OK, before I go any further I have to admit that the title of this entry is probably a bit unfair because it is a bit extreme and deliberately confrontational. The two people I am going to discuss clearly aren’t really complete morons, they just act that way sometimes. In reality at least one of them is very intelligent most of the time, but just acts like a moron occasionally. The other seems to act like a moron almost all the time, so maybe he more clearly deserves the label.
And yes, I know the original meaning of the word was for someone with a mental age between 8 and 12, but I’m sure we all know by now that it has changed to be a general term of disrespect for someone who shows a lack of mental acuity.
Anyway, who are the two people in question and under what circumstances are they morons?
The first is our old friend, Christopher Monckton and his area of moronity (yes, I believe that really is a word) is global warming denial (note that I use the word “denial” here, in preference to “skepticism”, quite deliberately).
The second is a well-known defender of Christianity who I haven’t ranted about before (yes, I was surprised too). His name is John Lennox and he is a British mathematician and philosopher of science who is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford. You would have to assume this guy is pretty smart in general (how else would he attain those lofty heights in academia – by the way that isn’t sarcasm) but when defending his Christian beliefs he really does sound like a moron.
The phenomenon of being really brilliant in one area and totally hopeless in another is quite common. I have already discussed it in relation to Francis Collins in a blog entry titled “Brilliant Stupidity” on 2009-09-22 and John E Hare in “Religious Intellectuals” posted on 2011-08-14.
So let’s look at some of the claims these clowns (I love that word in this context) have made in recent interviews on Radio NZ. Let’s start with Monckton…
First, he claims to be a mathematician and consistently implies he is an expert in the area of climate change. This is simply not true. He has no advanced formal training in maths or science, he has published no scientific papers in reputable journals, and he has done no original research in the area. If he genuinely believes these claims he is deluded. If he knows they are false yet makes them anyway then he is a liar.
If you read his biography on a neutral source such as Wikipedia it quickly becomes obvious that he has a fantasy-prone personality having made many fanciful and false claims about many aspects of his life. Clearly we should be highly skeptical (I use that word in the real sense) of his opinion based on this alone.
So clearly Monckton has a person has no credibility at all but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. What about some of the “facts” he quotes? Well he’s not wrong about everything and he does make some reasonable points, for example regarding the safety record of nuclear power and how many people from the “Green” side of politics have an illogical dislike of it, but that doesn’t detract from the numerous false and misleading statements he makes about climate change.
Just as an example he makes the false claim that there has been no warming since 1998. All real statisticians know that a single data point like that cannot be used when trying to establish a trend. If Monckton really was an expert he would know that too. Maybe he does.
The numbers he quotes regarding the costs and benefits of global warming reduction interventions are just about as far from reality as you can get. Maybe he sourced them from somewhere with credibility, I really don’t know since he didn’t say, but at the very least he’s taken the most extreme numbers from any source and used them in a misleading way.
And so it goes on for point after point. The interviewer, Bryan Crump, generally has a rather neutral (often to the point of vapidity) style, but you could tell from his responses that he knew he was being scammed by Monckton. Dishonesty of that sort is hard to hide.
So let’s move on to the second interview of John Lennox done by Kim Hill. Kim certainly has a reputation for not putting up with too much nonsense and, while she didn’t exactly outright challenge Lennox as being deliberately deceptive, you could see that she also knew she was being scammed.
As I said, unlike Monckton I have no complaints about the academic standards of Lennox but he is a Christian apologist and I’m sorry but in my experience if someone can be labelled that way (and it certainly applies to him) then they simply have to misrepresent the truth, you simply have no alternative because your worldview, when examined logically, simply cannot withstand any scrutiny. So even people who use the most rigorous techniques and critical self-examination in other areas of their life just demand a “free pass” to repeat unsupported nonsense when defending their religion.
So let’s look at some examples…
He claims the new atheists aren’t driven by scientific thinking and are confused about the nature of both science and god. OK, some of them aren’t science oriented – Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris would probably be more seen as having a political or philosophical approach – but surely others, such as Richard Dawkins, are very much science oriented and understand what it is.
As to what the nature of god is, well who knows? Every believer seems to have a slightly different idea and even Lennox seems to change his definition to fit the particular point he wants to make. So if the new atheists are confused about what god is then so is everyone else. Why? Because god doesn’t exist except int he mind of the believers. Is it surprising the idea of god has no consistent meaning?
