Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Chronosynclastic Infundibulum

As Vonnegut fans know, that's an anomaly in space-time where every possible belief is true, more or less. Or more accurately, where there are infinitely many ways to be absolutely right about everything. It's somewhat like post-modernism, or the 2016 presidential campaign.

My greatest philosophical conundrum is that I want to be respectful of democracy and to promote open discourse and dialogue; but you know, there are just some things that are true that I am right about and some people are flat wrong about. But how do I know this when the people who are wrong also know that they are right?

You most likely heard about Robert DeNiro back-dooring the Andrew Wakefield fraudumentary "Vaxxed" into the Tribeca Film Festival, only to reverse the decision after an organized outcry from the scientific community. (I've covered the issue here extensively but not for a while. Wakefield was a British physician, now de-licensed, who published a fraudulent study in The Lancet claiming evidence that the measles vaccine causes autism. He's disgraced, the paper retracted, and immense overwhelming evidence shows that it just isn't true, but Wakefield still has a small army of believers.)

So, of course, reporteth The Guardian:

By Monday, conspiracy theorist websites were portraying the decision to pull Vaxxed as an act of censorship perpetuated by the “vaccine mafia”. Wakefield and the film’s producer Del Bigtree put out a statement saying: “We have just witnessed yet another example of the power of corporate interests censoring free speech, art, and truth.” 
Now here's the problem. Corporate interests do have a big influence on what ideas and facts make it into the corporate media; and they have succeeded for long periods in concealing the truth from the people -- about lead, tobacco, climate change, and other important issues. How do I know if I'm being duped?

Well, in some areas I'm enough of an expert that I can read the scientific literature critically. I know enough about epidemiology that I can do that in the case of vaccine safety, and I have. There is a describable process of inference that has been applied to this question and there is an answer that satisfies everybody who understands how to read the literature critically. I can see the motivated reasoning and/or ignorance on the part of the anti-vaxxers.

In other fields, however, I do have to put more faith in the expertise of others. I've read enough about climate change to be convinced,  and honestly, I approached the question skeptically. But I haven't actually evaluated the models used to make predictions. I'm not competent to do so. I do know, however, that the proposition of a conspiracy involving thousands of scientists, hundreds of research institutions, and most of the world's governments, to promote this as a falsehood, is preposterous. I have to go with the maximum likelihood solution.

So no, you can't verify every question for yourself, but you do need to have a smart idea about which institutions to trust.

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