1.10 The Second-Hand Principle

Back to 1.9 Occam's Razor

1.10.1 Unfortunately, practicality forbids the everyday person from running his or her own experiments for each and every possible belief. Everyone cannot see the pyramids in Egypt for themselves although it is obviously reasonable to believe they exist. Perhaps the photos were doctored? Furthermore, there are cases of historic account which cannot be witnessed directly and are necessarily second-hand.

1.10.2 In these cases the skeptic is forced to defer to second-hand sources for information. But doesn’t that throw us back into the realm of accepting the claims of authority without question? If we accept encyclopedia publishers’ (and others’) claim that there are giant triangular shaped structures in Egypt which were constructed thousands of years ago, then why not accept the church’s claims of deities and the supernatural, or even the tabloids’ claims that Elvis is still alive?

1.10.3 Again, there are some guidelines for qualifying which sources we can have relative confidence in and which sources are probably lousy. There are two chief factors which should be taken into account: 1) what means does the source employ to get their information, and 2) how trustworthy is the source.

1.10.4 The first factor deals with the basic epistemology of the source. If the source claims to gather data and determine truth from falsehood via methods we approve of (those described earlier), then we can move on to the next factor, trustworthiness. If they openly claim that they gather information by irrational and/or unproved means such as fortune telling, revelation, or alien communications, then the reliability of such sources can be discounted outright, until or unless they can prove the reliability of such methods themselves.

1.10.5 For example, we may find Billy Graham to be a trustworthy person. However, he openly claims to get much of his information through faith in the infallibility of the Christian Bible. Since his methods for gaining such information are flawed, or at least unproved, his legitimacy as a source on related matters is negated.

1.10.6 The second factor, the trustworthiness of the source, can be assessed by their reputation and any obvious conflicts of interest, among other things. If a commercial comes on the television declaring the superiority of their product, the obvious conflict of interest means that the viewer would be better off consulting an impartial consumer publication for an accurate comparison of the product with its competitors. If one newspaper, website, author, radio show, or television program is constantly making amazing claims which are never confirmed or corroborated by competing sources, then there is a good bet that the trustworthiness of the source is questionable (for every crackpot that turned out to be right, there are thousands who do not - this is why they make big news).

1.10.7 An expert proponent of "creation science" would be an example of a source which claims to use evidence and reason in drawing conclusions but is likely to be untrustworthy, either due to intentional distortion in some cases, or simply mistaken procedures in others. Repeatedly, creationists have criticized carbon dating in situations where it was wrongly applied, ignored obvious transitional fossils, used thermodynamics to argue against evolution despite knowing that the principle they use does not apply, used quotes from prominent evolution proponents out of context to make it appear that they are opponents, and criticized outdated pieces of theories as if they were currently accepted. Instead of either answering for the mistakes or correcting them when they are pointed out, most creationist writers ignore these oversights and keep writing on the same mistaken arguments. This is a good indicator that they are either severely mistaken in their procedures or they have ulterior motives - in any event, an untrustworthy source.

1.10.8 There is not really a clear cut way to determine with certainty that a source is trustworthy or not. It depends on a good deal of common sense, objective thinking, and healthy skepticism (see 1.3). The main thing to remember is that no source is infallible but there are good reasons to give more credence to one over the other. It is possible that all major sources are being controlled under a huge conspiracy except for one lone independent voice which is considered a wacko by the community at large. However, Occam’s razor usually weeds out overzealous and ridiculous conspiracy mongering fairly well (see 1.9).

Continue to 1.11 The Idea/Person Separation Principle