Why don’t we believe science

Had this as an open tab for forever.  Was going to put it in a quick hit, but it deserves it’s own post (especially while I’m at the beach and surely not publishing much), so read the piece, which is a great summary on confirmation bias, etc.  That said, here’s some really good parts:

In the U.S., climate change somehow has become a litmus test that identifies you as belonging to one or the other of these two antagonistic tribes. When we argue about it, Kahan says, we’re actually arguing about who we are, what our crowd is. We’re thinking, People like us believe this. People like that do not believe this. For a hierarchical individualist, Kahan says, it’s not irrational to reject established climate science: Accepting it wouldn’t change the world, but it might get him thrown out of his tribe.

“Take a barber in a rural town in South Carolina,” Kahan has written. “Is it a good idea for him to implore his customers to sign a petition urging Congress to take action on climate change? No. If he does, he will find himself out of a job, just as his former congressman, Bob Inglis, did when he himself proposed such action.”

Science appeals to our rational brain, but our beliefs are motivated largely by emotion, and the biggest motivation is remaining tight with our peers. “We’re all in high school. We’ve never left high school,” says Marcia McNutt. “People still have a need to fit in, and that need to fit in is so strong that local values and local opinions are always trumping science. And they will continue to trump science, especially when there is no clear downside to ignoring science.” …

If you’re a rationalist, there’s something a little dispiriting about all this. In Kahan’s descriptions of how we decide what to believe, what we decide sometimes sounds almost incidental. Those of us in the science-communication business are as tribal as anyone else, he told me. We believe in scientific ideas not because we have truly evaluated all the evidence but because we feel an affinity for the scientific community. When I mentioned to Kahan that I fully accept evolution, he said, “Believing in evolution is just a description about you. It’s not an account of how you reason.”

Maybe—except that evolution actually happened. Biology is incomprehensible without it. There aren’t really two sides to all these issues. Climate change is happening. Vaccines really do save lives. Being right does matter—and the science tribe has a long track record of getting things right in the end. Modern society is built on things it got right…

Scientific thinking has to be taught, and sometimes it’s not taught well, McNutt says. Students come away thinking of science as a collection of facts, not a method. Shtulman’s research has shown that even many college students don’t really understand what evidence is. The scientific method doesn’t come naturally—but if you think about it, neither does democracy. For most of human history neither existed. We went around killing each other to get on a throne, praying to a rain god, and for better and much worse, doing things pretty much as our ancestors did…

Of course we’re right to ask questions about some of the things science and technology allow us to do. “Everybody should be questioning,” says McNutt. “That’s a hallmark of a scientist. But then they should use the scientific method, or trust people using the scientific method, to decide which way they fall on those questions.” We need to get a lot better at finding answers, because it’s certain the questions won’t be getting any simpler.

Jim Carrey vs. science

I did not think it worth wasting my time addressing the fact what Jim Carrey thinks about vaccines– as befits the former s.o. of Jenny McCarthy, he’s pretty skeptical.  Phil Plait of Slate does think it’s worth his time to debunk Carrey, so feel free to check that out.

I got excited today, though, as I learned that one of the kids that Carrey high-lighted as damaged by vaccines actually has a very clear cause of his autism– Tuberous Sclerosis Complex.  That’s right, the rare genetic disease that my son has.  So, some good as come out of this– more attention for TSC.  Nice write-up by science writer Emily Willingham:

Actor Jim Carrey took to Twitter this week to draw attention to a long-time cause of his, campaigning for what he calls “greener” vaccines. He was trying to make some points about his opposition to the newly signed California law requiring vaccines for all children attending schools in the state, allowing only medical exemptions. In his attempt, Carrey unleashed a series of tweets with statements such as “A trillion dollars buys a lot of expert opinions. Will it buy you? TOXIN FREE VACCINES, A REASONABLE REQUEST!” along with images of distressed children.

As it turns out, one of those children was Alex Echols, whose family emphatically did not give Carrey permission to use the image of their son in his tweets about vaccines and weren’t too happy about his having done so.

Carrey appears to be among those who believe that vaccines cause autism…

But Carrey’s efforts did more than draw attention to his belief that vaccines contain “neurotoxins” and cause autism, one of Alex’s diagnoses. Because of Carrey’s use of Alex’s image and the resulting story blowing up around it, he’s also inadvertently drawn attention to a genetic condition that has been confirmed as associated with autism: tuberous sclerosis.

[Disclosure: Because of my involvement in a “mom group” many years ago, I was briefly familiar with Alex and his mother at the time he was diagnosed.]

The condition gets its name from the potato (tuber)-like growths that develop in the brain, as visible on MRI, that eventually harden, or sclerose. It traces to two gene variants that result in the development of these benign growths in many tissues. ‘Benign’ references only the fact that they aren’t cancer—their effects are not benign, particularly in the central nervous system. While the effects can be mild, often the condition is associated with epilepsy, developmental delay, and … autism.

