Archive for December, 2010

Novella on Bedbugs AND Meta-cognition (*Swoon*)

Friday, December 31st, 2010

Oh, man-crush Steven Novella, how do I love thy postings at Neurologica? Let me count the ways…

Um, okay: two. That is, I love the latest post at Neurologica (The Coming Bedbug Plague) two ways: It is about an insect (which is a topic I’m lately fairly obsessed with) and it links the insect story with a pithy observation about humans’ mistaken belief in the inevitability of progress.

Here’s my favorite bit from the part about progress:

My initial surprise at hearing this story, I think, reflects an inherent progressivist bias in our thinking. We tend to think of human history as making inexorable progress. This bias is reinforced, especially since the industrial revolution, by the fact that science and technology has been relentlessly progressive. The problem is in the default assumption that all change is progressive – whatever current system we have must be better than the old system because newer is better.

Human history, however, is more complex than our default assumptions. Sometimes history is regressive. And sometimes it is cyclical. Not all current trends will extrapolate indefinitely into the future. Today’s fad is not always the wave of the future.

In my mind bedbugs were a problem of pre or early industrial societies, and were no longer an issue given modern hygiene and pest-control. I associated bedbugs with an earlier age, and it just seemed incongruous that they could return in the 21st century. But the details tell a different story.

I’m not sure I’ve mentioned the recent insect obsession on, but you can find evidence of it, if you’re interested, at my local nature-y blog, Carp Without Cars. Or you can examine my recently uploaded images at Or you can watch this video I took in my bedroom the other day, of a case-bearing carpet moth caterpillar, and contemplate the fact that taking that video was kind of the high point of my week:

Or you could just take my word for it: I’m kind of into bugs lately.

Yong on the Urge to Cling Harder to Shaken Belief

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

Awesome science blogger Ed Yong wrote back in October about a new study demonstrating the lengths to which people will go to avoid cognitive dissonance: When in doubt, shout – why shaking someone’s beliefs turns them into stronger advocates.

You don’t have to look very far for examples of people holding on to their beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Thousands still hold to the idea that vaccines cause autism, that all life was created a few thousand years ago, and even that drinking industrial bleach is a good idea. Look at comment threads across the internet and you’ll inevitably find legions of people who boldly support for these ideas in the face of any rational argument.

That might be depressing, but it’s not unexpected. In a new study, David Gal and Derek Rucker from Northwestern University have found that when people’s confidence in their beliefs is shaken, they become stronger advocates for those beliefs. The duo carried out three experiments involving issues such as animal testing, dietary preferences, and loyalty towards Macs over PCs. In each one, they subtly manipulated their subjects’ confidence and found the same thing: when faced with doubt, people shout even louder.

There are a couple of obvious tie-ins to the climate change debate: Deniers deny even more fiercely in the face of mounting scientific evidence that climate change is real, and that urgent action to address it is imperative. And I guess it cuts the other way, too, as shcb is no doubt already preparing to type in response: In the face of public relations setbacks, the climate change believers are redoubling their own efforts. If you believe that the believers are factually wrong, and that the evidence against them is legitimate, then it matches up in exactly the same way.

And accused people tend to protest their innocence, whether or not they are guilty. That doesn’t make the two cases equivalent, though. There is such a thing as actual innocence, and it makes a difference.

For more great stuff from Ed Yong, check out his NERS Review of the year Part 9 – Twists and lessons.

Romm on His Climate Hawkism

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

Joseph Romm, on why he is a climate hawk:

I am a physicist by training who studied physical oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.  Since then, I’ve mostly been an energy technologist, including a 3-year stint as deputy manager and then manager of what was then the largest program in the world to work with businesses to develop and deploy clean energy and low carbon technologies.  Then I became a consultant to businesses on clean energy and carbon mitigation, and then a full-time energy/climate policy analyst and blogger.

I don’t think “climate hawk” applies to my view of climate science, but rather my view of climate and energy policy.  My view of climate science comes from having read much of the climate science literature of the last few years and having listened to many of the leading climate scientists (for a recent literature review, see “An illustrated guide to the latest climate science“).  In that respect I sometimes call myself a “climate science realist.”


The overwhelming majority of people who have seriously read the recent literature  and who have talked to a large number of top climate scientists are climate hawks, whereas the vast majority of the climate doves, deniers, delayers or lukewarmers you read online or might in person have not done those two things.


How Do You Talk to shcb About Climate Change?

