Movie Friday: STORM (Tim Minchin)

I’m not going to lie, this might be one of the greatest things ever written.

I’ve had too many first dates with the Storms of the world, especially since moving to Vancouver where critical thinking skills seem to be out of fashion. It’s perfectly reasonable to say that we don’t know how to explain everything in the world. That’s just the facts. However, that doesn’t mean we get to make up fairy stories to fill in the blanks, and until you can provide me with some facts or some logic to demonstrate the veracity of your claims, you’re just telling me made-up fairy stories. You don’t deserve any more respect than Mother Goose for believing in ghosts, spirits, reincarnation, astrology, or any of the other millions of fairy stories people try to pass off as fact. If you’ve got some evidence to show they’re right, I’ll happily look at it. If the evidence conflicts with my beliefs, I’ll happily change my mind. But don’t expect me to fake some kind of respect for your belief in magic wands or Feng Shui unless you’ve got real evidence to show me.

Also, how awesome is it that the whole thing is in rhyme?

Do Canadians have a common culture?

Back in April, I talked about Canada’s unique position when it comes to race and identity. Specifically, I talked about the fact that Canada doesn’t have a unified national identity, and that this allowed us to absorb culture from all over the world in a way that other countries can’t.

It appears that about half of Canadians agree with me:

Canadians are almost evenly split on whether residents of the country share a “common culture,” according to a new national survey exploring perceptions of social cohesion in Canada.

I suppose it’s more accurate to say that I agree with about half of Canadians, since the vast majority of Canadians don’t read this blog. Whatever the case, we can’t even agree if we have a common culture or not, suggesting to me that we don’t. This has its downside, absolutely. I am a proud Canadian, I love the shit out of this country. But pin me down and ask me to define what specific things I am proud of that other countries don’t have, and I might have a difficult time of it.

There was another piece to this article that caught my eye though:

More than three-quarters of respondents — about 77 per cent — agreed with the idea that “Canada’s cultural life is enriched by people with different cultural backgrounds than the majority.”

Again, this speaks perfectly to what I was talking about before. Canada is a rich mosaic that is built of cultures from everywhere. That is what unifies us – we don’t force capitulation to a standard of Canadian-ness. Our lack of -ness is our -ness.

This reality puts specific challenges in front of us, but potentially allows us to set the stage for the rest of the world. Everywhere immigration is becoming an issue. The world is connected like never before – the internet, accessibility of travel, increased global trade. Soon everywhere will find that their national identity is eroding under the gradual waves of novel cultural expression. How amazing would it be if the rest of the world looked to Canada as a model of how to make it work? How much more proud could we be of our country if we were the blueprint upon which the structure of cultural harmony and co-existence is built?

Plus, how much more awesome will our food be?

Fuck you too, Somalia

No sooner do I write a summary of my warm, fuzzy feelings about the World Cup, when I read that Islamic militants in Somalia are executing people for watching the matches on TV. Of course it’s couched in religious justification (it always is). So while the rest of the world is trying to come together to participate in a multi-national event, to put aside its differences for a minute and play a friggin’ game, Somalia has decided to say a big ‘fuck you’ to the world.

Okay, Somali religious militants, on behalf of the rest of the world…




I feel much better.

The World Cup – South Africa struggles to modernize

I’m not a soccer fan. I’m not a sports fan in general, but I’d much rather watch hockey or basketball than soccer. When the Olympics came to Vancouver, I didn’t pay much attention except to the overall medal count. There is one thing about sport that I think is absolutely fantastic though – it’s the only thing the world seems to agree on. I watched the opening ceremonies with friends, and I was dumbstruck when during the entrance of the athletes, the Israeli team was immediately followed by the Iranian team. The leadership of the country of Iran thinks that Israel should be destroyed and swept into the sea. The leadership of Israel regularly kills Arabs, to the continued outrage of the Muslim world. And yet, the two teams were able to compete in friendly and spirited competition without letting politics and bullshit get in the way.

