Archive for the 'Logic/Philosophy' Category

Dec 06 2018

Against Ideology

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

The skeptical movement has always struggled with some unavoidable ironies. We are like a group for people who don’t like to join groups. We actively tell our audience not to trust us (don’t trust any single source – verify with logic and evidence). Our belief is that you really should not have beliefs, only tentative conclusions. Essentially, our ideology is anti-ideology.

This is because scientific skepticism is not about any set of beliefs or conclusions. It is all about process, just like science itself – question, observe, analyze, repeat.

This approach is both empowering and freeing. One of the most common observations I hear from those who, after consuming skeptical media for a time, abandon some prior belief system or ideology, is that they feel as if a huge weight has been lifted from their shoulders. They feel free from the oppressive burden of having to support one side or ideology, even against evidence and reason. Now they are free to think whatever they want, whatever is supported by the evidence. They don’t have to carry water for their “team”.

At the same time, this is one of the greatest challenges for skeptical thinking, because it seems to run upstream against a strong current of human nature. We are tribal, we pick a side and defend it, especially if it gets wrapped up in our identity or world-view.

All of the recent hand-wringing about fake news and a post-fact world is largely about an increase in this partisanship. People use motivated reasoning to defend their ideology against the intrusion of reality, and hyper-partisanship leads to hyper-motivated reasoning. It’s also about echochambers – ideological bubbles of information that reinforce our tribe and demonize all others. These echochambers are essentially institutionalized motivated reasoning, prepackaged misinformation and rationalizations.

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Sep 27 2018

The New Epistocracy

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

OK – this is my new favorite word: epistocracy. I first encountered it reading an article about attempts by the Indian government to control what passes for knowledge. It has the same root as “epistomology” – which is the philosophy of knowledge, or how to legitimately separate opinion from fact.

Epistocracy is essentially rule by the knowledegable. It is a relatively new term (the oldest reference I could find was from 2015), and replaces an older term, noocracy (dating from the 1930s). It refers to any system in which voting rights are restricted by some measure of intelligence or knowledge.  The most recent advocacy for epistocracy was by Georgetown University political philosopher Jason Brennan, in his controversial book, Against Democracy.

The idea is that we already restrict voting rights, excluding those who are too young, are convicted felons (in some states), are mentally ill or cognitively impaired, or are naturalized citizens until they pass a civics test. So why have an arbitrary age cutoff, which is presumably to limit voting by citizens who are too young to have sufficient knowledge and judgment? Why not just test civic knowledge and let that be the criterion? Why should someone ignorant of politics have the same right to vote as someone who has invested the time and effort to reasonably understand the issues of the day?

To be clear – I think epistocracy is a horrible idea. I am not the first to point out that any such system would not only be ripe for abuse, it is practically a guarantee. Those in power could set the rules to favor those in power (they already do this – why make it easier). This would establish a self-reinforcing system of rule by a class of elites, with a patina of philosophical legitimacy.

In fact this has already been happening – from the moment, for example, that African Americans were given the right to vote, their political power was limited by epistocratic laws such as requiring literacy tests to register to vote. Voting rights legislation was required to strike down such laws.

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Jun 29 2018

Free Will and Morality

Do we have real free will, and perhaps more importantly, what are the moral implications of belief in free will? These are interesting questions that are sure to prompt vigorous debate when they come up.

I have discussed the first question before, in which I take (shocker) a neuroscientific approach. From everything we know about brain function, our experience of our own existence, including what we perceive and the apparent choices we make, are largely a constructed illusion. Many times we feel as if we are making a conscious choice, but we can see in the brain that the choice was actually made subconsciously before we are even aware of it.

Even when the choice is made consciously, meaning we are aware of the factors that are affecting the decision, that does not mean we have truly free will. The brain is still a machine, and is dependent upon the laws of physics. A stone does not have free will to choose its path as it rolls down a hill. Its path is entirely determined by physics. Some argue that brain processes are no different, just orders of magnitude more complex.

