The Theory of Unbelievable Stupidity

I’m going to start my explanation of the theory of unbelievable stupidity with an example. In a video of mine which was called The Dishonesty of Defining Atheism as a Lack of Belief, I took issue with the approach many internet atheists say should be the standard human approach of believing nothing until one is spoon-fed enough evidence to finally be won over. Of course many people misunderstand this to mean I’m in favor of people believing whatever they’re told, when all I’m suggesting is that people should actually try to find out what’s true rather than being as passive as possible. To try to convey that, at one point in the video I said:

In fact, scientific discovery is entirely predicated on the idea that you shouldn’t discount things until you’ve ruled them out. It’s also the entire reason you should control your experiments. You can’t just assume that other variables besides the one you’re studying had no effect on the outcome of your experiment unless somebody proves it to you, you’re supposed to assume that other variables do affect the outcome until you’ve proven that they don’t. This principle is literally backwards from good science.

I recently got this rather stupid response:

You have never taken a class is science, specifically experimentation, have you? In an experiment, you DO assume nothing special is going on, and then try to disprove it.

There is the tiny kernel of an idea inside of this idiocy, which I think is a good place to start in unpacking it. The idea he’s grasping at is related to the concept of the “null hypothesis” in statistical testing. In science, one sees it often used in drug trials, but there are other places too. The basic idea is to run an experiment and see how often some effect occurs, and then to ask how explainable it is by pure chance if there is no underlying causality in the experiment. This clearly has nothing whatever to do with not controlling one’s experiments because the default assumption is that confounding variables don’t confound.

Two questions arise:

  1. Why did this guy think something this irrelevant was relevant?
  2. Why does this seem so incredibly stupid?

Rather than answer these questions directly, I’m going to introduce the Theory of Unbelievable Stupidity, instead. So, here goes: People in the modern west are raised from a very young age in a standardized school system which needs to graduate everyone regardless of ability. Because it needs to pretend that it’s teaching students things rather than just running them through a fancy day-care, the general contract drawn up between teachers and students is: “I’ll teach you how to pretend to know the material if you agree to pretend to know it on the test.”

Now, you may think that this is a tad cynical, but if you do, I challenge you to talk to high school students or college students and ask them about the things which they (in theory) learned prior to the most recent test. In general, you’ll find that they don’t know any of it. How, then, did they manage to all pass the tests? The tests in school are designed to be easily fakable with a combination of a little bit of disconnected knowledge and a fair amount of knowing how to make knowledge seem like understanding.

The problem is that while the easily forgotten knowledge fades fairly rapidly, the habit of faking understanding persists. If you look at the example above, consider the first sentence: “you have never taken a class in science, specifically experimentation, have you?” The first part of it uses more words than is necessary. It would mean the same thing to say, “You never took” as “You have never taken”, but the latter sounds like what a college professor would say. Then look at the bolded section; it clarifies what he’s talking about with the word “specifically”. Again, this has an erudite feel to it. Specificity is an academic pursuit. And again at the end there’s “have you” which matches the “have never” in the beginning. This means exactly the same thing as, “You never took a science class about experimentation, did you?”

There is a further aspect of it talking about taking a class rather than merely having an experience. Discussing classes suggests college, since after all who doesn’t take high school science classes? This lends the further suggestion that the comment comes from a college-educated person. Hence, by implication, it comes from a place of education an authority.

The second sentence is less egregious, but there is an over-use of commas which is a sign of erudition—educated people are, I think, more likely to over-use commas than to under-use them, in cases where they don’t get it correct. Further, it says, “and then try to disprove it” rather than, say, “and then prove it isn’t”.

All of these things come together to suggest a well educated man who is making a carefully considered critique. And if that were the case, he should immediately burn his degrees and repent in their ashes because this critique is so far from sensible. Just to list a few problems with it:

  1. You don’t need to take a class in science to know how to experiment. Libraries are filled with books talking about it. (For example, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman has some very trenchant observations about experimentation.) Of course, he might being running this in only one direction—had you taken such a class you’d definitely have known, etc. in which case it’s not useful even as an insult-by-comparison.
  2. There is no such thing as a class in “scientific experimentation” since the nature of experimentation varies with the subject matter. The way that you determine the charge of an electron is radically different from how you determine whether a drug is safe and effective which is again radically different from how you try to figure out what PRM1 does in the human body. Let’s not even get started on astronomy.
  3. Statistical testing using a null hypothesis is relevant only to certain types of testing like drug trials. It would have no meaning in performing an oil-drop experiment to measure the charge of an electron to “assume nothing special is going on and then try to disprove it”. Nothing is either proved or disproved in taking measurements.
  4. In one of the great natural experiments of all time, that proved General Relativity, the position of mercury was accurately predicted during an eclipse. No one assumed GR was false and then tried to disprove its falsity, they made a prediction based on it (which is, technically, assuming it to be true) and then checked to see if observations matched.
  5. Even in drug trials you don’t actually assume that the drug has no effect. They’re quite careful with dosing in drug trials, which would be quite unnecessary if they were assuming the drug was completely ineffective.
  6. Also in drug trails they don’t assume that the drug is perfectly safe and then have to prove some sort of danger; a fair amount of experimentation is necessary to prove the drug safe before clinical trials are even allowed to begin.

The list could go on, but it’s long enough for my present purpose. A man as educated as the signals suggest should have known all this. The result is that he must either be extraordinarily stupid if he knew all this but couldn’t put it together, or he must be simply dishonest, knowing it but not caring in order to make a rhetorical point.

The theory of unbelievable stupidity states that it’s much more likely that the guy doesn’t know any of this and merely sounds educated because of the schooling he received in his youth which taught him how to sound educated.

I recommend looking out for this. In my experience, it makes dealing with such people vastly less frustrating.

One thought on “The Theory of Unbelievable Stupidity

  1. Pingback: The Theory of Unbelievable Ignorance – Chris Lansdown

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