Junk science

(Personal)

2012-06-10 20:31
Comment

So, it’s pretty well established that there is a market for bad science — that is to say, “science” which is really carefully-crafted to produce a particular set of results for which there is a market demand.

It has occurred to me that this ought to be detectable. First off, there are multiple distinct goals people might have in pursuing such things.

Question #1: Does the truth matter economically? The answer to a question like “how much will the sea level rise in the next twenty years” is of substantial economic importance. If you are wrong about this, you can lose a lot of money. If you are right when other people are wrong, you can make a lot of money.

Question #2: Do your customers already know/suspect the truth? Do they care? Sometimes people don’t really care, they just want to feel good; other times, being able to make informed decisions is crucial to them; their goal is to have other people be misled.

Question #3: Do you need to promote a given belief, or merely cast doubt on another? There is a world of difference between “cigarettes are safe” and “it is not clear that cigarettes are dangerous”.

Question #4: Who’s the audience? Scientists? Regulators? Non-scientists?

To take a concrete example, consider the market for anti-evolution writing. The truth is, for purposes of the purveyors of junk science, not economically relevant. We’re talking about past events, and it simply doesn’t matter; no one’s betting on future outcomes. (I’m skipping #2 temporarily, will be back to it.) You don’t really have to promote a given belief; you just have to make people feel like there’s doubt about evolution. The audience is absolutely not scientists; it’s mostly non-scientists, with occasional forays into regulators. The hard question is #2, because to answer it, you have to know who the customers are. Are you selling this to the actual end-users, the ordinary people going about their lives who don’t need to know, or are you selling it to people who want to manipulate them? Quite a lot of the latter category are almost certainly aware of what they’re doing; it’s a way to make money, that’s all. But the former category… They don’t seem to show any sign of realizing that they’re holding a silly position. That means that your primary pitch has to look sincere, but, it doesn’t have to meet even very low standards of plausibility. It doesn’t have to be able to fool anyone remotely competent.

On other issues, though, there may be a much greater need to present something that’s at least plausible. People who are trying to oppose or prevent legislation have no need to advance a convincing counterclaim; they just need to create doubt.

My suspicion would be that, with a bit of data mining, you could find very significant differences between publications in different fields, that would correlate to the economic necessities driving the creation of junk science in the first place.

Peter Seebach

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The role of investors and investment

(Personal, Politics)

2012-05-29 05:38
Comment [2]

One of the standard talking points of the political “right” is that scattering the wealth of very wealthy people prevents them from “creating jobs”.

It is totally possible that this was true sometime last century. It’s not true now. Now, creating new businesses and jobs is primarily contingent on the ability of customers to buy your product; it is the “working class” who need to have money for new jobs to be created.

Consider the question of the costs of developing a new piece of hardware. Maybe long ago this required you to be able to fund building a factory. Now? Some guy who is curious and has an idea can just toss some design notes over to a factory and get it built.

There’s still some innovation happening that needs large budgets, but there are plenty of way to get this done that don’t require one specific rich guy with a vision. Kickstarter has provided a way for mid-sized projects to get funded that doesn’t require anyone with significant money to be involved to fund a “small” project — say, a million bucks.

Which is to say: We no longer particularly need captains of industry, if we ever did. People may, if they wish, continue to debate whether at some point in the past taxing rich people would prevent innovation, growth, and job creation. It is clearly not the case now. The policy questions remain arbitrarily complicated, and there are plenty of ways in which people could sincerely dispute how taxes should be allocated; I merely observe that technology has radically altered a key component of the landscape.

Peter Seebach

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The Pinkie Pie case for gay marriage

(Personal, Politics)

2012-05-24 09:18
Comment [2]

Marriages mean weddings. Weddings mean parties, with cake! More marriages mean more weddings. More weddings mean more parties, with more cake! Allowing gay marriage means MORE CAKE and MORE PARTIES.

