As a postscript to my previous entry — and as a case study to the current one — I spent a little while over this weekend doodling the outlines of a fake nature documentary riffing off the old “Hinterland: Who’s Who” vignettes that used to run on CBC. Mine was called “Internet: Who’s Who”. It was about Trollus microcephalus — “the Small-headed Shrike”, and it was shaping up pretty well…
“Despite their loud and piercing calls (which frequently seem designed to garner outside attention), shrikes are by nature a tribal and xenophobic species … difficult to study in the wild, as outsiders wandering into their territory are immediately set upon and pecked to death…”
“Here we see one of the more common threat displays of the small-headed shrike. By pointing out that none of her antagonists are pursuing her own agenda more effectively than she is, she can make them appear hypocritical and/or ineffective while completely avoiding the fact that neither Callan, Watts, nor Bakker explicitly set out to “stop a sex trafficking ring”. This is the logical equivalent of criticizing a pharmacist because they didn’t perform an appendectomy — but the shrike flourishes its plumage so distractingly that potential prey hardly ever notice.”
And so on. It would, of course, have been profusely illustrated by quotes from acrackedmoon herself.
There was just one problem. It was taking time and effort, and — as I’ve finally realized — acrackedmoon is worth neither. As even her advocates have pointed out here, she’s not interested in dialog; only diatribe. She is worth only as much time as it takes to scrape her off the sole of your boot.
I wrote a column for Nowa Fantaskyka a few months back that explored the question of dealing with those uninterested in reason. It’s relevant and it’s out of exclusivity, so I present it here (lightly edited to remove irrelevant Poland-related references). It begins right after the following public-service announcement:
Public Service Announcement: for the benefit of those who got sick of the last post’s comment thread before reaching the bottom, I’ve invoked a new policy. I quote:
“Comments which make legitimate points will be allowed, even if they piss people off. Comments which (in my sole judgment) are designed primarily to piss people off — shots about rape, race, the usual incendiary stuff — will be disallowed. Any such posts which are already up will remain, in evidence as to why I have to do this (except for that last post by Lanius, which kinda yanked the scales from my eyes).
I have tried to keep a free hand here. When people have crossed the line I have asked them nicely to step back. I haven’t had to pull this kind of heavy-handed shit since Squidgate, and then only because that particular event lured in mouth-breathers and knuckle-draggers that would normally never have found this place.
So, one more time: if you’re going to be offensive, make sure it’s for some reason other than to give offense.)”
The Limits of Reason
We are broken as a species.
I encountered my first evidence to this effect back in 1986, although I didn’t have the wit to realize it at the time. A pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses appeared at my door, bursting with all sorts of good news about Jesus Christ Our Lord and Savior. They took a literal view of scripture and a dim view of Darwin: evolution was a lie, they said, and not a very convincing one.
It was the moment I’d been waiting for.
I was trying out a new technique, you see. Rather than lecture these misguided souls — rather than explaining Natural Selection and molecular genetics — I would use their own arguments against them. I would grant them their claims, and see where it took us.
“Well,” said I, “I guess that pretty much wraps it up for Noah as a righteous man, doesn’t it?”
They frowned, and asked why I would say such a thing.
“Well, we know there are dozens of sexually-transmitted disease that exclusively infect humans and no other species,” I explained. “And if evolution is a lie, then all those STDs must have existed since creation— and the only way they could have survived the Great Flood would have been inside Noah and his family. So logically, Noah’s whole brood was more rotten with the clap than the lowliest hooker in Gomorrah.” The logic was inevitable. There was no way on earth these bible-thumpers could avoid it. I had them.
It didn’t even slow them down.
“No,” they explained patiently, “God afflicted us with those diseases to punish women for the Original Sin. God can do whatever He wants.” (Did I mention that both of these missionaries were female?)
I realized, at that point, that you just can’t reason with some people. It wasn’t until much later that I began to understand why this should be so. I think it comes down to the oft-revisited theme that natural selection has shaped our brains not for logic but for inclusive fitness. We can use logic when we want to, of course. We have tools of reason at our command; but according to at least some experts we have those tools not to glean truth from falsehood but to help us win arguments; to make others do what we want; to use as a weapon. It’s rhetoric and manipulation that evolution selected for: logic just tagged along as a side effect. Sweeping oratory, rational debate, it’s all just a way to bend others to your will.
