Monthly Archives: September 2016

Atul Gawande’s CalTech Commencement Address, June 10, 2016

Atul Gawande is a surgeon, public-health researcher, and a New Yorker staff writer.  His 2016 commencement address at the California Institute of Technology addressed the current American distrust of science. Let me begin by stating that I wholeheartedly endorse the ideas that Gawande sets forth in his address, and I celebrate his salubrious attitude toward science. In what follows I will summarize some of its themes while interjecting my own comments. But I will say this; if we turn our back on rational, scientific thinking—the kind of thinking that Gawande so nobly defends— then we will hurdle toward a new Dark Ages.

Gawande begins by pointing out that science

is a commitment to a systematic way of thinking, an allegiance to a way of building knowledge and explaining the universe through testing and factual observation. The thing is, that isn’t a normal way of thinking. It is unnatural and counterintuitive. It has to be learned. Scientific explanation stands in contrast to the wisdom of divinity and experience and common sense. Common sense once told us that the sun moves across the sky and that being out in the cold produced colds. But a scientific mind recognized that these intuitions were only hypotheses. They had to be tested.

It is so easy to accept the first ideas that come along, the first thought to which one is exposed. But so often those ideas are wrong. Time does slow down as speed increases; the earth is curved even if it appears flat; and quantum, relativity, evolutionary, and atomic theories are true even if they are counter-intuitive. A real searcher of truth adopts a scientific mindset which is:

more than a way of thinking. It was a way of being—a weird way of being. You are supposed to have skepticism and imagination, but not too much. You are supposed to suspend judgment, yet exercise it. Ultimately, you hope to observe the world with an open mind, gathering facts and testing your predictions and expectations against them. Then you make up your mind and either affirm or reject the ideas at hand. But you also hope to accept that nothing is ever completely settled, that all knowledge is just probable knowledge. A contradictory piece of evidence can always emerge. Hubble said it best …“The scientist explains the world by successive approximations.”

As a philosopher I would call Hubble an evolutionary epistemologist. The idea is that science typically progresses, not through scientific revolutions as Thomas Kuhn thought, but through a gradual evolution. The successive approximations of science to the truth about the world can be compared to an idea in analytic geometry—an asymptote of a curve is a line such that the distance between the curve and the line approaches zero as they tend to infinity. Science too gets closer and closer to the truth while always remaining provisional, that is, open to future evidence. As Gawande notes:

The scientific orientation has proved immensely powerful. It has allowed us to nearly double our lifespan during the past century, to increase our global abundance, and to deepen our understanding of the nature of the universe. Yet scientific knowledge is not necessarily trusted. Partly, that’s because it is incomplete. But even where the knowledge provided by science is overwhelming, people often resist it—sometimes outright deny it. Many people continue to believe, for instance, despite massive evidence to the contrary, that childhood vaccines cause autism (they do not); that people are safer owning a gun (they are not); that genetically modified crops are harmful (on balance, they have been beneficial); that climate change is not happening (it is).

Nonetheless many people still fear vaccines “despite decades of research showing [such fears] to be unfounded … hundreds of studies have found no link, yet … fears persist. In response, vaccine rates have plunged, leading to outbreaks of measles and mumps that, last year, sickened tens of thousands of children across the U.S., Canada, and Europe, and resulted in deaths.” Part of the reason is that people “don’t see measles or mumps around anymore. [But] they do see children with autism. And they see a mom who says, “My child was perfectly fine until he got a vaccine and became autistic.” How do we dislodge these false beliefs? It is hard.

Now, you can tell them that correlation is not causation. You can say that children get a vaccine every two to three months for the first couple years of their life, so the onset of any illness is bound to follow vaccination for many kids. You can say that the science shows no connection. But once an idea has got embedded and become widespread, it becomes very difficult to dig it out of people’s brains—especially when they do not trust scientific authorities. And we are experiencing a significant decline in trust in scientific authorities.

Studies confirm alarming trends regarding trust in science. Part of the reason is that many factions present themselves as quasi-scientific authorities. Religious groups challenge biological evolution, certain industries challenge climate science, and others reject the medical establishment altogether. “As varied as these groups are, they are all alike in one way. They all harbor sacred beliefs that they do not consider open to question.” To discriminate between science and pseudo-science Gawande identifies five hallmark of pseudoscientists.

They argue that the scientific consensus emerges from a conspiracy to suppress dissenting views. They produce fake experts, who have views contrary to established knowledge but do not actually have a credible scientific track record. They cherry-pick the data and papers that challenge the dominant view as a means of discrediting an entire field. They deploy false analogies and other logical fallacies. And they set impossible expectations of research: when scientists produce one level of certainty, the pseudoscientists insist they achieve another. [And] It’s not that some of these approaches never provide valid arguments. Sometimes an analogy is useful, or higher levels of certainty are required. But when you see several or all of these tactics deployed, you know that you’re not dealing with a scientific claim anymore. Pseudoscience is the form of science without the substance.

How then do we defend science as the best way to explain the world? The problem is that people aren’t swayed by reason and evidence, as science itself has discovered. (A fact I can attest to after 30 years of college teaching. I’ve found that, as the songwriter Paul Simon wrote, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”)

In 2011, two Australian researchers compiled many of the findings in “The Debunking Handbook.” The results are sobering. The evidence is that rebutting bad science doesn’t work; in fact, it commonly backfires. Describing facts that contradict an unscientific belief actually spreads familiarity with the belief and strengthens the conviction of believers. That’s just the way the brain operates; misinformation sticks, in part because it gets incorporated into a person’s mental model of how the world works. Stripping out the misinformation therefore fails, because it threatens to leave a painful gap in that mental model—or no model at all.

What then do we do? Gawande notes that science itself provides a partial answer. It turns out that providing a narrative of scientific accomplishments is the best way to convince science deniers.

You don’t focus on what’s wrong with the vaccine myths, for instance. Instead, you point out: giving children vaccines has proved far safer than not. How do we know? Because of a massive body of evidence, including the fact that we’ve tried the alternate experiment before. Between 1989 and 1991, vaccination among poor urban children in the U.S. dropped. And the result was fifty-five thousand cases of measles and a hundred and twenty-three deaths.

Gawande also argues that we need “to expose the bad science tactics that are being used to mislead people. Bad science has a pattern, and helping people recognize the pattern arms them to come to more scientific beliefs themselves.” Thus we need to help people to better be able to judge which information to trust. (For example, if you want to understand the truth about biological evolution visit a site like this one from the biology department at UC-Berkeley, rather than the site of a religious group that has a vested interest in misleading you.)

Science is the best method of uncovering truth that we have discovered. It is an organized, systematic, collective, self-correcting project whose errors are slowly eliminated. Look in the cockpit of a jetliner and you see more than a hundred years of the self-correcting nature of science—hence the plane is amazingly safe. Of course science isn’t perfect.

Beautifully organized, however, it is not. Seen up close, the scientific community—with its muddled peer-review process, badly written journal articles, subtly contemptuous letters to the editor, overtly contemptuous subreddit threads, and pompous pronouncements of the academy— looks like a rickety vehicle for getting to truth. Yet the hive mind swarms ever forward. It now advances knowledge in almost every realm of existence—even the humanities, where neuroscience and computerization are shaping understanding of everything from free will to how art and literature have evolved over time.

Gawande also notes that scientific ignorance isn’t the exclusive purview of the uneducated. “The doubting is usually among my most, not least, educated patients. Education may expose people to science, but it has a countervailing effect as well, leading people to be more individualistic and ideological.” Education then doesn’t give anyone special authority on truth, but it does give us an idea of what real truth-seeking is like. “It is the effort not of a single person but of a group of people—the bigger the better—pursuing ideas with curiosity, inquisitiveness, openness, and discipline. As scientists, in other words.”

Gawande concludes by emphasizing the social implications of good thinking. “Even more than what you think, how you think matters. The stakes for understanding this could not be higher than they are today, because we are not just battling for what it means to be scientists. We are battling for what it means to be citizens.” (Consider that nearly half the American population in 2016 is prepared to vote for a Presidential candidate who is an egomaniacal, mentally unstable, proto-fascist, manifestly unfit and unqualified for political office. Yes, many of the candidate’s supporters are racists, bigots, misogynists and xenophobes, but many simply don’t understand that they those who hold political office need qualifications, just as their physicians, attorneys, accountants, dentists, nurses, and professors do. And they don’t understand the threat when unqualified and immoral people hold power.)

