Saturday, February 24, 2007

Partisan blinders

For a few weeks I’ve been thinking about writing a separate blog about how to think like a scientist. I get frustrated listening to partisans butcher both scientific issues and other issues with natural cognitive distortions like oversimplification, overgeneralization, and black and white thinking. People rarely appreciate being challenged about those, of course. Everyone thinks their own opinions are so correct. It would be so much better if it generally were understood what it means to think well, beyond how so many people can identify ad hominem attacks and straw man arguments, correctly or not.

The thing is that thinking like a scientist is very straightforward:

1) Use good data
2) Use good arguments
3) Consider all possibilities

Is there anything else? I’m not sure there is. It can take a lot of technical expertise to do those few things well, but is there something else? I can’t think of it. That technical expertise is important. One argument that creationists use throws out all techniques that measure the age of things as greater than several thousand years. Such arguments rarely appreciate just how many radioisotope techniques there are, not just carbon dating, or how many less specific indicators there are for the age of things, such as how long it takes for tectonic plates to move or volcanoes to change a landscape as much as they have, on top of even older sedimentary rocks no less.

It takes more than a little stab at a little bit of the data to think like a good scientist. You have to make sense out of all of it. This has been the great Achilles heel of philosophers who worked for thousands of years to be very good at arguments, but were terrible at premises. If you do arguments well, but data poorly, it’s just garbage in, garbage out. The scientific revolution found a way around that. That is its greatness.

So why is so much of society still resistant to the scientific revolution? In some sense science is very natural for us. We believe what we see. Yet we also find ways to believe what we want to believe, and in that, we are not at all natural scientists. People don’t want to consider all data, all arguments, and all possibilities. They only want to look at what helps their beliefs.

I’ve thought of detailing that about global warming. A nice starting point came out recently in the IPCC report on global warming, one that estimates the likelihood of human activity being the cause at over 90%. So how do skeptics attack that? They make ad hominem attacks. If they do get to any specifics, it’s something like Antarctica being less affected than one might think, as the report mentions. OK, but how about the rest of it, that CO2 levels in the atmosphere have gone up almost 40% in recent centuries, that the unvarying turn upward of global temperatures is unprecedented, even though prehistoric temperatures did vary quite a bit? It’s a very simple story, even though it’s uncertain how dangerous or expensive it will be to humanity. What’s so hard about getting the simple story straight, then being stubborn about what to do in response if one wants?

I’m not sure about that. Why do people insist on manipulating facts instead of just sticking to where things really are just a matter of opinion? I don’t know. It’s something about control. The way it relates to thinking like a scientist is easy. People don’t want to look at all possibilities. They want certainty, and not just any certainty. It has to be an acceptable certainty, true or not. That’s it. That’s what people would have to change if they want to think like scientists. They can’t be so certain. They could be certain about some things, but not everything.

It’s a simple way to go to think like a scientist. I fell in love with it as a teenager, looking at all the wonderful things science knew then. Science knows even more now, and is on an unshakeable track to learn more, such as with the genetics revolution. Yet many people prefer to think naturally than think like a scientist, with whatever blinders their partisanship tells them to wear.

It’s a simple problem. Again and again the answer is that people don’t look at all the facts, all the arguments, and all the possibilities. I’ve decided not to do a blog where I just point out example after example of that. Maybe it’s something that’s needed, but I’ll leave that to others. Partly that’s because there’s an example of this that scientists don’t look at much. It’s how atheist scientists go after religion, because they’re so sure religion is all superstition.

PZ Myers is one. Yesterday he went after the staff of a Florida school because they prayed after hours using prayer oil on students’ desks. Ed Brayton did so a few hours earlier. Myers uses the following words: “stupid”, “lunatics”, “deranged” “…you are a disgrace, a confused and deluded kook, and you are screwing up. Get help. Your delusions are affecting your performance and your life,” “because they use the excuse that it is ‘religion’ everyone backs off, gets all deferential, and pretends they aren't dealing with a team of quacks, clowns, and slow-witted, thoughtless incompetents,” “I say fire the lot of them,” and “Jebus. Magic goop. Prancing, chanting shamans. If the kids do poorly on the test, we know the reason: idiots running the classrooms. This is what religion does, it rips up your brain and infuses it with credulity and sloppy thinking.”

Well he did say “if the kids do poorly”. It’s not as though he’s completely prejudiced about the situation. It’s amazing how some people can diagnose others at a distance. The mental health professions should look into this ability.

