Are You One Of Us, Or One Of Them?

Politics & Current Events, Science

Like most people, I'm lazy.

As a result, I was always at most indifferently competent at math and science. Sure, I did well enough in high school to get into a good college. That's because they stuck me in the slow classes for math and science, I earned perhaps a 75%, and it got curved up to an A-. I escaped before it became clear that I was faking pre-calculus and chemistry, because they involved facts and skills and work, not self-expression. Then, at Stanford, I took the year-long three-unit "Physics for Poets" track to satisfy my math, biological science, and physics requirements. How does the Pythagorean Theorem make me feel? It makes me feel good. Watch me write a ten-page paper about that. I can dash out ten-page papers in my sleep; that's not work.

As a result of my laziness, I am willfully ignorant — practically innumerate and scientifically demi-literate. Thus, when I evaluate the scientific issues of the day — from global warming to evolution — I am, on some level, succumbing to an argument from authority. Which people spouting science I barely grasp, using methodology I can't follow past the Sunday-supplement level, do I believe?

As it happens, I find the evidence (as I understand it) of evolution to be very substantially more convincing than the criticisms levied against it. Similarly, I find the evidence of a global warming trend more convincing than the evidence and arguments to the contrary. The weight of consensus on one side or the other is one factor, though by no means a deciding factor. The whys and wherefores of that are far beyond the scope of this post.

This leads me to another sort of laziness, a type that I've tried (with mixed success) to avoid. Should "belief" in evolution and global warming (and particularly man-made global warming) be used as a quick and easy way to separate people whose views we should consider from those whose views we may safely ignore?

Some seem to think so. Take this post by DougJ at Balloon Juice, which suggests that one way to separate "reasonable conservative blogs" from the chaff is to ask their writers and commenters whether they believe in evolution or in a rise in the planet's temperature over the last 30 years. Jason Kuznicki at League of Ordinary Gentlemen bites, as does James Joyner at Outside the Beltway, and Will at League of Ordinary Gentlemen satirizes.

Though DougJ might not disqualify me from the ranks of reason based on my answers to his two questions, and I might agree with his own answers, I think the questions are carrying intellectually lazy and objectionable baggage, especially when coupled with an inquiry into whether other people are "reasonable" and their writing worth reading.

Here's the thing: people with unscientific, irrational, and foolish ideas about evolution and global warming might still have something worthwhile to say about other topics. Take, as one example, Senator Tom Coburn. Coburn doesn't believe in global warming. He also thinks that lesbian gangs were terrorizing Oklahoma's school bathrooms. But he's a been a vigorous critic of earmarks. He's right to attack earmarks, and no less right because he's a nut on other issues. If he's the lone voice in the wilderness on earmarks, and we refuse to engage his criticisms because they're coming from a lesbo-potty-phobic global warming denier, then we're being lazy and cowardly. On the other hand, there are plenty of people, and groups, that believe firmly in evolution and global warming, but can't be taken seriously as bastions of science or reliable political analysis. You won't find much creationism or global warming denying at the Huffington Post, but you will find it to be a cesspool of junk science and assorted twittery.

Honest people — people who care about issues, and not crass group identities — ought to resist the strong human drive to construct rationalizations for ignoring competing viewpoints. "We can safely ignore and marginalize any blog where most of the authors or commenters don't believe in evolution or global warming" is lazy tribalism, just as surely as "we can ignore any bloggers and blogs that don't support Sarah Palin" or "we can ignore any bloggers or blogs that don't oppose the War on Drugs." It's all a cheat, a form of shorthand — a quick way to separate, in our mind, people who belong from people who don't. It may unclutter your RSS feed, but you're not going to learn much that's new, you're not going to challenge yourself.

I read any number of blogs written by people who, if they noticed me, would conclude that I am evil, or a moron, or not worth consideration. I read PZ Myers, even though he would think me an idiot and a sheep for going to church, because I learn things from him. I read Balloon Juice, including the aforementioned DougJ, despite the din of simplistic sneers and jibes about "glibertarians," because I learn things from them, and because their criticisms help me test and question my views on issues. I'm not claiming to be a paragon of open-mindedness — I find some blogs and bloggers simply too insufferable to read. But that's usually not because they hold views I find to be wrong, or even ridiculous. It's usually because of the way they treat diverging opinions. And the fact that I'm willing to read and consider people who don't believe in evolution, or global warming, doesn't stop me from criticizing or even ridiculing them on those issues.

