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Consider the Odds

Entry 1663, on 2014-07-02 at 20:39:08 (Rating 3, Skepticism)

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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Comment 17 (4092) by OJB on 2014-07-23 at 20:42:44: (view earlier comments)

Can I ask something? Were those two papers quoted on a creationist site because they fit the standard creationist style of lying perfectly. They in no way detract form the truth of evolution, just the way it works, but a superficial read through them seems to make evolution look doubtful. So whoever originally gathered them was either ignorant of dishonest... probably both. You're not stupid, surely you can see this?

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Comment 18 (4095) by richard on 2014-07-25 at 01:58:20:

Well I guess I did only tell you that the results are already out there for all to see - the best efforts of intelligent designers (scientists) to help the 'macro' process along and prove your case have all failed spectacularly, because for some unknown reason, species (note the word!) seem to self regulate. If YOU have evidence to the contrary, then by all means produce it.

Transitional Fossils on Google or Wikipedia. Hmm - did that (or similar sources available before them) too many years ago to recall. I prefer to head to the quite extensive reference sites you kindly provided earlier in Comment 6, which should be a much more persuasive account. Now don't get me wrong, that is a very nice article, and I respect alot of the information in there that provides the circumstantial case being made. I note it does does seem to be quite pre-occupied at times with finding examples of dissent from darwin to specifically respond to, (motivation?) rather than simply providing what should have been a perfectly persuasive case on it's own.

Don't you find it in the least bit remarkable though that from the entire transition from the pre-cambrian to today, one must go to great lengths to find such examples where there are a smattering of fossils that could possibly be considered transitional. The article even goes to length to try and suggest its fair to expect that the fossil record is (quote) 'demonstrably incomplete'. Or reminds us that some forms have unchanged for well over 100 million years. That's fair enough, but even granted this 'odd' yet additional demonstration of species stability as described above, it is not an account of why a far more complete transitional record should not be found in abundance.

Look, if common descent were true, it should not be observed in the record rather like us seeing only the seven distinct colours of the rainbow, when we know that a close examination of refracted white light contains the complete spectrum of wavelengths, and can observe this when we make the effort. Similarly the fossil record should contain examples of the full spectrum of changes - at least to a far far far higher degree of accuracy than it actually observed.

I understand you trying to minimise the implications of the molecular genetics results being found which cause upheavals in the pre-supposed phylogenic classifications. These are quotes from the original papers - from source that have nothing to do with 'sites that may doubt common descent' (as opposed to the creationist label you choose to wield purely for it's rhetorical force).

I do realise that individual examples do not necessarily cause a huge problem either way (for either view) in themselves, but the point was simply that this problem is only getting worse, as more and more of these are appearing and only time will tell what the end result will be for the theory. Cheers.

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Comment 19 (4098) by OJB on 2014-07-25 at 11:09:41:

You are still avoiding the question. I will ask yet again (4th time?): what is to stop many small changes (so called micro-evolution) over a long time period leading to big changes (macro-evolution)? If you have no answer please just say so, but I think this is a critical point in this discussion.

So you completely dismiss the lists of transitional fossils with some irrelevance. Really?

To the uninformed, the so-called lack of transitional fossils might seem odd but remember that only a tiny fraction of living things ever fossilise. Also remember that "transitional fossils" isn't a particularly helpful term because every living thing is transitional. Can I also suggest that your reluctance to accept the science on this is just an example of the fallacy of argument from personal incredulity?

So I take it from your comment that those papers did come from creationist sites! Can I suggest that by sourcing information from there you aren't genuinely trying to get a balanced view?

The problem (which doesn't exist) isn't getting worse at all (except on creationist sites). There is no debate in science. Evolution is a fact.

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Comment 20 (4099) by Anonymous on 2014-07-25 at 11:30:45:

OJB is being unfair here. Can he not see that there is a question to be answered and that creationism or ID is a reasonable attempt at answering it? Being close-minded about alternatives is doing what he says his opponents do. Ironic much?

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Comment 21 (4100) by OJB on 2014-07-25 at 11:54:16:

I don't think I am. I realise there are many questions to be answered but that doesn't mean that I need to accept answers based on superstition which have been discredited many years ago. The problem that I see is that creationism/ID was a possible answer to origin questions but has been shown to be false through scientific testing. It's time to move on to other possibilities but creationists just can't accept this.

If creationist had anything new instead of just parroting the same old lies (there are no transitional fossils, something can't come form nothing, etc) I would take their ideas seriously. Until then I treat creationism with the contempt it deserves. I don't mean to be unkind to people like Richard but unfortunately sometimes criticism of the idea can extend to criticism of the person holding that idea too.

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