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Who’s afraid of evidence? July 9, 2016

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Politics, Reason, Science.
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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.

Juno image by NASA

I create my own religion January 25, 2016

Posted 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)

Insignificant December 5, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Reason.
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“First you state your null hypothesis, which is your default position in the absence of any evidence, and your significance level, which is the maximum probability you’re willing to accept for rejecting the null hypothesis when it’s actually true. Then you perform your observations, calculate the p-value (the probability of obtaining a result at least as extreme as what was observed if the null hypothesis were true), and reject the null hypothesis if and only if the p-value is below the significance level.”

“Got it. Here goes: My significance level is zero, and my null hypothesis is—”

“Wait a minute: a significance level of zero means there’s no evidence that could ever convince you to abandon the null hypothesis.”

“Oh, is that bad? All right, then: My significance level is five percent…”

“That’s better.”

“…and my null hypothesis is that I will not change my significance level retroactively based on the outcome of the observations.”

“Hmm, let me test that… OK, the results are in, and they are statistically significant: p-value is two percent. You should reject the null hypothesis.”

“No problem — but I’m afraid that means I’ll be changing my significance level to one percent, making your observations insignificant. So my null hypothesis has been proved true after all!”

“The null hypothesis is never proved, it can merely fail to be rejected. And anyway, if your null hypothesis were true, wouldn’t that mean you should not have changed your significance level? Actually — never mind; this is a waste of time. Do you even care whether your belief is based on evidence?”

“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Just because you can’t measure something doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

“Excuse me, but I must be going now: evidence has just come in forcing me to reject my null hypothesis.”

“What hypothesis is that?”

“That you’re worth talking to…”

How to evaluate an argument February 15, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Reason.
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  1. If the argument’s bottom line agrees with what you already believe, go to 8.
  2. Else, begin reviewing the argument in detail.
  3. If you find anything that is just too offensive or counter-intuitive to entertain, go to 8.
  4. Else, if you find anything that could be given a label known to be bad (such as “socialism” or “scientism” or “reductionism”), go to 8.
  5. Else, if you’re able to rebut a simplistic, caricatured version of the argument, go to 8.
  6. Else, conclude there must be something wrong with the argument that escapes you at the moment. (If you’re curious, google “why X is wrong”.) Go to 8.
  7. Turns out you were wrong — change your mind! Go to 9.
  8. Turns out you were right! There’s no need to change your mind.
  9. Congratulate yourself for being rational.

Saving your queen January 20, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Freedom, Law, Politics, Reason.
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Photo by Andreas KontokanisIn chess, it’s generally a good idea to sacrifice a knight in order to capture an opposing rook, or to sacrifice a rook in order to capture the opponent’s queen. The pieces’ standard valuations (a queen is worth more than a rook, a rook is worth more than a knight, etc.) are useful for guiding basic strategic decisions — but there are exceptions. Sometimes, sacrificing your queen for a lesser piece is actually your best option, and will save you from defeat or even lead you to victory. In such a case, it wouldn’t make any sense for a player to insist on adhering to the principle that the queen shouldn’t be exchanged for lesser pieces, as if that were an end in itself. The relative valuation of the pieces is just a heuristic — a “rule of thumb” — providing a useful simplification that often leads to good results. But in the end, all that matters is winning the game. A smart player knows to disregard a heuristic in situations where it would not actually further the ultimate goal.

In our ongoing attempts to build and maintain a civil society, we have discovered and refined many wise principles. It’s important to remember, however, that these rules are means to an end, not ends in themselves. Principles like freedom of speech, for example, or the right to a fair trial, lead so reliably to increased individual well-being and societal health, that we’ve determined they should be protected by law, not to be abridged without a very compelling reason. They can be abridged, though — in situations where doing otherwise would, on balance, cause greater harm. For instance, we would deny freedom of speech from someone inciting murder; and we would deny the right to a trial from a terrorist if killing him is the only way to save an innocent life.

Other cases seem more prone to confusion. For instance, some people think the principle of “religious freedom” means they have the right to do anything their religion tells them, including denying lifesaving medical treatment from children and blocking other people’s access to contraception. But religious freedom is valuable only insomuch as it promotes a free and equal society, where people may live their lives as they see fit without interference — provided they do not interfere with the freedoms of others. Religious freedom is no more absolute than freedom of speech or the right to a fair trial, and it must give way the moment it causes more harm than good. (The fact that religious people in the instances above believe they aren’t causing harm is irrelevant, since there’s no rational basis for that belief.)

Another example is the idea that private-sector, free-market solutions are preferable to government regulation. As a general rule, this principle has been shown to promote societal flourishing (on balance). However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t certain domains, like health care, where free-market solutions don’t work, and government regulation is necessary to prevent a greater harm. Yet some people seem to have an almost mystical faith that laissez-faire capitalism can do no wrong.

