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 …)

The Silver (Smoke-) Screen

O.M.G. Last night at the grocery I was stocking non-prescription meds, and a couple came in asking for … colloidal silver! (Meaning, microfine silver dust suspended in water or another carrier.)

I was baffled; she explained that “Dr Oz” suggested it for sore throats.
“I don’t think we carry that,” I answered, somewhat stunned. “I’ve only used it in a research lab.” (In the teensiest of microdabs, to glue ultra-fine gold wire electrodes to insects.)

“Oh, it’s all-natural!” she asserted cheerfully.

Giant mental sigh and cringe on my end; lots of “all-natural” stuff can be all-naturally poisonous.

The guy with her added something to the effect of, “I bet you all don’t like Dr Oz.”

Er, I’m wary and alarmed by media personalities who promote misleading, useless and/or dangerous medical information. (Last year this celebrity was the recipient of the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Media Pigasus Award.)

But I’m guessing the customer was assuming that if people use bizarre “all-natural” remedies, then stores would not sell as many manufactured remedies. Hey, if I want salicylic acid (the stuff in willow bark and spirea that acts as a pain-reliever, fever-reducer and anti-inflammatory), then I will buy it as acetylsalicylic acid, AKA aspirin, because that formulation is less harsh on the digestive system, and you know how much active ingredient you’re getting.

When one of the pharmacists was no longer directly busy with [other] customers, I went up and told him about the customer enquiry. His eyebrows danced a bit at this latest oddity.

“The only thing I’ve heard about taking colloidal silver,” I began, and then the pharmacy intern nearby then chorused with me, “Was about the guy who turned blue!”

“It bio-accumulates, doesn’t it?” I asked, and the pharmacist nodded. That of course, was why I was careful to not let any dots of the lab stuff stick to me. Plus, any clean crumbs re-deposited could be re-used, especially if I held the bottle to the vibrating vortex mixer.

Note: there are antibacterial uses for various ionic silver (Ag+) compounds, such as silver nitrate (AgNO3), but the colloidal stuff is non-ionized metallic form, which has a different biological effect. Of course, poison is always in the dosage — too much silver nitrate can be equally bad. You can read about the hazards of argyria here at the Quackwatch site.

Oh by the way — if you want an “all-natural” remedy for the ordinary sore throat, may I recommend some strong mint tea with honey?

Catapulting to Conclusions

Because you can get there so much faster if you use a big machine to throw you right over annoying factual hurdles in your way.

I’ve been meaning to dissect this issue for over a week, but a lot of things have been happening over here. A recent news story has prompted a lot of discussion, some of it rather ugly. The short of it (and the news article in the Chicago Tribune is not terribly long) is that a 29-year old woman identified only as “K.E.J.” has been granted an appellate opinion in her favor. The woman experienced a traumatic brain injury as a child, and according to the wording of the article, “cannot be left alone to operate a stove or perform most household chores”, although by having that bit of information alone, our perceptions of her are biased because it does not mention what she is capable of doing. Her legal guardian, an aunt, had filed a petition with the court to have her (fallopian) tubes tied. All three judges on the panel were unanimous in their decision against this action.

“Tubal ligation is a particularly drastic means of preventing a mentally incompetent ward from becoming pregnant,” Judge Joseph Gordon wrote in the 36-page opinion. There are “less intrusive and less psychologically harmful [birth-control] alternatives.”

The readers’ comments were much longer than the article, and many were downright rude. This situation is so fraught with over-generalisations and false dichotomies and conflations that it fair makes me dizzy. The biggest and most common fallacy of the lot was the combined Read the rest of this entry »

Two more species of Fallacies

After you’ve become familiar with a variety of stupid political arguments or with spotting pseudo-science, you find yourself making a mental game of it: Name That Fallacy. It’s gratifying to know that there are terms for the sorts of things that used to “make your brain all hurty” because you knew they were wrong. Such terms are a great time-saver in discussions: being able to assign those names means that others know what you’re talking about, and that you don’t have to explain why the fallacious thinking is not correct.

But every now and then I run into something that cannot be easily defined by a term. Such things may be multifactorial in the numbers of cognitive biases and argumentative fallacies; there’s no one reason why the reasoning is bad. But boy, are they off the mark!

Right now, I have two fallacies I would like to discuss. (Maybe there are names for these that I’ve not yet run into — let me know; they could be from fields that I’m not well-versed in.)

