Archive for April, 2011

Greg Craven’s ‘How It All Ends’ Video

Friday, April 29th, 2011

High-school science teacher Greg Craven had way too much fun making this video:

Lewindowsky on How Ideology Trumps Fact

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

In some ways Australia is ground zero in the climate change catastrophe. For whatever reasons, human-caused perturbations of climate are falling especially hard and especially early Down Under. Which means their politics are probably in some ways a predictor of what we can expect in other parts of the world as things get climatically weirder.

Anyway, I really liked this piece by Australian Stephan Lewandowsky:
The truth is out there. It’s more about American politics than Australian politics, but I still get a sense of the Australian reality seeping through:

The late Stephen Jay Gould referred to a fact as something that it would be “perverse to withhold provisional assent.” Notwithstanding the Academy’s clear statement about the existence of global warming and its human-made causes, recent surveys reveal that the majority of US Republicans do not accept this scientific fact.

Indeed, tragically and paradoxically, among Republicans acceptance of the science decreases with their level of education as well as with their self-reported knowledge: Whereas Democrats who believe they understand global warming better also are more likely to believe that it poses a threat in their lifetimes, among Republicans increased belief in understanding global warming is associated with decreased perception of its severity. The more they think they know, the more ignorant they reveal themselves to be.


What motivates people to reject trivially simple facts – such as the President’s place of birth – as well as more complex facts – such as insights from geophysics and atmospheric science?

The peer-reviewed psychological literature provides some insight into this question. Numerous studies converge onto the conclusion that there is a strong correlation between a person’s endorsement of unregulated free markets as the solution to society’s needs on the one hand, and rejection of climate science on the other. The more “fundamentalist” a person is disposed towards the free market, the more likely they are to be in denial of global warming.

But what do markets have to do with geophysics or the thermal properties of CO2?

The answer is that global warming poses a potential threat to laissez-faire business. If emissions must be cut, then markets must be regulated or at least “nudged” towards alternative sources of energy – and any possibility of regulation is considered a threat to the very essence of their worldview by those for whom the free market is humanity’s crowning achievement.

It is this deep psychological threat that in part explains the hyper-emotionality of the anti-science discourse: the frenetic alarmism about a “world government”, the rhetoric of “warmist” or “extremist” levelled at scientists who rely on the peer reviewed literature, the ready invocation of the spectre of “socialism” – they all point to the perception of threat so fundamental that even crazed beliefs can constitute an alluring antidote.

Roberts on the Republican ‘Fussilade of Lies’

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

David Roberts, writing at Grist, coins my new favorite expression (“the fussilade of lies”) while describing the Republican response to Obama’s attempted centrism: Policy in an age of post-truth politics:

The political logic behind Obama’s center-right healthcare plan (and center-right cap-and-trade plan, and too-small stimulus with too many tax cuts, and too-mild financial reform) is that there is a “center” in the policy spectrum, and that if he chooses policies located there, moderate Republicans, by virtue of their previous policy commitments, will be forced to work with him, and he will get credit for being reasonable and centrist, which will translate into votes, victories, and political momentum. That has been the basic approach of his presidency. Unfortunately, it reflects a naive policy literalism that is absolutely ubiquitous on the left.

What happened instead? On policy after policy, Obama began with grand, magnanimous concessions (see: offshore drilling) and waited in vain for reciprocation. He adopted center-right policies … and was attacked as a radical secular socialist Muslim babykiller. Every Dem proposal, no matter how mild, has been a government takeover complete with confiscatory taxes, death panels, and incipient tyranny. The fusillade of lies began early and has continued unabated.

Now, on the naive, positivist view, the media and other elite referees of public debate should have called a foul. Republicans should have been penalized for opposing and maligning policies that they’d supported not long ago, for brazenly lying, and for rejecting all attempts at compromise. They chose the strategy; the strategy should have been explained plainly to the public.

But the crucial fact of post-truth politics is that there are no more referees. There are only players.

What Will Birthers Do Now?

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

Now that Obama has released his real, official, long-form birth certificate, how will birthers handle the resulting cognitive dissonance? Based on previous experience, I’m betting that it actually strengthens their belief in their rightness. Things I expect high-profile birthers to be saying in the next few days:

  • “It was our insistence that Obama come clean that led to this desirable outcome. We have been instrumental in defending a fundamental principal of democracy: that government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed. The people are the ultimate source of authority, and no government official is above them. By forcing Obama to release his birth certificate, we have saved the Republic.”
  • “We have always known that there was something in the long-form birth certificate that Obama did not want the public to see. Now that he has revealed it, we can clearly see that X [not sure what X will turn out to be; I'm not crazy enough in that particular way, but there will be some actually-benign aspect of the certificate that will be seized upon] was the thing he has been trying to hide.”
  • “How do we know this is the actual birth certificate? Why are the media so trusting? Wake up, sheeple!”

