Saturday, January 27, 2007

Ok, I’ll Play. Just How Far Are You Self-Identified Skeptics Willing To Go, Hum?*

Posted by olvlzl.
When it was announced that Andrew Wiles had solved Fermat’s Last Theorem a friend of mine who teaches math at a pretty decent land-grant university told me that she “couldn’t make head nor tail of it”. The proof was done through a branch of math that she knew almost nothing about. When asked how many people she thought could follow the proof, she couldn’t say. But she didn’t think that the number of people who had actually read it and understood it in all its details could have been very great at that point.

What is the status of something like this proof for the majority of people, those who have not or cannot follow the argument, the question I posed last week about quantum physics? It is assumed that the proof has been examined for flaws just as any highly specialized evidence in math and the physical sciences is supposed to be. The honesty of the author and that of the reviewers is assumed, their rigor also. That is built into the peer review process, what is supposed to come before declarations of what is true can be made. And after the proof is accepted, scientific knowledge is always supposed to be open for falsification. All knowledge contains a component of contingency. Unfortunately, life can’t and doesn’t always take that into account. Scientists and those who allege themselves to be scientists shouldn’t ever forget that, though.

In the physical sciences the situation is much more complex than in math. There are a number of added assumptions dealing with lab methods, equipment, analysis, etc. It is assumed that a lot of things go right and that no error has occurred, either deliberate or unintentional. For the rest of the people in their field and beyond, those who due to problems of specialization and an insufficient knowledge base, what is the nature of their acceptance of Fermat’s Last Theorem or similar knowledge accepted on this basis?

You just can’t get around this point, we are limited, we as individuals and we as the entire body of thinking beings. As individuals we can’t know even the basics of all the named branches of science and math. In most fields it’s impossible to read every paper that is published. Even if you specialize in one, narrow field it’s often impossible to even know exactly what’s been published in the past. To start, some of those are written in languages that you can’t read and those aren’t always translated. Translation itself can introduce complexities, adding another layer of possible error. Even papers in the researcher’s own language don’t always get attention or citations and so escape their notice. Those could contain information important to their present research. If someone in the review process doesn’t catch it, the impact of that information could possibly go waiting for decades.

In the end we are dependent on the assumption of honesty and rigor, we are also dependent on the belief that the limits in which we live and work are sufficiently broad as to make our knowledge valid. In the end it’s a matter of faith as well as contingency. Faith, acting as if that which we don’t know with absolute certainty is valid, believing that it is. There isn’t a person alive, not the most rigorous skeptic, not the most doctrinaire positivist who doesn’t exist in a sea of their own faith and the faith of others. There isn’t one of us who doesn’t work with ideas we have not tested ourselves or even have fully understood. We are limited beings living beyond our limits, that’s just how it is. In some areas that call themselves science, the behavioral sciences, for example, the assumptions of rigor and faith in the ability of the available tools and knowledge sometimes can attain a similar status to that of fundamentalist religion. The teacher, author, founder said it, it is assumed to be safe ground to work on.

Sometimes this leads to interesting paradoxes and contradictions. Try going on a number of these comment threads and say that you don’t believe in “the meme” or, given it’s lack of basic factual support, the presumptuous manifestation, “memetics”. Say that the idea is a speculation that isn’t susceptible to falsification and that it is based on word play instead of observable science. Try that and watch the rage of the rigorous thinkers rise. Richard Dawkins, of course, is the author of “the meme” as well as the widely accepted and politically risky concept of “smart genes”. I will go out on a limb and speculate that a large number of the people who hold with these ideas, hold them on the strength of their emotional attachment to him or to his school of biology. Like St. Paul his influence isn’t entirely unrelated to his ability to appeal to the emotions of his readers.

Dawkins and some of his followers, so reluctant to tolerate other peoples’ beliefs on the basis of unspecified, as of yet unmanifested risks, are quite content to risk the recreation of social-Darwinism that is more than clearly implied in their own speculations. The horrible and bloody place of biological determinism in the history of the 19th and 20th century isn’t incentive enough to give them pause. Given Dawkins’ declarations and those of many of his close associates, perhaps someday a “Memeticist” of the future will put the germinal idea of eradicating religion in the same box as the efforts to suppress “Entartete Kunst”. See where this kind of abstraction and classification might lead?

To believe some or all of what Dawkins says is not beyond the realm of intellectual respectability. I’ve even met the odd Dawkinsite who is polite and reasonable. Mockery isn’t my purpose here. I am trying to demonstrate that the entire picture of his theories and their possible consequences have to be open to skeptical enquiry and doubt. And their possible place in politics and culture are as legitimate subjects of investigation as their scientific implications. It’s the standard he and his admirers apply to other ideas. But are they willing to hold themselves to that standard? **

I am most certainly not suggesting that we open the gates to unconditional acceptance of all and every belief. I’m proposing that there is a better way to deal with conflicts between knowledge and belief than to dishonestly pretend that any of us isn’t dependent on faith and that those who admit to faith are to be relegated to the intellectual tip.

