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philosophy, Religion, science

More on basic epistemology

Over a few posts, I’ve been systematically dismantling the more benign concepts of God by showing that even the most general conceptions of “universal intelligence” or “natural gods” are problematic and epistemologically unsound.  I want to show you today how the same kind of critical thinking can extend far beyond religion.

Let’s review the process.  First and foremost, the positive claim has the burden of proof.  When someone says “X is true,” whatever X may be, that person is responsible for proving that he is correct.  The listener is under no obligation to first disprove the claim.  The default state for any bit of potentially factual data is always zero — negative.

Second, we must always remember that there is absolutely no way to gain knowledge except through logic and the scientific method.   Emotional gravity, intuitive feelings of correctness, tradition, popularity — all of these are things we succumb to far too often.  Good critical thinkers will know to examine a claim all the more critically if they feel an emotional tug towards belief.

Finally, we must bear in mind that “I don’t know” is an acceptable answer to many questions, but when an answer is not available, making something up is never an acceptable alternative to continued legitimate experiment and inquiry.

Consider the Iraq debacle.  Our president stood in front of us and informed us that Iraq was behind 9/11, that they had WMDs, and that Sadaam Hussein was pretty much the worst person ever and needed to be removed from power at all costs.   He told us these things at a time when we were feeling highly emotional as a country.   If the average American was a good critical thinker, the national reaction would have been “Prove it, Mister.”  Instead, we as a nation told him essentially to just give us a smidge of justification so that we could get right to bombing the shit out of some brown people.

There were lots of good reasons not to believe The Shrub.  Even with FAUX News trotting out all their talking heads in support of the president, it wasn’t hard to find lots of disagreement outside of the country.  It’s one thing when Iraq says they don’t have WMDs and they weren’t behind 9/11, but when literally the whole world shrugs its shoulders and says, “I don’t see any evidence for it,” the good critical thinker remembers — THE DEFAULT IS NEGATIVE.

America collectively failed the critical thinking test.

How about something more benign.  Every major newspaper in the country has an astrology section.  Millions of Americans read their horoscope every day.  Tens of thousands pay money to astrologers.  Some people (quite a few, if online dating sites are to be believed) decide who they will date or marry based on when they were born rather than what kind of person they are.

The burden of proof is on the claimant.  Does astrology work?  Prove it.

The thing is, every time astrology has been examined scientifically, it’s failed miserably.  Every time an astrologer has been forced to perform under scientifically rigorous controls, they have done no better than if they guessed randomly.  The default answer is negative.  Astrology is bupkus until and unless it is proven to be true.

Free energy?  Bupkus.

Homeopathy?  Bupkus.

ESP?  Remote viewing?  Reincarnation?  Past life regression?  Colloidal Silver?  Big Foot?  Nessy?  All of these ideas have yet to pass the burden of proof, so the good critical thinker will regard them all as false until and unless they are scientifically demonstrated to have merit.

Here’s another example from closer to home:  Abstinence Only Education.  Regular readers know that this is one of my pet issues.   It turns out, it’s a really great example of how bad critical thinking can screw up everything.  There are several hidden assumptions involved in abstinence only education.  It’s not just a simple statement of one fact:

  • Marriage should be the goal of anyone who intends to have sex
  • Teenagers should not under any circumstances have sex
  • Abstinence is effective as a birth control method
  • Scaring people into not having sex works
  • Sexuality is something that should be repressed until someone is with their “life partner.”

I’ve done my best in various blogs to dispel pretty much all of these claims as so much religious claptrap, but that’s not the point here.  The point is that before spending millions… or is it billions… of dollars instituting this as a national program, we as a nation should have demanded proof that all of the inherent ideas and claims behind abstinence only were demonstrably true.

When I turn on my radio in the afternoons, I sometimes hear Rush Limbaugh harping about how awful poor people are, and how they are just too lazy or too stupid to pick themselves up by their own bootstraps and get with the trickle down program.  It’s emotionally appealing to a lot of people, to be sure.  But is it true?  The world is full of good data about how poverty works and what the average poor person is like.

