Thursday, July 24, 2014

If you can't be wrong, you're probably wrong.

I accept the current science behind anthropogenic climate change and that the world is getting progressively warmer. If the next ten years shows a rapid decrease in average global temperatures, and we see an increase in arctic ice, then guess what? It's wrong.

I accept the science of evolution, and I believe that species give rise to new species through natural selection. If a squirrel is found in the same rock layer as a trilobite, then guess what? It's wrong.

I accept the idea that cars require gasoline in order for them to run. If my wife starts putting apple juice in the tank and gets around town just fine, then guess what? It's wrong.

Everything that I accept about the world is subject to being wrong as far as I'm concerned. There are plenty of things where I don't really give it too much likelihood that it will be proven wrong, but I have enough humility to know that my perceptions can be completely off when it comes to discerning what's true and what isn't. I try my best to determine when it comes things where I have a strong opinion (evolution, climate change, etc.) as to exactly what it is that would make me admit that I'm wrong.

Contrast this with some things which I regard to NOT be true and some of the common attitudes you'll find.

There are people who believe that praying to a deity will bring about a miracle, whether it's being cured from an illness or getting out of some financial difficulty. When the prayer doesn't result in the desired result, do they say that the prayer "didn't work"? That's not my experience. Instead, they backtrack and give excuses. They'll say something along the lines of (and I'm quoting from a Facebook post here) "It (the miracle) just might not happen the way he expected it would." Another response goes along the lines of: "IMO, praises and prayers dont fail, sometimes its manifestations may be delayed or prolly you dont have enough faith" (sic).

You can check out an entire page that addresses why God doesn't answer prayers. The reasons include that maybe YOU don't have enough faith (which makes it your fault, ya know), sin, and he's going to get around to it eventually. Nowhere is the most obvious answer, the one that requires the least amount of assumptions, addressed.

In other words, to people like this, there is no way that they can be wrong. When it works, it works. When it doesn't work, it still works. What would convince me that it works? If it worked at a statistical rate that was better than chance. Until then, these explanations appear to me to be nothing more than cop-outs.

A similar situation is with astrology. When a person matches up with the description of his or her astrological sign, then that's proof that it's working. When they don't, well, you have to look at what stars and planets were ascending at the time of the person's birth. Or you have to look at exactly what day and year the person was born. In other words, if it works, it works; if it doesn't work, then you can still get it to work. From what I know, astrology has no criteria that would successfully debunk it for its adherents. (Which is why it split off from an actual science, astronomy, long ago.)

What would make me believe it? If astrologers could give accurate and specific readings based on whatever information they think that they need. From my understanding, every time it's been put to the test, they have failed miserably, as their descriptions are either spectacularly off or too vague to determine its veracity. See the video below to see how these things go. (And it should be noted that a million dollars is waiting for any of them who can successfully demonstrate their claims in controlled conditions. When somebody collects, I'll change my mind.)

I think that the important question, no matter what issue we're talking about, is to ask yourself whether you care or not whether your beliefs are true. If you don't care, well then, you can just ignore all of this. If you do care, then you have to not only be open to changing your mind, but you have to know exactly what WOULD change your mind.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Weird Al is a genius

Considering the news that "Weird Al" Yankovic has just earned his first number one album, I figured it would be a good time to write that tribute to him that's been gestating in my head for several years now.

Like most people my age, I first heard of "Weird Al" with the release of "Eat It". I was in fourth grade, and I thought that it was hilarious. I remember that a friend of mine had the cassette of his entire album, and he let me borrow it. I liked almost all of the songs, but I had trouble figuring out all the songs that were being parodied, not realizing that many of his songs were originals and were simply funny in their own right. (Apparently sometimes he also does "style parodies", which is what you get with "Dare to be Stupid", a parody of Devo.) 

I don't own many vinyl albums. I probably have about six or seven out in the garage somewhere, but two of them are from "Weird Al": Dare to be Stupid, and Fat. While I haven't picked up every one of his releases over the years, I also have owned Off the Deep End and Alapalooza on cassette. Plus, I just purchased his latest, Mandatory Fun, which is awesome, as an MP3 download. Needless to say, Mr. Yankovic has been a part of my life for about thirty years now, and it's great to see him finally get a number one.

