— Embracing Reality
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Objectives
- 3 The Importance of Truth
- 4 Expressing Uncertainty
- 5 Degrees of Consensus
- 6 Interpreting Evidence
- 7 Objective and Subjective Experience
- 8 Observational Error
- 9 Emergent Properties
- 10 Not Just a Theory
- 11 The Unity of Knowledge
- 12 Reliable Epistemologies
- 13 Recognizing Nonsense
- 14 Thinking Outside the Tribe
- 15 Matters of Fact
- 16 Further Reading
- 17 References
"You're entitled to your own opinions”, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan declares, “but you're not entitled to your own facts.” OK, but what if I feel that whatever is true for you might not be true for me? My opinion is that I’m entitled to my beliefs and you are entitled to your beliefs and that’s all that really matters if we are to protect our freedom. How are we supposed to tell the difference between facts and opinions anyway? I feel this is a difficult problem. Whatever …
For the purposes of this course we will adopt these axioms:
- Reality exists,
- We live in the real world,
- We can explore, investigate, examine, observe, measure, and probe that real world,
- You and I, and everyone we know or ever meet, all live in the same universe,
- The most certain of all basic principles is that contradictory propositions are not true simultaneously.
The objectives of this course are to:
- Understand the importance of truth,
- Evaluate and describe your understanding of reality,
- Distinguish among fact, belief, feelings, and opinions,
- Distinguish between reality and perception, objective reality, and subjective reality,
- Distinguish among facts, controversy, and taste,
- Examine the roles of tolerance and dialogue,
- Examine the unity of knowledge,
- Distinguish between Scientific theory and just a theory,
- Understand observational error,
- Examine the reliabilities of various epistemologies—ways of knowing,
- Distinguish among science, paranormal events, pseudoscience, and conspiracy theory,
OK, let’s face the facts and strengthen our grip on reality!
The Importance of Truth
Why is truth important?
Truth is useful. Engineers, architects, and other builders need to know the true strength of materials so they can design and build structures that are safe and lasting. Health professionals need to understand the true benefits and risks of various medicines so they can safely and effectively treat illnesses. To effectively serve the public, officials need to know the true conditions existing in their jurisdictions and the true effects of various policy actions and options. These examples illustrate there is a clear difference between getting things right and getting things wrong. A concern for truth is essential to conducting efficient and effective commerce and public affairs.
Subjective evaluations and judgements are ultimately based on what we accept as true. If you judge someone to be a fine citizen your subjective judgment of their character rests on facts you hold to be true about that person. You will consider how you believe that person spends their time, how they treat family and friends, the work they do, the things they say, correspondence between what they say and what they do, the trust they have earned from you, the consistency of their behaviors, and many other factors that you believe indicate character. It is from these considerations you regard as true that you draw your subjective judgment and conclusion.
Civilizations have never sustained their health and prosperity without relying on large quantities of factual information. Individuals also require large quantities of factual information because it is the true information that allows us to navigate effectively in the real world.
Because we live in the real world it is nearly always to our advantage to face the facts about our world than it is to remain ignorant of them. Also, self-awareness, the willingness to face facts about ourselves, especially those inconvenient truths, is important for living our lives successfully and authentically.
Humans are distinctly rational animals. Humans respond to reason, and reason relies on facts. False statements provide no rational support for anything. Truth is the essential element of reason, and reason is the essential justification for action.
Truth forms the basis for trust. To the extent people are generally dishonest and untrustworthy, peaceful and productive social life becomes more difficult. Lying undermines the cohesion of human society. Because people regularly engage in lies we must carefully interpret all that we hear. “You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case.”
We are injured when we are betrayed. Lies impair our efforts to determine and understand the real state of affairs. Lies impede us from knowing what is really going on. Liars attempt to impose their will on us. Lies are designed to damage our grasp of reality. Furthermore although the statement that, “The Liar leads an existence of unutterable loneliness” exercises a bit of poetic license, liars are isolated. They cannot reveal their loneliness without disclosing the lie. Also, “To discover that one has been lied to in a personal relationship leads one to feel a little crazy.” Although we know people often lie, it is disappointing to be lied to unexpectedly by a trusted friend. Our natural expectation of access and intimacy among friends is damaged and trust is lost.
As we bump up against the world we live in we begin to understand the limits of our free will and the boundaries of our self. As we encounter the world as it truly is we learn what we can and cannot do, what we can change and what we cannot change, and the sort of efforts we must make to accomplish what is actually possible. This contributes to our understanding of our own identity by constantly clarifying what we are and what is not us.
