In the Mail: Believing B.S.
I mentioned Believing B.S.: How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole earlier this month after reading an interview with its author Stephen Law (see the Resource, below), and I'll have more on it as soon as I'm able to read it.
Resource: New Book: Believing B.S., 6/17/2011
Grandmother of Eight Makes Hole in One
Eight is too many!
Source: Richard Lederer, The Bride of Anguished English (2000), p. 108
Fine-Tuning the Fine-Tuning Argument
In his book Lady Luck, Warren Weaver does not directly discuss the "fine-tuning argument"―for one thing, the book was first published in 1963, which was probably before the argument became prominent―but he does shed some light on it:
Suppose that an event has a small, even a very small, probability of occurrence; and suppose that an experiment or trial is carried out and the event actually occurs. What should be one's reaction? …[J]ust because the event is rare, should we perk up or even be astonished when it does occur? Is the occurrence of a very rare event properly to be viewed as very interesting?
To comment on the last question first, interest seems usually to be a very subjective response. Some persons are interested in snakes, others in Renaissance art, and others in football. So I guess all one can say about this last question is, O.K. If the occurrence of this rare event interests you, go ahead and be interested. That is your personal privilege.
But if you use the word interesting in the universal sense that every person who knows about the occurrence of the event should be interested―and surprised―and even astonished, then it is necessary to consider the matter more carefully.
Suppose one shuffles a pack of cards and deals off a single bridge hand of thirteen cards. The probability, as reckoned before the event, that this hand will contain any thirteen specified cards is…1 divided by 635,013,559,600. Thus the probability of any one specified set of thirteen cards is, anyone would agree, very small.
When one hand of thirteen cards is dealt in this way, there are, of course, precisely 635,013,559,600 different hands that can appear. All these billions of hands are, furthermore, equally likely to occur; and one of them is absolutely certain to occur every time a hand is so dealt. Thus, although any one particular hand is an improbable event, and so a rare event, no one particular hand has any right to be called a surprising event. Any hand that occurs is simply one out of a number of exactly equally likely events, some one of which was bound to happen. There is no basis for being astounded at the one that did happen, for it was precisely as likely…to have happened as any other particular one.
Weaver goes on to contrast the bridge hand with the case of flipping a coin: a coin can come up either heads or tails with a probability of slightly less than half, but there is a very small probability―which Weaver takes to be one-in-a-billion―that it lands on edge:
Standing on edge would be improbable, rare, interesting, and surprising. But this surely surprising event is more than 635 times as probable as would be a…hand in our previous illustration. So standing on edge is not surprising just because it has a low probability. Why is it surprising?
It is surprising, of course, not because its probability is small in an absolute sense, but rather because its probability is so small as compared with the probabilities of any of the other possible occurrences. Standing on edge is half a billion times as unlikely as the only other two things that can happen, namely, heads or tails, whereas the…hand is precisely as likely…as any of the possible alternative outcomes of the dealing process.
Thus one concludes that…a rare event is interesting or not depending on whether you consider it interesting or not, and that an event is surprising only providing its probability is very small as compared with the probabilities of the other accessible alternatives. This requires that a surprising event be a rare event, but it does not at all require that a rare event be a surprising event.
Is the "fine-tuning" of the universe like Weaver's bridge hand or like the coin that lands on edge? Clearly, it's highly improbable, but should we be surprised by it? Any particular setting of the physical constants of the universe is as unlikely as any other, just as any particular bridge hand has the same probability as any other, so we should be no more surprised at "fine-tuning" than by the bridge hand we've been dealt.
To use Weaver's terminology, the fact that the universe seems to be "fine-tuned" for life is interesting―because we're alive and life interests us―but it's not surprising―because any other settings of the physical constants would have been just as unlikely, even though less hospitable to us. Because it's not surprising, it doesn't require an explanation, any more than we demand an explanation for every bridge hand that we're dealt.
Source: Warren Weaver, Lady Luck: The Theory of Probability (1982), pp. 290-293.
- New Book: The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning, 6/19/2011
- The Arguments that Failed, 3: The "Fine-Tuning" Argument, 1/20/2009
Blurb Watch: Conan O'Brien Can't Stop
He's not the only one. The people who create ads for movies just can't stop pulling the same old tricks. An ad for the new documentary about the talk show host cites a four-star review from Keith Uhlich of Time Out New York. However, as we saw earlier this year (see the Resource, linked below), Time Out NY uses a five-star system for rating movies. Unsurprisingly, the ad does not mention this fact.
