Saturday, 1 March 2008

The Art Of Being Wrong

Knowing where to begin is always a difficult question, when writing it is vital to capture the readers attention with the first few words, and then from that they'll work out whether it's worth your time. Indeed in a society where any chump can give his opinion, we work towards an instant gratification of our own senses and time. If one blog can't provide it, we can immediately switch to another that will. Now that technology is available for mass consumption we are seeing a shift away from the written word and towards video blogging, where any wanker can rattle on and post absolute nonsense that somehow satisfies the masses. In short, the written prose is a dying art. Podcasts, Youtube videos, things that require a little more than the ability to ramble on in a semi-coherent manner, we can see it and digest it without really having to think about it. The written word thus is marginalised.

Not to say that video blogs are a bad thing. I listen to podcasts, scour Youtube for my quick fix. There are some real gems hidden within the usual crap on there. When used properly the tools are incredibly powerful, very effective and quite convincing. Therein lies the danger. The otherwise worthless opinions of people who could scarcely make a living as a coat rack and being paraded as heroes and maestros, brilliantly laying down proofs and destroying the other side. But to anyone with a functioning brain, they are the overwhelming evidence that society is going down the shithole. So what does this have to do with the art of being wrong?

Instant Gratification Society
What this has to do with being wrong is a simple procedure called confirmation bias. Basically putting it, confirmation bias is counting the hits and ignoring the misses. We see this happening all the time, everyone is guilty of it. And with a society where gratification comes so instantly, we are often put in a position where the bias not only happens, but happens in such a way that is manufactured. In effect the media shapes our mind by being selective in what is broadcast. Try condensing the events in the world down into a 22 minute program, leaving enough time for sports and weather and there is very little about what can be broadcast. And thanks to the need for ratings, it seems to more and more follow the idea of "if it bleeds, it leads". The net poses an interesting twist to this where the choice is now yours. You can in effect choose how you filter, something that is wonderful. But there is a great danger in that in most cases people look purely for items that confirm whatever they already believe in. By filtering personally, they are ensuring that any dissenting voice is silenced. This way minds become very polemic.

So thanks to the internet we have come to expect things instantly. Right now I'm sitting at work annoyed that I'll have to wait another 4 hours to go home and download the new NIN CD (and yes, I am paying for it!). It's that kind of immediate response I'm talking about. TV shows that previously took months to come onto Australian television are able to be downloaded at the touch of a button, why should we wait anymore? At least TV networks are trying to correct this and are showing episodes almost as they appear in the US. The home DVD market has revolutionised how we watch TV, instead of tuning in and putting up with ads, we simply throw on a DVD. So when shows are only shown here at ungodly hours, on pay TV or not at all, it's a lot easier for us to have an alternate means of watching some of these programs.

So that is the society we live in now. One were fad diets come and go faster than magazines can cover them. Where miracle pills and surgery are favoured opposed to hard work. Where we expect immediate results for our actions, why read a book when we can watch the movie instead? This is a society where bookstores dedicate more shelf-space for religion & spirituality than science. Where someone can make a DVD like The Secret and can rake in a fortune. No regard to the truth of the matter, the promise of the spectacular from no work seems far more appealing to our natures than the truth behind it. We are a society that wants what we can get here and now, and for a species that is prone to confirmation bias, that creates even more problems.

The Secret and other lies
It seems the perfect tie-in to this discussion, something I've wanted to rant about for quite a while. Endorsed by the likes of Oprah and with a seemingly never ending stock of DVDs & books on the shelves for people to buy, The Secret embodies everything that we have come to expect from "new age" spiritualism; hollow fluff, promising the world, mixing consumerism and material worth all in a convenient package. I'd like to say now I really don't care about how people spend their money, it's theirs to waste. I certainly waste enough of mine on mind altering purchases. What I hope to achieve here is write a coherent explanation of how it works so we don't need to rely on superstitious nonsense as a means of answering. In short, The Secret is bullshit. And here's why:

There are countless testamonials to The Secret's authenticity. People believe it works, so it must work correct? Well no. There are two aspects here that ensure that people will believe. Firstly, one of the steps is belief. There are three steps to The Secret.
1. Ask the universe for what you want
2. Believe that the universe will grant it to you
3. Receive the gift
It's all about positive thinking, if you don't believe hard enough that you'll get what you want, it's your fault it didn't happen. In effect this makes The Secret self-confirming, a tautology designed to fit nicely with the second reason that ensure people believes... yes you guessed it: confirmation bias. So if it doesn't work often we just ignore that, but when it hits it's testimony to it working. Now we have a very simple way of determining the truth of someone's claims, it's called a double blind study. We set up an unbiased way to conduct the experiment in controlled conditions and gather accurate statistical results. If The Secret did work, it would pass. If not, it would be like any other hack nonsense that is fundamental in the modern mix of consumerism and belief.

Now this isn't to say that positive thinking doesn't do someone good. It would be hard to argue otherwise. But that isn't what The Secret is promoting. It's advocating that the universe will respond and reward that positive thinking. Like attracts like. In effect The Secret boils down to almost exactly the same idea as a personal god, only without the anthropomorphic connotations. The comfort that the universe will reward for the right mindset must be staggering. The universe cares about them and what they think, it's God in a metaphysical form. Only without rewarding in an afterlife, it's rewarding now. Though this is starting to become an all too common idea of God in some evangelical communities, but that is something I'll get to in a minute. There is just a bit more left to destroy of The Secret first.

