Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Can we trust science?

November 3, 2017

So, you’ve been given antibiotics. I’m pretty sure everyone will know the old rule: always take all of the antibiotics, because if you don’t then you might increase resistance to antibiotics which would be bad. This was a firm rule for as long as I can remember, and so pretty much for as long as I’ve been alive. If we knew anything, we knew that taking all of the antibiotics in your prescription was the right thing to do.

Or, perhaps not.

I actually came across this earlier this week while waiting for a lunch order and watching their TV while waiting. It was on a talk show and they were talking about headaches, the expert mentioned that for some headaches antibiotics might be required, the hostess repeated the line about always finishing them, and he rather awkwardly replied that, yeah, that might not be true anymore. She was flabbergasted, as was I. This seemed so certain. We were always told that this was the way things were supposed to work. And now it might not be? Really?

What’s next? Smoking doesn’t actually cause cancer? (What a monumentally chaotic situation that be, eh?)

And medical science tends to be fraught with such examples. Recommended diets, for example, change frequently as new things are discovered. Is chocolate, alcohol, or eggs good, or bad? Is fat good, bad, or indifferent? How much should you exercise? Can you exercise in small amounts or do you need to do longer sessions to get any benefit? And so on and so forth.

And don’t even get me started on Psychology.

Now, both of those at least have the excuse that they are trying to use the perfect, third-person oriented scientific method on situations that are far more chaotic and personal than normal. Maybe all they really need to do is stop trying to universalize these principles, turn the more common ones into recommendations, and add more ways to help people determine what works for them. I even have a couple of examples of this from personal experience. In a Psychology class I was taking, the old “constant review” rule was mentioned. The problem is that constantly reviewing bores the heck out of me, and can actually make my retention worse because I stop paying attention to it. You know what surprisingly does work for me? Writing everything down, even if I have notes or slides to look at. Saying it to myself in my head seems to help me remember things even if I don’t really study or review until the end. The other example is the common “graze” advice, where you eat small meals when you’re hungry instead of having a couple of big meals. The problem for me, as I constantly tell people, is that if I tried that I’d either eat all the time or not at all, depending on what I’m doing. If I’m mentally engaged in something and not thinking about food, then I won’t even notice I’m hungry (Star Wars: Rebellion, I’m looking at you here). But if I’m sitting around just reading or watching TV, then I get bored and so at least get more inclined to eat something. So for me the best model is to have scheduled meals and even plans for what I’m going to eat. But both of these cases are ones where for others — and maybe even for most others — they would work. If I blindly followed the advice, they wouldn’t work for me, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work for other people.

But are these fields exceptions, or is science not really trustworthy?

Before I get into this, I probably should fire off this disclaimer. My first degree is actually a science degree. It’s a Bachelor’s of Computer Science, but that was under the Faculty of Science at my university. I took an Astrophysics course as an elective. The reason I don’t follow a former co-worker’s advice and do a Physics degree is because I can’t handle the math, not because I hate the science. I’m not an expert scientist, but I don’t dismiss any scientific discovery without at least having reasons to do so (like finding potential confounds). I oppose scientism, but don’t oppose science itself. And my main approach to clashes between science and religion or philosophy is to conform the religion or philosophy to the scientific facts (whatever they are). So I’m not some kind of anti-science crusader trying to weaken science to bolster my non-scientific claims.

And so, let me ask: should we trust a field that is most famous for getting things wrong?

There aren’t a lot of theories in the history of science that survived unaltered, and a large number of them were, in fact, overturned. As we have seen and are seeing, a lot of these upheavals have happened with theories that were considered rock solid for ages. Newtonian physics, for example, was at least found to be wanting and so predicted the wrong things at certain levels, and so had to at a minimum be supplemented by relativistic physics (it’s a major bone of contention to say that relativity replaced Newtonian, but the more I think about it the more I think that it did, because the only things that really were saved were the ones based on precise empirical measurements, and a theory that only explains what you can measure isn’t much of a scientific theory, but I digress). Depending on what you count as science in history — and even scientists and scientismists are inconsistent about this, claiming ancient philosophers and yet dismissing some medieval figures who actually claimed to be doing science — you can claim radical changes in pretty much every field being prevalent in science. And, in fact, that radical changes are more the norm in scientific history than long-standing theories that never changed.

