Heuristic

This Fooyah communication is going to deal, on a basic level, with too much stuff. It is part of a series that I have been working up to for a long time explaining the way I think about things and how it is the correct way to think about things. I expect to expand on many of these themes over the coming dark months.

My recent communications including those about Osteopathy, Special K, MultitaskingLosing Mass and my Homoeopathic Discussion have all required a reasonable amount of knowledge and also some research.

I often mention that all claims should be appraised critically. I am not advocating cynicism, merely that we have the right to reserve judgement until we have investigated things ourselves. I think there are some basic areas of life where we can do this with little effort. Most claims on adverts can be investigated to see how they stand up to scrutiny. Claims made by friends can be investigated using the internet and maybe even a library!

I have been listening to sceptical podcasts for about 8 years now, moving from one to another as I hear about new ones. I have heard many discussions about the evidence for certain claims made in all walks of life and I think I have a good grasp of reality. Spending all that time listening to people explain logical fallacies and scientific evidence and how we know what we know has given me a good tool box to use to ask the rights questions and find out for myself. I have also read a number of scientific books explaining the meaning of evidence and the scientific method. Again, these have given me a good understanding of what it takes to be a sceptical thinker. I am, of course, open to biases like all people but I try to use the evidence available to question those and seek what is the real world.

Now, I can’t be an expert in many things, in fact I would argue I am an expert in none. I have developed heuristics. I have tools that I use to shortcut my knowledge process. There are certain people and presenters whom I trust and when they say they have looked at the evidence and come to a certain conclusion then I listen. I understand fully that one day they may be wrong but their credentials are good for now.

I also rely on the self correcting nature of science. About a year ago there was a story that made the news all over the world. Scientists had discovered particles travelling faster than the speed of light. This headline appeared everywhere. I was instantly worried as nothing should be able to travel faster than the speed of light [information can’t if you want to get technical]. The scientists weren’t that sure of their results and had opened the problem out to the press and the world, but it was reported as fact. Over the next year many people investigated it and they found the mistake. The particles hadn’t travelled past Einstein. Was this celebrated in the world’s press as a great achievement of the scientific method? No. It was consigned to page 13 in a tiny paragraph. Science corrects itself, that’s the great thing about it.

If I hear a claim that I think is dubious or not, then I do not pass instant judgement. I will investigate myself if it is approachable and see what the evidence is. If it is beyond my understanding then I will rely on others within the community to offer their understanding of what the evidence is and what that means.

In the case of news reporting around the world it is hard to investigate this myself and so I have to rely on the news organisations. This is why I look at quality broadsheet websites and the BBC website. I often rant about the BBC New service as they are meant to be the best but they fail [in my view] so often. For their “what’s going on in the world” section I have to trust them at the moment. There isn’t really any other news organisation that is comparable. It will be interesting over the next few years as social media tries to form a coherent news machine, but I fear it will be controlled by corporations and governments, restricting the views and news that we see.

We all have heuristics. Mine takes me on a journey of learning to seek the evidence.

The great thing about science is that it is right whether you agree with it or not.

Places to seek the truth:

Read some books:

By Robert Park
Voodoo Science: The Road from foolishness to Fraud (Oxford, 2000)
Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science (Princeton, 2008)

By Carl Sagan
Demon Haunted World

By Ben Goldacre
Bad Science
Bad Pharma

By Michael Shermer
Why People Believe Weird Things

These books will start to give you the mental tools to evaluate and critically appraise information that is presented to you. This is not an easy journey, takes time and is never complete.

Skeptical Pat

Just watched an episode of Postman Pat, or rather, just turned over and caught the last little bit. I was feeding son #2 rather than enjoying the stop-motion for myself. The episode was called Postman Pat and the Magic Lamp.
Now I’m going to have to guess what the story was about but I think the kids (all with ginger hair, Pat’s hair is ginger, you figure it out) found a lamp that they considered magic. I think they made wishes and then waited for them to come true. When Pat spoke to them he said:

Wishes only come true like that in books and stories. If you want something to come true then you have to work yourself to make it come true.

This is surely an excellent lesson, not only for children but also for every person on the planet. What a skeptical chap.

Descent into Skepticism

Most of my life I was little affected by “woo”. I think I had always been curious about some things like alternative medicine, but never really investigated it. Where would you go in the days before the internet? I didn’t care about it enough to go to the library. If I had I might have got a book by Deepak Chopra instead of Carl Sagan and perhaps that would have moved my life in entirely the wrong direction.

I can remember my dad saying to me in my early teens that if all other things had failed for a terminally ill patient then what harm was there in trying acupuncture? I think that was the only SCAM (I borrow Mark Crislip’s definition of SCAM here) I was aware of. When I was about 18 my mum trained in reflexology. She went to college and got a proper qualification and letters after her name. When she explained it to me, I paid attention and thought about it, but didn’t form a hard opinion. I was happy to let people believe what they wanted.

About 5 years ago (it’s currently 2012) my Dad bought me a fuel economy device(magnet) for my car that would also work on ANY vehicle. Now I was curious about this. I searched the internet and looked at the manufacturer’s website which tried to explain that the magnet aligned the fuel so it burnt more efficiently. I knew there is no ferrous material in hydro-carbons. I also now have progressed from an un-thinking 18 year old to having an engineering degree and about 15 years of reading about science and was hooked on this issue. Surely, my logic went, if a simple magnet could improve fuel efficiency then the car manufacturers would be buying all the magnets in the world. If it really worked it would be a standard component in all engines.

The magic-magnet manufacturer’s website had a money-back offer and lots of testimonials. How could so many people be wrong? I must have also stumbled upon a “skeptical” website with some information and a podcast. I was already listening to some BBC podcasts and so I subscribed to the skeptical podcast. I can’t remember which one it was, but probably “The Skeptic Zone” from Australia. From there it was a short journey into “Skeptoid”, “The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe” and “Skeptics with a K”.

I now don’t want to let people believe what they want. I want them to know what works and what doesn’t. Human civilisation has developed the most sophisticated tool for understanding the world and how it works – SCIENCE. Now although science occasionally has its flaws it is a self-correcting system. The evidence wins-out eventually. There is no evidence for SCAMs, they just keep inventing more ludicrous mechanisms to explain their failure.

I’ve read around the subject, including Bad Medicine by Ben Goldacre and a couple of Robert Park books and, of course, Cosmos by Carl Sagan. There’re still a few books to read and magazines to subscribe to, but I consider myself educated in this realm. I understand evidence, trials and logical fallacies. The world needs to be educated about SCAMs.

If you are not sure what the harm is, then have a look at this site.