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These Are Just Heuristics

Entry 2025, on 2020-01-31 at 13:20:27 (Rating 3, Skepticism)

There is a lot of BS out there. Some of it is obvious, and some is far more subtle. In fact, some of the things I think are BS probably aren't, because I might be missing some subtle detail, or might be biased against a particular idea. In fact that is probably inevitable for everyone, including me.

Judging what is real and what is BS can be really difficult, and many people don't have the time to do a proper analysis. Also, whatever evidence can be produced either for or against an idea, can later be overturned by better evidence which contradicts it, so even a thorough analysis is often not helpful.

So what is the solution? After all, we do want to be able to identify fake news, false ideas, fantasies, myths, and other forms of BS, don't we? Well yes, I think we should try to separate fantasy from reality as much as possible, and because we can't practically do a thorough analysis of every idea I suggest we use some simple heuristics instead.

So here is my list of heuristics which might help in separating fact from fiction...

1. Trust the consensus, but not too much. I do need to expand on this, because it's important to identify who has the right to establish a consensus on a subject. Groups with obvious biases or lack of exertise should not be a trusted source, but other groups with lesser bias (because no one has none) and who specialise in the relevant field should be trusted more.

Note the "not too much" part of what I said though, because no consensus guarantees absolute truth, and errors do sneak in, and conventional beliefs can he hard to overturn. When there is a need for a new paradigm, generally there will be a significant and increasing group of experts who break away from the consensus, and this often indicates a major change ahead.

Here's an example of this. It's the most obvious example, but I need to mention it here because it illustrates the idea well. It is our old friend climate change.

There is undoubtedly a strong and increasing consensus amongst experts on this subject. Specifically there is good agreement that climate change is real, and that it is primarily caused by human activity. The agreement amongst climate experts is very strong (the percentage agreement is in the high 90s) and among lesser experts (such as scientists who aren't climate experts) it also seems high (in the mid 90s).

Note that rebelling against the consensus is OK, but anyone doing that should have a very good reason to do it. The evidence an individual should have when rejecting the vast majority of experts should be incredibly strong, but in the real world it is almost always really poor.

Finally, note that I am talking about the science of climate change here, not the politics. You can reject the opinion of environmentalists and green party members without too much consideration, because they are (mostly) non-experts with an obvious bias, but don't reject the huge body of evidence in real scientific papers.

2. Avoid mainstream media, or at least examine their claims in other sources. In general the MSM do try to have some degree of accuracy, but repeated experience has shown me (see my blog post, titled "Gell-Mann Amnesia" from 2019-06-18) that they often fail, either through incompetence, laziness, or bias.

The internet can be a great help here, as well as a common source of mistruth here! Use web sites, blogs, or podcasts which are run by skeptical experts, or look at original scientific papers if you have sufficient experience to do that. When I do this I find that almost every article in the MSM is either hopelessly simplified, one-sided, or just wrong.

3. Generally distrust information which tells you what you want to believe. Don't reject it completely and permanently, but be more skeptical of sources which you agree with. This is the exact opposite of what most people do, but it is just too easy to find some information you like, and to believe that rather than questioning it.

There's a classic phrase in skepticism: "the easiest person to fool is yourself". This is often attributed to Richard Feynman, so what other recommendation do you need? (see my blog post, titled "Fantastic Feynman" from 2015-10-21).

4. Look at what the skeptical investigators have discovered. This is a bit dangerous, because the label "skeptic" has been misappropriated by various groups. For example, some climate change deniers label themselves climate change skeptics. I'm not denying that genuine climate change skeptics exist, but the majority should not be using that label. Modern skepticism (as opposed to the classic philosophical view) is not about rejecting everything, it is about questioning and investigating all claims.

Here's an example of where skeptics can help. If you think psychics are real have a look at the work of people who are skeptical of this idea, and see what they have done. A skilled skeptic can reproduce all of the impressive results psychics get without resorting to magical or paranormal explanations. They just use common tricks which many magicians and illusionists already know. In fact, when these tricks are used the results are often more impressive that those produced by "real" psychics, and the subject sometimes cannot accept that the person doesn't have special powers, even when they are told how the trick works.

If an apparently paranormal effect can be produced through perfectly mundane means, then there is a good chance that all examples of that effect are achieved using similar methods, even if the person doing it claims otherwise.

5. If an apparently anomalous event can be explained using a simpler and more accepted mechanism, then there is a good chance other events of a similar type might also be explained that way, if there was an opportunity to do that.

This is related to number 4, but the emphasis this time is that not all unusual events can be investigated. So claiming that something unexplained has happened in one event, which has not been thoroughly investigated, shows the reality of an extraordinary phenomenon, where very similar events can be explained conventionally, is not a good strategy to get to the truth.

The classic example here is UFO sitings. When the initial story for many sitings is first looked at it can be hard to come up with a good explanation, but looking at similar events which have been investigated seems to always lead to an explanation which requires nothing extraordinary to have happened. So when every UFO siting which has been thoroughly researched shows an orthodox incident (aircraft, flares, atmospheric effects, etc), there is a good chance that other, similar events which haven't been examined yet also have simple explanations.

Clearly, like all of what I have said here, this is not proof, but it is a good starting point, and a good initial rule to apply. Like I said: these are just heuristics.


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