I see life as an adventure of the mind and imagination. Whatever we do, wherever we go, however we thrive, it is our minds that define us as uniquely human, some weird and wonderful thing in this vast and varied universe of ours. The desire to help others discover that is a big part of why I’m a teacher.
We should all be students, all of our lives, because our world grows the more we learn about it, our lives expand and grow richer, our own identities deepen and ripen, who and what we are becomes something more than what it was. It’s easier to believe that about great literature, great music, great art, but I’m going to make the case for something not everyone realizes is so incredibly beautiful.
Mathematics is one of the great products of human genius. It is not the only one, maybe not superior to others that occupy its heights, but neither inferior to them. It occupies a pantheon of human consciousness that includes great literature that can take you on journeys of the imagination into ever deeper and subtler spheres of reality; brilliant music that provides not merely a beat to move to but an intricate language of tightly woven sounds that speaks to our very soul; philosophies and sciences and fine arts of various kinds.
But math is not least among them, and perhaps is most remarkable of all, music that has not been played, science unyoked from the constraints of observable reality or at least stretching an ever-more elastic tether to them. It distills some essence of the universe, of the macrocosms and microcosms, of ubiquitous and eternal forms, speaking a language that crosses cultural and linguistic barriers and historical epochs with a completeness that not even music and the fine arts can attain.
Math is the purified mind, the celestial symphony, a strange and beautiful sphere of human thought, god’s own soliloquy echoing within us. And when applied to the practical questions that assail us, either directly or through its verbal twin of logical analysis, it enables us to do better, to discipline our passions and channel our thoughts, to arrive at wiser rather than more foolish conclusions. It is a vehicle of both beauty and purpose, a tool and an instrument, delicately plucked to play truths too subtle to otherwise hear.
One ancient and well-known social phenomenon greatly accelerated by the internet and social media is the spreading of false rumors, particularly politically motivated false rumors, and particularly relatively complex ones such as those that come in the form of conspiracy theories. Many cloak themselves in elaborate pseudo-arguments that can be very easily debunked, and many are passed along and eagerly consumed like a spreading contagion. The phrase “going viral” isn’t just a metaphor; these complex “memes” and narratives are cultural pathologies that sweep through the population in epidemic waves feeding off of one another and forming one, overarching pandemic of enormous destructive power.
The confluence of a set of evolutionarily produced psychological quirks and their strategic exploitation by opinion-makers (particularly right-wing opinion-makers) helps explain how easily pernicious falsehoods resonate and spread.
One such “cognitive glitch” is due to the natural, psychological attraction to anomalies, because we evolved to be attentive to anything out of place (since being adept at noticing things out of place was vital to survival on the African savanna). But that, coupled with a lack of awareness of what I call “the probability of the improbable,” creates a constant attribution of heightened significance to observations of things that have no real significance.
It’s highly improbable, for instance, that any given individual will win the lottery, but it’s highly probable (virtually certain) that SOME individual will. We mostly get that one, because we’ve institutionalized it on the basis of its probability structure. There are lots of similarly improbable events –like a bullet hitting a “lucky” coin in someone’s breast pocket, or someone being delayed by some chance occurrence and thus not getting on a flight that crashed– that occur in general on a regular basis, because in a world with millions of events constantly occurring, it’s highly probable that improbable events will occur at a certain frequency determined by the degree of their improbability.
In a world of instantaneous mass communications, any highly improbable event that occurs anywhere in the world is instantly brought to everyone’s attention, and draws people’s attention in proportion to both the degree of its improbability and its resonance with existing narratives.
If a religious icon appears to be crying, for instance, that is a miracle that confirms the religion. If a disproportionate number of planes and ships have disappeared in any concise geographic area (a probable improbability), that geographic area becomes imbued with a supernatural aura. If some of the vague and broadly interpretable predictions of an ancient mystic “come true,” that is proof of his power of prophesy.
More mundanely, this is part of the larger phenomenon of cherry-picking convenient evidence that supports a desired narrative, such as cobbling together a narrative that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the US from any snippets of evidence that can possibly be used to support such a narrative. Our shared cognitive landscape is littered with such products of probable improbabilities or cherry-picked “evidence” and our tendency to imbue them with a special significance (or an evidentiary value) that they don’t really merit.
Another quirk is that we are attracted to the plausible, especially if it fits into some narrative or archetype that resonates with us (again, because primate brains evolving in the wild thrive by being able to create plausible scenarios on which to rely) . So, for instance, when I heard the (erroneous) rumor a few decades ago that Jerry Mathers, the child star of “Leave it to Beaver” in the 1950s, had been killed in Vietnam, I was already aware enough of this quirk to say to myself “it’s too plausible, fits too neatly into a clear and relevant narrative, to be assumed true; it’s exactly the kind of rumor that would be almost certain to exist regardless of its truth or falsehood.” The narrative of the iconic little boy of the 1950s dying in the iconic unpopular war of the 1960s is just too neat and cognitively attractive not to emerge and spread.
Similarly, those who want to discredit Obama are attracted to any narrative that discredits him, and those who want to believe in the mystical supernatural quality of their own religion will be attracted to narratives supported by “evidence” which support that conclusion.
When you combine these, you get the frequent phenomenon of people with ideological agendas cherry-picking (or manufacturing) probable improbabilities and weaving them into plausible narratives that serve their ideological agendas. This can be found across the political ideological spectrum, but it is by far most pronounced on the far-right, which is where reason and critical thought are in shortest supply.
But it’s not just a decentralized, organic process. We’re seeing a lot of the increasingly sophisticated exploitation of known and understood human cognitive foibles by the most greedy and ruthless among us. Whether they would articulate it in the same way I did or not, all of the right-wing opinion-makers understand the cognitive glitches I described above, and know how to exploit them to maximum effect.
And the convoluted irony of it all is a thing of horrible beauty: Those on the far-right, thoroughly manipulated and easiest to manipulate, call all those who disagree with them “sheepies,” and announce that they alone are the ones who “think for themselves,” “thinking for oneself,” in this case, meaning ignoring fact and rational analysis in favor of the preferred dogmatic ideology. Those who are thinking for them know how to exploit their cognitive weaknesses and their lack of commitment to critical thinking, so much so that they turn it into a narrative of independence from such manipulation!
What drives me to confront this phenomenon when I encounter it is my own inability to believe that this fortress of self-delusions in which these cultist ideologues ensconce themselves can’t be breached; to my mind, the walls are paper-thin, the foundations cracked and crumbling. I always feel as though all it should take is one small tap of reason in just the right place, and the whole thing just has to come toppling down. But the one impenetrable reinforcement that this fortress has, that, despite the paper-thin walls and crumbling foundations can’t be penetrated, is the decision to disregard fact and reason under any and all circumstances, and to defend the cultish dogma in any way necessary.
And that is why I think our greatest responsibility is to consider how to cultivate the habits of mind and interaction, of disciplined reason honed in rational debate in which the best informed and best reasoned arguments prevail, following the rules similar to those of scientific methodology and legal procedure, all channeled in service to our shared humanity. That is who and what we should be; that is who and what we can be.
There is great demand for an ultra-simplified version of my proposal for a social movement to shift the cultural ground beneath our political struggles, in favor of reason in service to our shared humanity. If this abbreviated synopsis raises questions, they are almost certainly answered in the comprehensive treatments I have given elsewhere.
The organized social movement I propose would have three components: 1) a network of community organizations with a specific purpose (described below); 2) a data-base or internet portal allowing easy access to the best peer-review quality arguments on all sides of any social issue; and 3) a meta-messaging program, whose purpose is to create, gather, and disseminate messages (works of art, movies, documentaries, books, plays, advertisements, internet memes, etc.) which reinforce our shared commitment to one another, to reason, and to humanity.
The community organizations would leverage existing community organizations (HMOs, park districts, PTOs, Kiwanis, Rotary Club, local churches and synagogues and mosques and temples of any and all kinds, etc.) , to provide a vehicle for community solidarity, for tutoring and mentoring programs for local youth, and a forum for frequently held and formally moderated public discourse and debate among neighbors, with strictly cultivated and enforced norms of listening to what others have to say, and trying to see the world through the eyes of those you most disagree with. One “ritual” that would be implemented to do this would be debating the opposite position from the one you actually hold, to the best of your ability; researching it and composing the best argument you possibly can.
The data base or portal is to inform these debates, to provide easy access to the best arguments on all sides of any issue. A larger, longer-term project is something akin to “the human genome project” in the social theoretical sphere, creating a coherent, comprehensive mapping of the human social institutional landscape through a rigorous social scientific lens, synthesized through the complex dynamical systems social analytical paradigm I outline in the essays hyperlinked to in the first box at “Catalogue of Selected Posts” on Colorado Confluence (see URL below). This will provide a subtler, deeper and broader basis for informed public discourse, for those inclined to engage in such discourse at a more sophisticated level of analysis, ideally eventually transforming an ever larger swath of the public into an extended national academy of social analysis.
While membership in those organizations would not be any greater than membership in any other community organizations, the point here is not that everyone participates, but that participation is seen as a normal part of our social institutional environment, that we are not just a bunch of individuals left to shout obscenities at one another, but that we can be, if we choose, deliberative citizens of a civil society, using our reason and our discourse to forge a more rational and humane society.
The value of this is not just the direct fruits of one institution promoting rational discourse in service to our shared humanity, but also promotion of the narrative of rational discourse in service to our shared humanity. Ideologies dedicated to any other purpose often claim to be both rational and humane. This movement would provide a challenge to that claim, and a more credible claim to being the community locus of rational, civil discourse in service to our shared humanity.
The third pillar of “meta- messaging” is one dedicated to reminding one another of our shared humanity. In politics, strategists recognize the importance of “messaging” to promote a particular stance on an issue. This is the cultural equivalent, but, instead of promoting a particular stance on particular issues, it only promotes a commitment to reason in service to humanity. Christmas “feel-good” movies are a good example of what meta-messaging looks like: A reminder of our shared humanity, of the goodness of caring about one another, of the ugliness of failing to. This pillar of the movement is a constant, intentional, strategic campaign of bombarding the public with such reminders by all means and mediums possible, as often as possible, in the most effective ways possible.
