Friday, July 24, 2009

The Skeptic as a Blithe Spirit

Since having a hotlink to TV Tropes is too much of a temptation for some of my readers, I'll skip it and give the gist of it: A Blithe Spirit is a person, usually the main character of a story, who ends up changing everything by being a free spirit in a stuffy environment and proud of it. That's how I've started viewing the skeptic versus woo battle: We're a force of creative chaos made to disrupt stagnant order.

Really. Although the woos like to pretend they're the innovators, everything they do seems to include all sorts of mechanisms designed to prevent anyone from questioning them. Unfalsifiable beliefs mean never having to say, "I was wrong." For a skeptic, being wrong is an opportunity: It means there's more to the universe than we thought. That means there's a mystery begging to be solved.

That's not how it is for the woo: For them, being wrong is a personal failing. If someone takes a prudent course, doing everything logically, and ends up having to change his opinion when unexpected evidence comes in, it's something to rub in their face. Of course, the whole problem with woo is that they do everything recklessly: They prefer their biases over clarity, which is why they embrace so many fallacies, especially ones founded on an idea of being infallible. Because of this attitude, a skeptic's curiosity is something to be vehemently opposed and shot down. That's why they react so negatively when we ask fundamental questions.

If you're careful and logical about how you think and what you believe as a result, being wrong and changing your mind when new evidence comes forth is nothing to be ashamed of. Being right on what boils down to a basis of luck is nothing to be proud of, either. We know science isn't magical or perfect. It's the best answer we could think of for dealing with the fact that we aren't perfect. Despite this keen awareness of our flaws as mere mortals, we remain optimistic about the process: With enough careful evidence gathering and communication, we can make steady progress into understanding the world around us and use that understanding to help one another. Being wrong and making mistakes is an inherent part of that process.

From my experience with woos, they're much more cynical and homeostatic. They don't accept the scientific method because they can't accept the risk of being wrong about their favorite topics. Many of the fallacies they employ are designed to protect their beliefs in the face of logic and contradicting evidence. That's why every failure is accompanied with an ad hoc hypothesis to explain it away. The natural result of this is that all woos are stuck in an eternal rut, and why I display such passion for getting them out of it, along with no small amount of frustration when they spout doggerel to resist even the tiniest bit of introspection.

A side effect of this is a climate I often perceive among the newage (rhymes with sewage) crowd: If there's a point of disagreement, they'll just agree to disagree, rather than debate the merits of their position. When scientists disagree on a subject, they get adversarial. This is because the truth is easier to find when everyone's willing to find weakspots in various theories. If our best ideas are wrong, that means we have to find out what weird thing is deviating from the expected, and figure it out. Science is not a field for those with easily bruised egos. Without this no-holds barred approach, woos can't expand beyond their inflated egos. They usually don't debate amongst themselves because they've learned to protect their feelings by not rocking the boat.

So I try to rock it for them.


Valhar2000 said...

Woos are also stagnant in another sense: they very rarely come up with new ideas (probably never, in fact). Every innovation in woo that I can think off comes either from importing woo from other cultures (which are themselves just as stagnant) or by shamelessly borrowing ideas from science, which they, of course, throughyl mangle to fit into their previously held ancient beliefs.

Pseudo-science is maximally stagnant and supremely conservative, however much its practitioners may delude themselves into thinking that they have come up with something new.

All their ideas are old, dead and dry, a moldy skeleton with a cheap flashy new gown draped over it trying to pass for a super-model.

MWchase said...

Think of them more like a virus that keeps changing the composition of its protein coat. The underlying result if they get through is pretty consistent, but they're trying their best to avoid defense mechanisms. There can be a greater impetus to change in trying to convince scientists, or judges, but the general public isn't as informed, so selection pressure is lower. (Then the more refined bits of sophistry head out from the courts and universities, but that's a secondary effect.)

Valhar2000 said...

Well, I hate to do it (it brings up worrying associations with the language used by the Nazis to describe the Jews, for one thing)*, but I have often compared woos, in my mind, to viruses or tumors.

Actually, woos would be more like viruses and scientists who drift into pseudo-science more like cancer, but yeah.

* Not a Godwin, I promise!

Bronze Dog said...

Well, I do believe there have been some people who have described woo memes as being akin to viruses. Well, all memes kind of are, but woo memes are the nasty parasitic ones.