I feel the same way about the World Cup. Because soccer is such a low-tech sport (requiring only a kickable object and a designated goal area), it’s played all over the world. The United Nations is constantly fractures on important issues, but that doesn’t matter to FIFA – if you can play, you can compete. I think it’s a really powerful statement.

South Africa is the host of the 2010 World Cup. This country has probably the most fractured and storied history of racial violence, intolerance and systemic oppression out of any country in the world (including the USA). Even in 2010 there have been race-related murders and violence – South Africa has not grown out of its history. It’s a pretty powerful juxtaposition to have the entire world – people from all different cultures – come together in a place rife with violence and hatred, to put aside their differences in a way that isn’t possible under any other circumstance.

But you don’t have to take my word for it:

“It [the World Cup] will create an emotional bond among South Africans, but it will not end the divisions caused by more than three centuries of apartheid and colonialism,” [political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi] says.

The article provides a bit of colour and context to my description above. While the race divide in South Africa continues, there is more mobility as black South Africans begin to move into “white” sports like rugby. As I keep saying, the key to reducing racial division is to make race-identity secondary to more unifying identities, like secular national identity, or in this case team affiliation. It won’t simply happen by diffusion, or just existing side by side, there needs to be a force that unites formerly disparate groups into a larger sense of in-group. Sport has the power to do that.

Again, it’s not possible to talk about racial equality without disturbing the ground of women’s rights and gay rights, so this story about a lesbian soccer team made me smile ruefully:

To be poor, and black, and a lesbian in South Africa is to live in danger. “Corrective rapes”, beatings and murders are disturbingly common in conservative communities where homophobia remains deeply entrenched.

Don’t get it twisted, folks, South Africa is still a horrible place filled with violence, crippling poverty, ignorance and hate. Being on a lesbian football team, like the women in this article, is harnessing the same power of sport to unify people and take a stand against homophobia and violence. In a country where rape is seen as a way to “fix” gayness, it takes an enormous set of lady-balls to stand up and say “I’m here.” This is why we have a gay pride parade, incidentally, because we’re celebrating living in a country where people have the right to be openly gay and happy – it’s not about shoving it in people’s faces. And considering that there are still major problems even in so-called “modern” countries like Australia, we can’t ever relax our stance on ensuring equality for all people. I’m encouraged by things like the World Cup, and I hope you are too.

Of course, because I write these well before posting them, it’s easy to get scooped. If you liked this summary, you should read CLS’s much more informative article about this same issue.

Do you believe in flying teapots?

I grow very tired of hearing people tell me that atheism is the same as religion. “I believe there is a God, and you believe there isn’t. We both BELIEVE something – it’s the same!” This is the problem when one makes assertions based on “common sense” (a.k.a. not thinking before you speak), and is somewhat reminiscent of the “science is religion”  fallacy that I’ve talked about previously. There is a difference, and not simply a semantic one between the statement “I believe there is no God” and “I don’t believe there is a God”. The first is indeed a statement of belief – a belief in non-Godness. The second is a statement of lack of belief – a failure to believe in the existence of God.

To illustrate this difference, I am going to resurrect the oft-disturbed ghost of Bertrand Russell and his celestial teapot. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this thought experiment, Russell invites you to imagine that there is a teapot floating out in space, somewhere between the Earth and Mars, in an elliptical orbit around the sun. He further states that, even with the most powerful telescopes, it is impossible to detect the teapot – it is going too fast, there’s no light shining on it, it’s too small; the important thing is that it is impossible to detect by any means. But since you cannot detect it, you cannot prove that it isn’t there. He then invites you to consider the proposition that since you can’t prove it’s not there, you are required to believe and behave as though it is.

Of course reasonable people will dismiss this teapot out of hand. The idea that there could somehow be a teapot – a manufactured item of human origin – floating out in space is patently ridiculous. How would it have gotten there? “No, no, no” you are happy to say “even though we can’t prove there is no teapot, I’m perfectly willing to accept the position that in the absence of any confirming evidence of a teapot, it isn’t there in all likelihood.”

