Quotulatiousness

February 9, 2018

Defining bias

Filed under: Media, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In Quillette, Bo Winegard explains how to define bias:

Bias is an important concept both inside and outside of academia. Despite this, it is remarkably difficult to define or to measure. And many, perhaps all, studies of it are susceptible to reasonable objections from some framework of normative reasoning or another. Nevertheless, in common discourse the term is easy enough to understand. Bias is a preference or commitment that impels a person away from impartiality. If Sally is a fervid fan of the New York Knicks and uses different criteria for assessing fouls against them than against their opponents, then we would say that she is biased.

There are many kinds of biases, and bias can penetrate the cognitive process from start to finish and anywhere between. It can lead to selective exposure, whereby people preferentially seek material that favors their preferred position, and avoid material that contradicts it; it can lead to motivated skepticism, whereby people are more critical of material that opposes their preferred position than of material that supports it; and it can lead to motivated credulity, whereby people assimilate information that supports their preferred position more easily and rapidly than information that contradicts it. Often, these biases all work together.

So, imagine Sally the average ardent progressive. She probably exposes herself chiefly to progressive magazines, news outlets, and friends; and, quite possibly, she inhabits a workplace surrounded by other progressives (selective exposure). Furthermore, when she is exposed to conservative arguments or articles, she is probably extremely critical of them. That National Review article she read this morning about abortion, for example, was insultingly obtuse and only confirmed her opinion that conservatives are cognitively challenged (motivated skepticism). Compounding this, she is equally ready to praise and absorb arguments and articles in progressive magazines (motivated credulity). Just this afternoon, for example, she read a compelling takedown of the Republican tax cuts in Mother Jones which strengthened her intuition that conservatism is an intellectual and moral dead end. (This example would work equally well with an average ardent conservative). The result is an inevitably blinkered world view.

The strength of one’s bias is influenced by many factors, but, for simplicity, we can break these factors into three broad categories: clarity, accuracy concerns, and extraneous concerns. Clarity refers to how ambiguous a topic is. The more ambiguous, the lower the clarity and the higher the bias. So, the score of a basketball game has very high clarity, whereas an individual foul call may have very low clarity. Accuracy concerns refer to how desirous an individual is to know the truth. The higher the concern, on average, the lower the bias. If a fervid New York Knicks fan were also a referee in training who really wanted to get foul calls right, then she would probably have lower bias than the average impassioned fan. Last, extraneous concerns refer to any concerns (save accuracy concerns) that motivate a person toward a certain answer. Probably the most powerful of these are group affiliation and status, but there are many others (self-esteem et cetera).

At risk of simplification, we might say that bias can be represented by an equation such that extraneous concerns (E) minus (accuracy concerns (A) plus clarity (C)) equals bias: (E – (A + C) = B).

May 1, 2017

“100% certainty is almost always an indication of a cult rather than any sort of actual truth”

Jay Currie looks at the reaction to a Bret Stephens climate article in the New York Times:

On the science side the greatest threats were the inadequacy of the climate models and the advent of the “hiatus”. The models entirely failed to project any circumstances in which temperature ceased to rise when CO2 continued to rise. However the hiatus created exactly that set of conditions for what is now looking like twenty years. (Right this instant, last year’s El Nino, broke the hiatus. However, rapidly cooling post El Nino temperatures look set to bring the hiatus back into play in the next six months to a year.)

The economic side is even worse. It turns out that renewable energy – windmills and solar – costs a fortune and is profoundly unreliable. Governments which went all in for renewables (see Ontario) found their energy prices hockey sticking and the popularity plummeting without, as it turns out, making even a slight impression on the rise of CO2 concentrations.

The economics of climate change and its “mitigation” are a shambles. And it is beginning to dawn on assorted politicians that they might have been railroaded with science which was not quite ready for prime time.

