A recent post over at Scientific American brings up an interesting question, especially to those who pursue critical thinking: what does rational actually mean? We use this word all of the time, perhaps without realizing how subjective it is; few people ever think they’re being irrational themselves, while others would be quick to disagree with their self-assessment. But unlike some subjective terms, like happy, rational is often used in a sense that requires some agreement on the definition and/or functionality, so it bears examination.
We’ll start, of course, with Merriam Webster:
1 a : having reason or understanding
b : relating to, based on, or agreeable to reason : reasonable <a rational explanation> <rational behavior>
… which ends up sending us to find out about reason, where if we skip the circular references back to rational we have:
c : a sufficient ground of explanation or of logical defense; especially : something (as a principle or law) that supports a conclusion or explains a fact <the reasons behind her client’s action>
So the bit about the logical defense is what brings us the closest to what we typically mean when we say rational. A rational argument should be logical – but, there are problems with that. In the article, the writer indicates that economists use a version of rational that requires only logical coherence, and not reason – if we were attempting to understand what this word actually means we’ve just collapsed in a circle of contradictory and illogical definitions. What has been missed so far is that rational often implies, if not outright requiring, the minimizing of adverse effect. As I mentioned in another post, one solution to food shortages is to kill off excess population; this is logical, but not rational. And we start to get an idea of the things that bear a significant influence on our decisions, and the very definition of rational.
The emotional reaction to any given situation or decision determines most of what we consider rational. As Spock repeatedly observed (sepulchrally,) we emotional humans keep doing illogical things. And yet, this all depends on how one defines logical as well (don’t get discouraged – this rabbit-hole does have an end, but the descent displays all the interesting bits.) Logical does not simply mean that the line of reasoning follows a demonstrable consequential path, A leads to B leads to C, but often that there is a particular purpose in mind. The solution to the food shortage above is unacceptable because it has the same consequence of the food shortage – death of a number of people – so it defeats the purpose, which is to avoid death as much as possible; the food shortage is just a factor which is denying this purpose. And the purpose is defined by our desires; empathy and survival as a species and such like that.
Then there’s another stumbling block: our logic is limited by our experience. In fact, it is formed solely by the patterns we have observed, the matrix of cause-and-effect that we build from birth. If we were to use the word in its usual sense, logically there is only one outcome possible to any situation regardless: that which will happen. But without omniscience, what we can ‘logically’ deduce is only what we think will happen based on past experience, which works pretty well but occasionally is wrong (leading to a new experience and new expectations.) So our logic is only as good as our data – and filtered through what we want to accomplish.
This is significant. What do we want to accomplish, and why? Remember that we, as a species, developed the vast majority of the traits we have because they contributed to our survival – they simply worked better in the game of probabilities that is genetic variation. Using the same food shortage example, we are concerned with the deaths of others because of our social tendencies, the drive that keeps us working in a cooperative tribe which produces more benefits than individualism does. So our logic is perpetually affected by what we might feel are important goals or outlooks – it cannot be the functional, mathematical process we often imagine it to be because we ourselves do not function in that manner. This means reason, outside of abstract philosophy, revolves around fulfilling an evolutionary ‘goal.’
Now the tricky bit. There are often multiple ways to fulfill these goals – some not so functional. The article actually has a comparison between heroin addiction and bowling, claiming that they both fulfill the concept of “self-interested utility maximization.” This misses a couple of points, the most glaring being that this can describe every last thing that we do, so they’ve done more for defining “life” than dealing with the concept of rational. Since virtually nobody finds drug addiction and mildly competitive past-times to be even vaguely analogous, and in fact often have very strong views on addictions, obviously something more is at work – especially when addiction frequently fits the definition of irrational. Without attempting to delve too deeply into the functions of addiction, the biggest difference might be the comparative weights of immediate gratification (the euphoria of psychoactive drugs) versus the consequences of negative physical, social, and economic impact. Any individual that rates the gratification higher in importance than the consequences will seem irrational to everyone who weighs these exactly the opposite. On the other hand, bowling produces far less of any negative consequences, so gratification is weighed against practically nothing and can win the decision easily.
So now let’s look at a topic that dances on either side of the rational/irrational line, depending entirely on who is asked: psychic predictions or clairvoyance. Those convinced of the existence of psychic abilities cite the numerous examples where it has been demonstrated, while those convinced of the non-existence cite the number of examples where it has failed, and the ability for the positive evidence to be caused by more than one source. Neither one can be called irrational/illogical/unreasoning by themselves; instead, views favoring one side or another place different values upon, for instance, anecdotal accounts or rigorous laboratory tests. Those values are not necessarily obtained logically; they can just as easily (probably more so) be determined by desire, and past experience, and even indulgence. A person whose parents had a negative view of scientists may possess a distinctive distrust of scientific evidence, solely because they respect their parents. This can contribute to the values assigned to the evidence of The Amazing Schmendrake’s clairvoyance.
[A small aside for a bit of perspective (I would have said logic but I've already thrown the definition into question, which is one of the many traps of too much philosophy): evidence is, and can only be, for one thing, which is whatever caused it. The same parlor tricks Schmendrake uses cannot be evidence for and against clairvoyance - they must be one or the other. The question is, are we interpreting the evidence correctly? This question underlies the entirety of the observation-to-conclusion process.]
