…and therefore God

I was watching a debate between Christopher Hitchens and four (really 5) Christian theologists the other day. I really like Mr. Hitchens’ writing, but his debate style often leaves much to be desired. Many times he’ll be so enamored about what he thinks the point or the question is that he’ll completely talk past the actual conversation. Watching this video, I saw a number of times when a particularly meaningless argument could easily be smacked down, but was left alone or acquiesced to either due to inattention or diplomacy. To be fair, the number of easily and oft-refuted arguments thrown at him were in such number that he might simply have missed some.

However, at one point during the discussion, Mr. Hitchens is asked if Christian theology adequately explains the problem of evil by explaining that suffering is a necessary component of free will, but that ultimate justice would eventually arrive after death. Mr. Hitchens ably skewered the argument, illustrating that a god who watches immense suffering, has the power to intervene, and does absolutely nothing, cannot possibly be anything other than malevolent and evil. However, another commenter points out, using an argument that Mr. Hitchens had used himself earlier, that just because you don’t like something doesn’t make it untrue. Mr. Hitchens then concedes that the explanation of evil is at least internally consistent, though abhorrent.

Unfortunately, the final speaker at the event seizes upon this admission and claims that there are several arguments that were not addressed that give serious credence to the idea that there is a God, and furthermore that he is Christian:

  1. The argument from contingency (first cause of the universe)
  2. The argument from fine-tuning of the universe (existence is set up perfectly for intelligent life to exist)
  3. The argument from morality (why are people good if there is no God as the author of morality?)
  4. The argument from biological complexity (life is so complex that it could not have happened by naturalistic forces)
  5. The argument from consciousness (the fact that we are self-aware means that there is a God)
  6. The argument from rationality (the rules of logic are impossible to happen naturalistically)
  7. The argument from self-validating experience (we have subjective experience of God, why would we unless He exists?)

The speaker somehow seemed to think that these were compelling arguments that necessitate the existence of YahwAlladdha. He then went on to say that since there were logcial reasons to believe in God, and since Christianity explained the problem of evil, it followed logically that God was Christian.

Every skeptic atheist reading the above list has probably rolled their eyes clear out of their sockets by now. These are incredibly tired (I like the term shop-worn) arguments that have been refuted countless times, yet they keep popping up again and again. I like to imagine that at least some of my readers are either non-skeptic atheists (don’t believe in a god, but haven’t really thought about why), or moderate theists (people who believe in some god, but not the literal truth of the Bible). Apparently these arguments are occasionally strong enough to sway people in these two camps closer to theism. The testimonial of every “converted” atheist I’ve ever read or heard contains at least one of these arguments.

Here’s the problem – none of them necessitate any kind of God. They’re all just appeals to a common form of fallacious reasoning, the argument from ignorance. Basically, the argument from ignorance operates as follows:

A. X event occurs
B. I cannot explain X, or; nobody knows how X happens
C. Therefore, Y is the cause

The problem, of course, is the step between B and C – it does not logically follow that Y must be the cause. Sure, Y might explain (in a limited sense of the word) how X happens, but so does any other number of things. For example, I might not know how Aspirin works to dull pain, and a cartoonish idea of Aspirin molecules being little soldiers that march around my bloodstream and fight my hangover might “explain” my miraculous recovery, but it’s completely untrue.

Similarly, the above 7 arguments are appeals to that exact same illogic:

  1. The universe was created by the Big Bang; We don’t know what happened before that; Therefore, God
  2. Intelligent life exists; The existence of intelligent life seems very improbable; Therefore, God
  3. People have an innate moral sense; It is possible that there is an evolutionary advantage to being immoral; Therefore, God
  4. People are self-aware; It strains credulity that this could happen by simple materialistic processes; Therefore, God
  5. Things in the body are really complicated; It seems too complicated to have happened through evolution; Therefore, God
  6. Logic exists and seems to work to describe the world; It strains credulity that there should be rules to govern the universe; Therefore, God
  7. Some people feel like there is a God; …; Therefore, God (I really don’t get this last one)

When it’s spelled out like this, it’s pretty obvious that these arguments are far from compelling. They’re the whine of a frightened child who refuses to deal with reality, preferring instead to hold onto the fantasies he has created for himself. The mature, adult thing to do is admit “I don’t know,” and then go out and look for real answers. It is simply not convincing or sufficient to say “nobody knows the answer, therefore this is the answer.” And despite how much you might believe it to be true, it doesn’t obligate the rest of the world to adhere to your refusal to address the answers head-on.