In fact, about a third to half of children who have tuberous sclerosis could also be diagnosed with autism. Each condition is associated with seizures, and there are hints that disrupted connections among brain regions might be responsible for both the seizures and the social communication deficits of autism.

It’s ironic that Jim Carrey, in his effort to argue a debunked link between vaccines and autism, accidentally drew attention to one of the few factors that have been strongly linked to autism. Some celebrities, however, such as Julianne Moore, were way ahead of the curve and have been working a little more deliberately to draw attention to tuberous sclerosis.

This is about as much media coverage as I’ve ever seen for TSC— so, thanks Jim Carrey!

Pet dinosaurs

So, a former student’s FB post about attending the Creation Museum inspired me to check out their website (of course, I’ve long-known of their existence, just never really investigated).  I was most fascinated to learn how they have simply decided to adopt dinosaurs and the fossil record and explain that they are just looking at it through a bible-based perspective rather than a science-based perspective.  They are proud of their fossils and have all sorts of pseudo-scientific explanations for how they are right and the scientists are wrong about evolution, natural selection, etc.  I ended up at the Answers in Genesis site where they proudly proclaim, “We’ve Invaded Their “Temple”! Humanists Are on Notice: We’re Taking Dinosaurs Back!”  Watch out you secular humanists!!

And, what is some of the air-tight logic upon which they are reclaiming dinosaurs?

And no, it’s not ridiculous to believe dinosaurs and people lived at the same time (as the Bible makes very clear)—it’s ridiculous and illogical not to! Consider the two signs pictured from one of Australia’s wildlife sanctuaries.

Think about it: according to evolutionary time, crocodiles have been around since the time of the dinosaurs1—and yet, humans live with crocodiles today. So why is it ridiculous to think humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time?

Sign from one of Australia’s wildlife sanctuaries

But it’s not just crocodiles—there are many other examples. On AiG’s website, there’s an article that quotes a leading evolutionist who said that finding a certain tree in Australia was like finding a “live dinosaur.” The article explained

This is because the tree, nicknamed the Wollemi pine, is known from fossils classed as so-called Jurassic age around 150 million years ago, but not from fossils in rocks of later periods.

Humans and the Wollemi pine tree live today, and yet from an evolutionary perspective, the Wollemi pine dates back to the “time of the dinosaurs.” That’s why the evolutionist called it the “dinosaur tree.”

While we don’t find fossils of the Wollemi pine tree and humans together, we do know they live together—because both are alive today.

WTF?  I can’t even get around the logic of how that all means humans, dinosaurs, and crocodiles are all only 6000 years old. But don’t worry, it’s science:

Nothing in observational science contradicts the obvious conclusion based on the Bible’s history:

  • Dinosaurs were created alongside man around 6,000 years ago.
  • Representative kinds of them were on Noah’s Ark.
  • Most dinosaur fossils are from the Flood (about 4,500 years ago).
  • Dinosaurs lived beside man after the Flood, but like lots of other animals and plants, have become extinct since that time.

Ouch, the stupid!

And, sure, it’s fun and easy to pick on the creation museum, but this is serious stuff.  Last year’s Gallup poll:

Trend: Which of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings?

Photo of the day

The Washington Post has a cool “tour of the solar system” gallery.  On a sort-of-related note, I’m half-way through watching Interstellar and love it so far.

Jupiter and its moon Io are seen in this Voyager 2 image. The spacecraft made its closest approach in July 1979. Voyager 2 is now in interstellar space.NASA/Courtesy of Breese Little  

Quick hits (part I)

1) Fascinating piece on the complete cultural inversion in recent times of which sex society thinks wants more sex (not that long ago, women were seen as the rapacious sex fiends).

2) I kept meaning to write a post on Hillary’s stand for voting rights.  I never did.  But, Chait, Jamelle Bouie, and Seth Masket all see her position as both good policy and good politics.

3) I had no idea there was a backlash against the whole “grit” thing.  Whether we want to talk about “grit” or not, though, I’m definitely supportive of the idea of teaching kids to improve their non-cognitive skills.

4) Should have included this with last night’s Charleston post.  The Economist:

The regularity of mass killings breeds familiarity. The rhythms of grief and outrage that accompany them become—for those not directly affected by tragedy—ritualised and then blend into the background noise. That normalisation makes it ever less likely that America’s political system will groan into action to take steps to reduce their frequency or deadliness. Those who live in America, or visit it, might do best to regard them the way one regards air pollution in China: an endemic local health hazard which, for deep-rooted cultural, social, economic and political reasons, the country is incapable of addressing. This may, however, be a bit unfair. China seems to be making progress on pollution.

5) Chipotle is working to design a better tortilla— the secret is fewer ingredients.  I like the existing tortillas well enough, but almost never eat them (I’m a burrito bowl guy) due to the 300+ (!) calories per tortilla .

6) Okay, I was going to write a a post on this college professor who is scared of his liberal students because of the rampant, new PC-ism (see Laura Kipnis), but I’m not scared of mine.  Although, maybe I should be– if anybody in my department is going to get in trouble for saying the wrong thing, it’s me.  I suspect this is still pretty much only a problem in elite liberal arts colleges.  Of course, I hope I don’t find out the wrong way.

