Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Excuse Olympics

Religious people sometimes call atheists mean for actively undermining passionately-held but silly beliefs. That's not mean; it's honest, even concerned. If your neighbor told you there was a real live leprechaun in her backyard, would you say "that's nice" for fear of hurting her feelings, or would you engage her seriously, for fear of how her leprechaun complex might affect how she raises her two children? This assumes of course that you don't believe in leprechauns; and if you think whether a few hundred million other people believe in leprechauns should make a difference to your own willingness to believe in them, then I might be having the same kind of conversation with you.

So if your neighbor says, "Oh, you're mean for trying to take away my belief in leprechauns!" you say, "No, I'm not mean. If you want mean, go to Mike's blog. Mike is mean."

I am. I really do enjoy watching people squirm to come up with excuses when confronted with good evidence against their beliefs. I'm not alone in this; many of us do. Does this help the reputation of atheists? Or does it convince anybody? No, of course not. That's why I don't give into this tendency with on-the-fence people that I stand a chance of influencing. But some people, you're not going to convince no matter what you do. Ken Ham and Jenny McCarthy just have have too much invested and their fans and family members would be angry with them if they changed their mind. So even if they know right now the game is up, they'd keep parroting the same nonsense. It's cases like that where I give myself permission to be mean.

One neat way to be mean is to treat these kinds of people as study subjects. Steven Novella is my idol because on the occasions he is faced with the unhygienic task of dealing directly with (vaccine denialists, IDiots, etc.) he does exactly this. It's a great way to be effective and control one's own blood pressure while predicting the other guy/gal's moves and progressively pissing them off until they can't see straight (if you're the only one laughing, you're winning). I don't know if Novella does this deliberately or not - he's a neurologist, so it would probably be easier for him then the rest of us - but in any event he's still far more gentlemanly than I am about it, so I can't blame him for my mean streak. (Maybe Madamoiselle ERV? Who knows.)

A fun game to play is to anticipate and document (on their forums) the excuses and goal-post-moving that go on every time new data becomes available that undermines one of these beloved positions. How can intelligent design be further undermined, you ask? I know; I'm imagining one of those precipices that somehow keep supporting Wile E. Coyote for a few seconds even though it's floating in mid-air and no longer connected to the rest of the mesa. Ask yourself what you would say if you were desperately wedded to a position and had to twist the world in such a way that every new fact further supported it (or at least was deemed irrelevant). The reason the game is fun is that you can go to creationism websites or anti-vaccine discussion groups or wherever, and post these excuses in advance of such findings becoming available!

The real touchdown comes when the next such factual crisis arises, and the nutcases in question can't make any new excuse that hasn't already (mockingly) been documented on their very forum by a skeptic, under the guise of "if I was a charlatan or desperate, here is the B.S. I would say the next time X happens". This takes the wind out of their sails, to put it mildly. The more specific you can be, the better! When you think about it, you'll find that you can come very close to the verbatim excuses these folks will make. They're surprisingly predictable. Join in the fun! Possible match-ups:

When nothing happens in 2012 - I posted about this before. I'm really mean to New Agey types.

Next transition fossil find - Just in the last decade we've had Ardi, land-mammal to whale transitions, fish-to-amphibians, and even the final step in prebiotic RNA synthesis. What creative squirming will they do next time?

Next study showing no link between vaccines and autism

Next big earthquake in San Francisco - inspired by a line that Hitchens put in God is Not Great

Next event in Biblical/Quranic scholarship - a few years ago the gospel of Judas was discovered. There was some hemming and hawwing to explain why it was okay that the New Testament just plum forgot this.

HIV denialists - Specifically, what they'll say if the vaccine currently in development works?

Can you think of more? Add to the fun!

You can also try betting people, but when money is involved, suddenly people become circumspect about their beliefs (or very morally concerned about gambling). If you can get them to put money in escrow (because they're scoundrels), by all means do that. But if they back out (as people without the courage of their convictions usually do), you can join the Excuse Olympics.

The important thing is not to wait for the event! Go out today and start picking on your favorite conspiracy theory or denialist, and then follow-up when the event in question occurs. "Hey, everyone, look at this post I made six months ago." If people tell you you're mean, blame me. It's all my fault. I did it.

Some will probably accuse me of being a troll, like when I used to go to Christian creationist sites and leave a post saying that as a Muslim creationist, I think they're all stupid, and then do the predictable parallel thing over at a Muslim creationism discussion (come on, admit that it's funny). But Jack Chick seems to be doing that sort of thing for us, so no big loss there.


Joshua said...

The Gospel of Judas was almost certainly written after most of the New Testament. It is usually dated to around 230 C.E. at the earliest, well after the four canonical gospels. So that gospel not being mentioned is not a problem for a religious Christian. Moreover, there were many different gospels floating around in the early part of Christianity. It is likely that we have only a minority of them surviving. One would not expect every single one of them to be mentioned.

Joshua said...

Er, typo in last post. Should be 130 C.E. not 230 C.E.

Michael Caton said...

Definitely, there were (being pejorative) a bunch of Jack Chick tracts floating around, except with better literary devices and no pictures, and Constantine said "This lot - in. The rest of them - cutting room floor." Studying the history of the Bible as an actual document has broken more than one theist's faith. I guess Constantine was also divinely guided? Also all the translators? And if Protestant, the founder of your own branch (and many Protestants have no idea).

So, maybe it's time for a prediction market in next lost gospel uncovered?