Friday, August 28, 2009

Rational Quote of the Day

"To find real answers we need to understand the real problems, not sensationalized caricatures of the problems spread on the internet."
Brian Dunning

Brian was specifcally speaking about the internet myth that there is a large island of floating trash in the middle of the Pacific. However I find this advice applies to just about any issue lately. Obama's death panels, global climate change, torture, etc. etc.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

More on Confirmation Bias

For a few months I’ve been doing my best to lose a little bit of weight. I’ve basically just been eating smaller potions and walking on my lunch hours. The biggest motivator that I have is that my new office has a small workout room with a scale. I’ve made it a habit of starting the day off by checking my weight and recording it. In order to make sure that my results are meaningful I always measure under the same conditions. It’s always dressed for work at 6:45am and having only had a small breakfast. I even make sure that I don’t have my phone or any change in my pockets to be sure that the results aren’t artificially skewed.

Tuesday I had something to do after work and I didn’t want to show up in my AT&T uniform so I wore a nicer shirt and some different shoes. As I walked to the scale I realized that the results may not be accurate. I didn’t know if my outfit was heavier or lighter than what I usually wear. Just before I stepped on the scale I recognized that I was about to fall victim to my own confirmation bias. If the scale had read a little lighter than the day before I was ready to accept that as evidence of my diet and exercise was working. However, I was also fully ready to accept that if I was a little heavier that it was not my fault, it’s the differences in my wardrobe. As soon as I realized this I refused to step on the scale.

I bring this up again because lately I’ve seen far too many examples of people accepting information that supports their opinions and then wholesale rejecting any evidence that goes against it. Comments on blogs that accuse the blogger of a political bias while ignoring posts on the same blog that are highly critical of the same party. Family members who accept that a quack treatment works based on one example while ignoring the multiple times the same treatment did not make them feel better. Church friends using archaeological evidence to support their belief in the Book of Mormon but refusing to even read counter evidence.

It’s natural to cling to what makes us comfortable. Unfortunately it may not be the best thing to do. You’re not going to get accurate results if you can’t accept all of the evidence. If that’s the attitude that you have when you approach an issue just do as I did. Don’t even step on the scale. Same holds true on any other issue. Be aware of your biases and do your best to make sure they don’t influence your decisions.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Quote of the Day

"Gonna kick the darkness 'til it bleeds daylight."

Paul Hewson, Irish Philosopher and Humanitarian

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Idiot America

Well I finally finished reading Charlie Pierce’s Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free. Life got in the way of my reading schedule and in spite of how good the book was I had a hard time fitting it into my schedule.
After the first introductory chapters Pierce really got in stride and set aside much of the humor in favor of just a realistic portrayal of several different examples of America surrendering to emotion and what feels right rather than what actually was right. Whether it’s a dinosaur museum with saddles on the dinosaurs so they would be Biblically correct, a room full of terrorism experts whose opinion on Iraq was completely ignored because it didn’t fit the politics, an Island in Alaska that is literally disappearing because of global warming, a Supreme Court Justice referencing a fictitious T.V. character as evidence to support his position on torture, etc, etc, Pierce shows that somehow we’ve gotten things all screwed up. We’ve been mistaking religion for science, science for politics, and politics for entertainment.
This book really hit a nerve with me because I like to look at all issues objectively. I try to look at both sides of the issue before I take position. And even once I take a position I try stay flexible enough to change that position if more evidence arises. Lately I’ve been in a few internet and email discussions about politics and in every case the hardest people to have a rational discussion with were those that had put things in the wrong order. Just like in any conversation you have o at least agree on which language we are going to speak. You can’t have a science discussion is one party wants to use the language of religion, on the language of politics and the other the language of science. It would be just as hard if the three parties were speaking French German and Japanese. Yet time and time again you see exactly these arguments being made. Pierce effectively demonstrates the problem with this type of reasoning.
The scariest parts of the book are when experts in a certain field are called in for initial consultation and then quickly ignored when their advice conflicts with the conclusion that they had already made. The most dramatic example of this was when Al Qaeda experts we asked to provide justification for invading Iraq and they told the Pentagon that Iraq would be the wrong target. They were dismissed and their opinion was not sought again.
My biggest criticism with the book was that it did have a strong liberal slant. Much of this was unavoidable since any critique of government would be dominated by the party that is in charge. Although I do believe that the Republicans have been most guilty of forcing the evidence to fit their pre-drawn conclusion there is also plenty of blame to throw around. I can think of several examples of politicians on the other side of the aisle making similar errors in reasoning, many times on the same issues that Pierce describes. Anytime an author comes across overly sympathetic for one side and overly critical of the other he looses a little bit of credibility in my opinion. To be fair he did criticize some liberals, Jesse Jackson for instance, but the bulk of the criticism was at conservatives. I would have also liked for him to have examined the cult of the celebrety. Jenny McCarthy is a prime example. Her autism activism is seriously diverting attention away from those who really do know what they're talking about and peolpe are dying becasue of it.
I’d recommend this book to anybody who wants to better understand some of the flawed decision making that goes on in our country. Parts of it will have you laughing, parts will have you crying, and parts will have you fuming made. And sometimes all this happens in the same paragraph.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The War on Expertise

