VI. Logic and Reason

•January 2, 2012 • 2 Comments

You may have asked yourself by now, as indeed I hope you have, how one goes about the business of deciding whether something in particular is, in fact, bullshit or not. For my own part, like most scientists and rational thinkers, I am a skeptic, meaning that I test the reliability of any particular claim by subjecting it to a systematic investigation based on empirical evidence and fact-based observation. These observations are then explored with logic and reason. I now present the following tools to help you seek out and destroy any bullshit claims you may encounter in your daily life:

Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit

This list of guidelines for examining the validity of a claim was taken from the book, Demon Haunted World by the late Dr. Carl Sagan (American astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, author, and popular spokesperson for science).

1) Seek independent confirmation of alleged facts.

2) Encourage an open debate about the issue and the available evidence.

3) “In science, there are no authorities. At most, there are experts.”

4) Come up with a variety of competing hypotheses explaining a given outcome. Considering many different explanations will lower the risk of confirmation bias.

5) Don’t get too attached to your own ideas, lest you get reluctant to reject them even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

6) Quantify whenever possible, allowing for easier comparisons between hypotheses’ relative explanatory power.

7) Every step in an argument must be logically sound, a single weak link can doom the entire chain.

8) When the evidence is inconclusive, use Occam’s Razor to discriminate between hypotheses.

9) Pay attention to falsifiability. Science does not concern itself with unfalsifiable propositions.

Shermer’s Baloney Detection Kit

Based on the work of Sagan and adapted by Dr. Michael Shermer, (the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine, Executive Director of the Skeptics Society, and columnist for Scientific American), this list is especially useful for investigating pseudoscientific claims like Intelligent Design and Flood Theory, and paranormal claims like alien abductions and religious miracles. Click here and here (for part 2) for a more in-depth two-part article and here for a brief but awesome youtube video with Dr. Shermer, both including specific examples relating to each of these 10 questions.

1. How reliable is the source of the claim?

2. Does this source often make similar outrageous claims?

3. Have the claims been verified by another source?

4. How does the claim fit with what we know about how the world works?

5. Has anyone gone out of the way to disprove the claim, or has only supportive evidence been sought?

6. Does the preponderance of evidence point to the claimant’s conclusion or to a different one?

 7. Is the claimant employing the accepted rules of reason and tools of research, or have these been abandoned in favor of others that lead to the desired conclusion?

8. Is the claimant providing an explanation for the observed phenomena or merely denying the existing explanation?

 9. If the claimant proffers a new explanation, does it account for as many phenomena as the old explanation did?

10. Do the claimant’s personal beliefs and biases drive the conclusions, or vice versa?

Logical Fallacies

Taken from the standard rules of rhetoric and debate, if someone challenges you with any one of the following sneaky tactics on this list, be sure to call them out on their bullshit. (Click here for a great article about these common logical fallacies with excellent examples of each.)

1) Red herring- an attempt to change the subject to divert attention from the original issue.

2) ad hominem– attacking the person instead of the argument.

3) Argumentum ad populum– concluding an argument is true simply because lots of people think it’s true.

4) Appeal to authority- concluding an argument is true because a person holding authority asserts it is true.

5) Appeal to emotion– instead of appealing to reason, the arguer uses emotions such as fear, pity, and flattery to persuade the   listener that what he says is true.

6) Appeal to motive- a conclusion is dismissed by simply calling into question the motive of the person or group proposing the conclusion.

7) Appeal to tradition- concluding an argument is true because it has long been held to be true.

8) Argument from silence- reaching a conclusion based on the silence or lack of contrary evidence.

9) Reductio ad Hitlerum- comparing an opponent or their argument to Hitler or Nazism in an attempt to associate a position with one that is universally reviled.

10) Strawman- an argument based on a misrepresentation of an opponent’s position.

11) Appeal to hypocrisy- an argument that an opponent’s position is wrong because their opponent does not act in accordance with that position.

12) Slippery slope- when a person asserts that a relatively small step will lead to a chain of events that result in a drastic change.

