High stakes trolley September 17, 2016Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Philosophy.
Tags: Trolley problem
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“A runaway trolley is barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, in the trolley’s path, five people are trapped and unable to get out of the way: they will surely be killed if the trolley continues on its present course. You are standing next to a lever that can switch the trolley to a different set of tracks in time to save the five; but there is one person trapped on the side track who will surely be killed if you pull the lever. What do you do?”
“I’d pull the lever: better one person dies than five.”
“What if the five trapped people are all registered organ donors, and you knew for a fact that after being killed by the trolley their organs would be used to save the lives of ten people (who would die otherwise)?”
“In that case I should probably just do nothing: five will die, but more lives will be saved.”
“What if the five trapped people are also the only ones who know the location of a ticking bomb that will kill a hundred people unless the five are saved?”
“I guess pulling the lever would be the lesser evil, after all.”
“Well, what if the person trapped on the side track is a uniquely brilliant computer scientist, who has just figured out how to build an Artificial Intelligence that would tell us how to instantly eradicate malaria — which currently kills a thousand people every day?”
“Then it seems like leaving the trolley alone is actually the greater good.”
“But what if you knew that unleashing such a powerful AI at this point in time, before we’re fully prepared to contain it, would set off a chain of events leading inexorably to the extinction of humanity?”
“OK, I would definitely pull the lever to save humanity.”
“But what if you also knew that allowing this AI to develop uninhibited is the only way to ensure it becomes conscious, which will result in its evolving into a being far more rational, compassionate and ethical than humans, eventually filling the universe with levels of happiness and beauty unimaginable to (and unachievable by) us?”
“Fine: I’d bite the bullet and get out of the way. Are you happy now? Can I go?”
“Almost… You may take your blindfold off.”
“What the… Hey! You down there, get off the tracks! Don’t you see the trolley coming? I can’t save all of you! Damn it…”
Proud to be the party that protects human life July 24, 2016Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Freedom, Politics, Religion.
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The Republicans have published their 2016 Party Platform, in which they claim to stand for noble ideals:
We denounce bigotry, racism, anti-Semitism, ethnic prejudice, and religious intolerance. Therefore, we oppose discrimination based on race, sex, religion, creed, disability, or national origin and support statutes to end such discrimination… Our ranks include Americans from every faith and tradition, and we respect the right of each American to follow his or her deeply held beliefs.
Not bad, but they’re missing a crucial bit at the end there: it should read, “we respect the right of each American to follow his or her deeply held beliefs — so long as they do not infringe upon the rights of others.” We don’t condone polygamy, for instance, or human sacrifice, no matter how deeply someone might believe in them. But the omission was not accidental: before you know it, the authors’ own “deeply held beliefs” are trumping their supposed opposition to bigotry and discrimination.
We … condemn the Supreme Court’s lawless ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges… [in which] five unelected lawyers robbed 320 million Americans of their legitimate constitutional authority to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman…
We endorse the First Amendment Defense Act… which will bar government discrimination against individuals and businesses for acting on the belief that marriage is the union of one man and one woman.
This obstinate resistance to same-sex marriage (in spite of the fact that a majority of Americans support it) might seem puzzling, since the Republican platform is all about promoting “married family life as the basis of a stable and prosperous society”, and it praises adoption as well (“Families formed or enlarged by adoption strengthen our communities and ennoble our nation”). Why, then, are they hellbent on preventing same-sex couples from marrying and adopting? The only justification they offer is a depressingly familiar one: “traditional religious beliefs that have been held across the world for thousands of years”. Do those who use that argument really not realize that it applies equally well to innumerable atrocities we have worked hard to leave behind us, from witch hunting to slavery?
Same-sex marriage is not the only bogeyman the Republicans squander their energy on: abortion is mentioned in the platform thirty-four times. (Climate change is mentioned just nine times — the scientific consensus is rejected, in case you were wondering.) And this is where we really go through the looking glass. The platform says things like “We affirm our moral obligation to assist, rather than penalize, women who face an unplanned pregnancy,” and “We are proud to be the party that protects human life and offers real solutions for women,” but those words must not mean what I think they mean.
we assert the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental right to life which cannot be infringed. We support a human life amendment to the Constitution and legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to children before birth…
We will not fund or subsidize healthcare that includes abortion coverage…
We condemn the Supreme Court’s activist decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt striking down commonsense Texas laws providing for basic health and safety standards in abortion clinics.