In the last decade or so there has been a carefully orchestrated attack on expertise. Little by little those who knew what they were talking about were marginalized. If a graduate degree holder gives his opinion on an issue well within the scope of his training he is called an elitist. In school board hearings we are told that “Somebody has to stand up to these experts”
Rather than cast our vote for the candidate we think is the most qualified we’ve been encouraged to vote for the candidate we’d most like to sit down and have a beer with. As if being down home and an “Ordinary Joe” is a qualification for higher office. Scientists who know what they are talking about are marginalized simple because they are experts. Doctors are accused of being tools of “big pharma” and patients are turning to modern day witch doctors and celebrities for their advice. Never before in our history has being an expert been viewed as a liability. It’s as if the jocks of the world gained power and decided that the geeks and the nerds didn’t deserve to participate because they knew too much. We used to be a meritocracy. People who worked to be expert in their fields gained higher positions and more respect. Now we label them elitist and marginalize their advice as if their expertise itself disqualifies them.
I just started reading Charlie Pierce’s Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free. When we check books out form the library they give us a little receipt that is roughly 3”x5” that tell us when the book is due. I typically use the same receipt as a bookmark as I read. Victoria has taken to tearing little pieces of the receipt off and using these scraps to mark the interesting parts of the book. Up until know I’ve avoided this technique. But I’m already had to mark several passages of this book and I’m only a few chapters in. I may need to get more scraps of paper because my bookmark is getting really small already.
Pierce is really funny. But you can tell that his humor is his coping mechanism. He’s upset. He’s seriously bothered at the tremendous steps our country has been taking backwards in the last few decades. He makes you laugh with the way he describes the situation before us but the laughter is followed shortly by shame for having taken it so lightly. Because, sadly, he’s right.
In our world where everybody has a blog and everybody is an expert, nobody is. The views of Stephen Hawking are put on an equal footing with any crank on the internet who claims that the world is flat. The view of a hysterical mother are promoted on Oprah as if her discoveries have completely overturned science and the doctors who really understand the disease are only allowed to ask questions from the crowd. We treat everybody’s equal right to have an opinion as if it means that all opinions stand on equal footing. Not true at all. Some opinions deserve to die so that those based on fact and evidence can live on.
Pierce describes our awakening from this state as if describing the first glimpse of lucidity after a hangover wears off:
"This is that moment in the hangover in which you discover that your keys are in your hat, the cat is in the sink, and you attempted late the previous night to make stew out of a pot holder. Things are in the wrong place. Religion is in the box where science used to be. Politics is on the shelf where you thought you left science the previous afternoon. Entertainment seems to have been knocked over and spilled on everything. " (p.30)
Pardon my pessimism, but I think his description is a bit premature. I feel like most of America is still hung-over and quite a few are still enjoying the party and not even thinking about the consequences yet. I’ll give a complete review when I’ve read the whole book. So far Idiot America has been a hilarious yet humbling read.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Peace Day