13) Cherry Picking- when a person only uses data that confirms a particular position, while ignoring contradictory data.

14) Begging the Question- when the conclusion of an argument is assumed in one of the premises, often called circular reasoning.

15) Post hoc ergo propter hoc– Latin for “after this, therefore because of this,” it occurs when someone reaches a conclusion of causation because an event followed another event.

16) False Dilemma- when two conclusions are held to be the only possible options, when in fact there are other options.

So there you have it, everything you need to know to combat bullshit in your daily life. Please take a few extra minutes to really familiarize yourself with all of these different rules of logic and concepts of healthy skepticism, and use them to take a hard look with keen eyes at the world around you. Remember, we wouldn’t have things like democracy, electricity, freedom from slavery, the Judicial System, modern medicine, iPhones and space travel if the people who built this country didn’t subscribe to these very same ideals.

So remember, keep it logical. Be a skeptic. Live Long, and Prosper.

“I’m sorry Captain, but that’s just not logical.” “No Mr. Spock, you’re absolutely right. That’s F’d up.”

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V. Mad As Hell

•January 1, 2012 • 2 Comments

I ain’t gonna lie. I like me some Eminem. I drove all the way across the country in an RV to the Bonnaroo music festival in the scorching summer heat of 2011 specifically to see Eminem perform live for the first time. (The subsequent mind- blowing journey, which I refer to as “The Roo: or There and Back Again”, was in and of itself an epic tale, but that is for another blog post.) Let’s just say that it was legendary.

That being said, I will wholeheartedly admit that I do not subscribe to every hate-filled rant of Mr. Marshall Mathers, and I find it hard to easily digest the violence and hate-speech especially prominent in some of his earlier works. Nor do I consider him a role model by any means. But the fact is, the man does the job of a true artist by painting a picture of society through the colors of his own perspective, however dark and angry that palette may be. Also Eminem gets mad as hell, and he don’t take no shit. I respect that.

I’m often asked why I get so worked up and outspoken about things like apathy, religion, misinformation, bad politics and what I consider to be all the other major problems in the world. Well the fact is, I believe that we are at a critical point in the evolution of our species where it is crucial that we ALL get worked up and outspoken, or else it may be Game Over for each and every one of us, with no bonus lives left. As it turns out, society desperately needs your help.

So now that you’ve begun the work of getting your own life in order, how do you go about influencing society as a whole…?

Stop putting up with bullshit.

One of the reasons I am such a fan of Eminem’s music is that he is exceptionally good at unabashedly and unapologetically calling people out on their bullshit with his sharp-tounged lyrical content. (Click here to view my post about getting rid of bullshit in your own life, and click here to view my post about why getting rid of bullshit is so important at this moment in our history.)

So what exactly should you be expected to do when you detect that bullshit is being thrown at you in the midst of your daily struggle for means and meaning? Do you become furious and throw your own distortions right back? Politely ignore it to save face? Give in to your insecurities and just let it slide?

On all three counts my answer is totally and emphatically, NO. When someone is making a claim that you know to be based on incorrect or distorted information, or when someone is treating you unreasonably, unfairly or disrespectfully, I wholeheartedly stand behind you and support you, verily I implore you, to CALL THEM OUT. There are simply not enough well-intentioned and  educated people having the balls to do this nowadays, and it is my belief that this apathetic anxiety is one of the direct causes of the current degradation of what could otherwise be a fully-conscious society. Now, that is NOT to say that there is any need or excuse whatsoever for you to ever be obnoxious, or rude, or condescending, or petty, or cruel to anyone for any reason. Quite the contrary: if you state your opposition calmly, concisely and politely, even as your opponent is crying bloody murder to the four winds or attacking your personal character, there is no mistaking who will appear to own the more mature and educated argument. The masses you are trying to educate will notice this discrepancy too.

Again I pose the question to you that if the individuals of the human race finally got their personal lives and houses in order, and if everyone committed to at least begin to stand up for truth, reason and compassion in the actions and transactions of our daily lives, what kind of world would we live in? What kinds possibilities would that open up for education, the economy, the workforce, family functioning, personal relationships, the political arena, and our standard of living?

