It’s almost 2018, what’s your style?

I’ve been debating with people who hold irrational beliefs for my entire adult life.  Long before Facebook created easily accessible young earth creationist groups, Christian apologist groups, agnostic atheist groups, or you-name-it whateverist groups to join. Long before YouTube gave us brilliant examples of intellectuals and polemicists – people like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris – to study and emulate. Long before Twitter. Long before Reddit. Long before I had any idea that there were even others out there like me who were arguing against irrational ideas, as near as I could tell, there was just me in an office or at a restaurant table or in a living room, arguing.

Growing up where I did here in north Georgia, I more often than not found myself the sole representative of a particular position (imagine that), surrounded by a growing chorus of opponents in various states of distress and emotion. I loved it then and I love it today. Arguing from a position of fact tends to bolster one’s confidence even when it’s one against many. And as much as my exasperated opponents I’m sure felt as if I was simply arguing for argument’s sake, I was and am, always searching for and defending the truth. I only mention all of this to give myself an excuse, albeit a weak one. That is, old habits die hard. After that many years and that many confrontations, my style is my style.

Before I get too hard on myself for the confrontational style of debate that I’ve developed over the years, I should mention that no one really knows how well a particular technique works if one’s goal is to decouple the individual from the irrational or absurd beliefs they hold. And curing people of bad ideas is of course my goal.  I loosely characterize my style as 85% countering with facts, 10% making jokes to inject levity, and 5% ruthlessly ridiculing my opponent whenever his or her jerk quotient hits that magic number (everyone has their own magic number).

Alas, there’s another technique that I’ve grown to love that I’m working hard to incorporate into my style.

I’ve written about it on the Street Epistemology blog and that post is also available on my blog to read so I won’t repeat the rationale I describe in those posts here. Suffice it say, I’ve seen it work for me as well as others. I’ll put a link to more information about Street Epistemology at the bottom of this post and I highly recommend watching my friend Anthony Magnabosco’s videos where he literally records conversations between himself and others while using these Socratic techniques. In a nutshell, Street Epistemology is the idea of using the Socratic Method to get to the reasonswhy a person believes what they do. In other words, rather than attack the beliefs of the individual and rather than counter his fictional claims with your facts, your goal is to encourage your interlocutor to examine the methods he is relying upon to arrive at what he believes to be true, and ultimately for him to question the reliability of his own methods. This technique is less confrontational (or at least should be) and it’s less likely to result in the backfire effect because it’s not a frontal assault on a cherished belief.

All that said, being people who value data, while we have some wonderful anecdotal evidence, we still don’t know how well a given style works at dislodging poorly reasoned  ideas. As I admitted, I still fall back on the style I honed over the years.

However, I like to look at it through the lens of history. For centuries dogmatic beliefs were protected from the light of truth, literally by the threat (and act) of death and torture. The fact that dogmatic beliefs needed such extreme protections should give everyone something to contemplate if they are intellectually honest, but that’s a post for another day.

Now, as we prepare to enter the year 2018, we need to recognize the opportunities we have. We live in an amazing time where we can openly criticize any beliefs or ideas; so remain silent? Who are we not to criticize those beliefs which inspire bad behaviors? Who are we not to relentlessly defend reason and evidence and enlightenment values? And while you may not change the person’s mind with whom you’re engaged, there are others who are listening to what you’re saying. You may never hear from them, but they will be watching, reading, and quietly evaluating your positions. Your confident defense of the truth may inspire them to speak out the next time they are a witness to injustice.

So keep at it. Get your own style, stick to the truth, and have a wonderful 2018.

We have work to do.


For more information on Street Epistemology, the resources page on the Street Epistemology website has an impressive list:

Arguing with Logical Fallacy Guy

Some of the conversations I had with creationists in my former Creationist Facebook group were long and genuinely interesting for various reasons. It became apparent that within this group of 200 or so creationists, there were quite a few folks, like Bill the creationist engineer, who were both educated and intelligent. In fact, I think this is an important point to highlight.

While all creationists are deluded, not all creationists are stupid.

And not unlike climate change deniers, it is often the educated and intelligent among them who are the most tenacious in their rejection of reality. They use their educations and their intelligence to construct the elaborate and ultimately untrue artifices around the beliefs which sustain their delusions. They are convinced they are right and they use their above average cognitive skills to reinforce their mistakes.

However, this piece is not about them. This piece is about some of the others.

Since 200 is a fairly decent sample size, it was not surprising to discover that while a few people occupied the far right side of the tail on the normal distribution curve representing education and intelligence, there were more than a few who occupied the other side of that normal distribution curve. In fact, and this is a completely unscientific estimate, I would wager that 5 of the 6 sigma under this curve were home to a rapidly diminishing representation of education and intelligence. Case in point, this post from Mark:

I don’t have much else to say about Mark.

If you’re a statistics person however, at this point you might be questioning whether or not a sample of creationists actually tracks to the normal distribution curve, but my gut says it does. Because in addition to the healthy portion of creationists like Mark who just have no idea what is going on, there were others who were at least trying. Take Robert for example. Robert is probably just a regular guy, going to his regular job during the week, going to church on Sunday morning, and watching football on Sunday afternoon. But Robert believes he has an ace in the hole when it comes to evolution. He is the guy you will inevitably encounter in almost any debate, no matter the topic. Robert is “logical fallacy guy.”

