hit me with your best shot

I got a flu shot on Wednesday.

When filling out the consent and information form prior to getting stuck, I had to think for a moment on whether or not I’d ever had a flu shot before: that’s how long it had been. But I definitely had in college, if not somewhat later. It had been years since the last time, though.

My reasoning: I’m a healthy young man. I rarely get sick. There are so many varieties of the flu that clinics have to guess which form to vaccinate against. And the last time I got a flu shot, the symptoms from the mild virus knocked me on my ass for about 24 hours. None of those made it seem worth it.

My mind was well made up; I was very comfortable in my beliefs. And then my friend Lynn W. raised a point I’d never considered.

Her argument: even if the flu won’t put you out of work, you can still carry the flu virus and infect other people. Getting the flu vaccine reduces your risk for being a carrier. Your concern isn’t being a victim, but being a vector.

And I changed my mind overnight.

This happens to me more often as an adult than it ever did as a child or student. I build in my head a reasonable case for a course of action: a defensible line of arguments, a string of evidence and a good logical warrant that connects the whole package. And then one solid counter-argument comes along and I completely change my mind.

It has nothing to do with the authority or volume of the opposing party. Lynn W’s a friend of mine, but I don’t defer to her judgment on everything; I’m not trying to curry her favor. And I’ve held my ground on things I believe in the past even when nobody agrees with me. Check some of my older posts on voting, for instance.

When I see logic that trumps mine, I embrace it instantly and reject everything else.

I make note of this because I’ve been wondering of late about breaking free of the mind-body dichotomy. I’m curious about the contents of my own head: how did they get there? who put them there and why? As such, my stubbornness makes me curious. Am I holding to this contested belief out of peevishness? Out of a neurotic desire to be an underdog? Out of fatigue or impatience? Or am I rejecting any new ideas because I have yet to see better logic?

So, as odd as it might sound, these abrupt about-faces of belief reassure me more than they worry me. It means the contents of my head yield to reason. The more compelling the logic, the quicker I change my mind. For someone who wants to make sense of the world, that’s a good thing to know.


ten thousand years ago, crawling on the floor

Three anecdotes:

  1. Driving to work the other day, I saw a car at the light ahead of me with the license plate TLW 862.

    I thought nothing of it.

  2. Driving to work the other day, I saw a car at the light ahead of me with the license plate JEP 401.

    “Hey,” I thought, “those are my initials! And that’s my birthday! Why, the odds of that happening by chance are … over one in seventeen million! That’s too improbable to have happened by chance! That license plate must have been made just for me.”

  3. While trying to reconcile the inescapable fact of the human race’s evolutionary origins, creationists have been known to say, “The probability of the chance formation of a hypothetical functional ‘simple’ cell, given all the ingredients, is acknowledged to be worse than 1 in 10^57800.” That’s too improbable to have happened by chance! Therefore, the Universe must have been made just for me.
The difference between #1 and #2 illustrates the error shared by #2 and #3.

I owe the license plate analogy to Richard Feynman, who wasn’t talking about evolution at the time. However, he did make a point about resisting the temptation to let the “specialness” of the data bias your conclusions. Just because the data means something personally important to you does not let you reason backward to a theory that would neatly justify it.

If I see a license plate that’s a random jumble of letters and numbers, I make no associations. If I see a license plate that’s a random jumble of letters and numbers that remind me of my name and birthday, I recognize that. My mind forms an association. The data now has special significance to me. If I live in a uniquely paranoid world, I might presume that license plate was made just for me. Perhaps someone infiltrated the license plate printing press.

If I live on a planet that’s a sea of unthinking protoplasm, I don’t assign it any significance1. But if I live on a planet that’s teeming with decision-making vertebrates, of which I happen to be one, I assign it a great deal of significance. My mind forms an association. The data now has a special importance to me. If I live in a uniquely paranoid world, I might presume that the world was made just for me. Perhaps someone lives in the clouds and makes elephants out of clay.

I could spend days talking about the problems with the creationist argument that the cell, or DNA, or the brain, have “too much complexity to have evolved by chance.”2 But the chief problem comes from a skipped premise. The syllogism goes as follows:

  • The odds of the human species evolving by chance are one in a squillion.3
  • Therefore, God made us.
Seriously, that’s it. What’s the second premise? “One in a squillion’s just too big to ever happen?” Says who? If we can conceive the number “one in a squillion” – if we can do the operations to write it down on paper, and it’s not an irrational imaginary number like the square root of -1 – then who’s to say the universe can’t contain it?

