Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Strawberry Salamanders and Two-Headed Rhinos

Someone near and dear to me was concerned about the Brazilian strawberry salamander April Fool's Day prank that I pulled. She pointed it out that it would undermine my credibility for people who didn't immediately realize that it was a joke. It would be the same mistake as when I posted a photo of a two-headed rhino that I saw in Africa. Those who had been taken in, and then discovered that it wasn't real, would likely forever be suspicious of things that I say.

Personally, I don't think that this is necessarily a bad thing.

One of the things that I've been trying to teach over the last twenty years is that you should be careful about suspending your critical thinking and blindly trusting other people. They could be pranking you. They could be trying to take advantage of you. Or they could be genuinely good and highly intelligent people who are mistaken. And nobody is immune from error. If people come away from reading my work and say, "Rabbi Dr. Slifkin has really shown how other people are mistaken about things - he's the guy to totally trust!" then I have failed at this. I can also be wrong about things! (But not about the shafan being the hyrax.)

Now, there are people who take this lesson the wrong way. They say, "Aha! So there is no reason for me to blindly trust scientists on vaccines!" Since I saw this reaction from more than one person, I think it's important to explain the mistake.

Is it theoretically conceivable that scientists are wrong about the vaccine? Sure. However, when it comes to specialized matters of hard science, which are not influenced by religious or political worldview, and you have an absolutely overwhelming majority of specialists who have reached a certain conclusion, then it is overwhelmingly likely that they are correct. And certainly they are way, way more likely to be correct than a non-specialist relying on some weird cranks on the Internet.

And what about the shafan being the hyrax? Indeed, when I started becoming accepted as an authority on Biblical natural history, I was initially a little unsettled. After all, I knew that my conclusions were based on considerable knowledge, experience and sound reasoning, but how do other people know that? It was slightly alarming that people were accepting what I said, when for all they knew I could have been an eccentric errant figure (like a certain Mexican polemicist) who can spout off all kinds of facts but be utterly wrong in how they are selected and put together. 

Eventually it was pointed out to me that while some people may rely on what I say without understanding why I am credible, others will recognize that I am part of a wider circle of scholars of scholarship in general and Biblical natural history in particular, who all endorse my methodology and conclusions. In addition, people can recognize that I present detailed and sound arguments for everyone to analyze, and that I have shown myself ready to publicly acknowledge mistakes. And so, while I certainly can (and have) been wrong about things, it is very reasonable for people to generally rely on what I say.

But still. If I write about, or even present photos of, Brazilian strawberry salamanders, or two-headed rhinos, be suspicious!

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  1. I suppose you *could* have a two-headed rhino, but it wouldn't live to adulthood.

    You missed out on reproducing one of Monty Python's best exchanges:

    Brian: No, no. Please, please please listen. I've got one or two things to say.

    The Crowd: Tell us! Tell us both of them!

    Brian: Look, you've got it all wrong. You don't need to follow me. You don't need to follow anybody! You've got to think for yourselves! You're all individuals!

    The Crowd: Yes! We're all individuals!

    Brian: You're all different!

    The Crowd: Yes! We're all different!

    Man in crowd: I'm not...

    Man in crowd: Shhh!

    Brian: You've all got to work it out for yourselves.

    The Crowd: Yes! We've got to work it out for ourselves!

    Brian: Exactly!

    The Crowd: Tell us more!

    Brian: No! That's the point! Don't let anyone tell you what to do!

  2. "However, when it comes to specialized matters of hard science, which are not influenced by religious or political worldview..."

    This has got to be a joke right? Even more absurd than the strawberry salamander. Scientist are of course influenced by an entire cocktail of modern worldviews including materialism, atheism, liberalism, anti-religious sentiment, more recently anti-racism. They wear their biases on their sleeves.

    I only trusted the vaccine after I saw millions of other people get it with seemingly no ill effect. Then I relied on the experts after the fact. Trust in the experts was a very small part of my decision.

    1. This is utter baloney. All of the loud and proud "not trusting the experts" crowd would be the first to run to the world class cardiac clinic in Cleveland for any procedure the doctors there recommended if ch'v they needed it - without any knowledge of how common they are or the affects. In fact, the whole reason to run to experts is precisely because they have newer procedures not performed throughout the world. Case in point: a very prominent anti vax rabbi ran there when he had heart trouble. Do you think his wife studied up on every single new medication and procedure they were doing on him? Baloney.

    2. Dave, you are making a big mistake. The same anti-vax people who run to the top doctors also run to the top alternative medicine healers, the top astrologers, and the top Babas. Yeah, people will do anything when they're desperate. What does that prove? Nothing. Certainly not that these anti
      -vaxxers all of the sudden started trusting the holy priests of Science.

    3. As I said - baloney. How did RMK know that the medications they gave him in Cleveland won't cause aphasia, blood clots, grow a third horn, or whatever nonsense they say the vaccines cause?

    4. Dave, he didn't know. But he was sick. You might as well ask how anti-vaxxers knew that ivermectin/hydroxychloroquine wouldn't cause them to grow a third horn. They didn't know, but they were already sick. Some of them even begged for the vaccine, only to be sadly told it's too late. As I said, desperate people will do anything.

