Arguing Online

Things are quite busy here at the moment, so I’m not posting as often as usual. In lieu of a more substantive post, I thought I’d share a new site and podcast I came across today.

The site is You Are Not So Smart.

The current episode is about arguments, and contains a lot of interesting anecdote and speculation. The preview of the episode on the site links this image from Wikimedia:

It is a diagram of Paul Graham’s hierarchy of online disagreement (I assume the Paul Graham, Silicon Valley luminary, since he is referred to as a programmer). It nicely summarises some of the issues we all face trying to have constructive conversations about religion online. I’ve shared before my frustration at facing conversations that drop down the pyramid, and my frustration at my own tendency to do the same. I think the diagram summarises my experiences pretty well.

If you do listen, let me know what you think.

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Frankfurt on Bullshit

Reading a book I received for my birthday, I found this:

The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality, and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are.

….

One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity.

….

It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself.

– Harry Frankfurt. On Bullshit Princeton University Press. 2005

The book is a short essay, the second half of which is excellent. Bullshit is a greater threat to truth that just lies, because a lie must at least acknowledge the existence of truth, bullshit doesn’t care at all.

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Evolution and the Problem of Entropy

Evolution has a problem with entropy.

Any creationist will tell you that. It is part of the standard issue talking points. I agree, it does, but not in the way that creationists think.

I try to avoid getting drawn into arguments about evolution. Partly because I’ve been wasting my time that way for 20 years, partly because I’ve never seen anyone change their mind, and mostly because I turn into a self-important jerk, more often than not.

But, I never stay away for long. And when I return I usually learn something about people. For example…

It always strikes me how denialists have the easy half of the conversation. Their job is not to construct anything, but to demolish it. If the topic is a block of marble, the scientist needs to carefully chip away, delicately and specifically to reveal the statue inside. The denialist’s aim is to reduce it to an unattractive mess. There are many more ways to do the latter than the former, and it takes much less skill.

Why are there so many more video games about destroying things than about making them? Because the former is easier, you need less sophisticated interaction, a big gun is enough. The latter requires you to manipulate, slowly and with care.

Entropy is easy. Destruction is cheap. Destruction is easy to understand. Construction is slow and expensive.

Denialists of all stripes rarely offer any testable claims. Creationists are full of derision, quote-mining, drive-by-arguments and quantity of arguments favoured over their quality. There are some specific exceptions, and they are the ones that are generally dissected by scholars, but resources aimed at a popular audience are purely wrecking balls.

Its also why, I think, a lot of people with some allegiance to a ‘tribe’ can find the denialism of that tribe attractive. The message is “look, its easy to see how rubbish it all is, it doesn’t stand up to this wrecking ball, and trust us, because we’re like you, and they are the enemy”.

But…

Something else occurred to me this weekend. When those of us who support the academic consensus on a topic oppose those who disagree, we often fall into ‘wrecking ball’ territory too. Derision is very easy to reach for, it is very easy to follow Duncan’s Law, find the most absurd claims and carp on at them. It is hard, generally, to engage with something you disagree with on its own terms. A couple of comments I wrote this weekend were totally in ‘jerk’ territory: I swung my self-righteous wrecking ball with glib abandon.

Entropy is seductive. Destruction is fun.

And so, we get arguments which go nowhere, and eventually both sides accuse the other of not taking them seriously, not listening, refusing to answer questions, arguing in bad faith, or being closed minded and ideologically motivated.

And, you know, I think that is probably true.

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Teaching and Holocaust Denial

At Exploring our Matrix the issue of teaching evolution was raised. In particular, the issue of whether students should be allowed to voice their criticism of evolution in a science class.

The accusation was made that evolution is the only topic you are ‘not allowed’ to criticise in class. Which I suspect is incorrect on both fronts. I suspect you are allowed to criticise it, you’re just not allowed to take over the curriculum pouring out talking points you’ve been fed from outside. And I suspect it isn’t unique in that.

One other area that, while much smaller, is both educationally important, and has a very detailed denial movement, is holocaust denial.

I assume that the holocaust is a major part of the history curriculum in state schools. I assume that, from time to time, a student will appear who has been fed the talking points on why it never happened, and why the whole thing is a big conspiracy. And I assume they are dealt with in much the same way that a creationist is dealt with in science class.

But.

That’s a lot of assumptions. A bit of googling and I couldn’t find much actual information to confirm or deny my assumptions. I know the readership here is small, but I wonder if you can flesh out the question, if you have heard of any incidents, or if you know a student or teacher who’s faced this in reality.

