el nino strikes again
Reading Time: 11 minutes Juan Montiel, CC.)
Reading Time: 11 minutes

A long time ago, I figured out that anybody who seems certain of something can make an audience believe–and do–almost anything. Even if it’s totally contradictory, people will believe anything so long as the person talking about it sounds sure enough of themselves. Today, I’ll show you what I mean by the phrase Duh Mode, and why it’s so important to know about it.

Tech support people are just like gremlins

In tech support, we call it Duh Mode. It’s that thing that happens when someone starts using a lot of big words and jargon and the caller/client/customer just glazes over and starts following directions or taking the speaker’s word for whatever is being said. We call center drones did it intentionally sometimes to ensure compliance–if you try to make technology too accessible, callers start pressing buttons and moving ahead of you, and tech support people everywhere hate that more than just about anything else.

On that note, I once told a very blitzed cowboy to sit on his hands because he wasn’t listening to a word I said, and once he did that and only removed a hand from under his butt when I told him to do it, so he could do what I was telling him to do and then put that hand right back under his butt again, we got along a lot better and fixed his broken computer. Yes, late night tech support is like Rydell High with gaming forward emails and dirty jokes instead of choreographed dance numbers. And yes, there’s a reason why only the newest or the weirdest, least reliable, most jovially people-hating techs end up on late night shifts. Nobody sensible calls these lines after about 9pm.

(Late night tech workers share some shocking similarities with gremlins. Don’t get us wet, don’t shine bright lights in our faces, and never, ever feed us after midnight.)

Four main solutions

At one call center, I had a co-worker we’ll call Bob. Bob was a big, affectionate, muscular guy who was the object of lust of most of the town’s young women. In addition, he was a stellar tech support agent at the call center that was our tiny little town’s main source of employment.

This call center dealt with a particular brand of consumer desktop PC. This computer really only had four main solutions for its plentiful known issues:

  1. Telling the caller to find and install virus scanning/removal software;
  2. Pulling the CMOS battery or its jumper;
  3. Replacing its very dodgy modem; or
  4. Completely erasing and restoring its entire hard drive using its provided CD.

Now, sometimes a tech might get all ambitious and do something else, like refresh drivers. Or someone might diagnose a shorted-out monitor on the basis of a tiny, half-visible scorched lizard carcass that the caller had discovered lodged half-inside its frame (true story; she lived in Hawaii). However, most techs didn’t worry about those subtleties.

Obviously, most problems lent themselves to their various solutions. Troubleshooting felt a lot like herding cattle down runs to the slaughterhouse. When in doubt, #4 was our go-to. If that didn’t work, we said the computer had to be replaced. Since the computer cost only slightly more than a large pepperoni pizza and was only marginally better at doing computing tasks than a pizza would be, we didn’t feel guilty about suggesting it.

Duh Mode, explained

Bob wasn’t a great agent because of his technical knowledge. I mean, he wasn’t an idiot. I just mean that technical expertise was not a job requirement there. Indeed, most of the agents there could barely fire up a computer. Rather, he found success because he possessed a conjob’s understanding of how to sound certain about things. Once he figured out the four main solutions to this computer’s known issues, he was on track to the highest echelons of power.

At the time, I really wished that I could be as much of a playful despot as Bob was. One summer he spent every day in Accent Land. He’d pick an accent and answer every call that way (his Scottish accent was particularly fetching). His cubicle was filled with wooden art mannequins, Lego people, and handmade clay figurines dying in inventive ways. Management finally put their foot down when he brought in an authentic butcher’s hook which he’d intended to use to impale one of them. Despite this setback, Bob’s cubicle quickly became a required stop during new hires’ tours.

But his most inventive ploy had to be his Excuse of the Day. He wrote that day’s excuse in black marker on a big sheet of paper. Then he taped the paper to the outside of his wooden clipboard. He showed his excuse-of-the-day to any tech who asked about it. Then he used it at every opportunity. Any time a user cried aloud in frustration, “How did this terrible thing happen to my computer?” he’d respond with the excuse of the day.

The excuses started out fairly simple but eventually got really wild–sunspots, El Nino, solar wind, you name it. You’d think somebody would have called him on it, but not a single end user ever did. My desk was right next to his, so I’m sure I’d have heard if it’d happened. No, Bob just had this incredible knack for sounding so perfectly assured, calm, poised, and certain of his excuses that nobody ever gave him any backtalk.

He’d figured out how to put callers into “Duh Mode.”

And forward into life

That’s not just a technological thing, either. If anybody tells you that being a GM (Game Master) in tabletop roleplaying games isn’t half confidence, that person’s just confused. Players can smell fear and hesitation in a GM. They quickly own a weak leader. Once you figure out how to say absolutely anything with complete confidence, you defuse their worst behavior.

What’s worse–or better, depending on your point of view–is that players generally want to see that confidence. They want that confidence a lot more than they want to steamroll a newbie GM. I learned that pretty quickly when I began to run my own games. People want to feel taken-care-of. They want to feel like someone is in control. If you can make them feel that way, then they relax. They think all is right with the world. They might not have things under control themselves, no. But someone does, and that’s good enough for them, for now.

