Friday, June 3, 2011

Eyes Wide Shut

During my analysis of my personal horoscope (see my previous blog entry) the person who prepared my horoscope and I exchanged discussions about the nature of science. My friend was somewhat skeptical of science itself, stating that all scientists are biased; therefore science really cannot be fully trusted.

My friend was correct – scientists ARE biased! Scientists are human; they have their pre-conceived ideas and perhaps even driven by conscious or unconscious motives. But the assertion that, therefore, science has little in the way of our seeking of truth is a greatly erroneous conclusion.

Let's take for example my analysis of my personal astrological horoscope. I admit that I am biased; I have investigated astrology sufficiently to conclude that it is bunk. However I had never had the opportunity before to have my own personal horoscope done. This presented me with a rare opportunity to conduct a first-hand analysis. Of course, recognizing my own preconceived bias, I had my wife also complete an analysis independently (though she is not a believer in astrology either). However, I am like most scientists, open to changing my view in the presence of new and convincing evidence. [Skeptics like to say we maintain an open mind... but not so open that our brains fall out.]

Unfortunately the horoscope failed to present findings different than what I already knew about these types of pseudo-sciences. In fact, the results of my personal horoscope fully confirmed that horoscopes simply engaging purely psychological ploys. But more to the point, my bias had no effect on the outcome of the data or the only obvious conclusion drawn from it.

There can be bad science, junk science, sloppy science, voodoo science and occasionally out and out fraud. BUT all this science has one shared fate: it is subject to scrutiny, parallel experimentation, duplication of results, in short – Peer Review. For every scientist hoping to promote a cherished theory, there are dozens others waiting in the wings to challenge their conclusions. If others conduct the same experiments under similar conditions and arrive at different outcomes, the theory can be called into question.

Recently news media has been in a frenzy about the declaration by the World Health Organization that cell phones can increase the possibility of a certain brain cancer. This issue had been brought up years previously; we probably had thought this issue had been laid to rest. These types of reoccurring controversies: caffeine is good for you, caffeine is bad for you; red wine is good, red wine is bad – these sorts of dichotomies can drive the non-scientific public nuts. What can you believe?

Of course the answer resides in the consensus of corroborating scientific evidence. Still, even though an overwhelming number of scientists conclude that Anthropogenic (human-caused) Climate Change or Biological Evolution are well established facts, the public is often presented with a contradictory impression (primarily by the media) that there are two opposing positions of equal footing.

Political as well as economic forces often (intentionally) skew our perceptions of what that scientific consensus is. Our own personal biases can color our acceptance or rejection of science's conclusions.

As I have explained in previous posts, our perceptions are often deeply flawed. Our eyes are not video cameras; our ears are not tape recorders. Everything we conclude from our perception is first interpreted by our brain… filtered along with its biases, expectations, motivations, fears and anticipations swirling unconsciously in the background. But science done often and done well can help us sort through what we wish to believe and lead us more closely to conclude what is likely true.
  • Perception experiment: Take a few moments to watch the following video. Be sure to comment on what you saw - but leave your comment before reading the comments of others. Enjoy!

32 comments:

Infidel753 said...

Of course scientists are biased, because scientists are humans and humans are biased. But science itself, alone among the ways humans have devised to attempt to explain the universe, recognizes that bias and incorporates within itself strategies to compensate for it -- not only peer review but double-blind experiments, repeatability, and training that helps researchers be aware of their own biases.

History is full of cases of scientists who didn't want to accept reality when it ran contrary to their biases, but science itself conforms to reality in spite of that.

Another way you can tell that science is the only valid way of understanding the universe is that science's discoveries are the basis of technology that actually works. Based on the discoveries of science, we've designed and built airplanes that actually fly, electrical systems that actually deliver usable electricity, radios and TV sets that actually receive signals and convert them into intelligible sounds and pictures, etc. Astrology, religion, etc. have no such track records of enabling us to build practical things whose successful functioning is obvious to all.

crnelius said...

