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Absolute truth: does it exist?

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"You can't handle the truth!" In the film, A Few Good Men, Lt. Kaffee (Tom Cruise) and Lt. Cdr. Galloway (Demi Moore) attempt to uncover the Truth about Col. Jessep's (Jack Nicholson, pictured) role in the death of a soldier. Photo: Warner Brothers.

A friend recently asked my opinion on the existence of ‘absolute truth’. By the term ‘absolute truth’ I’m assuming we mean things which are objectively true, independently of our perception or ideas about them. In looking at the question, “is there absolute truth?” I’d begin by imagining just what it would mean were we to answer “no” as do the philosophical postmodernists. Does that mean that reality is determined by our minds? In other words, the closet has nothing in it until I open the door (that is a literal example by the way – not metaphorical!). Another example would be to say that germs really were not the cause of disease until we looked for them, at which point the universe changed. In such a world, it would be hard to imagine how the consistency we see in our observations maintains itself. But even if we were to imagine it does so because we are all truly of one mind, or some other explanation, it still doesn’t get us out of the predicament that to suggest this sort of illusory universe is an extraordinary claim for which we have no evidence.

Another possibility might be that the universe exists objectively and independently of our minds and perception, yet it is in a constant state of flux, meaning any ‘truth’ we establish changes from moment to moment. While it’s true that all things are in flux (even the laws of physics ‘evolved’ in some sense as the universe expanded), we can phrase certain statements more completely to account for that.

So, it’s really difficult to imagine a sound alternative to their being an absolute truth. Even in cases where our fanciful imaginations can pull off some illustriously self-consistent mental model whereby there would be no absolute truth, it inevitably fails the test of Occam’s Razor. Therefore, I’d have to go with there being an absolute truth. As strong supporters of science and the scientific method (which presumes an independently existing reality to even operate), Humanists are not postmodernist – they are modernists. There have, in fact, been several articles in prominent Humanist magazines criticizing the postmodern-left and their critique of science.

How do you define what is meant by ‘absolute truth’? It means the same thing a six year old imagines when you talk about what is true and what is false. It’s quite simple: there is one reality that is ‘just so’. If your statement is consistent with that reality, it is True. If it is not consistent with reality, the statement is False.

But here is the problem / error / issue / important point:

People often confuse this with the separate matter of whether or not we can know what those absolute truths are with complete certainty. In his book Natural Atheism, David Eller ludicrously defines “knowledge”. He has a very over-exaggerated certainty with regard to what he calls ‘facts’. Eller imagines that if we use correct ‘reason’ and our information is correct, that we will then be able to arrive at ‘facts’ which we can know are True, and this knowledge can be distinguished from ‘opinions’ or ‘beliefs’.

In my view (and in the traditional view) all of our thoughts on what is so are belief. ‘Knowledge’ is justified, true belief. Beliefs can be sound or unsound, rational or irrational, based on solid grounds or flimsy grounds, justified or unjustified, true or false. In these things, you have deductive matters and inductive matters. In deductive matters, when our logic is sound and if our premises true, then we can know with certainty that our conclusion must be true – but this doesn’t get us very far in practical terms. The problem is that we often don’t know for certain whether our premises are true. Furthermore, if we are making a mistake in our logic (especially for highly complex matters), we would not realize it. So, in any given case it is always possible we are wrong. As for inductive matters that is even worse because inductive logic, by its very nature, does not result in infallible statements. Most of the really important and useful thinking we have to do involves induction and in these cases, it is possible to have correct premises, perfect logic, make no mistakes, and yet still be wrong.

So… there almost certainly is a single absolute objective Truth, but we can only know that Truth subjectively. There is always the possibility we are wrong. This is why we must build in certain safeguards to our conclusion-making – both in our daily lives and in science so as to minimize our errors as much as possible. In science these things are formalized into practices and policies. They include things like: requiring confirmation from others through independent peer review and experiment, presentation of all methods and showing one’s work, the aforementioned Occam’s Razor, and requiring extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims. This is an imperfect and ongoing practice, but the only way we can be humble about our limited ability to know.