He claims science and god are compatible and also claims his religious views are evidence based. But later in the interview he makes morality based decisions simply because that’s what is attributed to Jesus in the Bible instead of what makes sense. Clearly evidence and logic don’t matter to him that much, unless they fit in with what he wants to believe, of course!
He uses the tired old argument about how great contributors to science, like Newton, were also religious. That really doesn’t work though because at the time people almost had to be religious, and it was a requirement for the post that Newton held. Also, Newton was also an alchemist. Does that mean that science and alchemy are also compatible? It just doesn’t make sense and surely Lennox knows this. But because he has to defend a false belief he is obliged to use weak arguments like this one.
He cherry-picks the most ridiculous statements from the Bible in an attempt to validate his beliefs. Accepting the idea that the words “in the beginning” from the Bible vaguely agree with the Big Bang theory while ignoring a dozen other errors on the same page is deeply dishonest.
He also defends Christianity with the old “no true Scotsman” fallacy. According to him anyone who acts badly because of their beliefs isn’t a true Christian but anyone who acts in a good way is. Well you really can’t do that. If people act badly because of their religion then their religion is to blame.
And of you think the problem is one of interpretation then God should have made his message a bit clearer instead of disguising it in a confusing, contradictory, obscure, outdated text like the Bible. Buy any reasonable analysis Lennox loses on this point.
That’s enough. As I write this I’m listening to the interview again and I can’t take any more. It’s not nice being lied to and mislead. In the case of Monckton it’s not so bad because he’s just a joke, but in Lennox’s case it somehow seems more egregious because he is an intelligent person who is prepared to use any means to advance his point.
Maybe I should correct my original title. In the case of these two people, only one is clearly a moron, but the other is much worse!
I have mentioned in past blog entries that I don’t like labels. For example, about 5 years ago I said I didn’t want to be labelled as an atheist because that was too negative (being labelled based on what I don’t believe rather than what I do) but I do have to admit that in many ways I’m quite proud of that label because being an atheist is the ultimate form of individualism and free thought.
Although I often say I don’t like them I do use labels more than I should. I often accuse my opponents in various debates of having a particular agenda by labelling them with a derogatory tag of some sort – “right wing nut job” and “crazy creationist” being my two current favourites. So although I am going to reject the use of labels in general here I do recognise that they are hard to avoid completely.
In case you hadn’t already guessed, this blog entry came about as a result of listening to a skeptical podcast, in this particular case on the subject of racism, which posited that the tag of “racist” was counter-productive and often wrong.
My preferred action is to label actions rather than people. In my experience even right wing nut jobs and crazy creationists sometimes get things right and are often quite reasonable away from their particular area of delusion. So calling someone a nutter is probably unfair and inaccurate. Calling an idea nutty, on the other hand, is often justified.
So when I reject an opponent’s opinion because they are a right wing nut job it is probably no more helpful to the discussion at hand than them rejecting my comments because I’m a “loony left liberal” or whatever other insult du jour is currently fashionable with the nutty right (see how easy it is).
The fact is that almost everyone exhibits some level of almost every possible foible. Although I am very liberal politically there are areas where I might be seen as quite the opposite (some of my opinions on race-based politics for example would seem horrific to some liberals). So being accused of being a member of the loony left in those situations would be totally inappropriate.
Research has shown that we are all racist, sexist, and almost everything else you care to name to some extent. When US police practice firearm skills in simulated situations they are more likely to shoot the black dummy than the white one. And interestingly black cops are just as likely to do this as white!
And another research study showed that given identical resumes people will more often choose the person identified with a male name rather than a female. And yes, the women do it as much as men!
These points aren’t simple though. The fact is that black people are more likely to be involved in crime than white so is a preference for shooting the black guy really racism or just following the odds? And women do tend to take maternity leave and (according to some reports) take more time off so is preferring a man really sexism?
I suspect that when measured by these criteria everyone would be a racist, sexist and just about every other kind of -ist going. So in many ways those labels are irrelevant because it is a matter of degree when a person ceases being a normal, biased human and enters the realm of being something we should all abhor!
Nothing is ever simple but again I think they key is to label the act rather than the person. If a cop shoots a suspected black criminal unnecessarily that might have been a racist act (and then again it might not) but that doesn’t automatically make the person a racist.
