Thursday, August 21, 2008

The skeptic's dilemma

For the skeptic, there is an ever-present dilemma. It is not enough to merely discern and rebut false claims. We must also seek to understand what causes people to believe weird things. If we understand the causes, we can better recognize it and halt its progress.

There are essentially two different ways of explaining a wrong belief. Either the person really does have a wrong belief, or is lying about it.

Yes, it's like the Liar, Lunatic, or Lord trilemma, only without Jesus. Also, "lunatic" is way too strong of a word when we really want something more like "mistaken".

There are two reasons the distinction is important. One is in how we treat the person. Most obviously, it's best to call a liar a liar, and an honest believer an honest believer. We're supposed to be the side that's concerned with factual accuracy, so we ought to call it like it is. I also believe that an honest believer should be given more respect than a liar. This is for the simple fact anyone can honestly have wrong beliefs. Even me. Even you.

The other reason the distinction is important is in how we prevent it. To prevent hoaxes from being perpetrated, there's always legal action. But in absence of that, we can target the kind of reasoning that leads people to believe the hoaxer. Always question authority, and ask for evidence. Beware of attempts to use scientific language in order to look authentic. To prevent people from fooling themselves, we must warn them of the dangers of cognitive biases. Anecdotal evidence is weaker than it seems. We often remember the hits and forget the misses. The brain is wired to recognize patterns even when there aren't any. And so on.

Which of the two, lying vs wrong belief, is most common? The answer is actually quite obvious. Wrong beliefs are most common. Given any of the factions that skeptics fight--9/11 truthers, psychics, antivaxxers, Scientologists, Intelligent Design, you name it--only a small fraction of the people could possibly be liars. That is, only the people on top. The people on bottom have nothing to gain from lying, and are often risking something for their beliefs. If there's no one on top, if it's structured without any sort of hierarchy, then obviously no one is lying. If there's no one on bottom, what is there to worry about?

But even among the leaders, I would still lean more towards honest belief rather than lies. But it must be decided on a case-by-case basis. So I'm going to go down a list of weird beliefs and comment on the leaders of each one. I am not particularly well informed about most of these topics, so feel free to disagree.

Psychics - It is entirely possible to honestly think oneself a psychic. A lot of it has to do with remembering hits and forgetting misses. It is also possible to use the cold reading technique without knowing it. Cold reading techniques involve educated guesswork, and using the subject's responses to help. This might be done intuitively, giving the impression of real psychic powers. On the other hand, hot reading (googling the subject beforehand) requires preparation and a conscious effort. Spoon bending too. That's how we know Uri Geller must be a liar.

Homeopathy - I'm guessing most homeopaths honestly believe it works. After all, the homeopaths themselves are subjected to many more anecdotes than their customers are. On the other hand, they stand to profit if they lie.

Physics crackpots - They are probably honest. It is not too hard to navigate the mess that is popularized science, and get hopelessly lost. Anyways, being a crackpot is a thankless job. Especially if you're one of those who spends decades perfecting a book because you fear the criticism you'll get in a scientific journal.

Water dowsing - You can sell to gullible people what is essentially a very expensive stick. Obviously, this business is extremely attractive to scammers. But it's certainly not impossible that the seller believes it too.

Holocaust denial - The root cause of holocaust denial is primarily anti-semitism. You might think that the leaders (people who publish "research" that questions various aspects of the holocaust) might be lying in order to serve their agenda, but I don't think that's how it works. It's much more likely that anti-semitism is biasing their judgment in pretty severe ways.

Scientology - L. Ron Hubbard was probably either a liar or literally insane, maybe both. I wouldn't be surprised if the same were true of Scientology's current leaders. Anyways, the church of Scientology is filthy, filthy rich, and runs like a business (did you know that the Cult Awareness Network is run by Scientology?). I bet corruption lurks in every corner.

Intelligent Design - Is the Discovery Institute rife with liars? We catch them in their lies all the time, but this is not necessarily purposeful. Maybe they're just incompetent, with huge gaping blind spots. Quote mining, for instance, might just be the result of really strong confirmation bias--seeing only what you want to see, and conveniently forgetting the context. I'm betting that they all at least honestly believe that Religion should come ahead in the culture war between Science and Religion. Do they lie in service of this agenda? I can't tell.

So now that we've had some practice, I encourage you all to try this on all weird beliefs you encounter. I can't say it's completely necessary to know who's lying and who's not, but it can be instructive.


Hugo said...

BTW, the trilemma is a false trilemma. ;) But I'm not responding to the post right now, unfortunately. I came around to kinda say thanks for the link, and I also came to double check the apostrophe (skeptic's play vs skeptics play) for the purpose of updating mine.

Anonymous said...

I agree that lying is less common than a non-believer might think. The power of the mind to convince itself of a reality sometimes has me wonder how often something could start out as a little lie, or a little half-truth, but pick up into something genuinely believed by the leader as well. Financial incentives and the desire of the human psyche to be moral (maybe I'm naive to believe that it does that?) kinda buries the lies as good as it can.

