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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Common sense, don't fail me now!

When a new ID book comes out I always love to follow the savaging that it receives from some of my favorite experts - PZ, GM/BM, Panda's Thumb, etc. And yet it's also an occasion to ponder just how reliant I am on the opinion of experts. I find I'm in the intellectually muddy situation of being pretty sure this book is crap, because *my* experts tell me so.

Can I read the book myself? Of course, but I probably won't since I already believe the conclusion is wrong, I'm trying to minimize the nonsense I put in my head and there are only so many hours in a day. Can I follow debates from both sides on the merits of the arguments in the book? I can and have. But the fact that people who believe one way or the other read a book such as this and come away more convinced that their side is all the more correct reeks of confirmation bias. (Of course *my* experts don't suffer from this, just the other guys.)

How do you inoculate your self against confirmation bias? One way would be to become an expert in the field. Am I going to become an expert in both evolutionary biology and intelligent design and then make a fair and balanced decision? Probably not. I've got lots of other things to do. So I read "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" and lots of other books, I am swayed by their arguments and don't really give the ID guys that much attention since my common sense tells me they are full of it. Then I just go on with my life.

But then occasionally I have to face reality. I don't really *know* (with a capital K) who is right. I have placed my bet on one side but to a greater extent than I'd like I'm just trusting experts. How did I choose my trustable experts? I just find that some people make more sense to me. Then in a temporary moment of clarity I realize this sounds exactly like a reply that someone could give to justify *any* appeal to common sense.

I think the thing that bugs me the most is I'd like to be the guy who could argue the fine points of bible apologetics or ID with anyone and win the argument, convert them to my views and also anyone else who is listening in. The thing is, even the experts almost never succeed at this, so why should I worry about trying to even come close to this goal of being a perfectly informed and convincing debater? It's just a huge time sink. I've already convinced myself. I don't have a responsibility to make everyone believe the same as me (or do I?).

Personally, my common sense is satisfied. I know that I've read up on the topic and I'm not worried about being shown to be fundamentally wrong. The chance that the majority of the world's scientists are deluded or in a secret cabal under the orders of Satan is too silly to contemplate. Yet somehow the mere existence of people who confidently and vocally disagree with what my common sense tells me is true bugs me. Just knowing they are out there (with or without compelling reasons supporting their beliefs) seems wrong to me. My capacity for second guessing myself knows no bounds.

On the other hand people who deny the moon landing don't bother me at all. They are clearly idiots (though their arguments are a little intriguing when you first hear them). Bible apologists and ID advocates are also delusional but I think that as a former christian it's harder to completely turn off the sensitivity to those arguments. I don't worry about whether the Koran might be right, for instance. (Except the part about flying horses. Pixar, contact me about my script).

So in the end I trust my common sense and get on with my life. I just personally don't like this reliance on common sense. Sadly, no matter how much I study, I can't be an authority on everything. I will be wrong sometimes and hopefully will have the flexibility to realize it on occasion and self correct as appropriate.

(I've been pondering the above off and on for a while and then came across this essay which resonated quite well with my own thoughts on on certainty and proof and such things. Glad to know that other people are bothered with how certain other people claim to be.)

ps. Just an afterthought. One reason why my confidence in my common sense is not much shaken by the ID crowd is exemplified by their response to GM/BM review. There may be more substantial replies there now but when I last checked it was just a bunch of people griping that he's not a mathematician. Dude, reply to the arguments not the person. That just stinks of bad thinking. Plus, here's a little secret for ya, PhDs in computer science know a shit load of math (in particular about information theory). And let me say for the record, M.S.s in computer science are super sexy and the life of every party.

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