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White Lies

Entry 1581, on 2013-10-21 at 20:06:09 (Rating 3, Comments)

Is it OK to embellish the truth, or exaggerate reality, or ignore inconvenient data contrary to your preferred position, for the greater good? In the past I would have said no, that is not appropriate under any circumstances, and I have tried to present what I see as the facts with all the appropriate disclaimers. But after listening to a couple of podcasts on the subject, and being involved with an actual potential instance, I am beginning to think otherwise.

In a formal environment, such as a scientific paper, there must always be total truth. For example if the scientific data only shows climate change can be attributed to human activity with 95% certainty then that is what must be stated. But in informal and political discussions I think it might be OK to say that human activity is certainly the cause of climate change.

It is also OK to say that evolution is a fact and that the theory of evolution explains the mechanism extremely accurately. And it is OK to say that the Apollo Moon missions were real, and that secret elements of the US government were not behind the 9/11 attacks, and that the Loch Ness monster doesn't exist, and that there is a conventional explanation for UFO phenomena.

None of these statements are strictly true, but neither is this one: the Sun will rise tomorrow just like it always has. We should more accurately say that according to the experience of millennia and our best understanding of solar physics, the Sun will rise as usual tomorrow, but there is a small chance it might be affected by a passing black hole or it might become unstable. But no one plans their day around the tiny chance that the Sun might not continue to shine as expected which makes the absolute statement that it will good enough.

Now I agree that the phenomenon of the Sun behaving normally has a greater chance of being accurate than any of those other cases I mentioned above, but that just makes this an argument around where to draw the line. Nothing, absolutely nothing, about the real world can be known with 100% certainty so unless we are going to stop making absolute statements completely there has to be a cut-off point where a percentage chance is thought of as being close enough to 100%.

Where that point is will depend partly on the subjective opinions of the person making the statement and it doesn't so much matter where that point is as much as it should be consistent. So libertarians who deny the reality of global warming should also deny their own political philosophy which has far greater uncertainty. And creationists who deny evolution should never be certain about the myths and dogma of their church which have almost no supporting evidence. And people who think the 9/11 attacks were caused by secret American government elements should also wonder whether their own beliefs are the result of a secret propaganda campaign.

That's what being a rational, skeptical person is all about, but by doing that you will be at a disadvantage to those who make absolute statements. Most people respond more to simple, direct statements. They find a statement from deniers that "climate change has always happened without human activity and there is no evidence that this time is any different" (which is simple but untrue) easier to relate to than "according to the majority of experts there is a 95% chance that global warming is primarily caused by human activity". The less certain statement is true but sounds more evasive and uncertain to many people.

According to a veteran of science communication who was interviewed in one podcast we should be saying that climate change is real and caused by humans because most people think in absolutes and by that standard the statement is true. And saying that evolution is a fact is true because if evolution isn't a fact then nothing is. There are few (if any) phenomenon in the real world that I can think of with better support. If evolution might be untrue then so might gravity and I invite the denier to jump off the top of a tall building to test this uncertainty.

The problem is that after some consideration I just can't force myself to do it. Look back through this blog and you will see many instances where I have qualified a statement with an estimate of uncertainty, or a warning that nothing can be known with certainty, or that the essential truth of a theory might be modified in the future to give greater accuracy without changing the underlying idea.

According to some people that makes my arguments less convincing but I have to do what I think is right, even if it is less effective in some ways. A similar case applies in the atheism versus religion debate - but that is a subject for another blog entry.

A final point, in a similar way to the previous blog entry I again sound fairly arrogant, because I'm saying that I have the moral strength to tell the real truth where my opponents don't. Yeah, well, I think most people from the "reality based community" would say that there's an about 95% chance that is true... but we can never be sure!

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Comment 19 (3681) by OJB on 2013-11-06 at 12:34:41: (view earlier comments)

Please Richard, do yourself a favour and just admit you are wrong. If you want to reject evolution because of your religious faith then fine, do that. But please stop pretending that this is anything other than science denial!