Returning to the personal valuation of evidence, it is worth noting that few people ever recognize these influences, instead convinced that the whole process demonstrates rationality. While this does indicate that rational is almost certainly a misleading term, if not totally corrupt, that does not mean that a logical (ahem) argument in rebuttal cannot have an effect; people are still able to compare stronger and weaker arguments, and recognize flaws if they are presented in an effective manner. We can’t even talk about whether they’re willing to see such flaws, because they are, provided the counterargument addresses their internal valuations adequately (finding these is, naturally, the challenge.) Rational is an abstract superlative that cannot be demonstrated, like good or bad – no argument will ever be shown to be perfectly rational. But we can use benefit and detriment in place of good and bad, or simply demonstrate that one choice is better than another, and we can do the same for every place we might be inclined to use rational; that argument may be good, but this argument is better. And in doing so, we avoid trying to assign negative labels to an argument (or the person promoting it) to concentrate only on being more convincing.
* * * * *
There’s a small consideration that it probably wouldn’t hurt to bear in mind, on top of all this. For decisions of importance, how might one go about determining what goals are rational or, taking our cue from all that above, simply better? While our feelings about cooperation and empathy are evolved towards a particular benefit and underlie much of what we consider reason, we also have feelings about competition, the individualistic desire to appear better than others when it comes to sexual selection and leadership. This often translates over in many other areas, sports and career among the most prominent (sports probably wouldn’t even exist without this influence.) And while these evolved drives have their beneficial functions, they cannot be applied to every situation; sometimes they’re badly misplaced. The person who is too involved in cooperative, social interactions can place themselves at risk, especially when dealing with someone who views the interaction as competitive – I know it’s a hackneyed example, but think of trusting everything an auto dealer tells us. Alternately, competition has only specific areas where it provides benefit – elsewhere it manifests as pure ego, making us believe individual accomplishments are important. Such drives lie within much of our career actions, many corporate attitudes, and virtually everything regarding marketing. There is extremely limited benefit to the individual from pursuing ever higher income, and absolutely none to the species as a whole – it’s quite easy to demonstrate that this is remarkably detrimental instead. The corrupt concept of Social Darwinism implies that the individual demonstrates their ‘fitness’ in competition, but to what end? Evolution is a function of survival and reproduction, but it takes place in populations, not individuals – individual selection is only successful when it benefits the species as a whole. And let’s not forget that the process leads to extinction as well – what doesn’t work gets weeded out. When the trait of misplaced ego results in both overcompetitiveness and vast resource exploitation, it’s hard to see how this is a structure to survive the long run.
The message that seems to come forth is that many of our decisions, far from being rational, are colored by simple desires – and that these sometimes (perhaps quite often) can be mistaken or misplaced. The nice part about our species is how well we can recognize such influences with our fancy brains – when we put them to work being objective, rather than with efforts to justify indulgences.
For everyone who came here (or to the main site) in the past two days and got blocked out, I apologize, on behalf of my hosting provider GoDaddy who will never do so. It remains unclear what exactly happened, but suffice to say they were woefully unprepared for it, which is pretty inexcusable from a major hosting service.
Worst of all was their Tech Support, which was slow to respond and completely clueless when they did. I’ve hosted this site for 10 years now and, while not a webmaster in any usual sense, understand file systems and permissions, FTP processes, and DNS and mail servers. When I contacted them, I gave them everything they needed to know, what I’d already checked and where I was finding issues (for instance, that I was blocked out of their own clumsy FTP tools, and my external FTP program had come up with a blank directory tree instead of the 185Mb of content that should have been there.) Tech Support took nearly a day to get back to me and ask for my PIN “before they could proceed,” and when receiving this, took another several hours to say, “It’s because you have nothing in your directory.” Yes, “echo” has a different meaning in IP services, guys…
Nonetheless (because, seriously, you can’t get any less helpful than this,) they gave me their boilerplate directions to go find their directory archive to restore the tree to an earlier point, something that is necessary because their interface design is, shall we say, pathetic. The archive gave every indication that it didn’t exist as well, so I re-uploaded all of my content – thankfully I have a reasonably fast connection – to meet with the exact same issues.
Now, GoDaddy did actually have my site mirrored on their servers, as demonstrated by it being active now without changes. They just never bothered telling me what was going on through their tech support, made me waste a serious amount of time trying to correct their issue, and took their own sweet time fixing it themselves. Even their vague “we’re doing maintenance” notice, not to be found anywhere on their site but mailed directly, listed their “outage” times as starting seven hours after my site was down and ending 14 hours before my site was actually restored – that tells me that this was not maintenance and that they had no control over whatever happened.
So if/when it happens again, be patient – I’m working on my end to correct the issue.
We’ll start with the artsy-fartsy one.
This came from a patch of wild daisies down near the river, many of which served as eyries for crab spiders (I think I’m mixing metaphors without goggles again) that were making a serious dent on the hymenoptera population in the area – every one I found either had a meal in chelicerae, or soon obtained one. They tended to be shy and sidled from the center of the bloom to the edges and underneath as I approached, meaning some of my shots were taken from flat on the ground aiming against the sky as the spiders tried to hide. But in the middle of it all, I just nabbed a quick perspective from a sitting position.
