The Bullshit Guide to Bullshit part 4

Stephen Law has taken the trouble to comment on my blogs and so I\’ll try and cut to the chase. These are the other things that really annoyed me in the article I\’ve been moaning about [New Scientist 11 June 2011, p 28].
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1. Here\’s one warning that puzzled me: \”You should be suspicious when people pile up anecdotes in favour of their pet theory…\” Why? Anecdotes are where you start. Anecdotes said that elephants could mysteriously find each other across hundreds of miles of savannah… woo woo. Many people dismissed these anecdotes as coincidence – but then investigation showed the elephants were communicating via infrasound. I like this because nobody had thought to check for sounds too low for us to hear. I suspect a lot of the things currently classed under whacky-woowoo-bullshit paranormal will eventually yield to this kind of imaginative investigation.
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They won\’t, of course, if the people who are most able to find out what\’s really going are so busy dismissing the anecdotes with shoddy old lawyer tricks that they never actually take a proper look at them.
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2. \”Of course… comments such as: \’Not being able to prove the existence of something does not disprove its existence. Much is yet to be discovered.\’… [this is] just a smokescreen…\”
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Or put more pithily, \’absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.\’ Absence of evidence is certainly a circumstantial hint that something may not exist. The fact that nobody found any evidence for the famous Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction, is a heavy hint that they didn\’t exist.
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However it is not just a smokescreen to say \’much is yet to be discovered.\’ It\’s a painful truth. At the moment, astrophysicists have mislaid 96% of the universe. They\’ve taken to calling this missing 96% by exciting and romantic names like dark matter and dark energy, for which they have so far been unable to find any hard evidence whatsoever (but absence of evidence is not… Whoops. That\’s what heathen smokescreening New Agers say.)
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Tell you what. When you\’ve found the missing 96% of the universe, then you\’re entitled to tell me I\’m using mystery as a carpet under which to sweep inconvenient facts, thus laying myself open to deceit.
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I suspect that Stephen Law and I are essentially on the same side, but that while I have immense respect for the scientific method that shows us the empirically real world, I have none of his tolerance for the increasingly dogmatic scientism of the modern collective institution known as Science.
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The current scientific paradigm is effective and powerful and in deep theoretical dogshit. The two outstanding theories of physics, Quantum Physics and Relativity, both confirmed experimentally in hundreds of different ways, will not talk to each other. Anomalies are piling up, particle zoos proliferate, Higgs bosons behave like Boojums and 96% of the universe just won\’t.. um… appear. Theoretical physicists seem to be sunk in a cerebral multiverse of elaborate (untestable) mathematical theology.
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This is exactly the state the Aristotelian paradigm was in, epi-epicycles and all, when the Pope commissioned Copernicus to try and tidy it all up. The church then spent another 400 odd years trying to suppress his whacky solution.
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We need some whacky woo woo thinking, frankly, followed by hard-eyed rigorous experiment. Stephen Law may never have heard the ancient story of the Treasure in the Dungheap, but he should check it out. In the big heap of steaming bullshit that is New Age thinking, may lie the hidden jewels that will give an open-minded genius that vital clue to a revolutionary new paradigm.
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All of us – not just scientists and philosophers – desperately need it.

13 June 2011

The Bullshit Guide to Bullshit pt 3

\”Q: You identify some strategies people use to defend black hole beliefs. Tell me about one of them – \’playing the mystery card.\’
A: This involves appealing to mystery to get out of intellectual hot water when someone is, say, propounding paranormal beliefs. They might say something like: \’Ah but this is beyond the ability of science and reason to decide.You, Mr Clever Dick Scientist, are guilty of scientism, of assuming science can answer every question.\’ This is often followed by that quote from Shakespeare\’s Hamlet: \’There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy\’. When you hear that, alarm bells should go off.\”
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We\’re looking at another rhetorical trick here, apart from the ever-popular guilt by association (vide \’playing the mystery card\’ – ah, they\’re just card-sharps you see…) While he attributes childish insults to the wicked heathen propounders of the paranormal (Mr Clever Dick Scientist), Stephen Law is in a bit of trouble here. There are indeed questions science can\’t answer. It is indeed scientism to claim that it can.
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Famously, science can answer questions about \’what\’ and \’how?\’ Generally, it\’s much less good at answering the question \’why?\’ Normally philosophy does that.
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Most obviously, science really can\’t answer questions like \’why is there something rather than nothing?\’ or \’is there actually some kind of God?\’ These questions are not falsifiable. You can\’t run experiments. Any argument you can come up with that\’s pro-God can be answered by another one that\’s anti. And frankly these are boring questions in a scientific context. Science has more interesting and answerable questions to deal with such as \’what went on 13.4 billion years ago and how did galaxies happen?\’ – though as a slightly embarassed article in the same issue explains [Mystery of the Pristine Spirals p 32], everybody\’s suddenly got a bit less sure of the answer due to new data. But that\’s science for you. Always (and rightly) changing its collective mind in the light of new data.
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Rather than deal with the fact that these are perfectly reasonable points to make, Law swings the argument sideways into the question of how much does science as a philosophy actually know for sure. The answer to that is, happily, not as much as it likes to think. There are indeed more things in heaven and earth than we are currently dreaming of.
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By crashing together two separate points about what questions can science answer and how much do we actually know, Law is really avoiding both of them. That\’s what should make your alarm bells sound.

