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!


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