Ghost Stories, Spider Man and Debunking

Ghost Stories, Spider Man and Debunking October 23, 2018

“I shiver with fear/Whenever I hear/Things that debunk in the night.”

The weather hereabouts has turned colder, the trees are losing their leaves, and it’s getting to be late October. If anything is scarier than mid-term elections, it’s the coming of Halloween: gruesome costumes, ominous music, and ghost stories. Oh, and debunkers.

It’s easier to escape from the clutches of an axe murderer or zombie, it seems, than to avoid articles like 5 Famous ‘Paranormal’ Phenomena (Easily Debunked By Science) by the oh-so-scientific folks at Cracked Magazine, Ghosts definitely don’t exist because otherwise the Large Hadron Collider would have found them, claims Brian Cox, courtesy of the Independent, and 6 Scientific Explanations for Ghosts in mentalfloss.com.

I submit that if we respected science, we’d think twice about using it for these squabbles. More on that later.

Hadst Thou But Been Sae Wise

In a recent discussion about the paranormal over at A Tippling Philosopher, the always thoughtful PartialMitch opined that paranormal explanations aren’t conclusions people arrive at through rational assessment of evidence. They’re just stories people who already believe in the paranormal use to validate their prejudice. They expect to see ghosts, so whatever they experience they interpret as paranormal:

We are a storytelling species. We need narratives; we need teleological nonsense. We need to find meaning, we need to find patterns, we need to make sense of things. And when we find a good story, an interesting story, a story that makes sense-according these narratives-then by God we run with it. Just human nature.

I don’t dispute that at all. However, I think PartialMitch is right to be inclusive in this analysis. We are indeed storytellers, we just prefer our own stories. In debunking, we’re just reinforcing our idea of a predictable, material universe. We think we’re being rational, but we’re just as emotional as the paranormal enthusiast seeking cheap thrills in ghost lore. We feel safer when we tell ourselves stories about how orderly and comprehensible reality is.

In most cases, we’re not taking part in any sort of scientific study when we approach these strange anecdotes. We’re just listening to them in order to contradict them and characterize the teller as a credulous crackpot. We consider it good to keep an open mind, but not so open that we can’t patronize people who think differently.

Us vs. Them

Carl Sagan is rightly cited as an example of a classic skeptic, but even he had qualms about the presumption of the debunker:

The chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is its polarization: Us vs. Them — the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, to hell with you. This is nonconstructive. It does not get our message across. It condemns us to permanent minority status.
― Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

I recall when folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand used to appear on David Letterman’s old NBC late night show to plug his books on urban legends. He had no shortage of funny tales to recount, from his collections The Choking Doberman and The Vanishing Hitchhiker, but he was no debunker. He always made it clear that stories honed by oral transmission tell us a lot about the anxieties and self-image of the communities in which they resonated. The literal truth of the tales is beside the point.

And Things Get Silly

You may have already seen the promo Neil deGrasse Tyson filmed last month for Stephen Colbert’s show, in which he decides to “tackle” Spider-Man. Yes, he’s debunking the comic book’s plot point about the origin of Peter Parker’s Spider-powers:

I would have thought it funny if Tyson were making fun of a clueless debunker who didn’t realize Spider-Man is only a cartoon character. But no, he explicitly states that he can make the distinction between fact and fiction:

Of course it’s fiction, so I don’t have a problem with fiction, but if you think you are going to do this experiment, and try to make that happen to you, I’ve got news for you: it’s not gonna work.

As Massimo Pigliucci points out, this just is not news to anyone on this planet.

Neil, apparently you do have a problem with fiction. I still remember that on my podcast, years ago, you complained about the aliens in Avatar, because the females had breasts, which are – obviously – a mammalian trait. Really? That’s what bothered you in that movie? Never heard of suspending disbelief and just enjoy a nice story?

Also, who on earth is going to be tempted to repeat in real life the “experiment” that generated Spider-Man? And even if an enterprising and badly informed kid wanted to, where would he get a radioactive spider?

The more serious issue here is: why did [Tyson] feel the need to do such a silly thing in the first place?

The Debunking Brain

The answer to that question is in the psychology of debunking itself. The debunker’s mind is made up about the phenomenon beforehand; he or she isn’t giving serious consideration to evidence or testimony, but rather making them fit a preconceived outcome.

