About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, April 02, 2012

On debunking relatives

by Massimo Pigliucci

This blog is devoted — at least ideally — to the practice of evidence-based rationality. Which means that from time to time we turn our writing to the debunking of indefensible notions, be they the existence of UFOs, that of paranormal powers, or the “scientific” status of creationism. While my co-writers and I think this is an important, if small, contribution toward a better society, from time to time I wonder why I’m not quite as active in debunking my relatives’ bizarro beliefs (as far as friends are concerned, I try to select them more carefully). This past week I had occasion to reflect on this quite a bit, because of a visit of a close relative who, as it turns out, subscribes to almost every type of irrational belief I can think of.

First, let me give you an idea of what I’m referring to. Most predictably, perhaps, s/he is a believer in a Catholic-style god, naturally oblivious to Humean and even Kantian counter-arguments. But that’s most definitely not unusual, and as long as religious belief stays clear of fundamentalism I honestly have little incentive to engage it.

The relative in question also subscribes to a variety of “alternative” medicine practices. Here I did put up a weak challenge, paraphrasing Tim Minchin’s hilarious Storm and pointing out that there is no such thing as alternative medicine, because when an alternative remedy works we simply call it “medicine.” That got a good humored laugh, but I seriously doubt that a rethinking of medical priorities will follow.

Then it turns out that my relative is also a truther: s/he thinks that 9/11 was somehow orchestrated by the federal government. Stunned, I asked on what grounds could such belief possibly rest. I was hence treated to vague references to 400 year old conspiracies by some group of Illuminati that included the Italian politician Giuseppe Mazzini (whom my relative misplaced in history by almost a century), to “well known American engineers” who have attested to the “fact” that the twin towers could not have collapsed because of the exploding airplanes, and finally to the well known “fact” that somehow no Jews died in the resulting inferno.

This one really got my juices going, however, so my challenges became stronger, and went on for the good part of a morning — during which, appropriately, we were visiting the recently open 9/11 memorial. The Illuminati story was quickly dropped after I pointed out that Mazzini had lived in a different century, and after I made the commonsense observation that the main reason I don’t believe in (most) conspiracy theories is because — humans being humans — any plot involving large numbers of people and long periods of time is almost guaranteed to both fail and become known. People are simply not that smart (which leads to the frequent failure of plots), and they love gossip (which is how those involved are discovered).

I then commented only briefly on the “experts” my relatives was relying on because that discussion would have gotten technical very quickly, and simply pointed out that plenty of other (actual) experts had debunked the notion of bombs planted inside the twin towers to make them collapse on demand. (Interestingly, we barely touched on why the federal government would do such thing to begin with, though we both quickly agreed that the war on Iraq had nothing to do with Islamic terrorism.)

Finally, we got to the missing Jews. My relative insisted that s/he had checked the names of the people killed on that day, and found not a single Jew. Quickly skipping (out of politeness) over how unlikely it was that s/he actually had done that kind of thorough homework, I pointed out —  at the very site of the memorial — how many Jewish names were actually listed on the sides of the two reflecting pools that make up the monument. Surprisingly, that did have an effect (after a weak attempt at suggesting that these people were not really Jews, because a Jew is someone who practices the religion. That counteroffensive didn’t last long, and I think I even managed to impart some elementary cultural knowledge there.)

The bottom line is that I was much less willing to engage my relative’s cuckoo beliefs than I normally am with strangers, even though I think I did manage to make her/him doubt or even reconsider part of the nonsense s/he apparently so readily accepts. The question is: should I not have done more? After all, I subscribe to virtue ethics, an approach to morality according to which your friends and relatives are actually more important (to you) than strangers because you have a relationship with and duties toward them. Do these duties not include steering them away from falsehoods, some of which (e.g., the ones concerning alternative medicine) can actually be directly deleterious to them?

But perhaps Aristotle’s somewhat tricky idea of striking the right middle ground applies here. On the one hand, I do care about fighting irrationality in the world, and I am particularly concerned when my relatives display it. On the other hand, I am also preoccupied with maintaining a caring and loving relationship with them — again, more so than with strangers — and these two criteria may come into conflict. The third way between the Scylla of all-out confrontation and the Charybdis of total acquiescence is the path I tried to follow during my relative’s visit.