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

From the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions: The Psychology of Climate Change Communication. The subtitle reads:

A Guide for Scientists, Journalists, Educators, Political Aides, and the Interested Public

Currently reading it, but so far it sounds like good stuff. As summarized by Chris Mooney, the guide’s advice includes:

…knowing your audience, employing framing, using trusted messengers (often local voices), using the power of groupthink in your favor (rather than letting it turn against you), and much else.

I’ll probably yack more about this when I’ve finished it.

Staniford on De-Carbonizing His Footprint

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

Stuart Staniford has an interesting writeup on his blog today about his ongoing project to shift to a sustainable lifestyle: Prospects for Early Progress in Decarbonizing my Household. He has converted to full-time telecommuting and moved his family from the Bay Area to a rental home in upstate New York. The next step: Green Acres.

So, as of a couple of weeks back, we are now the proud owners of 11 acres, complete with a mid-nineteenth century farmhouse and a medium-sized barn. It’s situated in a valley up in the hills about 10 miles from Ithaca, between two state forests, and surrounded by a land trust nature preserve. Directly on the property, we have a one acre pond, a little over an acre of lawns, 8 acres or so of gently sloping pasture, and a little woodland, mostly riparian right next to the creek that abuts the property, and a stream that runs down to it.

I say the creek abuts the property, because legally it does, and it used to do so in fact as well as in law. However, shortly before we got the house, the beavers decided to divert the creek onto the lowest portion of our lawn by damming the culvert under the road. How long the powers that be will tolerate this situation is unclear, since probably the town’s engineers would like the culvert nice and clear, and the land trust had intended the creek to run on their property, not ours. But apparently the beavers didn’t consult their lawyers or get permits before beginning their midnight construction project.

I’d love to live in a place like that, though I probably wouldn’t get much done besides bird- and bug-watching.

Another thing I love is following Staniford’s train of thought when he explains technical concepts. He reminds me a little of Robert Heinlein, who was great at rattling on for page after page about spacesuits, or the scale of the solar system, or whatever, and making everything really accessible and interesting without dumbing down the content. For example:

The coal stove is a sort of a personal climate destruction machine – it takes in both electricity and coal, and uses the electricity to power an automated feeder mechanism which takes rice coal from a hopper and burns it, somewhere out of sight in the depths of the machine, before distributing the resulting heat via a blower fan. The previous owners avowed that it would burn for four days unattended from a full hopper of coal (they were very proud of it because it heated the lower floor of the farmhouse so cheaply and conveniently).

We did contemplate running this thing for a while until it became somewhat more budgetarily convenient to replace it, but our consciences have got the better of us and we have decided that an immediate project is to replace it with a modern wood stove – less convenient, no doubt, to stack and load wood, but we need the exercise anyway, and it’s ever so much more beautiful to look at a wood fire through the glass of an efficient wood stove with secondary burners. And of course, at least in our area, there’s plenty of trees busy fixing the carbon for future firewood. Not a solution that will scale to everyone, for sure. Not a solution that works for urban areas. But one that certainly makes sense here.

Pomplamoose’s Deck the Halls

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

Christmas cheer, courtesy of Pomplamoose:

I was not previously aware of Pomplamoose (other than subliminally, maybe), but came across them in Jason’s (I assume; the blog is our own Jayson’s and his friend Jason’s, but I think the unsigned pieces are without-a-y-Jason’s) snarky but worthwhile post at To Eleven about Any asshole with a holiday song.

I haven’t listened to them all yet, but I think my favorite Pomplamoose video so far is this cover of Gaga’s Telephone:

Gervais on His Atheism

Sunday, December 19th, 2010

Both funny and compelling: A Holiday Message from Ricky Gervais: Why I’m An Atheist.

People who believe in God don’t need proof of his existence, and they certainly don’t want evidence to the contrary. They are happy with their belief. They even say things like “it’s true to me” and “it’s faith”. I still give my logical answer because I feel that not being honest would be patronizing and impolite. It is ironic therefore that “I don’t believe in God because there is absolutely no scientific evidence for his existence and from what I’ve heard the very definition is a logical impossibility in this known universe”, comes across as both patronizing and impolite.

Novella on Lehrer on the Decline Effect

Sunday, December 19th, 2010

Recently-acquired mancrush Jonah Lehrer had a cool article in the New Yorker recently: The Truth Wears Off (PDF of the otherwise-paywalled full article). It concerns something called “the decline effect”, which seems to afflict a broad range of scientific pursuits. In a nutshell, a new and exciting discovery is announced. Other scientists replicate it, and confirm that yes, the effect appears to be real. But then, over time, a curious thing happens: The magnitude of the measured effect begins to decline in subsequent studies. It’s almost as if, as Lehrer puts it in his title, the truth “wears off.”