Reality is the ultimate arbiter. "On the whole, truth matters to us because it has survival value and allows us to function in our world."
The purpose of this assignment is to assess the role that accurate and inaccurate information, along with unavailable, and unused information has had in making the important decisions in your life.
- Recall various important decisions you have made throughout your life. These may be your choice of friends, how you approached school studies, how you used your free time, the friends you choose, deciding to smoke or drink, risks you did or did not take, and participation in sports teams, clubs, or other activities. Career choice, deciding if, who, and when to get married. Deciding family planning issues. Car buying, home purchase decisions, investment decisions, or others.
- Identify one of these decisions that turned out to be a good decision, and another decision that turned out to be a bad decision.
- Reflect on the role that accurate, unavailable, unused, and incorrect information each had on each decision.
- Did more accurate information result in better decisions?
Choose one of these historical events to study for this assignment.
- The claim that “rain follows the plow” was used to encourage westward expansion of the United States in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. The tragedy of the dust bowl proved the claim to be false.
- Heaven's Gate was an American UFO religious millenarian group. On March 26, 1997, police discovered the bodies of 39 members of the group who had committed mass suicide in order to reach what they believed was an extraterrestrial spacecraft following Comet Hale–Bopp.
- "Jonestown" was the informal name for an American religious organization under the leadership of Jim Jones, in northwestern Guyana. It became internationally notorious when on November 18, 1978, a total of 918 people died in the remote commune.
- The Niger uranium forgeries were forged documents initially released by SISMI (Italian military intelligence), which seemed to depict an attempt made by Saddam Hussein in Iraq to purchase yellowcake uranium powder from Niger during the Iraq disarmament crisis. On the basis of these documents and other indicators, the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom asserted that Iraq violated United Nations Iraq sanctions by attempting to procure nuclear material for the purpose of creating weapons of mass destruction. This bolstered the case for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
In what ways did a lack of factual information contribute to the tragedy you chose to study?
We use many different words to express our level of certainty or uncertainty about some statement, claim, fact, or opinion. It is helpful to review definitions of these words, and to compare their scope. Please refer to the Venn diagram on the right illustrating relationships among various words that express degrees of certainty. Each word is defined and characterized below. Links are to the corresponding Wikipedia article which discusses each concept in more depth. It may be best to ignore these links on the first reading and until you are ready to investigate the concepts more deeply.
- Reality is the state of things as they actually exist, rather than as they may appear or might be imagined. Reality includes everything that is and has been, whether or not it is observable or comprehensible. Reality is often contrasted with what is imaginary, delusional, (only) in the mind, dreams, what is false, what is fictional, or what is abstract. The truth refers to what is real, while falsity refers to what is not. Fictions are considered not real.
- A fact is something that has really occurred or is actually true. The usual test for a statement of fact is verifiability—that is, whether it can be demonstrated to correspond to experience.
- Knowledge is a familiarity, awareness or understanding of someone or something, such as facts, information, descriptions, or skills, which is acquired through experience or education by perceiving, discovering, or learning. Knowledge is often defined as a justified true belief. The essential goal of learning and discovery is to better align our knowledge with reality. This alignment would ultimately cause the green disk to exactly overlap the blue disk in the diagram.
- Truth is most often used to mean being in accord with fact or reality, or fidelity to an original or standard. In short, truth is correspondence with reality. The commonly understood opposite of truth is falsehood, which, correspondingly, can also take on a logical, factual, or ethical meaning. The concept of truth is discussed and debated in several contexts, including philosophy, art, and religion. Many human activities depend upon the concept, where its nature as a concept is assumed rather than being a subject of discussion; these include the sciences, law, journalism, and everyday life. Some philosophers view the concept of truth as basic, and unable to be explained in any terms that are more easily understood than the concept of truth itself. Others hold that the distinction between true and false is well known to people in general. This course will take care to distinguish between (capital T) Truth, and ordinary truth. Capital T Truth generally implies a certainty, however, since it is widely held that certainty about the real world is a failed historical enterprise, claims of Truth are suspect. When truth appears as the first word of a sentence, it is capitalized and should be understood as small t truth.
- A truth claim is a proposition or statement that a particular person or belief system holds to be true. Many everyday statements are truth claims, such as “today is my birthday”, or “Earth is the third planet from the Sun.” Truth claims can be contrasted with opinions, such as “I prefer chocolate ice cream to vanilla ice cream,” or “The Beatles were the greatest rock group ever.” Truth claims are identified by use of the word "is" to describe an equivalence between two items, often in the form of X is Y or in the corresponding plural form of Xs are Ys.
