Monday, 30 October 2017

Skepticism 101: Don't Be Stupid

If you are not a Skeptic, you are an Idiot.

Before I get into the explanation as to why, I want you to think for a moment - how does that make you feel? I just called you stupid, how does that make you feel? Most people, when called stupid, feel insulted. They get annoyed, sad, upset or angry. Even if that particular comment didn't upset you, is that always the case? When someone confronts your intelligence or conflicts with your knowledge, how do you feel, usually? What about when it really matters, or what about if it's something that you care about? Do you usually get upset?

Most people do; some of us do all of the time, but all of us do some of the time. The fact of the matter is, even if you are a skeptic, you are ALSO an idiot. Everyone is an idiot. That’s the point I need to make, we are all simple, flawed humans and we all make stupid mistakes for stupid reasons.
The Word of the Day is: 'SKEPTIC'

Skeptic /'skeptik/ n. 1. A person who questions the validity or authenticity of something purporting to be factual. 2. A person who maintains a doubting attitude, as toward values, plans, statements, or the character of others. 3. A person who doubts the truth of a religion, especially Christianity, or of important elements of it. 4. (cap.) Philosophy a. A member of a philosophical school of ancient Greece, the earliest group of which consisted of Pyrrho and his followers, who maintained that real knowledge of things is impossible. b. Any later thinker who doubts or questions the possibility of real knowledge of any kind. ♦adj. 5. Pertaining to skeptics or skepticism; skeptical.

The basic idea is thus - as we are evolved creatures (just like every living thing), we are primarily motivated by death and sex - kill others before they kill you, and procreate before you die. Our larger brains evolved due to a few random mutations that allowed greater neuroplasticity, excess neuron growth and greater skull capacity. However, these mutations survived because it allowed those of us with these mutation to better adapt to dangers.
The capacity to imagine, to build, to speak - these are not selected for because “gee, wouldn't higher thinking be cool?”. These survived into our current species, because the ability to imagine includes the ability to foresee events before they happen, cooperate with others in our tribe, preempt consequences and plan for the future. This was an evolutionary advantage.
We currently use our brains for all kinds of things, it was not designed for - admittedly, that's because it wasn't designed at all, it was just a beneficial trait because smarter creatures were more careful, and so could live longer.

However, despite this, we still use our lizard-monkey brains for complex processes, from software to surgery to science. Don't get me wrong, due to our brains’ magnificent capacity it is very much CAPABLE of doing all that, but the system is not perfect. Just like using a razorblade as a kitchen knife, sure, it can work perfectly fine, but if you aren't careful, you'll end up with blood in your bolognese.
See, when your main goal is just to survive, “truth” doesn't matter, “truth” is useless.
When you see two eyes staring at you from behind the grass, it doesn't matter if that's actually a predator, or if it's a butterfly with convincing camouflage, because if you run away every time you will always survive. It doesn't matter whether the bitter vegetable is actually deadly or just an underripe turnip, all that matters is that if you avoid it just in case, you’ll never die from its poison. It doesn't matter if the bull/alpha/male is actually weaker than you, all that matters is that if you can make him back down, you get first dibs on the sex and food every time.
This is survival of the fittest. Not the fastest, not the strongest, the "fittest". it's not a square peg through a square hole, it's more like a semi-circle through a circular hole - it doesn't need to be the best, it just needs to "fit".
So, when we struggle to think critically and fail, it’s all just a result of us thinking like simple, imperfect animals. And, can you blame us? We are animals. When the goal is “survive”, truth is irrelevant, so when you use these same thought processes to find truth or attempt to determine reality, it's the metaphorical razorblade attempting to peel a metaphorical pumpkin. Not impossible, just not as easy.
But it does mean that “common sense” is fundamentally flawed. Sure, it makes "sense" that water looks blue because it reflects the blue sky; it makes “sense” that the sun goes around the Earth; it makes “sense” that blood in your veins is coloured blue; it makes “sense” that sugar makes children hyperactive & yes, it does make “sense” that that these simplistic ways of thinking are due to us having evolved from a less-developed lizard-monkey brain. However, not a single one of these things is actually true. The world is more complicated than our singular common sense allows. That's why we invented science, because we realized that a sometimes we are wrong. Science and other methodological enquiry is designed to curtail these stupid mistakes by slowly and carefully removing human error from the equation.

This is Skepticism 101: Remember that you are very capable of being very stupid. Even with the greatest education, the best of intentions, an astounding track record for efficiency and even if you have a desire to be a skeptic, you can still be wrong. So, you must accept that anything you do not know can be wrong. Even things you think you know can be wrong. Here's a perfect example:
  You are currently reading my blog post.This seems like an obvious thing to say, after all, if you weren't here to read it, then you wouldn't know what it says, right? Surely, this is true.
Well, not necessarily. For instance, who is to say that this blog post is mine? It's posted on "blogspot", and I don't know who owns this website domain. I am under the impression that the ownership for my blog falls under my intellectual property, but this may not be "my" blog post, I might be wrong there. Also, I do offer a translation function within this blog, for people who read languages other than English. If you have translated these words, perhaps these words are not precisely mine, but those of the translation program, so it may not be entirely mine.
Secondly, how do I know that you are reading it? Some people have some very clever text-to-speech programs, perhaps you are listening to this blog post, from some program, or perhaps a carer, parent or guardian is reading it to you.
Also, the word "currently" is ambiguous. Currently, from my perspective, I am the only one able to read this post, because I am still writing it. You won't read it until I have posted it. Although I wrote that sentence so that the meaning of the sentence was supposed to imply a current time contemporaneous to its perusal, but I can't assume that a reader would accept that implication.
Even a sentence which, according to common sense, is very much right, every single word in it is up for debate.

