De-platforming and free speech

It’s incredibly hard for me to feel sympathy when someone like Richard Dawkins is disinvited from a keynote speaker slot because of the way he behaves (the conference rescinded, but that’s beside the point).

The theme of attacks on his critics is that such disinvitation represents harm to his freedom of speech.
The man is a bestselling author, has numerous TV specials, is a frequent talk show guest, established speaker, and has over a million followers on Twitter. His free speech rights and ability to exercise them are utterly unassailable.

This did get me thinking about how and when a disinvitation could potentially be harmful to free speech. What kept coming to mind are activists from nations with severe restrictions on speech and Internet use. If your government is telling you what not to say and preventing you from taking the obvious route to publicly disagree, there is an obvious free speech problem. So, maybe if the speaker you’re considering disinviting fits into this scenario it would be a bad move to remove a platform. This is obviously a simplified approach to what is a real life problem too big to solve with a speech at a conference. But it’s worth looking for how and to what degree you may be wrong.

But what if we took the free speech claim at face value, but we took it a bit father and looked at who we invite to speak and not just who we ask not to. If our goal is to use our platform to advance free speech, why not give speaking positions to people of color and trans people? Or members of minority religions that Donald Trump wants to deport? Hell, if GamerGate showed us anything is that cis women are often silenced by threats and harassment. Maybe we should not invite cis men to speak until we resolve the disparity in who can speak without fear.

Some of this makes sense to weigh in the decision making process. Some people are poorly represented in public life, or are vilified. If we are going to worry about the free speech of a rich guy with a large and devoted audience, why aren’t we worried about people who are prevented in one way or another from having a platform?

De-platforming and free speech

5 logical fallacies that aren’t always fallacious

As skeptics, we strive to be as logical as possible. One of the best ways to do this is to learn what logical fallacies are and avoid using them. This is an excellent thing to do, however there is a problem: Many skeptics have diligently learned what the fallacies are, but end up incorrectly identifying them. These false positives are understandable, but we would all benefit from putting some extra effort into our analysis. Here are a few of the fallacies that I think fall into this trap.

No True Scotsman

What it is:
Someone commits this fallacy by shifting a definition of something in an attempt to side-step a counterexample that doesn’t support their conclusion.
The term derives from an example put out by Anthony Flew in which a Scotsman denies that a rapist could be Scottish because Scotsmen don’t do such things. No True Scotsman is a very tempting fallacy to fall prey to because we want to be the good guys. We want our team to be the one helping people, so it’s only natural to want to exclude people we disapprove of from our group.

What it looks like in the wild:
“The guy killed 70 people in cold blood, he clearly isn’t a True Christian.

When it isn’t a fallacy:
If you are arguing a position that is tightly defined, an example deviating from that is fair to say is not applicable. When I pontificate about the awesomeness of triangles and someone says the worst kind of triangle is a circle, it’s fair to say they have it wrong. If the Christian you are talking to defines “Christian” in a particular way that excludes all murderers, that’s fine if they spell that out. But you are then free to point out that they are using a narrow definition that you haven’t seen before. Or you could ask them to define “Christian” from the outset.
It’s also not a fallacy if you have access to a Scotsman Detector or some kind of Scotsman centrifuge that can sort out the actual Scotsmen.

Ad Hominem

What it is:
An ad hominem attack is when you disparage a person’s character rather than the argument they made and infer from this that the person’s position is false. Suppose you are arguing with a believer in alternative medicine who is claiming that acupuncture cures deadly brain tumors. In a situation like that you should be addressing whether or not their claims match reality rather than their goofy haircut, even when it’s a really goofy haircut.

What it looks like in the wild:
“Don’t listen to Jenny McCarthy when she talks about vaccines. She’s just a dumbass.”

When it isn’t a fallacy:
Disparaging the character of a proponent of pseudoscience who is also a bad person, such as Stanislaw Burzynski, in addition to criticizing their faulty arguments is not a fallacy at all. Ineffectual treatments are one issue to criticize him on, but his lack of morals is another one that also needs to be addressed. A good rule of thumb is to see how the sentence works with “therefore” added to it. “Burzynski is a maggot infested ghoul who bullies teenagers, therefore don’t trust his claims about antineoplastons and cancer” doesn’t work but “All the scientific evidence and the consensus of the medical community goes against Burzynski’s claims, and he’s a shitty person to boot” works just fine.

