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Do You Want to Know?

by Brian Dunning, Dec 20 2012

Mustachioed Englishman JBS Haldane, FRS (Public domain image)

If you’ve ever listened to my podcast Skeptoid or heard me speak in person — whether you agreed with me or not — one thing that I hope you’ve taken away is my genuine enthusiasm for learning. I have the best job in the world, spending the better part of a full week immersed in a subject, a different one each week. I don’t ever remember being bored with it or running out of threads to follow. I’ve read the adventures of handlebar-mustachioed colonial Englishmen, I’ve traced the genesis of ghost stories back to their unexpected origins, I’ve gone as deep as I’ve been able into hard sciences that are all just a little bit over my head.

Since the point of all this is to distill it into a narrative that I can share, I get a lot of questions. For the most part, these come in two basic varieties. First, there are honest questions by interested people like myself who want to know more. Second, there are argumentative or rhetorical “questions” from those who disagree with my conclusions and want to prove me wrong. These are not really questions. They’re public challenges, intended to rebut. I think you know the kind of “questions” I mean. They often sound something like this:

Have you personally observed one species change into another?

How can you presume to know how physics works in other dimensions?

Since when is science determined by a majority vote?

I’m all in favor of being corrected wherever it’s due, or of having any assertions I’ve made honestly challenged. If I’m wrong, I want to know. If I don’t know something yet, I still want to know. When I ask someone a question, it’s because I want to know. But these argumentative challenges are not motivated by the desire for knowledge. Given that, I don’t consider myself obliged to answer them. If you really want to know something, I’m happy to help to the extent that I’m able. If you don’t, I’m going to spend my limited resources elsewhere.

Sometimes I’m live in front of a crowd or on the radio. And sometimes those questions will come in. Here’s what I have to say to the “questioner” who is hoping merely to trap me into revealing some weakness of what I’m presenting, because he’s absolutely married to his particular conspiracy theory or pseudoscience. (By way of example, let’s answer “Why are there no transitional fossils?”)

 I don’t believe that you actually want to know that. If you did, the resources available to you are so easy to find that you’d already know if you had any genuine interest.

An argumentative question deserves a flippant answer. An honest question deserves an honest answer. There are people to whom every subject is new, and it’s entirely possible that someone may want to know about transitional fossils. It’s easy to read the tone of the person asking the question. If it’s a genuine question, I’ll answer it; if it’s out of my depth, I’ll say so and give them my best advice on how to go about learning more.

There is too much knowledge out there waiting to be discovered to spend time sparring with those who are consciously disdainful of it. My preference is to share in the excitement of those who want to learn things.

Do you want to know?

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31 Responses to “Do You Want to Know?”

  1. Other Paul says:

    There are so many jerks around who have poisoned the well of discourse with their agenda-driven questions. I often feel it necessary to append a ‘… Genuine question.’ to some questions I have. It can be quite annoying to feel one has to do that, to avoid being ignored or dismissed. That type of engagement, too, will just become another arms race I suppose. Sigh.

  2. Max says:

    So you don’t answer skeptical questions.

  3. Chris Howard says:

    I generally respond in a very similar manner, and then the “inquisitive” party usually leaves in a huff, and my comrades in skepticism, usually, get their accomodating panties in a wad and I have to hear “Dude. Don’t be a dick!”

  4. Rob says:

    “Since when is science determined by a majority vote?”

    A possible good response to this is “Since when is the word of god determined by majority vote?”, since that how books ended up in the bible.

  5. Rob says:

    @Max:

    It’s not a skeptical question when the evidence is plainly out there.

  6. Rob says:

    Except all the counter evidence can be explicitly pointed to. The evidence against evolution is what exactly, other than a bronze age fable?

  7. Pete says:

    What I want to know is – has anyone ever seen JBS Haldane and Captain Kangaroo in the same room at the same time?

    • Mal Adapted says:

      LOL! Before I read the caption, I thought “Why is there a picture of Bob Keeshan on SkepticBlog?”

  8. MadScientist says:

    I see those sorts of questions here now and then – you know the sort: “I’m not antivax but …”

  9. Chris Howard says:

    @Gr8: there’s evidence for 9/11, and homeopathy, it’s just very, very poor evidence.

  10. Crabe says:

    “Have you personally observed one species change into another?”

    “How can you presume to know how physics works in other dimensions?”

    “Since when is science determined by a majority vote?”

    I think that it would be best to be able to answer those questions…

    But I fear that doing so would more often than not require to first explain terminology so people understand what you mean.

    For instance, the term “species” is problematic even to scientists, and the term “parallel dimension”… lead to misconceptions too I fear.

    • David Hewitt says:

      “Have you personally observed one species change into another?” This sort of thing is intended to impress the less educated and surprise the unwitting. One could counter with, “No, sir (ma’am’); have you ever seen oxygen?”

      • Max says:

        Or, “Have you personally observed World War I?” It’ll show people how silly the argument is, whereas “I don’t believe that you actually want to know that” just sounds evasive even if it’s true.

      • Max says:

        With a fundamentalist, you could also try, “Have you personally observed Noah’s Ark?” but that may give the impression that you think it existed. Safer to stick with something that everyone knows is real.

  11. Chris Howard says:

    Upon further reflection, I think the main problem is willful ignorance. No amount of education, outreach, or raising of educational standards is going to help when a large portion of the population lacks the necessary humility required to admit to the very real possibility that they could be mistaken, much less wrong.

