Archive for June, 2006

Confirmation Bias

It is well known and understood that each person’s perceptions are not complete. In many professions, this understanding is necessary in order to communicate both the precision and the accuracy of perceptions in a report so a reader or other person can know how much confidence should be invested in the conclusions presented.

Shrinkwrapped discussed the problem of Struggling with Confirmation Bias. Confirmation Bias (wikipedia) is the unconscious tendency that all of us have to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms our preconceptions.

The key point I want to make is that Confirmation Bias is pervasive and operates on a predominantly unconscious level. However, it is possible to understand (some of) your own CB and take steps to at least partially protect oneself from falling so far into the trap that your perception of reality is impaired.

While this bias is considered unconcious, or better, unintentional, there are many ways that a person can detect and compensation for a confirmation bias. Shrinkwrapped cites the scientific method as one of these but then wanders off into minutia about the high precision parts of such a bias. The problem, though, is that a confirmation bias is often to such a major point in many public debates that it can create wonder about sanity. The comments to this entry show this.

The point of all this is to suggest a way to deal with our own CB: if a position we hold is not falsifiable, it behooves us to remain silent until and unless evidence appears or accumulates that provides us with confirmation of our position.

This is not fool proof and it is in this area that commenters can be of crucial importance. Telling me I am biased is unhelpful; I already know I have biases and have never claimed otherwise. On the other hand, if you can point out an assertion I make that is not falsifiable or already disproved, alerting me is a favor which can only improve the quality of my blog and the quality of my thinking.

In itself, the difficulties expressed by Shrinkwrapped may be an expression of confirmation bias as well. It is extremely difficult to believe and accept that people in prestigious positions of influence and leadership could be willfully so far off in regards to evidence readily available. Trying to bring together the expectation of intellectual integrity and honesty with the behavior of these people creates significant dissonance. This is a bias that is being challenged and confronted and behavior that is trying to bring that bias back into line with basic perceptions.

For a contrast, there are those who have no difficulty in assuming the worst of “people in prestigious positions of influence and leadership” even without any significant evidence to support their views. These folks exhibit a bias so severe that Shrinkwrapped has written several entries about the behaviors of psychotic denial to try to explain them.

The scientific method is just a manner of successive refinement of perception entailing a process of logical inference, measure, open communications, and critical examination. It requires an integrity in that participants must accept measure and observation and evidence that is put on the table. If there are contradictions or questions then further experiements or observations are undertaken to resolve them.

But what is happening in public debate does not exhibit integrity. Journalists are taught about the fundamental bias in perception yet the response to allegations and measures of bias is to refute any bias at all and to ridicule slogans such as “fair and balanced.” As evidenced by the comments to Shrinkwrapped’s post, confirmation bias gets to a point of creating absurdities in debate or argument. The measure of these behaviors (see resources) can be used as an indication of bias.

Those who seek to discover their own biases can learn about the behavior that they generate. This is a means of looking in the mirror to see yourself. By learning a bit about what to look for you can go back over posts, or even be on the alert in real time, to determine when you need to step back and be careful about how your own bias is flavoring your perceptions.

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The Energy Dependence Problem

Pete DuPont says we aren’t addicted to oil but rather Addicted to Regulation: The real reason for America’s foreign-oil dependence.. While oil consumption has increased from about a third since 1980, US production has decreased by half.

President Carter’s 1980 “windfall profits” tax on oil companies only raised $40 billion of the $227 billion promised, reduced domestic oil production by between 3% and 6%, and gave imported oil from foreign countries a competitive advantage that increased imports of foreign oil by about 10%. A 1990 presidential directive forbid access to about 85% of Outer Continental Shelf oil and natural gas reserves and this was extended in 1998 through 2012. The failures of political permission for ANWR started in 1995 – that’s 15 billion barrels of oil or about a million per day. A post Hurricane Katrina effort to expedite refinery capacity was blocked by Senate Democrats.

