Principles of Curiosity
Three simple steps anyone can follow to learn to tell what's true and what's not.
by Brian Dunning
May 2, 2017
Today we're not going to look at a single mystery, but instead at all of them at once. I want to talk about what I call the Principles of Curiosity, as detailed in my new film of the same name. The Principles of Curiosity are a single set of Three steps anyone can follow to help decipher what's true from what's not. When we are handed a piece of news that purports to be science news, but we don't know whether it's true as reported, or possibly really exaggerated, or possibly even completely false, following these steps is more than likely going to give you an answer that you can be pretty confident about.
If you are looking for the film Principles of Curiosity, please go straight to its website: principlesofcuriosity.com
The problem is not only that pop culture throws an incredible amount of bad information at us — mixed in with good information so thoroughly that we can hardly know which is which — it's also that many people in the general public don't have the tools to know how to examine this barrage. Indeed, many aren't even aware that it should be examined — they reason that if the news is reporting a new science discovery that really shakes things up, well, then, consider them shaken up. Surely it wouldn't have gotten on the news if it wasn't well verified. Unfortunately, the simple fact is that caring whether a science report on the news is true or not just isn't a priority in most people's lives; and the result is that they go forward making decisions based on faulty information.
The Principles of Curiosity are intended to appeal to that crowd. Everyone is in favor of science, despite the quality of their tools or the depth of their knowledge. Everyone is curious about neat stuff we hear about, even though our thresholds for what gets our attention might be quite different. And so the Principles of Curiosity are for everyone.
They consist of Three simple steps I call the Three Cs: Challenge, Consider, and Conclude. First we challenge the new idea we're presented with, to see if it's even true as reported or not. If it is, we proceed to consider alternate explanations for what we observe. And finally, we conclude which explanation best fits the facts.
We'll go through these, and in this podcast, I'd like to try applying them to a few ideas popular today. Some of these are promoted on television series, some of them come from the world of marketing products to the scientifically illiterate. I chose these because, in conversations with friends outside of my science circle, these are among those that are believed wholeheartedly; beliefs which, I think, the Principles of Curiosity could have prevented. These ideas are:
- That aliens built (or helped build) some of Earth's ancient marvels.
- That you can remove toxins from your body with a juice cleanse.
- That Hitler escaped World War II and lived out his life in secret in South America.
- That vaccines carry more risk than benefit.
- That inflammation from sports injuries can be relieved with cupping.
Let's get started with a bit of a deeper dive on the Three Cs:
Principle #1: Challenge
Challenging the new idea at its most basic level is the most important of the Three Cs, and it's one that many people so often fail to do. When we challenge the idea, we're essentially asking whether it's even true. We want to challenge not just the new claim, but any assumptions that it appears to make.
Principle #2: Consider
For any ideas that survive our initial challenge, it makes sense to proceed to consider alternate explanations. To do this, we need to gather alternate explanations. We're usually given one to start with, so then we need to ask an expert, or even just go online and do some searching, to find out what other people have had to say on this same subject.
Principle #3: Conclude
Once we have all of our ducks in a row, we've verified the claim is a real one, and we have some possible explanations for each, we're able to conclude what fits best. We use tools like Occam's Razor to see which explanation can work within the confines of the world as we know it, compared to those that would require something magical be added to the world to make it possible.
Those are the steps. Now let's put them into practice, and try them out with our five examples from pop culture. We'll begin with the:
This is a broad one, because there are a lot of different ancient constructions around the world, and various alien claims associated with them. Some of these do fail the initial challenge; for example, a claim I was once given that the apex of Egypt's Great Pyramid is atomically sharp. Sometimes large megaliths are described with grossly exaggerated weights, and those fail the initial challenge too.
For most of the rest of the ancient constructions, the structures generally are as claimed, so then we move on to consider alternate explanations. While TV and YouTube shockumentaries make wild claims that it's unknown how these were built, generally the museums onsite at these locations, and the archaeologists who write up their descriptions in the journals, have it pretty well nailed down. When you can see displays of the tools used, and examine rocks still partially in place at the quarries, it's pretty easy to conclude that the archaeological explanations are much more compelling than ancient aliens.
Cleansing to Remove Toxins
We all know someone who has done juice cleanses in the hopes of cleaning toxins out of their system. The claim to challenge here is that there were ever any toxins there in the first place. The reason why these products never specify any particular toxins by name is that they know it would be provably false. There are no "toxins" in your body, at least none that are sitting there undiscovered waiting for you to drink some kale juice. So the claim that juicing can remove said toxins fails the challenge.
If we want, we can proceed to consider whether it has any other benefits. If we go online, we quickly find that the vast majority of published content is promoting it as a super-health scheme, which is a red flag. Many of these sources are selling it. We have to go out of our way to find sources that analyze it critically, and when we do, we find that it's merely a high-sugar fasting diet. Plenty of sugar and Vitamin C, but not much else.
