Time, Time, Time

One side effect of all this blathering I do at B&W is that I get a lot of correspondence, and get tangled up in protracted email discussions and debates. In fact, having said that, I’m reminded that Jerry S told me that would happen, a couple of years ago, after he’d thought of B&W and invited me to participate but long before he’d created it. There was an interval of a few months when B&W was an Idea but not yet a Reality – and sometime during that interval he had an amusing exchange with some indignant reader of TPM Online (someone in Prague, it seems to me, but that could be wrong – my memory isn’t up to much). He told me about it and then added something like ‘Just think, soon you’ll be having amusing exchanges like this too!’ And he was right.

Some are more amusing than others though. Some just get tedious, like trying to escape from underneath a duvet the size of Delaware. That’s especially true, obviously enough, when they’re entirely futile – which is one reason I avoid discussions with religious zealots. Because they tend to be futile, and time and energy are so very finite, and I have so very many other things to do. And yet – strange to say, I still have correspondents who try to convince me that such discussions are not futile. That discussion, any discussion, is always and invariably healthy and useful and productive, and the source, ultimately, of truth. I don’t believe a word of it.

The reason I don’t believe a word of it is that not everyone knows how to argue and discuss, and that trying to discuss things with people who don’t know how and refuse to learn does not produce truth, it only distorts. PZ Myers talked about this problem at Pharyngula last week, in a post on a debate between Michael Shermer and Kent Hovind.

I heard from someone who attended…that the recent debate between the skeptic Michael Shermer and the creationist fraud Kent Hovind was a debacle, and that Hovind walked all over Shermer…Shermer is right that if the debate were judged on technical merit and accuracy and logic, all the sorts of things scientists are good at, he was a winner. There is no logical, accurate creationist science. If you read any account of any of Hovind’s talks, you have to conclude that the man is freaking insane and dishonest, but—and this is the scary part—that doesn’t matter.

Then he quotes Shermer on the matter:

The problem is that this is not an intellectual exercise, it is an emotional drama. For scientists, the dramatis personae are evolutionists v. creationists, the former of whom have an impregnable fortress of evidence that converges to an unmistakable conclusion; for creationists, however, the evidence is irrelevant. This is a spiritual war, whose combatants are theists v. atheists, spiritualists v. secularists, Christians v. Satanists, godfearing capitalists v. godless communists, good v. evil…Thus, I now believe it is a mistake for scientists to participate in such debates and I will not do another.

So at least I’m not the only one who thinks the whole thing is at best futile and at worst a train-wreck. Because the two parties do not play by the same rules. To put it bluntly, one side feels some obligation to the truth and the other feels none, but just yells out any old thing that pops into its head, no matter how dishonest. Then it wonders what on earth you mean when you talk about asymmetry. That’s when it’s time to remember how finite time is and how many other things there are to do.

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