Friday, 21 November 2014

Everything happens for a reason...

So in my idle moments (of which there have been few) recently, I've been wrestling with the expression "Everything happens for a reason." which is often offered in comfort to those that are suffering. The optimist I'm cultivating within me is sure that most people who use this expression do with the best of intentions, though I know for a fact that not all do, I feel I would still like to discourage its use, for reasons I will lay out.

This expression seems to me to be what Daniel Dennett describes as a "Deepity". A "deepity" is an apparently profound, but actually largely valueless, expression that can have two meanings: one that is trivially true, and another that is false but that would be amazing if it were true. If we take a look at our topic in this light, we might get the following:

1) All events are caused by other events.
2) All events are part of some master-plan of god(s)/fate/destiny/cosmic karma.

Meaning 1 here is obvious, at least to philosophical naturalists who aren't buying into some of the whackier interpretations of quantum mechanics; so obvious as to not be worth saying and, crucially, this can't be what is meant as it offers little comfort. It would be tantamount to saying "Yeah, shit happens!" and would probably deserve a punch in the face (or at least a stern look) in any real crisis.
Meaning 2 is the amazing if true, but actually wrong, interpretation. Not only is it wrong, but it is also often insulting. It seems to say "you deserve this", and as such would be a prime example of victim-blaming.

So why do people persist in using it?

One possible reason is the "just-world fallacy", where people take comfort from the belief that evil-doers will be punished, and the righteous will be rewarded, whether in this world or the next. It's a (wrong) way of explaining away the discomfort caused by our apparent lack of control over the universe and what happens in it. "If I can't do anything about that arsehole that did a bad thing, that's OK, he'll get his, the universe/god(s)/fate/karma will get him later". And the reverse may also be true, when we see good people going unrewarded for their actions and this makes us sad or mad, we can take heart from the fact that they will get their just reward at some later point, albeit possibly only the "hereafter". I can almost see this line of reasoning helping a little; some seem to take comfort in the idea that someone or something is in control, sometimes even if that thing is hidden, and sometimes even if that thing is evil (q.v. conspiracy theories) rather than face the reality that the universe is just chaos and randomness and pitilessly indifferent to our existence.

I imagine to the religious this may be a shorthand way of reminding each other of god's existence, saying "God has a plan", but surely even that is small comfort? If god's plan includes people suffering then he's a shithead, and I can't see how this would give succour to many who pay it more than the most glancing thought. It almost seems to me that these people are actually saying "You must have done, or will do, something to make you deserve your present predicament.", which seems of little comfort: "yeah you're suffering, but don't worry, everything's OK; it's because you were a little shit when you were a teenager/in a previous life". It's a mystery to me why even the religious or other magical-thinkers would draw solace from this platitude, let alone rationalists and naturalists.

Other interpretations (and this shit really happens with alt-meddlers), is that the sufferer is being blamed for failing to think positively enough, or taking enough exercise (despite their excruciating agony or chronic fatigue), or what the writer considers an improper diet, which usually means one free from sugar/fat/meat/GMO/whatever nutritionist bullshit happens to be flavour of the month. The victim-blaming that some of these people indulge in truly beggars belief, and shows not a jot of compassion. "If only you were to welcome your condition as a gift from the universe and a joyous challenge that must be overcome, you would see things differently". Fuck that, and the horse-hair stuffed homeopathic succussion pad it rode in on.

In an attempt to follow Dennett's advice and attempt to charitably interpret a position in order to best argue against it, the best interpretation I can come up with is that the person is really trying to say something like "we live in a just world, you are a good person, and this suffering must therefore be a means to an end by which you will receive some great reward, in this life or the next!" It's cold comfort at best. It's hard to see what the reward could be in this life, and if you're speaking to someone with no belief in fate, an afterlife or reincarnation, it's almost totally worthless.

One thing people say to me when I complain about this is something like "c'mon Tim, they're trying to be comforting and we should be sympathetic to their intent." They might be right, but I would still argue that it would be better if they didn't say it, and that they were sympathetic to the person with the problem, rather than additionally burdening the sufferer with the need to be tolerant of people who say stupid things.
Originally posted on Chronically Skeptical 26/07/13

Thursday, 18 April 2013

There IS a "skeptical community" and you're (probably) in it

Is there a "Skeptical Community"? Quite a few people have claimed there's no such thing over the years, with recent furores on the internet seemingly making it crop up more often. It seems blindingly obvious to me that there is a skeptical community, and that I'm an active participant in it. It's hard for me to grasp why some people deny that there is, so I set about examining the arguments made on t'internet and those that people have used in conversations I've had recently. So it's time to indulge in a bit of skeptical omphaloskepsis.

