Silence is Stupid, Argument is Foolish

When I was young, I never backed down in an intellectual argument.  Part of the reason, admittedly, was that I was starved for abstract debate.  Before the internet, anyone who wanted to talk ideas had to corner an actual human willing to do the same.  Another big reason, though, was that I didn’t want to look stupid.  A smart person always has a brilliant riposte, right?  And if you shut up, it must be because you’re stumped.

At this stage in my life, much has changed.  Public debates aside, I now only engage in intellectual arguments with thinkers who play by the rules.  What rules?  For starters: remain calm, take nothing personally, use probabilities, face hypotheticals head-on, and spurn Social Desirability Bias like the plague.  If I hear someone talking about ideas who ignores these rules, I take evasive action.  If cornered, I change the subject.

Why?  Because I now realize that arguing with unreasonable people is foolish.  Young people might learn something at the meta-level – such as “Wow, so many people are so unreasonable.”  But I’m long past such doleful lessons.  Note: “Being unreasonable” is not a close synonym for “Agrees with me.”  Most people who agree with me are still aggressively unreasonable.  Instead, being reasonable is about sound intellectual methods – remaining calm, taking nothing personally, using probabilities, facing hypotheticals head-on, spurning Social Desirability Bias, and so on.

In classic Dungeons & Dragons, characters have two mental traits: Intelligence and Wisdom.  The meaning matches everyday English: high-Intelligence characters are good at solving complex puzzles; high-Wisdom characters have a generous helping of common-sense.

Using the game to illuminate life: Running out of things to say in an argument is indeed a sign of low Intelligence, just as I held when I was a teenager.  A genius never runs out of rebuttals.  At the same time, however, joining a fruitless dispute is a sign of low Wisdom.  You have better things to do with your life than tell hyperventilating people all the reasons they’re wrong.  A really wise person won’t merely break off such exchanges, but stop them before they start – and get back to work on his Bubble.

Here, in short, is wisdom: Be not a hostage to your own intellectual pride.

P.S. How do you know if a person plays by the rules until you actually engage them?  Most obviously, watch how they argue with other people!  If that’s inadequate, give promising strangers a brief trial period, but be ready to disengage if things go south.

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The Uniformity and Exclusion Movement

“The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation.” –George Orwell, 1984

Earth houses a multitude of political movements vastly worse than the “social justice” (or “wokeness”) crusade.  North Korean and Chinese communism, Islamic fundamentalism, and Russian nationalism all have far worse intentions and have done far more harm than wokeness ever will.  Even in the United States, anti-immigrant conservatism has unjustly ruined far more lives in the last four years than Social Justice Warriors are likely to ruin in my lifetime.  Still, there is one way in which “social justice” stands out from the competition: Out of all the major political movements on Earth, none is more Orwellian than “social justice.” No other movement is so dedicated to achieving the opposite of what its slogans proclaim – or so aggressive in the warping of language.  While every ideology is prone to a little doublethink, “social justice” is doublethink at its core.

To see what I’m talking about, picture North Korean and Chinese communism.  Their official story is that totalitarian rule by the Communist Party is wonderful – and they impose totalitarian rule by their respective Communist Parties.  The official story of Islamic fundamentalism is that fanatical Muslim theologians should enforce the teachings of a 7th-century book – and when in power they do so.  The official story of Russian nationalism is that authoritarian Russians should rule Russia with an iron hand and sadistically dominate neighboring countries – and they do so with gusto.

In contrast, the official story of the social justice movement is that we should swear eternal devotion to “diversity and inclusion.”  Yet in practice they strive to achieve uniformity via exclusion.   The recent University of California scandal is an elegant example.  In affected departments, job candidates had to write a “diversity and inclusion statement.”  Unless candidates vigorously supported the social justice movement through word and action, the faculty never even got to see their applications.  How vigorously?  To reach “the next stage of review,” applicants needed a minimum average score of 11 on this rubric.  Since a rank-and-file dogmatic ideologue would probably only score a 9, this cutoff predictably causes ideological uniformity of Orwellian dimensions.

More generally:

1. The diversity and inclusion movement is nominally devoted to fervent “anti-racism.”  In practice, however, they are the only prominent openly racist movement I have encountered during my life in the United States.  Nowadays they routinely mock and dismiss critics for the color of their skin – then accuse those they mock and dismiss of “white fragility.”  Just one prominent recent case:

The signatories, many of them white, wealthy, and endowed with massive platforms, argue that they are afraid of being silenced, that so-called cancel culture is out of control, and that they fear for their jobs and free exchange of ideas, even as they speak from one of the most prestigious magazines in the country.

