Monday, 12 September 2011

What Lay People Should Know about Superstition – Open Minded or Gullible? (argumentative)

by Zad Datu

So, the question here is “Is it closed-minded to dismiss superstitious claims or is it gullible to accept them?” Let us for now categorise claims into three groups: (1) undocumented unscientific claims, (2) undocumented scientific claims, and (3) documented scientific claims.

If scientists themselves – those who have made it a career to investigate upon any phenomenon; to build models capable of making testable predictions resembling the phenomenon; to test the models with repeatable experiments fixing it to correctness with falsifiable, measurable and observable evidence; in which the results are submitted to peer review; and then subjected to replication by other scientist; and if proven replicable, to meticulously asses the accuracy of the model for further improvements; and if possible to also provide explanations to the phenomenon – will not impulsively accept documented scientific claims from another scientist without studying the documentation, how could it be reasonable for us non-experts to do so? Especially after fraudulent scientific claims such as the ridiculous 1835 discovery of moon-people civilisation, the Tasaday Tribe, and of course the Piltdown Man, all of which stomped its way into headlines and fooled the world. I must mention the physics hoax called The Sokal Affair by physicist, Alan Sokal, whose intentions were to experiment whether the journal would publish an article as long as it sounded good and flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.

So now, if documented scientific claims should not be impulsively accepted, how could scientists impulsively accept undocumented scientific claims, and furthermore how could us non-experts do so? – Let alone undocumented unscientific claims. Not that undocumented scientific claims are necessarily more credible than the unscientific ones. False claims hoaxed under the disguise of scientific sounding terminologies are as much of lies as unscientific claims. It just sounds more credible, that’s all.

It is flawed thinking to say that one should give 50-50 acceptance to both views, or 50-50 balance to both parties. It is not sexism to say that men are generally smarter than women, it is not racism to say that Malays are lazy whereas Chinese are hardworking (a Malaysian issue), neither is it speciesism to say that dogs are smarter than cats, or humans smarter than dogs (Wait, wha...? Debatable, you say!? Am I sure that men are smarter than women, you ask?... Are dogs really smarter than cat?... Fine, lets put it as “primates are smarter than fishes”. As of men versus women, do I really need to justify this?... Future article perhaps... But anyway, you get the picture). Yes, these statements do not give equal credits to both parties, but they are not prejudiced either. Prejudice judgements are those based on preconceptions and inadequate knowledge. These statements are based on observable facts. Similarly, it is not prejudiced to trust scientific claims whilst dismissing superstitious claims.

I trust, or have faith in the information presented by the scientific community because I understand their method of investigation which I approve of, and I believe that they do so for the sake of knowledge without ulterior motives, as they do not assert absolute certainty but rather presents only what has been uncovered at the moment. “What about the hoaxes?” you may ask. It is exactly these hoaxes which prove the community’s credibility, as they are eventually exposed and scorned upon by mainstream scientists. I have a slight lesser faith in the scientific media as I myself have discovered misleading or inaccurate representation by scientific articles found in respected magazines and newspapers. If it really matters, researching into the readily available scientific papers which the articles are referenced on is an option. For me, this is enough in most cases. But if it isn’t for you, then you could investigate into the paper’s peer reviews, and if this too isn’t enough, you could attempt replicating the results. This process further demonstrates the credibility of the scientific community.

An excellent example of identifying what sources of information are credible and investigating into them.
In contrast, sources of media which I have much lesser faith in are the political media and community as well as governmental versions of recent histories. The reason for this is obvious – ulterior motives. Sources of information which I have zero faith in and which I consider to be the most unreliable are those of the superstitious, because firstly, these claims are not based on science – and when I say science, I mean well assessed, established and proven documented facts. Secondly, these claims are not references to any published research papers or studies which could be investigated upon. With this logic, it is perfectly reasonable and necessary to be sceptical, as scepticism is the default position and the burden of proof lies on the party making the claim.

However, I do recognise that not every claim requires evidence for me to accept. “I just smoked a cigarette” doesn’t trigger me to ask for evidence. But if that same claim came from a non-smoker friend whom I know very well, then I would be triggered. Claims which should be subjected to scepticism and the burden of proof are those which attempt to introduce a radical understanding of the subject. Superstitious claims attempt to introduce radical understandings on physics, biology, and nature.