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Jun 26 2018

Male and Female Brains Revisited

There is a seemingly endless debate about whether or not, and how, male and female brains differ. This is also an extension of the also endless nature vs nurture debate.

Unfortunately these questions get tied up with social, political, and ideological questions. I say unfortunately because they really shouldn’t be. Ideally we can ethically recognize that the optimal position is to respect every human’s rights and dignity. Everyone should be afforded the same basic rights and opportunity to pursue their potential and desires.

This ethical position can be valid even if it turns out to be true that not every human being is identical in terms of their potential or inclinations, or whether or not there are identifiable subgroups of people. These are scientific questions that should be approached and answered scientifically.

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Jun 19 2018

New York Times and the Return of Astrology

A recent opinion piece in the New York Times by Krista Burton is perhaps one sign of recent social trends – increasing belief in things like astrology, especially among millennials. Burton provides some insight into this phenomenon, but then also makes some horrible justifications for it.

Belief in astrology, the notion that the relative positions of planets and start affect our personality and perhaps our destiny, has been measured at about 25% in the UK, Canada and US in recent decades. However, as researchers, Nicholas Campion, points out, the number depends greatly on what exactly you ask:

In one of my groups – of mostly male students aged 18 to 21 – I found that 70% read a horoscope column once a month and 51% valued its advice. Other questions produced a huge variation: 98% knew their sun sign, 45% thought it described their personalities, 25% said it can make accurate forecasts, and 20% think the stars influence life on Earth. The higher figures are close to previous research which showed that 73% of British adults believe in astrology, while the lowest figures are similar to those found by Gallup’s polls.

It’s difficult to know how to parse all of that, but it seems like about half of people take astrology seriously to some extent, and 20-25% very seriously. That is a significant percentage of the population to believe in something which is 100% superstitious nonsense. Let’s get this out of the way now – there is no plausible mechanism by which astrology could work, there is no evidence that any form of astrology does work, and it is structured and functions like a classic pseudoscience. A moderate amount of scientific literacy, and a trace of critical thinking skills, should be enough to purge any belief in astrology.

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Jun 04 2018

Indigenous Ways of Knowing

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

Science and the enlightenment are under assault from many directions, and in many incarnations, but they all tend to boil down to the same basic idea – other ways of knowing, and a rejection of the rigorous academic standards typified by science and scholarship.

One form of science rejection is being called “indigenous ways of knowing” (IWK), which refers to the traditions and culture of native people, typically historically oppressed by Western aggression and colonialism. Dealing with this topic can be tricky, because often the grievances are legitimate, and calls for a rethinking of the relationship between indigenous people and their former colonizers is appropriate. The problem comes from science and scholarship getting caught up in the process, being treated like just another example of imposed Western culture.

Josh Dehaas, writing for a Canadian paper, Quillette, discusses the situation in Canada, in which many universities are incorporating IWK into their curriculum. He correctly points out the problems with this approach, but the situation is not limited to Canada.

In Africa there is a similar movement, characterizing science as just another form of Western colonialism. This was a huge part of HIV denial in South Africa and elsewhere – treating the concept of HIV as the imposition of a Western idea onto native Africans, and a rejection of African cultural medicine. While HIV denial is on the wane, defense of ineffective prescientific treatments as “indigenous” is still a thing.

We even this a similar phenomenon when it comes to environmental protection. Saying that we should no longer hunt whales can be seen as just another assault on an indigenous way of life. It’s not their fault that Westerners overhunted whales (or cut down the rain forest, or whatever), so why should they pay the price? They have a point, but that point does not change the fact that some whale species are endangered and we shouldn’t be hunting them.

In the end, this is all just another form of post-modernism wrong applied to science – the notion that all “ways of knowing” and all knowledge are relative. No approach has a lock on the truth, not even science.

