It’s not all strawberry versus chocolate ice cream!

Now, I am a mint-chip ice cream (-loving) person myself, and dismiss vanilla* for being merely useful as an ingredient base for other treats. And of course, I’m entitled to my opinion. In turn, you all are free to express your own opinions about flavours of ice cream, including your total disinterest in eating ice cream.

(* It may be that I lack some kind of flavour receptor[s] to fully perceive vanilla/vanillin, because no matter what sort of sweet or quality of material, vanilla has never seemed to be particularly interesting or tasty to me.)

But there are opinions and there are other opinions, and Patrick Stokes, Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University, teaches his students that they are not entitled to have their opinions.

In a recent article, “No, you’re not entitled to your opinion” he immediately acknowledges this sounds a bit harsh, but explains that the point of a philosophy class  is learning how to create sound arguments, instead of leaning on beliefs, emotions, and misconceptions of what we think we know. Although opinions may be owned or expressed, not all opinions are equally valid.

Stokes skillfully distinguishes between the different things that fall under the vast umbrella of opinion:

But “opinion” ranges from tastes or preferences, through views about questions that concern most people such as prudence or politics, to views grounded in technical expertise, such as legal or scientific opinions.

It’s the conflating of being able to express one’s tastes, preferences, and beliefs — and then expecting those statements to be taken as seriously as fact-based, logically-sound argument — that is the major problem.

It is a major problem in everyday discourse, and in heated debates within and between countries, and it is an especially prevalent problem in various media. There’s the tired trope* of “getting balance” by interviewing “both sides” even though there are often more than just two sides (life is messy that way), and the problem that the opinions of both “sides” do not necessarily carry the same factual value (life is reality-based that way).

(* More on the problems with the news media and “balance” in my earlier post, “Both Sides Now”.)

Not all the information one finds or hears is equally valid. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “You’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.”

Stokes further explains:

The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.

Wait a minute — can’t anyone have an opinion about anything? Of course!

Can’t anyone express their opinion about anything? Of course!*

(* Although it really helps if people take the time to ensure their protest signs are properly spelled and punctuated. Otherwise much hilarity ensues and one ends up with derisive and/or dismissive infamy rather than being taken seriously.)

But what unfounded opinion cannot do is carry equal weight when discussions require expertise.

Back to our ice cream opinions:  I know that vanilla bean pods come from a variety of orchid, because that’s a tidbit of horticultural knowledge and I am a horticulturalist. Being a foodie, I have long known that vanillin was synthesized as a less-expensive alternative for use in commercial products, and that it is the primary ingredient in the artificially-flavoured vanilla extract sold at the market.

BUT, I cannot be an expert witness or speaker on vanilla.

Likely, neither can the majority of you.

Not on the cultivars, growing, agri-ecology, processing from raw material to diverse flavouring forms, business economics, grower’s social justice issues, distribution and packaging, artificial synthesis of vanillin, culinary chemistry, historical usage, future trends of natural versus artificial flavouring … none of that stuff. Nor anything else that didn’t come to mind, albeit I was able to come up with a longish list just because I have that horticultural background and was able to extrapolate what accessory topics could be included.

You are entitled to have and to express your opinion, but that does not mean it must to be taken as serious fact; pointing that out is not being disrespectful to you as a person — it means that your opinion is insufficient to the case.

‘Personal Opinion’ is not some cloak of factual immunity that one can wear to suddenly become a creditable expert.

(Oh, and speaking of public persons with opinions but who are not experts, guess who came along to comment upon Stokes’ article …)

Yes, they really are irrational

Or at least, more so.

If you have ever sat on the sidelines thinking to yourself that the humans don’t make sense (to the point that others compared you to the character Spock from Star Trek), there is some research evidence vindicating that perspective.

Professor Ray Dolan’s research group at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, University College London, have an article in the recent issue of Journal of Neuroscience (link to press release). Using a study to examine the decision-making in autistic and neurotypical subjects, they found that the former were less likely to be swayed by “framing effects” in the opportunity descriptions.

“People with autism tended to be more consistent in their pattern of choices, their greater attention to detail perhaps helping them avoid being swayed by their emotions,” says Dr Neil Harrison.

