Critical Thinking and Expert Consensus

Here’s a problem: how to you know what is right if you don’t explore the question for yourself?

While we should strive to only accept those things which we can verify for ourselves, that is simply impossible to do in all things. We can’t all do our own cancer treatment studies, for example. Doing just one such study takes huge amounts of time, money, effort, and knowledge in getting results and interpreting them. And that would be just one study. What about food safety, or discoveries in modern physics? It’s implausible that you will be trying to double-check that you can create your own superconductor at higher temperatures.

So either you have to be ignorant about so much that is important in the modern world, or you need to accept the work done by others. But how reliable can that be? We know individuals lie or are mistaken all the time, and being an expert or well-experienced in a field doesn’t stop that from happening. It’s easy to point to examples in recent times, such as scientists paid to argue against the connection between smoking and lung cancer as well as other examples detailed in Merchants of Doubt. However, one of the authors of that book, Naomi Oreskes, argues that we should still trust the scientific enterprise as she details well in this TED talk.

Simple summary of why we trust science.

In particular, Oreskes says we should put our trust not in individuals experts but scientific consensus, a wisdom of the crowd of experts in a subject. And the reason that the scientific consensus should be given weight rather than, say, the consensus of astrologers on their subject, is because of the nature and values of science, especially its organized skepticism. So, if there is a group of people with expertise in a subject, and if that community of experts evaluates a claim and it goes through debate and is analyzed with good data and skeptical inquiry, and that group comes to a consensus, those of us outside of that group have good reason to trust the results of that group; at the very least, it is much more likely that they are right than wrong, and you are unable to determine otherwise.

Or are you?

The question now arises as to when might you have reason to doubt the consensus? Perhaps now those outside of the group doing the research can evaluate the claims because so much of the data and analysis papers are online we can go figure it out for ourselves. The problem is, that is much harder than one thinks. That point is made well in Harry Collins’s book Are We all Scientific Experts Now? With the particular example of so-called Climategate, we see what happens when emails by the researchers are cherry-picked and misunderstood to mean something dastardly. Additionally, Collins shows the healthcare disaster in South Africa when the president of that country did his research online and then denied the use of anti-retroviral drugs to alleviate the spread of HIV to newborn children. Doubting the consensus to go with the minority report or fringe view tends to lead to misunderstanding and even suffering.

But why do people outside of the expert researchers fail to examine the evidence properly? And are we doomed to just trust the consensus no matter what? What can a regular person do to make sure that they have justified reason to trust any or all given consensuses? About two months ago, Richard Carrier posted a blog entry on that subject on how to evaluate an argument from consensus, and since then he has discussed the question in a few different places, in particular this video chat on Inspiring Doubt.

Carrier does make good points about when a consensus may not be a reliable consensus (if the experts haven’t evaluated the methods critically or having considered the opposing arguments, which is why astrologers cannot be trusted when they state astrology works), but one thing in particular comes up in that blog post and his interview: our use of critical thinking skills to evaluate the arguments of the experts, especially if against a fringe view. And while it is true that if you can see someone continuously using fallacious arguments you have reason to doubt the strength of that person’s position, there is trouble with using critical thinking. This is in part to something echoed by Chris Hallquist, Julia Galef, and Luke Muehlhauser, and in part it is related to the talk I will be giving at the upcoming SSA East conference next weekend.

So, what is wrong with critical thinking?  Continue reading


Dubito, . . . I think: Non-Contradiction and How You Can’t Contradict It

Perhaps you have come across someone that uses a presupposition’s argument about how an atheist cannot account for logic itself, and hence such a person cannot reason without God. After all, to demonstrate that the law of non-contradiction is logical, one must apply logic and this law, hence creating a circular argument. And so, the person will try to argue, something outside of logic, something truly amazing is required in order to make sure logic exists, and that being is the Deity.

Of course, most don’t just stop and say this proves that there is a god, but that this proves in fact the Christian God; I haven’t heard the argument used by Muslim apologists, or any other religion for that matter, though they could probably be just as able to say the same things. To get to this position about the existence of the Christian concept of the divine requires more than just the existence of logic, but since they think they already have logic on their side because of their theism, the rest will follow for them, either by faith or further argumentation, such as the historicity of the Resurrection.