Back home, I found another crab spider occupying the salvia plant I’ve had for a while now, which has undergone two transplantings – the first almost killed it, but it recovered nicely with the second and is now blooming madly.
This guy was hiding not so much from me, but from the collection of small red ants that had taken over the stalk for a short while – don’t ask me what defines the difference between food sources and deadly threats to spiders, because I don’t know, but the spider certainly wasn’t viewing the ants as an easy meal. Possibly it was idea that capturing one would have triggered a defensive odor that brought others swarming to attack.
I’ve mentioned that some images are vastly improved by choosing the right angle to shoot from, and this illustrates one example. On the same bushes housing the mantids have been a few assassin bugs, and typically what you might see in examining the bush would be something like this:
But a little effort in maneuvering and positioning can change the image dramatically, and even produce a faux look of despair from the captured housefly:
There’s so much at work here: the raindrop that produced a reflection from the flash, making the compound eyes appear to have a frantic wde-eyed look; the open-mouthed illusion; the fact that we never see flies not perched on their hexapod of legs; and even the peculiar angle of the head. All of it produces something we expect to see from people, not from insects, and makes us relate a bit more to what is strictly an imaginary emotion. It helps illustrate how we can be manipulated by inherent social reactions.
And a tighter crop of the same image, because I’m pleased with the detail captured:
If you see a goatee and perhaps even a tongue, shame on you – you’re not detaching yourself in a professional manner. But now you can’t unsee it, can you? ;-)
I think most people know that there are certain kinds of fires that you don’t throw water on to extinguish, primarily grease, oil, gasoline, and electrical. In such cases, water is simply going to make matters much worse, either by splashing and floating the burning substances to disperse in a wider range, or by producing greater damage to equipment and creating the potential for electrocution. For this knowledge, we can thank numerous organized campaigns that drilled the information into our heads, usually at a young age, but what this highlights is that some things that we might do in the belief that they will improve a situation end up doing more harm than taking no action at all. This really cannot be emphasized enough; intentions must be married to actions that produce a positive result.
While this might seem obvious, that’s what becomes so disturbing about so many things we come across. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA,) for example, has a fairly inarguable goal: to prevent animals from being treated poorly. Unfortunately, this goal is used as supposed justification for activities running from pretentious and condescending ads to pointless vandalism; the end result is a widespread public view that animal activism belongs to the fringe elements. Having worked at a humane society, I got to see this firsthand; while we never engaged in any kind of sensationalist media ploys or extremism, we still received an attitude of “guilt by association” from far too many people, and were at times considered to be radicals.
Feminism, as I’ve touched on briefly before, is another example. Unable (or unwilling) to differentiate between legitimate sexual inequalities and fantastic patriarchal conspiracies, feminism generates a “women with emotional issues” dismissal among a significant percentage of our population – which, all too often, is then considered by feminists as proof they were correct about the conspiracies; the polarization within the topic probably exceeds even that of politics, since politicians are not one-tenth as likely to be called potential rapists routinely.
And, the list goes on: the anti-vaccination movement, abstinence-only education, the anti-GMO crowd, Greenpeace… superficially, all displaying noble goals that could be said to benefit the entire human race. The part that gets missed far too often, however, is that there is a difference between the emotional and practical aspect – the intention and the execution. Despite stupid proverbs about paving, good intentions are something we really could encourage more in any society (as opposed to the idea that we’re all in competition with one another,) but what makes any difference at all isn’t the intentions within our heads; it’s the ways they translate to real-world differences. The question that should be asked before any kind of social activism (and most especially any action linked therewith) is, “How is this going to improve things?”
We’ve all seen videos of Greenpeace boats harassing whaling ships or trying to block waste dumping in the ocean. And I think it’s safe to say that we’ve never seen any of those targeted ships give up and go home. The only thing that’s going to stop industrially-sourced damage is legislation – the threat of legal consequences that hits someone much harder in the pocket than doing business in an environmentally conscious manner. Someone can argue that Greenpeace’s actions are “raising awareness,” but such a statement should be supportable by solid facts, not just the belief that it could work. And at the same time, the “awareness” that is raised should be predominantly positive as well – there really is such a thing as bad publicity.
With many of these subjects, the underlying motivation is emotional: compassion (over the plight of children or animals,) frustration (over the ills provoked by a capitalist outlook,) and even, perhaps mostly, ego (I am the one who’s going to make a difference!) Emotions are good, in that they motivate us towards choices and actions, but they are misleading in many ways too – it’s possible to appease an emotional desire without in any way improving something, meaning all that the emotion produced was self-indulgence, a placebo if you will. Without asserting the rational processes in ourselves to examine consequences and results, we may start to believe that we did something useful when our actions were simply a “knee-jerk” response – this is what underlies drug addiction and standing on streetcorners with signs bearing biblical quotes.
