Why I get my science from scientists and not #FauxNews…

I feel up to blogging for this morning, and during this day and the next I’ll be reading up on SF approaches to zero-point energy production for a friend of mine, which should be fun.

*waves at @Ravenpenny*

Especially important in looking into zero-point energy is avoiding any use of blatant pseudoscience from so called “free energy” machine sellers…

Rubber science is acceptable within the context of fiction, implausible technological quackery is NOT!

So far, I’ve got two reference pages out of five candidates in separate browser tags. The other three candidate pages are all crank sites, with obvious red flags. I won’t sully my reputation, such as that is as a relative no-name in the skeptical community, by using those last as sources.

This raises a question…

Out of the arguments of both proponents and critics of any claim, how do I decide which claimant is more credible?

There are a set of steps I use that make for a useful start of any inquiry, and I’ll put these into three groups of related questions:

  • First: Which side in a given controversy, genuine or manufactroversy, commits the fewest logical fallacies? Which side has the most valid or cogent arguments and makes the fewest errors in reasoning? Once these are compared and an answer obtained, I then choose the side with the best arguments and go to step two. Remember though, to take care to see fallacious arguments that are actually there, and not the result of wishful seeing. And so…
  • Secondly: Which side has the better factual support for their claims. Do their respective claims add up under adequate fact-checking using reliable sources? Do credible sources support or reject the claims made? Which sources have the better track-record and reputation as a valid and reliable? Next…
  • Thirdly: Related to the second, but worth it’s own step: Which factual statements, when checked, even if and when true, are actually relevant to the claims and counterclaims made? Does the alleged factual support of a given claim actually have anything to do with it?

These three points are a basic rundown of the steps I use.

Answering these questions on science and science-relevant news are one reason I tend to support climate scientists over so-called climate sceptics, and professional biologists over the various species of creationists found online and in religion and politics.

They are the reason that I tend to give more credence to the statements of astronomers than I do astrologers, Physicists and psychologists more than psychic claimants, chemists over alchemists, and neuroscientists over phrenologists.

These questions are the reasons I don’t get my science from clergymen, religious apologists, allegedly fair and balanced media outlets, politicians or radio talk-show propagandists.

Those are not what I would call credible sources.

I get my science from scientists, and science-writers with a real background in the field, thank you, not preachers, partisan bloggers, or people who loudly decry government and taxation while also running for public office so they can get paid a rather handsome salary, with kickbacks and bribes paid by lobbyists, otherwise funded by my taxes.

Sunday Evening Commentarium for 2013/06/09

The ligne is still used by French and Swiss wa...

The ligne is still used by French and Swiss watchmakers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

G’day. I’m engaged in a little project right now on the various forms of creationism, including intelligent design creationism, and while reading up on the latter, I couldn’t help but notice how intellectually bereft it is, even though it’s got a nice shiny coat of sciencey-sounding language to dress it up.

For example, there’s meaningless jargon like ‘irreducible complexity’ and ‘specified complexity’ terms used by ID proponents to disquise arguments from ignorance, more candidly expressed as, “I don’t understand how the complexity of life could have come about by natural processes, therefore no one can, therefore ID.”

The idea of ID is that whatever we don’t currently understand about the origin and diversity of life, it’s impossible to understand at all, so that we may as well not even ask the question, much less look for answers.

It implies that ID proponents are somehow wiser than those closed-minded Darwinian theorists and know the future state of knowledge better than anyone else.

It implies impossibly certain knowledge of what we can ultimately understand for all time — and this strikes me as an incredibly arrogant and presumptuous line of thinking, especially by non-scientists and would be so even if they were somehow scientists.

ID teaches those who accept it to fatalistically give up any form of meaningful inquiry, not just in biology, but in every field of science, for the basic premise of ID, that the mysteries of the universe are forever unsolvable, would cripple scientific work.

To paraphrase the character of a friend of mine in a Call of Cthulhu many years ago, it seems  “cowardice in the face of Reason.”

