Contra Kavanagh On Fideism
I’ve been looking into the world of YouTube streamers; if you want to make it big, you need to have a beef with some other online celebrity. Fine; I choose Chris Kavanagh, who tweeted about me recently:
This is an admirably concise encapsulation of everything I despise, so I want to respond. But first, a personal story:
When I was a teenager I believed in a conspiracy theory. It was the one Graham Hancock wrote about in Fingerprints Of The Gods, sort of a modern update on the Atlantis story. It went something like this:
Did you know that dozens of civilizations around the world have oddly similar legends about a lost continent that sunk under the waves? The Greeks called it Atlantis; the Aztecs, Atzlan; the Indonesians, Atala.
Various ancient structures and artifacts appear to be older than generally believed. Geologists say that the erosion patterns on the Sphinx prove it must be at least 10,000 years old; some well-known ruins in South America have depictions of animals that have been extinct for at least 10,000 years.
There are vast underwater ruins, pyramids and stuff. We know where they are! You can just learn to scuba dive and go see them! Historians just ignore them, or say they’re probably natural, but if you look at them, they’re obviously not natural.
Teenage me was impressed by these arguments. But he also had some good instincts and wanted to check to see what skeptics had to say in response. Here are what the skeptics had to say:
“Haha, can you believe some people still think there was an Atlantis! Imagine how stupid you would have to be to fall for that scam!”
“There is literally ZERO evidence for Atlantis. The ONLY reason you could ever believe it is because you’re a racist who thinks brown people couldn’t have built civilizations on their own.”
“No mainstream historians believe in any of that. Do you think you’re smarter than all the world’s historians?”
Meanwhile, I learned to scuba dive and checked out a site where Hancock said there were underwater pyramids. They were definitely there!
Nobody was under any obligation to handhold me out of my Atlantis beliefs. But the #1 Google rank for “site about how Atlantis isn’t real” is a scarce resource. Article space on skeptic blogs (podcasts were still years into the dystopian future at this point) was a scarce resource. And when people frittered these scarce resources away on a thousand identical pieces saying “lol you’re stupid and racist if you believe this, haven’t you heard that conspiracies are always wrong?” - and never on any explanation of the GIANT UNDERWATER PYRAMIDS - yes, I feel like I was wronged.
Eventually I lifted myself up by my own bootstraps. I studied some of the relevant history myself (less impressive than it sounds, Wikipedia was just coming into existence around this time). I learned enough about geology to understand on a gut level how natural processes can sometimes produce rocks that are really really artificial-looking - yes, even as artificial-looking as the ones in the picture above.
More important, I learned something like rationality. I learned how to make arguments like the one I use in The Pyramid And The Garden. I realized that, for all their skill at finding anomalies, the Atlantis books couldn’t agree on a coherent narrative of their own. Some placed Atlantis in the Atlantic, others in the Pacific, others in Antarctica; some used it to explain artifacts from long after others said that it fell. For a while if I squinted I could sort of kind of smush them into a single story, but that story had even more anomalies than normal historians’. Eventually I gave up and joined the mainstream.
I’m not angry at Graham Hancock. I see no evidence he has ever been anything but a weird, well-meaning guy who likes pyramids a little too much. But I feel a burning anger against anti-conspiracy bloggers, anti-conspiracy podcasters, and everyone else who wrote “lol imagine how stupid you would have to be to believe in Atlantis” style articles.
Either these people didn’t understand the arguments for and against Atlantis, or they did. If they didn’t, they were frauds, claiming expertise in a subject they knew nothing about. If they did, then at any moment they could have saved me from a five year wild-goose-chase - but chose not to, because it was more fun to insult me.
Kavanagh makes fun of me for writing 25,000 words on ivermectin.
I agree this might not have been the best use of my time, and I would accept this criticism from anyone except Kavanagh - who’s devoted his whole career to thinking about ivermectin and ideas closely aligned to it.