That is an Amazing illustration of our ability to see only what we want to see. I have only recently incorporated into my regular discussions, (arguments) on virtually any subject, that ones perception, no matter how well thought out, (including my own) has no place in reality. This makes it very difficult to come to direct conclusions, and one must always attempt to recognize this bias, no matter how futile these attempts might be. Very recently, because of events in my own life, many of my life long beliefs, that I felt were literally set in stone, have taken a 180ยบ turn and it has really been interesting as I have had no choice but to confront such drastic changes within my own mind. It has also meant a complete reassessment of everything. This has not been easy, and has, at times been maddening. But I believe it has also been very important step on my own personal journey through life trying to filter through the illusions of life in search of real "Truth". A goal that can never be reached, but worth striving for. Thank you Robert for such a wonderful exercise in reminding everyone that our ability to be subjective, and unbiased, is an elusive goal at best and something we must Always be aware of if we hope to even get a glimpse of reality.

Rain said...

I don't really think all scientists are biased as in a bad way but they are human and they have certain things they already know. Humans who can think beyond the box, not be challenged by new information that challenges ideas they might've worked on their entire lives, those humans are rare, and percentage-wise are probably a small percent of humans today or at any time. For a scientist, for instance, who has spent their entire life proving some important fact, maybe has a social network based on it, and has a reputation at stake to seriously allow new data that challenges that belief, well it would have a high cost and there are certainly those scientists who would go with it anyway. Just not the majority!

Kay Dennison said...

Do I read my horoscope every day? Yes. Do I believe it? No -- but I read it anyway. I'm human and we humans tend to want to know what's next.

Paul said...

So Robert does this mean that you won't be buying crystals in Sedona, Arizona with the New Age folks who flock there ? These mediums and the like give me gas. :-)

Robert the Skeptic said...

Infidel Indeed, science adds to the body of mans knowledge EVERY DAY. Religion, on the other hand, contributes nothing new and must spend it's time shoring up and justifying outdated concepts and misconceptions.

Crnelius It is commendable that you have changed your opinions in the light of new or contradictory information, many do not but instead ignore or justify their cherished beliefs. Our awareness of our biases and subjectivity is the first step in overcoming them.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Rain Many of Darwin's contemporaries rejected his theory of Evolution and continued to do so until they died. Even my father-in-law, a respected and well published professor from OSU rejects Anthropogenic Climate Change - the science in 1974 indicated there will be a brief warming period followed by a new ice age. His brain is stuck in 1974; he gets "Science" magazine regularly as well as other scientific journals but simply rejects the new information because it conflicts with his current belief.

As someone else once pointed out, sometimes science advances one obituary at a time.

Kay We do want to know what's next. It irritates me no end that the news media spends so much time trying to "predict" what will happen next instead of accurately and thoroughly investigating and reporting what actually has happened.

Paul I believe the Aqua Aura Double Terminated Quartz, though mainly prescribed for Edema and Emphysema, may also effective in relieving gas. :)

Rain said...

There was a book out on that topic saying that science cannot advance until one generation, the one with a stake in keeping the status quo, dies. I have always wanted to be the kind of human who will look at many possibilities and hold it loose as to what it means. I value science, want more students in our country educated in the sciences for our own advancement, am married to a scientist, but partly because of him I realize how hard it can be to get data accurately assessed and how many times one idea is the only one the powers want to see. It's easy to throw out the data that would lend doubt because they really believe it's for a higher good. The problem is sometimes that data is telling a deeper truth but one that simply hasn't been put together yet. Being open, to anything in life, is to me the best way to live. We operate on assumptions but should always stay alert to the data that didn't fit.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Rain Science advancing only by one generation I am not sure is entirely true, we adopt many discoveries often very quickly - perhaps more so the technology discoveries that have economic opportunities.

I have told this story before about Louis Pasteur being concerned during his day that scientists were throwing out results that did not conform to the expected outcomes. Pasteur thought this was a big mistake and had the potential to miss new and unexpected discoveries. One finds Pasteur's quote often: "Chance favors the prepared mind." It it among my favorite quotes.

billy pilgrim said...

i think the evidence is indisputable that cell phones cause cancer of the wallet.

science and research will always be biased toward whomever is providing funding for the research. an extreme example would be big tobacco's research into the health effects of cigarettes. the fossil fuel industries research into global warming may be a little skewed also.

