Freshmen Seminar “Weird Science” 2010 Thinking Critically About Weird Things John Donovan CAMCOR (Center for Materials Characterization in Oregon) firstname.lastname@example.org (541) 346-4632 “teaching students to use uncommon sense to evaluate knowledge claims...”
Knowledge: Justified belief or belief based on evidence “Uncommon Sense” Useful (science, technology, medicine, etc.) Fruitful (improved understanding, insight, avoidance of undesirable outcomes) Valuable (advantage of information, get paid for your knowledge) Beautiful (complexity of universe, diversity of life, interconnectedness of systems) Knowledge really is power!
So What’s Wrong With Being Wrong? Over the last 15 years 90% of the rhinos have been killed by poachers who sell their horns on the black market. 600 Black bears were killed in the Great Smoky Mountains during the last three years and their gall bladders exported to Korea. “The Lancet today finally retracted the paper that sparked a crisis in MMR vaccination across the UK, following the General Medical Council's decision that its lead author, Andrew Wakefield, had been dishonest.” http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2010/feb/02/lancet-retracts-mmr-paper CDC estimates that 463 children have died in the US from not being MMR vaccinated in the last 3 years
ATSC (UK) Ltd ‘ADE "Advanced Detection Equipment" is said by its makers to be able to detect "all known drug and explosive based substances", using "non-vapour" methods. A simple plastic holder is fitted with a special piece of cardboard which has been prepared using "the proprietary process of electrostatic matching of the ionic charge and structure of the substance" to be detected. There is no power source or electronics - the device is said to be "charged" by the body of the user.’ http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/01/22/dowsing_rod_bomb_detector_bust/ ‘The device works “on the same principle as a Ouija board” - the power of suggestion - said a retired United States Air Force officer, Lt. Col. Hal Bidlack, The Iraqi government has purchased more than 1,500 of the devices, known as the ADE 651, at costs from $16,500 to $60,000 each. Nearly every police checkpoint, and many Iraqi military checkpoints, have one of the devices, which are now normally used in place of physical inspections of vehicles.’ http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/04/world/middleeast/04sensors.html
Case Study: Homeopathy First proposed by German physician Samuel Hahnemann in 1796 “Like Cures Like” (observed that cinchona bark, used as a treatment for malaria, produced symptoms similar to malaria when ingested in overdose) What does homeopathy claim to cure diaper rash? 8X (or 10 -8 ) is allowable concentration of arsenic in US water 12X (or 10 -12 ) is “a pinch of salt in the Atlantic Ocean” 24X (or 10 -24 ) has a 60% chance of containing one molecule per mole 33X (or 10 -33 ) dilution commonly seen in pharmacies and stores 60X (or 10 -60 ) Hahnemann recommended as “standard dose” 100X (or 10 -100 ) dilution for poison ivy “dose” (10 80 atoms in universe) 400X (or 10 -400 ) dilution for popular flu remedy “Oscillococcinum” “Claims of homeopathy's efficacy beyond the placebo effect are unsupported by the collective weight of scientific and clinical evidence.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homeopathy
Sources of Knowledge Genetic, intuitive (instinctual behavior) Personal learned experience (contingent experience) Revelation or introspection Tradition/authority (culture/society, taboos, laws, etc.) Scholarly (scientific, historical, legal, medical, etc.)
Knowledge at the University Scholarship: science, history, literature Medicine: disease causation, treatment, prevention (nutrition, hygiene, etc.) Law: forensics, criminal justice, social justice, political justice Life: decision making, deceit detection, advertising, propaganda, risk avoidance
Impediments to teaching scholarship and critical evaluation of sources “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool” Richard P. Feynman
1. We prefer stories to statistics We prefer anecdotal/personal information We evaluate risk non mathematically We relate to emotional accounts Units of deaths per billion with one hour of risk exposure: Giving This lecture: < 1 Being vaccinated: 1.3 Living where snakes are present: 3.8 Rail or bus travel in USA: 10.0 Child asleep in crib: 140 Being struck by lightning: 200 Amateur Boxing: 450 Climbing Stairs: 550 Coal Mining: 910 Hunting: 950 Automobile Travel: 1200 Air travel: 1450 Cigarette Smoking: 2600 Small boat boating: 3000 Swimming: 3650 Motorcycle riding: 6280 Serving in Vietnam: 7935 Canoeing: 10000 Motorcycle racing: 35000 Alpine Mountaineering: 40000 Professional Boxing: 70000 Giving Birth: 80000
2.We seek to confirm rather than question our beliefs Pattern seeking animals Behavioral biases “If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.” Bertrand Russell
3. Misunderstanding the role of chance and coincidence Lottery games Casino games Gambler’s fallacy National Enquirer effect Statistically speaking, coincidences MUST occur sometimes!
5. We oversimplify our thinking and trust our instincts too easily... Evolution of accurate, reliable (economical) behavior, although imperfect and fallible... Cognition is faulty (much more than we’d like to believe)...
6. Inability to grasp magnitudes/properties outside of evolutionary historical experience Deep space Deep time Deep size
50% of American adults think that the world is around 10,000 years old! How much of an error is that? It’s like believing that the distance from New York to Los Angeles is 30 feet. Assume 13.7 billion years = 1 year, then: January 1st = Big bang 26th = first galaxies form September 1st = Solar system forms 21st = first stirrings of life November 8th = first oxygen atmosphere 30th = first sex by algae December 15th = multi-cell life 19th = algae on land 21st = land animals (millipedes) 25th = dinosaurs 30th = mammals (rodents) 31st 1:00 AM = early apes 10:30 PM = stone tools 11:54 = homo sapiens 11:59:37 = agriculture 11:59:57 = zero invented 11:59:59 = Copernicus
7. We prefer bad explanations to no explanation at all Natural disasters, floods, storms, earthquakes Cosmogenic (origins) Luck, disease, insanity HAAD (Hyper Active Agency Detection) Man is a credulous animal, and must believe something; in the absence of good grounds for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones. Bertrand Russell, Unpopular Essays (1950), "Outline of Intellectual Rubbish"
"Fooling around with alternating current is just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever." -Thomas Edison, 1889 "Airplanes are interesting toys, but of no military value." - Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre What was that again? "Louis Pasteur's theory of germs is ridiculous fiction." -Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology France, 1872 "The energy produced by the atom is a very poor kind of thing. Anyone who expects a source of power from the transformation of these atoms is talking moonshine." -Ernst Rutherford, 1933 "Space travel is bunk" - Sir Harold Spencer Jones, Astronomer Royal of Britain, 1957, two weeks before the launch of Sputnik “No one will ever need more than 640K of RAM” -Bill Gates, 1981
Results From Science: All knowledge claims are tentative and subject to revision given new evidence. Science does not prove its claims-yet it is widely agreed that scientific claims are more trustworthy than other kinds of claims. Scientific knowledge is reliable knowledge, but individual scientists are not infallible! The strength of science lies in the way that its theories are put up for falsification, and are continually being modified and improved in accuracy. A scientific theory is not accepted until it has been battle-tested by a skeptical scientific community.
Conclusions for All of Us We must be aware of our cognitive biases We must appreciate how much we do not know We must understand we do not require absolute certainty for reliable knowledge We must cultivate a skeptical and questioning approach to life We must not be afraid to say: “I do not know” “Trust your gut instincts- but don’t assume that it’s enough” -Kermit The Frog