Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Impugning sources

Recently I posted an LA Times op-piece advocating illegal immigrant restriction in an immigration discussion website. I got the following response to that posting:


"Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that supports tighter controls on immigration."

That's somewhat like saying that Lizzie Borden wss [sic] a member of a think tank that supports improvement in cutlery.

The institution you so proudly cite is as xenophobic and racist a site as I have ever seen.

Beware whey you post a reference to a site; some of us actually READ the reference.

I responded to this response as follows:

The reference I proudly cited was the LATimes, one of the nation's three leading newspapers. The piece itself is an advocacy piece, not a news item, obviously. The LATimes "proudly" prints op-ed pieces that agree with its editorial stance--and those that don't--like the one I copied into this forum. That's one thing that makes it a class act.

The other thing is something most civilians know nothing about. It's called [b]fact checking[/b]. If I had quoted something from an advocacy website, that's one thing. It's quite another when I quote something from a reputable newspaper--even if that thing is an article by someone associated with an advocacy group.

The LATimes runs a lot of advocacy pieces I don't agree with, such as most of the columns by Gregory Rodriguez, a hardcore advocate for all things Latino. But when a major newspaper publishes such pieces, at least I know that it has been fact checked. I may not agree with the conclusions but it's likely that the facts are straight. Even in an advocacy piece.

Nothing's perfect, and I'm sure that even the NYTimes, WashPo & the LATimes get their facts wrong sometimes. But it's a lot less likely than most other news/opinion sources, such as advocacy blogs/websites.

Of course to assess these ideas you need the ability to separate your assessment of someone's character from the facts they cite and the logic they use. For ideologues these are indistinguishable.

This is why the centrist columnist Thomas Friedman--who despises our current president--reminds us that "Just because George Bush says something doesn't mean it's wrong." Every so often he says something that isn't a baldfaced lie or, more likely, an artfully deceptive statement that doesn't lie itself but leads unwary listeners to believe the lie he wants you to believe while leaving his own hands nominally clean. For example, he said that what's going on in Darfur is genocide. That's true, even though Bush said it.

Zealots have trouble sorting these things out. They live in a simpler world, populated with Good Guys and Bad Guys, like a turn of the last century mellerdrama populated with Dudley Dorights and Simon Legrees. Anything less simple confuses them momentarily, but their need for clarity overwhelms the vestiges of reasoning their minds possess and they quickly "figure out" how anything good the bad guy did was actually bad, and anything bad the good guy did really wasn't so bad after all. It's fascinating to watch their wheels grind as they reduce reality to a kind of comic strip.

One way to tell if you're trying to reason with a zealot is to notice how quickly they lapse into labels instead of actually dealing with facts and arguments. In person you can usually spot one right away. They have "crazy eyes." And when you challenge their notions with reasonable facts/arguments, you can see an ember of reasoning flitter across their faces, then get blown out by the hurricane of their ungoverned emotions--which they believe is a virtuem, naturally. It's sometimes harder in print, but usually...not so much.

Zealots assume they're demolished someone's argument if they can show that the other person has opinions they disagree with. This is, of course, circular reasoning--a dog chasing its tail. It'd be amusing if it weren't so dangerous to our republic.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

An atheist for president?

Today's Washington Post published a posting in their "On Faith" blog titled "An Atheist for President?" This was my response:

What is an atheist?
Someone who doesn't believe in God?
That's what he's not.
So what is he?
I'm stumped, honestly. Because the word has no actual definition. All it tells you is what someone isn't--which is of interest only to religious people. For the rest of us, our so-called "lack of religion" is completely irrelevant to our lives. It means nothing, nada, zip. I also don't believe the world is flat. But I don't go around saying I'm an, say, "antiflatulist." If someone asks me what I believe, I simply say I'm an empiricist. Now that actually says something about me. A lot, actually.
The word "atheist" was coined by religious people. It's a loaded term. Calling me an "atheist" is pretty much the same as calling a black person the N word. How about if we start calling religious people "antiempiricists?" Or "realityphobes?" I'm not seriously proposing that, because it would be as unfair as it is for religious people to call those who aren't atheists. Personally I define people as interesting or not, as jerks or OK people--stuff like that. Now those terms are actually useful.