We're already inclined enough to focus on expression that congratulates us for our preconceptions. We don't need more excuses. Labels are and you-must-believe-this lists are excuses. Use them sparingly, if it all.

Last 5 posts by Ken White

28 Comments

25 Comments

  1. cackalacka  •  Feb 9, 2011 @12:22 pm

    I suppose it is intellectually lazy to put up two very basic, yet (for some reason near and dear to many conservative minds) 'controversial, scientific questions as a litmus test.

    But given the context, this week we've had a series of noted and prominent glibertarian flakes clutching pearls about the political leanings of intellectuals in the hard-sciences, and calling quotas and mandates for right-wingers in these fields, I'd say that DougJ's query is spot-freaking-on.

  2. Ken  •  Feb 9, 2011 @2:22 pm

    As a "litmus test" for what?

    What goal, exactly, is advanced by dividing people into those who accept these two scientific principles, and those who don't?

    And what does it matter if two "prominent" people have made a half-assed suggestion about political affirmative action? Unless, of course, one prefers to think of people primarily as neat categories. Yes, I criticize San Francisco banning happy meals, so I must be a "glibertarian", and McArdle is a "glibertarian", and she is apparently in favor of affirmative action for academic conservatives, and therefore I must be as well, because I belong in the same box as her.

  3. Dan  •  Feb 9, 2011 @2:28 pm

    You know what I hate? I hate Labelers.

    All those extremists should be taken out and shot.

  4. cackalacka  •  Feb 9, 2011 @3:18 pm

    No, Ken, I'm not taking issue with your post, which I find thoughtful. You stated up-front your limitations re: science, and presented a very cogent argument.

    Which is why I come to places like here or Balloon Juice or Balko's place (despite the recent pissing match between the last two.)

    As a non-libertarian, I am fully aware of how fundamentally heterodox your professed persuasion is. As a non-libertarian, I am also aware of how some 'libertarians' are nothing more than hipster-conservative-charlatans. I personally know libertarians like you and Balko; folks who have the ability to empirically look at various situations, understand their limited perspective, and yet still have something informative to say. I like to drink heavily with that type of person.

    I also personally know libertarians who argue -from authority- on matters of science, economics, statistics, etc. without the self-awareness that you display here; the less said about people/bloggers in that latter category, the better.

    If folks claim to be politically and scientifically enlightened conservative-leaning folks, as opposed to the unwashed masses that watch Fox and pump fists at NASCAR F-15 flyovers, I don't think it is beyond the pale for an semi-anonymous blogger to posit: OK, so you dig science/philosophy, and your conservative, how can you reconcile two cornerstone 'controversial' subjects that propel public policy on every level? Does one respond to the dog whistle and respond predictably, or does one have a retort worth reading?

    Your case is obviously the latter.

    To answer your question: "What goal, exactly, is advanced by dividing people into those who accept these two scientific principles, and those who don’t?"

    I'm not DougJ, but I'd imagine he probably posed it to separate the men from the boys. Got you to write this post, didn't it?

  5. W. Ian Blanton  •  Feb 9, 2011 @3:32 pm

    All I have is applause.

  6. Mike  •  Feb 9, 2011 @3:58 pm

    The average person believes in evolution only because that's what he or she was told to believe.

    How does that establish someone is a right-thinking person?

    What percentage of people who "believe" in evolution have read The Origin of the Species? Or even Richard Dawkins?

    How believing the right conclusions – which are right only because a man in a robe said they are right – a sign of thoughtfulness or education?

  7. Fnord  •  Feb 9, 2011 @5:42 pm

    I'm glad to know that, despite the fact that I believe the earth is flat, you will listen respectfully to my opinions about NASA.

  8. Ken  •  Feb 9, 2011 @5:47 pm

    Fnord, should I listen to you, a flat-earther, about (say?) whether marijuana should be legal? Why not?

  9. Fnord  •  Feb 9, 2011 @7:46 pm

    Firstly, there's the problem of judgement. If I believe the earth is flat, why should you trust me if I say that "THC is safer than caffeine"/"THC is more damaging than cocaine". And if I don't have an (at least somewhat) accurate assessment on the real nature of marijuana, do really want my opinion?

