Tag Archives: Science

“Studies show…” as a Smokescreen

Studies_ShowTo feign credibility for their holy propaganda, religious professionals love to preface their sales talk by saying something like “in the original language our holy book says …”  Read what I wrote here about that deceptive trick.

Such deception is not monopolized only by referring to religious texts. People use science jargon in the same way. People who preface their sales points by saying “studies show” may also be trying to say, “look, this is science, don’t question it.” or “I know my stuff, don’t question me.”  So it is not just the religion hucksters who play the game.

I once taught a course on “Medical Research” to graduate students. My course goal was to teach the future physician assistant students to see through the bullshit of drug reps and to not fall prey to smokescreens of “science” talk. I wasn’t trying to teach them to be researchers but to see through the smokescreens of researchers or the hucksters who cherry pick research.

Unfortunately, learning to analytically dissect supposed scientific studies and to see through their shortcomings takes a lot of training. But the first step to being objective is to never believe someone who says “studies show” without demanding much more evidence.  And if the science salesman or woman actually happens to hand you the study they are quoting, the first things to examine include:

  • the reputation of the source journal
  • the research funding source and the vested interests of the researcher
  • the number of people studied and the population chosen
  • the type of study (qualitative vs. quantitative, epidemiological vs experimental, retrospective vs prospective, etc, etc).  Understanding study types is a bit tough.  But it allows you to see through the common deceptions:

So beware: In developed countries, among the highly educated, science is the new Bible and “Studies shows” is the equivalent of “In the original Greek” for Bible pushers. Don’t be hoodwinked by either.

If you want to watch a professional researcher analyze studies, go to Tom Reese’s site “Epiphenom” where he reviews studies on religion done in all sorts of journals.

Questions to readers: Do you have other cautions for beginners to consider when questioning a study?

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The Accidental Species: Henry Gee

Henry GeeI just bought the Kindle version of Henry Gee’s book: The Accidental Species.  My purchase was inspired by John Wilkens’ post about the book.  Wilkens is an Australian historian and philosopher of science and very good writer to boot. Apparently Gee’s previous book has been quote mined by Creationists  for his questioning of the assumptions hidden inside many science narratives which see evolution as a story of progress and the inevitable development of unique human traits — both of which, like Wilkens, I abhor.

But not everyone agrees. Jerry Coyne, a fine evolution scientist and writer,  called his work “anti-science”.   Wow, that got my interest.  I love accusation of heresy in the temple of science.  Join me if you wish, I will use this post to index my reflections inspired by Gee’s book.

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Scientism & God: a meta-approach

Sean Carroll, over at Preposterous Universe, wonderfully critiques the word “scientism”.  Scientism has again popped up its ugly head due to a recent Steven Pinker article in the New Republic. But as I do often here on Triangulations, Carroll’s first reflex is not to accept the word as a real thing and then take sides, but instead, he gets behind the word “scientism”.  He does not defend or attack the word.  Nor does he seek a better definition.  Instead, he explores the various ways it is used. He then exposes how those who use the word often talk past each other. He does what I often do, he embrace the meta-conversation.

We forget the very nature of words and mistakenly argue about them as if they have some objective meaning. We get angry if people don’t accept our use of a word. We keep arguing with each other without realizing we use words differently. And we are often unaware of all the nuances and confusion behind our own words.

And so it is with the word “God” or “Supernatural” or “Freedom” or “Faith” …. the list goes on.  Instead of wasting our time defending or attacking abstractions, it is often more productive to address the more concrete, specific concept behind the words — and more importantly, how our minds use them.  Read Carroll, he says this all much better than I do — besides, you’ll learn something about “scientism”!

Question for readers:  Is “Scientism” a useful term? Why or why not? How would you improve it?

Resources:

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Rejoicing over Damaged Opinions

Read about the connection !

Richard Dawkins appeared on Al Jazeera recently in an excellent, 30 minute interview around the theme of “Is there room for religion in science?”   For me, like many atheists, the greatest, non-compatible difference between the two is that those who value science are taught to rejoice when their favorite and most inspiring theories are empirically overthrown, while religions teach their adherents to hang on stubbornly to their beliefs in spite of what counter evidence appears — they call that “faith”.

Not all religious folks obey this version of stubborn faith and instead change their beliefs and let their spirituality evolve over time.  And not all people who say they value science rejoice when data contradicts their favorite theories.  Science fans can be politically obstructive, biased and display vested self-interests just as a religious person can.  But, the rhetoric, policy and temperament of both sides is different.  The “Science temperament” is thirsty for more accurate estimates of reality and willing to sacrifice any opinion to move in that direction while the “Religious temperament” praises unyielding belief in spite of counter-evidence as a virtue.  Here is a post listing confessions of scientists to their previous mistaken opinions.

