Thursday, March 1, 2007

A few clarifications

Some excellent points were made about some recents posts of mine, so I'd like to make a few clarifications.

First of all, I tend to post only when I'm worked up in a frenzy of blog-fueled rage. Not at all an excuse for any half-baked arguments, more a setting of context.

With regard to my comments on Al Gore's alleged electrical hypocrisy, I don't have an inherent problem with people making information available and letting the public draw their own conclusions, ever. And I have to conced that it's probably impossible for anyone to present information without some sort of bias--if you look hard enough, you can find traces of spin anywhere. I do have a problem with people making information under the guise of an official-sounding organization that may or may not exist--for me, it's an honesty thing. People are free to draw their own conclusions--I happen to fail to see the relevance in this particular instance, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be said.

That wasn't the intended point of my post, though. The proper treatment for dishonest/deceptive/hateful/whatever speech is more speech. That generally isn't what happens in these situations. I invoked the Swift Boat analogy because this situation reminds me of that situation: a group made a number of allegations that were capable of being disproven by numerous records and witnesses, yet the Kerry campaign didn't say squat back in 2004. A lot has happened since then, and it would be nice to see someone with more credibility and a bigger audience than me offer some sort of counterpoint to what people and groups like the Tennessee Center for Policy Research have to say. Like, say, Al Gore. And he did.

A quick note on the relevance issue--the argument seems to be that (a) Al Gore addresses the severity of global warming; (b) Al Gore uses electricity at a level above the national average; therefore (c) Al Gore is a hypocrite. The problem is, (c) doesn't say anything at all about (a); it just attacks the messenger.

With regard to the Discovery documentary on Jesus, again I have no problem with anyone presenting information or opinions. I draw my own conclusions and my own opinions. Personally, based on what I have seen so far, I think the documentary is full of crap--it is an interesting premise but has about as much historical weight as the Da Vinci Code. I don't blame Mr. Wildmon for trying, either, but if that is the best he can do, I kind of feel bad for him. My point is that if watching the documentary shakes someone's faith to the core, you really can't blame the filmmakers for that. My objection here is similar to my issue with the Gardasil debate: valid arguments against a proposal that are grounded in science, history, logic, etc. supercede arguments based only in faith. Object to the documentary because it's bad science, bad archaeology, bad statistics, and so forth. If someone publicizes information that contradicts the foundation of someone's faith, and that information is objectively flawed (e.g. not based in sound science), why not make that your first argument? My understanding of Mr. Wildmon's argument is something like this: (a) the Bible states that such and such happened; (b) a new documentary may present evidence that contradicts the Bible; therefore (c) Christianity is under attack.

In retrospect, my statement "I am not out to offend or denigrate anyone else's religious beliefs" was not entirely accurate. I do not intend to denigrate religious people. There is a difference, subtle though it may be, between crticism of a system of beliefs and criticism of the believers. I may not agree with someone's beliefs, but I do not intend to disrespect the person. And I have a very hard time respecting a lot of religious beliefs. I could probably write a book on that issue (and I might), but if anyone is offended by what I have to say about religion, it's honestly kind of flattering because it implies that the person is placing my words on a rhetorical level with the Bible or whatever book they follow. Well, that's how I look at it, anyway. I can't help how people interpret what I, or anyone else, say. All I can do is try to be honest and rational--I'll admit it doesn't always work (although I still think it did this time.)

I also stand by my characterization of faith, which was pretty much based on the definition at dictionary.com:
1. Confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.
2. Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence. See Synonyms at belief, trust.
3. Loyalty to a person or thing; allegiance: keeping faith with one's supporters.
4. often Faith Christianity The theological virtue defined as secure belief in God and a trusting acceptance of God's will.
5. The body of dogma of a religion: the Muslim faith.
6. A set of principles or beliefs.

The difference between faith and science is that science (assuming you are dealing with an honest practitioner), has to change in the face of contradictory evidence. Faith does not. Yet they can co-exist for most people just fine, most of the time.

If I do have any particular bias creeping into posts of this nature, it is my frustration that agnostics (I prefer the term apatheist, but I'll go with a more recognizable one) are so often misunderstood and disrespected on a personal level. That must be a topic for another day, however.

1 comment:

tODD said...

Since there's (apparently) nobody here but this chicken, I'd like to say that I wasn't angry in my previous comments. Worked-up perhaps, enjoying the back-and-forth of it, but not angry. So apologies if I came across that way, but, you know, "There's no emoticon for what I'm feeling." Or something. But Dave, I like you. I mean, old times*, you know. Remember? That's right.

Anyhow, I think one of the issues that may be confusing here is the difference between speech that should be allowed, and speech that should occur (or speech that is appreciated, if you will). They're not the same. The former is legally defined and generally has very few limits. The latter is entirely subjective. I have to imagine that you're thinking more along the lines of "speech that should be legally allowed" when you say that you "don't have an inherent problem with people making information available ... ever," and, regarding the attack on Al Gore, "that doesn't mean it shouldn't be said." Because, in my own subjective view, if (read: since) the Gore attack is misleading, ad hominem, and from a spurious entity, then I have no problem declaring that it shouldn't be said. But that's a preference, not a legal opinion.

