Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Stone Soup Gambit

Recently, I watched Jim Henson's The Storyteller. In one of the episodes, the titular character manages to con his way into getting a free meal out of a cook by making "stone soup". He puts the stone in a pot of water and boils it. As he takes a sip to "test" the flavor, he asks for a little salt, and the cook obliges. He repeats, getting more and more extra ingredients. After putting together a tasty stew this way, the cook is delighted and dumbfounded that someone could make delicious soup from "just" a stone. I think I can use this little tale to start a meme: "The Stone Soup Gambit."

When we argue for experimental controls and present alternative causes, it often feels like we're trying to convince someone that the stone contributed nothing to the flavor. There's rarely a shortage of alternative explanations: other ingredients in the soup. Essentially, what we want is a (double-)blind taste test between a pot of boiled water and stone soup, hold ALL the extra ingredients, to see if it's possible to consistently tell the difference (at greater than chance levels).

Instead, we usually get complaints that amount to saying it's impossible for the alternatives/ingredients to affect the outcome, therefore we can afford to be sloppy in our methodology. These efforts fall rather flat with skeptics, and the repetition is a leading cause of our frustration. Often, we get a few token concessions, controlling for whatever the field considers the token objection (see-through Zener cards, weather balloons, etcetera) and they expect us to be satisfied with the removal of so few alternatives.

It's a very simple concept. I don't see why applying such a basic principle invokes so much rage on our opponents' side. I certainly can't blame my skeptical friends for getting frustrated dealing with robotic, repetitious replies.


Dunc said...

Kinda irrelevant, but funny: Ten in Ten Homoepathic Prescriptions Contain Mistakes.

A SURVEY of prescriptions written by homeopathic practitioners has found that 10 out of every 10 is riddled with unscientific garbage, according to a new study.


The General Medical Council has called for a standardisation of homeopathic prescriptions to avoid confusion, with all slips carrying the message 'you may as well eat this piece of paper'.


He added: "If any homeopaths disagree, I suggest they mix up a tonic of one part my balls to three parts my big, fat, hairy arse."

Sorry, just had to share... ;)

Valhar2000 said...

Homeopathy is dangerous man! Didn't you hear about the guy who forgot to take his homeopathic medicine and died of an overdose?

Anonymous said...

You should never be afraid to laugh at your local homeopath!

By the way isn't all that dihydrogen monoxide dangerous...? I mean hydrogen, it powers the sun, so it must be radioactive or somethin' and DIhydrogen must be twice as bad. Monoxide, like is it related to carbon monoxide? That like KILLS people on a fairly regular basis.
These chemicals are in our drinkin' water and no one is doing anything about it! Big pharma and the Illuminati must be laughin' their socks off!

Crystal Wu

Valhar2000 said...

Ah! Those chemicals are in their drinking water too, so we get the last laugh!