skepticism doesn’t necessarily mean that our priorities or goals or methods are the same. As I’ve ranted before, I tend to think that we ought to live and let live, when it comes to each other’s methods. I think there’s room for a variety of approaches to spreading skepticism, from Joe Nickell-style serious investigations to academic debates to “Get in the fookin’ sack” humor to The Pope Song.

Obviously, there are those who disagree, or I wouldn’t keep beating this dead horse. The problem is the same as the one I mentioned above: the people who say things like “you’re not helping” are making some key assumptions about what the rest of us want to accomplish. Some people explicitly want to make skepticism into a serious academic discipline, some seem to think we’ll change more minds and convert more skeptics by being nice and polite all the time. I have my own opinions on the reasonableness of those goals, but that’s really not the point. The point is that those aren’t my goals. I do skeptical commentary because I’m passionate about it, and because I generally find it fun. I like making snarky comments about apologetic e-mail forwards and tearing alt-med idiots a new one and even doing a bit of serious skeptical investigation. I’m perfectly happy with keeping skeptical activism a fun hobby, and I’m bothered by people who want to make the entire enterprise as fun as writing a term paper. And that’s really just the tip of it. Shockingly enough, my purpose is not always to convert or educate. Sometimes my purpose is to entertain, sometimes it’s to vent, and sometimes it’s for my own amusement. I’m a little tired of “for the lulz” being denigrated as a reason to do stuff.

Even if your goals are changing minds, educating, and spreading awareness, it makes sense to have a multiplicity of methods and styles and techniques. Different people have different interests and are convinced by different things; context and audience are significant factors in determining what methods are appropriate. There is no one size that fits all situations or people. Frankly, that’s Education 101. Different people learn differently, and sometimes it takes time and multiple exposures and different pedagogical techniques to get new information to stick in people’s heads. And that’s assuming they’re receptive to the information in the first place, and outside of a classroom, there aren’t many people who appreciate being lectured to. And again, that’s assuming that education is your primary goal, which isn’t necessarily the case for everyone in every situation.

And that’s the problem with a “movement.” The term “movement” carries some baggage; it implies motion toward something, or at least in some shared direction. Skeptics don’t share such a direction in general, much though the tone police would like to impose one. My goals are not everyone’s goals, and it’s condescending and presumptuous for other skeptics, from the lying asshat behind the “You’re Not Helping” blog to bigger names like Daniel Loxton and even Phil Plait, to tell me that I’m not falling in line with their goals and priorities. I’m perfectly capable of setting my own goals and deciding what tactics and methods best suit them, thank you very much, and so are most people.

If I’m part of a movement, it’s because there are a lot of people individually drifting in the same general direction, but a few self-appointed shepherds have decided that they know the one right way to go. They’re quite happy to lead everyone around, and if some of the flock gets lost along the way, that’ll just improve the quality of what’s left. I’m sorry, but that’s poor shepherding, and I’m no one’s fucking sheep.

Tone Deaf

I’ll say this right off the bat: this post isn’t going to be link heavy. I’m talking in generalities, and I’m trying to do it quickly, but I hope my points will be clear regardless. Just consider this a rant, and if you need to dismiss it as such, go right ahead. I’ve long since stopped caring.

There’s a lot of infighting among skeptics right now, with lots of cries that some people or events are “hurting the cause” or “not helping.” It seems that every skeptical blogger and personality has been drafted into the “skeptical movement,” where they are constantly assumed to be speaking for a larger group, and where every action must apparently be scrutinized for its possible effects on how the general public perceives us and how our actions contribute to or against “the cause.”

Ur hurtin teh cause!It’s not quite that bad all over, but the extreme milquetoasts and mollycoddlers have caused folks like me to see even reasonable attempts at discussing tone and tactics as authoritative calls to shut up. It may sound petty to level this complaint, but it’s taken a lot of the fun out of skepticism and blogging. I will shout from the rooftops that science is of primary importance and that we should educate the public and fight against dangerous pseudoscience on every conceivable front, and that passion hasn’t died down. What has died quite a bit is my enjoyment of this whole process. Part of it is that the landscape has changed; we’ve roasted the trolls to extinction, and those who do show up are either looney toons like Dennis Markuze and Graeme Bird, or drive-by commenters who don’t stick around. But part of it, too, is that I have no real interest in speaking for a movement, nor in being told that my methods are “hurting the cause” by people who don’t have a fucking clue what my “causes” are. I’m passionate about skepticism, but blogging isn’t my job. I don’t get paid for this, I do it because I enjoy it. And the more I have to worry about how Internets is Srs Bzns, the less I want to participate.

