Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Panning for Gold

Panning for gold requires patience, and an understanding of the properties of gold relative to other minerals. Gold panners don't just work with any pile of sand and pebbles. No, they learn how to distinguish promising from hopeless sediments. And once they've done that, they have a method for sorting through all the junk to get to the gold.

If you're panning for knowledge, its the same game.

There's lots of junk knowledge out there. Way more than there is real knowledge.

To get to it, you need to learn how to sort the promising from the hopeless (which will save you lots and lots of time!). And once you've decided what you'll work with, you need a method to get through the heap of sand and muck to find the goods.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Exploring the Real World - by Owen

Most of us have questions about life.

Is there life after death?

If I wish really hard, will it come true?

Is it safe to eat ground beef?

Why do people get cancer?

and so on...

Actually investigating questions like these can be hard to do - especially if you've never been taught how to do it. Which is the case for most of us.

  • It is hard to understand computers if you've never learned how to use them.
  • It is hard to do a postmodernist critique of a passage of literature if you have no idea what postmodernism really is (I have no clue, myself).
  • It is hard to fix a bicycle if you are not familiar with basic mechanics...

...And, of course, we are not all created alike.
  • Some people are good at singing and others are not.
  • Some of us are good at mathematics and others are not.
  • Some of us are good at drawing rocket ships and others are not.
  • Some are good dancers and others are not.
  • Some are good computer hackers and others are not.
  • Some of us are good at analytical logic and others are not.
  • Some of us are good at dressing well and others are not.
  • Some of us are good at making up jokes and others are not.

... you get the picture. Not everyone will be good at the kind of analysis required to evaluate evidence and competing claims for difficult questions. Not everyone will even understand what that last sentence really means! But it is worth understanding at least that much.

And the more you learn how to evaluate evidence, and learn how to contextualize competing claims, the easier it gets. And the more you do it, the better you get at learning who to trust when it comes to information.

It takes more work to really study something than just sitting around imagining an answer. It is harder than simply taking your uncle or your pastor's word for it. On the other hand, it gives you better answers. Answers that might actually be useful, answers you may successfully employ to help your life and the lives of your loved ones! Answers that actually work, instead of wasting your time and money...

AND, if you don't feel up to it or don't have the time to research everything properly or whatever is stopping you, at least find someone who knows what they're talking about, and get them to explain it to you. The easy way to distinguish whether something is Magical Thinking or sound information is by finding out if the answer it gives actually corresponds to real live observable evidence!!! If there is reputable, published evidence to support the claim, well, it may just have something to it. If you are taking someone's word for it, and they don't seem to have access to any evidence to support their claim - well then, what that means is that their claim is so weak that it doesn't actually account for anything observable in the real world!!! If it did, there would be evidence. That's what evidence is! Real world observable effects...

Now, a lot of things haven't been properly studied yet. Maybe the microscopes aren't good enough to detect the bugs yet, or the ships aren't quite good enough to sail us around the world yet... BUT WHEN THEY ARE, find out what the explorers discovered. As soon as someone has found a way to explore it, don't waste your time with hearsay and rumour. The issue may be settled!

Of course, if you are seriously wondering about the shape of the earth, be careful who you ask. Make sure you are asking people who have really explored it!

So if your question is medical but goes beyond the scope of your family doctor's training - he or she is not able to explain it satisfactorily - then you have to find someone who knows better (a specialist). This is becoming more and more common, because more and more is being discovered, and you can't possibly expect a general practionner to keep up on it all!!!

If your question is about taxes, you need to consult a tax lawyer, or tax accountant, or get a book written by one!

If your question is about horoscopes, find a journal that has critically investigated the claims of someone who claims they can predict things based on the stars. See if they really can! (the answer is out there)

By looking in the right places, you can actually:

Find out if there really are any psychics in the world (its good to find out).

Find out if anyone really can levitate.

Find out if praying really does make a difference, and if so: what kind of difference does it make?

Find out if there's any value to x, y, z alternative medical practice.

Find out if past-life regressions are real, or a bunch of baloney...

Find out if talking to water really does make it freeze into beautiful crystals, or if that is an ingenious hoax designed to sucker hopeful new-agers...

Of course you don't ask someone who's job it is to sell you stuff! You ask (or read) people with no vested interest in convincing you either way. Independent researchers. And researchers who's writings are reviewed by others in their field, held to high standards, and judged to be competent.

Example: If you want to know which vacuum cleaner is the best, don't trust the salesman! Read a good independent review of vacuums!

the biggest question of them all - by Owen

What is Reality?

