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The fundamental principle of skepticism

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The fundamental principle of skepticism

Postby Franc28 » 23 Jul 2009, 06:19

I used to label myself a skeptic (in the JREF sense: now I don't label myself a skeptic in any sense). As I have understood it for years, the fundamental principle of skepticism is this:

An extraordinary claims (i.e. claims divergent from the scientific consensus) must be justified (with proportional evidence of its predictive power) in order to be accepted.

If any skeptic wishes to defend this principle, I have three questions for you, to start the debate:

1. The principle assumes a specific epistemic view, the view that a claim must be judged on the basis of predictive power (i.e. if you claim that acupuncture is valid, you must show that putting needles in people in a certain way does what acupuncture says it does). If you find that there is a man that lives at the North Pole, in a big house, who makes toys, is that evidence for the existence of Santa Claus?

2. Why is the extraordinary nature of a claim measured by divergence from the scientific consensus? What about claims that have no relation to the scientific domain (such as moral, ethical or political claims) or claims made in domains where science is vastly impotent (such as economics, psychology or meteorology)?

3. Why do you believe in the scientific consensus as a standard of ordinariness? Why do you believe the scientific consensus, which is dictated by the capital-democratic system (of which the modern scientific institution is but a mouthpiece), has any relevance to epistemic concerns at all?
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Re: The fundamental principle of skepticism

Postby Scepcop » 23 Jul 2009, 21:33

I have a suspicion that the new skeptics here didn't come here for intellectual philosophical truth seeking debates/discussion. They probably came here just to discredit and invalidate "The Professor" or set the record straight on him. But time will tell.
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Re: The fundamental principle of skepticism

Postby tmtoulouse » 24 Jul 2009, 02:10

Franc28 wrote:1. The principle assumes a specific epistemic view, the view that a claim must be judged on the basis of predictive power (i.e. if you claim that acupuncture is valid, you must show that putting needles in people in a certain way does what acupuncture says it does). If you find that there is a man that lives at the North Pole, in a big house, who makes toys, is that evidence for the existence of Santa Claus?


The value claim of predictive evidence is in relation to a very specific kind epistemological claim. It only applies to hypotheses that claim to describe reality in some way. You have to establish a few ground rules for this to work at all. The first is you have to agree that "some ideas are more wrong than others." If you discount this idea, welcome to solipsism and have fun there. If you do agree with that initial idea we can move forward a bit. How do determine if one idea is more wrong than another idea? Well we have to use some form of evidentiary exploration of the ideas. One way we could go about doing this is building up any evidence we find that supports a particular claim, do this with all the competing claims and see which has more supporting evidence. That idea is the least wrong. This is pretty inefficient, and probably wrong on a deeper level. A better approach is to figure out a piece of evidence that would prove an idea was wrong, and see if we could find that evidence. How do we do this? Well we have to look at the idea and think, what does this idea predict will happen given a certain set of circumstances. We can then go test those circumstances, if the predicted evidence is not found we know that the original idea is probably wrong.

The value of prediction is in allowing us to separate out the validity of competing ideas. How else can we do this? What are the alternatives? Are you familiar with Bayesian inference? It is a mathematical formulation of this idea. If can be used to assign relative probabilities of likelihood between competing hypotheses. The way it works is you take baselines probabilities and adjust them based on incoming data. The adjustment is made be figuring out the probability of getting the data if you assume a given hypothesis is true. If one hypothesis assigns a really high probability of getting the data you just got the likelihood of that hypothesis being true goes up. If another hypothesis assigns a really low probability for getting the data you just got, the probability goes down.

Per your Santa Claus example. Absolutely that information is predicted by the hypothesis that Santa is real, and not by the hypothesis that Santa is not real. So the relative likelihood of Santa Clause being real goes up against the hypothesis that he is not real. Now if we start out assigning a really low probability to Santa Clause being real then it will take more evidence than that to push it into a realm of high possibility. There is also the issue of alternative hypotheses. For example, the hypothesis that a eccentric billionaire is pretending to be Santa Clause could fit that evidence as well. To tell the difference between the eccentric billionaire hypothesis and the Santa is real hypothesis we must again turn to prediction. What evidence does the billionaire idea predict that the Santa idea does not? Then we can go test that idea.