However, even if it were true that these arguments somehow demonstrated that some kind of God exists, it doesn’t matter at all. There’s an additional step that is missing from the Christian argument. Maybe you already caught it.

A. God exists
B. Therefore, Christianity

There is an argument being made here that the existence of some kind of creative force means that Christianity is true. Even if we were generous and bundled all the Abrahamic religions together and said that Judaism, Islam and Christianity are the same thing, it gets us no further to a coherent argument. The Bible/Qu’ran make very specific claims about the nature and characteristics of Yahweh/Allah, not a single one of which is either borne out by evidence, or follow from the above arguments. In no way must a god that started the Big Bang and authored the rules of physics and logic be opposed to blasphemy, or require rest on the Sabbath, or care about how you honour your parents. It’s a complete non-sequitur to insist that the complexity of the universe lends particular credence to your back-filled, post-hoc rationalization of what you’d like God to be (not even touching on the fact that if you ask 100 different people to describe God, you’ll get 200 different answers).

Sadly, perhaps because he was innundated by a wave of illogical assertions and fallacies, or perhaps distracted with concern over his increasingly-bad cough (which turned out to be esophagoeal cancer), Christopher Hitchens didn’t bother to point out the central glaring flaw in the argument. These are not isolated arguments that are specific to this particular debate either – they are common canards that turn up again and again in any discussion of the “evidence” for the existence of God. Pointing out this flaw is not merely a nit-pick against these men, but a major hole in the argument for belief in a deity of any kind. Any rational discussion of theology (a contradiction in terms, I know) must somehow address this issue. Preferably without saying “you need to have faith to see it” (perhaps a discussion for another post).

TL/DR: The so-called “compelling” arguments for the existence of God are merely different incarnations of the fallacy of the argument from ignorance. Even if they did somehow show that God must exist, they don’t say anything about His characteristics.

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Hate speech laws – THIS is why I oppose them

I recognize that many people don’t share my stance on free speech, particularly as it relates to hate speech laws. I think that free speech should be free, regardless of its content (making an exception for incitement to violence, which really isn’t speech so much as being an accomplice to assault). I say this because labeling unpopular speech as illegal creates, virtually by necessity, the ability to criminalize any unpopular ideas.

And it’s happening:

Rwanda’s government should review two laws banning the promotion of genocide ideology and sectarianism, Amnesty International says. The campaign groups says the vague wording has enabled their misuse to criminalise dissent. The government was widely criticised for using them to smother opposition in the run-up the elections won by President Paul Kagame this month.

I am not insensitive to the fact that Rwanda is still reeling from the horrific genocide of less than 20 years ago. It is perfectly natural to have a heightened level of concern for hate speech, particularly considering the particular way in which the radio was used to fan the flames of genocidal hatred and to direct death squads. But just as it was wrong to abolish civil liberties in the United States under the Patriot Act following the terrorist attacks of 9 years ago, it is wrong to clamp down on free speech for particularly this reason. Once free speech is criminalized, it opens the gateway to abusing hate speech laws to outlaw legitimate speech.

Rwanda isn’t the only place it’s happening:

South African journalists are finding themselves increasingly at odds with their own government over two proposals that have the potential to limit press freedom. The ruling African National Congress has proposed a Media Appeals Tribunal with power to discipline journalists who engage in what the party calls unethical behaviour. Parliament also is debating a “protection of information” bill that would impose restrictions on access to government information and punishment of up to 25 years in prison for those who violate the law.

The ANC says it is trying to protect the public good.

It’s statements like that that make me understand why conservatives have such a negative reaction when people appeal to what is good for society. Who decides what is good and what is bad? In this particular case, the government is making a choice to imprison people based on its conception that ‘the public good’ is to keep the ANC in power, despite the legitimacy of scandal. By stacking the deck with political appointees, there’s no question that their concept of ‘the public good’ is ‘saving the party’s ass’.

Free speech is a difficult beast to wrangle, particularly since once you allow people to speak freely, you give license to every bigoted asshole under the sun to say whatever he/she wants. It’s not an easy issue to resolve, but I’m firm in my stance that because of both its immense power and potential for abuse, regulating what speech is ‘free’ is a bad way to run a society. Free speech is neither a liberal nor a conservative issue – it’s the most important and fundamental freedom we have. Without it, the rest of them are pretty useless.

