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This is kinda interesting – how much are you swayed on matters of scientific fact, by your biases about what should be true according to your political ideology?

In my case, reassuringly little. In fact slightly more of my mistakes were caused by attempting to deliberately steer away from politically motivated thinking than my prejudices themselves.

Still, 39% seems like a worrying low score for total correct answers, and I don’t know whether to be reassured or concerned that 60% of people did even worse.

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Murder is illegal in this country.

But I couldn’t tell you where it says that in the statute-books without doing a bit of research. I can’t cite the exact law off the top of my head, or provide the precise codified wording which strictly speaking makes it illegal to murder another person.

But it’s definitely illegal. I could look all that up if I wanted to. But even if I don’t want to, I’m still justified in believing that murder is illegal. My indirect observations have led me to place a very high probability of truth on that statement, and I don’t think that’s an indicator of poor calibration.

This is relevant to yesterday’s discussion of how homeopathy doesn’t work.

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Will Storr wrote a book really worth reading called The Heretics. It’s about people with beliefs on the fringes of mainstream or accepted scientific thought, and it’s about the skeptical movement that challenges and calls them out. In particular, it’s about how the author has failed to find a comfortable place for himself within the latter, despite sharing so many of their ideals and principles.

I read this book last year and scribbled lots of notes about it, and am only now getting around to putting those notes together into a coherent article. Knowing me, “coherent” will probably be aiming too high and this will likely end up rather scattershot and disordered. [Update from the future: Yep.]

At times the book feels a little uncharitable in its depictions of the characters involved, and a little unfair in its conclusions. But although it felt that way for me to read it, I know a lot of that feeling comes from defensiveness about a perceived attack on my own tribe, who I’m reluctant to allow to be criticised on any point that feels like it touches something personal. That doesn’t explain all that I wasn’t comfortable with – I think there are times when he does miss the mark in his final judgments – but nailing down which of my objections are reasonable and which are more emotionally driven is really difficult.

This difficulty is, in fact, a large part of his point in writing the book.

A lot of what he’s talking about is what he sees as a kind of skeptical tribalism, especially at certain gatherings like QED or Skeptics in the Pub. Many of the folk at these events have a very firm idea of what specific club they’ve joined, and exactly who the out-group are. They know very well what sort of person someone must be if they’re found in the pigeonhole labelled “homeopaths”. Not that it should be a surprise, but many self-identifying skeptics’ own beliefs and positions rely to a large extent on tribal in-group coherence, rather than the purely rational objective evaluation of data which they at least have the good sense to value and espouse.

The refrain that “There’s no evidence for homeopathy”, for instance, is a common one, even though for any reasonable interpretation of “evidence” it’s clearly untrue. Scientific research and evidence is what we fall back on as justifying our position, but several skeptics Will talked to couldn’t name or usefully cite a single study or meta-analysis that supported their position on homeopathy, and bristled when the question was asked.

Off the top of my head, I can’t accurately cite in detail the research which supports my ideas on homeopathy either. Clearly that doesn’t stop me from thinking that there are good reasons to think the things I think, all the same. But if my justifications for my beliefs aren’t truly what I think they are, that’s something worth identifying.

There are ways that general expert opinion can be judged by the layman, tools one can aquire to assess the proponderance of evidence usefully (if not impeccably) which doesn’t require us to each pick through hundreds of complicated technical papers before reaching a conclusion. This kind of direct observation isn’t the only way to learn things, and there can be sound reasons to believe things that appear to be based more on hearsay and second-hand reporting. For instance, if the average punter were tasked with writing a medium-length blog post on why they believe that the world is round – and that anyone who believe it’s flat is drastically, bewilderingly wrong – they could probably come up with something reasonable, despite not having been to space to admire the curvature of the earth directly, or personally circumnavigated it just to check.

But we don’t always think naturally in these terms, and so we often don’t summarise our positions on skeptical issues this way either. A more natural inclincation, if you’re a fairly representative skeptical blogger, might be to say “homeopathy doesn’t work, there’s no evidence for it”, and to get twitchy with anyone who starts asking you to cite papers from memory, because you’ve met people who ask questions like that before, and you think know where this is going. Your tribal integrity is under threat from someone suspected of being from the out-group.