OK, so community can mean many things, what are we talking about here? The dictionary contains many definitions of the word and we can play equivocation games if you like - skeptics clearly aren't a monastic order for instance no matter how lonely some of the boys might feel    - but there is a frequent usage of the word "community" that that fits nicely, and I think is what most people intend when they use the term.

Community, n.
I. A body of people or things viewed collectively.
5.b. A group of people who share the same interests, pursuits, or occupation, esp. when distinct from those of the society in which they live.

Source OED on-line. Link behind paywall, but you can get free access with most UK library card numbers. What do you mean you haven't got a library card? ;D 

In the same way that people might refer to the "political community", "literary Community", or "scientific community" when they mean "the body of people who share an interest in or the practice of [thing X]." Surely everyone can agree that there is a skeptical community by this definition? A group of people who share a bunch of common interests and pursuits related to the practice of skepticism? That's all that's meant when the term is used, not some over-egged suggestion of centralised organisation or implied uniformity.

It's important not to get hung up the "esp. when distinct from..." clause in the definition; that's just dictionary-speak for "most often used for..." and nothing should be inferred about a necessary physical or virtual isolation from society at large; it just means "I'm talking about these people, not those people."

The term "skeptical community" refers to the aggregate of the people who run or attend SitP, Skeptics in the Curry House, Skeptical book-clubs and coffee meetings, Skeptical Pub-Quizzes, or those who go to TAM or QED, or write a blog on skepticism, or comment on those blogs, or tweet about it, post or read on skeptical forums, read skeptical books and magazines, join skeptical societies, clubs or otherwise interact with other skeptics, and probably also those who practice what one might call "solitary skepticism" or who endeavour to do so. I don't think anyone could deny that these things exist, or realistically deny that referring to the sum of these people collectively as a "community" is a perfectly reasonable usage of the word. These people are in a "community"; a mass of people who share some commonality, who are linked by a set of practices, pastimes, and a network of acquaintances who meet in real-life and on teh interwebs, to share their thoughts and feelings on matters of interest to skeptics, how best to practise skepticism, and talk on wide-ranging topics relating to that practice. 

In a slightly more formal sense, there are a number of things that people may mean, whether knowingly or otherwise, when they use the term:

Community of Practice
A CoP, as they are commonly known, is a group of practitioners who come together to hone their skills, share experiences and learn from each other. This could easily apply to SitP, conferences, on-line forums, and even networks of Twitter, Facebook or other social media contacts and the aggregation of these. 

Community of Interest
A Community of Interest is a group of people who share common interests. We can clearly say this about skeptics. Of course no everyone likes exactly the same stuff, but it's an overlapping set of interests including the paranormal, UFOs, cryptozoology, alt-med, anomalous psychology, science in general, specific religious claims, logic, reason, rationality etc. or even just the topic of the practice of skepticism itself.

Community of Purpose
A community of purpose is a little like a goal-oriented Community of Interest, i.e. people of a common interest who gather together, whether self-organising or otherwise, to achieve some goal. Now whether you agree with the term "Skeptical Movement" or not - which is a whole other discussion - there clearly are a large group of people who are trying to promote skepticism, critical thinking and science education to achieve some social good. There are plenty who are trying to effect political change, or influence public understanding to change things for the better. 

Community of Inquiry
This is perhaps stretching a concept a little, but a Community of Inquiry, roughly speaking, is a group of people who each collectively apply their individual expertise into solving thorny problems that none could solve alone. This is closely allied to the scientific method and, I think, what many people are trying to achieve with their skepticism. 

I think when most people use say "skeptical community" that they are generally using the term to mean one or the other or some agglomeration of several of the above specific terms, but perhaps in a broader sense then usually intended. Most of the these specific types types of community are small affairs, but the internet has changed what we can mean when we say "community"; people can interact continuously on a global scale. The skeptical community can easily be seen as any or all of the above.

Having established that there (almost) certainly is a thing, if not several things, that one can realistically call a "Skeptical Community", let's have a look at some of the common objections to the term.

"For Christ's sake Jim, it's method not a..."