I recall my uncle saying that there wasn't any point in buying a "Weird Al" album, because once you hear the songs a few times and catch all the jokes, the appeal of them is over. It may be true that the line "How come you're always such a fussy young man? Don't want no Cap'n Crunch don't want no Raisin Brain. Don't you know that other kids are starving in Japan?" will eventually stop being funny. (I'll let you know when it is, 'cause that hasn't happened yet.) But there's much more to his music than just the silly lyrics (often about food). 

Let's face it, even if you're a big fan of lyrics, there are times when you're just listening to the music. In this case, the music to "Smells Like Nirvana" is just as enjoyable as "Smells Like Teen Spirit" only there are funny animal sounds thrown around there to put a smile on your face.

More importantly though is when you listen to his originals, you realize that he's a pretty damned good musician/songwriter in general. People tend to overlook this because of the fact that his lyrics are (deliberately) silly, so they take the whole thing as a joke. But there are plenty of musicians out there whose lyrics are (unintentionally) silly, and yet they're taken seriously. Hey, I'd argue that the lyrics to "Achy Breaky Song" are LESS silly than the lyrics to "Achy Breaky Heart". But why do silly lyrics somehow cancel out the cleverness of the music? They don't, but I tend to be of the mind that people don't necessarily listen to music very carefully in the first place, so that explains that. 

Case in point of a catchy song - I'm loving "First World Problems" off of his current album. That's as catchy a song as can be, and there are a lot of interesting things going on if you pay attention.

I'm not the only one who thinks this. Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo thought the following about "Dare to be Stupid":
I was in shock. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. He sort of re-sculpted that song into something else and, umm... I hate him for it, basically.

It also should be noted that Kurt Cobain thought that the man was a genius. You gonna argue with Cobain? I ain't. The man has outlasted most of the people he's parodied, and he's proven himself a master of pretty much every single style of popular music - plus polkas. Case closed.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Read these comics - Part III

I like comics. I told you about some before, and I told you about some again. I realized that I left out some really good ones last time, so here are some more recommendations:

Sex Criminals - After I wrote my last list of recommendations, I looked over and saw these comics lying near the computer, and I realized that this was the series that I wanted to write about in the first place, yet somehow I forgot all about it!

Perhaps that's somewhat deliberate, as I also kind of DON'T want to write about it. Giving an overview of the plot makes it sound juvenile and smutty, but I wouldn't be too interested in it if that's all it had going for it. Writer Matt Fraction creates characters that you can both empathize with and care about. Also, it deals with matters of sex and sexual desires like they're normal - because they are. In other words, this one isn't for kids, but honestly? I think that a kid would get a healthier view of sex from this series than he or she would from watching music videos, romantic comedies, etc. - or worse, listening to advocates of "abstinence only".

Okay, so what's it about? It's about a young lady who stops time whenever she has an orgasm. She meets a fella who has the same ability. They figure that they can commit crimes when they do this, but there seems to be some people out there who can do the same thing, and their job is to stop people like them.

Yeah, I know, that sounds dumb. It's awesome though. Chip Zdarsky's art is top-notch as well.

Daredevil - This series recently got a reboot/renumbering from Marvel as Daredevil has moved from his hometown of Hells Kitchen (a neighborhood in New York, not the TV show) to San Francisco.

DD has always been a bit of a second fiddle in the Marvel Universe, as generally speaking, most people who don't read comics recognize him (unless they remember the not-so-great movie).  However, comics fans tend to consider him a pretty important character, as he's continuously had a monthly comic since the mid-1960s.

Since Frank Miller's run back in the 1980s, writers have really put Matt Murdock through the paces, completely destroying his life and then rebuilding it again. Sometimes it's better than others, and with Mark Waid's run on the series, a nice balance has been found of putting the Devil through hell, superhero fun, strong characterizations, and compelling storylines. It definitely has drama, but it's not a big bummer all the way through.

Perhaps the most compelling storyline lately has been the subplot with Foggy Nelson, Daredevil's best friend, and his battle with cancer. I read a lot of comics, and it's rare that one really touches me, but I've found myself setting down some of those issues, sighing, and just taking a moment to soak it all in afterward.

And of course, I must take a moment to compliment the clear storytelling skills of regular artist Chris Samnee. He's the perfect match for Waid's stories.

