Mechanisms vs Statistics

Last semester, our apartment had a debate over whether video games cause violence. It came down to arguing logical mechanisms, but without any use of statistics by either side. The argument basically turned into my word vs your word, since there was no objective basis on which to judge anything.

If your answer were yes, you might propose the mechanism: “People who play violent video games are likely to imitate the characters they play, thus becoming more aggressive in real life.” This statement might be logically sound, but without any supporting evidence, it has little credence.

You could easily propose a counter-mechanism: “People who would otherwise commit violent crimes satisfy their urges in video games and not in real life, thus decreasing the crime rate.” Again, this seems plausible, but without any data, we simply don’t know whether this effect outweighs the other. We need real stats.

Naively looking at statistics does not help either. Depending on which stats you look at and how they are presented, the conclusions can go either way (graph 1 and graph 2):

video-games-crimes

video-game-walsh

In any subject, one important concern is matching theories with empirical data. In the hard sciences, one tests the theory by experiment, and it is often possible to verify or deny claims with empirical data. But in the social sciences, experiments are sometimes impossible. To see what would happen if Germany had won World War II, we cannot simply recreate the circumstances of the war in a petri dish. So we must do the best we can with the limited data we have.

This lack of statistics affects many other issues, perhaps more important ones. For instance, in the public debate over gun control, there are clearly two competing mechanisms: “More guns = more shootings” and “More guns = more protection.” Each makes logical sense on its own, but the way to figure out the more accurate one is not by purely logical argumentation (which will lead nowhere), but by use of statistics, i.e. show the real effects of implementing or not implementing gun control laws. This would be much more fruitful than mindlessly yelling mechanisms across the void.

How Movies Have Conditioned Us to Hate Science and the Future

According to film, science and technology solve nothing. Either one of two things occur: (1) the exact same social problems will happen in the future even with significantly advanced technology, or (2) social problems will be even worse than they are today.

The perspective I am writing this from is that of concern with the future of American education with particular interest in math and science. There are many voices in the STEM discussion. I just hope to contribute in fleshing out the relation between the public sentiment towards science and Hollywood’s portrayal of science.

1. The Future Sucks

HungerGamesPoster

I have not read the books, but The Hunger Games is quite dystopic: a society where young people are randomly selected and put to a grandiose battle to the death, as entertainment for the upper classes. But the stadium is an extraordinary technological feat: the environment can be changed at will, fires can be triggered anywhere, and cameras are hidden in every location. Of course, those with advanced technology are bad. Those with poor technology are good.

Elysium

Elysium makes the technological divide even more blatant. The rich, bad guys are in a utopian, ultra-technologically advanced ship experiencing luxurious lives with all-powerful healing chambers, leaving the rest of humanity, i.e. the good guys, to rot away on a dystopic Earth.

terminator_salvation

With the Terminator franchise, the message is clear: Artificial intelligence is super evil! Don’t let the machines ever have power, else they will kill you.

The_Matrix

Yeah.

Intime

And that.

Dredd-Poster

And that.

The-island

Also that. And many, many more. Every time, technological advances lead to a terrible world devoid of any current notion of morality.

2. Scientists Are Evil Murderers

Alien-poster

The premise of Alien is massively disheartening. The off-camera scientists want to study an alien creature at all costs, disregarding all morality, i.e., letting a killer alien parasite on board and massacre everyone (almost). Of course, a backstabbing android was in on the conspiracy from the start.

Prometheus

Yes, Prometheus is part of the Alien franchise, but it is so insulting to scientists that it deserves its own rant. The scientists in this movie are so stupid that no one would ever want to be a scientist after seeing this movie. From Cracked:

“Instead of a worthy follow-up to the best sci-fi action movie ever, we got an attempt at a stand-alone plot that wouldn’t have even happened if the characters weren’t stupid enough to pet alien snakes, get lost in tunnels that they themselves had mapped, and take their helmets off on an alien planet most likely so full of dangerous microbes that they’d be shitting their intestines out within the hour. Seriously, they’re like the dumbest scientists ever.”

