Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Let's get reasonable

In case you haven't come across it, The Skeptic's Dictionary is really interesting, yeah verily a fun site to explore. Sitemeister Robert T. Caroll gives us entries on just about every species of unreason, flummery, wackoness, superstition and woo known to humanity. He also covers the underlying architecture -- logical fallacies, cognitive biases and failures, illusions, hallucinations, and fraud. He also has a lot of introductory material on philosophy, evidence, hypothesis testing -- in other words, the good stuff.

Caroll is also fair and balanced -- which means he is the first to affirm that it isn't simple and straightforward deciding why one idea or conclusion is more rational than another. For example, he writes, "Scientism, in the strong sense, is the self-annihilating view that only scientific claims are meaningful, which is not a scientific claim and hence, if true, not meaningful. Thus, scientism is either false or meaningless." Yep, we can have a hard time arguing with people who say something to the effect that "My way of knowing," be that faith or the visions produced by LSD "is just as valid as yours."

The answer is that the truth isn't a magic bullet that slays error in a single irrefutable epigram. It comes from the accumulation of observations over time that fit together in an ever growing, ever tighter weave of successful explanation, prediction, and understanding. To really be legitimately convinced of something, you do have to do some work and know a lot. None of us, obviously, can master many fields, so we have to know a little about the basics and something about the integrity and quality of the truth-seeking enterprises in those fields.

No, Rush and RFK Jr., scientists are not involved in a giant conspiracy to steal taxpayers money through research grants to study problems they know are bogus. I know that isn't true, that the enterprise is honest and pursues truth for its intrinsic value. I do believe that I actually have more expertise than the vulgar pigboy on climate science, and more expertise than upper class twit RFK Jr. on immunology and neuroscience, but even so, I don't have enough to prove independently that anthropogenic global warming is a fact or thimerosal in vaccines is harmless. But I know enough to trust the overwhelming scientific consensus in both areas.

Our good friend Ana writes, "Scientists themselves, hyper knowledgeable and expert in their own fields, are just as subject to irrational beliefs as everyone else. Also, as they are most often amongst the elite (or serving it directly) they do accept piles of narratives, opinions, facts, principles, for which they have absolutely no evidence at all. So a little humility might be welcome." I agree that humility is welcome but I'm not sure scientists are just as subject to irrational beliefs as everyone else. They are certainly not immune, but they are trained in critical thinking and do have skeptical habits of thought, so I think they're a little less subject than the average person.

Rather than viewing that as elitism, I ask you to view it as a plea to democratize science and its methods and make critical thinking and understanding of scientific method the property of everyone.

1 comment:

modalert said...

Yes! You are right this way is Not a bed of roses.
I am really impressed by your post!