Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Doubt, scepticism, and the search for disconfirming evidence

I always wanted to read a book by G√ľnter Grass. One day years ago, I happened to see Aus dem Tagebuch einer Schnecke (From the Diary of a Snail) on a bookstore shelf in San Francisco. I bought it, moved it to my bookshelf, and left it alone because I was too busy. I started it multiple times but never made it far.

For some reason, I picked it up recently, bemoaning the fact that it was such a dated book, for it described Willy Brandt's election campaign in the late 1960s. The more I read, though, the more I realized Grass's approach to telling multiple stories in parallel was much more timeless than a simple election campaign narrative. It was an inside story of Nazi Germany, told from the point of view of Jews from Danzig. It was a story of a father relating to his kids and his wife as he also tried to carry out his work and do what he thought was important in the world. It was the story of the life and struggle for survival of Herman Ott, given the nickname "Zweifel" (doubt) by the students in his school. The story of Zweifel gave me pause to think about the role of doubt, skepticism, and the search for disconfirming evidence as we work and as we live.

Doubt isn't necessarily a way to avoid responsibility for ideas; it can be a way to strengthen and develop ultimately stronger ideas. There are many ways of proving ideas, but, if we care about truth and being effective, we need to ensure we aren't fooling ourselves; if we care about ethical values, we need to ensure we aren't fooling others.

Here's another example of someone questioning rather than proposing.

I invite you to join me in seeking to be open to new ideas and to be critical of the ideas we each adopt to ensure that our important ideas are founded on a solid basis and not accepted merely because someone told us so. That means treating ideas you read here and elsewhere (including ideas you develop on your own) as potentially interesting hypotheses to be tested, not truth to be accepted. It means seeking to disconfirm those hypotheses, not just seeking to confirm them. Attempts at disconfirmation can involve the use of data from good sources, the use of logic and reasoning, the use of simulation to see if the ideas hang together and make sense, the review of alternative ideas, and the use of intuition. I invite you to ask me questions to help me be appropriately skeptical of claims I make. I invite you to be open to the questions others ask of you toward that same end.

If you read his book, note his use of a snail as a metaphor for progress: slow, persistent, and leaving behind a trail.

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