Franc28 wrote:2. Why is the extraordinary nature of a claim measured by divergence from the scientific consensus? What about claims that have no relation to the scientific domain (such as moral, ethical or political claims) or claims made in domains where science is vastly impotent (such as economics, psychology or meteorology)?


I take issue with your claim that science is impotent in economics, psychology or meteorology, that is just flat wrong. But can wait another day. As per morality and ethics, this has nothing to do with anything. Skeptics don't argue paranormal claims using ethics and morality. Instead we argue that paranormal ideas make claims about the nature of reality, and that is exactly where science and the scientific method has proven itself to be extremely powerful.

Franc28 wrote:3. Why do you believe in the scientific consensus as a standard of ordinariness? Why do you believe the scientific consensus, which is dictated by the capital-democratic system (of which the modern scientific institution is but a mouthpiece), has any relevance to epistemic concerns at all?


The scientific consensus is built around the application of the scientific method, which way pre-dates your supposed capital-democratic system. This is all about the method. The act of hypothesis, prediction, test. That is what separates out relative likelihoods of ideas.

Now to more generally address your point about why "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" I turn once more to Bayes' theory. It all has to do with something called "priors." Here is the case:

I have a test for a disease, the test is 99 percent sensitive, meaning that 99 percent of the time if the disease is present the test will pick it up. It is also 99 percent specific, meaning if the test is false 99 percent of the time the disease is not present. If I administer this test to two individuals and they both come back positive what are the chances that they both have the disease?

Ones gut instinct might be to say it is 99 percent probable. But this is wrong. The information contained above is actually not enough information to answer the question. You are missing a very important piece of information. What was the probability of the two individuals having the disease to begin with. Let us say that the disease has several risk factors, person A has been exposed to all the risk factors. By long term statistical modeling and data gathering we know that people in person As position have a 1/10 chance of having the disease just because of the risk factors. Person B has none of the risk factors, and the same modeling tells us that only 1 in a million people like person B have the disease.

These are our priors. Why are they important? Well the easiest way to see it is that the test has a 1/100 chance to be wrong. So with person A what is more likely? That the test is wrong (1/100) or that the person has the disease (1/10). What about for person B? Is the test wrong (1/100) or does he have the disease (1/1,000,000). You can see that in both conditions our final answer about whether the person probably has the disease or not depends a great deal on the prior probability.

How do we over come the 1/1,000,000 chance though? Well we can simply apply the test multiple times, the chances that the test comes back positive 4 times in a row is far more unlikely than the base probability. This is the extraordinary evidence part. The claim that a person with all the risk factors has a disease only requires one test to make us believe it. The claim that a person with non of the risk factors has the disease require 4 tests before we believe it.

It is all in the math.
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Re: The fundamental principle of skepticism

Postby Franc28 » 24 Jul 2009, 04:18

You have to establish a few ground rules for this to work at all. The first is you have to agree that "some ideas are more wrong than others." If you discount this idea, welcome to solipsism and have fun there.


"More wrong"? In the sense of being farther away from the scientific consensus? No, I don't agree on that specific standard. Otherwise, from what standard or ideal do you use as your "distance"?


A better approach is to figure out a piece of evidence that would prove an idea was wrong, and see if we could find that evidence. How do we do this? Well we have to look at the idea and think, what does this idea predict will happen given a certain set of circumstances. We can then go test those circumstances, if the predicted evidence is not found we know that the original idea is probably wrong.


Yes, that's fine. I am familiar with the methods of science.