“But no!” says Russell “the teapot is THERE! How else do you explain why the lawn is wet in the morning? It’s because water from the teapot pours over the atmosphere and gets on the lawn!”

“Bushwah!” you retort. “We know where dew comes from – condensation of water vapour when the air cools overnight. And besides, any water that would come from space would evaporate instantly one it hit the outer atmosphere, and would never reach the ground.”

“Folly!” Russell comes back. “Why else would tea be so popular all over the world, if not for the fact that there is a subconscious recognition in all cultures of the existence of a teapot out there somewhere.”

“Fiddlesticks and balderdash!” say you. “We also know why tea is so popular – part of it has to do with the expansion of an empire that drank tea for historical, agricultural and climate reasons. Part of it has to do with the fact that tea is tasty. Besides, not every culture in the world drinks tea!”

But Russell keeps coming at you with facile explanations of real-life phenomena, invoking the intervention of an invisible teapot. He goes further and describes the colour and shape of the teapot (it’s white with blue flowers, medium-sized, and has a small chip on the handle), despite the fact that it is, by its nature, impossible to see. He even goes so far as to say the teapot demands that we wear used tea bags on our ears, and get together once every week to sing “I’m a little teapot, short and stout”, lest we tempt its ceramic wrath.

Eventually you get so tired of this clown that you slug him in the face and walk away – not a very teapot-like thing to do, says Russell.

I have stretched the metaphor beyond its original context, and made obvious allegorical reference to belief in God. But this is precisely what any faith requires you to do. In the mildest form, it demands that you believe completely in the existence of something for which there is absolutely no evidence, and never can be. In its next form, it twists observable phenomena to fit a blind belief, despite far more reasonable alternative explanations for which there are mountains of evidence. Eventually, it makes wild assertions about this evidenceless entity’s characteristics, and what it wants from humans (but not other animals). Any attempt to introduce reason into the conversation will inevitably be met with “well you can’t prove it’s wrong, so therefore it must be right.”

I want to pause for a second here and talk about that statement. “You can’t prove it’s wrong” is a ludicrous standard to hold anything to. It’s literally impossible (not just really really hard, but actually impossible) to prove that something is or isn’t there. I can’t prove to you that I exist, that you’re reading these words, that your computer is in front of you. If you’re creative enough, you can explain away pretty much everything (except your own existence). All we can do is look at the evidence and test alternative explanations. You could be hallucinating this whole thing, but you haven’t had any psychotropic drugs and don’t have a history of vivid hallucinations (plus, how lame a hallucination is this?). It’s far more reasonable to conclude, until there is evidence to the contrary, that the world is as it seems. Once there is evidence to the contrary, then you evaluate it and change your ideas accordingly. The part that really grinds my gears is the “… so therefore” part. Just because I can’t prove you wrong, that doesn’t mean you’re right. Just because I can’t prove that the food in the fridge doesn’t disappear when the door is closed is not proof that gremlins eat it and poop it out again exactly as it was. It’s not proof of anything. You don’t just get to make shit up because there’s no way to prove you’re wrong.

But it turns out that Russell is very persuasive, and people start to believe in the celestial teapot. When you say “well I don’t believe in a magical flying teapot that nobody can see”, they begin to call you an “a-pot-ist” (or if they’re clever, an a-pot-ate). They tell you that you secretly do believe in the pot, you are just bitter and angry at it, or your life has been bad and you resent the teapot, or that your belief in the absence of the teapot is just as facile as their belief in it. None of those things are the case – you are simply being reasonable and saying that in the absence of any evidence whatsoever, you don’t think there’s a pot there. And you’re right to do so. You might even go so far as to say “there is no evidence that there is a pot, and since it’s highly unlikely that a pot could get into space on its own, there probably isn’t one there.”

