Archive for the 'Culture and Society' Category

May 03 2018

What the Flat-Earth Movement Tells Us

Whenever I write about flat-earthers, those who, incredibly, actually believe in the 21st century that the world is flat, there are multiple comments to the effect that we are just getting punked. No one really believes the world is flat, they are just saying that to wind us up, and we are taking the bait.

But this view is demonstrably wrong. I have actually encountered flat-earthers out in the wild, so to speak – in meat space. They really do seriously entertain the theory that the earth is flat. Harry T Dyer also reports recently in Raw Story about a three day convention of flat-earthers. They weren’t tongue-in-cheek having a laugh. They were dead serious.

I think the flat-earth deniers, if you will, are missing the point. They are approaching the issue like most people do initially – looking at the claims from a scientific point of view. From that angle the claims of flat-earthers are beyond absurd. They are so extremely ignorant and illogical that it seems reasonable to consider that either there is some psychological pathology involved, or it’s just a hoax.

There is no doubt that the belief that the earth is flat is rooted in a profound scientific illiteracy. It is not only ignorant of the findings of science, but also of the history of science, and any knowledge of the institutions of science and the participation of countless students and citizen scientists. But flat-eartherism is not about scientific illiteracy – meaning it is not merely a manifestation of profound ignorance of science (which is also why it cannot be corrected with scientific information). As Dyer also points out, belief in a flat earth is ultimately about rejecting institutional knowledge itself.

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Apr 13 2018

Free Speech Crisis Revisited

Three weeks ago I wrote about a recent survey of attitudes on college campuses regarding free speech. I and many other bloggers used the new data as an opportunity to make a few skeptical points.

First, the data does not support the popular narrative that there is a free speech “crisis” on college campuses. The long term trends show that support for free speech is increasing, and that college education and being liberal both correlate with more support for free speech. These trends directly contradict the standard narrative that liberal college professors have “run amok” with their political correctness.

In response Sean Stevens and Jonathan Haidt wrote a couple of articles arguing that the skeptics were wrong on this issue. To be as fair as possible, I do think they have one small point to make, but overall I think they are tilting at a straw man of their own making. I also think they are making the exact kind of errors of biased interpretation that they are accusing the skeptics of making.

The legitimate point they make is that while the long term trends are positive toward free speech, recent data suggests that the current generation (iGen) entering college may be reversing that trend. At least, we should consider this recent data in formulating any opinions about the current state of affairs.

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Apr 09 2018

Ecomodernism and Science-Based Environmentalism

I have always considered myself an environmentalist, but never found common cause with the environmentalist movement. The problem was (and remains) that so much of the environmentalist movement seems to be at odds with science.

Not always, of course. When the science agrees with a pro-environmentalist position, like the consensus on human-caused global warming, then environmentalists happily cite the science and link arm-in-arm with scientists. However, when the science does not align with the environmentalist position, such as with farming practices, GMOs, and nuclear energy, they just as happily take an anti-scientific position. Then scientists are in the pocket of big industry, the science cannot be trusted, and they cherry pick only the science they like.

So I like to think of myself as a science-based environmentalist. Even if you set aside the moral dimension and take a purely selfish point of view (I don’t, but even if you do), who wants to live on a planet that is all concrete and farmland? I love nature and wildlife, and I think most people do. Nature makes people happy.

No one wants to live on a polluted planet either. Pollution lowers quality of life and causes substantial health problems and cost.

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Mar 09 2018

Fiction Spreads Farther than Truth

The battle between truth and fiction is asymmetrical. While that seems to be the case, now we have some empirical evidence to back up this conclusion. In a recent study researchers report:

To understand how false news spreads, Vosoughi et al. used a data set of rumor cascades on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. About 126,000 rumors were spread by ∼3 million people. False news reached more people than the truth; the top 1% of false news cascades diffused to between 1000 and 100,000 people, whereas the truth rarely diffused to more than 1000 people. Falsehood also diffused faster than the truth. The degree of novelty and the emotional reactions of recipients may be responsible for the differences observed.

This reflects the inherent asymmetry. Factual information is constrained by reality. You can also look at it as factual information is optimized to be true and accurate. While false information is not constrained by reality and can be optimized to evoke an emotional reaction, to be good storytelling, and for drama.

We see this in many contexts. In medicine, the rise of so-called alternative medicine has been greatly aided by the fact that alternative practitioners can tell patients what they want to hear. They can craft their diagnoses and treatments for optimal marketing, rather than optimal outcomes.

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Jan 22 2018

False Alarm

On January 13 a state-wide alarm was sent out in Hawaii warning of an incoming missile. “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL,” the emergency alert read. For the next 38 minutes the citizens of Hawaii had the reasonable belief that they were about to die, especially given the recent political face off with North Korea over their nuclear missiles.

However, within minutes the Governor and the Hawaiian government knew that this was a false alarm, resulting from a technician hitting the wrong button. So, there are two massive failures here – sending out the alarm in the first place, and taking 38 minutes to officially send out the correction. (They did tweet that it was a false alarm, but the retraction was not generally known and it wasn’t certain that it was official.)

