Stand in the place where you live, now face north… Cherry picking ‘facts’

In a debate about homosexual marriage, a friend of mine trumpeted: ‘Christians weren’t even interested in marriage until the 13th Century’.  When I noted that there were references to marriage in Ephesians, my friend was unaware that Ephesians was a book of the New Testament.

I find it increasingly strange that people will ‘know’ all kinds of wacky, obscure ‘facts’ which support their position, but won’t know basic, entry-level facts about the subject first.  My friend is lovely and I don’t think it’s a reflexion on her.  We see it far too often in public debates.

Consider people who deny climate change and anthropogenic climate change.  Holy crap, those people must be reading all of the journals published everywhere in order to find tiny ‘factoids’ which support their position.  Don’t worry that 98% of climate scientists agree with anthropogenic climate change; we’ve found the one crank who disagrees.  Mention very basic things about climate science and their jaws slack gape.

We are building an information landscape in which people never have to be confronted by anything which does not agree with their prejudices.  We’ve even got people arguing that children shouldn’t be exposed to things which disagree with their parents’ biases.  How did we get to this point?

This morning, I read more of George Orwell’s essays.  In an unused preface to Animal Farm, Orwell complained that:

If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion.  In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face, and that fact does not seem to me to have had the discussion it deserves.  [Source: George Orwell, ‘Proposed Preface to Animal Farm’]

The newspapers, he noted, were ‘extremely centralised, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics.’

Instead of silencing ‘alternative’ viewpoints, there is money to be made in drowning them out.  It makes me cringe to think that I just referred to best available science as an ‘alternative’ viewpoint, but that’s what it’s become.  Just as in Orwell’s day, the publishers are frightened of public opinion.  Views which challenge readers will get overlooked if readers are able to shield themselves from challenging views.  If readers shield themselves, then they can’t look at the pretty adverts publishers are trying to sell.

But surely there are places for public debates in the media.  Doesn’t Andrew Bolt appear on Insiders every week or so to provide a contrasting view?

Not really.  Dissent is okay so long as it’s arena-style combat, providing a spectacle which will attract advert-reading viewers.  The point is not to challenge the reader: the point is to attract attention.  The reader has their champion in the field ready to use whatever rhetoric device is necessary to shield the viewer from being challenged.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think this is a right-wing/left-wing thing.  My Greens friends are generally more shielded from reality than my Nationals friends.  For every ‘Climate Change is Crap’ chanter on the right, there’s a Green blowhard on the left chanting similarly asinine mantras.  Post what you like to refute their arguments; they’re not going to listen (and try to justify why they’re not going to listen).

Infotainment killed news, but when did we all start thinking that it was okay to just cherry pick convenient ‘facts’?

Reluctantly crouched at the starting line… Arguing for science

There are a few debates in Australia which have become rather bland and predictable.  Regardless of what happens, the same people make the same arguments with nearly the same words.

When Telstra announced, for example, that it was going to release the 4G network, the usual voices piped up to show why the National Broadband Network would be unnecessary.  In response, the usual voices pointed to physics to show why the NBN would still be necessary.  And so on and so forth.  At the time, I remember reading an article which complained about this predictability and noting that this didn’t make one of the sides incorrect.

The ancient version of this debate, I guess, is the question of division by zero.  Despite pretty much everybody agreeing that you can’t divide by zero, there’s a history of cranks who pop up to say: ‘Nope.  Everybody’s wrong and I’ve worked out how to divide by zero’.  Whenever that happens, the usual suspects go to their usual responses to show why orthodoxy is correct.  At no point do we think that we should be dismissive of them just because they’re rehashing their proven responses.

But, when it comes to public policy involving science, people seem to put on their silly boots.  ‘Bah! You just keep saying that there’s no way for light to travel that quickly!  You don’t know that the free market can’t find a way to make faster light!  If it were profitable, they could do it!  Stop rehashing your old arguments!  Broken record, &c., &c.’

We are seeing what happens when people don’t stick to the tested and proven script.  Over on ABC’s The Drum, Graham Readfern seems to think the reason why anthropogenic climate change deniers deny anthropogenic climate change is because they have links to industry.  That’s the charitable interpretation.  The other possibility is that he thinks they’re incorrect because they have links to industry.

It is common to hear the (anti-intellectual) denial of anthropogenic climate change: ‘Climate scientists are paid to agree that anthropogenic climate change is true.’  What is the actual difference between the complaint from the red necks and the complaint from Readfern?

I think we should be less worried about boring old debating scripts and more worried about promoting reasonable and sensible discussion.  Admittedly, it would help if the media stopped giving air to trolls like Readfern and Monckton.

It’s not fair to remind me of the mess you left when you went away… but it’d be good if you could get your message straight

I really don’t know why Abbott considers himself a conservative.  When he won leadership of the Liberal Party, it was heralded as a victory to the conservatives over the liberals.  Generally, as a conservative, we attempt to preserve the social mechanisms which protect our social values.  That being the case, it seems very strange that he should affirm two statements:

1. ‘We want to make it possible […] for workers to earn more’

2. ‘[T]he laws have […] led to rising wage costs for employers.’

There is only one way for both statements to be true: Abbott wants workers to work for less per hour for more hours in order to earn more.  That sure sounds like a winning election platform.

In order to find ridiculous statements from the Coalition, it’s hard not to look past Barnaby Joyce but that would be an awful lot like laughing at the crippled kid.  Instead, let’s be a little bit more literate.  Let’s take this exchange from the Minister and Shadow Minister for Climate Change at the debate hosted by the National Press Club:

Penny Wong: ‘Every time Mr Hunt says “Direct Action”, I’m reminded that was one of the phrases at university that the Trots used to use.’

Greg Hunt: ‘I feel the same way about how you use the word “Markets”.’

Penny Wong: ‘I’m not sure they used… really… anyway.