Daily Archives: June 10, 2012

The Antiskeptics

Skeptics fight an up hill battle. This battle consists of deploying critical thinking across a range of cultural landscapes, implementing scientific thinking to solve problems, and the thoughtful evaluation of knowledge, while 90 percent of the world is out to stop you, or at least make it hard. Or so it seems. To be honest, I can’t back up that 90 percent figure with any hard facts. Sorry.

But the Skeptic faces more than just uncritical thinking, incorrect facts, or poor scientific judgment. The Skeptic must also wrestle with … The Anti Skeptic.

Of which there are several kinds.

Of late we’ve seen an epidemic of Antiskeptic activity occur within the skeptical movement itself, with people who call themselves skeptics because they find the movement interesting, who came to this party because they head there were girls here or because they thought it was a good way to look smart, or in some cases, because they encountered some annoying belief system (bigfoot or ancient aliens or something) and thought this was a good way to purge their experience of it. But they are not willing to be skeptical, or even thoughtful, about other things in their life. They want the thrills but don’t want to invest in too much of their own critical thinking. They don’t understand that skepticism does, really, have a political edge to it, not because skepticism in inherently political, but because so many political views don’t stand up to critical analysis, and because so many skeptical or scientific perspectives have been taken up by various parties and made political. When these Antiskeptics discover that their dearly held Libertarian or “Independent” (have you ever noticed that almost all “independents” have almost identical views on most issues?) perspectives are intellectually bankrupt they quickly erect the “skepticism is not political” smokescreen and try to hide there. Doesn’t work, but that’s what they do.

But I don’t want to talk about those annoying people here. Nor do I want to talk about the professional Antisketpics … the denialists such as those in the Anti-Global Warming game, who often use the word “skeptic” to label themselves although they are almost all crazy people with a chip on their shoulder and easily led by a charlatan such as Lord Monkington or Andrew Watts.

(Threats of law suits for saying something mean in 3 … 2 … 1 …)

No, I don’t want to talk about those annoying people either.

The Antiskeptics I want to talk about are the people who don’t even know that they are Antiskeptics, and they probably don’t even know what a “Skeptic” is. They lead their lives with a mixture of critical and uncritical understanding, a lot of received knowledge, often (but not always) woo-ish beliefs. Most importantly, though, they have a vague understanding that there is a “truth” out there that is more correct than the truths they live with, but that it is too much work, and often, against their own personal self interests, to embrace it. And, even though such folks may be unaware of a “Skeptics movement” they are at least vaguely aware that you are up to something…that you are a bit more prone to correct some belief they have, or to introduce critically evaluated knowledge into the conversation, or to mention some dumb-ass thing someone is doing with the particular disdain that comes from knowing how wrong it is. Even if done politely.

This Antiskeptic is your brother or sister or mother or child or cousin or neighbor or teacher or student or coworker. Over time, they see you coming. Subconsciously or not, they are pretty good at deflecting knowledge. In some cases, that may be why they are an Antiskeptic (rather than the other way around). They may just be good at avoiding learning something new.

And there are techniques. There’s a dance, a game, a modus operendus. I think you know what I’m talking about because you’ve seen it all before.

Here is a formulaic (literally) example of one possible interaction with an Antiskeptic. Your intent is to say something quite straight forward, like “2 + 2 = 4”

So, you say “Hey, 2 + 2 =…” and just then the Antiskeptic interrupts you and says, “I know! 2+ 2 = 3!” and then they move on to the next topic quickly. In order for you to get your “2 + 2 = 4” into the conversation you have to stop and reverse and change course and do all kinds of fixing up of stuff and that rarely goes well. This is known as the Interrupting Antiskeptic.

Then, less interesting but more common, is the Evasive Antiskeptic. Simply put, this is the person who hears what you say but then dismisses it without much fanfare, obviously uninterested in engaging in an argument.

“Hey, 2 + 2 = 4,” you say.

“Yeah, whatever. How ’bout them Red Socks,” is the reply.

Then there is the Watch the Monkey Antiskeptic. This is more of a technique than a type of Antiskeptic. You are making an argument and the counter argument consists of something totally unrelated but that seem really important.

“Hey, 2 + 2 = 4,” you say

“Numbers are the hobgoblin of the Patriarchy!” is the reply. Which, of course, is true, but not really the point.

Then there is the Mine the Harbor Antisketpic. This is usually a friend you see only now and then, or a co-worker you only meet every few weeks, but they are totally on to you. With this person, almost all conversations start like this:

“I know you are going to tell me that 2 + 2 equals something other than 4, but I just think it is important to know that everybody is entitled to their own opinion.”

And thus, your critical thinking is bound to bump into that little socioculture land mine, fair or not, like it or not.

There is one other kind of Antiskpetic I’d like to mention. This is rare, and it usually requires two people who have been doing this together for a long time. Often, a married. A few years back I encountered such a couple who were ani-Vaxers, but there are other couples where this routine applies to many other aspects of life. This is where the mention of, say, two and two equaling four and stuff leads immediately to an argument between the two members of the couple, which takes off so far into the stratosphere, and does so much damage to reality, that you realize that your humble efforts to assert arithmetic have created a black hole of numerical stupidity involving calculus, trigonometry and analytical geometry (to stretch the analogy to the limit).

You say to Mary and Bob, “Hey, 2 + 2 = 4”

Mary: “Bob is so bad at math we bought a couch last month and it was two feet too long”

Bob: “I thought you told me that the couch was two feet to short! I re-ordered a shorter couch, two feet shorter than the first one”

Mary: “If it is two feet shorter than the one that is too long, then it’s going to be twice as too short!”

Bob: “No, that’s not how it works at all. Just trust me.”

Mary: “Last time I trusted you we ended up with a window air conditioner that fell out of the window after you installed it”

Bob: “That was not me, that was your brother. You’re thinking of the time I hitched up the trailer to the wrong car and we drove all the way to North Dakota without the trailer”

Mary: “No, that was the time we drove all the way to North Dakota without the kids, not the trailer. The trailer was a totally different time you screwed up”

And so on and so forth.

What is your favorite kind of Antisketpic?

Photo of bigfoot attacking biker by ( kurtz )

What is Dunbar's Number?

The term “Dunbar’s Number” refers to a particular hypothesis by primatologist Robin Dunbar. It is a very simple idea with rather complex implications, and it is one of those simple ideas that gets more complicated than ideal as we look into it more and more. Eventually, the idea is required by many who contemplate it to do more work than was ever intended, and in this way seems to fail, though it really doesn’t. I personally think Dunbar’s number is useful if it is properly understood, so I want you to give it a chance, and to help you do that I’d like to use an analogy.

I’m thinking of a number called Carrier’s Number. Carrier, in this case, refers to the company that installs air conditioners and heaters. Carrier’s number is the temperature in degrees F at which you, sitting there in your chair, notice it is too warm so you get up and go turn on the air conditioner. It is best measured as a post hoc number…we watch and wait, flies on the wall, as the room heats up, and when a person gets up and flips on the air conditioner, the temperature at that point was carrier’s number for that person at that time.

One might argue that a post hoc measure like this isn’t much use in science because in science we like to predict things. But just because carrier’s number is best measured pot hoc does not mean that it only exists post hoc. It existed before the test subject got up, we just didn’t know what it was. For a large number of test subjects, we should be able to estimate carrier’s number (it is probably in the upper 70’s F). However, this will vary across cultures, across seasons, humidity, as clothing styles change (in the days of Polyester Leisure Suits, it is said that Carrier’s Number went down by about four degrees) and so on. The fact that it varies does not make it a bad number. In fact, its variation and reasons for it can make it an extra good number depending on what one is trying to do with it.

Dunbar’s number is the number of full blown social interactions you can manage. This number is lower or higher across species of social primates, as it tracks adaptive suites of sociality and the ability of brains to manage sociality. So, you can measure Dunbar’s number across primate groups by looking at how large effective primate groups get across species and figuring that the number is just about that maximum group size. Or, you could estimate Dunbar’s number (retrodict it, as it were) by looking at relative brain size, if we assume that brain size is linked to Dunbar’s number, all else being equal. In this way, Dunbar’s number is a way of linking primate sociality with brain evolution, which was the original idea.

In modern society, and in human historical contexts, we may see Dunbar’s number in a lot of places. This is the number at which, more or less, groups start to break down (in some societies) and villages split. Military units max out at about Dunbar’s number (companies are about 100 in size) and so on. This does not mean that Dunbar’s number and its associated dynamics explain everything. It might mean that the breakdown of social interactions can be more important than, say, resource limitations, on human group fission and fusion. That is exactly what many anthropologists have been suggesting for decades. Dunbar’s Number is simply this concept quantified somewhat and expanded to primates.

There are variations and adjustments. Some organisms have apparent smaller brain size because their diets cause a different body size, so that has to be adjusted for (leaf-eating monkeys may small relative brain size because their bodies are large, not because their brain is small, for example). What a fully blown social interaction is may vary. A group of primates may have a subgroup that hardly ever interacts with the others. Perhaps pre-adolescent monkeys don’t count for as much as sexually mature monkeys, so if there happens to be a baby boom a couple of years back, the group size if you count everyone is higher than Dunbar’s number. Or perhaps the group includes two or three social geniuses who temporarily facilitate an extra large group size, or temporarily force an extra small group size, for some reason.

It makes sense that there is a limit on effective sociality, and thus, on effective social group size. Dunbar’s number is nothing other than the number you end up with because when you are making the damn graph you need a damn number to put there on one of the axes. It has been over-interpreted or over-used as a number like many of those from Physics, like the freezing point or boiling point of water, which it is not.

Desiree Schell and I spoke about Dunbar’s Number on the Skeptically Speaking that just became ready for you to download. Check it out here.

This video includes, during the last third somewhere, a discussion by Dunbar of all this.

And, here’s a few items by Dunbar you might find interesting:

  • How Many Friends Does One Person Need?: Dunbar’s Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks
  • Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language