Monthly Archives: February 2010

To Doubt, Perchance to Think…

As a skeptic, I doubt. But to what extent and under what circumstances does it remain reasonable to doubt? Does being a ‘true’ skeptic mean that I should doubt absolutely anything and everything, even my own skepticism? My view is that it is untenable to doubt literally everything, not logically possible to do so coherently.

To reject all claims to fact because one cannot confirm or know something absolutely, to practice epistemic nihilism, is, I hold, manifestly unreasonable. I hold further that it is rational to accept the statements of trained experts, not on the basis of authoritarian dogma, but upon the known reliability of those statements they have made and continue to make when speaking within their area of expertise, their area of competence, and so long as one is not given sound cause to doubt those statements.

This is not to say that someone can only be trusted within the confines of a series of letters before or after their names, within the restrictions of a piece of paper hanging from the wall behind their desk, or only within the limits of a narrow specialty, for some people have stellar competency in a number of areas by way of prior training and experience — true polymaths — though these are uncommon to say the least. Sadly, much to my chagrin (Cool! I actually have a chagrin!), I am not one of these.

It IS to say, however, that when any claimed expert makes a statement of fact, that the alleged expert in question be known as reliably trustworthy and to have sufficient ability or familiarity with the matter expounded upon. All it takes to verify someone’s claimed credentials is a simple mouse-click or phone call to the right person.

Do I claim academic or scientific expertise? Well, not yet — though I do have a number of interests that led me to familiarity with certain topics in addition to skeptical issues: for one, as a Cthulhu Mythos geek I can spout off the names, proper pronunciations of said names, the origins, habits, histories, home planets, and even biological details of a variety of Lovecraftian monsters and gods, though this is not much help outside of role-playing gaming circles. It has led, however, to my screen-name and the name of this blog. But I’ve rambled enough…

Knowledge exists, and some people have more than others. This is a fact of life. Those who have more we call ‘experts.’ The fact, the recognition, that some have more knowledge than others is not elitism. To reject this on the basis that it offends one’s beliefs or disagrees with one’s ideology, claims of an ‘establishment’ conspiracy, or simply on reflexive contrarianism, is not skeptical, and not rational. It is to deny, not to seek the truth, but to obstinately refuse it.

What this boils down to is my view that experts acting within their field should generally be trusted, though with the concession that no one is infallible, no one person is an expert in everything, and no one can see the whole picture all by himself or herself — believer or skeptic. That takes the work of a community of experts coming to a broad consensus, which unlike a political consensus is not groupthink, not a vote, and not a popularity contest.

A consensus is reached only after the differences, biases, and other individual quirks have been hammered out, and an overall view, that of the Big Picture is achieved within that community. A scientific consensus, even though still not completely infallible, is a recognition of reality at any given time. Unless there is good reason to do otherwise, a consensus by a community of experts can generally be trusted, more so than the claims of any single individual.

Those who a priori reject the conclusions obtained from a large body of carefully gathered evidence, and who claim that the process of science is somehow broken and that the entire scientific community is wrong, must be able to objectively demonstrate how and why all the experts are wrong and where and how the system is broken or their claims cannot be taken seriously. Sorry, but them’s the breaks…

Logical Fallacies — Special Pleading

Ice Flower

Ice Flower

Special Pleading, or ‘covering one’s ass,’ is a form of argumentation skeptics routinely encounter, and is the making of excuses, often called ‘reasons’ by those prone to use them, also known as the ad hoc (or ‘in this case only’) hypothesis, and post-hoc reasoning. This is most often takes the form of arguments that try to ‘explain’ special reasons or invoke a presumed special case for a claim despite any logic or evidence against it. It attempts to dismiss a question, argument, explanation, or lack of evidence as somehow and uniquely not applying to the claim to be salvaged from the jaws of death. All such special reasons offered with no justification themselves.

  • I took the paranormal challenge, but I couldn’t pass it because I was overwhelmed by the doubt of the skeptics present, which scrambled my powers…
  • I failed the test because the stars weren’t right…
  • The spirits weren’t favorable to my winning the challenge…
  • I was unable to pass the preliminary test because the guy conducting it was a magician who cheated to make me fail by using sleight of hand…
  • I couldn’t get a ‘hit’ on my remote viewing test because the target images in the envelope didn’t have a single, distinct, easily visualized (read: easily guessed…) feature for me to to focus my powers on…(remote viewing is myopic?)

This fallacy is prevalent in parapsychology with the so-called Experimenter Effect, often dubbed by cross parapsychologists the Wiseman Effect (after psychologist Richard Wiseman… Wow! I wish I was notorious enough to believers to have a logical fallacy named after me!) where skeptical disbelief, even accusations of repressed skeptical disbelief in those who sincerely hold themselves to believe, is said to produce an effect that literally in and of its magical self cancels psi-ability in a laboratory demonstration.

