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It takes a relatively short amount of time, and a few fairly well understood psychological techniques, to implant memories in people.

The science is basically in: Your memory is not a camera that faithfully records your experiences in the world and plays them back to you later. It’s constantly re-interpreting and re-writing itself, and can easily be fooled into taking on board fictitious details, treating them just the same as all the memories that originated from actual experiences.

People Can Be Convinced They Committed a Crime That Never Happened, as one headline puts it.

So, the next time we hear about someone confessing to a crime, and it turns out they were interrogated for eight hours by police first, using techniques known to elicit both false memories and false accusations, can we agree in advance that this confession means nothing, and that we don’t actually have to pay a damn bit of attention to their own opinion on what they did, and that we can thank the cops for screwing up the evidence if we’re unable to bring a case against anyone as a result?

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This is kinda interesting – how much are you swayed on matters of scientific fact, by your biases about what should be true according to your political ideology?

In my case, reassuringly little. In fact slightly more of my mistakes were caused by attempting to deliberately steer away from politically motivated thinking than my prejudices themselves.

Still, 39% seems like a worrying low score for total correct answers, and I don’t know whether to be reassured or concerned that 60% of people did even worse.

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Murder is illegal in this country.

But I couldn’t tell you where it says that in the statute-books without doing a bit of research. I can’t cite the exact law off the top of my head, or provide the precise codified wording which strictly speaking makes it illegal to murder another person.

But it’s definitely illegal. I could look all that up if I wanted to. But even if I don’t want to, I’m still justified in believing that murder is illegal. My indirect observations have led me to place a very high probability of truth on that statement, and I don’t think that’s an indicator of poor calibration.

This is relevant to yesterday’s discussion of how homeopathy doesn’t work.

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Will Storr wrote a book really worth reading called The Heretics. It’s about people with beliefs on the fringes of mainstream or accepted scientific thought, and it’s about the skeptical movement that challenges and calls them out. In particular, it’s about how the author has failed to find a comfortable place for himself within the latter, despite sharing so many of their ideals and principles.

I read this book last year and scribbled lots of notes about it, and am only now getting around to putting those notes together into a coherent article. Knowing me, “coherent” will probably be aiming too high and this will likely end up rather scattershot and disordered. [Update from the future: Yep.]

At times the book feels a little uncharitable in its depictions of the characters involved, and a little unfair in its conclusions. But although it felt that way for me to read it, I know a lot of that feeling comes from defensiveness about a perceived attack on my own tribe, who I’m reluctant to allow to be criticised on any point that feels like it touches something personal. That doesn’t explain all that I wasn’t comfortable with – I think there are times when he does miss the mark in his final judgments – but nailing down which of my objections are reasonable and which are more emotionally driven is really difficult.

This difficulty is, in fact, a large part of his point in writing the book.

A lot of what he’s talking about is what he sees as a kind of skeptical tribalism, especially at certain gatherings like QED or Skeptics in the Pub. Many of the folk at these events have a very firm idea of what specific club they’ve joined, and exactly who the out-group are. They know very well what sort of person someone must be if they’re found in the pigeonhole labelled “homeopaths”. Not that it should be a surprise, but many self-identifying skeptics’ own beliefs and positions rely to a large extent on tribal in-group coherence, rather than the purely rational objective evaluation of data which they at least have the good sense to value and espouse.

The refrain that “There’s no evidence for homeopathy”, for instance, is a common one, even though for any reasonable interpretation of “evidence” it’s clearly untrue. Scientific research and evidence is what we fall back on as justifying our position, but several skeptics Will talked to couldn’t name or usefully cite a single study or meta-analysis that supported their position on homeopathy, and bristled when the question was asked.

Off the top of my head, I can’t accurately cite in detail the research which supports my ideas on homeopathy either. Clearly that doesn’t stop me from thinking that there are good reasons to think the things I think, all the same. But if my justifications for my beliefs aren’t truly what I think they are, that’s something worth identifying.

There are ways that general expert opinion can be judged by the layman, tools one can aquire to assess the proponderance of evidence usefully (if not impeccably) which doesn’t require us to each pick through hundreds of complicated technical papers before reaching a conclusion. This kind of direct observation isn’t the only way to learn things, and there can be sound reasons to believe things that appear to be based more on hearsay and second-hand reporting. For instance, if the average punter were tasked with writing a medium-length blog post on why they believe that the world is round – and that anyone who believe it’s flat is drastically, bewilderingly wrong – they could probably come up with something reasonable, despite not having been to space to admire the curvature of the earth directly, or personally circumnavigated it just to check.