And in fact even one of the biggest examples of science vs religion was in fact caused by a change in the science. Natural theologians adopted the design theory based on the mechanistic view that science was promoting at the time, only to have that base cut out from under them by science deciding that, no, the world wasn’t that way and that evolution was the way to go. In fact, science’s move here also caught Immanuel Kant, as many will criticize him for assuming that Newtonian physics was settled while discussing the phenomenal world and so “getting that wrong”, despite the facts that a) he was just saying what science thought at the time, b) he wasn’t making an argument that his philosophy implied or insisted on it, c) his philosophy didn’t really require that to be the case and d) his most important point there was that science was the method to figure out the phenomenal world, because that world was empirical.

Science, then, has changed its views pretty frequently throughout its history, and yet rolled along, in general, touting that it finds and corrects its mistakes. However, any other field that relies on the current understanding of science and tries to build on that very much risks science undercutting them later, and then having scientismists chortle about how those fields would be so much more accurate if they just did things the way science does.

One wonders whether anyone should, in fact, rely on science for anything important at all, or instead just rely on what seems best to them given all they know.

The problem is that there are three main aspects to science. The first is strictly empirical: taking measurements of the world and tossing those into equations that capture those measurements. These are, in general, pretty accurate, but are mostly meaningless. Science can pretty much measure, for example, what speed something will fall at if you drop it at various heights, and even write equations to allow it to predict heights that it hasn’t directly measured, but that’s not all that impressive. The second is the explanation for why that happens, which starts to get into various theories. These are more speculative, but can be not too bad when the situations are controlled and the theories add on the caveat that they are true given that the situations are the same and that nothing has changed. The third is the inductive step, where the theories try to generalize to more and more situations that we haven’t and can’t measure. It’s this step that causes the most problems, because the predictions depend on the reasoning being correct and the situations not actually varying in odd ways that they didn’t think of when they came up with the theory.

So the first is what science can do really well, but is the least interesting, while the last is the most interesting, but the more risky. Science is going to have to correct the first the least and the last the most. But to base anything interesting on science will require you to use the more interesting results, which are the ones that are the most likely to be incorrect. This will even apply to simple life choices based on medicine or psychology. Sure, you can trust the doctor when he says that if you have this condition that taking this medicine will cure it in general because there isn’t that much variance in people or that condition and they’ve tried it millions of times. You might not be able to trust him when he says that taking cholesterol medication will reduce your chances of a heart attack because there are all sorts of other factors involved, like risk factors, your reaction to the medication, whether you can improve your diet and exercise, and so on and so forth.

Maybe what we need to do, really, is be more careful about examining which of these three cases the purported scientific theory is. Scientists — and, more often, popular science media — often tend to express any scientific result as if they are all equally “supported” by the weight of science, but that isn’t true. Yes, scientists are generally better at noting when they are more or less certain about it in their papers, but if they find something really cool they generally emphasize the “coolness” and barely mention the “preliminary” parts, because they want the recognition and want to get money to keep looking at the cool things. Being more careful about this would certainly help.

That wouldn’t do a thing for cases of long-standing theories that suddenly get overturned, however. But perhaps the problem is that scientists don’t do enough philosophy. Philosophers are famous for pointing out “Your theory doesn’t have to be true because X could be the case”. I don’t think science should go full on skeptical like philosophy does, but I also note that a lot of the problems science faces tend to be ones that philosophy would, in general, point out. Potential confounds. Theories strongly overreaching the data. The logic not actually being valid. And so on. I’ve myself read scientific and psychological works and found obvious potential confounds. It might be a good idea for scientists to take more philosophy — it generally isn’t required for scientists to take any — or to have a field like Philosophy of Science produce more philosophers whose main role is to look at scientific theories and find all the places where their logic isn’t working and to advise new experiments to make or new data to gather.

Perhaps that could be a new career for me! If I could handle the math, that is …

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Science of Bad Boys …

June 8, 2016

So, recently I came across this article at Salon that claims to have scientifically settled the question of whether women go for nice guys or bad boys. Unfortunately, as we shall see, the science is … dubious, to say the least.

Anyway, the article is aimed at being a response to another study:

The research it refers to is a study published earlier this year, which suggested that some men smoke and drink because this makes them more attractive short-term partners.

They take a quick stab a criticizing it:

Leaving aside the obvious point that the article is conflating “bad” with drinking and smoking (as Girl on the Net writes, “badness” is really a lot more than just smoking 20 a day or drinking like there’s no tomorrow) …

There are two issues here, issues that will carry on throughout the article. First, what we have to compare is the “bad boyness” of men who smoke and drink versus those who don’t. The latter are definitely seen as being less bad, and not in a good way. They’re seen as being uptight and rigid, and not a lot of fun, which might be what drives the “bad boy” vs “nice guy” dichotomy in the first place (if it exists). Second, this is about image, not reality. In order to have success, especially in short-term relationships, the image you present is more important than how you actually are. Even for some longer-term relationships, presenting the right image off the top gets your foot in the door, and it’s only from there that you can present the real you to build a full and proper relationship. So if that image is more “bad” than the alternative, and that image does lead them to have more success than the alternative image, we have some evidence that something about the image attracts women more than the alternative.

