Monday, October 09, 2006

The Blob Is A Martian (And Homeopathy Is A Science)

Eor laments the lack of critical thinking skills being taught these days, which leaves a huge hole for all sorts of altie silliness to fill.

While a better understanding of science is important, it's not possible for everyone to understand everything about science. Richard Dawkins recently pointed this out

Not everybody can evaluate all evidence; we can’t evaluate the evidence for quantum physics. So it does have to be a certain amount of taking things on trust. I have to take what physicists say on trust, for example, because I’m a biologist. But science [has] a system of appraisal, of peer review, so that I trust the physics community to get their act together in a way that I know from the inside. I wish people would put their trust in evidence, not in faith, revelation, tradition, or authority.

It seems in this advertising-inundated, spin-controlled world that people no longer no the difference between an assertion, a fact, a hypothesis, a theory, evidence and plausibility.

Take the following syllogism:

All martians are green.
Klaatu is not green.
Therefore Klaatu is not a martian.

This, at least, has the virtue of being logically correct. Klaatu, since he is not green, cannot be a martian. It also demonstrates the truth that a logical statement does not in any sense have to be a factual statement. In terms of assessing evidentiary value, both logic and facts have to be established. Premisses may be true or false. Nonetheless, so much altie nonsense doesn't even result from this level of logical rigour. Take the next syllogism, which is clearly logically fallacious:

All martians are green.
The blob is green.
Therefore the blob is a martian.

The blob may be a martian. The blob may also be a plant. Or anything else that is green. This same sort of illogic frames many altie concepts. The same sort of syllogistic error (though different terms are used to build the conclusion) produces the following "proof":

Parasites cause disease.
Cancer is a disease.
Therefore parasites cause cancer.

On such flimsy efforts are multimillion dollar "therapeutic" enterprises and book publishing careers built. Which leads us to the ultimate altie syllogism:

All statements are true. All statements are false.

A common altie complaint to refutations of their many and varied claims is "How do you know? Are you a [insert specialist regime of your choice - extra marks for demanding multiple specialties]?" (neglecting to mention that the promoter of the product in question very probably isn't either). This is a valid complaint, since none of us is expert in everything (not even Deepak Chopra or Gary Schwartz), but we can be rigourous in assessing the fundamental basics of claims, their compliance or otherwise with well established facts and principles, and the truth (in the logical sense) of their claims.

Further resources:
The Critical Thinking Community
Critical Thinking Web
Critical Thinking Mini-Lessons

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