Thursday, August 27, 2015

Thor's Day: Is some kind of real world lurking out there?

An invitation to read a recent NY Times article

By Morris Dean

Ordinarily I would have included this as a “fish” for tomorrow's column. But George Johnson’s August 24 NY Times article, “The Widening World of Hand-Picked Truths,” offers so insistent a caution about competing subjectivities that I couldn’t resist devoting today’s column to it.
    But, in Friday’s Fish fashion, to whet your appetite, I do so only by offering the Times's web synopsis - “More than ever, the best available science doesn’t seem to change minds in a civilization of competing ideologies” - and a four-paragraph excerpt:
With astronauts walking in space, and polio and other infectious diseases seemingly on the way to oblivion, it was natural to assume that people would increasingly stop believing things just because they had always believed them. Faith would steadily give way to the scientific method as humanity converged on an ever better understanding of what was real.
    Almost 50 years later, that dream seems to be coming apart. Some of the opposition is on familiar grounds: The creationist battle against evolution remains fierce, and more sophisticated than ever. But it’s not just organized religions that are insisting on their own alternate truths. On one front after another, the hard-won consensus of science is also expected to accommodate personal beliefs, religious or otherwise, about the safety of vaccines, G.M.O. crops, fluoridation or cellphone radio waves, along with the validity of global climate change.
    Like creationists with their “intelligent design,” the followers of these causes come armed with their own personal science, assembled through Internet searches that inevitably turn up the contortions of special interest groups [emphasis mine]. In an attempt to dilute the wisdom of the crowd, Google recently tweaked its algorithm so that searching for “vaccination” or “fluoridation,” for example, brings vetted medical information to the top of the results.
    But presenting people with the best available science doesn’t seem to change many minds. In a kind of psychological immune response, they reject ideas they consider harmful. A study published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggested that it is more effective to appeal to anti-vaxxers through their emotions, with stories and pictures of children sick with measles, the mumps or rubella — a reminder that subjective feelings are still trusted over scientific expertise.
   Note the reference to special interest groups. Alice Dreger’s 2015 book, Galileo's Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science, about which we reflected on May 28 (“Authority versus independent thinking”), shows how both scientists and non-scientists distort science in support of special interests.

Copyright © 2015 by Morris Dean


  1. It is all true what the article says. However, what is to be done when a crackpot in a shack somewhere in the woods of Alabama has more likes and followers than the Surgeon General?

    1. Indeed, what is to be done in the case of any evil? I think you share with me the sense of emptiness that accompanies knowledge. Are we better people for suffering the contemplation, or must we act in some way to try to right wrong? Are we worse people if we look the other way?

  2. I saw this in the Times, and winced. I'm acquainted with many people who are perfectly sure that the climate isn't changing, or that it isn't our fault, or that it doesn't matter. Also a large group who are quite certain that genetically modified plants are poisoning us and destroying the environment. Or "don't believe" in evolution. Or are birthers. Or believe the world is secretly being controlled by the Rockefellers and the Illuminati.
    A few times, when I seriously cared about the person involved, I tried to engage them on this. For instance, I asked a nephew for evidence that climate change is nonsense. He gave me a few magazine articles, which I deconstructed for him; e.g. showed that the author was a lawyer working for an anti-environmental think tank heavily funded by oil billionaires.
    None of this has ever had any effect other than to bruise the relationship. My hope was to model critical thinking for them, and they just didn't get it.
    I don't think this is just poor education, stupidity, or Fox News. This is telling us something basic about the human mind. I don't understand yet. Anybody?

    1. Not that it explains it, Chuck, but it seems undeniable that a primary function of our brains is to find reasons to support what we do or want to believe. Confirmation bias? (Remember that quiz?)
          Another NY Times article relevant to this is Friday's "Psychologists Welcome Analysis Casting Doubt on Their Work." [Benedict Carey]. This paragraph is telling:

      Many journals have also started to insist on what is known as preregistration. When a researcher preregisters a study, he or she spells out the hypothesis and how it is going to be tested. Doing this upfront is a powerful check against moving the goal posts on a study — that is, analyzing the data and working backward, reverse-engineering the “hypothesis” to fit those findings [emphasis mine].

      The hoped-for explanation probably needs to look at the motives for powerfully wanting to believe whatever it is a person is already predisposed to believe. Clearly your nephew, for example, must have had some compelling reasons for his desire to believe that the climate wasn't changing (or whatever precisely he believed). What was in it for him to believe that? What would he have lost to have given the belief up? Would he have lost his membership in a select crowd? Would his personal integrity have come into question (for having always been so insistent in denial, when an uncle could almost effortlessly show him that he was wrong)?

    2. Yes, I read that NYT article. I'm pleased by the psychologists' attitude. Can you imagine a congressman welcoming such a thing? The thing about "moving the goal posts" is slippery, though. It doesn't seem to cover research of the "I tried a new trick, and here's what I found.." It also doesn't cover "my hypothesis was not conformed, but what I did find may be more interesting."

      I'm afraid that nephew is a hopeless case. I think he believes in fringe theories as an act of rebellion, assuming somehow that anyone who contradicts the establishment must be right. I'm more concerned by the case of a cousin who is an electrical engineer, retired from a management job in the military-industrial complex. He's not obviously an extremist, and he's well-educated. Yet he is sure the climate isn't warming. My one effort to discuss this with him was brushed off. I can multiply such examples.

    3. Chuck, I didn't read the "Psychologists Welcome" article as saying that preregistration would rule our or prevent the two cases you cite, both of which could obviously be valuable. Do you think it actually would rule them out, however? That, I guess, might be an unintended consequence.
          Your hypothesis that your nephew might be motivated by a need or desire to rebel sounds cogent to me. I can even see a bit of that in myself, in my going beyond agnosticism to atheism to set myself farther apart from religion.