So, Cuba is working with China to drill offshore from Florida and tap the resources that US firms are not allowed to access. Even practical alternatives, such as nuclear energy, face roadblocks. Meanwhile, expensive and non-competitive mass energy sources, especially the so called renewable sources, get a lot of attention and research money but they too often run into barriers when attempts are made to create production facilities.

Any wonder why energy prices are likely to be rather high? Sitting on energy and keeping it off the market means a game of seeing how much must be paid to get the politicians off the pot.

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Who gets patriotism?

Professor Baingridge put a recent quote of psuedo C&W singer Natalie Maines in context. She complained about why anyone needed to be a patriot. The response was from Ralph Waldo Emerson whose idea was that the only people who don’t understand or feel patriotism are those who don’t live the land but just use it for a place to be. Adlai Stevenson is also quoted:

It was always accounted a virtue in a man to love his country. With us it is now something more than a virtue. It is a necessity. When an American says that he loves his country, he means not only that he loves the New England hills, the prairies glistening in the sun, the wide and rising plains, the great mountains, and the sea. He means that he loves an inner air, an inner light in which freedom lives and in which a man can draw the breath of self-respect.

Patriotism has been a prime topic of discussion – primary among those who think their patriotism is being attacked because of their attacks on their country. They at least deserve recognition for understanding that patriotism is something of value. Natalie does not appear to achieve that status as she disdains patriotism as a concept.

Patriotism is a matter of identity, of taking pride and honor in being a part of something much larger than self. It is the village that Ms. Clinton wrote a book about. It is that society and culture and the land they occupy that gives a patriotic individual greater sense of being and worth. It is a source for health and vitality that rises above the ideas of government and governance to the people themselves. It is sad indeed that some cannot separate their bitterness from governance with the people but it is sadder still that there are those who don’t even see themselves as a part of anything larger than themselves.

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Playing with words

Victor Davis Hansen talks about terminology used in the immigration dialogue.

In the fierce debate over illegal immigration, the particular terms used by those who argue our porous borders are not a serious problem can tell us a lot.

What explains these distortions in language? Simple — politics. Those who tolerate de facto uncontrolled borders employ fuzzy adjectives such as “guest” and “undocumented” that do not accurately describe the millions of aliens illegally in the United States, a fact opposed by the vast majority of Americans.

By the same token, these who raise legitimate concerns are reduced to “nativists” or “racists” to preclude a fair hearing of their often persuasive arguments. Change the language, and political change may follow.

The choice of words, the stretching of meanings – such as made famous by President Clinton in his discourse about the meaning of the word “is” – and the misuse of words are all means that paint a desired picture.

The power of words is in their nuance and context and expression. They can be satire or bald description. They can paint an accurate picture of reality or a distorted picture. The key for any reader is to make sure that the words he reads are interpreted as the author intended so he can then decide what to do with what he reads.

In political or emotional discourse, the reader must be particularly discerning to make sure he can see through the words and find out what the underlying reality behind them really is.

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Dichotomy: Reasonable versus Unreasonable?

Blogs for Bush:

When you really boil it down, what we have in America isn’t a left/right dichotomy but more of a reasonable/unreasonable split – it is simply unreasonable to think that President Bush knew about 9/11 in advance, or that he tricked America into liberating Iraq, or that American troops are torturing terrorists. Any reasonable person is turned off by people who make such accusations, and that explains why in 2002 and 2004, the GOP vote increased…not so much because the GOP became more popular, but because the GOP remained reasonable. As Swirsky points out, the left just got nuttier – ever more unreasonable.

Everyone needs to sit back and consider the implications of their ideas and conclusions and the assumptions that underly them. This is how ‘reasonableness’ is determined. A general rule is that the more extreme the implications or assumptions the stronger the evidence must be. There is a balance between these three factors, assumptions, implications, and evidence, that determine the quality of a perception in regards to reality. This is the reasonableness measure.