It’s an entirely natural human tendency, when faced with such opposition, to assume the worst, close ranks, and awkwardly throw up defenses around one’s cherished beliefs to protect our ego from the perceived threat. The question worth asking for me is: are skeptics actually any better than anyone else at recognising this tendency in ourselves and working around it?

It’s not that it’s wrong to bristle at the question. It’s that it’s really important, for skeptics especially, to recognise both why it’s not a wholly rational response to bristle, and also why it’s utterly human, and completely understandable – and something we have in common with just about every “true believer” we’ve ever had a heated/feisty/empassioned conversation with. Because if we’re not better than average at recognising that kind of faulty thinking and deploying techniques to avoid it, then being right about the things we’re right about is only going to be of partial help.

I imagine it’s deeply unoriginal and quite tiresome for all involved to draw comparisons between The Heretics and any of Jon Ronson’s books, but that’s not going to stop me. One thing I remember about Jon’s approach to visiting the depths of close-knit tribal alien gatherings and reporting on them as an outsider, is that I don’t recall ever simply disliking anyone he wrote about. Which sounds bizarre, given the amount of time he’s spent with neo-Nazis and profoundly hateful religious fanatics. But either there was something affable in their quirkiness and perhaps Jon’s own affection seeped through, or there was something humanising he’d found about them, which went some way toward hinting at an underlying explanation for what was otherwise unappealing about them, in a way that caught the interest just enough that we weren’t leaving with the idea that they’re simply the antagonist to this piece and we’re supposed to take against them.

It could be that my hazy memory is giving Jon a little too much credit. I may be unfairly searching for an unfavourable comparison by which to downplay Will’s attacks on my tribe. But it feels like he doesn’t always acknowledge that same level of individual humanisation, while recounting certain remarks by certain skeptics in a way that insinuates a disapproving tone over the whole enterprise.

Is that reasonable? Am I being unjustifiably tribalistic, to expect him to tilt the balance even further toward acquiescence to my team? Or is it fair to suggest that his own personal biases might have led his own narrative into the kind of judgmentally prejudiced thinking he’s identifying in so many others?

Either way, it’d be petty to reject or condemn the whole book based on differences like this, however strongly I might feel about them. I’ve read and enjoyed numerous well-argued atheistic and skeptical tomes and essays which would no doubt be at least as grating to anyone not already on my side of the aisle who was trying to engage with it. (Most of the history of this blog is probably included in that as well.)

Actually, that paranthetical deserves more of a digression than that, as I felt particularly strongly in the chapter on James Randi. Various defences and objections to Will’s assessment formed in my head as I read, most of which he recapped and considered fairly a few paragraphs later. And a lot of my protests about his overly harsh insinuations would apply equally well to many other out-group people I’ve been critical of in the past, and of whom I’ve read far more damning accounts. If I want critics to go easy on someone I admire, I do not have a great track record of extending the same courtesy.

But it’s hard, because the things that feel like they’re of basic fundamental importance to us, like that homeopathy is bunk, are things that skeptics are generally right about. It’s important not to let that get lost in the fair and even-handed discussion of how both sides have things to learn and both sides are often swayed by irrational tribal urges and both sides have tendencies to make assumptions that unfairly privilege their own team and both sides etc etc. There is also often a crucial matter on which one side is also completely wrong. Will’s not denying that last point, and he’s got a lot to say about the earlier ones which isn’t easily dismissed with phrases like “tone policing”.

He looks into issues such as false memories, audio hallucinations, and Morgellons syndrome, and determines that the people involved with these issues generally aren’t “crazy”, and deserve to be granted a sympathetic ear – but this isn’t the direct counterpoint to the skeptical position that he seems to think. Most of what I know about the fragility of human memory, the fallibility of perception, and the need for compassion and understanding toward anyone who’s fallen prey to some of the myriad cognitive errors that afflict every one of us, I learned from the skeptical movement.

The section on David Irving was particularly good. It really got into the man’s head, explored and humanised him and all his irrationality, found a deep understanding and compassion for this person, without ever risking letting you think that he might be onto something with any of his utterly false notions.

