A Peaceful Philosophy / Theory of Communication?

I apologise for what may seem like a clickbate topic and for the stream of consciousness format with which it comes. I failed to sleep last night for various reasons, some of which are medical, and some purely due to my stupidity at turning to YouTube in the whee hours of the morning when nothing else worked. When all else fails often I turn to debunk videos looking at things like flat earth theory and other topics like evolution crop up.
This is all relevant, but probably can’t just be a single post - so here is the conversation opener. One I will hopefully be allowed to flesh out in a separate comment but don’t think i can mentally bring together into something concise. This will eventually link in an odd way to Hilber’s recent book on relevance theory and Genesis

For a long time I have inhabited the world of flat earth theory listening primarily to some interesting and generally polite(ish) debunkers. One of the things that I have often felt watching these videos is some of the same frustration they have with the flat earth proponents when I am discussing young earth creationism with friends (I am not YEC). The same level of talking past each other occurs, with genuine changes of mind seemingly rate, although not unheard of. I identify some of the same attitudes towards scientific consensus and theory amongst the flat earthers as I do some of my YEC friends. That is all well and good. BUT, I also recognise some important biases on my side - one of which was best brought home to me by a wonderful book called the Enigma of Reason written by Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier (The Enigma of Reason: A New Theory of Human Understanding: Amazon.co.uk: Sperber, Dan, Mercier, Hugo: 9780241957851: Books)
I read this book on its release as part of a longer interest in relevance theory and its relationship to NT Greek studies. My possibly incorrect recollection of their theory is essentially that cognition came about to help us not to correctly deduce truth, but instead it is a more social vehicle to help us to influence other people’s actions. Please do correct me on misrecollection/representation here, it has been some time and I don’t have the book with me.
So far so good - my cognition isn’t intended to be a purely rationalistic tool to deduce truth, it came about for more social purposes. Well, on to flat earth and that good stuff.

From my recollection, they discussed an inherent cognitive bias we all have to find faults in other people’s arguments more easily than our own.This was demonstrated with some fascinating studies that are worth people reading about. So.we have a bias to find flaws in other people’s arguments more easily than our own. That is well and good - both sides can shout that the other has such a bias, but to learn that it is something that is part of the way we process arguments as arguments was shaking to me. It isn’t that I have to admit now that I have biases, but I have to admit that I am more likely to find flaws in someone else’s argument than my own - that not just because my ideas are good ideas - but something in me pushes me that way.
It gets more disturbing for me though, looking at the way I read and listen to people and the way i critically evaluate their views when they agree with my own. I am cognitively biased to lower my epistemic-vigilence when reading / encountering my in group giving ideas. So, in simpler terms - I stop critically assessing those ideas at the same level as I critically assess those I disagree with.

Hopefully the general gist of where I am heading with this already overly long-winded post is clear, and why it may be relevant here. I will try to construct a follow on to illustrate where I think that things need a shift in the way we think of debate and discussion. I don’t refer to the participants on this group specifically, but it certainly applies to some extent to all of the posts.


Hi Matt,
I agree that it is easier to criticize the bias of others before our own. Useful self-criticism is a skill that some people never seem to learn.

I have similar observations about Flat Earth and YEC. Those groups do not play well together (at least on Facebook), but their arguments and methods are often similar. Out of courtesy to our few YEC members here, I would not encourage that argument. :wink:

Suggestions that lead to better discussions are always welcome, and a good way to get people more tuned-in to the meta-discussion of why we fight with each other.

As a follow up to the beginnings of my sleepless musings, the chain of consciousness reasoning continues thusly
Without recognising that we have inherent cognitive biases involved in the very way that we approach arguments, are we really having a discourse? Of-course to some level we are, but how much of it is talking past each other because we don’t recognise that psychologically we are not both neutral observers looking at the data impartially. Right down deep in our discussion with one another we are biased, and to the extent that we disagree then to that extent we are probably more strongly coginitively biased to find fault in the views of the other person while accepting those of those who agree with me.

Recognising the bias helps, as it makes me more critically think before accepting something a debunker tells me about a flat earth theory. Frankly, I watched a youtube debunk video and came to my current level of understanding of gravity - just what the debunker lambasts the flat earther for doing and calling research. And I then have the hypocrisy to feel good about myself when the debunker states that flat earthers are stupid to do this and call it research. I have accepted the debunker because it is my in group, it is the set of ideas that more readily matches with my own. My epistemic-vigilence is lowered and I fail to follow up and do even so much as watch a video of a physics professor tell me what gravity is – let alone by a book or take a course. I also more firmly now, on the basis of not fact checking my debunker, hold views of flat earthers to be even more silly.
Round and round the loop goes.