Which makes it all the more imperative for the Nuccitelli and DeSmog blogs of this world to redouble their attacks on even mildly sceptical positions. Had the alarmists been less certain their edifice could have easily withstood a recalibration of the science and a recalculation of the cost/benefits. But they weren’t. They went all in for a position which claimed to know for certain that CO2 was driving world temperature and that there was no other possible cause for an increase or decrease in that temperature.

The problem with that position is that it was premature and very brittle. As lower sensitivity estimates emerge, as other, non-CO2 driven, temperature controls are discovered, consensus climate science becomes more and more embattled. What had looked like a monopoly on political discourse and media comment begins to fray. The advent of Trump and a merry band of climate change skeptics in the regulatory agencies and in Congress, has pretty much killed any forward motion for the climate alarmists in the US. And the US is where this battle will be won or lost. However, the sheer cost of so called “carbon reduction” schemes in the UK, Germany and the rest of Europe has been staggering and has shown next to no actual benefit so scepticism is rising there too. China has both embarked on an embrace of climate change abatement and the construction of dozens of coal fired electrical generation plants every year.

November 12, 2015

QotD: What repression looks like from the inside

Filed under: Government, Liberty, Media, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Reaction isn’t a conspiracy theory; it’s not suggesting there’s a secret campaign for organized repression. To steal an example from the other side of the aisle, it’s positing something more like patriarchy. Patriarchy doesn’t have an actual Patriarch coordinating men in their efforts to keep down women. It’s just that when lots of people share some really strong cultural norms, they manage to self-organize into a kind of immune system for rejecting new ideas. And Western society just happens to have a really strong progressivist immune system ready to gobble you up if you say anything insufficiently progressive.

And so the main difference between modern liberal democracy and older repressive societies is that older societies repressed things you liked, but modern liberal democracies only repress things you don’t like. Having only things you don’t like repressed looks from the inside a lot like there being no repression at all.

The good Catholic in medieval Spain doesn’t feel repressed, even when the Inquisition drags away her neighbor. She feels like decent people have total freedom to worship whichever saint they want, total freedom to go to whatever cathedral they choose, total freedom to debate who the next bishop should be – oh, and thank goodness someone’s around to deal with those crazy people who are trying to damn the rest of us to Hell. We medieval Spaniards are way too smart to fall for the balance fallacy!

Wait, You Mean The Invisible Multi-Tentacled Monster That Has Taken Over All Our Information Sources Might Be Trying To Mislead Us?

Since you are a citizen of a repressive society, you should be extremely skeptical of all the information you get from schools, the media, and popular books on any topic related to the areas where active repression is occurring. That means at least politics, history, economics, race, and gender. You should be especially skeptical of any book that’s praised as “a breath of fresh air” or “a good counter to the prevailing bias”, as books that garner praise in the media are probably of the “We need fifty Stalins!” variety.

Scott Alexander, “Reactionary Philosophy In An Enormous, Planet-Sized Nutshell”, Slate Star Codex, 2013-03-03.

June 5, 2015

QotD: The Skeptic

Filed under: Humour, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

No man ever quite believes in any other man. One may believe in an idea absolutely, but not in a man. In the highest confidence there is always a flavor of doubt — a feeling, half instinctive and half logical, that, after all, the scoundrel may have something up his sleeve. This doubt, it must be obvious, is always more than justified, for no man is worthy of unlimited reliance — his treason, at best, only waits for sufficient temptation. The trouble with the world is not that men are too suspicious in this direction, but that they tend to be too confiding — that they still trust themselves too far to other men, even after bitter experience. Women, I believe, are measurably less sentimental, in this as in other things. No married woman ever trusts her husband absolutely, nor does she ever act as if she did trust him. Her utmost confidence is as wary as an American pick-pocket’s confidence that the policeman on the beat will stay bought.

H.L. Mencken, “Types of Men 2: The Skeptic”, Prejudices, Third Series, 1922.