Source: Ad for Conan O'Brien Can't Stop, The New York Times, 6/24/2011, p. C18
Resource: Blurb Watch: The Eagle, 2/25/2011
New Books: The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning & Believing B.S.
- (6/22/2011) Michael Shermer's latest "Skeptic" column in the current issue of Scientific American is a preview of his new book The Believing Brain, which examines how we form beliefs and then defend them with various cognitive biases. Of course, I haven't read the book yet, but the column suggests that science is the only defense against bias.
Shermer's terminology suggests that he's adopting an almost philosophical skepticism, that is, that he's gone beyond the piecemeal skepticism associated with the contemporary skeptical movement. Most of the those who call themselves "skeptics" nowadays are skeptical about the supernatural, the paranormal, and perhaps religion. However, they usually are not skeptics in the philosophical sense, that is, they don't harbor doubts about the existence of a mind-independent reality, or the ability of our minds to come to know it.
Shermer calls his view "belief-dependent realism", which is a form of realism because "reality exists independent of human minds", so he's not skeptical of the existence of objective reality. However, his discussion of cognitive biases suggests that he's quite pessimistic about the ability of people to know that reality.
"Belief-dependent realism" is an unfortunate phrase, since it seems to say that reality is dependent upon beliefs, but that's explicitly denied by Shermer. He explains that "our understanding of [reality] depends on the beliefs we hold at any given time." Well, yeah. Our understanding of reality depends upon how we understand it. How, then, does "belief-dependent realism" differ from plain-old realism? Surely no realist has ever denied that how we understand reality is affected by our beliefs; what the realist denies is that reality itself is a product of those beliefs. Where did Shermer get this terminology from, anyway?
I patterned belief-dependent realism after model-dependent realism, presented by physicists Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in their book The Grand Design…. There they argue that because no one model is adequate to explain reality, "one cannot be said to be more real than the other." When these models are coupled to theories, they form entire worldviews.
Physicists are now our philosophers! Well, at least this supports my opining on the fine-tuning argument by the principle that turnabout is fair play.
Is Shermer, then, suggesting that no one worldview is adequate to explain reality, so that none is more "real" than another? This sounds close to the kind of skepticism associated with postmodernism, which sometimes treats science as just another worldview, like a religion. No doubt Shermer doesn't intend to go that far, but he's getting very close to being sucked into an intellectual black hole. Somebody save him!
Source: Michael Shermer, "The Believing Brain", Scientific American, July 2011. This column doesn't appear to be available online yet.
- (6/19/2011) The latest edition of Eskeptic has an interview with physicist Victor Stenger about his new book called The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe is Not Designed for Us (see the Source, below). Based on the interview, I'm not sure whether Stenger means the word "fallacy" in the general sense of mistake, or in the specific meaning of logical mistake. Here's how the article relates the fine-tuning argument:
The theistic argument goes like this: if the laws of physics were even slightly different than how they are, none of us would exist; therefore there must be a God who made the laws that way.
The physicists drag out the heavy artillery to attack this argument:
It is an issue about which numerous physicists have reached very different conclusions. The most frequent answer that skeptics raise in response to the fine-tuning argument relies on M-Theory. … The ten dimensions of space that follow from the mathematics of M-Theory allow for the conclusion that an imponderable number of universes―a Multiverse―have been and are being spontaneously created, all with different laws of physics. And so it is no surprise that we find ourselves living in the one whose laws of physics allow us to exist.
This is about as good an explanation as it would be to explain why Lucky Jim won the lottery by positing that there really are umpty million other universes in which every other number permutation came up. So, everybody who entered the lottery won in some other universe. Now, if only I could get out of this universe and over into that other universe where I won!
Sir Roger Penrose…rejects the fine-tuning argument, but for wholly different reasons. He argues that M-theory is unscientific. According to his theory of Conformic Cyclic Cosmology, the beginning of our universe…was also the end of a previous one. He does not rule out the possibility that his theory could be extended to provide for a process of constantly successive eons, each with different laws of physics. We happen to live in the one with bio-friendly laws.
Since I'm not a physicist, I won't opine about M-theory as a whole, but I do think that the notion of a Multiverse is unscientific, or more precisely, not a part of physics. I don't see how there can possibly be any empirical evidence of the existence of other universes; in fact, any supposed empirical evidence of another universe would be evidence that the supposed "universe" was only a part of our own universe, since the universe, by definition, is everything that exists.