So the next time someone sends me an article “proving” global warming isn’t real because the temperature hasn’t increased since 1998 I will label the article “a completely debunked, tired old argument” rater than labelling the person a “delusional climate change denier”. And I can easily back up the criticism of the article with facts where labelling the person would be more difficult to validate.
And the next time an opponent in an evolution debate tells me there are no transitional fossils I will not call them a “superstitious nutty creationist”. Instead I will call the alleged point a “ridiculous and delusional fabrication” because there are many transitional fossils making the claim that they don’t exist easy to refute.
It would be nice if my opponents also followed these rules but somehow I don’t think they will. There is a difference between us. In most cases (I’m not arrogant enough to claim all) I am right and they are wrong. If you are wrong it’s hard to put a negative label on a point your opposition (me in this case) has made but it’s still easy to blame the person by labelling them. If the person making the point has been discredited (in the person’s mind anyway) then there’s no need to try to refute their point. After all if I am just an “intractable Darwinist” then my evidence can be ignored. No need to explain those pesky fossils then, is there?
In my ongoing debate with an anti-evolutionist I have noticed his use of many logical fallacies. Last time I talked about the appeal to authority and how he had (falsely) accused me of using it. This time I want to mention a fallacy which he uses over and over and is very common amongst creationists and other science deniers. It’s the argument from personal incredulity.
I have mentioned this invalid way of thinking on several occasions in the past but I will just reiterate here the basic meaning: it’s the claim that something cannot be true because the person has a personal disinclination to believe it, either because it seems unpleasant, or he doesn’t understand the technicalities, or it contradicts some other personal belief he has.
It’s obvious how evolution can be the victim of this attack. Evolution isn’t as “nice” as creation. Many people would rather think they were created by a wise and good god instead of being the product of natural organic processes. The basics of evolution are simple but the finer details can involve a lot of effort to understand so again it can be rejected because “god did it” is just a lot easier. Finally evolution contradicts many supernatural explanations of origins, and although some religions have tried to merge the theistic and naturalistic explanations of origins that often seems rather contrived.
Any theory can be rejected using personal incredulity. Whenever I produce evidence for evolution my opposition can just say “that doesn’t seem real to me” or “there are other explanations” or “those observations haven’t been confirmed as 100% true”.
In fact in most cases all of those objections are true. Sure, some of the evidence may not seem real to him but that’s a fault on his part, not the evidence. And there are almost always other explanations but not all explanations are equally likely. The evidence for the origin of the diversity of life indicates that either evolution is happening or there is something else which produces results so similar to evolution that it becomes almost indistinguishable. And yes, we all admit the evidence has not been proven 100% but no evidence from empirical science (which is almost all science) is ever totally proven. But just because the evidence for evolution is “only” 99% proven doesn’t mean we should reject it or seriously consider a theory with evidence which is only 1% proven at best!
Science is usually not exact and it’s unreasonable to expect it to be. In the world of philosophy it is OK to point out that inductive logic cannot absolutely produce the truth about the real world but in science, where real results are required, the best methods available must be used. Everyone understands the limitations of induction and that is why scientific experiments and observations must always be confirmed by repetition and why all theories should be negatable.
I know that some people claim that a particular fact is proven but technically they probably shouldn’t be saying that. However it does become tedious after a while saying that many very well supported things are not facts. If scientists had to speak that way, and more importantly act that way all the time then they would become effectively paralysed by indecision.
The best approach is to accept certain empirical observations as being facts, even if from a strict technical philosophical perspective they aren’t, while always being aware that extraordinary new evidence might be presented in the future which will require changing the details of that fact or to maybe even rejecting it completely.
So when I say “evolution is a fact” I really mean “the process of evolution has been confirmed by an extraordinary number of independent and objective observations, it has been critically tested by many experts, it has passed every test which has been applied to it, and there is no credible alterative, so it looks very very likely that it is real which means we can provisionally accept it as true unless some extremely strong counter-evidence is presented”.
But you can see that the short-hand of saying “it’s a fact” is a lot more convenient!
Whatever the case, when someone actually asks me to debate them on evolution then just rejects every piece of evidence I present just because he doesn’t like it you could see how I would find it a bit frustrating. I guess the argument from personal incredulity really is one of the most annoying logical fallacies out there!
