Thursday, October 30, 2014

Whom Shall I Trust?

Let's face it, most of us couldn't science our way out of a paper bag (it's considered cool to use science as a verb now if you didn't know). And for those of us who could, we're often left without the ability to do so. If we take the supposed controversy over vaccines, for example, I know the proper method to test them and verify them, and I know if my results are acceptable or not. That doesn't help me, however, unless I can actually perform the studies myself--which I can't. Instead, I must rely on the data presented to me. But what of conflicting data? What about lack of data? How do I know if the data was obtained properly? There's truly so little to go on sometimes that it turns into a gigantic spat of "nuh uh" and "uh huh". How can we possibly make sense of any of this whether we can science or not?

I would like to think that we can trust the official governmental sources. If we can't trust them, who can we trust? And yet, how can we trust them when they are clearly more moronic at times than my 9-year-old son? Even he knows that the temperature on Mars is vastly different than Earth and yet we get such gems as "I will simply point out that I think in academia, we all agree that the temperature on Mars is exactly as it is here. Nobody will dispute that." This was quipped by Kentucky State Senator Brandon Smith. This is someone who has influence on the direction of the state of Kentucky and even in the United States. And yet he failed third grade astronomy?

It is possible to take Brandon's remark to mean that the temperature behaves the same as it does here and not that the temperature itself is the same value, but even that is quite the stretch and could not possibly be backed up scientifically. And yet, he appealed to academia as if everyone agrees with his position in order to strengthen his words in the eyes of those who will not question if indeed everyone agrees. We do not have such long-term data regarding temperature for Mars. We hardly have such data for Earth. There is no possible way to determine that they are the same in behavior. All we really know right now is that Mars is extremely cold compared to Earth. This, of course, due to its distance from the sun and lack of atmosphere.

Or do we even know that? I never personally went to Mars. In fact, I've never even seen it. As far as I truly know, Mars does not exist. I take it upon trust that people are not lying to me when they say it exists. I am told that Pluto is orbiting our sun and even Eris beyond that. I could not possibly know these things except by scientists telling me it is so. I take their word for it. And not even their word directly, but the word of others who claim on behalf of the scientists that they have evidence to prove its existence. The data and knowledge I receive are far too removed for me to make claims of absolute knowledge. And yet I am willing to claim these things as true simply because the majority of people have tended to agree and there seems few people willing to dispute the claims.

This removal from the words of the scientists may not be a huge deal when it comes to the physical existence of a dwarf planet circling our flaming ball of gas in the sky, but when it comes to vaccines, autism, and spurious correlations, it becomes an increasingly huge deal. A statement that there seems to be a link between ice cream consumption and drowning is often twisted by our media with the phrase, "ice cream might lead to drowning." This is nowhere near the truth. This is correlation and not causation. Summer months lead to hotter temperatures. Hotter temperatures lead to increases in both swimming and consumption of ice cream and thus they rise together. It is the weather that leads to more drownings since there are more people swimming when it warms up. Ice cream aside, this removal from the literal words of the scientists can have severely detrimental effects when it comes to things as important as vaccines and autism.

In the end, we tend to believe as the majority of people around us believes. But we need to rethink this principle. For important matters, we cannot simply trust those near to us without further thought. The chances are too great that they also simply trusted the people around them and they, too, trusted those around them, and so on. And yet, we can't trust our Senators to know that the temperature of Mars is colder than Earth, so who should we trust? Specialists. And not just any specialists. We need to trust the majority of specialists in their particular field. It's also important to trust the majority of specialists in their field who are not financially or egotistically motivated. That makes things rather difficult since we then need to trust the data we receive that tells us whether or not a person is financially or egotistically invested in an opinion. And to trust them, we need to know if they, too, are financially or egotistically compromised.