Combined, these three pillars constitute a cultural movement advancing the cause of reason in service to our shared humanity. It is more methodological than substantive (it cannot take, as an organization or a movement, any positions on policy issues other than this generic commitment to reason in service to our shared humanity, and this process for better realizing it), an attempt to extend somewhat the methodological virtues of scientific methodology and legal procedure for determining contested truths.
Modern history has been defined by an undercurrent, an evolutionary impetus, favoring both increased reliance on methodical rationality (scientific method, legal procedure, formal organizational structures, etc.) and an increased commitment, at least in principle, to our shared humanity (political revolutions based on the values of “liberty and justice for all,” the abolition of slavery, anti-imperialism/national independence movements, civil rights movements of various kinds, etc.). This movement is designed to reduce the chasm between the loci of these undercurrents of modern history and the public at large, and to promote the already well-established narrative that favors reason over irrationality and a commitment to our shared humanity over conscious inhumanities, making it more difficult to claim their mantle arbitarily and falsely.
In the gardens of Athens in the fourth century BC (planting the seeds of Western Civilization), in the plazas of Florence in the 16th century AD (ushering in the modern era), in the salons of Paris in the 18th century AD (informing and inspiring others in a small meeting room in Philadelphia), to a lesser extent in mid-19th century Concord, MA (informing and inspiring Gandhi and King and Mandela), the genius of a few unleashed new currents of the genius of the many, currents thick with reason and a stronger commitment to our shared humanity, changing the course of human history. It has been done before and it will be done again, whenever and wherever people choose to do it.
They did not gather in those times and places to discuss only how to win this or that election or to shift power from one party to another or to address the human endeavor one issue at a time. Rather, they gathered, with wonder and hope and passion, to explore and discover, to create and innovate, to raise reason and our shared humanity onto a pedestal and dedicate themselves to the enterprise of perfecting our consciousness and improving our existence.
In every time and place, including these ones of particular florescence, most of the people went about their business, engaged in the mundane challenges of life, fought the battles we all fight, both personal and collective. But the great paradigm shifts of history have happened when a coalescence of inspired minds reached deeper and broader than others around them, beyond the individual issues of the day, beyond the immediate urgencies and power struggles, and sought out the essence of our existence, to understand it, to celebrate it, and to change it for the better.
Imagine a gathering of great minds today that were not lost to the minutia of academe or the mud-pit of politics or the selfish pursuit of wealth and fame and power, but were free to devote themselves to the challenge of orchestrating a social transformation, a peaceful revolution occurring beneath the surface of events, a new threshold reached in the advance of creative reason in service to humanity.
Imagine gatherings of engaged citizens that, guided only by the broadly attractive narrative of reason in service to our shared humanity, of emulating our Founding Fathers and fulfilling the vision that they had for this nation, dedicated themselves to learning how to listen to one another and weigh competing arguments rather than regress ever deeper into blind ideological trench warfare. Imagine forming the nucleus of a movement that would extend the logic of methodical reason in service to our shared humanity ever more broadly, not just through direct participation, but through the promotion of the narrative that we are capable of doing so and that it is incumbent on us to do so.
What is stopping us from establishing such gatherings, and such a movement? What is stopping us from bringing together a small cadre of brilliant minds to implement ideas designed to cascade through the social fabric in transformative ways, and large populations of engaged citizens to stir and be stirred by the sea giving rise to those cresting waves of brilliance, together advancing the tide of imaginative reason in service to our shared humanity? Only the precise combination of vision, drive, sophistication and resources that would make it happen, not just in some stumbling and unsustainable or unproductive way, but as a living, breathing, current reality.
I’ve designed the nucleus of an idea, a social movement that is realistic as well as idealistic, a secular religion to promote the narrative and practice of disciplined reason in service to our shared humanity. As a person who learned how to dream as a child; who drifted and worked and lived around the world for several years as a young adult; who became a social scientist, author, teacher, lawyer, public policy consultant, candidate for office, and member of several nonprofit boards and advisory councils; who has done urban outreach work and community organizing; who has synthesized ideas from many disciplines, many great minds, and much experience, this is not a Quixotic quest that boasts much but can deliver little; it is a carefully considered strategic plan for moving the center of gravity of our zeitgeist in the direction of an ever-increasing reliance on imaginative reason in ever-increasing service to our shared humanity.
For a comprehensive (though somewhat dense) presentation of my proposal, please see A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill.
For a briefer and simpler presentation of the underlying philosophy of this proposed social movement, please see: The Ideology of Reason in Service to Humanity.
For an extremely bare-bones summary of the social movement idea itself, please see: A VERY Simplified Synopsis of “The Politics of Reason and Goodwill”.
For more elaboration of various aspects of this proposal and various musings about it, please see the essays hyperlinked to in the second box at: Catalogue of Selected Posts
The biggest challenge that faces human beings is to make sense rather than to make noise. Effectively addressing all other challenges depends on it. Whether we want to change the world or want to protect ourselves from the impositions of others trying to change the world, our beliefs, our goals, our actions, are all a function of how we understand reality, and it is clear, at least in the abstract, that some understandings are more precise, more accurate, and more useful than others.
The first thing we have to understand is that we are not just a collection of individuals, but rather are members of a society and organisms in a biosphere. We exist interdependently with one another and with our environment, unable to survive at all without the latter and unable to survive as human beings without the former. Our continued existence as organisms depends on ingesting food and breathing air, two vital needs that are produced and maintained by the living planet which we inhabit interdependently with other living things. Our consciousness as human beings and our existence beyond bare survival (and in almost all cases our survival itself) depends on our coexistence with other human beings in organized groups, through which our use of language allows us to thrive through a shared but differentiated mind and a shared but differentiated enterprise.
That leads to the first question we must face: Do we, as individuals and as a society, take responsibility for our impact on those systems of which we are a part, or do we leave them to their own organic trajectories, pursuing our own immediate goals without attempting to act with conscious intent beyond them? Do we attempt to be conscious and conscientious participants in these larger wholes of which we are a part, or do we simply live as individual organisms pursuing our own individual desires? Do we take responsibility for one another, for the distribution of suffering and well-being, of opportunity and of relative lack of opportunity, for how well our systems are functioning in terms of their sustainability, their robustness, and their fairness, or do we insist that doing so is either impossible or undesirable?
The second thing we have to understand is our own fallibility. Anything any one of us is certain about may be wrong. Our various beliefs and certainties are conceptualizations of reality in our minds, and must always be considered fallible. This leads to two considerations: 1) the best (and perhaps only rational) argument supporting those who insist that we must not try to govern ourselves as rational people confronting the challenges and opportunities we face is the argument that perhaps we are simply not up to the task, and that we should therefore rely on simple principles that best liberate our collective and individual genius rather than try to “micromanage” our shared existence, and 2) our focus should be on how we arrive at our conclusions, rather than on insisting that our current conclusions are the one absolute truth.
The first consideration is easily dealt with: Recognizing our fallibility and the power of organic processes is a part of being rational people working together to do the best we can, not a displacement of it. The Constitution (created by intentional human thought, arguably a very ambitious act of “social engineering”) and the modern marketplace (also a product of much intentional thought and oversight) are not magical panaceas which free us from the responsibility of striving to be responsible and humane sovereigns, but are merely part of the accumulated material of past efforts by past generations to do what we ourselves are called upon to continue to do: To govern ourselves intelligently, responsibly, and intentionally, in service to our shared humanity.
We should strive to emulate rather than idolize our “founding fathers,” to be the same kind of proactive rational citizens, working together, mobilizing our intelligence, believing in our ability to rationally and humanely govern ourselves. We should utilize rather than surrender to market forces, recognizing that there is nothing about them that automatically resolves all human problems and challenges, but rather that they are one useful institutional modality upon which we can rely in concert with others, in our ongoing efforts to work together to do the best we can in service to our shared humanity.
The second consideration flowing from our recognition of our own fallibility is the one that leads to a broader and deeper commitment to the methodologies that have proved most useful in the modern era at diminishing the aggregate effects of bias and increasing aggregate accuracy in our conclusions. Both scientific methodology and legal procedure are sets of techniques for informing and framing rigorous debates over what is and is not true, following sets of rules regarding what evidence to consider reliable and how to organize and channel the determinations that follow from that evidence. In science, the purpose to which this process is put is to refine our shared consciousness; in law, it is to increase the justness of our coexistence. These, indeed, are the two things we should always be striving to do, as responsible sovereigns, and to do so most effectively we should build on the methodologies that already exist for doing so.
In other words, the most pressing imperative facing our shared human enterprise right now is the expansion of the logic of science and law into the realm of public discourse and public opinion and policy formation. We need to transcend, to leave on the dust heap of history, the myth that all opinions are equal (while protecting the expression of all opinions in order to determine their relative merits), and engage in rigorous, increasingly formal debates in a constant quest for the best understandings, in best service to our shared humanity.
Tragically, we, as a people, are not only faced with the challenge of cultivating these disciplines more broadly among ourselves, but also of convincing those least committed to them that they have any value at all. We are also faced with the challenge of overcoming the reality that human beings in general do not arrive at their conclusions primarily through rational processes, but rather through social and emotional processes that often circumvent or disregard reason and evidence, and often serve narrower interests than our shared humanity.
The challenge facing rational and humane people, therefore, is not just to make the most compelling arguments in best service to our shared humanity, but also to create a context in which the most compelling arguments in best service to our shared humanity are more likely to prevail. That requires us to be rational about human irrationality, and to engage not primarily in a competition of rational arguments but rather in a competition of emotional narratives. The challenge, in other words, is to create a compelling emotional narrative out of the notion of being rational and humane people, and, even more, the notion of being rational and humane people in certain specific, disciplined ways, and then to create a set of mechanisms by which the most compelling rational arguments in best service to our shared humanity are also, simultaneously, compelling emotional narratives that persuade people who do not engage in or necessarily understand the disciplines we are promoting.
The most immediate challenge in the ongoing human endeavor, in other words, is to create, promote, and disseminate a compelling emotional narrative that systematically favors reason in service to humanity, not on a case-by-case basis (as we have been doing), but in a more general and comprehensive way.
