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Truth Claims

Entry 1616, on 2014-01-08 at 14:01:08 (Rating 4, Skepticism)

There is a series of steps which scientists generally go through when they are discovering new things about the real world. You might call it "the scientific process" or you might just call it "common sense". It involves creating a hypothesis to explain a phenomenon, thinking of a way to test that hypothesis which minimises possible errors and baises, publishing the methodology and results, checking the outcome against what was expected, deciding whether the hypothesis is supported or rejected and possibly modifying it, having other experts repeat the experiment, eventually accepting the hypothesis as a theory if it passes enough tests, and continually checking even accepted theories against new evidence.

As I said, this is really just common sense as much as anything particularly deep or complex. Anyone can invent a potential explanation for something but without testing it to see if it is true there is really little point. And unless the test is clear and unbiased and can be repeated by anyone with sufficient expertise then it is flawed because the developer of the original hypothesis might have a conscious or unconscious bias towards it.

I would challenge anyone whether they support science or not to formulate a better way to establish what is real and what isn't. Actually, it's really quite simple: there is no better way. But if that's the case, why do so few non-scientists use this methodology as a basis for their claims about reality? There are two reasons: First, they are too lazy, ignorant, or unskilled; and second, they don't actually want to know the truth, they just want their idea to be accepted.

So now that all the introductory ranting has been set aside, let's move on to some specific examples...

1. Alternative medicine. There are thousands of different herbal and other "natural" remedies available but very few of them have ever been properly tested. It's like the supporter of the remedy has created the hypothesis that the herb has some sort of effect but has never bothered testing it. They get stuck at the first step. And in the unlikely event they have done some testing it's usually anecdotal and totally biased. When thorough testing is done (usually by scientists rather than natural remedy proponents) the results are almost always negative. After looking at the facts I am convinced that 90% (maybe 99%) of natural remedies do nothing useful.

2. Other traditional and alternative treatments. The same applies to homeopathy (a ridiculous initial hypothesis with no scientific basis, very little credible testing, and many negative results) which is undoubtedly ineffective. And I am increasingly thinking that acupuncture is the same. This has had more of a mixed history of results but the overall conclusion seems to be that it does nothing.

3. ESP, psychics, water divining, etc. These things are easy to test but again the proponents of them mainly have failed to do any. Yet when scientific testing is done the results are again mostly negative. Occasionally an anomalous result occurs but disappears when the experiment is repeated (having other experts repeat experiments usually eliminates subtle errors and biases). So it's clear that none of this stuff is real despite the fact that many people think it is.

4. Religion (yes that had to be on my list of targets, didn't it). Most religious people don't even try to support their ideas using any sort of rigorous methodology. They seem to be happy with faith, which is really just a way of saying that they believe something (and it could be anything because if you have faith anything can be true) for no good reason at all. But again, when real scientific results negate the faith-based ideas they just go into denial.

So what's the real problem here? It's that none of these ideas have been tested, or if they have been tested the results have been ignored. And that's OK, as long as you don't make a truth claim.

You can use natural remedies but don't expect to get better, and never encourage anyone to use them instead of real treatments. You can use homeopathy and acupuncture but any positive outcome will be because of placebo, and again they are not an alternative to actual treatment. If you want to believe in psychics that's fine, but don't try to do anything useful with the results, such as solving crimes or finding missing people. And believe whatever religion you like, but what you believe isn't true so don't expect to use your fantasy to affect social policy.

If you do want to use these for anything serious do the testing first and show they're true. Just refer to the methodology at the beginning of this post.


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