February 3, 2015

To some, it’s worse to be a “lukewarmer” than a full-blown “global warming denier”

Filed under: Environment, Media, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Matt Ridley on the trouble with only agreeing somewhat with the “scientific” “consensus”:

I am a climate lukewarmer. That means I think recent global warming is real, mostly man-made and will continue but I no longer think it is likely to be dangerous and I think its slow and erratic progress so far is what we should expect in the future. That last year was the warmest yet, in some data sets, but only by a smidgen more than 2005, is precisely in line with such lukewarm thinking.

This view annoys some sceptics who think all climate change is natural or imaginary, but it is even more infuriating to most publicly funded scientists and politicians, who insist climate change is a big risk. My middle-of-the-road position is considered not just wrong, but disgraceful, shameful, verging on scandalous. I am subjected to torrents of online abuse for holding it, very little of it from sceptics.

I was even kept off the shortlist for a part-time, unpaid public-sector appointment in a field unrelated to climate because of having this view, or so the headhunter thought. In the climate debate, paying obeisance to climate scaremongering is about as mandatory for a public appointment, or public funding, as being a Protestant was in 18th-century England.

Kind friends send me news almost weekly of whole blog posts devoted to nothing but analysing my intellectual and personal inadequacies, always in relation to my views on climate. Writing about climate change is a small part of my life but, to judge by some of the stuff that gets written about me, writing about me is a large part of the life of some of the more obsessive climate commentators. It’s all a bit strange. Why is this debate so fractious?

Rather than attack my arguments, my critics like to attack my motives. I stand accused of “wanting” climate change to be mild because I support free markets or because I receive income indirectly from the mining of coal in Northumberland. Two surface coal mines (which I do not own), operating without subsidies, do indeed dig coal partly from land that I own. They pay me a fee, as I have repeatedly declared in speeches, books and articles.

January 25, 2015

QotD: TED

Filed under: Business, Media, Quotations, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Take the curious phenomenon of the TED talk. TED – Technology, Entertainment, Design – is a global lecture circuit propagating “ideas worth spreading”. It is huge. Half a billion people have watched the 1,600 TED talks that are now online. Yet the talks are almost parochially American. Some are good but too many are blatant hard sells and quite a few are just daft. All of them lay claim to the future; this is another futurology land-grab, this time globalised and internet-enabled.

Benjamin Bratton, a professor of visual arts at the University of California, San Diego, has an astrophysicist friend who made a pitch to a potential donor of research funds. The pitch was excellent but he failed to get the money because, as the donor put it, “You know what, I’m gonna pass because I just don’t feel inspired … you should be more like Malcolm Gladwell.” Gladwellism – the hard sell of a big theme supported by dubious, incoherent but dramatically presented evidence – is the primary TED style. Is this, wondered Bratton, the basis on which the future should be planned? To its credit, TED had the good grace to let him give a virulently anti-TED talk to make his case. “I submit,” he told the assembled geeks, “that astrophysics run on the model of American Idol is a recipe for civilisational disaster.”

Bratton is not anti-futurology like me; rather, he is against simple-minded futurology. He thinks the TED style evades awkward complexities and evokes a future in which, somehow, everything will be changed by technology and yet the same. The geeks will still be living their laid-back California lifestyle because that will not be affected by the radical social and political implications of the very technology they plan to impose on societies and states. This is a naive, very local vision of heaven in which everybody drinks beer and plays baseball and the sun always shines.

The reality, as the revelations of the National Security Agency’s near-universal surveillance show, is that technology is just as likely to unleash hell as any other human enterprise. But the primary TED faith is that the future is good simply because it is the future; not being the present or the past is seen as an intrinsic virtue.

Bryan Appleyard, “Why futurologists are always wrong – and why we should be sceptical of techno-utopians: From predicting AI within 20 years to mass-starvation in the 1970s, those who foretell the future often come close to doomsday preachers”, New Statesman, 2014-04-10.