Admittedly, in complex situations, it’s not always obvious which among conflicting principles should take precedence, or which alternative will cause the least harm. It’s legitimate and healthy to debate the pros and cons of different options, falling back to first principles if necessary. But we must be wary of turning useful heuristics into infallible dogmas to be followed blindly, as if they were valuable for their own sake, regardless of the actual consequences for human well-being. We must not let the pursuit of proxies overshadow what really matters. For what will it profit a man if he saves his queen, but loses the game?

The Magic Dogma Ball December 25, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Education, Humor, Reason.
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It is certainThis holiday season, take all the hard work out of finding the answers to life’s more perplexing questions: the Magic Dogma Ball™ has all the answers you’ll ever need! Ask any question, no matter how complex, and the Magic Dogma Ball™ will give you the definitive answer (according to your selected tradition). No thinking required!

The Magic Dogma Ball™ answers questions about ethics, politics, metaphysics, fashion, sex, and more. Possible answers include:

  • It is certain
  • Without a doubt
  • It is forbidden
  • Don’t even think about it

The Magic Dogma Ball™ is long-lasting and can remain in your family for generations — no tuning or adjustments necessary. Give your loved ones the gift of Certainty today!

Recommended for children and adults age 0 and up.

Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Scientology, and Aztec versions available.

Caution: Do not mix different versions of the Magic Dogma Ball™ among children in the same household, neighborhood, or school. We are not responsible for the consequences of contradictory answers provided by different traditions.

Frames vs. reality October 27, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Economics, Math, Reason.

Suppose your household owns two cars, which are used equally: car A gets 8 miles per gallon of fuel, while car B gets 25. You have the opportunity to either trade in car A for a newer model that gets 10 miles per gallon, or you may trade in car B for a model that gets 50 miles per gallon. Which choice would save you more on fuel costs?

This seems like a no-brainer: trading in car A improves its mileage by only 2 mpg (25%), while trading in car B improves its mileage by 25 mpg (100%)! Just for fun, let’s use our brain anyway, and do the math. If each car drives 10,000 miles a year, then upgrading car A would save 250 gallons (consuming 1000 instead of 1250), while upgrading car B would save only 200 gallons (consuming 200 instead of 400) — so choosing to trade in car A would save you 25% more money!

frameHow could our intuition have been so wrong? The cause of the error (dubbed “The MPG Illusion” by psychologists Richard Larrick and Jack Soll) is in the framing of the question. We don’t really care about optimizing the distance we can drive on a fixed amount of fuel; we want to optimize the amount of fuel we consume for the distance we drive. Consider this alternative formulation of the above choice: you can either upgrade car A from .125 to .1 gallons per mile (saving .025 gpm), or upgrade car B from .04 to .02 gallons per mile (saving .02 gpm). This formulation is mathematically equivalent to the original, but they evoke opposite intuitions — which is quite disturbing, considering the widespread assumption that consumers (and policymakers) will reliably make choices that are in their own rational interests.

When comparing differences in fuel efficiency, it’s clear that one frame (gallons per mile) is superior to another (miles per gallon). This is not always the case, however, as shown by an example due to the economist Thomas Schelling. (Both the following scenario and the previous one are discussed in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.) Say we are designing a tax code, and are thinking of including a “child credit”: families with children will get a deduction on their taxes. Would it be acceptable for the deduction to be greater for rich families than for poor families? You probably answered with a resounding No.

Now, let’s think about it a different way. Giving a tax deduction to families with children arbitrarily designates a childless family as the default case, but we could just as well rewrite the tax code such that having children is the default case, and childless families would pay a tax surcharge. In that case, would it be acceptable for the surcharge paid by the childless poor to be as great as the surcharge paid by the childless rich? Again, you probably feel strongly that it would not.

The problem is that you cannot logically reject both proposals — since a surcharge that is smaller for childless poor families than for childless rich families is the same thing as a deduction that is smaller for poor families with children than for rich families with children. For instance, a surcharge of $500 for the childless poor and $1000 for the childless rich is equivalent to a deduction of $500 for poor families with children and $1000 for rich families with children.

The lesson is not that it’s impossible to design a tax code that burdens the poor less than the rich. The disturbing fact uncovered here is that our intuitions about fairness, like our intuitions about fuel efficiency, are unreliable: they can give contradictory answers to the same question depending on how that question is framed.

Kahneman’s conclusion is stark:

You have moral intuitions about differences between the rich and the poor, but these intuitions depend on an arbitrary reference point, and they are not about the real problem… Your moral feelings are attached to frames, to descriptions of reality rather than to reality itself.

