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Like Watching a Car Wreck

Entry 407, on 2006-10-12 at 13:57:38 (Rating 4, Comments)

I was an early adopter of podcasting (both as a listener and producer) and podcasts are now one of my major sources of general information (the other source I significantly rely on is Wikipedia on the Web). Occasionally I discover a good podcast which has been around for a while but that I haven't caught on to until its been going for a while. Then I have to play catch-up.

The best current example of this is "the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe" which had been going for about a year before I started listening. I have now almost caught up with the approximately 60 hours of audio they produce each year and I'm just totally hooked. It has even inspired me to create a skepticism section on my web site.

A recent episode had a pseudo-scientist as a guest speaker, and one of the skeptics described listening to him as like the bizarre fascination we gain from watching a car wreck. We don't want to experience it, but we can't help ourselves!

I probably already knew that most people who are on the fringe of reality rely on the same coping mechanisms, but it has just become more apparent after listening to these podcasts. One most common mechanism is "cherry picking". This refers to the error of selecting information which supports a belief while ignoring the evidence which is contrary to it. If you look hard enough you can find evidence to support anything, but that doesn't mean its true.

Another common fault is to apply a very superficial analysis to the evidence. Specialist scientific evidence can be hard to interpret, and it can easily be warped to fit any theory whether it genuinely supports it or not. For example, the pseudo-scientist I referred to above quoted the "ringing" of the Moon detected after a recent collision as evidence that it is hollow!

The final big mistake these people commonly make is the fallacy of the argument from personal incredulity. In fact, I am adopting this as my favourite fallacy. Many people say something like "this just doesn't make sense to me", or "I can't see how this can be true" and use that as evidence to support their beliefs (or reject conventional theories). Sometimes they disguise it by using more absolute language, such as "this cannot be true" which just means they don't think its true, and is really just an opinion.

There are many things which seem ridiculous at first sight, but are found to be true after a more careful analysis. For example: the Earth seems to be flat but isn't, the Earth seems to be stationary at the center of the Universe but isn't, the findings of relativity and quantum theory seem totally unintuitive but huge amounts of evidence support them.

So I'm afraid I'm even more cynical now than I was previously. People who know me might find that hard to believe, but its true. So, that's the end of this blog entry - I'm off to watch some more car wrecks!

Link at: http://www.theskepticsguide.org/

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