Last_Days_on_Mars_Poster

Regarding The Last Days on Mars:

“Another Prometheus basically. In the way that the world’s most prominent scientists are trusted to be the first to search for life on Mars, then they turn out to be a bunch of emotion driven morons making the most ridiculous and rash nonsensical decisions they could make time and time again. I really don’t see why the people making these types of movies feel the need to have these people constantly being petty emotion driven morons. Things can go wrong even when the people are making the right decisions.”

The “emotion driven moron” depiction of scientists is superbly ironic. Are they trying to criticize scientists in general, i.e. criticizing rationality and intelligence, and supporting emotion and ignorance? Or are they trying to criticize emotions and idiocy, i.e. supporting scientists?

Jurassic_Park

Dammit scientists, stop sciencing!

the-host_

Chemistry = monsters!

Rise_of_the_Planet_of_the_Apes

Seriously, stop it, scientists.

Godzilla_poster

We give up.

3. Zombie Apocalypse, or Any Man-Made Apocalypse

Resident_evil

The Umbrella Corporation makes us really hate science. When not creating zombie viruses, it does… whatever the heck it does, making other viruses and figuring out how to murder people. Good job, Resident Evil.

28-days-later

While the release of the virus in 28 Days Later subverts the typical trope in that it was caused by animal rights activists, the blame is on the scientists for having those caged infected animals stuck at a research lab in the first place.

World_War_Z

I don’t remember World War Z too well, but I remember the scientist was practically useless and accidentally killed himself in a hilariously undignified fashion.

Either science will cause the apocalypse, or given the apocalypse, it is old-fashioned values that triumph over science.

4. Nature/Magic/Tradition/Spirituality/Irrationality/Emotion vs Science

avatar

Avatar is basically the ultimate nature vs technology film ever made, and of course, nature trumps technology easily. In addition, nature is good and technology is bad. You could argue that the message of this movie, or any of the ones above, is good: technology is not automatically good, and we should not take technological superiority as an excuse to exploit others. But the message of “science is not necessarily good,” hammered into our brains again and again and again, that “science is not necessarily good,” eventually translates to “science is evil.” In addition, these types of movies always depict science as in conflict with something like nature or emotions, when in reality, science tries to help them.

Equilibrium

A man with some emotion (good) vs a society where emotion is forbidden (evil). It assumes that advancements in science automatically lead to its being used for totalitarian control somehow.

Minority_Report_Poster

A man with good conscience (good) vs a cold rational police force (evil).

Fifth_element_poster

The answer is always love.

StarWarsMoviePoster

An ancient traditional religion (Jedi, The Force, lightsaber resembling a sword) triumphs over technology (Death Star, droids, and laser guns). And yes, this happens a long time ago, but it pragmatically fits into our analysis of sentiments of the future.

StarTrekIntoDarkness

Even in an age of interstellar space exploration, people still are adversely affected by notions like revenge, anger, self-interest, massive-scale conspiracy, and the pursuit of personal power. (On the other hand, the original TV series were quite optimistic. Such negative “human” traits were mostly absent, and when they did appear, it was because the crew was observing a less advanced civilization that still had them.)

As a caveat, I’d like to point out that I think most of the movies above are individually great. But if you combine all the anti-technology, anti-future sentiments, you get an extremely negative, if not socially dangerous, depiction of the future.

Poll Results on Technological Optimism

Because of the linearity of scientific progress, much of anti-science sentiment is related to anti-future sentiment. According to one poll, 48% think that America’s best days are in the past (Rasmussen, 2014). Another poll reports that 30% of Americans believe that future technological changes will cause people’s lives to be mostly worse (Pew, 2014). From the site’s own findings:

  • “66% think it would be a change for the worse if prospective parents could alter the DNA of their children to produce smarter, healthier, or more athletic offspring.
  • 65% think it would be a change for the worse if lifelike robots become the primary caregivers for the elderly and people in poor health.
  • 63% think it would be a change for the worse if personal and commercial drones are given permission to fly through most U.S. airspace.
  • 53% of Americans think it would be a change for the worse if most people wear implants or other devices that constantly show them information about the world around them. Women are especially wary of a future in which these devices are widespread.”

These percentages are affected by many factors. For instance, wealthier people are generally more optimistic about the future of technology: 52% of those with an income of $30,000 or less think technology will be for the better, but 67% of those with an income of $75,000 or more do.