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May 24 2018

Elon Musk Attacks the Media

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

When you are a celebrity billionaire, your Twitter rants tend to garner media attention. Elon Musk recently unleashed his true feelings about the media in a Twitter fight with various people. You can read the whole exchange, but here is the money quote:

Thought you’d say that. Anytime anyone criticizes the media, the media shrieks “You’re just like Trump!” Why do you think he got elected in the first place? Because no ones believes you any more. You lost your credibility a long time ago.

Let me start by saying that overall I am a fan of Musk. I love SpaceX, the whole idea of private space flight, and got choked up the first time I saw a rocket landing vertically. Musk has a vision and he is getting it done. Sure, he has made mistakes and there is a lot you can criticize, but I love that he is trying.

But one of the side effects of the internet and social media is that public figures have become much more personal. Prior to Twitter, you probably wouldn’t have had an opportunity to trade barbs with a famous billionaire. They no longer necessarily live behind a carefully crafted public image. This often means we get to see the good, the bad, and the ugly of these public figures.  As a result there are many instances where people we might admire for one particular achievement reveal themselves to have unsavory characteristics, or just to be the flawed people that down deep we know everyone to be.

This is healthy, in my opinion. Valuing hard work, skill, talent, and virtuous qualities is a good thing, but hero worship isn’t. It’s just another way to lose objectivity.

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May 10 2018

False Dichotomy and Science Denial


Psychologist Jeremy Shapiro has an interesting article on RawStory in which he argues that one of the pillars of science denial is the false dichotomy. I agree, and this point is worth exploring further. He also points out that the same fallacy in thinking is common in several mental disorders he treats.

The latter point may be true, but I don’t see how that adds much to our understanding of science denial, and may be perceived as inflammatory. For example, he says that borderline personality disorder clients often split the people in their world into all bad or all good. If you do one thing wrong, then you are a bad person. Likewise, perfectionists often perceive that any outcome or performance that is less than perfect gets lumped into one category of unsatisfactory.

I do think these can be useful examples to show how dichotomous thinking can lead to or at least support a mental disorder. Part of the goal of therapy for people with these disorders is cognitive therapy, to help them break out of their pattern of approaching the world as a simple dichotomy. But we have to be careful not to imply that science denial itself is a mental illness or disorder.

Denialism and False Dichotomy

A false dichotomy is a common logical fallacy in which many possibilities, or a continuum of possibilities, is rhetorically collapsed into only two choices. People are either tall or short, there is no other option. There are just Democrats and Republicans.

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Apr 24 2018

Ehrlich and the Collapse of Civilization

In 1968, 50 years ago, Paul Ehrlich and his wife published The Population Bomb, which famously predicted mass starvation by the end of the next decade. Ehrlich’s predictions failed largely because of the green revolution, the dramatic increase in agricultural productivity. You would think that being famous for a dramatically failed prediction would bring humility, but Ehrlich is still at it. In a recent interview he argues that the collapse of civilization is a “near certainty” within decades.

Let’s examine some of the logic at work here. First, just because Ehrlich was wrong before, that does not mean he is wrong now. It is certainly cause for skepticism about his current claims, because he may be laboring under the same false premises that drove his previous false predictions. We need to take a look at his claims and see if they hold water.

Ehrlich basically argues in the interview that he was mostly right 50 years ago. He may have gotten the details wrong, but his basic point that overpopulation and over consumption will eventually doom us is still valid. While this interpretation is transparently self-serving, he is not alone in this opinion. A 2015 opinion in the NYT also argued that Ehrlich was essentially right. Paul Murtaugh writes:

Ehrlich’s argument that expanding human populations cannot be sustained on an Earth with finite carrying capacity is irrefutable and, indeed, almost tautological. The only uncertainty concerns the timing and severity of the rebalancing that must inevitably occur.

Well, sure. If you reduce Ehrlich’s argument to – the Earth has finite resources, and so we cannot expand our population without limit, of course he is correct. That is a trivialism, without adding any real insight. The parts that Ehrlich did add were clearly wrong.

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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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