Escape your life for a little while — come play in mine.


Posted by Lissa on February 18, 2010

Apparently Rosie “First time fire melted steel” O’Donnell and Janeane “That is nothing but a bunch of teabagging rednecks” Garofalo had a little chat the other day.  It was about as lovely as you’d expect, but this is the part that caught my eye:

GAROFALO: But here’s another thing with the type of mindset, like, like, I keep saying rightwinger, I don’t know what else to call it. A person that lacks empathy…Karl Rove, Frank Luntz, the guy who comes up with the talking points at these meetings. Grover Norquist. They have no shame. You can’t embarrass them. They have no problem, and they know that they, who they’re lying to. The base if you will. It need not be given facts, need not be fair-minded or open-minded to anything. And you, when you talk that way to people, the way Rush talks to people, the way he lies to people, you can’t have respect for him. You couldn’t possibly respect who’s listening to you if you lied to them the way that they do. They use these people as a blunt instrument.

“Truth”, to Janeane, is apparently what is agreed-upon between her and Rosie O’Donnell.  Anything that Rush Limbaugh, Brit Hume, Greta van Susteren, etc. says is not “truth” and is a lie.

A mindset like that nicely excuses the listener from ever watching, let alone researching, the hated Fox News.  Or really to any opposing viewpoint.  Why bother to listen when you already “know” the opposing viewpoint is lying?

It made me think of this fairly well-known Carl Sagan quote:

“A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage.”

Suppose … I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you’d want to check it out, see for yourself….

“Show me,” you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle—but no dragon.

“Where’s the dragon?” you ask.

“Oh, she’s right here,” I reply, waving vaguely. “I neglected to mention that she’s an invisible dragon.”

You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon’s footprints.

“Good idea,” I say, “but this dragon floats in the air.”

Then you’ll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.

“Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless.”

You’ll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.

“Good idea, except she’s an incorporeal dragon and the paint won’t stick.”

And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won’t work.

Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it is true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I’m asking you do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.

The only thing you’ve really learned from my insistence that there’s a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head. You’d wonder, if no physical tests apply, what convinced me. The possibility that it was a dream or a hallucination would certainly enter your mind. But then why am I taking it so seriously? Maybe I need help. At the least, maybe I’ve seriously underestimated human fallibility….

Now another scenario: Suppose it’s not just me. Suppose that several people of your acquaintance, including people who you’re pretty sure don’t know each other, all tell you they have dragons in their garages—but in every case the evidence is maddeningly elusive. All of us admit we’re disturbed at being gripped by so odd a conviction so ill-supported by the physical evidence. None of us is a lunatic. We speculate about what it would mean if invisible dragons were really hiding out in garages all over the world, with us humans just catching on. I’d rather it not be true, I tell you. But maybe all those ancient European and Chinese myths about dragons weren’t myths after all…

Gratifyingly, some dragon-size footprints in the flour are now reported. But they’re never made when a skeptic is looking. An alternative explanation presents itself: On close examination it seems clear that the footprints could have been faked. Another dragon enthusiast shows up with a burnt finger and attributes it to a rare physical manifestation of the dragon’s fiery breath. But again, other possibilities exist. We understand that there are other ways to burn fingers besides the breath of invisible dragons. Such “evidence”—no matter how important the dragon advocates consider it—is far from compelling. Once again, the only sensible approach is tentatively to reject the dragon hypothesis, to be open to future data, and to wonder what the cause might be that so many apparently sane and sober people share the same strange delusion.

If you firmly believe in the fire-breathing dragon, what would it take for you to seriously consider that the dragon may not be there?

If you firmly believe the opposing viewpoint is nothing but lies, what would it take for you to seriously consider that they might be considering the same facts as you, just coming to a different conclusion?

It was the war in Afghanistan that did it for me.  Body counts were simple enough to be widely predicted before and during the invasion and easily fact-checked some years later.  It was pretty clear that the doomsday prophecies by the media didn’t come true (at least not back then; there’s still room for disaster).  That was enough to snap me out of the comfortable assumption that everyone who disagreed with me was lying.

What would it take for Rosie and Janeane?

7 Responses to ““Truth””

  1. Borepatch said

    The Carl Sagan story is a great one. Any idea that is not falsifiable must be taken on faith.

  2. Brad K. said

    I love that phrase, “veridically worthless”. Veridical means truthful, coincides with facts. It also means, in dreams and visions, corresponding exactly to what has happened or will happen. Sagan’s reference to dreams or visions in the following paragraph is a more explicit reference to a premise or conclusion reached by some means other than direct observation of facts.

