Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Truth? You Can't Handle The Truth

Initially this post was going to be about Richard Dawkins. I'm still going to include him, and what brought him up, but I'm going to broaden it out to a phenomenon that's not new, but has become so easy these days, thanks to the internet.

Back in the olden days if one wanted to spread information it was quite the challenge. You could just talk to people, to save time you could build a podium in the park, or even rent a hall or something and talk to a lot at once. Or you could have leaflets printed, and if you had the right contacts, a whole book. There was no self-publishing unless you were very rich, and therefore far less people had the opportunity to share their views. Those that did could have tomatoes thrown at them but rarely did they get rebuttals apart from the occasional letter to the editor in the local rag.

Ah, but now it's so easy. Anyone can create a Facebook page, blog, or website and share any opinion they want with the entire world, completely free of charge, and better yet, their readers can argue with them. Freedom of information, the information highway, and all that.

No rules.

But plenty of peer reviews and fact checks. FREE SPEECH! Isn't it wonderful?

I have enjoyed the internet more than I can express. I first came online in early 1997 and I've never looked back. Learning? Right from the get go. People with different lives, different experiences, different views, all ready and willing to share.

And argue.

No sooner did we have the internet, we had trolls. What is a troll? It is a person who, often hiding behind the anonymity of the medium, engages in fights and name-calling for entertainment purposes.

Because my first social media experience was the religion forums at MSN, I discovered this very quickly, more on that in a bit, but it wasn't restricted to it. There was as much if not more controversy and spitefulness on the food, heath, gardening, and parenting forums. People can argue over anything.

One of the rules of debate is "no ad hominems". You can look that up if you're not familiar with it, as well as the other no-nos (slippery slope arguments, Godwin's Law, etc) but in a nutshell the ad hom, as it's widely known, is an insult. Instead of arguing your opponent's point you call him names.

It's common to the point of normal. I try with every fibre of my being to avoid it, but even I'm guilty of it when pushed. But it's a bad thing. It derails the debate. You see, a debate has to stay on topic or it degenerates. First it degenerates from a debate into an argument. And eventually it becomes:

"You're a troll"
"No, you're the troll"
"No, you are"
"No, you are"

And at this point, but for geography, they'd be throwing tomatoes at each other.

Anyway, time marches on and despite all the opportunities people have had to educate themselves online, today I was alerted to this:

It would be easy to ad hom all over this, and I confess to referring to it as psychotic dribble on Facebook. But let's be academic here.

This post contradicts itself. Early on it says "no such...active virus...has ever been found in rabid animals". Later it names the virus responsible. 

Here is a photo of said virus.

So, we are forced to accept somebody found it somewhere, presumably in a rabid animal.

The advice given to take Vitamin C for rabies is wrong, and obviously extremely dangerous.

We could return to ad homs very easily, because the writer really doesn't deserve to be taken seriously, but we must take this seriously, because this advice could be fatal. I can't think of anything more serious than an opinion that could kill.

To sum up, this post is not the truth. It is fiction, and it is dangerous fiction. How many people would believe it? Hard to say, but they are out there, because I've met them. The original post was on a site dedicated to showing the dark side of the anti-vaccination movement, but that's just one part of this sub-section of the population who distrust modern medicine, doctors, and pharmaceutical, and prefer instead to place their lives in the hands of a stranger on the internet.

How often does this happen?

Back at MSN I met a lady who did not believe in germs. Presumably she thought photos of such organisms were hoaxes, I really don't know, but for whatever reason in her mind there were no such things. All illnesses were caused, not by pathogens, but by what Jerry Coyne (we'll be seeing him later too) refers to as woo. I love that term and have stolen it. The original term was woo-woo, but the shorter version works well in compound words such as "woomeister". And yes, that's an ad hom.

Other people, famous people, people who make a lot of money out of it, dislike being told they are woomeisters, and refer to anyone who dismisses their woo a "bully".

So, it goes like this. If I publish a book that states that all humans could fly if they follow a few simple dietary rules, that would make me a woomeister. And if you said the entire idea was ridiculous, I could call you a bully, and go wah wah wah on TV somewhere.

But that's a very simple version. It is obvious to even most wooists that no amount of wholefoods will allow us to fly, and the book would not be a bestseller in the first place as a result.

What if I published a book of woo saying that vaccinations caused Autism? Despite the fact that the vast majority of vaccinated children were not autistic? Despite the fact that there are autistic children, in places where vaccinations are not available? Despite the fact that a genetic link in autism has been talked about for 50 years? And so on. Well, somebody did. And it did sell. And parents stopped vaccinating their children. Is that dangerous? Yes, of course it is. Should we allow it? We have to, free speech and all that.

What if I published a book of woo saying that when you have a tumour you should just pray, and not see a doctor? According to some sources, Val Kilmer, who is a Christian Scientist, ended up in hospital bleeding from the throat earlier this year for this reason.

What if I published a textbook of woo for schools saying that Earth is 6000 years old, and that evolution is not true? Does that do any harm?

So let's get to Dawkins.

This was the article that started all of this....please read it.


“I DON’T give a damn if people find religious belief comfortable or meaningful. I only care whether it’s true.”

Dawkins is not my cup of tea. He's a very serious man. I'm sure he smiles sometimes, maybe he even laughs, but I've never seen him really let his hair down, if you know what I mean. The word here is dour. I can't deal with dour people. I'm sure they are perfectly happy in their own way, but there's something missing there, that I need to be able to relate to people.

Dawkins is about the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. He has no time for anything else. And to a greater or lesser degree, there is a whole group of that type of atheist who share that attitude. These are usually learned men, often scientists, so I respect them on that level, and I too am a bit of a stickler for truth.

On the other hand, Sean Illing reminds us of an important point, that religion is not science. You can't argue the one using the other, they are too different. When science and religion are both seeking the truth regarding cosmology for example, the approaches used are opposite.

I'm not keen on religion. It's full of dogma and woo. I am very keen on love, beauty, kindness, art, creativity, music, and the human mind. And I find they are expressed best in philosophic and spiritual language rather than scientific, even if there is an altruism gene.

I have managed to find my own balance here, as I am wont to do, by sticking to truth where truth is available, and enjoying the mystery of the rest.

In some ways I agree with the writer of this article. These very strict atheists are missing the point. I wonder if it's a personality trait. When they listen to music, do they analyse it mathematically or just enjoy it?

One thing I have noticed is that they really can throw the ad homs around. That arrogance that geniuses tend to have seems to affect their manners. They justify this, or sometimes don't even bother, but it's still rude. And they don't care.

Maybe I'm just too soft. I just can't bring myself to hurt people's feelings over such an issue.

So where do we draw the line? Where is it OK to leave people to whatever they believe, just let them get on with it, share it, publish it, and argue it?

May I suggest a Pagan solution? If there's no harm in it, then leave them to it.

If your neighbour leaves little meals out for the pixies, who she has named, but she's otherwise a good person, there's no harm done. Leave her to it.

If she accuses you of poisoning her pixies, call social services.

The problem remains of course in defining harm. That has been a running discussion in my circles forever, and probably always will be.

I suspect that in fact, Dawkins, et al, use it as a yardstick themselves, they just have a different definition of harm. So, later in the week, I'll go into that aspect of it all in more detail.

Meanwhile, tomorrow we examine the word Belief. Again. More so.

The truth is, I have work to do, so off I go.

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