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Climbing Heinlein’s Hill

by Daniel Loxton, Oct 22 2010

"House on the Hill" banner image by Daniel LoxtonRobert Heinlein’s classic 1961 sci-fi novel Stranger in a Strange Land includes a passage I’ve often thought of as a parable for scientific skepticism.

Understanding the fallibility of eyewitness testimony, Heinlein imagines a special class of “Fair Witnesses” — licensed professionals trained to observe accurately and give legally admissible testimony. In one scene, cantankerous patriarch Jubal Harshaw demonstrates that one of his staffers is a certified Fair Witness:

“Anne!” Anne was seated on the springboard; she turned her head. Jubal called out, “That new house on the far hilltop — can you see what color they’ve painted it?”

Anne looked in the direction in which Jubal was pointing and answered, “It’s white on this side.”

This answer has echoed for me ever since. Anne states the evidence she has, and specifies the limits to her knowledge. As Jubal explains, “it doesn’t even occur to her to infer that the other side is probably white too. All the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t force her to commit herself as to the far side . . . unless she herself went around to the other side and looked.”

True-life scientists and skeptical investigators must often (tentatively, provisionally!) piece together imperfect clues. Nonetheless, Heinlein’s fictional Fair Witnesses anticipated central commitments of modern skepticism:

  1. Primacy of empirical evidence over armchair reasoning;
  2. Obligation to accurately state the limits of the available evidence;
  3. Refusal to reach conclusions prior to investigation.

I submit that this is the heart of skeptical practice: walking up Heinlein’s hill.

The Burden of Proof

Arguing about the burden of proof is one of skepticism’s great clichés. It’s common for skeptics to have to state the obvious: the world is not obligated to accept your idiosyncratic speculations. If you want folks to believe Barack Obama is a reptile from outer space, it’s up to you to explain why we should think that.

Just as common is the attempt to toss that burden of proof, like a hot potato, right back to skeptics. “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” proponents insist. “If skeptics want to say Bigfoot doesn’t exist, they should get off their asses and prove it.” Skeptics rightly reject this rhetorical tactic — but it contains an important truth:

Doubt is cheap. Finding out is hard.

Incredulity requires no training, no knowledge, no connection to reality. By itself, doubt does nothing to advance knowledge. Even Occam’s celebrated razor is just a betting strategy. Parsimony tells us which proposed explanations to investigate first; it does not tell us which explanations are true. (Often nature is simple and elegant, but sometimes it’s a Rube Goldberg contraption. I’m reminded of the absurdly complicated life-cycles of many parasites, such as this nightmarish thing described by Brian Dunning.)

For these reasons, science-based skeptics should voluntarily take up their own burden of proof. After all, the goal of the skeptical project is not to stonewall weird ideas, but to find out what’s true.

Climbing Heinlein’s Hill

Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci makes this point in a Skeptically Speaking interview, citing examples drawn from Ufology — examples in which skeptics screwed up.

I think that a crucial aspect of being skeptical, of engaging in critical thinking, is not the idea that you reject claims because they seem absurd. That’s not being a skeptic, that’s just being a cynic. It’s just denying things for the sake of denying it. The idea of skepticism is that you inquire — that you do the work.

Although close skeptical examination of claims of extraterrestrial visitation has often revealed prosaic explanations, Pigliucci warns that the “tendency in certain skeptics quarters to just dismiss things out of hand without actually figuring out what those people saw” is a recipe for bogus pseudo-explanations.

You cannot just sit down at your computer and somebody calls you up and says, “A bunch of people have seen a  UFO. What do you think it is?” — “Oh, it’s a meteor.” Well, no. You can’t just make it up. You have to do the work. Was there in fact a large meteor that night that was tracked by astronomers or by radar that fits the characteristics of the alleged UFO? … Being a skeptic, it doesn’t mean you can get lazy. You have to get your butt off your chair…and do the actual investigation.

Nor is Pigliucci’s point diminished by Steve Novella’s defense of “armchair skeptics.” As Novella clarifies, his definition of armchair skepticism is “rigorous analysis or labor-intensive archival research” which “in no way excuses superficial or sloppy analysis. Skeptics especially have to avoid that, given the public and critical nature of our endeavors.”

Whether by experiment, observation, or historical scholarship, active investigation is skepticism’s bedrock. From Houdini to James Randi, from Joe Nickell to newer practitioners like MonsterTalk‘s Blake Smith, scientific skepticism has always been defined by a willingness to do the work.

(For those who wish to contribute to skepticism’s primary literature, I recommend Benjamin Radford’s recent book Scientific Paranormal Investigation. It’s packed with good advice, and contains a hidden treasure trove: 14 mini-essays offering research lessons from investigators like Martin Gardner, Jim Underdown, and Massimo Polidoro. There are even a few thoughts from a relatively  junior investigator named Loxton.)

Critical Thinking v. Science

Speaking from evidence implies making fewer assertions (as I argued here, here, and here). That’s to the good, but it feels restrictive. What about critical thinking? Science isn’t everything, right?

Like parsimony, the wider critical thinking toolset helps us to evaluate evidence and identify gaps in that evidence — but it is not a substitute for evidence. One great lesson of philosophical history is that reason is not, by itself, an adequate window into the natural world. Few would argue that Plato was a lesser mind than Galileo, but Galileo had more than just a telescope to his advantage: he tested his ideas. As Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World paraphrased physicist Robert W. Wood,

The difference between physics and metaphysics…is not that the practitioners of one are smarter than the practitioners of the other. The difference is that the metaphysicist has no laboratory.

