Sunday, November 11, 2007

On Skepticism

Often I feel hesitant in offering personal insights and observations, worrying they'll only come off as inspid and narcissistic, but some encouragement comes in the amount of interest such posts generate.

First, let me offer the disclaimer that I'm far from an expert in many areas on which I am prone to reflect, and so the thoughts often do not come backed by any rigorous studies or valid statistical sampling. (Although, it seems, this is a weakness shared by many widely-cited 'experts' speaking loudly on the Internet.)

Disclaimer out of the way, a thought on skepticism.

All too often, I find myself feeling shamefully skeptical of the wisdom of popular gurus, especially when it comes to persuasively explaining seriously complex phenomena--even when it's offered to standing ovations coming from cheering audiences.

One thing that's troubling to me is how simple many of the greatest scientific and mathematical discoveries seem in retrospect. F=MA? How could anyone have missed such an obvious model for motion? Duh!

The apparent simplicity of such great achievements demonstrates the clarity of 20/20 hindsight. It also leaves me wondering what other 'simple' great truths are dangling today right before the eyes of over six billion people.

It's troubling, genuinely troubling, that so many 'obvious' great truths behind us were invisible to tens or hundreds of millions of people until some brilliant and/or lucky individual stumbled upon them. The flat Earth question is particularly troubling. Duh!

Although we can look over our shoulders and see obviousness in many great discoveries and inventions, no one will claim the achievements came easily. Usually they required a great deal of thought and perspiration by brilliant individuals. As easy as things might seem when we look backward, it's important to remember the great difficulties in moving forward.

The question that seems to haunt me most when someone is expounding a new theory explaining complex phenomenon is this:

Is the system being explained an order of magnitude more complicated than anything Newton managed to figure out?

If the answer to the question is 'yes', the next question asks whether the individual offering theory is an order of magnitude more brilliant than Newton. Alternatively, there's the possibility of luck parallel to that produced by the Infinite Improbability Drive.

Neither case leaves me terribly confident of the 'truth' being offered, because any attempt to estimate the likelihood of truth results in a very tiny probability value (especially when the new theory is yet another theory in an area with a long history of new theories).

The thought experiment isn't always a valid one, but it can be a useful means of inducing skepticism. Whenever somebody starts hypothesizing or spewing buzzwords du jour, I can't keep my mind from generating ballpark estimates, within orders of magnitude, of the probability of the claims being true.


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