I already mentioned the notion that employing science as a mere weapon in an online slapfight doesn’t show much respect for the legacy of empirical inquiry. It’s not scientific to decide that ghosts are real merely on the authority of anecdotal evidence, of course. But neither is it scientific to use the trappings of scientific research to lend legitimacy to one’s position in a rhetorical booger fight. Skepticism should be about more than automatic denial and the attempt to instill conformity of opinion.

Lastly, Pigliucci bemoans the insufferable arrogance of the debunker. Psychologically, there’s something immature about a person with a pathological need to emphasize his or her superiority over others. Subtlety and persuasion are what change minds; sarcasm and ridicule only garner yuks in the echo chamber. If we engage with why people believe the things they do, maybe we’ll come to a more empathetic understanding of the meaning of these stories and myths. If we’re just focused on showing people they’re wrong, maybe all we really want to do is insult and belittle them.

Are you a debunker? Does we simply tell ourselves the stories that comfort us about phenomena? What can change people’s minds about supposedly “inexplicable” events?

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  • Hey, Shem, thanks for the complimentary shout-out. I’m not sure that I’m always thoughtful, but I do try to always think. Of course, the quality of those thoughts must be left for others to judge, since we’re all limited in our perceptions and understandings. I’m as guilty as NDT when it comes to “debunking” sci-fi and superheroes, but (IMO), that’s just a part of being a nerd. Usually it’s not about insulting the fictional property in question as much as it’s about trying to find a teachable moment for people who get most of their “science education” from movies and shows. For example, a few days ago I took a discussion about Star Trek (among some neighbors) and turned it into a lesson on orbital mechanics. Suddenly, those people now have a rough grasp of orbital parameters, the concept delta-v, the difference between fuel and propellant, the probable impossibility of FTL-travel, the difficulties of plane change maneuvers, the problem of waste heat, etc.

    Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Maybe debunking is one of those rare situations where intention does matter (granted, measuring intentions is impossible). The goal wasn’t to belittle anyone, instead I was trying to take their vague interest in soft science fiction and give them a greater understanding of the realities and difficulties of real-life space travel. In other situations (astrology, for example), I’m far less likely to attempt “debunking,” if only because there is no real way to go about it that does not insult the intelligence of my targets. Generally, I’ll simply say that I personally do not believe in it, do not want my charts read, and then I’ll remain silent.

    Now, if someone asks why I don’t believe in astrology, I’ll respond honestly, and in detail, but I need to see curiosity from them before I go that far.

    I’m torn, however, about some forms of debunking. Trying to debunk the anti-vax crowd is a public service, and many other types of nonsense thinking are used specifically to take advantage of the credulous, so maybe they should be combated. But … how useful is it? How many people will change their opinions based on some debunking? Are we doing it for their benefit or for our own? How much did Houdini’s battles against spiritualists and mediums actually affect things? Maybe he did help, since that type of thing fell from popular culture’s esteem around the same time as he faced them. Or maybe he didn’t help—since those things are still around, despite not being quite as pervasive as they were a century-ish ago.

    I’ve never been able to change anyone’s mind about ghosts or ancient aliens, but I have been able to convince people that aliens did not build the pyramids. Did it help them in a big-picture sort of way to learn this? I like to think so, but maybe that’s my own bias. I’d hope that they’d at least learn to study a topic more deeply than what they’ve heard on the “History” Channel. My whole philosophy on life is based on caring enough to study that which draws my interest, so hopefully I’ve steered them toward that direction.

    The trick is, I suppose, being willing to turn that viewpoint back on oneself. I read fundamentalist literature, creationist books, conservative publications, conspiracy theories .. hell, I read William Lane Craig (despite having lost respect for him many years ago). I want to see what the other side thinks. I want to see if there are any faults in my own thinking.

    Maybe this is because I’m almost a pure Karl Popper kind of person. I am less concerned with science being “true” than I am with whether the models so created work. Working models, I figure, are the best that we can do, given our limitations as human beings. And since that’s the case, there’s no point in being dogmatic. Working models don’t have enough solidity behind them for dogmatism. Also, dogmatism just plain sucks. I’ve never seen a single example in all of human history where being dogmatic was a positive. I figure that realistic models don’t need to be dogmatic to be persuasive. Maybe I’m just naive.

  • Thanks for contributing!

    I’m certainly not saying that we should never contradict anyone, ever. We should just be honest about when we’re entering into a dialogue with an open mind and when we’re just playing slap-the-moron.

