Tag Archives: facts

The passage of “Obamacare” highlights republican disconnect with reality.

30 Jun

Last week Obama’s healthcare reform legislation was upheld by the Supreme Court. CNN and Fox, showed just how little facts matter to them in their rush to be first to break the story by neglecting to read the whole document before declaring the legislation dead. Meanwhile, republicans showed just how little facts matter to them by promptly exploding upon hearing that the legislation passed.

Some republicans hilariously threatened to move to Canada as a result of this ruling. Little do they know, Canada has universal healthcare much stronger than anything passed in Obama’s legislation.

Romney promptly came out and denounced the legislation, vowing to repeal it on his first day in office.

Which is hilarious because in 2006 it was his idea:

In fact, the whole notion of an individual mandate, the government forcing you to buy something against your will, was originally the brain-child of the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation.

You see, the anti-free market notion of being forced to buy health insurance was developed by conservatives. Obama’s legislation was crafted by the health insurance industry. It spoon feeds them 30 million new customers who are required by law to buy from them.  Back in 2009, when all this was starting, 77% of the country supported having a public (government) option to generate competition and help keep prices down. Competition would have been bad for health insurance industry profits, so they made sure to take that option off the table. Instead we got this watered down legislation. Yes, it’s better than nothing at all, assuming it lives to take full effect, but what we needed was real systemic reform and this is not it.

But you see, conservatives are masters of compartmentalization and ignoring cognitive dissonance brought on by hypocrisy. None of the above mentioned facts will have an effect on them. They will continue to scream about the evils of making sure everyone has access to health care, and how this whole thing is liberal big government taking over their lives. This just goes to further highlight what I’ve been saying is the rosetta stone to understanding conservatives:

Objective reality and facts don’t matter. Narrative does.

In other news, republicans ban scientists and city planners from discussing sea level rise.

The language barrier

1 May

Lately I’ve been realizing just how much of a problem the language barrier is when it comes to just about everything. We use language all the time to communicate. Verbal language, written language, body language, computer language, etc. So many of the difficulties we have are caused by the language barrier.

In order for a language to work, everyone communicating must use the same definition. If I say “boat” and you think of what I would call a “horse”, then the language doesn’t work. The whole point is to communicate an idea by evoking in you the same mental image/concept I’m picturing. (Denotation)

But perhaps the most complex and problem causing aspect of language is connotation. Denotation refers to the literal object/concept, but connotation deals with how people interpret/feel about that object/concept. Everyone has their own personal experiences, preferences, and biases. Whenever I write, one of the most difficult tasks is trying to choose words that will convey the same emotions and flavor for a concept that I feel, but to my audience.

So we have two aspects of language that affect how we communicate ideas: denotation and connotation. In order for us to communicate effectively, both must line up. Lately I feel like this is an almost impossible task.

Take politics and religion. Two extremely important topics that impact the lives of billions of people everyday. They are also two of the most emotionally charged topics given how they are fundamental to how many people think about themselves, their identity, the world, their place in it, and how things ought to be. Given the extreme personal nature of these topics, any given concept’s connotation might vary widely from person to person. Same can be said of denotations.

For example, it is almost impossible to have a discussion about religion. In order to have good communication and a rational discussion, both parties must agree on the definition of terms. What is religion? What qualifies as a “religion”, what doesn’t? What is a god? What are the qualities associated with this concept? What is a Christian? What qualities/beliefs are associated with that concept? The answers to all of these will vary from person to person. (This is why I get some much crap when I generalize because what might apply to someone else might not apply to you, and vice versa.) You could spend hours debating these concepts alone before you even got to actually discussing what you wanted to discuss.

Instead, most people skip this phase and go straight into firing off their memorized lines at the other person. Nothing gets conveyed, nobody’s mind gets changed, they might as well be speaking in foreign languages; in fact, they pretty much are.

While I’ve noticed denotation problems seem to populate the realm of religious discussion, problems of connotation are particularly rampant when it comes to political discussion. A perfect example is the term “liberal.” Conservatives are masters of language manipulation. They can take a word, shift its connotation, and thus frame and entire issue in their favor. For decades they did (and still do) this with the word “liberal.” By repeating the word with an ugly connotation, as if it was an epithet, they shifted the flavor and emotions surrounding that concept to something ugly. “Liberal” became something disgusting, something to hide from, something un-American. Today’s hot button word is “socialism.” Conservatives are pushing to shift the connotation of that word to something akin to communism.

So how is a rational discussion of ideas and concepts possible when, at the word “liberal”, you think “un-American, big government, communist, elitist”, and at the word “conservative”, I think “fascist, bigoted, greedy theocratic American Taliban”? Short answer: it isn’t.

