Friday, April 10, 2009

Less is more

Life is not linear. Individual existences certainly have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Life, however, spans individuals and generations. The most observable pattern to life seems to be the cycle, be it that of day and night, the seasons, death and rebirth, or the endless cycle of mistakes that defines human history.

This thought hit me while skimming over a forum thread (viewable to members only) discussing an editorial about the Atheist Bus Campaign. After a solid start of nine posts that managed to hover in the general vicinity of the topic, the hand grenade of Godwin’s Law was tossed in, instantly killing everybody in the room with a vested interest in the topic and allowing the resident trolls to take control. It came in the predictable form of the claim that Hitler was an atheist and therefore the 60‑million casualties resulting from World War 2 were all atheism’s fault, an argument typically invoked as part of a perverse tactic to establish the moral superiority of the religious position on the grounds that it has a slightly smaller body count. That they also typically claim that there are no atheists in foxholes is not a result of inconsistent reasoning at all, and only a Communist would say otherwise.

This being the causer of all the fuss.
This being the causer of all the fuss.

At the time of this writing there have been a further 500 posts to this thread, and the word “bus” has been mentioned half a dozen times, excluding repeated occurrences via quoting. It did, however, manage to traverse the same boring topics that resurface time after time in these sorts of online pissing contests, including but not limited to:

  • Religion and homosexuality.
  • The Crusades and Inquisitions.
  • Mao, Pol Pot, Stalin, etc.
  • The prosperity doctrine.
  • Tax-exempt status of churches.
  • Origins of life, the universe and everything.
  • Communist Russia.
  • Fighting over credit for scientific discoveries.
  • Overuse of incoherent metaphors to explain nonsensical points (the most memorable of which featured Mark Hamill for reasons I will never fully understand).
  • Whether the Sabbath should be observed on Saturdays or Sundays.
  • Squabbling over what an omnipotent god would or would not do.

Amidst the same old issues, the same old misconceptions and false claims are regurgitated over and over again. Whether it be atheists having no morals, religious people being inherently irrational, Pascal’s Wager, Darwin recanting on his deathbed, or “free thinking” being solely the domain of non-belief, one thing is actually true: these false claims and misconceptions never go away. For example, the myth of Darwin recanting his theory of evolution has been around since 1915, and the refutation from Darwin’s family almost as long. Yet, nearly 90 years after being exposed for what it was, it persists to this day with all the crushing familiarity of a continually dislocating pelvis.

One lesson to learn from this is that the struggle against ignorance is a never-ending one. The near-total freedom of information we enjoy in the developed world through the internet can just as easily make it harder to eradicate ignorance rather than easier. How many of those stupid emails have you received in your lifetime? Dozens? Hundreds? Before you’re tempted to think that nobody could believe that rubbish, bear in mind that those Nigerian email scams actually work to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

No matter how many times and in how many encounters a popular false claim is crushed on the internet, it has already found every email inbox in the world several times over, and the more minds in which it takes root the longer it takes to eradicate. If the Darwin myth, which is both child’s play to refute and irrelevant even if it were true, can hold out for nearly a century with no signs of going away any time soon, how bleak are our chances of overcoming more serious and sophisticated threats to the advancement of knowledge and reason? In many ways it’s really just a game of whoever shouts the loudest for the longest, a situation that is reminiscent of the old Soviet saying: “Quantity has a quality all its own.”

I see it as every person’s duty to counter misinformation whenever they see it in whatever small or significant way they can. There is a fine line between the intention behind this statement and a rallying cry for everybody to spout off rubbish under the impression they’re doing the world a favour every time they see an opinion that disagrees with their own. The major distinction is in knowing something about what you are talking about. For instance, if you are not a professional biologist with a university education and years of experience in the field then it’s very unlikely you could contribute anything of value to a debate about the theory of evolution. You’re entitled to your opinion, but that’s about it. Don’t expect that anyone should care. This goes for both opponents and supporters of the aforesaid theory alike. Atheist fanboys alike are often just as guilty as their creationist opponents.

Unfortunately, the world does not seem to be so full of people that are particularly mindful of their limitations. To do so requires a degree of self-awareness and honesty. In light of that, perhaps it is important to set an example so that others might follow. Mahatma Ghandi once said “Be the change you want to see in the world”, and, being a famous person, he was probably right. Admittedly, refraining from topics I know little or nothing about does limit my playing field significantly, but that is a sacrifice I’m willing to make for the greater good.


  1. Hi Joe,
    I've certainly been guilty of failing to refrain from topics I know little about. For me though, that's one of the joys of blogging.
    I like to throw out my opinions (be they ever so ill-informed) and see what comes back. If I happen to encounter a rational opponent then a meaningful dialogue ensues and I learn something.
    Of course it's more often the case that it attracts someone who's only really up for a bit of shouting, and Godwin's Law is quickly realised (I'm looking at you, Zarove).
    Still, I find the occasional quality debates are worth it.
    This was a great post, Joe. I really like your writing style.
    A question: are you really in Antarctica?

  2. We all have. It's a lesson that takes a while to learn, due in part to our human nature. As the old saying goes, at 16 we know everything: our ignorance is the very thing that shields us from realising its extent. The older we get, the more we appreciate how little we know (hopefully).

    So it's good to discuss topics, but we should be mindful of how much we really know and how much we don't. That's what I'm trying to encourage myself and others to do. At one end of the scale, are those who want to share ideas with humility and a willingness to learn, while at the other end are mouth-breathing Young Earth Creationists with no scientific credentials trying to discredit any theory that clashes with their beliefs as if they know something that every biologist on the planet doesn't.

    Also, some topics have higher entry requirements than others. Modern science is at the high end of the scale.

    And no, I'm not in Antarctica. I'm just making the most of internet anonymity while it still lasts. Also, I can foresee my using this blog to vent a few things that I'd rather people I know not trace back to me.