Your friend calls himself teapot-agnostic. “We can’t know if it’s there or not,” he says “so I’m not taking a stand on either side.” You then ask him directly if he believes in the existence of the teapot. He says “I don’t know if it’s there or not, it’s impossible to know.” But you press him – does he think there might be a dragon in his back yard? “Well no,” he says “dragons aren’t real.” But they might be, you remind him. There’s no way to know for sure. “Fine,” he says “there might be a dragon in my back yard that I just can’t see.” Does he believe in anything, you ask? Does he, for example, believe that the money in his pocket is real? “It’s impossible to know,” he says “and I refuse to take a position.” Fine, you say. Give me all the money in your wallet, since you don’t know whether it exists or not. See how far his ‘not taking a stand on belief’ goes. Scratch the surface of a systematic agnostic, and you’ll find someone who is actually a non-believer but just isn’t ready to say so. I would invite so-called ‘agnostics’ everywhere to (WARNING: Pun ahead) shit or get off the teapot.

This is the case of skeptic atheism. It is the result of following the philosophy of if there is no evidence for something, then it might as well not exist. If evidence appears later, then it probably does exist, and that’s great. But if there’s something out there that has no effect on the observable universe, whose effects are completely invisible, and without the existence of whom absolutely nothing would change, it’s perfectly fine to say it doesn’t exist, and spend your time on the stuff that you can see. You don’t have to believe that the teapot isn’t there, you just don’t see any evidence that it is.

What you missed this week: June 7th – 11th

This was a big week here at the Manifesto:

So what can you look forward to this week? How about:

  • Flying teapots, and the people who worship them!;
  • What the World Cup does and doesn’t mean for South Africa;
  • Me pissing off a lot of Jews;
  • A discussion of Canada’s national identity (or lack thereof); and
  • Perhaps the most epic skeptic poem ever!

It’s going to be a big week, so don’t miss it!

Movie Friday: Religion… not just INTELLECTUALLY bankrupt

I have a headache after watching this video:

No mention of the fact that the “Christian” United States and its ultra-capitalist system is what got the recession rolling in the first place. No mention of the complete contradiction inherent in the argument that people shouldn’t wait around for the government to help… they should just wait for God (who’s about 5000 years overdue – any day now though…). The only voice of reason got sandwiched in between the moron host and the more moronic priest who somehow manages to make arguments on both sides of his own point. The host’s final statement made me chuckle: they could have put something newsworthy on, but instead we talked to a priest who knows less about economics than he does about secularism (or Christianity, it seems – Jesus was definitely a socialist; “render unto Caesar” and all that…)

Secularism doesn’t make you poor, secularism makes you make decisions that are based on what is good for others rather than what it says in a religious tome. Can that socialist instinct take you too far? Absolutely. But right now we’re all living through what happens when capitalism allows to go unchecked.

I’m not smarter than these people because I’m an atheist; I’m an atheist because I’m smarter than these people.

Racist beating of black man in Courtenay, BC

This doesn’t exactly fill me with a feeling of safety:

A swarming attack on a black man in this Vancouver Island community began when one of the accused hurled a racial slur, a court heard on Thursday.

Three men riding home in a truck (way to buck the stereotype there, guys) came across a black man walking home from the gym. One of the guys in the truck called out, audibly, “there’s a nigger” as they drove past (you know, like anyone would in that situation). Understandably, the victim of the verbal assault (Jay Phillips) was angered by the word and threw his water bottle at the truck.

So the three men turned around, got out of the truck, and tried to beat Phillips up.

So Nova Scotia, you’re temporarily off the hook. Courtenay, BC is now (apparently) the most blatantly racist place in the country. Congrats, Courtenay. I’m sure that’s a legacy you’re proud of.

Hilariously, the whole thing was caught and posted on Youtube:

The high-kick that the one asshole throws made me laugh. The rest of the video just made me sad.

Once again, while I am deeply saddened (and frankly, more than a little frightened) by this event, I am not surprised in the least. As much as we like to go on and on about how racism is a thing of the past, it’s still alive and well. Of course the most bizarre thing about this particular story is that British Columbia (and certainly Courtenay, BC) doesn’t have a history of conflict with black Africans or African Americans. Black people coming to BC were more likely to be working-class or middle-class, and that exodus came much later than settlements like Chatham, Ontario or Africville in Halifax, NS. Maybe not so bizarre, if you consider the fact that these guys had probably never seen a black person before, except on television. They probably don’t know what the word “nigger” even means, or have any particularly well-organized hatred of blacks.