- Belief is what people accept as being true. It is the state of mind in which a person thinks something to be the case, with or without there being empirical evidence to prove that something is the case with factual certainty. Another way of defining belief sees it as a mental representation of an attitude positively oriented towards the likelihood of something being true.
- Doubt characterizes a status in which the mind remains suspended between two contradictory propositions and unable to assent to either of them. Doubt on an emotional level is indecision between belief and disbelief. Doubt involves uncertainty, distrust or lack of sureness of an alleged fact, an action, a motive, or a decision. Doubt questions a notion of a perceived “reality”, and may involve delaying or rejecting relevant action out of concerns for mistakes or faults or appropriateness.
- Opinion is a judgment, viewpoint, or statement that is not conclusive. It may deal with subjective matters in which there is no conclusive finding. What distinguishes fact from opinion is that facts are more likely to be verifiable, i.e. can be agreed to by the consensus of experts. An example is: "United States of America was involved in the Vietnam War" versus "United States of America was right to get involved in the Vietnam War". An opinion may be supported by facts and principles, in which case it becomes an argument. Different people may draw opposing conclusions (opinions) even if they agree on the same set of facts. Opinions rarely change without new arguments being presented. It can be reasoned that one opinion is better supported by the facts than another by analyzing the supporting arguments. In casual use, the term opinion may be the result of a person's perspective, understanding, particular feelings, beliefs, and desires. It may refer to unsubstantiated information, in contrast to knowledge and fact. It is helpful to distinguish between popular opinion and expert opinion.
- The word feeling has many meanings. When used to describe a level of belief, it refers to a state of consciousness, such as that resulting from emotions, sentiments or desires.
- Whatever is a slang term meaning "whatever you say”, "I don't care what you say" or "what will be will be". The term is used both to dismiss a previous statement and express indifference or in affirmation of a previous statement as "whatever will be will be". An interjection of "whatever" can be considered offensive and impolite or it can be considered affirming. In the late 20th century and early 21st century, the word became a sentence in its own right; in effect an interjection, often but not always, used as a passive-aggressive conversational blocking tool, leaving the responder struggling to find a convincing retort.
The purpose of this assignment is to help you pay closer attention to the words you choose to express your level of uncertainty regarding various truth claims.
- Browse this list of questions to classify, and choose 10 questions to work with for this assignment.
- Recast each question into a statement, choosing the correct term to indicate your level of uncertainty. For example, if you chose to work on “Are Alien abductions real?” would you recast this as:
- a statement of fact, making the statement “Alien abductions are real” or,
- a statement of belief, making the statement “I believe alien abductions are real”, or
- a statement of opinion: “In my opinion, alien abductions are real”, or
- a statement of doubt: “I doubt alien abduction are real”, or
- an expression of your feelings: “I feel that alien abductions are real”, or
- a declaration of your indifference or annoyance: “Whatever.”
- During conversations and other communications, take care to choose the word that most accurately expresses your level of uncertainty. Encourage others to do the same.
Degrees of Consensus
Distinguishing among: 1) matters of fact, 2) matters of preference, or 3) matters of controversy is an essential skill in describing and discussing reality and uncertainty. Refer to the diagram “degrees of consensus”. Statements can be classified as one of the following three types:
Matters of fact. These statements can be assessed and verified through the correct use of evidence gathering, and reasoning. A correct statement can be made with conviction. These statements declare “what is” and careful researchers agree on the answer. Examples include: The boiling point of water is 100° Centigrade, gold is denser than lead, and the movie Spotlight won Best Picture in 2016. Notice the use of “is” to convey certainty in these statements. These matters of fact are the targets of your theory of knowledge. A reliable epistemology—way of knowing—will describe how to effectively research factual claims, how to identify and use reliable sources, and how to resolve disputed or contradictory factual claims. The principle of consilience will ensure that reliably researched facts will converge toward the actual reality. The Wikiversity course Knowing How You Know can help you develop an effective process for identifying matters of fact.
Matters of taste, preference, or opinion. Any claim is acceptable here, because the statement depends only on the preferences of the person making it. Examples include: I feel that purple is the most beautiful color, I prefer chocolate ice-cream to vanilla ice-cream, and I believe that Rembrandt was a better artist than Picasso. Notice the use of “prefer”, “feel”, and “believe” to convey a personal preference. These matters of preference fall outside any factual claims. Don’t dispute them, just enjoy them.
