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Friday, February 4

With Respect To Believers

This weekend sees QEDCon, a skeptical conference. I wish I could attend. I will have to enjoy it vicariously through the various reports and podcasts I'll see/hear over the next few weeks.

Skepticism is an interesting subject to me. I find myself being both in support of and against its methods from time to time. On the one hand, the sort of thinking that you'd find in a Ben Goldacre, Simon Singh or Edzard Ernst book is unassailably sensible. Here's a summary of how rational thinking works.

Step 1 - define the criteria for judging whether something is true
Step 2 - modify the criteria to account for other confounding variables
Step 3 - modify the criteria some more to account for human failings, like confirmation bias
Step 4 - apply the method and look at the results

If you've done the steps right, and there's debate about exactly what's a confounding variable and what is a human failing, but let's assume we can work those out for a second, then the answer isn't a matter of opinion, it's a matter of deduction. This applies to anything.

A problem occurs when you start out with a viewpoint of the answer before you've designed the test, and then either design the test to agree with your answer, or retrospectively adjust the method of the test to prove your answer.

Believers are idiots.

Naysayers are idiots in equal measures - they're just registered disbelievers.

Skepticism, linguistically, implies naysaying, which sometimes is a consequence of disagreeing with a belief on the basis of evidence, but often seems to be assuming that some saying of nay is required and then finding evidence to enable that, which is not pure evidence-based rationalism.

So, before entering a debate on what represents a reasonable claim, you have to agree on your criteria for defining what would be accepted as a reasonable claim. This has to be very specific. I don't think the skeptical activists would disagree with that, though their rhetoric often sounds different. When you're confident that your answer is better than someone else's you can't help but display a giddy sense of "he's a bloody idiot", which can occur on either side of the fence dividing believers from naysayers.

This is where skepticism worries me. On the one hand, QEDCon is going to represent an amazing gathering (not an "Amazing Meeting", TAM fans) of minds, providing events and speeches I'd be thrilled to attend. On the other hand, to a large extent, the event will involve a lot of "preaching to the choir" which may, to the uninitiated, look like backslapping and general smugness. I'm not saying it IS that, I'm saying it might as well be that, when the human failings of the passionate are mixed with the perfectly brilliant views of their heroes.

Let's look at the issue of how rational thinking can be applied without closing the door to a meaningful discussion with believers, in other words, how do we approach unproven claims without becoming naysayers. Indeed, can even calling those claims unproven be a starting point?

This is again where I see my own attitude reflected by the jolly band of skeptics. I'm the sort of person who would start a conversation assuming I was right and "they" were wrong, and I know it doesn't win arguments, it just highlights the divide. So, some of the skeptic activists are, effectively, winding up the existing skeptics to agree with what they may already agree with, recruiting some other likeminded people, but are not necessarily likely to reach out to the undecided or the believers.

This is why I like the way that Goldacre describes scientific process, in a way that's not derisory, but just logical. This is why Singh and Ernst's first examples in their wonderful book "Trick or Treatment" are so good, as they do not relate to contentious current debates, but instead show the fallacies still present in current debates, via examples from the past that nobody would, with hindsight, dispute. Ultimately, deciding right from wrong comes down to the method proposed by John Diamond in his book "Snake Oil and Other Preoccupations": essentially paraphrased as "Why don't we determine what's right or wrong, but some sort of system of counting?".

So, I'd like to be part of the choir that's being preached to this weekend. I like the rational song. It's my song. To paraphrase James Randi, I want to live in a world that's based on real things. That said, I'd like to see a change in the way that skeptics approach believers. There's zero point in exchanging blows on a "my ideas are better than yours" basis. The first question to ask is this - "Are you a believer? or can we discuss evidence and rational deductions in relation to your subject matter?". If the person defines themselves as a believer, then you should probably stop.

My view is that neither believers nor naysayers should be allowed control of anything that's important. Let's have the thinkers step up to the plate. This will involve getting out of the conference hall, and spreading the philosophy of rational thought, rather than its outcomes.

I think that's what skeptics are trying to do. So I'm a skeptic.


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