Nor do “skeptics” fair well when doubt is divorced from evidence. Climate science denial, the 9/11 “truth” movement, Intelligent Design, vaccine fears — all rest on feral forms of critical thinking. Our internal bullshit detectors are like any other human tool: they can be misused, and they can break.

As Indie Skeptics blogger Jeff Wagg put it to me during my recent Virtual Drinking Skeptically guest spot, on many mainstream scientific topics (such as global warming) “there are a lot of flags that skeptics can pick up on and say, ‘Hey this doesn’t look real.'” I know what he means. That was my own reaction when I first heard the crazy-sounding claims of modern physics. I was sure that stuff had to be bogus. Quantum mechanics especially sounded like illogical gibberish to me — but reality doesn’t care how stupid it sounds. Personal incredulity is irrelevant. At the end of the day, science trumps everything.

Which brings us to the sticky bit. What, if anything, can intellectually honest skeptics say when no investigation is possible? But that is a post for another day….

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66 Responses to “Climbing Heinlein’s Hill”

  1. Somite says:

    The concepts of phenomenon and mechanism are also frequently misunderstood. In science there are multiple levels of investigation. You could demonstrate a phenomenon is true but more importantly to truly do science you must propose a reasonable mechanism for the phenomenon that you can test.

    A lot of skepticism deals with just proving whether a phenomenon exists or not and has nothing to do with testability. Gods, spirits and UFOs are not testable because there has never been any proof of their existence. The correct skeptical position in light of lack of evidence is that they don’t exist. It is not the correct skeptical position to elevate untestable claims to the level of plausible. If credible phenomena consistent with Gods, spirits or UFOs were ever found at that point we could begin to discuss the testability of the models that describe these phenomena.

    Philosophers are usually poor when analyzing issues that depend on timing. The testability canard is just another example of this.

  2. HammerTime says:

    Whoa man, you just blew my mind dude.

    In all seriousness I agree with what you said in this post. It’s too easy to be a cynic and dismiss all claims that sound preposterous, the same goes for being gullible.

    When first hearing about quantum mechanics, one can’t help but think that it’s a load of crap. Then again I’m not a quantum physicist.

  3. oldebabe says:

    When there is no evidence for something, you think one should try to search out that evidence in order to dispute it? Um…?

    • Not exactly. My position is that we should not base conclusions on little or no evidence. We should either investigate, or state that we don’t know. Either way, guessing isn’t a good idea.

  4. Kennedy Goodkey says:

    The white house on the hill… seriously, that one part of that book changed a lot about the way I think.

    In one brief passage Heinlein lay-bare to me how a simplistic observation can lead to broad assumtions that even when more than likely correct by any reasonable extension of thought, are still just assumptions.

    And if it can be true about the neighbour’s house, it can absolutely be true about more complex things that aren’t so easy to make reasonable assumptions about.

    The HHH is a tool that I use a lot, virtually by habit now.

  5. D.J. Grothe says:

    Agreed, almost completely. I love the push about “doing the work of skepticism,” and avoiding reaching conclusions prior to investigation.

    But I should also say that lack of evidence can indeed be a kind of evidence. If you go looking for something you think should be there but there is no evidence that it is there, that is a kind of evidence that it is not there. If it is my birthday, and I believe there is a surprise party waiting for me at home, and I race home and no one is there, no cake in the oven, that lack of evidence is actually a kind of evidence there is no surprise party. It is a retreat into a kind of epistemological nihilism to argue that under such circumstances one must refrain from being skeptical about the claim that he has a surprise birthday party waiting for him at home. I looked for evidence, found none, and concluded there was no surprise party.

    It is completely appropriate for a skeptic to say he or she is a skeptic of ghosts because he or she has never found evidence of ghosts, even after going and doing the paranormal investigative work looking for ghosts. Under these circumstances it would be disingenuous for him or her to stubbornly refuse to admit skepticism about whether ghosts exist or not. The same can be said of cryptic skeptics, or UFO skeptics. Or would you argue that the folks on Monster talk, because they haven’t personally done the investigative work of every Bigfoot claim in the Sierra National Forest should not be allowed to admit skepticism of such Bigfoot claims?

    Lastly, I’d say that not all reasoning is armchair reasoning, and not all valid conclusions of a skeptic need a laboratory. Yes, we skeptics are empiricists. But we should be rationalists, as well. Both experience and reason guide the skeptical enterprise.

    • If you go looking for something you think should be there but there is no evidence that it is there, that is a kind of evidence that it is not there.

      Yes, I agree. The pivot point for this, though, is “should be there.” When many ghost investigations fail to reveal ghosts, we learn things: perhaps that ghosts are uncommon (or hard to detect), or that sleep cycle disruptions can generate false-positive reports of supernatural apparitions. On the other hand, failing to see evidence we have no reason to expect tells us nothing. If we’re hunting undetectable dragons, we learn nothing by not detecting them.

