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Dan Ariely: The Honest Truth About Dishonesty — TAM 13

via JamesRandiFoundation

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.

Voltaire — ‘Nuff said.


Peter Atkins: “Science As Truth”

via C0nc0rdance

Certainty, Probability & the Fallibility of Factual Knowledge

Portrait of René Descartes, dubbed the "F...

Portrait of René Descartes, dubbed the “Father of Modern Philosophy”, after Frans Hals c. 1648 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[This entry has been revised, rewritten, and reposted from a prior version. The original meaning is unchanged.]

I’ve often stated my views of knowledge’s fallibility, of it being more or less certain but rarely if ever absolute. I’m not attempting to propound on the ultimate nature of truth, simply noting an observation made by scholars in both philosophy and the sciences: that concerning the failure of the quest for complete certainty as a criterion for knowledge.

This quest has evidently failed, because in the world outside of our heads and logical conceptions, the unexpected cannot be ruled out completely. In my view, this quest was a misguided one, for it presumed that certain truths of the world were to be found.

Pure mathematics and logic render certain truth of a sort, but this is due to the use of conventional axioms and those theorems based around them, axioms allegedly self-evident and true by definition, such as the statement that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

Within Euclidean geometry, this is true and internally consistent. Elliptical and hyperbolic geometries, however, have axioms that are self-consistent but inconsistent with those of the Euclidean model.

A good example is the axiom that the sum of the angles of a triangle can exceed 180 degrees, which is a perfectly accurate way of describing the geometries of bodies with strong gravity wells in General relativity.

The point is that there’s no single mathematical or logical system that alone completely and consistently describes all of reality — such systems are arbitrary constructions but useful when applied to describing what they are designed to describe.

We choose the systems that best fit the task we wish to perform, hence, using different tools made to purpose, each according to its own set of conventions.

Logical certainty is of two sorts: that which involves the validity of a statement, when the truth of its output, or conclusion, follows necessarily from its premises — certainty of a conditional and formal sort even when the content is probabilistic — and certainty in the content of the statement itself, when a statement is strictly defined and determinate in its meaning.

Logical certainty is of a sterile sort, working only within the context of the system. Arguments concerning reality must have some referent to it, and these need premises grounded in observation, experience, or experiment to strengthen the conclusion and justify it as a claim of fact.

Axioms and arguments alone tell us nothing of the world — and this is how logical proofs bereft of real factual content fail to do what they are intended. Ignoring empirical knowledge in one’s arguments, and demanding strict logical proofs for matters of worldly fact is to miss the point, and it is dishonest to argue this way when this is understood.

Psychological certitude, the personal feeling of conviction concerning a claim’s truth, is much too subjective and tells us nothing of whether a statement actually is true beyond mere say-so — an ipse-dixit appeal to authority — all too common in claims of private revelatory experiences, which all have their own rivals in the uncorroborated experiences of others.

As above, we cannot rule out the unexpected, since we are not omniscient — we cannot foresee and control for all possibilities — so we must limit ourselves to those we know of and which come to our attention, through knowing and finding out ourselves or learning of them from others.

Whether indeterminacy of a quantum mechanical sort does or does not spill over into the macroscopic world, that of human experience does seem to be ruled by some degree of randomness, and so our knowledge of it seems restricted to the more or less probable than the certain.

General Relativity

General Relativity (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are both calculable probabilities — those we can assign a numerical value to — and there is our innate sense of the plausible, that being what we can intuitively consider likely or unlikely based on our available stores of prior knowledge.

It’s possible to have an item of knowledge that is so well established through repeated tests and unsuccessful attempts to falsify it that it seems very close to certain. Some findings, like many of the fundamental laws of nature are so well-supported by the data that it would take mountains of even better data to dislodge them. With most, that has yet to happen.

Such ideas, while still supported by the evidence used to test them, are still subject to questioning and new testing by the research community with each new finding made.

Scientific research is a fiercely competitive enterprise, and it is the rivalries within a field of study that work to give science its self-correcting quality — new research workers are always trying to unseat older ideas to make their careers and establish their reputations.

This rivalry keeps science moving and allows it to be more of a process of thought and less of merely a body of knowledge, to discover new things and reliably produce techniques and technologies that will work for everyone who uses them, regardless of personal belief.

I think that, in an ongoing quest for understanding, we must be satisfied with what we can get, not what we merely wish, and not place the bar for real knowledge so high that we cannot possibly reach it.


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