In the end, even if there are potential complaints with the representation of cherished movements, and if the ratio of interesting questions raised to insightful answers proposed is sometimes higher than I’d like, there’s a lot in The Heretics that’s enjoyable to read, and which provides some level of intellectual challenge to anyone with any kind of investment on either side of any sort of discussion about “belief”.

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One thing I’ve been doing, in all that not-blogging time you may have noticed recently, is becoming something of a Scott Alexander fan-boy. So here’s a bunch of things he’s written which I’ve enjoyed and would recommend reading, which I made brief notes on at the time but which in practice I’m unlikely to write about myself at much length.

1. I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup

Putting this one up front because it’s possibly the most important and worth reading. It’s long. Read it all.

2. Social Justice And Words, Words, Words

3. Beware Isolated Demands For Rigor

4. Fifty Swifties

If you’re not familiar with the format, Tom Swifties are pretty straight-forward, and can be fantastically pleasing when well crafted. I’d particularly like to draw your attention to: “Satan is the original source of evil,” Tom said urbanely.

My own contribution: “I used to go out with that girl with a balloon stuck to her hair,” Tom said ecstatically.

5. Radicalizing The Romanceless

Pull-quote: “As usual with gender issues, this can be best explained through a story from ancient Chinese military history.”

This one’s really interesting, and the sort of thing I could burble for a few thousand words about myself, covering most of the same ground but with different emphases and disclaimers added, in part to make sure I’m also not inadvertently signalling allegiance with the manosphere, or whatever.

One thing to note is that I don’t think I do envy Henry what he has, in terms of emotional relationships. He might “get women” for a certain meaning of the phrase, but not in any way I’m interested in replicating. When I was single, I wouldn’t have envied him in the way that someone who works hard for low pay would envy the financial security of the richly rewarded.

But it’s an interesting exploration of the core idea: expressing frustration at your basic human animal needs not being met is totally okay when it comes to earning enough money to look after yourself, but completely unacceptable when it comes to engaging in human social interaction and sexual congress. Hard work is good and noble, but we’ll understand and be sympathetic if you’re just in it for the paycheck – whereas yearning for more of a human connection, or simply being horny and wanting to get laid, is treated as shameful, and not granted much serious consideration as to how much of a basic human need our sexuality can be.

There are sensible reasons why these two scenarios might garner differing reactions, of course – the historical societal relationships between men and women and between capitalist employers and workers are in many ways divergent – but not necessarily enough to justify such a split in how we treat people who are lacking in one area of life or the other.

In particular, feeling entitled to this thing from someone else is intolerable in one instance in particular. Which may be related to how things have historically tended to work out when men’s sense of “entitlement” to women hasn’t been stifled and tabooed.

This follow-up from Jai is also especially worth reading.

6. Book Review: Red Plenty, a “semi-fictionalized account of the history of socialist economic planning”.

It turns out that the concentration of centralised political authority was the not-that-hard-to-identify main problem with Stalinism (or one of them, anyway). I’m still optimistic about eventually orchestrating some way of maximising the benefits of both communist and capitalist systems while minimising the downsides that have tended to come with either in practice, so far.

But it also strikes me that whatever political system ought to work for us – whether it’s some variant on communism, capitalism, or something else – we shouldn’t expect that its fundamental philosophy can be summed up in any single pithy phrase. The history of communism-in-practice might seem like an object lesson in the value of letting people enjoy the direct profits of the work they do, but even that’s not a simple concept, and there’s no reason to suppose anything like this can be summed up simply, in a way that’s unambiguous to everyone. If you start insisting it can, you’re in danger of convincing yourself that your ideological slogan is more important than the real-world practical results of our efforts to organise ourselves efficiently and fairly.

7. The Categories Were Made For Man, Not Man For The Categories

8. The Toxoplasma Of Rage

9. Untitled

This is not the first ten-thousand word rant about feminism by Scott Alexander that I’ve read, and so far they’ve all been worth it.

10. Book Review: The Machinery Of Freedom

The thing about advocating libertarian/anarchist principles, though, is that it tends to be more about living by those principles in your personal life and allowing their beneficial influence to infuse the culture around you and spread that way, than about setting up a small nation-state somewhere to test them out immediately on a huge scale working from scratch.