(Well, I’ve seen people present Christian arguments in support of gay marriage, Conservative ones, Liberal ones, Social Justice ones… But I know my country. Any argument that does not involve the hope that a drunken bridesmaid will have a wardrobe malfunction is not persuasive to our people.)

Peter Seebach

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The conservative case for gay marriage

(GeekStuff, Politics)

2012-05-24 00:08
Comment

It is at this point pretty obvious that, for the most part, gay marriage advocates are not particularly persuasive to the most vehement objectors. There’s some interesting differences in how people view the question. What’s most interesting is to observe that, fundamentally, people are making different categories of arguments. It’s not that the conservatives dispute the equality argument, it’s that they aren’t considering it to be particularly relevant.

Well, that’s an interesting point. And long before anyone would have accused me of being “liberal” in any interesting sense, I was a pretty classic knee-jerk libertarian. And it occurs to me: Even back then, I thought it was obvious that same-sex couples ought to be allowed to marry. Because, see. That is a return to the core values that make for a meaningful and principled “conservative” approach to life, liberty, and government.

The only really meaningfully “conservative” argument against allowing gay marriage is that it’s a change, and conservatives are by definition opposed to change. Well, maybe as a general policy, but you have to be open to the possibility that sometimes a change is justified or necessary. Human beliefs about marriage vary from one culture to another, and one time to another. I am personally very happy with our migration away from the “women are property and do not get input on whether or whom they marry” view, because while that is indeed the traditional understanding of marriage in our culture going back some centuries, it is also a bad idea. We have come to realize that women are, in fact, people. They are entitled to vote, and they are entitled to participate in decisions about whether or not, or whom, they marry. We have abandoned coverture, and not a moment too soon. So the mere fact that allowing gays to marry would be a “change” is not really a compelling argument.

Let’s consider a few other conservative values. We sure do like to talk about liberties, right? Fundamental freedoms, constitutional rights, things like that? As someone (EDIT: Glenn Reynolds, not Eric Raymond, it turns out) put it, “Personally, I’d be delighted to live in a country where happily married gay couples had closets full of assault weapons.” Why? Because freedoms are intended to be universal, not cherry-picked for some people and not others. Because freedoms should not be denied to a few people just because a lot of other people are uncomfortable with them. That was the point of all these guarantees of rights; to prevent the tyranny of the majority from restricting peoples’ freedoms.

How about small government? Granting the premise that there’s sufficient social value in providing a one-step procedure for getting all the “these two people are now related” legal magic done, how shall we manage it? We should manage it by making the government do absolutely as little as possible to try to define and control people’s lives. It is a ridiculous waste of time, effort, and money to have laws against gay marriages. And instead of stopping there, we have people pushing for constitutional amendments banning them. There’s a reason, of course — it’s that without such amendments, it’s pretty obvious that laws against gay marriage are unconstitutional.

But this is not classic conservativism. The conservative response to “the constitution doesn’t allow the government to make that rule” is to cheer and throw a party. We don’t want the government making rules about stuff it has no business getting involved in! It’s bad enough that we have to put up with the government’s involvement in marriage in any form; why on earth are we getting it more involved?

How about religious freedom? I like religious freedom. I think people should be free to follow any or no religion as they see fit. That’s a pretty classic conservative value… And the only way to do that would be to have the government make no rules about gay marriage. Let the churches that want to marry gays do it, let the ones that don’t not do it, and keep the government out of this.

How about commitment and long-term planning? We like to talk those values up, and yet, here we have conservatives expending immense amounts of time and effort trying to discourage other people from making and keeping commitments. That makes no sense.

Fundamentally, this whole thing is a huge waste of time, and a distraction from things that we ought to be spending time on. The government should not be spending time or money trying to make and enforce rules about peoples’ personal lives. That’s not the government’s intended function. And the only way for us to fix this is to remove all those stupid laws. Leave definitions of marriage up to the states, let them do whatever they want as long as it’s constitutional, and accept that this will sometimes result in people doing things that other people think are gross.

