‘proof’ of the
Reasoning, Writing and Rare Resources
|By Jeanine DeNoma|
The three Rs taught in Dr. Paul Nickel’s classroom include reasoning, writing and natural resource economics. He uses a writing intensive program in classes of 100 to 150 students to teach logic tests and the rules of scientific processes. Writing up to 25 papers a semester, students use the tests to evaluate modern environmental doomsday theories.
Nickel’s FRSNs (frissons), like the “Jaws of Life” at a traffic accident, wrest unwary thinkers trapped in logic wrecks. Collisions with the mass media, 18 years of television and 12 years of education have left students trapped in the “jaws of belief.” They were taught what, not how, to think. Undergraduates in Dr. Paul Nickel’s class acquire a complete set of independent thinking tools and the skills to use them. Nickel coined the ‘FRSN’ acronym to encompass this collection of thinking tools. It includes James Lett’s FiLCHeRS (1990); Rothman’s Rules (1990); Dorothy Seyler’s logical fallacies (1984); and Nickel’s Rules from Life and personal experience. Nickel teaches these logic tests as part of his natural resource economics class at Michigan State University.
James Lett distilled the scientific process down to six rules and coined them the “FiLCHeRs.” When properly applied, Lett tells his students, “No one will ever be able to sneak up on you and steal your belief. You’ll be filch-proof,” (1990).
1. Falsifiability. Falsifiability is “the most fundamental rule of evidential reasoning” and requires that “it must be possible to conceive of evidence that would prove the claim false” (Lett, 1990). If nothing conceivable could disprove a claim, evidence wouldn’t matter and the claim is meaningless, logically impossible. Such claims are devoid of content, useless; emotional, but not factual. There are two ways claims can be nonfalsifiable: A claim may be so broadly stated that any evidence can be taken as supportive. Or it may fall into the “Heads I win, tails you lose” category, where the claimant endlessly explains away negative evidence with untestable excuses. If a falsifiable claim were true, once tested it could be tentatively accepted.
2. Logic. Any evidence offered to uphold a claim must be logically sound: The rules of inference must have been be correctly and consistently used. In practice, Lett warns, logic can be hard to apply because it may require specific knowledge about the subject in question.
3. Comprehensiveness. “The evidence offered in support of any claim must be exhaustive - that is, all of the available evidence must be considered” (Lett, 1990). Contradictory and negative evidence, commonly left out by advocates of a particular view, must be provided for a claim to past this test.
4. Honesty. Honesty requires freedom from self-deception, acceptance of negative evidence and the ability to change one’s position if indicated by the overwhelming weight of evidence. Denial, avoidance and rationalization all violate the rule of honesty.
5. Replicability. Replication safeguards against error, bias, fraud and coincidence. If evidence for a claim is based on experimental results, independent researchers should obtain the same results.
6. Sufficiency. The argument that a claim has not been disproved is not proof of its truth. “If the absence of disconfirming evidence were sufficient proof of a claim, then we could ‘prove’ anything that we could imagine. Belief must be based not simply on the absence of disconfirming evidence but on the presence of confirming evidence,” writes Lett. Sincerity, belief, expertise, experience and credentials are not sufficient evidence. Belief lends itself to self-deception, expertise to the motivation to lie. Expectations mislead. Perception is always selective and memory prone to distortion, deletions, substitutions and amplifications.
Rothman’s rules are outlined in the Skeptical Inquirer (1990), in an article on cold fusion. Milton Rothman, an author and physicist, discussed rules for holding fantasy-prone scientists in check - or least linked to reality - and some guidelines for the non-specialist evaluating scientific claims.
1. Don’t believe everything you read and hear. (Or as Nickel cautions his students - reserve judgement.)
2. Cast a cold eye on studies and experiments from which different workers elicit different answers. (In the case of cold fusion, noisy backgrounds, immeasurably small effects, and wishful science all lead to the original claim.)
3. If a claim is made for a phenomenon that violates one or more laws of nature, be doubly cautious.
4. Be skeptical of the opinions of experts outside their areas of expertise.
5. Be wary of scientists (and economists and theologians) who fall madly in love with their own theories. (“Obsession interferes with scientific research, since it encourages the scientist to make errors in judgement and procedure that tend to reinforce his or her own beliefs,” writes Rothman.)
Seyler’s logical fallacies
Dorothy Seyler’s logical fallacies are a collection of causes behind illogical reasoning, discussed in her book Read, Reason, Write. Psychological factors, such as ego, prejudices, resistance to change and a need for answers, trap many individuals into irrational positions. Acceptance of arguments founded on oversimplification gives rise to many logical fallacies (see box).
|Errors in generalizing
The forced hypothesis
The slippery slope
The false dilemma
The post hoc fallacy
Begging the question
Appeal to authority
Common practice / bandwagon
Nickel then tosses in a collection of maxims, observations, and hard learned lessons, called ‘Nickel’s rules from life,’ to fill out his students’ toolboxes.
They include such important reminders as: ask for evidence and test it; find the appropriate expert for testing evidence; be irreverent, nothing is sacred - test everything. Look for alternative explanations. Look for counter-intuitive evidence. All model-makers cheat, all models are selected “perceptions” in need of testing. Sampling methods are always questionable. Has the data been “mined”? Watch for models using selective data that overlooks contrary evidence. There are always tradeoffs - evaluate them. If everyone believes it, it’s probably wrong. Prove your model wrong, not right. Admit ignorance, reserve judgement, and don’t suspend your disbelief.
To all off this Nickel adds Hyman’s Charity Principle: Portray the “opponent’s position in a fair, objective and non-emotional manner.” Treat people with respect and courtesy. Ask yourself, “What would be scientifically acceptable ‘proof’ of the claimant’s favored model?”
Nickel hopes learning and practicing the FRSNs will give his students the
tools and the skills to nail down claimants who promulgate logical fallacies,
rout out unsubstantiated evidence and chisel away at irrational beliefs.
Hyman, Ray. 1989. Proper criticism. In Hyman’s The Elusive Quarry. Amherst, New York.: Prometheus Books.
Lett, James. 1990. A field guide to critical thinking. Skeptical Inquirer 14(2):153 (winter).
Nickel, Paul and Nancy Shelton. 1996. Questioning authority. Skeptical Inquirer (in press).
Rothman, Milton A. 1990. Cold fusion: A case history in ‘Wishful science’? Skeptical Inquirer 14(2):161 (winter).
Seyler, Dorothy U. 1984. Read, Reason, Write. New York.: Random House.
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