Hi Guys, I’m back. My mind did change as I suspected in college, but I think it it was for the better. I’ve been doing really well, good grades in everything. Smoking is a great way to give my brain a break from studying, so much for lack of motivation. I’m majoring in physics, and everything is going great. This writing is meant to be made into a pamphlet and given to those who wanted it. I’ve been working on this paper attempting to show how the scientific method can be useful for anyone. This version is near done, so I thought I’d post it up for you guys. If you manage to get through it all I’d appreciate critisism. I must apoligize to the readers and the moderators for the excessive legnth of this post. Also, the formatting was lost in copying this. I was forced to split it into 2 parts, the second will be posted as a reply to this one. I feel I have made progress in my attempt to explore the world natural law, reason, and the ganja. This is a report on that progress…
The scientific method as an upgrade to common sense
What must be done before something is considered proven, or true? What is proof? In what situations is proof desirable? These are all tough questions with no easy answers. There is a worry that without a good definition for proof otherwise intelligent people may fall victim to false idea’s because they seem to make sense. How do we separate the illogical ideas from the useful messages? Most people just use their common sense and do pretty well with it. However, common sense is not as common as we may think. People have different ideas about what makes sense a lot of the time. Is there any way out of this potential uncertainty and error? A scientist would answer a resounding YES, namely, the scientific method which is just upgraded form of common sense. The concept of proof is a scientific one, and should be dealt with in terms of it.
As I talk to people, I find a surprisingly large amount of students who are biased against science. I think this is simply from not looking into what the actual philosophy of it is. It IS a philosophy, not simply a set of cold facts, it is useful not just to a scientist, but to anyone who seeks truth. Many philosophies claim to bring the truth, why is this different? Because it works. The incredible successes of biology, physics and chemistry among many others are all a testament to the validity of scientific thinking. It doesn’t simply apply to the sciences, anyone who has an understanding of it should find it useful in everyday thought.
A person cannot consistently follow a methodology if they have do not have a working definition of what following the methodology entails. This is a fairly obvious concept, if one is told to follow 10 rules and never learns what they are, they can’t consistently follow those rules. The point of this pamphlet is to give a basic definition of scientific thinking, so that one can avoid common pitfalls.
I am not claiming that science is some sort of ultimate knowledge. To quote Anthropologist Marvin Harris “The reason we favor knowledge produced in the conformity with the principles of science is not because science guarantees absolute truth free of subjective bias, error, untruths, lies and frauds. It is because science is the best system yet devised for reducing subjective bias, error, untruths, lies and frauds…”
Another view I’ve come across is that science is uninteresting or takes the wonder out of the world. I’d like the quote Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard P. Feynman to respond to this:
“Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars – mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is “mere.” I too can see the stars on a desert night and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination- stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern – of which I am part – perhaps my stuff was belched from some forgotten star, as one is belching there. Or see them with the greater eye of Palamar, rushing all apart from some common starting point when they were perhaps all together. What is the pattern or the meaning, or the why. It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined! Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter as if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?”
The other common objection is that science is at odds with religion. This seems like it cannot be true because if God did create the universe he obviously created an order and uniformity in it. Science is exploring the order which has presented itself in nature through experiment. It is true that science looks for the order without asking who or what created it. That question is left up to ones personal beliefs, as many religious scientists will support. As many have said, science cannot disprove religion, nor does it attempt to, so I believe it to be not a good reason to discount scientific reasoning.
So what is this philosophy?
First we must separate the concepts of science and the scientific method. The following is a general definition for science. People tend to use scientific terminology but don’t know the exact definitions. Exact meanings are not always possible or useful to have, but in science it is nessesary.
Science: A set of methods designed to discover, describe and interpret natural phenomena, with a goal of building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation.
It should be noted that natural explanations are needed in science rather than mystical ones. Witch doctors think that various plants will ward off bad spirits. The truth of the matter is that certain plants contain chemicals that fight off illness in a perfectly natural way. It has been found to be more useful first try to explain something in terms of what we know about nature before jumping to conclusions about the paranormal.
The set of methods mentioned are lumped together for the generic term “scientific method”. Giving an exact definition for it’s tricky because it is a combination of many concepts. There are different idea’s about the scientific method but it is agreed that it contains the following elements.
