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In which I disagree with Brian Dunning

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on July 14, 2009

I feel guilty! I am going to commit skeptical heresy by going on the record as disagreeing with Brian Dunning on some issue. But that, I find, is the beauty of being a freethinker, like most skeptics are, or aspire to be. There aren’t, make that there can’t be, any sacred cows, any holy persons. Anyone’s ideas are open to critique and today I am going to respond to Brian’s Skeptoid Episode #160 “Sarah Palin is not stupid”.

Now let me start by saying that I admire Brian Dunning as I do few others. In my eyes he’s right up there with Randi and the Rogues. I do not think there is anyone who can pick apart some issue and analyze its inards the way Brian can, and I don’t think I’d ever find myself arguing with him on an empirical issue; he’d probably run circles around me. Thank goodness this particular Skeptoid Episode is not about a purely empirical issue.

The topic at hand is stupidity. Brian makes many statements about it on this intellectually challenging episode. Some I agree with, some I don’t. Before I proceed with my analysis I also want to point out that to some degree the topic at hand is philosophical, actually I think it is more philosophical than it is skeptical in nature. That is why, I think, me and Brian are not on the same page on this one.

He starts of with a statement that is bound to surprise some people.

I’m going to disagree with the popular perception that Sarah Palin is nuts.

Actually, I do not find that shocking at all. I do not think that anyone can seriously support the claim that Sarah Palin is nuts. That is too extreme. I personally have referred to her as a bimbo, but nuts is taking it too far. So no disagreement there. I just wasn’t aware that the popular perception of Mrs. Palin was so extreme.

Stupid people don’t tend to attract contributors, managers, supporters, and electorates. If she’d exhibited stupidity on the Wasilla city council, they probably wouldn’t have elected her mayor. If she’d exhibited stupidity as mayor, they probably wouldn’t have elected her for a second term. Her appointment to the Oil and Gas Committee by the governor was probably not because she’d behaved stupidly. Finally, stupidity probably does not characterize most successful bids to run for governor of one of the United States.

This I have a problem with. I do think that stupid people do attract contributors, managers, supporters and electorates. Look at George W. Bush. Look at Lindsay Lohan. Success in an area, be that politics, or entertainment, or even business, does not exclude stupidity. I just don’t see how that first sentence can be supported. We cannot throw out the statement “Sarah Palin is stupid” by pointing at a successful political career. I think one does not necessarily follow from the other. In fact, many of us would agree that George W. Bush’s first term was a lesson in stupid presidential behavior, but he did get re-elected, fairly in my eyes, for a second term.

If you call yourself a critical thinker, ad hominem attacks should not be the extent of your criticisms of those in whom you find fault.

Absolutely right, and that is probably the most important piece of advice to take away from this episode. Just pointing at someone and dismissing an argument they have put forward as wrong “‘ because he/she’s stupid” is not a trait someone fancying himself as a critical thinker possesses. Just because they’ve exhibited stupid behavior in the past does not give us the right to dismiss everything they say in the future.

Look at Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, and consequently the United States’ greatest mass murderer of children. To best prepare ourselves to prevent this kind of thing happening again, we have to be sure that we accurately understand the motivations behind it. McVeigh is a guy who lived in a world of conspiracies. The people he surrounded himself with all believed the same thing: That the government was out to get them. When you live and breathe that 24 hours a day, when it’s your entire sphere of influence, it’s not delusional.

Actually, I think it is. By this line of reasoning delusions do not exist; no one is delusional because every delusional person really, really, believes in his delusions. I do not argue the fact that McVeigh believed wholeheartedly in the conspiracy, but that makes it not less of a delusion in reality. People do not choose to delude themselves, but there is a reason why we use the word “delusion” to describe this state of mind; because it is so much out of touch with reality. I am sorry but in my book a person that thinks there is a government conspiracy against him and that the proper response is a strike against civilians is nuts, regardless of the fact that he surrounded himself or not with the wrong people. I just don’t think that is an excuse, nor does it make his actions rational or normal.