Yes, I say it’s about time that we all take a page from Eminem, get a little pissed off and start calling people out on their bullshit. If your family or your friends want to force you to believe in something that you know is untrue or against your better judgement, call them out on it. If your boss or a coworker makes a decision unfairly or in error that affects you directly, or if your office is distributing information that you know may be discreditable or simply false, do not stand for it. If your favorite politician says something ridiculous, write an email to their campaign manager’s office or simply vote for the other guy. If your waiter gives you bad service, politely ask him to correct the situation, and tip him well if he handles the mistake well. There are countless small opportunities to stand up for truth and common decency in the hundreds of interactions and conversations you have each day, and they all add up. So do not be afraid. Do not loose your cool. Do not back down. The World may not realize it yet, but we are all depending on you.

From the 1976 film, “Network”:

“All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say, ‘I’m a HUMAN BEING, Goddamn it! My life has VALUE!’ So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, ‘I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!'”

Just remember to say “Please” and “Thank You” when you do.

Straight up, yo.

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IV. Unlearn What You Have Learned

•December 31, 2011 • 3 Comments

Let’s just say it. Can we all agree that Yoda is a total badass?

Ever since I was a kid, this little green pointy-eared Sage of the Wilderness has been an invaluable influence and source of wisdom for me.  Incidentally, his teachings about the Force, which George Lucas based heavily on ideas from Taoism, Buddhism and the flow of energy through natural systems, were a great source of comfort and metaphor when I was transitioning from my belief in Christianity to Agnosticism and eventually to Atheism.

In what is arguably one of the most defining scenes in all of sci-fi cinema (or any genre for that matter) from “The Empire Strikes Back”, Luke is training with Yoda and becomes distracted when he notices that his crash-landed spaceship has nearly succumbed to the swamps of Degobah.

From the movie script:

LUKE: Oh, no. We’ll never get it out now.

YODA: So certain are you. Always with you it cannot be done. Hear you
nothing that I say?

LUKE: Master, moving stones around is one thing. This is totally
different.

YODA: No! No different! Only different in your mind. You must unlearn
what you have learned.

LUKE: (focusing, quietly) All right, I’ll give it a try.

YODA: No! Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.

At this point in the movie, Luke tries to lift the ship using the Force, but collapses in defeat, claiming that it’s too big and that his master has asked the impossible. Yoda then steps up and does some badass Jedi mental gymnastics, pointing a tiny, withered old hand at the sinking ship and lifting it up out of the muck with naught but his will, setting it lightly down on the beach while Luke looks on in complete bewilderment.

LUKE: I don’t…I don’t believe it.

YODA: That is why you fail.

Unlearn what you have learned. What an awesome sentiment. Is it possible? Mark Twain once said, “Education consists mainly in what we have unlearned.”  And Henry David Thoreau noted, “When any real progress is made, we unlearn and learn anew what we thought we knew before.” 

I personally believe that unlearning what we have learned is the only way to aggressively improve and move forward in one’s thinking. Indeed, without it society would never have been able to progress in knowledge and technology up to this point. In my last post, I offered up a challenge for all of us in 2012 to commit to at least begin the essential task of ridding our lives of Bullshit. I now offer two practical examples of how to eliminate bullshit from your own life, incorporating the principle of unlearning:

1) You have learned that managing your finances badly is okay. Today’s society has made it the social norm to go through life without a balanced budget, thousands of dollars in debt, barely scraping by from paycheck to paycheck, not saving any or enough money for your retirement, having no extra funds if a crisis happened, spending your hard-earned dollars on things that you simply don’t need or even things that are literally killing you. (Point to ponder: Doesn’t this sound an awful lot like the current economic crisis that our country as a whole and many other countries around the world are experiencing? Hmmm…) This personal lack of financial wisdom is complete bullshit. If this sounds like you, it’s time to unlearn the bad habits you have learned. Get a budget so that you know exactly where your money is going. Develop a monthly plan to get rid of your debt and stick to it. Get your priorities straight and curb your frivolous spending. Save for your future. It IS hard, but it does get easier with practice. I promise that being financially responsible will feel so much better than the current situation you’re in. If you’re doing these things already, then you’re awesome. Please help someone else find the way.