Although this attention to detail and a reduced influence of emotion during decision making is beneficial in some situations, it may be a handicap in daily life, explains Dr Benedetto De Martino.

“During social interactions a lot of information must be processed simultaneously, making this a very complicated computational task for the brain,” he says. “To solve these complex problems we rely on simplifying heuristics – gut instincts – rather than extensive logical reasoning. However, the price that we seem to pay for this ability is that sometimes irrelevant contextual information leads us to make inconsistent or illogical choices.

“Less reliance on gut instincts by people with autism may underlie their difficulties in social situations, but also enable them to avoid potentially irrelevant emotional information and make more consistent choices.”

As ever, it helps to remember that the benefits or problems associated with skewed skill sets will always be affected by how necessary or valued are those skill sets.  The important part is to enable people by arranging their (home, job & school) workloads that will utilise their skills, rather than accentuate their deficits.  After all, we all have skills and deficits — some of us have more pronounced skills and/or deficits.

Hate Speech: Not Just For Strangers Any More

(Apologies for unsettling anyone’s recent meal.)

My news aggregator came up with this doozy of a quote the other day. It was an editorial reply to an article about Kathleen Seidel, and I’m not going to quote the entire letter. (Follow the link to read it yourself — if you want to reply to the author, do so on that newspaper’s reply page.)

I am one of those parents who has watched my autistic son go from being a vegetable to becoming human, thanks to chelation.

Okay folks, let’s get this straight.

These are vegetables:

These are children:

It is quite insulting at the personal level, and damaging at the social level to describe people with autism or another other condition as being “vegetables”. Doubtless the author believes that their child has improved due to the effects of an unproven “treatment” for an unsubstantiated diagnoses (e.g. autism as mercury poisoning from vaccines). But even if the diagnosis and the treatment actually had any factual basis, that would still not make such comments appropriate.

How would YOU feel if your parents described you as a “vegetable”?

Or as “having rotting brains”?

Or as a “train wreck”?

Or that your condition “relentlessly sucks life’s marrow out of the family members”?

Or as “an empty shell”?

Or as “soulless”?

Or that “Autism is worse than cancer in many ways, because the person with autism has a normal lifespan”?

Or as having “mad child disease”

Or that you “would have been better off aborted” because regardless of your aptitudes or potential skills, your existance is automatically assumed to be a “burden on society”.

I’m not making these terms up; you can google them. People with disabilities face enough stereotyping, discrimination, abuse, bullying, and are murdered more often than those without. (I’m not using hyperbole; click here or here.) Describing disabilities in such sensationalistic terms and derogatory ways does nothing to help people become better educated, better integrated into society and employed, or become better accepted in their schools, workplaces, social organisations and families.

More than that, one really has to wonder, What kind of parent describes their child in such insulting ways? And does so to the entire world? Such treatment to children over their lives does not bode well for their psychosocial development, that’s for sure.

When you hear people describing their family members, their students, peers, coworkers, or anyone else they know in such terms, take a moment to ask them,

  • Why they use such descriptions?
  • Do they really believe it, or are they just repeating something they’ve heard?
  • Would they want to be described that way?
  • How else can they describe their frustration or disappointmnet with events in life without insulting people like this?

But most of all, we need to be mindful when we speak up about such hate talk, and not use similarly disparaging terms. We don’t want to become that which we despise.

(A request to people commenting: please use appropriate language — follow the guidelines described in this post.)

New season, eternal science illiteracy

Well, it’s spring for sure because the frogs and toads have been singing, the daffodils and dandelions and forsythia are blooming, and it’s impossible to keep my nails clean. Earlier today I was able to get this shot of the chief noisemaker from the backyard pondette; it’s the American Toad (cleverly named Bufo americanus, which means American Toad).

Seeing him trilling reminded me of an incident just a few years ago when I was at a gardening function. A group of us were touring some gardens, one of which had a little pond. All of a sudden, one of the Teetery Old Garden Club Ladies* let out an agitated squeal and began dithering around in circles, begging others for assistance.