January 20, 2015

QotD: Neuroscientific claims

Filed under: Media, Quotations, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

One last futurological, land-grabbing fad of the moment remains to be dealt with: neuroscience. It is certainly true that scanners, nanoprobes and supercomputers seem to be offering us a way to invade human consciousness, the final frontier of the scientific enterprise. Unfortunately, those leading us across this frontier are dangerously unclear about the meaning of the word “scientific”.

Neuroscientists now routinely make claims that are far beyond their competence, often prefaced by the words “We have found that …” The two most common of these claims are that the conscious self is a illusion and there is no such thing as free will. “As a neuroscientist,” Professor Patrick Haggard of University College London has said, “you’ve got to be a determinist. There are physical laws, which the electrical and chemical events in the brain obey. Under identical circumstances, you couldn’t have done otherwise; there’s no ‘I’ which can say ‘I want to do otherwise’.”

The first of these claims is easily dismissed – if the self is an illusion, who is being deluded? The second has not been established scientifically – all the evidence on which the claim is made is either dubious or misinterpreted – nor could it be established, because none of the scientists seems to be fully aware of the complexities of definition involved. In any case, the self and free will are foundational elements of all our discourse and that includes science. Eliminate them from your life if you like but, by doing so, you place yourself outside human society. You will, if you are serious about this displacement, not be understood. You will, in short, be a zombie.

Bryan Appleyard, “Why futurologists are always wrong – and why we should be sceptical of techno-utopians: From predicting AI within 20 years to mass-starvation in the 1970s, those who foretell the future often come close to doomsday preachers”, New Statesman, 2014-04-10.

December 31, 2014

QotD: Dr. Johnson on the future

Filed under: Quotations, Randomness — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:01

At another level, futurology implies that we are unhappy in the present. Perhaps this is because the constant, enervating downpour of gadgets and the devices of the marketeers tell us that something better lies just around the next corner and, in our weakness, we believe. Or perhaps it was ever thus. In 1752, Dr Johnson mused that our obsession with the future may be an inevitable adjunct of the human mind. Like our attachment to the past, it is an expression of our inborn inability to live in – and be grateful for – the present.

“It seems,” he wrote, “to be the fate of man to seek all his consolations in futurity. The time present is seldom able to fill desire or imagination with immediate enjoyment, and we are forced to supply its deficiencies by recollection or anticipation.”

Bryan Appleyard, “Why futurologists are always wrong – and why we should be sceptical of techno-utopians: From predicting AI within 20 years to mass-starvation in the 1970s, those who foretell the future often come close to doomsday preachers”, New Statesman, 2014-04-10.

September 4, 2014

The new absolutism

Filed under: Environment, Liberty, Media, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:12

Brendan O’Neill on the rise of the absolutist mindset in science:

Who do you think said the following: “I always regret it when knowledge becomes controversial. It’s clearly a bad thing, for knowledge to be controversial.” A severe man of the cloth, perhaps, keen to erect a forcefield around his way of thinking? A censorious academic rankled when anyone criticises his work? Actually, it was Brian Cox, Britain’s best-known scientist and the BBC’s go-to guy for wide-eyed documentaries about space. Yes, terrifyingly, this nation’s most recognisable scientist thinks it is a bad thing when knowledge becomes the subject of controversy, which is the opposite of what every man of reason in modern times has said about knowledge.

Mr Cox made his comments in an interview with the Guardian. Discussing climate change, he accused “nonsensical sceptics” of playing politics with scientific fact. He helpfully pointed out what us non-scientific plebs are permitted to say about climate change. “You’re allowed to say, well I think we should do nothing. But what you’re not allowed to do is to claim there’s a better estimate of the way that the climate will change, other than the one that comes out of the computer models.” Well, we are allowed to say that, even if we’re completely wrong, because of a little thing called freedom of speech. Mr Cox admits that his decree about what people are allowed to say on climate change springs from an absolutist position. “The scientific view at the time is the best, there’s nothing you can do that’s better than that. So there’s an absolutism. It’s absolutely the best advice.”