Alternatively, if we suppose that the physicists have some other definition of "universe", there is still the problem that these other universes are supposed to have different laws of physics than our own―that's their whole point: their physical laws are differently "tuned". How, then, would causal interaction between another "universe" with different laws of physics and our own be possible? Without such causal interaction, no physical evidence of such "universes" can ever enter our own. Of course, this doesn't mean that such "universes" do not exist, only that we could never have empirical evidence that they do or don't.
Yet for Stenger, fine-tuning is a fallacy…. His book discusses each of the usual examples of fine-tuning that Christian apologetics raise. He applies well-established physics, seeking to demonstrate that in each case, "the parameters of physics and cosmology are not particularly fine-tuned for life, especially human life."
As a non-physicist, I don't have a position on whether there really is fine-tuning, but it isn't necessary to deny it in order to reject the argument based on it. This, again, seems to be a case of bringing out the big guns to kill a mosquito. Of course, as a physicist, Stenger may well be interested in this issue for its own sake.
His book tells of the determination of his Lithuanian grandmother who risked catching a terminal disease when she nursed a sick neighbor who would later become her husband. After they married, her husband moved to the U.S. looking for work. When she hadnít heard from him for two years, she took a nightmare journey to America with three children in tow. This was in 1908. Despite not speaking a word of English, somehow she managed to find him. The family then settled down nearby, where their son later met his future wife and had a child, Victor Stenger. "The point of my little story," he explains, "was to illustrate that simply finding a low probability for something happening doesnít preclude it from happening. You have to compare alternative probabilities." And for Stenger, it is far more probable that human life evolved in a universe without God twiddling the knobs to set the laws of science than it is that there is such a divine being in the first place.
This is almost the point that I was trying to make with the "Al Franken principle" (see the Resource, below), namely, that it was highly unlikely that Al Franken would be born, requiring many events to happen just-so. Yet we know that Franken was in fact born, which means that the universe must have been fine-tuned to bring about his birth. Of course, the same considerations that apply to Al Franken apply to anyone. Each one of us could relate a story like Stenger's, though perhaps not quite so dramatic.
Where I part company with Stenger is that I don't see why it's necessary to bring in the probability of a divine being. The alternative probabilities that we need to consider are the probabilities of some other person than Victor Stenger or Al Franken getting born, or the likelihood of someone other than the actual winner winning the lottery, or the probability of some other universe with differently-tuned physical laws existing rather than the actual universe. Whatever universe might have come into existence was just as unlikely as the actual universe. So, if it's supposed to be a miracle that the universe is fine-tuned for human life, it would have been just as much a miracle if it had been fine-tuned in some other way. One universe is just as fine-tuned as another.
In my view, and based on the reasons I've given above, the theory of other universes is not a scientific theory, but a philosophical one. In fact, some philosophers have advocated the existence of alternative universes for other reasons that I won't go into, but the physicists who do so are doing philosophy rather than physics.
Source: Andrew Zak Williams, "The Physics of Atheism", Eskeptic, 1/15/11
Resource: The Arguments that Failed, 3: The "Fine-Tuning" Argument, 1/20/2009
- New Scientist magazine has an interview with philosopher Stephen Law, who has a new book out entitled Believing B.S.: How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole. So, just what is an "intellectual black hole"?
Intellectual black holes are belief systems that draw people in and hold them captive so they become willing slaves of claptrap. … As you approach them, you need to be on your guard because if you get sucked in, it can be extremely difficult to think your way clear again. … Beliefs at the core of intellectual black holes…aren't reasonable. They merely appear so to those trapped inside.
I'm not sure from this description what such a "black hole" belief system is supposed to be; I guess I'll have to read the book! At first, it sounded like what have been called "self-sealing beliefs"―I can't remember where I learned this term―which are beliefs that are either defined in such a way as to be irrefutable, or are protected from refutation by various ad hoc devices. However, the examples that Law gives―homeopathy, psychic powers, and alien abductions―don't sound like particularly good examples of self-sealing beliefs, though any belief can be held in a self-sealing way. Conspiracy theories are better examples of self-sealing beliefs, since any evidence against the theory can be, and usually will be, attributed to the conspiracy.
At any rate, I prefer the striking and memorable name "intellectual black holes" to "self-sealing beliefs". The following tactics and stratagems sound like the kind of ad hoc devices used to protect such beliefs from refutation, though they seem to occur most often in defense of beliefs in the supernatural or paranormal:
- Playing the Mystery Card:
"This involves appealing to mystery to get out of intellectual hot water…. They might say something like: 'Ah, but this is beyond the ability of science and reason to decide….' This is often followed by that quote from Shakespeare's Hamlet: 'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy'. When you hear that, alarm bells should go off."
