Archive for the 'Logic/Philosophy' Category

Mar 18 2021

Oumuamua Explained

In 2017 astronomers spotted a very unusual object approaching Earth. What was most unusual about it was that it was on a trajectory that would take it out of the solar system. Given its path it could only have come from outside the solar system – our first ever discovered extrasolar visitor, named Oumuamua. For an extrasolar object, it came improbably close to the Earth and the Sun, which gave us a great opportunity to take a close look at it. And then, as it passed by the sun and headed out of the solar system it became even more unusual. First, we could see that it was an very long and flat object, not typical for a comet or asteroid. Second it accelerated as it moved away from the sun, like a comet would from sublimation of ice into gas acting like a rocket. But we could not see a comet-like tail, and the albedo was off. Curiouser and curiouser.

This lead some to speculate wildly that Oumuamua may be an alien artifact, most famously Avi Loeb, a Harvard scientist who has now even published a book – Extraterrestrial: The First Signs of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth. This is a clear case of the “aliens of the gap” fallacy – any astronomical phenomenon we do not currently fully understand must be evidence of alien technology. Of course, all natural explanation must first be excluded. But even then, we don’t have aliens, we have an unknown phenomenon that needs further exploration.

Oumuamua is now yet another great case in point. Two Arizona State University astrophysicists, Steven Desch and Alan Jackson, have come up with a plausible explanation for Oumuamua’s funky properties. Perhaps, they hypothesized, our attempts so far to explain the object’s behavior and properties failed because we were making false assumptions about what kind of ice it might contain. We assumed it would have a profile of ice similar to the comets we know. But what if the ice is made of something else, because Oumuamua is not a typical comet. When they looked at the properties of nitrogen gas – bingo. This would nicely fit the data, including the combination of the rate of acceleration from ice sublimation near the sun and the low albedo – not as much reflective ice would have been necessary to cause the acceleration.

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Feb 26 2021

Multiverse Again

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

I interviewed philosopher Philip Goff for the SGU (the show will air tomorrow with an edited version, and the full 1 hour discussion will be available for SGU members) about the multiverse and the fine-tuning problem. I was hoping by the end of the discussion one of us would have been convinced the other was correct (and I don’t care which, I just want to be confident that I understand this problem). In the end, we did not resolve our difference, but we did really clarify the issues well. This is a good exercise in logic, and also demonstrates how difficult it can be to deal with some statistical issues. I still admit I could be wrong here, I just don’t understand why. But here is the follow up.

First – here is Philip writing about our conversation and why he thinks he is still correct. In this post I will summarize where I think the discussion is and why I am still not convinced.

Here are the points of common ground (approved by Philip):

1 – The probability of our universe existing is unaffected by the presence or absence of other universes. To think otherwise is the inverse gambler’s fallacy.

2 – The probability that some universe capable of evolving complex life exists (assuming the premises of the fine-tuning problem) is higher if there are multiple universes than if there is only one universe.

3 – The key to the question of inferring a multiverse from the observation of our universe (again, assuming the fine-tuning problem and that there is no other solution) is therefore asking the right question – do we consider the probability of our universe existing or of some universe existing?

4 – There is a selection effect in that only a universe capable of evolving sentience would be observed (assuming no external observer).

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Feb 02 2021

Multiverse Revisited

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

A couple weeks ago I wrote about the logical implications of the multiverse as a potential solution to the so-called fine-tuning problem. I was responding to a paper discussed by a philosopher  (Goff) claiming that the multiverse hypothesis is not a valid argument but rather based on a logical fallacy, the inverse gambler’s fallacy. I won’t repeat the entire discussion here, just read the original article. I am writing this follow up because the original article garnered a great deal of discussion. I also presented the issue on the SGU, triggering a flood of e-mail responses. Clearly I need to take another bite at this apple.

I do think the discussions have clarified my thinking, although they have not changed my position. I am still willing to change – statistics can be very counterintuitive and can hinge on seemingly unimportant details. The Monty Hall problem is a classic example, which some call a “statistical illusion”. One where I was tripped up previously deals with gambling, this time the regular gambler’s fallacy. A number of sources will claim that casinos win largely because players go bust, and end their betting as a loser, but the house never busts. So there is an “absorption wall” at one end, but not the other. Players can keep playing if they win, long enough to lose again in some cases, but have to stop if they lose too much. While this seems to make sense, it is wrong. The house wins entirely because the odds are in their favor, and the loser absorption wall has no effect on this outcome. This is because players are just as likely to win or lose after they go bust, so going bust does not prevent them from winning more than it prevents them from losing even more.

