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Stephen Law’s Intellectual Black Holes, or How Not to Win Friends

September 1, 2011

Warning: Snark Attack Ahead

So you’ve been in the skeptic movement for a bit, dipped your toes in the waters, so to speak, and gone looking for the woonuts so as to have a blast pointing out their every fallacy and poorly thought out idea. Now what? You wanna upgrade your game some, show off your intellectual superiority and really go to town. Why limit yourself to just garden variety woo like homeopathy? If you read Stephen Law’s new book Believing Bullshit, you’ll be armed with a ton of great information which you can use to alienate 70% of Americans: those who believe in God.

Hey, why not? It’s not like we’re not feeling enough love from those who buy into the woo like homeopathy, integrative medicine, chiropractic, quantum deepak fluff, and UFOs ; let’s really piss off people and see if we can reach them by making a point of ridiculing everything they believe. Sure, we can lessen the sting some if we occasionally write that it’s not that we have a problem with the belief itself per se but the arguments themselves. We should follow Law’s example, as page after page readers have to see the book’s title at the top before they dive into examples of  fallacious argument after fallacious argument showing conclusively that their most tightly held beliefs and explanations for those beliefs are bullshit. Just pure-dee bullshit.

Seriously. It’s time to go scorched earth. We’re not building bridges anymore, people. We are making our last stand here. Drawing our line in the sand and letting absolutely everyone we disagree with know they believe bullshit and we’re not standing for it. Stephen Law’s book gives us the absolute how-to guide on how to alienate everyone in our lives. Except Spock. Too bad he’s not real. It’s a must-read if we want to take no victims, tear down all relationships, make clear we aren’t interested in tolerance, acceptance and diversity. Screw all you who are sucked into “intellectual black holes” that you call belief in a creator.

Really. Why bother any more? Why put up with nonsense? If people can’t be bothered to muster cogent arguments devoid of fallacies, they believe bullshit and we shouldn’t have to listen to it any more. Instead let’s just ridicule them. All of them, no matter what the belief itself is.

Is it that bad, though? That extreme? Does Law really advocate that? Honestly, having eagerly picked up his book after Michael Shermer’s The Believing Brain, I was ready to hear what he had to say, see what I could use to help my students become better at critical thinking. I mean, the title’s a beauty, right? Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole. It doesn’t get better. And it is a well-written, well-structured text. His examples of fallacies are really good examples. Page after page of really good examples. So what’s my problem? After all, if you’ve read me or know me well, you know that I think it highly unlikely there is a god. But you also know I would never in a million years mess with people over their spiritual beliefs, unless of course they are Robert Lanza and Deepak Chopra.
There is absolutely nothing in the title to suggest that the bulk of this book is going to focus on bashing believers and pointing out in a carefully laid out, damning way, how all the arguments used to argue there is a god are fallacies. If one is trying to reach out to the masses and not an audience that already accepts your premises, this is not the way to do it. It’s not. Those people are gone before you’ve gotten to the third example of your first intellectual black hole, and you’ve probably made an enemy.
If you’re simply trying to arm your allies with well-honed tools to devastate those who hold religious beliefs, then job well done. Let the scorching of earth commence.
I really wanted to use parts of this text with my students this semester, but I’m in West Texas and it won’t work here. I’d lose them all day one. Fortunately, Law provides a conclusion where he provides a list of the black holes and some examples that don’t solely deal with a belief in the creator. There’s material here that I can use with students to help them think more critically and I’m appreciative of that condensing of what really are excellent tools.
Our goal as educators should not be to give our students flame throwers and tell them to go forth and lay waste to those who have faith. Unless of course, it’s Deepak Chopra and Robert Lanza. Then, they  should have at it. So, charlatans and con artists who prey on the unsuspecting we ought to be actively fighting. Those who live out a life of faith in a higher being, which works to inform their lives with meaning, coping mechanisms, and a little peace? No. That’s my line in the sand. We don’t ridicule and attack them. We don’t tell them they believe bullshit. We don’t target them. And I guess it’s that potential take-away that we do and should from a well-written, thoroughly convincing text that has me concerned. I’m not saying Law’s advocating that, of course. He may just really want to point out that the arguments concerning belief in a creator are in his mind complete and utter bullshit. He should have probably included that in the title, then. And it may be that I’m over-sensitive given the rifts right now in the skeptic and atheist movements as people argue over whether they should be permanently entwined, but I don’t think so, at least not entirely. Law doesn’t focus most of his examples on the extremes of religious belief, but instead chooses to look at the most generic of arguments for belief in a creator, any creator. He targets all believers equally.
Ridicule does, indeed, have its place. But it doesn’t work to win over the very people you’re ridiculing, and if you are interested in equipping all people with tools for how to evaluate claims and evidence and make up their own minds, you don’t do it by pissing the majority of them off.
That means, for me, personally, that I could recommend this book to individuals who are atheists and agnostics, tell them it has good tools in it, and is worth their time, but that I would steer my friends who live lives of faith to Shermer’s book. Yes, he deals with belief, but he is gentler, kinder, and more interested in providing tools without a scorched earth policy.
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