Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘knowledge

Beliefs based on X said so

with one comment

I just re-watched some “Family Guy” episodes. Among them “Hot Shots” (season 15, episode 6), which deals with vaccinations, Peter’s and Lois’s refusal to have Stewie vaccinated, and a pro- vs. anti-vaccine debate.

Indirectly, this leads to the question “How do we know that X?”, where X can be e.g. that vaccines are good (or bad), that global warming is (or is not) caused by humans, that homeopathy does (or does not) work, that the theory of evolution does (or does not) explain life as we now it.

Disturbingly often, the answer boils down to “My teacher told me.”, “I read it in the paper.”, or even the word of a celebrity with more beauty than brains and no expert knowledge. (In other words, poorly supported belief—not knowledge.) Slightly better, but still not good, is what amounts to “I am told that this is what most experts believe.” (except that the subject is rarely aware of the “I am told that” part)—but what experts believe and what e.g. media claim that experts believe are not always the same thing (consider e.g. various topics around IQ). Moreover, if we ask the wrong experts, the astrologers instead of the astronomers, even a near consensus can be highly misleading, as with e.g. homeopaths on medicine or many social scientists on biological issues (including, again, IQ).

I am a strong critical thinker, but even I have often gone down the wrong road on such matters, including only as an adult seeing through the many pieces of incorrect feminist propaganda that I encountered in school and media from my early childhood. (Including variations of the 77 cents on the dollar fraud.)

It also includes many cases of believing something that might well be true, but which I believed for a bad reason (also see a more general discussion). Vaccines are a good example: when I first heard of vaccines as an alleged cause of this-or-that I dismissed it as nonsense, largely* because authorities on the topic seemed to consider it nonsense. Quite possibly, this is what authorities do believe and, quite possibly, they are correct, but to assume this to be the case is a naive and epistemologically unsound reason to believe something. In contrast, if I had myself looked into who said what and read up in detail on the arguments for and against, then I might have had a sound reason to believe.** This I have done with e.g. the theory of evolution and it holds***; similarly, I can say in good conscience that homeopathy does not hold, because I have done the needed reading and thinking.

*To some part, however, because some claims seem far-fetched: how, e.g., is a simple vaccination supposed to cause autism in a post-natal child? I would not consider it impossible, a priori, but it is far-fetched.

**Of course, even then knowledge-beyond-any-doubt would not be possible, and some degree of uncertainty will virtually always be present on any issue. The question is when the degree of uncertainty becomes small enough for the purpose at hand.

***Barring details subject to an improved understanding and possibilities like a “god of the gaps”. (But I note that I see no increase in the explanatory value, should a “god of the gaps” be added to the theory. Occam’s Razor applies.)

I would strongly encourage my readers to postpone judgment and actions on any matter until they have actually gained an own insight. This in particular when it comes to politics, where the consequences of an incorrect decision could have a negative effect on an entire country—it is better to not vote than to vote incorrectly. The simple truth is that most teachers, journalists, and politicians are at least one of stupid, uninformed, ideologically biased, manipulative; and that their claims should be viewed with caution. The same applies to a considerable proportion of non-natural scientists. Notably, when trying to judge a controversy it is important to look into both sides of it. (If the one side is significantly weaker, as with e.g. creationism or astrology, this tends to become obvious early on—often so early that little time is wasted. If there is no such disparity, the time taken to study both sides is a wise investment.)

I would even more strongly encourage those in a position to push their own opinions, including teachers, journalists, and politicians, to take great care in this area. In particular, that they prefer to give the individual the right to form his own opinion over force-feeding him theirs.