But we don’t always think naturally in these terms, and so we often don’t summarise our positions on skeptical issues this way either. A more natural inclincation, if you’re a fairly representative skeptical blogger, might be to say “homeopathy doesn’t work, there’s no evidence for it”, and to get twitchy with anyone who starts asking you to cite papers from memory, because you’ve met people who ask questions like that before, and you think know where this is going. Your tribal integrity is under threat from someone suspected of being from the out-group.

It’s an entirely natural human tendency, when faced with such opposition, to assume the worst, close ranks, and awkwardly throw up defenses around one’s cherished beliefs to protect our ego from the perceived threat. The question worth asking for me is: are skeptics actually any better than anyone else at recognising this tendency in ourselves and working around it?

It’s not that it’s wrong to bristle at the question. It’s that it’s really important, for skeptics especially, to recognise both why it’s not a wholly rational response to bristle, and also why it’s utterly human, and completely understandable – and something we have in common with just about every “true believer” we’ve ever had a heated/feisty/empassioned conversation with. Because if we’re not better than average at recognising that kind of faulty thinking and deploying techniques to avoid it, then being right about the things we’re right about is only going to be of partial help.

I imagine it’s deeply unoriginal and quite tiresome for all involved to draw comparisons between The Heretics and any of Jon Ronson’s books, but that’s not going to stop me. One thing I remember about Jon’s approach to visiting the depths of close-knit tribal alien gatherings and reporting on them as an outsider, is that I don’t recall ever simply disliking anyone he wrote about. Which sounds bizarre, given the amount of time he’s spent with neo-Nazis and profoundly hateful religious fanatics. But either there was something affable in their quirkiness and perhaps Jon’s own affection seeped through, or there was something humanising he’d found about them, which went some way toward hinting at an underlying explanation for what was otherwise unappealing about them, in a way that caught the interest just enough that we weren’t leaving with the idea that they’re simply the antagonist to this piece and we’re supposed to take against them.

It could be that my hazy memory is giving Jon a little too much credit. I may be unfairly searching for an unfavourable comparison by which to downplay Will’s attacks on my tribe. But it feels like he doesn’t always acknowledge that same level of individual humanisation, while recounting certain remarks by certain skeptics in a way that insinuates a disapproving tone over the whole enterprise.

Is that reasonable? Am I being unjustifiably tribalistic, to expect him to tilt the balance even further toward acquiescence to my team? Or is it fair to suggest that his own personal biases might have led his own narrative into the kind of judgmentally prejudiced thinking he’s identifying in so many others?

Either way, it’d be petty to reject or condemn the whole book based on differences like this, however strongly I might feel about them. I’ve read and enjoyed numerous well-argued atheistic and skeptical tomes and essays which would no doubt be at least as grating to anyone not already on my side of the aisle who was trying to engage with it. (Most of the history of this blog is probably included in that as well.)

Actually, that paranthetical deserves more of a digression than that, as I felt particularly strongly in the chapter on James Randi. Various defences and objections to Will’s assessment formed in my head as I read, most of which he recapped and considered fairly a few paragraphs later. And a lot of my protests about his overly harsh insinuations would apply equally well to many other out-group people I’ve been critical of in the past, and of whom I’ve read far more damning accounts. If I want critics to go easy on someone I admire, I do not have a great track record of extending the same courtesy.

But it’s hard, because the things that feel like they’re of basic fundamental importance to us, like that homeopathy is bunk, are things that skeptics are generally right about. It’s important not to let that get lost in the fair and even-handed discussion of how both sides have things to learn and both sides are often swayed by irrational tribal urges and both sides have tendencies to make assumptions that unfairly privilege their own team and both sides etc etc. There is also often a crucial matter on which one side is also completely wrong. Will’s not denying that last point, and he’s got a lot to say about the earlier ones which isn’t easily dismissed with phrases like “tone policing”.

He looks into issues such as false memories, audio hallucinations, and Morgellons syndrome, and determines that the people involved with these issues generally aren’t “crazy”, and deserve to be granted a sympathetic ear – but this isn’t the direct counterpoint to the skeptical position that he seems to think. Most of what I know about the fragility of human memory, the fallibility of perception, and the need for compassion and understanding toward anyone who’s fallen prey to some of the myriad cognitive errors that afflict every one of us, I learned from the skeptical movement.

