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Science started out fairly modestly; with a collection of mostly wrong ideas that seemed plausible at the time. It has accreted and evolved over time to offer compelling and staggeringly consistent explanations for most of the observed universe.
There are still puzzle pieces that don’t fit perfectly: paradoxes, disagreements, ideas we may never be able to test. Scientists thrill to scrutinize these areas, trading good for better each time they discover it.
We have even learned about the limitations and defects in our own powers of (supposedly rational) examination, and invented ingenious workarounds: by laboring together in an amalgamation of opposing biases and redundant checks, we inexorably move (on average) toward ever more correct results, even with our muddled, cloudy intellects.
It’s hard work, right? So why is it that non-scientific paradigms seem so compelling to so many people? One reason could be that people are unaccustomed to accounting for the burden of proof.
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My HP 110 Mini netbook’s battery pack suddenly failed (0% available, charging… forever). Finding an official HP brand replacement battery turned out to be nearly impossible, not to mention it would cost at least as much as the crappy netbook was worth. So, I got a replacement from one of the second string, ebay store, non-OEM battery manufacturers. Even though, yes, I know it’s got like a 90% chance of exploding or slagging my desk. What else could I do apart from just pitching the whole netbook?
Continue reading Gmail is the new AOL
Listening to the always excellent Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe this week, I was delighted to hear an interview with the lovely, talented, Sara Mayhew (whose blog name I (not so?) cleverly reference here in meme form).
The blog has been in my skeptic list for some time, but I previously knew precious little of the author: manga artist and even a TED fellow!? After hearing her story of ascension to critical thinking I now have a massive, hopeless skepti-crush on her.
“But,” as Peter Griffin would say, “I digest…” The kernel of insight that motivated me to come here and post was the discussion Sara and the hosts had about the rationalist/skeptic underpinnings of her manga work. I never stopped to reflect on how most stories told in our civilization are deeply integrated with magical thinking (Star Wars) vs. rationalism (Star Trek.. at least they tried!). The din of background-woo is so constant that I barely noticed it. As if magic and heroes chosen of divine right were the very substrate of good storytelling.
I am still of the opinion that our irrationalities are founded in the cheap wiring of our brains. But I wonder how much our stories help keep us wrapped up in that warm, comfortable fog of belief. Can we tell great, entertaining tales where the heroes’ power isn’t supernatural or superhuman; but comes from reason, skepticism, collaboration?
Well I can’t even describe it very well, so obviously *I’m* not going to be authoring an enthralling skeptic-epic. But I hope that Sara’s onto something here. Follow her, and be enchanted by beautiful reason.
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From Less Wrong:
we need to study the cognitive sciences, figure out the way our intuitions work and how we might correct for mistakes. Above all, we need to learn to always question the workings of our minds, for we need to understand that they are not magical.
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While composing this post on No Agenda Forums, an interesting problem came up. How can I show someone their own biases? They are obvious to me, but (by definition) the other person’s entire system of thinking is arranged in such a way as to find their biases valid.
After coming to understand the limitations of our built-in processing, this problem really bugs me. What kind of mirror can I use to show someone their errors? How could they show me my errors? Assuming my reasoning is faulty, would I be just as difficult to convince, or does my experience with fallacy and bias give me any advantage?
I guess this is what keeps a skeptic up at night.
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Note: I addressed the following essay to the general population of the No Agenda Forums, a community that I cherish despite frequent frustration. It is peopled by many conspiracy theorists and champions of various “alternative” things, such as alternative explanations, alternative medicine, etc. In short, people I cannot really reach on a level of reason. What I say may not do any good, but if even one in a thousand of those readers can see the light, then I am proud to have played a small part in the emergence of a rational mind.
Continue reading You make and break your own religion
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Bucked by genius, and morons.
The latter is common.
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I received an email forward today from an extended family member, and it upset me more than if it had been spam or malware. It was a mal-meme:
This is not sent for discussion. If you agree, forward it. If you don’t, delete it. I don’t want to know one way or the other. By me forwarding it, you know how I feel.
I’ll bet this was a surprise to NBC.
Do you believe that the word God should stay in American culture?
NBC this morning had a poll on this question. They had the highest Number of responses that they have ever had for one of their polls, and the Percentage was the same as this:
86% to keep the words, IN God We Trust and God in the Pledge of Allegiance
That is a pretty ‘commanding’ public response.
I was asked to send this on if I agreed or delete if I didn’t …..
Now it is your turn. It is said that 86% of Americans believe the word God should stay.
Therefore, I have a very hard time understanding why there is such a mess about having ‘In God We Trust’ on our money and having God in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Why is the world catering to this 14%?
If you agree, pass this on , if not, simply delete.
In God We Trust
Continue reading Prejudice isn’t a discussion
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I love everything about this Skeptoid post, in which Brian makes great points about the peril of debating when the truth is on your side. It’s counter-intuitive on first consideration, but as I’ve mused previously, debating has relatively little to do with truth and mostly pivots on charisma and debate tactics (many of which pragmatically employ fallacy and bias to torpedo the opposition).
I don’t agree with Brian that scientists must always be at a disadvantage. After all, there’s nothing to stop someone from being right AND being a talented debater. But it is folly to assume that the facts will be an asset, and naively blunder into a battle you will surely lose. Further, you have to be careful about how you debate, because it’s easy for an opponent to leverage your use of “dishonest” debate tactics to cast a shadow on your credibility or factual claims.
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I don’t have a lot to add to this excellent post about the narrative fallacy at lesswrong. Here are some great excerpts, to convince you to go read the whole thing:
Essentially, the narrative fallacy is our tendency to turn everything we see into a story – a linear chain of cause and effect, with a beginning and an end.
Our brains are engines designed to analyze the environment, pick out the important parts, and use those to extrapolate into the future.
This tendency can be seen in a variety of lower level biases. For instance, the availability heuristic causes us to make predictions and inferences based on what most quickly comes to mind – what’s most easily remembered. Hindsight bias causes us to interpret past events as obviously and inevitably causing future ones. Consistency bias causes us to reinterpret past events and behaviors to be consistent with new information. Confirmation bias causes us to only look for data to support the conclusions we’ve already arrived at. There’s also our tendency to engage in rationalization, and create post-hoc explanations for our behavior. They all have the effect of of molding, shaping, and simplifying events into a kind of linear narrative, ignoring any contradiction, complexity, and general messiness.