Measured Against Reality

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Competing Hypotheses

I have a couple of stories to share that involve critical thinking and testing hypotheses against evidence. The only necessary background is that I'm currently working at a summer camp on the Stanford campus, and we just switched from session 1 to session 2, which involved a new group of kids and a new meal card (as well as some other changes).

Early in this session, one of the campers developed what seemed to be a bad sunburn on his face. The thing is that it had clearly delineated lines along his jaw, and that it was only on his face. This almost immediately suggests that it was something else, but he insisted that he wasn't allergic to anything and that it had to be a sunburn. While talking with the camp nurse, she mentioned that soaps or acne cream can cause a nearly identical reaction as a sunburn. When I told the camper, he revealed that he had, indeed, used some acne cream early in the camp, and had stopped using it since.

He's still wearing his big floppy hat.


I didn't realize that we needed new meal cards until about the third day, and so the dining hall staff just let me in (they knew my camp had paid for me). The funny thing was that people who had gotten their new meal card (which was all 500 people in the camp except me) couldn't be scanned either (that's why it took me so long to get the new one). When I got the new one, it didn't work either. But the critical difference is that before it was scanning and was invalid, and this one just wasn't scanning, it had been demagnetized. In fact, all of them had been demagnetized.

This wasn't a mystery, it was blatantly obvious. What was the bad hypothesis was last night, a dining hall worker insisted that all the cards were demagnetized by keys rubbing up against them. This despite the fact that brand new cards didn't scan (not even after having it for less than six hours), not everyone has keys near them, that the old cards worked fine all session while undergoing the same treatment, and there's no reasonable explanation for why keys scratching the magnetic strip would demagnetize it, and certainly not one that happened unfailing 500 separate times. I argued with the kid but decided that he was too set with his nonsense hypothesis to let go of it, despite the fact that there were better ones (the dining hall screwed up and never magnetized them in the first place is my favorite).

That really amazed me, and I don't really know why. I've met all kinds of people who believe all kinds of crazy things that they don't bother to think through all the way, but that this kid was so convinced that he had the answer to something so trivial and was unwilling to consider (more plausible) alternatives just stunned me.

I don't know what I'm going to do when I meet another person who believes in UFOs or bigfoot or the moon landing was faked or...


I just wish that there was some kind of critical thinking education in this damn country/world. It would be a much better place.

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