As I said before, I’m open to the idea that I may be doin’ it wrong, but if you think we should eliminate tactics from our repertoire, if you’re going to claim that someone or some method is “not helping,” then you’d better damn well back it up with evidence. Otherwise, you’re not promoting skepticism, you’re not speaking from any kind of authority, you’re just talking out of your ass.

But to the hardcore tone trolls and the more reasonable group of people who are just concerned with how skeptics represent themselves to the general public and what tactics we use in discussions, I have a few pertinent questions. I don’t expect to get any real answers, certainly not from the people I’m actually frustrated by, but I’d rather post this and get it out of my system for a few days than let it simmer. But if you’d like to answer them, please feel free.

What is ur concernz?The first, and most important question, is this: What are you adding to the conversation? I think it’s trivially obvious, even to those frequently cited as the worst offenders, that one’s content and tactics need to be tailored to the situation and the audience. PZ Myers doesn’t berate the religious students in his Biology classes for being deluded nitwits, Richard Dawkins admitted that he would have been the wrong person to testify in the Dover trial, since he’d have to say that (at least in his case) science leads to atheism. Much like the talk of framing some months and years ago, what I’m seeing from the reasonable tone-talkers is repetition of that basic rule of persuasive writing, and I don’t think anyone disagrees. From my end, it’s as though you’re telling a room of veteran writers “show, don’t tell,” and then repeating it louder when they don’t treat it like a revolutionary concept.

Now, I can understand disagreeing with a person regarding what the appropriate tactics for a given discussion or argument or action are, and what might represent an appropriate tone or effective method. Here’s the problem: in order to say what’s effective or appropriate, you have to measure it against some goal, and different people may have wildly different goals. Yes, as skeptics we generally think that promoting critical thinking and science are major concerns. But that’s pretty much where the assumed similarities end (and depending on how broadly you want to define “skeptic,” there are some folks Bill Maher who might not even fit that latter criterion). We’re individuals, and we all have different interests that often get folded in with skepticism (frequently because we see those interests as outgrowths of skepticism). Michael Shermer puts a priority on promoting his libertarian economic and political philosophies; PZ Myers is generally more concerned with religious woo than cryptozoology; Orac focuses mostly on medical woo and doesn’t care much about promoting atheism; and so forth. In order to talk about what represents an effective tactic, you have to know what kind of effect the person is trying to achieve.

To go back to the Framing debate, there were those (and still are) who claimed that outspoken atheist scientists would hurt the promotion of science by suggesting that science leads to atheism. Well, that might be true. Those who are inclined to reject something because it leads some people to become atheists would certainly be inclined to reject science for that reason (though I can’t imagine how hiding it would help said promotion among said people in the long run), but it seemed that the critics never considered that promoting science wasn’t the only goal at play. Some people, believe it or not, were promoting atheism, or at least promoting the idea that it’s okay to be an atheist, that it’s okay to criticize religion, that religion shouldn’t be beyond critique, and so forth. That goal may sometimes contradict the goal of promoting science to the people who reject it on religious grounds. And that goal may conflict with the goal of maintaining science’s neutral position with regard to religion, as evidenced by the NCSE’s Faith Project Director declaring ID to be “blasphemous” (which explicitly endorses a particular religious viewpoint).

This is why talk of what “helps” and “hurts,” what’s “effective” and “appropriate,” is so frustrating: it relies on the assumption that the critic and the subject of critique share the same goals and priorities, which is unlikely.

I’d be less infuriated by these lines of questioning if it was phrased less “ur doin it wrong” and more “if you’re trying to accomplish [GOAL], then I think [METHOD] is unproductive.” See, this is part of that whole “tone” and “framing” thing: sometimes effective criticism requires you to express some degree of humility, rather than put forth an air of authority (which can seem arrogant and presumptuous).

