Many years ago a student submitted a research paper that I continue to use (without personal information, obviously) in classes as an example today. Unfortunately it's not a positive example. The paper is a ten-page treatise on how the American presidents who died in office were all secretly murdered by the Freemasons.

The student was quite unhappy with the (failing) grade this mess of internet conspiracy theories received. "I did research and cited all of the sources", s/he stated. It was true; the paper was exhaustively cited and clearly represented a good deal of research. The problem – and we/I did cover this in class repeatedly throughout the semester – is that not all "sources" are made equal. Some are legitimate, some are questionable, and some are flat-out nonsense. And back when I was still learning how to teach, it surprised the hell out of me to find that a non-trivial minority of students cannot tell the difference.

In the students' defense, it's difficult to explain how to identify a garbage source. TO some extent it's like the old Potter Stewart "I know it when I see it" obscenity test. My best advice, I think, is to err on the side of caution when the objective is to cite supporting research. Sure, government or major media outlet sources will not always be correct and may be flawed. But if the choice is between the Benghazi story on CNN or a post on something called, it is in students' interest to play it safe. Even if the CNN story is not entirely accurate or comprehensive, no one's going to think you're nuts for relying on a mainstream media account.

This is not a problem limited to students, of course. A sizable number of our fellow citizens have problems smelling bullshit even when their noses are buried in it. To put it charitably, the proliferation of news and information on the internet has exposed an uncomfortably high level of credulity among the public. It's problematic enough that a lot of us intentionally seek out information that confirms what we already believe (and discount or reject contradictory facts) but those of us who do make a real effort to inform ourselves about issues can't tell if what we're reading is total garbage.

Most of you know better than to argue with people in internet comment sections or on Facebook, but tell me if the following sounds familiar. A friend who spends a lot of time on websites with words like "healing" and "wellness" in their name shares this must-read link on Facebook. The article explains how vaccines upset the body's natural rhythms and chakras and enzymes. Vaccines also cause autism and leprosy and gingivitis, according to some really fascinating new findings from Jenny McCarthy. It concludes, based on an argument along the lines of "As a mother, I know what is best for my child", that children should not be vaccinated.

You try to point out politely – perhaps offering your own link that gently debunks this monumental pile of baloney – that the information your friend has provided is not entirely accurate.
buy metformin online no prescription

As you know from experience, this rarely has the desired effect of actually informing the recipient. Instead, your friend says something along the lines of "It's so hard to know what information to trust anymore" or "It looks like there are a lot of good arguments on both sides."

This is one of those classic red flag statements – not unlike "I'm entitled to my opinion" or "I guess we'll have to agree to disagree" – that means "I am clearly wrong but I have no intention of changing my mind." It must be, because taking the statement literally is difficult. "It's so hard to know what to trust." Is it? Is it really? No. It's actually pretty easy.

No, doctors and experts and scientists are not infallible. They and we believe things to be true that later turn out to be wrong. But is the American Medical Association a safer bet than the Spiritual Holistic Wellness Center or the Crunchy Moms tumblr? Yes. Ten times out of ten. People argue that it's healthy to be skeptical of consensus and the establishment in any field, and that's true. However, their skepticism appears to end where the blogs and message boards and pseudoscience collections begin.

I've learned my lesson now. We cover the common characteristics of denialism, pseudoscience, opinion, frauds, and plain old bullshit. Hopefully students leave knowing how to identify those things. Unfortunately this prepares them for a lifetime of frustration from dealing with the millions of Americans who can't.

58 thoughts on “IS IT? IS IT REALLY?”

  • Okay, that was odd what your blog did to my comment. Try again…

    This is one of those classic red flag statements not unlike "I'm entitled to my opinion" or "I guess we'll have to agree to disagree" that means "I am clearly wrong but I have no intention of changing my mind."

    This kind of "thinking" has always annoyed me, even when I was only a highschool student. I enjoy arguing because I think it is important to have beliefs that are correct, both for me and for everyone else. But I always ran into people who would say, sometimes quite literally, "you are so intolerant, why don't you just let me have my opinion". Yes, it is clear one should not press one's disagreement on people who want to be left alone, but this was generally a card played to terminate a discussion that they had happily started.

    The other thing that occurs to me when reading this is that there are very few sources, if any, that aren't garbage. My parents read their country's most prestigious and most highly regarded weekly news magazine, and because it is so well written and well argued, and also centrist, they assume that it will provide them with accurate and balanced information. I believed so too when I was younger.

