Faith in Method

An essay I wrote as part of this year’s “Critical Encounters” series here at Columbia, published today in the Columbia Chronicle. The theme this year is Fact and Faith.

How we believe what we believe
by Brendan Riley, Assistant Professor of English

When fact and faith come into conflict, how do we move forward? Alas, we usually don’t.

A much-cited October 2006 TIME magazine poll showed that 64% of Americans would “hold on to what their religion teaches” even in the face of scientific evidence. In the 1980s, two Arizona State Physics faculty showed that students didn’t learn from physics labs that contradicted their day-to-day experience. “As a rule, students held firm to mistaken beliefs even when confronted with phenomena that contradicted those beliefs.” And we all have a friend who just knows the moon landings were faked.

One particularly troubling but common belief is that pharmaceutical companies and public health officials are hiding the fact that vaccines cause autism, a conspiracy theory many cling to, despite mountains of data showing no connection between the two (and no convincing evidence to the contrary).

But there are anecdotes. Lots of them. You don’t have to look very hard to find empathetic stories from grief-wrought parents claiming that the MMR vaccine—or mercury, or formaldehyde, take your pick—changed their child. Or, as Jenny McCarthy puts it, “the light left his eyes.” The fact that autism’s most visible signs occur in the same period when children receive the bulk of their life-saving vaccines becomes, for these parents, evidence of cause (rather than what scientists rightly call correlation).

This conspiracy theory survives the strongest kinds of repudiation. It turns out that Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor who first published reports suggesting the link between autism and vaccines, faked data for his article, which he wrote on behalf of lawyers hoping to sue the vaccine manufacturers. When scientists removed the supposed cause of the epidemic, Thimerosal, autism rates continued rising; conspiracists shifted their claims—it must be something else in the vaccines. Even as preventable diseases like measles and whooping cough make a comeback and study after study fails to find any credible evidence of harm, anti-vaccination forces continue spreading the same misinformation.

I’m interested in the way these beliefs endure. Why do we cling to faith in the face of controverting facts? Perhaps it’s because we often perceive faith as fact. With the debate over vaccines, everyone has strong vested interests. Most of the anti-vaccine advocates innocently but wholeheartedly believe their arguments; we on the other side hold our views just as deeply. When humans strongly believe something, we no longer distinguish it from fact. We believe in God and ice cream both.

But the secret at the heart of the Enlightenment was a shift in that faith, away from faith in facts toward faith in method. To “believe” in science is not to believe that the Earth is round or that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon or that we came from monkeys. It’s to believe in shared facts, verifiable evidence, and the most convincing explanation of these.

It’s strange to espouse a faith in a system that could shift world-views overnight, but I take comfort in it. We’re a species who looked into the heavens and, by the shifting of the stars above, came to understand better our place in the universe. Then we turned those telescopes inward to discover entire universes inside.

We have only been able to do that because we understand that we interpret what we see, hear, and experience; and that our interpretation can be wrong. We’re at our best when we put faith not in a specific view of the world, but in how we know which view to believe.

Seeking: better angels for congress

I was working at home, preparing to leave for a seminar in Turlington hall, when Jenny called from the radio-station where she was working. “You have to turn on the TV,” she said. Both towers had been hit by planes and were on fire. As I watched, trying to understand what was going on, I saw the crawl across the bottom of the screen mention THE PENTAGON IS ON FIRE. There was no more news about the Pentagon fire for 10 minutes.

We’re often not rational beings, and the months after 9/11 involved some of the worst reactionary thinking we’ve seen. Like “Remember the Maine!” war hawk politicians used the rubble in New York to lead us first to Afghanistan (rightly, I’m still inclined to think) and then uranium cakes to lead us to Iraq (wrongly, though obviously the benefit of deposing Saddam muddies the water). When I think about the train wreck that our country’s response has become; in thinking about Iraq, where we’re sweeping up the mess like a clumsy antiquer who missed the “you broke it, you bought it” sign, I remember how my gut churned when THE PENTAGON IS ON FIRE crept across the screen with no commentary from the talking heads. I think some part of that roiling-belly feeling continues to haunt us; we see the threat irrationally, in the same way we worry about airplane crashes much more than car crashes.