Even that, though, falls back to my original complaint: saying “If your goal is X, Y is ineffective/counterproductive” is a factual claim. If you’re going to make a factual claim that a person should eliminate some method from their repertoire because it’s harmful (or unhelpful), then you have to show that it’s harmful (or unhelpful). In order to do that, you need evidence. Otherwise, it’s just your opinion, and while you’re entitled to express it, you need to realize what it is and what value it has to anyone else (i.e., none). Without evidential support, your opinion is no more or less valid than your opponent’s.

My final question to those who are concerned about tone and tactics: What is your ultimate goal? What do you want the skeptical movement to be/do? What would your ideal skeptical activist or activism look like? Is there anyone right now who you think is doin’ it right? What do you want this conversation about tone and tactics and effectiveness and appropriateness to accomplish?

Rant over. Feel free to answer, I’d honestly love to hear what people have to say.

Just a quick rant

I’ve got some posts percolating, but I need a moment to vent about something that’s been bugging me recently. I can’t really remember the last time I actually had a decent online argument with a believer of one form or another. I’ve had one or two exchanges that looked promising, and some that went around in frustrating circles, but mostly my recent arguments have been with other skeptics.

And it’s getting tiresome.

It’d be different if there were some other topic, but it’s always the same damn point: outspoken atheists are hurting the skeptical cause/making skeptics look bad/tearing the skeptical movement apart/overstepping the bounds of science and skepticism.

Suffice it to say, I disagree. But in my disagreement, I’m not chastising other skeptics for being too soft on religion. I’m not telling other skeptics that I think the future of skepticism lies in hardcore affirmative atheism. I’m not crafting bizarre strawmen about how accomodationist skeptics want to kick out all the outspoken atheists so they can purify the party. I’m not trying to redefine science to say that it must weigh in negatively on all god hypotheses. I’m not attaching “-gate” to every minor disagreement on message boards or blogs or Twitter. I’m not suggesting that the only way to combat woo is through ridicule and derision. I’m not arrogantly asserting that my way of approaching skepticism and atheism is the right way or the only way–or even that there is some single better way–to do so. And I’m certainly not telling other people in the movement that they’re going to tear the movement apart by being insufficiently outspoken about their godlessness.

See, I can disagree without thinking that everyone else should share my opinion or methods. Why the hell does this seem to be such a rare position?

Look, skeptics come from a bunch of different backgrounds. We have a bunch of different beliefs and personalities and philosophies. We ought to embrace that, not try to shove everyone into one pigeonhole or another. And the last thing we should do is set aside the beliefs or ideas of one group of people as beyond the reach of critical questioning, whether for reasons of politisse or apparent impossibility. I think we should be as willing to question Hal Bidlack’s faith as we are Penn Jillette’s climate change “agnosticism” or Bill Maher’s anti-medicine stance or Michael Shermer’s libertarianism. In fact, I’d say that most aspects of libertarianism (and politics in general) are much farther outside the range of science than, say, religious belief or assertion of a deity’s existence, and yet I think we should apply the same skeptical approach to it as we would to any other worldview.

But other people disagree, and that’s okay. Just don’t tell me I’m doing it wrong because my priorities and philosophies differ from yours. Don’t tell me that science and skepticism have some magical invisible boundaries that you’ve dreamed up (and that the vast majority of scientists and skeptics would disagree with). Don’t tell me that certain methods–such as ridicule, parody, and the occasional angry rant–are counterproductive when those methods are among the most visible and popular (even outside the movement). Don’t tell me that I’m tearing apart the movement when my philosophy is “everyone should be able to do their own thing, but nothing should be exempt from questioning.” Don’t tell me–in any variation of terms or degree of subtlety–that your way is the one right way to do things.

And if you want to tell me any of those things, then I’ve got one demand: present the data, or shut the fuck up. Because the one thing I haven’t seen from any of these self-proclaimed etiquette cops and method masters is evidence. Strange that people who want to define skepticism and set the stage for the next phases of the movement would omit such a key component of any skeptical argument.

Woo Triage

I commented on the recent thing at the Universe blog, but I think the author’s comments in the section where my post never quite materialized warrant some additional commentary, spinning off into something a little more in-depth. I have two fairly distinct things to say with regard to the matter, so in the interest of actually finishing a post in a timely fashion, I’m writing this as a two-post series. Let’s begin!