It could be just a false analogy, of course, something I’m inventing to puff up my anti-creationist bias. But I would like to know. What do you think?

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10 Forms of Christian Privilege

This is a US-centric view. Not all of these privileges apply in other western nations.

As a Christian:

  • your religious observances, both special holidays, and Sundays throughout the year, are likely to be available as work holidays with no special arrangement or employment difficulties;
  • you don’t need to fear that your children will be prevented from playing with their friends because of your religion;
  • you can identify your faith online, using your own name, without fear of repercussions to your job or business;
  • you can list your church involvement on your resume and expect it to be a positive indicator of your community spirit and moral integrity;
  • you can stand for public office without fear that a majority of the electorate will not vote for you on the basis of your Christianity;
  • you can fail, or do bad things, without those around you seeing this as caused by, or an indictment of your religion;
  • you can move to a new city and expect to find a broad range of Christian churches, open for you to attend and join;
  • you can form a new Church with others and expect have it granted tax exempt status without having to engage in complex litigation;
  • you can access local Christian schools and universities that will see your children through their entire schooling in a context that promotes your faith;
  • you can expect to see media reports discuss Christian prayer and the actions of God in response to unrelated incidents.

Of course there are many more. These are simply the ones I’ve encountered, or my non-Christian US friends have.

And, of course, to head off the criticisms of those who want to minimise privilege: these privileges vary in severity in different areas; there may be examples where the opposite happens (remember non semper ergo numquam); and in some cases some minority forms of Christianity may find themselves on the wrong end of these privileges too. It is important to remember that privilege is large scale, systemic and complex. That these privileges can be nuanced is not evidence they do not exist.

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The Best Service

I have a small collection of business books here. Each promises to help me start, run or sell a successful business. At some point in my business book buying I realised something important.

The most successful business books are those that are the best at being business books.

Or, put another way

The success of a business book has only a little to do with the quality of information in it.

If we crunched the numbers and measured the success of businesses based on the books that their CEO’s read and purport to act on (adjusting for the popularity of the book), I doubt very much we’d get a list that looked like the business bestseller lists. To write a successful business book you need to make the reader feel good about themselves, feel motivated, and feel powerful.

Sabio wrote today about Dating websites. In my professional experience the same thing is true here. The most successful dating sites are those that are the best at being dating sites. The success of a dating site has very little to do with the quality of matches it produces, or the long term happiness of its clients. To make a successful dating website, you need to make your customers feel good about themselves, and feel loved.

…I almost feel bad approaching the barrel of religious fish holding this shotgun…

But it is certainly true that religions promise enlightenment, spiritual fulfilment, community, counter-cultural release, and a different way of living. But those that are successful are good at being a religion, something that has very little to do with supplying those things.

And I’d say that goes for all kinds of religion. It is easy to see the Joel Osteen brand of evangelical pablum in these terms. But often progressive and liberal brands of religion work in the same way. And, just like business books and dating, you can’t tell by listening to the rhetoric. You have to look, in the words of the Bible, at the fruit.

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Children’s Religion

In our Western culture, we have a polytheistic religion especially for children. Like any polytheistic faith, some figures are more or less important, and some families have particular devotion to one or more.

The spirits, deities or supernatural beings in this religion include:

Father Christmas. Who judges our moral qualities and travels round the entire world visiting every child on Christmas eve to bring their rewards.

The Easter Bunny. A figure who’s devotion is on the rise. Visiting on the night before Easter and laying out an elaborate chocolate puzzle for children to solve.

The Tooth Fairy. Who brings monetary gifts as compensation for the traumatic experience of bodily loss.

The Sandman. Who brings blissful dreams, and nightmares, and whose visits can be detected by the grains of sand-like hardness in your eyes when you wake. His devotion is somewhat waning these days.

Jack Frost. Who brings the cold weather, and whose finger prints can be seen on your window when you wake.

The Bogeyman. A malevolent spirit who will visit retribution upon children who misbehave.

Many parents react with as much anger and outrage at the prospect of someone taking away their children’s faith, as they would if someone were to take away their own. Yet this religion is unique in that we expect it to last only for a time.

Adults, despite not believing, are expected to be the theologians and priests of the religion. Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles are expected to give theological accounts of this religion, and to act as apologists in the face of skeptical questioning.

Despite this odd feature, Children’s religion is a religion like any other. It relies on the same theological and evidential tricks, the same appeals to the supernatural, the same moral calculus, and the same cultural inertia.

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