Archive for the 'Culture and Society' Category

Jun 19 2020

News vs Commentary

The line between news and commentary has arguably become more blurred in recent decades. This has implications for libel law, which also reflects the shifting media landscape. A recent lawsuit involving Tucker Carlson illustrates the problem.

Carlson is being sued for defamation by Karen McDougal for a segment in which she claims Carlson accused her of extortion.  She is one of two women that we know of who were paid off to remain silent about affairs with Trump. Here is the money quote from Carlson:

“Two women approached Donald Trump and threatened to ruin his career and humiliate his family if he doesn’t give them money. Now that sounds like a classic case of extortion.”

For background, libel cases are hard to prove in the US. You need to demonstrate that statements were made in public that are claims to facts, that are factually wrong, where the person making the statement knew they were wrong or had a disregard for the truth, that there was malice of intent, and that actual harm resulted. For some statements you don’t have to prove harm, they are “libel per se,” such as accusing someone of pedophilia. The harm is taken for granted. If the target of the alleged defamation is a public figure, then the burden of proof is even higher.

At issue here are whether Carlson’s statements were presented as facts or opinion. Opinion is completely protected free speech, and cannot be defamatory legally. The first part of Carlson’s statement above is stated as simple fact. The second part (“that sounds like”) seems to be his analysis or opinion. Forgetting the other aspects of the defamation standard for now, this question seems to be the crux of the case. Was Carlson making a factual claim he knew to be untrue, or without concern for whether or not it was true? The defamation standard requires more than just being wrong.

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Jun 16 2020

The Stats on Police Killings

Published by under Culture and Society

During the current national attention being paid to police practice and inequities of police killing of African Americans it is important to put the data that we have into as much context as possible, in order to understand the phenomenon and make sure that our efforts to improve the situation are properly targeted. Unfortunately, the data are complex, which makes it easy to see what one wants to see. I will try to break down the research as objectively as I can, although it is likely that perception of bias will also depend on perspective.

We can start with the most basic numbers:

Risk is highest for black men, who (at current levels of risk) face about a 1 in 1,000 chance of being killed by police over the life course. The average lifetime odds of being killed by police are about 1 in 2,000 for men and about 1 in 33,000 for women. Risk peaks between the ages of 20 y and 35 y for all groups. For young men of color, police use of force is among the leading causes of death.

This same data, from an August 2019 study, also shows that the overall risk of death at the hands of the police is about 2.5 times greater for black Americans than white Americans. This is an often cited figure, and it is salient, but there are additional layers here. Let’s break down the police use of force into non-lethal force, lethal force against armed citizens, and lethal force against unarmed citizens. Some studies focus on “shootings” rather than all uses of lethal force, mostly because that is how databases are often set up, but that can also miss important cases.

There is strong evidence that police use of non-lethal force is greater against black individuals than white. This holds up across a broad range of activities, such as drawing a weapon, using a baton, handcuffing, and using a taser. This difference is not explained by factors other than race. (The study authors controlled for other causes, and race emerged as an independent variable predicting use of force.)  This is where police education is likely to be most effective, because it does seem to be a factor of police behavior.

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Jun 09 2020

Perhaps More Than Ever – Truth Matters

Published by under Culture and Society

The following quote from a recent address to graduating student resonated with me:

“What’s become clear is that social media can also be a tool to spread conflict, divisions, and falsehoods, to bully people and promote hate,” he said. “Too often, it shuts us off from each other instead of bringing us together, partly because it gives us the ability to select our own realities, independent of facts or science or logic or common sense. We start reading only news and opinions that reinforce our own biases. We start cancelling everything else out. We let opinion masquerade as fact, and we treat even the wildest conspiracy theories as worthy of consideration.”

The speaker advises students to, “Use all that critical thinking you’ve developed from your education to help promote the truth.” I agree, although honestly I think students need to learn much more critical thinking than is typically the case. These words could have been spoken by any skeptic or science communicator, and is a core message of the skeptical movement. We need scientific literacy, deep understanding of critical thinking and how to apply it every day, and media literacy. But these words were spoken recently by former president Barack Obama. Don’t leg your political opinion of him, if they are negative, color your perception of these words. Let them speak for themselves.

That is actually the point I want to make in this post. Humans are tribal by nature. We now know from years of psychological study that we tend to plant our flag with one group, one ideology, one narrative – and then defend it at all costs. The more we identify with a position, or see it as a marker of our group, and the more we do, the greater our motivated reasoning. For things we don’t care about, or do not identify with, we tend to revert to a fairly rational approach – listening to new evidence and incorporating into our view. So we have the capacity to be rational, when our identity does not get in the way.

