Why Science is an Answer to Skepticism

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

Studying human beliefs reveals they are usually wrong. Scientific beliefs are wrong less often than others because modern science is built on this realization.

In an earlier post, I explained how I went from trusting science based on authority and personal preference to trusting it for well-considered reasons.

To come to this conclusion, I learnt about the history and methodology of science, about religions, psychology, philosophy … What I came up with was a realization that, throughout history, people have firmly believed in an endless list of false things about the world, and we are always vulnerable to doing so again.

As I wrote: Once you see all those beliefs laid out side by side in an endless list, all the different gods, and old physical theories, and ineffective treatments, and oppressive racist or sexist beliefs, and misinterpreted observations … and see how many of them contradict each other or have been disproven by more objective methods, and how alleged eternal truths vary from culture to culture and have clearly traceable historical origins, and how easy it is to fall into various powerful illusions … the only reasonable conclusion is to be extremely skeptical.

What I promised to explain later was why science is different. Why does seeing human fallibility about just such things as science explores lead to believing in science?

The answer is apparently simple: modern science, which has not existed for all that long, is effectively based on this very skepticism. The scientific community will not believe anything before it has been very well proven by methods that are specifically built so that the hypothesis may be disproven.

One of the reasons people will believe in false things is confirmation bias: The tendency to look at the evidence in a way that makes it seem to confirm your belief. One of the things the scientific method is built to do is to make this more difficult. You need to do tests that clearly distinguish between confirmation and the opposite. In addition, other scientists are ready to question your results.

Another thing that makes it hard to find out what is really true is that the world is full of confounding factors. For example, who knows whether an apparent cure was really produced by some particular treatment? That’s why scientific studies, where possible, include factors like randomization and control groups that seek to eliminate other variables as well as possible. This is not enough, however, and a single study is not thought to prove much; only converging evidence from multiple sources leads to scientific consensus.

None of this is to say that science does these things perfectly. Scientists are still human and have human difficulties, and the ideals are often not followed. Only very well established scientific facts, such as (in spite of what propagandists say) evolution, can be trusted as near certainties.

The attitude of trusting science shouldn’t be one of trusting everything scientists say – it should be one of realizing it’s the best thing we’ve got for certain kinds of questions. Ideally, one should know enough about science to know whether claims made in the name of science are really good science.


How to Achieve a State of Flow While Doing Something Uninteresting

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

Recently, I discovered that I could make time spent doing humdrum work really interesting and rewarding. The trick was being able to do something else at the same time.

I had a remarkable experience a few days back.

You probably wouldn’t think so if you saw me, though, delivering newspapers at night and staring at my phone.

But this time, that was remarkable enough, and here’s why.

This newspaper thing is a fairly pleasant job, but it’s still something I just do for a living. I see the time I spend there as a price I have to pay to supplement my income while I’m looking for ”real” work.

But for me, real work doesn’t mean stereotypical, preferably non-creative nine to five work. It means something I want to make a career of. Something that will make me feel like I’m living fully while I’m doing it.

There’s this idea that work should be a chore that you spend much of your life doing so that you can really afford to live afterwards. But some people show that it doesn’t have to be like that. They love what they do for its own sake; they make a living doing what they would want to do anyway. That’s the kind of career I want.

Right now, I’m working with a kind of career counselor to find paid writing work, particularly in science journalism – something I haven’t done before but I should have good existing skills for.

So what about last night? Simple: while doing routine work I didn’t have to think about much, I was reading articles about a topic that interests me personally and that I might be writing an article about myself.

I’ve read some things while waiting in elevators and the like before, but I’ve never been able to focus on it so well. Now, I just kept getting out the phone on every little occasion, and I read several articles during the few hours of work.

I was very focused on what I was doing and barely noticed the passing of time. It was probably some version of the state of flow. Perhaps needing to give a portion of my focus to normal work was making it suitably challenging to be even more stimulating.