So – to try to bring this together. Sperber and Mercier did discuss how to advance a conversation. It turns out that having other people you respect hearing your views when you give them isn’t always a good thing. It can encourage us to play it safe and stick to the party line. However, also not knowing whether a set of opinions comes from an in group or out group can be really helpful. It means that our biases are lowered. This is clearly problematic for a forum with people who hold clearly stated views. However as a conversation starter – is there a better way of doing peaceful science that needs to go further. Not just than a forum, or a growing movement of people coming together, but to go further into seeing whether we are really in discourse with one another from a deeper level.

For me this comes back around to Hilber in a long winded way. I read his book uncritically and with much acceptance whilst thinking about how to explain it to convince my YEC friends. I failed to read it with a peaceful science intent, or with any real recognition as to whether I just accepted it because it ticked some boxes for me. Relevance theory, linguistics, languages, creationism, and a whole host of biases I don’t even recognise.

Thoughts? Sorry for this being long, it has been rumbling under the surface of my thoughts when browsing youtibe for about a year or so, but I have only just had a realisation that I now have an in-group to post it to. A group that cares about these things and who will hopefully therefore read my ramblings with less bias than elsewhere!

Hi Dan, thanks for the response. I certainly wasn’t intending to make a flat earth / young earth comparison in a strong way. Apologies to those that felt I was doing that. I have frustrations with both groups, but frankly have the science level below most who pass out of school.
That was more intended as a means of showing in group / out group mentalities at work in both the debunkers and their opponents, when the same thing conceptually plays out in discussions with young earth and old earth. I will stop here before saying anything that might otherwise offend on that subject

1 Like

No worries, you are fine. I’m the one who brought up the conflict.

Author David Brin terms this an Addiction to Self-Righteousness.

I confess I have little patience for YouTube, especially long videos with low content.

1 Like

Thanks for that link. I will give it a read through tomorrow - looks interesting

Welcome to the forum @ho_idiotes.

We do have a theory of communication we are drawing from. Have you read this yet?



Incidentally, we have an article on this here:

1 Like

Hey Dr Swamidass, thanks for the responses. Trying to do so from an iPad and not sure how to quote you properly so apologies for the format

I read the missions and values and was really encouraged by them when I first joined the forum. I guess I am looking at the concept of communication not so much as an aspirational and ethical thing, but questioning whether we need people to be more aware of the cognitive aspect flagged by Sperber and Mercier. I can see how that wouldn’t have come across, and I hope it wasn’t seen as disrespectful. I hadn’t read the AAAS link though and will do so tomorrow. Thanks for that.

I mentioned Hilber’s book primarily because I knew you had reviewed it. really loved the book and may have come across it because of your review (I can’t quite remember). Again, something I should have been clearer on - it was relevant because of the relevance theory element.

Also aware of how most of the post may have come across as me saying that I am so aware of my own biases all the time and therefore somehow past a blockage for others. Hope that didn’t come across. Was meant as a genuine question - just posted in a sleep deprived manner that was more vague than helpful.

I am in the uk and hitting my 48th hour awake and only posting as I am aware you may be in the States. You and Dan have both given me reading material which I didnt want you to think I was just ignoring - looking forward to getting stuck into it on a rested head tomorrow.


I haven’t read that book (I’m looking into it) but there are many interesting accounts of human cognitive evolution and I doubt that this one is a lot more important than the others, in terms of whether it needs to be well understood by the PS community. (I could of course be wrong.) I am currently reading Not By Genes Alone by Richerson and Boyd: it’s very interesting and deals with concepts that are closely related to “reason” as it seems the Sperber and Mercier book emphasizes. These are interesting and important ideas, but I would not suggest that they should be developed into some kind of ethos for PS.

OTOH, I do think any community like this one–seeking to encourage mutual understanding, dialogue, trust, etc.–must be vigilant about the famous weaknesses and biases built into human cognition and must be regularly reminded about these biases and about the social and psychological underpinnings of belief and belonging. The main risk of doing this (reminding etc.) is that of equalizing beliefs. (Falsehoods like “well there are two sides to every argument.”) This is a reasonable pitfall, and one that can be exploited by defenders of the indefensible.


I’ve never been a fan of this type of postmodernism. I see no utility in saying that everyone is wrong and no truth exists. The Earth is either flat or round (or maybe some other shape, but you get the drift). The Earth is either young or old. Even with biases, we can still arrive at an accurate picture of how the universe works by relying on objective reasoning and logic. One good example is hearing flat earthers claiming that we should be flung off the globe if it is spinning around at 1,000 miles per hour. Have they ever done the math? If they did, they would find that the centrifugal force is a tiny fraction of the force pushing us down into the Earth (otherwise known as gravity). Why won’t they do the math? Why do they keep the obviously false claim going? These are not equal positions.