Distinguishing between those beliefs that are disproved by science, creationism being the best example, and those which are clearly true, in at least their broad outlines, is essential to science, education and government funding. But in our daily lives we are not limited to the formalisms of those very specific activities. If some people want to believe, or to pretend to believe in Adam and Eve it really isn’t anyone’s business but their own. That is, just so long as they don’t try to force it on unwilling people and pretend that it’s science when it obviously isn’t. I would, however, add that even parents don’t have the right to keep their children in ignorance.***

I will go farther and say that people have the right to their own, personal experience as well. If they believe that they have had a “near death experience” and that they have had a glimpse of an afterlife they shouldn’t be regarded as a nutter or a pudding head. They should even be able to talk about it to people who are willing to listen. Carl Sagan’s**** attempt to come up with a more “scientific” explanations is illustrative. Among the other entirely unfounded speculations he presented in refutation was the idea that the often reported “tunnel” could actually be a latent memory of the birth experience. And this was supposed to be firmer ground than the reported experience of adults who show no signs of mental illness or dishonesty?

If someone is swindling people on the basis of a belief, that’s one thing and should be regulated, but someone who firmly believes that what they have experienced is objectively real has every right to express that belief. Even with electrodes and imaging and chemical analysis there is no way for science to tell us if their experience is the result of brain chemistry of if the brain chemistry is the result of the experience. There is no way to know if the experience itself is real or a delusion. There isn’t the ability to know if the experiences reported are all the same or if they represent a range of things from actual events to false memories, perhaps the results of suggestion. Similarity of language isn’t proof, it could be an indication of the limits of language.

We also have no way of knowing if there is a conflict between both the brain chemistry and the event itself being real. In order to know that we would have to have a way to directly observe and study what is reported and that will always be impossible. We have become used to the false idea that observing brain waves and chemistry during an experienced event is the same thing as witnessing the event itself, that is simply not true. It’s not my fault that behavioral scientists have chosen to work so close to the limits of what is susceptible to being studied scientifically. By calling what they do science, they have taken on the responsibility to accurately represent what they are claiming.

In short, people in their daily lives should be free to believe what they believe without pretentiously positivist people bothering them. That is if they don’t try to force their beliefs on the unwilling. In the end it isn’t the pretended security of our knowledge that will save us from horrible consequences, it’s our tolerance and fairness that will.

Note: I think it was Andrew Wiles himself who said that his proof couldn’t have been Fermat’s proof since math that he used to prove it hadn’t been invented back then. It isn’t clear that Fermat actually did have a proof, some think he might have, some are skeptical. It is possible that for Fermat, writing down his theorem was an act of faith.

* or A response to a very rude fan of the loudmouthed-obnoxious-and self-promoted iconoclast and libertarian huckster Penn Jillette, who would have thought you guys would turn out to be so thin skinned?*****

** Dawkins apparently doesn’t even feel it’s necessary for him to have studied a subject area that he writes a long book about for the popular market. His “The God Delusion” has been widely reviewed by people who have pointed out that it is absurdly deficient in basic facts about its subject. l

*** I agree with William O. Douglas’ dissent in the Yoder case and might go farther. Parents have a right to tell their children about their beliefs, they don’t have the right to stunt their minds.

****I actually liked Carl Sagan. I liked him. I didn’t pretend he was infallible and often thought he could be quite silly. “Near death experience” didn’t especially interest me until I read what he had to say on the subject, then this one aspect of it did arouse my curiosity.

*****Oh, yeah. Since he was the start of all this, guess I’d better point out here that Penn Jillette, The Amazing Randi and several others are not scientists. They appear to have never published a peer reviewed research paper. They don’t appear to have ever done any scientific research. For crying out loud, they’re professional magicians not scientists. Their ability to produce apparent effects doesn’t prove or disprove anything. Almost all of physical and biological science depends on effects in research that can be counterfeited, many by means that don’t even require slight of hand and distraction.

That’s not even getting into what psychologists get away with when dealing with the entirely unobservable or definable. Yes, I do now conjure you to think of the activities of Susan Blackmore, Ray Hyman and a number of other prominent, psychologist- skeptics. It would be interesting to see how much of their field would stand that level of scrutiny and suspicion of dishonesty and incompetence in its researchers.

People who are fans of Penn and Teller should go right on enjoying them. I can, in theory, with the sound turned off. No, that’s a lie told out of false generosity. After the first several minutes I thought they were annoying, though Teller is cute. But no one should mistake their shows for science or serious investigation.

Never having bought premium cable channels I have never watched “Bullshit”. What I’ve read about its accuracy this week, while looking into an e-mailer’s contention that I haven’t shown Jillette!!! sufficient reverence, doesn’t do much to tempt me. Jillette’s political rants would sometimes seem susceptible to wilting under a modest level of investigation. His politics I regard as being just the typical extension of the ego of a particularly spoiled two-year-old into late middle age, pretty much what libertarianism boils down to with the blather cut away.

It’s one of the most basic tenets of honesty, the same rules of evidence get applied to everyone and to all fields regardless of whether you like someone or some idea. Shouldn’t the viability of a career as a skeptic rely on the skeptic’s honesty?