Archive for November, 2009

A Parable About Roofing

November 27, 2009

A parent and their child live in a house together. One day, the child comes across the parent, working on the house’s roof.

“What are you doing up there?” the child asks.

“I’m working on the roof, it needs fixing.” the parent says.

“But,” the child says, confused, “You don’t know anything about how to fix a roof.”

“Be that as it may, someone needs to fix the roof and it might as well be me.”

“I think we should get a roofer to do it,” the child says. “So get down from there before you fall or something!”

The parent huffs stubbornly, “We can’t trust a roofer. They could do shoddy work or overcharge us and we’d never know until it was too late.”

“Well,” the child says, “We can do it ourselves, I guess, but we need to learn what we need to do first. Let’s go to the library and look up how to roof a house.”

“Nope!” the parent says. “Can’t do that.”

“Why?”

“Because the books on roofing are all biased towards what roofers think.”

The child says, “Well… yes? Books about roofing are written by roofers.”

“Ah-ha!” the parent says triumphantly, standing upright on the roof, swaying slightly in the breeze. “You see? It’s all biased towards roofers, instead of us everyday folk who can’t roof a house!”

“But why not learn to roof the house so you can know what you’re doing!?” the child yells, exasperated.

“But I do know what I’m doing!” the parent said.

“You asked a roofer how to do it?”

“No!”

“Oh, so you already read a roofing book.”

“Of course not!”

”…You got on the internet and found a guide?”

“No!”

“Okay, I give up.”

The parent states proudly, “I joined The Nonroofer Organization.”

“The what?”

“The Nonroofer Organization. We’re a bunch of people who don’t know how to  roof houses, advocating for the right to be able to roof our houses without roofers telling us what to do! Roofing freedom for all!”

“I, uh… but… Now my brain hurts.” the child says, eyes closed and fingers massaging temples. “But what if you screw up and the roof collapses or something?”

“Risk is a necessary part of freedom,” the parent says, looking towards the horizon. “It’s just something we all have to accept.”

“But I don’t want the roof to collapse on me!” the child says.

“Don’t worry, it won’t collapse, I’ll do this right.”

“No you won’t! You don’t know what you’re doing! You’ll make the roof collapse and squish us!”

“Hey, I told you not to worry – I’m trusting my gut, and I’m trusting God, and that should be enough.”

“Uh…” the child says, “Can I spend the night at a friend’s house?”

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Interacting With Creationists and Other Pseudoscientists, Part 2: Treating the Problem

November 13, 2009

So, in Part 1 to this two-part series, I analyzed the phenomenon of pseudoscience not from an intellectual perspective, but from a pathological one. If you haven’t read it, go back and do that now because you’ll probably be lost on this article if you don’t.

Earlier, this article had identified pseudoscience as not an intellectual ailment, but a social and emotional one. As such, I would advocate a socially and emotionally-oriented treatment: A psychotherapeutic approach specifically designed to treat pseudoscience.

Please mind that this method is likely to share all the problems with psychotherapy as a whole, including, most notably, inconsistency in treatment effectiveness due to the strong interpersonal aspect of the treatment. I hope to outline the method clearly enough in this article to eliminate inconsistency caused by the application of different methods, but I’m sure that just about anyone who actually bothers to apply the method would add their own little spin on it in no time – not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. Furthermore, this method is unlikely to be able to address the problems with those who originate pseudoscientific communities – just people indoctrinated into them.

Yet, on the other hand, I don’t think there’s much else we can do. Pseudoscience involves the malfunction of some of our most fundamental functions as human beings, and applying, say, drugs to fix the problem is likely to cause way more problems than is worth.

The first thing to address is mental preparation – to ensure that you have all the cognitive tools required to try to cure a pseudoscientist.