TechFuture_better_or_worse

According to Gallup, there is also a significant partisan gap in optimism, with Democrats significantly more optimistic: 74% of Republicans have positive views of America 5 years in the past, whereas 75% of Democrats have positive views of America 5 years in the future.

This post was inspired by Neal Stephenson’s argument that science fiction is fixated on nihilism and apocalyptic scenarios and that sci-fi should dream more optimistically. From the Smithsonian Mag website: “He fears that no one will be inspired to build the next great space vessel or find a way to completely end dependence on fossil fuels when our stories about the future promise a shattered world.” These are legitimate fears. If we as a society abandon science now, what kind of Dark Ages will we slip back into?

Science Cannot Disprove Leprechauns

leprechaun

It looks like the religious trolls are at it again, this week in a Time article, “Why Science Does Not Disprove God.” Of course, they always manage to omit the identical statement that science cannot disprove leprechauns. But if you were convinced by the impossibility of disproof of leprechauns as a sign to believe in leprechauns, you’d be treated as a lunatic.

Biology, physics, mathematics, engineering, and medicine help us understand the world, but there is much about life that remains a mystery.

Duh, that is why scientists around the world are still searching for the truth. No one claimed there is no mystery left (except, ironically, a conclave of religious fundamentalists who think that a holy book answers everything).

A number of recent books and articles will have you believe that—somehow—science has now disproved the existence of God.

What? The very intro sets up the straw man for the rest of the article. Aczel claims to be criticizing the proposition that science has disproved the existence of God, a proposition that has been uttered by no one. Let’s see him continue:

A number of recent books and articles will have you believe that—somehow—science has now disproved the existence of God. We know so much about how the Universe works, their authors claim, that God is simply unnecessary: we can explain all the workings of the Universe without the need for a “creator.”

Is that misleading or what? Aczel equivocates the extremely strong claim that “science has now disproved the existence of God” with the much weaker claim that “God is simply unnecessary.” But he ignores the weaker claim for the rest of the article, preferring to attack the strong straw man claim.

But does this vast knowledge base disprove the existence of some kind of preexistent outside force that may have launched our Universe on its way?

Uh, again, no one is arguing that.

But has modern science, from the beginning of the 20th Century, proved that there is no God, as some commentators are now claiming?

Who are these commentators?

But [science] has not revealed to us why the Universe came into existence, nor what preceded its birth in the Big Bang. Equally, biological evolution has not brought us the slightest understanding of how the first living organisms emerged from inanimate matter on this planet, and how the advanced eukaryotic cells—the highly structured building blocks of advanced life forms—ever emerged from simpler organisms. Neither does it explain one of the greatest mysteries of science: how did consciousness arise in living things? Where do symbolic thinking and self-awareness come from? What is it that allows us humans to understand the mysteries of biology, physics, mathematics, engineering, and medicine? And what enables us to create great works of art, music, architecture, and literature? Science is nowhere near to explaining these deep mysteries.

These mysteries are precisely the frontiers of science. Aczel is using a classic “god of the gaps” argument, that what science currently doesn’t know must be God. This was refuted as early as ancient Greece, by Hippocrates: “Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they do not understand it. But if they called everything divine which they do not understand, why, there would be no end to divine things.” There’s no reason currently to suggest that mysteries like consciousness won’t eventually be explained by neuroscience.

I could keep on going, but Aczel’s article is a mess, and this blog post almost dignifies it too much. Just remember that we don’t know everything there is to know yet. Therefore, leprechauns exist.

Statistics in the Social Sciences

I’ve always wondered whether the rigorous application of statistics is underutilized in the social sciences. This is less so a problem in economics, where the subject is, by nature, highly quantitative. But in fields like psychology, sociology, and political science, where a background in mathematics is not common (unlike for biology, chemistry, and physics), researchers can intentionally or, very often, unintentionally (this is a really good Economist article) produce wrong results by abuse or misunderstanding of statistical inference.

economist-research-statistics

As an onlooker whose training is in mathematics, I cannot help but to feel frustrated by the lack of numeracy in our “scientists.” The Economist article does a good job at showing how failure to understand statistical concepts leads to false results being published, even past peer review.