Per your Santa Claus example. Absolutely that information is predicted by the hypothesis that Santa is real, and not by the hypothesis that Santa is not real. So the relative likelihood of Santa Clause being real goes up against the hypothesis that he is not real. Now if we start out assigning a really low probability to Santa Clause being real then it will take more evidence than that to push it into a realm of high possibility. There is also the issue of alternative hypotheses. For example, the hypothesis that a eccentric billionaire is pretending to be Santa Clause could fit that evidence as well. To tell the difference between the eccentric billionaire hypothesis and the Santa is real hypothesis we must again turn to prediction. What evidence does the billionaire idea predict that the Santa idea does not? Then we can go test that idea.


Yes, it's the good ol' skeptic dance that I see on the JREF board every day. How else can we test, what more cheating possibilities can we remove, and so on, until we end up with a testee in a gorilla suit and an airtight case grunting numbers through a walkie-talkie.

The trouble of the skeptic method for testing claims, that I was pointing out in this first point, is that it treats things that are made-up as real. Santa Claus is a made-up concept. It was invented by man. No amount of evidence can "prove" that Santa Claus exists. Even if there was a man in a factory at the North Pole who has lived for 1700 years making toys for children, that would not prove that the made-up concept "Santa Claus" ever existed. But skeptics would still go on the thirl-a-whirl trying to prove or debunk it.

In short, your answer to the question is yes. Thank you for your honesty.


As per morality and ethics, this has nothing to do with anything. Skeptics don't argue paranormal claims using ethics and morality. Instead we argue that paranormal ideas make claims about the nature of reality, and that is exactly where science and the scientific method has proven itself to be extremely powerful.


You didn't answer my question at all. I asked you why the scientific consensus (NOT the "scientific method" or "science") is used as the standard, when it has no correspondence for a great number of important questions, issues and domains. There is nothing we can look at in science as "the consensus" on a question like "what are moral principles?". The person interested in morality should be conversant in at least the basics of a few sciences (evolution, psychology, sociology, etc), but science offers no answer to the question that we can compare ours to.


The scientific consensus is built around the application of the scientific method, which way pre-dates your supposed capital-democratic system. This is all about the method. The act of hypothesis, prediction, test. That is what separates out relative likelihoods of ideas.


Once again you are confusing "science" with "the scientific consensus." They are two divergent things. Science does pre-date the capital-democratic system. The position of scientific consensus which skeptics rely on does not. It is a relatively modern invention, only possible when we abandon the idea that science should be a free process of discovery.


Now to more generally address your point about why "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence"


Since I have no objection to that specific principle (only to the more basic ones, as I pointed out in point 1), this does not concern me.
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Re: The fundamental principle of skepticism

Postby tmtoulouse » 24 Jul 2009, 04:46

Franc28 wrote:"More wrong"? In the sense of being farther away from the scientific consensus? No, I don't agree on that specific standard. Otherwise, from what standard or ideal do you use as your "distance"?


Expanding out what "more wrong" means is a pretty complicated exercise in epistemology. At first pass it is a simple question, is there an absolute truth value to ideas, such that some ideas are more wrong than others. So if there are two claims, such as "telekinesis is a real phenomenon" and "telekinesis does not exist" is one of these claims less wrong than the other? If the answer is no, than we are in a state of total relativism and solipsism and frankly on a philosophical ground that I find boring and useless.

At this point "wrongess" is defined in reference to an absolute truth, and no claim for determining how one idea is more wrong than another has been proposed. It is merely setting the scaffolding to work under. The question is how do we start testing ideas for their relative wrongness. Well we have to rely on incoming data from our experience. This is the next assumption, that data derived from our experience of reality can be used to test concepts about what that reality is. Again if you want to reject this assumption, fine, but we are once more into philosophical territory such as last thursdayism that I find no value in.

So if we work with the two basic assumptions that there is an absolute truth to the structure of reality, and that our experience of that reality can be used to explore its nature we have the framework needed to start answering certain kinds of questions. Questions about causal links, whether certain things are real or not real. Whats the best way to do that? Hypothesis testing. Two competing ideas make different predictions about what will happen when something is done, go out and do that and see which hypothesis is better supported by the evidence. Hence why prediction is such a powerful means for discovering the nature of reality.