I’ve written about genetically modified organisms before (otherwise known as “GMO”) and this is an extension of the “chemicals are bad” meme that started with Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring and the birth of the environmental movement. It soon became the demonization of “processed food” and the belief that all corporations were completely dismissive of negative consequences. Most of this, however, is the result of people who have reduced their thinking processes (if it can even be called that) down to pre-school levels of “good” and “bad.” Processing food does not destroy all nutritional value, and chemicals are not all detrimental to our health. My statement above may be taken to mean that I think the environmental movement was a bad idea, but that’s just an ironic demonstration of how the point is entirely missed: no such all-encompassing term such as environmentalism can be branded with a binary “good/bad” label, and the functionality of environmentalism comes from careful consideration of the consequences of any action. Arguments go on to this day regarding the effects of DDT – it’s incredibly damaging to the environment; no no, it could have eradicated malaria if we hadn’t banned it! Looking at the facts, DDT is less of an environmental hazard than mercury, but it does remain in soil and water for long periods of time, and does produce serious negative effects. The reasoned approach is to examine the negative and positive effects (which every practice has) and know how to compare them to determine an acceptable outcome. Instead, what we often see are people seizing onto whatever factoid they can use to support their existing standpoint and wielding that as a bludgeon – coerced by their emotions away from the most functional aspect of our species, the ability to think rationally. Or, we see the unwarranted extrapolation of any given fact towards the extremes, resulting in people believing that chopping up fruit or heating vegetables turns them into worthless dust (which, even if it did, does not translate into being bad for health either.)
There is another hazard that goes along with this kind of thinking: someone else will recognize the lack of critical distinction and exploit it. The vast majority of the ‘health food’ movement revolves around shameless manipulation of the facts, when facts are even involved; the movement is rife with things that have no basis in reality. Those that believe that “organic” means “healthy” are suckered into paying premium prices for foods with a meaningless label: “organic” has no regulated definition in regards to food labeling, at least in the US (I cannot vouch for other countries.) Meanwhile, poison ivy also fits in with just about everyone’s definition of “organic,” which shows the problem with resorting to simplified thinking. A pesticide that washes off and isn’t retained in soil has not harmed anyone’s vegetables in any way, and some pesticides don’t even have a negative effect on humans anyway. Their use results in higher crop yields, which means lower prices and more efficient use of land and resources. Alternately, some pesticides really can do a lot of damage – the word “pesticide” does not tell us anything other than “intended to reduce insect damage.”
But then there are the times when simplified thinking completely fucks things up. The catholic proscriptions against condoms, and the absolutely brain-dead attitudes towards sexually-transmitted diseases, results in thousands of unnecessary deaths every year – solely from the pursuit of piety, perhaps the most self-centered activity we can get up to as a species. Not only does this ignore every last vestige of evidence, research, and logical thought, it relies on a self-proclaimed authority produced entirely from an arbitrary interpretation of scripture. Condoms (and STDs, and abortions, and myriad other concepts) were completely unknown when scripture was written and there are no references, even obliquely, to their existence – religious pronouncements on such topics come solely from creative interpretation. While a fool might declare their utter confidence in a subjective line of supposition, it takes a special form of hubris to declare such authority from it that one is promoting lethal consequences – especially when also claiming that all life is sacred from the other corner of the same frothing mouth. What’s at work here is strictly emotional, a fixation on some idea that produces strong feelings (such as distaste over pre-marital sex,) that motivates a specious line of rationales in support, rather than any consideration at all that the original idea might be ill-conceived.
There’s a curious progression that can often be found buried within any individual’s activism, or just their strong attitudes – something I touched on in an earlier post. A kernel of trustworthy information forms an initial reaction – say, several corporations have been found dumping hazardous chemicals into public access water – but then the snowball heads downhill. Any and all similar occurrences reinforce the idea that this is widespread or common, without the comparison to how many corporations do not engage in dumping, or the realization that a connection between “corporation” and “toxic waste” is a complete failure of logic, as much so as a connection between “human” and “criminal.” On occasion, supporting “facts” may be selected only on the basis of how much they fit the concept, with no examination of how strong they are or if they even exist. Tied in with this might be frustration that others do not find the topic as important; alternately, that the individual can save many others through their efforts – a hero, if you will. Compounding it might even be an inherent distrust over government bodies, meaning any and all contra-indicators could possibly be deliberate misinformation to allay the public’s reasonable concerns. No single part is particularly farfetched – there have been numerous cases of corporate-level social disregard, and even campaign contributors that received special dispensation from favored politicians.
What’s missed is that the goal is not to concoct the plot of a novel, but to establish real facts beyond a reasonable doubt – not plausibility, but a high degree of probability. And to determine this, anyone must be capable of viewing the details objectively, and with the realization that their emotional commitment can affect their judgment. The problem is, their emotional commitment is the very part that provokes them away from the rational consideration of all the factors – it is more satisfying to prove oneself right (and, quite possibly, heroic) than to find many of the factors to be unlikely or just plain wrong. This immediate emotional indulgence, and often the justifications of an attitude by dismissing the negative evidence, can easily produce actions that actively, irrevocably harm others far more than the imagined fears of the topic of activism ever could. It is not enough to start a journey in the right direction: it must maintain that direction throughout.
Mark Lynas illustrates this at length, in his quest of contrition over his GMO activism. I have a great deal of respect for his ability and desire to correct his mistake, and I sympathize with the guilt he undoubtedly feels. But there’s another lesson in there as well: finding the flaws in his attitude sooner might have prevented a lot of emotional turmoil, and might even have lessened the impact that anti-GMO activism had over the past decade. It’s much easier to prevent a wrong than correct it. To do this, we need to be ready and willing to find where we go wrong – ignoring errors does not make them cease to exist.
Some of our thinking shortcuts can contribute to these errors significantly. For instance, few major decisions present distinctive ‘sides’ or boundaries – they’re far more likely to be shades of grey that require a lot of consideration, but we prefer things to be polarized and often try to make them more so. We also allow ourselves to be influenced by a majority, or believe that someone we like is more trustworthy; celebrities are used as spokespeople because it makes so much sense that a tennis player knows a lot about cameras, right? Large groups of people (that have self-selected by finding only those who agree) cannot be wrong? We can even fall for the idea that if someone came to the same conclusion that we have, their reasoning must be correct. There is no rule that can be applied here, but if we have strong feelings about something, this is a great warning sign that we might be about to mislead ourselves.
There is a semi-common attitude that critical-thinking is almost antisocial, basically displaying distrust in everything (and everyone.) Yet, the alternative can and does result in feeling perfectly accepted in social circles while producing horrific consequences for many others. There’s nothing wrong with protecting animals, with promoting healthy eating, even with discouraging casual promiscuity. But the results are what matters, not the personal feelings of importance.
It’s been a little longer between posts than intended, but this only means that truly major, insightful, earth-shaking stuff is coming soon (yeah, yeah, I know; save the sarcasm.) I’ve had a couple of projects going, and have been commenting in other locations, such as Sean Carroll’s Preposterous Universe blog, or maybe it’s S=k. log W, or simply Sean Carroll – I honestly don’t know what he calls it. Anyway, I’ve been having fun with those who have been trying to defend philosophy, and if one thing’s been demonstrated quite clearly, it’s that believing in the power of philosophy doesn’t contribute a damn thing to maturity. I have been nice (well, to a degree anyway) and not resorted to various doth protest too much arguments, which really don’t address the points anyway. And as hard as it may be to believe, I’ve actually been very kind to the evangelist in the comments.
At the same time, Jerry Coyne was trying to help me get through whatever enigma is preventing me from commenting over at Why Evolution Is True, and in thanks I sent him a pic, which he decided to feature. This appears to have opened up his inbox to various other photographic contributions – or perhaps he always gets stuff like that, and because he’s still recovering from his illness he’s simply putting up more effortless content.
Since I try to space out the photographic and critical-thinking and total nonsense posts, I’ve avoided posting more pics, even though I’ve done more shooting in the past few weeks than I did throughout the winter. So while I’m going to throw up another image now, I’m at least going to avoid the arthropods in favor of something cute. Not fluffy, but cute. Hey, at least I’m not featuring photos of the cats all the time…
This eastern fence lizard (Sceloporus undulatus, more or less – herpetologists are still pinning down subspecies, and if they don’t know I’m sure as hell not going to be too specific) was found on a tree while I was trying to collect tardigrade specimens – she was counting on both camouflage and a lack of motion to escape my attention, but she might have fared better had she put her head down and not been sticking out into midair. I automatically assumed the “horn” was just a loose scale, since fence lizards do not have such body features, but it doesn’t really look like a minor injury on close examination – perhaps I just had a new mutation in my hands, and let it go merrily on its way (fence lizards being one of the best species to communicate “merrily,” of course.) If you look close, you’ll notice lots of dewdrops all over the head, proof that my model was foraging recently I think, and I like both the visible eardrum and the delicate color of the eyelids at this range.
Tardigrades are far too cool to ignore, but since they run less than a millimeter in length, getting useful images without a photo-microscope could be more of a challenge than I can meet (there, now I’ve covered my ass over any failures.) Still, it’s one of the projects I have going, and I’d be pleased with at least some images in my stock. Watch this space to see if anything actually pans out, and as a bonus, I’ll soon put up my despairing fly pic, which certainly should become an internet meme if you ask me…
Today is a very special day in the US: The National Day of Prayer. That means today is the day that people are encouraged to feel good about doing nothing at all, like those bumper stickers that proclaim one’s child is special regardless of accomplishment. That’s good, I suppose, if you’re a child with esteem issues, but probably not a positive reflection on the populace of our country at large.
I remember seeing a handmade sign, “Pray for our troops,” in the back window of a vehicle in town once (why, yes, it was a pickup truck, funny you should ask,) and mentally appending, “It’s the least you can do.” Because, let’s be honest (that’s important to religious folk, right?): there’s nothing that supports the idea of prayer working in any way, and no reason to believe it has a greater effect than, say, actually doing anything at all physically. It’s not hard to find someone who will mangle the concept of probability by claiming that every actual outcome that might have been prayed for is proof of its effectiveness, and we also have the old trope that the Master Plan™ means some prayers cannot be answered because it’s better that they aren’t. Mere assertions in a vacuum of evidence? You bet – that’s what most of theology is made of.
Others may argue that such a ridiculous action like encouraging prayer doesn’t hurt anything, but as indicated above, this is only in the face of doing nothing else. Donating just 10 cents to any cause at all is an inarguably positive effect for the cause – no reason to resort to vapid machinations to support it. Would it have been difficult, or require extensive consideration, to create a National Day of Activism or something, that actually resulted in a demonstrably positive effect? Remember that Earth Hour is something that our country couldn’t be bothered with, despite the obvious benefits, not just of reduced power usage, but awareness and encouragement of behavior. But we have a National Day of Prayer.