She was pointing to Read the rest of this entry »

So-Not-Helpful Fixers and their Malcommendations

Bless them, there are a lot of people out there who want to help. Or rather, there are a lot of people out there who are helpful, and some who want to Give Help.

The latter sort want to give “those people” or “the ones with your kind of special needs” the benefit of their expertise. They’re “fixers” of the less-useful ilk, the sort who get their ego-fluffing from helping people, regardless of whether or not the person needs help, or wants help, or benefits from the sort of help they have to offer. The main point is that they are nobly out there graciously bestowing The Needy with the largess of their wisdom, even when their body of knowledge is riddled with “malcommendations”. Read the rest of this entry »

Not so lucky

The other day at the college I was waiting for an elevator (lift). It’s rather slow, but a sleet storm was heading in and I was especially achy. Just a few feet away was a bulletin board for a program the college runs, including a series of non-credit weekend classes for people with Down’s and other developmental or cognitive disabilities. One of the things thumbtacked to the board was a yellowing newspaper clipping. The photograph showed a young man busy in his kitchen, with his father standing nearby, watching him. The article began by mentioning how lucky the young man is because he has resources to help him learn to live independently, to get his own apartment, to get a job to support himself, and other important things.

He is lucky.

“Lucky” is one of those stock newspaper words that seems to be required in stories about disabled people. It’s right up there with “amazing”, “inspiring”, “challenged”, “journey” and a dozen other terms that I’m blanking on just from sheer nausea factor. (I’m sure you can think of several others.) I finished reading the story by the time the elevator moseyed up to the top floor. By the time I descended three levels, I had gathered up a fair bit of annoyance. Read the rest of this entry »

The 3-pound Exemption (disembodied woo)

You gotta feel sorry for Topeka, Kansas. The state’s capital city is not only home to the infamous Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church, and has recently been the battleground for Intelligent Design vs Evolution counter-counter-legislation by the school board (currently with the majority ruling pro-science), but now the capitol is host to the paranoid propaganda by the CCHR. CCHR is the Citizens Commision on Human Rights, which despite the generic name is really just a front for Scientology. Their exhibit is titled, “Psychiatry: An Industry of Death” (well, no hidden biases there). Correspondent for the Kansas City Star newspaper, David Klepper, writes that the “the Capitol sees its share of traveling displays and wandering weirdness”. He notes that any group that can pay the fee is allowed to put up a display as long as it is not obscene, and describes the content thusly: Read the rest of this entry »

Liberation by Disability: the paradox of Competency and Inclusion

“Because there is no way for good people to admit just how bloody uncomfortable they are with us, they distance themselves from their fears by devising new ways to erase us from the human landscape, all the while deluding themselves that it is for our benefit.”
~Cheryl Marie Wade

Disability is usually defined by what a person cannot do. But outside of the normative social realm, disability is really about how a person does things differently.

Within the cultural status quo, the onus of being “acceptable” for consideration to being included by others, is placed upon the person in question, rather than by those who are creating the standards and are choosing to accept or not. Frequently, inclusion must be “earned” by first Read the rest of this entry »

“Innumerancy Taxes”

I once saw a bumper sticker that claimed lotteries were “a tax on the innumerate”, meaning that most of the people who gamble on such do so because they don’t really understand the mathematics of basic probability (chance). It does seem to be alarmingly true that a great number of people don’t have a good understanding of odds. Sure, some people simply gamble for the gaming aspect, but casinos aren’t getting rich off folks like my grandma who got together with friends at each other’s homes once a month to chat and play penny-ante poker — they’re in business to make money off those who keep thinking that they’ve figured out some kind of “system” or that they’ve some kind of special “luck” or who are addicted to gambling.

There are some really odd ways the human brain works against reality, especially when it comes to understanding probabilities. The brain likes to find patterns, even when they aren’t there. Read the rest of this entry »

Skepticism about cynics

When commenting on a previous post of mine, andreashettle asked,

I’m curious: how DO you help students understand the difference between blanket cynicism and healthy, balanced, thoughtful, analytical skepticism?

