Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Do You Believe A Lie? Science and Belief

Here's a short quiz anyone who ever took a physics course ought to be able to answer: What's the rate of acceleration any falling object in earth's gravity?

Did you answer 9.8 m/s2?

Good for you. Also, wrong. What are you? European? No--statistically speaking you are from the United States, use Chrome (good!), and are running on Windows (update your anti-virus) so the answer is: ( :: BING-BING ::) 10.7 yards per second-squared.

That'd be the imperial units answer--which is what you use in your daily life--so why didn't you say that?

Would You Know The TRUTH?

The reason you didn't answer in imperial units is because the 9.8m/s2 number is what we were all taught in physics class. We were told it by an authority figure (the teacher) and we believed it. If we did test it and our test (in some high school physics lab) came out at 9.7 meters per second-squared? We figured our test was off. We sure didn't test it under a lot of different conditions (do things fall that fast in high heat--even if in a vacuum chamber? The Omnivore didn't test that ... Maybe radioactive objects fall differently? The theory is any object)--we just learned it and committed it to memory (hey, it was on the exam).

This, it turns out, was not only correct (things really do fall that fast!)--it was a smart thing to do: if you ever need to calculate the speed you'll fall when, chased by corporate vat-bred cyber-ninjas, you drive your turbo-charged Tesla Land Shark super-sports car through the retaining wall of a 70-story parking structure aiming for the office building across the street, it'll turn out that 9.8 number is (so far as The Omnivore knows, anyway) correct. If your speed is high enough, you'll breach the parking garage wall, sail across the street, and punch through the Lexan Defense glass of the opposite building. Your car will plow through the cube-farms (with built-in intravenous nutrient drips so that the worker-drones don't need lunch-breaks), skid-stop sideways, and you'll exit the vehicle with one sub-machine gun in each hand for when your assailants come after you on their para-gliders.

If that scenario doesn't seem especially likely to happen to you, that's probably because calculating the rate of falling objects in earth's gravity doesn't impact your daily life all that much (and because your life is, frankly, boring).

Put another way, if you were lied to by science you'd probably never know.

On The Other Hand

On the other hand, if you send your kid to school these days, their chances of getting measles has gone way up. Thank you, anti-vaxers! Thanks for the measles! Reader Mike provides another possible related statistic: Over 40% of Americans believe in creationism (and not just the God-did-it-over-millions-of-years creationism either: the All-In 10,000 years ago kind of creationism)

Are these related? Turns out: Probably. Believing one goofy thing (such as that vaccines cause autism) does seem to correlate to believing other goofy things (such as that we faked the moon landing). Here's the graph:
It Is Hard To Find Words For Just How Much The Omnivore Likes That Graph
That study, which you should read, looks for correlations between anti-science beliefs. It also correlates to ... uh conservatism and ... uh ... free market beliefs. This is reasonably fair since (a) it is without a doubt conservatives who don't believe in anthro global warming ... and (b) Ron Paul voters are pretty much voting for a conspiracy-candidate in the first place anyway.

But that's not the point The Omnivore is making here. The point is this: what you believe isn't based on science per-se (unless you are a scientist) but rather on who you trust (The Omnivore trusted his high school physics teacher). In other words, you might believe something unsupported by science (that multivitamins make you healthier? That GMO foods are poison?). You might believe something like that right here. Right now.

Now, let's be clear: maybe multivitamins are good for you. Maybe there's long-term negative impacts to GMO food. Maybe vaccines really do cause autism. Maybe global warming isn't being caused by man. The Omnivore doesn't have the scientific background to sort it all out for himself. Sooner or later he has to believe someone.

Those choices are generally made not by an analysis of the data presented--giving people more / better data doesn't change their beliefs--but rather by what tribal / self-image you have adopted / chosen to adopt and, in the end, that's way more important in determining what you believe than the evidence you are given.

What Do We Do About That?

Much has been made of the suggestion that conservatives are anti-science while liberals are pro-science. There are some data-points that support this (global-warming) and some that don't (Tea Party scores better on science literacy test than non-Tea Party population). This didn't surprise The Omnivore though--the Tea Party is generally older, wealthier, and more educated than the population at large. For scientific literacy at large this is an expected result. 

Use global warming as your crucible of understanding their scientific literacy, though, and you'll get a far different answer.