Hypothesis: A testable statement accounting for a set of observations.
In other words, it is an idea that can disproved. For example, I have 10 fingers, one can count and it is either true or not. A statement that accounts for a set of observations but cannot be tested is not a hypothesis. If it cannot be proven or disproved and would be better described as a belief. For example, There are invisible, untouchable, unmeasurable pink elephants dancing around at certain times. I can believe it, but there is no way to prove this one way or the other, it is not scientific.
Theory: A well-supported and well-tested hypothesis or set of hypotheses. We tend to use this word as a generic term for any idea to explain things. In science it must have a large amount of evidence before it can be called a theory.
Fact: A theory confirmed to such an extent that it would be reasonable to assert its truthfulness. Einstein’s theory of relativity has been confirmed independently so many times and so completely that it is no longer considered a theory but a fact. It is important to know that no fact is can be 100% certain since they all must start as a hypothesis, which by definition must be falsified
Induction: Forming a hypothesis by drawing conclusions for existing data.
Deduction: Making specific predictions based on the hypothesis.
Observation: Gathering data, experiments.
Verification: Testing the predictions against further observation to confirm or falsify the hypothesis.
To quote science historian Micheal Shermer:
“Science leads us toward rationalism: basing conclusions on logic and evidence. For example, how do we know the earth is round? It is a logical conclusion drawn from observations such as
-The shadow of the earth on the moon is round.
-The mast of a ship is the last thing seen as it sails into the distance.
-The horizon is curved.
-Photographs from space.
And science helps us avoid dogmatism: basing conclusions on authority rather than logic and evidence. For example, how do we know the earth is round?
-Our parents told us.
-Our teachers told us.
-Our minister told us.
-Our textbook told us.
-Brother Jed told us.
Dogmatic conclusions are not necessarily wrong, but they do beg other questions: How did the authorities come to thier conclusions? Were they guided by science or some other means?”
Sometimes the question should be what isn’t proof instead of what is. Because of the complications that can be involved in thinking logically we often make mistakes. The purpose of the following sections is to point out common flaws in thinking. It is by no means a complete list, but to define illogical methods of thinking is the first step in avoiding them. These sections are excerpts from Michael Shermer’s book “Why people believe weird things”
Problems in Pseudoscientific Thinking
Anecdotes Do Not Make a Science
Anecdotes — stories recounted in support of a claim — do not make a science. Without corroborative evidence from other sources, or physical proof of some sort, ten anecdotes are no better than one, and a hundred anecdotes are no better than ten. Anecdotes are told by fallible human storytellers. Farmer Bob in Puckerbrush, Kansas, may be an honest, church-going, family man not obviously subject to delusions, but we need physical evidence of an alien spacecraft or alien bodies, not just a story about landings and abductions at 3:00 A.M. on a deserted country road. Likewise with many medical claims. Stories about how your Aunt Mary’s cancer was cured by watching Marx Brothers movies or taking a liver extract from castrated chickens are meaningless. The cancer might have gone into remission on its own, which some cancers do; or it might have been misdiagnosed; or, or, or.… What we need are controlled experiments, not anecdotes. We need 100 subjects with cancer, all properly diagnosed and matched. Then we need 25 of the subjects to watch Marx Brothers movies, 25 to watch Alfred Hitchcock movies, 25 to watch the news, and 25 to watch nothing. Then we need to deduct the average rate of remission for this type of cancer and then analyze the data for statistically significant differences between the groups. If there are statistically significant differences, we better get confirmation from other scientists who have conducted their own experiments separate from ours before we hold a press conference to announce the cure for cancer.
Scientific Language Does Not Make a Science
Dressing up a belief system in the trappings of science by using scientific language and jargon, as in “creation-science,” means nothing without evidence, experimental testing, and corroboration. Because science has such a powerful mystique in our society, those who wish to gain respectability but do not have evidence try to do an end run around the missing evidence by looking and sounding “scientific.” Here is a classic example from a New Age column in the Santa Monica News: “This planet has been slumbering for eons and with the inception of higher energy frequencies is about to awaken in terms of consciousness and spirituality. Masters of limitation and masters of divination use the same creative force to manifest their realities, however, one moves in a downward spiral and the latter moves in an upward spiral, each increasing the resonant vibration inherent in them.” How’s that again? I have no idea what this means, but it has the language components of a physics experiment: “higher energy frequencies,” “downward and upward spirals,” and “resonant vibration.” Yet these phrases mean nothing because they have no precise and operational definitions. How do you measure a planet’s higher energy frequencies or the resonant vibration of masters of divination? For that matter, what is a master of divination?