    5. Untrue - numerous antivaxxers were taking ivermectin/hcq as a *prophylactic* when they were not in dire straits at all. Furthermore, it's untrue that sick people will try "anything" because there is a Tibetan medical coven they didn't consult, an old Mongolian cure they neglected, and a surefire Zimbabwean treatment they didn't even investigate. Of all people, they turned to the medical establishment that many of them accuse of being outright genocidal maniacs -- knowingly and purposefully injecting millions with AIDS or blood clots or whatever is the theory du jour -- in order to make money. If they were remotely honest, the western medical establishment would be the absolute last people to turn to, but we know, it's all/mostly baloney.

    6. But they DO consult all sorts of alternative medicine! And as I said, there were cases of anti-vaxxers begging for the vaccine when it was too late.

      I don't even get what you're saying. Do you think anti-vaxxers blindly trust all science in general, but for some reason they have this one shtus? Do you think they believe in evolution? Archaeology? More likely if they trust medicine in general, it's because of the reasons I gave, that they hear about other people getting heart treatment at expert Dr. X, so they trust him. Or they hear about lots of people getting medication X, so they take it. Not because they trust all science.

    7. I don't know why you're consistently missing the point. Yes, they try alternative medicines ("A pesi believes anything"), but there are virtually endless such options to choose from and the fact that they turn to western medicine before exhausting all of the alternative options, is very revealing. If the western medical establishment is full of evil genocidal agents per their claims, they would try *every* possible option first, before going to them - if ever. The reason they don't is because "deep down" (or not so deep down) they really trust the "priests of science" (at least in medicine - this has nothing to do with archeology etc.). They would allow these "priests" to cut them open, remove half a lung, and irradiate them, all based on the "false prophecies" of western medicine. There's no atheist in a foxhole and there's no one anti western medicine who has cancer/ after they have a heart attack lo aleinu etc. Obviously, there are exceptions to both rules, but the vast majority of anti vaxxers will grab any and all western medicine they can when they need it. They're liars, plain and simple.

    8. It's unlikely that they're lying. Rather, they choose to believe what they want to believe based on all sorts of reasons. This is normal human behavior. Does this mean that anti-vax is an exception to these people's normal rational trust in Western medicine? Perhaps you are correct about that, but I see no reason to assume they're lying.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. @Hillel

      I'm an actuary and have no idea what you are talking about.

      Just for the record.

    2. I know plenty actuaries who also don't know what I'm talking about. That wasn't the point I made.

  4. You sound like the lady from the Israeli Public Health Services cited in JPost the other day, bemoaning that "due to fake news, suddenly everything has a question mark over it." Lady, when you're the one responsible for the fake news, you can't complain when people no longer believe you!

    It is somewhat similar with you, Dr. Slifkin. Yes, you do at times present convincing arguments wrt animals, and I've learned things from you myself. Why not, you have spent much time on this subject and developed an expertise. At the same time, you say so much nonsense about charedim, and just blindly accept everything said by "science", it forces one to be very suspicious of anything you say, even with animals, and כל שכן upon any other issue. While you at first acknowledge this, you then backtrack to say, in effect, that people should be skeptical of other people, but not you. Doesn't do much to inspire confidence!

    1. You know, vaccine conspiracy theorists are not taken seriously outside of their own little bubbles.

    2. To Mustard - if it's just a "little bubble", the Israeli Public Health Services wouldn't be concerned that no one trusts them any more. Try broadening your horizons beyond the New York Times - might help you understand the rise in death rates, and all those "mysterious" sudden deaths of otherwise healthy people who just "coincidentally" happened to be vaccinated.

      In any event, you've missed the point. If Rabbi Slifkin limited his commentary to his area of expertise (animals) he would be entitled to some degree of deference. Not absolute, but some degree. However, he doesn't so contain himself, and opines on all other things, including subjects in which his judgment is obviously affected by personal vendettas. Clearly he is within his rights to do so, but equally clearly he is entitled to no deference at all on all such exotera. In turn, such statements cause to called into question statements made even within his zone of expertise. Get it now?

    3. "no one trusts them any more"

      No one? Like the yellow colonel said, you're in a little bubble if you believe "no one trusts them any more".

      "and all those "mysterious" sudden deaths of otherwise healthy people who just "coincidentally" happened to be vaccinated."
      Have sudden deaths been on the increase? Please cite your sources for this figure.

      "and opines on all other things, including subjects in which his judgment is obviously affected by personal vendettas."
      You make him sound like a covid denying anti-vaxxer.

    4. Ephraim - did no one ever tell you that no one likes pedants? When we say "no one", its understood there are exceptions. There are some people so married to their opinions they'll just stick their heads in the sand forever. But for your benefit I'll spell it out: "MOST people no longer trust the health ministry. Happy now?

  5. https://www.wired.com/2016/04/absurd-creatures-strawberry-squid-one-tiny-eye-one-giant-eye/

    Absurd Creatures: Why the Strawberry Squid Has One Tiny Eye and One Giant Eye

  6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pHIUxEiprsk

  7. Besides presenting the evidence and sources, and showing your reasoning, trust comes from a record of admitting and correcting one's mistakes. Personally, when asked a question in my area of expertise, I will always indicate my own level of certainty about the answer I give. If I am not very certain of the answer, I will offer to do some research in order to give a more reliable answer. This also seems to build trust.

    One question I always ask myself is "How do I know that I know?" to keep myself on solid ground. If my answer to the above is not as solid as I would like it to be, I will usually refrain from saying anything because I know whatever I have to say would not be very reliable. Furthermore, I also silently pose the same question to other people. I used to ask it out loud to them, but I never found anybody who didn't take offense by me simply asking them to substantiate what they said. That is, I apply skepticism to other people as well as myself.


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