Starlight  - This isn't a Flash Gordon series, but it might as well be. The main character is Duke McQueen, a man who went to another world and rescued it from it tyrannical leader. Now he's an old man, living an unremarkable life, and nobody even believes that he did what he did. Shortly after his wife passes away, he's revisited by a native of the planet Tantalus, letting Duke know that he's needed once again.

It's a great setup, and the writing by Mark Millar is some of his best and most heartfelt. Goran Parlov's art is great as well, although I would have preferred it if somebody with a style more akin to Alex Raymond (Flash Gordon's creator) was on the book. But then again, perhaps that would have made the tribute to Flash a bit TOO obvious. anyway, I can't complain if it looks as good as it does.

One thing that I really like about Mark Millar's writing is that it's always so accessible. With some comics, I find that I forget what happened in the previous issue, and I enjoy them a lot more when I can sit down and read a whole bunch of them all at once. While Millar's stuff pays off in large doses as well, I always feel like I can pick up the current issue and be right on board with the story.

There haven't been any collected editions of this comic just yet, so pick up the individual issues if you can. Otherwise, I'm sure that a collection will come out eventually.

I should also mention, since I'm writing about what's essentially a Flash Gordon tribute, that the current Dynamite! Comics Flash Gordon series by Jeff Parker and Evan Shaner is shaping up to be a pretty solid read as well.

The Twilight Zone - Rod Serling's creation is given the comic book treatment by writer J. Michael Straczynski and artist Guiu Vilanova. Fans of the show will probably dig it, even though it takes some liberties with the format. While the stories definitely have the vibe of a TW episode, they tie into one another. The first story arc has been completed, and we're about halfway through the second one. It's not entirely clear exactly how it's all going to tie together, but it's clear that there is a connection.

The first story deals with a Wall Street crook, Trevor Richmond, who's looking at some serious jail time. In order to avoid his fate, he pays a company to create a completely new identity for him. Not only that, but the company hires a guy to take his place so the authorities don't go looking for him.

In his new identity, Trevor learns that the new "Trevor" is a better man than him, and doing what he should be doing in the first place - taking responsibility and trying to make things right. Of course, this isn't going to stand, and he can't just go on with his new life.

The next story deals with a woman who keeps seeing visions of the future, and the mysterious company from the first story arc plays a more ambiguous part in it all.

Definitely some cool stuff.

Afterlife with Archie - Much like with Sex Criminals, I'm hesitant to actually write about this. The premise sounds stupid when I say it out loud, and honestly, I only bought the first issue as a bit of a curious lark. When I was done with it, my reaction was that it was far better than it had any right to be.

The premise is pretty simple. Do you know the Archie gang? Well, what if Jughead, in an attempt to bring his beloved dog back to life, accidentally unleashes a zombie apocalypse? Oh, and it's not funny.

I think that one of the reasons why this series works is that I grew up reading Archie comics. I already have something invested in the characters, and when things suddenly go so totally horrific, I feel like it's happening to people I care about.

I have a feeling though that this series would work well even if you were totally unaware of the comics or the characters. The publisher very wisely departed from the usual artistic style and got Francisco Francavilla to draw the series.

I've heard from more than a few people who were pretty skeptical at first, but writer Roberto Aguirre has managed to create something that hits a lot of nerves. I don't know how long he can keep this up, but since it doesn't feel gimmicky once you actually read it, I'm definitely on board for now.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The problem with anecdotes

Years ago while weed-whacking, I mowed up a nest of yellow jackets. They were swarming all around me, but for some reason they didn't attack me, and I didn't get even a single sting. (I wrote about this on another post years ago to make a separate point.) It's a pretty incredible story, and it's even better to hear me tell it in person.

Unfortunately, I have absolutely no evidence that this happened. can that be? I lived through it! I was there! I saw the damned things! How can I say that there is no evidence?

Because that's all I have. Now, had somebody been filming it, then maybe I could at least provide you with something that you could verify for yourself. Or if I was willing to go and try it with other yellow jacket nests (I'm not, by the way) and demonstrate my ability to wreak havoc on them sans stings, then you'd have something to evaluate.

But all I have is my story. It's a cool story, but it's not evidence. I'm not saying that you shouldn't believe me, but considering that it's hardly an everyday sort of occurrence, I don't suppose that I'd blame somebody if they didn't.