Several of the scientists Lehrer spoke to for his article were uncomfortable being quoted. The decline effect calls into question some of the fundamental underpinnings of the objective, science-y stuff to which they have devoted their lives. The article apparently has been somewhat controversial; witness the cranky review given to it by my other recent mancrush, Steven Novella: The decline effect.

Novella quotes Lehrer’s conclusion (somewhat out of context), and rants on a bit:

And this is why the decline effect is so troubling. Not because it reveals the human fallibility of science, in which data are tweaked and beliefs shape perceptions. (Such shortcomings aren’t surprising, at least for scientists.) And not because it reveals that many of our most exciting theories are fleeting fads and will soon be rejected. (That idea has been around since Thomas Kuhn.) The decline effect is troubling because it reminds us how difficult it is to prove anything. We like to pretend that our experiments define the truth for us. But that’s often not the case. Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true. When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe.

This paragraph sums up what I was describing above – Lehrer is ultimately referring to aspects of science that skeptics have been pointing out for years (as a way of discerning science from pseudoscience), but Lehrer takes it to the nihilistic conclusion that it is difficult to prove anything, and that ultimately “we still have to choose what to believe.” Bollocks!

I find Novella’s relatively impassioned response to Lehrer really interesting. Rather than simply acknowledging that Lehrer, as a writer selling copies of the New Yorker, faces a different set of contingencies with respect to hyperbole and colorful language than does, say, a neuroscientist selling science-based medicine, Novella really goes for it, taking Lehrer’s statements way past the point where I, at least, think he intended them to be taken, erecting a strawman he can then knock down. Novella talks past much of Lehrer’s argument, ignoring those points where Lehrer offers explanations for the decline effect. For example, Lehrer talks about the too-human fallibility of scientists chasing significance, and the problem of a publication and review process that rewards the dramatic and “interesting” result, which at first is the result that demonstrates a new and hitherto unrecognized effect, but eventually becomes the result that undercuts the now-established wisdom.

Lehrer writes:

The problem of selective reporting is rooted in a fundamental cognitive flaw, which is that we like proving ourselves right and hate being wrong. “It feels good to validate a hypothesis,” Ioannidis said. “It feels even better when you’ve got a financial interest in the idea or your career depends on it.”

I thought about this dispute while listening to D.J. Grothe’s recent interview with paranormal investigator Joe Nickell. Nickell is a skeptic, as is Novella, but his approach impresses me more than Novella’s. Nickell recognizes that the things he’s researching are almost certainly bunk, but he doesn’t just rant (as Novella too-frequently does on the otherwise-awesome podcast he heads up, the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe) about what delusional fools paranormal believers are. Instead, Nickell wants to know what’s really going on. It’s easy (and probably satisfying, on some level) to just cry “Bollocks!” when confronted by belief in something that flies in the face of the best evidence. But what Nickell emphasizes in his interview is that to stop at that point is to miss out on the opportunity to solve the real mystery. So Nickell investigates, in the sense that he actually goes to the site of the latest “haunting” (or whatever), listens to the witnesses with as open a mind as he can muster, and digs until the truth emerges.

As Doyle’s Holmes pointed out in “A Scandal in Bohemia”:

It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.

Novella is quick to dismiss Lehrer’s article — too quick, I believe. There’s something there, and it’s worth taking a look at. But someone who believes he has the answers already, and is driven by an apparent need to denigrate those who believe differently, is going to be unlikely to do much looking.

Zakaria on Beck on the Percentage of Muslims Who Are Terrorists

Sunday, December 12th, 2010

Okay, enough with the poignant videos about the transitory nature of human relationships, as depicted through dance, animation, and music. Let’s talk about something important: Glenn Beck’s innumeracy:

Ryan Woodward + Kori Wakamatsu + 4 Dancers + The Weepies

Saturday, December 11th, 2010

As a certified Weepies-holic, I really enjoyed this:

This making-of video was interesting, too:

Thought of You – Behind the Scenes Preview – ROUGH CUT from Cambell Christensen on Vimeo.

Novella on Anecdotes, Anomalies, and the Importance of Context

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

Steven Novella has thought a lot about thinking. I offer in evidence the following post from his Neurologica blog: The Context of Anecdotes and Anomalies.

The problem with anecdotes is that they are subject to a host of biases, such as confirmation bias. They are easily cherry picked, even unintentionally, and therefore can be used to support just about any position. For every anecdote, there is an equal and opposite anecdote.