What triggered me to write this post was an assigned reading for a comparative politics class. In it, Adam Przeworski discusses the inherent selection bias in matching countries for experimentation. Noting that democracies have higher economic growth rates than authoritarian regimes, Przeworksi brings in the relevant data that democracies have a significant chance to die off when faced with economic failure whereas authoritarian regimes are not as affected. Hence, observing that democracies have higher growth rates does not signify that democracy leads to economic growth, but rather that economically failing democracies are not observed because they tend to disappear.

“What we are observing here is what the statistical literature calls ‘selection bias.’ Indeed, I am persuaded that all the comparative work we have been doing may suffer potentially from selection bias.”  (p. 19, stable JSTOR link)

In context of a comparative politics theory symposium, this makes a lot of sense to state. But the phrasing is really interesting to a math person: selection bias is a given, and is one of the tools we use to analyze anything. My instinctual reaction to the reading was “Duh, obviously there is selection bias.” While I am sure the field of comparative politics is more aware of selection bias than Przeworski makes it appear to be, the fact that Przeworski framed it as such (“what the statistical literature calls ‘selection bias'”), as if to imply that the formal tools of statistical inference are generally beyond the scope of comparative politics theory, is a bit unnerving.

Przeworski, Adam in The Role of Theory in Comparative Politics: A Symposium, World Politics, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Oct., 1995), pp. 1-49.

Dismissing Things Without Evidence

evidence

Superstition

In middle school, I used to stay up late and listen to a radio talk show called Coast to Coast AM. The show dealt with many topics, focusing on the supernatural or paranormal. While occasional talks were on real science (they brought on Michio Kaku as a guest), the vast majority consisted of things like psychic powers, auras, numerology, UFOs, alien abductions, crop circles, Bigfoot, astrology, conspiracy theories, the Illuminati, the New World Order, collective consciousness, spoon bending, ghosts, near-death experiences, quantum healing, astral projection, clairvoyance, and other wacky phenomena.

Of course, I have no problem with the expression of unpopular views, and I have written several times in support of their expression. It’s not like Coast to Coast AM is being promoted in the school curriculum, at which point I would take issue. However, this particular category of beliefs, namely superstition, is generally harmful because it promotes thinking in a highly irrational and naive way. Especially in the social media age, we cannot afford as a society to succumb to believing in whatever pops up on our newsfeeds.

But surely this is just a tiny minority of people, right? This is the typical response I get when I speak out against superstition, and it seems sensible because I usually talk about this with highly educated people who automatically dismiss this kind of stuff. However, the numbers for the general populace may be discouraging. From a December 2013 Harris poll (the link is broken so here is a Google cache link), the numbers believing were: 42% in ghosts, 36% in UFOs, 29% in astrology, 26% in witches, and 24% in reincarnation. This is not including religious-based superstitious beliefs, with much higher numbers such as 72% in miracles, 68% in angels, 58% in the devil, and 57% in the virgin birth.

I would usually criticize religion more than superstition, but in this post I make an exception. Even as religious belief is on the decline (see numbers in the Harris poll or also in a Pew Research poll), superstition is on the rise. According to the Harris poll, only 24% of matures (68+) believe in ghosts, but 44% of echo boomers (18-36) do. Astrology increases from 23% to 33%, and witches increase from 18% to 27%, when you go from the oldest to the youngest generation.

The Role of Evidence

Every belief mentioned in the previous section shares something in common: there is zero credible evidence supporting them. Of course, those who believe such things often think they have evidence, and this is almost always explained by confirmation bias, selection bias, or being simply misled. Only when you get to some forms of religious belief do you run into people who claim they do not need evidence at all (“I don’t need evidence, I have faith”). Fortunately, when debating superstitious people as opposed to religious people, you at least agree that you need evidence, but might differ as to what constitutes evidence. (A conspiracy theorist will shower you with evidence.)