Brayton is more restrained, calling this attempt at “divine cheating” “perverse” and alluding to someone having a “screw loose”.

How many atheist scientists are there who don’t think that religious people are idiots and insane? I don’t, but I’m not an atheist. Some might say that means I don’t think like a scientist. They might add a fourth feature to thinking like a scientist, which is to have contempt for any notion of a reality beyond the physical universe. Of course, they would make exceptions for believing in parallel universes or other speculation that involves neither spirits nor God.

What is the objective evidence that religious people are idiots and insane? I suppose some are. I suppose some scientists are if one can stretch the definition of “idiot” to mean habitually saying and doing things that don’t make sense. Maybe even PZ Myers would admit he’s not thinking like a scientist with that rant. So why do it?

Now I’ve never used prayer oil. I’ve only rarely said intercessory prayers. I’ve prayed them as they come to me. I don’t know if any ever helped anyone. I don’t know that there ever has been a physical miracle in response to prayer. I do know that some remarkable mental things have happened to me following prayer. Long-standing resentments have gone. I have prayed for direction, strength and hope and gotten exactly that. Who’s to say that God can’t help children in school be less distracted for a test, just because some who believe in Him ask for His help? Myers and Brayton don’t make scientific arguments to the contrary. They just ridicule the idea.

It’s a free country. Those who choose to ridicule whatever possibility they don’t like will continue to do so, from any place in the political and religious spectra. And some people like this will continue to boast how much they believe in truth, science, whatever. It’s a lie. I know how a good scientist thinks. He or she thinks with those three features I wrote down above. If someone has better criteria, it would be interesting for me to read them. Exploring all possibilities has paid off for me before. I know partisans don’t like to do that. I’m not sure what besides partisanship would make people resist looking at all the possibilities. Not even idiocy or insanity explains that.


Ed Brayton said...

Allow me to correct a few misconceptions in your post regarding my position. Your first three assumptions are all false: I am not an atheist, I am not a scientist and I do not believe that all religious people are "idiots and insane." In fact, PZ Myers and I have gotten into several really nasty fights over that very issue; he really does believe that anyone who believes in God is, by definition, stupid or deluded and I categorically reject that position. But just because I don't believe that all religious people are stupid and deluded doesn't mean that there aren't particular religious beliefs or practices, and yes people themselves, that can fairly be described that way. I would argue, and in fact did argue, that this example is one of them. And I notice that you do not even attempt to engage my arguments to that effect. You say only, "Brayton is more restrained, calling this attempt at “divine cheating” “perverse” and alluding to someone having a “screw loose”." You don't bother to put those statements into context and attack my arguments at all. I gave three logical reasons why the actions of the teachers were not only irrational but unethical to boot; you have ignored them completely and chosen instead to attack a position that I emphatically do not take. If any of my arguments were wrong, I'll be happy to entertain reasons for such a conclusion, but you have offered none.

Liz said...

I wonder how much comes down simply to human nature: if I believe in x and discount y, then I am going to be skeptical and even derisive of those who believe in y. It doesn't matter if x and y are issues of faith, science, politics, morality, or even something as banal as the characteristics of a good movie. We're all opinionated and partisan in some way--and convinced we're right.

I read something (can't remember what and it's frustrating me to no end) recently that quoted Elie Wiesel as having said something to the effect of, there are a thousand and one entrances into the spiritual realm, and no one can enter through someone else's door. That idea resonated with me. We spend so much of our time trying to convince one another that we're right and they're wrong, while the simple fact is that people tend to change their minds based on experience, rather than on arguments and information, particularly when it comes to spiritual matters.

Realizing this makes me relatively tolerant of others' convictions, even if I disagree with them. Because of that, I don't begrudge the people in Florida their right to express their religious beliefs through praying in and anointing the classrooms. Still, I also see Brayton's point that asking God to improve students' test scores supernaturally could be seen as a sort of "divine cheating." The question then becomes what they were praying for, exactly: that God would focus the students' minds and steady their nerves so they could do well using their own abilities, or was it more like what Brayton mentions, a prayer whose ideal result would be "God artificially 'zapping' the correct information into the brains of the students"?

