Archive for the 'Logic/Philosophy' Category

Aug 04 2015

Convincing Antivaxxers

A new study has been published in PNAS exploring methods for changing the attitudes of those who are anti-vaccine. The results differ from a previous study published last year in Pediatrics. Let’s explore their methods and results.

Both studies questioned subjects about their attitudes toward vaccines and their willingness to vaccinate their children. The Pediatrics study was web-based and recruited 1759 parents. They divided them into four groups:

(1) information explaining the lack of evidence that MMR causes autism from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; (2) textual information about the dangers of the diseases prevented by MMR from the Vaccine Information Statement; (3) images of children who have diseases prevented by the MMR vaccine; (4) a dramatic narrative about an infant who almost died of measles from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fact sheet; or to a control group.

The PNAS study was in person, but only recruited 315 subjects. They divided people into three groups: 1) given information debunking vaccine myths, 2) told about the risks of measles and shown graphic images, 3) control group given information unrelated to vaccines.

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Aug 03 2015

The Holistic Doctor Murder Conspiracy

The antivaccine and CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) communities love a good conspiracy. When you live on the fringe of science and reason, conspiracy theories are your bread and butter. You need some reason to explain why the mainstream scientific community does not endorse your version of reality. It can’t be that the evidence doesn’t support your position, so it must be a conspiracy.

It is therefore no surprise that when a series of CAM practitioners die within a short period of time, antivaxxers see a conspiracy. A conspiracy would support their narrative so nicely, they just know it has to be true.

This story started with the death of Jeff Bradstreet, a “holistic” doctor who believed that vaccines caused his son’s autism. He was overtly anti-vaccine, supported the discredited mercury hypothesis of autism, and treated autism (including his son’s) with a variety of biomedical treatments including chelation therapy and hyperbaric oxygen.

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Jul 03 2015

A Quick Logic Lesson

Try your hand at this quick puzzle, then come back and read the rest of this post.

How did you do? This is a great little test with a very important lesson.

The discussion that follows the puzzle is a fairly good explanation of confirmation bias, which is a partial explanation for why people might fail to solve the puzzle. It is a partial explanation only, however, and therefore missed an opportunity to  teach a critical lesson in scientific reasoning.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out, perceive, accept, and remember information that confirms beliefs we already hold, coupled with the tendency to miss, ignore, forget, or explain away information that contradicts our beliefs.

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Jun 11 2015

Ideology is the Problem

i·de·ol·o·gy
noun
1. a system of ideas and ideals, especially one that forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy.

It is my goal as an intellectual and skeptic to purge myself of all ideology, as much as possible. I have come to understand that it is ideology, in its broadest sense, that is largely the enemy of reason. This includes not only political and economic ideology, but also religious, social, and historical.

At its core, an ideology is something you believe because you believe it. It is a moral and intellectual anchor, as well as a lens through which the world is viewed. I am not implying any sort of equivalency – not all ideologies are created equal. We also come to our ideologies through different paths, some more valid than others. Often we absorb them from our family, our society, and our culture. Genetics may also play a role. We seem to be predisposed to certain political ideologies based upon which values speak to us most loudly. We then take those values as if they were the Truth and proceed from there.

There are even ideologies that we arrive at through valid argument and consideration. I consider scientific skepticism, which values doubt, logic, empiricism, and self-knowledge, as a valid and worthwhile ideology. Even then a belief or value system can be a problem if we treat it like an assumption rather than a conclusion.

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Apr 03 2015

There is No Problem with Atheism

CNN published an opinion piece yesterday: Deepak Chopra: The problem with atheism. I could not help but to read it, just as you have to slow down to look at the results of a serious car crash. Go ahead, Dr. Chopra, inform me about my own belief system, which you have demonstrated over the years you clearly do not understand.

He starts off reasonable enough. In fact, if I didn’t know the article was written by Chopra it could be confused for a reasonable position:

We all fall somewhere on the sliding scale of belief and unbelief. Secular society has sharpened our demand for truth. To me, this is a positive development. If belief in God can’t stand up to proof, it won’t sustain a person through difficult times.

It’s always good to recognize a false dichotomy. Endorsing a demand for truth – also good. I take issue with his conclusion, however. I think supernatural beliefs can serve their emotional purpose whether or not they stand up to skeptical scrutiny. “Proof” is, by definition, irrelevant to faith, which is belief without proof.

The statement gets to the core of what I think is (at least one of) the problem with Chopra. He wants to be able to prove, or at least logically demonstrate, that his particular faith is truth. This is a common state, but ultimately it is folly. Either you follow logic, reason, and evidence to whatever conclusion it reaches, or you don’t. Faith begins with the conclusion. This is not a false dichotomy but a genuine stark difference in approach.

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Mar 03 2015

The Problem with Astroturfing

In a recent TEDx talk, Sharyl Attkisson nicely demonstrates the deep problem with astroturfing, although part of her demonstration was inadvertent. The problem is actually deeper than she stated, because she herself has fallen victim to part of the deception.

