Archive | 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…

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Project Logicality | Special Pleading

Special Pleading, known loosely as ‘covering your ass,’ is the making of excuses, euphemistically called ‘reasons’ by those prone to invoke them, also as the ad hoc (or ‘in this’) hypothesis, the fallacy of limited scope, and if invented after the fact, post-hoc reasoning.

It often attempts to ‘explain’ special reasons or invoke presumed special cases for disproven claims no matter the logic or evidence against them.

It’s used to dismiss a question, argument, explanation, or lack of evidence as somehow and uniquely not applying to the claim to be rescued. Such special reasons are invariably offered without justification themselves.

I took the paranormal challenge, but I failed it because I was overwhelmed by the negative vibrations in the room, which scrambled my powers.

 

The Earth is flat. Ships only seem to go over the horizon because light travels in curves, not straight lines, to ordinary sight.

 

I failed the job interview because the stars weren’t right.

 

The classroom pixies weren’t favorable to my passing the exam.

 

I couldn’t complete the preliminary trial because the guy conducting it was a magician who cheated by using sleight of hand.

 

I couldn’t get a ‘hit’ during the remote viewing experiment because the target images didn’t have a single, distinct, easily visualized* feature to to focus on.

*read, “easily guessed.”

On that last: Remote viewing is supposed to be myopic? Never mind…

This is prevalent in parapsychology with what’s dubbed by a few very ticked-off parapsychologists the Wiseman Effect (after social psychologist Richard Wiseman. I wish I was notorious enough to have a logical fallacy named after me!) where disbelief, even accusations of repressed disbelief in neutral experimenters, is said to produce an effect cancelling psi-ability in a laboratory demonstration.

How can proponents of psi lose? After all, if you get positive results, they’re due to a psychic effect, and if you don’t they’re still due to a psychic effect! How can you test that by itself to know if there’s anything really going on? (answer: you can’t)

I’m going to steal from myself here, with something from one of my older posts on this blog:

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 carried to ridiculous lengths, grossly disregarding the rule of thumb known as Occam’s razor, in which smaller leaps of logic are considered preferable to great ones, and fewer assumptions are better than more. Or more to the point, those assumptions that are not beyond the plausible ability of the evidence to support them.

Any argument using this fallacy is thus rendered both unfalsifiable and unprovable in any meaningful sense. Ideas in science should be framed in testable form, or they are not science. It does no good to say “You can’t judge my claim because of special reasons X, Y, and Z that I just made up.”

Nor will it do to give any other arbitrary excuses why something can’t be tested. There’s a phrase for such ideas, I believe the highest form of scientific criticism, and it is “not even wrong.”

Science is messy, complex, and riddled with error, but that’s a strength with its built-in means of self-correction: there are times when a theory and its attendant hypotheses need refining to better conform to the data. This is not the use of post hoc reasoning: the amendments made here are those hypotheses that can be tested independently of their theory, and are those factors which are known to separately exist, have been observed directly or inferred from indirect observation.

It’s not a Good Idea™ to come up with not only untestable, but irrelevant reasons to prop up an idea failing the test of observation, the test of explanation, and the test of prediction, when it has no proverbial leg to stand on.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

(Last Update 2017.06.06)

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.

Project Logicality | The Argument from Ignorance

One of the first things to discover when adopting a skeptical viewpoint is how vastly ignorant we all are of much of what there is to know. But ignorance isn’t bliss, it’s oblivion. And it’s evil twin, the illusion of knowledge, is downright dangerous.

Here we deal with a common mistake in thinking that exploits ignorance, trying to make it seem like knowledge, the Argument from Ignorance, also the Appeal to Ignorance or in Latin, ad ignorantiam.
Using this argument does not imply that one is ignorant in any demeaning sense, merely that the one using it isn’t making a valid argument or a reliable claim.

It attempts to make a definite claim to understanding by using what is not known rather than what is. It often takes the general form of:

I don’t know X, so I know Y.

Or put differently it goes something like this:

No one has proven X false (or true), so X must be true (or false).

Or perhaps:

I can’t explain X, so I can explain X.

A few examples follow:

No one has proven that Godzilla doesn’t exist, so Godzilla is real.

 

I’ve never seen any real, absolute, rock-solid proof that the Apollo astronauts landed on the Moon, so the Apollo missions were a hoax.

There’s no fallacy committed when there’s knowledge of missing evidence that should likely be found, and it’s known what the expected evidence should be. Absence of evidence in the right context is indeed evidence of absence when its lack is glaringly obvious, even if it’s not absolute proof of absence!

There’s no fallacy committed in and of itself when acting 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, or acting upon the threat of global warming in the absence of total certainty.

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 is closed until two hours from now.

This, however, is not:

I see a strange light in the sky. I can’t think of an explanation for it off the top of my head, so it must be the aliens from Independence Day!

Or this:

There are gaps in the fossil record. I do not know of a plausible explanation as to why there are such gaps. So it must be that a Intelligent Designer has created or interceded in the creation of life.

