The Important Thing is That We’re Arguing

Humans will debate just about anything; whether their positions stand up to any sort of external scrutiny is often of secondary concern. Don’t believe us? Take a look at this diagram.

The human tendency towards heated debate is part of our evolutionary heritage. It’s almost always been advantageous to get absurdly mad about even trivial issues; where the cool-headed rationalist might shrug off a debate about ideal loin cloth material and retire to his cave for a rest, the belligerent hothead is far more likely to sneak into his cave in the dead of night and choke the life out of him with his hideously impractical palm frond underoos. This has obviously been mitigated in the last several thousand years of polite society, where you’ve increasingly needed to at least have more social capital before murdering someone in cold blood, but you can see the latent tendency in arenas like the Internet, which have removed the more direct methods of social stigma, and let us indulge our angry inheritance.

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The second edition of the Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses took place last weekend at MIT (with a West Coast version fest going this weekend). Organized by Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal cartoonist Zach Weinersmith—the entire idea has its roots in a gag strip he wrote—the event features scientists and other interested academics advocating for their own particular Bad Ad Hoc evolutionary ideas, theories of how or why something has come to be, absent any evidence that doesn’t come from their own minds. Weinersmith’s original was a dissection of how babies came to be hairless and aerodynamic because of ancient practices that involved punting them from village to village (the better the babies flew through the air, the better they spread their genes). Last weekend’s event featured discussions on everything from why bugs continue to get more disgusting (as humans burn through protein sources, they need to discourage us from considering them edible) to the growing prevalence of smugness in the population (people with less self-satisfaction tend to have higher suicide rates, thus taking themselves out of the gene pool).

Its basic set-up is a parody of scientific conferences—SMBC itself is one of a handful of web comics that has found a lot of success in exploring the dissonance between the scientific-academic view of the world and the common sense/ignorant one—and, generally speaking, the presentations that tend to go over best are the ones that master the vagaries and hand-waving of the slapdash hypothesizer. Evolutionary academics, especially those who try to explain some aspect of human behaviour through a Darwinian lens, seem particularly prone to being seduced by a story well told, so there’s lots of fodder. Set up like lower rent TED Talks, the laughs—this is all meant to be quite funny, albeit in the way that most of the jokes your high school physics teacher told you are funny—tend to a follow the most knowing jokes, as when the bug hypothesizer didn’t have the time to get into the particulars of his computer modelling of the future of bugs, and then presented a fully rendered model of a hideous monster on a dinner plate. It’s funny because people ignore the boring technical details for the flashy final picture all the time!

BAHFest 2013 - Zach Weinersmith: Weinersmith’s Infantapaulting Hypothesis

Outside lunchroom laffs for working geneticists, though, BAH taps into something a lot more basic about our intellectual faculties. The ultimate joke of all the ideas here is that they’re logically consistent, carefully crafted and thought through enough to stand up to any kind of internal scrutiny; they only fall apart when you step outside and look for any kind of justification for their premise. This so closely mirrors our basic intellectual approach that it makes BAHFest a joke of context, not content: we really only know they’re trying to be funny because they’ve told us so.

The most glaringly obvious everyday examples of this tend to come in the opinion sections of whichever publications you prefer, though blaming them for the phenomenon would just be kicking the ball down the field: these instances are obvious only because most of us don’t have to provide justification for our relentlessly half-assed opinions. Still, in any case like this, it helps to think of Tom Friedman, the mustachioed king of coming up with a clever formulation and then building skyscrapers on its base. These things are always Potemkin villages, though—easy to wander around and get lost in, but with none of the underground infrastructure that would actually make them work.

For all of the bitching people like to do about logical fallacies, humans are actually generally pretty good at crafting and following arguments. Like any ancient art, rhetoric is mostly intuition dressed in formal wear—we instinctively get that calling someone ugly does not really address their point about misogyny. What we are fabulously bad at, however, is checking our premises: it’s vastly easier to buttress our ideas than it is to dig into them, which after all tends to be tedious and incremental and runs the risk of undermining them completely.

The extra joke of BAHFest, really, is that science is more or less expressly devoted to defeating this tendency, of ensuring we’re making our stories conform to the world, and not the other way ‘round. If they do it so often they can spawn parody conferences about it, though, it doesn’t suggest a lot of reasons for optimism in the rest of us.

BAHFest 2013 - Tomer Ullman: The Crying Game