If this seems to contradict my comment on your Gore post, it's that there I was trying to point out that this really is a pretty stupid smear on Gore, one that I find particularly unpersuasive. As to Gore's rebuttal, it only shows why "more speech" isn't always enough in combatting bad speech. By which I mean, I hadn't even heard of Gore's response until you mentioned it, but I read about the smear several different times.

Still, I find your statement that "if watching the documentary shakes someone's faith to the core, you really can't blame the filmmakers for that" a bit troubling. I'm guessing that you've come to this conclusion because you don't value that faith in the first place. But imagine the following conversation:

Todd: If listening to the South African health minister causes someone to believe that garlic and beetroot cures AIDS and so reject modern medicine, you really can't blame the minister for that.
Dave: No, in fact the minister is very responsible for misleading people with his ludicrous claims!
Todd: Look, if these people know so little about science that they believe beets cure AIDS, then I don't see how it's the minister's problem.
Dave: But not everyone is knowledgeable about science and medicine. And the health minister wields lots of influence among those people!
Todd: Well, they should know better than to listen to him -- it's still not a problem for him to say such things.
Dave: But they do, so he shouldn't say any stupid thing he thinks of!

I'm sure I have made my point subtlely enough that you won't realize that embedded in that exciting dialog is logic that makes my point: we're responsible for what we say to others, and the more people we say it to or the more influence our words carry, the more we're responsible. Maybe the filmmakers were just out to make money, but they probably will have a deleterious effect on some people's faith, and that's sad. Of course, it's only sad because I value that faith.

Now, I'm still confused why you insist on reading Wildmon's call to Christian activism like it's an archaelogical/historical argument, decrying his arguments from faith rather than science, history, etc. To illustrate my point, I present another (poorly written) play:

Wildmon: This documentary is wrong and should be canceled!
Dave: How do you know it's wrong?
Wildmon: It contradicts the Bible.
Dave: But how do you know the Bible is right -- that's just a collection of writings from unknown people, not facts! You should argue against the documentary based on facts.
Wildmon: Oh, okay then. This documentary is factually wrong and should be canceled!
Dave: Good. Now, why do you say that it's factually wrong?
Wildmon: It contradicts what I read in a newspaper.
Dave: Fine, and how do you know the newspaper story was correct?
Wildmon: It quoted several archaeologists.
Dave: Were they respectable archaeologists?
Wildmon: The article made it seem so, though I know nothing about archaeology myself.
Dave: Well, I respect your using reason and facts to make your argument.

Do you see what I'm getting at, ever-ever-so-subtlely? And while I'm not arguing for complete subjectivism, I do wonder if either Mr. Wildmon, you, or I could actually make the argument you desire -- one based on science and facts, rather than something we read from some supposedly authoritative collection of unknown people. I'm well aware that I may sound like a freshman philosophy student in saying so, but can most of us really argue based on facts or science, or do we have to rely on the words of others?

As to respecting a person and/or his beliefs, I was pretty sure I knew what you meant, I just thought it was funny (i.e. silly) how you said it. I wasn't offended by what you wrote, though.

Finally, as to faith (and how it relates to science), I also read the definition you'd linked to. But you have this belief that faith can and will ignore all facts -- probably, I'd imagine, because you don't see yourself as a person of faith, but one of facts, and you find that most faith-y types seem to ignore all kinds of evidence when they want to. And maybe they do. Or maybe I've got you all wrong -- you tell me.

My point is that faith doesn't have to ignore facts. I have a faith that is based on claims that are, in theory, falsifiable. That is what this whole debate is about -- James Cameron claims to have found evidence that the facts my faith is based on are erroneous. If he could actually prove that to be true (and I'll admit the bar is rather high for such proof), then my faith would be in crisis.

Alternatively, I think that many people fail to see the faith necessary in science. First of all, for those who have only experienced science in the classroom, it is in large part a faith-based thing. There's not a lot of reasoning or experience I can bring to the field of quantum physics, so I just read and believe. Secondly, it's not like science is some monolith -- you can find scientists that disagree on things, even though there's plenty of facts. Scientist 1 thinks Theory A is true because of the evidence. Scientist 2 thinks Theory A is false because the evidence was falsified, or poorly collected, or improperly analyzed. He has faith in Theory B's underpinnings, or in his assessment of Scientist 1. Scientist 1 has faith in Theory A, even though his data didn't quite show it, which is why he fudged it a little bit. And so on. Thirdly, when there is a lack of facts, scientists often demonstrate their faith that science will explain things. For example, scientists believe life arose from complex, inanimate chemicals. Science has no idea how this happened. But science is sure that it will figure it out. Faith.

Dang, this is way too much of a response. This would be much better discussed over a set of beers than in a blog, but you have a debate with the scenario you have, not the scenario you wish you had.

*Speaking of old times, quite likely because of this blog, I recently had a dream that involved us riding in the SUV(?) you drove in college. I can't remember if we were playing "American Pie" until my eyes bled or not in the dream, but it otherwise resembled that halcyon trip to Cali. Good times. Or, at least, times insufficiently disturbing such that the aging of my memory has not made me imagine that they weren't good. As they say.