Friday, December 24, 2010

Expose yourself!

... to new and different opinions!

See, I bet you thought I was talking about exposing your sexual organs, didn't ya? You cheeky monkeys, all of you!

I've been reading a lot of books that pertain to topics that are personally interesting to me. This shouldn't come as a huge revelation, since most people do this. Why would you want to read about a topic that you don't care about? The biggest thing that many who read books/articles (or watch movies/shows/news broadcasts) have in common is that we all tend to read/watch the things that we agree with more so than the things that we oppose. This makes sense. Reading something that we are fundamentally opposed to, or even disagree with to a minor degree, aggravates, frustrates and annoys us. It even sometimes puts us into a blind rage!

Though reading about the topics from the viewpoints that you agree with is still valuable in the sense that you are learning more about the specific topic, I question whether it's as valuable as reading the subject from the opposite perspective. If you already agree with someone or something, then what is the significance of reading only from this angle? It supports your opinions or the knowledge that you already contain, so what else is there to gain from this experience other than mental masturbation?

Indeed, if there are topics where the information continually changes according to new evidence, such as almost any subject in the realm of science, then I can understand the urge to retain these new reports. Keeping updated on all of the facts is essential, especially if you work in a particular field, such as evidence-based medicine. A physician who continues the practice of bloodletting is probably going to run into a few problems in his field.

However, as far as the topic is concerned in its general context, what else is there to glean from reading and rereading the information that you are already aware of? It probably doesn't engage your faculties of reason and critical thinking skills as much as reading the same topic from a contradictory viewpoint. Even if you don't think you will be convinced that the opposite position is more correct than the one you currently hold, it is still important to be aware of the arguments from the other end of the spectrum (and even the ones in the middle). Reading books about something that you don't agree with (whether it's due to it being factually incorrect or because it's not how you were raised to believe in something) can encourage you to think about why you believe what you believe. It's a fantastic method of exercising your patience (if it's a topic that really gets you pissed off), as well as your critical thinking skills. Find something that you inherently disagree with, write it down word-for-word and include the context in which it was written, and then think about why you think it is incorrect. Research why it might be incorrect. Test your hypothesis as to why it's wrong. Explain it to yourself and to others. See their reaction to your reasons and your conclusion. If there are criticisms about your methods of reasoning or the conclusion, take them up on their reasons for their criticisms and research them further.

Understanding and being capable of articulating why you believe what you do and how you've come to this conclusion is often more important than the conclusion itself. Even if the conclusion is factually correct, if your confidence in its correctness is based on faulty reasoning, this does not aid you in your ability to clearly understand the topic. If you don't know why something is correct or incorrect, you will not fully comprehend the topic. If you want to argue that something is correct or incorrect, you must understand why so as to establish your reason why others should think the same thing. If your conclusion is based on faulty reasoning or without utilizing critical thinking skills, you will have a more difficult time being able to discern whether or not something else is correct. New information, no matter how silly it may be, may seem completely valid (despite that not all ideas are equally valid) because your ability to weed out the complete bullshit from the more probable ideas is compromised by your inability to think critically.

So I encourage everyone to EXPOSE YOURSELVES to ideas that are completely contradictory to your own. Get fired up about it! Understand why you believe what you believe. Is there a chance, no matter how minor, that your conclusions are false? Challenge yourselves!

Above all, always learn. Never stop learning. If you do, you might as well be dead.


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"Zoinks! G-g-g-ghosts!"

"I believe that there are things in this world that can't be explained."
Words announced by those who go ga-ga for ghosts, the faint apparitions in photos, videos and sometimes from first-person witnesses after their slumber was disturbed. They "ooh" and "ahh," slack-jawed and wide-eyed when presented with alleged evidence for the existence of ghostly beings. These are the people that accept at face value the preconceived assumption that the blurred or transparent human-like figure captured by a poor-quality camera is a ghost, insisting that those who do not share their credulousness are close-minded.

I retort in sarcastic fashion, "No, no, no. It's a time traveler who got caught by the camera during his travel through the time-space continuum." This is when I am met with a stupefied stare by the ghost believer, who often responds, "That's just ridiculous."

My thoughts exactly. It is just as dubious, just as probable, as the ghost hypothesis.

Recently, a picture was taken by a hotel manager at a North Carolina hotel. In the photograph, there is a figure perceived as a boyish apparition next to an ice sculpture. The manager claims that he looked over the surveillance video to check if there was someone at the hotel with similar looks. How mysterious. Welp, it must be a disembodied spirit/soul of a dead person! There's no other possibility. Why are you shaking your head at me? Don't roll your eyes! You're just too close-minded to accept that there are things in this world that we don't know about yet.