All I have is an anecdote.

The problem with anecdotes is that people will often submit them AS evidence for whatever phenomenon they're trying to advance as being fact. I was watching a video yesterday between a "psychic" and a professional debunker (I included it below) and the debunker pointed out that there was no evidence. The "psychic" kept saying that there IS evidence, and she cited all of her personal stories (in rather vague terms) as "evidence". What she didn't understand is that that isn't evidence at all because nobody else has any way of confirming what happened.

As a skeptic, I've been told that I "don't accept evidence" for the supernatural when people insist that they've had all kinds of personal experiences from miracles to psychic phenomena to encounters with ghosts and demons. When I try to explain that "anecdotes aren't evidence", I don't seem to get anywhere. I also don't get anywhere when I point to an example of an anecdote for something that they don't believe (My favorite? Sammy Hagar being kidnapped by aliens) and ask them if they count that as "evidence" or not.

Because if anecdotes are evidence then ALL anecdotes must be evidence, not just the ones that confirm what you already believe.

Honestly, I do understand though why people get really insistent when you doubt their personal stories. They take it as a personal attack, as though you're calling them liars. Nobody likes that, but calling somebody a liar and pointing out that they have no evidence for something is not the same thing. Back to my story with the yellow jackets, I suppose I would get a bit annoyed if my close friends called me a liar when told them the story. However, if they point out that I don't have evidence, then why should I get mad? They'd be right.

Try not to misunderstand me here. Just because an anecdote isn't evidence that doesn't mean that it didn't happen, and ultimately it's up to us as to what we believe. For me, I try to have the evidence determine how strong my belief is. My yellow jacket story is unlikely, but it doesn't necessarily break any of the known laws of the universe, and there are various unknown factors that could have contributed to what happened. If I told you that aliens probed my mind though, I would hope that your skepticism would increase as if that story was true, it would certainly change everything we know and understand about the universe in which we live.

Lately, I've tried a new tactic when confronted with people who give anecdotes as evidence. Sometimes they'll just keep giving me more and more, as if ten anecdotes suddenly equal evidence. I have one online friend who apparently lives in the equivalent of Smallville, but instead of visits from various superheroes from the DC Universe, there are miracle healings left and right. I think that he was starting to get frustrated as I was questioning the veracity of these statements.

The strategy that finally seemed to work was when I said that I didn't accept those stories as evidence because I had no way of confirming them one way or the other. All I had was his story and no way to check on it. Evidence is something that can be verified by anybody, and until he gave me something that I could actually check on, I was going to have to remain skeptical.

That seemed to work a bit better. If you're a skeptic like me, and you find that saying "anecdotes aren't evidence" gets you nowhere, try explaining it in those terms. At least then the other person might understand why their story isn't convincing you of anything.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Read these comics! - Part II

I read comic books. You should read comics. I've recommended some to you before. Here are some more recommendations:

Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood - This is the latest in Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales, and as you can maybe guess from the title, it's all about World War I. It probably sounds inappropriate, but I'm going to say it anyway, I've never associated The Great War with so much fun before, but this comic was a really compelling and entertaining read. It's the kind of thing you could hand to a kid who's showing some interest in that major historical event, or, in my case, it's a relatively quick refresher on all of the important events - while tossing in some facts that I had not known before. (I suppose it's also a handy lesson for anybody who wants to feel like he or she has some knowledge of the war but doesn't necessarily want to read any lengthy history books - which I've done in the past.)

Perhaps the most clever bit is how Hale uses different animals to represent the various warring factions (see image). It definitely helps having that visual cue to keep track of who's who, as there's a lot of different countries that got involved - and he barely even gets into the Middle Eastern campaign. Of course, it leads to a bit of a problem as both Germany and America have eagles as their national birds, so the Americans get to be bunnies instead.

I should probably point out that it, admittedly, makes sure to get to the American involvement, not so much because of the significance of the doughboys entering the war, but because this work is aimed at an American audience, and Hale figures that the readers want to know about its involvement. Still, it's not a piece of American propaganda (your first hint being that we are turned into bunnies) so people of any nationality could probably enjoy this fun history lesson.

