Thursday, May 30, 2013

Summer Series - Starting Principles

I’m going to attempt another series. It’s summer which is usually slow blogging time and this will require a little more research than usual so it might unfold slowly. It’s not so much about religion as it is “truth discovery”. Before I introduce it, I want to lay down some ground rules for myself. You can police me as you like and keep me honest.

These are some key philosophical points I discovered after asking the questions of how do we know what we know and why do we think the way we think.

Principle of Charity

 This is generally accepted among philosophers and was employed widely by politicians a few decades ago. Since the advent of talk radio and then 24-hour news channels it is less well known. The idea is, unless you have very good reasons, assume whomever you are listening to is not crazy. At least on the first run through, give their idea as much credibility as you can stand. Even if you strongly disagree with the person do not immediately jump to the conclusion that they are evil or insane for taking their position.


David Hume said, “A weaker evidence can never destroy a stronger.” Makes sense, but as Hume found, his own advice was difficult to follow. We all complain about the constantly changing “results of the latest study.” It would be great if “latest” was equal to “stronger” and it often is, but not always. Hume was the ultimate skeptic and said, philosophically speaking, we can’t prove anything. It’s too difficult to live like that but we should always keep in mind that our senses can fool us, we might learn something tomorrow that changes what we know today, that most everyone we know knows something we don’t, and we don’t have it all figured out.


This is a major part of modern thinking that quickly fell into our background knowledge because it is so obvious. But it took some of the great minds of the 20th century to formulate it rigorously. It is attributed to Karl Popper. He changed common sense thinking from truth being based on proof to saying that a theory is scientific if we know what would disprove it. Nothing can be completely proven. We can only increase our certainty until it is considered as a proven fact. For something to be science you must be able to design an experiment that will give you data that will lead to more or less certainty about it. If you can’t do that, it’s just an idea.

Another way to look at this is to consider your favorite difficult Uncle or somebody in your circle of friends who can’t be argued with. Most of us know someone who has a pet theory or is constantly coming up with new ones and never seems to listen to reason. No matter what evidence you present they have a way of deflecting it. If your evidence is strong, they will fall back on a theory of how that evidence was constructed to cover-up the actual truth. How they know that truth is a mystery.


If you are uncomfortable with these principles, to borrow from Steve Novella, if you don’t like science, which part is it you don’t like? If you live in a country with a constitution, which is most of the world, do you not like the idea of “innocent until proven guilty?” There is unevenness in how that is enforced, but it is at its core a scientific principle. Because of scientific thinking, people can no longer accuse you of witchcraft and burn you at the stake, they have to have evidence and they have to prove their case.

Science led to principles that ended slavery and improved civil rights. Science is the fairest system. It allows to you sell a book that claims you can change the weather with your mind, you just can’t claim it is scientifically proven. It allows you to teach your children that the earth is 10,000 years old, it just asks you not to call it science or to teach it in a science class or call it an alternative scientific theory. It allows you say whatever you want and if you can provide evidence it will accept it as truth.

A Handy reference

Carl Sagan developed some strategies for sniffing out good science and put them in his book The Demon Haunted World. Michael Shermer worked some of those into a shorter list. He calls it the “Baloney Detection Kit." I will be employing this list throughout the series as well.

Sunday, May 19, 2013


Over at The Austin Atheist Experience, there is a long thread dedicated to one guy. What I wouldn’t give to have an internationally known organization dedicate a thread to me. This guy has the opportunity to ask the entire world whatever he wants, and he is using it to play the “why” game like a little kid.

And he is losing the game.

At one point he even calls one of the responses a “book”, and tells the responder he didn’t bother reading it. The response is about 3 short paragraphs long. I admit it is rather long to read the entire thread at this point, but if you were Corey, you would have had these responses come in over a period of days. Alright, I don’t think I need to point out the ridiculousness of this thread.

So why am I blogging about it and why did I add my comments to it? Under normal circumstances, if you determine someone is unreasonable, you ignore them. Exceptions to this are, if it is your boss, and you don’t have good prospects of getting another job soon; if it is your child and they have not learned how to be reasonable yet; if it is someone who is around your children or maybe just your friends and could potentially influence them negatively. Each of these requires a measured response.

Internet threads are carried on by people who think a person like Corey deserves a chance to be heard and a chance to consider other opinions. Also, the internet influences many people, so leaving an unreasonable statement unaddressed gives the impression that it has merit. All of this is a matter of degree and you have to decide for yourself if you are someone who should participate.

What I’d really like to address is how we end up with people like Corey. He apparently has some level education, some free time, and a computer. Where did we go wrong? My personal theory is that we don’t teach the history of science correctly. Mostly we don’t even teach much history past 1776 or so.