Conversely, a lot of people say that the anti-vax movement is the darling of the left--and certainly? The Omnivore's field research suggests that (as has been said) the aisles of Whole Foods are packed with granola-crunching liberals who might well deny the benefits of vaccines. The numbers, however, suggest: this isn't true.
Vaccine Belief: Pretty Flat Ideologically
That study actually explains how this works with your social group:
One of the signature attributes of genuine risk contestation, empirical study suggests, is the correlation of positions on them with membership in identity-defining affinity groups—cultural, political, or religious (Finucane 2005). Individuals tend to form their understandings of what is known to science inside of close-knit networks of individuals with whom they share experience and on whose support they depend. When diverse groups of this sort disagree about some societal risk, their members will thus be exposed disproportionately to competing sources of information. Even more important, they will experience strong psychic pressure to form and persist in views associated with the particular groups to which they belong as a means of signaling their membership in and loyalty to it. Such entanglements portend deep and persistent divisions—ones likely to be relatively impervious to public education efforts and indeed likely to be magnified by the use of the very critical reasoning dispositions that are essential to genuine comprehension of scientific information (Kahan, Peters et al. 2012; Kahan 2013b; Kahan, Peters, Dawson & Slovic 2013).
So what do you do? Let's start with a few points to keep in mind:
  • You (probably) don't understand the science. The Omnivore can't really evaluate the statistical or polling measures in the above study. Hell, The Omnivore didn't even read the whole study. 
  • What's the harm? Creationism vs. Evolution doesn't do direct harm for most of us in our every day lives. Vaccine-denial definitely could if you are influencing whether a kid gets them. If you are in a position to make a difference (such as a school instructor for evolution) take a closer look than you'd ordinarily do at what is going on.
What is that 'closer look'? How do you do that?

Step 1: Lower The Emotional Stakes

Put your hand on your heart--close your eyes--no, for real--The Omnivore is being serious--and ask yourself How would I feel emotionally if I learned [ something I believe ] was untrue?

So The Omnivore believes vaccines are beneficial and necessary--he closes his eyes and ... Turns out? They cause autism!
:: GUILT :: The Omnivore had his children vaccinated. One of them has a (minimal) autism spectrum disorder. The Omnivore would feel terrible guilt at not having kept his child safe. This is the primary emotion The Omnivore would feel.
:: ANGER :: The Omnivore doesn't think much of anti-vaxers. It'd feel like a loss. The Omnivore would have to eat some words which would make The Omnivore angry.
:: FEAR :: The Omnivore would be afraid that the pro-vaccination campaign is too strong--that it'll never be overcome and thus more children will suffer.
Doing this--feeling the emotions to the greatest extent you can (do this alone so you can let your face express whatever those emotions are)--is an exercise in breaking their grip on us.

Step 2: Re-Examine The Evidence

Experience those emotions. Sit with them. Breathe. Don't immediately punch out and go back to "It's all bullshit so I'm okay." Just hang in there--for ... a while.

Then, once the emotions subside, go take a look at the evidence again. Go for the mid-way spot in the center of the spectrum. Look for larger scientific bodies. Throw out sites that are cluttered with conspiracy-theories.  Go for the top of the Google search results. Start there. Read what it says. Commit to giving it a fair shot.

It's not guaranteed--but it's a start.

Step 3: Sleep With The Enemy

Get to know some of the people on the other side apart from their beliefs on this subject. Seek a real emotional connection with them, even if it isn't a strong bond / friendship. Plan this for someone with as much in common with you as you can (don't set up for failure by going for the most radical holder of the opposite belief). See the 'other team' as a real people.

ProTip: Do not actually sleep with the enemy unless you are actually already doing that before hand.

The goal here is not to "become smarter" or be "so open-minded your brain falls out." The goal here is to internally acknowledge that (a) You have an emotional investment in what you believe--it isn't purely (even largely?) rational. (b) That when looking at 'evidence' you carry a massive confirmation bias that, as human-beings, we can't escape just by willing ourselves to. And (c) that we natively choose teams and tribes and those have a far greater and more subtle impact on what we believe than we mostly like to think.

Good luck.

Oh, and get your kids vaccinated: THE SCIENCE IS IN!


  1. Ha ha! I'm Canadian!

    Take that, America-centric web statistics! Shove your ridiculous system of measurement where the sun don't shine!

    But seriously, I really like this article. Puts some of my thoughts into words, if you know what I mean.

    About that graph: what does it mean if there's a -.36 line between two bubbles? Does it mean buying into one makes you 36% less likely to buy into the other?

    1. Well sure, you might use the Metric System--but Canadians believe ALL KINDS of other lies. For example, the first 'fact' that every Canadian child leans is an untruth: In the War of 1812, the White House was burned down by a tipped over candle and NOT moose-riding mounties!

      In any event, *kinda*. Yes, a negative correlation means that as one gets larger the other gets smaller. It's not a straight %, however, it's like a multiplier. But a 0 is "no correlation" so anything approximating .5 (Which is conservative -> Climate change) is a HUGE.

      -The Omnivore

    2. So the numbers are R-values?

      I'm not sure I'd call an R-value of 0.5 huge, but I suppose I might not be accounting for context there. Political beliefs don't lend themselves to correlations as well as, say, money spent and results achieved.

    3. I'm not familiar with the term r-value (but my stats is rusty so, sure). The highest possible correlation is 1 (or -1 for inverse). I think it's hugely significant because it means that in you're going to see "unrelated phenomena" (which conspiracy theories I believe) being very significantly correlated.

      But, yeah, for things like getting shot in the head and dying, a .5 correlation wouldn't be huge--that is true.

      I went back and looked at the study and it's hard to tell sometimes what the circles referred to (either 'climate change IS caused by man' or 'climate change IS a conspiracy'--they didn't spell it out).

      The Omnivore likes that chart a little less ...

      -The Omnivore