How do we know things are really Real? Is everyone's "reality" different, or do we all experience the same objective reality? In short: is Reality subjective (all in our heads), or is it objective (independent of our heads)? Is reality what is written in this or that book, or is it the world around us? Every other question, in one way or another, rests on this one... depends, critically, on the answer.

Philosophers have argued about it (and still do). Children and adolescents argue about it. Grownups get mixed up about it all the time... and yet, the question has been answered!

Answer: Reality is not subjective, or objective: it is interactive. Cognitive scientists have discovered that human brains create the reality they experience, but do so based on the physiology of the bodies they inhabit and on the interactions of these bodies with the Real World. That is, the reality we experience is created by our bodies, but it is created based on interactions with the outside world.

Take colour for example: There is no colour in the outside world. There is light in the outside world, but light is really something called electromagnetic radiation. Electromagnetic radiation, including x-rays and radiowaves, is colourless. So there is no colour in the outside world. But, then again, without electromagnetic radiation from the outside world there is no colour in our heads either. For colour to be created, we need light and we need eyes and brains.

It works like this:

If radiation is of a certain kind, having wavelengths within 400nm to 700nm (very very small wavelegths), then we can see it, and we call it light. The light hits photosensitive chemicals in cells in our eyes, which triggers nerve signals, which are interpreted by circuits in the visual systems of our brains, which do some fancy work and BAM!: a rose looks red!. Without eyes and brains, there's no colour. Without electromagnetic radiation, there's no colour. Together, electromagnetic radiation, photochemicals, and electric impulses along nerve cells and within brain circuits create the amazing experience of colour.

There, now you can relax. You are living safely in a world that has existence independent of your state of mind. The earth is really there beneath your feet. Flowers are blooming somewhere, and your best friend really is only a phone call away...

AND YET:, keep in mind that the way you experience the world depends on your physiology (how your senses work) and your state of mind (whether you are drunk, stoned, sober, tired, angry, psychotic, bored, sexually aroused, etc. etc). Roses look red because of your physiology. If your eyes don't work, then red doesn't exist for you. But the rose will still exist! It'll just be a textural rose (as you touch it) and an olfactory rose (as you smell it).

Who to trust - by Owen

In life, it is often hard to know who to trust.

Sometimes the people who are the most convincing are lying through their teeth. Sometimes the truth is harder to understand than fantasy, and so we get swept up in the fantasy and leave the truth behind.

The thing is:

The real world is an AMAZING place. Dreaming may be a neat experience, but dreams have nothing on the wonders of the real world. Imagination is pretty cool, but it, too, pales in comparison to the intricate details of the world we live in.

Exploring the world is an adventure. Like any good adventure, it takes courage, humility, and perseverance.

Pretending to explore the world does not require these things. It just requires an imagination. Pretend explorers are not real adventurers, they are imaginary adventurers.

If you want to know about far-flung places in the world, you are far better off asking real explorers than pretend explorers. Pretend explorers may have more fantastical stories, so it may be more fun or compelling to listen to them. But real explorers can actually tell you about the places they've seen.

In the same way, if you want to know about something closer to home, like food safety, you are better off asking someone who has explored the subject, rather than someone who is simply imagining up their answers. You want to ask someone who has studied biology AND who has read good and up-to-date research on food safety issues. You don't want to ask the clerk at the health food store, unless they happen to be well studied on the subject (and can refer you to good sources to back up what they say).

Conjuring up imaginary answers to real world questions can be exciting, fun, frightening, confusing, frustrating, dangerous... lots of things. One thing it is not is reliable. People who make up answers to things, rather than actually investigate it, are not reliable when it comes to good information.

This is true of the exalted philosophers of history, as well as your next door neighbour. It's true of your doctor (if your doctor doesn't do his or her homework) just as it's true of your cab driver (with his far-fletched conspiracy theories). It is true of your naturopath (who believes that all the ailments of your body can be diagnosed by looking in your eyes) just as it is true of your yoga instructor (who thinks all diseases can be cured by breathing properly).

The trouble with this realization is that you can't just rely on people for their title. A good doctor and a good naturopath should be trained in how to do good research. But you can't necessarily tell whether your doctor or naturopath actually does this. For that, you have to ask questions, and get really good explanations. If they can't explain it well, then they probably don't know what they're talking about (even if they do, you need to find someone who can explain it well enough to you). If they dont' have, or can't retrieve good references (of reliable studies) that back up their claims, then they probably haven't done their homework. That doesn't mean they're bad people, but it does mean that their explanations (at least about whatever topic you are asking about) are not very reliable.

There are lots and lots and lots and lots of people who don't know what they are talking about.
Most people.

Finding good answers means avoiding those people and asking people who actually know - who are well studied in - what they are talking about.