Tag Archives: Science

Atul Gawande on the mistrust of science

The New Yorker published Atul Gawande’s commencement address at the California Institute of Technology. He calls upon the graduates to defend science from pseudo science. I don’t think he’s really defending science so much as basic reasoning. He writes:

To defend those beliefs, few dismiss the authority of science. They dismiss the authority of the scientific community. People don’t argue back by claiming divine authority anymore. They argue back by claiming to have the truer scientific authority. It can make matters incredibly confusing. You have to be able to recognize the difference between claims of science and those of pseudoscience.

Science’s defenders have identified five hallmark moves of pseudoscientists. They argue that the scientific consensus emerges from a conspiracy to suppress dissenting views. They produce fake experts, who have views contrary to established knowledge but do not actually have a credible scientific track record. They cherry-pick the data and papers that challenge the dominant view as a means of discrediting an entire field. They deploy false analogies and other logical fallacies. And they set impossible expectations of research: when scientists produce one level of certainty, the pseudoscientists insist they achieve another.

To be precise, all five of those moves are logical fallacies–well most of them anyway. And this speaks to the broader point–it’s not just science, but basic reasoning that he’s defending. The trouble is, however, that the enemies, as it were, of reason take themselves to be its defenders. In fact, calling them out on their sorry reasoning, as Gawande has just done, is, as Gawande notes, not advisable:

The challenge of what to do about this—how to defend science as a more valid approach to explaining the world—has actually been addressed by science itself. Scientists have done experiments. In 2011, two Australian researchers compiled many of the findings in “The Debunking Handbook.” The results are sobering. The evidence is that rebutting bad science doesn’t work; in fact, it commonly backfires. Describing facts that contradict an unscientific belief actually spreads familiarity with the belief and strengthens the conviction of believers. That’s just the way the brain operates; misinformation sticks, in part because it gets incorporated into a person’s mental model of how the world works. Stripping out the misinformation therefore fails, because it threatens to leave a painful gap in that mental model—or no model at all.

To put this another way. Science teaches you a lot of truths and techniques that don’t matter to people who most need them. Invoking these truths and techniques not only does not convince them, it makes it worse. By analogy, the truths and techniques of critical thinking 101 don’t matter to the people who most need them and invoking them only serves to make matters worse.

Read the rest of Gawande’s piece.  At least he’s optimistic.

Fun with charts

Lots of arguments fail the freshness test; they’re fallacious for reasons any undergraduate can point out.  These are our focus here for the most part.

Other arguments, however, fail for slightly more sophisticated, but not less pernicious, reasons.  These cloak themselves in the sincerity of honest inquiry or grown up skepticism, but in reality they’re just mechanisms for refusing to engage with the claims of the opposition.  This chart, found at the Wonkblog (thanks Colin) identifies some common strategies:

Fun times.

This was an episode of the Simpsons

No seriously, this happened (via Steve Benen):

Every winter, David DeWitt takes his biology class to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, but for a purpose far different from that of other professors.

DeWitt brings his Advanced Creation Studies class (CRST 390, Origins) up from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., hoping to strengthen his students' belief in a biblical view of natural history, even in the lion's den of evolution.

His yearly visit to the Smithsonian is part of a wider movement by creationists to confront Darwinism in some of its most redoubtable secular strongholds. As scientists celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, his doubters are taking themselves on Genesis-based tours of natural history museums, aquariums, geologic sites and even dinosaur parks.

"There's nothing balanced here. It's completely, 100 percent evolution-based," said DeWitt, a professor of biology. "We come every year, because I don't hold anything back from the students."

In the Simpsons episode, when the religious types demanded alternatives to Darwinian evolution be taught in school, Principal Skinner proposed Lamarkian evolution.

In other matters, the Post has published an op-ed by an former Harvard endocrinologist on the virtue of science.  He says it's wrong.  The only serious examples he gives are examples of irresponsible science reporting–that's different.  Here's a piece:

When a group of British academic researchers reported last spring that women fond of eating breakfast cereal were more likely to give birth to boys, the story was lapped up by journalists the world over. "Skip breakfast for a daughter, eat up your cereals for a son," advised the Economist, just one of many publications to seize on the report.

The problem with this fascinating study? It appears to be wrong. An analysis led by Stan Young of the National Institute for Statistical Sciences found that the original conclusion was based on poor statistics and is probably the result of chance.

So far, Young's rebuttal, published in January, has received little notice. That it is ignored by many of the media outlets that lavished attention on the original report isn't surprising; in fact, the most remarkable thing is how ordinary that lack of attention may be. A lot of science, it turns out, can't withstand serious scrutiny. Thoughtful analysis by John Ioannidis suggests that more than half of published scientific research findings can't be replicated by other researchers.

Can the results of that one study about the falsity of scientific research be replicated?  The author doesn't bother to find out.  In any case, that is seriously the only evidence for this startling claim offered in the entire piece.  The rest is anecdotal school sucks kind of stuff.  It does, of course, suck.  And science is mostly wrong, that's the point.  I thought.  Or so I learned in school.  But maybe they were wrong about that.