Needless to say, those laws were designed solely to reduce the availability of abortions: Texas could not provide the Court with a single example of a woman whose health would have benefited from the laws’ provisions. And in addition to making it as difficult as possible for women to get abortions, the Republicans also want to make it more likely that they’ll need them:
We renew our call for replacing “family planning” programs for teens with sexual risk avoidance education that sets abstinence until marriage as the responsible and respected standard of behavior. That approach — the only one always effective against premarital pregnancy and sexually-transmitted disease — empowers teens to achieve optimal health outcomes. We oppose school-based clinics that provide referral or counseling for abortion and contraception…
This despite the fact that abstinence-only sex education has been shown to be ineffective at preventing unwanted pregnancy or the spread of STDs — in the U.S., abstinence education was actually found to be positively correlated with teen pregnancy. And just for good measure, the platform also opposes embryonic stem cell research, which has the potential to produce therapies for many horrible injuries and diseases. But don’t forget, they’re “proud to be the party that protects human life”.
Why does the Republican Party care more about clumps of cells than the health and happiness of actual human beings? Why do they obsess over controlling people’s sex lives (despite claiming to be “the party of independent individuals”)? It all starts with their definition of “the fundamental precepts of American government”:
That God bestows certain inalienable rights on every individual… that man-made law must be consistent with God-given, natural rights; and that if God-given, natural, inalienable rights come in conflict with government, court, or human-granted rights, God-given, natural, inalienable rights always prevail…
And they have a specific God in mind, of course:
We support the public display of the Ten Commandments as a reflection of our history and our country’s Judeo-Christian heritage…
Yes, the same Ten Commandments that teach us to kill people for worshiping the wrong god. So much for respecting Americans from every faith and tradition. The Constitution, of course, never mentions God at all. Because, if you care about reality and about the wellbeing of those living in it, you need to base your policies on reason and critical thinking — instead of blindly maintaining ancient beliefs and traditions just because they’re ancient, in the face of all evidence against them.
Assisted suicide is yet another humane policy opposed by the Republican platform. But some things should really be allowed to die.
Who’s afraid of evidence? July 9, 2016Posted by Ezra Resnick in Politics, Reason, Science.
Tags: Jeffrey Guhin, Neil deGrasse Tyson
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson recently tweeted:
Earth needs a virtual country: #Rationalia, with a one-line Constitution: All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence
Apart from theocrats and dictators, you’d think most everyone could agree with that sentiment in principle. But not UCLA sociologist Jeffrey Guhin: he says it’s “a very stupid idea”. Guhin, you see, has uncovered a fatal flaw in the scientific method (brace yourself): Scientists aren’t perfect!
… experts usually don’t know nearly as much as they think they do. Experts often get it wrong, thanks to their inherently irrational brains that, through overconfidence, bubbles of like-minded thinkers, or just wanting to believe their vision of the world can be true, mislead us and misinterpret information. Rationality is subjective. All humans experience such biases; the real problem is when we forget that scientists and experts are human too—that they approach evidence and reasoned deliberation with the same prior commitments and unspoken assumptions as anyone else. Scientists: They’re just like us.
Well, that’s a surprise to precisely no one. Apart from the “rationality is subjective” nonsense, scientists would certainly agree with the above, Tyson included. That’s why the scientific method has developed tools to help correct for error and minimize bias: randomized and blinded experiments, peer review, meta-analysis, etc. Which is how, despite the human flaws of individuals scientists, science has been so amazingly successful at expanding our knowledge and improving our lives: electromagnetism, evolution, genetics, cosmology — the list goes on and on. Advances in medical science have doubled our life expectancy over the last century. Guhin, however, is not impressed:
… science has no business telling people how to live. It’s striking how easily we forget the evil following “science” can do. So many times throughout history, humans have thought they were behaving in logical and rational ways only to realize that such acts have yielded morally heinous policies that were only enacted because reasonable people were swayed by “evidence.” Phrenology—the determination of someone’s character through the shape and size of their cranium—was cutting-edge science. (Unsurprisingly, the upper class had great head ratios.) Eugenics was science, as was social Darwinism and the worst justifications of the Soviet and Nazi regimes. Scientific racism was data-driven too, and incredibly well respected. Scientists in the 19th century felt quite justified in claiming “the weight of evidence” supported African slavery, white supremacy, and the concerted effort to limit the reproduction of the lesser races…
And yet, despite its abysmal track record, people continue to have extremely positive opinions of “science.”
