Sorting fact from fiction – revisited

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I’ve decided that from time to time I will repeat an earlier post, on the basis that not all readers will have sifted through the archives. I’ll try to confine it to posts I consider important from a rational thinking perspective, but can’t guarantee not to include repeats of items which I personally enjoyed writing, regardless of the content.

Please enjoy the re-runs. This one begins here, and could be sub-titled “How to decide where you stand on an issue”. 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’.



2 thoughts on “Sorting fact from fiction – revisited

    Blamer .. said:
    April 6, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    Alternatively youtube Tim Minchin’s “Storm” or “Sam’s Mum” 🙂

    Anyone for a cheap Stradivarius? « rationalbrain said:
    January 6, 2012 at 11:24 am

    […] we should be asking for the evidence for ourselves, or at least seeking impartial opinions. See this post for some rules of thumb on assessing […]

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