2) You have learned that abusing your body is okay. You put crap that could never pass as nutrition (and can scarcely pass as food) into your body every day and expect it to run like a well-oiled machine. For some, your muscles have atrophied and are now encapsulated by a layer of fat, and your feet, knees and back ache from the heavy burden. You spend all day sitting in front of a screen and the most effort you put into working out is walking from the couch to the fridge and back again. Perhaps you spend an ungodly amount of money every month in servitude to the addictions that you put in your body, even as they slowly kill you. If so, how’s all that working out for you? This utter disregard for your body is complete bullshit. Unlearn it, now. Your body is one of the most amazing spectacles that the Universe has ever spawned forth. It is a precious gift, and therefore it is imprudent and ungrateful to abuse it. I hate to break it to you, but there are only two things that can and have ever been able to fix this problem: DIET and EXERCISE. Forget diet pills and power cleanses and liquid diets. Do the research; these types of gimmicks simply don’t work. Stick to a set number of calories per day, get nearly all of those calories from healthy foods in small portions four or five times throughout the day, and work out for an hour at least 3 times a week. It IS hard, but it does get easier with practice. I promise that being strong, healthy, happy and confident will feel so much better than the current situation you’re in. If you’re already doing these things, then you’re awesome. Please help someone else find the way.

If you haven’t seen it on Yahoo or Facebook yet, click on this link for an awesome article on 30 things to stop doing to yourself. It’s a damn good list for the new year that goes beyond the usual unattainable and cliched resolutions.

I know change is hard, but it’s worth it. Believe me, even as I write this I have had to take a long hard look in the mirror at my own bullshit. So why do I care about your life so much? Because I care about mine, and I care about the future of the World. Imagine if every person in the world worked just a little bit harder to become financially responsible. What would our economies and governments look like? Imagine if everyone dedicated just a small part of their lives to eating healthy and exercising their bodies. What would that do to healthcare, depression, disease, lifespans, and quality of life? You don’t have to imagine it; you can do it.

Unlearn what you have learned…

But remember, Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try…

Prev: On Bullshit and the New Year                                                Next: Mad As Hell

III. No More Bullshit

•December 28, 2011 • 8 Comments

I’ve read the omens; I’ve seen the signs:

Supermarkets and convenience stores everywhere are stocking up on discounted champagne. Every person’s countenance bears the heavy shadow of post-holiday depression, and every waistline bears the bulge of post-holiday indulgences. The web is littered with countless countdowns of 2011, and suddenly you realize with quiet horror that it’s time to replace your old calendar of landscapes with a brand new calendar of the same landscapes but from slightly different angles and by slightly different photographers.

Indeed, hide ja kids, hide ja wife…cuz it’s finally here: The Year 2012!!!! Oh the horror!!!

So what does the author of a blog about trying to save the world have to offer up as a new year’s resolution for the last year of existence? This year, once and for all, I say we all agree to finally be done with Bullshit.

Bullshit comes in all forms and (ahem) flavors. Click here to view my post about the impending Messianic Apocalypse bullshit and why even the idea of something so utterly absurd is so fundamentally dangerous.

It basically all comes down to this: the only way we are ever going to survive as a species is to finally fix all of the problems, whose ever-pleading voices, once mere distant whispers, now stare us directly in the face, screaming. The only way to fix these incredibly complex problems, whose solutions require nothing less than collaboration on a global scale, is to ensure that every single person in the entire world is on the same page. And for starters, we certainly can’t all be on the same page if we’re reading conflicting books.

Case in point: the Bible contains instructions from God on how his followers should kill anyone who does not adhere to the Law of Yahweh. The Koran speaks even more explicitly about disposing of those who do not adhere to the will of Allah, as well as the heavenly rewards for doing so. I have no doubt that you have witnessed the results of this slight conflict of interest. Imagine how tall the summit would be, if all of the bodies of those who have died in the name of God in the past decade alone were piled one on top of the other in a great heap towards the very Heavens that apparently commanded it all.