    But then they ran items on topics that I knew something about: the political or economic situation in a country I had recently traveled to, the internal politics of an organization I was active in, some scientific issue that falls into my own professional expertise. And I realized that most so-called journalists actually never do any research whatsoever, and even if they did, they would not be qualified to assess what they came up with.

    The modus operandi of that particular magazine is to start out with a preconception, to interview two or three experts or insiders carefully chosen for confirming that preconception, and then to write a completely data-free narrative around the snippets of opinion they obtained from those two or three experts. The entire magazine is an exercise in selection bias coupled with argument from authority. And they got things so terribly backwards in the cases where I could judge the matter that I have lost any faith in their ability to get things right where I cannot.

    And this is the really depressing thought: this is widely considered to be Germany's best weekly magazine. Then how can you trust a right wing daily newsrag, a private TV channel, or some blogger on the internet? You cannot, simple as that. And that is before mentioning the professional science communicator (!!!) who once asked my student what a P value was.

  • HoosierPoli says:

    My abiding hope for the internet is that it eventually teaches us that ALL sources are bullshit. I remember reading books from the library that held court on the extensive physical evidence for UFO abductions. In past years, there seemed to be a sort of deference to print, the idea that if someone with a printing press would agree to print a book, that book inherently had some merit. As the Internet turns all of our discourse into youtube comments, my prayer is that we will all realize how full of shit everyone else is, and the ensuing skepticism will usher in a new Golden Age.

    I may be somewhat optimistic in my assessment.

  • What's more dangerous than an ignorant person?

    An ignorant person who thinks that s/he is knowledgeable.

    To wit: Put me at the controls of a plane, and nothing bad will happen, because I know that I know nothing about flying a plane, and I will act accordingly. Put a guy at the controls of a plane who thinks that because he's mastered ROGUE SQUADRON, and bad things *will* happen.

    So much has been made about the ignorance of Americans, which is a sensible subject of concern. Yet with the age of universal access to websites that only confirm one's desired beliefs, comes the worse incarnation of the ignorant American: the know-nothing know-it-all.

    I'm starting to think, when people scream about how American democracy is a sham, that this may not be a bad thing. Because a government that represented the votes of *this* electorate…would not be pretty.

  • " A sizable number of our fellow citizens have problems smelling bullshit **even when** their noses are buried in it." (Emphasis mine)

    Have you ever been to/lived/worked around a god awful odour?
    The human mind is amazing at filtering out and then converting things to a background level. Including the most horrific stomach churning odours and experiences. That's how I felt about paper mills. At first I found it revolting. Now there's a sense of comfort when I smell one.

    Same with spending time in the subsewers of the Internet opinions.

  • So, my friend, I don't know what your policy is about responding to "responders", but I have a question for you. What is your opinion on 9-11 Truthers? Seems like this issue is a perfect example of your thesis this evening.

  • It must be especially daunting for medical students who are actually trying to find worthwhile sources, especially when it comes to nutrition. Of all the sciences, medicine seems to be the softest. By a long shot.

  • Middle Seaman says:

    The Web has nothing to do to with being wrong, bizarre or loopy. It also has nothing to do with education level. In the end, it's our basic belief system. The belief in "natural is best" leads one to blame vaccination. People who voted for Obama as FDR, JFK and XYZ still believe that he is doing a great job, while people who judge a president based on results think that Obama is failing.

    A lot of thinking is defensive. If America is a capitalist heaven based on Christianity makes you reject evolution, not in the bible, global warming, we are perfect, or regulations, the system is already perfect.

  • The boring one says:

    Alex's story mirrors my experience with the German weekly magazine Der Spiegel, widely conceived to be centrist and Germany's best weekly magazine. A friend of mine was an art teacher, another is a theater director. Both commented (independently from each other) that they did not know about other areas, but whenever Der Spiegel reported about their area of expertise, it was impressively ignorant. After having done work in physics and in philosophy, I can now say the same for my areas of expertise. As a nice case study on Alex's point that the magazine typically starts from a preconceived notion and then defends it no matter what, I recommend the appendix of the second edition of Peter Singer's /Practical Ethics/, entitled "On Being Silenced in Germany", in which he details the way Der Spiegel published two incompetent attack pieces on Singer's position while refusing to publish his response "for lack of space".

  • I definitely agree with the premise that it isn't hard to tell shit sources from generally trustworthy ones. But at the same time, I don't think the process of determining the reliability of sources has particularly high precision even if it has decent accuracy.