As I was saying before, The Secret is all about personalising the universe. They make such ambiguous claims like it's ancient wisdom. Ancient wisdom is itself a contradiction, but it gives the illusion to the user that it's been tested and demonstrated. It was also ancient wisdom that the earth was flat and the sun orbited the earth. Not to say that anything in the ancient world is unfounded, just that these days we have ways of testing their claims. It's called progress for a reason. It claims like attracts like, which in physics it's the opposites attract. Just use a magnet to find this out. But there is no force that attracts our thoughts as spiritual vibes to manipulate the universe to our whim. That form of psychokinesis is simply an absurd notion. What happens if two people are competing for that same parking space? There's only one there, they both are using positive thoughts... Bet it will be the one who is in the right place at the right time. When we have perfectly rational explanations for something, why should we even consider an irrational one?

Alternative medicine should not be trusted. It doesn't stand up to double blind tests, in fact most treatments refuse to subject themselves to a double blind study, though by doing so it could validate the process. The danger of invalidating though is far too great, not to mention the absurd notions of their explanations would not stand up to scientific scrutiny. There is a great danger in avoiding conventional medicine for the sake of these placebos and that is death. It's not uncommon to hear about people who shunned regular treatment for entirely treatable diseases and as a consequence hit an early grave. That is sad, but it's that persons own fault. What ticks me off the most is that people make a profit from another's suffering. I have no doubt that most of these charlatans believe what they are saying is right. But believing something is right doesn't make it right. They aren't lying, but they are wrong. (finally we made it)

Wilful ignorance
It's time to lay into the more conventional sycophants, namely creationists. So you might be alongside us sceptics in condemning alternative medicine, but with your faith healing, you are no better. Again, there is the claim of the miraculous, anecdotal evidence, confirmation bias, a tautology in case it fails ("the lord works in mysterious ways") so where do you creationists get off calling New Ageism nonsense? That really gets me about religious nuts criticising the beliefs of other religious nuts. It's quite laughable, at least to me because all of their ideas are crazy. Yes, god made us out of clay, then put a tree in a garden which we ate that made us aware of sin then spent 4,000 years waiting for God to come down in human form and forgive us on the proviso that we believe that we should be forgiven. Forgive the snickering you hear, it's my reason circuit malfunctioning.

Now I can say assuredly that creationists are wrong. Again, I'm sure they believe that what they are saying and doing is true. But belief that it's true doesn't make it true. It's one of the same old arguments you hear for the bible's account of Jesus' life. The people who wrote it down believed it was true and what reason would they have to lie? Well none, but not-lying doesn't equate to telling the truth. I can believe with all my heart that a dragon is flying above my house providing heat with it's fire breath, and winter simply is when the dragon hibernates, but no matter how much I believed that to be true, and no matter if I were able to convince others it were true, it wouldn't make it true. I can't prove it false, but I can come up with a rational explanation for how the seasons work. It's to do with the Earth's tilt and orbit around the sun. So why would I go with the dragon one? It flies in the face of reason.

But that is exactly what creationists do. They aren't all idiots, they just love the idea of God. Love it so much that anything that flies in the face of that must be wrong. This is what I call wilful ignorance. The evidence that evolution is the cause of our species is immense, to say it's false is to spit in the face of reason. The bible is inerrant, the bible says that God created us from clay, we must be created from clay. Right? Well wrong. The bible is not inerrant. It doesn't take much of a look to see it contradict itself, make absurd statements, write about a history that is not backed up by other cultures histories or archaeological evidence, to see that it's a bunch of stories, parables and allegories designed to help a society gel and for the individual to have a closer experience with God. But some people can't have the metaphor without the literal and we get an intellectual backwash where ID is being promoted at the expense of real science. Not that I think many of those who support ID know what ID is about, just that it sounds good.

So when they spread their assertions and their propaganda, they are spreading falsehoods deeply entrenched in their heads as fact. And we'll see the same arguments over and over again.
* Evolution doesn't pass the 2nd law of thermodynamics (yes it does)
* Evolution is only a theory (Only?!?)
* There is no evidence for evolution (yes there is)
* Carbon Dating is unreliable (Bullshit!)
* Evidence of the great flood is the Grand Canyon (You still want me to take you seriously?)
You've got to wonder how they get away with saying that stuff over and over. They are wrong, they are very wrong. But when we get propaganda websites like Answers in Genesis writing pseudo-scientific nonsense that sounds accurate to the uneducated. By taking myth as fact, we are seeing an attempt to rewrite history at the expense of accumulated knowledge. Is there a god? I don't know. I lean to the side of probably not. But will a global flood be proof of one? No. Yet the two are intricately tied together so that by proving the flood you prove the God. Though by believing in God, it's proof of the flood... it's all very circular.

The art of being wrong
So now is the point where I try and tie all this in, wrap in up in a few short sentences that are a great summation of my arguments. The truth is I ranted on a bit, the previous text is nowhere near as concise I would have liked. There is just too much to rant about and rip apart, and although I don't feel like making something this long is a good way of communicating, I feel that anything shorter would have missed stuff out. Hell, even now I feel I've only scratched the surface and I would probably write a whole book about it. Though there are already many other authors out there who have done so, and done so in a way much more proficient, accurate and in an elegant manner.

I'm sitting here now, listening to Ghosts I-IV on my iPod, it's been a few days since I started this entry but I really felt I needed the time to embellish and explore the ideas on the issue. This is as focused as I can get on an issue, it took a lot of restraint not to go off on tangents, like I said enough to write a book. And who has time for books these days? The internet age is all about conveying as much information is as short a space as possible. Something I can't do because I feel the urge to explain myself. Maybe in the future I should just videotape me talking for 5 minutes. Though I can't think of anything more mundane. But in a society where volume is greater than quality, the art of being wrong has never been easier.

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