Bold Statements Do Not Make Claims True
Something is probably pseudoscientific if enormous claims are made for its power and veracity but supportive evidence is scarce as hen’s teeth. L. Ron Hubbard, for example, opens his Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, with this statement: “The creation of Dianetics is a milestone for man comparable to his discovery of fire and superior to his invention of the wheel and arch” (in Gardner 1952, p. 263). Sexual energy guru Wilhelm Reich called his theory of Orgonomy “a revolution in biology and psychology comparable to the Copernican Revolution” (in Gardner 1952, p. 259). I have a thick file of papers and letters from obscure authors filled with such outlandish claims (I call it the “Theories of Everything” file). Scientists sometimes make this mistake, too, as we saw at 1:00 P.M., on March 23, 1989, when Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann held a press conference to announce to the world that they had made cold nuclear fusion work. Gary Taubes’s excellent book about the cold fusion debacle, appropriately named Bad Science (1993), thoroughly examines the implications of this incident. Maybe fifty years of physics will be proved wrong by one experiment, but don’t throw out your furnace until that experiment has been replicated. The moral is that the more extraordinary the claim, the more extraordinarily well-tested the evidence must be.
Heresy Does Not Equal Correctness
They laughed at Copernicus. They laughed at the Wright brothers. Yes, well, they laughed at the Marx brothers. Being laughed at does not mean you are right. Wilhelm Reich compared himself to Peer Gynt, the unconventional genius out of step with society, and misunderstood and ridiculed as a heretic until proven right: “Whatever you have done to me or will do to me in the future, whether you glorify me as a genius or put me in a mental institution, whether you adore me as your savior or hang me as a spy, sooner or later necessity will force you to comprehend that I have discovered the laws of the living” (in Gardner 1952, p. 259). Reprinted in the January-February 1996 issue of the Journal of Historical Review, the organ of Holocaust denial, is a famous quote from the nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, which is quoted often by those on the margins: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident.” But “all truth” does not pass through these stages. Lots of true ideas are accepted without ridicule or opposition, violent or otherwise. Einstein’s theory of relativity was largely ignored until 1919, when experimental evidence proved him right. He was not ridiculed, and no one violently opposed his ideas. The Schopenhauer quote is just a rationalization, a fancy way for those who are ridiculed or violently opposed to say, “See, I must be right.” Not so.
History is replete with tales of the lone scientist working in spite of his peers and flying in the face of the doctrines of his or her own field of study. Most of them turned out to be wrong and we do not remember their names. For every Galileo shown the instruments of torture for advocating a scientific truth, there are a thousand (or ten thousand) unknowns whose “truths” never pass muster with other scientists. The scientific community cannot be expected to test every fantastic claim that comes along, especially when so many are logically inconsistent. If you want to do science, you have to learn to play the game of science. This involves getting to know the scientists in your field, exchanging data and ideas with colleagues informally, and formally presenting results in conference papers, peer-reviewed journals, books, and the like.
Burden of Proof
Who has to prove what to whom? The person making the extraordinary claim has the burden of proving to the experts and to the community at large that his or her belief has more validity than the one almost everyone else accepts. You have to lobby for your opinion to be heard. Then you have to marshal experts on your side so you can convince the majority to support your claim over the one that they have always supported. Finally, when you are in the majority, the burden of proof switches to the outsider who wants to challenge you with his or her unusual claim. Evolutionists had the burden of proof for half a century after Darwin, but now the burden of proof is on creationists. It is up to creationists to show why the theory of evolution is wrong and why creationism is right, and it is not up to evolutionists to defend evolution. The burden of proof is on the Holocaust deniers to prove the Holocaust did not happen, not on Holocaust historians to prove that it did. The rationale for this is that mountains of evidence prove that both evolution and the Holocaust are facts. In other words, it is not enough to have evidence. You must convince others of the validity of your evidence. And when you are an outsider this is the price you pay, regardless of whether you are right or wrong.