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May 29 2020

The Learning Styles Myth

I have written previously about the fact that the scientific evidence does not support the notion that different people have different inherent learning styles. Despite this fact, the concept remains popular, not only in popular culture but among educators. For fun a took the learning style self test at educationplanner.org. It was complete nonsense. I felt my answer to all the forced-choice questions was “it depends.” In the end I scored 35% visual, 35% auditory, and 30% kinesthetic, from which the site concluded I was a visual-auditory learner.

Clearly we need to do a better job of getting the word out there – forget learning styles, it’s a dead end. The Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning has done a nice job of summarizing why learning styles is a myth, and makes a strong case for why the concept is counterproductive.

The idea is that individual people learn better if the material is presented in a style, format, or context that fits best with their preferences. The idea is appealing because, first, everyone likes to think about themselves and have something to identify with. But also it gives educators the feeling that they can get an edge by applying a simple scheme to their teaching. I also frequently find it is a convenient excuse for lack of engagement with material.

There are countless schemes for separating the world into a limited number of learning styles. Perhaps the most popular is visual, auditory, vs kinesthetic. But there are many, and the Yale site lists the most popular. They include things such as globalists vs. analysts, assimilators vs. accommodators, imaginative vs. analytic learners, non-committers vs. plungers. If you think this is all sounding like an exercise in false dichotomies, I agree.

Regardless of why people find the notion appealing, or which system you prefer, the bottom line is that the basic concept of learning styles is simply not supported by scientific evidence.

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Feb 04 2020

New York Times Goop Fail

This has to be the worst opinion piece I have read in a major news outlet in a long time. The authors, Elisa Albert and Jennifer Block, leave behind them a killing field of straw men and empty containers of metaphorical “Kool Aid.” Here is the short version – they are defending Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop and the recent Netflix series Goop Lab with all the tropes of pseudoscience they can muster. They wrap them all up in a narrative of female empowerment, and dismiss out-of-hand all the legitimate criticism of the dangerous advice Goop sells as a conspiracy of the “patriarchy.”

Ironically, and sadly, I would argue that Paltrow, and by extension Albert and Block, are exploiting women, making them more vulnerable, and depriving them of true empowerment – which is knowledge. When you give someone misinformation, you are taking away their ability to have informed consent. This is what con artists do. Alternative medicine is frequently a double-con, in which those who promote it are themselves deceived and are just paying the deception forward.

All the talk about the “patriarchy” is also just another version of a conspiracy theory, in which all legitimate counter arguments and evidence are dismissed as part of the conspiracy (as I am sure some will do with this very blog post). Conspiracy theories work best if they contain a kernel of truth, or if they are built around a legitimate historical grievance, as in this case. All you have to do is wipe away all the nuance, and cherry pick the details that serve your narrative.

Let’s dig in to some of the details of the article. They start with a rather blatant straw man:

The show would surely promote “dangerous pseudoscience,” peddle “snake oil,” and be “undeniably awful for society.”

Six episodes of the show finally dropped late last month, and so far civilization seems to be more or less intact.

Right, so because civilization did not instantly collapse, none of the warnings about the dangers of pseudoscience are valid. But they were just getting started and this was a mere warm up. The next paragraph frames the discussion: Continue Reading »

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Dec 13 2019

Who Gets to Decide?

Published by under Culture and Society

One of the things I like about blogging is that it is an interactive forum. Often times the conversation in the comments dwarfs the original article in scope and depth. I use this to learn as much from my readers as they do from me, and improve my understanding of topics and ability to communicate them. Sometimes points raised in the comments deserve the treatment of a full blog post, not just answers in the comments.

Yesterday I wrote in support of crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe applying standards to protect their users from fraud and abuse, specifically not allowing their site to be used to fund clear medical quackery. I took the time in this article to spell out my basic approach to the concept of regulation, because it is a common theme here. Part of skeptical activism and science communication is consumer protection against fraud and abuse. I believe that proper regulation is essential to protect the public from fraud, and so I am often called upon to defend the very concept of regulation itself.

One commenter raised what I find to be the two most common pillars of objection to regulation – the slippery slope argument and the question of who gets to decide. Neither objection, when used as a blanket or overreaching argument against regulation, is valid. Let’s start with the slippery slope.

For background, a slippery slope argument is one that concludes that if step A is taken, this will lead inevitably or very likely to step B. Since most people would find B unacceptable, we should be cautious about taking step A. To support this argument it is often further argued that there is no difference in principle between A and B, and therefore in order to be fair and internally consistent, we cannot take step A without B. This form of argument becomes a slippery slope fallacy when the premise that A inevitably leads to B or should if we are being consistent is simply wrong, or at least an unwarranted assumption. Remember, we are talking about informal logical fallacies here, so they are not always wrong. That depends on the specific context.

