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Thursday 15 October 2015

Not So Open

What if my brains fall out ?

Human beings are incredibly powerful paradox machines. There is no lower limit on how absurd, self-contradictory, and downright stupid our most violently-held beliefs can be. Despite overwhelming evidence, people still insist that the Moon landing was a hoax, the Earth is flat, aliens are travelling trillions of miles to mutilate cows, anything that's natural must be good for you, vaccines cause autism, the Moon is a hologram, etc. etc. etc.

Actually the massive rocket was spreading the chemtrails that
convinced everyone it was going to the Moon.

While science is fundamentally about doubt rather than skepticism in the usual sense, you can't question everything. If you doubt everything, you end up learning nothing. Sometimes you have to draw a line and say, "I have enough evidence, I shall believe that this is true" even when you don't have 100% proof - because if you don't do this, you'll never move forward. Or as the old saying goes, "Keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out."

Perhaps a slightly better way to put it would be to paraphrase a famous political comment : you can question some of the things all of the time, and all of the things some of the time, but you shouldn't question all of the things all of the time.

Total doubt and total confidence have the same end result : they prohibit learning. So, today's issue is : when should you draw the line ? When is it a good idea to stop (or at least temporarily suspend) questioning things for the sake of maintaining sanity, and how do you avoid the trap of becoming dogmatic ?

Facts are facts... aren't they ?

The most important point is that unless you have irrefutable proof, you never trust your assumptions completely. Irrefutable proof is rare, arguably impossible. It's always possible that people are just making stuff up. But, as a rule of thumb, if "you're lying !" is the only accusation you can make against an argument, you've probably lost. It doesn't matter what evidence I produce to support my position, you can always, always, always turn around and say I'm a liar. Or : the evidence is fabricated. Everything is photoshopped or due to mind-controlling drugs like, oh, I don't know, fluoride.

Although the "it's LIES, I TELL YA !" argument is very, very annoying, we must establish what we mean by "facts". Let's take a simple example that's way beyond climate change in terms of sheer absurdity. Suppose I tell you that fish are entirely fictional. They've never existed. Fossils ? Made by the government. Yesterday's lunch ? Cleverly-doctored, delicious halloumi. That thing swimming around in your pond ? That's what the government's mind-control drugs are making you think.

One could argue that because of "logic" like this it is never possible to establish anything with 100% certainty, and that everything is merely a belief and there are no facts. And perhaps this is correct, but it is not scientific. The scientific method assumes that the world is real (not a simulation or hallucination of any kind) and governed by inviolable laws. Thus what we see and measure are facts. I see a fish => fish exist, that's a fact, end-of. Or more accurately, multiple observers document their fish-sightings under carefully controlled laboratory conditions and thus we establish the existence of fish with what we call certainty. If you don't believe in this most basic assumption, then as far as science is concerned :

If the world was a simulation of some kind, or everyone was lying the whole time about everything (more on that later), then anything could potentially happen at any moment for no reason. That would mean that logic itself is utterly pointless, so we might as well all give up and cry. Maybe the Universe isn't real or predictable, but that doesn't help us analyse it. If you believe this, then you've gone beyond the remit of science : you're not even wrong.

...which is not to say you are wrong, exactly, just that your arguments can't be validated scientifically. Debate your position with a scientist and you'll find that they are literally incapable of remaining rational. It's a little bit like what would happen if a sports journalist started asking a golfer about their team's strategy to get the ball in the net, or, better, how they thought a free trade agreement would affect the mating habits of sea turtles. It's a case of, "why are you asking me ?"

All the scientific disciplines believe in this underlying principle without question, simply for the sake of being able to do science at all. But beyond that there is no particular central idea of science that it's bound to follow. Theories continually change with time; there's nothing that says, "thou shalt not question this model even if thou hast lots of reasons why it is bollocks". With massive irony, people who like to say science is dogmatic often tend to be the ones pointing out that it's made a lot of mistakes in the past, as though that somehow indicates that the process is flawed. Actually that's exactly how it's supposed to work !

Aside from the fundamental tenet that reality is measurable, the "beliefs" of science are evidence-based and provisional. We know that our ideas will change : they are only temporary assumptions, not (or at least they shouldn't be) fervently-held beliefs. So am I saying that actually yes, we should question everything all of the time ? Nope. The facts never change. Our interpretations of what they mean, our theories, are more subtle.