It was a vicious circle. The more input he received, the more he sought out such information. Well understood perceptual phenomena like confirmation bias made it normal and healthy for McVeigh’s brain to reject information that did not indicate the government was out to get him. Eventually he got to a point where the best move — in the context of what he believed was going on — was to strike back, as violently as possible. We are better prepared to deal with Timothy McVeighs if we don’t allow ourselves the intellectually lazy shortcut of “Oh, he was just some nut.”

I do not think that is an intellectually lazy shortcut. I think it is a pretty accurate statement of the guy’s state of mind. Sure in his mind he was right; he thought he was doing the right thing, but that’s because his brain did not work properly (at least I think it did not given his behavior). I am afraid we’re getting a little too relativistic at this point. Even Hitler thought he was doing the right thing; in his mind he was sure he was right, but that does not lessen the severity of his crimes nor should it refrain ourselves for labeling him as a crazy SOB! I just don’t seem to put much weight to the context of what they believed. I think that should not be the standard against which their actions are measured.

Now Brian is right that we shouldn’t stop at “Oh, he’s a nut” and leave it there. In cases like McVeigh we should look at how he was able to keep feeding and expanding on his fantasy, because clearly he needed help which he did not get. But just because that’s not all we should say, does not imply that it shouldn’t be said at all!

The same goes for Sarah Palin, Ben Stein, Ken Ham, Bill Maher, Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey, and Prince Charles, all people who actively promote bad science or misinformation, and who believe they’re doing the right thing. That’s an important point that’s too often overlooked. With few exceptions, most honest promoters of bad information have good intentions. They’re not crazy raving lunatics out to get us. If you want to have an informed, rational conversation with one of these folks, and you want them to be receptive to your statements, approach them as you would any public figure who works hard in the public good. At a fundamental level, they’re on our same team: They want what’s best for people.

Ok, I’m willing to grant you that they have good intentions, but still I fail to see how good intentions exclude stupidity or nuttiness! One can be stupid and have good intentions. I am willing to grant Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey the benefit of the doubt, that they have good intentions, but that does not change the fact that the arrogance of their ignorance is colossal; that anyone who has no training on any given issue and goes around dismissing the expert’s advice and rate her own “Google University Education” as at par, or better, than the expert has a few screws loose.

How many times should we remind Jenny that there is no antifreeze in vaccines? How many times should we point out to her that all studies fail to find a connection between vaccines, or thimerosal, and autism? How many times do we do that before her constant refusal to face reality deserves to be called stupid? Her intentions seem completely irrelevant to the stupidity charge in my eyes.

Now, before someone interprets this as an all out attack on Brian’s episode let me recap. I pretty much agree with most of what Brian said. And I agree with his sentiment, if I am interpreting it correctly, that calling people stupid may not be the best way to go about winning converts to your case, which it isn’t. It seems to me the major disagreement seems to be in what I perceive, perhaps erroneously, as a very relativistic take on Brian’s part on the words stupid and nut. What I get from a listening of the podcast, and a reading of the online transcript is this: These things are relative; if you look at it from the point of view of the “nut” his behavior is not nutty at all. So you can’t call them that!

And I agree that this idea of stupidity is relative to one’s background, culture, education etc etc. I find honor killings extremely stupid, and cannot think of a person that commits it as rational or even normal under any sense of these words, while at the same time someone from his culture finds this behavior completely acceptable and probably would find my behavior, that of “allowing” certain behaviors from the females in my family, stupid. I get that. But I don’t see how one can jump from that to “you should not call them stupid or nuts“, which I perceive is what, at least in part, Brian’s entry implies.

Stupidity is not an empirical thing; we cannot test for it like we can for a viral infection; there is no stupidity test. As such we are all bound to have different standards, different levels of tolerance, but is refusing to call any behavior stupid, or any person nuts, the right stance to take? I personally find this refusal to take a stance a bit uncomfortable. Ridicule is a valuable weapon in the fight against woo and there are many instances when pure logic and information just won’t cut it. Take all the autism studies you want, put them in front of an audience against a weeping mother who “knows” that her kid “got autism” right after he got his vaccines, and see who wins the popular opinion. Of course calling the mother stupid will be even worse, but the point I’m trying to make is that the impulse to ridicule, to call someone stupid, is an emotional response and there are times when this response is more powerful than any critical analysis. On the other hand that’s not all we should do, otherwise we end up making fools out of ourselves.