There are many conservative values that I think make a lot of sense, are worthy of respect, and are good goals for people to live by and try to govern by. On each of these principles, I find that the Federal government should be entirely out of the marriage business, states should not have any statements about marriage in their constitutions, and that the law ought to let consenting adults marry if they want and stay the heck out of our bedrooms. I think it is time we rejected the notion that conservative values mean majorities trumping the freedoms of minorities, or asking the government to enforce our religious beliefs on people who don’t share them.

There are real issues where we could be making a positive difference instead of contributing to the portrayal of conservatives as knee-jerk reactionaries who are completely hypocritical about their alleged values and priorities. Maybe if the Republican party were to drop this stupid anti-gay-marriage stuff and focus on issues that actually mattered, we could get something interesting done.

Peter Seebach

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Followup: Why you can't rely on logical disclaimers

(Personal)

2012-05-21 10:12
Comment

It has been pointed out that my previous article about the famous “the talk: non-black version” seemed to imply that I do not understand the full weight of the “only when you have no better information” qualifier.

Not so.

The problem is that the qualifier doesn’t work, not because the qualifier’s not strong enough, but because humans are not rational enough. To put it simply, humans can’t actually make rules like that work. There are a few issues.

Issue #1: Lazy evaluation

The human brain inclines strongly towards not doing unneeded work. What this means is that if you have a heuristic to hand, your brain will tend to use it and present the result as if it were knowledge or well-supported reasoning. You can override this, most of the time, but doing so requires extra effort, and humans cannot maintain that kind of extra effort consistently over time. (For a much more detailed discussion, see Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Give particular attention to the statistics on judicial review and how outcomes vary over the course of a day’s work.)

So even if you have a rule which is duly qualified to be used only when no better data are available, the qualification will be silently disregarded. You might catch this sometimes. You won’t catch it all the time.

Issue #2: Theory-laden data

So assume you correctly apply the qualifier. Does it work? The answer, perhaps surprisingly is still “no.” The problem is that we often forget that we don’t really have access to unfiltered experience; we have to make sense of things in terms of our understanding of how the world works. What this means is that the data from which we reason are theory-laden, meaning that they already reflect our presuppositions.

When dealing with social interactions, we are well outside the realm of things we can evaluate without assumptions. The key is that assumptions about relationships and attitudes can radically transform the experiences we have.

Two of my friends, who have been close friends for many years (close enough that their parents kept assuring them that, if they were a couple, they could just say so and no one would reject them), habitually insult each other. People who don’t know them hear their interactions as hostile and abusive. And this leads to feedback; someone who hears the hostile interactions first will tend to interpret their friendly interactions as a temporary ceasefire with resentment bubbling underneath, and thus continue to evaluate them as much less friendly than they really are.

By contrast, people with social anxiety disorders will massively misinterpret social cues as more hostile or judgemental than they are. One of my friends once complained about how mean a mutual friend had been, making fun of her teeth. I was confused, so she explained; he’d made some comment, then looked at her mouth and made eye contact with me, which clearly indicated that he’d been talking about her teeth. (She felt she had bad teeth. I was totally unaware of this. So was the friend.)

So if you start with a set of rules you use “only when you don’t have specific knowledge”, the specific knowledge you get will be biased to at least some degree by those presuppositions. In social interactions, especially when forming first impressions, that can create wildly divergent sets of interpretations. Even apart from the theoretical problems, people recognize things they are prepped for more readily, even when this is inaccurate; shown neutral facial expressions, people are more likely to “recognize” expressions corresponding to a mood they have reason to anticipate.

Issue #3: Game theory.

Social interactions with strangers are very much subject to the classic failure modes of things like the prisoner’s dilemma. Imagine that two people meet, and that they are able to tell in advance that each is in a group which has some history of hostility or bigotry towards the other. Doesn’t really matter which groups you use; it could be a black guy and a white guy, or it could be a leather fairy and a priest. Each will start at least alert to the possibility that the other will be hostile. The thing is, guarded-and-defensive and hostile look like each other at least a little. So if they both start out defensive, and prepped for hostile interactions, they are likely to end up being mutually hostile, with each believing that the other initiated it.

