Category Archives: philosophy

Science – a method of investigation, not a belief system

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Love this tweet from John Cleese.

There is the obvious point about “belief.” Many people seem to think the scientific knowledge is a matter of belief and, in their eyes, something that can be subjectively chosen. That is ridiculous.

But also the wise stress on science as a method of investigation and not just a body of knowledge. Scientific knowledge is always imperfect and is dynamic changing with new data – but not in  an arbitrary or chaotic way.

However imperfect our current knowledge the scientific method holds out possibilities for its improvement. And however may “mistakes” the cynic can find in our scientific knowledge they are always unable to suggest a way of correcting these mistakes except more science.

Science as a method of investigation remains by far the best way we have of understanding objective reality.

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The problem with reasoned discussion

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Why is  a straightforward logical discussion so impossible? Why do our discussion partners refuse to accept our reasoned arguments? And, if we are honest, why do we ourselves find it so difficult to accept the reasonable logic of our discussion partners?

Well, a recent article at the blog “Why We Reason” provides an answer. It is  Psychology’s Treacherous Trio: Confirmation Bias, Cognitive Dissonance, and Motivated Reasoning and reinforces what I have often felt – we are not really a rational species – more a rationalising one.

Beliefs dictate what and how we see

The article gets to the root of the matter – the psychological forces that fuel our conversations:

“While many like to believe that they have a special access to the truth, the reality is that we all see the world not as it is, but as we want it to be: Republicans watch Fox while Democrats watch MSNBC; creationists see fossils as evidence of God, evolutionary biologists see fossils as evidence of evolution; a mother sees abortion as the best thing for her daughter, and the church sees it as unholy and sinful. You get the point – our beliefs dictate what we see and how we see.”

The article goes on to discuss “a few psychological tendencies that when mixed together form a potent recipe for ignorance.”

Confirmation bias

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Confirmation bias sticks out like a sore thumb when participants in discussion cherry-pick authorities and citations to support their arguments. Well, it sticks out like a sore thumb to the discussion partner anyway (who may also be cherry-picking to confirm an opposite bias).

“Confirmation bias is exactly what it sounds like – the propensity for people to look for what confirms their beliefs and ignore what contradicts their beliefs while not being concerned for the truth.”

Hard not to fall into that trap when discussing complex issues within the constraints of limited space and time. But, nevertheless, something we should attempt to avoid.

Cognitive dissonance

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“Then there’s cognitive dissonance, which describes a “state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions that are psychologically inconsistent.” “

The article provides an example:

“Leon Festinger introduced it in 1957 after he infiltrated and studied a UFO cult convinced the world would end at midnight on December 21st, 1954. In his book When Prophecy FailsFestinger recounts how after midnight came and went, cult members began to look for reasons for why the end of the world had not come. Eventually the leader of the cult, Marian Keech, explained to her members that she received a message from automatic writing, which told her that the God of Earth decided to spare the planet from destruction. Relieved, the cult members continued to spread their doomsday ideology to non-believers. Although Festiner’s example is extreme, all of us do this everyday. Take unhealthy food; we all know that pizza is bad for us, but we still eat it. And after finishing a few slices we say “it was worth it,” or “I’ll run it off tomorrow.” Or take smokers; they know that smoking kills but continue to smoke. And after unsuccessfully quitting, they justify their failures by claiming that, “smoking isn’t that bad” or that “it is worth the risk.” Whether it’s UFO’s, food, or smoking we all hold inconsistent beliefs and almost always side with what is most comfortable instead of what is true.”

Motivated reasoning

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The article describes this as “our tendency to accept what we want to believe with much more ease and much less analysis than what we don’t want to believe.”

I think religious apologists often provide the most obvious examples of motivated reasoning – probably because they are often trained in philosophy and logic. They will argue that their beliefs are based on reason and not faith, and seem to enjoy constructing logical arguments for their claims which seem to be built on simple logical steps. Yet, they gloss over, or ignore, the huge jumps in logic which are inevitably part of their reasoning.

Maybe a faith-based belief reinforced by motivated reasoning is the hardest to defeat because the proponent actually believes their arguments are completely rational.

The article concludes:

“So what’s the difference between confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, and motivated reasoning? The short answer is that there really aren’t any differences. Generally speaking, they serve the same purpose, and that is to frame the world so it makes sense to us. But there are a few nuances worth mentioning. For one, motivated reasoning is like an evil twin to cognitive dissonance in that it tries to avoid it. And for another, and I quote NYU psychologist Gary Marcus who says it perfectly, “whereas confirmation bias is an automatic tendency to notice data that fit with our beliefs, motivated reasoning is the complementary tendency to scrutinize ideas more carefully if we don’t like them than if we do.””