    This inevitably leads people to seek out sources they agree with, ultimately because they're searching for something they can trust. We all ultimately make that decision when we read research without validating the thesis and the data ourselves. If we rely on peer review to do that, we're also making a decision about who to trust. People made that decision in regards to the R&R paper that turned out to be total shit–they assumed that its published status, even without data, gave it a trustworthiness that a CATO "study" couldn't have.

    In short, I think we have to accept that the very process that facilitates confirmation biases is the same that allows intelligent readers to accept a source without exhaustively verifying it.

  • I've been thinking about Harvard a lot lately. In the past few weeks, we've witnessed a) a Harvard "historian" basically gay-bash a dead liberal economist (who happened to be right about almost everything re: economic stimulus being necessary in a recession) and then give an apology, then a shit-tastic classic non-apology ("You are attacking my academic FREEDOMZ and anyhow I have a gay friend and a black wife so there nanny-nanny-boo-boo b) two Harvard "economists" who made simple errors, all the way down to a data entry mistake, that led to a widely influential (and absolutely factually incorrect) case for austerity, who then issued a classic non-apology and c) a Harvard dissertation committee that signed off on an obvious piece of bogus racism that was literally overseen by none other than Charles Murray himself.

    In general I do think modern society should pay deference to experts and scholars. It's crucial, actually. Doctors should set health policies, not politicians. Historians should write our history books, not ideologues. Urban planners who know their shit should not allow fertilizer plants to be built next to schools and old-folk homes, etc. One is entitled to her own opinions, but not her own facts. All well and good.

    But damn, we really are fucked, aren't we? When "even the librul" Harvard is basically shoveling cash at a bunch of right-wing propagandists, and the reputations of serious academics everywhere suffer accordingly, well, fuck it — I'm headed to the woods to build my personal fall-out shelter.

    Basically, as a society, we Americans have failed modernity. Bring on the mutant biker gangs, because we fucking deserve no better.

  • In my almost daily interaction with Right-tards (of varying levels of severity), I often find myself in a position where I can either have a very unpleasant "discussion" about a given subject, or I just look them in the face and bluntly state "I DO NOT ARGUE ABOUT FACTS"…

  • @MS: "People who voted for Obama as FDR, JFK and XYZ still believe that he is doing a great job, while people who judge a president based on results think that Obama is failing."

    Huh?? Why are you singling me out?

    But to answer your question about why Obama is failing look no further than Reid not changing the rules on the filibuster. You do realise that the POTUS cannot unilaterally set law. So you're being just as stupid as any beltway pundit.

    Now is he the Wall St. President? Definitely maybe.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    And today, we have our MSM, punch-drunk from over a generation of "Left-wing Media" blows, acquiescing, and to help 'catapult the Reich-wing propaganda,' putting idiot's like Bobo, Douthat, and Friedman, at the NY Times, and then you have the Hiatt-led, Will, and the ex-Bushies on the WaPo Op-ed page, most of CNN, Cup O' Schmoe at MSNBC, all of FOX 'n Sucks 24-hour Morning Zoo Crews, and the Sunday morning Bloviation Festivals, where, "If it's Sunday, it's time to meet the Republicans."

    Our Reich-wingers also have a lock on talk radio.
    And they have magazine and book publishing companies, which, at best print insipid swill, and at worst, vicious naked ideological propaganda, and "Think Tanks" to buy the books, en-mass, to put them on the best seller charts, if not enough of the witless regular-joe suckers, fools, marks, bobo's, dim-wits, half-wits, purchase them.

    And all of this, is a self-contained loop:
    The newspaper columnists, refer to the magazine articles and "best-selling" books, and the magazines and books, then, refer back to the columnists.

    And then you have talk radio, and FOX 'n Sucks, to keep all of their utter bullsh*t front and center, when people are sitting in their cars, or on their couches, or in their offices – or their doctors offices, or bars, or airports, or every place someone turns on a TV or radio, and leaves it on – to keep the witless regular-joe suckers, fools, marks, bobo's, dim-wits, half-wits, in a constant state of agitation.

    And then there's the internet, where Drudge, 'the son of sons of many prior sons of sons of the original son of someone named Erick,' and Little Lulu, lead the "Day's of Whine and Poses" brigade.

    And much of this is subsidized by Plutocrats and Oligarchs, and the rest, by commercials and ads from corporations.

    The effect, is that many people who don't pay as much attention as they should, because, well, they're working too many jobs at low pay, or, have actual, "LIVES," and don't have any time, have a compendium of bullsh*t sources, which "catapult the propaganda," to their finger-tips, for when they DO have some time, and decide to pay attention.

