Dealing with Stupid People

It’s easy and fun to call people names. Slotting them into categories lets us guess what they think without them telling us. We can shut down intolerant babble before it begins. In promoting tolerance, why should we listen to perspectives that do the opposite?

I'm with Stupid
By Kevin Marks [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Okay. Imagine refusing to hear people out because their opinions promote intolerance and even oppression. In so doing, we are gleefully engaging in the very behaviours we claim to condemn: silencing, excluding, and imposing our own subjective position as a morally objective standpoint.

Name-calling happens across any divide. At its core, the very notion of the divide lays the foundation for separation, even segregation. Can we build a world with no divide?

I think that world already exists, if we would just help it emerge. We construct and reproduce the divide ourselves. We talk and behave as if seven billion individual views can effectively be split into two or three camps: you’re either this or that or the other thing. Anyone who resents being pigeonholed knows that such a division hardly represents reality.

Collectively, we like to reinforce the notion of the divide. New Atheists talk about the “regressive left” as harmful because they promote cultural tolerance. Those who advocate cultural relativism point fingers at “evangelical” atheists who steamroll diversity in their push for rational solutions to social problems.

In the US, Republicans say Democrats are living in “la la land,” while Democrats call Republicans “racist” and “uninformed.” The same dynamic happens elsewhere, and not just in politics. We seem to think people who don’t agree with us are stupid or unaware. If only they knew what we know, they would inevitably come to the same conclusions we do.

In 2005, writer David Foster Wallace gave a commencement speech to Kenyon College’s liberal arts graduates. He argued that the benefit of a liberal arts education lies in its ability to teach us to choose how we think and what we pay attention to. It pushes us beyond our default stance, the self-centered positionality we all grapple with.

Of course it’s hard to get out of our own heads when that’s where we live. Doing so requires coaching and effort. Sometimes, we’ll fail and that’s okay too.

The goal is to try and try again. Recognize our fallibility. Embrace uncertainty.

Hannah Arendt famously said, “The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.” Once we establish a new way of doing things, we can get stuck in our ability to receive new ideas.

In sticking to our guns, we might even restrict the liberties of others. Yes, we have good intentions. We believe we are fighting to create or conserve a “better” society. But better for who?

The only good society is one that allows all members to speak and be heard, regardless of how much power they have or how little they toe the line. This applies to small groups as much as entire nations.

So whether we call ourselves liberal or conservative, progressive or radical, anarchist or socialist, religious or humanist, or none of the above – whatever we call ourselves, we need to strive not to reduce others to something less than human. As if we’ve read their hearts and minds and distilled the contents down to tidy, facile labels.

Anyone can have a good idea. Find the common ground. Listen and learn. If we engage life assuming we don’t have all the answers, we’ll end up wiser in the long run. And nobody has to get hurt along the way.

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Does Water Have Memory?

A few days ago, I heard about the idea that water has memory. Of course, when people say such things, I have to wonder what they mean by the word “memory:” does water have memory like humans have memory (e.g. being able to recall emotional experiences)? Or more like how bees have memory (e.g. knowing how to navigate to the same place they were before)? Or maybe like mud has memory (e.g. retaining a footprint)?

The point is that I don’t know. I know nothing about this science, if science it really is. My first inclination is to say it’s probably not true, at least not in the New Age-y sense in which it was implied.

Here’s one of the things that put me off the idea: apparently, if you play classical music to water, it takes on a beautiful shape at a very minute level, whereas heavy metal makes it all crooked and jagged. This sort of idea immediately makes me skeptical, since it fits too neatly into social snobbery about “good” vs. “bad” music. It seems more likely to me that the acoustic properties of the different types of music affected the shape of the water crystals, not that it had a negative emotional response to some quality of the music. Sound is a physical entity. (Also, what do they mean by “classical” music? Was it a nocturne? A slow piece for solo cello? A dance piece for piano quartet? Or a more dramatic orchestral piece? I’m sure each one would shape the water differently. The same applies to heavy metal, some of which is actually quite gentle.)

Here’s an example of how sound can do seemingly “magic” things with water:

But the fact that this connection doesn’t sit well with mean isn’t evidence.

I still don’t know. I can’t say with any kind of certainty that my hypothesis is correct. I haven’t examined the science and I’m not sure I’m properly qualified to understand and judge it all anyway.