  • Understanding: A strong layman’s understanding of the topic in question. You don’t need a specialist’s understanding, but you do need to grasp the subject in general terms.
  • Google-fu: Be able to quickly scour and parse the internet’s vast data repository, with a particular eye towards Google Scholar, a database of scientific papers. Awareness of a wide variety of specialized sources (such as an online bible, or TVTropes) is a plus. This point is why you don’t need a specialist’s understanding about anything – the internet can provide.
  • Empathy: Understand that you are interfacing with a real person, with a real problem, and who needs your help to overcome that problem.
  • Perceptiveness: Be able to gauge the emotional and social subtext behind a conversation, not just the intellectual content of that conversation.
  • Patience: Understand that you may need to explain things which you find to be very, very obvious. Do so in clear terms and without condescension, and reiterate when necessary.
  • Articulation: Be able to describe even fundamental ideas in a way that they can be understood by an individual who does not know them, so that you can convey them. Also, be able to rephrase statements in the form of (possibly rhetorical) questions.
  • A grasp of the scientific method on a philosophical level: You need to be able to describe, in plain-language terms, not only how the scientific method functions, but why it functions, and what it accomplishes in general.

All the above skills, in aggregate, will be referred to as your “toolbox”. The importance of each of the tools in said toolbox will be made clear below.

Now, to the method itself.

Recall the core pathology of pseudoscience: extreme emotional investment in a group. This subverts the individual’s intellectual functions towards protecting what they feel as the group’s doctrine against outsiders, rather than analyzing it objectively, and presents a block insurmountable by logical argumentation alone. The first phase of this method must be to remove or bypass that block.

Fortunately, the pathological analysis of the function provides insight as to key points that we can use to disable this self-reinforcing behavior:

  • Pathological pseudoscience is triggered by social conflict with a member of another group. Thus, therapy should include taking actions that let the patient see you as an individual, rather than as a member of an ‘enemy’ social group. I feel that this point builds the strong interpersonal relationship necessary to treat the condition, and as such I feel it to be a necessary part of the approach.
  • Pathological pseudoscience requires strong identification with a group. Thus, therapy could include taking actions that ease the emotional intensity of group association. Be careful with this point, as I imagine it’s very easy when taking this route to appear as an enemy (trying to ‘trick’ the patient into betraying his group), and thus carries some risk of triggering the condition.
  • Pathological pseudoscience is directed to the protection of what the patient believes is the group’s position. Thus, therapy could include taking actions that allow the patient to disassociate information with group membership, allowing him to analyze that information without triggering the condition.

At this stage of therapy, approach without hostility or aggressiveness – even intellectual aggressiveness if necessary (that is to say, don’t bother making any arguments, as they’ll just trigger the condition). Establish a personal rapport with the patient, preferably through discussion of an unrelated subject which the patient does not suffer pseudoscientific symptoms with. Optimally, demonstrate superior comprehension of one or more subjects on which the subject can be corrected, in order to instill in the subject respect for your opinions.

It should be noted that this approach should work optimally in a 1 on 1 scenario: If there is any quantity of individuals observing the exchange, you significantly increase the chances of the condition triggering if the patient has reason to believe the observers are at all relevant to the pseudoscientific affliction (either agreeing or actively disagreeing, and thus either part of the in-group or ‘enemies’ of that group). For that reason, I feel the effectiveness of the therapy would rapidly degrade as the number of observers increase.

Broach the afflicted subject or subjects with care, do not aggressively pursue afflicted subjects for discussion, and do not use statements of fact to correct the patient’s errors at this stage. Instead, rephrase your corrections into legitimate questions and posit them as if you’re genuinely curious as to the answer, ensuring to describe the logic that leads you to ask the question. While a statement correcting the patient strongly risks triggering the condition, a question the patient feels to be asked legitimately encourages a legitimate response, and reduces the chances of triggering the condition. This could allow you to make progress with the patient despite the condition.

For a small subset of patients, I imagine this could be sufficient – in particular, individuals already familiar with the scientific method and knowledgeable about the ‘enemy’ positions could draw their own conclusions once they have reached a point sufficient to become able to openly question the pseudoscience.

However, many more will need assistance in questioning the positions of their in-group. Thus, the second phase of the method is to instill in the patient the tools they need to effectively evaluate ideas.

Transitioning into this phase is unlikely to be an exact science, so I suggest that during this phase the first-phase measures are still kept in mind and adhered to when reasonable. As such, the second phase is more a progression stemming from the first rather than an entirely new approach.

Essentially, the second phase involves trying to teach the patient such that they understand, can follow, and want to follow the scientific method in order to better understand ideas. You never need to say what it is you’re trying to do – you should never even need to say the words ‘scientific method’ (in fact, doing so, particularly with individuals who have been exposed to people trying to correct them through argumentation, might even trigger the condition). Also importantly, don’t impose or push the information on the patient. Give them as much as they want, when they ask, and if you have sufficient control of the conversation you can try to work them into a position where they will ask, but do not teach without establishing that the patient is ready to try to learn.