I consider it a surrender to ignorance, a failure of intellectual nerve. I find it to essentially say, “Science isn’t as easy as just invoking a god to fill that gap in our current knowledge, so let’s just give up on it.”

My view is that it is the latest misguided attempt by perfectly intelligent, educated people to justify their religious views in a modern world, and though the marketing campaign for ID has claimed the fight with Evolution is about fairness and ‘teaching the controversy,’ it’s really not…

…but a politicized conflict between science and antiscience.

Nothing more, no matter how slick the packaging and presentation to the public is.

Sunday Evening Commentarium is a regular installment posted at 6:00 PM Eastern Time each Sunday, on a question or matter bringing itself to my attention during the previous week.

The Pure Majesty of Reality

Mission: Earth, Voyage to the Home Planet

Mission: Earth, Voyage to the Home Planet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Life, the universe, and yes, everything, has an astounding majesty readily apparent to the perceptive and tough-minded observer, this majesty being more apparent still to the scientifically literate.

Well, my toughness of mind is often not what I would wish, and my observational skills frequently lacking, but the contributions I bring to the table, with what little science-literacy I have, give me a picture of the world that in spite of its tragedies transfixes me in an awe bordering on terror, and sometimes almost brings tears to my eyes, as when noting the interplay of physical forces in my surroundings when walking on the beach or when looking at the stars at night through a telescope.

The things I see, hidden from mundane sight, yet seen with the mind’s eye through science, bring to mind the phrase much loved of some believers, “none are so blind as he who will not see,” but ironically this cuts both ways, and a good rejoinder to this would be “and none are so blinkered as he who sees what is not truly there to be seen.”

But the things I see with the mind’s eye are even better than the imaginary things seen through wishful thinking, for the things of science are real, and knowably so, for these things, as impossible as they are for mere human senses to make out — atoms; microbes; the molecule of heredity, DNA; the neurotransmitters being exchanged across the synapses of my brain as I type this; black holes; dark matter; dark energy; as familiar but invisible as gravity itself; the vast 100 billion galaxy universe beyond the range of the naked eye — these things are all tied to us in more profound ways than those promised by mystical doctrines.

We are unavoidably part of a reality we can only dimly know in a limited fashion, but the more we learn the more apparent our deep connection to the universe is, to paraphrase Neil deGrasse Tyson, “…to each other, biologically; to the Earth, chemically; to the rest of the universe, atomically.”

The real account of our origins, from the formation of the solar system, that of the Earth, the origin of life, and the evolution of that life once formed, leading to life as we know it today, is far grander, taking billions of years and colored by both variety in speciation and extinction on an epic scale, than in any ancient writings.

I look at the universe in times when my thinking is clearest, my mind’s eye most active, and my understanding surer, and I wonder why some have a need for anything beyond reality itself, a drive to add something to the universe that doesn’t need to be added, a supernatural component of reality beyond what we can possibly know.

Why? It’s an exercise in frustration sometimes, noticing people who see so little of what’s really there and wanting to replace what they don’t even know is there with ancient narratives of mystical forces and beings…

…things that have been related endlessly in the popular culture, since the times immemorial when they were and still are told around campfires.

Things wholly of human fancy and fiction as far as can be demonstrated.

Nothing wrong with stories mind you — I love good fantasy fiction — but in terms of claims of a separate realm of reality, it all seems too much alike to me, a failure of the human imagination with the same tired concepts circulated endlessly by a credulous media to a public all too eager for more of the same.

Even seeing what little I do, I’ve no need to add anything to reality that doesn’t need to be added — new discoveries will come as we make them, real knowledge with the added bonus of real understanding, not appeals to faith, arguments from ignorance and gods-of-the-gaps.

A View of Earth from Saturn

A View of Earth from Saturn (Photo credit: alpoma)

With the good science crowded out by bad science, even antiscience, too many miss out on seeing things as they are and replace it with the ignorant ravings of mystics in hoary texts that have been edited, reedited and edited yet more over thousands of years by political opportunists seeking to control and retain control over their followers.