The only result of this, in all seriousness, is appealing to the self-absorbed behavior of the religious. Prayer is all about trying to influence a supreme being, raising the prayor above others in their ability to change events; it’s ego. Nothing more. Why is there the slightest need to encourage that? Most especially, why imply that this is some kind of accomplishment? In how many cases is it simply the alleviation of guilt over doing nothing to help anyone else at all? There are even times when it’s just a form of arrogance. Take it from an atheist; “I’ll pray for you,” is never intended as something altruistic, just as an expression of superiority.
I wonder how few have considered that merely mentioning “prayer” does not in any way specify what it might be for. Certain fundamentalist retards routinely encourage praying for the deaths of certain world leaders or influential people, while a significant number of prayers are appeals for selfish benefit, like passing exams or making some mistake go away, when they’re not for ponies. And of course, the argument for a Master Plan™ makes all prayers a complete waste of time – unless the prayor somehow believes that their appeal is the one that will alter the Plan.
Now, the part that’s even worse. A National Day of Prayer isn’t intended to benefit the country in any way, nor even raise people’s awareness of… well, anything at all. It’s there solely because too many religious folk are too stupid to realize they’re being played. The word is pandering. “Lookitme, Mr. Politician who can influence your vote by reinforcing your self-proclaimed goodness! I’ll make you feel better about yourself by encouraging your meaningless mental mumbling, and you’ll reciprocate by supporting me more!” Religious folk merely have to be told that their fleece is pretty, and they’ll fall right in line.
Lots of people would be defensive over all this, asserting that they’re not taken in by it or encouraging this in any way. Yet, it still exists, so someone (a lot of someones) are buying it. And as long as something as pointless and self-indulgent as prayer remains, implying by its existence that it has some importance, then we’ll keep seeing blatant manipulations. The only way out of the trap is with the ability to see the fallacies and emotional appeals that have replaced reason.
Here’s a wild and crazy thought: Instead of spending any time at all mumbling pleas to the sky, or even ignoring the ‘event’ in denial of its influence, do something positive. Anything. But before you do, take a few seconds and ponder what “positive” actually means.
Many a young, impetuous acolyte, on first learning the lore of the Thinking Fallacies, seeks to infuse their knowledge throughout both their lives and those around them, but lo! such a path is fraught with danger, because the Fallacies are not easily tamed. Within inexperienced hands, they can be poor weapons, even dangerous to the wielder.
Ahem. ‘Scuse me. Anyway, this post began as a comment on the misunderstanding of just one thinking fallacy, but I soon realized that there were more that could be addressed. Thinking fallacies, or debating fallacies or logical fallacies, are common mistakes made in discussions or criticisms that fail to effectively support a position; they’re generally good things to know about. Yet, some are misunderstood or used incorrectly, and in one case there’s even a poster that inaccurately summarizes some of them. So, here’s a quick (but by no means complete) rundown of some of the most common abuses of them.
Ad hominem – An ad hominem attack doesn’t actually refer to being insulting. It only refers to a judgment on character being the sole reason to disregard someone’s argument. Feel free to be insulting, if you think it expresses your level of disagreement or contempt (and I’m very much behind it being warranted in too many cases,) but always ensure that your rational argument remains clear.
Occam’s Razor – This is frequently used as if it’s a law of probability, saying that the simplest explanation is always correct. Instead, what it means is that the more complicated some explanation or theory becomes, the more support is necessary, and chances are we’d see evidence of this support. But overall, it remains a weak argument and shouldn’t be used often.
Appeal from Authority and Appeal from Popularity (or, if you want to use the Latin versions and sound like a pompous jackass, Argumentum ad verecundiam and Argumentum ad populum) – The first means if an expert said it, it must be true, and the second paraphrases as, “this many people can’t be wrong.” But like ad hominem, these are fallacious only if they’re the sole argument. A consensus among people who work in the field of the discussion topic, however, stands a very good chance of being useful information, and it’s been demonstrated that a consensus of popular opinion can have a surprising degree of accuracy. The biggest problem with the latter is, popular opinion can be radically wrong as well, especially when influenced by culture, and the only way to tell is to know the accuracy ahead of time, making the appeal from popularity completely pointless.
Begging the Question and Special Pleading – I have seen so many different definitions of what these entail that it’s better off just enumerating what you see wrong rather than trying to sound smart by using either of these terms. To me (and the only way I ever use this,) “begs the question” refers to a question dictated by logical consequence, which is an obscure way of putting it, so let me illustrate. When someone says something like, “Most cases go unreported,” the question that is begged is, “How could you know this?”
Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc and Middle Ground – The first means, “if B follows A then A caused B,” and the second refers to the best answer being in the middle of two extremes, a compromise. Like the phrases, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” and, “correlation is not causation,” there is a word missing in all of them: “necessarily.” In truth, A may very well lead to B, the middle ground might be the best solution, and absence of evidence is the only possible thing that can be evidence of absence. Again, these are fallacies only if they’re the sole argument, a misuse or misunderstanding of logic.