    Thus, the Warmers contention about global warming being a fact, and even more strongly that human activity related to fossil fuels has anything to do with significant changes to the climate, is a belief in an unproven premise – a dream or vision, if you will. The fact that this vision or concept no longer corresponds to reality is a veridically challenged position, but has no bearing at all on the faith part.

    Janeane and other Warmers believe so whole-heartedly about Warming that they are adamant about redistributing the wealth the non-Communists, uh, wealthy, have exploited from the workers, uh, poor people (that happen to be making labor union officials rich and powerful). What I haven’t seen is Janeane and those of her faith doing something useful with their wealth – like, buy some farm ground, and hire some people to work it in an oil-free manner. That would employ a few people, produce something useful – food – and reduce the contribution of those hired toward generation of greenhouse gases. Just don’t let them eat beans. Or raise livestock. If she set them up as dependents (oaths of fealty?) she could likely even write off most of the venture for the IRS. It could be sustainable!

  3. Nothing will shake their belief – it’s their religion.

  4. Dr. Feelgood said

    The point of Sagan’s little fable is that opposing beliefs are only equally rational (or irrational, if you prefer) in the hypothetical total-absence of evidence. There does not exist a single experience in all of existential reality in which this is the case. All causes have measurable effects. This is the most fundamental assumption of science. Ignorance of the evidence is not the same as absence of evidence. Rosie and JGarf hold beliefs that do not correspond with the evidence we have, therefore those beliefs are irrational. It appears this is why you were compelled to begin changing your beliefs as well, Lissa.

    I don’t think it’s accurate to understand the left-right dichotomy as an honest difference of opinion. Neither side has a lock on Truth, but one side or the other may be judged to have a clear advantage when arguments are weighed in light of physical and historical evidence. When JGarf and Rosie look our way they see only liars and lunatics (and the poor dolts who are misled by same). They are frequently forced to rely on dismissal out-of-hand because they are unable to compete on merit.

    To sum up, they continue to believe because they want to believe. They won’t even begin to pay lip-service to the evidence until they relinquish their dogmatism. I hope that happens, but these two in particular seem to be hopelessly devoted to the automatic-moral-superiority complex that accompanies persecuted-minority and/or elite status. “I must be better because I’m so different.” The deeper the mindset, the larger the identity crisis when changing it, and the more unlikely such change becomes.

  5. Brad K. said

    Dr. Feelgood,

    I wonder – how many people have been treated for mental illness, over the centuries, because they see insects or bugs crawling or flying around. That is, before we knew about detached retinas and floaters in the eye, that cause random visual phenomena. I mention this because you loosely apply to term “irrational”.

    I have found that there are the skeptical, the scientists, that test and challenge everything. Then there are those with other values that drive them, that often rely on what someone trusted has said. Which they then accept as “truth”. Religious leaders count on being trusted to fulfill their alloted role to those in their care.

    Rosie and JGarf might have visual or other defects that interferes with them seeing the view of the world that you might. Or, they might have delved deeply into understanding the issues and phenomena of gun control, Warming, etc. They could also have heard someone they trust declaim something, that they now hold as the “truth”.

    If the believe as they do because someone told the story the way they now repeat, then the only way to affect the story they tell today, is to challenge the trust they put into their source. As has been observed, they are unwilling to talk about the merits, facts aren’t anything they used to form their belief so facts are irrelevant, too.

    California still holds a lot of the anger and angst of the rebellious 1960’s. Distrust of “anyone over 30” might have gotten a bit winded, as the hippees are now about what – 70? 80? But an automatic distrust of the government, a knee jerk reaction that Washington, DC is lying and invested in destroying lives for the good of the evil military-industrial complex, multinational corporations, or both.

    When the Kyoto accord came out, and it had all the warm-fuzzy liberal doodads and bells and whistles, including blaming cows grazing and belching on leased federal lands, redistribution of wealth to feed the hungry, and “international cooperation”. Then the US Government, in a mad fit of common sense, declined. Whoops! That might be all the proof that JGarf and Rosie needed, to know that Kyoto was the only real answer to an impending disaster. Thus anyone denying the Kyoto approach must be lying, deluded, or impaired, just like the government. When you define the opposition that way, you don’t set yourself up for much productive exchange of information.

    You might as well call them hippie, for all the conformist, knee-jerk protester reactions they embody.

    Back in the day, it turned out to be amazing, what a DI could teach a boot in basic training. Too bad they haven’t restarted the draft, yet. Maybe next year. I am sure they are just chagrined they didn’t think to sign up to serve their country when they were younger.

  6. Another boomshakalakah and a slamdunk for you. Very well done.

  7. Got a bit of a theory that might add to this:

    So far I think it’s holding up fairly well, that these people who stand by their belief in the face of raw facts and reality might in fact be Narcissists.

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