In some debates the character of the participants is the very heart of the issue. Being patient and charitable with disagreements on values is a useful approach for some circumstances, and with some people, but there are occasions where you will meet people who are not deserving of a hand-holding, charitable walk-through of the issue. If someone is saying a bunch of racist garbage, sometimes the appropriate thing to do is to point out that their behavior is racist. This is a character flaw that they should be fixing. If you call them on it, you will be accused of using an ad hominem attack. But when the question is actually about the morality of that person, it is justified.

Argument from Authority
What it is:
Whenever someone invokes an expert to trump the analysis of their opponent.

What it looks like in the wild:
“My pastor said that evolution is a lie from Satan.”

When it isn’t a fallacy:
The problem with rejecting all arguments from authority is that we run the risk of falling into anti-intellectualism or becoming self-important know-it-alls. The fact is, there are people who know shit that you don’t know. I can read about medicine all damn day, but if an M.D. tells me I got it wrong, it may be reasonable to ask for a second opinion, but it is not reasonable to utterly reject their opinion as an mere argument from authority.
The easiest way that I’ve found to defer to people with expertise while not accepting claims on faulty grounds is three fold:

1. Make sure that the person is an expert on the subject in question. Don’t take an English professor’s word on whether or not the Big Bang was a thing. If that professor has opinions about semi-colons though…

2. Make sure that the field they are an expert in is a real thing. Alleged psychics are “experts” on talking to dead people. Is there a good reason to think that their field of expertise is describing something real though? This is actually a difficult task to do on the fly, but a shortcut could be to see what the experts in related fields think. For example, do the experts in the field of psychology or neurology tend to believe in psychic powers? Their fields would be impacted by such a thing being real. I’d go into more detail on how to determine the validity of a field, but that could easily become another post. Or even a full book.

3. Look at what the plurality of experts in that field think about the subject. You can find two or three geologists who think Noah’s Flood explains the Grand Canyon. Do the majority of other geologists share this view? (Hint:Fucking of course not) You will find that there are circumstances where a genuine field of study does not have a consensus on a subject. When this happens, the wisest thing to do is to remind yourself not to invest too much in any one conclusion. Then make some popcorn and watch the scientific process sort it out. This may take several years, so I would advise making at least two bags of popcorn.

Just remember that your entire life is full of claims that require you to–at least provisionally–accept the conclusion of experts.

Godwin’s Law

What it is:
According to the Mike Godwin, who coined the term, “As the length of an online discussion increases, the probability of a Hitler/Nazi comparison approaches 1.” As an informal fallacy, it is used to show that someone is using extremely hyperbolic comparisons and is in fact a common example of the aforementioned Ad Hominem.

What it looks like in the wild:
Pretty much every sentence about President Obama on World Net Daily and Breitbart.

When it isn’t a fallacy:
If the person in question is 1. Named Adolf, 2. Advocating for policies that that are very similar to that of Hitler’s, or 3. Currently invading Poland.

The Straw Man

What is it:
Mischaracterizing your opponent’s argument so that it’s easier to argue against.

What it looks like in the wild:
“You atheists are all a bunch of baby-eating communists who want to put Christians like me in prison camps!”

When it isn’t a fallacy:
Sometimes your arguments will aren’t so great. And I don’t mean “you” rhetorically, I mean that you, the reader of this sentence, will have terrible arguments. You’re human, that happens. If someone repeats your argument back to you, there can be a tendency to think, “But that’s just a Straw Man, my real opinion is way cooler than that!” If you have that reaction, take a moment to re-examine your position and make sure that the characterization is not valid before dismissing the criticism as a Straw Man. If you’ve ever seen a debate between a believer and an atheist, you’ve seen this fallacy announced inappropriately, probably from both parties at various points. I remember arguing with my best friend after Skepticon 2 about whether or not the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the Invisible Pink Unicorn were Straw Men. The only real difference between those views and real religious views is the tone. If people talked about the beer volcano in FSM heaven with the same seriousness of the boring alcohol geology-free Heaven, you’d see that as truth claims they are on equal footing. If you point out that the concepts within a religion are absurd, that isn’t a Straw Man, it’s perspective.

The takeaway from this is that enumerated fallacies are a great heuristic and can show you the flaws in your reasoning as well as the reasoning of others, but they are not a replacement for critical analysis nor are they a set of commandments handed down from Lord Planet-Maker.

