Tag Archive | Inquiry

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.

MNQ | Monday’s Noontide Query for September 19, 2011

Miracles des Ardents

Image via Wikipedia

Earlier last evening, some friends were over at my place for gaming night, involved in a dinner and role-playing session, and the subject of the power of belief on organic diseases came up, particularly on such illnesses as terminal, or at the time, seemingly terminal cancer.

Well, long story short, that discussion ended with an agreement to disagree on the matter, but it presented itself as a perfect bloggable moment on a subject I don’t often touch on directly and some other things in previous discussions that bear clearing up: The effects of our personal worldviews on our assessment of various sorts of evidence, and the value afforded certain concepts, such as faith and evidence, by those same worldviews.

Yes, I’m an argumentative bastitch, but as Dave Hume said, ‘Truth springs from argument amongst friends,’ and even when that argument is annoying, it is still intellectually healthy when done constructively.

How much worth should we give belief in terms of performing seemingly miraculous events? How much worth should we give personal accounts of mysterious (to us) happenings? Are we being unimaginative, overly dismissive, too rational for our own good in not affording them great value as proof of something beyond what we really know? Is it dismissing personal experience as at all valid to be cautious of anecdotes without some other data to corroborate them? Is it closing our minds to new and wonderful things, against our best interests?

I do not consider myself particularly rational. For the above though, my responses would be that the first two require us to be very cautious, no to the third, no to the fourth, and absolutely f**k no to the last.

I deny the possibility of nothing that is true in any knowable, and thus in any showable sense. But I require that certain truth-criteria be met before I concede to the claimant that it is.

And I really shouldn’t have to, but I’m occasionally forced to point out that requiring evidence before accepting a claim is in no way the same thing as denying the very possibility that the claim could be true…neither logically nor semantically the same thing…not even close…

…After all, if you were on trial in court for a serious crime, and I mean really serious, wouldn’t you rather the jury need the prosecution to meet certain standards of evidence to establish reasonable grounds for your guilt rather than assuming it on faith just because it’s possible you might be guilty? Or at the other extreme, refusing to convict a defendant despite evidence?

My money’s riding on the jury seeking evidence for the conviction and accepting what it demands.

Well, that’s how skepticism works. If something is true, show it. And if you can show it, then you know it.

But what is experience anyway, and why is it such a powerful motivator for belief?

We are prone to thinking about things, about reasoning our way, maybe not as logically as we might, from point to point, from A to B, from factoid to conclusion, however hasty.

But we do not think in a vacuum. We need input for our thinking, and we get most of that from experience. Whether it’s things we directly see, hear, feel, taste or smell, or any of our other sensory channels, or second-hand experience, no less useful, consisting of what we read and hear from others, experience gives us most of the data we process with our thinking.

Everything we can say we know, we know through some form of experience, and we can convey that experience to others, not directly from our own minds, of course, but by demonstrating our claims to them through the same sensory channels, or if needed, others, that we came to know something, such as playing a recording of something we heard, showing the text of an article in a medical journal, or even directly showing the item of discussion itself for the examination of an unbeliever, as close to ‘proof-positive’ as there ever was.

It would be foolish to reject such direct proof, but often the availability of this is lacking, and we must resort to less direct means.

One way we try to convince is by giving accounts of what we believe happened. But because our minds can deceive us, even when working properly, our senses mislead us under unfamiliar viewing conditions, and our memories fade and distort with time, we must be careful to have something more than personal testimony as our proof. If we do have other evidence with which to verify our claims, testimony can be useful, and even without it, it can still be a good starting point for inquiry. It gives us a reason to say, “That’s pretty neat, let’s look into it further and find out if it really happened, and why,” or, “Let’s see if we can examine this closer and explain it.”

But anecdotal accounts cannot serve as evidence on their own, not without some other form of data to support them. Twenty anecdotes are no better than one in the court of science, much less a court of law, and 400 anecdotes are no better than 20. Even in a court of law, there must be corroboration of eyewitness testimony by other forms of evidence.

I’ve learned to give anecdotal accounts a wide berth, as they are notoriously unreliable as proof of anything by themselves, no matter how compelling they seem in the telling, no matter how sincere, honest, and reputable the one telling them.

