Wednesday, September 7, 2011

He Blinded Me With Stupidity

I get so annoyed with absolutely incompetent journalists who write about science. Some are so clearly ignorant I refuse to even call them science writers. I have a student right now who used to be a journalist, and says the problem is the writers often have absolutely no training at all in science. Yeah, I can buy that.

I’m a big fan of’s XX blog, which has several great writers following gender issues. But this article is so much an indication of scientific ignorance it dismays me. The article:

Women and Science: Are Career Preferences Really Created in the Womb?

I can’t access the original research, but the author is writing about – and seriously criticizing to the extent that he calls the experiment’s design "rotten" - a press release from Penn State titled:

Sex hormones impact career choices

The researchers did a quasi-experiment, comparing pre-existing groups: Women with congenital adrenal hyperplasia and their siblings who do not have CAH. CAH is a genetic condition that results in exposure to more androgen -- a type of male sex hormone -- than is normal in utero. They found differences in career choice between those with CAH and those who do not have CAH, with those with CAH preferring more male-dominated fields than those without CAH. They suggest a relationship between exposure to androgen and career choice. Fine. The researchers describe their findings this way:

"Our results provide strong support for hormonal influences on interest in occupations characterized by working with things versus people," said Adriene M. Beltz, graduate student in psychology, working with Sheri A. Berenbaum, professor of psychology and pediatrics, Penn State.

How does the journalist critiquing the science describe the study? Basically, like an idiot:

While the researchers attribute this tendency to what amounts to a chemical effect, it seems odd to totally exclude the possibility that gendered preferences for careers might just be the product of a society built on strongly gendered expectations.

Here’s my question, idiotic journalist: Where do the authors “totally exclude” social factors affecting career choice? Anywhere? No? Then you’re lying, or you’re an idiot.

Here’s the thing. Just because a researcher argues a causal link between one variable (hormones) and another (career choice), does not mean said researcher thinks the one (hormones) is the only one (thus, “totally exclud(ing)” others) that affects the other (career choice).

This seems the silliest, simplest analogy...but appropriate. Imagine, a researcher finds a causal link between smoking and cancer. Does that mean the researcher “totally excludes” other factors that might also cause cancer? Should we criticize a researcher investigating the effects of smoking on cancer for failing to investigate the effects of asbestos on cancer? Of course not. Suggesting hormones affect career choice in no way implies social factors have no effect on career choice. And it is idiotic to suggest that is the case. Anyone claiming to be a legitimate science journalist should be embarrassed by saying such a thing.

Posted at Reverse Sickology

Monday, July 11, 2011

When They Start Falling Executions Will Commence

I argue a lot. Also, I assign students to argue a lot. Not in the, “Turn off his mic” or “I have my own TV show so I’m right” sort of arguing. But in the “Let me state my position, and I’ll listen to your position” sort of way. Still, I’ll gladly argue topics with friends (or, to be honest, complete strangers) in person or online.

I’ve recently been involved in somewhat intense debates with friends about such things as abortion rights, the death of Osama Bin Laden, and the merits of Libertarianism. I've been involved in debates with relative strangers about such things as whether one can truly practice yoga while thinking the Yoga Sutras basically religious nonsense, whether Americans can brew a true pilsner, and the importance of the Vikings resigning Sidney Rice. Why all the arguing?

There’s been some controversy of late over a recent article published in Behavior & Brain Sciences surrounding the topic of argumentation. The authors argue (!) that the human ability to argue evolved not solely as a method of seeking truth* (as most philosophers would argue [!] is the reason for reason), but as a method of convincing others of their position.

If you’re still following along with this argument about reasoning (or this reasoning about argumentation), you might see how a NYT article would summarize the theory this way: Reason Seen More as Weapon Than Path to Truth (subtitled, "People Argue Just To Win, Scholars Assert")

(R)esearchers are suggesting that reason evolved…to win arguments. Rationality… is nothing more or less than a servant of the hard-wired compulsion to triumph in the debating arena

As would be expected, the media representation of the scientific research was, to some extent, inaccurate. One author made an attempt to clarify some of the common misconceptions. When one looks more closely at the authors’ approach, you can see that their position is that argumentation (or reasoning) exists to win debates and seek truth. How might this be the case? Quite simply. When we deal with ideas than cannot be tested empirically, we search for some other test to determine if our thinking is on the right track.

Consider a simple moral claim: It is immoral to harm others (as a moral claim, that might need clarification; but for our purpose, it will serve). We cannot run a scientific test - to metaphorically look under a microscope - to know if this idea is right (or, more accurately, wrong). So how can we test this idea? We can argue with others. We can put forth our position for the claim. We can listen to the position of others against the claim. And we can weigh the quality of the proposed arguments.

I think this is the point being made by the authors. That reason evolved to support argumentation. But also that reason evolved to seek the truth*, because in certain cases, the only way to seek truth* is to compare arguments.

This all brings me to a conclusion about arguments and reasoning: Arguing is reasoned. Ha.

*Whatever the hell 'truth' might be. Although it is true that the Vikings should re-sign Sidney Rice.

Title reference here.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

On Skepticism...or what if they'd spelled Elvis's middle name correctly?

So, golly, I’ve had quite a few, shall we say, contentious discussions with close friends the past couple days surrounding the (alleged) killing of OBL. I say 'alleged' because I have friends who are skeptical. Many on the internet are skeptical. I’m a strong advocate of skepticism. Some have asked me about this apparent discrepancy, my being skeptical in general yet not skeptical that OBL was just killed by the US government. What is my criteria for determining what to believe? That’s a good question, and I’m not sure I can answer it well, but I’ve some thoughts. Here they are.