~ I ~

I call this first sort of über-fallacy-bias Read the rest of this entry »

Facts aren’t enough

“Wow, you take more pills than me,” hubby remarked as I filled up my daily pill-minder for the next week.

I paused for a couple seconds and then answered, “That’s a bit misleading — you take more inhalers.” A bit later, I added, “Besides, a couple of those pills are just calcium supplements, and there’s one prescription I take twice a day.” With the HRT patch, that’s just four daily prescriptions. Going by numbers of pills swallowed isn’t a very good comparison of the numbers of medications we each take; it’s probably close to an equal number, just different kinds of meds and different kinds of delivery systems.

Maybe I was being a trifle pedantic. Then again, the phrasing of the comment made it sound a bit like I was popping a lot of drugs. I don’t think that my hubby meant the remark in a negative way; it was just an off-hand remark meant to fill conversational space while I was puttering around getting ready for bed.

I might not have even noticed — or responded — had I not run into similar comments over the years, comments that were meant to make negative implications. These kinds of statements really bother me, especially because they are a misuse of otherwise good forms of factual communication. There’s an old joke: 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 »

Diabolical Dialogues

A big part of my frustrations with the social realm are the crazy bits that keep surfacing in dialogues, like rocks that keep surfacing from a nicely tilled field.

One of those crazy bits are the unstated, inferential messages with which neurotypical people fill their conversations. You ask a nice, straightforward question, and you get … ambiguity like a fog obscuring the field. You get hidden meanings to stub your toes upon.

The conversation is full of subtexts, like coded messages. But unlike real coded messages where “Grandma knitted me some socks,” really means “You’re in peril, leave the country immediately,” these subtexts are not codified. They do not have a specific meaning known to both parties. Instead the subtexts could be any number of meanings, and it’s up to the other party to guess what those true meanings might be and which one they might be! The subtexts don’t even remain consistent; the same phrase might be used to mean completely different things at different times.

I like cryptograms as an intellectual puzzle, but I don’t like them in everyday conversations like this one where I ask: Read the rest of this entry »

Tying the Knots

A series of vignettes strung on a chain, now broken.

My mother just wanted a “normal” girl; maybe it was that entrenched social conformism. By 5th grade she kept stressing this idea, so I observed what girls were interested in, which was horses and romances. Therefore I ordered one each of horse and romance stories from the Weekly Reader book club, and found them to be profoundly disinteresting. I could not fathom either the attraction or the point! When I was a high school freshman, Mom decided that I lacked femininity and grace, so enrolled me in a “charm school” held at Sears & Roebucks, where we were taught the proper way to apply makeup, walk with a book on our heads, kneel to pick up an object from the floor while wearing miniskirts, sit down in a dainty and discreet manner, curtsy and such. Somehow this failed to make me more normal.

Shopping for my clothes invariably provoked more complaints; I was “so picky” about clothes, meaning there are many fabrics I cannot stand to touch or wear, not to mention the collar tags (which I now remove). I remember getting overwhelmed at the department store as a child, one of those seriously old-fashioned places with an elevator operator, glass display cases of merchandise, multiple floors of merchandise, and pneumatic tubes slinging upstairs to the cashier’s cage. One department, or maybe the dressing rooms, had high-contrast vertical striped wallpaper that gave me slithery-jangling-willies. Sometimes the floor seems to ripple; busy surfaces like speckled/tweedy commercial-grade carpeting or color-streaked linoleum or striped wallpaper acquire a quivering aspect, like wavelets upon great bodies of water. I know from repeated experiments (done as a child) that these surfaces do not really ripple or undulate, so I generally ignore the effect, but sometimes it takes me by surprise. I get vertigo and things seem to spin around, or close distances yawn far away from me. Mom hated dragging me with her, because I’d want to hide in the center of the circular coat rack, muffling out the noises and smells and colors in the darkness and comfortingly-heavy pressure of yards of dense fabrics. I was just trying to cope with the sensory overload, but all she could see was that I was being disobedient and an embarrassment to her from by attracting attention to my weird behavior …

Unfortunately, in the long run my mother seemed more concerned with assigning blame than resolving problems, and she decided that my long-standing academic difficulties were due to rebelliousness; I was just “acting out.” One day in high school, after I handed over the dreaded report card, she grounded me with the fierce proclamation that “All children rebel, but you are doing it ALL WRONG!” For her, there was one way things were supposed to be, and I did not fit her expectations: granted I didn’t drink or do drugs, but I also didn’t date, didn’t drive, and didn’t excel in school, sports or social activities.

