What do I mean by “probabilistically” true?

What do I mean by “probabilistically” true?

I was once again drawn in to a “discussion” on Facebook about global warming with one of my science-denying friends (why do I have so many?!) and while I made some progress – I think – I used the exchange as an opportunity to reflect on the word “true.”

A claim in science has either been proven false, or it has yet to be proven false. This sets up a strange dynamic for the contrarian looking to exploit that space between what we claim to be true and what has yet to be proven false.

You see, science by definition and by the very nature of hypothesis testing is “probabilistically” true. Meaning that there is always a chance that a claim could be proven false. In other words, science always leaves a window open, even if the crack is infinitesimally small, for the potential that new evidence will change our understanding.

For the climate change denier (or evolution denier or vaccine denier etc.), to deny the evidence for human caused global warming, or evolution, or vaccine efficacy at this stage of the research, is simply contrarianism. Therefore, while statistically speaking there is an extraordinarily small probability that any of those hypotheses might be proven false, the practical reality is that there is no factual basis for denying any of them.

The lesson: Do not let contrarians exploit your intellectual honesty.

Happy critical thinking!

Now that Bill visited Ken’s ark…tips for the next Evolution v. Creationism debate

Bill-Nye-Ark-Encounter-tourA giant replica of an ark has been built in Kentucky. Presumably this ark is of the same general size as the fictional boat made famous in the biblical story of Noah.

The construction of this ark was not without controversy, as the proprietor, Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis, is among the most infamous creationists in the world, and therefore his intention behind the construction of this massive unseaworthy vessel is to ignore all of science and to teach the story of Noah as if it’s true.

This of course would be perfectly legal, although colossally wasteful, were it not for the fact that for purposes of receiving tax breaks from the state of Kentucky, the project couched itself as more of a theme park than a religious institution, and conversely for the purposes of restricting who they hire to only “born again” Christians, the project couched itself as more of a religious institution than a theme park.

But these issues have been well documented so rather than rehash them here, I thought I would would revisit the Bill Nye, Ken Ham debate, especially since Bill took up Ken’s invitation to attend the Ark Encounter’s grand opening this past week. Keep in mind this “debate” turned out much like many of us who have experience speaking with creationists expected, and hence warned against (see my piece Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham: Dinosaurs vs. Dragons for more on that discussion).

So what follows are my suggestions should the two meet again to have a similar discussion.

My first four are below, but feel free to add your own in the comments section. So let’s get to it.

1. Bill: Right out of the gate, ask Ken Ham if he believes humans and dinosaurs lived on the planet at the same time.

As a Young Earth Creationist, Ken will be forced to answer “Yes,” thus exposing the depths of his delusion to the audience and to the hundreds of millions of people across the world who know that dinosaurs lived a very long time ago; between 230 to 60 million years to be a bit more accurate. We also know, thanks to the Ark Encounter theme park, that Ken literally believes dinosaurs were on the Ark.  He has some replica dinosaurs in one of Noah’s animal cages. I’m not kidding. Now, normally there is a cost associated with being irrational. For example, exhibiting irrational behaviors, such as “watch me fly” or “check out my force field,” often result in bodily injury to the irrational person. No doubt jumping off a bridge or walking in front of a bus extracts a very high cost for the irrational individual, and it also serves as an incredibly potent if not macabre illustration to others of the dangers of being delusional. Irrational ideas on the other hand are a bit easier to get away with, particularly if they are shielded from ridicule by the veneer of religion. But this isn’t fair. All irrational ideas should come with a cost; at the very least, the cost of public humiliation. Let’s play this out. Take Ken Ham to any elementary school in almost any town in the United States, and ask him to admit that he believes humans and dinosaurs lived together, and the reaction of the schoolchildren will be one of two things: laughter or fear. Why? Because kids know dinosaurs. They know Tyrannosaurus rex, they know Triceratops, they know Stegosaurus, they even know that Brontosaurus is actually an incorrect term for Apatosaurus, and above all, they know that dinosaurs ruled the earth for hundreds of millions of years, millions of years ago. So when Ken Ham says that dinosaurs lived alongside humans some five to six thousand years ago, kids will laugh at him thinking he’s joking, or they will be afraid of him thinking he’s serious. Either way, the cost of public humiliation will have been collected.

2. Ken: If you have to keep reminding people your scientists have PhDs, you are implicitly admitting you have a credibility problem.

Ken needs to realize that having a PhD in something, doesn’t preclude you from being painfully obtuse in something else. We understand that Ken has managed to recruit a few real scientists who were willing to waste what might have otherwise been promising scientific careers, in order to feed the Answers in Genesis confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance machine. It’s sad actually.  It’s also interesting to notice during their first debate, that when Bill was citing his scientific sources, he didn’t say “PhD astrophysicist Carl Sagan,” he simply said, “Carl Sagan.” Credibility is more than credentials.

