My public speaking adventure begins

I can’t think of a better day to begin a public speaking improvement journey, than on the day we as a nation, celebrate one of the most influential orators our country has ever produced, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

First a little background. I get the opportunity to speak publicly about once a year, usually to a large crowd at a work-related conference. While those sessions tend to go fine, once a year is just not frequent enough to truly get comfortable in front of a crowd.  Knowing this and knowing that I plan to do a lot more public outreach on topics that I’m passionate about, such as street epistemology and critical thinking, I gave myself a New Year’s resolution of delivering at least five public talks on critical thinking-related topics this year.

On MLK Day, I had the opportunity to knock one of the five off the list. It was also something I haven’t done since I was in high school….give an extemporaneous speech! With zero prep time, I picked a random Martin Luther King, Jr. quote from a basket, and then delivered a short speech based on that quote in front of a crowd of strangers.

It is great to be forced out of your comfort zone like that. Using inspiration from the quote, I’d like to believe that I put together a fairly cohesive speech about Dr. King, how he valued education, and how the real value of an education is in teaching children how to think, not just what to think. I wanted to make sure I reiterated to the audience, that education doesn’t stop once you leave the schoolhouse, and as life long learners, we all have to understand how to evaluate claims by honing our critical thinking skills. I could feel the ideas getting a bit jumbled at times, but fortunately – and for me this is a huge success – I only interjected one “uhh” in the process!

Finally, if I learned anything at all from the experience, it’s that I need to make sure I have a strong antiperspirant. 😂 On to the next speech!

You can’t argue people out of their deeply held beliefs

The following post is a brief excerpt from Chapter 4, Why Do People Believe Unbelievable Things from my book, There Are No Such Things as Ghosts.

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One of my favorite questions to ask someone who is making a fantastical claim is, “why do you believe this to be true?”

Notice this question doesn’t directly assault their claim, rather it is an inquiry in to how that claim came to represent the truth in their mind.  In other words, I try not to challenge their claim with the more confrontational “that is false” or “you are wrong” although it is quite possible that I take these positions as well. Nor do I jump right to a personal attack – known as ad hominem – with something crass like “you’re just a moron” or “that’s just stupid.”

The reason I don’t confront the belief or the person directly is that either of those responses almost without exception, immediately places the claimant in the position of doggedly defending their claim. They become defensive. This is known as the backfire effect. I do not want to have an argument. I want a conversation. I want them to use their ability to reason, not their willingness to be entrenched and dogmatic.

By asking them to think about why they believe what they do, I move the claim out of the debater’s arena and on to the examination table. We are both doing analysis now, not argumentation. The claimant should now be thinking about how to justify their epistemology as opposed to how to defend the claim itself.

So rather than defending themselves, they are beginning the intellectual exercise of discovering why they believe the claim to be true in the first place.

This is a subtle but important difference. By asking the question, “Why do you believe it to be true,” we are essentially evaluating the support for the argument. We are looking for inconsistencies, holes, fallacies, irrational underpinnings, and mistakes in reasoning.

Pay close attention to the conversation you are having here. Listen to your interlocutor. Resist the temptation to focus only on your next retort.

  • Is your respondent silent?
  • Does she have any credible sources?
  • Is she mistakenly promoting her claim as the evidence for her claim as is often the case with holy texts? This is the old circular reasoning argument that goes, “my holy book is true because my holy book says my holy book is true.”
  • Is she offering no evidence?
  • Is she using purposefully vague, ambiguous, or confusing language (also a common practice in religious apologetics – remember the hoax language from “The Paradoxes of Darwinian Disorder. Towards an Ontological Reaffirmation of Order and Transcendence” in Chapter 2)?
  • Is she just getting angry?
  • Is she saying her belief is based on a special feeling or an unverifiable miraculous experience?
  • In her attempt to explain why she believes as she does, does she admit that she believes the claim chiefly because she was raised to believe it, or told to believe it by someone else?
  • Does she smile and say, “I’ll pray for you” or “do your own research” as an attempt to discontinue the conversation?

The response you are really hoping for is the first one I mentioned. Silence. We are trying to get the interlocutor to evaluate why it is she believes what she believes. We are trying to effectively pry open the rusted door for our respondent to reexamine her own epistemic system.  Many of the canned responses she will give you are hollow. Moreover, at some point, the respondent must come to terms with the rationale that led her to her conclusion; however flimsy that rationale may be. She must reevaluate her own epistemic system. Her mind becomes slightly less rusted shut. And you are the WD-40®!

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The important lesson of David Koresh

Last night I watched ABC’s new documentary, “Truth and Lies,” about the 1993 Branch Davidian siege, stand-off, and eventual catastrophe. I won’t repeat the sad tale here, but suffice it to say that by the time the entire ordeal was over, four agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms were dead, along with 79 of David Koresh’s followers. Koresh’s own death brought the count of total Branch Davidian dead up to 80.

