Archive for the 'Culture and Society' Category

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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Nov 27 2017

Renewed Antiscience Legislation

The fight over science in public education continues, and if anything picked up considerably in 2017. Earlier in the year Nature reported on various state laws designed to water down science education or allow for equal time to be given to unscientific views. They report:

Florida’s legislature approved a bill on 5 May that would enable residents to challenge what educators teach students. And two other states have already approved non-binding legislation this year urging teachers to embrace ‘academic freedom’ and present the full spectrum of views on evolution and climate change. This would give educators license to treat evolution and intelligent design as equally valid theories, or to present climate change as scientifically contentious.

New Mexico took a more direct approach – simply scrubbing “controversial” ideas from the state’s science standards. The standards no longer mention “evolution”, human contributions to climate change, or even mentioning the age of the Earth. This is not a back door approach – this is straight-up censorship of accepted scientific facts.

A new Florida bill also includes this problematic language:

Controversial theories and concepts must be taught in a factual, objective, and balanced manner.

This is part of the latest strategy. First, don’t mention any one theory (like evolution) by name. That is likely to trigger a constitutional challenge. Second, make the bill sound like it is promoting something positive, like academic freedom, democracy, or just being fair and balanced.

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11 responses so far

Nov 16 2017

John Oliver Nails Trump

Published by under Culture and Society

Oliver-Trump 2017In the season finale of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver reviews Trump’s assault on truth and decency. If you haven’t been watching this show, you should give it a try. Not only is it funny and entertaining, but on each episode Oliver does a deep dive on something in our society that is not right and can be fixed. His researchers generally do a great job, and I also think Oliver does a good job of not being gratuitously partisan.

His season-long attacks on Trump may not make it seem that way, but I don’t think they are partisan. I also try to keep my personal politics out of my science advocacy, but I think the problems with Trump transcend politics, ideology, and party. In this last episode for the season, Oliver reviews why this is true.

The real problem with Trump is not that he is Republican or conservative – actually you could argue that he is barely either of those things. It’s not even necessarily that he is an anti-establishment populist who wants to shake things up. The real danger of Trump is that he is an anti-intellectual who has been waging war against journalism, expertise, decency, standards, and any notion of objectivity.

For Trump the only thing that appears to matter is the current struggle in which he is engaged – he needs to achieve what he perceives as victory over any adversary, at any cost. Being honest and respecting knowledge and accuracy doesn’t seem to factor in at all.

As a result Trump is willing to sacrifice the basic fabric that is necessary for a functional democracy. He seems to view democratic checks and balances as nothing but an annoyance and obstacle, so eroding that fabric is just another win for him.

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68 responses so far

Nov 14 2017

Fact-checking on Facebook

Published by under Culture and Society

facebook-unlikeLast year Facebook announced that it was partnering with several outside news agencies, the Associated Press, Snopes, ABC News, PolitiFact and FactCheck.org, to fact-check popular news articles and then provide a warning label for those articles on Facebook. How is that effort working out?

According to a recent survey, not so well. Yale researchers Rand and Pennycook found only tiny effects overall, and it’s possible there is a net negative effect from the warning labels. Some people just ignore the labels. Perhaps more significant, however, is the fact that fake news articles that were missed by the fact-checkers were more likely to be believed as real because they lacked the warning label. The fact-checkers could not possibly keep up with all the fake news, so they were overwhelmed and most of the dubious content not only made it through the filters, but benefited from a false implication of legitimacy.

Further, the Guardian reports that this arrangement between Facebook and these news outlets compromise the ability of those news outlets from being a proper watchdog on Facebook itself. If their journalists are being paid by Facebook to fact-check, then they have a conflict of interest when reporting on how Facebook is doing. This conflict is exacerbated by the fact that news organizations are hard-up for income, and could really use the extra income from Facebook.

So it seems that the fact-checking efforts of Facebook were insufficient to have any really benefit, and may have even backfired. Warning labels on dubious news articles may be the wrong approach. It’s simply too easy to foil this protection by overwhelming the system. You could even deliberately flood Facebook with outrageously fake news stories to serve as flack and provide cover for the propaganda you really want to get through. In the end the propaganda will be even more effective.

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Oct 13 2017

A Poor Marker of Truth

Published by under Culture and Society

lunar animalsAs a recent Atlantic article recounts, in the early 1800s steamed powered printing presses were making the distribution of information cheaper and faster. It didn’t take long for someone to figure out that this was an opportunity. In 1833 Benjamin Day (who was just 23 – the Zuckerberg of his age) founded the New York Sun.

The paper was the first of the “penny press” – sold for just a penny to increase distribution, and then monetized through advertising. This was a new paradigm – Day was not really selling information to the masses, he was selling the attention of the masses to advertisers. This flipped the incentives. He no longer had an incentive to produce quality information (because information was not the product), but rather to print whatever information got the most attention (which was his product).

So, in 1835 Day printed a series of stories about how astronomers, using a new telescope, were seeing bat people on the moon. The story “went viral” and fooled most people. It took rival newspapers to debunk the stories until Day finally admitted the whole thing was a hoax. That hoax may have been over, but it spawned an age of tabloids that continues to this day.

The printing press of the 21st century, of course, is the internet, and attention is the coin of the realm. This creates an inherent dilemma for our society – because attention is a poor marker of truth.

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47 responses so far

Oct 05 2017

The Gun Debate Revisited

Published by under Culture and Society

Gun-deathsAfter every mass shooting there is a renewed debate and call for better gun control, and pushback from gun owners who say, “Now is not the time to get political,” and “There’s nothing we can do to stop gun violence, it’s the price of freedom.” Then precisely nothing happens until we get distracted by something else and forget about gun violence until the next headline-grabbing shooting.

Clearly whatever we are doing is not working, and it is the oft-cited definition of insanity to do the same thing and expect a different outcome. So what are we doing wrong?

First, we have to acknowledge that there is a problem. There are about 33,000 gun deaths per year in the US. This is more than any other wealthy country – only war-torn banana republics have higher rates of gun deaths. There were 477 mass shootings in the US in 2016.

About two thirds of gun deaths are from suicides. That is a large portion, but that still leaves 11,000 non-suicide gun deaths each year in the US. Gun homicides are a huge problem, not diminished at all because gun suicides are an even bigger problem. About 20% of gun deaths are crime and gang-related homicides, mostly young men killing other young men. Also, about 1,700 women are killed each year from gun-related domestic violence.

I reject the notion that this is the best we can do, that this is the price of freedom. Other Western democracies seem to enjoy freedom without anything close to the same rate of gun violence. So why has this been such a hard problem to solve?

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112 responses so far

Sep 22 2017

In Defense of Elitism

Published by under Culture and Society

ID-OnlyBiologyClassOne thing I really like about sports is that it is the ultimate meritocracy. You are judged on your skills, talents, and ultimately your performance. Professional players are evaluated by the numbers, and traded accordingly. Their salaries are a direct reflection of their value to their team.

All this has even been reduced to a science, sabermetrics, which is praised for its cold calculating approach to exactly how much each player is worth to their team. I never hear complaints about this in professional sports. I only hear comments about how one’s favorite team is doing, and the performance of various players. You can even play “fantasy football” or other sports where you get to pick your own players based on their statistics.

This approach to professional sports is the ultimate in elitism. They even refer shamelessly to “elite players” without anyone batting an eye. There is no serious criticism of the NFL for unfairly discriminating against smaller players, or for the undemocratic way in which players are recruited. The hard work that leads to elite performance is also recognized and praised.

The same is true in other spheres of life as well, such as celebrity. I will not praise celebrity culture, but it is a simple fact that celebrities are generally judged on talent, skills, performance, and persona. Critics and fans are ruthless. This is true of actors, artists, and musicians. In Hollywood, elitism is institutionalized. There are arcane rules and negotiations about the order in which credits appear on the screen, based on the perceived elite status of the actor.

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127 responses so far

Jun 15 2017

What Speech is Legally Protected?

Published by under Culture and Society

free-speech2Ken White, a first amendment attorney and proponent, has an excellent op-ed in the LA-Times about the law and free speech. It’s a necessary read for anyone interested in the ongoing debate about the role and limits of free speech in America.

The article is framed around pointing out common free-speech tropes, which is a good way to communicate about such topics. However, the scope of the article doesn’t really address the debate itself, it only provides a solid logical and legal framework for the debate. This is necessary to get the discussion to the point where it needs to be in order to address the actual issues, without getting distracted by legal myths.

The First Amendment

The First Amendment protection of free speech is based on the principle that a free and open society requires individual citizens to have the space and comfort to express their opinions without fear of oppression. White points out that the courts have generously interpreted this right over the years. Essentially all speech is protected except for very specific exceptions, which he lists as: “obscenity, defamation, fraud, incitement, true threats and speech integral to already criminal conduct. ”

You will notice that “hate speech” is not on the list. The courts have recognized that any speech which might be part of political expression must be protected, and that the speech which most needs protection is that which some or even most people will find objectionable.

Interestingly, the go-to example of not-protected speech that most often comes up, crying “fire” is a crowded theater, is actually protected. The current precedent is that the “incitement” criterion must be direct and immediate – “You, go kill that guy right there,” Indirect or vague incitements, or speech that might inspire someone to do something illegal or harmful, are still protected.

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May 15 2017

MMA vs Wushu – A Fight Between Reality and Fantasy

MMAvsWushuWhen magic and fantasy come up against hard reality, reality wins. One clear demonstration of this are literal fights between fantasy and reality.

There are now multiple videos online of fights between mixed martial arts fighters (MMA) and various forms of traditional Chinese martial arts. They all go the same way – the MMA fighters demolish the traditional fighters in seconds.

At the extreme end of the traditional fighters are the chi masters. They claim that they can channel their magical life force, chi, to weaken, block, and even incapacitate their foes. The first part of this video shows a chi master in action. You can see how apparently effective chi is against indoctrinated students (who have “drunk the dojo koolaid”). In the second half of the video you can see how spectacularly ineffective chi is against an MMA fighter.

In a similar recent competition, MMA fighter Xu Xiaodong had an open challenge to any traditional fighter, and Wei Lei, a practitioner of the “thunder style” of tai chi, accepted his challenge. The fight went like all the others- Wei Lei was crushed in 10 seconds.

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55 responses so far

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