As we confront climate change, nuclear war, bacteria and viruses, and so many other existential threats, we will survive and flourish only if become better critical thinkers. This can be accomplished partly by education, but in my view ultimately the answer must involve artificial intelligence and intelligence augmentation. We will not survive unless we direct our own evolution. In the meantime we can only hope that the uninformed and misinformed don’t gain too much political influence.

Bertrand Russell: The Value of Philosophy

Readers of this blog know that Bertrand Russell is one of my intellectual heroes. I believe that Russell was the greatest philosopher in the twentieth century and quite possibly the greatest philosopher of the entire Western intellectual tradition. (You can find a brief introduction to some of his many contributions to philosophy here.)

For many years I introduced philosophy in my college classes by discussing its value. One of the most beautiful statements on that topic is from Russell’s classic, The Problems of Philosophy.  I know of no more beautiful statement of the value of philosophy than this. It deserves a careful and conscientious reading.

The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find, as we saw in our opening chapters, that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.

Apart from its utility in showing unsuspected possibilities, philosophy has a value — perhaps its chief value — through the greatness of the objects which it contemplates, and the freedom from narrow and personal aims resulting from this contemplation. The life of the instinctive man is shut up within the circle of his private interests: family and friends may be included, but the outer world is not regarded except as it may help or hinder what comes within the circle of instinctive wishes. In such a life there is something feverish and confined, in comparison with which the philosophic life is calm and free. The private world of instinctive interests is a small one, set in the midst of a great and powerful world which must, sooner or later, lay our private world in ruins. Unless we can so enlarge our interests as to include the whole outer world, we remain like a garrison in a beleagured fortress, knowing that the enemy prevents escape and that ultimate surrender is inevitable. In such a life there is no peace, but a constant strife between the insistence of desire and the powerlessness of will. In one way or another, if our life is to be great and free, we must escape this prison and this strife.

One way of escape is by philosophic contemplation. Philosophic contemplation does not, in its widest survey, divide the universe into two hostile camps — friends and foes, helpful and hostile, good and bad — it views the whole impartially. Philosophic contemplation, when it is unalloyed, does not aim at proving that the rest of the universe is akin to man. All acquisition of knowledge is an enlargement of the Self, but this enlargement is best attained when it is not directly sought. It is obtained when the desire for knowledge is alone operative, by a study which does not wish in advance that its objects should have this or that character, but adapts the Self to the characters which it finds in its objects. This enlargement of Self is not obtained when, taking the Self as it is, we try to show that the world is so similar to this Self that knowledge of it is possible without any admission of what seems alien. The desire to prove this is a form of self-assertion and, like all self-assertion, it is an obstacle to the growth of Self which it desires, and of which the Self knows that it is capable. Self-assertion, in philosophic speculation as elsewhere, views the world as a means to its own ends; thus it makes the world of less account than Self, and the Self sets bounds to the greatness of its goods. In contemplation, on the contrary, we start from the not-Self, and through its greatness the boundaries of Self are enlarged; through the infinity of the universe the mind which contemplates it achieves some share in infinity.

For this reason greatness of soul is not fostered by those philosophies which assimilate the universe to Man. Knowledge is a form of union of Self and not-Self; like all union, it is impaired by dominion, and therefore by any attempt to force the universe into conformity with what we find in ourselves. There is a widespread philosophical tendency towards the view which tells us that Man is the measure of all things, that truth is man-made, that space and time and the world of universals are properties of the mind, and that, if there be anything not created by the mind, it is unknowable and of no account for us. This view, if our previous discussions were correct, is untrue; but in addition to being untrue, it has the effect of robbing philosophic contemplation of all that gives it value, since it fetters contemplation to Self. What it calls knowledge is not a union with the not-Self, but a set of prejudices, habits, and desires, making an impenetrable veil between us and the world beyond. The man who finds pleasure in such a theory of knowledge is like the man who never leaves the domestic circle for fear his word might not be law.