    So now, if people casually tune in on TV or the radio, or turn to either or both of the nations most respected newspapers, here are the two latest stories that the Reichies and their Republican politicians are screaming are "Worse than Watergate and Iran-Contry – TIMES TEN!!!" – and you have to laugh, because both of those took place under Republican administrations):
    -This Benghazi, Libya, thingee, with four people dead in an attack on a consulate there, on the 11th anniversary of 9/11.
    According to our Reichies, this is apparently worse than the original 9/11 (of which, Dick Cheney said – I sh*t thee not – that Obama and Hillary should have been prepared on that 11th anniversary of 9/11, because his and W's mis-administration, was ready for terrorist activity on EVERY anniversary of 9/11 – except, of course, THE DAY THE FIRST FECKIN' ONE ACTUALLY HAPPENED ON 9/11/2001!!!) – with, or course, no mention of the many embassy attacks (64) under Dumbaya and Dick, with over a dozen dead. And no mention of the Republican House cutting embassy security budgets in the last few years.

    -And "VENDETTA!!!" – the looming ("some" people say, impeachable offense) problem, where some (at this point, apparently) low-level schmucks at the IRS looked into Pee-Potty Super-PAC's, to see if the people organized to bitch about paying taxes, were paying any taxes that might have been due – and never mind that the IRS under W, in retribution for some well-deserved criticism, looked into the NAACP, and an Episcopal Church in CA.
    No mention of those, are allowed.

    And so, concerning our MSM pundits, people need to be told,
    'Beware of geeks bearing grifts.'

    FOX 'n Sucks, and the rest of the members of the Reich-wing Wurlitzer, are expert at taking even the tiniest mole-hill, and turning it into "Bullsh*t Mountain" (to quote Jon Stewart).

  • @Ed

    I think you are/were being a little tough on the kids. The internet is the information portal most accessible to this generation. Back in the 20th century before word processors and stuff, we actually wrote reports/papers in cursive as many students didn't type (I was always more comfortable printing) based on research that we did at a library using published magazines, journals and books.

    Source judging was a non-issue. IF you found it published in a library, you could use it. Obviously it is unlikely that you could validly reference 'Horton Hears a Who' by Dr Seuss on your political science paper, but other than that kind of 'error' sources weren't a problem..

    I am glad you now spend some time on source judging. Maybe we could get it as judging category in 4H or FFA like we do with cattle and 'swine.'


  • CaptBackslap says:

    Ron Unz had a great article recently about how the media enables conspiracy theories by constantly failing to report actual conspiracies until well after the fact:

    * Notwithstanding that McCarthy was nuts, there really were a lot of Soviet agents in the government during the Cold War.

    * A drug company caused tens of thousands of Americans (at minimum) to die by withholding studies from the public and the government.

    * One of the biggest investment-management firms in the country (not to mention multiple Fortune 500 companies) was wholly fraudulent, and numerous people tried to point that out but were ignored by the press.

    * We really did leave POWs behind in Vietnam. Enough people have admitted it by now that it's safe to say.

    So people who don't know who Bayesian priors work see all these failures and think, "well, maybe they're just missing the Reptilian Embassy story too."

  • HoosierPoli says:


    Exactly what I was talking about. If it was printed and bound, it MUST HAVE BEEN a legitimate source. And if the source you had found was actually utter garbage there would be pretty much no way to tell. At least in the internet age you can look at the poorly formatted HTML and "Mom discovers one weird trick" ads and tell that something fishy is going on.

  • "As the Internet turns all of our discourse into youtube comments, my prayer is that we will all realize how full of shit everyone else is, and the ensuing skepticism will usher in a new Golden Age."

    This is my hope as well.

    At first I thought it was crazy that the Library of Congress wanted to archive Twitter (mostly because I don't want all of my drunken, asinine comments to haunt me for all time); however, when taken in aggregate there is a wealth of information available on Twitter to future historians. Could you imagine how our perceptions of the Civil War might be different if we had millions geographically accurate accounts of people's passing whims in addition to the relatively few well thought out letters.

    I believe that the brilliant minds and Google, DARPA, and mom's basement will eventually find algorithms to correlate the overwhelming amount of information on the Internet in a way that is more reliable than the press ever has been able to. Will those algorithms be perfect? Absolutely not. There will certainly be some (unintended?) bias built into them, but hopefully they'll be accurate enough to help us hear the signal from the noise better.

  • Shared with my older daughter (college soph) and son (HS junior).

    I think avoiding bullshit sources was easier back in the day that we actually had to go to the library to do research. If you found it in the card catalogue and had to go get it out of the stacks (or from the microfiche collection), at least someone was pre-vetting the material.