There are, therefore, two major branches to the human endeavor: 1) to continue to develop, deepen, and broaden a commitment to disciplined reason in service to our shared humanity, using the methodologies we have developed for doing so, and extending the breadth of contexts in which they are utilized and the number of people striving to utilize them; and 2) to create an emotionally compelling narrative that attracts those who lack the desire or ability to utilize or defer to those disciplines (rigorously applied and debated rational argumentation) or that objective (our shared humanity) to support them not just in name, but also in some effective and authentic way.
To some, this will all seem too abstract, too far removed from the political and cultural realities we grapple with, or too far removed from their own emotional and cognitive inclinations. But those of us who are truly committed to striving to become an ever-more rational and humane people need to recognize that the ongoing mud-fight isn’t the height of what we can do, that we need to reach higher, think deeper, act more ambitiously in service to the highest of ideals and the noblest of purposes. The great cultural and political heroes of modern history, who we revere for their inspired and effective leadership, are who they are precisely because they have had the courage and determination to bite off rather large chunks of this challenge that I have just laid out, opposing imperialism or racism or other injustices. But we can invoke them all now, we can rally them to the greater cause of which they all were a part, and we can promote that cause with the same degree of passion and commitment that they did…, because that truly is the essence of the human endeavor.
(My essays on Colorado Confluence elaborate many of these themes. In the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts are hyperlinks to essays laying out a comprehensive social systemic paradigm through which to understand and analyze our shared cognitive/social institutional/historical/technological landscape. In the second box are hyperlinks to essays laying out a social movement idea for promoting the narrative of and actual commitment to reason in service to humanity. Scattered among the remaining boxes are hyperlinks to essays exploring various aspects of both of these branches of the human endeavor. Together, they form a comprehensive and detailed map of the human endeavor as I have described it in this essay.)
Mischievous imps blowing invisible darts that stoke human passions and spin them out of control, moving twigs a few inches across the forest floor providing links in conflagrations that would not otherwise occur, plucking the strings of nature to produce crescendos of catastrophe. Zen-mathematician wizards dancing in their ice spheres high in the Vaznal Mountains, solving ever-deepening riddles of sound and sight and sensation, weaving order from the chaos the Loci imps foment. Winged muses carving sensuous stories from the clouds and celebrating the lives of those from whose dreams and tribulations they were born.
A fiery giantess is held captive in a hollow mountain. A sea serpent’s breath inspires the priestess of an island oracle poised above a chasm beneath which it sleeps. City-states are at war; slaves, led by a charismatic general, are in uprising; dictators and warlords are vying for power; neighboring kingdoms and empires are strategically courting local clients in pursuit of regional hegemony or outright conquest. Human avarice has strained the natural context on which it thrives. And ordinary people in extraordinary times, caught within the vortex of the powers that both surround and comprise them, navigate those turbulent currents.
Follow the adventures of Algonion Goodbow, the magical archer; Sarena of Ashra, the young girl at the center of this epic tale; their friends and mentors, guides and adversaries, as they thread the needle of great events, and discover truths even more profound than the myths of legend and lore. Discover the truth of fiction and the fiction of truth; celebrate the fantastic and sublime, in this magical tale laden with rich echoes of world history and world mythology, informed by blossoms of human consciousness from Chaos Theory to Thomas Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shifts, from Richard Dawkin’s Meme Theory to Eastern Mysticism, enriched by the author’s own travels and adventures.
A prophesied Disruption is upon the land of Calambria, causing the Earth to quake and societies to crumble. The Loci imps are its agents, but, according to Sadache mythology, it is Chaos, one of the two Parents of the Universe, who is its ultimate author. As Chaos eternally strives to make the One Many, Cosmos, the other Parent of the Universe, strives to make the Many One. The Sadache people view themselves as the children of Cosmos, whom they worship, and the lowest rung of a hierarchy of conscious beings opposing Chaos and the Loci imps. Above them, both of them and apart from them, are the drahmidi priests of the Cult of Cosmos, founded by the hero and conqueror Ogaro centuries before. Above the drahmidi are the Vaznallam wizards, Cosmos’s agents, just as the Loci are Chaos’s.
As the Great Disruption begins to manifest itself, Sarena of Ashra, a peasant girl from a village on the outskirts of the city-state of Boalus, flees an unwanted marriage to an arrogant lord and in search of freedom and destiny. She meets a young vagabond on the road, coming from the seat of the ceremonial High Kingdom, Ogaropol, fleeing his own pursuers. Together they form an alliance that leads through adventures together and apart, and binds them into two halves of a single whole.
Swirling around them are the wars of would be dictators and cult-leaders, of neighboring empires and kingdoms; the adventures of young Champions engaged in the prophesied Contest by which the Redeemer would be chosen and the Realignment realized. But, in both different and similar ways, the culmination of centuries of history flows through these two people, Algonion and Sarena, on haphazard quests of their own. And both the past and the future are forever changed by their discoveries and deeds.
It’s no secret to people who read my essays, posts and comments that I am unabashedly critical of far-right-wing thought in America. That is not to say that there are no rational and humane conservative ideas, and no rational and humane conservatives, but rather that the current dominant brand of conservatism in America is neither rational nor humane (and it is this more extreme, currently popular version that I am referring to when I refer to “right-wing” thought). This is not a unique perspective, nor is it unusual for an intellectual to hold it; indeed, intellectualism is explicitly disdained by the ideological camp in question. Precisely those professions that methodically gather, verify, analyze and contemplate information are dismissed as bastions of liberal bias, and the (undoubtedly fallible) conclusions arrived at by those professional disciplines and held by the majority in rational deference to the greater reliability of such information are considered by right-wingers to be inferior to their own arbitrary, dogmatic false certainties.
Though we will not win the battle of narratives through rational argumentation alone, we will win it by driving home the fact that we are promoting the narrative of reason and humanity, because whether people actually engage in rational thought or not, the overwhelming majority recognize in principle the greater credibility of rationally over irrationally derived conclusions. The more that rational and humane people drive home the fact that they ARE rational and humane people, opposing the ideologies of irrationality and inhumanity, the more successful we will be in the battle of narratives that is the political arena. Therefore, be prepared, in every debate with a right-wing ideologue (or even, as is sometimes the case, an irrational left-wing ideologue) to mobilize formal logic and to name formal logical fallacies, or to describe specific fallacies routinely employed by right-wing ideologues. Let’s distinguish ourselves from them by looking like, as well as being, the voice of reason and humanity, because it is by making that distinction constantly and abundantly clear that we will move this country and this world in positive directions.
I’ve examined the very abundant universe of right-wing fallacy from many angles, tackling specific dimensions, specific issues, and specific aspects of it. But I’m not sure if I’ve yet published (on this blog) my growing typology of specific fallacies most particular to right-wing argumentation. Some don’t fit neatly into the list of conventional logical fallacies, or are very particular variations of them, and those are the ones I shall address first, because I find them the most interesting.
For instance, I’m fascinated by what I call “the right-wing two-step,” which involves first insulating poorly informed and poorly argued opinions from critical analysis on the basis of a relativistic argument, and then promoting them to the status of unassailable absolute truth on the basis of the argument that to fail to do so would be to commit the error of relativism. This fallacy, most common among right-wing evangelicals, is so luxurious in its absurdity that one has to admire the poetry of dogged ignorance that it represents.
It operates as follows: In Conversation 1, a right-wing opinion is challenged on the basis of a factual and rational critical argument, to which the right-wing ideologue replies, “I’m sure that there are equally good arguments supporting my position” or “whose reason, yours or mine?” as if there is no such thing as “reason” which exists independently of each person’s arbitrary claim to it. The right-wing ideologue will dismiss the critical argument not with a counterargument of any kind, but with an assertion of the equality of all opinions, and the right of each to have their own. In this way, they insulate their own opinion from any intrusion of fact or reason.
In Conversation 2, the right-wing ideologue is challenged on the more general basis that there are many different people from many different ideological camps who are as certain of their absolute truths as the right-wing ideologue is of his, and that there is no a priori reason for assuming that one is correct and the others false (this would be a good introduction to the critical challenge posed in Conversation 1, if it could get that far). This is in fact similar to the reasoning that the right-wing ideologue used in Conversation 1 to insulate his ideology from fact and reason, but rather than using it to bring the certainty of his own dogma into question, he uses it to reduce any other contention to a condition of a priori equality to his own. Now, however, in Conversation 2, he rejects that same line of reasoning, insisting that to accept it is to commit the error of relativism by failing to recognize that there IS one absolute truth rather than a variety of competing truths!
So, first, his opinion can’t be challenged because all opinions are equal, and then no other opinion can be considered because there is only one absolute truth, and since his can’t be challenged it must be that one absolute truth! It’s hard to overstate the wonder of such perfect irrationality.
It’s worth emphasizing that the actual order of conversations is irrelevant. I’ve ordered them as I have because I believe that that is the order by which they are used to insulate one’s own fortress of ideological dogma from both specific and general critical examination, the specific insulated against by a general argument, and the general insulated against by an appeal to specificity. This is a very particular and elaborate version of the tautological fallacy, described below.
The right-wing two-step is a particular variation of the broad spectrum of prevalent right-wing fallacy that involves selective perception, cherry-picked evidence, and what I call “pettifogging,” or the obfuscation of the big picture and the overwhelming thrust of evidence and reason by means of relentless picking at peripheral and often barely relevant details. This generally involves the narrowing of the frame of reference so as to ignore all contextual information, and focusing on anomalous or isolated information that supports their conclusions (and can generally be easily explained in the context of opposing conclusions) while ignoring the overall weight of the evidence comprehensively considered.
The George Zimmerman trial and the public debates surrounding it provide an excellent recent example of the narrowing of the frame of reference to an isolated instant, conveniently filtering out any consideration of the context leading up to that instant. By focusing exclusively on the moment in which the fatal shot was fired, and by assuming the facts most favorable to the person they most identify with (the guy going out with his gun to find “bad guys”), the far-right manages to disregard the fact that Zimmerman made aggressive choices that led to the shooting death, at his hands, of a kid who at least up until Zimmerman’s choice to follow him with a gun, had been committing no crime. But for Zimmerman’s choices to arm himself, leave his home, identify a black teen walking home from the store as suspicious looking, and stalk him, the violent encounter that led to Zimmerman shooting that teen to death would never have occurred. But by narrowing the frame to the instant of the shooting itself, this fact can be completely disregarded and the challenge it poses to their overall ideology ignored.
