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Jun 13 2013

Never claim it for yourself

Another thought suggested by Mistakes Were Made is the absurdity of the We are Skeptics™ and we are therefore permanently reason&logic trope. The conceit of it, the smugness of it, the damn fool silliness of it. No they’re not. No one is. Humans aren’t, and the people who cite that trope certainly aren’t such conspicuous examples of better-than-average logicalness that we should think they are Moar Reason than the rest of us. If they really were good skeptics they would know better than to boast of their own highly polished reason&logic.

I’m never convinced by people who boast of their own superior reason&logic. Never. It always sounds like protesting too much – like something people who really are superior at it don’t need to say. It’s like people who brag about feeling “comfortable in their own skin.” Argh; really? You thought you needed to tell me that?

There’s a difference between thinking that rationality is a good thing, and that people should try to be rational some of the time, and thinking one is oneself Rational. A big difference. If you tell me how rational you are I laugh an inward laugh, because I can see you’re not.

32 comments

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  1. 1
    Daniel Fincke

    Amen.

  2. 2
    machintelligence

    Everyone who claims to be Rational, isn’t. (Present company excluded, of course.) */snark*

  3. 3
    JohnnieCanuck

    According to the fiction I’ve read, conmen love it when a potential mark announces that they can’t be fooled.

  4. 4
    sharoncrawford

    I really TRY to be rational but I am clearly not succeeding so much of the time. Smugness is sooooo unattractive.

  5. 5
    kagekiri

    Ugh, yeah. Quite similar to the people who brag about their humility or selflessness…it’s pretty cringe-inducing. Less claiming it, more living it would be appreciated.

  6. 6
    Stacy

    Same thing if you want to tell me all about how I’m being dogmatic because “ideology,” while you 1) have not bothered to try and understand my argument, and 2) believe and imply that you yourself are a purely rational creature with no tenets, axioms, or worldview of your own.

    (Generic “you.”)

  7. 7
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    I link to an article here about research findings that the more objective people believe themselves to be the less objective they are in practice.

  8. 8
    Eristae

    I’m really sure how to say this, but I’ll try.

    I think that these people are doing one of two things. The first is confusing being “logical” with “objective.” While it may sound nice in sentence form to say that we should all be objective, it doesn’t work when applied to reality. For example, if I were to call someone ugly, there’s no objective reason for them to be hurt or made to feel bad about themselves: being ugly is not a wrong or blameworthy thing, and no one is a lesser person because they don’t adhere to personal or societal standards of beauty. And yet, they would be nevertheless be hurt, so I shouldn’t call them ugly.

    However, a lot of us have trouble understanding that the hurt part will happen regardless of the objective part. It’s like . . . it took me until I was 27 years old to figure out that I was supposed to ask people about things that were important to them but not to me. Like, if their kid had a big sports game, I should ask about it, even if I don’t like the sport and am aware that they would tell me if something had happened that they needed my help with. Sure, I knew that I should listen if they started talking about something I wasn’t interested in but that was important to them (like the aforementioned sports game) , but asking about it myself? I believed that was dishonest communication, misrepresenting what I was interested in and what I wasn’t in. I saw absolutely no reason to ask someone about something like what I just described, so I didn’t.

    I eventually realized that I needed to be asking people these things not because there was some reason that I needed to have access to that particular information regardless of m own personal interest, but because it was is important part of social interaction. The answer to the question, “Why would I ask about that thing I don’t care about?” wasn’t, “Because that is important information because of X, Y, and Z.” Instead, the answer was, “Because they want you to ask about it.” Unfortunately for the “logic” fetishists, this doesn’t actually have anything to do with logic; there is nothing more logical about the first answer than about the second, just a difference in ultimate motivation.

    My situation is, in short, a kind of disability in regards to social interaction. An example that I personally like (although I don’t know how others will feel about it, so we’ll see how this goes over) is the difference between having sympathy and empathy.

    Empathy vs SympathyWhen you understand and feel another’s feelings for yourself, you have empathy. It’s often spoken of as a character attribute that people have to varying degrees. For example, if hearing a tragic news story makes you feel almost as if the story concerns you personally, you have the ability to empathize.

    When you sympathize with someone, you have compassion for that person, but you don’t necessarily feel her feelings. For instance, if your feelings toward someone who is experiencing hardship are limited to sympathy, then you might have a sense of regret for that person’s difficulty but are not feeling her feelings as if they’re your own. Meanwhile, sympathy has broader applications that don’t necessarily have to do with one person’s feelings for another. You can sympathize with a cause, for instance, or with a point of view that resonates with you.