In the past I have discussed the logical fallacies which people often indulge in, specifically special pleading and ad hominem. Today I want to move on to the appeal to authority. I chose this primarily because it has come up in two discussions I am currently involved with: one against an anti-global warming organisation in Australia and the other against an anti-evolutionist from Brazil. Isn’t it great how the internet allows us to get into bitter and protracted pointless arguments with people from all over the world?
Both global warming and evolution deniers often accuse their opponents (in this case me) of succumbing to the appeal to authority fallacy. The first question I ask both of these groups is why the vast majority of experts (practically 100% in the case of evolution and in the high 90s for climate change) think the scientific consensus is sound.
There are really only two responses possible here (for my opponents). First, that there is a vast conspiracy and that huge group are all colluding to misinform the public. And second, that a consensus should be ignored because even an overwhelming majority view can be wrong and anyway, that is just an appeal to authority.
Actually there is a third possibility but that can usually be dispensed with fairly easily. That possibility is that the consensus doesn’t exist. This is usually supported by quoting people who present the alternative view. But in every case these represent either a fringe view of a tiny number of people, a view of a non expert, or a politically or religiously motivated personality with no scientific credibility in the area involved.
The problem is that, like many informal logical fallacies, this isn’t a simple black and white issue. Appealing to an authority can be a bad thing but it can also be a reasonable way to conduct a debate. It really depends on how the point is made. The same applies to other fallacies such as the ad hominem attack I have mentioned before, because in some cases attacking the person can be fair if that attack is relevant to their claims.
When I support evolution by invoking the fact that practically every working biologist believes it I am appealing to authority but in a fair way. Why do those people believe evolution? Because they know the facts and have investigated the evidence. Their opinion is relevant to the topic. Invoking the opinion of some random person with no formal background in biology, even if they have authority in some other area, would be a genuine fallacious use of the technique.
But once the consensus can be established (and it can, beyond any reasonable doubt) and the appeal to authority can be justified (which, as I said above, I believe it can) then the only defence left is the conspiracy theory. A lot of nutty believers in weird stuff (creationists and global warming deniers for example) don’t hesitate to use the conspiracy defence but many (slightly less nutty individuals) realise that does severely weaken their position so they try to avoid it.
The global warming deniers I am debating with have gone with the classic conspiracy theory which basically says that experts are pretending global warming is real to ensure they get research grants for their work in the area. This is so utterly ridiculous that it is laughable to anyone who knows anything at all about how science really works, but these people either have no idea or choose to use the technique anyway because it appeals to the biased views of a lot of the more ignorant sections of the public.
The anti-evolutionist (I suspect he in a creationist although he won’t admit it) I am debating with has taken a different course. He has just rejected what biologists think and accused me of the appeal to authority. Even though that is an invalid use of that criticism because the appeal is justified I moved on to something else. The consensus exists because of all the evidence, so if the consensus isn’t acceptable I just had to present the evidence directly instead. That’s what I’m doing and so far that seems to be far harder for my opponent to refute.
So in summary I think the appeal to authority should be used with caution. Anyone who does use it should be aware of why a consensus exists and should be able to support his view by presenting those reasons directly. On the other hand no one should reject a scientific consensus unless they have a very good reason. And creationists and global warming deniers most definitely don’t!
Looking back through my old blog entries I have found a post where I said that I would do a series on logical fallacies and how people could use them to improve their debating and thinking skills. I have only covered one so far, special pleading, and a commenter noted that he would await further entries so, here goes…
The logical fallacy I want to cover this time is the “ad hominem”. This is an attack against a person rather than a point if view or argument. The definition from the encyclopedia of philosophy is: “Your reasoning contains this fallacy if you make an irrelevant attack on the arguer and suggest that this attack undermines the argument itself.”
It’s interesting to note one word there which is sometimes left out, that is “irrelevant”. I will come back to this point later.
Ad hominem fallacies are very common and it’s difficult to avoid them entirely. They occur when an argument is rejected because of a disagreement with the person making it. Sometimes the rejection is completely unsupported, and on some occasions it is partly appropriate, but in many cases it has little relevance (in which case it would be a clear case of the ad hominem fallacy).
Here’s an example: a global warming denier might say that he doesn’t believe in the phenomenon because the people who support it are scientists who are all to the left politically making them unreliable.
This is an ad hominem attack because scientists occupy a spectrum of political views and even if they were all to the left it would make no difference to the facts they are presenting. Those facts can be independently checked and are open to peer review. Any argument of this sort should be either rejected, or at least treated with great suspicion because it really can’t be taken seriously.