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Comment 20 (3682) by Anonymous on 2013-11-07 at 15:54:45: What happened to Richard?

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Comment 21 (3683) by Richard on 2013-11-07 at 21:41:12:

LOL - Still here - I do have a life, so am certainly not hanging on Owens every unkind word. Look, I am happy for you to 'enjoy' (or pity LOL) what you state is my total mis-understanding of reality wrt this topic, but please - both your language and the language used consistently in the articles you cite shows the very typical tactic of those who are not prepared to act reasonably and with respect, not to mention unscientifically and inconsistently.

Firstly, you repeatedly insist (in this post and others) on stating that I must believe this nonsense on religious grounds, when you know that I have explained many times that this is not the case. If anything, it's the reverse, i.e. that my own assessment of the lack of sound evidence for atheism in the real world, that leads to my other 'world-view'. (noting the other post). Now sure, I get that you disagree - fine. I also understand that you may believe that even my assertion above is somehow 'a sad delusion' on my part. You couldn't do that though, without having to accept the same possibility that the very same delusion occurs for you - that your 'world-view' clouds your ability to assess the evidence. I have never ever stooped to that - and am not doing it now and I would ask you not to either.

Besides, it is a lack of understanding on your part that assumes that this even has any bearing on the case for or against the arguments being discussed. If it does, then I am completely justified in dismissing the first article you cited above purely because it was published by the Skeptics Society. They just must be deluded because they are skeptics, or maybe are from New York. No - of course not. I am not guilty of that folly, yet you ask readers to think like that all the time when you employ this sad tactic.

Readers (including anonymous), should look carefully at the 'non scientific' text used in both the above articles. Shame they don't seem to understand some basic principles in reason/ argument.

1) Simply asserting something (or citing that someone else asserts something) does not affect the case for (or against) a claim. This is all these articles do. We already know that there are scientists who disagree on all sorts of details in this area, so simply stating an assertion does little to help. What is only useful is when the experimental data and evidence that these scientists used to draw their conclusions is presented clearly so that people can make up their own minds.

2) Name-calling doesn't help find the truth either. You and both articles just can't help yourself, dropping in all the key creationist buzzwords simply for their rhetorical 'power' in spite of the fact that you should know better, that only the data and the arguments drawn from that data are of any relevance. It's such a common tactic that it should make readers suspicious, as it is usually only used when backed into a corner and when there is in fact trouble with the evidence and data in defending the case. This is simply intellectual bullying and readers should feel either intellectually ashamed for their mis-understanding in thinking this type of tactic holds any weight, OR they should feel intellectually insulted that they are being treated as if they do have that lack of reasoning power, and are being manipulated in this way.

By all means dispute Meyers arguments and conclusions, but it is simply bad science do do so by claiming he fails simply because he 'isn't a paleontologist or molecular biologist' as Prothero does. You don't need to be these things in order to be skilled at extracting the current research published BY all these various scientists and demonstrating inconsistencies and 'doubts' in the data. Speaking of inconsistency...

3) Inconsistency doesn't help your case either; After claiming he is unqualified, Cook then states he 'skillfully sews together the trappings of science', and writes in a 'seemingly serious and reasonable manner' - What on earth justifies 'seemingly' - he either does all that or he doesn't! Clearly he does use skill, and write in a serious and reasonable manner, or Cook wouldn't have even mentioned it. No it betrays Cooks motivation, as he then resorts back (as he started) to the same mis-representation and name calling and mis-representation re an attack on science.

Remember (once again), a hypothesis of intelligence on it's own, is not an attack on science, IF there is some evidence to suggest the possibility. Fine if people disagree on the evidence for that, but to claim it not science is on the basis of a decision to discount a possibility for which we can (by defintion) have no 'scientific' basis to do so is clearly unsound. This is far worse than the so called 'God of the Gaps' argument, (which is NOT justified btw) because it limits the ability of science to go anywhere where the evidence leads. ID may well indeed be completely wrong, but in that particular respect it is more behaving with more scientific and intellectual honesty!