First, the sour grapes:

I don’t want to seem like I’m backtracking (and I’m very sorry to have typecast Skeptics as fuddy-duddies), but it seems I’ve made too broad an argument about something specific. […] I hate to say that the authoritarian, joyless zeal with which you’ve taken to shredding my point of view is, in effect, exactly what I’m talking about.

Yeah, far be it from a group that you’ve painted negatively with a common, obnoxious, tiresome stereotype to respond to that stereotype with some degree of authority (i.e., being relatively sure of what we’re talking about) and without joy. I suppose we should append a little smiley emoticon every time we sigh, roll our eyes, and start drafting the usual response to inane comments like ‘you just want to tear things down’ and ‘what’s the harm of UFO belief’. What if I said that women make terrible scientists and science fiction authors because they’re too emotional and romantic and not analytical enough? Or that a woman can’t be President because she’ll make the White House pink and bomb someone every 28 days? I wonder if debunking those common, inane canards would make you particularly joyful.


Of course, I tried really hard to infuse my response with joy and humility and giving-the-benefit-of-the-doubt (it’s hard to noun that verb), but it never got out of moderation. Further, the first video in your post–the one which sparks your criticism of skeptics–is apparently presented to criticize Bill Nye the Science Guy. Because as everyone knows, no one is more joyless or authoritarian a mere “debunker” as Bill Nye the Science Guy. And maybe it’s just that my heart is shriveled to a third of its normal size due to years of cynical debunking, but I thought Treppenwitz and Skeptical Ginger also tried to inject some joy and humility into their posts. But I suppose it’s easier to broadly dismiss anything that doesn’t fit your preconceived bias than to concede any point. “I’m sorry for what I said, but this proves that what I said was right” is not an apology.


On to the more substantive points:

In any case, I’m not speaking to any political form of pseudoscience — excuse me, in my bubble, I forget this is a charged subject. Anti global warming “science,” the dinosaurs-and-humans-together stuff, health quackery: clearly a worthy cause for debunking of all kinds.

I guess this may be a place where the sort of hardcore skepticism we typically engage in can seem unwarranted and off-putting. If you divide the woo-world into “harmful woo” and “harmless woo,” then using the same approach for both sets might indeed seem over-the-top.

But skeptics on the whole, I think, don’t make that distinction–at least, not with regard to arguing against it. It’s the same question/criticism that atheists face: why go after the liberal religious people when they’re mostly on our side? In both situations, the answer is basically the same. A person’s beliefs do not exist in a vacuum. The beliefs we hold–and the way we arrived at those beliefs–affect the other things we’re willing to accept and the actions we take. If people could just hold compartmentalized beliefs that had no real effects, then we’d have no real impetus to argue against them.

But that’s not the case. You needn’t look any farther than, say, Mike Adams to see how irrational beliefs beget irrational beliefs. I don’t know enough about Mike to know what beliefs or system for accepting beliefs kicked the whole thing off, but if I had to guess I’d say that his belief in the healing power of alternative medicine led to his rejection of science-based medicine, which led to his distrust of the pharmeceutical industry, which led to his distrust of the government, which is why he thinks 9/11 was an inside job. On one hand, it’s hard to see how “these herbs made my cold go away” can lead to “WTC 7 must have been a controlled demolition,” but the intermediate steps are incremental.

Mike’s an extreme example, sure. And I freely admit that my impression here is based on anecdotes rather than data. But I imagine it’d be the experience of most skeptics that crank magnetism is a strong force indeed: religious fundamentalists seem more likely to believe in possession and witchcraft, newage crystal enthusiasts seem more likely to believe in alternative energy medicine and psychics, and so forth. I’d be interested in seeing a rigorous study done, but I’m not aware of any.

See, it’s not that people just have some irrational belief, it’s that the irrational belief is emblematic of larger potential problems. People have standards for what beliefs they’re willing to accept and what ideas they’re willing to entertain. For skeptics, these standards are set by science and evidence; for believers of various stripes, the standards are set by the tenets of their religious beliefs or the details of their conspiracy narratives, and so forth. The beliefs–and thus, the standards which inform those beliefs–inform how the people who hold them will act, think, worry, vote, and otherwise affect other people around them.