The sad fact of life is that rational discussion of the issues is no longer possible. The idea of having a “debate” is a complete farce. In order to actually have these discussions we would need to first agree on the denotations and then connotations, otherwise we’re speaking different languages. Quite simply, we don’t have the attention span for that. Instead, all of our issues are decided by who has more babies, which demographic is dying out, and who gets their voters to the polls. That’s it. Reality be damned.

The atheist dilemma:To be a dick or not to be a dick.

12 Oct

One of the issues the atheist community is currently internally debating is the issue of strategy: How to go about achieving our goals; namely a world where religion does not interfere in politics or science (in the classroom or by restricting what science examines), and where non-believers are not demonized or penalized for their disbelief. Basically: How to get us from the current position of religious saturation in all aspects of life to post-atheism where religion isn’t an issue.  There are many aspects to this process including how we organize ourselves, what do we call ourselves, how do we best allocate our resources, what court battles do we pick to fight and when, etc… The issue I wanted to talk about today was how should we go about helping the religious to see things our way,  thus weakening the power religion has over society and our lives. What I am discussing falls under the umbrella debate on accommodationism/reconciliation (whether science and religion can be compatible. I don’t think they can, but that’s not what I want to focus on).  Instead, I would like to discuss how we interact with religious people, the tactics we use, the tone of voice, etc.

The other day I read this post on Rule Hibernia titled “Richard Dawkins doesn’t get it”. Here’s a little excerpt that kinda encompasses the point of the post:

“This is what Dawkins and other don’t get: Some people you just can’t reach. Simple as that. People believe in god and religion for a whole bunch of reasons but the fundamental point is that they are all thinking in a human way, and humans it seems have a natural propensity to believe in rubbish that isn’t true. This applies to pretty much everything, not just religion. Every single atheist on the planet has blind spots, religion just happens to be off their blind spot list. We all believe certain rubbish that’s not true.The biggest mistake atheists make is to try and reason with the religious. I get so bored when I hear religious argument nowadays. I used to engage in it myself but I stopped when I finally got it. You’re not going to convert people to atheism if that is your intention. And if you want to debate for the sake of it then what’s the fucking point in that? You’re just wasting your time. The best way to deal with religious people is humour and ridicule. Slag the shit out of them. Show how retarded they are in a funny way. It makes you feel better and makes a religious person feel worse, but best of all, there is no comeback for ridicule. When you can get others to laugh at a person’s stupidity it’s very difficult for them to come back from it. And let’s face it, making fun of religions is as easy as a Catholic priest raping a 9 year old altar boy with loads of lube.”

Rule Hibernia’s sentiment was reiterated in part by The Good Atheist podcast (episode 107) at the Atheist Alliance International conference in Montreal, QC. Jacob Fortin gave a short speech entitled “Be a dick” (around the 25 minute mark in the podcast) where he highlighted the why it’s sometimes necessary to be a dick. He argues that occasionally it’s best to shame the average believer by showing them how little they know. Yes they will hate you and get defensive, but it might lead them to examine their beliefs later on in an attempt to better defend themselves next time. Secondly, it is important to shatter the notion that anything can be sacred, that something can be beyond questioning and ridicule. Lastly, Jacob said the most important thing being a dick does is that it provides relief for other atheists. He points out, and rightly so, that a lot of atheists are isolated in extremely religious communities and are forced to keep silent day in and day out. It’s like a boiler about to explode. Listening to other atheists ridicule religion provides a refreshing dose of relief.

The counterargument, or “Don’t be a dick” side, was presented at The Amazing Meeting 8 by Phil Plait who gave a speech aptly titled “Don’t be a dick.” In the speech he made the following points:  How many people have changed their mind because somebody made them feel awful? How do you tell someone they’re not thinking clearly when they’re not thinking clearly? Our brains are wired for faith; when you debunk a position, you end up reinforcing it. Skepticism is a tough sell: no magic, no afterlife, no higher moral authoritative father figure, no security, no happy ever after. On top of this, our reputation with the rest of society isn’t that great. In many cases people will prefer magic over science and prefer fantasy over reality. People’s sense of identity is wrapped up in their beliefs. With all the odds stacked against us, why the hell would we want to make it harder by insulting people? What is our goal every time we engage somebody? Are we trying to score personal points and make oursevles feel good, or are we trying to win the game?