Here’s a less clear example: the movie “An Inconvenient Truth” cannot be taken seriously because it’s about Al Gore who has a political agenda.
There are inaccuracies in this movie and Al Gore is a political activist for action on global warming, but that doesn’t mean the many facts and accurate reports in the movie can be ignored. It does mean it doesn’t have as much credibility as it would have if it was about an independent expert discussing the same subject but it should still be considered and fact checked. When that is done the greatest part of the movie is found to be relevant and accurate.
Finally there is this: I always ignore my neighbour who thinks climate change is just a vast conspiracy. He works for BP and is a member of the local libertarian party. He also supported many other pro-industry causes in the past such as contributing to the denial of cigarettes causing cancer and aerosols causing the ozone hole.
This is an attack against the neighbour as opposed to his ideas but I think it is largely justified. Because the criticisms of the person are relevant to the point under discussion this isn’t an ad hominem.
First, the neighbour has produced no facts at all to support his denial of climate change: he has simply stated that he thinks it’s a conspiracy. It’s possible that it actually is one but without any verifiable evidence that contention is useless. He also has a very clear reason to reject climate change whatever the facts may be because he works in an industry which would be affected by any action taken and belongs to a political party with a dogmatic view against it. Finally he has a history of rejecting similar phenomena which are now clearly accepted as true even by most of the people who initially rejected them.
Clearly all debating should involve examination of the facts rather than the character of the people involved but there are some people who present such weak arguments and have such clear biases that it’s sometimes more practical just to initially assume their argument is baseless. There are also a few “serial offenders” who make the same mistakes, or present the same misinformation, over and over. For example there are people involved in climate denial now who also worked for the tobacco companies in propaganda campaigns against the dangers of smoking. I think it is OK to reject these people’s arguments with little further thought.
In a perfect world – one where we had plenty of time to look at everyone’s opinion – we could look at the claimed facts behind everyone’s opinion and accept or reject them based on that. But the reality is that sometimes that just isn’t possible, and an attack against the person is acceptable without it being labelled as an ad hominem.
Denial is everywhere. People just cannot – or deliberately choose not to – accept some facts. I see it in religion, politics, business, everywhere. And not only are the same tactics used over and over again, but in many cases the same people are involved in one denial campaign as were involved in past campaigns which have now been discredited.
One of the biggest campaigns of misinformation and deliberate denial of all time involved the tobacco industry. When the link between tobacco and cancer became a well accepted fact (standard disclaimer here: every fact is open to some interpretation and doubt but some are so well established that doubt is unreasonable) the tobacco industry launched a massively dishonest propaganda campaign to protect itself and which went on for years.
Does this phenomenon still exist today? Well the tobacco industry has moved on and now accepts smoking is dangerous – but that hasn’t stopped them from aggressively marketing a product they admit is dangerous or from selling it into less advanced countries with looser advertising laws. But the same tactics are now being used in an attempt to discredit climate change. In fact some of the most prominent climate change deniers were involved in tobacco harm denial as well!
One way deniers attempt to refute climate change is to point out examples of specific times at specific places where the temperature has dropped rather than increased, or to quote particular years which are cooler than other carefully chosen preceding years. This is like saying tobacco is safe because one particular smoker hasn’t died yet. They refuse to look at the big picture because that wouldn’t support what they want to believe, but while that can be quite convincing to many people who are ignorant of the real facts it is a very dishonest approach.
Of course the phenomenon goes far beyond climate change denial. It is common in any situation where a powerful group wants to protect its place at the expense of everyone else. Here in New Zealand the dairy industry is in major denial over its effect on water quality. Most New Zealand rivers are badly affected by dairy effluent and in the past few years dairy farmers have made substantial profits yet most seem disinterested in following the law and reducing that pollution.
In response to this a representative of Federated Farmers said something like this: the problem is overstated because my farm produces very low levels of pollution. Does this sound like a smoker saying that he hasn’t died from cancer yet so everything must be OK? A single example doesn’t disprove a trend.
Many forms of denial are relatively benign although there is inherent harm in any group’s inability to accept the facts. Look at our old friends the creationists for example. They deny the overwhelming evidence of modern biology, geology, cosmology, and just about every other science. They are the ultimate deniers and so totally out of touch that it’s hard to take them at all seriously.