She blinded me with ethics

There's a certain laughable cluelessness about George Will.  One can seriously wonder whether he really knows that most of his columns advance the shakiest and silliest of arguments.  The same is not true of Charles Krauthammer, his arguments advance a fairly malicious brand of sophistry–in particular, the sophistry of wrongly or dishonestly (i.e., by distortion) claiming others guilty of sophistry.  See for instance his column on Friday (cf., the greatest non sequitur ever foisted)

Today the topic is stem cells.  Two things.  Krauthammer is not incapable of making a reasonable argument, and the stem cell issue deserves to be approached with some amount of seriousness.  Having said that, it seems that Krauthammer in his most recent column does not approach the issue very seriously.  Here's the first bit of unseriousness:

I am not religious. I do not believe that personhood is conferred upon conception. But I also do not believe that a human embryo is the moral equivalent of a hangnail and deserves no more respect than an appendix. Moreover, given the protean power of embryonic manipulation, the temptation it presents to science and the well-recorded human propensity for evil even in the pursuit of good, lines must be drawn. I suggested the bright line prohibiting the deliberate creation of human embryos solely for the instrumental purpose of research — a clear violation of the categorical imperative not to make a human life (even if only a potential human life) a means rather than an end.

On this, Obama has nothing to say. He leaves it entirely to the scientists. This is more than moral abdication. It is acquiescence to the mystique of "science" and its inherent moral benevolence. How anyone as sophisticated as Obama can believe this within living memory of Mengele and Tuskegee and the fake (and coercive) South Korean stem cell research is hard to fathom.

The first part of the second paragraph is false in the sense that Obama does not leave the matter entirely to scientists.  But the second part is a bit of ridiculous hyberbole of the slippery slope variety: if we leave the matter entirely to scientits (who are amoral!), we will get Joseph Mengele (that's a very swift violation of Godwin's law by the way).  Here, for reference, is the relevant section of Obama's speech:

I can also promise that we will never undertake this research lightly. We will support it only when it is both scientifically worthy and responsibly conducted. We will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse. And we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction. It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society. 

Moving on to the more malicious bits.  Here's Krauthammer again:

That part of the ceremony, watched from the safe distance of my office, made me uneasy. The other part — the ostentatious issuance of a memorandum on "restoring scientific integrity to government decision-making" — would have made me walk out.

Restoring? The implication, of course, is that while Obama is guided solely by science, Bush was driven by dogma, ideology and politics.

It's not a stretch to suggest that the Bush administration had a particular disdain for science and scientists who disagreed with their policy agenda.  See The Republican War on Science, 238ff, for why someone might plausibly assert such a thing about the Bush administration (so spare us the feigned shock please).  But more specifically, the "implication" (that's a logic term) is not that Obama is guided soley (you'll see what he does with this in a moment) by science.  That is an overly strong and decidedly uncharitable version of the claim Obama is making.  Continuing:  

What an outrage. Bush's nationally televised stem cell speech was the most morally serious address on medical ethics ever given by an American president. It was so scrupulous in presenting the best case for both his view and the contrary view that until the last few minutes, the listener had no idea where Bush would come out.

Obama's address was morally unserious in the extreme. It was populated, as his didactic discourses always are, with a forest of straw men. Such as his admonition that we must resist the "false choice between sound science and moral values." Yet, exactly 2 minutes and 12 seconds later he went on to declare that he would never open the door to the "use of cloning for human reproduction."

Does he not think that a cloned human would be of extraordinary scientific interest? And yet he banned it.

Is he so obtuse as not to see that he had just made a choice of ethics over science? Yet, unlike Bush, who painstakingly explained the balance of ethical and scientific goods he was trying to achieve, Obama did not even pretend to make the case why some practices are morally permissible and others not.

This is not just intellectual laziness. It is the moral arrogance of a man who continuously dismisses his critics as ideological while he is guided exclusively by pragmatism (in economics, social policy, foreign policy) and science in medical ethics.

Science has everything to say about what is possible. Science has nothing to say about what is permissible. Obama's pretense that he will "restore science to its rightful place" and make science, not ideology, dispositive in moral debates is yet more rhetorical sleight of hand — this time to abdicate decision-making and color his own ideological preferences as authentically "scientific."

No straw man has been identified, however: Obama has argued that the choice between the two is false, so naturally he does not choose between the two! (See the quote above).  Besides, Obama obviously does not share (see quote above) Krauthammer's nihilistic conception of science, nor does he intend to allow such a science to exist or flourish on the federal dime.  Obama has made it pretty clear that he thinks Bush's restrictions, however surprisingly or drammatically delivered, to be out of sync with where we are scientifically and ethically.  Such an argument, outlined earlier in the speech, does not entail now that anything goes or that there is no moral basis for his view–that would be a falsely dichotomous understanding of ethics and a complete distortion of what Obama said.  The weirdest thing about all of this is that Krauthammer seems to agree with Obama's position.

In any case, it is obvious that the issue of stem cell research is a morally intricate one–one that deserves more serious discussion than Krauthammer would allow.