Things I do not expect any high-profile birthers to be saying in the next few days:

  • “Huh. You know what? I was — we all were — completely wrong about this. Obama actually is a natural-born US citizen, and there’s nothing damning in his long-form birth certificate. He wasn’t trying to conceal it for some nefarious reason. Apparently he resisted releasing it so long only because realistically, he had already complied with the requirement that he demonstrate his eligibility for the office to which he was duly and legally elected, and the insistence by a minority that he must do more than that to satisfy their delusional (and probably racist, in many cases) paranoia was ridiculous on the face of it. I will have to think carefully about what this new evidence reveals about my own reasoning, and take a hard look at other views I hold that have been challenged by the same people who challenged my birtherism.”

Court-appearance Fashion Back in the News

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

Stefanie Cohen at the New York Post has an article in today’s paper about starlets in New York taking advantage of their court appearances to get photographed wearing trend-setting outfits: Haute court-ture! It includes this obscure quote from the operator of an obscure blog, discussing his obsessive interest in an earlier courtroom fashionista, Winona Ryder:

John Callender, a Web developer for eBay and longtime political blogger on his site, found himself obsessed with Ryder’s clothing choices, and couldn’t help but comment on them.

“I was kidding at first, but then I realized her clothing choices were more interesting than the trial,” he says.

“The lawyers are creating a story for the jury and the judge and the press, so it’s sort of legitimate for celebrities to present themselves in a certain way.”

It was fun, if kind of weird, being interviewed about fashion. For a trip down memory lane, see: WinonaRyderOnTrial.

More Mooney on Scientists on Reasoning

Monday, April 25th, 2011

Chris Mooney comments on a new study by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber in this item: Is Reasoning Built for Winning Arguments, Rather Than Finding Truth? (Short answer: Quite possibly yes.)

Here’s the abstract of Mercier and Sperber’s paper (see Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory):

Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given the exceptional dependence of humans on communication and their vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of evidence in the psychology of reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis. Poor performance in standard reasoning tasks is explained by the lack of argumentative context. When the same problems are placed in a proper argumentative setting, people turn out to be skilled arguers. Skilled arguers, however, are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views. This explains the notorious confirmation bias. This bias is apparent not only when people are actually arguing but also when they are reasoning proactively from the perspective of having to defend their opinions. Reasoning so motivated can distort evaluations and attitudes and allow erroneous beliefs to persist. Proactively used reasoning also favors decisions that are easy to justify but not necessarily better. In all these instances traditionally described as failures or flaws, reasoning does exactly what can be expected of an argumentative device: Look for arguments that support a given conclusion, and, ceteris paribus, favor conclusions for which arguments can be found.

Mercier explained it to Mooney this way:

If reasoning evolved so we can argue with others, then we should be biased in our search for arguments. In a discussion, I have little use for arguments that support your point of view or that rebut mine. Accordingly, reasoning should display a confirmation bias: it should be more likely to find arguments that support our point of view or rebut those that we oppose. Short (but emphatic) answer: it does, and very much so. The confirmation bias is one of the most robust and prevalent biases in reasoning. This is a very puzzling trait of reasoning if reasoning had a classical, Cartesian function of bettering our beliefs – especially as the confirmation bias is responsible for all sorts of mischief… Interestingly, the confirmation bias needs not be a drag on a group’s ability to argue. To the extent that it is mostly the production, and not the evaluation of arguments that is biased – and that seems to be the case – then a group of people arguing should still be able to settle on the best answer, despite the confirmation bias… As a matter of fact, the confirmation bias can then even be considered a form of division of cognitive labor: instead of all group members having to laboriously go through the pros and cons of each option, if each member is biased towards one option, she will find the pros of that options, and the cons of the others – which is much easier – and the others will do their own bit.

Mooney observes:

I think this evolutionary perspective may explain one hell of a lot. Picture us around the campfire, arguing in a group about whether we need to move the camp before winter comes on, or stay in this location a little longer. Mercier and Sperber say we’re very good at that, and that the group will do better than a lone individual at making such a decision, thanks to the process of group reasoning, where everybody’s view gets interrogated by those with differing perspectives.

But individuals – or, groups that are very like minded – may go off the rails when using reasoning. The confirmation bias, which makes us so good at seeing evidence to support our views, also leads us to ignore contrary evidence. Motivated reasoning, which lets us quickly pull together the arguments and views that support what we already believe, makes us impervious to changing our minds. And groups where everyone agrees are known to become more extreme in their views after “deliberating” – this is the problem with much of the blogosphere.

