Thursday, June 28, 2012

When Pop Sci Turns Toxic

The best of popular science provides the non-specialist with both a sense of delight that comes with discovery, and a feeling of awe at the ability of the human mind to extract, often by means of only a few simple logical steps, some fact totally new and astoninshing about the world in which we live.

Not surprisingly, the most able popularizers of science have often been among the most able scientists. And among the great scientists of the 20th Century, Richard Feynman, whether explaining the space shuttle Challenger disaster, or why it is not the flanges on the wheels that keeps a rail locomotive on the tracks,  was among the most effective popular exponents of science.

But Richard Feynman had little time for social science.
Because of the success of science, there [has emerged] a kind of pseudo-science. 
Social science is an example of a science that is not a science. They follow the forms. [They] gather data, but the don't get any laws. The haven't found any yet. Maybe someday they will.  They are not scientific. They sit at a typewriter and they make up something. Maybe true, maybe not true, but it has not been demonstrated.

I might be quite wrong. Maybe they do know all these things. [But I have] found out how hard it is to really know something: how careful you have to be about checking the experiments; how easy it is to make mistakes. 

I see how they get their information and I can't believe they know it: they haven't done the work necessary; they haven't done the checks necessary; they haven't taken the care necessary.

I have a great suspicion that they are intimidating people.
Yesterday, I wrote about CalTech Prof. Leonard Mlodinow's book Subliminal, How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior where the author presented what I believe to be narrow, and most probably false, interpretations of the results of various studies in psychology.

But were these examples of what Feynman called "intimidation?"

Well, consider Mlodinow's claim that the tendency to exaggerate one's own popularity, looks, intelligence, etc., is due to a kind of delusional thinking that can be "a problem." Perhaps this idea is, itself, "a problem," a kind of intimidation, in fact. After all, the only people who don't over assess their own merits are those classified as mentally ill and suffering from clinical depression.

Perhaps we know our limitations only too well, but put a gloss on things to keep our spirits up and maintain appearances, an interpretation that suggests a whole different idea about the underlying cause of clinical depression.

And here are three other ideas advanced by Mlodinow on the basis of "studies show" etc., that look very much like pseudoscience applied to the task of politically correct intimidation.

Mlodinow describes a test employed to investigate the way people associate words and ideas. It would be both tedious and pointless to describe the exact method, which so far as one can tell, is just a clever word/idea association test.

Among the things these tests reveal is that people tend to associate men with the sciences, women with the arts.That most people associate men with science is hardly surprising. Only six women have won the Nobel Prize for physics versus several hundred men.The association of women with the arts is more surprising. What proportion, after all, of the great artists and sculptors, poets and playwrights were women?

But no matter, to Mlodinow, these associations are evidence of "gender bias," or "gender stereotyping." And in the same way, Mlodinow finds widespread evidence of "pro-white" and "anti-black:" sentiment among Americans, of whom many, Mlodinow tells us "are (consciously) appalled at learning that they hold such attitudes."

But wait a minute, if I associate, say, the word "black" with "crime," where's the evidence that I am "anti-black?" What's the proof that an association of words is "an attitude?"

I will resist the temptation to resort to a bloggish expostulation concerning the mental capacity of Caltech professors, for such is the author of this astounding non sequitur. But his view is, surely, a clear case of what Feynman would today have called sitting at a computer keyboard and making something up, which may be true, may be not true, has not been demonstrated, but seems intended to intimidate.

Consider this: give me the name Garbo and I will give you the name Greta.Does that mean anything? Only that in the media environment in which I have been immersed for last 50 years and more the name Garbo has usually if not invariably been associated with the name Greta. Other than that my association of the names almost certainly means nothing.

Likewise, if you give me the word "black" I might very well, among a number of alternatives, give you the word "crime." Does that mean I think (a) all black people are criminals, or (b) that blacks account for a disproportionate percentage of the US prison population, or (c) that I consider black people are an inherently inferior race to my own race of green people with pink stripes. Obviously, to (a) no, to (b) so I understand, and to (c) I don't think of race in such dimwitted terms.

In other words, I have no need to accept Mlodinow's offensive, and indeed intimidating, imputation that I am guilty of racial bias and stereotyping merely because I associate certain words or concepts in ways that reflect the use of those terms in the cultural atmosphere I breathe.

In a final chapter, which is very much an exercise in sitting at a keyboard and making stuff up, Mlodinow, gives us the psycho. insight into the scientific method. Scientists, he tells us, engage in "motivated reasoning." What that means is they adopt hypotheses and then focus on supporting evidence while dismissing evidence to the contrary. Wow, who'd have thought it?

But then Mlodinow puts his personal toxic spin on the phenomenon. Motivated reasoning, Mlodinow tells us, "helps us believe in our own goodness and competence, to feel in control, and to generally see ourselves in an overly positive light."

Oh yeah! But what's that got to do with science?

What happens in science is that the creative individual, a Galileo, Darwin, Einstein, formulates a hypothesis and then look for evidence in its support. He works like a mine prospector who, having staked a claim, will likely work the claim until it yields gold or leaves him broke. With hindsight, it might have been better to have staked a claim over there rather than here, but having invested so much here, it makes no sense to work some other claim until the potential of this claim has has been fully evaluated.

And if scientists didn't work that way, nothing much new would ever be discovered. Only the consensus view would be considered, and as a consensus view, it would never be seriously tested. It's only because of the cranks out there, who insist on working out the implications of the theory of the constant velocity of light, or the possibility of time reversal, or some other crazy thing, that science advances.

But to Mlodinow, the cranks are just that. People with warped judgment, inadequate people who have to engage in warped thinking to feel good about themselves. They are, so Mlodinow would have one believe, people who cannot see that the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe long ago made fools of the steady staters, people like Fred Hoyle, one of the greatest scientists of the 20th Century.

Thus, Mlodinow writes:
... to any disinterested party, the evidence landed squarely in support of the big bang theory, especially after 1964, when the afterglow of the big ban was serendipitously detected ... What did the steady state researchers proclaim? ...Thirty years later another leading steady state theorist, by then old and silver-haired, still believed in a modified version of his theory.

But then this just in:

Scientists glimpse universe before the Big Bang

November 23, 2010 by Lisa Zyga weblog
Pre Big Bang CirclesEnlarge

( -- In general, asking what happened before the Big Bang is not really considered a science question. According to Big Bang theory, time did not even exist before this point roughly 13.7 billion years ago. But now, Oxford University physicist Roger Penrose and Vahe Gurzadyan from the Yerevan Physics Institute in Armenia have found an effect in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) that allows them to "see through" the Big Bang into what came before. 

Huh! Before the big bang?

Big bang doesn't allow that. And Sir Roger Penrose of the Oxford Mathematical Institute may be a silver-haired, but he's no fool.

 In fact it is Mlodinow who seems the very perfect example of a scientist engaged in "motivated reasoning." Thus, on climate change he writes of
...a thousand unanimous scientific studies [that] can converge on a single conclusion, and people will still find a reason to disbelieve."
But if those thousand "unanimous papers" are contradicted by a single valid study, they must be called in question by any rational person.

But not by Mlodinow. If you don't believe we're all doomed unless we slash the World's GDP by 90% or whatever it is that the scientific consensus led by non-scientist Al Gore and the UN Panel on Climate change insist, then you're not rational and "studies show it."

The cover of Mlodinow's book is printed with a transparent film overlay with multiple instances of the word "Buy," the purpose being, presumably, to motivate book browsers to buy the book on an irrational subliminal impulse. I suggest anyone interested in not wasting their money, resist the impulse.

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