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The Believing Brain

A common question of skeptics and science-based thinkers is “How could anyone believe that?” People do believe some really weird things and even some obviously false things. The more basic question is how we form all our beliefs, whether false or true.

Michael Shermer’s book Why People Believe Weird Things has become a classic. Now he has a new book out: The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies: How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths It synthesizes 30 years of research into the question of how and why we believe what we do in all aspects of our lives.

Some of the content is repetitious for those of us who have read Shermer’s previous books and heard him speak, but the value of the new book is that it incorporates new research and it puts everything together in a handy package with a new focus.

Shermer says

I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe, but because I want to know. How can we tell the difference between what we would like to be true and what is actually true? The answer is science.

He includes a pithy quotation from Richard Feynman that I had not seen before:

If it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is, how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is. If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.

Our schools tend to teach what science knows rather than how science works. The scientific method is a teachable concept. But

our most deeply held beliefs are immune to attack by direct educational tools, especially for those who are not ready to hear contradictory evidence.

This is a problem. Shermer does not offer a solution.

The brain is a belief engine. It relies on two processes: patternicity and agenticity. It finds meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data. It infuses patterns with meaning, and imagines intention and agency in inanimate objects and chance occurrences. We believe before we reason. Once beliefs are formed, we seek out confirmatory arguments and evidence to justify them. We ignore contrary evidence or make up rationalizations to explain it away. We do not like to admit we are wrong. We seldom change our minds.

Our thinking is what Morgan Levy has called “intelligently illogical.” If our ancestors assumed that the wind rustling the bushes was a lion and they ran away, that wasn’t a big problem. If there really was a lion and they didn’t run away, they were in trouble. Natural selection favors strategies that make many false causal assumptions in order to not miss the true ones that are essential to survival. Superstition and magical thinking are natural processes of a learning brain. People believe weird things because of our evolved need to believe nonweird things.

Belief comes quickly and naturally, skepticism is slow and unnatural, and most people have a low tolerance for ambiguity.

We rely on a feeling of conviction, but that feeling can be uncoupled from good reasons and good evidence. Science hopes to counteract false beliefs by recoupling through counterarguments with even better reasons and evidence.

As science advances, the things we once thought of as supernatural acquire natural explanations. Thunderstorms are caused by natural processes of electricity in clouds, not by a god throwing thunderbolts.

Belief in God is hardwired into our brains through patternicity and agenticity.  We see patterns even when they are not there (the Virgin Mary on a toasted cheese sandwich), and we interpret events as having been deliberately caused by a conscious agent (the AIDS virus was created in a government lab for genocidal purposes). God is the ultimate pattern and agent that explains everything. And religious belief had survival value for human groups, encouraging conformity, group cooperation, and altruism.

Shermer covers a variety of subjects, from alien abductions to cosmology, from economics to politics, from belief in the afterlife to evolution, from ESP to morality, with a lot of entertaining examples.  He doesn’t give much space to medical topics but he does mention AIDS denial, the vaccine/autism brouhaha, and alternative medicine, which he calls “a form of pseudoscience.”

Conspiracy theories abound, from Holocaust denial to 9/11 Truthers to the spread of AIDS.  This is a result of wide-open pattern detection filters and to the assumption that there must be a conscious agent behind everything. Shermer provides a handy list of 10 characteristics of a conspiracy theory that indicate that it is likely to be false; for instance, the more people who would have to have been involved in a cover-up, and the longer the alleged cover-up has lasted, the less likely that no one would have spilled the beans by now.

He provides a useful discussion of the various biases we are prone to, from confirmation bias to the status quo bias, and points out that science is the ultimate bias-detection machine.  He revisits the “Gorillas in our midst” video to remind us that we don’t see things that we’re not looking for. (In case you don’t know, that was an experiment demonstrating inattentional blindness:  a gorilla walks through a group of people playing basketball and we don’t see him because our attention is fixed on counting the number of times the players in white shirts passed the ball.) He quotes Upton Sinclair:

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.

When I read that, Dana Ullman came to mind.

I particularly got a kick out of one of Shermer’s examples. Galileo used an early telescope to observe 4 moons around Jupiter. One colleague of Galileo’s refused to even look through the telescope, calling it a parlor trick, saying he didn’t believe anyone else would see what Galileo saw, and saying that looking through glasses would only make him dizzy. Other colleagues who did look were similarly dismissive; one tested the telescope in a series of experiments and said it worked fine for terrestrial viewing, but when pointed at the sky it somehow deceived the viewer. One professor of mathematics accused Galileo of putting the moons of Jupiter inside the tube.

We are beginning to develop a new understanding of how the brain generates beliefs and reinforces them. Mr. Spock is science fiction; humans are often illogical and emotional. We need emotion to motivate us and help us function. An emotional leap of faith beyond reason is often required for us to make decisions or just to get through the day.

This thought-provoking book is a good read and a good reference. Takeaway lessons:

  • Beliefs come first, reasons follow.
  • False beliefs arise from the same thought processes that our brains evolved to enable them to learn about the world.
  • Our faulty thinking mechanisms can’t be eliminated but our errors can be corrected by science.

Posted in: Book & movie reviews

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148 thoughts on “The Believing Brain

  1. swienke says:

    Another book to add to my already long list of summer readings. I read “Why People Believe Weird Things” when I was 13 or so, but I’m afraid I haven’t really kept up with anything from Shermer since then. Time to fix that, I believe.

    Really though, I always thought that that book would be excellent for a course on logic, and I remember recommending it to multiple people in high school, but nobody ever seemed to have any interest in it, which I suppose just goes to prove one of his points: that people tend to ignore or dismiss out of hand information that challenges their beliefs. Or it just could be the general allergic reaction to all things perceived as nerdy that so many high schoolers have.

  2. Khym Chanur says:

    A bug with the blogging software (don’t know where else to report it):

    Links where the URL includes quotes simply returns an empty page. For example, http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=2081 redirects to http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/index.php/the-montagnier-%E2%80%9Chomeopathy%E2%80%9D-study/ , which shows nothing.

  3. pdawg says:

    Thanks for the review! It sounds like an interesting book.

    However, two questions immediately arise after having read your summation of Michael Shermer’s thesis.

    First, at the risk of stating the obvious, doesn’t Shermer’s thesis undermine Shermer’s thesis? If it’s true, “False beliefs arise from the same thought processes that our brains evolved to enable them to learn about the world,” then wouldn’t this likewise potentially include Shermer’s thesis? What if Shermer’s thesis is itself one of these false beliefs that our brains evolved which we believe is true?

    Second, I gather Shermer’s response would be that science would be the primary means by which we adjudicate between true and false beliefs. But how is the process of conducting science immune from the implications of Shermer’s thesis? How can science correct the errors in our faulty thinking since the process of conducting science itself relies in large part on human cognitive faculties which may or may not veridically correspond to reality (indeed, it’s the very point of contention given Shermer’s thesis)?

  4. pdawg ” What if Shermer’s thesis is itself one of these false beliefs that our brains evolved which we believe is true”

    Damn, and I thought I had some sort of special insightfulness for noticing that.

    It’s kinda thrilling/scary, isn’t it? That our current best way of knowing is still based our brains evolutionary constructs.

    Fun stuff.

    HH, thanks for the thought provoking review and recommendation.

  5. tmac57 says:

    pdawg and micheleinmichigan-I too had the same question about the paradoxical nature of Shermer’s thesis.I suppose we have to accept the limitations of scientists,and hope that the process of scientific inquiry itself,when done by multiple competing scientists,will smooth out the errors to an acceptable and useful level.

  6. tmac57 – yes, and at the same time accept that at any given point, we might be glaringly and spectacularly wrong about something.

  7. Mhops says:

    pdawg – Regarding the paradox you presented, I do think that science has an out here. It has mechanisms to evolve with new evidence and ideas. For other belief-based systems, your paradox sounds the death knell.

  8. strike “might be glaringly wrong” replace “are almostly certainly glaringly wrong.” :)

  9. Mhops ” Regarding the paradox you presented, I do think that science has an out here. It has mechanisms to evolve with new evidence and ideas. For other belief-based systems, your paradox sounds the death knell.”

    You don’t seem to be considering the fact that the human brains that are observing the old and new evidence and inventing the new ideas are very similar to each other.

    What happens when you install a million computers with basically the same error ridden program, then have them check each others work?

  10. desta says:

    tmac57, Mhops, micheleinmichigan:

    On the hopeful side:
    controlled experiments, repeatability, math and statistics…
    The ability of science to change its conclusions, even its most dearly held ones, based on new data is revolutionary.

    On the pessimistic side:
    humans designed the experiments (GIGO), humans interpret meaning from the experiments, humans interpret the experiments.

    Interesting discussion; I can’t figure out which camp I fall into on any given day. I’m studying statistics, so I guess more of my days are spent on the latter side lately.

  11. Mhops says:

    micheleinmichigan – Certainly you are right about that. And we could probably come up with any number of different hypotheticals similar to the one you offered. I’m just seems kinda futile. Science is the best tool we have; it can evolve and adapt. So there we are. If we are indeed living in the Matrix, then I suppose one could argue that this is all just so much wheel spinning…

  12. Mhops “I’m just seems kinda futile. Science is the best tool we have; it can evolve and adapt. So there we are.”

    Yes, indeed, but, like I said, it’s kinda thrilling/scary. Somehow facing the futility and moving forward, in spite of the inevitable error, seems better and braver to me than ignoring (denying) the futility and moving forward with an unrealistic optimism.

    I could be wrong there, though.