In gaming or tech support, these ruses are fairly harmless. The worst thing Bob ever did was convince some poor schmucks that “hydroelectric magnashift” had caused their CD-ROM drives to stop reading. In the long scheme of things, that’s not too bad. These callers might look pretty silly innocently repeating this phrase at their next dinner party, but nobody would suffer too much.

A lot of gaming involves flying by the seat of one’s pants anyway. So good GMs learn to display such confidence. They manage the ruse even in the face of overwhelming uncertainties like “oh my god what did those asshats just do to my nice pretty plot/monster/elven king/country/paradigm.”

Christian conjobs know about Duh Mode

We’ve talked recently about how Christians often put forward (or even make themselves into) “experts” who aren’t really very expert about whatever it is they’re trying to say. If Christians can’t find real scientists who agree with a literal interpretation of anything Genesis (because that’s mythology and didn’t literally happen), then by golly they’ll just find some pseudo-scientists and people who don’t even work in the field of biology to say what they want to hear.

In the same fashion, Christians can’t find real archaeologists who’ll tell them that the BIBLE IS TOTALLY REAL AND TRUE HISTORY YOU GUIZE SERIOUSLY. This view sounds so childish, considering a document that is actually a nuanced mixture of mythology and reality. Real experts don’t say those things. So they happily help pseudo-archaeologists destroy real sites with their poor methodology. Then they pay these mountebanks to share their malformed ideas and iffy “findings”.

And if real historians refuse to say that America was founded to be a Christian theocracy (for the simple reason that it just wasn’t), then Christians will go fetch David Barton to talk at them. He’ll say absolutely anything to make money off of gullible, ignorant Christians. He’ll say even stuff that he really should know for a fact is categorically, completely, utterly, and in every single way untrue.

Why it works on Christians

These charlatans get away with their shameless pandering, alas. Often, real scientists and historians avoid engaging with them. Some of these legitimate scholars think that any response dignifies pseudoscientists’ dishonest and ignorant assertions.

Though this fear has a basis, I think it’s very appropriate to quote here from a paper written by a real archaeologist regarding the rash of pseudo-archaeology plaguing his field (emphasis is mine):

But whether because of bad experiences such as those described by Feder et al. Or because of general disinterest, archaeologists are clearly not very interested in engaging with these [pseudo-archaeology] topics. This was demonstrated by Denis Gojak (2012), who tracked the responses by professional archaeologists to a pseudoarchaeological claim and found that most wanted nothing to do with explaining it and either forgot the matter or tried to pass the buck to someone who might be more of an expert. But, as we have seen, we are the experts, and the public will look to us if we are willing to provide answers, and if we are not willing, they will look to someone else.

And oh, they do, they do indeed look to someone else.

A(nother) black mark against Christianity

Way too many Christians are so eager to hear validations of their faith that they are willing not only to lie about those things, but also to lick the feet of those who’ll tell them whatever it is they want to hear. Real experts will often simply refuse to wade into the murky puddle of junk and fakery that they put forward on a constant basis. So these fakers wade in themselves to fill in that gap. And their audiences listen.

I wish I could say that this only happens with junk science and fake history. Christians tend to go into Duh Mode whenever one of their leaders starts talking.

It’s no secret that there are thousands upon thousands of bits of Christianese and Christian jargon floating around the religion. I’ve got friends who used to be in seminaries and who’ve studied theology for a while. Routinely, they toss around words that make me go cross-eyed. Truly, a bunch of theology geeks “talking shop” sound exactly like a bunch of anime fans eagerly discussing their favorite series.

Heck, I used to admin an online roleplaying game full of Tolkien fanatics. Luckily, they never realized that one of their lead admins often forgot which direction from town led to the Ithilien Forest and which one went to the Anorien. Consider that shortcoming as being like an American who doesn’t know which state on a map is Texas and which one is Florida. I kept the Encyclopedia Arda on speed-dial whenever I got snookered into refereeing actual roleplay, and I just hoped that none of our Sindarin speakers tried to use the language around me.

Dropping the jargon

And that’s okay. We all accidentally do this kind of jargon-dropping. People often forget that not everybody knows the same information they know. It can be difficult to remember that sometimes it doesn’t work that way.

Like for me, I know that sometimes I just assume everybody knows what a mech is or how Glamour magic works or the lyrics to a song from Rock & Rule. Then I find out that most of the people I was talking to had to go look up the words later. I try to be careful about that with this blog, but I’m sure it’s happened a few times. The point is, we all do this stuff with our chosen geekeries. And that is totally okay because we’re not intentionally trying to win fights by confusing our opponents. We’re just forgetting that not everybody knows this stuff as well as we do.

But “logical Christians” aren’t nearly so benign. You’ve likely seen them before. They’re those unendurably smug priggish brickable prats who mistake big words and jargon for evidence and compelling arguments. Such Christians think if they can just overwhelm you with big words like “immutable” or other even weirder jargon arguments, then you’ll buckle and admit they’re right and you’re wrong.

People like that use jargon not by accident, but as a weapon. They rely utterly upon their audience’s unfamiliarity with their jargon and arguments. They obfuscate language and use it as a barrier to real communication, not as an aid to it.

