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What Matters Most: Part II


Related to the theme of the previous post in this series, on the value of integrity, a second thing of great importance is a respect for facts and whatever truth that those facts bear out, whether I like it or not. Tying into this and secondary to it is a deference to reality over fantasy, while retaining the ability to enjoy fantasy when honestly presented in the form of good works of fiction and in roleplaying games.

I only become annoyed when fantasy is presented as fact, especially with the implied intent to deceive and insult the intelligence of the deceived. Ideas can be stupid, claims can be silly, absurd, mistaken or fallacious, and actions can be stupid, but it is against my philosophy to consider people to be stupid. That just doesn’t feel right to me, and it angers me sometimes to see charlatans and scam artists treat their marks as though they were idiots.

Some of the smartest people there are, and you yourself may know or know of a few, can be remarkably gullible despite their often considerable intelligence and education. Smarts are no protection from being fooled, as is often shown by some scientists falling for the conjuror’s or mentalist’s tricks of alleged psychics, intuitives and mediums.

Now, when I say facts, I refer to those collections of events, properties or those things that make statements and beliefs about them true, false, or probable to varying degrees. I do not refer to anything set in stone or incontrovertible on the basis of any authority, nothing at all that is fixed and eternal, so as well to the truth that those facts bear out.

My concept of truth is more like those of Carl Sagan or Richard Feynman, not Plato or Rene Descartes…excepting for those formal truths, abstract and only true by definition and convention, of mathematics and formal reasoning. Truths of the world itself are synthetic, not analytic as in deductive logic, and as far as anyone has demonstrated during the entire history of science. They are tentative, provisional, and not absolute or fixed nor discoverable through pure reason alone.

Without data, pure reasoning tells us nothing about the worlds together outside and inside our skulls.

It’s not a simple and false dichotomy of objective versus subjective, but a landscape between these as two extremes with varying and often uneven terrain of perspective. There is a world external to us, and our own mental, internal worlds in the same overarching reality, in which there exist both the facts we observe around us, and those objective facts pertaining to our subjective states.

Not just objectivism or subjectivism, but perspectivism sharing features of both along a continuum.

At least, this seems to me to be the best, simplest, and most economic explanation for our experiences. But let’s try to avoid being naive realists. Our experiences, crucial to how we see the world and upon which we so heavily depend for much of our knowledge, can often fool us if we too easily take what we perceive at face value.

The data we receive about either depends on both our observations and the contributions we make to those observations based on how we construe our sense data, our current mental and physical conditions, our sensory equipment and artifactual instruments, and on our bodily location in spacetime.

It is a fact, for example, that as you read this, you are experiencing yourself looking at the text on the screen of whatever device you are using to access this blog post. I could of course deny that this was the case, but my denial would not be compatible with the objective fact of your experiencing the perception of these words.

This would be true even if you did not know the language this post is written in — you would still perceive the shapes, color, and arrangement of the text, though you might not understand it without translation — or even if you were unfamiliar with whatever my culture happens to be and its customs and mores.

But why include facts, truth in some form, and reality in whatever state in the same discussion at all? Because, despite their being very different things, they are all heavily interconnected and touch on each other rather closely.

Noting that facts are what make claims and beliefs about them true, false, or probable, it’s also important to note that facts themselves are neither true nor false. They either exist, or not.

True and false are verdicts we lend to our claims, and these verdicts are born out, or not, by the facts pertaining to the claims in question. Beliefs and statements of such can be treated as hypotheses, and these hypotheses should have a meaningful, testable outcome if they are to be useful as candidates for knowledge.

It does us no good to have a “heads I win, tails you lose” approach to claims where no matter the outcome there’s no difference to the truth or falsehood of our statements.

This is one reason supernatural explanations are not used in science: they make no meaningful difference at all in their outcome.

Any data we can imagine would be compatible with the work of a supernatural agency, since supernatural entities are by definition unlimited by any natural law or process; we learn nothing about a phenomenon by labelling our ignorance God, or invisible pink unicorns, or leprechauns.

