The Trump Card Of Subjectivity

subjectiveThe entire project of science is largely one of removing the task of assessment out of the domain of the subjective into the objective in order to approximate truth to the highest degree possible. While the subjective mind is appropriately where most of life is experienced and enjoyed, it is often not a very good source of truth as the mind is largely emotional and self-delusional. The objective tools of science help us to divest ourselves of this emotional subjectivity so that the verdict on any given puzzle has as much explanatory and predictive power as possible, ignoring the possible negative implications to the individual.

Humans, for example, subjectively want to affirm that we and our circle of friends are of at least average intelligence. However, we understand objectively that, by definition, only 50% of humans have IQs above 100. Half of all persons who imagine themselves intellectually above average are wrong. However, the impulse to mentally fix ourselves within the superior half is persistent due to our emotional dedication to the preservation of our self-image. This is why IQ tests, for example, are very rigorously designed to remove such subjectivity, and in spite of this rigor, these tests are often the target of emotional attempts to discredit the results.

I’d like to mention a few of the highly productive objective tools of science that are often irrationally dismissed when they produce verdicts that counter subjective notions of self, society and reality.

  • Statistical Analysis
    “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” ~Benjamin Disraeli
    The above quote reflects a general popular sentiment about statistics; statistics can be employed by anyone to support any idea, and therefore have little value. I strongly repudiate this by implicating the weakness of the human mind in understanding statistical concepts, rather than statistics themselves. Here’s an example.

    “This year, the homicide rate in Voidville dropped 50% from the previous year, demonstrating the efficacy of local law enforcement.”

    Assuming the statistic is true, the interpretation does not necessarily follow. If Voidville, a town of 200, had 2 murders last year, and only one this year, it does not support the notion that law enforcement is effective.

    The fault does not lie in the statistic. The fault lies in the interpretation. It is the burden of the audience to critically asses the link between the statistic and the interpretation.

    In the Voidville example, the proper response to the statistic that, while true, tells us very little, is to demand the absolute number of murders committed. This is not to say that using percentages in statistics has no value. I do not need to tell you the absolute population of the U.S. in order to make a meaningful statement such as “Thirteen percent of Americans are Hispanic.”

    So, a case of misleading statistics does not invalidate statistics as an essential and meaningful tool of science. It is rather a case of an attempt by some who know better to employ statistics in a way that will confuse those who don’t know better. It is a case of innumeracy.

    If someone says that there is statistical evidence that smoking is detrimental to your health, your suggestion that your smoking great-grandmother is somehow a counter-point exposes only the shame of your innumeracy. The entire concept of statistics is to avoid the subjective bias in anecdotes, and to detect patterns emerging from larger populations. Yet, I regularly hear appeals to subjective anecdotes to counter statistical appraisals, as if subjective experience somehow trumps the objectivity of the statistics.

    The denial of statistics as an essential and potentially irrefutable tool in scientific inquiry is an evasive maneuver often employed by groups or individuals with highly emotional agendas. This can be seen in recent studies on intercessory prayer. Prior to the development of the science of statistics, Christians did not hesitate to claim that God did indeed answer the prayers of believers for the afflicted. However, these same Christians are now backing away from such claims as statistical studies are beginning to be applied to such claims. The more astute among them are reinterpreting the scriptures to fall in line with the statistical evidence that strongly suggests that prayer has no significant effect. The less astute are predictably appealing to grandmother’s recovery, or are suggesting that such statistics have no validity, tactics similar in strength to triumphantly laying down a royal flush on a chess board.

    Many other claims of religion have been recently laid bare to the scrutiny of this relatively new tool of statistics, and instead of welcoming this tool as something that could validate the claims, most claimants are scurrying for the ineffective cover of a subjective defense. I predict you’ll see this trend increase as statistics begins to examine areas in which religionists have been making bold assertions of God’s power such as incarceration rates, divorce rates, and obesity rates.