    Secondly, Doug's questions aren't as unconnected from other issues. Belief in a flat earth, though bizarre, isn't particularly associated with an ideology. Saying "I don't believe in global warming (at all, whether anthropogenic or not) and I don't believe in evolution" sounds, to me, like saying "I make political choices without reference to reality".

    Clearly, you don't want to exclude everyone who disagrees with you, even on issues of fact. Everyone makes mistakes. I might not draw the line there, but by the time we get to young earth creationists taking about homosexual conspiracies, or conversely "9/11 was an inside job" folks, I'm no longer interested.

  10. Ken  •  Feb 9, 2011 @9:31 pm

    Fair enough. But Fnord, I think Mike's point is well taken. How many people who say they believe in evolution, or global warming, do so based on any more careful consideration or analysis than people who say they don't?

  11. bw  •  Feb 9, 2011 @9:59 pm

    not only do you learn things, sometimes you realize people aren't what you initially thought they were. I forget what was the first post of yours that I read, but I do recall that it left me thinking you were pretty statist and authoritarian. It took three or four more posts to overcome that initial impression.

  12. Fnord  •  Feb 9, 2011 @10:38 pm

    Fair point, Ken. Perhaps the idea of asking questions as litmus test is a bit unfair, especially if "I haven't really given it much thought…" isn't an acceptable answer. That IS different from ignoring the tax policy half of the "Creationism and Tax Policy Blog".

  13. piperTom  •  Feb 10, 2011 @8:42 am

    I agree with Ken's broad comments and, more particularly, the question of "a rise in the planet’s temperature over the last 30 years" is an incredibly weak one. Temperatures go up and down*. So easy! Focusing on that diverts attention from two very important and very difficult questions:

    1. WHY? …and if human activity is a factor, to what extent?

    2. What are the costs and benefits of trying to do something about it?

    * Another peril of focusing on the wrong question: the short term temperature might go down. It did. Last month's global average temperature was LESS than the 30 year average. (but don't get excited — we're in a La Niña)

  14. Ken  •  Feb 10, 2011 @8:47 am

    Perhaps the idea of asking questions as litmus test is a bit unfair, especially if “I haven’t really given it much thought…” isn’t an acceptable answer. That IS different from ignoring the tax policy half of the “Creationism and Tax Policy Blog”.

    The Creationism and Tax Policy Blog is totally statist. They favor a progressive income tax. That's why I know Creationism is bogus.

    More seriously, to respond to both you and cackalacka, my sense is that this litmus test approach is being used to deal with policy arguments by ghetoizing them rather than engaging them. How do we know that Position X is silly? We know because the sort of people who write on blog Y argue for Position X, and people on Blog Y tend to be Creationists. Feh.

    I maintain that plenty of people are utterly dunderheaded on some issues and right on others.

  15. Skip Intro  •  Feb 10, 2011 @9:28 am

    Granted, and I would be surprised if DougJ were a big fan of HuffPo.

  16. eddie  •  Feb 10, 2011 @11:02 am

    It may unclutter your RSS feed, but you’re not going to learn much that’s new, you’re not going to challenge yourself.

    Why would I want to do that? I read blogs for entertainment and validation. It's cheaper than coke, and only slightly less productive.

  17. Poultine  •  Feb 10, 2011 @11:54 am

    While I readily agree that it's a thinking person's obligation to try to understand issues from the opposition's side, I will have to disagree about the merits of a litmus test for practical purposes.

    First, it's not useful to use such a test to wage an ad hominem attack against someone or something I disagree with. It is, however, a useful tool in terms of focusing my limited energies in terms of whose arguments I will spend my time considering.

    I have no quarrel with people who purport not to understand the argument for evolution or global warming, and, as a result, 'choose to believe' that some alternate reality is in place. Misguided, from my perspective, but so it goes with humans. I have opinions about Economics which are entirely unfounded in anything other than anecdotal evidence and, as you mention, arguments from authority.

    What I do find incredibly damning is the deliberate ignorance of facts or the nature of science. Promoting belief and demoting reason, as happens from time from prominent people. "Global warming can't happen because God is protecting us," and the like. People who engage in this kind of rhetoric are not on my reading list. Can they make a valid point on other matters? Certainly. Will I be there to hear about it? Most likely not — but I do hope that their more rooted-in-reality cohorts will carry the argument to a more rational forum.