You can somewhat overcome this simply by overtly rejecting hostility and demonstrating friendly intent. But to do this, you have to be willing to genuinely commit to it (or be a much better actor than most people will ever be). A set of rules that encourages you to be defensive and not-open rules that out.

So if both parties follow a set of rules similar to those proposed when dealing with perfect strangers, they will be very likely to have consistently negative (or at the very least non-positive) experiences. This then reinforces the stereotypes and presuppositions.

So in conclusion…

While in general it’s true that you should favor accuracy over desireability in evaluating the world, doing so with social rules can be massively counterproductive, because your presuppositions can influence outcomes quite dramatically. Starting out prepared to deal with hostility makes you more likely to perceive hostility whether or not it is present, and more likely to act in ways that provoke hostile responses. It does this no matter how smart you are, and no matter how committed you are to avoiding it; human brains simply cannot be that rational.

Peter Seebach

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Intelligence, logic, statistics, and one's own petard

(Personal, Politics)

2012-05-16 10:53
Comment

A while back, Eric Raymond blogged what he called an intelligence test. It’s based on the much-commented on “the talk: non-black edition” piece that was making the rounds a while back. Raymond continues with some questions, then says:

If you answered “Yes” to any of the above questions, you failed the test.

There are flaws here. First, this is a test of logic, not intelligence. There are smart people who have never learned precise logic, and really, this test is aimed at a particular kind of rationality. However, there is a much deeper flaw. Let’s look more closely at Eric’s questions #1 and #4:

1. Did you fail to notice that the key paragraph in it is this one: “Thus, while always attentive to the particular qualities of individuals, on the many occasions where you have nothing to guide you but knowledge of those mean differences, use statistical common sense:”

and

4. Did you finish the article believing that John Derbyshire (the author) is a racist?

There are multiple flaws. First, you could have some reason other than the article for believing Derbyshire to be a racist. But that’s not the big one. The big one is the paragraph quoted in question #1. As Derbyshire and Raymond both agree, when you do not have enough information about the particular qualities of individuals, you should use statistical common sense.

Well. It turns out that, while there are doubtless exceptions, there are a whole lot of people out there who will justify racist courses of action by appeal to various statistics. So many that, in fact, if you do not have significant information to the contrary, it is a statistically sound and reasonable assumption that any such person is probably a racist. And question 4’s phrasing says “believing”, not “thinking you have irrefutable proof”.

So it seems to me that the very argument Derbyshire advances for treating people based on statistical norms in the absence of more specific data fully justifies people treating him as a racist until they have more information available.

There is a more subtle question to be had:

3. Did you at any point refuse to believe a fact claim in the article because you think the world would be a worse or uglier place if the claim were true?

This oversimplifies a little; contrast with refusing to accept a fact claim because you think the world would be a worse or uglier place if you believed it, and the fact claim is about a thing which is true or false in part because of human beliefs. Interpersonal relationships are heavily influenced and shaped by peoples’ beliefs. If you go around expecting people to be liars and cheaters, more people will lie to you and cheat you. People pick up on things and tend to act according to expectations. This is why good managers are effective; they expect the best and people know it. So choosing to adjust your beliefs in order to make a better world is not necessarily stupid or irrational.

I personally don’t know whether Derbyshire is a racist, but I do know that people who say things like that often are, and that thinking that way about people creates the sorts of circumstances under which the brain’s overactive pattern-recognition tends to create racism through confirmation bias. In the long run, if everyone non-black acted on his advice, the world would be a much worse place, and his descriptions would become more true; if no one acted on this advice (even the people who already are even if they haven’t seen it), the world would be a much better place, and his descriptions would become less true.

