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.

Project Logicality | False Causal Reasoning


What goes wrong with our reasoning when we think backward from effects to causes, connecting events in ways that mislead us into inferring unsupported and often unsupportable causal accounts, those that on closer examination just ain’t so?

Here we have a closely related group of mistakes in reasoning, quite common, quite normal, but nonetheless leading us to make erroneous connections between events.

The first shall be…

…The Post Hoc Fallacy:

Also called in the Latin, Post hoc ergo propter hoc, (“after this, so because of this”)t has a very simple form, when events follow each other in time:

Y occurred before Z. What comes before causes what follows. So Y must have caused Z.

Examples follow:

I wanted to get revenge on someone, so I danced around my kitchen table, said a few profound-sounding nonsense words, sacrificed one of my gerbils, and a week later this guy I really hate was injured in an accident. The ritual must have worked like it was supposed to!

 

I had the flu, so I took some homeopathic remedy I got at the pharmacy and a few days later my flu went away. Seems to me that the remedy cured my flu.

There is also….

Confusing association with causation:

Also known by the Latin Cum hoc ergo propter hoc (“with this, so because of this”), this fallacy also has a rather basic, though subtly different construction from the previous fallacy:

X is found with Y. Things found together are connected. So X caused Y.

Some examples follow:

I got a really good test score while wearing my propeller beanie, So I think that wearing a propeller beanie improves test scores!

 

My horoscope forecast a rough day for me during the conjunction of Pluto and Jupiter with the center of our galaxy, and it was in fact very stressful and hectic. So the cosmic conjunction must have been responsible for my bad day.

These fallacies have resulted in much in the way of superstition and magical thinking throughout human history, including the present day, forcing upon some the thankless task of social damage-control.

There is, too…

…The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy:

Here one falsely assumes causes in random data patterns, giving them any relationship or meaning one wants to see, often unconsciously, frequently done in some paranormal research with the misuse of statistical methods, like interpreting statistical artifacts and anomalies as scientifically important evidence for the paranormal.

The fallacy takes its name from an imaginary gunman who randomly fires his pistol at the side of a barn while nobody’s looking, and then paints bullseyes around the holes so that he can boast of his skill.

So too, we have…

…The Wrong Direction fallacy:

This one would be claims like:

Tooth cavities cause overeating of sweets and sugary drinks!

 

Some forms of sterility in men cause ionizing radiation exposure!

Next up is…

…The Complex Cause Fallacy:

When one assumes only one out of a set of causes at the cost of the others, inferring causation only partially true, like:

I think that children’s reading ability just comes from getting older…

…when it is actually caused by both that and education as they mature.

The Joint Cause Fallacy:

in which one assumes causation between a set of things, when they are all caused by the same thing. For example:

Children’s math ability comes from their shoe size!

This claim despite the fact that both are caused by the development of children as they physically mature, grow, and learn.

And finally, there’s…

…The Regression Fallacy:

Inferring causes other than the tendency for extremes of chance to wander ever closer to a statistical average. A good example would be a chess-player who has strings of wins and losses in matches but overall comes out average over time, but feeling as if he is winning, or losing, in ‘streaks,’ a belief in the ‘hot hand,’ as it is known in sports superstitions.

Related to this is the Denial of Causation, such as when the fossil fuel industry dismisses anthropogenic global warming, with one among many spurious claims from their advocates being:

The world’s getting hotter each year, but it’s the sun, stupid! Human causation is impossible and presumptuous to even consider!

That despite obvious clear indications of reduced solar activity from observatories over decades. But mentioning that fact makes the discussion quickly devolve into one of silly Evil Conspiracies to Fudge the Data and Hoax the World to Wreck the Economy by Liberal Scientists™ or some such foolishness.

Another:

The HIV virus doesn’t cause AIDS. There’s no connection between HIV in the blood of those with the disease and immune deficiency. AIDS is just caused by lifestyle and/or diet.

Cue rants on Big Pharma Shills™ and conspiracies of evil doctors. Be those as they may, however,

It’s easily possible for any causal thinking to be spurious, but science offers methods to make correct inferences. Important in such arguments is taking into account any conceivable, testable alternative hypotheses that could be implicated in the actual cause of a given event. Untestable hypotheses of course, needn’t be considered as they are scientifically uninteresting. They are worse than wrong, and not even wrong.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

(Last Update: 2017.06.06)