Franc28 wrote:Yes, it's the good ol' skeptic dance that I see on the JREF board every day. How else can we test, what more cheating possibilities can we remove, and so on, until we end up with a testee in a gorilla suit and an airtight case grunting numbers through a walkie-talkie.

The trouble of the skeptic method for testing claims, that I was pointing out in this first point, is that it treats things that are made-up as real. Santa Claus is a made-up concept. It was invented by man. No amount of evidence can "prove" that Santa Claus exists. Even if there was a man in a factory at the North Pole who has lived for 1700 years making toys for children, that would not prove that the made-up concept "Santa Claus" ever existed. But skeptics would still go on the thirl-a-whirl trying to prove or debunk it.

In short, your answer to the question is yes. Thank you for your honesty.


So in summary, you believe that some ideas are inherently wrong a priori and that no matter what the evidence is those ideas have to be wrong. Skeptics instead ask review the evidence and weigh it out to see what ideas have more truth value than others. You are saying this is some how bad?

Franc28 wrote:You didn't answer my question at all. I asked you why the scientific consensus (NOT the "scientific method" or "science") is used as the standard, when it has no correspondence for a great number of important questions, issues and domains. There is nothing we can look at in science as "the consensus" on a question like "what are moral principles?". The person interested in morality should be conversant in at least the basics of a few sciences (evolution, psychology, sociology, etc), but science offers no answer to the question that we can compare ours to.


I agree that science can not be used to answer issues of morality. So what? Just because you cant use something in a way it was never designed to be used doesn't invalidate its use for areas in which it is perfectly designed for use. Science can't answer the question of whether abortion is wrong, therefore science can not be used to determine whether or not homeopathy has an effect beyond placebo. Nope, doesn't work...

Franc28 wrote:Once again you are confusing "science" with "the scientific consensus." They are two divergent things. Science does pre-date the capital-democratic system. The position of scientific consensus which skeptics rely on does not. It is a relatively modern invention, only possible when we abandon the idea that science should be a free process of discovery.


The scientific consensus is different from the method, but the consensus is derived from using the method. But the "scientific consensus" is never a sole and valid reason for determining the relative wrongness of an idea. It is a good short cut, if an idea is proposed that violates all known principles that scientist have reach a consensus on, chances are there is something wrong with it. But in the end, all that matters is the evidence. If the hypothesis can be tested, and the evidence backs up that hypothesis then eventually that hypothesis will become consensus. Paradigm shifts abound in science just from this phenomenon.

I don't care about consensus beyond its use as a quick heuristic or for when working on wikipedia articles. It is the application of the scientific method, and the evidence that method creates that interests me.
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Re: The fundamental principle of skepticism

Postby Franc28 » 24 Jul 2009, 15:54

tmtoulouse wrote:At this point "wrongess" is defined in reference to an absolute truth, and no claim for determining how one idea is more wrong than another has been proposed. It is merely setting the scaffolding to work under. The question is how do we start testing ideas for their relative wrongness. Well we have to rely on incoming data from our experience. This is the next assumption, that data derived from our experience of reality can be used to test concepts about what that reality is. Again if you want to reject this assumption, fine, but we are once more into philosophical territory such as last thursdayism that I find no value in.


So you cannot justify the skeptic epistemology without referring to some nebulous "absolute truth"? What is this "absolute truth"? Can you define it for us?


So in summary, you believe that some ideas are inherently wrong a priori and that no matter what the evidence is those ideas have to be wrong. Skeptics instead ask review the evidence and weigh it out to see what ideas have more truth value than others. You are saying this is some how bad?


I'm saying it's absurd. I laugh at the thirl-a-whirl that skeptics go through to "prove" claims which are wholly outside of their worldview. The idea of people who believe in science "reviewing the evidence" for ghosts is laughable.


I agree that science can not be used to answer issues of morality. So what?


