All posts filed under: Science

Science and Data: Notes on a Misconception

Science would be impossible without evidence. But champions of science frequently portray data or evidence as the fundamental building blocks of scientific knowledge. They will say that scientific theories should be “evidence-based”—confirmed by data or supported by evidence. They will say that a good theory follows inexorably from the evidence, whereas a bad theory has little or no evidence to back it up. But this familiar way of thinking about science is the misconception that the contents of scientific theories somehow emerge out of the data. In fact, as the physicist David Deutsch showed in his 2011 book The Beginning of Infinity, the contents of scientific theories are explanations of the data. And people, not data, are the source of those explanations. The misconception that scientific theories are “based on evidence” has an important practical consequence: it steers science toward generating data instead of seeking explanations for the world. To aim science explicitly toward seeking explanations, we must clarify and overturn this misconception, and present an alternative vision of an exclusively explanatory scientific ethos. Creativity and …

In Celebration of Errors

Making mistakes is out of fashion. To utter the wrong phrase or entertain an uncomfortable hypothesis is to risk both personal and professional ostracism. You might express an idea that is false, such as that the Earth is flat. Or you might say something that is true but nonetheless violates some taboo. A historical example is the assertion that the Earth revolves around the Sun, which once upon a time would have landed a person in hot water with the Catholic Church, as scientist Galileo Galilei learned the hard way in the 1600s. The content of what is unspeakable ebbs and flows over time as culture evolves and our understanding of reality improves. While defending Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection would once have elicited mockery, today, the opposite is (mostly) true. It is irrelevant whether or not someone is correct when he initially expresses an idea. What matters is how others respond to an idea that they find unpalatable, as solving problems always requires correcting errors. Civilization has been in the game of …

Socialization Isn’t Responsible for Greater Male Violence

Earlier this year, Dr. Julia Shaw wrote an article for Psychology Today entitled, “Why Are We Not Outraged that Prisons Are Filled with Men?” in which she argues that there is something “pernicious” and deeply wrong with a system that incarcerates men at far higher rates than women. “Prison,” she explains, “has always been an almost entirely male structure. It’s hard. It’s cold. It’s unempathetic. It’s punitive. Practically every descriptor we use for prison prides itself in its masculinity.” Shaw says the heavily disproportionate incarceration reflects a lack of faith in men, who are then adversely affected by the experience of prison and the social stigma they are forced to carry upon release. And “what leads us to blindly accept that our prisons are full of men?” she asks. I think it’s because we accept as dogma that men are naturally more criminal—particularly more violent—than women, thus they deserve to be incarcerated at higher rates. It’s about time we question this assumption. As Shaw points out, men are overrepresented in prisons because they commit more …

Rationalizing Modern Drug Prejudices

Congressman Jared Polis: Is crack worse for a person than marijuana? DEA Agent Michele Leonhart: I believe all illegal drugs are bad for you. Congressman Jared Polis: Is methamphetamine worse for somebody’s health than marijuana? DEA Agent Michele Leonhart: I don’t think any illegal drug is good for you. Congressman Jared Polis: Is heroin worse for someone’s health than marijuana? DEA Agent Michele Leonhart: Again, all drugs. Congressman Jared Polis:  I mean either ‘yes’, ‘no’, or ‘I don’t know.’ I mean if you don’t know you can look at this up. You should know this as the Chief Administrator of the DEA. I’m asking you a straightforward question, is heroin worse for someone’s health than marijuana? DEA Agent Michele Leonhart: All illegal drugs are bad. *   *   * How dangerous are different substances compared with each other, and do the laws get it right in banning some substances but not others? This question is not as immediately answerable as it might seem. For a start, no final and absolute answer can ever be given to …

Empiricism and Dogma: Why Left and Right Can’t Agree on Climate Change

As a climate scientist, I often hear puzzled complaints about the political polarization of the public discussion about anthropogenic global warming. If it is an empirical and scientific matter, such people ask, then why is opinion so firmly divided along political lines? Since it tends to be the political Right that opposes policies designed to address and mitigate global warming, responsibility for this partisanship is often placed solely on the ideological stubbornness of conservatives. This is a theme common to research on political attitudes to scientific questions. Division is often studied from the perspective of researchers on the Left who, rather self-servingly, frame the research question as something like: “Our side is logical and correct, so what exactly makes the people who disagree with us so biased and ideologically motivated?” I would put books like Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality in this category. Works like The Republican Brain correctly point out that those most dismissive of global warming tend to be on the Right, but they incorrectly assume that …

Why Is a Top Australian University Supporting Indigenous Creationism?