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Should all scientists really be militant atheists?

As my title implies this post discusses the New Yorker article by Lawrence Krauss – All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheists. I basically agree with his analysis but feel he has left himself open to an unwarranted criticism often made of the scientific approach.

The headline is very provocative – and was clearly meant to be. The term “militant atheist” is just silly. But it did smoke out the expected criticism from the faithful (for example Should Scientists Be Atheists? More Nonsense From Lawrence Krauss by Kelly James Clark from the Brooks College and Kaufman Interfaith Institute). These critics attempt to avoid Krauss’s central complaint about the unwarranted privilege religion gets in our society (to the extent that when a law-breaker like Kim Davis is punished there are loud complaints of Christians being persecuted or Christian beliefs being made illegal). And they also attempt to denigrate his point that the scientific process should not be perverted in its exploration of the evidence and application of reason by demands of unjustified respect for belief or faith when it conflicts with evidence.

The people who wish to protect this religious privilege – even in scientific investigation – are the ones who describe any criticism of their stance as “militant.”

Rejecting the “sacred” justification

Krauss dismissed the demand for respect with:

“The problem, obviously, is that what is sacred to one person can be meaningless (or repugnant) to another. That’s one of the reasons why a modern secular society generally legislates against actions, not ideas. No idea or belief should be illegal; conversely, no idea should be so sacred that it legally justifies actions that would otherwise be illegal.”

Applying this to the scientific process he wrote:

“In science, of course, the very word “sacred” is profane. No ideas, religious or otherwise, get a free pass. The notion that some idea or concept is beyond question or attack is anathema to the entire scientific undertaking. This commitment to open questioning is deeply tied to the fact that science is an atheistic enterprise. “My practice as a scientist is atheistic,” the biologist J.B.S. Haldane wrote, in 1934. “That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere with its course and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career.” It’s ironic, really, that so many people are fixated on the relationship between science and religion: basically, there isn’t one. In my more than thirty years as a practicing physicist, I have never heard the word “God” mentioned in a scientific meeting. Belief or nonbelief in God is irrelevant to our understanding of the workings of nature—just as it’s irrelevant to the question of whether or not citizens are obligated to follow the law.”

Unfortunately his use of Haldane’s quote – together with his provocative title “All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheistsconveyed the impression that scientists should approach their investigation with a bias that already rejects some possible outcomes.

No relationship between science and religion

However, that was not Krauss’s claim. He used the term “atheist” in its negative sense (not theist) – not implying an imposition of any preconceived beliefs or ideas.

His real point was expressed in his point that basically there is no relationship between science and religion:

“In my more than thirty years as a practicing physicist, I have never heard the word “God” mentioned in a scientific meeting. Belief or nonbelief in God is irrelevant to our understanding of the workings of nature—just as it’s irrelevant to the question of whether or not citizens are obligated to follow the law.”

Clark, more or less agrees with Krauss’s central claim  when he retaliated with:

“Scientists can be religious, liberal, communist, or even gay. But when they’re doing science, those beliefs are irrelevant and should not affect the practice of science. So be it. Scientists are under no obligation to affirm the opposite of any of those beliefs; and they needn’t deny them–but they should not bring those beliefs into their scientific practices.”

And in effect, he also agrees with Haldane – when we take into account the flippant words Haldane used. Of course scientists “assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere” with their experimental investigations. In the same way they assume that goblins, fairies, and all sorts of mythical creatures will not interfere.

Mind you, I really wonder at his assertion that a scientist need not deny her beliefs when the evidence shows them wrong. Surely that is unhealthy?

Scientists must be completely open to all and every outcome of their investigation – and perhaps they should even be “militant” about this rejection of blinkers. It is one thing to start with a strong, empirically supported, acceptance of the laws of thermodynamics – but quite another to be restricted by a strong belief in a myth without any evidential support.

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The “god idea” is just such a myth. It is never expressed even as a concrete hypothesis (which implies testability) let alone a rational theory with an evidential base.

Unfortunately, for much of history humanity’s attempts to investigate and understand the world have been hampered by an a priori insistence that investigation be based on such myths. Modern science has broken away from such bonds – and that is why it is so overwhelmingly successful.

Yet, there are people who work hard to reapply those bonds. Who wish to introduce  a”theistically-correct” approach to science which denies the need for evidence and (what amounts to the same thing) insists that “supernatural explanation’ are accepted.