This illustrates the logical fallacy of petitio principii, also known as “assuming to be true the conclusion that you’re trying to prove” or “begging the question.” Creationists presume a specialness to the datum of human existence, then reason backward from there. In so doing, they skip a premise, in the hopes that once the numbers get too big to think about we’ll just stop paying attention. But logic doesn’t work that way. Neither does the universe.

Creationists don’t have a monopoly on this error. I just have the most fun pointing theirs out.

1 Hell, I don’t assign anything any significance – I’m just a prokaryote!

2 Briefly: biologists don’t assert that “humans evolved by chance,” because the forces of natural selection, sexual selection, genetic drift, etc. are not “chance,” in fact they follow some pretty orderly principles, maybe you’d like to read about them sometime in a 9th-grade textbook; also, it’s ridiculous to speak of the state of the world as a one-in-a-squillion outcome, as that supposes that the universe is a die with a squillion other faces, or a test that’s been run a squillion other times, which I have no problem asserting but doesn’t come from the Intelligent Design handbook; also, what is “too much” complexity?; also, humans did not spring onto the scene as full homo sapiens, but rather descended from an enormous daisy chain of species, many of which have odds – using ridiculous creationist logic – of much less than one in a squillion of showing up; also, you’re stupid.

3 I have never heard the same number quoted on any two creationist websites, unless they reference each other. I know it’s a bullshit number anyway – they just start multiplying things like the number of proteins in a DNA strand until they get an impressively large number and then stare at it slack-jawed – but I’d like it to at least be consistent bullshit. Could you rubes get your act together? Have a conference call or something.

can it be the casanova speech therapy that heavily puts the flavor right where it should be?

“Ever sift sand through a screen?” she asked.
The tangential slash of her question shocked his mind into a higher awareness.
– Frank Herbert, Dune

I had about four minutes to go, three blocks from my front door, when the girl in the blue T-shirt and worn clipboard spotted me.

“Hi?” she asked, dropping her last conversation like a hot roll. “Do you have five minutes to save the Earth?”

“Have they paid you yet?” I asked, continuing to walk.

The rehearsed smile vanished. “What? Yeah.”

“Make sure they pay you. I know too many people who worked for them all summer and didn’t get paid.” The effort of pitching my voice and speaking over my shoulder while I continue to walk tightens my throat. If she says anything else I don’t hear it.

It’s an open secret that the same vaguely left political organization, wearing the hat of either Greenpeace, the Sierra Club or MassPIRG, hires students in Boston at dismal wages every summer. They stand them on busy street corners with clipboards and pens and ask them to get donations. No cash, no checks; only credit cards or bank account numbers will do. Income streams, not splashes; that’s what save the environment.

It’s such a well-known feature of the Boston landscape that copycats have sprung up, scamming people out of a few dollars in order to “end racism”.

The students get paid on commission. Most quit early. The ones who do rarely get their checks.

When I see a Greenpeace / Sierra Club / MassPIRG solicitor asking for my time, I keep walking and shout that question over my shoulder. “Have they paid you yet?” No student should have to spend all summer sweating in Boston’s asphalt oven without at least getting what they’re owed. They could cut lawns and see more money. I was a poor student in Boston once; I sympathize.

Here’s the dirty secret, though: even if GP/SC/MaPR didn’t cheat these kids out of a measly $12 an hour, I’d still ask that question. I’m a malcontent like that. I like finding the line or trick or reaction that shakes them out of the routine. Managers drill routines into these poor kids’ heads – “if they say they can’t afford it, say this; if they want to give you cash, say this” – and the most successful ones stick to those routines. I like breaking them out of the patter and forcing them to think on their feet.

And I want to keep at it. I want to find the one thing to say to a Scientologist, handing out fliers for a “free psychological evaluation,” that’ll get him to question what he’s doing. I want the one question that’ll make a defender of the Iraq Civil War sit back and re-evaluate. I look for the pithy remark, the turn of phrase, the unexpected insight. Forget debating; forget yelling. Give me the unorthodox strategy and the left-handed attack.

Per Deirdre McCloskey (though apparently Boudreaux paraphrases her), no one was ever convinced by raw data of a proposition that he did not already hold true. It’s never the brute fact that changes our minds. It’s the image. It’s the new perspective. It’s the weird new angle. It’s the sea of faces on the Washington Mall, or the lone man in front of the tank treads, or the Vietnamese general putting a gun to the prisoner’s head.

Ditch the old arguments. Reframe the debate.