I'm also inclined to agree with his assertion that those Christians would not be likely to let practitioners of Santeria or Vodou perform rituals of a relatively similar nature on school grounds, which is where the "screw loose" comment came from: "No doubt these good Christian folks would consider anyone who thought the test scores could be increased with chicken blood and incense to have a screw loose." And that point is the one that best addresses the problems I have with dogmatic Christians: they feel entitled to levels of tolerance and respect that they are unwilling to extend to those who adhere to other faiths. (You can imagine, of course, that I'd be uncomfortable with the idea of sacrificing chickens on public school grounds for reasons besides religion, but that's another issue...)

I've got someone sitting next to me who feels it's perhaps unwise to place myself between DavidD and Ed Brayton, but the former of the two knows me well enough to know that I am nothing if not consistent about wanting to keep the peace... :)

DavidD said...

Ed- let's see, your name is in two sentences of mine. Both seem factual to me. So the misconceptions you see are inferences. Whose are they?

One inference is certainly not mine, to which you say, "I do not believe that all religious people are idiots or insane." I try never to speak in such overgeneralized ways. They are almost always wrong.

I didn't say you were just like PZ Myers. In fact I made some contrast between you two. I lump your comments here because you both made the same attack, ridiculing these prayers each in your own way.

I don't consider it my business to destroy your argument. If you want to ridicule certain prayers, it's a free country. I point out this subject where various science bloggers regularly fail to think like scientists, a subject that regularly generates the highest ratings in that column to the side of some blogs I look at and is something that makes me think it is pointless to try to be an advocate for thinking like a good scientist, as I suggested in my piece.

I also mentioned my take on prayer. I can't separate my bias and intuition about this from thinking like a scientist about it, but I know what it means to think like a scientist about it. That doesn't include being so narrow as to call it "divine cheating". If you insist that it is, fine. That's my point.

DavidD said...

Liz - Of course, I'm partisan. I'm a lifelong Democrat. I'm a liberal Christian, actually a liberal, charismatic Christian, which gets hard to explain. I had a road-to-Damascus experience plus all these other spiritual experiences. It's been my bias to want these to be what they seem to be. Yet I can think like a scientist to say that's not the only possibility. I can imagine atheists to be right that every spiritual experience I've had is strictly confined to my brain. I've found few atheists who can go the other way and consider the possibility that this was something other than idiocy and insanity in me, in the apostle Paul, in anyone.

I knew an atheist in Al-Anon 12 years ago who believed God was a better part of him and saw my spiritual experiences that way. Maybe he is right. Apart from the few hours in my life when I had no doubt about anything that possibility has been in my mind. It is a legitimate possibility. We could be friendly about it. He did a good program as an atheist, but understanding the process of needing help from a higher power.

I've met no one online who is like that. A big part of that is an obvious lack of discipline in how people think. It's not that everyone denies the possibility of some enemy being right. Many do, as with the examples I gave of creationists and those who deny global warming. Scientists do too.

Sometimes that gets to the matter of what's a legitimate possibility. That's not simple. It's like the skill and experience involved in telling good data from useless data. Scientists are notorious for doing poorly at that when they get out of their specialty, such as when I was an undergraduate and William Shockley, Nobel Prize winner for inventing the transistor, insisted on speaking out on eugenics. It is indeed ironic when scientists fail to think like good scientists. I believe they could do better, if not the general population. But who's going to tell them?

DavidD said...

Ed, not that you're ever coming back here. I was just over at your post again and noticed that none of the current 39 comments challenge you, despite your making oversimplifications and overgeneralizations such as these:

"this whole notion of prayer is patently absurd."

"The only way this prayer could be answered is by God artificially "zapping" the correct information into the brains of the students."

Following that you assume that the staff making these prayers must be making them out of a sense of failure to have prepared their students.

Following that you make your analogy to sacrificing chickens, as if Christian prayer is analogous.

What rubbish. I mentioned in my original post that God might help students be less distracted on account of prayer. There are lots of mental things God might be able to do. For you to deny that is just to display your prejudice. You certainly don't know what the expectation was for these prayers. I doubt that it was because the school staff felt they had failed so badly that they were forced to use prayer.

As I said, it's not my mission to destroy your arguments. I just took note of your judgmental words to make my point. Yet your arguments are so grounded in prejudice, it's obvious to anyone who would want to counter them intellectually. That wasn't my purpose the first time. It's not even my purpose now, but it's so easy. Anyone so inclined can attack what you wrote. Yet no one commenting on your site did that. It says something about how lots of scientifically-inclined people think.