    You make a very good point about the anti-vaxxers. Unlike belief in ghosts or Spider Man, the belief that vaccines are harmful has the potential to cause a vast amount of real, avoidable suffering. So how do we get them to vaccinate their kids, when calling them anti-science crackpots does absolutely nothing to achieve that aim?

    I agree with you about dogmatism, and I share your lack of concern as to whether scientific theories (or beliefs in general) are true. To me, that’s beside the point. I think it’s more important to assess theories in terms of their consequences for society, industry, and the military. And people’s behavior is so much more important to me than what they profess to believe that I think all this criticism of “unverifiable beliefs” in the atheist blogosphere is mistaking the finger for what it’s pointing to.

  • Oh, this is splendid. The “debunking” habit is a perfect example of the old refrain about throwing stones from glass houses: as much as we think we are tearing down others’ flawed beliefs, we are probably only reinforcing some of our own. Terrific point for reflection whatever the season. Thanks for sharing!

  • abb3w

    The debunker’s mind is made up about the phenomenon beforehand; he or she isn’t giving serious consideration to evidence or testimony, but rather making them fit a preconceived outcome.

    While it might be a fair characterization of your examples, I’m not sure that’s universally accurate. One of the most notable debunkers is James Randi. When he considers claims of the paranormal, he does so with the expectation (from past experience) that fraud (or similar) tends to be a more likely cause for such “phenomena”. However, he (reportedly) has given serious hearings to the testimony claimants; his tests are designed to be experiments allowing his hypothesis to be falsified. As happened, it wasn’t. Of course, testing whether or not he is actually open-minded enough to accept an actual paranormal result would first require finding one….

    Psychologically, there’s something immature about a person with a pathological need to emphasize his or her superiority over others.

    I suspect that it ties in to some form of “social dominance orientation” outlook in the pathological cases.

    Contrariwise, the need/desire may not be to show/emphasize personal superiority over another, but need/desire to convey superiority of an idea that one carries — potentially, in the hope that the other person will abandon their present inferior idea in favor of adopting the superior one. This, of course, seems to leave unexamined the question of by what measure one idea is considered “better” than another.

  • Randi’s a good example, I guess. On the positive side, he wanted to expose fraudsters who preyed on the sick, the grieving, and the vulnerable. I have no problem with that. But creating an entire organization dedicated to debunking just assumes that exploiting people’s suspicion and cynicism is a better way to make a buck than exploiting people’s credulity.

    What I object to is that debunking isn’t motivated by scientific curiosity at all; it just uses the trappings of science to instill conformity of opinion. You’re right, the debunkers are motivated by the urge to get everyone to accept the beliefs and the approach to truth that they have. It’s not about dialogue or compromise, and not even about persuasion per se. It’s just the refusal to consider another point of view, and make it sound like the narrow-mindedness of one’s opponent is a vice, but one’s own narrow-mindedness is some sort of virtue.

  • The “debunking” habit is a perfect example of the old refrain about throwing stones from glass houses: as much as we think we are tearing down others’ flawed beliefs, we are probably only reinforcing some of our own.

    I absolutely agree. Debunkers have no trouble throwing factoids at their foes about cognitive biases, the Dunning-Kruger effect, and motivated reasoning. But doesn’t it ever occur to them that those things apply to everyone, not just their opponents?

    If we were biased, we’d know it, right?

  • abb3w

    But creating an entire organization dedicated to debunking just assumes that exploiting people’s suspicion and cynicism is a better way to make a buck than exploiting people’s credulity.

    Alternately, the JREF might be viewed as an experiment designed to test exactly that… aside from the extreme subjectivity of “better” there.

    What I object to is that debunking isn’t motivated by scientific
    curiosity at all; it just uses the trappings of science to instill
    conformity of opinion.

    In the worst case, conformity for the sake of conformity. (This incidentally seems to have a potential echo to some of Dale Cannon’s comments about “generic vices and virtues” in his “Six Ways” book that I’ve previously mentioned in passing. I’m not sure there’s a strong parallel; however, one might look at the examples he gives under the “Way of Intellectual Inquiry”.)

    Contrariwise, curiosity (about evidence and its possible descriptions) is only one part of science; rejecting descriptions that do not conform to evidence is another. “Dialogue” and “compromise” are tools sometimes useful for persuasion; however, the empirical universe is not itself amenable to either — and its ultimate mechanisms for “persuasion” in case of error are ruthless.

    At the deepest foundations, mathematics is flexible about one’s selection of axioms (with many alternatives even being effectively equivalent for descriptions) but inexorable within a selection. Science can work within any consistent mathematics sufficient for derivation of computation; if someone is narrow minded in insisting a ZF-based foundation rather than one on vNBG, that’s merely eccentric. (The two are indistinguishable. Certain other alternatives are mathematically distinguishable but without ultimately without effective differences for science.) Science is flexible within these, and with what hypotheses it will consider; but the measure of its consideration is rather less flexible.

    Whether narrowmindedness and openmindedness are vice or virtue would seem to in part be a question of how closely the scope of the narrow mind conforms to the possible. Where the scope neglects to give a non-zero probability to something in the possible, narrowmindedness is a vice; but so far as it encompasses the entire scope of the possible, it remains (largely) a virtue. Contrariwise, so far as openmindedness succeeds in encompassing the entirety of the possible, it remains (largely) a virtue; but so far as it involves granting non-zero probability to the impossible, it may become a vice. This would also seem to apply for “actual” and “counterfactual” in place of “possible” and “impossible”.

    I have limited tolerance for whether or not 2^3+5 is 12, particularly when I am getting change at a restaurant.

  • Contrariwise, curiosity (about evidence and its possible descriptions) is only one part of science; rejecting descriptions that do not conform to evidence is another. “Dialogue” and “compromise” are tools sometimes useful for persuasion; however, the empirical universe is not itself amenable to either — and its ultimate mechanisms for “persuasion” in case of error are ruthless.

    As long as we’re ostensibly talking about skepticism here, at least understand how loud my skeptic alarm rings when people make sweeping pronouncements about the empirical universe. The idea that evidence is some sort of magical substance that creates scientific consensus is another canard with which the science fan attempts to take human activity out of the human activity of scientific endeavor. Dialogue and compromise and argument, all those messy and ambiguous human activities, are all extremely important parts of scientific research.

    At the deepest foundations, mathematics is flexible about one’s selection of axioms (with many alternatives even being effectively equivalent for descriptions) but inexorable within a selection. Science can work within any consistent mathematics sufficient for derivation of computation; if someone is narrow minded in insisting a ZF-based foundation rather than one on vNBG, that’s merely eccentric. (The two are indistinguishable. Certain other alternatives are mathematically distinguishable but without ultimately without effective differences for science.) Science is flexible within these, and with what hypotheses it will consider; but the measure of its consideration is rather less flexible.

    I need to ask a silly question. You don’t really expect me to believe that debunking is some sort of rigorous scientific activity, do you? Because you appear to think I’m offering some critique of mathematics or legitimate scientific inquiry here, and that’s absolutely not what I’m doing. I’m criticizing the amateurs who use the trappings and terminology of science to mock and deride people who believe weird things.

    Am I wrong to acknowledge that distinction?

  • abb3w

    Dialogue and compromise and argument, all those messy and ambiguous human activities, are all extremely important parts of scientific research.

    Indeed. However, the dispute necessarily must rely on common premises. There are some that when disputing, you’re no longer doing “science”, but some other form of philosophy.

    You don’t really expect me to believe that debunking is some sort of rigorous scientific activity, do you?

    Not really, no. It’s more what I’d consider an anthropological incidental; part of the practice of “science communication” — which is far less rigorous than even the applied practice of science as an analytic method.

    Because you appear to think I’m offering some critique of mathematics or legitimate scientific inquiry here, and that’s absolutely not what I’m doing.

    However, your remarks seem phrased sufficiently broadly that they would also encompass such critique; particularly in so far as it does not appear to acknowledge that some of the weird things that some people believe are, in a word, wrong. (A handsaw is not a variety of hawk.)

    Am I wrong to acknowledge that distinction?

    Certainly I don’t consider it wrong to try.

    Contrariwise, I think it may be concerned with a harm that remains (at least for now) substantially less frequent or impactful than the counterpart harm of believing things that are not merely weird but also incorrect.

  • Another thing that sets my skeptic alarm ringing is when I hear people obsessing over how incorrect and wrong other people’s beliefs are. I guess I’m supposed to believe it’s about a valid approach to knowledge, yadda yadda yadda, but it always ends up all about superiority.

