Archive for the 'Logic/Philosophy' Category

Apr 19 2018

The Real Problem with Echochambers

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

It has rapidly become conventional wisdom that the widespread use of social media has resulting in an increase in the “echochamber effect.” This results from people only consuming media that already is in line with their existing beliefs and ideology. This is nothing new, psychologists have long documented that people are much more likely to access information that reinforces their existing beliefs and biases, and much less likely to engage with information that directly challenges their beliefs.

One of the hopes of the internet is that it would help people break out of their self-imposed echochambers of thought, by making a greater diversity of information, opinions, and perspective a mouse click away. That dream was thwarted, however, by the real world. Social media giants, like YouTube and Facebook, trying to maximize their own traffic, developed algorithms that placed information in front of people that they were most likely to click – meaning the kind of information they are already consuming. Watch one video about dog shows, and you will find a helpful list of popular dog show videos on the right on your browser. The next thing you know your mild interest in dog shows becomes a fanatical obsession. OK, maybe not, but that is the concern – self-reinforcing algorithms will tend to have a radicalizing effect.

There are also clearly virtual networks on the web developed to function like echochambers. There are blogs and channels dedicated to one specific world view, or opinion on a specific topic. The site is curated to be friendly to those with the same view, who are welcomed as compatriots. If you disagree with the approved view of the site, you are a troll. Your comments are likely to be blocked and you may even be banned. Of course, people have the right to protect their sites from truly disruptive and counterproductive behavior, but what makes a troll is in the eye of the beholder.

There are also metasites that curate multiple other sites, as well as news items, that cater to one world view, whether it be a political faction, specific activism, or ideology.

Supporting this echochamber narrative is the fact that people are becoming more polarized, tribal, and emotional over time. People hold more negative views of their political opponents, and are less likely to think that, while they disagree, they have a valid perspective.

The hope of the internet seems to have backfired. Rather than bringing people together, the internet has facilitated people separating themselves into multi-layered factions. The web is tribalism on steroids.

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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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Mar 20 2018

Free Speech – Perception vs Reality

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

In general, which demographic is more supportive of free speech, a college student who identifies as an extreme liberal, or a non-college educated conservative? How has overall support for free speech, even “politically incorrect” speech, changed over the last few decades? The answers to these questions may seem obvious, and that’s the point, because the actual facts run contrary to common perception.

Researcher Justin Murphy recently published aggregated results of surveys regarding tolerance of different kinds of speech. There is also a good discussion of this data on Vox, but here is the quick overview:

  • Tolerance of speech or support for free speech has been overall rising over the last few decades
  • Self-identified extreme liberals are the most supportive ideological group of free speech
  • College/University education correlates with increased tolerance of speech.
  • The most intolerant group are non-college educated, and the type of speech about which they are most intolerant are anti-American Muslims.

Of course, there are always potential confounding factors in surveys. But the data here are pretty clear – overall support for free speech is high and rising, and is highest among the college-educated and liberals. The surveys looked at tolerance of various groups: antitheists, homosexuals, racists, communists, militarists, and anti-American Muslims. For every type of speech tolerance has been rising among every ideological group, except for tolerance of racist speech among moderate liberals (still increasing among extreme liberals), and tolerance of anti-American Muslim speech among conservatives. The decrease in tolerance for racist speech may be due to an increase in African Americans, who are less tolerant overall of racist speech, among that demographic.

What you will not find in this data is support for the common narrative that we have a free speech crisis on college campuses in America, driven by political correctness on the left. That narrative is essentially a myth. Like many popular beliefs, it does not survive confrontation with actual facts.

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Mar 01 2018

Attribution Error, Straw Men, and the Principle of Charity

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

Why do people argue so much in the comments on social media platforms? That question has given rise to a new area of social psychology, but a partial answer, I think, rests on several principles of critical thinking.

Often such principles are deeply intertwined, not isolated ideas. Sometimes principles are so closely related it is better to discuss them as a package, because the relationship to other principles is core to their understanding.

What I have noticed is that often misunderstanding stems from making false assumptions about what the other person is saying and their motive for doing so. These false assumptions tend to be in a similar direction, a phenomenon psychologists have called the fundamental attribution error. This is the tendency to ascribe behavior to external factors when considering our own behavior, but internal factors when considering the behavior of others.

There are a couple of reasons for this error. The first is simple – we are living our life and are therefore intimately familiar with all the external factors that affect our behavior. We are not as familiar (and may be completely unaware) of external factors that may be affecting someone else’s behavior. Second, we want to feel good about ourselves, and so we are very generous in our interpretation of our own motives, personality, and ability. We are out own most fanatical advocates.

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Nov 06 2017

US Government Report Affirms Climate Change

climate changeThe U.S. Global Change Research Program Climate Science Special Report was recently published, and its conclusions are crystal clear:

 This assessment concludes, based on extensive evidence, that it is extremely likely that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. For the warming over the last century, there is no convincing alternative explanation supported by the extent of the observational evidence.

That conclusion is nothing new to those following the science of climate change for the last couple decades or so. The more this question is studied, the more data is gathered, the firmer the conclusion becomes – the planet is warming due to human release of greenhouse gases, such as CO2. There are error bars on how much warming, and the exact effects are hard to predict, but that’s it. The probable range of warming and effects are not good, however. It will be bad, the only real debate is about how bad and how fast.

The conclusions of the report, therefore, at least scientifically, are not surprising. It was, however, politically surprising. The special report began in 2015, under Obama. Because of Trump’s stated position that global warming is a Chinese hoax, and his appointment of many global warming deniers to key positions, it was feared that his administration would slow or frustrate the publication of this report.

