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Posts Tagged ‘skepticism’

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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Too long ago for it to still be topical, Greta Christina asked for some ideas on how the atheist and skeptical communities can “take on social justice”.

It’s a less intensely important question to me than it might once have been. I’ve been drifting a little from the “community” part of atheism and skepticism online lately, more through a reordering of my priorities and time management than any fading of my passion for the subjects themselves. But I’m going to chip in with an idea of what might benefit a lot of online communities, all the same. It’s not a specific suggestion for something which can directly be put into place (which is what Greta was asking for); it’s just where my mind went on giving the question some thought.

Don’t expect everyone to speak with one voice.

On anything.

There needs to be room for genuine, deep, fundamental differences of opinion to be expressed, among people who coexist in a community and share some common goals and interests. That really needs to be a thing that’s okay. Otherwise disputes and disagreements will still be inevitable, but they’ll also be needlessly divisive.

And we need to be very selective in what assertions someone can make which render them persona non grata to us. We need to be very slow and cautious in deciding that somebody’s differences make them such a hostile, destructive outsider that their collegiality absolutely cannot be tolerated, and they must be either forcefully and vehemently corrected or simply cast out.

We spend a lot of time telling religious people that, even though we think they’re completely, empirically wrong about things they strongly believe, and that our beliefs might offend them personally on a visceral level that makes them recoil from our very existence, we’re still people, and we deserve respect. Well, some of the ideological and personal gaps between atheists are at least as wide and chasmic as those between myself and any given god-botherer, so the same logic deserves to be turned inward, too.

To take a completely arbitrary and uncontroversial example: some atheists think that Rebecca Watson was right in the advice she offered after being approached by a man in an elevator in a way she found inappropriate. Other atheists think that she overreacted in a way that was unjustified and sexist.

Now, there are unquestionably some terrible human beings who’ve taken hardline positions on both sides of this argument. But neither of these viewpoints is enough to make somebody a bad atheist. Neither of these viewpoints alone should make someone unbearable for you to be in the same room with. If the single fact you know about someone is that they disagree with you on “elevatorgate”, it’d be a real shame if that meant you could never swap any stories about your experiences of religious persecution with them, or share thoughts on how to discuss your godlessness with deeply religious relatives, or in some other way engage with each other on a topic that’s meaningful to both of you.

And this doesn’t mean that you can’t talk about Rebecca Watson’s courageous feminist activism and/or feminazi misandrist histrionics. If you think the implications of that whole clusterfuffle are important, then of course you should keep talking about it and explaining why it matters. But it’s not a great idea to use a simple yes/no analysis of “Are they on the right side?” as a litmus test for whether somebody really counts as a part of your group.

Now, if you do manage to give up on expecting your tribe-members to all agree on anything, this may make it harder to define exactly what it is that unites you all. But maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe you don’t need to maintain unity among the group even on important matters. Maybe you might have some positive interactions with folk who, for whatever reason, fail to see the heroic/evil Rebecca Watson for who she really is. Maybe, if we try to see people as still being part of our community even when they’re painfully misguided and wrong about some really obvious and important things, then our efforts toward “social justice” could – and bear with me, because this may sound crazy – benefit from an atmosphere of diversity and inclusivity.

So that ended up being less a practical suggestion, and more another restating of my tiresomely idealist philosophies. I make no apology for feeling compelled to repeat myself.

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So, I could do with keeping fit, and I think I should incorporate some more exercise into my life.

This is the sort of person I am now. I’ve got a wife and a career and a mortgage and a cat and a beard and a packet of sherbet lemons. I’m an actual grown-up. I’m also just the right sort of middle-class twat to want to start working out.

The sherbet lemons aren’t a grown-up or middle-class signifier, to my knowledge. They’re just on my desk as I type this, and so sprung to mind as another example of the wonderful things my life is full of these days.

Anyway. I’m not joining a gym or buying any more expensive and pointless equipment. Despite my brain’s better efforts, I’m determined to learn about my limitations from past experience, so I know that’s not the way to go. I’ll have much more success if I start getting active first, train myself to build up the motivation and drive on my own steam, make some kind of physical exercise a part of my routine, and then consider any external aids once I’m likely to use them, rather than getting the shiny gadgets first and expecting them to inspire me.

