Dismissing Things Without Evidence

evidence

Superstition

In middle school, I used to stay up late and listen to a radio talk show called Coast to Coast AM. The show dealt with many topics, focusing on the supernatural or paranormal. While occasional talks were on real science (they brought on Michio Kaku as a guest), the vast majority consisted of things like psychic powers, auras, numerology, UFOs, alien abductions, crop circles, Bigfoot, astrology, conspiracy theories, the Illuminati, the New World Order, collective consciousness, spoon bending, ghosts, near-death experiences, quantum healing, astral projection, clairvoyance, and other wacky phenomena.

Of course, I have no problem with the expression of unpopular views, and I have written several times in support of their expression. It’s not like Coast to Coast AM is being promoted in the school curriculum, at which point I would take issue. However, this particular category of beliefs, namely superstition, is generally harmful because it promotes thinking in a highly irrational and naive way. Especially in the social media age, we cannot afford as a society to succumb to believing in whatever pops up on our newsfeeds.

But surely this is just a tiny minority of people, right? This is the typical response I get when I speak out against superstition, and it seems sensible because I usually talk about this with highly educated people who automatically dismiss this kind of stuff. However, the numbers for the general populace may be discouraging. From a December 2013 Harris poll (the link is broken so here is a Google cache link), the numbers believing were: 42% in ghosts, 36% in UFOs, 29% in astrology, 26% in witches, and 24% in reincarnation. This is not including religious-based superstitious beliefs, with much higher numbers such as 72% in miracles, 68% in angels, 58% in the devil, and 57% in the virgin birth.

I would usually criticize religion more than superstition, but in this post I make an exception. Even as religious belief is on the decline (see numbers in the Harris poll or also in a Pew Research poll), superstition is on the rise. According to the Harris poll, only 24% of matures (68+) believe in ghosts, but 44% of echo boomers (18-36) do. Astrology increases from 23% to 33%, and witches increase from 18% to 27%, when you go from the oldest to the youngest generation.

The Role of Evidence

Every belief mentioned in the previous section shares something in common: there is zero credible evidence supporting them. Of course, those who believe such things often think they have evidence, and this is almost always explained by confirmation bias, selection bias, or being simply misled. Only when you get to some forms of religious belief do you run into people who claim they do not need evidence at all (“I don’t need evidence, I have faith”). Fortunately, when debating superstitious people as opposed to religious people, you at least agree that you need evidence, but might differ as to what constitutes evidence. (A conspiracy theorist will shower you with evidence.)

In the paranormal, it is especially easy to construct signal out of noise, or beliefs out of nothingness. Take something like astrology: Someone writes an extremely vague, all-encompassing description of life, and it generally matches anyone. The reason it seems to fit you specifically is that the vague wording (“something important recently happened in your life”) triggers several biases:

  • you are selectively looking for things that fit the description (selection bias),
  • you ignore things that don’t fit (confirmation bias),
  • you find something that you didn’t originally view as important, but now it must be important because of the prediction (circular reasoning), and
  • you note the importance of something long after the fact (hindsight bias).

The rational person is not immune to biases, but at least is aware of them and tries to look at evidence from a more objective perspective. After all, systematic analysis of evidence is the main criterion that separates real science from pseudo science.

A Priori Dismissal

Suppose you read a story in the news today about a new Bigfoot sighting. How much evidence would you need to dismiss it? I would claim it is almost none. You would realize the probability of the existence of Bigfoot is so low in the first place (well under 1%, possibly 0%), that it would take a significant amount of evidence to convince you otherwise. The burden of proof is on the sighter. Given the advent of universal smartphone ownership, it would seem easy to simply snap a picture of Bigfoot when you saw one. In this case, you do not need evidence against to dismiss it.

The point is, if a Bigfoot article appeared in the news today, then without reading any of it and without having any evidence of its being a hoax, you could safely dismiss it as a hoax, as it has been every time. Again, I am not saying that every person who has sighted Bigfoot did so to perpetuate a hoax—I think some people genuinely saw something they personally couldn’t explain. However, there’s quite a leap of logic to go from “I don’t know what I saw” to “It was Bigfoot.”