Excursion on poor proof:
A benefit of actually thinking a claim or an argument through is that the superficially convincing often turns out not to be convincing or, even, true. This includes many claims made by feminists and creationists (e.g. the 77 cents above resp. the misleading comparison of evolution with a completely random process.) A more subtle example is one claimed proof in favor of the theory of evolution present in my high-school biology book (Sweden, early 1990s): the development of a fetus would replicate steps from the evolution of its species. Even as a teenager, I found this odd, because there is no obvious reason why evolution would have this as a side-effect. It is like saying that “X won the lottery last week; ergo, he built a house last year.”, an almost nonsensical conclusion. (While e.g. “[…]; ergo, he can now build the house that he has been dreaming about.” might make sense.) If anything, this might be more compatible with a deliberate design, e.g. in that a higher power had based the development of different creatures on the same template, with each species diverging from that template at a different point of development. Today, this “proof” appears to have been discredited—to my personal satisfaction.

(Generally, this biology book went to extreme lengths to push evolution as correct, in a manner that seemed entirely disproportionate to me at the time, and the authors might have made the mistake of throwing a poor argument after the good ones, oblivious to the risk that they hurt their own cause. Later I became aware of the U.S. situation, which shed light on the extreme lengths. The authors should either have limited themselves to a proportionate amount of proof or discussed why they saw the amount of proof as necessary.)

Excursion on freedom of X:
I have long claimed that the most important part of the freedom of religion is freedom from religion, e.g. in that no-one be exposed to religious acts beyond own consent or at an age were consent is of dubious value (circumcision of infants, for instance), and in that no-one is indoctrinated into a certain religion or religious belief (including atheism) by parents*, teachers, clergy, whatnot. Everyone should have the right to chose his own religious beliefs and what religious actions he is or is not involved in.

*Note that I utterly reject the claim that freedom of religion would involve the right to impose one’s own religion on one’s children. The violation of the children’s freedom from religion outweighs any restriction on the parents.

My later thoughts extends this to freedom of opinion (and, m.m., other freedoms): The most important part of freedom of opinion is freedom from (the imposition of) opinion. Everyone should have the right to form his own beliefs based on own thinking, observation, reading, etc. If, for instance, schools are allowed to indoctrinate children to hold a certain set of “preferred” opinions, the children’s opinions are not truly free, and chances are that the same will apply to the adults that they grow into.

Excursion on crying wolf:
The reverse issue can be a problem too: If someone lies/distorts/misinforms in one area, why should he be believed in another. For instance, if someone becomes aware of media spouting nonsense when it comes to PC topics, why should he believe media when it comes to global warming? In this way, media, politicians, whatnot, risk skepticism even on topics where they, hypothetically, are both well informed and truthful. If they kept silent on topics where they lacked knowledge/understanding and stuck to the truth on other topics, they would do themselves a favor in the long run. (Not to mention the readers/voters/etc.)

Written by michaeleriksson

December 2, 2019 at 5:12 pm

Untested extrapolation and human nature

with 3 comments

In the Firefly universe, Shan Yu is claimed to have said:

Live with a man 40 years. Share his house, his meals. Speak on every subject. Then tie him up, and hold him over the volcano’s edge. And on that day, you will finally meet the man.

The ramblings of fictional dictators are rarely a great source of wisdom, but this one points to one of the most important life lessons we can ever learn:

The true nature of someone or something is often only revealed in the right circumstances—and what the careless observer believes is the truth, is often incomplete, occasionally entirely wrong. Before we have seen this someone or something in a situation sufficiently similar, we can often only speculate about the true nature (or aspect of overall nature).

This has a very wide applicability, including scientific phenomena,* doors,** businesses,*** …—and, most notably, humans.

*Countless examples exist on many different levels. A high-level example is the contrast between classical physics and quantum mechanics or the theory of relativity.

**Is that solid looking house-door really an obstacle to a burglar?

***The final impulse to get this particular text done was a reader email concerning Clevvermail, which serves as a great example of how businesses only show their true level of (in-)competence, customer (un-)friendliness, whatnot, when something goes wrong or an unusual situation occurs. See excursion below.