What the slippery slope fallacy ignores is that ethics and legislation is often about balancing two or more valid principles and concerns. When it comes to regulation we are often talking about freedom vs security or protection. Striking a balance between these two does not mean we will inevitably surrender all our freedom, any more than it means we will inevitably live in total anarchy. In fact, legal principle and precedent enshrines this balance – the state has the right to regulate various things, but must demonstrate a compelling interest before encroaching on a recognized personal freedom.

Let’s take helmet laws as an example. People have the freedom (in principle) to decide for themselves if they want to wear a helmet when riding a bike or motorcycle, but governments often assert their right to decide for individuals, and essentially make it a fineable offense to ride without a helmet. What is the state’s compelling interest? Well, if you get into an accident which results in brain injury, you may become a burden to the state and therefore others. Your injury would affect other people, by raising their health insurance premiums, or using public resources. Is that enough? Regardless of where you come down, the deeper point is – the decision is based upon a balancing of these various concerns. We can make an individual decision without obligating every similar decision to be decided in the same way. If we allow the state to force us to wear helmets, that does not mean they have a green light to micromanage every single life decision we make. Or if we decide the state does not have that right, that doesn’t mean they also don’t have the right to enforce speed limits. For every decision, the state has to demonstrate a compelling interest which is greater than the personal freedom being sacrificed. Each decision is individual – no slippery slope.

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Dec 12 2019

Crowd Funding Quackery

A recently published ethics paper addresses the issue of whether or not it is proper for crowdfunding sites, like GoFundMe, to allow campaigns to fund dubious medical treatments. This question is also part of a more general issue – how tech companies have replaced traditional industries and institutions thereby bypassing existing mechanisms of safety, justice, and quality control. On the medical issue, the authors write:

Recent studies have shown that many individuals are using crowdfunding to finance access to scientifically unsupported medical treatments. Recently, GoFundMe prohibited campaigns for antivaccination groups on the grounds that they “promote misinformation about vaccines” and for treatment at a German clinic offering unproven cancer treatments due to “the need to make sure people are equipped to make well‐informed decisions.” GoFundMe has not taken any additional actions to regulate the much larger presence of campaigns seeking to fund unproven medical interventions on the platform. In this article, we make the ethical case for intervention by GoFundMe and other crowdfunding platforms.

The basic principle is that tech companies still retain an ethical and legal responsibility for how their platforms and technology are used. Most applications and social media outlets begin as an unregulated peer-to-peer environment, just facilitating an individual exchange between two private citizens. In a way this is a Libertarian nirvana. However, as such applications scale up the downsides that have already had to be dealt with in the traditional industries they are supplanting begin to resurface.

We can take any such app as an example, such as Uber. The Uber app, which I use, is very convenient. They have definitely made a better mousetrap. But as Uber has grown huge, we begin to question what responsibility they have to their drivers and riders. How much do they have to vet drivers to protect riders? What kinds of protections and benefits should they offer drivers? Did they just replace a regulated industry with an unregulated one? The same questions have arisen with Air bnb, which critics warn is being used to simply create de facto hotels that skirt regulations.

There are two principles here. The first has to do with the role of regulations in general to protect the public from exploitation of various sorts. I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole entirely, but just summarize my position as this. I support carefully considered and monitored regulation to keep society functioning optimally and prevent exploitation, externalizing costs, unfair competition, and the like. The only truly free market is a regulated one, because an unregulated market will become increasingly distorted over time as the powerful use their power to obtain more power (rather than play fairly).  At the same time we have to be humble regarding unintended consequences, which is why regulations need to be minimalistic and monitored for their effects. If you buy some version of this basic premise, and are not an anti-regulation purist, then it should be concerning that effective regulations are being nullified by an app. This is happening without any elected representatives of the people making any decisions – without any public representation. In the extreme this can evolve into a tech oligarchy.

The second principle is fairness. If one industry that is regulated is competing with another that is unregulated, that gives an unfair advantage to the unregulated one (regardless of what you think about regulations in general).

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Nov 15 2019

Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act of 2019

Published by under Culture and Society

The Ohio State House recently passed a revised education bill, now on its way to the state senate, that includes some concerning language. Here is the relevant passage:

Assignment grades and scores shall be calculated using ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance, including any legitimate pedagogical concerns, and shall not penalize or reward a student based on the religious content of a student’s work.

This is a wonderfully ambiguous wording, which I think is a feature, not a bug. It mirrors other parts of the bill which likewise sound superficially reasonable, but there is every reason to suspect has a clear purpose. The big question is – what does it mean that you cannot penalize a student for the religious content of their work? Does that mean they can say in a science class that the Earth is 6000 years old? Can they submit a project on history about Noah?

