Sunday, September 20, 2009

What Makes Me Angry and Why

This is probably an obvious thing to say, but skeptics like me are well-known for having sharp tongues. I'm sure this is pretty off-putting for those new to any of the debates about the paranormal, fringe science, alternative medicine, etcetera. Debates like this, especially when they take place on the internet, require patience and understanding. I've had a multitude of experiences that tend to cut down on my capacity for the former. So often, it's caused by a troll who doesn't bother attempting the latter. This post is aimed at those who do not have much experience in the debate. I hope you'll be able to walk away understanding why it's best to avoid certain irritations.

Why we do what we do: Whether or not you think we're right, a great many of the topics we argue about end up hurting people. Phony psychics (whether they realize they're phony or not) charge for their nonexistent services, and even if they don't, they often end up manipulating people made vulnerable from their loss. Quacks peddle false hope and drain time and money from those who either could receive real help from medicine, or squander the resources they could use to help their families. Pseudoscientists waste resources on old and/or absurd ideas while disparaging the scientific method that allowed us to discover all the advances that we so easily take for granted.

Far too often, I've dealt with people who, rather than work to convince me that these people are engaged in worthwhile efforts, ask my why I should care. A particularly cynical example I've dealt with was a pro-psychic troll named Jambo. She asked why we should care about people we know nothing about getting scammed out of their money. My skeptical friends and I like to think that we're a principled lot: We care about other people's welfare. Every once in a while, someone comments that a particularly gullible person deserves to be scammed, but I don't allow myself to think that way: Everyone has periods of vulnerability and desperation that can be exploited. The issue isn't always just the physical and monetary harm: It often involves a manipulative bastard betraying someone's trust. It's hard to be indifferent towards something like that.

Yes, skeptics like me are curmudgeonly and cynical at a glance. But we're like that because we care. If something's too good to be true, we make the effort to see if it's true. Yeah, I fantasize about worlds that are all sunshine and lollipops, but, like it or not, we haven't gotten the real world yet. There are a lot of people made untrustworthy by greed, or, more often, a lack of scientific awareness.

While I'm quite aware there are many frauds out there, there are many people who ply the psychic/quackery/whatever trade without realizing they're wrong. Someone can, for example, write up a schematic that looks like a free energy machine without realizing they've made a mistake in their calculations. They can be sincere when they ask for investment capital and honestly believe that they can succeed. If the first device fails, they can still be sincere about Plan B working out. In such a case, this would-be inventor is only being dishonest with himself. There's no moral failing in this example, just an intellectual one. Despite our would-be inventor's best intentions, however, money is still lost trying to build a device that doesn't work.

We still want to prevent harm caused by unchecked good intentions. In such a case, our anger isn't born in response to malice or apathy: It's frustration usually brought on when we but heads against defense mechanisms. It's normal for many people to be overconfident in their abilities. It's normal to react badly to people saying you're wrong. It's normal to perform mental gymnastics to excuse bad behaviors. It's normal to be biased. Usually, when I engage in comment combat, that's the core of what I'm saying: I don't necessarily think the people I'm arguing with are stupid or lying (though there's no shortage of trolls out there who likely qualify). I'm only accusing them of being normal people.

What separates a scientist or a skeptic from most people isn't some elitist fantasy of superior brain power, years of education, or even success: We strive to be aware of our flaws. Everyone has cognitive biases. Anyone is capable of jumping to unjustified conclusions. Anyone can be ignorant of key pieces of evidence. Anyone can rationalize bad decisions and beliefs. You are no exception, and should watch yourself for bad tendencies. Our flawed nature is the necessity that birthed the invention of the scientific method: We have to double check ourselves. When someone disrespects the scientific method, it comes across as arrogant, like they believe they aren't subject to the failings of us mere mortals.

One of the most important features of the scientific method is falsification. Every explanation, whether it's an untested hypothesis or a long-established theory, must be falsifiable: There must be some way to prove it wrong. Predictions might come out wrong. A founding premise might not be as accurate as originally thought. For whatever reason, newly found evidence can contradict the explanation. If this happens, the theory needs to be modified to fit or be replaced by a more accurate explanation. In the worst case, it could be replaced with "I don't know." Scientists know about this process. Every theory is "wrong," but as time goes on and more good evidence is collected, they get less wrong, or in other words, more accurate.

Quite often, this isn't the case with paranormal, supernatural, and pseudoscientific ideas: Instead of allowing an escape hatch, they're fond of ad hoc hypotheses and similar defense mechanisms: When they fail, they make up an exception that only applies to that one failure but somehow doesn't interfere with successes under similar circumstances. So often, these pile up, preventing anyone from knowing when it'll "work" or not. When it gets to this level, can you blame us for thinking it's closed-minded and insular?