Such “explanations” are untestable and uninforming.

So as a guy with a well-known scientific bias, I reject supernatural explanations as useless, though I support looking into supernatural claims as there is most likely something interesting going on with them, provided there is data available for the seeking.

We must distinguish between supernatural explanations and claims; the former is useless and tells us nothing new, the latter is interesting and can sometimes tell us quite a bit, however ordinary the explanation turns out to be — as long as there is enough data to reach a verdict.

Sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes there’s not enough information to come to a conclusion, but that does not give us a license to throw up our hands in despair and call it inexplicable; it is merely currently unexplained, and future data may alter that.

I tend to accept a scientific consensus, but let’s be careful to distinguish it from a political one.

The former is based upon a convergence of data in multiple fields of study, often thousands or millions of lines of information, all pointing to the most likely conclusion given the current state of those lines of data, all converging on the same answer; a scientific consensus is not reached by a vote, or a poll survey, nor by an electoral process or popularity contest, and is not dependent on the political ideologies of those contributing the data.

Not so for a political consensus, and politics can often be used to subvert the process of science, though this subversion comes from outside of science, from politicians themselves, as was the case in the former Soviet Union with the work of Trofim Lysenko.

He was a friend of Josef Stalin’s whose policies were a disaster for Soviet biology and agriculture, setting both back decades and arguably resulting in the deaths of millions through starvation.

In short: A scientific consensus is a recognition of reality, and it can only be shown mistaken by the same process of science that gave rise to it with better data; it is based on facts as they are understood at the time; I’m perfectly able to see it as flawed, as long as it’s scientists, and not partisan politicians with a vested interest in keeping themselves in office, who attempt to show it wrong.

And if they do, then good on them!

It’s my view that if you have to use political thinking to debunk science, you don’t understand science, and it shows. This is why I don’t take conspiracy theories of evil leftist scientists hoaxing the public about climate change seriously, as they are remarkably fact-free and devoid of any valid evidence, with most of that alleged for the conspiracy being fabricated, misrepresented, or taken grossly out of context, as with the emails in Climategates I and II.

Ho hum.

Facts change over time, the truth born out by them changes accordingly, and both facts and truth, however transistory and however tentative, need a reality of some form both external and internal to the would-be believer of a truth to have any meaning at all.

A respect for facts underlies the need for integrity, and for some, there is the toughmindedness needed to accept what the facts say no matter what, even where the desire to surrender to our illusions is strong.

However spotty I may be in living up to this, it is to me something very much worth striving for, and something crucial to how I see the world and our place in it.

Still, to me, it’s one of many things worth living for here, in this world, here, in this life.

There’ll not likely be another.

Pure Reason…


I wish I knew who to attribute the above quote to.

Pure reason gets us nowhere without input to process, and input without processing is useless, a “blooming, buzzing confusion,” that requires we make sense of it to do anything with it.

We must depend for most of our learning on input of some sort, and a means of processing that input reliably and effectively. Reason, thinking our way from premises to conclusion, must work together with sense data, both firsthand and secondhand to do it’s work.

Over at Left Hemispheres, Steve wrote a good piece on religious logic, how it can be and often is internally consistent, but how it’s the premises, not the logic which are often at fault.

The problem for much of the reasoning I encounter is that the premises used in arguments often presume facts simply not in evidence, so no matter how valid the logic, the argument doesn’t even get onto the proverbial airfield, much less actually fly.

I notice this a lot in pseudo-scientific arguments, or religious apologetics, on those occasions when the speaker is actually minding the quality of his reasoning, only to use as premises assumptions and factoids that are just not the case or even if true, don’t support his or her position.

…After all, arguing from false premises even when sincere is still deceptive when simple ignorance is not at play, as the deception is carried out on both oneself and others, and using falsehoods on purpose is willfully dishonest and deserves to be called out.

Actually, all should be called out, error and willful or pious fraud.

When sound argument, not just valid argument is the goal, facts matter…

…and they’d better be demonstrable, too.

“Who Gives a Crap About Precision?”


