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Rational Inquiry -Volume 9 Number 1

Rational Musings

By Richard Uhrich

As the new president of SDARI, I plan to fill this space in each issue of the newsletter with personal thoughts on rational inquiry. In this edition I will introduce myself and summarize my perspective on rational inquiry.

I am an engineer, or more accurately, a retired engineer. I retired three years ago after 37 fascinating years with the Navy research laboratory now known as SPAWAR. During essentially all those years I worked on undersea robots for deep-ocean search and recovery. I have also been handicapped for 35 years because of a drunk driver. I married my nurse, Shirley.

I have always been a science nut, and I am a strong skeptic-"so skeptical I can hardly believe it," as Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller once said. These two characteristics shape my attitudes on rational inquiry. As science nut, I enjoy reading an eclectic range of popular science books, magazines, and Internet sources. Since retiring, I have time to really study whatever subject interests me. A former instructor of mine* wrote, "An unfortunate corollary of having a small minority knowing more and more about less and less is a large majority knowing less and less about more and more." I am trying to counter this corollary by learning a little bit about a lot of things. Because of my interest in and general knowledge of science, I am particularly sensitive to claims that either attack science or try co-opt it with pseudo science.

My strong skepticism can be illustrated by a discussion I had in an Internet news group. An acquaintance argued that in the absence of evidence for or against a claim, no matter how extraordinary, the only rational response is to withhold judgment. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, right? I used an analogy to illustrate my opinion that the rational default opinion of such claims is disbelief. Most parents encounter the question of whether there are monsters under a child's bed. We have no evidence of children being lost to under-bed monsters, but we can't actually prove there won't be an exception tonight. So do under-bed monsters exist? Until or unless someone produces convincing evidence, I say it is rational to believe they do not.

But I could be wrong.

*Mike Gazzaniga, "The Mind's Past" University of California Press, 1998.

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