Friday, July 24, 2009

An Asshole's Manifesto

Okay, sitting on my ass between takes on-set. I have no excuse to not be doing something a bit more productive. One of the office PAs just called up a horoscope website on her computer... that seems to me to be a good cue... time to start fleshing out the ideas of Asshole Skepticism.

There is a lot of societal pressure from a large segment of the skeptical community to "play nice"; and in many situations - indeed most situations they are right. But there is a tendency to fall into the pattern of what I think of as soft sketpicism. I don't intend that term - 'soft' - to be belittling, so perhaps I should come up with another one. We shall see. There is a certain deliberately provocative intent behind Asshole Skepticism, (Indeed the selection of 'Asshole' as a term is an element of that intent.) so I may stick with 'soft' - it just may be the wrong place to apply a tactic of provocation.

I believe that the alleged virtue of playing well with others comes largely from the scientific community which makes up a significant demographic segment of the skeptical world. We - those of us who cannot fairly identify as scientists - have much to respect and thank science for, particularly in skepticism. Within the rational thoguht world there is a certain tendency to defer to the culture of science. By this I don't mean the practice of science itself, but the temper of science and it's ettiquette.

There is much to say for 'socially acceptable', emotionally divorced, rational ways of science. But I contend that it is merely a single tactic for having the voices of critical thought heard. Dealing with people with a measured response, explaining in detail the short-comings or complete lack of truth of their view-point is going to go a long way in trying to penetrate the message to them. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar. But that only works in some venues and will only reach those who are willing to invest the time to respectfully listen and consider the points.

On both ends of the political spectrum there are firebrands who draw a lot of fire from the other side and behind whose voices the chorus of agreement is eager and willing to sing harmony. On the right we have examples the obnoxious harpy Anne Coulter and the disrespectful ass-wipe Bill O'Reilly; on the left examples include, the embarassingly manipulative Michael Moore and the out-right bat-shit crazy Alex Jones. I am personally convinced that not one of the people mentioned above actually believe all the bullshit coming out of their mouths. I don't beleive that anyone could be that nuts. (I may be naive, but that's a different subject.) Each of them says outrageous things for the primary purpose of getting attention so that they can them mistrepresent the facts to serve their own political agenda. And it works. Why? I posit that the main reason it works is becasue of the emotion attached.

It's true that the ideological lightning rods mentioned above do little more than preach to the converted. But it's not true that they do nothing but preach to the converted. People who are 'on the fence' who teeter to one side in conjunction with hearing the 'evidence' shouted from the respective bully pulpit of the right person are swayed. People react to emotion. There are a variety of ways people react. Some ways postive, some negative. I shall explore and break those possibilities down later as my thinking coalesces further. But for practical purposes: people 'on side' tend to be emboldened by such firey proclamations, or at least entertained - no loss there; people in outright opposition are only going to be reached by careful reasoned response (and probably not even then) - so no loss there; people on the fence, as mentioned above, may hear the emotion at the right time and think "wow, if some one is so fired up about that, there must be a reason - perhaps there's something to it" - win!

Now, to be clear, I am absolutely not advocating saying outrageous unsupportable things in the name of rational thought. How absurd would that be? That would fly directly in the face of the most elementary aspects of skepticism.

What I am saying is that there is a distinct dearth of emotional charge in a lot of skepticism, and that doesn't serve us very well. It is true that facts are not contingent upon emotion. Truth cannot be determined by the feeling you have one way or another about it. However, once facts are determined, it is important to treat the application of those facts with emotion wherever emotion can serve the truth. The culture of skepticism fails on this front more often than not.

We DO get upset when Jenny McCarthy uses emotional triggers like the phrase "her Mommy instinct", because we know that her fucking "Mommy insticnt" is killing other Mommy's children. But the tendency is to sit around and discuss the facts like scientists about it - which has a valuable purpose. But let's face it, the highlight of the Anti Anti-vax Panel at TAM 7 was not Steve Novella (Who I have the utmost respect for - he is one of my personal skeptical heroes and one of the few people at the conference I turned into a crippled fan-boy-mess in front of.) telling us "At that time I said, 'You know I'm not really sure at this point, there may be something going on here. We may have to delve deeper into this.' You know, you get exposed to one side of any argument it seems to help, but then when I actually systematically go through the published research, seeing what the evidence really shows - by the time I finished it really was self-evident by the time I wrote the article, I was convinced that there is no link to thimerisol and autisim." No, it was the father of an autistic child, Michael Goudeau's impassioned "I'm here to tell you that Andrew Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy are assholes." (or perhaps his "I'm willing to show my tits!" but in either case he was appealling to our visceral responses.) Which is not to under-sell the value of Derek Bartholomaus' Jenny McCarthy Body Count - which in it's own way an excellent example of Asshole Skepticism.

In a few short words; while we absolutely must adhere to intellectual rationality, we can afford to indulge in emotional irrationality under certain circumstances.

Asshole Skepticism is definitely not for all. The best debaters in the skeptical community should probably stick to their strengths, but for those who are deeply in touch with their passions and capable of triggering passionate responses in themselves and for those who have an affinity for effective satire - we should play to our talents and draw attention to the cause through humour and fury; and draw fire from our 'soft' comrades with emotion that will not be ignored.

But even we must not make a habit of practicing "Asshole Skepticism" as a blanket-strategy. That would be personally destructive. I would not treat a credulous friend with the scorn I would the predatory Sylvia Brown. Similarly I make every effort to explain the realities of why Mars is not actually going to look bigger than the moon on August 27th to family members who send out mass-emails. Approaching one's daily life as a deliberately assholish skeptic would be to live under a personal scorched-earth policy.


I think I've covered the basics of what is going on in my head on this notion. There is much detail I haven't plumbed and no doubt there will be much thinking yet to follow which will ammend and develop what I have already said. But all of that will wait for another day.

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