Rather than address anything specific in your claim, logical fallacy guy will smugly and incorrectly dismiss your entire position as some sort of logical fallacy. Logical fallacy guy has spent a lot of time memorizing different fallacies but has spent very little time thinking about what those fallacies actually mean. For example:

You cite an expert, Robert will accuse you of committing the appeal to authority fallacy. Wrong.

You explain how homologous structures are evidence of common ancestry, Robert will accuse you of circular reasoning. Wrong.

You tell Robert his understanding of the fallacies he is accusing you of is incorrect, Robert will accuse you of ad hominem. Wrong.

And so on…and so forth.

The irony of logical fallacy guy defending creationism is that creationism is really just a massive Argument from Ignorance fallacy. Since creationism is a supernatural explanation that can’t be proven right, its very survival relies on any other explanations being proven wrong. This is why there is a such a massive effort by creationists to discredit evolution by natural selection. Creationists don’t spend time proving creationism is true because they can’t prove creationism is true. They can only attempt to undermine evolution. And they can’t even do that.

The best they can hope for is to say, “you can’t prove me wrong, therefore I’m right.”

Dear Robert, that my friend, is a logical fallacy.

Bill the Creationist Engineer

Patrick Marsh, lead designer at Answers in Genesis

As I think back on some of the more colorful characters from my former Creationist Facebook group, Bill the engineer comes to mind. Bill is your Baby Boomer uncle who at Thanksgiving dinner, just gets mad at anything you say that contradicts him or his beliefs.  He is the classic curmudgeon, quick to move from verbose, asinine “sophisticated-sounding” refutations of evolution, to personal attacks, and back again.

It’s not just that Bill was convinced he was right, it’s that he took any attempt to point out he might be wrong, as a personal insult. He was hilarious!

Bill’s favorite argument against evolution was…wait for it…the Kalam Cosmological argument. Bill used his engineer’s “logic,” to walk from the first flawed premise of the argument, an argument resurrected by the Christian apologist William Lane Craig, all the way down to life on the planet earth.

I wish I would have copied Bill’s whole detailed rationale but I was kicked out of the group so abruptly I didn’t have time to collect some of the more “impressive” artifacts. So here it is at a high level. The Kalam Cosmological argument goes something like this:

  • Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
  • The Universe began to exist.
  • Therefore, the Universe has a cause.

Christian apologists like William Lane Craig and my old friend Bill, make the leap from “the Universe has a cause,’ to “a bronze age Hebrew war god created everything about 6000 years ago,” without batting an eye. It’s bewildering.

My usual response is, “OK, great! Then where is your evidence?”

Bill would say, “Look around you, everything is evidence!”

To which I would respond with something like, “Wow, the fact that everything exists is evidence that Unkulunkulu is real! The Zulu were right this whole time!”

This is when Bill would put on his angry old uncle hat and start with the personal attacks.

One final point on Bill. I happened to mouse over his name during one our exchanges and noticed that he earned his engineering degree from the University of Nevada, Reno. This gave me an idea.

I asked him if he trusted the professors at his alma mater. He was puzzled by the question, so I clarified a bit. I asked him if he felt as though the professors at the University of Nevada, Reno were doing their best to give students the best education they could? He couldn’t see why they wouldn’t. I then gave Bill a link to the entire biology faculty at his school and recommended he email any of them, or all of them, to ask them whether or not evolution was true. After all, if the school could hire good engineering professors, why wouldn’t they be able to hire good biology professors as well?

This tactic was of course meant to force Bill to reconcile the disconnects in his trust rubric. He clearly trusted all of the professors from his own department where he got his engineering degree, but he clearly believes all of the professors in the Science building are lying. Bill stopped engaging with me after this. I’m sure he built up an excuse in his mind that maintained his stalwart belief in creationism, but a part of me wants to believe that I put at least a dab of WD-40 on his old engineering mind.

From Honeymoon to Divorce

And just like that, it is done. My brand new little Young Earth Creationist group has decided to bounce me. Apparently, my relentless adherence to demonstrable reality was just a bit too much for them to handle.

Jorge, the group’s primary admin and the one who added me, told me a few evenings ago in one of our many exchanges, that it was just a matter of time before I blocked him. He said that’s what most “evolutionists” do once they decide they can no longer withstand his onslaught of “facts.”

Fast forward a few days and lo and behold if it was not Jorge himself who turned my ouster into its very own online event! A virtual witch burning if you will, with many of the groups most pious joining in the spectacle.  He created a special post to the group, just to announce my impending removal. A post complete with other members adding to what became a healthy thread of memories of my various statements of fact. (Thank you for confirming that some of you were reading what I wrote). At least Jorge didn’t use one of my real photos to dox me in the process. Instead he accompanied this virtual pyre with an image of a cartoon monkey with its hands over its ears…clever lad that Jorge.