Matters of controversy. Although these are not opinions, sincere experts often disagree on the best answer or the best course of action. These statements propose “what ought to be” or they ask about a topic that is not yet fully and carefully explored or researched. Examples include: I believe the most pressing problem facing the world today is the lack of clean safe drinking water for all people, I think the best approach to reducing gun violence is to require comprehensive background checks for all gun purchases, and I believe incarceration rates are too high in the United States. Notice the use of “believe” and “think” to convey personal positions here. Although it is instructive to learn more about matters of controversy by exploring them with dialogue and Socratic Methods, they are statement of personal belief rather than truth claims.
- Read this essay on the Height of the Eiffel Tower.
- Read over this list of questions to classify.
- Identify at least five of these questions in each of the following classifications: 1) matters of fact, 2) matters of preference, or 3) matters of controversy.
Evidence, broadly construed, is anything presented in support of an assertion, or truth claim. This support may range from strong to weak. The strongest type of evidence is that which provides direct proof of the truth of an assertion. At the other extreme is evidence that is merely consistent with an assertion but does not rule out other, contradictory assertions, as in circumstantial evidence.
We naturally consider evidence to decide what we believe, and adjust our level of uncertainty about various truth claims. Interpreting evidence can be tricky.
Interpreting evidence can be tricky.
- Read this essay on the Tyranny of Evidence.
- Recall and reflect on various beliefs you hold to be true.
- What is the evidence for or against those beliefs?
- What is your level of uncertainty regarding those beliefs?
- Complete the Wikiversity course on Evaluating Evidence.
Objective and Subjective Experience
The technical term for subjective experience is qualia, which refers to individual instances of subjective, conscious experience. Examples of qualia include the pain of a headache, the taste of wine, or the perceived redness of an evening sky.
Objective experiences can often be measured and observed by others. Subjective experiences are personal and can only be felt. However, subjective experiences originate with and emerge from objective stimuli. Our subjective experiences are as vivid as our objective experiences, even though subjective experiences are private and objective experiences are shared. The real difference in subjective vs. objective is that objective situations can be observed independent of personal biases and experience (i.e. they are based on objective evidence), whereas subjective situations can usually only be viewed by one person, filtered through their unique lens of personal experience, taste, emotion, and bias.
Don’t confuse subjective experiences with objective experiences. Tolerate disagreement on subjective experience. Don’t tolerate disagreement on objective experience.
The purpose of this assignment is to improve your ability to distinguish subjective experiences from objective experiences.
- Scan this list of subjective and objective experiences.
- Choose 10 to classify for this assignment. Identify each as a subjective or objective experience.
- Are statements regarding subjective experiences facts or opinions?
- Can facts be determined regarding objective experiences?
- Is it useful to disagree or argue over subjective experiences?
- Is it useful to disagree or argue over objective experiences?
- When you find yourself arguing, notice if the argument is over a subjective experience or an objective one. Do not argue over facts. Instead research them using reliable sources.
The purpose of this assignment is to practice connecting subjective experiences with the various objective stimuli causing them.
- Identify a particular subjective experience you are familiar with.
- Work to identify the objective stimuli from which the subjective experience is emerging.
Observational error (or measurement error) is the difference between a measured value of quantity and its true value. In statistics, such error is always present and is not a mistake. Variability is an inherent part of things being measured and of the measurement process.
No measurement is exact. When a quantity is measured, the outcome depends on the measuring system, the measurement procedure, the skill of the operator, the environment, and other conditions and effects. Even if the quantity were to be measured several times, in the same way and in the same circumstances, a different measured value would in general be obtained each time, assuming the measuring system has sufficient resolution to distinguish between the values.
Because it is never certain that the measured value of a quantity is identical to its true value, careful investigators take care to report an estimate of the measurement uncertainty along with each measurement. Error bars, confidence intervals, and significant figures are all important tools for reporting measurement uncertainty. Measurement equipment can be calibrated to increase accuracy.
Reporting observational error is an indication of careful investigation, not evidence of mistakes.
The purpose of this assignment is to recognize our routine familiarity with observational error.
- Identify various measuring devices you often use. These might be a tape measure, thermometer, bathroom scale, measuring cup, etc.
- Identify the measurement accuracy of each. For example, can the thermometer measure to the nearest degree, tenth of a degree, or hundredth of a degree?
- Is it most accurate to report a temperature reading made with your thermometer as 20° or 20.00° or as 20°±.1° or as 20°±.01°?