Being pragmatic

It's important to realise that science also has to make other, much less deep assumptions in order to progress. When we assume that processes like sedimentation occurred in the same way in the distant geologic past as they do today, or that radioactive decay hasn't varied with time, or that the laws of physics are the same everywhere, we aren't being dogmatic unless we never test them. Usually these assumptions themselves allow us to make testable predictions which advance us to the next level. If they're wrong, our tests will falsify them.

Making assumptions that some things are true doesn't have to mean that you can't change your mind, it simply means that you've chosen to put the burden of proof onto the opposing viewpoint. Of course the trap to avoid is thinking that your assumptions - especially if they're very good, well-tested assumptions - are actually facts. That's why we test everything... but as individuals we don't have to test all our assumptions all of the time. That approach is wildly impractical and not helpful.

Dogmatism only occurs when you automatically dismiss alternative ideas because you already know your idea is true, and think the alternative is not worth anyone testing at all. This often seems to be a case of people holding their theories above facts*. Relativity can't be right because you think it's weird ? Tough. It is weird, but it's got a heck of a lot of observational evidence backing it up. In the scientific method observations always get the last word. The ancient Greek approach of doing as much theory and as little observation as possible has long since been abandoned on the grounds that it was just... well, wrong. If you want to persuade me that relativity is flawed, you must show me what tests it has failed, not what you don't like about it.

* This article, with scarcely credible contempt for so many theories that underpin the modern world, argues that we shouldn't even bother to test their predictions - it's damn tough to imagine a more dogmatic attitude than that. It is convinced these theories are wrong despite the fact that they have been tested innumerable times and offers almost no explanation why the author thinks they're wrong.
Yeah, I get how you don't like singularities. I don't like 'em either. But why in the world are you so convinced that the Universe has to make sense to you ? Exactly what compunction does it have to do your bidding ? There is no reason whatsoever to assume that the kilo or so of warm, blood-soaked grey goop inside your skull should be able to understand the Universe.

Yet sometimes, at a less obstinate level, refusing to question is healthy. I personally am never going to conduct any tests to see if the Earth is flat because I know it's round. Uncounted numbers of people have already done tests to prove it's round, the only way to get around (ha ha) this is to say, "they're all lying". If you have so little trust in your fellow human beings that you think this many people are lying, one wonders how you're able to get out of bed every morning. You're not in a healthy state of doubt, you are simply paranoid.

Of course when people really are lying it's extra important that this is exposed, but you need strong evidence that this is the case. "You're a liar !" is a perfectly valid argument, but it should be the final blow, not the opening attack. When people use this as a first response, or if it's the only option left, I tend to stop listening. If you want to accuse me of being a dogmatic round-Earther, go right ahead.

Normally though, even saying, "I believe this is true because evidence" does not mean, "I am certain this is true". I am not certain dark matter exists. I am not even certain the laws of physics are the same everywhere. But I believe dark matter is the best explanation, and I believe the laws of physics don't vary because I see no evidence that they do. 99% of the time in my day job, there's no benefit to me in questioning these assumptions. So I don't, but that doesn't mean I'm going to defend these beliefs to the death. Occasionally I do stop and question them, especially (as regular readers are by now acutely aware) dark matter, but there's no point me doing so all the freakin' time.

Habeas Corpus, On The White House Lawn If Possible

When I was younger, I read a lot - and I mean a lot - of books on the paranormal, from aliens to ghosts, lake monsters and ESP, everything. I've still got tens of books on that stuff lying around. Don't tell me I haven't looked at the evidence, because I have - extensively. What convinced me that all of this stuff is not worth pursuing is that the evidence just never seemed to be that great or ever getting any better. Aliens always seemed to be determined to remain secret (why ?) but happily chose to reveal themselves to some redneck farmer who'd let them take wonderful pictures of their spaceship but never of the occupants. More often even the spaceships were nothing more than very fuzzy blobs in the photographs.

Photos never got any better come the digital age either.
After this extensive background reading I now tend to dismiss any claims of flying saucers out of hand. I'll believe if one lands on the White House lawn, but the argument, "I'm a dude on the internet, trust me !" carries no weight with me. As far as I'm concerned, this is another hypothesis that has already been tested extensively enough that it can be dismissed until much stronger evidence comes along. If other people want to research UFOs, that's fine with me - I just don't want to get involved with this personally, thanks.