    The Intertubes are a great un-reviewed journal and so you either have to learn to be able to verify what you read via other sourcing or run the risk of looking like a fool.

  • @bb:

    Should have read your comment before I wrote mine.

    Source judging is the price kids have to pay if they want to do their research on the Internet rather than by going to the library. And it's a lesson they need to learn, and learn early on, if they want to be able to do quality work. I don't think Ed is being hard on them; I think he is just pointing out the new reality.

  • Into this blessed mess of twisted notions, scammers wake up every day, rubbing their hands together, drooling, gleeful that there's a species so willing to believe anything: fish in a barrel.
    Alex describes it well: that's my experience too. And it serves to add much needed caution when reading, listening to or watching "the news."
    So, the Masons did it, that's what you're telling me? Wow. I always wondered about those old coots.

  • bb's got a good point. I figure what it amounts to is we're hard-wired to Believe, we get trained by our parents and peers about what to Believe, we have some (increasingly) limited exposure to 'research', which largely amounts to finding support for what we Believe, and then off we go to college, where we get gut-punched by some mean old instructor who insults us and our Beliefs. He tries to tell us our Beliefs aren't even as good as his? The Arrogance! The Elitistness!
    Personally, I bet that was the main reason Socrates got the chop – he offended a bunch of parents by daring to suggest that not all Beliefs were equal. Be careful, Ed – "corrupting the youth of Athens, Georgia (or wherever the hell you are now, I can't recall)" may not draw the refreshing cup of Hemlock-ade, but you might want to make sure that you're in reasonably tight with the Deans just in case. If only Socrates had been a bit of a schmoozer, he might have lived long and prospered.

  • I read this blog because I think that most contributors are NOT full of shit. No one other the the youngest baby comes to new information tabula rasa. If people are brought up in a culture that accepts the absolute truth of the Bible, for example, there is little question that their minds are prepared to absorb copious amounts of bullshit from all other corners. How reasonable people escape from such indoctrination is a long hard road in the course of which good teachers are critical. To paraphrase my bumper sticker, if you have been led by the nose to believe in absurdities, you are prepared to commit atrocities.

  • It still goes back to the old philisophical problem that it's hard to prove that ANYTHING exists, let alone some kind of shared event or notable fact. So in the end we have to trust that the person who is telling us about an event or fact is indeed telling us the truth and that is based on our prior experiences with that person.

    I think therefore I am, may work to prove my own existence, but you cannot say "you think therefore you are" to prove anything else.

  • God, yes. The you-are-spewing-total-crap problem. The interwebz have made it so huge that I'm coming to the conclusion we'll have to have edicts against posting damaging utter nonsense. (Undamaging nonsense, on the other hand, could still fly.) And that those edicts will have to apply to everyone, from international news media to the lowliest tweeter.

    Yeah, yeah. I know. Ridiculous. But so is the current situation.

    And, no, I don't know how you would keep the Ministry of Edicts Against Utter Crap from becoming the Ministry of Truth.

  • In my head your post and Magpie Librarian's (listed below) go very well together today as a reason ( but not the only one) why libraries and librarians are still important. Also your school's library should have someone willing to work with you on teaching info literacy at the beginning of each semester. At least, I would hope.

  • I spent 6 years as a public library librarian in a city with a large university, and several smaller colleges and a tech school. I understood why I had to help older patrons figure out what was real on the internet and what was not; it was all new to them, print had been "reliable" in there day, etc. That was fine, and they were usually receptive to what I had to say and in learning how to use the databases we paid for to find the information they needed rather than using Google.

    What I wasn't prepared for were the high school and college students–even from the large university, sometimes even grad students–who had never used a database and were upset when I explained that to read articles about the subject they were researching, they had to use our databases (or the colleges) because "my teacher said no internet sources." When I explained this or that journal *only* published a digital version, they would become very upset, because no amount of explanation about the difference between a subscription database and a Google search page could make them understand that using our digital version of Nature was the same as using a printed version of Nature.

    It was their inability to understand the difference that was most alarming; people the age of their grandparents picked up the nuances fairly quickly (though that would get iffy when they had their own subscription to Ancestry and you had to explain what was legit there and what wasn't). The only thing I could blame it on was a lack of critical thinking skills, the ability to understand that using an internet connection was not the same as a random search of every whackadoodle site on the internet. And in some cases, they were right: they had teachers who would not accept a citation that included the detail "Retrieved…" Between that and helicopter parents (who don't even bother to get the assignment details, just "he has to write a book report about WWII"), I'm not sure I'll ever want to work in a public library (at least not in this area) again.

