Archive for the 'critical thinking' Category

Jan 19 2010

Dawkins’ Book: My Major Quibble

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A major quibble? Clearly I am confused. But that is where I must start, though in future posts I will be sharing the many admirable things about Richard Dawkins’ latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. I feel forced into placing my single significant criticism up front, for that is where he, somewhat puzzlingly, places what I consider to be the most contentious point. Up front.

In the preface Dawkins writes:

“This book is my personal summary of the evidence that the ‘theory’ of evolution is actually a fact — as incontrovertible a fact as any in science.”

Wow. Incontrovertible means “absolutely certain and cannot be shown to be wrong.” As any in science. I’m jumping ahead of myself here, but it seems the argument — by those who should really know better — that evolution is indeed a fact is a rhetorical tactic. Evolution is a fact, case closed. If you can’t see the fact, you’re blind. I feel this kind of argument miseducates as much as it might, might, make a valid point. How does it miseducate? Two ways. 1) It stretches the definition of fact too far. 2) It places the emphasis on a conclusion and not on the essential and supremely solid scientific reasoning that gets us there.

Dawkins’ very first chapter is titled, “Only a Theory?” In it he argues that evolution should be considered a fact. Why not present the overwhelming evidence first, thus making the acceptance of the “fact” status more sensible? This ordering seemed illogical to me.

As for the meat to my major quibble, on page 8 Dawkins writes,

“Evolution is a fact. Beyond reasonable doubt, beyond serious doubt, beyond sane, informed, intelligent doubt, beyond doubt evolution is a fact.”

I, for one, am sane and informed but would disagree. And it all hinges upon the definition of fact.

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Jan 15 2010

Anthropic Myopia

Oh lard. Not another physicist waxing poetic about how the conditions of the universe had to be just as they are for human intelligence to evolve (a.k.a., the anthropic principle). To me, this borders on superstitious thinking: taking one incidence (our universe) and finding meaning in it.

Across the Multiverse: Physicist Considers the Big Picture.

In my opinion, the anthropic principle involves taking a narrow view of the big picture.

Jenkins and co-writer Gilad Perez, a theorist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, discuss a provocative hypothesis known as the anthropic principle, which states that the existence of intelligent life (capable of studying physical processes) imposes constraints on the possible form of the laws of physics.

“Our lives here on Earth — in fact, everything we see and know about the universe around us — depend on a precise set of conditions that makes us possible,” Jenkins said.

Consider this scenario: on her birthday a woman goes to a bar with friends to celebrate — something she rarely does — and has too much to drink. Which is also something she rarely does. The woman is coaxed into playing a game of pool/billiards, although she is very bad at it. On her last turn of the game, she hits an expert-level shot to win it all. On her birthday! Was it meant to be? Change one of many variables and that specific outcome would not have occurred. Never. Not on her birthday, with friends, playing pool of all things. And winning. Drunk.

We could certainly excuse the woman, stumbling home happy, declaring “it was meant to be.” Although it is clearly a form of superstitious thinking. Just as, had she missed a very easy shot at the end of the game to lose it, declaring “it was meant to be” would likewise be superstitious thinking.

As for the manifold contingencies involved in our having evolved — I find no great significance in it.

When my wife and I lived in New Mexico we enjoyed “rock hounding” — going looking for minerals, crystals, fossils, “raw” semi-precious gemstones, etc. in the desert. Geodes were always fascinating. What was inside that round ball of rock? Layers of agate? A quartz-filled pocket? If today I were to slice into a geode with a diamond-tipped saw blade and find this overt message: It is Friday the 15th, 2010, and your name is Andrew. And the NASDAQ is going to finish the week at 2333.33. . . . sure, then I’d wonder about a “big picture” influencing all the little things going on here on Earth.  Sure, then I’d have grounds for concluding “it” was meant to be.  At least after ruling out a hoax.

Almost humorously, the science article contained this paragraph further down in the body:

“What is surprising about our results is that we found conditions that, while very different from those of our own universe, nevertheless might allow — again, at least hypothetically — for the existence of life. (What that life would look like is another story entirely.) This actually brings into question the usefulness of the anthropic principle when applied to particle physics, and might force us to think more carefully about what the multiverse would actually contain.”

Yes, think more carefully, please.

Trouble is, when physicists go all giddy with their far-out speculations, many readers will take these not with a grain of salt, but will view them as bits of crystalline insight into “the big picture.”

What is the meaning of human life? What is the meaning of a round rock filled with crystals? One question is not so different from the other. Careful — don’t go all superstitious in your thinking. Unless it’s your birthday and you’ve had too much to drink.

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Jan 07 2010

What to Do About Woo in the Family

I recently read a blog post, and listened to a podcast, about what to do when confronted with a family member or friend that . . . subscribes to patent nonsense. Call it woo, whether it be religious, paranormal or other.  I got to thinking. I’d here like to share my two cents.

