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Panel on Skepticism & Science

Panelists: Terry Kelly (Former president of Vic Skeptics), Chris Guest (Current president of Vic Skeptics), Bill Hall (Researcher at the Kororoit Institute)

Discussion includes the history of skepticism, what skepticism is today, the culture of skepticism as a movement and how skepticism relates to broader philosophy.

00:26 Terry discusses Active Skepticism – Where Science, Skepticism & Consumer wrights overlap,  – he brings up hypnotism

01:26 Skepticism does not equal cynicism – including some cool observations about the difference between the empiricism and the plausibility argument.  The issue of plausibility vs empiricism – some issues might seem implausible… some things are so implausible they have to be addressed in that way… but some people bring up the argument that some things may seem counter-intuitive – but end up being likely after empirical observation.

4:14 Chris Guest – Discusses passion about critical thinking – it’s not so much what skeptics believe, it’s the approach to arguments –

4:42 Historical definitions of skepticism – relating to cynicism (ancient greeks).  Though skepticism is not considered cynicism today, ideally they are treated as separate concepts – there are a lot of magicians in the skeptics movement – they have a trained eye – intuitively see past common blind spots and cognitive biases – whereas scientists often take things on face value.

6:22 Bill Hall discusses his background in Popperianism – and pseudoscience and belief vs rational thinking (NOTE: Contrast with Kevin Korb’s presentation on Pseudoscience vs Science – Kevin isn’t a Popperian and thinks that falsificationism is flawed).  The demarcation problem between science and mysticism.   Bill says falsification is part of skepticism – part of debunking false claims.

08:55 Chris Guest discusses group dynamics and belief systems – people reinforce each others beliefs – so Chris tries to be tougher on people they agree with than those whom he disagrees with demanding a higher standard of argument.   Straw man arguments – where someone sets up a really bad representation of an opponents arguments rather than going into the specifics of the opponents arguments.   Steel Man arguments – kind of the opposite of straw man arguments – rather than trying to create a refutable form of the opponents arguments, try to put together the best possible representation of their arguments, even better than the one they are presenting to you – take on the best possible, most charitable arguments.   Value in moving beyond conflicts based on group identity.

11:00 Terry Kelly discusses disproving a persons beliefs – though this often results in them going away and believing harder than before.  Ashley Barnett brought up an example earlier that intelligent people are easier to fool because they had stronger attention – James Randi says academics are easier to fool because they belief if they can’t work it out, since they are so smart then it must be a special power.   Intelligent people will find smart ways to justify their rational beliefs.  So sometimes it’s not so easy to change peoples minds even though you have good evidence.

 

14:36 Chris Guest discusses approaches to debating climate change deniers – using existing models that make predictions find out what assumptions the climate change deniers disagree with, and ask for an alternative model that gives better predictions.   Then the deniers might claim that the climate alarmists get more funding to create the models as an explanation to why they have the more robust models.

15:35 Q: How people asses the nature of evidence?
Chris Guest: Instead of going head to head with someone who believes in homeopathy, say ‘let’s go to a homeopathy open day and listen to the talks’ – then let people go through their own process of discovery.

 

17:37 How people become rational – how do people go from magical thinking to being rational?  Turning point or slowly drift into it?

 

Acoustics made it difficult to hear people asking questions

“Where skeptics get interested is whether people are getting what they paid for” – Terry Kelly

 

 

Science & Skepticism - Terry Kelly - Chris Guest - Bill Hall

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Life, Knowledge and Natural Selection – How Life (Scientifically) Designs its Future – Bill Hall

Bill HallStudies of the nature of life, evolutionary epistemology, anthropology and history of technology leads me reluctantly to the conclusion that Moore’s Law is taking us towards some kind of post-human singularity. The presentation explores fundamental aspects of life and knowledge, based on a fusion of Karl Popper’s (1972) evolutionary epistemology and Maturana and Varela’s (1980) autopoietic theory of life to show that knowledge and life must co-evolve, and that this co-evolution leads to exponential growth of knowledge and capabilities to control a planet (and the Universe???). The initial pace, based on changes to genetic heredity, is geologically slow. The addition of the capacity of living cognition for cultural heredity, changes the pace of significant change from millions of years, to millennia. Externalization of cultural knowledge to writing and printing increases the pace to centuries and decades. Networking virtual cultural knowledge at light speed via the internet, increases the pace to years or even months. In my lifetime I have seen the first generation digital computers evolve into the Global Brain.

As long as the requisites for live are available, competition for limiting resources inevitably leads to increasing complexity. Through most of the history of life, a species/individuals’ knowledge was embodied in its dynamic structure (e.g., of the nervous system) and genetic heritage that controls the development and regulation of structure. Some vertebrates evolved sufficient neural complexity to support the development of culture and cultural heredity. A few lineages, such as corvids (crows and their relatives), and two largely arboreal primate lineages (African apes and South American capuchin monkeys) independently evolved cultures able to transmit the knowledge to make and use increasingly complex tools from one generation to the next. Hominins, a lineage of tool-using apes forced by climate change around 4-5 million years ago to learn how to survive by extractive foraging and hunting on grassy savannas developed increasingly complex and sophisticated tool-kits for hunting and gathering, such that by around 2.5 million years ago our ancestors replaced most species of what was originally a substantial ecological guild of large carnivores.

Tools extend the physical and cognitive capabilities of the tool-users. In an ecological sense, hominin groups are defined by their shared survival knowledge, and inevitably compete to control limiting resources. Competition among groups led to the slow development of increasingly better stone and organic tools, and a genetically-based cognitive capacity to make and use tools. Homo heidelbergensis, that split into African (H. sapiens), European (Neanderthals), and Asian (Denisovans) some 200,000 years ago evolved complex linguistic capabilities that greatly increased the bandwidth for transmitting cultural knowledge. Some 70,000 years ago H. sapiens (“humans”) exited Africa to spread throughout Eurasia and quickly replace all other surviving hominin lineages. By ~ 50,000 years ago humans were making complex tools like bows and arrows, which put a premium on the capacity to remember the rapidly increasing volume of survival knowledge. At some point before the end of the last Ice Age, mnemonic tools were developed (“method of loci”, “songlines”) to extend the capacity of living memory by at least one order of magnitude and some 10,000 years ago as agriculture became practical in the “Fertile Crescent” monumental theaters of the mind (such as Göbekli Tepe and Stonehenge) and specialized knowledge management guilds such as the Masons provided the cultural capacity to enable the Agricultural Revolution. 7-4,000 years ago technologies for writing and the use of books and libraries enabled storing and sharing of cultural knowledge in material form external, facilitating the emergence of empires and nation-states.
Around 550 years ago printing enabled the mass production of books and widespread dissemination of bodies of knowledge to fuel the Reformation, Scientific and Industrial revolutions. Around 60 years ago the invention of the digital computer increasingly externalized cognitive processes and controls over other kinds of tools. Databases, word processing and the internet developed over the last ~30 years enabled knowledge to be created in the virtual world and then shared globally at light speed. Personal technologies developed in the last 10 years (e.g., smartphones) are allowing the emergence of post-human cyborgs. Moore’s Law of exponential growth suggests the capacity for a few orders of magnitude more before we reach the outer limits of quantum computing.

What happens next is anyone’s guess.

Slides available here: