A Philosopher's Blog

Science & Self-Identity

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Science by Michael LaBossiere on June 9, 2014
English: The smallpox vaccine diluent in a syr...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The assuming an authority of dictating to others, and a forwardness to prescribe to their opinions, is a constant concomitant of this bias and corruption of our judgments. For how almost can it be otherwise, but that he should be ready to impose on another’s belief, who has already imposed on his own? Who can reasonably expect arguments and conviction from him in dealing with others, whose understanding is not accustomed to them in his dealing with himself? Who does violence to his own faculties, tyrannizes over his own mind, and usurps the prerogative that belongs to truth alone, which is to command assent by only its own authority, i.e. by and in proportion to that evidence which it carries with it.

-John Locke

As a philosophy professor who focuses on the practical value of philosophical thinking, one of my main objectives is to train students to be effective critical thinkers. While true critical thinking has been, ironically, threatened by the fact that it has become something of a fad, I stick with a very straightforward and practical view of the subject. As I see it, critical thinking is the rational process of determining whether a claim should be accepted as true, rejected or false or subject to the suspension of judgment. Roughly put, a critical thinker operates on the principle that the belief in a claim should be proportional to the evidence for it, rather than in proportion to our interests or feelings. In this I follow John Locke’s view: “Whatsoever credit or authority we give to any proposition more than it receives from the principles and proofs it supports itself upon, is owing to our inclinations that way, and is so far a derogation from the love of truth as such: which, as it can receive no evidence from our passions or interests, so it should receive no tincture from them.” Unfortunately, people often fail to follow this principle and do so in matters of considerable importance, such as climate change and vaccinations. To be specific, people reject proofs and evidence in favor of interests and passions.

Despite the fact that the scientific evidence for climate change is overwhelming, there are still people who deny climate change. These people are typically conservatives—although there is nothing about conservatism itself that requires denying climate change.

While rejecting the scientific evidence for climate change can be regarded as irrational, it is easy enough to attribute a rational motive behind this view. After all, there are people who have an economic interest in denying climate change or, at least, preventing action from being taken that they regard as contrary to their interests (such as implementing the cap and trade system on carbon originally proposed by conservative thinkers). This interest would provide a motive to lie (that is, make claims that one knows are not true) as well as a psychological impetus to sincerely hold to a false belief. As such, I can easily make sense of climate change denial in the face of overwhelming evidence: big money is on the line. However, the denial less rational for the majority of climate change deniers—after all, they are not owners of companies in the fossil fuel business. However, they could still be motivated by a financial stake—after all, addressing climate change could cost them more in terms of their energy bills. Of course, not addressing climate change could cost them much more.

In any case, I get climate denial in that I have a sensible narrative as to why people reject the science on the basis of interest. However, I have been rather more confused by people who deny the science regarding vaccines.

While vaccines are not entirely risk free, the scientific evidence is overwhelming that they are safe and very effective. Scientists have a good understanding of how they work and there is extensive empirical evidence of their positive impact—specifically the massive reduction in cases of diseases such as polio and measles. Oddly enough, there is significant number of Americans who willfully deny the science of vaccination. What is most unusual is that these people tend to be college educated. They are also predominantly political liberals, thus showing that science denial is bi-partisan. It is fascinating, but also horrifying, to see someone walk through the process of denial—as shown in a segment on the Daily Show. This process is rather complete: evidence is rejected, experts are dismissed and so on—it is as if the person’s mind switched into a Bizzaro version of critical thinking (“kritikal tincing” perhaps). This is in marked contrast with the process of rational disagreement in which the methodology of critical thinking is used in defense of an opposing viewpoint. Being a philosopher, I value rational disagreement and I am careful to give opposing views their due. However, the use of fallacious methods and outright rejection of rational methods of reasoning is not acceptable.

As noted above, climate change denial makes a degree of sense—behind the denial is a clear economic interest. However, vaccine science denial seems to lack that motive. While I could be wrong about this, there does not seem to be any economic interest that would benefit from this denial—except, perhaps, the doctors and hospitals that will be treating the outbreaks of preventable diseases. However, doctors and hospitals obviously encourage vaccination. As such, an alternative explanation is needed.

Recent research does provide some insight into the matter and this research is consistent with Locke’s view that people are influenced by both interests and passions. In this case, the motivating passion seems to be a person’s commitment to her concept of self. The idea is that when a person’s self-concept or self-identity is threatened by facts, the person will reject the facts in favor of her self-identity.  In the case of the vaccine science deniers, the belief that vaccines are harmful has somehow become part of their self-identity. Or so goes the theory as to why these deniers reject the evidence.

