We have the extraordinary evidence! (Part 2)

TAM talk 1Yesterday I published Part 1 of a reconstructed version of my TAM 2013 talk – presented to the 2013 instalment of The Amazing Meeting, organised by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). The version I’m providing here, though a reconstruction of what I said, should be close to what you’ll hear from me when the talk appears on YouTube. Today, I provide Part 2, which concludes the content of the talk. Having discussed the way our scientific picture of the world did not come intuitively, but had to be built up over hundreds of years, I go on to relate this to contemporary scientific skepticism and the concept of denialism.

For someone in 1513, many of the most basic claims in our scientifically-informed understanding would have been extraordinary. The reason why we now, quite rightly, accept them is because we actually have the extraordinary evidence, accumulated over hundreds of years. The reason is not that our modern understanding of the world is, prior to the evidence coming in, natural or intuitive, or because the old understanding of the world was inherently, prior to the evidence, counter-intuitive or bizarre.

When it comes to intuitiveness, or otherwise, don’t even start me on relativity theory or quantum mechanics. The universe opened up to our inspection by science is very strange indeed, in the sense that much of what we have learned goes against our natural intuitions. For example, Edward O. Wilson has this to say:

The ruling talismans of twentieth-century science, relativity and quantum mechanics, have become the ultimate in strangeness to the human mind. They were conceived by Albert Einstein, Max Planck, and other pioneers of theoretical physics during a search for quantifiable truths that would be known to extraterrestrials as well as to our species, and hence certifiably independent of the human mind. The physicists succeeded magnificently, but in doing so revealed the limitations of intuition unaided by mathematics; an understanding of nature, they discovered, comes very hard. … The cost of scientific advance is the humbling recognition that reality was not constructed to be easily grasped by the human mind.

Relativity and quantum mechanics are not for, say, primary school children. Still, there is an exciting story to tell about the advance of science, about how our scientific knowledge was hard won — even in the face of human intuitions. I think we should introduce our children to this story as early as possible in their education. We can always learn more about it ourselves.

I take scientific skepticism to be essentially skepticism about claims that educated people should now regard as extraordinary — not because they are inherently bizarre but because they are anomalous within our hard-won, scientifically-informed picture of the world.

Think again of reincarnation. If reincarnation were true, if reincarnation were a genuine phenomenon, this would force us to revise our whole picture of the world to find some mechanism whereby it takes place. That makes it an extraordinary claim, and that is a reason to investigate it in a spirit of suspicion.

By way of analogy, many people make claims that run counter to the evidence from humanistic scholarship. For example, many people will not accept that Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by Shakespeare (though the claim being denied was never an extraordinary one in this case). They claim the plays were written by, say, Christopher Marlowe, or Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford.

Others deny terrible historical events, such as the Holocaust. There was once a time when the claim that the Nazis murdered nearly six million Jews in their concentration camps should have been regarded with suspicion, especially since much in the way of false propaganda was spread about the Germans during the first world war. We should always be cautious about atrocity propaganda, especially from our own side.

But of course, we know that the Nazi Holocaust did take place. We have the extraordinary evidence for these horrific events, and we have it in much detail. Given the picture that was built up by investigators immediately after the second world war and by historians since, we actually have the extraordinary evidence needed to believe in the occurrence of something as vast and horrific as the Holocaust. Someone who now denies those events does not deserve to be called by the honourable title of skeptic. Such a person is in denial of evidence that we actually have. Such a person is a denialist.

Initially extraordinary claims that actually acquire extraordinary evidence thereby change our picture of the world, or our understandings of ourselves and our situation. Once that happens, what were once extraordinary claims become normalised. Once they are sufficiently well established, those once-extraordinary claims can be used in arguments against new claims that are inconsistent with them. All the cumulative evidence that supports such a claim stands as evidence against any inconsistent claim.

So — the rotation of the earth was once an extraordinary claim. The onus was on proponents to gather the evidence. Skepticism about the claim was rational and warranted – though of course suppression and punishment were not. But the evidence has been gathered. Someone who denied the claim now would not deserve the title “skeptic”: such a person would be a crank or a crackpot or a denialist (don’t ask me what the difference is!).

We have, in our society, evolution denialists, Holocaust denialists, climate change denialists, and denialists of many other important claims for which we have the evidence, however extraordinary the claims might have been when first made, against the background of what it was then rational and reasonable to believe. That is a distinction that our children need to be taught, just as they need to know how hard won our current, evidentially informed, picture of the world actually was. I don’t believe these things are well understood, even by most adults.

Let’s do more about that.

Thank you, friends and colleagues. And thank you, JREF!

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Photo by Jerry Coyne.

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10 Comments.

  1. Russell Blackford,

    “We have, in our society, evolution denialists, Holocaust denialists, climate change denialists,”

    The term “denialist” in conjunction with “climate change” is to discredit with possibly one of most disgusting associations that can be made.