Tu Quoque – Actually, I haven’t seen this used, so it’s a minor thing, but it has misunderstanding written all through it. Rough translation from Latin means, “You, also,” which helped a lot, didn’t it? Yeah, we need to stop using the damn phrases when they’re completely meaningless to everyone. What it is intended to express is hypocrisy, inconsistency, or contradiction from the same source; if someone argues in favor of capital punishment, but also against abortion because “all life is sacred,” there’s an obvious consistency problem. The fallacy isn’t the inconsistency, however; it’s using this inconsistency to render their argument (either part of it) wrong. Logically, both arguments should rely on the reasoning behind them – but that’s where anyone’s efforts should be spent anyway, for everyone embracing critical thinking. Wrong is a subjective term; just illustrate the flaws. Yet the inconsistency is a very relevant thing to highlight, because it reveals that the arguments have not all originated through rational consideration. In short, inconsistency highlights a flawed debate, but selecting the flawed side by how it compares to the other is tu quoque. Can’t say I’ve ever seen this happen anyway.
Fallacy Fallacy – If someone uses a fallacious argument to support their viewpoint, claiming that this makes their viewpoint wrong or flawed is the fallacy – they could simply be terrible debaters while their point remains valid. This means that what I’m about to point out is the Fallacy Fallacy Fallacy, because in the vast percentage of cases, anyone familiar with fallacies in the first place is not trying to establish right or wrong; these terms are, in fact, wildly misleading because they’re value judgments, not facts. Most discussions revolve around whether a particular standpoint is rationally supportable (or logically consistent.) Thus, anyone who uses a fallacy in support of their standpoint fails, leaving their standpoint unsupported. There may be other arguments that would support it, but this begins to delve into the “Not Negative” fallacy – the goal is to establish the support, not merely entertain the possibility. Which leads us to…
Right/Wrong, Win/Lose Fallacy – This is missed far too frequently, even when defining fallacious arguments, but discussion should never be about right or wrong, and most especially not a personal competition to see who wins or loses. Even science itself does not deliver proof, but merely the weight of the evidence and the probability of some state of affairs – in many cases, this weight or probability is so high that it’s close enough to “proof” for any practical application, yet we remain open to evidence that may disprove it later. In discussions, however, the goal should always be to examine the arguments, their supporting structure, and the reasoning behind them to see what makes more sense, or provides a greater understanding. The goal is not to see who scores the most points, but to have everyone agree to be on the same side. For all of the guides that can be found on logical fallacies and diagramming arguments, this little gem receives almost no attention at all, yet it serves as an excellent map for behavior.
There are perhaps more, and truth be told the misuses of these fallacies isn’t exactly an epidemic – this is more to illustrate that critical thinking is not partisan or biased, if there could be claimed to be a ‘proper’ application anyway. Fair’s fair, and we can at least try not to hypocrites.
One of those things I had to share. Out early the other morning after an overnight rain, I was examining the azalea bush for interesting stuff, mostly looking for a way to use the rising sun and the raindrops creatively. One of the little mantises was too deep among the leaves to catch the sun, but as I watched, it engaged in a behavior I’ve never seen: it was drinking rain directly off the leaf. Regretfully, there wasn’t a good way to get proper lighting onto the action, so there’s only this chiaroscuro version which doesn’t even show the water adequately. Thus, a better illustration joins my list of images to capture someday.
While doing this I made another discovery, harkening back to years past (in this case, just barely): one of the green lynx spider hatchlings (Peucetia viridans) that I followed in the fall has taken up residence on the same bush, now displaying the adult coloration but still minuscule. You might be able to determine scale by comparing the leaves in the two shots…
… or simply from this image of a typically-sized leaf on my fingertips. They look much better when not seen quite so close, don’t they?
I have a feeling the spider’s days are short, given the number and predatory skills of the mantises on the same bush, and it may already be gone as I type this. But lynx spiders are none too clumsy either, so we’ll just have to see if it reappears. Not long after I got the initial image above, a mantis was found in almost the exact same area (it seems odd to talk about “areas” of a bush only a meter across, but that’s macro perspective for you.) I was wondering if the spider had already lost a match, but later the same day found it a short while away, consuming a leafhopper, so I’m not going to speculate too much.
Now, hard as it may be to believe (to the imaginary people who follow this blog regularly,) I actually got out this weekend and obtained some non-creepy images – in fact, quite pleasant ones. I know, right? The Girlfriend’s Younger Sprog is about to graduate from college, soon to enter med school, and we were out doing graduation portraits on campus. I would love to thrash the scoffers by displaying some of these images, but I’m fairly certain I would be dismembered by the almost-graduate therein, and since I’m three times her mass, this provides an idea of how poorly such an action would be received. We’ve all heard the stories of the mother who dropped a car onto a photographer that published photos of her without permission…
Now, even more unbelievable: the areas we chose to do the portraits within were absolutely crawling with a huge variety of insects, including at least one species I’d never seen before. And I didn’t take a single frame of them. I did have to go for a lie-down afterward, though…
This probably should have been one of the earliest composition posts that I tackled, except that I think I always assumed it to be rather obvious. As I’ve examined numerous photos, including some of my own, I realize that its importance may need to be emphasized more, so let’s highlight point of focus.
