Monthly Archives: September 2013

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.

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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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