A gentle strategy for conversing with conspiracists?

I just had an idea and I don’t want to forget it.

The next time a ridiculous conspiracy theory sweeps across the land and infects many formerly reasonable people, I want to start researching Bigfoot.

It doesn’t have to be Bigfoot exactly. It could be UFOs, or Elvis still being alive somewhere, or aliens building the pyramids. Something that I’ve never cared to learn about before.

The goal is not to convince anyone that their pet theory is comparable to an older and more obviously risible conspiracy theory. That’s too obvious, and too easily resisted by someone determined to be believe in their own brilliance.

I want to do something more subtle. I want to spend my time trying to convince my conspiratorial friends that Bigfoot is real and the government is lying about it.

Maybe they’ll say they don’t want to talk about it and we can compromise by not talking about either conspiracy theory. That would be fine by me.

Maybe they’ll try to convince me that my conspiracy theory is wrong. They’ll fail of course. That will be a real treat.

Or maybe I’ll succeed in persuading them that mine is right. Somehow I feel that this would be the most just outcome of all.

Prejudice against the past

We have a prejudice against old ideas, generally. And in general, it’s a pretty reasonable prejudice for us to have.

An old idea that was well-known or even widely believed, that has since faded into obscurity, probably has problems. Or at least, it probably has an alternative that is more attractive in some way.

Once upon a time, older ideas, from the times of heroes and great prophets, seemed better, and novel ideas were deemed suspicious. Today, we think nearly the opposite.

But while our progressivism has given us many gifts, it also has its price.

Because old ideas aren’t necessarily worse. Sometimes an old idea dies not because it’s worse but because it is hard to understand and is easily strawmanned. Sometimes a new idea is more attractive not because it’s better but because it has better marketing. We can’t assume older is always and consistently worse.

But to fight the prejudice is not an easy task. If an old idea was difficult to understand in its own day, how much more is it today, listening in across centuries and changes of vocabulary and writing styles and societal opinions? This is a work that needs much time and effort.

The Cutting Edge

It’s valuable to be at the cutting edge.

The cutting edge is backward-facing and frontward too. It has an entire tradition of thought behind it, filtered through generations of capable thinkers.

And it looks for weaknesses of one sort or another in the prevailing consensus that could be improved upon.

These improvements could be something never before considered within the discipline. It could be a novel solution that finally connects the dots in the sort of way people have been looking for.

They could also be old, discarded ideas which need to be revived and brought back. Sometimes the old or the very old is an important source of present progress.

This is the assumption of the modern university. And I think it’s not such a bad approach.

Some favourite martial arts content creators

A couple years ago I started to get interested in martial arts. Since then I’ve spent many happy hours searching for and consuming what seem to me (at this point) to be the best content out there.

A year ago I came across Armchair Violence on YouTube. There’s a ton of of fascinating videos on that account. I found that it was what set me on track for looking for the right kind of martial arts content, and finding these other resources I’m about to talk about.

Once I started looking to learn more about striking and grappling, I found that striking is easier to wrap your head around first, and for that I’ve found no more valuable resource than Gabriel Varga’s YouTube channel. It’s incredible how much he posts and how high the quality is.

It took me a lot longer to find grappling content that connected with me. What I’ve been most impressed by is Chris Paine’s podcast and YouTube videos. His recent “Winter Soldier” video is a good example of the sort of thing I’ve been fascinated by from him. But the Stay Safe Martial Arts YouTube channel also has lots of really solid content.

And lastly, in terms of pedagogy, I love listening to Scott Sievewright’s Primal MMA Coaching podcast. He’s very smart but also has this wonderful humility in the way he presents his ideas (unlike some others in the CLA space). Highly recommended.

And that’s it! Digging through for good content can be a challenge, but once it’s found, you have to be amazed at the quality of what can be had for free in this day and age.

Are You Aware of the Obvious Objection?

I know I’ve devoted a fair number of posts over the last couple years to conspiracy theories. Honestly, it’s because I was so astonished to see how relatively intelligent people could be so easily and so quickly hoodwinked by not-brilliant people into believing not-brilliant ideas. Ever since that experience I periodically find myself reflecting on it and trying to make sense of it. I’m taking a class this semester that’s relevant to these questions so I’m sure that will inspire me to continue ruminating on them in the coming months.

One question that I never asked anyone, which I wish I would have, was: are you aware of the very obvious objection to what you’re saying?

There are several points at which it would have been reasonable to ask the question. In fact, I can’t think of a single point I heard where this couldn’t have been asked at least once, and maybe several times.

But the main one that comes to mind is the first one I heard, which I continued to hear for as long as there were people trying to convince me that the scientists and governments of the world were lying to us about the pandemic. “The average age of covid deaths is the same as the average age of deaths in the population overall, which means there are no extra people dying, you see?”

Over and over again I tried to explain to people how this made no sense, which opened the door to them bridging off into ever more obscure lines of argumentation. Trying to explain the gigantic flaw underlying the entire theory got me nowhere, over and over again. A dispiriting situation.

In hindsight, I wonder what would have happened if I would have instead just asked them to explain to me what the obvious flaw is with the line of reasoning they seemed to be presenting.

When a person says, A therefore B, without seeming to recognize that A doesn’t actually necessitate B in any way, there is something wrong. If the person can’t recognize that something is out of whack, and can’t admit that something might be, and has no interest in learning if something is, then there’s no point in continuing the conversation. It’s much better to find that out at the start of the venture than to realize it at some much later point in time, let me assure you.

More knowledge, more ignorance

We all start off mostly ignorant about how ignorant we are, and mostly ignorant about everything else as well.