Quite often when I see denial of the skeptical community, it is just bare assertion*, but some people have given reasons why they believe this to be the case:

Skepticism is a method, not a community.
Yes, this is true... but it's also irrelevant. When we say "Skeptical Community" we are referring to "A community of Skeptics" in the same way as when we say "Scientific Community" we are referring to "A community of scientists". We aren't equating the existence of the community with the practice of those within it. This objection is a non-sequitur. Of course what mean when we say "A community of skeptics" rather depends on what we mean by "Skeptic" in this context, but without getting into a deeper debate let's assume it means "Person who sees the value of, and endeavours to routinely apply, skepticism in all matters."

We aren't all the same/we don't hold the same opinions about everything/I'm not interested in the same things as everyone else. 
This is the most frequent category of objection I think. I see/hear it so often that I've taken to calling it "The appeal to lack of homogeneity", a species of red-herring. Uniformity is not a requirement of "community"; if you think it is, think of something you think could realistically be described as a community (and not in the biological sense, let's not start equivocating again), and try to think if those people all share exactly the same set of interests and practices relating to the topic. You think the "scientific community" are all the same? Would a chemist say "I'm not part of some 'Scientific community'. I'm not interested in physics or biology; those people are weird."? What about "Christian community"? You think all those people have exactly the same beliefs and practices and express them in the same way? Of course they don't. What makes these things a "community" is a set of beliefs, practices and interests from which each takes those parts that are appropriate or interesting to them. No homogeneity required. So, person X is interested in alt-med and creationism, while person Y is interested psychics and ghosts, it doesn't matter; they're both interested in the practice of skepticism as it relates to these topics. 

I don't want to be associated with opinion/person X!
While I appreciate the sentiment, you're just gonna have to suck it up. You can't opt out just by saying so; you'll have to actually withdraw from interaction with the rest of us and not just say "I don't like this; I'm not playing any more" but carry on regardless. Even if you did become some kind of skeptical hermit, you would probably still fall under the broader category of "those who endeavour to practise skepticism.", but I appreciate that this isn't the interpretation that most people intend when they use the term.

There isn't any governing body or central organisation
This is true, but also trivially so. Central administration is not a requirement of community in this sense. You may be thinking of a society perhaps? But even then...

Because I, or prominent person X, say so
Saying don't make it so. People rarely make this type of objection explicit, but I've seen a few people just saying "there's no such thing as skeptical community" without supporting evidence, and then other people saying "look person X says there isn't.".
Bare assertions and appeals to authoritative bare assertions do not make a solid case.

Just being a skeptic, or self-identifying as one doesn't make me part of some "community".
In the narrow sense of a network of interacting skeptics I might agree, as long as you're not interacting with them that is, but in the broader sense of a body of people with shared interests, I still think it does. Unless you are literally just calling yourself a skeptic and not actually practicing skepticism, in which case you are probably not in the community, but you're probably not actually a skeptic either.

I don't like its implications
Again, sorry, tough. Argument from consequences much? The fact that you don't like the implications of the term, or what the ill-informed may infer from its use, has no bearing on whether it is a valid term or a real extant phenomenon.

The "Skeptical Community" is just part of a wider community of the Society at large/UK/Europe/The World.
Again this is trivially true. All communities are part of a larger community in some regards. The "scientific community" are not isolated from the population at large, and neither are the "medical community" to name but two, and neither of these examples are invalid usage.

There are probably others, but these seem to be the main objections around at the moment.

Argumentum ad consequentiam?

With all that said, it's worth discussing why people object to the term. I think the real problem is one of generalisation. You tend to hear phrases like "The skeptical community thinks...", "The skeptical community's position is..." or "The problem with the skeptical community is..." and as with all generalisations, they are unfair to those within the population spoken of who do not share the quality under discussion. Those people will quite rightly feel misrepresented. Plus there's a more implicit problem of generalisation. Those "on the outside" do tend to view us as one mass, and anything said by one of us, or a large number of us, does reflect on the rest of us. I sometimes wish it didn't, and I wish that some people would think a little harder about this before they press the "Post" button on their blogs, but there it is. I, and everyone else, just have to suck it up.

It seems pretty clear to me that there is a Skeptical Community, but I'd be interested to hear if anyone has any arguments against that stand up to scrutiny. It's fine for people to say they don't like the term because of its implications, but people who deny the existence of the community or the validity of the concept on those grounds aren't thinking hard enough.

So the bottom-line is this:

There is a "Skeptical Community" and, if you're reading this, you're (probably) in it whether you like it or not.

* Although I do quite like an "Ipse Dixit"; it has quite a jolly ring to it, like an old-English folk-dancing step ;D

Originally posted on Skepticism-uk Aug. 2012

Saturday, 20 August 2011

The Gid(eon) Delusion

Can we? Please?
If The RDFRS published these at a reasonable price, I think I'd buy about 10 a year and drop them in various hotel rooms.

