Saturday, January 23, 2010

Skeptical Thinking

I was going to post a review on The Rabbi's Cat for today but as my internet is out until later today it'll have to wait (I have limited computer access and would like to spend more time than I have writing the review). Instead I have a few thoughts in regards to critical thinking, a skill that has sadly fallen out of use these days. As a future anthropologist/archaeologist I've found that skeptical thinking is key to being successful in my field. However it is also extremely important in everyday life as the media and advertisers attempt to feed us falsifications every day. Here are a few key ideas that I've found help with discerning the difference between fact and fiction.

1. Occam’s razor is among my favorite tools for skeptical thinking. With the proper application of Occam’s razor most ‘baloney’ gets thrown out the window. Take, for example, the case of the Shroud of Turin. The popular belief is that the Shroud is the burial shroud used by Jesus of Nazareth. In fact many so-called scientists have argued for the validity of the Shroud as actually bearing the impression of Jesus’ body (supposedly created when Jesus was resurrected) along with spot of “blood” that seem to be in the places Jesus was injured during his crucifixion. The other side of the argument is that the Shroud is man-made art. Much of the scientific (i.e. testable and re-testable) data supports the hypothesis that the Shroud’s images were created by an artist. For one the “blood” found on the Shroud has been tested and was in fact red pigment. The image of Jesus has been reproduced by several different artists on other shrouds using various methods. Carbon dating has been used to date the Shroud and the material used dates many years after the time of Jesus’ death. Beyond the physical evidence there is also cultural evidence. The Shroud of Turin is not the same style of shroud used by Jewish people during the time of Jesus. Despite this evidence many people still choose to believe that the Shroud is indeed the burial cloth used on Jesus of Nazareth. This problem is easily solved by making use of Occam’s razor. Which explanation is simpler? Was Jesus buried in a shroud uncharacteristic of his time that carbon dates to a time far after his? Did Jesus bleed red pigment instead of blood and leave a miraculous impression of himself on this historically inconsistent piece of fabric? Or is the Shroud of Turin an artist tribute to the death of a religious leader? Occam’s razor tells us that the Shroud is an artistic rendition of Jesus’ death.

2. Independent confirmation of facts is also very important in skeptical inquiry. Facts are unreliable at best if they are only coming from one source. Take textbooks for example. Textbooks are an important tool when it comes to school as well as independent learning. Even so textbooks must be read as critically as any other material. If textbooks were filled with only verifiable fact they would never have to be updated (except with new information – I’ve re-read textbooks from my highschool years and was surprised at the amount of ‘fact’ that had since been discarded as false information). This is why it is important to use multiple sources whenever attempting to ascertain the truth of something.

3. Using more than one hypothesis is integral to the success of scientific inquiry. Before scientists knew about the existence of bacteria there was an epidemic in Vienna that was mysteriously killing many women who were giving birth in the hospital. In fact it was safer for women to give birth at home. Ignaz Semmelweis, a doctor, used the scientific method to discover the cause of the deaths. He had many hypotheses and eliminated them one by one by testing them. Eventually he discovered that the autopsies being performed on women who had died of the infection raging through the birthing wards was effecting the amount of women who died. The doctor’s would go from corpse to living patient without washing their hands. Semmelweis found that when the doctor’s washed their hands the percentage of women dying dropped drastically. If Semmelweis had stuck with only one hypothesis he may have never figured out how to keep the infection from spreading.

4. Debate is an excellent method for exploring the veracity of a statement. As a former speech and debate coach I have found that structured and well informed debaters can not only highlight aspects of an argument in such a way as to shed new light onto the subject, but can also end up with new perspectives on the matter at hand. In arguing out an issue flaws inherent in both sides of the debate are brought to the forefront. If these flaws can be resolved with evidence and logical chains of thought the argument gains validity. If the argument has too many irresolvable issues than it is less likely to hold up over time. Debate allows intense scrutiny of the subject at and also provides an opportunity to examine many facets of the topic at hand.

5. If something cannot be disproved there is a high probability (within the realm of science) that it is false. In other words statements need to be testable in order to hold up under scientific scrutiny. When you’re watching television and an advertisement for a psychic hotline comes on can you test to see whether or not these psychics are ‘real’? Of course not, these are individuals answering a phone and giving out vague responses to you questions and are not going to allow you to conduct a scientific study on their ‘abilities’. The same thing applies to so-called mediums. There is no way to scientifically test their abilities. Unless you can see the dead too of course, then you’d be able to tell whether or not someone else was communicating with the same ‘spirits’ I suppose. Being able to retest a hypothesis is also important which leads me to my next point…

6. Controlled experiments are extremely useful in discerning fact from fiction as this is a way of constantly testing and retesting hypotheses and theories. Take the theory of gravity for example. Gravity started out as a hypothesis and has built its way up to a theory by constant retesting. Once there is enough supporting data and evidence (often along with connecting hypotheses) a hypothesis can become a theory. However even a theory isn’t considered fact – just an idea that is constantly being retested, revised and built upon. You can easily test gravity yourself - throw a pencil into the air – if it falls towards the ground it is yet another successful test reaffirming the theory of gravity. Experimentation is only truly valuable in the pursuit of scientific evidence if it can be repeated and verified. Controlled experiments allow for the possibility of false data (such as a sugar pill having the same effect on a person as headache medicine – the control suggests that the headache medicine may only be having an effect because the person thinks it should make them feel better).

In closing, there are many ways to discern fact from fiction. The most important thing is to think critically and always question the information you are receiving in order to make an informed decision about the ideas being presented.

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