So how can we know? How can we really, really, know? Ultimately, we cannot know anything beyond our own existence from the mere fact that we think. This should be more comforting than it sounds. Clearly we are comfortable with the amount of knowing that we have for many things. We are comfortable with our perceptions of existence, the people around us, the sun, the grass, the moon. Sure, we could be in one intensely creative matrix being ruled by machines as we dream in a collective universe, but not many people are all that concerned with this potential. In a similar fashion, we probably shouldn't be so concerned with absolute knowledge of anything. No solution for whom to trust is going to be a perfect one, but it can be an effective one that is more likely to come up with good results than any other.

My personal trust mechanism works by asking the following questions and tallying up the pluses and minuses:

1. Is the person logically sound in their own right?
2. Is the person equally knowledgeable about the subject as his opposition?
3. Does the person lack financial ties to his position?
4. Does the person lack prestige for his position?
5. Do the majority of specialists in this field agree with him?
6. Is the science behind the opposition inconclusive, illogical, and/or irrational?
7. Has the person demonstrated himself as trustworthy and/or correctable?
8. Do the belief's benefits outweigh the risks?
9. Does the person's opposition respond with hate and emotion rather than logic?
10. Was the sample size of the data large enough to warrant significance?

Not one of these items are a standalone reason to believe a person or a position and some of them weigh heavier on the decision than others. If a person is not logically sound, they may still be right but not for the reasons they think they are. If they are logically sound, they may still be missing data or falsely attributing a value that makes it appear sound even though it is false. A person may not have equal knowledge about a subject, but if they are sound in their argumentation with what knowledge they have, and if it appears the argument is not soundly refuted by those more experienced, then it may be worthwhile to give it a listen. If people tend to get angry with someone's position rather than responding rationally, then there's a good chance there is little logical refutation to be had. There are probably many other factors that I use in determining the truth of what I hear, but these are the ones that come quickly to mind.

It's probably wise to also include a list of what NOT to heed for making a decision:

1. Anecdotes--a person's experience is not proof of anything on its own
2. Appeals to History--just because it's been perceived this way doesn't mean it should be.
3. Straw Men--is the argument really against what it claims to be against?
4. Power--a single person in a powerful position does not equate to knowledge and understanding
5. Faith--people lie about their faith all the time and many are deceived by their own faith
6. Hearsay--just because someone heard that a study showed something doesn't mean it happened or was accurate
7. Appeal--just because something is appealing doesn't mean it's true
7. Politicians--not just that they lie, but they're very skilled at being appealing and mangling words to deceive
8. Lawyers--they need to win their case and they'll misconstrue data or insert doubt to do so
9. Marketing--they know what makes you tick and spurs your brain to desire. Keep away!
10. Single-Source News--viewers make them money. They show and say what makes them money. You don't get the full story, you get entertainment.

These things should not even be part of an assessment. Not that we should ignore all politicians, but we should not believe them simply because they are. And just because someone advertised it on TV doesn't mean it's true by any stretch of the imagination and it should require that much more evidence since it is likely lining someone's pocket. Only the rich can advertise effectively and easily. And they're rich because they know how to make money off people. Do not ever listen to advertising. Do your own research. Advertisers lie, cheat, and steal. Politicians and lawyers do the same. They're out to make money or to obtain votes. They are highly compromised in what they say. Don't ever take anything for granted from them.

Lastly, keep in mind the ridiculousness of non-entities. Concepts like "Big Pharma" act as if doctors and scientists all benefit from lies. The people doing the studies on things like vaccines are often not the people who will benefit from the sales of vaccines. Or if there's some huge governmental conspiracy, the people doing the studies are generally not going to be the ones in on it. Putting a name on something that doesn't exist serves only to confuse. There might be a particular company that benefits from vaccines so it would be wise to look into whether or not that specific company is the one doing the research or if people independent of them are gathering the data. Every single doctor and researcher cannot be considered one giant entity that all benefits. Get specifics, and reject generalities.

That's my two cents, but... can you trust me?!

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