Rumors Do Not Equal Reality
Rumors begin with “I read somewhere that … ” or “I heard from someone that.…” Before long the rumor becomes reality, as “I know that…” passes from person to person. Rumors may be true, of course, but usually they are not. They do make for great tales, however. There is the “true story” of the escaped maniac with a prosthetic hook who haunts the lover’s lanes of America. There is the legend of “The Vanishing Hitchhiker,” in which a driver picks up a hitchhiker who vanishes from his car along with his jacket; locals then tell the driver that his hitchhiking woman had died that same day the year before, and eventually he discovers his jacket on her grave. Such stories spread fast and never die.
Caltech historian of science Dan Kevles once told a story he suspected was apocryphal at a dinner party. Two students did not get back from a ski trip in time to take their final exam because the activities of the previous day had extended well into the night. They told their professor that they had gotten a flat tire, so he gave them a makeup final the next day. Placing the students in separate rooms, he asked them just two questions: (1) “For 5 points, what is the chemical formula for water?” (2) “For 95 points, which tire?” Two of the dinner guests had heard a vaguely similar story. The next day I repeated the story to my students and before I got to the punch line, three of them simultaneously blurted out, “Which tire?” Urban legends and persistent rumors are ubiquitous. Here are a few:
The secret ingredient in Dr. Pepper is prune juice.
Paul McCartney died and was replaced by a look-alike.
Giant alligators live in the sewers of New York City.
The moon landing was faked and filmed in a Hollywood studio.
George Washington had wooden teeth.
The number of stars inside the “P” on Playboy magazine’s cover indicates how many times publisher Hugh Hefner had sex with the centerfold.
A flying saucer crashed in New Mexico and the bodies of the extraterrestrials are being kept by the Air Force in a secret warehouse.
How many have you heard … and believed? None of them are true.
End of part 1
Unexplained Is Not Inexplicable
Many people are overconfident enough to think that if they cannot explain something, it must be inexplicable and therefore a true mystery of the paranormal. An amateur archeologist declares that because he cannot figure out how the pyramids were built, they must have been constructed by space aliens. Even those who are more reasonable at least think that if the experts cannot explain something, it must be inexplicable. Feats such as the bending of spoons, firewalking, or mental telepathy are often thought to be of a paranormal or mystical nature because most people cannot explain them. When they are explained, most people respond, “Yes, of course” or “That’s obvious once you see it.” Firewalking is a case in point. People speculate endlessly about supernatural powers over pain and heat, or mysterious brain chemicals that block the pain and prevent burning. The simple explanation is that the capacity of light and fluffy coals to contain heat is very low, and the conductivity of heat from the light and fluffy coals to your feet is very poor. As long as you don’t stand around on the coals, you will not get burned. (Think of a cake in a 450°F oven. The air, the cake, and the pan are all at 450°F, but only the metal pan will burn your hand. It has a high heat capacity and high conductivity, while air and cake are light and fluffy and have a low heat capacity and low conductivity.) This is why magicians do not tell their secrets. Most of their tricks are extremely simple and knowing the secret takes the magic out of the trick.
There are many genuine unsolved mysteries in the universe and it is okay to say, “We do not yet know but someday perhaps we will.” The problem is that most of us find it more comforting to have certainty, even if it is premature, than to live with unsolved or unexplained mysteries.
Failures Are Rationalized
In science, the value of negative findings — failures — cannot be overemphasized. Usually they are not wanted, and often they are not published. But most of the time failures are how we get closer to truth. Honest scientists will readily admit their errors, but all scientists are kept in line by the fact that their fellow scientists will publicize any attempt to fudge. Not pseudoscientists. They ignore or rationalize failures, especially when exposed. If they are actually caught cheating — not a frequent occurrence — they claim that their powers usually work but not always, so when pressured to perform on television or in a laboratory, they sometimes resort to cheating. If they simply fail to perform, they have ready any number of creative explanations: too many controls in an experiment cause negative results; the powers do not work in the presence of skeptics; the powers do not work in the presence of electrical equipment; the powers come and go, and this is one of those times they went. Finally, they claim that if skeptics cannot explain everything, then there must be something paranormal; they fall back on the unexplained is not inexplicable fallacy.
