Listen to What You’re Saying


Every time I visit New Hampshire, as I did just recently, I notice those license plates. And the motto emblazoned thereon : Live Free Or Die. And even though it stems from noble impulses, I still have to regard it as just about the worst motto ever. It’s a sentiment that dates back to ancient times (perhaps most memorably worded by Patrick Henry) to declare that death is preferable to bondage, but who literally believes it to be true? Even if you’re living in bondage, there’s always the possibility that you can attain your freedom later. If you’re living in death, such prospects are rather compromised.

This sentiment probably (let’s hope) arose from a broader and less literal attitude that an individual would be willing to risk his or her life to ensure the liberty of posterity.  But taken literally as quoted, it’s nonsensical to value liberty over life itself, because liberty is a component of life. It’s just another in the endless parade of instances in which people aren’t really listening to what they’re saying.

We often hear that we should watch what we’re saying, lest we utter something offensive or damaging. But it’s also important to listen to what we’re saying. lest we utter something self-contradictory or downright foolish.

Many years ago I was having a discussion with one of my RRR’s (rabidly right-wing relatives) — and when I say “having a discussion”, I mean listening to him rant — about the government’s ban of the pesticide DDT, a ban he was convinced was part of some kind of liberal commie conspiracy to impinge, somehow or other, upon the liberty of ordinary American citizens. He insisted that DDT is necessary to control pests.

“You don’t remember what it was like before we had DDT”, he said. “The flies were so thick you could hardly breathe.”

In other words, he was saying that because there were not nearly as many flies since DDT was banned, that proves that DDT is necessary to eliminate flies. Even if he meant that the flies were numerous before DDT was used at all, his statement makes sense only if those suckers have an extremely long gestation period, and are about to swarm us like Hitchcock’s birds any minute now. He would have done well to pay attention to his own words.

Another relative commented recently that it’s important to keep out “illegal” immigrants because they commit a lot of crime. To which I responded that actually, they commit considerably less crime than U.S. citizens. To which he replied, “that’s your opinion”. To which I replied that in fact it would be pointless to have an opinion about such a matter, because we have a way of knowing for certain. It’s called counting. That’s the reason numbers were invented — so we can keep track of how many crimes immigrants commit. To which he repeated, “that’s your opinion”. He wasn’t really listening either to me or to himself.

Still another relative is adamantly opposed to cremation, citing her fundamentalist convictions. She literally believes that on Judgment Day, God will resurrect the remains of the deceased faithful; and cremating those remains will make it impossible for Him to do so. In other words,  a Supreme Being who supposedly can do absolutely anything, nevertheless cannot revivify cremated individuals, which presumably means things are hopeless for anyone who dies in a fire, no matter how strong their faith. Has she ever tried listening to her own words?

Religious beliefs often come from people who seemingly tune out their own words. Creationists sometimes argue that there must be a Creator just because the universe is too complex to have “just happened”. But aside from the fact that “just happened” is an overly simplistic characterization of the alternative(s) to creationism, the complexity argument is just about the most inept imaginable. Because no matter how complex the universe, its Creator would have to be even more complex. And if complexity itself negates the possibility of “just happened”, then that Creator must have been created by a Creator who was created by a Creator. And so on, ad infinitum.

Politics, of course, also offers a wealth of opportunities for ignoring the import of one’s own words. (And, alas, just about every freaking thing under the sun is connected to politics these days.) Who can forget former Senator Jesse Helms saying that “democracy used to be a good thing, but now it has gotten into the wrong hands”. And not long ago I heard a politician say something to the effect that the death penalty is a way of expressing our commitment to the sanctity of human life. (And many other people defend the death penalty by claiming that killing people teaches people not to kill people.)

You hear a lot of people these days declare that black athletes should be forced to stand for the National Anthem because soldiers have died defending their freedom. And many people just know there is an overwhelming liberal bias to American mainstream media because they keep it hearing it from the American mainstream media. And that the way to stop gun violence is with more guns. And spanking kids teaches them respect.

George W. Bush, who built a long and lucrative political career upon utterly refusing to listen to absolutely anything he was saying, came up with quite a few gems like this:

I think we agree, the past is over.

More and more of our imports come from overseas.

You work three jobs? … Uniquely American, isn’t it? I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that.

