the truth about sea monsters

If three sailors returned from a trip claiming to have seen a sea monster, we would find it hard to believe without any additional evidence (and even that would be scrutinised). But if the same three men claimed to have seen someone kill a man, it would be enough to send someone to prison for a very long time (or even sentence them to death).

What makes one seem more truthful (and therefore require less evidence to convince us) than the other? Do we have different levels of “truth”? Where some “truths” need more evidence than others?

Richard Wiseman, the well known Parapsychologist and Skeptic seems to think so, here is what he has said about ESP (specifically remote viewing):

“I agree that by the standards of any other area of science that remote viewing is proven, but it begs the question: do we need higher standards of evidence when we study the paranormal? I think we do.”

This is frankly absurd. What he is saying is that to prove ESP is true we need more evidence than, say, proving we have a cure for cancer? Wiseman defends that statement by saying:

“…they [evidence for ESP] do meet the usual standards for a normal claim, but are not convincing enough for an extraordinary claim.”

So, some truths are “ordinary” and some truths “extraordinary”? What’s the difference? How do we decide (and, more importantly, who gets to decide)? What he is saying is if the claim seems extraordinary to him (it is outside of his experience of reality) then he demands more evidence than if it seems ordinary (within his experience of reality).

Surely there is one truth?

The odd thing is there isn’t. Or if there is, we could probably never find it. Just think about it for a second. 500 years ago it was perfectly acceptable to believe in Angels, in fact you may even have been burnt at the stake if you said you didn’t. Nowadays, we tend to scoff at people who make claims that they have seen an Angel. We look back and laugh at the naivety of the people in those times. But, if history teaches us anything, it is that everything we know is probably wrong and people in 500 years time will probably look back and laugh at how naive they think we were. Or as Einstein put it “Truth is a product of time”.

How do our ideas about what is true change over time? I have I have already written in detail here about how George Polya attempted to discover how we create our understanding of the truth (our beliefs), but it seems our perception is inherently bias towards re-enforcing what we think we already know.

This phenomena is known as “confirmation bias” and is best summed up by Orff’s Law that “What the thinker thinks, the prover proves”. Or, our perception system will generalise, distort and delete all sensory evidence we receive to fit in with what we “know” already.

Why do we do this? Why are we biased to confirm what we already think we know? It seems that our perception is based on “best guess” pattern matching. If you see a chair, you know it is a chair because your brain runs a check against it’s stored patterns that have been labelled “chair”, but because chairs come in all different shapes and sizes we have to be flexible with our patterns, hence the “best guess” (which leads us directly to seeing shapes in clouds, etc).

So, if our perception is constantly running a check against what we already know, what happens if we have no internal representation yet? The experience is completely new? Well this will tend to get straight into our internal representation of the world (our “map”) without being “transformed” to fit our map. And then we will use that data to compare all similar future experiences. So, when people say “first impressions count” it is true.

Here are a couple of simple thought experiments:

1. Next time you find yourself making a claim to knowledge, ask yourself how you know that. You will often find that the evidence you have is relatively scant, and much of it will be, in fact, information you have been told by someone you trust (which takes us to a totally different topic of how we decide who to trust….), rather than your own personal experience.

2. Next time you find yourself agreeing or disagreeing with something, ask yourself what references, experiences, and “data” you are using to create that comparison. Again, you may find much of what you are using is spurious to say the least.

[PS, it may seem as if I am “picking on” Dr Wiseman. I would like to make it clear that I am not, he is an intelligent and experienced person and I respect his views immensely (even if I may disagree with some at times), I am just using his quote as an example. Besides, I am sure, being a successful and intelligent man, he doesn’t really care what I have to say!]