Don’t argue science with someone who doesn’t understand science

I was giving someone some advice who asked the following:

“I don’t really know much about cosmology. But there seems to be lots of these arguments that there was a place and time before the big bang, or a place and time beyond space time, etc., where a potential deity could exist (I sense huge false probability from believers [sic] part on this, as I cannot prove them not existing). Any good responses to this kinda stuff?”

My response has two parts.

First, learn science for the sake of science. Learn about cosmology because it’s freaking amazing to think about. In other words, read science books because you want to know how things actually work. For cosmology, I recommend the following popular science books: A Brief History of Time (Hawking), A Universe from Nothing (Krauss) and Why Does E=MC2 (Cox/Forshaw).

Second, don’t let Young Earth Creationists and other anti-science apologists suck you in to arguments about science. While these discussions are often fun, they also often result in the backfire effect. If your interlocutor valued the scientific evidence, then they wouldn’t believe as they do in the first place. The goal should be to highlight the deficiency in their epistemology.  Most of these people started out being told a belief is true, believed it using “faith,” and just now are trying to back fill the belief support with some semblance of scientific evidence.

They are not weighing all of the evidence and forming a belief, rather they are selecting for the fragments of evidence, little slivers here and there, that might support the belief they already have. The only successful intervention here is to help them see the hollowness of their starting epistemology (i.e., faith) as a way of knowing.

What I do find interesting as that many of the theists (and others) who want to argue design, Big Bang, evolution, etc., are implicitly agreeing that evidence is a more convincing device by which to support a truth claim. So with these folks, my questions are usually around, “How could you know that your belief is incorrect?” and “Have you ever considered what evidence it would take for you to change your mind on the belief that your God is real?” – those kinds of questions.

If they can’t think of anything, then I ask them, “Since there is no evidence that would change your mind, is evidence really that important to you? Let’s talk about what you’re really using to support the belief: faith. Is faith a reliable method for determining what’s true?”

Happy critical thinking!

It Is Good To Get Gobsmacked!

“Learning to Value Reason and Evidence, and Recognizing When That’s Just Not Enough.”

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I grew up going to church, and not just any church, mind you, but a Southern Baptist church. Not just any Southern Baptist church, but a small church planted firmly in the then relatively rural American South.

Every Sunday morning for as long as I can remember, I’d rise from my slumber, make my way downstairs in my pajamas to my Mom’s breakfast of cream of wheat, and tune in to a syndicated episode of “Lost in Space” on our tiny, black-and-white kitchen TV. Then I would head back upstairs for a quick transformation into semi-formal Sunday clothes – which basically meant an outfit that landed somewhere between school clothes and a suit with a clip-on tie. I would then bid adieu to the Robinsons and the Robot, and, with my little King James Bible in hand, be whisked off to Sunday school.

I have fond memories of that church. Memories of me waiting for my parents to arrive for the main Sunday service, sitting alone in the pews after attending my Sunday school class. This was what one might call an old-time Southern Baptist church full of old-time religion. Old songs were sung from old hymnals by an old choir and to a fairly old congregation. We sang “How Great Thou Art,” “Old-Time Religion,” “Nothing but the Blood of Jesus,” and of course, “Amazing Grace.” The pulpit was book-ended by an organist and a pianist and the preacher would always start low and end high with the zeal one would expect from a preacher with some of that old-time religion! For better or worse, whether it was that this church was only a few miles from where I grew up or whether it was some “spiritual” connection my parents felt, this was our church.

I had ridden the peaks and valleys of weekly salvation and damnation for years. The whole emotional enterprise seemed to be going along just fine, but then something interesting happened. One Sunday when I was around twelve years old, I was given a Xerox copy of a list of bands and songs that I was, from that point forward, to consider as “devil” music. Yes, devil music. According to my church, listening to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” was blasphemy. Anything by Black Sabbath was a one-way ticket to hell. Even Gary Wright’s “Dream Weaver” meant that I was astral projecting and thus opening a door for The Enemy! As a child of the seventies, I had been jamming to this music for nearly as long as I could remember. I had a KISS t-shirt when I was in the first grade for crying out loud! I adored most of the music on this sheet. It didn’t make any sense. My young brain was set into analytical motion. I thought the whole thing was preposterous. I was not worshipping the devil. Regardless, getting this message from my quaint, bucolic church was a shock to my pious young system.

