Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Noci-Notes – ‘Skeptics and True Believers’ - #1

` This post is a really long one. It’s also worth reading.
` Update: It's not as long as it had looked until now! I had previously somehow posted it multiple times, making it appear to be ridiculous in length.

` Recently, I’ve been tossing out posts that make fun of fraudsters, though it’s obvious that not everyone can expect to understand why. So, I thought I’d finally start posting Noci-Notes, though from different material than the ones I had started in January.
` This particular set is from a book by Chet Raymo that propagated my understanding of what critical, scientific thought is - and what it isn’t. I confess that before then I had been a clueless fan of the pseudosciences, which are belief systems that appear to be science-based, via ploys such as faulty or hoaxed experiments and the distortion of real scientific findings.
` Since I have learned how to distinguish between what does and does not constitute science, I not only want to pursue a career in science – I know what being a scientist actually means!
` Imagine that.
` Sadly, and for a variety of reasons, most people (in general) don’t really understand what the words ‘science’ and ‘critical thinking’ refer to. Consequently, when one talks about actual science and critical thinking, most people do not - at least entirely - understand the true meaning of what is really being said.

` As you may imagine, not being critical can cause problems both in day-to-day life, as well as what could be called ‘national ignorance epidemics’.
` And what do I mean by ‘critical’? The definition sounds just as harsh as the word itself: ‘Critical’ is when you say; “This is what we (or others) think might be true. Therefore, let’s try to prove it wrong!”
` That’s basically how science works: It falsifies as much data as possible, while piecing the rest into explanations that are found to work in real-life practice. Such working explanations are known as theories.
` The idea is that anything that survives this process therefore has a chance of being true: Therefore, like a sculptor chiseling off superfluous marble to create a sculpture, the scientific method was designed to whittle away at hypothetical ideas in order to create a sharper and more accurate image of the universe.
` In clearing away such faulty ideas, progress can avoid being completely blocked by the barrier of questions that can be summed up thusly; ‘Is this not true? …Because if it isn’t, my hypothesis could never become a theory!’

` Is this making sense to everyone?

` A familiarity of skepticism is not only important for scientific understanding – it is also best for working out everyday puzzles. Ah, but Raymo and I will both elaborate: In this post, I am testing my note-making skills out for the Introduction of Skeptics and True Believers: The Exhilarating Connection Between Science and Religion.

` We humans are odd life forms on this rock in that we can think to ask questions that go so far beyond the capabilities of any other animal living today. For thousands of years, we have asked; ‘What is this reality that we live in? Where did it come from? What will happen to it in the future? And where do we fit in?’
` As a byproduct of the human ability to reason beyond one’s means and necessities, the most primitive types of mythologies have apparently come from trying to explain everyday events that seem to be more than physical cause and effect.
` This is because human brains are capable of finding causal patterns in happenings where it is very questionable – you can see this in the ‘modern world’ in those who believe that wearing a certain pair of socks will give them good luck when attempting a non-sock-related endeavor.
` Logical? Not really. What kind of influence could socks exercise over the situation? If one wanted to, one could see if they could prove this superstition wrong by performing a carefully-controlled experiment that addresses the question; ‘Is there any difference between the outcome of whether or not the socks are worn or not?’
` That is essentially the way of science and critical thought.

` But what determines whether or not someone is more prone to believing in such superstitions just because they think they see something, rather than systematically trying to rule it out? For whatever reasons, there are two basic ways that people might look at the world - though I think it would be more appropriate to refer to them as ‘two extremes of a continuum’.
` This is where the terms ‘Skeptics’ and ‘True Believers’ come in. And, while the preceding was all-original, I shall now steal some text from Raymo:

Skeptics are children of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. They are always a little lost in the vastness of the cosmos, but they trust the ability of the human mind to make sense of the world.
` So it is with me (and my Skeptic friends): I know that knowledge of everything ever is not exactly probable, though there is so much to learn that I doubt we can ever become bored with scientific progress.