  6. Tony Heskett says:

    I’m surprised you don’t mention this old chestnut:

    An astronomer, a physicist and a mathematician are on a train in Scotland.
    The astronomer looks out of the window, sees a black sheep standing in a field, and remarks, “How odd. Scottish sheep are black.”
    “No, no, no!” says the physicist. “Only some Scottish sheep are black.”
    The mathematician rolls his eyes at his companions’ muddled thinking and says, “In Scotland, there is at least one sheep, at least one side of which looks black.”

  7. m5 says:

    What are the facts? Again and again and again — what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what “the stars foretell,” avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable “verdict of history” — what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!
    -Robert A Heinlein

    a personal hero to be sure

    • tmac57 says:

      The trick is sorting out whose ‘facts’ are the the ones grounded in reality. It’s all about choosing your sources wisely when you can’t investigate a claim first hand (which unfortunately represents almost all information that we ingest).

  8. gwen says:

    That one line is VERY profound “It is white on this side”. I will have to remember that awesome line!

  9. BillG says:

    “Climate science denial” is perhaps aped by very few, the doubt or skepticism lies within the activism of global warming: the cost and benefit risk where the real and less scientific contention begins.

    Also and too often the mathematics, science and evidence have claims that remain solid only to get hijacked by interpertations that are dubious or outside of science – e.g., quantum mechanics. This occurs mostly from the less critical and less doubtful. Doubt may “…do nothing to advance knowledge”, but is a good start oppose to certainity which is absurd.

  10. GoneWithTheWind says:

    Don’t forget that these exact same criteria have been used for centuries to prevent knowledge and new ideas from being accepted. JFK once said “I will never trust the experts again, the experts are always wrong”. A little harsh maybe but certainly a germ of truth there. Today there are a number of serious, high profile science based issues that have gone into the political arena. You will find mountains of research on both sides and prestigious scientists on both sides as well. They cannot both be correct! If education, experience, research and critical thinking assured us a theory was correct then we could only conclude both sides are correct. When I was much younger I used to say everything we once believed we now know is not true and it is likely that everything we now believe will be proven to be untrue in the future. I don’t totally believe that anymore; I now think that a mere 90% of what we believed years ago was proven to be untrue and a mere 90% of what we now believe today will be proven to be untrue in the future. Do NOT make your decision on the value of a theory based on the prestige of the scientist behind the theory or an some arbitrary volume of research. And do NOT discard a theory or idea simply because the individual putting it out there is not an accomplished speaker or debater. When I was in high school I loved debating and was confident I could blow away the competition regardless of who was right or wrong. It made no difference I could talk louder, be bolder, intimidate and ridicule my opponent into submission. But that did not make me right and them wrong.

    • Malachi Constant says:

      [quote]Today there are a number of serious, high profile science based issues that have gone into the political arena. You will find mountains of research on both sides and prestigious scientists on both sides as well.[/quote]

      Evidence, please. ;)

      Seriously, I can’t think of any high profile scientific issues where scientists are anything like equally divided. Maybe string theory? Economics? (if you want to call that science).

      Any other examples?

      • GoneWithTheWind says:

        1. Global warming.
        2. Cause of obesity
        3. Cause of diabetes
        4. Acupuncture
        5. Health benefits from one alcoholic drink per day
        6. Health benefits from supplements
        7. BPA
        8. The toxicity of dioxin
        9. The toxicity of depleted uranium
        10. The health value/risks of mega-dosing vitamins
        11. The correct BMI range for good health

      • Somite says:

        For each of those issues there is a scientific consensus or as close as you can get. There will always be one or two dissident scientist and they might be famous but for an informed decision you should always go with the scientific consensus.

        Not that difficult to find. Look at review papers or society statements. Do not accept blogs or newspaper articles as information. I consider blogs recreational discussion.

      • GoneWithTheWind says:

        You are kidding! Right?
        Now it’s my turn to ask for evidence please. For each item listed give me what you “think” the scientific concensus is. Either you are unaware of the total non-concensus on these issues or you are trying to slide out of your fomer claim.

      • GoneWithTheWind says:

        Come on Malachi and Somite. This isn’t rocket science. What, exactly, is the concensus on BPA or dioxin? How about the scientific concensus on HFCS?

      • Somite says:

        Did you do as I suggested? You are the one claiming there is no consensus on these subjects. Why don’t start with search for BPA and society of toxicology.

      • Malachi Constant says:

        Come on Malachi and Somite. This isn’t rocket science. What, exactly, is the concensus on BPA or dioxin? How about the scientific concensus on HFCS?

        I’m not an expert in any of the fields you’re talking about, but the ones I’m familiar with show that you’re obviously not just looking for evidence, you’re blinded by your biases.

        There’s a good skeptoid episode on HFCS with references and everything, if you’re interested:

        You really think there’s no consensus on global warming among scientists? Then you’re not listening to scientists, you’re listening to political pundits.

        But I doubt you’re interested in actual evidence, so whatever.

      • GoneWithTheWind says:

        There is no “science” that has anything negative to say about HFCS. It is essentially sugar very much like table sugar from cane or beets. It remains in a semi-liquid state because it is primarily used by commercial food companies and the semi-liquid state is easier to incorporate in food. ALL of the negative about HFCS stems from the radical anti-white-food/anti-sugar nuts.