Mind, when you teach, to focus on the three things we’re trying to get the patient to accomplish:

  • Understanding: The scientific method, at its’ core, is simply a series of techniques that people use in order to better evaluate information – so that they can know what is correct and what isn’t. Conveying this to some individuals may be exceedingly difficult, and may require extensive explanation at a very basic level. Be prepared to use simple examples in order to convey scientific methodological concepts, and try to build upon things you’ve already established whenever possible.
  • Capability: Ensure that the patient has understood the methods you’re teaching by encouraging the patient to apply them. Upon correct application, I recommend praising the patient to whatever degree you feel you can without sounding patronizing (patronization could be interpreted as an attack on a social or emotional level, and trigger the condition).
  • Inclination: This is the most important part – in fact, many patients may be aware of scientific methodology and simply not grasp the value of using it. This is why you need to be able to describe not just the how, but the why of science. Science is a way to understand and know more comprehensively, and knowledge is power. Science offers a potential solution to almost any conceivable problem, and you may even have an opportunity to use your previously established personal rapport with the patient in order to make a personal connection between the patient’s problems, and the ability of the scientific method to solve them.

When the patient openly, and completely without prompting, seems to be applying scientific methodology to the pseudoscientific affliction, this signals that it is time to move into the third and final phase.

The final phase is to hold a calm, logical discussion with the patient that directly and thoroughly addresses the topic. Mind that the subject could be new to this kind of thinking and be prepared to help walk them through the logical process. Have information resources onhand and, if the patient questions them, or brings up anything that you can not readily answer, work with the patient to find out the answers or evaluate any questionable sources.

Man, this took forever to write! Anyway, that’s my proposed treatment for any and all forms of pseudoscience. I hope people who read it find it insightful and helpful, and if it leads to anyone being cured, all the better.

As for myself, having written this article has gotten me thinking about normal human thought – pseudoscience is a dysfunction, but it’s a dysfunction stemming from a series of perfectly normal features of human cognition. What insights could such an understanding provide about the thoughts of people in general? Also, having proposed a rather extensive hypothesis regarding interaction between human socialization and human intelligence, I should probably think up experimental scenarios that could be used to verify aspects of that hypothesis.

Interacting With Creationists and Other Pseudoscientists, Part 1: Identifying the Problem

November 13, 2009

I’ve spent a significant amount of my time on the internet arguing with people. Often, with people so hopelessly lost in incredibly bad ideas that my interaction brings with it painfully little chance to drag them out.

But I’m a stubborn individual, and I’ve accumulated a lot of experience in the dusty corners of the internet, and I think I’d like to share my insights regarding interactions with pseudoscientists, such as young-earth Creationists. I’d like to think that insight would be interesting and help people to better correct people with incorrect ideas.

My advice only applies to well-prepared individuals with a degree of background understanding (a layman’s understanding of the topic will do, but you’re likely to need to compensate in other areas), who are interacting with individuals holding ideas which are known by the scientific community to be discredited (young-earth Creationism, global warming denying, homeopathy, etc). This approach will not be particularly applicable if you’re groping in the dark on the topic or if the discussion is a legitimate debate with someone holding a potentially correct position.

For starters, I think most people misdiagnose the problem with pseudoscience and those who have been indoctrinated into it. The common, intuitive, and direct approach to dealing with false information is to enter into a logical argument to demonstrate that the information is false. However, as you can see from the stubborn persistence of pseudoscience in the modern world, this approach often does not work.

The next step to go from there is to analyze why the debate-oriented approach towards correcting pseudoscience has such a low rate of success. Again, the common and intuitive conclusion is to assume the pseudoscientist lacks the ability to comprehend your argument, lacks the integrity to accept it, or is otherwise personally deficient and thus the failure is none of the business of the scientific debater – once the scientific debater presents their argument and it is not properly addressed, they are done, and can wash their hands of the business having said they have exhausted all options for the approach.

I think we need something more oriented towards results than that approach. Something that can allow us to fix pseudoscientists when we encounter them, with a high success rate – a cure for pseudoscience, as it were.