Astroturfing is essentially fake grassroots activism. Companies and special interests create non-profits, Facebook pages, social media persona, write letters to the editor, and essentially exploit social and traditional media to create the false impression that there is a grassroots movement supporting some issue. The key to astroturfing is that they conceal who is truly behind these fronts.

Attkisson, a journalist for CBS news, points to several examples in which pharmaceutical companies, for example, secretly promote their drug and marginalize criticism. She correctly points out how campaigns of doubt and confusion can work, by generating so much controversy that the public loses confidence in the science (and in fact science itself) and throws the baby out with the bath water.

This is all part of the same phenomenon I discussed in yesterday’s post about Google ranking websites by their factual accuracy. There is power in information, and there is essentially a war going on over control of information, which increasingly is fought on the battleground of the internet and social media.

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Nov 07 2014

Solution Aversion and Motivated Reasoning

Anyone paying the slightest attention has likely realized that people tend to hold positions in line with their general world view. In the US, for example, political conservatives tend to hold conservative opinions, while political liberals tend to hold liberal opinions. This is true even when the topic at hand is scientific or factual, and not a matter of value or opinion.

Whether the issue is climate change, GMO, gun control, nuclear power, the death penalty, or biological facts surrounding pregnancy and fetal development, your political ideology is likely to determine your scientific opinions.  Further, depending on how strongly held the political values are, facts are not very helpful in changing opinions. Presenting fact may actually backfire, motivating people to dig in their heels. 

All of this is old news to readers of the skeptical literature. The basic phenomenon at work here is motivated reasoning, which is a catchall covering the suite of biases and cognitive flaws that lead people to arrive at confident conclusions they wish to be true, rather than objectively following facts and logic wherever it leads. Further, as I discussed yesterday, the process of motivated reasoning leads us to a false confidence in our conclusions. We all think we have facts and logic on our side.

A recent paper on the issue defines motivated reasoning this way:

Of importance, recent evidence has demonstrated that political ideology, defined as “an interrelated set of moral and political attitudes that possesses cognitive, affective, and motivational components,” can similarly guide, funnel, and constrain the processing of information and alter behavior.

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Nov 06 2014

Lessons from Dunning-Kruger

In 1999 psychologist David Dunning and his graduate student Justin Kruger published a paper in which they describe what has come to be known (appropriately) as the Dunning-Kruger effect.  In a recent article discussing his now famous paper, Dunning summarizes the effect as:

“…incompetent people do not recognize—scratch that, cannot recognize—just how incompetent they are,”

He further explains:

“What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”

As you can see in the chart above, the most competent individuals tend to underestimate their relative ability a little, but for most people (the bottom 75%) they increasingly overestimate their ability, and everyone thinks they are above average. I sometimes hear the effect incorrectly described as, “the more incompetent you are, the more knowledgeable you think you are.” As you can see, self-estimates do decrease with decreasing knowledge, but the gap between performance and self-assessment increase as you decrease in performance.

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Oct 13 2014

Anomaly Hunting and the Umbrella Man

This is not a new story, but it is worth repeating. At the moment that bullets were being fired into JFK’s motorcade, a man can be seen standing on the side of the road near the car holding an open black umbrella. It was a sunny day (although it had rained the night before) and no one else in Dallas was holding an umbrella.

This is exactly the kind of detail that sets a fire under conspiracy theorists. It is a genuine anomaly – something that sticks out like a sore thumb.

The event also defies our intuition about probability. Even if one could accept that somewhere on the streets of Dallas that morning one man decided to hold an open umbrella for some strange reason, what are the odds that this one man would be essentially standing right next to the president’s car when the bullets began to fly?

Our evolved tendency for pattern recognition and looking for significance in events screams that this anomaly must have a compelling explanation, and since it is associated with the assassination of a president, it must be a sinister one.

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Sep 23 2014

Flavors of Nonsense

I, like most people, like to categorize things. It helps me keep my mental space organized and tidy. A good system of categorization is also like a framework on which I can hang specific facts and details. Categories are most useful when they reflect underlying reality, rather than superficial or arbitrary features. Categories are therefore often at the nexus of facts and theory in science – they can organize the facts in a way that reflects the underlying theory. 

You have to be cautious, however. Reality often does not cleave in clean straight lines. There are likely to be exceptions to any rules one devises for defining specific categories. Groups tend to be fuzzy around the edges. While categories can be a useful tool for organizing ideas, they can also become a mental prison or straightjacket.

Is Pluto a planet? It depends on how you define planet, and why you would define planet in any particular way. Is there a difference between planets, dwarf planets, and planetoids? Or do these objects exist along a spectrum and scientists are simply drawing arbitrary lines for convenience? Is schizophrenia one disease or a group of diseases, how do we categorize the subtypes, and do they reflect real underlying differences in cause? Are such labels helping or hindering research?

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