I guess the take away lesson from this rambling of mine is that there is no one right way of being a skeptic. Our audiences, the people we are trying to reach, is a mix of different customers. Some need the strong rational approach Brian takes; some need the humor, and sometimes ridicule, that the likes of Jay and Rebecca on the SGU dish out; some need to be humbled by James Randi making them feel like idiots for falling for simple tricks (yours truly included!). All methods work depending on the audience, all are valuable, and so is, I think, calling stupid people stupid. There is such a thing as stupid behavior and it needs to be called to task. And if  a person consistently exhibits stupid behavior they may even be qualified to be branded a stupid person or a nut.

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11 Responses

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  1. Ellie said, on July 15, 2009 at 12:30 AM

    A person can respond rationally to a delusion. It isn’t the response that makes him ‘crazy’ or ‘nuts’, it’s the belief that caused it.

    Also, I invoke Godwin’s law 😉

    • Skepdude said, on July 15, 2009 at 9:35 AM

      Ha ha, I did not know about this Godwin’s law, but now that you pointed it out, and thanks to Wikipedia, it makes sense, and I myself invoked Hitler. Spooky stuff!

  2. […] In which I disagree with Brian Dunning « Skepfeeds-The Best …Success in an area, be that politics, or entertainment, or even business, does not exclude stupidity. I just don’t see how that first sentence can be supported. We cannot throw out the statement “Sarah Palin is stupid” by pointing at a successful … Look at Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, and consequently the United States’ greatest mass murderer of children. To best prepare ourselves to prevent this kind of thing happening again, we have to be sure that we …  read more… […]

  3. red rabbit said, on July 16, 2009 at 10:23 AM

    I have a single beef with all of this, and it’s with your definition of delusion. Delusions are defined as fixed false beliefs not congruent with a person’s culture.

    They do exist but they have a very specific setting. Sarah Palin is not demonstrably delusional (unless she actuallly believes she can see Russia from her front yard). She is demonstrably a rightwing windbag, but in her cultural and religious setting, this is a version of normal.

    If McVeigh was in an environment where many people believed that there was a government conspiracy and was able to interpret the evidence in that direction, then this again does not represent delusion. If he came up with it all on his own and people were trying to talk him down, it might be delusion.

    Believe what you want about him, but as skeptics, our role seems more to be to leave it to the psychiatrists to sort out if this was indeed delusion, as we don’t have enough information about his environment to make a diagnosis for McVeigh. Or I don’t anyhow.

    Jenny McCarthy, though a prime suspect for blinkered self-promotion and obstinate ignorance, is only delusional if she actually believes she can cure autism. Her promotion of anti-vaccine wingnuttery is not delusion, but a fixed false belief appropriate in her circles. Her claims of pharma conspiracy could be delusion, but given big pharma’s history of things like vioxx and Nestle’s baby formula, plus all the wingnut “research” aka opinion published with cherrypicking, she likely simply lacks the tools to sort the evidence.

    The “I cured my baby’s autism” claim on the other hand- that smacks of cray-zeee.

    • Skepdude said, on July 16, 2009 at 10:58 AM

      Well I am no psychiatrist so I don’t know the technical definition of the word “delusion”, as such I use the every day meaning. But either way, I guess then I can extend your point about McVeigh to ask “What is a person’s culture”? Yeah sure that small group he frequented had it’s own “culture” but that small group lived within a larger group with a different culture. I am satisfied to accept that as a group they were delusional about their beliefs. Culture is a very flexible word in itself and that along can lead to disagreements.

      ON the other hand I was not trying, and I hope I did not imply, to give a clinical diagnosis about McVeigh’s mental health, that’s for sure. I reiterate that I am using the every day meaning of the word delusion, which is not as strict as the more technical meaning you’re referring to.

      Also there are no claims on this entry that either Palin or McCarthy were delusional, in either sense of the word. If I had to pick between the two I would say McCarthy is more likely to be, since she seems to believe that she has cured her son of Autism via special diets and stuff, but I can’t know for sure if that is indeed what she believes, so I can’t throw the delusion charge her way.

  4. red rabbit said, on July 16, 2009 at 1:02 PM

    Kewl. I’m working from the inside of the medical profession and so I can get a bit pedantic on definitions of medical words.