But the people this happens to aren’t stupid. There’s a lot of native intelligence on humans, and I get the impression that most such people have been had by those in charge of whatever tradition they’ve been raised to accept, victims of those themselves victimized by indoctrination, punctuated by the occasional cynically knowing profiteer — pseudoscience and religion are lucrative businesses in much of the world — who knows perfectly well what he’s doing, and doesn’t care.

But all the bad in the world just means more good to be done, and even if winning is impossible, so what? I want to assist people in thinking for themselves, using their own considerable brainpower to reach more sound conclusions and make better decisions, and even if I can reach only one person in my life, then my time has been well-spent in achieving something meaningful and lasting.

I think that that one person can make a difference, and that alone makes it worthwhile.


Is Science a Special Interest?

Is science fatally biased? Does it actually constitute a partisan special interest? Should we rightly ignore scientific claims or dismiss them as pseudoscience or a hoax when they or their implications disagree with our political views or religious beliefs?

Not unless reality itself is a partisan special interest, not as I understand it, and I have over the years taken great pains to do just that — To understand science as best a layman can, if nothing else as an educational pursuit.

Science is far from solely the purview of academics, though like any learned skill, it takes training and experience to do well. But anytime you methodically try out an idea in the real world using some reliable observational method, employing these to reach a more accurate view of the outcome, then you’re doing science, even if you do it in a kitchen while microwaving different popcorn brands to compare their kernel popping rates rather than experimenting with test-tubes of exotic chemicals in a lab while wearing a respirator.

But because it’s done by people, and people are flawed, science is messy, imperfect, sometimes prone to error, and with regard to the context of discovery, culturally dependent. But it’s the process of justifying discoveries, not just making them, that best reflects the virtues of science, its universality in the process of testing our hypotheses to see if they really make the cut.

Discovery is all well and good, but a new idea, no matter how revolutionary, must be put to the test, or it is of no use. Science uses methods designed from the bottom up, confidently established by the repeated testing over centuries of accumulated experience to do what it does — to tell us how the natural world works — and it does this better than anything else to date.

It’s the process of justification more so than initial discovery that makes science progressive in its findings, ever closer getting us to a clearer picture of the world.

Science is not itself an ideology, or a belief system, or a philosophical position on the way things are, but is a set of methods, though far from pristine and perfect, the system of values, assumptions and techniques of which work very well when not hobbled by external ideological interference.

Most ideologies by their very nature do not lend themselves well to an objective search for truth, especially those whose doctrines favor, promote, nurture, and exploit the biases of their adherents, especially those whose doctrines involve some form of fact denial, or which fail to acknowledge established facts of human behavior — including the realities of human greed and selfishness…and altruism.

I’ve heard from people I know a view which I think is mistaken, that double-blinding an experiment or study is irrelevant when the researchers involved have a bias or vested interest in the outcome, such as the political or financial implications, of a study they are conducting.

The problem I have with this view, the reason I think it’s mistaken, is that it ignores the whole purpose of blinding studies in the first place, showing an unfortunate lack of understanding of what blinding is and why it’s done.

For those unfamiliar, double-blinding in a nutshell:

Double-blinding is a procedure that involves keeping certain key pieces of information out of the hands of both subjects and experimenters in a study. For instance, it would be used in a medical study testing the safety and effectiveness of a new drug on human patients, in which neither those in the test group nor the control group know which one they are in, and whether they’re taking the real drug or a placebo…

…and most importantly, neither do those directly conducting the study while it’s being carried out.

Because experimenter expectation and bias can unconsciously influence the results of such a study, through the interaction of patients and experimenters and subtle behavioral cues given out and not consciously noticed by either, double-blinding is an essential tool for sidestepping this problem by effectively taking it out of the picture.

Best of all, it works.

Merely criticizing a such a protocol as ineffective by cynically accusing those using it of a suspected vested interest or bias, when this is not only irrelevant to the method used but also not even established, sounds suspiciously like an ad hominem attack or a fallacious appeal to motive.