    If someone is sad, I am perfectly capable of feeling all kinds of sympathy for them. I care about people, and I don’t want them to be sad. It makes me sad when other people are sad. But empathy? That’s harder. Something will happen to make someone sad, they will tell me why they are sad, and while I will be upset that they are sad, there is also a significant chance that I won’t understand why what happened would make them sad. This becomes especially problematic when I do something that hurts someone but no one tells me that what I did was hurtful; I’m unlikely to figure it out on my own.

    I’ve gotten a lot better at interacting with people despite this through practice, but it has taught me well that being “logical” isn’t some kind of higher state of being. If I say something that hurts someone’s feelings, or that they find to be inappropriate, or that disgusts them and I don’t understand why, the problem isn’t that they’re not logical enough, the problem is that we aren’t managing to communicate.

    The second thing they may be doing is conflating “logical” with “not having either sympathy or empathy.” Which is just yucky. If your response to “You hurt me,” isn’t “Oh no! I did something wrong because I didn’t mean to be hurtful and yet I still hurt someone,” but is rather, “You shouldn’t be hurt,” the issue isn’t “logic.”

    This is why the response to Elevatorgate infuriated me so much. I am incredibly familiar with doing something inappropriate without realizing that it is inappropriate. But if I’m being inappropriate without knowing it, I want people to tell me so that I can change my actions. As far as I’m concerned, Elevatorgate should have gone like this:

    Rebecca Watson: Guys, don’t do that.
    Everyone else: Shit! I didn’t know that would come across as creepy. I don’t want to be a creepy person, so I won’t do that.

    But no, that’s not how it went down, now is it?

    Bah.

    Anyway, that’s my 2 cents.

  9. 9
    Wowbagger, Designated Snarker

    These days if I see that anyone makes a point of claiming they’re ‘a Skeptic’ in a comment, I red-flag them in my mind as ‘likely asshole’.

    Don’t tell me you’re a skeptic. It means sweet fuck-all unless you can show me that you’re a skeptic. And in recent years the overwhelming majority of people who self-apply that term have turned out to be a) assholes and b) not ‘skeptics’ in any worthwhile sense of the word.

  10. 10
    AJ Milne

    It’s like people who brag about feeling “comfortable in their own skin.”

    Now, if you’re comfortable in someone else‘s skin, this is worth noting.

    (Heavily creepy, yes, but well worth noting.)

    More seriously, all of this. And one of the thing’s that’s always bothered me when people say they’re ‘skeptics’ is I always find myself thinking… Umm… Okay… Skeptical of what?

    I mean, you can be skeptical of plenty of things. Well past the point where it makes any real sense, in fact. You can be skeptical that AIDS is caused by HIV, skeptical that global warming has anthropogenic causes, so on… Neither of which would particularly impress me…

    And even when I figure you’re perfectly right to be skeptical of any given claim, there’s degrees of what this really says about you. Insofar as you can be ‘skeptical’ of stuff I figure it really doesn’t take a lot of wattage to work out is nonsense. This may get you to props, okay, but let’s keep it in perspective. Skeptical there are really leprechauns? Impressive. Bigfoot, maybe I’m impressed if your parents were bigfoot chasers. (And skeptical there are gods and you’re from Riyadh? Now not only and I impressed, but you can even use my couch if you need somewhere quiet until the mob disperses.)

    Point being: ‘skeptic’ just doesn’t say that much on its own…

    Now, on the other hand, if you tell me you genuinely try to ground your worldview and lesser conclusions about the world in empirical observations and reasoned assembly thereof and put a really high value on not fooling yourself and realize you may, in fact, regularly make a muddle of this as your brain is a bit of an evolutionary hodgepodge of heuristics and the learned techniques you hope make up for some of its more glaring weaknesses can’t really always be counted on getting all the way ’round those, well, now maybe I’m listening. Takes longer to say, sure. But things worth saying often do.

  11. 11
    Bruce

    RE: Eristae #8,
    “Elevatorgate should have gone like this:
    Rebecca Watson: Guys, don’t do that.
    Everyone else: Shit! I didn’t know that would come across as creepy. I don’t want to be a creepy person, so I won’t do that.
    But no, that’s not how it went down, now is it?”

    Eristae, I think you make several great points.
    Let me just add that I think your scenario actually WAS the way it really did go for 99.9% of the guys who heard about this.
    The problem is the 0.1% of guys who heard about this and didn’t have the empathy to get that being creepy is undesirable. And then a fraction of those pro-creepy people decided to get vocal about it.

