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Articles Associated with Keyword: uncertainty

Musings > Friday, 14 January 2011 04:52:52 EST

What Does It Mean To Be A Dick?

Keywords: video, uncertainty

I'm about half a year behind all the big discussion in the skeptical community on this.  I've talked about it a bit on other forums and the like, but have remained mostly silent on my blog.  There are a couple of reasons for this - first of all, I like to let ideas percolate in my mind before writing about them here.  Second, and probably more importantly, I prefer to avoid talking about things that every other skeptical blog is talking about.  So I feel like now that the talk over this issue has died down somewhat, that it's the perfect time for a dumbass like me to jump into the fray!

What I'm talking about is Phil Plait's infamous "Don't Be A Dick" speech.  I'll embed the videos at the end of this article so that you can have a look at it for yourself.  I personally thought that it was a pretty good speech, but I've found myself surprised at some of the reaction to it in the skeptical community.  It seems that people are just flagrantly misinterpreting what Phil Plait actually said, which seems extremely strange to me since Phil made a very big deal about writing out his arguments in very specific language in order to avoid misunderstandings.

The gist of the speech is that Phil is alarmed at how some people in the skeptical movement "do skepticism".  His message is that when you're practicing skepticism and critical thinking, that you should try and avoid being "a dick". 

So, what does Phil mean by being a dick?  Well, he was also pretty clear about that as well.  Phil said that he was concerned that:
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Musings > Tuesday, 30 November 2010 17:02:06 EST

What Is Evidence?

Keywords: epistemology, uncertainty

One thing that I notice all over the place is a lack of understanding about what makes for good evidence.  Often, with conspiracy theories and other forms of nonsense, people tend to present a number of facts, which may be perfectly true statements, that they call evidence but which aren't.

Much of the time, instead of evidence, these are just facts that happen to be in accordance with their theory.  These are facts which you would expect to be true if the theory was true.  The problem is that if the theory is false, that doesn't really much change the likelihood of those facts to be true.

Evidence should point in a very obvious direction.  For good evidence, you would expect it to be much less likely for that evidence to exist if the theory was false than if it were true.  If there are numerous different explanations for a fact, and your theory isn't even the most likely explanation in the first place, then what you have isn't evidence.  it's just a fact that's in accordance with your theory.

For example:
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Musings > Friday, 26 November 2010 16:45:13 EST

Did Einstein Really Say That?

Keywords: epistemology, uncertainty

When I designed this website, I included a quote underneath the title of the page which I've attributed to the great Albert Einstein: "Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe."

It's a great quote, right?  The only problem is that it seems too good.  It seems like exactly the kind of quote that somebody would attribute to a well known figure like Albert Einstein just to give it some extra weight.  Perhaps it won't surprise you to know that I had that exact same thought while putting this website together.

A while back, Doug Delong of the Planet Japan podcast plugged my blog, but mentioned that he had trouble believing that the quote was accurate.  This is what I wrote to him in response:
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Musings > Sunday, 31 October 2010 23:54:20 EST

Taking Stories In Their Own Context

Keywords: epistemology, uncertainty

Many pseudo scientists love to look up historical accounts and the like and interpret them by reading between the lines.  This is especially popular with believers in ancient aliens, who enjoy going through the Bible and writing in interpretations to make the stories say things that aren't evident in the original text.

I think it needs to be illustrated why you've got to take these stories as they're told, and not write in what you imagine the author might have meant.  You've got to take the stories in their own context, and not write in details that are not present in the stories themselves.

For example, imagine that you're a police chief, and a crime has occurred. The only eyewitness description of the perpetrator that you have is from a 6 year old boy. You've got the description in front of you, it reads:

He was a wizard because he carried a magic wand. And he had the face of a panther and he breathed fire! And he had a lion with him!

One of your officers approaches you and says, "Listen, chief. I think I've got an idea of what that kid was talking about. He said the perp had a magic wand and that there was a lion... well, the kid probably got a little confused. I'll bet the man's blind and he carries a stick for sensing objects on the ground. And he probably has a guide dog, maybe an especially big one that would seem to a little kid to be kind of like a lion."

"Interesting...", you say, "Please continue."