And the effects range from the trivial (Bigfoot enthusiasts buying books on Cryptozoology, Spiritualists buying Ouija Boards) to the wantonly destructive (parents killing their children through religious-based medical neglect, governments condemning people to death through HIV/AIDS denial). No one denies that, which is why you’re more likely to find outrage over Jenny McCarthy than Jeff Meldrum.

But how much does a belief or belief system have to impinge on other people’s rights and well-being before it warrants debunking? Does it need to be death, as in the case of antivaxxers and HIV/AIDS denialists? Does it need to be widespread impending catastrophe, in the case of climate change denialists and GMO fearmongerS? You see no problem, apparently, with the New-Agers and the cryptozoologists; is it similarly unproblematic when legislators waste time and resources on protecting Bigfoot or investigating remote viewing? How much of my tax money has to go to pseudoscience and quackery before I have legitimate cause to be upset?

One of my biggest problems with all kinds of woo-woo is that it has this tendency to completely invert people’s priorities by providing them with imaginary worries and concerns that supersede real worries and concerns. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists become more concerned with remaining pure and sinless than with treating their life-threatening diseases; religious fundamentalists become more concerned with the coming Apocalypse than with helping create peace in the Middle East or fight climate change; conspiracy nuts become so fearful and distrustful of the secret plots of their governments that they overlook real harm that the governments are doing under the light of day. One of the best examples I can provide personally comes from Debra, the conspiracy theorist whose belief in a vague Satanic Illuminati plot to kill most of humanity and enslave the rest, led her to stockpile canned goods, panic over being potentially followed by Men in Black, and seek out truth in comic books and satirical videos. Meanwhile, she had a fairly young son, and had altered her plans of travel and family vacations and entertainment so that she could instead spend the money on supplies for when things got bad.

On one hand, the only people she’s harming are herself and her family, so why should I care? It’s her money, and she can do with it as she pleases, and it’s really no skin off my nose. What purpose is served by arguing against her beliefs if they don’t harm me?

And on the more relevant hand, why wouldn’t I care? Here’s a relatively normal, relatively healthy woman whose irrational beliefs have caused her to make major alterations to her life in order to prepare for a coming catastrophe that will never actually come. In doing so, she misses out on time with her family and causes herself all manner of considerable, completely unnecessary fear and worry. What kept hitting me, over and over in the conversation with Debra, was how tragic her story was. I felt really sad for her, and angry at the Alex Joneses and Jim Marrses who had actively harmed her life by spreading these false beliefs. I argued with her not so I could prove that I was right, but so that I could convince her to seek professional help and maybe have more time to spend with her son than with the phantom enforcers of the Illuminati. I argued with her not because her beliefs harmed me, but because they harmed her.

This is why we argue against even harmless woo: because it so rarely is. Even if it isn’t influencing legislation or policy, even if it’s not killing people or speeding along environmental catastrophe, it’s still affecting people’s lives and doing so in a negative fashion. I “debunk” because I think people’s lives are generally better if they’re employing critical thinking and scientific reasoning. I “debunk” so that I can help people stop living and thinking according to the dictates of fictional narratives and start living in the real world. “Debunking,” as I said in my comment, is a first step–and a necessary one–in the general process of education. And education, as far as I’m concerned, rarely needs justification.


Christmas Musings

Jeremiah 10:1-4 has been making the atheist rounds recently as another bit of irony for the holiday season. If you’re not familiar with the passage, it’s the one that goes thusly:

10:1 Hear ye the word which the LORD speaketh unto you, O house of Israel:
10:2 Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.
10:3 For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.
10:4 They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.

It’s always entertaining to find these little bits of dissonance between what the Bible teaches and what the “keep Christ in Christmas” crowd believes and practices. Oh, naturally there’s an apologetic to explain this away (‘the passage clearly refers to the making and worshipping of wooden idols which are covered in silver and gold plating,’ (from here. Go ahead and read Jeremiah for yourself; KJV is very different from NIV on this matter), but that really doesn’t make it any less entertaining1.

Nor does it make the practice of putting up a Christmas tree any more Christian. I don’t need to go on about the pagan origins of Christmas, how festivals like Saturnalia and Yule and Sol Invictus got rolled up into Christian traditions over the centuries. Such information is readily available (and I’ve just spent about half an hour Googling it…interesting stuff).