  13. Mhops says:

    micheleinmichigan – check mate. I think I can’t disagree with you there!

  14. Humans function with herd mentality. What the herd does, the individual will follow and believe to be true. The believing brain functions with herd mentality. Science, the scientific method, and evidence based medicine goes against this herd mentality, thus it is not a natural process that occurs with little work or effort. In fact, it takes significant work and effort. But, the rewards are great. We should continue to push against herd mentality and follow our evidence based individual thinking.

    Dr Sam Girgis
    http://drsamgirgis.com

  15. kulkarniravi says:

    Interesting topic and discussion. There are many who totally believe in their doctors – should that belief be subjected to the same review. In other words who will bell the cat?

    http://www.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/05/31/med.nation.too.many.meds/index.html?hpt=hp_c1

    Belief that medicines can somehow cure us of ills that have developed over a lifetime of bad living. Today’s science is tomorrow’s superstition!

  16. windriven says:

    @pdawg et al

    “What if Shermer’s thesis is itself one of these false beliefs that our brains evolved which we believe is true?”

    What exactly are you talking about? I assume it is Dr. Hall’s summary of the takeaways from Shermer’s book. If so, the word belief lies at the root of your particular bit of sophistry.

    Science does not require belief and it does not support dogma. All scientific principles are subject to revision in the face of new evidence. That is one of the elements that separates science from belief.

    If you are suggesting that science is unreliable because reality as we understand it is an elaborate ruse, that mathematics is an elegant deception and observation and experiment are kaleidoscopic illusions and therefore that science cannot be trusted any more than can belief, offer some evidence that suggests this to be true. In other words begin the process of subjecting your conjecture to scientific scrutiny.

    Just rolling out some ‘reflections within reflections’ trope doesn’t have much staying power beyond a sophomore class bull session.

  17. kulkarniravi says:

    Also, read the comments on the CNN article I posted above:

    http://www.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/05/31/med.nation.too.many.meds/index.html?hpt=hp_c1

    This should clarify why people turn to CAMS. Physician heal thyself!

  18. windriven says:

    @kulkarniravi

    What do you find ‘nice’ about the precipice article? It does not rise to the level of serious thought. It substitutes wishes for facts and it misstates and mischaracterizes science.

    Science is a process, a quest, not a factual statement of how the world works, it is a workbook of what we have learned and what we are hypothesizing that we might soon learn.

    Nor is science a narrative equal in weight to theology and superstition. Science subjects itself to constant review and re-evaluation, something the article’s author seems to misunderstand as revealing a flaw in science rather than being science’s greatest strength. Theology relies on dogma and ancient texts and beliefs held to be beyond question or evaluation.

  19. The Blind Watchmaker says:

    The “paradox” is really nothing new. The scientific method depends on induction. David Hume pointed out that we use induction because it seems to work best, however this conclusion is derived at by…induction. This is a circular argument, or “the problem of induction”.

    So, we cannot “know” that we “should” use induction, however we choose to do so. We choose to make this a basic, foundational belief. The rest of the scientific method flows from this.

  20. ConspicuousCarl says:

    Science removes the process from our heads so that everyone can see it clearly.

  21. windriven says:

    @ The Blind Watchmaker

    “The scientific method depends on induction.”

    I might argue your use of the verb ‘depends’ but will agree that induction is an important tool for the formation of hypotheses. But this is a mere beginning; the scientific method demands much more.

    Also, as I recall Hume, he was talking about induction absent observation (but am prepared to stand corrected, it has been a very long time).

  22. Imadgeine says:

    “There are many who totally believe in their doctors – should that belief be subjected to the same review. ”

    Different meanings of the word belief here. When someone says they believe in their doctor they mean that they trust them. This trust is based on the verifiable fact that the doctor has undergone a long, arduous training and is licensed to practice medicine. Oh, and they can see them.

    When someone says they believe in fairies they are talking about a matter of having faith in something they cannot see or otherwise verify the existence of. Other than maybe their friends believe in fairies too or someone in the pub said they saw one once and that they like the idea of fairies. So they want it to be true.

    When someone “believes” that some unproven remedy or treatment is going to do them good it appears to be nearer the second type of belief than the first. They choose to have faith. So on the one had we have some evidence based trust and on the other hand a kind of wishful thinking.

    People believe in all kinds of things and have done for the whole of recorded history. Greek Gods, Egyptian deities etc. The fact that lots of people really would like the things they believe in to be true don’t mean they are.

  23. kulkarniravi says:

    Imadgeine,

    “Different meanings of the word belief here. When someone says they believe in their doctor they mean that they trust them. This trust is based on the verifiable fact that the doctor has undergone a long, arduous training and is licensed to practice medicine. Oh, and they can see them.”

    Actually, I meant the word belief in the same sense as in a belief in fairies. As the folks on this forum have repeatedly admitted, medicine is an incomplete science. There is much to be discovered about the human body and the effect of genetics, diets, environments on health. Doctors have gone through rigorous study of the state of the art, medicines etc, there is no doubt. And yet, their word is based on an inexact science. The folks on this forum have also agreed that many doctors do not adhere to the best practices (e.g., improper usage of antibiotics). Often doctors do not even have enough time to study the problem on hand and come to the right diagnosis given the insurance and other economic pressures. Given this, when a doctor prescribes a medicines or an invasive procedure, it is the responsibility of a patient to do due diligence and find the optimal solution. This may sometimes involve getting another opinion.

    And yet, most people I have come across, accept a doctor’s advice without question. This shows in the plethora of medicines they consume, procedures they undergo. This kind of belief is as dangerous if not more than believing in fairies.

  24. The Blind Watchmaker says:

    @windriven,

    Of course it’s a mere beginning. It is the beginning. That’s the point.

    Hume was all about empiricism. It was he who awoke Kant from his “dogmatic slumber” (Kant was a rationalist prior to reading Hume).

  25. The Blind Watchmaker says:

    @windriven,

    I guess the word “depends” is not the best word. Science starts with induction.

    I observe A and I think it may be due to B.
    If theory B is correct, then I should see data C.
    I see data C.
    Therefore, B may cause A.

    Maybe something else caused A and C.
    I’ll have to test that too.
    etc.

  26. windriven says:

    @ The Blind Watchmaker

    Hmmm. I construed your first comment to suggest that the imperfect nature of induction was a fatal flaw in the scientific method.

    “We choose to make [induction] a basic, foundational belief. The rest of the scientific method flows from this.”

    My problem with this is the implication that science falls easy victim to syllogisms predicated on false premises. And that is clearly and demonstrably not the case. The scientific method starts with an ‘accept all comers’ openness to conjectures and hypotheses. But then the rigor of the method takes over and inexorably, if sometimes slowly, winnows out the wheat from the chaff.

    As to Hume, I still maintain that Hume’s issues with induction were rather outside the scientific use of the process. If I am in error here I would enjoy being set right.

  27. Harriet Hall says:

    @kulkarniravi,

    You are attacking a straw man. We are well aware that medicine is an applied science, that doctors make mistakes, and that informed patients are important. I think we all agree with you there. But you seem to be saying that there are other ways of knowing besides science, and that patients are qualified to make treatment decisions on some other basis. That is where we part company.

    In another thread you claimed that in ancient India some kind of “spiritual” factors led to medical progress, but I don’t think you ever explained what you meant. Can you give examples of their discoveries and show that they were due to anything other than early scientific methods of observation, trial and error?

    You seem to be equating the best scientific medicine with a belief in fairies. That’s patently ridiculous.

  28. windriven says:

    @kulkarnivari

    “This kind of belief is as dangerous if not more than believing in fairies.”

    If I am ill I would sooner put my belief in a physician than in a fairy. But that is a false dichotomy, isn’t it kulk? One needn’t put one’s belief anywhere. As Imageine suggested, trust is likely a more accurate description of the relationship.

    As to your nonsense about medicine being an incomplete science I can only ask: so what? Every science is incomplete. Shall I place my bet on a science that recognizes its limitations or on some driveling quackery that knows no such bounds?

  29. kulkarniravi says:

    Harriet,

    Ancient Indians argued that five senses are not the only means of acquiring knowledge. Yoga and specifically meditation frees us from the limits of the senses and it is possible to become one with the universal intelligence and thus become cognizant of the laws of nature. I don’t know if they used this method to develop ayurveda or indeed any of the other sciences such as astronomy.
    This is what I meant when I said there were other ways of knowing.

    However, I am not claiming that we should all search for knowledge using “other ways of knowning”. I am only saying that we can all educate ourselves within the limited scope of the current illness. Case in point: ear infections. Is it necessary to beg for antibiotics every time your child develops an ear infection. According to webmd and other sources, you can certainly wait for 24-48 hours before starting to worry and most ear infections do in fact resolve themselves safely. In fact, speaking from a personal experience, ALL of the ear infections my two kids suffered healed by themselves without any use of antibiotics. We never used them for either of them during the last twelve years. A well informed patient can only do well for himself or herself.

  30. kulkarniravi says:

    Harriet,

    “You seem to be equating the best scientific medicine with a belief in fairies. That’s patently ridiculous.”

    I am doing no such thing. I am just saying trusting your doctor blindly is the same as believing in fairies. Even a doctor is not a god who can resolve all your health problems.

  31. kulkarniravi says:

    Windriven,

    “As to your nonsense about medicine being an incomplete science I can only ask: so what? Every science is incomplete. Shall I place my bet on a science that recognizes its limitations or on some driveling quackery that knows no such bounds?”