Thor: God of Thunder - I realize that right now the buzz is all about Marvel and the (trust me, it's temporary) decision to make Thor a woman. People have asked me what I thought, and I for one am willing to give it a chance. Why? Because it's going to be written by Jason Aaron, who has been consistently turning out some of not only my favorite Thor comics, but favorite comics in general. There are no doubt a few collected editions of this particular series by this point, but I've been getting it in the individual issues.

There have been some multi-issue storylines and some done-in-one issues as well, and I really have a hard time picking what my favorite ones are. The first lengthy story involved a god-killer, and one of the single issue stories dealt with a "day in the life of Thor" and I thoroughly enjoyed them both.

What really separates Aaron's run on Thor is how the main character is treated. There isn't any of this hemming and hawing about him not really being a god but just an alien who was worshipped in the past as a god. No, he's a god. He shows up on a planet to provide rain because the inhabitants prayed to him. I guess we live in an age where people feel less worried about offending religious sensibilities (and why should it offend if you're a believer? It's not pretending to be fact.) Check out the following quote from CBR interview:
Aaron admitted that there's an undercurrent of faith and belief in much of his work, and that despite him being an atheist for half his life Thor is the god he would want to believe in. "It's a book about gods and I wanted to lean into the fact from the get go that Thor is a god," Aaron said. "I don't like in the movies where the Asgardians are aliens."
I didn't know this about him when I started reading the book, but it made sense to me why this book held such an appeal after finding out about it.

Black Science - I just breezed through a re-reading of Rick Remender and Matteo Scalera's series, and I found myself eagerly waiting for issue number seven. (The first five issues have been collected in a trade paperback.)

How to describe this series? Imagine a guy with a crack-addict's dedication to punching through the barriers of what can be done scientifically. He ignores the safety of himself, his family, his friends, and possibly the entire "Eververse", as it's called. Jumping through dimensions, things keep on getting crazier and crazier, and just when you think you've got a grip on where it's all going, another monkeywrench is thrown into the works.

Remender is doing some great work as well over on Marvel's Uncanny Avengers and some hit-and-miss stuff on Captain America. With this creator-owned project, he's really letting loose, and Scalera is the perfect pairing. His art style reminds me of the sort of thing you'd see in some old EC sci-fi comics, which I think is deliberate, without looking like a conscious attempt to mimic the style. I'm not sure how much instruction Remender gives him when it comes to rendering the different dimensions and aliens, but it all looks like it's come from some bizarre nightmare. Perhaps if I had done psychotropic drugs, I could have some point of reference with which to compare (or, you know, traveled to other dimensions) but this is what's great about comics - there's no limit to the imagination as a page filled with giant tortoises carrying pyramids on their backs costs just as much as a couple of people sitting down to talk.

Chicacabra - I greatly enjoyed writer/artist Tom Beland's True Story: Swear to God, so I was an easy sell on this particular graphic novel. Unlike his other work, which was pretty much autobiographical, this one delves into science fiction. However, just like True Story, the characters are complex and likeable, and there's a real sweetness to it all. Also, the art is lively and expressive.

Summarizing the plot doesn't do it justice, but the gist of it is that a Isabella, a teenager in Puerto Rico, gets "joined" with what's likely the last of the chupacabras, a strange species that was nearly wiped out by humanity long ago when settlers arrived in Puerto Rico, where this all takes place. That's all good and fun, and it's reminiscent of the early Stan Lee/Steve Ditko Spider-Man comics, although it takes its time to really explore the characters and is equally concerned with realistic human drama as it is sci-fi hijinks.

I've written recently about the growing influence of a female fanbase in comics and how I think that it's a positive thing. I don't know if that influenced Beland one way or the other when it came to creating this particular series, but if it did, then it's another sign that comics can only get better when they become more diverse. If you're looking for a fun comic that mixes superhero tropes with sci-fi, strong characterization, and a believable female protagonist, then this is a good one to get.

Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me - I've been reading comics a long time, and although I watched and enjoyed the movie American Splendor, I've yet to read anything by Harvey Pekar. This actually came out a couple of years ago in hardcover, but it's in paperback right now, and I just finished reading it a few days ago. Considering that Israel is in the news right now (hard to remember a time when it isn't) I was compelled to pick it up, and I breezed through it.