It’s genuinely concerning to hear a scientist — who is meant to keep himself always open to the process of falsifiabilty — describe his position as absolutist, a word more commonly associated with intolerant religious leaders. But then comes Mr Cox’s real blow against full-on debate. “It’s clearly a bad thing, for knowledge to be controversial”, he says. This is shocking, and the opposite of the truth. For pretty much the entire Enlightenment, the reasoned believed that actually it was good — essential, in fact — for knowledge to be treated as controversial and open to the most stinging questioning.

July 3, 2014

Skeptical reading should be the rule for health news

Filed under: Health, Media, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 08:49

We’ve all seen many examples of health news stories where the headline promised much more than the article delivered: this is why stories have headlines in the first place — to get you to read the rest of the article. This sometimes means the headline writer (except on blogs, the person writing the headline isn’t the person who wrote the story), knowing less of what went into writing the story, grabs a few key statements to come up with an appealing (or appalling) headline.

This is especially true with science and health reporting, where the writer may not be as fully informed on the subject and the headline writer almost certainly doesn’t have a scientific background. The correct way to read any kind of health report in the mainstream media is to read skeptically — and knowing a few things about how scientific research is (or should be) conducted will help you to determine whether a reported finding is worth paying attention to:

Does the article support its claims with scientific research?

Your first concern should be the research behind the news article. If an article touts a treatment or some aspect of your lifestyle that is supposed to prevent or cause a disease, but doesn’t give any information about the scientific research behind it, then treat it with a lot of caution. The same applies to research that has yet to be published.

Is the article based on a conference abstract?

Another area for caution is if the news article is based on a conference abstract. Research presented at conferences is often at a preliminary stage and usually hasn’t been scrutinised by experts in the field. Also, conference abstracts rarely provide full details about methods, making it difficult to judge how well the research was conducted. For these reasons, articles based on conference abstracts should be no cause for alarm. Don’t panic or rush off to your GP.

Was the research in humans?

Quite often, the ‘miracle cure’ in the headline turns out to have only been tested on cells in the laboratory or on animals. These stories are regularly accompanied by pictures of humans, which creates the illusion that the miracle cure came from human studies. Studies in cells and animals are crucial first steps and should not be undervalued. However, many drugs that show promising results in cells in laboratories don’t work in animals, and many drugs that show promising results in animals don’t work in humans. If you read a headline about a drug or food ‘curing’ rats, there is a chance it might cure humans in the future, but unfortunately a larger chance that it won’t. So there is no need to start eating large amounts of the ‘wonder food’ featured in the article.

How many people did the research study include?

In general, the larger a study the more you can trust its results. Small studies may miss important differences because they lack statistical “power”, and are also more susceptible to finding things (including things that are wrong) purely by chance.

[…]

Did the study have a control group?

There are many different types of studies appropriate for answering different types of questions. If the question being asked is about whether a treatment or exposure has an effect or not, then the study needs to have a control group. A control group allows the researchers to compare what happens to people who have the treatment/exposure with what happens to people who don’t. If the study doesn’t have a control group, then it’s difficult to attribute results to the treatment or exposure with any level of certainty.

Also, it’s important that the control group is as similar to the treated/exposed group as possible. The best way to achieve this is to randomly assign some people to be in the treated/exposed group and some people to be in the control group. This is what happens in a randomised controlled trial (RCT) and is why RCTs are considered the ‘gold standard’ for testing the effects of treatments and exposures. So when reading about a drug, food or treatment that is supposed to have an effect, you want to look for evidence of a control group and, ideally, evidence that the study was an RCT. Without either, retain some healthy scepticism.