Emergence is a phenomenon whereby larger entities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities such that the larger entities exhibit properties the smaller/simpler entities do not exhibit.
The properties of water, rainbows, weather, and temperature are all examples of emergence.
Rainbows are real, because we can see them, but they remain elusive, moving away as we seek to approach them. This is because a rainbow does not exist at one particular location. Many rainbows exist as droplets of light illuminated by the sun; however, only one can be seen depending on the particular observer's viewpoint. All raindrops refract and reflect the sunlight in the same way, but only the light from some raindrops reaches the observer's eye. This light is what constitutes the rainbow for that observer. Rainbows are dramatic, beautiful, and unexpected effects of sunlight refracted by raindrops.
The emergence of life from non-living matter, such as simple organic compounds and the emergence of the mind from the billions of neurons that form the human brain are particularly remarkable results.
It is important to understand emergence because it is the process by which complex and unexpected forms are created from simpler elements.
The purpose of this assignment is to practice recognizing and identifying emergent forms.
- Identify emergent forms you are familiar with.
- Describe the elements that compose the emergent form.
Not Just a Theory
The word theory has several distinct definitions that need to be individually identified and held separate during any discussion using the word.
Two distinct definitions are:
- A coherent statement or set of ideas that explains observed facts or phenomena, or which sets out the laws and principles of something known or observed; a hypothesis confirmed by observation, experiment etc.
- A hypothesis or conjecture.
The first definition given above is that of a scientific theory, the second is for a hypothesis. The two distinct definitions reflect very different statements of certainty. A scientific theory is the strongest statement of certainty. A hypothesis is an explicit statement of significant uncertainty. The two different definitions carried by the same term are often used to create a fallacy of equivocation. This often happens when attempts to dismiss evolution or other scientific theory as “only a theory” are falsely based on the second definition of the word “theory”.
In modern science, the term "theory" refers to scientific theories, a well-confirmed type of explanation of nature, made in a way consistent with scientific method, and fulfilling the criteria required by modern science. Such theories are described in such a way that any scientist in the field is in a position to understand and either provide empirical support ("verify") or empirically contradict ("falsify") it. Scientific theories are the most reliable, rigorous, and comprehensive form of scientific knowledge, in contrast to more common uses of the word "theory" that imply that something is unproven or speculative (which is better characterized by the word 'hypothesis'). Scientific theories are distinguished from hypotheses, which are individual empirically testable conjectures, and scientific laws, which are descriptive accounts of how nature will behave under certain conditions.
The purpose of this assignment is to distinguish between definitions 1 and 2 of theory.
- Identify examples of scientific theories (definition 1, above).
- Identify examples of hypothesis or conjectures (definition 2, above).
- Avoid conflating these two distinct meanings of the word theory when discussing degrees of uncertainty. If there is doubt or confusion regarding what definition is being used, stop to ensure the correctly intended meaning is made clear and used consistently. Insist on clarity. Do not tolerate the confounding of these distinct meanings.
The Unity of Knowledge
Because we all live on the same earth, in the same universe, reliable knowledge about our world must converge toward a consistent description of that world. Each phenomenon we observe must fit into a single coherent and integrated description of our universe. Because we all live in the same universe, as we continue to examine our universe more and more closely, we can agree on a larger set of facts about our universe. Reliable epistemologies—ways of knowing—increase our shared common knowledge.
Reality is our shared common ground. Work to resolve disagreements by examining reality more closely and more carefully.
The purpose of this assignment is to understand and recognize the unity of knowledge.
- Browse this emergence diagram.
- Read this essay on our one world.
- Please consider your position regarding the unity of knowledge.
- Do you believe that although each person has their own unique life experiences and unique point of view, we are all experiencing the same world, and there are facts that describe our world that we can all agree on? In other words, referring to the allegory of the blind men and an elephant, each of us is experiencing some aspects of the same elephant. Furthermore, the Eiffel tower does have a particular height.
- Or do you believe that each of us experiences our own world, the world is different for each of us and there are not facts that are common among that multiplicity of worlds? Each of us is experiencing a different elephant. Furthermore, the height of the Eiffel tower depends on who is asked about it, and how they are feeling at the moment.
- Consider how you maintain the coherence of your world view when new information comes to your attention that is inconsistent with a coherent description of the universe. Will you: 1) dismiss that new information, 2) modify your present description of the universe to accommodate that new information, or 3) tolerate inconsistencies?
The scholarly method, also known as scholarship is the body of principles and practices used by scholars to make their claims about the world as valid and trustworthy as possible, and to make these claims known to the scholarly public. The primary scholarly methods are the historical method and the scientific method.