Another variation of this fallacy involves responding to statistical evidence with anecdotal evidence, as if finding any case that does not support the statistical correlation is disproof of that correlation’s validity. This is a favorite technique in arguments over gun regulations, when the statistical evidence demonstrating a positive correlation both domestically and internationally among developed nations of gun ownership and homicide rates is dismissed on the basis of the trope that “Chicago (or Washington DC) has the strictest gun regulations in America and the highest homicide rates,” or “crime rates went up right after gun regulations were implemented in X locale.” Sometimes this is true (sometimes invented), but the real point is that it is anecdotal, and not a meaningful response to the statistical data which does not cherry-pick convenient cases but rather considers all cases at once. (It also ignores the obvious causal relationship that jurisdictions with high homicide rates and strict gun laws generally implemented the latter in response to the former.)
My favorite analogy for the fallacy of using anecdotal evidence for rejecting statistical evidence is that of arguing that wearing seat belts in a car increases the likelihood that you will die in a car accident. One can argue against that position, which we all know to be absurd, by citing the statistics which demonstrate it to be absurd. But if a right-winger had some ideological reason to want to arrive at the opposite conclusion, they could simply cite every example they can find of the anomalous event that someone wearing a seatbelt died as a result of wearing their seatbelt, thus in their mind disproving what the statistical evidence demonstrates. Or, ideologues engaging in pseudo-science can data-mine for anomalous correlations, such as (hypothetically) “people driving four-door sedans on city streets in the third largest urban area in Illinois between 10:00 pm and 11:00 pm on weekdays are more likely to die if they are wearing seatbelts than if not.”
I’ve made the “cherry-picking” of the statistical correlation obvious in this case, in order to illustrate how it can be done (anomalous correlations can be found if you search long and hard enough) and the similarity to finding simple anecdotal anomalies to “refute” statistical evidence, but when used by right-wing ideologues, it is often less obvious to an untrained eye. (A favorite tactic, for instance, is to replace “firearms” with “rifles,” and then to cite homicide statistics by rifles as if rifles represented all firearms, often actually switching to “guns” from rifles when presenting the statistic.) John Lott’s study in “More Guns, Less Crime” for instance, has been widely criticized for the selection of parameters to arrive at desired conclusions, and has been rejected as invalid by a panel of experts convened by the National Research Council (as well as by numerous individual scholars), and yet is the study on which the most knowledgeable gun advocates almost exclusively rely.
(As a side note, this focus on anomalous data as a way of rebuffing the weight of all data considered comprehensively not only disregards the weight of the data considered comprehensively, but also disregards the explanations for such anomalies within the context of the larger causal relationships suggested by the comprehensive data. For instance, even accepting, for the sake of argument, the validity of John Lott’s thoroughly rejected study finding a positive correlation between laxer gun regulations and lower violent crime rates, such a correlation would not necessarily imply that such a paradigm is the optimal solution to the comparatively very high rate of deadly violence in America, due to a combination of considerations. Uneven local gun regulations in a nation with no internal barriers to the movement of goods across state and municipal lines mean that local regulations are undermined by laxer regulations elsewhere. The statistical fact that the overwhelming majority of the guns used in the commission of crimes anywhere in America are initially bought in jurisdictions with the laxest regulations reinforces this conclusion. And understanding the difference between local and global optima, in which it may be the case that in a gun-saturated society with no internal barriers to the transportation of goods across state and municipal borders, laws which increase “the war of all against all” could slightly reduce local deadly violence rates but keep them far higher than in other nations that don’t rely on “the war of all against all” to keep the peace, helps to put such anomalous evidence into perspective in the context of a comprehensive examination of the global evidence.)
One elaboration of narrowing the frame of reference, that also segues nicely into the issue of “pettifogging” discussed next, is the right-wing shell-game of isolated attention. This usually takes the form of focusing on one peripheral fact or anomaly or doctored study, which, once debunked, is replaced with another, until, after having exhausted their available supply, they return to the first one as if it had never been debunked. This is the more general tactic of which “the right-wing two-step” discussed above is one variation.
By far the favorite technique in right-wing “debate” is the tactic of “pettifogging,” which is picking away at every marginal and barely relevant detail of an opposing argument in order to avoid having to confront the central argument itself. This involves questioning the credibility of the source, even when the sources used are generally considered among the most credible (Harvard and other university peer-reviewed studies and conventional journalistic reporting by major media outlets are all dismissed as products of a liberal propaganda machine, while the arbitrary products of what is in reality a propaganda machine are embraced without question); insisting that every inconvenient assertion be cited in every casual exchange (though no one else is doing so); and finding peripheral and often irrelevant details to obsess about (definitions of conventionally understood terms, etc.). In this way, they can endlessly monopolize the time and energy of anyone arguing against any position they hold without permitting the argument to be compiled and presented in any coherent form, always derailing it with a barrage of irrelevant and peripheral demands, eventually wearing down the critique and thus claiming victory for having done so.
There is a hybrid fallacy that merits mention, even weaker than the others that it resembles: Changing the subject entirely. It has some straw man aspects (arguing against a position on an unrelated issue no one has advanced at all rather than a caricature of one advanced relevant to the issue at hand), some pettifogging aspects (picking at something not only barely relevant and marginal, but rather completely irrelevant and not even marginal), and some shell game aspects (not merely switching among distinct issues within the same argument, but switching to another topic altogether). A very recent example is, after providing comprehensive evidence debunking the notion that our gun culture has no relation to our rates of deadly violence, my opponent said, “so you must love ”Fast & Furious, then.” The discussion, of course, had no relation to that bungled Obama administration program, but the idea was to get me on the defensive on something, anything, no matter how irrelevant it might be.
One last technique merits mention: Rejection by typology. This usually involves some label imbued with a strong negative judgment, and the shoving of all things to be critiqued into that label, the assumption being that by doing so the defectiveness of the thing so labeled has been proved. The most common label is “socialist” (though libertarians are increasingly fond of “statist” instead, imbuing the identical folly with a false veneer of intellectualism that the overuse of the word “socialism” lacks), and its use incorporates an element of the cherry-picking fallacy described above. By this technique, all governments with large administrative infrastructures are “socialist” or “statist,” and all socialist or statist countries are known to have been dismal failures. The problem is that using a definition that broad renders the second point simply false, since every single modern, prosperous, free nation on Earth has a large administrative infrastructure, and has had such an infrastructure in place since prior to participating in the historically unprecedented post-WWII expansion in the production of prosperity.
What really distinguishes the famously failed “socialist” or “statist” countries from the famously successful ones that share that completely non-distinguishing trait are a set of other variables: Freedom of speech and press, relatively legitimate democratic processes, and protection of individual civil rights and due process in criminal proceedings. The existence of a large administrative state not only is not exclusively associated with failed states, but, in fact, the most successful states all, without exception, have such large administrative infrastructures, and have had them for generations. This fallacy combines the “false dichotomy” fallacy described below (i.e., there are just two categories of states, socialist and non-socialist) with the selective perception tactic described above (only noticing those states with large administrative infrastructures that failed, and not those that comprise the entire set of the most successful political economies in human history).