*Update : Having just read a little about Gideon Bibles and their colour coding, it seems that I have accidentally created a copy of the God Delusion destined for distribution to the law-enforcement community. 

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Tell the homeopaths why we object.

Some homeopaths would like to find out why we're complaining about them, and what Sense About Science and the Nightingale Collaboration have got against them.

They say:
Homeopathy as a profession is under attack from groups such as Sense about Science and groups such as the Nightingale Collaboration.
This Research will gauge public opinion as to the amount of information that the public and prospective patients wish to be able to access from professionally Qualified Practitioners only.
Why not go tell 'em¿

Here's my responses:

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Tragical thinking.

So, inspired by a tweet by Tim Minchin, I'm going to try to rid myself of all the traces of magical thinking. What's magical thinking you say? Essentially it's the kind of thinking that makes bogus connections between thoughts, words or actions effects in the real world, like prayer, spell-casting or, at a lesser level, superstitious beliefs like black cats being unlucky (or lucky, depending on who you listen too). Of course I don't pray, or cast spells (any more), or avoid black cats or walking under ladders, except when safety dictates, but there are traces of this kind of thinking in some of my, and most other people's, words and mannerisms, and I'm going to try get rid of them all.

So this means no more:

  • wishing people good luck
  • crossing fingers (or saying crossed-fingers) for luck or to negate bad luck
  • touching wood (fnarr fnarr)
  • saying things like "well of course it's rained, it's because I washed the car"
  • correlating weather with my failure to dress appropriately for it
  • etc.
even in jest.
    Of course most of the time when we say or do these things we're using them as a shorthand for something else, like expressing sympathy for or solidarity with a friend in fix, or exasperation with our own stupidity. I'm just going to have to find better ways of expressing those things without indulging in stupidity. The idea that thoughts or words or actions can affect reality without a non-supernatural causal link really is one of the daftest going around, so if anyone catches me saying or doing such things, please point it out.

    I don't think it's going to be easy; wish me luck! ;)

    Update: of course there's one symbol I'm not giving up, because it's too fucking awesome, and that's the sign of warding against the evil eye, AKA the rock/metal hand.

    Sunday, 15 May 2011

    Are you chronically skeptical?

    Update: The website Chronically Skeptical is now live.

    Anyone who frequents on-line forums relating to chronic illnesses will know that they are riddled with bullshit. Sufferers of chronic illness are often desperate for some form of relief, and their conditions are often cyclical, and this makes the more gullible among them easy meat for the so-called Complementary and Alternative Medicine industry. All kinds of claims are put forward as fact without the now legendary "jot of evidence", and anyone expressing skepticism is accused of trying to deny people their relief or being in the pockets of big pharma. Often the afflicted feel let down by the conventional medicine that has failed to offer them the cure they felt sure would be available. This can lead to a mistrust of doctors and scientists, when one media-sensationalised study after another turns out to be wrong, or the silver bullet they felt was on the horizon turns out to be a blank, or to have unpleasant side-effects. In addition to this many people cling to religion to help them through, and while I would not wish to deny a sufferer the small comfort that this may bring them, it does make for annoying reading when someone writes that, f'rinstance, it's been revealed her by divine inspiration that her daughter was crippled by arthritis at an early age as part of god's will to teach them both to appreciate life more.
    All this said, these forums are a valuable resource for sufferers to share their experience, learn from others who share their condition, and share some much-needed camaraderie. But for the skeptic, this experience is easily marred by the proliferation of pseudo-scientific drivel that's trotted out unchallenged on these sites.
    So what to do? Where is the resource for those who favour an evidence base for treatments and knowledge of their condition, uncoloured by god, crystal healers, homeopaths and Hopi ear-candling? Well it's about time we started one. But, I can't do it all myself, I'll need help moderating and administrating such a resource. So, if you're a skeptic, and chronic disease sufferer or partner or friend of someone who is, and you're inclined to help out with such a project, let me know. I've got server space and the know-how to set up web-sites and forums etc. but assistance with the day-to-day admin/design/rules/moderation etc. would make it much more likely to be a genuinely useful resource. So I've registered (which currently only points at this article); if you want to help out please contact me on describing the kind of help you are prepared to offer, and a little about your background and why you motivated to help.

    Sunday, 24 April 2011

    Fuck Easter reprise.

    Just went to shops to buy last-minute supplies for barbecue. All major supermarkets shut. Fucking fuck Easter and the donkey it rode in on.