In the paranormal, it is especially easy to construct signal out of noise, or beliefs out of nothingness. Take something like astrology: Someone writes an extremely vague, all-encompassing description of life, and it generally matches anyone. The reason it seems to fit you specifically is that the vague wording (“something important recently happened in your life”) triggers several biases:

  • you are selectively looking for things that fit the description (selection bias),
  • you ignore things that don’t fit (confirmation bias),
  • you find something that you didn’t originally view as important, but now it must be important because of the prediction (circular reasoning), and
  • you note the importance of something long after the fact (hindsight bias).

The rational person is not immune to biases, but at least is aware of them and tries to look at evidence from a more objective perspective. After all, systematic analysis of evidence is the main criterion that separates real science from pseudo science.

A Priori Dismissal

Suppose you read a story in the news today about a new Bigfoot sighting. How much evidence would you need to dismiss it? I would claim it is almost none. You would realize the probability of the existence of Bigfoot is so low in the first place (well under 1%, possibly 0%), that it would take a significant amount of evidence to convince you otherwise. The burden of proof is on the sighter. Given the advent of universal smartphone ownership, it would seem easy to simply snap a picture of Bigfoot when you saw one. In this case, you do not need evidence against to dismiss it.

The point is, if a Bigfoot article appeared in the news today, then without reading any of it and without having any evidence of its being a hoax, you could safely dismiss it as a hoax, as it has been every time. Again, I am not saying that every person who has sighted Bigfoot did so to perpetuate a hoax—I think some people genuinely saw something they personally couldn’t explain. However, there’s quite a leap of logic to go from “I don’t know what I saw” to “It was Bigfoot.”

Imagine that you find the following title in today’s paper: “Scientists find conclusive proof of Flat Earth theory.” Without having to be a scientist yourself, you have enough intelligence (hopefully) to conclude that the article is wrong, even without reading a word of it.

Some friends I talk to have actually pointed out that I am perhaps too dismissive. For instance, last year this Carrie promo video made its rounds on Youtube:

If you don’t want to watch it, basically a hoax is set up so that someone appears to be using telekinetic powers in a cafe, and onlookers are fearful and in a state of shock.

We discussed what we would have done in that situation. Everyone else said they would have been scared !@#&less in that scenario, but I said I would have known it was a hoax and thus have stayed calm. Of course, nobody believed me. Given this post, judge for yourself.

Hitchens’ Razor

“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

This philosophical tool allows you to dismiss many kinds of statements. If someone just claims, “There is a leprechaun in my backyard,” you can dismiss it even if you have never met this person before and have never been to their backyard.

Hitchens’ Razor differs slightly from the idea in the previous section: the aversion to believing in Bigfoot, even if there is “evidence” in the form of extremely shaky and blurry cam, comes more from statistical improbability than from philosophical concern. Christopher Hitchens’ statement applies more to abstract claims that sometimes cannot be justified in the physical world, i.e. religious claims.

The title refers to both interpretations of “without evidence”: dismissing something that has no evidence for, and dismissing something that has no evidence against. Namely, if there is no evidence for, you do not need evidence against.

More relevant to purely superstitious claims that can be tested is Carl Sagan’s “razor”:

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

It is generally true in real life that the more absurd a claim is, the more justification it requires. If you claim the Malaysian flight 370 is on Mars, you better have some very convincing pieces of evidence supporting it.

Overall, I just ask that we think more rationally, especially in response to the media and to questionable stories. We simply cannot afford to slip back into an age of superstition.

Noam Chomsky on Postmodernism

Since I’ve been thinking about postmodernism recently, I thought to share this fascinating interview from the youtubes. The most unfamiliar point that Chomsky brings up is the story about Bruno Latour and the ancient Egyptian tuberculosis death (read more about it here). Basically, Latour argued that since tuberculosis was not constructed until the era of modern medicine, it could not have existed in ancient Egypt! (Starts at 3:48 in the video.)

The Flaming Laser Sword

I recently stumbled upon Mike Alder’s article “Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword, Or: Why Mathematicians and Scientists don’t like Philosophy but do it anyway.” It was quite relevant to my view of philosophy. From a mathematical and scientific perspective, plenty of philosophical issues seem strange.

Alder uses the example of when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. From a scientific perspective, the thought process is something like, “We’ll test it: if the object moves, then it wasn’t immovable, and if it doesn’t, then the force wasn’t unstoppable.” Anyway, this is something I might talk about more later on.