    I think you are not getting my point here. I am trying to say that, not only medicine is an incomplete science, but the practices are far from perfect either. Therefore you are better off educating yourselves about your health, and not take your doctor’s word on it as the final one. Please tell me I am wrong.

  32. Harriet Hall says:

    @kulkarniravi,
    “it is possible to become one with the universal intelligence and thus become cognizant of the laws of nature.”

    How do you know this?

  33. windriven says:

    @kulkarniravi

    “Therefore you are better off educating yourselves about your health, and not take your doctor’s word on it as the final one.”

    How unpleasant to disagree with someone who cloaks their argument in the robes personal responsibility. But you are insistent on throwing up straw man arguments so here I go.

    I cannot hope to educate myself to the state of the art of medical science without getting an MD myself. I can however, educate myself to the point that I am able to manage my own care.

    If your idea of educating yourself is to learn, for instance, the hocus pocus of ayurvedic quackery then godspeed to you. I would see educating myself as understanding the disease, the standard of care for treating such a disease, and if warranted, new approaches* that might attack the disease differently if standard treatment was failing.

    No one here, to the very best of my knowledge, has ever advocated submitting unquestioningly to the directives of any given physician.

    *By new approaches I do not mean the fevered imaginings of witch doctors or sorcerers.

  34. pdawg says:

    Hi windriven,

    I’ll respond to your comments, although there’s not much to say in response since you’ve either misread or misunderstood what I’ve written.

    “What exactly are you talking about? I assume it is Dr. Hall’s summary of the takeaways from Shermer’s book. If so, the word belief lies at the root of your particular bit of sophistry. Science does not require belief and it does not support dogma. All scientific principles are subject to revision in the face of new evidence. That is one of the elements that separates science from belief.”

    No, windriven, I’m not talking about science qua science, independent of Schermer’s thesis. Sorry but you need to brush up on your rudimentary reading comprehension skills. Rather what I’ve said has specific reference to Schermer’s thesis. If his thesis is true, then wouldn’t such and such follow? That’s what I’m asking.

    Yes, my questions were predicated on Hall’s summation. If you have a problem with the summation, then I’m afraid you’ll have to speak with Hall. Otherwise you’re tilting at windmills.

    Neither am I questioning what Hall wrote. In fact I thought it was a good review. And I take it as an accurate summation.

    By the bye, I’m not at all attacking science either. That could hardly be fairly inferred from what I’ve written above. I’m a strong proponent of science given the field in which I study and will work in a few years.

    “If you are suggesting that science is unreliable because reality as we understand it is an elaborate ruse,”

    Since that’s not what I’m suggesting, the rest of your comments don’t apply.

    “Just rolling out some ‘reflections within reflections’ trope doesn’t have much staying power beyond a sophomore class bull session.”

    You might want to take your own medicine, windriven, given that you’ve entirely missed my point. At the moment you’re long on rhetoric but short on substance.

    * * * * * * * * * *

    All that said my questions are more than a mere what-if conjecture. If Schermer’s thesis is true (which I am assuming and granting is the case without having read his book), then it’d likewise have to apply to his own thesis, wouldn’t it? If so, then it’d seem Schermer has provided sufficient grounds for him to question his own thesis! As others have pointed out, it’s an internal paradox that’s generated by Schermer’s own thesis.

    Of course, on Hall’s summation, and like I’ve already pointed out above, I presume Schermer would attempt to extricate himself by appealing to science, which would normally be a perfectly legitimate move. I suppose he’d say natural selection selects for true beliefs since too many false beliefs would be detrimental to our survival. But that doesn’t quite work in Schermer’s case. If our brains are already faulty and to some extent unreliable, per Schermer’s thesis, then we might be misintepreting the evidence that natural selection selects for us as true beliefs. It’s unavoidable if his thesis is true, which again I am assuming is the case.

    As such Schermer’s thesis would be a recipe for global scepticism.

    His thesis would likewise undermine the process of science itself. So if you’re hot and bothered about someone attacking science, then you’d do better to unleash your rantings and ravings against Schermer than against me.

  35. The Blind Watchmaker says:

    @Windriven

    I think you and I are on the same page. I was merely pointing out that the paradox that people were pointing out about Dr. Shermer’s statements is reminiscent of the paradox pointed out by Hume. I don’t think that Hume was advocating not using inductive reasoning, but rather pointing out that there is a paradox. You cannot use reason to come up with the idea of induction without begging the question. Yet, scientific reasoning depends on this (among other things) and I, for one, embrace scientific reasoning.

    Popper claims that he rejects induction, but then goes on to use inductive argument to justify his idea of falsification (an idea that is very useful).

    Bacon embraced induction but not syllogistic reasoning. Syllogisms are not science, but they are useful at mapping out an argument, whether scientific or not.

    Massimo Pigliuci discusses this here.
    http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2009/03/very-foundations-of-science.html

    He is referring to a new intro to philosophy of science book, “…Hume’s problem of induction, which is fundamental to our understanding of how science — indeed, reasoning in general — works.”

  36. windriven says:

    @ The Blind Watchmaker

    Thanks for the link to the Pigliuci. I will tell you flatly that I continue to find Hume’s ‘paradox’ to be misapplied in the case of science. But as a result of the discussion I’ll exhume some of my old books and have a closer look. The joy of these exchanges is that sometimes I learn something new.

    My recollection of Hume’s paradox was along the lines that inductive reasoning absent corroborating observation was untenable. But as observation and experiment are central to the scientific method, it seemed and seems to me a misapplication. Anyway… thanks again.

  37. windriven says:

    @pdawg-

    Sorry dude (or dudette) just throwing a lot of words down does not an argument mount.

    Shermer’s thesis and the scientific method at the heart of it do not rely on any belief whatsoever beyond the acceptance that the universe around us is at least in part understandable.

    I haven’t misunderstood you. Your argument is puerile.

  38. weing says:

    kulkarniravi,

    I think your approach to medical advice is worse than believing in fairies. If my car is not working well, I take it to the mechanic and trust him to figure out what’s wrong and to fix it, if it can be fixed. Could I do it myself? Of course but I do not have the time to do it myself. Like it or not, we are social beings, and rely on one another. Reciprocity works most of the time. I do not feel threatened by someone’s expertise in a field that is not my own. Are there con-artists and unscrupulous mechanics? Of course there are. Nothing is 100% sure but death and taxes. We have to take our chances. That’s life. If someone tells me that they have another way of knowing, that would be more or less someone telling me they got a message from God. I’m supposed to trust that? Sorry. I can’t.

  39. weing says:

    pdawg,

    Have you ever crossed a street in traffic? You had to use the rules of science, and if you had any false beliefs about the reality of the cars moving, they would have been quickly selected out along with you.

  40. Mark P says:

    “Humans function with herd mentality.”

    A gross exaggeration.

    When nothing important is at stake, most humans will go with the flow because that keeps the emotional level low. Even then there is always one in a group who will do something else. Some people are just natural contrarians.

    When things are important, most groups will have experienced people who have learnt to question things.

    That’s not to say that someone will always get the right answer, but I believe our herd instinct is grossly exaggerated. For a start humans are not, in a literal sense, herd animals. Our emotional response is for small groups, and not to have an all dominant “bull” in sole charge either.

    I teach High School kids, who are meant to represent humans at their most “pack” stage. Fat chance. One thing I have learnt is that that kids are terribly, terribly unpredictable but one prediction is nearly 100% good: at least one kid will do something different.

  41. pdawg says:

    @ windriven

    “Sorry dude (or dudette) just throwing a lot of words down does not an argument mount.”

    Sorry dude (or dudette) but dismissing what I’ve said as if all I’ve done is thrown a lot of words down does not a counter-argument mount. Instead I’ve raised specific questions for Shermer’s thesis given the truth of his own thesis which you have so far failed to address with a modicum of reason.

    “Shermer’s thesis and the scientific method at the heart of it do not rely on any belief whatsoever beyond the acceptance that the universe around us is at least in part understandable.”

    First, like I’ve already pointed out above, I’m not at all attacking science or the scientific method. So, assuming it’s unintentional, for you to couple Shermer’s thesis alongside the scientific method once again demonstrates your poor reading comprehension. Of course, if it’s intentional, it reflects even worse on you.

    Also, when you say, “do not rely on any belief whatsoever beyond the acceptance that the universe around us is at least in part understandable,” I’ll just quickly point out in passing that the second part of your statement (“beyond the acceptance that the universe around us is at least in part understandable”) is itself a belief that would be undermined by Shermer if his thesis true (which again I assume it is).

    Try re-reading what I actually wrote rather than erecting strawmen to pile onto your bonfire of vanities.

    “I haven’t misunderstood you. Your argument is puerile.”

    I’ll take the fact that you resort to pejoratives like “puerile” in lieu of reasonable argumentation as a tacit concession on your part that you have nothing rational to say.

  42. pdawg says:

    @ weing

    “Have you ever crossed a street in traffic? You had to use the rules of science, and if you had any false beliefs about the reality of the cars moving, they would have been quickly selected out along with you.”

    Alas, another swing and a miss!

    I’m not arguing against science at all. As I’ve already pointed out, I strongly support science.

    What people like windriven and you miss is that this is an internal critique given Schermer’s thesis (on Hall’s summation). My response is pegged on the truth of Schermer’s thesis. So what you say here wouldn’t be a problem for me at all, but it would be a problem for Schermer.

    I don’t know if Schermer would appreciate you attempting to undermine his thesis with your common sensical example though! :)

  43. pdawg says:

    Sorry, a correction: Shermer, not Schermer.