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Jan 18 2018

The Dangers of Celebrity Culture

Zooey Deschanel has a Facebook page where she gives advice on complex scientific topics. I love Deschanel as an actress and enjoy much of her work (particularly the otherwise mediocre movie version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide), but that does not mean I want to take advice from her on which foods I should eat.

Celebrity culture, in one form or another, has always been part of human society. Even chimpanzees will follow a charismatic leader, and it seems likely that humans are wired also to follow those we admire, and elevate them perhaps a bit too much. There is even research that shows that when we listen to a charismatic speaker the executive function part of our frontal lobes shuts down. We literally turn off our critical thinking when basking in the glow of our glorious leader.

Recognizing that this is part of the human condition is important. First, we need to be vigilant about surrendering our thinking to others. It’s also important to remind ourselves that everyone is a flawed human, and so constantly give those pedestals a reality check.

But that does not meant we should not admire and respect those who deserve it, or even look up to them for wisdom (as long as we maintain our critical eye). It does mean we need to choose carefully those we respect and follow.

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Jan 15 2018

Oprah Would Be a Disaster

Published by under Culture and Society

I know that Oprah has not stated she is considering running for president in 2020 and the initial buzz about her is just a fantasy. But some of her people have stated that she would consider running, and it is possible that they are testing the waters. Let’s put the idea out there and see how the public responds.

Those who are enthusiastic about Oprah after her rousing speech at the Golden Globes have failed to fully appreciate what the real problem with Trump is (at least from this skeptic’s perspective). This is not about politics, and all the ways that Oprah is different than Trump don’t affect the ways in which she is the same – and those similarities are what I am primarily concerned about.

Marc Fisher, writing for The Citizen, describes what Trump apparently means when he calls himself a genius. Trump thinks that being smart is succeeding without trying. He congratulated himself on getting through school without ever really studying (like those other chumps). He admires instinct, his ability to feel in his gut what the answer is. He criticizes academics, and brags that the most important thing he learned at school was that academics don’t really know anything.

By all accounts that it his approach to the presidency. The very fact that he thought he could be president without any prior relevant experience betrays this attitude. It did not appear to bother him, or even occur to him, that being the executive of a large and complex government might requires skills and experience that he had never honed, or even tested. He thought he could sit in the Oval Office and just shoot from the hip, rely on his gut to divine the right answer to the country’s and the world’s complex problems. He would have a staff of eggheads to worry about the details.

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Dec 18 2017

CDC Word “Ban”

I received a flood of e-mails over the weekend pointing me to reports that the CDC is banned from using seven words or phrases in their upcoming budget proposals. They are not George Carlin’s famous “seven dirty words” you can never say on television.  Rather they are: “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based,” according to the Washington Post, who broke the story.

First let’s discuss the status of these reports – they are not official public statements from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the HHS (department of Health and Human Services) or the Trump Administration. They are anonymous reports from CDC officials who were present during a meeting in which the seven unwanted terms were discussed. Apparently this report was confirmed with several people who were present.

CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald has pushed back against these reports without straight-up denying them.

“I want to assure you there are no banned words at CDC. We will continue to talk about all our important public health programs,” CDC  said in a Facebook post. “I want to assure you that CDC remains committed to our public health mission as a science- and evidence-based institution. As part of our commitment to provide for the common defense of the country against health threats, science is and will remain the foundation of our work.”

Meanwhile the HHS stated the reports were a “mischaracterization.”

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Dec 11 2017

Goop Nonsense – Yes It Matters

Paltrow has defended her “lifestyle brand” by saying that they are just giving women choices, and being open. Nonsense – don’t be swayed by such distractions.

I unapologetically support reason and scholarship as critical values for human civilization. This is increasingly true as our world gets more complex, as the stakes get higher, the margins for error lower, and as our culture and economy are increasingly global.

We cannot get by just shooting from the hip. We need people with specific expertise who transparently follow a process that is logically valid and based on evidence. We need standards of scholarship and intellectual rigor that are up to the challenges we face. We also need to make this work within an open and democratic society, where public opinion matters.

What all this means is that it is more important than ever to have a well-educated public, and for our public discourse to respect standards of honesty and excellence. It matters if people understand and accept what experts have to say about vaccine safety and effectiveness, the evidence base for manmade climate change, the safety of GMOs, and the nature of health and disease.

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Dec 04 2017

The Causes of Science Denial

Over the last few decades the challenges we face promoting science and critical thinking have become greater, but so have the tools at our disposal. The “science of anti-science” has been progressing nicely, and we now have a much more nuanced view of what we are up against.

Carl Sagan was fond of saying that, “Pseudoscience is embraced, it might be argued, in exact proportion as real science is misunderstood.” That was the conventional wisdom among skeptics at the time (quote from Demon Haunted World, published in 1997) – that the problem of pseudoscience or science-denial was essentially one of information deficit. Correct the deficit, and the science-denial goes away. We now know that the real situation is far more complex.

To reduce the acceptance of pseudoscience or the rejection of real science, we need to do more than just promote scientific literacy. We also need to understand what is driving the pseudoscience, and we need to give critical thinking skills.

A recent publication of a series of studies looking at the roots of science rejection is a nice cap on this research: Not All Skepticism Is Equal: Exploring the Ideological Antecedents of Science Acceptance and Rejection.

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