Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Baloney Detection Kit: The Kit

Planetary Society Executive Director Bill Nye the Science Guy on Evolution Denial

   "Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.
   We support objective teaching and equal treatment of all sides of scientific theories. We believe theories such as life origins and environmental change should be taught as challengeable scientific theories subject to change as new data is produced. Teachers and students should be able to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of these theories openly and without fear of retribution or discrimination of any kind.." -Texas GOP Platform, 2012

   "Who needs science? That might be "challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority" which is otherwise known as "Stupid shit my dad says."
   Apparently, stupid shit my dad says because he heard it on Fox gets to debate facts from reality which is known to have a liberal bias in Texas education. I would joke about comparing sending your kid to school in Texas as a form of child abuse but the idiot Texas GOP one upped me and support some child abuse in their platform!" -MinistryOfTruth, Daily Kos, July 27, 2012

Stephen Colbert on Texas GOP Platform

   The second tool we find in Dr. Carl Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit is:

   2. Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.

   In other words discuss whatever given problem is being considered with others who may have had experience with that particular problem, no matter what position the others may have. Whether it be buying a car (talk to others familiar with the make, or mechanics, or others selling similar vehicles), or choosing a mate (talk to others who may know the prospective mate, or the prospective mates relatives, or prospective mates colleagues, etc.). This is a fairly easy to understand step that most probably carry out in real life situations without thinking too much about it. In science, let's say debating the merits of teaching intelligent design in the classroom, debate should be vigorous, with emphasis as to whether the subject does constitute a science rather than a philosophy that proponents wish to disguise as science, placing the burden of proof on the proponents.
   Do the Ghost Hunters encourage substantial debate on the subject of life after death, or hauntings in general? No.
   In politics "substantial debate," has all too often been whittled away by the media or the candidates themselves, for fear of making mistakes or "gaffes," the result being that tough, substantial questions may or may not be asked, but said candidates are allowed to stray from the subject matter of the question and speak through to their own policy talking points (as was very neatly illustrated in the August 19th episode of HBO's "The Newsroom," "The Blackout Part II: Mock Debate.")

   3. Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no "authorities").

      At one time the highest authorities insisted the Earth was flat. At another time the Catholic Church, arguably the highest authority in existence then,  taught that the Earth was at the center of the universe, with the sun, planets, and stars revolving around it. People who disguise themselves in the robes of authority appear constantly on television advocating for one position of an issue, or another. We have petroleum industry backed so-called authorities, or so-called scientists advocating climate change denial. They are almost certainly wrong. Nothing should be taken solely on the word of authorities, even those you may agree with. As Dr Sagan pointed out, "Authorities have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future." 
   And then there is the Argument From False Authority, or the Some Say Argument. Our Fox so-called News friend, Sean Hannity uses this tactic ubiquitously. "Some say..." he starts off with giving some sense of authority to whatever position he's advocating for at the time, while providing little or no evidence that his position is relevant, should be genuinely considered, or if it is even true. Well who are these mysterious people who are saying it, and why should we care?
   He never tells us, thus this type of argument has little merit. 

   4. Spin more than one hypothesis - don't simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.

   Let's say you get up one morning, go to your kitchen and make some nice tasty, oh so nutritious  pancakes. You make yourself three of four, sit down to your dining table, and are about to pour some syrup all over them when you notice that the top pancake has griddle markings on it that closely resemble the Virgin Mary. "Wow," you exclaim. "The Virgin Mary! It must be a miracle! I could become famous for this pancake. I could sell it on eBay!"
   Well first, congratulations on being able to recognize the Virgin Mary, as there are few existing photographs of her.
   Next, before you trudge off to "The Jerry Springer Show," or "The 700 Club," you may want to take a few minutes attempting to come up with another explanation as to how a resemblance to the Virgin Mary manifested itself on top of your pancake.
   Does the topography of your pancake really resemble that of a woman? We know that the mind actively strives to find patterns in the world, sometimes when none exist. Sometimes our brains  interpret optical input in ways that might fool us into thinking something is there when it is not. These instances are called optical illusions (take a look at the third photo above. Is it the profile of a young woman or an old hag? (I see a Peruvian kangaroo, which is very strange as there are no kangaroos in Peru)). Often we see what we would like to see.
   Also, and more to the point of our forth tool, is there any other simpler explanation that would fully explain how something that looked like a person appeared on your pancake other than a miracle? Random shifts in the cooking processes of pancake batter comes to mind. This is an example of coming up with another hypothesis which explains the observed phenomenon. There may be other theorys to take under consideration also. If however you decide to stick with the miracle hypothesis it is up to you to prove that such things as miracles actually exist, and how they work in nature, probably a daunting task considering the long history of reported miracles that your eventual hypothesis must explain as well (which must then lend itself to experimentation and peer review).
   Another argument stemming from this episode could be a debate as to whether pancakes are indeed nutritious.
   5. Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it's yours.

   Okay, you wake up in the morning, go to the kitchen and make yourself some possibly nutritious pancakes, have a nice glass of 2% milk, and suddenly an idea pops into your head which describes a model in particle physics in which at high energies the three gauge interactions of the Standard Model which define the electromagnetic, weak, and strong interactions, are merged into one single interaction characterized by one larger gauge symmetry and thus one unified coupling constant.
   "Wow," you say to yourself, "the Grand Unified Theory, at last! Maybe I'll be able to get on Jerry Springer!"
   Not bad for an accountant.
   You take the day off and write your theory down on a piece of paper and check your calculations. Everything seems to work out. Your theory appears to unify electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces, which has never been done before. You begin to contemplate how your theory can be tested in an experiment. You get very excited
   At lunch time, however, your neighbor comes over and says they've discovered a whole different Grand Unified Theory, that discounts the one you came up with that morning. Not only that, their hypothesis also incorporates the full theory of gravitation as described by general relativity, and predicts the accelerating expansion of the universe (as possibly described by dark energy), and on top of that accounts for neutrino oscillation.
   WTF! You exclaim to yourself. How can this be? This guy's a freaking garbage collector!
   You're still sure yours is the better idea but you agree to look over your neighbor's data. You soon are forced to agree that your neighbor's theory is valid and works within the frame work of known physics.
   What you have done is what is supposed to happen in science... you have gone where the evidence takes you (or in this case, possibly a better hypothesis), not where you would like the evidence to go.      

   6. Quantify, wherever possible. After you finish quantifying... quantify some more.
   Quantify means: Express as a number, or measure, or quantity. That's what you did when you came up with your Grand Unified Theory when you wrote it down as a mathematical expression. Why would you want to do that for this or any other problem? Because mathematics is the language of science. Remember that scene in the film "Contact" (based on Carl Sagan's only novel) where Jodie Foster is explaining the discovery of the alien signal from outer space to some clueless politician? The signal was based in prime numbers, numbers greater than 1 that can only be divided by 1 and itself, like 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, and so forth.
   "Why didn't they just talk to us in English?" the politician asks, to which Jodie replies, a little exacerbated, "Maybe because three quarters of the world doesn't speak English," or something close to that. "Mathematics is the only true universal language," or something like that.
   And math is the least uncertain language in existence. You really can't argue with 2 + 2 = 4 (unless you're a Tea Partier or quantum physicist).
   So when your making an argument that is amenable toward the use of mathematics, use math as much as possible to further said argument.

To be continued

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