To be effective, this rejection must be more than simply asserting the facts are wrong. After all, the person is aiming to deceive herself to maintain her self-identity. As such, the person must create an entire narrative which makes their rejection seem sensible and believable to them. A denier must, as Pascal said in regards to his famous wager, make himself believe his denial. In the case of matters of science, a person needs to reject not just the claims made by scientists but also the method by which the scientists support the claims. Roughly put, the narrative of denial must be a complete story that protects itself from criticism. This is, obviously enough, different from a person who denies a claim on the basis of evidence—since there is rational support for the denial, there is no need to create a justifying narrative.

This, I would say, is one of the major dangers of this sort of denial—not the denial of established facts, but the explicit rejection of the methodology that is used to assess facts. While people often excel at compartmentalization, this strategy runs the risk of corrupting the person’s thinking across the board.

As noted above, as a philosopher one of my main tasks is to train people to think critically and rationally. While I would like to believe that everyone can be taught to be an effective and rational thinker, I know that people are far more swayed by rhetoric and (ironically) fallacious reasoning then they are swayed by good logic. As such, there might be little hope that people can be “cured” of their rejection of science and reasoning. Aristotle took this view—while noting that some can be convinced by “arguments and fine ideals” most people cannot. He advocated the use of coercive habituation to get people to behave properly and this could (and has) been employed to correct incorrect beliefs. However, such a method is agnostic in regards to the truth—people can be coerced into accepting the false as well as the true.

Interestingly enough, a study by Brendan Nyhan shows that reason and persuasion both fail when employed in attempts to change false beliefs that are critical to a person’s self-identity. In the case of Nyhan’s study, there were various attempts to change the beliefs of vaccine science deniers using reason (facts and science) and also various methods of rhetoric/persuasions (appeals to emotions and anecdotes). Since reason and persuasion are the two main ways to convince people, this is certainly a problem.

The study and other research did indicate an avenue that might work. Assuming that it is the threat to a person’s self-concept that triggers the rejection mechanism, the solution is to approach a person in a way that does not trigger this response. To use an analogy, it is like trying to conduct a transplant without triggering the body’s immune system to reject the transplanted organ.

One obvious problem is that once a person has taken a false belief as part of his self-concept, it is rather difficult to get him to regard any attempt to change his mind as anything other than a threat. Addressing this might require changing the person’s self-concept or finding a specific strategy for addressing that belief that is somehow not seen as a threat. Once that is done, the second stage—that of actually addressing the false belief, can begin.

 

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Talking Points & Climate Change

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Science by Michael LaBossiere on May 14, 2014
English: Animated global map of monthly long t...

English: Animated global map of monthly long term mean surface air temperature (Mollweide projection). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While science and philosophy are supposed to be about determining the nature of reality, politics is often aimed at creating perceptions that are alleged to be reality. This is why it is generally wiser to accept claims supported by science and reason over claims “supported” by ideology and interest.

 

The matter of climate change is a matter of both science (since the climate is an objective feature of reality) and politics (since perception of reality can be shaped by rhetoric and ideology). Ideally, the facts of climate change would be left to science and sorting out how to address it via policy would fall, in part, to the politicians. Unfortunately, politicians and other non-scientists have taken it on themselves to make claims about the science, usually in the form of unsupported talking points.

 

On the conservative side, there has been a general shifting in the talking points. Originally, there was one main talking point: there is no climate change and the scientists are wrong. This point was often supported by alleging that the scientists were motivated by ideology to lie about the climate. In contrast, those whose profits could be impacted if climate change was real were taken as objective sources.

 

In the face of mounting evidence and shifting public opinion, this talking point became the claim that while climate change is occurring, it is not caused by humans. This then shifted to the claim that climate change is caused by humans, but there is nothing we can (or should) do now.

 

In response to the latest study, certain Republicans have embraced three talking points. These points do seem to concede that climate change is occurring and that humans are responsible. These points do have a foundation that can be regarded as rational and each will be considered in turn.

 

One talking point is that the scientists are exaggerating the impact of climate change and that it will not be as bad as they claim. This does rest on a reasonable concern about any prediction: how accurate is the prediction? In the case of a scientific prediction based on data and models, the reasonable inquiry would focus on the accuracy of the data and how well the models serve as models of the actual world. To use an analogy, the reliability of predictions about the impact of a crash on a vehicle based on a computer model would hinge on the accuracy of the data and the model and both could be reasonable points of inquiry.

