Feb 27 2011

Links of the Day

Category: Links of the dayJames @ 6:05 pm

1. Is a cow a silo of option value? A good argument, perhaps, against vegetarianism (although, at the minimum, I think that this doesn’t refute the argument that people in the west eat too much meat, on average).

2. The Best Questions For A First Date. Dating site OK Cupid has data-mined the answers given by site users, and has come up with some interesting correlations between personal attributes and seemingly-unrelated questions. The upside is that you can use this to ask innocuous questions to possibly get some insight into a person’s personal attributes that you probably couldn’t normally ask of an acquaintance. For instance, both women and men who like the taste of beer were significantly more likely to say that they were willing to have sex on a first date. Couples who answer these three questions the same way are more likely to stay together: 1) Do you like horror movies? 2) Have you ever traveled around another country alone? 3) Wouldn’t it be fun to chuck it all and go live on a sailboat? And finally, this question was the best indicator of whether someone was liberal or conservative (at least on a few social issues they compared it with): “Do you prefer the people in your life to be simple or complex?” (two-thirds of people who like complexity were liberals, two-thirds of people who liked simplicty were conservatives). Of course, this all based on correlations. We don’t understand the exact relationships at play here, and not 100% of a given type of person will answer the question the “right” way – but it is still interesting nonetheless.

3. Why do Americans claim to be more religious than they are? Americans report that they attend church much more frequently than Europeans. But when you look at actual attendance figures, Americans and Europeans attend church at roughly the same rates. This article examines the disparity and possible explanations for why Americans report going to church more often than they actually do.

Feb 24 2011

More Priuses Won’t Make Much Difference (Fewer Suburbans Will)

Category: cars,Energy,government,policy,United StatesJames @ 7:41 pm

It is common to hear people say that we need more Americans to drive Priuses, hybrids, and other cars with good mileage. But measuring fuel efficiency by miles per gallon (MPG) is worse than useless: it’s misleading. It makes it almost impossible to easily compare cars and figure out how much fuel each car will really use.

We Should Focus on Minimizing the Fuel We Use, Rather than on Maximizing the Distance we Can Drive

We use MPG in the United States to measure a car’s efficiency. As you probably know, MPG measures how far a car can go on a given amount of fuel. This means that MPG is a good way to measure efficiency if you’re trying to maximize the miles you drive. MPG is not the best measure of efficiency, though, because most people drive a similar number of miles per week. According to the Federal Highway Administration’s National Household Travel Survey, the average miles driven per driver per day is consistently about 31 miles per day during the week (27 on Saturdays and 22 on Sundays).1 Demand for gasoline is inelastic: as gas prices change, the quantity purchased by drivers does not change very much. 2 I think that this is because people rely on their cars for transportation, and can only cut the distance they drive costs so much, since they still need to go to work, shop for groceries, etc. So, really it is not demand for gasoline that is inelastic, but demand for a given amount of transportation.

Because people will tend to drive the same amount, regardless of the cost of gasoline, then all other things being equal, most car buyers will still try to maximize their car’s efficiency. Thus, whether they like SUVs or compacts, if car buyers have two options that are identical in every respect except for different fuel efficiency, I think that most of them will choose the car with better fuel efficiency. Of course, different car models are never exactly identical, and fuel efficiency is just one of many factors a buyer will consider. MPG does not give car buyers the best information to make an informed choice. Since the miles we drive is usually pretty constant, what most of us should want to do is to minimize the amount of fuel we use to go a given distance, rather than maximize the miles we can go on a given amount of gasoline.

There are other good reasons for us to focus on decreasing fuel consumption, rather than maximizing the miles we drive. At the national level, many Americans would like our country to decrease its dependence on foreign oil. Assuming that domestic oil supplies stay constant, the only way to do that is to decrease the petroleum we consume, not to maximize the miles we drive. Similarly, most people would like to minimize the pollution created by automobiles. Since the number of miles driven is pretty constant, using less gasoline per mile driven is a great way to accomplish that.

MPG is Inadequate

MPG isn’t the best way to help people understand the best ways to minimize fuel use. It is deceptive because it obscures the real differences in efficiency between cars. When people buy cars, they tend to think that the improvement in fuel consumption between a 10 MPG car and a 15 MPG car is the same as the improvement between a 15 MPG car and a 20 MPG car. This is not true. As MPG increases at a linear rate, the improvements in fuel efficiency decrease at a hyperbolic rate. This means that the greatest gains in fuel efficiency don’t come from building more cars with very high MPG, but by replacing the cars with very low MPG. To help new car buyers better grasp this, instead of using MPG, we should rate cars based on how many gallons it takes to go a given distance, such as Gallons per 1,000 Miles (GPM).