        Literally thousands of scientists have jumped off the who AGW bandwagon. Maybe you haven’t noticed because you’ve been listening to the IPCC.
        “Global warming” on the other hand is real. This is the 33rd global warming event since the last ice age. Global warming is very benign and usually results in a increase in the numbers and health of all large animals. The last naturally occurring global warming was warmer then this one and allowed the Vikings to immigrate to Greenland. Soon we will enter the 33rd global cooling period and it will be a disaster for humans and most large animals. And much like global warming no amount of sacrifices of virgins or carbon taxes for Marxism will stop it.

      • GoneWithTheWind says:

        I admit I do not know if BPA is harmful. The reason I do not know this is because no one knows this. It is a theory that originated by anti-foodies in much the same way Alar was deemed to be harmful. Not because their was any evidence but because it was man-made chemicals. The science is pretty thin. Maybe in a few years we will know if BPA in plastics are harmful but right now there is zero evidence. If this sounds like a concensus to you then I don’t know what to say to change your mind.

  11. In my mind there are different aspects to the scepticism. I can say that the probability of what you have seen is a spirit from beyond the grave or is a traveller from another planet approaches zero. I can base this on the work of many who have gone before me. What I cannot say without doing research is what it is that you have seen or experienced.

    I do not believe that we need to approach every single event with a totally open mind.

  12. I can say that the probability of what you have seen is a spirit from beyond the grave or is a traveller from another planet approaches zero. I can base this on the work of many who have gone before me.

    This presupposes that you are very knowledgeable about the work of those who have gone before you. If so, then yes — I agree. I don’t ask skeptics to pretend that all claims are equally plausible (they’re not) or that the state of the literature on these topics does not progress (it does). My point is that skeptics should not pretend to have knowledge they do not in fact have. I think you nailed it here:

    What I cannot say without doing research is what it is that you have seen or experienced.

    For that reason, we cannot say, for example, that Project Blue Book did not record any genuine sightings of alien spacecraft. We can say that most of the cases they looked at proved to have ordinary explanations, and that a remainder of cases were dead ends for lack of information. We can infer from the solved cases that X percent of unsolved cases were probably caused by Y (say, misidentifications of Venus), but we cannot confirm that inference without more information.

    • Somite says:

      But lack of evidence does not mean, as you imply, that the question remains open. On the contrary, the conclusion is that an extraterrestrial cause could not be demonstrated in any case. Unexplained cases are just that and don’t add any useful information.

      Once again, lack of evidence is not an argument for existence.

      • Unexplained cases are just that and don’t add any useful information.

        Well, the key piece of useful information that unsolved UFO cases fail to provide is whether the witness saw alien spaceships or something else instead. Unsolved is unsolved.

      • tmac57 says:

        If a question is closed,then is it definitively answered? If subsequent evidence comes along that invalidates the original answer,then is the question reopened? If a definitively answered question can be challenged,then was it ever definitively answered? These are the perils of certainty.

  13. Max says:

    Brian Dunning should think twice before making bold proclamations about health, like “[Non-ionizing radiation] cannot give you cancer” and “Whether you eat a lot of sugar or none at all should make no difference to your blood sugar level.” He’s more careful when he talks about the paranormal.

  14. Max says:

    “White on this side” can be an example of denial as well. Imagine that I deny the existence of white sheep. You show me photos of white sheep, and I respond, “They’re only white on the side facing the camera.”

    Or you show Obama’s birth certificate to a birther, and he responds that it’s a certification of live birth, not a birth certificate.
    It’s an example of moving the goalpost to the point of absurdity.

    • GoneWithTheWind says:

      Lack of evidence is evidence. What is missing is often as important as what is there. To misquote Shakespear “Obama doth protest too much methinks”. Obama did NOT show us a birth certificate he provided something else instead. Then he spent a million dollars to prevent anyone from seeing a birth certificate ( or discovering there is no birth certificate). Why? Investigators have questioned people who went to college with Obama, even tooj the same classes with Obama and no one remembers him. For reasons that have never been explained Obama’s past and history has been concealed and is still being concealed. Most of what we “know” about Obama is from his books and what his handlers have put out there. There is a women in Hawaii whose twins were born just hours before Obama was born in the same hospital and doesn’t remember any other births there. The address used on Obama’s certificate of live birth has numerous anomolies including a home address that was fabricated. And it was fabricated in such a way that would suggest it was done well after the fact by someone who believed it would be provable. The sequential number on the certificate of live birth was out of order with births of that date AND the format was the current format and not the one in use at the time. I could go on with the glaring inconsistencies and “missing” evidence…

      • tmac57 says:

        I would describe this in one word: Fantastic!

      • Jim Lippard says:

        GonewiththeWind says “Then he spent a million dollars to prevent anyone from seeing a birth certificate ( or discovering there is no birth certificate” — evidence? He didn’t need to spend any money to prevent anyone from getting direct access to the Hawaiian vital records, and he did release a certificate of live birth which is (unlike the original long form certificate) valid for proof of citizenship for a passport application. (BTW, I lost my own long-form birth certificate years ago, some time after I found that it was invalid for getting a passport due to lack of official seal.) Obama’s birth was reported by the Hawaii Department of Health in two newspapers at the time, and all available evidence supports it. The best explanation of the data is that he was born in Hawaii. I suspect you don’t even have an explanation that fits your alleged data.

        You say “The address used on Obama’s certificate of live birth has numerous anomolies including a home address that was fabricated” — there is no home address on his certificate of live birth.

        Don’t get your facts from Jerome Corsi and Joseph Farah–they’re completely unreliable.