So what science does the article muster to oppose this idea? Well, they list a number of studies that purport to show this. Let me just quote all of them so that we can see them as one solid block:

One way to investigate the issue is to present women with hypothetical men with different personality types and see which ones they prefer. In one such study, participants had to help a fictional character named Susan choose a date from three male contestants, based on their answers to her questions. In one version, the man was nice – he was in touch with his feelings, caring and kind. In another, he was a self-described “real man” who was insensitive and unkind. The third contestant simply gave neutral answers.

So which contestant did participants think Susan should date and who did they prefer to date themselves? Contrary to the stereotype that nice guys finish last, it was actually the nice contestant that was chosen most frequently for both Susan and for participants themselves.

In another study, participants who read dating ads in which people described themselves as altruistic (“I volunteer at the food bank”) were rated as more attractive short-term dates and long-term partners than those who didn’t mention such qualities. Other studies have similarly shown that women prefer men who are sensitive, confident and easy-going, and that very few (if any) women want to date a man who is aggressive or demanding. The picture that emerges is clear: when women rate hypothetical partners, they clearly prefer “nice” men.

The problem right here is that these studies don’t really get what the theory of bad boy preference really says. Colloquially, it says that while women may say that they prefer nice guys to bad boys, when they actually choose who to date it’s always the bad boys that they choose. In more formal terms, this means that when women consciously assess who they’d rather date, they choose the nice guy, but subconsciously they prefer — and/or end up with — the “bad boys”. One of the things that is commonly encountered in dating that might reflect this is the idea of chemistry: women might say that they prefer nice guys, and may even accept initial dates with them, but may discover that there’s no “spark” there, which might be an indication of incompatibility … or it might be an indication of a lack of underlying attraction.

So then note that all of the studies above pretty much ask women to select based on their conscious perceptions. Even if we ignore that in formal situations people often respond in a more considered manner than they would otherwise, all of the studies here ask them to consciously assess if the person is attractive or not. They also leave the actual presented image out of the picture entirely, by asking them to judge them based on their words and not on their presented image. So these studies can’t refute the theory because all they do is confirm the first part of it: when women are asked what they want, they say they want nice guys and don’t want those who are aggressive and demanding. What they actually choose when given the choice, however, doesn’t have to be that … and the theory asserts that it isn’t.

The key seems to be the idea that women want confident men, but don’t want men that are aggressive and demanding. This presumes that men who are aggressive and demanding aren’t seen as being more confident than the alternative. If they are, then those behaviours will trigger “confident” rather than “aggressive”, and by the time the women realize that they are really more aggressive than confident they may already have an emotional attachment to them, and so find it hard to end it. If true, what this means is that women, if they want better partners, need to suppress their “natural” assessments of what makes a man confident, and instead look for real indicators of that.

Regardless, these studies don’t demonstrate that women really prefer nice guys to bad boys if given a choice. They only demonstrate that, when they engage their conscious minds, women choose nice guys … but dating and love are things that generally are not decided by conscious reasoning. The studies need to show that subconsciously women still choose nice guys over bad boys, which is what the anecdotal evidence is arguing is not the case. So, no, science hasn’t at all settled this yet … at least not in favour of the idea that women prefer nice guys.

Myers On Evolutionary Psychology (again).

April 27, 2015

So P.Z. Myers is going on about evolutionary psychology again. The problem, though is that like so many times before the criticisms raised against evolutionary psychology are either problems with evolution, psychology, or are just the literal biological facts of life that the critics don’t seem to be able to understand or apply to the topics under discussion.

So let’s start with the first one, which is an example of the latter:

It’s all that nonsense about modules, whatever they are — they seem to be inventions by evolutionary psychologists to allow them to pretend that they can reduce behaviors to discrete regions in the genome, or the brain, or something (go ahead, try to pin one down on exactly what a “module” is — there is no clear association with anything physical).

