REPOST: Epistemology

Orac at Respectful Insolence had a great post a month or so ago which really nailed some basic problems with accepting pseudoscience. Here’s a relevant excerpt:

Of course, even within New Age, skepticism seems to be without a basis. After all, if you accept astrology and fairies, really, on what possible basis can you reject channeling the dead?… Unfortunately, this is a completely predictable result. When one leaves science, rationality, and reason behind, there is no reliable way to differentiate one woo from another, one pseudoscience from another, one faith-based belief from another. When anything goes, nothing goes, and nothing can be included or excluded based on evidence. Everything is fair game.

This is something that inevitably comes up pretty much every time I try to talk to one of these believer people. It just seems obvious to them that their own beliefs – say, that homeopathy works – are somehow beyond testing and experimentation, or that there’s a massive conspiracy to cover up all the successful tests, or some other lame excuse. But when others use the exact same arguments to support beliefs which are even crazier – like that reptilian aliens have infiltrated human society up to the highest levels of government – somehow to them it is just as obvious that they are suddenly the crazy ones. But that’s hypocritical since they’ve already abandoned the idea of ruling out beliefs altogether in order to support their own.

It reminds me a lot of how some fundamentalist Christians will say that it’s crazy for Muslims to believe that Mohammed flew up into the sky on a horse, but it’s perfectly reasonable for them to assume that Jesus rose from the dead, hung out for 40 days, and then flew up into the sky without a horse. Or you can reverse that if you like, it’s all the same absurd double standard.

And whenever I talk to these people, I always think that if I can only show them how they can rule out pseudoscientific ideas which are just a little bit too crazy for them, they will have some “A-ha!” moment and realize how skeptics come to reject their ideas and the attempted justifications. And that they in fact use the pretty much the same methodology we are using when they dismiss ideas that seem too crazy, even to them. But that rarely happens.

People who are into woo generally just don’t like the idea of having some kind of epistemological foundation for belief, and they like even less that it is science that has proven to get us closer to the truth than any other proposed foundation so far. It would be pretty amazing if we as a civilization had reduced disease, extended life expectancy and increased quality of life by proposing that ideas be tested on the basis of whoever simply says “That’s what I believe,” but strangely enough that didn’t happen. And it probably won’t work in the future, either.

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