You’ve got to be kidding me: “abysmal track record”!? Just last week, NASA’s spacecraft Juno entered Jupiter’s orbit after travelling 1.7 billion miles over five years — and it arrived within one second of the predicted time. Now, it’s true that following the scientific method does not guarantee immunity from mistakes: reality is complicated. But Guhin’s purported examples of “the evil following science can do” are actually not scientific at all: from pseudoscience (like phrenology) to fascistic propaganda (like Nazism), the great mistakes of history were caused by ideological dogmatism, and would have been prevented by more skepticism and more insistence on rational evaluation of the evidence — exactly the lesson Tyson wants us to learn. Sure, the bad guys tried to leech off science’s good reputation by claiming it was on their side, but saying something is scientific doesn’t make it so. Does Guhin think Scientology is a scientific organization? Does he consider North Korea a democracy just because it calls itself “the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”?
Democracy is actually a good example of another system we stick with even though it’s imperfect — because it’s better than the alternatives. And that is the crux of the matter. Science is hard, and we should do our best to understand the ways it can fail so as to mitigate them; but come decision time, the only relevant question is whether there’s a superior alternative. If experts and evidence are stupid, what does Guhin think we should base our policy on instead? What method has a better track record than science? He does not get very specific about that.
Science may give us data, but that doesn’t mean that data points to truth—it just means that’s what we currently understand as truth. So how we act on that data requires nuance and judgment. It’s philosophical, maybe religious, and certainly political.
Oh, we just need to use “nuance and judgement”! Genius. What else? “Maybe religious,” he says — but which religion would that be? There are many, their prescriptions usually conflicting. And since religious beliefs aren’t evidence-based, religious differences cannot be resolved through rational discourse (witness the wonderful policies of ISIS, for instance). As for philosophy and politics, I would hope those are based on reason and evidence — otherwise we’re just back to religion again. Evidence is what grounds us to reality, and losing touch with reality inevitably turns out badly. Science is no more and no less than our best honest attempt to figure out what’s really true about the world we live in — and that’s exactly what you want to base your life decisions on.
Why, then, is Guhin so irrationally opposed to Rationalia? I don’t know. Perhaps he’s afraid that if the demand for reasonable arguments supported by evidence ever becomes widespread, he’ll have a hard time getting published.
Turing’s library June 19, 2016Posted by Ezra Resnick in Computer science, Logic.
Tags: Halting problem
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You are in an infinite library, containing the code of every possible computer program. In the library’s central space there is a computer that can be used for running the programs: you enter the code of the program you wish to run, along with the program’s input, then you push the Run button. A red light indicates that the program is running. Some output may be printed, and when the program’s execution is complete the light goes off. For some programs and inputs the run ends almost immediately, but for others the light stays on for a long time. If you get tired of waiting for the computer to halt, you can always press the Abort button to stop the current run.
Some programs in the library are short and simple, like this one:
Program M [input: two numbers, a and b]
Print the sum of a and b.
Unsurprisingly, running Program M with the numbers 2 and 3 as input prints “5”, denoted M[2, 3] = 5. Some programs are much more complex, of course. There is a program that translates English text to Japanese; a program that computes the shortest route between any two cities on a map; a program that, given the state of the board in a checkers game, finds the optimal next move.
Some programs take a long time to run, but you notice that some programs are guaranteed to never halt, at least for some inputs. For example:
Program N [input: a number, n]
As long as n equals 0, keep printing “0”.
For any nonzero input, Program N halts immediately; but N gets stuck in an infinite loop, printing zeros forever (or until you hit the Abort button).