What do you mean "so what"? It means that there is nothing in science for the skeptic to compare moral statements to, and therefore no way for the skeptic to evaluate them. It throws up your whole system.


Just because you cant use something in a way it was never designed to be used doesn't invalidate its use for areas in which it is perfectly designed for use. Science can't answer the question of whether abortion is wrong, therefore science can not be used to determine whether or not homeopathy has an effect beyond placebo. Nope, doesn't work...


Nope, what "doesn't work" is your attempt to confuse the issue. The issue is that, because science has no answer to the question of whether abortion is wrong, you as a skeptic have nothing to compare your position on abortion with.


The scientific consensus is different from the method, but the consensus is derived from using the method.


No... it's not. It's derived from the results that are desired by whoever gives the scientists their livelihood. Corporations, governments, universities, activist organizations. They set the agenda and build the consensus.


But the "scientific consensus" is never a sole and valid reason for determining the relative wrongness of an idea. It is a good short cut, if an idea is proposed that violates all known principles that scientist have reach a consensus on, chances are there is something wrong with it. But in the end, all that matters is the evidence.


So to you the standard of comparing a proposition to the scientific consensus is merely an approximation, not as good as looking at the evidence. Then why start with examining the consensus answer?


If the hypothesis can be tested, and the evidence backs up that hypothesis then eventually that hypothesis will become consensus. Paradigm shifts abound in science just from this phenomenon.


That's talking from both sides of your mouth. The scientific consensus is by definition the only correct answer, and any other answer must be suppressed. People armed with new, discovered truths must fight against it, not within it.


I don't care about consensus beyond its use as a quick heuristic or for when working on wikipedia articles.


I think you're confusing consensus- the decision-making method- with scientific consensus- the process of suppressing dissent. I support consensus as a decision-making method, one hundred percent. I don't support the suppression of dissent.


It is the application of the scientific method, and the evidence that method creates that interests me.


Me too.
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Re: The fundamental principle of skepticism

Postby tmtoulouse » 25 Jul 2009, 00:17

Er, you are trying to label skepticism as a form of scientism. That is classic equivocation. I am not here to argue that scientism is a valid world view. I don't think it is. Let me know when you want to discuss skepticism instead of your straw man.
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Re: The fundamental principle of skepticism

Postby Franc28 » 25 Jul 2009, 03:58

How is it a straw man? Can you show us the difference? Because I don't see any.
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Re: The fundamental principle of skepticism

Postby tmtoulouse » 25 Jul 2009, 14:39

You really think skepticism=scientism? Okay then. Guess that ends this conversation.
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Re: The fundamental principle of skepticism

Postby Franc28 » 25 Jul 2009, 15:24

I would go farther than that, actually... I would say that skeptics, by virtue of their position, are foot soldiers for the capital-democratic Establishment. Reading Skeptic Magazine provides ample proof of this fact... Even when I was a skeptic, I had nothing but disdain for skeptic rhetoric about anything that wasn't the paranormal.

That being said, I am interested in your justification of the "skeptical" method, but you apparently do not want to provide it. All you can do is reiterate that it's the evidence that's important, yet you still can't explain to us how you can link the evidence to the proposition.
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Re: The fundamental principle of skepticism

Postby jakesteele » 26 Jul 2009, 15:04

Your thread and some of the responses are pretty deep for me to wrestle with right now because it's bedtime for Bonzo. However, I will say this: To me it all gets down to what really is the definition of 'extraordinary' in any context? Who gets to define the word. I have found not to walk in blindly to a situation like that and ask them, "why do you consider that extraordinary?" I like giving the example of Ernest Chladni (discovered meteorites in 1800). At them time a pseudo would have cried, "extraordinary claim!!" But nowadays it is accepted fact verified many, many times over in many different ways.

To someone who has dealt with the paranormal most of his life and had experiences and seen other have experiences, the concept of telekinesis does not seem so extraordinary. So, again, what is the definition of 'extraordinary' and who gets to define it?
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