 

Since the climate scientists have the data and models used to make the predications, to properly dispute the predictions would require showing problems with either the data or the models (or both). Simply saying they are wrong would not suffice—what is needed is clear evidence that the data or models (or both) are defective in ways that would show the predictions are excessive in terms of the predicted impact.

 

One indirect way to do this would be to find clear evidence that the scientists are intentionally exaggerating. However, if the scientists are exaggerating, then this would be provable by examining the data and plugging it into an accurate model. That is, the scientific method should be able to be employed to show the scientists are wrong.

 

In some cases people attempt to argue that the scientists are exaggerating because of some nefarious motivation—a liberal agenda, a hatred of oil companies, a desire for fame or some other wickedness. However, even if it could be shown that the scientists have a nefarious motivation, it does not follow that the predictions are wrong. After all, to dismiss a claim because of an alleged defect in the person making the claim is a fallacy. Being suspicious because of a possible nefarious motive can be reasonable, though. So, for example, the fact that the fossil fuel companies have a great deal at stake here does not prove that their claims about climate change are wrong. But the fact that they have considerable incentive to deny certain claims does provide grounds for suspicion regarding their objectivity (and hence credibility).  Naturally, if one is willing to suspect that there is a global conspiracy of scientists, then one should surely be willing to consider that fossil fuel companies and their fellows might be influenced by their financial interests.

 

One could, of course, hold that the scientists are exaggerating for noble reasons—that is, they are claiming it is worse than it will be in order to get people to take action. To use an analogy, parents sometimes exaggerate the possible harms of something to try to persuade their children not to try it. While this is nicer than ascribing nefarious motives to scientists, it is still not evidence against their claims. Also, even if the scientists are exaggerating, there is still the question about how bad things really would be—they might still be quite bad.

 

Naturally, if an objective and properly conducted study can be presented that shows the predictions are in error, then that is the study that I would accept. However, I am still waiting for such a study.

 

The second talking point is that the laws being proposed will not solve the problems. Interestingly, this certainly seems to concede that climate change will cause problems. This point does have a reasonable foundation in that it would be unreasonable to pass laws aimed at climate change that are ineffective in addressing the problems.

 

While crafting the laws is a matter of politics, sorting out whether such proposals would be effective does seem to fall in the domain of science. For example, if a law proposes to cut carbon emissions, there is a legitimate question as to whether or not that would have a meaningful impact on the problem of climate change. Showing this would require having data, models and so on—merely saying that the laws will not work is obviously not enough.

 

Now, if the laws will not work, then the people who confidently make that claim should be equally confident in providing evidence for their claim. It seems reasonable to expect that such evidence be provided and that it be suitable in nature (that is, based in properly gathered data, examined by impartial scientists and so on).

 

The third talking point is that the proposals to address climate change will wreck the American economy. As with the other points, this does have a rational basis—after all, it is sensible to consider the impact on the economy.

 

One way to approach this is on utilitarian grounds: that we can accept X environmental harms (such as coastal flooding) in return for Y (jobs and profits generated by fossil fuels). Assuming that one is a utilitarian of the proper sort and that one accepts this value calculation, then one can accept that enduring such harms could be worth the advantages. However, it is well worth noting that as usual, the costs will seem to fall heavily on those who are not profiting. For example, the flooding of Miami and New York will not have a huge impact on fossil fuel company profits (although they will lose some customers).

 

Making the decisions about this should involve openly considering the nature of the costs and benefits as well as who will be hurt and who will benefit. Vague claims about damaging the economy do not allow us to make a proper moral and practical assessment of whether the approach will be correct or not. It might turn out that staying the course is the better option—but this needs to be determined with an open and honest assessment. However, there is a long history of this not occurring—so I am not optimistic about this occurring.

 

It is also worth considering that addressing climate change could be good for the economy. After all, preparing coastal towns and cities for the (allegedly) rising waters could be a huge and profitable industry creating many jobs. Developing alternative energy sources could also be profitable as could developing new crops able to handle the new conditions. There could be a whole new economy created, perhaps one that might rival more traditional economic sectors and newer ones, such as the internet economy. If companies with well-funded armies of lobbyists got into the climate change countering business, I suspect that a different tune would be playing.

 

To close, the three talking points do raise questions that need to be answered:

 

  • Is climate change going to be as bad as it is claimed?
  • What laws (if any) could effectively and properly address climate change?
  • What would be the cost of addressing climate change and who would bear the cost?