    And there are issues which have no sound base in evidence (again, Economics, morality-based things like the right to perform abortions, etc), where the floor is open to anyone. I'll still seek out the writings of people who have shown a consistent respect for the truth, though it may be from a competing perspective to mine. So I won't be reading Fred Phelps' writings, except perhaps from a horror or aberrant psychological perspective.

  18. Mike  •  Feb 10, 2011 @4:47 pm

    Vox Day is smarter than I am, and he believes in God. Ken at Popehate has a higher IQ than I, and he believes in God. Doug Kmiece is much smarter than I, and he believes in God.

    Yet I should ignore people who are smarter because they hold a "wrong" belief.

    Well, if they are smarter than I…Could it be that I am the one who is mistaken?

    Also, as relates to the theory of evolution: I wonder how many of you have read Aristotle's Sciences, and realize that his view was recognized as true by all-right thinking people. And yet he was totally wrong. If you take a history of science course (and all of you smug pricks have, right?), you realize that what everyone *knew*….Well, it was wrong.

    What makes you so certain that we, today, are more right than Aristotle was, in his day?

    We can have beliefs, sure, and some things are probably more certain than others. A serious study of history, however, should provide us some humility.

  19. Fnord  •  Feb 10, 2011 @6:38 pm

    Ken, I don't disagree with everything on the "Creationism and Tax Policy Blog", I ignore it. If Person X holds Positions Y and Z, and Y is absurd, that doesn't mean Z is wrong. But it does mean that X is (presumptively) not serious about dealing with the issues. If Person A wants to talk about Z, I'll engage with them. But I have no obligation to engage with Person X.

    piperTom, those are all reasonable questions. But you can't even talk about those questions unless everybody acknowledges the actual facts about global temperatures.

    Mike, you can't ignore everyone who is simply "wrong"; I think that reasonable people can disagree about the matter of religion. That's different from holding a position that is so throughly contradicted by reality that it's absurd, like a flat earth or young earth creationism.

    On the Aristotle issue, yes, scientific (if such a word can be used about pre-Enlightenment beliefs) consensus has moved before. But it doesn't happen often, and you're extremely unlikely to meet the next Newton in the blogosphere. Especially if such an idea lines up with existing prejudices (new big ideas tend to be, well, new).

  20. Mike  •  Feb 10, 2011 @8:51 pm

    That’s different from holding a position that is so throughly contradicted by reality that it’s absurd

    You're being politically correct by not classifying religion as an absurd belief.

    Fact is: We believe all sorts of things not because they are true, but because we have an emotional need to believe those things.

    Look, man, I have met fantastic lawyers whose political views were totally moronic – to me. I worked with one who who – when it came to a very complicated area of law – was undeniably brilliant. She got a column for a legal newspaper, and, everyone just said, "What? She really believes that?!" Even people who agreed with her ultimate conclusions couldn't countenance her reasoning. If all you had to go on were her political columns, you'd consider her an idiont. And you'd be wrong.

    Knowledge, like ethics, is contextual. Another guy I worked for was a notorious philander, but was super old-school about rules for citing opinions. E.g., he wouldn't let quote case language if it came from a a case arising out of an unrelated area of law. It wasn't just because of credibility, either. The guy was a true believer in legal ethics – even where, as with case citations, I wasn't even trying to be shady.

    In general, people should be evaluated based on what subject matter they are speaking of. I'm very much interested in Doug Kmiec's view of the Constitution. I am less interested in his view that bread becomes human flesh after a robed man says a few magic words.

    You and others want to take a short cut. Rather than evaluating arguments and actually engaging in effortful thinking, you want to ignore someone. That's fine. It's lazy and contemptible, but many people in life choose to life as sluggards.

  21. Fnord  •  Feb 10, 2011 @10:00 pm

    Mike, if you never take cognitive short-cuts, you'll never get anything done. There are WAY more people talking on the internet than I have time or inclination to listen to.

    As for the religion thing, the less politically correct thing to say is that for cultural and maybe even neurological reasons, religion exploits a loophole in people's reasoning capabilities. Actually, politics does, too, so really I'm perfectly happy to discuss, say, video games with people with loony political views (as long as we stay away from BioShock). But I won't discuss politics with them, and as a general rule I won't discuss religion without good reason.