Consider a small selection of the many conceivable examples involving humans:

  1. Shan Yu’s example: While I do not agree that we would meet “the man”,* chances are that we would indeed learn something new about the victim—possibly even something that radically changes our view. Take someone that you truly believe that you know** and imagine him (or her) in that situation—can you now truly predict how he will react? Will there be tears? Threats? Promises? Negotiation? Cold fear or hysterical panic? …

    *Rather, it would show us yet another aspect of the man.

    **A spouse, sibling, close friend, … I will mostly use “friend” below, but the examples easily generalize.

    Turn the table: Can you predict how you* would react in this situation?

    *A similar table-turning is implied in other examples; however, mostly not spelled out, in order to avoid redundancies. (Obviously, the chances that we will have a good idea about ourselves is far greater than for others—often because we already have been tested/tempted/whatnot in a similar manner.)

    I would not dare to make the prediction even for myself.

  2. Vice versa, can you predict the circumstances* in which you or your friend would hold someone else over a volcano? Actually drop him?

    *Chances are that they exist, no matter how despicable the act might seem. “Do it—or we kill your family!” would likely do the trick in most cases. Now find the borders. (Or haggle.)

  3. Is that friend a true friend, someone who can be counted on for help, or just someone you enjoy spending time with? Would he risk his life to save you from a volcano?
  4. Given the choice, would a certain friend prefer to help you or to obey the law? How would he generally prioritize conflicting obligations, loyalties, whatnot?
  5. Is that confident sounding colleague actually more competent than the rest or just more confident? Is the better-dressed colleague actually more competent or just better-dressed? Is the higher-up actually more competent or just higher up?

    In my experience, these situations are roughly a 50–50, and judgment should be based on the actual performance.

  6. Would your children ever lie* to you, cheat on a test, do drugs, …?

    *Arguably a bad example—if they are old enough to communicate, they almost certainly do…

A particularly interesting issue is the difference between what we want to do (would do in theory, consider the right thing to do, would do if we had the ability, …) and what we actually do. Will someone who rejects theft be able to stick to his principles when faced with a risk-free opportunity to steal ten million dollars? When stealing a loaf of bread makes the difference between eating for the first time in two days and not eating? Who can tell, when someone has not yet been tested… The difference is often even a physiological issue, e.g. in that another repetition of an exercise becomes so painful that even a strong will falters—or that a truly iron will is eventually foiled by a physical inability to complete a repetition. Then again, lack of trying can also leave us underestimating our abilities. For instance, I have several times gone for a walk, felt so lacking in energy after just a few minutes that I considered going back (“must be a cold waiting to erupt”)—and ended up walking for two hours, feeling more energetic at the end than at the beginning. Intellectual activities are the same: Sometimes sleepiness, a headache, or similar prevents me from keeping myself focused for even five minutes on something that I really want to do—and sometimes I can go into a near trance-like state where I spend hours, with only minimal interruptions, doing something that I would normally look for excuses to avoid.

Excursion on Clevvermail:
If we change a single thing in my experiences with Clevvermail, chances are that I would never have written the linked-to text—assume that my credit card had not been arbitrarily rejected (due to some technical, non-credit, issue):

This takes care of the first item (see the linked-to text) outright. It also takes care of most of the fourth item, because it directly or indirectly removes most of my interactions with customer service. It turns the last item from a major issue into a mere inconvenience, with no unwarranted suspensions, and no reason for me to terminate my account effective immediately due to a gross breach of contract. I might or might not have terminated it even so, but if I had, it would have been in a more regular manner, with no opportunity for Clevvermail to later harass me with an unjustified claim. (Be it because a deliberate fraud now lacked even a pseudo-justification or, assuming mere incompetence, because the restrictions concerning online account-termination no longer applied, and the account would have been terminated online.) Indeed, I might even have come off with an impression no worse than “has a poor UI” and “abuses my email address for spam”—both of which are bad, but not necessarily signs of anything unusual. (Some degree of email abuse is fairly common, even among businesses normally considered reputable. This does not make it acceptable, but at least less remarkable and with lesser implications.)

