Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The White Crow

This post is another response to another discusson on Overcoming Bias.

Robin Hanson is addressing disagreements in the context of the cold fusion controversy.

How can they each reconcile their own view with the fact that smart expert people are on the other side?

The positions of accepting and denying a phenomenon are not symmetric. This was pointed out by William James with his "White Crow" analogy. You only need one white crow to disprove the rule that all crows are black.

In a similar way, a large number of failed cold fusion replications are irrelevant if we can find a single experiment that provides irrefutable data. Of course there is no such thing as a single irrefutable experiment, but in the case of LENR / cold fusion there are a whole host of good experiments demonstrating some kind of anomalous effect.

The principle problem is that people, even very smart and motivated professional scientists, are very much driven by their theories on how the world must be. In fact, professional scientists are probably much more theory-driven than the average person, and therefore more inclined to confirmation bias.

We see a good example of this in Eliezer's remark in his afterlife post that cryonics, actuarial escape velocity, and nanotechnology roads to immortality were preferable to a hypothesized afterlife, because they "put far less of a strain on the Standard Model".

The truth-seeking approach is to consider the full spectrum of available evidence to determine the correctness of our models, instead of using our models to determine what evidence is correct. It is the only way to avoid dogmatism and discover what is real.

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