    You have to admit it’s easy to look at most of these debunker debates and dismiss them as pointless schoolboy slapfights. Flat Earthers? 9/11 truthers? Beating these people in a debate is about as difficult, admirable, and socially relevant as beating a four-year-old at chess. I already mentioned to Mitch that anti-vaxxers are much more harmful than the typical tinhat; but their problem isn’t just their approach to knowledge, but our shared helplessness in the face of a corporate medical, pharmaceutical, and regulatory apparatus that cares more about profit than the common good. You can frame these debates as arguments over facts, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If we ignore the complex of values and anxieties that give rise to these kooky beliefs, then we’re not really dealing with reality.

    The problem is that the debunker is just out to score debate points, not to be empathetic or effective in confronting social problems.

  • hey do you think a rock exists in some *meaningful* way absent the idea? like, if no rock is ever observed, does it *meaningfully exist*? – such that its existence satisfies some theory of meaning, or in simpler terms, such that it has an effect or impact on anything that we can observe? It’s sort of a variation of the problem of trees falling in forests without an audience =), except this presupposes that there is also no observable indirect evidence of the thing. No fallen tree, no disturbed brush, nothing to indicate that said tree fell, whatever.

    Put another way, do you think that objects exist separate from our conceptualizations and observations of them? Did mankind cocreate the rock in a joint venture with nature/god/whatever simply by virtue of coming up with words and concepts around them?

    Also I’ve missed reading you. It’s good to see you. I had to seek you out and ask this since it was the subject of an earlier exchange I had, and I suddently really wanted to know what you thought, given your views on epistemology – such as science being an ongoing dialogue with reality and each other. =) sorry it’s off topic. i kinda wish disqus had private messages

  • Yes to this. especially “if we ignore the complex of values … we’re not really dealing with reality”

    Right to the heart of why I believe persuasion via logos is a mug’s game, and why it’s foolish to even argue it. It’s good for checking or critiquing beliefs, and awful for persuading people to accept them in large part because it ignores the feelings that give rise to the beliefs in the first place, totally ignoring the most influential aspects in the belief building.

  • Great to see you again, friend! I’ve missed you too and I’ll reply soon.

  • The “^” usually means exponent such as pow(x,y) or bitwise Multiply is * not ^. =) at least in computer geek speak

  • *bitwise XOR

  • Long story short, I don’t deny that there’s a reality apart from our awareness of it. But every detail in our knowledge about this reality derives from the method we employed to generate it. So I don’t consider it any more meaningful to talk about the universe without humans as I do humans without the universe.

    People may see this as typical Shem hair-splitting, but there’s a very crucial distinction here. Facts aren’t lying around waiting to be discovered, they’re something we invent to make the chaos of reality comprehensible to human consciousness. Adam giving names to all the animals is more than just a kid’s folktale, it’s the story of humanity defining phenomena and validating its power and authority. A lot of battles in the culture wars and science wars are for the right to define and control what we think of as reality.

    I really wish the science fans who show up here would meet me halfway on this, but (as you notice) the ones who comment are still way too immature and narrow-minded to consider the idea. That’s what happens when science gets fetishized and turned into a quasi-religion. No fundie wants God and objective reality called into question. They won’t admit that there’s more than one language in which to describe how reality is.

    Terrific to have you back!

  • Thanks! I agree with you except I go a bit further. Without naming** a rock – even just to ourselves – no meaningful test for the existence of a rock can occur. ** and by naming I mean putting an idea to it, not only giving it a noun but acknowledging it as a thing in the first place. Since no test for existence can occur, it renders questions of existence of rocks absent humans to be meaningless. As such, without humans rocks are completely moot – which echoes the biblical declaration of our dominion in Genesis. Philosophy can be fun. =D

  • abb3w

    Regardless of which sense of ^ is being used, I’m disinclined to accept that 2^3+5 is 12.

  • fair enough =) more i was just giving you a friendly heads up. Operators being what they are ^ is a slippery one.

  • abb3w

    I guess I’m supposed to believe it’s about a valid approach to knowledge, yadda yadda yadda, but it always ends up all about superiority.

    I’d disagree with “all about”, but I’ll admit that’s often a hell of a lot of it.