In reality, however, my card was rejected—and Clevvermail proceeded to reveal much more about it self to me than to the average customer. (Or so I hope—for their sake…)

Excursion on (fake?) friendliness and “service experience”:
An interesting special case is formed by the very many who are unable to see the difference between friendly, often fake friendly, service and good service. Smiles, greetings, a few jokes shared, whatnot, are all positive—but they are merely a bonus. The main point must be that the customer gets what he paid for, without any shortage, hidden costs, own unplanned efforts, …

Unfortunately, many incompetent or, worse, dishonest people bank on uncritical customers confusing a smile with good service or hope that a mere smile will be enough to not have to make up for an error and the associated costs/efforts imposed on the customer. Notably, the less competent (or more dishonest) someone is, the greater the past opportunity to practice fake friendliness…

To boot, there can be many border-line cases where someone is friendly just as a bonus, without manipulative motivations, and the uncritical customer is to blame for focusing on the wrong criterion. For instance, old ladies seem to judge how “good” a physician is more by friendliness than by demonstrated competence. This does not automatically make the physician incompetent; however, his reputation is still misleading.

As an aside, the fact that I am not blinded by friendliness has repeatedly led me to view people, including several past colleagues, in a radically different manner than the majority did—be it because I have judged them by their incompetence, not friendliness, or because I have had a greater ability to see through their surface than most others.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 25, 2018 at 2:04 pm

Other aspects of opinion than right and wrong

with 10 comments

I have long been convinced that being right is not the only aspect of opinion that matters: We also have to consider factors like why a certain opinion is held, whether it is “epistemologically sound”, and how willing someone is to reevaluate and (potentially) change it.* For instance, I have repeatedly observed that it is more rewarding to discuss something with someone who has the wrong opinion for a good reason, than with someone who has the right opinion for a poor reason. For instance, the main difference between a good scientist and a poor or non-scientist is not the level of education and experience, but how well they respectively fare in these regards.

*However, people who do poorly in these regards are disproportionately likely to also be (and remain) wrong.

In this, I have largely been driven by my observations of many PC and/or Leftist debaters, takes on religion, various superstitions, etc. People in the relevant groups often score very low on all these criteria: They do not only believe in something which is dubious or even outright and provably wrong—they also hold their beliefs for poor reasons, ignore evidence to the contrary, and refuse to change their opinions no matter what. However, I can also see strong parallels with how my own approach has changed as I went from child to teenager to adult, as well as how my recollections of other children and teenagers stack up to (at least some) adults.*

*Unfortunately, these comparisons usually involve different individuals as representatives for different ages, rather than a longitudinal comparison of the same individuals as they grow older.

Contrast e.g. someone who believes that Evolution is true based on an understanding of the proposed mechanisms, an exposure to fossil records, some knowledge of cladistics, … with someone who believes it “because my school book said so”. Or contrast this again with something truly mindless: “many Republicans are Creationists; I am a Democrat; ergo, I must believe in Evolution”. (This attitude, sadly, does not seem to be as rare as one would hope.) They all have an opinion considered correct by the overwhelming majority of scientists (and me)—but they do so for so different reasons that the one version of the same opinion cannot be considered equal to the other. Notably, it would take a very major change of influence to corrupt the opinion of the first; while the second could be turned merely by having had another book in the curriculum.

If we look at the “why”, which is my main target for this post, I have observed at least four main* categories over the years. In order of descending worthiness**:

*Subdividing these further is possible, but not worthwhile for my current purposes.

**Note that e.g. the question whether an opinion is correct lies in another dimension. It is quite possible to score low here and still have the (factually) right opinion; it is quite possible to score high and still have the wrong opinion.

  1. Opinions that are formed based on own thinking, analysis, observation, experimentation, …

    This typically includes e.g. the activities of many* scientists and philosophers, both professional and amateur.