What about absolute truth in ethics? While many of my Humanist friends disagree, I believe even in ethics there is Truth. Even in a universe where reality ultimately boils down to nothing but “atoms and the void”, I believe the answers to ethical questions are objective and independent of our ideas, opinions, or beliefs about them. Whenever we answer an ethical question, we are either objectively correct or incorrect in that answer, just as if I had said that 2+2=5. Knowing that ethical Truth is another matter and something I plan to go into more in the future.

Thanks for reading!

Written by DT Strain

November 24, 2009 at 12:51 pm

Sam scores an interview with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson!

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Houston Skeptics Society member, Skepchick Blogger, and snappy dresser Sam Ogden recently interviewed Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson in Houston.   Dr. Tyson is a well-known scientist, host of PBS’s Nova Science series, director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, former keynote speaker at the James Randi Educational Foundation’s The Amaz!ng Meeting, and once voted “sexiest astrophysicist” by People, sat down with Sam for a few minutes.  Enjoy!

Part one:

Part two:

Written by Geek Goddess

October 26, 2009 at 10:51 am

Interview with Dr. Eugenie Scott

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Skepchick blogger and Houston Skeptic Society co-organizer Sam Ogden recently sat down with Dr. Eugenie Scott last month when she was in town to lecture at the Houston Natural Science Museum.  Society member Chris of Dropframe Video (cmalachi@hotmail.com) did a fantastic job of capturing and editing the interview, which is presented on You-tube.  Part one of the series can be found here, from where you can link to the subsequent parts to allow for easier uploading. Enjoy!

Written by Geek Goddess

October 12, 2009 at 2:50 pm

Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day

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Below is an adaptation of a talk I gave as part of a panel at DragonCon, called “How to Combat Woo”.  My fellow panelists included Phil Plait, PhD, also known as the Bad Astronomer, D.J. Groethe of the Center of Skeptical Inquiry and host of the podcast “Point of Inquiry”, Jeff Wagg, Communications and Outreach Manager of the James Randi Educational Foundation, and Maria Walters, founder of the Atlanta Skeptic Society and columnist on the Skepchick.org blog.

My son attended the Naval nuclear power school a few years ago, including a crash course in chemistry, physics, electronics, thermodynamics, other subjects needed to operate and maintain a nuclear power plant. The students tend to be top achievers, interested in science and math, and would frequently ask for the theory. They wanted to know WHY not just how. The instructors would answer “this is outside the scope of this course, please just accept this so we can move on.” So my son and his classmates drew large black dots on the backs of their calculators, with Sharpies. When they were told to accept information for the sake of expediency, they’d ‘push’ this button and say “I believe.”

I told you that story so I can tell you this story. All of us have a button labeled “I believe” that we push. The button may be as simple as “I believe that my spouse loves me.” Or “education is a positive thing for society.” But most people of the world have other buttons that they push. I believe in magic, ghosts, witches, homeopathy, aliens, psychics, conspiracy theories, or one of a hundred versions of a god. And that button might as well be drawn in Sharpie, because it doesn’t work anymore, it is ALWAYS pushed.

I’m an engineer by training, and like to draw diagrams and pictures. I can’t think without a pencil or marker in my hand. If you’re like me, you think that if you can just explain something, a scientific topic for example, clearly enough, that your audience will nod their heads and say ‘oh, yes, now I see! You’re right, and I will adjust my thinking.”

The problem with those buttons that are painted on, they have to wear off. We, as skeptics, want to slice right through the armor that believers have plated up around themselves, which have built up by custom, upbringing, anecdotes, personal experiences, fuzzy thinking, and from lack of exposure to the scientific method.

It took me almost three years to get my own mother to check Snopes before she forwarded emails to me. I’m her daughter, you think she would trust me, but I still have to carefully work with her on issues with her health. Just this week, she told me, rather reluctantly, that she had gone to a chiropractor for some lower back pain, because ‘she was desperate”. This, from a woman with chronic kidney disease that reads my blog posts. I had to persuade my aunt to throw away her bowel cleansing kits and pills to ‘improve her liver function” even though she couldn’t tell me what her liver function was supposed to be functioning as. But, now they check Snopes, and were at least embarrassed to tell me about the chiropractor. These are intelligent women, but they have been told their entire life that these things work.

And, indeed, they DO feel better after a visit to the chiropractor. It’s a bit harder to explain the concept of ‘regression to a mean’ to them. But I could not do it AT ALL with a single clear, simple, unemotional explanation.