In a noble attempt to reconstruct the truth, the documentary interviewed many of the surviving primary players from the law enforcement side as well as a few of the survivors who escaped the compound just before it collapsed in a swirling, blazing inferno nearly 25 years ago.

Before the blaze, the FBI had spent weeks trying to negotiate a peaceful conclusion. As I listened to recordings of Koresh telling FBI negotiators that God kept telling him to renege on formerly agreed to terms, it occurred to me how this tragedy provides such a clear example, not only of delusion gone awry, but of delusion leading to death and destruction. It also became clear how much downstream tragedy flowed from that compound in Waco.

I didn’t realize until last night that Tim McVeigh, the Oklahoma City terrorist whose truck-bomb killed 168 men, women, and children, was largely radicalized by the events at Waco.

I also didn’t realize until last night that crack-pot conspiracy theorist Alex Jones jump-started his career in the ashes of that Branch Davidian compound. Who knows how much damage to the cause of human well-being Jones’ decades of bizarre tirades and false accusations have caused. Who knows how much hatred he has sewn by his relentless undermining of democratic institutions. He’s a Sandy-hook denying, deep-state believing, vaccine fearing, Pizzagate inspiring, fake news creating loon who has an audience of millions hanging, and sometimes acting, on his every word. It’s shocking.

And all of this goes back to one man, David Koresh. Koresh was a Seventh-day Adventist who convinced a bunch of people that he had a direct line of communication to God and that everything he did was according to God’s instructions. Thus a cult was born, as Koresh as its leader. Many of those people in Koresh’s cult were parents. And many of those parents had their children with them in the compound when it was engulfed in flame. Those kids never stood a chance even before their sad early demise. They were being indoctrinated by their parents and their parents were just as deluded as Koresh.

All of this leads me to one important point which is the central theme of my book. The point is this:

Many of humanity’s worst ideas only persist because of either the inability or unwillingness of otherwise rational adults to examine and critique their own deeply held beliefs through the reason-based lens of critical thinking, and because otherwise rational adults are unwilling to hold those with irrational beliefs to account.

So whenever I’m asked, why do I bother? Why do I care what young earth creationists believe or why do I care when a parent wants to treat their own child with oils and prayer rather than the tools of modern medicine, the tragic story of the Branch Davidians provides an example. Because what underpins all of those beliefs, even beliefs as seemingly innocuous as creationism, is irrationality and poor epistemology.

What if just one person spoke up when David Koresh was young and challenged him to examine his beliefs? What if all of this tragedy and turmoil was one reason-based intervention away from being avoided entirely? As was illustrated in Waco those many years ago, as soon as people begin to place their beliefs on equal footing with reality, things can get dangerous, even deadly.  And reality doesn’t care what anyone believes.

I’m reminded of a quote by John Stuart Mill from his inaugural address to the University of St. Andrews in 1867:

Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.

New resolution, new pricing, new happenings

I have a New Year’s resolution. Like all good resolutions, it’s simple, measurable, and achievable.

My resolution is to give at least 5 talks in 2018 that support critical thinking.

While five is a stretch target for someone operating under a punk rock ethos here with regards to public activism, independent publishing, etc., I still think it’s well within reach. I have delivered a number of “business” presentations over the years at large conferences across the United States so I sort of know the drill. Also, given the number of topics that can fall under the category of “critical thinking,” my hope is that finding audiences, forums, and venues should not be too terribly difficult. My ultimate goal for the year is to be invited to participate on either a panel discussion or to give a standalone talk during the Skeptrack at Dragon Con 2018. That gives me nine months.

I am however, but one small voice in a large and (thankfully) growing crowd of tireless supporters of reason and critical thinking and as I like to say, humanity is not suffering from too much reason. The best single thing I can do if I am going to realize this resolution of mine is to continue creating thought-provoking, entertaining, and relevant content for you all!  I’m hopeful that your continued support will open up even more avenues to share good epistemology and critical thinking; avenues like the presentations I’m targeting in my resolution, plus public debates, an eventual podcast, more books, articles, and so on.

With that, here are 5 things you can do today to support me:

  1. Buy “There Are No Such Things as Ghosts: A brief guide to critical thinking” on Amazon.com and then share it with a friend. My goal with this book was not to make a ton of money, but to put some of the fundamentals of critical thinking into the hands of as many people as possible. To that end and since I’m the one in charge of it, the pricing should reflect that goal. As of Jan 1, 2018, I believe it does. I’ve half-joked in a spell of hubris, that I would like for a copy of “There Are No Such Things as Ghosts” to reside alongside that Gideon’s volume in every hotel night stand, just to give folks an option for where they might draw some inspiration!
  2. Like my Facebook page, R.L. Bays, and share posts from the page with friends and with groups to which you belong.
  3. Follow me on Twitter and retweet interesting tweets to your followers
  4. Follow my blog and share articles on whatever social media platforms you enjoy
  5. Make a $5.00 donation through PayPal via the link on my blog’s home page

If you have already done one or more of those things, then you have my sincerest thanks! Here’s to a great 2018!