The following table helps illustrate why GPM is a better measure. The table gives us a comparison of a set of hypothetical cars. The first column shows the MPG of the car. The second column shows GPM, or in other words, the gallons of fuel it would take to drive 1,000 miles in that car. The next column shows the amount of gas saved by driving this car instead of driving the worst car (in our chart, a car with 10 MPG, which is the MPG for city driving of a 2011 Chevrolet Suburban3). The next column shows the incremental amount of fuel saved by driving this car instead of the car listed just above it in the chart. As you can see, the fuel savings from switching from a 10 MPG to a 15 MPG car is 33 gallons. The savings from going from a 20 MPG car to a 25 MPG car is 10 gallons. To save 10 gallons from a 50 MPG car, you’d have to switch to a 100 MPG car. There are rapidly diminishing returns for developing cars with ever-higher MPG.

This graph shows how quickly the fuel savings tapers off. The x-axis shows miles per gallon. The y-axis shows the gallons of gasoline used to travel 1,000 miles. As you can see, there is a steep drop off from 10 MPG up to about 25 MPG. After 25 MPG, the curve’s slope decreases significantly (meaning that you get less and less fuel savings from each improvement in MPG), and after 50 MPG, the curve flattens out considerably (meaning that the fuel savings become pretty minimal).

A Hypothetical Example

An example might help show how big a difference using GPM can make. There are about 250 million cars in the United States.4 Cars in the United States average about 17 MPG.5 To simplify things, let’s imagine a hypothetical world where all cars in the United States either get 30 MPG or 10 MPG. To get an average of 17 MPG, this would mean that there would be 87.5 million cars that get 30 MPG and 162.5 million cars that get 10 MPG. Assuming that people drive an average of 900 miles per month, in our hypothetical example the United States would be using 17.28 billion gallons of gasoline per month.

Now let’s assume that we want to increase the country’s average MPG to 20, but only by changing one of the two types of cars. If we did this by increasing the MPG of the 30 MPG cars, we would have to increase them to 38.5 MPG. After this change, the total fuel usage would be 16.67 billion gallons per month, which would save 584 million gallons of gasoline.

If we decided to increase the MPG of the 10 MPG cars (but leave the 30 MPG the same), we would have to increase them to 14.62 MPG. After this change, the total fuel usage would be 12.63 billion gallons per month, which would save 4.65 billion gallons of gasoline. The net change in average MPG would be the same, but increasing the efficiency of the 10 MPG saves almost 8 times more fuel than changing the 30 MPG cars.


So what does this all mean? Are programs like Cash for Clunkers a good idea, since they encourage people to replace low MPG with high MPG cars? No. There are considerations other than fuel efficiency to consider (such as the inefficiencies involved in destroying still-functioning cars and then manufacturing their replacements). Cash for Clunkers produced a net loss for the economy – for each car in the program, the total costs outweighed the benefits by $2,000.6 Accounting for all of the costs and benefits, the program thus lost $1.4 billion.7 A study by Edmunds indicated that the program cost $24,000 for each new car sale it generated.8 Additionally, because manufacturing a new car uses significant resources, replacing an already-existing functioning car with a new car causes waste that is difficult to offset, even considering the newer car’s greater fuel efficiency.9

The best thing we can do is make information about GPM easily available to car buyers, so that they can make better-informed decisions when they’re buying a car. It is easy to calculate – all you do is take the reciprocal of the car’s MPG (divide the MPG by 1), and then multiple it by 1,000:

The U.S government requires car manufacturers to list MPG for city and highway driving on cars. It would make a lot more sense to require that they list GPM.

Until it becomes standard to list GPM information for each car, though, you can at least calculate it out yourself and become a more informed car buyer.



1 http://nhts.ornl.gov/tables09/ae/work/Job13285.html. Here is the data for each day’s average miles driven:


Feb 18 2011

How Can We Find Truth? Part 4

Category: Epistemology,ReasoningJames @ 6:48 pm

Note: I have re-written this post, and included it in my recent book, The Triple Path. You can read an updated version of this post on pages 274 through 290 of the book, which you can download for free here (PDF).