    • Mal Adapted says:

      Maybe not a lack of humility so much as a desperate fear that maybe their lives really have no meaning after all. Dawkins points out “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” (River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, 1995). That’s got to be a pretty horrific prospect, for someone needing to believe that they’re special in the eyes of a benevolent god.

  12. Chris Howard says:

    @mal: I suppose that existentially that does make a lot of sense. My concern is humility, though. It seems to me that people (my frame of reference is the southwesternish U.S., specifically Texas) People here seem to be incapabable of admitting their wrong about seemingly insignificant trivialities, much less meaning, and cosmology.

    I think we (skeptics) confuse cognitive tools (science, logic, critical thinking etc.) as a panacea that will cure all. I also believe that many people confuse those same cognitive tools with beliefs, philosophies, or even religions.
    People can possess these wonderful tools but unless they are humble enough to apply them to their own lives first and foremost then it’s pearls amongst swine, and the hallmark of hypocracy.
    Until people are psychologically mature enough to constantly challenge their beliefs, and courageous enough to change their minds in light of new, strong evidence giving them the cognitive tools will not only be a moot point, but potentially dangerous.
    Having said all this I do believe you have a valid point. Much of people’s resistance is, as you point out, due to fear.

  13. mscottveach says:

    Is it just me or does this read like he’s being a little too defensive?

    The questions that were asked should all be answered in ways that either specifically show why they’re not relevant or if they are, merely answered.

    If the issue is that one doesn’t actually have the answer or isn’t able to articulate it well, then the generic reply shouldn’t be “You don’t want to know that” it should be more of an argument that the fact that you don’t have a great answer for that question doesn’t make the general thesis untrue.

    • I guess I wasn’t clear. I was not speaking of questions to which I don’t know the answer, I was speaking of questions which are intended only to be argumentative and not to learn.

  14. Janet Camp says:

    I like my Grandma’s adage of “ask a silly question, get a silly answer”, so if asked if I’d ever seen one species change into another, I think I’d say, “yes, of course I have” and then call on the next person without missing a beat or letting the fool get in another silly question.

  15. Bill Price says:

    Have you personally observed one species change into another?

    Yes. Next question. [as suggested above]

    How can you presume to know how physics works in other dimensions?

    If and when there is any evidence of “other dimensions”, that evidence will give us a handle on how physics works in all of them, the four we’re familiar with and the one or ones shown by that new evidence.

    Since when is science determined by a majority vote?

    Never. It’s always by a unanimous vote, of the evidence. (The rôle of science is to round up the evidence, state the questions, count the votes, and do it again if new evidence objects to old understandings.)

  16. KE says:

    Can someone explain what happened to building 7 of the towers? I understand there are theories for and against it. The trick is determining which is true. Most people like myself only have the mass’s media and the Internet to get our info. -believe nothing you read and only half of what you see- Thanks.

  17. KE says:

    I understand there’s a lot to this disaster and one couldn’t possibly know and understand it all. I would like to think I’m a logical thinker and I’m having a hard time grasping this tragedy. Building 1&2 came down within 2 hrs and building 7 in 7 hrs. How much fuel was in building 7 compared to 1&2 to bring down these buildings in the time they did. I understand we can go back and forth about this but I’m sure we both don’t have the time especially through messages. I’m just looking for a couple of key closures to move on with this. There’s just to much info on both sides to just pick one side for I am in the middle. I will say, I do not put anything pass mankind just look at religion. Man at that time invented gods as their science to understand life. I’m pretty sure religion ended up just being lies and continues today. The bible is the biggest lie of all time. So for to believe 9/11 was done only by the works of al Qaeda and not a few wealthy Americans doesn’t work for me. Especially with the limited amount of information I am able to get.

    • Max says:

      How many Al Qaeda attacks does it take for it to work for you?

      http://www.economist.com/blogs/dailychart/2011/05/al-qaeda_attacks

      http://articles.latimes.com/2008/may/01/world/fg-terror1
      “Overall, an estimated 22,685 people were killed in terrorist attacks around the world in 2007, a 9% increase from 2006. The number of injured increased 15%, to 44,310, the report says. The numbers do not include military personnel on active duty or anyone working in an official capacity on behalf of the U.S. government.
      As in previous years, the majority of terrorist attacks chronicled in the report occurred in Iraq. The number there dipped slightly in the last year, but still accounted for 60% of worldwide terrorism fatalities, including 17 of the 19 Americans killed, the report says. Two other Americans were killed in Afghanistan.
      The report is considered to be the U.S. government’s benchmark in objective data on terrorist attacks, with some analysis on trends included to inform Congress and other policymakers, the American public and U.S. allies.
      In Pakistan, the number of terrorist attacks more than doubled, from 375 to 887, between 2006 and 2007, and the number of deaths jumped almost fourfold, to 1,335, the report said.”

    • Max says:

      I think your real issue isn’t the buildings, but that you underestimate Al Qaeda.
      But to give you some closure on the buildings, here’s how an actual demolition of a skyscraper looks and sounds, preceded with loud explosions.
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hdqWRHe4AKs

  18. KE says:

    I don’t underestimate ANY human being. The majority of people can only rely on others information to come to a sound conclusion of fact or fiction coupled with their own life expierences and my life experiences saids man can and will lie, cheat, steal and murder for money and power.