The section on David Irving was particularly good. It really got into the man’s head, explored and humanised him and all his irrationality, found a deep understanding and compassion for this person, without ever risking letting you think that he might be onto something with any of his utterly false notions.

In the end, even if there are potential complaints with the representation of cherished movements, and if the ratio of interesting questions raised to insightful answers proposed is sometimes higher than I’d like, there’s a lot in The Heretics that’s enjoyable to read, and which provides some level of intellectual challenge to anyone with any kind of investment on either side of any sort of discussion about “belief”.

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I never did blog about Tim Hunt back when he was topical. And that’s not really going to change now.

I read quite a bit of what was written, though. In particular, I read this article. And I also read this article. They both say things worth hearing.

ETA: Possibly worth mentioning that this most recent blog break was due to being in Copenhagen for a long weekend. Copenhagen is very good and bits of it look like this.

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I haven’t live-tweeted a consciousness-stream of pseudo-philosophical bollocks from the bath in a while. But I did read this article while taking a soak yesterday, and although I kept my pseudo-philosophical bollocks to myself at the time, it irritated me enough to come back to.

Richard Dawkins is being sued for $58 million. The plaintiff claims to be “the only individual on earth in the history of man that has scientifically disproven Evolution”, and reckons that comments Dawkins made in 1989 were a clear and insulting reference to a book this guy published in 2013.

Furthermore, he wants Dawkins to publicly apologize and destroy “by fire or shredding” every publication that includes the statement. So every copy of a New York Times from 1989.

Which is obviously ludicrous, but that’s not even a slightly interesting observation. Creationism is ludicrous, but it’s not utterly incomprehensible. It’s not usually that hard to understand basically what’s going on in the head of someone who believes God created the universe not that long ago. They’re still living in the real world in various important ways, which this guy suing Richard Dawkins emphatically is not.

I mean, look at what he’s saying. Think about how far removed you’d have to be from reality as we know it, to embark on a lawsuit like this. The list of things you have to mistakenly believe – the mountain of basic ideas about how the world works you’d have to fail to understand – in order to act as though a sweeping generalisation made in 1989 was a personal attack on you and your book published in 2013, and that demanding all copies of a decades-old magazine be rounded up and eliminated is a form of redress that could ever possibly be either meaningful or productive – is more than I can get my head around.

This person’s relationship with reality, as far as I can tell, is beyond anything I can conceive of as part of the human experience. I’m not going to start making diagnoses of mental illness over the internet, but you can understand why I’d be tempted.

And this guy’s approach to the world is just as alien to creationists. He is not representative of anyone. He is not further evidence that those kooky god-botherers are all nuts. Most of the folk who agree with him entirely on the matter of evolutionary theory are totally on your side about what a bizarre way this is to try to sue somebody. You remember how your everyday creationists aren’t playing anything like the same game as this guy, right? Most Americans are creationists. Most Americans are not this guy. We’d notice if 60% of a global superpower was this off the page.

But what bugged the hell out of me about this story was something Dawkins’ lawyers said. Now obviously I have no legal qualifications or understanding of anything, and I’ve no idea about the specific details of this case. I’m entirely ignorant of the extent to which it’s important to frame an argument this way or how much they consulted with Dawkins over the precise wording of how they described his intentions. No doubt there are many good reasons that the highly paid experts in their field didn’t act quite how I would have done.

But here’s what Dawkins said in 1989 that’s caused this belated kerfuffle:

It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).

And here’s how these words have been explained by his legal defenders:

It is hyperbole meant to make a point. It does not rise to a level beyond what is decent and tolerable in a civilized society.

They deny elsewhere that he was stating a “fact”, and seem to explain his assertion in terms of rhetoric, as if he’d been obviously exaggerating just to make a stronger point.

But… isn’t it clear that Dawkins meant exactly what he said? The scientific conclusion about the obvious fact of evolution is clear, to the extent that anyone who claims to deny or reject it must be doing so through one of the obvious faults he lists.

This seems to hold up to me. To take his options in a different order, if someone doesn’t accept evolution…

…perhaps they’re evil, and lying about it for some nefarious purpose…

– they might be “insane” for some value of such, and simply be unable to build up a coherent picture of the universe which can contain even obvious truths, due to some badly faulty wiring…

– they might be stupid, which is no doubt the case for many folk who fail to grasp a relatively straightforward concept, or who have some obvious blocks or prejudices that stop them from getting it…

– or, maybe, they just don’t know what they’re talking about.