The short answer is ‘yes’

I laughed my ass off when I saw this. That being said, obviously not everyone in the Tea Party is there because they are racist – smaller and more efficient government has nothing at all to do with race. However, due to its stubborn opposition to any program designed to level the playing field or correct for historical injustices, it tends to attract the racist fringe with open, monochromatic arms. In the same way that supporting a larger role for the federal government isn’t a gay thing, but homosexuals tend to fall on the left side of the political spectrum (because that’s where all the equal rights are).

A commenter pointed out something that didn’t occur to me right away: how racist do you have to be to print out signs and go looking for a black person? I’m trying to imagine their thought process:

“Okay, so we’re going to print out these signs and take them to the rally, right?”

“Yeah, that’ll show all those liberals that the Tea Party is about state’s rights and small government, not a thin veneer of politics hastily brushed over a rotten core of deep-seated xenophobia, unwarranted entitlement and good old-fashioned ignorance!”

“Wow, that was deep.”

“Thanks. I read the New York Times today, and just said the opposite of what was written there.”

“I wish I could read.”

“Hey Steve?”

“Yeah Larry?”

“Wouldn’t it be easier to just take these signs over to the houses of one of our many black friends and/or work colleagues and/or neighbours, rather than having to sleuth around at a rally to find the token fanny-pack-wearing dark-skinned guy at a rally of thousands of white people?”

“We don’t have any black friends and/or work colleagues and/or neighbours, Larry.”

“How come?”

“Uh… because of LIBERALS!”

“Yeah! Fuck those racist asshole liberal faggot commie Muslim terrorist Mexicans!”

“You said it, Steve.”

Russia doesn’t have a race problem

I once had a conversation with a good friend of mine who wanted to go on a trip with her (black) boyfriend to Russia to meet some of her family members. I suggested that perhaps that might not be such a good idea. She asked what I was talking about. I was talking about this:

More than 100 Russian skinheads have attacked a music festival in central Russia, reports say. At least 10 people were injured while attending the Tornado festival in Miass, in Russia’s Chelyabinsk region. The skinheads were reported to have been armed with truncheons and sticks when they launched their attack on the event, attended by some 3,000 people.

What I was actually talking about at the time was reports of ethnic Uzbeks and Kazakhs being assaulted on subways and busses by gangs of young neo-Nazis, but it was symptomatic of the larger problem. Russia has well-known economic problems, made even worse by the wildfires that destroyed much of the wheat crop this past summer. As I’ve said since I started this blog, any time there’s an economic crisis the first people to be blamed are those who look different from the majority group. It happened in Uganda when Idi Amin drove out the South Asian population, almost immediately turning a prosperous country into an economic ruin by removing an entire class of workers. It’s happening in Arizona, where draconian laws are being signed into law to discriminate against Latinos, and it’s happening with violent assaults in Russia.

There is, of course, a non-trivial irony of the existence of Russian neo-Nazis. Somewhere in the area of 20 million Russians (~6 million military, ~14 million civilians) died fighting the Nazis. There’s an argument to be made that they didn’t fight the Nazis so much as the invading German army, but at any rate Russia is no friend to the Nazis. It’s then bizarre to see the mantle of the master race be picked up by the youth of Russia, but since race bigotry is fundamentally non-logical it’s not really that strange.

We can’t separate race from economics, and until we recognize that a rising tide raises all boats, we’re going to keep falling back into this trap.

Can bridges be built between ancient enemies?

I haven’t done a ‘good news’ segment in a while, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk about a couple of items in the news that made me particularly hopeful.

First off, I have been remiss in talking about the serious humanitarian crisis in Pakistan:

Massive flooding in Pakistan has killed at least 430 people as monsoon rains continue to bloat rivers, submerge villages and trigger landslides, according to rescue and government officials. At least 291 people have died in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, in the country’s northwest, since Wednesday, said Mujahid Khan of the Edhi Foundation, a privately run rescue service that operates morgues and ambulances across the South Asian country.

The flooding, caused by heavy monsoon rains, started in late July. Since then, the death toll has risen to over 1,500 people, with more than 1 million people forced to flee their homes. The international community has been… let’s say less than eager to provide aid to the country for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its history of inaction on terrorism and hostility to Europe and the U.S. Of course, the Taliban aren’t helping much either:

In the last the six months, the level of violence has reduced, but since the flood crisis began, the Pakistani Taliban has warned against accepting international aid. Its leaders seem to view accepting foreign assistance and the presence of international aid workers as welcoming foreign interference in their country. Pakistani Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq said Thursday that the United States and other countries were not really focused on providing aid to flood victims but had other “intentions” he did not specify.

None of this seems like particularly good news, does it? Well there is a tiny spark of good in this morass of catastrophe and unrelenting evil:

Pakistan accepted $5.2 million in aid from India for flood victims, a rare expression of goodwill between the feuding neighbours at a time when Pakistan is reeling from one of its worst natural disasters.

Those of you who are unfamiliar with the region may not know that India and Pakistan are bitter enemies. There has been ethnic and religious tension between India (with its Hindu majority) and Pakistan (with its Muslim majority) since before the countries were formed. This enmity is not a thing of the past, or even quietly simmering on the back-burner, but continues to this day.

It’s heartening to see that despite the threat of mutual destruction (thanks to both countries’ nuclear arsenals) and an ancient blood feud, India was moved to offer aid to its neighbor in time of crisis, and that Pakistan was able to overcome its pride and accept the offer. Considering the dire need that the people of Pakistan are experiencing, a gesture like this may be a baby-step forward toward a time when diplomatic relations can replace the need for military conflict. Then again, with a government like Pakistan’s, devoted to keeping the boot of theocracy pressed firmly on the neck of human rights, it may be all for naught.

Flooding seems to be the watchword for peace talks, if the Korean peninsula is any indication:

North Korea has responded to an offer from South Korea of emergency food and medical aid, saying it would prefer to receive rice and building materials. The South Korean offer, worth more than $8m (£5m), was made last week after severe flooding in the North.

It’s heartening to see that amidst decades of bitter enmity, war, recent allegations of terrorism and the threat of war (possibly nuclear), diplomacy hasn’t been completely exhausted. The tragedy, of course, aside from the massive loss of life and property, is that it takes massive loss of life and property to spur such shows of charity.

Israel appears to be reaching out to its enemies as well, although in a very different way:

The Israeli authorities are introducing a new scheme to make Arabic-language classes compulsory in state schools. The programme, which will start in 170 schools in northern Israel, will make lessons mandatory for fifth graders.

It is easy for conflicts to become entrenched as people age. We get older, we get more stuck in our ways, and become resistant to change. Israel, perhaps recognizing this, has shifted to focus of its efforts to model tolerance and acceptance by equipping its children with the opportunity to tear down some in-group biases. Israel has a large Arabic-speaking minority, and clashes between members of that group, as well as its Arabic-speaking neighbours, have been ongoing since the country was founded in the mid 20th century. Beefing up the military hasn’t worked to reduce violence. Peace talks haven’t worked (although apparently a new round is on the horizon). Becoming a nuclear power hasn’t worked (big surprise there). So it looks like Israel is trying something different.

I mention this often, but I really do believe that the answer to settling deep enduring conflicts is to re-draw the circle of “us” and “them”. The wider we can draw that circle, the harder it is to go to war, or deny assistance in times of need. Hopefully some good can come out of all this calamity.

Gobsmacked: Some people DO get it

I should know better.

I should know better than to gauge the actual opinion of people by what elected officials are saying. And yet, I get sucked into the trap every time. Luckily, people aren’t quite as stupid as I might make them out to be.

The mosque is not seething with resentment tonight.The atmosphere is relaxed, as befits a time of celebration. This is not, it turns out, such a bad place to be a Muslim. Ashraf Sabrin, a volunteer firefighter at the Pentagon on 9/11, says there’s no better place to practise his religion. Surprised? “People who are surprised to hear that are people who don’t live here, and don’t understand the recourse that we have when things happen that are bad,” he says.

It’s nice to know that in the midst of the tempest of moronity going on in Washington and the halls of power, there are people who are content to just live their lives:

Ashraf’s prescription for a successful life in America is disarmingly simple. “Being yourself. Being this average Joe-Muhammad-Abdullah guy that goes to work and comes home and lives peacefully is the best medicine,” he says. As worshippers mingle in between prayers, the conversation turns to the subject of what a small group of Christians in Florida may or may not do with the Koran. But, again, there’s no hysteria, no vengeful threats. Just a rather resigned acknowledgement that this is America, where freedom of speech is paramount.

