“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” - Often attributed to Plato but likely from Ian McLaren (pseudonym of Reverend John Watson)

Saturday, May 29, 2010

A telling symptom of crackpottery

The anti-science cult has quite a few sub-cults: anti-vaccination; creation science and anti-evolution; 9/11 truthers; homeopathy supporters; climate change skeptics, etc. I have a secret fascination for reading such nonsense. This has been a guilty pleasure for me for quite a while - I also am drawn to watch, in fascinated horror, such as Benny HinnRobert Tilton (for a different take on Tilton, see here), and other "spiritual healers."

In perusing the web sites devoted to such belief systems (I say belief systems as opposed to bodies of knowledge) there's often an element of paranoia - "there's a huge, malign conspiracy to quash the truth, a truth to which I and those of like belief have access." One way this frequently expresses itself is in the demand for debate. See the comment at 10:16 on May 29, 2010 here, the touting of a debate at the Oxford Union here or the report of an "evolution debate" here for examples.

Why is this? Are questions of science, nature, and fact settled by debate? Obviously not. I actually participated in debate in High School and was coached in the skills necessary to prevail in a formal debate on such topics as: Resolved: Taxpayer funds should be used to flouridate Rockford, Illinois' drinking water. Of course, I'd need to be fully prepared to argue the affirmative or the negative side. It involved gathering facts that support either argument and being prepared to defend against such arguments gathered by the opposing side. The judging was quite formal and a winner was always declared.

This is what the supporters of creationism, anti-vax, homeopathy, etc. want - the ability to utilize clever tactics to convince an audience lacking in specialist knowledge for the purpose of persuading the greater public and thereby influencing public policy. But debating skills (at least insofar as convincing a non-expert audience on scientific topics) do not equate with the ability to ferret out the truth from disparate data. Either skill takes dedication and perseverance to develop; scientists choose the latter and thus may fall very short on the former.

Thus, when looking at blogs and web sites with viewpoints on subjects on which I'm not an expert (and no one really has a blog or web site arguing the arcana of the physics of acoustic propagation in steel or the acceptable level of heat input in a flux core weld), if I see a lot of clamoring for debate or the citation of the results of debate, I become immediately skeptical of the viewpoint being espoused.

Monday, May 03, 2010

A dip into the strident atheist, liberal pool

I read several of the blogs at the blog host ScienceBlogs. In fact several are on my blog roll. One that I don't link is Pharyngula. I've mentioned in a previous post the frustrations I've had commenting there. PZ Myers, the publisher (owner?) of the blog posted a cartoon lambasting libertarians (it was, IMHO, on point to an extent) and asking if they have a sense of humor. The self-righteous, holier than thou (but in a Godless way) chest thumping began immediately.

Now, I have libertarian leanings, though I well recognize the shortcomings of the doctrinaire libertarian agenda, particularly on a finite planet where we're going through all resources like an alcoholic goes through a bottle of gin (not speaking hypothetically here). But, being a glutton for punishment and suffering from SIWOTI syndrome, I waded in. The model of Pharyngula is as follows: PZ Myers writes on a subject of derision (typically involving one of a few subject areas such as intelligent design, theism, Catholicism in particular, etc.) and then the participants pile on and deride. It's almost competitive.

I didn't support the libertarian position per se but I pointed out that, for such an enlightened congregation, they sure did seem like a bunch of (quoting myself here - see comment #216) insufferable, self-congratulatory windbags after screen name Azkyroth declared a characteristic of libertarians to be (comment #26) "insufferable smug self-righteousness" without a hint of irony. Well, of course a spiralling war of name-calling ensued with me using such words as sycophant, accusing them of tribal and herd-like behavior, and mentioning that they had a devotion to PZ that seemed like worship of a god (as an aside, to offer a counterexample to my assertion that they simply fall in line, Rutee, Shrieking Harpy of Dooooom, pointed out that there had been disagreement on whether video games are art). I actually forswore name-calling after a few rounds, though I did state on multiple more occasions that I felt they were pack-like. I do and they are.

For my trouble, I was called: arsehole, asshole, fuckwit, arrogant idiot, Asshole of the Road (that's pretty clever, huh?), a sad little man, snarky asshole, fuckwit of the road, a moronic fucking asshole, and a dicknosed clownshoed fuckburger (though there was an element of irony in this last - see comment #367). The "troll" and "tone troll" accusations were plentiful, but that's to be expected. Then, in comment #377, a_ray_in_dilbert_space offered the following (quoted in its entirety):

KOTR, Have you in fact observed interactions here at Pharyngula? I would call your attention to something you might have missed. To wit, the blog functions in an almost entirely unregulated manner. Comments are posted immediately. No pre-monitoring. No censorship. And yet, the signal to noise ratio is higher here than at most blogs where monitoring is much more heavy-handed.

Now ask yourself: How does that work? How is it that a blog on evolution, biology, atheism and liberal politics is not completely overrun by the much more numerous and vociferous Faux News crowd? When you understand that and understand the role "tone" plays in that process, you might understand the dynamics here a bit better.

I think his point is that the insult hurling and name calling directed at dissenters keeps the signal to noise ratio high by keeping the riff raff out. I don't frequent Faux News (the closest I come is an occasional bout of self-flagellation at Watts Up With That) but, by reputation, the denizens thereof do not shy from such battles. I leave it to readers to conclude whether a_ray's point is well-taken.

The misrepresentations of my comments, the tortured logic, and the failure to comprehend in the zeal to take me down were manifest, but too numerous to list. As an example, Kagehi, in comment #231, was bemoaning the fact that in Arizona, you can't challenge being fired unless you can show that you were fired because you're in a protected class (among many other complaints about the perceived lack of employee rights in Arizona).

I replied as follows: "So, a job is your right? Should you also be able to force another company to hire you? Should the government determine how many employees your employer has? Where they locate their facilities? When you get promoted? What furniture you have in your office? What else? When a fired employee sues and loses, will the government pay the company for its defense? Will they implement any sort of penalty for such suits being brought frivolously?" Multiple subsequent comments, despite my pointing out that it was incorrect, assumed that I'd implied that Kagehi stated that these things had happened. I implied no such thing, but Kagehi clearly wants at least one of them to happen as evidenced by his complaint in #341 that companies can "refuse you work for purely arbitrary reasons."

All in all, I learned from it. But SIWOTI syndrome is a disease that has flareups, so it's possible I'll go back there again.