    On the other hand, while “valid approach to knowledge” is part of the motive in the best of cases, it usually seems implicitly but ultimately subordinate to having a valid anchor for policy. As a highly artificial example — in so far as most people would agree that having an arbitrarily selected person die tends to be “worse” than for them to not die and would thus tend against policy, an empirical question of whether pushing This Red Button will cause or will prevent such from happening at noon becomes relevant to policy. Belief is detrimental which blindly claims one or the other, in so far as that belief is wrong.

    Creationists? Flat Earthers? 9/11 truthers? Beating these people in a debate is about as difficult, admirable, and socially relevant as beating a four-year-old at chess.

    First, it’s more akin to beating a pigeon at chess.

    Second, in so far as this has a grain of accuracy, it appears due in large part from such “debate” tending to be relatively ineffective as a means of persuasion.

    Third, while ignoring the bulk of the can of worms hiding in the uncertainty of measure for “social relevance”, approximately 2/5 of the population of the United States ascribe to either Young-Earth or Old-Earth creationism; and such beliefs tend not only correlated but sharing causal association with other beliefs that are empirically incorrect in ways that alter policy preference outcomes.There’s several varieties of “9/11 truthers”, aggregating to similar numbers; however, as their variant theories have conflicting policy implications, their impact seems more mitigated. Flat Earthers tend rather rarer than either of these; but the other two groups seem large enough fractions of the overall population to have at least some measure of “social relevance”, at least to a hypothetical Martian Anthropologist studying contemporary US society.

    If we ignore the complex of values and anxieties that give rise to these kooky beliefs, then we’re not really dealing with reality.

    I agree with this.

    Contrariwise, if we do not also recognize that some of these beliefs do not accurately describe reality, then we’re really not dealing with reality.

    The problem is that the debunker is just out to score debate points, not to be empathetic or effective in confronting social problems.

    I’ve known that sort. (Arguably, Ken Ham might be considered a counterpart of such on the other side.)

    The phrase “effective in confronting social problems” seems to have a couple interesting assumptions packed in, however. On the one hand, the word “problem” presuppose both you and the debunker agree as to criteria for what is and isn’t one. (For example, your thesis seems potentially modeled by considering that the debunker considers the actual problem to be their lack of social recognition as having superiority.) On the other, the word “effective” seems to function as a comparative to some implicit level of expectation for effect, when comparison to alternative strategies may be more meaningful; and absent a more effective alternative, it is uninformative verging on useless to complain that the debunking is a “bad” approach in terms of effectiveness.

  • abb3w

    But every detail in our knowledge about this reality derives from the method we employed to generate it.

    I think the word “method” has connotations that ascribe more impact to the intent than is warranted. Ambiguity of the referent for the final “it” pronoun does not help.

  • All I meant by “it” was every detail. Is there any aspect of reality, the knowledge we have about the universe, that isn’t mediated by some sort of method or process? Do you have some way to directly access reality, without the aid of any linguistic or methodological interface?

    I was telling HC that I wish science fans would at least meet me halfway on this. I may be a postmodern jerkoff, but I at least concede that there’s a reality out there. Would you at least acknowledge that what we know about reality is exclusively constructed through the various modes of inquiry we’ve developed?

  • abb3w

    All I meant by “it” was every detail.

    …of the “knowledge”. However, the most proximate noun was “reality”. I trust you can see that “Every detail in our knowledge about this reality derives from the method we employed to generate our knowledge” is a significantly different claim than “Every detail in our knowledge about this reality derives from the method we employed to generate this reality” — with the latter seeming rather further into postmodernism.

    Is there any aspect of reality, the knowledge we have about the universe, that isn’t mediated by some sort of method or process? Do you have some way to directly access reality, without the aid of any linguistic or methodological interface?

    Yes, the glass is half empty. Imperfections and idiosyncracies in how of science is anthropologically practiced lead to distortions of the resultant body of knowledge from the abstract “ideal”. (So do bounded resources, but that seems a distinct topic.)

    Contrariwise, the process is not always entirely intentional; occasionally, science makes progress by serendipitous encounters with the surprising. While discovery of cosmic background radiation depends on having instruments capable of noticing its existence, the discoverers were not looking for it. In the abstract, while the method would tend absurdly inefficient, it would be possible for a scientific Buddha to use science to analytically seek the patterns of the universe while merely watching it go by from a seat under a lotus tree.