The problem is, I tend to get discouraged from doing any particular kind of exercise if I suspect it’s not the optimal thing I could be doing.

I mean, even though the basic fact that exercise tends to be good for your health is straight-forward, the health industry is at least as littered with misinformation and dodgy advice as any other. There are no doubt plenty of really effective ways to do yourself a great deal of benefit, but they’re vying for space with a bunch of crappy ideas that will mostly just waste your time.

The usefulness or otherwise of vitamin supplements and protein shakes and whatnot may not be so tricky to unravel if you know what you’re doing, but I’m coming up short when trying to figure out how to exercise effectively. If you add words like “scientific” or “skeptic” to an internet search for workout-related terms, you mostly end up reading about stuff like that “Evidence-based 7 Minute Fitness” thing the media was fawning over a little while ago, which, if even a modicum of scrutiny is applied, turns out, yeah, not so much.

I am at a particular loss as to how to separate out the good advice from the bad in this field.

Chances are I’ll just end up doing some running. It’s hard to go too wrong there, I suspect, and there are plenty of apps I like the look of to keep you organised and give it some structure. If I can get past the bewildering clusterfuckmare of acquiring the right sort of footwear, that is. Ugh, just thinking about going shopping for running shoes makes me want to give up on the 5k part and just stay on the couch.

Anyway. Advice or thoughts appreciated. I’ll let you know if and when I decide to give this “going outside” thing a shot. I hear it’s full of something called “fresh air”. Can’t possibly be good for you.

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A brief rationalist take on yesterday’s glurge:

A lot of it comes down to fundamental attribution error, of course. When I make a mistake, or do something that might seem rude or insensitive or otherwise negative, I’m aware of all the extenuating circumstances. I let myself off because I was tired or stressed from dealing with so much other shit, or because the blame can be pinned on something else in the world… any excuse as to why it doesn’t really count.

But when someone else cocks up, obviously they’re an incompetent asshole.

We don’t live in other people’s heads, so we aren’t naturally inclined to make all the same excuses for them as we do for ourselves. And we don’t feel their emotions to anything like the same extent they do, either.

When somebody else is suffering, or delighted, or in pain, or giddy with adulation, I might experience a surge of the same emotion on their behalf. My mirror neurons will start flapping away (neurons totally flap, ask any scientonomer) and encouraging me to empathise and bond with my fellow species-member.

But when there’s especially intense emotion, that just can’t come close to matching the experience of actually going through it. Even if you’ve seen either people in profound emotional highs or lows, it doesn’t intuitively feel like what they’re going through is really real. Your friend’s drama only impacted on you a little, nothing like what you’re experiencing now, so yours must be more real, more deep and profound. They were just moping and wailing, they can’t have felt it as strongly as you are now.

Except there’s every reason to suppose that they do. And your intensity of experience is just as inaccessible to them, but no less real for it.

Now that I’ve written all that, I’m not sure it adds very much.

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Why does God get to be the one thing you have to believe in before you’re allowed to see any evidence?

I’m getting bogged down in that thing about “believing is seeing” again. Have faith and the way will be shown to you. Put your trust in the Lord and you’ll feel the truth in your heart. Even atheists can find God if they just open their hearts to him and accept his presence.

In other words, if you start believing now, for no reason whatever, then you’ll be provided with a reason to.

What’s struck me recently is that I can’t think of a single other question, in any other field of study, where this kind of excuse-making is necessary.

If you drop something and watch it fall, it doesn’t matter what you believe about the laws that govern the force of gravity. Your object will act in accordance with those laws, and in so doing will give you hints as to what they are.

Reality’s good like that. It doesn’t care what you think. It just gets on with its own business. It just is. Reality doesn’t wait and hide, until you agree to have blind trust in it, and only then agree to give a demonstration of E = mc2 in action.

And yet God is often claimed to be a special case. Again and again, atheists are advised that if they just believe as hard as they can, by force of will, then in a complete reversal of the rules of cause and effect and basic logic, they will become aware of the reasons to believe as a result of their belief.