Animation of the structure of a section of DNA...

Image via Wikipedia

I’m listening to a series of six lectures on critical reasoning by Marianne Talbot, another lecture series titled ‘Tools of Thinking’ by James Hall, and am also enjoying ‘The Believing Brain,’ by Michael Shermer, a signed copy, BTW — Thanks Mike — and from these and elsewhere I got a few really good ideas on the need to be precise and clear in our language to be precise and clear in our thinking.

I thought I would post them here.

“But shouldn’t we just say whatever we want to, when we want, however we want to, and things will be just dandy? Why be so clinically exact in our speech and writing? Isn’t precise language just for ivory-tower elitists, pedants, and posing pseudo-intellectuals like you?”

Well, not quite.

We should indeed be free to say what, when, and in what way, we want to, much of the time in our daily lives, but language in everyday use is often laden with implied meaning in the words and phrases we use, and thus often subject to confusion when what we say in an ordinary context is often subject to being taken the wrong way, even the opposite of what we intend to mean when we say it.

Language is rarely neutral, and many words have different usages and meanings that often conflict; there are consequences from using our linguistic tools too carelessly, too loosely.

There are good reasons why anyone interested in discussing certain topics or engaging in a reasoned argument needs to know and choose their words carefully, if for nothing else to avoid looking foolish, and secondly, to reduce the chances of what they say being misinterpreted, for straw-persons lie in wait to pounce on the unwary arguer.

Further…

An impoverished vocabulary and/or syntax in verbal language or maths leads to equally impoverished thought, since the languages we know define the scope and richness of what we think about and how we think about it.

Fuzzy and imprecise language leads to fuzzy thinking, and this leads to unreliable reasoning and questionable decision-making, in any area of life, not just academic circles.

I think we can all benefit from better use of our language, especially yours truly.

This is why so many fields of study use specialized terminology different and more exact in meaning and use than that used in everyday speech. In academia, success often depends on how clear we make ourselves, and how you say it is at least as important as what you say…

For instance, in philosophy, and matters of critical thinking, there are important distinctions to make between beliefs, statements of belief, facts, and what we can truly call knowledge.

These are commonly confused and do not at all mean the same things, not in a technical sense…

Beliefs…

Beliefs are those expectations we hold about reality, both inside and outside of ourselves, those things we hold to be true, and these are sometimes also known as opinions, for after all, we don’t generally hold opinions that we don’t think to be true at the time they’re ours.

“But my beliefs are sacred, precious, because they’re meaningful to me! If I hold them to be true, then by the strength of my own conviction they must be! Leave them alone! When you attack my beliefs you attack the very foundation of my being!”

*Ahem*

Well, belief may move mountains, but only when it motivates us to effective actions, those that have some possibility of success.

Belief does not literally make reality, since despite our fantasies and wishes, there really are things that are truly impossible, and the universe really does impose limits on us all, as our everyday experience plainly shows, with days and nights often full of unfulfilled desires, disappointed hopes and unsuccessful endeavors.

If these last are argued to be due to our beliefs directly controlling reality, they speak very poorly for the beneficence of that philosophy being true, and of the positive qualities and moral worth of those beliefs.

For my part, a universe where things don’t need us to think about them to be so is much more believable, and the default unconscious assumption behind all of our useful actions in the world, even when this is intellectually disputed by those so acting.

Also…

Even if everyone in the universe believed the Flying Spaghetti Monster to be necessarily real, the universe would still give the thumbs-down response and simply fail to make his Noodleness exist, despite any of our wants and needs, and our species’ clear tendencies for wishful thinking.

In order to be true, a belief or belief system must conform to some degree to how things really are, not to whatever comforts and pleases us.

Claims that do not are simply not supported by the way the world evidently appears to work, any resulting attempted actions doomed to failure.

My sincerest apologies on that…

And further, our beliefs at any one time are not really central to our being, core to our essences, despite assertions by believers. Over time, we don’t staunchly keep to our beliefs, but instead exchange them for others we pick up throughout our lives. I do not know of anyone, in my experience, who holds exactly the same views, holds true the exact same claims, and no others, as they did decades ago.