This issue was also brought up on the podcast Reasonable Doubts. On that episode their guest was accommodationalist  Chris Mooney who made the following points: People like Dawkins and PZ Myers are really hostile sometimes; it’s not going to persuade anyone who is not on the fence. If you can’t be calm and rational when talking to another person, you’re not a very good practitioner of reason, but this doesn’t mean we have to be nicey nicey. Mooney and the hosts of Reasonable Doubts brought up a recent study on Science and Religion Today by Geoffrey Munro, professor of psychology at Towson University. The study found the following: people are more receptive to science that might disprove their beliefs if their worth and value as a person are affirmed before they go into it. People don’t make up their mind simply on facts. When people are presented with scientific information that contradicts their beliefs, they tend to devalue science and it’s ability to answer such questions. Basically, shouting at someone and tearing them down does not win them to your side, it only makes them despise you and hold onto their beliefs that much stronger…go figure. (This conclusion is backed up by several other studies, google “backfire effect”)

After the interview with Mooney ended, the hosts continued on to ask these questions: Do we alienate people who could be our allies on some things? What if we were back in the 60’s and you’re trying to get civil rights passed? Do you try and treat racist people with respect, affirming their self-worth, even though they hold such horrible and wrong positions? How do you act differently when you’re debating a factual issue (like the world being 4 billion years old) as opposed to a moral issue (like the catholic church systematically hiding and protecting thousands of child rapists, deterring condom use in AIDs infected Africa, or excommunicating rape victims for having abortions) Should you coddle people when presenting science and ridicule when talking about morality?

The Chariots of Iron podcast has also talked about this a bit. In episode 29, titled “Counter-evangelism” (starts around 1:11:00) they suggest the following approach: Don’t be a dick, avoid arguing with them, instead use the Socratic method till they hang themselves. Play stupid and get them to say out loud the ridiculous stuff they believe. Hopefully then ridicule won’t be overly necessary. The whole point is to plant the seed of doubt, not to deconvert them outright. Once the doubt is there, it will start them on the path to deconversion.

So how do I feel about all this? Well it’s a mixed bag. It’s undeniable that the science points to the fact that blasting someone out right for their beliefs will not change their mind. I think it’s obvious that when trying to plant the seed in someone’s head you must do so gently and respectfully. Try not to let them know what you’re actually doing. There is an old Buddhist proverb where Buddha comes across a burning house with children inside. The children do not know the house is on fire, and they won’t understand if he shouts to them to run because of the fire. Instead he calls to them that he has toys outside. The children run out of the house and only after that is he able to explain that the house was on fire. I feel that most of the time we have to act in a similar way. This is not to say we must compromise on the facts, but we must take baby steps. If you can get someone to accept the fact of evolution then that’s a step. After they’re comfortable with that, then you can start slowly working on pushing them further, one step at a time. If you push to hard and too fast, they’ll close up and you’ll never get through to them.

What about ridicule? Is it completely useless and counterproductive? Not entirely. Thomas Jefferson once said “Ridicule is the only weapon that can be used against unintelligible propositions.” Here is where I think Rule Hibernia has a point: There are some people out there that are absolutely impervious to reason and evidence. Ray Comfort, Kirk Cameron, Pat Robertson, Kent Hovind, and Bill Donahue come to mind. Trying to use reason against people who deny that reason is a means of arriving at truth is pure insanity.  For these people the goal is different. The goal is not to change their minds, that’s impossible; the goal is to publicly destroy their credibility and integrity. This is where ridicule works best. As the hosts on Reasonable Doubts discussed, I believe the nature of what you’re ridiculing determines how you ridicule. People like Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort make fools of themselves with their factually ridiculous claims about the physical world. Here you can just satirize them without much venom. People like the pope, however, are much more sinister in their transgressions. Despite the fact that the pope and his confederates are guilty of actual crimes, they are also guilty of a great many moral ones. (Like the ones I pointed out earlier) In these cases vicious ridicule would be applicable.

Chris Mooney pointed out that combative authors like Dawkins, PZ Myers, and Hitchens don’t win over converts and I’m inclined to agree.  This does not mean that such authors don’t have a role to play. Combative authors are most effective when targeting people sitting on the fence and rallying other atheists to action.  Their books, along with podcasts, youtube videos, and local meetup groups are often the only bubble of relief that many atheists can retreat to. When you’re an underpowered and maligned minority, it’s vitally important that you have a minority space. Combative authors and satire play a role in this minority space. Outside, however, ridicule has no place in discussion with another person who’s heart and mind you’re trying to win over. It only alienates and deemns them and reflects poorly on you if your positions can’t stand on their merits alone.

Facts don’t matter?

13 Jul

Ideally in a debate there are two sides, one makes a claim, the other tries to refute that claim. Both sides try to avoid logical fallacies and use objective, nonpartisan facts to determine in a claim is valid or not. If the evidence does not support the claim, then the side that made the claim admits they were wrong and everybody moves on. It would be wonderful if the world followed that model, but one look around the modern political/religious landscape will show you that this is not the case. No, today facts are growing increasingly more irrelevant to a debate. As much as we all like to think of ourselves as rational, intelligent adults, open to changing our views in light of evidence, research suggests that we are actually likely to become more strident about our beliefs when presented with contradicting facts.

Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, two of the political scientists conducting the research, call this the “backfire effect”, when a person strengthens their belief in a false claim when presented with facts that challenge their beliefs. It’s unfortunate, but it makes sense. Nyhan points out that this is a defense mechanism people employ to avoid cognitive dissonance. There was a great conversation that aired today on NPR’s Talk of the Nation which had Brendan Nyhan as a guest. Check it out.

My question is this: If presenting a misinformed person with facts only strengthens their misinformed beliefs, then how can there be any discussion? How can you change their minds? Is there just no talking to them? If a person is going to believe what they want to believe, no matter how strongly the evidence might contradict them, then does it just boil down to who can get the most people to the polls on election day? How can we have a stable society if reality is no longer an issue in our decision making? I am reminded of the story of King Canute. He placed his throne on the beach and commanded the tide not to come in. Despite his royal edict it did, just as it always does. Moral of the story: reality doesn’t give a damn what people say.

Proof Tea Party not in touch with reality

17 Apr

Ok, just the other day was tax day. Obama and those damn liberals raised your taxes again didn’t they! Golly gee willikers! Turn off Fox “news” for two seconds and take a moment to actually look at the check you’re signing to the IRS. I’ll give you a moment to recover from your shock.

Ok, breathing again? Yep. You got a tax CUT!  That’s right. The damn “tax and spend” liberals CUT your taxes. Yet despite this, most Americans have no idea this happened. I blame 2 things. Poor PR on the part of the liberals, and the boundless stupidity of the American people. Apparently many believe that by hoping and prayin and wishin and willin hard enough you can actually change the fabric of reality.

It’s really scary that now-a-days people are more willing to believe whatever bullshit Fox shovels them instead of actually looking at the check they’re signing.


The bible does not matter

24 Jan

One of the most annoying things non-christians have to deal with is christians throwing bible verses at them. Look, we all know you think that book has some kind of magical power, and that it is the key to absolute truth, etc, etc, but we don’t.

Injecting bible verses into a debate, or onto an object do not help your argument. No one has ever seen a bible verse and gone “Oh my gosh! I’ve been wrong this entire time! Reality and evidence don’t matter after all! The magical power radiating from this righteous verse has shown me the way!”

In fact, using bible verses actual hurts your argument. To thinking people it shows that you do not have enough support for your claims, and so you must fall back on a book that you, and you alone, hold as absolute truth. Well guess what, sorry, but that doesn’t prove shit. (Not that you’d care)

When I was a christian, I used to think the bible had some kind of magical power. When I accidentally knocked mine off the desk, I would freak out, dust it off, and pray for forgiveness having possibly damaged it. It was sacred. I thought that I could use it, combined with a cross, to hold back evil spirits. Now that I’ve grown up, I realize that the bible is just a book, just like any other book. It is simply ink printed on paper. It has to magical powers, and is mass produced like all the other books.

It’s funny when people bring it up in a debate. “Well in verse X god says ABC”! I always want to reply: “Oh really? Well in Harry Potter, book 3, Dumbledore says XYZ!” I’m pretty sure I’d get a dumbfounded look on their face. “Bu…bu..but THAT’s not the BIBLE!” Look buddy, you can scream it as loud as you want, or say it with as much reverence as you want, it doesn’t change the fact that it is still just a book that you personally believe to be the word of god, and sorry, no matter how deeply you believe in something, that faith doesn’t make it true.

Reality doesn’t matter

3 Dec

I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that reality doesn’t matter to my opponents, religious and political. I’ve realized that they have their minds made up, and they don’t give a shit about the facts. If need be they will make up their own facts out of thin air, like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity, etc.

If that doesn’t even work they will just vehemently deny reality until you faceplam yourself to death. I think they get pleasure out of watching intelligent people explode after they spend all this time presenting them with evidence and reasons, etc. Kirk Cameron and other religious fundamentalists love this!

It doesn’t matter that evolution is back up by mountains and mountains of evidence. It just doesn’t fucking matter. They know the truth and everything else must be the work of Satan.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it is useless to waste my energy talking to these people. It’s like talking to a brick wall, and I’m only hurting myself. They have no interest in a rational debate where the facts matter. It’s like trying to play a game within a set of rules, and they don’t give a fuck about the rules, and run all out of bounds and still declare themselves victorious. It would be easy to ignore these people if they didn’t have real world impacts, but unfortunately I’m starting to worry that much of the worlds population is just as retarded as them.

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