Over the last few weeks several things have been happening both in my own life and in the wider public (Ken Ring) that have made me think about good rules of thumb to determine whether a claim is likely to be right or wrong. In particular when is it reasonable to perform a self examination and ask the question “Could I be wrong?”.

We have to make decisions with limited information every day, it’s not a good idea to be frozen with existential doubt over every little factoid wondering if the entire basis of knowledge is up to the task of determining Truth. I suspect society would grind to a halt if everyone suddenly started doing this.

But, it is a good idea to clear the cobwebs every once in a while and put ourselves back on a firm footing. What sort of things should we be on the lookout for in our mental spring cleaning? I don’t think I have the definitive answer but here are a few ideas that have presented themselves to me lately as a decent place to start:

5. Everyone knows that or “Common Wisdom”.

These are thing that you just absorb from the culture, you don’t know where you heard them but it’s so ingrained it just seems like common sense. Things like reading in low light being bad for your eyesight or only using ten percent of our brains. These permeate our popular consciousness like the air we breath.

Common myths get perpetuated in this way, you haven’t looked into it but you just know, that’s how the world works. This is a form of argument from popularity, reasonable most of the time but not a method of generating knowledge that is optimised for accuracy. On one level this is fairly harmless, usually these things don’t impact the major decisions in life and you aren’t especially invested in a particular conclusion. If you don’t really lose most of your body heat through your head, well it doesn’t matter, you were going to wear a hat anyway – it looks nice.

On the other hand this can be the most insidious method of creating misconceptions. Much of the time you aren’t even aware of them, if you were raised in Japan then you might just “know” that women are subservient to men. If that seems too drastic, perhaps you just have a general feeling that boys are better at maths and science than girls. These are things that we implicitly learn from our culture and can be difficult to dispel even if we are aware of the actual facts.

4. You learned about it from a Chain email

You’ve seen them. Emails that have been forwarded from one person to the next, each one thinking that someone earlier in the chain has probably checked it out and besides “what if” it’s true. Better send it on just in case.

I’ve seen several of these lately, see my report on Lemons and Cancer. Another has been making the rounds post earthquake ostensibly describing how to survive a a serious earthquake. This also has misleading and possibly dangerous information if the advice is followed. Basically I view everything transmitted in this manner as suspect until proven otherwise, the 21st century version of word of mouth seems to by-pass both verification and common sense because it is so easy to press the forward button and we appear to still afford the written word a default respect that it may not deserve (though you should respect my written words, ‘cos I say so).

What I find most frustrating about this phenomenon is that de-bunking these things is almost as easy as hitting that forward button. It usually takes me about 20 seconds – depending on how my internet connection is faring that day – to copy and paste some of the text into google or check on a site like Snopes.com.

3. You’re on the edge or just beyond what we currently know scientifically.

Here is where things start taking a turn toward the dark side. Prior to this stage we could just look up the correct information and set ourselves straight. At this point though we need to start applying actual critical thinking and assess new information on it’s plausibility and merits. Sometimes this is just extrapolating from a recent breakthrough (invisibility cloaks anyone?), this tends to be easily recognised and dismissed.

We know that when working on the frontiers of knowledge many of our conclusions are false, or wildly simplistic. Forming opinions on the back of these initial forays into the unknown is therefore fraught with peril for the unwary, or even the wary for that matter. This is where some quacks can move in, taking preliminarily positive results for some treatment or technology based on initial tests and making claims that are not backed by sound data. We could put “black market” stem cell therapies or cancer cures into this category.

Alternatively there are some who take plausible trends in scientific and technological progress and predict specific technologies will be developed in specific time frames (looking in your direction Kurzweil). Others may claim that because our knowledge is underdeveloped, either in general or in a particular discipline, that their pet theory should be given a pass.

These ideas may or may not be correct but we can make reasonable determinations as to likelihood based on current scientific knowledge, science can bring up counter-intuitive facts about our universe but in general we tend to see incremental advancement on existing knowledge. Self replicating machines? perhaps, perpetual motion machines? no, not really.

In this way this category can tend to bleed into my next warning sign…

2. Your point of view goes against/disagrees with a large proportion of scientists/medical professionals.

This is the point where you are starting to cross over to crankery. This is where warning sirens should start going off in your head when you are confronted with “alternative” theories. Sometimes though it is not obvious straight away, only once we have accepted and become invested in a theory do we get confronted with disconfirming evidence. We should not be afraid to let go of ideas when they are shown to be incorrect.

Examples of this might be that vaccines cause autism, or that fluoridation is harmful. The key here is that it is not prima facie impossible that these things are true, but the preponderance of data has shown that they are very unlikely to be true. At this point it is incumbent upon a reasonable person to change their mind.

Once you decide that you are either better informed than the scientific or medical community or that there exists a conspiracy to keep these things from the public you start to cross the line between concerned citizen to outright crank. It’s possible that you really are a genius, that the scientists really are wrong, that you really are right, that you really can compare yourself favourably to Galileo, but really – it’s not likely. Luckily, you can come back from the edge – it takes courage though. One thing to keep in mind is that you should be committed to the enquiry, not the conclusion. This way you should be able to  follow where the evidence leads and change you opinion accordingly.

1. Large chunks of science have to be wrong for you to be right

Congratulations, you have graduated to fully fledged crank. You are immune to evidence and reason and live in your own self-contained universe of nonsense, insulated from reality by your enormous  self-righteousness ego. Examples of this extreme form of scientific inaccuracy are Creationism, Neal Adams’ “Growing Earth” theory, and Homeopathy. If you have made it this far then chances are you are so committed to your ideas that no amount reasoned argumentation will sway you, you may have a tinfoil hat somewhere on your person right now.

But, and let me make this clear, you are NOT an idiot*. You have just invested so much in a particular point of view that changing you mind now would tantamount to repudiating a large portion or your life. That’s painful and not a course of action anyone wants to undertake.

At this point it becomes farcical to even suggest that you might be right and the accumulated knowledge of the last 200-400 years is wrong. Recall how I said earlier that we make incremental advances based on existing knowledge? Well all of our past discoveries have inexorably been leading to the fact that..you can’;t infinitely dilute a substance and still expect an effect…the earth really is 4, 500,000,000 years old…energy really can’t be created from nothing… and on and on.

All that said, again,  it still is possible for you to change your mind and come back to reality. A number of people have done it, but the chances do become lower. Good luck.

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The above should be taken as a light-hearted look at our foibles, no real offence is intended. – He said, trying futility to ward off trolls.

* Ok, I can’t back that up. Some of you are bound to be idiots… just sayin’…statistically… you know.

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