Fake explanations

Or, how not to fool ourselves into thinking we have an explanation before we do.  Sometimes "I don't know" is the only reasonable answer.  If your explanation ( e.g., "phlogiston") would have served equally well to explain any other outcome, it's not an explanation.  It hasn't added to your knowledge.

The site describes fallacies in assessing probabilities and risks, too.  Apparently there is a strong human tendency to overestimate a risk stated in whole numbers rather than percentages, so that a disease sounds more dangerous if it kills 1,000 out of each 100,000 affected than if it kills 2%:  those thousand bodies weigh on the hindbrain.  We also have only a limited inborn talent for distinguishing between the risk and reward of a chancy proposition.  The more convinced we are of the benefits of a course of action, the lower our assessment of its risk, even when the two have nothing at all to do with each other.  These are new skills in the evolutionary sense, for which we haven't yet developed much in the way of gut-level shortcuts.


Grim said...

Unreliable cognitive heuristics, every one.

Grim said...

Actually, the chancy proposition thing is even worse than it sounds. Most systems of mechanics are deterministic -- it's only in quantum mechanics that we still have a hope of irreducible chance, and even there some of the new theories make that forlorn.

So why do we believe that chance exists at all? Insofar as we are estimating the chance of a coin flip as .5, we're wrong: our physics says it is more likely either 1 or 0, and in fact has been since shortly after the Big Bang, when the initial conditions will have determined all effects.

So why the sense -- and it is a very strong sense -- that chance exists at all? To put it another way, why would we have evolved a capacity (even an iffy one) to estimate chances, if there is no such thing?

Or to put it another way still: Don't we have to choose between the deterministic theories of physics we have reason to believe are hard science, and the theory of evolution that we have reason to believe is hard science?

Texan99 said...

It's not clear to me that the fact that chance works differently at the quantum level and at the macro level gives us any real dilemma using probability as a rough guide in our everyday lives. I don't have to worry about relativistic distortions of time and mass when I hit the accelerator in my car. Similarly, probability works just fine, empirically, in my daily life, even if it works differently for electrons. Whether probability is consistent with predestination or not I have no idea, but I don't need to know in order to navigate life's typical risks.

It doesn't surprise me that we'd have evolved an ability to evaluate odds even if individual electrons don't work that way, because ordinary life at the macro level demonstrably does work that way.

Grim said...

Well, and so say I, but that only means that you and I don't have a problem disposing of deterministic physics. The problem is that the best part of physics suggests that we are somehow wrong: that our level (which is usually called 'the middle size,' since there is both a macro and a micro scale at which our perceptions are unreliable) is deterministic even though we don't perceive it that way.

But I tend to trust my perceptions and reasoned conclusions about empirical facts, as you do. Unreliable cognitive heuristics, perhaps. :)

Texan99 said...

The scourge of U.C.H.! Neither of us escapes it.