Skepticism and “Don’t be a Dick”


So earlier this morning, Hayley is a Ghost put up this post called “How it is”.

Honestly? It’s a good post. I understand her point of view and get where she’s coming from.

It’s just that I’m not 100% sure I can completely agree.

The very first comment on the post is this:

Mockery of people’s beliefs can be effective in getting people to realise how deluded those beliefs are, just as much as rationally analysing information or claims and challenging misinformation. Each approach works for some people (“targets”); neither is universally effective.

But I think there are two problems:

• Some skeptics aren’t careful about the target of their mockery, and mock the person rather than their beliefs. (Besides those who wantonly do mock the people themselves.)

• Even when a skeptic is mocking only the person’s beliefs, that person perceives that as a personally attack. (“Saying my ideas are stupid means you think I am stupid!”)”

We can address the first, but the second will always be with us.

Hayley responded by saying, “then don’t mock their beliefs!”

I’ve posted about my skepticism in the past, explaining how it’s something that I actually find hard to do.

Part of the reason for that is that I am, and always have been, extremely gullible. One of the best illustrations of this is when I was a kid…

Anyone remember the show “Touched by an Angel”? Looking back on it, that show was absolutely horrible. But when I was little, I loved it.

There was this episode… I don’t remember what it was called, but the main character… the Irish(?) angel… reveals herself as an angel to a church. The story is about how one man, who hears about it from a friend, basically uses the incident to steal money from the church.

Being as young as I was, I couldn’t think of any possible way they could have done that on the TV (warp-speed travel in space, yes… angels? No way), so I thought it was real. So much so, in fact, that my parents wouldn’t let me watch the show anymore.

I have numerous incidents in my life that many would see as supernatural.

When I was very young, I saw a ghost trying to steal my baby brother. When I tried to stop the ghost and save my brother, the ghost pushed me off the side of the crib and I hit my head on the hard edge of the bed, knocking myself out. A little while later, I had an incident that for years made me terrified of the dark, when I was young, where no less than the bogeyman himself tried to kill me, but failed when my parents and mom’s parents saved me. A few years later, I saw a unicorn.

I have natural explanations for the first two. In case of the ghost, it was Mom. My brother had woken up in the middle of the night crying with a dirty diaper. I had used one of those old rocking horses to climb up to the crib… Mom, sadly, was not fast enough to catch me before I fell.

As for the bogeyman, neither my parents nor my mom’s parents actually remember that, which means it was a nightmare, nothing more.

To this day, I still can’t explain the unicorn. This was in Hartford, CT; not a place known for its horses. Now, I was not at all close to the unicorn… I could cover it completely with my pinky when my arm was completely stretched out. So, for all I know, I didn’t see anything at all, or I just saw a random shape that my brain super-imposed meaning over… pareidolia.

I’ve had other, smaller incidents, too. I never actually went ghost-hunting like Hayley… but I certainly believed in them; ghosts, demons, goblins, angels, devils, unicorns, vampires, werewolves, alien visitations… and, yes, the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot. I was even a conspiracy theorist for a few years, as I’ve said before. I believed JFK was killed by the government, that the moon landings were faked, that there’s a New World Order (and not the WCW heel outfit)… if I were still like this today, I’d be a 9/11 Truther, and maybe even a Birther. Because that’s who I was.

And I’m still trying to get out of it. I’m still trying to let it go. As I said in that post on Skepticism, I fell for both Darwinian masillae as the missing link and the arsenic-based life.

So I also get where those beliefs are coming from… at least, I like to think I do.

And that’s why I mock them.

I don’t see how it’s possible to take these ideas, or the people who sincerely hold to them, seriously. And yes, I apply that to myself as well. If I went back in time to meet my 16-year-old self, I would mock me mercilessly, because the ideas are universally idiotic. They don’t jive with what we do actually know.

And that, inandof itself, makes it worse, because I find it insulting. Absolutely, completely and utterly insulting. All of these ideas say that we don’t know anything; that what we think we know we don’t actually know… and that’s utter bullshit.

Yes, if you compare what we know to what we don’t know, then what we know is probably like a quark as compared to what we don’t know, which is probably comparable to two of our universes.

But I think we do know enough about the surface of our own planet to say quite definitively that there simply is no Bigfoot. Yes, it’s true that there are perhaps hundreds, if not thousands, of species we’ve yet to discover, but when you look a little closer you realize… they’re talking about bacteria, and insects, and plants, and sea creatures. They aren’t talking about large land animals. I’m quite convinced that we’ve discovered every large animal there is to discover on land. There really is no place above ground for a creature like Bigfoot to hide. It just isn’t possible. If Bigfoot truly existed, we would have found it a long time ago.

