I’m Right! (Or Am I?)

05 Oct

If you have strong opinions and want to test them scientifically, drill down to their roots and check them against the following list of unscientific justifications:

Unscientific Justifications

  1. That’s the way I was raised
  2. I work in a union and all my friends feel the same way
  3. I work in a corporate office and all my friends feel the same way
  4. Oprah feels the same way
  5. I read it in a best-selling book
  6. I saw a “based on a true story” movie
  7. Because that’s the way things should be

If your opinions are based on unscientific justifications, that doesn’t mean you are wrong. It does mean that you will probably have a very hard time defending your opinions when discussing them with others. And if those others also use fallacy-laden arguments, everyone will experience a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing (my apologies to William Shakespeare).

“But Ed,” you protest, “I don’t use unscientific justifications; I’m on guard against those. I base my opinions on facts, not emotion.”

Sounds good, but do you, really? Take a look at the following list of possibly unscientific justifications:

Possibly Unscientific Justifications

  1. It happened to me once
  2. I read it in a magazine
  3. I learned it in a seminar
  4. I read it in a textbook
  5. I watched a documentary
  6. It was reported in the newspaper
  7. My doctor told me
  8. A scientist said so on TV
  9. I read it on a “fact check” Internet site
  10. Some reviews on an Internet site said it was great

Because the principle of objectivity is so vital in the decision-making process, we’ll review the above list in more detail. Let’s start with “It happened to me once.”

Learning from An Experience

A personal experience can be a wonderful teacher. However, as real and powerful as an experience is, it is a sample of one. It’s only one experiment, if you will.

“What are you taking about, Ed?” you exclaim loudly. “If it happened to me — if I experienced it myself, saw it with my own eyes — then it’s got to be true!”

Not necessarily. Human perceptions are imperfect, and unless we’re careful we tend to jam our experiences into preconceived boxes that fit our expectations. Our memories are likewise imperfect, and tend to adapt to what we want to remember, rather than retain the reality of what really happened.

Nonetheless, for simple phenomena, one experiment is sometimes sufficient to reach an important conclusion. If you put your hand on a hot stove and get burned, a valid conclusion is — don’t do that again!

The Single-Event Fallacy (Am I Psychic?)

For complex phenomena, however, deriving a firm conclusion from a sole personal experience is an example of the single-event fallacy. For example, what if you dreamed that you were going to have a fight with your spouse in the morning, and sure enough, you did. Can you conclude that you’re psychic? Not really, because in this instance there are many variables involved. Dreams, for example, often mirror common events such as arguments with spouses, and there are billions of us dreaming such dreams every night. According to the laws of probability it’s quite likely that some folks will, on rare occasion, have a dream that coincidentally matches upcoming reality.

True psychic ability would be indicated by predictive dreams or visions that cannot be explained by coincidence; e.g. dreams of improbable events with very specific details (“On Tuesday I dreamed that on Thursday afternoon I would be in an auto accident involving a red sedan driven by a stocky man wearing a gray turtleneck sweater, and it happened!”) If you have such dreams, the next step would be to demonstrate your psychic predictive power to an objective independent observer; i.e. be tested. If you pass you will not only make history, you will make a lot of money — a one-million dollar prize is available to anyone who can prove, under scientific conditions, that they are psychic, or have any other paranormal ability (see JREF). (This prize has been offered for many, many years and there have been no successful applicants.)

Conclusion: When multiple variables are involved, engineering thinking requires the use of numerous samples (experiences) to fashion a reasonable hypothesis for the cause of an event.

Single Experiences Of Complex Events

Do Not Lead To Reliable Conclusions

We’ll continue our review of possibly unscientific justifications in the following posts.

Next Post:

Books, Magazines, and Seminars: Who Do You Trust?

p.s. If you are curious to learn more about the engineering mind, please check out the DACI Newsletter; you may find the Sightings and News Bullet sections interesting.

-Ed Walker


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4 responses to “I’m Right! (Or Am I?)

  1. foresightyourctpsychic

    October 8, 2009 at 4:44 am

    I’d agree that a single episode does not prove a thing is so- however a single episode does show that a thing is possibly so.

    It’s also worth noting that a single episode where any “rational” explanation is so extremely unlikely that it’s un-scientific is a strong indicator that something out of the ordinary or even paranormal may be happening.

    At that point, further data or study is indicated.

    • engineeringthinking

      October 8, 2009 at 3:01 pm

      Thank you for your comments. I think I agree with their general intent, but will apply rigorous engineering thinking in my response below.

      In engineering, definition of terms is essential. When you say, “…a thing is possibly so.” the phrase is so broad that one cannot disagree, but on the other hand it has no real meaning, because anything is possibly so. The important attribute is the probability that something is so.

      For example, will we have a sunrise tomorrow? Almost certainly, but there is an extremely small probability that the sun could explode tonight. On the flip side, does anyone have paranormal power? Almost certainly not, because (a) purported cases (those with enough hard data to be objectively and independently reviewed) have been shown to be due to coincidence, misinterpretation of natural phenomena, self-delusion, or fraud, and (b) no paranormal claim has ever been successfully replicated. Does this prove that no one has any psychic power? No, but it strongly suggests that one would be wise to play the odds and not place any faith (or invest any money) with those who claim to possess paranormal ability.

      With regard to your comment, “…any “rational” explanation is so extremely unlikely…”, again we have a terminology issue. Who decides if a rational explanation is extremely unlikely? To a group of engineers, a puzzling event would be investigated and peer-reviewed. If the cause of the puzzling event could not be determined (this happens a lot), the conclusion is not, “It must be paranormal,” but rather, “The cause is indeterminate, so we’ll study it more if and when more data are available.”


  2. foresightyourctpsychic

    October 13, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    Fair enough.

    Think I’d like to clarify a bit more on my comment.

    When I say “a thing is possibly so”, I’m not actually meaning in the context of anything, no matter how unlikely, is possible. That’s true, but what I’m describing is a situation where the data indicates that paranormal phenomena is a theorum worth testing. For instance, the mother who’s normally calm and collected about her child, but suddenly experiences great fear for him at a time this child is in a traincrash 500 miles away.

    When I speak of ” rational” explanations so unlikely as to be more unlikely than paranormal ones, one example I’ve personally experienced was a friend who had multiple born spurs and a torn rotater cuff in his shoulder and was going infor surgery. After one brief Reiki session from friends, he had a final Xray the following day prior to surgery. The Xray found that the previously torn rotater cuff was no longer torn and that the number of bone spurs had decreased by half.

    Now one might say that there was a mistake in the previous Xrays. Given that they were ready to do surgery based on said Xrays, and given that medical personnel tend to take extra precautions and doublecheck these things before cutting into the human body( due to both professional ethics and the effects of living in a litiginous society), the likelihood of all previous Xrays somehow being faulty is statistically less likely than something else happening here.

    And rotater cuffs don’t heal that fast on their own…

    I don’t think I’d care to play those odds 😉

    Peace out

    • engineeringthinking

      October 14, 2009 at 2:34 pm

      This is an interesting topic, so I will expand on the issue in a future post. I can see that some of the points I have made in earlier posts need to be explained more fully. Among them are personal experiences (what I call “samples of one”), which — despite how convincing them may seem — do not meet accepted engineering standards of proof. There are also terminology and assumption issues, and the issues of anecdotal evidence and coincidence. So all in all this is a good test case for applying engineering thinking, to see if understanding can be broadened and differences narrowed, in a constructive and respectful manner.


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