I'm not Jewish, and I don't know what it's like to be Jewish. I do try to listen and empathize with people though, and I imagine that few things must be more frustrating than to be Jewish and have criticisms of Israel. Even if the criticisms are legitimate, there are people (not just Jews) who are eager to label such a person as a "self-loathing Jew" because that's a lot easier than dealing with the content of their arguments. No doubt Pekar took some flack for this particular book.

If you're looking for some kind of hatchet-job on Israel, you're not going to find it here. If anything, the man is jaded, as he was raised to think that the formation of Israel was the right thing to do and that they were the good guys. As he got older, he discovered that things are not quite so black and white.

What's great about this is that it gives an overview of the history of the Jewish people, and there is no denying that they're a people who have endured a ridiculous amount of hardship and prejudice. What also becomes clear is that they're as human as any other group of people. They don't all think with a hive mind, and their actions should be as open to critique as any other.

I guess the one thing that surprised me is that I was almost expecting to find a really harsh indictment of Israel. That simply wasn't there, although I'm sure that those who have more of a black-or-white view of the world will find it anyway.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Cal Shakes - The Comedy of Errors

I had resigned myself to the fact that the reading that I would do this summer would consist primarily of comic books and audio books, and I wasn't going to feel guilty about it. (I like to do a lot of reading over the summer.) I realized that I should probably read William Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors though before I went to see it at Cal Shakes since I was completely unfamiliar with it, and I don't like to watch Shakespeare without having at least a decent understanding of the story beforehand.

Lucky for me, it's an awfully short play. I didn't even bother picking up a version of the play with a plain English translation this time, figuring that since comedies tend to be easier to comprehend, I'd get along just fine without it. I turned out to be correct, although I read summaries of the first two acts just to get everybody squared away in my head first, and then I was able to pretty much just breeze through the rest of it, using my Complete Works of William Shakespeare.

Obviously, it's one of Shakespeare's comedies, and one of his earlier ones at that. It doesn't delve into any deeper subject matter like The Merchant of Venice, and it doesn't have as much sincere heartfelt joy as Much Ado About Nothing. It's basically just a big ridiculous situation involving two sets of twins and a lot of cases of mistaken identity. From what I read, Shakespeare lifted the plot from an Ancient Greek comedy and added a few extra layers to it (as he pretty much always does when he adapts something) and, of course, his own clever wordplay.

I was worried that it might be a bit confusing, as the plot involves not only two sets of twins, but each set shares the same first name. In other words, there's Antipholus from Ephesus and his twin brother, Antipholus from Syracuse. Neither one of them knows of the existence of the other, and when the one from Syracuse visits Ephesus, many people confuse him for his brother (including his brother's wife). On top of that, Antipholus of Syracuse has a servant named Dromio, who has a twin brother with the same first name who serves Antipholus of Ephesus. Confused yet? Well, it was harder to keep track of who's who when I was reading it than when I was watching it. (Which confirms that Shakespeare's works are meant to be seen in a performance, not necessarily read as a book.) This is especially impressive considering that one actor played the Antipholus from Syracuse and the one from Ephesus. Same situation for the Dromio of Syracuse and the one from Ephesus.

All in all, it was a fun show, and the actors all did a nice job of breathing life into the text. My wife and I have seen a few of these actors before, like Danny Scheie, Nemuna Ceesay, and Liam Vincent (the latter two were both in this summer's excellent production of A Raisin in the Sun). I'm fairly certain that I've seen Ron Campbell before in past productions as well, and I'll be darned if he wasn't channeling a little bit of the Marx Brothers in his performance as Angelo, the merchant. It was also pretty cool how the actors would go out into the audience and sometimes even interact with the crowd a bit. Comedies tend to lend themselves to that kind of silliness.

If all you know of Shakespeare are his tragedies that you likely learned in school, then you ought to check out his comedies. It wasn't all deep introspection followed by doom for the man. He knew how to write stuff that was silly and fun, and sometimes that's just what we need. I especially recommend checking out this particular play if you're familiar with a lot of his others, as you can see that while this probably wouldn't have survived the centuries had it been the only play the man wrote, it's interesting to see some of his more interesting ideas begin their germination in this early work.

