A Philosopher's Blog

The Speed of Rage

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on July 9, 2014
English: A raging face.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The rise of social media has created an entire new world for social researchers. One focus of the research has been on determining how quickly and broadly emotions spread online. The April 2014 issue of the Smithsonian featured and article on this subject by Matthew Shaer.

Not surprisingly, researchers at Beijing University found that the emotion of rage spread the fastest and farthest online. Researchers in the United States found that anger was a speed leader, but not the fastest in the study: awe was even faster than rage. But rage was quite fast. As might be expected, sadness was a slow spreader and had a limited expansion.

This research certainly makes sense—rage tends to be a strong motivator and sadness tends to be a de-motivator. The power of awe was an interesting finding, but some reflection does indicate that this would make sense—the emotion tends to move people to want to share (in the real world, think of people eagerly drawing the attention of strangers to things like beautiful sunsets, impressive feats or majestic animals).

In general, awe is a positive emotion and hence it seems to be a good thing that it travels far and wide on the internet. Rage is, however, something of a mixed bag.

When people share their rage via social media, they are sharing with an intent to express (“I am angry!”) and to infect others with this rage (“you should be angry, too!”). Rage, like many infectious agents, also has the effect of weakening the host’s “immune system.” In the case of anger, the immune system is reason and emotional control. As such, rage tends to suppress reason and lower emotional control. This serves to make people even more vulnerable to rage and quite susceptible to the classic fallacy of appeal to anger—this is the fallacy in which a person accepts her anger as proof that a claim is true. Roughly put, the person “reasons” like this: “this makes me angry, so it is true.” This infection also renders people susceptible to related emotions (and fallacies), such as fear (and appeal to force).

Because of these qualities of anger, it is easy for untrue claims to be accepted far and wide via the internet. This is, obviously enough, the negative side of anger.  Anger can also be positive—to use an analogy, it can be like a cleansing fire that sweeps away brambles and refuse.

For anger to be a positive factor, it would need to be a virtuous anger (to follow Aristotle). Put a bit simply, it would need to be the right degree of anger, felt for the right reasons and directed at the right target. This sort of anger can mobilize people to do good. For example, people might learn of a specific corruption rotting away their society and be moved to act against it. As another example, people might learn of an injustice and be mobilized to fight against it.

The challenge is, of course, to distinguish between warranted and unwarranted anger. This is a rather serious challenge—as noted above, people tend to feel that they are right because they are angry rather than inquiring as to whether their rage is justified or not.

So, when you see a post or Tweet that moves you anger, think before adding fuel to the fire of anger.


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Picking between Studies

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on January 31, 2014
Illustration of swan-necked flask experiment u...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my last essay I looked briefly at how to pick between experts. While people often reply on experts when making arguments, they also rely on studies (and experiments). Since most people do not do their own research, the studies mentioned are typically those conducted by others. While using study results in an argument is quite reasonable, making a good argument based on study results requires being able to pick between studies rationally.

Not surprisingly, people tend to pick based on fallacious reasoning. One common approach is to pick a study based on the fact that it agrees with what you already believe. This is rather obviously not good reasoning: to infer that something is true simply because I believe it gets things backwards. It should be first established that a claim is probably true, then it is reasonable to believe it.

Another common approach is to accept a study as correct because the results match what you really want to be true. For example, a liberal might accept a study that claims liberals are smarter and more generous than conservatives.  This sort of “reasoning” is the classic fallacy of wishful thinking. Obviously enough, wishing that something is true (or false) does not prove that the claim is true (or false).

In some cases, people try to create their own “studies” by appealing to their own anecdotal data about some matter. For example, a person might claim that poor people are lazy based on his experience with some poor people. While anecdotes can be interesting, to take an anecdote as evidence is to fall victim to the classic fallacy of anecdotal evidence.

While fully assessing a study requires expertise in the relevant field, non-experts can still make rational evaluations of studies, provided that they have the relevant information about the study. The following provides a concise guide to studies—and experiments.

In normal use, people often jam together studies and experiments. While this is fine for informal purposes, this distinction is actually important. A properly done controlled cause-to-effect experiment is the gold standard of research, although it is not always a viable option.