Imagine that you find the following title in today’s paper: “Scientists find conclusive proof of Flat Earth theory.” Without having to be a scientist yourself, you have enough intelligence (hopefully) to conclude that the article is wrong, even without reading a word of it.

Some friends I talk to have actually pointed out that I am perhaps too dismissive. For instance, last year this Carrie promo video made its rounds on Youtube:

If you don’t want to watch it, basically a hoax is set up so that someone appears to be using telekinetic powers in a cafe, and onlookers are fearful and in a state of shock.

We discussed what we would have done in that situation. Everyone else said they would have been scared !@#&less in that scenario, but I said I would have known it was a hoax and thus have stayed calm. Of course, nobody believed me. Given this post, judge for yourself.

Hitchens’ Razor

“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

This philosophical tool allows you to dismiss many kinds of statements. If someone just claims, “There is a leprechaun in my backyard,” you can dismiss it even if you have never met this person before and have never been to their backyard.

Hitchens’ Razor differs slightly from the idea in the previous section: the aversion to believing in Bigfoot, even if there is “evidence” in the form of extremely shaky and blurry cam, comes more from statistical improbability than from philosophical concern. Christopher Hitchens’ statement applies more to abstract claims that sometimes cannot be justified in the physical world, i.e. religious claims.

The title refers to both interpretations of “without evidence”: dismissing something that has no evidence for, and dismissing something that has no evidence against. Namely, if there is no evidence for, you do not need evidence against.

More relevant to purely superstitious claims that can be tested is Carl Sagan’s “razor”:

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

It is generally true in real life that the more absurd a claim is, the more justification it requires. If you claim the Malaysian flight 370 is on Mars, you better have some very convincing pieces of evidence supporting it.

Overall, I just ask that we think more rationally, especially in response to the media and to questionable stories. We simply cannot afford to slip back into an age of superstition.

What Is the Best Superpower?

smbc-negative-wishes
From SMBC Comics

We often have discussions in our apartment on the most arbitrary topics. One time, we debated the question: What is the best superpower?

Despite the catchy title, this post is not really about the best superpower. Sure, it talks about that a lot, but that’s not the main point. The main point is about how messy a debate can be when the rules and terms are ill-defined.

What Is a Superpower?

From the start, it was unclear what was meant by “superpower.” It was implicitly understood that something completely all-encompassing like omnipotence is invalid because it is too broad, but this wasn’t formally forbidden. The only thing that was formally forbidden was any superpower than entailed having multiple other superpowers, like wishing for more wishes (but it gets fuzzy as to what counts as one superpower and what counts as multiple).

Being a smart-ass, instead of answering with the usual answers like telekinesis or mind control or invisibility or flying, I suggested the power to move subatomic particles. Let’s just call this particle manipulation for short.

From a naturalist perspective, i.e., physics, particle manipulation encompasses most other plausible powers (hold on for what “plausible” means):

  • To move a large object, you just make quadrillions of quadrillions of particles move in the same direction.
  • To start a fire, you make the particles move faster.
  • To create something out of thin air, or to regenerate any injury, you rearrange particles from the air into atoms and molecules to get what you want.
  • To control someone’s mind, you manipulate the neurons directly and make certain connections fire and others not fire.
  • To defuse a world war, you could just vaporize every nuke into air.
  • To become infinitely rich, you could just turn lead, or any other material, into gold, or into dollar bills.

However, my friend who initiated this discussion, and whose own answer was mind control, thought this answer I gave was “implausible” or “unrealistic.” So what is plausible and implausible? What is realistic and unrealistic?

Doesn’t the word “superpower” imply that it is NOT real? Why does moving a nearby object with your mind seem “realistic”? Does it take a lot of mental power or concentration? Are you limited in the number of objects you can control? Do I always write blog posts that have 7 questions in a row?

Much of our intuition of superpowers comes from the film industry (and thus indirectly from the comic book industry). Before getting bogged down with more philosophical questions, let’s appreciate some good old superpower usage in X-Men: First Class!

Observe the amount of concentration required in the first scene, compared to the relative ease in the second.

The second act is arguably more difficult: it requires control of a scattered collection of objects rather than just one, the control is required at far range, and the change in velocity is much greater. It’s hard to say which is more valid or realistic.

What Powers Are Valid?