They accept the evolving nature of truth and are willing to live with a measure of uncertainty. Their world is colored in shades of gray.
` Glad to be uncertain if necessary? I'd say it is better than saying; “I’m not sure if this is true or not, but I will take my best guess and just believe that.” Call me crazy, but somehow I get the idea that a large measure of such caution is the vital attitude for Skepticism.

They tend to be socially optimistic, creative, and confident of progress.
` You bet’cha! Today’s societal woes getting you down? Someday, they will be a thing of the past! Eventually. Perhaps after a war or two, maybe the collapse and rebuilding of society itself. It may take a few centuries…. But they will pass!

Since they hold their truths tentatively, Skeptics are tolerant of cultural and religious diversity. They are more interested in refining their own views than in proselytizing others. If they are theists, they wrestle with their God in a continuing struggle of faith. They are often plagued by personal doubts and prone to depression.
` This makes sense, considering that most people I tend to hang out with have always been Skeptics, theistic or not, and that at least one of them is obsessed with being as logically consistent as humanly possible. One thing that we all have in common is that we celebrate relying on oneself for both physical and mental sustenance.
` On the other hand, a couple of Christian True Believers that I know of have stated that this mentality is somehow egotistical or self-centered because you cannot ever really do anything ‘by yourself’ (without God). For reasons that largely seem mysterious to me, they need to seek out a niche in the world and will despair if they cannot find it.
` Some of them don’t even appear to be capable of confidence unless they believe they are being assisted. Therefore, it is no surprise to me that Raymo writes this next:

True Believers are less confident that humans can sort things out for themselves. They look for help from outside – from God, spirits, or extraterrestrials. Their world is black and white. They seek simple and certain truths, provided by a source that is more reliable than the human mind.
` This is not to say the human mind doesn’t deceive itself! After all, many kinds of self-deception have been thoroughly scientifically documented! ;)

True Believers prefer a universe proportioned to the human scale. They are repulsed by diversity, comforted by dogma, and respectful of authority. True Believers go out of their way to offer (sometimes forcibly administer) their truths to others, convinced of the righteousness of their cause.
` And I have partly figured out why: A True Believer might think that, because a sacred, Esteemed Authority is the source of their beliefs, then likewise filling other people’s minds with the repetition of the same doctrine is nothing more than acting as an extension of this Esteemed Authority: Therefore, they too have the authority (or sometimes even an obligation!) to do so!
` ...Though I suppose that this may be obvious to most people.

They are likely to be “born again,” redeemed by faith, apocalyptic. Although generally pessimistic about the state of this world, they are confident that something better lies beyond the grave.
` I guess that’s what keeps some people going! However, I would guess that a lot of this ‘True Believer’ mentality may be based on the average of Western True Believers rather than all of them worldwide - though there are some similarities across the board.
` …Come to think of it, I too was once convinced that an afterlife would be better than the life I had, though now it is plain to see that just about anything is better than my childhood! A hectic adulthood, for example, is much more relaxing….
` As has been mentioned, not all religious people are True Believers – some have a mostly Skeptical way of seeing things and would rather find their own interpretation to their own faith. Conversely, some scientists would also rather not practice Skepticism by having unwavering belief of their ideas in the face of falsifying evidence.
` Of course, by nature, a scientist is not really allowed to do that:

Einstein once remarked that the most important tool of the scientist is the wastebasket. A scientist must be skeptical of her most cherished theory; if she is not, then others within the scientific community will do it for her. Indeed, science is little more than organized skepticism. A successful scientific idea must run a fierce gauntlet of peer review…. Generally, the competition of scientific ideas acts – as in biological evolution – to redefine the status quo, sharpening the match between theory and perceptions.
` In other words, ‘dysfunctional’ ideas are selected against, so as not to cloud the views of those who are busy trying to build concepts for functional use. And, since True Believers are basically those people who are most attached to their beliefs and would rather not give them up for anything, it is easy to see how this kind of thought can interfere with scientific research.
` Unwillingness to let go would explain why True Believers prefer the subjectivity of personal experience over the objectivity of multiple, independent sources of confirmation. It keeps them clustered into like-minded and often mutually-exclusive groups.
` And, upon further reflection, I realize that the more militant such groups are, the more people they exclude, and so any one such tight circle is not very likely to dominate the entire True Believer world. Furthermore, such groups may differ to the point that they cannot join forces with almost any other.