The Australian recently reported that the University of New South Wales (UNSW) is advising its staff to avoid teaching students about the arrival of Australian Indigenous people onto the Australian continent. As part of the development of materials used to guide teaching, the university has produced a diversity toolkit in regard to culturally diverse students. One of these, entitled Appropriate Terminology, Indigenous Australian People, provides guidelines about how staff should refer to Aboriginal people, their culture and events connected with the arrival of Europeans. For instance, it advises staff not to describe Australia as having been “discovered’ in 1788 (when the first fleet of British ships arrived at Sydney), since this implicitly denies the fact that Australia already was occupied by Aboriginal peoples. Such information already is standard for anyone in Australia who has familiarised themselves with the approved form of navigating discussion of Indigenous issues. While the vast majority of the advice contained in the document is cultural in its orientation (albeit with a decidedly political flavour at some points), the guidelines occasionally wander …

Bad Data Analysis and Psychology’s Replication Crisis

In 2014, a study published in JAMA Pediatrics linked playing aggressive video games to real-life aggression in a large sample of Singaporean youth. The study attracted considerable news media attention. For instance, a sympathetic article in Time magazine breathlessly reported its findings and suggested that brain imaging research found aggressive games change kids’ brains. But was the evidence from the Singapore study reliable? In recent years, concerns about the Singapore dataset have grown. UK scholars Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein recently wrote that the way the dataset had been used by the primary authors was problematic. The analyses from the same dataset kept changing across published articles in suspicious ways. These shifting analyses can be a red flag for the data massaging that may produce statistically significant outcomes and hide outcomes that didn’t work out. Such practices may be unintentional or unconscious (scholars are only human after all). But they do suggest that the results could do with further scrutiny. When the dataset became available to my colleague John Wang and me, we re-analyzed the …

The Academic Quarrel over Determinism

A Professor of biology at Williams College, Luana Maroja, recently wrote a piece for the Atlantic describing her great difficulty in getting students to accept the expert consensus on many issues in her field of study. Biology has been a great source of tension in intellectual spaces for a long time now, and this doesn’t seem due to change anytime soon. More often than not, biology seems to be the lynchpin upon which the fiercest disputes among intellectuals turn. Why does biology produce so much rancour? Sam Harris recently interviewed author Jarred Diamond on his podcast. During the course of that discussion, Diamond revealed that he had been forced to increase security at his personal residence when some colleagues threatened him 10 years ago. Additionally, he had two bodyguards accompany him to a university lecture after an “angry anthropologist” threatened to disrupt his remarks. Diamond hasn’t been an enthusiastic promoter of biological explanations for human affairs. On the contrary, his 1997 book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, vigorously disputed the notion that biology alone can explain …

The Real Gender Gap in Heart Disease

Because I’m that guy, I took a poll at the recent family barbecue. “Heart disease—who has it worse? Men or women?” I asked. The answers came quickly. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law said, “Women.” My father-in-law, arms crossed, said confidently, “Men.” My mother-in-law remembered hearing about how heart disease affected women more than men during the February American Heart Association (AHA) “Go Red for Women” campaign. Apparently, the message wasn’t heard by the men at this family gathering. They were moved by stories of men—fathers, brothers, friends—they knew who died from heart disease. We are taught that facts should trump feelings, evidence should trump anecdotes, and at first glance it would appear the men are too in touch with their feelings. It is the mission of advocacy organizations like the AHA to raise awareness. Charts like this one are widely disseminated and used in countless presentations on the topic: The graph demonstrates that over the last few decades the number of women dying from heart disease has been significantly higher than men dying from heart disease. …

How ‘Limbic Capitalism’ Preys on Our Addicted Brains

One summer day in 2010, a Swedish graduate student named Daniel Berg approached me after a talk I gave at Christ’s College, Cambridge. During the talk, I had casually mentioned internet addiction. Berg told me that I had spoken a truth larger than I knew. Many of his male friends at Stockholm University had dropped out of school and were living in crash pads, compulsively playing World of Warcraft. They spoke an argot more English than Swedish. It was all raiding, all the time. “How do they feel about their circumstances?” I asked. “They feel angst,” Berg said. “But they keep playing?” “They keep playing.” This sort of behavior does seem like an addiction, in the sense of a compulsive, regret-filled pursuit of transient pleasures that are harmful to both the individual and society. For gaming, the personal cost was highest for Swedish men. “I am,” Berg reported, “now the only male in my graduate program in economic history.” Back home in Florida, I noticed digital distractions exacting a more even academic toll. The smartphones …