Tuesday, December 18, 2012

In the Name of Balance...

You are currently watching a news program.  The anchor is talking to a scientist about how positively absurd the whole end-of-the-world bullcrap.  The scientist's counterpart in the discussion is one of the Doomsday believers who argues that the Mayan long count calendar ends on December 21, 2012.  Did you also know that the Gregorian calendar comes to an "end" on December 31, 2012?  Of course, there's also the talk about how the sun, the Earth, and the center of the Milky Way all come into alignment on December 21, 2012.  Of course, the scientist points out that also happened on Dec. 21, 2011, and in 2010, 2009, 2008 and so on...  because that happens every year on the Winter Solstice (and the "perfect" alignment people talk about happened in the '90s).  Moreover, there's nothing anywhere in cosmology that indicates that anything could ever possibly happen simply because of that.  Then the doomsday believer points out that it fits with the Bible and the return of Jesus...  which of course, it doesn't, since the Bible says it should have already happened within the lifetimes of the apostles.  Then of course, the nutbar doomsday freak alludes to the idea that "Hinduism" predicts the end of Kali Yuga in 2012...  uuuhhhh...  no, it doesn't.  Where the hell did anybody get the idea that there is such specificity in any Hindu text?  If anything, dates are the sort of thing Hindu texts are least specific about.  In any case, the scientist, who can't really be expected to be an expert in every culture on earth can at least offer the most obvious objection that those are unfounded claims -- most likely fabrications simply to ride the popularity wave of the 2012 bullshit-mania, and not even a real genuine coincidence.  But even if they were, that would have no impact on the fact that the evidence shows nothing.  In the end, no one really listened to anyone, and the show ran out of time for the segment leaving the whole issue "unresolved" as it were, and simply moves on to something else.

Does anything about this strike you as wrong?  The description probably sounded plausible for a news program, but that's not quite where the problem lies...

How about the fact that there is even a dialogue on the topic in the first place?

It seems that the rule is to violate Okrent's Law as a matter of course, lest you come off biased.  Who cares if it's a bias toward reality in favor of bollocks?  What matters is that bias in any direction looks bad.

Here you can have on one side, someone who actually knows what he's talking about, actually has factual data on his side, actual evidence, a deep understanding of all the scientific and technological knowledge available which show without even the slightest possibility of reasonable doubt that there will be a Dec. 22, 2012 and beyond...  and then, after talking to him for a bit, they turn away from him to give audience to this nonsense-spewing, brain-dead, moronic fear-mongerer who strangely believes that ancient witch doctors knew more than the modern-day intelligentsia who have access to knowledge and technology that all of our ancient ancestors combined could never have imagined.

It's a popular story that there are times when ancient people somehow got something right that we are only now learning to be true.  Thus, the extension is often made that perhaps ancient peoples knew things we are yet to find out.  The problem is that this assertion has never once been correct.  The similarities between ancient beliefs long discarded and new discoveries have always at best been superficial.  The reasons for and significance of said knowledge have never been the same.  That too, ancient beliefs have never been known for being dead-on-the-money, but are actual so nebulous that the chances of being right by sheer accident are very high.  You can't compare some vague statement like "Raw kidney beans are bad for the blood" to the statement that "kidney beans contain phytohemagglutinins which break down after sufficient cooking at 100 C, but are deadly if the beans are improperly cooked."  The two statements, although superficially similar, are really quite different.  The difference is one of knowledge vs. beliefs.  Sure, the two things can loosely overlap, but that doesn't mean they're the same.

About the only reason why these sorts of stories ever even come up in the first place is because it falls nicely in line with our natural cognitive bias towards tradition and authority an overall cultural bias towards intellectual laziness.  We like the idea that people who came before us were real authorities on everything, and had all the knowledge (including that about what you should believe), and of course, the fact that they know means you don't have to think about it.  Well, that's why you're an idiot.

But it shows up in a context like this sort of on-air dialogue because it seems fair.  You're hearing something from two people on two sides of the fence.  So it's only right that both people should have a say.  Isn't it only right to balance the two positions?  The flaw here is that it fails to recognize that this is not apples to apples.  The example I give has two positions so far apart in category that even apples to oranges would be understating the gap here.  It's apples to leprechauns.  They're about that similar.  I also use "leprechauns" in the analogy for a reason -- they're f***ing imaginary!  (hint hint)  Sure, there are two guys on two different sides of the fence, but you can't ignore that one of them is flying a spacecraft made of facts while the other is swimming in a pool filled exclusively with the fetid defecations of bulls.  Giving equal time to opposing opinions is all well and good, so long as we're still dealing with opinions.  But the reality that there will be no end of the world on the 21st is not an opinion, nor is it in any way guided by opinion.

It is not biased to demand that facts not be held equal to opinion.  If anything, it is falsely balanced to try and level the playing field between the two.  Even if it was between the two opinions that the doomsday believer thinks himself to be of sound mind, while the scientist thinks him to be a hopeless loon.  While both are opinions, the scientist's opinion would still have some support on the basis of factual evidence.  Ideas are NOT equal entities just by virtue of being out there.  There is the matter of the why and the how.

It doesn't just cover silly nonsense like the 2012 garbage.  It's the same story with global warming.  Moon hoaxers, 9/11 truthers, anti-vaccine, homeopathy, whatever bullshit you can think of.  People like to pretend that false presumptions, falsified studies, and imaginary mystical forces have equal weight as actual facts and peer-reviewed literature...  because if you don't, you look biased...  towards reality.  And that's somehow bad.  But there's no sense in ever having a two-sided dialogue on these topics because there only exists one side!  It is never balanced to equivocate lies with truths, and trying to create it is the definition of the argumentum ad temporantiam fallacy.  There is simply no place anywhere in the universe where it is justifiable to give crazy people a voice in any serious discussion.  That's not to say that idiots aren't afforded freedom of speech, but that ideas of varying calibers are not all owed the same purchase.  A stupid idea belongs in the arena of stupid ideas, imaginary rubbish has no place in reality, extrapolations based on falsehoods have no place in serious discourse.

Valid debates out there do exist for instance on the topic of climate change.  But none of them are about whether it's real or not, but about what would be good measures to take to deal with it.  The only "debate", if you can call it that, about human evolution from earlier primates is the question of whether or not the so-called "missing link" can still be said to be missing anymore.  And yet here we are giving a voice to people who still think the world is going to end later this week?  We're still letting people who think arming teachers would prevent deaths a voice on TV?  We're still electing officials who think an HPV vaccine can cause mental retardation?  But noooo...  if we show these people to be factually wrong, that's not fair!  Bullshit!  It's perfectly and flawlessly fair because it holds them up to a standard of scrutiny which is demanded of anyone who actually exercises any level of intellectual honesty.

If you don't want to have your ideas held up to any standard, then fine...  you're welcome to share your opinions in the loony-bin where you belong.  Just stay the hell out of the way while the adults are talking.