This is an extension of a strategy that creationists have been using in recent years. They are pushing for carefully crafted laws that sound like they are just promoting freedom, but are specifically designed to provide cover for teachers who want to introduce creationist materials in their classroom. Alternatively, under the guise of “standards” they can introduce laws carefully crafted to provide justification for not admitting evolution or climate change into the classroom.

These laws have to be viewed very much in their political context. Also, their impact will largely be determined by how they are enforced. Of course, if you know ahead of time how they are going to be enforced, because they were specifically crafted for that purpose, they are really stealth laws hiding under coy language.

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Oct 18 2019

Diffusion of Responsibility

Published by under Culture and Society

I still remember the PSA of the crying American Indian, sad because of all the trash that the modern world was spreading in the previously pristine environment. It was powerful, and it had a real impact on me. The ad was sponsored by Keep America Beautiful, and I (like most everyone else) assumed this was an environmental group interested in keeping America beautiful.

Actually the piece was a clever bit of propaganda, which relates to the topic of this post – the diffusion of personal responsibility. I wrote yesterday about the letter from celebrities admitting that they are environmental hypocrites for living a high carbon footprint lifestyle while campaigning against climate change. The conflict is between personal and collective responsibility, and my basic conclusion is that both are important. Many excellent points were raised in the comments, and two points in particular I think deserve additional exploration. The main one, mentioned by townsend, is that this all relates to the diffusion of personal responsibility. This was implicit in my previous post, but it is an important social psychological principle that is worth discussing further.

I first learned about this in my Social Psychology class in college – this is a long well-established psychological principle. The broad brushstrokes are this – humans are social creatures. We evolved emotions of justice, reciprocity, shame, and guilt in order to modify our behavior to be compatible with our social structure. If everyone maximally pursued selfish interests, we could never have a functioning society.

However, problems arise when the sense of personal responsibility is diffused, because this shortcircuits the feedback loops of guilt, shame, and a sense of responsibility. If something is equally everyone’s responsibility, then it is essentially no one’s responsibility. I experience this every time I travel is large groups. Once you get north of about 6-7 people, the group is paralyzed and can’t seem to do anything. Even walking together from point A to point B becomes an exercise in herding cats. However, if you assign someone as the group leader (or wrangler, or whatever) then the group can function as a unit. The same is true on any project – there needs to be clear lines of responsibility.

This lesson was learned with public housing. Common areas soon fell into disrepair and utter filth. This is because no one was responsible for them. If, however, housing was designed with no common spaces – where an individual owner was responsible for their own space, the situation was much improved.

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Sep 23 2019

Outrage, Bias, and the Instability of Truth

One experience I have had many times is with colleagues or friends who are not aware of the problem of pseudoscience in medicine. At first they are in relative denial – “it can’t be that bad.” “Homeopathy cannot possibly be that dumb!” Once I have had an opportunity to explain it to them sufficiently and they see the evidence for themselves, they go from denial to outrage. They seem to go from one extreme to the other, thinking pseudoscience is hopelessly rampant, and even feeling nihilistic.

This general phenomenon is not limited to medical pseudoscience, and I think it applies broadly. We may be unaware of a problem, but once we learn to recognize it we see it everywhere. Confirmation bias kicks in, and we initially overapply the lessons we recently learned.

I have this problem when I give skeptical lectures. I can spend an hour discussing publication bias, researcher bias, p-hacking, the statistics about error in scientific publications, and all the problems with scientific journals. At first I was a little surprised at the questions I would get, expressing overall nihilism toward science in general. I inadvertently gave the wrong impression by failing to properly balance the lecture. These are all challenges to good science, but good science can and does get done. It’s just harder than many people think.

This relates to Aristotle’s philosophy of the mean – virtue is often a balance between two extreme vices. Similarly, I find there is often a nuanced position on many topics balanced precariously between two extremes. We can neither trust science and scientists explicitly, nor should we dismiss all of science as hopelessly biased and flawed. Freedom of speech is critical for democracy, but that does not mean freedom from the consequences of your speech, or that everyone has a right to any venue they choose.

A recent Guardian article about our current post-truth world reminded me of this philosophy of the mean. To a certain extent, society has gone from one extreme to the other when it comes to facts, expertise, and trusting authoritative sources. This is a massive oversimplification, and of course there have always been people everywhere along this spectrum. But there does seem to have been a shift. In the pre-social media age most people obtained their news from mainstream sources that were curated and edited. Talking head experts were basically trusted, and at least the broad center had a source of shared facts from which to debate.

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