A mind is like a parachute
It might save your life,
but you have to know how to use it first.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Think it Through, People.

I just got a book I am very excited about called "Debunking 9/11 Myths".  It is part of my reading for my interest in the 9/11 conspiracies.  I am, I realized the other day, not so much a conspiracy theorist as a conspiracy theory-ologist.  I am more interested in the conspiracy theories themselves than the specific assertions of any given theory.

But to my chagrin, one of the little blurbs printed at the front of the book under the heading "Praise for Debunking 9/11 Myths" was from Michael Shermer, Publisher of Skeptic Magazine and author of the book "Why People Believe Weird Things".

He states:
Even though I study weird beliefs for a living, I never imagined that the 9/11 conspiracy theories that cropped up shortly after that tragic event would ever get cultural traction in America...

Really?  That should be an embarrassing thing for Mr. Shermer to admit.  For someone who claims to study "weird beliefs" it is a wonder he has no understanding of where these beliefs come from.  But maybe I am being unfair.  It's not like he ever wrote a book entitled, "Why People Believe Weird Things"...  Except, of course he did.

His comment is ridiculous.  It's as if I told you, "Even though I consider myself an expert in what scares children, I am surprised that these eight year olds are having nightmares after sitting up watching the movie 'Night of the Killer Zombie Clowns'."

Seriously?  You write a book on why people believe weird things and you can't see conspiracies associated with the most transformation event in 40 years gaining any traction?  The "skeptic" community is very fond of preaching about knowledge through logic and observation.   It's funny when a ground ball like this rolls through the publisher of Skeptic Magazine's legs, and all he can say is, "Wow, that was a tough one to field.  Never saw that one coming."

Now of course I am not saying that Shermer is wrong and that the evidence in the book does not dispute certain claims made in some of the most common 9/11 conspiracies.   The facts do disprove some assertions of the conspiracy theorists, but so what?  This would be like my claiming that the children are perfectly safe in their beds.  "So what the hell are they whining about?  I honestly don't understand how they can still be scared after I have explained to them that monsters are not real."  This misses the point.  It shows I don't really understand why the children are scared to begin with.  So rather than simply boast that I have looked under the bed and found no monsters there, so they must be a bunch of cry babies, it would be more fruitful to use my logic, and my grounding in reality, to comprehend what conspiracy theories are actually saying about the world.  Addressing the facts without addressing the fear is pointless.  It may make you feel smarter than someone else, because you are so clever not to believe in zombie clowns or false flag terrorist attacks.  But it doesn't actually promote anyone's understanding of reality -- yours or the conspiracy theorists'.  Because guess what, conspiracy theories are part of the reality you claim to have such a handle on.  Monsters may not be real, but the nightmares they cause certainly are.

The reason this is so upsetting to me is that this is not some oversight.  This is a kind of intellectual corruption.  This is the mental equivalent of a police officer who busts people all day for selling drugs and then comes home to fire up his bong.   The "deep thinking logic" community more than any other has an obligation to think things through.

Being a skeptic isn't about wielding facts like clubs to bludgeon stupid people into submission.  (He says later in the same blurb, "...the book length treatment of this codswallop will stop the conspiracy theorists in their fantasy prone tracks.") Being a real skeptic, an authentic deep thinker, is about (or should be about) using the power of thought and observation to understand the process of thought and observation.

Stephen Hawking once suggested that parapsychology was for those who could not grasp physics.  Besides being a clumsy and self congratulatory comment, it revealed the limits of his own intellect.  His inability to appreciate the depth of the human mind and its capacity to theorize and invent in its quest to understand the world around it was laid bare by his assertion that anyone who could not do what he could do was a simpleton.  They could not handle the truth so they made shit up.  That is exactly the common riff of most skeptics who claim to understand why people "believe weird things".

Physicians once bled their patients and treated fever with leeches.  Today's doctors prefer aspirin, and many of them look back on these primitive practitioners with a special smugness unique to modern scientific man.   But how many scientists appreciate how similarly crude their methods will appear to thinkers of the 22nd century?  Stephen Hawking is no doubt a brilliant physicist, but it is a major error in reasoning for him to assume that his chosen field of study can explain all there is to know.  Or that in 300 years, what he calls science will not look very much like the pseudo science he is so quick to denigrate.