Looking back, it was around that time that I really started questioning the validity of what people in authority were telling me. I began comparing claims that did not rely on evidence with those that did. I was told that Adam and Eve and Noah’s Ark were true stories, yet I watched documentaries about Lucy the Australopithecus afarensis on PBS’ Nature. I was told that my god created the universe, the Earth, and all its inhabitants in six literal days, yet I watched Carl Sagan explain the evidence for Big Bang cosmology on Cosmos. I began to compare each claim I was told to believe without question to what could be supported using reason and evidence. I no longer relied on the earnestness or the authority of the person doing the telling; I wanted proof!

Fast-forward to today, and it occurs to me that I have promoted critical thinking by valuing reason and evidence my entire adult life. I have argued, debated, chatted, typed, tweeted, and talked about a whole host of beliefs that people maintain based on unreliable methods. Invariably, at the conclusion of many of these discussions, just when I thought I had hit a logic home run or a made an evidence slam dunk, my interlocutor would leave the conversation with even more resolve. But why?

If you are reading this on the Street Epistemology blog then of course you already know why.

For years, I had been supporting my positions using reason and evidence, but I was missing the greater contextual picture: epistemology. I remember listening to a Dr. Peter Boghossian lecture on YouTube several years ago where he explained his idea of conducting a sort of “street epistemology.” I was gobsmacked. All these years I had been trying to convince people that their claims were untrue by using methods that would have worked perfectly well on me. I was using reason and evidence on people who had formed beliefs based on something other than reason and evidence! Hence, the outcome was often an impasse, or worse, a doubling down on the mistaken belief. I now know that I was practically cultivating the backfire effect! I am reminded of the famous Thomas Paine quote from The American Crises:

“To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead, or endeavoring to convert an atheist by scripture. Enjoy, sir, your insensibility of feeling and reflecting. It is the prerogative of animals.”

Thomas Paine needed some Street Epistemology! But I can appreciate Paine’s frustration. Decoupling people from beliefs not grounded in reality is not a binary exercise. It’s farming, not hunting. It takes time. It takes patience. I believe it takes practice. I have been deploying the techniques more and more frequently when speaking with people on a whole range of beliefs that do not comport with reality, and I am seeing hints of success.

From global warming deniers to people who believe demons are real, I am now trying to resist the old urge to ridicule as a means of retort and I am even trying to resist my knee-jerk reliance on evidence as the tool that might convince them they are wrong (see Paine above). I am now trying to help people recognize their own epistemic deficiencies. I want them to poke their own holes in the methods they are relying upon for determining what they believe is true. They have to change their own minds. I’m now simply helping them clear the path. I have already noticed an improvement in results.

For example, in a recent Facebook exchange about politics (among the most futile activities one can imagine), and specifically, a conversation about how Donald Trump continues to make claims that are untrue, I was able to deploy a little Socratic SE to help my interlocutor understand the double standard with which he was excusing Trump’s lies. The exchange went something like this. Trump had just tweeted something that was demonstrably untrue.

Me: “Why do you think Trump would tweet something that’s just incorrect?”
IL: “Because he is frustrated because the Dems are using childish tactics to hold up the government because they lost an election and lost seats.”
Me: “Does that mean it’s OK to lie?”
IL: “You mean like every politician?”
Me: “So if I understand you correctly, you’re actually OK with politicians lying because you expect that from them? I don’t recall you making that same excuse for Hillary Clinton.”

My interlocutor disengaged and I did not press. I was not going to change his mind at that moment, but I was hopeful that I had done enough to cause him to reevaluate his own partisan bias. A few days later, he was actually posting criticisms of Donald Trump! I am not sure if I planted the seed of doubt that took root and sprouted into a single sprig of some healthy skepticism, or if it was something else, but I was again gobsmacked given my interlocutor’s history of doubling down on his partisanship.

Interventions on Facebook, while accessible, may not be the most effective. That said, we are all learning as we go. If we can continue to plant seeds of good epistemology, no matter the medium and no matter the conversation, we can make progress. My next goal is to have a face-to-face conversation with a complete stranger. We should all set our own stretch goals that push us to extend critical thinking to those around us. It takes practice.

