Categories
Skepticism

#TAM2013 in Las Vegas, Day one

Well, not even day one yet – just the first morning, but there’s already been plenty of things to report on – if only there was time to do so! I’m glad to be here, and to have had the opportunity to meet fellow SiNers Ed Clint, Caleb Lack, John Loftus, and to see Russell Blackford again.

SiNers

The SiN panel yesterday morning went pretty well. The five of us (John hadn’t arrived yet when that photo was taken) offered some tips on skeptical blogging, then took questions from an engaging audience that included Sharon Hill and EllenBeth Wachs.

Speaking of Sharon, her talk this morning is one of the highlights for me so far. She spoke of her website, Doubtfulnews, but what I appreciated most was the attitude she described with regard to skeptical blogging, which resonates strongly with mine.

Some of the issues she discussed were importance of fairness and balance in skeptical blogging (while avoiding false balance) – but crucially to not allow your objectivity to lead you to being so vacuous as to not add value at all. The audience needs to know what’s in it for them, as it were – it can’t all be about you.

And also, Sharon reminded us that it’s vital to try to get inside the heads of the people you’re trying to persuade. This is something I also addressed on the panel yesterday – the dangers of the filter-bubble and confirmation bias in allowing us to caricature or belittle our opponents. People are unlikely to believe downright odd or unlikely things for no reason at all, or because they are somehow irreparably defective, inferior, or what have you. People come to strange views because of a particular worldview – and unless we make an effort to understand that worldview, we’re unlikely to change anyone’s mind.

Other presentations this morning have included Michael Shermer on science and morality. I found this very unpersuasive, but I’d like to watch it again (or better yet, read the book when it comes out). While I agree with him that the arc of social progress has tended to conduce towards certain norms and away from others – and also that it’s right to regard our moral norms as “provisional” (contingent on evidence, just like other forms of knowledge) – the bit I didn’t like at all was the claim that we can get a strong indicator, most of the time, of what’s right and wrong just by asking the people affected.

The first problem here is that (especially interpersonally) their reasons for saying “X is right/wrong” might be entirely idiosyncratic, inconsistent and unprincipled. Even if moral norms end up being arbitrary, they become significant through being fairly consistent and reliable – their force is via consensus, which requires some form of reliability.

Which leads to the second problem: on a social level, if everyone believes the same weird thing (like, that men are superior to women), asking the question of what’s right and wrong is going to reliably result in getting the wrong answer. Democracy doesn’t determine truth. Shermer did stress that his rule-of-thumb was useful most of the time, for most cases, etc., but I’m suspicious that the truth is entirely opposite to that, and that the principle will only be useful in exceptional circumstances (where “the answer” will most likely be obvious for other reasons in any case).

Then, briefly, George Hrab is a great host, and his introductory monologue was fantastic. Karen Stollznow was entertaining in her talk on exorcisms, but I didn’t find much to chew on there. Marty Klein was very good, on moral panics, porn and sex. I look forward to talking to him later, as he’s a colleague of Dr. Eve, someone I worked with in South Africa to (successfully) prevent moral panics from blocking a local TV station from showing pornography.

Finally, it’s been great meeting or re-meeting DJ Grothe, Sharon Hill, (The Amazing) Randi, Michael Shermer, Miranda Hale, Steven Novella, Jerry Coyne and others. The programme for the rest of the weekend looks great, and I’m sure there will be plenty of value – so long as I get enough sleep to stay awake for it all. Vegas is a treacherous place, after all.

Categories
Morality Religion

On respect, and whether Errol Naidoo is a fool

I’ve previously argued that people deserve respect, rather than the ideas that they might hold. Intuitively, this seems relatively uncontroversial, in that there seems no reason to respect the point of view that the Earth is 600 years old, or that the folk wisdom of superstitious folk from centuries ago should guide our lives in the 21st-Century. But note that to say people rather than ideas deserve respect doesn’t necessarily mean that all people deserve respect. It’s entirely possible that the totality of what you know about a person indicates that their confusions or malice run so deep that it’s difficult to find anything good to say about them.

This still wouldn’t preclude certain forms of respect for that person. You would still want to hear what they had to say, and attempt to judge it objectively – not only do people change, but they could also surprise you by revealing things you didn’t know, or hadn’t thought important. As much as efficiency demands that we apply a discount to the expected value of what certain people say, to blindly assume that they are always wrong, and not worth paying attention to, is an arrogance that might lead us into complacency and error.

However, this does not stop certain people from (generally) making little sense. How do we describe these people? In the case of Errol Naidoo, I described him as a ‘fool’ when Tweeting a link to a Sunday Times interview with him regarding his call to boycott e-TV for their screenings of Naked News. Regular readers of Synapses would be aware of Naidoo’s homophobia, his knee-jerk moral hysteria founded on (very) selective evidence, his contribution to the threats directed at students involved in the 2009 Sax Appeal controversy, and so forth. Read the Sunday Times interview for yourself: does he appear to be someone who is weighing evidence objectively, and looking for the root causes of social ills? Or does he appear to be a myopic moral reactionary, guided by missionary zeal to always allow his values to determine what the rest of the country is allowed to watch, and do?

I’m happy to call him a fool, because that’s a useful summary of a person who generally holds foolish views. Yes, according to me – and of course I might be wrong. And a commitment to treating people with respect would mean that I should be open to contrary evidence, whereby he might indicate that he is someone worth listening to on some subjects. I have not seen any such evidence to date, and this is why I’m comfortable calling him a fool.

Other self-identified skeptics disagree, though, apparently of the view that everyone merits respect, even those “whose actions and beliefs disgust me”. What would “respect” mean in a statement like that, beyond what I’ve conceded (being open to contrary evidence)? Not calling them names like “fool”? Tolerance has its bounds, and some of those bounds are perfectly legitimate. Consider Mengistu – should we simply critique his arguments, or are we allowed to call him a callous thug, or a madman? There are plenty of examples of characters like him, where some sort of summary term – which could well be abusive – fits their characters and motivations perfectly. Does “respect” entail never using these terms?

Of course, one can misuse terms of abuse. That is a separate argument, which would require my being corrected regarding the evidence that I think merits describing Naidoo as a fool. The possibility of mis-applying such terms does not mean it’s impermissible to ever use them, though. The appeal for such restraint is motivated by tolerance and openness to correction, and these are often good things. But they are also often the sorts of motivations underlying claims to refrain from judgement. But we need to make judgements, so as to be able to say that racism, sexism, genocide, female genital mutilation and so forth are wrong.

The real question is whether our judgements are sound or not. Determining whether they are requires us to subject them to scrutiny – not to avoid making them. A version of “tolerance” or “respect” that forbids us from saying that illiberal and homophobic men – camouflaged by the piety of religion – are fools is one that puts us on a slippery slope to not being able to make any judgements at all – and this is a version of respect that we should have no part of.