Now, if you want to argue that Bigfoot could exist on another planet… well of course. There could be planets with bigfoots and unicorns and vampires and elves and fairies and dwarves and goblins and trolls and shape-shifters… well… at least life-forms that resemble such creatures enough in appearance that this is how we’d label them. They may not have the supernatural powers or such associated with the fantasies, but they’d look like them superficially at least.

And while I’ve never been to the Loch Ness, I think it’s safe to say that a plesiosaur is way too big to hide in the Loch… a Wels catfish may be more likely…

As for ghosts and such… where and when are such things possible? Ghosts simply do not make any sense.

There’s a rather humorous illustration of this:

Inanimate objects do not have souls. They are, after all, inanimate. So how can such objects follow souls into the afterlife? In other words, how do ghosts wear clothes? Assuming they can be corporeal at all (which itself makes zero sense), shouldn’t they technically appear naked?

Again… this is meant to be humorous; with tongue planted firmly in cheek. But it also illustrates the fundamental problem: that we don’t actually have any coherent concept of ghosts.

Ghosts are supposed to be the souls of people who have unfinished business, right? But to have a soul, the thing needs to be alive. And yet, somehow, clothes and coins and so on can also be ghosts. Even more contradictory, depending on your flavor of belief, animals don’t have souls… yet they are alive.

There’s also the mounting evidence that we… who we are… is not separate from our physical selves; it’s an emergent property of the quantum biochemical processes occurring in our brains (“quantum”, BTW, is here meant in the strictly scientific sense… not in the Deepak Chopra bullshit woo-woo sense). In other words… we don’t have souls. We are not separate entities abiding temporarily in a shell. Our physical selves are ourselves… and that’s it.

There’s also the issue of ghosts interacting with the physical world. Only poltergeists can actually touch and move physical objects, yet even ghosts don’t fall through the earth and out the other side, suggesting that they can, at the very least, walk on the ground, suggesting they are affected by gravity, suggesting they are physical. This, again, shows the inherently disjointed, unorganized, and fuzzy nature of belief in ghosts.

It is all absurd. These beliefs insult humanity’s intelligence… we know so much more than these believers are willing to admit… and they betray an extreme lack of critical thinking within the human species.

Then you have the religions…

I grew up both Catholic and Jewish. I was always taught that transubstantiation (bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ) was symbolic; a metaphor. But is this the official stance of the Catholic church?

No!

Of course not! According to the official doctrine, as upheld by the Pope, transubstantiation is literal. So Catholic dogma teaches that Catholics commit ritual cannibalism every Sunday! Obviously it is harsh to say so, and I’ve no doubt people find such a statement insulting, but it is simply the facts. That’s what it is. Catholic doctrine teaches that the wine becomes literal human blood, and the bread becomes literal human flesh. It would be nice if anyone could share how that’s not cannibalism.

You also have to deal with general science-denialism. Denial of global warming and modern medicine are two of the biggest dangers facing us right now. Thanks to the so-called anti-Vax movement, we’ve seen a return of things like Small Pox and such in the US! These were wiped out in the US until this horrible movement got started. They are quite literally a danger to the world. Then you have homeopathy and chiropractic and “ancient Chinese remedies” and faith healing and Deepak Chopra… these are dangerous.

I was tempted to talk about Young-Earth Creationism, but that would be too easy.

Belief in them causes real, actual harm! And we aren’t supposed to mock them? We’re supposed to somehow give off the impression that their bullshit, anti-science, dangerous ideas are worthy?

I’m sorry, but I refuse.

I refuse to pretend that these beliefs don’t cause harm. I refuse to pretend that these ideas are not insulting to the collective knowledge of the human species. I refuse to pretend as if these ideas are somehow worthy of consideration or debate or even respect.

Neil deGrasse Tyson does not believe we have ever been visited by aliens. He suggests that the most likely thing they would do, were they to come to our planet, would be to survey the life-forms on it and come to the conclusion that there are no intelligent life-forms on this planet worth interacting with.

Considering all of the science-denialism and generally shitty beliefs held by the vast majority of people on this planet, is it any wonder that anyone would think in such a way? Are we truly intelligent enough to interact with such hyper-advanced life? Or are we still ultimately primitive… still held back by superstition?

I do not believe we can advance as a species until we let go of all of it: gods, ghosts, angels, demons, unicorns, fairies, elves, leprechauns, magick, devils, conspiracies… we will never go further from this point until the human species as a whole embraces skepticism and science. It just can’t happen. We’ll be stuck, endlessly toiling away in delusion, until eventually we simply die out, as all species must.