We can grow more knowledgeable about the world. Some skeptics or relativists doubt this, but it’s obviously true for anyone who isn’t merely defending a thesis.

We also grow more knowledgeable about our ignorance. It’s something we’ve all experienced. It’s difficult to do, and most of us never get very far with it.

There are different kinds of ignorance. Some things we could learn but can’t afford the time for. I’d love to get a PhD in economics or physics, but I doubt I will ever find the time. Still, it is greatly valuable to be aware of the areas of knowledge which are known which I myself do not yet know.

There are other questions about which all people are currently ignorant, though someday we might have knowledge. This is another sort of ignorance about which it’s invaluable to be knowledgeable.

There are questions which might have a good answer somewhere in, say, the world of philosophy, if I could search long enough through all the different things that have been written.

There are things I’ve learned but forgotten or gotten confused. There are things I might have learned incorrectly. There are things no one will ever know for sure. There are things that don’t need to be known because they’re simply unimportant.

There are a thousand flavours of ignorance. The true philosopher, it seems to me, will be a connoisseur of the unknown.

Duolingo for the reading

I don’t think I ever laid out the line of thinking that led me to embrace Duolingo as my central language learning tool.

In a way, it might seem a surprising choice. Most people who use Duolingo seem to want to be able to hold conversations in the languages they’re studying. That’s really not at all my motivation.

There’s another group of people who might be attracted to Duolingo who would say they want to learn to speak and write the language (rather than just reading it) because that’s the fastest way to learn to read it. I’m sympathetic to that approach, but it’s another reason for Duolingo that isn’t that interesting to me at this time.

Perhaps some people would just point to the research showing that Duolingo teaches a language as well as or better than a college class, and will say that’s as good a reason as any to learn a language for free on an enjoyable app that only takes up a few minutes of your day. This third reason is the closest to my own view. Sometimes I do think exactly like this.

But when I was debating with myself several years ago whether to continue with Duolingo or to break the streak and put the time into something different, it was another line of thinking entirely that attracted me to Duolingo.

I want to learn languages so that I can read things written in those languages. Everything else is secondary to that. That’s my starting point.

It seems to me that the best way to learn to read a language is to read a lot of it. But more specifically, the ideal approach would be to work through a guided reader, where the texts are initially less challenging and then grow slowly more difficult.

It’s really hard to find good resources like that. You can scour the earth and meet with disappointment after disappointment.

And then one day it struck me. It’s possible to view Duolingo as exactly that. It’s a chance to read several short texts every day in your chosen language, and to have the difficulty slowly increase over time.

Ever since the moment I learned to think of Duolingo in that way, I’ve never had a second thought.

Hating vice

I think that the happiest way to live is generally to feel sorrow for the vices in others, and hatred for the vices in oneself.

I’m not always consistent with this. And there are times when I feel justified being inconsistent; some years ago I felt betrayed by a good friend, and I couldn’t bring myself to be sad or understanding about his bad actions, since allowing that emotional response would open the door for reconciliation and renewed friendship, which I was uninterested in, at least for as long as he thought he had done nothing wrong.

So when I examine how I live, I find there are exceptions to the rule, and I don’t fully know if those rare exceptions are justified or if I’m deceiving myself.

However, in the great majority of cases, we’re best served by grieving others‘ vices and hating our own.

That’s not to say that should be our entire emotional range either, of course. There are many more good things to celebrate and enjoy than bad things to dislike, but where there are bad things, this is my general guide.

It might feel appropriate to hate others’ vices, and that’s understandable, but that also puts us in a position of helplessness, because we never have more than indirect influence over how another person acts. It’s not fun to feel helpless. Feeling sadness for another person’s vices is more of a complete experience, not needing vengeance to complete itself.

Likewise it might feel appropriate to be sad about our own vices, but if that’s our whole response, it will also put us into a position of helplessness. To be sad, and only sad, about our own vice is to accept defeat. If there’s some active hatred or anger directed at our vices, it’s not a guarantee of beating them, but at least it means we still have some fight left in us. And when it comes to our own vices, whatever they may be, we should want to fight as hard as we can for as long as we can, with any means at our disposal. There is almost nothing more important.

Libertarians, conservatives, religionists, reactionaries

It is strange, the mishmash of views that get lumped together on “the right” as if they were a continuous or even unitary reality.

In a way, it makes sense. The different perspectives are sometimes unified by a common resistance to some other standpoint. They are lumped together mainly due to the fact that each in its own way hesitates at or actively resists the increasingly ambitious egalitarianism of what is called the left.

And yet they are not the same by any means, and they are deeply opposed to one another on important questions. To attempt to think them all as a single thought, as different sides or emphases of a coherent whole, is an impossibility.

That’s not to say that they are entirely incompatible. They can be forged into combinations. But each combination in this realm reduces the things combined.

The libertarian prizes freedom, and will accept the negative consequences that might come from greater freedom as the price we pay for such a great good as liberty, and will likely forecast that many of the short-term problems will solve themselves in the long run through market forces and human ingenuity.

Further to the right are conservatives, who think last year was better than next year appears to be, who are not averse to change but want to move slowly and cautiously and to avoid destroying, in the process, the good things we have made for ourselves in the past.

The religionists are those who take their guidance from a religious tradition, wishing society to be infused with meaning, bound together by faith, and directed by knowable moral principles.

And the reactionaries are those who would give up the modern world and its conveniences in exchange for an older, harder, brighter way of life. They prize strength and beauty, glory and honour, toughness and elegance and community.

They are not the same. As long as we keep trying to treat them as if they are, we are fated to be full of incomprehension, and trapped by incoherence.