1. Responding to woo is not an all or nothing affair. There are more options than these two: either you go guns blazing and blast that b.s. out of the air or you remain politely silent — an act that could be misinterpreted as tacit agreement.

Instead, your response can be individually tailored according to a number of important factors: the what of the belief, the who of the believer, the how of your relationship to the believer.

2. It is my aspiration to get better at gently planting seeds of doubt in the minds of family members and friends when confronted by their woo. Rather than tearing down another person’s beliefs, the more effective approach for me might be to explain how I arrived at my own position, in effect building it up. Perhaps more importantly, beyond any specific issue I hope to generally model an fair-minded yet skeptical attitude through asking good questions and expressing the educational virtues of curiosity and rationality.

Of course, my thinking about confrontations over beliefs may merely reflect my own preference for how to be corrected when wrong. I rarely respond well to being publicly bitch-slapped by the truth. Instead, I appreciate having a breadcrumb-trail of clues placed before me so I may make the progress and then own the conclusion myself.

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Jan 05 2010

Questioning Climate Science

Published by under critical thinking

While I do not “believe” that anthropogenic global warming is a fact, I find the assertion/theory of anthropogenic global warming as very likely valid. But I could be wrong. And so I keep my eyes open for any new science that pertains to the issue.

Almost a week ago this news release hit my desk: No Rise of Airborne Fraction of Carbon Dioxide in Past 150 Years, New Research Finds.

The nutmeat of the finding is this -

To assess whether the airborne fraction is indeed increasing, Wolfgang Knorr of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol reanalyzed available atmospheric carbon dioxide and emissions data since 1850 and considers the uncertainties in the data.

In contradiction to some recent studies, he finds that the airborne fraction of carbon dioxide has not increased either during the past 150 years or during the most recent five decades.

Will this finding stand up to close scrutiny (by true experts in the field, something I am not) and/or attempts at replication? I don’t know. But time will tell.

And speaking of time, although I am not 100% certain that anthropogenic global warming is a fact, I do believe there is plenty of reason to start acting now. It is a very serious issue, and enough good evidence is in to justify doing something about it. Now.

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Jan 05 2010

Dawkins’ Latest Book: The Good and the Bad

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Over the holidays I have been reading Richard Dawkins’ latest book: The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. I will be sharing my thoughts about it here in coming days.

Can I be objective? I am, after all, someone who accepts evolutionary theory with a very high degree of confidence. And I hold Dawkins in high esteem. How can I then be capable of spotting and sharing any “bad” I find among the good of his book (if there is any)?

If I am truly a 360 degree skeptic, it shouldn’t be that difficult. For I most value not the popularity of individuals I admire, nor the bald allure of what they say and write. When it comes to works of non-fiction what matters to me is the veracity of an argument. In my opinion, the movement towards truth — towards a more accurate understanding of the universe — is always the best course to take. At least in the long term.

Preliminary comment: When I first held the 400+ page book in my hands I admired the cover design and the many pages of full-color illustrations. Good start. Will any bad follow? Stay tuned.

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Jan 04 2010

Social Power, Morality, and Virtual Science

How reliable are the results from psychological research that involves placing individuals in hypothetical situations? A recent study on morality found this:

…power makes people stricter in moral judgment of others – while being less strict of their own behavior.

Makes sense to me. But my sense-detector has been wrong before. Question #1: What data did they base their conclusion upon? Seems it was an experiment involving role playing. Behavior in a virtual social situation.

To simulate an experience of power, the researchers assigned roles of high-power and low-power positions to a group of study participants. Some were assigned the role of prime minister and others civil servant. The participants were then presented with moral dilemmas related to breaking traffic rules, declaring taxes, and returning a stolen bike.

How reliable is the data generated by this type of research? Does it accurately translate to real-world behavior? My guess is that it does — to one degree or another. But what degree?

I consider study result highly suggestive and possible spot-on. Or possibly off the spot somehow.

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Jan 01 2010

Quick Hit: Human Superficiality Greater in Metropolitan Areas

Does physical attractiveness matter? Yes it does. But wait. At it is with so many statements of fact, qualifiers are needed.

In The Importance of Attractiveness Depends on Where You Live I read this:

Attractiveness does matter in more socially mobile, urban areas . . . but it is far less relevant in rural areas. In urban areas individuals experience a high level of social choice, and associating with attractive people is one of those choices.

My guess is the difference is not so much about social choice, but about encountering many more unfamiliar people. Thus the more frequent use of — the reliance upon — a “superficial” appraisal. Of course, there may be a number of reasons for the finding, each playing a role, however large or small, and/or in specific circumstances.

Damn, good scientific reasoning ain’t as easy as the sloppy variety!