Following is a fairly complete list of major logical fallacies, excerpted verbatim from “The Skeptics Guide to the Universe” website, which also includes a very good introduction on the structure of logical arguments (http://www.theskepticsguide.org/resources/logicalfallacies.aspx).Ad hominem:An ad hominem argument is any that attempts to counter another’s claims or conclusions by attacking the person, rather than addressing the argument itself. True believers will often commit this fallacy by countering the arguments of skeptics by stating that skeptics are closed minded. Skeptics, on the other hand, may fall into the trap of dismissing the claims of UFO believers, for example, by stating that people who believe in UFO’s are crazy or stupid.A common form of this fallacy is also frequently present in the arguments of conspiracy theorists (who also rely heavily on ad-hoc reasoning). For example, they may argue that the government must be lying because they are corrupt.It should be noted that simply calling someone a name or otherwise making an ad hominem attack is not in itself a logical fallacy. It is only a fallacy to claim that an argument is wrong because of a negative attribute of someone making the argument. (i.e. “John is a jerk.” is not a fallacy. “John is wrong because he is a jerk.” is a logical fallacy.)The term “poisoning the well” also refers to a form of ad hominem fallacy. This is an attempt to discredit the argument of another by implying that they possess an unsavory trait, or that they are affiliated with other beliefs or people that are wrong or unpopular. A common form of this also has its own name – Godwin’s Law or the reductio ad Hitlerum. This refers to an attempt at poisoning the well by drawing an analogy between another’s position and Hitler or the Nazis. Ad ignorantiam:The argument from ignorance basically states that a specific belief is true because we don’t know that it isn’t true. Defenders of extrasensory perception, for example, will often overemphasize how much we do not know about the human brain. It is therefore possible, they argue, that the brain may be capable of transmitting signals at a distance.UFO proponents are probably the most frequent violators of this fallacy. Almost all UFO eyewitness evidence is ultimately an argument from ignorance – lights or objects sighted in the sky are unknown, and therefore they are alien spacecraft.Intelligent design is almost entirely based upon this fallacy. The core argument for intelligent design is that there are biological structures that have not been fully explained by evolution, therefore a powerful intelligent designer must have created them.In order to make a positive claim, however, positive evidence for the specific claim must be presented. The absence of another explanation only means that we do not know – it doesn’t mean we get to make up a specific explanation. Argument from authority:The basic structure of such arguments is as follows: Professor X believes A, Professor X speaks from authority, therefore A is true. Often this argument is implied by emphasizing the many years of experience, or the formal degrees held by the individual making a specific claim. The converse of this argument is sometimes used, that someone does not possess authority, and therefore their claims must be false. (This may also be considered an ad-hominen logical fallacy – see below.)In practice this can be a complex logical fallacy to deal with. It is legitimate to consider the training and experience of an individual when examining their assessment of a particular claim. Also, a consensus of scientific opinion does carry some legitimate authority. But it is still possible for highly educated individuals, and a broad consensus to be wrong – speaking from authority does not make a claim true.This logical fallacy crops up in more subtle ways also. For example, UFO proponents have argued that UFO sightings by airline pilots should be given special weight because pilots are trained observers, are reliable characters, and are trained not to panic in emergencies. In essence, they are arguing that we should trust the pilot’s authority as an eye witness.There are many subtypes of the argument from authority, essentially referring to the implied source of authority. A common example is the argument ad populum – a belief must be true because it is popular, essentially assuming the authority of the masses. Another example is the argument from antiquity – a belief has been around for a long time and therefore must be true. Argument from final Consequences:Such arguments (also called teleological) are based on a reversal of cause and effect, because they argue that something is caused by the ultimate effect that it has, or purpose that is serves. Christian creationists have argued, for example, that evolution must be wrong because if it were true it would lead to immorality.One type of teleological argument is the argument from design. For example, the universe has all the properties necessary to support live, therefore it was designed specifically to support life (and therefore had a designer. Argument from Personal Incredulity:I cannot explain or understand this, therefore it cannot be true. Creationists are fond of arguing that they cannot imagine the complexity of life resulting from blind evolution, but that does not mean life did not evolve. Begging the Question:The term “begging the question” is often misused to mean “raises the question,” (and common use will likely change, or at least add this new, definition). However, the intended meaning is to assume a conclusion in one’s question. This is similar to circular reasoning, and an argument is trying to slip in a conclusion in a premise or question – but it is not the same as circular reasoning because the question being begged can be a separate point. Whereas with circular reasoning the premise and conclusion are the same.The classic example of begging the question is to ask someone if they have stopped beating their wife yet. Of course, the question assumes that they every beat their wife.In my appearance on the Dr. Oz show I was asked – what are alternative medicine skeptics (termed “holdouts”) afraid of? This is a double feature of begging the question. By using the term “holdout” the question assumes that acceptance is already become the majority position and is inevitable. But also, Oz begged the question that skeptics are “afraid.” This also created a straw man (see below) of our position, which is rather based on a dedication to reasonable standards of science and evidence. Confusing association with causation:This is similar to the post-hoc fallacy in that it assumes cause and effect for two variables simply because they occur together. This fallacy is often used to give a statistical correlation a causal interpretation. For example, during the 1990’s both religious attendance and illegal drug use have been on the rise. It would be a fallacy to conclude that therefore, religious attendance causes illegal drug use. It is also possible that drug use leads to an increase in religious attendance, or that both drug use and religious attendance are increased by a third variable, such as an increase in societal unrest. It is also possible that both variables are independent of one another, and it is mere coincidence that they are both increasing at the same time.This fallacy, however, has a tendency to be abused, or applied inappropriately, to deny all statistical evidence. In fact this constitutes a logical fallacy in itself, the denial of causation. This abuse takes two basic forms. The first is to deny the significance of correlations that are demonstrated with prospective controlled data, such as would be acquired during a clinical experiment. The problem with assuming cause and effect from mere correlation is not that a causal relationship is impossible, it’s just that there are other variables that must be considered and not ruled out a-priori. A controlled trial, however, by its design attempts to control for as many variables as possible in order to maximize the probability that a positive correlation is in fact due to a causation.Further, even with purely epidemiological, or statistical, evidence it is still possible to build a strong scientific case for a specific cause. The way to do this is to look at multiple independent correlations to see if they all point to the same causal relationship. For example, it was observed that cigarette smoking correlates with getting lung cancer. The tobacco industry, invoking the “correlation is not causation” logical fallacy, argued that this did not prove causation. They offered as an alternate explanation “factor x”, a third variable that causes both smoking and lung cancer. But we can make predictions based upon the smoking causes cancer hypothesis. If this is the correct causal relationship, then duration of smoking should correlate with cancer risk, quitting smoking should decrease cancer risk, smoking unfiltered cigarettes should have a higher cancer risk than filtered cigarettes, etc. If all of these correlations turn out to be true, which they are, then we can triangulate to the smoking causes cancer hypothesis as the most likely possible causal relationship and it is not a logical fallacy to conclude from this evidence that smoking probably causes lung cancer. Confusing currently unexplained with unexplainable:Because we do not currently have an adequate explanation for a phenomenon does not mean that it is forever unexplainable, or that it therefore defies the laws of nature or requires a paranormal explanation. An example of this is the “God of the Gapsa” strategy of creationists that whatever we cannot currently explain is unexplainable and was therefore an act of god. False Analogy:Analogies are very useful as they allow us to draw lessons from the familiar and apply them to the unfamiliar. Life is like a box of chocolate – you never know what you’re going to get.A false analogy is an argument based upon an assumed similarity between two things, people, or situations when in fact the two things being compared are not similar in the manner invoked. Saying that the probability of a complex organism evolving by chance is the same as a tornado ripping through a junkyard and created a 747 by chance is a false analogy. Evolution, in fact, does not work by chance but is the non-random accumulation of favorable changes.Creationists also make the analogy between life and your home, invoking the notion of thermodynamics or entropy. Over time your home will become messy, and things will start to break down. The house does not spontaneously become more clean or in better repair.The false analogy here is that a home is an inanimate collection of objects. Whereas life uses energy to grow and reproduce – the addition of energy to the system of life allows for the local reduction in entropy – for evolution to happen.Another way in which false analogies are invoked is to make an analogy between two things that are in fact analogous in many ways – just not the specific way being invoked in the argument. Just because two things are analogous in some ways does not mean they are analogous in every way. False Continuum:The idea that because there is no definitive demarcation line between two extremes, that the distinction between the extremes is not real or meaningful: There is a fuzzy line between cults and religion, therefore they are really the same thing. False Dichotomy:Arbitrarily reducing a set of many possibilities to only two. For example, evolution is not possible, therefore we must have been created (assumes these are the only two possibilities). This fallacy can also be used to oversimplify a continuum of variation to two black and white choices. For example, science and pseudoscience are not two discrete entities, but rather the methods and claims of all those who attempt to explain reality fall along a continuum from one extreme to the other. Genetic Fallacy:The term “genetic” here does not refer to DNA and genes, but to history (and therefore a connection through the concept of inheritance). This fallacy assumes that something’s current utility is dictated by and constrained by its historical utility. This is easiest to demonstrate with words – a words current use may be entirely unrelated to its etymological origins. For example, if I use the term “sunset” or “sunrise” I am not implying belief in a geocentric cosmology in which the sun revolves about the Earth and literally “rises” and “sets.” Inconsistency:Applying criteria or rules to one belief, claim, argument, or position but not to others. For example, some consumer advocates argue that we need stronger regulation of prescription drugs to ensure their safety and effectiveness, but at the same time argue that medicinal herbs should be sold with no regulation for either safety or effectiveness. No True Scotsman:This fallacy is a form of circular reasoning, in that it attempts to include a conclusion about something in the very definition of the word itself. It is therefore also a semantic argument.The term comes from the example: If Ian claims that all Scotsman are brave, and you provide a counter example of a Scotsman who is clearly a coward, Ian might respond, “Well, then, he’s no true Scotsman.” In essence Ian claims that all Scotsman are brave by including bravery in the definition of what it is to be a Scotsman. This argument does not establish and facts or new information, and is limited to Ian’s definition of the word, “Scotsman.” Non-Sequitur:In Latin this term translates to “doesn’t follow”. This refers to an argument in which the conclusion does not necessarily follow from the premises. In other words, a logical connection is implied where none exists. Post-hoc ergo propter hoc:This fallacy follows the basic format of: A preceded B, therefore A caused B, and therefore assumes cause and effect for two events just because they are temporally related (the latin translates to “after this, therefore because of this”). Reductio ad absurdum:In formal logic, the reductio ad absurdum is a legitimate argument. It follows the form that if the premises are assumed to be true it necessarily leads to an absurd (false) conclusion and therefore one or more premises must be false. The term is now often used to refer to the abuse of this style of argument, by stretching the logic in order to force an absurd conclusion. For example a UFO enthusiast once argued that if I am skeptical about the existence of alien visitors, I must also be skeptical of the existence of the Great Wall of China, since I have not personally seen either. This is a false reductio ad absurdum because he is ignoring evidence other than personal eyewitness evidence, and also logical inference. In short, being skeptical of UFO’s does not require rejecting the existence of the Great Wall. Slippery Slope:This logical fallacy is the argument that a position is not consistent or tenable because accepting the position means that the extreme of the position must also be accepted. But moderate positions do not necessarily lead down the slippery slope to the extreme. Special pleading, or ad-hoc reasoning:This is a subtle fallacy which is often difficult to recognize. In essence, it is the arbitrary introduction of new elements into an argument in order to fix them so that they appear valid. A good example of this is the ad-hoc dismissal of negative test results. For example, one might point out that ESP has never been demonstrated under adequate test conditions, therefore ESP is not a genuine phenomenon. Defenders of ESP have attempted to counter this argument by introducing the arbitrary premise that ESP does not work in the presence of skeptics. This fallacy is often taken to ridiculous extremes, and more and more bizarre ad hoc elements are added to explain experimental failures or logical inconsistencies. Straw Man:A straw man argument attempts to counter a position by attacking a different position – usually one that is easier to counter. The arguer invents a caricature of his opponent’s position – a “straw man” – that is easily refuted, but not the position that his opponent actually holds.For example, defenders of alternative medicine often argue that skeptics refuse to accept their claims because they conflict with their world-view. If “Western” science cannot explain how a treatment works, then it is dismissed out-of-hand. If you read skeptical treatment of so-called “alternative” modalities, however, you will find the skeptical position much more nuanced than that.Claims are not a-prior dismissed because they are not currently explained by science. Rather, in some cases (like homeopathy) there is a vast body of scientific knowledge that says that homeopathy is not possible. Having an unknown mechanism is not the same thing as demonstrably impossible (at least as best as modern science can tell). Further, skeptical treatments of homeopathy often thoroughly review the clinical evidence. Even when the question of mechanism is put aside, the evidence shows that homeopathic remedies are indistinguishable from placebo – which means they do not work. Tautology:Tautology in formal logic refers to a statement that must be true in every interpretation by its very construction. In rhetorical logic, it is an argument that utilizes circular reasoning, which means that the conclusion is also its own premise. Typically the premise is simply restated in the conclusion, without adding additional information or clarification. The structure of such arguments is A=B therefore A=B, although the premise and conclusion might be formulated differently so it is not immediately apparent as such. For example, saying that therapeutic touch works because it manipulates the life force is a tautology because the definition of therapeutic touch is the alleged manipulation (without touching) of the life force. The Fallacy Fallacy:As I mentioned near the beginning of this article, just because someone invokes an unsound argument for a conclusion, that does not necessarily mean the conclusion is false. A conclusion may happen to be true even if an argument used to support is is not sound. I may argue, for example, Obama is a Democrat because the sky is blue – an obvious non-sequitur. But the conclusion, Obama is a Democrat, is still true.Related to this, and common in the comments sections of blogs, is the position that because some random person on the internet is unable to defend a position well, that the position is therefore false. All that has really been demonstrated is that the one person in question cannot adequately defend their position.This is especially relevant when the question is highly scientific, technical, or requires specialized knowledge. A non-expert likely does not have the knowledge at their fingertips to counter an elaborate, but unscientific, argument against an accepted science. “If you (a lay person) cannot explain to me,” the argument frequently goes, “exactly how this science works, then it is false.”Rather, such questions are better handled by actual experts. And, in fact, intellectual honesty requires that at least an attempt should be made to find the best evidence and arguments for a position, articulated by those with recognized expertise, and then account for those arguments before a claim is dismissed. The Moving Goalpost:A method of denial arbitrarily moving the criteria for “proof” or acceptance out of range of whatever evidence currently exists. If new evidence comes to light meeting the prior criteria, the goalpost is pushed back further – keeping it out of range of the new evidence. Sometimes impossible criteria are set up at the start – moving the goalpost impossibly out of range -for the purpose of denying an undesirable conclusion. Tu quoque:Literally, you too. This is an attempt to justify wrong action because someone else also does it. “My evidence may be invalid, but so is yours.”