This video is a new screencast I’ve created that also contains a discussion of similar issues, from a Mormon perspective:

Feb 17 2011

Links of the Day

Category: Links of the dayJames @ 5:49 pm

1. Tools never die. Almost any technology from our past still exists, and is being used today somewhere in the world — even steam powered car engine parts.

2. Study shows that genes causing religiosity will dominate society.

3. The haves and have-nots. A very interesting chart showing income inequality in the United States, Brazil, China, and India as compared to the rest of the world. The poorest five percent of Brazilians are among the poorest people in the world, while the richest five percent of Brazilians are among the richest. The bottom five percent of Americans are still in the 68th percentile for worldwide wealth — that means that they are richer than 68% of the rest of the world’s population (and they are about as rich as the top five percent of Indians).

Feb 14 2011

Links of the Day

Category: Links of the dayJames @ 7:03 am

1.  The academy is liberal, deal! A discussion of the possible reasons why the academy is dominated by political liberals.

2. France’s highest court rules that there is no right to same-sex marriage in France. The European Court of Human Rights has also held that there is no such right.

3. Weak Electrical Fields in the Brain Help Neurons Fire Together. Neurons in the brain may not just communicate by physical connections between them, but also through electrical fields.

4. An interactive map showing the percentage of adults with college degrees in the United States, by county. Colorado looks like a good state if you want to live close to lots of educated people, but at an affordable cost of living.

Feb 05 2011

Sensible Parenting

Category: parenting,relationshipsJames @ 10:00 am

A lot of people have shared a recent article about “Chinese mothering” by Yale law professor Amy Chua. All I can say is: what a terrible way to raise your kids. These two blog posts (here and here) by economist Bryan Caplan are the best concise refutations I’ve seen of Chua’s parenting philosophy. Decades of research shows that parenting style doesn’t make much difference in how kids turn out. Beyond a basic baseline (providing basic needs, not abusing them, etc.), parenting style doesn’t have much effect on how kids will turn out as adults.

So what does make the big difference in kids? Genetics. For example. twin and adoption studies show that 40% to 80% of the variation in IQ is because of genetics (and probably it’s more toward the higher end) and non-shared environment (a variable which is difficult to quantify, but may include peers, school, and the child’s experiences with people outside the home).1 Twin and adoption studies also show that many other personality traits are highly heritable; even things like likelihood of divorce, the propensity to marry, marital quality and social support are heritable.2 Of course, genes and environment do interact – the size of someone’s vocabulary is highly heritable (genes), but every word a person knows is learned (environment).3 And there are very bad things parents can do which negatively affect their kids (such as abuse). But the effect of normal parenting is so low that some adoption studies show that, as adults, adopted siblings’ personalities are no more similar than random pairs of strangers. This would mean that the effects of family environment on personality are zero by adulthood.4

So what does this mean for how someone should approach parenting? I like the three questions which Bryan Caplan lists:

“Before you do something for your child, try asking yourself three questions.

“1. Do I enjoy it?

“2. Does my child enjoy it?

“3. Are there any long-run benefits?”

I would add a forth question: are there any long-run negative consequences to the activity (such as studies showing watching TV too early is bad for kids)?

In general, my philosophy is that the benefits from parenting come from the personal relationships I build with my kids and the kind of family we create. Parenting won’t do much to change my kid’s intellectual achievements, salary, or personality as an adult (although like any parent, I’ll still do what I can, subject to the four questions above, to make whatever positive differences I can at the margins). What my parenting can do, though, is determine what my kids think of me and what kind of relationship I have with them when they grow up. I don’t think that parenting should be about being a “Chinese mother” to my kids out of some misguided idea that I’ll be giving them an advantage later in life. It should be about bonding and building personal relationships. The main thing that will survive from my parenting after my kids’ childhood is their memories of me and their relationship with me, and I want those to be good ones.

Feb 04 2011

It’s Getting Better All the Time

Category: goodness,optimism,religion,sex,warJames @ 7:00 am

I frequently hear people say that they think the world is getting more evil and more dangerous. But the statistics show that, in most ways, over the last few decades life has been getting better for most people, and violence and crime are decreasing in meaningful ways for most people.