Which is kinda weird, isn’t it?

I mean, I suppose it could just be a fact about the character of this all-powerful tyrant demanding our fealty. It may be that God’s personality is such that he deliberately chooses to hide from anyone being rational, and reveals himself only to those who’ve already bought into his claims based on no evidence at all.

That could be the kind of dick your god is, I guess, though that claim itself doesn’t seem to have much supporting evidence. At least, none he’s chosen to share with me.

But the way some Christians make it sound, knowledge of God is in an entirely different category of information than literally any other kind of thought processes humans are capable of having. Despite God’s omnipotence, and despite all the dramatic healing and sea-parting and genocide he used to demonstrate his presence with, the responsibility is apparently on us to set the bar much, much lower for him than any other human endeavour.

If you want to know about reality, you go and test it, and base your beliefs on what the evidence indicates. But with God? You have to believe first, and then you get the evidence. Or not, if you weren’t believing properly. Or something.

(Even Christians who use the above arguments would, I suspect, have problems with applying the same approach to any gods other than their own. But guys, if you could suspend your faith in Yahweh for a sec and just believe in Ganesha real hard and let him into your heart, you’d finally have a chance to see all the evidence that you’ve been blind to all this time. C’mon, what’s stopping you? Is it maybe the same thing stopping me from “just believing” in your god? D’ya think?)

Doubting Thomas is an example of a religion explicitly rejecting the whole notion of basing your beliefs on what really exists. He takes a position antithetical to faith in the Bible, and is denigrated for it, despite his methods basically being that of rigorous science: he’s skeptical of an outlandish proposition, investigates the evidence, and updates his position based on new data. He doesn’t believe that Jesus is really back from the dead after crucifiction, but then has a poke at the guy’s hand-holes, and changes his mind.

But then Jesus completely fucks up the moral, by saithing unto him:

Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

Repent of your common sense, foolish mortals. Accept improbable claims at face value before there’s any evidence for them. That’s how to make Jesus love you.

Of course, there’s one simple way to explain all this, one reason why the evidence for God’s existence might depend on your own expectations and beliefs at the time – besides God being a malevolent ass, I mean.

The observer effect is a real thing, after all. People behave differently in experiments when they know they’re being scrutinised, and researchers’ reports of their observations is demonstrably affected if they’re told what result they’re meant to be looking for. If you’re primed to see a particular result, or to view some aspect of the world through the lens of God’s work, then you’re more likely to encounter evidence that seems to support your idea, than if you didn’t have this pre-existing “belief”. This could explain why the observations might depend on the observer’s state of mind.

But that would imply that God is just a set of psychological conditions inside people’s heads. And he’s got to be more than that if he’s so powerful and worth all this worship, right?

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The short answer, I think, is “yes, but”.

Actually no, that’s too short. Even the short answer’s fairly long, by normal short-answer standards.

Let’s just dive right into the long answer, then.

Hayley Stevens wrote something recently, in which she takes serious umbrage with some of the mockery directed by many skeptics toward those who believe in irrational things.

Despite a stereotypical affiliation with old white men – and perhaps a preponderance filling that demographic which justifies the stereotype somewhat – the skeptical movement is a pretty diverse thing, with people from various different backgrounds and walks of life. Hayley has spent more time firmly embedded in “woo” than many, having started involving herself with research into the paranormal as a believer in various weird things. She spent a significant part of her life on that side of matters, and has lingering sympathies to people who still feel as she once did.

As a result, it’s clearer to her than most that – although she doesn’t phrase it as such – being skeptically active sometimes looks a lot like being a dick.

Before it sounds like I’m doing that obnoxiously smug thing of claiming some sort of moral high ground, over all those other nasty skeptics out there who just aren’t as sensitive and caring as me (or that I’m asserting that Hayley is doing any such thing either), it’s worth remembering the status that skeptics tend to hold in discussions with the rest of the world. They’re used to being decidedly in the minority. Everyone has some kind of critical thinking skills, and employs some level of skepticism in their day-to-day lives, but the basic things the skeptical movement focuses on – logical fallacies and so forth – don’t have much of a place in mainstream discussion. And some of the results of people’s skepticism – such as atheism – are deeply unpopular in many parts of the world.

