Archive for the 'Logic/Philosophy' Category

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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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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