"Okay, " he continues, "The kid said that the man breathed fire... that probably means that he was smoking a cigarette. And he had the face of a panther... well, that probably means that this was an African American. I think what we need to do is advise our officers to be on the lookout for a blind, African American chain smoker whose guide dog is especially large."

A second officer overhears the conversation and decides to break in.

"Chief, " he says, "I think that's the wrong path to take. It's entirely possible that this is what the kid saw and that he elaborated the description in this way. But there's no way to know that. If you take this description to be what the child meant, you're kind of putting words in the kid's mouth that he never actually said. We need to take this description in it's own context as the story of a 6 year old boy. There are plenty of other possibilities in that context. The kid could have been playing make believe, or he could have just woken up from a nap and had a dream. Or he could have just made something up in order to please a questioning adult. There's no way we can use this description in order to determine a description of the perpetrator."

Which officer's explanation would you choose to act on?

As silly as it seems for an officer to make such a deduction, these are exactly the kinds of deductions that are made by ancient alien theorists, and conspiracy theorists of all stripes for that matter.  They say "Well, statement X could have actually meant Y" - but statement X only said X, not Y.  If you interpret X to mean Y you're going beyond the evidence available and writing in details that are not warranted.

It seems like this kind of point should be straightforward, but so many people fail to understand it and will make these kinds of tangentially related substitutions with complete disregard.  And they feel like by making these kinds of substitutions they've built up a solid case, when in reality they've based their arguments on completely unsupportable assumptions.

When you're looking into strange stories and claims, remember to never go beyond the evidence available.
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Musings > Wednesday, 22 September 2010 18:47:48 EST

Why I Promote Intellectual Uncertainty

Keywords: epistemology, uncertainty

I often get emails and comments from people telling me that they don't think my alias suits me.  They feel like I'm undervaluing my contributions by calling myself a dumbass, and they tell me that the quality of my blog deserves a more appropriate name.

I appreciate the confidence in my abilities, and I am very happy to receive such high praise.  I always respond by telling them why I chose this name for my blog.  I've mentioned it before, but I think it bears repeating for anybody who hasn't read all my articles.

There's a quote from a book that I've just read that sums up my feelings about this perfectly.  This is from "Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)" by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson:

The unbending need to be right inevitably produces self-righteousness.  When confidence and convictions are unleavened by humility, by an acceptance of fallibility; people can easily cross the line from healthy self assurance to arrogance.

I call myself a dumbass because I don't want to fall into the trap of thinking that I know more than I do.  I don't want to fall into the trap of believing that I'm immune from the cognitive biases that affect everybody else.  People who think that they're immune are the easiest ones to fool.

Of course, I do feel the desire to pat myself on the back for what I see as my clearheaded analysis of dubious claims.  I have pride in my work.  What I wanted to balance that out was a constant reminder that I'm fallible.  That I'm just a dumbass like everybody else and I shouldn't take myself too seriously.

I may be the one on the soapbox here, but I don't expect anybody to take anything I have to say for granted.  I could very well be wrong, and it's even likely that I am wrong about something I've written here.  Even with all it's editors and fact checkers, the Encyclopedia Britannica still makes mistakes in every edition.

So in addition to reminding myself that I could be wrong, I want to encourage other people to feel comfortable challenging  me when they think I'm wrong.  I'm just some dumbass with a blog, please don't just take my word for anything!

If I got my facts wrong, I definitely want to know about it.
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Analysis > Friday, 23 July 2010 18:36:31 EST

Folly In Future Forecasting

Keywords: statistics, predictions, uncertainty, randomness, book

I've talked before about how how people can be overly confident in their ability to understand the past and predict the future.  A good illustration of this is a book called "The Next 100 Years" by George Friedman. 

The Next 100 Years by George Friedman

As I see it, Friedman falls into the mental trap of looking at history and seeing it's progression as inevitable.  With the benefit of hindsight, it's hard to see how historical events were really uncertain and chaotic, and how the outcome really could have been different than the one that history records.

From this misunderstanding he has looked through history for patterns, and whether they actually exist or not, has found them.  From these supposed patterns he's projected out into the future to try and understand the forces that will shape the next century.