  • @big dog

    "if you have been led by the nose to believe in absurdities, you are prepared to commit atrocities."

    Since you slammed the Bible believers…

    Absurdities such as…

    "Love God with everything in you and your neighbor as yourself.."

    "Love is the most powerful force in the Universe.."

    "Treat others in the way that you want to be treated…"

    "Forgiveness frees both you and the person you forgive…"

    "Bless those that curse you…"

    "Turn the other cheek…"

    "Don't let the sun go down on your anger…"

    I could go on, but then I am feeling deluded by the absurdities :-)


  • Sarah, thank you for the Magpie Librarian link. A rather awesome bit of work, she is.

    "It's so hard to know what to trust." Is it? Is it really? No. It's actually pretty easy.

    I beg to differ. It is a constant chore. If you seek to keep informed of current events, sources like the modern media (traditional boradcast radio and television, cable news programming, internet sites, social media) are are a ferociuous storm of opinion, conjecture, speculation and poorly formed opinion. The precious grains of unordained fact are obscured by the endless supply of chaff required to fill hours of programming and drive eyeballs to pages. Once upon a time, one couple rely on splendid resources like Encyclopdia Britannica, the NY Times, and the CBS Evening News for a reasonably responsible foundation of facts and information. How archaic this sounds even to my own ears in the endless, dulling roar of the modern Western lifestyle. That skeptics of vaccination warrant more than a hand-printed newsletter sent via USMail is but one fainting canary in this ever-expanding coal mine.

    The concept of "knowing what to trust" is very simple – it's practice is a separate challenge.

  • Jak the Yak says:

    Are you saying that, in your classes (one or more of them) you actually (attempt) to teach college kids how to tell a good source from a bad one?

    As a librarian, I would like to HAVE YOUR BABIES or otherwise thank you profoundly, profusely, and forever.

  • purpleplatypus says:

    "no one's going to think you're nuts for relying on a mainstream media account"

    Lots of people on National Review seem to think exactly that…

  • "But if the choice is between the Benghazi story on CNN or a post on something called, it is in students' interest to play it safe."

    The Birther site can at least give you some insight into the delusions of half of the country. CNN is just lexical white noise.

  • Now people can't be bothered to spend too much time reading chain e-mails or bullshit articles, thus we have the Facebook text-over-random-photo meme, which usually contains some bullshit quote.

  • Major Kong says:


    Not sure where you found those passages. My conservatve bible stops at Leviticus and picks up again ar Revelation.

  • As a public librarian for 28 years, I can tell you that school kids are often FORBIDDEN to use electronic sources by their teachers, even though they are the same as the print. Kids understand the difference; their teachers don't. One teacher told me that it was because they didn't want kids to do cut and paste plagiarism. Maybe they just want the kids to type out the stuff they are stealing from sources?

  • "Mainstream" sources may or may not be any more accurate about the facts than the crazies, but their biases are more predictable and… mainstream.

    No one bats an eye if they read a book about World War II and it says the U.S.A. did most of the work and won the war, and it barely mentions the U.S.S.R. That sort of bias and counter-factuality is perfectly acceptable in modern society, even to – especially to – teachers and professors. It's as false as the Freemason murder scheme mentioned above, but… it's an acceptable sort of false.

  • @bb: Whoa there, big fella! As I read Big Dog, he was referring to people who are taught to believe in the "absolute truth" of the Bible, as in "literal truth". The Creationists in all their bewildering varieties, for instance. I don't think he was slamming Christians in particular; many of the Biblical teachings are pretty good rules for living in a decent society. Clearly, though, at least a few of those things you cite are pretty much ignored, if not outright turned on their heads by the proud and loud Bible-thumpers who seem nowadays to make up a disproportionate amount of our national Christian community. Of course, I may be wrong (see that? That's why I'm not a "Good Christian" – I leave a margin for error…)

  • After being raised Catholic and having it drilled into me for most of my life that Faith trumps everything – a bad handicap, recovery always uncertain – what seems to keep my bullshit meter primed and ready is to ask it, "Is this obviously reinforcing someone's self-righteousness?"

    If the answer is "Yup!" I get squinty-eyed and seek alternative maps. After awhile, whole archipelagos of nonsense reveal themselves, and navigation becomes progressively easier.

    The history of post-WWII economics is a lovely case study of willful blindness, the fallacy of conventional wisdoms, agenda rationalizing, mathematical models tortured to produce self-justifying results…and a few golden islands of insights that actually mirror reality, and math that actually coughs up verifiable predictions.