  44. Harriet Hall says:

    @pdawg,

    “how is the process of conducting science immune from the implications of Shermer’s thesis?”

    I don’t think the validity of the scientific enterprise falls into Shermer’s concept of a “belief” that might be true or false. Science is a set of methods by which we test our beliefs against reality to determine if they are true or false. We don’t need to “believe” in science: it can be shown to work well and to result in accurate predictions. It does not pretend to pin down the ultimate underlying reality in a deep philosophical sense. It is practical. It works. Hawking’s concept of model-dependent realism is a useful one.

    Individuals might be temporarily fooled, but science is a collaborative, cumulative, self-correcting enterprise. It is not only the best tool we have for learning truths about our world, it is the only reliable one. That science works is a fact, not a belief. You could believe that we can know nothing for sure because all knowledge comes through our fallible senses, or you could believe in Berkeley’s immaterialism, but if you kick a chair, your toe will hurt.

  45. Jan Willem Nienhuys says:

    I particularly got a kick out of one of Shermer’s examples. Galileo used an early telescope to observe 4 moons around Jupiter.

    The examples given have an uncanny resemblance to the type of arguments heard nowadays from people without real knowledge. But are they true?

    Galileo started watching the sky in January 1610, and published his Starry Messenger (Sidereus Nuncius) early March 1610. This made him instantly famous. All over Europe people were interested. Throughout 1610 he made more discoveries, and in 1611 he was received and honored by the Roman Jesuits, and also the pope and seven cardinals also showed their esteem for Galileo. He was appointed member of the Lincean Academy.

    So all in all, Galileo was believed by most people. It is not surprising that the 17th century had its share of our creationists, homeopaths, aids-deniers and so on. In the beginning of the 20th century there were still scientists doubting the existence of atoms. But were these telescope-deniers important then or just marginal cranks? That there was a professor of mathematics among them doesn’t mean much. Any way have Luc Montagnier believing in electronic homeopathy. We would be very surprised if in a future time the existence of Montagnier was used to show how in the 19th-21st century atomic theory would be bitterly opposed. (Similarly a totally unknown book by Cosmas Indicopleustes has been used in the 19th century to argue that the round earth theory was strongly opposed between 300 AD and 1492 AD.)

    In a time were eyesight was not corrected by glasses it is quite possible that near-sighted bookworms didn’t see too much through G’s telescope (but then, they wouldn’t see the stars too well without telescope). Is it possible that some of these stories come from romanticised versies of the life of Galileo, for example the play by Bethold Brecht?

  46. pdawg says:

    @ Harriet Hall

    Thanks for your response, Dr. Hall. I appreciate it.

    “I don’t think the validity of the scientific enterprise falls into Shermer’s concept of a ‘belief’ that might be true or false. Science is a set of methods by which we test our beliefs against reality to determine if they are true or false. We don’t need to ‘believe’ in science: it can be shown to work well and to result in accurate predictions. It does not pretend to pin down the ultimate underlying reality in a deep philosophical sense. It is practical. It works.”

    I’m afraid I don’t quite see how you’ve addressed my question? As I originally asked, what if Shermer’s thesis is itself one of these false beliefs that our brains evolved which we believe is true? How can science correct the errors in our faulty thinking since we’re using our faulty brains to conduct science in the first place?

    Now you’ve offered a description of science. But whether your description of science is correct or incorrect isn’t the issue, right? Rather the issue is whether science can reliably correct our faulty thinking given that we use our faulty thinking to do science. At least that’s my understanding of Shermer’s thesis based on your summation.

    Or take the analogy of measuring time. If we had a reliable measure of time (e.g. Greenwich Mean Time), then we could correct faulty clocks. But how can a faulty clock reliably correct other faulty clocks in their measure of time?

    “Hawking’s concept of model-dependent realism is a useful one.”

    Again I could agree it’s useful. But we’re not talking about my philosophical model of science.

    Since you bring it up, Hawking’s model-dependent realism is not without its limitations. For one thing, it’s only good to the extent that someone finds logical reason(s) to subscribe to his form of realism. But there are antirealists as well. Not to mention various shades within both broad camps.

    “Individuals might be temporarily fooled, but science is a collaborative, cumulative, self-correcting enterprise.”

    Again I could more or less agree with you. But it wouldn’t address my point about Shermer’s thesis.

    However I’ll note on Shermer’s thesis it is possible for individuals to be permanently fooled, which in turn would undermine science as a “collaborative” and “self-correcting” enterprise.

    “It is not only the best tool we have for learning truths about our world, it is the only reliable one.”

    This takes us slightly afield from my point. But I think it’s important to address this sort of chauvinism about science if by science you mean some form of empirical science, which is what it sounds like you mean. It’s worth noting science so understood isn’t the only reliable “tool” for learning truths about our world. We can learn truths about our world based on reason and logic alone. We can learn metaphysical truths like the reality of the past or our own existence without reference to empirical science. We can learn mathematical truths without empirical science too. Similarly Einstein didn’t originally develop his theories of relativity using empirical science as such but using “thought experiments.” Sure, Einstein’s theories were later *verified* by observation and experimentation. But I don’t see how his process of *developing* the theories of relativity using thought experiments wouldn’t count as learning truths about our world sans empirical science. Finally, science itself relies on certain presuppositions which themselves cannot be established as truths using the methods of empirical science. For example, the uniformity of nature. In this respect it’s similar to how logic cannot begin without certain presuppositions such as the law of non-contradiction or geometric proofs kicked off without assuming certain intuitive postulates or axioms. In any case, it’s an absolute stance to state empirical science is the “only” reliable tool by which we can gain knowledge about our world, but an absolute stance which would seem to be fallacious given what I’ve just said.

    Also we could venture into deeper waters if we debate what science is or isn’t (e.g. the demarcation problem). Or the various theories of knowledge (e.g. empiricism, rationalism). But then we’d definitely be far from my original point. So I’ll say no more about this.

    “That science works is a fact, not a belief.”

    True. But like I said above we have to keep in mind science operates with certain presuppositions which cannot be established by science (e.g. the uniformity of nature).

    “You could believe that we can know nothing for sure because all knowledge comes through our fallible senses, or you could believe in Berkeley’s immaterialism, but if you kick a chair, your toe will hurt.”

    Of course, this has reference to Samuel Johnson’s refutation of Berkeley. Despite his cute quip, Johnson didn’t actually refute Berkeley. The sensation of pain you’d feel by kicking a chair would be explicable on Berkeley’s philosophy. If you were stuck in the Matrix, you’d still feel pain if you kicked a chair, but it wouldn’t mean you weren’t stuck in the Matrix.

    Speaking for myself, I don’t subscribe to Berkeley’s idealism and immaterialism, so it’s not a problem for me. But again we’re not talking about me. Rather we’re talking about Shermer.

    Yet Shermer’s thesis, if true, would be a recipe for global scepticism. In fact, Shermer’s thesis would seem to be a good candidate for your point that “we can know nothing for sure because all knowledge comes through our fallible senses.” Shermer attempts to appeal to science but his appeal would be like throwing a hail Mary pass and hoping for the best. Maybe he’ll get lucky and find everything is fine. Maybe not. It’d be next to impossible for us to tell given Shermer’s premises.

  47. windriven says:

    @pdawg

    For us to have a conversation we must share a common language. Unfortunately, it appears that we don’t. The scientific method simply does not require belief in anything. That is to say that belief and science are different in kind not degree.

    In the first place science is a journey, belief a destination. In science the appearance of replicable new information that questions established theory is welcomed, in the land of belief it is branded heretical.

    The scientific method is the map that guides the journey, a set of procedures with inherent checks and balances. At the heart of the scientific method is the concerted effort to disprove any new hypothesis.

    You asked: “How can science correct the errors in our faulty thinking since the process of conducting science itself relies in large part on human cognitive faculties which may or may not veridically correspond to reality?” Science has identified a broad spectrum of areas where human cognitive faculties (broadly defined) do not correspond to reality. Take, if you will, the sense of sight. Human vision is limited to a rather small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Herschel’s experiment demonstrated the existence of the infrared band. The limitations of the human cognitive apparatus can be bridged by the scientific method.

    If, on the other hand you are suggesting that nature is arranged in such a way as to deceive human cognition, that what is known is an illusion, or some other variant of intellectual nihilism, I’ll simply roll my eyes and move on to other discussions.

  48. Imadgeine says:

    Kulkarniravi – of course doctors are not perfect and all knowing. And of course it would be better if people took a bit more responsibility for looking after their health and getting the best out of their health practitioners. And sometimes they are so keen to find explanations that they lose sight of a person’s quality of life. Recent experience of this with an elderly family member who would be subjected to never ending stressful diagnostic tests by her cardiologist, if we did not say – enough already, we know you can’t mend this. What other drugs have you got that might help her?

    The ancients were wise about the need for moderation and balance and the east has certainly come up with a lot of valuable approaches to managing stress and hence to leading a healthy life. However they were just plain wrong about the causes of diseases, whether they believed in an imbalance of Chi, a build up of toxins or an excess of black bile. It is not long since patients in the west were bled to death by their doctors who were working on these pre-scientific lines. They did not know anything about pathogens or the way the body works.

    I am of the firm opinion that modern medicine has a great deal to offer when it comes to curing and treating a wide range of diseases. I would be dead from breast cancer 15 years ago without the help of the medical profession. Death rates have declined steadily in the last 100 years or so in countries that have the benefit of scientific healthcare. On the other hand when it comes to maintaining best possible health and recovering after treatment then disciplines like yoga come into their own.

    It is the notion that there is some “better way” to treat illnesses that are not self limiting that is problematic to many of us I think.

  49. pdawg says:

    @windriven

    Your latest response to me is a lot more level-headed than your previous responses.

    “For us to have a conversation we must share a common language. Unfortunately, it appears that we don’t.”

    Not to sound rude (it’s not my intention) but I should point out I didn’t originally try to have a conversation with you. Rather you responded to a comment I made. That’s what set off our little tete-a-tete.

    For my part I was simply trying to question Shermer’s thesis. People could have responded or not responded. But if people respond then I’d expect them to respond to my questions regarding Shermer. I don’t expect people to respond to other questions about science in general or what not. That’d take us off the beaten track.

    “The scientific method simply does not require belief in anything. That is to say that belief and science are different in kind not degree. In the first place science is a journey, belief a destination. In science the appearance of replicable new information that questions established theory is welcomed, in the land of belief it is branded heretical.”

    Again this is off topic to what I originally raised in my first comment in this thread.

    Besides, what you say is perhaps poetic but it makes little logical sense. For one thing, how do you differentiate between science and belief? What counts as “science” and what counts as “belief” in your estimation? Why do you assume such hard and fast borders exist in the first place? Try Googling the demarcation problem for starters.

    “Science has identified a broad spectrum of areas where human cognitive faculties (broadly defined) do not correspond to reality. Take, if you will, the sense of sight. Human vision is limited to a rather small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Herschel’s experiment demonstrated the existence of the infrared band. The limitations of the human cognitive apparatus can be bridged by the scientific method.”

    Again I’m not arguing about whether science as we would understand it can or cannot identify “areas where human cognitive faculties (broadly defined) do not correspond to reality,” whether or not “the limitations of the human cognitive apparatus can be bridged by the scientific method.” Like I said I’m a proponent of science. I could grant science is perfectly capable of doing so.

    Rather I’m questioning Shermer’s thesis. If Shermer’s thesis is true, then how would science *on Shermer’s terms* be able to reliably do so? As I said to Dr. Hall above: If we had a reliable measure of time (e.g. Greenwich Mean Time), then we could correct faulty clocks. But how can a faulty clock reliably correct other faulty clocks in their measure of time?

    “If, on the other hand you are suggesting that nature is arranged in such a way as to deceive human cognition, that what is known is an illusion, or some other variant of intellectual nihilism, I’ll simply roll my eyes and move on to other discussions.”

    I haven’t suggested any such thing. I haven’t given anyone my opinion about what I happen to think or not think about what nature is and what nature is like. I’ve been trying to focus on Shermer’s thesis, not my beliefs.

  50. pdawg says:

    “At the heart of the scientific method is the concerted effort to disprove any new hypothesis.”

    By the way, presumably Shermer’s argument is a “new hypothesis” and presumably there are scientists here. If so, I should note I don’t detect much of this “concerted effort to disprove any new hypothesis” in this combox insofar as Shermer’s thesis is concerned. Instead I detect more “concerted effort” to disprove my raising a question or two about Shermer’s thesis! Oh, well.

  51. weing says:

    pdawg,

    I think we just have to get used to the possibility that our knowledge is incomplete and that the assumptions that we hold may be wrong.

  52. Harriet Hall says:

    @ pdawg,
    “Shermer’s argument is a “new hypothesis””

    Not really. His book is a synthesis of facts that have been learned about belief and the human brain in decades of research on the subject. It seems to me you are the one proposing a new hypothesis: that science cannot correct our faulty thinking. I think even you would accept that science can correct a great deal of our faulty thinking, and if it failed to correct specific instances of faulty thinking, there is no standard by which we could ever hope to know we were wrong. If the clock of science indicated the wrong time, what possible “Greenwich mean time” could we measure it against? Yes, science depends ultimately on the proposition that there is a material world and that nature behaves consistently. Science can’t “prove” that, just as Godel’s incompleteness theorem shows that there are mathematical truths that can’t be proved within the mathematical system. To use your clock analogy, science can detect and correct mechanical imperfections in some clocks, and can average all the rest and arrive at a best guess, and that guess can be used successfully to make calculations and to predict the future behavior of natural processes, and even to send rockets to Mars. Greenwich is really nothing but a consensus definition for practical purposes, and if science arrives at a different consensus nothing is lost.

    Einstein did indeed use thought experiments to learn truths, but far more people have used thought experiments to learn errors. No thought experiment results can be accepted without testing and verification by evidence.

    You seem to be saying that we can never know anything for sure. That belief is nihilistic, unfalsifiable, and essentially irrelevant. In one sense, maybe we can’t ever be 100% sure that a belief is true. In another sense, a 99.999…% probability is good enough for our purposes. Surely you’re not suggesting we might be wrong that the earth orbits the sun just because our fallible brains did the science?

  53. HH said regarding pdawg’s questions “You seem to be saying that we can never know anything for sure.”

    Actually what he/she appears to be saying is that, in your summation, Shermer appears to be saying that “we can never know anything for sure”, due to human cognitive errors.

    That’s why pwag keeps saying IF Shermer’s thesis is correct.

    IF

    So I might say…’If god created the earth in seven days, then wouldn’t that suggest the earth is younger than science has suggested?’ without believing, in any way, that god created the earth in seven days. See?

    So you all can criticism pdawg for misreading your summation, or for considering implications beyond the scope of Shermer’s book, but it seems to me, things would be clearer IF folks could stop trying to read between the lines of dwag’s questions and just read the lines.

    Although, the whole thread may be a rather humorous demonstration of Shermer’s (possible*) premise. :)

    *I say possible, because I haven’t got a chance to buy or read the book yet.

  54. windriven says:

    @ pdawg

    What precisely to you understand Shermer’s thesis to be? I have taken you at your word in your original comment. But that seems not to get us anywhere. Like a gob of mercury, it seems to be difficult to pin down your actual argument.

    If you do not understand the logical accuracy of my statement that science and belief are different in kind rather than degree I must retreat to my earlier comment that we do not share a common language. Belief does not require evidence. Evidence does not require belief. Belief demands faith. Science demands evidence.

    Human perceptions and cognition are fallible. Science provides a self-regulating framework to build an edifice of truth independent of the flaws of human perception.

  55. Harriet Hall says:

    @micheleinmichigan,
    “Shermer appears to be saying that “we can never know anything for sure”, due to human cognitive errors.”

    No, he is not saying that at all. He is saying that the scientific method is a corrective for human errors.

  56. windriven – If your having a difficult time pinning down pdawg’s argument, if may be because he/she had not actually presented an argument.

    Perhaps you could try reading pdawg’s initial question “But how is the process of conducting science immune from the implications of Shermer’s thesis? How can science correct the errors in our faulty thinking since the process of conducting science itself relies in large part on human cognitive faculties which may or may not veridically correspond to reality.”

    If you just think about it as a genuine question, not an argument, things seem clearer.

    I think it’s an intriguing question. In fact, not just intriguing, but a fu@%ing awesome question. To me, it seems a question that could be the seed of future discovery or invention.

    And don’t you start calling me puerile, because I have no idea what hand sanitizer has to do with any of this.

  57. Harriet Hall

    “He is saying that the scientific method is a corrective for human errors.”

    Just out of curiosity, does Shermer suggest that science is completely corrective? Does he express any concerns that science may continue to rely upon undiscovered cognitive errors?

    Not to say that he should, I’m just wondering if that may (or may not) be within the scope of his book.

  58. windriven says:

    @michele

    I would never call you – or even pdawg – puerile. I save my ad hominems for the likes of Th1Th2. The argument though, at least as I understand it, strikes me as puerile. (Great line about the sanitizer ;-) )

    FWIW, I have tried reading pdawg’s comment as you suggest. That is where I got started on this.

    Look, one can take the position that human cognition is so flawed or self-delusional or that the universe is constructed in so perverse a manner that genuine understanding is impossible. That is prima facie intellectual nihilism and the discussion comes to a halt because beyond that lies only intellectual masturbation.

    Or one can regard the scientific method as a memeplex that has evolved to strip away the flaws and faults in human perception and to provide a stable framework on which to construct a meaningful model of the universe. One can look at the many technologies that have sprung from scientific inquiry and make one’s own judgments about the success of the scientific model.

    Of course one can also get into the sort of circular philosophical game of chicken or egg so beloved of university undergraduates. This goes to the heart of intellectual nihilism. Human cognition is imperfect therefore all products of human cognition are failures. It is silly and it is nonsensical.

    It relies on a false syllogism: human cognition is imperfect, science is a product of human cognition, ergo science cannot approach perfection.

    The assumption that flaws the syllogism is that human cognition is so flawed that it cannot recognize its own weaknesses and correct for them. The scientific method stands in refutation of that assumption.

  59. Harriet Hall says:

    @micheleinmichigan, “does Shermer suggest that science is completely corrective? Does he express any concerns that science may continue to rely upon undiscovered cognitive errors?”

    He doesn’t really address that in the book, but I think I can speak for him to say he is well aware of the imperfections of science and the danger that cognitive errors will continue to occur within science. Science is an excellent way to minimize bias and errors, but it can’t guarantee to completely eliminate them.

  60. windriven says:

    @michele

    Let us assume that science does rely on undiscovered cognitive errors. If that is the case – and it certainly might be – one of two outcomes must occur.

    If the errors are so severe that humans are never able to recognize them then we will never truly understand the universe and our place in it because absent some god (or perhaps some other species that does not share these cognitive flaws) there is no path to enlightenment.

    If the errors manifest themselves in conflicting evidence then science is exactly the system that will strip away those errors and reformulate its strictures to accommodate this newly discovered cognitive flaw. The history of science is replete with incidences of this.

  61. windriven – please excuse me if I’m being facile (this is geniune, not hurt/sarcasm, as it could be read). BFAs, art directors, etc, don’t discuss the imperfections of human cognition or science or philosophy, actually much, unless it’s visual phenomenon, so it’s all rather new to me.

    You said “This goes to the heart of intellectual nihilism. Human cognition is imperfect therefore all products of human cognition are failures. It is silly and it is nonsensical.”

    I think we are all in agreement on the first part “human cognition is imperfect, therefore…”

    It’s the second part, that didn’t occur to me and I which I don’t think pdawg was arguing for. I just don’t think it logically follows that “all products of human cognition are failures” Sure I suppose we could call science a failure and sit trembling in the darkness, making up stories of god and demons or just paralyzed with indecision…but it’s not a logical next step and it doesn’t appeal to me.

    In fact, my second part would be questions.

    Is it possible to discover or construct a cognition process that completely transcends our errors?

    Is science genuinely that “new” cognition process? Or does the scientific process need additional revision to transcend our errors? Or is science a intermediate step between religion and something else…a entirely new process that our cognition may elvolve into. (That’s kinda goofy, I admit)

    If we could get in contact with some intelligent aliens would we be able to check each other’s work better or would we just confound each other? (seems I’m on a goofy trend)

    You scientist folks have it made, and I think you don’t even know it. In art, everyone always admits ‘there is nothing new to be created.’ But science holds the promise of… “We might currently be completely oblivious to a fact of nature that could change everything we know.”

    That’s why I think it’s so grand. With art, everything is out in the light. With science, there is still darkness, apparently lots of it, probably there will always be darkness.

    Darkness is not emptiness. Darkness is potential.

    There is another question, though. IF we suspect that science might be incredibly wrong at any given point, due to our cognitive blind spots, or anything else for that matter, is there any way we should proceed differently, or are we already doing that to the best of our ability?

    I don’t know the answer to any of those questions.

  62. Jan Willem Nienhuys says:

    pdawg on 01 Jun 2011 at 9:04 am :

    Or take the analogy of measuring time. If we had a reliable measure of time (e.g. Greenwich Mean Time), then we could correct faulty clocks. But how can a faulty clock reliably correct other faulty clocks in their measure of time?

    Well, for starters we can build many clocks and check whether they indicate the samen time intervals. We also can compare them to known clocks. Similarly any other kind of physical measurement. Almost all clocks actually ARE faulty: the motion of the moon, of the sun, the rotation of the earth. For practical purposes they are OK, but it you want 0,000 000 01 second precision, most of the usual clocks are no good.

    Taking the clock as a metaphor, there are two kinds of checks for reliability:
    A. internal consistency, i.e. no internal contradictions (in clocks: all clocks built by the same method should give equal lengths for time intervals; an hour on clock should also be an hour on another clock);
    B. external consistency (a new type of clock should give about the same time as existing clocks, and deviations should be explicable).

    Example: there is something called the standard kilogram, in Paris. Somehow it seems to be losing or gaining mass (I forgot what). Nobody knows why. That is a serious problem. People are thinking of another standard, but haven’t succeeded yet in making this stably reproducible.

  63. windriven says:

    @michele

    “Is it possible to discover or construct a cognition process that completely transcends our errors?”

    Is there evidence that suggests that science is failing in this regard?

    But more to your greater point, science does not claim to be the end of the road. It may be. But it doesn’t have to be. Science is inherently self-correcting. If logical or evidential conflicts present themselves science will address them. If another scheme proves better at describing reality, science will adopt it.

    It is the ‘what if’ part of all this that rankles me a little. What if all the stars turn into pumpkins tomorrow? Science indulges in ‘what if’ but it does so in a structured way that helps to shed light where there is darkness.

    As to there being nothing new to create in art, I hope you are wrong. I listen to Brandi Carlile and, while acknowledging the influences that shaped her work, each song strikes me as fresh and new. There is a Giorgione that hangs in the Accademia in Venice that tells me an awful lot about being a woman in 15th century Italy. But I own a wonderful contemporary painting of a fisherman by a Vietnamese named Traung that tells me a lot about being a Vietnamese fisherman.

    But I am not an artist and my experience in art is limited. Perhaps I am thrilled by work that others see as purely derivative.

  64. Windriven
    “It is the ‘what if’ part of all this that rankles me a little. What if all the stars turn into pumpkins tomorrow? Science indulges in ‘what if’ but it does so in a structured way that helps to shed light where there is darkness.”

    Hum, I guess I’m struggling to get why that rankles. Would you act differently if we agreed that there’s an extremely remote possibility that tomorrow star would be pumpkins? I don’t think I would.

    Regarding art. I think that students spend too much time trying to impress their instructors by doing something shockingly “new”. Instructors are trying to urge students to focus on quality or depth rather then “newness”. While it’s aknowledged that an artist can and should create something compelling and genuinely recognizable as their own, it’s unlikely that some striking new approach will make it note.

    Regardless, art, it seems to me is almost entirely of the mind, and is constrained totally by the mind. Science is of the mind and the world, so seems less constrained to me.

    But there’s a high probably that I’m completely wrong there.

  65. ” it’s unlikely that some striking new approach will make it note.”

    note should be noteworthy.

  66. wales says:

    Pdawg, trying to have a discussion about a larger, philosophical perspective on science doesn’t get very far with the sbm crowd. Mostly you will hear criticism of philosophers of science, except for Popper and perhaps Kuhn….but van Fraassen’s constructive empiricism and questioning of scientific realism and constructs would very likely be summarily dismissed as a brand of irrational post-modernism.

    Nice try though.

  67. Harriet Hall says:

    @wales,
    I would be interested to hear your “larger, philosophical perspective on science.” Please tell us what you think.

  68. pdawg says:

    @ Harriet Hall et al

    Alas, I’m afraid we’re talking past one another!

    I’m not putting forward my own position. I’ve said precious little about my own beliefs in this thread. In fact my beliefs are irrelevant to Shermer’s thesis.

    Instead I’ve been focusing on Shermer’s position. What are the implications of what Shermer is suggesting?

    But several people aren’t looking at what Shermer’s position entails. Rather you’re busy trying to figure out what I believe – or so it seems to me. But again I’ve said precious little about what I believe or disbelieve because what I believe or disbelieve is irrelevant to what Shermer is saying.

    All I can say at this point is to re-read my previous comments. Otherwise I’d more or less just be beating a dead horse.

    With this in mind:

    “It seems to me you are the one proposing a new hypothesis: that science cannot correct our faulty thinking.”

    Sorry, but that’s mistaken. I haven’t set forth any hypothesis whatsoever. Like I’ve said multiple times now I haven’t proffered a position on this at all. All I’ve done is focus on the consequenes of what Shermer is saying. However given what shermer is saying (on your summation), yes, I agree, it does seem true “science cannot correct our faulty thinking.” I’ve explained further if you read or re-read my previous comments.

    “I think even you would accept that science can correct a great deal of our faulty thinking, and if it failed to correct specific instances of faulty thinking, there is no standard by which we could ever hope to know we were wrong.

    Well, again, I haven’t said much about what I believe. Although I have said I personally have no problem with science. Again my beliefs are irrelevant to Shermer’s thesis.

    Of course, I don’t mind telling you beliefs at some point, but for now I want to focus Shermer. I think if I were to tell you my beliefs, it’d take focus away from my point about Shermer, which apparently has been difficult enough to get across.

    “If the clock of science indicated the wrong time, what possible ‘Greenwich mean time’ could we measure it against?”

    Yes, that’s precisely what Shermer’s position would seem to entail. That’s been my point this entire time.

    “Yes, science depends ultimately on the proposition that there is a material world and that nature behaves consistently. Science can’t ‘prove’ that”

    I would agree with you that “science can’t ‘prove’” these things.

    But again I’m not talking about what science can or cannot prove. Rather I’m talking about what Shermer’s position entails.

    “Greenwich is really nothing but a consensus definition for practical purposes, and if science arrives at a different consensus nothing is lost.”

    Again I personally would agree with this. See the debate between temporal metrical objectivism and temporal metrical conventionalism in books. But I didn’t bring up GMT and clocks to indicate my beliefs.

    I could’ve picked another illustration besides clocks since it seems like my clocks illustration isn’t so helpful. Perhaps I should’ve picked faulty rulers measuring other faulty rulers! In other words my point isn’t that there isn’t in fact an actual standard measure of time (again temporal metrical objectivism vs. temporal metrical conventionalism), but rather that if we assume a standard like GMT, and we assume all our clocks are faulty, then how can faulty clocks correct other faulty clocks in measuring time to arrive back at the standard GMT? Or in Shermer’s case, if we assume Shermer is correct in his thesis that our brains are faulty to some extent (and who knows to what exact extent, we have no means to tell apart from our faulty brains, per Shermer) etc., then if we have to use our faulty brains to do science, how can we actually reliably do science?

    Shermer’s position would seem to undermine reliably doing science, which is one of my big problems with what he’s saying.

    “Einstein did indeed use thought experiments to learn truths, but far more people have used thought experiments to learn errors. No thought experiment results can be accepted without testing and verification by evidence.”

    True, I agree. But I believe I admitted as much above. At the same time I emphasized that the *development* of Einstein’s theories through thought experiments would be an example of “learning truths about our world” without empirical science, which as far as I can tell is true.