But, it should also be noticed that by setting up the case that a particular religion has the proper understanding of the force behind logic in fact makes is susceptible to to that same logic which can disprove the entire edifice. Let us take if for granted that logic in some way is emanated by the divine; it should follow then that because logic is so important to this god that all of the tenants about that god should follow the principles of logic. If they have accepted the law of non-contradiction, and they argue that it is true because of their religious beliefs, then it follows that their religion cannot have any breaks from this law. This means that even one contradiction, one flaw in the entire belief structure or scripture or concept of god then the entire argument that logic comes from that god is destroyed. It is so plainly easy to find a single contradiction in the numerous sayings or the religious, the writings of the theologians, the remarks of the apostles, etc. The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible includes a massive list of contradictions in the Bible, along with contradictions in the Qur’an and the Book of Mormon. As you can see, in order for any particular theism, other than Deism perhaps, the strategy that the beliefs must be perfect will require so much apologetic work that the entire idea of making God the source of logic a lost cause.

What we can see here is that in fact the notion of forcing the atheist to account for reason itself is simply a debating tactic, something to trip up the debater from showing the errors in the others belief system. The entire notion of pressupositionalist arguments is to say that since there is something wrong, anything wrong, with my world view, then one must default to some religious view and say goddidit with great frequency. The standard of perfection or theism is an amazingly high standard, one that cannot be met by anyone because there is not enough computing power in the universe to see if there are any possible contradictions between all the views a person may take. Besides consistency does not mean that it is necessarily true; if my belief that the world is spherical contradicts some political policy I have adhere to, it does not follow then that all is false, that the world is not necessarily round. Besides, the concept of goddidit for all answers can be consistent, but if there is no God, then the world view must be in error.

But perhaps we should take up the gauntlet of the arguers, take up the case that logic is supported in some fashion by a god, or any being for that matter. It seems that the statement that logic is “true” because god said so seems to beg some form of the old Euthyphro Dilemma:

Is something logical because god says it is logical,
or does god say something is logical because it is so?

If one takes the latter part of the dilemma, then it suggests that logic is independent of that god altogether. If instead one take the former, then it makes the laws of logic arbitrary, that logic is no more true than anything else; we have a super form of relativism, but there is at least something that will force you to obey it.

But perhaps you don’t have a problem with logic, and morality for that matter, being arbitrary. Well, here is an interesting question: since god created the laws of logic, then can god break the law of non-contradiction? Suppose no–if that is the case, then that seems to say that logic makes the god subservient to the creation, which seems to be an unlikely situation. More interestingly, suppose yes–if god can break the law of non-contradiction, then god can exist and not exist at the same time. Therefore, that god does not exist is a true statement about god. Ergo, god does not exist. What this means that if god is in fact powerful enough to break the laws of logic, then god does not exist. With such a twist, it seems to be untenable to say that anything is the source of logic.

This is certainly fun to take the theists argument and make it mean that god does not exist, but one can still charge that logic is still not supported and so to use it cannot be meaningful to one that denies it. So, can logic be accounted for?

Now, it seems odd to even ask the question–to suppose that logic comes from something suggests that it could not exist. However, it is not fathomable to say that the law of non-contradiction could not be a true law, that it seems to be a necessary thing in the universe; the law’s existence could not be otherwise. This is demonstrated by simply trying to deny its validity. Suppose you say that the law of non-contradiction is false. By your statement, then two opposite statements can both be true. This means that you say the law of non-contradiction is not false, that is, true. Hence, by denying the non-contradiction, you agree with non-contradiction. This means it cannot be denied, hence undeniable. And so, by this bit of word play, we can see that non-contradiction is a necessary thing in the universe. As a simple proof of it (non-contradiction):

If it is true, it is true.
If it is false, it is true.

In fact, we require it to be so just to be able to talk. If the law was not adhered to, then what I say also means what I did not say. In other words, by saying anything I have said nothing because it has no meaning. After all, the term is contra-diction: against speech. Hence, any civilization that produces language must adhere to this principle.

It would seem then that logic accounts for itself just fine; the denial of it is impossible and to declare its need for support from beyond itself will enter the paradox of its own nonexistence. So, if someone tries to badger on about this, just point out that it cannot be said to be otherwise, unlike gods. It is possible to say “there are no gods” without it being internally contradictory; this cannot be said about non-contradiction. Hence, there is nothing left to prove.

Non contradicto me, ergo constans sum, ergo ratione cogito.

I have found that Michael Martin has devoted much more time to these issues, so I must link to his arguments about the transcendental arguments for god (TAG):

Isn’t it good to know smart people’s arguments?