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Jan 15 2021

Multiverses and the Inverse Gambler’s Fallacy

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

I was intrigued by an article in Scientific American by philosopher, Philip Goff, mainly because I disagree with his ultimate conclusion. He makes a very cogent logical argument, but I am having trouble with one piece of it. Here’s the quick summary:

The core enigma is the fine-tuning problem with the universe. There are a number of physical constants, such as gravity, the charge of an electron, etc., and the behavior of stuff in the universe depends on the values of all these constants. The problem is that if the values of all these constants was not pretty much exactly what they are, then complex life would not be possible in our universe. Clearly complex life is possible, because we exist, so how do we explain the fabulously improbable physical laws of the universe?  To put this into perspective, Goff points out that:

The physicist Lee Smolin has calculated that the odds of life-compatible numbers coming up by chance is 1 in 10229.

The notion that this just happened by chance, and that we are incredibly lucky to exist, is not satisfying. What are some possible explanations for this highly improbable fact? One is that some powerful being (i.e. God) made the universe with these precise values so that complex life could exist. This does not solve the problem, however, it just pushes back the mystery one step – for where did God come from? I also reject this answer as an obvious “god of the gaps” argument – filling in an unknown by invoking, essentially, magic. It gets us nowhere. Another possible answer is that there is some underlying reason for the laws of physics, a metalaw, that determines that these constants must have these values. We don’t know what this could be, but at least this is something to investigate.

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Feb 27 2020

Anti-Intellectualism and Rejecting Science

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
― Issac Asimov

As science-communicators and skeptics we are trying to understand the phenomenon of rejection of evidence, logic, and the consensus of expert scientific opinion. There is, of course, no one explanation – complex psychological phenomena are likely to be multifactorial. Decades ago the blame was placed mostly on scientific illiteracy, a knowledge deficit problem, and the prescription was science education. Many studies over the last 20 years or so have found a host of factors – including moral purity, religious identity, ideology, political identity, intuitive (as opposed to analytical) thinking style, and a tendency toward conspiratorial thinking. And yes, knowledge deficit also plays a role. These many factors contribute to varying degrees on different issues and with different groups. They are also not independent variables, as they interact with each other.  Religious and political identity, for example, may be partially linked, and may contribute to a desire for moral purity.

Also, all this is just one layer, mostly focused on explaining the motivation for rejecting science. The process of rejection involves motivated reasoning, the Dunning-Kruger effect, and a host of self-reinforcing cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias. Shameless plug – for a full discussion of cognitive biases and related topics, see my book.

So let’s add one more concept into the mix: anti-intellectualism – the generalized mistrust of intellectuals and experts. This leads people to a contrarian position. They may consider themselves skeptics, but they do not primarily hold positions on scientific issues because of the evidence, but mainly because it is contrary to the mainstream or consensus opinion. If those elite experts claim it, then it must be wrong, so I will believe the opposite. This is distinct from conspiracy thinking, although there is a relationship. As an aside, what the evidence here shows is that some people believe in most or all conspiracies because they are conspiracy theorists. Others believe only in some conspiracies opportunistically, because it’s necessary to maintain a position they hold for other reasons. There is therefore bound to be a lot of overlap between anti-intellectualism and holding one or more conspiracies, but they are not the same thing.

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Oct 17 2019

Are We All Hypocrites?

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

Recently celebrity supporters of Extinction Rebellion, a protest group calling for aggressive action on climate change, signed a letter admitting to being hypocrites. They state:

“Dear journalists who have called us hypocrites. You’re right. We live high carbon lives and the industries that we are part of have huge carbon footprints.”

But they go on to say:

“Like you, and everyone else, we are stuck in this fossil-fuel economy and without systemic change, our lifestyles will keep on causing climate and ecological harm.”

Their letter highlights an interesting conflict between personal responsibility and collective responsibility. How much is it on all of us as individuals to make sacrifices, or at least make a reasonable effort, to limit our carbon footprint? Coincidentally there was an interesting take on this question in the latest season of The Good Place (spoiler ahead). The lead characters discover that no one has made it into the Good Place in over 500 years. At first they think that the Bad Place has managed to hack the system in their favor, but ultimately discover that this reality is just an unintended consequence of modern life.

Cosmic points are awarded to individuals based on their actions, but the point system considers all consequences, intended or not, no matter how remote. So buying flowers for your grandmother may earn you points, but you lose more points because the money for those flowers found their way ultimately to a corporation using child labor. The interconnectedness of our global economy has made it literally impossible to be good.