They keep saying multitasking isn’t good, but I’ve noticed I sometimes have a surplus of attentional capacity: for example, during a slow-moving lecture, I may be able to focus better if I divide some of my attention to something else so my mind doesn’t wander off altogether.

So I was able to enjoy myself while doing work that I’m usually indifferent to. I didn’t even mind having to make an extra round because some papers were late: it was just more time to read.

But it wasn’t really about enjoying myself. What was great was what it meant: I was able to make use of the time I have to spend to make a living to also do something I’m really into and that may lead to something greater. And I was getting some physical exercise at the same time.

Time is too precious to waste.

The Difference Between Being Good and Feeling Good

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

Is anything really good, or are there only things that feel good?

I’m aware that a lot of what we feel has been programmed by evolution, or something else outside us, like culture.

So we might look at a certain kind of landscape and feel at home there. But all that really means is it was an environment that was good for our ancestors. Yet, it might feel right so that we become convinced that’s where we should live. Aside from the fact that it’s a good thing we get to feel good, isn’t that impression kind of false? We’re just being pushed around by instinct.

So is there a difference between things that just feel good and things that are actually good? I think some such difference might be illustrated by the following examples.

Suppose Bob is feeling unhappy about a lot of things: his job, while important to him, is boring; he’s always tired, lacking energy to do things he wants; he’s not getting along well with his wife; he’s not spending enough time with his children.

In the first story, Bob realizes his real problem is that he’s focusing too much on advancing his career and making more money than he even needs at his job. He decides to change to a lower-paid but less stressful and more interesting position within the organization.

Suppose Bob was right, and this does help with his problems. His work is no longer boring, he gets to sleep more and have more energy overall, he gets to spend more time with his wife and children.

The result? His solution feels good because things have improved in his life.

In the second story, Bob instead takes advice from a positive thinking coach who teaches him how to manipulate his mood so that he no longer feels bad about things. So his life goes on much as before, but every time he feels bad, he makes himself feel better. (I’ve read that this kind of practice has been a real problem with practitioners of NLP; fortunately, the most recent book on NLP I looked at was conscious of this and cautioned against it.)

Bob still doesn’t have enough time for his family and ends up getting a divorce, but the technique he has learned is so powerful that he’s even able to make himself not feel bad about that.

The result? Bob thinks things have improved in his life because he feels good.

This seems to illustrate the difference between what is really good and what only feels good. We may strongly feel that a thing is good – a love affair, a cultural practice, an addiction, membership in a cult – but if it’s objectively not good for us in any other way, then there is a sense in which it’s not really good.

We always have to choose some things to start with, basic values, to be able to determine what is good. Beyond that, however, it’s how things affect the harmony of our lives that makes them good or not.

Selfish Memes

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

If genes are selfish, so are memes, which is too bad for us as their hosts.

In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins introduced the metaphor that genes are selfish, meaning that how natural selection works can best be understood on the gene level by thinking of the genes selfishly propagating themselves.

In the same book, Dawkins also introduced the concept of meme, meant to be the unit of cultural evolution subject to natural selection and analogous to genes in biological evolution. Memes are not just things shared on the internet but any kind of ideas that spread – a belief, a tune, a phrase, a method, etc.

Our heads are full of memes, and they control our society too. It’s unfortunate, then, that they are analogous to those genes that are so selfish. We have reason to have only good ideas spread widely and affect our societies, but instead, anything that manages to survive in the competition for space in human minds survives, no matter whether it deserves it or not.

One aspect of this is that, as an idea spreads, it tends to get turned into a dumbed-down yet more extreme and black-and-white form.

One reason for this is simple: it’s easier to process and remember simpler ideas, so when an idea turns simpler in people’s minds, it becomes better at surviving in them. Anyway, failing to process an idea properly is prone to make it understood more simply than it was intended.