I really liked it, and heartily recommend the whole thing to the friendly local conspiracy theorists. Unfortunately, I also predict that they will fail to recognize it as a valid indictment of their epistemological shortcomings. Oh, well.

Cooper vs. Berman on Obama’s Birth Certificate

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

Fun stuff:

How Do You _Know_?

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

A word I like to throw around (especially when someone believes something different than what I believe) is epistemology. That’s the branch of philosophy that deals with the theory of knowledge, or how it is that we know what we know. When I think about epistemology I tend to think about the operation of my prefrontal cortex, as it carries out the so-called “executive function” of my brain: The evaluation of information gathered by the senses (these days, often via the distance-shrinking “perception engine” of the Internet), the use of logic, the rational weighing of evidence, and so on. There is also bias, including the predisposition to believe certain things because they match my a priori belief (see confirmation bias), but here I assume we’re still talking mostly about the prefrontal cortex.

But there is another aspect of knowledge that I too-frequently ignore. That’s the feeling of truth, the sense of certainty that accompanies knowing something. Here I suspect we’re moving beyond the prefrontal cortex into evolutionarily older structures. Where does that feeling come from?

An interesting disorder that may shed some light on this is prosopagnosia, or “face blindness”, in which a person has an inability to recognize faces, even if their ability to perceive the specific differences between one person’s face and another’s remains intact. Even more interesting (at least to me) is the somewhat-related disorder called the Capgras delusion, in which a person becomes convinced that someone they know well (like a close relative or loved one) has been replaced by an identical-looking stranger. In an NPR story from earlier this year (Seeing Impostors: When Loved Ones Suddenly Aren’t), Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich spoke with neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran about a possible explanation for the Capgras delusion:

According to Ramachandran, when we see someone we know, a part of our brain called the fusiform gyrus identifies the face: “That looks like mom!” That message is then sent to the amygdala, the part of our brains that activates the emotions we associate with that person. In patients experiencing Capgras, Ramachandran says, the connection between visual recognition and emotional recognition is severed. Thus the patient is left with a convincing face — “That looks like mom!” — but none of the accompanying feelings about his mother.

Ramachandran holds that we are so dependent on our emotional reactions to the world around us, that the emotional feeling “that’s not my mother” wins out over the visual perception that it is. The compromise worked out by the brain is that your mother was somehow replaced, and this impostor is part of a malevolent scheme.

I see this as tying in with Justin Barrett’s notion of a Hyperactive Agency Detection Device. The idea is that humans have evolved to experience a deep-rooted, powerful sense of “agency” when perceiving certain kinds of phenomena, and (this is important) to do so even in cases when there is no agent. As just one example, in evolutionary terms it may have been beneficial for us to believe that that rustle in the bushes was a large, hungry predator stalking us, rather than the wind, and to believe that viscerally, on an emotional level, rather than treating it as a passing supposition that we might or might not be bothered to act upon. The energy our ancestors wasted by overreacting to windblown leaves was more than made up for, the theory goes, by the survival benefit conferred by being hyperalert to actual threats.

Having evolved this generalized mechanism for “knowing” things that are not necessarily so, we now experience all kinds of interesting consequences: A propensity to believe that the universe was created specifically for us by an imaginary, omnipotent being or beings. A belief that intelligent aliens from other worlds are kidnapping people, taking them aboard invisible spaceships, and subjecting them to anal probes. A belief that some dramatic, emotionally traumatic event (the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the 9/11 attacks) must have been the result of a conspiracy in which our own government was complicit. For a significant subset of the population, these and other conspiracy theories are not merely things that they suspect. They are things that they know.

Jonah Lehrer blogged yesterday about a recent study examining the role of a brain structure called the insula in mediating between physical sensations (like the feeling of warmth or cold one receives from holding a hot or cold object) and a willingness to extend trust to a trading partner: Trust and temperature. I especially liked this part:

We like to see ourselves as Promethean creatures, mostly liberated from this sack of meat we have to carry around for support. (John Updike, as usual, said it best: “We think we are what we think when in truth we are upright bags of tripe.”) But what the insula and these studies of embodied cognition demonstrate is that our mind is impossibly intertwined with carnal changes we can’t explain or comprehend.

I know what I know because my rational mind has analyzed facts and evidence, sure. But that’s not the whole story. The sensations delivered to me by my body — by chemical cues, sensations of warmth and cold, and the murky actions of older, deeper mechanisms that reach me as visceral emotions — play a large part. Perhaps the major part.

I just know it.