Thursday, August 07, 2008

Credibility Trumps Credulity -- Part I (Introduction)

One of the most difficult concepts to comprehend and relate to other people is the importance of critical thinking, skepticism, and the accessibility of evidence in determining the plausibility of various theories. Often times, we come to feel as though we have attained a very cohesive and complex theory and choose to focus squarely on information that supports our preconceived notions. In other instances, we may be introduced to theories that may superficially seem deep and thought provoking, perhaps even superior to accepted notions, and yet, due to our need to seek reinforcement for our preconceived theories, we are lead astray from reality. We can construct an artificial reality that is strengthened by falsely reinforced information and loaded notions that we extract from our misguided observations and preemptive filtering of accessible information. In our current day and age of information accessibility, we are consistently bombarded with a gradient of relevant information ranging from sources that are at best dubious to those that are well researched and supported. Some of this information is present as a means to misguide and misdirect credulous individuals, while others inadvertently present false and highly misleading data. Whether the data is statistical, material, figurative, or evidential in nature, verifying it, and maintaining a healthy degree of skepticism often interferes with our inherent need to reinforce our preconceived notions, no matter how misinformed and misguided they may be. Ultimately, it is up to us to develop critical thinking skills, and strive to constantly apply a healthy degree of skepticism towards any information that we encounter. There are various tools at our disposal to break down the information into manageable packets, or quanta, and through our rigorous internal filters, we'll be better able to assess given data. These are skills that are rarely taught to us, especially in the United States, and it takes a great deal of work and meticulous usage to break the bonds of credulous thinking and eventually come to think critically of various pieces of information we encounter.

The most important tool that we use to properly assess a situation is the scientific method. As any primary school pupil should learn, the scientific method involves certain steps that help us uncover natural processes. In short, the process involves the identification of a problem, observing and collecting data, posing a hypothesis based on the data, performing an experiment on the data, analyzing the relevant information gained, and reassessing the hypothesis to see if it holds up to the data. Generally, the first step to the scientific method involves a question. For example, why are the oldest hominid bones found in East Africa? Once we have the question, we can start to research the problem and attempt to form a hypothesis. In the given example, we can start by looking at the paleobotanical record of East Africa during the last few million years. We can further use comparative anatomy to view the changes in hominid development during the last few millions years. Further research and data can include fossilized pollen, geological changes, climatic differences, etc. What we'll see is that the ecology of East Africa during the critical time of bipedal development changed from relatively wet, to dryer conditions. What was once forested areas, were developing into grasslands. We can hypothesis then, that perhaps the reason the oldest hominid bones were found in East Africa was because the climatic changes forced certain apes to adapt to grasslands, whilst others were forced to retreat deeper into the forests. Since performing an experiment in this case would be impossible given the time constraints we have to deal with (we don't have millions of years of time to research this), we can continue building evidence and collecting data to further allow us to determine whether the new data will help reinforce our hypothesis. At this point, we can look at various hypotheses and use the growing evidence to rule some of them out. The greatest aspect of the scientific method is that it allows a hypothesis to be discarded when the evidence counters it. Using the hominid example, we can look at the various hypotheses attempting to explain why apes in that region of Africa evolved bipedalism and certain characteristic traits. Could it have anything to do with adapting towards a life in and near inland lakes (Aquatic Ape Hypothesis)? We can then ask, if the climate changed in East Africa, it must have had an effect in other areas of Africa. Is there evidence for evolutionary changes in other species during this time period? Was there an increase in animals that inhabit grasslands? In any case, the growing body of research into this problem allows us to come closer to answering the initial question, and discarding hypotheses that fall apart on further reflection. The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis is one of those that proved to fall apart and the many holes in the hypothesis are mentioned in the following link. Often times with science, we don't have a quick and easy solution to any question, and in fact, answering one question often leads us to a path of asking many more in return. Yet, it's the curiosity and rigorous tools of the scientific method that allows us to chip away at our ignorance and attempt to understand the world around us.

Considering that no single person has the time or resources to investigate every single aspect of the natural world, we must come to realize that we are dependent on the work and theories of others to help build a case for any investigation into nature. In this instance, a second tool that helps us critically analyze a given situation is the credibility of the individual making a claim. Many of these individuals have spend their lives on a specific question and thus have the greatest knowledge in their relevant field. Yet, it's only those individuals that have used the rigors of the scientific method who truly stand out as experts. One can spend their whole life attempting to explain hurricanes and tornadoes as acts of god, or caused by invisible cherubs at specific regions of the troposphere, but without the background in meteorology, their explanations are often completely groundless. Similarly, many so called "experts" with little background in the sciences will analyze the Egyptian Pyramids and determine that there is no possible way that humans could have built them. Their assumptions stem from the lack of technological tools that the Egyptians possessed, or the lack of political organization, or any number of other possible factors. Yet, without having to look to the heavens, there are many clues as to how the pyramids were constructed within standard Egyptian society and culture. Just because it took us thousands of years to relearn the methods, and due to our lack of hindsight as far as the organizational skills that Egyptian Civilization possessed during the Old Kingdom, many were and still are quick to dismiss the fact that such a feat was possible without any extra-terrestrial or supernatural influence. It's mainly thanks to the tireless work of actual experts, such as Egyptologists, Engineers, Architects, Computer Scientists, and even comparative sociologists, who have all contributed to our advancing understanding of early Egyptian civilizations and the true extent of their capabilities.

A third tool we can use when critically analyzing a given piece of information is Evidence. We should strive to ask ourselves what kind of evidence exists that helps support the given information. Does the evidence come from credible sources? Is it reproducible? Can we see this evidence for ourselves if we search hard enough or attain enough knowledge in the given field to uncover it? Are there independent sources that we can corroborate the information with? Feelings and thoughts are not enough to be considered evidence. As in law, the burden of proof falls upon those presenting the evidence that refutes the body of information that we have. Sure, some pieces of evidence prove to completely turn a theory on its side, while others are methodological errors, such as Cold Fusion, that prove impossible to reproduce. When accepting a given kernel of information as fact, the line of reasoning and rational thinking is our own to demarcate. It comes down to our educated and highly critical filters that determine whether a given quanta of information is reliable, credible, and ultimately, backed by evidence that can ultimately be falsified. Following this line of thinking, the second segment of this post will focus on the conspiracy theories that even the most educated and well intentioned people may hold as truth.

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