So what do we do? Are we all hypocrites?

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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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Sep 06 2019

Information Gerrymandering

Democracy, in a very real sense, is math. The point is to aggregate decision-making in order to arrive at the fairest outcome for the greatest number of people. Andrea Jones-Rooy, who spoke at NECSS this year, gave a great lecture about this. Here is an article she wrote about Arrow’s Theorem that goes over the basic concept, but she went into more detail during the talk. Essentially there is no system of voting that has perfect fairness (ranked choice vs least objectionable option, for example), so we just have to pick one and live with the trade-offs.

Jones-Rooy, however, was talking about different systems that work as intended, no cheating. If, however, one group puts their thumb on the scale, the democratic process can be massively distorted. Beyond a certain point you no longer even have a true democracy. Voting becomes a sham used to give a patina of legitimacy to a dictator or minority rule.

Perhaps the best known form of voting distortion in the US is gerrymandering. The best description I have heard of this is that it is a way for politicians to choose their voters, rather than voters to choose their politicians. The idea is to carve up voting districts deliberately to favor one party, so that even if they have 40% of the voters in one state, they can secure 60% or more of the representatives. (This doesn’t work for senators or presidents where voting is state-wide.)

Researchers, however, have published an article in Nature in which they describe a more insidious form of distortion – information gerrymandering. This amounts to a rigorous mathematical description of a phenomenon we have been discussing, the effect of social media networks on public opinion. They found:

Players are assigned to competing groups (parties) and placed on an ‘influence network’ that determines whose voting intentions each player can observe. Players are incentivized to vote according to partisan interest, but also to coordinate their vote with the entire group. Our mathematical analysis uncovers a phenomenon that we call information gerrymandering: the structure of the influence network can sway the vote outcome towards one party, even when both parties have equal sizes and each player has the same influence.

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Aug 02 2019

Can an AI Hold a Patent

The BBC reports a case in which an artificial intelligence (AI) system is named as a possible patent holder for a new invention, and interlocking food container. Apparently none of the people involved with the invention meet the criteria for being a patent holder, since they did not come up with the actual innovation.

As a result, two professors from the University of Surrey have teamed up with the Missouri-based inventor of Dabus AI to file patents in the system’s name with the relevant authorities in the UK, Europe and US.

That’s an interesting solution. It does seem that international patent law needs to evolve in order to deal with the product of machine learning creativity. I think this reveals what a true game-changer current AI can be. It’s breaking our existing categories and legal framework.

But I don’t want to talk about patent law, about which I have no expertise – I want to talk about AI, about which I also have no expertise (but I do have a keen interest and pay attention to the news). Over the last few years there have been numerous developments that show how powerful machine learning algorithms are becoming. Specifically, they are able to create solutions that the AI programmers themselves don’t fully understand. The Dabus system itself uses one component to generate new ideas, based on being fed noisy input. But then a second component evaluates those ideas and gives the first component feedback. This idea, having two AI systems play off each other, creates a feedback loop that can rapidly iterate and improve a design or solution. So essentially we have two AIs talking to each other, and humans are largely out of the loop.

AI systems have come up with simulations and other solutions that the scientists using the system do not understand. Sometimes they don’t even know how it was possible for the AI to come up with the solutions it did.

Even more interesting, AI systems have developed their own language that they use to communicate with each other, and no human currently understands that language.

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Jul 29 2019

Coincidence and the Law of Large Numbers

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

Weird things happen to most people at some point in their lives, and if not to you directly than probably to someone you know. But what is the ultimate meaning to such coincidences? They may seem amazing, and psychologically scream out for an equally amazing explanation.

Skeptics caution, however, that our tendency to see patterns and impose satisfying explanations combine with our relative lack of intuition for statistics to jump to unwarranted conclusions. If we do the math, then it becomes clear that very unlikely events should happen all the time, given enough opportunity.

Some people, however, do not want to give up the narrative value of coincidences so easily. Sharon Hewitt Rawlette, for example, has written a book about The Source and Significance of Coincidences, and prefers a more supernatural explanation. In a recent editorial for Psychology Today she strikes back at the skeptical explanation for coincidences. She basically has one point to make, but first she states the skeptical position:

Skeptics argue that, even if the odds that a particular event would occur at this particular moment to this particular person are very low, there are so many moments over the course of our lives and so many people on this planet, that even very improbable coincidences are bound to happen eventually, just by chance. This is often referred to as the Law of Very Large Numbers.

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