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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.
HOME > View Blog  >  Ad Hoc Education vs the Pursuit of Knowledge
Ad Hoc Education vs the Pursuit of Knowledge
Posted by: Tanoro - May 16, 2012 8:48PM

I would like to share a brief cut from a conversation I was having on Facebook recently. The topic was between me and some guy who was trying to convince that aspartame is dangerous to our health. His behavior illustrates a point I would like to mock.

This was my initial statement:

I'm skeptical of this claim. The first article above has some citations, trying to justify their claims, but they can't cite any of their claims to which source indicates them. None of the sources appear to have anything to do with aspartame.

As for the second article, the sources there were even more dubious. One of the sources was NaturalNews, the Fox News of alternative health. I checked the website for the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and found no mention of aspartame, soda, or coke. Nothing.

And here is the absurdity with which it was met.

Do your own homework. Research Aspartame. Oh and science is not free of corruption.

PseudoscienceOh! That was a close one. You almost forgot to remind me that science can't be trusted. This is the sort of anti-intellectual garbage I get from uneducated dimwits who think they're being clever and original with such excuses. It's worth warning that I am definitely going to over-analyze this statement. It is used so many times in so many ways to mean so many things that it's necessary to do so.

Criticism #1

I cannot even begin to describe how suspicious it looks when you meet a skeptical inquiry with, "Do your own homework." When one makes a claim, it is incumbent upon one's self to shoulder the burden of proof for the asking. Assigning homework to get critics to go away makes one look as though a little scrutiny is kryptonite to your claim. In short, it makes the claimant appear dishonest or, at the very least, uninterested in defending his or her statement.

Criticism #2

Turning skeptics away to their own research, again, makes it difficult to take the claimant seriously. What if I had done my research? What if I had done more than the claimant and the claim is simply wrong? What if I hadn't done my research, but I must've somehow missed an important detail that the claimant did not. It certainly wouldn't come out in a dialogue if the claimant refuses to hold one.

Criticism #3

Now, I am going to cut into the second point. The primary reason for pointing out that science is not free of corruption is because the claimant knows their bullshit is bullshit and the claimant knows that someone who is science-savvy can call them on their bullshit. So how does a knowingly dishonest person rescue their claim in the face of the science-savvy? Well, you make an excuse that the scientific process is not the authoritative avenue of discovering truth simply because it lacks unreasonable standards of perfection. Even if that were true, name a better way. There are literally zero avenues of justification that meet the standard of perfection implied in the accusation that science is not free of corruption. Of course it isn't. Science is done by people and people tend to get corrupted on occasions. However, this applies even more to organizations who work outside of science who don't have the benefit of peer review. Science is the least bias, least corrupt, and most accessible avenue of adding to the sum of knowledge and no other avenue can match it.

Reminding us of corruption in science is nothing more than an absurd attempt to dislodge any and all avenues of verification in order to prevent the claim from being refuted. This is necessary because the claimant knows that they can't stand up to scrutiny on their own merits. They have to cheat. Even if I were to restrain myself from relying on the science to verify the claim, it only means I can't believe the claim or the science because I am left with no verification process, so the claim is defeated either way.

Ad Hoc Education

Ad hoc educationI want to talk about why I find the two statements above particularly dangerous when paired together. I honestly pity the person who posted that, because he or she will likely not know the peril of his or her reasoning.

Epistemology demands two elements in order for a person to hold an idea as knowledge: 1) a workable understanding of the topic and 2) an objective justification for the truth value of the topic. Without both of these components, the idea in question is worthless and cannot be applied to any practical solution (i.e. medicine, technology, sociological applications, etc.) nor should it be promoted to others as fact. Even if I did my homework on aspartame, this would only provide me with a questionable layman's understanding, but not objective justification. To get that, I require reputable experts whose education is not questionable to reach the same conclusion as me, thus making the conclusion objectively verifiable. This is a over-simplified view of how scientific process works. There are no single authorities. Every notion under consideration requires a consensus. The consensus can certainly make mistakes, but mistakes will be corrected as discovered in the process.

This is one of the big problems with the notion of "Ad Hoc Education," the notion proposed by the claimant above. It works like this.

Ad Hoc Education
Premise #1: You require information in order to reach a conclusion on a stated question.
Premise #2: You are not an expert in the topic.
Premise #3: For whatever reason you can conceive, the experts cannot be trusted to aid you in this pursuit. "Science is not free of corruption."
Premise #4: You must become an expert on your own by selecting your own sources of information with no prior knowledge of how to do so. "Do your own homework."

There are so many problems with this avenue of reasoning that it can't lead to truth, yet this is the avenue of choice for conspiracy theorists, 9/11 truthers, anti-vaxxers, alternative health proponents, creationists, and every fringe group who claims to support science, but is made up almost exclusively of individuals who have no idea what science is. Premise #3 is the real evil of ad hoc education. It renders one completely incapable of determining objective facts and falsely provides license to declare any half-baked idea as fact when it is not. Remember that science demands a consensus of independently verified observations in order to declare something factual. Premise #3 isolates you so that this becomes impossible, so "facts" become whatever the individual thinks they are, verified or not. Premise #4 makes it even worse. Without a reasonable education and some interaction with the already educated, a careless study may lead one down the erroneous path of gullible misinformation. Ordinarily, one can correct this by getting facts checked objectively, but premise #3 prevents this. Ad hoc education is flawed all around and is a pathetic short-cut for people who want to believe without any regard for truth or objectivity.

There is no absolute authority, not even yourself. If you truly care about what is true, you must never abandon mankind's choice avenue of discovering knowledge. It doesn't matter that it isn't perfect. It's the best and that's all that matters.

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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