5 logical fallacies that aren’t always fallacious

A father responds to his transgender child

We see a lot of stories of parents that don’t know how to be compassionate. Kicking out and belittling their LBGT kids is sadly one of the more common things we see.

One of my cousins is transgender. When she made a post about how happy she was to be able to jettison the male name she grew up with, this was her father’s reaction and her reply.

transgender parent support
My uncle:

“It will be very hard for me. However, nothing compared to what you have and are going through. I love you no matter what and will do my best. It is difficult to lose my son but a content and happy daughter will help.”

My cousin:

“I love you more than words could ever possibly convey. I feel so fortunate to have you in my life and you as a father. I wish everyone going through something like this could be so lucky.”

I got teary-eyed when I saw that. Here’s the deal though, that should be the rule, not the exception. If you think that disowning someone is good parenting, you’re doing it wrong. I am very proud of my uncle and inspired by my cousin.

A father responds to his transgender child

“Einstein proves my point!”

In my debates with theists, I tend to have to bring up the flaws in religious epistemology. It’s an incredibly flawed method of finding out what’s real, especially when compared to that of science. The problem with bringing up the superiority of science, is that inevitably you will hear the argument that Albert Einstein was a believer. And they don’t just have urban legends to back up their point, they have quotes too!

"Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."
“Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”


Of course, Einstein quotes don’t just work for the religious, all sorts of people can use Einstein.

There is something for the pantheists:

"I believe in Spinoza's God, who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind."
“I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”

Something for the accommodationists:

“You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.”
“You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.”

And even something for your run-of-the-mill atheists

“I do not believe in immortality of the individual, and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it.”
“I do not believe in immortality of the individual, and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it.”

Einstein’s views on quantum mechanics notwithstanding, it seems that with regards to God his opinion was in a superposition. Either that or his views evolved as he got older. Certainly toward the end of his life he didn’t have many nice things to say about religion. This topic got a lot more play since the auction of a letter from Einstein in which he expresses some very clearly anti-religious sentiment.

Everyone’s time is wasted when this argument comes up because what Einstein believed has no bearing on what is true. But you still have to take the time to correct the misconception. And then after that, explain why it’s totally irrelevant.

I do understand that the appeal to Einstein is incredibly tempting. After all, “Einstein was super-smart, so if he agrees with me then I must be right!” But lots of smart people throughout history have been demonstrably wrong. Thomas Jefferson keeping slaves, Linus Pauling and vitamin overdosing, and Bill Nye’s promotion of magic water are all great examples. For all their amazing contributions, these people are just humans with all the same weaknesses and cognitive biases as everyone else. We should praise people when they crack a tough problem, but by treating them like they can never be wrong we do a disservice to ourselves and to them.

“Einstein proves my point!”

Speaking ill of the dead

With Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, I got to thinking about the saying “don’t speak ill of the dead.” It seems like it is another more roundabout way of speaking ill of the dead.

What you’re saying is that the very first thing this person brings to mind with their passing is a social norm against bringing up the faults of the wholly irredeemable if they should die.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand not wanting to be cruel to surviving family. And I get not wanting people to perceive you as ghoulish, relishing in the suffering of others.

But when a death has comorbitity with an end to active harm, it’s hard to see the value in that custom. And if the nicest you can muster is,  “I don’t want to be mean to a dead guy”  and their family should see that, doesn’t that convey the same message?

Anyway, even if you don’t speak ill of Scalia now, it’s about impossible to not see the end result as a boon for America. If that message of optimism is in violation of this norm, I think that it’s worth violating.

Speaking ill of the dead

An introduction

I write jokes. I write an awful lot of jokes actually. And I have good platforms for that on Twitter @geekysteven and on my website Carl Sagan’s Dance Party.

The purpose of this new blog is to have a venue for my serious writing. I’ve been a guest blogger on some of the bigger atheist blogs, but it’s time I had one of my own.

Here I’ll write about atheism, skepticism, feminism/social justice, as well as generally nerdy stuff.  I probably won’t put as much focus on atheism as I used to, but there is always something newsworthy relating to the intersection of religion and public life that’s worth exploring. But I wouldn’t expect this blog to fill the same niche as the Friendly Atheist or anything.

I’ll probably link to some of my comedy now and again.

I might allow comments. But I think they’re tedious outside of social media. So we’ll see.

That’s enough metaposting for now, you get the idea.

An introduction