I must say, I have always been scientifically minded since I was very young.  I have always rejoiced at having my opinions overthrown.  I’ve used this blog to document many of my past mistaken beliefs.  And today, I’d like to playfully share two of my long-held opinions that were severely challenged on my recent trip to Europe:

The French & Their Language

When I was younger, I had bad experiences in Paris (in contrast to Germany, Holland and other countries) when I could not get people to speak with me.  I also never liked the sound of the language.  But my European trip took me to Alsace region in France where I met some fantastic people who were very kind about baby French.  I even have begun to like the sound of the language.  It is embarrassing how such a short trip could overthrow such a long held prejudices!  My French host suggested that my experiences may have been favorable because Alsace people are special in France.  This may be, but I am glad to enjoy my new images and my dissolving prejudice.

Belgian Beer

My image of Belgian beers before my trip was fruity, sweet beers — which I do not enjoy at all.  But my Belgian host introduced me to his favorite Belgian beers which were not fruity or sweet — I loved them.

Questions to readers:  What are some non-religious opinions you have had overturned by your exposures in life?

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Human Migration: New Models

I made the above model to show the simple view of Homo sapien migration that I have had for a long time.  But I have not kept up on pertinent genetics, geology, linguistics, archeology, anthropology and much more.  I am trying to read up on the origin of culture in India and while looking at some recent stuff, I realized my simple model of human migration is outdated.  Today I ran into this great show on Stephen Oppenheimer’s theory which is found in “The Real Eve” (2003).  It is fascinating!  And if you watch the show, you can see why the genetics of India could be so complicated.  But I have no idea how the academy feels about this theory.  And  I don’t know if I can get all this to relate to the Ramayana, but it was a fun distraction.

Questions to readers:

  • Do you know if Oppenheimer’s theory has controversy?  What is the consensus?
  • Can you recommend better book, sites or maps?

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Chimps time travel too

Over the millenium, humans have mustered their meager intellects to desperately prove themselves unique and superior to all other animals. Most people, indeed, don’t even like to think of themselves as animals.

I wrote against that anthropocentric claim here:  “What makes us Unique?“.

But supporting the “humans-on-top” view, Crus Campbell, at his excellent blog “Genealogy of Religion“, claimed that:

“Making and keeping promises is a hallmark of human behavior
–Cris Campbell”

But I object: Promises are made with language. How do we know that animals don’t signal [a language] some sort of contracts [promises] with each other? He also claims that:

“[Chimpanzees can not] self-cue memories without external prompts.
–Cris Campbell “

Well, I just ran across this article in The Conversation that says:

More recently, studies of the chimpanzee “mind” suggest they can mentally “time travel”, like humans, by reliving past events and imagining or conceiving of what might happen in the future.

Unfortunately, just as Cris did not support his grandiose claims, this article did not source these “studies” either.

Oh well. But I remain suspicious of those that try so hard to make it obvious that humans have gone beyond being an animal.

Question to Readers:  What do you think?  Can you site studies?

PS: Chris’s blog will be improving in November — stay tuned.

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Socrates and the Puffy Poets

Of human foibles, “puffying-up-our-heroes” is pretty comical.   By “puffing up”, I mean that we assume our heros know more and can do more than they actually can; We let celebrities lecture us on economics, scientists tell us about the meaning of life, and religious specialists tell us about the deep principles of nature.  Using Buddhist teachers as an example, I tried to illustrate that point here:

Poets offer another good example of this false valorization phenomena.  Some folks puff up poets with far more insight than they deserve. I have two posts which explore puffy poets:

Thanx to James (a reader), I just learned of a passage from Plato’s Apology (copied below), where Socrates describes the poets of his time as claiming wisdom much beyond their reach. I am always pleased to find ancient Western philosophers who have said better what I tried to say:

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Envisioning Nouns: Science

Elementary grammar teaches us that nouns fall into two groups:  Concrete Nouns vs. Abstract Nouns.  But the line between these categories is not as fixed as we are told.  We divide up the world for practical reasons but our categories are rarely as fixed (concrete) as we imagine.  “Fruit”, for instance, when used in a botanical sense includes: walnuts, tomatoes, avocados and even wheat.  But for many folks, fruit is suppose to be sweet — like sugar cane?  Yet many of today’s cultivated succulently sweet apples come from ancestors that were amazingly  sour.

As another example, here are some “tables”:

 
 3 legs  2 legs or 4 legs  1 leg / pedestal
     
 1 leg or 3 legs  Japanese Kotatsu  legs or layers

Who’d guess that table’s definition could be a little fuzzy — I mean, how much more concrete can you get than a table?  Fortunately when we move on to something like “love” or “faith”, people will admit that the definitions get a little fuzzy.  But take a word like “science”, and many folks want to concretize it again.  These folks want that word’s definition locked up in a castle, while others are comfortable realizing it is nebulous and defined variously in different contexts and in different circles of people.

   

Some folks want to shout out and tell people what a word really means — they are prescriptionists or word-nazis.  And some folks want to wrestle for the meaning hoping that the victor takes all.

   

Some folks, however, actually work out agreements with other folks so that their words share enough meaning and fit well enough together that they can use the words meaningfully and get things done.  These folks look at words as contracts which, even if temporary, allow groups to form, tools to be made, behaviors to change and all the other things language is used for.  These contractualists aren’t deceived that words live in Plato’s heaven and that we must merely discover their true meaning.  They aren’t deceived to feel words have locked, clearly defined meanings (see: Myth of Definitions).  They understand the nebulous nature of language and that is is our creation which we use to facilitate communication.  Words change, we change with them.  Understanding how words work can help us learn flexibility when trying to share words.