Another reason would seem to be that it’s easier to remember more emotional content. It’s also easier to get people interested in it. Thus, a subtle, complicated idea based on understanding different sides of the issue is just waiting to become turned into simplified shouting.

Besides it being easier to get attention to a dumbed-down idea, there’s also the motivation the opponents of the idea have to turn it into a straw man. And besides their doing this intentionally, they may do it because they fail to process the idea properly, because of whom it comes from, or because it contains some aspects they don’t like, turning it into a caricature of what they feel about it.

Ironically, one example of a meme getting twisted this way is the idea of the selfish gene. As I wrote earlier, it’s a great metaphor for those who actually understand it, but it’s problematic in the sense of being so easy to misunderstand.

The metaphor doesn’t say anything about evolution making people or other animals selfish. Dawkins even makes it explicit this is not the case. But thanks to what appear to be general principles of memetics, it’s just asking to be dumbed down into that form.

The idea that genes make people selfish is a great idea to either oppose, or to use as an excuse and to provoke people. Doing this allows one to avoid having to actually understand anything subtle. It’s better for shouting about.

What’s the lesson from all this? I suppose that you should be wary of political views, famous ideas etc. that are presented as simple.

Objectivity as a Moral Duty

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

While we must not neglect our subjective feelings and thoughts, there are powerful reasons why we need to strive to transcend them.

It doesn’t always matter what’s objectively true. In particular, it’s often not right to correct other people in things that are emotionally important to them just because they’re getting some details wrong. For one thing, it’s not good to question others’ religious beliefs without an especially good reason. It’s often much more important to be sensitive to emotional truths.

Suppose, for example, that someone is afraid of snakes. Then it’s not all right for you to hand them your pet snake because it’s not objectively dangerous to hold it. Their fear is still real and you should take it into account.

And yet…

If you are biased against a person and see them as, say, scheming and insincere, that may be your emotional truth. But if it’s not based on objective truth, is it right for you to treat the person as if they have done something wrong without really knowing whether they have?

If you feel afraid of vaccinations causing autism, that may be your emotional truth. But if scientific evidence is clear in that there’s no such connection, and further, if not vaccinating children can lead to a measles outbreak (for real, objectively), is it right for you to hold onto your “truth” and suppose that scientists are all in on some big conspiracy?

Suppose your version of your religion tells you to discriminate against some people, such as homosexuals? What if your emotional truth is that women are inferior? Black people? What if your emotions lead you to treat your own side favorably and what you see as the other side unfairly? Condemn “them” while letting “us” off the hook for wrongdoing? What if you simply condemn others for being wrong and foolish when they have the better objective reasons for their beliefs?

Our minds and selves are complicated tangles of various emotions, beliefs, unconscious influences and who knows what. All kinds of different things lead us to have beliefs. Emotions are a part of this process that cannot and should not be taken out of it. Nevertheless, they often lead the process astray. We need to use enough cool, objective reasoning to see that we don’t cling to strong beliefs that we could be able to tell are just wrong.

It’s wrong to judge or treat people in ways they don’t deserve. It’s wrong to take harmful actions when you could have known better. It’s harmful to deceive oneself. Fairness, justice, humility, the principle of least harm, they all lead to this conclusion:

We have a duty to be objective in forming our beliefs so as to make them as true as possible.

It doesn’t apply to everything and always, but there are many cases in which it does, and it’s probably better to take it as a general guideline. Doing otherwise risks treating other people unfairly based on our own biases as well as causing concrete harm.

Memes Ganging Up on Us

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

Selfish memes can survive in human culture by forming into larger units that offer mutual protection.

Last week, I wrote about how a kind of natural selection among ideas, memes, can cause harmful or inaccurate ideas to spread and survive. This time, I want to look at another way in which undesirable memes can survive: by relying on protection from other memes and each other.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Water M. Miller Jr., and the Hyperion quatrology by Dan Simmons are both stories set in a far future where a cataclysmic destruction has faced the Earth. Aside from that, there’s more or less just one thing that they have in common: in both, the Catholic Church is nearly the only thing to survive in its original form. In Hyperion this is more extreme, as while the whole Earth has disappeared in the disaster, the original Vatican still exists, because the whole thing was physically transported to another planet.