How can the proponents of psi lose? After all, if you get a positive effect-size, it’s due to a psychic effect, and if you don’t it’s still due to a psychic effect! Really… how do you test that by itself to know if there’s anything really going on? –You can’t

…so, stealing from myself, there’s this one from one of my older posts…

  • There really are pixies playing in my garden, but you can’t see them because they’re shy and don’t want you to see them, magically invisible to both optical and infrared light, and can’t be made visible by sprinkling stuff on them because they’re also intangible at will, and oh, did I also mention that you can’t hear them because they’re supernaturally silent whenever they feel like it?

Special pleading can be and often is carried to ridiculous lengths in gross disregard of the rule of thumb known as Occam’s razor, in which smaller leaps of logic are considered preferable to great ones, and in which “elements should not be multiplied unnecessarily,”

…or more to the point, beyond the plausible ability of the available evidence to support them.

Any argument using this fallacy is thus rendered both unfalsifiable and unprovable. Any valid idea in science should be framed in testable form, or it is not science. It does no good to say, “you can’t judge my claim because of special reasons X, Y, and Z,” or to provide any other arbitrary excuses that something won’t work, or can’t be tested.

Science is messy, and there are times when a theory must be refined so that it better conforms to the data, but this is not the use of post hoc reasoning: the amendments made to a set of ideas in science are those hypotheses that can in principle be tested independently of the theory, and are those factors which are known to separately exist and have been observed or otherwise justified in some fashion.

It’s bad form to have to come up with not only untestable, but irrelevant reasons to prop up an idea that not only fails the test of observation, the test of explanation, and the test of prediction, especially when it has no proverbial leg to stand on as with any seriously flawed idea.

(Last Update 2014/04/13)

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Contrasts: SETI & UFOlogy

UFO believers who wish to claim an air of scientific legitimacy, or on the other hand perhaps as a sort of tu-quoque argument, will often compare UFOlogy with the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program. It seems to me that they are vastly different, and hardly comparable. Any attempt to compare them is a false analogy.

First, the questions they ask are logically distinct, for where SETI basically asks “Is there intelligent life elsewhere in the universe?,” and answers this with “Perhaps,” UFO ‘experts’ ask “Are we being visited by intelligent life from elsewhere in the universe?,” and answer this with an unequivocal “Yes!” The tentative thinking of the one, and the certitude of thought of the other alone is enough to set them apart.

SETI doesn’t presume the existence of aliens, it merely concedes that they are possible, and probable, unlike UFOlogists who presuppose the existence, and in a further logical leap, the visitation of Earth, of and by intelligent beings from other worlds as a given by definition.

SETI, unlike most UFO organizations, employs a rigorous approach to evidence, and upon the reception of any seemingly anomalous signals from space, first attempt to eliminate and isolate as many conventional sources of random noise and signal aberrations as are then conceivable, before accounting for all and even then, do not rush to declare to the media the announcement of alien contact, employing multiple independent confirmations and cross-checking before making a statement.

After all, if alien intelligence were a certainty, why look? A good example of the process is described in Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, which describes it in more detail than I can go into here.

This is in stark contrast with many UFOlogists, who not only express a certainty of the existence of ETIs, but declare that they are already here, and that impending evidence to reveal the Truth™ of the alien presence by the governments of the world is ‘just around the corner.’ They’ve been saying that for decades now, conspiratorial claims and all.

This, in spite of what we have good reason to think we know at present of the size and age of the universe, the evolution of life on Earth, and the limits on interstellar, much less intergalactic, travel imposed by distance and currently understood physical laws, even near-light velocity travel.

SETI is science, using probabilistic thinking, scientific methodology, and logic, employing an extremely high bar for evidence, for the stakes of the discovery of alien intelligence would be high, and would have a monumental impact on human society. If they are to confirm such contact, they must make sure that no mistakes are made, because the world is watching.

UFO mythology, on the other hand, is pseudoscience, declaring as a proven fact alien visitation and employing at times near-nonexistent standards of evidence, conspiracy theories, logical fallacies, and otherwise unscientific reasoning. It is also a pronounced failure of the human imagination. And this is supplemented by a naive, sometimes callous, disregard for the human fallibilities of even the most dependable eyewitnesses and the anecdotal testimony they relate, not realizing that a mountain of crappy evidence is still crap.

Mind you, I’m not anti-alien, and as a science-fiction fan I would be delighted if we made such contact. But if it comes down to either declaring alien visitation every time there’s an odd light in the sky, or using science and reason to confirm genuine extraterrestrial contact beyond a reasonable doubt, I’ll opt for the latter, thank you very much.

Logical Fallacies– the Argument from Ignorance

One of the first things you find out as a skeptic is the fact that all of us humans are vastly ignorant of most of what there is to know, but ignorance isn’t bliss — it’s oblivion. This post deals with a logical fallacy that capitalizes on that ignorance, trying to make it seem like knowledge. Knowledge’s evil twin, the illusion of knowledge. This is the Argument from Ignorance, the Appeal to Ignorance, or the Argumentum ad Ignorantiam for Latin buffs.

This fallacy involves the attempt to make a definite statement on a claim by using what is not known rather than what is, or what is statistically knowable through the Wisdom of Crowds. It often takes the general form of:

“No one (to my knowledge or satisfaction) has proven X to be true (or false), therefore it’s false (or true).”