Let’s talk about some of the many ways in which the world is getting better. Let’s start with the most evil things in many religions: murder and abortion:

Murder, violence, and death

The murder rate in the United States has gone down from 10.2 per 100,000 in 1980 to 5.0 in 2009 – a greater than fifty percent decrease.1

Many people don’t really understand the scale of death and horror which occurred in the first half of the twentieth century. It was truly the bloodiest, most deadly period in all of human history. Things have significantly improved since then. During World War I2 and its aftermath, 9 million combatants died, 5 to 10 million Russians died in the famine of 1921, about one million Armenians were died in Turkey, and the 1918 flu pandemic (which spread mostly because of the wartime conditions) killed at least 50 million people. Between 11 and 17 million people3 died in the holocaust (six million Jews, plus gypsies, POW’s, Jehovah’s Witnesses, other political prisoners); during World War II,4 a total of between fifty and seventy million people died as a result of the war (about 20 million soldiers and about 40 million civilians) – one of out every four citizens of the USSR was wounded or killed.

The number of people killed during Stalin’s rule in the USSR has been estimated at between 3.5 to 50 million people.5 The number of people killed under Mao’s rule in China has been estimated at between 19.5 and 77 million. The number of people who died under communist regimes has been estimated at between 94 and 144.7 million.

So, let’s add up these numbers from WWI, WWII, and from communism gives us a range of between 220 million and 284 million (the numbers of people who died from the 1918 flu account for 50 million of each of these numbers, since the principal cause of the pandemic was WWI, I think it appropriate to include them as being a result of the violence and murder of the war). These numbers are so big that it can be easy to gloss over them. To emphasize: 284,000,000 individuals and their potential descendants, each with families, hopes, and aspirations are gone forever. The numbers I cite are for the years from 1914 to 1976, which would be a yearly death rate of between 3.5 and 4.6 million people (there was significant variation in the rate – the yearly rate trended down after WWI and would have been much lower in the 1970s than during WWI or WWII). How does that compare with now? In 2004 the worldwide number of people killed in armed conflicts was 250,000, and number killed by intentional homicide was 490,000, for a total of 740,000 killed as a result of violence.6 Doesn’t the huge decrease in murder mean that on the whole, the world is much less evil than it used to be? Doesn’t this mean that goodness, and not evil, has increased in the world over the last thirty to fifty years?

Worldwide, the risk of dying in armed conflict is 0.8 per 100,000 population – if you only count countries in conflict, the risk is 2 per 100,000.7 I don’t have the numbers for the first half of the 20th century, but I am sure that this number was much higher then. The number of direct conflict deaths from intrastate conflict decreased by almost one-third from 31,607 in 2004 to 23,517 in 2007. In 68 countries examined, homicide rates decreased in 33 of them and stayed flat in 17 of them between 1998 and 2006 – that is a total of 50 countries where homicide rates decreased or stayed flat. In only 11 countries was there an increasing trend in homicide rates.

Abortion and Sex

The rate of abortion peaked in about 1981, and has been steadily falling ever since.8 Most people, whether they are pro-choice or pro-life, believe that abortion is not a good thing. Most people who are pro-choice generally believe that even though abortion is often a difficult thing, each woman should have the right to evaluate her circumstances and decide for herself whether to get an abortion. Since abortion is still legal and available in the United States, if abortions are going down, then it is because more women are choosing not to get one. This fact is something that both the pro-choice and pro-life crowds can agree is a good thing. Many people who are pro-life are motivated by a religious conviction that abortion is evil; from that perspective, then the last thirty years have brought a significant decrease in evil and increase in goodness

How about sex? I hear people in church talk all the time about the sexual immorality running rampant in the United States. In 2009, teen birth rates hit the lowest rate they’ve ever been since the government started measuring statistics in 1940.9 The teen birth rate is lower now than it has even been in the last 70 years (and it is not because teens are getting more abortions, since abortion rates are down too). Teen pregnancy rates (which can be different than teen birth rates because of abortions) have also been decreasing10 (there was a 28% decrease11 from 1990 to 2000).

The percentage of teenage boys, aged 15-17, who claim to be virgins has increased from 50% in 1988 to 69% in 2002 (for girls it increased from 63% to 70% over the same time).12 Here is a good quote from Reason Magazine summarizing the trends in teen sexual behavior:

Despite all the lascivious music, sexual activity among teens has been on the decline. A federal survey found that in 1991, 54 percent of high school students reported they had had sexual intercourse. In 2005, the number was down to 47 percent. Oral sex is allegedly the rage among the pubescent set, but David Landry, a researcher at the Alan Guttmacher Institute, says its popularity has been stable.13

Not only are teenagers more cautious about having sex, they are more cautious while having sex: Condom use has risen by more than a third since the early 1990s. From 1990 through 2000, the pregnancy rate among adolescents fell every year, for a cumulative decline of 28 percent.