While this in no way excuses their unbelievably horrendous actions, this attack is a symptom of a larger problem – we live in a racist society. The assholes in the truck are undoubtedly bigots, and the fact that they mobbed and beat a guy based on their racism suggests they’re probably not the kind of guys you’d want to have around, but they’re an extreme reflection of an underlying cultural narrative that says that race is meaningful when judging a person’s worth. While it’s completely appropriate to notice that someone is from a different cultural background, and important to think about how that impacts their day-to-day life, it’s not the most important thing about them. It’s definitely not a cause of verbally and physically assault them.

I don’t live near Courtenay (it’s on Vancouver Island), so it’s unlikely I’ll be called for jury duty in this case or any that are connected to it. It’s too bad though, because I’ve been working on my Samuel L. Jackson impression:

CFI Vancouver Skeptics ‘welcome’ Deepak Chopra

On Friday, June 4th, Vancouver was the recipient of Dr. Deepak Chopra – quantum mystic, magic thinker, and purveyor of high-quality woo. In the interest of promoting the cause of evidence-based science and thought, skeptics from Vancouver’s chapter of the Center for Inquiry were on hand to engage the audience on their way into the event. We were armed with flyers (which can be seen here), and voices of reason. For more background on the event, you are invited to read the pre-event coverage from this blog.

Why were we there?

To answer this question, I think it’s worthwhile to mention a couple of things we weren’t there to do.

We were not there simply to tell Dr. Chopra he is wrong; while he undoubtedly is wrong, it’s not exactly productive to shout that at people who are willing to part with $100+ dollars to hear the man speak. Besides, why should anyone believe us just on our say-so?

We were not there to smugly tell people that they are stupid for going to see Chopra speak; people are often willing to listen to leaders who sound like they have answers. If nobody challenges those answers, or the leaders are convincing enough, it’s easy to get caught up. Most likely the people who attend Dr. Chopra’s shows aren’t any more stupid than your average cross-section of humankind.

We were not there to ‘convert’ anyone to skepticism, or convince them to abandon their tickets and do something else; most people are skeptics in one sphere of their life or another – it’s how we discern truth from lies. The problem is that people don’t necessarily apply the rules of skeptical inquiry to all aspects of their life, and are happy to accept some things on faith rather than looking for evidence.

What we were there to do is to try and engender a little bit of cognitive dissonance in members of the audience. What we were there to do is try and encourage people to keep their thinking caps on while listening to Dr. Chopra’s ideas, and to ask “does this really make sense?” What we were there to do is demonstrate bodily that it is not okay to invent supernatural explanations for the important questions in life and then sell those as snake-oil cures to people who honestly thirst for knowledge and answers to the mysteries of the universe, and that there will always be people who will insist that claims about the world must be substantiated by evidence, not circular reasoning and invocations of unobservable phenomena.

What did we do?

An hour before the show was scheduled to start, members of CFI Vancouver, UBC and SFU Skeptics, and a few skeptical friends met at the Vancouver Public Library to gear up for the event. We had printed about 800 flyers, and had a few choice quotes wherein Dr. Chopra made specific claims about the natural world, the human body, or other physical phenomena that were demonstrably false. Dressed in our finest skeptical attire, we hit the sidewalk outside the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, site of Dr. Chopra’s presentation.

Skeptics congregate at Schroedinger's plant at the VPL

Skeptics congregate at Schroedinger's plant at the VPL

Since there are a number of possible entrances to the theatre, and we didn’t want anyone to miss out on the chance of getting a flier, we spread ourselves out along the sidewalk in small groups.

Happy skeptics, ready for action

Our strategy was simple: ask people if they were on their way to the show. If they were, we asked if they wouldn’t mind talking to us for a couple of minutes before going in. We put a flier in their hands, and briefly explained what we were doing there – namely, asking them to think very carefully about some of the things they were about to hear.