Fundamentally, I am looking forward to deploying Street Epistemology in conversations anywhere and everywhere, whenever I hear claims being made that are not supported by evidence.

The journey, and hopefully the gobsmacking, continues!


Ryan Bays is a writer, Dungeon Master, free-thinker, truth seeker, and unabashed promoter of critical thinking and scientific literacy.

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Now that Bill visited Ken’s ark…tips for the next Evolution v. Creationism debate

Bill-Nye-Ark-Encounter-tourA giant replica of an ark has been built in Kentucky. Presumably this ark is of the same general size as the fictional boat made famous in the biblical story of Noah.

The construction of this ark was not without controversy, as the proprietor, Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis, is among the most infamous creationists in the world, and therefore his intention behind the construction of this massive unseaworthy vessel is to ignore all of science and to teach the story of Noah as if it’s true.

This of course would be perfectly legal, although colossally wasteful, were it not for the fact that for purposes of receiving tax breaks from the state of Kentucky, the project couched itself as more of a theme park than a religious institution, and conversely for the purposes of restricting who they hire to only “born again” Christians, the project couched itself as more of a religious institution than a theme park.

But these issues have been well documented so rather than rehash them here, I thought I would would revisit the Bill Nye, Ken Ham debate, especially since Bill took up Ken’s invitation to attend the Ark Encounter’s grand opening this past week. Keep in mind this “debate” turned out much like many of us who have experience speaking with creationists expected, and hence warned against (see my piece Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham: Dinosaurs vs. Dragons for more on that discussion).

So what follows are my suggestions should the two meet again to have a similar discussion.

My first four are below, but feel free to add your own in the comments section. So let’s get to it.

1. Bill: Right out of the gate, ask Ken Ham if he believes humans and dinosaurs lived on the planet at the same time.

As a Young Earth Creationist, Ken will be forced to answer “Yes,” thus exposing the depths of his delusion to the audience and to the hundreds of millions of people across the world who know that dinosaurs lived a very long time ago; between 230 to 60 million years to be a bit more accurate. We also know, thanks to the Ark Encounter theme park, that Ken literally believes dinosaurs were on the Ark.  He has some replica dinosaurs in one of Noah’s animal cages. I’m not kidding. Now, normally there is a cost associated with being irrational. For example, exhibiting irrational behaviors, such as “watch me fly” or “check out my force field,” often result in bodily injury to the irrational person. No doubt jumping off a bridge or walking in front of a bus extracts a very high cost for the irrational individual, and it also serves as an incredibly potent if not macabre illustration to others of the dangers of being delusional. Irrational ideas on the other hand are a bit easier to get away with, particularly if they are shielded from ridicule by the veneer of religion. But this isn’t fair. All irrational ideas should come with a cost; at the very least, the cost of public humiliation. Let’s play this out. Take Ken Ham to any elementary school in almost any town in the United States, and ask him to admit that he believes humans and dinosaurs lived together, and the reaction of the schoolchildren will be one of two things: laughter or fear. Why? Because kids know dinosaurs. They know Tyrannosaurus rex, they know Triceratops, they know Stegosaurus, they even know that Brontosaurus is actually an incorrect term for Apatosaurus, and above all, they know that dinosaurs ruled the earth for hundreds of millions of years, millions of years ago. So when Ken Ham says that dinosaurs lived alongside humans some five to six thousand years ago, kids will laugh at him thinking he’s joking, or they will be afraid of him thinking he’s serious. Either way, the cost of public humiliation will have been collected.

2. Ken: If you have to keep reminding people your scientists have PhDs, you are implicitly admitting you have a credibility problem.

Ken needs to realize that having a PhD in something, doesn’t preclude you from being painfully obtuse in something else. We understand that Ken has managed to recruit a few real scientists who were willing to waste what might have otherwise been promising scientific careers, in order to feed the Answers in Genesis confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance machine. It’s sad actually.  It’s also interesting to notice during their first debate, that when Bill was citing his scientific sources, he didn’t say “PhD astrophysicist Carl Sagan,” he simply said, “Carl Sagan.” Credibility is more than credentials.