So many skeptics are kinda accustomed to being a fringe group, and they do many of the things fringe groups do, to try and maintain group solidarity and security. This can include banding together, tending to be wary of outsiders, and using satire, mockery, and ridicule against those they deem to be an oppressive majority, whose acceptance they never feel they’ve had, and have now decided they neither need nor want.

I don’t say any of this to criticise; I’ve been an active part of everything I’ve just described for years. Elements such as mockery and acerbic humour make total sense, and in many cases are justified and necessary parts of pushing a reason-based agenda.

Around half of people in the USA are young-earth creationists, including the last President and many major public figures and commentators. This religiously inspired fiction is a big, bold, mainstream view with widespread support and respect and long-established kudos. And whatever it’s based on, it sure as hell ain’t reason or science or things that make a lick of sense.

Beliefs like this, and the misunderstanding and contempt of science that they both depend on and exacerbate, are worth opposing, and sometimes ridicule and mockery is justified. In many hard-fought battles, skeptics have been the little guy punching up rather than down. Making powerful, establishment ideas look silly is a useful tool for undermining their authority, and for spreading the idea that they don’t need to be taken so seriously after all.

But it gets tricky. Rational assessment of the evidence leads us to conclude that the Earth is rather older than a few thousand years; it also brings us to many other conclusions that, while not 100% guaranteed, are pretty solidly reliable – for instance, that the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist.

Unfortunately, with this same flavour of rational assessment, you also often get the same flavour of mockery and disdain for people who get it wrong.

In many cases, we’re not punching up any more. We’re not taking a brave stand against a wide-reaching and dangerously misguided establishment that can take a few hits. The targets of our piss-taking end up being huge crowds of regular people who, with the best will in the world and no hate in their hearts at all, just don’t think the way we do about something.

That’s not great, you guys.

I’m not going to go trawling the history of this very blog, to look for examples of when I’ve done exactly this. I know there are a bunch of things back there that I wouldn’t say now, now that I’ve studied a little more rationality and cognitive bias, grown up a little more, and essentially tried to become more patient and compassionate (as often happens when you grow up and start understanding more things).

Already, as I mentioned the other day, my rationality has bolstered my compassion. Meanwhile, on the other loop of the virtuous circle, adopting a position of compassion and understanding helps my rationality along too. To see how that works, it’s worth briefly analysing my immediate reaction on reading Hayley’s post – in what direction my lizard hindbrain flinched, before any actual thinking started going on.

Remember a while ago, I talked about noticing myself get a bit huffy over an entirely un-huff-worthy remark by Jon Ronson on Twitter? Some irrational, reactive part of me took his comment as an assault on reason, which was then interpreted as a personal attack on me. I started automatically running through all sorts of defensive arguments, for a belief that hadn’t actually been argued against in the slightest. And something similar happened in an unhelpful corner of my head on reading Hayley’s dismay at some skeptical mockery.

I don’t think the problem was that I’ve mocked believers in the past, and I was resisting being told that I was personally wrong or mean-spirited to do that. I think that I was leaping to defend the notion of ridicule as a legitimate tactic, and to fight the idea that any instance of careless or disrespectful language is a sign of a cruel and unsympathetic character (which, like in Jon’s case, isn’t at all what Hayley said).

So I started rehearsing my cached thoughts about comedy being an important part of a robust discussion, the history of satire’s influence on dangerously wrong-headed thinking… All the things which require taking the least charitable interpretation of Hayley’s words possible, and the grandest sense of personal righteousness, for them to make any sense at all.

Whereas, if I actually think about it, and grant her any reasonable benefit of the doubt, it’s not hard to see that her intentions are surely far more benevolent than my involuntary, instinctive, superficial judgment of them. I can stop to examine what arguments she’s actually making, and what ideas and feelings are at their source. And it becomes quite clear that she has a point.

While mockery may be an important and useful part of the broader public debate – used in carefully chosen moments, directed more at the ideas themselves than the people espousing them – it’s an extremely rare case when it’s actually employed with such precision tactics. Much more often, it’s just because it feels good to vent some of that frustration at those other people who are just such idiots you guys, like, ugh.