Now, of course, a lot of this might sound tiring. Do you really have to doubt everything?! Well, Yes; but pragmatically speaking, the goal is not to be mired by doubt and "accept nothing". Doubt is not the same thing as disagreement, and it is not believing the "opposite". It just means that when presented with something you do not have empirical data (which is to say, that which you have witnessed or investigated for yourself), that it very well could be wrong. Similarly, if you do not know something to be true and are not willing or able to investigate, then the correct answer must be "I don't know".
Remember, the goal is not to "never be incorrect", it's to be the most-correct that you can be. No, you can't always be right, but with some intellectual rigour, you can be less-wrong.

Sometimes, this can be as simple as giving more information. For example, I met a woman today that told me she had a rooster that laid an egg - this is not just an example, this is a true story, a hen wandered into our garden, so I went to a local lady who sells eggs to ask if the hen belonged to her. She came to have a look and determined, no, the chicken is not hers since it was a maroon chicken and she didn't own any red chickens, but she said she would take care of it and look for the owner herself. We had a bit of a chat, and she said she had some cheeky chickens, and one particular rooster that surprised everyone by laying an egg.
I asked her what she meant, and she claimed that it was most-likely intersex (my word, not hers, she said "had both parts"), but some researchers at the local university were interested in having a look, to see if it was fertile.

Now, this is a very unusual claim, but there are some factors that make it appear more plausible in my eyes. There is a local university nearby, and I know that many university students are required to write papers in order to pass their grade (and an intersex chicken would certainly be a paper worth writing). I also know that intersex creatures, although rare, do occur, and because of the various curiosities that come with intersexuality, determining its fertility is not only an interesting conundrum, but could help to determine the nature of its particular sex.
However, obviously, there is reason to doubt it. After all, roosters and hens don't have sexually dimorphic genitals like humans, but rather chickens of either sex both have a cloaca, so this could be a simple case of mistaking a hen for a rooster. Also, although it would be an interesting case if it were true, I don't actually know how or why a local university would become aware of this hen/rooster, since I'm not aware of any universities that go out on "anomaly" hunting missions. It's most likely the woman called them herself, and if it is the case that she did called them herself, then I can't understand why this university was inclined to take her claims seriously. Not to mention, science with a sample of 'one' isn't widely applicable, so I don't know why a university would consider such a case so interesting.

So, as a skeptic, what is the answer? Is there really an intersex chicken out there? a kind of hen/rooster hybrid? A 'hooster'?
Well, the only possible correct answer, as a skeptic, is . . . "I don't know".
I think she was telling the truth, but that's not very meaningful, because even if she's not lying, she could still be mistaken, so it doesn't answer the question of this chicken's sex. Also, whilst I do believe this is plausible, that's not very significant, because many things which do not happen are 'plausible'. I just don't know.

Do I need to go and investigate this case? No, not really. If the opportunity arises to look into this, I would if I had the time, but I am happy not knowing the truth about this chicken and it's chromosomes because this truth isn't relevant to me.
But, as much as it sounds like common sense that this is just a lie, should I really bother being so persnickety? Surely, I should accept that this woman was lying and move on with my life, rather than remain in doubt. However, I can't do that, because although irrelevant to me, this may be relevant to someone else, and I am not prepared to mislead them, just because it is "fit" for me to ignore the reality here. Also, in either case, I would rather be unsure, and conscious of that, than to claim certainty and be ignorant of my own stupidity.

That, you see, is why I am talking about Skepticism in this final day of the Halloween Countdown. Skepticism, by design, counters human error - and ignorance of reality, truth and science is a fundamental human error.
This is what makes Ignorance,to me, so scary. Although I spent this blog post explaining it, the basis of skepticism really is this simple:
  1. Accept that you can be wrong.
  2. Try not to be.
Most people get caught up on the first one, and those that don't often don't know how to accomplish the second. As to that, well, there's science and logic and methodological empiricism. But, so long as you are comfortable with step one there, recognizing that you are not perfect and can make mistakes, and you can be stupid, then you can start being less so.

Despite how simple this is, people still hurt and kill one another over stupid beliefs; they fight over problems that fighting cannot resolve; they harm themselves and others, due to misunderstanding and lies & they justify their own ignorance by claiming that others are ignorant of what they believe to be true.
Just like being an alcoholic, the first step is realizing you have a problem - most of humanity is in denial when it comes to accepting how bad we are at thinking . . . ironically, because they don't want to think about it.

I'm the Absurd Word Nerd, and I hope you have a very fun Halloween tomorrow. I know it can be a scary time, but there is nothing to fear. That's the beauty of Halloween, we recognize that our fear is yet another human flaw, that we are oversensitive to potential dangers and can react fearfully even to things which are not at all dangerous; but Halloween exploits this simple flaw, so that we can have fun. So, to all of my readers, I wish you the best of fun exploiting your over-active fear response for fun and entertainment, and I hope you have a safe and not-too-stupid time this Halloween. Goodnight.