There’s a Hindu legend (maybe apocryphal?) about an atheist philosopher who spends literally every second of every day denouncing God. When he dies, God welcomes him into the highest heaven, praising him as a great yogi - for he never let his consciousness stray from awareness of God even for one moment. If by some inexplicable theological anomaly Bret Weinstein turns out to be God, Chris Kavanagh is definitely going to the highest heaven.
So Kavanagh’s complaint can’t be that I’m thinking about this question at all. He sort of hints at a complaint where it took me too long to figure out that ivermectin didn’t work - shouldn’t I have been able to do it without the long review? But I clearly said on my first post on the subject that I had long since decided it to my own satisfaction, and was just trying to clear up some of my remaining questions.
What is his complaint? At the risk of putting words in his mouth, two parts of his comment stand out to me as having important arguments:
I interpret this as - to even try to “evaluate the evidence” at all is a mistake, because it suggests there might be evidence on both sides. Instead, you should admit that some people are idiots who believe things there’s no evidence for, and move on.
But the problem with “if studies had supported ivermectin as an effective treatment, it would have been adopted”, is that about thirty different studies did support it, and it was adopted in several countries, mostly in Latin America. The first few meta-analyses of ivermectin found that it worked!
I’m not defending ivermectin here. I think there was a reasonable explanation of this: a combination of fraud, poor methodology, publication bias, and maybe Strongyloides infections. But until someone tells you the reasonable explanation, there’s no reasonable explanation! It’s like the giant underwater pyramids. If I go diving and see the giant underwater pyramids, and you just say “LOL, you are stupid, don’t you know conspiracy theories aren’t real?”, you’re not going to convince me!
I wanted to give the reasonable explanation, in terms that people could understand. Before doing any research, I had some intuitive guesses about what the reasonable explanation would look like - something something methodological problems something something small studies. But this, itself, isn’t a reasonable explanation. It’s an IOU for a reasonable explanation.
I agree that many people are unreasonable and don’t respond to reasonable explanations. I think sometimes this is genetic or something and can’t be helped, but other times it comes after a hundred different experiences where you want reasonable explanations and don’t get them and also people are jerks to you and you learn that the establishment can’t be trusted. Mahabharata: “Even after ten thousand explanations, the fool is no wiser, but the wise man requires only two thousand five hundred.” If I had had to suffer through a few more skeptics calling me racist because I wanted to know why there were giant underwater pyramids, I probably would have believed in Atlantis even harder, out of spite, and never talked myself out of it. And then when ivermectin came along, I would have thought “Scientists? Experts? They’re the guys who are so dumb they can’t even figure out Atlantis existed when there are giant underwater pyramids right in front of their eyes. Screw them, I’m listening to Bret Weinstein.”
I side with the Christians. There may be people so far gone into the outer darkness that they can’t be saved, but you are forbidden from ever believing with certainty that any specific individual is in this category. Act as if everyone is one good deed away from falling to their knees and acknowledging the light of Jesus.
This is the part I have the most trouble interpreting charitably. I can’t stop reading it as “doing good science is a near occasion of sin for doing bad science”. It sounds kind of like fideism, the belief (more common in atheists’ imaginations than real religion) that somebody who reasons their way to belief in God is a sinner, because a real saint would have believed through blind faith, without having to reason.
The best I can do is to think of this as a PR argument: it looks bad to be treating these kinds of questions as live issues.
I generally don’t like PR arguments, but while we’re having them: doesn’t it kind of look bad for one side to be promoting fideism?
The ivermectinist slogan is “do your own research”. Kavanagh’s apparent slogan is “don’t do research” - even if you get it right, having tried it at all makes you impure. If there’s some argument I know nothing about - pro- vs. anti- skub, perhaps - and all I’ve heard is that the pro-skub people say that you should look at evidence and decide rationally based on your best judgment, and the anti-skub people say you should never look at evidence and have to trust them - I’m already 90-something percent sure pro-skub are the good guys.