In the continuing debate against Libertarians (and all other ideologues of all stripes, for that matter), here’s the bottom line: There’s only one rational ideology to adhere to, and that is to strive to be rational; there’s only one humane ideology to adhere to, and that is to strive to be humane.
Striving to be rational is not a vague, relative term: We have centuries of experience in the development of disciplined, methodical reasoning. We’ve developed scientific methodology and a wide spectrum of variations of it adapted to situations in which variables can’t be isolated, statistical data analysis, research techniques designed to rigorously minimize the influence of bias and to maximize accuracy. We’ve developed legal procedure based on a debate between competing views framed by a set of rules designed to ensure maximum reliability of the evidence being considered and to identify the goals being pursued (adherence to formally defined laws). We’ve developed formal logic and mathematics, rules of deduction and induction, which maximize the soundness of conclusions drawn from premises, the premises themselves able to be submitted to the same rules for verifying raw data and drawing conclusions from that data.
Not everyone is trained in these techniques, but everyone can acknowledge their value and seek to participate in privileging them over other, more arbitrary and less rational approaches to arriving at conclusions. A commitment to democracy and pluralism does not require a commitment to stupidity and ignorance. The mechanisms by which we balance the need for all to have their say and all interests to be represented with the need for the best analyses to prevail in the formation of our public policies is an ongoing challenge, but we can all agree that we should meet that challenge head-on, rather than pretend that the drowning out of the cogent arguments of informed reason by the relentless and highly motivated noise of irrational ignorance is the height of self-governance.
Striving to be humane is not a vague, relative term either: We have centuries of development of thought concerning what that means, including John Rawls’s “A Theory of Justice”, which provides a pretty good heuristic guideline of what humane policies should look lie (they should be the kinds of policies that highly informed and rational people would choose if they didn’t know what situation they were going to be born into or what chances of life they were going to encounter). This is basically a derivation and elaboration of the Golden Rule, which exists in some form or another in virtually every major religion on Earth. We all understand that justice requires that everyone be assured the same opportunity to thrive, and while we can agree that that is a formidable challenge that is more of an ideal toward which we can continue to strive than a finished achievement we can expect to accomplish in the near future, and that important counterbalancing imperatives must be considered and pursued simultaneously (in other words, that we need to balance the challenges of creating an ever-more more robust, fair, and sustainable social institutional framework), we can also agree that it is one of the guiding principles by which we should navigate as we forge our way into the future.
So, guided by our humanity, we have a clear objective that all of our public policies should strive to serve: Maximizing the robustness, fairness, and sustainability of our social institutional landscape to the greatest extent possible, such that no individual, if fully informed and rational, would want to change any aspect of it if they did not know where or when or into what situation they would be born or what chance occurrences they would encounter in life. And we have a clear means of most effectively pursuing that objective: Robust public discourse in which we allow the most cogent, information-intensive, methodologically and analytically sound arguments regarding how best to maximize the robustness, fairness and sustainability of our social institutional landscape, on a case-by-case, issue-by-issue basis, to prevail.
And THAT, what I just described above in the preceding five paragraphs, is really the only ideology we need, the only ideology we should adhere to as we move forward as a polity, wise enough to know that none of us knows all that much, humane enough not to blithely dismiss –whether implicitly or explicitly– the suffering and gross injustices endured by numerous others, intelligent enough to know that the appropriate role of a democratically and constitutionally circumscribed government in the modern world cannot be intelligently reduced to a handful of platitudes, informed enough to recognize that the rule of law is predominantly a procedural rather than substantive ideal, and smart enough to recognize that it is our commitment to these procedural and methodological disciplines of informing and devising public policies that will define how intelligently, humanely, and effectively we govern ourselves.
What continues to stand against this simple and clear ideology of a commitment to reason and humanity realized through disciplined procedures and methodologies are the plethora of blind dogmas, substantive false certainties, and precipitous conclusions that litter our shared cognitive landscape. Whether it is Marxism, politically active evangelical Christianity, politically active fundamentalist Islam, Libertarianism, or any other substantive dogma which presumes to know what we are in reality continuing to study, debate, and discover, this perennial need by so many to organize in an effort to impose a set of presumptive substantive conclusions on us all, one ideological sledgehammer or another with which to “repair” the machinery of government, is an obstacle rather than productive contribution to truly intelligent and humane self-governance.
It doesn’t matter if any given adherents to such an ideology are right about some things and those arguing from a non-ideological perspective are wrong about some things; it would be extraordinary if that were not the case, because disciplined analysis seeks to track a subtle and elusive object (reality), while blind dogma, like a broken clock, stands in one place, and thus is right on those rare occasions when reality happens to pass through that spot. What matters is that we all say, “I am less committed to my tentative conclusions than to the process for arriving at them, and would gladly suspend any of my own tentative conclusions in exchange for a broad commitment by all engaged in political discourse and political activism to emphasize a shared commitment to reason in service to humanity.”
The claim made by some that libertarians aren’t against using government in limited ways to address our shared challenges and seize our shared opportunities, while insisting that the problem now is that we have “too much government,” ignores the incredible breadth and depth of challenges and opportunities we face, challenges and opportunities that careful economic analysis clearly demonstrate often require extensive use of our governmental apparatus to meet and to seize. That is why every modern, prosperous, free nation on Earth has a large administrative infrastructure, and why every single modern, prosperous, free nation on Earth has had such a large administrative infrastructure in place since prior to participating in the historically unprecedented post-WWII expansion in prosperity and liberty: Because, as an empirical fact, that is what has thus far worked most effectively. But that does not preclude the possibility that the approach I’ve identified would lead to an overall reduction in the size and role of government; it only requires that in each instance the case be made, with methodological rigor, that any particular reduction in government actually does increase the robustness, fairness, and sustainability of our social institutional framework.
The challenge isn’t to doggedly shrink government in service to a blind ideological conviction, but rather to wisely, with open eyes and informed analyses, refine our government by shrinking that which should be shrunk and expanding that which should be expanded, an ongoing endeavor which requires less ideological presumption and more analytical intelligence. We neither need nor benefit from neatly packaged blind dogmas; we need and benefit from an ever-greater commitment to disciplined reason in service to unflagging humanity.
Now, the legitimate contention arises that that is fine in theory, but in the real world of real people, ideological convictions and irrational decision-making prevail, and to refuse to fight the irrational and inhumane policies doggedly favored by some by any and all means possible, including strategies that do not hamstring themselves by seeking an ideal that does not prevail in this world today, is to surrender the world to the least enlightened and most ruthless. To that I respond that I do not oppose the strategic attempts by those who are informed by reason and humanity to implement the products of their discipline and conviction through strategic and realistic political means, but only implore of them two things: 1) That they take pains to ensure that their conclusions actually are the product of reason in service to humanity, and not simply their own blind ideological dogma, and 2) that they invest or encourage the investment of some small portion of our dedicated resources, some fraction of our time and money and energy directed toward productive social change, toward cultivating subtler cultural changes that increase the salience of reason and humanity in future political decision-making processes. I have outlined just such a social movement in A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill.
Another legitimate contention is the recognition of our fallibility, and the need to rely on bedrock principles rather than arrogate to ourselves a case-by-case, issue-by-issue analysis, much as we limit our democratic processes with bedrock Constitutional principles that we can’t elect to violate. There is much truth in this, but it either becomes one more rational consideration that we incorporate into our ongoing effort to do the best we can in a complex and subtle world, or it displaces our reason and humanity entirely and reduces us to automatons enslaved by a historically successful reduction of reality. We see these alternatives in regards to how the Bible and Constitution are utilized, by some as guides which inform their own reason and humanity and require conscious interpretation and application, and by others as rigid confirmation of their own dogmatic ideology, the latter often through selective or distorted interpretations of their own.
We’ve seen the value of improved methodology and increased commitment to methodological discipline in the realm of science, which has bestowed on us a greatly invigorated ability to make sense of a complex and subtle universe. We’ve seen the value of improved procedures and procedural discipline in law, which has increased the justness of our criminal justice system (certainly an improvement over “trial by ordeal,” or the Inquisitor’s securing of a confession by means of torture, for instance). We’ve seen the value of improved methodologies in selecting and holding accountable political leaders, through carefully monitored “free and fair” elections and the supremacy of the rule of law over individual power. To be sure, all of these are mere steps forward, not completed journeys; the human foibles they partially mitigated are not entirely erased from the new paradigms they preside over. But they are steps forward.