Next up? Pygmalion, followed by A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Talking to evolution deniers

Conversations with evolution deniers are often frustrating but can sometimes be interesting in a psychological sense. The one thing that never fails in my experience is that eventually the denier will reveal a lack of understanding of what evolution is. I certainly know that when I didn't accept evolution, much of that was due to the fact that I didn't have a clue as to what it actually was.

With some deniers, you can catch this right away when they say something like, "Why are there still monkeys?" These are usually the people who haven't even bothered to do the most basic Google search on the topic and don't care to learn.

There are the smarter deniers though, and it often takes a while until they reveal some sort of gap in their understanding. One time I had somebody bring up "Junk DNA" and how biologists believed that we had a lot of info in our genetic structure that didn't do anything, and it turned out that they were wrong. The person was right on this point, but how does that affect the theory of evolution one way or the other? (Hint: it doesn't.)

The thing is, you can give a denier a comprehensive overview, using the most basic non-technical language, of what evolution is, and if they have a motivation (usually religious) to not believe in it, then it'll be like trying to convince the ocean to hold still. I'm not really bothering with that anymore, and instead I've changed my tactic. Oftentimes, it's best just to ask questions. You won't get immediate results, but if you can get them to start thinking a bit, then if there is any chance that they'll come around, that's the way it'll happen.

I like to ask the following questions:

What is it that you understand better about biology than the overwhelming majority of the world's biologists? Ultimately, that is what the denier is saying. A typical response will go along the lines of how scientists have been wrong in the past (often with examples from more than a hundred years ago). That's true, of course, and consensus doesn't equal truth. But I'm not going to drink pond water because scientists have been wrong in the past, so, you know, they could be wrong about the bacteria and parasites that are in it. In other words, that answer is a non-answer, and I point that out. Ultimately, they cannot give a reason as to why they understand things better than those whose life's work revolves around a basic understanding of evolution (which is what modern biology is).

What part of evolution don't you believe? You might get answers, but they'll only prompt more questions. It might also be good to break it down a bit and ask them which point is the one where they just don't accept:

  • Do you not believe that genetic information is passed down from parent to offspring?
  • Do you not believe in mutations? (If not, then what about blue eyes or people born with extra fingers? (I had a cat once who had two extra toes on each foot and an extra toe-less claw on each of her front paws.)
  • Do you not believe that some mutations can be advantageous and enable a species to better survive?
  • Do you not believe that these mutations would be more likely to be passed on?
  • Do you not believe that these advantageous traits would alter a population over time?
  • Do you not believe that these altered populations would bring forth a new species given enough time? (Because we have direct, observable evidence of this happening, so you'd have to show these to be hoaxes.)
With your more-informed deniers, they will often give you all of the above. However, they will often stop and say, 'Yeah, you get new species of lizards, but they're still lizards!"

From there, you can ask the following:
  • Do you not believe that, given enough time and enough changes, you'd expect to see some radical changes? (Like reptiles bringing forth mammals? You'd expect to see things like the platypus if evolution were true, wouldn't you?)
  • Do you not believe that domesticated cats and tigers share a common ancestor? (They share 95.6% of their DNA, and they're both cats.)
  • Do you not believe that human beings and chimpanzees and bonobos share a common ancestor? (We share almost 99% of our DNA - more than house cats and lions.) 
If they have no trouble accepting all of these, then proceed to stop the conversation and talk about the weather, as this person accepts evolution. If they accept the first two but not the third one, then ask them how that can be when we have more in common with our ape cousins than cats and tigers? (And the difference between lions and tigers is about the same as tigers and house cats.)

And while we're discussing DNA, why do they reject the consensus that the field of genetics proves evolution? And what about transitional fossils? (Some of them will flat out tell you that there are no transitional fossils, which is a bold-faced lie. If faced with this, suggest that they look up horse or whale evolution and then try saying that again.) And why the heck do I have a tail bone but no tail?

The best that you can really hope for is to get the person thinking. If you point out enough stuff, and they're genuinely intellectually curious, then you'll at least give them something to think about and you'll be pointing them in the right direction. The unfortunate thing with this issue though is that people don't approach it the same way as they would other issues. For some people, accepting evolution would mean tossing away an important part of their identity. This does not need to be the case though, as plenty of religious people accept evolution

It's too bad, because the more I learn about it, the more amazing I think that the world is.