In that light, it shouldn’t surprise us that our brains have developed countermeasures to so-called reasoned argument. A seemingly-endless list of cognitive glitches compromise the brain’s inability to perceive reality— but maybe they aren’t so much glitches as adaptations, meant to counter the pernicious effects of the silver-tongued. Confirmation bias, for example, leads us to cherry-pick facts which support our own beliefs; the Semmelweis reflex makes us automatically reject findings that contradict our expectations. And perhaps most radically, the Backfire Effect. You’d think a rational person, confronted with evidence contradicting their beliefs on a given subject, would at the very least grow less confident in those beliefs. In fact, such contrary evidence often reinforces the very belief being undermined.
These adaptations, if that’s what they are — these defenses against social manipulation — would make rational discourse difficult enough. But it gets worse. We know from the work of Kruger and Dunning that not only do people tend to overestimate their own smarts, but that this effect is especially pronounced among the incompetent. Furthermore, incompetent people tend not only to regard themselves as smarter than everyone else, they tend to regard truly smart people as especially stupid, even when shown empirical proof that they are less competent than those they deride.
It explains so much, these counter-rhetorical biases. It explains why climate-change deniers dig their heels in even deeper with each new study confirming the reality of climate change. It explains the ease with which religious fundamentalists dismiss the mountains of evidence supporting evolution in favor of unsubstantiated and idiotic creation myths. It explains the prevalence of bumper stickers proudly proclaiming “God said it. I believe it. That Settles It.”, the profound distrust of education so endemic among the North American conservative movement. We’re even starting to see how such hardcore closed-minded types can have such a disproportionate influence on society at large: network analysis by Xie et al suggests that a belief held by as few as 10% of a population can, over time, become a majority belief so long as that original 10% is sufficiently closed-minded and fanatical. (It’s a ratchet effect, basically: the more open-minded you are, the more willing you are to entertain the notion you could be wrong. So when a fanatical believer tries to sway an open-minded nonbeliever, the latter is more likely to give ground— which increases the proportion of believers in the population. Which increases the frequency with which open-minded nonbelievers encounter believers. You get the picture.)
Of course, no one’s immune to these biases; I’ve caught myself cherry-picking data on more than one occasion. To that extent we all live in glass houses. But there are ways of error-checking yourself, if you care to use them. The scientific method, at its heart, is a set of tools explicitly designed to break through bias and shine a light on the empirical information underneath. Recognizing our prejudices, we can overcome them.
But one thing we cannot do — and it has taken me so very long to realize this — is reason successfully with those who reject such tools. Logic doesn’t matter to a Jehovah’s Witness. Fossils mean nothing to a creationist. All the data in the world will not change the mind of a true climate-change denier. You cannot reason with these people. You can not take them seriously. It is a waste of energy to even try.
All you can really do is mock them. All you can do is subject them to scathing and intense ridicule, publicly if possible. So the next time you see some idiot waving a picture of a fetus in front of an abortion clinic, or pass some bible-thumper screeching that God Hates Fags — don’t engage them, but don’t ignore them, either. Toss them a peanut and make monkey sounds. Take their picture and laugh. Speak amongst yourselves in loud stage whispers, use them to illustrate to your children what inbreeding looks like, mention that you hadn’t realized that research into human-animal hybrids had progressed nearly this far. You will never win them over; but at least you can have some fun at their expense.
It took me far too long to realize this consciously. But I think my subconscious had the right idea even back in 1986, when the missionaries at my door accused me of thinking I was smarter than God. “Oh, I don’t think I’m smarter than God,” I blurted out, without really meaning to. “I just think I’m smarter than you.” Granted, it was a low bar to clear.
Have fun with them, while you still can. Because they’re winning. And if Xie et al are right, time’s running out for the rest of us.
 Cohen, C.: “Reason seen more as weapon than path to truth.” New York Times, June 14, 2011.
 “Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 77(6), Dec 1999, 1121-1134.
 “Social consensus through the influence of committed minorities.” Phys. Rev. E 84, 011130 (2011)
 As opposed to professional climate-change deniers, who simply espouse whatever Exxon and the Koch Brothers pay them to regardless of their own opinions on the subject.