But the creationists have done a lot of harm. They continually try to have their pathetic ideas taught in schools while blocking the teaching of scientific fact (yes, yes, I know, refer to the disclaimer above). In a world where science and technology are so important this is clearly harmful to society as a whole.
Plus there’s the phenomenon where one form of denial tends to be associated with others. I know creationists who also deny global warming, and I haven’t checked but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they also denied the harm intensive agriculture and other industry cause to the environment.
So denial itself is a bad thing. The next time I hear anyone denying pollution, or evolution, or climate change I should just say “here, have a cigarette!”
Anyone who reads this blog will know I am a skeptic. I don’t mean a skeptic as in a nihilist or a denier, I mean a real skeptic: someone who is dedicated to discovering the truth, or the closest we can get to the truth, while understanding that everything is still ultimately open to question. But clearly this attitude isn’t as common as we would like, even amongst intelligent and knowledgable people.
I discussed some issues related to skepticism today with a working scientist, an obviously intelligent person, who nevertheless had some bizarre and naive opinions on various topics.
I got the impression this person was a bit doubtful about the Apollo space program for example. Maybe she was one of those who genuinely think the Moon landings were hoaxed or maybe she was just using that as an example of something which could easily be untrue even though traditional wisdom was that it was a fact. The problem with many of these discussions is that it can be difficult to get your opponent to commit to a particular view so the theory you are trying to refute is constantly changing.
A similar thing occurred when we discussed religion. She claimed the Bible was the best source of true historical fact about the ancient world. I know this is a common claim made by believers and it is totally unsupported. There are references in the Bible to historical facts but there’s a lot which is totally unsupported as well. But this claim is very common and obviously the people that make it have either never been corrected or choose to ignore that correction.
Anyway I took an important story from the Bible and asked what historical evidence there was for it. I chose Exodus because that is a well known and important story. What evidence is there that Exodus is true? Absolutely none. There is no accepted evidence supporting the events in Egypt or the crossing of the Red Sea, or the wandering in the desert. We can be almost certain that it simply didn’t happen.
So how can the Bible be considered an important historical document when one of its most significant stories isn’t true? And that’s not the only one either, there are many Biblical accounts which are claimed to be historical records yet are totally unsupported by the evidence. And it’s not just that the evidence is lacking and might be found in the future. Many people have looked desperately for evidence to support the Bible and have failed. Instead they have found evidence which contradicts it. So the more we look the less reliable the Bible is seen to be.
It’s interesting what lead to the claim of the Bible’s historicity too. We were discussing morality and she asserted that people need something to guide them. I said I found that problematic because what relevance does an old book written by bronze age desert nomads have to morality thousands of years later? That was when she claimed the Bible should be taken seriously because it is an accurate historical account. Even if that was true it doesn’t mean it contains good morality but it fails on both counts because most of it isn’t accurate anyway!
She also mentioned another well known false claim that believers often use. That was the old story that the weight of the soul has been measured because a person’s weight was measured as they died and their soul exited the body. Well that just isn’t true. When that experiment is performed it shows nothing. That doesn’t mean there is no soul of course, just that if there is one it either weighs nothing (that makes sense) or doesn’t exit the body as expected. But while this alleged experiment doesn’t disprove there is a soul it certainly can’t be used in support of the idea!
I found it quite bizarre that someone with an advanced degree in science could think in such an illogical and muddled way but there are plenty of other examples of this happening and I have already mentioned a few of them here in this blog.
Many people would say that it doesn’t really matter how people think outside of their area of expertise but I disagree. If truth is important – and I think it is – then it’s up to our intellectual leaders to demonstrate as much leadership as they can. They shouldn’t support an old book of myths as a source of morality, they shouldn’t repeat old and tired canards which reinforce superstition, and they should be skeptical of contentious claims but only to an extent which is reasonable: the time for skepticism over the Moon landings is over!
There are a lot of things which many people just accept without really thinking about them. I realise that no one has the time to carefully research everything they hear but I think there is a good case to suggest that more people should be a little bit more skeptical about what they hear, even from fairly respectable mainstream media.
When I hear something which I think is unlikely to be true I call bullshit. Usually I’m right because my BS meter is extremely finely calibrated, but sometimes I’m wrong. I do try to follow up my BS calls with some research to see how accurate the call was so I hope my accuracy is improving through that process.