    Also, you don’t mention my other examples (e.g. mathematical truths can be learned without empirical science). These would seem to likewise be further examples of learning truths about our world without empirical science.

    “You seem to be saying that we can never know anything for sure. That belief is nihilistic, unfalsifiable, and essentially irrelevant. In one sense, maybe we can’t ever be 100% sure that a belief is true. In another sense, a 99.999…% probability is good enough for our purposes. Surely you’re not suggesting we might be wrong that the earth orbits the sun just because our fallible brains did the science?”

    Again I haven’t said what I believe or disbelieve. But personally, no, I wouldn’t suggest any of this at all. I don’t believe we need 100% epistemic certainty in order to have reliable knowledge. In fact, like you, I don’t believe 100% epistemic certainty is even possible.

    Again what I’m suggesting is Shermer’s position undermines reliably doing science, which again is a big concern for me.

    I’ll try to respond to others a bit later if possible. I’m a busy student after all (although you’re all doubtless busy professionals)! Although I’ll just say most of it would be a re-hash of what I’ve just said here.

    Also, in case some people need to affirm some sort of credibility with me, like I said above, I am studying in a scientific field.

  69. windriven says:

    Hmmmm, pdawg says a lot about what isn’t his position but not much about exactly what his position is. S/he refers regularly to Shermer’s thesis but has not responded to a request to define that thesis as s/he understands it. This strays awfully close to JAQing off.

    The closest we seem to get is the statement in the last comment that, “Shermer’s position undermines reliably doing science.” I suspect that Shermer would be startled by this observation but do not claim to speak for him.

    In the end I must wonder if I am simply too dense to appreciate the subtleties of pdawgs concept or whether there is actually a concept there to appreciate.

    “I could’ve picked another illustration besides clocks since it seems like my clocks illustration isn’t so helpful. Perhaps I should’ve picked faulty rulers measuring other faulty rulers!”

    I’m sure that it has occurred to you that all of these are relative measurements. It doesn’t matter what a kilogram weighs or how long a second lasts or what distance a meter is so long as we agree to whatever arbitrary standard we set for these units (think about the imperial versus the metric system). All of the formulae can be made to work equally well independent of the units of measure. It is the relationships that matter.

  70. windriven says:

    @wales

    Hear, hear!

  71. wales – “Pdawg, trying to have a discussion about a larger, philosophical perspective on science doesn’t get very far with the sbm crowd.”

    …and the party always breaks up whenever I bring out my ABBA records. Imagine that.

  72. Harriet Hall says:

    @pdawg,
    I don’t see that Shermer’s position undermines reliably doing science. We can learn to discipline our belief-before-reason tendencies and use the best scientific methods to correct cognitive errors. The success of science shows that it can be done reliably.

  73. windriven says:

    @michele

    “Hum, I guess I’m struggling to get why that rankles.”

    Because it so easily slides into intellectual masturbation. Look, I’m all for sharing a doobie (am I showing my age?) and waxing philosophical. But I take science and the scientific method seriously. I fail to see anything in Shermer’s piece that is antithetical to science.

  74. weing says:

    “I fail to see anything in Shermer’s piece that is antithetical to science.”

    It must be because you are dense. Now that makes two of us. Try as I might to understand what he/she means, the point he is making keeps eluding me. Maybe it’s that Heisenberg thing, where the more I understand one part of what he/she is saying, the less I know the other part. In other words, pdawg. Clarify, please, so that an idiot can understand.

  75. windriven says:

    @weing

    Misery loves company ;-)

  76. weing says:

    I think, misery loves miserable company, is more accurate.

  77. Oh, somehow I missed Hariet Hall’s and one of windriven’s comment earlier, sorry if my responses were lacking.

    HH, thanks for the answer on Shermer’s book.

    windriven, okay, but it’s just a comments board on the Internet. What’s the world coming to if you can’t masturbate (intellectually) on the internet.

    Regardless, I suspect what pdawg is asking is ‘But if we don’t know that we are perceiving things correctly, then how do we proceed with observation?’. The standard answer is, ‘well with science we check each other’s observations,. But, of course, the response is then ‘If we all have the same flawed perception, then checking each other’s answers only result in a duplication the the same mistake.’

    But, the problem is that pdawg then says that ‘Shermer’s premise undermines reliably doing science.’ I don’t think pdawg is correct. I think that the correct phrase would be more in the line of ‘Shermer’s piece raises doubts on whether we can reliably get the correct answers from science.’

    Overall, I think the mood of pdawg’s initial post was more the nonplus student pilot who had just been told that he had to fly with broken instruments, than the nihilist.

    @pdawg, sorry if I’m mistaken on your idea or mood, perhaps I’m projecting.

  78. windriven “If the errors are so severe that humans are never able to recognize them then we will never truly understand the universe and our place in it because absent some god (or perhaps some other species that does not share these cognitive flaws) there is no path to enlightenment.

    If the errors manifest themselves in conflicting evidence then science is exactly the system that will strip away those errors and reformulate its strictures to accommodate this newly discovered cognitive flaw. The history of science is replete with incidences of this.”

    Just had to add, most excellent answer! (wish we had “like” options here).

  79. kulkarniravi says:

    Harriet,

    Ravi -

    “it is possible to become one with the universal intelligence and thus become cognizant of the laws of nature.”

    Harriet -

    “How do you know this?”

    Patanjali explained the process of Yoga in his Yoga Sutras about 2000 years ago.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoga_Sutras_of_Patanjali

    Many commentaries have been written on Patanjali’s work, notable ones being those of Vyasa and Raja Bhoja. These commentators and many yogis have followed Patanjali’s teaching and they say it works. In other words, if you follow his steps, then you will achieve enlightenment.

    I personally don’t “know” if this is true as I have not tried to do it. People who practice it say Patanjali’s method works if you practice is sincerely enough.

    I hope I have answered your question.

  80. Harriet Hall says:

    @kulkarniravi,

    Somebody recommended something in a book 2000 years ago and his followers said it works? Fiction and hearsay until proven otherwise. Not the least bit convincing to a critical thinker.

    How am I to respect and carry on a rational discussion with someone who says “it is possible to become one with the universal intelligence and thus become cognizant of the laws of nature” and then turns right around and says he doesn’t know if it is true?

  81. Jan Willem Nienhuys says:

    It doesn’t matter what a kilogram weighs or how long a second lasts or what distance a meter is so long as we agree to whatever arbitrary standard we set for these units (think about the imperial versus the metric system).

    No – no – no .

    Before you take anything as standard, you must show that things measured to that standard consistently give the same answer.

    Suppose your standard is ‘a foot’ (note that this is actually still an antiquated unit of measurement that is in use in three countries, among which Myanmar and Liberia). You quickly find out that not all feet are equal, even if you take as standard the average of the feet of 30 randomly chosen adult males.

    Now for length there are better solutions, and they rely on the physical fact that various things have very stable and easy to measure lengths (among which wavelengths of certain types of light).

    But take the case of IQ. The definition is roughly that it is a measure of intelligence as measured by certain tests, and normed in such a way that by definition the population should be normally distributed with a mean of 100 and a standard deviation of 15. But the tests are poorly reproducible. The correlation between test and retest is not high. Moreover the tests are constantly being redesigned and renormed, with the result that in many countries the IQ is rising by a standard deviation per generation, without anybody knowing the cause. Measuring IQ is something like measuring earth worms with rubber bands.

    If you measure people’s length you find all kinds of differences between people, but at least you know that the concept of length itself is not under dispute, at least not for the precision required for measuring people.

    So the whole idea of IQ is on shaky ground. It has been compared to the old weather glasses. These measured a combination of air pressure and temperature in a time that nobody knew how the pressure of gases depends on temperature and volume, neither that water had a maximal vapor presure of its own depending on temperature, nor the reason that a rise of the fluid level in the spout of the hour glass indicated that a storm was approaching.

    So measurement of physical dimensions like time, distance or mass or electrical charge is not such a good metaphor, because we are now extremely familiar with the fact that these things represent stable aspects of nature.

    The IQ or the weather glass is a better metaphor. An imaginary metaphor might be the idea of determining the truth of any statement by subjecting it to a popular vote (or letting a couirt of justice decide). Maybe that’s a poor metaphor too, because we already know that this leads to serious errors.

    Maybe we should give up on metaphors. In each separate instance we should stick to judging internal consistency and agreement with facts. There is no general method that works equally well for mathematical theorems, medical or psychological research, philosophy and physics.

  82. windriven says:

    @JWN

    You missed my point entirely. It is not the fact that 30 people have feet of different sizes, it is we can adopt a unit of length, call it a foot, call it a blutz, I don’t care. If we create a standard that we all agree on and if that standard is consistent, the formulae are easily adjusted to compensate.

    Neither IQ nor weather glasses are apt metaphors as neither measures a single specific characteristic.

    Will you agree that temperature is a specific characteristic? Will you agree that I can measure temperature in degrees Kelvin, degrees Celsius or degrees Fahrenheit? These are consistent and broadly agreed upon units of measure. Each is internally consistent. But degrees Fahrenheit and degrees Celsius especially are based on entirely different observations. Nonetheless they are internally consistent measures of thermal energy and are freely convertible one to the other.

  83. kulkarniravi says:

    Harriet,

    Let me ask you this. How do you know the medicines that you describe work?

  84. kulkarniravi says:

    I meant prescribe not describe.