I choose to, in general, disregard statistical claims about populations because I am aware that the human brain is simply not well-equipped to process them in a way that doesn’t introduce more errors than it corrects. (For more background on how utterly shoddy the human brain’s heuristics can be, see Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.)

In short, while I do not know whether Derbyshire was a racist, I know that humans who internalize models like that are virtually guaranteed to become racists over time through the magic of confirmation bias. The disclaimer paragraph is not the piece’s salvation, because it is irrelevant to actual humans, who simply cannot manage that kind of intellectual rigor consistently.

Peter Seebach

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Cognitive dissonance and how people manage it.

(Personal)

2012-05-13 10:17
Comment

The human brain is a complicated thing, and people have a lot of ego invested in thinking they are smart and correct.

What this means is that when people realize that they have made a mistake of some kind, the first thing they often do is very carefully not realize it. At this point, you start getting weird and erratic behaviors; the less-self-aware part of the brain knows what’s wrong, and knows that it’s going to be upsetting to think about it, so it becomes necessary to not think about it consciously.

When you find yourself thinking “that is so obviously wrong that it is impossible to explain why it is wrong”, the most likely answer is “actually it’s right and I’ll feel bad when I realize that.” For serious. If the only argument you can make against something is to highlight the things in it you don’t like, but you can’t articulate what’s wrong with them, the most likely thing that’s wrong with them is that they are a threat to your happy self-image.

The secret to long-term happiness is to be utterly ruthless about crushing your own ego in the short term. Be one of those people who always has to become right, not one of those people who always has to have been right at the start of the conversation.

Peter Seebach

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Thanks to the Internet, societal change is faster.

(Personal, Politics)

2012-05-09 20:04
Comment [3]

Back in 2011, Rick Perry was whining about how there is “something wrong in this country when gays can openly serve in the military”. Ten years ago, that might have been a selling point, politically. But then, ten years ago, you didn’t find out, in real time, how people felt about things.

And this means that, politically, the gay rights issue is now heavily weighted towards the opinions of people who are not afraid of computers, because they’re the ones who are getting heard. So now, it’s not all down to the old retired folks who have the time to write letters; public opinion leaders are writing from coffeeshops with wireless.

Yes, Colorado’s speaker of the house sat on a civil unions bill until the session ran out. But the governor is calling a special session to force a vote, because people are sick of politicians avoiding the issue.

Speaking of politicians not avoiding the issue, when the President comes out and says he supports gay marriage, it’s not days or weeks before people hear. It’s hours. And then they get to see feedback, and it’s not just the most scared or outraged who are getting heard, it’s everybody. And people are seeing, more and more quickly, that more and more people have changed sides. Thing about social animals is, their societies can change really rapidly when the time comes… for better or worse.

When Obama made his statement, Fox News went with the headline “OBAMA FLIP FLOPS, DECLARES WAR ON MARRIAGE”. Within an hour or two, they’d edited it. But, thanks to the modern world, they can’t pretend they didn’t do it. And thanks to the cultural shifts in our society, they don’t feel comfortable leaving a blatant lie like that up.

This isn’t over, in that it’ll be many years before we stop seeing attempts to legislate discrimination against gays. However, for the US as a whole, I think we have reached the point where such legislation is going to be a liability to the legislators, rather than an asset. And that, in turn, probably means that we’re going to see fewer and fewer politicians supporting it, because the fact is, a lot of people don’t actually feel that strongly that gay marriage is the End Of All Things; they just thought their voters did.

Got news for you, folks: Lots of people who have historically voted Republican have decided that, if we are going to make the government smaller and more efficient, one way would be by ceasing this pointless and totally failed attempt to legislate reality. There are people who think Obama is a horrible president, but who will vote for him over Romney simply because Obama doesn’t try to deny the essential humanity and dignity of their friends and families.

I have to say: I did not expect our politically-savvy President to come out and say anything strong on this topic, certainly not befeore the election. I guess the poll results on DADT were better than expected.

