Archive for April, 2010
For many years I’ve been an admirer and occasional practitioner of the art of typography. I’ve got an old (and dusty) hole punch and I’ve always admired the typography on this label.
Long before humans began to keep records we’ve been doing philosophy. It’s very much a part of what makes us who we are. We question how things work, how we got here and where we fit in the universe. And now at the height of our powers and on the shoulders of so many giants http://www.philosophy.com is a website peddling skin care products with the limp tag line of “Believe in miracles”. Is that a mass rolling of bodies in graves I hear?
Imagine, if you will, a person who believes in the power of homeopathy to heal. He’s had a number of experiences that lead him to believe that homeopathy is more than just a placebo. He doesn’t quite know how to explain why it works, he just knows that it does work. This person is no fool. He doesn’t believe every homeopathic claim without regard. He will apply the core tenets of skepticism to examine claims and will discard those where there is a perfectly natural explanation. But where there is no explanation and homeopathy has been used he accepts that this is a result of the the power of homeopathy.
Now, imagine a Christian who believes in miracles. She’s had a number of experiences and heard the testimonies of genuine and reputable people. She doesn’t know how it works only that, occasionally, it really does work. She’s no fool either. She understands skeptical thinking. She won’t accept any and all miracle claims and is aware that there have been many, many bogus claims in the past. But when she sees examples of miracles where there is no natural explanation and the miracle is done in the name of Christianity she accepts that this is a genuine miracle.
In both of these examples, the people are acting perfectly skeptically within their predefined set of beliefs. They are applying the techniques properly and should be commended. But in both of these examples there are two fundamental flaws which, when combined, render the process of skepticism almost useless.
First, if a magician performs a trick and you can’t think of how it could possibly have been done you are usually happy to shrug and say you simply don’t know how he did it. But we are pattern-seeking creatures and it often doesn’t sit well with us to say we don’t know. Especially when the claim seems genuine. We have to find an explanation. In both of these examples our Christian and our homeopath have not been content to simply say “I don’t know” in the absence of a natural explanation and have defaulted to the explanation provided by their predefined beliefs. Which is perfectly understandable given that they have good reason for their beliefs.
Or do they?
This leads me to the second flaw. We have to ask how the homeopath came to the conclusion that homoepathy is actually effective (beyond placebo) in the first place. Did they use the skeptical method? Or could they just not think of a natural explanation and so jumped to the conclusion that homeopathy must therefore be genuine? What about the Christian and her miracles? Was she displaying good critical thinking when she decided that there is a supernatural God capable of supernatural miracles? Why not be content with an “I don’t know” instead of attempting to fill the unexplained with what the unexplainable?
Skeptical thinking breaks down if your premise was not built using the tools of skepticism in the first place.
As an example of this, in a recent blog entry over at Beretta, the author posts three examples of miracles he believes to be genuine at the same time as taking some pains to point out that’s he’s skeptically-minded. One of them was of a man with a lump of some kind being prayed for who is then shown to have no lump. A commenter pointed out that the man is wearing a different shirt later on (which gives us no idea of how long it’s been since being prayed for or what has happened between) whereupon the author wisely agreed and subsequently withdrew his endorsement. But what if the man happened to be wearing the same shirt days, weeks or months later when the two videos were stitched together? How would he ever have discerned whether this was a fake or not?
Skepticism recommends that you should settle for “I don’t know” over a supernatural and unexplainable explanation. Sure, you sometimes have to temporarily choose an explanatory model in the absence of good evidence but if you’ve chosen one that relies on no known natural laws you really owe it to yourself to spend every minute of every waking hour doubting and re-examining your beliefs because:
“Man, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without rudder, is the sport of every wind. With such persons, gullibility, which they call faith, takes the helm of reason, and the mind becomes a wreck.” – Thomas Jefferson 1822
Coming up later today is a post about the misuse of skepticism (and, yes, I know this is the American spelling but it’s one of the words I’ve compromised on despite the fact I get a red wiggly underline every time I type it) and this is a good opportunity to highlight one of the many traps for the critical thinker.
I find that when someone genuinely believes something to be true, regardless of how illogical it is, I have a strong in-built urge to believe them. It’s almost like we have bullshit detectors that are heavily biased toward genuineness over prior experience or reasonable explanation. I suspect it’s probably somehow tied to the way in which our mirror neurons work.
When a magician performs a trick with a wink and a nod we don’t feel too tempted to believe that he really used magic to make the card appear but when the magician (or conjurer or faith healer or neurotic FBI target or wild-eyed prophet) genuinely believes in what they are saying I personally find that it takes a lot more effort to apply logic to the situation. Perhaps this is because I not only have to come up with a reasonable explanation for their claims but also a reasonable explanation for why they believe their claims. And I have a bullshit detector which has a default setting of “impassioned claims are true”.
I’ve just seen Boy. If you’re from New Zealand then you really ought to see it. If not, you probably won’t get the opportunity and most of it would probably be lost on you anyway.
One News at 6pm appears to have become an advertorial. Does this mean I have to switch back to TV3? Do they still have that silly touch-screen?
I’ve been looking at getting a couple of brewing books and have just been through the tedious exercise of comparing prices. Not sure whether the results would be similar if I was looking for popular novels instead.
Here are the prices in NZ dollars and including shipping:
Whitcoulls wins but is closely followed by Amazon which puts the other NZ book stores to shame. If you know of a good alternative please feel free to share.
I recently purchased a four ring burner, assembled it and boiled up lots of water only to find that it didn’t do a very good job and blackened the bottom of the pot at the same time. I did a bit of Internet research and discovered that, due to the way I’d set it up (the instructions weren’t clear), I was potentially in danger of carbon monoxide poisoning. So it’s probably a good idea to get the information out there.
When burning with gas you really don’t want to see a yellow flame. It’s an indication that you’ve got an obstruction or that not enough oxygen is being mixed with the gas before burning. It’s the yellow flame when burning gas that causes pots to have blackened bottoms. It’s also the yellow flame that’s generating carbon monoxide which is undetectable and will kill you without sufficient ventilation.
On my setup, there are adjustable disks that can control the flow of air that is mixed with the gas. I had these tightened flush so that not much air was being mixed. They should have been wound back a bit to let more air in which gives a bluer flame and is more powerful at the same time.
That’s all. I hope this saves someone’s life. You never know.