This doesn’t simply mean choosing what the camera locks its autofocus onto. What I mean instead is a point within the image that immediately draws the viewer’s attention, that serves as the primary subject, or at the very least, an anchor for the remainder of the frame. The most prominent way that this is thwarted is with landscapes, where an entire scene is presented for the viewer without anything that displays prominence. Sometimes this works, but more often such a scene becomes much stronger with a single distinction therein, something that breaks the pattern, stands out, or attracts attention – a lone tree, a stream twisting through the snowfield, a moose visible through the mist.
Another situation that benefits is where the scene is complicated, crowded, or repetitive; a crowded dance floor, dense cityscape, or even a field of grain. Here, something that breaks the pattern or departs from the complication, in size, contrast, or sharpness of focus, can give the viewer something reliable to settle on while the confusion or pattern still conveys the conditions. People generally expect photos to present an immediate impression, a particular reason why they should be looking; the more striking, the better their reaction. If they’re unsure what they should be focusing on, the image will lack impact. This is not to say that an image cannot have a hidden surprise, and these can work very well. But it should always be distinguishable from what may appear to be simply a bad photo, and even the hidden subject should still possess some qualities of a focus point.
While the flowers are noticeably more distinct, the focus pulls our attention to the lamppost
Some methods are more obvious: something noticeably taller in the frame, or differently colored, higher in contrast, or framed by the other elements (including just empty space.) Very useful is the ability to use a contrasting background to enhance the subject, remembering that photographs tend to flatten out and cause a lack of depth. Imagine that your image is made up of paper cutouts for every element – the main subject, the surrounding details, the background. If the subject and the background are too similar in appearance, it can become difficult to differentiate them, something that often doesn’t occur to us because our inherent depth perception makes the difference obvious when we view the scene before taking the photo. Sometimes, only a slight change in position is necessary to put our subject against a background that presents some contrast, making a frame or halo that immediately demands attention. Portrait photographers often use a small light directly behind the model that illuminates the edges of their hair from behind, creating a subtle glowing aura that makes the model stand out even more distinctly.
Another method is selective focus, especially useful for patterns. By picking just one element to focus upon and using a short depth-of-field (small f-number/large aperture,) the chosen element is sharp while everything else becomes softer, automatically drawing the eye towards the sharpest item in the image. This is most effective if the chosen subject is the only one that falls into that particular focus distance, so nothing else is as sharp.
It should be noted that it isn’t necessary that the chosen subject has a particular reason to be selected – just one flower out of an entire field works fine. The key is to give the viewer the unambiguous focal point; it doesn’t have to be different in any way. That said, it should be strong – don’t pick a bloom that is half-wilted, or a person with a peculiar expression (unless you want to convey discordance.)
Some factors works better than others, too. We respond very strongly to faces, and more so to eye contact. Smiles and laughter get our attention. An evolutionary trait with a strong effect is attentiveness, even if it’s not towards the camera. Someone that seems to be concentrating on something strongly causes us to become alert too, looking for the same potential danger. Even inanimate objects can provide a “face;” the bloom that gives us the most direct view is more attractive. The tallest mountain peak is a great anchor. The wave that is just beginning to curl stands apart from the rest. Some of these cannot seriously be called a subject, but they serve as a focal point anyway.
Where they fall in the frame is often important. While the Rule of Thirds is a bit suspect, it’s used often enough that viewers expect to see subjects there – these are good places to have the subtle focal points. Breaks in patterns, or a solitary subject where isolation is a key element, can be set much further away from the thirds points, of course using the remaining space to enhance that isolation. The center of the frame is often a bad place to put the focal point, because it is too direct – while it’s common for illustration (which means it’s seen fairly often here on the blog,) artistically it’s weak.
When other elements contribute to the focal point, this can become very dynamic. Lines (or a boardwalk) that lead across the frame, the attention of people or animals within the image, the dip in the treeline or the gap in the background coloration – these kind of things can be used to draw the viewer directly to the point of focus, including an exceptionally subtle one (more subtle than a lighthouse, even.) In some cases these elements create the point of focus, as we’re compelled to follow their guidance. They can also detract from a chosen point, as well; the wedding guest that is not watching the happy couple during the first dance weakens the effect, making us wonder what else is attracting their attention. A path that curves away from the sun, especially when it was leading toward it at first, gives a subconscious impression of rejection.
Light can also be used to produce a focal point – of course, this is used extensively by portrait photographers and especially film directors. While it can often be very hard to obtain just the light you might want in a natural setting, those lucky accidents can also be assisted by careful planning – the sun moves across the sky faster than you might think, meaning a choice sunbeam may be along with a little patience. This is especially true with light coming through leaves, but be warned, it disappears just as rapidly. Sunrise and sunset present the opportunity to plan these much better, since it’s easier to envision how the light will come through a break in the trees, rocks, or buildings, and easier to create an artificial break as well.
It’s not absolutely necessary to have a focal point in every image, and in many cases such a point will be obvious and require no real thinking. But it can help a lot to ask yourself, “What do I want people to pay attention to?” before selecting the vantage or framing, which may make the difference between a mediocre shot and a strong one.