The true philosophic contemplation, on the contrary, finds its satisfaction in every enlargement of the not-Self, in everything that magnifies the objects contemplated, and thereby the subject contemplating. Everything, in contemplation, that is personal or private, everything that depends upon habit, self-interest, or desire, distorts the object, and hence impairs the union which the intellect seeks. By thus making a barrier between subject and object, such personal and private things become a prison to the intellect. The free intellect will see as God might see, without a here and now, without hopes and fears, without the trammels of customary beliefs and traditional prejudices, calmly, dispassionately, in the sole and exclusive desire of knowledge — knowledge as impersonal, as purely contemplative, as it is possible for man to attain. Hence also the free intellect will value more the abstract and universal knowledge into which the accidents of private history do not enter, than the knowledge brought by the senses, and dependent, as such knowledge must be, upon an exclusive and personal point of view and a body whose sense-organs distort as much as they reveal.

The mind which has become accustomed to the freedom and impartiality of philosophic contemplation will preserve something of the same freedom and impartiality in the world of action and emotion. It will view its purposes and desires as parts of the whole, with the absence of insistence that results from seeing them as infinitesimal fragments in a world of which all the rest is unaffected by any one man’s deeds. The impartiality which, in contemplation, is the unalloyed desire for truth, is the very same quality of mind which, in action, is justice, and in emotion is that universal love which can be given to all, and not only to those who are judged useful or admirable. Thus contemplation enlarges not only the objects of our thoughts, but also the objects of our actions and our affections: it makes us citizens of the universe, not only of one walled city at war with all the rest. In this citizenship of the universe consists man’s true freedom, and his liberation from the thraldom of narrow hopes and fears.

Thus, to sum up our discussion of the value of philosophy; Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.

Will Durant: The Value of Philosophy

Readers of this blog know that Will Durant is one of my intellectual heroes.

William JamesWillDurant (/dəˈrænt/; November 5, 1885 – November 7, 1981) was an American writer, historian, and philosopher. He is best known for The Story of Civilization, 11 volumes written in collaboration with his wife, Ariel Durant, and published between 1935 and 1975. He was earlier noted for The Story of Philosophy (1926), described as “a groundbreaking work that helped to popularize philosophy”.[1] … The Durants were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1968 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977. (from Wikipedia)

For many years I introduced philosophy in my college classes by discussing the value of philosophy. One of the most beautiful statements on that topic is from the introduction to Durant’s Pleasures of Philosophy, a book I encountered in my late teens. Here is Durant’s beautiful prose:

The busy reader will ask, is all this philosophy useful? It is a shameful question: we do not ask it of poetry, which is also an imaginative construction of a world incompletely known. If poetry reveals to us the beauty our untaught eyes have missed and philosophy gives us the wisdom to understand and forgive, it is enough, and more than the world’s wealth. Philosophy will not fatten our purses nor lift us to dizzy dignities in a democratic state; it may even make us a little careless of these things. For what if we should fatten our purses, or rise to high office and yet all the while remain ignorantly naive, coarsely unfurnished in the mind, brutal in behavior, unstable in character, chaotic in desire and blindly miserable? …

Our culture is superficial today and our knowledge dangerous, because we are rich in mechanism and poor in purposes. the balance of mind which once came of a warm religious faith is gone; science has taken from us the supernatural bases of our morality and all the world seems consumed in a disorderly individualism that reflects the chaotic fragmentation of our character.

We face again the problem that harassed Socrates: how shall we find a natural ethic to replace the supernatural sanctions that have ceased to influence the behavior of men? Without philosophy, without that total vision which unifies purposes and establishes the hierarchy of desires we fritter away our social heritage in cynical corruption on the one hand and in revolutionary madness on the other; we abandon in a moment our idealism and plunge into the cooperative suicide of war; we have a hundred thousand politicians, and not a single statesman.

We move about the earth with unprecedented speed, but we do not know, and have not thought where we are going, or whether we shall find any happiness there for our harrassed souls. We are being destroyed by our knowledge which has made us drunk with our power, and we shall not be saved without wisdom.

I know no better statement of the value of loving wisdom.

Who Owns the Media? An Infographic

The following infographic created by Jason at Frugal Dad shows that almost all media that citizens of the United States are exposed to comes from the same six sources. And when a few of the world’s wealthiest corporations control all of the news and commentary, only limited political perspectives will be disseminated. The United States, according to the 2016 World Press Freedom Report Index of Reporters Without Borders, ranks as only the 41st freest press in the world. The US ranks behind Namibia, Surinam, Tonga, and Slovenia and just ahead of Botswana, Niger, Romania, and Haiti. Here is the infographic:

Media Consolidation Infographic