And many, many others, from suggesting that the reason for starting a war is to stop war to proposing easing dependence on foreign oil by getting it from Mexico. Nor was this staggeringly stupid lack of self-awareness limited to Bush himself; the entire administration was infected with it. As just one example: after the 9-11 attack, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers hailed from Saudi Arabia, the Bush Gang decided instead to bomb Iraq. Because, as Secretary Of Defense Donald Rumsfeld explained perfectly deadpan, Iraq had better targets. Sort of like losing your keys in the garage but looking for them in the bathroom because the light is better there.

Speaking of Bush, another relative (and I don’t mean to be picking on my relatives here, God love them every one) insisted that it’s wrong to blame Bush for allowing 9-11 to happen. It was really Clinton’s fault, she insisted, because he dallied with Monica so much that he was distracted from doing his duty. That kind of analysis seems to make sense to a lot of people — I’ve heard it repeated more than once. And granted, it isn’t as obviously nonsensical and self-contradictory as the other statements quoted above. But when you give it a bit of thought, you see that it is indeed absurd.

When you say that the president blew it by getting blown, you are saying one of two things. The first possibility is that Clinton in general spent so much time Monica-ing that he was unable to do his duty. But that’s absurd, because there were surely other activities that he devoted far more time to — eating and sleeping, for example — and nobody has ever suggested that those things were an inordinate distraction from his job.

The second possibility is that on some specific occasion, his preoccupation with philandering caused him to miss an important briefing or decision point. But not even the most devoted of Clinton haters suggest that there was such an occasion; and even if there had been, that still leaves wide open the possibility that he could have received a briefing, or could have done whatever he needed to do, at some other time — if nothing else, by having his sleep or meal interrupted. In contrast, when people talk about Bush allowing 9-11 to happen,  they mean that he and his administration ignored or downplayed several warnings, some rather specific, in the months leading up to the attack — including one on Aug. 6.  We’ll never know for certain whether they would have prevented 9-11 had they been more diligent. But we do know that they were not diligent. They in fact had their pants down in a much more serious way than Clinton did.

I suspect that all of these relatives did what so many people do these days: they heard something in the media that they wanted to believe, so they decided to believe it and repeat it without stopping to think about whether it actually made sense. They didn’t listen to what they were saying.

It’s been said that the unexamined life is not worth living. That may be rather hyperbolic (though surely not to the same extent as “live free or die”.) What’s much truer, however, is that the unexamined belief is not worth believing — much less expressing. It’s fine to quote someone else’s words, provided they’ve been properly vetted. But if you simply parrot what you’ve heard without considering its basis in fact or logic, your opinions are not really your own.  It’s a very good idea to listen to what you’re saying, preferably before you even say it. You may still get some things wrong — we all make mistakes. But at least you will be speaking your own convictions rather than serving as a mouthpiece for a ventriloquist. And that’s definitely a step in the right direction.

Creationism, Design and the Watchmaker Fallacy


In 1802, British theologian William Paley imagined himself finding a watch on the ground while he was out for a stroll. That imaginary timepiece, though there was nothing intrinsically valuable or distinctive about it, ended up being probably the most celebrated and notorious ticker in the history of theology and philosophy. Because Paley conjured it up to make a point about what he perceived as the inescapable origin of the universe:

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. … There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use … Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.

It’s hard to believe that an educated and intelligent individual like Paley would ever even fall for, much less contrive, such a silly and self-refuting argument. But it has shown the kind of staying power that all bad ideas have. Even today, it’s often summoned out of its crypt to defend creationism — which its promoters now believe they can sneak under the radar disguised as “intelligent design”.

The “argument from design” has been making the rounds for centuries. (Robert Frost put a sinister and ironic twist on it in his sonnet titled “Design”.) Basically, the argument from design is the belief that the universe is so complex and intricate that it could not have developed without being guided by a supreme power. This seems derived from the premise that a supreme being would be able to design a universe more complex and intricate than any universe that could develop by “chance” (if you want to think of it in those terms).

The latter is in a sense a reasonable conclusion; assuming that there really is a supreme being, then by definition it would be able to perform feats that nothing else can — including “chance”. But even if we grant this to be true, it does not follow that the particular universe we live in would require a designer. We simply have no way of confirming that assumption.

A related argument practiced by creationists is first causeThe reasoning is that since everything in the universe has a cause, then we can trace all the causes back to a First Cause, i.e., God. But the very notion is a self-contradiction: on the one hand, everything has a cause, and yet on the other hand, there is something that presumably doesn’t. The concept of a first cause also posits a naively and drastically oversimplified model of how the universe functions — a linear construct in which A causes B and B causes C and so on. But the real universe does not operate in a straight line; it operates in an unfathomably complex web of mutual influence. To single out a “first cause” is not only impossible but pointless.