      • GoneWithTheWind says:

        Eleanor Nordyke of Manoa has birth certificates of her twin daughters That were born at Kapiolani Maternity & Gynecological Hospital the day after Obama was born. The file number on her certificates looks like “151 61 10637”. The certificate of live birth Obama has produced has a file number in the format “151 1961 010641”. The format on the Obama forgery is the format used today not the one in use at the time he was born. And the sequential number of Obama’s certificate came AFTER the twins even though Obama was born the day before. What it looks like is that someone researched for a birth certificate number that could be used to forge a birth certificate and they found one, perhaps of someone who had died shortly after, but for whatever reason it was “available” to be used in a forgery. All of this could be explained with a release of the long form but Obama has forced the state of Hawaii to not release. Why? The document in question is not a birth certificate or a certificate of live birth it is a “Certification of live birth” which carries different weight legally and, even if authenticated, is not, on its own sufficient to provide definitive proof of citizenship. For example, until they swiftly changed their rules last year, even the Hawaiian Department of Homelands clearly stated on their website that a Certification of Live Birth did not constitute adequate proof of citizenship under their program (yet its good enough to become president?!!)

        The public has yet to see:

        Original, vault copy of Certificate of Live Birth in the USA — Not Released
        Obama/Dunham marriage license — Not released
        Soetoro/Dunham marriage license — Not released
        Soetoro adoption records — Not released
        Fransiskus Assisi School School application — Not Released
        Punahou School records — Not released
        Selective Service Registration — Released but proven by some to be Counterfeit
        Occidental College records — Not released
        Passport (Pakistan) — Not released
        Columbia College records — Not released
        Columbia thesis — Not released
        Harvard College records — Not released
        Harvard Law Review articles — None (maybe 1, Not Signed)
        Baptism certificate — None
        Medical records — Not released
        Illinois State Senate records — None (Locked up to prohibit public view)
        Illinois State Senate schedule — Lost (All other Illinois state senators’ records are intact)
        Law practice client list — Not released
        University of Chicago scholarly articles — None

        Regarding the address given in the newspaper about Obama’s birth gave his mother’s address as: 6085 Kalanianaole Highway in Hawaii. But President Obama’s parents, did not live at that address. Barack Obama Sr. maintained his own separate apartment at 625 11th Ave. in Kaimuki. Again this looks faked and an address was choosen that would make it appear that Obama’s mother was living in Hawaii at the time of his birth.

      • Tom says:

        Given the poll numbers, have you considered that perhaps Obama was created by Newt Gingrich to fire up the Republican base while simultaneously disheartening the left to the point of apathy? A cunning plan…

  15. Sagan hit my mind harder, but Heinlein hit sooner, probably delivering my earliest awareness of the idea of critical thinking. The Fair Witness was an admirable notion, especially packaged in the form of one of Jubal’s secretaries.

    Heinlein literally made skepticism sexy!

    Observation was the sole duty of the Fair Witness, so Anne did not comment on implausibility of a pink polka-dotted paint job on the far side of the house. But the skeptic’s toolkit is deeper and wider, and certainly includes assessments of prior plausibility — essential but also dangerous, because they can give us that easy excuse not to investigate.

    • Max says:

      Right, a witness just has to report observations without making any assumptions. If you heard a loud bang, don’t say you heard an explosion.
      It’s the jury that has to infer the events, deception, and motives. That’s when the jury is instructed to use common sense, but not use special training or unique personal experience. Oh, and the jury is also instructed NOT to investigate or do any research.

      • The Midwesterner says:

        Actually, jurors are allowed to use more than just common sense: “You are the sole judges of whether a witness is to be believed and of the weight to be given a witness’s testimony. There are no hard and fast rules to guide you in this respect. In determining believability and weight of testimony, you may take into consideration the witness’s interest or lack of interest in the outcome of the case; relationship to the parties; ability and opportunity to know, remember, and relate the facts; manner; age and experience; frankness and sincerity, or lack thereof ; reasonableness or unreasonableness of their testimony in the light of all the other evidence in the case; any impeachment of the witness’s testimony, and any other factors that bear on believability and weight; you should rely in the last analysis upon your own experience, good judgment, and common sense.” (The exact wording varies by jurisdiction.) If a medical doctor is seated on a jury s/he is not expected to pretend s/he isn’t a medical doctor. That’s what jury selection is for. Lay witnesses are not allowed to give opinions but experts are. The jury, however, has no obligation to rely on the testimony of any particular witness, lay or expert, in rendering a verdict

  16. I like the eyewitness Heinlein story too – but it makes only a limited point. If your job is to be an objective witness, then it makes sense to limit yourself to what you can see.

    But if your job is to be a scientist then you need to combine data with logic and analysis.

    Having said that, it is good practice to back up to what is actually observed/known, and then proceed carefully from there. I teach this all the time in medicine – back way up, don’t make any assumptions. Then proceed systematically. (The patient did not have a seizure, they had an “episode” – it is your job to determine if it was a seizure vs something else.)

    So – a scientist may say that the side of the house which is visible is white, and also that “most” houses are painted the same color on all sides. Perhaps there is even some available statistics, like 98% of houses are painted the same color on all sides.

    So we can make an intelligent inference that goes beyond mere observation. But – there is no substitute for actually taking a look at the far side of the house, if you really need to know what color it is.

    • That’s exactly right. Scientists and investigators can make reasonable inferences based on what is known — provided that there is an existing body of evidence; provided that we grok that literature sufficiently; and, provided that we accurately describe the difference between what is known and what is inferred.

      Going to the issue of empirically justified background knowledge, I tried this story on my four-year-old. He thought carefully, and then guessed that the back of the house might be black. “Great hypothesis,” I said. “How might you test that?” He said, “Go around the other side and look?”

      For paranormal cases, it’s often the situation that the details are peculiar, case-specific, and poorly reported. Skeptical analyses based on the commonly available third-hand sources are fairly often mistaken or superficial, in my opinion.

      • tmac57 says:

        “Skeptical analyses based on the commonly available third-hand sources are fairly often mistaken or superficial, in my opinion.”
        Fair enough,but how many “paranormal cases” that have been fairly evaluated, have uncovered anything that could be reasonably be deemed paranormal? Just like homeopathy,the prior plausibility is very low,and good investigations have never turned up anything of substance. There is a good reason that Randi is not too concerned about anyone claiming the million dollar prize. This leads understandably to an atmosphere of casual dismissal from the skeptical community.If someone you knew insisted that they would ensure their financial future by playing the lottery,you would probably scoff,but at least some people DO win the lottery,but where is the evidence, anywhere in the history of mankind, of any sort of paranormal event being true.

      • Malachi Constant says:

        That’s exactly right. Scientists and investigators can make reasonable inferences based on what is known — provided that there is an existing body of evidence; provided that we grok that literature sufficiently; and, provided that we accurately describe the difference between what is known and what is inferred.

        As a skeptic and a guy who’s just now getting involved in undergraduate research I think this is very important and one of the things that is most often ignored in headlines about “scientific breakthroughs”.

        One of the most admirable things I’ve seen while reading papers submitted for peer review is when they explicitly point out the limits of their research, or explain what answers their research doesn’t provide answers for. (Oy, sorry for that sentence construction…)

        I know that headline writers don’t want to put

        “Medical researchers feel they have a better understanding of the cause of heart disease in males who eat 5 to 7 servings per week of seafood caught in the pacific northwest, not including crustaceans”

        but the public’s understanding of science is based on their reporting.

        I guess I’d like to see less “breakthrough” reporting and more “scientific studies are increasingly confirming that this seems to be the truth, and here’s why” Followed by what practical implications it may have in the next decade or two.

        I’d also like a jetpack and my own humanoid robot.

  17. Somite says:

    It is always my delight to post this:

    • tmac57 says:

      I think that more concisely describes what I just use too many words to state.

    • Max says:

      When skeptics say, “There’s no evidence of the paranormal,” they really mean, “I don’t know of any convincing evidence of the paranormal.” Agree?

      • Somite says:

        There’s no difference between the two statements. Unfortunately, people associate a short clear statement with inflexibility. The first statement does not imply that it can not change in the face of new information.

      • Max says:

        The first statement is false if there is some evidence that you simply aren’t aware of, but the second statement accounts for that.

  18. DeLong says:

    GoneWithTheWind should provide the same level of evidence regarding his/her birth, residence, education, selective service status, etc. that you are requiring of Obama. For that matter, has John McCain provided the same documents? What about Sarah Palin? If not, then until you do, I do not accept you as a citizen of the U.S. that has any rights to vote or blog or accept government services.

    Eight Presidents of the United States were NOT born in the U.S. All served with the support of the people and Congress.

    • Max says:

      Which eight presidents were not born in the U.S.? The ones who were born in the colonies before the U.S. existed?

      “There are few precedents for someone born outside the 50 states running for president, let alone becoming president. The best example the McCain camp has been able to come up with is Vice President Charles Curtis, who served under President Herbert Hoover and was born in the territory of Kansas in 1860, a year before it became a state.”

    • GoneWithTheWind says:

      I underwent an FBI top secret clearance investigation which left no stones unturned. They even interviewed the druggist at the drugstore where I would buy an occassional frappe, my family doctor, high school teachers and classmates. They have my fingerprints, DNA, every grade in college classes and post graduate classes. They looked at every medication I ever took and searched to see if I took any that weren’t listed. They looked everywhere including up my ass (seriously). They required that I be interviewed by a psychiatrist and take a lie detector test. All of this may seem excessive but Obama was not required to do any of this to become president and whatever was done outside of actual requirements has been sealed. My question is simply; why? We know what Bush’s, Clinton’s and Gore’s grades were. We know what their police records were and we know they had actual birth certificates. Why the secrecy about Obama and why does he spend so much time and effort to maintain that secrecy? Aren’t you even the slightest bit interested and curious??? Hmmmm!!!

      • tmac57 says:

        Why did you have to undergo FBI top secret clearance investigation?

      • Max says:

        What makes you think that Obama didn’t have an SSBI, and since when does an SSBI involve looking up your ass?

      • GoneWithTheWind says:

        There is no requirement for a background investigation to become a president or congressperson.
        A complete physical was required in addition to an FBI background check. I don’t think the doctor was FBI but I don’t really know.

  19. kingfred42 says:

    The whole Obama birther discussion is a good example of researching the wrong thing. Obama’s mother was a US citizen. Therefore regardless of anything other fact, he’s a natural born citizen under the law.
    Not only is the side of the house white, it doesn’t matter what color the other side is.