People said 9/11 changed things, but of course it didn’t change much. We went back at one anothers’ throats as soon as we could, squabbling over the correct response in Iraq, how long to stay, who’s to blame for Katrina, and most recently, Health Care. Andrew writes:

What is health insurance for if not to treat your body as it is, not as it should be? As a nation, we should make a commitment to care for each other….
Universal health care is not communism.
Universal health care is not fascism.
Universal health care is common decency and real morality.

He wonders how people might suggest that universal health care ought not be policy. He breaks ranks with the shouters, with the people screaming about socialism, about high taxes, with knee-jerk reactions to anything Obama.

We Are All One by kalandrakas
We Are All One by kalandrakas

I find myself longing for the comeraderie of the immediate post 9/11 America, when we were still shell-shocked and we conspired to be good to one another for once. What if the health care debate were predicated on that specific approach? Abe to the L said:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

What might the Health Care debate, or our response to 9/11 look like, if we actively sought to be governed not by the silent crawling message that THE PENTAGON IS ON FIRE, but by the better angels of our nature?

A little bit of Amen

The Brain in Love
The Brain in Love

So I read some of The Brain in Love by Daniel Amen, M.D.; narrated by Patrick Lawlor.  A few thoughts:

  • The book spends a lot of time talking about brain scans as a key diagnostic tool. At first, it sounded pretty intriguing: peoples’ brains are the root of all their problems! Defective brain patterns account for many of the strange habits we have! But then a few things started to sound weird. First, the Dr. recommended a lot of dietary supplements, including stuff that I am pretty sure gets listed as bunk by many scientists, like Ginkgo. Second, there were only three or four areas of the brain listed, and he regularly returned to these as governors of, well, MANY many behaviors. Dubious.
  • The book also buys into many of the old canards about the sexes with deterministic, brain-scan-based explanations for them. Men don’t like to ask for directions because the direction-asker in their brains is smaller than womens.’ Women think about relationships all the time because their emotion-thinker is bigger (or more active) and so on. Some of these insights ring true (stereotypes often due), but I kept finding myself thinking, “But that’s not really me.” It’s a little like reading a horoscope: you notice the things that fit and leave the rest out.
  • After I finished reading it, I looked up Dr. Amen and found that the brain scans he talks up as the end-all and be-all of psychiatric diagnosis are neither generally supported by the scientific community nor, more importantly in my opinion, backed up by solid scientific research. I noticed that much of his discussion in the book was anecdotal or about studies using really small sample sizes; turns out this is one of the biggest complaints about his work. The general gist seems to be that there COULD be something here, but he hasn’t produced the scientific evidence to prove it.

The part of the book that most interested me, though, was the assertion that our basic personality traits — like being a cranky jerk — are due to elements in our brain that can and should be adjusted by supplements or medication. Which lead me to the classic meditation on self — what does it mean to say I have a certain personality if a small change in diet (such as a specific root or supplement) can drastically change who I am and how I relate to people? Amen’s ideas that we can correct our flaws through these methods underlies a larger question about how we govern who we are. What does it mean to say I’m “better” if I change those ideas? Am I a different person? If someone has always been cranky and they become not-cranky, what is it that has changed?

As always, JoCo has an opinion, in the form of a scifi song about the future in which we use pills to control all our behavior (see also: Gun, with Occasional Music).


The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Roger Ackroyd
I'm not sure what spilling red liquid has to do with this book

by Agatha Christie

The only Christie novel to make the 1000 books you must read before you die list, Ackroyd serves as a metonym for every Christie novel, or at least every Poirot novel. It’s skillfully written, with a wide net of characters, an intriguing puzzle mystery with plenty of side distractions (affairs, debts, scoundrels, liars), and a great resolution. I won’t comment much on the plot because I want you to read it eventually and I don’t want this to be a spoilery review. A couple extra thoughts:

  • One of the biggest problems the scientific movement faces in the era of the Internet are “Google degrees,” people who spend a few hours reading information on line and presume themselves to be experts (or capable of speaking on equal footing with experts). This phenomenon occurs often in the anti-vaccination movement, but is a regular part of the interaction between experts in any field and amateurs. The lesson from How to Think About Weird Things is thus “There is good reason to doubt a proposition if it conflicts with expert opinion.” Christie crafts a scene in which a denizen of the 1920s Internet, a gossip who knows everything about the village, argues with her brother’s (a doctor) analysis of a corpse.