This, of course, raises questions about what my attitude should be concerning these matters with strangers. Is the balance going to shift toward engagement on the basis that I do not have a personal relationship with most people? (I am sidestepping here the question of effectiveness, which is psychological, not ethical.) The answer would have to be no, if I wish to remain coherently within the framework of virtue ethics. However, in my forthcoming book (Answers for Aristotle, BasicBooks, to be released in September) I suggest that for practical purposes one can adopt different ethical frameworks under different circumstances (within limits, this isn’t an “anything goes” license). Particularly, that while virtue ethics is in my opinion the best approach on a small scale (personal decisions, relationships with friends, relatives and acquaintances), something more like rule-consequentialism (as opposed to the more crude act-consequentialism) may be appropriate when dealing with larger issues affecting the whole of society.

Indeed, two crucial differences between virtue ethics and consequentialism apply here: the first one is supposed to be an answer to the question of how are we to live, and its ethical concern is not universal (i.e., one is not supposed to treat everyone, strangers and relatives, in the same manner); the second one addresses the question of what is the right thing to do, and does so in an agent-neutral manner (i.e., regardless of who the agent is or what her/his relationship to you is). Professional ethicists will surely frown upon this mix-and-match approach, but I think it makes sense of why I felt reasonably comfortable engaging my relative’s bizarro beliefs in a way that is different from what I do when I write a blog entry or give a public talk. I wonder what Aristotle would think of this.


  1. It seems like you addressed pretty much every argument your relative made within a relatively short time-frame. I guess if you are concerned you didn't engage enough, was there something you think you didn't say?

  2. I've been arguing with "truther" relatives for years, though not as calmly as you apparently did - perhaps because one of those relatives is a parent of mine, the other an uncle whom I see a few times a year (e.g. holiday gatherings).

    In retrospect, I would say that I was more willing to engage their cuckoo beliefs because they are close relatives - probably more out of a personal sense of shame and embarrassment, as opposed to out of fealty to any particular ethical theory.

    Nowadays, we simply avoid the topic for the sake of keeping the peace (much like we avoid the topic of religion around our Christian relatives), but I gather that they still keep the 9/11 faith.

  3. The way I see it you accomplished a little something, which is more than most people can say. Plus, you seldom see the blinds fall from their eyes. Some people will just go home and mull over what you said truly seeing your point much later. Given how believers usually respond to fact one should be content with having planted a few seeds.

  4. From what you've said, I think you're constructing a moral framework to fit around your moral intuitions, in which case why not simply go with your intuition? Also, shouldn't you expect that an objective morality would be offensive to your ape intuitions? Quantum mechanics is offensive to mine, at least. And that's apparently an easier problem.

  5. Aren't the "consequences" of alienating your relative more potentially severe than alienating someone who has little power to unpleasantly retaliate? Or do you think a relative is somehow more, rather than less, forgiving of impertinence?
    And have you not noted that the most bitter enmities arise between those who have otherwise been closest?
    And isn't a consequentialist concerned with direct as well as indirect consequences"

  6. Being a skeptic/critical thinker entails a certain amount of tragedy, especially when you aren't preaching to the choir. Sadly, you have the cure for a disease most people don't know they have, don't want to be diagnosed with, and certainly don't want to be cured of. And, to top it all off, you know your medicine is painful, partial and more about managing than curing. Like any good physician, you think twice about treating your own relatives, especially when the prognosis is not good.

    I'd say you did the best you could. I find that one gentle question is often more effective in offering a blinkered person an entree to the truth. Good luck, and remember that no matter how much you might want to take their commitment to nonsense as a personal affront, they probably don't even realize that their are not only turning their back on a clear-eyed view of the world, but also dismissing the ideals that you personally hold so dear.

  7. I am willing to sit with you and share a few ideas of WHY we should audit the Fed and question their actions in our present day government. I feel that part of the reason why we can't constructively change the United States of America for the better is because we have allowed COMPANIES like the Federal Reserve "Organization" to control all of the means of LIFE as a citizen in any sovereign republic.

    From taking down small governments through inflation across the globe to the new 'intellectual' idea of printing out money, are small examples of why the Fed, (which they are)....is doing what most of us would not do.