7) JP says this is the best thing he’s read on Rachel Dolezal.  That’s a good endorsement.

8) Why we should keep Andrew Jackson on the $20 (short version, we tend to only pay attention to the bad stuff these days).

9) Why do we even need males, you may ask?  Here’s why:

The researchers found that when sexual selection was removed and beetles were paired up into monogamous couples, the population’s health declined rapidly and the bugs were wiped out by the 10th generation. Conversely, beetles that had a strong influence on sexual selection, where intense competition saw 90 males trying to compete to reproduce with only 10 females, were more resilient to extinction.

“To be good at out-competing rivals and attracting partners in the struggle to reproduce, an individual has to be good at most things, so sexual selection provides an important and effective filter to maintain and improve population genetic health,” said Gage. “Our findings provide direct support for the idea that sex persists as a dominant mode of reproduction because it allows sexual selection to provide these important genetic benefits.”

The study suggests that sexual selection plays a crucial role in sifting out harmful genetic mutations, as competition means females are less likely to mate with genetically inferior individuals.

10) In 3/4 of cases of non-complicated appendicitis, antibiotics can solve the problem.  So why do we keep cutting out appendices?  Mostly, it seems, because we always have.

11) Had an open tab on this nice German Lopez piece on marijuana legalization for far too long.  Basic point, yes “Big Marijuana” would not be a good thing.  But surely better than our current status quo.  Interestingly, he argues the most viable long-term option is not decriminalization– as many, including me, have advocated– but full-on commercialization:

Other policies fall short of fixing all the issues caused by prohibition. While decriminalization would reduce the number of marijuana-related arrests, it would leave in place a black market that would continue to fund drug cartels. And while legalizing pot in more limited ways — by allowing only growing and gifting — would deplete some of the demand for a black market, it’s likely some form of legal sales is necessary to satisfy demand for the most widely used illicit drug in the country (although experts are watching Washington, DC, to see how grow-and-gift turns out).

This leaves legalization supporters with one feasible option to address the full scope of issues that concern them: commercialization. The other options are, for better or worse, either politically impractical or wouldn’t be able to greatly reduce black market demand for pot.

12) I had no idea how many animal hybrids were out there, seemingly just to satisfy human curiousity, while leading to animal suffering.  While we’re at it the Echidna is no hybrid, but it sure is freaky.

13) You already know how evil civil forfeiture is, but one more sad story on the matter can never hurt.  Hopefully, the unfortunate victims of this will learn that you really need to forget about travelling with significant cash (of course you should be able to do so in America, but as long as this policy is allowed to persist, it’s just folly).

14) Noted Libertarian (former NC Gubernatorial candidate) and Duke Political Science professor, Mike Munger, weighs in on the LaCour affair.

15) In some ways, the poor are more rational about money than the wealthy.

16) Is your inflation-adjusted middle class salary really better than you think?  This has kicked off an interesting discussion.

17) Interestingly, and distressingly, parents of obese children seem to be in an amazing amount of denial on the matter.

18) Was having a nice back-and-forth with a former student (a libertarian, frustrated as all with the GOP) and I sent him this great piece by Jon Chait (from a few years back) on how tax cuts for rich people truly has become the over-riding ideology of the contemporary GOP.  I don’t know if I’ve linked it here before or not, but it’s quite good and it made quite an impression.

19) Last post on Game of Thrones for a while.  Just nice to see another take so similar to my own on the ultimate boring-ness of the White Walker army.  On a related note, Yglesias is (rightly) disappointed in the de-emphasis on the political scheming from whence GOT actually derives it’s name.

20) We’ll end on an uplifting note involving a stuffed Hobbes that once was lost, but now is found.



The animals that kill people

Love this Infographic at Wonkblog about how many Americans die on average each year from various animals.  Sharks, as you probably actually already know, are among the least deadly (about one a year), but surely not in our imagination.  Just this week two kids (disturbingly close in age to my own kids) were attacked by a shark within a couple of hours at Oak Island, NC.  Not really all that far from Topsail Island where my family goes every summer (and will be in 3 weeks).  The 16 year old boy suffered a “clean transection” of his left arm– that’s right, the shark bit it right off.  On a rational level, I know that my kids are in no more danger (some, but very little) than when they cavorted in the ocean last year, but I can pretty much guarantee my brain won’t see it that way when we’re at the beach.

Rationally, I clearly should be a lot more afraid from dogs, bees, and cows (okay, probably not cows, we’re pretty much never around them).

Photo of the day

Given that I was just yesterday talking to my kids about various animal species’ abilities to recognize their own reflection in the mirror and how it relates to consciousness, this photo from National Geographic Found seems timely:

With claws bared, a kitten attacks its own mirrored reflection, 1964. Photograph by Walter Chandoha, National Geographic Creative

With claws bared, a kitten attacks its own mirrored reflection, 1964.PHOTOGRAPH BY WALTER CHANDOHA, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE


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