Wednesday, August 18, 2021

A Belief Is Not A Fact

I said this on Facebook recently:

From now on, before I engage in any argument either online or off, I'm going to ask one question: "What evidence might it take for you to change your position?" I suspect that nine times out of ten I won't get an answer, or I'll get something patently ridiculous. I'll walk away, content to let the other person think they "won".

...and was immediately asked why I feel the need to win. 

I put "win" in quotes for a reason. I should have put "argument" in quotes, too.  Because what goes on on the internet these days is anything but argument: it's almost always just pointless screaming, ad hominem attacks, and piles and piles of logical fallacies. We desperately need a required course or two in rhetoric and critical thinking. It should, in fact, be the entire focus of school curricula. Critical thinking and empathy ought to be the whole purpose of an education -- the information is very much secondary.

What I was trying to say was that I'm content to let people think they "won" a game I refuse to play. 

I will no longer engage with people who can't support their positions without those ad hominem attacks or logical fallacies. As Hitchens says, "that which can be asserted without evidence can be refuted without evidence".  Or indeed, simply ignored. 

Let's take one topic that is, for some ridiculous reason, extremely touchy: the Covid-19 vaccines. Obligatory blahblahblah: people who are allergic, or who have some other condition that contraindicates innoculation, you're not my target audience here. 

I confess to a great deal of impatience with the vaccine-hesitant, at this late date. There have been over four billion shots administered worldwide, but let's use the Canadian numbers current as of August 6, 2021: 50, 204, 577 doses administered vs 12,006 reported adverse effects. Note that of those 12,006 adverse effects - a whopping 0.024% of all shots given - most of them aren't serious. The "serious side effects": 

  • Thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (clotting, low platelet levels): 76 cases -- 56 of which involve AstraZeneca which isn't even given anymore, so 20 cases
  • Myocarditis/pericarditis (inflammation of, respectively, the heart muscle and the heart lining): 607 cases 
  • Capillary leak: two cases, both AstraZeneca
  • Guillain-BarrĂ© syndrome: 58 cases. Of these, 27 were AstraZeneca (0.96 cases per 100,000 doses); 22 were Pfizer-BioNtech (0.06 cases per 100,000 doses); 9 were Moderna (0.2 cases per 100,000 doses). The AZ number here IS actually higher than they expected, which is a big reason it's been pulled. But even that "high" number is infinitesimally low.
There are more categories much less severe. But they add to that 12,006. Out of FIFTY MILLION. 

All of this information is easily accessible. You can also very easily find a breakdown of cases/hospitalizations/deaths by vaccine status: simply put, your chances are dying fully vaxxed are not zero, but damned near.  So what is it? "I don't know what's in it"? You don't know "what's in" most of the pills you take and food you eat, so that can't be it. "It's experimental"? Yeah, they've been working on it for EIGHTEEN YEARS. 

How can they have been doing that when Covid-19 happened in, duh, 2019? Gotcha!

Not so fast. Do you remember the full name of this virus? That's right, it's SARS-CoV-2: severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. Now you may ask yourself, why 2? And I will answer: Sars CoV-1 hit at the end of 2003 and killed  774 people. That's a tiny number -- the current coronavirus has killed at least four and a half million -- but the reason SARS-1 scared the almighty shit out of the world medical establishment was its lethality: 9.6%. If Covid-19 had that lethality, instead of four and a half million deaths we'd have well over 19 million. With tens of millions yet to come in the Third World, because the First World is hogging all the vaccines. Less than 2% of some African countries are vaccinated: but hey, since when has Africa had actual people in it? Since never, as far as North America and Europe are concerned.


Yes, this bothers me. A lot. And a certain class of people belittles me for it online and calls it "virtue signalling" -- two words I simply loathe to see next to each other. I've given some thought to it, and I think we get accused of "virtue signalling" in cases where the evil we're protesting is too large for us to affect it in any meaningful way, and yet we feel we must protest it. This behaviour is bewildering to the sort of people who use "social justice warrior" as a pejorative, as if fighting for social justice is somehow wrong. What does it mean to care for something you can't change in any way? Pointless, right?

And as for the anti-vaxxers, the conspiracy theorists, the plague rats: these are one class of people I'm no longer going to engage with. You can't change their minds and they'd better not try to change mine. Does this make me closed-minded? Think hard before you suggest it does.

Dropping that and picking up a generalized worldview. 

"I'm saying that even if you disagree with their reasons, they nonetheless have reasons" to believe as they do, said my friend, and I'd like to deconstruct both their sources and their rationales. 

"Because Mommy and Daddy did" is not a valid reason to believe anything. You aren't them. Neither is "because it says so in this holy text". Holy texts say a lot of things and not one believer actually believes all of them. I should hasten to say that "because my political party does" is also, in and of itself, a pretty poor rationale for belief. 

 There are two valid reasons to believe something. One is because people who have studied the topic believe the same. The second is lived experience -- and yes, science has a hell of a time grappling with lived experience, which is one of several reasons many people don't trust scientists--one of the only half-decent reasons.

How many times have you heard "the plural of anecdote is not data"? What a neat and efficient way to gaslight the fuck out of somebody. "MSG has no effect on human digestive systems" is a perfect example. Science insists on this no matter how many millions of people experience cramping and diarrhea after ingesting it. They'll even go so far as to suggest you're racist because you bitch and whine after eating MSG-laced Chinese food, but don't even notice all the other "white" foods you eat that are similarly loaded with MSG--discounting those, again, who ingest MSG and suffer no matter what it's in.  Scientists take note: avoid certainties and simply suggest "MSG has adverse affects on a subset of the population, and we're not sure why yet."

So no, it's not cut and dry. But all the same, I'd trust someone who has spent years studying a topic over a random YouTube video with unsourced claims you can't even verify. Yes, it's important to see who funded a study, because a few "scientists" are actually paid shills. But very, very few -- and let's see what we can do about Occam's bushy beard, I'd suggest that it's likely the shills have the position that's contrary to the majority. You can always find a few people who will say smoking is beneficial and cures the common cold if you bribe them hard enough. Our problem is that we've given these people visibility and validation. 

"You might think those reasons are crazy, but they might think your reasons for thinking the way you do are crazy, too. Who are you to say to them, you need to change over to my way of view because it's the right one?"

In some cases, I'm the guy with the right answer. If someone comes up to me and tells me 2+2=5, then whatever reasons they have for believing that are crazy and their "point of view" is invalid. You don't get to have a point of view over a fact. A fact is true regardless of what you think or how you feel about it. And no, you don't get to say 2+2=5 for extremely large values of 2, that's not how it works either.

It is a fact that the Covid-19 vaccines are virtually harmless and strongly effective. You're free to feel, of course, that the risk is not worth it -- and I'm free to tell you that if you believe that, your understanding of probability is nonexistent. And then you'll feel belittled and mocked and I get that this is not helpful, but when I keep banging my head against the implacable wall of "we don't know what's in it it's too rushed BUT MAH RIGHTS wah wah wah" I seriously don't know how not to snap.

It is a fact that the climate is changing; it's another fact that we're causing it; it's a third fact that more than a hundred species of plants and animals are going extinct each and every day. You don't get to have an opinion on this, either. It just is. You can have an opinion on what to do about it, and I suppose "nothing" is one nihilistic option. It's not one I can accept for that same pesky humane reason that I'd prefer to minimize mass death and immiseration given a chance. You wouldn't? That says something supremely unflattering about you. 

It is a fact that explicit and comprehensive sexual education in schools directly leads to a dramatic decrease in: abortions, teenage pregnancies, rapes, and STIs. Yet people who claim to be viscerally against those four things are also against sex ed. So I feel no compunction calling these people out and saying they support abortion, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and rape. And then I have to ask them why -- and not a one of them can answer. To a man and women (shockingly, there are women who think this way), they simply dismiss the facts and go on braying that two and two are five. Walk away -- and hope like hell these people don't have children and can't influence somebody else's. 

I do wonder how this correlates to a religious upbringing. It seems to me that many religious people are very prone to confuse belief with fact. Not all, of course: Judaism is very much a questioning faith; the Jesuits question everything, and hell, one of my favourite UU hymns is called "To Question Truly Is An Answer". But the kind of received literally from On High "wisdom" religion promotes -- well, it's easy not to question it. Feels like blasphemy to dare to question Almighty God -- or more pertinently, the kiddy-diddler who claims to speak for Him. And to be fair, religious people often view science with skepticism because science does the same with them and can be viciously condescending at it. Nobody responds well to condescension. 

Let's talk about some other beliefs some people think are facts.  Like, say, that [insert several juicy racial slurs] shouldn't be allowed to marry white people. Or that it should be legal to fire and evict those nasty homosexuals.  Or that women should be made reproductive slaves to men, which is what happens when you outlaw abortion.  Or that six people should not have more wealth than six billion people. Views like that are crazy, dangerous and not to be tolerated. 

The Right calls me a hypocrite for this...I call for tolerance but won't tolerate intolerance. This is absurd on its face: you're saying I'm calling for love and won't accept hatred. You're right! Bravo!

Now. Perhaps you believe that gay people are people, that the entire idea of "mixed-race" marriages is ridiculous because there is only one human race, and so on. This is what the "All Lives Matter" crowd says to make themselves look less odious, forgetting that straight pride parades weren't a thing before gay pride parades, that "all lives matter" didn't show up before someone dared to ask that Blacks have a voice and a place at the table. But let's say you're somebody who actually does believe that black people are people. 


The only reason I can think of is that you see some more pressing personal reason to do so...and in this case my bet is lower taxes. This means you tolerate bigotry for selfish reasons. At least own up to it. 

I don't feel that it should be my job to bring people back to reality. Especially when they don't want to come. 

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