Archive | March 2010

A Can of Worms Revisited

Our beliefs guide what we do, and why, because we base our actions on our beliefs — those things we hold to be true — for the purpose of maximizing the success of those actions. Few people are inclined to act or behave on the basis of beliefs they do not think true, except maybe charlatans and con-artists.

Let me state from the onset that I am not anti-belief. It is not my intent or purpose as a skeptic to ‘make people not believe,’ to otherwise violate anyone’s right to believe. But it’s people who have rights and privileges, not beliefs or claims of fact. All claims of fact are eligible for a fair hearing, but not all have equal truth-value. Nor are all beliefs equally harmless, or equally effective as a result of actions based on them.

I contend that the view that all claims have equal validity is specious, for to paraphrase Carl Sagan, If all claims are equally true, then none have any truth at all.

A problem arises when people confuse what they believe, when what they believe cannot or has not been demonstrated to be true, to be facts. I run into this a lot in some of the comment threads on this blog.

This includes even the claim that it’s a belief that something is a belief, and not whatever one wishes to be fact…

Sorry, but wishes, or to use the new paranormal vernacular, ‘intention,’ have no effect on reality save for the results of our physical actions to fulfill them.

Does one’s belief in a claim unsupported by sound evidence or reasoning, no matter how sincere, justify actions taken on its behalf? Does even sincerity and conviction of belief grant one an ethical free pass to promote or practice any belief, however questionable?

I argue no.

For without casting any doubt or speculation on their purity of motives, many promoters and practitioners of various scientifically and medically questionable claims are often fully knowledgeable that the mainstream research community considers their particular claim to be controversial at best, and its efficacy or factual worth not adequately supported by valid evidence in any case.

Practitioners of various claims not supported by evidence are at best providing a useless service, and at worst causing their clients great harm, such as death or serious illness resulting from the denial or delay of adequate evidence-based medical care for a serious but treatable condition, or even the use of unproven modalities that are not merely ineffective, but actively dangerous. This extends into finances too, when mystics provide what they claim to be ‘divine,’ ‘prophetic,’ or ‘psychic’ advice for a fee, when the services rendered are no more effective than merely guessing, and more often than not, wrong.

Again, they may be perfectly sincere in their belief, but this does not make them right, nor their beliefs true, nor the practice of those beliefs ethically justified.

Even with the purest of intentions, (…and to steal a page from Sir Ian McKellen’s Magneto: “We all know about roads to Hell and what they’re paved with.”) one can believe so strongly in something that they are willing to go to any length to support the belief, even cheat, even lie, sometimes even worse, when cognitive dissonance gives them the means to rationalize these acts, as opposed to using rationality, in their own minds. There is the frequent occurrence of what is referred to by skeptics as the pious fraud, the true believer not adverse to bending the rules and cutting corners a bit.

I say this: Let people believe what they want, but should they desire it, should they ask, provide them with the mental toolkit and methods to assess claims for their worth themselves, of their own free will and full understanding, rather than just being forced to accept or reject claims by coercion of others, a knee-jerk reaction, or on a whim.

People who can think for themselves are much less likely to leave their belief systems up to the vagaries of chance, and much more able to protect themselves both financially and health-wise from those who would take undue advantage of their trust, even without meaning to. Fnord.

Speculative Technology — Realism vs. Lala Land

As a science fiction fan, I sometimes get into some highly speculative, and highly animated, discussions of SF technologies, some more or less realistic, ranging all the way from the just-around-the-corner possible to some that are far distant future if not pure fantasy. I’m occasionally chided for my conventionalized closed-mindedness, not just by fringe-science or paranormal believers, but by science fiction enthusiasts who are irked by my refusal to accept that time travel, hyperspace travel or Star Trek-style transporters will be practical realities in the near future (usually within the next couple of hundred years or so).

I’ve come to the conclusion that in order to effectively and constructively argue for realistic SF technologies, you have to limit the parameters of the discussion to those technologies that are conceivably possible, according to what we can honestly say we know at the present time about how the universe works.

In short, to meaningfully discuss realistic technologies, we must limit ourselves to speculating within known physical laws as they are currently understood. Why?

“But Troythulu,” you might say, “why should we be so arrogant as to believe that what we know at this moment is all there is? Why must we think that that’s how it’s necessarily so?”

Well, I’m not arguing that…

I’m saying that there’s a huge world of difference between science fiction with the accent on the word ‘science,’ and science fiction with an emphasis on the word ‘fiction.’ Let’s not fool ourselves with muddled magical thinking — We live in a universe in which there are genuine limits to what can be achieved, as far as we can currently tell, such as the Einstein’s law and the second law of thermodynamics, not a universe in which literally anything goes, and likewise literally anything and everything is possible. Sorry.

Right now, we have little good justification for thinking most of those laws we currently know of wrong, since they allow the creation of practical technologies that actually function, which wouldn’t be the case if they weren’t at least partly true. Science is not a magical, irrational myth that makes things work for no reason at all, but a powerful, rational, and thus far useful method of understanding the world. Don’t like science very much? Too bad. Reductionism may not be the whole ballgame, but it works.

I’m not arguing that what we know now is all that’s ultimately possible, and that we know everything about the universe that can ever be known, or my nom de blog is not Troythulu.

I’m arguing that we really do happen to know things about the universe, many of them tested and verified beyond a reasonable doubt, and these things have to be taken into account when discussing the realistically possible, including conceivable applications of that knowledge. We must in such discussions limit ourselves to what we know, pending further and better evidence as we come to understand more in the way of new and more precise findings.