And the travesties associated with this level of complete bullshit are not relegated to just the literate community, or the religious one. Even now, in the massive, poverty-stricken and uneducated territories of Africa and the Middle East and Mexico and India and South America, thousands upon thousands of people are being killed, women are being raped, and children are being kidnapped and forced to fight in militias, in many cases having to murder members of their own tribe or family, and all of this due to nothing more than slight differences in denomination and genetic variation. Add to that the billions of people who will go to sleep tonight, starving, lacking clean water, basic shelter and healthcare, while the leaders of their countries live in the complete unabashed opulence and indulgence that only the wealth of a dictator can provide. Bullshit anyone?

Not your third world country, not your problem? Not to worry! You may have noticed that there’s plenty of prime bullshit being spewed all over the place right here, in your own backyard, and in your inbox, in your church, in your office, in your living room, in your classroom, in your ballot box, in your bedroom. Yes, it’s even there in your mirror, and between your ears. And what’s great is that you don’t have to put up with it anymore! Really. No I mean it. Really. It’s time for you to get a little pissed off.

If I could suggest just one new year’s resolution to save the world, it would be that in 2012, we all cut out all the bullshit. Examine all of your own most cherished beliefs and preconceived notions for bullshit and don’t be afraid to finally let go of any outdated, incorrect or unuseful information you may find there. Listen and pay attention to what other  people are actually saying to you with their words and actions, and do not be timid, by all means be relentless, to quickly and emphatically point out any bullshit that gets flung in your general direction.

This WILL change the world. Don’t believe me? Try it. I dare you. And if it turns out that the Super-Jesus-Alien-Zombie Apocalypse really does go down despite all your best efforts in this, the year of our Lord two thousand and twelve…well, at least you’ll have the satisfaction of leaving something worthwhile behind: you went out on top of your game.

In the end, I think that’s what counts, all bullshit aside.

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II. Jesus Is Not Coming

•December 27, 2011 • 1 Comment

I’ve always said that if my proverbial ship ever does, in fact, come to harbor, I’ll probably be waiting at the airport instead.

To that effect, if the Messiah from the desert ever does, in fact, return for apocalyptic glory, I will most assuredly not look busy. I base this prediction on two basic precepts: 1) the assumption that of all the days of the week, the Son of God will most likely decide to drop in on a Sunday morning (I mean, it just makes sense, right?), and 2) the probability that, on any given Sunday morning, I will more than likely be hungover, and therefore, the opposite of busy.

“I’m sorry Mr. Jesus, but my splitting headache is telling me that I can’t be bothered with your whole ‘Rapture’ thing today.”

But the fact is, while I’m otherwise occupied nursing the after-effects of my nocturnal deviations, religious people all over the world ARE preparing for the return of Jesus Christ, or the Jewish Messiah, or  the Islamic al-Mahdi if you like, or Kalki if you’re Hindu. But wait, that’s not all, folks! The pious certainly don’t have a monopoly on save-our-asses/end-of-the-world scenarios. If secular wackiness is more to your taste, try Planet Nibiru, the Mayan Calendar, or any number of scenarios involving comet-riding extraterrestrials who come to either enlighten or destroy. Yes, apparently the Apocolypse is going to be an awfully busy social engagement if all of the available scenarios vindicate the faithful by coming to fruition.

Luckily for you and I and everyone else, absolutely none of this will ever occur. Ever. I promise. But if you dare exhale a sigh of relief at this realization then you are clearly not seeing the whole picture. The fact remains that a lot of people are absolutely convinced that The End is near and nearly here. Which begs the question, “Is that a problem?”

I was having a conversation with a coworker recently about how we might transition from a petroleum-based economy to a more stable and sustainable model. When it became clear in the midst of our discussion that the problem is terrifyingly complex, my companion threw up his hands in frustration and then said something with such nonchalance that it has haunted me ever since: “Well, Chris if you believe in the Bible, Jesus is coming back any day now to usher in the end of world and create a new Heaven on Earth, so what does it matter WHAT we do? None of this matters anyway!”