I don’t ordinarily teach. I’m in a different field. But I’ve done a little tutoring and teaching in the past. And sometimes I run into a student Read the rest of this entry »

Rainbow Cracking

The other week after my blogging about dyspraxia and such, hubby found an article in wired blogs (“Hacking My Child’s Brain”) and a recent article in the New York Times, “The Disorder Is Sensory; the Diagnosis, Elusive”. Although sensory integration remains a vaguely-defined albeit real disorder, treatments are highly varied and disputed. Some treatment approaches lack rigorous testing for efficacy, creating difficulties for insurance coverage.

One approach mentioned in the former article is from the Sensory Learning Center in Boulder, Colorado (US), and is described as suitable for a long list of issues: autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, acquired brain injury, developmental delays, birth trauma, behaviour problems, ADHD, and for “learning enhancement”. Their Web site is rife with testimonials from clients and practitioners.

Well, testimonials don’t sway me, Read the rest of this entry »

Whining From Another Hysterical Female

Don’t get me wrong — I’ve actually had good results with most of the professionals whom I have seen. It would be rather a fallacy to broadwash a whole bunch of specialists on account of a few fools. But boy, when you run into an fool, it’s usually a doozy!

It’s been a long few years getting various difficulties sorted out and identified. Over a year ago I saw someone who was touted at being an expert on learning disabilities, to investigate ongoing scholastic difficulties and possible auditory processing difficulties.

Well, I saw Dr S. (a PhD, not physician) when I was otherwise free from the bulk of my work and school activities, as at the time I’d been having a number of health problems, including insomnia, migraines, worse tics and stuttering, hyperacusis & tinnitus et cetera.

I brought in with me documentation including previous test results, transcripts, and descriptions of my difficulties. This was because I can often get tangled up and forget stuff when trying to explain things, especially to doctors. (Hey, I’m an organism capable of learning — over time I’ve realised that remembering stuff is a problem, so now I take in a list or hand over a page of notes. My new primary physician does great with this, because in the couple of minutes it takes her to read a few paragraphs, we can fast-forward through a lot of rote questions, without omissions.)

Dr S. had me fill out a couple of online tests, and then had someone else administer some more tests to me. Oddly, one of the tests he gave me was for ADHD, for which a coöperating team of a psychologist and psychiatrist had already evaluated me. In fact, he said I had no ADHD and no real problems, except a little figure-ground discrimination hearing things in noisy environments. He had no recommendations, except that I needed to see a psychiatrist for psychosomative disorder.

Well, hell. Was I bordering on depression? Yes, and I knew that and was working actively against that — half a year of chronic sleep-deprivation and pain will do that to a person. Was I having difficulties with my husband? Yes, my health problems were requiring me to take a semester off school and work, and he was wanting to know “when I was going to be a productive member of society”. I already knew about these things, and had explained to Dr S. that I was working to deal with them. But that wasn’t why I was seeing Dr S. — I was trying to address learning and hearing comprehension problems. I even paid a few hundred dollars out of pocket for all that.

There’s a big problem here, and it’s not mine. Nor am I the only one with it.

The word “psychosomatic” has gotten warped or twisted. It literally acknowledges the interdependency and functionality of brain/mind and body, but now has come to mean that problems are “all in your head”, as in imaginary and/ or self-inflicted.

They used to call women “hysterical” and thought it due to having a uterus that “wandered around the body”. Holy cows. Obviously I’m not hysterical. (Hell, I don’t even have my uterus or ovaries any more, due to cysts and endometriosis.) So now they say that women who have problems have “psychosomative disorders”.

The issues with my husband were not seen as his difficulties in accepting my disabilities, but as evidence of my mental disorder.

The near-depression I was facing was not from months of chronic insomnia and pain, but rather caused by my mental illness.

The documentation I had brought with me to aid the man in his understanding of my problems was not data, but symptoms of my mental illness.

I was seen as “attention-seeking” rather than as solution-seeking.

Shit like that can drive a person nutz.

The good news from all that was that I got a referral to a CAPD specialist who said that Yes, I definitely do have such problems, and could even recommend some concrete ways of dealing with the problem and gave me documentation for such. But it makes me wonder, if Dr S. couldn’t really diagnose such, why did he put me through tests for APD, and tests I didn’t need for ADHD?