Unfortunately, you find that for many programs you cannot easily tell just by examining their code whether or not they will run forever. If a program is still running after a week, or a year, should you give up and abort? Perhaps it only needs a minute more, or an hour, or a day — or, it might be stuck in an infinite loop that will never end. It occurs to you that it would be nice to know in advance, before running a program, whether it will eventually halt (for a given input), or whether it is destined to run forever. Surely, you think, there must be a program somewhere in the library that can answer that question! After all, a computer program is just text, so there’s no reason why the code of one program cannot serve as the input for another. The special program you are seeking, call it Program H, would take as its input the code of the program to be evaluated (p), along with that program’s proposed input (i); Program H would then print “True” (i.e., H[p, i] = True) in cases where p[i] would halt, or “False” (i.e., H[p, i] = False) in cases where p[i] would run forever. You spend a long time searching the library for Program H.
One day you happen upon someone who introduces himself as the librarian. Excited, you describe Program H, and ask where in the library it can be found. The librarian smiles. The library is infinite, he says, containing every possible computer program — but none of them is Program H. You ask how he can be certain, since by his own admission the library is infinite. Let me prove it to you, he says. If Program H existed in the library, there must also exist Program G, defined as follows:
Program G [input: the code of a computer program, x]
Use the same method as Program H to determine whether program x will halt when running with the code of program x as its input. If so (i.e., H[x, x] = True), then loop forever; otherwise (i.e., H[x, x] = False), halt.
Now, says the librarian, ask yourself: What will happen if we run Program G with its own code as input? Will G[G] run forever or halt? We ought to be able to compute the answer using Program H. Let’s first assume that H[G, G] = True, which means that G[G] will halt. But, based on the definition of Program G, G[G] would only halt if Program H reports that G[G] will not halt, i.e., H[G, G] = False — contradicting our assumption. Let’s assume, then, that H[G, G] = False, which means that G[G] will not halt. But, based on the definition of Program G, G[G] would only fail to halt if Program H reports that G[G] will halt, i.e., H[G, G] = True — also a contradiction!
We therefore have no choice but to conclude that Program H is like a square circle: it cannot logically exist. The library is infinite, containing every possible computer program — but none of them is Program H: some problems are impossible to solve.
Look on the bright side, says the librarian, sensing your disappointment. What’s that, you ask. The librarian smiles: At least you won’t waste any more time searching for something that isn’t there.
Theirs is a repressive, hateful ideology June 14, 2016Posted by Ezra Resnick in Equality, Politics.
Tags: Paul Ryan
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It is horrifying to see so many innocent lives cut short by such cowardice. Tonight, and in the long days ahead, we will grieve with the families…
As we heal, we need to be clear-eyed about who did this. We are a nation at war with Islamist terrorists. Theirs is a repressive, hateful ideology that respects no borders…
I’m certainly not going to minimize the problem of Islamist terrorists; and yet, they don’t hold a monopoly on repressive, hateful ideology. Take Paul Ryan, for instance. He has voted against same-sex couples adopting children in Washington D.C., opposed the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy (which barred openly gay persons from military service), and supported a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. In other words, he has actively contributed to the denigration and demonization of gays in our society, and has helped perpetuate the discrimination and injustice they face. And then, when gays are targeted for violence, he condemns someone else’s hateful ideology.
Perhaps, instead of praying, the Speaker could try doing something actually useful: he could speak up in support of equal rights for all, and against the dogmas that divide us — domestic as well as foreign. Being clear-eyed about one’s own failings does take courage; but Paul Ryan is no coward, is he?
The Pope and the Patriarch February 15, 2016Posted by Ezra Resnick in Freedom, Religion.
Tags: Patriarch Kirill, Pope Francis
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Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church finally got together after a thousand years, and they issued a joint declaration of what’s been on their minds lately.
In affirming the foremost value of religious freedom, we give thanks to God for the current unprecedented renewal of the Christian faith in Russia, as well as in many other countries of Eastern Europe, formerly dominated for decades by atheist regimes. Today, the chains of militant atheism have been broken and in many places Christians can now freely confess their faith…
I’m not myself a fan of the Christian faith, or of religious faith in general, but I certainly think people should be free to confess it. I must say, given the history of Christianity, I’m glad to hear the holy duo are such big supporters of religious freedom. I assume they know what it means, right?