2. The diversity and inclusion movement doesn’t just bizarrely redefine racism as “prejudice plus power.”  Since their movement combines explicit racial prejudice with great power, they neatly fit their own Newspeak definition.

3. A popular social justice lawn sign includes the plank, “Be kind to all.”  Yet the movement greets even mild criticism from friends with hostility, and firm disagreement with rage.  Plus the harshest punishments they can arrange, especially ostracism from high-skilled employment.

4. While we’re on the subject of “being kind to all,” let me point out that making harsh, ill-founded accusations against any large, unselective group – such as a race, gender, or age bracket – is the opposite of kind.*  Yet the “social justice” movement hasn’t just heaped collective guilt on whites, males, and “the old.”  It has heaped scorn on even mild pushback like “Not all men are sexist.”  Basic kindness, in contrast, enjoins you to (a) calmly investigate the validity of your accusations before voicing them; (b) carefully distinguish between misunderstandings and malice; (c) reassure innocent bystanders before you call out the demonstrably guilty.

5. The “Love is love” slogan is comparably Orwellian.  Thanks to #MeToo, almost every person who values his job is now too terrified even to meekly ask a co-worker out on a date.  Where is the love there?  When faced with compelling evidence that male managers were responding to the climate of fear by avoiding mentoring and social contact with female co-workers, the #MeToo reaction was not to mend fences but to make further threats.

6. “Science is real” would also bring a grim smile to Orwell’s face.  The diversity and inclusion movement shows near-zero patience for the pile of scientific research that estimates the share of group performance gaps that stem from discrimination versus other factors.  Instead, they (a) ignore the science; (b) speak as if science shows the share is 100%; and (c) treat people who discuss the actual science as if they’re personally guilty of discrimination.  The same goes for any unwelcome scientific conclusions about gender, sexuality, academic performance, etc.  Either embrace the foregone conclusions of “social justice,” or risk the wrath of the movement.  Just beneath the propaganda lies uniformity via exclusion.

7. What’s the relationship between Orwellian language and the motte-and-bailey fallacy?  Quite distant.  Orwellian language amounts to saying the opposite of the truth.  Motte-and-bailey, in contrast, is about strategically toggling between moderate and extreme versions of your creed.  E.g., sometimes feminism is the moderate view that “Women should be treated as fairly as men”; yet the rest of the time, feminism is the extreme view that “Women should be treated as fairly as men, but totally aren’t in this depraved sexist society.”

8. If all this is true, how come I’m not too scared of Big Brother to write it?  Tenure is a big part of it.  The official point of tenure is to make professors feel free to voice unpopular truths – and I’m all about unpopular truths.  Still, I’m no martyr.  If I were looking for an academic job, I would shut up.  I hope many tenure-seeking readers feel the same yearning to voice unpopular truths with impunity, though I fear your numbers are few.

9. What’s the least Orwellian feature of the “social justice” movement?  Support for illegal immigrants, of course.  First World countries really do treat illegal immigrants like subhumans, and to its credit the social justice movement offers them moral support with the poetic slogan, “No human being is illegal.”  Yet sadly, the volume of this moral support is barely audible, because the movement has so many higher priorities.  If its activists took the immense moral energy they waste on costumes, jokes, and careless speech, and redirected it toward the cause of free migration, I’d forgive their Orwellian past today.

10. Meta-question: Why do Orwellian movements exist at all?  Why doesn’t each movement say what it means and mean what it says?  “Marketing” is the easy answer: When your true goals are awful, you resort to deceptively pleasant packaging to keep forward momentum.  While this story makes sense, it’s incomplete.  The most Orwellian movements actively revel in the contradiction between word and deed – and even in the contradiction between word and word.  The best explanation is that submission to an Orwellian creed is a grade-A loyalty test.  Insisting that all your members admit that “The sky is blue” doesn’t weed out the doubters and fair-weather soldiers.  Insisting that all your members admit that “The sky is green” or “There is no sky,” in contrast, selects for fanatics and yes-folk.  And sadly, those are the sorts of people movements like “diversity and inclusion” appreciate.

* “Social justice” is of course a selective movement.  You can disaffiliate anytime you like – and if you don’t want to be blamed for poor behavior of your compatriots, you should.

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Tired of Political Drama over Virus

On the personal front, there are new developments in the continuing saga of the Greatly Feared Virus Pandemic of 2020.

