Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Baloney Detection Kit: The Dragon

Dr. Martin Luther King and Star Trek
   "A fire breathing dragon lives in my garage."
    Suppose (I'm following a group therapy approach by the psychologist Richard Franklin) I seriously make such an assertion to you.  Surely you'd want to check it out, see for yourself.  There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!
   "Show me," you say.  I lead you to my garage.  You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle -- but no dragon.
   "Where's the dragon?" you ask.
   "Oh, she's right here," I reply, waving vaguely.  "I neglected to mention that she's an invisible dragon."
   You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon's footprints.
   "Good idea," I say, "but this dragon floats in the air."
   Then you'll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.
   "Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless."
   You'll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.
    "Good idea, but she's an incorporeal dragon and the paint won't stick."  And so on.  I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won't work.
   Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all?  If there's no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists?  Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true.  Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder.  What I'm asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.  The only thing you've really learned from my insistence that there's a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head.  You'd wonder, if no physical tests apply, what convinced me.  The possibility that it was a dream or a hallucination would certainly enter your mind.  But then, why am I taking it so seriously?  Maybe I need help.  At the least, maybe I've seriously underestimated human fallibility.  Imagine that, despite none of the tests being successful, you wish to be scrupulously open-minded.  So you don't outright reject the notion that there's a fire-breathing dragon in my garage.  You merely put it on hold.  Present evidence is strongly against it, but if a new body of data emerge you're prepared to examine it and see if it convinces you.  Surely it's unfair of me to be offended at not being believed; or to criticize you for being stodgy and unimaginative -- merely because you rendered the Scottish verdict of "not proved."
   Imagine that things had gone otherwise.  The dragon is invisible, all right, but footprints are being made in the flour as you watch.  Your infrared detector reads off-scale.  The spray paint reveals a jagged crest bobbing in the air before you.  No matter how skeptical you might have been about the existence of dragons -- to say nothing about invisible ones -- you must now acknowledge that there's something here, and that in a preliminary way it's consistent with an invisible, fire-breathing dragon.
   Now another scenario: Suppose it's not just me.  Suppose that several people of your acquaintance, including people who you're pretty sure don't know each other, all tell you that they have dragons in their garages -- but in every case the evidence is maddeningly elusive.  All of us admit we're disturbed at being gripped by so odd a conviction so ill-supported by the physical evidence.  None of us is a lunatic.  We speculate about what it would mean if invisible dragons were really hiding out in garages all over the world, with us humans just catching on.  I'd rather it not be true, I tell you.  But maybe all those ancient European and Chinese myths about dragons weren't myths at all.
   Gratifyingly, some dragon-size footprints in the flour are now reported.  But they're never made when a skeptic is looking.  An alternative explanation presents itself.  On close examination it seems clear that the footprints could have been faked.  Another dragon enthusiast shows up with a burnt finger and attributes it to a rare physical manifestation of the dragon's fiery breath.  But again, other possibilities exist.  We understand that there are other ways to burn fingers besides the breath of invisible dragons.  Such "evidence" -- no matter how important the dragon advocates consider it -- is far from compelling.  Once again, the only sensible approach is tentatively to reject the dragon hypothesis, to be open to future physical data, and to wonder what the cause might be that so many apparently sane and sober people share the same strange delusion. -
Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark 1995

   What kind of world do you want to live in?
   For myself I dream that civilization may one day evolve into a society somewhat close to that depicted in my favorite television show, "Start Trek, the Next Generation." A science based society, that has no more use for war (at least on Earth), uses no money, no crime to speak of, personal growth emphasized, medical and mental illness rare, personal freedoms enjoyed  (including religious), abundant energy and food for everyone, the many dire problems our world faces today such as global warming, solved. Overpopulation solved, racial strife a thing of the past, a society based in equality which strives to further it's knowledge of itself and the universe.
   A world and society where children can grow up to live without having to worry about breathable air, or rising ocean levels, or rising poverty levels, or high rates of crime, or over fishing, or ozone depletion, or deadening political partisanship, a world unaffected by the myriad of problems we currently face and one in which it is unafraid to explore old and new possibilities to solve problems that affect each and every one of us.
   Of course what I'm describing is a Utopia, defined simply by Wikipedia (so it must be true) as:  an ideal community or society possessing a perfect socio-politico-legal system.
   A society based on STGN has been given consideration on the Internet Machine. Some have described it as being communist (it's not), fascist (it most decidedly is not), socialist (possibly), as well as other societal structures. What we do know is a "Utopian Paradise," as far as I know has never existed in the history of this planet. The closest that approach this lofty goal currently are probably the Constitutional monarchies of Scandinavia, such as Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, which enjoy robust economies, socialized health care,  low poverty, long life expectancies, social equality, all paid for by high-tax welfare policies.
   But it's very cold there. If we could simply shift all of the above attributes these Constitutional monarchies provide to Tahiti, well, I'd seriously consider moving, provided I had a lifetime supply of sunscreen.
   I mention the society of Star Trek as a goal, albeit a distant goal, but a goal nonetheless.
   Why do I need a goal of a future society when I already live in what many consider the greatest country on the planet?
   Because I think... I know we can do so much better. All of the problems that the society of Star Trek has managed or eradicated listed above, plus many more I can't think of right now, we currently suffer from, and our tools for effectively dealing with them in a pragmatic, successful manner, are dull. Our government is obviously dysfunctional. As the President alluded to during his first run for office, we need to change.
   A lot of our citizens are understandably afraid of change, that fear often ingrained into their very personalities. However, the world is changing whether we would would wish it to or not. Technological advances are occurring at an exponential rate and more than likely will continue to do so, bringing along with them inevitable changes in our society, in the way we work, in the way we play, in the way we learn, and in the way we approach the many problems we face.
   Our planet is changing, it's climate, and the demographics of its inhabitants, flora and fauna are changing with it. We can choose to stand up to the challenges these changes present to us, or we can pretend , as we are currently doing, that they are simply not there.
   I prefer dealing with them in a responsible manner.
   And one of the tools we will undoubtedly need to employ is the way we look at these problems, such as in a critical manner, perhaps using a system quite like the one Dr Sagan hinted at with his dragon in the garage.
   In the next few posts we will examine specific tools required to think in a critical manner that is not only beneficial in dealing with the difficulties society faces, but in our own personal lives. From buying a new car or home, choosing a physician, in watching the nightly news, grocery shopping, in choosing a mate... all kinds of things that matter to each and all.
   But we must make that first choice... do we want to live with a invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire in our garage, or do we wish to boldly explore other alternatives?

To be continued

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