Scene: a coffee shop where two people are in a heated discussion over a complex topic.
Galina: “So you can see that, generally speaking, this is predominantly the case!”
Bob: “No! What about this one time, that thing happened! That shows that you’re completely wrong!”
Galina, confused: “I don’t understand what that has to do with this?”
Bob: “Hey, this isn’t my area of expertise. I’m just being a Devil’s Advocate….”
This scene is all too common, and it’s immensely frustrating for people who have spent time and energy learning about a topic to be “refuted” by someone who knows very little. “Refuted”, though, is not the same as refuted, because Bob hasn’t actually offered a useful counterargument. No, Bob is just being a contrarian jerk. And contrarian jerks love to claim that they’re “just being a Devil’s Advocate”.
An acquaintance of mine sent me a link to a conversation between Dan Dennett and Sam Harris, wherein Dennett attempts to explain the holes in Harris’s puerile arguments against the concept of “free will”.
In any case, this particular post isn’t about Harris, but a particular point he reiterates repeatedly: that we can (and should) change our beliefs “in real-time”.
This view, regardless of who holds it, is incorrect, and here’s why.
Sometimes I wonder what getting a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard University entails, or even a Ph.D. in Religion and Literature from the University of Virginia. Alas, if the Rev. Dr. David Fekete is any indication, it entails not being required to actually know what you’re talking about, and to just blather any old thing without consequence.
Fekete recently penned a screed in the Edmonton Journal claiming that prohibiting prayer as part of government business privileges the belief system of Secular Humanism. From this single erroneous claim, he moves on to declare a number of falsehoods, such as “Secular humanism would have a world evacuated of religion”.
If this is the tripe that the Edmonton Journal prints, then I guess we also have the measure of that rag, in addition to Harvard’s Theological Studies department….
[This is primarily a talk I gave at a Vancouver Skepticamp recently, with some expansion/clarification at the end in response to some feedback I received]
I’d like to talk about how we use the word ‘rational’ in everyday conversations, and how we use it in skeptic/atheist/freethinker circles. I don’t consider anything I say here to apply to academic disciplines, as they are usually pretty good about operationalising their definitions (or should be, at the least).
I think ‘rationality’ is a profoundly problematic word, as used in the vernacular, and I’d like to encourage you all to drop it from your vocabulary. Now, before ye get all het up and start acting irrationally, hear me out.
[This essay is going to focus primarily on the skeptic/atheist community, as that’s the community I mostly interact with. I’m sure it holds true for others too, so don’t read this essay as me claiming that this is somehow unique to skeptics and/or atheists. Additionally, this essay only applies to people who want to discuss things with other people. If your preferred style of communication is lecturing people, and you’re not particular interested in changing (or even hearing) their position: this does not apply to you]
In the years that I’ve been involved in the skeptic/atheist community, I’ve noticed two tendencies that are, unfortunately, completely at odds with one another: making the claim that we really want to discuss things, and doing a massive information dump, laying out our ‘complete’ position on something in one go.
Not only are these two things in tension, they’re actually mutually exclusive. Here’s why.
Florida has recently been in the news for having ‘active shooter drills’. Alas, Florida is not alone in this, so the rest of the world can yet again sigh ‘only in America’. And let’s face it: this is yet more security theatre, serving no legitimate purpose. Like taking off one’s shoes at security in the airport (thanks for that too, America).
Indicating his complete disconnection from reality, Polk County Public Schools spokesman Jason Gearey said in an e-mailed statement to The Washington Post:
“Unfortunately, no one gets an advanced notice of real life emergencies. We don’t want students to be scared, but we need them to be safe.”
This is, unfortunately, just a jumble of words with no real meaning contained within.
How we argue with people sends signals to those around us. We are socially signalling the kind of person we are, and giving them cues as to whether or not they want to engage with us. This is, I think, an important point in rhetoric and persuasion, and can determine how we approach an argument. We can, of course, choose to remain ignorant of the signals that we send (thus sending the signal that we hold the people around us in contempt), or we can go too far and focus too much on ‘how’ the argument is presented such that the content is diluted to nothing.
An example of the former is a tweet by Secular Outpost (@SecularOutpost):
This is, frankly, sending up a flare that displays to all and sundry “I am a giant asshole, and I am not here for constructive conversation, but to have fun at the expense of those around me”. Disagree? Alright, let me walk you through it. Continue reading