Peeps change, we grow over time. To never change one’s beliefs over the years, if it truly happened, would only indicate complete inability to cognitively interact with the world, to think, to absorb new information, and to learn throughout one’s life from birth to death.

Our views are malleable, not set in titanium. After all, literal and strict consistency among the living realistically doesn’t happen, despite what we often believe about what we believe. General reliability is more common by far, especially with the people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing.

Statements of Belief…

Statements of belief are simply assertions of our opinions, our positions, and these assertions, like the claims they express, may be true or otherwise. Arguments are made when these assertions are developed with reasons and defended by us, sometimes well, and at times not so well.

For my part, there’s plenty of room for improvement.

Facts…

Facts in and of themselves can’t technically be true or false; facts either exist (which is not the same as being true) or they do not (which does not mean false).

Note that facts don’t depend on anyone believing or even knowing about them.

This is why I find websites that overuse the term “true facts” amusing, and sites that often refer to “real facts” guilty of redundant overstatement and of being defensive, full of it, or most often just full of themselves. For if a fact is real, why do you need to overstate it? If you claim that something is a fact, it’s already assumed to exist by implication.

“But isn’t it too dogmatic to call something a fact without being able to prove it is absolutely, to everyone’s satisfaction, with complete certainty, when it’s really debatable, and especially debatable if it disagrees with my views?”

Well, no.

Facts are facts, and the only thing that’s ever really debatable about them is not their existence once that’s demonstrated by a reliable body of evidence, but the establishment of the truth that they bear out, not the facts themselves which you can either accept or not, and which in and of themselves don’t really give a rat’s backside if they’re rejected.

The existence or nonexistence of a given fact or set of them, once found, noted, and/or recognized as such, is one of those few areas of life where there is no middle ground, no third option, no tertium quid.

Sometimes, establishing the truth or falsehood of a claim gets complicated.

When a claim asserts multiple facts, and some of these facts exist while others do not, or the existence of all of the individual facts has yet to be established, or there are multiple possible truth values involved, it can be a little harder to assess that truth.

In some systems of reasoning, the truth value of such assertions may not use a two-valued Aristotelian system of right or wrong, correct or incorrect, true or false, as finite, discrete things with absolute values.

Case in point: search Fuzzy Logic as an example of this, or look up the logic systems used in DNA & quantum computing. It’s also the case in informal reasoning, in which truth is based on probabilities, like in the sciences, rather than formal reasoning, as per the binary logic used in most current computer systems.

Knowledge…

“Aren’t there ways of knowing just as valid as your personal favorite, science? Aren’t they all equally reliable, just as useful and effective? Isn’t it arrogant for science to say it knows it all?”

Well, science knows and admits it doesn’t have all the answers, and probably never will, not absolutely, or it would stop being science as a way of asking questions and finding answers, these leading to yet more questions, and would be nothing more than a body of static facts, which it most definitely is not.

For the record, there are indeed other ways of knowing besides just the sciences and mathematics…

A few examples present their way to my scrutiny as I type this in, and all of them involve some application of reason, observation, and other crucial tools of thinking, including but not limited to association, experimentation, hypothesis invention, and pattern discernment & recognition:

There is much of detective and police work, many areas of philosophy, the proceedings of trials or cases in courts of law, evidence-based medicine, engineering, journalism when it’s well-done, historical research, among others, all using fundamentally similar empirical research methods diverging in emphasis on the tools used according to the needs of the discipline.

All of them have consistently outperformed in reliability and usefulness such alleged ways of knowing as pure intuition, visions, transports, mystical revelation, extrasensory perception, and faith in the religious sense.

The reason for this is that those methods of inquiry using empirical methods have built-in means to distinguish the real ideas from fantasy, to tell the imaginative, truly innovative and useful ideas apart from those that are only imaginary.

