When Cynicism is a Good Thing

I’m planning to do a follow-up to Tuesday’s post about Elliott Sober’s recent talk. That is likely to be a long post, so ti may be a day or two before I can get to it.

In the meantime, go have a look at my new post over at The Huffington Post. I suggest that on the subject of evolution and creationism, Americans would benefit from a bit more cynicism. Let me know what you think!

Comments

  1. #1 Michael Fugate
    May 10, 2012

    Many moves by theists try to protect their god(s) from criticism. The “critical thinking” laws try to launch criticisms of evolution in public schools where they presume creationism won’t be similarly critiqued. Only evolution can be taught – so only evolution can be challenged. If creationists think creationism is science, then let’s subject it to all the criticism we can muster. I know others think this would take precious time away from other areas of biology, but what could be more useful in the long run than weakening the support for bad ideas. We wouldn’t shy away from anti-vaxers, would we?

    We have also seen moves by the other end of the religious spectrum to redefine their gods so that they are completely undetectable by any means both known and unknown. It is a great strategy, but who the hell would care about gods like them?

  2. #2 Verbose Stoic
    May 11, 2012

    Jason,

    The issue I can see here is that when you encourage people to be cynical in these cases, you end up encouraging them to be cynical towards your points as well. If you encourage skepticism towards creationism, you’ll also get skepticism towards evolution and science in general. And so a lot of comments like this always strike me as “Be cynical and skeptical … except of us and the things we think are true”.

    The big problem, I think, is that the world we are in and the theories we are talking about are too big and too complicated for anyone except experts to understand, and for various reasons those who are experts have a hard time translating that down to non-experts in a way that they can understand. Thus, to most people, the comments from everyone boil down to equally incomprehensible bafflegab. At that point, it’s almost impossible to judge which set of bafflegab is better without simply appealing to authority, but what or who is the proper authority to trust is itself a difficult question. Examining the evolution debate critically, everyone involved seems to have reasons outside of their specific discipline to favour the solution or theories they favour, so examining that critically doesn’t help; everyone, it seems, could be prone to errors based on bias.

    At the end of the day, then, is it any surprise that most people trust the theory that best fits what they already believe, on both sides of the divide?

  3. #3 Wow
    May 11, 2012

    “The issue I can see here is that when you encourage people to be cynical in these cases, you end up encouraging them to be cynical towards your points as well”

    Not a problem.

    “If you encourage skepticism towards creationism, you’ll also get skepticism towards evolution and science in general.”

    Already have it. You know, where someone programs a genetic algorithm to see if a human eye can REALLY result from “random mutation and selection”.

    “is it any surprise that most people trust the theory that best fits what they already believe”

    Nope, but this isn’t a problem either.

    “on both sides of the divide?”

    What divide? The one between your version of God and other faithiests versions of God?

    Or are you talking about the rationalist/faithiest divide? Because in that case, there’s no hard rule that someone on the *rationalist* side will just accept the theory that they “believe” in, since there’s no “belief” required on that side.

    Only the faithiest side needs belief to continue.

  4. #4 Kel
    May 11, 2012

    Examining the evolution debate critically, everyone involved seems to have reasons outside of their specific discipline to favour the solution or theories they favour, so examining that critically doesn’t help; everyone, it seems, could be prone to errors based on bias.

    This is misleading, to say “everyone” negates the role of expert and where the preponderance of expertise lies.

  5. #5 Wow
    May 11, 2012

    That, however, is the only way for someone with no expertise or even knowledge to pretend that they have a point that even bears enough rationality to be listened to.

    If you can’t raise yourself, you’re left with bringing everyone else down. VS is a prime example of it in action.

  6. #6 FTFKDad
    May 11, 2012

    great article!

  7. #7 MartyM
    May 11, 2012

    You know that the Argument from Authority carries tremendous weight with the general congregationalist. They are taught to accept the authority of their pastor (and of course God), so they are certainly going to transfer that to an “expert”. Not knowing that the scientific method demolishes authority and favors peer review and consensus.

    I challenged a pastor once on creationism and one of the first things he expressed concern about was an apparent attack on his authority.

  8. #8 Verbose Stoic
    May 12, 2012

    Kel,

    Is your objection that you think I’m accusing those experts of actually basing their conclusions on those other factors? I didn’t mean to imply that at all. What I was saying was that when you have two sets of people spouting off what seems to you like equally incomprehensible bafflegab but claiming that the other side is just wrong and their bafflegab proves it, it’s not easy to choose which set of experts is right. Base it on consensus? Bad if you want to use critical thinking. Base it on their credentials? Bad if you want to use critical thinking. So, then, what DO you do? Well, you pick the side that best fits what you already believe and hope it all works out, it seems to me. Or you absent yourself from the debate entirely.

  9. #9 Verbose Stoic
    May 12, 2012

    MartyM,

    I challenged a pastor once on creationism and one of the first things he expressed concern about was an apparent attack on his authority.

    I hate these vague one-line anecdotes used in support of claims, because they don’t have enough details to be evaluated properly. He might have indeed actually had a good case against you for attacking his authority if, for example, part of your argument depended on you interpreting the tennets of his religion for him, where he is the expert and you are not. If that was the case, it wouldn’t support your larger contention.

  10. #10 Kel
    May 12, 2012

    What I was saying was that when you have two sets of people spouting off what seems to you like equally incomprehensible bafflegab but claiming that the other side is just wrong and their bafflegab proves it, it’s not easy to choose which set of experts is right.

    Really? No recourse to look at whether or not the position of the experts spits down the same ideological lines that it plays with non-experts? No looking at what are the relevant factors in the ideological acceptance in its relationship to evidence? No trying to look at the points of academic disagreement and see how they fit with the ideological disputes? No attempt to try to understand the arguments yourself?

  11. #11 Verbose Stoic
    May 12, 2012

    Kel,

    How did you get from “It’s not easy” to “No possible way providing that you’re willing to put in a lot of effort”?

    For example, for the last one I addressed that in my actual first comment:

    The big problem, I think, is that the world we are in and the theories we are talking about are too big and too complicated for anyone except experts to understand, and for various reasons those who are experts have a hard time translating that down to non-experts in a way that they can understand.

    Yes, I can try to look at the arguments myself … but I’d have to spend a lot of time simply gaining the background to start looking in a lot of cases. Yes, I can try to look at the ideological backgrounds and see if it aligns … but in the evolution case it generally does AND even when it doesn’t the reply from both sides is that there’s ANOTHER ideology that’s driving that. And yes, I can look to see if the split is different among experts and non-experts … but most of those have different ideologies and so it really doesn’t help much (you’ve surely heard arguments of “They just want to preserve their field!” in these debates, no?). Yes, I can look at the details of the arguments and the ideologies … if, of course, I have enough knowledge to both understand the argument and what the ideologies entail. And note that your comment about “evidence” ITSELF presumes an ideology, as I’m sure we’ve discussed before.

    So, no, it’s not easy. It’s really, really hard due to the complexity of the discussions. If we could just go and look at the arguments ourselves and understand them, things would be a lot easier. But I submit that that is precisely what we cannot do these days.

  12. #12 Kel
    May 12, 2012

    So, no, it’s not easy. It’s really, really hard due to the complexity of the discussions.

    In the case of where there’s an overwhelming preponderance of evidence on one side of the expertise, I’d submit it is easy. When the main driving force behind the opposition to the science comes from a non-scientific basis, I’d submit it is easy.

    In the case of evolutionary theory, there’s one view that’s grounded in empirical success as determined by an overwhelming majority of people who have studied on the matter – including from many different walks of life. And there’s the opposition to that which is on the fringe of academia and has little to no grounding in empiricism. It’s about as clear-cut an example as you can get of what constitutes an easy case to assess.

  13. #13 Verbose Stoic
    May 12, 2012

    Kel,

    In the case of where there’s an overwhelming preponderance of evidence on one side of the expertise, I’d submit it is easy. When the main driving force behind the opposition to the science comes from a non-scientific basis, I’d submit it is easy.

    This presumes that you understand the field enough to actually be able to evaluate the “preponderance of evidence” enough to see where it lies, and enough to be able to understand the implications of that as per the arguments that are being raised. That’s precisely what I’m saying that average, everyday, ordinary people simply don’t have … and I’m including myself in that.

    Look, the argument you are making here, for the most part, is exactly the same sort of argument that can be made for philosophy and for even theology: if you understand the field, you can see clearly why some arguments or views work and why some of them don’t. But we always have to keep in mind that we are often dealing with people who DON’T have those backgronuds, and so it isn’t as easy for them to see what arguments make sense and which ones don’t.

    For example, can you say that you really understand what’s going on when Sam Harris denies the is/ought distinction and the philosophers roll their eyes? Or, even, why philosophers don’t think that Krauss’ or Hawking’s “nothings” work for the origins problem? There’s no real reason why you should … but then the same thing applies to the details of evolution and the implications as well.