Um, I presume that when they talk about modules they are talking about the well-known — and a commenter even points this out — fact that the brain is arranged generally into functional areas that do certain things, and that functionality is not distributed completely throughout the brain. Which means that if you damage certain parts of the brain, you will damage certain predictable functions and leave other functions unimpaired. We can even point to parts of the brain that are, in fact, older and so were developed first in humans, and what functions they have, and what functions arose in the later parts of the brain. All of which not only supports an evolutionary approach to looking at the brain — and the psychology produced by it — but in fact constitutes some fairly important evidence for those who claim that consciousness is just something produced by the brain and was produced through evolution. I doubt Myers wants to ditch that just to spite evolutionary psychology.

It’s about The Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, the imaginary Garden of Eden in which our brains evolved 10,000+ years ago, which is the reference by which all adaptations must be explained…despite the fact that evolutionary psychologists know next to nothing about that environment.

Well, this is a problem for evolution as well, as any trait that can be traced back to that time period — and there are lots of those for humans, including pretty much all of our mental traits and abilities, at least in early form — is going to have been in the same environment and, if natural selection is correct, greatly shaped by that period … that evolutionary biologists also know next to nothing about. Unless evolutionary biologists are willing to limit themselves only to talking about vague selection pressures — and they usually aren’t — then they have the exact same problem, it seems.

It’s about deep methodological problems: researchers who make sweeping claims about human universals by studying just the middle class white American population attending their Psych 101 class.

Which is, uh, what psychology does, and has been criticized for. So they’re following standard (flawed) psychological practice and are being singled out for failing in that regard? It seems that this should be a call for better methodology, not an insistence that the whole field is a pseudoscience, useless, and wrong.

It’s about the focus on the status quo — somehow, every study seems to find that current social attitudes just happen to be a reflection of our evolutionary history on the African savannah tens of thousands of years ago, and endorses a kind of naive biological determinism that imagines that the way people are is the way they must be.

Um, as a psychological field, no one insists on that, or at least if that’s the case then the few who do say things like that last part should be criticized by their own field harshly. But my understanding every time I read evolutionary psychology — which is, indeed, limited — is that they aren’t trying to say that this is just the way things are and will always be, or in fact in any way committing the naturalistic fallacy, but are instead simply saying that we can explain these tendencies and structures in our personal and social behaviours by the evolved innate characteristics that were developed in that time period. Now, of course, this is controversial, and to make this stick it is perfectly reasonable to demand that they show this is sufficiently cross-cultural, because cultural structures don’t follow as strictly from evolved traits as physical structures do, so you can get a lot of contamination. That being said, to insist that culture is the most important factor a priori ignores that culture comes from the behaviour of individuals, which may well be tied to evolved traits. I suspect that what we have is an intricate dance combining culture, genetic traits, and environment, and note that different cultures are often found in radically different environments … and since environment impacts evolution to a large degree, cross-cultural differences aren’t in and of themselves evidence that a trait or cultural structure has therefore not evolved. Think of even peppered moths to see how that can work.

Reading the comments, I do think that one of the main reasons that evolutionary psychology is so derided is that it potentially provides what can be seen as a justification for certain social traits that some people don’t like and want removed. If you can say that it evolved for a benefit in relation to an environment, then it looks like it is being defended as actually useful and from there, potentially, to right or, at least, not really wrong. But since they think those structures wrong, that can’t be, so the theory must be wrong. This, of course, is ignoring the whole idea that just because we have a natural instinct that evolved and was even beneficial in the past doesn’t mean that it is still beneficial today, and certainly not that it’s right. Our sweet tooth is a prime example of an uncontroversial evolved natural psychological tendency that was useful in the past but is actually detrimental now, and thinking that we ought to do something just because we naturally desire it is, in fact, the definition of the naturalistic fallacy. Now, some people may indeed point to the results and say that those instincts are justified, but they’d be committing the naturalistic fallacy and we should point that out to them, not dismiss the idea that we have that instinct because it was more beneficial to us to have that than to not have that, so those who had it reproduced more and so did better wrt natural selection. After all, the explanation for altruism relies precisely on that sort of evolutionary psychological explanation, and no atheist wants to give that up.

The extent to which the critics of evolutionary psychology often rely on the precise same sorts of flaws that they claim should make us disregard evolutionary psychology always boggles my mind. I am skeptical of evolutionary psychology … and psychology … and evolutionary explanations … but I’m at least willing to give them the chance to prove their case. The critics of evolutionary psychology tend to not even do that, while committing the precise same sins. That’s not the way to go about proving your superior scientific approach and skills …

Review of “Why Evolution is True”

January 25, 2014

As I said here, I recently ordered “Why Evolution is True”, and I just finished reading it. As expected, I didn’t really disagree with a lot of it; it was fairly standard, boilerplate evolution stuff. But the big thing I wanted to look at was if it really was as easy for the average person to get the evidence for evolution simply by reading it. After reading it, I do kinda say that that’s true … but I still don’t think I can recommend it to anyone to actually read. This isn’t because the writing is bad or confusing or anything — it isn’t — but that I just can’t think of an audience that would find this book enlightening over the alternatives that are out there.