They have built-in ways of telling themselves, “Dude, you really messed up. This just won’t work. Here’s where you went wrong, so let me suggest how to fix it…”

Also, we can have knowledge concerning objective facts about subjective states…

If you inform me that you thought or felt or perceived a certain thing, as opposed to some other thing, and I have reason to believe you’re being honest with me and yourself, then it is very likely an objective fact that you thought, felt or perceived that thing, even if no obvious external basis for the perception is apparent to me.

(You may have noticed something external I wasn’t paying attention to, or remembered a particularly vivid dream you’ve had).

No matter how much I may try to dispute it, your statement is NOT true for you but false for me, since you have exclusive, privileged access to the inner world of your own mind, and most of the time, similar access to the world of your own bodily perceptions.

Your report of your internal states is thus true no matter the views and claims of others, and likewise, any such reports I make on my sensations and thoughts, assuming again that I’m being honest and fully aware, reflect facts about you, and myself, that actually exist or have existed at some point as some sort of prior experience.

Our beliefs and the personal truths we draw from them are not by themselves knowledge, and knowledge is not just belief, much less merely unfounded opinion or conjecture.

A belief or opinion can count as knowledge only when its truth is born out by the facts at hand and a means of awareness of these facts is available through some sort of input, most often sensory or through second-hand data that we read or hear, and often they are mediated by the tools we create with our minds and hands, such as computers, instruments, our languages, and even simple pen and paper, all of these depending on us to exist and be used to more effectively carry out our reasoning.

Hopefully, I’ve managed to make my point without committing too much in the way of fallacies. That would truly be a Good Thing™, unlike pseudoscience, or course…

You Can’t Trust Science!


My thanks for this go out to Ken P. of the blog Open Parachute, and the Guardian. This is bound to ruffle a few feathers. Not for the ideologically thin-skinned…

Conceptual Possibility, Empowerment, & Interpretation of Data


One thing I frequently hear from opponents of science is the claim that “Western,” “Orthodox,” “Revisionist,” or “Materialist” science is too constrained conceptually by adherence to the idea of natural laws, in particular such things as the conservation laws and the speed of light limit c of physics, and of course, the need for such extraneous things as precision, measurement, reasoning and evidence to test claims put to it, even the requirement that claims must be tested by something more than personal prejudices and blind acceptance.

These folks repeatedly assert that since modern science is too restrictive (in ways that they find disagreeable) in what can be considered to be possible, that therefore their brand of mysticism is not so limited, that it offers an allegedly truer picture of the universe which empowers anyone who is open to it by way of a greater concept of possibility, allowing the soul to soar freely, all of us potentially godlike if we want it enough.

But I think that that’s just not the case.

A frequent component of pseudoscientific belief is a rejection, even an outright denial, or at least a suspicion for contradictory data and methods, anything that does not (to proponents) seem to support the claims of choice.

This includes, for example, biological and cosmic evolution for creationists, psychiatry for the Cult That Shall Not Be Named, Astronomy for followers of the electric universe idea, the Laws of Thermodynamics for free-energy machine proponents, evidence-based medicine and “Big Pharma”-funded research for alt-med advocates, planetary geosciences for flat-earthers, and climatology for global warming contrarians.

…The list goes on…

There is, of course, quite a bit of cherry-picking of what to accept and what to reject, based on ideology rather than logic and evidence, even to the point of hijacking legitimate data and spuriously interpreting it or force-fitting it to one’s favorite doctrine.

After all, one of the hallmarks of pseudoscience is the use of logical fallacies to support the claims of proponents, for if their reasoning was sound, and their claims were truly supported by facts, then they would be doing actual science and not it’s antithesis as is the case.

This rejection of not just the findings of science, but also the process of it, often results from an inability to imagine, accept, or wrap one’s mind around the often difficult ideas and seemingly implausible findings of the scientific enterprise, particularly when strongly held subjective beliefs as well as personal intuitions and understanding are incompatible with them, a common logical fallacy known as the argument from incredulity.

This is the tendency of otherwise perfectly intelligent and otherwise reasonable people to reject any claim they can’t personally believe, or that seems ridiculous or strange, rather than really looking at and examining the evidence in favor of these often odd but generally well-supported ideas.

