Posts Tagged ‘ Critical thinking ’

It’s Not Robots, It’s You!

The above words were said by my not-quite-three-year-old son to his slightly bemused mother this morning.

This exchange followed a conversation I had had with my son earlier while getting him dressed which went something like this:

[a noise outside very much like a car door slamming]

Son: What was that noise?

Me: Sounds like mum putting something in the car.

Son: No.

Me: ok, what do you think it was?

Son: Robots.

Me: ah…… Where did the robots come from?

Son: Outside.  [so much for the imagination of the young…]

Me:  What where the robots doing?

Son:  Something with mum’s car.

Me: ok…. Have you seen any robots?

Son: No.

Me: Have you seen mum?

Son: Yes.

Me: What do you think made the noise outside?

Son: Not robots.

At which point said mum returns from outside and receives the triumphant exclamation which titles this post.

Proud at having determined we were not being invaded by robots my son wanted to share his conclusion with his mum.

What exactly is my point with this? Well, other than an amusing story I thought is was illustrative of something I want to teach my son as well as convey to others. We should think about what we see and hear, as well as examine our own narrative about how the world works.

When faced with new information and new explanations we should consider them carefully and ask questions like: How do new facts/hypotheses fit into our existing knowledge? Is it reasonable to posit new entities/explanations for things when existing ones will do?

Future episodes like this will provide ever more opportunities to help my son examine the world around him and come to thoughtful conclusions – which are themselves open to revision with new information. Lessons which are appropriate no matter what age you learn them.

Five Signs You Might Be Wrong

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

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 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.


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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A Skeptic’s Perspective – Repost

After Friday’s unabashed rant on things magical and absurd I felt it would be good to post a more level headed and rational piece. This post from a couple of years ago caught my eye at the right time and given the popularity of reposting I decided it was worth another outing:

A less formal post today, unstructured playtime if you like. This week I had not had a chance to write my usual contribution to my work newsletter. Instead I decided to search for a skeptical cartoon to use as a place holder until next week. I found two things, first that there aren’t very many good skeptically themed ‘toons around and second those I could find just seemed to portray skepticism as simple doubting. While this is a good place to start it certainly isn’t all there is to the skeptical outlook. While philosophical skepticism is concerned with whether there is any such thing as objective reality the modern Skeptical movement takes this for granted and seeks to supply a basis for rational inquiry and thought.

A skeptic attempts to examine claims objectively, trying to limit the effect of bias on their conclusion, both that of the person making the claim and their own. This is obviously not easy, we all view the world through a collection of filters that encompass all of our preconceptions, hopes, wants and needs as well as, for most of us, a desire to be part of a larger community. This can seriously affect how we interpret the events around us and hamper our ability to make sound judgments concerning the validity of claims that we make and that are presented to us a factual. As I have previously discussed personal experience as related through anecdote is extremely powerful in affecting the way people perceive the world. An emotion filled story about someone’s plight with an illness and subsequent miraculous recovery is often enough to convince most people of the efficacy of a treatment.

For a skeptic however, certain minimum standards of evidence must be met before we can evaluate the plausibility of a claim. The more unusual or outrageous the claim the higher that minimum standard becomes. This is because prior plausibility must be considered as part of the evaluation process. We all do this in our lives, when we consider how likely a friend is to keep that promise to arrive on time we think back to previous occasions when they were early or late and decide how likely it is that they will make it this time. We consider the prior probability to their claim of punctuality. A friend who is habitually late will score lower that one who has proven time and again that they can read a watch. In the same way a skeptic will consider the evidence that has come before when looking at the claims of Homeopathy, Chiropractic, Therapeutic Touch, psychics, mediums, cryptozoologists, etc.

So, if you meet a skeptic remember that they are not simply trying to ridicule paranormal experience but are attempting to apply reason to the world around them and are hoping that they are providing an example for others to do so as well. At least that’s the way I see it. Happy critical thinking.

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