The problem with the claim that “God created the universe” isn’t that it’s inaccurate, but that it’s downright meaningless. As we mentioned before, “God” is term subject to a broad range of definition. And how exactly would the universe be “created”, anyway? Many people insist that the universe could not have just developed out of nothing, so it must have been created, somehow, out of… well, nothing. By a Creator who came from… well, nothing.

The creationist/ design/ first cause argument falls prey to a fallacy known as infinite regress; which is to say that if the existence of the universe proves the existence of a creator, then the existence of a creator must prove the existence of a creator of the creator, and so on and on and on. The decision to cut off the chain after the second link, as creationists do, is purely arbitrary.

As for Paley’s notorious watch metaphor, it’s a classic false equivalence. He is juxtaposing a thing that we know to be created with a thing that we don’t know to be created and concluding that because it’s possible to find characteristics they have in common, then both must be created. What he’s overlooking is that their differences are much more significant than their similarities — a problem he even stumped his own toe on by comparing the watch to a rock.

The essential property that is intended to make the analogy work is the property of irreducibility. Remove one of the tiny gears (each of which was specially crafted for a specific, identifiable purpose) from a watch and you significantly impair or terminate its functioning. That certainly is a strong indication that the watch was designed and manufactured rather than “just happened”.

The universe, however, is quite another matter. On every level from the most microcosmic to the most macrocosmic, the universe is in an unending state of flux, with elements constantly growing old, dying out, being replaced, or just being lost altogether. People lose teeth, hair and organs and life goes on. Indeed, not only do we have wisdom teeth, tonsils and appendices removed, but these organs appear to be useless at best. Countless entire species have become extinct. Stars go nova, obliterating everything in the neighborhood.

While each of these events might make a difference at some level, the universe takes a licking and keeps on ticking. Can the same be said for Paley’s watch?

Ultimately, if you choose to believe in creationism, you must do so on the basis of faith alone. There is no line of reasoning that will make it more logical than any alternative(s). This need not be a problem as long as you keep religion in its proper sphere of cognition. It is when we try to substitute dogma for science that we run into problems of cosmic proportions.

It may be okay to say that “God created the universe”, particularly since nobody will even know what that means. But that does not mean it’s okay to teach kids that the earth is 6000 years old. It isn’t, and it isn’t.








Propaganda Prop # 8: False Equivalence

Imbalance concept. Black scales with red sphere and cube.

In a video making the rounds on the Internet not long ago,  an interviewer asks several science-minded individuals why they believe in evolution and not creationism, and coaxes them into saying that it is essentially because science is based on observable evidence, while religion is based on pure belief.  He then innocently observes that, hey, evolutionists discuss events that supposedly happened millions of years ago, and you can’t witness them since they were so far in the past; so why is that better than believing things you can’t see that supposedly happened thousands of years ago, or that happen on some spiritual plane of existence? By suggesting that putting faith in physical evidence is as arbitrary as putting faith in dogma,  he was slyly invoking false equivalence, the eighth in our series of propaganda tools.

A false equivalence, as the name suggests, is comparing or equating things that are not appropriately similar. (“The First Amendment applies to the Internet even though it hadn’t been invented when the Constitution was written; so the Second Amendment gives me the right to own an AK-47.”) This tactic is often labeled false analogy, which theoretically could be classified as something different: a false equivalence is saying that two related but dissimilar things are essentially the same, while a false analogy is saying that two unrelated things are comparable (“You cheat at solitaire, so you have no right to criticize me for being a racist.”). But in practice, the distinction is often so slight and so difficult to pinpoint that it’s really no false equivalence to just consider them interchangeable.

Quite often, the F.E. seems to be a valid analogy at first blush, but if you examine it more closely, you see that the subtle distinctions are actually quite substantial. It isn’t necessarily that the differences are more numerous than the similarities, but they are more significant. In the photo above, the two objects have certain things in common: e.g., they are both regular geometric solids, they are both shiny, they are both smooth, and they are both red. But clearly they are not the same.  One is a cube and one is a sphere. One is heavier than the other. It may be that they are different sizes, or made of different materials,  or that the cube is hollow. In any case, the differences literally outweigh the similarities.

Recently when discussing vegetarianism, I made an allusion to my 40 years of personal experience with the topic, and someone remarked that I might as well cite 40 years of faith healing or psychic work as proof that those activities are valid.  The point was that all of them involve anecdotal evidence; but the anecdotal evidence is being used in very different ways. And it’s a false equivalence for at least three reasons.

