Your label doesn’t matter as much as the ideas

Your label doesn’t matter as much as the ideas

I advocate and defend things many people consider controversial. But it should be noted: Supporting adults’ rights to take their own lives, cut their bodies, solicit sex workers, etc., is not premised from a starting point of liberalism, autonomy, or whatever else. These views rest on what is most effective in reducing harm, according to data and evidence, not on what most demonstrates a particular ideology.

I am hesitant about labelling, since there is a tendency for others (usually strong opponents or unfairly critical ‘allies’) to immediately caricature or portray their views of what constitutes your position - a liberal, an atheist, a Christian, or whatever - instead of dealing with the arguments.

Instead, as a liberal you’re “an idealist”; as an atheist, you “hate religious people” or think “they’re stupid”; as a Christian, “you’re bigoted” and “hate gays”; as a gay or lesbian, you “want to destroy traditional marriage” or “the family”.

I’ve touched on this point before, but what matters isn’t the label.

Caring about groups

I, therefore, feel little reactionary loyalty to whatever social grouping or ideological group I supposedly belong to during topical discussions. This obviously doesn’t mean I think my views are wrong (if they are, this can be pointed out).

All that it means is I refuse to grant infallibility to the groups and people I happen to align myself with.

This doesn’t mean people aren’t worth defending, but it means the defence must be accurate and the accusations false or inaccurate. Since, above all else, we are attempting to gain the truth of the matter at hand: What really is the case, does this really harm or does it help, etc.? Similarly, are the accusations against a co-thinker warranted, a merely personal attack (even if true: he's an adulterer, etc.) and therefore ad hominem, etc.?

However – and I think more importantly – we should note that we should be defending accuracy of even our opponents’ views: thus, if “one of our own” begins caricaturing opponents of, say, sex work as old, raging misogynists, or opponents of gay marriage as merely religious bigots, then we should continue beating our accuracy stick even on “one of our own”.

Indeed, we should be more concerned about our own side caricaturing, just as we should be more concerned about ourselves making mistakes - since the closer and more aligned you are to someone, some group, and so on, the greater the chance you have of convincing them to think or act otherwise (or prevent these in the future).

And being a good opponent means giving real opposition, not taking a stand against a Strawman you’ve created. It is precisely because accuracy matters that we ought to engage the principle of charity, after all (not because it’s “nice”).

Death from above

Naturally, poking holes in the characters of people who hold certain views we don’t like doesn’t drain those views of their urgency or veracity. However, often from the way we talk about ourselves and, of course, those who are trying to draw attention away from the actual arguments, people's identity can become the main focus: Who you are, which groups you belong to, etc.

Again, this is itself a caricature, since people rarely agree with 100% of everything the group they belong to proposes; nor are they aligned with the nastiness of its more ferocious or unreasonable members.

This is like saying all Muslims are terrorists because a minority of them are. Similarly, I hope I'm perceived as being not completely insane by most people, but I still think many arguments against gun ownership are wrong. If I had to "choose a side", I would more likely be in the camp of those wanting more guns. Of course, if you think me - as some have said of me - as being a shill for groups like the NRA, as insane as the ramblings of some conservatives, etc., then that is clearly false. That is a caricature and you have not dealt with the important arguments and data concerning guns.

The point is by labelling myself as not in favour of gun eradication, many will instinctively think of the worst kind of gun rights advocate and assume that is what I am.

Perhaps in general we could lessen the likelihood of these reactionary caricatures by removing or making less of a fuss about who we are, where we stand, with which groups, etc. When asked “Who are you?” accusingly, you should remind your interlocutor that it doesn’t matter: What matters is whether the arguments are sound and the evidence strong.

Accuracy therefore demands we be charitable, we be consistent, we focus on ideas and arguments. This is why being bogged down on whether you’re an x or xy or yx or whatever is largely irrelevant to me.

This might matter to some people, as this identity is a central aspect of who they are, but I worry we get lost trying to define ourselves instead of our ideas. This means remaining steadfast based wrongly on loyalty, rather than accuracy. This means being unwilling to criticise those on our side who are being inaccurate; it means degrading others and, therefore, ourselves, because we begin smearing and caricaturing people rather than trying to critically dismantle their flawed ideas.

Image Credit: Kitch Bain / Shutterstock

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
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  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
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The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source:

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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