Sure, you could argue that a given study wasn’t properly blinded, but how would you know?

Without proper grounds from credible experts in that field who’ve looked at the study in question, you’d need the data and the expertise to understand it, full knowledge of scientific methodology, and of access to records of or even direct observation of the conduct of the study yourself before you can rightly make that argument.

In short, you need to have a basis for knowing what you’re talking about. Failing all else, you’d need to be an expert in the field yourself — not a likely prospect without training, knowledge background, and experience.

Any valid argument to that effect requires much more than suspicion of ideological interests, more than just allegations of academic misconduct supported only by, for example, hacked and stolen emails, possibly doctored and posted anonymously online without any real context.

If you don’t like the facts, however politically or theologically inconvenient, it does little good to attack the fact-finders…

…for doing so shows that you can’t tell science from politics or religion.

References —

Tools of Thinking: Understanding the World Through Experience & Reason, by Professor James Hall, via the Teaching Company, 2005

Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills, by Steven Novella M.D. via the Teaching Company, 2012

Why Trust (Other) Skeptics?

I self-identify as a skeptic, but am not an active member of any organized skeptics’ groups. I don’t currently see myself as part of any monolithic movement of skeptics, either…I’m a loner, though skepticism is still important to me.

I’ve noticed a few things about the general public’s view of skeptics, and that we are not well-liked for the most part, especially given a public influenced by media promotion of paranormal, pseudoscientific and supernatural claims that infuse the global culture in this age of science and technology.

To many, the label “skeptic” is a byword for cynicism, knee-jerk debunking, dehumanizing materialistic scientism, absolute reductionism, cold logic, and humorless negativity.

Skeptics really get the short end of the stick when it comes to supernatural television programs and movies, often being the outright villains, diabolically determined to hide or destroy the evidence of the truth of the paranormal at any cost, even theft or murder.

Skeptics are seen as heavy-handed, stubbornly unimaginative, unwilling to look at the evidence that’s right before them, fervently dogmatic in disbelief, and absolutely incapable of considering the possibility of being wrong on any matter, particularly those that most concern the interests of believers.

Skeptics are thought of as irrational, delusional denialists and myopic naysayers who reject the obvious conclusion that the world is magical (Well, it IS, but not in the way that believers think!) and who can’t see the forest for all the trees getting in the way…

I used to believe all of that myself before seeing the world through a skeptic’s eyes.

I’ve over time come to trust most other skeptics, more than some other segments of the population, first with a bit of reluctance as a proto-skeptic, now, less so.

But let us not be credulous — sometimes one must be skeptical even of skeptics, not uncritically, not from mere base suspicion — even the most trustworthy sources can be wrong, though it’s important that other equally qualified sources show them to be wrong, not just assert that without fulfilling the burden of proof.

Even though I view some prominent skeptics as teachers, I must still be willing to question what they say — not to disrespect them, but to fully understand the lessons they impart — if you can’t, or worse, won’t inquire skeptically, then you are a poor learner indeed.

To learn to think with clarity, you must learn to think for yourself, and that means sometimes asking tough questions with no easy answers, and learning to be comfortable with what answers you get even if you don’t like them.

It also means learning to see what is actually there, not what you wish to when it isn’t, and having valid reasons for asking, not just being a contrarian suspicious of an authority because it’s an authority.

Be prepared to accept it when anyone in the role of a teacher says “I don’t know,” or “I was wrong,” or even “It’s up to you to find the answer on your own.”

Be prepared when people you trust make mistakes, though the best capitalize on these errors as opportunities for insight and understanding, for it is often by error that we learn, rather than by success — these are things I’ve learned not just from skeptics, but from my own experience with people in general.

The world is a wondrous and scary place, full of life and beauty, death and horror, of events and natural forces, and cynically manipulative people ready to pounce on the unwary at a moment’s notice.

Skepticism makes you more wary of your human limits on reasoning and objectivity, and offers ways to work around them.