- The "Going Nuclear" Tactic:
"When someone is cornered in an argument, they may decide to get sceptical about reason. They might say: 'Ah, but reason is just another faith position.' I call this 'going nuclear' because it lays waste to every position. It brings every belief…down to the same level so they all appear equally 'reasonable' or 'unreasonable'."
- The "But it Fits" Strategy:
"Any theory, no matter how ludicrous, can be squared with the evidence, given enough ingenuity. Every last anomaly can be explained away. … Given enough shoehorning and reinterpretation, you can make whatever turns up 'fit'"….
This is why self-sealing beliefs are worthless: any theory that is compatible with any possible way the world might be tells you nothing about the world, that is, it is empty of content. As Wittgenstein wrote: "I know nothing about the weather when I know that it is either raining or not raining."
- Alison George, "A Field Guide to B.S.", New Scientist, 6/13/2011
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 4.461
Via: Arts & Letters Daily
- Playing the Mystery Card:
They're already having political debates leading up to next year's presidential election, so it's time once again to examine them with a fine-tooth comb for fallacies. Last night, the first debate between candidates for the Republican nomination for president was held in New Hampshire. One of the seven participating candidates was Herman Cain, the CEO of Godfather's Pizza restaurants, who answered the first question asked by the moderator, John King of CNN:
King: Mr. Cain, let me start with you tonight. And be as specific as you can. I hope I don't have to repeat this throughout the night. What would you do as president of the United States to create jobs?
Cain: The thing we need to do is to get this economy boosted. This economy is stalled. It's like a train on the tracks with no engine. And the administration has simply been putting all of this money in the caboose. We need an engine called the private sector. That means lower taxes, lower the capital gains tax rate to zero, suspend taxes on repatriated profits, then make them permanent. Uncertainty is killing this economy. This is the only way we're going to get this economy moving, and that's to put the right fuel in the engine, which is the private sector.
This is a mixed-up analogy: first, the economy is like an engineless train. Then, the private sector is the engine, but since we still have a private sector to the economy, the train can't lack an engine. Finally, we need to put fuel into the engine to get it moving again, but what is that fuel? Cain mentions lowering taxes, specifically, the capital gains tax and taxes on repatriated profits, so perhaps the fuel is the extra money in the private sector that would come from lower taxes. But how is that different from the stimulus spending under both presidents Bush and Obama? I guess that's what Cain is referring to by the money that the administration is putting in the caboose, but what does that mean exactly? In case you don't know, a caboose was a type of rail car that was put on the ends of trains, but most trains don't even have cabooses (or should that be "cabeese"?) nowadays. I guess it's supposed to be a bad thing to put money in the caboose, but why? Whatever the answer, an engineless or stalled train is a poor analogy for the economy.
Source: Transcript of the Republican Debate, CNN, 6/13/11
Fallacy: Weak Analogy
Update (6/15/2011): The Democratic National Committee responded to the Republican debate by putting out a commercial ridiculing it. The commercial leaves the impression that the candidates spent a lot of time discussing such issues as the space program and same-sex marriage, but it excerpts less than a minute of the entire debate. Most people, and especially Democrats, probably won't watch any of the debate, so they may well believe that this is an accurate representation. You can watch the commercial at the article linked below, which also points out that the candidates were responding to questions from the moderator, reporters, or audience members.
Source: Jake Tapper, "Obama Campaign Sends Around Misleading DNC Video on GOP Debate", ABC News, 6/14/11
Fallacy: Quoting Out of Context
Check it Out
Here's Harriet Hall on comment threads:
The Internet is a wonderful medium for communicating ideas and information in a rapid, interactive way. Many online articles are followed by a section for comments. Like so many things in this imperfect world, comments are a mixed blessing. They can enhance the article by correcting errors, adding further information, or contributing useful thoughts to a productive discussion. But all too often the comments section consists of emotional outbursts, unwarranted personal attacks on the author, logical fallacies, and misinformation. It provides irrational and ignorant people with a soapbox from which to promote prejudices and false information.
The rest of the article is a case study in the sort of comments that appear all too often at the ends of online articles: ad hominems, post hocs, and other fallacies. Read the whole thing.
Source: Harriet Hall, "Defending Isagenix: A Case Study in Flawed Thinking", Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 35.1, January/February 2011