Now let’s look at violence. Teen violence in the United States is also down. Again, from Reason:

Teens today are considerably less likely to get in fights or carry weapons than they were 15 years ago. Kids under the age of 18 commit only one-third as many crimes as they did in the peak year of 1993.14


According to the U.S. Department of Justice, violent crime rates have been decreasing since the 1970s.15 The U.S. rate in 2009 was 16.9 crimes per 1,000 of population. The rate in 1973 was 47.7 – that means that the violent crime rate in 1973 was almost three times higher than it is now. By other measures, the violent crime rate peaked in 1991 and has been declining since then and is now at the same level as 1973; either way, there has been at least a two-decade decrease in crime rates.16

Living Conditions

And finally, living conditions. Despite the recession, living conditions have significantly improved for most people over the last few decades. Poverty rates (as measured by the percentage of people living on less than $1 a day) have been decreasing in all regions of the world for the last few decades.17 Other indicators of human development (such as literacy and life expectancy) have been getting better as well. For most parts of the world,18 the last decade has been the best ever.19

In the United States, things have also been getting better for the poor, especially when you account for the lower rate of inflation of goods purchased by low-income households.20 By most measures, the poor in the United States today enjoy a higher standard of living than the middle class did in 1971.21 People in the United States need to spend far less of their income on food, clothing, and shelter,22 and have a far greater percentage of their income available to spend on non-necessities than ever before.23 Americans have more leisure now, and spend less time working.24


So why do we hear people talking about how bad and dangerous the world has become? Warning people about the dangers and problems they face (even if they are not real) is a great rhetorical tool to get people to pay attention to you and follow your advice. It is also a natural human reaction to filter our memories and remember the past as the “good old days.” But as W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm said in 1995, the good old days are now. The truth is that there has never been a better time to be alive. We should be grateful every day for the amazing living conditions we enjoy. The world is a beautiful place, and it is getting better and better. Does this mean it will always improve? No. Does that mean that it can’t get worse? No. We should be vigilent in working to address the problems that still exist in our world. But we have so many more reasons to be optimistic and hopeful than to be negative or fearful about the state of the world and its future. We should all realize how many reasons we have to be happy, hopeful, and optimistic, instead of focusing on doom and gloom.

9 http://www.newsday.com/news/health/teen-birthrates-in-u-s-lowest-in-70-years-1.2578646 . Admittedly, the high numbers in the 1940s and 1950s were not because of unwed mothers, but because people got married younger. I would argue,though, that a teen pregnancy, even when the girl is married, is a bad thing.

Feb 03 2011

How Can We Find Truth? Part 3

Category: Epistemology,ReasoningJames @ 5:56 pm

Note: This is part 3 of a five part series on how we can discover truth. Here are the other parts: part 1, part 2, part 4, part 5.


This is this post in this series on truth, I continue my discussion of different ways we can discover truth.

5) Empirical Rationalism / The Scientific Method.

Empirical rationalism means applying reason and formal logic to our perceptions and experiences to come to conclusions. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, philosophers, mathematicians, scientists, and others have discovered and created the principles of formal logic, which allow us to more systematically evaluate our perceptions of the world and make accurate conclusions. Empirical rationalism is different from common sense because it involves the application of formal rules and critical thinking to our perceptions and experience, whereas common sense is based more on intuitive deductions about the world. Empirical rationalism means consciously language and logic to interpret our perceptions; it requires an understanding of logical fallacies and making the effort to avoid such fallacies.

The scientific method involves observation and experimentation. In its most basic application, a person creates a hypothesis using the knowledge they’ve gained from observation, trial and error, authorities, and previous applications of the scientific method. In other cases, scientists will start with a question, not a hypothesis. Either way, they design experiments or tests to disprove their hypothesis or to provide data to help answer the question. They then share those results with other people who examine and critique their methodology and results, and perhaps try out the experiments or tests themselves to try and replicate the results. If the results stand up to scrutiny, and are replicable, then our level of confidence is increased in the validity of the hypothesis. But the hypothesis will always be subject to further testing and attempts to disprove it. If further experiments disprove it, then it is rejected. If it stands up to further experimentation, then our level of confidence in its truth will increase.

My description of the scientific method is simplified. There are other ways of doing science (for example, statistically analyzing other people’s data, doing observational fieldwork to observe and categorize species or geological characteristics). No matter the exact approach, the distinguishing characteristics of science are 1) subjecting the results to other scientists’ review and criticism, 2) an analytic and systematic approach to solving problems and answering questions, 3) rejecting conclusions that aren’t supported by evidence, and 4) basing one’s views and opinions on the evidence, as opposed to trying to force evidence to fit a preconceived notions.

