Psycasm is the exploration of the world psychological. Every day phenomenon explained and manipulated to one's own advantage. Written by a slightly overambitious undergrad, Psycasm aims at exploring a whole range of social and cognitive processes in order to best understand how our minds, and those mechanisms that drive them, work.
My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.
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I’ve had a couple of conversations over the last few days which have reminded how hard it is to be a skeptic. Perhaps this is misleading, it is not necessarily hard to be a skeptic, but rather it’s hard to become a skeptic.
Scientists, by training, are skeptics. In my mind they have a few clear advantages:
1. They clearly understand, both intuitively and explicitly, what evidence is;
2. They have a process for determining the quality of evidence / information;
3. They have practise in generating alternate explanations;
4. They understand parsimony;
5. Scientists are comfortable with not knowing, and accept that not knowing is normal and healthy;
6. They’re opinions / beliefs are frequently subjected to scrutiny; and
7. They are often surrounded by people who also share these characteristics.
Though it would be narcissistic of me to call myself a ‘scientist’, I do believe that I conform to these characteristics even though I am still earning my education. Additionally, I try to actively engage in sceptical thought in most domains, I discuss sceptical topics with sceptical folk, and I read / listen to sceptical material. I like to think this blog and my podcast are inherently a sceptical exercise – on more than one occasion something I thought to be the case has turned out to be otherwise upon investigation.
But, as I’ve said, I’ve had a couple of conversation lately that have reminded me how hard it is to become a skeptic, and how hard it is to engage someone who holds an uncritical belief. How, exactly, do you challenge something that should be challenged without coming across as condescending and a know-it-all?
With regard to the first conversation I was at a club gathering talking to colleague and we were exchanging details about each other’s occupations. He works in an electrical-related industry requiring relatively skilled labour. We spoke about some of the stuff he gets a kick out of at work, and he seemed well informed on current trends in his industry and technology generally. He then asked what I do and what I was interested in. I explained I was a student and very interested in the concept of Evolutionary Psychology, which I then explained. He asked a couple of reasonable questions which followed along the lay-understanding of the Nature v. Nurture debate. I then explained that Evolutionary Psychology spends a lot of time trying to separate the influence of social factors (such as influence of Culture, Family, Language, etc) from genetic and evolutionary factors (selective pressure, adaptive fitness, etc). He seemed to understand everything I said… and when I went into a genetics and selection a little more he exclaimed how interesting it was and said something to the effect of “… and then there’s genetic memory!’.
I paused; I’m not expert in genetics, but this concept was unfamiliar. I asked for him to clarify and he explained that it was ‘being good at something that your parents or grandparents were good at’. I politely, and briefly, explained the difference between Lamarckian Evolution and Darwinian Evolution, and how phenotypes (physical or behavioural) need to be inherited and expressed in one’s genes. He denied my argument with an anecdote that followed this reasoning:
1. I never knew my biological father
2. My have x ambition in life
3. I have since learned that my biological father had x ambition in life, too
4. It couldn’t have come from some other influence (i.e. the mother) because she didn’t like x ambition and my father, nor in me.
I explained that x might be explainable by something broader, something that is heritable. For instance, it seemed reasonable to me that x (as he described it) could simply be a function of his predisposition to take risks and it was merely a coincidence that this risk-taking desire was expressed in a highly similar (nearly identical) way. But people don’t like the idea that their beliefs are mistaken distortions of coincidence.
And so, without being rude, I excused myself from the conversation leaving the topic unresolved in the area of ‘agree-to-disagree’. Personally, I had never heard of ‘genetic memory’ but the details he ascribed to it seemed inconsistent with everything I know regarding evolution and evolutionary psychology; additionally, I have no reason to believe his knowledge of genetics and evolution is superior to mine.
