Scepticism, Liberty and Cognitive Dissonance.

I’ve always considered myself somewhat of a libertarian when it comes to matters of politics and personal freedoms. I strongly believe that for the most part the government or any large establishment generally has no right to poke around in my private affairs unless I’ve explicitly allowed them to first. That or there’s a potential for me to do harm to others through my actions. There’s also this other part of me that can’t stand misinformation like what we see coming from the anti-vaccination movements that seemed to have popped up everywhere. However more recently I’ve been dealing with a bit of cognitive dissonance when it comes to the rising sceptic movement and their dealings with religious folk.

Whilst I’ve been struggling with the idea for a while this video I saw yesterday caused the dissonance I had felt previously to rise up again:

There’s also this post for a little bit more background on the matter.

First off let me say that if I was walking into that creationist museum I’d probably be doing the same thing as their group was doing. When it first opened I saw some of the pictures online I can’t say I didn’t make fun of them (this one is particularly amusing) and I probably would have been laughing the whole way through. Walking into a creationist museum wearing a Dawkins t-shirt was probably stirring the pot a little bit but I’ll concede that they could have reacted in a much more dignified way. But this is where everything starts to get all murky for me as the libertarian and sceptic in me start to duke it out.

The museum itself really isn’t doing any damage to anyone nor impinging on the freedoms of those who visit it. The funding to build the museum came from Answers in Gensis a non-profit organisation who makes do mostly on donations and for all intents and purposes are a transparent organisation. People giving money to them know what they will do with it and there seems to be no ill intent from them. In fact I had never heard of the organisation prior to this date (I somehow missed it in the first press releases) so they can’t be too bad.

Sceptics would probably argue however that the museum itself is a tool to spread misinformation. Now whilst the museum title is a little misleading you’d have to be relatively naive to be able to blast past the fact that this place is firmly rooted in Young Earth Creationists ideals. As such something that states its goals so plainly before everyone can hardly be classified as a tool of misinformation. It would be like saying the National Air and Space Museum is nothing but a tool of the aviation industry, it’s not quite like that.

I guess the problem I have here is that when some sceptics come up against people don’t believe in science is that on the surface they appear to be fighting for fact based reasoning but once you get down to it, they’re just zealots for another cause. I’ve come to realise that sometimes you can never convince someone of your viewpoint and that it is better to just lay out the facts as you see them and then leave it at that. At least that way you’ve had your say, they’ve had theirs and you can all agree to walk away from it. If either of you have a compelling argument it will stick in your opponents mind and you might end up with another ally rather than someone who dismisses your ideas as petty zealotry.

Religion does have its place and I came to accept that many years ago. Destroying people’s faith is not something I’ve seen help a lot of people but if they are presented with some facts and they decide to do some research on their own then that is the true power of an idea. Ravenously campaigning against people’s faith does nothing but strengthen their resolve and the best method of defense is to their the facts stand up for themselves.

Maybe I’m just a pacifist at heart.


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  1. I was with you until you wrote “Believe in science”. Which science? I’m not sure science which is simply a tool should be something that people need pledge allegiance to, or identify with. Post-modernism has largely been left behind, but it has made some significant and useful contributions showing how even the most uber-rational scientific fields have elements of competing paradigms. All theories are explicitly NOT equal, but we need to have a conscious reflection that any set of established knowledge necessarily involves the exclusion of other information.

    It’s precisely because of this that I think you are right that we have to simply allow these foolish and mis-informing groups to make their case. Government has a requirement to be professional and sober in its judgement (such as with museums, curriculum’s etc) and can enforce some standards (I don’t think Intelligent Design should be taught alongside biology, but it’s fine in a Religious Studies course).

    I should lend you J.S.Mill’s On Liberty(or google it). It’s very short and most is on the importance of freedom of speech and public information flows, however erroneous such views may seem.

    What we really however need to do is get rid of the idea that the amateur outsider who advocates heretical knowledge is somehow more virtuous and wise than the professionals. As I (by pure co-incidence) was talking about on my blog this afternoon:

    A similar example is hate-crime legislation. Whilst a common piece of left wing ideology, i’ve come to oppose it because it ends up punishing people based on whats in their head. It may be targeted only against those views I consider the worst of human thought, but they ought not be illegal.

    Maybe we should vblog this topic. Lots of food for thought.

  2. You have aptly caught me using a generalisation in order to get a point across, which I could have escaped easily by using something more along the lines of “scientific reasoning” or “fact based logic”. Chalk that one up to laziness on the part of the author πŸ˜‰

    Agreed on your second point as well. The separation of church and state is something that I still believe is valid as the government has no business in regulating people’s beliefs. This includes things like Intelligent Design, which is quite appropriate in courses with a theological bent but fail to stand up to scientific rigour.

    Hate-crime legislation is a real world example of what a full blown thought-crime policy could turn out to be. I still shudder to think of the idea especially when George Orwell predicted so succintly, just had the years off by a couple of decades.

    After our last attempt at vblogging I’d be keen to give it a go again. This time I might put a little more effort into preparation than we did last time. πŸ™‚

  3. “What we really however need to do is get rid of the idea that the amateur outsider who advocates heretical knowledge is somehow more virtuous and wise than the professionals.”

    I agree with your point but how do you propose we do this? There are groups like the chiropractors that are suing people for asking for evidence into their absurd claims. They are using the legal system to stop people from forming an informed opinion. What about homeopathy, tarot cards, astrology and all the other forms of non professional information that is considered by a large amount of the population to be ‘true’, even when there is no empirical evidence for it.

    Do you suggest we legislate against it? Sure some of the things I have mentioned are harmless, but when someone is choosing new age ‘medicine’ over a professional doctor when it comes to cancer ect where does a liberal ideology fit?

  4. I won’t speak for Andrew but personally I believe anyone has the freedom to choose what they believe up to the point where it begins to negatively affect others. The anti-vaxx movement for instance is something that should be legislated against as parent’s are making misinformed decisions that put both their own child and others at needless risk. The others can be considered harmless to the public at large (although tarot/astrology walk a fine line there) and as such do not require government intervention.

    The chiropractors using the legal system to silence dissenters is something that does worry me, as it sets a precedent for those who make basless claims to sue their problems away. In reality such claims will be dismissed but the damage will be done by the larger corporations dragging the little guys through expensive court proceedings. It’s a bit of a grey area at the moment and we need a couple cases to set the precedent against those who seek to abuse the system. That will unfortunately take time.

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