On Credulity (and manners)

by Lobby Lud

Arnica_montana_homéopathie_zoomHolidays are fine things. They provide an opportunity to rest, and (if you are so inclined) to reflect. As a result of experience during my most recent break, I’m currently reflecting on whether my disdain for woo makes me useful, or just rude and intolerant.

Here’s my dilemma. Throughout the last few months, I’ve heard no end of pronouncements that I would consider pseudoscience. In some cases, I’ve been able to refrain from comment, but in most, I feel the need to respond. As a result, I’ve been called “aggressive” and a “bigot”. Are they right? Should I be keeping my mouth shut?

Let’s start with my justification for my actions. I feel that if someone makes a pronouncement as part of a conversation, it is open to comment/query/challenge/debate. For instance, if I were to state that “the 2013 All Blacks are the greatest rugby side in history”, I would expect find myself engaged in a conversation about such. Life would be terribly boring if every positive statement were met with a chorus of “I agree” followed by silence. I may be odd (I don’t think I am), but I feel like life is richer for the investigation of differences.

In my experience, this approach is generally how conversations proceed. Someone will make a statement and others will respond. Some will say “Yes, I’ve heard that too”. Others will enquire “That’s interesting. How does that work?” Still others will respond with “Actually, I’ve heard the opposite.” And in some cases, you will hear “that’s not true because…” I would have thought that these are all valid responses to statements. In most cases, they are met without the slightest upset. However, there are some topics for which this generally accepted mode of discourse is (apparently) inappropriate.

So why is it okay for someone to claim that everyone born during a particular time of the year will share characteristics with others born at a similar time of the year, but not okay for me to respond by pointing out that astrology was debunked decades ago, and besides, the orientation of the earth to the stars has changed since the Babylonians invented horoscopes? Surely, when you make a statement as ludicrous as “your star sign means you will be vain”, that statement is open to challenge?

This, for me, is the double standard. It’s considered polite to make a claim (no matter how outlandish), but not polite to challenge that claim. Let’s try one recent example. At a recent meal, a friend made the statement that (I’ll paraphrase) “There are big holes in evolution, there is another scientific movement called intelligent design that isn’t Christian. It should be taught as an alternative theory. If you don’t teach children these things, you will raise a generation of closed-minded people.” I was shocked. I had not realised that Intelligent Design had yet found a foothold in New Zealand. In my mind, that kind of statement can’t go unchallenged. For one, it demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the basic principles of evolution, science, and epistemology, not to mention a mistaken understanding of who is proposing intelligent design and why. For two, it’s measurably harmful. In the US, where intelligent design is at its strongest, a 2009 Pew Poll showed that 31% of the public believed that the world is 6000 years old, while 22% believe in some form of Intelligent design. Compare this with scientists, of whom only 2% believe in young earth creationism and only 8% believe in intelligent design. Unsurprisingly, 87% of scientists accept evolution as the best explanation.

To counter the claim, I employed the standard refutations of the tired and hackneyed Christian Apologetics: Intelligent Design has no explanatory power; it is demonstrably Christian in its origin; if it were a serious theory, its proponents would be using the scientific peer review process to understand its truth (or otherwise). And for this, I get labelled a bigot.

Here’s the thing. You can believe whatever you like. I respect and will advocate for your right to do so. However, that does not mean I have to respect what you believe. All beliefs are not equal, and it is not valid to suggest that something is valid simply because someone believes it.

And this is where things get difficult. My position seems (to me) to be an entirely fair and logical position, but it’s painted as reactionary and rude. Am I wrong? Is it wrong to value tangible, testable evidence?

To flip it on its head, why is it rude for me to walk up to you and tell you that homeopathy is a fraud, but not rude for you to walk up to me to tell me how Arnica will heal my bruising? Is there a difference? Why do we privilege positive claims?


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ObjectiveReality February 5, 2014 - 9:29 am

I think there are a few separate things going on.

I think firstly we do privilege positive claims. Asserting something may or may not be a challenge to the person you’re talking to but challenging or dismissing an assertion pretty much always is. How they deal with that challenge is up to them, admittedly, but they will be put on the back foot at least initially. That would be where manners and picking your battles come in – deciding how important it is to correct this particular misapprehension at this particular time. I think sometimes it is probably inappropriate, and there is a group of people (I suspect they’re new converts to skepticism, because they behave in many ways like new converts to other things) who have no skill at all when it comes to picking their moments for this stuff.

Secondly “bigotry” or “closemindedness” is a common ad hominem response to an attack on a cherished position. It’s really seductive because being able to be the noble victim in any given situation is attractive to people who are generally too privileged to claim that status, and it’s also a kind of validation of your minority point of view if it’s so important that Great Powers want it suppressed.

Shackleford Hurtmore February 10, 2014 - 12:36 pm

“You can believe whatever you like.”

Are people entitled to their beliefs? If those beliefs are wrong and dangerous to themselves and others, surely we have an ethical duty to argue with them, or even act against their wishes. (Sadly, I can’t remember who did the example of someone about to be hit by a bus who believes that the bus won’t hurt them. Should you pull them to safety or respect their beliefs?)

You are not reactionary and rude. You are being thoughtful, ethical and caring. Only in an absurd world would this be frowned upon.

There seems to be a modern “accepted truth” that people have a right not to be offended. Just try telling people that they are wrong about that.


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