Metaphysical claims involving things like the Law of Attraction, astrology or homeopathy all share at least one feature: It’s very easy to find evidence for them. There exist a broad set of claims for which this holds true, and they are often collected under the summary term of pseudoscience. Pseudoscientific claims make predictions or offer explanations just as scientific claims do. Where they differ is in failing to offer a robust set of underlying laws, or even hypotheses, which can be empirically shown to justify those predictions or explanations.
At some point in the early or mid-80’s, our hosts at a dinner party complained about the escalating price of meat. I remember being struck by how curious this lament was, seeing as the hosts in question were undeniably rather wealthy – they had cars for every conceivable purpose (the shopping car, the beach holiday car, the high-tea-at-the-Nellie car), and lived in what seemed to my youngsters’ eye to be a house in which they might regularly get lost, such were the number of rooms, nooks and crannies.
But as the years have limped on, I’ve heard this sort of complaint regularly, and it has become clear that just about everybody wishes that their lives were better, no matter what their current social or financial status. And this is perhaps good, in that having aspirations is what drives us to better our lives. In many cases, bettering our own lives can contribute to the welfare of others also, and that’s certainly no bad thing.
There is however a difference between being aspirational and being delusional. The former could involve wishing you could afford any meat at all, and the latter perhaps that you could persuade Floyd Shivambu to express himself using coherent and complete sentences. And it is of course possible to make significant distinctions in the realm of what we aspire to, in that it’s somewhat offensive to complain about your lot when you already have more than most could dream of having.
A little housekeeping & paying of temple taxes follows. First, the 15th edition of the Carnival of the Africans is out, consisting of Blaize’s picks of the best scientific and skeptical blogging for the last few months. Second, the 2010 South African blog awards nomination process has begun. While it’s unlikely that anyone other than the usual suspects will win, if you’d like to participate in an attempt to buck that trend, go and nominate a blog (or a particular post) by August 27. Lastly, Michael Meadon kindly maintains a list of African scientific & skeptical blogs over at Ionian Enchantment, and I’ve pasted the current list below. If there’s a blog missing that you believe should be included, let him know (his email address is on his website).
Respect is due to people, rather than to ideas. While it may be politically incorrect to say so, there is no contradiction between saying that someone has a misguided, uninformed or laughable point of view, and at the same time recognising that person’s worth or dignity in general. But our sensitivity to being challenged, and to having the intrinsic merit of our ideas questioned, often leads us to conflate these two different sorts of respect.
Respecting a person is partly a matter of not causing them unnecessary trauma through ridicule or contempt. It also requires not prejudging their arguments or points of view, but rather judging those arguments on their merits. But if it is established that those arguments lack merit (when compared with competing arguments on the same topic), there is no wrong in pointing this out. It is perhaps even a duty to point it out, assuming that we care for having probably true, rather than probably false, beliefs about the world.
As that master epistemologist (and occasional US defence secretary) Donald Rumsfeld reminded us in 2002, “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” Some of these unknown unknowns are probably harmful to us, but seeing as we don’t know what they are, there’s little we can do to safeguard ourselves against them. But as my earlier treatment of the moral panic relating to DStv and porn implied, a known unknown (in this case, the harmfulness of porn) can be treated in two entirely different ways.