This seems to me like a good case study to highlight the ways that smart people can fool themselves and build a case that sounds compelling, but when you examine it closely you see that it rests on very shaky ground.

I read this book last year and am working off notes from an online discussion I had at the time.  I want to make clear that even though I criticize the book, I did enjoy reading it.  Especially the narrative of the coming war in the 2050's.  He admits that the details of the war are more speculative than the other areas, though to me the rest of the book is almost as speculative.  But in spite of being better suited to science fiction than anything else, it's a fantastic story.

But let's look at the arguments that Mr. Friedman puts forth as the solid basis for his claims:
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Analysis > Wednesday, 30 June 2010 21:34:54 EST

Essential Randomness

Keywords: randomness, uncertainty

A lot of what goes on in pseudoscience is the result of people finding patterns where none exist.  I think the concept of randomness and how we can find illusory patterns in it warrants a little bit of an exploration here for anybody who hasn't thought about it.

Randomness is one of the hardest things for people to understand.  Even those of us who pay lip service to the role of randomness in the universe have trouble with the concept.  We're just too good at seeing patterns.  We see them everywhere, even when no template for the seen pattern exists.  See my recent post about the nebula that looks like a hand.

We typically expect anything that's random to show absolutely no pattern.  We think random things should resemble an undecipherable mess.  But that's not the case.  Patterns in randomness are everywhere, and they can fool you more easily than you think.

I performed a classic experiment by creating a computer program that draws random dots on the screen.  I ran it a few times and picked my favourite examples to show you here:

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Analysis > Thursday, 17 June 2010 11:34:01 EST

A Hand In The Sky

Keywords: randomness, uncertainty, epistemology

A little over a year ago NASA released an interesting image of a nebula captured by the Chandra X-ray Observatory.  What's interesting about this image is that it's a nice example of pareidolia.  On first glance, this nebula looks remarkably like a human hand:

A Hand Shaped Nebula

What I find fascinating about this image is how much of the resemblance to a human hand evaporates when you examine it closely.  Much of the distinguishing features of the hand are made up of very insubstantial mist, only giving the vague impression of the shape of a hand.

If you take the time to simply draw an outline around the clearest parts of the nebula, the illusion of a hand disappears altogether:

Nebula Outlined

To me it now looks more like a hitchhiking moose hand puppet.

Take this as a cosmic reminder that you can easily see the illusion of a pattern in something that is essentially random.
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Musings > Monday, 25 January 2010 23:20:31 EST

How Microwaves Relate To Critical Thinking

Keywords: personal experience, experiment, statistics, uncertainty, randomness

I want to relate to you an incident that happened to me a while back.  I was going to melt some peanut butter in my microwave for a recipe, but the moment I turned the microwave on, it started sparking inside.

Alarmed, I quickly pressed the stop button and took my bowl of peanut butter out to examine it.  The bowl was one that I'd used before, no metal on it and completely microwave safe.  I'd melted peanut butter in the microwave before, and never had such a thing happened.

Perhaps there was something wrong with the microwave, I thought.  I filled a mug with water, put it inside, and turned the machine on.  Nothing happened, it worked just fine.

Then I tried the peanut butter again: sparks.

I performed the comparison over again just to be sure.  Only the peanut butter sparked.

What the hell was in my peanut butter that was making the microwave spark??
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Analysis > Tuesday, 12 January 2010 10:15:11 EST

On Predicting The Future

Keywords: statistics, predictions, religion, uncertainty, randomness

I often see predictions in the media attempting to predict the future.  Usually, these predictions are given out by the experts in a particular field, and we're lead to believe that they've actually got some sort of valuable insight into what the future holds.

What makes me crazy is that people seem to believe that these predictions have any kind of validity to them.  Some of them may be reliable, such as if the prediction is short term, or if it's based on unambiguous data whose properties are not generally subjected to random changes.

But this isn't the case for most predictions.  Randomness and uncertainty rule our lives, and to think that we can predict the long term future based on short term trends is to ignore this basic fact.  It's tempting to think that we can accurately predict the far future  based on what we observe happening today.  Unfortunately, predicting the future remains a very uncertain art.
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