Peter Seebach

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Amazing discovery: Talking to people sometimes helps.

(Personal)

2012-05-02 09:49
Comment

School experiments with finding out why kids are acting up, discovers that this helps.

Not really surprised that you can massively improve outcomes by trying to find out what the problem is rather than ignoring it. Sort of surprised someone actually went ahead and tried it. What’s interesting here is that this suggests that a big portion of the bad outcomes we see from dysfunctional homes is actually a result of schools handling the problem badly.

Peter Seebach

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No girl believes that she's beautiful...

(Personal)

2012-04-27 01:21
Comment [3]

Someone posted a little image meme on Tumblr recently, which was just the oh-so inspiring text:

No girl believes she’s beautiful, until a guy comes along and makes her feel like she is.

I saw it in the context of an edit roughly to the effect of “No girl believes she’s beautiful, because our society has really unhealthy notions of beauty…”, etcetera.

But the more I think about this, the more it bothers me. There’s a few problems.

Problem #1: What about a girl making her feel beautiful? Yeah, I know, most people are straight. Nonetheless, it seems a little problematic. On the other hand, I think there is a fundamental societal rule going on here; people are sort of trained into the notion that men judge feminine beauty. (One of my friends once got a comment on tumblr that a reader had seen a picture of her and thought she was ugly. Apparently she was supposed to care.)

Problem #2: Why can’t she believe she’s beautiful before some guy makes her feel that way? This is sort of a followup to the other, but it gets to a deeper issue about how people form their self-image.

Okay, now with those in mind, let’s do a little postmodern art, and deconstruct it. Try a few of the following:

No girl believes she’s a successful CEO, until a guy comes along and makes her feel like she is.
No girl believes she’s a member of a tool-using species, until a guy comes along and makes her feel like she is.
No girl believes she’s wearing glasses, until a guy comes along and makes her feel like she is.

These highlight something of what makes the original creepy; it’s non-sensical at a very deep level, unless we presuppose that girls are uniformly incapable of a respectful self-image. But wait! There’s a deeper problem. Let’s try one more:

No guy believes he’s beautiful, until a girl comes along and makes him feel like he is.

Do you see it now? The original piece has a presupposition in it, cleverly hidden, that “believes that she’s beautiful” is a thing of particular and special importance. It presupposes that every girl wishes to be beautiful, but beyond that, that she cannot be fulfilled without believing that she’s beautiful, and that she is fulfilled by believing that she’s beautiful. It is offered as both necessary and sufficient to her validation as a human being. It doesn’t explicitly say that, but what you see from looking at random substitutions of other nouns or adjectives is that none of them have that “oh, how touching” conditioned response. It’s romantic because the guy makes her complete as a person — by making her feel, and thus believe, that she’s beautiful. Turn it around and make it about a guy and it’s just sorta silly-sounding. Who cares whether a guy believes he’s beautiful? I’m not even sure most guys want to be “beautiful”.

This weird standard is deeply embedded in our view of what it is to be female in our culture. Look at all the stories, especially movies and TV, where a woman’s true beauty is revealed. Every time, it is done by showing that she can look attractive. Never do you see the other students at the high school realize that being around her makes them laugh and feel more alive. Never do you see other people in the office come to respect their coworker’s technical brilliance, her determination. No, the makeover is always about looking pretty.

A trivia point: Many women have skills other than being decorative. Some of them, in fact, would rather be complimented on those skills than on how they look. Imagine, if you will, that you were to spend ten or twenty years working with fanatical dedication to become a genuinely world-class expert in a challenging field, and that people mostly responded with “wow, and you dress so sharply!” or “and she does it without a hair out of place”. Seriously, how insulting is that? I understand it’s pretty damn insulting.

For more deconstruction of this, focused merely on the hilarity of repeating the soundbite until the words lose all meaning, you can have a look at my tumblr post about this.

Peter Seebach

Comment [3]

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