Saturday, May 11, 2013

You Can Teach Yourself To Think Like A Scientist - Part 3

{You Can Teach Yourself To Think Like A Scientist - Part 2}

This entry deals with two separate issues, but both are related to the same 'event'.

In Part 2, I stated the technique of going back to the central, generalized principle. People often state their reasons for their actions or decision because they are abiding by some general principle. Realizing what this general principle is is crucial because it often clarifies the boundary of the argument, and one can also use that as a counter argument if the principle is not applied consistently.

In this part, I will attempt to show a specific example, and application, of this technique. Furthermore, I will also use the example to change the subject a bit (thus, the two separate issues) and presumptuously tell you how you should elect your political representatives. Yes, I know how pompous that sounds.

Let's start with the first part, which is applying the technique of investigating the generalized principle. During the height of the last US Presidential election, Senator Marco Rubbio of Florida was, at some point, considered as a potential vice presidential candidate for the Republican party. He wasn't, of course, but he is still in the US Senate. So who he is and what he stands for are still relevant. During this period of active political event, GQ magazine conducted an interview of Senator Rubio. One of the questions asked caught my attention:

GQ: How old do you think the Earth is?

Marco Rubio: I'm not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that's a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I'm not a scientist. I don't think I'm qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I'm not sure we'll ever be able to answer that. It's one of the great mysteries. 

OK, so before I apply the "look for the general principle" method, let's get this very clear. If he is referring to Science, there are NO multiple theories on the age of the universe, and there is no issue at all on the age of the Earth. While there may be some uncertainty in the EXACT age (as is the case when we produce numbers for quantity such as this), we certainly are NOT making a mistake between 6000 years, versus 3 billion years! We do not make such magnitude of errors, and there's nothing to suggest that we are off by that much! It is not a great mystery.

So now, let's get back to applying the general principle argument. Reading his response, what kind of "general principle" is he abiding? I can see at least a couple: (i) he lives by the principle that if he isn't qualified in something, he then has no answers to questions in that area, nor does he have a strong-enough opinion about it to answer such questions; and (ii) if an issue isn't related to our "economic growth", he isn't interested in it or does not think that it is that important to receive an answer.

OK so far? Did you see anything else that we can extract as his overriding general principle?

So now, as we did in Part 2, let's adopt these two principles, and see what consequences they lead us to.

1. No qualification or expertise in an area, so don't have any answers, or won't answer, or don't have any strong opinion.

Now, this is strange. Senator Rubio has a law degree (like many politicians in the US). So his area of expertise is actually rather narrow. Does that mean that he only has an opinion in the area of law and nothing else? Does that mean that he won't answer questions about other issues, or can't make a decision on other issues? After all, he decides on stuff related to the US economy all the time. Is he claiming that he is an expert on various economic theories, ideas, principles, etc.? When he votes on the various bills and legislation, he obviously has opinions on those to arrive at his decisions. Is he then an expert in those areas?

Of course, things don't work that way. Politicians have staffers who are supposed to do the dirty work and research things. At some point, they also have people who advise them on issues. I'll deal with this more in detail later on. However, in this part, I'm pointing out the absurdity of not answering the question simply because he is claiming that he is not an expert (not a scientist) to answer that question. Yet, other questions where, presumably, he does not have an academic expertise in, are answered. This is another example of selective application of a general principle.

2. Not interested in issues unrelated to the "economic growth".

Apply this principle, we would expect Senator Rubio to abstain from voting on issues such as gay marriages. After all, what possible significant "economic growth" impact can that have? So has he disqualified himself in dealing with such issues throughout his political career?

The inconsistent application of the general principle is very common, especially in politics. People justify their actions by appealing to some general principle that they live by. When you understand what that principle is and state it in its direct form, you can then apply it, and see how, in many instances, they ignore that principle. As I had mentioned in Part 2, this means that there is often a more overriding principle that they are not stating, or trying to hide.

So now comes the related by separate issue part. I mentioned in #1 that politicians have to decide on a lot of issues, and practically all of them are outside of their area of expertise. This is where it matters to consider how they decide what opinion to listen to. Sen. Rubbio may not be a scientist, but does he listen to the consensus of scientists regarding the age of the earth? He appears to know about the biblical age of the universe, so why didn't he say "I'm not a theologian. I'm not qualified to answer that question". He didn't say that. Instead, he qualified that he's not a scientist. Does that mean that he will accept the opinions of scientists, even if it contradicts his biblical understanding? After all, he is implying that to be able to answer such a question, one needs to be a scientist.

