The Best Arguments for Things I Don't Believe

By Sean Carroll | August 23, 2007 3:40 pm

Have you ever heard someone arguing in favor of a position with which you disagree, but their arguments are so bad that you can’t help but think “Man, I could do a better job arguing for their side than they are, and I don’t even agree with them!” I thought it might be interesting to do exactly that — consider some interesting issues, and come up with my own versions of what the people who I think are wrong should be saying.

The rules would be: (1) The claims would be somewhat judgmental, rather than straightforwardly empirical. I’m not going to waste my time arguing that the universe is not expanding, or anything like that. (2) I have to stick to making individual statements that I really do believe, even if I don’t think they are sufficient to support the ultimate conclusion. I reserve the right to come up with more rules as I think of them.

Here are some possible claims to be considered:

  1. God exists.
  2. The Iraq war was a good idea.
  3. Women scientists shouldn’t complain about discrimination.
  4. Research on string theory is a waste of time.
  5. Talking about the multiverse is intrinsically non-scientific.
  6. We shouldn’t worry about global climate change.

Any other suggestions? I’m sure there are lots of things I don’t believe, but could come up with better arguments for than I usually hear. It’ll be like being on the debate team again.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Miscellany
  • Gavin

    I like your list, but there’s no sex.

    7. Same sex couples should not be allowed to marry.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    That’s a great choice, I’ll have to look into that one.

  • http://whenindoubtdo.blogspot.com/ Eugene

    I like “Gun control is bad for fighting gun-related crimes” myself.

  • http://quasar9.blogspot.com/ Quasar9

    lol Sean,
    can’t wait to read your argument for “God exists” or is that God exits
    Will this god evolve from mankind and discover he/she is omnipotent, with a big bang proceed to create a whole new universe (somewhere in the landscape) with perfect laws of physics and imperfect beings with imperfect genes?
    or will this god simply send everything down a massive blackhole and start the whole thing all over again – hope I’m not giving away any bollywood movie plot

  • Kerub

    intelligent design is pure distilled science.

  • Son of Slam

    Many moons ago, on talk.origins, I participated in a group that came up with a better theory for explaining Noah and the flood. The vapor canopy is so, so lame. An oceanographer working for NASA came up with the PIMPLE theory, that stated that sudden upthrusts of mesa-like areas on the ocean floor displaced the water, for instance.

    I handled the animals. The physical dimensions of the ark were too small for all the animals and the space they’d need, plus they’d have to eat. I proposed that the animals were frozen in ponds into a state of suspended animation. when the waters rose, these became icebergs that were towed in a line behind the ark. I even proposed that the last iceberg broke free, and drifted to Australia, to explain the unique animal species there.

  • http://mauitian.livejournal.com/ Garrett

    How about:

    “It’s better to be single than married.”

    “Not having kids is better for long term happiness.”

    And this, a hard one:

    “Microsoft makes good software.”

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    “The ends really do justify the means” seems perfect.

  • anon.

    Re: Gavin’s #1 — I seem to recall that Belle Waring did an exercise like that at some point (being similarly frustrated by the stupidity of the arguments usually advanced). Maybe I’ll find the link later….

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modal_realism Neil B.

    Well, since you asked about this stuff, I have every excuse to argue some of the points yet again ;-)

    #1, for “Yes”:

    There is, serious as a heart attack, no genuinely logical way to define “existence” above and beyond logical description. IOW, no way to define “matter” aside from the structural descriptions of it, other than appeal (ironically) to metaphysical issues like the realness of our experience, etc. Now you might say, no big deal, since you can imagine just thinking of “the universe” as being pure mathematics/structure (which is evasive since it leaves out experiential qualities, but I digress.) The trouble then is, you have to admit all the other “descriptions” (not just “simulations”) as being equally pseudo-real as well, like it or not (modal realism.) That’s what Max Tegmark says he believes in, roughly. Then, you’ve got a mess on your hands.

    Here’s the problem: All possible worlds really means all possible descriptions. If so, one has a vanishing Bayesian probability of finding oneself in a world that continues to be lawful instead of one of the infinitely more that were like this up to this point and then begin to diverge. Why? Because of all the changes from then on to different laws and variations and distortions of laws that can be described, and indeed the entirety of what behavior can be described after that point which certainly includes a gigantic set of chaotic futures, etc. It’s like once your in the world of “already came up heads 100 times in a row” or similar, then even so it’s not likely the subsequent flips will continue to be orderly.

    Hence, I think there really needs to be a manager of some sort, to ensure placement in effect of observers like us in a world that really has laws, since logical possibility is just too inclusive. Think of that as you wish. (Then there’s our having experiences etc., but that gets into consciousness issues and I am just making the argument relating to physical conditions and our being here.)

    #5, against the proposition:

    If the underpinnings of our world promote variation in kind (different kinds of laws, etc.), then the use of the Multiverse and application to it of Bayesian etc. type reasoning (about what more to expect given what we already see) seems unavoidable and scientifically useful. For example, if there’s a “Landscape” of possible ways for the universe to turn out, given “strings” as the fundamental building block, etc., then we have to ask: if we are in a certain subset of what is possible from that matrix, what likelihood for other features? I mean, suppose that 10% of those Landscape-possible universes (total including their chance of existing, not just as portion of description space) sharing our currently known properties, should also have property X. Then “at random” there’s a 10% chance our world has property X – do you agree? It can even be tested to some extent: See how many of the predictions come true, of course. (BTW that looks pretty much like ordinary Frequentist probability theory after all.)

  • http://www.qunat.org/pieterkok PK

    “Drugs are bad.”

  • Ali

    Speaking as a religious scholar, I think you’ll have to be careful about that first one, since in order to put forth any argument at all, you’ll have to very precisely define which conception of “God” you’ll be defending (there are so many, after all, not merely the American Protestant version). Some early Christian apologists, in an attempt to defend the existence of God according the principles of the Greek philosophical tradition with which they were familiar, ended up identifying “God” with existence itself. It would difficult to make a case against existence existing, after all. On the other hand, what you end up with is a tautology, albeit an interesting one.

  • Jamie M

    #2 – The USA spends much more on arms per year than any other country, by a wide margin. Though in theory this is for defense, it makes some of the populous, and the governing class feel invulnerable and that this expenditure should be used. For the first time since Vietnam, the USA has gone all out in a foreign country where it did not need to fight. As happened the last time, the overwhelming dollar amount of armaments cannot overwhelm the belief and persistence of guerilla fighters. This humbling may prevent the USA from picking unnecessary fights with other countries for a further generation, hence the invasion of Iraq has had a positive effect on the USA and the world in which she lives (for a generation at least).

  • Tyler

    Voting republican will make our nation safer…

  • http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress Peter Woit

    Funny, I often think I could do a better job of arguing the case for string theory than people I end up arguing about this with. One April 1 I almost wrote a blog entry doing so.

    As for the multiverse, not so much. Arguing the case for a science is one thing, pseudo-science would be much harder….

  • http://www.allysonbeatrice.com/blog Allyson

    The Secret really works!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Apparently I should consider arguing that the Vietnam War was a good idea, too.

  • staylor

    “So let me break it down for you here: it’s fun.”
    *meerp* *meerp* wrong.
    “The lure of crazy ideas is what draws a lot of people to science in the first place.”

    The lure of crazy ideas that allows afterlife, superheroics, magical powers, telepathy, power, and did I mention magic and power?

    Arguing about special place of the human observer, and multiverses appeals to people who enjoy superhero comic books because they personally want more specialness than physics otherwise affords. That’s how I break it down.

    Apologies for the snark.

  • staylor
  • tumbledried

    Hi Sean,

    A couple of serious suggestions meeting your criteria:

    1. The middle path of peace and balance is a strategy only for the weak.
    2. The fellow who shouts the loudest is clearly the most knowledgeable.

    And also, more importantly:

    3. We all live on a yellow submarine.

  • Elliot

    If we don’t fight them “over there” we’ll have to fight them here.