What boggles my mind is the abject ignorance of a great many Christians with regard to all this. Sure, there’s an apologetic for Jeremiah, but I guarantee that most Christians don’t even know the passage, let alone the explanation for why it doesn’t mean what it says. I recently followed a Twitter conversation between Neil Gaiman and some appallingly ignorant Christian, stemming from Gaiman’s promotion of Tim Minchin’s excellent godless Christmas song, “White Wine in the Sun.” The conversation had some real highlights, notably Gaiman’s suggestion that if the word “Christ” puts God in Christmas, than doesn’t the word “Easter” put Oestre in Easter? The obtuse kid apparently misunderstood and thought “Easter” was the name of the person who decided to make Easter a holiday.

And then there’s Garrison Keillor, who has made me decide that Lake Wobegon Days is now several notches lower on my “to-read” list. Somewhere beneath Ender’s Game in the “books written by pompous religious bigots” section of the list2.

All this, plus the litany of “keep Christ in Christmas” bumper magnets I see (year round, like tacky Christmas decorations left up in April) and witch-hunt websites tracking which retail stores dare to prefer an inclusive phrase like “Happy Holidays” when greeting guests, makes me wonder: what the hell is wrong with these people?

Why would you find an event so important that you think everyone should think about it the same way you do, but not care enough to actually find out about its origins? Why do you require underpaid cashiers and greeters to validate your beliefs and customs? Why do you feel the need to exclude people from a celebration?

I just don’t get it. I don’t understand why people would effectively say “this is our party, and if you’re not like us, you’re not invited. And we’re going to trash any party you try to throw, because today is our party day.” It’s silly and petulant; getting upset that the greeter at Wal-Mart said “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is as asinine as being offended that they said “have a nice day” instead of “happy birthday.” Why is it somehow offensively impolite to not make assumptions about a stranger’s religious beliefs? Why is it so important to dictate how other people conduct themselves in private?

What makes this all the more inane is that it’s the secular parts of the holiday–days off, giving gifts, spending time with family and friends, etc.–the things that are most commonly celebrated, that make the holiday popular and heavily anticipated. Would Christmas be as popular as it is if it only had the Christian religious aspects? If there weren’t these pagan and secular trappings attached to the holiday, it’d be another Good Friday or Ash Wednesday or Rosh Hashanah–significant to the observant, just another day to the rest of us.

And maybe that’s part of the anger–the fear that the little bits of Christmas which actually have something to do with Christ will be somehow supplanted with the secular parts, and so Christ has to be tacked onto the secular parts in order for the religious justification to survive. And there’s really nothing wrong with that; maybe you have an angel on top of the tree instead of a star, maybe you sing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Silent Night” instead of “Deck the Halls” and “Frosty the Snowman,” maybe you watch “The Nativity Story” instead of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”…but I still don’t understand why it matters to anyone what anyone else does on the holiday.

It all seems to come down to what Christmas is “about.” For me, Christmas is usually about family and songs I only want to hear for maybe seven days out of three hundred sixty-five and classic movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Die Hard” and presents and awkward moments in the closet. This year, it was about stupid-induced injuries and a broken-down car and forgetting my hard drive with all the Christmas music on it and a veritable overload of Doctor Who. And a bunch of other things. But it seems like some people can’t quite handle the idea that Christmas has different meanings for different people at different times. They have to find the true meaning of Christmas, for everyone. And their true meaning is “Jesus.” Everything else falls by the wayside, including values like togetherness and inclusiveness, which other people might even associate with that “true” meaning.

Or to put it in terms that even the most myopic, self-absorbed ideologue should be able to understand, there’s room for everyone at the Christmas Inn3.

Happy Holidays, everyone.

1. At the very least, it’s a prime example of how different translations influence interpretation. I defy anyone to read the KJV version and get “metal-plated idols carved out of wood,” though that’s a clear implication in the NIV. The other half-dozen or so versions I looked at varied in between.

2. Ender’s Game is higher largely because I feel somewhat obligated as a sci-fi fan to read it, and because I’m told I’d enjoy it. Also, to be clearer about Keillor, he’s in the subsection of “writers who may or may not be pompous religious bigots, but who write pompous religious bigotry and occasionally pass it off as satire, even when it’s neither funny nor particularly satirical.” It’s a small subcategory.

3. Alternately: “Maybe Christmas isn’t what’s said at a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”