Rather than creating the Grand Canyon in a 40-day flood, presenting skepticism to those with a painted-on “I Believe” button is more a process of rain beating the mountains down into the ocean, of the weeds splitting the foundations. It is slow, it is one-on-one, and it can be frustrating. However, this is how we teach, one person at a time.

Written by Geek Goddess

September 6, 2009 at 3:47 pm

Paper or Plastic?

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(This is a brief overview of the manufacture of paper and of plastic, and is not intended to be comprehensive, or a chemistry class.)

How do you answer?  If you give what you think is the ‘correct’ answer, you say ‘paper’ or you’ve brought your own bags.  Let’s examine that choice.

The paper bags used in grocery stores begin in the forest, with the timber industry.  Even though trees are a renewable source, there is more to producing new paper than planting new trees.  The paper industry is one of the dirtiest industries around.   The chemicals used in the paper pulp process include sulfur, bleaches, and acids.  The process uses huge quantities of water, which must be treated and cleaned, a process which also uses chemicals.  According to a representative of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, paper manufacturing also receives a larger number of complaints than refineries on ‘nuisance odors ‘ which is a term meaning that the facilities emit very strong, disagreeable odors, as unpleasant to live near as a feedlot.   Processing facilities must control odors to the same extent that they must control pollutant emissions. Odor is a non-trivial pollution problem.

Paper has a limited ability to be recycled.  On each trip through recycling, paper must be chopped and shredded, which shortens the fiber length.  Eventually, the fibers become too small to use and must be discarded into landfill, as do many of the manufacturing byproducts from paper manufacture.

What about plastic?  Grocery stores bags are made of polyethylene, which begins as the ethane component of natural gas.  The primary emission from polyethylene manufacture is from natural-gas fired heaters, which supply heat or steam for the process.  Natural gas is the cleanest burning fuel, and natural gas wells are clean and low-profile – a valve sticking up out of the ground as opposed to the ‘pumping units’ associated with oil wells.  The conversion of ethane into polyethylene is close to 99% efficient.  The feedstocks for ethylene are basically ethane – clean and odorless, and steam.  Additionally, polyethylene can be recycled almost infinitely.  Even though the molecular weight of the polymer chains will change with recycling, it’s still plastic and can be reused.   It is also inert- in some locations, polyethylene has been chopped into sand-sized bits and incorporated into heavy clay soils, to lighten them as you would do with sand.

The manufacture of polyethylene requires about 6% of the water that paper manufacture requires.  As our population grows and the supply of fresh water becomes increasingly scarce, industrial usage of water becomes an important consideration in the chain.

Transportation adds more cost to the paper product than to plastic.  Paper is heavier, so trucking costs, for a given ‘carrying capacity’ of the bag, are higher, as is the amount of pollution from the gasoline needed to transport the denser product.

Frequently, the public’s attitudes and beliefs about environmental consequences of our choices are shaped by sound bites and pictures from the media.  Pictures of sea turtles with a plastic grocery bag stuffed into their throat, or a sea mammal with a set of six-pack rings caught around its head, are moving and emotional.  These items do end up in the oceans, due to sloppy handling.  However, legible newspapers from 70 years ago have also been mined from landfills. Searches on the EPA’s website will turn up studies showing that the TOTAL environmental impact from the manufacture and long-term landfill storage of paper bags exceeds that of plastic bags – from the mining of the raw materials (trees or natural gas), through manufacture including energy requirements, pollutants, water use, and hazardous wastes, to the volume of a bag in the landfill.

As skeptics, we must look at the entire picture.  The issue is more complicated than I can discuss in a short blog post, but critical thinking skills can be used on these issues just as readily as they can on issues of quackery and pseudoscience.   I posted this article in a slightly different format on a well-known skeptic website a few months ago, and was attacked for either being a shill for Al Gore or a shill for Big Oil. I’m not sure how I can be both at the same time, but it shows the knee-jerk reaction of people on hot-button issues.  Although most people wanted to disagree with my statement that plastic is a better choice (as compared to paper), the only evidence given was that sometimes “bags end up in the ocean and get caught on bird beaks or swallowed by whales”.  This is true, but the answer is not to ban plastic over paper, but to handle any bag properly through reuse, recycling, and proper disposal.