    My point is that the reasonable people, and also almost all of the obtuse nerds (possibly including myself), all got it and didn’t have any bad reaction to all this. The internet has just enabled the 0.1% creepiest people to be as vocal as they wanted. So, AVfM is really a voice for 0.001% of the most poorly adjusted men.
    The fact that they presume to speak on behalf of a majority of men is just another example of Ophelia’s wider point here, which I would like to rephrase as saying that excessive “claiming” for oneself is mostly just a sign of being somewhat delusional.

  12. 12
    leni

    I recently discovered the blog by the woman who wrote Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight.

    Her writing is full of that same sort of thing. Bragging about being the ultimate rationalists, yet full of so many irrational errors that at times the only reason I’m not laughing is because she is so fucking creepy. So yeah. Even the self-proclaimed ultimate rationalists among us fail pretty miserably. And most epically while they are making the claim that they are the ultimate rationalists, mostly because the very thing preventing that from being true is their own narcissism.

    They really do not get that narcissism is problematic because it is irrational. No, it’s not irrational because sociopaths, at least the bright ones, really are just that awesome. Luckily the people Ophelia is talking about are mostly just garden variety assholes.

  13. 13
    Wowbagger, Designated Snarker

    It’s also important to point out that these self-described ‘Skeptics™’ would, if they applied their ‘Skepticism™’ to the same extent they claim to (and, more importantly, demand we do to non-extraordinary claims like the existence of privilege), they’d never leave their houses out of fear.

  14. 14
    Ophelia Benson

    Wowbagger – I nearly titled this post “Don’t tell, show”.

  15. 15
    Ophelia Benson

    Eristae – that’s a great comment. Very enlightening.

    I had a slight spat with someone in real life recently. I thought what it was about was her wanting to argue about X while I didn’t, and not letting me say “let’s drop it.” A couple of days later she posted about it (without naming me) on Facebook, and she was really furious. I posted a comment confessing to be the person in question, and explaining how I’d understood what happened. The other replied, with a lot of detail – but the thing that jumped out at me was that she’d thought I was saying I wanted to talk to these other people over here and not to her. That changed everything – I was horrified, and said forget all the other stuff, I for sure never meant that and I’m so sorry I came across that way.

    Nothing to do with logic or objectivity. Just to do with hating that kind of thing; hating to feel it and hating much worse doing it to anyone.

    Imagine instead coming back at her with “that’s not logical” – oh my GODDDDDD.

  16. 16
    Ophelia Benson

    Andrew – that too. There are skeptics about 9/11, skeptics about vaccinations, skeptics about “mainstream” medicine, skeptics about the moon landings, skeptics of naturalism and materialism………..oh there are a lotta skeptics.

  17. 17
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    There’s also the matter of the purpose of the effort to attain and share a skeptical viewpoint. While I think it’s important/necessary to promote critical thinking and to oppose faith in general, I think we should also see skepticism as a tool in social justice movements. Skepticism should be one means of improving the world. So we need many more skeptics focusing on challenging the claims of, for example, the US government, the IMF and World Bank, and corporations (also racists and sexists).* Their claims – often called “science” – affect millions of lives, human and nonhuman. Their negative impact is exponentially greater than that of many of the pet concerns of the skeptical movement.

    * I promise not to start in on psychia …Oops. Never mind. :)

  18. 18
    Wowbagger, Designated Snarker

    SC wrote:

    There’s also the matter of the purpose of the effort to attain and share a skeptical viewpoint.

    In the case of the people we’re (mostly) discussing, ‘skepticism’ is simply a magic spell one casts when one doesn’t like the claims someone else is making, using the magic words, “I am skeptical of that claim”.

    It’s usually followed by the similar magical animation of goalposts…

  19. 19
    Silentbob

    @ 11 Bruce

    Being the rational and objective person that I am ;-) , I am skeptical of your percentages.

    If they held, I don’t think we would have so many “leaders” concerned about witch-hunts.

  20. 20
    janedoe

    This is why the response to Elevatorgate infuriated me so much. I am incredibly familiar with doing something inappropriate without realizing that it is inappropriate. But if I’m being inappropriate without knowing it, I want people to tell me so that I can change my actions. As far as I’m concerned, Elevatorgate should have gone like this:

    Rebecca Watson: Guys, don’t do that.
    Everyone else: Shit! I didn’t know that would come across as creepy. I don’t want to be a creepy person, so I won’t do that.

    But no, that’s not how it went down, now is it?

    Having now had a chance to read the source material, this exactly is what still has me confused. Because as Eristae says, that’s how it should have gone down. Instead, it appears to have become a lengthy, furious exercise in trying to get Rebecca Watson (and everyone who endorsed “guys, don’t do that”) to take those words back.

    But what good would that really do? Having Rebecca Watson refrain from saying that propositioning someone in an elevator in that context is kind of creepy just means that you haven’t been told that it’s creepy. It doesn’t take away the fact that many women (and presumably men, too) will still find it creepy to greater or lesser extents, and you still end up with failed social interactions. So what’s the benefit there? I honestly don’t understand.

  21. 21
    cubist

    sez janedoe: “Having Rebecca Watson refrain from saying that propositioning someone in an elevator in that context is kind of creepy just means that you haven’t been told that it’s creepy. It doesn’t take away the fact that many women (and presumably men, too) will still find it creepy to greater or lesser extents, and you still end up with failed social interactions. So what’s the benefit there? I honestly don’t understand.”
    The benefit is what you said in the first sentence I quoted from you: The creepers have not been told that this is creepy behavior. They don’t have to own up to it, or defend it, or acknowledge that it might not be such a good way to behave towards non-penis-having people; they get to just go on their merry way, creeping on any-damn-body they feel like creeping on whenever they feel like it, secure in the knowledge that there will be zero in the way of negative consequences for them.

  22. 22
    Robert B.

    Um. Doesn’t the process of learning rationalism/skepticism begin with studying cognitive biases? If you have any learning at all on the subject, you know that you are in fact hopelessly irrational and need to hack your own brain to get anything done. You also probably know that being very smart/knowledgeable/”rational” on one topic only serves to make you wrong with more confidence when you leave your area of expertise.

    As the OP points out, claiming that you have to be right because you’re more rational than everyone else is direct proof that, A, you don’t know that much about being rational, and B, you are almost certainly wrong right now, about whatever it is you’re talking about, or you wouldn’t need to deploy such a stupid argument in order to get out of changing your mind.

  23. 23
    bad Jim

    If I had a strong background in philosophy, I could write something comprehensibly dismissive about this. I don’t, so the following isn’t worth reading.

    The unique rationality of humans has been a fixture of philosophy at least since Aristotle. It was featured by Aquinas and figures in arguments for God by the likes of Plantinga and Nagel. Its appeal is obscure, since the irrationality of our fellows is a universal complaint, but perhaps its attraction is its very implausibility.

    (Medieval thought: I don’t know anyone else who is literate, there are bloodthirsty hordes on every border, therefore humans are obviously graced with reason and direct access to God.)

    There isn’t much point to philosophy if it isn’t possibly to arrive at profound truths just by thinking about them (as thousands of years with negligible intellectual progress would tend to suggest). For the last few hundred years we have made enormous progress by abandoning our trust in ratiocination, acknowledging our fallibility, and placing our trust instead in careful observation, cross-checking, and second-guessing.

    We aren’t the crown of creation living at the center of the universe, as the ancients assumed, we’re just the apes on top of the heap. We’re pretty spectacular, of course – we’re changing the climate – but we’re even more ridiculous than the jokes we tell about ourselves.

  24. 24
    oolon

    I guess this feeds into the observation that commonly peoples nyms indicate a deficit in critical thinking skills. When someone calls themselves “SkepticSally” or more in real life SkepDirt, SkepSheik, etc they are more often than not, not.

  25. 25
    sawells

    One of the good things Francis Bacon brought into the development of modern science was the “Idols of the Mind” idea – he notes explicitly that everyone has biases, some common to all humanity, some personal and idiosyncratic, some based on misleading language, some based on misleading systems of thought.

  26. 26
    Bjarte Foshaug

    After identifying as a skeptic for more than ten years, I have come to feel less and less attached to the label (Call me “cynical debunker” if you absolutely have to call me something). It’s not that I have become any less committed to critical thinking, but I just don’t think most “skeptics” are as good at it as imagine themselves to be.

    My alienation from organized skepticism (or organized atheism for that matter) over issues like accomodationism had already been a work in progress for some time when the second tsunami of misogyny and sexism killed of the rest of my enthusiasm a little more than a year ago. But it’s not just that. It seems to me that skepticism™ has developed a few myths on its own.

    For one thing, I think “skeptics” (or people who label themselves as such) are often guilty of vastly exaggerating the degree to which their own beliefs are based on a deep understanding of / intimate familiarity with the scientific evidence. As I have previously written elsewhere, I could probably do a decent job of providing a layman’s explanation for things like evolution or global warming based on books I have read, but this is already an interpretation and a translation into linguistic form of the evidence itself. I wouldn’t personally be able to extract any useful information about past climate change from three rings or ice cores. When “skeptics” admonish others to just “follow the facts” and “let the evidence speak for itself”, they are contributing to this simplistic myth, that “following the evidence where it leads” is a straightforward matter, rather than something that requires vast amounts of training and background knowledge in its own right.