And, though it’s more debatable, with more and greater atrocities seeming without end challenging the assertion, I think our humanity has grown in recent centuries as well. Historians almost universally agree that a larger proportion of the human population suffered violent death the further back in time you go. Even while exploitation and inhumanities persist, they are increasingly viewed as morally reprehensible by increasing numbers of people in increasing regions of the Earth. We have, indeed, as a national and international society, improved our formal commitment to human rights, even if our realization of that commitment has woefully lagged behind. It remains incumbent on us to close that gap between the ideal and the reality.
What, then, are the logical next steps for civilization? How do we advance the cause of reason in service to humanity? The answer, I believe, is to extend and expand the domains of these methodologies and attitudes, to increase the degree to which they are truly understood to be the defining vehicle of human progress. If it’s good to have a small cadre of professionals engaging in science, it’s even better to have many more incorporating more of that logic into their own opinion formation process. If it’s good for the election of office holders to be conducted through rational procedures, it’s even better for the knowledge and reasoning of those who vote in those elections to be fostered through more rational procedures as well. And if it’s good for some of us to include larger swathes of humanity in the pronoun “we,” then it’s even better for more of us to do so to an ever greater degree.
Even if the effort to cultivate a movement in this direction only succeeds, over the course of generations, in making the tiniest marginal increase in the use of disciplined reason, and the tiniest increases in the degree of commitment to our shared humanity, by the tiniest marginal fraction of the population, that would be a positive achievement. And if, alongside such marginal increases in the reliance on disciplined reason and commitment to humanity, there is also a marginal increase in the acknowledgement that the products of disciplined reason are more useful to us as a society and a people than the products of arbitrary bigotries and predispositions, and that the recognition of the humanity of others unlike us is more morally laudable than our ancient tribalistic and sectarian reflexes, that, too, would be a positive achievement.
The influence of reason in our lives has been growing steadily for centuries and has had a dramatic impact on our social institutional and technological landscape, though it has only really ever been employed in a disciplined way by a small minority of the human population. The increase in our humanity as well, in such forms as the now nearly universal condemnation of slavery, the increasing recognition of the value of equal rights for all, the generational changes in our own society with some bigotries withering with time, can also be discerned. Even marginal increases in the employment of reason and its perceived legitimacy, and of our shared humanity being the ends to which it is employed, can have very dramatic effects on the robustness, fairness, and sustainability of the social institutional and technological landscape of the future, and on the welfare of human beings everywhere for all time. This is the path that all of our most laudable achievements of the past have followed and contributed to, and it is the path we should pursue going forward ever more consciously and intentionally, because that is what the ever fuller realization of our humanity both requires of us and offers us the opportunity to do.
(The following is the beginning of an exchange on a libertarian’s Facebook page, with the first comment being his status update. It continued, as these exchanges often do, with my repeated suggestion that we step back from our substantive certainties and agree to base our discourse on the premise that we’re all fallible, and if we all strive to be rational and humane people, in disciplined and methodical ways, it would serve society better than our competing blind ideologies, and with this suggestion being responded to with every excuse imaginable for why it couldn’t be accepted. And this is the great ongoing tragedy of our shared existence, not just the persistence of irrationality, but the emotional investment in its preservation against all suggestions and invitations to work toward transcending it.)
KW: God Bless You for your choices, now kindly step aside as I make my own.
SH: What if your choice were to hurt others? Should I kindly step aside then? So, you have to qualify it to say “now kindly step aside unless my choice is to hurt others and good citizens need to stop me from doing that.”
But lots of things hurt others in subtle ways. We are interdependent, and our actions affect one another. So some of our laws have to recognize that there are individual actions that we each can engage in that cause one another more harm than we, as a society, can allow. For instance, if I do work in my home that produces some form of toxic waste, and I dump that waste on my own property in such a way that gets into the groundwater that others drink and causes deadly disease among those who drink it, then don’t we as a society have good reason to say that no individual can dump toxic waste on their own property?
There are so many things like that in our lives, so much interdependence, that the meme that each should be absolutely free to do whatever they choose really serves more to obscure the real challenge of determining where to draw the line between individual liberty and agreed upon limits to it for mutual benefit than to enlighten or guide us in any meaningful way.
RA: Live Free!
SH: Self-governing on the basis of slogans rather than in-depth, nuanced, and diligent thought isn’t really that good an idea. One of the things you’ll notice about every one of the most horrible chapters of modern world history is that the authors of those horrors were all always deeply immersed in moving slogans.
JW: @Steve you are dangerously close to the most dangerous slogan of all time “for the greater good”. How about, “my ability to swing my arm ends at your nose”. People have to learn to live in close proximity to one another without resorting to trying to live each others lives for them.
SH: J, our own Constitution declares the importance of governing for “the general welfare.” The fact is that I live by no slogan at all, but rather by the belief that there is only one ideology to which any of us should ever adhere: That of striving to be rational and humane people, wise enough to know that none of us knows all that much, working together to do the best we can in a complex and subtle world. That’s not “a slogan,” but rather a philosophy, and not a shallow philosophy that fails to capture the true complexity and subtlety of the world we live in, but rather one based squarely on the recognition of that complexity and subtlety.
As I’ve said repeatedly, I don’t consider the liberal-conservative divide the fundamental one, nor is it how I define my own commitments. I am committed to the disciplined use of human consciousness in service to humanity, period. That includes using disciplined reason, imagination, research, analysis, contemplation, and discourse, recognizing our limitations, uncertainties, and the value of allowing some organic processes to function without trying to impose ourselves on them at every turn. It includes many, many things that can be discussed and debated and ever better understood by ever more people.
If a person comes to that process with that attitude self-identifying as a conservative, that’s fine with me. If they don’t embrace that process at all, but self-identify as a liberal, then they’re as much a part of the problem as those who don’t come to that process at all and self-identify as conservatives. The blind ideologies are not the answer; the processes that best liberate and mobilize human genius are, including the genius of laissez-faire to the extent and in the ways and under the circumstances that laissez-faire is best recommended by our best understandings of how the world works.
But that’s not what happens. What happens is that people come fully armed with an array of false certainties arrived at haphazardly, through socialization and indoctrination and emotional predisposition, and treat those false certainties as indisputable truths. We all do it to some extent, even those of us who do it to the least extent, because that’s how the human mind works: We reduce an infinitely complex and subtle reality to manageable form in order to function in the world, and mistake our cognitive models for the reality itself. A critical step toward being rational and humane people is recognizing that, and working with it.
But when people declare that they have the one right substantive ideology, they are digging into the opposite cognitive orientation, the cognitive orientation which clings most tenaciously to their own false certainties, and is most insulated from actual fact and reason and growing comprehension. Do I think that that is more closely associated with modern American conservatism than modern American liberalism? Yes, but that’s not really the point. The point is that all of us should strive to be wiser than that, and those who refuse, regardless of what ideology they identify with, merit criticism for refusing.
I always refer to reason AND humanity, though in many ways humanity is implicit in reason, as long as we agree on certain underlying values of fairness and long-term functionality, because we are ultimately interdependent, and reason dictates that we recognize our interdependence and act not under the pretense that it doesn’t exist but with the constant awareness that it does. “Liberty” does not mean the absence of interdependence, but rather a particular orientation to it, a value embedded within it that only has meaning in its context. Those who neglect to understand that end up turning the beautiful and valuable concept of human “liberty” into a cruel and ugly excuse for acting in predatory and implicitly inhumane ways.
It’s no coincidence that slave owners used the concept of “liberty” to rationalize their commitment to the institution of slavery (the greatest assault on human liberty in the history of our nation, matched only by the displacement and destruction of the indigenous population), arguing that to deny them (the slave owners) their property (their slaves) would be an assault on their (the slave owners’) “liberty” (see John C. Calhoun’s “Union and Liberty”). And it’s no coincidence that modern Tea Party/libertarian ideology is part of a continuous ideological thread reaching back into that same use of the concept of “liberty.” Knowing and understanding history, deeply and richly and thoroughly, is useful to our present understandings and commitments.
I could go on. I could write books on this. But there is only one rational place to start, only one rational foundation to build on, and that is reason itself, not the arbitrarily claim of already having embodied it in one’s current substantive certainties (as some I’ve interacted with insist upon, as their way of rejecting the notion that we should all strive to be rational and humane people), but in a commitment to the methodologies and procedures which have proved in recent centuries to be the most robust for minimizing bias and maximizing accuracy, and using those procedures –which include debates that aren’t just shouting matches but actually adhere to the rules of debate, the rules of evidence, the rules of logic, or whose relative merits are judged by how well they adhere to them—in service to our shared humanity.
It’s a simple premise. I think it would generally favor what are now considered liberal positions, but if I’m wrong, I’d rather surrender my own false certainties than insulate myself from reason in order to preserve them. It is the process of reason in service to humanity that I am committed to, not to any current assumption of what conclusions it leads to.
And that’s something that all rational and humane people should be able to agree to, should be able to rally around. I know some moderate conservatives who do, and I identify more with them, am more reassured by their presence in our polity, than I am by dogmatic liberals who don’t. And if we can simply put aside the shouting matches over precipitous substantive false certainties, and instead agree to work at being that kind of a polity, a rational and humane polity, then this would be an even more admirable and extraordinary nation than it already is (if that’s what it already is), and an even greater gift to the world than it already is (if that’s what it already is). And we would leave on the margins, on the dust heap of history where they belong, the commitment to ignorance and bigotry and oversimplistic dogma that some insist on adhering to, moving forward instead as an increasingly rational and humane people.
KW: Steve, why do you use my status to go on your diatribe. I respect your take but you immediately disregarded the simple fact that I am Libertarian and not a single one of my choices harm another.