Because the particle manipulation power was considered too strong, we decided to forbid it and use only well-known superpowers, to avoid some of the questions as to what was considered a superpower. But this clarification did not come at the beginning, it was more of a change of rules halfway in.

Even so, if you look at the comics, some powers are significantly stronger than portrayed in film. It’s still arguable that Jean Grey’s powers, especially as the Phoenix, are valid and are much stronger than most of the ones we talked about later in the discussion. Even so, do we count these powers separately? Are telepathy and telekinesis separate, or are they included together like in Jean’s case?

Magneto, for instance, is mostly known for him namesake, magnetism. But according to science, electricity and magnetism are really the same force, so does control of magnetism also come with control of electricity? According to Wikipedia:

The primary application of his power is control over magnetism and the manipulation of ferrous and nonferrous metal. While the maximum amount of mass he can manipulate at one time is unknown, he has moved large asteroids several times and effortlessly levitated a 30,000 ton nuclear submarine. His powers extend into the subatomic level (insofar as the electromagnetic force is responsible for chemical bonding), allowing him to manipulate chemical structures and rearrange matter, although this is often a strenuous task. He can manipulate a large number of individual objects simultaneously and has assembled complex machinery with his powers. He can also affect non-metallic and non-magnetic objects to a lesser extent and frequently levitates himself and others. He can also generate electromagnetic pulses of great strength and generate and manipulate electromagnetic energy down to photons. He can turn invisible by warping visible light around his body. […] On occasion he has altered the behavior of gravitational fields around him, which has been suggested as evidence of the existence of a unified field which he can manipulate. He has demonstrated the capacity to produce a wormhole and to safely teleport himself and others via the wormhole.

Thus, from a logical and consistency perspective, I found it difficult to reject the validity of powers such as these. We essentially watered down telekinesis to being able to move objects within X meters and within sight range.

Telekinesis vs Mind Control

Among the remaining, weaker powers, the debate ended up being between telekinesis and mind control. More and more rules were made up on the spot. Once it was established that one power was generally stronger, the other side tried to state some technicality that would limit the power, and thus bring both back to equal levels. At this point, I thought the debate was pointless because we already conceded so many of the better powers, and then kept limiting the remaining powers because of arbitrary, subjective reasons such as being “unrealistic,” which was the main counterpoint. This seems absurd, because you are debating superpowers in the first place—they’re not supposed to be realistic!

It seemed like a debate regarding “What is the highest whole number?” At first we got rid of infinity (omnipotence was not allowed). Getting rid of really strong powers turned into “What is the highest whole number less than 100?” Then when one side says 99, the other side uses a limiting argument basically saying, “The same way numbers over 100 are not allowed, 99 is absurdly high and should not allowed either.” It then becomes “What is the highest whole number less than 99?” And so on.

While there was some semblance to rational debate, it was clear that on the big picture scale, there were essentially no logical points being discussed. It was a matter of imposed fairness. “It’s unfair that your superpower gets to do X and ours does not, so yours is invalid.” But this defeats the purpose of the question in the first place, which was to determine which one was the best. It devolved into the question, “Given that a superpower does not exceed some power level N, what is the best superpower?” Of course, the answer will just be ANY sufficiently good superpower, restricted enough to be at level N. In this case, making up rules on the spot completely defeated the purpose of the question.

Conclusion

There were a bunch of other complications in the debate, but overall it was pretty fruitless. The rules of the debate, namely allowing one to make up rules spontaneously, defeated the purpose of the debate in the first place. It was not completely pointless, however, as it showed the need for setting clear guidelines at the start, and for being consistent.

Two Important Principles

There are many principles that guide our philosophies, our thought, our reason, and even our morality. Two of the most important ones for me are the Cosmological Principle and the Anthropic Principle. Despite their opposite-sounding names, they are not mutually exclusive!

The Cosmological Principle

It can be phrased many ways, with many different connotations. The essence of the principle is that, when viewed from a larger perspective, Earth is not special within the universe. More specifically, it states that the laws of physics govern equally and universally, with no preference for any particular region within it.

To believe such a thing in ancient times was considered heretical. After all, almost all old religion positioned the Earth as the center of the universe, at least metaphorically if not physically. But the more we learned about the universe, the more we learned the fact that we are not at the center of the universe, the perhaps painful fact that we are not special. A frightening fact indeed.