` Religious Skeptics, on the other hand, are much more capable of joining forces, for it may be that their particular ways of worshipping and believing are irrelevant to one another. And unlike True Believers, they do not proselytize their beliefs as much as they try to describe them in a logical manner, despite their admission that there is ‘no logical reason’ for them.
` As far as I can tell, Skeptics characteristically enjoy discussing other viewpoints with other people who may or may not hold them. Why? Because it’s a neat thing to do.
` And, concerning the rare attempt at swaying a True Believer away from a faith-centered mentality, the Skeptic could not be expected to succeed - probably because there are no ‘Skeptic-beliefs’ (much less preferable ones) to offer.

` I make this observation based on each and every case in which I have seen a Skeptic try to get their point across to a True Believer. The True Believer always has said; ‘I understand that, but I don’t agree because I would rather believe what I believe, because that’s what I was taught, and that’s my choice. End of story.’
` Solid faith was valued over logic every time. I think the True Believer’s choice may have to do with the fact that they cannot seem to function without belief, and the firmer, the better: If a person cannot release this conviction, a viewpoint that isn’t as faith-centered will seem downright unappealing.

` Fascinating.

` As you have probably noticed, it is true that I sometimes enjoy making fun of fraudsters in a humorous and/or possibly obnoxious fashion. And, if anyone should disagree with me, all I can do is to unproductively ask them to try to understand where I’m coming from.
` Yet, understanding we need: I’ve actually been asked by someone just how it is that I can ‘believe in skepticism’, especially since it ‘changes so much!’ As I (and Chet Raymo!) have extensively explained here, Skepticism is not a belief system – it is a scrutinizing system. This is why there are people who can both be characterized as Skeptics, yet may nonetheless choose to hold quite illogical beliefs.
` Rather, a more appropriate question here is; “How do you keep yourself from becoming attached to what you think is true when it turns out that it’s not?” Well, then! Actually, I think Raymo puts it best….
` To be sure, the means for which skepticism itself is kept from degenerating; ‘is a highly evolved social structure, including professional associates and university departments, peer-reviewed literature, meetings and conferences, and a language that relies heavily on mathematics and specialized nomenclature. The point of this elaborate apparatus is to minimize individual backsliding into the false security of True Belief. Political, cultural, linguistic, and religious idiosyncrasies are suppressed in favor of the common endeavor.’
` In other words, it’s a lot of work.

` One more point, however: As Raymo has observed from the letters elicited by his many, many years of writing a science and nature column for the Boston Globe, that most people will ‘warmly embrace the technological and medical fruits of science’ and that they ‘concede that science has proved spectacularly successful as a way of understanding the world,’ many of these people will also flat-out discount the very implications of scientific and critical thought!
` Now, what kind of logic is that?
` The parts of science that come into the most conflict are specifically those which imply that we are but humble animals that are not really special in any cosmological way, and that the world does not revolve around us.
` Some of these unsatisfied people may instead prefer various fundamentalist religions, pseudosciences, New Age superstitions, and other faiths which emphasize the idea that we ‘have our place’ and are important in the universe.
` Other True Believers might think of their doctrines alongside science as ‘complementary ways of knowing’ so that contradictory information does not come into conflict. In other words, this is a form of doublethink in which; “This is true here, yet it cannot be true there, and I can find no inconsistencies.”
` And, we cannot forget that there are also those who capitalize on (and sometimes exaggerate) the limits of scientific knowledge and make room for their beliefs in the steadily-retreating gaps of mystery. This way of thinking, and the scientist’s drive for finding solid and certain knowledge in the tangible rather than the speculative, would explain why the opening page includes a quote from physicist Paul Davies:

To invoke God as a blanket explanation of the unexplained is to make God the friend of ignorance. If God is to be found, it must surely be through what we discover about the world, not what we fail to discover.
` I ask; “Will the gaps ever be too small?” For some, perhaps not. All I can say is that we are human and it is possible to pursue objective reality from our standpoint. ...Especially considering that it is quite amazing what we can do with mere scientific methodology and the humble, earthly materials available to us:
` So far, we’ve discovered how to determine what stars are made of, how to make utterly new kinds of substances, and how to travel through space. We’ve even discovered that all earthly organisms are made of nearly identical molecular components, as well as reams of mechanisms that can allow us to manipulate them. Our computers are even able to display some forms of intelligent behavior – and who knows to where that could lead?
` In other words, something as simple as highly-organized and controlled critical thinking has brought us numerous possibilities so grand that they are also frightening. That just goes to show you how well science works. And yet… not everyone is willing to give it due respect?
` Even this is difficult for me to comprehend.

` Well! What did you, loyal readers, think of this post? Don’t be afraid to let me know!

` (If you'd like to keep reading, I have the second installment - and more! -up and running!)


Point of Goodness said...

What is Skepticism but a paradigm? And what is a Paradigm but a set of assumptions?

Assumptions are nothing but dogma!

Therefore, you assume it works. And so, it works... for you.

Like you said, science works rather like carving a block of marble into the truth. And, since scientists can CHOOSE what to falsify and what not to, they can sculpt the idea of reality however they want to.

Galtron said...

Me thinks Point of Goodness hasn't been reading very closely.

I say it's a breathtaking post. Very detailed.

And... for Goodness sake! ...let us not forget to mention that when you cannot prove something false, or you have not, that does not automatically mean it's true. Any good scientist would know.
.......Scientists can make assumtions, but they can't follow them. You have to at least try to prove something false and fail to make it seem more plausible.

Rev. Dr. Penaluna said...

The Mythopoetic Mind vs The Scientific Method!

Aww yeeah, bitches!

S E E Quine said...

` Sadly, this Mythopoetic Mind is most likely immune to the scientific method or skepticism-in-general by merit of not understanding its point or worth.
` Ironically, I am once again at Open Mike Night and so do not have time to, ah, correct Point of Goodness' assumptions about Skepticism.
` Then again, I figure that if someone can read my entire post and not understand it, no amount of clarification can ever sway their... opinion.

Galtron said...

I guess that's a True Believer for you. Presumably.

S E E Quine said...

` Now that I am chilling at Zippy's (with people who are apparently really disgusting from horse-riding carrying on just behind me), I have managed to formulate one important point:

` The only assumption that scientists keep is the one that reality is objective. In other words; the world exists outside of your head!
` By that assumption, I exist. By that same assumption, you also exist. Not only that, but we can agree upon things that are plain to see.
` For example; if you look up into the sky and see the moon, then someone else (who has adequate vision) should be able to see it, providing it isn't being blocked by anything.

` Therefore: If you perform an experiment, someone else performing the same experiment should get the same result. (Unless of course, the conditions are not similar enough!)
` When results do not deviate from experimentor to experimentor, it means that they may have 'homed in' on something that exists in objective reality rather than a meaningless lump. (And, as it is with science, there is yet much more 'checking and making sure the result still shows' to go!)

` Nothing I have ever seen suggests that reality is not objective. So... I trust that, when something is generally agreed upon in extensive observations, it has a good chance of being true.
` Of course, certain experimentors have been known to deceive, but since other experimentors are all there to confirm their results, such deceivers are easily apprehended by objectivity.

` ...In other words, you can never escape reality!!! Mua ha ha ha haaa!

Point of Goodness said...

Whatever you say.

You expect me to believe you, but unfortunately for you that in itself requires faith.

Keep that in mind.

Galtron said...

Yes! .....Because we all know that when the Red King wakes up, we will cease to exist.