The epic fail of the Logical Christian

If you refuse to accept a logical Christian’s superior Romulan weaponry, at the very least you can expect to be labeled as too stupid to grasp that their version of Christianity is the best one and the most correct of all forms of the religion.

Of all the types of toxic Christians, you can probably guess that “logical Christians” are probably the ones I despise the worst. Not only do they totally miss the tenor of what I think any good religion should be about–love, charity, social justice, progress, kindness, mercy, all that good stuff–but they also manage to be genuinely awful human beings in the process even while convinced that they are wonderful Christians. If they’re right–which I sincerely doubt–then I’ve got no interest whatsoever in joining a religion where I might have to run into them at any point after I die.

I ran into one of these oh-so-logical types just a couple days ago, in case you’re wondering what sparked today’s post. He declared that I was an “inconsistent atheist” during a discussion of atrocity apologetics.

Joke’s on him, of course. I’m not an atheist–but he sure didn’t know or care to find out before making the accusation. Toxic Christians like him accuse anybody expressing criticism of their religion of being atheists, as if being an atheist is the worst thing anybody could possibly be. They act like the only way someone could possibly disagree with them is if they’re an atheist. It reminds me of those anti-gay bigots who accuse everybody who doesn’t conform to their own bigoted attitudes of being gay, or those misogynists who accuse people who disagree with them of being feminists. These accusations say way more about the accuser than they do about the accused.

So this logical Christian called me that. See, in his learned and august opinion, I didn’t realize that Calvinism was absolutely “impervious” to accusations of atrocities and evildoing.

Calvinists are the worst.

All I could think was: Oh really? Is it, now?

The little I have learned about it has led me to think that Calvinism is the worst of all possible permutations of Christianity in terms of atrocity apologetics and evildoing. It is one of the most inhumane ways to take the Bible to its cruelest, most barbaric conclusions. Indeed, this hard-edged philosophy is the most insectoid and reptilian of all the denominations. I see it as a cold, calculating pursuit of a monstrosity of a crystalline-pure theology.

So to me, it’s quite a statement to say that Calvinism is “impervious” to such accusations. In fact, Calvinism is those accusations.

I’m also not in the least surprised that of all the paragraphs he wrote of snide insults and copious religious jargon and high-flown theological terms, he didn’t feel it necessary to present a single piece of real, objective evidence in support of his view that Calvinism was not only the best form of Christianity but that it was objectively true and real.

To me, my position is quite consistent (though not atheistic, particularly). Calvinism is, if anything, just as brutality-drenched as most other forms of Christianity, if not more so. But wow, did he ever sound certain of himself. And wow, did he ever use a lot of big words arguing his case. He wanted to feel superior to me more than he did to actually be objectively correct.

Motivated reasoning is a helluva drug.

Duh Mode DENIED.

Unfortunately, he was talking at the one person in the room who knew with definitive certainty that he was flat-out wrong. Nothing he was saying mattered, because he wasn’t bringing the one thing to the table that did matter: compelling evidence for his many claims.

If someone’s going to try to tell me that his interpretation of a holy book is objectively true, then that person is making a truth claim. We evaluate that claim on its merits just like we do with any other truth claim (like “I can fly” or “adding one cup of this tea to your normal everyday diet will make you lose weight like crazy” or “this investment will double your money in 30 days”).

Religious people shouldn’t make truth claims at all. Nobody’s yet managed to cross the streams between supernatural claims and reality.

Instead, a little uncertainty is good for us. It keeps us on our toes. We shouldn’t fear it. It moves us to ask questions like “how do we know this is true?” and “how can we evaluate this claim?” But some folks glaze over and nod like a basket of kittens watching a cat toy being dangled over them, whenever supernatural claims float past. People who do that get overwhelmed by the first forcefully-expressive “logical” type to come along.

Defusing Duh Mode.

I suspect that the only way to fight this kind of predation is to ask about evidence and to keep asking about it, and not to fall into meeting such a deluded soul on such a tilted playing-field. Jargon wielders’ need to feel correct trumps anybody’s need to actually be correct. Their ego will not easily accept being incorrect.

We need to keep firmly in mind that arguments are not evidence. It’s important that people not buckle in the face of someone acting overwhelmingly confident and wielding jargon they know we don’t understand. We need to separate out a speaker’s confidence from what the speaker presents.

We live in an age when any fool can cobble up a blog (ahem) or website or even a newsletter and make up facts when real ones aren’t persuasive enough. That reality means that it’s very important that we learn not only how to sift the fake evidence from the true stuff, but to evaluate false experts from the real ones. And when that “expert” is talking about stuff nobody actually could possibly be expert about, like anything afterlife-related, then we need to be especially careful not to glaze over and take that person’s word for it just because he or she sounds authoritative and certain.

NEXT UP: When someone needs to prop up a bad idea, often a dancing bear is brought in to pretend to be an expert, amuse the masses, and keep the idea alive a little longer. I hope you’ll join me. Until then, stay warm if you’re in a wintry area like me.

Don’t let your computers get too close to any magnashifts, though!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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