Psychics: I bet Randi is at least causing Sylvia Brown some significant cognitive dissonance trauma if she isn't full aware of her own lies. But now we're talking about a specific case. (What about the other participants in the paranormal research program targeted by Randi's "Project Alpha"?)

Water dowsing: I'm afraid a dowser was used when our site needed a borehole. I wasn't informed, else I'd certainly have explained my concerns. The dowser used a fan-belt which bends "with quite some force"... He demonstrated it with my mother (dunno if my sister was also there, I was blissfully ignorant in res at university). By the sound of it, the guy believes in himself. The dowsers tested in Randi's experiments certainly also believed themselves. What they use is often something they find themselves, so a "seller of equipment" isn't involved. Back to the fan-belt, I couldn't observe the mechanism, but the belt didn't buckle as my mother walked over the site, until the dowser "touched her arms" while she walked.

Sounds like some little action in his arms cause the belt to move. The idea in these cases is that the dowser has a sensitivity which is translated into the equipment, you can even believe the equipment does nothing other than display the internal subconscious senses of water through that miniscule-hand-movement, what's it called?

I've pondered if there might not be some dowsers that actually "know their stuff" on a subconscious level? Like a geologist might read the signs of the terrain, a dowser might have developed some subconscious knowledge of where water might be found, translated into his hands when he walks over that site? Unlikely, unless the dowser has enough chances to train his "sense" through sufficient hits and misses... Kinda empirically developing a theory of where water is found?

Holocaust denial - found in particular in Islamic countries. A secular Jew suggested to me, yesterday, that much of their denial of the holocaust could stem from the fact that the suffering of the holocaust caused the West to side with the Jews in disputes about who should "own" (what's the word?) the conflicted holy land... Their disagreement with the decision is then (maybe) projected into denying the reasons why people might side with, and be sympathetic to, the Jews... (He also told me about a bunch of Muslims protecting his grandfather with their own lives, in Algeria, when other people, Muslims, wanted to kill him. They made a circle around him and said "you'd have to kill us first". They were his co-workers. Had a stand-off for a few hours. But I digress.)

Scientology - L Ron Hubbard is famous for saying "If you want to make money in this world, start a religion." It's such a relevant quote, I'd typically double check it before sharing it... I've trusted it for a long time though. It means he's a liar, or rather a "science fiction author" who experimented on humans, and somehow rationalises the case as not "lying", but rather "writing fiction that people take too seriously". Just a hypothesis. An interesting question is: what happens when, eventually, the top-guys in Scientology are also true believers? E.g. the current people behind the scenes drop out, and Tom Cruise becomes "pope"? :-P It becomes a real religion, eventually? In Europe it's currently classified as a "business", apparently.

Here's a real question for you, with regards to creationism:
Will the Real Dr Snelling Please Stand Up?

Break your head over that one...

miller said...

I think you could make a fairly strong case that Sylvia Brown and other famous psychics are liars. But I think most of the psychics who apply for Randi's million dollar challenge are true believers. Incidentally, Randi is one of the skeptics most guilty of implying that believers are lying when they're not. I think it comes from being a magician.

The mechanism for water dowsing is called the ideomotor effect. A suggestion causes unconscious motor behavior which affects the results of a seemingly objective experiment. That's probably one of the more fantastic realities behind the myths. I wonder if there are dowsers out there who use the ideomotor effect to justify dowsing.

Scientology - Have you heard of Free Zone, scientologists who are independent of the Church of Scientology? Now that is a religion. I can't decide whether they're a good thing or not.

Dr. Snelling - Perhaps he is an omphalist? I don't even know.

Anonymous said...

Haven't heard of the Free Zone no, but I guess it was pretty much inevitable.

Omphalist? Now I know the fancy word for Last Thursdayism. ;) OK, no, Last Thursdayism is rather a parody of Omphalism, but as I typically avoid taking a ridiculing stance, they're pretty much equivalent to me, both pretty sweet ways of at least accepting science, even though it remains rather bizarre and becomes evil in Snelling's case.

A Shofarian friend of mine is "ah, ok" for most creationism evidence his Shofarian friends give him, but the light-in-transit from the stars is what keeps him at "but if God created it to look old, can't we just treat it as if it is old?" - Yay for him! That seems to be about the best you can do while still being a serious about Shofar.

Did I mention what a (secular) Jewish friend recently told me about one fringe Jewish "sect"'s belief? (Sect's maybe the wrong word.) They believe God created a couple of times, that we're living in e.g. the third(?) creation, and that the fossil record etc are leftovers of previous creations... hehe. Can't get far with that one while holding a "God is perfect" perspective, and it is much worse for modern science than omphalism: what happens to common descent, and thus our medical science relying on it?

But anyway, more digression from me... I hear you Re: Randi. Is Phil Plait (who's taking over) better? I hope so, he's debated moon hoax believers, he must realise how easily people can be true believers.

miller said...

I think Phil will be better in that regard. Phil's expertise is more in the area of images and pareidolia, which is way further on the "honest belief" side of the spectrum.