Sunday, August 04, 2013

Challenging Stupidity


The always thoughtful vjack at Atheist Revolution brought up an interesting question on his blog awhile ago, and I'm paraphrasing, "Are we obligated to challenge stupidity, and if so, when?"

The "obligation" to challenge stupidity that vjack speaks of is from a Christopher Hitchens quote that he posts on his blog and I've posted here in a slightly longer form,

"Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses ..."

As vjack says, if we always challenged stupid claims by others, we'd have scant time for anything else in our days.  But that shouldn't dissuade us from doing so when we see fit. His query obviously comes from the atheist/skeptic community frame of reference, but it doesn't have to.

There are varying degrees of stupidity and for the criteria that determines whether one should respond.  Does my challenging this specific point really make a difference?  Am I being personally hurt by this person's stupidity?  Is their stupidity willful or is just borne of a lack of knowledge?

Obviously, the definition of stupid is important.  Stupid isn't merely someone who disagrees with us.  I believe it means to be willfully ignorant.  Knowing you are wrong but because of your prejudice or belief system, you close yourself off from fact.

That last item is where I get most upset. It's not that you don't know something. It's that you don't care ... those people that are not intellectually curious. Or it's that your worldview actively discourages you from seeking out answers. I have little problem with people that through having not been exposed to something before are ignorant. But I will challenge you to no end if you are content to stay in that state of ignorance. Being wrong is not a crime. Knowing you are and encouraging others to share in your delusions ... maybe that should be. This "willful" area, I believe, encompasses almost all religion.

"Faith is nothing more than the license religious people give themselves to keep believing when reasons fail." -- Sam Harris

Is it just being mean to call those of faith "stupid"? Maybe. Obviously "stupid" can't help but be taken pejoratively.  But I'm trying to be serious here.  I'm honestly trying to figure out why people believe certain ways and what keeps them from analyzing their own beliefs.

I can suffer a lot of ignorance daily, and mostly bear it well. While I don't consider myself an expert in my field (computers), I have quite a bit of experience, a pretty good memory and an ability to use the scientific method to troubleshoot issues. For these reasons, there are few things that I cannot solve. I don't always know the answer, but I'm not afraid to go out and find the answer.

"The hard but just rule is that if the ideas don’t work, you must throw them away. Don’t waste neurons on what doesn’t work. Devote those neurons to new ideas that better explain the data." -- Carl Sagan

In your fields of work, do you often feel compelled to challenge ignorance? Are you more prone to challenge it on non-work related issues? Are you more likely to challenge clients, strangers, co-workers, friends or family?

I try not to challenge clients ... for obvious reasons. What will it get me ... besides one less customer?  But, there are a few areas while I will even challenge them, just to name a few:  science denial, racism, sexism.

"What is it you most dislike? Stupidity, especially in its nastiest forms of racism and superstition." -- Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22: A Memoir

What do you consider ignorance and how do you deal with it?



7 comments:

CyberKitten said...

Generally I've stopped calling people on their beliefs unless they are particularly objectionable - racism in particular gets the very sharp edge of my tongue.

I came to the conclusion a little while back that beliefs are just strongly held opinions and as such are barely worth discussing never mind arguing about - that is as long as they stay in peoples heads and don't emerge into the real world as politics or policy.

Normally I just laugh at peoples stupidity. Mostly on the inside but sometimes very much on the outside (as with a recent and rather forceful rebuttal of astrology at work).

dbackdad said...

Yes, there are more subtle (and effective) ways of engaging someone who is misinformed than direct confrontation. A bit of well-placed humor wins more converts than vitriol.

William Stachour said...

I wonder at these same things. In my line of work, engaging people about their views gets one exactly nowhere. I do run across pilots who honestly want to discuss issues and to inquire how one reaches a conclusion. And some of these guys are still very conservative, but willing to have discussions. Politics is, of course, a bad example, since it's so often the realm of opinion.

Religion is another matter, as people organize so much of their lives around it and the whole business is so evidently untrue. I tend to just let things slide unless the views seem especially harmful to others--opposition to evolution, resistance to climate science, male obsessions with female reproduction, etc. But even then, what does engagement get one?

CyberKitten said...

Bill said: But even then, what does engagement get one?

Indeed. Often nowhere......

I think challenging people's deeds is more important than questioning their beliefs. If the beliefs stay in their heads or emerge as hot air they're mostly (though not always) capable of being ignored. But when people want to *act* on their silly beliefs or stop other people living their often harmless lives in peace - then some response is required.

William Stachour said...

"I think challenging people's deeds is more important than questioning their beliefs."

Wise words, methinks. Indeed, it's the deeds that cause the pain to the rest of us, not the thoughts.

dbackdad said...

CK said, "I think challenging people's deeds is more important than questioning their beliefs ... when people want to *act* on their silly beliefs or stop other people living their often harmless lives in peace - then some response is required." -- Exactly. Especially on issues of religion, if people want to believe something silly, that is their prerogative. But if the those beliefs come into my world by either dictating how I live or how my child is taught, then that's where I'll get involved.

CyberKitten said...

dbackdad said: But if the those beliefs come into my world by either dictating how I live or how my child is taught, then that's where I'll get involved.

Oh *most* definitely!