The purpose of sitting back and examining one’s ideas is to see if something is being shoved under the rug, intentionally or otherwise, in order to avoid an unpleasant truth. Does an individual criminal speak for an entire society? This is what those who try to condemn our leaders because of the alleged actions of an individual soldier are saying. Often it seems as if it is known that the implication is too outrageous to become an assertion so it is left as an implication and anything that supports it is emphasized as a roundabout means to promote an agenda that is unreasonable if put on its own two feet.

The problem is that this kind of intellectual dishonesty does not stand on a firm foundation. It is worn away by time and by inspection. Those who desire to maintain it must often build bulwarks and artifacts to keep it standing. These themselves create a monument to the dishonesty that becomes more and more ridiculous as time and inspection reveal its true nature. There is some point at which those who are invested in keeping it standing must either realize the dishonesty and retreat or they will devolve into insanity, in which case they must necessarily be conquered.

It is best for each individual to take care with the balance of assumption, implication, and evidence to weigh their ideas and conclusions and to understand their quality. If that quality suffers, then the adherence to the idea should be weakened. This is called being open minded and is usually considered healthy.

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durka durka, mohammed jihad [refrain]

A video of Cpl. Joshua Belile singing a song he wrote is being used as more ammunition for the ‘oh, why don’t we have sensitive soldiers’ crowd. Texas Rainmaker has a good summary with links to relevant information and the lyrics of the song, Hadji Girl, that is causing offense.

The song is the story of a Marine enticed by a young girl into an ambush. She gets shot by the terrorists as she is between the Marine and the terrorists. The moral of the story is that you don’t mess with Marines. The moral of the controversy is a quote from Cpl Belile’s Band:

Insensitive? Marines insensitive? God I hope so. We need them to kick ass and follow orders but we don’t need them to be particularly sensitive. A sensitive Marine Corps will be the death of this country.

In other words, this is another attempt to paint US soldiers as insensitive brutes committing atrocities as a matter of national policy. Just be careful or you’ll be singing “durka durka, mohammed jihad” all day, too.

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Creationists on the Right, Global Warming Alarmists on the Left

Debra Saunders takes note of the skeptics big clue in Global Warming Fever and notes that both the left and the right have some problems in the misuse of science.

Now Gore is the know-it-all teacher — and woe to any scientist who does not agree with him, not just on global warming, but on a 20-foot rise in sea level. It is this alarmism — this extremism — that has led many a thinking person to question global warming. It’s hard to trust those who believe only the most extreme scenario.

Coulter recently provided a good example of the politically balanced side of this in her assertions about Darwinists being godless. On both sides, it seems, the message is that we are doomed. The environmentals predict apocalypse from the misdeeds of man, the creationists from the wrath of God on unbelievers.

The environmentalists have a difficulty in that the science they are using suffers a lack of precision. Global warming is difficult to measure; that manmade causes for it are difficult to establish with authority; that apocalyptic outcomes are even more difficult to rationalize. And then you have the compounded odds of a series of risky results to occur in just the right manner to have the desired result.

The creationists have a bit more trouble as evolution is much better measured. Whether it is the story in the geolgic record or the breeding of plants and animals or the many branches of medicine, there is a complete and binding theory that brings these things together and creates new avenues for research that have a history of productive and useful outcomes.

But in both cases, creationism or environmentalism, you have people who are fanatic about their beliefs to the point of irrational behavior. The issue for the rest of us is to find that kernel of useful information we can use to learn what we should actually do.

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Complex Evolutionary Outcome

The Telegraph story on The evolution of clots is provided as an example refuting anti-evolutionists and also provides an interesting insight into the life saving natural phenomena of blood clotting. The author, Steve Jones is professor of genetics at University College London.

This is one of those teetering edge type living phenomena that are a careful balance between not having enough versus having too much. Hemophilia and deep vein thrombosis and strokes and heart disease are all impacted by doing it right or wrong.