    Humanly speaking, there is a balance under our reflective Equilibrium and as a modern society we tend to relate to peace under a fact intuitive principal that drives the world to a better tomorrow.

    I for example find the truth in things, no matter how they shape my experiences in existence, i accept them, because they are part of the rest that makes our world: Reality.

    "I don’t believe in (most) conspiracy theories is because — humans being humans — any plot involving large numbers of people and long periods of time is almost guaranteed to both fail and become known. People are simply not that smart (which leads to the frequent failure of plots), and they love gossip (which is how those involved are discovered)."

    If there is a reason not to believe in a conspiracy theory should be because of the experience in a theory itself.
    A conspiracy exists when you realize there are things in a small group working against any other similar, outnumbered or numbered. Now, constructively speaking: under any pragmatic demand, something becomes true when the facts are given and the experiences are met after those facts.

    Philosophically speaking: Contingency / Hence your take : "any plot involving large numbers of people and long periods of time is almost guaranteed to both fail and become known"

    I argue for 911 'truth-ers' only because what they are claiming 911 to be is an inside job under practical pragmatic terms.
    If there is something we ought to learn from present day constructivism is that we should not allow our practical reasoning to put aside factual arguments that derive to a truth.

    Avoiding the truth is really easy.... The 911 truth movement deserve respect and their given right to a trial against the REAL tyrants who, as they allegedly speak, caused 911 just because of the experiences that are given when we analyze what had happened, and happens IN A 9-11. 9-11 is a(scenario)

    Pragmatically speaking: A building will burn for hours, days, even WEEKS before it can be contained and no matter the structure it will not fall unless it was deliberately done so.... If this is the case, then someone INSIDE THE UNITED STATES provided access to the building, sawed off frameworks, yada yada....PRAGMATISM.

    and to rebuttal your argument on 'we are just humans being humans'- so we are bound to collapse into what makes us humans which is an imperfect state... i agree..but through times, you are able to control that experience that you humanly can...

    For example, being a King back centuries ago or the Roman Empire... people, being people, were able to control the masses until their contingency played a role in aesthetics as it is universally accepted, causing the empires to crumble.

    As life come and go into existence, so does experiences and information...that does not describe the capacity of the experience and it will never will.

  8. so,
    unless the plane impact REDEFINED THE LAWS OF GRAVITY, which pragmatically speaking it cannot ever happen, then there was something more to it....

    I believe they want to know WHAT THAT WAS.
    It is part of a 'human being human' to logically find the facts that they have figured out. Then, as they see what really happened, they demand a court of trail for the criminals who caused it.

    I mean 3000+ plus American lives were taken and it caused us to a decade and more of war.
    This is how serious the situation is.

    ( to be continued..)

  9. I really don't make a distinction between my relatives or strangers in the way I engage a discussion of this sort. While I keep it polite, I'm relentless on my position. I stop when the other party doesn't want to discuss the matter anymore, but if they keep with the bullshit, I keep with my arguments. If a relative stops talking to me because of me, I just have this to say: good riddance, and his/her loss.

  10. Oof, I sympathize. I find those conversations extremely awkward in the meat-o-sphere, even when they only touch on one controversial topic. You managed to get religion, alt medicine, 9/11 conspiracy, anti-Jewish conspiracy AND Illuminati conspiracy?!

    I don't think you did too bad. Realistically, we can only do so much in a conversation without it turning hostile & vitiating the whole point. Just plant some seeds... which you did, rather artfully it sounds like.

  11. "... from time to time I wonder why I’m not quite as active in debunking my relatives’ bizarro beliefs ..."

    With your relatives, you are guaranteed and/or obligated to a lengthy relationship with many opportunities for interaction. In the long run, maintaining the lines of communication will increase your chances of making a difference (usually, sometimes "getting in their faces" is the way to go). Even the largest flood will not carve the Grand Canyon (and yes, I mean it *that* way too ;), but a small river work over long periods of time will do the trick.

    With strangers, you are not likely to encounter them again, so you can make the biggest impact by hitting as hard as you can. Trying to avoid hurting the relationship is a waste of effort if there is not likely to be a relationship in the first place.

    So I think you may be judging yourself too harshly by calling it a "mix and match approach". I would rather describe it as adapting tactics to fit the terrain, while maintaining a consistent strategy throughout.


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