    “and denialists of many other important claims for which we have the evidence,”

    When you say “we” Russell, you don’t mean the royal “we”, you’re going on faith that you’re not on the side of the kranks, and flat earthers, but somewhere there’s some men in white lab jackets, beavering over some apparatus, and you’re with them. Not with the idiots.

    You’re going on faith. Pure religious belief. You’ve just switched the priests.

    “however extraordinary the claims might have been when first made, against the background of what it was then rational and reasonable to believe.”

    The way beliefs are constructed is very complicated. Being rational and reasonable is no guarantee that you’re not believing absolute nonsense. Having a reason to believe or not believe something just means you have a reason. If you have a good reason not to believe something is true, you may simply decide it’s not true because it’s something you do not want to believe. Something unpalatable.

    Are we any less vulnerable to believing patent nonsense than we were 500 years ago. You have to also understand that the people 500 years ago who were the most strident defenders of the Catholic Church, were the same class of people that you will find running universities today. The “educated” – the cream of society – not the ignorant peasants with their folkish fortune tellers.

    Enlightenment atheists rejected religion, and embraced knowledge and reason. Salvation through revelation. Though instead of “divine” revelation, it’s “scientific” revelation.

    There is some desperation in the switch – a deep need for something. It’s like replacing an apple with an orange, and then claiming the orange is the true apple.

    If you were to think, through examining history, that the people of the past had strange and wrong ideas about the world, but that in our more enlightened age we’re somehow immune believing woo. No. We believe the same woo, just in different bottles. And just as it was in the time of Galileo, no one is immune, from the high to the low.

    “That is a distinction that our children need to be taught, just as they need to know how hard won our current, evidentially informed, picture of the world actually was.”

    What you’re saying is no different from a Catholic priest saying the Catholic religion must be drummed into the heads of children as the one true faith, and the must be told everything else is nonsense. Evil satanic heresies. Geocentrism denialists.

    “I don’t believe these things are well understood, even by most adults.”

    Most adults do not know why the sky is blue. It’s a question small children are curious about, but the majority of adults are too incurious to find out something that is so right in front of their face.

    Ask the typical neo-atheist, why the sky is blue, don’t let them cheat with wikipedia, and they won’t have an answer (or the correct answer).

  2. JMRC: “If you were to think, through examining history, that the people of the past had strange and wrong ideas about the world, but that in our more enlightened age we’re somehow immune believing woo. No. We believe the same woo, just in different bottles.”

    I think this idea is spot-on. One caveat, though: what counts as a good belief is a function of (1) what counts as good evidence and (2) what counts as good reasoning from evidence.

    In general among the educated, at least (1) is significantly less permissive today than it was 500 years ago.

    So, in that sense, we are better off.

    However, I think your point is still true. That raises the question of what is facilitating your ‘bottle-swapping’. I want to say that the problem is still somewhat with (1), but mostly with (2)–mostly with what we accept as good inferences from available evidence.

  3. I think that Dregs is right that (1) is significantly less permissive than it was 500 years ago, but yes, pride goeth before a fall and the pride of the new scientific elite about their superior knowledge can get irritating.

    Once upon a time you dressed so fine, as the song goes.

    Really great song: it should be required daily listening for oh so many people. I especially like the part that begins “you used to be so amused by Napoleon in rags and the language that he used…”

  4. “I think this idea is spot-on. One caveat, though: what counts as a good belief is a function of (1) what counts as good evidence and (2) what counts as good reasoning from evidence.

    In general among the educated, at least (1) is significantly less permissive today than it was 500 years ago.”

    What counts as good reasoning, what counts as good evidence. I think we still have the same problem that we had 500 years ago. When the priest, bishop, cardinal or pope said something, it was uncritically received. And within this there’s also a murky feedback that can reinforce the absurd. Some nun has a crazy dream about the Virgin Mary, and within a short time the nun’s dream becomes an article of faith.

    There are good reasons to believe science cannot fail in the same way – but I know for certain it can.

    Something I mentioned to Ben Nelson before. My physics lecturer in the course of a lecture on crystallography saying glass was a liquid. It’s a scientific wives tale. The original glass makers were sloppy and left pour marks on their glass. Scientist very erroneously presumed looking at old glass that it was flowing very slowly over time. It’s absurd as thinking the moon is made of cheese. It’s stranger and more absurd to state glass is not a crystal in the course of a lecture on crystallography.

    Now the claim occasionally makes an appearance in text books. There is some mechanism by which critical thought has been suspended, and this contradictory factoid finds its’ way through.

    I’m not sure. I think that like for the priests in the past, frequently the “evidence” that is uncritically accepted is the statement alone. The “evidence” is the status of the scientist.