First, let me say I’m talking about specific types of claims here. Not all claims by all people should be evaluated the same way. If GWB says, 'Iraq has weapons of mass destruction,' or if Obama says, 'I will close Gitmo within one year,' these are not the same as my wife saying, 'Yes, honey. I came.' The criteria for being skeptical depend on the circumstances.

The point I think we all agree on is that, commonly, politicians are absolutely full of shit. Thus, the skepticism in question is not about claims in general, but claims made by government officials. When should be believe claims made by government officials? Some say they don’t believe anything the government says. I don’t believe them. Nobody doubts, for example, that there was an easter egg hunt at the white house a few weeks ago. Nobody doubted that there would be one when the announcement was made. This seems silly, of course. But it isn’t. The point is that nobody *always* believes government officials are lying. Thus, only *sometimes* do we believe government officials are lying.

The next question, as I see it, is this: Is lying random? Arbitrary? Might the government have lied about the easter egg hunt, but instead randomly lied about the killing of OBL? Of course not. This is important. If only some things are lies, and those lies are not random, that means there must be a pattern to the lies. Lies must be non-random. They are. Politicians lie when they have good reasons to lie.

This is my key point, then. Given the difficulty in examining all the available evidence surrounding government claims, it is also worthwhile to consider the *motive* behind government claims. We can argue all evidence *should* be available to the public. But it simply is not. And since it isn’t, considering evidence *AND* motive is important. Here is my take, and please join the discussion to let me know where I’m mistaken or erring in judgment/reasoning or rationalizing or biasing.

I argue we should be skeptical of a politician’s motives, and thus skeptical of his/her claims, under *ALL* of the following circumstances:

1) The claim will greatly affect the public’s perception of the politician (and thus, money and votes) – The claim could make the politician look especially good (Hey, I’ll close Gitmo next year!), or could make people agree with the politician (Hey, Iraq has WMD’s); or could prevent the politician from looking especially bad (No, I didn’t get a blowjob from that chubby girl; No I didn’t accept bribes).
2) The timing of the lie is relevant (I’ll close Gitmo next year…so vote for me now!; Iraq has WMD’s…so we must go to war now!; I didn’t get a blowjob from that girl…and I’m being investigated for perjury now!; I didn’t accept bribes…and I’m being investigated for corruption now!). Some people might say this isn’t important. I disagree. What a politician says when running for office is different than what they say at other times (I understand he also signed an order to close on day 2 in office). If, for example, BO had a press conference tomorrow to announce he’ll close Gitmo in a year, we should think differently about that than when he says so during a campaign. Timing is relevant. If GWB had said Iraq had WMDs at a time he was *not* arguing for war, it would be considered differently than while he’s trying to muster support for a war.
3) The politician has reason to believe s/he can get away with the lie.

I can’t imagine why a politician would lie when any of those criteria isn’t met. This is not to say some politicians haven’t lied in other circumstances, but they’re such ridiculous lies skepticism seems irrelevant (for example, when you’re found with $90K in your fridge, you lie, but maybe don’t really expect to get away with it).

With these as my general rules, I can understand/explain why I’m *not* skeptical of the claim that the US military has just killed OBL. Certainly, the claim makes Obama look good (criteria #1 is met). But why is *now* important (criteria #2)? Some have said it is election season. Really? We’re 18 months from an election, and BO’s biggest competition from the Republican side right now appears to be Donald Trump. Yes, I understand BO recently announced his re-election plans. Still, can those claiming this is about election season suggest a time that would *not* be opportune for the president? Any time this came out would be very opportune. The timing just doesn’t seem relevant.

It is criteria #3 I have the most difficulty with. It doesn’t matter how stupid we think politicians are, how could anything believe BO is so stupid he thinks he could get away with lying about this? I can only think of two alternative situations: If the US military didn’t just kill OBL, either (1) OBL is still alive, or (2) OBL has been dead a long time. I’ve heard both of these arguments. Whatever the alternative (OBL is alive or has been dead a long time), I have to imagine each of the following: (1) Some people have evidence of this, and (2) at least one of those people would like very much to damage the US’s reputation. Wouldn’t there have to be *somebody* who *CAN* prove this is all a lie, and *WOULD LIKE TO* prove this is all a lie? Every argument I’ve seen to this point that something is fishy is based largely on the idea that, if it is all true, *THERE MUST BE EVIDENCE!* But, then, mustn’t there also be evidence to the contrary, and isn’t there anybody who would like to release that evidence to make the US look bad?

I understand there are other arguments. But I’m not going to address all of them now. But I will say this: A lot of the skepticism seems to revolve around the fact that the government didn’t release, within 24 hours, all the information surrounding the events. Some available information is conflicting, or has already turned out inaccurate. How can this surprise anybody? That is standard practice…one reason we *DON’T* trust the government is because they work so hard to control the release of information. Think about the death of Pat Tillman. Think about the rescue of Jessica Lynch. The government *NEVER* releases all of the available information immediately. They want to control the narrative. I’d argue that gives us reason to be skeptical of the details, but not the basic information.

Last point, if you’ve been procrastinating enough or bored enough to read through this all: The easy part of skepticism is asking ourselves, 'Why would I believe what that person thinks/says?' The difficult part is asking ourselves, 'Why would I believe what I think?' That’s what I’m trying to ask myself here.