    Nohow, the glass is also half full. Some of the results are linguistically independent, in that analysis under two languages where intertranslation is possible will tend to result in translateably equivalent descriptions, due to the necessity of the description to correspond to the evidence analyzed. While all details derives through the method, some do not derive from the method but rather are derivable independently of idiosyncracies in the method. Also (speaking very loosely), some methods are more likely than others to correctly identify which of two descriptions is more likely to correspond to the “reality” producing the evidence. (This can be phrased with a mathematical precision, but not without verbose background.)

    I may be a postmodern jerkoff, but I at least concede that there’s a reality out there.

    Your emphasis leaves it entirely unclear that this is your position. To the contrary, your emphasis on the role of mediation conveys the impression that this is always the primary factor in determining the conclusion, rather than any underlying character of the reality that produces the experiences which are being analyzed. In which case, the character of reality seems irrelevant.

    Would you at least acknowledge that what we know about reality is exclusively constructed through the various modes of inquiry we’ve developed?

    Oh, sure.

    Contrariwise, much of that knowledge appears less dependent of the derivation process than on the underlying character of “reality”.

  • All I meant by “it” was every detail.

    …of the “knowledge”. However, the most proximate noun was “reality”. I trust you can see that “Every detail in our knowledge about this reality derives from the method we employed to generate our knowledge” is a significantly different claim than “Every detail in our knowledge about this reality derives from the method we employed to generate this reality”.

    Since I already conceded that reality exists, why are you still hectoring me about this? Like I told HC, it seems like science fans are offended by the notion that the way we experience and define reality is mediated by language and other human constructs.

    Is there any aspect of reality, the knowledge we have about the universe, that isn’t mediated by some sort of method or process? Do you have some way to directly access reality, without the aid of any linguistic or methodological interface?

    Yes, the glass is half empty. Imperfections and idiosyncracies in how of science is anthropologically practiced lead to distortions of the resultant body of knowledge from the abstract “ideal”.

    That ideal, to my way of thinking, is illusory. You’re under the impression that there’s a reality out there just waiting for us to define it accurately, and I’m saying there’s no reason to believe that. I’m not accusing scientists of being sloppy or dishonest; even good research just makes the chaos of reality comprehensible to human consciousness.

    I may be a postmodern jerkoff, but I at least concede that there’s a reality out there.

    Your emphasis leaves it entirely unclear that this is your position. To the contrary, your emphasis on the role of mediation conveys the impression that this is always the primary factor in determining the conclusion, rather than any underlying character of the reality that produces the experiences which are being analyzed. In which case, the character of reality seems irrelevant.

    I’m not saying that the “character of reality” is irrelevant, just that we only know that character through the models we construct to study it. Empirical data is part of the process, obviously, but the ways people conceptualize and interpret it for their colleagues and competitors are much more important.

    Would you at least acknowledge that what we know about reality is exclusively constructed through the various modes of inquiry we’ve developed?

    Oh, sure.

    Contrariwise [:rolleyes:], much of that knowledge appears less dependent of the derivation process than on the underlying character of “reality”.

    I couldn’t disagree more.

    Even you would agree that the “underlying character of reality” doesn’t change, but for some reason humanity changes its models all the time. Legitimate, responsible scientific inquiry has existed for centuries now; if the “underlying character of reality” were truly the most relevant factor, why would our models keep changing so drastically?

    My response would be that we’re not magically getting closer and closer to the truth about reality; we’re just generating data that’s more useful to us with the aims, technology and methods we’re working with now. I don’t think we’re special in the history of human inquiry, just that we’re better equipped to conduct inquiry that fulfills the needs of our culture.

  • abb3w

    Since I already conceded that reality exists, why are you still hectoring me about this?

    In part, because you’re still being semantically imprecise in ways that seem likely to bolster the attitudes of those who tend to overstate the limits of science.

    Like I told HC, it seems like science fans are
    offended by the notion that the way we experience and define reality is mediated by language and other human constructs.

    Well, in my case, it’s in large part because you seem to be overstating “mediated”, and more pressingly appear oblivious to the relation of concepts associated to formal language theory with the underpinnings of philosophical science. “Offended” seems at close enough to the the right ballpark that I wouldn’t quibble to much at the characterization of the reaction per se; I merely think you misidentify the target.

    On the other hand, some of that may merely be imprecision in some of your semantics. To what extent do you consider mathematics (such as the number three) a “human construct”, as opposed to an abstraction that humans recognize instantiations of?

