Skeptical Me

I have always considered myself to be a realist, ever since I was old enough to understand the concept. I don’t put much stock in superstition, blind faith, or jumping on the bandwagon. When I first started this blog, before I put up the quote from Erasmus that defines it now, I used to have my personal motto up there instead. Which is, “Question Authority. Embrace Change. Think for Yourself.” One of these days, when I get around to doing a proper site design, I’ll put that back somewhere on the site.

In recent years, a school of political thought has been revived called “Realism “. The political affiliation of Realism – as opposed to, say, Neo-Conservativism or LIberalism or Libertarianism or whatever – is a discipline that teaches that ideologies are basically pointless, and that the only proper study of the world situation is to try to figure out what is actually, really going on. Not what people say they want, or claim they’re trying to do, but focus solely on what people are actually, really doing. Strip all the blinders off as best you can and study the situation at hand, warts and all.

A political Realist, for example, would not have invaded Iraq. Yes, Saddam Hussein was extremely evil. Yes, he killed lots of people. Yes, it was very very sad that he ruled his country with an iron fist. But it would cost too much to oust him, and besides, the “no-fly” policy had kept him pretty well locked tight. He just wasn’t a problem. So who cares? He didn’t affect anything in reality. Realistically, it was not a situation that needed any action.

A Realist would also have questioned all the intelligence reports. Are there any opposing reports? If so, why? Does anyone who is providing intelligence have a particular ax to grind? Have you followed the money to make sure that no one is simply telling you what you want to hear?

A Realist would say, “You want to cut the deficit? Fine by me. So what should we cut from Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and Defense? Because that’s 4/5 of the national budget. Oh, you don’t want anything cut from any of those? And you don’t want to raise any taxes at all? Then we will continue to have a deficit. End of story.”

Needless to say, no true Realist has ever won any kind of political office. The electorate doesn’t want to hear reality, they want to hear boastful promises.

Which leads me, finally, to the title of this post. I am a skeptic. I am skeptical. I need to see the evidence. I need to see the evidence from multiple sources, preferably over a period of time, and I am willing to change my mind based on the evidence assembled in front of me. I’m also a great believer in common sense (in addition to being a fan of Thomas Paine‘s Common Sense, but that’s another story). I believe in Occam’s Razor – the simplest, plainest, most logical solution is usually the right one.

For example, what makes more sense: Extraterrestrial aliens, using unknown faster-than-light technology, traverse hundreds or thousands of light-years to anally probe various farmers? Or: Suggestible people black out and hallucinate, based on commonly shared, pop-culture science fiction references? To me, the hallucination sounds a lot more plausible than the alien visit. Add to that the lack of any physical evidence for alien visitation versus the several hundred years of documentation on people hallucinating. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, in other words.

Recently, I had a very invigorating back-and-forth with a friend of mine on Facebook on the basic topic of “skepticism”. I had made a passing comment about the “bogus Toyota recall”. My friend took issue with that comment, asking me what in the world I thought was bogus about the recall. Another friend chimed in to support me, adding in a critique of the recent H1N1 “Swine Flu” scare. Which led to a series of 19 (!) related, threaded comments over a period of two days.

Here was my position: I don’t believe there’s anything fundamentally wrong with Toyotas. I’ve been hearing “The car just accelerated on me!” excuse since I was a little kid. In every case, it was someone who either got confused between the accelerator and the brake, got their shoe (like a sandal) caught on the accelerator at the same time as they were using the brake, or slammed on the clutch and not the brake. The physical way an accelerator works simply won’t allow it to accelerate on its own… an accelerator is a spring that requires constant pressure to keep it depressed. Sure, accelerators can and do break – but they break by no longer accelerating. Not by accelerating on their own!

The claim for a few Toyotas was that the accelerator “stuck”. A very few. Something on the order of 8 cars total. And even in those cases, the cars did not accelerate on their own – the accelerator just failed to return to its default position as fast as it normally would have. In all cases, the brakes on the cars worked just fine. If the car operator had braked properly, the accidents would not have happened.

I believe I’m being realistic here. A very few cars had sticky accelerators. This stickiness would not cause the car to speed up on its own; all it would do, in the very worst case, was act like cruise control was engaged when it actually wasn’t. The mechanics who have investigated the issue say there’s about a one in 10,000 chance of the problem occurring in any given vehicle.

My point is, that’s no cause for panic. It’s just a minor repair. No big deal. Your car is fine. The next time you take it in for service, ask them to check the accelerator to see if your Toyota is the one in 10,000 that might have a slightly sticky accelerator. End of story.

That was not, of course, the end of the story. Quite the opposite. Instead, this was the lead story on the news for nearly two weeks. Toyota recalled millions of vehicles in response to panicked owners. The Secretary of Transportion told people to stop driving their cars. Three nights in a row, the news featured interviews with a doctor who was absolutely certain something was wrong with his car – even though he had taken it in multiple times, and each time mechanics had assured him his car was fine, it was not one of the ones affected. But the doctor refuses to drive the car, and insisted instead that Toyota refund to him the entire dollar amount of the car, plus “pain and suffering”. By the way, he’s been driving the car for three years without any problems.

Now. Going back to my example about the aliens. What is more likely? That 8 people, maybe maybe possibly with an accelerator that was slightly sticky, panicked and crashed their cars? Possibly, in their panic, confusing brake and accelerator, forgetting to break at all? Or: That Toyota somehow, defying all laws of physics and more than 100 years of collected technological research in how to make cars, somehow designed, built, and sold millions of cars with accelerators that sped up on their own? Occam’s Razor, folks. Which answer makes more sense?

Look at the evidence. Not at emotions. Not panicked parents concerned about their children. Not a doctor who thinks “Lawsuit!”. The evidence. What is the hard core, real world, actual evidence? I watched two weeks of news about this story, and not once – not once! – did I ever hear or read any actual, factual evidence about anything associated with this story. No engineering diagrams. No explanations from a mechanic. No testimony from anyone who investigated any of these crashes. Nothing. Just a lot of emotional weeping and moaning and groaning.

When the Balloon Boy story first broke, I said “Bullshit. Something’s going on there”. When Susan Smith reported her children missing, I said “Bullshit. She knows where they are”. And remember the story about the woman in 2008, who claimed that a crazy black man carved a “B” on her face because she didn’t like Obama (the “B”, by the way, was backwards, the way it would appear in a mirror). Why didn’t any news people call these things for the bullshit that they were on the spot? Where are the skeptics? Where are the people demanding, “Let’s see the evidence before we draw any conclusions”?

I’m making a plea here. Question stuff. When a talking head on the news starts out with “Some people say…” or “It has been reported…” you should immediately be skeptical. When instead of evidence, you hear tearful statements from someone not actually involved, you should be skeptical. When a story is based on “estimates”, you should be skeptical. You should be skeptical by default.

And follow up. Part of why I bitched so much about the H1N1 reporting was that the actual, real, tested deaths did not come anywhere near close to the “estimates” that the news reports were throwing around. At the time, it seemed like the media was drumming up panic to boost ratings. After all, “swine flu” has been around for quite a while. And all influenza viruses mutate and evolve every year. That’s perfectly normal. Look at the total flu statistics, for all varieties combined, year over year. Was this past year of 2009, statistically speaking, very different on average from all other years? No. It was not. (Compare each year from 1997 on up through 2009, looking at totals across the board for all varieties of influenza). So why all the panic?

Some people have mistakenly called me cynical. I am not. I believe in the basic goodness of people, and I believe that most people really do want to do the right thing.

But I am skeptical. And you should be too.

Skeptical Me.

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