“I think he has the right to do whatever he wishes to do,” says Khalid Iqbal, who is the centre’s deputy director and the grandfather of nine, referring to the Gainesville pastor, Terry Jones. Mr Iqbal was speaking before Pastor Jones announced that he was prepared to call off his incendiary protest, provided the planned Islamic centre near Ground Zero in New York is moved. “He can burn the books. It doesn’t mean that he’s going to take it away from the hearts of the people.”

I’m going to go thwack myself for getting just as caught up in the stupidity as those perpetuating it. Eid Mubarak, for those celebrating.

Madness? THIS… IS… well yes, this is madness

Sometimes something happens in the news that is so painfully stupid that it’s hard to hold out any kind of hope for the future of mankind. It’s like watching a slap-fight between two legless drunks – it would be funny if it weren’t so macabre.

Such is this “International Burn a Koran Day” bullshit. For those of you who haven’t been following the news, there is a tiny church group in Florida that decided it would have a book bonfire, in which they torch several copies of the Qu’ran. Thirty people down in Florida decide to burn a book they haven’t read, to protest a religion they don’t know anything about.

Big hairy deal, right?

Ah, but because it’s a religious thing, of course the whole world goes indiscriminately insane.

Muslims all over the world began protesting, burning effigies, American flags, and chanting “death to Christians.”

Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets across Afghanistan over plans, now on hold, by a small Florida church to burn copies of the Koran. Three people were shot when a protest near a Nato base in the north-east of the country turned violent. President Hamid Karzai said the stunt had been an insult to Islam, while Indonesia’s president said it threatened world peace.

It’s absolutely shocking the complete lack of a sense of irony or proportion that religious groups have. “30 people burned the book of the religion of peace? Well then we will call for the indiscriminate murder of all Christians, and the President of the United States. Also we will burn objects sacred to you, because your actions threaten world peace!”

So the Islamic world did pretty much exactly what everyone thought it would do – go batshit nuts and renew the chant of “Death to America” or whatever. Ho hum, nothing to see here, move along folks. That should be the end of it, right?

No, let’s turn up the stupid, shall we? General Petraeus, what would you like to sing for us this evening?

“It could endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort,” Gen Petraeus said in a statement to US media. “It is precisely the kind of action the Taliban uses and could cause significant problems. Not just here, but everywhere in the world, we are engaged with the Islamic community,” added Gen Petraeus, who heads a 150,000-strong Nato force against a Taliban-led insurgency.

Thirty people in Florida are about to do something stupid. What’s a proportional response? Let’s get the commander of NATO allied forces to comment directly on it, elevating it to an international incident! Well now it will absolutely cause danger to the troops, because it’s received national attention!

Hold the line, I believe we have a comment from Darth Helmet:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper added his voice to the global outcry against a U.S. church’s plan to burn 200 copies of the Qur’an on Saturday — the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. “I don’t speak very often about my own religion but let me be very clear: My God and my Christ is a tolerant God, and that’s what we want to see in this world,” he said. “I unequivocally condemn it,” he said. “We all enjoy freedom of religion and that freedom of religion comes from a tolerant spirit.”

Nothing like international attention to blow any sense of proportion far over the horizon. We now have international leaders lining up to condemn the actions of 30 morons in Florida. Are we going to make an international crisis out of every act of Islamophobia? Boy howdy!

Amazingly, the only voices of reason seem to be coming (from all places) Iran and Gaza:

Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said Mr Jones’ threat was an “expression of hatred of Islam” but called for restraint. “This disgraceful act contradicts the very duties of religious and spiritual leadership to enhance the value of peaceful coexistence and safeguard the rights and mutual respect among religions,” he said.

In Gaza, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said Mr Jones was a “crazy priest who reflects a crazy Western attitude toward Islam and the Muslim nation”.

When Iranian Ayatollahs and the head of Hamas are the islands of perspective in a sea of complete insanity, you know that the world has gone completely topsy-turvey.

There are two points to be made out of this absolute lack of cognitive processes. The first has to do with the power of religion. It’s almost completely incredible that the actions of 30 people in a backwater part of the Southern United States can set off an international crisis. We have roughly 30 regular volunteers here in Vancouver’s branch of CFI. If we stated burning copies of the Charter or The God Delusion or the Canadian flag (or all three at the same time), we’d get arrested for mischief without a news camera in sight. Why? Because atheists are boring! But put an equal number of Christian extremists around a pile of burning copies of a Muslim book, and watch as the entire world goes nuts. It’s 30 idiots in Florida. Take a deep breath.