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Pyramids to Plates: Watch your Diet

The US government has replaced the food pyramid  with the food plate image to tell Americans nudge Americans toward a healthier diet.  Presentation styles do matter, and this new presentation is definitely an improvement.  Additionally, there have been some changes besides just the presentation:  If you compare the two, you can see that the new emphasis is on a little less carbs and a little more fat — a change in the right direction even if not enough.

 

Readers may recognize that in my life I have been all over the map in terms of religion, politics and medicine.  Yet another imbalanced, fanatic aspect of my life has been food — go figure!  In my past I have been a vegan, a raw vegan, a macrobiotic, a flexatarian and now I eat “paleo” (low-carb).  So you can see I am not to be trusted.  But for fun I have made a plate image of my present diet.

So which diet is best — well, don’t ask your doctor.  Interestingly a recent study shows that doctors opinions are culturally determined and very close to the opinions of their uneducated lay patients.   If you ask a physician about a low-carb diet, for instance, they will probably criticize it as a fad.  Indeed it may be a mere fad.  Only time will tell — lots of time!   But a recent study has declared that Low-Carb diet may be good, if accompanied by exercise.  Wheeew, do I feel a lot better.  But dog-gone-it, why does everything have to be so complicated?

Question to Readers:  Confess your food fads!  [I’m off to have some sardines and wine!]

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The Great Person Theory of History

While I was writing my post  about the history of Darwin and the discovery of the solar nuclear furnace,  I was reminded of one of my pet peeves:  The Great Man Theory of History (wiki, also here).  This theory claims that history should be understood through famous people.  The montage on the right, would be a way to envision his small story through the eyes of the Great Man Theory.

The Great Man Theory of History views history as the impact of “great men” but the foibles of this simple theory can be seen in the story of the solar furnace.  In fact, I intentionally structured that post to illustrate this tempting yet mistaken theory of history by filling the right column with the big pictures of all the “Great Men”.  OK, there was one woman in the story and a modern day version of the theory should, of course, include women and rightly be called “The Great Person Theory of History”.  But “Man” or “Person”, the theory would still be deceptively wrong.

I see two huge main problems with The Great Person Theory of History:

  1. Interdependence: The creations of these “Great People” are almost inevitably dependent on many people who came before them — both those who made mistakes and those who approximated reality closer than those before them. Almost all ideas or discoveries can be shown to be dependent on the many discoveries or ideas that proceeded them.  The Solar Furnace post shows just a minuscule number of the discoveries that feed Bethe’s discovery.
  2. Co-Discovery:  Ideas are often born of several people independently and often simultaneously showing that any particular “Great Person” is not a necessary as one might be tempted to think.  In fact, if any of these great men or women had never been born, the idea most likely would have come out eventually anyway.   It is as if we share knowledge which ripens for any number of people to eventually pick.  For a list of co-discoveries or “multiple discoveries” see this wiki article.  Here are a few famous ones:
    • Calculus: Newton, Leibniz (1600s)
    • Oxygen: Scheele (1773), Priestley (1774)
    • Electric Telegraph: Wheatstone & Morse (1937)
    • Evolution: Darwin (1840), Wallace (1857)
    • Chromosomes: Sutton & Boveri (1902)
    • Sound Film: Tykociner (1922), Forest (1923)
    • Quantum electrodynamics:  Stueckelberg, Schwinger, Feynman, Tomonaga  (1930-40s)
    • Universal Computing Machine:  Alan Turing & Emil Post (1936)
    • Polio vaccine: Koprowski, Salk, Sabin  (1950-63)
    • Jet Engine: Campini (1940), Whittle (1941)
    • Nanotubes:  Bethune and Iijima (1993)

So, though the montage on the right may be a bit improved “Great Person” view of history than the one above, it is still distorted.  The Great Person theory is pervasive.  It permeates the historical models of people all over the world.

This model is a common temptation because of the existence of social hierarchy modules in human brains — we are built to look for leaders and heroes.    We share this with other primates.  These “leader” modules probably lead us into the delusional side of the Great Person Theory of History.   Our minds hunger for heros and leaders for our tribe.  Indeed the larger “tribal” module even has us generate “the other” and villains.  We fill our histories with stories of evil people to explain our lives: Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao and recently, the late bin Laden.  But like the hero stories, the villain stories lack the nuances of the many, many people involved and of the concepts and causes that really feed the phenomena.

The temptations of the Great (or Evil) Person Theory of history is obvious but so are its short-comings.  We must always be diligent not to let our minds fool us.

So, below, in contrast to the Great People Theory map, I have sketch a History Map which is honors both interdependence and co-discovery.  My attempt is to make concepts more central and Great People as less critical.  I will allow readers to imagine pictures of other people for the arrows missing pics as the map is, by necessity, a bit too cluttered already.  Note also that this model shows that mistakes (the source of rejected theories on the left) often serve as foundational material for success (closer approximations).  Tell me what you think:

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