    “Mark my words, James, you’ll see that I’m right. That Russell woman was here that morning after your poisons. Roger Ackroyd might easily have been poisoned in his food that night.”

    I laughed out loud.

    “Nonsense,” I cried. “He was stabbed in the neck. You know that as well as I do.”

    “After death, James,” said Caroline, “to make a false clew.” [I love the way they used to spell “clue” — BR]

    “My good woman,” I said, “I examined the body, and I know what I’m talking about. That wound wasn’t inflicted after death–it was the cause of death, and you need make no mistake about it.”

    Caroline merely continued to look omniscient, which so annoyed me that I went on:

    “Perhaps you will tell me, Caroline, if I have a medical degree or if I have not?”

    “You have a medical degree, I dare say, James–at least, I mean I know you have. But you have no imagination whatever.” (229-230)

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

  • The cover art I’m seeing on line oscillates between hilarious vagueness and preposterous imagery. The first cover listed there shows someone spilling a drink. There aren’t any spilled drinks. The copy I read (at right) is even stranger. I have no idea why it features a knife in a cucumber. The house and blue envelope and even the knife itself make sense. But the cucumber?
  • Another appearance of Crippen. You’ll remember the story of Dr. Crippen–detailed in Erik Laarsen’s Thunderstruck–the British pharmacist who murdered his wife and ran away with his lover, but was caught because the ship had a newfangled Marconi device. BOOM. Technology all in his grill. Dr. Crippen was the O.J. of his day, and thus appears in a bunch of books and stuff. To whit, Dr. Sheppard’s sister says “I knew he’d try to get away to America. That’s what Crippen did.” (228)
  • Finally, I think there’s some potential for some awesomeness in using the relatively rare name of Ackroyd to write a parody of the story called “The Murder of Dan Ackroyd.” At the same time, I wonder how Dan Ackroyd would feel if he read that story. Kind of like John Malkovich must have felt when first encountered Being John Malkovich, or Paul Giamatti with Cold Souls.

How to Think About Weird Things

Weird Things
Weird Things

Critical Thinking for a New Age; by Theodore Schick, Jr and Lewis Vaughn

How to Think About Weird Things was recommended as a primer on diagnosing Woo by Orac over at Scienceblogs. As someone who finds himself more and more irritated by irrational thinking (despite my own gaping biases that lead to it), I was really interested in reading this book. Thus, I read a text book for fun. Sigh, I think there’s a new level of nerdiness there.

Schick and Vaughn lay out a number of key arguments for how and why one should wield the tools of critical thinking to understand the essence of arguments and ideas being offered in the public sphere. I transcribe the key ideas below. Much of this is verbatim from their book. My commentary is in italics

They discuss how to understand claims being made. Namely, just because a claim: is possible doesn’t mean it’s true; hasn’t been refuted doesn’t mean it’s true; hasn’t been proven doesn’t mean it’s false; can’t be explained doesn’t mean it’s supernatural; is possible doesn’t mean it’s real. In other words, people often argue that things aren’t conclusively proven and are thus open to interpretation. While this is true, the authors lean heavily on the idea that we must consider the best conclusions, not just the possible ones.

Truth in personal experience. Just because something seems (feels, appears) real doesn’t mean it is. But it is reasonable to accept personal experience as reliable evidence only if there’s no reason to doubt its reliability. The authors outline a lot of ways our own perceptions fool us. My favorite part of this is selective attention, which gives us the idea that things like The Lunar Effect are true (it isn’t). We look to confirm ideas we already have.

Relativism, Truth, and Reality. Schick and Vaughn obliterate the idea that reality is relative with incisive logic. Just because you individually or a group of people believe something to be true doesn’t mean that it is. There is an external reality that is independent of our representations of it. They critique cultural relativism by suggesting that one cannot posit the truth of cultural relativism without rising above that very phenomenon.