There I was trying to rationally understand how people thought and interacted, and instead I had someone who was (alcoholic and) inconsistent, inexplicable, and unpredictable. I kept trying to wrap my head around making sense of what she said and did, and kept getting my mind tangled up in Laingian knots. What I needed was access to strategies that would allow me to learn how to meet my own needs. Instead, what I got was a denial that those needs existed. She could not, or would not understand that my needs were different than hers. Her denial, disbelief, or dismissal caused me to doubt my own self-understanding, and thus prevented me from helping myself. Years later I finally understand her actions as being narcissistic, for all she asserted that she was only trying to prove to others how hard she worked to “help” me. It wasn’t just about her “not understanding” that I was different, it was about my not being able to give her what she needed. It was all about what she needed. Repeatedly, the scenarios played out, as she:

  • Told me how I “really” felt emotionally or physically, or told me that I could not possibly be feeling something, that indeed I actually was feeling.
  • Discouraged questions, saying that they were either stupid, or that I didn’t need to know such things, or that everyone knew about ((whatever), and that I was foolish for bothering her to ask about things.
  • Asserted that I must be either crazy, lying or on drugs when I described experiencing colors while listening to music.
  • Said I was being “too picky” because I could not stand to wear some kinds of fabrics, or got sore spots on my neck from collar tags, or could not stand to have my bedroom curtains open on sunny days, or could not stand the noise when some kinds of woodshop machinery were being used.
  • Delivered me curious “compliments” that did not feel like such, “You know, if you just wore a little makeup, you might be kinda pretty.”
  • Denigrated my interests as being stupid because they were not “normal”; I should be buying cute hair ties or makeup instead of a Latin dictionary or an antique volume on structural design & engineering by the National Park Service.
  • Told me, “Don’t listen to what I say, listen to what I mean!” (This to someone who misses out on so much unspoken dialog?)
  • Took to red-inking my personal diary and creative writing efforts for grammatical errors, ridiculed my social concerns as being absurd, and the story plot ideas as being stupid.
  • Periodically would go through my locker, purse, notebook or bedroom contents in an effort to find something incriminating (drugs I did not use, or notes from non-existent boyfriends), and then accused me of being devious because she could not find anything.
  • Would not admit when she was wrong; I was obviously confused, or lying, or making things up.
  • Accused me of stealing clothes when my Spanish teacher gave me one of her used blouses, then changed her story and said I had been lying to the teacher and misrepresenting myself as poor and neglected.
  • Considered my expressing frustration as being “rebellious.”
  • Disbelieved my scholastic problems when I tried to explain them to her, but then turned around and saying that I had been “hiding” problems when teachers or my school counselor told her about bad grades from unfinished tests, missing assignments, jumbled math homework, bad spelling and such.
  • Asserted that my problems from bullies were all because I had “brought it upon myself” and was causing the bullying, and simply being “whiny” and “just trying to get attention” when I told the problems to various teachers and the school principal.
  • Ridiculed my concerns about scholastic problems, and demanded good grade results but would not accept the fact that I needed help to achieve those goals, saying that my lack of results was due to merely being lazy and not trying hard enough.
  • Convinced others that that my problems were burdens that I created intentionally for her out of rebelliousness.
  • Denied my problems or belittled them as being much less important than any of her own problems.
  • Complained about the cost/ shopping effort/ need for basic school items (such as a required style of gym socks or graph paper for geometry class) as though these were unusual demands I had invented just to make her life more difficult.
  • Assigned guilt by association – badmouthing my father (her ex-husband) saying I was just like him.
  • Curtailed contact with others (my teachers or counselor, interest clubs) and discouraged me from doing things on my own, then said I couldn’t do things because I had no experience or skills.
  • Gave me responsibility and consequences of things getting done, without giving me the means to do them effectively.

As ever, she was more concerned with finding faults and assigning blame than with resolving problems, because it was all about “saving face” on her part. It was my fault; she was trying so heroically to help me, but I was just being stupid or stubborn or rebellious. “Damnit Andrea, you know what your problem is? You don’t have any self-confidence! That’s just so pathetic!”

Although I now understand the essential errors in this denial, disbelief, and dismissal, these kinds of statements are still things I run into once in a while, from other people. It is a shame, really. Once I began to make sense of the world, I kept trying to change the family dynamics, to improve things, to help her understand, but she actively resisted change, even on those rare occasions when she would acknowledge that things were not right. But, you cannot make people what you want them to be.

You can’t change the past, but you can change how you react to it.

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 …

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