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Christopher "Tanoro" Gray is a web programmer and science advocate especially concerned with resource management technologies, biology, and artificial intelligence. He is a student of epistemology and philosophy as well as an Atheist competent in Christian theology.
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Questioning Science and Proper Research
Posted by: Tanoro - Feb 7, 2012 9:55AM

I often have discussions with my fellow Zeitgeist Movement members where we disagree on the appropriate measure of skepticism to apply to mainstream science. This usually arises from differences in opinion where I often agree with mainstream science while my colleagues do not. I am often encouraged to place greater skepticism on mainstream science so as to avoid profit-related bias. I find this argument silly and, in some ways, dishonest and self-defeating.

When I have an interest in a scientific claim, my first reaction is to hit the peer review journals. I research the most cited papers and examine the evidences presented therein for myself. This is a process of gathering "indirect sources." I exercise my right to demand evidence to support whatever conclusion on which science is attempting to sell me. This is the manifestation of the very skepticism my colleagues often accuse me of not having. I do not believe any claim ex nihilo and I try not hold any one source as absolute authority. There are no absolute authorities, because knowledge necessarily comes from people and every person without exception has a bias somewhere, including ourselves. The key is knowing how to minimize the impact, eating around the bias, so to speak.

There is one other avenue of research that is less convenient, but just as effective and often necessary for laymen like me. I firmly hold that ad hoc education with little or no direct interaction with at least some experts is fundamentally hazardous. Therefore, I will attempt to compile a mailing list of experts, university professors, and scientists in a variety of countries, educational backgrounds, ages, employers, and other varying circumstances to contact for answers to any questions I may have. I select my experts in a very liberal manner based on whether or not they have any demonstrable expertise in the field in which I am studying. These are known as "direct sources." I ask what evidences they find compelling and what papers they suggest I read. This process is often necessary because, let's face it, peer reviewed papers are VERY technical and I can't be expected to understand what I am reading. I have to ask questions! Therefore, expert interaction is a must, most of the time!

So why go through the trouble of diversifying my sources? Firstly, it provides access to the cutting edge of the very latest research which I may not find in the journals yet, though I certainly don't hold this class of information as citable. Secondly, it gives me a direct route to the most compelling evidence, saving me precious time. Most importantly, it is the correct way to filter out personal biases related to the circumstances I mentioned earlier, rather than subjectively picking my favorite sources as some of my colleagues often do. I never get a 100% return on my contact campaigns, but I can extrapolate the good information from the bits where most (not all) of my experts agree and they always provide me with their evidence and sources. In cases where there is a clear division down the middle among experts, when there is no overwhelming majority consensus, I have revealed a legitimate scientific controversy that has not yet been resolved. The correct course of action for me here is to be humble and withhold my conclusion until more research is done.

Many of my fellow Zeitgeisters are baffled by my willingness to question any expert. "Some of them work for the government/pharma or will just lie because of the profit motive! You can't trust them," I am often told. Sometimes, I am even told to wait until the Resource Based Economy is here before I can trust the experts in the liberal manner that I do! I have come to call this the "Pure Science Argument," because holders of this position often claim that "science is not yet pure, therefore we must be spotty in our acceptance of scientific claims." This is a fallacious argument on so many levels and reflects a considerable need of an education on how science and epistemology work.

Firstly, bias cannot be 100% eliminated from science and never will be...period. The Resource Based Economy cannot and will not change this. It is not meant to do so. Even if we had a Resource Based Economy right now and the profit-motive was gone, scientists and people would still have personal biases related to prestige, fame, religious values, social acceptance, and from every facet of motivation that we Zeitgeisters purpose will still be around in the absence of money. Secondly, the fact that some of us are willing to cherry-pick our sources is, itself, a textbook case of confirmation bias! We end up leading the evidence based on our subjective, and therefore uncertain, assessment of the sources we select as trustworthy and then attempt to label our favorites as "more authoritative than the rest." This is embarrassingly dishonest. To discover the truth, we must assess sources and evidence fairly and with equal measure. Cherry-picking your sources doesn't make your more skeptical than me. It doesn't make you more informed than me. It makes you more biased and dishonest than me. Finally, this argument takes into account one type of bias, but utterly ignores every other kind. All kinds of biases, not just the profit-related, are built into the human organism. It doesn't matter that we're against the monetary system! We must not become over-concerned for the profit-related bias and completely ignore the other kinds (i.e. religious, cultural, etc). Organizations like the Discovery Institute have little or no government or corporate affiliations outside their own organizations, yet demonstrate a mind-numbing degree of religious bias. Gary Null from the alternative health camp has his own profit-related incentives, absent government affiliations, to sell his alternative health goods and convince the rest of us that the science cannot be trusted. Therefore, corporate/government affiliation is not a benchmark to indicate a source's degree of probable bias.

So how do we minimize biased information? The proper way to filter out bias is using the method I describe above, a simple application of math and probability and some legwork. No five people all share the same bias when you pick them at random from among a diversified set of circumstances. This is a mathematical reality. If you select 15 sources from an even more diversified set, the odds get better that the information you will receive is good information if it parallels to some compelling degree. I tend to shoot as high as I can, getting dozens of sources with as much diversity as possible. I ask the exact same questions and compare the answers. If I can establish what the majority consensus is, I can compare their evidences to what the minority sources are providing and account for any anomalies among experts that don't agree with the rest.

Researching and forming our own meta-analyses is, in itself, a science. In order to do the job right, it is critical that we avoid our own biases as well while we work hard to minimize the bias among our sources. Otherwise, we're just spinning our wheels and fooling ourselves, potentially doing damage to ourselves and others.

This blog is an editorial and contains only the opinions of the author. The author claims no expertise on most topics of discussion and this blog is not to be cited as an alternative for properly vetted journalism or scientific sources.

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