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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Scientific Principles and Reason

Principles everyone should live by:

Science is posing formidable challenges to some of our most ancient assumptions and fundamental precepts. Its two-edged byproduct, high technology, offers us unprecedented opportunities even as it tears at the intricate fabric of nature. We need a heightened level of scientific awareness to protect the environment that sustains us. The aspirations of democracy are based on the notion of an informed citizenry, capable of making wise decisions. The choices we are asked to make become increasingly complex. They require the longer-term thinking and greater tolerance for ambiguity that science fosters. The new economy is predicated on a continuous pipeline of scientific and technological innovation. It can not exist without workers and consumers who are mathematically and scientifically literate.

Ann Druyan
Cosmos Studios, Inc.

Adapted from Carl Sagan's The Demon Haunted World

-Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.

-Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.

-Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no "authorities").

-Spin more than one hypothesis - don't simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.

-Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it's yours.

-Quantify, wherever possible.

-If there is a chain of argument every link in the chain must work.

-Occam's razor - if there are two hypotheses that explain the data equally well choose the simpler.

-Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be falsified (shown to be false by some unambiguous test). In other words, it is testable? Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result?

Additional issues are:

-Conduct control experiments - especially "double blind" experiments where the person taking measurements is not aware of the test and control subjects.

-Check for confounding factors - separate the variables.

Common fallacies of logic and rhetoric

-Ad hominem - attacking the arguer and not the argument.

-Argument from "authority".

-Argument from adverse consequences (putting pressure on the decision maker by pointing out dire consequences of an "unfavorable" decision).

-Appeal to ignorance (absence of evidence is not evidence of absence).

-Special pleading (typically referring to god's will).

-Begging the question (assuming an answer in the way the question is phrased).

-Observational selection (counting the hits and forgetting the misses).

-Statistics of small numbers (such as drawing conclusions from inadequate sample sizes).

-Misunderstanding the nature of statistics (President Eisenhower expressing astonishment and alarm on discovering that fully half of all Americans have below average intelligence!)

-Inconsistency (e.g. military expenditures based on worst case scenarios but scientific projections on environmental dangers thriftily ignored because they are not "proved").

-Non sequitur - "it does not follow" - the logic falls down.

-Post hoc, ergo propter hoc - "it happened after so it was caused by" - confusion of cause and effect.

-Meaningless question ("what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?).

-Excluded middle - considering only the two extremes in a range of possibilities (making the "other side" look worse than it really is).

-Short-term v. long-term - a subset of excluded middle ("why pursue fundamental science when we have so huge a budget deficit?").

-Slippery slope - a subset of excluded middle - unwarranted extrapolation of the effects (give an inch and they will take a mile).

-Confusion of correlation and causation.

-Caricaturing (or stereotyping) a position to make it easier to attack.

-Suppressed evidence or half-truths.

-Weasel words - for example, use of euphemisms for war such as "police action" to get around limitations on Presidential powers. "An important art of politicians is to find new names for institutions which under old names have become odious to the public"

(excerpted from The Planetary Society Australian Volunteer Coordinators Prepared by Michael Paine )

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