  22. Mike  •  Feb 11, 2011 @6:08 pm

    But I won’t discuss politics with them, and as a general rule I won’t discuss religion without good reason

    I like talking about books and strip clubs. I also like sugar-free Jell-O. The question wasn't about what you or I'd discuss. The question is whether it's appropriate to disregard a person's opinion on x because of his view on y.

    You seem unable to state a case for why one should disregard a person's view on x, because of his view on y. You state your preferences for conversational topics, but, again, that is a separate issue.

    I'll join in the narcissistic love fest. When I admire a person for whatever reason, I specifically do not want to hear that person's views on politics, God, or morality. Because that person will be *wrong* and will seem like an idiot. It ruins the image.

    Still………..It's not all about me. It's about what is right. To someone living in a culture of amoral narcissism, the distinction between "I don't like it," and "It's wrong," isn't obvious.

  23. Fnord  •  Feb 11, 2011 @6:32 pm

    Because I can't talk to everyone, Mike. I have to choose somehow.

    If someone is unwilling or unable to engage in an honest debate, how is talking to them useful? I'm far more likely to learn something from someone more attached to reality, and I'm certainly not going to teach them anything.

    So unless you think discussion for the sake of discussion is moral good, my time is better spent elsewhere.

  24. Jack Marshall  •  Feb 12, 2011 @7:48 pm

    A wise, fair, perceptive post, Ken. And well worth waiting for. Kudos and thanks.

  25. Greg Q  •  Feb 27, 2011 @12:47 pm

    Sorry for the failure to close my tag. :-( Let me try again:

    Hi Ken,

    Here's the lazy man's unscientific guide to why the anthropogenic global warming (human caused global warming) crowd is not worth listening to.

    1: If the people who claimed they believe in it actually did believe in it, it would affect their actions, and their lives.

    Al Gore, nevertheless, had a house in Nashville TN that used 20x the average amount of energy. Further, he had a swimming pool, and did not have a solar heater for teh swimming pool, even though solar heaters are cost effective. Would he act that way if he actually thought there was a problem?

    Or, consider this. As a logical matter it is simply not possible to believe all four of the following things. Nevertheless, those trumpeting that "we must do something" tend to hold all four beliefs:

    A: The world is warming up
    B: This warming is caused by human activity
    C: This warming is a bad thing, will lead to disaster, it's a serious crisis, we must cut down on carbon emissions right now!
    D: We should not make it easier, cheaper, and faster to build nuclear power plants, despite the fact that replacing coal, oil, and gas fired power plants with nuclear plants would lead to a significant and near immediate decrease in carbon emissions.

    2: ClimateGate. Real science is reproducible. If you publish a paper claiming that you got certain results, and no one else can get those same results doing what you said you did, the immediate assumption in scientific circles is that you have committed fraud. This is why, when you publish a scientific paper, you have to give pretty much anyone who asks everything they need to re-create your work.

    This is non-negotiable in pretty much every area of science (and pretty much every area of research. Remember Michael Bellesiles and Arming America"? His fraud was discovered when those who disagreed with him tried to replicate his research, and couldn't).

    Except for Climate "Science". ClimateGate happened because the people at CRU fought tooth and nail to avoid having to release the data, tools, and methods behind their published papers. Post release, they've admitted that they can not replicate the data behind their papers.

    None of the "scientific" groups that claim to release historical temperature records have ever given a full release of the data, tools, and methods behind their claims. None of them have ever said "here's the data we used, here's what we did to clean up and organize the data, here's the programs (with source code) we used to do it."

    If they were not perpetrating fraud, they would have done that. It's what any real scientist would do after publishing a paper based on a data set that they'd worked on. But if they did that, then people who do understand the science would be able to examine their assumptions. Would be able to point out how other, perfectly reasonable, ways of adjusting the data would lead to results that totally contradict the "scientists" preferred results.

    How do I know that's true? Because if it wasn't true, there would be no reason not to release the data.

    3: When last I checked the numbers, there was a heating trend of 1 degree C from 1900 to 1950, a cooling trend of 0.5 degrees C from 1950 to 1970, a warming trend of 0.3 degrees C from 1970 to 1998, and a flat to cooling trend since then. Going from that to "Human industrial activity is warming the planet, oh woe is us" requires a great ability to ignore any data that contradicts your preferred fantasy.

    Kudos to DougJ for drawing the line just right so he could ignore all the inconvenient data.

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