Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Deception and Effort

Honest skepticism has a genuine problem. This problem has to do with the somewhat fleeting character of fairness. How do we grant a claim a fair hearing? Or more specifically, how much of a hearing do we have to grant for the hearing to have been fair?

Basically, the problem boils down to this: for every true claim, for every usefully accurate model, for every insightful understanding, there's hundreds of mistaken claims, models that obfuscate or mislead, and misunderstandings. If we were to grant each proposal the same amount of interest and attention, we would definitely be wasting our time.

This, essentially, is at the root of why 'falsifiability' is so important to science. If we were to nurture a method of looking for truth where non-falsifiable hypotheses were given a lot of attention, we would waste a lot of effort on things that are, to be blunt, very mistaken. Falsifiability permits us to direct our effort where it matters – towards improvement of our understanding of something.

This is why a critical approach to knowledge is the most important tool in the toolkit: it gives us a fighting chance to stave off wastefulness, and to focus on things that are potentially fruitful instead. A big ugly problem rears its head here, though: some people are so attached to their ideas that they will not look at them with a critical eye. Heck, for many of this kind of people, voicing any criticism of an idea is an attack on them as a person. These people simply do not want to play by the rules ­ - they want their ideas to be given a pass, to be excempt from vetting.

This is a kind of deceptive approach - although I don't think they themselves realize just how deceitful this is. They may very well believe they are correct, but by not letting others check whether they in fact are correct, they are trying to rig the process of finding truth, so that their idea will come out on top no matter how accurate it is.

Now, if we granted each idea an equal, thorough hearing, we'd be drowned in frustratingly useless work. We'd end up reading thousands of pages of worthless speculation, just in the hopes of finding even a nugget of vaguely truth-like essence. So, already when one has taken a good first look at the work of an author and found that their work doesn't impress at all due to bad research, bad logic (etc), it is quite justifiable to refuse to go on. At that point, one can be sure there are more fruitful venues elsewhere. There's too much work to be done in the world, to let the ideologically blind lead us down gardenpaths of bad evidence.

However, those who do not want to play by the rules (and who are so enamored with their own ideas) will not concede the point at this point. They'll just keep demanding to be taken seriously. The bulk of this blog, in fact, stands as testimony to the amount of work such bad scholarship leads us to: I've spent several hundred hours reading Murdock's sources, looking for them, cross-referencing stuff, tracing stuff, translating stuff, ... and her fans still think my criticism of her work is just an ad hominem rant.

In essence, the criticism of one particular book that I've presented on this blog is testimony to what superfluous work has to be done if we entertain the notion that pseudoscience has to be permitted a fair hearing. The amount of text I've written amounts to, roughly speaking, the length of a PhD thesis. The time and effort I have invested is considerable. The conclusion that The Christ Conspiracy is worthless is unavoidable and quite well substantiated – its conclusions are less waterproof than a sieve. Yet this work gets us nowhere – Murdock's fans still propagate her claims around the internet, and her claims are nice clickbait. Solid, scholarly work has no impact on the delusional fringe, and wasting effort on debunking it is essentially futile. This does not stop me, since I would get a bad conscience otherwise, but I fear that in these days of clickbait, reason and rationality will lose out to mass-appeal and controversy.

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