First, definitions and the reason for concern.

Intelligent design, or ID, began as an attempt to promote creationism without breaking American laws that keep religion out of schools. In spite of the eloquent concern of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who feels that the idea demeans not science but faith, it is spreading in Britain.

The the source many use to maintain their delusions.

The ID crew, to use Darwin’s own phrase, “look at an organic being as a savage looks at a ship, as at something wholly beyond [their] comprehension”.

Then the point:

Scientists, unlike creationists, do not know everything, but as they learn more, every such claim has been rubbished. Evolution is not mocked but glorified by life’s intricacy. ID is a bad idea, but has generated lots of good research, all of which shows how inane it is.

And, finally, the example.

The clotting machinery is an icon of just how complex life may be. Designers love it: for to staunch the flow needs a cascade of a dozen or more enzymes that work like a row of toppling dominoes. Two interacting pathways meet at a crucial junction point.

Much better, in fact, than no clot at all. Plenty of animals manage with just a few parts of the machinery and DNA shows that – like the eye – the rickety apparatus that stops us from bleeding was assembled from random bits that just happened to be hanging around.

Living organisms are systems and the systems become more complex as the organism becomes more advanced. Things are tried through mutation and other processes and these often leave bits and pieces behind. These bits and pieces may end up being used for something else and some may be interlocked in various ways with features the organism needs to survive. Science is the process of learning the story that is told by these bits and pieces and of learning how they are used and how the interact in the system of functions that make up a living entity.

It is really only recently in human history that tools have been developed to really find out how things work and how they create an historical picture of evolving organisms. Blood clots and eyeballs are two complex components that are being better understood and this understanding is leading to better therapies for when disease or malfunction occurs.

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“You” versus “I”

The Coulter flap about the Jersey Girls is an excellent case study in detecting ad hominem.

The key outrage of Coulter’s appears to be her saying ” I’ve never seen people enjoying their husbands’ deaths so much.” This was met with allegations that she was “mean spirited” or “Heartless” or worse.

One key here is what the old touchy feely relationship books talk about in regards to an ‘I message’ versus a ‘you message.’ An ‘I message’ clarifies what one sees and perceives. A ‘you message’ is an accusation and gets outside of one’s own boundaries of knowledge.

Coulter’s outrage was an ‘I message’ – she says “I’ve never seen…” The responses were ‘you messages’ that attempt to describe Coulter and who she is. Stimulus: this is what I see. Response: you are a despicable person.

Bob Weir thinks Coulter gave liberals a dose of their own medicine but this is not so. Their own medicine would be ‘you messages’ as ad hominem attacks. Instead, Coulter provided a medicine with better intellectual integrity. She describes what she sees and expresses it as an ‘I message’ leaving the interpretation to her listeners. This is why it is a strong message.

You can easily say to Coulter that you don’t see what she does and explain what is wrong with her perceptions. This is not something you can do with those who refer to the President as a murder or a facist or to Coulter as mean spirited or heartless.

This kind of etiology often gets scrubbed under the label of ‘name-calling’ as if putting labels like names on things is bad. The fact is that having names for things is necessary but only if those names are accurate or true. If you describe what you see with a name or analogy or description and it is an accurate and meaningful name, then it serves a useful purpose. If, however, a name is just tossed at someone without a solid basis, it is not descriptive but rather accusatory, and it is not accurate without extensive rationalization, then it is destructive.

It may be that you think Coulter’s descriptions or labels are harsh or over-the-top or hyperbolic but the fact is that they reveal what she sees as an essential truth about the behavior of the Jersey Girls. It is something others can see and this is why it has impact. That makes it an entirely different quality than is illustrated by the response she received from those who do not like what she unveiled but cannot show it was false.

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The Jersey Girls

Mark Gauvreau Judge has some second thoughts to his knee jerk reaction to Ann Coulter’s latest work. Mark tells the story of why and how he came to re-think Coulter’s “questioning of the 9/11 widows in Godless hysterical and heartless.”