My model of the PR here - of the overall milieu and psychological factors that turn people into conspiracists - is that they spot some giant underwater pyramids, compelling-seeming facts that appear to point toward conspiracy. These facts have alternative explanations, but these alternatives are less compelling and harder to explain. Realistically some people are going to get caught up in the conspiracy’s superior first-level compellingness and you can’t help them. But other people are on the fence and can be talked down. This is the job of the pro-mainstream-anti-conspiracy people. Instead of doing their job, these people:
tell them there’s “no evidence” for their beliefs, when they have just gotten back from a scuba dive to see the giant underwater pyramids.
tell them that they shouldn’t look at any evidence, looking at evidence makes you a bad person.
The budding conspiracists very reasonably decide that the pro-mainstream anti-conspiracy people are hostes humani generis, and that they will be delighted to believe the exact opposite of them on this point and any other points that may come up in the future. They might not start out in the outer darkness. But they sure as heck end up there.
I don’t think I’m ignoring this. Some might even say I obsess over it. See eg Confirmation Bias As A Misfire Of Normal Bayesian Reasoning, Motivated Reasoning As Mis-Applied Reinforcement Learning, and Trapped Priors As A Basic Problem Of Rationality, which are summaries of long years of thinking about these issues. I’ve looked into this pretty hard and my conclusion is that conspiracy ecosystems fall prey to the exact same biases that all of us have, including experts and correct people. But experts and correct people have slightly less of them, have better self-correction mechanisms, and manage to converge on truth, whereas conspiracy theorists have slightly more of them and shoot off into falsehood. I think of this as very subtle: 0.99^infinity goes to zero; 1.01^infinity goes to infinity. We all struggle with the same tendencies. The trick is in understanding and controlling them.
I discussed this in this other post on ivermectin, where I describe how a false pro-ivermectin claim provoked an equally false anti-ivermectin response provoked an equally false pro-ivermectin response and so on, both sides living entirely in their biases and imagination for several cycles. “Conspiracy ecosystems” don’t have some exotic reasoning style we can’t possibly understand. They have normal reasoning, and are just slightly worse at applying CONSTANT VIGILANCE than everyone else.
One final complaint, a restatement of some of the arguments I made in Cowpox Of Doubt.
A few days ago, I had to form an opinion on whether premenstrual dysphoric disorder was culture-bound or not (if that sentence doesn’t make sense to you, don’t worry - you can replace it with “whether skub is good or not” and lose nothing).
An article in Slate had claimed that it was. It cited five studies to this effect, and argued that the case against originated from the bad old sexist tendency for male doctors to diagnose women with “hysteria”.
But then an article in Vox claimed that it wasn’t! It also cited about five studies to this effect, and argued that the case in favor originated from the bad old sexist tendency for male doctors to dismiss women’s lived experience.
So if you Trust The Media, and Trust Science, and don’t want to fall for sexist myths, which side do you choose?
The correct answer is that by even considering this question, you’re in a state of sin. You choose the side with more scientific evidence and better studies, obviously.
Most real issues are like this. It’s not obvious how to apply the heuristic “trust experts”, and if you try, you’ll probably screw up and implement some version that lets you confirm what you already believed. Here, both sides were trying to make you short-circuit your thought process by saying “The other side are conspiracists! Come on! You know the One Weird Trick to solving all issues is to dismiss conspiracists and trust experts!” If you’ve never tried to reason under uncertainty before, you’ll be lost, easy prey to whoever has the shrillest protestations of their own obviousness.
When I tried reviewing ivermectin, I said - here’s a case where the experts have spoken with unusual unanimity about which side is right. This is supervised learning, rather than the usual unsatisfying unsupervised learning. So let’s exercise our study-analyzing muscles.
In a free society, at one or another point in your life, you’ll actually have to form your own opinion about something. You’ll do better at that if you have some practice forming opinions. When experts have strong opinions on something, this is a good opportunity to practice your opinion-forming skills, see whether you get the same result as the experts, and, if not, figure out where you went wrong.
This requires people to have some tolerance for others doing this. It also requires science communicators who will help guide people through this process. I think attacking people for having this tolerance and doing this guiding neither helps prevent conspiracism, nor helps build the skills people need for harder cases.