My description of the scientific method is an idealized version. In real life, things don’t happen as cleanly. Scientists can be dogmatic too. They can get set in their ways, refusing to change their opinions in the face of new evidence. Carl Sagan’s quote that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” illustrates this point. This quote is often used to imply that a claim which contradicts the current paradigm must be supported by more proof than a claim which accords with the current paradigm. A real scientist wouldn’t require a higher standard of proof for a claim which departs from his world view – to do otherwise means that the scientist is biased. An unbiased scientist would apply the same standard of proof to every claim, dispassionately evaluating the claims and giving credence to the claims which best fit the evidence. This may mean that most extraordinary claims will be rejected because the totality of the evidence better supports the current paradigm, but it will not be rejected just because the claim itself was extraordinary.

There are problems which affect what even gets presented as science in the first place. Because most scientific theories and discoveries are presented in peer-reviewed journals, a new theory will not be disseminated and get widespread acceptance unless it is published in a peer-reviewed journal, even if that theory better fits the data than the old theory,

Scientists expect new claims to stand up to criticism and review, and the system of peer reviewed journals helps provide a system of ensuring that new scientific claims have been examined. The people who decide what gets published in a scientific journal thus have the power to suppress papers presenting theories with which they disagree. These gatekeepers may have an interest in suppressing or minimizing new theories, for example when a new theory contradicts their own scientific conclusions.

The success of the scientific method relies on scientists having intellectual honesty and being willing to allow competing theories to be heard on their merits. Scientists are not pure, selfless, angelic beings. As with any human endeavor, politics, interpersonal relationships, and selfishness play a part behind the scenes. To make sure that others can police the process, good science relies on transparency so that gatekeepers cannot hide potential attempts to suppress competing theories. Having a large number of people involved in the peer review process also makes it harder to suppress research without getting caught by someone else in the reviewing process.

The peer review process can fall short in other ways too. Peer review depends on having people with the right expertise involved in the process. Scientific experiments are often complicated and generate large amounts of data which can be difficult to interpret. Peer reviewers must have the right expertise to distinguish good research from bad. For example, proper statistical analysis of data can be very difficult. Even very smart scientists can easily make mistakes in statistically analyzing their experimental results, which can lead to bad conclusions. If the reviewers of that scientist’s work lack sufficient statistical expertise, they might not catch the statistical mistakes, and will approve the publication of false or flawed conclusions.

Relying on the scientific method also means accepting that we are capable of correctly perceiving and understanding reality, which (as I discussed above) is not necessarily something we can be sure of. But does this mean there is something wrong with the scientific method? Not at all. If we adopt a “by their fruits ye shall know them” standard, the scientific method has proven itself over and over. No other approach to discovering truth has yielded better results.

In part 4, I’ll discuss the use of feelings as a way of discovering truth.

Feb 02 2011

How Can We Find Truth? Part 2

Category: Epistemology,ReasoningJames @ 9:23 pm

Note: This is part 2 of a five part series on how we can discover truth. Here are the other parts: part 1, part 3, part 4, part 5.


In this second part of my series on truth, I discuss different ways we can discover truth.

If we assume that there is some kind of objective truth, and that we can gain knowledge about it, the next step is to figure out how we may gain knowledge. Knowledge of something necessarily entails belief, but is more than just mere belief. It is possible to believe something which is not true. Pure knowledge would therefore be belief in something which is true. Since we can never be certain of anything, human knowledge is belief in something which we have a reasonable basis for believing is true.

Let’s consider some ways that we can gain knowledge. All of them have their strengths and weaknesses, but they all have a place in our quest for truth.

1) Observation

We can gain knowledge through observation. My knowledge that the sky is blue is based on my direct observation of the sky.

The problem with relying on observation is it assumes that our senses and our perceptions are always accurate. Unfortunately, this is not true. As I discussed above, our senses are imperfect. Our senses can be tricked into believing things that are impossible (optical illusions and magic tricks show how easy it is to fool our senses). Mere observation often does not tell us much about the root causes of things, without the use of some of the methods I list below. Observation is backward-looking: it can only tell us about what has happened in the past, and it limits us to only learning about what we can directly experience.

