Simple Skepticism: Anomaly Hunting

19 Dec
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by Benjamen Johnson

Yesterday I listened to the latest For Good Reason podcast, where D. J. Grothe was interviewing A. J. Mass, author of How Fantasy Sports Explains the World. While following AJ explain how fantasy sports and skepticism intersect, it really hit home to me that unless you can simplify the tools of skepticism and relate them in a way someone can apply them to their own life, their eyes will glaze over until you start talking about something they do care about.

This lead me to thinking, how am I going to relate concepts like confirmation bias or correlation versus causation to my children? They’ll be lucky if formal schooling will introduce them to these concepts before college (even then it’s iffy). I think the seven year old mind can grasp these concepts if they are explained properly and the sooner they learn them the less baggage they will have to throw away when they do embrace them.

I’ll start with anomaly hunting, but first some guidelines:

  • Rather than use definitions, I’ll use try to use analogies.
  • I’ll pick topics and examples from everyday life, not skepticism topics like ghosts and conspiracies.
  • I’ll try not to condescend to my audience, I want the explanation to be simple yet universal. It should apply to a seven or seventy year old.
  • I’m not looking for an analogy that correlates 100%, just something good enough to get the point across — it is an analogy after all.

So here’s my example for anomaly hunting:

Imagine you are putting together a 100 piece jigsaw puzzle of a yellow happy face. You place the last piece and you discover there’s still a piece missing. You look at the incomplete puzzle and conclude that since it’s missing part of its smile it can’t possibly be a happy face, it’s a sad face. Even though all the rest of the mouth pieces form a smile, you are convinced that if you find the missing piece, you’ll prove your theory that it is a sad face.

It sounds absurd when you put it this way, but then again if you step back and take a look at the anomalies that some people pick to support their theories, they are no less absurd. All the rest of the pieces of the puzzle point to one conclusion, but they ignore them and concentrate on the one piece that is a mystery.

I know it’s not perfect, but again my goal in this exercise is to get the general concept across.

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One Response to “Simple Skepticism: Anomaly Hunting”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Simplifying Skepticism: Correlation vs Causation « Minnesota Skeptics - December 23, 2011

    […] A few days ago I pondered: …how am I going to relate concepts like confirmation bias or correlation versus causation to my children? They’ll be lucky if formal schooling will introduce them to these concepts before college (even then it’s iffy). I think the seven year old mind can grasp these concepts if they are explained properly and the sooner they learn them the less baggage they will have to throw away when they do embrace them. […]

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