More happy skeptics

We were careful to be as respectful and polite as possible, wanting to avoid the association of anti-choice activists protesting outside of abortion clinics. Nobody was harassed, intimidated (as if anyone was intimidated by a pack of nerds) or assaulted – merely annoyed for a moment.

How did it go?

It’s hard to say definitively what impact, if any, we made on the crowd. We didn’t hold out any great hope that we’d cause a wholesale changing of minds, or cause a surge of skeptical thought to bloom in the audience on the weight of our hastily-assembled fliers with cherry-picked quotes and facts. To be perfectly honest, we were half expecting to be instructed to leave the premises by angry security guards. What we instead saw was that most people, when handed a flier, took one and glanced over it.

People reading the CFI flyers!

Some people gave it a cursory look, folded it up and put it into a pocket or a purse. Some laughed derisively (“don’t these fools realize that there is more to the world than what can be observed and measured with evidence?”) and threw them away. One particularly offended young woman tore hers into pieces. Some handed them back to us with a disgusted look – I had a couple immediately turn and walk away the moment I said the words ‘think critically’. A very small subset of the audience members took the time to enter into a dialogue with us about the things we were saying.

An audience member engaging our team

Again, we were very careful to be deferential and respectful of people, even though we disagreed with their ideas. There is a time for polemic, and this probably wasn’t it. Most of those who spoke to us were very smugly dismissive of the idea that science could be based on observation of real-world phenomena. I foolishly took the bait with my first interlocutor when he asked me if I thought that was solid ground I was standing on. I foolishly allowed him to take me down the quantum path (and what are molecules made of? Okay, and what is energy?) until I wasn’t able to give him a satisfactory explanation of the fundamental components of the universe, at which point he smirked and said “so there you go” and walked off. My moment to be smug came a few minutes later when I directed him and his wife to the entrance – the fact that matter is mostly empty space isn’t much of a consolation when you can’t transport yourself through a locked door. What I should have said was “it doesn’t really matter what I believe I’m standing on. Let’s look at the evidence and see what it says.”

I was more prepared for my second encounter with a man who immediately accused us of raping Native people and destroying the land on behalf of the pharmaceutical companies. I pointed out to him that not only were we not there representing any large corporation or business interest, but the very fact that we were alive to have the conversation was at least in part due to the fact that disease and disability are no longer widespread concerns in this country. This is not a picture of him, but of someone else who was talking to us because he didn’t have a strong opinion for or against Dr. Chopra and wanted to know what all the fuss was about:

Talking to the audience before the show

I’d like to share a couple of my favourite moments from the event. For some reason, I was wildly unsuccessful in giving away fliers. Everyone I tried to give one to either handed it back or, once they found out what it was, refused to take one. As a result, I spent most of my time checking on morale and observing what was going on. I saw a woman tearing up her flier, at which point her husband made a dismayed sound and ran back to a CFI team member and asked for another one – we think he didn’t want to be there to begin with.

The highlight of my evening was probably meeting Chris, a young (~25 y) Deepak fan who decided to figure out what we were all about. He asked us to produce a quote where Dr. Chopra said anything even remotely close to what we were claiming he represented. Our quote sheet was immediately thrust into my hand, and I supplied him with a line from Dr. Chopra in which he claims that all cells are immediately aware of every other cell in the body, and the universe at large (a gross misrepresentation of cell-cell signaling pathways). Chris immediately demanded that I prove that it was 100% false, and that it couldn’t possibly be true. This time, however, I was prepared. I asked Chris is anything could be 100% true to his satisfaction – Chris immediately informed me that it was impossible to know anything. I asked Chris to give me all of the money in his wallet, since he didn’t know if it was there or not. When Chris balked, I suggested that maybe a more reasonable standard than 100% certainty was possible and believable. It was very refreshing to converse with someone like Chris who was, despite their extreme rarity, one of those people who may believe in woo but is willing to concede a logical point. Where we left the conversation (so Chris could get to his seat before the show started) was that in cases where it doesn’t matter if you’re wrong – is there an underlying consciousness in the universe that we can’t understand? – then it was maybe not the worst thing in the world if you make up supernatural explanations; however, in matters of life and death, we deserve evidence to back up any claims. Chris said that he’d attend our next “Skeptics in the Pub” meeting and we’d pick up the conversation there.