At the same time, we are concerned about the situation in many countries in which Christians are increasingly confronted by restrictions to religious freedom, to the right to witness to one’s convictions and to live in conformity with them. In particular, we observe that the transformation of some countries into secularized societies, estranged from all reference to God and to His truth, constitutes a grave threat to religious freedom. It is a source of concern for us that there is a current curtailment of the rights of Christians, if not their outright discrimination, when certain political forces, guided by an often very aggressive secularist ideology, seek to relegate them to the margins of public life.
And… no. Sorry, guys, but the secularization of society, the removal of God from politics, does not restrict or threaten your religious freedom — that’s exactly backwards: secularism is what makes religious freedom possible, because it denies official status and privilege to any particular religion. That means no one gets to force their religion on you — although I’m afraid you don’t get to force yours on anyone, either.
Anyway, back to the declaration: you were concerned about discrimination against Christians and the curtailment of their religious freedom?
The process of European integration, which began after centuries of blood–soaked conflicts, was welcomed by many with hope, as a guarantee of peace and security. Nonetheless, we invite vigilance against an integration that is devoid of respect for religious identities. While remaining open to the contribution of other religions to our civilization, it is our conviction that Europe must remain faithful to its Christian roots. We call upon Christians of Eastern and Western Europe to unite in their shared witness to Christ and the Gospel, so that Europe may preserve its soul, shaped by two thousand years of Christian tradition.
If I didn’t know how deeply Francis and Kirill care about religious freedom, I’d almost think they were encouraging some discrimination against non-Christians there…
Any other big problems to be concerned about?
The family is the natural centre of human life and society. We are concerned about the crisis in the family in many countries…
The family is based on marriage, an act of freely given and faithful love between a man and a woman… We regret that other forms of cohabitation have been placed on the same level as this union, while the concept, consecrated in the biblical tradition, of paternity and maternity as the distinct vocation of man and woman in marriage is being banished from the public conscience.
Oops, see what you did there? You’re trying to make the general public conform to your own religious rules. I’m sorry, but you don’t get that power any more. I know you’ve been used to having it for a long time, so losing it feels like persecution, but it’s really not. You still get to practice your religion and preach it; but you don’t get to force it on anyone who doesn’t subscribe to it. Isn’t freedom wonderful?
Propagate a perverted interpretation February 7, 2016Posted by Ezra Resnick in Politics, Religion.
Tags: Barack Obama, Islam
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President Obama visited the Islamic Society of Baltimore this week. Before I critique some of his remarks, let me first emphasize what I agree with: Anti-Muslim bigotry is no more acceptable than any other kind of bigotry. All Muslim individuals deserve to be treated with dignity as human beings, and should not have to face prejudice or discrimination or hate crime. But — and this is where the confusion begins — it does not follow that Islam, as a belief system, must be treated with respect; or that criticism of Islam is tantamount to bigotry. Islam is a set of ideas, and if some of those ideas are wrong or harmful, that’s something we need to talk about, no matter if some people find it offensive.
On with the criticism, then:
For more than a thousand years, people have been drawn to Islam’s message of peace… And like so many faiths, Islam is rooted in a commitment to compassion and mercy and justice and charity.
I realize politicians often play fast-and-loose with the meanings of words when telling an audience what it wants to hear, but this Orwellian whitewashing is a very cruel joke at the expense of those who actually live under Islamic law. Like in Saudi Arabia, where the poet Ashraf Fayadh just had his death sentence for apostasy downgraded (after an international outcry) to a mere eight years in prison and 800 lashes. Or in Pakistan, where those accused of blasphemy are often lynched before they even make it to trial, and a 15-year-old recently cut off his own hand to atone for inadvertent blasphemy. Or in Iran, where it’s legal to have sex with a girl — or execute her — at the age of nine (the age of Muhammad’s bride Aisha when their marriage was consummated).