Has it ever occurred to clinicians that many of their clients don’t exhibit stress symptoms due to having psychosomative disorders, but rather than having various (unacknowledged) disabilities will make a person stressed?

It’s all ass-backwards. Shit like that can drive a person nutz.

The Words Got In the Way

I remember being about nine years old (that would have been oh, 1971) when I realized to my utmost horror that because everyone’s experiences are different, that no one will ever understand my words with the exact same “flavor” that I mean them. This shocked me to the core, and I was inconsolable, silently numb for several days.

The whole reverberation only added to my sense of growing isolation. (“They don’t know what I am talking about. They will NEVER know what I am talking about.”) There is a word in Japanese, “yoin”, which means the experiential reverberation that continues to move you after the external stimulus has ceased. That moment was a negative sort of yoin.

My vocabulary (although large for a person of my age) lacked the sufficient abstract and philosophical terminology that would allow me to share my myriads of thoughts, so my failed attempts only served to worsen the angst. Then again, I am not sure how much the people around me, the children, teachers or parents, really tried to understand what I was getting at. Either they did not have the concepts themselves, did not believe a mere child could have such abstract concepts, or did not feel inspired enough to make the effort.

Because of my rearing and education, I (wrongly) perceived this inability to communicate highly abstract thoughts as being stupid, rather than as lack of knowledge. (Just as when I was trying to figure out how to optimize the size of a building one could create from a single sheet of construction paper, I thought I was stupid because I couldn’t do it mathematically. In truth, I couldn’t do it because the calculations I needed required the calculus that I would not study until decades later, rather than the simple arithmetic I had thus far been taught.)

Words are but an approximation, a systematized code to give a mutual “handle” on concepts. Because words are artificial constructs, and each person brings with them a slightly different version of the word, the meanings for words are always created anew, and evolve within the context of the discussion. Both the sender and receive give slightly different interpretations, based upon their ever-changing personal experiences.

Part of what it means to be an intelligent organism is the desire to share experiences with others. Intelligent apes and dolphins communicate things, although on less complex levels*. Humans communicate things not only by words, but also by other forms of expression, such as music, dance, and art. There are some days when any good communication seems a miracle! (Is anyone out there working on that Vulcan mind-meld?)

But when you do find someone of like mind, Oh! but when you do, it is the most amazing thing. The words barely keep up with the tumble of concepts that are flashing back and forth. Yes! They know what I am talking about! Yes! They have thought the same thoughts. Yes! They have seen things with much the same perceptual filters; they have the much the same Umwelt**.

These moments of rare experiential/perceptual connection to another person are a positive sort of yoin. They are yet rare; I can count them on the fingers of one hand. Perhaps finding others of similar neurological bent will increase the incidence for all of us, n’est-ce pas? We are all ever alone — but — I would add that we are able to upon occasion reach beyond our individual alonenesses and connect to others. The utter joy and delight, an almost transcendent sense of epiphany one can find in sharing an understanding with some people can be a profound thing.

But many times I have come off as being stupid or foolish. How do you explain to someone that they really cannot always assign mental processes to the results they see? (I think this is one of the reasons I like entomology; people are less likely to assume they can understand what is going on in the wee brains of “alien” insects; and yes, many insects are even capable of learning.) I cannot tell you how many times people have come off with some entirely off-the-wall assumption about me from what they observe.

I remember an incident from when I was four years old, and they were testing me for entry to kindergarten (my birthday is after the school year has already started, so I was always the youngest). An adult held up a pen and asked me, “What color is this?” I wondered silently to myself, “Does that mean the color of the case of the pen, or the ink inside it?” I could not really see the ballpoint tip to tell. I knew that some pens have colored nibs on their ends to indicate the ink color, but that not all of them do.

Then while I was pondering this, I had a horrifying realisation, “How can she not know what color it is? This is a grown-up!” I was shocked and concerned and trying to think of a rational reason why an adult might not know their colors that I sat there, silent and not answering. It’s not that I did not know my colors, but rather I could not figure out why she would not, and why on earth she would be asking me. I was just a child! Children don’t help adults – other adults do. Why wasn’t she talking to the other grown-ups?