 

 

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De-Extinction

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Science by Michael LaBossiere on June 17, 2013
The Woolly Mammoth became extinct around 12,00...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pausing in her grazing, a mother mammoth casts a wary eye for signs of danger to herself and her offspring. Hidden from her view, a saber-toothed cat assesses his chances of getting a meal…or getting stomped. The cat is startled by movement behind it and whirls about to confront a vehicle full of people. Digital photos are snapped, then uploaded to Facebook. “Damn tourists”, thinks the cat, as it saunters away.

While this scene is not yet a reality, there are people who hope to make it so through de-extinction. De-extinction is the restoration of a species that has been lost to extinction. The most famous fictional example is Jurassic Park: dinosaurs are restored and made the central focus of an amusement park. There have been real-life attempts at restoring lost species, but these have focused on species that went extinct far more recently than the dinosaurs.

There are various ways in which a species can be restored. The best known (thanks to the movies) is genetic restoration: the genes of the species are recovered and used to recreate the species. For example, recovered mastodon DNA could be implanted into an “emptied” elephant egg and the egg could then be implanted into a female elephant. If the process succeeded, the surrogate mother would give birth to an actual mastodon.

A somewhat less known method is “trait” or “appearance” restoration. In this method, an extinct species is recreated by selectively modifying an existing species until it looks like the extinct species. For example, an extinct species of pigeons could be “restored” in this manner. One rather obvious question about this method is whether or not such a restoration should be considered an actual de-extinction. To use the obvious analogy, if after my death someone is modified to look like me, then I have not been restored to life. Likewise, creating a species that looks (and acts) like the extinct species does not seem to really restore the species. Rather, a rather clever imposter has been created.

In additional to the practical concerns of the science and technology of de-extinction, there are also moral concerns. Not surprisingly, many of these concerns involve he potential consequences of de-extinction.

One matter of concern is that the de-extinction of a species could actually have negative consequences for other species or the environment. A restored species could become an invasive and harmful species (directly or indirectly), which would be rather bad and has been shown by existing invasive species that have been transported by humans into new environments. In the case of de-extinction, humans would be re-created rather than transporting-but the effect could be quite similar.

It can be replied that the impact of a species could be sorted out ahead of time, especially if the species went extinct fairly recently. The counter to this reply is to point out that people have made rather serious mistakes when importing species and that it is not unreasonable to believe that people could make comparable mistakes.

Another matter of concern that a species could be restored despite there not being a viable habitat for it. This sort of irresponsible de-extinction might occur for a variety of reasons, perhaps to provide a novelty attraction for a zoo or park. This sort of treatment of an animal would certainly seem to be wrong because of the exploitation of the species. The reply to this is the same that is given when species that are close to extinction are kept in zoos or parks: such an existence is better than no existence. This does have a certain appeal, but it could be contended that restoring an animal to keep it in a zoo is relevantly different from endeavoring to preserve an existing species. It could also be contended that the zoo preservation of endangered species is wrong, hence the restoration of an extinct species to serve as a zoo exhibit would also be wrong.

One common argument against re-extinction is that it would be expensive and it would thus take money away from conservation efforts that would yield more results for the money. While I cannot predict the exact cost of restoring a mastodon, it seems safe to predict that it would be extremely expensive. This money could, one might argue, be better spent in protecting elephants.

While such cost arguments have considerable appeal, they often suffer from an obvious defect. This defect is that the argument fails to take into account the fact that there is not just one pool of money that is allocated to this matter. That is, money spent on restoring a species need not come from the money that would otherwise be spent on preserving existing species.

While it could be argued that money spent on de-extinction would be better spent elsewhere, it could very well be the case that the money spent on de-extinction would not, in fact, be spent on anything better. To use an obvious example, a wealthy celebrity might not care much about the plight of the snail darter, but he might be willing to spend millions of dollars to get a saber-toothed cat. To use another example, an investor might not be interested in spending money to save elephants, but she might be very interested in funding a Mammoth Park featuring restored mammoths and other charismatic but extinct species that people would pay to see. Interestingly, this sort of funding could itself raise moral concerns. That is, bringing back the mammoths so some investors can make a fortune on Mammoth Park might strike some as morally dubious.

Laying aside the moral concerns connected to why we should not engage in de-extinction, there is also to matter of why we should (morally) do this. In the case of natural extinctions, it would seem that we would not have a moral reason to restore a species. After all, humans were not responsible for its demise. Naturally, we might have pragmatic (to create Mammoth Park) or scientific reasons to restore such a species.

In the case of human caused extinctions, a case can be made that we should undo the (alleged) wrong that we did. This line of reasoning has the most appeal. After all, if we were responsible for the death of a species and we could restore this species, then it would seem that we should do so. To use the obvious analogy, if I kill someone (by accident or by intent) and then I get the means to restore the person, then I should do so (unless, of course, killing the person was the right thing to do).