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Dec 31 2009

RP) Change the Question

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(Recycled material: I’m in holiday/travel mode. This material first posted on Jan 29, 2009)

To Be More Scientific, Change the Question

This is oversimplifying matters quite a bit, no doubt, but it seems to me that for a people or an individual to become more scientific they must change their “why” questions to “how.”

While “why” implies intention and purpose–and likely excites the “social animal” parts of our brains, “how” seeks to disclose the processes behind phenomena and stimulates the newer parts of the human brain–those involved in tool use.

For example, when in the wake of a tragedy, asking “why” it happened will tend to generate answers that reflect human social needs: was the event intended? Will it influence future behavior?

Asking “how” it happened opens the door to examining the specific, often impersonal, elements involved.

The scientific endeavor has been described as “cold.” And there is truth to this, by necessity. An objective distance is essential to doing bias-free science.

Scientists tend to stay away from “why” questions, not necessarily because those questions are too big to handle, but because they aren’t scientific. Consider this philosophical biggie: Why does the universe exist? When phrased with a “why” the question begs a response relative to the social and emotional self. Yet the truer answer my reside beyond personal concerns.

If one were to instead ask, How is it the universe exists?–that is a more scientific question. It trains the focus on facts and not on social and emotional implications.

Did science dawn when people began to think beyond themselves and their group, when they shed the propensity to see agency and intent in everything they experienced? I don’t know. But the asking of “how” questions was an essential part of the dawn.

One of my all-time favorite New Yorker cartoons had this caption:

There are two types of people in the world. Those who believe there are two types of people in this world, and those that don’t.

Is science all about “how” and religion “why”? Does one appeal to the tool-using parts of the brain and the other to the social/emotional parts? I don’t know. But I do have a hunch that, in the least, my two-option breakdown is overly simplistic.

How do I know that? Good question.

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Dec 30 2009

RP) A Place for Questions

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(Recycled material: I’m in holiday/travel mode. This material first posted on Jan 30, 2009)

The Campus Crusade for Christian Assumptions

It is fully reasonable for skeptics to question the existence of the Loch Ness Deity. Or of a god, however clearly or poorly defined. I would argue that for a skeptic to take a hands-off approach to religion would be to fail to be consistent in their thinking and worldview.

Yesterday, after teaching a developmental psychology class, I passed by the door of the host professor (if that’s what you call them) for the Campus Crusade for Christ. Right there on my campus. On the professor’s door hung a display holding a bunch of brand-new pamphlets for students and staff to take. So I took one. What was I supposed to do, put blinders on and walk past it as if it didn’t exist?

As an exercise in critical thinking I’m going to go through the pamphlet, line-by-line. This will be the first post in a series.

Front cover (title):

“Where will you spend eternity?”

How many assumptions are inherent in that question? I find three. Let’s spell them out.

1) That there will be an eternity. It is possible that time began at the birth of our universe. We don’t know one way or the other. Before the big bang there may have been no substance and no time and space as well. To strip eternity of its essential temporal characteristic would be to speak nonsensically.

2) That there will be a “you” to persist for eternity. There is no evidence of a spirit or soul that continues to exist after death.

3) That there are a number of possible destinations for your spirit/soul to go after death. The “where” part of the question would be unnecessary if there was only one location to “spend” eternity at.

Notice that I didn’t say any of the above are untrue, just that they are assumptions: they have been untested and/or lack empirical backing.

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Dec 29 2009

RP) Assumptions about Religion and Science

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(Recycled material: I’m in holiday/travel mode. This material first posted on Dec. 24, 2008)

A Supernatural Assumption

A research finding released four days ago bore this headline: God Or Science? A Belief In One Weakens Positive Feelings For The Other.

As you might guess, I have doubts about the wording of the title and the news release itself, which starts like this:

A person’s unconscious attitudes toward science and God may be fundamentally opposed, researchers report, depending on how religion and science are used to answer “ultimate” questions such as how the universe began or the origin of life.

The problem — and its no quibble — consists of not defining which deity they are referring to, for there are and have been hundreds of them, thereby perpetuating the assumption that there is one deity that all people recognize.

C’mon! Study some history and anthropology and world religions. Inject some objectivity into the piece. Using the word “god” both capitalized and without a preceding article not only perpetuates assumptions but it also compromises science. In this case, what god, precisely, does belief in weaken feelings for science?

A much more scientific wording would make explicit that the “belief in” question was not about the god Zeus or Ra or XYZ, but no doubt a generic, monotheistic version of the Abrahamic tradition.

The first sentence of the final paragraph states,

The most obvious implication of the research is that “to be compatible, science and religion need to stick to their own territories, their own explanatory space,” Preston said.

That’s an odd sort of compatibility. Sort of like saying a husband and wife need to stay in their own rooms to be compatible.

Good science precisely defines its variables and tests its claims about the universe. Popular religion does neither. It is a poster-child for bad science.

If we want to best understand the universe we should stick to science even if it means shredding religious claims and assumptions.

One god? By name alone.

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