Apr 10 2009

Pillay Is Almost A Skeptic

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Comments: 75

OK, not really. But in reading Srinivasan Pillay’s latest column in the Huffington Post it struck me that if you remove the headline and the first and last paragraph, the meat of the article is very skeptical. In fact many if not all of the specific points he makes are nearly identical to ones I have made in this blog. His only problem is that he comes to the exact wrong conclusion from the facts he presents. So his essay is almost skeptical if you go by word count.

Readers will recall that last week I blasted Pillay for defending distant healing with horrendously pseudoscientific arguments.  So it’s a bit surprising that he seems to understand many concepts critical to the skeptical perspective. In my opinion this make Pillay a crank – he has the facts at hand, but twists them in service to an agenda of scientifically bizarre conclusions.

Rather than extensively quoting (you can read the original article) I will summarize Pillay’s points:

1) People are emotional, and not purely rational, creatures. Emotions influence our beliefs even when we are not aware of it.

2) Our opinions and conclusions are strongly influenced by our biases and the context in which ideas and information are presented to us.

3) Our reasoning about the world is dependent upon our senses, which are themselves highly biased, selective, and flawed.

4) We are doomed to make conclusions based upon limited information.

5) Human brains tend to make associations, and base conclusions on apparent associations even when they are illusory.

So far so good. These are all points that I frequently make  – they are critical to understanding the limitations of human thought and perception, which is in turn at the heart of skeptical philosophy. So what are they doing in an article written by someone who just last week was defending distant healing by appealing to quantum woo? His last paragraph tells the tale:

Rational thinking may therefore not be as “rational” as it seems. Perhaps we need to learn to accept and be more open about how our emotions influence the ways in which we think, since that is the reality anyway?

Ugh. So close yet so far.  Pillay is essentially being a nihilist. He is saying that it is so difficult to arrive at a reliable and unbiased conclusion that we may as well give up and embrace our emotional conclusions. Hey – we’re going to do it anyway, he argues.

Further this amounts to just another version of what we commonly hear from defenders of woo – a justification for ignoring science whenever its conclusions are inconvenient to woo beliefs. This is ironic, since Pillay is pointing out that we often subjugate reason to a priori biases, but he is doing so as part of a larger rationalization for his a priori biases. You can taste the irony.

If Pillay could step back a bit from his beloved woo, and embrace a little “cold reasoning” he might rather conclude from his litany of human limitations that they are precisely why we need science and skepticism. The methods of science are designed specifically to compensate for all of the limitations that Pillay lists. Measurements are blinded to weed out the influence of bias, they are quantative and objective to account for human sensory limitations, and they are systematic to avoid selection bias. Peer review and the criticism of the community of scientists mitigate the influences of context or framing bias. Apparent associations are tested in such a way as to prove them wrong, and only those surviving such challenges are accepted as possibly true.

Of course the process of science is messy and imperfect. But it has proven reliable and effective because it is open and self-corrective. What Pillay’s points really lead to is the conclusion that beliefs based upon anything other than rigorous science are not to be trusted.

Perhaps what Pillay’s article represents is that the gap between skeptic and science nihilist is not very wide, but it runs deep.

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