In any case, I am waiting for my dire wolf-husky crossbreed.

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Water & Food

Posted in Business, Environment, Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 15, 2012
Česky: Pitná voda - kohoutek Español: Agua potable

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since most of the earth’s surface is covered in water it no doubt seems odd to be worried about the availability of water. Of course, this seems less odd when one considers that much of this liquid bounty is too salty for humans to drink or use in most forms of agriculture. When pollution and distribution (people have an irrational propensity to build cities where water is scarce) are taken into account, then the grounds for worry become clear.

While people normally think of water in terms of something we drink, 92% of our water usage as a species is due to agriculture. Plants and animals need water directly, but water is also used for other purposes in the industry. For example, the feed given to animals requires water. In addition to the direct use of water, water is also “consumed” (that is, removed from being useful to humans) by contamination from agriculture. The chemicals and waste of agriculture often ends up in rivers and other bodies of water, rendering it unusable or at least harmful.

Looking just at the direct water costs, the creation of animal “products” imposes the highest water costs per kilo-calorie (kcal). Growing edible roots and cereals requires .5 quarts per kcal, making these foods very water efficient. Fruits are rather more costly, requiring 2.2 quarts per kcal. For meat product, pork is relatively efficient, requiring 2.3 quarts per kcal. Beef is by far the least efficient, using 10.8 quarts per kcal. As might be imagined, the use of water raises both practical and moral concerns.

One obvious practical concern is working out how to efficiently handle water resources as the population increases. Adding to the difficulty of this matter is the fact that economic improvements in developing countries will most likely lead to a significant increase in the desire for meat, especially beef. Given the water cost of meat the agriculture industry will be hard pressed to meet such increased demand especially if the water supply is under even greater strain.

As might be imagined, there are various practical solutions to the technical problems of water. For example, more efficient agriculture would enable more food to be grown using less water. As another example, the development of cheaper means of purifying water of salt or pollutants would help. Obviously enough if the world eschewed meat in favor of plants, then that would have a significant impact on water usage.

The main moral concern is one of distribution. That is, using moral values to determine how the available water will be used and who will benefit from its use. As noted above, the growing of meat and other animal products is water intensive relative to growing plants. While there are practical grounds to moving away from animal agriculture, the decision to do so (or not do so) is a matter of ethics. After all, decisions about who is entitled to the water resources and how these resources should be distributed are moral decisions. If, for example, it is decided that water resources will be allocated to the beef industry, then this means that less water will be available to grow more water efficient foods, thus potentially reducing the food supply while also creating food that is relatively expensive for the consumer.

As the population grows, the moral concerns will become even more serious. After all, it is certainly worth considering that the demand on water resources will eventually be high enough that choosing between growing beef and raising more water efficient crops will be a choice between providing the more affluent few with a luxury food and providing the less affluent many with the food they need to survive.

An obvious counter to this is that we have always managed to find a solution to such problems in the past and hence we will surely find one (or more) in the future. After all, the population doomsdays predicted in the past all turned out to be in error.

While this response has considerable appeal, it is worth noting that there must be a point at which our ability to solve the water problem reaches its limit. After all, the supply of water on the earth is finite and even if we were to use the water with incredible efficiency there would be a point at which the available fresh water could not support a population of a certain size. Naturally, this can be countered by reducing population size—but determining whether we should do this or not and the details of the reduction would involve moral choices.

It is also worth noting that there are many practical (rather than theoretical) problems that could prevent us from adequately solving the water problem. The droughts that affected the United States in 2012 had an impact on food production and if these droughts become more common, then the matter of distributing water resources will become even more pressing. There are also the political considerations, such as political entities controlling the distribution of water to serve their own ends. Even the United States has political conflicts over water distribution and these will probably only worsen as the population increase and water distribution changes as the climate changes.

As a final point, it is worth noting that water is a resource that is almost endlessly reusable. Unlike oil, our use of water generally does not destroy the water. For example, when we drink water we are not digesting it into hydrogen and oxygen to provide energy—rather we use it to hydrate our tissues, remove waste and so on. Roughly put, the water that goes in eventually comes back out. Of course, the water that we use does become contaminated and this contamination can render the water useless to us. For example, while urine is mostly water it is rather unsuitable for drinking. As another example, water that is contaminated with chemicals, feces or radiation is useless for many purposes. Fortunately, we can purify water (although this can be rather costly) and purification also occurs naturally. Unfortunately, we have been rather busy damaging many of the natural purification systems and even more busy contaminating water. Also unfortunate is the fact that being “pro-environment” (favoring the preservation of natural purification systems and being in favor of limiting water pollution) is often cast in a negative light and dismissed by mockery and hyperbole. However, there are very practical economic reasons for preserving and restoring the natural purification systems, not the least of which is that nature does for free what would cost a fortune to do artificially. These same reasons apply to avoiding water contamination as much as possible. After all, cleaning water is generally more costly than avoiding polluting it. For example, keeping feces contaminated runoff from agriculture out of the water supply is certainly cheaper than removing the contamination.