Similarly, when something like the EmDrive or cold fusion comes along, the claims tend to be a case of betting on a barely-measurable detections over decades (even centuries) of established results. It's not that scientists will never accept the result. It's just that we require gold standard, "spaceship on the lawn" level of evidence. For most of us it's simply a pragmatic approach to ignore it until that comes along.

I don't have time for this. I need to know what to believe !

Not everyone is prepared to read up on UFOs. Similarly, not everyone has the inclination or indeed ability to become a professional scientist (likewise I have no ability to become a professional bog-snorkeller, swimsuit model, or a toaster). And therein lies the danger : the modern world is highly dependent on and yet very suspicious of science. It doesn't really matter if you believe in flying saucers or not; it does matter if you refuse to believe in the benefits of vaccines.

The thing is, in most ways I'm not a scientist either. I am not a climate scientist, but I believe global warming is likely mostly the result of humans. I am not a biologist, but I believe vaccines work. I am not a surgeon, but I know surgery works. Nor am I a chemist, but I'm pretty sure dynamite works. And I'm not an electrician but I can still use the internet. Is it dogmatic of me to trust the experts on so many issues about which I'm genuinely no better informed than the average man on the street ? No, because I do understand how the scientific method works.

If you want to persuade me that an argument is false because the method isn't being followed correctly, you might have some success. But if you want to persuade me that the method itself is fundamentally flawed, you're basically arguing against every piece of technology in the modern world. Good luck with that.
It's that critical step of "observation" which is so important. Simply put, it isn't dogmatic to believe that well-tested things are true, as long as deep down you reserve at least a small level of uncertainty*. I also know that the results have been tested repeatedly, and if you don't believe one expert, you probably should believe a thousand.

* Well that's true for theories (well-tested but not proven models) at least. For true facts (i.e. the Earth is round) you can abandon all uncertainty. You can't be dogmatic about facts even if you want to.

Really, the level of trust we're asking for is no different to what everyone accepts in everyday life. We all give money for goods and services expecting that the guy behind the counter won't just run off with it. We all get into planes expecting that they won't crash. We all live in houses expecting that they won't just collapse or catch fire or suddenly turn into jelly for some reason, trusting that the builders have done their job correctly. We cannot be certain of any of those things, but if we doubt them all the time we'd end up cowering in a hole or wrapped in bubble wrap or something.

Of course, keeping the possibility of a terrible accident in the back of your mind is perfectly sensible. Ordinary doubt is a very good thing indeed - it's paranoia that's the problem.

So we should all just shut up and trust scientists unconditionally, then ?

Just like with UFOs, the reason I support virtually every mainstream established result is because whenever I've looked in detail at the alternatives, I've found them wanting. Every. Single. Time. If you think it makes me some sort of dogmatic acolyte, I don't care. It's not my fault if I find the mainstream, evidence-based arguments genuinely convincing.

The great thing is that you too are free to examine those findings for yourself, and if you do so carefully and without bias, I honestly believe you'll be in favour of the mainstream results as well. At least in astronomy, it's easier than ever to get unfiltered access to the original results and even the raw data. If you doubt the findings when you first hear them, that's great ! But if you don't go on to examine things in more detail and still persist in insisting that the results must be wrong, then it is you who is being dogmatic, not the researchers. And if you want to spread your anti-science via the internet, at least take a moment to consider the tremendous irony.

They say that in the age of information, ignorance is a choice. And that's true, but at the same time it puts a burden - nay, a duty - on scientists to communicate their findings as clearly as possible to the general public. We have so much information available to us that sifting through the worst of it is undeniably difficult, so any real scientist able to do outreach bloody well ought to*. It's those on the coalface who are best able to judge the strengths and weaknesses of current research.

* Outreach is a skill like anything else. There are plenty of good scientists who are so monumentally bad at communicating that they should be locked in a broom cupboard whenever there's any chance they might interact with a non-scientist. And of course by "able to" I mean, "allowed to as part of their job". We can't force people to do this on their own time.

This is more important than ever because it's becoming increasingly difficult for the public to directly test contemporary research. The days of a lone genius making some breakthrough discovery in a shed are not over, but nowadays testing the theory can require a billion-dollar particle accelerator. If the public can't test the results for themselves, then we at least need to do everything we can to explain what we did and how we did it as clearly as we can. Understanding the scientific method and the philosophy behind it is far more important for establishing trust than the result itself.