Do we as a nation demand the data?  No, and that’s the tragedy.  We just argue.  You stand in that corner and tell me about how poor people are just lazy and I stand in this corner and tell you that poor people work harder than rich people.  Neither of us goes to the library to check out the sociology or psychology section.

This is the change that needs to happen, not just in America, but in pretty much the whole world.  There are enormous problems facing humanity, from Global Warming to deforestation to pollution to accumulating non-biodegradable waste.  The list goes on and on.  Arguing from ignorance is… well… just plain stupid.  We love to argue but we hate to do homework.  As individuals and a nation, we need to wrap our brains around the idea that successful problem solving demands unbiased scientifically accurate data.  A few less soapboxes and a lot more science labs would do the world a lot of good.



4 thoughts on “More on basic epistemology

  1. Pretty much a perfect post. I especially appreciated:

    “America collectively failed the critical thinking test.”

    This is perhaps the foremost reason I’m an outspoken atheist/critical-thinker. It was 9/11, the Iraq war, and two Bush presidencies, all of which were major failures at critical thinking.

    Posted by Wonderist | June 24, 2009, 9:02 pm
  2. Bigfoot is real, dude. srsly.

    Posted by Watcher | June 25, 2009, 6:44 pm
  3. One very minor objection: “Abstinence is effective as a birth control method” is in fact a true statement—if you never have sex, ever, you will not get pregnant. Most people who practice “abstinence” don’t really do this—they end up having sex eventually—but if you did in fact manage to never have sex, it would be a very effective method of birth control.

    Posted by Patrick Julius | July 13, 2009, 2:21 pm
  4. The difference, Patrick, is in “abstinence” as a description of a behavior and “abstinence” as a birth control method. I could have made that more clear, I suppose.

    Barring extraordinary circumstance, not having sexual intercourse pretty much guarantees not getting pregnant, but we’re not talking about a behavior here. We’re talking about a birth control method. The federal government measures birth control methods by two scales: Theoretical and practical effectiveness. That is, what the optimum effectiveness is assuming 100% correct usage and mechanical effectiveness, vs. real numbers including all usage and mechanical failure.

    When evaluated as a birth control method, abstinence is an abysmal failure. I haven’t taken the time to look up exact numbers in this response, but I know these are approximately accurate. Birth control pills, when used properly, are over 99% effective at preventing pregnancy, and there is only a very, very small chance of “mechanical failure,” which, in this case, would be reactions with other medications or some other chemical problem. The real effectiveness of the pill is very high, as well. That is, in the real world, it’s extremely close to it’s theoretical effectiveness. Just for an arbitrary number, let’s say the two numbers are T=99.9% and R=99.5%, where T is theoretical, and R is real.

    Condoms are less effective in the real world because usage is inconsistent and mechanical failure is more likely. Leaving condoms in the car or your pocket can cause failure. Using them past their expiration date is also a bad idea. (And you know some guys are determined to use those condoms, even though they haven’t gotten laid in six months…) If, for condoms, T is 99.4%, then maybe R = 96.8%. (Again, I’m just making these numbers up to show you the basic idea. Don’t quote me.)

    We can say that the pill is the best of the two options for preventing pregnancy because the Real value is very close to the Theoretical value, and both are near 100%. Condoms have a wider discrepancy, and are less effective, but still highly effective. Abstinence, on the other hand, is an abysmal failure. While T=100%, R is much, much lower. Actually, when I was in college, there was a running joke among several of my friends. Over our four years of school, we noticed a 100% correlation between girls who used “abstinence only” birth control and girls who had a baby or an abortion during college. Obviously, abstinence only birth control is more than 0% effective in the whole population, but let’s be honest. It’s far and away the least effective birth control method available, based on its R number.

    So your objection, I think, is based on the semantic difference between Abstinence as a description of a real behavior and Abstinence as a PREscription for birth control.

    Unlike religion, science goes on what’s true, and the truth is, people don’t abstain from sex very often at all, even if they say they’re going to.

    Posted by hambydammit | July 13, 2009, 2:46 pm

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