|10-24-2011, 02:05 AM||#1 (permalink)|
Join Date: Nov 2006
Sharpening your objective lens
A lot has been said on this site about the value of seeing reality through multiple perspectives, or lenses. For the sake of having one more arrow in your worldview quiver, here's an outline of a lens I often use, which I'll call "Bayes-inspired skepticism". It's a way to move forward without certainty or proof, and with however much or little you know. It's not a new idea, or a new framework, but it is a slight formalization of what people often do in practice, regardless of whether or not they consider themselves skeptics, and I think it's valuable to be able to think consciously about it.
In objective reality, we have to deal with uncertainty. I think it's a good idea to take evidence into account. I find having a probabilistic view of the likelihood of whether something is true or false makes it a lot easier to change my mind and keep it open, building a more accurate model of objective reality. What do I mean by 'a probabilistic view?' In the simplest sense, I mean having a fuzzy idea of whether you think something is really unlikely to be true, sort of unlikely to be true, maybe a little more likely to be false than true, a bit more likely to be true than false, etc, up to "I'm pretty damn sure this is true". For extra cherries on top (or butter, if you prefer paleo with dairy), it's useful to have an idea about how sure/unsure you are about this belief, and why.
To illustrate this approach, I'll use three examples: gravity, breatharianism, and "superfood X".
Skepticism, as I often see it strawmanned, ought to reject gravity. We don't have a good explanation for exactly why it works, after all - so it has to be false, right? This has a couple of problems, including that gravity is readily observable, plausibly modelled, and in general, rather hard to deny without looking like an absolute lunatic. It seems obvious that any approach to skepticism which requires a complete explanation of how something works to believe in it is rather doomed. And, in practice, it's somewhat unusual to find a skeptic who behaves this way, and painful/amusing to watch when it does occur.
"Bayes-inspired skepticism" weighs the evidence for and against gravity. The lack of an understanding of exactly how it works remains evidence against it - but the vast majority of other evidence is in favor. Hence, it's reasonable to currently have the belief that gravity is very, very, very, very likely to be real (and, when one is not being pedantic, to essentially act as though it is).
A second example is breatharianism. There are people who report that it is possible. There are also reports of people who have died attempting it, and of people who claim to be doing it but are caught eating. So, what can you do? There are a few options - you can blindly believe in it, blindly disbelieve in it, or throw up your hands and say "look, I don't know, there's conflicting information". But there's another option, and one that I consider better: weigh the evidence that you've seen so far. If all you know about breatharianism is what you read in a news article claiming it's real, you can validly say "that looks plausible, but I don't have much information - it might be true, but I'm not very sure", or "that looks implausible, I suspect it's not true". If you care, you can then look for more information. If you find a source that you consider very plausible in favor of it (perhaps a documentary from a source you trust, or a well-designed scientific study by respected researchers, or an article by someone you think is generally right), you may switch to saying "I think it's probably true"; the same goes for information against it. There is a slight catch, though: to actually benefit from this, it's vitally important not to get sucked into an echo-chamber of only listening to one opinion. Find the strongest cases you can from both/all sides. If a source or viewpoint ends up being drastically implausible, you can assign it minimal weight (or in extreme cases, ignore it), but be extremely careful about not doing this too early. If you reject too much legitimate information while becoming more certain, you may make your model of reality less accurate. You can also chose, while consciously considering your current knowledge and beliefs, to try it for yourself and see what happens. In any case, be rigorously honest with yourself: don't accept or dismiss evidence based on what you want to believe, whether or not the evidence is based on your direct experience.
A third example is what I'll call "superfood X". Will it give you positive health effects, make you drop dead on the spot, or just drain your wallet? The same drill applies. If you don't care, there's no pressing reason to find out. If you do care, find out more. You can gather evidence through asking people, listening to anecdotes, trying it yourself, looking at scientific studies, etc. Depending on what you originally think of it (is it being recommended by someone who's just gotten out of jail for selling lead paint to people and calling it a supplement, or recommended by your favorite health researcher/guru?), you'll need different evidence to change your mind about whether or not to try it. This initial point of view is what's called your 'prior' on it being useful. As you read an anecdote about it causing headaches, and a health study about it having a statistically significant positive effect on people's iron levels, your 'prior' (how likely you think it is to be useful) changes. And if you go ahead and try it yourself, you can form a rather strong opinion about whether it's useful for you, and have some impact on your opinion on whether it's useful in general. At any given moment, your belief is based on the evidence so far, such as it might be, and it will tend to converge towards reality as new information appears. Like the classical motivational example about airplanes usually flying off-course, you won't always update your belief in the right direction - and that's ok.
One thing all of these examples have in common is that you have no obligation to collect data. You start off with a belief, and a degree of uncertainty in that belief, consciously accepting that you can be wrong about both, and update both if and when you gain more evidence and experience. How you gain that evidence and experience is up to you (although you can use this process on itself to see what sources give you better and worse results). Also notably, this type of 'skepticism' can be essentially the same as what is described in The Death of Skepticism as a non-skeptical attitude, if you chose to gather evidence simply through letting experience unfold.
 If you want a reminder about the idea of 'lenses' to view reality through, and the terms objective and subjective reality, Steve's written several articles, such as Subjective Reality Q&A 3 and Subjective Reality Analogies . In short, it's useful to be able to see and to hear, not to limit yourself to one or the other. And, continuing with this idea, it's useful be able to perceive the world flexibly, and to gain tools to see the world in more ways.
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