    Elliot

  • george

    Israel is _____ .

  • Elliot

    George.

    —–”our friend”

    —–”our key ally in an unstable region”

    —–”a great place for our soldiers to get laid while fighting a war for oil” (not original. I think it was Joseph Heller)

  • Michael D

    Blogs aren’t as good/informative/authoritative/objective as mainstream media.

    m

  • http://www.dorianallworthy.com daisy rose

    No poem – painting – song – can right a wrong inflicted and endured.

  • http://www.specialwayofbeingafraid.blogspot.com JMW

    Oh, man, you’re going to make me miss my debate days.

    #1 is always an interesting one. #4, I actually lean toward believing, but I’m a non-scientist, and I’m basing that on what I read in places like The New Yorker. (Well, and to be fair to myself, on the layman science reading that I do, despite not being trained in any discipline.) And #2 might be more interesting if phrased as “The Iraq war was justified.” I could make that argument pretty easily. (That’s not to say it’s right.) Especially from our current vantage point, to say it was a “good idea” seems like loading the deck…

  • anon.
  • Harold

    Going into particle physics is a bad idea.

  • spaceman

    The war in Iraq, along side but perhaps even more so than Darfur, marks the first major genoicide of the 21st century. The brutal US-led invasion of Iraq has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the displacement of millions more. It would be as if, proportionally, a foreign invasion of the US resulted in the deaths of 5-7 million Americans and the creation of 20 million American refugees. In addition, a large percentage of the professional classes in Iraq have fled the country and it is kind of hard to have a healthy functioning society without doctors, engineers, etc. The invasion of Iraq is a war crime. The people who planned it are criminals of the worst kind and should be brought to justice for the massive suffering they have caused.

  • Moshe

    Here is a tough one: national security at times of war requires compromising some civil liberties.

    (anything else Bush has said or done would also qualify for this game).

  • http://realityconditions.blogspot.com Alejandro

    It’s not a new idea (but still a good one). Last year it had a brief surge in popularity as “Opposite Day”. Here are two good examples:

    Against abortion: http://www.philosophyetc.net/2006/07/opposite-day-abortion-edition.html

    For the divine right of kings: http://positiveliberty.com/2006/03/jason-on-opposite-day-a-plea-for-the-divine-right-of-kings.html

  • anonymous

    The war in Iraq, along side but perhaps even more so than Darfur, marks the first major genoicide of the 21st century. The brutal US-led invasion of Iraq has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the displacement of millions more….The invasion of Iraq is a war crime. The people who planned it are criminals of the worst kind and should be brought to justice for the massive suffering they have caused.

    You see, Sean, if I were making a of list my own like yours, my #2 would be the negation of your #2, and the above quote illustrates why.

    It’s not that I’m hugely enthusiastic about the Iraq invasion, it’s just that the arguments used against it (particularly the ethical arguments) simply do not stand up to scrutiny. It’s as if nobody actually bothers to try to come up with a good argument, because, after all, “all of us decent smart people already agree that Bush is evil, etc.”

    Moreover, discussions of such topics are –to my annoyance– always highly contaminated with emotionally-charged rhetoric. I mean, Iraq in the same category as Darfur? Give me a break.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    I suggest as a candidate:

    “This (as proposed in the post) is not a worthwhile exercise”.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    As an aside, I’d say that scientific matters should be a matter of understanding, not belief. The only time belief should play a role in science is when it is about science that one does not (yet) understand, and the belief then is that there is something to understand.

    “Do you believe in evolution?” is a silly question IMO, “Do you understand evolution?” is much more important and useful. The first question is theological. Of what use is a poll that shows that “56% (made up number) of Americans do not believe in evolution”, when objective tests might show that “Only 15% (made up number) of Americans can demonstrate their understanding of evolution by answering some simple questions about the subject.”

    In the above example, it is not the 56% that show the lack of scientific temperament or education, it is the 85%, which should be much more alarming.

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    The arguments used against Stem Cell research.