In 2006, the Cassini spacecraft took a picture where Saturn eclipsed the Sun. There was a little dot in one area. At first you might think it is just one of Saturn’s moons, or perhaps a stray asteroid. Surely that can’t be anything we call special, right?

That dot turns out to be the Earth entire.

Now, on to the second rule.

The Anthropic Principle

Only those universes with the conditions to have life would be observed by such life from within. Therefore, given that we are observing our own universe from within, our universe must have sufficient conditions for life. That is to say, just for having life, our universe is not special.

With a multiverse, there may be billions, trillions, and possibly even infinitely many universes. Even if only a tiny fraction of universes support life, the anthropic principle shows that given we can observe our own universe, we are automatically in that tiny fraction.

After all, if our universe could not support life, then we cannot exist within it. So, there would be nobody in that universe to realize it cannot support life. Someone who has studied conditional probability should be able to understand this. While the chance that a universe supports life might only be 0.01% (i.e., our universe is “fine-tuned”), the chance that our universe supports life is 100% regardless, because we are already here to make the observation in the first place.

The anthropic principle says that our universe is not special, while the cosmological principle says that Earth is not special within the universe. As humans, we cannot afford to satisfy ourselves with Earth, merely one of the billions of billions of rocks in the universe. Rather, it is imperative to explore the universe and understand its mysteries.

People Who Agree With You for the Wrong Reasons

Yes, I’m attempting to write a post that talks about both politics AND religion. Yep, the two most heated things that always lead to flame wars on the Internet. In one post.

The Two Types of Disagreeing

We’ve all had those moments we just flat-out disagreed with everything someone said. No matter how many facts we throw at them, they never seemed to listen. And they probably thought the same about us. The argument turned into full-blown war, and we were ready to start throwing punches at each other.

But we’ve also had those debates where we disagreed with them, not in a hostile way at all, but in a calm, mature, intellectual manner. We realized some of the things we said were wrong, and so did they. And while we still had our differences in the end, we felt more connected and felt that we had uncovered some truth out of it. This is the good type of disagreement.

The Two Types of Agreeing

There’s the intellectual style of agreement as well, the good kind. You try to teach your kid about gravity, but she is skeptical, so you encourage her to try to throw a ball so high that it won’t return, to disprove gravity. She quickly learns that no matter how hard she throws it, it will always fall back down. Finally, she ends up agreeing with you, having learned a valuable lesson out of it.

Then there’s the wrong kind of agreement. The kind when once she becomes skeptical of gravity, you only assert that it’s true and don’t give any reason or evidence for it, and you say “Believe it, or else.” Of course, this example is pretty silly because no one needs to threaten someone else to get them to believe in gravity—there is overwhelming evidence for it everywhere on Earth. I’m really setting this up for matters which have no evidence or are misunderstood.

Agreeing Due to Party Alignment, Not Due to Facts

I’m going to go with politics first, and then religion. I consider myself to be a moderate liberal, but I usually don’t care about politics that much. However, sometimes when people talk about politics in stupid ways or completely misunderstand their political party, I do care. I don’t want them making misguided decisions in the ballot.

It’s common for liberals to criticize conservatives for outrageous claims, but many of these liberals don’t understand that they themselves also make outrageous claims. They say how bad conservatives are, but then when someone asks them what has Obama done in the last 4 years, they are silent. Not that Obama hasn’t done anything—he’s done quite a bit. But some of these liberals are just clueless about their own party and seem to vote Democrat just because their friends do or because they think Obama is charismatic.

These people annoy me greatly. They might agree with me, but for all the wrong reasons. For instance, I know people who like to make fun of Rush Limbaugh, despite never having read anything he wrote and never listening to anything he said, and rely instead only on what other people said of him. If you disagree with Rush Limbaugh because you disagree with his views, that’s fine. I respectfully disagree with much of what he says. But if you disagree with him just because it’s cool to disagree with him, then that is pathetic.

It seems that respect is all but forgotten in this era. I can disagree with someone but still understand what they are saying, and admit that some parts of what they say are correct. But respect doesn’t seem to be mainstream anymore. Case in point, in Obama’s 2008 election victory speech, he began in a noble manner by making a respectful statement about McCain’s campaign. But what did the crowd do? It booed him very audibly. And in McCain’s defeat speech, when he congratulated Obama, he got loudly booed by his crowd as well.