Rain said...

that happens most often when it's building on a set of beliefs and not challenging them. I am pretty sure you know we could have been doing much more with solar years ago if there had not been blocks put up by one science against another depending on who paid some of them. Same with global climate change with scientists battling each other over details and assumptions. The book might have been called the Aquarian Conspiracy or some such title. It was going quite a ways back for its points. I think building on something can come more easily but we don't live in a culture that really is open to everything whether that would be spiritual or physical. We all know the companies that Microsoft bought for their technology development only to bury it to not compete with their own. Free market indeed.

My point though is I do believe in science as being very important as a way to advance cultures. I believe in the government investing in pure science where it can go wherever it finds but see a time where most science is paid for by corporations with definite goals for what they want to find. Making science into a religion is as big a mistake as making something like astrology. Look at what makes sense, what fits, and keep an open mind about any new data. We can at least as individuals do that.

We have a lot of reasons to do it because who can we really trust...

Rain said...

And before you suggest I think astrology has as much evidence behind it as science, I didn't mean that. Just neither should be a religion to base one's whole life view. Science as science is fine. As a religion it would also fall apart at various points. It's more like a tool that a life philosophy in my opinion. There is a lot it cannot prove and we should make the most of what it can and keep an eye on the assumptions.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Rain Science isn't anything remotely close to a religion and it certainly is not a philosophy. If it was, scientists would be offering:

• The President American Association Advancement of Science has declared through devout inner conviction that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs. - or -

• Professor Smith has gone on record that through revelation conveyed privately to him that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs. - or -

• Dr. Jones was brought up to have total and unquestioning faith that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs. - or -

• Professor Hawkins has pomulgated an official dogma, binding on all loyal Hawkinsians, that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs. - or -

• The President of the United States has stated oficially that those who do not believe that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs cannot be patriotic citizens.


The above (edited from a talk by Atheist, Richard Dawkins). This is not science, it's religion. Science is not a belief system, it is a way of understanding the natural world. It is not perfect, but it is the best tool we have.

Religion as a philosophical tool tells us through their various (man-written) "holy books" that gay people must never marry, that a muslim girl who has been raped has brought shame on their family and should be killed, that our sex lives are of purient interest to god, that people NOT of your religion are not fit to live unless they convert, that god cannot and must not be questioned... I can go on and on.

Other than some wonderful art, music and architecture, religion has brought forth more pain and suffering to man than any concept sprung out of man's brain. As a philosophy, religion sucks. Religion says it "knows" when it doesn't - at least science admits what it doesn't know; there is honesty in admitting "We don't know" [yet].

Which leads into the question of morality, and wheter we NEED a god to be moral - which is too deep a topic to address in comments and who others, like Sam Harris, have addressed far better than I.

Infidel753 said...

Science is not a belief system, it is a way of understanding the natural world.

An important distinction. The definitive thing about science is not its conclusions, but its way of reaching those conclusions. That alone would be enough to mark it as fundamentally different from religion.

Rain said...

Science can have its own agenda just as religion can especially in an era like ours where pure science is rarely addressed without a motive behind it. Universities propose their subjects for research and the money is doled out as the institution (and those who donate who are frequently businesses) likes-- not necessarily pure at all.

Putting your faith in science, as it is done today, without considering how the various conclusions are attained is not being unbiased. It's wanting to believe a certain way. One era goes one way. The next another.