    I don’t know myself if Palin is stupid. She seems pretty shrewd about what her audience wants. Insofar as she is misanthropic, self-centred, and wilfully ignorant, yeah, that’s what it looks like to me. But stupid? Can’t be sure.

    • Skepdude said, on July 16, 2009 at 2:52 PM

      I don’t know. I mean she couldn’t mention one newspaper she reads when asked on TV remember. I guess it can be chalked up to nerves, but it definitely raises some question marks….

  5. Oh eN Bee said, on July 21, 2009 at 5:26 PM

    “How many times should we remind Jenny that there is no antifreeze in vaccines? How many times should we point out to her that all studies fail to find a connection between vaccines, or thimerosal, and autism? How many times do we do that before her constant refusal to face reality deserves to be called stupid? Her intentions seem completely irrelevant to the stupidity charge in my eyes.”

    I’m with red rabbit on this one too, I think you miss the mark a bit with your argument. It seems you’re conflating morality and psychiatry. While it’s easy to make an ad hoc, off the couch diagnosis for someone like Palin or McVeigh as being nuts for holding extreme views, it’s been well documented in psychology that people cannot hold two contradictory views in mind at one time. The cognitive dissonance that ensues can create what appears to us on the outside to be a delusion, though the person arrives to their point completely rationally. This happens in the minds of very sane and very intelligent people every single day (but not those extremes). I know it’s morally and socially difficult to say out loud that someone like McVeigh is sane and/or intelligent, but without the diagnosis of a proper mental illness (like paranoia or anti-social disorder or schizophrenia or or or…) you can’t come to any other conclusion. Saying that he wasn’t nuts or stupid isn’t a value judgment on his actions and should not be construed as such, in fact I would believe a person is even more despicable and deserving of vilification if they weren’t laboring under an illness while committing these heinous crimes.

    Likewise McCarthy (despite her numerous other statements demonstrating a lack of intelligence) cannot be called stupid merely for her vaccination denialist stance, she’s laboring under a very heavy dose of cognitive dissonance. Her refusal to accept evidence to the contrary of her beliefs is more chalked up to the fact that her beliefs are running contradictory to what’s being presented to her, she just has a high threshold for evidence I guess…

    Under the same set of rules for calling people stupid, you’ll probably have to begin referring to all Christians, Muslims, Jews, Scientologists, Mormons, Snake Handlers, Raalians, David Icke, Hindus and the like stupid or insane.

    Okay, maybe I’m with you on the Scientologists…

    • Skepdude said, on July 21, 2009 at 5:58 PM

      LOL yeah, Scientologists, whew!

      Well I don’t want to get into a definition war because those are won by no one. My point is this: specific behaviors can be labeled stupid, using the every day meaning of the word without much controversy. Eating your nose buggers (is that how you spell it?) on TV, I call stupid. You may disagree, but I understand it is a value judgement. As I said, stupidity is not an empirical thing, we can’t test for it. We can only make value judgements. Going on about vaccines in the face of the evidence, the way Jenny does, I think is stupid. You may not. That’s ok.

      You are right that McCarthy cannot be called stupid solely based on her vaccine stance. But add to that the bugger eating, add to that her childish blog posts on the Oprah website, you start seeing a pattern. When a person consistently engages in stupid behavior, they have earned the “Stupid Person” label from me. And I understand that different people will have different levels of tolerance. I guess I’ve reached mine in relation to some folks.

      The most important point that I am making though, is that the intentions behind the stupid behavior do not matter; not as far as labeling the behavior goes; not in my eyes anyway, and I know I differ with a lot of folks in that area, but that’s ok. We can’t agree 100% of the time, now can we?

      • Oh eN Bee said, on July 21, 2009 at 6:11 PM

        We could agree 100% 80% of the time, maybe. That seems fair.

        Trust me, I’m not the last one in a room to scream “She’s stupid!” when McCarthy or Palin come up…

  6. […] by Skepdude on July 21, 2009 I have been getting a bit of flack on the comments of my entry in which I disagreed with Brian Dunning about using the label stupid. Now, I think no one can argue with me that this idiot is not stupid. […]


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