    That ideal, to my way of thinking, is illusory.

    I think “illusory” seems a vast exaggeration, save in so far as the square root of two, or the set of subsets of the natural numbers are also “illusory”.

    You’re under the impression that there’s a reality out there just waiting for us to define it accurately, and I’m saying there’s no reason to believe that.

    Well, leaving aside the personification implied in “waiting”, and the anthropocentrism of “for us”, in a sense I agree with “there’s no reason”. There is an axiomatic assumption involved underlying science; leaving aside some of the mathematical formality: that reality has a pattern such that it may (in abstract) be definable. Axioms are taken arbitrarily, without reliance on any prior reason. It is entirely valid to take the Axiom in refutation, instead. However, I don’t think you understand how radical the philosophical consequences of such Refutation are.

    I’m not saying that the “character of reality” is irrelevant, just that we only know that character through the models we construct to study it. Empirical data is part of the process, obviously, but the ways people conceptualize and interpret it for their colleagues and competitors are much more important.

    “Important” may involve some philosophical assumptions that I don’t accept.

    That aside, yes, the limits of humans to conceptualize and communicate about the models (and even more, to use those models) do act as a limit.

    On the hand, that reality (presumptively) has a character allows the possibility of models which converge despite some extent of such idiosyncratic differences between individuals (general relativity can be discussed in German, French, and English); and some of these models seem applicable (although not necessarily useful) to a wider scope than you appear to be recognizing.

    Contrariwise [:rolleyes:]

    Sorry, I’m partial to Lewis Carroll. (Mostly; I found Sylvie and Bruno tedious.)

    Even you would agree that the “underlying character of reality” doesn’t change, but for some reason humanity changes its models all the time. Legitimate, responsible scientific inquiry has existed for centuries now; if the “underlying character of reality” were truly the most relevant factor, why would our models keep changing so drastically?

    In part, because convergence towards a limit may occur starting from an arbitrary degree of divergence.

    My response would be that we’re not magically getting closer and closer to the truth about reality; we’re just generating data that’s more useful to us with the aims, technology and methods we’re working with now.

    I’d object to “just”, there; and there’s nothing “magical” to what I’m suggesting.

  • Well, in my case, it’s in large part because you seem to be overstating “mediated”, and more pressingly appear oblivious to the relation of concepts associated to formal language blah with the underpinnings of blah blah blah

    There’s nothing that interests me less than trying to make sense of this insufferable nitpickery, particularly since you’ve slathered it with such a thick layer of pompous condescension. Seriously, you need to make some effort to be civil before I’m even tempted to engage you.

    Bye now.

  • aвѕolυт clancy

    That was a disappointing display by NDGT. Not sure if it’s the lucre or the fame, something else or all the above but he’s stretching into ill-fitting areas. Nutrition?! He should know better than most that methodology matters – although enthusiasm and charisma are great, accuracy must not be sacrificed. And that means addressing the limitations along with the fun stuff.

    I tend to want to debunk and my weakness is learning to choose my topics and moments wisely. Is it really hurting anyone (medical quackery, vax refusal), or is it just irritating me (flat earth)?

    I like your reminder, “Subtlety and persuasion are what change minds.” Lately I’m struggling with a new role and increased influence at work. A helpful friend keeps reminding me of the frog boiling metaphor. I think it’s appropriate for debunking too, and a prudent scientist will look at the risk and benefit before going on the attack.

    I’ll close with another science popularizer who seems to have a pretty focused outreach that I’ve been liking.

    [W]hen doing science (or perhaps when doing anything at all in a society as judgmental as our own), be very careful and very certain before pronouncing something to be a norm – because at that instant, you have made it supremely difficult to ever again look objectively at an exception to that supposed norm. (Robert Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers)

    (edited typo)

  • aвѕolυт clancy

    …our shared helplessness in the face of a corporate medical, pharmaceutical, and regulatory apparatus that cares more about profit than the common good.

    Seconded, and I’d add that my personal observation in the three areas you mention is that the common good still prevails, but not by much. And what I find more frightening, only by dint of a small number of fingers in the dam.

  • I agree, as far as science communication goes, that was a real swing and a miss by NDT. It’s a good illustration of how well debunking suits our sound-bite-and-click-bait culture, though. If you’re going to take it upon yourself to do the hard work of informing people about how we know what we know, then you have a responsibility to your audience.

    Great to see you again!