It’s interesting to me how the legal system recreates and formalizes the roles of this (hypothetical) evolutionary collective decision-making mechanism. We have the interested parties advocating on each side. We have the impartial referee (the judge) whose job it is to make sure the advocates follow a set of rules designed to ensure fairness. And then we have the jury: A group of objective, disinterested observers who evaluate the arguments of the advocates, and, free of the distortions of their own confirmation bias, decide which side is right.

This plays out really interestingly in the age of the Internet. The Internet reduces the distance between me and confirmatory evidence to zero, so I’m able to amass what appears to me to be an unassailable edifice of fact in support of whatever position I’m arguing. It also makes it very convenient for me to assemble with others who share my views (since no matter how outré those views are, the Internet reduces the distance between me and my would-be cohorts to zero as well). With our evolutionary craving for societal connection satisfied, we crazies can hive off into our own little world untroubled by the arguments of those who disagree with us.

I also like how this applies to politics. The advocates on both sides are all convinced of their own rightness, regardless of reality. The “jury” ends up being those infamous independent voters, those who don’t really care about the big issues of the day, and wake up every few years just before election time to do a quick, fairly disengaged evaluation of the arguments of each side. It’s an interesting notion that those low-information voters actually could be by far the most important players in the process. Because of our evolutionary tendency to lean on the scales of our own judgment, we are fatally biased as decision-makers on any subject about which we care deeply. We desperately need those blithe, unconcerned voters in the middle to help us reach good collective decisions.

We need civility. We need reasonable, rational middlemen (and -women). We need venues where advocates from both sides can engage with each other and lay out their arguments, but where relatively disinterested observers are also present to evaluate those arguments. We need communities that we are connected to, and feel a part of, but that nevertheless span ideological boundaries.

That used to be the way all communities worked, because they were by definition local, defined by the limits of transportation and communication to consist of the people who lived and worked in a given location. They don’t necessarily work that way anymore, which I’ve tended to think of as a good thing. But in light of the implications of Mercier and Sperber’s research, I may need to reconsider.

Colbert on Kyl on Statements not Intended to be Factual

Sunday, April 24th, 2011

I missed commenting on this when it happend a couple of weeks ago. Clearly I’ve been behind in my Colbert consumption:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Jon Kyl Tweets Not Intended to Be Factual Statements
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive

Mooney on Science and Its Opposite

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

I’ve been following Chris Mooney’s blogging and podcasting really closely for a while now; he’s digging into subjects that I find fascinating, and I like his take on them.

He has an article in the upcoming issue of Mother Jones that covers some of the most interesting stuff he’s been into lately: The science of why we don’t believe science. It discusses recent research that Dan Kahan (among others) has been doing — see Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus (PDF) — that discusses how a person’s deeply held values influence his or her perception of scientific opinion. So, for example, if you are a politically conservative/libertarian-leaning person (in Kahan’s formulation, someone who values hierarchy over egalitarianism and individualism over communitarianism), then you will resist the (truthful) idea that there exists a scientific consensus that human activity is warming the planet, and poses a grave risk, presumably because you fear that such a consensus, if it existed, would be used to advance a government regulatory regime that would restrict free enterprise.

But the same sword cuts the other way, too. Kahan’s research shows that those on the progressive end of the political spectrum (in his formulation, those who value egalitarianism over hierarchy and communitarianism over individualism) are similarly likely to question the (truthful) idea that there exists a scientific consensus that radioactive wastes from nuclear power can be safely disposed of in deep underground storage facilities.

Mooney interviewed Kahan for his Point of Inquiry podcast a few months ago (Dan Kahan – The American Culture War of Fact), and it was a great interview; highly recommended. I was actually kind of disappointed that the article in Mother Jones didn’t go into as much detail as the podcast (see my griping here, for example). But for a broad-but-shallow overview of some intriguing aspects of the issue, it (the Mother Jones article) is definitely worth reading.

Dino Puppet Eats Horsey Puppet for _Breakfast_!

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

Not impressed with Horsey Puppet? Okay. I give you Dino Puppet! Raawwwwrrrrr!!

Courtesy of Phil Plait.

Joey the Horsey Puppet

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

I meant to watch the TED Talk video that Boing Boing linked to a while ago, about the amazingly lifelike horse puppet, because it sounded intriguing, but I got caught up in other things and forgot. Then the LA Times (yay, dead-tree media!) had a cool review today (‘War Horse’ has a star of a steed), and that reminded me, so I went back and found it. I’m glad I did:

If you’re looking for a shorter version, this trailer for the play is pretty compelling, too: