Mike the Mad Biologist

The Asymmetric Advantage of Bullsh-t

Julian Sanchez, writing about global warming, makes an excellent point about how denialists are able to be so successful (italics original; boldtype mine):

Come to think of it, there’s a certain class of rhetoric I’m going to call the “one way hash” argument. Most modern cryptographic systems in wide use are based on a certain mathematical asymmetry: You can multiply a couple of large prime numbers much (much, much, much, much) more quickly than you can factor the product back into primes. A one-way hash is a kind of “fingerprint” for messages based on the same mathematical idea: It’s really easy to run the algorithm in one direction, but much harder and more time consuming to undo. Certain bad arguments work the same way–skim online debates between biologists and earnest ID afficionados armed with talking points if you want a few examples: The talking point on one side is just complex enough that it’s both intelligible–even somewhat intuitive–to the layman and sounds as though it might qualify as some kind of insight. (If it seems too obvious, perhaps paradoxically, we’ll tend to assume everyone on the other side thought of it themselves and had some good reason to reject it.) The rebuttal, by contrast, may require explaining a whole series of preliminary concepts before it’s really possible to explain why the talking point is wrong. So the setup is “snappy, intuitively appealing argument without obvious problems” vs. “rebuttal I probably don’t have time to read, let alone analyze closely.”

I don’t really have anything to add to that–anyone who has had to deal with creationists (or reads those who do) is intimately familiar with this problem. What I found useful was the next bit:

If we don’t sometimes defer to the expert consensus, we’ll systematically tend to go wrong in the face of one-way-hash arguments, at least our own necessarily limited domains of knowledge. Indeed, in such cases, trying to evaluate the arguments on their merits will tend to lead to an erroneous conclusion more often than simply trying to gauge the credibility of the various disputants. The problem, of course, is gauging your own competence level well enough to know when to assess arguments and when to assess arguers.

The only hard and fast rule of thumb I can think of when choosing whether to assess arguments or arguers is if you dislike the implications of reaching a conclusion with one strategy and like the implications using the other strategy (by ‘like’, I mean that the conclusions match a preconceived notion). That should, at least, give one pause. Any thoughts on how to gauge “your own competence level well enough to know when to assess arguments and when to assess arguers”?

Comments

  1. #1 Science Avenger
    April 20, 2009

    Sticking to my personal areas of expertise, or where I can get at the facts myself, works pretty well for deciding when to address the arguments. When I’m out of my element (say on Global Warming), I simply report the consensus expert finding, refuse to get dragged down into details I’m not qualified to evaluate, and challenge the opposition to produce a plausible explanation for how they could be right and how the thousands of climate scientists all missed The Truth.

  2. #2 David
    April 20, 2009

    One thing about assessing arguers: you can look at the patterns of the argument they raise. Creationists, vaccines-cause-autim loons, global warming deniers, and cancer cure quacks all seem to follow the same pattern. When somebody puts forward a position and they rate high on John Baez’s crackpot index, I just steer clear.

    Highly recommended: http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/crackpot.html

  3. #3 Siamang
    April 20, 2009

    What has been working well for me in the last few years is a change in tack. Simply put, I refuse to debate online.

    I will, however, EXPLAIN. And that has worked.

    I set up, as the conversation goes, that I am not willing to debate reality. If the person wants to debate, they are free to go to Harvard, and Yale, and Dartmouth and Princeton and do the experiments and hash that out in the realm of actual scientific endeavor. If someone starts pulling crap out of bad websites in a gotcha manner, I firmly remind them that if they are here to debate, I am no longer interested in answering them.

    However, if they have QUESTIONS about science, I will help them to understand what we know about how evolutionary theory explains certain things.

    This weeds out, very well, the people who are there to argue and the people who are reading along who merely don’t understand what the science actually tells us. It also keeps it from being a pissing match, which keeps the tone under control, which has the psychological effect of getting people out of a combating worldviews mindframe.

    It also counteracts the asymmetric advantage of bullshit by not-so-subtly asserting that you’re the teacher and they’re the student. It establishes a dynamic where their bullshit looks to other readers like they’re the jerk.

    I think this only works if you pick your online fora well. It can’t be too noisy or too juvenile a channel.

    I have had the fortune of a good number of Christians thanking me for turning them off of creationism and onto science.

  4. #4 Eric Lund
    April 20, 2009

    I second David’s recommendation of Baez’s crackpot index.

    “They laughed at Galileo. They laughed at Einstein.” is a red flag. “They” also laughed at Bozo the clown.

    Unfortunately, too many of the BS spouters have figured this one out. Global warming denialists in particular are good at coming up with statements that sound true to anybody who is not paying attention to the issue. It’s only when some of the people parroting this line get to the equivalent of “They laughed at Galileo” that it becomes obvious, and even then you have to really know the science (better than I do, as it is not my field) to have a chance of swatting down these arguments.

  5. #5 Physicalist
    April 20, 2009

    Any thoughts on how to gauge “your own competence level well enough to know when to assess arguments and when to assess arguers”?

    Here are a few thoughts:

    1) Any time you don’t fully understand an argument, you are presumably going to have to assess the arguer to some degree. If you find intelligent experts subscribing to an argument you cannot follow, that is reason to rely on an assessment of the arguers.

    2) You should beware of trusting your assessment of the argument if you only have access to a popular version of the argument. Many people reject special relativity and evolution by natural selection because they find faults in their comic-book understanding of the theories. If you have reason to believe that the *real* argument is more complex than the argument you are assessing, you should rely on the experts.

    3) This problem can arise even in your area of expertise. I currently find myself in a situation that a world-class expert on the area of physics I’m looking at (and a friend of mine) disagrees with a physics result I’ve reached. I’m quite confident of my argument, but I also know that he’s far smarter than I am and has been thinking about these issues for decades more than me. Do I trust my assessment of the argument or of the arguer? (As it happens, I tell myself that he just misunderstands my argument at the moment . . .)

  6. #6 lig tv
    April 20, 2009

    Backlofen is readily available without a prescription on the internet. For the high dosage that Dr. Ameisen, it works out to about $2.85/day. Far less than a 5th of vodka. Has anybody out there decided to just buy it and do it themself? If so, I’d like to hear how it’s working.

  7. #7 Mary
    April 20, 2009

    I get the idea, and agree on the one-way-hash concept. I think that makes sense on several anti-science battle fronts, actually. There is so rarely a simple answer like people really want. But sometimes I’m not really arguing with the other person as much as trying to be a voice of reason that other people might read.

    Most of the anti-science folks will not be convinced on whatever topic they are on. But I think it is fun to toy with them when I’m energized. And I figure if someone reads or googles the topic later at least there will be some footprints in the correct direction.

  8. #8 Edward
    April 20, 2009

    I agree that there is a point that there can be an asymmetry as described.

    However, there is also a trap in making the system more complicated than it is. Now, as is true of a number of people here, I’m very smart and I have a very good scientific background. I am not a climatologist, but the unit in an astronomy course I took many years ago in high school had a unit on comparative climates of the planets in the solar system. It covered stuff like early difference between the Earth and Venus, and I’d had enough chemistry previously to understand that chemical reactions can go in different directions depending on the temperature. That was enough for me to understand that there was a very clear scientific basis to be concerned about global warming. No Ph.D. or even college required (although I will grant that my scientific understanding at that point may have been greater than your typical HS student).

    I was never interested in Climatology as a career, but I’ve maintained a passing interest for almost 3 decades in global climate change. I read articles in Science and I’ve discussed various topics with scientists who study related issues. I have a relative who is a solar astrophysicist, and at one point I had neighbors who were oceanographers studying ocean temps. Nothing ever really seemed that hard to understand, as I’ve watched the evidence accumulate.

    What I have noticed is that most of the deniers have difficulty in setting aside their pre-conceived beliefs in the face of contradictory scientific evidence. Some things are very complicated, but one of the tactics of the deniers is to demand accuracy far beyond what is needed. To predict the position of the Earth to 10,000 decimal places, you might need to know the movements of every creature on the planet. But you can get a fairly good answer assuming an elliptical orbit and not even using any relativity.

  9. #9 Firstthings
    April 20, 2009

    Siamang, how can a christian not believe that GOD created everything? Such a concession on a christian’s behalf is tantamount to an evolutionist rejecting the first princples of “the theory of evolution.” The true christian embraces science because he or she knows that science bares out the TRUTH of GOD’S WORD; the christian has the best of both worlds by neither rejecting GOD’s WORD nor science, but embracing the Truth of both!

    Running commentary is that christianty equates to ignorance. Nothing could be further from the truth; many of the greatest scientist were and are christians whose scientific enterprises were and are guided by the true principles of existence found in the WORD of GOD. For such men and women, the revelations of science reinforces their faith in GOD and HIS WORD and affirms the wisdom of their belief.

    Gallileo, is routinely bandied about as the poster child of the anti-GOD, pro-science movement, yet, Armed with one of the most potent philosophical and scientific minds in human history, Gallileo was humble with regards to the WORD of GOD. For a true revelation of his philosophy and his stance on the religion vs. science issue, read his “letter to the Grand Duchess Christina” found in Stillman Drake’s book “Discoveries and Opinions of GALLILEO”. Gallileo understood how science functions and serves as Biblical Theology’s handmaiden; he was a more sincere and capable theologian and philosopher than his persecutors. In that letter Gallileo demonstrates how his astronmical discoveries complement, not contradict the bible.

    One does not have to shun or abandon christianity for the sake science, but rather, a thorough understanding of GOD’s
    WORD is the firmest foundation upon which to establish true science.

  10. #10 MikeB
    April 20, 2009

    The old adage ‘a lie is half way around the world before the truth has got its boots on’ is reborn for a new age – and probably instantly thanks to the internet.

    The problem with debating with deniers and quacks is that they don’t actually want to have a debate, and they certainly don’t want hard facts. It means that we are basically fighting peaople who act a bit like the Black Knight from Holy Grail.

    The Guardian’s comments pages are filled with classics of denial, and although you can rebut the vast majority of their ‘facts’ in a couple of minutes on Google, it all adds up to a lot of time wasted by you for someone who won’t even bother to read what you linked to.

    Now I’ve largely given up. If its climate change, I just ask them to come up with something that isn’t on ‘skeptical science’ – they seldom can, although one guy moved on to ‘new ice age’ stuff instead. He was easy to take down, but it took a little while to find out he was quoting an astrologer as an authority – which is time better spent doing something else.

    I agree with Mary – I’ll score points if I’m energised (or if they come out with something really stupid), and its good to have the argument and the links there, but frankly, I’m not that energised any more!

  11. #11 Joshua Zelinsky
    April 20, 2009

    This is connected with the classic creationist gambit the “Gish Gallup” named after Duane Gish who in debates would run through so many bad arguments extremely quickly even as opponents only had time to respond to a handful.

  12. #12 Firstthings
    April 21, 2009

    The philosophy of liberalism is impregnated with contradictions and lies; and its foundation, at its strongest point, is tenuous. The liberal argument is groundless to stand before truth. Therefore, Librerals ( with the exception of a few ) don’t debate, they disparage. Witness the name-calling on this board, yet liberals are the epitome of tolerance. But, there is an unmistakable resemblance between the deeds and the creed. Now, there’s the only consistency in liberalism!

    Oh well, go figure…

  13. #13 llewelly
    April 21, 2009

    The philosophy of liberalism is impregnated with contradictions and lies; …

    Curiously, you’ve failed to mention even one.

  14. #14 Siamang
    April 21, 2009

    Firstthings, you wrote: “Siamang, how can a christian not believe that GOD created everything?”

    I think they still believe that God created everything. They just now accept the science that shows that it didn’t happen over six days 6000 years ago.

    “The true christian embraces science because he or she knows that science bares out the TRUTH of GOD’S WORD; the christian has the best of both worlds by neither rejecting GOD’s WORD nor science, but embracing the Truth of both!”

    Well, that’s a theological discussion you can have with other Christians. Not a Christian myself, I am unable to tell you what the difference is between a true Christian and an untrue one. That’s for you guys to settle among yourselves, and hopefully not violently.

    “One does not have to shun or abandon christianity for the sake science, but rather, a thorough understanding of GOD’s
    WORD is the firmest foundation upon which to establish true science. ”

    If your reading of the Bible caused you to believe that it was in conflict with a detail found in science, which tool would you use to decide between the two: the Bible, or Science?

    Better yet, if your contention that “true Science” (whatever that means) is based in a foundation of God’s word were actually a false contention, what evidence would it take to cause you to accept that it was a mistaken conclusion and abandon that claim?

    If there is no piece of evidence that would cause you to abandon that claim, then it is a faith claim within the theology of your religious group. I leave you to your co-religionists to sort that one out.

    “Therefore, Librerals ( with the exception of a few ) don’t debate, they disparage.”

    I notice that you aren’t debating this point, but you are disparaging liberals.

  15. #15 JR Minkel
    April 24, 2009

    As soon as I read this post I thought about my experiences as a science journalist and how back at Sciam.com if we’d wanted to we could have spent one day a week writing FAQs against climate change deniers or other kinds of deniers and never run out of material. Probably our most popular story ever was called 15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense.

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