Our destiny is in the stars. Our only hope of survival lies beyond the limits of the earth… of the solar system. But how can we get there if we continue to insist that above us lies another dimension of both terror and beauty? How can we get there if we continue to declare the end of the world? How can we get there if we think our dead loved ones are somehow still around?

We can’t.

We won’t.

Not until we let it all go.

Now, of course, you should never attack people, but ideas. And I understand “don’t be a dick”. But it isn’t about being a dick. It isn’t about attacking people. It’s about exposing false ideas as false. It’s about shining light into the shadows of bullshit. It’s recognizing the inherent dangers of certain beliefs (alt-med and anti-vax and the like) and the inherent idiocy of other beliefs (young-earth creationism, conspiracy theories, etc), themselves also at least partially dangerous.

I will mock people like Deepak Chopra, and yell at him, and disrespect him, because he is dangerous. He is a snake-oil salesman who peddles bullshit, steals people’s money, and causes them great harm in the process. Usually it’s mental/emotional harm, but ocassionally it’s physical harm, as well, like when he speaks out against proven medicine and in favor of bullshit “alt-med”.

Tim Minchin’s Storm is like my go-to video for this:

It’s that bit near the end… that bit that really does betray the ultimate insult of such shitty thinking:

Isn’t this enough?

Just this world?

Just this beautiful, complex
Wonderfully unfathomable, NATURAL world?
How does it so fail to hold our attention
That we have to diminish it with the invention
Of cheap, man-made Myths and Monsters?

Why isn’t reality itself good enough?

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About Nathan Hevenstone

I hate straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied men. I also play guitar and sing, and I'm an atheist and anti-theist. What now?
This entry was posted in Agnosticism, Atheism, Bullying, Creation vs Evolution, Government, Health, Religion, Science, Secularism, Skepticism and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Skepticism and “Don’t be a Dick”

  1. Thetar says:

    You seem to know exactly what happened at this talk, do you have a transcript? Or, to use a “hamster”, were you there?

  2. You haven’t really grasped what I was writing about and that’s because you’re making other peoples odd beliefs about you. Why else would you feel insulted by what other people choose to believe? That’s the weirdest reaction I’ve ever seen.

    You also confuse being sympathetic to those who hold strange beliefs to taking them seriously. There’s a key difference which is that it is easy to understand the psychological short cuts our brains take and how easy it is to see meaning where there is none. With that in mind I don’t call people stupid when I understand how easy it is to reach a wrong conclusion.

    Personally I think your approach to things such as Bigfoot and ghosts is boring. No offence.

    You write:

    “as for ghosts and such… where and when are such things possible? Ghosts simply do not make any sense.”

    That isn’t insightful. Most people know ghosts don’t make sense, but they have experiences that confuse them. I’ve met numerous people who were non-believers until they had a strange experience and they no longer know what to think because it was so real and profound. Of course there’s probably a logical cause, and the key is to not call them stupid and mock their beliefs but to help them work out what they’ve caused.

    However, none of this will appeal to you because apparently people believing in what they want insults you…

    • Yes, it’s insulting to me… and everything humans have ever achieved.

      Why do I need substance to criticize things which have no substance? What is the substance to any of it? What is the substance to ghosts and demons and angels and devils and gods and poltergeists and all that? What do they have, at their most basic, that make them worthy?

  3. Thetar says:

    PZ has a hissy fit because someone said something he doesn’t agree with and this depresses you? Jeez, I like you and have appreciated our interactions, but why this? Myers is making a total fool of himself, again. He is also showing his cowardly spineless nature. Why didn’t he discuss things with Jamy in person, afterall he was at the same confetence. No, better to whine about it and then imply that Ray Comfort is a better person.

    Then you go on to say “Why does no one want to attack religion?” LOL where have you been? Religion is attacked every day by many atheists and skeptics, including Peezus himself. My question is why does PZ and others at FTB attack other atheists and skeptics so much? Look at the lengthening list of those that have been thrown under the bus.

    I think you benefit from discussion coming from different angles, which is something you’ll never get without vile invective at Pharyngula.

    • PZ had a “hissy fit” with someone who used his speech to insult PZ and all atheists everywhere.

      PZ had a “hissy fit” because a group of people that should know better have publically declared that religion is totally and completely off limits.

      So yes, I’m depressed. Because that’s complete and utter bullshit. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. Religion is an extraordinary with absolutely NO extraordinary evidence, so deserves to be criticized in extraordinary ways… until they provide that extraordinary evidence.

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