  • @bb: I am curious. Do you believe in the Nicene Creed? i.e. that Jesus was the Messiah whose coming was foretold by the OT prophets, and who rose physically from the dead?

    Because if you do, then it seems reasonable to infer that you believe the OT prophets accurately foretold the course of history with regard to Egypt, Babylon, etc. Do you?

    Do you believe that Jericho was an atrocity, or do you think it's an appropriate basis for a childrens' hymn?

    And if the OT prophets were speaking infallibly, do you also believe that Leviticus, with its command to execute homosexuals, also came from God?

    Or do you believe that nothing in the Bible is true except the stuff about being nice to each other?

    If I say the movie "King Kong" is absurd, don't defend it by telling me that the Empire State Building is real. Being nice to each other is not a specifically Christian idea. The Resurrection, and all it implies, is.

    So what do you believe, actually?

  • @Anon: "And if the OT prophets were speaking infallibly, do you also believe that Leviticus, with its command to execute homosexuals, also came from God?"

    Well yes. Yes in fact Leviticus does say that and it was practiced by many ancient near Eastern religions. In fact a modern near Eastern religion very much advocates this practice *today*. Care to show up in a Gulf State and demand same sex marriage rights. Why is this no longer practiced by Judaism — which gave rise to Christianity? Pretty simple. It was called the Diaspora. From that time forward "Judah" was a vassal state, and subject to the dominant Power's law. First the Babylonians, then the Medes, Greeks, Romans disappearing until 1947. So during that time period of a couple 1000yrs sorta mellowed a few aspects of the Law. Something you'd learn if you even took the time for cursory research and attempted to understand history. Seems that there're elements on both sides who have no idea how the Bible fits into the greater tapestry that is history, and cherry pick for their own biases.

    So where did Jesus ever say stone gays? At that point in history the Romans would not have taken kindly to the practice. So it was pretty much a finished practice (perhaps in the more isolated Eastern provinces, but not in Jerusalem). The Jews had to seek out Roman approval for any death sentence. Ergo Jesus was handed over to Pilate.
    Does Paul? Paul says unequivocally that if you're a practicing homosexual you may not be a member of the church. Far cry from stoning. And about the limit any leader could establish authority in the Church.

  • You know what bothers me about Christianity?

    You can't talk about it.

    At all.

    Whenever I try, someone like Xynzee comes along and whips out a total strawman argument, and tut-tuts some false witness against me about how I'm supposedly cherrypicking, and hijacks the conversation with irrelevant details about history.

    Why don't you respond to my actual questions, Xynzee, instead of telling me history I already know?

  • Leo Artunian says:


    I don't want to bash Harvard (Hell, yes I do), but I've interviewed many a graduate student from there and never offered a job to one. They all tended to be incredibly insular, with a blinkered view of academic life and a certain carelessness about some basic rules of making a good impression. As a result, I'm not surprised that various folks associated with the place are making public asses of themselves. After all, once you've attained the exalted status of Harvard graduate or, better, Harvard professor, why bother to determine whether your figures are right or your opinions defensible?

  • Leo, my experience tells me that merely achieving the exalted status of Harvard Student is enough to turn up the smug levels and personify the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

  • As the holder of a Harvard graduate degree myself, let me tell you that I remember walking across the Yard every single day and wondering, "What the hell am I doing here? When are they going to wake up and kick me to the curb?" My experience was that about half of my fellow students thought they were God's gift to human intellectual history, and the other half were pretty much like me. So, please don't automatically decide that we are all assholes- the odds are only about 50-50.

  • @bb my use of the Bible was perhaps inappropriate in that I did not mean to offend those who believe that particular set of statements. What I was trying to get at was that all cultures indoctrinate their youth to a particular set of beliefs which enable them to do violence to the Other. It is a long and difficult journey to overcome this stuff, but a surprising number of us do, which gives me hope for our survival on this planet.

  • @Anon:

    "You know what bothers me about Christianity?

    You can't talk about it.

    At all.

    Whenever I try, someone like *Anon* comes along and whips out a total strawman argument, and tut-tuts some false witness against me about how I'm supposedly cherrypicking, and hijacks the conversation *and focuses only on homosexuality, sex outside of marriage, Israel's entry and genocide…*.

    Why don't you *pose an actual question*?" One that actually starts a proper discourse and conversation. Instead you launch into a point scoring competition. That can only and ever decend into a kindergarten level: Oh yeah! Yeah!! Followed by the sticking out of the tongues!!