Which leads me to the primary and most critical theme of this article: Pseudoscience is not a mistake made by an individual that must be corrected, but a disease, afflicting a patient, that must be cured. The very large distinctions in approach I will propose compared with a debate-oriented approach stem directly from this paradigm.

The first major difference is that, if we’re to identify pseudoscience as a sickness, we can attempt to describe its’ pathology, or what precisely is malfunctioning in a pseudoscientist, as a first step towards a stronger understanding of the condition.

Under normal function, a human being will:

  • Evaluate (however briefly) information that they perceive in order to gauge its’ accuracy and truthfulness, and then take appropriate measures.
  • Check information for self-consistency if given a reason to do so.

Instead, a pseudoscientist will manifest the following impairments, impairments which constitute a large portion of the set of pseudoscientific behaviors:

  • Exhibit strong confirmation bias towards information relevant to the affliction.
  • Demonstrate extreme cognitive dissonance rather than analyze information relevant to the affliction for self-consistency.

The first major insight we can gain is the observation that pseudoscientists are not necessarily universally impaired in these functions – outside of the pseudoscience-afflicted area, a pseudoscientist can function intellectually without impairment. This implies that these malfunctions are not the primary cause of pseudoscience but either secondary causes or symptoms of the primary cause. In essence, a pseudoscientist is not necessarily of low intelligence, or intellectually impaired in any way other than the affliction of the pseudoscience itself. So we should stop calling them stupid, because they aren’t.

Now, the above describes a large portion of pseudoscientific behavior, but does not  by any means catch all behaviors associated with pseudoscience. Explaining the others is where my pet hypothesis (and proposed cure stemming from this hypothesis) comes into play.

Other behaviors pseudoscientists have a particular propensity for*:

  • A strong “Us vs. Them” mentality: pseudoscientists describe those who disagree with them (frequently actual scientists, or even scientifically literate laymen) in strong oppositional terms that often isn’t relevant to the specific subject matter that they would be discussing. (As an aside, google “us vs them”. I found the unusually politically charged results to be fascinating)
  • Spectacle: Unlike science, ‘no publicity is bad publicity’ for pseudoscience. Pseudoscience promotes aggressive, emotionally charged debate, and actual logical discussion is irrelevant to the approach. Rather, victory or defeat is called (well, victory is called, anyway, more on that momentarily) based on the status of the emotional undercurrent of the discussion, in a manner similar to how children argue with each other. That is to say, when arguing with a pseudoscience advocate, his objective isn’t really to make you think differently – it’s to make you feel differently.
  • Strong group pride: The strong social bond between pseudoscientists of the same flavor extends beyond the attacking of external forces. Pseudoscientists are known for making their own in-groups, including schools (complete with unaccredited degrees), journals (not strictly scientific journals, though, as they tend to lack peer review and other features which make scientific journals scientific), “Think Tanks” for PR purposes, and other socially or professionally flavored clubs. And, indeed, clubs they are, albeit themed by the pseudoscience. Pseudoscientific groups do not promote intellectual interaction, and this implies they do not exist for intellectual reasons. Pseudoscientific groups instead primarily provide social and emotional functions.
    This is further observable when pseudoscientists lose debates, even by the emotionally-charged pseudoscientist standard – the group simply forgets the event has happened, in what seems to be a subconscious act of in-group support. This phenomenon also cripples any attempts pseudoscientists may have to enforce internal intellectual consistency, as people violating that consistency can simply be forgiven without censure or possibly even conscious thought.

Do you see where I’m going with this yet? Pathological pseudoscience seems to be identified by exceptionally strong affiliation with a strongly-defined social group. Mind, here, that when I say ‘strongly-defined’, I’m not referring to any purpose a social group may have in and of itself. On the contrary, I would identify a strongly-defined social group as one that defines the group’s enemies.

Now, we know already that strong group cohesiveness can impair individual thinking. Pathological pseudoscience seems to be a phenomenon related to groupthinking, but I feel it to be much more powerful. Pseudoscientific groups aggressively pursue strong group cohesion, which is likely made stronger still by the perception that the pseudoscientists face a powerful, monolithic enemy – that enemy being, collectively, everyone who thinks they’re wrong. And conflict with those individuals, rather than correcting them, only stands to make the affliction worse, as the more absurd (and thus memorable) the actions an individual is forced to take to defend the group, the stronger their later emotional self-reinforcement towards that group could become.