Unreliable epistemologies arrive at truth claims that often contradict the truth claims made by others. Faith is an example of an unreliable epistemology. The unreliability of faith as a way of knowing is evident because many truth claims based on faith contradict with other truth claims also based on faith, and also with truth claims resulting from reliable scholarly methods. Revelation is also an unreliable epistemology.
Using reliable epistemologies increases the body of knowledge widely accepted as fact. This provides a steadily increasing common ground that can be shared and agreed to by all people.
The purpose of this assignment is to assess the reliability of various epistemologies.
- Identify truth claims based on faith that contradict truth claims resulting from reliable scholarly methods. Consider various answers to these general knowledge questions, or some other truth claims that interest you.
- Identify truth claims based on the faith of one religion that contradict truth claims based on the faith of another religion. Consider these examples of inconsistent revelations, this list of Bible Inconsistencies, or some other truth claims that interest you.
- How do you recommend reconciling these contradictions?
- When particular truth claims conflict, how do you decide which one is more likely to be true?
Nonsense can take on many forms, including paranormal events, the occult, supernatural claims, pseudoscience, and conspiracy theories. Each is described in more detail below. People who face facts dismiss these claims and events as unproven, unlikely, deceptive, misleading, disingenuous, unfair, false, or simply nonsense.
Paranormal events are phenomena described in popular culture, folklore, and other non-scientific bodies of knowledge, whose existence within these contexts is described to lie beyond normal experience or scientific explanation.
A paranormal phenomenon is different from hypothetical concepts such as dark matter and dark energy. Unlike paranormal phenomena, these hypothetical concepts are based on empirical observations and experimental data gained through the scientific method.
The most notable paranormal beliefs include those that pertain to ghosts, contact with extraterrestrial life, unidentified flying objects, psychic abilities, extrasensory perception, and cryptids.
The occult is "knowledge of the hidden". In common English usage, occult refers to "knowledge of the paranormal", as opposed to "knowledge of the measurable", usually referred to as science. The term is sometimes taken to mean knowledge that "is meant only for certain people" or that "must be kept hidden", but for most practicing occultists it is simply the study of a deeper spiritual reality that extends beyond pure reason and the physical sciences.
From the scientific perspective, occultism is regarded as unscientific as it does not make use of the standard scientific method to obtain facts.
The supernatural includes all that cannot be explained by science or the laws of nature, including things characteristic of or relating to ghosts, gods, or other supernatural beings, or to things beyond nature
Pseudoscience consists of claims, beliefs, or practices presented as being plausible scientifically, but which are not justifiable by the scientific method. A topic, practice, or body of knowledge can reasonably be considered pseudoscientific when it is presented as consistent with the norms of scientific research, but it demonstrably fails to meet these norms.
Pseudoscience is often characterized by the following: contradictory, exaggerated or unprovable claims; reliance on confirmation bias rather than rigorous attempts at refutation; lack of openness to evaluation by other experts; and absence of systematic practices when developing theories. The term pseudoscience is often considered pejorative because it suggests something is being presented as science inaccurately or even deceptively. Accordingly, those termed as practicing or advocating pseudoscience often dispute the characterization.
The demarcation between science and pseudoscience has philosophical and scientific implications. Differentiating science from pseudoscience has practical implications in the case of health care, expert testimony, environmental policies, and science education. Distinguishing scientific facts and theories from pseudoscientific beliefs such as those found in astrology, alchemy, medical quackery, occult beliefs, and creation science combined with scientific concepts, is part of science education and scientific literacy.
A conspiracy theory is an explanation of an event or situation that invokes a conspiracy without warrant, generally one involving an illegal or harmful act carried out by government or other powerful actors. Conspiracy theories often produce hypotheses that contradict the prevailing understanding of history or simple facts. The term is a derogatory one.
According to the political scientist Michael Barkun, conspiracy theories rely on the view that the universe is governed by design, and embody three principles: nothing happens by accident, nothing is as it seems, and everything is connected. Another common feature is that conspiracy theories evolve to incorporate whatever evidence exists against them, so that they become, as Barkun writes, a closed system that is unfalsifiable, and therefore "a matter of faith rather than proof".
When considering such claims and events, it is helpful to insist that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” and to dismiss such claims as false until the claimant can provide substantial and reliable evidence. Enthusiastic proponents of nonsense often use a fallacious “Argument from ignorance” to support their claims by challenging you to provide their claim wrong. These challenges incorrectly shift the burden of proof away from those making the claim.