Wait a minute, what am I saying: everyone knows that while religion deserves credit for inspiring people to do good things, it’s never at fault when people’s religious beliefs motivate them to do bad things. Islam is defined to be compassionate and merciful and just, so anyone who commits hateful or cruel or unjust acts in the name of Islam must be perverting the True Faith!
Even as the overwhelming majority — and I repeat, the overwhelming majority — of the world’s Muslims embrace Islam as a source of peace, it is undeniable that a small fraction of Muslims propagate a perverted interpretation of Islam…
Groups like al Qaeda and ISIL, they’re not the first extremists in history to misuse God’s name. We’ve seen it before, across faiths. But right now, there is a organized extremist element that draws selectively from Islamic texts, twists them in an attempt to justify their killing and their terror…
Groups like ISIL are desperate for legitimacy. They try to portray themselves as religious leaders and holy warriors who speak for Islam. I refuse to give them legitimacy…
We shouldn’t play into terrorist propaganda. And we can’t suggest that Islam itself is at the root of the problem. That betrays our values. It alienates Muslim Americans. It’s hurtful to those kids who are trying to go to school and are members of the Boy Scouts, and are thinking about joining our military.
That kind of mindset helps our enemies. It helps our enemies recruit. It makes us all less safe. So let’s be clear about that.
I don’t know which would be more depressing: if Obama really believes all that, or if he thinks that pretending to believe it is the politically expedient thing to do. I don’t doubt that the overwhelming majority of Muslim Americans are horrified by the actions of ISIL; so I understand they might not welcome the idea that their religion is part of the problem. But that’s the truth: the beliefs, methods, and goals of ISIL are taken directly from the seventh-century worldview of Muhammad and his followers, no selective twisting necessary.
We desperately need moderate Muslims to modernize and reform their religion, to discard those parts of it that are incompatible with civil society; but that’s not likely to happen while the President insists that Islam is as awesome as apple pie (and that to suggest otherwise is terrorist propaganda that helps our enemies). By refusing to acknowledge the link between specific Islamic doctrines and the atrocities motivated by them, it’s Obama who’s betraying “our values” (which hopefully include things like freedom of speech and gender equality), turning his back on those who are oppressed daily by Islamic regimes following Islamic teachings.
Muslim Americans shouldn’t be treated like immature children who might decide to go fight for ISIL if we hurt their feelings by criticizing their beliefs. Those who share our values should be willing to stand up for them, even if that means rethinking and revising their own religion when it conflicts with those values. And if some of our fellow citizens are actually committed to anti-democratic ideas (which I’m sure is true for many non-Muslims as well), that’s something we need to recognize and talk about honestly. Denying the problem doesn’t make us safer. I wish the President were more clear about that.
I create my own religion January 25, 2016Posted by Ezra Resnick in Reason, Religion, Science.
As part of their upcoming “7 Days of Genius” festival, the 92nd Street Y is sponsoring a “Challenge for a New Religion”:
Here’s my entry:
The greatest force for good in this world, which cuts across boundaries and is at the core of what it means to be human, is REASON. It is through the rigorous application of reason, using the tools of the scientific method, that we have been able to make continuous material, intellectual, and ethical progress: advancing our understanding of the universe and how we came to be in it, breaking down the divisive dogmas bequeathed to us from the infancy of our species, and gradually widening the scope of our moral concern to encompass all human beings (and nonhuman life as well). I therefore propose the following:
A new tradition: To mark the birth of a child, the parents will choose an existing tradition in our culture to challenge. They will pledge to fight for the elimination of that bad tradition, in order to make the world a better place for all our children to grow up in.
A new rite of passage: On their thirteenth birthday, children will attempt to replicate a famous scientific experiment, and determine whether they accept its conclusions. This will demonstrate the understanding that our beliefs about the world must always be open to reevaluation, and should be based on objective evidence and independent thought, not reverence for authority.
New holidays will commemorate various bad ideas from human history, that were at one time universally accepted. This will serve as a reminder that we must all do our part to correct past mistakes and move humanity forward, and that it’s possible for everyone you know to be certain of something and still be wrong.
You can vote for me here!
