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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The strength of doubt.

It is often in discussion about fringe ideas that the following type of statements are made; "science doesn't know everything" or "everyone used to think the world was flat". These are often presented as bolstering the claims put forward, or attacking my critique of certain suggestions that are (thought to be) physically impossible. I do my best to not dismiss these statements as the appeal to credulity that they are often presented as and see them instead as an expression of the desire to expand knowledge.

When taken seriously we can see that of course science doesn't know everything. It hardly knows anything. But this isn't some secret it is an important aspect. Science is a way of knowing, not a body of knowledge. The body of knowledge that is associated with it is a collection of observations and logical constructions to be drawn upon but are by no means science. Alone on an island with no access to this information you would be able to perform basic science.

The second type, about everyone knowing that the earth was flat etc, always strikes me as funny. The observational data from those that tested their beliefs against the world has shown that it is round for thousands of years. It was only when science was not performed that it was thought otherwise.

At times the use of Einstein to replace Newton is put forth as the suggestion that we don't know anything and whatever fresh bullshit is being put forth is true. I like to take this and use it to fertilize ideas rather than allowing the person to think it fruit. When a new theory overturns old, we do not dismiss the old version. Instead we learn it's limits and the new idea is some form of refinement. At least in the case of scientific ideas. If only one is based on observation and experiment then it may well overturn another showing it to be very wrong.

But even the flat earth model has a use. If you are calculating the physics of a baseball game, or car crash you can treat it as Newtons physics on a flat earth. Quantum effects, relativity, and the curvature of the planet are not going to be needed for getting results. This information becomes relevant if you refine your scale enough or if you expand your view enough.

If we can say anything about the world it's this; We create a gestalt hallucination based on faulty sense data and feedback mechanisms, this is guided by events beyond our control, and thrown together in brains evolved not to grasp the universe in her majesty, but to grasp a stone to kill a rival or a lion. Still, we have developed a system of charting beyond our own individual failings. We can turn this tool upon anything and have used it to rid the world of horrific diseases and shorten the distance around the world to a days travel. We have used it to probe the very stuff of reality and find it stranger than words can describe. That our view is narrow and our comprehension limited is of no doubt, but it grows. There are many things beyond our purview, and many more that we may never come to know that we don't know.   

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

How we support ideas

Richard Feynman explains some of the key points to scientific reasoning.  This is the best way that we have for evaluation of claims.  If you notice it is somewhere between induction and abduction, but the key point is the testing against experiment.  This testing is how we form impressions of the world, that we can say are correct (for a given value of correct).

He also demolishes the appeal to authority, citing the test against evidence as the only arbiter of fact vs fiction.

He then goes on to discuss the idea of proving or disproving something.  And states the pragmatic idea: "We must always try to guess the most likely explanation keeping in the back of the mind that if it doesn't work, we must discuss the other possibilities."

The importance here is that we can think of this process as an effort to define and eliminate types of ignorance.  We can attempt to explain the world, but our statements of absolute certainty must be reserved for what has been repeatedly shown to be false. Other ideas must be discussed in a manner of what the limits to the information we have are, and what test would prove our idea conclusively wrong.

This is not to discount positive evidence or say that we can know nothing, it is only to temper our claims of certainty with doubt.  And while there may be some indication that we humans favor the certain over the uncertain and flock then to demagogues, we can train ourselves through understanding and vigilance to resist this baser impulse.

This link contains some great quotes from scientists as they struggle to define the term science. Which is the process that I attempting to describe here. An idea that is so simple that it almost refuses clear definition. But following through on defining terms so that we may be understood is a goal of those that wish to discuss things clearly, without retreating to fallacies or vague assertions.

Thursday, April 5, 2012


Rhetoric, Grammar, Logic.

To speak well, To write well, To think well.

For some reason these were given equal weight in the system. However mastery of either of the first two ( or both) will allow you to fake a competency in many things mastery of the third will allow you to attain that competence. Of course skill in communication and the beautiful assembly of language are still to be valued as they will better allow the expression and transition of ideas.

A quick note on communication from Randall Munroe

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Value of evidence

Sam Harris asks an interesting question. "If someone doesn't value evidence, what evidence are you going to provide to prove that you should value it"

My personal opinion is that most people do value evidence, but only so far as it supports their world view. They will dismiss evidence that conflicts with their view*.  The key here is to shape the ideas to fit into their preconceptions or to forcibly annihilate those preconceptions. If you wish to offer an argument it seems like a good idea to start with premises that the other parties can accept. If they reject your premises they have no reason even to listen to your argument.  IFF they accept your premises and they reject your valid argument from those premises then you no longer need consider them a rational participant in the discussion.

Caution should be used here, and you should listen to the critiques that they offer of your argument. A refusal to listen to the critique or a disagreement over the consequences of certain ideas being true, is not a good reason for ending a discussion.  Accusations of irrationality can fly in heated debate, and it is important to remain calm and only make claims that are grounded in evidence. Making assessments of the other persons rationality, intelligence, or motives can border on personal attacks and should be avoided. It is only when they abandon the willingness to either commit to their own ideas and the outcomes of them, or listen to any offer of alternate explanation with either an equal or better fit to the facts at hand that you can say that they behave irrationally from evidence and not from personal feelings.


*This isn't exactly valuing evidence it is succumbing to confirmation bias, but there is a wedge strategy that can be employed, and so I didn't want to distract from my next point.