The purpose of this assignment is to improve your ability to recognize and reject nonsense.
- Scan the topics listed in the Wikipedia paranormal category, or those listed as “main articles” in the box on the right of the paranormal article.
- Identify any that you find credible, or that you believe in.
- Using the established criteria summarized above for distinguishing science from paranormal, examine any listed paranormal topics you find credible. Has each extraordinary paranormal claim been supported by substantial and reliable evidence?
- Scan this list of occult terms.
- Identify any that you find credible, or that you believe in.
- Using the established criteria summarized above for distinguishing science from the occult, examine any listed occult terms you find credible. Has each extraordinary occult claim been supported by substantial and reliable evidence?
- Scan this list of topics characterized as pseudoscience.
- Identify any that you find credible, or that you believe in.
- Using the established criteria summarized above for distinguishing science from pseudoscience, examine any listed pseudoscience topics you find credible. Has each extraordinary pseudoscience claim been supported by substantial and reliable evidence?
- Scan this list of conspiracy theories.
- Identify any that you find credible, or that you believe in.
- Using the established criteria, summarized above for identifying conspiracy theories, examine any listed conspiracy theory topics you find credible. Has each extraordinary claim been supported by substantial and reliable evidence?
Thinking Outside the Tribe
Each of us lives within a variety of closed cultures. The neighborhood where we live brings us in contact with a limited number of people who all live within the same small geographic region. The places where we study, shop, work, and play bring us in touch with a limited number of people who all share those experiences. Perhaps more importantly the friends we choose, the sources of news we choose, the books we read, the podcasts we listen to, the television shows we choose to watch, the blogs we read, and the social media we engage in all act to reinforce viewpoints and beliefs we already hold. These various closed cultures are today's tribes.
These closed cultures can be referred to as echo chambers. An echo chamber is a metaphorical description of a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a defined system. Inside a figurative echo chamber, official sources often go unquestioned and different or competing views are censored, disallowed, or otherwise underrepresented.
When we use the internet a filter bubble selectively guesses what information we would like to see based on information about us (such as location, past click behavior and search history) and, as a result, we become separated from information that disagrees with our viewpoints, effectively isolating us in our own cultural or ideological bubbles.
Social groups defined by religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs, or common interest in a particular personality, object or goal can become so insular they may approach the isolation level of a cult.
Because of natural tendencies toward confirmation bias and tribalism we are more comfortable in groups that reinforce our current beliefs, rather than challenge them. We may become skillful at discounting opposing viewpoints and denying reality. The isolation of information contributes to a divergence of ideological attitudes and polarization of viewpoints.
As a result of this isolation our beliefs can continue to drift away from reality. Because the group reinforces our beliefs we are impaired from maintaining objectivity, discouraged from critical thinking, and delayed from facing the facts and embracing reality. As Daniel Kahneman tells us: “We know that people can maintain an unshakable faith in any proposition, however absurd, when they are sustained by a community of like-minded believers.”
The purpose of this assignment is to identify and examine any beliefs you might hold because they are promoted by your tribe, rather than because they correspond to reality.
- Identify the various tribes or closed cultures you are a member of. These might be geographical, social, cultural, religious, or ideological.
- Which, if any, of these serve to reinforce beliefs that are out of the mainstream, are poorly supported by representative evidence, or that are unlikely to be true?
- How do you know?
For any of the closed cultures you have identified in Part 1:
- Find someone outside the group who you can engage in dialogue.
- Begin a dialogue with this person regarding some of the beliefs that are reinforced by your culture.
- To prepare, consider completing the Wikiversity course on practicing dialogue.
- Listen closely, carefully, and without judgement. Seek insight and understanding. Examine and explore the various ideologies that guide your current thinking. Research matters of fact using reliable sources.
- Allow yourself to change your beliefs based on a rational and consistent appraisal of the new information and viewpoint you learn from the dialogue. Embrace reality.
- Work to attain a global perspective.
Matters of Fact
Are each of the following questions matters of fact or opinion? Please answer each question.
- How tall is the Eiffel tower?
- What shape is the earth?
- How old is the earth?
- Where was Barack Obama born?
- Do vaccines cause autism?
- Does contraception prevent abortion?
- Did Donald Trump have the largest presidential inauguration crowd?
- What are the origins of biodiversity?
- Does reality exist?
- Does reality supersede conjecture?
- Is reality our common ground?