Indeed, there are many, many things in this world and in this universe that humans are ignorant of, have yet to discover, and possibly will never discover. However, the difference between an idiot who believes in ghosts and a person who suspends their judgments until the evidence is properly analyzed by more than one layperson or investigative team that suffers from confirmation bias...is utilizing critical thinking skills.

 First of all, the hypothesis that one makes must be falsifiable. If it takes "faith," or the belief in something without sufficient or credible evidence for this belief, then it's not falsifiable. Now, the first step in the process of utilizing the scientific method involves considering the problem at hand, trying to make sense of it, and researching for any previous explanations for this problem (is this apparition a ghost? What camera did he use to take the photo? Have there been any other instances of apparitions in photos? What were their explanations?). Next, you must state an explanation if nothing else is known (Didn't find any research about ghostly apparitions in photos that were explained by credible investigators? Think of some way to explain the alleged ghost). Then, hypothetically, if your hypothesis is true, what can be predicted from it? (If ghosts exist, you could predict that they might appear in photos -- though I'm not sure how, since they wouldn't reflect light very well...). Lastly, test your hypothesis! Look to falsify it, not verify it. If something doesn't add up, making the hypothesis false or only partially true, go back to the beginning, researching some more and then coming up with a new hypothesis to test.

Often, many people afflicted with confirmation bias will fall victim to fallacies. One fallacy is called "affirming the consequent," or "converse error," a formal fallacy. An example of this is mangling logic by concluding, "If ghosts exist, we would see their apparitions in photos. I see a photo of an apparition. Therefore, it is a ghost and they exist." This is where the conclusion can be false, even if the first two statements are true. Another fallacy is an informal one: Assuming that ghosts have not been disproved, so it may still be true. However, this is not the way the world of logic works. If something had to be disproved for something to be believed, we would believe everything until they were reasonably proven false. For the idea to be true, that someone should disprove ghosts before I can not believe in them, I must also abide by this rule by believing in three-headed monsters with blue eyes made of gems that live beneath the sea, as well as any other implausible idea that may pop into my mind. This is an appeal to ignorance, shifting the burden of proof from the person who is making a positive assertion (that ghosts exist and that this particular apparition in this photo is a ghost) to someone who finds this conclusion highly unlikely. Unfortunately for those who make assertions based solely upon faith, it is their responsibility to prove their belief with reasonable certainty.

I, on the other hand, as the individual who does not think that the picture of an apparition is a ghost (or any spiritual entity), do not have to go nearly as far to assert my belief that the picture has a more reasonable explanation. If I utilize the scientific method and first analyze the problem at hand, seeking research that has been conducted on an issue similar (or identical) to my problem, I would find a plethora of evidence that suggests a simpler conclusion. Though I am not sure of what kind of camera the hotel manager was using, if he was using a (non-digital) SLR camera, there are the issues of long exposure (the shutter being open on the camera for approximately ten seconds), overlapped pictures (when the photo has not fully advanced in the camera, taking a second picture on the picture that was already taken, much like negative layering), bad film being used (old or otherwise defective film used), mistaken identity (often, our eyes will see what it expects to see, whether or not the figure is what we perceive it to be), or outright fraud.

If you think about the problem with Occam's razor in mind, finding a conclusion that makes the least amount of assumptions, it's more likely to be the correct conclusion. For the apparition to be a ghost, one would have to assume that ghosts (or spirits in general) exist. If they exist in the way that we think of them, then they must be spirits of people, retaining their features as well as their clothing (why the hell would ghosts/spirits need clothes?). There are too many unfounded assumptions that we would need to make in order for this hypothesis to be true.

More than likely, there is a rational explanation for these kind of phenomena. It's not faith that I have which makes me believe this. It's confidence based on the several hundred other instances of ghostly figures in photos that have been found to be something logical and based in reality.

I firmly encourage people to investigate a problem thoroughly before making allegations. Be comfortable with uncertainty. You should be taunted by the chance (however slim) that you might be totally incorrect in your hypothesis. It's true that it's more difficult to constantly question every solid belief that you behold, tearing apart your beliefs and doing a massive amount of work to come to a conclusion that will always remain, even slightly, incorrect. If you're comfortable with your convenient assumptions about yourself, others, ideas, and the world without conducting a fair amount of research, you're doing something wrong. It's all about learning as much as you possibly can about the world around you, other people, yourself, and getting as close to the truth as possible. It's about admiring and respecting the world and its inhabitants, attempting to see it all at face value, and exploring the wondrous aspects provided by the natural world and the universe within which it resides. It's about being responsible, owing yourself and those around you to be as informed as possible before making critical decisions in your life.