Archive for the 'Logic/Philosophy' Category

Feb 09 2017

The Super Bowl and Hindsight Bias

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

Brady SB51Full disclosure – I have been a Patriots fan since in the 1980s. I suffered through a couple long decades of rooting for a mediocre team, including the worst (at the time) Super Bowl defeat at the hands of the Bears. Then along came Belichick and Brady, and it has been a wild ride as a fan.

Super Bowl LI was perhaps the pinnacle – the Patriots came back from a 25 point deficit to tie the game and then win in sudden-death overtime. I feel genuinely bad for Falcons fans, but perhaps worse for those who stopped watching the game in the third quarter because they thought it was over. Those who stayed through to the end were rewarded with historically epic football.

(As an aside, I am a fan simply because it is fun to have a team to root for. Don’t read too much into it.)

What is interesting, from a critical thinking perspective, about the game is the way in which we construct narratives to explain random events, or at least events that have an element of randomness or “luck” involved. At half-time the Falcons were up 21-3 and the discussion among the commentators was all about how well the Falcons were playing and everything the Patriots were doing wrong. The Falcons had “momentum” and the Patriots had to figure out a way to steal this elusive “momentum” back.

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55 responses so far

Feb 02 2017

What Is Normal?

normal-spider-flyOne of the main themes of this blog is metacognition – thinking about thinking. This is a critically important topic because much of our thinking is subconscious, or it is not explicit. This means we are not aware of exactly how our brains process information and come to certain conclusions or decisions. In fact, we may have false beliefs about how we arrive at our decisions.

Cognitive psychologists study how people think, and knowledge of this field can help us become more aware of the otherwise unrecognized assumptions or processes in our decision-making.

Take an apparently simple concept such as “normal.” What does it actually mean and how do we use this concept to think about the world? (“Normal” has a specific mathematical definition, as in “normal distribution,” but I am not talking about that here.) A dictionary definition might be, “conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.” This doesn’t quite tell us how we decide what is “normal.”

In medicine use of the term “normal” has fallen out of favor, because it is imprecise, and also because it may contain a moral judgment. We still use it when referring to numbers, such as normal blood pressure, but even then it is not conceptually precise. Normal may be different for different people in different situations. When we are making an effort to be clear in our language we will use terms such as “healthy” or “physiological” (which is distinguished from pathological).

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15 responses so far

Jan 13 2017

Cognitive Biases in Health Care Decision Making

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

decision-makingThis was an unexpected pleasant find in an unusual place. The Gerontological Society of America recently put out a free publication designed to educate patients about cognitive biases and heuristics and how they can adversely affect decision making about health care.

The publication is aimed at older health care consumers, but the information it contains is applicable to all people and situations. It is a well written excellent summary of common cognitive biases with a thorough list of references. There are plenty of other resources that also review this material, including my own Teaching Company course, but this is a good user-friendly reference.

What is most encouraging about this publication is the simple fact that it recognizes that this is an issue. It is taking knowledge of psychology and applying it to the real world, recognizing the specific need for critical thinking skills in the public. This could have easily been produced in many different contexts – not only any medical specialty, but investing your money, buying a home, choosing a college, or evaluating news reports.

The report is aimed simultaneously at health care providers and patients. It is primarily a guide for providers for communicating with older adults, accounting for cognitive biases in decision-making, but at the same time will help consumers communicate with their providers and make better decisions.

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209 responses so far

Jan 03 2017

More Evidence for Motivated Reasoning

motivated-reasoning-1A recent neuroscientific study looked at what happens in the brains of subjects when their beliefs were challenged. The study adds a new bit of evidence to our understanding of motivated reasoning.

Before we get to the details of the study, let’s review what we mean by motivated reasoning. Psychological studies have shown that people treat different beliefs differently. Specifically, there is one set of beliefs that are core to a person’s identity and to which they have an emotional attachment. We treat such beliefs differently than all other beliefs.

For most beliefs people actually are quite rational at baseline. We tend to follow a Bayesian approach, meaning that we update our beliefs as new information comes to our attention. If we are told that some historical fact is different than what we remember, we will quickly change our beliefs about that historical fact. Further, the more information we have about something, the more solid our belief is, the more slowly we will change that belief. We don’t just change from one thing to the next, we incorporate the new information with our old information.

This is actually a very scientific approach. I would not easily change my belief that the sun is at the center of our solar system. It would take a profound amount of very reliable information to counter all the solid scientific information on which my current belief is based. If, however, I was told from a reliable source something about George Washington I never heard before, I would accept it much more quickly. This is reasonable, and this is how most people function day-to-day.

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54 responses so far

Dec 19 2016

Skeptical Questions Everyone Should Ask

critical-thinkingBecause I am an activist skeptic I am often asked specific questions about how to be a better skeptic. This is obviously a complex question, and I view skepticism (like all knowledge) as a journey not a destination. I am still trying to work out how to be a better skeptic.

One recent question, however, took a great approach to the issue of practical skepticism – what questions should a skeptic ask themselves when confronted with a news item? Here is my process:

1 – How plausible is the claim?

This is admittedly a tricky question that requires a lot of judgment. The risk is that you will think any claim that already aligns with your beliefs as being plausible and anything that contradicts them as being implausible. This is not as bad as it sounds, however, if your current beliefs are based on logic and evidence. To the extent that your beliefs (by which I mean the model of reality that you construct in your head) are based on ideology and subjective perspective, the notion of plausibility can be self-fulfilling.