Of course, the highlight of everyone’s night was when Deepak Chopra himself took a flier on his way into the theatre, read it, turned around, walked back over to the group and engaged in a pseudo-friendly discussion with our chapter head, Ethan.

Deepak's people read the flier

Say what you want about the man, but Deepak Chopra is not a coward – an intellectual midget definitely, but he was happy to come and talk to us without being angry or trying to drive us away… although he did suggest that skeptics were “too chickenshit” to debate him. I suggested that he cancel his talk and we would debate him in front of the audience; he didn’t seem to think that was a particularly good idea.

Concluding thoughts

Overall, it’s hard to say how the event went. We gave out almost all of the fliers, the majority of which were read and not immediately destroyed. I’m sure a kung-woo master like Dr. Chopra was able to immediately paint us as angry malcontents stubbornly standing as obstacles on the road to scientific progress. It was for this reason that we didn’t carry protest signs and picket, and that we happily and politely answered questions. Most people don’t know skeptics, especially in a woo-friendly city like Vancouver. It was important, therefore, that they see us as we’d like to think we are – a bunch of nerds who are fundamentally happy people, but who believe that tough questions deserve real answers.

I don’t know if there was a Q&A session, or if anyone in the audience piped up with a skeptical query. I doubt it. Again, our purpose was not to immediately change minds or “debunk” Dr. Chopra. Our goal was merely to put the tools for skepticism – facts and cognitive dissonance – into the hands of the audience. I hope at least some people walked away from the show thinking “I need to check the answers against facts.” Meeting people like Chris – people who are reasonable enough to accept a logical argument even if it doesn’t completely change their minds –  gives me hope that maybe there can be progress made against even the woo-master himself.

UPDATE: Thanks to PZ Myers for posting this on his blog.

I am not my ideas

A few years ago I met a girl at a party, and we hit it off pretty well. She was an anthropology student, and I had just finished reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, so we were talking about how history intersects anthropology. Basically it was a night full of nerd foreplay. For a number of reasons that aren’t germane to the story, we ended up not dating, but stayed in contact anyway. One night we were talking and the discussion somehow turned to a debate on moral relativism vs. absolutism with me taking the ‘absolute’ side. The conversation went something like this (shortened for clarity):

Her: But what right do we have to go into another culture and tell them their beliefs are wrong?

Me: We interact and trade with those cultures. We are invested both in their economies and their populations, and so what affects them affects us. We have every right to express objections to things like government-sanctioned rape and female genital mutilation.

Her: But those are by our standards of right and wrong. They don’t necessarily see it as wrong.

Me: Okay, give me a circumstance in which rape could possibly be justifiable. Where any reasonable moral code could permit something like that to happen.

Her: See, this is why things never worked out between us!

I was stunned (mostly because that had nothing to do with the reason she had told me it wouldn’t work out). What I thought was a lively debate about two opposing positions on morality was, in her mind, a bitter personal fight. I had mistaken her spirited defense of her position for a deep level of interest in the topic. However, what she saw was me saying “your beliefs are stupid, and you are stupid by extension.” This couldn’t be further from the truth; at the time I thought she was actually reasonably smart (although that impression changed as I got to know her better). It was then that I realized something that is key to being able to have actual discussion and debate about issues.

We need to stop thinking of our ideas as reflections of ourselves.

Here’s what I mean by that. Cara (the girl) failed to separate criticism of her position from criticism of her as a person. As a result, when I expressed my position that refuted her position, I wasn’t so much saying that moral relativism was wrong, I was saying that she was wrong. But not just wrong about the topic, but a generally wrong person. The more I argued, and the more counter-examples I provided, the more insulted she became. Because I was unaware of this, I just kept going on in my debate (if I was interested in sparing her feelings, I would have taken the cop-out position that we’d just have to “agree to disagree”).