Also known as “post hoc, ergo propter hoc,” literally “after this, therefore because of this.” At its basest level, it is a form of superstition. The baseball player does not shave and hits two home runs. The gambler wears his lucky shoes because he has won wearing them in the past. More subtly, scientific studies can fall prey to this fallacy. In 1993 a study found that breast-fed children have higher IQ scores. There was much clamor over what ingredient in mother’s milk increased intelligence. Mothers who bottle-fed their babies were made to feel guilty. But soon researchers began to wonder whether breast-fed babies are attended to differently. Maybe nursing mothers spend more time with their babies and motherly vigilance was the cause behind the differences in IQ. As Hume taught us, the fact that two events follow each other in sequence does not mean they are connected causally. Correlation does not mean causation.
In the paranormal world, coincidences are often seen as deeply significant. “Synchronicity” is invoked, as if some mysterious force were at work behind the scenes. But I see synchronicity as nothing more than a type of contingency — a conjuncture of two or more events without apparent design. When the connection is made in a manner that seems impossible according to our intuition of the laws of probability, we have a tendency to think something mysterious is at work.
But most people have a very poor understanding of the laws of probability. A gambler will win six in a row and then think he is either “on a hot streak” or “due to lose.” Two people in a room of thirty people discover that they have the same birthday and conclude that something mysterious is at work. You go to the phone to call your friend Bob. The phone rings and it is Bob. You think, “Wow, what are the chances; This could not have been a mere coincidence. Maybe Bob and I are communicating telepathically.” In fact, none of these coincidences are coincidences under the rules of probability. The gambler has predicted both possible outcomes, a fairly safe bet! The probability that two people in a room of thirty people will have the same birthday is 71 percent. And you have forgotten how many times Bob did not call under such circumstances, or someone else called, or Bob called but you were not thinking of him, and so on. As the behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner proved in the laboratory, the human mind seeks relationships between events and often finds them even when they are not present. Slot-machines are based on Skinnerian principles of intermittent reinforcement. The dumb human, like the dumb rat, only needs an occasional payoff to keep pulling the handle. The mind will do the rest.
As Aristotle said, “The sum of the coincidences equals certainty.” We forget most of the insignificant coincidences and remember the meaningful ones. Our tendency to remember hits and ignore misses is the bread and butter of the psychics, prophets, and soothsayers who make hundreds of predictions each January 1. First they increase the probability of a hit by predicting mostly generalized sure bets like “There will be a major earthquake in southern California” or “I see trouble for the Royal Family.” Then, next January, they publish their hits and ignore the misses, and hope no one bothers to keep track.
We must always remember the larger context in which a seemingly unusual event occurs, and we must always analyze unusual events for their representativeness of their class of phenomena. In the case of the “Bermuda Triangle,” an area of the Atlantic Ocean where ships and planes “mysteriously” disappear, there is the assumption that something strange or alien is at work. But we must consider how representative such events are in that area. Far more shipping lanes run through the Bermuda Triangle than its surrounding areas, so accidents and mishaps and disappearances are more likely to happen in the area. As it turns out, the accident rate is actually lower in the Bermuda Triangle than in surrounding areas. Perhaps this area should be called the “Non-Bermuda Triangle.” (See Kusche 1975 for a full explanation of this solved mystery.) Similarly, in investigating haunted houses, we must have a baseline measurement of noises, creaks, and other events before we can say that an occurrence is unusual (and therefore mysterious). I used to hear rapping sounds in the walls of my house. Ghosts? Nope. Bad plumbing. I occasionally hear scratching sounds in my basement. Poltergeists? Nope. Rats. One would be well-advised to first thoroughly understand the probable worldly explanation before turning to other-worldly ones.
Logical Problems in Thinking
Emotive Words and False Analogies
Emotive words are used to provoke emotion and sometimes to obscure rationality. They can be positive emotive words — motherhood, America, integrity, honesty. Or they can be negative — rape, cancer, evil, communist. Likewise, metaphors and analogies can cloud thinking with emotion or steer us onto a side path. A pundit talks about inflation as “the cancer of society” or industry “raping the environment.” In his 1992 Democratic nomination speech, Al Gore constructed an elaborate analogy between the story of his sick son and America as a sick country. Just as his son, hovering on the brink of death, was nursed back to health by his father and family, America, hovering on the brink of death after twelve years of Reagan and Bush, was to be nurtured back to health under the new administration. Like anecdotes, analogies and metaphors do not constitute proof. They are merely tools of rhetoric.