It’s clear we need some sort of system of working collectively to achieve the things we want to achieve as a society, but whether that system involves a “government” in the sense that anarchists would have no truck with isn’t the most interesting or important point. It’s allowed to be blurry around the edges and not easily summed up. Like I was saying earlier, it’s unlikely that adopting a single unifying idea like the non-aggression principle will make things all fall into place, or that a statement of political philosophy brief enough for an elevator pitch will provide us with any clue how to actually do stuff in the real world. But so long as we’re keeping track of the ideas and not getting too hung up on how to label things, we can always be aiming for utopia, and creating something with more associated benefits and fewer costs than whatever we have now.

11. Extremism In Thought Experiment Is No Vice

I mean, I’d suggest that the “spirit in which it’s conceived” is not anything as noble as intellectually curious moral philosophical investigation in the Duck Dynasty guy’s case, but this is still interesting.

12. Against Tulip Subsidies

There’s so much more where all that came from, but those are some of the highlights.

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At any time of year, it bears repeating.

I’m going to go eat too much and be happy with my family and stuff now. Merry Christmas.

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I don’t like to say “atheist” because I feel like atheists have that same chip on their shoulder that people who feel like their religion is the only right thing have. It’s to know something, to think you know something definitively that, I feel, we as mere mortal humans can’t possibly know. I think it’s just as obnoxious.

Sarah Silverman is right. Atheists are totally obnoxious.

You know who’s especially bad though? Anyone who refuses point-blank to even consider sacrificing their only child on the altar of an unknowable deity. I mean, it’s probably not something I’d do myself – in fact, murdering children because of religious beliefs is something of a bugbear of mine – but the people who claim to know with absolute certainty that it’s wrong? They can be equally annoying.

Also, does anyone else get a little freaked out when chemists keep talking about carbon and calcium and aluminium and so forth, and just presume that those are all actual things? They seem pretty damn sure about that big table with all those elements on it, don’t they? I’m not saying that whole “air, earth, fire, water” thing didn’t have its problems, or couldn’t use some updating, but the extent to which some modern extremists so totally dismiss it in favour of their new paradigm doesn’t sit right with me.

And hey, here’s another bunch who wind me up: heliocentrists. Not all of them, by any means, just the hardcore contingent who put me off wanting to identify with the term myself. Sure, I go along with the claim that the Sun’s at the centre of the solar system with the Earth revolving around it, but is it so hard to even admit that it might be the other way around? That maybe this infinite and incomprehensible universe is stranger than we mere mortal humans can comprehend? The arrogance with which some people just tell flat-earthers that they’re “flat-out” wrong really grates on my nerves.

As if that kind of certainty were really possible within the limits of our human perception. It just comes across as narrow-minded.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Can you think of any other completely one-sided debates where it might be fun to occupy a smug middle ground?

2. How reasonable might it actually be that some people have come to this sort of conclusion about atheists?

3. Is this webcomic ever going to stop being relevant?

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Sylvia Browne has died.

Spend more than a few minutes looking into the kind of thing she devoted her life to, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that she was pretty much one of the worst people it’s possible to be, driven by only the ugliest of human faculties and emotions.

We don’t need to forget or ignore this fact now that she’s gone, but neither is there any need to take joy in the news. Wishing suffering or vengeance on any part of the world only makes it darker and less lovely to be in. And death is still a far greater enemy than Sylvia Browne ever was, no matter how much she twisted it to her advantage over the course of a long and horrid career.

Some people will be personally saddened by Sylvia’s passing; they have my sympathies, even if I can’t honestly join them in their mourning.

For many, the news is a prompt to remind the world at large about this woman’s utter lack of psychic abilities, and the importance of learning how to avoid being taken in by obvious scams, swindles, and other misrepresentations of reality. I’m all for this, but I hope one thing that doesn’t get lost is the point that not everyone with the “wrong” belief in psychic powers is like this.

Some folk believe (incorrectly, sure) that they have some kind of power or gift, and are moved to try to help people, feeling a deep and sincere concern for the well-being of their fellow humans, rather than simply emulating the flimsiest charade of humanity. There is absolutely a non-null intersection between compassion and supernaturalism.

Sylvia Browne was not one of the good ones, by any measure. We can do better than to let any further cruelty and unfair judgment become part of her legacy.

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