Two family members caught COVID-19 several weeks ago. They both apparently recovered, in spite of being in the age group most vulnerable. One even has additional risk factors but made it through and now feels fine.

After being tested he was told to take Tylenol and get help if he started having trouble breathing. When the hospital called a few days later to tell him he had tested positive they didn’t change their instructions. This sounds to me like the medical professionals didn’t take the virus too seriously, but as it turns out they didn’t need to.

I was thoroughly exposed and apparently didn’t catch it. I say “apparently” because we are warned by the politicized medical experts of hidden dangers from this sneaky virus. Those who recover are warned of lasting damage to major organs, and those without symptoms are warned they may have it and be contagious without knowing.

How convenient. Notice how this justifies — in some people’s minds — the ongoing shut-downs and mask mandates. After all, if you can’t know anything for certain, you’d better comply with everything suggested by our Glorious Leaders in their pronouncements from the cathedrals of government.

Or not.

Still, because I care about people, I was cautious about exposing others to my possible contagious condition. I don’t want to be a Typhoid Mary. As I’ve said from the beginning, I can take something seriously without panicking over it.

This virus could still kill me. It’s unlikely but possible. I could also be taken out by a meteor, but if that’s the case no one in the region would be safe. This area might get a cool attraction out of my demise, though. It worked for Arizona with their meteor crater.

I joke, but I’m tired of the adolescent drama coming from political quarters. They made it personal when my family vacation got canceled by New Mexico’s tyrannical governor and her forced shut-downs of almost everything. I don’t blame the virus for this; I blame political overreactions and those using the virus as an excuse to see how hard they can push.

I need time in the mountains and on forest trails. This opportunity was stolen from me by the fear-mongering politicians. Is this safety fascism likely to earn them my thanks and loyalty?

What do you think?

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Give Thanks to Fossil Fuels

Was the power on in your house this morning?

If so, thank fossil fuels!

A few parts of America do get energy from other sources. Washington state has fast-flowing rivers that allow Washingtonians to get most of their electricity from hydroelectric power. Iowa now gets about 40 percent of its electricity from wind.

But most of us get power from the much-hated fossil fuels, primarily natural gas and coal.

Burning them does pollute, although government-mandated (yes, government has done some useful things) controls like scrubbers in smokestacks have nearly eliminated the dangerous pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide.

But fossil fuels do still emit greenhouse gasses, and that probably increases global warming. Yes, I know some scientists doubt that man’s activities contribute much, but I’ll go with the large group that says we do.

Now, Black Lives Matter protesters say fossil fuels create “environmental racism” because black neighborhoods are often located in low-lying floodplains or are close to refineries and other energy infrastructure. Activist Jane Fonda recently joined them to say, “The fossil fuel industry will have to pay!”

But I suspect Fonda and other anti-fossil fuel protesters have no clue about where the electricity that powers their electric cars comes from.

Today, Americans still get 81 percent of our energy and 62.7 percent of our electricity from fossil fuels. Oil fuels about 91 percent of all transportation.

Without fossil fuels, much of the world would freeze in the dark. We just don’t yet have enough alternatives.

One country almost does: Iceland.

Iceland has hot springs, so geothermal power provides 25 percent of its juice, and hydropower provides most of the rest.

But even in Iceland, that’s not enough. Iceland still burns oil.

The protesters ought to watch the new documentary, Juice: How Electricity Explains the World. My new video this week is a short (4 minute) version of it.

“Electricity doesn’t guarantee wealth,” says energy journalist Robert Bryce, “but not having it almost always means poverty. The defining inequality in the world today is the disparity between the electricity-rich and the electricity-poor. Three billion people in the world today use less electricity than what’s used by my kitchen refrigerator. To empower the low-watt world, we’re going to need a lot more juice.”

Hate coal all you want, but it still accounts for about 38 percent of global electricity production. Even Japan, home to the Kyoto Protocol, plans to build 22 new coal-fired power plants.

Pitiful and expensive American “green” mandates won’t dent the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Americans take electric light for granted, but Bryce’s film reminds us: “Electricity allowed us to conquer our oldest foe: darkness. For millennia, the cost of having well-lit spaces at night was so high, only the very rich could afford it.”

That’s still true in much of the world. About 300 million people in India have no access to electricity.

Many cook and heat their homes by burning cow dung. It’s why about 1.3 million Indians die from indoor air pollution each year. Cooking with cow dung, Bryce says, “is akin to burning 400 cigarettes an hour in your kitchen.”