The objective of the experiment is to determine the effect of a cause and this is done by the following general method. First, a random sample is selected from the population. Second, the sample is split into two groups: the experimental group and the control group. The two groups need to be as alike as possible—the more alike the two groups, the better the experiment.

The experimental group is then exposed to the causal agent while the control group is not. Ideally, that should be the only difference between the groups. The experiment then runs its course and the results are examined to determine if there is a statistically significant difference between the two. If there is such a difference, then it is reasonable to infer that the causal factor brought about the difference.

Assuming that the experiment was conducted properly, whether or not the results are statistically significant depends on the size of the sample and the difference between the control group and experimental group. The key idea is that experiments with smaller samples are less able to reliably capture effects. As such, when considering whether an experiment actually shows there is a causal connection it is important to know the size of the sample used. After all, the difference between the experimental and control groups might be rather large, but might not be significant. For example, imagine that an experiment is conducted involving 10 people. 5 people get a diet drug (experimental group) while 5 do not (control group). Suppose that those in the experimental group lose 30% more weight than those in the control group. While this might seem impressive, it is actually not statistically significant: the sample is so small, the difference could be due entirely to chance. The following table shows some information about statistical significance.

Sample Size (Control group + Experimental Group)

Approximate Figure That The Difference Must Exceed

To Be Statistically Significant

(in percentage points)

10 40
100 13
500 6
1,000 4
1,500 3

While the experiment is the gold standard, there are cases in which it would be impractical, impossible or unethical to conduct an experiment. For example, exposing people to radiation to test its effect would be immoral. In such cases studies are used rather than experiments.

One type of study is the Nonexperimental Cause-to-Effect Study. Like the experiment, it is intended to determine the effect of a suspected cause. The main difference between the experiment and this sort of study is that those conducting the study do not expose the experimental group to the suspected cause. Rather, those selected for the experimental group were exposed to the suspected cause by their own actions or by circumstances. For example, a study of this sort might include people who were exposed to radiation by an accident. A control group is then matched to the experimental group and, as with the experiment, the more alike the groups are, the better the study.

After the study has run its course, the results are compared to see if these is a statistically significant difference between the two groups. As with the experiment, merely having a large difference between the groups need not be statistically significant.

Since the study relies on using an experimental group that was exposed to the suspected cause by the actions of those in the group or by circumstances, the study is weaker (less reliable) than the experiment. After all, in the study the researchers have to take what they can find rather than conducting a proper experiment.

In some cases, what is known is the effect and what is not known is the cause. For example, we might know that there is a new illness, but not know what is causing it. In these cases, a Nonexperimental Effect-to-Cause Study can be used to sort things out.

Since this is a study rather than an experiment, those in the experimental group were not exposed to the suspected cause by those conducting the study. In fact, the cause it not known, so those in the experimental group are those showing the effect.

Since this is an effect-to-cause study, the effect is known, but the cause must be determined. This is done by running the study and determining if these is a statistically significant suspected causal factor. If such a factor is found, then that can be tentatively taken as a causal factor—one that will probably require additional study. As with the other study and experiment, the statistical significance of the results depends on the size of the study—which is why a study of adequate size is important.

Of the three methods, this is the weakest (least reliable). One reason for this is that those showing the effect might be different in important ways from the rest of the population. For example, a study that links cancer of the mouth to chewing tobacco would face the problem that those who chew tobacco are often ex-smokers. As such, the smoking might be the actual cause. To sort this out would involve a study involving chewers who are not ex-smokers.

It is also worth referring back to my essay on experts—when assessing a study, it is also important to consider the quality of the experts conducting the study. If those conducting the study are biased, lack expertise, and so on, then the study would be less credible. If those conducting it are proper experts, then that increases the credibility of the study.

As a final point, there is also a reasonable concern about psychological effects. If an experiment or study involves people, what people think can influence the results. For example, if an experiment is conducted and one group knows it is getting pain medicine, the people might be influenced to think they are feeling less pain. To counter this, the common approach is a blind study/experiment in which the participants do not know which group they are in, often by the use of placebos. For example, an experiment with pain medicine would include “sugar pills” for those in the control group.

Those conducting the experiment can also be subject to psychological influences—especially if they have a stake in the outcome. As such, there are studies/experiments in which those conducting the research do not know which group is which until the end. In some cases, neither the researchers nor those in the study/experiment know which group is which—this is a double blind experiment/study.