What has politics become, a spectator sport where you boo the other team, or boo anyone who says shows respect to the other team? If anything, Obama and McCain’s respect for each other in that moment of the election gives me some hope for the American political system. However, the behavior of the crowd does not.

Agreeing Due to Authority, Not Due to Evidence

Now for religion. I am an atheist. I don’t believe in god for the same reason I don’t believe in Santa or an Invisible Pink Unicorn or the Flying Spaghetti Monster or an invisible fire-breathing dragon. Simply, I believe it is childish and immature to believe in something that has zero evidence, just because other people believe in it.

That said, I am not claiming that Christianity is inherently bad. Despite its numerous provocations, injustices, and wars, I do not know where the world would be right now had Christianity not existed. Without its teaching of generosity and kindness to primitive cultures (and then enslaving them), civilization may not be as advanced as it is. However, given that we have already reached an early Space Age, where technology and the search for knowledge can unite us in place of the mass belief of ancient myths, I question whether Christianity will be of use for much longer.

So if you tell me, “I am a Christian because the moral system is wonderful,” then that is great. But if you say, “I am a Christian because there is evidence that God exists,” then I will facepalm, because that is like saying, “I believe in the Invisible Pink Unicorn because there is evidence that the Invisible Pink Unicorn exists.”

On the other side, people who believe in atheism might agree for the wrong reasons, though not usually, as they tend to be more open-minded. Saying “I am an atheist because there is no evidence of God” is perfectly fine, but saying “I am an atheist because Christianity is evil” is not a valid reason. However, I don’t know of anyone who actually believes that, so as far as I know, there are no atheist “extremists” like there are religious extremists.

So as far as this section goes, I cannot really talk about the atheist side as there are no examples of belief for the wrong reasons that I know of. Instead, I can try to empathize with the religious side and think about what they would consider to be belief in god for the wrong reasons.

The first one is probably believing in God for fear of ending up in Hell or some other divine punishment. That would be a terrible reason to believe in something, simply out of fear of threat for not believing in it. This is one reason I have a problem with Pascal’s wager (the other being that it can just be applied to other religions, forcing the player to have no good choice).

The second is argument from authority. People shouldn’t believe in God just because other people said they should; they should find it on their own. Despite how silly this sounds to me, at least I find it more noble than blindly following the will of other people. In practice, however, it seems most people are led into Christianity through authority, from their parents or community when they are young and vulnerable.

I mean, if someone is nonreligious but suffers a crisis when they are 30, and chooses to accept a religion to cope with it, that is fine. In fact, hooking people up to mythical virtual realities is a valid method these days of dealing with trauma. The real world is too harsh, so they can more easily cope in a fantasy world. But if a kid is forced to accept a religion when they wouldn’t know better, that is an entirely different thing, and is just wrong. (I agree with Bill Nye’s take on this.)

This would be entirely opposite of the gravity case presented in the “Two Types of Agreeing” section. When a kid learns about gravity, if she is skeptical she can try to disprove it by throwing a ball so high into the air that it does not come down. But the more gravity works, the more accepting she becomes. Whether she thinks gravity is true is determined by her own experiences.

However, if she is skeptical of religion, there is nothing she can do to disprove it, since anything could be justified by some made-up explanation, and this is probably very confusing for a young mind. Whether she thinks religion is true is determined solely by the statements of others, i.e. authority figures.

If this forcing of views on a child concerned any subject other than religion, it would be called brainwashing. Yet when it’s religion, it’s not considered brainwashing, and—quite disturbingly—it’s actually considered by some to be education.

My writing of this section is inspired by Carl Sagan’s skeptical philosophy and Bill Nye’s recent video that was linked above.

Disagreeing and Agreeing

I’d rather someone disagree with me using the truth, rather than have someone agree with me based on a lie. Both in politics and religion, a shallow agreement based on lies is valueless, ridiculous, and devoid of morality.