This is an appeal to ignorance of lack of knowledge and is related to the burden of proof and unexplained is not inexplicable fallacies, where someone argues that if you cannot disprove a claim it must be true. For example, if you cannot prove that there isn’t any psychic power, then there must be. The absurdity of this argument comes into focus if one argues that if you cannot prove that Santa Claus does not exist, then he must exist. You can argue the opposite in a similar manner. If you cannot prove Santa Claus exists, then he must not exist. In science, belief should come from positive evidence in support of a claim, not lack of evidence for or against a claim.
Ad Hominem and Tu Quoque
Literally “to the man” and “you also,” these fallacies redirect the focus from thinking about the idea to thinking about the person holding the idea. The goal of an ad hominem attack is to discredit the claimant in hopes that it will discredit the claim. Calling someone an atheist, a communist, a child abuser, or a neo-Nazi does not in any way disprove that person’s statement. It might be helpful to know whether someone is of a particular religion or holds a particular ideology, in case this has in some way biased the research, but refuting claims must be done directly, not indirectly. If Holocaust deniers, for example, are neo-Nazis or anti-Semites, this would certainly guide their choice of which historical events to emphasize or ignore. But if they are making the claim, for example, that Hitler did not have a master plan for the extermination of European Jewry, the response “Oh, he is saying that because he is a neo-Nazi” does not refute the argument. Whether Hitler had a master plan or not is a question that can be settled historically. Similarly for tu quoque. If someone accuses you of cheating on your taxes, the answer “Well, so do you” is no proof one way or the other.
In logic, the hasty generalization is a form of improper induction. In life, it is called prejudice. In either case, conclusions are drawn before the facts warrant it. Perhaps because our brains evolved to be constantly on the lookout for connections between events and causes, this fallacy is one of the most common of all. A couple of bad teachers mean a bad school. A few bad cars mean that brand of automobile is unreliable. A handful of members of a group are used to judge the entire group. In science, we must carefully gather as much information as possible before announcing our conclusions.
Overreliance on Authorities
We tend to rely heavily on authorities in our culture, especially if the authority is considered to be highly intelligent. The IQ score has acquired nearly mystical proportions in the last half century, but I have noticed that belief in the paranormal is not uncommon among Mensa members (the high-IQ club for those in the top 2 percent of the population); some even argue that their “Psi-Q” is also superior. Magician James Randi is fond of lampooning authorities with Ph.D.s — once they are granted the degree, he says, they find it almost impossible to say two things: “I don’t know” and “I was wrong.” Authorities, by virtue of their expertise in a field, may have a better chance of being right in that field, but correctness is certainly not guaranteed, and their expertise does not necessarily qualify them to draw conclusions in other areas.
In other words, who is making the claim makes a difference. If it is a Nobel laureate, we take note because he or she has been right in a big way before. If it is a discredited scam artist, we give a loud guffaw because he or she has been wrong in a big way before. While expertise is useful for separating the wheat from the chaff, it is dangerous in that we might either (1) accept a wrong idea just because it was supported by someone we respect (false positive) or (2) reject a right idea just because it was supported by someone we disrespect (false negative). How do you avoid such errors? Examine the evidence.
Also known as the fallacy of negation or the false dilemma, this is the tendency to dichotomize the world so that if you discredit one position, the observer is forced to accept the other. This is a favorite tactic of creationists, who claim that life either was divinely created or evolved. Then they spend the majority of their time discrediting the theory of evolution so that they can argue that since evolution is wrong, creationism must be right. But it is not enough to point out weaknesses in a theory. If your theory is indeed superior, it must explain both the “normal” data explained by the old theory and the “anomalous” data not explained by the old theory. A new theory needs evidence in favor of it, not just against the opposition.
Also known as the fallacy of redundancy, begging the question, or tautology, this is when the conclusion or claim is merely a restatement of one of the premises. Christian apologetics is filled with tautologies: Is there a God? Yes. How do you know? Because the Bible says so. How do you know the Bible is correct? Because it was inspired by God. In other words, God is because God is. Science also has its share of redundancies: What is gravity? The tendency for objects to be attracted to one another: Why are objects attracted to one another? Gravity. In other words, gravity is because gravity is. (In fact, some of Newton’s contemporaries rejected his theory of gravity as being an unscientific throwback to medieval occult thinking.) Obviously, a tautological operational definition can still be useful. Yet, difficult as it is, we must try to construct operational definitions that can be tested, falsified, and refuted.
