Like most people, I'm lazy.
As a result, I was always at most indifferently competent at math and science. Sure, I did well enough in high school to get into a good college. That's because they stuck me in the slow classes for math and science, I earned perhaps a 75%, and it got curved up to an A-. I escaped before it became clear that I was faking pre-calculus and chemistry, because they involved facts and skills and work, not self-expression. Then, at Stanford, I took the year-long three-unit "Physics for Poets" track to satisfy my math, biological science, and physics requirements. How does the Pythagorean Theorem make me feel? It makes me feel good. Watch me write a ten-page paper about that. I can dash out ten-page papers in my sleep; that's not work.
As a result of my laziness, I am willfully ignorant — practically innumerate and scientifically demi-literate. Thus, when I evaluate the scientific issues of the day — from global warming to evolution — I am, on some level, succumbing to an argument from authority. Which people spouting science I barely grasp, using methodology I can't follow past the Sunday-supplement level, do I believe?
As it happens, I find the evidence (as I understand it) of evolution to be very substantially more convincing than the criticisms levied against it. Similarly, I find the evidence of a global warming trend more convincing than the evidence and arguments to the contrary. The weight of consensus on one side or the other is one factor, though by no means a deciding factor. The whys and wherefores of that are far beyond the scope of this post.
This leads me to another sort of laziness, a type that I've tried (with mixed success) to avoid. Should "belief" in evolution and global warming (and particularly man-made global warming) be used as a quick and easy way to separate people whose views we should consider from those whose views we may safely ignore?
Some seem to think so. Take this post by DougJ at Balloon Juice, which suggests that one way to separate "reasonable conservative blogs" from the chaff is to ask their writers and commenters whether they believe in evolution or in a rise in the planet's temperature over the last 30 years. Jason Kuznicki at League of Ordinary Gentlemen bites, as does James Joyner at Outside the Beltway, and Will at League of Ordinary Gentlemen satirizes.
Though DougJ might not disqualify me from the ranks of reason based on my answers to his two questions, and I might agree with his own answers, I think the questions are carrying intellectually lazy and objectionable baggage, especially when coupled with an inquiry into whether other people are "reasonable" and their writing worth reading.
Here's the thing: people with unscientific, irrational, and foolish ideas about evolution and global warming might still have something worthwhile to say about other topics. Take, as one example, Senator Tom Coburn. Coburn doesn't believe in global warming. He also thinks that lesbian gangs were terrorizing Oklahoma's school bathrooms. But he's a been a vigorous critic of earmarks. He's right to attack earmarks, and no less right because he's a nut on other issues. If he's the lone voice in the wilderness on earmarks, and we refuse to engage his criticisms because they're coming from a lesbo-potty-phobic global warming denier, then we're being lazy and cowardly. On the other hand, there are plenty of people, and groups, that believe firmly in evolution and global warming, but can't be taken seriously as bastions of science or reliable political analysis. You won't find much creationism or global warming denying at the Huffington Post, but you will find it to be a cesspool of junk science and assorted twittery.
Honest people — people who care about issues, and not crass group identities — ought to resist the strong human drive to construct rationalizations for ignoring competing viewpoints. "We can safely ignore and marginalize any blog where most of the authors or commenters don't believe in evolution or global warming" is lazy tribalism, just as surely as "we can ignore any bloggers and blogs that don't support Sarah Palin" or "we can ignore any bloggers or blogs that don't oppose the War on Drugs." It's all a cheat, a form of shorthand — a quick way to separate, in our mind, people who belong from people who don't. It may unclutter your RSS feed, but you're not going to learn much that's new, you're not going to challenge yourself.
I read any number of blogs written by people who, if they noticed me, would conclude that I am evil, or a moron, or not worth consideration. I read PZ Myers, even though he would think me an idiot and a sheep for going to church, because I learn things from him. I read Balloon Juice, including the aforementioned DougJ, despite the din of simplistic sneers and jibes about "glibertarians," because I learn things from them, and because their criticisms help me test and question my views on issues. I'm not claiming to be a paragon of open-mindedness — I find some blogs and bloggers simply too insufferable to read. But that's usually not because they hold views I find to be wrong, or even ridiculous. It's usually because of the way they treat diverging opinions. And the fact that I'm willing to read and consider people who don't believe in evolution, or global warming, doesn't stop me from criticizing or even ridiculing them on those issues.
We're already inclined enough to focus on expression that congratulates us for our preconceptions. We don't need more excuses. Labels are and you-must-believe-this lists are excuses. Use them sparingly, if it all.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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