Aaaargh ! I'm very confused ! I just want answers !

I understand why this can be confusing. Most people prefer a clear-cut, "yes or no" answer to questions. It just isn't really like that in science, where we've got this odd mix of hard certainty (true facts), hypothesis (models consistent with limited observational data) and theories (very well-tested models). Both of the latter can be disproved, and many have been throughout history. Yet sometimes, just to make it more confusing, we act as though our theories are facts, even though we know they're not !

We assume theories are correct as a matter of convenience. Sometimes, yes, we do go too far. Individual scientists are indeed capable of clinging dogmatically to disproven ideas. But the wider scientific community is more robust than that. One of the best articles in terms of science communication I've read recently is the BBC's "We want to break physics" :
"The data so far has confirmed that our theory is really really good, which is frustrating because we know it's not !" Prof Shears says. "We know it can't explain a lot of the Universe. So instead of trying to test the truth of this theory, what we really want to do now is break it - to show where it stops reflecting reality. That's the only way we're going to make progress."
YES ! That's perfect. We know out theories are doing a good job - otherwise we'd already have thrown them out - but we also know they aren't perfect.

The best way to change a scientist's mind is to buy them a drink and slip them a bribe... err, I mean, give them hard evidence that they're wrong. If you have some objection to a theory on the grounds that it sounds implausible, that won't get you very far. The Universe is not necessarily a sensible place, and the only way to test how ridiculous it is is through observational testing. If you haven't got that kind of evidence, then I for one will stick my fingers in my ears and sing, "la la la I'M NOT LISTENING !" because the number of alternative, contradictory theories out there is far beyond my capacity to analyse. On the occasions I've looked at them in detail, I've found them to be self-evidently flawed or simply lacking any advantages over mainstream theories.

If it helps, science rarely offers true answers : but it can give you sufficiently-good information that you're able to make a decision. Put it like this - if you want to design an aircraft and risk hundreds of lives, you're better off relying on aeronautical knowledge than crystal-gazing. Both might be wrong, it's just that the chances of the scientific approach being wrong are waaaay lower than staring at a chunk of glass. The difference between the complex equations of mathematics and the arcane symbols of the occult is that the mathematics actually works reliably, repeatedly, and doesn't depend one jot on sacrificing chickens unless the mathematician is hungry and partial to KFC.

  • Science assumes the world is real and governed solely by physical laws. If you believe there's more to it than that, then fine, but that position cannot be analysed scientifically.
  • Scientific facts are established through multiple observations. We require only the most basic level of trust that everyone else isn't lying about them. Doubt is good, paranoia is just another form of certainty.
  • People who do yell "it's a conspiracy !" tend to be the ones who think scientists are dogmatic, yet when scientists do change their minds they either ignore it or shout loudly about how scientists had been believing nonsense for years because of their dogmatic attitude.
  • Those same people also tend to criticise scientists for testing theories they believe are wrong, apparently oblivious to how incredibly closed-minded they've become.
  • You can't be dogmatic about facts. You can, potentially, be dogmatic about theories. However, the position, "I shall assume that this is true until someone gives good evidence otherwise" is not the same as saying, "I'm completely certain about this and I'll never change my mind - in fact I shall now start a crusade to disprove all other viewpoints, ahahahahaha !"
  • It's OK to assume that something is true, temporarily ignore the doubters and just get on with your damn job for a while, provided that every so often you stop and check what you're doing. You don't have to check every assumption all of the time - indeed, often the research itself will uncover a flaw if one exists. You just have to be prepared that this might happen.
  • Generally it's safe to ignore people claiming that things are wrong because they don't like them (rather than presenting actual evidence), or claiming from the off that people are lying, or (99.9999% of the time) that they've found an "obvious flaw" in a theory. Check what they're saying once in a while, but if you do so every time you'll quickly find yourself going insane and that's not good for anyone.
  • If you're looking for solid answers, forget it. Science isn't so much about getting the "correct" answer as it as about being able to make the best decision possible based on usually limited evidence. Aside from measured facts, scientific theories are only ever a guide to the Universe, a way of making decisions, not a decree of Ultimate Truth.

1 comment:

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