So, to summarize: I feel that pseudoscience is identified by when an individual reaches a point of emotional investment in a social group so strong, that it inhibits the individual’s ability to think in the sense that we understand the concept. Instead, their cognitive resources are hijacked to support the group paradigm, regardless of how absurd it may be.

Having read it, it all may seem fairly obvious (it does to me, now having written it). Yet, this explanation indicates that the modern approach towards pseudoscience is dangerously flawed. While the debunking, argumentative approach may function to immunize those not afflicted, it does nothing to correct pseudoscience in the afflicted and could conceivably aggravate the condition. Accordingly, recovery rates for pseudoscience tend to be very low. We are, essentially, trying to treat the symptoms of pseudoscience, and in doing so we’re missing the disease.

This post is turning, frankly, very large, so I’m splitting it in two. The second half will go into depth for my proposed treatment method for pseudoscience.

*- For further reading, check out these articles (I used them as a refresher before writing this article):

http://www.stardestroyer.net/Empire/Science/Pseudoscience.html (Yes, it’s a Star Wars website. Yes, the article is good)

http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2009/09/science-non-sci.html

http://initforthegold.blogspot.com/2007/09/pseudoscience-symptoms.html

Thinking About Thinking: Your Inner Avatar and You.

November 6, 2009

I don’t think the Wikipedia definition of “Avatar” does the concept justice.

When you enter a virtual space – such as a video game, or online community, you do so through a kind of logical entity which maps your actions into the designated space (for instance, you hit a button, your guy fires his rocket launcher) and which in turn maps the virtual actions in that space and presents them back to you (for instance, if your character dies, your screen might turn all red and say ‘You are dead’).

In that sense, an avatar isn’t just a representation of you, but a medium for you, allowing you to interact in other, artificial worlds. An avatar is used to make you – your identity, your thoughts and actions – extend beyond the physical world and into the logical one.

In that sense, the avatar is not just a concept in computers. It’s a strong aspect of people’s everyday lives.

Whenever you construct yourself in any artificial or imaginary space, and then use that extension of yourself to interact in that space, you’re making use of your avatar. A good example might be the fictional character type of the “Mary Sue” – an authorial self-insertion into a story for wish fulfillment purposes. Here, the avatar exists in a world created, in part or in whole, by the avatar’s designer.

And yet even that, I think, only represents a small fraction of our everyday avatar usage. I think, rather, that the ultimate origin of the concept of the avatar is our own imaginations.

Imagining ourselves in a different situation, to envision how we would act, or how we should or would like to act, is the most fundamental and vivid use of the concept of the avatar – our inner avatar, if you will.

Which all finally leads me to the point of this – thoughts on how to be better aware of that inner avatar and how to better use it.

Know when to be realistic versus being idealistic: It may be fun to imagine yourself effortlessly accomplishing everything in front of you, you don’t necessarily benefit from that mental exercise.

Framing a challenge for your avatar in detail, as the challenge you expect it to be, can provide intellectual or behavioral insight. It can show you how to behave, or it can show you what information you may be missing about the challenge.

But don’t think that it’s never beneficial to use your avatar in a powerfully emotional matter, even if the scenario you envision isn’t very likely. Instead, the insights you gain from such an exercise are emotional ones. For instance, you can use your avatar in this way to bolster yourself against your fears and anxieties, or to energize yourself to take action on behalf of someone else.

Understand when you want to use your inner avatar for immersion or interaction with a fictional world: This is a choice similar to the above realistic/idealistic choice, but tweaked a bit for the relevant context.

If you don’t do this already, don’t be afraid to place your avatar into fictional worlds you’re experiencing – movies or TV shows, or books, or comics, or anything – if there is a fictional story, you can imagine yourself interacting with it, to your ultimate enrichment.

Using your avatar for immersion falls under the ‘mary sue’ form of self-idealization that I mentioned earlier in the article. It increases your emotional involvement in a fictional environment, and thus increases the energy your brain spends drawing potentially useful information from that environment.

Using your avatar for interaction, however, is more like constructing a video game in your head and then operating your inner avatar as a character in that game, obeying the internal rules of the universe. By doing so, you increase your intellectual understanding of that fictional environment and its’ rules, allowing you to better explore any themes the author might have written into the work.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on the subject. Now, if you will excuse me, I’m going to go imagine I’m an ancient Greek hero now.