And sometimes that’s okay. It’s okay to live with not knowing, at least for a while. In school and other areas of life, we often learn that not knowing is a crime. If your teacher asks you a question and you say you don’t know, you might be ridiculed or shamed for not having done the homework or not paying attention in class. Instead of teaching how to find out what you don’t know, the response is that you should just always know, or else you should shut up.

Not knowing is uncomfortable. Admitting it out loud is even less comfortable. But not knowing is what drives curiosity, discovery, creativity, and innovation. We need to recognize what we don’t know before we can move forward.

Without admitting that we don’t know something, we will never take the steps to learn about it or to invent a way of doing the thing we don’t know how to do.

So next time someone tells me something that sounds implausible to me, I’m going to try really hard to just say, “I don’t know.” It might be off-putting to them and uncomfortable for me. But the payoff will be worth it, because it will allow me to consider an idea more openly, instead of dismissing it on some emotional basis.

Saudi Arabia, Land of Human Rights

“Farasan Island 3” by Bandar Yuosef – Flickr: Farasan Island_0392. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Farasan_Island_3.jpg#/media/File:Farasan_Island_3.jpg

Last year, all atheists became terrorists – at least according to new laws introduced in Saudi Arabia. Non-believers aren’t alone though: anyone who criticizes the state, its rulers, or the Saudi version of Islam could be charged with terrorism. The Penal Law for Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing explicitly includes non-violent acts, effectively prohibiting any semblance of free speech, association, or religion.

The International Humanist and Ethical Union explains some of the key terms of the legislation:

The provisions of the “terrorism” law define and outlaw numerous acts and forms of expression as “terrorism”, including:

  • “Calling for atheist thought in any form”

  • any disloyalty “to the country’s rulers”, or anyone “who swears allegiance to any party, organization, current [of thought], group, or individual inside or outside [the kingdom]”;

  • anyone who aids, affiliates, or holds “sympathy” with any “terrorist” organization as defined by the act, which “includes participation in audio, written, or visual media; social media in its audio, written, or visual forms; internet websites; or circulating their contents in any form”;

  • contact with groups or individuals who are “hostile to the kingdom”

  • and the article on “Seeking to shake the social fabric or national cohesion” prohibits all protest, without qualification as to its message or intent, by outlawing “calling, participating, promoting, or inciting sit-ins, protests, meetings, or group statements in any form”.

Additionally, apostasy (denying Islam by adopting another faith or becoming an atheist) is punishable by death. The International Business Times states that 100 people have been put to death already this year, in compliance with laws prescribing capital punishment for “murder, rape, armed robbery, using recreational drugs, and smuggling, in addition to homosexuality, false prophecy, apostasy, adultery, witchcraft and sorcery.”

Raif Badawi is a case in point: he’s a Saudi Arabian blogger sentenced to ten years in prison and a thousand lashes for political criticism. It sounds crazy and it is, yet he is only one example of extreme corporal punishment among countless others that remain invisible to the international world.

With this lovely human rights record, Saudi Arabia somehow remains a full member of the United Nations. Not only that, but one of its representatives was quietly selected in June to head a panel of independent experts on the UN Human Rights Council.

This appointment followed on the heels of Saudi Arabia’s job opening for eight new executioners, described in the ad as “religious functionaries” working in the civil service, according to The Independent.

It’s like putting the head of ISIS in charge of human rights. Actually, the folks at UN Watch say that Saudi Arabia has beheaded more people than the famous extremist group this year.

Somehow, this is the real world, where farce sometimes merges with tragedy.

Science Is Not Truth

How do we know what is true? It’s an age-old question that hasn’t been fully resolved.

We do know that evaluating evidence and recognizing the role of subjectivity are part of the most reliable approach we’ve discovered so far in our trajectory as a species.

Generally, we call this approach “science.” But science is not the same as truth.

A few years ago, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) removed the word “science” from its description of the discipline of anthropology. Unsurprisingly, this act created an uproar with partisans on either side arguing for or against the definition of anthropology as a science.

Unfortunately, a lot of them seemed unable to articulate what science really is.

It’s a common mistake and one you will encounter in other areas. When people debate the validity of science, we tend to take for granted that everyone knows what the term means. Fun fact: we don’t.

