Sorting fact from fiction – for the layman

Posted on Updated on

The whole point of this blog is to discuss rational thinking, and the consequences of not doing it. One of the benefits of rational thinking is to help us evaluate propositions and form an opinion on some subject. But evaluating some areas is often very difficult for a non-expert – for example, climate change. So how should the layman go about it?

I recently heard an excellent talk on this very subject by Eran Segev, (president of the Australian Skeptics, on the ABC’s Ockham’s Razor program, and it’s worth paraphrasing his thoughts.

Eran offered some rules of thumb for people to use when evaluating a proposition:

  1. Okham’s razor – simpler explanations should take precedence over more complex ones.  It is possible for the more complex thing to be true, but this is uncommon. A good example is the UFO phenomenon. On one hand, a race of beings has travelled interstellar distances using some advance physics, to buzz us without making contact or leaving any evidence. On the other hand it could be a weather balloon, or any number of other phenomena. (See next point)
  2. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence (credited to Carl Sagan) – The onus is on those making claims to provide the evidence. For example, homeopathy. If the claims made are true, then it overturns everything we know across a range of disciplines, and therefore the evidence required would need to be substantial. As is stands, evidence is typically just anecdotes, based on feeling not fact.
  3. Multiple of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘evidence’.  People relating their personal experiences does not constitute reliable evidence. At best, anecdotes give us a pointer to areas which should be subjected to further inquiry. A good (or rather, very sad) example is the anti-vaccination movement, in which the claim has been made that ‘the mommy instinct’ is more relevant than anything science or medicine can show us.
  4. Experts do know more. I take this to be a principle only. What we should be looking for  is to understand what the majority of experts are saying in peer-reviewed journals. It must be said that this also has its dangers in restricting creativity or lateral thinking. However, in the context of a layman deciding on some technical issue, it’s fair to say that they are not really in a position to challenge a consensus of ‘experts’ who have been working in a particular field.
  5. Trust science – in particular the scientific method. This is a big one. Science basically works by having an idea, adopting it as provisional, testing it, and gradually improving or discarding it. Simple. Those ideas that are wrong (i.e. not successful in describing or predicting the natural world) die out, while those that are successful live on.

And ultimately it boils down to this: In matters in which you simply don’t know the answer or haven’t formed a clear opinion, don’t be afraid to say: ‘I don’t know, I don’t have an opinion, I will wait until I have more evidence’.



5 thoughts on “Sorting fact from fiction – for the layman

    Pizza said:
    November 15, 2010 at 10:32 pm

    Yes. Bit of a question about non-scientific experts perhaps. History is an anecdote of sorts which, while not unsupported by facts, is inevitably also subjective. Are historians relevant experts or not? And political expertise seems real but not clearly understood, at least not by me. I guess issues of this kind come under the general heading of wisdom, which I take to mean an understanding at the personal level of the nature of human beings acquired by long, undocumented observation and detached consideration of their behaviour. Wisdom is a characteristic not often, if ever, associated with logical positivism, which I sense is the guiding philosophy of this blog.

      rationalbrain said:
      November 16, 2010 at 9:44 am

      I think one can be expert in any body of knowledge, regardless of whether it is regarded as science or not. Is Boris Spassky expert in something other than science? Are not many theological scholars experts in their own domain ( the mythology of the bible). Political expertise is on shakier ground, but I guess you could argue that someone who studies and can predict/comment on behaviours of the participants of society can be a political expert.
      The process outlined in my post could I suppose be generalised for any body of knowledge – for example, if someone says, the bible says x, should I just take their word for it, or should I explore it myself. Depending on the implications of x, I might choose to research it myself. On the other hand, if that person is the 100th bible scholar to tell me that the bible says x, I might choose to provisionally believe that it does say x, until I find evidence to the contrary. You get the idea.
      And that’s the rub. One must modify the approach to rational thinking based on an assessment of the risk involved in believing a particular proposition. Where a proposition could cause me harm (financial eg homeopathy, physical eg quack cancer cures, or psychological eg cults), then there is more incentive to choose the right organ to think it through i.e. head not gut. On the other hand, the easter bunny has never harmed anyone, so what’s the harm?
      Not that I fully understand the implications, but I’m happy to accept logical positivism as a label, but with the proviso that Popper’s improvement be applied – substitute falsifiable for verifiable, then I’m happy. This allows for us to pursue stuff like string theory, and allow things like relativity to emerge without the burden of proof immediately required. But I should save something for another post!

    […] by rationalbrain on November 30, 2010 A couple of weeks ago I talked about some rules of thumb for assessing fact vs fiction, and want to pass on something similar in the realm of medicine, based largely on points made by […]

    Climate Change – a primer « rationalbrain said:
    January 24, 2011 at 8:05 pm

    […] I mentioned in an earlier post, climate change is one of those topics on which it’s hard for the layman to make a judgement. […]

    […] what this blog has been on about.  So here’s a good place to start: one of my early posts on sorting fact from fiction. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s