I have just finished reading The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe by Steven Novella – a signed book by all five skeptics on the Podcast!
It has been a long, sometimes arduous but super interesting journey.
It’s not because the content is new but it’s a good read to review our position as questioners, skeptics and scientists. It also constantly reminds us that to be a scientist is not only to use logic and to require evidence based research but also to remain humble and to accept that sometimes we get it wrong.
Novella starts with describing that our memories and our
perception are not dependable. As humans, we see patterns in noise, we see bunny rabbits in clouds and the face of the Virgin Mary in a tree. We give bestow emotion into an object and we interpret physical feelings as something being done to us. He quotes Boorstin who wrote that the greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it’s the illusion of knowledge. This is so true. How many times have I said something that I thought was 100% correct, only to discover later that I was wrong.
1. The first section explains the various reasoning flaws. It is the longest and most complex part of the book.
The goal of a skeptic should never be to win, but to search for truth. Truth requires true premises and then logical thought or argument, and there are many ways we can take a wrong turn. Novella goes through all the ways our logical mind falters:
– Non sequitur: the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises.
– Argument from Authority: this is true because Mr. X said so.
– Argument from final outcome: reversal of cause and effect
– Post hoc ergo propter hoc: A cam before B so A caused B
– Correlation confused with causation
– Ad hoc reasoning and the rejection of negative results
– Tu quoque: your reasoning is also pathetic ….
– Ad hominem: and accusations of being closed-minded
– Ad ignorantiam: something is true because we don’t know it isn’t true
– Confusing currently unexplained with unexplainable
– False continuum: like for example “extreme fraud doesn’t become Okay because everyone cheats a little.
– False dichotomy, false analogy, genetic fallacy, and so on and so forth.
This list is difficult to go through but I took them one at a time, and I am sure I have made errors in judgement using more than half of them.
When looking at Science specifically, then the reasoning flaws are for example confirmation bias, the tendency for people to interpret new information as support for previously held ideas. There is also data mining or coincidence, two independent events somehow linked. Novella gives a whole chapter to the principle of Occam’s razor that states that “when two or more hypotheses are consistent with the available data, then the hypotheses that introduces the fewest new assumptions should be preferred.”(page 157) It doesn’t state that the simplest answer is always the best.
– Works backward from conclusion
– Is hostile to scientific criticism
– Makes a virtue out of ignorance
– Cherry picks data
– Anecdotal evidence
– Promises easy, simplistic solutions
– Uses scientific sounding, meaningless language
– Lacks humility
– Attempts to shift the burden of proof onto others
This list isn’t the complete one of the book, but you can see that it tries to go through the various flaws of pseudoscience.
Novella goes into conspiracy theories, explains why there are which hunts, what is placebo, and various kinds of mysticism, and false use of statistics.
The second section looks at key examples of the skeptical movement:
GMOs, Free energy, beliefs, singularity, ghosts, conspiracy theories.
Section three looks at fake news and gives an outline of what journalists need to be careful of when reporting.
Section four looks at the dangers of pseudoscience
Pseudoscience such as naturopathy and exorcism, denial, can be plain dangerous. The suffering of children under the rule of indoctrinated uneducated or mistaken adults is totally unacceptable.
Section five concludes the book
It presents the way skeptics should try to live. Novella insists that a skeptic should be HUMBLE, NURTURING and COURAGEOUS. He tells the reader
– to plant the seed, not to try and convince.
– do not be confrontational
– find common ground
– don’t attack; try to engage and nurture
– think about your tone
– try to understand the other person’s narrative
Science isn’t a “belief”. Science is the best way we can explain phenomena at a certain given time in history; and if we prove beyond reasonable doubt that the reasoning was wrong, then we need to acknowledge that and change. Changing requires humility. After all a scientist tries to be as rational and logical as she/he can but at the end of the day, he/ she may have made a mistake. And if we make a mistake then we have to say so, and change.
People who haven’t been brought up in science muddle through life the best they can. It doesn’t mean they are “bad” people. That is why we need to nurture knowledge without pontificating.
Finally we have to stand up and be courageous when charlatans make money off the unsuspecting public. We have to be courageous when the greater good is at stake. Children who aren’t vaccinated for measles is unacceptable in an epidemic. Cancer patients who die following an IV injection of Tumeric have been murdered.