When we teach the history of scientific innovation, we teach the heroes, Einstein, Newton, Galileo, that guy who cross bred peanuts. Obviously I should have been paying more attention, but look at a curriculum of any public school and show me where it talks about the tedious work done by grad students sifting through data. Show me the words “peer review” used anywhere.

If you remember science class, you probably remember being given some flasks and a Bunsen burner and told how to do an experiment, and you were told how it should turn out. That’s not scientific investigation, that’s a demonstration of what science has already figured out. What you weren’t told, or at least this wasn’t highlighted, even though it is what science actually is, were the thousands of failed experiments someone did before they proved whatever it is you were learning that day. If it hadn’t been proven yet, it wasn’t being taught. That was real science in the making. That’s what scientists do, not High School kids. If you got to discuss ongoing science in your class, you were lucky.

Corey is really stuck on the word “prove”, so I have to stop and address that. You can skip this paragraph if you are a reasonable person. Math has proofs. They are absolutely proven, WITHIN THE DEFINITION OF MATH. 1 + 1 = 2 because we define those characters that way. Science, history, and just about everything else can only deal with probabilities. You don’t need to understand the entire theory of probability to understand that 99.9% certain is better than a 50/50 chance.

The history of science is full of people who made claims based on sitting in a room and thinking something through. They also did a few experiments, but we generally only teach about the ones that were successful. It is also full of people stealing other people’s ideas. It is full of people manipulating their data and making claims that took years to disprove. It is full of people who were very right about some things and very wrong about other things. None of that matters when you are discussing what science really is.

What’s important is that a major value within science is: question everything. This includes your own work. If you discover something that no one else has, the first thing you do is ask others to check your work. If you don’t ask, they will anyway. If you don’t publish your data and your methods, you shouldn’t be listened to.

Anyone can find flaws with how science is done. The difference between a scientific approach and just about any other approach is that science welcomes those questions. It refines its methods based on that input. Anything else would be unreasonable. Corey.

Sunday, May 5, 2013


I’m taking a course online about the economics of the poor. These two people share the lecturing. In this last week, Banerjee was discussing institutions. There are no sweeping conclusions, which is refreshing in this world of point-counterpoint where any one failure is taken as proof the entire system is about to collapse and everyone and everything related to it must be thrown out, burned and made to suffer. Instead he presents his case and sometimes presents the case of people he does not agree with and discusses the pros and cons of each.

Also, it comes out of MIT, so the students are expected to know things like when was South Africa colonized or be able to find Brazil on a map. Also refreshing. They are also expected to know a little bit of statistics and economics. I didn’t do so well in that area. It was a different experience than reading a book, even an informative non-fiction book. Usually, I, and I suppose most of us are consumers of knowledge. We hear it on the news, or maybe a documentary or book, and we either accept the conclusions or not. In this class, I was presented with relatively new information and participated in forming a conclusion.


He was discussing institutions. He was presenting the idea that much of the world we know was formed by the few colonizing nations from 400 years ago. The US was a colony then became a colonizer. Most of Africa was colonized at some time, mostly by the British. Some countries were difficult to live in for the Europeans, so instead of settling there and setting up institutions, they just expropriated the resources. For the most part, those that were settled are still doing well and the ones that had their riches exproprieated are still poor. Unfortunately, he didn’t have any good answers for how we can setup healthy institutions in those poor countries.

He did however have some interesting observations. He travels all over the world and notes that countries everywhere have very similar laws but differences in how they are enforced and implemented. Even with those differences, there are basic values of civility that are common to almost everywhere in the world. He told the story of how it is possible to go almost anywhere, at least anywhere that has some minimum of population, and you can hail a cab.

The story was not out of the ordinary, and that was the point. Think about it. Would you take a job that involved driving around a city, picking up strangers, taking them to remote destinations at all hours and completing a cash transaction with them? Most of us wouldn’t, but this happens all the time, everywhere. I wish I could say that no one ever got hurt or robbed while doing this, it does happen. But most of the time it doesn’t. It is not a high risk job with an excessive mortality rate.

 It is a safe and normal thing mainly because almost everyone wants it to be a safe and normal thing. Although many of us could easily take advantage of the system and get a free ride and maybe even a little extra change, we don’t. Most of us don’t even think about why, we just know it is wrong. If we think about it, we know that if we started doing that, others would too and then the system wouldn’t be there at all and there wouldn’t be anything to exploit.

He goes on to talk about how small changes will most likely continue to improve the plight of poor nations. Again, this is something everyone wants without having to think about why. There may not be an agreed upon way to do it, but we can make improvements here and there and improve situations for a few at a time. It may be that what we are doing today will have an impact for 400 years.