3. Bill: Remind Ken there are no such things as secular versus religious science journals.

There are just science journals. If Ken’s “PhD scientists” are finding their papers are being rejected from science journals, it isn’t because the journals are explicitly irreligious as opposed to religious, it’s because the papers reflect bad science. Science journals publish evidence-based findings for peer-review. If that purpose precludes your papers from being published, then revisit your papers, don’t blame the journals. In fact, if a credible science journal were to stray from reality and publish a paper with poor or worse, fabricated evidence (religious or not), it would be forced to retract the paper or risk losing all credibility in the field. In effect, it would be finished.

4. Ken: We all know you “have a book,” now give us the evidence that supports your book.

During the first debate, Ken kept referring to the Bible as evidence for the claims in the Bible that he believes support Creationism. This is a fundamental circular reasoning fallacy that Ken will need to address in the next debate. We know his book means a tremendous amount to him and we aren’t denying that.  But it’s a religious text and religious texts only have special meaning to those who practice that religion.  For the billions of people who don’t practice that religion, it’s just another text.  Offering the claims of an old, personally sacred book as evidence for the claims in the same old, personally sacred book does not make for compelling evidence. By way of analogy, in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Hogwarts is a wizarding school in England;  but no rational person thinks that Hogwarts is actually a wizarding school in England. Claims need evidence and to quote the late Christopher Hitchens, “that which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”  Ken will need to remember that no matter how badly he hopes the claims in his book are true, his hope isn’t evidence.

And there you have it. A few pointers for both Ken and Bill should they meet again on the debate stage. Here’s to hoping that doesn’t happen.

CO2 hits 407 ppm – this is not good news

220px-Pierolapithecus_catalaunicus_(Pau)_a_l'Institut_Català_de_Paleontologia_Miquel_CrusafontCO2 has been breaching the 400ppm threshold for well over a year and just a few days ago, it was measured at NOAA’s Mauna Loa Earth System Research Laboratory at just over 407ppm. This is not good news at all.

The last time the earth had this level of CO2 in the atmosphere, our human ancestor was Pierolapithecus catalaunicus (a creature who lived around 13 million years ago pictured to the left), and sea level was about 100 feet higher than it is today.

It would be nice if our political candidates from all parties were debating the best solutions. Yet we are stuck with an entire political party who refuses to accept the science. We have to be informed and vocal and we have to hold our political leaders accountable for their ignorance of facts.


Letter to the Editor: Marietta Daily Journal – Helping our Congressman differentiate global warming facts from fiction

Congressman Barry Loudermilk’s column, “Global warming: Facts don’t change with the weather,” is a study in some of the most common fallacious arguments that accompany climate science denial. As scientifically literate constituents, it’s our role to help him as our representative in Congress, further his understanding of this issue by exposing these fallacies.

Beware the slothful induction


If ever there was a logical fallacy which seemed to epitomize intellectual dishonesty, it is slothful induction.

Slothful induction, sometimes called “ignoring the evidence,” is the fallacy whereby an inductive argument is denied its proper conclusion, despite strong evidence for the inference.  If that still doesn’t quite make sense, allow me to explain.

First, what is an inductive argument?  Simply stated, an inductive argument is one made from the available facts. In other words, like a detective at a crime scene gathering clues about the crime, an inductive argument builds to a conclusion by piecing together the details, the evidence, that support it.  It’s the “most likely” conclusion – or inference –  based on what has been collected, observed, tested, measured, and analyzed.

One exhibiting slothful induction, either willfully or through an absence of aptitude, refuses to accept what is most likely true despite the evidence presented.  It is a forgiving name in that this fallacy gives the benefit of the doubt to the denier, by chalking up their unwillingness to acknowledge evidence to their laziness, not their confirmation bias.

However, more often than not, the denier committing this fallacy is not lazy, but rather simply does not like the direction the evidence is heading.  She chooses to ignore it.  I sometimes call this the “head in the sand” defense or to use more colorful language, the “head up one’s own ass” defense.

A very good essay discussing the slothful induction fallacy can be found at The Illogic Primer.  Within that essay, there is a key phrase that I want to point out,

“Usually it (slothful induction) is a red flag that someone is not principally interested in the truth of a matter. And, because inductive arguments are at best probabilistic, not definitive, someone can always hold out against the preponderance of evidence.”

So if you find yourself in a debate where the evidence you are presenting is being ignored, what is your recourse?  You have very little to be honest.  You are in a debate with an individual who does not value evidence and reason, therefore you will not be able to use evidence and reason to influence the argument.

In the words of the great philosopher/poet Kenny Rogers, you have know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.  When faced with slothful induction, sometimes your only option is to walk away (or run).