And we can do better than that. It’s not the worst thing in the world, and I’m not decrying some terrible rift in the skeptical movement because of how mean some people are. But we all spend a lot of time believing irrational things, and skeptics are the one group who should’ve studied enough psychology to know that there is literally not a single exception to that generalisation, in the entire global set of “people who are awake”. There are people like us, who are mistaken, and we can do better than to punch down at them.

Hayley explains the way she feels some of this ridicule personally:

If you laugh at people because they believe in stupid things you’re laughing at me six years ago…

When skeptics mock believers, they’re mocking my people.

Which is simply what empathy is.

Hayley’s experiences have broadened her innate conception of how her “in-group” is defined. But we can broaden it even further, and do even better.

If you laugh at someone for the human failing of believing something unreasonable, you demean what it is to be human. When people are cruel to people, they’re being cruel to my people, because all the people are my people.

That’s the stance I’m aiming for. I’m not there yet, by a long way, but it’s worth the effort.

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There’s two things we need more of:

  1. Rationality
  2. Compassion

Those are the big two, anyway. Not a revelation in itself, but my ideas crystallise interestingly now and then. In particular, my mind keeps wandering back to a point JT Eberhard made a while ago.

The sum of the battle between reason and faith can be reduced to this: both compassion and reason can be terrible without the other.

Reason without compassion gives us nuclear bombs instead of nuclear energy.

Compassion without reason produces loving parents who watch their children die of easily curable diseases, because the parents think prayer is a better tonic than medicine.

I think maybe the reason my brain keeps prodding me to explore this some more, is that it’s been working through its own related thoughts, and has finally got somewhere with it.

The idea that compassion and rationality are, in essence, the two most vital aspects of life, and the two areas in which the most valuable world-saving work can be done, isn’t that new to me.

And I think what I want to talk about is how they aren’t just non-overlapping magisteria, but can both feed into each other. There’s a virtuous circle to fall into there, between a scientifically skeptical approach to the world, and a love for humanity, if you try.

I’m currently in the midst of reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. This is a well overdue development, because I’ve been reading other books and blogs about cognitive biases, which cite Kahneman’s work constantly, for years. But if his name isn’t abundantly familiar to you, this book will properly blow your mind.

Even if you’re well up on much of the skeptical literature about logical fallacies, and can spot people using straw-men or ad hominems a mile away, there’s a whole other realm of how your own thinking will mislead you. You can read about so many brilliant experiments into the way people’s intuitions and assumptions lead them awry, and ought to feel a little creeped out knowing that you are in no way immune from any of this mental blundering which you can see leading other people into palpably misguided decisions.

There’s also research showing how hard it is to admit that this stuff really does apply to you as much as anyone, and not keep seeing yourself as a special case, whose thinking really is as clear and unbiased as it feels like. But I’m starting to get sidetracked.

The point is, the more you know about the unreliable processes of human thinking, the easier it is to not hate people when their thought processes fail them in very human ways. To study and embrace rationality, you have to learn to identify and work around your own flaws; once you know a bit about what they are and how difficult they are to avoid, you’ll be more inclined to understand them in others, and realise that it’s these artefacts of human cognition which make people they way they are, not just an inherently evil countenance. You’ll also learn to examine your own anger toward others more critically, and trust it less.

And the reinforcement can work the other way, too. The more compassionately you feel toward other people, the better chance you have of taking on board new arguments, hearing and listening to alternative viewpoints, and absorbing information that might change your mind. If you stick with your natural instincts, and let your brain define anyone not already firmly in your camp as an “other” whose heretical ideas need to be defended against, then you’ll find it incredibly hard to admit, to yourself or anyone else, that you might not have been lucky enough to be perfectly correct about something the first time.

Compassion helps you avoid the cognitive fallacies and biases that come from tribalism and defensiveness. Rationality helps you see the humanity in everyone else, by recognising their proneness to cognitive error as a part of yourself.