Knowledge, belief, and evidence. There is a good reason to doubt a proposition if it conflicts with other propositions we have good reason to believe, the more such conflicts, the more reason to doubt. We should proportion our belief to the evidence when there is good reason to doubt. Here’s my favorite: There is good reason to doubt a proposition if it conflicts with expert opinion. There has always been a suspicion of expertise, but my guess is this becomes the hardest pill to swallow in the age of Google University. Experts in one field are not experts in all fields. Creationists, take note: A PhD in Geology or Physics does not a Biologist make.

Evidence and Inference. When evaluating a claim, look for disconfirming as well as confirming evidence. This chapter also spends quite a bit of time on Deduction, Induction, and Abduction. Nothing about Conduction, sorry Ulmer.

Science and its pretenders. If you were to read just one chapter, this is the one to read. The authors dig into the way science works and why pseudo-science doesn’t work and how it adopts the rhetoric of science without the rigor. Schick and Vaughn create a heuristic they call the “Criteria of Adequacy.” In short:

The amount of understanding produced by a theory is determined by how well it meets the criteria of adequacy–testability, fruitfulness, scope, simplicity, conservatism–because these criteria indicate the extent to which a theory systematizes and unifies our knowledge. (172)

Testability means it predicts something other than what it explains; fruitfulness refers to the bonus predictions that come from it — this is a plus but not a necessity; scope refers to the diversity of the phenomena it explains — the more the better; simplicity refers to the assumptions it makes — the fewer new assumptions, the better; conservatism means it conflicts with as little background information as possible.

The Evolution vs. Creation debate illustrates these principles nicely.

  • Testability: Evolution can be tested against fossil records, against genetic material, and in labs with small organisms. Creation can be tested in the same ways (and has come up lacking). (E 1, C 1)
  • Fruitfulness: evolution predicted a number of novel things, including DNA. Creation has not yielded such predictions. (E 2, C 1)
  • Scope: Both theories explain a huge swath of science study. (E 3, C 2)
  • Simplicity: Evolution relies solely on natural mechanisms we know exist and can observe. Creationism relies on “Special creation,” an unrecorded and non-repeating act by a supernatural diety. (E 4, C 2)
  • Conservatism: Evolution fits with other scientific observations about the world, such as the life-span of the Earth. Creationism overturns many of these as well. (E 5, C 2)

Thus, Evolution fits all the criteria for accepting a scientific theory, while Creationism does not. One of the elements of creationism, testability, actually works against it since people have attempted the tests and failed to find anything useful.

The last couple chapters are devoted to case studies of miracle cures and other ideas generally not accepted by science. It’s a great book for people interested in the science/secular split.

Freedom and Truth

History on Trial
History on Trial

History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving
by Deborah E. Lipstadt

Truth isn’t part of a cultural conversation if freedom of speech doesn’t accompany it. That’s the most salient–of many–lessons that emerges from Dr. Lipstadt’s powerhouse account of her 2000 trial defending herself from a libel suit by David Irving. I can’t endorse this book enough. Pardon the long post, but this work deserves it.

You may have noticed a certain theme on this blog, a recent uptick in posts about truth, logic, reason, and ethics. I’ve discovered of late that my secular humanist perspective makes me particularly cranky about anti-science, anti-intellectual, or dishonest ideologues. David Irving fits all three descriptions. An “eminent” historian with several books to his credit, Irving morphed into a vocal Holocaust denier in the last thirty years or so. It was thus with great relish that I read and enjoyed the thunderous smackdown this dissembler received at the hands of Lipstadt and her attorneys.

The story (in brief):
Lipstadt, an historian of the Holocaust from Emory University, wrote a book in the early 1990s called Denying the Holocaust, in which she documents the rise of revisionist history and its role in fomenting antisemitic and neo-Nazi sentiments. In a fairly short (apparently) passage of a few pages, she explains that the military historian, David Irving, is a Holocaust denier. While he disputes the facts of the Holocaust in a number of places, the most blatant example of his views comes from a denialist trial in Canada, where he testified, essentially, that the Holocaust was a legend. Lipstadt’s book was published in the U.K, and Irving sued her for libel.