    So perhaps as a suggestion if *everytime* your attempts to "talk" about Christianity decend to this level of discourse you examine yourself, your behaviour, your "energy" and most importantly your attitude towards your interlocutor. If you take a genuine interest in them and why they believe what they believe you just might find you'll get a more constructive result. Showing up with the army and siege engines like the Assyrians will not get you very far.

    I draw your eyes to JohnR's rebuttal as an example.

    Just a thought.

  • @Leo: a friend of mine used to work for a consulting company that for the more senior (read: those who were listened to by the his firm) consultants had a career trajectory like this: Certain NE prep schools. Harvard under grad, Harvard MBA, start on six figures w/ this company. And we wonder why things suck so bad. WASF!

  • @Xynzee, cut it with the attitude.

    I asked some straightforward questions about BB's beliefs. You decided to charge in "like the Assyrian army" and throw around false accusations.

    And this is the problem, really. You can't talk to Christians about Christianity.

    I have some pretty specific questions about Christianity, but Christians NEVER ANSWER THEM.

    They keep telling me, oh, Christianity is an intellectually respectable religion. "I'm a Christian, but I'm not like those OTHER Christians."

    So I say, ok, great! I want to learn all about your beliefs. What do you make of Leviticus? What about Jericho? Traditionally, Christians teach their children to sing hymns about genocide. Are you different? What about the OT prophets? The Resurrection? These are big issues to the OTHER Christians. If you're different, these are the things I want to hear about.

    No answer.

    Come on, Xynzee. I keep hearing Christians tell me I'm wrong about Christianity. If you're a Christian, don't lecture me about HISTORY. Tell me about BELIEF. What do you believe?

    The question is simple, and it has nothing to do with history. It has to do with today. What do you believe?

    Does Leviticus come from God? Yes or no?

    Was Jesus physically resurrected? Yes or no?

    No Christian ever answers it. They just attack me and lecture me about history and sneer that I'm ignorant.

    What better way to dodge the question about what they believe, than to lecture me about history- about what dead people believed?

    It's funny how the fantasy of martyrdom is so prevalent in some segments of Christian culture. So many Christians like to fantasize that if someone put a gun to their head, they would certainly proclaim their BELIEF IN CHRIST even if it meant their death.

    But if I just ask them, what do you believe? No answer.

  • Xynzee said:

    "Yes in fact Leviticus does say that…

    Why is this no longer practiced by Judaism — which gave rise to Christianity? Pretty simple. It was called the Diaspora. From that time forward "Judah" was a vassal state, and subject to the dominant Power's law.

    Something you'd learn if you even took the time for cursory research and attempted to understand history. Seems that there're elements on both sides who have no idea how the Bible fits into the greater tapestry that is history, and cherry pick for their own biases."

    I just want to make sure everyone understands what Xynzee is saying here.

    According to Leviticus, God told the Jews to kill the male homosexuals.

    Xynzee says yes, but MAYBE if I had studied history I would know that that doesn't count. Why?


    Checkmate, atheists!

  • No. Anon. You still have not entered in to a discussion in good faith to **learn** about *my* beliefs. Your only interest is to prove the other wrong. So go back to the school yard.

  • Xynzee, nobody is keeping you here. Go ahead, just leave if you think I'm arguing in bad faith. I'm not, but I don't feel a need to convince you. I just wish that for once, someone would explain to me how the non-fundagelical Christianity works.

    If you think I'm arguing in bad faith, then hey, fine, just blow me out of the water. Just say that Leviticus is a lie, and explain the role of Leviticus in your belief system as a Christian. That's all it would take. I would be more than willing to let everybody here think I'm an asshole, if it would just get you to talk about what you believe.

    Please understand, I'm not trying to win an argument. It's just that for years I've been trying to figure out what the hell you people believe, and I can't get a straight answer out of any of you.

    For decades, Christians have been uniformly nasty to me, including members of my own family. They tell me over and over again that I'm a bigot because I don't understand that not all Christians believe that stuff. Ok, great. My ears are open. Please, tell me- what the hell do you people believe?

    You think I'm a troll? Fine- put me in my place. Say you don't believe in the Resurrection. Say you don't believe in Leviticus or the OT prophets. I'll take the fall. Win the argument. Blow me away with your brilliantly thought out theology. Make me look like a fool in front of everyone. It would be worth it, if for the first time in my life I could find out what an intelligent Christians believes.

  • I don't know why you're so surprised/disappointed/disheartened. We learn to be polite little regurgitators the first time Mummy mentions what a friend we have in Jesus.

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