  • Logical Forms
    In the days of more classical education, logic was a compulsory subject. Students were taught that there were fewer things more shameful than positing an argument that was of an invalid form, or rejecting a valid argument out of hand without addressing the premises.Today, the logic behind arguments is frequently invalid, and there is no shame when such invalidity is exposed. One example is the very common claim among a variety of faiths that the popularity of their religion is confirmation of that faith’s veracity. Many religious leaders, in support of this, claim that a true religion will be popular. The logical form of this argument is as follows.

    Argument I
    1. If a faith is the true faith, it will be popular.
    2. My faith is popular.
    3. Therefore, my faith is the true faith.
    …or…
    1. If A, then B.
    2. B.
    dog3. Therefore, A.
    …or…
    1. If a mammal is a dog, it will have teeth.
    2. My mammalian wife has teeth.
    3. Therefore, my wife is a dog.

    When shown that such an argument is invalid with the ridiculous “wife as a dog” instantiation, many shrug off the explanation as “secular logic” and express no shame. Just as there is no subjective wiggle room when calculating 4 x 9, there is no room for subjectivity when assessing the validity of a logical form. There is no private logic.

    Others may be more careful at formulating the argument into a valid form such as the following.

    Argument II
    1. If my faith is the most popular, it is the true faith.
    2. My faith is the most popular.
    3. Therefore it is the true faith.
    …or…
    1. If A, then B.
    2. A.
    3. Therefore, B.
    …or…
    1. If a mammal is a dog, it will have teeth.
    2. My pet mammal is a dog.
    3. Therefore, my pet mammal has teeth.

    These arguments have a valid form. One must now examine the soundness of the argument. Determining soundness requires that we examine the veracity of each premise. Premises 1 and 2 of this argument must fall in line with real world data and are subject to falsification by counter-examples.

    Prominent Christian apologists well-know the invalidity of Argument 1, and understand the weaknesses of Argument II, and would never pose such arguments themselves. However, both of these arguments are frequently and shamelessly employed by the less-learned devout. When contested, they retreat to more subjective arguments that they play like a hand of aces in a chess match.

  • Conventional Language
    Consistency in the use of terms is essential when doing science. A nonscientist, when asked to count stars, may fail to distinguish between stars, planets and galaxies. A pollster who simply asks “Are you spiritual?” has not qualified what he means by “spiritual”, and the poll results will be uninformative. In like manner, someone who begins with the assertion that “God” is apparent from the design and majesty found in the universe, then implies that we must therefore believe in talking snakes in the Garden of Eden has committed the error of equivocation. This shows the importance of stipulation when conducting science or engaging in coherent discussions.Very often, the conventional usages of a term are insufficiently defined for the purpose of science. Scientists attempt to include as much precision as possible. They use the Kelvin scale instead of imprecise colloquial terms such as hot, warm, cold and cool. They would not say “bug” when exploring entomology. An Entomologist would lose all respectability if, after examining the hive dynamics of bees, claimed that cockroaches exhibited the same behavior because the were also “bugs”.

    Yet, many people equivocate after the same fashion when making arguments for “God.” Having presented the case for an Einsteinian god, they then, without so much as a pang of guilt or explanation, go on to talk about how this “God” wrestled with Jacob, completely ignoring the multitude of additional unaddressed assumptions bearing upon the second notion of “God”.

    Admittedly, this Judeo-Christian-Islamic notion of “God” is more the conventional usage, and the burden of stipulation lies on anyone diverging from the conventional usage. If you sling around the term “God” in American society and don’t mean the conventional notion of “God”, you’ll not be understood. You’ll need to stipulate precisely what you mean by the term. Interjecting your subjective definition of the term into a conversation while overlooking or “trumping” the conventional usage will be counter-productive. And knowingly equivocating on clearly vague terms such as “God” is dishonest.

I’ve introduced 3 essential tools of scientific inquiry that are unfortunately frequently dismissed in lieu of an inferior subjectivity. I recommend that you inoculate yourselves from the subjectivity that distorts reality by regularly exercising these tools as you examine phenomena of daily life.

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