    The same thing goes for that other favorite slogan of people who call themselves “skeptics”: “Think for yourself”. Obviously most people could benefit from being more critical of their sources, but neither is there any shortage of people who believe wacky things precisely because they trust their own thinking too much and allow their layman’s understanding to trump the informed consensus of the scientific community.

    People who call themselves “skeptics” also include some of the worst debaters who have ever wasted my time: People who think that mentioning the names of logical fallacies is all it takes to refute their opponents’ arguments, without any honest effort to demonstrate how/why the label actually applies to the argument in question (I think “skeptics” in general tend to overemphasize logical fallacies, but if you’re going to use the labels. at least use them correctly). Names like “strawman” or “appeal to authority” are useful shorthands, but that’s also all that they are. Labeling an argument with this or that name is no substitute for an actual analysis.

    Finally, as I have said many times before, when the self-appointed defenders of Real Skepticism™ talk about “keeping politics/ideology out of skepticism”, they always seem to frame their own point of view (e.g. anti-feminism) as the “apolitical”, “non-ideological” position. If you want to know a person’s biases, look at what they try to put as the default.

  27. 27
    janedoe

    I guess this feeds into the observation that commonly peoples nyms indicate a deficit in critical thinking skills. When someone calls themselves “SkepticSally” or more in real life SkepDirt, SkepSheik, etc they are more often than not, not.

    Kind of tangentially related…up until a couple of weeks ago, I thought that the references to “brave heroes” that popped up in my Twitter feed were satire, or parody, or a joke of some sort. Because really? Keyboard warriors who non-ironically refer to themselves or their pals as “brave heroes” really need to get out into the fresh air.

  28. 28
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    Now, if you’re comfortable in someone else‘s skin, this is worth noting.

    Only if it’s a human’s, really.

  29. 29
    Bruce Everett

    Can I add a few to the list?

    * ‘Not In My Name’.
    * ‘True Skeptic’.
    * ‘I’m an activist’.
    * ‘I have a high tolerance for ambiguity’ (I paraphrase Michael Shermer).
    * ‘Skeptic’, whenever someone self-identifies with a capital ‘S’ other than at the start of a sentence.
    * Most self-references to being a ‘free-thinker’, ‘opponent of political correctness’ or ‘free speech advocate’.
    * ‘Brave hero’. (Although points must be given for this being unintentionally funny).
    * ‘I am King’ (Sorry, a Game of Thrones reference – ‘Anyone who has to call themselves “King”…’)
    * Any guy who calls themselves a ‘masculinist’, or casts themselves as ‘rugged’, is immediately suspect as being a insecure, self-loathing effemiphobe.
    * Anyone who needs to constantly bang on about their being ‘intolerant of intolerance’, is probably just plain intolerant in at least one respect.
    * ‘I’ve always…’ usually means there’s at least one exception. Esp. when it involves sticking up to “bullies”.
    * ‘I’m a connoisseur of art house/manga/short film/etc…’, especially when accompanied with a Fedora, usually means you’re dealing with a poorly-read philistine.

    …and call me a throwback to the 90s, but when I see men self-identifying as ‘feminist’, I can help but be reminded of guys who pretend to have read Germaine Greer in an attempt to get laid. Better to have an interest in feminist issues, and argue along those lines, than to simply label yourself one? (Yeah, I know this is problematic – ‘feminism’ needs to be used properly/positively in order to help remove some of the negative connotations.)

  30. 30
    Bruce Everett

    And instantly I can see grammatical errors. Funny how they’re invisible until you hit ‘submit’.

  31. 31
    penn

    I’m never convinced by people who boast of their own superior reason&logic. Never. It always sounds like protesting too much – like something people who really are superior at it don’t need to say.

    This is one of my biggest issues with the Christian-Jewish-Muslim god. An omnipotent and omniscient being would by definition be the most understanding and least petty being imaginable. Such a being would be infinitely empathetic, especially to creatures it created, and there’s no way it could care less about whether we believed it in or worshiped it because it would know exactly how awesome it was and exactly why people have other things to do.

  32. 32
    seanwright

    @ Bruce You throwback to the 90′s :D I still like using labels Secular Humanist, feminist because I find a use for them. I have dropped out of active promotion of Skeptical/ Atheist endeavors because a) it changed very little b) the groups that promoted skepticism/atheism didn’t really seem intent on trying to work with people to make things better or capable of knowing when their expertise/ critical thinking was lacking.

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