Our conclusion? Sugar and Vitamin C fits everything we know about fruit. Super health and toxin removal, sadly, are just not a part of the picture.
Hitler Escaped to South America
We're presented with the claim that there's all kinds of evidence of Hitler arriving in South America after World War II and living here or there. We challenge this idea, because we've all heard that he committed suicide at the end of the war. And with even the slightest of research, we find that the evidence of his suicide in Berlin, and of the recovery of his corpse, is beyond any serious doubt. So there's really no need to consider the rest of this claim.
When we consider alternate explanations for why this TV series is even being made, we can come up with one right away: pattern-seeking by some guys who are deeply emotionally invested in a preferred pet theory, so they tend to see only those things that might be consistent with their theory, and dismiss the evidence disproving it. We can also conclude that that's the explanation which fits in nicely with real history. The alternate claim does not.
Risk from Vaccines
It's hard to get past any challenge to the idea that vaccines bring more risk than benefit, as history shows an indisputable end to various epidemics upon introduction of the corresponding vaccines. Today we see a return of previously eradicated diseases in areas where vaccination rates are low. The history of medicine also shows no significant risk from vaccines, although there is so much misinformation on the Internet claiming that vaccines cause autism, that an average person's honest attempt to challenge this could easily fail.
So those people will move on to the next step, and consider alternate explanations. The one they're likely to find is the science-based explanation for the correlation between vaccines and autism. As autism has become recognized over recent decades, and its definition has expanded, so we've seen the graph of its prevalence rise, from the old days of false negatives to today's much better reported actual numbers. And all the actual science out there clearly shows no causal relationship between vaccines and autism.
If they truly do follow the Three Cs, almost every reasonable person will conclude correctly on this one — but the sheer volume of misinformation out there makes it a treacherous path that punishes laziness.
In the past few years, alternative medicine practitioners have been pushing a new nonsense therapy on athletes: cupping, where a small glass bowl is suctioned onto the skin to produce a large purple hickey. The name they invented is "myofascial decompression", which sounds sciencey and is consequently persuasive to some. The claim is usually that it reduces inflammation by releasing pressure on the muscle. But a quick challenge to the fundamental concept quickly reveals a fact of physics: there is no net decompression of the underlying muscle, because atmospheric pressure pushes the bowl against the body just as hard as the suction inside the bowl pulls. That's why the only effect it has is to rupture the capillaries in the skin, as proven by the bruise. Indeed, if it was able to produce a low-pressure area under the skin, fluids would rush to fill that area, which is swelling — the opposite of reducing inflammation.
If we decide to continue and consider alternate explanations for cupping, we find that the simple placebo effect is how all the science-based sources describe it. Combined with a lack of any medical benefits — either clinically demonstrated or theoretical — the placebo effect is the one that we'd have to conclude best fits the observed lack of results or plausible foundation.
The Three Cs are really just a condensed version of the scientific method. Sure, they're really condensed, like a McDonald's Happy Meal version of the scientific method, but that's what makes them a convenient tool that anyone can break out at any time. Long-time Skeptoid listeners probably don't need them; working scientists probably don't need them; but the remaining 99.9% of the population could do a lot worse. Challenging the claims we hear, considering other possibilities, and concluding what fits the best is going to produce a more informed consumer of pop culture than just retweeting and sharing everything that comes across your social media feed.
If you find this idea useful, then please visit principlesofcuriosity.com where you can see the film once it's finished, and get email updates on its production and screenings near you. We've pulled out all the stops to make this film as fun and informative as we can, and we had an amazing team putting together the free companion educational materials. So especially if you're a teacher, come and grab the stuff we've made for you. It's all there at principlesofcuriosity.com.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Principles of Curiosity." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
2 May 2017. Web.
16 Mar 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4569>
References & Further Reading
Clark, J., Clark, T. Humbug! The skeptic's field guide to spotting fallacies in thinking. Brisbane: Nifty Books, 2005.
Edmund, Norman W. "The Scientific Method Today." The Scientific Method Today. Edmund Scientific, 1 Jan. 1997. Web. 9 Oct. 2009. <http://www.scientificmethod.com/index.html>
Ernst, E., Singh, S. Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine. New York: Bantam Press, 2008.
Morier, Dean; Keeports, David. "Normal science and the paranormal: The effect of a scientific method course on students' beliefs." Research in Higher Education. 1 Jul. 1994, Volume 35, Number 4: 443-453.
Porter, Burton Frederick. The Voice of Reason: Fundamentals of Critical Thinking. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Randi, J. Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1982.
Sagan, Carl; Druyan, Ann. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Random House, Inc., 1996.
Shermer, M. How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God. New York: H. Holt, 2003.
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