You may have come across the phrase “the scientific method.” This phrase provides a clearer indication of what’s going on than the single word “science.” “Science tell us that the Earth orbits the sun” would become “The scientific method tells us that the Earth orbits the sun.” It’s a subtle difference, but revealing nonetheless.

The first statement implies some sort of oracle or god (“Science, goddess of the Sky”) revealed an absolute truth. In the second version, we understand that a rigorous process was involved.

In the early twentieth century, anthropologist Alfred Kroeber (drawing on his teacher Franz Boas) wrote down three principles of science:

  • The method of science is to begin with questions, not with answers, least of all with value judgements.

  • Science is dispassionate inquiry and therefore cannot take over outright any ideologies “already formulated in everyday life”, since these are themselves inevitably traditional and normally tinged with emotional prejudice.

  • Sweeping all-or-none, black-and-white judgements are characteristic of categorical attitudes and have no place in science, whose very nature is inferential and judicious.

Kroeber’s teacher, Franz Boas, divided science into two branches, which he called the general sciences and the historical sciences. For him, the general sciences try to discover universal laws, while the historical sciences uncover the processes behind things that happen only once, usually in a specific time and place. The social sciences, including history, linguistics, sociology, and anthropology (among many others), fall into the latter category.

Both use the scientific method. Although the type of knowledge they produce is not identical, both the general sciences and the historical sciences contribute “true” ideas to the collective body of knowledge.

I put “true” in quotation marks because scientists of all stripes constantly work to disprove accepted theories. When evidence supports a theory, that’s great, but it’s more important to see what other evidence might disprove the theory. In this way, while it is a challenge to conclusively prove a scientific theory beyond any possibility of dispute, it can be quite simple to disprove the same theory. This is how we know that vaccines don’t cause autism (a disproven theory) and that gravity is likely more of a push than a pull (a theory modified from its original version).

As The Skeptical Raptor suggests, evidence against a hypothesis is more powerful than evidence in favour of it. In other words, if you have three bits of evidence in favour of a theory and only one against it, the theory is wrong. It might not be entirely wrong (as in the gravity example above), but something about it needs to be changed to more accurately represent what is happening.

This is why so-called scientific laws are not carved in stone. Just like national laws, they can change.

Scientists face a lot of criticism when they announce that they were wrong about something. Also when they refuse to state anything with 100% certainty.

But what they are trying to say is that, while there is no absolute truth, there are degrees of validity.

Additionally, a theory is only based on the scientific method if people can imagine a way to test or disprove that theory.

If there is no way to test it, then there is also no way to prove it or argue it either way. We’ve left the realm of science to enter the realm of philosophy (which, by the way, has a lot of value in its right).

One of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s more infamous theories says that all girls experience penis envy, recognizing the male sex organ as superior to their own. When challenged with evidence that went against his theory, namely that many girls and women say they do not have penis envy, Freud simply asserted that they were in denial.

This is an example of how logic can fail us by denying or explaining away contradictory evidence. Evidence is more important than logic and the hypothetical plausibility of a theory based on logic alone says little about how a process might actually play out in the real world. We can imagine all kinds of logically possible beings, processes, and events. Both Freud’s theory and his explanation of contradictory evidence sound logical and plausible. But as soon as he explains away the gaps with circular logic that draws on no evidence, the theory stops being scientific. You can no longer falsify (i.e. come up with a way to test his theory) since there is nothing observable (i.e. no evidence). We are forced to toss the whole thing out the window.

Real scientists and seekers of knowledge are always trying to disprove their own theories. They don’t need something to be right just because they have always thought it must be true. Instead, they constantly re-examine their assumptions and come up with new ways to disprove existing explanations.

Of course, if people test a theory for decades and centuries with no successful disproof, then the theory generally becomes established as fact. In careless everyday speech, many people including scientists will say it is therefore “true,” but I would recommend being more specific in what we say. Otherwise, we risk obscuring that in this context the word “true” simply means “rigorously tested but never disproven.” If contradictory evidence surfaced, we would accept the error in the original theory.

Science requires a flexible mind, as well as an acceptance of uncertainty.

On a final note, I use the word “disproof” above, which is probably more recent incarnation than the word “proof.” Originally, to “prove” something meant to test it, as in its derivative word “probation.” Knowing this helps us understand what the scientific method means by proving something is true – it actually means the opposite of what we might think: you can only prove a theory by seeking to show it is false, but failing to find evidence that goes against it.