    Back to glass. A book I’ve been reading recently, George Gamow’s Mr. Tompkins Inside Himself 1967. George Gamow was one of the great physicists of the 20th century. In the section he covers X-ray crystallography, he first says (through one of his characters) that glass is not a crystal – he doesn’t go as far as to call it a liquid, but he waves his hands as much to say it is. I’m not sure what was going through his head, but there seems to be a few more contortions – in relation to crystals, as if there’s some kind of cognitive dissonance happening, blocking the resolution of a contradiction. All solids are crystalline. This is something Gamov would know – but somehow he’s managed to maintain a contradictory belief that they are not.

    Gamov uncritically received an instruction that glass was a liquid somewhere in the past. He then repeats it in 1967. I can imagine that any physicists who read Gamov, believed the fact on the basis Gamov had said it. And that it appears in other science texts.

    But it’s interestingly wrong. Thinking glass is a liquid is counter intuitive – it obviously looks crystalline (because it is crystalline). For it not to be crystalline or for it to have the properties of a liquid, it would require glass to be unique form of matter – in that it behaved differently from all other solids – in terms of crystal structure it doesn’t.

    Also that Gamov, and thousands of students have performed X-ray crystallography on glass, maintaining a belief that it is a liquid should be impossible. But it obviously isn’t.

  5. Dregs,

    On Gamow’s Mr. Tompkins Inside Himself, again.

    It’s a book on the biology of the human body. At one point in the book, he has one of his characters step completely out of the realm of science and deliver an extremist eugenics diatribe. Our use of medicine, is supposedly, weakening the human race, as we are not allowing children with genetic defects die in childhood, but allowing them to reach maturity and reproduce. The end result, according to Gamov’s character, that in the future most of the human race will be sick, and the fit will have to give over their entire lives to looking after the ill.

    Now, I won’t go into the details of how Gamov is wrong. But his absurd nativity is also very dangerous. As Gamov is Gamov, the great scientist, his statement may be taken as fact – even by those who should know better.

    The NAZIS truly believed they were doing the human race a favour. They believed all this stuff. They believed the human race was degenerating and if they didn’t do something very radical to save it, then the earth would end up a dead rock floating through the void.

    It’s 1967, and Gamov the great scientist has seemed to have learned nothing from the recent past. But his apocalyptic neurosis appears as science fact – it appears as reason. The next logical and reasonable step is the gas chambers.

  6. The medieval Church kept the occult out of the mainstream and science coming out of that period had had a comprehensive view of the cosmos.

    E.O. Wilson is embroiled in two controversies, one with Richard Dawkins who believes in the individual gene or kin selection whereas Wilson believes in group selection. E.O.W. is quoted above referring to “the limits of intuition unaided by mathematics.” However, he has got mathematicians angry by advising science students that mathematics is not necessary.

    Since Deism; the separation of the infinite from the finite, nature appears to have gained in importance but it has also been devalued. Eternity is not seen in a grain of sand; instead humanity is seen in an anthill. There appears to be a tendency when the infinite is excluded to want to universalize the particular by extrapolating what is of value for one species as being of value for all species. However, E.O.W. is right in his understanding of the interdependence of everything.

    With so much excluded in Deism not surprising E.O.W. does not condone space exploration, and explanations have to be found in biology to explain the dimensions in human nature that are valued as uniquely human. But if they evolved in nature, it is not necessary that they devolve back into nature. E.O.W’s genetically determined group dynamic is fine for ants but not for humans. Resistance to ideologies that are not based on reality needs to be individually decided on and chosen, before being resisted through a community or group.

  7. “There is some desperation in the switch – a deep need for something. It’s like replacing an apple with an orange, and then claiming the orange is the true apple.”

    Actually, it’s like replacing an apple with an orange and then claiming the orange is the true orange. No, science is not just another religion. Yes, those who believe that science gives the best answers to all those big questions – or at least many of those big questions – doubtless derive many of the same emotional and psychological benefits from this belief as do the followers of the various religions from their beliefs. This is also more or less true of everyone’s personal philosophy whether they are actual philosophers, or scientists, the religious, atheists, or whether their beliefs are the products or great efforts and research or largely uncritical. This does not mean that these various beliefs are all so many versions of religion. They are not all equally valid. There’s still a difference between apples and oranges, and lets not confuse the two.

  8. climate change denialists, and denialists of many other important claims for which we have the evidence”
    Of which anthropogenic climate change is actually not one.

    Brother, take the beam from thine own eye.

    The denialists are the ones who are denying the evidence that actual temperature records are completely outside of any prediction made by the advocates of anthropogenic climate change.

    That climate changes and always has changed, has never in fact been denied by anyone at all. Even the most rabid creationist will adhere to Biblical flooding and sea level changes.

    The issue has always been what impact human activity had upon it, and the answer has always been ‘some, but not very much’

    IN this case, it is the AGW protagonists who are in denial.

    Do not confuse real science, with marketing. Daz does not wash whiter than white.

  9. What a lot of unevidenced assertions, JMRC. The thing is, you are not taking into account the exact point I make… that we actually do have 500 years of evidence for the scientific picture of the world. Will some of it change? Of course, we should expect that – but if so it will be from more hard, dedicated, rigorous work.

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