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Consider the Odds

When I debate people who believe in superstitious and pseudoscientific stuff there are a few fundamental flaws in their reasoning process I see over and over again. It doesn’t matter what the origin of the particular belief is, the reasoning tends to be the same. And it’s not necessarily that the errors they make are completely outrageous and obvious, in fact they obviously aren’t or I guess they wouldn’t be making them!

So what are these errors? They tend to reduce to poor handling of probability questions. Evaluating probability is important because, as I have often said in this blog, we can never be 100% certain about anything in the real world. Since nothing is ever totally certain when evaluating truth claims (and absolute truth claims should never really exist) it all gets back to evaluating chances.

Let’s look at some examples…

1. I’m not totally certain that evolution is the true explanation for the diversity of life on Earth but I am very confident that it is, and anyone who really looks at all the evidence fairly should reach the same conclusion. And I know that the origin of life is unknown and might always be uncertain because it happened billions of years ago and produced no fossils, but there are extremely viable theories which fit in with existing science so I see no reason to doubt them.

2. I’m not totally certain that global climate change is true and that humans are the major cause of it, but I am quite confident that it is (not quite as sure as I am of evolution but still quite confident).

3. I’m not totally sure that there is no need for a supernatural element to be introduced to explain all of the phenomena we see in the universe but currently there is insufficient reason to doubt conventional physical processes so that’s what I use as my working theory.

Note that it’s necessary to look at all the evidence and treat it all with the respect it deserves (and that will vary depending on its source) before deciding what the conclusion should be. If I wanted to pick and choose the evidence I could find “proof” for absolutely anything, and yes, that includes a flat Earth, alien reptile overlords… anything!

Climate change deniers are great at this, and because climate change is one of the least well proven theories it is even easier. But if you are convinced by the negative evidence try this: forget what you think you already know and do some searches for evidence using neutral phrases. Make a note of the evidence for and against and do take the credibility of the source into account.

Note the critical phrase here: “forget what you think you already know”. That’s the key because the underlying cause of the phenomenon I have already described is arriving at the conclusion before looking at the evidence.

And that is the real problem even though most people deny it. Obviously if biased people admitted that bias it wouldn’t be as strong, but it is always there, and that does include rational skeptics like me. I admit I assume the conventional scientific explanation is correct before I go looking but I make a real effort to look at the contrary evidence as well.

The advantage I have is that being a skeptic and science supporter I have no emotional attachment to any particular idea. People who deny science almost always have a political, religious, or some other irrational belief which leads them to that conclusion.

It’s fair enough to retain some degree of doubt over any idea. As I indicated above, I’m not totally sure about any scientific theory, but if I wanted to present a credible alternative to an established scientific theory I would need really good evidence. And cherry picking evidence from established opponents of mainstream science really isn’t good enough because these people’s ideas are generally well known to the community and have already been found lacking.

So if you want to disprove climate change don’t go quoting the ideas from a Canadian gardener (as one opponent of mine did) and if you want to disprove evolution don’t quote completely discredited pseudoscience from a religious site, and if you want to reject the findings of neuroscientists regarding the current scientific theories of mind don’t quote the musings of a retired philosopher.

We’ve heard it all before, OK? It wasn’t convincing when these points were first made and it is no more convincing now. Repeating the same discredited points over and over doesn’t make them more credible, it makes the person making them less!

So yes, I agree there are people who have alternative theories to evolution, there are some fairly credible people who doubt climate change, and there are some who think dualism has some merit, but look at these ideas on balance. Assign a probability to them. When almost every expert in the field and every expert in unrelated fields agrees something is probably true you should take notice even if you can find a few contrary opinions. The majority of experts aren’t always right but that is always the best way to bet!

If you still disagree with me then try this: think of an idea that you think is very unlikely to be true but isn’t totally crazy. For example, if you are a Christian then try Islam. Now do some research on evidence which is claimed to support this idea while ignoring the counter-evidence. Quite convincing, isn’t it? But you know it’s not true (or very unlikely to be) because you know you’re only getting one side of the story, right? Well that’s exactly how a neutral observer sees your claims.

The so-called evidence for Islam looks exactly like the so-called evidence for Christianity to a neutral observer like an atheist. You know the Muslims are deluded. Is there any chance that you are deluded in exactly the same way?

Think about it. And consider the odds.

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