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If you asked me to sum up one of the most important and influential developments in my outlook on life and way of thinking in recent years, the thing which has most changed my view on the world and on myself, and which I’d most love to see more broadly spread among everyone and its importance appreciated, in a single word…

…I’d probably ask who you are and why I should bother paying attention to your long, wordy, and arbitrarily restrained questions, before making some more tea and procrastinating some more of my novel.

But if you caught me in a sharing and succinct mood, my answer would be:

Metacognition.

Which refers, in very brief terms as I best understand it, to “thinking about thinking”; being aware of what goes on inside your own head, of the physical and emotional processes that lead you to certain beliefs and states of mind.

The ability to see one’s thoughts as the product of a cluster of organic matter, moulded into shape by billions of years of competitive evolution, working through its own programming in an often chaotic and messy way – and not as simply the way things are because that’s how you see and feel them and so that’s the way the world is – is massively underrated.

Eventually I’ll explain more what I mean, why I think this, and what it’s meant to me (though in the meantime, as is often the case, Eliezer Yudkowsky’s got it pretty well covered if you want to read some more). But one thing in particular set me on this train of thought recently.

Journalist and nice man Jon Ronson tweeted recently about a new edition of his radio show that’s going to air soon. In his words:

The first episode is about how whenever I look at my clock the time is 11.11.

Obviously it’s an exaggeration, but the ensuing surge of retweets and other Twitter discussion showed that it’s not just some personal oddity, noticing a certain time of day coming up disproportionately often in the course of your clock-watching; many other people reported a similar phenomenon, often with exactly the same time. (I’d actually heard of this before, but with 9:11.)

Why does it happen? Well, various things spring to mind. Once you start noticing when it happens to be 11:11, for instance, it’s probably hard to stop, particularly once it’s in your mind as a cultural event which dozens of people have been tweeting about. I’ve completely lost track of how many times I’ve glanced at some sort of clock today, because none of them has been memorable for more than a few moments; if one particular time had special reason to stick in my mind, then I might start to remember it as if those were the “only” times I looked at a clock.

The lines of 11:11 have an obviously pleasing flat, straight, simple symmetry to them, which make them more interesting to notice than, say, all those occasions when I’ve checked the time and it was 14:53. (That could quite plausibly have happened to me hundreds of times in my life, for all I know, and I don’t remember a single one of them.) And maybe, on a subconscious level, it’s not always accidental; if you notice the time when it’s 11:07, perhaps you’ll be flicking back there every so often over the next few minutes, to see if you can catch 11:11 in the act.

And people regularly exaggerate, misremember, and misinterpret, of course, especially when they’re trying to make sure they have a story to tell that’s at least as good as everyone else’s.

I’d gone some way down this line of reasoning, after reading Jon’s first tweet, when I thought: Wait, why am I starting to get defensive about this? I’m doing some motivated thinking here, as if I needed to defend the idea that coincidences happen without there being some sort of supernatural, paranormal force behind it all.

…When did anyone bring supernatural paranormal forces into this?

Because literally nobody had. The only thing that had happened was someone mentioning a pattern they seemed to have observed. There wasn’t even a hint of an implication that pixies or goblins must be responsible for it (and Jon has a track record for being more grounded than that). But I started reacting as if there were, in the conversation my brain started carrying on with itself.

It’s not hard to understand why I’d do that; those sorts of stories, where an ostensibly improbable occurrence is used to justify belief in something wacky, do go on all the time, and do regularly annoy me. This wasn’t one of those times, but the cached thoughts welled up in my mind anyway, and if I hadn’t been attentive to it, I could’ve started arguing vehemently and digging my heels in to defend a position that wasn’t remotely under attack.

I suppose it’s worth briefly exploring what the trivially obvious arguments against such supernatural bollocks would be – primarily, that any spiritual or divine agent devoting its efforts to influencing when Jon Ronson happens to check the time, but which is continuing to let tens of thousands of children across the world die from starvation, AIDS, and malaria, is irrelevant at best and downright malevolent at worst.

But that’s not my main point here. More interesting right now, is how quickly I began building up mental defences in response to a completely imagined attack on a belief system which I shouldn’t even really be that defensive over anyway.

This has gone on long enough for now. I’ll try to hone in on some interesting parts to this in more detail soon.

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