3. Bill: Remind Ken there are no such things as secular versus religious science journals.

There are just science journals. If Ken’s “PhD scientists” are finding their papers are being rejected from science journals, it isn’t because the journals are explicitly irreligious as opposed to religious, it’s because the papers reflect bad science. Science journals publish evidence-based findings for peer-review. If that purpose precludes your papers from being published, then revisit your papers, don’t blame the journals. In fact, if a credible science journal were to stray from reality and publish a paper with poor or worse, fabricated evidence (religious or not), it would be forced to retract the paper or risk losing all credibility in the field. In effect, it would be finished.

4. Ken: We all know you “have a book,” now give us the evidence that supports your book.

During the first debate, Ken kept referring to the Bible as evidence for the claims in the Bible that he believes support Creationism. This is a fundamental circular reasoning fallacy that Ken will need to address in the next debate. We know his book means a tremendous amount to him and we aren’t denying that.  But it’s a religious text and religious texts only have special meaning to those who practice that religion.  For the billions of people who don’t practice that religion, it’s just another text.  Offering the claims of an old, personally sacred book as evidence for the claims in the same old, personally sacred book does not make for compelling evidence. By way of analogy, in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Hogwarts is a wizarding school in England;  but no rational person thinks that Hogwarts is actually a wizarding school in England. Claims need evidence and to quote the late Christopher Hitchens, “that which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”  Ken will need to remember that no matter how badly he hopes the claims in his book are true, his hope isn’t evidence.

And there you have it. A few pointers for both Ken and Bill should they meet again on the debate stage. Here’s to hoping that doesn’t happen.

A brief note on scientific literacy

Just a brief note on scientific literacy that was prompted by the following ridiculous video that showed up on my Facebook feed.

I don’t know who the person speaking in this video is but he is clearly a crackpot. And while ad hominem arguments are normally just lazy, on this I don’t know what else to say. The science is clear. While not all vaccines are 100% effective, and while all medical procedures, including receiving a vaccine, carry a risk, there is no doubt that vaccines are among the most important and impactful public health inventions of human history.

And in general, I hope it’s also clear this is what I mean when I talk about scientific literacy.

I’m neither an MD, a climate scientist, nor a biologist for example, but I trust doctors on vaccines because I understand at a high level how vaccines work and I know their efficacy has the overwhelming consensus of the medical community…just like I trust climate scientists on climate because I know at a high level what is happening with greenhouse gas emissions and I know man made global warming has the overwhelming consensus of the climate science community and just like I trust biologists on evolution, etc. I don’t have to do the experiments or publish in peer-reviewed journals to be able to weigh the plausibility of evidence-based scientific truth claims.

This is what it means to be scientifically literate. The video below is a dangerous example of what it means to be scientifically illiterate.

Fun “feedback” on my pro science letter

I wrote a letter to the editor a week or so ago extolling a science initiative between a high school and an elementary school whereby the high school science students were helping the elementary school students learn the scientific method.

Yes, I did take an unapologetic swipe at scientific illiteracy. Yes, I did take a thinly veiled swipe at climate change deniers, creationists, and anti-vaxxers and from that otherwise fairly innocuous letter, a reader responded with the following:

Science should be rooted in the Bible

RE: 5/29 MDJ article “Children excited about science is wonderful” lists climate change/ evolution by natural selection as science ….

Darwin’s “theory” is still taught as fact in our institutions but Divine Creation is outlawed because as Dr. Richard Lewontin wrote “it would allow ‘the Divine foot in the door.’” It is better to not just let the “Divine Foot” but the “whole nine yard” Supernal Creator in now and find the truth rather than wait like Darwin did until it is too late.

The writer stated, “what so many adults seem to have missed along the way” as C. S. Lewis wrote, “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth thrown in; aim at earth and you get neither.” So-called “science” not based on a Biblical foundation is not science, but is like Darwin’s unfounded exuberance.

I think it’s interesting that the letter writer above seems to question climate science and biology, but skipped immunizations, as if germ theory might be the only one that counts as “real” science.  Irrespective, that someone is willing to take the time to advertise to an entire community, their scientific illiteracy at this level, then we clearly still have some work to do.