British Libel Law.
This is where it gets interesting. (Aside: I was alerted to this book by Orac, who mentioned it in reference to Simon Singh’s current troubles with the British Chiropractic Association) You see, unlike America, with our meaty Freedom of Speech to protect us, Britain has “notoriously plaintiff-friendly” libel laws. Lipstadt explains:

British libel law… presumes defamatory words to be untrue, until the author proves them true. The burden of proof is, therefore, on the defendant rather than the plaintiff, as would be the case in the United States. Consequently, had Penguin and I not defended ourselves, Irving would have won by default. I would have been found guilty of libel and Irving could then claim that his definition of the Holocaust had been determined to be legitimate.(31)

Lipstadt further explains that Irving’s status as a public figure would have made it nearly impossible for him to sue her in the U.S. In Britain, on the other hand, she had a long and costly court battle that she could legitimately lose — as relying on reasonable source texts is no defense if the court finds one guilty.

(This is the one place where I feel the book doesn’t spend enough time, though to be fair, my hobby horse isn’t the focus of her book. the British libel law stifles critical speech. Because the expensive onus rests with the defendant, it’s often far cheaper to settle and retract one’s statements than to defend them. As such, the libel law can be used like a club to stifle dissident voices. The DMCA’s ubiquitous C&D notices in the U.S. have often been used in a similar way, though sometimes to hilarious effect.)

Instead of caving, however, Lipstadt and Penguin, with help from Emory University and dozens (hundreds?) of individual donors around the world, stood up to Irving’s suit and rode it to court (four years later).

The Trial:
Wades through the minutiae of Irving’s errors and misstatements, wallowing in the daily arguments. It might be boring except that it’s so satisfying to see an asshole hoisted on his own Petard. Each time he was caught up in a lie or a complicated web of them, I thrilled a little bit. There are few moments so delightful as the villain’s comeuppance, and in some ways this book is 200 pages of it. I won’t detail too much more except to say that the verbal gymnastics Irving uses to justify his nonsensical positions defy imagination.

"It would not be difficult, Mein Führer. Nuclear reactors could - heh, I'm sorry, Mr. President"
"It would not be difficult, Mein Führer. Nuclear reactors could - heh, I'm sorry, Mr. President"

There is one more moment I want to mention from the trial, from the closing statements. By this time, Irving has to defend himself against glaring evidence that he abused the process of historical research and skewed evidence to his own ends, he has been labeled a racist and connected to extremists of all stripes. He’s flustered and, in speaking about a rally he spoke at where the audience chanted “Sieg Heil,” he claims the defense only mentioned this as an attempt to smear him. Lipstadt writes:

Irving was anxious to distance himself from these chants. That may explain what happened next. After repeating that he tried to stop the chants, he looked at Judge Gray and, instead of punctuating his remarks with “my Lord,” as he commonly did, he addressed him as “mein Führer.” There was a moment of intense silence as the entire courtroom–Judge Gray included–seemed frozen. Then everyone erupted in laughter. Ken Stern turned to James and said, “This is out of Dr. Strangelove.” From behind me, I heard someone humming the Twilight Zone theme. Irving, who seemed not to have grasped what had happened, marched on…”(263).

In some ways, this moment emblematizes many bits of Irving’s testimony: he often doesn’t grasp the significance of what he’s saying. Another example? In order to prove that he’s not racist, he told reporter Kate Kelland “that his ‘domestic staff’ had included a Barbadian, a Punjabi, a Sri Lankan, and a Pakistani. They were ‘all very attractive girls with very nice breasts.’ “(183). This cluelessness translates to the solipsistic justifications for antisemitic comments implying that Jews were responsible for the hatred heaped on them, etc.

The Ramifications:
Aside from the issues regarding freedom of speech, Lipstadt’s defense introduced into the public record expert testimony devastating many of the “classic” rhetorical moves made by the denialist community. As she put it, Irving isn’t very important, but winning the case was immensely important.

As I said above, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It’s gripping and involving, tells the story of a triumph in the face of the worst kinds of dishonesty and ideology, and cracks along at a nice pace.