This is often why there are such heated debates in both of these subjects on the Internet, where multiple people can chime in on both sides. The “Democrat” side of a forum thread might be extremely polarized within itself, and so is the “Republican” side. Thus, instead of there being a straight back-and-forth debate, there is a jumbled web of personal insults and baseless accusations. This would be avoided if people were actually knowledgeable and knew what they were talking about and as well as what other people are talking about. This is why knowledge and respect should be taught, not whatever is causing them to resort to insults.

In the case of religion, religious people generally don’t use logic, so even the terms “agree” and “disagree” begin to lose meaning. That’s why a religious debate usually never ends up being a peaceful debate. It always becomes derailed because logic itself is missing from one side, so it isn’t really a debate at all. It is a lecture where the student is willfully ignorant. At least that’s what happens in the case of an atheist vs theist debate. I can only imagine the horror of what a theist vs theist-of-a-different-religion debate on the Internet would be like, e.g. a Christian vs Muslim debate.

In the political system of the United States, I am somewhat hopeful. But I have almost no hope at all for the current education system. Until something like “Logic for First Graders” is taught—lies, misunderstandings, and ignorance will always be the face of our country.

5 Logical Fallacies That Everyone Should Avoid

I was pretty annoyed recently at how people can’t make simple logical arguments. Granted, this was on the Internet, so I didn’t have high expectations. I made a diagram about the five most common logical fallacies I see in forums, explaining what they are.

Couldn’t get the image into a high resolution version despite numerous attempts, so sorry for the low quality. Or maybe it’s just the Arial font that doesn’t size well. The SMBC comic in the middle looks pretty good.

Logic in Math and in the Arts

This post is prompted mainly from my first-year writing seminar, English 1170: Short Stories. A couple days ago we discussed “The Necklace” and “Araby,” by Guy de Maupassant and James Joyce respectively. Being a math/logic person, I found there’s just something uncanny about literary analysis—something similar, yet not the same—as if it requires a subtly different kind of logic. I felt I was thinking in a completely different manner in that class, and asked myself, are logic in math and logic in literary analysis the same? Today, in a discussion on “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe, I think I found my answer.

The discovery is not that the logic is different: logic is when one thing follows another, and this chain is the same for mathematics and literature. Rather, the primary difference is in the direction of the chain.

In math, we often have to prove a theorem. We know exactly what it is we’re trying to prove: we’re just supplying what gets us there. Of course, this can get very tough sometimes, but we know at least what the end result is.

The difference in analyzing literature is that we at first don’t know what we’re trying to prove—we don’t know what argument about the work we want to make.

Literary analysis is therefore more open-ended. I’m not saying mathematical proofs are easy—many of them are unsolved or have taken centuries to solve—but they are defined problems that can be solved (or be shown to be unsolvable). Analyzing literature is really weird since I’m so used to mathematical logic.

Also, the reason I made this post and not earlier is that I’ve never done literary analysis on this level before. In this case there is a noticeable difference between high school and college.

Gödel, Escher, Bach

Gödel, Escher, Bach

Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter is a most wittily written work. It’s rather long (at 700+ pages) but it is the most interesting informative book I have ever read. Note that I use “informative” rather than “nonfiction,” as half the chapters are nonfiction and the other half fiction—the fiction is where most of the fascination is at.

It is also where the self-descriptor of the book kicks in: “A metaphorical fugue on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Carroll”—a writer whose nonsensical style any follower of this blog should know. Indeed, Hofstadter’s dialogs (the fiction parts) consist of absurd, comical scenes which are intended to both inform and amuse. And the nonfiction parts are good as well, covering a gamut of subjects, a nice dab into everything. The three people listed in the title, after all, are a mathematician, an artist, and a composer. Some major points of discussion include Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, logic, and Artificial Intelligence.

What’s more amusing is the subtle humor present in many of the nonfiction parts. Even in one of the most serious parts of any book—the bibliography—Hofstadter manages to squeeze in an imaginary work titled Copper, Silver, Gold: an Indestructible Metallic Alloy. This is alluded to several times in the fictional parts of the book, and is of course an imitation of the book’s own title: Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid. The supposed author of Copper, Silver, Gold is Egbert B. Gebstadter, whose initials match those of “Eternal Golden Braid,” and Gebstadter is of course a spoof of Hofstadter. Moreover, to contrast Hofstadter’s publisher Basic Books, Gebstadter publishes with Acidic Books.