A variation of this is Confusing the Unexplained with the Unexplainable, which is fallacious because it assumes implicitly that the current state of knowledge represents the ultimate limits of the knowable, which is just wrong on so many levels.

There’s a possibly apocryphal anecdote floating about of a patent clerk in the late 19th or early 20th century who quit his job, because he thought that everything important had already been invented.

There’s also the silly claim, still circulated, that it’s impossible for bumblebees to fly because science can’t explain it, therefore it’s magic. Well, science has explained it, and it deals with the mechanics of a bumblebee’s wings and the physics of fluid dynamics.

This is understandable, even from perfectly normal, intelligent, sane, and sincere people. It’s reasoning from psychologically available information rather than an examination of more complex and difficult data that may not come as quickly or easily to mind.

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 mental shortcuts we take in our default thinking under whatever narrative influences our brains at any given moment, to paraphrase Dr. Steven Novella.

In informal argumentation the fallacious use of the argument from ignorance is not a violation of logical form as much as an attempt to subvert efforts toward getting at sound explanations for our claims.

It’s important not to confuse a lack of evidence for its presence, though absence of evidence can indeed be evidence for absence in the case of demonstrating the existence of entities in the real world. If the data you logically expect to see as a consequence of a phenomenon just isn’t where is should be found, that’s a good sign that it’s not real.

The prudent position, the conservative one, is to abstain from postulating unobserved and unobservable things, or those which can and should be observed but tellingly are not.

Otherwise, belief in such entities comes down to a matter of faith, and that is entirely one’s own choice to make.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

(Last Update 2017.06.06)

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)

Project Logicality | The Ad Hominem Argument

 

Let’s face it, nobody likes to be insulted, but this very thing may be used as a form of argument in more or less subtle ways, a logical fallacy of irrelevance known by the Latin, because yours truly feels like being a pedant, the Argumentum ad Hominem, or the Argument to the Person.

This tactic of argumentation is the counterpoint to the Argument from Authority, a sort of polar opposite to it on the spectrum of genetic fallacies – arguments that focus on the source of a claim rather than valid logic or evidence – and like it attempts to call attention to real or imagined characteristics or origin of the subject in order to sidestep the argument being made, in this case those that are negative or unfavorable.

A special case of this is a subset called Poisoning the Well, also referred to as the Circumstantial ad Hominem, made even before the opponent makes his argument. This form associates the target with someone or something that is widely regarded as unpleasant or evil, such as implying or stating a connection with, for example, Nazis, terrorists, or an infamous serial killer.

The name of this subset probably derives from medieval Europe, when rumors abounded during outbreaks of plague that Jews were causing Christians to die from the epidemic by poisoning the local well-water, since the real vectors of the plague were unknown at the time. This differs from the usual form in that it can be made against both a person and an idea or belief.

In that hideous little abomination of a movie, Expelled, there was much use of this fallacy in the association of evolution and science in general with the Holocaust and the Nazis in particular.

The most common and least subtle form of this argument, used by the unimaginative, is the use of plain and simple verbal abuse to call attention to perceived (real or imaginary) shortcomings as a cheap way to dismiss an argument by dismissing the person making it.

“Your argument is wrong because you’re a known religious fundamentalist.”

…or…

“I don’t have to listen to you because you’re one of those Godless atheists.”

…or my favorite,

“I don’t have to provide any references for what I said. You should just accept it as I said it, or you are an obstinate fool for questioning something so self-evidently true.”

Often used is an alleged conflict of interest, bias, or personal prejudice, the Bias ad Hominem, indicating that the one this is used on is untrustworthy as an impartial source, or as is often the case of an American politician accusing his opponent of being a socialist or a fascist even when these claims are not only irrelevant but false.

Another is when critics of the modern anti-vaccination movement are implicated as paid shills in the pocket of the ‘Big Pharma’ conspiracy, and whose statements therefore must be taken with evil intent in mind.

Another is when mainstream scientists are accused of being afraid for their funding, careers, alleged political agendas, and reputations and so ignore or hide ‘the truth’ of the paranormal or global cooling. These last two, by the way, are also referred to as an argument from conspiracy, or an appeal to motive, another version of the bias ad hominem.

But the Ad Hominem argument is not always a fallacy, and in the proper use it may be a valid and effective form of argument when it is used to promote the goal of critical discussion rather than to obstruct it.

For example, a reasonable use is in pointing out a likely conflict of interest regarding the personal testimony of a claimant when the subject’s questionable background, credibility and circumstances are also true, relevant, and kept in their proper context — such as a disgruntled ex-gang member testifying in a criminal case when he has been given leniency or other favors for his testimony.

And this fallacy is more complex than one might think…

Less commonly known, and just as poisonous to an argument, is the positive ad hominem, which uses the same sort of reasoning, substituting alleged personal attributes, associations, or circumstances for relevant evidence in an argument, but this time uses positive traits, such as sincerity, kindness, or piety, though any virtuous trait will do, and here it shades into an argument from authority/appeal to virtue.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

(Last Updated 2017.06.06)