  14. #14 Verbose Stoic
    May 12, 2012

    BTW, Kel, I think you’re coming quite close to fulfilling this early comment of mine:

    And so a lot of comments like this always strike me as “Be cynical and skeptical … except of us and the things we think are true”.

    I’d submit that your response looks a lot like “Trust the scientists, even if you have no idea what they’re saying and don’t really get why they should be necessarily trusted as a better authority on this than the people who are making arguments against them.”

  15. #15 Kel
    May 12, 2012

    Verbose Stoic,

    This presumes that you understand the field enough to actually be able to evaluate the “preponderance of evidence” enough to see where it lies, and enough to be able to understand the implications of that as per the arguments that are being raised.

    It might assume some knowledge on the field, but where the experts lie on a particular question and those biases in question can be investigated just as much as assessing the merits of the field itself. It doesn’t take any knowledge in biology to see the religious hand in creationism, or to see that scientific acceptance of evolution isn’t split down religious lines in the way that it is culturally. There is no academic disagreement in the way that there’s cultural disagreement. That comes from an assessment of the discipline itself, rather than anything in it. If one wants to get their toes a little wet, it doesn’t take much to see where the academic disagreements lie, either. Do those academic disagreements lie along those same lines as the cultural ones? If not, then making that assessment is fairly easy. And when it comes to the evidence itself, there’s always the capacity to see what the experts see as the case for it. It’s not like evolution is arcane knowledge hidden from the general public.

    But we always have to keep in mind that we are often dealing with people who DON’T have those backgronuds, and so it isn’t as easy for them to see what arguments make sense and which ones don’t.

    Indeed. But as research by Dunning and Kruger has suggested, the best way to remedy ignorance is education.

    For example, can you say that you really understand what’s going on when Sam Harris denies the is/ought distinction and the philosophers roll their eyes?

    Yes.

    Or, even, why philosophers don’t think that Krauss’ or Hawking’s “nothings” work for the origins problem?

    Yes.

    There’s no real reason why you should … but then the same thing applies to the details of evolution and the implications as well.

    There’s no reason except listening to other experts and seeing what their objections are and why.

    I’d submit that your response looks a lot like “Trust the scientists, even if you have no idea what they’re saying and don’t really get why they should be necessarily trusted as a better authority on this than the people who are making arguments against them.”

    Trusting experts is what we’re left to do for most things at most times. We take our cars to mechanics, we go to doctors, we have architects design houses, we have lawyers argue the law. It’s the sacrifice we make for having prosperity. If we’re not looking up to the experts for these disagreements, then what are we doing?

    Let’s change the topic from evolution to the efficacy of vaccines. Now like most people, even if I wanted to read papers on vaccines, I don’t think I’d be able to. Perhaps with coaching of an expert and some effort into understanding the papers, I could see the arguments, but I have not done this. Yet I think I can tell the difference between the arguments of the vaccine denialists and those in favour. Why? Because the arguments of the vaccine denialists are for the most part non-scientific. Their arguments aren’t over some academic disagreement, and so it doesn’t take that expertise to see what side one is coming down on.

    The fact that we do trust scientists, and historians, and engineers, and doctors, isn’t really an issue. It’s not to say that we shouldn’t try to understand the issues for ourselves, so long as we follow where the expertise lies. There’s nothing wrong with people trying to understand the issues for themselves, and as they aren’t experts they should be open to their understanding being wrong. But the way through this is education – to become better informed. To read what experts have to say, to try to follow their reasoning, and to try to understand where the disagreement lies. And on that, evolution is about as clear an example as you can have of where the disagreement being a cultural one rather than an academic one.

    Climate change is another, and it disappoints me to no end when people will dismiss climate change on the grounds that it’s the socialist treehuggers who are promoting climate change as part of their own ideology when there’s a scientific consensus among experts. If we’re to take science seriously as an epistemology, then the sacrifice is that we’re left having experts as the people we should be looking to for information. It’s not that we should just take whatever a scientist says even about their area of expertise as true with no caveats, but we should look to them for information about their discipline over any other source.

  16. #16 Wow
    May 14, 2012

    “This presumes that you understand the field enough to actually be able to evaluate the “preponderance of evidence” enough to see where it lies”

    How many diseases are now treatable?

    By using the medical science, cures and treatments are forthcoming.

    Rather than pray away the demons of sickness, someone noticed that penicillin worked much better.

  17. #17 tvday
    Texas
    May 28, 2012

    I really appreciated your article in the Huffington post. People especially evolution and global warming deniers are so prone to thinking just because something contains a variety of scientific jargon that it is good science. If only our society was more scientifically literate… Of course that would mean actually teaching our children the accepted scientific theories, rather then denying them.

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