But what if a trusted someone claims to have a ghostly encounter? Or worst, what if I myself experience such an encounter? Firstly, we should be very aware that our eyes can fool our minds, and so can the mind fool itself; that we are susceptible to hallucinations, illusions and delusions; that our senses cannot be entirely trusted at all times. This is exactly why men have invented all sorts of instruments capable of precisely measuring all sorts of sensations which neither our nor any other animals’ sensory organ can’t detect, which can be calibrated to a standard scale and where improvements are constantly being developed.

Secondly, somebody who says “I know what I saw because I’ve never seen anything like it before,” is completely self contradictory. Nobody can possibly know what they’re looking at if they’ve never seen anything like it before. If I encounter an uncanny experience unlike anything I’ve encountered before, the rational conclusion is not “I know what it is”, but rather “I know it’s not a dog, not a cat, not a human and etc.” The only way someone could know exactly what it is that they’re encountering for the first time, is if he or she is an expert in the field. For example, only a butterfly expert could identify that the insect he or she has never come across is an undiscovered species of butterfly, as it could very well be a butterfly which resembles another type of insect or a non-butterfly insect which resembles a butterfly.

What about self-claimed ghost experts? – Witchdoctors, psychics and ghost whisperers. Some may be intentional frauds, some may be honest fools. Those who are honest are simply under the spell of ‘bird-brain syndrome’ [refers to the first 7 paragraphs of Superstition – Types and Origins (brief)], if I may call it. Until now there have not been any demonstrable repeatable experiments or falsifiable observable evidence to justify such existences. If there are, the scientific community are readily open to rewrite science textbooks all over the world to introduce the proven new radical understanding, as they have been doing so ever since Galileo – flat Earth to spherical Earth; Earth as the centre of the solar system to the Sun as the centre; Newtonian physics to Einstein’s General Relativity and to Quantum physics; and countless more.

This video of an alleged Human-Fish went somewhat viral through handphones in Malaysia back in 2005. The background song are Qur’anic verses, perhaps to ease the spirit or something alike – a common practice amongst religious Muslims.

I've encountered this video independently twice, both with its own tale behind the ‘curse’. The first simply that a fisherman just so happen to catch this creature brought it back to his village and everybody agreed that it was a man cursed into a fish. The second story was that a girl was cursed by God into this disgusting form because she was kicking her mother in the mid of her solat.

The alleged Human-Fish is, in fact, a guitarfish, a fish in the same family of rays. What is shown is the underside of the guitarfish.
It is not just gullible but also very closed-minded to impulsively accept radical claims without assessing their credibility but rather accepting it simply because it agrees with one’s taste of truths.
“Yes, Bruce Lee was killed in a duel with an Indonesian Silat master (a Malay martial art). I know this for sure because my uncle said so,” – a myth which many Malaysians believe.
“Some styles of Silat were banned in Malaysia because the powers they possess from Jinn (or genies, an Arabic folklore which predates and found its way into Islamic beliefs) they summoned by reading Qur’anic verses were just too powerful.”
“According to his bomoh (the Malay equivalent of a witchdoctor), he was cursed by someone assisted by another bomoh.”
“This must be true! This human-looking-fish shown in this video has got to be the result of a curse placed upon a girl by God for her sinful acts toward her mother during her prayers, just as I was told a minute ago.”
These are just some of the examples of radical claims which many impulsively and unquestioningly accept with inspiring awe, unknowingly solely to their taste of truths, which I have witnessed firsthand. If accepting every or any claim presented to you, no matter how ridiculous it is, is what you call “open-mindedness”, then you have placed your God given capacity for logical reasoning to redundancy.

Superstitions are myths. Just imagine the MythBusters testing the plausibility whether girls singing in the kitchen would result in higher probability of marrying old men, whether bigfoot really exist, whether Silat masters can summon powers from Genies, or whether Feng shui really works.

For some of these superstitions, their myths are untestable and unfalsifiable due to their vagueness, non-precise and inconsistent nature, making it a perfectly useless claim – as useless as the claim of an invisible intangible inaudible pink unicorn, a Chinese teapot revolving around the sun but too small to be seen even by our most powerful telescopes, and an invisible floating incorporeal heatless-fire-breathing dragon living in my garage.

But for those which are testable and bustable, guess what conclusion Adam and Jamie would come to – MYTH BUSTED!

Related article:
What Lay People Should Know about Superstition – Types and Origins (brief)
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