Overall, here are some key questions to ask when picking a study:

Was the study/experiment properly conducted?

Was the sample size large enough?

Were the results statistically significant?

Were those conducting the study/experiment experts?

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Researchers Discover Backwards Causation Particles

Posted in Humor, Science by Michael LaBossiere on December 13, 2013
English: Matt Smith at the 2011 Comic Con in S...

Dr. Smith answers questions about F-ons and D-ons. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While time travel has long been the stuff of science fiction, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found proof of backwards causation. In the normal course of events, a cause must occur before the effect. In backwards causation, the reverse happens: the cause occurs after the effect.

The head researcher, Dr. Juanita Ocheloco said that hearing anecdotes from fellow faculty members put her on the track that led to the discovery. “At the end of every semester, I would hear stories about students who earned F and D grades experiencing retroactive problems. For example, one student who failed a statistics course lost his grandmother to backwards causation caused by his F grade. Another student who earned a D, was retroactively injured in a car accident. Although he had seemed fine all semester, his D caused him to have an accident two months before the end of the semester.”

At first the researchers considered the obvious hypothesis: students were just making up stories to play on professors’ sympathy and to try to avoid the F and D grades. However, Dr. Albert Ninestein’s research revealed that D and F grades shed D-on (pronounced “Deon”, as in “Deon Sanders”) and F-ons (pronounced “ef-ons”, not to be confused with FU-ons) respectively.

Dr. Ninestein said, ‘it was really a matter of luck—I happened to be testing out my theoretical particle detector at the end of the semester and caught all these particle flows. I traced them back to the university’s servers and got the IT folks involved. We pinpointed the emissions to the servers used for grades. A deeper analysis showed that the D and F grades were shedding these particles like mad.”

Additional investigation revealed that D-ons and F-ons, like tachyons, travel backwards in time. Unlike tachyons, D-ons and F-ons exhibit considerable malicious intent: they have been shown to kill the relatives of students, cause mysterious and unprovable illnesses and injuries, and do other bad things. Said researcher Dr. Matt Smith, “Those particles are right bastards.”

Dr. Smith added that the particles seem to travel via the internet and that they attack through smartphones, tablets and laptops. “At our request, the university has issued a warning to all students and relatives about the danger to their health and well-being posed by these particles. We are working round the clock to develop shielding to stop the particles from travelling back in time to do their damage. Until then, the university has adopted a policy of not issuing any D or F grades. This has proven to be a success: the number of retroactive cases of illness and injury has dropped to zero.”

When asked about her next project, Dr. Ocheloco said that she was working on finding the particle that “makes journalists write about whatever damn thing passes as research these days” and also a doomsday weapon made from squirrels.


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Justice, or Lack Thereof

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 12, 2010

Charles Ferguson’s recent My Turn article in Newsweek reveals an unfortunate truth about justice in America: the large corporations seem to enjoy an immunity to it.

As he points out, this immunity does not come cheaply-the companies spend at a rate of up to 100 to 1 when defending themselves against charges. While this spending could be seen as part of the “punishment” for such misdeeds, the money seems to be well spent in terms of what the corporations are able to avoid. Companies, I suspect, see this as a business expense-merely a cost of doing business as they wish.

However, this should not be the case. Justice should not be a question of one’s ability to simply buy a defense. Rather, justice should be a matter of punishing misdeeds in a fair manner. That is, at least in theory, what justice is supposed to be about.

Of course, companies generally do not get away completely. As Ferguson points out, while there is little (if anything) in regards to criminal prosecution, companies are sometimes compelled to pay fines.

However, there seem to be two serious problems with the way the fines work. The first is that the fines are generally tiny compared to the gains acquired from the fined misdeeds. As such, the fines fail here on two grounds in regards to just punishment. One failing is that the fines are not proportional to the offense in that they are not severe enough. The other failing is that there relatively small size means that they have little or no deterrent value. After all, if a company can make a huge profit and only have to pay a tiny fine, there is little practical reason to not engage in such activities. After all, it makes little sense to stop doing something when the profits far exceed the cost.