We most certainly don’t know all there is to know, and we probably never will, but we don’t understand absolutely nothing at all for not knowing absolutely everything. Our science is stumbling, incomplete, infantile, we know close to nothing, but it’s the best thing we have so far in terms of our comprehension of Reality, of what’s ‘out there,’ apart from the subjective worlds inside our skulls.

It’s almost certain that there indeed remain undiscovered forces, laws, theories, paradigms, hypotheses, physical constants, findings of science that have yet to be made. Cool discoveries we have yet to uncover. But unless we are somehow made aware of these findings through the scientific process, as limited as that is, we have no business invoking unknowns to fantasize about technologies and techniques that may not even be possible when attempting to discuss the realistic, rather than just admitting it and saying we are engaging in pure technological fancy and speculation.

Let’s not be misled into believing what we merely wish were true. Fnord.

Logical Fallacies — the Incorrect Cause

Skeptic kitteh sez...
Hey, guys. This post deals with a group of closely related fallacies of logic known as Incorrect Cause Fallacies, or more formally, Non Causa Pro Causa, the first one we shall deal with being Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc, or After This, Therefore Because of This. This fallacy is very simply constructed, its form being…

  • Y occurred before Z, therefore Y caused Z.

…as per the following examples…

  • I wanted to get revenge on an enemy, so I danced around a table, said a few nonsense words that sounded profound, sacrificed a chicken, and a week later my enemy was injured in an accident. Therefore the ritual worked like I thought it would.
  • I had the flu, so I took some homeopathic remedy I got at the pharmacy and a few days later my flu went away. So I conclude that the remedy cured my flu.

Similar to this is Confusing Association with Causation, or Cum Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc, (With This, Therefore Because of This), which like the above has a rather elementary, but subtly different construction from the previous fallacy…

  • X is found with Y, therefore X caused Y.

…note the distinctions in the assumption used in the first part of the argument, the premise, as the following will show…

  • I got a really good test score while wearing my propeller beanie, therefore wearing a propeller beanie makes you get better test scores.
  • My horoscope forecast a difficult day for me during the alignment of Pluto and Jupiter with the center of our galaxy, and that day was indeed very stressful and hectic. So I conclude that the cosmic alignment was responsible for the rough time I had that day.

As you can see, there are significant difference between the logical structure of the premises of these fallacies, since that of the first involves a sequential relationship in time, while the second involves finding two things together in a temporally coincidental relationship. Needless to say, these fallacies have resulted in much in the way of superstition and magical thinking throughout human history, including the present day, forcing skeptics to keep themselves at the thankless task of societal damage-control.

A variation on these is known as the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy, specious reasoning in which one makes the false assumption of a causal relationship in, or spurious meaning to random data patterns, whatever relationship or meaning one wishes to see a priori, often unconsciously, and unfortunately done in some paranormal research with the occasional misuse of statistical methods, including the erroneous interpretation of statistical artifacts and anomalies as scientifically significant evidence for paranormal phenomena, as per occult statistics. This fallacy takes its name from a hypothetical gunman who randomly fired his pistol at the side of a building while no one was looking and painted bulls-eyes around the holes to prove his marksmanship ability.

There is also the misleading inference of a real causative relationship, as per the Wrong Direction fallacy, such as the idea that dental cavities cause the excessive consumption of sugary sweets and beverages, or that certain forms of male sterility cause ionizing radiation exposure.

Another is the Complex Cause fallacy, whereby one considers only one out of a set of causative agencies at the expense of the others, which results in an inference of causation that is only partially true, such as reasoning that the reading ability of children is caused only by physical development as they get older when it is actually caused by both age and education as they mature.

And there is the Joint Cause fallacy, in which one infers causation between a set of things, when they are all together mutually caused by the same agency, such as speciously inferring a causative relationship between childrens’ mathematical ability and their shoe size, this despite the fact that they are both caused by the relative age of the children as they mature and learn.

Finally, there is the Regression Fallacy, in which one infers that an agency other than the tendency for extremes of chance to deviate ever closer to the average of a statistical bell-curve over time is responsible for an event. A good example of this is a chess-player who has a strings of wins and losses in matches but tends to come out average over time, but who feels that he is winning, or losing, in ‘streaks,’ the well-known belief in the ‘hot hand,’ as it is known in sports.

A corollary to the Incorrect Cause fallacies is the Denial of Causation, such as when the fossil fuel industry promotes the claim that the human burning of fossil fuels doesn’t cause global climate change, that, for example, the increase in global temperatures is caused by an increase in the sun’s energy output, and that in and of itself, human-caused global climate change is impossible, despite the signs of solar activity in the last decade being the lowest it has been in years.

Another example of said corollary is the claim by AIDS contrarians that the HIV virus doesn’t cause AIDS, that there is no causative correlation between HIV in the blood of those with the disease and that any immune deficiency is simply caused by lifestyle and/or diet.

Be those as they may, however…

…It’s easily possible for any inference of causation one makes to be spurious, but science provides methods by which to make correct inferences. Important in any such argument of inference is taking into account any conceivable, and moreover, testable alternative hypotheses that could be implicated in the actual causation of a given phenomenon. Untestable hypotheses of course, needn’t be considered as they are scientifically uninteresting.

(Last Update: 2014/04/03, Related Post Links Added)

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