The second point has to do with free speech (my favourite ^_^ <3 ). A number of countries have been demanding that the President directly intervene to stop 30 idiots in Florida from burning some books. Ignoring for a second the 8 or 9 levels of the chain of command that would skip (not to mention the fact that the President doesn’t have the authority to order private citizens to do anything), and also ignoring that it’s just 30 idiots in Florida, the United States constitution strictly forbids any kind of legal response to this – an act of free expression. The whole point of free speech is that you are free to say what you want. It’s hate speech, absolutely. I think it’s bigoted, I think it’s stupid, and I think it sends absolutely no worthwhile message other than “we are idiots, and we don’t understand anything about either Islam or our own religion.” But as I’ve said before, laws against hate speech are a really bad idea.

At the end of the whole debacle, the pastor decided to back down, an appropriately anti-climactic conclusion to a blisteringly-meaningless non-issue.

Of course the tragedy here (besides all of the people that will be killed and injured as a result of people being idiots) is that this pushes American Muslims further into the fringes, and closer into the arms of extremist groups that are the real problem. It’s not quite cutting off your nose to spite your face, it’s like cutting off your own hand and giving it to someone trying to choke you with it.

The correct response to this would for the governor of Florida to say “apparently some fundamentalist extremists have decided to do something stupid. I hope they vote for someone else in the next election. Floridians and Americans have more important things to do than worry about some backwash church led by a nutcase” and let that be the last word on it.

TL/DR:The response to the burning of Qu’rans is completely out of proportion to the act. Thirty idiots in Florida shouldn’t have the power to derail the entire world, and it’s only possible because of religion. Also, free speech ought to be absolute, even when it’s stupid.

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“I’ve done my own research” and “Common Sense” – when to ignore someone

In my random flittings about the internet, I come across many discussion forums. The great downside of giving everyone the tool to voice their opinion, is that we’ve allowed every tool to voice their opinion. Without wanting to sound like too much of a snob, there is a meaningful connection between formal education and the value of your contribution to a discussion. To forestall the predictable rejoinder (I would make it myself at this point), I am not saying that only people with PhDs are worthwhile; nor am I saying that someone with a PhD is necessarily worth listening to. What I am saying is that during the process of formal education, particularly philosophy and law, one learns the rhetorical tools required to construct a coherent and logical argument (if you have a degree in philosophy or law and don’t know what I’m talking about, go the hell back to your school and demand a refund).

As a side-effect, it becomes easier to recognize those arguments that are spurious and based on emotive “reasoning” rather than evidence or logic-based induction/deduction (again, if you don’t know the difference, go take a philosophy course, or get some tutoring). In a post that now seems ancient, I described some of the tools commonly used by the forces of stupid that try to substitute for logic. When you’re unfamiliar with common logical fallacies, you’re more likely to be persuaded by them – it’s like not knowing which berries in the forest are poisonous.

However, there are two that I’ve seen cropping up that start my eyes a’rolling.

1. “I’ve done my own research on this, and…”

I don’t know who finds this argument persuasive, but it immediately turns me off ever listening to that person. The internet has given us many wonderful things, but many of those things have a dark side. For example, we have unprecedented access to information – anyone with an internet connection has immediate access to the collected knowledge of the human species in ways that were barely even imaginable when I was a kid. I remember having a World Book encyclopedia set in my elementary school library. Someone had stolen, or lost, or destroyed, the S section. As a result, I didn’t know what a salamander was until I turned 21 (note: this story is almost entirely fabricated). The point is that we are no longer reliant on schools to give us knowledge or facts – it’s all available at our fingertips.

The downside of that is, of course, that not all facts are created equal. Cruise any creationist or white supremacist or climate change “skeptic” web forum and you’ll find lots of things that people call facts. The challenge is in discerning between things that are factual, things that are plausible, and things that are simply nonsense or fabrication. This is the realm of critical thinking, a skill which I find is in all-too-short supply.

So when someone tells me that they’ve “done their own research”, that is not persuasive to me at all. Actual research requires training in certain methodologies, which most people don’t have. Further, you have to be trained in the right methodology. Being trained in the scientific method, for instance, gives me some confidence that I can read and critically analyze a scientific study. None of that makes me qualified to critique someone’s interpretation of history – I’m not a historian. My opinion on matters of history, or philosophy, or even science, based on my own “research” is likely to be incredibly faulty and limited by both my training and my years. This is why the scientific consensus is such a powerful thing, and why anyone who wants to challenge it should come in with buckets of evidence, not simply vague accusations of conspiracy and lots of capital letters.