I was appalled. And I realized that my coworker’s position that he is literally a powerless participant in the ultimate future of his world was not an isolated case. This is mainstream opinion. For example, “forty-four percent of the American population is convinced that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead sometime in the next fifty years.”  (It’s easy to understand; every generation of Christians, including Jesus’ own original followers, have believed that Christ would return in their lifetime, and they too, have died disappointed.) If a so-called “educated” society full of believers is content to let the human race and the world as we know it slide into oblivion right through our grasp without so much as lifting a finger, all because of the remarkably uneducated promise of a Divine “get-out-of-jail-free-card” from the Almighty, then we truly are all doomed thanks to our own comatose-inducing apathy. Ironically, the tangible substance of the apocalyptic prophesies may indeed come to pass due to society’s inane belief in the prophesies themselves (minus the promised cozy, feel-good ending, that is).

No, I’m sorry to report to the lethargic among us, Jesus is NOT coming to save you. Nor is anyone else. But our time on the planet is in very real danger of coming to an end, and soon. That means that if we want to survive as a species and pass on a world worthy of our legacy to our children and grandchildren, we have to solve the difficult problems- poverty, malnutrition, disease, energy consumption, global war, overpopulation, economics, pollution and government- all on our own. That means we have a lot of work to do, and mark my words, it most certainly does matter. Now, let’s leave the 2,000 year old dogma behind us and figure out how in the hell we’re gonna get all this done.

And if Jesus does, in fact, eventually come back, tell him to lend a hand or get out of the way. We’re kinda…Busy.

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Wake up…

•December 26, 2011 • 7 Comments

“Consciousness has degrees. We can be wide awake or sound asleep. We can be anesthetized. He is not fully conscious who can speak lightly of such things as basic appreciations and general insights into the knowledge of a discipline. He wanders in the twilight sleep of knowing where insubstantial words, hazy and disembodied, have fled utterly from things and ideas. His is an attractive world, dreamy and undemanding, a Lotus-land of dozing addicts. They blow a little smoke our way. It smells good. Suddenly and happily we realize that our creative capacities and self-understanding yearn after basic appreciations and general insights. We nod, we drowse, we fall asleep.

I am trying to stay awake.”

-Richard Mitchell

“I am trying to stay awake” has become somewhat of a personal mantra for me. For years I have had this quote in its entirety typed on a piece of paper and taped on the wall above my thermostat so that I would see it at least twice every day.

As it turns out, it’s a good time to be awake, because there’s a lot going on here in this Universe we’ve found ourselves in. I will admit that there are a lot more questions than answers, but we know more now than we knew then, and hopefully I will know more tomorrow than I know today. That is, if tomorrow is even something within our reach….

You see, compared to the struggle of our species for survival at this incomparably monumental and most uncertain moment in our history, my own rambling journey towards an unseen truth pales in comparison. One person wanting to do the right thing is simply not enough.

But this blog is not just about me. This blog is also, and far more importantly, for YOU.

You see, I’m not just trying to stay awake. I want you to wake up too.

In that spirit I humbly dedicate this blog to each and every one of my future readers, whomever and however few you may be. Here I will share ideas, pose difficult questions, and discuss possible solutions with anyone who cares to join in on the conversation. Comments and feedback are devoutly encouraged and greatly appreciated, whether they be to commend, offend, or correct. When the solutions seem impossible or the answers hopelessly lost, I will do my best to interject a bit of humor–the only fit substitute for Salvation that I have ever been able to find.

So as I said before, there really is a lot going on here, and I really do think you’ll want to be awake for this. At least I hope so, because the entire world needs your help. I concede, however, that the Search for Truth, however immensely rewarding and life-altering it may be, can also be rather…exhausting.

I am trying to stay awake.

Thank you so much for your time and attention. And if you do happen to doze off from time to time, rest assured that I will be vigilant, and I will not hesitate to nudge you out of your peaceful slumber.

Sincerely yours,

~Chris

Next: Jesus Is Not Coming