Wednesday, September 24, 2008

More thoughts on Ebert's Poe

Martin wrote:

Ebert comes clean

And gives those of us who get a little smug about our critical thinking a refresher on the importance of critical thinking. Go read.

And he thanked me by name! You now get to ridicule me mercilessly for going into fanboy squee mode.

To be fair, PZ does have some valid criticisms.

Yeah, more than valid; it's an excellent point that PZ is making. I like and respect Ebert, and many times I've relied on his well-written opinions to decide what movies to see. Having said that, I've seen this "point" made too many times to find it in any way novel or clever. The point appears to be: "I said stupid things in a public forum to show how people would react, and sure enough people called me stupid."

I mean, yes, ho ho Roger, very droll. The problem is that if I went around assuming that everyone was kidding when they recited a bunch of ignorant tripe that sounds exactly like what real creationists say, I'd be wrong in 95% of all cases, instead of (as some people were) wrong in this one. I am a fan of Ebert too, and like Martin, I'm familiar enough with his history that I didn't think he would really turned into a creationist. But most people, having at most a passing familiarity with his non-movie writing, would have no reason to assume it wasn't real. The only way to be sure is to read through the creationist nonsense carefully enough to detect the subtle sarcasm. And who the hell wants to do that, when all the creationist "I told you so" lists are so very uninteresting and similar to each other?

Lots of people pull the "I acted stupid and people called me stupid" trick and call it a study of human nature. Many of them even use this tactic to cover up the fact that they really do believe something genuinely stupid, like Scott Adams. Another guy who very clumsily pulled the same thing was our good buddy Patrick, who, after receiving well over 100 emails that universally panned his weird lawsuit crusade, wrote to tell us that the whole thing was an "experiment." Right.

I'm not saying that Roger Ebert is lying, of course, I'm just saying that it's strange to criticize people for being convinced by your plausible imitation of real idiots. Ebert does make a very fine point at the end of his recent post:

These days, there is no room for ambiguity, and few rewards for critical thinking. Now every word of a politician is pumped dry by his opponent, looking for sinister meanings. Many political ads are an insult to the intelligence. Here I am not discussing politics. I am discussing credulity. If you were to see a TV ad charging that a politician supported "comprehensive sex education" for kindergarten children, would you (1) believe it, or (2) very much doubt it? The authors of the ad spent big money in a bet on the credulity and unquestioning thinking of the viewership. Ask yourself what such an ad believes about us. No politics, please.

Yeah, he's absolutely right, somebody would have to be a moron for believing that Obama wants comprehensive sex education for kindergarteners. However, somebody would not have to be a moron to believe that somebody would earnestly claim that he said that. They already did, and do. Hundreds or thousands of blog posts have been written which take the claim seriously.

So suppose that instead of writing about creationism, Ebert had written a "Jonathan Swift" style post saying, "Hey did you hear about Barack Obama? He wants to teach six year olds about condoms." And then further suppose that a lot of people had written to him with all kinds of verbal abuse, and then Ebert had said "Ha ha! You see how gullible these people are? To their credit, no Republicans wrote to me at all." That's really not all that clever.

Besides which, I'd have to say that PZ didn't really get fooled. Oh sure, he wondered what was up with that post, but speculating that his blog got "hacked" instead of assuming that Ebert was writing a joke isn't all that unreasonable. I would say that he was no more fooled than Matt was when "Eve" and I conspired to mess with him on the show. Matt took the call at face value, but he also looked suspicious and said "I'm not sure that call was real."

The difference between our joke and Ebert's was that I was genuinely trying to make Matt laugh later. I wasn't trying to prove anything about his gullibility, or claiming to expose a character flaw.

1 comment:

  1. Another guy who very clumsily pulled the same thing was our good buddy Patrick, who, after receiving well over 100 emails that universally panned his weird lawsuit crusade, wrote to tell us that the whole thing was an "experiment." Right.

    Well, Patrick of course was pulling a Yomin and lying to cover his butt. Ebert was trying to make a point abut critical thinking, and while I thought it was a good joke, I could see how people might have been fooled, and I had this to say in my comment left over at Ebert's blog.

    ...if there was an overreaction by a lot of science bloggers and like-minded people, well, it can only be a reflection of the dismay we all feel at seeing proper science education not merely undermined but deliberately torn to shreds by religious ideologues and promoters of pseudoscience and those with a pure hatred of knowledge itself, who sneer at you as "elitist" if you display even a hint of that thar highfalutin book-larnin'. This election year, the GOP has chosen as a vice-presidential candidate a woman who thinks the earth is 6000 years old and that the founding fathers wrote the Pledge of Allegiance.

    As America loses a whole generation of young minds that might otherwise have opened up new frontiers in scientific discovery, our nation will fall farther and farther behind. We're currently dependent on foreign powers for our energy. Next, will it be medicine? Or any other kind of life-sustaining advance that only science can bring us? Because over here, we've forgotten how to learn, only how to obey authority and memorize dogma with no regard to how true or false it may be?

    A lot of people are echoing PZ's points over there, too.


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