The Bullshit Guide to Bullshit cont\’d

\”Q: But isn\’t one person\’s claptrap another\’s truth?
A: There\’s a belief system about water to which we all sign up: it freezes at 0deg C and boils at 100 deg C. We are powerfully wedded to this but that doesn\’t make it an intellectual black hole. That\’s because these beliefs are genuinely reasonable. Beliefs at the core of intellectual black holes aren\’t reasonable. They merely appear so to those trapped inside.\”
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Those poor deluded people who got swallowed by the Demon – their beliefs are heresy. Ours are right and pure…
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Oh sainted Sir Isaac preserve me. Water (hydrogen dioxide), at a certain temperature, undergoes a very interesting, not completely understood phase transition and becomes solid. If you apply heat to it, eventually it will undergo a better understood transition to a gas. For convenience we call these temperatures 0 deg C – freezing – and 100 deg C – boiling. We could easily call them something else like 32 deg Fahrenheit for freezing or 250 deg Blarkx for boiling.
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That water does this is a fact not a belief system. What numbers we give the temperatures are conventions. We don\’t sign up to it because nobody is giving out forms. If you don\’t get the water hot enough it won\’t boil and that\’s that. We can test it any time we like and get totally unambiguous results.
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What\’s happening here is another ancient rhetorical dodge called Comparing Chalk and Cheese. The chemistry of water is quite well understood (though with some interesting holes). Homeopathy, psychic powers and alien abductions are (to put it mildly) ambiguous, hard to explore and prone to all sorts of self-deluding failures of thought and observation. Calling them both belief-systems is so thundering a category error it\’s got to be deliberate.
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With friends like this, science doesn\’t need enemies.

The Bullshit Guide to Bullshit

I\’ve always loved reading New Scientist so it breaks my heart to have to say this, but recent issues have been dire. Dull, poorly thought out, worst of all, dogmatic. And it particularly annoys me to see them using lame rhetorical tricks and bad logic against the people they see as their Heathen enemy – the New Agers. For Pete\’s sake, if you\’re going to act like the 17th century Papacy, do it properly. Science is worthy of better defenders.
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What\’s brought on this particular rant is their Opinion Interview this week [11 June] \”The plain person\’s guide to bullshit.\” It features \’philosopher\’ Stephen Law of Heythrop College, University of London, who has a tough but soulful look that will probably get him a TV career so long as he hasn\’t got a squeaky voice.
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Just for fun, I\’m going to go through this piece and identify the old dodges and missed opportunities.
\”Q; you describe your new book \’Believing Bullshit\’ as a guide to avoid getting sucked into \”intellectual black holes\”. What are they?
A: Intellectual black holes are belief systems that draw people in and hold them captive so they become willing slaves of claptrap. Belief in homeopathy, psychic powers, alien abductions… As you approach them, you need to be on your guard because if you get sucked in, it can be extremely difficult to think your way clear again.\”
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Ooh. Scary. This is a rhetorical trick known as Give A Dog A Bad Name. You identify your enemy as something Evil. Then you warn the faithful against investigating on the grounds that they might be sucked in by the Demon/Black Hole and never escape its clutches.
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What you haven\’t done is shown any reason for people not to believe in homeopathy etc. You\’ve just shouted Bad! Keep away! What you should do if you\’re a scientist is cite the double blind trials and animal experiments (to exclude placebo effects) which show how little effect the treatment has.
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If there haven\’t been any properly conducted experiments, then you organise some. That\’s what science does. It\’s not a bloody belief system, it\’s a marvellously effective mental tool for exploring reality which always starts with an anomaly, something that doesn\’t fit. Maybe homeopathy is that anomaly. More likely it\’s a brilliant way of mobilising the immune system of believers through the placebo effect. You don\’t know until you test it properly.
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Only dogmas need to use the Give A Dog A Bad Name ploy.