I read this book a few years ago. I can't say I enjoyed it, it was actually very painful to read, but I felt I had to read it. While I was in Japan I had an old man basically ask me for forgiveness on behalf of America. He had killed Americans during the war and even saw the bomb go off over Hiroshima from a boat in the harbor. I was the first American he had seen in decades. We can post hoc justify Truman's decision but that does not diminish the horror that it caused.
Today is the 64th anniversary of the day we bombed Hiroshima. I think we to make sure that no one ever has to experience this horror again.
The Japanese call today Peace Day. Perhaps we should start doing the same.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Ender's Game: a Review

As a family we just finished reading “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card. I was very apprehensive about reading it with the kids because of the quite serious theme, especially near the end. Not surprisingly Rachel has been having a very hard time with it. I remember being disturbed by the book when I first read it in High School. I shared my concerns with my father who encouraged me to continue on and read “Speaker for the Dead”. The sequel does redeem many of the seriously unethical aspects of the first book, but on its own I cannot recommend that anybody read “Ender’s Game”.
Lately I’ve been reading several book s on psychology, decision making, ethics and philosophy. It’s with this extra education that I was even more disgusted by “Ender’s Game”. If you haven’t read the book and don’t want any spoilers, stop reading now.
In the first Chapter the government has intentionally bred a child to be the commander of the next army. They even violated local laws in order to allow the child to be born. Not only did this child have little to no choice about his future, this is just the tip of the iceberg for the ends-justifies-the-means mentality that influences every single action of the government as it pertains to Ender.
At an age when he can still show you how old he is with his fingers Ender is intentionally put into situations where he is forced to defend himself. Eventually he even is forced to kill. He is also praised for not stopping when the threat is simply gone, but to continue until he completely destroys his enemy. In the most brutal scene he continues to attack a fellow student after he is knocked unconscious. As if allowing this wasn’t unethical enough Ender’s handlers told him that his victims were merely transferred and concealed the true horror of his actions from him.
All this was foreshadowing for the last few chapters. There Ender is deceived again, this time into destroying an entire species. Again the full scope of his actions was held from him. He was told that the war he was fighting was just a game. They encouraged him to be unethical and to not play by any rules. By his own admission he cheated. He just wanted to end the game. They weren’t real. He was encouraged to believe that the enemy was teachers and that’s the only game he was trying to win. Had he known the full scope of his actions he likely would have responded differently.
The really disturbing part of the last chapters came when you realize that the war was over before he had attacked. The buggers were trying to apologize for their mistaken invasion but simply didn’t know how to communicate with us. Victoria and I even speculated that the second attack, which was a complete victory for the humans, was even a peace offering to make them feel victorious and not pursue the issue any further. Had they not encouraged totally destruction as the only definition of victory there would have been no further conflict.
So why am I getting so upset about this? It’s only fiction, right? Unfortunately we live in a world where far too many people believe that once you’ve defined and enemy the only thing left is too destroy them. We live in a world were decent people will succumb to situational evil and commit unspeakable atrocities. We’ve sacrificed American values and liberty in the name of victory and didn’t even give diplomacy a fair chance. Our leaders define political opinions as if there were only patriots and terrorists and nothing in between. We post hoc justify all of this as if the actions themselves are proof of their efficacy. Just because we destroyed a counties ability to wage war doesn’t prove that they were planning an attack. We have manipulated congress, the public and the media with false information to support going to war. Etc. etc. etc. The parallels from this book are far too many for me to simply dismiss it as fiction.
Card has had numerous calls from Hollywood to turn this book into a movie. I confess that I think the training at the battle school would make for good action scenes. I am just very concerned that those scenes would be the only take-away and the overwhelming horror of his childhood would be lost.
We’re going to read “Speaker for the Dead” next. It’s a much better book for exactly the opposite reasons that I disliked “Ender’s Game”. Ender is allowed to think. He doesn’t rush to judgment. He has a conscience and diplomacy is encouraged. But most of all he understands what he is doing and why. It makes him a much better leader and a better human being. I think Rachel will be able to sleep a little better once we finish it.