To inspect the details of death, reveal them, announce them, is often the province of the propagandist or social activist. It’s the gun control advocate who announces at the town meeting, “My son’s brains were splattered all over me.” The seatbelt champion showing slides of bodies in pieces. The reporter who will pick over every drop of blood spilled at Haditha. … Saying our husbands died because we weren’t prepared just doesn’t pack the same punch as: they burned alive, and Bush could have prevented it — and may cause more of it. One is philosophy, spirituality, and love of country. The other is politics.

This is the value of a sharp and biting idea if it reveals a truth. Coulter hits enough of these (creationism is an example of an exception) that she can stay out of the Koz Korral of conspiracy nuts and other wackos. When an idea can help someone see, can cause someone to re-think their original reaction, and can highlight a truth, then a service has been done.

There is a related example in some expressing outrage that photos of al-Zarqawi were released by the US Military. These outrage seekers are making an issue (point one) by covering over basic distinctions (point 2) of an alleged atrocity (point 3). There is good case to be made that releasing the photos of dead enemy leaders in a respectful manner is not an atrocity but necessary to quell rumor mongoring to the point that he’s not really dead. The outrage seekers take a you can’t win position by either condemning the proof or alleging the “he’s not really dead” position depending upon the circumstances.

These kinds of tactics do deserve appropriate inspection. Coulter caused many to do this about the Jersey Girls. It means that a mantra of victimhood is no longer an a priori immunity from criticism of the polemics or politics presented under that cover. This has got to be a positive and constructive development.

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What a Week in Terror

al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi had a senior staff meeting cut short by a couple of 500 lb bombs. Iraqi’s are celebrating, the MSM is providing a lot of entertainment for bloggers documenting bias, and the satarists are having a good time with the anti-Bush enthusiasts responses. And the 17 other simultaneous Baghdad raids are something to think about.

Then there is the major Canadian bust that is filtering over to other countries and showing the outcome of efforts such as the anti-Bushies complained about in regards to the NSA. The simultaneous London and New York airplane passenger arrests fit in here somewhere, too. It’s enough to get some folks thinking about the “war on the war on terror”.

And the Iraqi government finally completed its cabinet. The final posts were in Interior and Security. The government has now taken its form and can proceed to making its mark.

Ann Coulter sparked another discussion with her comment that the Jersey Girls were ‘enjoying’ their 9/11 widowhood. The issue is that the anti-Bushies have been using the status of such people to put them above reproach in order to insulate their ignorance, insults, and deceit. Ms. Coulter has obtained good promotion for her new book and started some good dialog about being able to critique ideas and pronouncements despite the provenance of their source.

The Haditha incident is beginning to smell but the odor is not the one the MSM has attempted to uncover. Instead, it is starting to look like the Libby prosecution where the oddities and irregularities are in the sources used and what they supposedly uncovered. There are some that are thinking that the human shield to create atrocity mongering supporting al-Qaida by willing complicity in the MSM may be the main story here.

The sum and substance of this thumbnail sketch on the Haditha claims is that it follows so closely the template for the TANG and Plame stories. Take a reporter with an anti-Administration agenda, an interested group (think of the Mashhadanis as the VIPS in the Plame case or Burkett and Lucy Ramirez in the TANG case) and a story too good to be checked and circumstances where the people attacked are limited in what they can quickly respond to and you get a story which smells to me like it will soon be unraveled.

The Senate failed to sqash the 2011 reinstatement of the estate tax which means that, if this holds, that many smaller, family type, businesses will need to be liquidated on the death of their primary owner after this date.

A budget bill for the military and Katrina relief effort managed to get out with much of the pork removed. The groundswell to reduce government expense appears to be having an effect.

And the Snowman, Tony Snow, the new White House Press Secretary, is creating a lot of smiles with his skills in helping the MSM understand what is happening.