(via Why Evolution is True)
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Statistical significance is a very important concept to understand when reading about scientific studies — and it’s also very likely to be defined incorrectly in news reports about scientific studies. For example, here is a Cancer Research UK “science blog” writing about a trial that investigated whether taking aspirin can lower the risk of cancer:
The researchers found that [those participants who were overweight and obese] had an even greater increase in bowel cancer risk, compared to those in the trial who were a healthy weight.
But among different sub-groups of people, some of these results weren’t ‘statistically significant’ (meaning there’s uncertainty over how valid they are)…
And here’s The News & Observer writing about the failed test of a new antiviral drug:
Shares of Chimerix dropped 81 percent and hit an all-time low Monday after the Durham drug developer announced that patients who took the company’s antiviral drug in a clinical trial died at higher rates than those who took a placebo…
Chimerix said the increased mortality rate among patients who took brincidofovir was not statistically significant, meaning that the deaths were not caused by the medication.
And here’s The Philadelphia Inquirer writing about the effect of delays in breast cancer treatment:
The risk of death increased by 9 percent or 10 percent … for patients with stage I and stage II breast cancers for each added 30-day interval, the Fox Chase researchers found. In practice, the increased risk is small, because the chance of death at stage I or II is relatively low. But the difference is statistically significant, meaning it did not occur by chance, researchers found.
All those definitions of statistical significance (or insignificance) are significantly wrong. A result is considered statistically significant if the probability of it being “due to chance” is below some predetermined level, usually 5%. (Wikipedia has a more formal definition.) So even if a result is considered statistically significant, there’s still a probability of up to 5% that the effect measured was actually due to chance and we can’t learn anything from it. (Conversely, even if a result is deemed “insignificant”, there’s still a probability of up to 95% that it was not due to chance — those patients might have been killed by that antiviral drug after all.)
This means we should not put too much confidence in any single scientific result. In fact, out of the thousands of hypotheses published each year supported by “significant” results, we should expect that some will turn out to be wrong — science is hard. That’s why it’s so important to replicate scientific experiments multiple times, and to perform meta-analyses combining the results of many individual studies. Science is hard, and reporters who mislead their readers in the name of simplicity — or a catchy headline — can cause real damage.
Keep that in mind next time you read that green jelly beans cause acne.
Don’t let Scalia tell you there’s nothing wrong January 5, 2016Posted by Ezra Resnick in Democracy, Politics, Religion.
Tags: Antonin Scalia
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recently graced some students in Louisiana with his learned opinions.
He told the audience at Archbishop Rummel High School that there is “no place” in the country’s constitutional traditions for the idea that the state must be neutral between religion and its absence.
“To tell you the truth there is no place for that in our constitutional tradition. Where did that come from?” he said. “To be sure, you can’t favor one denomination over another but can’t favor religion over non-religion?”
I wonder, what are Scalia’s criteria for a religion to be eligible for favored status? Would he include Scientologists? Satanists? Followers of Zeus and Ra? Is any belief too crazy, or is it sufficient to believe in something for which there is no evidence?
He also said there is “nothing wrong” with the idea of presidents and others invoking God in speeches. He said God has been good to America because Americans have honored him…
“God has been very good to us. That we won the revolution was extraordinary. The Battle of Midway was extraordinary. I think one of the reasons God has been good to us is that we have done him honor. Unlike the other countries of the world that do not even invoke his name we do him honor. In presidential addresses, in Thanksgiving proclamations and in many other ways,” Scalia said.
“There is nothing wrong with that and do not let anybody tell you that there is anything wrong with that,” he added.
I’m afraid there are several things wrong with that. If we actually look at the other countries of the world, we find that highly nonreligious societies like Norway, Australia, and the Netherlands rank higher than the U.S. on indexes like life expectancy and education; while the poorest countries tend to be the most religious. And you know who else believed they had God on their side? The Romans. And the Mayans. And the Egyptians. For a while, anyway.
It turns out that societies do better when they base their policies on reason and evidence rather than magical thinking and dogmatic adherence to tradition. After all, one person’s religion is just another’s superstition. Do we really want our leaders invoking the magical, and our laws favoring the superstitious? Even Scalia ought to be able to see what’s wrong with that.
(via Why Evolution is True)