The option with the least environmental impact is to carry reusable shopping bags, or carry personal bags.  However, if you are faced with a choice between paper or plastic, plastic is the environmentally responsible decision.

Written by Geek Goddess

May 26, 2009 at 4:02 pm

Skeptical Pearls #2: Beware the Testimonial…..

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Faster than a speeding case report. More powerful than a double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Able to leap peer review in a single bound. Look! Up on the internet! It’s a story. It’s an anecdote. It’s a testimonial!

Every implausible and unproven quack therapy, from acupuncture to quantum healing, comes bearing testimonials of its effectiveness. These stories are typically brief, to the point, extremely powerful and, across the board, absolutely worthless. To anyone with a decent skeptical filter in place, the reliance on testimonials is an obvious sign of a complete lack of credible support for one’s claims. Yet to far too many people there is no introductory phrase more meaningful than “In my experience”. And no amount of published contradictory data or number of explanations from critically minded experts can match the effect from just one of the seemingly neverending supply of these uncontrolled, unblinded, and often tall, tales.

Sadly, even outright harm and suffering, or the complete lack of achieving the claimed benefit, are often unable to shake the faith of one who has stepped over the line that seperates credulity from a more critical approach to one’s health. It is far too easy to rationalize away these failures, placing the blame on themselves or the medical community, when the stranger whose gout was cured by taking goat urine supplements is trusted more than the family doctor. Perhaps the believer doesn’t realize that the near totality of the testimonials seen on television or on the internet are fabricated. Maybe they don’t realize that a significant number of them, as is often the case with fraudulent cancer cures, even when provided by real people are found to be the former words of the now deceased, victims of their disease process, their lack of critical thinking skills, and the bastards profiting off of them. It is more likely, however, that the undue influence of testimonials is hard-wired in the human brain, a remnant of something which at one point bestowed a survival advantage on our primitive ancestors.

There is a reason why quacks rely on testimonials. And that is because they don’t have science in their corner. Sure they will jump on poorly designed studies, usually coming out of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and published in biased pseudojournals, and tout them as proof of their legitimacy. But they will just as quickly denigrate methodological naturalism and the methods of so-called “western science” when better studies come along revealing their pet delusion to be a charade. The testimonial circumvents this problem, rendering science irrelevant. This is a recipe for disaster, or at the very least a lighter wallet.

Proven treatments don’t need stories. In my line of work I often am faced with parents who refuse recommended practices such as vaccines and the administration of intramuscular vitamin K for newborns. When I am discussing the care of a child with parents, and presenting them with treatment options or evidence-based prophylaxis regimens, I don’t tell them about the time I used a particular treatment and how it cured the patient, or how I had this one kid who suffered a poor outcome because they didn’t get something I recommended. There are too many uncontrolled variables in most clinical situations to trust such anecdotes.  I have to rely on good data, which should not consist of anecdotes regardless of how many I might collect over my career. I would be no better than the quacks I often rant about were I to attempt to manipulate parents with emotional testimonials.

Written by skepticpedi

May 12, 2009 at 11:54 pm

NPR Listener Rends Fabric of Space and Time…..

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Philadelphia, PA-Chaos broke out today at the studios of WHYY-FM in Philadelphia when a caller refused to turn down his radio resulting in a tear in the very fabric of space and time, and the death or disappearance of hundreds of people.

“I don’t know what the heck happened over there”, Rick from Tuscon explained. “One minute I’m asking that dude from The Shield where he got his motivation from and the next all hell is breaking loose.”

Scientists are scrambling to piece together what exactly happened to leave so many of the people working at WHYY-FM that day dead or missing without a trace. Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku of the City University of New York believes that there are a number of possible explanations. “The infinite feedback loop caused by the callers radio may have somehow elevated the harmonic of the missing individuals, carrying them fully, or partially, into a higher dimension. Also this may just be a big coincidence and a black hole simply formed in the middle of the building.”

Maggi Leyden, Executive director of Donor Relations at WHYY-FM and one of the few survivors of the horrific event, remains hopeful about the future of the public radio. “I can’t say that I’ll ever truly get over seeing Terry Gross ripped in half at the waist, but I can say that now would be the perfect time for listeners out there to support their local NPR stations.”

Written by skepticpedi

January 23, 2009 at 12:51 pm

Posted in Satire, Science, Uncategorized

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