    To find more examples, you can just listen what Bush has to say on pretty much any subject. :)

  • Michael Bacon

    Talking about the Multiverse is intrinsically non-scientific because it comprises two crazy assumptions and some silly consequences as follows:

    1)The wavefunction does not merely encode all the information about an object, but has an observer-independent objective existence and actually is the object.

    2) The wavefunction obeys the empirically derived standard linear deterministic wave equations at all times. The observer plays no special role in the theory and, consequently, there is no collapse of the wavefunction.

    3) Each interaction, usually irreversible, between subsystems that correlates the value of a quantity in one subsystem with the value of a quantity in the other subsystem causes a decomposition or decoherence of the universal wavefunction into non-interacting and mostly non-interfering branches, histories or worlds.

    4) The conventional statistical Born interpretation of the amplitudes in quantum theory is derived from within the theory rather than having to be assumed as an additional axiom.

    Oh, maybe it can be at least be “discussed” as science after all :)

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modal_realism Neil B.

    Michael:

    I think you are confusing the quantum-branching multiverse with the idea that whatever underlies our universe (or at least the family we belong to) can and does produce more than one contiguous universe. In particular: the matrix can produce universes with different properties, different physical laws and constants (which still doesn’t explain the laws behind what makes for the other laws.) As I said, that has scientific consequences, because the percentages of universes that share properties has frequentist consequences for how likely we are to find new properties of this universe. (Peter Woit, et al – I would hope you and the like-minded would at least address this simple point.)

  • http://lanseybrothers.blogspot.com Eli

    The moon landing was faked.

  • http://astrodyke.blogspot.com The AstroDyke

    A. Since there are so few jobs in physics and astronomy, it’s good
    that women & minorities are discouraged from the field.

    B. The natural mode of human sexual behavior is male-female monogamous partnership for life.

    C. Immigration hurts America.

  • Bryan

    The death penalty is a crime deterrent.

  • American

    Liberals stand for something
    Liberals never result to name calling

  • Michael BAcon

    Neil,

    I understand that Multiverse can be defined in a number of different ways, some compatible with each other and some not. I was just choosing the way that the concept makes the most sense to me. The string “landscape” is another story which I understand even less of.

  • Herb

    How about, “Atheists cannot be moral” ?

  • http://evolutionarydesign.blogspot.com/ island

    6) We shouldn’t worry about global climate change.

    I double-triple dare ya.

  • Dima

    Michael BAcon, AFAICT, string ladscape could be yet another branch of the multiverse or maybe the repository of multiverses :D

  • Elliot

    Cutting taxes on rich people and corporations is good for the middle class and poor

    Elliot

  • Brian

    1. God exists or we wouldn’t be talking about him.
    2. The Iraq war was a good idea for a Stephen King Movie.
    3. Women scientists should not complain about discrimination – note gender in remark #1 above.
    4. Research on string theory is a waste of time unless you get paid for it.
    5. Talking about the multiverse is intrinsically non-scientfic, since the word “intrinsic” only has meaning within the context of one specfic universe.
    6. We shouldn’t worry about global climate change. Worrying never helps.

  • zevgoldman

    The war in Vietnam was a civil war.
    Liberals grasp economic theory.
    Socialism doesn’t require coercion.
    I wasn’t a radical liberal at one time.

  • Elliot

    The high cost of health care is due to frivolous lawsuits by trial lawyers.

  • http://quasar9.blogspot.com/ Q9

    Ok Sean here’s a really hard one
    how about: “Death IS a state of Mind”

  • Thomas Larsson

    1. Ed Witten exists.

    2. Hm. Difficult to argue that the Iraq war is a success, unless you are al-Qaida.

    3. My wife’s scientific career has been far more stellar than mine. I mean, I’m not a member of the Nobel assembly.

    4. Ever heard the word “experiment”?

    5. Talking to multiversepots is intrinsically a waste of time.

    6. If climate change means local warming in Sweden, I’m in favor of it. Alas, I’m somewhat worried that the Gulf stream may stop and cause local freezing.

  • Rodrigo

    N-) There´s no point talking about what´s outside the universe. Time and space are things created in OUR universe, and nobody will ever be able to proof anything about such topic.