Strong intuition is never a substitute for slow, careful analysis.

Letter from the high chief of Easter Island June 23, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Politics, Reason, Superstition.
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moaiTo my loyal clansmen,

It has come to my attention that some of you have expressed concern regarding our time-honored tradition of cutting down great palm trees in order to erect the sacred moai (source of our clan’s glory). I wish to assure you that there is nothing to fear! After all, we’ve been doing the same thing for hundreds of years and we’re still here.

Some have claimed that there are less birds to hunt than there used to be; but even if this is true, we don’t know for certain that it’s due to our tree cutting. There could be many reasons for such fluctuations — who can understand the mysteries of nature? We must simply have faith that the birds will return.

Others have pointed out that using all the tallest trees for moai building leaves less for making fishing boats. Such complaints are unworthy of our hard-working ancestors. There is no shortage of fish on my dinner table; I trust the ingenuity of our brave clansmen will always find a way to extract sustenance from the seas, with or without trees.

The bottom line is this: I will not be known as the ariki who brought dishonor on our clan, letting our rivals’ glory surpass our own. And just as I am responsible for sustaining our present strength, I am confident that future chiefs will have the wisdom to solve the problems of their own times.

So, do not let a few meddlesome know-it-alls scare you with their “observations” and their “experiments”. The spirits of our ancestors watch over us and protect us always. Our glorious civilization will live forever!

Editor’s note: The preceding manuscript was uncovered by Europeans who arrived at Easter Island in 1722, where they found a small, emaciated population and a deforested landscape, with no trees over 10 feet tall and no land birds. There were, however, hundreds of giant stone statues.

The perils of reasonablism April 27, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Reason.

I’ll be the first to admit that reason can be a useful tool: logical thinking and honest evaluation of real-world evidence may come in handy if you want to cure disease, or build an airplane, or solve a crime. But some people just can’t stop there: they arrogantly insist that everything in life ought to be approached in a reasonable manner! As extreme and fundamentalist as it sounds, I have actually met those who will claim (with a straight face) that it’s impossible to be too reasonable.

"Open Mind" by Yoan CapoteIt saddens me to see people whose worldview is so narrow and closed-minded. What kind of world would we live in, if everyone were constantly expected to provide good reasons for their beliefs and reasonable justification for their actions? If everything were open for discussion and reevaluation based on evidence and argument? The reasonablists need to understand that some people are deeply attached to so-called “non-reasonable” beliefs, and they might become offended or angry if forced to question those beliefs. And whose fault would that be?

Anyway, how come the militant reasonablists get to define what’s reasonable? They may proclaim the value of logical consistency and intellectual honesty, but that’s just their opinion. Others are free to define “reasonable” however they want: following tradition, obeying an authority, wishful thinking — who are we to judge? The reasonablists’ insistence on being undogmatic is just another dogma; their rejection of blind faith is itself a form of blind faith.

It seems to me that the reasonablists should learn a little humility. After all, just because logical, evidence-based thinking has proved immensely successful at understanding how our world works, doesn’t mean we should rely on it when deciding how to live our lives and build our societies. And just because your conclusions are supported by “evidence” and “logic” doesn’t mean I have to accept them.

Two world systems February 18, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Reason, Science.
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DialogueGalileo Galilei’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, published in 1632, compares the geocentric model of Aristotle and Ptolemy with the heliocentric model of Copernicus, in the form of a discussion between three friends: Salviati, Sagredo, and Simplicio. Salviati is a scientist arguing for the Copernican position; Sagredo is an intelligent and curious layman who becomes persuaded by Salviati’s case; while Simplicio is a faithful follower of the established Aristotelian tradition.

At one point in the dialogue, after Salviati puts forward some observational evidence supporting the heliocentric view, Simplicio expresses confidence in his ability to “once more succeed in reconciling what experience presents to us with what Aristotle teaches. For obviously two truths cannot contradict one another.” Sagredo remarks:

I can put myself in Simplicio’s place and see that he is deeply moved by the overwhelming force of these conclusive arguments. But seeing on the other hand the great authority that Aristotle has gained universally; considering the number of famous interpreters who have toiled to explain his meanings; and observing that the other sciences, so useful and necessary to mankind, base a large part of their value and reputation upon Aristotle’s credit; Simplicio is confused and perplexed, and I seem to hear him say, “Who would there be to settle our controversies if Aristotle were to be deposed? What other author should we follow in the schools, the academies, the universities? What philosopher has written the whole of natural philosophy, so well arranged, without omitting a single conclusion? Ought we to desert that structure under which so many travelers have recuperated? Should we destroy that haven, that Prytaneum where so many scholars have taken refuge so comfortably; where, without exposing themselves to the inclemencies of the air, they can acquire a complete knowledge of the universe by merely turning over a few pages? Should that fort be leveled where one may abide in safety against all enemy assaults?”