    • DogBreath says:

      Blacks Law Dictionary (9th Edition) defines ‘Natural Born Citizen’ as “A person born within the jurisdiction of a national government.”

      In the absence of undisputed evidence that Obama was born in the USA, it does matter.

  20. John says:

    Thank you for this post. I’ve found myself in a strange position of late… discovering that there is in fact a whole group of people out there who think much like myself—skeptics. Very refreshing, indeed.

    Furthermore, I’ve found that similar thinking has led me to realize that my political outlook most favors that of Libertarianism, though I would be careful to point out that the Libertarianism I refer to here is not necessarily like that which has been put in the light of mainstream media of late.

    Fundamentally, I know that at a young age, I decided to accept only a model of the world that is clearly informed by what I do and do not know about it–and what I have evidence for.

    Being raised in a very Christian family in the Deep South, conflict arose on occasion. I felt many of their beliefs were held without evidence or reason. It often, by the way, enrages people to tell them that they cannot possibly know something given the evidence at hand. However, unlike Dawkins, my reaction was not to think my family or friends fools, inflicted by a mental virus… as their world model worked incredibly well for them and they have in fact been model citizens by any standard. I have a highly technical father who worked in a prestigious corporate research lab and it was he who turned me on to authors like Heinlein and Asimov. My mother kept a collection of volumes on logic, her favorite subject outside of Christianity, and though she was relatively quiet, her collection’s existence led me to investigate it. But through whatever kind of conflict I experienced in that place and time, I learned that you can’t reach anyone through logic or reason when you approach them with condescension—whether intentional or perceived—and this is one part of the skeptic movement of which I think skeptics should be sensitive.

    Back to my original point: Heinlein’s hill and Scottish sheep serve as a good illustration of that which, in my opinion, is the moral and factual rigor embodied by skepticism and Heinlein’s brand of Libertarianism. Heinlein was my favorite author as a child, and re-reading much of his work lately, I realized that Heinlein must have been both a libertarian and a skeptic. Upon doing some research into the subject, I found out that he was indeed considered a modern torch-bearer for both. In fact, my research on Heinlein led me to Skeptic Magazine and I am glad to have found both, and while I have no expectation that my story is like yours, I am enjoying learning more about this community.

    So, please accept my apologies for a rambling introduction in the comments section of a blog entry about Heinlein and his logic. I felt a nostalgic breeze and a desire to be part of the conversation. In summary, I am glad to have found this community. Until recently, I felt relatively alone in my world view, and I appreciate that there is a community keeping watch on the rigor of its principles.

    • Dan says:

      No apologies are necessary. I had a somewhat similar religious background. My parents were fundamentalist missionaries who were forced out of mainland China by the Communist revolution, and I grew up in the U.S., but in Southern California.

      My reading of Science Fiction was criticized by my parents as ungodly pwhen I was in high school, but I had discovered Heinlein at about 10 (about 55 years ago) in the children’s section of the library, so my taste for his writing was already well established.

      I read Stranger well before it became popular, so I was surprised when people took it as some sort of life guide instead of an exposition of some of Heinlein’s views of the world. It had truths, but I wouldn’t base my life on the book.

      It took me years to leave the arms of Christianity, and I might not have if I had been brought up in a more benign atmosphere than the absolutist, fundamentalist, guilt-ridden branch I was. First, I explored more liberal forms of Christianity in college, then ultimately, I quit going to church.

      In high school, I noticed that the members of the fundamentalist church I attended had technical backgrounds, but not really broad-based scientific background. I will say that at home it was possible to question various tenants of the dogma I was expected to believe in, but only as a straw argument. I thought the fundamentalist explanations of fossils and the flood odd and convoluted, but I didn’t examine them very far.

      I found it odd that fundamentalists admit that the code of Hammurabi predated the ten commandments. (I’ve finally read what we have of it, and the ten commandments are much clearer).

      In college, I spent an afternoon talking a woman because she was raised as an atheist, and I found that not only were her morals and ethics much higher than mine, but also better than 95% of the Christians I knew – and I knew a lot of them. Because I was taught (not explicitly) that atheists were without morals, this led to a lot of questioning of my own religious tenants.

      I then spent a lot of time reading up on secular history of Christianity as well as the different movements and interpretations that have led to the different branches and discovered that not only was there a lot of Christian history I hadn’t been aware of, but that there was a whole series of Bible stories that were predated by eerily similar ones in pagan religions.

      When I discovered that Judaism doesn’t have the concept of hell, and that the fire and brimstone vision of it I had been brought up on was pretty much a creation of (what could be considered Catholic) Dante, it caused me to further question things. Eastern Orthodox Christianity doesn’t recognize Revelations as a part of the Bible. Hell has no fear for me now.

      I too find Dawkins’ viewpoint on Christianity harsh, but I also find it a source of reason. You might also take a look at Sam Harris’s book, Letter to a Christian Nation, as well as the book, Misquoting Jesus, which gives an excellent history of biblical interpretation.

      Ultimately, religion is all a matter of faith, and faith cannot be proved or disproved because it is belief. I don’t approach fundamentalists or people trying to proselytize, but if they choose to impose their opinions on me, I usually find that I know more about the background of their faith (and the Bible) than they do. I’m not condescending, but I do let them know what I believe and why, and I make it clear I’m not trying to change their minds.

      I didn’t lose my faith, I found another one. I’m at least an agnostic, and usually an atheist. I don’t think the difference matters.

      Good luck on living in (I assume) a community that embraces the fundamentalist viewpoint and realize that the majority of Christianity is not of the same background. Southern (and small town) social life is often centered upon church, and that makes it difficult to express a differing opinion.

  21. John says:

    … and one more note: I am proud to say that Heinlein and I share the same Alma mater. I wish I had the opportunity to meet him.

  22. John Chalmers says:

    The story about someone who will attest to something viewable only on one side is an old one– I remember it being told about sheared sheep and IIRC, Calvin Coolidge.

  23. John Chalmers says:

    I find it hard to believe that if there were any real questions about Obama’s birthplace and eligibility to serve as President, the Clinton Campaign would have raised them early in the election cycle and I also doubt that Hillary was offered and accepted the post of Secretary of State to keep quiet about the truth.

    • GoneWithTheWind says:

      I find it hard to believe that if there were any real questions about Obama’s birthplace and eligibility to serve as president that he would go to such great lengths to hide it. Hillary’s campaign said early on that they would not question this issue. I think they were more afraid of being called “birthers” then for any other reason. Ridicule is the best defense when you don’t have a real defense. But the problem is since ridicule is intended to shut off debate it always makes you wonder why was it necessary???

  24. Wade Mathias says:

    I find this to be an excellent article. Likewise I find the posts both pro and con for the most part to be well thought out. John’s upbringing sounds about the same as mine. And I likewise feel relatively alone in my world view. I can count on the fingers of one hand (and have fingers left over) the people I personally know who I can communicate with to any depth. I will quibble with John’s assertion that “their world model worked incredibly well for them” when referring to his religious friends and family as I contend that they as well as my fundamentalist grandfather who was probably the most honest person I have ever known (at least in his dealings with others) would have stood to have done even better had they rejected the belief beyond evidence that accompanies religion.

    However, in context I find John’s argument to have merit. I certainly can’t claim to be better at critical thinking than Isaac Newton, and he was clearly religious. Of course most of us tend to recognize that Newton was largely a product of his times in that regard. But look at my favorite two public figures of the 20th century, Carl Sagan and Ayn Rand. I contend they were both brilliant. However, beyond the fact that neither was religious and both rejected belief beyond evidence, philosophically speaking the two of them agreed upon virtually nothing. Both even argued that government and politics should be looked at scientifically. However, whereas Ayn Rand was an individualist, Carl Sagan was a collectivist. I would have loved to have narrated a debate between the two. We really failed as a civilization when we failed to set one up.

    But whereas I personally would have tended to agree with Ayn Rand on the vast majority of issues, there is one place that I think Carl Sagan clearly outthought her. Carl Sagan recognized the fallibility of his own mind. Whereas Ayn Rand might have given the same idea lip service it appears to me that she didn’t really apply it to herself. I have never known or known of anybody who I have thought was able to separate completely their reasoning from emotion (myself included).

    Ironically, whereas my philosophy is much more in line with Ayn Rand’s than Carl Sagan’s I actually think he probably would have liked me. I certainly contend that he should have, given what I think of his mind as well as my own. Ayn Rand, on the other hand, would have probably had me thrown out on my ear as a heretic had I ever had an audience with her. And that despite the fact that of all the people in the world, apparently including some of those closest to her, few actually appreciate what she had to say as much as I do.

    I throw these things out in hopes of sparking debate. As John appeared to imply, the people on this forum do by in large sound a whole lot smarter than those on other forums. I figure I could actually learn something from the people here. I might even run into somebody whose philosophy I find to be as sound as my own. No, not likely.

    • Dan says:

      I find Ayn Rand interesting, but with a white Russian background that heavily influenced her, to me, she classifies everything as either collectivist and evil or independent and good. She doesn’t recognize that we live in a world where there are externalities and unintended consequences of everyone’s independent actions. I certainly understand her abhorrence of the overriding control of the State, which she experienced in Russia, particularly under Stalin.

      Her philosophy suffers from the same fault of Communism, Socialism, Fascism, and all of the other things she was against: it’s a nice theory. Life and the world are much messier then her theories.

      What I took from her writings was the importance of individual thought and action. I happen to believe that it is important that government be for the people, of the people and by the people, but that property rights are not absolute, but a matter of the social contract that is continually being renegotiated.

  25. Dan says:

    I have a very high threshold of proof required of UFO sightings, particularly at night. When in the service, in the demonstration of the effects on vision of darkness during flight training, I experienced the lack of distance perception in darkness. Later, while flying, I found that objects I perceived as one thing from a distance were something entirely different when observed up close.

    I found my mind explaining UFOs in a context that was familiar until I actually got close enough to reinterpret the object.

    The same phenomena happens to me during the day, but it is much rarer. Your mileage may vary.

  26. Shawn Willis says:

    Great read Dan

    I agree we skeptics need to be careful of not falling into the same logic as the “believers” in making unqualified and absolute statements about issues for which considerable “blind spots” might exist.

    Because someone else brought it up, I think it’s fair to assert that climate science as a whole is more about predictive modelling using probability theory, than it is about experimentally verifiable evidence.

    It’s also fair to say that whilst the accuracy of climate science has improved dramatically over the last century, it is still far from 100% acccurate with predictions.

    This in my opinion leaves the “other side of the house” on human induced climate change at least partially obscured.