June 2, 2014

Six “red flags” to identify medical quackery

Filed under: Health, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 10:01

Dr. Amy Tuteur shares six things to watch for in health or medical reporting, as they usually indicate quackery:

Americans tend to be pretty savvy about advertising. Put a box around claims, annotate them with the words “paid advertisement” or “sponsored content” and most people approach those claims warily. Unfortunately, the same people who are dubious about advertising claims are remarkably gullible when it comes to quackery.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that it is surprisingly easy to tell quackery apart from real medical information. Quack claims are typically decorated with red flags … if you know what to look for. What follows is a list of some of those red flags.

1. The secret knowledge flag: When someone implies they are sharing secret medical knowledge with you, run in the opposite direction. There is no such thing as secret medical knowledge. In an age where there are literally thousands of competing medical journals, tremendous pressure on researchers to publish papers, and instantaneous dissemination of results on the Internet, nothing about medicine could possibly be secret.

2. The giant conspiracy flag: In the entire history of modern medicine, there has NEVER been a conspiracy to hide lifesaving information among professionals. Sure, an individual company may hide information in order to get a jump on competitors, or to deny harmful effects of their products, but there can never be a large conspiracy because every aspect of the healthcare industry is filled with competitors. Vast conspiracies, encompassing doctors, scientists and public health officials exist only in the minds of quacks.

[…]

4. The toxin flag: I’ve written before that toxins are the new evil humors. Toxins serve the same explanatory purpose as evil humours did in the Middle Ages. They are invisible, but all around us. They constantly threaten people, often people who unaware of their very existence. They are no longer viewed as evil in themselves, but it is axiomatic that they have be released into our environment by “evil” corporations. There’s just one problem. “Toxins” are a figment of the imagination, in the exact same way that evil humours and miasmas were figments of the imagination.

June 1, 2014

Healthy eating … the Woody Allen moment approaches

Filed under: Government, Health, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:22

The “prophecy”:

And in The Economist this week:

Ms Teicholz describes the early academics who demonised fat and those who have kept up the crusade. Top among them was Ancel Keys, a professor at the University of Minnesota, whose work landed him on the cover of Time magazine in 1961. He provided an answer to why middle-aged men were dropping dead from heart attacks, as well as a solution: eat less fat. Work by Keys and others propelled the American government’s first set of dietary guidelines, in 1980. Cut back on red meat, whole milk and other sources of saturated fat. The few sceptics of this theory were, for decades, marginalised.

But the vilification of fat, argues Ms Teicholz, does not stand up to closer examination. She pokes holes in famous pieces of research — the Framingham heart study, the Seven Countries study, the Los Angeles Veterans Trial, to name a few — describing methodological problems or overlooked results, until the foundations of this nutritional advice look increasingly shaky.

The opinions of academics and governments, as presented, led to real change. Food companies were happy to replace animal fats with less expensive vegetable oils. They have now begun abolishing trans fats from their food products and replacing them with polyunsaturated vegetable oils that, when heated, may be as harmful. Advice for keeping to a low-fat diet also played directly into food companies’ sweet spot of biscuits, cereals and confectionery; when people eat less fat, they are hungry for something else. Indeed, as recently as 1995 the AHA itself recommended snacks of “low-fat cookies, low-fat crackers…hard candy, gum drops, sugar, syrup, honey” and other carbohydrate-laden foods. Americans consumed nearly 25% more carbohydrates in 2000 than they had in 1971.

It would be ironic indeed if the modern obesity crisis was actually caused by government dietary recommendations intended to improve public health (and fatten the bottom lines of big agribusiness campaign donors).

May 23, 2014

QotD: Futurologists

Filed under: Media, Quotations, Science, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Futurologists are almost always wrong. Indeed, Clive James invented a word – “Hermie” – to denote an inaccurate prediction by a futurologist. This was an ironic tribute to the cold war strategist and, in later life, pop futurologist Herman Kahn. It was slightly unfair, because Kahn made so many fairly obvious predictions – mobile phones and the like – that it was inevitable quite a few would be right.