2) Trial and Error

You could also call this experimentation. It involves observation, but instead of just passively observing, a person takes action to test an idea. Trial and error means testing out different options until you come to one that works. Think of Thomas Edison inventing the light bulb by testing new materials over and over, until he found one that would work as the filament of a light bulb.

Discovery through trial and error is often time consuming. Relying on trial and error to discover new truth means that each of us is very limited in what we can discover during our lifetime. We can only personally do so much. Trial and error will not always lead to the complete truth. If we discover something that seems to work, it does not necessarily mean it is best or truest way (for example, Edison invented the light bulb, but fluorescent and LED bulbs last longer and are more efficient).

Just like with observation, if our goal is to discover truth, trial and error doesn’t always work to help us understand deeper root causes. It doesn’t always lead to an understanding of why our solution works (discovering the light bulb, or fire, or the wheel didn’t necessarily mean that anyone understood why or how they work).

3) Common sense

Based on our previous experience, we can apply intuition and basic reasoning to make inferences about things we have not yet observed or experienced. As we gain knowledge through observation and trial and error, we will notice patterns and learn to extrapolate. For example, someone might observe that every time they throw an object up at a certain angle on a windless day, then it always comes back down again the same way. They will notice the pattern that the sun rises every morning, and generalize their observation to conclude that the sun will rise every morning. We use common sense and basic reasoning to make predictions about the future based on our previous experience.

The big problem with common sense is that our basic intuitive reasoning is often wrong. Humans naturally commit all sorts of fallacies:

• we falsely attribute causation to unrelated events that happened around the same time (like the Aztecs believing that their blood sacrifices caused the sun to rise)
• we misunderstand the true causes of events (such as the belief up until the 19th century that bloodletting helped cure disease)
• we trust too much in our senses without understanding their limitations; we believe that our senses give us a completely accurate understanding of world, and then make false conclusions (like the world being flat),
• we falsely attribute personality and intentionality to inanimate objects (like people talking to their car).

Just as with observation and trial and error, each one of us can only figure out so much, so using common sense on our own means that we will be limited in how much we can discover.

4) Authorities

Our time and our ability to observe and experiment are limited. First through oral traditions, and now through written language, (made available to the masses thanks to cheap publishing costs and now the internet), people have been able to pass their knowledge onto others. We don’t have to start from scratch in our quest for knowledge. The accumulated store of human-generated information is now so amazingly vast that it would be impossible for any of us to rediscover and recreate it all on our own through observation, trial and error, and common sense. Because of this, we all rely on experts: people who have gained knowledge in a particular subject area and who then share that knowledge with others.

It is a logical fallacy, however to rely on the truthfulness of a statement just because an expert said it. Not everything you read is true. Something isn’t true just because an expert said it. But there is a difference between relying on a statement because it was made by an authority, and relying on it because of the inherent merit of the statement itself. It is not a fallacy to argue that the assertion made by an authority is true. The fallacy comes from believing that the authority is somehow infallible and that something is true because it was said by an authority. Something is not true just because a scientist said it; if a real scientist said it, you can examine their data and methods and come to your own conclusion.

A statement made by an authority is worthless unless you can independently test and evaluate that statement. Physicists tell us that matter is made of atoms, which are made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons. I don’t believe this because statements made by physicists are somehow entitled to greater deference. I believe it because the physicists have exhaustively documented how they came to this conclusion, other physicists have reproduced those results, and I can repeat their experiments and test their statements out myself to verify their truth

In part 3, I’ll consider another way of gaining knowledge: the scientific method.

Feb 01 2011

How Can We Find Truth? – Part 1

Category: Epistemology,ReasoningJames @ 7:17 pm

Note: This is part 1 of a five part series on how we can discover truth. Here are the other parts: part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5.


Few people would claim that they prefer living in ignorance to knowing truth. It is nearly impossible, however, to find truth without first thinking about what truth is, and how we can come to know truth.

Our Senses

The first thing to think about when considering how we come to know something is to ask if there is some sort of objective truth in the universe that we can discover. Based on our experience with our senses, most of us assume without thinking much about it that there is some sort of objective reality. We should realize, however, that our perception of reality is extremely limited and imperfect. It is limited because we only perceive a small part of what we normally conceive of as being “real.” We can only see and experience a small part of the world at any one time. Our vision is limited by distance and by lighting conditions. Our eyes can see only a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Our other senses are all otherwise similarly limited.

