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Tag Archives: Intuition

Global Warming: Consensus Is Not Science

Proponents of the idea of human-induced global warming often claim that there is an overwhelming consensus among scientists that such warming is a fact. For example, consider this recent article:

Consensus Confirmed: 97 Percent of Climate Papers Agree on Manmade Global Warming
by Brendan DeMelle, 22 June 2013 Huff Post Green

burningearth“A new survey conducted by a team of volunteers at Skeptical Science has definitively confirmed the scientific consensus in climate science literature — 97 percent of peer-reviewed papers agree that global warming is happening and human activities are responsible.

“It does not get any clearer than this. It should finally put to rest the claims of climate deniers that there is a scientific debate about global warming. Of course, this bunch isn’t known for being reasonable or susceptible to facts. But maybe the mainstream media outlets that have given deniers a megaphone will finally stop…”

The problem with grandiose statements such as the one above is that consensus is simply a collection of opinions, it is not scientific proof. In fact, when “consensus” is presented as “proof” then you can be sure that the presenters do not actually have verifiable proof. Instead they are merely practicing junk science.

And what about the opinions of those scientists who hold a minority view? Should their opinions be ignored because they have less votes than the majority? No, of course not. The role of true science is to determine which group is correct.

Science converges on the truth by requiring that scientists provide verifiable
evidence of a hypothesis, not by counting scientists’ votes for or against the hypothesis

Still not convinced? I agree that it may seem intuitive that scientists’ beliefs, as confirmed by a consensus of their peers, should be used to guide us when proof is not available. But this is just gambling; there have been numerous times throughout scientific history when the consensus of scientists has been completely wrong. For example, at one time the near-unanimous consensus of doctors was that it was perfectly fine to perform their work without first washing their hands: see “Advice From Professionals: Who Do You Trust? (Part 2).” (For other reasons to be cautious about allowing intuition to be our guide, see “Why Not Go With The Gut?“)

Bottom line: Those who promote “consensus” as being equivalent to a scientific proof do not understand how science works, and should be ignored.

-Ed Walker

 

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Getting It Right: Measurements and Cooking

Engineering Thinking & Cooking: Measurements Trump Opinions & Intuition

An important Engineering Thinking principle is measurement. If you ever have to choose between someone’s opinion, or your intuition, versus reaching out and actually measuring whatever it is that interests you, you are well advised to do the measurement.

Measurements, also known as empirical validation, are a part of experimental science.  They are the bottom line, the proof of the pudding, the holy grail. Two analyses in the bush are worth much less than one good experiment in the hand.

Analysis is also important, because it can expand upon and offer insights into data that are provided experimentally, or even point the way to discovery. But analysis is theoretical and arguable, whereas measurement (done properly) is not arguable.

For an example of how engineers apply the important principle of measurements to a routine task such as cooking, please see “Cooking & Measurements: Why Engineers Get It Right” in the DACI 1st Qtr 2011 Newsletter.

-Ed Walker

 

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Why Not Go With The Gut?

We humans can sometimes leap to a conclusion without conscious thought. This subliminal intuitive process, “going with our gut,” may be just fine, provided our brain is indeed doing its behind-the-scenes work. In general, however, the following is true:

Can We Always Trust Our Intuition?

No!

A study of science teaches that many facts are counter-intuitive. For example, intuition suggests that if you flip a coin three times and get heads, then the next flip will likely be tails. Actually (for an honest coin-flipping test), there is no improved chance of getting tails. Con artists have a long history of using such non-intuitive facts to beguilingly fleece unwary folks who, through faulty intuition, think that they are making safe bets, when the opposite is true. (An engaging old movie that demonstrates this point is The Flim-Flam Man.)

Gut-based decisions are more likely to be correct if we have deep experience with the issue being pondered. For example, although not intuitive to a young child, an adult learns through experience to avoid dark alleys, and to be very wary of street gangs. But there are numerous situations for which even an adult will have scant experience or knowledge. Worse, we can unknowingly encounter frauds who know how to look and act respectable in order to thwart our protective instincts. In these cases trusting our intuition can be quite hazardous.

Therefore it’s important to be sure that an intuitive insight is based on knowledge or experience. One way to do that is to examine a flash of inspiration and, upon reflection, see if you can construct the behind-the-scenes path your brain took to arrive at your intuitive conclusion. If it was based on logic, that’s good. If not, you need to ignore your gut.

Before You Go With The Gut,

Check It Out With The Brain

For example, assume one morning you wake up in a great mood and have this compelling thought: “Today’s the day I beat the roulette table at the casino!” Before you rush out to place your bets, why not examine your impulse? You will find, after Googling a bit of probability theory, that the force will not be with you, and furthermore, if you act on your inspiration on a grand scale, you will almost certainly go broke.

The avoidance of faulty intuition and emotional impulses is characteristic of the important principle of objectivity. This principle will be explored further in the next posts, but for now here are some simple guidelines for everyday life:

  • Don’t blindly trust your intuition. [Engineers are expected to provide a blend of logical analysis and concrete testing to back up assertions.]
  • Be wary of conflicts of interest and hidden agendas: Don’t believe information just because it was delivered by a smiling celebrity, a favored relative, a salesman with an honest face, a financial advisor who was recommended by your neighbor, an earnest frowning doctor, or a charismatic politician. [Engineers learn to ignore dazzling presentations and dig down to the unvarnished facts.]
  • Don’t make a decision on a complex issue based on a single piece of data; research all of the available options. [Engineers who tend to jump to conclusions can expect to enjoy a brief career.]
  • If someone makes a request that is based solely on emotions, just say “No.” [An emotional argument presented by an engineer to other engineers is good only for comic relief.]
  • Resist those who press you to make quick decisions. [Some engineers — those with overly-demanding managers — find that this is often difficult to do.]
  • Closely examine exalted claims, such as “free” offers and one-time-only “opportunities.” [Engineers learn to intently probe the truthfulness of claims made by sales reps, such as “super high efficiency,” which translated means “a zillion miles to the gallon.”]
  • Seek out independent objective advice; e.g. if a surgical specialist tells you that you need surgery, get a second opinion from a knowledgeable non-specialist. The latter is more likely to be aware of various alternatives and will not be biased towards surgical solutions. [Engineers use the Design Review meeting — attended by a panel of experienced and sometimes cranky senior engineers — to help ensure objectivity.]

As a current-events example of using one of the above guidelines (examining exalted claims), consider the following:

Assertion by President Obama: The proposed reform of health care will be “paid for” by eliminating billions of dollars of waste and fraud in Medicare and Medicaid.

Assumption: The dollars of waste and fraud in Medicare/Medicaid are sufficient to pay for health care reform (this is dubious but will be assumed to be true).

Analysis:

  • Medicare and Medicaid are run by the federal government.
  • The government has been running these programs for many years, under both Democrat and Republican administrations.
  • If massive waste and fraud have been occurring in those programs, that is the fault of the government, irrespective of which party controls the government.

Conclusion: It’s illogical to entrust the government with elimination of waste and fraud, because the government has proven itself incapable of preventing the waste and fraud in the first place.

Next Post:

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

 
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Posted by on September 13, 2009 in Intuition, Objectivity

 

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