Friday, June 26, 2009

Woos and Fallibility

There's one constant theme I notice when we criticize woos for using personal anecdotes or mention various cognitive biases, they quite often take it as us calling them stupid and nothing more. If they paid attention instead of parroting doggerel, they'd realize that we're calling them mortal.

Contrary to the aphorism, "seeing is believing," seeing is not believing. Everyone has flawed senses and biases that color the information those senses receive. That is the principle reason science was invented: We have to be aware of our shortcomings and compensate for them. We use statistics to make sure the patterns we see are real. We work on the principle of falsification so that we always have an escape hatch from bad ideas. We know that we can make mistakes. When we do, we admit them, and redouble our error checking methods when we move on.

Many woos, however, commit the perfect solution fallacy when it comes to science: "Science was wrong before, therefore we should trust in ideas randomly dreamed up by ancient traditions and some guy who's never performed experiments." That's the nasty thing about woo: It sets double standards. They're free to form ad hoc hypotheses for whenever their favorite woo utterly fails, but any tiny perceived failure of science, real or not, invalidates the entire process.

Science is a process that enforces humility. The peer review process requires that every idea endures criticism and retesting. No one is above questioning. Woo is an ivory tower, and its occupants call us "arrogant" for dragging them down to Earth, stripping them of their place above the gods, and daring to suggest we're all the same.

1 comment:

Jason said...

Fantastic! You have knack of distilling this stuff down to a clear and concise argument that even the most wool-headed proponent of magical thinking would have a hard time misrepresenting to themselves.

Ahh, the joy of a good idea, expressed clearly. Keep up the good work.