I have seen things done in science that don't remotely lead to exploring where something really goes but rather where that program wants it to go. You go ahead and put your faith in it but in the long run my bet is you'll find it backtracks and often decides something it thought for a long time is totally wrong which is fine with me as I am not putting my faith in it. You can operate with it during the time it works but always keep one's eyes open for what might be in the future. Being married to a man who has been a scientist for fifty years, probably more, I have heard a lot of it which doesn't make me think it has no value. It simply means don't make it your god. The problem with science is results have to be determined by observation and experiments and those are defined and determined by men who have agendas and are imperfect for what they can know. Being flexible about it would be ideal but the world wants defined answers. Science does good things for us and bad depending on who is behind the choice of experiments and determining what data is kept or thrown out-- and then how it is being used.

And what is gospel to scientists in one generation or even different ones within the same changes in another which doesn't bother me unless you have to set it all in concrete and believe whatever the current scientists are saying has to be the end of the quest. More info comes along, different ways of experimenting and any true scientist will not have made up their minds what must be truth-- they will go with an operating truth which is open to something new changing it. Putting your ultimate faith in science is as blind as putting it in anything else. Life changes, situations change and what was true today may end up being proven false tomorrow. For people who have to have a firm answer to things that is very disturbing. If you can live loosely, operate with what you do know and be open to change, it's less disturbing.

And science, the way it is frequently used to justify this or that religious/irreligious belief, becomes a belief system that depends on the person behind it. Science is really just a system/ method which is followed by imperfect humans.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Rain You have mentioned "pure" science on several occasions. I am not sure what that is? I don't think there is such a thing as "pure science".

You also said: "Putting your faith in science, as it is done today, without considering how the various conclusions are attained is not being unbiased. It's wanting to believe a certain way. Again, as in the example I gave, nobody believes that an asteroid killed the dionsaurs simply because they "want" it to be true; it's what the proponderance of the evidence points to. One either accepts or or not. (That perticular theory, by the way, came under heavy criticism - a lot of other independent research before being eventually conditionally accepted.)

Scientists don't [and people shouldn't] put their "FAITH" in science. FAITH is belief in the ABSENCE of evidence. TRUST comes from experience over time. I trust my wife because she has shown me time and time again that I can do so. I don't have Faith that the sun will rise tomorrow, I trust that it will because my experience over time causes me to conclude it to likely be true. Scientists TRUST that the scientific method is the best possible way of coming to conclusions, they don't have faith that it is - it has shown itself to be.

As I blogged once; before my surgery I was given the chance to wear a "lucky charm". So let's see... I can put my "faith" in an object based on NO evidence whatsoever that it works - OR - I can put my "trust" in the statistical probability that the medical establishment.

Do not mix FAITH with TRUST, they are oil and water.

I don't know many (if any) people who make science their god. In fact the overwhelming majorty of the members of the AAAS don't believe in god, and they certainly don't think science is a religion.

If you will re-read my article you will see that I agree with you, and the anecdotal experiences you say your husband has had, that some science is done under questionable motives. My article, and previous ones, have shown that perceptions can be flawed. AGREED! But woe be it the researcher who publishes work that is sloppy, biased or intentionally slanted to promote a specific view because THEIR PEERS WILL RIP THEM A NEW ONE! Bad science risks being shunned, disregarded and worst of all for a scientist, discredited.

Your final comment: "Science is really just a system/ method which is followed by imperfect humans." is spot on accurate. THAT is why it is put to the test over and over and over again, challenged, criticized, corrected and eventually corroborated so that the conclusions can be reasonably trusted.

Rain said...

So we basically agree even if we come at it from different places maybe as I think that is the test religion should be put to also even though it rarely is. Wishful thinking doesn't cut it whether it's something like astrology or Christianity. I think a lot of us would like absolutes but really the world doesn't give us a lot of those. We operate day to day and that's not a bad way really but it doesn't have the security many want which is they end up with new age or other religions that promise something-- but it's something they cannot deliver.

Rain said...

oh and what I meant by pure science is just when there is not an agenda behind it, when it can go wherever the data and experiments take it. So much of science today is about making something fit a preconceived opinion.

Antares Cryptos said...

Interesting conversation.

Due to the negative connotation of the word "biased" and the fact that it is an absolute statement, All scientists are NOT biased. If anything claiming that all scientists are biased and not taking into cosideration that most try not to be, is a biased statement, no?

