Archive | Friday, 12:26, October 8, 2010

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.


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.