What magicians can teach scientists about skepticism

Knowledge Questions: What is the impact that knowledge has on the knower? What are our limitations in acquiring knowledge? What are the limitations in our abilities to reason? What is the role of skepticism in acquiring knowledge?

As I read this article, it reminded me of a passage from the novel, The Three Body ProblemLinked here is the passage that pass about pseudoscience and magicians.

Below is an article about related issues.

The episode shows how human fallibility can lead scientists astray, even when they appear to be conducting valid experiments. And why not look to magicians for insights into the blind spot in our perceptions? Many of them are experts on ways people can be fooled. As Benvensite showed the world, an advanced degree in something like immunology does not make one immune to self-delusion.

As the famous Richard Feynman quote about science goes: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

https://whyy.org/articles/what-magicians-can-teach-scientists-about-skepticism/

 

How a Dubious Forensic Science Spread Like a Virus

Knowledge Questions: What separates science from pseudoscience? What are the characteristics of “good” science? To what extent can we expect scientific knowledge to be “certain”?

From his basement in upstate New York, Herbert MacDonell launched modern bloodstain-pattern analysis, persuading judge after judge of its reliability. Then he trained hundreds of others. But what if they’re getting it wrong?

Although the reliability of blood-spatter analysis was never proven or quantified, its steady admission by courts rarely wavered, even as the technique, along with other forensic sciences, began facing increasing scrutiny.

In 2009, a watershed report commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences cast doubt on the whole discipline, finding that “the uncertainties associated with bloodstain pattern analysis are enormous,” and that experts’ opinions were generally “more subjective than scientific.”

Still, judges continued allowing spatter experts to testify.

https://features.propublica.org/blood-spatter-analysis/herbert-macdonell-forensic-evidence-judges-and-courts/?utm_source=pardot&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=majorinvestigations

What makes knowledge valuable?

Knowledge Questions: How do we determine the value of knowledge? What is the purpose of producing scientific knowledge? To what extent does scientific knowledge have to have practical application for it to be considered “valuable”?

Useless Knowledge Begets New Horizons

Fundamental discoveries don’t always have practical uses, but they have soul-saving applications.

Freedom is the license the roving mind requires to go down any path it chooses and go as far as the paths may lead. This is how fundamental discoveries — a.k.a., “useless knowledge” — are usually made: not so much by hunting for something specific, but by wandering with an interested eye amid the unknown. It’s also how countries attract and cultivate genius — by protecting a space of unlimited intellectual permission, regardless of outcome…

And yet, in being the kind of society that does this kind of thing — that is, the kind that sends probes to the edge of the solar system; underwrites the scientific establishment that knows how to design and deploy these probes; believes in the value of knowledge for its own sake; cultivates habits of truthfulness, openness, collaboration and risk-taking; enlists the public in the experience, and shares the findings with the rest of the world — we also discover the highest use for useless knowledge: Not that it may someday have some life-saving application on earth, though it might, but that it has a soul-saving application in the here and now, reminding us that the human race is not a slave to questions of utility alone.

The question can further be narrowed to ask when governments should fund scientific research.

People who are critical of government spending often find government funded scientific research projects they deem wasteful and publicize them as examples of government waste. Sometimes the discussions are just political theater but the conversation does raise interesting questions. What is the government’s responsibility when it comes to funding science? What criteria should we follow when determining what is worthwhile and what isn’t?

Arizona Senator Jeff Flake has on multiple occasions published lists of projects he thought were wasteful but he also published an interesting list of 20 questions he thought should guide our decisions on which projects deserved government spending.

Questions like:

  • Will this research advance science in a meaningful way?
  • Will the findings advance medicine?
  • Will it improve our national defense?

(You can find the full list here)

You can download his whole document here.

Science Magazine Responds

Analysis: Senator’s attack on ‘cheerleading’ study obscures government’s role in training scientists

Below is a link from Science magazine addressing the Senator Flake’s approach and assumptions.

“More importantly, perhaps, how NSF did spend the money illustrates an important point often lost in the sometimes highly partisan debates over government research spending: Most of those dollars go to educate the next generation of scientists. These students are trained in many disciplines and work on a wide array of projects—some of which might sound dubious to politicians. After graduation they use their knowledge to bolster the U.S. economy, improve public health, protect the nation from its enemies, and maintain U.S. global leadership in science.”

http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/05/analysis-senator-s-attack-cheerleading-study-obscures-government-s-role-training

Planet Money Podcast: Shrimp Fight Club

These issues were discussed on a Planet Money Podcast which was adapted from another podcast Undiscovered.

http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2017/06/21/533840751/episode-779-shrimp-fight-club

 

Intellectual humility: the importance of knowing you might be wrong

Knowledge Questions: What are the limitations in our abilities to reason? How do we produce knowledge in the sciences? What impact does knowledge have on the knower?

This article brings together so many interesting issues in TOK and the problems associated with knowledge and its production. There are connections in this article to memory, the scientific method, the replication crisis, reason, and the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

We need more intellectual humility for two reasons. One is that our culture promotes and rewards overconfidence and arrogance (think Trump and Theranos, or the advice your career counselor gave you when going into job interviews). At the same time, when we are wrong — out of ignorance or error — and realize it, our culture doesn’t make it easy to admit it. Humbling moments too easily can turn into moments of humiliation.

https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2019/1/4/17989224/intellectual-humility-explained-psychology-replication

How one flawed study and irresponsible reporting launched a wave of CTE hysteria

Interesting if not controversial piece about the science behind concussion research and professional football. This raises interesting questions about the extent to which “good science” is even possible in a situation like this when brains can only be examined posthumously. There is definitely a selection bias here because people only want to have their brains examined if they believe they suffer from the condition.

When we dug into the methodology, we were floored. The study was so badly flawed that it was nearly worthless. But that’s not what had been reported in practically every major media outlet in the world. Thanks to the barrage of sensationalist coverage, the “110 out of 111 brains” story had turned into a wildfire, and we were standing around with a couple of garden hoses, telling everybody to calm down.

https://sports.yahoo.com/op-ed-one-flawed-study-irresponsible-reporting-launched-wave-cte-hysteria-150349666.html

Is the lone genius a total myth?

The conventional view of history is filled with lone geniuses: men and women who, through talent and inspiration, achieved feats no one else had before. Pablo Picasso. Vincent van Gogh. Albert Einstein. Emily Dickinson.

Joshua Wolf Shenk…argues that the real driver of human creativity isn’t the lone genius, but the partnership.

https://www.vox.com/2014/8/17/6005947/powers-of-two-lone-genius-collaboration

Scientific Proof Is A Myth

So don’t try to prove things; try to convince yourself. And be your own harshest critic and your own greatest skeptic. Every scientific theory will someday fail, and when it does, that will herald a new era of scientific inquiry and discovery. And of all the scientific theories we’ve ever come up with, the best ones succeed for the longest amounts of time and over the greatest ranges possible. In some sense, it’s better than a proof: it’s the most correct description of the physical world humanity has ever imagined.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2017/11/22/scientific-proof-is-a-myth/#782aa6822fb1