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?”
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.
It seems like for me, 2017 is starting to develop a trend. And that trend is rediscovery! First it was Dungeons and Dragons (although technically I started playing D&D again in 2016), then it was “nerdom” in general, and now I’ve sort of stumbled back in to Twitter.
If we're plotting presidential aptitude on the normal distribution curve, we will now have a data point in the -3 sigma area #gapol
I used to use Twitter quite a bit. It was a great platform for debate, discussion, and the occasional narcissistic ego stroke (i.e., Ricky Gervais once liked one of my tweets and Richard Dawkins retweeted me so I saved pictures of both! ohhhh weeee!).
Then I just got burned out. I’m not sure if the platform was just getting too mean, too creepy, or what, but I just backed out.
The Internet has created an environment where people can consume news as if it's a Chinese menu. Just search until you find what you like.
But over the past few weeks, with the start of my YouTube channel, I’ve been taking inventory of my “social media” and thought, why not? Why not jump back in to Twitter with both feet?! And so I have.
So if you like watching me debate uninformed or misinformed people on any number of topics, including but not limited to: science, evolution, global warming, religion, gun control, LGBT equality, and politics, join me! Good times will be had by all!
As I mentioned in my January 5th piece, New Year, New Project: Drinks & Dragons, this past 2016 presidential cycle sort of kicked me in the teeth. I won’t waste space here listing the reasons…and there are plenty of reasons…so instead I wanted to talk a little bit more about why I picked D&D as my…shall we say…outlet.
First, some history. I played D&D when I was as kid in the early 1980s. If my memory serves I would have started as a 5th grader and continued through probably 7th grade. I remember loving it! But then 8th grade rolled around and something weird happened. I began to give a shit what other kids thought about me! Super weird right?
Never before had I been too terribly concerned with being labeled a “geek” or a “nerd,” but with the prospect of High School looming on the horizon, my shallow preteen self actually started fretting. Trust me, not playing D&D does not alone a cool kid make, but in my 8th grade eyes it was a logical first step.
Had I known then that the nerds were on the cusp of taking over the world, I might not have been so hasty to try and hide from it!
From business pioneers and innovators like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk to popular television shows like Myth Busters, Big Bang Theory, and Stranger Things, it turns out that being curious about things, celebrating individuality and quirkiness, and enjoying “cerebral” pursuits wasn’t that uncool after all!
Which takes me all the way back to Dungeons and Dragons. Maybe it’s my mid-life crises. Or maybe as I hinted, I’d just rather spend the next four years in a fantasy world than listen to the great Orange buffoon who, like Voldemort, shall not be named. Whatever the reason, I’ve rediscovered this most excellent of Role-Playing Games and almost without exception, am having an absolute blast playing it!
But playing D&D is not without a learning curve. To an outside observer, one just sees a bunch of (hopefully excited and engaged) people around a table with several books, pencils, erasers, sheets of paper, maps, and tons of dice of all sorts of shapes! That can be a bit intimidating.
Which brings me to my latest project. I wanted to start a YouTube channel. For this project I wanted to do a few of things:
First and foremost, have some fun
Second, put some videos on YouTube which hopefully answer the questions I was asking when I started playing D&D again
Third, exercise a little creativity, learn how to use YouTube, how to create and edit audio and video, how to shoot good video, and ultimately create some interesting and maybe even entertaining content!
Of course I have many other interests besides D&D which include but are not limited to: science, soccer, politics, activism, climate change, craft beer, religion, trail-running, and statistics just to name a few, so who knows where future videos might lead! Which brings me to why I decided that perhaps “Drinks and Dragons,” which in addition to being difficult for me to say for some reason, was a bit limiting to the scope of where my interests might turn. So I went with something entirely original: RyanBays! At least I won’t forget the name!
So if you’re still reading this post and you found anything in here interesting, do me a huge favor and subscribe to my YouTube channel! Cheers!
In the spirit of Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter, the white elephant project celebrating scientific illiteracy that opened in Kentucky, it might be useful to have at the ready some fact-based talking points should you find yourself in a conversation with a Young Earth Creationist.
Here are the various ages of 38 things that I think are pretty darn awesome. Estimates here are of course based on the latest science, so being based on good science they are subject to adjustment with better evidence. Of course the astute reader will notice that 36 of these are actually older than 6000 years, but last two are so cool I included them in the count. Enjoy!
Please leave a comment below or contact me via Twitter or Facebook if you see any mistakes or updates that need to be made. Also let me know if there are some really cool events that I may have missed that you think deserve to be on the timeline.