Saturday, May 18, 2013

Skepticism is more of a "Hmm" than a "HA!"

Cafe 116
Rawanda "Pour-Over" (coffee)
Mexican Tea Cookie
Rustic Veggie Soup

Yep, it's a frou-frou coffeehouse today.  But it's pretty good stuff.  I just felt like hanging downtown, occupying some valuable window real estate for a few hours.

So.  I posted that phrase - skepticism is more of a "Hmm" than a "HA!" - and I was very disappointed at the number of "Like"s it didn't get.  I thought I'd said something profound.  Apparently, I must elaborate.

First, there's a lot of bad science out there.  There's pseudoscience and conspiracy theories, and a lot of skewed headlines that take a legitimate study that says one thing and make it sound like it's saying another thing entirely.  There are a lot of - okay, a WHOLE LOT of - people using scientific studies or statistics to back up claims that those studies don't show.  I'll give you an example:

One of the claims that opponents of same-sex marriage make is that "studies show" that gay people are more likely to abuse children.  I looked this up.  The studies being referenced actually show the exact opposite.  In the two major surveys in question, the perpetrators were overwhelmingly male.  They were also overwhelmingly men who identified themselves as straight.  Men who identified themselves as gay were disproportionately less likely to be abusers: only 1 or 2 out of a hundred in one study, and zero in the other study.  To my recollection.  But opponents of gay marriage make their claims based on the fact that both male and female children were abused by these mostly male predators.  They are conflating the abuse of these boys with consensual adult homosexuality.  By that logic, prison rape (or just prison sex) would count as "gay sex," and we would then have to conclude that we are incarcerating gay Americans at a greatly disproportionate rate to the overall population.  Something should be done!

But the hot anti-logic du jour has to be the rampant conspiracy theorists terrorizing our political system.  That's such a hostile sounding sentence when I reread it.  Let me throw down the caveats.  First, conspiracy theorists have been around since long before the beginning of this country, and they occupy all points along the political spectrum.  And I do not categorically disdain conspiracy theorists.  They are actually kinda "my people," and I will beg apologies now for some of the dumbass things I have said, especially as a teenager.  That does not, however, mean that I only like the conspiracy theories that align with my political philosophies.  The point is that not all conspiracy theories are created equal.

The reason that I would deride birthers, for example, is that there is nothing about their claims that stands up to scrutiny.  Upon scrutiny, it is plainly clear that the originator of the myth is biased and has a history of making false claims that have been subsequently debunked.  The logic used to explain the planning of this conspiracy is highly convoluted.  And the fact that legally recognized documents have been produced throughout the lifetime of the president that have faced no question makes it an improbable claim.  The long-form birth certificate should never have had to be produced because of the ridiculousness of this myth.  I don't have a long-form birth certificate, but the DMV and Social Security Administration (and, thus, Homeland Security) were completely satisfied with my short-form birth certificate.  Why would it suddenly no longer adequately show my age and place of birth if I chose to run for office?  Oh, that's right - it is adequate, just for everyone else except this guy.

If you are too lazy to scrutinize, and if you are being told by people you trust to be honest arbiters of information (FOX News, elected officials) that the birth certificate is suspect, then it's easy to see how the myth could have been sustained for so long.  At this point, though, after all the vetting, the production of the long-form birth certificate, and the verification by a bi-partisan assortment of government officials, if you're still a birther then you have no desire to be otherwise.  You don't want the truth, you just want to have a reason to hate the guy.

And there's the difference between questioning for the sake of finding the truth and questioning for the sake of validating your opinion.  I don't have a problem questioning the official storyline, questioning common beliefs.  I find no reason to believe that this government couldn't be hiding something.  America isn't inherently impervious to corruption.  However, I don't believe it is inherently corrupt, either.  Because of the very vastness of the government, and of the many checks on authority we have built in to the system, I think it is much more unlikely to have corruption across the board.  I think we are losing many of those checks, though, and that is inherently dangerous.  For now, though, I think that corruption, where it exists, tends to be localized and limited.  Which is not to say that a handful of corrupt officials can't do far-reaching damage, just that it is not likely to be the whole system working against you.

Logically, speaking. 

And that's all science is: the method of logic.  Some people deride science as if it's some kind of mean-spirited religion.  An institution of kill-joys.  True scientists - skeptics, in general - are only out to find the truth.  We may all like it when science validates some of our preconceived opinions, but we value the truth more, even when our beliefs are proved wrong.  And not just partial truth.  The whole truth.  And even then, we'll still add an asterisk.

The problem with a lot of unconventional or conspiratorial theories, is that there is often some amount of truth to them.  That's why I like watching those Ancient Aliens shows on the History Channel.  They often will bring up some bit of trivia that is true and that I was previously unaware of.  The problem is that they will then make conclusions that are not makeable.  The beauty and the burden of science is that science says only what it can say.  If it's good science, well-designed and focused in its scope, then it will be able to say a lot.  Mostly, it will be able to say what "isn't."  If it's weak, all it can do is offer more questions, at best, and confuse, at worst.

So, if you're still confused about what I mean by "hmm" versus "HA!" I'll try one last time to be explicit.  When someone offers an explanation, a bit of knowledge or information, a skeptic will say, "hmm," and will then analyze the proposed information logically if they want to reach a conclusion about its veracity.  A skeptic will not immediately say, "HA! See?  I was right, and you're an idiot!" if they are offered something that appeals to their biases.  Even smart people do this; it's part of our base instincts.  But it's important to guard against this reflex... read the label before you eat that chocolate bar someone has just handed you...

Unless you like the taste of sweet, sweet bullshit.

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