Archive for the 'Logic/Philosophy' Category

Mar 26 2019

That’s Not a Witch Hunt

Every time I heard someone use the term “witch hunt” recently I was reminded of that quote from Indigo Montoya from The Princess Bride – “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” With the recent release of the Mueller report, many news outlets feel obliged to interview people on the street about their opinions. This is an inane practice that provides no useful information, just cherry-picks random opinions. Every single time I heard the term “witch hunt”, it was used incorrectly.

It’s not just random people who do not understand the term. Because Trump has used the term over 260 times and counting to refer to the Mueller probe, many political commentators have also been using the term – mostly incorrectly. Dana Milbank, for example, wrote in the Washington Post:

Just because Trump says something, however, doesn’t automatically mean it’s wrong. The treatment of Trump by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and other investigators does have characteristics of a witch hunt. This is because Trump has characteristics of a witch.

So says a leading authority on the history of witchcraft, Thomas J. Rushford, history professor at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale. In an anthropological sense, Trump “is really quintessentially a witch figure,” the professor tells me, and if what is happening to Trump is a witch hunt, “it is only in a good sense, that is, this is society policing the boundaries that they believe to be ethically and morally right.”

But there is no witch hunt “in a good sense.” This misunderstands the essence of what a witch hunt is. The logic here is that if Trump is analogous to a witch, then the investigation was a witch hunt. Or, on the other side, if Trump is innocent of collusion, then by definition the investigation to determine whether or not he is guilty is a witch hunt. One random interviewed person even said that because the probe found no evidence of collusion it was a “failed witch hunt.”

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Mar 21 2019

Marcelo Gleiser Talks Science and Philosophy

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

Marcelo Gleiser is an astrophysicist and science popularizer. I have not read any of his works previously and was therefore not familiar with him. He recently won the Templeton Prize, of which I am not a fan. The prize is for:

The Templeton Prize honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.

Many past winners were given the award for trying to align science and religious faith, which to me is a hopeless cause. This usually results in an attempt to use science or philosophy to prove a particular religious belief, an endeavor that always fails. It’s fair to say, then, that I had negative expectations when I saw this headline in Scientific American:

Atheism Is Inconsistent with the Scientific Method, Prize-Winning Physicist Says.

Here we go, I thought, another Templeton Prize winner trying to disprove atheism. But I read the interview with an open mind to see what he actually had to say, reminding myself of the principle of charity. I was pleasantly surprised. I have to say I found nothing I could disagree with.

First, that headline is misleading (I know, shocker). Gleiser is not an atheist, but only because he is an agnostic. He explains that the notion of whether or not a god exists is beyond evidence, and therefore the only scientific opinion one can have is agnosticism. You cannot know that God, or any particular god, does not exist in a scientific way.

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Mar 19 2019

The Gambler’s Fallacy

One of the core concepts in my book, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, is that humans are inherently good at certain cognitive tasks, and inherently bad at others. Further, our cognitive processes are biased in many ways and we tend to commit common errors in logic and mental short-cuts that are not strictly valid. The human brain appears to be optimized by evolution to quickly and efficiently do the things we need to do to stay alive and procreate, and this has a higher priority than having an accurate perception and understanding of reality. (Having an accurate perception of reality has some priority, just not as much as efficiency, internal consistency, and pragmatism, apparently.)

One of the things humans are not generally good at is statistics, especially when dealing with large numbers. We have a “math module” in our brains that is pretty good at certain things, such as dealing with small numbers, making comparisons, and doing simple operations. However, for most people we quickly get out of our intuitive comfort zone when dealing with large numbers or complex operations. There is, of course, also a lot of variation here.

We give several examples to illustrate how people generally have poor intuition for statistics and certain kinds of math, and how our understanding of math runs up against our cognitive biases and flawed heuristics. These common examples include the fact that we have a poor intuitive grasp of randomness.

Probability also seems to be a challenge. How many people would you have to have in a room before having a >50% chance that two of them share the same birthday (not year, just day)? The answer is a lot less than most people guess – it’s just 23. We tend to underestimate how probabilities multiply when making multiple comparisons. This is why we are inappropriately amazed at coincidences. They are not as amazing as we naively think. The probability of someone winning the lottery twice is also a lot higher than you might think.

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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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