What I’d like to tell the loud dude in the coffee shop

“Yes, the Beach Boys started out in their garage. So did most bands that went on to huge success. But so did the thousands upon thousands of wannabes who never went any further than that.”

People have a difficult time with the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions. This is probably founded more on stubborn optimism than ignorance, but either way it’s entertaining. Whenever I hear something like this, I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, this one by Carl Sagan:

“[T]he fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”

There’s a guy I’ve written about here a number of times who fits this mold perfectly. He’s a top-tier crank who denies the benefits of high-mileage training for runners lacking what he declares to be unusually favorable genetics, and instead suggests that the route to success for the average runner — even those training for marathon — involves running three times a week and doing lots of weight work and sprinting. Not surprisingly, this fellow was, much to my amazement, quoted in the same Competitor article that featured an equally cranky guy advocating more or less the same garbage. The two of them share an important trait, one common to every would-be revolutionary: They have convinced themselves that mockery of, and arguments against, their ideas are rooted in fear and a conditioned unwillingness to consider alternatives to conventional wisdom. Whether they started with this stance or developed it over time after being serially marauded so as to dispel cognitive dissonance is unclear, but it doesn’t matter. They are Sagan’s Bozos.

Many religious folks operate from the same basic stance, with one important difference: Although they lack any evidence for the existence of their god — and in fact are regularly confronted with scads of contravening evidence — they do have numbers on their side, and numbers are a wonderful surrogate for defensible rationales. If enough people reject evolution for spectacularly spurious reasons, well, then the whole concept must be bullshit. Never mind, among other things, the fact that the average human being knows as much about biology as he does about the appearance of ridge of skin between his anus and his genitals. As a result, it’s common to see religious people prone to online argumentation claim — smugly, even — that atheists are simply afraid of god, or angry at god, or blinded by some inherent, if inexplicable, resistance to the whole idea of a designer deity who promises them a seat in its heavenly kingdom if only they perform a few simple acts. Were this belief not centuries old, popular, and well-entrenched, it would be summarily dismissed as a sad joke.

I can think of a variety of other examples. I would guess that most best-selling novelists started out writing hammy or unconvincing short stories boasting forgettable characters, dubious plots and risible examples of the deus ex machina literary device. I would also bet that thousands of wannabe fiction writers never progress past that point and are relegated to writing banal posts on shit-encrusted blogs.

I’d like to hear others. None of you have been leaving comments here lately, and as you know, most people who go on to lead unbelievably happy lives have been known to post comments to blogs.

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  1. #1 by Warren (@waxis) on August 25, 2011 - 4:36 pm

    Are you suggesting (by way of Sagan) that Bozo the Clown was not a genius?

    To the point. There are about eight hundred examples of shitty graphic design, program design, or site design for every one single example of something not hackwork. The proliferation of desktop PCs has given every color-blind anencephalic hamfist the illusion of competence in a field that requires years of thought, practice, and the good fortune of having a decent ‘eye’ – simply because they can make colors appear on the screen when they do that thing with the mouse thing.

    And, of course, they get validation from others who can’t tell good from bad from my god my eyes burn them out with acid, and believe they are qualified to go on and do great things. Dunning-Krueger, as memetic as they’ve become, struck the nail rather squarely with this one.

    Another thing that gets up my nostril is how competence in one field is taken to mean competence in another. While Stephen Hawking has done some reasonably good things in popularizing science, he’s entirely full of shit when he speculates on how dangerous it will be for humans to meet aliens, and he should be the first person to realize and understand that. Yet other ‘scientists’ are following his lead and predicting worldwide destruction when (if) we ever meet ET’s.

    More scientists should actually read good SF before they go off blithering on a topic that’s been explored to a degree that would leave a proctologist envious. Hell, the idea was hackneyed in the 70s, when Tiptree more or less closed the book on it.

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