Let me break it down a bit. For audiences that don’t care much about the evolution versus creationism/ID debate, what they’d be looking for in this book is a nice, simple description of the evidence for evolution. This is the audience that I was essentially in; despite finding some potential ID theories more plausible than naturalists find them (mostly because I’m not a naturalist), I don’t deny evolution as a whole and don’t really care about the debate. What I found, personally, is that the book focused far too much on the creationism/ID debate for my liking. It didn’t go after them at length anywhere, but instead spent a lot of its time pointing out evolution’s predictive successes and then firing off a shot saying that a designer wouldn’t be expected to have done things that way, or that creationism doesn’t have an answer for a certain problem, or whatever. As someone who wasn’t that interested in the debate, the asides — sometimes a bit snarky — were uninteresting and annoying. I didn’t feel that it served the case for evolution much to keep opposing it with creationism. This only got worse when comments were made that I wasn’t certain were fair charges against design, or worked all that well. In fact, the asides only got me — and this might be just a personality/occupational hazard issue with me — constantly thinking about whether creationism or design really did have a problem with what Coyne was saying that they had a problem with, which led me to questioning whether creationism might have a point, which carried over into the cases where Coyne points out thinks evolution can’t yet explain, which somewhat weakens the effect. So the book just doesn’t deliver what someone who wants a biological/scientific presentation of evolution would want.

But I don’t think it will — or, at least, it shouldn’t — work that well against theists/creationists either, because it doesn’t really go after creationism in detail. Again, most of the counters are asides. Any creationist that has read anything from other creationists will know the standard responses to those sorts of asides, and so not only won’t be impressed, but will also be annoyed at what would look like a shallow attack on creationism backed up by, well, a bit of snark. A more detailed and thorough destruction of creationism would seem best for these people — knowing that Coyne wants people to give up creationism and adopt Darwinism — which would require more focus on it. For creationists who know anything about the debate, this book might be a nice, light snack, but it’s not a strong attack on their beliefs.

That leaves atheists and people who are Darwinists who are looking for talking points against creationists or intelligent design. The problem is that the actual talking points against creationism are, again, relatively shallow and undeveloped. Which isn’t a bad thing, but isn’t going to help them against creationists who, again, know the standard replies and are simply going to toss them at the atheists.

So, it doesn’t seem to fit any of the people who might actually want to read it. Again, that doesn’t make it a bad book, but there have to be better books for each of these purposes than this one.

Additionally, it takes a rather strange approach to the topic, where I’d say it treats creationism like a failed scientific theory. All of the asides are essentially talking about predictions that evolution makes and that creationism at least ought to make, and pointing out that evolution’s predictions came out true and creationism’s didn’t. Which is a fair approach to take when arguing against a competing scientific theory. But my understanding of the debate — as related in the stories of the various trials around intelligent design — is that Darwinists don’t consider creationism/ID to be a scientific theory at all. So they don’t treat it as a scientific theory that happened to be wrong, but as a proposal that isn’t scientific at all. And if that’s the case, treating it as one by comparing predictions seems to undermine that actual argument. Which also drives home one of my problems with Gnu Atheism: the seeming inability to distinguish between being a valid but wrong theory and being an invalid or lying theory. Honestly, saying that creationism/ID could be a scientific theory but that it’s gotten everything wrong seems to be a stronger way to go then trying to claim that it couldn’t be a scientific theory at all … and then treating it like one to refute it.

Also, in reading it I was reminded of the work of Fodor and Piatelli-Palarmini, and others that challenge the supremacy of natural selection in evolution. Coyne does indeed recognize other mechanisms than natural selection in evolution, but still does focus on natural selection and in coming up with appeals to benefit for most of the features, including the ones where it is difficult to see what advantage it had. But this is where Fodor et al seem to have a point: maybe it’s hard to imagine because it’s simply association with other factors that benefit that drove that change, explaining some of the inefficiencies. So despite Coyne railing that they just didn’t get evolution, after reading his book I see that at least the basic questions I talked about here still are valid.

This is almost certainly a book I will never read again, and I don’t think I’ll recommend it to anyone. It’s not a terrible book, and I don’t consider it an utter waste of my money, but it just doesn’t provide enough in and of itself to gain a spot on my recommended list.