Monday, September 19, 2011

My mother is very much on the mend.  She goes home in the next couple of days.  They're still unsure if she's going to have to have an oxygen feed with her at home, but other than that things are looking good.

I've been thinking about how we know stuff.  It seems to me that the distinction between belief and knowledge is getting blurrier or even getting lost outright more and more.  Mind you, this may be an artefact of changes in myself.  To be clear, belief is what a person holds to be true, knowledge is a belief supported by evidence.

Over the last couple of years I've become involved in the skeptic and atheist communities on-line.  I've always been fascinated by science so this is a pretty natural progression.  The fundamental difference this has made in me is that it's focused my attention on what I believe, and more importantly, why I believe what I do.

Skepticism is not cynicism, nor is it disbelief for its own sake.  It concerns a rational, evidenced based epistemology.  The basic tenet is that in order to accept something as true the claim has to be logically consistent and have credible evidence to support it.  The goal is to make one's beliefs and congruent with reality as possible.  To have knowledge rather than beliefs.  You wouldn't think that such a thing would be controversial, and you would be wrong about that.  But that's another story for another time.

Being a skeptic isn't necessarily easy.  Take a look at this list of cognitive biases.  They are all the ways that your brain is programmed to deceive you.  Even being aware of them is not a guarantee that one won't get fooled.  The most insidious one for me is confirmation bias. The only defence is to be very careful when one hears things that agree with an already held belief.

Another key component of skepticism is that one must be willing to change one's beliefs as new evidence comes available.  You wouldn't think that this notion would be controversial either, and again, you'd be wrong.  I've been involved in a discussion about gender stereotypes over the last couple of days.  One participant claimed as a fact that women speak more than men.  I did some research on pubmed and found that there are a couple of recent studies that showed that there isn't any significant differences in word counts between the genders.  The woman making the claim is refusing to acknowledge that her belief might be wrong because she was taught this "fact" in the course of getting a university degree in communications.

Bah, the power just went out.  Oop, and now it's back.  I don't hold much hope it will stay on though.  It's blowing pretty hard out there.  One of the joys of country life is that when the power goes out we lose our water because we pump it out of a bore.   Every time the wind picks up in any serious way we fill a couple of buckets so we can still flush the toilet and we top up the big water filter so we have plenty of drinking water in reserve.  I also put a torch in my pocket a couple of hours ago, just in case.

I better finish up so I can save the battery on the laptop.

The final thing that's necessary to be a skeptic is the ability to say "I don't know." and be comfortable with that.  There are two reasons for this.  One is that here is so much we are still trying to figure out.  We don't know exactly how our brains function for instance.  We've got some good ideas but there's much we still don't know.  In the absence of facts the most rational thing to say is "I don't know." and leave it at that until new information comes along.

The other reason is that there just isn't enough time to research everything.  Not for most folks anyway, certainly not for me.  On topics that I've not had time to look into it's far more practical and honest for me to simply accept my lack of knowledge.  Speculation is fun of course, but that comfort with the unknown means that I never have to be stressed by what I'll find if I'm forced to look into a new subject.

Dang, laptop battery is below half and the the lights are flickering again.  Later.

1 comment:

Raghda Ezzeldin Aly said...

As I was reading through your post, i realised for the first time how well i fit the definition of being Skeptic, although i never thought about myself as such. You are right, there is a very blurry line between knowledge and belief. The more you encounter ideas that you disagree with (ones you perceive as false beliefs), and see how others call it knowledge and view them as facts, you realise that this could apply almost to everything you take to be as knowledge. We get fooled into thinking some information are to be taken as facts, the truth is nothing is a fact, nothing is a constant, even the basic so-called "constants" of physics such as gravity for instance, are not actually constant and they keep changing... In order to sustain a society, you have to have all of them contained in a certain knowledge box, the norm, how "normal" people think... Of course you have the dumb normal people, who live in a small knowledge box, then you have the smarter ones, who have a bigger box and so on... but the box will always be MUCH smaller than the truth, because we know nothing, and we WANT to know everything, and the more we try, the more we realise how small our "nothing" of knowledge really is.... I'm sorry i got carried away, in short, maybe i am a skeptic, but i am only because i realised knowledge is nothing but belief.