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An illusion of knowledge May 13, 2019

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Reason, Science.
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“How can you eat Genetically Modified foods!? They’re untested and unnatural!”

“Actually, the scientific consensus is that they’re tested, safe, and as ‘natural’ as any of our crops.”

“You’re so naive and gullible. The ‘scientific consensus’ has been wrong before — and every so often it changes! I’m not betting my life on a science experiment.”

“When the scientific consensus does change, it’s because of new or better evidence that comes to light. At any given moment, shouldn’t we base our decisions on the best available data, analyzed by the relevant experts? What are you basing your position on instead?”

“I’m not stupid, if that’s what you’re implying. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about science and health. Mostly it’s just common sense.”

“Let me tell you about an interesting study. Researchers asked people for their opinions on GM foods; then asked them to self-assess their level of knowledge on the subject; and then asked them some true-or-false science questions to see how much they actually knew. They found that

as extremity of opposition to and concern about genetically modified foods increases, objective knowledge about science and genetics decreases, but perceived understanding of genetically modified foods increases. Extreme opponents know the least, but think they know the most.

“The authors also noted that

people tend to be poor judges of how much they know. They often suffer from an illusion of knowledge, thinking that they understand everything from common household objects to complex social policies better than they do.

“Based on this information, don’t you think that basic psychology, statistics and logic would require you to reevaluate your position?”

“Actually, I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about psychology, statistics and logic — and I think I’m going to trust my own judgement here.”

“I’m getting a queasy feeling…”

“Probably from eating too much GM food!”

"The Fall of Man" by Lucas Cranach the Elder

(via Jesus and Mo)


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 have to 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.