Anyway, having explained the idea let me give a few examples of where I call bullshit…
First there is climate change. There is a lot of nonsense spoken by deniers and I could be constantly calling bullshit on this one. But there is one claim which isn’t quite so self-evidently nonsensical. That is the cost of dealing with the problem.
The estimated cost to protect the whole world against global warming is US$175 billion per year. That sounds like a lot and how can already economically challenged economies afford it? Very, very easily as it happens. The economic damage caused by Hurricane Katrina alone was $200 billion. I’m not saying that event was caused by global warming but it is an example of what will happen in the future (and is already happening). Saying we can’t afford to prevent global warming is nonsense. I call bullshit!
While we’re on the subject of global warming how about this one. Many deniers say that human activity couldn’t possibly be making any real difference to CO2 levels and that volcanoes alone contribute far more. Really? Volcanism contributes about 0.0001 parts per million to the atmosphere annually. In 2011 alone humans contributed 2 ppm (the total increased from 388 to 390). Why do deniers continue to make this claim? I call bullshit!
Another common claim is that cap and trade schemes don’t work. I would far prefer a tax on carbon but the fact is that cap and trade can work. A US government cap and trade scheme on SO2 emissions effectively stopped acid rain. Emissions are now 50% below what they were in 1980. Cap and trade can’t work? I call bullshit!
Many religious people speak as if the existence and reported life of Jesus is a settled fact. They cite the occasional reference to him outside of the Bible, especially in the works of Josephus. But Josephus also wrote about the grand-daughter of Hercules marrying Abraham. Does that mean that Hercules was also an historical figure? I don’t think so. I call bullshit!
Many people speak about indigenous populations as being more environmentally aware and in touch with the land than European settlers. This is quite a prevalent view here in New Zealand, for example, but is it true? The Pacific rat, introduced by Maori, caused more extinctions than any other mammal species in the history of this country. Within 50 to 100 years of Maori arriving in New Zealand the moa was extinct. And 34 species were made extinct by Maori, and only 15 by Europeans. Maori are more in touch with the land? I call bullshit!
There are some sources of “news” which are far more susceptible to doubtful claims than others. But it’s necessary to be aware of possible nonsense from anywhere. Note that above I have called bullshit on claims which would traditionally come from the political right (global warming denial) and the left (the doubtful belief that indigenous people are more in touch with the environment).
If I read back through my blog I’m sure I could find things I should call bullshit on. If more people doubted their own assumptions the world would be a far better place. Skepticism is good. The idea that faith and acceptance are positive attributes is just… well, bullshit!
We can never know anything for certain so no controversy can ever be fully resolved. If someone wishes to take a particular view on a subject they will always be able to find some way to support their opinion or, more likely, cast doubt (deserved or otherwise) on the opinion of their opponents.
But no one really lives in a way that reflects this uncertainty. Everyone has a working hypothesis which they think reflects reality. For example, people work on the assumption that the sun will rise tomorrow because they plan their day based on that. And they work on the assumption that gravity won’t do anything strange: for example, they would never jump off a tall building just because they think there’s a chance that gravity will have reversed its action.
So whatever they tell you, and however open-minded someone wants to be, people do make assumptions and they do reject hypotheses which have an extremely low chance of being correct.
What I’m saying is that various groups in society who reject well accepted ideas just because there’s a small theoretical chance they are incorrect are being dishonest. There’s a small chance that the theory of gravity is wrong but they still wouldn’t jump off that tall building, would they?
So now I am finally getting to the subject of this post. We should be careful of controversies which don’t really exist. There are several areas where these manufactured controversies, or “manufactroversies”, exist. Some of the more conspicuous would be in the topic areas of evolution, global warming, the reality of religious beliefs, and various alternative medical beliefs.
Creationists are the master of this phenomenon, of course, and have been using the technique for many years. The catch-phrase of many creationist groups, when they work against evolution being taught in science, is “teach the controversy”. But to use this phrase there must be a controversy and in reality there isn’t. What they should be saying is “teach the manufactroversy” but that doesn’t sounds so good and people would also quite rightly ask why.
Why should we teach something which has a practically zero chance of being true? Why should we teach that there is genuine debate about the reality of evolution in science when there is no debate? As I said above, there is always a fantastically small chance that evolution isn’t true at all, and there is a slightly greater one that major details of the process are badly misunderstood but, just like the idea that gravity might reverse itself, we really should work on the idea that evolution is real.
What about the other manufactroversies I mentioned above? A very similar conclusion can be reached regarding them. There is almost no real debate amongst climate scientists that global warming is real. There is no serious suggestion from rational experts that any of the world’s major religions are literally true. And there is no serious debate amongst medical experts that most quack medical beliefs make no sense. For example, the alleged debate that vaccines cause autism has been rejected, and most sensible people have moved on.
I myself am undoubtedly an argumentative person and I don’t believe anything unless there is good reason to. I doubt a lot of what I hear from politicians and economists for example. I doubt the accuracy of a lot of what I see in the news media and in advertising. And I am even skeptical of the opinions of many experts.
But I am not doubtful of well-established ideas which I have researched through multiple sources. I accept that the science I have mentioned above could be wrong in some way but it’s unrealistic to think it is and it’s even counterproductive to even think of a controversy really existing. Manufactroversies are just a waste of time which would be better spent on the genuinely controversial topics.
There are a number of odd ideas and statements which I hear over and over again and which get really annoying after a while. They get annoying because they have been shown beyond any reasonable doubt to be untrue – and often the person supporting them knows that – yet we keep hearing them anyway.
I can understand people not knowing a particular fact or being misinformed on a particular subject, but I can’t understand or forgive someone making the same mistake many times after being corrected, especially when they are being deliberately ignorant or misleading.
I’m going to mention a few of my favourites here and explain why I should never hear these opinions being offered again!
First, there’s the statement that some well established scientific principle is only a theory. Of course this is most often used in conjunction with evolution. How often do I hear that “evolution is only a theory”. I always correct the person making that statement when I can because, as I said above, I can excuse the initial ignorance, but after that there is no excuse for ever making that statement again!
So why is it so untrue? There are three reasons.
First, a theory in the scientific context is an extremely well proven and accepted set of hypotheses and explanations which go far beyond the use of the word in common speech. Something can’t be describes as “just” a theory because the word “just” implies something far less that what a scientific theory actually represents.
Second, evolution is fact and the theory of evolution is something which explains that fact. So evolution is both a fact and a theory. The evidence that evolution has occurred is so overwhelming that no knowledgeable, sensible, or fair person would deny it. It’s as undeniable as the fact that the Earth is “round” (it’s actually closer to an oblate spheroid) or that it orbits the Sun.
Third, the theory of evolution is extremely well accepted and backed up by threads of evidence from multiple areas of science. The theory of evolution explains the mechanisms behind the fact of evolution and there is no other alternative which makes sense. So even if you want to reject the theory you will not find an alternative which makes any sense.
Right, so I have explained why “evolution is only a theory” is a combination of words which should never occur again, what else is annoying in a similar way?
Well there’s a related statement which goes something like “we don’t have to prove this because it is beyond the reach of science and cannot be explained so easily”. This is often used to excuse religious superstition or belief in magical pseudoscience such as alternative medicine or other quackery.
I reject this concept. Either something exists in some way or it doesn’t. If the phenomenon exists in a more subtle way than a physical object then it must have some interaction with the physical world. If it doesn’t then it just doesn’t exist. So anything which is beyond the reach of science is automatically untrue.
What I said above is a rather bold statement and quite a complex idea so let me give some examples.
Let’s use one of the classic subjects for this statement: god. Some people will say that god exists but he cannot be examined by science. Maybe he exists in a different dimension or has no interaction with our universe. Let’s assume these statements are true (or even make sense). If god never interacts with our reality then he doesn’t exist. Just like Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings don’t really exist except as an imagined concept.
Or what about this: “homeopathy works but it’s efficacy can never be examined by science”. Well if it works then there must be some real outcome from that process. The person the homeopathy is being used on must have changed in some way and that is a physical phenomenon which science can examine. If there is no change which can be detected then in what way has it worked? Clearly it hasn’t.
Science has proved the existence of some really subtle things. Things which can never be seen visually or even detected in a direct way. Things like neutrinos and virtual particles. These are surely at least as difficult to detect as the influence of a god or the effect of a homeopathic treatment. But science has no trouble accepting them.
So even if some things are even more subtle than virtual particles I still think the statement that science can’t detect them is flawed. You might say that science hasn’t detected them yet but to say it never will or can’t is meaningless.
Well I have ranted on about those two points so much that I might have to leave other annoying ideas for another blog post. There are some really good ones in the realm of politics for example, but I’ll tackle those some other day.