The Privilege of Reality

I’ve been kicking this one around in my head for a while. People who bring me woo accuse me of all sorts of character traits/behaviors when they find that I am not supportive. Some of these accusations are false; some of them are true but irrelevant; some of them are, doubtless, genuine character flaws; and some of them are not only true but intentional. Regardless, my point here is not to defend the attitude I take when people bring me woo but to explain it. It’s hard to do the latter without slipping into the former. I’m pretty sure I have failed to do so, but I still think it might be useful for people who wonder why I can be so damn rude.

There is alot of woo in the world. Most of us, however skeptical, have some irrational habits or superstitions; we are only human. I say this, not only as fair warning that if you name the Scottish Play in my presence I might spit and throw salt at you, but also because it is important to understand generally. Some of the things that you, personally, believe are wrong.

Many of us humans find this to be deeply troubling. Sometimes we (each and every one of us) seek out validation rather than taking the time to educate and correct ourselves. In some cases this is legitimate- we cannot all be experts on everything. In other cases this is laziness. I’m not trying to judge which is which for particular cases just now, merely stating that both categories are possible and most cases are somewhere in between.

For whatever reason, some people have come to regard me as a source of scientific legitimacy. In some ways this is reasonable and in some ways it is not but it has the effect that people frequently bring their woo (or woo that they find elsewhere) to me for validation. I should clarify that there is a difference between asking honest questions (which I typically enjoy) and asking me to back up your idea to generate infinite free energy. Or asserting that I believe in spirits/ghosts (news to me). Or expecting me to back a university alt-med center because I can’t prove it doesn’t work right now.

With that clarification in mind, when I am presented with theological, spiritual or otherwise supernatural ideas and told either that I don’t understand the experiences or ‘science’ that proves them or that ‘science can’t understand’ them, I am inclined to be dismissive. This is often perceived as rude. I don’t want to do anything which would damage that perception in any way, since it is an honest reflection of such interactions in many cases (see point four). Nevertheless, there are a few points which might be useful in understanding my position.

1) Demanding that you justify an assertion is fundamentally different from dismissing it. I certainly don’t mean to say that I never dismiss people out of hand when they demand that I pay attention to them. In fact, I rather enjoy doing so at times. But that’s not the only way I ever respond to people who try to change my opinion. If you really want to change my mind, it might be worth your while to think about what I actually said to you and determine if I am actually being dismissive or if I have simply failed to agree with you. I do this rarely, but if I tell you to make an argument, then I am giving you my attention. If your response to receiving my attention is to complain that I don’t take you seriously, then I have no reason to take you seriously.

2) Dismissing claims presented without evidence is perfectly reasonable, even if you use ‘dismissive’ as an epithet or claim that it demonstrates arrogance. Hell, I’ll freely stipulate to being arrogant in all kinds of ways if you like. But if you want to make an argument that means something, demonstrating that I am personally arrogant is pointless.

3) I care deeply about all sorts of things that have no extension in the real world. I care about Darth Vader. I care ever so slightly about the gods and legends of old. I care significantly more about the impending zombie apocalypse. I care about Middle Earth enough that in undergrad I wrote a ~20 page analysis of the parallels between the One Ring and the Ring of Gyges. In fact, the number of fictional things about which I care enough to engage in protracted arguments is likely greater than the number of real ones. The fact that I dismiss your particular not-real ideas is not necessarily because they are not real. You should consider the possibility that I am being dismissive because your idea is deeply and fundamentally uninteresting.

4) I am not required to justify basic tenets of physics, chemistry or biology to anyone seeking to convince me of something. Which is not to say that I am never amenable to explaining high-school level science to people. I simply mean that if you come to me wanting to change my mind about homeopathy or some such, it is out of line to expect me to do your homework for you. Nobody is paying me to be a tutor. When I do take the time to educate someone in science, it’s pro-bono. Sometimes I enjoy it. Not always. In any event, it is not only impractical to assume that I could bring everyone up to speed on all the science that I know; it is rude to demand that I do so for the sake of your argument. Doubly so if I happen to know that you have taken the relevant coursework and are failing to apply what you have learned.

5) Ideas that explain and predict reliable, measurable effects in the world are privileged in my priorities. I live in the world. I interact with the world. I interact with other people (including you) through the world and through no other medium. I will continue to do so until I die, which I hope to be some significant amount of time from now. Ideas about other things that interact with the world that I live in have a head-start when I decide what to care about. This is eminently reasonable.

That last one is important. Really important. Frankly, the idea that it should be otherwise strikes me as insane. Sure, you are free to make an argument that I should care about more about some idea which shows no evidence of relating to the actual world I live in than those which do- I might even agree. But probably not. So don’t expect it.

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