Credulity just makes you a mark, a sucker, a victim, not virtuous or saintly as some might imagine.

With my…psychology…experience has taught me that it’s not to my advantage to think less clearly, to blur the line between what I want to be real and what I believe to be…but a really BAD idea.

From other skeptics I’ve learned that anyone can err, but that for error to exist, so must what we can really call knowledge. The notion of error entails the possibility of getting some things right, not the complete inability to know anything.

Being wrong sometimes is human, and admitting when it happens is a virtue and a show of strength of character, not a sign of weakness.

When doubts of objectivity are warranted, the red flags of doom are raised and the need for independent fact-checking becomes ever more the object of due care, even if the one whose facts are being checked is a skeptic or scientific research worker.

If I wanted intuitive, easy answers, timeless truths to the mysteries of the universe, I wouldn’t seek them from skepticism, or science… I could just believe, and I probably wouldn’t even care whether something was true or not, as long as I believed it was and it was meaningful to me.

But playing fast and loose with the truth, whatever facts bear it out, doesn’t sit well with me. There are those of us who care.

Thanks to the influence of Postmodernism, and dogmatic religion, people nowadays understandably get a bit antsy hearing anyone use the word truth, as if by the mere fact of its use there were at play some pretense on the speaker’s part of metaphysical certitude, a certitude of fact outside pure mathematics and formal logic.

But true, false, and probable truth or falsity are values that we really can assign to claims and statements of contingent facts, those facts supporting the more or less likely truth of the claims that concern them.

Just a note, and this is important, so I’ll be posting this to this site’s “About” page: I never use the term, “truth” with a capital “T” unless being snarky and/or mocking an absolutist position that I’m discussing, and if I’m being really snarky, I’ll even spell it with a “™” symbol at the end.

Also, I never use it in a manner suggesting that either I or anyone else, especially skeptics, has any sort of exclusive monopoly on it, or, for that matter, rationality.

There are three things that make a source of information more credible to me.

  1. Background and training: From this derives the competence to discuss matters in any given technical field, such as professional conjuring, any of the sciences or engineering, and many skeptics have a good grasp of science literacy, more prominent and professional skeptics, especially actual scientists, even more so. From this also derives the basis of legitimately make statements of fact or opinion in the field this background and training concerns.
  2. Direct observation: From this derives first-hand skeptical investigation, like that of many organized skeptical groups in the field, or the work of such notable full-time paranormal investigators like Joe Nickell. Skeptics who have actually gone on location and looked into a matter personally, doing the work to find out the explanation for a case have earned a great deal of credibility.
  3. A good track record: This is never perfect, and can’t be — infallibility is humanly impossible — though I trust those sources more reliable than less, in their area of expertise, for therein do they tend to be more trustworthy, and like no. 1. have a better basis from which to make their statements.

I have few problems with a trusted source’s statements and claims when strong passions and personal biases don’t play a major role. Though skepticism demands that I be willing, and able, to question the mainstream when bias is likely to play a part, since as Carl Sagan noted, in science, “arguments from authority… are of little worth.”

Sure, there’s evidence out there to be found, cherry-picked, misrepresented, or fabricated, for any claim you may want to prove if you look hard enough — confirmation bias bites big time, even if you know it’s there.

But the thing I love about science is that ultimately, data trumps bias or personal prestige, and it works no matter what you believe, as long as it is not subverted by antiscience ideologies.

With science, the better and more frequently an idea is tested, the stronger the claim made for its probable accuracy, as with any vetted idea that successfully withstands the onslaught of facts and reality.

Sacred truths do not exist in science, just those ideas tested and confirmed beyond a reasonable doubt, as to come very close to certainty without being inappropriately obligated to actually reach it, so I’ve no faith at all in science or skepticism, since neither needs it. Rather, I have sound confidence in both.

That applies to skepticism and my fellow skeptics as well, hands down. Those skeptics, and former skeptics (this means you, Chris…) who have my trust have earned it, and that’s not something I give out lightly.