I believe many things, rationally and not so, and have a worldview which can accommodate any phenomena that offer good reasons to accept their existence, to fit them within my ‘reality equation’ with few problems.

But as a skeptic, I’m aware of many ways we can be misled by our experience, and though I’m no more immune to being fooled, I’m more alert for those instances in which I may be fooled. I call it hedging my bets.

My friend’s account was certainly interesting, and if it could have been verified independently of what either of us believes, it would certainly be wonderful. If true exactly as related, it would mean that all we need do to cure the most horrific cancers is to motivate people to think positive thoughts, or perhaps artificially induce mystical or religious experiences in patients to induce healing.

We know how to do this last, and reliably too, with trans-cranial magnetic brain stimulation, drugs, meditation, and some neurological conditions can cause these experiences as well. We know how to stimulate what part of the brain to achieve whatever effect we seek to…

…and if this was as effective as often said, it would be standard medical procedure. It would easily, cheaply, and conveniently eliminate the need for expensive, dangerous treatments like chemotherapy if it really worked. It would revolutionize the treatment of malignant cancers.

But if my friend’s experience is to be a guide for his beliefs, so must my experience guide me, and my experience, both direct and indirect, has shown me consistently that the world just does not appear to work that way. I’ve never found even one soundly conducted clinical study that has validated the curative power of pure belief on aggressive cancers, anywhere in the medical literature.

Mind you, I was not always a skeptic, nor a religious non-believer. I became these after my own experiences disillusioned me about the power of faith. Belief can be a powerful motivator, but life has shown me, to much dismay, and much more disappointment, that belief by itself cannot literally work miracles.

My understanding could be wrong. Maybe miracles do happen, but just because someone doesn’t know how to explain a horrible disease seemingly vanishing from the one afflicted with it, there is no real reason to suppose that no one can possibly explain it, that therefore it constitutes proof of the power of faith, or whatever.

I don’t mean this in an arrogant way, but one must be careful to not commit an argument from ignorance…drawing a positive conclusion from what one doesn’t know, in this case, the lack of a mundane explanation, or even dismissing a mundane explanation out of hand.

Anything can be believed…In my experience, everything has been and is, somewhere or at some point in time. There is really no limit to what people can or will believe if the need is strong enough.

But belief should be based on reality, not the other way around, because every belief has its rival, and reality cannot possibly accommodate them all when they are so often obviously inconsistent with each other.

I no longer believe in belief, and giving up that belief was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. My worldview currently affords more weight to reason, observational data, and objective standards of evidence, and has not impaired nor handicapped me in the least. My friend gives more credence to the power of belief than I do, and whether rightly or not is not under discussion here, in keeping with his own experiences.


How do your own experiences influence your perspective on the world?

How does this affect your assessment of claims?

What are your own criteria for truth?

How do you yourself judge what is real from what is not?

Do you even care about assessing claims?..

…Or is it enough to just believe?

MNQ is a question that I pose to you, my readers, and is posted each Monday at 12:00 PM. Do feel free to comment, and don’t worry yerselves overmuch… I’m not an ogre and I don’t bite…much.

Inquiring into Claims of Unusual Experiences

It would be absurd for me to suppose when someone relates to me an extraordinary experience, barring reasons to suspect deception, that nothing at all really happened.

Clearly, in many cases, whether within one’s mind or in the external world, something has happened.

But it would be equally absurd for me to leap to the conclusion that what was related to me was literally an external experience in principle or in truth beyond the ability of science to explain.

Let’s try to avoid confusing the currently unexplained with the inexplicable, peeps.

In earlier posts, I’ve often discussed the ways in which we can be misled by faulty thinking, especially the use of anecdotes of personal experience and other forms of undocumented observation, into believing what we want to believe. My point is this: ‘Anecdote’ does not mean ‘evidence’ in the plural.

The reason for this is simple. When people try to use anecdotes to support supernatural, paranormal, or other questionable claims, they are not actually providing supporting evidence, merely supporting a claim by making yet more claims, which themselves require evidence, without which they are useless. I’ll say it once more: anecdotes ≠ evidence.

Even in the sanest and most sober of us, the claim of an encounter with the unexplained is often based upon a very personally compelling subjective experience, a form of evidence that while often powerful and deeply moving, can be highly fallacious and misleading, despite the general reliability of it in our everyday lives.