The second problem is that the laws are applied inconsistently. When individual commit the same crimes as a corporation, the individuals are typically subject to criminal prosecution. In Ferguson’s example, an American citizen received a sentence of 2.5 years for the same sort of crime that resulted only in fines for corporations. Interestingly, the corporations did not admit to any wrongdoing-nor were they apparently required to do so.

They paying of minor fines seems, if Ferguson is correct, to be the only punishment that corporations receive when they commit fraud, assist in tax evasion, bribe, and engage in money laundering.  This sort of inconsistency in punishment is clearly unfair and unjust.

It might be replied that corporations do pay large fines-sometimes in the millions of dollars. However, the seriousness of a fine is relative to the wealth of the corporation and to the profit it made while engaging in the activity that resulted in the fine. Also, a fine seems to be less serious that jail time (but this can be debated).

Interestingly, while Obama has been accused of being anti-business and a socialist, corporations are still enjoying their own special justice. Despite tough words from Obama and Holder, no one has been charged with any crimes for their roles in the financial disaster and the most that has been done is that a few fines have been levied.

Of course, the pattern of small fines is also continuing. Obviously enough, if the corporate folks need not fear criminal prosecution and know that the fines will be tiny compared to their profits, then they have no prudential reason to change their behavior. This explains why they have not done so and why they next disaster is merely a matter of time.

Ferguson concludes by suggesting that the government use the same methods in pursuing financial crime as it does against traditional organized crime. Given that some corporations seem to actually be organized crime, this seems like an excellent idea.

Of course, the politicians are often beholden to the corporations for the money they need to get elected, so it seems unlikely that any positive action will be taken. Obama might style himself a reformer, but he is no Teddy Roosevelt.

Of course, people do not make it easy for those who would bring justice to the companies. After all, the folks who serve these companies are clever enough to make any attempt to rein in misdeeds as a threat to American values and a danger to the economy. It must be a wonderful thing to be so well protected from justice by the illusion of virtue.

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Mixing the Perfect Post

Posted in Humor by Michael LaBossiere on October 10, 2009

While this blog gets a reasonable amount of traffic, I have been researching what sort of blogs get the most attention. After exhaustive research, the critical components seem to include pictures of cats, misspelled words, things white people like, fails, and prostitutes. As an experiment in creating the perfect blog content, I offer you Overdone Catz #1.

I see a book deal in my future.

Overdone Catz 1

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Canine Cognition

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 21, 2009

Descartes, most famous for writing “I think, therefore I am, also wrote about the minds of animals. Roughly put, his view was that animals lacked minds, at least as he saw minds (as immaterial metaphysical thinking substances). He had two main arguments for this: first, animal behavior can be explained without such minds using purely physical explanations. So, by Occam’s Razor, there is no need to accept that animals have minds. The second argument he have is that animals do not use true language and this is the surest sign that they lack minds.

Descartes was well aware that clever animals, like dogs and horses, could learn various tricks and that all animals can make noises to express feelings. However, he held that these facts did not show that animals think.

In recent years, researchers have begun to accept what dog folks have known since humans started having dogs as pets: dogs are smart. For example, research has revealed that dogs can recognize the use of a pointed finger. While recognizing what a pointed finger means (“that”) seems simple enough, it actually requires fairly advanced cognition. The intent of the action must be understood and the object of the action (what is pointed at) must also be recognized.  This sort of sign seems to be more abstract than a direct physical gesture, such as a display of anger or joy. As such, this sort of interpretation requires fairly impressive communication skills.

Dogs, as all dog folks know, are very good at conveying their feelings and desires. They are also quite good at understanding words and can have rather complex vocabularies. For example, my husky can distinguish between numerous words and phrases and react accordingly. She also has various vocalizations and behavior that make it clear what she wants or seems to be thinking at the time. While this might be dismissed as mere habituation, even habituation that complicated would require some significant mental horsepower.

While dogs do not use true language, they certainly seem to have a rather good grasp of our use of language as well as our gestures. Because of this, I am inclined to regard dogs as having minds, albeit less complex than those of most humans (of course, I believe that my husky is smarter than some humans). Unlike Descartes, my view is that having a mind is not a “you do or you don’t” sort of thing in all cases. Rather, minds seem to come in varying degrees. Of course, what the mind actually might be is something that is still under considerable debate.

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