Pollution like that is a much bigger threat to disadvantaged people than greenhouse gasses American activists complain about.

“Darkness kills human potential. Electricity nourishes it,” says Bryce.

But what about climate change? I’m told that’s why we must move to renewable energy.

Renewables, Bryce replies, simply cannot supply “the enormous amount of electricity the world needs at prices consumers can afford.”

Environmental activist Michael Shellenberger points out that he hears environmentalists say: “People must reduce energy consumption! (But) the only people in the world who say that are rich people.”

“Energy poverty vs climate change. There is no easy, one-size-fits-all solution,” concludes Bryce. “But there are about three billion people in the world without adequate access to electricity…and they will do whatever they have to do to get the electricity they need.”

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Social Salvation vs. Individual Salvation

From one era to another of human history, human energies seem to be dedicated either to social salvation – think “progress” – or individual salvation – think “enlightenment” or “sanctification”. Sometimes this takes religious guises, other times more secular ones.

We live in a time that, despite its frequent pandering to individual *lusts* and frequent spastic efforts to find “enlightenment” (yoga, New Age, etc), does not really have a structure that encourages individual salvation.

The social structure trains us to want *progress* for our society – whether it’s political and moral (in the way we think about gender, race, etc) or economic (we want more stuff for more people) or technological (we want more power over our natural world). We pursue social progress whether or not that means individual improvement in virtue, heroism, etc.

On the other hand, I would be interested to know whether more traditional and hierarchical societies like those of medieval Europe, despite not having an explicit ideology of individualism, did more to encourage individuals to seek sanctification.

In the relative technological, religious, and artistic stability of more traditional societies, the individual was just about the only actor that *could* change. Time would have been viewed more circularly and less linearly, with each generation restarting the hero’s journey and finding a fleshed-out and tested set of rituals for going from stage to stage. You either progressed as a person, or you didn’t.

This is speculation, but it seems fair speculation to say that more traditional societies at least had stronger ritual support for individual transformation.

It is not speculation to say that as we have become more concerned with technological/social progress, we have managed to make it harder for individuals to become heroic, holy, fully realized beings. Yes, we wield more potential power than ever in the form of computers and data, but we also buy that power with the need for sedentary lifestyles (sitting at desks) and greater economic centralization (corporations), not to mention all the mischief that computers tend to create from pornography to internet trolling.

It probably is not the case that social progress (in the sense of linear change over time) and individual progress are opposed. I think social progress tends to come out of individual progress. But I think it’s much more important that individuals – the only beings who can *experience* change – get priority. And if that means tamping down on the rate of supposed social innovations, so be it.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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In Most Conflicts of Ideas, Socratic Dialogue Beats Research

There are so many controversial issues in our world right now, and so many people who want to change the way we think, see, speak, feel, and live because of them.

I’m not an expert on COVID, not an expert on climate change, not an expert on China, not an expert on interracial and intersex relations, etc. I have my ideas and strong beliefs, sure. And yes, I should try to learn as much as is practicable about the issues that matter. But I must also realize that it would take a lifetime to gain the full data picture on any of these issues. And I also realize that any attempts at data gathering are especially colored now by strong bias, censorship (political or otherwise), hatred, and fear.

What’s a thinker to do? Maybe a cautious agnosticism is justified, but the vehement ideologies now held by most people won’t really allow for aloofness, particularly on issues with consequences for political freedom. If you wish to check anti-freedom ideologies,, you’re going to have to do some challenging.

But if it’s not realistic to expect the average person to dig into history and scientific studies in a rigorous way, what is the right approach?

In my experience, a Socratic dialogue style works best. Ask good questions, See what facts (or evidence thereof) your opponent puts forward. Unless you have opposing evidence, don’t worry so much about hurriedly Googling some confirmation of your own side. Accept their evidence. But question their premises or conclusions.

It is far more efficient to deal with identifying the errors in logic than the errors in fact (though correcting all kinds of errors are important). Logic works by a series of first principles that everyone can learn and no one can evade. Contradictions, fallacies, false equivalencies, and other errors in thinking are much easier to dislodge than disputes over evidence (often evidence can be ambiguous).

The other benefit to accepting your opponent’s evidence – conditionally, at least – is to make the truth-seeking process a bit less combative. Combative discussions rarely lead to a change in shared understanding. Try to listen and look for truth in the other person’s statements, then dismantle the bad connections of logic. If there are errors of fact, those can be fixed next.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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