If Stephen Hawking could explain how dreams function or where empathy comes from I would be happy to accept his dismissal of the rubes of the world who can't do non-linear algebra.  But surely there are some folks who can handle the math just fine thank you very much who may still believe that there are forces at work which we can't yet explain or comprehend.  So I would simply challenge him to prove his assertion.   Stephen Hawking says parapsychology is for those who can't handle physics.  Fine.  He should prove it.  Using physics.  He should show how physics can explain why people hold the beliefs they that do.  Then I will believe him.

To reiterate, the problem with many smart guys like Hawking, or skeptics like Shermer, or even deep thinkers like Douglas Hoftstadter (who I took to task in my first pass at conspiracy theories), is that they get lazy.  They are used to reaping such benefits with their logical process that they fail to consider what they do not know.

This is the ultimate sin for any mathematician or skilled logician, and here's why: Godel's Incompleteness Theorem proves that for any sufficiently powerful formal system there will be statements which are true which can nevertheless not be proven.   Hoftstatder spends at least half of his book "Godel Escher Bach" explaining what this concept means and how it was discovered. Yet he somehow fails to take it to heart.

This inability to logic your way out of every puzzle goes way beyond conspiracy theories or "weird beliefs" and speaks to the nature of reality itself.  For those who hang their hat on logic and math, maybe you didn't get the memo.  One of your own already proved that there are true things which escape any formal system of logic.  The proof is rather obtuse to a non mathematician, but Hofstatder does a briliant job of parsing it out in his book.  But the point is that Godel proved this -- using math.

Suppose you're a stubborn logician and you want to claim that Godel is wrong.  Well, that's just fine, because Godel proved his Theorem mathematically.  So if you want to assert that Godel's Theorem is wrong, then you have to contend with the fact that Godel was able to prove something that was wrong. That suggests there are things which can be logically proven that are nevertheless wrong.  That is at least as dangerous as Godel's real medicine.  So, okay, maybe you want to back up and say if he proved it using logic it must be true (that's what all logicians want to think after all, isn't it?)  Well, the off course it's check-mate because then you are accepting the proof of his theorem.  And that means he is right.  And his theorem states that not all True statements can be logically proven.

It is often said then when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.  This is the problem with the logical approach taken by Shermer and Hawking and even the Godfather of thinking about thinking Douglas Hosftatder himself.  They enjoy using logic, so they approach every issue convinced that there is no other way to view the world.  But in relying on logic so heavily, they ultimately get sloppy with how they start to swing it around.

Interestingly Hoftstadter went off the logical rails when talking about skeptical thinking, just as Mr. Shermer did.  Specifically where he went astray was when he was on the board of the Skeptical Inquirer and he parted ways with some of the others because he thought they wasted too much time dealing with nonsense.  He contended that some ideas are so ridiculous on the face of it that they weren't even worthy of scientific rebuttal.  He said they violated common sense!  That sounds an awful lot like someone saying that parapsychology is for folks who can't handle physics, doesn't it?  And it sounds a lot like all of the ridiculous prognostications that people who enjoy the history of science are fond of trotting out at cocktail parties.  Wasn't the belief that the Earth revolved around the Sun taken as an obviously ridiculous notion at one time?  It violated what was plain for all to see -- that the Sun circled the Earth.

What thinking person intentionally wants to repeat that silly mistake by claiming that he knows what must be false even without taking the time to examine it scientifically?  Wouldn't a claim that appears to violate common sense be the most interesting claim to examine scientifically?  If we used common sense as the arbiter of truth, how many things that were true in the 1600's could we have actually proved?  There is no reason to believe that the common sense of the 20th century (When Hofstadter made his ruling) is any more prescient than the common sense of any other era.  So why use it as a measuring stick at all?

Will healing crystals and ESP be explained and accepted someday just as the Earth's orbit around the Sun is today?  Maybe not.  But dismiss an idea -- any idea -- out of hand because it does not match what you believe and you're not behaving like a scientist.  In fact you're behaving like the zealots you enjoy belittling.  The sad fact is that many people who preach logic and call others fantasy prone fanatics are themselves engaged in the laziest mental exercise of all -- dogma.

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