Then there is the culture of corruption. The Libby case highlights the absurdities in the Plame affair allegations. DeLay left the house with class but the Democrats still won’t let go of him. Then there is the FBI raid on the frozen money legislator, the McKinney grand jury assault case, the Senate minority leader’s boxing ethics, and who knows what else.

There is so much going on!

American Thinker stories including
MNF Iraq recap on Zarqawi killing
Haditha: Is McGirk the New Mary Mapes?
Jersey girls prove Coulter’s point

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Moralistic Superiority Provides a Clue

When you run across someone who puts his idea as morally superior to others, you have a clue that you should increase your skeptics quota. Rob Lyons has an example of this in his column Kyoto and a climate of moralism. He says “The debate about global warming has become a moral crusade against our allegedly ‘excessive’ lifestyles.”

slowing down when you drive, turning the lights off and not leaving your telly on stand-by is the will of the Lord. And if the government launches a crackdown to make sure we do it, it’s only doing God’s good work.

and it has consequences

a discussion of human adaptability is at odds with the spirit of the age. The environment debate has become increasingly moralistic: restraint is good, production and consumption are bad. At a time when the decision to live a ‘green’ lifestyle is recast as ‘ethical living’, the ability to debate alternatives is closed down. As long as the debate about climate change is cast in such terms, we can expect more attacks on the notion of economic growth – and we will all be, literally, poorer for it.

It used to be the method of atonement was to parade the streets flailing one’s back with a whip to show everyone how morally superior you were by beating yourself into a pulp. Nowadays it is something similar but maybe not quite as direct. It still comes down to limits and punishment and denial of the fruits of one’s labors as a means to atone for some perceived sins.

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Wired says Don’t Try This at Home. Remember those Chemistry Sets so popular for budding scientists in the fifties? Or perhaps chem lab in school twenty or thirty years ago? Are you one of those amateur explosive-ologists who got a big kick out of making your own big bang?

Liability concerns and seeking absolute safety was one nail in the coffin. The illegal drug trade became another. And then terrorism concerns added another. The result is that it is becoming more and more difficult for an amateur to engage in chemistry experimentation. And that does not bode well for technological and scientific literacy.

To Bill Nye, the “Science Guy” who hosted an Emmy award-winning series on PBS in the 1990s, unreasonable fears about chemicals and home experimentation reflect a distrust of scientific expertise taking hold in society at large. “People who want to make meth will find ways to do it that don’t require an Erlenmeyer flask. But raising a generation of people who are technically incompetent is a recipe for disaster.”

To ensure that the tradition of home chemistry survives, self-proclaimed “mad scientists” are creating a research underground on Web sites like Sciencemadness, Readily Available Chemicals, and the International Order of Nitrogen. There, in comfortable anonymity, seasoned experimenters, novices, and connoisseurs of banned molecules share tips on finding alternative sources for chemicals and labware.

Yes there is a danger. That is a part of the appeal. But perhaps the pendulum of concerns has swung too far towards removing risk. Not only is it becoming harder for children to learn by doing, but the doing is being established as a ‘priesthood only’ activity. People learn by making mistakes. Good pedagogy is charged with seeing that these mistakes are meaningful but controlled. It does not mean removing them to be something on a par with movie special effects. The spectator only approach to science can too readily become one where there is a disconnect and the science is just a trick or magic.

There are indications, though, that the spirit cannot be quelled. Making soap or beer at home are examples. For the serious amateur chemist, it means going back to the nineteenth century methods for finding and purifying the chemicals needed. This is the McGyver approach or the technology behind Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island (Gutenberg project or the Kravits translation).

This has also been a worry of science fiction writers (other than Verne). They wrote stories wondering about what would happen to humanity when robots took over all of the risk and took care of their human ‘masters.’ Humans would then have nothing to do. No risk. No zest. No reason for living. Where would this lead?

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