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Climate Change & Skepticism

Posted in Business, Environment, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 7, 2011
Al Gore

While I am not a philosophical skeptic (I do believe that knowledge is possible), I am a practical skeptic (I require proof before I believe). While some folks are skeptical of climate change, the evidence seems adequate to support the claim that humans have had a measurable impact on the climate. Given the scale of human activity, this seems inherently plausible. The climate data and causal explanations also seem fairly compelling.

Naturally, there are skeptics regarding climate change. Some of these folks are rational skeptics. That is, their doubts are founded on legitimate concerns about the methodologies used in climate science as well as the data in question. This sort of doubt and skepticism is actually a rather important part of the scientific approach: just as Socrates argued for the importance of the gadfly in the context of society, there should also be gadflies in science. Scientists are, after all, only human and are subject to all the same cognitive biases and frailties as everyone else (plus are especially vulnerable to certain biases).

Some folks are, however, irrational skeptics. They base their doubt not on legitimate critiques of the methodology or the data. Some of these folks base their doubt not on logic, but on their emotions. They feel hostility towards the idea of climate change and the people who claim it is real. They feel positive towards the folks who deny it. However, feeling is not a good guide to the truth. John Locke argued quite effectively for this in his essay regarding enthusiasm. However, you can test this yourself: try taking a chemistry test or solving a complex engineering problem solely by how you feel about the matter. Let me know how well that works out. To be fair, there are folks who believe in climate change based on how they feel. While I am inclined to say that their belief is correct, I am even more inclined to say that they are not warranted to hold said belief since it is based on feeling rather than on actual reasons.

Some of the skeptics base their doubt on the fact that the truth of climate change would be contrary to their interests. In some cases, they are not consciously aware that they are rejecting a claim based on this factor and they might very well be sincere in their skepticism. However, this is merely a form of wishful thinking. Other folks are well aware of what they are doing when they express their “skepticism.” Their goal is not to engage in a scientific debate over the matter-that is, engage in argumentation to achieve the truth. Rather, their objective is to persuade others to doubt climate change and thus protect their perceived interests. To be fair, there are folks who push climate change because doing so is in their own interest. As Al Gore will attest, there is considerable money to be made in this area. This, of course, does not show that Al Gore is wrong-“reasoning” this way would be to fall victim to a circumstantial ad homimem fallacy. Saying that the climate change deniers are wrong because they have an interest in denying it would also commit this fallacy (the sword of logic cuts both ways).

Interesting, while whether climate change is occurring or not (and whether or not it is our doing) is a scientific matter, much of the fighting is done in the realm of politics and rhetoric. However, factual claims about climate are not settled by who has the best rhetoric or who can get the most votes. They must be settled by scientific means. As such, it is important to cut through the rhetoric (and fallacies) and get to the heart of the matter.

While the consensus of the experts is that climate change is real and is caused, at least in part, by humans, I am not an expert on climate change. But, I am rational and, as such, I will accept their view unless adequate contrary evidence is provided from unbiased sources.

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Nuclear Power

Posted in Environment, Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on March 17, 2011
Nuclear power plant.

Image via Wikipedia

The terrible natural disaster in Japan has been compounded by the dangers presented by radiation from the damaged nuclear power plant. As should come as no surprise, this has caused a world wide renewal of concern regarding nuclear power.

On one hand, the fear people have about nuclear power can be irrational and based on beliefs that are not entirely accurate. In part, these fears are grounded in atomic weapons. It is, after all, natural for people to associate the horrors of nuclear weapons with nuclear power plants, even though power plants do not work like nuclear bombs. In part, these fears are also grounded in fiction-radiation, mutation, and so on are put forth in science fiction and horror in ways that have branded them into the public mind. The fact that folks in the media tend to hype things and that the nuclear industry has done little to educate the public do not help matters.

While I do know a bit about nuclear power and radiation, I do have the same “gut fear” of radiation that most folks no doubt possess. As such, I am very sympathetic to people who are very scared of nuclear power and those who oppose it. However, I temper my fear with knowledge and hence I do consider nuclear power well worth considering. True, my ideal power source is nuclear fusion-but that is still the stuff of science fiction.

On the other hand, nuclear power plants can pose very real and very serious health and environmental risks. Accidents are always possible (though thankfully rare) and, of course, there is the concern that a natural disaster will (as happened in Japan) cripple or destroy a plant.

Because of these legitimate concerns, it is wise to be rather careful about nuclear power and the real risks that it presents. However, this assessment should be based on a rational consideration of the dangers and the benefits and should not be grounded in irrational or unfounded fears about nuclear power and radiation.

That said, it is obvious that we are in a phase in which politicians will be reacting to the events in Japan and people will be motivated by their fears. For example, people on the West coast of the US have been running to buy potassium iodide, despite the fact that there is (and almost certainly will not be) any radiation threat in the United States from Japan. As another example, some countries are shutting down reactors. While I am all for rational preparations and for due safety, we need to avoid being swept along by the events and fears of the moment.

Of course, it is almost certainly a waste of keystrokes to type that. After all, we tend to react rather than be proactive and are inevitably caught up in whatever is hitting the headlines this week. Then we generally forget until the next disaster, then we wonder why we did not do much (or anything) differently. But, I am sure we will learn our lesson this time.

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Thinking Critically About Men Driving Lost

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on October 30, 2010
Margin of error-visual
Image via Wikipedia

A recent filler story running through the media is the survey that reports men drive (on average) 276 lost miles per year while women drive “only” 256. This is based on a study by Sheila’s Wheels (an insurance company for women).

In an interesting coincidence, I also happened to be teaching about such inductive generalizations in my critical thinking class when the story was making the rounds and I think that some of what I teach in that section in well worth repeating here.

The first thing to keep in mind is that such studies/surveys are inductive generalizations. The basic idea is that a sample is surveyed or studied and the results are then extended (inductively) to the whole population. In this case, the sample consisted of the drivers studied/surveyed and the target population is the general population of drivers. Since this is inductive reasoning, even if the information acquired from the sample is accurate, extending this to the whole population is not without risk. To be specific, the sample data could be completely correct, but the sample might not be an accurate representation of the whole sample (that is, the sample might be biased). To avoid such bias, careful thinkers take steps to ensure that the sample is large enough and diverse enough to provide a proper foundation for the inductive leap from sample to target. Failure to do this can result in fallacious reasoning, specifically a hasty generalization or a biased generalization.

Even if a sample is properly taken, a sample that is smaller than the whole population will almost certainly differ from the population to a degree. Because of this people make use of margins of error. This is, roughly put, a percentage by which the sample is supposed to differ from the population due to sampling errors. In general terms, the margin of error is based largely on the size of the sample relative to the population. For example, in a large population (10,000+) a sample of 10 will yield a margin of error of +/- 30%. The “gold” standard for professional surveys/studies is getting to a margin of error of +/- 3%. This requires a sample of 1,000. Getting to a margin of error of +/- 2% requires increasing the sample size to 1,500. Given the cost and effort required to take effective samples, it is no surprise that getting to that margin of error is considered accurate enough.  Naturally, folks who are hard core statistics nerds will be aware that I am oversimplifying things a bit,

The study cited by Sheila’s Wheels had a sample population of 1,009 people. Keeping things simple, this would give the results a margin of error of +/- 3%. However, this is not a simple situation because there are actually two distinct target populations: male drivers and female drivers. Assuming the sample was split evenly by gender, this would mean that the sample size for each gender would be about 500 people. As such, the result that men drive 276 lost miles would have a margin of error of +/- 4%. Likewise for the result that women drive 256 lost miles. This means that the actual lost miles could be 4% less for men and 4% more for women. As such, it could easily be the case that men do not drive more lost miles than women.

Given the margin of error and the relatively small difference between the lost miles in the sample, it seem unreasonable to conclude that men certainly drive more lost miles than women. It is also unreasonable to make a “big deal” about these findings because they simply fail to show a significant difference that would warrant the sort of stereotypical claims that have been made by folks in the media.

Of course, I am also motivated to be critical of this survey because it struck me that it was being employed in some minor “male bashing” in the media. I imagine that the feeling I get when I see female media folks chuckling over these results and stereotyping men is somewhat like what women feel when they are treated in a similar manner. Not surprisingly, I would prefer to see less such stereotyping and bashing.