    *There is no automatism, however: A good scientist should deal with this or the following item, depending on the details of the situation. Regrettably, not all scientists are good; regrettably, a disturbing portion of social scientists fall into the two last categories…

  2. Opinions that are formed through applying critical thinking to claims and reasoning by others.

    (In reality, there will almost always be some overlap with the first item. However, the first item is more likely to deal with using the ideas of others as input for own thoughts; the second with adopting (or not) the ideas of others, after own verification. The first, obviously, contains other aspects with no relation to the second.)

  3. Opinions that are uncritically taken over from a source of authority.

    Such authorities include parents, teachers, celebrities, (real or supposed) experts, books, …

    Note that the difference to the preceding item does not stem from the source (although some sources are better than others)—the main difference is the degree of own thinking and whatnot that is put into the process.

  4. Opinions that are held for reasons like peer pressure, loyalty, a wish to fit in, …

    This includes variations like “I must have the same opinions as my spouse”, “my class-mates all listen to band X; I must do so too”, “I must keep my opinions in line with my party/church/Oprah/…”, and “I must keep my opinions PC”.

    (A related case is those who merely pretend to have a certain opinions, be it for the above reasons or for fear of repercussions, e.g. being sent to a Soviet work-camp or being ostracized. However, this discussion deals with the circumstances around the actual opinions.)

In terms of “epistemological soundness”, in turn, we have to look at questions like whether plausible and logically correct reasoning has been used, whether the conclusions match the known or believed* facts, etc. Cf. the typical differentiation between “knowing” something and merely being “right”.** (I refrain from making a more explicit list, because this area is much more of a continuum.)

*There is no shame in drawing reasonable-but-not-matching-reality conclusions from incorrect premises, if those premises are correspondingly plausible. For instance, Newtonian mechanics is flawed, due to not considering relativistic effects—but it would have been unreasonable to require Newton to address this issue, considering the state of knowledge and the experimental verifiability, within what was measurable at the time, of his mechanics.

**An interesting example in my own history is my first watching of “The Phantom Menace”: I knew that princess Leia was (to be) the daughter of Anakin, I knew that Padme claimed to be sent by queen Amidala, and I just heard the very young Anakin inquire whether Padme was an angel. Factoring in the recurring theme of a prince/princess/king/whatnot pretending to be a commoner, I immediately predicted that a) Padme was actually Amidala, herself, b) she was Leia’s mother. I was highly self-congratulatory as both predictions turned out to be true—and highly annoyed to, later on, find that my reasoning still flew apart on a faulty premise: Leia was not a princess due to her mother’s title, but due to her later adopted parents’.

The willingness to change an opinion, finally, is largely another continuum between those who are willing to make constant adjustments* and those who refuse to change an opinion, no matter what. An additional complication is that a deeply ingrained opinion can take years to change, and that a willingness to be open to changes can need a long cultivation. (I have a longer, half-finished post on related topics that has been lying around a few months. I will try to complete it soon.) The issue can be generalized to how dissenting opinions are treated: Not everyone is content with merely having an opinion set in stone—many go further and actively attack/censor/slander/… those who do not agree with that opinion.

*Strictly speaking, a further division might be needed into why an opinion is changed, and my first draft actually spoke of “in light of new evidence and arguments”. At a later stage, I removed this, seeing that there can be people who are willing to change their opinions, but do so for poor reasons. Whether the openness to change and any given realized change is a good thing, well, that depends on the other points of discussion above. (For instance, in the Evolution example above, switching opinion due to a new school book claiming something different from the old is a poor reason; doing so because it also provides a better analysis or more evidence than the first book is a better reason; doing so after considerable own analysis of known facts and pro and contra arguments is a good reason.)

As an aside, there are other aspects than can be interesting in other contexts, e.g. the degree to which someone actually understands the implications of a given fact (as opposed to merely being aware of the fact it self).

Written by michaeleriksson

April 8, 2018 at 9:38 pm