Anecdotes of weird experiences do not strengthen the case for any paranormal claims, for they are themselves only claims. This is why in a court of law, it is often essential for eyewitness testimony to be supported by corroborating evidence, not just more eyewitness testimony. Anecdotes have even lower status in the court of science.

Our senses can deceive us, our memories are fallible, even the most normal of us can hallucinate much more often than we would like to think, and our intuitive faculties are often inadequate for figuring out things beyond our everyday experience or complex correlation and causation…

…It’s why we invented statistics, to compensate for our natural tendency to misjudge probability.

With regard to some…fringe topics, no matter how many anecdotes are made for a claim, all by themselves they are scientifically worthless as evidence: if a hundred guys all say they saw a UFO, even if they said the same thing, but there is no supporting objective evidence for their claim, then all that testimony is useless and of no value to science.

This could be summed up by the following principle…

Anecdotes are not scientifically useful to test hypotheses, only as a means of formulating them, as rather than being evidence for a claim of fact, they are themselves merely claims of fact.

If, on the other hand, all one hundred of them started showing something that could be objectively verified, such as medically diagnosable radiation sickness, then that might lead to an investigation into what they might have really seen, which, spacecraft from another galaxy or not, is likely to be interesting.

One of the things I have to look out for as one o’ them Evil Debunkers™ is to avoid committing a common fallacy: to make a misplaced leap in reasoning, the skeptical version of an argument from ignorance, though rather than come up with a pseudoscientific or supernatural explanation for a strange event without having reason to suppose it true, attempt to propose one or more ‘naturalistic’ explanations for the alleged phenomena that while remotely possible, sound weak and contrived, and are also just as unsupported by the facts as those proposed by believers.

It’s the fallacy of giving explanations for strange events without first doing the legwork to find out if there’s really anything to explain.

This has a lot to do with anecdotes, which, no matter how honest, sincere, or otherwise virtuous the speaker, are often secondhand, third-hand and even further removed from the original source, the one the mysterious event allegedly happened to.

This has the obvious difficulty that as the one on the receiving end of this testimony, I have no independent access to any of the events described, and if it was a one-time only event, I have no way of repeating it and finding out the answer. I would have no idea what information in the account described has been omitted, embellished, or confabulated before the anecdote was transmitted from the source several persons removed, before reaching me.

Some anecdotes are simply not amenable to real explanation, and in this case a skeptic would be best served by saying to both himself and to the one relating the account, ‘I’ll have to suspend judgment on that statement for now. I have no plausible explanation for what you just told me, no magic easy answer. But let’s say we look into this a bit further and maybe get to the truth of the matter.’

I simply decide that given the data, no definitive answer to the question can be made, that the alleged event is unproven, and file it away until at some point in the future, evidence will be uncovered that allows the case to be reopened, evidence which may point to a definite conclusion and the case’s final closure.

Hordes of Man-Eating Killer Squids? I Doubt It.

Just recently, I had a bit of fun poking around online and sharpening my admittedly sparse google-chops on a bit of quick fact-checking that actually turned out to be rather fun.

I was clicking on links on one of my google alerts emails and one such link took me to an online news outlet called The Hindu.

The link took me directly to the “health” section of the paper, but just for giggles I clicked on the “science and technology” department to see what was there.

Mind you, this is the first time I’ve been on this site, and the headline that screamed out at me from one of the articles immediately raised my skeptical hackles:

Man eater squids devouring fish stock in Pacific

Go ahead…click on it…for much sensationalist hilarity.

I thought to myself “This could be fun…Now that my red flags have been raised, let’s see if this is just as bogus as I expect, or otherwise. Let’s find out if this is for real…or not.”

The first bit of text caught my attention:

Millions of giant squids have been devouring fish stock and attacking humans in the Pacific Ocean, causing potential threat to marine ecosystem.

This is, needless to say, a rather bold claim. Surely something like this would be on a more mainstream news outlet if there were anything to it, so why not on CNN or even Faux Nu’z? I also wondered about the confusion in the article of giant squids with Humboldt squids, since to the best of my admittedly limited knowledge of zoology, they are separate species.