However, according to the NYT, Trump himself was simply unaware of the report. Further, the fate of the report was largely in the hands of those amenable to following the science, rather than putting a huge political thumb on the scale. As a result the report was not hampered or altered. It was approved by 13 agencies who reviewed its findings.

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Oct 09 2017

The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

Voltaire-quoteThis aphorism has been around since about 1600, originating with Voltaire in French. I have found it to be a useful concept – not an iron-clad rule, but an excellent guiding principle. The perfect is the enemy of the good (sometimes “good enough”).

What this means is that we should not be paralyzed into inaction because we cannot achieve a perfect solution to a specific problem. The idealized perfect solution becomes an obstacle to solutions that are adequate, or at least an improvement on what we have now.

In reality this can be a tricky principle to apply, however. Like the informal logical fallacies, or any informal guideline for clear thinking, there are no rigid rules or definitions. Judgement is required, which means that subjectivity and bias are also involved.

There are two specific ways this principle is either applied to not applied that tends to come up with skeptical topics. The first deals with our own activism – when should we apply this principle?

For example, over the years I and some of my medical colleagues have had a disagreement about how best to approach topics like vaccine exemptions. We all agree that non-medical exemptions decrease vaccine compliance and are a threat to public health. We all agree that in a perfect world states would not allow non-medical exemptions (only exemptions for children who medically are unable to be vaccinated).

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Oct 06 2017

Unnecessary Medical Interventions

clinical-decision-making-46-638A recent JAMA article is an update on a systematic review of overused interventions in medicine. They list the top ten overused tests and treatments, meant to highlight this problem in medicine. They conclude:

The body of empirical work continues to expand related to medical services that are provided for inappropriate or uncertain indications. Engaging patients in conversations aimed at shared decision making and giving practitioners feedback about their performance relative to peers appear to be useful in reducing overuse.

You can read a summary of the ten overused interventions here.  The one you are likely already familiar with is antibiotic overuse. The others are very specific tests or interventions in specific situations, like Computed Tomography Pulmonary Angiography to help diagnose acute pulmonary embolism.

Reviewing each of these interventions in the top ten list would require a deep dive into the literature and detailed discussion, which is not my intent here. If you want that level of detail, read the original article. What I want to discuss is, in general terms, why this is a problem in the first place.

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Sep 11 2017

PETA’s Counterproductive Attack on Young Researcher

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

PETA_Protest_onlineIn North America house sparrows are a menace. They are an invasive species introduced in the 19th century, and have established themselves as a large population. Unfortunately they do so by displacing many local species, such as blue birds. They are cavity nesters and will use up many of the prime nesting spots before migratory native birds get a chance. Their presence reduces the population of many native species.

Birders have a special disdain for house sparrows and European starlings (another invasive species). They are both a threat to bird biodiversity. They are also not protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which means it is legal to remove their nests and even to capture and euthanize them (you can then donate them to raptor refugees for food). Many birding enthusiasts recommend active measures to control house sparrows and minimize their impact on native species.

Partly for these reasons house sparrows are an ideal target for scientific research. They can be legally captured, and the research will then serve the extra added small benefit of removing house sparrows from the wild.

All of this makes it all the more ironic that PETA has chosen to target a young researcher (a post-doc) for harassment due to her research on house sparrows. Really, PETA, you have chosen the wrong subject to defend, the pests of the birding world.

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Aug 21 2017

Solar Eclipse and Coincidence

solar-eclipse-2017Today there will be a total solar eclipse making its way all across the continental US, from Oregon to South Carolina. Unfortunately I could not logistically travel to see it first hand. I’ll have to wait for 2024, when another total solar eclipse will hit America, making a trail from Texas through upstate New York. Here in CT we will get 75% coverage, which will be cool but nothing (from what I hear) like seeing totality.

Eclipses are one of the testaments to the power of science. We can predict them with incredible accuracy, because we have worked out in tiny detail how planetary orbits work. We can make careful observation and combine that with accurate theories about how the universe works and mathematics to make calculations, and predict these celestial events far into the future.

Some people, however, choose to see the eclipse as a testament to the existence of God. I first heard this argument when I was in college – a friend of mine who was also a fundamentalist Christian essentially ridiculed me for thinking that eclipses were just coincidence. The hand of God was clearly at work.

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Aug 10 2017

Are Logical Fallacies Useful?

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

logical-fallacies-everywhereUnderstanding the nature of argument and specific logical fallacies is a cornerstone of critical thinking. I was therefore surprised when I read an article by a philosopher, Maarten Boudry, titled: “The Fallacy Fork: Why It’s Time to Get Rid of Fallacy Theory.”

Boudry lays out what he feels is a critical weakness in using the notion of logical fallacies to police sloppy thinking and his solution is to abandon the notion of informal logical fallacies altogether. I strongly disagree, and ironically I think Boudry is committing a couple logical fallacies in his argument.

The Fallacy Fork

The basis of his position is the notion of what he and his coauthors on a 2015 paper call “The Fallacy Fork.” The basic idea is that informal logical fallacies are highly context dependent. Let’s take as an example the fallacy of confusing correlation with causation. Because this reasoning is context dependent there is a spectrum in terms of how absolutely one makes this argument.

So, someone might say that correlation is always due to direct causation, which is clearly not true. They might also take the position that one particular causation must be true because of a correlation, which again is demonstrably false. There is no legitimate “always” or “must” with such arguments.

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