The exception proves to rule

This is another post inspired by Demon Haunted World, and if I find out that you haven’t read this book yet, I’m going to come to your house and smack you in the back of the head with a rolled up e-magazine…

Yet despite my promotion of this book, I’m going to highlight something that I find misleading within it. Sagan lists a quote from Ethan Allen, who said:

Those who invalidate reason ought seriously to consider whether they argue against reason with or without reason; if with reason, then they establish the principle that they are laboring to dethrone: but if they argue without reason (which, in order to be consistent with themselves they must do), then they are out of reach of rational conviction, nor do they deserve a rational argument.

This is something that I suspect everyone runs into from time to time, but of course it is especially known among skeptics. Or at least, we think we run into it; in truth, there’s often something else entirely at work, and it bears recognition because it seriously affects our approach.

When it comes right down to it, very few people argue against reason itself, at least as a principle, which is how Allen was referring to it. Virtually no one actually finds reason or rationality to be a bad thing, nor do they ever consider themselves to display irrational behavior at any time – the same may be said for ‘evil’. The conflict invariably comes in because different people have different standards of reason and rationality, and to argue that someone is being irrational will almost certainly be ineffective – it becomes nothing but an ad hominem attack and is quickly dismissed.

Let’s take, for example, those that believe many UFO reports are indications of visiting alien life forms. They did not pick this subject to champion at random, or because it seemed silly; they are convinced because of such factors as the large number of reports, the detailed descriptions, and even the likelihood of life having arisen on other planets, among perhaps many others. These are not irrational reasons in the slightest, and nothing to be dismissive of, if we’re being honest with ourselves. Using myself as an example, I fail to be convinced of alien visitations because of factors that counter those, such as the huge market for visitation stories, the complete lack of corroboration, the ability for people to drastically misjudge what they see, and the wanton disregard for physical laws. I might be considered irrational for placing more weight on these, but this is only because the standards of reasonable evidence are different from person to person.

For those who want to advocate critical thinking, this is important to recognize. We can’t arbitrarily decide who is rational and who isn’t, and the criteria should not include such concepts in the slightest. Instead, we have to make a case for the alternatives, and be able to demonstrate that such alternatives carry greater weight, or at the very least, throw some doubt into the mix. Eyewitness testimony is often considered highly reliable in regards to witnessing UFO activity, but not when it comes to fishing stories – why the double-standard? Our goal is to raise such questions and compare the evidence for popular or favored phenomena against the evidence for mundane explanations. It’s a little like a court case: if reasonable doubt exists, no firm conclusion can or should be reached, but reasonable doubt is not self-evident – it must be enumerated, patiently and without antagonism.

This is, most likely, what Phil Plait was trying to communicate with his infamous Don’t Be A Dick speech (it was the follow-through that sucked.) Active skeptics sometimes take for granted the mental process of comparing exceptions and alternative explanations, but too few people have even been exposed to such things, much less have adopted them as routine. While most disciplines of science require the examination, and ruling out, of alternative explanations before some new discovery can be considered valid, such rigor isn’t common in humanity overall. People tend to rely more on personal accounts and their instincts for what ‘feels right.’

One of the most difficult of factors to deal with in such claims is the emotional one. For whatever reason, any individual may find the idea of extraterrestrial life to be a fascinating concept, and it is this fascination which can, very often, affect just how much weight is given to any particular piece of evidence. The same might be said for government conspiracies, alternative medicine, religion, and so on. Emotionally favored ideas mean that once some factor in support of this favor is found, the individual generally stops looking, and certainly doesn’t consider if counter-evidence exists. We actually do this constantly throughout our lives – think of your favorite food. Is it rational to like it? Does it really do something good for you, or fulfill needs better than alternatives – or do you just like it for the taste? Is that really a good reason? Or, for that matter, a bad reason? That’s an example of emotional versus rational commitment. Countering this is sometimes pretty hard, and we should never expect it to happen quickly.

What we can do, however, is to offer the alternatives, the explanations, and the exceptions, to provide at the least the myriad reasons why some particular kind of evidence can be called into question. We can demonstrate what it is that makes us pause and question some conclusion, especially if we can provide counter examples (like the fishing story above.) Most especially, we need to detach from the idea of either emotional commitment, or the relative comparisons of intellect, if we want to have any affect at all. We shouldn’t look down in the slightest on those that don’t see things as we do, but only make the effort to explain why we see it differently.

I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t easy, and that I’m guilty of not heeding my own advice on numerous occasions. We tend to see things as personal conflicts, especially when faced with arrogant or dismissive attitudes towards ourselves, but that’s a trap, a way of driving us away from our goals. We need to view our activities, despite provocation, as efforts to improve the standards, to critically examine the evidence, to catch the flaws before someone else does. Most especially, we need to demonstrate that questioning doesn’t stop at a preferred answer, and/or that preferred answers don’t actually exist – facts are facts regardless of our preference for them.

That raises another issue, again seen far too often, which is the arbitrary interpretation of facts. What someone sees or hears is generally simple stimuli of sensory organs, interpreted by the brain into an idea of something known and, usually, expected. They may then communicate their interpretations, and not the stimuli itself, when describing the event. But like the meanings behind literature, interpretations do not necessarily indicate accuracy, and may reflect either preconceptions of the interpreter or even suggestions from others. UFO enthusiasts absolutely hate birds, military flares, and the planet Venus, because they keep blocking witness’ views of alien spacecraft. But like it or not, if someone was looking at a clear sky in that specific direction and could not place the spaceship in relation to the highly-visible planet nearby, they probably didn’t see a spaceship. As for movement, the moon really rips across the sky on the nights that a stiff wind is blowing high thin clouds…

The point is, in order for something to be a compelling explanation, there must be no exceptions, no possibility of mistake, no way of misinterpreting it. And the skeptic’s job is to present this concept in a useful manner. There will naturally be resistance, so our goal should never be to win, but only to raise that niggling little question and let it grow on its own. Doubt is a very hardy weed, and once started, requires some very firm evidence to kill off.

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