Our senses are also imperfect. Many of us wear glasses or contacts. But even those of us who have 20/20 vision have imperfect vision. The resolution of our vision is limited by the number of rod and cone receptor cells in our eye. There are holes and imperfections in the picture our eyes pick up because the distribution of receptor cells in our retina is uneven, and because there are not receptors where the optic nerve connects to the retina. We perceive that what we are seeing is complete and whole because our brains fill in the gaps in our vision. Some kinds of optical illusions work by exploiting this feature of our brain.

There are other arguments against trusting in our senses. Some scientists have hypothesized that the physical laws of the universe may not be constant – they may have changed over time, or may be different in other parts of the universe. Quantum physics indicates that it is impossible to know some things; as our certainty about a particle’s momentum goes up, our uncertainty about its position must also go up. Gaining knowledge about one aspect of the particle makes it impossible to gain knowledge about others.

Even if physical laws could have changed over time and even though quantum properties of particles are uncertain, our general experience with the consistency of our perceptions and the consistency of cause and effect lead us to behave as if some sort of objective truth exists.

Even if we are not physically capable of fully understanding reality (or even capable of verifying that there is some sort of objective reality), our continued survival forces us to act as if there is a reality and to assume that we can perceive it. On the most basic level, our personal experience and observation of other people indicates that certain actions can cause physical injury and death, and that other activities lead to physical well-being. For example, if I don’t eat, I feel weak and unwell; I am aware of cases where someone starved to death because they went without food for too long. I generalize these experiences to come to the conclusion that I must eat to stay alive.

This of course raises questions about the nature of death, existence, and reality. What does it mean to die or to live? Is this world real? Do I cease to exist as a thinking entity when I die? These are questions I cannot presume to answer in this short blog post; even people who presume they know the answers to these questions can’t really explain very much about existence, reality, and the afterlife (even assuming their answers are right). But notwithstanding our lack of understanding about the nature of existence and reality, our continued existence in this form of existence requires that we act as if it objective physical reality exists. Our perception of it may be imperfect and flawed, but the consistency of those perceptions can at least lead us to conclude that our raw perceptions of reality have a high probability of being generally accurate. And anyone who wants to continue living in this plane of existence (whatever it is) must make conclusions about his or her perceptions of cause and effect and behave in accordance with those conclusions.

Our experience indicates that there are physical laws which govern the operation of the universe (which are apparently unchanging, at least on the scale of human lifetimes). On an elementary level, we all observe that things fall toward the Earth and not away from it, or that the sun always rises and sets. This consistency in our daily experience leads us to assume that truth exists and that we can discover and understand it. Just as we learn through repeated experience from a young age that the sun always rises, we come to expect consistency in other areas, so long as we discover the rules which govern.

This experience with the consistency of reality can be contrasted with a common experience in dreams: people who are dreaming will often look at something, look away, and then look at it again, only to discover that the object has changed in some fundamental way. We perceive “real life” as being qualitatively different from our dreams because we presume that our dreams are generated by our own minds and are thus changeable, whereas our waking perceptions of the universe and the physical world are consistent and appear to be governed by unchanging laws (most people, however, do not realize while dreaming that their perceptions are inconsistent, and usually don’t even notice they are dreaming at all – within the context of the dream, these inconsistencies appear perfectly natural; the lesson we should learn from this is that perhaps we should be skeptical about our waking perceptions as well, seeking inconsistencies even in things that at first seem natural). We perceive cause and effect; we perceive the flow of time; something which has happened in the past appears to be unchangeable.

What can we learn from all of this? Because of the imperfections and limitations of our senses and our brains, we should always be humble about what we “know.” We should recognize that no matter how smart we are, our knowledge is imperfect. Because of our human limitations, we can never have complete certainty about any of our perceptions. At the same time, however, the business of living requires that we assume there is some sort of objective reality to our existence and that we can come to some sort of understanding of it. Real wisdom comes from seeking for greater knowledge and understanding, but having the humility to recognize that we’ll never have perfect understanding; as we seek with humility, the best we can hope is for our understanding and knowledge to become better and better approximations of reality.

Please understand whenever I post about something here, that when I refer to things as facts or as truths or as reality, it is because I am communicating with the normal words we use in our language, but that I fully acknowledge that there is uncertainty about everything I represent to be truth or to be real. In all of my subsequent posts, an implicit premise in all of them is that some sort of objective truth and reality exists, and that we are capable of arriving at some understanding of it, even though it may be an imperfect and incomplete understanding.

In part 2 of this series, I compare different methods we can use for discovering truth.