Those who lack reasoning, logic, and evidence are all too often those who seek a false equivalence between their beliefs and those that are backed by reasoning, logic, and evidence. That’s the trick they are trying to play, and I don’t think we should play along.


Unfortunately it seems sleep will evade me tonight as well. I would suggest we close this post if acceptable as a cautionary tale of the folly of posting things to public forums on too little sleep. A number of the things I intended to say were written in a way that has caused confusion over my intent and meaning which I want to avoid causing other people.

T-Aticus - thanks for catching me in horrendous overreach with the impact of the theory. I never intended to take it to mean that some people aren’t just plain wrong and should do the work. Bemused looking back on it that I seem to have been advocating postmodernism - your identification of that was a good one, thanks for pointing it out.

Dr Swamidass and sfmatheson. I never meant to imply that the peaceful science forum was deficient in its aims or goals, or needed to modify its ethos, sorry that it was written in a way that implied this. I intended it in the spirit of “are there new things we as people discussing things, here on the forum but wider could learn”. The entire post could have better been done on more sleep as a “here is an interesting theory that may be interesting and helpful for people”.

I think at this stage for me to try to clarify all the things I misconveyed and probably should rewrite is unwise. On the plus side, you were all gracious with me - so thanks for that :smiley:

You can expect posts in the future, it only when done with a full nights sleep before hand!
A semi useful time to have the in jest username idiotes

1 Like

No offense taken :slight_smile: . I’m sure some of the pushback was over the top too. I appreciated your thoughts.

Hey I thought the conversation was interesting, and I’m glad you pointed out the book by Mercier and Sperber–I am definitely going to buy that one and read it! I’m not sure why @swamidass refers to “pushback” or to “over the top” since neither of those things happened, but I agree with him that you shouldn’t apologize for anything! The topic is perfect for the forum.

And I hope you are able to get the sleep you need.

1 Like

Fair enough @sfmatheson. Constructive resistance is a good thing, but maybe he misinterpreted it as being over-critical. :slight_smile:

Certainly not seen critical from you guys, beyond the needed and reasonable pushback from T-Aquaticus. More that I would need more time and capacity to properly write what I meant in response to what you seem to have seen my intention in on those points and am concerned that right now may not be best to do that.

Isaac Asimov wrote a classic essay that is worth mentioning. In it, he discusses how the Earth is not a perfect sphere but an oblate spheroid. However, us being every so slightly wrong about the exact shape of the Earth in no way makes the flat earthers right.


Interesting quote from Asimov, thanks for that. On the bit above, I have wondered for a while whether people who make that argument miss that science as a discipline and set of methods has also changed over time (I think). And the level of cross-disiplinary confirmation of things, and the level of precision of prediction and data has also changed. Does that mitigate the impact of such appeals to wrong arguments in the past?
I don’t want to pursue this line of discussion more than that question really, as want to ensure i can focus on one bit at a time on the post, not because it isn’t interesting.

Hi all. Thanks for pausing on commenting on this. I ended up with 60 hours awake which was unpleasant but finally slept and have a normally functioning mind. Perhaps I may be permitted to address/clarify things one bit at a time?
The first one would be that part of what I was saying is that I think we, as people in society as a whole need to become more aware of bias in our thinking. By recognising these are to some extent biologically grounded and impact our ability to fairly assess arguments without some difficulty could help foster more irenic conversations about science, and other issues as well. In this sense, peaceful science is different from Peaceful Science as an organisation and its aims. Assuming we are all faced with the same ease of positive/negative evidence assessment can raise issues of feeling we are intellectually superior and that others must be deliberately being obtuse, or somehow stupid because they don’t come to the same set of positive/negative arguments about a given idea.
Happy to address how I thought this applies to this organisation in a future comment, but thought I would see if people think that this particular clarification is fair and reasonable / raises any additional questions / issues

The scientific method has bee modified since Francis Bacon helped start the scientific revolution, and I think Bacon would have approved. The basic premise of the scientific method is still there in the reliance on empiricism over human intuition.

In the modern age we also have the advantage of 300 years of accumulated scientific knowledge. The mistakes early scientists made are completely understandable given the knowledge and tools they had. For example, if I were a physicist in the mid 1800’s I would probably have accepted the existence of a luminiferous ether. I would have also celebrated the subsequent work that disproved its existence.

In addition to all of this, a major part of science is honesty. You need to be honest about the evidence that backs your conclusions, and be honest about the quality of that evidence. You need to be honest about the weaknesses in your conclusions. You need to be able to honestly state what evidence could prove you wrong, and mean it. It is all about putting evidence ahead of ego.