Saturday, April 19, 2008

Science and skepticism

Although peripheral to the main themes of this blog, I think this slate article worth lining as it pre-empts many common criticisms of the science that I use to build my ideas upon: (all 3 articles well worth reading).
It also reminded me of a discussion I had with a friend recently about how to make balanced judgments on political issues. For instance he asked why I thought it more likely that president Putin may have had some involvement with the death of Alexander Litvinenko than prime minister Blair having similar involvement with the death of David Kelly and suggested that my western background, rather than the evidence, made me more inclined to suspect Putin. My friend suggested that all media reports had to be interpreted sceptically to which I agreed but pointed out that if all evidence and argument is treated as suspicious then how could a person have an opinion on anything?

I have a few simple rules myself for critical assessment of received information:
For scientific claims, does the claim have widespread support in the scientific community? Although It certainly happens that new scientific ideas may be met with resistance, time eventually weeds out those that do not rest on sound evidence and good scientific practice (eg cold fusion).
For stories where opposing viewpoints are reported, who has the most to gain by lying?
Occam’s razor works pretty well too.

Modern scientific theory is an interconnected set of models that can be used to predict and explain natural phenomena that are constantly refined and improved. The models do not need to be “true” to be useful and in fact are always a simplified reflection of reality (eg the wavefunction equations that modern molecular orbital theory in chemistry is based on can only be solved for hydrogen – the simplest of atoms). Our view of the social and political world likewise will always be a grossly simplified version of reality, however some peoples views will be more consistent with that reality than others. However its not so hard to weigh other peoples opinions and stories against their motivations and feelings, what’s really hard is to not let your own motivations and feelings interfere with your judgement. One strategy that can be helpful is to deliberately inform yourself with arguments that go against your own viewpoint. I’ve since read widely (not just on Wiki) disparate internet sources on the Litvinenko and Kelly deaths and think it unlikely that Putin or Blair were involved in these cases. There is still a shadow of suspicion in my mind with regard to Putin however, I think its because of those shifty eyes.

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