These unfortunates have my condolences, for they’re missing out on a lot of cool, genuinely empowering, and to me an almost spiritually uplifting understanding of the World.

I’ve said it before elsewhere: Knowledge is power, and good scientific literacy empowers you not only with knowledge, but smart thinking and reasoning skills that inoculate you from being easily taken by clever scam artists and charlatans.

Which leads up to this point:

In rejecting a real grasp of how the world works, on the basis that one personally believes the claims involved to be impossible, fringe-advocates are doing exactly what they claim of science, restricting their followers’ concept of possibility, and in so doing robbing them of empowerment in exchange for wishful thinking and false hope…or false fear.

They are restricting in their own minds, and those of their adherents, a perspective on the universe that they don’t want to understand, that to them, and them only “doesn’t make sense,” or things that they find “unimaginable, and therefore something that can’t possibly be true.”

Rather ironic, I think. Then again, antiscience proponents are not well-known for concern about consistency in their reasoning or any care for avoiding epistemological double-standards.

But who is most likely to be right? And who is most likely to be wrong? I use science or court procedures as my criteria. There’s this annoying little thing called data, or evidence, in both science and in courts of law, though the standards between them differ concerning what sort or amount is regarded as acceptable or sufficient, not just necessary, to establish a given claim as likely to be true or false.

You can interpret the data for a claim any which way you desire, but interpretations that do not conform to facts, especially those known a priori, are simply without a leg to stand on, and this applies not just to facts about a particular claim, but also arguments based on other, well-established, facts dealing with the same sort of phenomenon.

For example, one young-Earth creationist argument I’ve heard at times is that evolutionists mistakenly think that radiometric dating is reliable because, the claimant says, the rate of radioisotope decay was greater within the last 10,000 years, fooling all of those misguided evolutionists into the delusion that life, and the Earth, are billions of years old, not merely thousands as adding up the “begats” in the chronology of Genesis plainly states.

*Giggle*

There are a trio of problems with this interpretation of the results of radiometric dating. Three very glaring reasons that it is simply not borne out by any evidence or sound reasoning present themselves to my scrutiny.

First, the logical issue.

This argument assumes a violation of parsimony as well as an ad hoc hypothesis, a logical fallacy called special pleading. Why? Simply put, this argument assumes an extraneous detail, a hypothesis that has no predictive power of it’s own apart from the claim it’s meant to support, the thesis of a 10,000 year old Earth. This adds an element to the claim that makes it more complex than it needs to be to explain the data, further, an element that is not testable independently of the thesis, and therefore is just extra baggage. Violation of Occam’s razor — Fail #1

Second, the factual issue.

This claim is not upheld by any data. While it might be possible for physical laws and constants, such as those governing radioactive decay, to vary over cosmological timescales, we have made no observations of the universe to date that support this idea, much less the same thing happening over only thousands of years. Lack of experimental or observational evidence — Fail #2

Finally, there is the fact that young-Earth creationism presumes that life was created in its present form. This has a factual problem intertwined with a logical one.

This means that since currently known forms of complex life, such as mammals, like humans, are highly vulnerable to intense radiation exposure, if the rate of radioactive decay was much greater only thousands of years ago, the decay would be so incredibly rapid that the ‘created kinds’ would have been lethally irradiated shortly after the six 24-hour days of creation, resulting today in a burned-out, lifeless planet. Evidential & logical disconfirmation — Fail #3 — Strike, you’re out!

This last is telling.

Were it true, I would not be posting this on the blog you’re reading, for no humans would be alive today to build the computer I’m typing this entry on, nor the server that hosts this blog, and you, dear reader, would not be here to read it.

So not all claims are equal in truth content, and not all ways of knowing equally useful concerning facts about the world, nor are all the assumptions they carry equally valid. Some are simply wrong, and there are ways to test them to find out that work very well indeed, more so than just uncritical acceptance, for to paraphrase Carl Sagan, If all ideas are equally valid, then none have any validity whatsoever.

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