Reductio ad Absurdum and the Slippery Slope
Reductio ad absurdum is the refutation of an argument by carrying the argument to its logical end and so reducing it to an absurd conclusion. Surely, if an argument’s consequences are absurd, it must be false. This is not necessarily so, though sometimes pushing an argument to its limits is a useful exercise in critical thinking; often this is a way to discover whether a claim has validity, especially if an experiment testing the actual reduction can be run. Similarly, the slippery slope fallacy involves constructing a scenario in which one thing leads ultimately to an end so extreme that the first step should never be taken. For example: Eating Ben & Jerry’s ice cream will cause you to put on weight. Putting on weight will make you overweight. Soon you will weigh 350 pounds and die of heart disease. Eating Ben & Jerry’s ice cream leads to death. Don’t even try it. Certainly eating a scoop of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream may contribute to obesity, which could possibly, in very rare cases, cause death. But the consequence does not necessarily follow from the premise.
Psychological Problems in Thinking
Effort Inadequacies and the Need for Certainty, Control, and Simplicity
Most of us, most of the time, want certainty, want to control our environment, and want nice, neat simple explanations. All this may have some evolutionary basis, but in a multifarious society with complex problems, these characteristics can radically oversimplify reality and interfere with critical thinking and problem solving.
Scientific and critical thinking does not come naturally. It takes training, experience, and effort, as Alfred Mander explained in his Logic for the Millions: “Thinking is skilled work. It is not true that we are naturally endowed with the ability to think clearly and logically — without learning how, or without practicing. People with untrained minds should no more expect to think clearly and logically than people who have never learned and never practiced can expect to find themselves good carpenters, golfers, bridge players, or pianists” We must always work to suppress our need to be absolutely certain and in total control and our tendency to seek the simple and effortless solution to a problem. Now and then the solutions may be simple, but usually they are not.
All critical and scientific thinking is, in a fashion, problem solving. There are numerous psychological disruptions that cause inadequacies in problem solving. Psychologist Barry Singer has demonstrated that when given the task of selecting the right answer to a problem after being told whether particular guesses are right or wrong, people:
A. Immediately form a hypothesis and look only for examples to confirm it.
B. Do not seek evidence to disprove the hypothesis.
C. Are very slow to change the hypothesis even when it is obviously wrong.
D. If the information is too complex, adopt overly-simple hypotheses or strategies for solutions.
E. If there is no solution, if the problem is a trick and “right” and “wrong” is given at random, form hypotheses about coincidental relationships they observed. Causality is always found. If this is the case with humans in general, then we all must make the effort to overcome these inadequacies in solving the problems of science and of life.
The Arts and Sciences
This may give the impression that science is purely cold and logical, this is a misconception. The following quote is from K.C Cole’s book “First you build a cloud: and other reflections on physics as a way of life.” Cole shows how science, physics is particular can be emotionally and sentimentally fulfilling.
“It’s no surprise that artists and scientists are drawn to the same subject matter. Nature – and human nature – is rich in the kind of mysteries that attract both. A tree is fertile ground for the botanist and the poet. Painters, psychologists, sculptors, and physicians all study the relationship between mother and child and the structure of the human form. Mathematicians and artists are drawn to the symmetry of snowflakes, sine waves, the spiral growth of shells. Physicists, philosophers, and composers explore the origin of the universe, the meaning of life, and the holy meaning of death.
Yet when it comes to approach, we are told, the affinity breaks down totally. Artists approach nature with feeling; scientists rely on logic. Art elicits emotion; science makes sense. Art, like child rearing or an interest in social welfare, is supposed to require a warm (if not bleeding) heart. Science, like law or manufacturing, is supposed to be rational, objective, deductive. Scientists are supposed to think, but artists are supposed to care. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. It would be a poor, irresponsible poet indeed who was controlled. And no scientist ever got far by sticking exclusively to the scientific method. Though for some reason it seems to upset people; scientists are frequently every bit as passionate about their work as stupendous artists are about theirs.”