Friday, January 13, 2017

Carl Sagan's Toolkit for Skeptical Thinking (or call it Smith's epistemology)

I just read a nice blog post by A.P. Van Arsdale, "Size, Science, and Scientific Truth on bias in scientific thinking. I differ from Van Arsdale somewhat in my view that science is not about "Truth," but about reducing error. As Professor Indiana Jones once said,  "Archeology is the search for fact, not truth. If it's truth you're interested in, Dr. Tyree's Philosophy class is right down the hall.'   Archaeology, like all science, is about facts and patterns and explanations, not about truth. But I do understand that many people use the word "truth" informally to refer to facts, patterns, and explanations.

In his post Van Arsdale lists nine principles from Carl Sagan that comprise a "Toolkit for sceptical thinking." These are from Sagan's book, "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark." These are great precepts, and they neatly describe my own epistemology.

  1. Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”  
  2. Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  3. Arguments from authority carry little weight – “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.  
  4. Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.”
  5. Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.
  6. Quantify.  If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.
  7. If there is a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work–not just most of them.
  8. Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.
  9. Always ask whether the hypothesis proposed can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle – an electron, say – in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? 
If you have read any of my ranting and raving in this blog about science, scholarship, and the deleterious effects that postmodernism, postprocessualism, and social archaeology have had on the advancement of archaeology, these points are no surprise. For more formal statements of some of my epistemology, see Smith (2015; n.d.). Or see many of my prior posts, especially my series on science in archaeology, starting with "Science, Social Science, and Archaeology: Where do we Stand?"

Smith, Michael E.
2015 How can Archaeologists Make Better Arguments? The SAA Archaeological Record 15 (4):                 18-23.

n.d. Social Science and Archaeological Inquiry. Antiquity  (in press).

And if you want to see Carl Sagan in some wild and wonderful videos, check out the mash-ups by Melody Sheep. I especially like this one.  Whoop  Whoop......