A cultural unit as big as a whole religion is not one meme. It is, to use an expression I got from Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, a memeplex, consisting of a large number of memes tied together. The memes still can, and probably do work together in terms of survival. I think of it as something like a multi-cellular organism.

The Catholic Church is known as a bastion of tradition, which in the terms used here means a preserver of memes. Is this bad? I mean, since I’m talking about bad memes and bring up the Catholic Church as an example, I might seem to be saying it’s a bad memeplex. Well, I’m not saying the Catholic Church on the whole is bad. However, what must be acknowledged is that it’s giving some bad memes great protection, especially irrational and immoral “moral” ones.

Memes get selected for survival, and especially as parts of memeplexes, they can build themselves both reproductive efficiency and protection against being abandoned. All by natural selection, of course. When it’s about time they died, they can resist it this way. Perhaps the worst part of this is that so-called moral norms might well be ones that have especially good defenses when they’re part of the system that forms the values of the community. Moral norms are in the habit of getting outdated and really affect people’s lives, so this is a serious issue.

Of course, there are also universal moral norms that are resilient memes in their own way, and that have been invented way back and should be remembered. Even these are subject to the decay mentioned earlier, though. The basic ideas may not be totally lost, but they may be totally lost on some people, like the Americans who can’t tell Ayn Rand’s values from those of Jesus.

Looking at the Race or the Face

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

The old idea that people of a particular ethnicity look all the same has a basis in how our brains process information, but there may be a way around it.

In his absolutely fascinating book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Robert Sapolsky describes a number of ways in which our brains and thereby automatic reactions are biased based on race. One of the effects is the following:

“[S]ubliminal signalling of race also affects the fusiform face area, the cortical region that specializes in facial recognition. Damaging the fusiform, for example, selectively produces “face blindness” (aka prosopagsonia), an inability to recognize faces. Work by John Gabrieli at MIT demonstrates less fusiform activation for other-race faces, with the effect strongest in the most implicitly racist subjects. …

In accord with that, white Americans remember white better than black faces; moreover, mixed-race faces are remembered better if described as being of a white rather than a black person.”

So basically, the old cliché that people of that other group look all the same shows in our brains, in that the part that recognizes faces doesn’t even bother to activate as much when we think we’re looking at someone of a different ethnicity.

Years ago, I read about some research about the same topic. I couldn’t tell you the source anymore, but the basic idea was that the research had found that we don’t recognize other-race faces as well because when we look at them, we concentrate on the “racial” features rather than the individual ones.

I thought this fascinating, though obviously not very nice. Then, an occasion came when I was able to test whether I’d be able to consciously do something about it.

Not too long after hearing about this research, I was sitting in a bus, in a place where I could see the faces of a number of other passengers. The passengers were rather diverse for Finland (though that never means anything compared to, say, New York). So it was a good chance to just… try to start looking at everyone’s individual facial features instead of the racial ones.

It was quite a weird experience. Suddenly, I was seeing things differently. The faces of the people of other ethnicities didn’t actually change, of course, but at the same time, they did for me. Just trying to focus differently made me see different things than before.

I can’t generalize because I haven’t read any research on this, but in my experience, this trick works, and quite remarkably. I’ve done it since, and one thing I’ve noticed is that I’ll suddenly start seeing that, say, an Asian-looking person’s face suddenly starts resembling some typical type of face I’ve seen a lot in the ethnic Finns that I’m used to. I have a clear impression that I’m seeing more.

For me, this is a really neat trick that both allows me to play around with the limits of how my brain functions – and to stop it from presenting the world to me in a stupid racist way.