  85. kulkarniravi says:

    Harriet,

    Even though Yoga was described more than 2000 years ago, you will find that it is almost continuously in use. There have been numerous people who have studied Patanjali’s writings in depth and have written their own commentaries over the years. You don’t have to take me seriously, but Indian science and philosophy has its own depth and rigor. It doesn’t require a certificate from anyone. If you care to research it, there is ample information out there. Even now there are many yogis who are more than willing to teach their methods to any serious student.

    As to your statement:

    “How am I to respect and carry on a rational discussion with someone who says “it is possible to become one with the universal intelligence and thus become cognizant of the laws of nature” and then turns right around and says he doesn’t know if it is true?”

    I never said that people who developed ayurveda used yoga to develop it. Ancient Indians developed and wrote about a large number of topics including ayurveda. They may have used yoga as one of their tools, but I am not sure. It is wrong for people, who claim that they are scientific, that their’s is the only valid method of inquiry.

    To give you an example: someone conducted experiments running the rats in mazes. They found that once a rat masters a particular maze, the other mice find it much easier to master the same maze. Similarly there have been many instances where a long standing scientific riddle has been solved two or more scientists concurrently. It is too much of a coincidence that they had the same idea after many decades or centuries’ worth of effort from others. It is not that science can not one day explain this phenomenon, I am sure it will. Currently science only considers the five senses as legitimate vehicles of perception and refuses to consider other possibilities. This is nothing but dogmatic stubbornness.

  86. weing says:

    kulkarniravi,

    Many years ago, while in college, I studied, among other things, the sutras of Patanjali. I never found anything in there about ayurvedic medicine, except that some of the states achieved through practice could also be achieved through the use of drugs. If through its practice you induce a feeling of oneness with the universal intelligence and cognizance of the laws of nature. It is just a feeling that you have induced. It does not correspond to reality. It is an illusion, a modification of the mind, if you will. Yoga is actually the stopping of these modifications of the mind, as the first sutra says.

  87. Harriet Hall says:

    @kulkarniravi,
    ” How do you know the medicines that you prescribe work?”

    Because they have been tested using the scientific method and shown to work. If you don’t yet understand this principle, you have missed the whole point of science-based medicine and this blog.

  88. Harriet Hall says:

    @kulkarniravia,
    “Even though Yoga was described more than 2000 years ago, you will find that it is almost continuously in use. There have been numerous people who have studied Patanjali’s writings in depth and have written their own commentaries over the years. You don’t have to take me seriously, but Indian science and philosophy has its own depth and rigor.”

    Astrology was described even earlier, has been almost continuously in use, many people have studied it in depth and written their own commentaries, and it has its own depth and rigor. Nevertheless, it is fantasy.

    “I never said that people who developed ayurveda used yoga to develop it.” No, and I didn’t say you did. That’s not the point. You made the statement “it is possible to become one with the universal intelligence and thus become cognizant of the laws of nature.”and when I asked you how you knew your statement was true, you said you didn’t know if it was. It’s as if you said “X cures cancer” and I asked you how you knew X cures cancer and you answered “I don’t know if X cures cancer.”

    Your example of rats in mazes is a myth. The coincidences are easily explained. “Currently science only considers the five senses as legitimate vehicles of perception and refuses to consider other possibilities.” Science would gladly accept other possibilities if they were corroborated by any evidence. There is no evidence for other possibilities. If someone did perceive something in another way, science would still have to test whether the perception corresponded to reality.

  89. daedalus2u says:

    The problem is one of inconsistencies of the use of the term “belief”.

    In the Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy, the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything is 42. That cannot be a “scientific” answer because the question is unknown. One can have a belief that the ultimate answer is 42, but that cannot be a scientific belief because scientific answers are only valid when they are matched to scientific questions and supported by scientific facts and scientific reasoning.

    In science, for every answer you have to “show your work”, and be able to go back to ground facts (i.e. observational data) and valid logic. If you can’t do that, then you are not doing science, you are practicing belief.

    The statement 30 + 12 = 42 is not a belief, it is a statement of the consilience of the definitions of numbers, of addition, of equality and their inter-relationships.

    Each and every aspect of a scientific question and a scientific answer is subject to revision and correction if found to not match reality. Scientific answers are not “beliefs”, they are statements about the correspondence of the facts with reality and the validity of the logic that connects those facts together and with the conclusions that logically follow from those facts.

    I think it is true that many people want to have beliefs. Many people are unable to think in terms of a scientific reasoning that keeps all facts and their relationships tentative. They want to feel the illusory solidity of belief, even if it is false belief.

    Belief is about feeling that something is true. Because our feelings are unreliable we know we can’t trust our feelings that something is correct or not. I don’t “feel” that 30 + 12 = 42, I know that from the definitions of “30”, “+”, “12”, “=”, “42”, the symbol string represents a true statement, and will no matter what my feelings about it are.

    Feeling that one is a part of a universal intelligence is a feeling. It is no more reliable than any other feeling. If one was connected to a universal intelligence, that implies an ability to receive information from that universal intelligence (if not, then what does “connected” mean?). Do people who report feeling that way have access to increased information? No, they do not, as much as they report that they do, and no matter how much their followers believe that they do.

    K, rats and mice (and many other organisms, ants for example) are known to leave chemical trails that other conspecifics can detect and follow. Non-conspecifics often key on these trails too (for example birds of prey look at UV fluorescence of these trails) and cats track mice and rats by smell. Blood hounds are used to track people by smell.

  90. Harriet Hall says:

    Correction. I misread k’s maze example. It is not a myth; daedalus2u has offered an explanation. I thought k was talking about the mystical claim that once enough people knew something the knowledge would magically spread to others. I forget what that alleged phenomenon is called; but it is a myth.

  91. kulkarniravi says:

    Harriet,

    “Because they have been tested using the scientific method and shown to work. If you don’t yet understand this principle, you have missed the whole point of science-based medicine and this blog.”

    That’s what I have always objected to. You claim it is “science-based” and yet there are so many cracks in your foundation. As per your (and your colleagues here) own admission:

    1. There is a clear conflict of interest in how clinical trials are conducted. They are undertaken by the same party which stands to benefit hugely if the trials are successful.

    2. Drug manufacturers can and do falsify data to suit their purposes. They hide data that is against their interest. It has happened many times and continues to happen.

    3. FDA is a flawed organization for many reasons.

    4. The trials do not go long enough to consider the lifespan of an individual or generational impact due to progeny suffering from side effects.

    5. All demographics are not and can’t be taken into account.

    6. Individuals react uniquely to drugs and doctors do not have the tools to fully eliminate the chances that the drug could seriously harm a patient.

    7. Doctors do not always follow best guidelines.

    There are many more. Please note that I am referring to chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart ailments and cancer and not to infectious diseases or emergency care. I will give a lot of credit to modern medicine to getting these latter categories under control.

    So when you talk about science based medicine, you are touting something that is simply not scientific enough. The results are obvious when you look at the state of healthcare in the US.

    And yet you continue to believe in these drugs. So what does that say about your claims that you “know” they work?

  92. wales says:

    HH: A tardy response to your comment of yesterday. I wish I had as much time as I used to for engaging in longer discussions on this forum.

    In past discussions I have had about “probabilities” versus “possibilities” and the degree of uncertainty in scientific explanation, I have found most people on this forum to be entrenched at the “probabilities” end of the spectrum, focused on the improbability of things we don’t understand or for which the scientific toolbox is not yet comprehensive enough. One way to look at it is as a spectrum of types: Probabilians at one end and Possibilians (a term coined by neuroscientist David Eagleman) at the other. Probabilians emphasizing the knowns and Possibilians the unknowns. I find the discussions at the Possibilian end of the spectrum to be more interesting. As the technicians of an applied science, physicians are perhaps more pragmatic by nature and/or training. The practice of science requires both types of thought, but it is most likely a quirk of human personality to lean toward one end or the other, scientists and laypersons alike. I appreciate Eagleman’s comment to the effect that science takes us to the end of the pier, but the vast ocean of unknowns is out there.

    So many things that we take for granted on a daily basis are hugely improbable, from the probability that a chain 141 amino acids long would be a useable hemoglobin molecule to Roger Penrose’s calculation for the probability of the occurrence of a universe in which life can form…wildly improbable.

    What I meant by a larger perspective on science was what I have just described, as well as the perspective from various philosophers of science about the limits and meaning of science as a field of knowledge. Even the bedrock concepts of “scientific method” and “falsifiability” have their weaknesses and limits, not to mention the problems with induction mentioned by someone upthread, as well the problems with inference to the best explanation. Yet these concepts are repeated in this forum as some sort of mantra of ultimate truth. I didn’t realize that there were legitimate criticisms of these concepts until I began to read philosophy of science. I understand that the worker bees of science may need to put on blinders to focus their noses to the grindstone, but when we bemoan the problem of scientific illiteracy I think that philosophy of science should be included in the concept of scientific literacy.

  93. weing says:

    kulkarniravi,

    Just because a study is funded by a drug company, and not all of them are, doesn’t mean it should be discounted. Check out the PROVE-IT study, which BMS funded. It found that a competitors drug was superior to their own. They published it. We are well aware of the problems you mention, but I would disagree about the demographics comment and full elimination of risk of harm from a drug is impossible. You are looking for the perfect drug. Remember, perfect is the enemy of good.

  94. weing says:

    wales,

    I think it was Feynman who said that the philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.

  95. wales says:

    weing,

    I daresay Popper would disagree.

  96. kulkarniravi says:

    weing,

    I agree with your points – but at least stop making strong claims of “science-based” medicine when you have so many holes in your edifice.

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