Many discoveries are accidental and many scientists deal with the fact that they're funded to do one thing, but discover something completely new, sometimes without even knowing what it is. You won't see too many research papers published that says we were trying to prove X, but weren't able to.

To err is human, scientists make mistakes, like everyone else and a peer review doesn't always catch it.

When dealing with double blinds, for example, it is done with the intent to remove any bias from the study.

Antares Cryptos said...

Speaking of science, why does Blogger not allow for edits after a comment has been published?

I can spell, you know?;)

Antares Cryptos said...

P.S. the vid is a good example of focused attention as a survival mechanism.
Some professions train to notice everything, as do video games. Interesting research being done in that area.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Cryptos Of course, the purpose of the double-blind study methodology is to account for, and hopefully eliminate, unconscious bias. To that end, it recognizes that, though perhaps not an absolute, there is reason to reduce that potential.

Errors and the possibility of tossing out X because you were looking for Y is exactly what Pasteur was warning about in his famous quote.

By the way, the first time I watched that video, I was so concentrating on counting the ball passes that I completely missed seeing the gorilla!! Cops and security people are often trained to notice details, factors that are non-sequitur or might otherwise go unnoticed.

Murr Brewster said...

I've seen that video before and must report that the first time I did NOT see the gorilla. Anyone who knows me would not be a bit surprised by this. I don't even pay attention to what I'm supposed to pay attention to. Who are you? Where am I?

The Mother said...

I didn't see the gorilla the first time, either. Shermer's books and lectures are a lesson to us all about how our brains really function.

On science:
PEER REVIEW. You said it. That pretty much sums it up.

The problem is when science is reviewed by the masses, and journalists swallow crap science hook line and sinker. Wakefield comes to mind. We still haven't put that one to bed.

And the WHO??? What irresponsible, ridiculous horsehockey. Do they not know how to read scientific literature???

There IS NO EVIDENCE whatsoever that cell phones cause brain tumors. The physics covers it quite well--the radiation is too low energy to penetrate the skull, therefore no tissue damage is even possible.

[The studies that show a correlation were done like this:

Ask a person with a brain tumor if he uses a cell phone. NOW, ask him which side he holds his cell on the most. GEE...]

Paul said...

Ye Gods (excuse me my atheist friends) don't we all have an agenda of some sort or another...Even crystal gazers, old maids,Republicans, Professor Richard Dawkins and intellectuals e.g. do for crimminy sakes...:-)

Robert the Skeptic said...

Murr I confess that I didn't see the gorilla all through High School, which is probably why I had to take beginning algebra three times.

Dr. Mom So you've made me suspicious now that maybe childhood inoculations don't cause Autism either??

The Mother said...

Robert:

Duh.

Cognitive Dissenter said...

This concept of selective interpretation reminds me of a story. A woman and her husband went to their doctor for their annual checkup. Husband went first. Doctor asks him how he's doing. Husband answers, "Great! And it's really amazing, Doc. [Husband gets a little emotional during this part.] God loves me and cares about me so much, when I get up during the night and have to use the bathroom, God turns the light on for me."

"Really?" inquires the impressed doctor.

"Oh yes!" husband answers enthusiastically.

During wife's exam, doctor mentions his conversation with her husband.

"Oh shit!" wife rolls her eyes in disgust. "He's been peeing in the refrigerator again."

Robert the Skeptic said...

Dissenter That totally explains why my wife always wants me to wash off the tops of containers before I open them.

Jayne said...

I counted 13, and I did NOT see the gorilla! Oh this is horrible--I knew I couldn't really trust myself!
(My kids say I don't listen to them, and they might be right. Vay. Don't let them see this video.) ;)

Robert the Skeptic said...

Jayne Don't feel badly. I first saw this video shown to a room full of people. In the middle of the video people in the audience started laughing, I had no clue why as I didn't see the gorilla either... until it was pointed out to me the second time.

secret agent woman said...

Ah, this is one of those issues that I almost find to tiring to talk about! Pseudo-science makes me crazy.