Another great annoyance of ours is the quoting of stereotypes. So often, we have to fight misconceptions about how we think. We ask questions, not to nitpick, but to learn more, or to teach by the Socratic method. We don't dismiss things you consider strange or wonderful because we think the world is boring: Quite the opposite, we think the real world is an amazing place. The problem is often that the field you are touting bores us with a lack of change or progress. Don't compare us to Hollywood characters lightly. We're people, just like you. Instead, ask why we doubt your idea. The answer may surprise you.

Do your best to avoid these sorts of unnecessary annoyances, ask honest questions, and do your best to be polite. If you can accomplish that, you may find unexpected civility. We may both learn something we didn't expect.


Anonymous said...

"A particularly cynical example I've dealt with was a pro-psychic troll named Jambo. She asked why we should care about people we know nothing about getting scammed out of their money."

Some woo merchants can have an effect on society out of all proportion. Especially if their victim is wealthy, and the money bilked from them goes towards ushering in a new dark age.

"Howard F. Ahmanson, Jr. has Tourette syndrome and largely speaks through his wife, shuns the media, and for some reason decided to speak to me in 2004. He was the man behind Proposition 8 in California, which banned same-sex marriage. Proposition 22 in California, before that, the intelligent design movement, he’s donated $2.8 million to that. Countless right-wing Christian right causes across the country that have been successful have been funded by Howard F. Ahmanson, Jr.

At age eighteen, Howard F. Ahmanson, Jr. inherited $300 million from his father, who had just dropped dead. His mother died soon after. And he basically went crazy. He literally went crazy and wound up in a mental institution. When he came out of the mental institution, he found, as so many people do who have had a personal crisis and are seeking some kind of means of transcending it, evangelical religion.

And he found R.J. Rushdoony. He became Rushdoony’s financial angel, and Rushdoony became his surrogate father. And he helped—and he declared, Howard F. Ahmanson, Jr., in 1985, that “My goal for this country is the literal application of biblical law and its integration into our daily lives,” which was the goal of Rushdoony. And he’s doing this through mainstream mechanisms through the Christian right. He’s able to still succeed, even with the Democrats in power, through ballot measures in California. And what it really is about is about creating this, what they see as this theocratic utopia..."

Ahmanson, if he gets his way will have America thrown back into a theocratic dark age. Scientific advancement will go down the pan.
And that would be just the start of it.
Apparently we have woo merchant R.J. Rushdoony to thank for Ahmanson's support of antiscientific groups like the Discovery Institute. This is worth getting angry about, as the consequences for America, and the world could be dire.


Yakaru said...

Jacqueline, I couldn't agree more - a "new dark age" is exactly where the New Age is heading.

This "why we should care about people we know nothing about getting scammed" stuff is real poison. Only woo-meisters get that brand of protection.

Here in Berlin a doctor providing "spiritual" therapy using psychoactive drugs to help cure trauma (!!!!!) has just killed 2 people, left one in a coma and injured six others.

Germany is generally quite sympathetic to alternative medicine, and some of the more liberal papers are defending, in principle, such an obviously stupid and dangerous treatment, on the grounds that it's "consciousness expanding". The doctor, they say, is himself to blame for experimenting rather than using the tried and trusted cocktail of drugs.

The doctor's guru, Samuel Widmer invented a very effective method of getting into young women's pants. He decided that if a teenage girl has not been abused by her father, then she is left just as traumatised by his rejection as if she had been abused. She will later need therapy, and will of course project her father onto the therapist. Only one way to heal that, of course! If she's suffering from resistance, then "psycholytic" drugs can be used to help break through the barriers to communication.

The last thing anyone who has really suffered abuse or trauma is drugs to open them up more. They need to find their own boundaries and identify their own needs.

Seems to be a run on this sort of thing at the moment:
Oliver Shanti, purveyor of watery new age music and spiritual teacher charged with 314 counts of child abuse
Woman kills herself after self-help group

Must be something in the collective. The thing is, if no criticism is allowed and such issues are dissmissed as "no ones business", then there develops a wholly unrealistic, stupid and dangerous ideology.

Anonymous said...

Yakaru said:
"Jacqueline, I couldn't agree more - a "New (Dark) Age" is exactly where the New Age is heading."

Nice website Yakaru. I laughed at its mockery of the new age sewage!


Yakaru said...

Thanks a lot Jacqueline!