I will be happy to admit that I am wrong on evolution, when I see some 'real' evidence that is not based on circular reasoning. i.e. IF matter is really all there is then sure I agree, evolution is the best explanation available so far, and ONLY THEN can the fossil record evidence that does appear to suggest evolution be justifiably interpreted in it's favour. But you can't use that to assert evolution on that basis because similarities in fossil structure (and even in DNA sequences) are also perfectly well explained by a design hypothesis. There are also serious limitations and contradictions in the fossil evidence that you shouldn't expect to find if evo were true, and the evidence there is does nothing to disqualify the opposing hypothesis of intelligence on it's own merit. No, that is only rejected on the basis of a philosophical objection, not a scientific one. Hence the ongoing debate.

This post is also now well away from the original topic, so once again I will leave you with the last word. As always an enjoyable exchange. Am still happy to bear the brunt of your 'enjoyment' Owen - if only it could always be more respectful. I'm a sucker for punishment though. Cheers, Richard.

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Comment 22 (3684) by Richard on 2013-11-07 at 22:05:53:

Hoping to slip this in before you reply - so you still have the last word! Where I accidentally wrote mis-representation twice back there (LOL) I meant to provide the example. It is NOT the case that ID is 'automatically' attributing' anything that cannot easily explained by science, to supernatural causes' as Prothero wrongly asserts. Nowhere does ID assert that anything we don't know about must be done by intelligence. That's rubbish and unfair. The whole point of ID, is looking at what we observe about what we already know are intelligently caused artifacts in the world, and then assessing whether the same principles could apply to artifacts that have similar properties, for which we do not know the cause i.e. this is usually related to 'specific complexity'. There is absolutely nothing automatic about that process. Shame on him.

Did readers note too the clear admission by Prothero (an expert you will remember) that the area of discussion in Meyers book is (and I quote) 'not clearly explained by science'.

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Comment 23 (3685) by OJB on 2013-11-07 at 23:41:59:

I think you are an intelligent person Richard, and I have shown you a lot about the background of the Discovery Institute and of the Intelligent Design movement. If you still can't see how fake it all is then there must be something stopping you from facing the facts. Given the subject under discussion a religious belief seems the most likely candidate.

The article in the Skeptic magazine was written by a very well-known expert paleontologist. That was the point. Where it was published is irrelevant.

I can't totally follow all your arguments so I think I should summarise by stating the following points...

1. The Discovery Institute is a conservative Christian think-tank and has no scientific credibility at all. They do no research and produce no papers for respected journals. Anything presented there has no relevance to science.

2. Intelligent Design has had a small element of science in the past with the original papers which were quickly discredited. Since then it is simply a political ploy to try to force teaching of creationism in American schools. This is recognised in the list of scientific organisations who reject it on those grounds.

3. I tried not to insult you, but I didn't hesitate to insult the Discovery Institute. Anyone who deliberately lies and cheats just to force their own religious views on others deserves no respect.

4. If ID was presented as a serious scientific idea with fully testable hypotheses instead of being just a political tool, science would be happy to accept it and test it. But pretending that the current form of ID is a real scientific theory is just a way to make it look like there is debate where there really isn't any.

5. In fact the fossil and molecular evidence doesn't indicate design at all. There are numerous errors, many extinctions, inefficient structures, etc. If there was any design involved it sure must have been really, really bad design! So bad in fact that it is indistinguishable from random mutation! And these "serious limitations and contradictions" only exist in your religious propaganda.

Thanks for the discussion. I really don't know what would convince someone like you that you are wrong. If every respected scientific organisation rejects something and you still think it's real science then I think maybe there is no hope.

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