Of course I was being clueless as usual, and did not realize that she was testing me; I took the interaction at face value. Meanwhile, this person told my mother that I was a foolish child who did not know her colors, and then she used the pen to write something down on a form. Fortunately my mother was there to assert that I did indeed know them, and once it was explained to me what I was supposed to be doing, I rattled off all sorts of color identities about objects, including pink and grey and beige.

In the end, it’s our respective perceptions that allow and limit communication. When we fail to do so, we must always realize that we all carry highly individual conceptual sets.

To borrow a line from a song, “I wanted to tell you that I love you, but the words got in the way.”

* Many animals (including insects) can both learn and communicate, but are not considered intelligent because they cannot apply the learning in novel ways to new situations.

** The Umwelt is a term coined by von Uexküll in the 1920s, meaning the unique sensory world of an organism — the stimuli to which an animal is responsive in a given motivational state; contrast to the Merkwelt, the set of all environmental factors that are important to the species, whether or not they can actually be perceived.

The Trouble With Tolerance

“When bigotry is the dominant view, it sounds like self-evident truth.”
-Harriet McBryde Johnson

Last Sunday someone mentioned something (which details escape me now) but in the dialog was one word that reverberated, rolling around my head noisily long after the event:  Tolerance.

Gee, it sounds like such a good thing, right?

Obviously it’s better than intolerance, where people are actively against nonconformity, even violently so.  Intolerance is all about bigotry, homophobia, misogyny, racism, xenophobia, et cetera.  In contrast, tolerance means that the different, the Other, is allowed.  Those that are tolerated are to not be actively hurt, or discriminated against, or “converted” through sheer force or coercion into dire dilemmas of horrible-choice or even-worse-choice.

At best there is the decision that although there is not agreement as to the validity of someone else’s differences, the existence of that difference is still allowed.

The trouble with tolerance is that it can imply a bad thing that someone else is merely “putting up with”.

Mere tolerance can mean that the Other is actually wrong and unacceptable.  We all feel good because we’re being so modern and virtuous and civilised because we tolerate it.  Not like those other people in whatever-country, or those who practice whatever-religion.  We don’t tolerate intolerance.  Er, whatever.

This concept really bears consideration.  There’s an inherent conflict.

In truth, I don’t accept everything people believe or do.  I heave a big sigh with the American Civil Liberties Union ends up defending a Ku Klux Klan group the right to stage an event.  I hate the KKK’s ideals; it was very disturbing to find a recruitment flyer on my driveway with my morning newspaper some years ago.  There is no tolerance for any who harm others, especially children.  However, when considering things like free speech issues, I realise that I could just as easily be amongst a group that the mainstream does not want to tolerate, because I have been fatally Othered by some opinion or identifying trait I own.

And yet I still welcome acceptance of inborn differences amongst people, all those little quirks of genetics that determine our appearances and physical and mental abilities and neurologic tics and our loves.  I want to go even beyond that; I cherish the multitudes of differences, for these are what make us who we are, they are our strengths and blessings.  Diversity is just as important in the human gene pool as in any other part of ecosystems.

While teasing out this tangled mess, I find that at least for now, an essential kernel remains:

Appreciation for all kinds of people, and tolerance for the rights of different beliefs and opinions.

Cognitive Bias, Patterns & Pseudoscience

(It’s been a long, long day. So here’s an only-slightly-used, gently-recycled essay, but with an Brand New! hyperlink for your enjoyment. Bon appétit!)

“It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.”
~ Bertrand Russell

Here’s our new word for the day: pareidolia. It comes from the Greek, para = almost and eidos = form. The word itself originates in psychology, and refers to that cognitive process that results in people seeing images (often faces) that aren’t really there: the man or rabbit in the moon, canals or face on Mars, faces of holy people in tortillas or stains in plaster … It also sometimes refers to hearing things that aren’t really there in random background noise (Electronic Voice Phenomena: EVP). Pareidolia is what makes Rorschach inkblot tests possible (attribution errors are what make Rorschach tests fairly unreliable).