I pity him no less than I should some fine gentleman who, having built a magnificent palace at great trouble and expense, employing hundreds and hundreds of artisans, and then beholding it threatened with ruin because of poor foundations, should attempt, in order to avoid the grief of seeing the walls destroyed, adorned as they are with so many lovely murals; or the columns fall, which sustain the superb galleries, or the gilded beams; or the doors spoiled, or the pediments and the marble cornices, brought in at so much cost — should attempt, I say, to prevent the collapse with chains, props, iron bars, buttresses, and shores.

Later on, after Simplicio again mentions his reverence for the great authors of the past, Sagredo recalls an incident he witnessed:

One day I was at the home of a very famous doctor in Venice, where many persons came on account of their studies, and others occasionally came out of curiosity to see some anatomical dissection performed by a man who was truly no less learned than he was a careful and expert anatomist. It happened on this day that he was investigating the source and origin of the nerves, about which there exists a notorious controversy between the Galenist and Peripatetic doctors. The anatomist showed that the great trunk of nerves, leaving the brain and passing through the nape, extended on down the spine and then branched out through the whole body, and that only a single strand as fine as a thread arrived at the heart. Turning to a gentleman whom he knew to be a Peripatetic philosopher, and on whose account he had been exhibiting and demonstrating everything with unusual care, he asked this man whether he was at last satisfied and convinced that the nerves originated in the brain and not in the heart. The philosopher, after considering for awhile, answered: “You have made me see this matter so plainly and palpably that if Aristotle’s text were not contrary to it, stating clearly that the nerves originate in the heart, I should be forced to admit it to be true.”

Simplicio responds:

Aristotle acquired his great authority only because of the strength of his proofs and the profundity of his arguments. Yet one must understand him; and not merely understand him, but have such thorough familiarity with his books that the most complete idea of them may be formed, in such a manner that every saying of his is always before the mind. He did not write for the common people, nor was he obliged to thread his syllogisms together by the trivial ordinary method; rather, making use of the permuted method, he has sometimes put the proof of a proposition among texts that seem to deal with other things. Therefore one must have a grasp of the whole grand scheme, and be able to combine this passage with that, collecting together one text here and another very distant from it. There is no doubt that whoever has this skill will be able to draw from his books demonstrations of all that can be known; for every single thing is in them.

Furthermore, Simplicio asks,

… if Aristotle is to be abandoned, whom shall we have for a guide in philosophy?

Salviati replies:

We need guides in forests and in unknown lands, but on plains and in open places only the blind need guides. It is better for such people to stay at home, but anyone with eyes in his head and his wits about him could serve as a guide for them. In saying this, I do not mean that a person should not listen to Aristotle; indeed, I applaud the reading and careful study of his works, and I reproach only those who give themselves up as slaves to him in such a way as to subscribe blindly to everything he says and take it as an inviolable decree without looking for any other reasons. This abuse carries with it another profound disorder, that other people do not try harder to comprehend the strength of his demonstrations. And what is more revolting in a public dispute, when someone is dealing with demonstrable conclusions, than to hear him interrupted by a text (often written to some quite different purpose) thrown into his teeth by an opponent?

… So put forward the arguments and demonstrations, Simplicio — either yours or Aristotle’s — but not just texts and bare authorities, because our discourses must relate to the sensible world and not to one on paper.

The next day, before Simplicio arrives, Salviati shares with Sagredo his opinion of geocentrism’s defenders:

I have heard such things put forth as I should blush to repeat — not so much to avoid discrediting their authors (whose names could always be withheld) as to refrain from detracting so greatly from the honor of the human race. In the long run my observations have convinced me that some men, reasoning preposterously, first establish some conclusion in their minds which, either because of its being their own or because of their having received it from some person who has their entire confidence, impresses them so deeply that one finds it impossible ever to get it out of their heads. Such arguments in support of their fixed idea as they hit upon themselves or hear set forth by others, no matter how simple and stupid these may be, gain their instant acceptance and applause. On the other hand, whatever is brought forward against it, however ingenious and conclusive, they receive with disdain or with hot rage — if indeed it does not make them ill. Beside themselves with passion, some of them would not be backward even about scheming to suppress and silence their adversaries.

In 1633, Galileo was convicted of suspected heresy by the Roman Inquisition. He was forced to recant Copernicanism under threat of torture, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

The Dialogue was placed on the Church’s Index of Forbidden Books — where it remained until 1835.