People like Krauss are standing up to this pressure – and good on them. We need people who are prepared to be “militant” in this way.

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Something to consider

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Being open-minded

This meme is for those commenters here who accuse me of having a closed mind.

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I am always happy to change my opinion or view of things – if there is evidence to suggest I should.

And no, claims that “science once thought the world was flat,” or “science once supported smoking,” is not a credible argument that we should ignore current scientific consensus. It’s especially not an argument we should suddenly adopted unsupported claims as “gospel truth.”

Along these same lines, it’s worth considering this quote from Carl Sagan – if you want me to consider a really extraordinary claim your evidence had better be exceptional.

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“Fair-weather” scepticism

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My old man used to label us kids as “fair-weather sailors” when we bitched about working outside during bad weather.

That phrase comes to my mind sometimes when I come across people who claim to be “sceptics ” (“Skeptics”) behaving very unsceptically when confronted with a claim outside their area of interest. For example, someone who can be quite objective about scientific claims but reacts quite unobjectively to political claims.

Perhaps politics is a bit like religion to some people – they line up instinctively on one side or another. However, I think a true sceptic should still be able to consider political claims according to the facts available and not just rely on instincts.

So, I am all for this image. Yes it is hard. But when you think about it what use are one’s ingrained prejudices if they do not stand up to sceptical consideration.

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Don’t you get tired of this?

I have seen so much of this lately:

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And this:

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And in so many cases when we challenge this cherry-picking and confirmation bias we get this:

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Sad news – Victor Stenger has died

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I was sad to read that Victor Stenger died during the week at the age of 79.

Victor was a prolific author, writing on science, religion and philosophy. He often dealt with difficult issues coming out of the religion-science debates and was always able to explain complex subjects very effectively for the layperson.

In his retirement, after a career in particle physics research, Stenger took to writing popular books in science, religion and philosophy and participating in the public discussion and debate of these issues. Although not as prominent as the people usually called the “New Atheists” he was one of that group. In fact he wrote a book  titled The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason. (See my review of this book at Defending science and reason).

Victor was also well-known for public debates with religious apologists like William Lane Craig and Hugh Ross. I believe his role in these were important because of his ability to explain particle and cosmological physics and thereby show how these apologists had been distorting the science. Readers interested in watching some of these debates will be able to find them on YouTube.

I suppose it is fitting that Victor Stenger was writing till the end. He died with one book waiting to be published – God and the Multiverse: Humanity’s Expanding View of the Cosmos.

Victor will be missed not only by his family and people who knew him, but also by many readers.

I urge interested readers to read one or more of his popular science book. Wikipedia lists the following –  all published by Prometheus Books:

See also:
Victor Stenger, Physicist and Prolific Atheist Author, is Dead at 79
Victor Stenger has died.

The links below are to my own reviews of a few of Victor Stenger’s books:

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Approaching scientific literature sensibly

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We all suffer more or less from confirmation bias – it is just human.  So it’s natural for people to be selective, and to indulge in some cherry-picking and biased interpretation, when quoting scientific literature to support an idea they promote.

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In the scientific community peer review and continual submission of ideas to scrutiny by colleagues helps keep this under control. But it can really get out of hand when used political activists use the literature to support their claims.

I have got used to anti-fluoride commenters on social media simply citing a paper or even providing a bare link, without comment, as if this somehow makes their claims irrefutable. Perhaps, in truth, they have not even read the paper they cite, or understood it, so do not feel confident discussing it.

But this tactic is particularly lazy – and stupid. To simply give a Google Scholar search as proof. Lately I have been presented with links to such searches to argue that fluoridation is toxic. Just a search for “fluoride toxicity.”

This is what that search produces – 234,000 hits:

Fluoride toxicity – 234,000 results

fluoride-toxicity

Sounds good to the uninitiated, I guess. It does seem to produce a large number. But does that mean anything?

What about searching for water toxicity. This produces over 2 million hits. Are we to assume from this that water is toxic, seemingly 10 times more toxic than fluoride?

Water toxicity – 2,190,000 results

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Yes, I know some social media do not offer much space for commenting but that should not be an excuse for such silly citations.

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A healthy attitude towards quantum mechanics

Credit: xkcd.

Apparently the above quote “You can safely ignore any sentence that includes the phrase’ according to quantum mechanics” is used by Robert P. Crease and Alfred Scharf  in their upcoming book The Quantum Moment: How Planck, Bohr, Einstein, and Heisenberg Taught Us to Love Uncertainty.

Good advice.