There’s also a metric assload of biases, heuristics, prejudices and other manner of cognitive problems with someone “doing their own research.” Oftentimes people will have an idea fixed in their head, and go looking for evidence to support it. I know I’ve caught myself doing this before. This isn’t ‘research’, this is confirming your own biases. True research sets up systematic mechanisms to control for and try to eliminate these biases, and it takes time and training to learn how to do this properly.

I’m fine with someone saying “I’ve done my own research…” as long as they’re able to point to it and show me. There’s no excuse besides laziness for demanding that someone believe your opinion if you can’t show your work. Any of the opinions I put up here are subject to the same scrutiny, and if chased down, I’ll either go to my source material or admit that I’m just making stuff up that seems logical. What I won’t do is say “well I’ve looked into this, and these are the facts, and you have to believe me because I say so.” Anyone who does that should be ignored right out of the starting gate.

2. “It’s just common sense that…” or “Common sense dictates that…”

Of all of the stupid arguments I come across, this one has got to be the worst. “Common sense” is the most inaccurately-named concept out there – it’s not common at all, and it’s rarely sensible. Appeals to common sense assume that there is some universal filter through which human beings see the world and is ‘common’. The reality is that depending on your upbringing, your education, your experiences, and your specific training in fields like logic and rhetoric, you build for yourself a pretty thick filter through which you receive information. This is done partially to take some of the workload off of your brain – if you can classify things quickly and easily, it free up resources to do other things (ever been exhausted at the end of a lecture on a topic with which you weren’t familiar?)

Our filters exert a great deal of influence over our thinking. That’s why it’s “common sense” to me that scientific studies are better than a list of patient testimonials – I’ve seen lots of examples in my own life and in other circumstances in which people will misattribute the placebo effect to whatever quack treatment they receive. However, it seems that to many chiropractors, or homeopaths, or reflexologists, and yes even licensed physicians, patient testimonial trumps science. It’s just common sense, right?

Appeals to “common sense” simply say to me “I haven’t bothered to spend any time or effort to think about this, or to look to see if there is any evidence of it, but I believe it anyway, so I’m going to assume you make the same assumptions about the world that I do.” I lived in Ontario during the reign of Premiere Mike Harris, who gutted education spending, closed hospitals, fired nurses, and basically ruined the shit out of social services. It took years for the province to recover, and some things are still in the can to this day. He called his policy “the Common Sense Revolution”, which is why I get chills every time anyone tells me that they wish people would “just use common sense.” I want fewer people to use common sense, and more to use some friggin’ evidence please.

If you don’t have evidence, but you think your position is reasonable, it’s fine to say so. But again, you have to show your work. If you can (like I try to do with all of these Monday thought pieces) walk your audience through your logic, then you’re not using ‘common sense’ any more, you’re using reason. There’s nothing wrong (and a lot right) with doing this. It is a lot more difficult and time-consuming, but you’re more likely to a) convince those who disagree with you, and b) find errors in your own thinking if you do things this way.

So if you’re going to try and convince me that you’ve got answers based on either your “own research” or your “common sense”, try not to be offended or surprised when I laugh, and put on some headphones until you stop making noise out of that hole in your face.

TL/DR: Real research takes training and understanding, and “Common Sense” is neither of those things. There are ways to present an argument persuasively, but invocations of either of those things do not impress me.

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Movie Friday: Peter Chao

Sometimes ridicule is a powerful weapon. Peter Chao seems to recognize this:

While I am definitely not a fan of blackface, especially when it is divorced from its historical context, I actually laughed watching this video. Not because it’s funny to make light of black stereotypes, but because those same stereotypes are being held up to ridicule here. It also pokes fun at the “I’m not racist” meme, showing that merely saying it does not make it so.

Of course, not everyone gets the satirical element…

Of course, the meta-joke in all of this, is that “Peter Chao” is not the guy’s actual name. He is New Brunswick-born Davin Tong, speaks with unaccented (or Canadian-accented if you prefer) English, and plays this character on YouTube specifically to highlight the absurdity of racism. While his take on things isn’t exactly my own, I am glad to see that race is making its way into popular discussion.


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