I say “can be” because it does not have to be. This is partly because this first question regarding plausibility is the first question, not the only question. You should not reject implausible claims out of hand. The purpose of evaluating plausibility is to determine the appropriate bar of evidence needed to accept the claim. This is essentially, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

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13 responses so far

Nov 10 2016

One more round with Massimo on GMOs and Skepticism

platoLast week I wrote a response to a NYT article on GMOs. Massimo Pigliucci wrote a critical analysis of my response. I then responded to that piece.
Below is the final round of responses on this issue, one from Massimo and then a final response from me. In this round Massimo changes the focus from GMOs specifically to how the skeptical movement handles such issues.


My (further) response to Novella on GMOs

by Massimo Pigliucci

I promise, this is the last round concerning this particular discussion, at the least on my part. To recap: Danny Hakim, an investigative reporter for the New York Times, published a critical piece on certain aspects of GMO technology; my friend and fellow skeptic Steve Novella responded; I commented critically on Steve’s response; and he responded to my criticism. The current post, however, isn’t going to be yet another blow-by-blow affair, for a few reasons: i) it would be even longer than the last installment, which I fear would severely test readers’ patience; ii) there is a diminishing return to going deeper and deeper and insert more and more qualifications to any argument; and iii) it seems to me that most of what Steve and I wanted to say has been said already.

So let me try to zoom the discussion out a little, shifting attention to what I think are some background issues of which this exchange has been a particular instantiation.

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44 responses so far

Aug 30 2016

In Defense of “Pseudoscience”

PhrenologyDon’t be confused by the headline – my intention is not to defend pseudoscience itself but rather the use of the term “pseudoscience.” In a recent commentary for American Scientist, Katie L. Burke argues that journalists and science communicators should stop using the term, “pseudoscience.” I disagree with her position and I think she is committing a number of logical fallacies, which I will now explore.

She writes:

A guiding tenet has emerged through years of climate change discussions and other polarizing scientific debates: Framing issues as “us versus them”—with a clear ingroup and outgroup—encourages polarization. The term pseudoscience inherently creates this framing, pitting those who believe in “real” science against those who believe in “fake” science. But these discussions really indicate whom we trust. And maybe if people trust alleged pseudoscience over science, we should be discussing why, rather than dismissing their values and beliefs.

Ironically Burke is not considering how she is framing her own discussion of use of the term “pseudoscience.” She is framing the distinction as a value judgment, rather than what it is, a judgment regarding scientific process and evidence.

Making objective statements about facts and logic is not a dismissal of someone’s values and beliefs. If Burke had any familiarity with the skeptical literature (and her essay provides much evidence that she does not) she would know that this is a point of heated discussion. In short, we try very hard to separate personal values and beliefs from science. Science is a process of empirically investigating the universe with valid logic.

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21 responses so far

Jun 10 2016

How to Argue in the Comments

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

duty_callsI love a good disagreement. I seek them out, sometimes to the annoyance of family and friends who may not be in the mood for a heated discussion. I would actually argue with people who came to my door to spread their religion.

Judging by the typical comments section beneath just about any article or video on the internet, I am not alone. People love to argue, and the relative distance and anonymity of social media seems to have a disinhibiting effect.

How to effectively engage in various situations is one of the more common questions that I receive, and in fact I did a workshop on this question at the last TAM and NECSS. One section of the workshops focused on how to argue online, in a forum or the comments section.

Here are some of my thoughts. Keep in mind, I am not saying this is what you should do. My goal here is not to be a “tone troll” or dictate how people interact, even in the comments to my own blog. Frequent readers will recognize that I rarely moderate the comments, and only for the more egregious offences. Rather, I am just providing my thoughts and perspective, in the form of, “If your goal is X, you might want to consider these factors.”

What is your goal? Continue Reading »

66 responses so far

May 23 2016

Who Owns Your Genetic information?

genetic codeA genetic testing company, Myriad, is embroiled in a controversy over who owns genetic information. The company performs genetic testing, such as for BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes with variants that are associated with higher risk of breast cancer.

It has been the company’s policy to release information to their clients on any pathological gene variants, those known or suspected of being associated with higher breast cancer risk. If, however, the client has what is currently believed to be a benign variant, that is all they are told. They aren’t given the specific information about the gene sequence, just a note that it is benign.

Further, the company has declined to share its vast database of information with open source databases being used for research. The company cited patient privacy as their reason for not sharing data.

Now, several clients have sued Myriad to have their full genetic information released to them. It turns out a new rule under HIPPA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) requires that companies release full genetic information to patients. Faced with this the company has decided to release the information to those who request it, but insist that it is voluntary and will still not release such information routinely (only to individuals who request it).

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5 responses so far

May 19 2016

Skepticism and the Fallacy of Relative Privation

There has been a lively exchange surrounding John Horgan’s article about skeptics, which I responded to previously. (See also Orac’s and Daniel Loxton’s responses.) At the core of Horgan’s piece is a logical fallacy so common, I feel it deserves special attention. In fact, PZ Myers wrote approvingly of Horgan’s fallacy, showing that it is still alive and well.

That fallacy can be called the fallacy of relative privation, which is a type of red herring or distraction from actual issues. The fallacy is essentially an argument that a problem is not important or does not deserve attention and resources because there are other more important problems. “Why are you wasting your time on X when there are children dying of cancer?”

In Horgan’s case, he would like us to end all war and bring about everlasting world peace before we tackle lesser problems like quackery, fraud, global warming, vaccine denial, the environment, and other such trivialities.

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38 responses so far

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