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Top Reasons to Love the Oil Spill

Posted in Environment, Humor by Michael LaBossiere on May 10, 2010
Man sitting under a beach parasol
Image via Wikipedia
  1. When you drive to the beach, you can fill up your tank right at the shore.
  2. You can stop feeling guilty about the time you dumped that used motor oil out behind your house.
  3. No need to bring sun tan oil  to the beach-go for a swim and you’ll be coated.
  4. When the gas prices are jacked up again, at least you’ll know why.
  5. It takes up news time that would otherwise be devoted to water skiing squirrels and Frisbee catching dogs.
  6. It put an end to people chanting “drill, baby, drill’…but “spill, baby, spill” is almost as annoying.
  7. It probably killed the giant sea monster that was on its way to attack New Orleans.
  8. It will create a lot of new jobs-get those applications in for Bird Scrubber, Beach Cleaner and Clam Therapist.
  9. At least it is not radioactive.
  10. Self cooking seafood-touch a match to it, put it out and you’re ready to eat!
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Rush & Oil

Posted in Environment, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 6, 2010
Rush Limbaugh booking photo from his arrest on...

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Commenting on the oil spill, Rush Limbaugh said ““The ocean will take care of this on its own if it was left alone and left out there. It’s natural. It’s as natural as the ocean water is.”

Rush is actually right.

First, oil will eventually break down through natural processes. However, this will take a rather long time and the oil will do considerable damage in the meantime. Given Rush’s logic, we should say the same thing about things like dirty dishes and garbage in our houses. After all, natural processes will eventually take care of the food on the dishes and the garbage in the house. So, why bother with those things? Also, natural processes will eventually take care of any illness (this might involve death, of course), so why mess around with medicine?

Second, oil is natural and is as natural as the water. After all, we do not make the oil that we drill for-we simply find it after it has been produced by natural processes. Of course, being natural does not mean that something is not dangerous. Cyanide, rattlesnake venom, red tide, earthquakes, volcanoes, and gamma rays are all natural. Yet they are rather dangerous. The fact that something is natural does not mean that we should not be concerned about it showing up on our beaches.

You know, Rush, it doesn’t make you a tree hugger if you accept that an oil spill is bad. Even the folks in the oil companies are willing to admit this.

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Drilling & Spilling

Posted in Business, Environment, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 1, 2010
Night Rig
Image by arbyreed via Flickr

A giant oil spill now menaces the coast of the United States, lurking like a monster under the waves. This shapeless mass of oil has served to help shape the debate over extending access to offshore drilling.

There are numerous reasons to expand offshore drilling. First, the American economy is still rather dependent on oil. Despite all the talk about green being the new black (as in oil), black is still the new black. Since the oil is so important, it can be argued that it is worth the risk. Second, such oil operations would not provide money to countries that are hostile to the United States (at least not directly). Third, these oil wells would not require military operations in foreign lands.

There are also excellent reasons not to expand offshore drilling. The most obvious one is the threat to the environment and the economy. While we do not yet know how much damage the current oil spill will do, the odds are that it will be massive.

Those in favor of drilling do point out that such massive disasters are incredibly rare and the odds against another one are exceptionally low.  This is a good point. After all, we regularly tolerate risk in order to make a gain (or at least to avoid the effort or cost needed to reduce or eliminate the risk). This is a matter of weighing the possible costs and the possible gains, factoring in the chances of each. For example, all commercial flights could be checked with the rigor that Air Force One undergoes before it flies. This would make flying even safer. However, we tolerate the risk of crashing (which is very low) because the cost would be rather high. As another example, people can dramatically increase their health and well being by eating better and exercising. Yet most people do not do this, even though they put themselves at significant risk for illness. While this approach is not a good idea, people do this because the effort needed to reduce the risk is not worth it to them. So, in the case of off shore drilling, perhaps the benefits outweigh the risks. Or at least enough (or the right) people might be wiling to accept (or ignore) the risks of drilling.

Another factor worth considering here is the matter of alternative energy. While the risk of drilling might be acceptable (or at least accepted) it is also important to consider whether or not we actually need to take that risk in order to get the energy we want. To use an analogy, suppose a person wants to lose weight. One option is to undergo surgery and risk complications or even death. Another option is to exercise and eat sensibly. While the second option takes more effort, the fact that the risks are so much lower (and the benefits greater) than the surgery marks it is the better choice. To use another analogy, if a person wants to get drunk, they could drain Sterno or denatured alcohol through bread and drink that (the bread doesn’t help, by the way). Or they could buy alcohol that is intended for drinking. The second option is obviously the better choice.

In the case of oil, we do have some clear alternatives. However, oil is still cheaper than the alternatives (assuming that the environmental and economic damage is not factored in). Also, the oil companies have considerable influence over Washington. So, it seems likely that we will be drinking that Sterno for a while longer.

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