Now there were a whole host of other reasons I’m sure that Cara wasn’t exactly thrilled with me. We were talking online, and tone is very difficult to convey. I also tend to be a bit of an asshole, which is great when picking up girls at the bar, but not exactly endearing when having a debate. But the thing I took away was the idea that with many people it’s not possible to separate their ideas from their sense of self-worth. The Catch-22 of this whole thing is that one is often very reluctant to be rigorously critical of their self-concept, which then retards their ability to make good decisions about their closely-held ideals.

As an illustrative example, suppose my self-worth is tied into the idea that I am a popular person. It’s important for me to be well-liked by others and to fit in with the group. When I have to make a decision, the first thing I think of is whether or not those around me will approve. This isn’t necessarily a negative self-concept – fitting in with others is important to societal cohesion (imagine a world where nobody cared at all about others… deodorant sales would plummet). However, if I am not self-critical about this trait, I’m likely to be highly susceptible to peer pressure, both positive and negative. If I don’t say “well it’s good to be well-liked, but I’ve got to watch out for myself as well”, I’m probably going to go along with the crowd – possibly to a Justin Beiber concert. Furthermore, when someone says to me “hey man, Justin Beiber sucks. Why the hell are you wasting your money?”, I’m likely not going to be too receptive to that argument. Even though the idea of Justin Beiber might be completely neutral in my life, an attack on my decision to go to the show is an attack on my entire self-concept.

If, however, I am able to separate concert attendance from my most important sense of self-worth, I will be more able to dispassionately assess the idea. “Maybe I don’t have to pay $95 to see a mini Jonas Brother clone. My friends are important, but surely they won’t disown me for this one thing.” It also allows me to be more open to the idea that maybe doing what is important to others is important, but so is not going broke. Maybe sometimes I need to balance the wishes of others against my own needs.

This is a hyperbolic example, clearly. Self-worth is a much more complex psychological phenomenon than I’m able to illustrate here, but I hope the point remains clear. Ideas are good and useful things to have. However, some ideas are bad ideas – some ideas make you vulnerable to things that can hurt you. In Cara’s case, her idea that all morality is relative made her unwilling to accept the fact that things can be wrong, forcing her to argue on behalf of rapists. Nobody likes to lose an argument, obviously. The difference is how you react to being wrong. If you’re able to shrug it off and say “you know, this might be a better way of looking at it, and I have a lot to think about”, you’re more likely to walk away from losing an argument having learned something. If your reaction to losing is “if I lose this argument, it means that I am a bad or unfit person”, you’ll twist and turn and set up any number of cognitive dissonances to block yourself from even the possibility of learning.

I’m often wrong. I try to be wrong at least 3 times before I brush my teeth in the morning. It’s important to personal development to make mistakes and to learn from them. One of the most useful things about putting my ideas out there for everyone to see is that at various times, people disagree with me. Most of the people who read these are personal friends. I am lucky to have some very smart friends. If a smart person disagrees with me, my eyes light up. If they disagree and I can prevail upon them why my ideas are correct, then aside from the ego boost of winning an argument, I’ve got some supportive evidence that I might be on to something good. If they convince me that I’m wrong (i.e. I lose an argument), then I’ve learned something useful and it gives me an opportunity to reflect, refine my good ideas, and throw out the bad ones. It’s win-win for me: no matter the outcome of an argument, I become a better person.

There’s a scene in Kevin Smith’s movie Dogma where Rufus (played by Chris Rock) says to Bethany (the main character):

“I think it’s better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier. Life should malleable and progressive; working from idea to idea permits that. Beliefs anchor you to certain points and limit growth; new ideas can’t generate. Life becomes stagnant.”

If we’re able to separate our ideas from how we see ourselves as people, it allows us to abandon bad ideas more easily. If, however, abandoning an idea also means abandoning our sense of self, any attack on that belief is going to be extremely emotionally jarring, and we’ll resist it at all costs. The first step towards making progress in any discussion of competing ideas is to make the debate about the idea, not the person.