    Sorry my poor english, I speak only portuguese.. ;)

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Rodrigo,

    If our observations could fix the universe we are in unambiguously then I would agree. However, it is impossible for an observer to exactly determine which of the possible universes he is in. The finite amount of information stored in the brain of an observer will always be compatible with being in many possible universes.

    So, when we say “our universe” we are not really specifying a unique universe.

  • spaceman

    Iraq in the same category as Darfur, sure, easily. Just in terms of the number of people murdered and displaced Iraq actually has more victims of aggression than does Darfur– and this does not even count the decade long sanctions which led to the deaths of thousands more Iraqis. Also, the Darfur conflict is not strictly about differences in belief as some believe– like Iraq it is about the struggle for resources in which a more powerful group is using extraordinary violence to control the water and land of a less powerful group just like the U.S. is using extraordinary violence to control a region that contains two thirds of the world’s remaining petrol so it can continue to cheaply run its Earth-wrecking consumer culture. If Iraq did not contain all of the oil that it does and it’s major resource was vegatables do you really seriously for a minute think the US would have spent over a trillion dollars invading it?

    The fundamental moral question is this: Does one country have the right to invade another country and lcontribute directly and/or indirectly to the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the displacement of millions more of that country’s citizens so that it can secure natural resources? Wouldn’t the more conservative “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” approach be for the superpower to have used its enormous technological prowess to build, over the past couple decades, a renewable energy based economy? And even if it didn’t that still doesn’t give it the right to thief and murder.

  • Chris W.

    Related, in a way:

    Scientists Induce Out-of-Body Sensation
    (New York Times, 8/23/2007)

  • http://sensorymetrics.com Jobe

    We should buy bigger trucks, they’re bound to run out of steel eventually.

    The chosen people are the Jews so why are so many Americans Christian?

    Violent video games is an outlet for violence which reduces violence towards others so F*CK OFF!

    Big crunch, big freeze, big deal, nothing I can do about it in this lifetime.

    Plastic garbage bags keep toxic chemicals from leaching into our water supply. Ok, I might actually believe that one.

    $450 trillion dollars should be invested in a war in Iraq rather than health, education, or any other of that social liberal nonsense for Americans. Heck, strong and free? Feeling poor and unwelcome? Just pretend to be Canadian. If you’re Canadian, pretend to be French. If you’re French pretend to be American..

  • Pingback: Arguments For Things I Don't Believe, 1: Research on String Theory is a Largely Waste of Time | Cosmic Variance

  • http://evolutionarydesign.blogspot.com/ island

    :The WMAP anomalies can be explained away.

    :The LHC will find new physics.

    :The universe is infinite.

    :The Anthropic Principle is just a selection effect.

    :The successes of quantum theory prove that Einstein wasted the last thirty years of his life.

    :There is no evidence for purpose in nature.
    because…
    A final cause requires an intelligent agent.

    :Brandon Carter was wrong when he said that scientists harbor ideological prejudices that make them willfully ignorant of the directly observed reality.

    The near-perfect flatness of the universe does not indicate that absolute symmetry was the nearly-missed goal of the big bang.

    But, ‘man, I could[not] argue for their side’… sorry.

  • Zoel

    6) We shouldn’t worry about global climate change.

    The best argument I’ve heard to defend this claim by far is the one given by Bjorn Lomboug in his Ted Talk:

    http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/62

    Basically he claims that there are better things we could be spending are money on like fighting AIDS, Malaria, malnutrition since these things are killing people now and we know how to fix them.

  • Simfish InquilineKea

    Differences in IQ between races are predominantly caused/not caused (depending on your view) by genetic factors.

  • http://cantmakeadifference.blogspot.com/ Steven

    “Gavin on Aug 23rd, 2007 at 3:49 pm

    I like your list, but there’s no sex.

    7. Same sex couples should not be allowed to marry.”

    Unless both the chicks are hot. lol.

    Love the blog Sean. Congrats on the whole getting married thing. Good luck on the day :-D

    Regards

    -Steven

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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