This and the image-file included with the article being billed as that of a thawing Colossal squid, though obviously not being colossal even for a squid, raised still more red flags.

My figurative hackles where practically electrified.

But this minor technicality did not deter me from reading further. I also started looking for references I could check up on, you know, names and organizations, and low and behold, a fellow was mentioned, and allegedly quoted, by the name of Scott Cassell, who was reported as saying:

“Within five minutes my right shoulder had been pulled out of its socket. I had 30 big marks on my head and throat and one squid hit me so hard I saw stars. They then grabbed on to me and pulled me down so fast that I could not equalise and I ruptured my eardrum.”

“They are the most opportunistic predators on the planet. They eat everything in their path. One Humboldt squid in the course of two years can eat 27,000lb of fish. What is going to be the impact on the environment?”

Ummm… nothing?

I wondered if he knew of the quotations attributed to him by this highly reputable media outlet (*chortle*) provided he even existed at all and wasn’t simply the product of a double-fiction…

I googled his name, and found this link at the top of the search results, on a scuba-diving forum with an entry dated from November 20, 2007, which involved statements on an episode of Monster Quest also attributed to Cassell.

The statements posted weren’t smoking-gun evidence of a media hoax, but they didn’t sound at all like someone who just a mouse click away had been pronouncing raving dire warnings about the dangers of an infestation of evil squids (Hey! Creatures with tentacles are cool!).

I also noticed statements exactly like those quoted above on sites like the ForteanTimes and 2012 forums, further ramping up the suspicion factor. All examples I’ve found of the above quotes appear to originate from and cite the Daily Express article linked to below.

A bit of further looking indicated that the aforementioned quotes have probably been fabricated.

The pieces are falling into place…

The statement on the scuba forum, admittedly done via a proxy, sounded much more sober, more like the statements of a former military diver than a two-bit extra from the movie Tentacles.

But agreeing with my prejudices is not proof, so I decided to check up on the Wiki article on Humboldt squids, which lo and behold, do not appear to be the same species as Giant squid, much less Colossal squid.

Now, Wikipedia is far from the final word, but I was busy correcting a major error to a post from the previous day that one of my readers had caught on to and was kind enough to point out, so I looked about on other more reliable sources, which by and large supported the most of Wiki statements on these majestic creatures.

There’s this article on Scientific American about them, for example…

…and this post on Science20 with Humboldt Squid Hit The Tabloids pretty well appears to have nailed it.

But just so you can check out the text of the Daily Express article dated August 29, that appears to have been an almost verbatim cut and paste job onto The Hindu article dated afterward, Yep, it seems that though there is a population increase of these cool creatures in some parts of the oceans, we’re in no danger of being devoured by ravenous razor-tendriled Lovecraftian sushi any time soon.

I think I can safely write this off as spectacularly bad, but amusing, journalistic reporting, par for the course for tabloids.

Not exactly professional skeptic’s work, but nonetheless tons of fun!

A Question of Remembrance – 3 Months Hence

It’s been three months since the passing of my devoted friend and companion for over a decade, not just a pet, but a piece of my heart given the shape of a cat, a blue-point Himalayan female named Sammy.

Three months…and it still hurts just as much now as it did then when she went to sleep in my lap, the last thing she remembered being me.

This is a good thing, the pain is good.

And it’s something I hope never goes away, for it shows I still care.

It shows that unlike my online alter-ego and other characters I’ve imagined, I’m human, and being human is good.

Sure, the pain is still there, it never dulls, but it gets more bearable with time.

I’ve posted a couple of entries about her (Here) and (Here) before, but it’s like no time at all has passed between now and then.

I miss her.

At least she can’t miss me, that’s some comfort…

That, and the fact that she still lives…not in some imaginary afterlife in somebody’s mythological version of Heaven, not in some fairy-tale Paradise beyond the material world, but in the minds and hearts of those who knew her, who remember her, beautiful to the very end.

I wish that she would continue in some Other Realm, but I have no reason to believe in such a place, and I won’t confuse that wish, my hopes, with fact. I have no need to dress up Reality with anything supernatural, no need to supplement what is with what I want to be. That would be a fool’s errand, and I would rather stare the world in the face as it is than look at it with the rose-colored glasses of feckless naivete and delusion.