Some examples of this…

  • No one has proven that Godzilla doesn’t exist, so I conclude that Godzilla is real…
  • No one has proven that secondhand smoke causes cancer, so it must be harmless…
  • I’ve never seen any real proof that the Apollo astronauts landed on the Moon, so it must be a hoax…


It’s not fallacious when one has knowledge of a lack of evidence for something for which evidence should logically be, and it’s known what this evidence should be.

It’s not fallacious to act upon incomplete data for precautionary purposes, such as the threat of terrorists, who can be expected to operate in secret until they strike, if and when they do.

Though absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, nor proof of the non-existence of a phenomenon, it can be evidence for it when put in the right context.

The following is a valid argument:

  • All of the scheduled openings of this library are listed.
  • I don’t see a listing of it opening at this hour of the day.
  • So it must be that the library will be closed until two hours from now.

The logical form of an appeal to ignorance is:

“I don’t have an explanation for X, therefore I have an explanation for X.”

…which is a logical contradiction.

For example…

  • I see a strange light in the sky.
  • I can’t think of a mundane explanation for it off the top of my head.
  • I think it’s an alien spaceship.

Or this…

  • There are gaps in the fossil record.
  • I do not know of or understand a naturalistic explanation as to why there are such gaps.
  • So it must be that a supernatural agency has created or interceded in the creation of life.

A variation of this is Confusing the Unexplained with the Unexplainable, (or the God of the Gaps argument as used by creationists, for where they perceive gaps in our knowledge, ‘Goddidit, ‘Nuff said’…).

This is the mistake in thinking that because one does not know a conventional explanation for something that there is indeed no such explanation and that therefore, a supernatural or paranormal cause for the phenomenon must be inferred.

This is understandable, and is reasoning from psychologically available information rather than an examination of more complex and difficult data that may not come as quickly to mind at the time.

It just so happens that supernatural or paranormal explanations are among the easiest to conceive of on the spur of the moment. They are more immediately available, and we are more prone to them through the biases and heuristics by which our brains operate in their default mode..

In informal argumentation the fallacious use of the appeal to ignorance is not so much a violation of logical form as it is one of procedure, an attempt to thwart the goal of critical reasoning to subvert efforts toward a sound basis for explaining a claim.

(Last Update 2014/04/13)

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Some Musings on the Universe

What meaning does the question ‘What lies outside the universe…What lies beyond it’ have? It depends on how you define the universe. I’ll offer my own perspective, though I might be wrong.

If you define it as being the sum total of everything that exists, or on a more limited sense, everything with which we can possibly interact with in any way, the Cosmos, then this question makes no sense. How can there be anything outside of everything? How can there be anything outside of all of existence? This is conceptually meaningless, and only makes sense if you consider the universe to be both finite and bounded, with a definite edge. But this is not the universe as astronomers conceive it, more as those of fundamentalist religions see it…

It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth…”

And a circle has a definite edge, as does a metal firmament.

The only thing that can possibly exist outside of all of reality, everything that is, is the unreal, what we refer to commonly as fantasy which by definition does not exist.

Modern science accepts the idea that there is likely to exist what has been referred to by various writers of fiction as the ‘multiverse,’ which to me is a redundant term, implying the existence of more than all that exists. Again, this seems to be a problem to me of both conceptualization and definition, a problem with our use of language.

If you define that vast part of the universe known to us in a more limited fashion as the World, that is, all of knowable spacetime and that within it, this World having likely different physical laws and constants to varying degrees from every other such World, all of which are like bubbles drifting in a vast, perhaps infinite, sea of superspace, making up the total being of all reality, the true Universe — capitalization intended, to distinguish it from the portion we are aware of — not just that portion that we can presently know, then it expands our conception, necessarily limited it may be.

Some have proposed, in reiteration of the old argument from design, that the universe we live in has physical laws and constants perfectly suited for our kind of life, and therefore was specially created just for us. They claim that our World is the only one in all reality that is hospitable to life, and that no other has the laws needed to give rise to any sort of biology.

I think they have it backwards…

First, our bubble-universe is not particularly hospitable, since over 99.999999% of it is lethal, radiation-filled vacuum, and most of what little matter exists in the universe is still incredibly hostile to the kind of life we know on Earth — the only world we know of that is suited for us — poisonous gas giants, small airless worlds, brown dwarfs, and stars to name a few. It seems more likely to me that it is we who are adapted to the universe, not it made especially for us.

Second, computer simulations have been run that extrapolate from our current understanding of physics to test ideas of Worlds with various combinations of laws, and many of these have produced results which would seem to dispute the notion that our kind of life is either unique, or necessarily inevitable. In some of these simulations, even a World that lacks certain laws and even whole forces, for example, the Weak force, can give rise to a sort of biology very close to our own.

The point is that our universe is probably, given our current understanding, not unique in possessing life…

It seems to my eye that the so called ‘Anthropic principle’ is more properly called the Anthropocentric principle, as it tries to reestablish our long-held conceit that we are somehow central, in purpose if not in location, to the Universe.

(Last Update 2010/2/13, Text Added)

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