The human brain is “wired” to see patterns, especially those of faces. Creating and perceiving patterns is what allows all animals to operate more efficiently in their environments. You need to be able to quickly find your food sources, your mates, your offspring, and the predators in the busy matrices of sensory inputs. Camouflage relies upon being able to become part of a pattern, and therefore less recognizable. Aposematic warning coloration, such as black and yellow wasps, does the reverse, by creating a specific kind of pattern that stands out.

Sometimes people subconsciously assign patterns and meanings to things, even though they don’t intend to do so. This is why we have double-blind studies, so the people who are collecting the data don’t unconsciously assign results to the treatment replications by increasing or suppressing or noticing effects in some trial subjects. Prometheus has a lovely blogpost about this: The Seven Most Common Thinking Errors of Highly Amusing Quacks and Pseudoscientists (Part 3). (This series of his just gets better and better!)

Seeing patterns can lead to weird cognitive biases and fallacies, like the clustering illusion, where meanings are falsely assigned to chunks of information. The fact is that clusters or strings or short repeats of things will naturally happen in random spatial or temporal collections of objects or events. A lot of people think that “random” means these won’t happen (which makes assigning correct answers for multiple choice tests an interesting process; students get suspicious if they notice too much of a pattern and then start out-guessing their correct answers to either fit or break the perceived pattern).

Sometimes the reverse can happen, where instead of seeing patterns in data, people put some of the data into patterns. This is known as the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy: a cowboy randomly riddles the side of a barn with bullets, and then draws a target where there is a cluster of bullet holes. People will perceive a pattern of events, and then assume that there is a common causal factor to those, because of the perceived pattern. This is why statistics was invented – to suss out if there is a pattern, and how likely it is. Mathematics takes the cognitive kinks out of the data so the analysis is objective, rather than subjective.

Statistics also gives research rules about how best to proceed in experiments, to avoid various errors. One of those is deciding what kinds of analyses will be used for the type of data set that is produced by the experimental design. Note that this is decided beforehand! The reason for that is because people want to see patterns, and (even unconsciously) researchers want to see results. The purpose of testing for a null hypothesis is to try to disprove the given hypothesis, to avoid these kinds of issues.

It doesn’t matter how noble your intentions are – wrong results are still wrong results, no matter how they are achieved, or to what purpose.

To look at the data and then start picking through it for patterns, (“massaging the data” or “datamining”) is inappropriate for these very reasons. The greatest problem with doing analyses retroactively is that one can end up fitting the data to their pet theory, rather than testing the theory with the data. Mark Chu-Carroll’s post on the Geiers’ crappy and self-serving data “analysis” is an elegant dissection of how this kind of gross error is done. (Note that is MCC’s old blog address; his current blog is here at ScienceBlogs.)

Doing this intentionally is not only bad statistics, it’s bad science as well. The results come from anecdotes or data sets that are incomplete or obtained inaccurately. Correlations that may or may not exist are seen as having a common causality that also may or may not exist. It’s pick-and-choose and drawing erroneous, unsupported conclusions. People want to see patterns, and do. Even worse, they create patterns and results.

The seriously bad thing is that con artists and purveyors of various kinds of pseudoscience do this a lot. The intent is to deceive or mislead in order to sell something (ideas or objects or methods).

The people who then buy into these things then think they are seeing treatment results because they want to see them. Take this secret herbal cold medication, and your cold will be cured in just seven days! (Amazingly, one will get over a cold in a week anyway.) Give your child this treatment and they will be able to learn and develop normally! (Amazingly, children will learn and develop as they get older, for all not everyone follows the same timelines – developmental charts are population averages.)

Meanwhile, the well-intended but scientifically ignorant people who buy into these things are being duped by charlatans, sometimes with loss of life as well as with great monetary expense.

Economists will tell you that the cost of something is also what you did/could not buy, and when time and money is spent on false promises, it deprives everyone involved of the opportunity to pursue truly beneficial treatments.

Then the problem is propagated because those well-intended but scientifically ignorant people become meme agents, earnestly spreading the false gospel …

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 385 other followers