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Daily Archives: January 29th, 2012
Skepticism is hard work, and being a skeptic 24/7 is no bed of roses. This is because skepticism requires more effort than leaping to a quick shortcut by invoking the paranormal instead of conventional explanations for seemingly weird events.
It’s easy to believe in the supernatural, since it suffuses almost all cultures and is often uncritically promoted and reinforced by the media outlets we watch, listen to, and unfortunately, unthinkingly trust to reliably inform us on matters of fact.
It’s no stretch to say that claims of the supernatural are heavily advocated through childhood indoctrination by the world’s religious institutions, especially those with theistic doctrines, and most of those without as well.
Because of the ubiquity of such claims, drilled into many of us as we grow up, and because of the perfectly normal functioning of our magnificent brains, we find it a simple matter to use whatever first comes to mind when strange things happen, and dismiss all other alternatives as unnecessary or too complex, or too time-consuming, or perhaps as too counter-intuitive.
But reality IS complex, AND counter-intuitive, so understanding it more accurately takes time not all of us have, and more effort than we often find convenient.
That’s the availability heuristic at work, a particular rule of thumb our brains use, a, otherwise reliable shortcut for drawing inferences about our experiences, using what data is most easily at hand in our storehouses of knowledge and can be most easily recalled.
We are, even the smartest of us, cognitive misers if we aren’t careful.
During seemingly odd happenings this cognitive miserliness can lead us astray. Seriously astray, and sometimes dangerously so, when ignoring the possibility of a better explanation in favor of what we want to believe can get us poorer in the purse, sicker, injured, or killed.
Conventional explanations are different.
Few where supernatural beliefs are commonly held as part of the culture are well-acquainted with them, save the scientifically literate, and even they must take care in applying possible explanations and weighing them against each other and the world.
To those ordinarily accustomed to resorting to paranormal explanations, figuring out conventional explanations without having them at the front of one’s mind requires the skilled use of a remarkable trait humans possess: our imaginations, a trait often claimed by believers as exclusive to them.
It doesn’t necessarily require delusional mental illness or clueless gullibility to be fooled by strangeness and the lack of an immediate explanation, otherwise professional conjurors would have been out of a job long ago.
That’s why heuristics can be at once so useful, but when we are out of our depth so deceptive.
An active imagination is essential in explaining the world, especially in science, since one must spin as many different hypotheses as one can, compare them for testability, and then weigh them against that most harsh of taskmasters, reality, whether by experiment, observational comparison, or data convergence from many different fields all leading to the same conclusion.
And any idea that fails these tests should rightly be rejected, not considered ‘alternative knowledge.’
Science is the stasis, the fulcrum-point where imagination and skepticism meet: with skepticism used to winnow the golden ideas from the bullsh*t, the good ideas from the bad generated first by imagination, since most ideas conceived are ultimately unworkable.
Science is a method, not a position. Okay, I can grant that.
It is, however, a method for reaching a position, a tentative one, on the nature of reality.
There is a way things really are, and over time, scientific inquiry and similar approaches can get us closer to a serious understanding of those things.
Show me a better set of methods, and I’ll happily switch to that instead, hands down.