JW: I know better than to feed the trolls but I am going to respond to your essay Steve. Shakespeare said “Brevity is the soul of wit”. At least with the simple statements that K and I have made, a reasonable person might gather the basics of our personal philosophies. I read through your entire post and honestly could not make a determination of where you fall philosophically. Given the lengths to which you used as many words as possible to say as little as possible, I am inclined to believe that you are a statist leaning liberal that would bind us in the chains of some nebulous “social contract” that no party signs yet all are supposed to abide by. Orson Wells took such thoughts about “humanity” to its inevitable conclusion in Animal Farm where of course, all are equal but some where more equal than others. Unlike K, I will not respect your philosophy if it is one that would consign us to the politics of pull, where influence becomes the prime product of a society and the real producers are enslaved to the “greater good”.
SH: K, the whole purpose of the rule of law is that we can’t simply rely on each other to do the right thing, and that we must govern ourselves, as a people, with laws that bind us and limit us in certain ways for mutual benefit. You say that I disregard the fact that you are a libertarian and that your choices harm no one else. No, I dispute the notion that we don’t need laws because some people are not inclined to break them in the first place, or that the recognition that we do need laws is compatible with the ideologically exclusive emphasis on absolute freedom.
As for why I use your status to go on my diatribe: If one propagates defective ideas that can be harmful to humanity where I can challenge them, then I will challenge them.
J, you couldn’t make that determination because not all philosophies are dogmas, and mine is one such that is not a dogma. It is a commitment to the same foundations that inform science and law, a commitment to methodologies and procedures rather than to presumptions and false certainties. “My” philosophy is not reductionist, is not the folly of imposing on a complex world a simplistic panacea. It is, rather, a commitment to reason (which is served by disciplined methodologies and procedures that have proved their worth over the last several centuries) in service to humanity (rather than in service to some segment of humanity at the expense of other segments of humanity).
You assume I’m an adherent to your caricature of left-wing ideology, to which you relegate everyone who is not a member of your preferred reduction of reality, not recognizing the existence of any form of political economic thought that does not fit neatly into one or the other of your two caricatures of political economic thought. It’s a tidy but shallow world you live in. Maybe it’s time to consider the possibility that it’s not the last word of human comprehension. (And that’s the point, isn’t it? Knowing that we don’t know rather than insisting that we do, and, in the womb of that wise humility, actually learning, discovering, growing, approaching the challenge of engaging a complex and subtle world with imagination and analytical discipline rather than blind ideological fervor. THAT is the real political divide in America today, whether to be a raging ideologue, or an imaginative and analytical participant in an on-going enterprise.)
“My” philosophy is to start with the simple agreement among all who are willing to strive to be rational and humane people. It may seem insignificant, but I think that it is an important step, because both reason and humanity are easily lost to the zeal of blind ideologies. So, we say, “look, I know that I’m fallible, and that the world is complex, so lets agree, first and foremost, that we’re going to strive to be rational and humane, and take it from there.” it’s a good agreement to make, a good foundation to build on, and very much in the spirit of the formation of this nation, which was founded on the Enlightenment philosophy that a people can and should govern themselves rationally and humanely, debating as rational citizens rather than merely clinging to ideological assumptions.
Once we make that agreement, we can discuss how to realize it. Clearly, scientific methodology is better than other preceding and generally more haphazard approaches when it comes to understanding empirical phenomena, to ascertaining factual and systemic knowledge. Similarly, legal procedure is preferable to, for instance, trial by ordeal, for ascertaining guilt or innocence, or ascertaining facts and applying the law to them. These are developments over recent centuries that have increased the role of rationality in our lives. We can work to extend their domain beyond the halls of academe and the courts of law, and to employ more of their logic, and reap more of their benefits, in public discourse in general.
And it all starts with something as self-evidently desirable as simply agreeing to strive to be rational and humane people, and giving that agreement priority over any other ideological commitments.
George Orwell (not Orson Wells) wrote “Animal Farm” about an ideology coopted in service to oppression. Any ideology can be used as such a pretext, even one that claims to exist for the opposite purpose (as, indeed, Communism itself did). Ideologies always insist that every other ideology is the road to Hell, and that they alone provide salvation. It’s a common theme. They use rousing symbols and slogans to proclaim themselves the defenders of some noble ideal, and then, if they are not more procedurally than substantively oriented, inevitably betray that ideal.
A commitment to humanity is not a commitment to totalitarianism. But a failure to commit to humanity, to commit to reason, is an invitation to the institutionalization of irrationality and inhumanity, as has so often happened in so many times and places. Ironically, Libertariansim has something fundamentally in common with Marxism, and that is profound and oversimplistic political economic dogmatism. Marxism identified the state as the solution to all problems, and Libertarianism identifies the market as the solution to all problems, though economists well understand that neither is and that both have a vital role to play.
We should all act more like economists and less like ideologues when discussing economic issues. We should, in general, all strive to act more like rational and humane people, wise enough to know that we don’t know much, working together to do the best we can in a complex and subtle world. That should be our one and only ideology
By the way, the concept of ‘trolls” on Facebook has clearly become distorted to mean “anyone who invades an ideological echo-chamber with any perspective discordant with that of the pariticpants of the echo-chamber.” If that is the new definition of “troll,” than I’m proud to be one, because these echo-chambers are unhealthy to our democracy and do poor service to the growth of reason and understanding. We need, instead, a robust, informed and informative, rational and disciplined, public discourse, where ideas are exchanged and challenged, and we work together to improve our understandings and our ability to cooperate for mutual benefit.
I would limit the term “troll” to mean anyone, on any thread, whose contribution is intended or designed to drown out signal with noise, and reduce rather than increase the informativeness and rationality of the discourse taking place.
On a Facebook thread condemning President Obama for signing the Continuing Resolution with a rider protecting Monsanto from law suits, my defense of the President (pointing out that he really had to sign the CR and that all bills that come to his desk have unsavory riders in them) received some vitriolic responses from a couple of rabbidly anti-GMO activists. When I then mentioned that I am more agnostic on the issue of GMOs themselves, because I don’t think the evidence weighs so unambiguously against them as these particular activists maintained, their vitriol was ratcheted up even more.
As a result, I made the following post on my own Facebook page:
Here’s an interesting lesson in political advocacy: Don’t go out of your way to alienate people who share your general concerns but honestly differ on the particular analysis. On a thread about “Monsanto-gate,” when I mentioned that I’m agnostic about GMOs due to the many benefits on the plus side of the leger (reduced erosion, reduced pesticide and herbicide and fertilizer demands, thus reduced run-off and groundwater contamination, increased food production per acre, increased resilience, etc.) and the relatively few on the negative side, two anti-GMO zealots attacked with such venom that, despite myself, I’m a bit less agnostic now: I’m more pro-GMO than I was before!
It reminds me of a line from Robert Whitaker’s “Anatomy of an Epidemic,” about the harm done by overprescription of psychiatric drugs. He mentioned that the pharmaceutical industry could have paid the Scientologists (and Tom Cruise) to take the position against psychiatric drugs that they did, because it made a basically rational position look like one that only fanatical zealots support.
A long and productive discussion ensued, at the end of which, in response to various comments on both threads, I wrote the following:
Human beliefs and emotions are much like viruses, spreading through the population more or less robustly for a variety of reasons. The British biologist Richard Dawkins dubbed these cognitive-emotional viruses “memes,” because they mirror genes in how they reproduce and spread and evolve.As a general rule, memes that are motivated by hope and love and compassion are good ones to spread, and memes that are motivated by fear and hatred and anger are bad ones to spread. This isn’t always true, because some fears are legitimate, but whenever a meme is or a set of memes are spreading due to fear or anger, it’s a good time for folks to step back and be very, very introspective and self-critical about what memes they are latching onto and spreading. The human tendency toward panics should always give us pause and make us question our own certainties and our own “hysterias” (despite the sexist etymology of that word, there’s no other that quite captures the same flavor of meaning).As some of you know (and as I hope not to rehash here in relation to the specific issue I referred to), I think that we are overly certain even about some things for which there is considerable evidence, because though the world is extraordinarily complex and subtle, we tend to gravitate too quickly to certainty and dwell too briefly in uncertainty. We have to be careful not to let wise uncertainty become an unwise position against action based on the best available knowledge, but we should not feel the need to be certain in order to act, a psychological need which is exacerbated by the political demand to take strong positions. (A person who advocates for a political position while admitting to uncertainty undermines him-or-herself in public discourse.)In a more rational world (or with more rational participants in a conversation or debate), the opposite is true: Too much certainty undermines one’s credibility. On the original thread, one commenter (not one of the two belligerent ones) suggested that we are breeding super-pests with GMOs, because of their genetically built-in pesticides. (As an aside, I’m not sure how GMOs do this more so than the traditional use of pesticides does it, and would think that GMOs might do it less so.) Then he made what I consider a rhetorical mistake: He insisted that it was a certainty, and clearly and indisputably a catastrophe in the making.It’s a good point and a legitimate concern, but I am not convinced that it is quite as dispositive as he assumes. For instance, as he noted, the same argument can be made for the use of antibiotics, and, indeed, controlling the worldwide overuse of antibiotics has become particularly urgent for this very reason. But I would not consider it to have been a good thing to have nipped in the bud the use of antibiotics by a movement informed with such foresight a century or so ago.I tend to look at the world a little differently, through a more inclusive and organic paradigm which sees even human foibles as catalysts in a much larger evolutionary process. Yes, it’s true, the more dramatic our manipulations of nature, the greater the risk of catastrophic cascades, but it’s also good to remember that people have been predicting the human-induced destruction of the world for millennia. The world has always been on the verge of catastrophic collapse, with every new innovation throughout human history. Every single time.The reality of complex dynamical systems is that they’re very adaptive. They reorder themselves around even dramatic changes. That’s not to say we should be blithely indifferent to the potential consequences of our actions, but it does provide an often overlooked counterpoint to the ubiquitous predictions of inevitable catastrophe.My point here is that we would benefit from more uncertainty, and more interest in exploring the complexities and subtleties of the world we live in. The two women who were extremely vitriolic and offensive with me were that way because I had challenged an article of faith, and when you challenge people’s articles of faith, they become very angry. We could use less anger in the world, and we could use fewer articles of faith. Then, from that foundation of wise uncertainty, we could have the most informed and informative of national debates on all topics of importance to our shared existence, and do a far better job of aligning our policies to those which are best recommended by reason in service to humanity.