First, as I perhaps should have made more clear, my “experience” is not limited to my own vegetarianism, but to my having read about, met and talked to, literally hundreds of other vegetarians, and to having done a great deal of research on the topic.  Second, it’s a comparison between the purely hypothetical and intangible — i.e., psychic powers and faith healing — and the tangible and demonstrable; diet definitely does have an effect on health, and there’s ample evidence that a vegetarian diet can have a positive effect. Third and most important, unlike the psychic and the faith healer, I’ve never cited my personal experience/research as “proof” of anything; on the contrary, I suggest that it’s reason to doubt conventional wisdom — i.e., that consuming meat is necessary for good health. (Which is to say that when you have a premise that doing thing A invariably produces result B, yet you have hundreds of random individuals who’ve been doing A for years with results consistently the opposite of B, it might be prudent to examine your premise a little more closely.)

It’s very easy to drift into those murky waters, because we all like to make comparisons — they help illustrate, clarify and amplify. But no two things are exactly alike; so it can be a bit tricky to determine where to draw the line between appropriate and inappropriate analogy. Sometimes, then, the false equivalence is a sincere logical fallacy rather than an attempt to deceive. In many cases, however, the analogist steps blatantly over the line; even when not doing so deliberately, he/ she does so as part of an overall inclination to distort in order to attack or defend a particular position.

The interviewer in the video may or may not have been intentionally dissembling, but he definitely was operating under a false premise: namely, that religious authorities are at least as qualified to speak about science as are scientific authorities. This stems from the great fundamentalist fallacy that religious texts should be interpreted as literally as scientific texts. But in fact, religion and science are two totally different spheres of cognition — two different languages, if you will. Those who understand this can be both scientific and religious if they so choose. Those who don’t are likely either to condemn religion as being unscientific (its actually nonscientific) or condemn science as being “blasphemous”.

False equivalence is often invoked in discussions of religion. One popular motif is to maintain that the absence of faith is itself a sort of faith. A few years ago, there was even a movement among the Christian Right to have “secular humanism” officially declared a religion, so that it would be a violation of the principle of the separation of church and state to enact secularist policies such as prohibiting school-enforced prayer. Cute.

Of course, this was a political maneuver as much as a religious one, and you’ll certainly encounter plenty of false equivalence in discussions about politics and current events. Turn on the talking heads and before a quarter of an hour has elapsed,  chances are you will have heard at least one faulty comparison.

One of the most popular manifestations is the “both sides do it” narrative,  which sometimes manifests as the tu quoque — Latin for “you too”, a fancy way of saying that it takes one to know one.  As you might imagine, I get that one thrown at me quite a bit. (“You’re a propagandist yourself”. “You’re promoting your own causes.” “You’re using straw men and cherry picking while accusing other people of doing the same.” Etc, etc, etc. Which is a clear indication that someone either is distorting my words or is confused about the concept in question.)  Sometimes a tu quoque is a valid point; quite often, it’s just a knee-jerk attack from someone who feels that he/ she absolutely must attack, but really has nothing to say.

The “both sides do it” is my favorite specimen of false equivalence because it offers so many possible applications. Accordingly, I’ll be devoting a separate discussion to it in the near future.

No examination of false equivalence is complete without some mention of the very popular “reductio ad Hitlerum” — the tendency to summon up the specter of Der Fuhrer to stand beside anyone you don’t like.  If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard this one, I’d be as powerful as Hitler.

The fact is, nobody is really like Hitler. That’s what makes him such an effective illustration but such an ineffective and inappropriate benchmark. Sometimes someone may have something in common with Hitler in a very small way (you may know lots of short, dark-haired former painters who speak German), but never to the extent that fiery rhetoricians suggest. A Hitler analogy is almost always out of line.

That being said, we also should acknowledge that the over-sensitization to Hitler analogies has created its own problems. Sometimes you might hear an exchange like this:

Mr. Smith: You’re very firm in your beliefs, but that isn’t always a good thing. The Nazis were firm in their beliefs, too.

Mr. Jones: There you go, comparing us to Nazis and comparing me to Hitler.

Smith did no such thing, of course. He gave Hitler his proper treatment: as the ultimate extreme we all should avoid, and a powerful illustration of what excesses firmness of conviction can lead to. It is Jones who is making the false equivalence. This is a propagandaphile’s delight: a false equivalence about a false equivalence.