The Scientist’s Absurdity Detection Kit
1.It’s about a posteriori (observation) and not a priori (theoretical) evidence. We don’t learn much from mere contemplation. In the classical Greco-Roman world, doing experiments was done by thinking because manual labor was deemed the work of peasants. Thus, people didn’t conduct experiments. However, today, the reliance on carefully designed and controlled experiments, where we test nature is key. Wherever possible, scientists experiment. Experiment doesn’t mean you wait for nature to do something. It means you go in and manipulate. You change something systematically and compare it with a control. It is only experimental manipulation that can determine whether an observed correlation truly indicates causation. A posteriori evidences are real, un-fabricated, unambiguous, hard physical evidence. Such as fingerprints, DNA, powder burns, and studies. “Eye-witness” testimonies and “actual” observation can be mistaken
We view the world with sense organs and nervous systems that are equipped to perceive and understand only a small middle range of sizes, moving at a middle range of speeds. We are at home with objects ranging in size from a few kilometers (the view from a mountaintop) to about a tenth of a millimeter (the point of a pin). Outside this range even our imagination is handicapped, and we need the help of instruments and of mathematics. Evolution has not equipped us with sense organ to make objective opinions, but only to survive. Our eyes see the world through a narrow slit in the electromagnetic spectrum. This makes us hopelessly unreliable. It is exactly this unreliability among observers that magicians exploit with their techniques of deliberate distraction.
2.Use of a control. We need a control to see if our hypothesis is better than just belief. Placebos, like dummy pills, can be astonishingly effective, especially for colds, anxiety, depression, pain and symptoms that are plausibly generated by the mind. A placebo works only if the patient believes it’s an effective cure. Within strict limits it seems hope can be transformed into biochemistry. If there was no control using either a placebo or the previous medicine, the study was not done properly and it’s conclusions are suspect.
3.Independent confirmation of facts. This is the most important. A posteriori evidence must be from more than one independent third party. It must come or be confirmed by others (peers). We’re not looking for anecdotal evidence, that’s just a glorified opinion.
4.Think of all the different ways it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might disprove each of the alternatives.
6.Quantify what is vague. Qualification is open to many explanations. We must quantify our arguments.
7.Debate. Open and vigorous debate is often the only protection. One of the most important things to teach in the educational establishments of a democracy is the power of weighing arguments, to set out our thinking in building blocks and to argue with hard data, not anecdotal evidence. In this way we improved on older theories and expanded our understanding of the world.
The cure for a fallacious argument is a better argument, not the suppression of ideas. This can only be accomplished through open debate. Opinions should be formed by unrestricted debate, not by allowing only one side to be heard. Tyrannical governments, both ancient and modern, have taken the latter view. The sedition act in 1917 tried to do this by making criticism of the Federalists a crime. As John Stuart Mill said, “Silencing an opinion is a peculiar evil.” No man can pass as educated who has heard only one side of the argument. Diversity of opinion among preceptors is essential to any sound education. The persecution of unpopular wisdom is a very grave danger to any country. As soon as a censorship is imposed upon the opinions which educators may avow, education ceases to serve it’s purpose and tends to produce, instead of a nation of men, a herd of fanatical bigots. Indeed, we must let those that we disagree with practice their freedom of speech, even if it goes against our ideas. Knowing only our own side of the argument is hardly knowing even that. Thomas Jefferson said, “If a nation expects to be both ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” He asserts that we can’t be ignorant and free, we can only be intelligent and free. And intelligence can only be brought out by unrestricted debate. Let it be remembered, what is at stake here is our freedom to express our beliefs and hopes for mankind, whether they be shared by many or by few or none. Also, that new hopes, new beliefs, and new thoughts are necessary to mankind, and it is not out of uniformity that they can be expected to arise.
It is useless to have rights if they’re not used; the right of free speech when no one contradicts the government, freedom of the press when no one is willing to ask the tough questions, a right of assembly when there are no protests, universal suffrage when less than half the electorate votes, separation of church and state when the wall of separation is not regularly repaired. The old rule of thumb applies, use ’em or lose ’em. Through disuse, these rights and freedoms can become lip-service or virtues with no meaning. “A society that will trade a little liberty for a little order will later both deserve neither.” said Jefferson. We must not give up our liberty to voice our opinion just so the country can be a little more orderly. Skepticism challenges established institutions. The openness of science and democracy, their willingness to be judged, are closely allied ways of thinking. “The scientific way is the democratic way.” said Watson Davis.
Finding the occasional diamond of truth in the chaos requires vigilance, dedication and courage. However, if we don’t practice these laborious habits, we cannot hope to solve the serious problems that face humanity and we risk becoming a planet of suckers, up for grabs by the next charlatan. As Carl Sagan once said, “Science…is an absolute essential tool for any society with a hope of surviving well into the next century.” Being freed from superstition isn’t enough for science to grow. Science requires us to be freed of all superstition and injustice. What science does for us is widen the narrow slit of the burka. It completely opens up the imprisoning black garment, exposing our senses to the exhilarating freedom. Many pseudo-scientific and new age belief system emerge out of dissatisfaction with conventional values and perspectives and are themselves a kind of skepticism. The same is true of the origins of most religions. Religion does not put itself through these rigorous ordeals, which is exactly why it can’t claim to be true.
If you’re only skeptical, then no new ideas will come to you. You never learn anything. On the other hand, uncritically accepting every proffered notion, idea or hypothesis is tantamount to knowing nothing. No one can be entirely open or completely skeptical. We all must draw the line somewhere. However, it is better to be too skeptical than too credulous. Doubt is a tool, not an end in itself. As Rene Descartes said, “I did not imitate the skeptics who doubt only for doubting sake, and pretend to be always undecided; on the contrary, my whole intention was to arrive at a certainty, and to dig away the drift and the sand until I reached the rock or the clay beneath. Skeptical thinking and an aptitude for wonder are for more important than specific academic subjects.
It is very fitting here to end with Dawkins’s 10 commandments, as you will see. They are:
“Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice, but always be ready to forgive wrongdoing freely admitted and honestly regretted. Live life with a sense of joy and wonder. Always seek to be learning something new. Test all things; always check your ideas against the facts, and be ready to discard even a cherished belief if it does not conform to them. Never seek to censor or cut yourself off from dissent; always respect the right of others to disagree with you. Form independent opinions on the basis of your own reason and experience; do not allow yourself to be led blindly by others. Question everything. Always devise your rules as if you didn’t know whether you were going be at the top or the bottom of the pecking order.’ An alleged Inuit system for sharing out food is a practical example of the Rawls principle: the individual who cuts up the food gets last pick. Do not discriminate or oppress on the basis of sex, race or (as far as possible) species. Do not indoctrinate your children. Teach them how to think for themselves, how to evaluate evidence, and how to disagree with you. Value the future on a timescale longer than your own.”
To your success,