I’m going to miss him. Jorge was certainly one of the most interesting creationists with whom I have interacted. He had this incredible ability to find wonderful, often novel scientific research in the field of biology, and somehow convince himself that these papers proved evolution could not be real. It was amazing!

On more than one occasion I pointed out to him that each time he shared one of these legitimate research papers, that he provided evidence that evolution is in fact, true.  He would not hear it. He wanted to, without any academic training at all in the subject mind you, dig deep into these findings. A worthy approach were it not for his myopia. By focusing on a single tree in each of these papers, he missed the entire surrounding forest which proved him absurdly wrong.

It became clear to me, that Jorge has spent hours upon hours studying these papers. He has squinted his eyes, twisted his neck, and mentally redacted anything in any of them which clearly validates evolution. He masterfully diverts the most complex findings in each paper, such that he becomes convinced that they “refute evolution.” Then he builds his wall around it.

His gambit was simple. If he could get his interlocutor to just stay steeped in highly complex, technical topics, he could word salad his way through any conversation, then eventually accuse his interlocutor of just not being smart enough to understand what the paper is saying. I can see why this gambit would cause people to just simply block him, allowing him to declare victory and further confirm his delusions.

But here’s the thing, I like asking simple questions. In the end, I think that was my undoing with Jorge and ultimately with this group. I recognized that the wall Jorge had built around his mind with these research papers was virtually impenetrable. He was convinced he was 100% correct, despite the fact that no one else in all of biology arrived at his same conclusion. So rather than get sucked into his word salad, I ask higher level questions. Questions that get people like Jorge to quit fixating on that single tree, and that cause them to look around to see where they are actually standing. In this case, they are standing squarely in the middle of evolutionary biology.

One simple question I love to ask when someone like Jorge who believes a research paper says a certain thing and is unmovable on the subject is, “Since there’s nothing I can say that will change your mind here, why don’t you just email the author and ask him or her if their paper says what you think it says?”

My rationale here is simple. Most of these papers are written by university professors and their email addresses are usually right there on the page. These are real scientists doing what they do and I have found many of them are remarkably responsive! So forget the interpretations, the mental gymnastics, and the word salad. Just ask them directly.

This suggestion would often lead to a mad scramble of excuses.

“They are just evolutionists.”

“They work for government indoctrination centers.”

And so on. But interestingly enough, their retorts and comments would then go quiet for a while. It was if this question at least caused Jorge and those who use this tactic, to ponder why they might not want to remove doubt by going directly to the source. But I already know the answer and I suspect you know it too. Creationists are desperate to maintain their delusions because they have chained their colossal misunderstand of science, to their deeply held religious beliefs. They must keep their walls impenetrable.Their immortal soul is depending on it.

So with that I say to Jorge and those like him, keep sharing great science. Maybe one day they will recognize it for what it actually says, not for what they want to believe it says.

Creationism group’s uphill climb

It is becoming apparent that there are quite a few people in this group, who are mortified of what might happen, if they change their minds about Young Earth Creationism. That said, there are others where I sense some hope.

Here is my latest exchange with Dave. Dave is one who I place in the latter camp. He seems genuinely thoughtful and doesn’t retreat in to ad hominem attacks or outlandish gambits. This particular exchange is actually related to a scientist, the late Eric Davidson, whose work broke new ground in understanding ontogeny but for some reason, whose work as been somewhat co-opted by creationists who have managed to convince themselves his research somehow disproves evolution by natural selection.

The short conversation below relates to a biographical article that I posted about Dr. Davidson’s work from Developmental Biology.

Dave: I read the article and have an appreciation for scientists that can study and tease out the intricate details of the complete systems being described. But ( you knew that was coming) it occurred to me that a system (by common definition) must have a purpose and design to achieve the purpose or it is useless. A waste of energy and resources. I agree that what we can observe in living organisms is a “natural process” in action. An existing system functioning in harmony with other existing complex systems. I still don’t see where anyone has observed the natural formation of any new biological systems- just the discovery of existing systems. It is beyond credulity (apparently I do not possess sufficient imagination) to think that all existing biological systems we observe today randomly developed in harmony so that life happens. It is by design and that design has been discovered. That’s all.

My response is as follows:

R.L.: I think this is the fundamental flaw the keeps creationists from understanding how evolution actually works. And that is the notion that something that is useful, must have some intelligent designer. Evolution is a blind process and natural selection is the unintelligent sculptor. It goes something like this: the processes, body types, etc., that work well to suit a purpose, those same processes, body types, etc., you feel must have been made by someone, are simply the processes, body types, etc. that worked well enough to be passed on via genetic transfer, to the subsequent generation. The processes, body types, etc., that didn’t work well, didn’t get passed on. So what looks like some intentional act, is actually just a natural process of selecting for what works best in a given environment for a given period. It’s not random. The survival and reproductive success of an individual is directly related to how well, or how poorly, its inherited traits function in its environment. There is beauty in knowing that this process has been ongoing for billions of years. There is beauty in knowing there need not be a supernatural director of these things. Reality is amazing enough!

The fight for scientific literacy continues!