Then there was the UFO kook… In early May, in the Southern Hemisphere, the Eta-Aquarid meteor shower is [apparently] something worth seeing. So at 3:30am on the 6th, my girlfriend and I woke up and drove to a popular look-out to get a view of the show. I suspected that other astro-people might be there but when we arrived it was completely empty. I was at once i) surprised that no-one else was there to view the shower, and ii) unsurprised, since the look-out is way out of convenient travel, and is unlikely (especially at 4am) to have loiterers. So when a fellow shows up just past 4 (and since my girlfriend and I are hidden in the dark) I call out.
He freaks out. ‘Holy shit, you scared me!’.
I apologized, explaining that I’d rather announce myself from the dark than let him discover us by accident. That would be really awkward.
I ask ‘Do you know where to look?’, assuming he’s here for the meteor shower.
He pauses, and says ‘…at what?’.
So since its 4am, and this place is quite secluded, I begin wondering why the hell he’s here. He seems harmless… but, well, he’s here without obvious cause.
I explain that there’s a meteor show. He gets exciting and says ‘I’ll go grab my stuff’ and runs off. I’m thinking he means a pair of binoculars, or a camera, or something with a causal relationship to this new bit of information. Instead he returns with a bottle of metho and a fire-twirling stick.
We start chatting about the shower and while I talk him through a few constellations he pulls out his iPhone and activates some astronomy apps. He explains he has two: one is for looking at the stars and seeing if anything is out of place / doesn’t belong; and the second is to check objects against commercial flight-paths. He explains how he’s always on the lookout for UFO’s. Over the course of the next hour he explains some of his kookish beliefs while diddling with his iPhone and ignoring the sky above him. He questions some blinking lights in the sky (they were planes) and the purpose of satellites (explaining he’s seen some rare navy-satellites that they ‘try to hide’), and ultimately arriving at the topic of Japan and the Super-Moon. He was nice. He was harmless. He was just misinformed. He actually knew a reasonably amount about the night sky, but only in the context of his beliefs and his pseudo-conspiracy theories.
A friend mentioned a while back that as an exercise the sceptical group (over beers, no less) tried to come up with a sceptical check-list so that anyone could answer a few questions to work out bullshit from fact. And while this idea has been lingering in the back of my mind, these conversations have brought it to the fore.
And so I present a mindmap of a proposed sceptical check-list. I’ve tried hard to make it non-exclusive, and non-circular. That is, I want it to be able to be applied to kookish beliefs and scientific theories alike.
I envisage a final product in the form of a gated-survey that awards points for each answer given. Hypothetically a full whack-job score might equal 50, and a genuinely valid belief might equal -50. With scores like 10 = Red Flag, proceed with caution or 30 = Unlikely and unsubstantiated, seek alternatives; and -10 = promising, but insubstantial or -30 = Likely and sound, seek to invalidate and converge…. But maybe something like a flow-diagram would be useful too….
Naturally, the ideas expressed, and the form in which they are expressed, cannot possibly achieve the above proposal. From the nature of the questions asked to the broader method of enquiry there are numerous problems. Here I seek input in order to refine the elements challenged, standards met, and concerns raised. In keeping with this, I believe the final product must be guided by the following:
1. It must overcome confirmation bias.
2. It must overcome selective reporting.
3. It must overcome prejudice
4. It must fairly apply to kookish belief (from conspiracy theories, scam medicine and political ideologies) and scientific paradigm alike.
5. It must facilitate objective administration and interpretation
There are almost certainly other criteria it needs to achieve, but currently are not listed – please let me know!
1) I’ve bolded some of the questions/idea that I think have a neat insight. That is, I think that they cover a fair number of the 5 criteria above without being too overt.
2) Harm and Benefit are accompanied by a ‘?’. I’m not sure how well they drive to the heart of the matter, but I do like the P.E.F.S.P stems that are associated with it. Perhaps they belong in another category.
3) I think it would be really cool to make a preliminary survey that covers a lot of these questions and administer it to known groups of skeptics and kooks alike and run a factor-analysis afterwards.
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