Even poppier was Alvin Toffler, with his 1970 book Future Shock, which suggested that the pace of technological change would cause psychological breakdown and social paralysis, not an obvious feature of the Facebook generation. Most inaccurate of all was Paul R Ehrlich who, in The Population Bomb, predicted that hundreds of millions would die of starvation in the 1970s. Hunger, in fact, has since declined quite rapidly.

Perhaps the most significant inaccuracy concerned artificial intelligence (AI). In 1956 the polymath Herbert Simon predicted that “machines will be capable, within 20 years, of doing any work a man can do” and in 1967 the cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky announced that “within a generation … the problem of creating ‘artificial intelligence’ will substantially be solved”. Yet, in spite of all the hype and the dizzying increases in the power and speed of computers, we are nowhere near creating a thinking machine.

Bryan Appleyard, “Why futurologists are always wrong – and why we should be sceptical of techno-utopians: From predicting AI within 20 years to mass-starvation in the 1970s, those who foretell the future often come close to doomsday preachers”, New Statesman, 2014-04-10.

April 25, 2014

Is it science or “science”? A cheat sheet

Filed under: Media, Science — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 08:32

At Lifehacker, Alan Henry links to this useful infographic:

Click to see full-size image at Compound Interest

Click to see full-size image at Compound Interest

Science is amazing, but science reporting can be confusing at times and misleading at worst. The folks at Compound Interest put together this reference graphic that will help you pick out good articles from bad ones, and help you qualify the impact of the study you’re reading

One of the best and worst things about having a scientific background is being able to see when a science story is poorly reported, or a preliminary study published as if it were otherwise. One of the worst things about writing about science worrying you’ll fall into the same trap. It’s a constant struggle, because there are interesting takeaways even from preliminary studies and small sample sizes, but it’s important to qualify them as such so you don’t misrepresent the research. With this guide, you’ll be able to see when a study’s results are interesting food for thought that’s still developing, versus a relatively solid position that has consensus behind it.

April 16, 2014

Thought experiment – in media reports, replace “scientist” with “some guy”

Filed under: Media, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:38

Frank Fleming makes an interesting point:

Our society holds scientists in high esteem. When scientists say something — whether it’s about the composition of matter, the beginning of the universe, or who would win a fight between a giant gorilla and a T. Rex — we all sit up and listen. And it doesn’t matter if they say something that sounds completely ridiculous; as long as a statement is preceded with “scientists say,” we assume it is truth.

There’s just one problem with that: There are no such things as scientists.

Okay, you’re probably saying, “What? Scientists are real! I’ve seen them before! There’s even a famous, blurry photo of a man in a lab coat walking through the woods.” Well, yes, there are people known as scientists and who call themselves such, but the word is pretty much meaningless.

[…]

Which brings us back to our problem. So much of science these days seems to be built on faith — faith being something that doesn’t have anything to do with science. Yet everyone apparently has faith that all these scientists we hear about follow good methods and are smart and logical and unbiased — when we can’t actually know any of that. So often news articles contain phrases such as, “scientists say,” “scientists have proven,” “scientists agree” — and people treat those phrases like they mean something by themselves, when they don’t mean anything at all. It’s like if you wanted music for your wedding, and someone came up to you and said, “I know a guy. He’s a musician.”

“What instrument does he play?”

“He’s a musician.”

“Is he any good?”

“He’s a musician.”

You see, when other occupations are vaguely described, we know to ask questions, but because we have blind faith in science, such reason is lost when we hear the term “scientist.” Which is why I’m arguing that for the sake of better scientific understanding, we should get rid of the word and simply replace it with “some guy.”

It’s not exactly a new phenomenon: Robert Heinlein put these words in the mouth of Lazarus Long, “Most ‘scientists’ are bottle washers and button sorters.” It was true then, and if anything it’s even more true now as we have so many more people working in scientific fields.

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