And that last one’s really the crux of this. “Ignorant” may sound like just an insult, and if you just bristle at it and don’t examine further, you may read Dawkins’s claim as amounting to “only dumb-asses don’t agree with me”. But if you understand it to be pointing out that people who reject evolution simply lack knowledge or understanding, which is all “ignorant” really means, doesn’t that accurately describe them pretty well? How many creationists have you seen convincingly pass an ideological Turing test, and demonstrate that they actually know what it is they’re sure they don’t believe in?

This isn’t to say that providing the information they lack will fix their ignorance – if only anything about human psychology were so straight-forward – but I genuinely think Dawkins had covered all the bases with his original statement, and that it should be read as a literal statement of fact. A statement of fact with room for clarification, certainly, about the use of “ignorant”, and how noting somebody’s lack of knowledge can be a sympathetic judgment, not a harsh and dismissive one. But absolutely a statement of fact.

Maybe there’s some legally useful value to claiming it as “hyperbole”, and to deny that a sizeable demographic were being labelled ignorant or stupid by Dawkins’s comments. Maybe a crucial legal point that will affect how quickly the case can be dismissed rides on it being read that way. But I think it misses a fundamental point about just how settled the science of evolution is. And it’s a real indictment of the state of free speech law, if a frivolous $58 million case can really depend on such an interpretation.

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So, Jules off of Brook had a thought about my latest video, where I was rather hard on a charity spokeseejit’s attitude to scientific testing of different charitable approaches:

Which is an eminently sensible thing to consider. I mean, I do think there was an element of ridiculous scaremongering in the interview that pissed me off, but even if you’re not patently doing Evil ScienceTM, a reasonable experimental protocol might still, at the least, involve withholding your intervention from some of the people you’re usually trying to help. Isn’t this something charities should be averse to, given that it’s exactly the opposite of their entire mission statement?

Yeah, I still don’t really buy it.

Having reservations about standing idly by while people suffer who you could be helping, I get. But sometimes the question of whether what you’re doing is even helpful at all is still at issue, and it’s your responsibility to help resolve it. Until there’s data definitively showing that withdrawing your intervention actually would be harmful, any claim that you can’t possibly make room amid your important work to gather data on its effectiveness seems pretty flimsy. Not least because any finitely resourced charity (i.e. all of them) is going to be constantly presented with a glut of people it doesn’t have the capacity to help anyway.

Especially when you consider the potentially limitless benefits that could accrue from improving your performance indefinitely into the future. If it turns out that a different way of allocating your resources is, say, 20% more efficient at solving the problem than what you’re currently doing, you’d be doing a much greater disservice to the people you’re trying to help by refusing to take the time to analyse your own processes and find this out. This is why anyone ever bothers to do scientific trials, rather than just charging ahead and doing stuff, at all.

Again, the homeopathy comparison is apt. Alternative medicine practitioners often claim that they don’t have time to take part in clinical trials or publish an analysis of their methods in any reputable scientific journals, because they’re too busy just treating people. But if you haven’t done the science, nobody knows if that latter part is true. It could be that you’re actually just distracting your patients from legitimate medical treatment with your worthless placebos. If you did take the time to do the experiments, then rather than callously refusing help to people who need it for the sake of some abstract notions of “science” or “experimentation”, you’d really be vastly improving the help you can give people in the future.

You don’t even need to totally neglect 50% of the individuals under your care in order to run a proper experiment. If there’s an established alternative protocol, maybe one which already has some evidence behind it, then you can do a comparison with that, rather than with a complete lack of intervention. New medical treatments are often tested against the best thing we can currently offer, rather than against no intervention at all. I didn’t really emphasise that point in my video, but an experiment could involve the two charity approaches going head to head, with simply a more systematic approach to examining who’s being helped, and how much, by each technique.

But judging by the one unscientific, reality-detached attitude on display in this infuriating interview, even that didn’t seem to be on the table. It’s a conversation worth having in a lot more detail, and with sympathy to the kind of squeamishness Jules is describing. But the tragically science-phobic approach I’d meant to aim my ranting at is utterly undeserving of a place in the debate.

It’s not always necessary or helpful to “do more science”. Good science can be expensive and time-consuming, and there often comes a point where it makes sense to say that the jury’s in, and any further testing of our ideas really would be a distraction. But charitable services are one area where there’s still a lot of work to be done.

(Incidentally, Brook do sexual health advice and resources and are definitely good folks, you should check them out.)

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