As long as one person on Earth remains alive to remember her, she will never die, and indeed has gained a sort of online immortality through this blog. I miss you Sammy, and I hope I never stop, for then it is I who am truly dead. Be forever.

And so do I ask my readers:

How you deal with the loss of a loved one, human or pet? How do you deal with death?

Inexplicable? Maybe, but probably not…

I was having a conversation with a friend of mine, and the topic of inexplicable phenomena came up, as it often does in discussions of skeptical subject matter.

Now, before you think that I’m going to get on my high horse and play the stereotype of the clinical dogmatic Rationalist, going on about how there is no such thing as the unexplained, let me make something clear: Currently unexplained and utterly unexplainable are entirely different things. It is a logical fallacy to confuse the two.

I have taken great pains over the past three and a half years (logical fallacy: the argument from authority) to learn the basics of scientific thinking, the rudiments of the philosophy of science, its methods, its purpose, the role of imagination in science, how it works when its error-correcting machinery is smoothly running, and, most of all, its fallible human side and what happens when it goes wrong.

Read the next passage carefully:

Under no circumstances do I, nor does any reputable scientist that I know of claim in any way that science has it all figured out, that what we know now is all that exists, or that all has been absolutely explained, or will be.

There. I said it.

Science is at a point in our history where it has taken halting first steps to an understanding of the universe, and we are just finding out things unimagined twenty years ago, much less four hundred years. There is much still we will not know for a long, long time.

Science is just starting to give us a picture of the Cosmos that we can make sense of, though much factually supported science offends mere human sensibilities with bizarrely counterintuitive notions that thumb their collective noses at ‘common sense.’ The Universe, and the science by which we learn to understand it does not have to conform to our likes and dislikes to be true.

Back on topic.

Science is not just limited to the normal and the natural in the sense many believers in paranormal claims suppose…it is not blindsided by any particular phenomenon as long as it is both knowable and observable, and therefore can be tested in some meaningful fashion.

To paraphrase psychologist Susan Blackmore, science is simply a generalized way of asking questions and finding answers and not meaningfully restricted by a hypothesis merely because it is labeled ‘supernatural,’ or ‘paranormal.’

Science is not limited to a single restrictive, mechanistic ‘method,’ indeed, it has a multitude of different methods used for the study of an equally diverse multitude of things.

Are there things we absolutely can’t explain, that are truly inexplicable? Let me make it clear again that science hinges around asking questions, and once you prematurely hit upon some easy, magic explanation, stop asking questions and finding answers, even and especially if you dislike them, then you have stopped doing science. Science can do nothing with untestable ideas, and even tested but wrong ideas can be of use if they are interesting and lead to new and unexpected findings.

It just so happens though, that many supernatural claims are framed in such a way that they cannot possibly be refuted nor meaningfully verified: they are untestable in any conceivable way and therefore not even worthy of the honor of being called ‘wrong.’

I’ve heard philosopher Massimo Pigliucci discuss two sorts of unexplainable phenomena: the sort that has no rational, testable explanation, and that which does but due to human limits in reasoning and understanding, we cannot reach any explanation until we surpass those limitations, perhaps in the distant future if at all.

This is sort of like a dog understanding differential equations in calculus — as far as we can know, an understanding of the explanation is not possible in the foreseeable future.

Now there are many things about the universe that remain unexplained, most of them in fact, but in science you have to resist the temptation to just throw up your hands and give up looking for an explanation for an observed phenomenon, just because you haven’t yet found what it is. If you try hard enough it may be just around the corner.

To give up and call it supernatural or inexplicable is to renounce the spirit of science, a point which some paranormal believers miss.

Science loves a mystery as well as and even more than the mystical, but conversely tries to find answers to those mysteries, something which in my experience, mystics are loathe to do.

It seems to me as though they must perpetuate mysteries, preserving them for mystery’s sake alone, instead of asking the tough questions of a gentle inquiry of nature and in so failing to do miss the whole aim of science, and an understanding of what they argue against.

Are there unexplained things? Most certainly. Are there inexplicable things? Maybe, but we’ll never know until we try to find out and ultimately fail in the trying. Fnord.

(Last Update: 2010/06/04, Image Updated)