Students wishing to learn more about facing facts, embracing reality, and discussing uncertainty may be interested in reading the following books:
- Dawkins, Richard (August 24, 2010). The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. Free Press. pp. 496. ISBN 978-1416594796.
- Wilson, Edward Osborne (March 30, 1999). Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Vintage. pp. 384. ISBN 978-0679768678.
- Gelwick, Richard (May 12, 2004). The Way of Discovery, an introduction to the thought of Michael Polanyi. Wipf & Stock. pp. 200. ISBN 978-1592446872.
- Jarrard, Richard D.. Scientific Methods. This book is slowly moving throught the Wikisource validation process and is available at: Scientific Methods
- Frankfurt, Harry G. (January 30, 2005). On Bullshit. Princeton University Press. pp. 67. ISBN 978-0691122946.
- Frankfurt, Harry G. (October 31, 2006). On Truth. Knopf. pp. 112. ISBN 978-0307264220.
- Burton, Robert (March 17, 2009). On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not. St. Martin's Griffin. pp. 272. ISBN 978-0312541521.
- Wolpert, Lewis (July 17, 2008). Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief. W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 256. ISBN 978-0393332032.
- Sunstein, Cass R. (December 23, 2014). Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter. Harvard Business Review Press. pp. 272. ISBN 978-1422122990.
- Tavris, Carol; Aronson, Elliot (October 20, 2015). Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. Mariner Books. pp. 400. ISBN 978-0544574786.
- Kahneman, Daniel (April 2, 2013). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. pp. 499. ISBN 978-0374533557.
- Haidt, Jonathan (February 12, 2013). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Vintage. pp. 528. ISBN 978-0307455772.
- Andersen, Kurt (September 5, 2017). Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History. Random House. pp. 480. ISBN 978-1400067213.
- McIntyre, Lee (February 16, 2018). Post-Truth. The MIT Press. pp. 240. ISBN 978-0262535045.
I have not yet read the following books, but they seem interesting and relevant. They are listed here to invite further research.
- [Evaluate the book Solving Post-Truth Politics: Fighting Alternative Facts With Behavioral Science, by Gleb Tsipursky ]
- [Evaluate the book The Emergence of Everything: How the World Became Complex, by Harold J. Morowitz ]
- There are many fascinating on-going philosophical discussions on the nature of reality. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the brain in a vat scenario, and the popular science fiction film The Matrix each explore the possibility that our experiences are only an elaborate illusion. Although these ideas are fascinating and have the possibility of uncovering profound truths, they do not help us navigate the world we seem to be living in each day. For now, for practical reasons, it seems best to accept the existence of the real world and use our perceptions of that real world to guide our actions.
- We all have dreams, vivid imaginations, use figures of speech, and enjoy fantasy stories. Unless we suffer from delusions, we also recognize the distinction between those fanciful mental constructs and the tangible real world we live in.
- Although physicists and others continue to investigate and debate the intriguing possibilities of multiple universes, there is no credible evidence that you, or I, or anyone we meet live in some universe other than the single universe we all live in. There is every practical reason for us to be confident we all live in the same universe.
- This is one of Aristotle's statements of the Law of non-contradiction. Aristotle says that without the principle of non-contradiction we could not know anything that we do know. See, for example Aristotle on Non-contradiction, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Contradiction, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- On Truth, Chapter I
- On Truth, Chapter II
- On Truth, Chapter II
- On Truth, Chapter IV
- On Truth, Chapter V
- On Truth, Chapter VI
- Snyder, Timothy (February 28, 2017). On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Tim Duggan Books. pp. 128.
- On Truth, Chapter VII
- “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying.” In Adrien Rich, Lies, Secrets, and Silence.
- Adrien Rich, Lies, Secrets, and Silence, Page 186
- On Truth, Chapter IX
- Metaphors We Live By. University Of Chicago Press. April 15, 2003. pp. 242. ISBN 978-0226468013. Page 160
- Egan, Timothy (September 1, 2006). The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. Mariner Books. pp. 340. ISBN 978-0618773473.
- On Truth, Introduction
- Subjective vs. Objective: What’s the Difference?, Editorial Staff, curiosityaroused.com
- The Greatest Show on Earth, Chapter 1
- Wiktionary entry for Theory.
- Kahneman, Daniel (April 2, 2013). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. pp. 499. ISBN 978-0374533557. Chapter 20, “The Illusion of Validity”
- The article What Would Gandhi Do About Trump? High-Time For a Science Of Wisdom, Intentional Insights, by Charles Cassidy can provide some helpful motivation and practical suggestions for doing this.