There is also a puzzling effect here if one examines this closely. There are things we expect almost everyone to know, not because they are "experts" in such-and-such a field, but because as a citizen of the world, and as a citizen of a particular country, there are just certain level of knowledge that everyone is expected to know. What if I asked Sen. Rubio to point on a map the location of Washington DC, or Afganistan? Is he going to say he can't answer it because he's not an expert in geography? There are just things that we expect people to know. Sen. Rubio may not be scientist, and he may not know the scientific consensus of the exact age of the earth, but he should be AWARE of the orders of magnitude, and also the widely-conflicting discrepancy between that, and his biblical understanding. Maybe he's afraid that the interviewer would ask him how he would deal with such discrepancy, so he chose not to answer that question. Is this better than answering that he knows the scientific and biblical age of the earth, and is aware of the discrepancy? Personally, I prefer the latter. Simply not answer the question by claiming that he's not an expert makes him appear to be ignorant of something a knowledgeable person should know. Do we want an ignorant to be our political representative? I'd rather have someone who has the knowledge, and who is aware that there are discrepancies between what he "accepts" as part of his beliefs, versus what is accepted by experts in a certain areas. It is like being an alcoholic. You have to be aware of the problem FIRST before you seek help. If you deny there is a problem, you won't become better. Ignorance is not bliss.

So how am I telling you how to elect your political representatives? First of all, I will immediately tell you that my suggestion will never work and will never take hold. Very few people will agree with this methodology because most people will NOT vote this way.

Most of us choose our political candidates to vote for based on his/her stand on various issues. Maybe there are one or two issues that we consider to be extremely important, and so, we tend to prefer candidates who happen to also have the same opinion as us on those issues. We may overlook other smaller, less important issues that those candidates may or may not have the same opinions as us. But what it boils down to is that we choose candidates based on their agreement with what we believe in or what we feel strongly about. In other words, we want someone who holds our opinion on certain matters.

I consider this to be a very poor way of electing a political official. When someone is elected to a political office, he/she is faced with many different scenarios, variations, events, etc. that often change over time. Market crashes, war happens, disasters occur, etc. What looks good back during a political campaign may not look good now, especially in the climate of politics where you are dealing with other politicians, and with the progression of time and other events, even outside of one's country or immediate area. To rigidly hold on to some issues often does not work, and what end up happening is that most politicians have to compromise somewhat in varying degree to try to get the job done. This is why we then accuse them of "lying" to us, because they had to renegade on their promises to do certain things. We tend to hold them to the items they promised, rather than hold them to do their jobs, which is to take care of the country in the best way they know how.

So I propose that we elect politicians not based on what they believe or based on the compatibility of their opinions, but rather on their ABILITY TO THINK!

Now, think about it for a second. It is a revolutionary concept! :)

I want someone who has a rational and sensible way to think things through. I want someone who knows that when he/she doesn't know something, he/she would find reputable sources to learn about those things. I want someone who has the analytical ability to know that he/she is using some general principle, and to be aware when he/she isn't being consistent to those principles. I want someone who has the analytical ability to analyze a problem, who where to seek knowledge and information, and then find a sensible solution. Nowhere in there is there any requirement that this person agrees with my opinion on this or that.

This elected person will be faced with a mountain of issues, and often, things come up very unexpectedly. Many things occur that cannot be predicted. I want someone who has the ability to evaluate all of these, to analyze them systematically, to seek proper advice and sources, and then to arrive at a decision. I do not want someone who is stuck and rigid with a certain ideology, while the rest of Rome is burning down around him/her. The inability to think and rationalize a problem systematically means that decision that comes out of this person may easily be flawed.

This is why I'd rather Sen. Rubio said that he knows about the scientific age of the universe, and is aware of the discrepancy between his Christian beliefs and the scientific facts. It would have shown that he is a man of knowledge, and that he is not ignorant. It shows that he is aware of the issues, and it is something he hasn't reconciled yet. I'd rather have someone like that, who obviously have thought of things, rather than someone who ignores things but STILL has no qualms on making decisions based on things he/she doesn't know much about.

But of course, this will never happen.



Edit 5/16/2013: It appears that Sen. Marco Rubio must be an expert in biometric scans, because he didn't hesitate to give his opinion on the matter, if we were to apply his principle:

Sen. Marco Rubio, a Gang of Eight member who voted for the amendment, expressed his disappointment after the senators rejected the proposal. “Immigration reform must include the best exit system possible because persons who overstay their authorized stay are a big reason we now have so many illegal immigrants,” his statement read. “Senator Rubio will fight to add biometrics to the exit system when the bill is amended on the Senate floor. Having an exit system that utilizes biometric information will help make sure that future visitors to the United States leave when they are supposed to.”

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